Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)****1/2 Blu-ray

But the picture is stolen - at least long term borrowed - by Sinatra and Janet Leigh, who doesn’t let her character’s lack of necessity dampen her spirits in the least. Surrounded by these outsized characters - including the great John McGiver as the Iselins’ liberal neighbor; in one scene hilariously referring to an Iselin costume party as “a fascist rally” – Sinatra and Leigh’s success is a clear example of addition by subtraction.

Read the Entire Review at IONCINEMA.COM

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Groucho Marx: You Bet Your Life: The Lost Episodes (1950)****

During the Great Depression, The Marx Brothers made America laugh when the country needed it most, and by the end of WWII were winding down their movie careers. But while Chico and Harpo were getting too old for physical slapstick comedy, Groucho’s witty mind was still razor sharp. In 1947 ABC radio debuted You Bet Your Life, a weekly quiz show hosted by Marx and his smooth, yet amusingly un-hip announcer George Fennemen.

In 1950, the show jumped to NBC and that extraordinary new medium, television, where it enjoyed an amazing 11 year prime-time run. Since most of the 400-plus episodes are public domain, there are many You Bet Your Life compilation discs out there, and this reviewer has made it a point to see just about all of them. But The Lost Episodes is by far the best collection. I’m not sure what qualifies these shows as “lost” but I strongly suspect they were considered too racy and off beat to be included in the standard syndication packages that were sold to TV stations as family entertainment in the 1970s and 80s.

In this set, we meet folks like comedian Ernie Kovacs, boxer Archie Moore, Gary Cooper’s mom (who is a scream) as well as a host of less famous, but no less interesting, figures. And speaking of figures, there are a few of those buxom young lasses scattered about who bring out the lecherous best in Groucho, and the double-entendres fly with abandon.

It’s also interesting to see how the rules of the quiz, the prize money and contestants’ expectations changed over the years. In the early episodes, guests were lucky to walk away with ten dollars, and the ones who did were giddy with excitement. In later years, the grand prize was $10,000, a staggering sum for 1959. Yes, it’s old. Yes, it’s dated. Some of it’s just plain weird. But for escapist belly laughs with a history lesson thrown into the mix, Groucho fans will be mighty glad these lost episodes turned up.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Write Good For Netflix

Like a few other film bloggers, I polished my review writing chops over at that place with the red envelopes. If you think you have what it takes to become a famous and fabulously wealthy film blogger like me, you might want to submit a few reviews to Netflix just to get your feet wet. Here are some hints….

Size Matters
There’s still a hefty portion of the world that equates length with quality, so make your reviews virtual epics. You’ve got 2000 characters (with spaces) to work with, so use every stinkin one of them. Throw in a grocery list if you have to, just make it long. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense; no one reads long reviews anyway. But let’s face it, a great big pile o’ words just looks impressive. And you’ll likely get some “helpfuls” from kind folks who simply admire the effort.

No Hablo Ingles
When reviewing a foreign film, make it very clear that the FILM IS NOT IN ENGLISH. And yes, you may have to use all caps to reach the very dim. There are people out there who are shocked and appalled to find a movie called A Nos Amors does not have people conversing in English with twangy Wisconsin accents. Half the bad reviews foreign films get are due to folks being miffed that they had to endure a few seconds of exposure to a non-American culture. These people really shouldn’t be renting Last Year at Marienbad, so make it plain.

The Ps Make It Pop
Everyone knows about Profound and Poignant. In fact, they’re a reviewer’s best friends. But if you’re not using the full array of P words, you’re missing out. Preternatural, Plethora and Polythematic have all helped me out of jams in the past. And of course, everyone loves Pusillanimous, which has the added charm of being a word that sounds dirty, but really isn’t.

Who’s the Helmer, Elmer?
Be sure to mention the director’s name at least 3 times. More if possible. Doesn’t matter if the film is good or bad. Like football coaches, directors get all the credit or the blame, regardless of whether they deserve it, so make sure everyone knows who to praise or crucify. Plus, frequent director name-dropping makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about and it helps you reach that 2000 character limit. And if it’s an Apitchapong Weerasathakul film, you’re almost finished before you begin!

