Sunday, April 29, 2012

97. SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

A spirit of disconnection infuses Julia Leigh's SLEEPING BEAUTY, an original script about Lucy (Emily Browning), a young woman working her way through college with a variety of odd jobs -- waitressing, office worker, and occasional prostitution -- yet still arrears in her rent, when she is approached to work for an elite and peculiar form of escort service. Driven to a magnificent isolated country estate, as in a scene from THE STORY OF O, she is auditioned and touched up in her underthings by Clara (Rachael Blake), the elegant middle-aged woman in charge, who offers her no inkling of the job she is being hired to do, only the promise that it will not involve penetration.

"Your vagina is a temple," she is assured.

"My vagina's no temple," Lucy replies.

Seen at school waving passive hellos to fellow students who never quite intrude into her life, and involved in a curiously ritualized friendship with an ill, possibly gay male (Ewen Leslie) that might well also be a professional arrangement, the diminutive Lucy is first hired to act as a bustier-garters-and-heels wine server at a private banquet where all the other servers wear less; they are older, taller and fleshier than she, who looks faerie-like by comparison. With a couple of these evenings successfully behind her, Lucy is then offered a more exclusive position as a "Sleeping Beauty," to be drugged and made available to Claire's wealthy clientele as a comatose companion for a full evening. What they do remains absolutely their secret, a fact that gradually burns a hole in Lucy's trust until she simply has to know for what purposes her body is being used. Claire refuses to tell her, reasoning that it could expose her clients to blackmail, so Lucy secretes a mini-cam in her sleeping chamber.

This set-up of this peculiar Australian film prepares the viewer for a pay-off along the lines of George Sluizer's THE VANISHING (SPOORLOOS, 1988), but rather than leave those evenings elliptical until a viewing of the mini-cam recordings yields some terrifying revelation, we're privy to all the encounters as they happen, while she's unconscious, and it's the mildest of these encounters that Lucy records... and from which she awakens, far more shattered than the unphased viewer. Though SLEEPING BEAUTY offers a fascinating protagonist well played, though it's curious enough to be watchable, and erotic enough in places to entice us on, it ultimately sort of... lies there.  

Viewed on Netflix. 

96. A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011)

It has become the view of many Cronenberg fans that he's gone astray, and has been astray for some time, but I've preferred to think he's been exploring, learning -- or, as he might say, mutating. Though I normally wouldn't think of comparing them, both his and Dario Argento's work began to lose their individuality (some might say potency; I might too) around the same time, in 1988, after Cronenberg filmed DEAD RINGERS and Argento made OPERA. Since then, for reasons that might have less to do with personal preference than the need to green-light new product, both filmmakers have entered into peculiar career phases committed to the suppression of ego. In Argento's case, he has transferred his ego into the younger and more commercial trust of his irrationally popular daughter Asia, who has starred in nearly all his films since TRAUMA; in Cronenberg's case, he has chosen (with the exception of EXISTENZ) to put his original writing in mothballs while honing his skills as an adapter/interpreter of other writers. His latest release, A DANGEROUS METHOD, tends to support my view because, although it is based on other writing, it shows him at least circling the airport of familiar obsessions once again.

It's based on Christopher Hampton's play THE TALKING CURE, based on the true story of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his personal involvement with a clinically hysterical patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who aspires to practice psychiatry, and how it and the emergence of his own unique views concerning psychoanalysis affected his personal, professional and political relationship with his mentor (and father figure), Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The situation thus closely follows the template of his masterpiece DEAD RINGERS: two doctors, superficially alike but of different dispositions, are involved with an intense young woman torn between their polar, professional opposition.

