Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contempt (1963)****

In Contempt, Jean Luc Godard issues a scorched earth assessment of the movie industry and, not surprisingly, finds that hypocrisy and hackery abound. It was a bit of art imitating life, for Contempt was Godard’s first high budget film with big name international stars. So while this young lion of the nouvelle vague was decrying the nexus of money and art, he was busy making a few compromises of his own.

Not that the film suffers for it. Contempt is likely Godard’s most accessible and entertaining work. The story - and there is a story – is simple, clear and, mon dieu, linear in presentation. The casting is eccentric, to say the least, but the collection of well known names and faces is interesting and fun to watch. The ubiquitous Michel Piccoli anchors the film as a free-lance writer named Paul Javal, who has been brought onto the set of a troubled production of The Odyssey by a tactless and tasteless American producer (Jack Palance). The film’s director, Fritz Lang (yes that Fritz Lang…portraying himself) has been delivering footage that, in Palance’s mind, doesn’t have nearly enough sex and violence. Palance hopes that Piccoli will rewrite a few scenes of Homer’s classic and make the epic tale a bit more popcorn-friendly.

Traveling with Paul is his new wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), a woman of such intense sensuality she seems to literally float through the air. Palance eyes her like a hungry wolf, and begins to see an association with the Javals as a way of fulfilling all of his needs at once.

Godard is quite frank in his allusions to the supreme and overriding power of money in his characters’ motivations. Palance is deathly afraid is losing it, and launches into Lang with a vicious tantrum peppered with film cans tossed into the air. Surprisingly, Lang just sits there and takes it with an air of bemusement. The rich successes of films like Metropolis and M were many years ago, and the legendary but aging director needs this job. Piccoli, initially appalled by Palance’s ideas, begins to see this assignment as a way of paying off his flat, and setting his marriage to Bardot on solid financial footing.

Ironically, it’s the artists in this film who seem to get the least joy out of life. Lang sullenly goes about fulfilling his contract with all the enthusiasm of a man waiting for a bus. Piccoli attempts to grin and bear his unsavory task, but finds his wife most unappreciative of his artistic sacrifice. Palance, on the other hand, barrels through life fueled by his desire for money and Bardot. Speaking of Bardot, Godard manages to get her naked as often as reasonably possible, although according to the director it was not nearly enough to satisfy his Italian producers.

But ultimately this is a Godard film. And to drive home the point, the middle section of the film is comprised of a lengthy sequence filmed in the Javals' fashionable Roman apartment, where Piccoli and Bardot spend an afternoon expounding on philosophical abstractions. The look and feel of this extended set piece is classic Godard and seems almost like a film within a film. Godard even goes so far as to have Bardot don a short haired brunette wig, which makes her eerily resemble Anna Karina, Godard’s muse and favorite leading lady of this period.

The blu-ray disc has a number of interesting bonus features, including the director’s reactions to screening the film 45 years later. Plus, there’s a conversation between Godard and Lang filmed in the 1960s where Godard sheepishy admits that he doesn’t know how to film action scenes in the Hollywood style; using stuntmen, wrecked cars and so forth.

Contempt is considered Godard’s version of 8 ½ or Day for Night, i.e. a great director’s internal and slightly indulgent musings on the true nature of his craft. But Godard’s scope is wider, and forcefully makes a point about how western culture has managed to transform virtually everything into a commodity; whether it’s art, ancient history or Brigitte Bardot’s shapely tuchas.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Knute Rockne All American (1940)****

Knute Rockne All American is a fine example of Hollywood’s unique ability to transform the famous into the legendary through the forceful application of kitsch. Pat O’Brien stars as the innovative coach who molded Notre Dame into a gridiron powerhouse and, as a result, made the game of American football a distinct endeavor, and not just a slightly more controlled version of Rugby.

We follow the life of Rockne from his childhood days as the son of earnest Norwegian immigrants growing up on the tough streets of Chicago at the turn of the century, to the years he spent as a postal worker to save money to pay for his college tuition. This bootstrap backstory is dispensed in a pleasingly rapid manner, with just the broadest of brushstrokes. Not surprising since director Lloyd Bacon built a career by streamlining bulky, complex stories into easily digested chunks through a muscular style of highlight reel impressionism; a style that was perfect for the wants and needs of Depression era audiences.

