Friday, May 29, 2009

Sex 101

A double dose of Cyd Charisse - No, I didn't think you'd mind....

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Blood for Blood – a.k.a. Sunday in the Country, a.k.a. Vengeance is Mine. A low-budget Canadian flick starring Ernest Borgnine as a farmer who takes the law into his own hands when a trio of vicious bank robbers threaten his home. This is obviously influenced by Straw Dogs – The poster even cites the Peckinpah film - but alas, it’s not very good. Borgnine’s sudden transformation from pious farmer to avenging angel just doesn’t make any sense. The film also tacks on a completely unnecessary (and violent) conclusion. Not recommended.

Baraka – I finally got a chance to check out the Blu-Ray disc of this, and it didn’t disappoint. Director Ron Fricke examines both the natural and human worlds, and points up some intriguing parallels, like juxtaposing shots of hundreds of baby chicks going down an assembly line with commuters flowing down an escalator. This movie is a wondrous visual experience, and I recommend it highly.

Shark! – Noirish Sam Fuller offering from 1969 with a pre-superstardom Burt Reynolds as a scoundrel getting involved in diving for sunken treasure. This was a better watch than I was expecting, with a tight little plot and some good underwater photography. The conclusion is well written and beautifully ironic. The film is dedicated to the movie industry’s stunt men, owing to the fact that stuntman Jose Marco was killed by a shark during filming.

Asphalt – Enjoyable 1929 German silent directed by Joe May. A by-the-book cop allows himself to be seduced by a woman he’s trying to arrest, with tragic results. The plot here is somewhat similar to that of The Blue Angel, where a man of respect and authority is undone by lust. This one backs away from that film’s sour finality with a happy little ending, however. Still, recommended.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Newsstand

Esquire, April 1980 - Also, I missed the Duke's B-Day yesterday.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Moments of Distinction

The Film – Nashville, dir Robert Altman

The Set-Up – Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) sings.

Pauline Kael once wrote about this scene:

“…When she stands on the stage of the Opry Belle and sings “Dues” with the words “It hurts so bad, it gets me down,” her fragility is so touching and her swaying movements are so seductively musical that, perhaps for the first time on the screen, one gets the sense of an artist’s being consumed by her gift.”

Exactly right.

Barbara Jean is a character I have loved since the first time I saw Nashville. Kael is astute when she touches on her “fragility.” Barbara Jean is supremely talented, but she is also sad and, as the clip demonstrates, damaged. My affection for her is not unlike that of the marine played by Scott Glenn – He thinks she needs to be protected. Here’s Kael again:

“The movies often try to do portraits of artists, but their artistry must be asserted for them. When we see an actor playing a painter, and then see the paintings, we don’t feel the relation.”

“Here, with Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean, we perceive what goes into the art, and we experience what the unbalance of life and art can do to a person.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Marquee

I wish I would stop finding neat posters for this film. I think this is the third one I've posted.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Two Rode Together – The titular two are James Stewart and Richard Widmark, and their job is to bring white children captured by Comanches back to their former lives. There is some good stuff here, but there’s a lot of needless jabbering between the two leads, and it gets in the way. Thus, this is one of John Ford’s more disappointing efforts – With the talent involved and the subject matter you might have expected something more substantial. Ford tackled the subject of white treatment of Natives in The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn from 1964 was his definitive work on the subject. Two Rode Together can be looked at as his dry run for CA.

Brokeback Mountain – Finally got around to this one, and enjoyed it immensely. I was happy that the film didn’t throw preachy “billboard” statements at me, rather just got inside these two men who were unfortunate enough to be born in a time and place that didn’t allow them to be truly happy. Putting Heath Ledger’s performance here next to his one in The Dark Knight illustrates just how good this guy was.

Rosemary’s Baby – I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen this until now. A very fine movie and an unnerving viewing experience, as the story methodically goes right where we fear it will. There are some spots that stretch the limits of credulity, but for a film like this, that’s not a valid objection. I have to endorse it because of how it succeeds in creating a sickly, distorted reality. Recommended.

