Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Films I Saw for the First Time in 2012

I don't go to the multiplex enough to warrant a typical Best of Year list. So here are the films I saw in 2012 that I rated 4.5 stars or higher:


35 Shots of Rum (2009)
"35 Shots of Rum is a remarkable existential drama about the intersection of some thoroughly unremarkable lives."

Room at the Top (1959)
"The prequel to 1962’s Life at the Top, this bleak British New Waver shows how that blackguard Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) weaseled his way to a good job and lasting unhappiness."



Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
"A classic horror movie becomes a symbol for humanity’s deceptions and delusions in The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice’s minimalist allegory from 1973."



Oslo, August 31st (2011)
"Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st is the antithesis of the seasonal blockbuster, but this brooding portrait of a recovering drug addict will remain in your mind long after memories of summer’s superheroes have faded."





Meek's Cutoff (2010)
"Meek’s Cutoff captures the brutal slog faced by the pioneers without a hint of the traditional romantic heroism, grinding the dust, heat and discomfort of the undertaking deep into its characters’ faces."





Man Without a Past (2002)
"Man Without a Past encapsulates just about everything that is good about the Kaurismäki canon, and creates a new appreciation for the director’s ability to craft eccentric realties."




Hide Away (2011)
"Morose and meditative, Hide Away is a film that’s executed to near perfection."



Chico & Rita (2010)
"The movie is a sensory fest, with superb visual design by Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba along with some great Jazz tunes. "


A Separation (2011)
"A Separation is a work of such assurance and skill it stands as that rarest of commodities; a film you don’t want to end."



Take Shelter (2011)
"The thunderheads that form in the late afternoon sky are not mere meteorological phenomena, but harbingers of a new and powerful malevolence; their golden slimy raindrops a dire warning to a distracted world."



Late Spring (1949)
"Societal customs and early forms of feminism collide in Late Spring, a masterfully delicate family drama from director Yasujirô Ozu."






HONORABLE MENTION



Margaret (2011)
"Anna Paquin, despite pushing 30 in real life, is totally convincing here as a privileged teen from the Upper West Side who learns the hard way that life is not all about designer shoes."




City of Your Final Destination (2009)
"With the passing of Ismail Merchant --and director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala both well into their 80s-- The City of Your Final Destination may mark the last production of this legendary creative team."




The Concert (2009)
"Think Rocky for classical musicians, and if tears aren’t streaming down your cheeks by the end, have someone check your pulse."




Film Socialiisme (2010)
"Beautifully shot on digital video, Film Socialiisme contains visual allusions to earlier Godard pieces that seem to organically expand on the original sources."





Saturday, December 29, 2012

TCM for January 2013



TCM's January Schedule customizable for your time zone: Click Here

Here's my picks:


1/5



A mysterious stranger plays dueling families against each other in a Mexican border town.
C-100 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

The mob sets out to catch a child killer whose crimes are attracting too much police attention.


 1/6

An aging Cavalry officer tries to prevent an Indian war in the last days before his retirement.
C-104 mins, TV-PG, CC

A middle-aged prostitute reflects on her past.

1/7


An aging housewife seeks direction when she catches her husband in an affair



After seeing the classic Frankenstein, two naive young girls go searching for the mad doctor's monster


1/8


An old gangster and gambler decides to rob a gambling casino


1/11


Industrial film showing the making of Tupperware


1/13


A small town postman tries to adopt modern efficiency techniques.
Dir: Jacques Tati 



Two children are stranded in the Australian outback and are forced to cope on their own.


Onetime college friends cope with the sexual revolution of the '60s.
C-98 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format



A classical pianist who's dropped out of society returns to the family he deserted.
C-98 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format



A cross-country trip to sell drugs puts two hippie bikers on a collision course with small-town prejudices.
C-96 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

Vladimir Nabokov's racy classic focuses on an aging intellectual in love with a teenager.
BW-153 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

1/21


A rock star's personal appearance turns a small town into a disaster area.
C-112 mins, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format



A banker who's lost his job for growing a beard embraces the cultural revolution.
C-90 mins, TV-PG, Letterbox Format

1/22


A young bride is terrorized by the memories of her husband's glamorous first wife.
BW-130 mins, TV-PG, CC

Scientists turn a mentally challenged man into a genius.
C-103 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Couple of Fair to Middlin' Time Wasters...



                                                       Eva (1962) ✬✬✬


Opening with a very 60s score by Michel LeGrand that runs from ultra-cool to manic and back again, dotted with bits of Billie, EVA made me apprehensive that it would be a bad flick from the getgo. Appallingly over-exposed (or badly filmed or poor production) harbor shots. But how intoxicating to be in Venice! About ten minutes along, the production quality improves. OMG, it's a shag fur bedspread. Whether it's shoes or booze or both, Eva (Jeanne Moreau) looks like she couldn't walk a straight line if her life depended on it. Very funny. 


The guy obsessed with her is too cool for human consumption, an exaggerated drip of a guy, directed by Joseph Losey in a very silly mood. The story is very not really (sic), the cinematography, carefully aimed, framed and lighted. Made back in the self-conscious days when boobs and nipples were all the rage, we are treated to naughty peeks at a couple of side views, one naked nipple and a few sticking out from behind vaguely transparent blouses. All very early Eurotrash and liberated. Ultimately, this is one of the silliest of the pretentious artsy efforts of the era, and it was way too long, but I'd say see it for laffs and historical interest and the always extraordinary Jeanne M.

Reviewed by Shu Zin





                                 Joe Dancer: The Big Trade (1981) ✬✬✬


I've always considered Robert Blake a short, chunky guy with a slight hint of Donald Duck in his voice and no real acting creds since he played a crybaby in The Little Rascals. He was never convincing in any of the private detective roles he so lusted after during his career as a television actor. JOE DANCER – THE BIG TRADE, atrociously directed by Reza Badiyl, is a pilot for such a series, but no matter how jaunty the script, nor how ostentatiously he dresses on the left, Mr Blake is no Mike Hammer. This film, however, is a real gem, exemplary of the kind of silliness that dominated Hollywood and television in the 70s: nonsensical, blathering plot that makes little sense, consistently dreadful acting, a total disregard for credibility or the audience's intelligence. See it for historical interest and just to laugh at how hopelessly miscast the fat-faced little Mr Blake is as a tough private eye. Enjoy!

