Thursday, March 29, 2012

86. CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011)

There hasn't been a proper documentary about Roger Corman since Christian Blackwood's 1978 ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL, made at the height of New World Pictures' production schedule. Alex Stapleton's new "Corman In Winter" documentary shows the California summer of his outstanding 50+ year career still in full swing, though it reveals some pending insecurities about his dwindling recognizability factor among today's young people. It's unlikely that this film is going to attract anyone who doesn't already know Corman's name, but they would be well educated and entertained by it. Those who already venerate Corman -- obviously, anyone reading this -- will feel enormously grateful to Stapleton for giving due to a filmmaker whose smiling example has done more than any other to decide the course of the contemporary motion picture.

Now in his early 80s, Corman is shown to be as sharp and active as ever, supervising the set of DINOSHARK, driving the edit of another picture in production, and accepting his honorary Academy Award for his lifetime's achievement in 2009. As the present tense of his career unreels, he, his wife and production partner Julie, his brother Gene (who co-produced his 1962 film THE INTRUDER), and an all-star cast of commentators discuss his life and filmography, which is illustrated with a barrage of film clips whose collective energy that can only be called rollicking.

Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze and Paul Blaisdell associate Bob Burns discuss the 1950s era, which is given the highly unusual boost of generous input from Jack Nicholson, who surprisingly gives the film its emotional backbone, actually breaking down in tears of gratitude in one of the great moments of American documentary filmmaking. The 1960s are reported by longtime Corman associate Frances Doel, William Shatner, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern (speaking from a barber's chair) and Peter Bogdanovich (curiously credited as director of "GILL WOMEN OF VENUS"); the 1970s by Martin Scorsese, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Pam Grier, Jonathan Demme, a non-essential one-liner from Robert De Niro (included for marquee value - Corman would approve) and others from clips taken from handsomely remastered clips from the Blackwood film; and the subsequent periods feature commentary from Gale Anne Hurd, David Carradine, Penelope Spheeris, Eli Roth and others.

One could remark that the film nods to the fact of how many Corman associates have passed on (as have several of the interviewees), and how many still living (James Cameron and Sylvester Stallone, for example) seem ungracious in their absence, but the end credits thank a lengthy scroll of interviewees who did not make the final cut, and one must admit the 91-minute film doesn't overstay its welcome by a second. The disc further supplements the running time with extended interview segments, some "Messages to Roger" and a trailer.

Viewed on Anchor Bay Entertainment Blu-ray. Also available on DVD and as an Amazon Instant Video item.

85. THE LOVE TRAP (1929)

William Wyler directed this fairly diverting romantic comedy at the end of the silent era; it's a silent film literally up to a point, when sound almost arbitrarily kicks in.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY's Laura La Plante stars as Evelyn Todd, a would-be dancer fired from a chorus line, who is enticed by an attractive and more worldly friend (Jocelyn Lee) to attend a party being thrown by wealthy Guy Emory (Robert Ellis), where she might earn "50 bucks, just for being pretty." She goes and gets paired off with influential, middle-aged and prematurely corpse-like Judge Harrington (Norman Trevor -- "I don't like him," we see her say, "he's too old!"), but just long enough for them to remember one another later... She soon attracts Emory's wandering eye and he offers her the fifty for her favors, and she throws it back in his face and storms out offended... into a rain storm, only to find all her belongings on the curb outside her apartment house. She is gallantly rescued by the dashing Peter (Neil Hamilton, later Commissioner Gordon on TV's BATMAN), for whom money is no concern -- it's love at first sight, and he loads her and her belongings into a caravan of four taxi cabs and drives them to imminent marriage. This becomes a problem when Peter introduces Evelyn to his snooty family, whose patriarchal uncle is none other than the cadaverous Judge Harrington, who disapproves of this chorus- and party-girl as wife material. To save her marriage, Evelyn manages to compromise the Judge just enough to convince Peter to slam the door on his family instead.