I find this to be Cronenberg's most interesting feature since CRASH (a film I didn't much like at the time, but learned to appreciate over time), but what bothers me is that -- fine performances aside -- I don't find it particularly absorbing. Granted, it's a cerebral story, also a story about the control and containment of powerful reckless emotions (shades of SCANNERS, really) -- not only on Sabina's part, but also on Jung's part, whose closing assessment of his emotional life is beautifully described but cold-bloodedly compartmentalized, so that its utterance speaks to untold hours of suffering experienced behind an upright, well-buttoned façade. Likewise, there is something a little too well-ordered about the way A DANGEROUS METHOD unspools. It doesn't feel like an organic whole, of scenes held together by a force of cinema, but rather a string of related but antiseptically self-contained scenes, each designed to make its own individual pointed or sly or wry remark, so that the story feels dealt card-by-card. Some of the problem might be traced to something Cronenberg recently said in an interview with SIGHT & SOUND's Nick James: "Talking heads are the essence of cinema." I'm not sure if he actually believes this, or was intending to be provocative, but cinema has always been most essential when the characters shut up, even for five minutes, and let the story tell itself on a purely visual basis. But his comment would seem to confirm something else I've long believed, that Cronenberg is most important as a writer; his career as a director has always been most important for shepherding his highly original writing to the screen. What concerns me is that his career has become akin to the story so often revisited in his films, including this one: that his acquisition of directorial skills is not developing his voice as a filmmaker so much as controlling it, the polish that comes with mastery softening rather than sharpening the quirky edges that made his best work so fascinating.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

95. FAITHLESS (TROLÖSA, 2000)

Liv Ullmann directed this engrossing 154-minute study of marriage and infidelity, scripted by Ingmar Bergman and, as with many of his earlier films made in this lengthy mold, originally shown on Swedish television. Erland Josephson (Ullmann's great co-star in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE and so many others) stars, but does not dominate, as Bergman, an elderly writer who, in searching for a new topic to write about, begins communicating with a fictional projection of one of his own past lovers, whom he named "Marianne Vogler." As he casts questions out into the silence of his study, like hooks with so many lures, Marianne (Lena Endre) materializes to answer candidly whatever he dares to ask, whatever he dares to know. She painstakingly guides him through the story of her happy 11-year marriage to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a world-famous orchestra conductor; her relationship with their daughter Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo); and her friendship with Markus' best friend David (Krister Henriksson), until her caring attempts to steer him free of a potentially suicidal depression and disconnection from reality lead them into an affair.

This being Bergman's story, the lessons learned from this misstep are not just severe, but serially severe; however, under Ullmann's direction, the performances have a somewhat warmer and eccentric quality that are not afraid to introduce humor into some unlikely places. When Markus surprises the two lovers at David's apartment, their half-naked embarrassment in his presence prompts tiny outbursts of involuntary laughter, but as the scene steps back from the individual close-ups to take in the entire dynamic, we can see that Markus' presence has popped the balloon of whatever drew them together, whether it was mystery, boredom or the sense of following through with a trusted companion into an experience many adults feel is obligatory. With Markus in the room with them again, they are changed back to the friends they originally were, and it is their sudden embarrassment with each other that causes their laughter, rather than shame in the presence of Markus. The wronged husband seems to take the discovery well, but he turns vindictive as he launches into a fight for their daughter's custody, and it is ultimately Marianne's betrayal of her family, rather than her husband individually, that proceeds to destroy her -- that and what the increasingly cruel David gives the clinical description of his "retrospective jealousy," which exists to arouse him as surely as he means it to punish what he has come to see as his property.

The film is, above all, a tour de force for Lena Endre (most recently seen here as the assistant editor of Millennium magazine in the GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy), whose work here encourages all manner of fantasies about how magnificently she might have fared in any of the earlier roles Bergman wrote and directed for Liv Ullmann, had she been born earlier. The temptation to think along these lines is further encouraged by a short glimpse of a photograph inside "Bergman"'s desk drawer, supposedly the real woman in his past who inspired this fictional character. We see only the bottom part of her face before he pushes it back under some other papers, not willing to confront that much truth. I may be wrong, but it might be a photograph of Ullmann herself. If so, FAITHLESS becomes that much more fascinating as a conscious collaboration of writer and director; if not, it doesn't matter, because it remains a haunting diorama of uniquely female suffering, as we chart the wounds inflicted upon this woman (and upon her young daughter, as well) by the selfish passions of the men she has chosen.