Reviewed by Shu Zin




Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Separation (2011) ✭✭✭✭✭





Watching A Separation, winner of the best foreign film Oscar in 2012, is kind of like stepping into a trap. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi serves up a delicious bait in his opening scene; a long, blistering take of an Iranian couple attempting to persuade a judge to grant them a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband Nader (Payman Maadi) have been wrangling for years to get an emigration visa. But now that they’ve finally been successful, Nader wants to stay behind and care for his father, who’s suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s.



Their window to leave will expire soon, and Simin wants to take their gifted daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to Europe for a better life before it’s too late. The scene, filmed from the unseen judge’s point of view, packs such frank believability that as Hatami and Maadi work themselves into a froth, decades of slights and disappointments come tumbling out with mesmerizing effect. The trap draws tighter, and the viewer is pinned for the duration.



However, A Separation’s tentacles are just beginning to ensnarl. The story’s scope widens to reveal Farhadi’s loftier ambition. He has not set out to simply make a film about a troubled couple, but a multi-faceted mediation on families, generational change and the complicated nature of religious belief. When Nader must hire a caregiver to look after his father, he encounters an odd duck named Razieh (the brilliant Sareh Bayat), a traditional Islamist whose whining about her work is interrupted only by foggy periods when her mind seems to be in a mystical netherworld.




In Razieh’s opinion, religious strictures forbid her from doing a thorough job of caring for Nader’s helpless father. Along with her secretive nature, Razieh’s shortcomings eventually lead the harried Nader to an outburst of frustration, with serious, perhaps deadly, consequences. Farhadi continues to fold other elements into his hypnotic mix. Razieh’s husband Hajjat (Sahab Hossenni) is kind and earnest on the surface, but his inner turmoil will reveal dark and dangerous edges. He most directly embodies the societal and religious pressures that drive all the characters; pressures that eventually threaten to crush them.



And just as an impulsive moment brings a world of trouble to Nader, audiences will be swept along by A Separation’s shifting characters and clever writing that builds like a crystal. Farhadi often frames his characters in doorways and windows, giving Nader’s simple apartment an implication of mysterious depths. This technique, championed and mastered by Ozu, evokes a sense of human spirit temporarily confined by societal restraints, but moving ever closer to the frightening freedom that lurks just beyond. Farhadi doesn’t condemn Islam as such, indeed the sense of universality he achieves within this starkly traditional setting is one of the film’s most impressive aspects. A Separation is a work of such assurance and skill it stands as that rarest of commodities; a film you don’t want to end.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Days of Future Passed: A Christmas Memory Part 5

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four


December was usually a slow month for farm families, but not at our house. My mother’s father had died suddenly a few years earlier and was buried on Christmas Eve, with light snowflakes covering the newly dug earth. Since then the holidays were a bittersweet time for my mother, who warded off the blues by throwing herself into a whirlwind of Christmas activities. She baked pies and cakes, made homemade candy and fudge and roasted hams and turkeys galore. Most of the bounty she gave away to less fortunate families in the area, but there were still plenty of goodies for her brood to nibble on. While Baptists aren’t known for a plethora of vices, it was generally believed that the Bible’s forbiddance of gluttony was waived during the month of December. A popular Christmas present in our family was warm, baggy flannel pajamas. Probably because we’d all gotten too fat to wear our regular clothes.

When she wasn’t cooking, my mother was immersed in holiday decorating. She larded the outside of our house with hundreds of twinkly lights. Every electrical outlet in our home was stuffed with a Rube Goldberg configuration of cube taps and electric cables. My father took to hiding an extension cord in his truck so he’d have one in case he needed to use his drill or saw; otherwise my mother would have snarfed it for her ever growing annual display. Along the way, I’m sure she broke -- or at least severely bent --- every rule associated with electrical safety. How our home avoided becoming a tinder box I’ll never know.

The centerpiece of her interior scheme was the tree, and she and I would venture out into the woods, hatchet in hand, to select a fine specimen. We usually did this on a day my father had gone into town to run errands --she didn't trust his judgement in Christmas trees-- and after a few minutes of rambling through the brush we’d locate a young pine or cedar about 6 foot tall. My mother liked to step back and visualize all her holiday geegaws hanging from it. Once it had been judged suitable in height, shape and fullness, I’d take the hatchet and hack away at the tree’s base while my mother implored me repeatedly not to cut my foot off. A few days before Christmas we’d return to the woods as a family and retrieve the final touches for her masterpiece. As my father shot down mistletoe with his rifle, my mother and I would cut holly branches and pull up strands of running cedar vines, which she would use for garland. By Christmas Eve, every flat surface in our home was covered with some type of festive seasonal flora. Thank God none of us suffered from hay fever.

Along with all this hub-bub was Mrs. Willis’ Christmas play and its ambitious schedule of twice a week rehearsals. Despite the dodgy talent she had to work with, the production was shaping up nicely. My younger cousin Richie had been given the pivotal role of Tommy, and as long as he and I didn’t look at each other, he could avoid giggling long enough to pull off the character’s existential confusion and resentment. Six years earlier, Richie and I had spent a memorable afternoon dressing up stray cats in baby clothes and the hilarious images were still vivid in our minds. I caught a lucky break as Angel #2 because Angel #1 turned out to be none other than the beautiful Vicky Willis, who was equally easy on the eyes and ears. Her lovely soprano carried our O Holy Night duet, and my job basically was to stay out of the way. In fairness, I did actually sing and not just move my lips. But when we arrived at the dramatic “fall on your knees” section, I shifted into a barely audible register and let Vicky’s lilting tone carry the load. In the long run, it was best for everyone.

The play still had a few rough spots, my father’s turn as narrator chief among them. He tried mightily to memorize his speeches, but the sheer volume of verbiage overwhelmed him. Mrs. Willis told him that he didn’t need to recite perfectly; that she could fix him up with a prop clipboard --like a factory manager or something-- and he could just read the lines whenever his memory failed. While my father was tolerant to a fault of others’ shortcomings, he was brutally critical of his own, and insisted that he would learn his part just like everyone else. No clipboards or cheat sheets for him. The Andersons have a long history of mule-headedness; eschewing simple, practical solutions in favor of vague, absolutist notions of how things ought to be. We are the stuff of self-help books.

