Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's Time for Quickies!!

Withnail & I (1987)*****

The Star Wars of quirky dark British comedies. You must see this movie several times to appreciate the subtleties, not to mention the molasses-thick accents of some of the characters. But once you get it, there are quotes here that you can use for the rest of your life. So let your whole sink go rotten, open the finest wines available to humanity, and watch Richard E. Grant, a trained actor, shamelessly chew the scenery. I predict you will savor every bite.


Mademoiselle (2001)***

Fans of French contemporary dramas will enjoy this light and bittersweet romance. The always watchable Sandrine Bonnaire does a fine job as a big pharma sales rep who, for a few brief hours, ignores her responsibilities and gets a taste of a wholly different type of life. First time director Loiret tells his simple story in a restrained and effective manner, and never lets technical or narrative flourishes get in the way.


Les Salades de L'amour (1957)***

This compilation of assorted scraps and odds and ends will appeal mainly to Truffaut completists. The short feature "Les Mistons" leads off the disc, and it is a charming B&W short about a group of teenage boys who secretly spy on a pair of lovers in a small French village. The film is either Truffaut's first or second film - depending on how one counts such things- and at 35 minutes is about as long as it really needs to be. The rest of the disc contains an interview with the director, which is rather interesting, and an interview with 2 of Truffaut's collaborators, which is unfortunately quite dull and rambling. In all, this presentation will be most valuable to those who have a scholarly interest in Truffaut's work.


Mojave Phone Booth (2006)****

John Putch's student-style indie film was made on a budget less than what an average family spends yearly at Costco. It is the story of a small group of Las Vegas residents who regularly convene at an isolated phone booth in the desert and discuss their personal problems with an anonymous amateur therapist who patiently listens to their issues and offers helpful suggestions. Out of this strong concept, a fascinating set of storylines evolve and by the end of the film the viewer has gained an unusually voyeuristic and three-dimensional view into the lives of these characters. Putch makes good use of distant, oasis-like shots of the Vegas skyline and lesser known off-strip locales to create an almost dreamlike setting for this emotionally surreal film.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Les Biches (1968)**

Throughout his long and successful career, Claude Chabrol has mixed a few stinkers in with his generally impressive body of work. Les Biches, made in 1968 and one of his first films, was a most inauspicious beginning. Clumsy and cloying, the film is the story of two very different women who meet one day on the banks of the Seine; a meeting that sparks a chain of unhealthy events.

Wealthy and worldly Frederique (Stephane Audran) finds herself strangely attracted to a free-spirited starving street artist called Why (Jaqueline Sassard) and the two of them begin a whirlwind friendship and possible romance (Chabrol is not really clear on this) and before long, Why finds herself firmly ensconced in Frederique’s chateau near St. Tropez. Being winter, the town is virtually deserted save for a couple of freeloaders (Henri Attal and Dominique Zardi) who are also staying with Frederique.

We know that Attal and Zardi are gay because all they do is make sarcastic comments about other people’s clothing, which I suppose was all gay men were allowed to do in 60s cinema. A square-jawed architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant, looking a bit lost) attends one of Frederique’s poker parties and at first seems quite taken with Why, but Frederique, used to getting her way, decides that she wants him too, and quite a mess follows.

The film is a hard to take seriously, partially through no fault of its own. The disc is dubbed in English, and despite several minutes of fiddling with the menus, the original French does not appear as an option. While the dubbing is reasonably well done from a lip-sync standpoint, the resulting dead soundtrack gives the whole enterprise the feel of bad 70s porn, without the cheap prurient thrills. Equally distracting is the aggressive footstep Foley, which makes everyone sound as though they are wearing tap shoes. At one point, the sound goes out all together for a couple of minutes, but this glitch is actually a bit of a relief.

However, mucked-up sound does not excuse all of the films weaknesses, and the story runs out of steam long before the closing credits. The movie ends with a designed big dramatic payoff, but you may find yourself quite numb by the time it finally rolls around. Les Biches will be of interest only to the most fervent Chabrol fans. On the other hand, if you have yet to familiarize yourself with this important French director then please, don’t start here.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Headless Woman (2008)****

Way back in the 20th Century, the Headless Woman was a staple of traveling carnival freak shows, right along side the Bearded Lady and the Snake Boy. Lucretia Martel uses this metaphor to profoundly disturbing effect in her latest film The Headless Woman. A middle-class dentist (Maria Onetto), who has recently dyed her hair blond, is driving down a country road after attending a cosmetics party. While fumbling for her ringing cell phone, her car suddenly suffers a violent jolt and her heart races into her throat.

