Thursday, December 31, 2009

Songs From The Second Floor (2000)

Produced in 2000, Roy Andersson’s astonishing collection of bizarre and satiric set pieces was intended as a farewell to the excesses of the 20th century, but it’s also an eerily prophetic glimpse into the grim decade that lay ahead. Set in a gray, oddly depression era looking city, “Songs” is constructed as a series of long take vignettes that weave a number of concurrent storylines into a starkly surreal tapestry of modern life, dealing with everything from age discrimination to the Holocaust to the commercialization of Christianity.

And below the narrative level, Andersson also gives us a thorough primer in cinema history. Most of the film takes place on elaborate, impeccably art directed sets that are reminiscent of films like “Brazil” and “Metropolis”, but the tributes do not end there as homage is paid to Godard, Fellini, Bergman and even George Romero.

Indeed, part of the enjoyment of this film is spotting, and attributing, Andersson’s next quotation. The film is primarily a comedy - at times a side-splitting comedy - and, for a Scandinavian film, surprisingly slapstick in nature. You’ll probably hate yourself for laughing at some of the crueler scenes, but you will laugh.

The nearest parallel I can draw to the directorial style is those old Federal Express commercials from the 1980s, directed by Chicago’s Joe Sedelmeier, which featured wide angle lens shots of comatose-looking actors gawking into the camera in a comically stupefied manner. But that is a feeble attempt on my part, for to concisely and accurately describe this extraordinary film is beyond this reviewer’s vocabulary. “Songs from the Second Floor” is simply amazing. Just watch it.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Man Named Pearl (2006)

In the quiet town of Bishopville, South Carolina, nestled amid the Baptist church and Waffle House, lies one of the world’s foremost topiary gardens. In this documentary we learn all about its amazing designer and caretaker, Pearl Fryar. The son of impoverished African-American sharecroppers, Fryar has no formal training in either the arts or horticulture yet, using plants the local nursery had given up for dead, he has created a three acre paradise of sculpted shrubs that attracts busloads of awe-struck visitors every day.

What began as a modest attempt to win a local gardening competition has become a consuming passion for Fryar and, over the last two decades, his work has surpassed the boundaries of traditional topiary; eschewing stately garden sculpture in favor of fantastic, surreal designs that are reminiscent of such contemporary masters as Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi. Here we get a clear sense of the unique intensity that drives Fryar to create, as well as the profound effect his botanical Shangri-la has had on the entire community.

Once regarded as an eccentric oddball, Fryar is now embraced by the town’s elite as an economic savior, as Bishopville, like countless other small towns, attempts to adjust to the loss of its agricultural and manufacturing base. While there are undercurrents of racial inequality and class struggle, this film is not really about conflict, but rather how one visionary and industrious person can inspire and transform a community.

As for the filmmaking, the scenario is presented in a straightforward manner, although the directors are occasionally guilty of cheerleading. But the real gem here is the terrific jazz score by veteran Charlotte-based composer Fred Story, worthy of its own CD. Like the act of gardening itself, this enjoyable film reminds us that true success is never quick and easy, but it can be achieved by those who are patient and persistent.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Loulou (1980)

If you were a young adult in the late 1970s this film will likely strike a chord with you, as it captures a time when romantic notions of love were replaced by a raw, aggressive sexuality. Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu are, not surprisingly, quite amazing as an earthy Parisian couple who have nothing in common off of their mattress, but their athletic escapades provide sufficient common ground for them to stay together. While the Netflix plot summary describes Huppert as in flight from an abusive husband (Guy Marchand), we can’t really surmise that from the film, as director Pialat is quite stingy with the couple’s backstory. The straight-laced Marchand becomes violent and mean once he discovers he’s being cuckolded, and his fits of temper seem perfectly logical in context.

Huppert appears to be escaping nothing but middle-class boredom, and the thuggish ex-con Depardieu provides her with the spark of dangerous excitement she seeks. The couple thrives in their free love fantasyland for a while, but eventually remnants of their past lives, and a careless pregnancy, signal incoming trouble in paradise. Maurice Pialat does some very good work here, presenting this liberated but confused era with an almost tactile immediacy. While the filmmaking style could be considered verite, there is still a subtle subjectivity that sneakily leads us into making stern value judgments about these characters without abandoning our interest in them.