Once matriculated at Our Lady, the whip-smart Rockne soon becomes the darling of the chemistry department, where he is offered a fellowship. But the Rock’s true love is the pigskin, and his ability to teach the finer points of the game to the school’s young recruits has earned him a competing offer to coach football.

The film’s most notable supporting actor, Ronald Reagan, soon makes his appearance as George Gipp, an athlete whose immense talent is only matched by his extreme arrogance. Rockne adapts his system to feature Gipp’s extraordinary abilities, and soon Notre Dame is on its way to national recognition. But the Gipper’s heroics would be short-lived, as a strep throat would claim his young life and, as a result, supply plenty of inspirational fodder for his coach’s halftime speeches.

Reagan’s performance as Gipp is really quite remarkable. When first introduced, Gipp has an icy cockiness that runs completely counter to his physical persona. Indeed, Reagan draws attention to himself by being the only actor here who is essentially underplaying. His soft-spoken but extremely confident characterization is a welcome break from the breathless whirlwind created by Bacon’s storytelling and O’Brien’s chain-saw line readings.

Pat O’Brien was typical of the tough, no-nonsense leading men preferred by Hollywood until the 1950s. Along with his good friends Spencer Tracy and James Cagney, O’Brien was part of a Midwestern-bred triumvirate of talents who acted chiefly with their voices. Lines of dialogue were not bits of poetry to be subtly caressed, but vital information to be tersely and clearly delivered. O’Brien attacks the playing of his character the way Rockne attacked opposing defenses, with a slashing, speedy – but impeccably enunciated - vocal staccato. This school of acting was the antithesis of the Method; characters were not hidden in the deep, murky folds of the text, but were born straight up and fully developed by the bottom of page one.

Oddly, O’Brien’s style fails to fully capitalize on one of the film’s iconic moments, the famous “Gipper” speech that sparked Notre Dame’s miraculous comeback against a superior Army team in 1928. Rather than inspiring, O’Brien tones down his sharp barking and seems strangely disconnected, as if he’s reciting a grocery list or giving directions to a lost motorist. O’Brien’s scene has become a bit of historic cinema but, as is often the case in the movies, its legend is superior to the actual event. Leslie Nielsen’s famous parody of the speech from the movie Airplane is actually much more effective at creating a feeling of rah-rah-rah.

The film glosses over Rockne’s real-life blunders and shameless publicity seeking - he once abandoned his team on game day to attend an awards ceremony in New York – but such foibles are not the stuff of legend. Like the best classic cinema, Knute Rockne All American gives us a glimpse into not only the characters and events it depicts, but also the zeitgeist under which it was made. In 1940, America was starting to emerge from economic upheaval but the nation was still young with much to prove and, like Notre Dame Football, yearned for recognition on a larger stage. And America, like Rockne, was trying to build a winning program from scratch. We needed all the George Gipps we could get.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving - And Some Festive Invective

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am so happy with the programming on TV5 and Eurochannel, I'm considering completely dropping these arseholes.

They have driven their only competition to bankruptcy (with some help from that competitor's incompetence) and have decided to raise their prices in the middle of the worst economic catastrophe since the depression.

And don't tell me all about your fabulous streaming. I live in a rural area with an aircard as the only viable broadband option, so increased streaming doesn't mean a flying fig to me.  Future reviews from this site will no longer feature links to this company.

On a more festive note, when I count my blessings today, all you wonderful readers will be high on the list. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Monday, November 22, 2010

News and Notes

  • Posting will be very light this week due to the impending doom upcoming holiday.

  • Some of my favorite directors and actors are getting back to work. The film These Two will reunite Haneke and Huppert (yea!!), while the new Resnais will feature much of the same cast as Wild Grass with the addition of the wonderful Jean Pierre Bacri (yea!!)