Wyler's direction of the lightweight script is lively and pleasant, and the actors are appealing, especially La Plante, whose wholesome sexuality, marcelled blonde hair and legginess suggest a 1920s rough draft of Doris Day. She also has an uncanny knack for making her voice heard between the intertitles, with well-articulated line readings that seem almost as memorable in retrospect as those we actually hear. This Universal production is also notable for featuring the early art direction of Charles D. Hall, who subsequently performed those chores on Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) and all of Universal's early horror titles through THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

Viewed on Kino on Video DVD. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

84. VINCENT & THEO (1990)

After recently making my way belatedly though all three seasons of LIE TO ME on Netflix, and enjoying them very much, I wanted to cleanse my palate, so to speak, by revisiting Tim Roth in another performance. In this fine Robert Altman film, based on an original script by Julian Mitchell, he is actually more sedate as the turpentine-drinking, paint-eating, ear-cutting Vincent Van Gogh than as Dr. Cal Lightman, strutting, in-your-face man of science. Despite a comparative lack of outsized histrionics, he manages to carry the film with great success -- he's less robust, less earthy than Kirk Douglas' Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE, but he's much more attuned to the scale of those real artistic personalities I've known, particularly those of unquestionable vision who, for whatever reason, have yet to really taste success. He's splendid, perhaps definitive, in the part. As the complementary personality of Vincent's art dealer brother Theo, Paul Rhys keeps the film in balance, the Welshman making an even more believable Dutchman than Roth, though at times he seems a bit too under the spell of Jeremy Irons' tics and mannerisms.

The script checkerboards between the two brothers, in Holland and France, often finding similarities in their actions and obsessions to underscore psychic ties and parallels. When the two inhabit the same space, the tensions between the responsible younger and the irresponsible elder -- one diseased with syphilis, the other with mental illness -- become intolerable and explosive. Johanna ter Steege is especially good as Theo's wife Jo, and Wladimir Yoranoff is Paul Gaughan, who ably conveys a sense of torn artistic envy and sympathy as he attempts to share the pressure cooker environment of Vincent's humble digs. The scene in the sunflower fields is particularly effective, photographed in swooping shots that make the flowers look maddening in their sheer monotonous multiplicity.

Gabriel Yared contributes an ambitious and memorable score, alternately dissonant and modernistic and orchestral and lyrical -- worthy of a CD release. The domestic release of the film being shown by Netflix runs a healthy two hours and 20 minutes, but a longer European television version also exists, running a full hour longer; this version is available on DVD in the UK from Network Video. It's a testament to the quality of Altman's work that this shorter (!) version feels quite complete and satisfactory on its own.

Viewed on Netflix.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

83. GAINSBOURG, L'HOMME QUI AIMAIT LES FEMMES (2010)

This feature-length documentary, directed by Pascal Forneri, was made for French television, yet it offers a far more comprehensive grasp of the life and career of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg than either his official video retrospective or the recent feature GAINSBOURG, A HEROIC LIFE.

The title translates as "Gainsbourg, the Man Who Loved Women," making reference to the 1977 Truffaut film, though it has evidently been shown at some English festivals as GAINSBOURG AND HIS GIRLS. Its focus is on the many women in Gainsbourg's private and professional lives (one often crossed over into the other). They are all interviewed for the project -- Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, his wives Jane Birkin and Bambou, his daughter Charlotte -- but their faces are not shown; we hear only their speaking voices, which allows us to remember them as they appear in a remarkable breadth and depth of reference material, ranging from newsreels to promotional videos to television appearances.

By the time Gainsbourg appeals to ex-wife Jane to record an album of songs about their separation "because we are mythic," we understand as well as she because we've been shown what they meant, not only to the cognoscenti absorbing their records in seclusion, but to the general French viewing public, some of whom we've also been shown approaching them in the street. We can also better appreciate the tears staining her face as she struggles to sing one, alone, on television, and what Gainsbourg feels as he watches her and refuses to discuss her ("We can't go there") in subsequent interviews. He similarly refuses to discuss Bardot, whom Hardy insightfully describes as one of his life's most vital relationships: short but essential to encouraging him as a man and artist. One of the film's most fascinating passages discusses Gainsbourg's original recording of "Je t'aime moi non plus" with Bardot, which was suppressed by the actress until 1986 out of respect to her then-present official relationship, and Gainsbourg's overcoming of his interior conflict of fidelity to the unfaithful Bardot to rerecord the song with Jane Birkin, who says she only recorded the song because she refused to consider another woman singing those words to the man she truly loved.

The film concludes that Gainsbourg did his best songwriting for women because there was a pronounced sensitivity in him that his own insecurities could not broach when he wrote for himself. Despite his public image as an arrogant prick, a self-absorbed preening artiste in a nicotine plume, the many women speaking in his remembrance insist, to a person, that this was a pretense, a pre-Gainsbarre falsehood that helped him to endure the discomfort of celebrity, and they recall a kind of 19th century gentleman with a pronounced sense of Old World morality.

Forneri's excellent film has not yet had the official release it deserves on disc. Fortunately the DVD-R copy I viewed was subtitled in English, but the song lyrics (which I'm sure were sometimes introduced to make a relevant complementary point, or to counterpoint a quotation) were not.