Viewed on Netflix.
  

94. BAHIA BLANCA (1984)



In his Glittering Images book on Jess Franco, Carlos Aguilár singles out this 1984 drama for special praise, and it's not hard to see why. Produced by Franco's own company Manacoa Films (tagging it as a work of personal importance to its creator), BAHIA BLANCA ("White Bay") does not belong to his usual genres, but instead refers to them obliquely; it also playfully thwarts the viewer's expectations, not only in regard to the situation at hand but also of the human relationships involved. Though the film starts as a mystery, it does not keep secrets from the viewer for very long; though it has the set-up of an action picture, it's a character study consisting almost entirely of dialogue scenes; though it is not a horror or fantasy film, it alludes to fantastic island legends; it seems at times to be a kind of contemporary western, though it takes place in a coastal town and its neighboring island. It's one of Franco's outstanding features of the 1980s, one of his best-acted features and most humane stories he ever told.

It's narrated by a shadowy figure of indeterminate sex walking out on a pier to gaze out at sea, whose identity is left for us to discover at the story's end. Ramiro (Juan Solar), a pathologist, is summoned by lawman Carlos Fernandez (Antonio Mayans) to a coastal village to perform an autopsy on the dead body of young Pacho Martín, washed ashore -- apparently drowned but covered in mysterious scratches. A local elder, Don Oscar “the Miserable” (Franco), balefully opines that the young swimmer's death was caused by his venturing out to the neighboring Isla del Ciervo (“Deer Island”), where legends claim mythic temptresses arise at night from its craters to tempt young men to their doom. But when Pacho’s autopsy reveals a .38 caliber bullet lodged in the back of his head, more earthly causes are indicated – pointing above all to local crime boss Raúl Sebastián (Tony Skios). The local barman León (Trino Trives) is annoyed with his daughter Silvia (Analía Ivars) for becoming engaged to Andy (José Llamas), whose morality is suspect because he works as a bodyguard for Sebastián; when Andy confesses to Silvia, after making love, that he is in fact Raúl Sebastián’s son, she walks out on him and their engagement. As Carlos and Ramiro investigate further, they find on Isla del Ciervo a tavern run by Alida (THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL's Eva León), a former lover of Carlos, who lives there with her mute kid sister Maria (Lina Romay), whom she supports by entertaining passing seamen, and whom she protects by prostituting herself to them in a room so close by that Maria lies awake hearing every detail. Alida and Carlos resume their old affair, the lawman oblivious to the fact that Alida was responsible for shooting Pacho when she caught him raping Maria – apparently a sport for the local men, as she is beautiful and unable to accuse them. As the story continues to unfold, it becomes the story of a bride's revenge, closer to Tarantino's KILL BILL than some of its more obvious prototypes (like Truffaut's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK) though the film's rarity in an English-friendly version makes it unlikely that Tarantino ever saw it. 

The storytelling has an autumnal, almost Hemingwayesque literary feel – the presentation through a narrator reminds us continually that Franco actually sat down and committed this story to paper -- but presents it in a kind of rough-handled paperback format, while at the same time conveying a sense of actions so consequential that they could become the stuff of Don Oscar’s legends, if passed down through the generations. Carefully delineated relationships and dialogue are not something for which Franco’s films are commonly known, yet this film delivers them. It is fitting that the film takes its alleged location as a title, because if it has a prevailing theme, it is the limitation these people have imposed on their lives, on their options in life, by remaining there. All their relationships are meager and troubled, yet -- as one character says -- “We’ve got to cling to what we’ve got.” To feel unhappy in a relationship is, after all, to feel something, and even an unwanted pregnancy caused by violence can become, to some onlookers, a sign of hope for the future.

The cast is uniformly fine and natural, often summoning depths of ability that actors like Tony Skios, for example, were not commonly called upon to deliver. Lina Romay, who apparently gained weight in real life, à la De Niro, to give herself the believably bulging stomach of a woman in her second trimester, is a touching presence throughout and has one of her finest moments onscreen as she overhears her sister’s ultimate betrayal of their mutual love and trust.

