Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Two Lane Blacktop (1971)***


Free love, juiced up muscle cars and a dash of nihilism lend spice to this youth-ploitation oddity from the early 70s. If you took Easy Rider and removed the politics, and American Grafitti and removed the humor and charm, then combined the two the results would look something like this.


Dennis Wilson and James Taylor (yes, THAT James Taylor) both exude a charming awkwardness as a pair of drag race hustling drifters, while Monte Hellman's understated, detached style works well for this material. The great Warren Oates, the lynchpin of this movie, displays great charity by not overshadowing Wilson and Taylor in their scenes together. Oates saves his flourishes for the scenes in his car with assorted hitchhikers, whom he batters with outlandish tall tales.


Few actors have ever been able to glide from glad-hand slickness to criminal pathology as easily as Oates, and sadly he left this world much too soon. Speaking of hitchhikers, check out a young and studly Harry Dean Stanton as one of Oates' passengers. Makes you realize what an amazing career he has had as well. For a film theoretically about racing, Two Lane Blacktop is surprisingly unexciting, but it does have a pleasing cerebral and cultural vibe.



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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Days of Heaven (1978)*****


Terrence Malik's mystical period romance is one of those movies one should just experience and not think about too much. Because, frankly, it's kind of dumb. Linda Manz, who plays the child narrator, is supposedly from Chicago but her accent is pure Newark. The man Richard Gere kills early in the film (Stuart Margolin) shows up later as an extra; laughing and having a swell time. I guess he got better. Also there's a snowstorm in the middle of summer.


But anyway, this is a beautiful film to look at. Even with the ick factor of all those freaking grasshoppers. The late, great cameraman Nestor Almendros is the real star of this movie, and Malik must be given great credit for simply getting out of the man's way.


This film inspired a generation of young would-be cinematographers to learn all about T-stops and focal lengths and lighting ratios. If you haven't seen the film, please do so right away. It's wonderful. It's unique. I'm giving it 5 stars. But it's still kind of dumb.




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Friday, June 25, 2010

Three Days of Rain (2002)***


There are a lot of American-made indie films, but few aspire to be labeled as true art house fare. Fewer still feature former NFL quarterbacks and Grammy-winning recording artists in important roles. Three Days of Rain qualifies on all these counts, and is a stark and gloomy appraisal of some quietly desperate lives in Cleveland, Ohio.


Presented as a series of interspersed vignettes, this ensemble piece features a surprisingly strong performance from Don Meredith (yes, that Don Meredith) as a lonely cab driver attempting to cope with profound grief. Peter Falk plays an aging widower who has retired from everything but drinking, and the film sentimentally explores how alcohol has affected his relationship with his long-suffering son (Bill Stockton). In other segments, we meet a young junkie (Merle Kennedy) who finds herself sexually blackmailed by the same judge who took away her baby; a custom tile maker (Michael Santoro) as he learns a painful lesson about society’s capricious notions on the value of art; a successful businessman (Erick Avari) whose happy delusions are shattered by his wife’s lack of empathy toward the homeless, and a slow witted laborer (Joey Bilow) and the sleazy conspiracy aligned against him.


Director Michael Meredith (son of Don) sets out to craft these poignant tales against a background of unrelenting moodiness, and has cleverly stacked the deck in his favor. By using an ongoing radio broadcast of a jazz festival as an audible piece of scenery, Meredith creates a believable motivation for imbuing his quiet, understated scenes with slow, bluesy riffs.


A lake effect rain event further enhances the film’s sense of alienation; these characters must confront not only their inner-demons, but the ravages of nature itself. Three Days is a contemplative film, and the cerebral rhythms of cool jazz along with the shimmering sound of driving rain effectively fill the voids created by the script’s minimal dialogue, and gives the audience time and space as each of these stories methodically build.


Three Days of Rain is sort of a downbeat, scaled down version of Altman’s Shortcuts, substituting Chekov for Raymond Carver. And like Shortcuts, this film is much more interested in evoking the spirit of the source material than any sort of literal adaptation.


There are some surprising cameo appearances by big name stars, and Meredith courageously mixes these performances with some of the less experienced actors to create a sense of possibility and experimentation. This is not a great film by any means - the vignettes become repetitive and the entire piece goes on a bit too long –but like a jazz soloist, Meredith’s actors extrapolate and interpret their way to some interesting and affecting moments.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Reruns: Pajama Party (1963)****


American International's bikini baroques were primarily vehicles for showing scantily clad teenagers on humongous drive-in screens, and they were tremendously popular with the raging hormone set. It's a good thing there was ample titillation, for the films themselves were strictly from hunger.


However, since the stories were of no importance, the writers had a great deal of fun with them and turned out some of the most bizarre plots in cinema history. This movie is no exception as it involves a gang of inept con men (lead by the great Jessie White) who plot to swipe the fortune of a rich widow (Elsa Lanchester) whose nephew, for some unexplained reason, is being pursued by an equally inept group of motorcycle thugs.


