Monday, February 25, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #8: The Spirit Of The West

I haven't said anything about the Oscars for the simple reason I haven't seen all of the nominated films.  I know that doesn't seem to stop some people in Blogworld but I like to know something of what I'm talking about before I open my mouth. As for what didn't get nominated I could be disappointed at Marion Cotillard not getting any Best Actress love for Rust And Bone but the Motion Picture Academy usually seems to only pump up one foreign film a year and since that was the amazing Amour this time, I can't say a word in protest. Having seen Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook I totally agree with the awards to Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence. I would still like to catch up with Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Life Of Pi while they are on the big screen. For various reasons I'm not so hot to catch up with Les Miserables and Django Unchained. As indicated below not all of last year's critical favorites are my cup of tea.

"I'd like to talk to you about your car insurance..."
Rango (2011)

I've always had a bit of a prejudice against CGI animation. A lot of it doesn't seem to have the individuality and personality of the hand-drawn variety.  I've only seen one Pixar feature, Finding Nemo, and I liked it but that didn't sell me on the format itself.  Rango may be enough to make me change my mind.

This film is a spaghetti western spoof that tells the familiar story of a stranger coming to a desert town ruled by a sinister mayor and putting things right for the townsfolk who are a cast of animated lizards, owls, mice, turtles, moles, snakes and similar creatures.  The movie is funny without resorting to kiddie humor or an excess of pop culture references like the Shrek films. The characters are humorously grotesque and very individual looking and the story flows along with a nice crazy energy.

Like most animated features it uses a voice cast of well-known actors but nobody whose voice is so instantly recognizable it would take you out of the movie.  Johnny Depp is really good as the hero, a chameleon with acting pretensions, using inflections that call to mind Don Knotts in blustery Barney Fife mode. Other dusty character voices are provided by the likes of Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, and Bill Nighy. As "The Spirit Of The West", Timothy Olyphant does such a good job impersonating Clint Eastwood I actually thought it was Eastwood until the credits rolled.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson's films are something else I've never cuddled up to. I know a lot of critics love his work but the deadpan self-absorption in what movies of his I've seen drives me up a wall.  I've tried to watch Bottle Rocket twice and bailed both times in the middle of a motel scene. The one time I sat down with The Royal Tenenbaums I couldn't even last ten minutes.

I did watch Moonrise Kingdom all the way through and that confirmed my feelings. The man is very skilled at what he does but I cannot relate to his work at all.  This story of two 12-year-old misfits running off together at a Northeastern lake resort community in 1965 is just way too insular for me. The two kids who play the lovers are so controlled and emotionless they don't register. The throwaway bit of a terrier shot dead from a arrow wound didn't endear me to the picture either.

Anderson does assemble impressive casts and the frantic adults looking for the kids include Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray all trying hard to get something out of the minimalist script. Tilda Swinton also makes an amusing appearance near the end looking like a demonic Mary Poppins as she comes in to take one of the kids to an orphanage but the whole movie has a dull center that shuts out anyone unfamiliar with the world of summer camps and 12-year-old true love.

The Anniversary Party (2001)

Jennifer Jason Leigh starred in one of the films of the short-lived Dogme 95 movement, The King Is Alive, in  2000. A year later she and Alan Cumming came out with this comedy-drama which adheres to most of the naturalist, here-and-now Dogme rules.

Leigh and Cumming play a married Hollywood couple, an actress and author-turned-director, on the day of their sixth wedding anniversary which comes a few months after reuniting following a separation.  They host an anniversary party for all their friends which, this being Hollywood, include ex-lovers, financial advisers, the actors and directors they are currently working with and the hostile next-door neighbors. There are underlying tensions between all the guests from the start which slowly get worse as the night wears on and really disintegrate when one person pulls out some Ecstasy for an anniversary gift.

The film has the interweaving flow of a great social comedy like Rules Of The Game. Various insecurities and jealousies flare up as people worry about getting passed over for acting roles, the burden of having children and their spouses' exes among other things. It sounds like a load of Hollywood navel-gazing but a very good cast consisting mostly of Leigh's and Cumming's friends makes all these tribulations immediate and engaging. Said friends include Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, Parker Posey, Phoebe Cates and Gwyneth Paltrow so you'd expect the acting to be top notch.  This is a fine and compelling little movie that shows Leigh and Cumming have real talent on the back end of a camera. It's a shame they haven't followed up with anything else since this movie came out.

My Baby Is Black! (1961) / Checkerboard (1959)

This is one of Something Weird Video's inimitable double feature DVDs featuring a pair of French exploitation films directed by one Claude Bernard-Aubert that both dealt with the then super-taboo subject of interracial romance.

