Saturday, November 30, 2013

TCM for December 2013

Lots of special gifts this month from TCM. There's a mini Bresson festival, several recent foreign films and of course, lot of holiday classics. Below are a few of my picks but much more is on offer. Click here for full schedule. All times Eastern.


2:00 AM
A young priest taking over a parish tries to fulfill his duties even as he fights a mysterious stomach ailment.
BW-115 mins, TV-14,

Diary of a Country Priest. Don't watch if you're depressed


12:00 AM
A police detective whose wife was killed by the mob teams with a scarred gangster's moll to bring down a powerful gangster.
BW-90 mins, TV-14, CC,


10:45 AM
A junkie must face his true self to kick his drug addiction.
BW-119 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format

12:45 PM
A small-town lawyer gets the case of a lifetime when a military man avenges an attack on his wife.
BW-161 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

3:30 PM
A controversial presidential nomination threatens the careers of several prominent politicians.
BW-138 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format


2:45 AM
Joan of Arc's trial and execution are re-created from the original court records.
BW-64 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format

The Passion of Joan of Arc. Artsy baby!

4:00 AM
In this silent film, Joan of Arc braves the threat of torture to stand fast for her beliefs.
BW-82 mins, TV-PG,


8:00 PM
Over the course of a school year students and teachers in a French village learn how to live together.
C-104 mins, TV-PG, Letterbox Format

To Be and To Have. A wonderful doc about education in rural France.

10:00 PM
A mystery man visits scenes from Russia's past in search of his own identity.
C-99 mins, TV-PG, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A university professor and an art director struggle through the collapse of their relationship.
C-98 mins, TV-MA, Letterbox Format


11:45 PM
A widowed musician reluctantly takes on an apprentice for a musical tour of his native Colombia.
C-120 mins, TV-MA, Letterbox Format

Shamelessly hilarious Aaltra

2:00 AM
Feuding farmers join forces when a defective tractor leaves them both paralyzed.
BW-90 mins, TV-MA, Letterbox Format


5:30 PM
A veteran returns home to deal with family secrets and small-town scandals.
C-136 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

Cinema Paradiso. Prepare to weep.

8:00 PM
A boy coming of age in WWII Italy develops a lifelong love affair with movies.
C-124 mins, TV-MA,

10:15 PM
A filmmaker masquerades as a hobo to get in touch with the little people.
BW-91 mins, TV-G, CC,

12:00 AM
A recovering alcoholic film director tries for a comeback in Rome.
C-107 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format


1:00 AM

A Los Angeles private eye unwittingly sets up an innocent man for murder, then joins his seductive widow to unearth the corruption behind the crime.
C-130 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

3:15 AM
Onetime college friends cope with the sexual revolution of the '60s.
C-98 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

The Producers.  Everyone must see it at least once

1:30 PM
A Broadway producer decides to get rich by creating the biggest flop of his career.
C-90 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format


12:00 PM
A newlywed couple's honeymoon is disrupted by their friends' marital problems.
BW-112 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

2:15 AM
The lives of a donkey and the girl who named him intertwine.
BW-95 mins, TV-PG,


Same for Meet Me in St. Louis

8:00 PM
Young love and childish fears highlight a year in the life of a turn-of-the-century family.
C-113 mins, TV-G, CC,


10:00 PM
An emotionally stunted clerk retreats into his fantasies.
BW-99 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A traveling salesman's music-inspired dreams lead to tragedy.
C-108 mins, TV-MA, CC, Letterbox Format

2:00 AM
An aging housewife seeks direction when she catches her husband in an affair.
C-137 mins, TV-14, Letterbox Format


8:00 PM
A possessive son's efforts to keep his mother from remarrying threaten to destroy his family.
BW-88 mins, TV-PG, CC,

The many splendors of Jane in Klute

2:00 AM
A small-town detective searches for a missing man linked to a high-priced prostitute.
C-114 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format


2:00 AM
A neglected girl in rural France gets mixed up with a murderous poacher.
BW-81 mins, TV-14,

3:30 AM
A young man finds escape from his working-class life training a pet falcon.
C-111 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format


12:15 PM
Two British teens and their friends bring "traditional" jazz to a small English town.
BW-78 mins, TV-G,

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Thanksgiving Memory: Charlie and Eppie

My father passionately loved his family and his community, and he performed many kind and selfless acts during his long and happy life. One that speaks to the heart of his character happened about 15 years ago.

