Sunday, April 28, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #14: Chekhov In The Time Of Stalin

Burnt By The Sun:  Kotov in happy days

Burnt By The Sun (1994)

It's 1936 in the Soviet Union. Colonel Sergei Kotov, a noted hero of the Revolution, is enjoying a summer holiday with his wife and daughter at her family's country estate. One day the family receives a surprise visit from Mitya, an old family friend and the ex-fiancee of Kotov's melancholy wife. This starts a round of reminiscences and regretful flirtations that seem straight out of a Chekhov play but it soon emerges that things aren't the way they seem on the surface. In fact the plot take an abrupt and harsh turn which you might guess at from the first sentence I wrote. This is set in Stalin's Russia, a world where few things were what they appeared to be.

This film was co-written and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov who additionally plays the colonel with a warm stoicism that at first seems puzzling, then, when as the story unfolds, inevitable. Mikhalkov also directed a 2007 film called 12, which adapted the play 12 Angry Men to the economic and political realities of post-Soviet Russia. Similarly in this film he takes a scenario more suited to the well-to-do classes of Czarist Russia and reimagines it for a much darker world. It's a movie that sneaks its darkness up on you, giving at first a picture of warm family life that makes it much more effective when it all comes apart. Even a seemingly-unrelated running gag about a truck driver lost in the countryside turns ugly by the end. This film was highly acclaimed in its day, winning both the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Grand Prize at Cannes. It's easy to see why.

Since writing the above, I've learned that Mikhalkov made a sequel to this film in 2010, Burnt By The Sun 2, set during World War II. For this he resurrected three characters who were all dead by the end of the first film. Some people just can't leave well enough alone.

The Howl (1968)

The DVD cover for this film calls it "a surreal cult classic".  I guess that's one way of putting it. This is an early film from Italian director Tinto Brass known to some film buffs as the maker of a bevy of Italian sex comedies and more generally as the poor bastard whose name ended up on the infamous Bob Guccione mess, Caligula. The Howl is an attempt at avant-garde filmaking in the spirit of the turbulent late 60's when it was made. Its thin plot consists of a young woman leaving her stuffy fiancee to run about the countryside with some nondescript male free spirit type, encountering a lot of allegorical scenes involving sex, military violence, comical police and cannibalism.

There are some watchable parts to this, particularly the section when the pair runs into soldiers in a bombed-out city but watching it almost 50 years after the fact, its mixed message of violent revolution and beatific freedom comes off as pretty tired.  Also Brass was far from the only director exploring the '68 revolutionary mood back then and this movie really loses out when compared to others' similar work of that day, especially Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend which had a real moral force behind its surreal anarchic spirit.  The Howl simply looks puny and cliched by comparison.

The Angels' Share (2013)

British director Ken Loach is known mostly for grim social consciousness films but he's been lightening up in recent years. 2009's Looking For Eric was a warm and funny film about a beaten down postal worker who finds the courage to face his problems through his imaginary friendship with a famous soccer player and The Angels' Share is a similar tale.

This time his protagonist is Robbie, a young man who lives in the Glasgow slums and is at a low point in his life. He's constantly in trouble with the law for fighting, he's got people after him as part of an old family feud, he can't get a job and his girlfriend has just had a baby boy. His guardian angel turns out to be Harry, his supervisor in a community service program. Harry tells Robbie about the arts of making and appreciating fine Scotch whiskey.  Robbie and some friends visit a distillery and learn that a particularly rare whiskey can sell for a lot of money, leading them into a scheme to heist some of a rare batch scheduled to be auctioned for thousands and selling it to a whisky collector.

The film feels authentic in its views of Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Scottish countryside and everything Robbie and the rest of the cast act out, the frustrations, the humor, the anger, feels very real. Every time the story threatens to turn into cheap and easy melodrama, it doesn't, going for something more mature and recognizably human. Even the comedy coming from Albert, the thickest member of Robbie's gang, is fresh even as goofy as it can be. Loach here maintains his ability to convincingly tell the stories of the down and out even when he's giving them happy endings.

