Sunday, March 19, 2017

Angel Heart Turns 30

Angel Heart is a darkly entertaining film that applies the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective template to a story steeped in mysticism. Within its smokey folds, a low-rent private eye (Mickey Rourke) will follow a trail of deception and murder from the hipster heights of Harlem to the sultry breezes of Louisiana in search of a missing Jazz singer. Along the way, the scruffy Rourke will encounter corrupt cops, Voodoo high priestesses and a few grisly sacrifices, both animal and human. But his greatest enemy will be his own cryptic history, and an ancient evil that ruthlessly seeks to exploit it.

Director Alan Parker and his favorite cinematographer Michael Seresin created an iconic visual language for the film, rich with dusky symbols and gloomy metaphors. It was a photographic style that appropriated, and was later appropriated by, popular music videos of the 1980s and 90s. Seresin’s dreamy images and Parker’s assured storytelling proved to be a winning combination, creating films that not only entertained, but told complex stories with clarity and charisma. As their combined filmography - which includes such popular titles as Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980) and Angela’s Ashes (1999) - attests, Parker and Seresin were influential figures to a generation of filmmakers, and Angel Heart finds them at the top of their games.

Angel Heart also marked important milestones in the lives of its actors. Robert DeNiro, who plays Rourke’s mysterious employer Louis Cyphre, began to settle into middle-age with this performance, shifting away from the hyper-active, hyper-aggressive street punk persona that made him famous. For love interest Lisa Bonet, the film loudly announced that she had shed the adolescent larva of Denise Huxtable, and was now ready to be taken seriously in the full flower of womanhood.

And for Mickey Rourke, it was one of the last performances to fully capitalize on his distinct eccentricities. Despite a career as a dodgy tough guy, Rourke evoked a gentle, vulnerable quality often at odds with his cold-blooded characters. This trait enabled him to create fascinating portraits of thugs on the brink, only one nudge away from redemption, but ultimately undone by destiny. A few years after Angel Heart, Rourke would make a horribly wrong-headed choice to abandon acting for a career as a professional boxer. He endured so much punishment in the ring that his face had to be surgically rebuilt a number of times, costing him the tender, expressive quality that made him unique. Rourke now generally plays caricatures of his former self, with varying degrees of success. After watching his great work in Angel Heart, one can only wonder what might have been.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Young Girls of Rochefort Turns 50

Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort offers a distinctly French take on the Great American Musical. The film has delighted and enthralled audiences for half a century, and after a recent re-watch, I can attest the film has lost none of its groovy luster. From its miniskirts and go-go boots, to its candy colored set design, to its breezy Jazz score by Michel Legrand, the film epitomizes the brash, carefree cool of the 1960s. It’s rumored that Damien Chazelle studied the film obsessively while prepping for La La Land, and the 2016 Oscar nominee is heavily steeped in homage to Demy’s bouncy epic.

The film concerns a traveling musical show led by Etienne (George Chakiris) and Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who roll their convoy of equipment laden trucks into the town square for Rochefort’s annual Fete de la Mer. In between rehearsals, the guys roam Rochefort’s sleepy streets and get to know a few of the locals, including the mega-hottie Garnier twins (Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Françoise Dorléac) who have a musical act and twinkly ambitions of their own. Along the way, there’s plenty of lively singing and dancing, with lavish production numbers and even a cameo from the great Gene Kelly as a visiting American songwriter.

After all these years, The Young Girls of Rochefort remains a feast for the senses, with colorful, eye popping spectacle and an assortment of catchy tunes choreographed to the nines. It also served as a launching pad for several long careers in the industry. Chakiris would relocate to Hollywood, where he would become a fixture of American television, appearing such shows as The Partridge Family and Dallas. Perrin would remain in Europe, but achieve international recognition for his pivotal role in the sentimental hit Cinema Paradisio (1988) and is still active today. Deneuve, of course, has gone on to iconic stature, even though she was more eye-candy than actress in those early days. Her sister was not so fortunate, however. A few months after shooting this film, Françoise Dorléac was killed in an auto accident on the beach road near Nice. Her tragic death stunned the French nation, but her spirit lives on in The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

La Collectionneuse Turns 50

La Collectionneuse is best viewed as a transitional work, and Rohmer’s first attempt at adapting his patented talky romance format to feature length. The two previous entries in the Moral Tales series, La Boulangère de Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, both produced in 1963, were B/W shorts, shot in Paris in a gritty, documentary style. La Collectionneuse was filmed in color by the great Nestor Almendros (who would go on to win an Oscar for Days of Heaven) and takes place in the rural south of France, in one of those stone farmhouses that make American tourists swoon.