  • My DVR is crammed with stuff from TV5 Monde these days...including Serge Moati 's excellent talk show Cinemas, which I actually watched yesterday instead of football. My Man Card may be revoked. TV5 and Eurochannel are available from Dish Network. Highly recommended and totally worth it.I dropped Starz and Showtime to make room in the budget and haven't missed them a bit.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Serial Saturday Part Two: The Phantom Empire (1935)*****

Like singing cowboys? Like science fiction? Well, you get both in The Phantom Empire, an absolutely insane Mascot serial from 1935. According to legend, this serial was conceived by writer Wallace McDonald while he was under the influence of laughing gas - I suggest it was a stronger controlled substance – at his dentist’s office and McDonald’s script certainly bears all the earmarks of a vivid hallucination.

Gene Autry stars as the owner of a barren, heavily mortgaged dustbowl of a ranch who makes ends meet by conducting a live radio broadcast from his ramshackle front porch every afternoon at 3 o’clock. Surrounded by his coterie of ranch hands and cowpunchers - who also happen to be superb musicians - Autry belts out country/western favorites to an unseen, but enormous, audience. The script makes it quite clear that if Gene should miss one of these broadcasts the ranch would immediately go into receivership. And you thought today’s mortgage companies were tough.

Also residing at the ranch are two pubescent foster kids: perennial serial actor Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross. In real life, Ross was a rodeo champion trick rider but, inexplicably, is not given much to do in this serial. The kids spend their days dressing up in bedsheets and wash bucket helmets pretending to be Arthurian knights. Other local youngans get in on the act, and soon Frankie and Betsy are leading a large horse mounted contingent around the vast estate, with shouts of “TO THE RESCUE!!!!” in their pursuit of imaginary villains.

But those villains become all too real when a group of scientists and investors arrive at the ranch. This odious crew is led by Professor Beetson (J Frank Glendon), a greedy nogoodnick with an insatiable lust for radium, and his tests indicate that underneath Autry’s ranch is a mother lode of the stuff. So Beetson and company plot a number of predicaments designed to prevent Autry from broadcasting; thus getting their hands on the ranch, and all that lucrative - and as we now know deadly - radium.

However, there is another boot to drop, or rise in this case. Deep beneath the surface of the ranch, unknown to either Autry or Beetson, lays the secret kingdom of Murania, a technologically advanced society, complete with skyscrapers, robots, flying cars and nifty Flash Gordon inspired haute couture. Murania looks sort of like Metropolis, if the builders of Metropolis had run out of money about halfway through, but for a 1935 cheese ball Mascot serial, it’s still pretty impressive.

Murania’s citizens have access to a number of cool gizmos, including a device that detects when someone on the surface is testing for radium. The Muranians have lots of radium and need every bit if they’re to keep their flying Studebakers and lumbering robots up to speed. The underground society is ruled by Queen Tika (Dorothy Christy), who is either the embodiment of pure evil or just really bitchy, could go either way. She orders a group of her henchmen to the surface in a sort of preemptive strike to stop the would-be radium rustlers. Meanwhile, the Queen has some home-grown problems, specifically rumors of an armed insurrection being planned against her by a rogue band of Muranian scientists.

Whew…now you see why this serial took 12 chapters, and I’ve only described the first couple of installments. Things eventually settle down to a lot of horseback chases, foiled plots and an appalling amount of kidnapping. In every episode, Autry is either kidnapped or rescues someone who has been kidnapped. In fact, virtually everyone in this serial gets abducted and rescued at least once, including a fair share of the robots. The radio show gimmick plays nicely into the overall sense of nuttiness, as Autry often has to stop what he’s doing - no matter how important or fraught with peril - and dash back to the ranch to croon for his adoring public.

Frankie Darro’s horseback club is wrongly blamed for many of the early misdeeds, as the Muranian agents wear similar bucket helmets and dart about the ranch on galloping steeds as well. Darro sets out to clear his beloved group’s reputation with the same endearing gee-whiz enthusiasm that made him a fixture in Mascot productions.

Darro would go on to have a widely diverse acting career and become something of a pop culture icon. He played the crooked jockey who tries to outwit Harpo Marx (good luck with that) in A Day at the Races, was a regular on The Red Skelton Show, and appeared in several episodes of the Batman TV series in the 1960s. But his most enduring role was as the actor stuffed inside Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Off screen, Darro served in the Navy during WWII and later owned a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard, but his penchant for drinking up the profits eventually ruined his acting career.