Friday, April 26, 2013

George Jones

Dammit! It seems lately that a week can't go by without somebody's hero dying. Today it's George Jones, a country music icon and one of the greatest singers who ever drew breath, regardless of genre. He could sing uptempo honky tonk songs like "White Lightning" and "The Race Is On" as well as anybody but on sad songs, he'd moan with that little upsweep in his voice and you were spellbound.  Nobody sang about heartbreak like this man.

Here are a few of his classics and I apologize if any of these play with commercials in front. First "The Race Is On"

Then "I'll Be Over You (When The Grass Grows Over Me)". Like the host says, when he sings a song it's been sung.

And finally, his masterpiece...

Making George Jones' voice must have been the last thing God did at the beginning of time. How could he follow creating perfection? R.I.P., Possum

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #13: The Place Beyond Stinkfoot

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

This film is a multigenerational saga about families, responsibilities and redemption that resembles Greek tragedy but ends on a far more uplifting note.

It plays out in three acts and starts with Ryan Gosling as a character who superficially resembles the one he played in Drive, a quiet drifter who is also a gifted mechanic and driver. In every other way the two are very different. The earlier guy was a modern samurai. This one is more like someone Mickey Rourke would have played ten years ago, a blue collar rebel  who does motorcycle stunts for a traveling carnival. On a stop in Schenectady, New York, he meets a woman he was with a year before and finds out she's had his baby. The woman, played by Eva Mendes, has moved on and married someone else but Gosling's character, Luke, wants to claim his parental responsibilities and is determined to get Mendes and the child to run away with him. That leads him to a bad moral decision and a confrontation with a police officer played by Bradley Cooper.

The second act focuses on Cooper's character after that encounter. He ends up wounded in the line of duty and is hailed as a hero cop. Instead of drinking in all the cheers though, he is more concerned about the welfare of Mendes and her baby who happens to be the same age as Cooper's son. He is also taken into the confidence of a bunch of crooked cops who encourage him to join their gang. He makes his moral decision about this which works out well for him.

This leads to the third act fifteen years later. Gosling's and Cooper's sons are now teenagers and meet in high school. One is troubled and knows nothing about his real father. The other is a spoiled rich kid. They bond over smoking dope together having no idea how their fathers are connected. Eventually Gosling's son finds out and things get very ugly.

This is a well-structured, beautifully shot film that really uses New York highways and forests well for atmosphere and a sense of place. The cast is uniformly fine with Gosling and Cooper really excelling at conveying the subtle nuances and shifts in their characters.  The story plays out with tricky but logical precision even though there are a couple of places where the characters have to do or say carelessly dumb things to move the plot along. For example, you have to accept the idea that only teenagers know how powerful Google is.

Most suprisingly the movie ends positively. Not everyone dies and, at the end, a major character seems to have conquered his demons even if another has a last scene turning to the light that comes out of nowhere. Even with its slight flaws though Place Beyond The Pines is a rewarding and powerful drama.

Frank Zappa: The Dub Room Special

This is a 1982 public access TV special Frank Zappa cobbled together from various sources. Some of it is him clowning around with others in the editing studio he called the Dub Room and a few animated Claymation clips appear, but the lion's share of the show comes from two live concerts by differing Zappa bands, a 1974 performance by the version of the Mothers that included George Duke on keyboards, Chester Thompson on drums, Napoleon Murphy Brock on reeds and vocals and Ruth Underwood on percussion and a 1981 show by the Zappa band that featured guitarist Steve Vai and druumer Chad Wackerman. In the earlier performance the 1974 group is eye-openingly good, tearing into favorites like "Stinkfoot", Cosmik Debris", and "Montana" with gusto and plenty of visual fun in Brock's theatrics, a man in a gorilla suit who wanders through one number and frequent shots of Underwood as she scurries around her drums and marimbas.  In the 1981 show, all the lyrics are just about sex, drugs and groupies but the music is even heavier and faster jazz fusion. If you forgot how good Frank Zappa's music could be, this will remind you.