A Parisian named Adrian (Patrick Bauchau), who has taken navel-gazing to an art form, has come to the villa for one of those interminable French holidays. He shares the house with his friend Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) and a free-sprited – to put it mildy - young woman named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Haydee’s vacation plans consist almost entirely of having sex with, well, everyone. Everyone except Adrian, that is.

In an interesting reversal of the usual sexual politics, it is Haydee who views sex as a series of one night conquests, and she ‘collects’ trysts with men  the way others collect stamps or rare coins. All of this throws the handsome, and quite spoiled, Adrian into a blasé sort of tizzy, as he finds himself unable to seduce the unselective Haydee, and his self esteem, which is basically his entire raison d’être, is mortally threatened.

Despite having a loyal fanbase, La Collectionneuse is not one of this reviewer’s favorite Rohmer films. There are issues with the casting – usually Rohmer’s strong suit – that prevent the film from fully capitalizing on its intriguing premise. Patrick Bachau (who has gone on to have a long and successful career, including the wonderful HBO series Carnivale) seems generally too ambivalent considering he's supposedly The Worlds Most Self Absorbed Man, and Haydee Politoff (who went on to do a couple of low budget vampire movies) simply isn't very interesting.

The slightly tomboy-ish ingénue is a Rohmer archetype, serving as the narrative lynchpin in much of his future work, and here, through Politoff’s shortcomings, we gain a deeper appreciation of the many times the director would get this character exactly right. Politoff was 20 years old when the film was made, but she photographs much younger, giving the film an accidental unattractive edge; it’s as if we’re watching the story of an older man obsessed with a bit of slutty jailbait. This is an idea Rohmer would explore with much more finesse a few years later in Clare’s Knee, and there he pulls it off thoughtfully and with a minimum of ickyness.

La Collectionneuse is a bumpy ride that will appeal mainly to hard-core Rohmer fans and completists. But we do get a peek at the evolution of the director’s unique brand of insightful humanism.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal Turns 60

Like a lot of great classics, The Seventh Seal is basically a road movie, with all the requisite digressions and diversions along its circuitous path. Set in the 14th Century, a knight named Antonius Block (a young, strapping Max Von Sydow) has returned to Sweden after 10 years of fighting in the Crusades accompanied by his faithful squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). But instead of a hero’s welcome, Block finds a cold and barren land; its populace ravaged by the horrors of the plague. The only figure to greet him is the black-cloaked angel of death, who has come to add Block to his ever mounting toll. However, Block proposes a desperate gambit to forestall his demise. He and Death will play a game of chess, and as long as Block avoids checkmate, he will be allowed to live.

The Seventh Seal is a sort of Don Quixote in reverse. While Cervantes’ scruffy knight is filled with absurd illusions of grandeur, Antonius Block is a withered husk of disillusion. No longer believing in the lofty ideals that led him to the Holy Land, Block seeks not to destroy Christendom’s enemies, but to peacefully enjoy his few remaining days. He and Jöns befriend a ramshackle traveling theatrical troupe, and a lazy afternoon picnic of wild strawberries and fresh milk bring Block the only joy he has known for a decade. As the knight and his new friends continue their surreal trek, a tempest of biblical metaphors and a delayed date with destiny await them. While never far away, the grinning, hooded shadow of the Grim Reaper stands ready, his freshly sharpened scythe gleaming in
the moonlight.

For most of my youth, I was a simple country boy. I liked nothing better than trading baseball cards, stealing apples from the neighbor’s orchard, or fishin’ down at the creek with a bent pin. All that changed on a rainy afternoon in 1971, when a visionary high school English teacher - whose name has been lost to the fog of ancient memory - rolled the school’s clunky Bell and Howell projector into our classroom. He then laced up a tattered 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, ostensibly as an illustration of the concept of symbolism. As the film ended and the classroom’s buzzing fluorescent lights harshly bloomed, I found that my life had been changed forever.

I’d never seen a movie like that before, with good and moral people openly questioning the existence of God - or at least wondering just what the hell He was up to - and grimly confronting their own mortality, without the hope of a rescuing cavalry charge from just beyond the hill. It profoundly changed me, and over the next few months I would completely lose interest in high school football - or any type of physical exertion, to be honest - prom dates and sporty cars. I would develop a passion for great art, great music and the exotic cultures of other lands. I would become one of those strange, introverted kids whose previously innocent mind now pondered the vast questions of existence for which there will never be satisfactory answers. I have Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to thank for that. On second thought, don’t watch this film. It will ruin your life.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 2

The second part of my guest post is up, detailing some of my favorite foreign films from 1960 to present. Again, many thanks to Bob from Holland for the opportunity. Check it out HERE.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 1

Many thanks to Bob from Amsterdam for giving a chance to expound on some of my favorite films. You'll find part one HERE, which has my faves up to 1960. While you're over there, be sure to look through Bob's vast treasure trove of posts covering many aspects of film history. European Film Star Postcards is always fun and educational!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Waiting for Guffman Turns 20

Waiting for Guffman is a hilarious ensemble comedy from the delightfully twisted mind of Christopher Guest. Filmed in his patented “mockumentary” style, the film satirizes and skewers a number of targets, including small town boosterism, amateur theatrical productions and the vainglorious nature of performers. However, as usual in Guest’s screenplays, underneath the laughs and absurdity are rock-hard kernels of truth that will have you gleefully nodding in recognition. Guest’s sardonic scenarios work because they drill down to humanity’s wobbly core of folly. He then takes that foolishness and turns it up to 11.