When I was a child in the 1960s, we had a sharecropper on our farm named James Traynham, who went by the nickname “Eppie”. He was a gentle soul and a very hard worker and some of my most cherished memories are of Eppie and my father, working side by side in the fields, laughing and joking as we went about our labors.

But Eppie was afflicted by alcoholism and that often got him into trouble. My father had to bail him out of jail a few times and intervene in Eppie’s abusive and sometimes violent family disputes. After a 14 hour day in the tobacco fields, I’m sure having to deal with Eppie’s problems wasn’t a lot of fun.

Other farmers used to ask my dad why he put up with Eppie and all his troubles. My dad would say, “Well, when he’s sober, he’s a real good man. If I don’t put up with him, who will?” In the early 1970s Eppie and my father parted ways, but the two men still shared a special bond of respect and my father often spoke of him with pity and affection.

Eppie passed away in 1994. Penniless, he was buried in an unmarked grave, in a makeshift roadside cemetery just a couple miles from our house.

My father remembered that Eppie was a veteran and therefore entitled to a proper gravestone. Working with the staff of a local  funeral home, my father did the research, made the phone calls, and did all the paperwork required to get Eppie a headstone and a few months later one was placed on his humble resting site.

My father’s research revealed that Eppie had served in WWII as a truck driver in Burma. Located between India and China, in 1942 Burma was a mountainous country that had no roads, was covered in dense jungle and for much of the year received constant torrential rain. Military historians agree that duty in Burma was some of the most difficult and harrowing of the war. Yet, Eppie served his country and at the end of the war received an honorable discharge.

A few years after securing Eppie’s memorial, my father’s health began to fail and he was unable to do many of the things he enjoyed. But he always had the satisfaction of knowing he had done right by his old friend, even if no one else cared about him.

All his life, my father tried very hard to live by biblical principles and he put those principles into practice. As Matthew 25:40 plainly states: The King will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me."

Monday, November 25, 2013

Three Colors on its 20th Birthday

Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy is a work that's as mesmerizing today as it was on its initial release 20 years ago. It's ironic that the collection has achieved the timelessness of a true classic, for Three Colors was intended to capture the specific zeitgeist of a unique moment in European history. Conceived - by its financers, at least - as a cinematic way of manifesting the growing clamor for a unified Europe, Kieślowski was commissioned to make three films, each based on ideals symbolized by the colors of the French flag: blue for freedom, white for equality and red for friendship.

Kieślowski, in collaboration with long time writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, then created scripts that were only tangentially related to these concepts, although a number of reviewers have tied themselves into knots attempting to draw the connections. In truth, the films reduce these doctrines into unrecognizable - but quite practical - applications in service of deeply personal narratives, substituting patriotism's bullhorn with the soft murmurs of quietly desperate souls. The films paint austere portraits of individualism, complete with hidden agendas, conspiratorial secrets and the miracles of personal reinvention, in stark contrast to the technocratic goal of unification.

Not only is the trilogy of a decidedly anti-collectivist mindset, each film offers a rich and rewarding stand-alone cinematic experience. Related only by the slimmest of narrative threads - a thread that actually seems quite jarring once it's finally revealed - Blue,White and Red employ different cinematographers, different actors and take place in a variety of European cities. While each film presents a variation in visual aesthetics, the mournful tones of composer Zbigniew Preisner give the pieces a vital kinship, and provide critical psychological linkage.

