Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Two Men and a Lancia: Il Sorpasso on Blu (1962) ✭✭✭✭

In the spirit of spring, Dino Rici’s tragicomedy Il Sorpasso from 1962 has been given a vibrant rebirth courtesy of Criterion. Rarely seen and largely forgotten in recent years, Il Sorpasso retains many structures of the classic road movie, seasoned with glimpses of the era’s growing sense of rebellious dissatisfaction. Over the years, it has proven to be an influential work; its descendant branches laced throughout any analysis of the classic film genre of wandering heroes. Artistically, Il Sorpasso may not rank among the best of the category, but its seductive amalgam of bildungsroman, social commentary and cautionary tale make for a compelling and infectious watch. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

TCM for May 2014

TCM brings lots of Aussie goodness in May, along with a mini-Maysles festival and a slew of silly shorts. My picks below, with full schedule HERE. All times Eastern.


A group of Aussie soldiers hope for fair dinkum in Breaker Morant

8:00 PM
When his commanding officers make a mistake, an Australian soldier faces court martial.
C-107 mins, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
Two Australian sprinters face the brutal realities of war when they are sent to fight in World War I.
C-112 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A simple builder's laborer falls in love with a woman who offers him yard work.
C-108 mins, Letterbox Format

2:00 AM
A post-apocalyptic cop seeks revenge when his family is murdered.
C-93 mins, CC, Let


11:45 AM

Trappers lead an expedition against river pirates and Indians along the Missouri River.
BW-138 mins, CC,

2:15 PM
A young widow and her son on an isolated ranch find themselves being protected by a wild stallion.
C-77 mins, Letterbox Format

3:50 AM
Westinghouse shows women how to improve their lives by decorating their refrigerators in this short film.
C-6 mins,


2:00 AM

BW-73 mins,

A taste of the Czech New Wave in The Shop on Main Street

4:00 AM
A Christian forges an unlikely bond with an elderly Jewish shopkeeper during World War II.
BW-126 mins,


8:00 PM

Two presidential hopefuls get caught up in the dirty side of politics.
BW-102 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
A free-living New Yorker fights to maintain custody of his nephew.
BW-118 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12:15 AM
A defrocked priest surrenders to the sins of the flesh in a Mexican hotel.
BW-118 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:30 AM
A young veteran returns home to deal with family conflicts.
C-108 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:30 AM
Asylum inmates stage an unsettling play about the French Revolution in this adaptation of the legendary stage production.
C-119 mins,


8:00 PM

When a group of schoolgirls mysteriously disappear, the survivors find their lives changed forever.
C-107 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
A Sydney lawyer defends five Aborigines in a ritualized murder and in the process learns disquieting things about himself.
C-106 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

Dust vs. Rust in The Cars That Ate Paris

12:00 AM
A small town in rural Australia makes its living by causing car accidents and salvaging any valuables from the wrecks.
C-88 mins, Letterbox Format

1:45 AM
Two children are stranded in the Australian outback and are forced to cope on their own.
C-100 mins, Letterbox Format


2:00 AM

Tainted LSD leads to a series of shocking murders.
C-95 mins, Letterbox Format

3:45 AM
A schoolgirl spends her summer vacation in a haunted house.
C-88 mins,

5:20 AM
Experts demonstrate such innovative kitchen gadgets as the cheese slicer and the melon baller in this short film.
Cast:  Arnold Morris ,
BW-13 mins,

5:35 AM
The dangers of marijuana are outlined in this educational short film.
C-21 mins,


2:00 AM

Documentary of a reclusive mother and her daughter who created their on own world in their mansion known as "Grey Gardens."
C-95 mins,

In Salesman the Maysles offer a reality check

3:45 AM
The adventures and misadventures of four door-to-door salesmen.
BW-91 mins,


4:00 PM

An ambitious Southern boy tries to set himself up as a street preacher.
C-106 mins, Letterbox Format

6:00 PM
A bogus preacher marries an outlaw's widow in search of the man's hidden loot.
BW-93 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
In this silent film, a rich hypochondriac on vacation in the tropics gets mixed up with revolutionaries.
BW-63 mins,

