Friday, December 30, 2011

How I Spent My 2011

Somehow, I put up 154 posts in the Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven...No wonder I'm exhausted.

I don't see enough movies in the theater to justify a Year's Best List, so here's the best films I saw for the first time in 2011, both new releases and on disc. The order is about right; click on the title to read more....

Theatrical Releases


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

12 Angry Men (1957) on Blu-ray from Criterion*****

Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Movies of 2011 - Part 2

Christina Hendricks is irrelevant to this post. But who cares....

More "Best of 2011" lists from all them big smart people...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Spectrum of the Soul: Three Colors on Blu-ray from Criterion (1994)*****

Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy, finally available in HD thanks to a superb Criterion boxed set, is a work that's as mesmerizing today as it was on its initial release 17 years ago. It's ironic that the collection has achieved the timelessness of a true classic, for Three Colors was intended to capture the specific zeitgeist of a unique moment in European history.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vodka Lemon (2003)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Oh my goodness, what an enthralling, delightful movie! I can’t think why I didn’t pick up on this quirky little sleeper before. VODKA LEMON is set in the most exotic and unfamiliar setting – a frigid Armenian village, after the Soviet Union has fallen apart – and is peopled with Armenian Kurds in desperate straits. The first big surprise here is the sophisticated and brilliantly stark cinematography, and the perfect pacing. Masterful direction by Hiner Saleem, and the actors, especially Romen Avinian, weave their magic effortlessly

There’s a lot of absolutely deadpan humor, too, often somewhat grim, shared with and embracing some extremely touching moments. And a subtle, hilarious moment, when sheep jostle each other to observe a young woman dressing. The score is terrific, notable for its restraint and variety, and it works just, well, what can I say? It works perfectly! 

What is this film about? It is about Hamo, a poor widower, whose son has emigrated from the snowy land to France. When this son fails to send any money back to his dad, after consulting with his dead wife, Hamo decides to sell the family wardrobe. What follows allows us a peek into the social mores and ethic of this foreign place. And, heartbreakingly, what follows is the sale of the television set. What is this film about? Surprise, surprise! It is a romantic drama, set in a landscape of ineffable snow, where love advances by baby steps in a glacial cemetery and on a country bus. Sexual politics are highlighted, in a small way. Every single action in this film is significant. My only complaint is that the songs were not translated in the subtitles. It is a wonderfully engaging film, highly recommended by Shu Zin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Best Films of 2011 (or so they say)

I'm supposed to make a list of the best films of the year. It's one of the many awesome responsibilities we film bloggers face, along with making sure our beloved readers don't waste two hours on cinematic mediocrities. Well, the local multiplex hasn't seen my shadow in awhile and I've got no clue what's going on out there. So here's some year-end lists compiled by other folks who should know what they're talking about...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Charming and Alarming: West Side Story on Blu-ray

Winner of ten Oscars, 1961’s West Side Story is an iconic and indispensable element of America’s cinematic heritage. Available in an eye-popping new 50th Anniversary blu-ray edition, the film remains a surpassingly well designed and executed example of the Great American Musical. Through a synthesis of styles, the film echoes the great cultural melting pot of urban America post WWII, and uses an array of rousing set pieces to hint at the era’s growing unrest and generational division. Under the feel-good, entertaining veneer of Steven Sondheim’s witty lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ acrobatic choreography is a genuine whiff of the sour xenophobia that plagues the nation to this day. That ugly undercurrent drives a tragic convergence, complete with somber and sobering effects that survive the film’s condescending reductions.

Roughly based on Romeo and Juliet with a book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story was originally produced on Broadway, where it enjoyed a successful, if not spectacular, run. Substituting for Montagues and Capulets are two rival NYC teenage street gangs: The Jets, comprised mainly of European immigrants, and The Sharks, whose membership hails from Puerto Rico. The film version reunited many of the creative principles, including stage director Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose operatic, omnipresent score provides the film’s narrative momentum. Robbins, a novice at filmmaking, turned to Hollywood veteran Robert Wise for technical support, and the two men were billed as co-directors.

This proved to be an effective partnership, as the film is no mere stage bound rehash. Robbins and Wise cleverly incorporate gritty Manhattan locations for a sprawling exposition that showcases Robbins’ thrilling choreography and Wise’s finely tuned cinematic blocking. Staging large group precision singing and dancing in actual funk-laden locales was innovative – and highly risky – in 1961, but the superb sequence stands as a monument to flawless planning and obsessive attention to detail. The mesmerizing energy of “The Jets Song” serves as a critical entry point into West Side Story’s surreal universe; a strange yet familiar land where crumbling tenements and rusty chain link fences reverberate with magical possibility.