The only exception to this rule is if you’re reviewing a TV show. No one cares about TV directors because they tend to be talentless hacks and assholes.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Recently Viewed - Apocalypse Edition

Je tu il elle (1974)***

Chantal Akerman’s early experiment is more a three act assembly of scenes than conventional cinema. In the first act, she rolls around on the floor in a sparsely furnished suburban apartment, while eating bags of sugar and trying to piece together scattered pages of a script. In Act 2, she bolts the apartment and hitches a ride with a trucker (Niels Arestrup) and over a period of a few days his sleeper compartment gets quite the workout. Act 3 is one long – and I do mean long – lesbian love scene that’s remarkably unerotic. The second act is by far the strongest, with Arestrup adding a much needed reality counterbalance to Akerman’s introspection. One wishes this story had been expanded to feature length and the other vignettes discarded. Akerman has gone on to a long and prolific directorial career, known for her challenging and controversial films. Devoted fans will be interested in this unrefined glimpse into her humble beginnings, but be advised it’s not a film designed for the general public. And that’s putting it mildly.

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (2009)***

The Duel features some wonderful acting and detailed period production, yet it never quite shakes the tasteful chains that make it seem like a big screen version of a Masterpiece Theater installment. Set in a Baltic Sea beach town, Andrew Scott stars in this tale of rural decadence as a young, dissolute dandy who has fled Moscow after stealing another man’s wife (the very hot Fiona Glascott). The film hints and nudges and frolics with the concept of honor, as self righteous neighbor Van Koren (icy Tobias Menzies) elects to make a stand for all that is decent and good – in his foolish mind, anyway. The film has some issues, in particular Scott who, despite a solid performance, looks and sounds so much like Mark Ruffalo that it all gets a bit distracting. The Duel has been deified by a number of critics, but despite oozing good taste and decorum, it’s at best only ok.

Black Heaven (2010)***1/2

Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, who you may remember as Louis Garrel’s gay fling in Love Songs, has the lead in this Hitchcock–style thriller. A missing cell phone leads to romantic obsession with a sensual bottle-blond (Louise Bourgoin) and some twisted dealings with her dangerously unbalanced brother (Melvil Poupard, who gets better with every film). A computer game is used for narrative propulsion and, surprisingly, it actually kind of works. Indeed, none of the film seems as preposterous as it should, so give long time writer turned director Gilles Marchand a healthy dose of credit. In all, Black Heaven is a lightweight, middle of the road entertainment that has the good sense not to overstay its welcome.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Battle in Heaven (2005)****1/2

No filmmaker working today creates alternate universes with the cleverness or conviction of Carlos Reygadas. But in lieu of vampires, monstrous aliens or azure-skinned extraterrestrials, Reygadas populates his parallel worlds with the tortured souls of the lonely and the lost. His austere, melancholy tales feature settings and characters that at first glance seem remarkable only for their banality. Then, in his unhurried, deliberate fashion, Reygadas proceeds to deconstruct the familiar before our very eyes, until the physical and existential moorings of his characters crumble like moldy planks. Unsupported by the laws of nature, they drift into a world that has been fantastically altered: deceased Mennonites rise from their deathbeds, Bach concertos blare from gas stations and gnarled, ancient matrons become objects of intense desire. The barricade between the spheres of flesh and spirit becomes a thin vapor with Reygadas serving as tour guide. But be advised his cinematic excursions are designed for the hardy, and the accommodations are far from posh.

Set in natively surrealist Mexico City, Battle in Heaven is a measured and deliberate unspooling of the muffled desperations of a paunchy, middle-aged lummox named Marcos (Marcos Hernandez). On the surface, his life appears so unrelentingly dull even Reygadas’ camera seems to lose interest; the device often stepping out for daydream-like 360 degree pans of local architecture while waiting for Marcos to break out of his periodic stupefied trances. Reygadas is hardly the first to use this technique – Bertolucci was an aficionado and Scorsese worked it beautifully in Taxi Driver – and here it casts Marcos squarely in the judgment seat. Reygadas wants his audience to identify and sympathize with Marcos out of base humanitarian instinct, but he is issuing a warning to proceed with caution.