Another area of difficulty was the dog, played by Richie’s ancient Labrador mix named Snuffy. The dog became quite excited at the rehearsals, and had a tendency to issue a foul and appalling wind at the play’s critical moments. The trait was actually useful during the sentimental finale, as Snuffy’s emissions caused the cast to become genuinely weepy. There was some talk of replacing the beast, but despite his digestive issues Snuffy was a superbly trained animal. He unfailingly sat, barked and played dead on command; all vital attributes to the sense of pathos Mrs. Willis wanted to convey.

The performance was scheduled for the Sunday before Christmas, and all that week my father burned the midnight oil in an attempt to master his monologues. Late Saturday night, my father’s memorization was interrupted by an abrupt knock on the door. It was Eppie, his three remaining teeth gleaming in the moonlight and blood gushing from a slash on his forehead.

“Call the law Mister Annason, call the law!”

As a blistering wave of fetid alcohol essence reached my father’s nostrils, he grabbed a handkerchief from his back pocket and handed it to Eppie, who began to dab at his wounds.

“What in the world happened Eppie?”

The ruckus had prized my mother and me from our warm beds, and soon she was preparing a cloth soaked with hydrogen peroxide to give Eppie’s noggin a thorough cleaning.

As Eppie flopped down on the back stoop, the whole sordid story came out. Eppie’s daughter Lisa and her husband Frank were visiting from Baltimore. As the trio sipped on Eppie’s powerful moonshine, a heated argument ensued concerning a loan Eppie had neglected to repay. Frank had always been a decent enough sort when he lived here, but since he and Lisa moved to Maryland he had fallen in with a rough crowd. There were rumors he supplemented his income from the Esskay meat packing plant by selling heroin. Frank decided that Eppie needed to be taught a lesson and, grabbing an empty bottle, the thuggish Frank pummeled his father-in-law to the brink of unconsciousness. Eppie managed to crawl away, and meander the half mile or so to our house.

“And I’ll tell ya somethin’ else,” said Eppie, drawing his saga to a close, “Frank’s car ain’t got no license on it!”

My father, who could be quite sarcastic when he was tired, retorted, "Slicing a man’s head open is pretty bad, but defying the Division of Motor Vehicles? Now that’s uncalled for,”

As Eppie detailed the full measure of Frank’s perfidy, the lights of a speeding automobile could be seen in the distance exiting Eppie’s yard and tear-assing up the road. As the lights passed by our house, they briefly gave Eppie’s bleeding cranium a heroic back glow.

“There they go now!!” cried Eppie, “Y’all get on back to Baltimore! If Frank ever comes around here again, I’ll show him! I'll show him!"

“You’ve already shown him how much you can bleed.” my father quipped.

Eppie’s first-aid rag was saturated in blood, and the flow from the gaping cut showed no signs of stopping. My father told Eppie to get in the truck and he’d take him to the Emergency Room for stitches. Eppie responded to my father’s offer by vomiting on the glistening grass, followed by several spasms of dry heaves.

“If you’re through making a spectacle of yourself, let’s go.” barked my father. “Look on the bright side. Now they won’t have to pump your stomach.”

The following night was the premiere of our play, and the church quickly filled to capacity. Uncle Larry had to empty the little wooden donation box in the vestibule as it was stuffed full of dollar bills with a long queue of patrons yet to enter. When showtime arrived, the sanctuary lights dimmed and the choir marched in by candle light to a rousing overture of Oh Come, All Ye Faithful. That afternoon, a makeshift network of curtains and scrims had been installed in front of the pulpit. As the choir settled into their seats, the apparatus slowly and squeakily opened revealing my father, dashingly clad in a top coat and fedora --which he and my mother had made a special trip to Lynchburg to purchase-- standing in front of a hand-painted backdrop of a small town covered in snow. Then, absolutely nothing happened.

After a few beats of silence, some members of the audience began shift in their pews, accompanied by the distant hacking of those stricken with winter colds. The silence continued as my father starred mutely into the distance. He’d been with Eppie at the Emergency Room until 4 AM, and somewhere along the way his hours of preparation had deserted him. But Mrs. Willis had learned the first rule of directing -- be prepared for disaster-- and she had it covered. She quickly signaled her son Ernesto, who was standing just offstage and dressed in heavy winter clothes. Ernesto walked out to my dad as though he were simply a passer by and, with a slick move worthy of a star quarterback, handed him a newspaper, on the back of which Mrs. Willis had scotch taped all of of my father’s speeches. Despite Ernesto’s heavy covering, several patrons recognized the football hero. As he walked off to the wings, his cameo drew appreciative applause.

My surprised father glanced at the paper and, his memory jogged, was off to the races: “This time of night I always like to go out for a newspaper” --Ooh, nice ad lib there Dad-- “And with all the bad news these days, it’s easy to lose faith in the true meaning of Christmas. Tonight I’d like to tell you about two people who faced a crisis of faith: a little boy named Tommy and a doctor who lost his nerve and gave up on life...”

From there, the play progressed quite smoothly, with establishing scenes of Tommy’s love for his faithful dog, and the subsequent tragic accident that would land Buck at death’s door. These dramatic chunks were interspersed with meditative monologues from my father and carols from the choir, while Ernesto and the rest of the crew quickly made changes in scenery. At the veterinary clinic, Buck’s condition grew progressively worse. The local vet ultimately decided that Buck’s only hope was a rare and complex operation that was far beyond his ability. He only knew of one doctor capable of such a difficult procedure, and that was old Doc Hanley, who now lived in a shack by the river and hadn’t practiced in years. While Snuffy, his body ensnared in a web of medical tubes and attachments, convincingly played dead on the examining table, my grief stricken cousin Richie embraced him and lashed out at God in confusion and anger.