My Baby Is Black! is not all that exploitative. It starts with, as the title suggests, a scene of a young white woman in a hospital giving birth to an extremely dark baby. Then the film goes back in time to detail the meeting and romance of two college students in Paris, a young white French woman and a black American man. There is a lot of dialogue about racial prejudice but the couple goes through very little of it as the movie progresses. All their friends are cool with the relationship and few others care as they walk down the street together. A few scenes do bring it up as when a few young punks attack another black man walking with a white woman and the leading man is arrested for helping out a little black kid attacked by a store owner but even these scenes are more described than shown. This version of this film was edited for an American audience and it feels like there are pieces that would flesh everything out that have been removed.

The big conflict, such as it is, comes when the couple argue and break up.  The girl then finds out she's pregnant and tells her parents who raise holy Hell using copious amounts of the "N---" word. At the end the girl is visited at the hospital by her college buddies and, with no ceremony, her boyfriend who just shows back up saying he's sorry. The movie ends with the young couple happily wheeling their new baby down a Paris street. That's it, no further hint of future problems with society. As unsexy as this all is, it does demonstrate how different the European attitude towards interracial love was from American standards then. I can't think of a single American film of that time that showed a black-white love affair ending happily. Here and in the British "Jazz Othello" film All Night Long, not only is that possible but it's treated as no big deal.

In Bernard-Aubert's earlier Checkerboard, the black-white thing does lead to all sorts of violence but tellingly this film is set in America. At least a reasonable facsimile of the American South, a small shanty town called Cicada, where the black people all work for the whites but are forced to live in a rundown section of the town and forced to stay there after dark. In one of the details that show the filmmakers were a little unclear on how this segregation thing worked, all the town's youths (who all look about 25-30) go to the same school together because "the town is too poor for real segregation" as one local explains.

In the midst of all this, a plot breaks out as one white kid, a returning war veteran starts romancing one of the local black girls. The local rednecks dislike this, beat the kid up and blame it on the blacks. There's a vigilante march on the black section, some homes are burned and a lot of guns are waved around but miraculously no one gets killed. The families of the vet and his girl eventually leave town while everyone else stays stuck in their stew of prejudice.

The movie has a somewhat cockeyed view of the American South with details like the school business and none of the black men (really Africans going by the cast names) wearing shirts at any time. On the other hand  few American films back then or since have touched on the ugly reality of race riots where crazed white men burned out black communities and murdered everyone they could find. Being an exploitation film there is the occasional flash of both male and female nudity (from the back) and the ending features a dead man carried out of town by his friends who turns out to be alive, a trick I remember seeing used in spaghetti westerns several years after this.

Like all Something Weird doubles, this has a bunch of extra features, the class of which is a short called Paris After Hours. This is no nudie oo-la-la. It's a film of a jazz party held inside a small Paris apartment. Dizzy Gillespie can be heard on the soundtrack while the onscreen performers include Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters. Roger Vadim and Sydney Chaplin are supposed to be among the partygoers but Lord knows where.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #7: Men And Women

A Man And A Woman (1966)

This came as something of a surprise. I knew A Man And A Woman had been a big hit film in the Sixties with a famous musical theme. What surprised me on finally seeing it was its look. With jump cuts, flashbacks, improvisation, non-direct sound and constant switching between black and white, tinted and full color film, this uses all the techniques of the French New Wave to tell a conventional love story of two widowers, a script girl and a racing driver, getting together.  The means are used to very different ends than anything Truffaut or Godard ever did but director Claude Lelouch tells a really beautiful story. All the setups and camerawork looks familiar today because these have been borrowed by a thousand music videos and commercials over the years. That doesn't take away from the understated charm of the original. I especially like the fact that so much of the film is told visually without resorting to large chunks of dialogue. Today you could never get the same story told without five minute soliloquies from the principal actors.

There was a drawback to my viewing of this film however. I saw it at the AFI Silver Theatre in a film print that was in heinous shape with scratches, speckles and echoey sound throughout. The problem, as I understand it, is that studios are reluctant to make prints on film anymore as they try to get theaters to switch to all digital projection. So you're left with old, worn out copies like this with that have warmth and texture in their images but look like hell. I'd never really thought about the film vs. digital debate before but this demonstrates that we're losing something in the changeover.

