Thursday, August 11, 2016

Notorious Turns 70

Those looking to curl up with a sleek and stylish thriller could do a lot worse than Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious from 1946. Now celebrating its 70th birthday, Notorious is an engrossing and - at 101 minutes - efficient piece of moviemaking that artfully avoids spelling out every iota of backstory; often substituting mood and nuance for conventional plotting. It’s a film that feels very modern, despite its shaggy vintage, and incorporates enough noir elements to remain true to its lineage, while charting a narrative course for the legions of spy flicks that followed.

Written by the legendary script doctor Ben Hecht – winner of the first ever screenwritng Oscar for Underworld in 1927 - Notorious is as lean and spare as a haiku. Through just a few laser focused scenes, Hecht and Hitchcock establish their characters’ histories, tendencies and motivations without a single wasted word or gesture. The sprawling plot will involve complex schemes with international implications, yet not a moment feels false, rushed or over simplified. The story gives us only the necessary and savory tidbits, perfectly reduced to the elemental, and Hitchcock commits nary a fumble in its deceptively simple execution.

Set in Miami, Notorious is all about Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who has decided that oblivion drinking and easy virtue are fine methods of forgetting her troubles. During a sloppy party one night at her beachbox bungalow she meets a handsome friend-of-a-friend named Devlin (Cary Grant) and, several bottles later, Alicia finds herself reeling, both from lust and too much wine. But Devlin has designs greater than a quick roll in the hay. His employer, a nameless U.S. spy agency, has determined that Alicia has the perfect resume for a secret mission to save the world from nuclear destruction, and it’s Devlin’s job to transform this hollow-legged floozy into a competent spook.

Notorious features a cast of such stalwart talents its reductive story takes on larger and richer dimensions. Claude Rains is fun to watch as an architect of evil undone by his own mushy lapses, and makes a superb foil for Grant. The great Louis Calhern, as Devlin’s boss Prescott, reprises his sleazy diplomat role from Duck Soup - and a dozen other pictures – and it’s a joy to watch this consummate character actor ply his craft. Bergman’s apparent effortlessness is impressive, and few leading ladies could pull off her transformation from Florida party girl to reserved hausfrau as convincingly. And Grant, despite the gravity of his role, glides through with his patented elegance and beguiling sense of imminent wit.

In the Hitchcock filmography, Spellbound precedes Notorious by a year, but the stylistic differences between the films seems like decades. Spellbound, a Selznick production, feels stogy and stagebound, its sets clunky and overdecorated; brimming with an insecure person’s idea of good taste. Notorious, produced by Hitchcock himself, feels fresh and contemporary and it’s a fitting battlefield for this tale of entrenched European privilege versus the ideals of a New World. While Spellbound wallowed in shadowy plot contrivances, Notorious attacks its narrative with straightforward, determined vigor. Here, Hitchcock tells a tight, muscular story in a tight, muscular style, and provides both a model and a standard for countless Cold War spy thrillers still to come.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Little Miss Sunshine Turns 10

Little Miss Sunshine is a lively ensemble comedy that launched and augmented a number of careers on both sides of the camera. For the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it marked a successful transition from the dwindling music video market that first brought them notoriety, to the world of mainstream Hollywood features. The film quickly catapulted unknown writer Michael Arndt to the A list, where he eventually added such hits as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Inside Out to his illustrious filmography. For young actor Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine drew his unique vulnerability out of the shadows, and made him the industry’s most sought after brooding presence. And for veteran character actor Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine finally brought him a well deserved Oscar, after three failed nominations dating back to 1969.

The film is all about the hectic, struggling Hoover family of Albuquerque headed by Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette). Also under roof are a snarling, heroin addicted grandpa (Arkin), a gothy teenager who has taken a vow of silence (Dano), a Proust-scholar uncle who has recently attempted suicide (Steve Carell), and Olive, a chubby 9 year old daughter with dreams of stardom (Abigail Breslin). When Olive is invited to compete in an uber-tacky kid’s beauty contest at the last minute, this motley band piles into an aging VW bus for a poorly planned road trip to Redondo Beach. Through a series of misadventures, virtually everyone in the family has their hopes and dreams crushed to dust, in ways that are both hilarious and disturbing. Yet they bravely venture on, pursuing a dream that always seems to lie just beyond the horizon.