Viewed on DVD-R. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

82. BLUE VALENTINE (2010)

Ten minutes into this movie, I was ready to turn it off, but I'm glad I didn't. The opening seemed to prepare me for two hours in the woebegone company of unhappy, stupid, and relentlessly ordinary characters and, worse still, filmmakers who couldn't decide where to put the camera and didn't want to, because they learned from watching TV that self-consciously fake, handheld, wavering cinematography was how to lend "realism" to performances that are already doing the job perfectly well, thank you.

But this film's saving grace is two-fold: it makes the intelligent decision to put the chronology of this story of a marriage in a blender, which gives the impatient mind something to do as these hopeless souls go about their mistakes, and it also manages to produce a moment or two of genuinely homely magic (a compliment, not an insult) which really does help to buoy the rest.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are both at the top of their game here, Williams especially so as the working-class wife and mother who is doing her inadequate best, despite her deadening stare, to advance herself for the good of her family, something it hasn't occurred to her variously and naturally talented but thick-skulled husband to do. By cutting back and forth between the troubled present and charming origins of their relationship, writer-director Derek Cianfrance not only shows the wear-and-tear of decreasing hope on these people, and the aging family members around them, but offers the two leads a wider berth in which to demonstrate their capabilities and mutual chemistry.

At their characters' worst, and at their sweetest, Williams and Gosling make us feel we're eavesdropping on episodes and interludes almost too sweet, too raw, too personal to share with strangers. When the movie travels back to the couple's second accidental meeting, which becomes a kind of lingering date in which Gosling asks Williams to improvise a dance to his prophetic ukelele rendition of "You Always Hurt the One You Love," we can see at once in the endearing, complementary sloppiness of their kismet that this is going to be a trainwreck but it has to happen. And the lack of pretension in these performances keep them real, evoking the smells of cigarettes and morning breath, the feel of cold buttocks, the tight squeezes of a shared shower, the agony of unwelcome foreplay.

Viewed via Cinemax View On Demand.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

81. YOUNG ADULT (2011)

In the course of my internet lurking, I've read a fair amount of dissenting comment against Diablo Cody's work, but I've nearly always found her to be a welcome voice in the rhubarb of contemporary screenwriting, especially where writing for women is concerned. She's truthful, humorous and unflinching.  Her latest script, entrusted to the more-than-capable hands of Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR), gives us a particularly unvarnished portrait of a smart and talented woman approaching middle-age, supposedly equipped to succeed but already disappointed, depressed and dead-ended, which Charlize Theron tackles with customary daring. There is enough irony in the dialogue to make us laugh with bitterness, while the rest makes us (at least me) laugh with recognition. It's packaged, I think, as a comedy but it's black as hell; if there is a joke, it's on us.

Theron plays Mavis Gary, the ghost writer of a failing series of Young Adult novels, and there has rarely been a truer look at the profession in this day and age than the film presents in its first few minutes. Facing an unclear future, she is reminded of a time in life that actually held promise when she receives an email announcing the first-born of her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) and returns to her hometown -- sullenly packing up her bright-faced and shamefully neglected Pomeranian -- determined to win him back. ("Sometimes, in order to heal, a few people have to get hurt," she narrates, in one of the film's several resonant lines.) She is not only looking past the fact that Buddy is now a happily married man and new father, but the equally glaring fact that she's no longer the popular girl she was in high school, but rather a raging, embittered, delusional alcoholic. Upon returning to her hometown, she makes an unexpected alliance with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the chunky misfit who was her locker neighbor and admirer-from-afar back in the day, who remains disabled by a hate crime her loose lips may well have helped precipitate.

Comedies involving pain are usually the funniest, and this one is ultimately a drama -- darker even than JENNIFER'S BODY, Cody's not-entirely-successful attempt at a horror movie. There are several "bitterest pill" moments along the way, but I especially liked the morning-after scene between Theron and Collette Wolfe, who plays Matt's sister. Which brings to mind another thing I admired about this film: it insults a large number of its characters, but it clearly loves them all. The darkness of YOUNG ADULT may discourage some people from wanting to see it more than once, but I suspect I'll want to see it again, probably spending time with it whenever it pops up on cable in the years ahead, much as I've tended to do with Terry Zwigoff's similarly acid but amusing films. I'll know in advance that these dissatisfied (if not lost) souls aren't going to solve their problems, but their struggles will be good company as I continue my own, which I saw reflected herein from time to time.

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video HD.