Cries & Whispers (1972)

I remember all the discussion about this Ingmar Bergman film when it was first released but I never had a chance to see it until now.  It turned out to be a shorter work than I expected, a simple, straightforward piece more like a short story than a novel. It concerns three sisters in 19th century Sweden. The eldest is dying of cancer while the other two and their maid attend to her. While in this situation the two younger sisters flashback to incidents that show the sexual frustration in their lives and also try to overcome their emotional distance from each other.  The film has an austere color scheme of red, white and black and features three of Bergman's finest actresses, Harriet Andersson as the dying sister, Ingrid Thulin as the rigid, repressed one and Liv Ullmann as the one given to flirting and adultery.  It flows along so naturally and quickly it goes by almost before you know it. It may not be up to the greatness of The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries but it's definitely the work of an artist.

Four In A Jeep (1951)

This is an unusual piece of post-World War II cinema. It's actually a Swiss-made film concerning four soldiers working police duty together in post-war Vienna. Since Vienna was still split into four Allied occupation zones then, the patrol consists of one American, one Russian, one British and one French soldier. Conflicts arises when the four come across a Russian woman waiting to hear from her husband who's due to return from a POW camp. The Russian authorities are taking special interest in this woman which arouses the protective instincts of the American solider and things get more complicated from there.

The first thing unusual here is that the Russian soldier is made out to be a human being, something you probably would not have seen in an American film with this plot in 1951. He is by the book and a bit hard-headed but he is still shown to be a nice guy down deep. There's even a flashback sequence where he and the American solider, played by Ralph Meeker, are laughing and roughhousing together when they meet in the final days of the war, a sequence that would have gotten this movie's producers hauled before Congress if this had come out of Hollywood.

Overall the movie seems to try for the dark atmosphere of another post-wat thriller set in Vienna, The Third Man. There's even a climatic chase through a construction yard that echoes the earlier film's famous chase through the Vienna sewers. Nothing in this movie matches that one but the shadowy compositions do give some distinctinon even through the version on this DVD looks a bit dark.

The DVD also came with a surprising extra, a short  called Your Job In Germany made for the American troops who would be occupying the country after the war. It warns against fraternization with locals but it does so by suggesting in pretty extreme terms that the German people have been warmongering villains since the days of Bismarck and are just laying low and waiting for the chance to start another war. This may have been sound thinking in 1945 but considering the way events played out this comes off really bizarre now. (By contrast Russia is mentioned  only as one of Germany's many victims.)  Even stranger is the fact that this was made by two men you wouldn't associate with a film this belligerent even though they were both key parts of the Army's motion picture unit at the time. The director was Frank Capra and the writer was one Theodore Geisel, later better known to the world as Dr. Seuss. The sentiments here are way removed from his later writings about Grinches and Sneetches.

The Prizefighter And The Lady (1933)

Today a big boxing or MMA match will most likely be promoted by a series of documentaries on cable about the fighters' backgrounds and training.  In 1933 they did this by making a full-blown dramatic movie.

Actually I don't know for sure if The Prizefighter And The Lady which starred real-life fighters Max Baer and Primo Carnera was intended as a promotional gimmick but the two did fight for Carnera's heavyweight title a year after the film's release with Baer winning.  The film itself is a fine little romantic drama with maybe more authenticity about the boxing world than usual because of its casting.

Baer stars as a bouncer who becomes a boxer at the urging of an old-time fight manager played by Walter Houston. He meets a nightclub singer played by Myrna Loy and immediately falls for her despite the fact that she's the mistress of a big-time gangster.  The two fall in love and get married with the gangster's grudging approval, but Baer immediately starts messing things up by playing around with every other woman he meets even as he keeps winning fights and rising through the ranks. Things turn as they usually do in boxing movies with the fighter becoming so full of himself he turns his back on both his wife and manager and continuing his high living leading up to the climatic fight with the champion played by Carnera.

Baer is a decent actor and makes an able foil for Loy who looks so good here you wonder why he would have any inclination to mess around with other women. The movie comes from that early 30's era when gangsters were often portrayed as being tough but gallant so Loy's mobster lover, played by Otto Krueger,  does a lot of snarling and threatening but in the end he steps aside to let Baer and Loy live happily ever after. Another feature of the day, musical numbers, shows up along the way as Baer does an extended musical training sequence with a bunch of chorus girls under the excuse of his being in a stage show to promote his fights.  There are cameos from a lot of other legendary old-time fighters like Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard and James Jeffries and even a wrestler, Strangler Lewis and the big fight is given plenty of time to unfold before ending in a draw. Incidentally Baer is supposed to have said that studying Carnera's fighting style in this film helped him win when they fought for real. I bet HBO would never have let that happen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #6: Missions

Drive, He Said (1971)

This is a lesser known film from the production company BBS which tried to revolutionize American cinema in the early 70's and produced the likes of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. It's the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson and comes off like the poor relation of those classics, particularly Pieces.