1993's Blue sets the benchmark for the entire enterprise, and in terms of feel is the most distinctly "French" offering of the series. Combining the poetic visuals of Godard with the hypnotic pacing of Rohmer, Blue often seems more like a vivid dream than conventional cinema. Juliette Binoche stars as a young woman who is the sole survivor of a road accident that killed her husband and daughter. The underpinnings of her life suddenly wiped away, the film's early reels create a dizzying sense of disorientation and confusion. As Binoche begins to slowly recover and rebuild, it becomes clear that her life is comprised of a number of mysterious complexities, and her meandering quest for resolution - or to avoid resolution, to be more precise - drives the rest of the film.

Blue is, among a number of things, an analysis of willing subjugation. Kieślowski cleverly celebrates the idea of freedom with a case study of a woman who has freedom thrust upon her, unleashing a series of complications and challenges. The film was tremendously well received in Europe, where it essentially ran the table at Venice, and it cemented Juliette Binoche's bona-fides as a burgeoning international star. Binoche's performance here is commanding and compelling, made all the stronger for her flourishes of introversion and vulnerability. But the supporting work of actor Benoit Regent as Olivier, an old family friend, is yet another of Blue's intriguing and delightful nuggets.

Regent would die a year later at the age of 41. While there are few details available on his death, his tragically short filmography includes some of the most interesting French productions of the 1980s and early 90s, and his screen time to haunting moment ratio is through the roof. In Tavernier's 'Round Midnight (1986), he supplied convincing real world context as Dexter Gordon's psychologist/confessor, and he practically carried Garrel's I Can no Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) on his back, delivering a poignantly riveting  performance that survived the film's awkward lurches.

1994's White is the most conventionally constructed cinema of the set, with plot driven twists and turns that evoke Hitchcock and, by extension, Chabrol. A cherub-faced Polish immigrant named Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) finds his life in Paris has gone totally off the rails when he is sued for divorce by his pretty bride Dominique (Julie Delphy); a scheming social climber who has branded Karol a loser. The drunken, penniless Karol seeks refuge in the Metro, where a chance meeting with a mysterious countryman (Janusz Gajos) sparks a complex blueprint for revenge.

Those wary of minimal, European style character studies will likely find White the most entertaining of the series, as the unfolding of Karol's plan features plenty of comic relief and exploits Zamachowski's endearing nebbishness to the fullest. Equally impressive is Gajos as the dodgy mentor, whose student eventually outshines him in deviousness. Janusz Gajos is a superb talent, and is considered acting royalty in his native Poland, but remains underappreciated in the rest of the world. This reviewer highly recommends 2002's Tam i z powrotem, readily available in North America on DVD, for a further taste of his charismatic prowess.

The theme of equality does indeed figure prominently in White's surprising conclusion but, in typical Kieślowski fashion, the concept is presented as a stripped-bare deconstruction. Karol's scheme for revenge may work as planned, but whether it's successful is subject to debate. Kieślowski suggests that true equality is unachievable, indeed contrary to human nature. Even in the most perfect utopia - or snowy Warsaw for that matter- some folks are always more equal than others.

Kieślowski saves his best for last with Red (1994), a voyeuristic immersion into the lives of an eclectic group of Geneva residents. The film recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window while presenting its own deeply personal evocations of alternate reality. Red is distinct in the series for an undercurrent of time shifting, in essence adding an additional dimension to its narrative and forging a trail through territory unexplored by the previous offerings. Irene Jacob, Kieślowski’s leading lady from the equally mystical The Double Life of Veronique (1991), stars as a fashion model of such ethereal beauty she seems to float through the air. A chance encounter with a runaway dog leads her to the door of a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends his leisurely days listening to his neighbors’ conversations via an illegal wiretap.