The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), a street-wise punk whose dazzling dance moves are matched only by his caustic mouth. His turf is threatened by the emergence of The Sharks, relative newcomers whose suave leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) dresses as sharply as the steel of his switchblade knife. As tensions build between the two factions, Riff seeks the council of his predecessor Tony (Richard Beymer), a legendary street tough who has said goodbye to all that and, in an early example of movie product placement, now delivers Coca-Cola. Tony resists Riff’s efforts to lure him back into gang life, having found quiet legitimacy and steady paychecks to his liking. That night at a community center dance – watch for John Astin in a hilarious turn as an inept social worker – Tony spots a beautiful wallflower named Maria (Natalie Wood). Through a few Saul Bass designed opticals we see that the pair has been smitten with love at first sight. But Maria is the sister of Bernardo, sworn enemy of Tony and his friends, setting the table for West Side Story’s tragic path forward.

But along the way there’s plenty of fabulous production numbers, including the extraordinary “America”, featuring the great Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita. Riff and Anita counterbalance Tony and Maria respectively, providing the dark sexual energy the script forbids the romantic leads. Beymer and Wood must remain pure as the driven snow, while Moreno and Tamblyn have all the fun. Especially Moreno, who comes very close to stealing the film and her charisma energizes the proceedings whenever the pace briefly lags. She and Chikiris figure prominently in the film’s most interesting photographic moment, as Wise shoots their staircase love scene in silhouette; no doubt in homage to his mentor Orson Welles.

In many ways, Wood and Beymer are the film’s weakest links and their love scenes often feel contrived and empty headed. Their duet “Tonight” still manages to be a show stopper, thanks to the strength of the original Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration. The singing of both actors is dubbed, with Wood’s voice supplanted by operatic soprano Marni Nixon. In fairness, Beymer is largely successful at being hunkily sincere while Wood’s evocation of a Hispanic accent is strong, and her line reading sparkle with consistency and conviction.

Natalie Wood has always been something of a special case and a problematic assessment. Her penetrating, doe-eyed beauty was often more distracting than supportive, and her performances at times seemed shallow and unfocused. In general, her persona seemed better suited to the old studio system of glamorous actresses – indeed, she began her career as a contract player to Warner Brothers – than the independent, anarchic Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s. It was a square peg issue that would dog her career in later years. In her last film Brainstorm (1983), she seems like an anachronism, as out of place opposite Christopher Walken as Greer Garson. Still, Wood was the first talent to receive three Oscar nominations by the age of 25, an achievement that has yet to be equaled, and her work in West Side Story is as impressive for its bravery as its skill.

As West Side Story pursues its predetermined path to conclusion, a couple of undeniable facts emerge. For one, just about all the good songs are in the film’s first half, rendering the final reels with an unrelenting shadowy gloom. And, to paraphrase a recent Presidential candidate, the film is just too damn long. An extraction of about twenty minutes would not have damaged coherency in the slightest. How many shots of athletic young men shimmying up wire fences does one really need? But in the tradition of Grand Opera, West Side Story is a larger than life production with sheer bulk considered a necessary component by its creators. To the distracted, multi-tasking audience of today, the film’s lugubrious final act will likely be a squirm inducer and an impediment to its full appreciation as a priceless bit of Americana.

Disc Review

Recently, Fox has been producing some of the best blu-ray burns in the business and West Side Story continues the hot streak. Simply stated, the disc looks amazing. Colorful and sharp as one of Bernardo’s razors, the images achieve a depth that rivals 3-D. Of course, there was superb source material to work with, as West Side Story was filmed in the old Todd-AO format, creating a 65mm negative with an aspect 2.20:1.

One of the film’s many Oscars went to veteran DP Donald Fapp for cinematography – back when color was a separate category – and I’m sure the late Mr. Fapp would approve of the presentation here. The Koyaanisqatsi style aerial views of Manhattan that open the film are so graphically real you’ll get a few tummy butterflies, while the colorful graffiti that adorns the gray walls and streets pops with vividness. The night scenes, and there are a lot of them, buzz with neon-cued shimmer. Theatrically lit, every scene offers a full range of values, but the blacks retain detail and purity while the brightly colored wardrobes create tremendous separation. Even those who aren’t particularly enamored with the musical genre will find the disc an enjoyable and sumptuous visual feast; its impeccable quality worthy of an American classic.