9:15 PM
Three sisters deal with their tangled relationships amidst the wonders of New York City.
C-107 mins, CC, Letterbox Format


12:00 AM

An account of the dramatic childhood and early adulthood of New Zealand writer Janet Frame.
C-158 mins, Letterbox Format

Jane Campion's Angel at my Table on the 16th

2:45 AM
A young woman's life is torn apart by the sudden intrusion of her mentally disturbed sister.
C-99 mins,


5:00 AM

The modern miracle of tranquilizers helps working men and their wives deal with life's little problems in this short film.
C-13 mins,

5:15 AM
This short industrial film focuses on the making of Tupperware.
C-29 mins,

5:45 AM
Military tests demonstrate the dangers of poor home maintenance in the event of a nuclear attack in this short film.
C-12 mins,


2:00 AM

A young boy's life changes the summer he moves in with relatives while his sick mother tries to recover.
C-101 mins, Letterbox Format


8:00 PM

A 19th-century doctor questions his motives for rescuing a sideshow freak.
BW-123 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

You've probably seen The Elephant Man. Watch it again.

10:15 PM
A flamboyant star throws a TV comedy show into chaos.
C-92 mins, CC, Letterbox Format


8:00 PM
Two American journalists get more than they'd bargained for during an Indonesian revolution.
C-115 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:00 PM
The arrival of a mysterious plumber upsets a doctor's wife.
C-77 mins, Letterbox Format

11:45 PM
An Australian cowboy undergoes numerous adventures as a stand-up comic touring England.
C-114 mins,

Things get wild and crazy at Don's Party

1:45 AM
This film focuses on a wild house party that takes place in a suburban Australian neighborhood in 1969.
C-90 mins,


8:00 PM
The investigation of a publishing tycoon's dying words reveals conflicting stories about his scandalous life.
BW-119 mins, CC,

10:15 PM
Director Orson Welles examines the career of a notorious art forger.
C-88 mins, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM
A Hollywood film director assembles a group of friends and strangers in a deserted movie theater in an examination of failed relationships and loneliness.
C-105 mins,

2:00 AM
A group of women gather for the birthday party of a friend and discuss their lives and associations with food.
C-110 mins,

4:00 AM
A conversation between a globe-trotting theater director and a playwright playfully explores ideas about art, theater, and daily life.
C-111 mins, CC, Letterbox Format


5:50 AM

In this short film, a monkey's prank on a turtle demonstrates how to survive a nuclear attack.
BW-9 mins,

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Serial Saturday Part 4: Batman and Robin (1949) ✭✭✭1/2

The first serial featuring the Caped Crusader, 1943’s Batman, was produced at the height of the frenzied zeitgeist of WWII, and featured an array of Japanese villains (white actors pretending to be Japanese, to be precise) and some appalling racially-charged dialogue. That serial is not suitable for children and is barely passable for adults, unless you like wall-to-wall epithets and ill-fitting costumes.

Batman and Robin from 1949 was the second cinematic incarnation, but the first in our Serial Saturday series to feature truly modern production quality and a decent print to boot. The shots are in focus and properly exposed (I know this doesn’t sound too exciting, but the older serials have some really crappy technicals) and the soundtrack is clear, strong and thankfully free of the scratchy noises and distortions that marred the Mascot productions of the 1930s.

Batman is played by Robert Lowery, a 36 year old journeyman actor with an extensive record of film industry employment in westerns and crime dramas. Lowery’s good looks and smooth vocal delivery kept him busy as a supporting actor but the rank of elite leading man would elude him throughout his career. Lowery does a good job here of portraying alter-ego Bruce Wayne as a pampered waste of air, while imbuing the Dark Knight with an imposing toughness, despite his silly couture.

Taciturn John Duncan, as the Boy Wonder, is a welcome break from the cocky, self indulgent Robins of more recent vintage. Duncan’s still waters run very deep, and while his line readings don’t exactly sparkle, he exudes a steely focus on the task at hand. I’d much rather go into battle with this Dick Grayson than the brash, mouthy Robins of Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell.