There are many versions and editions Phantom Empire out there, including a 70 minute distillation that was often shown on the old Night Flight TV show back in the 80s. The film is in the public domain, so occasionally discs will show up at discount stores for just a couple bucks. These discs are usually straight runs off the telecine from very bad prints, with no tweaking or optimization. Typically, the image is quite blurry and the optical soundtrack so noisy it’s almost unwatchable. The rental version available from Netflix is far from ideal, with Chapter One sporting a constant background noise that sounds like someone loudly chewing granola.

There are two restored versions available only for purchase, but at very reasonable prices. One is from The Serial Squadron, and the video excerpt on their website appears to be a significant improvement over the Netflix version. The other is from VCI, and it received a favorable write-up in the New York Times.

75 years after its release, The Phantom Empire remains a triumph of high concept over low execution. The diverse elements that comprise this bizarre tale mix about as well as oil and water, but the overall effect is a fascinating genre mash-up that unfailingly entertains.

In our next exciting episode, we’ll take a look at another serial staple: those mysterious and heroic Masked Men. You won’t want to miss it!

Serial Squadron Website

VCI Website

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Entre Nos (2009)****

Entre Nos is a very simple and straightforward film that doesn’t deliver its big payoff until the end credits, but is it ever worth the investment. Columbian actress Paolo Mendoza stars – in a performance that would gain her Oscar consideration if she were the daughter of someone famous – as a young mother named Mariana who has recently immigrated to Queens with her two young children (Sebastaina Villada and Laura Montana). They have come to America to be with her husband Antonio (Andres Munar), a day laborer who seems to be happier when his family is not around.

True to form, Antonio soon bolts to Miami for a vague offer of temporary employment, promising to return in a few weeks. But as his phone calls and envelopes of cash dry up, it becomes clear to Mariana that she and her children have been abandoned – in a strange country with no friends and no knowledge of English; their only resources the clothes on their backs.

Co-written and co-directed by Mendoza and Gloria La Morte, Entre Nos is based on La Morte’s true experiences growing up in a family of Latino immigrants. As Mariana and her children struggle for the very basics of survival, the film presents many stark and heartbreaking moments. While the family grapples with homelessness, starvation and destitution, they display an admirable resiliency and determination to survive. The film is particularly effective at getting us into the mind Mariana, and the enormous burden she faces in providing for her children and appearing strong despite all the setbacks and obstacles they endure.

Shot on digital video, Entre Nos tells its story with clarity and unadorned immediacy. The narrative moves at a nearly perfect pace; pausing long enough for us to fully grip the family’s plight, but never letting us forget the constant pressures bearing down on them, and the sheer hustle that will be required to survive. Mariana is fortunate enough to meet some kind souls in her hours of darkest need and we are reminded of the fragile thread of humanity and civility that has stitched this nation together. We are also reminded of how unfortunate it is that so many of our nation’s leaders seek to tear those seams apart to suit their narrow self-interests.

Mendoza and La Morte are careful to save their story’s big catharsis until the final moments and wisely focus on small, telling details for the bulk of film. And while Mariana and her family did not explicitly come here to experience the American Dream, that pursuit has been thrust upon them by the nature of American society. The film ultimately celebrates the traditional values of family, hard work and education in a way that young American filmmakers have long considered uncool. It’s ironic that it takes a film about struggling Latino immigrants to show us the best aspects of life in these United States.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More Film Lunch Boxes...

I started making these as a way to teach myself Photoshop, and I'm learning alot about matting and textures. I've gotten a few requests from friends, so here's a few more. If you have a favorite film you'd like to see immortalised in embossed tin, leave a comment. I'll probably get to it...

for MG

for CC

for MB

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mid-August Lunch (2008)****

Mid-August Lunch is as light and delectable as the title implies. This charming Italian comedy stars Gianni de Gregorio (who also wrote and directed) as an unambitious 60-ish bachelor who lives at home where he cooks and cares for his aging and slightly demented mother (Valeria de Franciscis). The pair quietly subsists on Mom’s pension check, much of which Gianni spends at the local wine shop.