Little Miss Sunshine is a movie that’s more than the sum its parts. Like the films of John Hughes, it’s a lightweight comedy that manages to reach deeply into the zeitgeist. This story of illusions shattered by reality was a unique and resonant reflection of its time. Bogged down in a war launched for illusionary reasons, reveling in an economic prosperity that would also prove to be an illusion, Little Miss Sunshine was a fitting allegory for post-9/11 America. The battered, rag-tag Hoover family, united by bonds of love that bend but never break, traverse the Continental Divide in their sputtering microbus; its rusty muffler belching acrid whiffs of The Grapes of Wrath for a new millennium.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Today in Bunched History: Luche Libre Starring Blue Demon (1970)

Originally Posted July 10, 2009

I've been a fan of flamboyant Mexican wrestlers ever since my Dad and I saw Mil Mascaras beat the snot out of the villainous Greg Valentine at the fairgrounds 30 years ago. Yeah, yeah I know wrasslin' is fake, but I would think a 250 lb man jumping on you from the top rope would have to smart at least a little bit. Mexico holds its heroic grapplers in high esteem, featuring them in magazines, advertisements and, naturally, action films.

In this silly diversion, a group of luchadors enmascarado attempts to protect some beauty pageant contestants from the evil designs of a mad scientist and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of midget wrestler henchmen.

Our barrel-chested heros get themselves in a variety of pickles, but are saved by teamwork, agility and the fact that the mad scientist's various contraptions always seem to go haywire at critical moments.

The action is accompanied by a twinkly cocktail party jazz score that makes no sense whatsoever. The filmmaking is sloppy, amateurish, riddled with continuity errors and I adored every minute of it. Alain Resnais did not direct this film.

More Info

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Climates Turns 10

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (last name pronounced JAY-lin) has become a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival in the past decade. During that time, his work has won numerous Critic’s Awards and Grand Prizes, culminating in the prestigious Palme d’Or for Winter Sleep in 2014. While his films have tackled a wide range of situations and subjects, his unique, singular style of filmmaking has created a body of work unified in look and feel, and consistent in its excellence. To describe Ceylan's aesthetics, one must look to the somber, deliberate tomes of his idol Andrei Tarkovsky as a heavy stylistic influence. But Ceylan adds his own subtle comedic flavoring to the mix, with sharply observed details of flawed humanity that will have you marveling at their universal truths. Ceylan’s films manage to be both morose and life-affirming, and that’s a pretty neat trick.

Climates from 2006 is a beautifully photographed contemplation on the perils of romantic relationships, and the capricious nature of dependency. It’s about a middle-age college professor and his younger girlfriend (played by Ceylan and his real life wife Ebru) who find the glow of their long term love affair fading. During a vacation amid ancient Roman ruins - a symbol for the couple’s subtle, gnawing bitterness - they eventually decide to split up. But the sense of loss and recrimination that ruined their love continues to fester, as the couple realize they can escape each other, but not themselves.

At heart, Climates is a very simple film that stands on the strength of its stark execution. In many scenes the only audio is the sound of a character breathing; the only action an intense stare. Yet out of this rawest minimalism emerges a love story that will haunt you for days. With settings ranging from sunny Mediterranean beach towns to snowy mountain villages, Ceylan maps an ever changing emotional landscape through the volatile natural splendors of his native land. Climates is not a story of humanity vs. nature, but humanity vs. human nature.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Page Turner Turns 10

Despite its elegant, understated atmosphere, The Page Turner (2006) is a powerful French thriller that delivers plenty of nail-biting tension. It’s a tale of slow-simmering revenge, as a former piano student from the wrong side of the tracks (Déborah François) hatches a subtle scheme to get even with a famous concert pianist (Catherine Frot), over an insult suffered many years ago. In a manner reminiscent of All About Eve, François slowly weaves her way into Frot’s household and eventually makes the whole family dependent on her. Her trap set, François proceeds to quietly dismantle the lives of her benefactors one by one, leaving her victims hollow emotional ruins.

Directed with brooding Haneke-esque formality by Danis Delcourt, The Page Turner is constructed with the delicacy of a spider web, and with equally deceptive strength. As François patiently and methodically pursues her goal, her true aims are often unclear to the viewer, which only makes the end results more satisfying. While most thrillers require some suspension of disbelief, here every chess move of the plot feels genuine and logical. And chess is an apt metaphor, as clearly François is thinking at least three moves ahead of her unsuspecting and hapless victims.

