Sunday, September 28, 2014

TCM for October 2014

A wide range of the weird and the wonderful this month on TCM. My picks below. All times Eastern, full schedule HERE

10/4 Saturday

5:00 AM
This short industrial film focuses on the making of Tupperware.
C-29 mins,

5:00 AM
Educators attempt to raise the level of living in an Appalachian community in this short film.
BW-13 mins,

Wild at the Wheel. Driver's Ed films used to traumatize me.

5:00 AM
This short film looks at the importance of traffic rules to avoid serious automobile accidents.
C-10 mins,

10/5 Sunday

10:30 PM

Interviews and classic clips trace the career of one of the screen's greatest cinematographers.
C-86 mins, CC,

12:00 AM
Families from opposite ends of the economic scale are drawn together.
BW-91 mins,

2:00 AM
Inhabitants of a Bangladeshi fishing village endure life in one of the world's most poverty-stricken areas.
BW-158 mins,

10/7 Tuesday

8:00 PM
A man's efforts to save his friend's marriage lead to infidelity.
BW-84 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

You have to see Network

9:45 PM
Television programmers turn a deranged news anchor into 'the mad prophet of the airwaves.'
BW-121 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/9 Thursday

4:15 AM
A samurai's wife returns from the dead for revenge.
C-77 mins, Letterbox Format

10/12 Sunday

2:00 AM
A medieval girl struggles to grow up in a world of eccentrics, monsters and temptation.
C-76 mins,
3:30 AM

An aging housewife seeks direction when she catches her husband in an affair.
C-137 mins, Letterbox Format

10/13 Monday

Nights of Cabiria.  One of Fellini's best.

2:00 AM
A streetwalker dreams of a better life.
BW-118 mins,

4:15 AM
A traveling strongman buys a peasant girl to be his wife and co-star.
BW-108 mins,

10/18 Saturday

10:00 PM
An Indian-hating Civil War veteran tracks down the tribe that slaughtered his family and kidnapped his niece.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/19 Sunday 

4:00 PM
A man must come to terms with his own "high anxiety" in this loving parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
C-94 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:45 AM
A young girl living in an isolated Spanish town tries to uncover her father's secret.
C-94 mins,

10/23 Thursday

In 1972,  giant rabbits terrorized Arizona in Night of the Lepus.  Now our politicians do.

6:00 AM
Husband-and-wife scientists unwittingly unleash a horde of giant man-eating rabbits.
C-89 mins, Letterbox Format

2:30 PM
A man falsely suspected of killing a spy races across Scotland handcuffed to the beautiful blonde who turned him in.
BW-86 mins, CC,

10/24 Friday

5:45 PM
Wealthy passengers fogged in at London's Heathrow Airport fight to survive a variety of personal trials.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:45 PM
Nature lover Dian Fossey risks her life to study and protect gorillas in the wild.
C-129 mins,

1:00 AM
A man dying from third-degree burns remembers a tragic wartime romance.
C-162 mins,

10/25 Saturday

Somehow The Birds manages to be both tacky and terrifying

5:45 PM
In a California coastal area, flocks of birds unaccountably make deadly attacks on humans.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:00 AM
Director Orson Welles examines the career of a notorious art forger.
C-88 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/29 Wednesday

6:45 PM
Alfred Hitchcock appears in an episode of The Dick Cavett Show that originally aired June 8, 1972.
C-65 mins, CC,

8:00 PM
A woman on the run gets mixed up with a repressed young man and his violent mother.
BW-109 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

If you've never seen Touch of Evil you're a jerk.
10:00 PM
A narcotics agent risks his wife's life to investigate a crooked cop.
BW-111 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/31 Friday

4:45 PM
After surviving a car crash, a church organist is haunted by the undead.
BW-83 mins, CC,

6:15 PM
Strange dreams haunt a beautiful young woman left alone in her apartment.
BW-105 mins,

8:00 PM
A space probe unleashes microbes that turn the dead into flesh-eating zombies.
BW-96 mins, CC,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Manhattan at 35

With 1979’s Manhattan, Woody Allen completed an unofficial trilogy of sorts. Along with preceding releases Annie Hall (1977) and Interiors (1978), the three films announced Allen’s arrival as a formidable cinematic force. No longer concerned solely with delivering jokes, each film represented a significant creative advance for the director. Annie Hall saw Allen seamlessly integrate experimental and European influences to create a delightful film as inventive as it was entertaining. Interiors, a grim and boldly unapologetic homage to Ingmar Bergman, proved Allen’s chops at skillful direction and the evocation of icy, angst ridden moods. Manhattan follows as a stylistic hybrid, returning to Allen’s comfort zone of satirical wit and sight gags, presented in a visually poetic package.