The next scene would take place at Doc Hanley’s decrepit cottage, so my father had quite a bit of time to fill. He informed us of Doc Hanley’s tragic backstory; how he had once had a thriving practice, but one day made a careless mistake that caused the death of an expensive thoroughbred horse. In the resulting lawsuit, Doc Hanley had lost his practice, his home and his family, and now lived like a hermit with a whiskey bottle as his only companion.

Uncle Duke had been cast as Doc Hanley, and all those years of watching Bonanza had instilled him with a surprisingly polished sense of timing. The scene opened with Tommy desperately knocking on the cabin’s door while Duke slumped in his chair, enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of drunkards. Rudely awakened, Uncle Duke began to gruffly holler at Richie, but his performance never descended to Mr. Adkins’ legendary degree of eccentric bad taste. As Tommy told his heartbreaking story, Doc Hanley’s addled mind began to clear. Amid Tommy’s pleas, Doc Hanley was struck by Tommy’s resemblance to his own long lost son. He reluctantly agreed to attempt the risky surgery, warning Tommy not to get his hopes up.

A small room behind the pulpit was being used as a staging area, and Vicky and I were waiting there when Mrs. Willis came over for a last minute costume check of Angels 1 and 2. Mrs. Gormley, who worked as a seamstress at the Burlington plant, had fashioned some white bedsheets into fairly respectable celestial attire, complete with halos made from pipe cleaners laden with gold glitter. Our heavenly ponchos passing muster with the director, Mrs. Willis whispered for us to wait for our cue and “just do your best,” which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

According to plan, while Buck’s surgery was being performed in silhouette, Vicky and I would enter stage left in front of the scrim and, under an intensely focused spotlight, deliver an O Holy Night for the ages. I lined up behind Vicky at the staging room door, and as she opened it ever so slightly to listen for our cue, a remarkable thing happened. Vicky began to bend down until her hands were resting on her knees. Which, of course, meant her lovely tuchas was thrust out right in front of me. And, yes, through her flowing spectral vestment, one could see that there were unclad wonders beneath. While I tried to remain calm, I was understandably quite delighted at this turn of events. In fact, certain of my anatomical regions spontaneously expressed that delight in an extremely tangible way. Thank goodness angels preferred baggy, relaxed fit garments.

One of my favorite books at time was J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. There’s a scene in the book where Holden goes to meet an old girlfriend in Manhattan for a hastily arranged date. She suggests they go skating at Radio City, where she rents the type of short skirt favored by figure skaters. Holden then realizes that’s why she wanted to go skating; to show him “how cute her butt looked.”

Perhaps that was the impulse that drove Vicky. There was really no reason for her to bend over like that; she should be able to hear just as well standing up straight. And I --pudgy, dorky and two years her junior -- had absolutely no illusions that this exotic goddess had any personal interest in me. Vicky would soon be turning 16, and able to date according to her parents’ rules. Maybe she wanted to announce to someone --anyone-- that she was ready for this new world. Maybe after a life of hard work and perfect grades, this perpetual teachers' pet felt she deserved a moment as a slutty tease. Who knows?

The rest of the performance is a blur to me. I vaguely remember marching out next to Vicky and making an attempt at singing, while leaning slightly forward to insure my angelic robe did not reveal any untoward protrusions. But I don’t recall anything else until the play’s closing moments when, Christmas morning at Tommy’s house, Doc Hanley delivered the heavily bandaged, but on the mend and out of danger Buck to his delighted owner. Tommy thanked Doc Hanley profusely for saving the dog’s life, but the veterinarian waved him off.

“It is I who should thank you Tommy,” said my Uncle Duke in his best Lorne Green impersonation. “God showed me that I am still needed in this world, and with His help, I’ve decided to reopen my practice. This is truly a miraculous Christmas! If we just have faith....”

It was about this point that Snuffy, who had done such a splendid job as Buck, got caught up in the excitement and unleashed an atrocious gaseous projection. Those in the front pews could be seen reeling their heads back as the noxious vapor wafted throughout the sanctuary. For those on stage, the effect was nothing short of hellish, as Uncle Duke had to cut short his moralizing when a spell of coughing rendered him unable to speak. There were other scraps of dialogue, including a closing summation from my dad, that had to be omitted because cast members had buried their noses deeply in their sleeves.

Frankly, the play’s point had been made. Now it was time to clear the building in the interest of public safety. Ernesto quickly closed the curtain while Mrs. Willis signaled for the organist to start Joy to the World, which the gasping choir weakly sang as they filed out. Mrs. Willis instructed Richie to take Snuffy out the back door and into the night air. Uncle Larry grabbed the thermostat key and, despite the frosty temperature outside, flicked on the central air conditioning.

Later, all the cast members --except for Snuffy-- gathered at the parsonage for refreshments. Mrs. Willis thanked us all for our hard work and dedication, while Reverend Willis made a special point of thanking his wife publicly for a job well done and kissed her on the cheek. And she had done a great job. Thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable organization, Mrs. Willis had taken a group of hayseed thespians and a flatulent, but adorable, pooch and crafted her own Christmas miracle. True to my suspicions, Vicky’s suggestive posturing apparently meant absolutely nothing. When I nervously tried to chat with her, she was pleasant but moved to the other side of the room as soon as possible. After an hour or so, the small talk began to die down and my dad and I said our goodbyes.

As we turned to leave, Ernesto called, “Oh wait Daveed, I have something for you.” He then reached into a cupboard over the TV set and took out what appeared to be a record album.

“Here, I bought this for you. My thanks for taking care of me. It’s the Hetero Tool I promised.”

Ernesto then handed me the record, which turned out to be a copy of Aqualung by the band Jethro Tull. I turned it over and on the back Ernesto had written in marker “Para mi amigo David, que saba buena musica!”

After all these years, Aqualung remains one of my favorites. Of course, these days I play it from CD or MP3, but that original vinyl, with Ernesto’s heartfelt inscription, still has an honored place in my collection. And to me, that great British rock band will always be known as Hetero Tool.





Monday, December 17, 2012

Purple Noon on Blu-ray (1960) ★★★



Remade forty years later as The Talented Mr. Ripley, René Clément’s Purple Noon from 1960 was the first attempt to bring amorphic rogue Tom Ripley, the subject of a series of popular crime novels by Patricia Highsmith, to the screen. Ripley was a precursor of today’s identity thieves, but instead of huddled in front of lonely computer, Ripley went to popular jet set locales and hobnobbed with the idle rich, getting to know every detail about the lives of his potential victims. Once Ripley had assumed their identities, no measure was too extreme to protect his secret or prevent his unmasking.

