Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Crazy Love: Lilith (1964) ✭✭✭✭

Lilith is one of those 1960s attempts at sophisticated, adult subject matter that seems both innocent and surprisingly frank by today’s standards. Warren Beatty, in one of his first leading roles, plays a mysterious, aimless young man recently discharged from the army. Seeking a job, any type of job, he wanders into Poplar Lodge, a cushy asylum for well-to-do schizophrenics. He is hired as a caregiver and slowly falls under the spell of the beautiful Lilith (Jean Seberg), a bi-sexual nymphomaniac who seduces with her mind as well as her looks. Surprisingly, the asylum doctors encourage the relationship, hoping romantic notions will have a tranquilizing effect on Lilith’s psyche but things soon get out of hand.

Jean Seberg is always fascinating (her bleak real-life struggles are well documented) and here she crafts a memorable character who remains sympathetic despite her frustrating destructive - sometimes just plain mean - tendencies. The film also features a number of now famous actors in early supporting roles. Gene Hackman and Jessica Walter have a brief turn as a woefully unhappy couple, while Kim Hunter shines as an unconventional psychiatrist. But the big revelation is Peter Fonda as an unbalanced preppie mentally lost in his own world. The role uses Fonda’s typically self-conscious, awkward line readings to great effect and in my opinion this film represents his best work.

The film hints that Beatty may be suffering from what we would now call PTSD, but never really follows through, although the ending does feature an interesting role reversal. Ironically, the story seems a lot more comfortable with addressing sex addiction than the plight of shell-shocked vets. We do get early glimmers of Beatty’s star power, although it’s clear he was still learning how to transition from serious actor to movie star. That’s not intended as a slam, for few can hog attention with the subtlety and elegance of Warren Beatty. A few years later, he would master the art of dominating through constant motion; a technique that would reach crowd pleasing proportions in his self-directed pictures like Reds and Bulworth

Directed by Robert Rossen (The Hustler) with moody B/W photography by Eugene Shuftan (SFX cameraman on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) Lilith is an enjoyable film to look at, even though the holes in the story enlarge as it progresses. Filmed on location in suburban Maryland, with a memorable sequence at Great Falls Park (where this reviewer misspent many pleasurable afternoons in the1980s), the bulk of Lilith presents an intriguing sense of place; contrasting the wet, gloomy streets of Rockville with the gauzy, priviledged sunlight of Poplar Lodge. In the final reel, aspects of the narrative require significant suspension of disbelief. Rossen’s search for a meaningful ending concludes with a flimsy construction that smacks of cheap melodrama, weakening the film’s carefully laid foundation. But in fairness, nihilist codas were all the rage in this era, especially in films that courageously dealt with the frays in America’s moral and mental fabric.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Man and a Woman: Haneke's Amour (2012) ✭✭✭✭✭

MIchael Haneke's filmography is notable for a consistent delivery of style and substance; doling out a masterful mix of aesthetic candy and wrenching weltschmerz. Whether it’s the abruptly gritty ode to urban isolation Code Unknown (2000) or tracing the sociological roots of Teutonic aggression in The White Ribbon (2009), the director skillfully creates squirmy discomfort for viewers while seducing them with elegant craftsmanship. in Amour, Haneke tells a tale of human entropy, reducing his canvas and his creative flourishes in favor of perfectly detailed moments, constructing a stark tribute to the minutia of aging and death.

Set almost entirely within the confines of a Paris apartment, Amour is the story of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) Laurent, a retired couple in their 80s. This loving pair of former music teachers lead a quiet life of newspapers, cups of tea and occasional outings to piano recitals. One morning at breakfast, Anne appears to mentally drift away and becomes unresponsive. While the episode is only temporary - Haneke uses a clever trope involving a running faucet to illustrate her return to coherency - it signals the beginning of a downward spiral in Anne’s health. Over the coming months, her worsening condition will test the couple’s long held bonds of love, pushing Anne and Georges to the limits of endurance.

Don’t expect a triumphant tale of recovery or the healing power of love. Amour wallows in the nuts-and-bolts of home health care, with sobering scenes of Georges and Anne’s grinding regimen. Haneke, a director known for the occasional sadistic streak, engages in no sensationalist augmentation here, dispassionately capturing the slow and careful process of attending to the daily functions that help the sick retain a semblance of civilized humanity. The film deals with the emotional and physical toll of caregiving in a frank and unvarnished manner with Georges’ physical exhaustion mirroring Anne’s increasingly otiose existence. The couple’s tenuous connections to the outside world - chiefly their self-absorbed daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and a former piano student (Alexandre Tharaud, a real life concert pianist) - may be aghast at the Laurents' situation, but as death’s dark cloud pervades the apartment's dingy corners, they’re unable to offer any better solutions.