One of the most distinctive – some might say annoying – traits about this film is its use of an untitled song by Julian Sacristán, sung by Isabel Sáenz de Tejada, which carpets the film’s soundtrack nearly wall-to-wall in obsessive repetitions. The film’s unseemly reliance on the song imbues it with a regret that ages, as we follow the storyline, into neurosis. It is an unheard-of indulgence, but not one without precedent in Franco’s filmography if one considers the similarly incantatory way that LORNA THE EXORCIST leans on its guitar score, or the manner in which we hear a song evolve from rough draft to final performance in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MIRROR.

Viewed on DVD-R.







Friday, April 20, 2012

93. THE SWINGER (1966)

What were they thinking? It was the mid-1960s... Ann-Margret was in her smouldering prime, fresh from standing and dancing her ground opposite Elvis Presley in VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964)... and this was the best vehicle Paramount could offer her? Of course, Elvis went straight from VIVA LAS VEGAS into pictures like TICKLE ME and HARUM SCARUM, so who's to say his flame-haired co-star didn't actually fare a bit better than he?

She plays Kelly Olsson, a wholesome girl from St. Paul who lives in a highly unlikely Los Angeles pad shared with a middle-aged police sergeant (NAKED CITY's Horace McMahon) and a bunch of fun-loving variety show dancers. She's the best dancer in the bunch, so hot she seldom wears anything more than heels and a black danceskin below the waist, but she wants to be a writer! And not just any writer: a writer for GIRL LURE magazine, a pseudo-PLAYBOY competitor published by daffy skirt-chasing Brit Sir Hubert Charles (Robert Coote) and his trim, dashing, prospective son-in-law editor Ric Colby (Anthony Franciosa). They must pay exceptional rates, because the sheltered Kelly doesn't know anything about GIRL LURE, least of all how to write GIRL LURE material. Told her work would be better suited for LADIES' HOME JOURNAL, she returns home, picking up a lot of sleazy paperbacks along the way, which she studies (cue montage of Ann reading TEENAGE STREETWALKER, SEX GIRL and RAPE GIRL RAPE, believe it or not) and uses to write a plagiarized pastiche she entitles THE SWINGER: THE SAGA OF A DEPRAVED YOUNG LADY. But even this is rejected... until she tells Sir Hubert that the story is in fact her autobiography. While she is lying to Ric to ensure publication and getting him into all sorts of compromising positions in front of his fiancée (CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF's Yvonne Romain), he is lying to her (he wises up to her ruse)... and they're both falling in love!

Ann-Margret probably felt she could trust director George Sidney, who had not only directed some of the most colorful musicals ever to come out of Hollywood (SHOWBOAT, JUPITER'S DARLING, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN) but also her own two biggest hits, BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963) and VIVA LAS VEGAS as well. Something clearly went amiss on this production, an attempt to exploit the star's sex appeal as much as possible in a wholesome context, and the fault cannot be entirely attributed to the script by Lawrence Roman, though he also wrote the similarly letchy UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE (1963). This is a case of a movie that wants to do something progressive, but doesn't know which way that is. There is a vibrant pre-credits sequence of our hotcha girl singing on swings and trampoulines, choreographed by David Winters, but the credits that immediately follow are horrendous. At the end, there's another tacked-on attempt to bring the picture more up-to-date, with Ann swinging and sliding around BATMAN-like exclamations of "Bam!" and "Pow!" and "Wham!"

The only moderately successful scenes are an attempted seduction (our heroine sings "I Want To Be Loved" like she means it) and a legendary scene in which she seeks to establish her decadence by letting the magazine publishers see her being used as a paintbrush -- a highlight that Ken Russell later spoofed with baked beans, chocolate and soap suds in TOMMY (1975). Everyone involved seems all too aware of the excruciating falseness of everything, so we are given two different endings -- one of which actually kills off the two leads in a modestly satisfying, headlong collision.