Now available in a spectacular Criterion blu-ray, Purple Noon features the then relatively unknown but equally spectacular Alain Delon as the crafty con artist. The film is set largely on the Italian coast, but frankly, the sensual, deep azure of the Mediterranean Sea has a hard time competing with Delon’s beauty. Ripley has been sent to this sun drenched paradise in search of a pampered playboy named Philippe (Maurice Ronet), whose profligacy his wealthy father is weary of bankrolling and wants back home in San Francisco. However, Ripley and Philippe become friends, in a frat boy, hail fellow well met sort of way, and along with Philippe’s long suffering girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt), the trio spend their days in leisure aboard a sailboat amid vistas of scenic splendor.


As Purple Noon is a highly structured, plot driven thriller, little more can be offered in the way of plot synopsis, but suffice to say that narrative twists and turns eventually place Ripley at the epicenter of a complex web of fraud, and much worse. However, Purple Noon’s true significance lies in the artistry and aesthetics of its execution. Clément tells the story with the elegant competence of a true veteran, managing Highsmith’s knotty mosaic with clarity and conviction, often in circumstances less than ideal. If one has ever tried to stage and film coherent action sequences from the narrow, slippery deck of a fast moving sailboat, the full measure of Clément’s skill becomes apparent.






Thursday, December 13, 2012

Days of Future Passed: A Christmas Memory: Part 4


Part One
Part Two
Part Three




The week before our annual football showdown with Gretna was traditionally a time of nervous anticipation. However, in recent years that anticipation had veered more toward dread, as the fates of the two teams moved in opposite directions. Last year’s game was nothing short of disastrous, when a laughably overmatched Comets squad was gleefully pummeled by the Hawks 66-0. That year, Gretna went on to win the state championship. This year’s edition was considered even more formidable, with a mix of seasoned seniors and speedy, athletic underclassmen. And this game would be even more important than usual. With a win, the Hawks would be headed back to the state championship game.

But the feeling in our little community was different this year, as the recent clanging grimness was replaced by an odd, warm sensation just short of optimism. Under Ernesto Willis, the Comets had acquired something like a basic competence; his leadership an inspiration to his struggling teammates to work harder and do better. No one was predicting a Comet victory, not even the team’s most ardent fans, but there was real hope that the final score would not reach last year’s depths of embarrassment.

On Sunday, after his opening prayer, Reverend Willis read a list of persons requested to remain behind after the service for a brief meeting. As my father and I heard our names along with a dozen or so others, we slumped down in the pew, wondering what we’d done to deserve excommunication. Reverend WIllis then explained that the meeting’s agenda would be the Christmas play, which his wife would direct, or as he put it: “she’ll be our Cecile B. DeMille.” Reverend Willis selected his wife for the task because he knew from experience that she “loved to tell people what to do.”

A Christmas theatrical was a tradition at our church; a much anticipated annual manifestation of holiday spirit, featuring colorful costumes, festive songs and horrendous acting. Part of the excitement was seeing which local farmer or automobile mechanic, pressed into service as an actor, would forget his lines and go completely blank on stage. On the other hand, some church members reveled in the joys of amateur thespianship. Mr. Adkins, our neighborhood insurance broker, once delivered a performance as Joseph and Mary’s grumpy innkeeper that was so hammy and scenery-devouring he’d been quietly banned from all future productions.

After the service, as my father and I made our way toward the front pew, I wondered if this year I’d be pegged as a shepherd or a wise man. My Christmas play curriculum vitae consisted entirely of these two roles, usually on alternating years. I was secretly hoping it would be a wise man, as the mysterious, dusky chants of We Three Kings of Orient Are perfectly fit the limited wheelhouse of my vocal range. The reliability of which puberty had taken a major toll.

Mrs. Willis handed out scripts to her motley troupe, with each character’s lines underlined in red marker. This year’s production would be a departure from the traditional Christmas play; a contemporary re-imagining of the holiday that included socially relevant elements. The play would be a sort of Baptist Our Town, complete with a folksy, omniscient narrator. The central theme would concern a young boy named Tommy, whose beloved Golden Retriever Buck had been run over by a car and seriously injured. As Buck desperately clung to life at a nearby Veterinary hospital, young Tommy would grow to question God’s providence for our lives, and venture dangerously close to the dark abyss of atheism.

It didn’t sound like there would be much call for shepherds or sultans this year, so I quickly thumbed through the text searching for my red lines. I didn’t appear until page 23, almost at the end, and I’d been assigned the role of Angel #2. I breathed a little easier, figuring a second banana angel couldn’t be too difficult. But as I read closer I discovered Angels 1 and 2 were expected to perform a duet of O Holy Night. I slumped in despair, for the dramatic O Holy Night was an absolute butt kicker, the Queen of the Night of Christmas songs. I wasn’t much of a singer anyway, so me pulling off O Holy Night was about as likely as a crew of chimpanzees successfully constructing a replica of Hoover Dam. After this performance, I’d probably be joining Mr. Adkins on the church’s list of forbidden hacks.

But my trepidation was small potatoes compared to my father, whose ruddy, sun-drenched farmer face had turned a ghostly white. He’d been handed the role of the narrator, and his script contained more red ink than the balance sheet at American Motors. It was a bit of casting against type. Like most farmers, my father was a soft spoken man, given to barely intelligible mutters and mumbles --an annoying trait his son had inherited-- and not at all the sort of person likely to enthrall a capacity-filled venue with powerful and erudite projection.

There was also the matter of memorizing his lengthy monologues. My father could recite cold the unique fertilizer requirements of every square inch of his 80 acres, but the thought of committing all this verbiage to memory left him considering a swift and sudden conversion to Presbyterianism. After the meeting, it was a quiet ride home to my mother’s lovingly prepared fried chicken lunch, as both father and son had been issued herculean challenges that could prove to be their undoing.