In this 4 ½ hour opus, Gotham City faces impending doom at the hands of a mysterious cloaked figure known as The Wizard. He and his band of sharp-dressed henchmen have stolen a top secret invention that’s essentially the world’s largest remote control. With it, the Wizard can commandeer any plane, train or automobile within a hundred miles, and use that vehicle to unleash wanton death and destruction. Well, he can ram a car into a tree anyway, which was about all the mayhem this low budget serial would allow.

In Chapter One, our heroes leap to the Batmobile - actually in this production it’s a stock 1949 Mercury convertible – in hot pursuit of an armored car under the Wizard’s influence. While the Dynamic Duo is able to thwart the Wizard’s nefarious scheme on this occasion, it becomes clear that, as is often the case in serials, finally slapping the cuffs on this slippery perp will be a long, drawn-out affair.

Just getting to the Wizard’s hideout is an exercise in patience. First, his henchmen have to go to an isolated location at the shore and find the exact right bush to move out the way, revealing a narrow tunnel that descends to a secret underground marina. From there, a submarine shuttles the men to an island where the Wizard scans them with a fancy version of x-ray goggles. If the visitors pass muster, the Wizard pushes a button and allows the men entry into his secret lair of buzzing contraptions and brightly flashing gizmos.

Visiting the Wizard requires a concerted effort. And after you do all that he doesn’t even offer you a cuppa. Hardly seems worth it. Anyway, this cumbersome ritual is repeated many times throughout the serial – I suppose it was one way to extend the episodes to proper length - and eventually the viewer wishes the Wizard would just move someplace closer to town; perhaps a nice condo, convenient to schools and shopping.

And speaking of town, the Gotham City depicted here is not the hotbed of foreboding art-deco skyscrapers as envisioned by Tim Burton and Chris Nolan, but rather a flat, sleepy burg - as exciting and energetic as Akron on a Sunday morning. Street scenes are filmed on back lots with absolutely no effort expended on atmospherics – no strolling extras, no passing cars – creating the sense that the city’s entire population suffers from pathological shyness. Car chases, and there are a lot of them, are filmed in rural areas on dirt roads. Unfortunately, the speeding vehicles create huge dust clouds that partially obscure our view of Gotham’s finest cabbage patches.

The cheapness extends to the Batmobile itself. In fact, there isn’t one. Here, Bruce Wayne’s personal vehicle must suffice as the Dark Knight’s ride. When the top is down, the Mercury conveys Bruce and Dick to their frivolous idle rich appointments. When the top is up, the Dynamic Duo is hot on the trail of the dastardly Wizard. This subtle subterfuge does not fool the very sharp and shapely Vicky Vale (Jane Adams), who finally asks the burning question “What are you doing with Bruce Wayne’s car, Batman?” This query stumped even the writers, as the Caped Crusader just kind of shrugs and laughs it off.

However, these same writers did create one clever deus ex machina; the Wizard’s terrifying device requires bearings made from very expensive diamonds to perform even the most rudimentary functions. So before he can destroy the world, his henchmen must knock off every Zale’s and Jared’s in Gotham, giving Batman and Robin an all-you-can-eat buffet of misdeeds to investigate and thwart. And that, my friends, is how you get a serial to last 263 minutes.

With the advent of the fourth hour, after the Caped Crusaders have survived raging infernos, falls from high rooftops, out of control airplanes and assorted other perils, the serial begins to chug toward conclusion. And by then most viewers, along with the Dynamic Duo, will have thoroughly had it with The Wizard and his shit.

But there is one more revelation to be made - the discovery of the Wizard’s identity – and while it’s a complete surprise, it also is a bit of a letdown. But through this discovery, our heroes are able to finally to corner the devilish criminal. The actual apprehension is surprisingly laid-back and routine, kind of like the collaring of Al Capone for faulty IRS reporting.

