Saturday, January 29, 2011

News and Notes 1-29-11

As January draws to a close...

One of the animated films nominated for an Oscar is a tribute to Jaques Tati, Two reviews of The Illusionist.

Is France becoming a hotbed of action films and comedies?  Is it all Dany Boon’s fault? 'Fraid so.

Director of Oldboy and that girl from The Kids are All Right to team...

Joe's film too freakin' weird for Oscar. No surprise...

Whew…French cinema hasn’t gone all explosions and banana peels. This looks good.

Fabulous Julie Newmar, who has been a great friend to this blog, has a new website chock full of wonderful images. Do check it out.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Withnail for the Weekend 3

Withnail: How can it be so cold in here? It's like Greenland in here. We've got to get some booze. It's the only solution to this intense cold. Something's got to be done.
We can't go on like this.
I'm a trained actor reduced to the status of a bum.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)****

The King’s Speech is a film that doesn’t really belong in the coarse, pimped-up, dumbed-down world of 2011. The script is laced with respect; respect for government, for leaders and, most surprisingly of all, respect for the power of words.

Director Tom Hooper also has respect for actors, and has entrusted his low-tech production to some of the most able talents in the business. It’s a brave gamble in this age of 3-D zombies, but the risk has paid off as this stately and sedate film has been embraced by audiences and showered with award nominations.

Despite regal and historic trappings, the story is about as simple as a feature length script can be. Set in England in the late 1930s, the film chronicles the efforts of Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) to overcome a speech impediment that has plagued him since childhood. The Windsor boys are occasionally obliged to make speeches on the wireless - that infernal contraption - and Albert’s stuttering and stammering is anathema to this new medium. The far-flung English empire is already in jeopardy, and a member of the Royal Family incapable of uttering a coherent thought won’t do much to assure its disgruntled subjects.

Desperate, the Duke and Lady Elisabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) consult Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian immigrant who ekes out a living as an unlicensed speech therapist – not the most promising career choice in 1936- in a crumbling east-end flat. Logue’s unconventional techniques, learned from rehabilitating soldiers severely injured in WWI, cause friction between the two men. Progress is slow and with the Nazis marching to war, the Duke has to cope with a number of distractions. Among them, his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) is about to abdicate and marry that tacky Simpson woman from Baltimore (Eve Best). Albert must now assume the throne in one of Britain’s darkest hours, and the smooth delivery of inspiring speeches will be more important than ever.

Firth, a master of deceptive understatement, plunges to his greatest depths of withdrawal as the shy, self-conscious Albert. His fragile demeanor contrasts nicely with Rush’s classical theatrical bombast and, indeed, the pair seem to feed off each other. There is a genuine and astonishingly subtle chemistry between them that stems from performances that are dialed-in exactly right. Director Hooper, known mainly for the HBO series John Adams, understands the dynamics of ensemble acting better than just about any director working today, and has a wonderful ability to design shots around the alchemy of his talented thespians. This sounds simple and straight-forward, but the vast majority of directors, including your loyal correspondent back in his working days, tend to do the exact opposite.

While the film is crammed with historically important, larger-than-life characters, Hooper goes out of his way to keep the presentation calm and stiff-upper-lipped. There are no eureka breakthroughs or Rocky style triumphant montages. The new King will only be able to overcome his difficulties through laborious focus on the task at hand, and it’s going to be a tough slog.

There is hesitation to proclaim this a great film; it plays much like a well financed episode of Masterpiece Theatre, but without the emotional involvement the latter usually elicits. In fact, like the Royal Family, The King’s Speech is oddly cold and formal. If Hooper can be accused of a misstep, he’s over-protected his film from emotion and sentimentality.