The Page Turner also owes a stylistic debt to the work of Hitchcock and Chabrol in the way it unleashes deep personal destruction with a minimum of conflict and violence. The thrills and chills occur in the mysterious landscape of the human mind, with fears cleverly manipulated, weaknesses exploited and false vanities crushed. It’s a film that entertains and surprises and, like its namesake, will keep you enthralled from the very first frame. It’s also a cautionary tale of why you should always try to be nice to everybody. In the long run, it’s really the best policy.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Quick Takes: July 2016

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2015) ✭✭✭

Interesting behind-the-scenes look at the funniest magazine in human history. We meet the wacky creatives who made the magic, as well as their less talented replacements, who ran it into the ground. If you were a young man with subversive, irreverent leanings in the early 1970s, a new issue of National Lampoon was a cause for celebration. The magazine was more than nerdy satire, filthy cartoons and pictures of women with big breasts. It was a zeitgeist confluence that will never be duplicated.

Pause (2014) ✭✭✭✭

Entertaining French romance about the travails of a slacker musician and his ambitious girlfriend. The film stars Baptiste Gilliéron who is France's answer to Johnny Depp.

In the Name of My Daughter (2014)✭✭✭✭

André Téchiné directs this fascinating Deneuve vehicle now showing on Amazon Prime. Based on a true story, it's all about shady operations at a Nice casino that eventually lead to a nasty family feud. The pacing drags a bit here and there, but it's still an absorbing watch.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

TCM for July 2016

TCM has lots of super-cool 1970s classics and silent era oddities to help you beat the heat in July!
My picks below. All times Eastern. Full schedule HERE

3 Sunday

Kubrick Festival on the 3rd
8:00 PM
An Irish rogue cheats his way to the top of 18th-century British society.
C-185 mins, CC,

11:15 PM
Classic sci-fi epic about a mysterious monolith that seems to play a key role in human evolution.
C-149 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:00 AM
Scientists use mind-control experiments to turn a gang leader against violence.
C-137 mins, CC,

4:30 AM
A military lawyer comes to question the status quo when he defends three men accused of cowardice.
BW-88 mins, CC,

4 Monday

3:00 PM
An idealistic Senate replacement takes on political corruption.
BW-130 mins, CC,

5:15 PM
A young couple from dueling street gangs falls in love.
C-154 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
A con artist hawks musical instruments and band uniforms to small-town America.
C-151 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

7 Thursday

8:00 PM
Two Washington Post reporters investigate the Watergate break-in that ended Nixon's presidency.
C-138 mins, CC,

10:30 PM
A senate candidate's ideals weaken as his position in the polls gets stronger.
C-110 mins, CC,

12:30 AM
Television programmers turn a deranged news anchor into 'the mad prophet of the airwaves.'
BW-121 mins, CC,

2:45 AM
A surveillance expert uncovers a murder plot within a corrupt corporation.
C-114 mins, CC,

4:45 AM
A small-town detective searches for a missing man linked to a high-priced prostitute.
C-114 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

9 Saturday

2:15 AM
A stuntman investigates his brother's death on a movie shoot.
C-89 mins,

3:45 AM
When her favorite roller disco is threatened with closing, a girl organizes the skaters to save it.
C-104 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

5:30 AM
A young man is given advice on what to do (and what not to do) on a date in this short film.
C-13 mins,

5:30 AM
In this social guidance short film, teens on the make spread syphilis among their friends.
C-21 mins,

10 Sunday

Super creepy The Vanishing on the 10th

3:45 AM
A young man is obsessed with finding the girlfriend who vanished at a rest stop.
C-106 mins, Letterbox Format

14 Thursday

4:00 PM
The surfing gang rescues a beautiful singer from evil bikers.
C-97 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

6:00 PM
When he's stationed in Tahiti, a sailor hires a witch doctor to keep an eye on his girlfriend.
C-93 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
A widow dreaming of a singing career ends up waiting tables in Phoenix.
C-112 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
A recent arrival in suburbia suspects a sinister reason for the local women's model behavior.
C-115 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:15 AM
The singles scene takes its toll on a young teacher.
C-136 mins,