Churning turmoil lurks underneath Marcos’ placid countenance, as he and his dour chub of a wife (Bertha Ruiz) have launched a plot to kidnap the infant son of a well-to-do acquaintance (Rosalinda Ramirez). Through an implied general incompetence, the child has died, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Marcos with bitter recriminations and an evening of un-photogenic sex to succor their wounds. But even this enormous guilt does not totally account for Marcos’ confused withdrawal, for a seductive young woman named Ana (Anapola Mushkadez) has just returned to Mexico City. And thanks to a shared history of forbidden secrets, the pair exists in a wretched symbiosis.

Battle in Heaven contains many sexually explicit sequences devoid of any hint of romanticism. Reygadas presents the participants as little more than sides of beef, awaiting inspection and shipment. To Marcos, sexual congress is a stripping away not only of clothing, but the covenants of civilization in a guilt-ridden act of degradation. To Ana, it’s pleasurable recreation; something to do while passing the time. Reygadas confounds expectations by his starkly clinical approach and transcends moral vindictiveness. That burden is left to the slow witted Marcos; his battered psyche eventually serving as the prosecution’s star witness.

The cinema of Carlos Reygadas will appear plodding to most viewers, yet he crams every frame with food for thought, some of it ultimately indigestible. A number of thematic motifs run through Battle in Heaven like narrative capillaries. Marcos is frequently placed on the periphery of large groups, whose unity of purpose stands in sharp contrast to his baffled floundering. An off-key drum and bugle detachment serves as a powerful reminder to Marcos of all the reasons he is unfit for society, while a massive throng of religious pilgrims becomes a cleansing river that washes Marcos away on currents of the abject. Battle in Heaven takes place in a world that makes the mystical mundane while imbuing the ordinary with darkly mysterious underpinnings. It is not comfortable, entertaining or even fully understandable. But just try to forget it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lacombe Lucien (1974)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Director Louis Malle’s wonderful movie, LACOMBE LUCIEN starts in June, 1944, and ends in October of the same year. The story is full of dark humor and illuminates the divisive atmosphere of WWII in rural France. After being rejected by the partisans because he is too young and naïve, baby-faced peasant Lucien (Pierre Blaise) leaves home to work for Nazi collaborators, becoming a member of the German police almost immediately.

A crack shot, and enamoured of the lethal and psychological power of guns, he takes to the role like a duck to water; cruelty and manipulation come easy. But this implacable, uneducated, young farm boy is unpredictable, a curious blend of hubris and deference. Scenes of brutal sensibility paint an ugly picture of the opportunistic French Nazi-collaborators as they capture partisans and Jews for interrogation and execution.

One of the French fops working for the Germans takes Lucien to Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler, in a dignified, nuanced performance), a Jewish couturier who has fled Paris and his successful business. M. Horn makes him a suit with pantalons de golf and introduces him to his beautiful daughter, France (Aurore Clement), and his taciturn mother, and a relationship develops when Lucien falls for the lovely France. Lucien’s behavior is fascinating and best understood through empathy with this farm boy’s native intelligence and complete lack of exposure to formal education and politics. There is, throughout this intriguing and brilliantly subtle film, something at once sociopathic and endearing in Lucien. In the words of M Horn: I find it strangely difficult to completely detest you. This is a well made, fresh and intelligent film, one highly recommended by this lover of the smart and thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Friday, May 13, 2011

Salt of the Earth (1954)***

Salt of the Earth would be a wholly insignificant film except for its era-defining historical baggage. Writer Michael Wilson, director Herbert Biberman and actor Will Geer had all been blacklisted thanks to Joe McCarthy and his surly gang of grandstanding paranoids. The fact that this bunch was able to make any film at all, especially one that extolled the virtues of international labor unions, was a gutsy, in-your-face accomplishment. The production was challenged at every turn, with none other than Howard Hughes threatening to shut down any film lab that ran the degenerate commie negative through its processor. By the tireless vigilance the nation’s aristocratic elite - their well paid lawyers, anyway – innocent Americans would be spared Salt of the Earth’s subversive advocacy of racial equality and human dignity.