Trintignant’s pursuit of God-like omniscience evolves to direct manipulation of Jacob’s unsatisfying romantic life, while the judge eventually offers himself for persecution in an act of self-sacrifice. Part prophet, part yenta, Trintignant’s character is packed with mystical layers, complete with allusions to Christianity, Navajo witchcraft and Hindu notions of transmigration. Jacob’s character completes the analogy, her angelic beauty forming a willing, if not totally aware, vessel for Trintignant’s web spinning and lever pulling, as he subtly engineers the invisible fabric of human events. The thematic payoff to the entire series is included in Red’s dénouement, and while it may seem anti-climactic at first glance, the trilogy’s conclusion raises important and intriguing questions, including speculation of the judge’s unseen involvement in the previous installments.

Nominated for three Oscars, Red was the best received of the series in North America and, with the director finally achieving the international recognition he deserved, Kieślowski’s future appeared bright and limitless. But shockingly, shortly after Red’s release, Kieślowski announced his retirement from filmmaking and retreated to a quiet life in Poland with his wife and daughter. Two years later, Kieślowski would die on the operating table during open heart surgery at the age of 54.

Denied another 20 years or so of the director’s output, Kieslowski’s early demise was a tragedy for lovers of artistic cinema. But his passing had the most profound effect on the career of Irene Jacob. While Binoche and - to a lesser degree - Delphy have gone on to artistic triumphs in other endeavors, Jacob has yet to find another collaborator with such recondite understanding of her unique gossamer. As evidenced by Red and The Double Life of Veronique, Jacob and Kieślowski formed one of the great director – muse partnerships, equal to Godard and Karina, or Scorsese and DeNiro. Sadly, Jacob’s post-Red filmography consists mainly of supporting roles in rather insignificant productions, but it’s no coincidence. To Kieślowski, the shimmering Jacob was a vital building material in his construction of worlds driven by memory and remorse. No one else, apparently, has any idea what to do with her.

It’s fair to say that Three Colors revived interest in Art House cinema at a time when established European directors were consumed with nostalgia and romance. Within the trilogy framework, Kieślowski managed to create three distinctly personal and thematically diverse films that neither depend nor intrude on each other. Yet, the works share enough commonalties of spirit to be forever linked in ways that seem infinitely organic and honest. While Kieślowski was taken from us way too soon, Three Colors serves as a fitting legacy that film lovers will never forget.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tokyo Story on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story from 1953, now available in a superbly packaged Blu-ray edition from Criterion, is a film that subtly captures the dynamics of family life in ways that feel stunningly real. There are moments here of such immediacy and personal truth that it seems impossible for Tokyo Story to be a relic of a bygone age and culture. Yet, due to Ozu’s masterful – one could say otherworldly – powers of observation, this sixty year old glimpse into the everyday lives of the Hirayama family presents the human condition with a universality that still rings true in 2013.

Tokyo Story is the final installment of what film scholars call The Noriko Trilogy; three films Ozu made shortly after WWII that feature a female character named Noriko, played by the charismatic Setsuko Hara. However, the films are not narratively continuous and, in fact, Noriko is a different woman, with different circumstances and conflicts, in each picture. Yet the films are tied together by similar themes of quaint family traditions versus the forces of modernity that seek to undo those traditions. The people of Japan may have been traumatized by atom bombs, but in Ozu’s delicate vision, the corporate world and early forms of feminism have wrought the most enduring changes to his nation’s social fabric.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Color Me Bored: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) ✭✭✭

Celebrated at Cannes, banned in Boise and breathlessly hyped in the rest of civilization, Blue is the Warmest Color is ultimately a big - at three hours running time very big - bag of only OK. This Millennial coming-of-age story has delighted critics and film festival judges for the last six months for reasons that totally evade this reviewer. Its lengthy and stark depictions of lesbian lovemaking have justifiably been the talk of film snobs the world over, but remove those titillations and what’s left is a fairly conventional romantic drama, distinguished only by clumsy and trite sexual metaphors.