Girl Missing (1933)

Some movie buffs have become fascinated with what they call the "Pre-Code Era", that period of early talkies from about 1930 to 1934 when Hollywood films often dabbled in risque situations and themes, something that seems to amaze people who previously old Hollywood films had always been squeaky clean.
I had the chance to watch a lot of early 30's films on Washington and Baltimore television stations back in the 70's so that kind of stuff  is no surprise to me though I do still run across the occasional old movie whose sexual or moral stance has me doing a double take. Girl not one of those.

It looks promising, a 1933 Warner Brothers melodrama about a chorus girl who disappears after marrying a millionaire and two other chorus girls who play detective to find out what happened. The problem is the movie is just dull. Glenda Farrell, as one of the sleuths, spits out her lines 50 miles a minute but the rest of the cast is almost comatose. Director Robert Florey had his strong points, but fast-paced crime stories were not among them. The other leads, Ben Lyon, Mary Brian and Peggy Shannon are all bland and there's no real tension even as the plot unfolds. The only other entertaining performers are Ferdinand Gottschalk and Helen Ware as the missing bride's parents and Guy Kibbee playing a would-be sugar daddy though he's only around for the first scene.  This is proof that not every early-30's movie is an undiscovered gem.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Weekly Movie Roundup #12: It Sort Of Really Happened Like This...

 The Goddess (1958)

This is a 1958 film about the life of a poor, small town Southern girl, Emily Ann Faulkner, who grows up to be a glamorous movie star but suffers horrendous emotional distress throughout her life. She is first seen as a four-year-old girl raised reluctantly by a mother that doesn't even want her around.  She is starved for companionship from a very young age and in her adolescence makes out with high school boys just to have to someone to talk to.

She eventually meets and marries a lonely, depressive soldier and has his child but that doesn't last. She makes her way to Hollywood, starts getting bit parts in movies and marries a retired boxer partially because she thinks the publicity would be good for her career. That doesn't work either. One minute she makes plans with her husband to quit movies and move to St. Louis. The next, she says she isn't going. The two stay in Hollywood growing farther and farther apart. She eventually becomes a star with, it's strongly hinted, the help of the casting couch.  As a star she's caught in an endless cycle of breakdowns, suicide attempts and temporary recoveries as she looks for companionship everywhere whether from anonymous lovers, people she barely knows or her now-religious mother. The film ends as Emily breaks down at her mother's funeral, has a futile reunion with her first husband and seems forever trapped on her sad merry-go-round of a life with only her secretary to look after her.

This film has a lot of heavy pedigrees. The lead is played by Kim Stanley, regarded as one of the great actresses of her time and the script is by Paddy Chayefsky then in the summer of his writing fame. The music comes from the great composer Virgil Thomson though he writes an oddly jaunty score that seems more appropriate for a movie about riverboats and minstrel shows in the Old South than a heavy drama like this. Director John Cromwell progresses the movie through a lot of short scenes full of clipped Chayefsky dialogue with a couple of patches of extended soliloquies. The wordy parts avoid getting stagy thanks to the excellent performances of Stanley and Steven Hill and Lloyd Bridges as Husbands One and Two.

The film is supposed to be loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe and though parts like marriage to a retired athlete reflect her life up through 1958, the time of the film's release, she was far from the only Hollywood star who had an unhappy childhood, slept around to get ahead or had nervous breakdowns.  The  tragedy of Emily's life is a sadly familiar show business story and this is one of its most compellingly told versions.

Good Guy Marshall and Cad Sanders
The Moon and Sixpence (1942)

This film is based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel that was in turn based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin.  It tells the story of Charles Strickland, a respectable British stockbroker who after 17 years of married life, suddenly decides to leave his wife and family and move to Paris to become a painter.  He lives a life there totally obsessed with his work and indifferent to the feelings of others. The wife of a painter who admires Strickland goes off with him and he callously deserts her after a short time, showing no remorse when  she commits suicide. Eventually Strickland's urges take him to Tahiti where he paints the natives and wildlife. He marries an island girl who owns a decent-sized family business and settles into a happy life with her until he contracts leprosy and dies, leaving behind a huge painting of the island and its people which his wife then burns in accordance with his dying wishes.