Witness to Murder – With Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who sees her neighbor commit a murder, but can’t get anyone to believe her. If you threw Rear Window and Gaslight into a blender, you’d get this movie. It’s not a great watch, but it’s OK. Stanwyck is pretty good, and George Sanders as the killer is menacing in his own smooooooth way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Location

Claude Chabrol checks out a shot.

On a related note, Flickhead is hosting Ten Days' Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon between June 21st and 30th. Swing by his site for more details.

The Marquee (Rossellini Division)

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Movies of my Life

The films that I write about in this series tend to NOT be there for solely superficial reasons. A film usually becomes part of my pantheon because it engages me on multiple levels – Writing, acting, plot, direction, etc. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is great on a lot of these levels, but that’s not really why it’s a “Film of my Life”. The reason is, that 20 years after I first saw it, it’s still the best-looking movie I’ve ever seen.

Set in the Texas panhandle, but filmed in Alberta, DoH reworks Henry James’ Wings of the Dove. In that novel a poor young couple hit upon a scheme wherein the man marries a terminally ill woman so that they can inherit her wealth after her death. DoH turns it around, as Bill (Richard Gere) sets his girl Abby (Brooke Adams) on to the wealthy Farmer (Sam Shepard), only to have her actually fall in love with him.

Critics writing about this film will invariably talk about how flat and dry the romances are. It’s true that there isn’t even a hint of passion between Abby and either one of the men, but I can’t really get too worked up about it. There’s too much other stuff that I DO get worked up about.

First, there’s the images. As I said above, DoH is filmed in Alberta on the bountiful land near Lethbridge, and rarely has a movie created such a sense of wide-open space. The cinematographer was Spaniard Nestor Almendros, who was at that time was likely best known for his work with Francois Truffault. (Haskell Wexler contributed part of the photography, as well.) A good portion of the action is shot at or dawn or dusk, and the low sun gives the film an ethereal, golden look. There is a scene where a crew prepares to begin a harvest early in the morning (below), and the sky is absolutely magnificent.

The other thing that makes DoH resonate so strongly with me is the presence of Linda Manz, who plays Bill’s kid sister Linda and narrates the film. I normally regard narration as lazy filmmaking and a distraction, but in this case, it’s central to the mood of weary hopelessness. Linda is supposed to be a child of 10 or 12, but the narrative reveals a much older soul. Consider this clip of the three traveling on a river after the scheme has gone bad. (Music by the great Leo Kottke)

“Bury somebody or something”

Her observations are child-like, all right, but they also are laced with a morbid, beaten-down quality that is strangely compelling.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

The Innocents – Jack Clayton’s quirky Victorian horror story from 1961 with Deborah Kerr as a governess who encounters a couple of ghosts in a gigantic mansion – or who may just be insane. This film walks the line between reality and hallucination, and to its credit, it never tilts it one way or another. Wonderfully photographed by the great Freddie Francis. Highly recommended.

War of the Worlds (2005) – Here’s a great example of how a second viewing can change your perceptions. The first time around on this one, I was awed by the images. This time, I realized how thin the human story is. It seemed that Spielberg didn’t know how to resolve the dynamic between Tom Cruise and his son, so he just removed the son from a large chunk of the movie, and then dropped him back in at the end. I still love the visual artistry of this film, but love the movie a wee bit less.

House of Wax (1953) – Starring the King, Vincent Price. I saw this when I was a kid, and it scared the shit out of me. It’s still a pretty well crafted little movie. The scene where Price pursues Phyllis Kirk through the streets (below) is marvelous. It clocks in at less than 90 minutes, so there’s no fluff here. I recommend it as a good Friday night “popcorn” rental.

