Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is #582 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/12/11 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #576 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

Step 1: Hire Sam Peckinpah, the most notorious, the bloodiest (and most difficult to work with) filmmaker of his day (sorry Sam Fuller) and give him free reign with the equally notorious and equally bloody (and probably equally difficult to work with) legend of Billy the Kid.

Step 2: Design the entire mood of the movie around a soundtrack written specifically for the film by a certain musical creative genius (and possible prophet incarnate according to a good friend of mine) by the name of Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman - and give the singer/songwriter a part in the movie as a knife-wielding outlaw named Alias. 

Step 3: Release Hell.

Granted, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is not the balls-out blood-letting that The Wild Bunch is, nor is it as subversively wicked as Straw Dogs but it is still pure Peckinpah from start to finish - well, at least it was until MGM (in the manner of many a tragic studio story of yesteryear) recut the film without the director's knowledge (in other words, brutalized the filmmaker's vision!) and released this decidedly inferior version to inevitably derisive reviews.  The film would later be restored to its supposed original glory, but even the version known as the director's cut, due to it being restored after the director's death, may be lacking in what Peckinpah had wanted his movie to be.  Both versions are available on a double disc DVD set.

But this post-production hanky-panky aside, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a Hell of a fun movie to watch.  The film stars James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, respectively as the titular friends turned enemies.  The fact that the thirty-seven year old Kristofferson is playing a character that died at twenty-one and the forty-five year old Coburn is playing a man who in reality was just thirty when he killed the Kid, is really nothing more than a quaint anecdote once one turns on their suspension of disbelief and just lets the movie wash over them in the semi-mystical way it is meant to.  Kristofferson and Coburn are great in their roles (rumour has it James Taylor was originally set to play the part of Billy) and the film is filled to the veritable brim with great character actors of the then-present and the past.  In smaller roles, we get to see Jason Robards, Harry Dean Stanton, Dub Tayler, Chill Wills, Charlie Martin Smith, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Luke Askew and Elisha Cook Jr.  Singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's wife at the time, also plays a small part.

Of course the most fun character to watch is that of Alias.  After hearing that Peckinpah wanted to get Roger Miller to do a title song for the movie, Kristofferson brought in Bob Dylan who immediately wowed the at first unconvinced Peckinpah.  The ensuing soundtrack was as unsuccessful as the studio recut film although it did have one song, Knockin' on Heaven's Door, that would become a big hit.  My personal favourite track though (in terms of just its musical style), is the title track - a sweetly melancholic ballad in the tradition of Dylan's more troubadour style of John Wesley Harding.  Yet, the scene in which Knockin' on Heaven's Door plays (where Slim Pickens' character is dying) is not only the finest scene in the film but one of the most emotionally jarring scenes I have ever watched on screen.  The scene is simply devastating.  It is in this manner that Dylan's music helps to make Peckinpah's revisionist western an even more powerful motion picture than even the director (could do.

The movie has the typically heightened sense of self-awareness that many American films had during this period of seventies cinema (think the films of Altman, Scorsese and Bogdanovich) which adds to the storytelling aspect of such a legendary (and oft historically inaccurate) tale.   In my opinion, not only does this film deserve to be included on such a list as is being counting down with these posts (and there are many on the list I feel do not deserve such an honour) but it is one of the best films of the time period.  With an almost counter-culture feel about it (The Vietnam War was still wallowing about and Watergate was a hot topic) Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a prime example of how movies were being made in Hollywood (a surprisingly much freer Hollywood at the time) from the late sixties to around 1981 or 1982.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Uma

"Even, today, when people tell me I'm beautiful, I do not believe a word of it." 
- Uma Thurman

The Cinematheque Reviews: Super

A funny thing happened while I was watching Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon et al in James (the guy who did Slither) Gunn's new angry-guy-railing-against-crime-in-silly-homemade-costume movie, simply called Super.  I actually enjoyed it.  Imagine that.  This is the movie the highly anticipated but quite disappointing Kick-Ass should have been.  Anyway, my review is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Below is a shot from the great opening credit sequence (ignored in my review for some reason) that is sort of a melange of The Justice League of America and fan art from Ren & Stimpy.  Oh and in case you were wondering, the rest of the movie (except for a CGI dream sequence involving divinely manufactured tentacle porn) is live action.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My 10 Favourite Things About Don't Touch the White Woman

**spoilers ahead, for those who worry about such things**

1) Obviously when talking about Marco Ferreri's French/Italian hybrid Don't Touch the White Woman, something must be said about the that title.  Played as a recurring gag (or jag) throughout the film, General Custer's Indian scout Mitch is repeatedly told this (or scolded about this) by the white men around him.  When I told my friend Max that this was the movie we were going to watch on a certain night, he instinctively assumed that I was acting the fool, and making such a title up.  But lo and behold, it is indeed Don't Touch the White Woman - or Touche pas a la femme blanche in its native French (and I use the term native in several different manners of ironic twist).