Manhattan aesthetically ups the ante by incorporating formal elements that conjure the dynamic muscularity of the American experience. From the intensity of the Gershwin orchestral pieces that adorn its track, to the raw, biting textures of DP Gordon Willis’ black-and-white images of the city’s bustle, Manhattan celebrates the energy and drive that carved the world’s most famous skyline out of sweat and dreams. The leafy environs of Central Park surrounded by an Art Deco canyon, a determined delivery truck on a narrow street covered in new fallen snow, and the misty splendor of sunrise at the Brooklyn Bridge all serve as visual couplets in Allen’s epic tome. While Interiors is a descendant of Bergman, Manhattan evokes the legacy of John Ford; its exultations a steel and brick cognate to Ford’s magnificent western vistas from films like The Searchers.

But today Monument Valley is inhabited mainly by cheerful Navajo tour guides, while Allen’s New York City has been overrun by a neurotic creative class, and Manhattan’s razor sharp narrative is all about their fallacies and foibles.  Allen stars as a comedy writer named Isaac Davis who, in a brief fit of artistic integrity, quits his cushy job on a hit TV show and is immediately hip-deep in regret and financial insecurity. Adding to Davis’ woes is his ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who is about to publish a nasty tell-all book about their dysfunctional marriage. Meanwhile, Davis’ best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a deluded academic permanently lodged in his ivory tower, is cheating on his devoted wife (Anne Byrne) with an unstable, high maintenance book editor (Diane Keaton). Davis’ only solace is in the barely legal arms of his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17 year old high school student who ironically seems the most mature of the lot.

Through vignettes laced with bull’s-eye observational humor, Allen skewers the misconceptions and warped priorities of the self proclaimed intellectual elite. Contrasting the impressive achievements of New York’s builders with the wobbly self absorption of its current residents, Manhattan is a full immersion in the cloudy rivers of Solipsism. While Davis and his friends wallow in self aggrandizement and chimerical crises, Allen fills his frames with constant reminders of man’s ultimate miniscule ranking in the universe. In the film’s most memorable scene, shot at the old Hayden Planetarium, Allen and Keaton discuss their romantic complications while wandering amid surreal heavenly grandeur. In a hilarious metaphor, Allen’s friends drip with cultural sophistication, but they are easily undone by the mysterious dingy brown water that drips from his rusty faucet. In a scene that builds to the film’s climactic confrontation, Allen tries to catalogue real things of transcendent permanence, a lofty process rapidly derailed by memories of his romance with young Tracy.

Current knowledge of Allen’s controversial personal proclivities adds a layer of ick to the Isaac/Tracy relationship not present – or at least not as pronounced - in 1979. The degree of distraction will vary from viewer to viewer, but suffice to say Allen’s subsequent issues with adopted offspring will likely prevent the full appreciation of Manhattan’s brilliance by today’s audiences. But also there are reassuring reminders of society’s advancements in shielding children from sexual situations. In a scene at the Russian Tea Room, Isaac jokes in a hushed tone about picking up a couple of girls with his 5-ish son (Damien Scheller). This exchange was innocently amusing in 1979, but today it seems wildly inappropriate, even for an actor without Allen’s tortured history on the subject.

In more recent films, Allen has shown an annoying tendency to make his actors all Sound Like Him. Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Judy Davis are but a few examples of gifted talents who have abandoned their personalities to the staccato allure of Allen-esque line readings. In Manhattan, Michael Murphy does a fine job of retaining his persona amid a sea of whiney hemming and hawing. Murphy’s neurotic naturalism is a display of exquisite control, both of timing and timbre, and he interprets rather than parrots. The scenes with Allen and Murphy rank as the film’s most effective and believable, and it’s both unfortunate and puzzling that Manhattan stands as their only collaboration.

In 1979, it had been a generation since anyone had seen a new black and white film in 2.35:1 and Manhattan’s starkly glorious imagery was a revelation.  Gordon Willis’ compositions still resonate with beauty and superb balance. His effective use of the frame’s challenging width has never been surpassed, and this film features several skillful examples. A night scene in Isaac’s apartment essentially features two pools of light – one on a sofa and another illuminating a spiral stairway – on opposite edges of the frame, creating a perfect tableau for the scene’s casual intimacy. In a day exterior, a discussion of car buying between Allen and Murphy is staged uncomfortably extreme camera right, but trees and an antique Porsche provide perfect visual counterweight. 

