Friday, June 27, 2008

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)

Claude Chabrol's drawing room thrillers are difficult to categorize as they don't fit neatly into any sort of standard genre. Many people seem to be disappointed with them because they're neither as suspenseful as Hitchcock, nor as tightly plotted as a typical murder mystery. This is not so much the fault of Chabrol as a filmmaker, but rather the people charged with marketing the films, who strive for a short-hand comparative description. Yet the Chabrol canon is extraordinarily consistent in terms of style and subject matter. You either like it and buy into it or you don't. Here we have a typical Chabrol upper class family which at first glance is nearly perfect, but over the course of the film we discover deep flaws and unsavory aspects that secretly haunt the lead characters. Isabel Huppert and Jacques Dutronc are completely believable as the couple whose happiness is a micro-thin, easily chipped, veneer. A veneer that Huppert is willing to protect at any, and I do mean any, cost. With Chabrol nothing should be taken at face value, and as the secrets of this family are peeled away, we learn that even the most cold blooded among us occasionally utter cries for help. It’s been said that directors like Chabrol and Eric Rohmer make the same film over and over. As a fan of Chabrol’s style, I say thank goodness.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Season 3 or Dude, Where's My Flying Sub?

Occasionally one succumbs to abject nostalgia and revisits a fondly remembered TV series from one’s youth. This is often a disappointment, for the shows that seemed so astonishing then now come off as rather hokey - and in some cases outright stupid- to mature eyes. I’m happy to report this is not the case with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Not that the show isn’t hokey -it has plenty of slipshodiness- but I actually remember it as being kind of dumb. No, the real reason to watch this show 40 years later is for the brief glimpses of that ultra-cool technical marvel The Flying Sub. This elegant, stingray shaped adult frisbee was speedy, seductive transportation, whether plumbing the ocean depths or soaring across the azure skies.

One of the great disappointments of my life is that even today, no version of this stately craft is yet available to the American consumer. Since “Voyage” took place in the far-flung, technically advanced world of 1980, one would certainly have thought that this vehicle would be commercially produced and fairly commonplace by the 21st century. But no, as I scan my typical suburban garage, I see no sleek, curvaceous Flying Sub, only earth-bound, rubber-tired, internal combustion beaters, not all that different from what working stiffs like me were driving when “Voyage” first went on the air. This lack of vision and progress from American industry enrages me. I am tired of waiting. I WANT MY FLYING SUB. Who do I see about that?

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Friday, June 20, 2008

La Chamade (1969)

This movie continues the winning Catherine Deneuve vehicle formula found in Belle du Jour. In other words, she is portrayed as sensitive, vulnerable and a tad slutty. Catherine plays Lucile, a woman kept in luxury by the distinguished and filthy rich Michel Piccoli (my God, this man is in everything). At a party she meets an aspiring writer (Roger Van Hool) who's young, dashing and has a chin that could crack walnuts. Lucile finds herself falling for this younger man, despite the fact that he barely has two francs to rub together. She finally decides to give up creature comforts to follow her heart and live with her struggling writer in his requisite freezing garret. Thats when the real fun begins, as spoiled Lucile tries to adapt to a less sophisticated world and its drudgery. However, the memories of her easy life with Piccoli are never far behind, and remain a temptation. All in all, this is a well executed piece of elegant trash that you can feel good about watching. My favorite line from the film is when Lucile declares: "I told you I wasn't made for work!". I'll have to remember that.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summer Palace (2006)

This movie isn't really very good- sort of a Chinese St. Elmo's Fire- but artsy and with more nudity. A lot more nudity. But I suggest you watch the bonus material before screening the film. The most interesting thing about this movie is the Chinese government's petulant and paranoid reaction to it. After the movie was screened at Cannes, the filmmakers returned to China to find that the government had banned Summer Palace and forbidden them from making any more films for a period of five years. A ridiculous reaction, considering the Tiananmen Square protests are only a very small part of the script, and the characters are not activists, just interested observers. Once you know about the injustices done to director Ye Lou and his producer, you will have much more respect for this film and what it represents. The film itself is a gritty depiction of life at Beijing University in the 80s, where life was apparently one big party. I say apparently because some of the scenes appear to be lit with one 25 watt bulb and are quite hard to see. The film tracks the lives of the college friends from that time to the early 2000s. The film is rather long (I suggest watching it over 2 sittings), but the character of Ye Hong is mildly interesting, although her actions are not always easily understood. Or understood at all. Still, Summer Palace has become a film festival darling and an international symbol of the dangers of repressive governments.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Romance & Cigarettes (2005)