THE SWINGER is at its worst when it tries to beat Louis Malle's ZAZIE at its own game with accelerated chase scenes and flickering still montages of Ann-Margret modeling the most absurd Edith Head monstrosities and looking impish. What is most surprising about it, in a positive sense, is how very nearly it approximates the directorial style of Russ Meyer at times -- the opening montage of Los Angeles sin spots looks like it could have been assembled from MONDO TOPLESS outtakes; it's that distinctive. There is also something about this film's mischievous Kelly that looks forward to Dolly Read's Kelly in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1969); I would bet this film was one of Roger Ebert's working templates for his screenplay. I also enjoyed much of the supporting cast, especially Milton Frome and Mary La Roche as Kelly's parents and Nydia Westman as Ric's sexually savvy Aunt Cora. If THE SWINGER had been a little more serious, or had couched its absurdity in a more knowing, consistent, underlining style, it might have made all the difference, but its greatest offense is those ridiculous montages, which commit the cardinal sin of making one of the era's great sex symbols not only look foolish but unattractive.

Viewed on Netflix. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

92. ANNA (1967)

Directed by Pierre Koralnik, from a score and libretto by Serge Gainsbourg, this was the first made-for-TV shown in color on French television. Like some other films made in the Op style, it can be reduced to the inverse Cinderella-like story of a man's search for an animistic image (a woman's face captured in a high contrast photo) -- in this case, a commercial director (Jean-Claude Brialy) thunderstruck by a picture of disconnected eyes, mouth and nostrils and determined to piece together this puzzle of his Ideal Woman. His search has the added tragicomic touch that he cannot recognize one of his own confidants -- a young woman (Anna Karina) in round spectacles, who works as a comic book colorist.

Counseled by his acerbic, worldly best friend (Gainsbourg), by a drop-dead gorgeous date (Marianne Faithfull, looking perfect but fragile in a somewhat gratuitous cameo), and by the object of his quest herself, Brialy exhorts his search in song on crowded streets and in crowded, kaleidoscopic clubs while Karina wallows in her own solipsistic, little-girl world on beaches and abandoned train stations. It's all very loosely woven, but somehow completely winning -- a more roughly hewn, though infinitely more tuneful link between Karina and Brialy's earlier musical for Godard (A WOMAN IS A WOMAN, 1961) and Jacques Demy's THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1967). Provenance in the genre aside, Brialy is the weak link in all this -- partly for the blindness of his character (which makes him seem flighty and untrustworthy), possibly because he was also handed the least memorable of the songs, but really because Gainsbourg, as the composer, was more interested in Anna and getting under her skin.  (His boorish reading of "Boomerang" hobbles an otherwise gutsy backing track.) On the other hand, Karina is absolutely charming (singing "Sous Le Soleil Exactement", "Un Jour comme un autre", "Roller Girl" and "Pistolet Joe" among others - a couple of them now regarded among the most memorable songs in a distinguished discography), and one is grateful whenever Serge wanders through a scene to drop a few lyrics like so much ash from his Gitanes. That said, in one of the early numbers shared by Brialy, Gainsbourg and another clubgoer, the staging of the song is so awkward, it doesn't quite settle in that the music isn't coming from the club's DJ until the song is half-over.

For those who come to the film already knowing the score (a great record poised between Gainsbourg's lightweight pop for France Gall and his denser, more mature and sensual productions for Brigitte Bardot - track it down), Koralnik's staging falls somewhat short of one's daydreams; it's possible that Gainsbourg felt the same, since he subsequently pursued a side career as a film director. The music and the mood of the piece are very much linked to its time, but for some reason, its attempts to encompass its time visually (Karina's workplace has wall decorations in the form of pinball machine lights) are not what sustain it; the image one carries away is of Karina walking along the edge of an empty beach and -- as she cries out "Sous Le Soleil Exactement!" -- suddenly reaching out like a four-pointed star to claim her dreams.

Available as a French DVD without English subtitles, but as for me...