The track is no slouch either, despite internet rumors of short cuts taken in its creation. Presented in DTS-HD 7.1, the blu-ray sounds as impressive as it looks. Bernstein’s score is a study in sonic contrasts, ranging from stark whistles and finger snaps to lushly layered orchestration, and viewers will feel fully immersed in each note. The track possesses an extraordinary liveness, with exceptional soundstage and hair-raising power. Frankly, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my investment in expensive Paradigm speakers last year, but the sonic detail of this disc has wholly restored my confidence.

This deluxe edition contains three discs: The film in HD, the film in SD, and a disc of bonus material.

Play Movie in "Pow! The Dances of West Side Story" Mode

With this mode engaged, the dance sequences are interspersed with expert commentary from Susan Stroman, Adam Shankman, Chita Rivera and several other choreographers and performers. This feature will be primarily of interest to those already highly familiar with the film.

Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim

This valuable supplement features the witty and insightful recollections of Sondheim. He discusses his constant struggle to simplify his lyrics and offers surprisingly self-deprecating assessments of his work. Sondheim’s comments are sharp, articulate and full of advice young writers and composers would do well to heed. Highly recommended.

Music Machine

Available only on the SD disc, this jukebox style interface allows instant access to every song in the movie.

A Place For Us: West Side Story's Legacy

This 30 minute collection of interview snippets attempts to place West Side Story in historical context. We hear from Stephan Sondheim, Debbie Allen, Lin-Manuel Mirada, Mikhail Baryshnikov and a host of luminaries on how the production has influenced them personally and professionally. Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jaime describes how excited her father was to compose Latin-inspired music, while conceding that the original Broadway show was too much a of downer for the audiences of 1957. Allen describes the racism faced by the touring company, and how the show was considered too controversial for her hometown in Texas. The show’s continuing influence is cited by one of the producers of Glee, and the piece overall makes a compelling case for West Side Story’s enduring relevance. Recommended.

West Side Memories

This hour-long documentary is a thorough and detailed analysis of the genesis of West Side Story ; both the play and the movie. Archival audio from Jerome Robbins discusses the challenges of assembling the high profile production team, and the many false starts and blind alleys pursued along the way. Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents go in-depth on the new approaches in storytelling that evolved during the creation of the show, as West Side Story was designed more as an opera than a traditional musical. Film buffs will enjoy the discussion of the division of labor practiced by Robbins and Wise on the set, and the visual ideas that resulted from their unique collaboration. Rita Moreno gives an amusing account of the challenges Bernstein’s eccentric time signatures posed for the dancers and offers intriguing insight into Robbin’s unconventional methods of choreography. In total, this documentary gets a bit deep in the weeds for casual viewers, but stage and film professionals will find it fascinating.

Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage

As the title suggests, this 5 minute supplement is a selection of drawings by storyboard artist Maurie Zuberano, followed by the pertinent scenes from the film. Zuberano’s free flowing, impressionistic style was a bit unusual for this type of assignment, but clearly his visualizations were closely followed by the filmmakers and set designers.


Four trailers are included. Two are fairly traditional assemblies, featuring some of the film’s most exciting scenes. Another deals with the film’s worldwide acclaim and contains footage of gala opening nights in Hollywood and London, with red carpet shots of Queen Elizabeth, James Garner and Pat Boone, of all people. The fourth is the most interesting of the lot; an animated, music only teaser presumably intended for non-English speaking audiences. All are standard definition from rather rough prints, and will increase your appreciation of the main feature’s skillful blu-ray transfer.

Final Thoughts

West Side Story is such a densely packed entertainment viewers of every taste and inclination will find something laudable and involving within its multiple levels. Adrenaline junkies will delight in its crackling energy and raging momentum. More reflective viewers will find the film a fascinating look at a time when even nascent racism was laced with gee-whiz innocence. And diehard romantics will be swept away by its story of passion and ill fated love. Indeed, it’s the seamless melding of these attributes that makes West Side Story a true American classic, and an enduring part of the Nation’s cultural legacy. It is a film that offers its viewers the opportunity to deeply explore or the freedom to simply enjoy. Just like life in A-Merry-Ca.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Friday, December 9, 2011

Briefly Noted: Comedy Tonight!