John Turturro's wrong headed musical dramedy demands much from the viewer, and gives very little in return. James Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a Queens area riveter who, when he's not riveting, cheats on his long suffering wife (Susan Sarandon) with a saucy, safety-orange haired trollop (Kate Winslet, who does an uncanny Jane Horrocks impression). Nick also has a tendency to spontaneously launch into lavishly staged production numbers of 1960s-era pop and soul hits. At first you think perhaps this is just a device to show how unsatisfied Nick is with his life, and as such, it would have been an effective conceit. But no, pretty soon everyone in the film is breaking (and I do mean breaking) into elaborately produced songs. Eventually, provided the viewer plays along, these musical digressions actually start to work and the film begins to achieve a bit of loft. Then, wham-bam, Turturro changes direction again, and heads the movie down a dark and preachy path, that voids any modest entertainment value this film may have had. In assessing this movie there is really only one thing you need to know: Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro are cast as teenagers. Teenagers! And we are supposed to buy that. There are so many things wrong about this movie, you just have to wonder what on Earth were all these talented people thinking?

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Route 66: An Appreciation - Part 1

Route 66 aired on CBS from October 1960 to March 1964. The premise was simple but revolutionary: two men in their 20s roaming the back roads of America, working at odd jobs, just trying to find “where they fit in”. The young men were Tod Stiles, an ivy-leaguer grieving over the sudden death of his father, and Buzz Murdoch, a brooding, tough-as-nails product of Hell’s Kitchen who grew up literally on the streets. While the two young men couldn’t be more different, they share a unique bond: a restlessness, a desire to see what is really out there before making the big choices that will guide the rest of their lives. So Tod (Martin Milner) and Buzz (George Maharis) tie their duffel bags (one just can’t have too many duffels on a trip like this) onto the luggage rack of Tod’s Corvette, and set off to experience the America of the early 1960s, a land of possibilities, both exhilarating and tragic.

From the beginning, the production team of Herbert Leonard (Herbert Leonard) and Stirling Silliphant ( stop that) wanted their concept to look and feel radically different from anything else on TV, and they had an extraordinary idea of how to achieve it. Each episode would be shot on actual locations across the US, and the script would reference those locations. No more substituting Griffith Park for Ohio or The Pier in Santa Monica for the Gulf Coast. If the script called for Mobile, Alabama, by God, the whole company would pack up and go there. This doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but leaving the back lot to film a TV show in 1960 was an idea that bordered on fiscal madness. Film equipment was big and heavy back then. Film stocks were slow, and enormous lights with big appetites for power were needed for interior and night scenes. Equally strong and powerful men with big trucks were needed just to move all this apparatus from place to place. IATSE and Teamsters Union men that had to be housed and fed at great expense somewhere in the backwaters of America. Sound recording was perilous too, and there’s more than a few scenes in Route 66 where dramatic moments are accompanied by disconcerting airplane or street noise.

These contingencies made for accountant-choking budget projections, but someone at CBS had the brilliant idea of approaching the Chevrolet division at General Motors in search of underwriting. It was a natural, since the uber-cool Corvette was in essence the third star of the series, and if Route 66 was successful, it would likely create a run on Chevy showrooms throughout the country. It didn’t hurt that the Corvette had one of the highest profit margins of any vehicle in the GM stable, and the thought of a sales spike gave the Detroit execs weak-kneed vapors of joy. So a deal was done, martini glasses were clinked, and CBS had a big fat bank roll that somehow, via some miracle, might be enough dough to get Route 66 on the air. But not to worry, Leonard and Silliphant’s gamble proved wise. Route 66 was a big hit in it’s day, and it remains a hallmark of American television almost 50 years later.

Short compilation discs and bootleg DVDs of Route 66 have been available for years, but the good people at Roxbury and Infinity Entertainment have decided to put an authorized complete episode package on the market, and while the results are far from perfect, it beats my old crumbling (do electrons crumble?) off-air Nick At Nite recordings from the 80s. Yes, those wretched VHS tapes, complete with their singularly annoying Pocket Fisherman commercials (even in my youth, I was never fast enough with the pause button).