As the months wear on, Haneke visually manifests Anne’s inner deterioration in small ways that ring inexorably true. Her nightstand, in the early stages a repository for books and reading glasses, becomes littered with sippy cups and vials of medicine - the ephemera of grave illness - as her condition worsens. The bedroom’s walls are stacked with packages of adult diapers, which now must be bought in bulk and kept within easy reach. Georges' slow but steady gait becomes a wobbly stagger as he repairs to the guest room when Anne’s sleepless, tortured nights become too much to bear. In a chilling scene that posits the link between dignity and guilt, Georges attempts to hide Anne away in her room when Eva makes a surprise visit, completing the parent/child role reversal ellipse that so often typifies aging.

There is a profound method to Haneke’s dry clinical approach. As the film progresses to the final act, audiences will find themselves as physically drained as Georges, and wholly sympathetic as his faculties and judgement reach a dangerous brink. In true Haneke fashion, Amour ultimately delivers its own shocking moments and disorienting aftermaths, and it does so with raw courage unfiltered by sentiment. No Amour is not a feel good popcorn movie. It’s a brilliantly guided journey worthy of admiration and a perfect embodiment of Bette Davis’ immortal phrase: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

CD Review: Don’t Forget Your Alligator by Dave Ball ✭✭✭✭✭

Former Procol Harum guitarist, martial arts expert, international banker and author Dave Ball (see his hilarious memoirs here and here) has returned to recording recently and the results will cause a spontaneous case of happy dance from head to toe. In fourteen musically nimble original tracks, Don’t Forget Your Alligator offers a rockin’ rumination on modern life from Ball’s uniquely seasoned perspective. Wit and clever musicianship are the order of the day, with Ball’s poetic portraits serving up a buffet of food for the soul while listeners’ feet tap merrily away.

Befitting a diverse life richly lived, Ball’s album features a wide range of musical styles, from the funky, Delta Blues ode to self interest Gonnadothis - Gonnadothat  to Priceless which turns the classic Country-Western bad romance ballad on its head. Stardust Maginty offers Dylan-esque colors while The Madness of George Pritchard presents a look at modern day paranoia as wacky as its title. The amusing title track finds Ball in 1920s jazz-age mode with the mournful croon: “Of all the things I’ve lost...I miss my mind the’s toast.” And as proof that Ball’s guitar chops have not gone to seed, Sad Song and Who Really Cares deliver bluesy solos highly charged with emotion. 

We spoke with Dave Ball recently to garner his thoughts on this lyrical labor of love. The results were, as always, entertaining and illuminating:

Dave, you are the busiest retired person I know. In between your prolific writing, performing and painting, how do you find time to write and record songs?

Well, retirement just means you are not using up each day’s quota of hours, minutes and seconds working for somebody else. That actually gives you a lot of time to play with, and, if it is doing things you enjoy then you don’t mind putting in some extra shifts. 

When I am in writing mode I can usually bash out around 2000 words in one sitting. Actually, I write in notebooks – usually in cafes whilst drinking lattes, cappuccino’s or espresso (depending on the time of day) before eventually sitting down at the computer to type it all in. That first typing allows me to do a basic edit as I go which saves a great deal of time later.

In a perfect world I would have all my books professionally proofed and edited because every time I go into the published text I find more changes (textual flow; continuity, grammar or spelling). Happily with electronic publishing it is simply a matter of reloading the file.

With recordings you cannot do that. Well, I guess if you only release say, MP3’s it would be possible, but obviously not with CD’s. So, whatever you end-up with after the mastering process will be your legacy. 

That said, this particular album was never going to be perfect as it was pieced together over some time and in a variety of home studios – but I was happy with the end-result, despite a fair few mistakes: the sometimes random drumming; the less than perfect vocals, etc. Really, it just made it all seem like a natural recording – i.e. it is just me singing and playing a few songs. It is personal between me and the listener.

Were you writing songs back in the Procol Harum days or is it a more recent endeavor?

