Sunday, June 30, 2013

Kansas City Bomber 1972 ✭✭✭

Experience those fabulous 70s with this strangely appealing bit of trashy fluff. Raquel Welch stars as a diva of Roller Derby, a bizarre made-for-TV sport that combined the worst elements of NASCAR and professional wrestling. In 70s liberated style, Welch forsakes home and hearth, leaving her kids (tiny yet still precocious Jodie Foster is one of the brood) with Grandma while she pursues her career.

We become intimately involved in the lives of the various skaters and promoters and Welch's growing fame has profound effects on all of them. This is not a good film by any means but, like munching M&Ms, once you start watching its hard to stop. The film has that grungy, hard-light look that was, if not popular, at least tolerated in the 70s.

Raquel did much of her own skating in this movie, but its pretty obvious when a stunt double was used. Somehow, the double doesn't fill out Welch's team uni in quite the same way. But then, who could?

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Brother's Keeper (1992) ✭✭✭✭✭

Brother’s Keeper is a wrenching documentary about the disconnect that sometimes exists between the letter of the law and the spirit of justice. In rural Munnsville NY, the Ward Brothers have lived as eccentric bachelor farmers for over 60 years, residing in the same squalid farmhouse where they grew up. Despite questionable hygiene and rustic mannerisms, the Wards have always been fair and pleasant to their neighbors, who regard the brothers as good natured and basically harmless village idiots.

When brother Bill, who has long been suffering from a mysterious and debilitating ailment, is found dead one morning, the authorities launch an aggressive investigation resulting in an indictment of brother Delbert for second degree murder. Bereft of physical evidence, NY State Police coerce the frightened and illiterate man into signing a confession. But Brother’s Keeper is so much more than a legal drama.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, both former assistants to cinema-verite masters the Maysle Brothers, slowly reveal the bizarre world of the Ward brothers; an innocent, child-like world of cornfields and pampered livestock, of abandoned school buses converted to chicken coops, of crumbling barns and rusty tractors. Above all, a world far removed from modern conveniences and cultural influences. But the legal system, as presented here, turns out to be just as bizarre and byzantine.

Sensing that public opinion is turning against him, the prosecutor, with the aid of the media, begins a whisper campaign to discredit the Wards, hinting that the slow-witted men are involved in everything from incest to a conspiratorial cover-up, all without a shred of evidence. Meanwhile, powerful and wealthy developers have coveted the Wards' land for years, and the townspeople suspect this may be the real motive for the state’s relentless pursuit of the case. Ultimately this story, which on the surface seems as simple as Delbert Ward's mental processes, is actually a complex tale of multiple conflicts: urban vs. rural, educated vs. ignorant, pompous vs. modest.

But the American justice system guarantees the Wards one last chance at redemption - their day in court - and here all is finally revealed, but at great cost to the participants. Berlinger and Sinofsky went into deep personal debt to bring this astonishing story to the screen, but their risk has rewarded audiences with a film that is by turns amusing and appalling, but never less than unforgettable.


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Monday, June 24, 2013

Godard's King Lear (1987)

Honoring a contract written on a cocktail napkin two years earlier, in 1987 Jean-Luc Godard made a version of King Lear with Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer and Burgess Meredith. And as absurd as that sentence sounds, the film itself is an equally bizarre spectacle. The result was so controversial it has never been released on Region 1 home video, despite its inherent starpower. But now thanks to DirecTV’s Cinémoi channel, North American viewers finally have a chance to experience it. Or, depending on your point-of-view, endure it.

The story - such as it is - bears little resemblance to the classic play. Godard’s premise is all the world’s great art has been destroyed by the Chernobyl disaster. A descendent of Shakespeare (played by Peter Sellars, the now famous avant-garde theatre director) roams the Swiss countryside trying to jog the plays and sonnets of his esteemed ancestor from his subconscious memory. The overheard conversations of a gruff gangster (Meredith) vacationing with his daughter (Ringwald) help the younger Shakespeare reassemble some of Lear’s piecemeal dialogue, while a screenwriter (Mailer) hears the complaints of the film’s producer (Menahem Golan, in what was likely an actual telephone conversation).