The Band's Visit (2007)****

A touring musical group comprised of Egyptian policemen take the wrong bus and end up in an isolated Israeli backwater in Eran Kolirin's amusing tale of low voltage culture shock. The band members are stranded with little more than the powder blue uniforms on their backs but, through the intercession of a kind hearted cafe owner (Ronit Elkabetz), the men are dispersed to various local households for food and accommodations. What follows is an evening of small revelations, as the musicians and their hosts learn all about each other and, in small ways, begin to bridge their great historical and cultural divides. In all, a charming and well intentioned film that never seems forced or sappy. And don't be surprised if it restores a little bit of your faith in humanity.

The Valet (2006)***1/2

This peppy romantic comedy from France will please even the grumpiest folks at your house. The great Daniel Auteuil plays a zillionaire CEO so desperate to hide his affair with dazzling supermodel Alice Taglioni that he launches a byzantine cover-up so convoluted with lawyers and private detectives that the viewer wonders who is spying on who. Kirstin Scott Thomas is very good as the long suffering wife who realizes she is in for a big payday and decides to just enjoy the ride. I predict you will too. This comedy is quite prescient, and we doubly enjoy Auteuil's predicament in these days when most of us would like to see robber-CEOs dragged through the streets. In fact, the film's pacing and direction feel much more like an American film than a French one. I wouldn't be surprised if some Hollywood producer is currently planning to remake this film for the American audience. It would be an easy adaptation.

Galaxy Quest (1999)*****

A ripping good time movie that lays waste to every Star Trek cliche, then finds the enduring nobility underneath them. Galaxy Quest is literally filled with famous actors who are simply fun to watch, and they all appear to be having a grand time. But part of the fun is spotting the "before they were famous" cast members (Rainn Wilson is one of the aliens and a pubescent Justin Long is hysterical as a true-believing geek). When you want to relax and indulge in silliness and belly laughs, this space opera send-up is just the ticket.

Monday, December 5, 2011

And I Will Make a Nation of the Son of the Slave Woman: Of Gods and Men (2010)****1/2

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Of Gods and Men is a film made with such sincerity and attention to detail that not a single moment feels false or contrived. Based on actual events, the story offers an explanation for the mysterious disappearance of a group of French monks from an Algerian monastery in 1996; an explanation that’s become all too believable and commonplace in the 15 years hence. It’s a tragedy foreshadowed from the film’s opening sequences, yet audiences are held spellbound as the divine and the brutal converge on a slow motion collision course.

As the monks, director Xavier Beauvois has assembled a wonderful cast of veteran French character actors – no household names but familiar faces to followers of European cinema – and these talents deliver performances of quiet conviction and refined control hewn by decades of experience. As the monks go about their daily tasks, a grinding mix of spiritual enlightenment and drudgery, Beauvois quickly establishes the demanding routine of monastic life, and the selfless nature of its adherents. Michael Lonsdale is extraordinary as Brother Luc, a former doctor who now dispenses both medicine and kindness to his Islamic neighbors as a hybrid Mother Teresa and Santa Claus. His practice is overseen by Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monastery’s abbot and chief executive, who has devoted his life to a careful balance of the sublime with the practical. 

When the monks venture into the nearby village, their interactions with the impoverished Algerians reveal a mutual respect based more on humanism than the rigors of religious doctrine. But this peaceful, indeed joyous, coexistence is threatened by a dark new force in the world, as a radical Islamist sect begins a campaign of violence against foreigners. Soon the atrocities envelope the village and the monastery in an air of impending doom. The monks begin a protracted debate on whether they should flee to the safety of France or remain steadfast in their mission, despite the near certainty of a grim and bloody extinction.

The barbarism faced by the monks is a degree of malevolence wholly beyond their experience. Beauvois gives near equal narrative weight to each man as he grapples with his decision in icy solitude. Their weathered, haggard faces register innocent dismay and disbelief as their minds process the imminent evil. The monastery’s daily routine continues, but the monks appear to exist in an emotional netherworld, stunned but oddly intrigued by this new and deadly challenge to their faith. In these reflective passages, the film creates a hypnotic sense of the stoppage of time, as each man begins an unspoken galvanizing of his soul in preparation for the answering of humanity’s ultimate question.