In one aspect, The King’s Speech can rightfully be considered a feel-good movie. At a time when our multiplexes are replete with raunchy offerings designed to make a quick buck from the cheapening of human experience, the positive reaction this quiet, literate film has received from critics and audiences is a pleasant surprise. It’s almost enough to restore our faded hope in the American public.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Recently Viewed - Comedy Quickies

Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008)**

A movie the entire family can watch together. In other words, it’s as bland as a 10 year old jar of pabulum. All about a young teen girl (Georgia Groome), her obese, emotionally disturbed cat named Angus, her intense dislike of thong underwear, and her efforts to kiss a cute boy. Nominally set in the UK, the story is so neat and tidy and familiar it could easily be Cincinnati. About halfway through, the dad is offered a job in New Zealand, and you wish the entire cast would go there and never be heard from again. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging is to cinema what fish sticks are to cuisine.

Patrik, Age 1.5 (2008)***

A perfectly harmless Swedish import about a gay couple (Gustav Skarsgaard, Torkel Peterrson) whose plan to adopt a baby is derailed by one of those ghastly typographical errors that profoundly change movie characters' lives. There’s nothing particularly new or interesting here, but the film’s shopworn, conventional ideas are executed to tear jerking perfection. This is essentially a Lifetime movie, clad in Swedish understatement. Although the film’s look and feel is at times frighteningly American. Recommended to those seeking warm giggles topped off by a good, therapeutic bawl.

The Groove Tube (1974) **

Those seeking a good rollick in 1970s nostalgia please be advised that this collection of irreverent skits is not nearly as funny today as one remembers from one's misspent youth. Horribly dated, and even a bit dull. That being said, Ken Shapiro's song and dance number through the streets of midtown Manhattan is still quite the hoot.

Waiting for Guffman (1996)****

Christopher Guest fans will know what to expect here…lots of belly laughs and spot-on parodies of familiar personality types. This mock-doc involves the staging of an amateur musical celebrating the sesquicentennial of a sleepy town in Missouri. And, like most small towns, the residents are exceptionally pleased with themselves.

Guest plays the town misfit who went to NYC in hopes of becoming a famous choreographer, but now finds himself back home, attempting to cobble together a show out of some very raw ingredients. Fred Williard is just plain hysterical as a stage-struck local business man and his duet with Catherine O’Hara delivers a tacky version of Midnight at the Oasis that you won’t soon forget.

The great Paul Dooley has a brief walk-on interview that will have you cackling with his brilliant comedic timing. And there’s the talented Guest as director Corky St. Clair, who may not have made it on Broadway, but certainly absorbed the attitudes and airs of that famous street. Funny, sharp, even a little sad on occasion, Waiting for Guffman is everything a comedic escape should be.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Withnail for the Weekend 2

Withnail: What are we supposed to do with that?

Marwood: Eat it.

Withnail: Eat it? Fucker's alive.

Marwood: Yeah, you've got to kill it. 

Withnail:  How do we make it die?

Marwood:  I think you should strangle it quickly before it starts trying to make friends with us.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In Praise of Hippie Chicks

Joan Baez dated Bob Dylan, married a famous draft resistor and sang at Woodstock. She is the Michael Jordan of Hippie Chicks.

Laura Nyro was an extremely talented Hippie Chick. She is greatly missed.

Peggy Lipton was the first Hippie Chick to be a major character on a TV show. She introduced and popularised the concept to Americans.

Melanie Safka is a prolific Hippie Chick. She has made over 30 albums. And you thought "Brand New Key" was her only song.

Barbara Hershey began her acting career as a Hippie Chick. She even changed her name to Seagull for awhile.

There are few women today attempting to keep the Hippie Chick flame alive. We salute them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

News and Notes - MLK Day Edition

  • Happy Martin Luther King Day everyone. Let's all take some time today to ponder his dreams and ideals.

  • Caution: Dangerously Sharp Wit Ahead! Be sure to check out Get Mummy's Purse, the delightfully droll musings of William Godwin. Visit the blog when you're not rushed, because you'll what to savor every word. Especially all the reasons he needs a wife...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Withnail for the Weekend 1

Withnail: We just ran out of wine. What are we gonna do about it?

Marwood: I don't know, I don't know. Oh God, I don't feel good. Look, my thumbs have gone weird! I'm in the middle of a bloody overdose. Oh God. My heart's beating like a fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful!