The visual evidence indicates she has struck a dog…but Onetto’s reaction indicates that there is more afoot, and it’s our first clue that our perceptions are being slyly manipulated. In the accident’s aftermath, Onetto appears to be stricken with a sort of post-traumatic amnesia, and spends the next few days drifting through the normal routine of her life, a routine that’s familiar to everyone but her. The film begins to drift as well, down a number of thematic tributaries and all of them tantalizingly open to interpretation. Martel presents the sexes in a sharp polarity of traditional roles – women are obsessed with physical appearance and men talk only of hunting and fishing – the only exception being Onetto’s sexually aggressive lesbian cousin, recovering from hepatitis and locked away like a family embarrassment.

Onetto’s husband, who is first seen placing a dead deer in the kitchen sink, seems to be much more concerned about her car than any potential injury, while her domestic help manage to keep the confused Onetto on track with appointments and other obligations. It eventually becomes clear that Martel’s metaphorical canvas has expanded to include not only class and gender struggle, but specific allusions to the tortured political history of her native Argentina as well. Martel hints that Onetto’s disorientation may stem from a mixture of guilt and denial, and the surprising resolution of her affliction reinforces the idea that, for Argentina’s elite, justice is a malleable concept.

Onetto does a fine job in her role, and her withdrawal from reality is both convincing and mysterious, yet leaves lots of room for her fellow actors. Although she is in nearly every scene, she seems to partially dematerialize before our eyes. While Headless Woman features none of the witty observations of her earlier films, here Lucretia Martel has created a deeper work that is involving and rewarding. It’s also uncomfortable and, at times, downright confounding.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bunchy's Scrapbook: Comic Book Fail Edition

The Atom was unimpressive at best. Here he is almost eaten by a houseplant.

Jerry Lewis had his own comic. Must have sold like hotcakes in France.

Hawkman was just weird.

He and The Flash teamed up a lot. Probably because they were both frickin’ useless.

Charlton Comics were the epitome of second rate. None of their superheroes ever made it big. Thunder Bunny? C’mon…

Stan Lee created some great villians. Paste-Pot Pete was not one of them.

Romance Comics were really creepy...

Who read these things?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Emergency Kisses (1989)*****

Emergency Kisses is a French film. It is French French McFrenchy French. And if you like this type of film, and dieu sait this reviewer does, it’s pretty darn wonderful. Directed by Philippe Garrel, co-written by Philippe Garrel, and all about Philippe Garrel, the film features many relatives and friends of Philippe Garrel portraying friends and relatives of Philippe Garrel. Philippe Garrel’s father, Maurice Garrel, plays Philippe Garrel’s father, and his 5 year-old son Louis portrays his 5 year old son Louis. His former lover and mother to Louis, Brigette Sy, plays his lover and mother to Louis, here named Jeanne.

Anyway, with the introductions dispensed, we can now concentrate on the movie. Filmmaker Mathieu (Philippe Garrel, did I mention he is playing himself?) finds his domestic bliss imperiled when he decides to cast a famous actress (Anemone) as his wife in an upcoming film he is directing, despite the objections of his real wife Jeanne, who also happens to act in local theatre.

Like a complex display of fragile dominoes, this decision causes Mathieu’s life to slowly tumble down, leaving him alone and adrift with only his divorced dad to turn to for advice. Dad has had his own issues with philandering over the years, and is hardly a fountain of helpful council. The film chronicles Philippe’s efforts to rejoin with Jeanne and little Louis, but those efforts usually only compound the pain of loneliness and betrayal that haunts the estranged couple.

Shot in a murky black-and-white, Emergency Kisses has the look of early European cinema-verite, yet Garrel works in a tightly choreographed style; his long takes create a sense of inviting openness and make us feel like participants rather than voyeurs. There is more programmatic background music than is typical for this type of film, and the plaintive saxophone score serves as an effectively moody counterpoint.