80. THE DESCENDANTS (2011)

As Alexander Payne movies go, THE DESCENDANTS is not quite as roundly pleasing as SIDEWAYS but roughly on par with ABOUT SCHMIDT. I like them all, in their elegiac and occasionally naughty eccentricity; they tell good, well-shaded stories; but, despite their welcome fondness for aging characters and their appreciated rejection of prevailing movie trends, I find them neither as novel-rich as their defenders often claim nor do I find them to be conspicuously more than respectable adaptations -- not particularly lasting cinema in its own right. The three films I've mentioned are all based on novels, and I suspect the novels are not as often read as the films are seen and offer the richer, more lasting, penetrating entertainment. But despite all that, I enjoyed THE DESCENDANTS -- what's not to enjoy?

Viewed via Amazon Instant Video HD.

79. SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

A charming miniature, only 44 minutes and change, that finds Buster Keaton spinning a simple story of romantic rivalry into endless cinematic invention and inquiry. He plays a daydreamy film projectionist competing with a more prosperous, more ruthless scoundrel (Ward Crane) for the hand of a lady fair (Kathryn McGuire), who is framed by his rival for the theft of the girl's father's pocketwatch. While projecting a mystery film, he fantasizes stepping into the movie, assuming the identity of the dapper detective Sherlock Jr., and solving the case. Meanwhile, in real life, his beloved sees through her deception.

It's obviously not the story which has kept SHERLOCK JR. so fresh over the years, nor is its humor, since it's not quite so laugh-out-loud funny as some other Keaton treasures. The reason for its timelessness is the way it looks back, as a movie, at itself and how well it understands the roles that movies play in people's lives, and -- as the conclusion slyly suggests -- the confusion the movies once permitted by not telling us everything about life. The movie's final laugh, which must have been truly uproarious at one time, comes from acknowledging a secret shared by a whole audience of people sitting together in the dark.

As far as American movies go, SHERLOCK JR. is pretty much the beginning of our fantasies about crossing the proscenium into the world of motion pictures and, as such, it stands as the innocent forerunner of everything from Chuck Jones' "Duck Amuck" to VIDEODROME and RING.

Viewed on Netflix, but also available on DVD (with THREE AGES) from Kino Lorber.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

78. SEDDOK, L'EREDE DI SATANA (1960)

The title of this Italian film -- which has a decidedly German feel, though it's apparently set in France -- translates as "Seddok, Spawn of Satan," but it was released in America in 1963 under the title ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. The English-dubbed version of the film exists only in significantly abbreviated form, the better to originally serve on a double feature bill with Antonio Margheriti's BATTLE OF THE WORLDS [IL PIANETA DEGLI UOMINI SPENTI, 1961]. The copies now in general circulation tend to run 86 minutes or less -- quite a contrast to the Italian version, which runs 102m 40s in PAL (107m 3s at 24 frames per second), making it the longest Italian horror film of its period.

It's the story of Jeanette Moreneau (Suzanne Loret), a stripper at the El Hoggar club whose career causes problems with her lover Pierre Mornet (Sergio Fantoni), who wants her to quit. She refuses, he takes a job at sea to forget her, and in her tearful despair, she recklessly steers herself into a tragic automobile accident that leaves her disfigured. Her case comes to the attention of Dr. Albert Levin (Alberto Lupo) who, with his romantically devoted assistant Monique (Franca Parisi), lures her to his home for experimental treatments with his new miracle drug Derma 28, which temporarily restores her beauty. Driven insane with lust for his new Galatea, and having used the last drop of a miracle drug it takes ages to distill, Levin murders Monique to harvest the gland from which Derma 28 is distilled and exposes it to radiation prior to transplanting it, exposure to which triggers a surprising transformation in himself. He  finds the changed persona useful when his subsequent attacks on other women coincides with the escape of a gorilla from a local zoo. Meanwhile, Pierre returns from three months at sea assured of his love for Jeanette, just in time to save her.

A combination subtitled/dubbed DVD-R of the uncut version recently appeared at Cinemageddon, providing their users (and their friends) with the first-ever opportunity to evaluate this early entry in the Italian horror sweepstakes. (It opened in Italian theaters exactly one week after Mario Bava's LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, better known as BLACK SUNDAY. It was a good month for actor Ivo Garrani, who appears in both, here playing a police inspector who's trying to stop smoking.) The longer version not only restores some near-nudity to Loret's opening striptease, but an entire subplot about a loony middle-aged woman informant (Rina Franchetti) who tells the police that the attacks are being perpetrated by a monster named Seddok ("the face of a beast, the claws of a vulture") who appeared to her in dreams she's had since childhood. There's also more police discussion about Seddok being "a personification of repressed sexual tension" and, most strangely of all, a lot of dialogue pertaining to cigarettes, how valuable and hard to find they are -- as if the story was originally written (or set) during wartime. I also noticed the uncommon presence of some appreciatively leering black men in the audience during Loret's striptease, which perfects the illusion of a postwar stripclub in France, but might have caused riots to break out in certain pre-Civil Rights American theaters.