Meanwhile, iconic Annette Funicello falls for a young Martian emissary (seriously weird Tommy Kirk) who has materialized on Earth to act as a sort of advance scout for an imminent invasion. The Martians are led by Don Rickles, who hurls his patented insults like its the midnight show at the Tropicana.


Legendary Buster Keaton has a beefy part as an Indian who frequently shouts "Cowabunga!" for no apparent reason, offering further proof that some great actors should stay retired. There are some highly forgettable songs as well; a few of them sung rather flatly by Miss Funicello and, believe me, that was the only thing flat about Annette in those days.



Pajama Party proves that the early 1960s were not so much a time of cimematic innocence, but rather of a-nod-and-a-wink social contract between producers and their audiences. As a result, these freakish films offer a dizzying blend of stupidity and exploitation, but sometimes that's just what you want in a movie.



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This article first appeared in a slightly different form on December 19, 2008

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)****


Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie is a simply told and clearly presented story that features none of the pickly irritations often associated with the director’s work. Young Nana (Anna Karina), a lackadaisical clerk in a record store, has a sudden and crushing need for 2000 francs, and begins to consider the oldest profession as a means of quickly settling her debts. A would-be model and actress, Nana’s day-to-day life in the seedy, bohemian Paris of the 1960s consists of liasions with a number of young men who feel they are entitled to intimacy for the price of a movie ticket or a cup of coffee, and Nana soon sees a moral equivalence to life on the streets. The chief difference being that the professional girls are better paid.


Godard uses prostitution as an obvious symbol for capitalism as a whole, and manages to administer a few thinly disguised doses of Marxist theory, albeit in a much more restrained and palatable manner than the blatant soapboxing found in his later works. The nexus of religion and government, particularly as practiced in the west, has always been one of the director’s favorite targets – he would have had a field day in America – and here, Nana’s eventual pimp chastises her for her “Catholic” answers to philosophical questions, while a nearby police raid is dismissed as “politics”.


As Nana begins to build her clientele, she is given an orientation lecture in the dos and don’ts of streetwalking that sounds like a primer on free enterprise from Harvard Business School. The job of the prostitute is “to make as much money as she can” and it’s her moral duty to “accept anyone who can pay”. She is told that through rapid turnover she can “turn up to 60 tricks a night”; a production quota that will require around-the-clock labor.


The formerly blasé Nana seems oddly invigorated by her new employment, and we are amused by her heavy-handed attempts to be alluring. Subtle advertising is not Nana’a forte, and she flutters and sashays to virtually every man she meets. Karina’s jazzy dance in a pool hall is one of the film’s highlights. Equal parts suggestive and pathetic, the dance fails to impress the small group of pimps and thugs in attendance, and is symbolic of Godard’s attitudes on the plight of labor versus those who control the means of production.


Godard’s ability to create interesting images from commonplace elements is unquestionably his strong suit. Even if you don’t buy into everything the director is selling, Vivre Sa Vie remains a beautiful film to watch. The B/W French films of this period all have a unique contrasty, yet diffuse look to them; as if we are seeing the unspooling of a distant memory or dream. Whether it was the water at the Éclair film lab or the wintry gray light of Paris, the subtle murky textures of these early 1960s films have never been duplicated. The Criterion Blu-ray edition is absolutely first rate, capturing Godard’s vision in delicate detail. There are a number of interesting special features on the disc, including a French TV documentary on Parisian hookers from 1959 that contains plenty of unintentional humor.


Sometimes after a Godard film you just want to slap him. And while Viver Sa Vive loses a bit of steam on the way to its nihilistic conclusion, here, unlike many of his later films, Godard manages to make his points in an appealing way that causes you to consider his arguments rather than summarily dismiss them.


It’s an approach that would have served the director well had he followed it throughout his long and productive career. But then Godard – who at age 80 is still plugging away at the free enterprise of filmmaking - wouldn’t have been Godard.


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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The World According to Bunchie...

-Americans don’t care about World Cup soccer because we already have Baseball and no one has the attention span for two boring sports.


-I pay over $100 dollars a month for all the satellite television channels and the best thing on is usually a rerun of The Office from 2007.


-The CEO of BP says he is “personally devastated” by the oil spill. Such a shame, he was making great progress in therapy and starting to really feel good about himself.


-Most of the people on the motorized carts in the grocery store are simply too fat to walk.

-I would drive a tiny, fuel efficient vehicle if I could be assured that a cell phone yakking moron in a giant pick-up truck wouldn’t run me over.


-You wouldn’t think waffles and fried chicken would be good together, but it is a heavenly combination.


-All restaurants in Phoenix have basically the same menu, and no matter what sort of grilled, marinated hoo-hah you put on a chicken sandwich, it’s still boring.


-The best episodes of Father Ted were the funniest TV shows ever.


-110 degrees in Arizona feels cooler than 90 degrees in South Carolina.


-If a talkative man with huge shoulders gets on a plane, he will make a beeline for the seat next to me. You can bet the ranch on it.



-John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is the best jazz album ever made.


-I have a relative who wants to stop taking her anti-depression meds because she “feels better and doesn’t need them anymore”


-Canada would be the perfect place to live if it weren’t so damn cold.