A Mighty Heart – The story of the kidnap and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl as told from the point of view of his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie). Jolie is fabulous here, completely disappearing into the character. The film is matter-of fact about the events, and points up the frustration of racing against time to pry information out of the terrorist network that has Pearl. For me, the lasting image of this film is a white board used to track leads, and how it illustrates how vast and untracable the enemy is. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Monsieur Verdoux

The name Henri Landru has been largely forgotten by history, but his legacy hasn’t. Landru was a latter day Bluebeard, having robbed and murdered 10 women after seducing them. He was guillotined in France in 1922. The idea of a predatory male marrying women and killing them has popped up in literature from people as varied as Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut, and in films such as Claude Chabrol’s Landru and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Orson Welles was another filmmaker who wanted to take a crack at the Landru story. He had written a script with the intention of having Charles Chaplin play the Bluebeard character, and Chaplin had agreed to do it. At the last minute, however, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want anyone else to direct him and bought the script, which was to become Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin’s 1947 version has a lot of harsh critics, but it is also not without its admirers. At the very least, it strays the furthest from what we consider the norm of his work.

The film opens with Verdoux already having been executed for his crimes and narrating from the grave. This gives us a brief background – How Verdoux was a simple bank clerk who lost his job and turned to “Liquidating members of the opposite sex.” Nothing personal - Simply as a business venture.

When we meet Verdoux, he is presented as a wealthy Bourgeois with his beret and his rose garden. He makes a point of stepping around a tiny caterpillar, and exclaims “You’ll be stepped upon, little fellow.” This is mere seconds after we have seen an incinerator belching out black smoke – Fueled by Verdoux’ most recent victim. If the film had followed in this darkly comic vein, I think I might have liked it more. As it is, it tiptoes up to the edge but never quite jumps over.

I have to make a small confession here. I’ve never been a huge fan of Charlie Chaplins’ work. I like Modern Times, and to a lesser extent City Lights, and a lot of his shorts have some good laughs, but to me, Chaplin’s narcissism gets in the way. It can be excused in a lot of cases, but here, in this film, it is poison.

Take that garden scene. We briefly met the family of the woman in the incinerator at the start, and it is significant to see what a contemptible lot they are. They fight amongst themselves for the whole scene. This is a set-up for the incinerator scene, but why does Chaplin make the woman’s family such a bunch of assholes? I think it’s to somewhat absolve Verdoux in advance. It’s not too big a reach to say, “Well the wife was likely just as big a jerk as everyone else in the family”

There is actually only one wife killed during the film, and this one follows the same logic. Verdoux drops in on his wife Lydia after a long absence. She is unattractive and unfriendly, so when she meets her fate, she doesn’t arouse our sympathy. Put an attractive, reasonably likeable wife in her place, and Verdoux looks very different indeed.

Then there is the back-story of Verdoux’s real family. He has been killing and robbing widows to support his own family because, you know, he really loves his wife and son. The problem is that the wife (who is a cripple) and son are barely acknowledged. Their screen time is very brief and neither registers as someone of interest, either to us or Verdoux.

There is also a plot thread about a girl who Verdoux picks up on the street, with the intention of testing a new poison. He goes as far as to give her a glass of wine containing the poison, and he finds that she is alone on the streets. As they talk he discovers that they both admire Schopenhauer, and that she nursed an invalid husband after the war. This character is a mirror image of Verdoux - She even admits that she “would have killed” for her husband. Verdoux spares her life. This scene has the purpose of casting Verdoux in a noble light.

In the eyes of its fiercest critics, Monsieur Verdoux falls off the rails in its finale, after Verdoux has been captured. Here, Chaplin pulls out his bag of anti-American rhetoric.

“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of mass destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing?”


“One murder makes a villain. Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.”

Chaplin’s decision to make Verdoux a mere vessel for the sins of society comes across as disingenuous and arrogant. Verdoux never articulated this attitude throughout the film, and it feels tacked-on when it comes out. The film even goes to far as to include a montage of images in this theme, from showing ruined businessmen jumping out of windows to shots of Hitler and Mussolini hobnobbing. Chaplin pulls no punches in damning capitalism and military aggression. The American public damned Chaplin in return, as Monsieur Verdoux was greeted with distain, and it was pulled from theatres after only a few weeks. The furor surrounding Monsieur Verdoux led to increased pressure on Chaplin to explain his political leanings and patriotism, which ultimately led to his leaving the USA for England in the early fifties.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Monday, May 04, 2009