Melodramatic in the extreme, SEDDOK was the only horror film co-written and directed by former journalist Anton Giulio Majano, and it's unique in the fever pitch of its sometimes unintentionally funny dialogue. (Here's a sample of Levin's bedside manner with Jeanette upon being shown her scars for the first time: "There's no doubt of it! Yes, she's disfigured forever! As if by a cancer that's beyond control -- like leprosy!") Obviously influenced by Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE) and Victor Trivas' THE HEAD (DIE NACKTE UND DER SATAN, both 1959), it's not particularly good -- even at full length, it seems choppy and antsy, always cutting from one location to another, but it is atmospherically photographed by Aldo Giordani, moodily scored by Armando Trovajoli, and sports some innovative work in the special makeup effects department. Jeanette's first cure occurs before our eyes, achieved in the manner of timelapse photography, periodically exposing the film as the scarred makeup was built up on Loret's face, and then run in reverse. The initial traces of Lupo's transformation into Seddok was done à la Universal's Wolf Man, but then wonderfully cuts to a creepily animated head and upper torso -- so well-done, most viewers aren't aware it's the Italian equivalent of Dynamation. The end credits cite Ugo Amadoro for makeup, and Euclide Santoli for special effects, but must be mixed-up as Amadoro was the special effects man and Santoli the makeup artist.

Financed by a one-time producer named (or calling himself) Mario Fava, whose credit led to much speculation about the behind-the-scenes involvement of Mario Bava. Its simultaneous production with LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO makes this unlikely, but several members of the crew had worked with Bava before and surely learned from him. And the fact that this film pretends not to be Italian shows the filmmakers well aware of the commercial lessons learned by Bava and Riccardo Freda on I VAMPIRI (1957). On a purely trivial note, the English dialogue is extremely close to what was spoken in the Italian version; I was surprised to hear the phrase "vampiro atomico" spoken, such a commercial idea that it's incomprehensible why the Italians went with the imaginary name SEDDOK instead.

Viewed on DVD-R.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

77. GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (GAINSBOURG, VIE HÉROIQUE, 2010)

The directorial debut of French comics artist Joann Sfar adapts his own graphic novel about the life of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. I've not read the graphic novel but the film -- despite the blessings of a jaw-droppingly picture-perfect cast -- is unhappily elliptic and ignores the role that any drug stronger than nicotine played in the artist's downfall and death at the age of 62.

The early part of the film focusing on the imaginative childhood of young Lucien Ginsberg (Kacey Mottet Klein), who is drawn to the seedy and licentious sides of life against a backdrop of occupied France and his own Jewish self-consciousness and self-loathing, is rich enough to have sustained an entire movie. It's the sort of macabre enchantment that Tim Burton's work can only aspire to be, made all the more marvelous by the participation of Doug Jones (Guillermo del Toro's monster man of choice), who plays an almost Nosferatu-like animatronic exaggeration of Gainsbourg's initial adult image, an elegant combination of imaginary friend and badge of shame. When the film transitions to Ginsberg's adult life as Gainsbourg (Éric Elmosnino), it begins pedalling too fast to contain too vast a story, and it ultimately fails to present a coherent biography by failing to attend this life's great turning points (children are born in one scene and six years old in the next), by flinching from its protagonist's adult weaknesses and psychology, and by almost completely overlooking his defining masterpiece, the album L'HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON. The film also fails to acknowledge Gainsbourg's career as a screen actor. The later scenes feel so disjointed it's impossible to see how they connect without some prior schooling in the subject on the viewer's part, and it's also here where Elmosnino's performance begins to fray. Once or twice, his older Gainsbourg teeters dangerously on the edge of becoming Keith Richards.

Nevertheless, GAINSBOURG (in French with English subtitles) contains enough material of interest, especially to fans of this period of French pop culture, to make it well worth seeing and being disappointed by. I was particularly swept off my feet by the scenes of Gainsbourg writing songs with Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine) and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and pitching them to Juliette Gréco (a delightfully vampiric Anna Mouglalis) and France Gall (Sarah Forestier). And Lucy Gordon is Jane Birkin herself.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video HD.