It’s easy to see why the Cannes jury took the unusual step of awarding the Palme d’Or not only to director Abdellatif Kechiche but to leading ladies Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as well. One could argue that their performances are the film’s only saving grace and Kechiche’s contributions are more impediment than enhancement. For some reason, he insists on shooting 95% of the film in close-up which establishes claustrophobia along with intimacy. Only in the sex scenes and during a sequence filmed near a big tree in a city park does Kechiche allow his camera to widen and his audience to breathe. His insistence on the micro extends to a dinner party scene where sophisticated folks are shown slurping spaghetti in a film school cunnilingus analogy. Yes, eating and sex have certain similarities. We get it.

Blue is the Warmest Color is based on a graphic novel, which likely accounts for the story’s lack of depth. Here we meet Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a pretty high school student with her head in the clouds and her hormones ripe for the picking. One day while going to meet a boy (Salim Kechiouche) for a lunch date, she passes an avant-garde art student named Emma (Lea Seydoux); her hair dyed an arresting shade of bohemian blue. Over the ensuing weeks, Adèle will find traditional notions of romance unsatisfying, and has recurring intimate visions of the mysterious woman with the azure tresses. Then one night, she has a chance meeting with Emma at a bar, altering the path of her life as the fantasies becomes real.

What follows is typical of the romantic drama arc, especially romances between older, more experienced lovers and giddy neophytes. In the fullness of time, the devoted Adèle becomes little more than a hausfrau, preparing the meals and washing the dishes after festive soirees designed to advance Emma’s artistic career. As her professional stature grows, Emma repays the naive Adèle with a wandering eye and a hyper-critical mouth.

Adèle eventually finds a career as a first grade teacher and, thanks to Exarchopoulos, these largely improvised classroom scenes are some of the film’s most genuine and organic. Kechiche is keenly aware that he’s struck gold here, and wisely allows these sequences to dominate Blue is the Warmest Color’s third hour. When all this exposure to kids causes Adèle to consider a brood of her own, Emma rejects the idea out of hand, setting up the conflict that will finally sever them. All this Lifetime TV stuff is separated by sex scenes that are as graphic and detailed as advertised. By the end of the film viewers will find both Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos devoid of any anatomical mystery.

In her short career, Seydoux has become one of the great criers in cinema, able to summon convincing abject weeping at a moment’s notice, but here Exarchopoulos proves to be formidable competition. As things get ever more rocky, the pair sob their way to breakup with Kechiche’s 80mm lenses capturing every glistening drop of bodily fluid. A bittersweet flash forward gives both ladies a chance to tear up one last time, as Adèle forlornly hopes for an impossible reconciliation. It’s a scene complete with loud gurgles and aggressive gropes, affecting in its own way but stolen - intentionally or not - from Last Tango in Paris, a far superior film from 40 years ago that makes Blue is the Warmest Color look even more pathetic in comparison.

In recent weeks, a pissing contest has broken out in the press between Kechiche and Seydoux, with each taking turns trashing the other. At first it was just kind of amusing, but after seeing the film, one gets a better understanding of the feud’s genesis. Despite all the accolades, despite the stunningly courageous performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color just kind of lays there like a lox. Narrative cliches can be dressed up in hot sex and alternative lifestyles - or undressed in this case - but they remain narrative cliches. Unfortunately, films like this may become epidemic. Lars van Trier is scheduled to unveil Nymphomaniac this Christmas; a film that boasts a number of A list stars - Charlotte Gainsbourg among them - in various state of buck-nekid writhing. Funny how things change. Porn used to be something serious directors only did in-between jobs.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

America's Team: Slap Shot (1977) ★★★★

George Roy Hill’s goofball hockey comedy turns 36 this year. It remains an entertaining look at the perils and pratfalls of minor leaguers in the wooly 1970s, but history has given it deeper angles and perspectives. Amid the comedic blur of flying pucks and rapid fire sight gags, Slap Shot delivers a prescient vision of American working class decline. While the goony heroics of the Charlestown Chiefs provide the bread and circuses, players and fans alike find their livelihoods stolen from them by shadowy bean counters who cheer only for the bottom line.