-I have come to the conclusion that most of the people who visit my blog are looking for pictures of movie stars in their underwear. It’s a sobering thought.


-If the Democrats and the Republicans would simply have a few Martinis together at the end of day, most of this nation’s problems would be solved.


-If we got rid of talk radio and cable news the rest would be solved.


-Here it is mid-June and it looks like another year without any honorary degrees. Shame, I’ve got a doozy of a speech in the hopper.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Intimacy (2001)***


Intimacy is one of those films about a couple who regularly have sex without knowing anything about each other and, as such pictures go, it's not too bad. Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance star as the couple in question and they eagerly grapple and roll about until one day Rylance decides he wants more from his anonymous partner.


A number of effective scenes follow, including one involving Rylance's ex-wife that is both unsettling and heartbreaking. The film has some noteworthy weaknesses. For one, the characters seem to get less interesting the more we learn about them. Another is director Chereau's idea of gritty realism - basically messy apartments and loudly mixed background noise - is quite overstated and gets a bit tiresome before the film is finally done.


Still, this is a worthwhile watch for those interested in explorations of the mysterious link between sexuality and psychology. Please be advised that this is a sexually graphic film and by the end both Ms. Fox and Mr. Rylance are bereft of anatomical mystery. In fact, I can no longer look at Kerry Fox without blushing.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brigitte and Brigitte (1966)***


In Brigitte and Brigitte, two college girls from the hinterlands meet up in Paris and discover they have similar names, go-go boots and kicky hairdos. They also share a morbid fear of being labeled hicks, so they are easy prey for every pseudo-sophisticated poseur on the left bank.


That's about all there is here in terms of narrative, as this film consists mainly of loosely structured, rather pointless scenes. Some are blatantly symbolic and others are just kind of silly. But the film should please fans of the French New Wave, and its charming B/W photography features a number of interesting shots of Parisian landmarks and street life.


On the downside, there's some rather shocking and gratuitous racist opinions offered by one of the girls' would-be boyfriends that really add nothing to the development of the characters. On the whole however, this is an entertaining and watchable comedic film, if your mind is open to this uniquely French style of absurdist realism. And it reinforced my belief that to have been a young adult in Paris in the 1960s was about as good as it gets.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kubrick's "Lolita" (1962)****


The poster asks “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer: very carefully. Stanley Kubrick treads very lightly into the potential ickyness of Nabokov’s novel, and achieved something of a miracle. By immersing Humbert and his young mistress in a darkly goofball world that seems to be teetering on mass insanity, the director made their pedophilic relationship seem wholesome by comparison.


As Humbert, cool, cultured James Mason comes across as a beleaguered, indeed sympathetic soul; a timid academic caught in a trap of weaknesses and appetites he cannot control. Sue Lyon, as Lolita, was an inspired casting choice for Kubrick’s societal-scale vision of the material. She has one of those faces of indeterminate age; in some scenes she appears 14 (which she was) and in others she could pass for 35.


Shelly Winters, as Lolita’s mom, captures a whiff of the repressed despair that plagued so many American women in those years of pressured conformity between WWII and the sexual revolution. Winters always had a remarkable ability to portray the mentally unbalanced girl-next-door and while this character was often played for laughs later in her career, here we marvel at her dangerous edges; honed razor-sharp from years of work in dark theatricals. Yes, Peter Sellers is also in this movie - delivering an eccentric portrayal of an eccentric character - and his work here gives us an appreciation of what a gifted, yet greedy character actor he was before he made it big. Kubrick and Sellers would go on to create Dr. Strangelove two years later, but it’s clear in Lolita that the two men were kindred spirits…both were freakishly brilliant at what they did and were quite pleased with themselves.


As a film, Lolita is very much a product of its era - the early 60’s were a time of cinematic experimentation, largely led by the French - and while Kubrick’s storytelling approach at first glance seems conventional, closer analysis reveals wacky pleasures aplenty. Every scene has a subtle dizziness about it, a nuanced sense that the world is not spinning in its proper, predestined grooves. The film has been described as Hitchcock-esque, and that is true, but there are echoes of John Ford as well, particularly Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. And while Humbert Humbert will never be confused for Tom Joad, the two men share a perverse embodiment of their era’s social nadirs.


The film also marks the waning days of B/W cinematography, a format that would be virtually extinct in a few years, but had some of its most stylish moments just prior to the death rattles. Kubrick and cameraman Oswald Morris go all Greg Toland on us with a number of deep focus shots (which technical advances had made much easier to accomplish in 1962 than in 1941), and the process driving scenes during the protagonists’ road trip are torn directly from the Hitchcock playbook. Kubrick has always been considered more of a trend setter than a synthesizer, but this film is nearly as heavy on stylistic homage as its thematic doppelganger: Mike Nichols’s The Graduate.


While those expecting a faithful adaptation of the novel have expressed disappointment in Kubrick’s relatively tame approach, it’s clear he elected to focus on the story’s sociological elements - the standards of the day simply would not allow any other method – and by doing so, Kubrick transformed Lolita into a larger tale; a story not so much about sex, but of an orderly society threatened by a restless citizenry.

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