In a risky sequence set to music from Swan Lake, Beauvois embarks on a series of dolly shots that grow ever tighter on the faces of his beleaguered monks; each man remembering the individual triumphs and defeats of his life in solemn, heartbreaking reverie. A lesser director would not have placed such trust in his actors, and instead inserted flashbacks or monologues to convey this pivotal moment. But Beavois’ approach is all the more powerful for its refusal to spill every detail, reinforcing the ultimate loneliness of death, even to those who have devoted their lives to collective Godly service.

Like the monks’ harmonious chants, the film’s Bergman-esque conclusion strikes an elegant yet simple chord, and almost seems anti-climactic. For these humble ascetics, any connection to this world was always tenuous at best, and the film resolves their story with whispered notes of mystery and mercy. Through perfectly grooved performances and an irresistible editorial rhythm, Of Gods and Men creates its own higher plane of existence, and transubstantiates a mere movie into food for the soul.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Gone With The Fuzzy-Wuzzys: The Four Feathers from Criterion (1939)**1/2

While it’s inherently unfair to apply today’s standards to a screenplay of this vintage, even the most tolerant appraisal would have to conclude that, despite its historical basis, this Four Feathers is guilty of excessive condescension and aggressive pandering. The film’s storyline simply isn’t believable, and its three acts range from sentimental to melodramatic to outright preposterous.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TV Guide Fall Preview - September 14, 1985

While going through some boxes at my dad's house, I found this copy of TV Guide from September 14, 1985. It's the special fall preview issue, and it's in pretty good shape for a 26 year old magazine. I doubt if my mother meant to save this, it probably just fell into the box by mistake. Whatever the reason, it was fun thumbing through it and I thought I'd share a few pages with you. Click on any of the pics to enlarge:

Amid the beer and cigarette ads, the issue featured a splash page for every new show:

Some would be big hits:

Some, not so, here's a Lucky Strike ad Don Draper would never have approved

"The Insiders"...can you say Miami Vice rip-off?


Behold! Another failed post-Baretta Robert Blake vehicle...and another failed TV series based on a movie

Here's some of the listing pages...was Hulk Hogan really a role model?

As you can see, at 5:30 we had our choice of three different Andy Griffith episodes. On the right is an ad for a 1980s version of Netflix. Available in VHS or Betamax! And what a selection!

Some amazing viewing choices on this Saturday night. There's a Spielberg directed TV movie, a Laurence Harvey film I've still never seen, an episode of the great Route 66 TV series and several segments of USA's Night Flight, which was always an edgy and interesting program. There's even a rerun of the A&M/Alabama game in case you missed it.

I guess when folks weren't smoking cigarettes and watching TV, they were listening to music. Here's an ad for RCA music service, which was sort of a second rate Columbia House. Tears for Fears, anyone?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Briefly Noted - Leftover Stuffing Edition

And God Created Woman (1956)***

Roger Vadim’s coy strumpet of a film features the beautiful scenery of St. Tropez, and equally splendid vistas of young, barely legal, Brigitte Bardot. There’s not much else to it. Oh there’s a silly subplot about an evil businessman (Curd Jergens, love that name) who’s trying to steal the family land of Jean-Louis Trintignant, but the exact methodology of the swindle is so vague no one seems terribly concerned. It’s Bardot who focuses the mind here, and whether she’s riding her bike or dancing a steamy version of the mambo, she manages to drive all the male leads to distraction. And frankly, who could blame them?

Lovely, Still (2008)***

A promising look at senior citizen romance that gets a little too clever for its own good in the final reel. Credit young Nebraska writer-director Nicolas Fackler with extreme fortitude in marshalling the forces required to bring his vision to life, with generally competent and effective realization. Veterans Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn approach their roles with the effortless grace of masters, while Adam Scott gets to play a good guy for once. The story is dependent on a humongous twist, one the will seem like either a shock or a cheat depending on one’s proclivities. But if you’ve ever wondered what downtown Omaha looks like decked out for the holidays, here's your chance.

Angel’s Fall (2005)****

Those seeking escapist fare will want to look elsewhere, as Semih Kaplanoglu’s minimalist drama is about as bleak and depressing as they come. Tulin Ozen stars as the title character; an Istanbul chambermaid of such grim prospects you’ll probably wonder why she hasn’t shot herself already. The story revolves around a slow and ultimately surprising scheme for revenge, although the execution of that scheme offers little in the way of solace. The narrative has a few time shifts, so you’ll have to be on your toes and resist the film’s hypnotic torpor. While this reviewer found it satisfying, please be advised Angel’s Fall is a film of such austerity it makes the work of Kaplanoglu’s countryman Nuri Bilge Ceylan seem like musical comedy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Memory: Charlie and Eppie

My father passionately loved his family and his community, and he performed many kind and selfless acts during his long and happy life. One that speaks to the heart of his character happened about 15 years ago.