76. THE MILL & THE CROSS (2011)

This unusual film from Lech Majewski -- a former designer of Polish movie posters who now wears multiple hats on his films, including writer, director and cameraman -- bears some relationship to his earlier masterpiece THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (2004). In that film, an art historian embarks on an affair with a man studying gondola hull design; they set up house in a Venetian apartment where the news of her terminal illness compels them to use their time collaborating on a final project, a documentary about Hieronymous Bosch's eponymous 16th century painting, which they research by transforming the interior of their apartment into three-dimensional details of the painting and thus inhabiting it from within. In this new film, Majewski turns his attention to another 16th century Flemish painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Procession to Calvary," working from a non-fiction study of the painting by Michael Gibson. Like its predecessor, the film is a fascinating hybrid of narrative and essay that demands the viewer's complete engagement.

What this film essentially does is take the viewer's hand and walk with us through the painting, which is recreated with actors, digital animation, three-dimensional modelling and so forth. There is very little dialogue, just enough to anchor us in the historical and political setting that produced, and therefore informs, the painting. Rutger Hauer is Bruegel, Michael York is his patron, and Charlotte Rampling appears as the Virgin Mary, whose son, dragging the cross to the site of his crucifixion, is the central point of the heavily peopled canvas but somehow its least obvious occupant. I don't like to describe one film by refering to another, but while watching this, I was continually reminded of Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE -- a film I don't like, but which pretends to a level of human scope and cosmic gravity that I found this film inhabited far more naturally.

I've reviewed this film in depth for the April 2012 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, so I mustn't spoil my paid work for them with further details here. However, I will say that this hybrid museum-theater piece is an impressive achievement, an education in art appreciation and compositional analysis that may just give you a Krell boost as a viewer of motion pictures.

Viewed on Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

75. THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)

Once again, Netflix makes it easy for me to fill a gap in my film education: writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's two-hour, ten-minute epic about the tragic rags-to-riches story of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), a Spanish peasant dancer who achieves international fame as actress Maria D'Amata -- a character reportedly based, at least in its broadest strokes, on Rita Hayworth.

Set during her rainy funeral in Italy, Maria's story is told in interior monologue flashbacks by three different men -- her best friend Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), her publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien) and her husband the Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi). Though Gardner proves elsewhere in the film that she can dance, Mankiewicz doesn't show us the dance onstage in a Madrid nightspot that initially captures the imaginations of Dawes, Muldoon and the ice-blooded film producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), nor is any time spent depicting the three films Maria makes under Edwards' detested wing before his assumptions of ownership spitefully propel her onto the yacht of much-richer Italian producer Alberto Bravano (Marius Goering, in a black wig that makes him look like early Bryan Ferry). Their relationship sours quickly but she is rescued from its brink with almost mystical coincidence by the Count, with whom she falls in love and marries, though Fate once again conspires to conclude her Cinderella story on a note of tragedy.

Mankiewicz was one of those writers, like Rod Serling, enamored of his own voice, and the film might well have run thirty minutes shorter had anyone else written it. Everything else in this film -- including some of the period's top stars, Roman locations and the extraordinary sets available to Cinecittà,  and the splendid Technicolor photography of Jack Cardiff -- takes a back seat to its not-particularly-profound dialogue, much of which belabors an overly precious and unhelpful parallel to the Cinderella fable. Despite such incessant talk, one is never quite sure what the film's accumulation of world-weary characters share in common as concerns a prevailing theme; however, by the end of the film, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA presents us with something rare in American films, especially those dating from this era -- namely, an affecting portrait of the friendship between a man and a woman, mutually devoted without being complicated by romance.

One unexpected insight from watching this picture: it strikes me that Warren Stevens' Kirk Edwards (was this name inspired by Kirk Douglas' mercenary producer in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL?) was the undoubted model for Jack Palance's producer Jerome Prokosh in Godard's CONTEMPT. Also, I happened to notice British actress Barbara Shelley working as an extra, standing in the background of the party scene where Stevens and Goering have their verbal duel. Her appearance isn't mentioned in her IMDb credits, but this would have been her second or third picture.

Viewed on Netflix. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

74. YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME (2005)

Kevin McAlester's documentary about pioneering Texas psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson should not be mistaken for a film about an artist; it's not really the story of The 13th Floor Elevators, though such ground is covered in an obligatory manner. It's more specifically a study in uninstitutionalized mental illness, focusing on the relationship between Roky, a diagnosed schizophrenic in his late 50s at the time of filming, and his "independent living" dependency on his eightysomething mother Evelyn -- a yoga-practicing Christian, disappointed singer, folk artist and wife, whose own feelings about medication denied her son access to treatment for his condition for many years. The film uncomfortably probes into the details of the family's dysfunction and Roky's living arrangement with his mom until youngest brother Sumner petitions for the legal right to become Roky's legal guardian and move him away from Austin to his own retreat in Philadelphia.