Despite a chilly breeze that signaled winter’s icy approach, it was standing room only at Gretna Stadium the following Friday for Comets versus Hawks. As expected, Reverend Hawley’s familiar voice reverberated throughout the facility as he delivered the traditional pre-game prayer. In his time away from us, Reverend Hawley still had not mastered the art of brevity, and his solemn petition seemed to drag on to infinity. He asked God to keep the young men in tonight’s game safe from injury and mindful of the principles of good sportsmanship. He then requested blessings on all those in attendance, and began to list a number of individuals in the community who were ill or infirm. When he started in on political leaders at the local, state and federal levels, mentioning several by name with their full and official titles, a swell of unrest began amid the freezing throng. With Reverend Hawley in mid-sentence, a few people began to utter “Amen”, followed by a few others, until the entire massive assemblage erupted in loud, prayer-ending hosannas. Mr. Hawley had no choice but to abandon his lengthy beseeching and swiftly arrive at his own amen, lest a revolt bodily remove him from the microphone.

Once the game finally began, it was easy to see why the Gretna Hawks were undefeated. The Hawks’ defense was big, mean and quick, swarming to the ball before the Comets could develop any momentum. Ernesto was under pressure from the get-go, his timing and accuracy ruined by Gretna’s disruptive linebackers. The Hawks ran a smooth and efficient offense, with each player executing a clearly defined objective. Their playbook contained a variety of confusing formations, leaving Comet defenders flat footed. In the early going, the Hawks scored virtually at will, and quickly built a 21-0 lead.

If the Gretna side had any deficiencies, self esteem was not among them. As the floundering Comets struggled to mount a comeback, Hawks players milled about on the sideline in a festival of self-congratulation. Several Gretna boys walked the length of the bench, sharing celebratory hand slaps with their smug comrades. Late in the second quarter, when the ball was knocked out of Ernesto’s hand resulting in another Hawks’ touchdown, the 2,000 or so in attendance assumed it was all over but the shouting.

The P.A. announcer read an advertisement from Best Western Hotels promising special rates for Gretna fans traveling to Richmond for next week’s championship game. The dreaded Gretna Hawks Booster Club began handing out preprinted maps of things to see and do in the state capital, along with a signup sheet to reserve space on a special bus they were hiring for the journey. When the whistle sounded ending the first half, most of the Gretna faithful had long stopped paying attention to the game, in favor of an orgy of triumphal back-slapping and congratulatory hugs. The Comets hadn’t beaten Gretna since 1959, and trailing 28-0, that record wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. The big concern now for Gretna fans was next week’s game, and retaining the championship trophy that, by divine right, belonged in the gleaming halls of Gretna High.

But Ernesto, his bleeding nose stuffed with cotton, had learned something about the Hawk’s defense. They tended to be overly aggressive, and often bit on his pump fakes and attempts at misdirection. With the permission of Coach Schneider, Ernesto drew a new play on the locker room blackboard. With his lineman running to the left, he would sprint to the right, where he’d have the option to throw or run. The flummoxed Coach admitted it was worth a try, even if its design made him “cross-eyed.” Coach Schneider announced the play would code-named “Mary, because we sure need her help.”

“That’s it!,” cried Ernesto,”Cross-Eye Mary, like Hetero Tool!”

The Comets received the kickoff to start the second half, and a decent return spotted the ball at their 40. In the huddle, Ernesto called for “Cross-Eye Mary” and the play worked beautifully, as he connected on a pass good for thirty yards. As the Comet receiver was driven out of bounds, a charging Hawks defender slammed him hard into the players’ bench. Penalty flags filled the air, and the Comets were awarded an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. But the drive went no further and the Comets had to settle for a field goal, making the score 28-3.

After the Comets’ kickoff, the Gretna coach did a most peculiar thing. No doubt wanting to rest his starters for the big game next week, he sent his second string offense onto the field. Composed mostly of sophomores, what the group lacked in experience they made up in raw enthusiasm. They did manage a first down, but ultimately had to punt, setting up the Comets at midfield. After a couple of tough slogs, the Comets were faced with 3rd and 8. Ernesto called “Cross-eye Mary” again, and this time connected with his halfback on a crossing route who ran untouched into the end zone. As the third quarter expired, the score was 28-10.

Meanwhile, the party atmosphere at Gretna Stadium had not abated. The majority of Gretna's preppy moms and dads, obviously reaching into their secret hip flasks, continued to breezily circulate and loudly chuckle at each other’s witticisms. A lively debate erupted as to the best brunch in Richmond, prompting a wide diversity of opinion. Several patrons expressed an interest in the well-reviewed upstart The Tobacco Company, while the less adventurous clearly preferred the elegant and established La Petite France. One thing thing they could all agree on was the superior Italian cuisine of Anna’s in Carytown.

But if the game was over, no one had told the Comets who, true to their farm boy origins, continued to work hard. As the fourth quarter began, Gretna continued to play their young substitutes, but their earlier enthusiasm had been replaced by a sense of desperation. After a wobbly but time consuming drive, the Hawks decided they would go for the knock-out blow with a long touchdown pass. But the quarterback failed to grip the ball properly, and his pass sailed off in an oddly weak trajectory. It was snatched by a Comet linebacker who returned it 60 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly it was 28-17.

The Gretna coach returned his offensive stars to the field, determined to squelch the Comets‘ insolent uprising. Their return was greeted with loud cheers from the loopy Gretna fans, as surely proper order would now be restored to the universe. But the first team offense had been sitting on the bench a long time on a frosty cold night. They looked sluggish and lackadaisical, and the Comets‘ inspired defense forced a punt after three plays. With the game clock down to three minutes, Ernesto went to the well again, asking his pals to execute “Cross-eye Mary” one more time. But on this occasion, Ernesto elected to run left and follow his wall of blockers. It was a brilliant stratagem, as Gretna’s gasping defenders had learned to expect the opposite move. Soon, Ernesto found himself cruising to the goalpost, safely ensconced behind a battering ram of friendly teen-age beef. With a minute left, the score was now 28-24.