It's a typical youth story of the period. The main character is Hector, a college basketball phenom who is ambivalent about much of life, especially the focus on the game his coach demands and his clandestine relationship with the girlfriend of one of his professors. Meanwhile his friend, Gabriel, is a vague counterculture type, terrified of going into the army, who is gobbling uppers and staying awake  so he'll be too wired to pass his draft physical.

The film was a critical and commercial flop in its day and it hasn't improved with age. Hector and Gabriel don't project any kind of personality and it's hard to feel empathy with either of them. William Tepper, playing Hector, really loses out because it's hard not to compare his character to Bobby Dupea, the insecure drifter played by Nicholson himself in Pieces, and that's a comparison the poor guy cannot win. He even has Pieces' Karen Black playing his girlfriend. As Gabriel, Michael Margotta is just annoying and creepy. It's especially hard to like him after one extended scene where he breaks into Black's home and terrorizes her. You think he's going to either rape or kill her but thankfully neither happens. It's then really hard to care later when he's led away, naked and insane, to an institution. The best acting in the film comes from the two people who would go on to have substiantual careers, Black, whose character here is a lot more intelligent and independent than her sad little country girl in Pieces, and Bruce Dern who plays the hard-assed basketball coach with more depth than you might think. With a younger Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in the leads, this might have been something. What's here is just "meh".

Spaced Out (1979)

Sometimes when an odd film comes to the top of my Netflix queue, I try to remember why in the world I ever put it in there.  This one showed up after I watched an interesting low-budget horror film, Prey, that was a take on the D.H. Lawrence story "The Fox" with the man invading the woodland home of a lesbian couple turing out to be a vampiric alien. The director of that movie was Norman J. Warren and in the accompanying interview on his career he mentioned a sex comedy he'd done called Spaced Out.  I found it and it turns out it wasn't one of his finest hours.

The film is a silly low-budget British sex farce, the kind of thing that filled late night cable schedules back in the Nineties.  The plot has three aliens, all busty, scantily-clad females of course, landing their spaceship on Earth and collecting some samples of the local animal life, namely a cocky macho guy, a frustrated businessman and his frosty fiancee and a spindly young nerd with a handful of porno magazines. The aliens have no idea what men are and know nothing about the usual beast-with-two-backs stuff. If you've ever seen any direct-to-video movies starring the likes of Jacqueline Lovell, Kira Reed or Shauna O'Brien, you can imagine what happens next...

...but in case you can't, the macho guy seduces one of the aliens who becomes so insatiable it freaks him out, the businessman beds his fiancee and the little guy makes it with all three aliens. At the end the first three people leave the ship but the nerd decides he's got nothing to stay here for (and you can't blame him) and goes with the aliens back to their home planet. Unfortunately the spaceship, which has been falling apart all through the picture, blows up killing everyone on board which I thought was an unneccesarily nasty way to end things. I hope that at least Warren's other horror films are an improvement on this.

Mission: Impossible, Season 1, Disc 4

Just to be clear I am talking about the TV show Mission: Impossible, not those "Tom Cruise, Macho Man" movies that have been showing up the last few years.  It's always interesting to me to look back at the early episodes of a long-running television show and see how it played before it found its winning formula. The four shows on this disc from Mission's first season show more differences from the familiar format than I expected.

 It's not just having Steven Hill star as the head of the IMF team before Peter Graves took over in the second season. It's that three of these four episodes do not follow the usual pattern of the entire team concocting some elaborate scheme to foil a villain. Two of the shows, "Elena" and "The Reluctant Dragon" featured Martin Landau without most of the others, solo on the first show and with only Greg Morris on the second. Another program, "The Short Tail Spy", featured just Hill, Morris and Barbara Bain. Only "The Legacy", an episode about a hunt for a hidden Nazi fortune, had the entire cast of Hill, Bain, Landau, Morris and Peter Lupus.  Landau's solo stories feel the least like the Mission: Impossible we've all come to know. There's no elaborate trickery in either one, epscially "Elena". They are just straightforward spy tales about an agent who's possibly gone insane and Landau convincing an Iron Curtain scientist to defect, things that I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in its serious days, or any other espionage show could have done. I don't know if they tried this format to save the expense of having all the regulars in every episode or if they were just feeling out what worked but "The Legacy" is the only one of these that feels like the show everyone remembers.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #5: Working Man's Blues

American Splendor (2003)

A movie about a lonely guy who is an obsessive music collector and works in a dead end government job?  Has somebody been peeking at my life?