No I wasn’t writing during my Procol days. Apart from being tied up with learning their existing repertoire, and then the new songs for Grand Hotel, I was otherwise engaged partying like there was no tomorrow, and anyway, being the new kid on the block, I cannot imagine the Procol hierarchy (‘Firm’) even allowing it. Besides, it would have been a bit like me telling the Queen how to wear a tiara!

The big mystery for me is when did Gary (Brooker) find the time to write? We were pretty much constantly touring. It wouldn’t have been so hard for Keith (Reid) I guess – I mean you can write lyrics whenever the muse takes you but you need a piano or something to write the melodies, etc. Prior to joining them I had written one or two heavy tunes – riff based things usually – e.g. ‘Dave’s Idiot Dance’ for Big Bertha in 1969 or so. Here’s a sample verse from that:

Need to get some glasses cause I can’t see a thing
Bells inside my head are going a-ring-a-ding ding
Have to see the shrink because I’m losing my mind
The spring is getting tighter an’ I need to unwind

That’ll give you an idea what the inside of my head was like in the late 60’s! I was writing – diarising really throughout that time, I just never thought about using any of it for songs. I remember throwing away about 7 or 8 notebooks filled with bizarre thoughts from this period – pre acid (LSD) days incidentally, just me being naturally disturbed. I was also drawing and painting quite a bit. Not sure if you can use this, but here is an example or two from about 1966:

Pretty scary eh?

I wrote a few songs with Bedlam in 1973 – again, mostly riff based stuff, but there was one song called ‘The Great Game’ which grew from some anti-war prose I had done that morphed into quite a decent tune. I think that might have been the moment when I knew I could actually write (songs) though shortly after that I lost interest in the whole thing. I didn’t really start again (taking a real interest in music writing that is) until the late 90’s. I reckon it would be coincident with the writing of my autobiography which inevitably threw up random lines for songs.

I had an uncharacteristic burst of song-writing activity around the year 2000. I think I did about 9 or 10 tunes one after another. I actually found it really easy. After that – but in bursts - I trotted out a pile more. I now have over a 100 original songs waiting for the studio. (Ref: “Without Rhyme or Reason” – out on Kindle for the complete set of lyrics and poems)

It is my intention (hope) to record all of them before I kick-the-bucket. (All part of “Project Hubris” which is kind of my bucket list)

Are there any songwriters with styles that you find particularly inspiring?

Oh yes – quite a few.

I love Lennon & McCartney songs – the collaborations and the obviously individual efforts. I admit to being more of a Lennon fan than McCartney, but they were both brilliant in their own way, and when they worked together the mix of styles was really outstanding. Ray Davies is extremely good and told some great - quintessentially English stories.

John Sebastian is an awesome writer. Listening back to his songs, and really listening to his lyrics, (e.g. “I’ll paint rainbows all over your blues …”) - they are really timeless. His voice is also very appealing – just that recognisable edge he has. Joni Mitchell – just an outstanding musician and I can listen to her all day! Another favourite is John Prine – wonderful set of songs and again – there’s that voice. KD Lang I love as well whether she is singing her own songs or others, I just love the way she delivers them.

Those writers are just examples of people whose work resonates with me really well. This means that I like the main body of their music, but there are individual songs from many different writers that may strike a chord with me. I suppose it happens when I can feel some empathy with say, the lyric, so that I can submerge myself into the music – really regardless of who actually wrote it. In other words, the relationship is with the song (played or sung by ‘some’ artist) that makes the bond. With the people I mentioned specifically, it is like they made their songs just for me; as though we were having an intimate conversation. When you listen to their music (some of it – not necessarily ALL of it) the rest of the world doesn’t matter for that moment. 

Obviously recording technology has become much more readily available since the 1960s. What was the process of recording the album and did you act as your own producer and engineer?

Well, I had never recorded anything in quite this fashion before; it was unusual to say the least. The music was recorded in five different locations and over a period spanning quite a few years. You remember I mentioned my first real go at song-writing, where I had bashed out quite a number of songs in a short space of time? Well, I got into the habit of getting the ideas down onto tape so that I would remember how they went later. I suspect that this is a common practice with writers. Now it happened that my Brother Denny had a home studio, so when I would visit him (firstly in London, then later in Sydney) I would ask him to record demos for me - which we did using a drum machine; Denny playing bass; me on guitar, then either one of us on keyboards. I would then throw down a vocal track as best I could. The songs were pretty new, so it was all rather hit and miss, but we did manage to get fairly good versions completed. When I came to thinking about tracks for my first album, there were songs we had demoed that I wanted to do.