When I was a child in the 1960s, we had a sharecropper on our farm named James Traynham, who went by the nickname “Eppie”. He was a gentle soul and a very hard worker and some of my most cherished memories are of Eppie and my father, working side by side in the fields, laughing and joking as we went about our labors.

But Eppie was afflicted by alcoholism and that often got him into trouble. My father had to bail him out of jail a few times and intervene in Eppie’s abusive and sometimes violent family disputes. After a 14 hour day in the tobacco fields, I’m sure having to deal with Eppie’s problems wasn’t a lot of fun.

Other farmers used to ask my dad why he put up with Eppie and all his troubles. My dad would say, “Well, when he’s sober, he’s a real good man. If I don’t put up with him, who will?” In the early 1970s Eppie and my father parted ways, but the two men still shared a special bond of respect and my father often spoke of him with pity and affection.

Eppie passed away in 1994. Penniless, he was buried in an unmarked grave, in a makeshift roadside cemetery just a couple miles from our house.

My father remembered that Eppie was a veteran and therefore entitled to a proper gravestone. Working with the staff of a local  funeral home, my father did the research, made the phone calls, and did all the paperwork required to get Eppie a headstone and a few months later one was placed on his humble resting site.

My father’s research revealed that Eppie had served in WWII as a truck driver in Burma. Located between India and China, in 1942 Burma was a mountainous country that had no roads, was covered in dense jungle and for much of the year received constant torrential rain. Military historians agree that duty in Burma was some of the most difficult and harrowing of the war. Yet, Eppie served his country and at the end of the war received an honorable discharge.

A few years after securing Eppie’s memorial, my father’s health began to fail and he was unable to do many of the things he enjoyed. But he always had the satisfaction of knowing he had done right by his old friend, even if no one else cared about him.

All his life, my father tried very hard to live by biblical principles and he put those principles into practice. As Matthew 25:40 plainly states: The King will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me."

Fittingly, after a lifetime of service to others, my father went to his reward this past Veteran’s Day. Perhaps it was God’s way of thanking him for a job well done.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Home for the Holidays: Antonioni's Identification of a Woman from Criterion (1982)***1/2

Winner of a special 35th Anniversary Prize at Cannes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman from 1982 represented a homecoming of sorts. After 15 years of globetrotting international productions, the esteemed director returned to his Roman roots to film this relatively simple tale of desire and discontent in the professional class. Spartan and straightforward, Identification of a Woman contains none of the political symbolism or glacially paced metaphors of the early 1960s films that made Antonioni an art house darling. His script seeks to paint a clear portrait of disaffection without losing his viewers in oblique angles or thickly applied textures. Despite offering no compelling resolutions or lofty observations on the plight of its characters, the presentation feels complete and satisfying.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Afternoon Delight: Godard's Une Femme Mariée (1964)***

Une Femme Mariée is an early Godard essay on the institution of marriage in a pre-feminist age. Lively and surprisingly entertaining, the film examines the distorting effects of bourgeois priorities on young women’s brains, burdens and boobs – mostly boobs. The film clearly spells out the differences between marital companionship and sexual fulfillment, and makes an interesting case that female infidelity in 1964 stemmed more from a thirst for power than physical yearning.

Macha Meril stars as Charlotte, a peppy young bride from the shiny new Parisian suburbs. Married to Pierre (Phillipe Leroy), a chiseled airline pilot several years her senior, Charlotte’s life is a middle class ideal, filled with luncheons and shopping trips to fashionable boutiques, while her saucy retainer Madame Celine (Ruth Maiden) handles the household drudgery. But Charlotte’s daytrips into Paris have a secret side, and a few afternoons a week she goes to the apartment of an actor named Robert (Bernard Noel) for a furtive roll in the hay.