The film is all about the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, and a plan to celebrate the mundane burg’s 150th anniversary with a lavish musical. Guest plays a local hairdresser named Corky, recently returned after a brief stint as an actor in New York, who is hired to write and direct. The show, entitled “Red, White and Blaine,” presses local realtors, dentists and mechanics into service as singers and dancers with predictably hilarious results. All goes well until a theater critic from the New York Times agrees to attend the performance, giving Corky and his motley troupe twinkly - and totally delusional - dreams of stardom.

Over the years, Guest has developed a recurring roster of talented co-stars, and Waiting for Guffman  gives them plenty of room to shine. Local power couple Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara nail their audition with an uber-tacky version of “Midnight at the Oasis” that will have viewers rolling in the aisles. Eugene Levy is great as an orthodontist smitten with the stage, while Bob Balaban strikes perfect comedic notes as a staid high school band teacher frustrated with Corky’s erratic direction.

But it’s Guest who steals the show with his flamboyant hipster reading of Corky serving as a perfect foil to Blaine’s rustic dullards. Every small town has a character like Corky; an artistic type with dreams of escaping his backwater origins, but not quite enough talent to make the leap. The film also has a highly memorable and quotable moment when, after a disappointing meeting with the town council, Corky delivers one of the great lines of 1990’s cinema:

“I can’t put up with you people because…you’re…you’re…bastard people!”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Metropolis Turns 90

This amazing film by Fritz Lang set a new standard for visual splendor in 1927, and was one of the first feature length movies to attempt a new, speculative reality through the art of filmmaking. Set 100 years in the future, Metropolis is the story of a socially stratified city-state where thousands of workers toil deep underground, servicing the needs of massive power generators. Meanwhile in the gleaming city above, the business elite nervously watch their stock tickers and relax by occasionally cavorting with scantily clad floozies.

Metropolis is a triumph of art direction and set design. The various technical marvels of this futuristic society are rendered in a geometric Art Deco style that is as beautiful today as it was 90 years ago. It’s no stretch to say that this film has, at one time or another, been ripped off by every director and set designer in the profession, and part of the fun for modern audiences is spotting which scenes were swiped by whom.

For instance, the Machine-Man robot here bears a striking resemblance to C3PO from Star Wars. Tim Burton studied the film exhaustively when conceiving Gotham City for his Batman films. But the most blatant homage is paid by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner. He pilfered not only the film's architectural stylings, but actual compositions and framings, as well as two of Lang's futuristic gadgets: a picture phone and a massive mechanical window covering.

Past the eye candy however, Metropolis features a narrative full of confused allusions, including some revisionist biblical history, and a point-of-view so muddled I can't tell what it’s for or against. The acting is typical of silent films - atrocious - and the scene where the city's richest men are driven to hysteria by an erotic dancer simply cannot be taken seriously. Probably wasn't in 1927 either. No, Metropolis is not a film of dramatic subtlety, but it is a visual tour-de-force of extraordinary and innovative design, delivered on an enormous scale.

Folks, we need to get on the stick here. As we sit a mere 10 years from Lang's target date, we see no elevated bullet trains or flying cars. No all-powerful mechanical servants or frenzied revolutionaries combatting the tyranny of the elite. And that’s something we could really use. Our pole dancers are prettier so that's something I guess.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Best TV of 2016

10. The Crown (2016) Netflix

Superbly produced series purportedly about the turf war between young Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), although they seem to generally get along. Matt Smith's Prince Philip steals the show.

9. One Mississippi (2016) Amazon

Tig Notaro's bittersweet comedic memoir feels very fresh and real. It's all about her return to a small town in the south after the death of her mother. A new season is in the works.

8. Downton Abbey (2015) PBS

A grand and fitting ending to this wonderful series. Yet I can't shake the feeling we haven't seen the last of Hugh Bonneville and company.  I hope I'm right.

7. Mercy Street (2016) PBS

The gripping, at times grisly, story of the inner workings at a makeshift hospital during the early days of the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as a protege of Florence Nightingale charged with keeping the place running smoothly while madness reigns just outside the door.