Strickland is spoken of in the film as an "unmitigated cad". Who better to play him then but George Sanders?  Sanders was known more for playing roguish good guys like the Saint and the Falcon at the time he made this but his cold-blooded scoundrel persona of later films is very much in the house. He is contrasted with Herbert Marshall as a writer who is the representative of decent thought and deed in the picture. He narrates the film as a recurring acquaintance of Strickland's and provides the eyes through which we see the story unfold.

This film was actually out of circulation for many years until it turned up in a restored version on Turner Class Movies in 2011.  The main body of the film is in black and white but there is a slight tint on the Tahiti scenes and the mural that fills Strickland's house at the end is shown in full color, the only time nay of Strickland's paintings are ever seen on camera.

One other interesting thing is that although Strickland certainly paid for his sins, movie production code style, by dying of leprosy, someone didn't think that was a strong enough message. A title card at the end of the film states that although Strickland had great talent, he was a really bad person and deserved his awful death.  Like somebody was going to watch this movie, then leave their families to go paint?

The Runaways (2010)

This film depicts the short but volatile career of the all-girl rock band The Runaways. At least it sort of does. It focuses on two disaffected teenagers growing up in 70's Los Angeles, Cherie Currie and Joan Jett.  Joan is an aspiring musician who runs into entrepreneur Kim Fowley at a club and gives him the idea to start a band of all teenage girls.  They get some other girls together and start rehearsing but its soon apparent that the group needs a charismatic singer. Fowley and Jett find one in Cherie Currie, a 15-year-old David Bowie fan. She has no singing experience but that's no matter as Fowley gets the dangerous sexual presence he wants out of her and the band eventually plays its way into a record deal and superstardom in Japan before drug problems and personal animosities tear them apart.

This movie is good at creating the sweaty atmosphere of 70's Hollywood and Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart and Michael Shannon all give good performances as respectively Currie, Jett and Fowley but there is something off about the whole affair. The Runaways were a complete five person band yet the film acts like it was Currie, Jett and a bunch of guys named Fred. It completely concentrates on the two leaders while the other members, Lita Ford, Jackie Fox and Sandy West fade into the background.  This is somewhat understandable since the film is based on Currie's memoirs, she and Jett were actually on the set giving Fanning and Stewart advice and Fox would not even give permission for her name and likeness to be used in the film. Still the movie gives the impression that the other three just came from and went back into nowhere.

The movie really suffers in comparison to a 2005 documentary about the group made by Vickie Blue, one of the band's later bass players, Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. That was a more in depth study of the band's history with more viewpoints heard, although Jett did not participate, and a better sense of its importance in musical history. The 2010 Runaways is just a predictable rise-and-fall musical drama that's tamer than it should be.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Thoughts About Roger Ebert

I started reading film criticism in the 1960's with Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael as my main guides so I can't list Roger Ebert as any kind of influence on my knowledge of movies. However in reading all the tributes that film lovers and writers have been putting on their blogs since his death, it's obvious how much he meant to many people whether they actually met him or just read his work. I had been reading his blog for the last couple of years and was really touched by the things he wrote.  Even though he'd been through hell fighting cancer he still sounded like a man who approached life with humor and enthusiasm, His reflections about life and his relationship with his wife were incredibly moving to me, particularity when he once wrote about her being sick and his fears about what would happen if she were gone. Honestly I can't recall reading many of his reviews although I was pleased to see he was one of the few who praised the film Higher Ground.

Mr. Ebert faced life and death with passion, grace and rare courage and it's very obvious from the outpourings of love on his behalf that he was much more than some guy who turned his thumb up or down on TV every week. A very good man has passed on.