But don’t get the idea that Une Femme Mariée is simply a reforging of Madame Bovary with kicky 60s fashions. This is a Godard film, and part of its pleasure is the directors’ total disregard for the conventions of bodice-ripping narrative. The film begins with a series of tight shots of body parts; stark compositions that walk the fine edge between high art and pretension. As the film settles into a conversational flow, we see how smitten Robert is with his married consort, as he constantly seeks reassurance that Charlotte does indeed plan to leave her husband.

Charlotte eventually returns to her suburban digs, where she puts her pre-school son (Christophe Boursellier) to bed, and prepares a dinner party for her husband and a guest (filmmaker Roger Leenhardt). Godard does some interesting things with this sequence, as Pierre and his guest – both WWII veterans – discuss some of the horrors they’ve witnessed in hushed, reverential tones. Charlotte attempts to follow and contribute to the conversation, but it’s clear the men are discussing a darkly vile and savage world, completely beyond her experience.

Charlotte’s vision of life is shaped by fashion magazines and her larky fling with Robert, and the dinner party set piece establishes her lack of empathy and perception of any reality beyond her own eyeballs. Godard finds subtle and clever methods of drawing contrasts between Charlotte’s lovers. Robert breathlessly clings to Charlotte’s every word, while Pierre treats his wife with gentleness and respect, but isn’t particularly interested in anything she has to say. Pierre has the quiet demeanor of one who calmly bears solemn responsibilities, while Robert is all irritable passion.

Amid the low key melodrama, Godard finds the time to skewer some of his favorite targets. His fiercest rancor is directed at advertising, and the film features an amusing subplot concerning Charlotte’s obsession with her chest. And one really can’t blame her, for as Godard makes plain, the Paris of 1964 was crammed with billboards for brassieres. France’s boob-mania crept into magazines and newspapers as well, and a very funny scene features a nearly nude Charlotte brandishing a tape measure to see how she compares to the ideal bust as described by an article in le Monde. But all good things must come to an end, and Charlotte’s visit to her doctor (Georges Liron) brings some unwelcome news that will severely test Robert’s adoration and sincerity.

In the Godard pantheon, Une Femme Mariée is a minor work, completed while the legendary director was still quite damp behind the ears. But we see the origins of ideas, techniques and stylistics he would develop and exploit to great effect in later films. Still is exploiting them, in fact. But Une Femme Mariée remains an accessible and affable work; rich with its own visual pleasures and meaty wit. The dynamics of marriage have changed quite a bit in the nearly 50 intervening years, but the capacity of humans to delude themselves remains unabated. Truth be told, it’s probably gotten stronger.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Briefly Noted: Verse and Vomit Edition

Poetry (2010)****

Lovely film about a 65-ish woman (Jeong–hie Yun) who finds herself becoming alarmingly forgetful, and enrolls in a creative writing class as a way of expressing herself and holding on to her memories. Director Chang-dong Lee approaches his subject with quiet reverence and, to his credit, creates a film that’s not nearly as precious as it sounds. It also includes one of the most interesting, and perfectly motivated, sex scenes ever. Fans of tranquil, deliberate character portraits will find Poetry an excellent way to spend an evening.

Shall We Kiss? (2007)***

I’m sure this French comedy was ok – anything with Virginie Ledoyen and Julie Gayet usually is – but I’ll be darned if I can remember a thing about it. Maybe I should take a poetry class....

Donnant donnant (2010)***1/2

A piffley Auteuil vehicle, made for domestic French release, that produces a few light hearted chuckles along the way. The iconic star plays an escaped convict – wrongly convicted, of course – who barters a hiding place on an abandoned river boat by agreeing to the schemes of a perky heiress (Madeea Marinescu). Sabine Azema is terrific as a madcap dowager who goes from deep depression to flighty vivaciousness over the course of the proceedings, while Marinescu possesses real star quality – a sort of later day Holly Hunter. We’re asked to buy some unconvincing romantic turns before all is said and done, but somehow Auteuil pulls it off.