You’re probably thinking that after such a litany of complaints, your loyal but snotty reviewer hated Batman and Robin. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I adored it. As a Batman completist, any manifestation of the character interests me, as long as it remains somewhat true to the legend. My least favorite Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, took too many liberties for my taste, wasn’t much fun and was filmed in such inky darkness it was often incoherent.

This serial succeeds due to the actors. Not necessarily the acting, which barely rises above serviceable, but the attitudes of the performers themselves. From Lowery’s Batman to the lowliest henchman day-player, the cast went about their roles with earnest, absolute conviction.

There’s no tongue-in-cheek smugness and no sense that the actors felt the script was beneath them. Instead, there’s an admirable resolution to interpret every character and each line of dialogue with an unshakable commitment to believability; the cheesy sets and hokey costumes be damned. Rarely is “work ethic” used as a reason to recommend a movie, but this lunch pail, blue collar version of Batman and Robin, devoid of irony and camp, is downright refreshing.

Friday, April 25, 2014

24 Years Ago Today…

...Dexter Gordon passed away. The world has been a poorer place ever since.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Dude, Where's My Karma?: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) ✭✭✭✭

Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the latest in director Apitchapong Weerasathakul’s series of highly personal abstractions. Challenging and eccentric, to put it mildly, the film is an attempt to capture the fevered visions and visitations of a dying man over the last few days of his life. It also deals with the aftermath of his passing, and a return to the banalities of earthly existence by the grieving survivors. Told with Weerasathakul’s patented meek passivity, Uncle Boonmee confounds expectations at every turn, and uses a mosaic of past and present, flesh and spirit, to contrast the mystical with the mundane.

As Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) struggles with organ failure at his farm in remote northern Thailand, he is visited by a number of family members, both living and – somehow "dead” is not the right word – long departed. As a scrawny cow humorously demonstrates sentient characteristics, even the trees, bushes and livestock at Boonmee’s estate seem to sense an imminent date with the ultimate. A group of ape-ish humanoids with glowing red eyes skulk about the jungle like shy Sasquatches, preparing to escort Boonmee on his upcoming journey. This hairy band is led by a reconstituted fellow named Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) Boomee’s son who has been missing for years.

Meanwhile, Boonmee’s mind begins its own meditative walkabout, attempting to sort and define a life that is drawing to conclusion. At an ancient waterfall, a beautiful princess is seduced by a smooth-talking catfish; their tryst bathed in poetic blue-green moonlight. At Boonmee’s insistence, his family embarks on a spelunking expedition, where deep recesses of solid rock serve as a launch point to a vaporous new dimension.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life deconstructed the boundaries between time and space, while Uncle Boonmee connects planes of existence, creating a reality where people and poltergeists freely intermingle. But Weerasathakul turns the horror film dynamic upside down: his spirits are kindly, but in a condescending sort of way; their temporary return to the physical world a dreaded chore, like a trip to the dentist. But eventually, the goblins depart and life goes on. After a brush with mortality, television shows and hot showers provide solace and a reminder of life’s necessities. Weerasathakul once again uses a Buddhist monk as an unlikely source of comic relief, this time as foil for the glories of hamburgers and karaoke.

Compared to 2007’s Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee seems a lesser work; its palette not quite in Weerasathakul’s comfort zone of quirk. It lacks the absurdist set pieces that made Syndromes such an enjoyable blend of high art and low comedy. But comparing Weerasathakul’s films to each other is a silly enterprise, almost as silly as comparing him to any other director. His mind simply does not work like any other filmmaker's. His ideas are not conceived over long lunches at fashionable L.A. eateries. He doesn’t calculate, or particularly care, how audiences will react to any given scene. He simply proceeds in his quiet, gentle way; reveling in the wonders of existence, the splendors of creation, both in this world and beyond.  He does so in ways that often hold deep meaning only for him. And he’s OK with that. Artistically speaking, Apitchapong Weerasathakul has balls the size of your head.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

67th Cannes Slate Announced

I'll be doing my annual Field Guide in a few days, but here's a quick peek at the films selected for this year's festival. New stuff from Ceylan, The Dardennes and Assayas has me jazzed, but Tommy Lee Jones' western The Homesman may be the most intriguing of all…

Main Comp

Un Certain Regard

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Seen Any Good Movies Lately?