As the Comets lined up for an on-side kick all talk of fashionable Richmond eateries ceased, as the stunned --and quite tipsy-- Gretna partisans realized their beloved football team was facing imminent disaster. The high, careening kick traveled the requisite ten yards, where Ernesto wrestled the ball from the shaky grip of a panicked Hawks player. It was Comets' ball with 40 seconds to play. Ernesto tried a few long passes, but wisely threw the ball out of bounds each time when his receivers were well covered. It was fourth down with only seconds remaining. The Comets were down to their last play, with pay dirt 50 yards in the distance.

Ernesto instructed all his receivers to go long into the end zone. Ernesto dropped back, then tucked the ball under his arm and fled toward the goal line. He was nearly tackled at the line of scrimmage, but a last second spin move set him free. He ran laterally for the sidelines, where he side stepped one diving Hawk linebacker and leapt over another. Ernesto then cut across towards mid-field, where a phalanx of Comet blockers were waiting for him. His teammates toppled the approaching Gretna cornerbacks, leaving Ernesto a clear course to the goal line with only a lone defender in his path. Ernesto faked right, then scooted left, leaving the befuddled Hawk grasping at thin air. Ernesto somersaulted into the end zone as the clock showed 00:00. The Comets had won 30-28.

While the exhausted Comets piled on Ernesto in ecstasy, the stupefied residents of Gretna recoiled in disbelief. There would be no party bus to Richmond, no Eggs Benedict or Bloody Marys at trendy bistros. The mighty Gretna Hawks had been exposed as common, ordinary slugs, defeated by a bunch of grubby plowboys from that dreadful hick-town down the road. As the deflated supporters began to file out of the stadium, Reverend Hawley again assumed the microphone, requesting everyone to join him in a closing word of prayer. In response, a contingent of shattered Gretna fans yelled at the top of their lungs: “OH, SHUT UP!”

As the team bus headed towards home, Ernesto’s mind reeled from the evening’s excitement. He thought about his tenderly sweet mother, who’d been raped and killed by a gang of Panama City thugs when he was a child. He thought about his uncle, who had abandoned him at the gate of the American Army base when he decided that raising a small boy was too much for him. He thought about the kind and loving American couple who had adopted him and given him a chance for a decent life. But most of all, he thought about the gentle people of a little town in Virginia who had embraced him as a hero; people who six months ago didn’t even know he existed. The tall, muscle-bound Ernesto began to quietly weep. He had felt many emotions in the past few hours, but nothing could compare to tears of joy.


to be continued


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Qatsi Trilogy on Blu-ray from Criterion



The Qatsi Trilogy is a collection of films made by Godfrey Reggio between 1983 and 2002. Each film offers an extraordinary and unforgettable cinematic experience, and their messages are, astonishingly, even more pertinent and vital today. The visual and aural wonders of The Qatsi Trilogy fall into no preset genre or easily explainable category of filmmaking. The simplest description would be a grafting of somber political treatise with I-Max style sensory joyride.

To fully understand these unique works, one must understand the filmmaker, and his singular background and sensibilities. Godfrey Reggio is not an assembly line graduate of the USC film school. In fact, he spent the 1960s as a social worker and political activist, founding several community programs for disadvantaged youth in New Mexico. He also spent 14 years in training for the priesthood, but abandoned that quest to pursue a deeper understanding of the philosophy and mysticism of the Hopi Indians.

Reggio is, in short, a spiritual pilgrim with an Arriflex, and his films question the basic tenets of modern life, using the most basic components of cinema. Reggio’s wordless mediations consist exclusively of images and music, and through time-shifting scenes of the natural and man-made worlds, supported by Philip Glass’s expressive and omnipresent score, Reggio creates a beautiful sensory language that articulates his complex ideas directly to the human soul.


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Friday, December 7, 2012

Days of Future Passed: A Christmas Memory Part 3




It took the Willis family a few weeks to settle their affairs --”get their ducks in a row,” as Reverend Willis described it-- but eventually their move to Virginia was complete. As planned, Ernesto arrived on the bus and lived at our house in the interim, fully complying with the strictures of the Virginia High School Athletics Board. My mother’s concerns about Ernesto being a picky eater proved to be unfounded, as the young man never left the dinner table until every morsel of her bountiful home cooking had been consumed. He was always very complimentary about her meals, and thanked her profusely after every one, which of course made my mother swoon like a schoolgirl.

My father made it clear to Ernesto that he was a guest and didn’t have to participate in farm work, but the young man was up at dawn every morning, raring to go. He enjoyed feeding the cows and hogs, often petting the shy beasts like puppies. It was haying season and Ernesto turned out to be quite an asset, hoisting the heavy bales onto the trailer two at a time. Even Eppie, who at first was suspicious and thought the young man might be after his job, had to admit that Ernesto was an excellent farmhand.

After dinner, Ernesto would teach me a few words of Spanish while I helped him with English. His knowledge of the language was quite good, but his pronunciation was heavily accented and a little rough around the edges. Ernesto also turned out be a big fan of rock music, and most evenings we would listen to a portable record player my mother had given me the previous Christmas. I was just starting my collection and didn’t have a lot of albums --mainly Ventures, Beatles and some Hendrix -- but no matter what I played, Ernesto would listen with rapt attention, his feet tapping in rhythm. One night after hearing “Rubber Soul” for the upteenth time, Ernesto turned to me and said:

“Daveed, do you have Hetaro Tool?”

“Who?”

“Hetaro Tool, they are very very good.”

“No Ernesto, I don’t think so.”

“I will get you some. They have a new record. Is very good.”

“Muy bien, gracias Amigo.” I replied, and Ernesto broke out in a big grin.

A few days later Reverend Willis, his family newly ensconced in their local digs, drove over to collect his son. As he took my father aside to offer his sincere gratitude, Ernesto hugged each of us goodbye, even Eppie, who I don’t think had been hugged by anyone in years. Eppie was surprised but touched; his eyes turning a misty shade of red rarely seen without the influence of homemade corn liquor.

Over the course of the summer, the WiIlises acclimated to life in our rural community. My father took Reverend Willis around to congregants' homes to help the new minister quickly learn faces and names. Mr. Willis proved that his well executed trial sermon was no fluke, as folks who had avoided Reverend Hawley’s lengthy meanders began to return to church, delighted to once again hear meaningful --and concise-- homilies. Mrs. Willis, who had made arrangements to continue her graduate work in the fall at nearby Longwood College, taught a Sunday School class and did volunteer work at the hospital. The lovely Vicky got a job at a restaurant in town, where she slung hash and rebuffed potential suitors with equal aplomb. She also sang in the choir, which prompted an increase in church attendance among the teenage male demographic.