In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about this extraordinary TV series and the Roxbury/ Infinity releases (there is some possible big breaking news on that front I must research further). I will be highlighting some of the better episodes, as well as the great guest stars, especially the lesser known ones. It is my hope that more people will become aware of this series and grow to appreciate it. In the meantime, check out these new releases and see this marvelous time capsule for yourself.

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Duck Season (2006)

Jim Jarmusch is thanked in the final credits of this film, and it's clear that director Fernando Eimbcke is highly influenced by Jarmuschian technique. Duck Season features long static camera takes, frequent fades to black, 1950s-ish black & white documentary style cinematography and offbeat, eccentric characterizations. In short, all the elements that distinguish the Jarmusch playbook. Enrique Arreola and Diego Catano play latchkey pubescents looking forward to a typical Sunday afternoon of soda pop and violent video games. Things begin to go off course when a 16 year-old femme fatale neighbor (Danny Perea) with a broken oven asks to borrow the youths' kitchen to bake a cake. Then a power outage forces the boys to put down their game controllers and face the grim prospect of an afternoon of quiet contemplation. The boys react in a perfectly normal way, they order a pizza. But fate again takes a hand when they are dispatched a delivery driver with a myriad of personal issues, all of which we learn about in the course of the afternoon. Meanwhile, the coquette in the kitchen embarks on a variety of baking projects, all of which end in disaster except for one, some innocent-looking brownies that have a profound effect on the remainder of the day. Despite its Art House trappings, Duck Season is handled in a charming and beguiling way and fans of both Jarmusch and John Hughes should find this import from Mexico appealing. Be sure to watch the end credits all the way through, as they are followed by a brief and satisfying closing scene.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dans Paris (2007)

You've got to admire a director who tries. Unfortunately in Dans Paris director Christophe Honore tries a little bit of everything. Part analysis of a break-up, part romantic comedy, part warm and fuzzy father-son reunion, the film's shifting moods and perspectives attempt to create a rich tapestry of life, but the end results more closely resemble a threadbare bath towel. Guy Marchand is interesting as the father who, despite his gruff exterior and coping with one son who won't get out of bed and another who jumps into too many beds, seems genuinely happy to have his family reunited in their cramped Paris apartment for Christmas. Louis Garrel plays the slacker younger brother who boasts an impressive list of romantic conquests despite repeated references to his dubious personal hygiene. And once again we have Romain Duris as a brooding cuckold whose world has collapsed after a woman done him wrong. Of course, he was having his own affair at the time but that doesn't really count. Despite the official film description, Garrel's character doesn't really play much of a role in Duris's rehabilitation. Garrel tries to help his brother, but he keeps getting sidetracked by all the young femmes in Paris. And with all the sheer stuff going on in this movie, the viewer gets a bit sidetracked as well.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Russian Dolls (2005)

This disappointing and lengthy sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole has none of the original's peppy bounce. The Barcelona roommates are all grown up now, mostly into rather sullen adults. In particular Xavier (Romain Duris), who divides his time between various freelance writing projects and wallowing in self pity over the fact that he's almost 30 and doesn't have a steady girlfriend. However his ennui doesn't prevent him from making whoopee with much of the heterosexual female population of Paris. After many digressions and uninteresting events, Xavier eventually realizes that he has been carrying a torch for the winsome Wendy all these years and ultimately all the roommates are reunited in Russia for a wedding. There they make toasts celebrating how people can change and Germany can change and Europe can change and all the usual unified Europe platitudes. I'm for peace and harmony as much as the next guy but I prefer the old post-war Europe, when all the countries got along but secretly detested each other. It was more fun.

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

The filmmakers here have achieved a feat previously thought impossible: this sequel is even worse than the exceedingly crapulous original. The Silver Surfer/Galactus saga borders on epic poetry to fans of the FF comics, but the way it is handled in this putrid production is more Homer Simpson than Homer. Actually, Homer Simpson would have written a more intelligent script. I'm glad that Stan Lee is finally making the mega-bucks he has deserved for so long, but how can he let them make a mockery of his material like this? Speaking of Lee, his 10 second cameo as a wedding crasher is the best bit of acting in the entire film. If there are any more films to be made in this franchise (and, in a way, I hope not), the director clearly needs to be replaced. He has amply demonstrated over the course of two films that he has absolutely no feel for this material.

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