Despite the modern day infliction of Allen’s personal baggage, Manhattan remains an artistic triumph, and deserves its ranking among Woody Allen’s best films. Manhattan’s clever contrast of gutsy Greatest Generation aesthetics with Me Generation navel gazing creates an entertaining and thought provoking cinematic meditation that can be appreciated on a number of levels. While Allen is hardly a conservative moralist, his film shines a light on the creeping decay in the American psyche, and humorously reflects a growing national uneasiness that would manifest itself with Ronald Reagan’s election a year later. The brave and industrious visionaries who built New York have been replaced by a pampered, self absorbed set, concerned only with sex and fashionable places to have lunch. And ironically, in the years hence almost nothing has changed. You may not agree with Allen’s thesis, but Manhattan’s flawless execution makes for a compelling case.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Il Postino at 20

Michael Radford’s Il Postino from 1994 is a delightful work of speculative fiction, grafting elements of the legend of Cyrano de Bergerac onto the real life story of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s brief exile in Italy. From its sun drenched stone cottages to Luis Bacalov’s lush, lilting score, Il Postino is a sensory feast that creates an idyllic world where time seems to blissfully stop, not only for the characters but the viewer as well. 

Despite its visual and aural pleasures, Il Postino is a film chiefly about words, and the awe inspiring power of language as the bemused Neruda (Phillippe Noiret) and his country bumpkin mail carrier (Massimo Troisi) slowly build a friendship based on the attraction of opposites. When Neruda decides to help the awkward young man in his pursuit of the beautiful Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the film makes a powerful statement about the value of skillful expression and the emotional link of poetry to universal notions of romance. 

While the film’s idea of love nurtured by passionate verses and sultry ocean breezes may seem far-fetched to today’s jaded viewer, an example of life imitating art is offered as proof of Il Postino’s validity. Leading actor Massimo Troisi - who suffered from chronic heart disease - was so convinced of the film’s importance he ignored signs that his body was in trouble, and bravely ventured on with filming. 12 hours after the shooting wrapped he was found dead at his apartment in Rome, aged 41.

Monday, September 22, 2014

La Strada at 60

Giulietta Masina is often described as Fellini’s muse, yet somehow the term doesn’t seem sufficient. Through 50 years of marriage and countless artistic collaborations, their relationship more closely resembled the pragmatic partnership of Hitch and Alma than the symbiotic mists of Godard/Karina or Bergman/Ullman. Under Fellini’s direction, Masina’s pixie-ish characters remained cheery and upbeat, drawing on deep wells of strength despite their dreadful circumstances. La Strada is a film open to several roads of interpretation, including a thinly disguised retelling of Italy’s rise and fall from fascism.

Yet, intentionally or not, Fellini and Masina also created an indispensable portrait of the plight and power of modern womanhood. Battered, demeaned and sold into the slavery of a brutish circus performer named Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), Masina’s Gelsomina must rely on her spirit and guile to survive. As Zampanò’s slanders and insults echo through the bombed out hills of Abruzzo, Gelsomina’s tiny frame becomes a symbol for an endless cycle of abused women. However, there is a world beyond Zampanò’s ability to control, and exposure to that world will hold the key to a power shift in this tortured relationship. In Fellini’s La Strada no one is beyond the healing touch of human redemption, be they Fascist brownshirts or dimwitted circus strongmen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Supes Has a Bad Day

Frontier of Dawn (2008) ✭✭✭1/2

It’s fair to say that Philippe Garrel has small, moody films about soured romantic obsession down pat. Throughout his long career he’s made quite a few of them, and while we can’t claim to have exhaustive knowledge of his oeuvre, the ones we’ve seen we generally like. This one begins in typical Garrel fashion, with a shot of a slightly confused looking young man named François (the director’s son Louis – filmmaking is always a family affair for the Garrel clan) wandering down a deserted Paris street, camera gear and tripod in tow. He is clearly searching for an address, and soon enters a fashionable baroque apartment building - a building inhabited by a woman who will change his life forever.

Garrel’s been dispatched to take a portrait of Carole (Laura Smet), a pretty young actress on the verge of stardom. There is palpable heat between photographer and subject, and before long their relationship advances far beyond professional. The elder Garrel takes his sweet time in developing this romance – which is far from low maintenance- and at first it appears the director is squandering narrative resources on a pointless relationship that will obviously end badly. But the veteran filmmaker is patiently establishing crucial backstory elements that must not be rushed. All will be revealed in the later reels.

Carole displays troubling behaviors that keep both François and the viewer off balance, and constantly questioning the wisdom of this romance. Garrel has presented this self destructive female character before, most notably the dreamy drug-addict played by Johanna ter Steege in I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, but Carole’s issues run much deeper. However, the infatuation of François is so intense he can’t resist her. When he finally and painfully decides to end the relationship, tragedy ensues and François finds that his troubles with Carole are just beginning.

Again, as in Guitar, we flash forward a year and François is attempting to build a new life with the calm, level-headed Eve (Clementine Poidatz). While his bohemian friends congratulate him for finding “bonheur bourgeois”, François is haunted by vivid memories of the sensual Carole. First in his dreams and then, in a starkly supernatural turn, she begins to invade his physical world as well.