I haven't. I'm beginning to think I've seen all the good ones and there's only a sea of crap out there. Got a recommendation? Please leave a comment. Thanks!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

12 Angry Men (1957) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s tension laced set piece from 1957, would be derided by talk radio as liberal claptrap if it were released today. The story of a lone juror (Henry Fonda) who seeks to impede a jury’s rush to judgment in a capital murder case, 12 Angry Men is a drama that grows organically from tiny seeds; seeds that 90 minutes later produce a harvest of shameful revelations. Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.

As a testament to the property’s enduring relevance, 12 Angry Men has been remade and rebooted several times over the years, both on film and on stage, including a padded, meandering Russian version in 2007, complete with a young Chechen defendant. The script originated as a teleplay in 1955, broadcast live as an installment of CBS’ Westinghouse Studio One, and has evolved into the status of a true classic. Now available in a handsome Criterion blu-ray, 12 Angry Men retains its riveting dramatic currents with new clarity and detail, and the film’s superb acting and flawless construction burst forth with unprecedented vividness.

The physicality of the production couldn't be simpler - twelve jurors sequestered at a conference table trying to reach a unanimous verdict – but that simplicity is deceptive. Through meticulous blocking and skillful performances, the scope of the story far exceeds its spatial confinements, and creates a dramatic web that encompasses the social spectrum. Through an impeccable ensemble cast, Lumet and Rose explore the dynamics of the political spectrum: the entrenched dogma of the extreme contrasted with malleable souls who simply go along for the ride. The script inverts its own logic and sets forth a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, all of which are overcome by one man who refuses to submit to intellectual laziness. Lumet’s frames grow increasingly tighter, eventually isolating each juror as his preconceptions and prejudices are swept aside. Soon, all each man has left is his own self interested acceptance or denial; the intellectually honest concede their errors, while the ideologues battle on with bilious spite. But the tides of change are irresistible, and even the most deep-seated hatreds are powerless against them.

12 Angry Men is an actor’s picture in the truest sense, its unrelenting pressures dependent on timing and technique. Lumet’s brilliant cast, including a few holdovers from the original TV broadcast, features a squadron of familiar faces. Established stars like Henry Fonda and Ed Begley freely mingle with relative unknowns who would go on to long careers in television and film. Over the course of the film, each actor is given his moment to shine, and in vignettes great and small there are no awkward or fumbled moments. Fonda, as thoughtful, empathetic Juror 8, acts as the film’s navigational moral compass; his intellectual cool providing a counterpoint that both infuriates and impresses his fellow deliberants. His polar opposite, Lee J. Cobb, delivers a pitch dark rendering as an authority-worshiper who can’t wait to slip the noose on the young Hispanic defendant; his thirst for vengeance driven more by personal failures than any desire for justice. The great Jack Warden adds another winning performance to his portfolio of regular guy slobs while Robert Webber, as a slick adman, provides the film’s scant comic relief. In a superb sequence, E.G. Marshall’s self-righteously pragmatic stock broker has his Road to Damascus moment when he fails a memory test administered by Fonda, opening a floodgate of second guessing by his fellow jurors.

Any analysis of Sidney Lumet’s directorial style – and his extraordinarily successful 60 year career – starts with great respect for actors, as evidenced by the whole-cloth fashioning of 12 Angry Men’s nameless characters. Some dominate while others recede into the background, yet it’s clear each actor is working from a tightly defined backstory. Their biographies rarely come into play during the narrative, but each man’s history and place in the world form vital building blocks to character. Yet, Rose and Lumet build beyond types, and their jurors emerge as fully human and fully believable; each man a product of unseen experiences held deep in the soul. These hidden layers give 12 Angry Men its pervasive sense of simmering contempt and suppressed violence, and elevate the film into an American classic. It’s a bare knuckle fight to the finish, with the sharp daggers of intellect and decency as the weapons of choice.