Reg Dunlap (Paul Newman) is an aging hockey has been - or never was in this case - who has taken the reins of the struggling Charlestown Chiefs as player/coach. The Chiefs find themselves in the cellar of the fictional Federal League; a low rent hockey circuit of small towns, journeyman jocks and crumbling arenas. Charlestown’s economy is driven by the local steel mill, where generations have toiled while its chimneys happily belched the acrid smoke of blue collar stability. But like the Chiefs, the mill has seen better days and ownership has decided to abandon the aging facility for sunnier, non-union climes, effectively issuing a death sentence to the Chiefs and their beer swilling fanbase.

Aided by a gullible sportswriter (M. Emmet Walsh), Dunlap starts a rumor that the Chiefs may be soon sold and relocated to a hockey-hungry senior community in Florida. But that sale hinges on the Chiefs somehow becoming a winning team. To that end, the Chiefs begin a crusade of violent physical intimidation that more closely resembles professional wrestling than hockey’s graceful ballet. As the turnstiles rapidly spin with new fans in full-throated bloodlust, the fortunes of the Chiefs appear to rise; a glowing chimera of hope to a community facing an existential threat.

While this doesn’t sound much like a comedy, the unique alchemy of Newman and Hill ensures plenty of laughs along the way. Throughout their collaborations, Hill understood and utilized Newman’s underrated comedic gifts better than any other director. Be it Butch Cassidy or Henry Gondorff, Hill refined Newman’s charming smart-aleck to a deeper distillation than the lovably troubled Cool Hand Luke. And since Slap Shot is a more of a straightforward comedy, Hill and Newman are free to charge forth like giddy school kids, unburdened by the need to foreshadow impending pathos.

Like Bobby Orr on an end-to-end rush, Slap Shot freewheels through a mine field of soap opera elements, never losing its absurdist edge. The film also has surprisingly feminist angles. While few of the female characters are developed beyond stereotypes - actually no one is this film is developed beyond stereotype - it is clear that the women are really in charge. From Lindsey Crouse’s alcoholic hockey wife to Jennifer Warren’s estranged Mrs. Dunlap to the promise of bikini-clad babes in Florida, the distaff side propels the inspired Chiefs to victories and broken noses.

The film even managed to produce pop culture icons The Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Steve Carlson, Jeff Carlson), a skating version of Beavis and Butthead who to this day still make personal appearances at America’s minor-league rinks. If the Hansons prophesied the dumbing-down of the nation’s culture, Strother Martin’s sleazy general manager was a harbinger of our craven political leadership. When the Chiefs threaten to blow the championship game, Martin delivers a stinging locker room rebuke, only to quickly turn and wheel out of clubhouse in such a cowardly fashion the bit never fails to get a laugh.

Martin was an extraordinary talent, creating a number of comedic abstractions that somehow never devolved into bad taste. In an interview he described the characters he usually played as “prairie scum” and truer words were never spoken. Martin has been dead for over 30 years but he is still missed. His smarmy, anxious persona has yet to be replaced in Hollywood’s stable of character actors.

In a scene easily transported to 2013, Newman tracks down the real owner of the Chiefs - the face behind the faceless corporation - and it turns out to be a wealthy merry widow (Kathryn Walker) with a heart as cold as the ice at Charlestown arena. Despite the Chiefs’ new found success at the gate, she tells Newman she plans to fold the team at the end of the season and use the closure as a tax write off. She chides the angry Newman for not understanding finance; the citizens of Charlestown and their hockey team mere collateral damage on her corporation’s balance sheet. In 1977, Slap Shot’s tale of atrophy and avarice, of haves and have nots, seemed isolated to a rusting burg in Pennsylvania, but its pattern has become tragically familiar in the ensuing decades. It’s a wonder we can witness the roots of the Great American Unraveling manifested by Slap Shot and still laugh out loud. With that kind of resiliency, maybe there’s hope for the Charlestown Chiefs after all. They truly are America's Team.