Football practice began as scheduled on August 10th. A few days later, my father and I went into town to have some corn ground into feed. On our way home, we decided to stop by the stadium, where we found a sea of young men engaged in calisthenics. All except Ernesto, who was standing at midfield throwing footballs at an old tire swinging from a chain attached to the goalpost. When Coach Schneider saw us leaning on the cyclone fence, he huffed over to tell us practice was closed to the public and we’d have to leave immediately. Just then, the coach’s admonishment was drowned out by a loud “Daveed! Daveed!” It was Ernesto, who had seen us and was now jogging over to say hello, grinning from ear-to-ear.

“OK, just this once you can stay for awhile.” grumbled Coach Schneider. He was trying to maintain a veneer of discipline, but it was clear that as far as Coach Schneider was concerned, whatever Ernesto wanted, Ernesto got.

School started the Tuesday after Labor Day. Along with the usual excitement of new text books and new teachers, the hallways were abuzz with talk of our new star quarterback. The nature of rumors being what they are, by the end of the week the stories had grown to the point that now Ernesto was seven feet tall and scouts from the Baltimore Colts would be attending Friday’s game, contracts in hand. There was a pep rally Friday morning at the stadium with the entire student body in attendance. When Ernesto was introduced the cheering was so loud you’d have thought The Beatles had reunited and were about to perform. Several girls became so excited they began to feel faint and had to be escorted to the infirmary for aspirin and orange juice.

That afternoon, the football team boarded a school bus for the short trip to Roxboro to face the always tough Rockets in the season opener. A long string of Comet faithful tagged behind; their two dozen or so cars creating the closest thing to a traffic jam sleepy U.S. 501 had ever seen. The Comets looked tentative and disorganized, with frequent penalties and false starts. Ernesto was able to break a couple of nice runs -- it took a minimum of four guys to tackle him -- but his passes were wild of the mark. Obviously, Ernesto was a bit pumped on adrenaline, for when he did hit the target, he threw the ball with such force his receivers couldn’t hang on. Despite these issues, the game remained close until late in the fourth quarter, when the pressing Ernesto threw a foolish and costly interception that was returned for a touchdown.

The next week at home against Bethune-Jackson, the offense moved the ball a little better but Ernesto was still overthrowing his receivers. However, it looked like the Comets might pull it out. Trailing by three points with two minutes to go, Ernesto led the team on an exciting 80 yard drive that brought the capacity crowd to its feet. But with the winning touchdown in sight, hopes were dashed when Ernesto fumbled just short of the goal line as time expired. As the teams dashed off the field, Ernesto just sat on the ground, spiritually crushed. While some of the fans cheered to try to make the young man feel better, others began to wonder if maybe their star quarterback was actually a bust.

But if Ernesto’s star was fading, his sister’s was getting brighter everyday. In short order Vicky, who had somehow gotten more beautiful over the summer, made friends with all the cool kids, joined all the right clubs and committees, and became a teacher’s pet with her intelligence and work ethic. Somehow, Vicky accomplished all this while fending off requests for dates from the bulk of the school’s male enrollment. Reverend Willis had requested Vicky not to date until she’d turned 16, and she respectfully honored her father’s wishes. And when it came time to vote for Homecoming Queen, Vicky won in a landslide.

It was from her perch high atop a parade float that the sequin-gowned Vicky watched her brother find his sea legs one balmy night in late September. On the first play from scrimmage, Ernesto dropped back and hurled a forty yard pass to a sprinting receiver with nothing but green grass between him and the end zone. The play was open all night, as Brunswick County’s slow and chubby defenders were helpless against it. Ernesto also ran for a couple of scores, leading to a final tally of 52-7. And it would have been much worse, but in the fourth quarter Ernesto began to throw the ball intentionally out of bounds to spare the Bulldogs further embarrassment.

With a victory finally under their belts, the Comets headed north to Natural Bridge for a rare Saturday afternoon match up. Ernesto made short work of the Explorers, carving up their secondary in route to a 38-13 win. The next week brought Southwest Roanoke to town; a big, physical team team known for brutal defense, rough play and occasional bending of the rules. But Ernesto gave as good as he got, flattening several Ranger linebackers in a last second, 25 yard touchdown scamper that won the game 9-7.

There’s nothing like a winning streak to put the spring back in a community's step, and these were heady days in our little hamlet. As people began to make their Thanksgiving plans, the Willises were inundated with invitations, including a special party to be thrown in Ernesto’s honor at the Country Club. Reverend Willis politely declined all offers, as he had made arrangements for his family to spend the day delivering turkey dinners to the elderly and disabled. Church attendance swelled until folding chairs had to be brought in on a weekly basis to accommodate the overflow. Reverend Willis‘ inspiring oratory remained a draw, but in truth many of the recently converted simply wanted to get a glimpse of the heroic Ernesto and the gorgeous Vicky. Uncle Larry called a special meeting of the Building Committee to explore the feasibility of enlarging the sanctuary and suddenly it was cool and a source of pride to be from our bucolic burg.

Meanwhile, the Comets split their next two games, losing only to Lynchburg Dale when blatant pass interference against one of Ernesto’s receivers in the end zone was not flagged. The Comets’ record was 4-3, far from the championship season Uncle Larry had envisioned, but not bad for a team that had finished 1-7 the previous year. But there was one more game on the schedule: the annual blood-feud against the hated Hawks of Gretna, a team whose high skill was matched only be their arrogant swagger. The Hawks were not only undefeated, they hadn’t even trailed in a game since back in September. Most pundits considered them shoo-ins to repeat as state champs, with only the improved but inconsistent Comets standing in their way. Furthermore, the game would be played at Gretna Stadium, a deafening, hellish environment noted for its questionable timekeeping and rank hostility to visiting teams. Word was our former Reverend Hawley was already composing his pre-game prayer. It would be a doozy. 

to be continued