The film centers on a miner’s strike at a zinc extraction hole in a far flung corner of New Mexico – actually, in 1954 all parts of New Mexico were far flung – and is loosely based on actual events. Quite pregnant Esperanza Quintero (Rosauria Revueltas) lives with her miner husband Ramon (Juan Chacon) and two kids in a tiny company-owned cottage. She serves as the film’s occasional narrator and overall moral compass. Ramon’s local is predominantly Latino, but that doesn’t stop the managerial scumbags of Delaware Zinc from repeatedly assigning the most dangerous duties exclusively to Mexican-American miners. The foreman’s plan is as simple as it is reprehensible: build racial tension and animosity to divide the miners and, ultimately, neuter the union.

Biberman, who never misses a chance to inject schmaltz, spends a lot of time establishing Esperanza’s miserable existence. She cringes as the disgruntled Ramon returns every evening to bolt his dinner in the foulest of moods. Ramon berates Esperanza’s purchase of a radio on credit, declaring the installment plan a nefarious plot to enslave the working man. Meanwhile, amid the crying and shrieking of the frightened offspring, the sobbing Esperanza prays to God that her baby never be born. And thus ends another quiet night in the Quintero household.

Things come to a head when Ramon nearly blows himself to bits one day, and the miners vote to strike. The screenplay then opens up to address all manner of injustices, including the plight of the miners’ wives and oppressed women the world over. When the men are barred from picketing by a slick legal maneuver, Esperanza and her fellow housewives take up the protest signs and spend their days marching in the high desert chill. The men, stuck at home caring for their squalling kids, begin to think that fumbling around in the dark with powerful explosives is not so bad after all. While the cocky and condescending miners fully deserve this dose of feminist comeuppance, Biberman conducts the sequence with the texture and depth of a sheet of paper, and all sense of irony is lost.

The film was shot in B/W on location in the bright New Mexico sun, resulting in glaring contrasts that give the production a distinctly newsreel look. Appropriate, since Michael Wilson’s script has the subtlety of a wire service bulletin. It turns out the local sheriff (Will Geer) is in cahoots with the mysterious mine owner (David Wolfe). Things get a little silly when the constables start to lock up all the women and children, but the resulting fiasco reveals the cracks in this unholy alliance between management and law enforcement. And underneath it all is Sol Kaplan’s over dramatic, repetitive score, which sounds like the anthem of some obscure nation that just took the silver medal in archery.

When word reached Washington that the dastardly Herbert Biberman was producing a foul ode to communism, the production took on the habits of a criminal enterprise – constantly on the move, forced to keep one step ahead of McCarthy’s harassing hoard. Production plans were often altered on the fly, so considering these extreme circumstances Salt of the Earth has been given enormous critical slack, and rightly so. Still, audiences will not be surprised to learn that most of the actors were non-professionals, although Chacon, a real life miner and union official, does a credible job as Ramon.

But Congressional power could only be resisted for so long, and ultimately the House Un-American Activities Committee extracted their pounds of flesh. Yielding to pressure, all but a handful of theatres refused to show the film and, according to legend, the original negative sat in a tool shed in Los Angeles for a decade, safe from confiscation and ultimately forgotten. Michael Wilson, using a variety of aliases, was able to keep working and eventually a guilt-ridden Academy awarded him a posthumous Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai. Biberman was not as fortunate. Finding assignments scarce, he waited on the sidelines and watched his old school, theatrical directing style fall completely out of favor in the nouvelle vague influenced Hollywood of the 1960s. But McCarthy’s most severe punishment was reserved for leading lady Rosauria Revueltas, who was deported to Mexico where she lived out her days as a yoga instructor.