It's hard to watch the film and not suspect that, on some level possibly unknown to herself, Evelyn was punishing her celebrity son for sacrifices she made which resulted in her own lack of success. Whatever else she might be, she is clearly a passive-aggressive narcissist, shown assembling a ramshackle visual display of her "story" by affixing precious family photographs to sheaves of glued-together cardboard, and presenting in court an artwork that depicts her as a face surrounded the tear-stained faces of five sad sons, with hers apparently punched-in. The scenes with Roky -- showing him turning on a barrage of electric appliances and electronic toys and gizmos to create enough cacaphony to silence the voices in his head so that he might grab some sleep, confusing a Mr. Potato Head with a dog's ball, and amiably reading off a litany of his junk mail to a British biographer who's travelled halfway around the world to meet him -- are tragic, showing him utterly isolated from the gift that brought him his only means of escape from himself. One feels frankly not much better for Sumner (shown weeping in session with a motherly therapist he's been seeing for a dozen years), who despite apparent professional success as an orchestra tuba player, has fled his mother cross-country only to live in a house next door to his father. The house looks, almost frighteningly, like an adult playpen.

The movie left me feeling torn between wanting to douche my memory with some 13th Floor Elevators albums and never wanting to hear them for a good long while.

Viewed on Netflix. 

73. DRIVE (2011)

He's on his 10th film now, but this is the first movie I've seen by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn -- who is providing the BFI with the print of Andy Milligan's NIGHTBIRDS he acquired from Jimmy McDonagh, which automatically makes him a kindred spirit. Aside from its hard-to-read, hot pink, cursive credits font, I was very impressed -- not only by its dual expertise in handling/juxtaposing scenes of violent action and the humanistic shades of friendship and tenderness, but also by its rare comprehension of what constitutes a real film noir, which it has the confidence to not even claim to be.

Too often filmmakers confuse noir with a retro or expressionistic style of cinematography, or with any story that incorporates a femme fatale, but DRIVE -- adapted from a novel by James Sallis by Hossein Amini -- rejects all that icing because it can; it's the real cake. It's got an enigmatic hero known only as Driver (Ryan Gosling) who knowingly steps into the trap of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. A solitary man who can afford to live in Los Angeles by doing stunt driving for the movies and who is about to drive a racing car for his best friend (Bryon Cranston) with a sizeable investment from a local gangster (Albert Brooks), Driver gets a little taste of home and family when he befriends his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos)... in the carefree week before her husband (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. He and Irene form an attachment -- not physically, it's unspoken but there -- and Driver does the right thing when the husband returns home; he retreats... but he's drawn back into their lives when he finds the husband beaten-up, involved in an escalating "protection" debt that is going to be paid by his wife and child if he can't come up with $40,000 fast. So Driver, acting as a modern-day knight out of a courtly love for a lady whose favor can be his only reward, joins forces with the husband to steal a bag of money being held at a pawn shop, which turns out to be a great deal more cash than expected and the property of the east coast Mob.

The ingredient necessary to any film noir is the sense of a good but compromised hero caught by his best intentions in webs spun by a malign universe, and DRIVE offers this in spades. Gosling plays Driver with a sense of anonymity that isn't mysterious or off-putting; his personal blankness makes the viewer feel as one with him behind his steering wheel, and his deeds are forgivable since he's clearly not acting for personal gain. The supporting cast is uniformly memorable, including a welcome Christina Hendricks in a surprisingly unostentatious role, and Brooks (in a rare dramatic role) and Ron Perlman are excellent as a couple of scummy west coast businessmen looking to set themselves up as local mob beachheads.

Viewed via Amazon HD instant streaming. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

72. THE DEMONIACS (LES DÉMONIAQUES, 1973)

This is the third of the Jean Rollin films forthcoming from Redemption/Kino Lorber.

71. REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (REQUIEM POUR UN VAMPIRE, 1971)

This is the second Jean Rollin title forthcoming from Redemption/Kino Lorber.

70. MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011)

This adaptation of Colin Clark's memoir THE PRINCE, THE SHOWGIRL AND ME chronicles the writer's experience of falling under the charms of Marilyn Monroe while working on his first film, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (then called THE SLEEPING PRINCE), as third assistant director. Michelle Williams gives an Oscar-nominated performance as Marilyn, Kenneth Branagh is Laurence Olivier, Julia Ormond is his aggressively wrinkled wife Vivien Leigh (who originated onstage the role Marilyn is playing), Zoë Wanamaker is Marilyn's method acting coach Paula Strasberg, and Eddie Redmayne is Clark.