Viewed on DVD-R. 

91. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)


Taking a novel approach to Marvel's X-Men franchise, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS takes us back to 1962, slightly before the comic book itself first appeared, to show how Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) formed his initial group of mutants, founded a school to help them hone their natural talents into skills, and became idealistically opposed to best friend Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who prefers that mutants dominate the rest of mankind rather than assist them.

Under the direction of KICK ASS' Matthew Vaughn, working from a script signed by a half-dozen people, it's a cohesive action picture but the subtextual elements that allied the X-Men to gays and other outsiderly factions in Bryan Singer's X-MEN (2000 - was it really 12 years ago?) are now much more foregrounded, to the point where it's harder to accept these heroes as avatars for any cause larger than themselves. Unlike Spider-Man, who's guilt-ridden; unlike Daredevil, who's love-ridden; unlike the Hulk, who's schizophrenic; unlike the Fantastic Four, who are an eight-fisted domestic squabble, the X-Men seem deeply bruised and compromised by different levels of self-loathing before their first punch is thrown, or whatever they throw instead of punches. (And the black one is the first to die -- his being a level of angst this metaphor simply cannot support.) They can't walk away from any victory undejected. Collectively they seem a zillion miles away from the preening self-confidence of their creator, Stan Lee (who unusually does not appear in one of his trademark cameos, though Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman does).

In this story (which restages Magneto's childhood discovery of his powers in a concentration camp), the X-Men band together to call an unofficial halt to what history remembers as the Cuban Missile Crisis, making this kind of an interesting double-bill item with Joe Dante's MATINEE (1993). The end product is somehow more enjoyable than the previous two sequels, though untrue to its chosen time period (miniskirts and sideburns abound) and the original comic (only the Beast is included from Jack Kirby's initial lineup, though Professor X was already bald and wheelchair-bound) and despite the unconvincing, snarky malefics of lead baddie Kevin Bacon, who seems a lightweight choice for Sebastian Shaw, the template for Magneto's misguided miscreance. Likewise, January Jones as Emma Frost, Shaw's Girl Friday (who has the power to turn her epidermis into a girl's best friend), is never convincingly evil; worse still, she's never conspicuously other than MAD MEN's Betty Draper with some cleavage showing. On the plus side, the origin story of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is quite satisfying, as are her semi-sexual, semi-sponsorly tensions with Hank "The Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and there is something primally fulfilling about the spectacle of a futuristic, streamlined aircraft with a roaring, blue-furred animal manning its controls.

Viewed on Cinemax On Demand.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

90. LOCAL HERO (1983)

This comic marginal fantasy from Scot director Bill Forsyth is one of my favorite films of the 1980s, and I'm hardly alone in this. Since its mooted theatrical release, its reputation has grown well beyond traditional cult status via home video. Understated yet eloquent, realist yet magical, political but easygoing, and woven to accomodate countless viewings, LOCAL HERO follows a Texas oil rep named McIntyre (Peter Riegert) to a stretch of four fairly isolated miles of beach in Scotland with orders to acquire the whole territory for Knox Oil & Gas. He's given his traveling orders by the company president, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), who attempts to keep his ego in place with abusive therapy while also looking for new ways to win nominal immortality, of which opening a new oil refinery in Scotland is one.

In the manner of a select group of films about people who fall under the spell of an unfamiliar place untouched by so-called "progress," notably Powell & Pressburger's I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING!, LOCAL HERO attends to the period of negotiations between McIntyre and the local village's amiable combination lawyer-innkeeper-bartender, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) -- during which he falls progressively in love with the scenery and, in a sweetly underplayed sidecar to the events, infatuated with Gordon's wife Stella (Jennifer Black). Meanwhile, McIntyre's local handler Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) stands by, watching the enchanting sea waters for return visits from a web-toed oceanographer named Marina (Jenny Seagrove).