This film doesn’t rank with the best of Garrel, but features many of the stylistic ingredients that distinguish his work. The overriding tone of melancholy, the sudden, at times jarring, background music – in this film it’s a sort of Charles Ives meets Eric Satie – and of course those elegantly simple compositions that make Garrel’s films such a pleasure to watch. Garrel always keeps the nuts and bolts of production subtle, and never pounds us with jiggly handheld cameras or overly arty staging. Frontier of Dawn is Garrel’s attempt at a romantic ghost story, and while other directors have done this type of thing with more emotional immediacy, no one has ever done it quite like Louis Garrel. And his fans will know exactly what we mean.

IMDb (contains spoilers)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Impromptu (1991) ✭✭✭✭

Impromptu is a grand and goofy farce that attempts to rewrite history by portraying some of the 19th century’s most celebrated artistic talents as shallow, neurotic grifters. And It largely succeeds thanks to a strong performance by Judy Davis as writer George Sand, the unofficial leader of a clique of artists in constant search of some wealthy patron to fleece. The first half of the film is quite a hoot, as all the principles are invited to the country manor of the Duchess D'Antan (Emma Thompson) for an extended holiday. The flighty Duchess is woman with a lot more money than sense, and Thompson plays the giggly fool to a perfect hilt.

Accompanying Sand on this parasitic vacation are Eugène Delacroix (a bemused Ralph Brown) and Franz Liszt (Julian Sands, before he became a permanent bad guy). Things generally go to hell when Sand’s jilted lover Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) shows up, having consumed most of the wine cellar and in a tempestuous mood. Patinkin is a joy to watch in this outsized mad scene, whirling like a witty version of the Tasmanian Devil and stopping just short of taking a bite out of the scenery.

However, Sand is looking for more than free room and board out of this sojourn, for she is harboring a burning hot love for a friend of Liszt’s; a dreamy piano player from Poland named Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant) who’s expected to arrive at any moment. The second half of the film deals mainly with Sand’s pursuit of the shy, paranoid composer, a pursuit that leads the pair back to the stylish streets of Paris. The film’s pacing and joke count suffer significantly in the later reels as the film’s breezy camp is replaced by a desperate air. Grant’s Polish accent weaves and wanders like a hungry coyote, at times sounding more Wisconsin than Warsaw, yet it’s hard to imagine any actor crafting a wimpy hypochondriac with more aplomb.

Impromptu belongs to that special sub-genre of Irreverent Costume Dramas, aspiring to the greatness of Amadeus or  Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, to name a few. It doesn’t quite reach those lofty levels, but the film offers a fine selection of winning moments and a young cast at the peak of their charms. Soon, they would all hit the big time but - just like the historical figures they portray - for some it would be all downhill from here.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Quickies for September 2014

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) ✭✭✭✭

A beguiling four and a half hour odyssey - and there is no other word for it - into the life and times of young João (João Arrais), a fifteen year old orphan. Set in the early 1800s, the film has a distinctly Dickensian feel with its multi-generational storyline and sprawling slate of characters, all of whom eventually bear some relation to João’s unknown origins. Directed by the prolific and always interesting Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon is a period piece produced to the hilt, with lavish sets and sumptuous costumes that make the film a feast for the eyes. Elements of class struggle and Portugal’s unique place in European history add depth to the story, which unfurls at a stately and contemplative pace. At the completion of the long voyage is an ending that at first seems like a bit of cheat, but in fairness Ruiz does telegraph his intentions throughout the proceedings. I’m loathe to recommend a film of this length with such a potentially unsatisfying conclusion, but I can only say I was transfixed throughout, and frankly wish the film had been longer.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) ✭✭✭

Arnaud Desplechin's film is set in the late 1940s and concerns a Native American WWII veteran (Benicio Del Toro) struggling with what we would now call PTSD.  Del Toro is sent to a VA hospital in Kansas, where he is treated by an innovative French psychologist (Mathieu Amalric) who attempts a talking cure. There are some amusing and poignant scenes as  these two very different men develop a deep bond, but the film never really decides on a gear or a narrative focus. It's watchable but a bit long and draggy with  subplots that go nowhere.

Young Goethe in Love (2010) ✭✭✭✭

This highly idealized account of the romance that spurred the poet to fame is fun and entertaining. It's not really intended to be a serious bio-pic for the story meanders through many liberties. At times it feels like Amadeus meets Animal House, but if you're open to speculative fiction, there are pleasures here to be gleaned. 

Lulu femme nue (2013) ✭✭✭

The French love them some light-hearted dramas about runaway middle-age housewives and this is a fair to middlin' example of the genre. This time it's Karin Viard's turn to abandon hearth, home, whiny grownup children and the requisite bully of a husband. It's pleasant enough viewing, with Viard carrying the movie like a pack mule. Come to think of it, she's done that to a lot of mediocre scripts in her long career, making them all a lot better in the process.