Alternately cursed and acclaimed, Salt of the Earth stands as a testament to the self correcting nature of the American political pendulum. For Congress to think that this melodramatic piffle posed a serious threat to the United States was the height of absurdity. But, as we are seeing in Wisconsin, Arizona and a few other states, that’s what happens when we elect cowards and bullies to represent us.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Toi et moi (2006)**

Toi et Moi is a French romantic comedy so wantonly insipid it seems to have been designed for the sole purpose of entertaining airline passengers. Here we learn all about Julie Depardieu (Julie Depardieu) and Marion Cotillard (Marion Cotillard) and their tedious search for love in the glorious city of Paris. At least I think its Paris; it could be Council Bluffs, Iowa.

At any rate, Depardieu is, for some unknown reason, in a long term relationship with a very creepy fellow named Farid (Tomer Sisley), who cheats on her at every opportunity, constantly degrades and insults her and literally emanates sleaze. Yet, she is head-over-heels crazy about him, and we are shown, in precious greeting-card style animated sequences, her hopes and dreams for their idyllic life together.

Cotillard plays a B-list cellist who has fallen hard for a visiting violin soloist (Jonathan Zaccaii) who is so arrogant and full of himself that, in a just world, he would be taken out and shot. The girls spend much of the picture mooning and moping over these two shmendriks, and yes, after a while, you just want to slap them. At some point, Depardieu wins the attentions of a Spanish carpenter (Sergio Peris Mencheta), apparently proving the seldom heard theory that what women really want is an immigrant minimum-wage laborer. I suppose this is true; come to think of it I do see a lot of lonely looking gals hanging out at Lowes. I'm sorry this review is not better, but I either fell asleep or simply don't remember much else about the film. But I'm sure other things happened eventually

Friday, May 6, 2011

Touch of Welles

Orson Welles was born on this day in 1915. In tribute, we humbly submit the magnificent opening shot from 1953's Touch of Evil

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Treeless Mountain (2008)****1/2

In Treeless Mountain, director So Yong Kim tones down the bleak introspection she crafted to dominant proportions in her debut feature In Between Days, in favor of a simple view of the world through the eyes of children. But Treeless Mountain is no lavishly illustrated fairy tale, but an agonizing story of tender innocents slowly swept into chaos by adult selfishness and irresponsibility.

Jin (Hee-yeon Kim) and Bin (Song-hee Kim), ages 7 and 5 respectively, live what appears to be a quiet, happy life in Seoul with their mother (Soo-ah Lee). Jin ambles off to school each frosty morning - her uniform complete with knee socks and maryjanes - while Bin goes to daycare where finger painting and frequent naps await her. But underneath Mom’s sheltering wing lies a heart laden with anger and desperation. Her husband abandoned the family months ago – positive male role models are alien to Kim’s playbook – and the time has come for her to venture out in a last ditch effort to drag Daddy home.

Kim carefully keeps the camera at the children’s eye level, and through long lens compression creates a sense of restricted view. The children lack a complete understanding of their circumstances, with small, palatable bits of information doled out like strained carrots, and the viewer shares their confusion and dismay. The unfathomable notion of adult perfidy has entered the gentle souls of Jin and Bin, with all its turbulent angles reflected in their innocent eyes. Kim’s insistence on tight close-ups of the girls has the feel of a Bergman-esque baring of the psyche, yet audiences are never allowed to forget Jin and Bin’s vulnerability despite their displays of courage and pluck.

First, the pair is left for safekeeping with Big Aunt (Mi-hyang Kim), their Dad’s spinster sister. Childrearing is not exactly Big Aunt’s chosen field - that would be oblivion drinking – and under her influence the girls’ expectations and prospects begin to whither. When Bin is hit in the face with a rock by a neighborhood bully, Big Aunt confronts the hooligan’s family and, after a heated exchange, extracts payment for Bin’s medicine, which Big Aunt promptly spends at the neighborhood bar.

The girls’ once tidy playground is replaced by a nearby slag heap, where they futilely attempt to coax a dead tree back to life while buses and delivery vans roar past at breakneck speeds. Kim cleverly uses a piggy bank as a symbol of the girls’ deferred dreams; their mother vowing to return when the bank is filled. But as the girls launch amusing moneymaking initiatives (fried grasshoppers, anyone?), Big Aunt has her fill of domesticity, and dispatches the girls to their grandparents’ hardscrabble farm.