Withnail: So do I, so does everybody. Look at my tongue; it's wearing a yellow sock. Sit down for Christ's sake, what's the matter with you? Eat some sugar

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Red Desert (1964)****

Presented as a succession of set pieces, Red Desert begins with a dazed Monica Vitti wandering along the perimeter of a gigantic power plant. Accompanied by her son (Valerio Bartoleschi), Vitti trudges through a toxic and barren landscape; her expensive designer shoes covered in greasy muck. Under the thick gray clouds, a group of striking workers gather to stage a demonstration. They recognize Vitti as the wife of plant manager Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), their nemesis in the current labor struggle.

This is our first indication that Red Desert will be one of those films about alienation from the modern world. Vitti’s inability to understand what that world considers her proper place makes her a danger to the status quo and a figure of mystery. These early scenes are among the most effective in the entire film; they glisten with foreboding and a cold, wet gloom. And while Antonioni hints at Vitti’s internal struggles, he also alludes to the plight of humanity caught in the crossfire of a war between technology and nature.

Inside the steel walls of the power plant, Ugo is meeting with a colleague named Zeller (Richard Harris) who has been charged with opening a similar facility in Argentina. Desperate for experienced workers, Zeller has come to seek Ugo’s advice and to do a little recruiting from the pool of strikers. Ugo enlists his wife’s help in entertaining the visitor, and Zeller and Vitti spend an afternoon strolling the ancient cobblestone streets of Ravenia, where an unspoken sexual tension begins to develop.

Passions inflame further at a tiny dockside cabin owned by Ugo’s family, where a raucous dinner party threatens to turn into a full scale orgy. Here Antonioni employs one of his wonkiest symbols, as the party-goers divert their sexual energy to tearing down the cabin’s partitions for firewood. They are left with only a gutted husk of a building; its tattered walls painted fading shades of red, white and blue.

Red Desert has a number of intriguing images, and this sequence features one of the most impressive. As the partiers stare out of the cabin’s window, the hull of an enormous cargo ship passes through the frame, impossibly close to the small, and now stripped bare, cabin. Harris opens the door to give us an even better look at the hulking freighter, and the resulting contrast in scale pushes the film even further into the territory of desolate surrealism. But this is no ordinary vessel. The crew is suffering from a deadly epidemic and medical authorities soon quarantine the ship, furthering Antonioni’s view of the industrial world as a threatening sphere.

But as humans are threatened by industry, Monica Vitti is threatened by the meanderings of this film. As the story evolves, Harris’ character becomes more leaden and one dimensional, shifting more of the dramatic load onto Vitti. Monica Vitti was an alluring and charismatic screen presence, but that’s not exactly the same thing as being a good actress. In this film, she has two speeds: catatonic and hysterical. The mysterious minimal thing she does very well, but the final reel calls for hair-on-fire histrionics, and Vitti doesn’t really have the chops to pull that off. Antonioni is not blameless; his story should have played to his leading lady’s strengths instead of her weaknesses.

This was Antonioni’s first film in color, and he clearly had a lot of fun with it. The early scenes, rendered in oppressive grays, strike the right tone of cold, rigid conformity. The infrequent bursts of color -Vitti’s green coat, a red sports car – pop with symbolic significance. The film features a fairy tale sequence that’s saturated and sunny. The necessity of the scene is debatable, but it proves Antonioni’s deep understanding and early mastery of color design principles.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert is a film of great beauty, there’s no denying. But under the moody patina lurks a hulking, overworked and oversold conception. At times, the film moves gracefully across the screen. At times it sputters like a rusty cargo ship overloaded with unanswered conundrums and self conscious metaphors.

But this is a classic, unapologetic Italian art film. It experiments with narrative form, visual design, political sentiment and sexual suggestion, all while issuing a complex opinion of the individual’s place in the modern world. While today we can appreciate it as a beautiful but unrefined artifact - like a scarab from Tut’s tomb- 1964 audiences must have been downright mind boggled.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Domingo, Netrebko and Villazon: The Berlin Concert: Live From the Waldbühne (2006)*****

Studly young tenor Rolando Villazon joins superstar Anna Netrebko and the legendary Placido Domingo in this rousing concert filmed on a summer night in Berlin. Under the lively direction of young Marco Armiliato, the singers, along with the Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra, perform a wide open program ranging from opera standards to Broadway show tunes.