Jeanne may give Garrel a second chance in love, but the high cost of her shattered trust is captured by a brilliant bit of physical acting in the film’s finale. Jeanne realizes that the world abounds with temptations, often in the least expected places, and traditional notions of romantic love may not be able to withstand the challenges of modern life. Did I mention the film is French?

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Franklyn (2008)****

Part sci-fi adventure, part ghost story, part romantic mystery, the clever and enigmatic Franklyn has a little something for everyone. The movie follows four damaged souls as they roam convergent paths on the dark, wet streets of London; each of them in search of some human connection that will complete them, for good or for ill.

We meet a conceptual artist (Eva Green) whose work is little more than a cry for attention from her aloof mother, a heartbroken young man (Sam Riley) who pines for a lost love, a middle aged father (Bernard Hill) wracked with guilt over the fate of his children, and a masked avenger (Ryan Phillippe) obsessed with bringing a murderous cult leader to justice. Franklyn is one of those rare mixtures of strong production values and excellent writing, and the result is a film that engages the eyes and the brain in equal measure.

The various stories are presented in a near perfect balance, with enough information withheld to pique our interest, but enough dispensed to slowly build a scenario that is both logical and satisfying. The film manages to play with our perceptions without ever making us feel cheated, mislead, or manipulated; quite a feat for a film of such narrative intricacy. Writer-Director Gerald McMorrow makes an auspicious debut here, keeping a tight visionary rein on the proceedings, and ultimately making us understand and appreciate all the choices he has made along the way; some of which are quite perplexing in the early going.

In many ways, Franklyn is like a hyper extended episode of The Twilight Zone with all the trimmings, and McMorrow, a la the great Rod Serling, has made an eerie and exciting entertainment that goes great with a tub of popcorn.


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Friday, April 16, 2010

Inch'Allah Dimanche (2001)****

Inch’Allah Dimanche is a somewhat uneven film, but the best moments more than make up for the bumpy spots. The story is a familiar one of old world immigrant culture shock; in this case, the old world is Algeria and the shocking culture is France circa 1972.

We follow Zouima (Fejira Deliba), her three kids and trollish mother-in-law (an excellent performance by Rabia Mokkedem) as they board a tramp steamer bound for northern France and an icy reunion with Zouima’s husband Ahmed (Zinedine Soualem). Ahmed has been living and working in France for the last decade, but the intervening years have done little to enlighten his attitudes about women. He cruelly treats Zouima like an unpaid servant while catering to his overbearing mother’s every whim.

Zouima contracts a severe and hopeless case of homesickness, then rallies her strength and begins a subtle rebellion against her husband’s iron-fisted domination. Director Yamina Benguigi constructs her sequences very well, but periodically seems to lose mental focus on her own story, and throws in some scenes and subplots that don’t really go anywhere. Some are intended for comic relief, some are of an undefined purpose, yet the effect is often more distracting than entertaining. However, one aside that works well is Ahmed’s secret desire to be a rock star – his tone deaf attempts to play surf tunes on a borrowed Stratocaster are really quite funny- and it is our first inkling that there may be a real person lurking behind that stern exterior.

Meanwhile, Zouima’s strange new world begins to have an effect on her, as she develops a fascination for French radio programs and acquires a pair of white high heel pumps she awkwardly dons for trips to the market. The degree of Zouima’s assimilation is ultimately revealed by her attempts to reach out to a fellow displaced Algerian family, and the surprising results of that meeting contain a stark life lesson for her: where you are is less important than who you are.

The ending seems rushed, as though Benguigi was running out of film stock, and is more thematically satisfying than it is believable. Overall however, Inch’Allah Dimanche will appeal to those who enjoy immersions in different times and cultures, and stories of women who refuse to be second class citizens.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quickies #5

Hukkle is a goofy big galoot of a film, that ranges from funny to odd to really, really odd. Set in a farming community in Hungary, an elderly man with incessant hiccups serves as a lynchpin for a series of observations on the obscure and eccentric lifestyles of the villagers. A vague narrative thread involving a murder mystery eventually emerges, but what it lacks in urgency is made up in unrelenting kookiness. Some scenes are hysterically funny, while others are quite baffling. Think of Hukkle as a comedic police procedural as directed by Derek Jarman. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

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Island Etude (2006)****

Relaxing and whimsical, Island Etude is all about Ming, a hearing-impaired college student, and his bicycle trip around the coast of Taiwan. Along the way, Ming meets a variety of unusual characters including an outgoing film crew, a lost Lithuanian tourist, a spoiled and angry young man from Canada, as well as visits with family and old friends. Part travelogue, part meditation on man’s place in nature, Island Etude unfolds like a diary, as each day brings new vistas and new encounters. Ming’s disability affords him an intense focus on the physical world, free from the distractions of noise and pointless human chatter, and he seems to peer deeply and respectfully into the soul of each person he meets. In many ways, the film is like a clean-and-green version of Easy Rider, and a Zen inspired twist on the classic road film.