In an interview, Peter Sellars claimed that Godard only read the first three and the last two pages of Lear in preparation for the film. The gaps are filled with frequent digressions into the murky behind the scenes drama of making the film and utterly incomprehensible woodland set pieces reminiscent of Weekend. Typical for his 1980s films, Godard has a hefty cameo, this time as a mysterious professor clad in a Rastafarian wig adorned with video cables.

Eventually the whole mess - and it really is a mess with miles of unspooled film - is dumped on Woody Allen to edit into coherency. Allen pieces together an assembly using safety pins and a sewing kit to literally stitch the film together. While screening his handiwork, Allen appears consumed by Shakespeare’s ghost and begins reciting the play’s poetic dialogue verbatim.

The most accurate title for this film would have been Contempt, but Godard had already used that 25 years earlier. King Lear is awash in contempt; contempt for audiences, contempt for art and contempt for the procedures and protocols of movie-making. But Godard’s most bilious contempt is reserved for his producers, The Cannon Group. Formerly Golan-Globus Productions, The Cannon Group has always walked an odd tight rope between art and exploitation, randomly sticking a few high brow productions in its massive catalogue of low-rent sleaze epics. Godard, keenly aware he was being used - and vice versa - finds numerous ways to trash his benefactors. Frequent title cards “crediting” The Cannon Group  - usually during the film’s most disjointed scenes - leave little doubt as to Godard’s opinion. Allen discusses his certainty that the film will be a major hit for “The Cannon Group - Cultural Division” while Godard flashes a title card that claims the company is based in The Bahamas.

Richard Brody, chief film critic of The New Yorker magazine and unabashed Godard fan-boy, calls King Lear the greatest film ever made. Shock hyperbole to be sure, but not as wildly absurd a claim as one might think. The film approaches the predatory vagaries of the art/commerce relationship in a highly confrontational way and explores the constant tension between producers and directors - and directors and their medium - with stark frankness. Its surrounding swirl of pretension and confusion is mere ornament, like a shoddy house constructed of wet sand covered with those fake stones they sell at Home Depot. It is a film beyond the experience of even this jaded reviewer and quantifying it with a star rating is a fool’s task. King Lear may not be the greatest film ever made, but it's undoubtedly the Godardist.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Neighboring Sounds (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds has the look and feel of a Michael Haneke product of the early 2000s, with leisurely paced scenes, comatose line readings and austere atmospherics. Set in a middle-class urban neighborhood of Recife, Brazil, the film takes us into the everyday lives of a group of condo residents through a meandering river of narrative. We learn much about their hopes and dreams - literally their dreams in some cases - and find these lives of quiet desperation are more complex than outward appearances would suggest.

The chief story in this web concerns João (Gustavo Jahn) a thirty-ish lost soul who manages the building and will one day inherit his grandfather’s vast real estate holdings. One would think that João has it made, except for the fact that he can’t stand the real estate business or anything even remotely connected with it. His barely controlled disdain for customers manages to seep through and a scene early in the film when he shows an apartment to a mother and her teenage daughter is a gem of understated loathing.

Adding to the mix is a lonely housewife named Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who is slowly being driven mad by a neighbor’s perpetually barking labrador retriever. She devises a clever plan to deal with the problem, but when the guilt starts to weigh on her she turns to marijuana and the vibrating affections of an unbalanced washing machine on spin cycle.

When a wave of petty theft hits the apartment block, a fledgling, somewhat disorganized private security outfit shows up led by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and his crew is soon put to work patrolling the neighborhood. The security guards find they have little to do and boredom eventually turns them into community gossips. The men also find empty condo units superb staging areas for a little afternoon delight. Their plight is a rich platform for humor, but Filho prefers to dwell on other aspects, creating a surprising moment that will make audiences gasp.

Neighboring Sounds is all about the inescapability of urban connectedness and the great lengths people will go to create illusions of security and privacy. Filho often stages scenes with steel doors or window bars in the foreground but those barriers usually offer the residents more annoyance than safety. So prevalent are fences and gates that João’s uncle’s house, a traditional one story with a flowery front yard, looks like something from a distant, more humane era. The film’s ultra real pacing and performances serve as a fascinating background wash for elements of mysticism and fantasy that slowly work their way into Filho’s progressively eerie cinematic brew.