O mio bambino is dispensed with early in the proceedings, and Netrebko nails it with her characteristic effortlessness. No diva has ever made such difficult singing look more natural and carefree. She pairs with Domingo for an extraordinary duet from Othello; a performance that may have you immediately reaching for the repeat button. Villazon’s solo pieces are well chosen to show off his impressive sonic range and intensity, and he joins his frequent production co-star Netrebko in a version of Tonight from West Side Story that will leave you breathless.

The best is saved for last, as each of the singers return for a solo encore. Particularly impressive is Domingo’s rendering of No puede ser by Sorozabal, in which the veteran tenor proves that he can still tap enormous reserves of dramatic power. In the program’s finale, all three singers return to the stage, champagne glasses in hand, for the second Lehar piece of the evening, the joyously romantic My Heart is Yours, which caused this reviewer to break out in a serious case of goosebumps.

And, according to their ecstatic reaction, so did the 20,000 in attendance. The sound quality of the recording is absolutely first-rate, the only flaw being a couple of brief moments when the singers wander off mike a bit, but that is a minor quibble. Especially striking is the recording of the woodwinds, as the delicate sounds of these instruments cut through with punch and vibrancy. In all, a night of beautiful music in an equally beautiful setting, and a performance no fan of classical singing will want to miss.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Never Fail

Some movie lines are always matter how many times you see them...

She turned me into a newt!...I got better…

I gotta no change…I’ll have ta give ya 9 more books…

I think people should mate for life…like swans... or Catholics…

I have found that alcohol, taken in sufficient amounts, produces all the effects of drunkenness

We want wine! We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now.

'cause you people are BASTARD PEOPLE! ... That's what you are!
You're just bastard people!

Carl Spackler: Make yourself at home.

Ty Webb: No, I don't want to stick to anything in here.

[to waiter] I'll have three fingers of Glenlivet, with a little bit of pepper... and some cheese

What are some of your "never fails"?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Recently Viewed...

Poison Friends (2006)****

Nicely done college drama about a group of young men who fall under the influence of a charismatic senior with a life story a little too good to be true. The film accurately captures the atmospherics and social dynamics of life at an urban university, with an excellent performance by Thibault Vincon as Andre.

Broken Rainbow (1985)***

This stylistically dated documentary concerns the outrageous efforts by the US government to move Navajos off their tribal lands in order to create higher profits for the Peabody Coal Company. Worth watching for the bonus material, featuring an update filmed in 2006 showing many of the original subjects still passively resisting the government. Today's audience may take some solace in the fact that the US Senate was also full of corrupt corporate toadies 25 years ago

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009)***

I loved this film until I watched the deleted scenes, which showed the original screenplay going down a sleazier road. The final cut of Mademoiselle Chambon is a delicate, in some ways heroic, film about a family man trying awfully hard to do the right thing in the face of powerful temptations. Vincent Lindon is terrific as the beleaguered and confused husband/father in question. Enjoy it for what it is, and don’t watch the deleted scenes…

Accomplices (2009)****

Sharp, tight police drama starring Gilbert Melki and Emmanuelle Devos as detectives charged with determining just what happened to a young man whose body was fished out of the river. The stories of the investigation and the original crime are told as intercut, concurrent narratives. Melki and Devos are excellent as they slowly uncover the facts and find chilling parallels to their own lives.

The Girl Cut in Two (2007)**

The first half of this film is smart, brisk and engaging, and then it devolves into something like a bad Lifetime TV movie. The script can’t decide if Ludivine Sagnier’s character is a strong, ambitious young woman or a naïve, immature girl. And worse, it doesn’t seem to care. Chabrol was always better at setting up dramatic elements than resolving them, and the ending here is about as hyperbolic as it gets. For devoted Sagnier fans and Chabrol completeists only.