There are some righteous blues guitar solos on the album; I’m thinking in particular “Gonnadothis -Gonnadotha” and “Who Really Cares?” What guitarists influenced you?

Well first let me thank you for the compliments! This question is not easy to answer in just a few words, in fact, I spent a few thousand words trying to answer the same thing in part 3 of the “Half Hippie – Half Man” series. I could tell you about how I listened to Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Chuck Berry, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt as a youngster, then Eric Clapton with the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers and beyond, but that really isn’t the answer.

Most of what I know technically, I have known for over 40 years. The application of that knowledge is what matures as you get older. I may have aspired to sound like (early) Eric Clapton in the mid-sixties for instance, but for the most part I never really ‘thought’ much about what I was playing at any given moment – well, the soloing aspects at least. I have always just ‘played’ as I felt at that time. Sometimes it comes out sounding good, sometimes not.

The expression that occurs in the playing is really the sum of my whole life (on a good day that is). The technical aspects are just what I have to draw on in order to convey that expression. Does this make sense? It doesn’t mean that I never listen – and learn – from other guitarists of course, but the interpretations belong to me alone. This actually eases any pressure on my trying to be ‘good (whatever that really means). I only have to be as good as me not anybody else so I rarely get the urge to compete with other players. They are free to be much better players than me, but they can never ‘be’ me if you can understand that.

In terms of the particular songs you mentioned, I can tell you that “Gonnadothis – Gonnadothat” was a one take overdub onto tape (not into some software programme). At the time it was intended to be just a demo. It stayed as it was simply because I thought it worked fine as we had originally recorded it. Denny tried to clean up the track as best he could once it had been loaded into the DAW.

With “Who Really Cares”, I had written it as just the 4 verses with the intention of building up from an acoustic beginning through gradually increasing instrumentation (up to full orchestra) in the last verse, then everything dropping away on the last refrain – which would be repeated, until we ended up back with just an acoustic. I recorded it at a Kiwi mate’s home studio in Germany (Mike Brosnan). Once we had the main track done I decided that there would be an opportunity for some grander ending across a bit of guitar histrionics, so I went out of the studio and worked out a melody / hook for the ending. I recorded it onto my iPhone actually, then took it back into the studio and played it to Mike where we worked out what instrumentation would be appropriate. I decided on the 3 part guitar harmony for the hook and that I would just mess around in a solo in the middle then bring it back through the hook again. When we started recording it, I played that main guitar track that you can hear on the record and when it came to the end piece I just kept playing – just to bring it back down to basics, which had always been my intention, i.e. settle it all back to normal. It all just sort of worked. Mike had to fiddle with the background on the end piece – the drums and keyboards, etc. and then I went back over it to do the harmony guitars and that was it - job done. The fact that it came out pretty well is a bit of a fluke really.

Some of the songs seem to relate first hand experiences. In the case of Priceless, did you really know someone whose mouth was “jammed on transmit?”

Well yes although the language I used might have been just a little hard on the person it relates to!

It is about two people with vastly different attitudes towards the ‘use’ of time. Let me explain; I can spend an entire day just day-dreaming – doing nothing but sit around – letting my mind do all the work, whereas my partner at the time had to pack each day with activities. She had this notion that if you couldn’t point to all the ‘things’ you had done during the day, then you had wasted it (the day that is).

So, the song is really about this incompatibility (and its consequences) – me sitting there perfectly contentedly just gazing off into space versus her constantly organising ‘things’ to do and telling me to get off my arse and ‘”Do something – ANYTHING - you’re wasting the day!”’

I have been like this since my teenage years so it is nothing new for me – but I understand that it was terribly frustrating for my long suffering partner at the time.

Your lyrics are quite witty, not a surprise to readers of your books. When you write a song do you generally start with a concept based on the lyrics or a musical idea?

This varies from song to song. I am constantly scribbling in notebooks – about this & that, and sometimes I just happen to write a sentence that has a good lyrical feel to it. When that happens I will write it into a new page and either expand it there and then or come back to it later. That first line is often the key to whether you can frame an entire story around it – this is really the same as concept in meaning.

I have a mixture of personal stories, personal protests (e.g. about war and other bad habits), surreal songs which are really just for fun and occasional contrived things – more often than not in response to a good melody of chord theme I have discovered.