Unfortunately, Filho has no idea how to conclude his first feature and the film ends on a note that’s both melodramatic and a bit puzzling. However, the entrancing spell the film has cast over the past two hours is not wiped away. The director’s courageous skill in creating and then tinkering with manifest reality achieves the highest planes of cinematic hypnotism and leaves a nagging, unsettled feeling in its wake. Neighboring Sounds is probably not the best film you’ll see this year, but it may be the hardest to forget.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In Memory of James Gandolfini: In The Loop (2009)

Doctor Strangelove meets The Office in this bouncy quasi-doc that somehow makes us laugh out loud at a bit of recent history - the selling of the Iraq War - that wasn’t the least bit funny when it was happening. The film looks at the unique, and rather sordid, relationship between the US and UK governments in drumming up war fever; a relationship based on mutual exploitation and bamboozlement.

The fun gets rolling when a dim bulb of a cabinet minister (Tom Hollander) makes a casual public remark that war is “unforeseeable”, and the BBC makes the mistake of assuming that Hollander has a clue what he’s talking about. This causes frenzy on both sides of the pond as US and UK officials realize they must now redouble their efforts to sell this war to a skeptical public. Hollander and his young assistant (Chris Addison) are quickly summoned to Washington, where a thorough tongue lashing awaits them from a cold blooded State Department neo-con (well played by David Rasche), who wants this war so badly he can taste it.

Along the way we meet an array of powerful goofballs and wannabes, and all of them share the trait of ineptitude tempered by naked ambition. Mimi Kennedy (yup, Dharma’s mom) and James Gandolfini kind of steal the show as Secretary of State and a dovish 5 star general, respectively, and it’s great fun watching these two gifted talents interact.

Ultimately, the whole rush to war is nearly derailed by a livid constituent of Hollander (the hilarious Steve Coogan) whose garden wall is falling down and somehow it’s the government's fault. Then there’s Peter Capaldi as a shadowy Downing Street official whose profanity laced tirades serve as a vivid reminder that British cursing is much funnier than the American variety.

In the Loop is an entertaining and enjoyable romp. Just don’t think too much about the actual events the film satirizes or you may find yourself feeling a bit nauseous.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Recently Viewed - June 2013

Turn Me On Dammit! (2011)✭✭✭✭

Turn Me On Dammit! is a Norwegian teen sex comedy and I’ll give you a moment to absorb that idea. The film is set in a tiny town so remote it’s not just in the middle of nowhere, it’s on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Here we meet 15 year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm), her body under assault by raging hormones and her heart consumed with hunky young Artur (Matias Myren) who plays guitar in the church choir. After an awkward sexual interlude at a party, Alma is ostracized at school and given a comical nickname by the community. The film is rich with eccentric characters, charming quirkiness and that deadpan, subtle humor the Scandinavians do better than just about anybody. The script won Best Screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival and director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen is clearly a talent to watch. Think Northern Exposure re-imagined by John Hughes.

Roman de Gare (2007)✭✭✭

Claude Lelouche’s twisty thriller pays homage to Hitchcock and Chabrol. It has an excellent first couple of acts, but eventually falls flat by getting too clever for its own good. The film plays around a lot with audience perception, then tricks us again by failing to deliver any sort of really meaningful denouement. The bulk of the film is devoted to constructing a mystery that unfortunately becomes less interesting with every revelation. Fanny Ardant, Dominque Pinon and Audrey Dana star and their great work is better than the script deserves.

Casa de mi Padre (2012) ✭✭✭1/2


This wacked out comedy tries to be the Anchorman of Mexican telenovelas with spotty success. Will Ferrell produces and stars as the dim-wit son of a prominent Mexican rancher (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.). When his younger brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home, Ferrell is drawn into a turf war with muy malo drug lord Onza (Gael García Bernal) and a love triangle with muy caliente Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez). As you might imagine with this slate of scene-stealers, the movie proceeds to get over the top pretty quickly, with all manner of visual puns, genre in-jokes, intentional continuity goofs, cornball production techniques and lots of slow motion exploding blood packets. Some of the jokes hit the mark, but many wildly miss. The bonus material reveals the movie was pretty much directed by committee and it shows. Still, it’s a worthwhile diversion if your in the mood for light and silly..

Friday, June 14, 2013

Summer With Julie - 2013

It's time for our annual celebration of summer with a few pics of the great Julie Newmar. Enjoy!

To purchase Julie's wonderful book The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life on Earth CLICK HERE

Many of these photos are available signed by Julie CLICK HERE