2:45 AM
A law student discovers that his girlfriend is the daughter of his toughest professor.
C-111 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:45 AM
Working-class teens compete with a college cycling team.
C-101 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

16 Saturday

12:00 AM
A failure in the U.S. defense system threatens to start World War III.
BW-112 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:00 AM
Drug dealers lure a pair of young innocents into marijuana addiction.
BW-65 mins,

3:00 AM
Drugs lead to tragedy for a young girl who is transformed into a big-time drug dealer.
BW-57 mins,

4:00 AM
A drug dealer gets a small town waitress hooked on cocaine.
BW-61 mins,

5:15 AM
A juvenile court judge investigates the tragedy of marijuana addiction in this short film.
C-10 mins,

5:15 AM
The dangers of marijuana are outlined in this educational short film.
C-21 mins,

17 Sunday

4:00 PM
A party girl ruins her life when she falls for a married man.
C-108 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

6:00 PM
When a group of schoolgirls mysteriously disappear, the survivors find their lives changed forever.
C-107 mins, CC,

8:00 PM
Two presidential hopefuls get caught up in the dirty side of politics.
BW-102 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

A cameraman gets caught up in politics in Medium Cool

10:00 PM
A TV news cameraman finds himself becoming personally involved in the violence that erupts around the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
C-111 mins,

12:15 AM
In this silent film, a young woman turns Hollywood upside down in her search for stardom.
BW-90 mins,

2:00 AM
The war in Bosnia tears apart communities, families and lovers.
C-113 mins,

21 Thursday

8:00 PM
Gunmen hold a New York subway train and its passengers for ransom.
C-104 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
A man robs a bank to pay for his lover's operation.
C-125 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:15 AM
A Brooklyn roughneck's love for disco dancing makes him realize that he wants more out of life.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

No one was cooler than Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Que the wa-wa pedal!

2:30 AM
A slick black detective enlists gangsters and African nationals to fight the mob.
C-100 mins, CC,

4:15 AM
Two New York narcotics cops set out to bust a French drug smuggling ring.
C-104 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

24 Sunday

0:45 PM
BW-0 mins,

11:10 PM
BW-0 mins,

11:30 PM
A light-skinned African-American lawyer persuades his sister to pass for white.
BW-65 mins,
12:30 AM

In this silent film, a black schoolteacher finds the battle against racism is everywhere when she goes North to raise money for better schools.
BW-78 mins,

2:00 AM
A cowherd and a university student plan different con schemes to escape to France.
C-90 mins,

3:45 AM
Cameras capture the backstage drama as acting students audition for a film.
C-75 mins,

5:00 AM
A wounded Confederate soldier travels through time to explore modern life.
BW-62 mins,

27 Wednesday

8:00 PM
A mysterious woman engages two bounty hunters to help her seek revenge.
C-82 mins,

9:30 PM
An American pioneer raised by Indians ends up fighting alongside General Custer.
C-139 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A gambler and a prostitute become business partners in a remote Old West mining town.
C-121 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:15 AM
A Wyoming sheriff tries to protect immigrant farmers from ruthless ranchers.
C-219 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

31 Sunday

6:15 PM
A typical day in the life of the Beatles.
BW-87 mins, CC,

8:00 PM
A rural black woman lying near death is torn between heaven and hell.
BW-56 mins,

9:15 PM
A lady band leader leaves a string of jilted men in her wake.
BW-60 mins,

10:30 PM
A loyal wife faithfully prays for the deliverance of the husband who abandoned her.
DirJames Gist
BW-15 mins,

10:30 PM
Souls ascend to heaven and stand before the throne of judgement in this filmed sermon.
BW-8 mins,

11:00 PM
A document of the religious services of the Gullah people in coastal South Carolina.
BW-42 mins,

12:00 AM
In this silent film, a composer marries an abused girl to protect her but can't face his family's prejudices.
BW-76 mins,

1:45 AM
BW-0 mins,

2:00 AM
A documentary profile of the Moroccan acoustic supergroup Nass El Ghiwane.
C-90 mins,

3:45 AM
Cameras explore the life and spirit of New Orleans.
C-57 mins,

5:00 AM
Cameras capture the culture surrounding polka music.
DirLes Blank

C-49 mins,