But whether it is a lyric or a musical theme that has suggested itself, the process is quite similar. Get the first bit down then see what flows out from that. Some ideas may sit around for quite a while before you get round to them, for instance, I finished off one song in 2010 that I had started in 1966.

Do you have any plans for future albums?

Yes indeed. I have playlists already set up for 7 albums. Be scared – be very scared! Whether I will be able to finance a complete studio driven album I don’t know – it might be nice to try, however, the cobbled together format does have appeal. It may not be perfect but each track has its own identity which I think is nice. I just have to live long enough to get it all done. Tell you what – ask me in 10 years’ time how it all went - if you can.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait ten years to enjoy this brilliant album. Don’t Forget Your Alligator is available now from Amazon

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Recently Viewed August 2013

My Favorite Season (1993) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

My Favorite Season a complex adult coming-of-age story about a dysfunctional family's attempt to cope with one of life's most challenging passages. Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil are fantastic as a pair of estranged siblings who must come to grips with their aging mother's loss of independence while dealing with guilt and resentment over the forbidden desires of their youth. Throwing gas on the fire is the Mom (Marthe Villalonga) who knows how to perfectly exploit that guilt and misses no opportunity to do so. The film subtly explores the deep fissures in family relationships and all the characters feel as real and commonplace as the folks next door. If you've ever felt trapped between the needs of your children and caregiving for ailing parents, you'll see a lot of your own life in this memorable drama.

The Tree (2010) ✭✭✭1/2

A smart and mystical film about a mourning family that patient viewers will find rewarding and hypnotic. When her husband suddenly dies, Charlotte Gainsbourg and her four children find their lives in rural Australia turned topsy-turvy. Her youngest daughter Simone (an amazing performance by Morgana Davies) seeks solace in a large tree on their property and eventually believes her dead father speaks to her through the massive limb’s wind blown creakings. The film becomes an allegory for the many ways people deal with the pain of profound loss and the psychological and emotional healing required to venture on.

Someone Else's Happiness (2005) ✭✭✭ 1/2

Fein Troch’s debut feature is a Haneke-esque dark and disturbing drama, all about the effects of a hit-and-run accident on the self-absorbed residents of an upscale Brussels suburb. The film reaches into the souls of its characters, many of whom secretly believe they may have inadvertently played a part in the deadly event. The mounting tensions and suspicions create a growing sense of pervasive, undefined guilt, much like a Kafka story. Great work from the largely unknown cast, in particular Ina Gerrts as a single mom with a suicidal ex-husband. No, this is not a musical. The script has a complex web of relationships and I really need to see it again to fully understand it, but Troch’s understated direction and Frank van den Eeden’s cloudy blue photography make the film work purely on artistic grounds.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Movies With Really Long Titles

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It

I Could Never Have Sex with Any Man Who Has So Little Regard for My Husband

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent

Long Strange Trip, or The Writer, the Naked Girl, and the Guy with a Hole in His Head

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Terror

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes

I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney

Une journée bien remplie ou Neuf meurtres insolites dans une même journée par un seul homme dont ce n'est pas le métier

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure

Demonstrating the Action of the Brown Hoisting and Conveying Machine in Unloading a Schooner of Iron Ore, and Loading the Material on the Cars 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Seconds (1966) ✭✭✭ 1/2

Selected for the Main Comp at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a grim, nightmarish thriller that embodies many distinctive aspects of 1960s American cinema. Largely forgotten – one could argue for good reason – by all but the most devoted Frankenheimer fans, the film combines classic noir stylistics with the era’s emerging tremors of social revolution. Folded into the mix are elements of Sci-Fi and speculative fiction, creating a “what if” story filled with metaphors, meditations and mind-games.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Advise and Consent (1962) ✭✭✭✭

Advise and Consent is a film that takes itself, its subject and its audience very seriously. It purports to show the backroom wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the august façade of the US Senate, back when that institution was relevant, before it was taken over by its current batch of lobbyist toadies. The film features an extraordinary cast, including some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men (Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, and Charles Laughton), sprinkled liberally with the best of the B list (Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, and a chillingly unbalanced Burgess Meredith). Even young Betty White gets into the act and her turn as a spunky Senator from Kansas is brief, but she milks every drop out of the scene.