Particularly impressive is Huppert, who is one of the few actors ever to share a film with young Depardieu and not be gobbled up in the process. Their chemistry on screen is quite believable and, through her instinctive technique, she allows Depardieu to become a much deeper and more appealing character than the physicality of his role would suggest. In all, “LouLou” manifests a time, a place and a mindset that’s a lot more enjoyable to watch than it was to live through.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

3 Monkeys (2008)

Sometimes, we must take a step back in order to move forward. "3 Monkeys" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan feels like such an attempt, as the talented director backs away from his usual stark, improvised minimalism, in favor of a plot-driven, tightly scripted drama. When a chauffer (Yavuz Bingol) agrees to take the fall for a hit-and-run fatality caused by a corrupt politician (Ercan Kesel), a chain reaction slowly ensues of unforeseen and harrowing events.

The script is so Shakespearean tragedy in nature that very little about the story can be disclosed, but suffice to say that character flaws abound, and incrimination and remorse are prime narrative movers. The film also features elements of mysticism - never fully explained- and some surprising and startling domestic violence that will be disturbing to some viewers, particularly fans of Ceylan's more sedate earlier films.

But there are many classic, and welcome, Ceylan touches as well: the Bergman-esque pacing and dramatic close-ups, the obsession with weather, and the gorgeously simple imagery. Ceylan has always been primarily a still photographer who just happens to make extraordinary movies, and here he takes his gift for image-making to a new level. With the aid of cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki (Ceylan shot his previous films himself), there are images of skies and clouds that rival the best of Ansel Adams, and the interior scenes glow with an unusual green and gold patina.

Still, this film has neither the compelling, meditative naturalism of "Climates" nor the darkly comic styling of "Distant", and those attributes were sorely missed. Yet it is a testament to Ceylan's talent that this, his least satisfying film so far, still easily rates 4 stars.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Last of England (1988)

A naked man eats cauliflower from the garbage, a distraught bride attempts to rend her garment, and masked thugs with high-powered rifles patrol a burned out city in Derek Jarman’s hellish vision of the anxiety-ridden 1980s. Constructed as an abstract poem, both sonically and visually, “The Last of England” is a challenging, and at times virtually unwatchable film, that repulses and hypnotically seduces in equal measure.

The result is an audience kept perpetually off balance. Jarman unloads vast stores of bile on Britain’s Tory government, while reveling in poignant sentimentality for his own childhood as well as a lost generation of young men ravaged by alienation, war and disease. Repeated images of heroin addicts evoke both disgust and sympathy for those who “seek amusement within England’s many walls”; meanwhile the middle-class is brought to the verge of destruction by “radioactive ice cubes”.

While many of the flashier editing techniques seem quite dated and clichéd, it is important to remember that this film is over 20 years old, and is reflective of a time when civilization seemed to be evolving backwards, and an era in which political power came to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This was especially true in Britain, always a very class-conscious nation, and Jarman intensely explores the contradiction of rigid social stratification in a supposedly free and open society.

Through frequent allusions to Nazi Germany and the Blitzkrieg, Jarman draws stark contrasts between the steely, optimistic Britain of the 1940s and what he believed to be a nation of numbing conformity in the 80s. The changes in the political landscape during that decade have never been universally accepted, and are the true antecedents of today’s “culture wars”.

While Jarman’s film is at times too creative for its own good, underneath the baffling arty glitz is a clear and damning condemnation: Governments are quick to celebrate their successes, but never concede their failures.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bunchy's Scrapbook - Bad TV Edition

Here's some TV shows on which I squandered my youth...


David Carradine as a former buddist monk who wandered the American west spouting words of peace and compassion.

Then, he kicked the living shit out of someone.


This show was really, really cool. At least I imagine it was. I was never allowed to watch it.


I'm still waiting for my damn Flying Sub...


Funny and quite sophisticated for it's time. And no, Ann and Don never did it. Ever.


Funny and iconoclastic, Laredo still holds up today on DVD.