This film has nothing to do with me of course. American Splendor is the true story of Harvey Pekar, a grumpy Cleveland file clerk who became a renowned comic book writer simply by telling stories from his own life.  The film follows the arc of Harvey's life from childhood to his befriending a young artist named Robert Crumb over a mutal love of ingjazz and blues records and Crumb later agreeing to illustrate the stories Harvey wants to write about his day to day struggles. From there Harvey goes on to become famous in the comics world while still holding on to his clerk job at a VA hospital, meets his eventual wife, Joyce Brabner, becomes a familiar face on David Letterman's talk show and has a protracted bout with cancer, all the while remaining the same cranky grouch.

Not only do we get to see Paul Giamatti do a great job playing Pekar, but the real Pekar narrates and sometimes appears in the film being interviewed by the directors. When we actually see him you really appreciate how Giamatti nails his posture, expressions and voice. It's an unusual but somehow warming story about how a downtrodden guy can really persevere in life that has a sense of the boring but telling details of reality. I especially chuckled at the first scene in Harvey's apartment when we see racks of metal shelves buckling under the weight of record albums. I used to have an album collection in similiar precarious shape.  Hope Davis is similarly quirky but real as Joyce and you get the sense in this film of a man who despite appearances, found a satisfying creative outlet for his life and came to enjoy his time on this earth. Pekar died in 2010.

They Won't Believe Me (1947)

A compact little piece of California noir that seems to have been forgotten about. It takes place mostly in sunlight but there is a sense of claustrophobic fatalism in the film that is very much of a piece with wifeother post-war works of its studio, RKO, like Out Of The Past and Crossfire. Robert Young stars as an unhappily married stockbroker who plans to leav e his rich for a hot little secretary in his office but finds things going horribly wrong and ends up being tried for a murder he didn't commit.  The weaknesses of Young's character constantly lead to his making bad decisions and you don't find out just how bad until the movie's surprisingly grim ending.  Young is fine in his role but a couple of other actors present recall other noirs of the time. The police detective who pursues him is played by none other than Tom Powers who was doomed by fate himself in the classic Detour while Past's indelible bad girl, Jane Greer, here plays the only good woman in the cast. The major bad girl role is reserved for a young Susan Hayward as the secretary and she looks so good you completely understand ehy Young wants to leave his wife.  Irving Pichel directed the film and while it doesnt' have the distinctive, shadowy look of the best noirs there is still a nasty little sting to it.

Sirens At Work: Emmylou, Gillian and Alison
 Down From The Mountain (2000)

I don't care if it is based on the Odyssey, I've never cared much for the forced hillbilly humor of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? However it led to this movie which is quite another matter. This is D.A. Pennebaker's film of a concert given at Nashville's famous Ryman Auditorium by the country, blues, and bluegrass artists who provided music for O Brother, a gathering of regional artists, national stars, legends and a few up-and-comers of the time who all come off like happy members of a huge family in the backstage sections.

The concert itself is mc'd by the great John Hartford who plays fiddle and sings a bit in addition to introducing the acts.  Those acts include the gospel group, the Fairfield Four and family bluegrass bands like the Cox Family. The main focus though is on the three women who gave the film its best musical moment, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Gilliam Welch. Together the three sing that moment, the mesmerizing "Nobody But The Baby" and also perform separately. All sound great but one of the greatest moments in this film for me was Welch and her partner, David Rawlings playing and singing with their close, sensual harmony on their own "Dear Someone" and "I Want To Play That Rock And Roll".  The other outstanding appearance was by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley who came out and sang an acapella "O Death": that brought tears to my eyes before leading the entire cast in a rendition of "Angel Band".  This was a special concert film. My only mild disappointment is that you hear snatches of recordings of "Man Of Constant Sorrow", O Brother's breakout hit, but the actual song is never played during the concert.

The White Gorilla (1945)

There are creative ways to incorporate old footage into a newer film. Then there's stuff like this. About half the running time of this jungle movie is taken up with footage from a 1927 serial, Perils Of The Jungle.  Not just various shots of chimpanzees, hippos and other wild animals, but scenes of people menaced by lions, tigers and African tribesmen. This is intercut with scenes at a trading post of a tattered guide telling others about the doomed expedition he was part of, his story being the 1927 scenes. Additionally there are new scenes of a guy in a white-haired gorilla suit lumbering around the jungle and having the occasional clunky wrestling match with a guy in a black-haired gorilla suit. On top of all that actor-stuntman Ray "Crash" Corrigan plays both the guide and the white gorilla he is supposedly hunting. Pul this all together and you have one hour of solid "Huh?".  I will admit though that the serial pieces are well done and make me curious to see what the uncut Perils Of The Jungle looks like.