Filmed on location in Washington DC, the film’s stagings have the tingle of authenticity, and in many ways lift the picture beyond the realm of a typical Poli-Noir potboiler. The actual Senate chamber is utilized in a few scenes, as well as the underground capital trolley, which seems to be the venue where most of the deal making is actually done - the Senators comically crowded onto the trams like an outsized golfing party too cheap to spring for a second cart. The unglamorous surroundings incite other moments of accidental humor. The sight of elegant Walter Pidgeon carrying a cafeteria tray seems cosmically wrong, like an image of Fred Astair in boxer shorts chugging a beer.

But that is the film’s only hint of lightness, as director Otto Preminger makes it quite clear that writing the nation’s laws is a grim and, as the idealistic Senator from Utah (Don Murray) is about to find out, destructive business. When the ailing POTUS (Franchot Tone) nominates an ivory tower egghead (Henry Fonda) for Secretary of State, the majority leader (Pidgeon) knows he is in for a one hell of a confirmation fight. The nomination does not sit well with Dixiecrat Senator Cooley (the delightfully smarmy Laughton), who busies himself digging up all manner of embarrassing detail from Fonda’s younger days. Despite Fonda’s flag-draped explanations, the revelations raise serious questions in the mind of committee chairman Murray who, in true Senatorial style, elects to kill the nomination by simply ignoring it.

But here the film takes a surprising twist – surprising both in terms of story and its assumption of audience sophistication – and Murray finds himself the target of pushback from Fonda’s shadowy supporters. The handsome Utah Senator has some shocking closet skeletons as well and the film is commendably frank in its depiction of the extorters and their unique lifestyles. While the true measure of Murray’s predicament is delivered in a sort of cloying code – and even that was pushing the era’s moral envelope - the disclosure must have been stunning to audiences bathed in the innocent sunlight of 1962. The film’s denouement is a bit of a let down; a little too tidy and convenient considering all the sleazy fill dirt that’s been dumped on the Capitol dome.

Advise and Consent cleverly conceals a sophisticated and streetwise story in a respect for governmental institutions that seems quite naïve today. While Walter Pidgeon may overindulge in brandy and keep secret company with an attractive widow (Gene Tierney), no one can doubt this Majority Leader’s solemn sense of duty and fair play. Laughton’s Cooley may be a sleazeball marinated in old South racism, but he isn’t willing to inflict permanent damage to the nation simply to prove an ideological point. The film features a number of tragedies, but the fact that today’s audience has little reason to find these honorable politicians believable is by far the most painful one.


Add to Queue

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Leon Morin, Priest (1961) ✭✭✭ 1/2

Just as religion has been used as a method of taming the savage human, Léon Morin, Priest – a film about religion, among a bunch of other things - is a meandering, disorganized bit of cinematic storytelling that could have benefited from stricter discipline. Set in a small town in the French Alps during WWII, Jean-Pierre Melville’s clunky opus seems to want to tackle all the big mysteries of existence at once, before finally settling into a modest groove that ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. Léon Morin, Priest is a film of promising and thematically ambitious exposition. But it fails to deliver any measure of catharsis or clarity; in fact, it seems smugly satisfied by its failure.

The film opens as a rather flabby looking Italian Army unit arrives to occupy the village. Clad in what must be the most unintimidating uniforms in military history – in lieu of helmets, the men wear homburgs adorned with long, floppy feathers – making the soldiers look more like an enthusiastic bird watching club than any sort of organized militia. Their arrival is duly noted by a young widow named Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who serves as the film’s narrator and co-protagonist although, awkwardly, the story will eventually shift to an omniscient point-of-view. Barny, an avowed Communist, has been relocated to the village from Paris by her employer, a bustling correspondence school that has elected to flee the French capital for the war’s duration.

The free thinking Barny has developed a Sapphic crush on her immediate supervisor, a willowy beauty named Sabine (Nicole Mirel) whose eyebrows arch up like thinly disguised devil horns – for an atheist, Melville loved to play with religious symbols – and, in a fit of Parisian snobbery, Barny decides to attend confession at the local church and boldly declare her feelings. She also plans to unleash a bitter storm of Marxist theory on her unsuspecting confessor, once and for all unmasking the entrenched religious hypocrisy of the hayseeds in her midst. But to Barny’s surprise, the priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young, handsome fellow with a mind as fit as his athletic build. He matches Barny’s arguments word for word, and seems to have a compelling counter-case to all of them. With their debate at a stalemate, Barny and the Priest agree to meet in his office on Wednesday nights, for lively philosophical discussions and bit of unstated sexual tension.