Fairly ho-hum action series that made Bruce Lee a superstar. Their car was stored upside-down on a secret revolving platform. Wouldn't that ruin the engine?


The only thing I remember about this series is the name. Wonder if it was as bad as it looked?


Every Saturday afternoon, this show proved that Americans didn't give a flying fig about international sports.


A totally weird and creepy show; not funny, not exciting, just creepy. Its a testament to Sally Field's charisma that she kept this dog on the air for 3 years. Apparently, there were even FN lunchboxes...

Sorry, but if you took this to school you deserved to get your ass kicked.


One of my favorite shows as a kid, I saw a rerun on TVLand recently and it was about the stupidest thing I've ever seen. did I ever buy this crap?


For 90 minutes each week, this show featured everything that was bad about the 70s.


Probably the best TV show of it's time. Every week, Richard Kimball would get involved in the life of some other lost soul, often risking his own capture in order to help them.


Sometimes they were the best thing on. I miss them.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Wages of Fear (1953) ✭✭✭✭

"Wages of Fear" starts as a flabby, dawdling tale of class struggle in a squalid South American village, then morphs into a primeval drama of survival; as lean and mean as Yves Montand's sweaty undershirt. With a big American oil company wildcatting in the area, desperate and dodgy men from all over the world have descended on this dusty venue in hopes of making a quick buck, but the supply of labor far exceeds the demand, and these men are left stranded and idle with broken spirits and no plane fare home.

Montand stars as one of these lost souls, an itinerate roughneck named Mario, who befriends Jo (Charles Vanel), a fellow French expat, and the two of them sit and while away the hours reminiscing about swanky Parisian cafes while chickens and mangy dogs nip at their feet. These expository scenes comprise the first hour of the film and effectively establish the men's dire plight, as well as the callous attitude of the oil drillers toward human life.

When the oil company hires the wretched men for a suicide mission: drive two trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin 300 miles over treacherous mountain roads, the extended dramatic build-up pays off in spades. Lovers of tense, nail-biting action will be spellbound as the men make their way through the rocky wilderness, where any sudden move will set off a Hiroshima-size explosion. This is elemental drama stripped to its barest essentials, as there is no room for error or compromise.

The men must use every bit of their strength, ingenuity and a measure of sheer brutality in order to survive. This is not a perfect film by any means. There's some very heavy-handed religious symbolism and the ending is a definite WTF moment, but director Clouzot has created an icon of sweat-drenched suspense. The film has been remade and ripped off innumerable times, but it has never been surpassed.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lake Tahoe (2008)

If you saw Fernando Eimbcke’s dryly amusing “Duck Season”, then you know what to expect: leisurely pacing, naturalism on steroids and performances so understated they border on the comatose. Set in a seedy beach town on the Yucatan peninsula, this outing again features young Diego Cantano as Juan, who has just rammed his mom’s car into a telephone pole, and his meandering efforts to have it repaired early one Saturday morning.

As Juan ambles the town’s crumbling streets, his quest takes on Arthurian overtones, as he encounters a variety of oddballs who may, or may not, be able to help him. An aging mechanic with one foot in the grave (Hector Herrera) dispatches Juan to an auto parts store run by a young woman (Daniela Valentine), complete with a perpetually crying baby, who wouldn’t know a spark plug from a tire.

She suggests Juan enlist the aid of her friend David (Juan Carlos Lara), a young man much more interested in Bruce Lee movies and NunChuk flinging than auto repair. As Juan begins to despair for his situation, he makes a quick trip home – actually nothing in this film is quick- where it is apparent something is seriously amiss, and our first hint that there is a hidden, underlying story to this seemingly random, and rambling, journey.

But, through the course of this long and frustrating day, we are able to piece together the life altering events that led to Juan’s accident, and we are filled with a surprising sense of poignancy for this young man and his family. Yet “Lake Tahoe” is primarily a comedy, in the sense that Jim Jarmusch’s films are comedies, and it’s clear that Eimbcke and Jarmusch are kindred spirits behind the camera.

There is something in virtually every scene that will produce a chuckle, or at least a grin, and the entire film is infused with a uniquely subtle comedic sensibility. It will be fun to see where Eimbcke’s next goofy misadventure takes us.

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