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Playtime (1967)***

Playtime is a great 90 minute film that unfortunately runs over 2 hours. The film starts as a brilliantly graphic meditation on the anonymity of modern life, then soon becomes repetitive and ultimately mind-numbing, and neither Tati's beguiling silliness nor the very funny nightclub scene can make up for some badly needed editing. In fact, there are many wonderful moments here but way too much filler has to be sifted through to get to them. Jacques Tati's most ambitious film proves that it really is possible to get too much of a good thing.

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Hilary Hahn: A Portrait (2006)*****

Before she is through, Hilary Hahn may well render all other classical fiddlers mere footnotes to history. This TV doc follows young Hahn as she revisits some of her early training grounds and prepares for a world concert tour. The performance segments are surprisingly brief, but they are sufficient to astonish us with her flawless technique and stunning tonal clarity. Yet through it all, Hahn remains humble, grounded and unassuming. This disc successfully captures the all-American girl behind the music.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Men (2010)*****

Both men are very talented at what they do. Both are wildly successful and have worked very hard to be that way.
They have each been away from work quite a bit lately...

One has been missing because he is a serial adulterer; cheating on his wife with over a dozen women. When this was discovered, he was too embarrassed to show his face in public.

The other has been absent because he was busy supporting the two women in his life -his wife and his mother- in their efforts to overcome a deadly disease. Work just didn’t seem so important to him.

On a beautiful Sunday in April 2010, the two men proved there was still some cosmic justice left in the universe.

Movies are wonderful. But sometimes real life is even better.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Ghost Writer (2010)*****

With The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski manages to forget about his legal issues long enough to piece together a first rate, Hitchcock-style thriller. Ewan McGregor is quite believable as a professional ghost writer who is dispatched from London to Cape Cod to mold the rambling memories of a retired British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan, as a thinly disguised Tony Blair) into something readable and marketable.

As it turns out, McGregor is not the first scribe to attempt this feat; in fact his predecessor has recently washed up dead on the Massachusetts coast. McGregor is soon immersed in the former P.M.’s strange world of isolation and privilege, but just as he and Brosnan are getting down to business, the news breaks that the Hague is seeking an indictment against Brosnan for aiding the Bush Administration (again, thinly disguised) in rendering suspected terrorists for a date with water-boarding.

McGregor, suspicious that he has entered into a Faustian bargain, traces the trail of his predecessor to the country home of a right-wing political science professor named Emmitt (a typically great performance by Tom Wilkinson), and from there all manner of connections are deduced by McGregor that make him realize he has stumbled upon a dark, and exceptionally powerful, conspiracy.
Polanski and cameraman Pawel Edelman create an effective and hypnotic environment of heavy gray skies and foreboding atmospherics, yet the film is amazingly free of violent set pieces.

The acting performances are generally quite strong; the only exception being Kim Cattrall’s turn as Brosnan’s highly personal assistant – her accent slips and slides like a horse on a frozen pond – but the riveting naturalism of Wilkinson and Olivia Williams as Brosnan’s wife more than make up for it. Yes, despite being in only a few scenes, Tom Wilkinson has managed to steal yet another star-laden film; I really don’t know how he does it.

The pacing is close to perfection; the film neither drags in exposition nor races to a frantic conclusion like many political thrillers. You will find yourself gradually seduced by the story from the opening scenes. The plot builds organically and logically, like the forming of a crystal and, before you know it, you are totally engaged.

While this film is not in the same league with his masterpiece Chinatown, Polanski comes very close to recapturing that film’s subtle eeriness and baffling sense of mysterious peril. And McGregor is never portrayed as a seeker of action and adventure, but rather a quite ordinary man who must suddenly and unexpectedly use his wits to survive. And we are right there with him, guessing all the way to the final shot.

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