Perhaps I went into my viewing of the film disabled, because I haven't seen that 1956 production, but this feature debut by television director Simon Curtis seemed to me deficient in authenticity. There are real, rough emotions present in the characters and in the story -- Vivien's anxiety over being replaced in character and in her husband's emotions, Olivier's attraction to Marilyn as it becomes revulsion, Colin's first heartbreak, even the violent anger felt by Marilyn's associate David Orton (who cautions Colin jealously about being emotionally abused by her) as this new set romance makes him feel replaced in her affections once again, and the hurt felt by Colin's girlfriend Lucy (Emma Watson, who gives the film's best performance in a nothing role) as she sees his heart go starstruck -- but they all feel a step too remote, too sweetly nostalgic, too wholesome (despite the occasional spitting of f-words), to be felt or believed.

I think there is also something subtle at play here to do with the value of mainstream films versus cult films. Somehow it makes sense to recreate the backstory of something like BRIDE OF THE MONSTER in Tim Burton's ED WOOD because this cuts right to the heart of our love for movies, the occasional indignity of acting, and the quixotic drive to produce a movie, any kind of movie; to do the same with a picture like THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (remembered as a failure even by devotées of Olivier and Monroe), involving accomplished performers and a film that doesn't particularly elicit our love or sympathy, doesn't carry the same impact, despite its potentially intriguing conflict of a great actor who wants to become a film star crossing swords (and a disappointed libido) with a film star who wants to become a great actor. No one here is examined to the point of embarrassment; only Vivien Leigh comes close, yet she's the one character who retains her essential human dignity throughout. Overall, I'd rate this average for a made-for-TV movie, and it doesn't make much impression as a theatrical feature at all.

Viewed on Weinstein Company Blu-ray/DVD combo

69. THE RAPE OF THE VAMPIRE (LE VIOL DU VAMPIRE, 1968)

I'm presently screening three different Jean Rollin titles in anticipation of writing the liner notes for Redemption/Kino Lorber's next group of Rollin Blu-rays. I've written about these three titles elsewhere before, and it would be counter-productive to write about them here now. I'm listing them to keep track of my annual viewing count, but if you want to know my current thoughts about them, the 14-page illustrated booklet with my notes will be included with the movies coming out in May.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

68. OBSCENE (2007)

Daniel O'Connor and Neil Ortenberg's profile of publisher Barnet Lee "Barney" Rosset, Jr. -- the man behind Grove Press, who recently passed away last February 21 at the age of 89 -- is fascinating if not altogether satisfying viewing. While OBSCENE does a perfectly fine job of characterizing Rosset from all angles, it takes a more purely political stance than a cultural one, which makes an impressive case for him as a patriot of the arts and a provocateur, but somewhat less of an impressive case for him as a patron of those authors who most truly defined the course of the literary century.

Grove Press was such a rich imprint that, in all probability, no single film could adequately detail the depth or breadth of its cultural impact. The filmmakers attentively trace Grove's growth from the English-language acquisition of Samuel Beckett to its purposeful licensing of the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, which led to legal battles that systematically laid the groundwork for Rosset's planned publications of Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER and William S. Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH. But while the film closely attends the enormous expense that Rosset undertook to fight the US Courts on the matters of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, there's little time left to showcase the clients whose work benefitted from those battles: writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Hubert Selby Jr., John Rechy (who is interviewed) and particularly Pauline Réage (THE STORY OF O) are barely mentioned, and company translators like Richard Howard are not mentioned at all. The omission of Selby is particularly bewildering in retrospect as the filmmakers choose to roll the end credits over Gene Pitney's song "Last Chance To Turn Around," which gave Selby's classic novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN its title.

Likewise, too many of the film's name interviewees (Gore Vidal, John Sayles, Erica Jong, Joseph Strick, Amiri Baraka - the former Leroi Jones, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc) pop up to say only one thing, and -- like too many films documenting those cultural forces arising from NYC (Andy Warhol, for example) -- OBSCENE seems to go out of its way at times to document Rosset's carelessness, laziness and drug use at the office rather than come to terms with his sense of vision and his love of books, which are the real reasons he should be remembered and appreciated.

Even so, Grove Press fans will want to see this and will learn from it. And if you're unfamiliar with Grove Press, I can only tell you they were seminal in terms of my orientations as a novelist and writer, and it was always my dream to be published by them. OBSCENE is as good a place as any to start learning about it.

Viewed on Netflix.