It is in these scenes that Léon Morin, Priest achieves a bit of loft, as the verbal sparring is laced with both romantic and intellectual intrigue. As Barny ascends the steep stairs to Morin’s quarters, viewers get a palpable sense of her entrance into a alien yet welcoming domain, a safe haven from the cares of war and Earthly existence. Melville creates an effective parallel between faith and sexuality, and the value of each as an escape mechanism. Morin’s arguments that the love of an unseen God and the love of a human stranger result from similar impulses deeply resonate with Barny. Before long she begins to confuse the two sensations as well, and eventually experiences a conversion based more on lust than liturgy.

If Melville had retained this relatively narrow focus, Léon Morin, Priest might have emerged as a slight but profound drama. But instead he ventures down a number of narrative paths, with lots of mood killing distractions and confusing dead ends along the way. The Italian occupiers are soon replaced by a German regiment, but their grip on the village doesn’t seem any more malevolent. Resistance members come out of hiding and attend baptisms at the church, then simply walk down the street in broad daylight and return to their secret hideouts, apparently no worse for wear. Barny’s 5-ish daughter (Chantal Gozzi ) develops a special – and quite creepy - friendship with a German sergeant that never goes anywhere, but perhaps that’s a blessing. For reasons never explained, Barny attempts a surrogate seduction of Morin by bringing two coworkers (Irene Trunc and Monique Hennesey) to visit him, but these dim floozies are easily brushed aside. And except for a lightly scribbled “Juden” on the occasional background wall, there’s little to indicate that this is a village under siege, and the sleepy rhythms of small time life continue unabated.

The film’s paunchiness is quite surprising considering the taut storytelling of Melville’s popular crime dramas. While attributed with adopting American Film Noir to Europe, the influence flowed both ways, as Melville’s raw, gritty late 60s - early 70s shoot’em ups were stylistically copied by several Hollywood films of the period. His last two films, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic were both impressive exercises in gripping hard-boiledness, with the latter even surviving a laughably botched helicopter special effects sequence – filmed in unconvincing miniature, the resulting tableau looked like something from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood – to remain an engrossing entertainment. But this commitment to crystal coherence is sadly lacking in Léon Morin, Priest. Melville attempted to tell a sprawling story of life under occupation – his first cut ran well over 3 hours – but buried in his mountain of celluloid was a deeply affecting story of forbidden love that made the WWII elements clumsy impedimenta. The sensual chemistry between Riva and Belmondo does manage to bubble to the surface despite Melville’s layers of clutter, but it shouldn’t have to work this hard.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Quickies for August, 2013

Evita (1996) ✭✭✭✭

Today I wallowed in 1990’s nostalgia - if there is such a thing - and watched Alan Parker’s Evita for the first time. About the only thing I remember of the film was some of the scathing reviews it got at the time. Truth be told, I watched it for a brief appearance by Gary Brooker, lead singer for Procol Harum and one of my life-long musical heroes. Two and a half hours later, I came away decidedly impressed, not only with Commander Brooker, but the extraordinary vocal stylings and screen presence of Antonio Banderas as the Greek chorus character. Especially impressive considering that, according to legend, two years earlier he didn’t speak a word of English. But my highest accolades go to director Alan Parker. He took a script that was basically wall-to-wall singing - and should never have worked as a dramatic feature - and elevated it to a memorable cinematic experience. Oh yes, Madonna and Jonathan Pryce are in it too.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ✭

I guess this movie was better than the last one. Still shite though. Batman’s big entrance is filmed in darkness and totally blown. He flies around in a contraption that’s a complete ripoff of Blade Runner fighting a villain who’s a complete rip-off of Darth Vader. And what the hell is Marion Cotillard doing in this crap? Seriously WTF? At least Batman dies in the end and hopefully Nolan’s horrible mismanagement of the franchise will end as well. And to think a bunch of people in Colorado died because they had to be the first to see this junk.

Electric Shadows (2004) ✭✭✭1/2

Very charming and sentimental film about growing up; a sort of Chinese Cinema Paradiso. The story runs along two tracks: the aftermath of a present day bicycle accident interspersed with scenes of family life in the 1970s. The characters are developed by this technique, building a mystery of relationships until all is revealed in the final act. The ending leaves a bit of emotional emptiness and the story ultimately revolves around some far fetched coinkydinks, but it’s still a worthy watch. Especially if you’re tired of movies where everything blows up.