As a result, Gianni has gotten behind on the family’s obligations and years of unpaid condo fees and doctor’s bills are starting to mount up. But with the Italian holiday of Ferragosto approaching, Gianni is offered a way out of his difficulties. His creditors, with elderly mothers of their own, are desperate to head to the beach for the holiday and are willing to forgive Gianni’s debts in exchange for a little caregiving.

Soon Gianni’s compact Roman flat begins to resemble a retirement home, as a steady stream of ancient matrons are dropped at his door and makeshift beds and cots are hastily fashioned in every corner. Gianni finds his new charges to be anything but the sweet little old ladies he was promised, but rather stubbornly independent matriarchs determined to undermine any measure of authority placed over them, even his own. His attempts to keep them on proper diets and medication schedules go hilariously awry and before long, the sedate retirement home looks and sounds more like an unruly kindergarten, with the women engaging in loud spats, secret eating binges and forbidden trips to sidewalk cafes.

Those who care for elderly relatives will be chuckling in recognition virtually from the first frame, as de Gregorio has done an amazing job of capturing the cat and mouse game that goes on in such situations. His use of nonprofessional actors – actual pensioners from his neighborhood – gives the production an astonishing sense of authenticity and makes the film’s gentle humor much deeper and richer. Gianni’s face, a blunt hybrid of Jerry Orbach and Jack Klugman, is the real star of the movie, and it perfectly registers every dashed hope and comic misstep, as dealing with these women physically and emotionally exhausts him.

Ironically, the ravages of age often cause our respected, revered elders to revert to childish behavior; at times becoming indistinguishable from two-year-olds. Mid-August Lunch is one of the first films to deal with this phenomenon in a comic, but realistic way. And let’s hope it’s not the last, for it provides a much needed catharsis for what sociologists have dubbed “The Sandwich Generation”.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Serial Saturday Part 1: The Lightning Warrior (1931)***

It’s hard to believe, but even I am not old enough to remember serials playing at the local movie theatre. So I won’t bore you with warm and fuzzy stories of Saturday afternoons at the Bijou and how for one thin dime you got an afternoon of exciting entertainment. But I do want to share with you some of the serials I’ve seen on DVD over the years, in hopes that you’ll include a few of these unpolished gems in your own viewing.

Serials go back to the earliest days of commercial film projection. The first silent features were only about 20 minutes long - two-reelers, they were called – and a variety of short films were added to the program for sheer bulk. But even as films got longer and more ambitious, the habit of short subjects continued because audiences had grown to expect them. The action-adventure serial was an important part of that mix, nestled in between the newsreel and countless travelogues with titles like “Manitoba: Land of Contrasts.” Serials also had an important marketing function: each episode ended with a cliffhanger designed to bring patrons back to the seats next week to see how the hero escaped his impossible pickle.

The Lightning Warrior was an early sound serial produced by Mascot – the only serial production company not wiped out by the Depression – and starred the iconic German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin. It’s sketchy if this production features the actual shell shocked canine found by American servicemen wandering the French countryside during WWI, but indications are favorable. For one, this beast does not have the classic Shepherd markings and profile found on later Rinty incarnations. The real Rin Tin Tin’s first screen appearance was a portrayal of a wolf (The Man From Hell's River 1922) and this critter could certainly pass as a Canis Lycaon.

The plot of The Lightning Warrior involves a western mining town in fear of imminent slaughter by a band of marauding Indians. The local tribe has been peaceful for twenty years, but they have recently come under the influence of a mysterious cloaked figure known as The Wolfman, who has been exhorting them to commit random acts of violence. The Wolfman himself has wacked a few people along the way, including the father of a kid named Jimmy (Frankie Darro – more on him in future articles) and the brother of a federal marshall named Alan Scott (dreamy George Brent).

Scott’s deceased brother was the owner of Rin Tin Tin, who now roams the rocky cliffs in search of his master’s killer. Jimmy, Scott and Rinty form an unlikely partnership to bring the Wolfman to justice and save the village from a collective scalping. Along the way there will be fistfights, gunplay, and narrow escapes aplenty.