Bridesmaids (2011)***

A cool breeze entertainment that’s surprisingly enjoyable; all about the evolving relationship between a couple BFFs (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph), when wedding preparations create complications. Often described as a gross-out comedy for the distaff set, the movie has its share of flatulence and projectile vomiting, and you’ll think twice about trying that new Brazilian barbeque joint on the outskirts of town. But Wiig is fun to watch, and she and Rudolph have the vague staccato line readings of former sorority sisters down pat. Jon Hamm takes a break from narrating Mercedes commercials for a brief appearance as a sleazebag.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lost in the 70s: Going Places (1974)***

"One could describe the film as an amalgam of Godard’s Weekend with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Except Blier has none of Godard’s wit and his characters have none of the charm of George Roy Hill’s good-natured desperados"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Tree of Life (2011)*****

Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life is a film with the courage to reach for the sublime, and for the bulk of its 139 minutes achieves it. Set in a leafy suburb of Waco, Texas, the film combines scenes of family life in the 1950s with spectacular imagery from the dawn of time, creating a mosaic of emotions, childhood memories and primordial ooze. This palette allows for exciting and jarring juxtapositions, as Malick exploits the scale differences of the awesome power to create worlds with the frail humans who attempt to impose their will on that power.

This impressionistic patchwork is driven by the present day mental reveries of Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a successful middle-aged architect who roams a steel and glass skyscraper jungle. Jack is filled with questions, doubts and regrets, and over the course of the film we will learn all about his loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and his frustrated father (Brad Pitt). But Malick shifts points-of-view frequently, and at times his audience is wired into the thoughts of both parents as well. This device keeps viewers slightly off balance, and keenly aware that The Tree of Life is an accounting beyond the standard, expected level of human experience.

Chastain’s character supplies the connective tissue for The Tree of Life’s disparate elements. As a velociraptor shows surprising mercy to an injured creature in a prehistoric rain forest, the hot Texas wind of the Eisenhower years buffet Chastain's ginger tresses as she receives news of a death in the family. Chastain’s whispered questioning of God draws us into the film’s complex web, and she aimlessly walks the tidy neighborhood in a trance of extreme despair. Later, when young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is haunted by the confusing impulses of puberty, Chastain becomes combination mother-confessor and Can-can girl.

Malick’s tread into the darkly forbidden is thankfully cautious and careful, and in keeping with the film’s elegant style of visual shorthand. The story is told through sweeping snippets of scenes, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam swirling and circling like the harried gatekeeper of a dream. This technique cleverly evokes the subjective, fragmented nature of distant memories and, as Nestor Almendros did for Days of Heaven, Lubezki’s work elevates this film into the range of myth. The often heard criticism that The Tree of Life is a slow paced film is belied by the enormous swaths of ground Malick’s story covers. In a pivotal moment, Jack becomes aware of mortality after an accident at a municipal swimming pool, and the film proceeds from trauma to burial in just a few quick transitions. But none of scene’s power is lost; as Pitt and his sons trudge away from the cemetery their stunned, chastened silence the film’s most powerful interaction.

Malick uses edit points as brush strokes, layering tension and mystery. The Tree of Life has been described as cinematic impressionism, but pointillism is a more accurate comparison. Each truncated moment serves as a pinpoint, eventually forming a representation of a much larger reality. When the director occasionally strays from this approach, it seems like a misstep. Pitt’s Mad Scene, where he applies a brutal, and seemingly uncalled for, discipline, follows a literal timeline that feels like a discard from some other movie. Yet, at other times, the story grants too little information. Pitt apparently becomes a pilot at some point in his life, which seems a strange transition for a chemical plant manager. But Malick has a habit of defiling his best work with odd, presumably intentional, eccentricities; in Days of Heaven, a steel mill boss killed by Richard Gere in the opening scene comes back to life as a background extra, while modern Civics and Corollas adorn WWII era American roads in The Thin Red Line.

Yet, The Tree of Life’s recreation of small town life in the 1950s is exceptional. Jack Fisk’s production design is comprised of a million near perfect details, even down to dish towels and jewel toned metal tumblers. Malick cleverly motivates the film’s classical score by establishing Pitt as a frustrated musician, and some of the film’s most majestic moments involve simple scenes of family accompanied by the grandeur of Mahler and Brahms. But the film ventures onto shaky ground with a coda that forges a makeshift catharsis. For a film that so clearly contrasts religion and science, Penn’s ultimate transition is staged with surprisingly orthodox iconography, and feels like a cop-out. The Tree of Life poses the questions of Existence with steely valor, then answers them with trite mush.

If the film had ended after its first hour, it could rightly be called a masterpiece. And, all things considered, time may still render a highly favorable judgment. Despite deep flaws, The Tree of Life ranks among the best films this reviewer has ever seen, although its proximity to perfection only makes its idiosyncrasies all the more vexing. But to a North American film audience obsessed with 3-D zombies and superheroes, this film is infinitely better than we deserve.