Everyone in the little village is an exquisite miniature: a motorcyclist always threatening to run people over, the token punk girl, the middle-aged storekeeper who lives for the return visits of a married Russian seaman (who may well be the father of a baby no other local man can seem to take credit for), the sign painter, the roof hammerer, the phone box monitor, the black African pastor named Macpherson, the movie star impressionist, and most of all, eccentric Ben (Fulton Mackay) who lives in a beach hut though he owns more land than any other villager. With the exceptions of Lancaster and John Gordon Sinclair (the GREGORY'S GIRL lead, who plays the cyclist), everyone else gives the performances of their careers. By the end of the film, when "Mac" has to return home to his cramped apartment in Houston, the viewer shares his feelings of having made new friends in a faraway place -- to the extent that a fairly oblique closing shot requires no explanation. As the years continue to go by, I can never watch this film without wondering what these dear people are doing now, which of them have prospered, which have died. Few films are more deserving of a sequel -- Forsyth made one for GREGORY'S GIRL, so I haven't completely given up hope.

Seeing LOCAL HERO again for the first time in probably a decade or so, I was surprised by how ill-planned and slapped-together the early Houston scenes felt; I didn't remember the film this way, but perhaps this is part of the reason why the Scottish locations feel so seductive and liberating. The lyrical score by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler is Celtic without being cloying about it, and justly celebrated. Warner Home Video's 1999 DVD of the film features a stale-looking transfer that is nowadays looking in serious need of some freshening-up and a Blu-ray release. Next year will be its 30th anniversary. I can hear Mr. Happer saying, "Might be just the time for it."

Viewed on Warner Home Video DVD.

89. LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010)

From the producer/director team that brought us THIRTYSOMETHING, Marshall Herskowitz and Edward Zwick, this is a situation love story -- better than most, though not completely innocent of the genre's usual clichés, nor indeed a few from other genres.

The year is 1992. Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), a yuppie womanizer, gets his first serious job as a pharmaceuticals rep with Pfizer, northern Ohio territory, just before they made history with Viagra. Coming from Zwick and Herskowitz, I anticipated a critique of the pharmaceuticals epidemic in America, but then quickly realized they would never have obtained Pfizer's cooperation with a damning storyline. What happens instead is this: While trying to convince local doctors to dump their antidepressants in favor of Zoloft, and encountering steep competition from other companies offering bribes, he meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a young woman in her late 20s yet already afflicted with stage one Parkinson's disease. To their mutual surprise, they enter into a purely sexual relationship that is immediately transcendent and sobering, becomes more serious as her condition worsens. Shortly after they finally cross the bridge of declaring their feelings for one another, Maggie realizes what their future is likely to be and doesn't want to be a burden, and Jamie has to persuade her that love eliminates all sense of burden. They both go their separate ways and, obviously, find their way back to one another.

What is most painful about the film is nothing I've mentioned yet, but an agonizingly sophomoric sidecar driven by Josh Gad, who plays the handsome grinny hero's fat, slovenly, masturbating, freak accident internet millionaire brother Josh, who is recovering from a marital separation in Jamie's apartment. I don't mean to be cruel to Gad, who delivers exactly what the role asked for, but it's like teen comedies took a giant crap in the middle of an otherwise diverting, occasionally moving story about two believable adults. I've never before seen a film that won me entirely over to the talents of Gyllenhaal or Hathaway, but this film comes closest, especially for Hathaway, who depicts Maggie with various shades of fragility that are interesting rather than simply diminishing. As she loses strengths, she finds ways to give her persuasive new ones. As for Gyllenhaal, he gives a surprisingly physical performance considering how much the film is based around talk, and his growth as a character and evident range as an actor make him likeable. Their sex scenes convey a more believable sense of heat and connection than mainstream dramas normally attempt. Judy Greer, an actress with equal talent for drama and light comedy whom I've been noticing a lot lately in films and on cable television, is a welcome addition as a receptionist to on-the-take Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), and Oliver Platt is his usually amusing self as Jamie's professional mentor. Seeing Azaria and Platt in the same picture reminded me that I'm still nursing some wounds from HBO's cancellation of HUFF.