I don’t have sufficient grounding in the genre to say if The Lightning Warrior is any better or worse than the average serial. It’s generally engaging and fun to watch, if you can overlook the quality of the print, which is dreadful. The soundtrack is noisy and scratchy, and no amount of fiddling with your equipment settings will totally rectify it. The filmmaking has the sloppiness traditionally associated with cheap shows, with some scenes just plain overexposed (no re-shoots allowed), and supporting actors recycled as several characters over the course of the production with no explanation or justification offered.

The Lightning Warrior also suffers from the “flabby midsection” often found in serials, i.e. the middle chapters are largely devoted to chasing red herrings down blind alleys - if I may mix my metaphors -  and do little to actually advance the narrative. Many of the cliffhangers are a cheat as well. When we see the recap of the hero’s peril from the previous week, a shot will be inserted of Rinty or Jimmy standing nearby ready to affect a rescue. Of course, this shot was conveniently omitted in the earlier chapter to build suspense.

With so many wonderful TV series out there, it’s difficult to build a case that modern audiences seeking episodic stories should spend their time immersed in this creaky example from the Paleolithic Age of cinema. It’s not quite bad enough to be funny, although the Italian American day players who attempt to act (and talk) like Indians are unintentionally amusing. But entertainment value is only a secondary reason for curling up with a serial. The point is to experience an ancient and extinct narrative format and revel in vintage American cinematic oddities. And speaking of oddities, don’t miss the next exciting installment when we'll examine the oddest serial of all…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Egg and I (1947)***

The Egg and I is an amusing and cheerful bit of Americana, filled with old fashioned grit and pluck and sexism. That’s a cheap shot of course. It’s unfair to expect enlightened thought from any American comedy of this period, particularly one that marked the screen debut of Ma and Pa Kettle.

Bob (Fred MacMurray) and Betty (Claudette Colbert) are cozily ensconced in the bridal suite at a fashionable NY hotel. This is their wedding night, and Bob thinks it’s a fine time to finally divulge the cunning life plan he’s developed to his new bride. Bob plans to chuck the rat race of corporate life, head out to the country and pursue a career in chicken ranching. To this end, he has recently purchased 40 godforsaken acres smack dab in the middle of nowhere, without his wife-to-be’s knowledge or consent. Colbert, a bit shell-shocked by the news, dutifully agrees, rather than do the sensible thing, which would be to grab one of new husband’s expensive neckties and strangle him.

The couple’s new agarian digs prove to be a comedy rich environment, complete with a primitive farmhouse and assorted outbuildings  infested with dry-rot and on the verge of toppling. When Bob and Betty arrive in a rusty pick-up truck so overburdened with cows, chickens and farm implements the very earth shudders beneath it, Colbert can only stare at the dusty tableau of their new lives in stunned disbelief. But, this being a 1940s comedy, despair is soon replaced by can-do spirit, and the film follows the pair as they set up housekeeping - and chicken keeping – in their hardscrabble Shangri-La.

The ne’er do well Kettle family (Marjorie Mains, Percy Kilbride and half the children in SAG) soon appear, and MacMurray and Colbert are no match for this band of unwashed, scene-stealing rustics. And here is The Egg and I’s true historical significance: the birth of a cinematic franchise. The Kettles would appear in nine more films over the next decade, and the outsized hillbilly clan would travel from the Ozarks to Paris to Waikiki before Universal finally decided it had milked the concept dry in 1957.

The enduring success of the Kettles sparked by this film had as much to do with sociology as it did with Majorie Main’s superb comedic timing. American life post WWII was transitioning from the wide open spaces of farm life to the tiny, manicured lots of tract homes. While few Americans missed the hardship of agriculture, many secretly wondered if the conformity of the suburbs and the drudgery of the assembly line were really improvements. Films like The Egg and I and the Kettle series gave Americans a chance to laugh at their humble beginnings, yet appreciate the virtues of a homespun, hard knocks style of wisdom. Those who felt nostalgia for large families and arising at 4am to milk the cows could be cured by the antics in these goofy, madcap pastorals. And after a dose of the forgotten pitfalls of rural America, modern life at the widget factory didn’t seem so bad.