The film plays with scale, both of physical objects and emotional needs. The mountain in the title is actually just a discarded pile of fill dirt, but to Jin and Bin its lofty peak offers a fine prospect of the bus stop from which their mother departed. The dire plight of Jin and Bin is contrasted with two other examples of helplessness. The first is a young playmate afflicted by Down’s syndrome coupled with their surly, constantly complaining grandfather, both of whom are dependent on the attentive care of kindly women for their very survival. The girls stubbornly cling to the fantasy that their finally full piggy bank will harbinger their mother’s return, until cold reality inspires Jin to consider more selfless and beneficial uses of their earnings.

So Yong Kim has expanded her palette from the starkly minimal In Between Days to an impressive and quite challenging interpretation of the confusing swirl of adulthood from a child’s perspective. She somehow gets the very best from her impossibly young actors, who over the course of the film run a full gauntlet of emotions without the slightest hint of falsity. And while the film lacks a clear resolution, the ending doesn’t feel the least bit vague. Miraculously, Kim has reassured us that these virtual toddlers, despite the long and difficult path that confronts them, will be just fine.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Camera Buff (1979)****

A small town rube’s home movie hobby threatens to steal his very soul in this tragicomedy from director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Filmed in the dreary exurbs of Krakow, Camera Buff tells the story of Filip (Jerzy Stuhr), a worker in one of communist Poland’s grimy widget factories, who acquires a super-8 movie camera to chronicle his newly born daughter’s formative years. But Filip’s short subjects of ga-gas and diaper changes attract the attention of his supervisors, who enlist the fledgling filmmaker for a self-serving puff piece documenting a visit to the factory by state big-wigs.

Filip’s epic draws praise from his superiors, effectively throwing gas on the fire of his new passion. He becomes more and more obsessed with the creative possibilities of narrow strips of celluloid and soon is filming everything from lackadaisical street repair crews to soaring birds of prey (not the film’s only allusion to Ken Loach’s Kes). But Filip’s pastime stirs resentment from his wife Irka (Malgoraza Zabkowzka). Filip has become practically useless as a childrearing partner, and Irka would welcome more help with the 2am feedings and less cinematography.

Kieslowski cleverly examines the ramifications of filmmaking and in particular the role of the filmmaker in a society that thrives on half truths and heavily tailored messaging. When Filip enters a documentary about a disabled coworker into a film festival, the powers-that-be see the production not as a simple, heartfelt portrait but a patriotic tome celebrating the empowering glories of Soviet economics. Polish TV executives assign Filip a series of films designed to show the success of a social engineering project undertaken in his hometown and Filip’s all too happy to be a useful idiot, despite the fact he knows the project is a fraudulent failure.

What started as a harmless way of capturing family history morphs into a Faustian bargain with enormous consequences through Filip’s disheveled naivety. But Kieslowski tells this tale with such gentle humor that the audience, like Filip, are blindsided when he finds himself in a sticky trap of his own making. Despite the entertaining cocoon Kieslowski presents, he pulls no punches as he elevates bumbling Filip into an iconic figure: the innocent artist too quick to believe his own press clippings, allowing his work to be manipulated by those he foolishly trusts.

As a director, Kieslowski had a wonderful ability to combine the mundane with the magical, creating stark textures imbued with allegorical possibility. It was a quality he would fully exploit in later films like The Double Life of Veronique and the Colors trilogy. Here he examines the filmmaker’s lot without self pity and victimization, but with a harsh assessment of an artist’s individual responsibility. Directors who engage in the navel gazing act of making films about their craft usually go way too easy on themselves, or portray their alter-egos with extreme cartoony ruthlessness. As Filip realizes that his 16mm dreams have come true at a terrible price, he finally turns the camera on himself, both in an act of symbolic suicide and in recognition that he has become as pathetically twisted as his former subjects.