Viewed on Cinemax On Demand.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

88. DEATH LAID AN EGG (LA MORTE HA FATTO L'UOVO, 1968)

Somewhere between Mario Bava's temporary abdication from the giallo to embrace pop and op cinema, and Dario Argento's arrival on the crime scene, Giulio Questi made this truly aberrant yet fascinating thriller set in, of all places, an automated henhouse.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin, fresh from Tinto Brass' DEADLY SWEET (COL CUORE IN GOLA, 1967), join Gina Lollobrigida for a bizarre romantic triangle: Anna (Lollobrigida) rules the high-tech roost in albumen-colored suits while spineless, brooding husband Marco (Trintignant) woos secretary Gabrielle (Aulin) on the side, and further asserts his manhood by reserving a room in a highway motel where he dons leather gloves and stabs and slices a procession of prostitutes to death. When Anna and her resident chemist succeed in producing a species of meatier, headless, digestible-boned chickens -- shades of Chicken McNuggets! -- a repulsed Marco slaughters the monstrosities and gets a stern dressing-down from The Association, a faceless corporate autonomy who, in effect, own Anna and are hellbent on making chickens the most important element in the national diet and consciousness. Marco attempts to run away with Gabrielle, not realizing that she is leading her own double life as well.

Made in a deliberately abrasive way, with aggressively abstract and mobile framings grating against brittle music by Bruno Maderna, and arhythmical ADS cutting and the occasional bizarre non sequitur cutaway, DEATH LAID AN EGG is fairly singular in Italian cinema -- years ahead of its time as a giallo, and still comparatively unique as an example of Italian surrealist filmmaking.

Viewed on DVD-R.  

87. WOMAN IN CHAINS (LA PRISONIERRE, 1968)

When a 1964 heart attack brought a sudden end to the filming of L'ENFER ("Inferno"), a projected Op Art film about insane jealousy starring Romy Schneider, it was another four years before Henri-Georges Clouzot was able to get another theatrical feature produced. The resulting work, WOMAN IN CHAINS (also known as FEMALE PRISONER), showed that his fascination with Op Art had anything but abated.

Scripted by Clouzot himself, it's another story of jealousy, this time more sympathetic to the distaff side of the equation. It is a portrait of José (Elisabeth Wiener), a young woman in an open but committed relationship with Gilbert (THE TENANT's Bernard Fresson), an Op artist preparing an exhibit for enterprising gallerist Stanislas Hassler (Laurent Terzieff). One night, while Gilbert is away wooing a woman reporter for professional reasons, José allows herself to be invited to Stan's apartment, where -- in a somewhat Robbe-Grilletian twist -- she is accidentally exposed to evidence of his hobby of pornographic photography, namely a photo of a nude woman in a pose of chained submission. To her surprise, the photo arouses her and she asks to be present at a private modelling session; this arouses her still more and she leaves Stan's apartment in a state of flustered embarassment. Realizing her true nature, José returns to Stan, knowing that he is the only man capable of accessing this untapped side of her nature, leading to disastrous consequences and a jealous meltdown for the supposedly liberated Gilbert.

The early part of WOMAN IN CHAINS is a brilliant, near immersion in the sheer variety of Op Art, showing its principles at work not only in art objects (sculptures, installations and wall hangings) but in furniture and clothing, as well. The middle is psychological drama at its most absorbing, as José finds herself helplessly submitting to Stan's sexual control. When the film reaches its climactic point of crisis, Clouzot jolts the film by going inside José's head for a subjective sequence of disorientation and fantasy that actually parallels the "Stargate" sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which had the better fortune of opening several months earlier. A commercial disappointment, WOMAN IN CHAINS was little-seen and promptly forgotten, yet it is a film of major innovative importance in the respective histories or erotic and art cinema. It's not quite on the level of THE WAGES OF FEAR (LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR, 1953), but neither is it a consolation prize for the unfinished L'ENFER (whose script was eventually filmed by Claude Chabrol in 1994): it is a potent achievement in its own right and deserves to be much better known.

Viewed on DVD-R.