6. Mozart in the Jungle: Season 3 (2016) Amazon

The show got gloriously back on track this year, after a so-so Season 2. Monica Bellucci guest stars as a temperamental opera diva, and her casting is a stroke of brilliance.

5. Fleabag (2016) Amazon

Amazon Studios has a real flair for dark comedy, and they don't come much darker than this grim story of a struggling restauranteur whose business partner has unexpectedly died. Now I know that doesn't sound very funny, but the show is rife with full-bodied laughs. Written by lead actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is a talent to watch.

4. Call the Midwife: Season 5 (2015) PBS

It's 1961 and those diligent British nurses are back. The personnel on this show have changed a lot over the years, but the writing and execution have remained top notch. This season you can even feel a sense of coming social change, and the lovable mop-tops should be along soon.

3.  Occupied (2015) Netflix

Set in the near future, Occupied deals with a Russian invasion of Norway after a dispute over energy production. A few months ago this premise seemed far-fetched, but not so anymore.

2. Happy Valley: Season 2 (2015) Netflix

Yep, the story has a few holes, but this Brit-Noir series is as addictive as heroin. Sarah Lancashire was born to play this part. And the bad guy (James Norton), well I'd pay good money to smack him upside the head with a 3-Wood.

1. Broadchurch (2014) Netflix

Clear your calendar, because once you start this series you won't stop until you've devoured all 16 episodes. David Tennent is the perfect tortured soul detective, and Olivia Colman is his perfect foil. Sit back and prepare to be enthralled.

Honorable Mention

Last Tango in Halifax: Season 3 (2015) Netflix

Transparent: Season 4 (2016) Amazon

All the Way (2016) HBO

Nina (2015) TV5

Schitt's Creek: Season 2 (2015) Pop-TV

House of Cards: Season 4 (2016) Netflix

Monday, January 2, 2017

10 Best Films Seen in 2016

10. Jackie (2016)

This year's most obvious Oscar bait features a chilling recreation of America's worst weekend. Natalie Portman delivers an amazing hologram of Jackie, perfect in every detail but still a bit icily removed. Just like real life.

9. A War (2015)

This is an emotionally charged story about the impossible situations in which soldiers are often placed. Western governments want their military interventions nice and clean, with no mistakes or collateral damage whatsoever, even at the risk of their own troops. But when fighting an enemy with no uniforms who are able to blend into the local populace, are such laudable goals even possible?

8. The Innocents (2016)
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors, Of Gods and Men) uses desaturated colors to evoke the repressed memories of nightmares, and overall the film is a stark reminder of the fragile line between civilization and chaos. If you liked the somber arthouse hit Ida (2013), you’ll find the films share a number of similarities, including the presence of the great Polish actress Agata Kulesza, as a mother superior in severe denial.

7. 99 Homes (2014)

While The Big Short captured the macro dynamics of the housing crisis, 99 Homes tells the flesh and blood story of human wreckage left in its wake. It is a grim tale of the fraud, deception and outright theft perpetrated by men in nice suits against struggling homeowners during The Great Recession.

6. 45 Years (2015)
This gripping story stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney as a long time, happily married couple suddenly forced to confront some unpleasant facts about the past. Rampling and Courteney draw upon their vast wells of experience to deliver characters so fully fleshed, they seem to be in the room with you.

5. Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the inspirational true story of three female African-American mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) whose work was vitally important to the early days of America’s space program. Set in Hampton, Va. in 1961, these determined women must overcome segregation, prejudice and the white male dominated culture of NASA to achieve their goals. 

4. Youth (2015)

Paolo Sorrentino's Youth is an extraordinary motion picture that offers profound observations on love, artistry and mortality. The film presents the triumphs and traumas of human existence in a loose-leaf, sketchbook form, allowing plenty of time to ponder its complex and mysterious beauty. Youth requires a meditative mental and emotional commitment from the viewer, but that investment pays off handsomely. 

3. Dheepan (2015)

A full bodied immersion in the life of a Sri Lankan rebel (the charismatic Jesuthasan Antonythasan)
who flees his country for a rough and tumble Paris suburb. There he attempts to rebuild his life, starting from less than nothing.  Jacques Audiard's films have had a tendency to start strong then succumb to over-plotting, but Dheepan remains tense, engaging and pitch perfect for the duration.

2. Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.

1. Cemetery 0f Splendor (2015)

Cemetery of Splendor is a film that melds the living and the dead, the past and the future, the ethereal and the mundane, told through the meek, polite tones of the Thai people. Apitchapong Weerasathakul makes films that operate on a different dimension of existence.

Honorable Mention:

Measure of a Man (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

Coming Home (2014)

Mustangs (2015)

Light Between Oceans (2016)

Trumbo (2015)