2) Ferreri's absurdist take on the American Western.  Placing characters such as General George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Sitting Bull smack dab in the then-current 1974 Paris - with Richard Nixon as the beloved president - and setting the climactic Battle of Little Big Horn in the recently demolished remains of the old Paris marketplace.  Mixing and matching time periods, Ferreri's film is a comic absurdist delight.

3) Marcello Mastroianni as General Custer, extremely vain and quite pompous (this may actually be a rather accurate portrayal) and kicking up his boots in a ridiculously comic salutation of sorts, is at his batshitcrazy best here.  His long dangling locks, desire to change uniforms for each battle and constant militaristic attitude - not to mention his arrogant style of wooing - is great comic fun.

4) The (far from subtle) allusions to both Vietnam and Algeria (Nixon is president here, spying down at everyone from his overly prevalent framed pictures) and an obvious (and quite legitimate if you ask this liberal critic) Leftist attitude toward the military, as well as a revisionist outlook on American/Indian affairs of the time (the Custer time that is).  The Algerians are even thought of as an Indian tribe, and thus are treated in the same cold, hateful manner by the white people in the film.

5) The Altman connection.  Or I should say, the Altman feel.  Predating Altman's own Buffalo Bill movie by two years, Ferreri's movie plays out in a very Altmanesque manner, with characters speaking over top of each other and musicians following around as balladeers and an overall constant sense of mayhem.

6) Ugo Tognazzi, long before he became the prancing star of La cage aux folles (a role played by an equally prancing Robin Williams in the remake), plays the aforementioned Mitch, the man to whom the warning of the title is told to.  Of course he is not really an American Indian (and doesn't even look like one, given a tanning session before filming began perhaps) but full-blooded, and full-bodied Italian.  His leading of a sweat shop manned by white women (with the ever-watching eyes of big brother Nixon peering down from the wall) and his defilement of one of them is one of the many highlights of this crazy ass movie.

7) The use of what appear to be real period hippies as the Indians of this so-called Little Big Horn.  I mean really, who needs the noble savage when you've got a city full of hippies who will walk around in the background for, well for pretty much anything you are wiling to give them.  We even get one who looks an awfully like that self-declared ant-hippie, Jim Morrison.  Perhaps he didn't die in that bathtub after all.  I mean he did live in Paris when he "died".

8) Michel Piccoli may very well be the most batshitcrazy Buffalo Bill in cinematic history.  Played by everyone from Roy Rogers to Joel McCrea to Clayton Moore to Chuck Heston to Paul Newman to Stephen Fucking Baldwin (even Buffalo Bill himself - as himself! - appeared in several early silent films) but I can't think of anyone who made the man look like a stark raving lunatic more than M. Piccoli.  From his white eyeliner to his big-boobied back-up dancer to his bizarro (almost) one man show to his eventual maniacal cowardice and grandiose hissy-fit, Piccoli is the premier batshitcrazy Buffalo Bill.

9) I cannot confirm this was on purpose, and it may very well be a "just me" kinda thing, but the talking heads who we first see at the beginning of the film, and who recur throughout as nosy, do-nothing politicos, remind this critic of a certain band of outsiders (if you will pardon the pun) known collectively as the Nouvelle Vague.  The two main ones even resemble the new wave's leaders (for lack of a more apt word) Godard and Truffaut.  Again, it is probably all in my imagination, but isn't imagination what cinema is all about?

10) Catherine Deneuve as a redhead!!  I am sure I need not say more, but I will anyway.  Looking spectacular as a blonde is Mlle. Deneuve's normal style, but here she goes fiery red for her role as Custer's love interest, Marie-Hélène de Boismonfrais.  Perhaps it is in keeping with the batshitcrazy aspect of the film itself - after all (and this will get some angry comments I am sure, but I sincerely mean it in the most complimentary fashion possible) most redheads I have known have been quite batshitcrazy themselves.  Perhaps it is just to make the already drop dead Deneuve look all that hotter.  One of the final moments of the film - after the slaughter at this makeshift Little Big Horn - shows a now dead Deneauve covered partly in an American flag.  Except for the whole dead part (unless you are into that) this is a pretty spectacular image on the screen (which unfortunately cannot truly be captured by the corresponding image below).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Water For Elephants

If there is a lesson to be learned from the movie adaptation of the best selling novel Water for Elephants, it is that when Robert Pattinson gets to be an old man, he is going to look just like Hal Holbrook.  I kid.  Seriously though (as serious as one can be when talking about a somewhat ridiculous movie as this) my review is up and running at The Cinematheque.  Read it if you wish, or if you don't, don't - what do I care.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Wife! Be Like a Rose!

This wonderfully titled 1935 near-masterpiece of tragic longings, directed by the oft-overlooked "third" master of classic Japanese cinema Mikio Naruse, has the grand distinction of being the first ever Japanese sound film to be commercially released in the US.  This initial release (in 1937 and under the retitled name of its protagonist Kimiko) was met with an overwhelming critical disdain.  The film was called plodding and disorganized (though Mark van Doren in The Nation would hail the film as a powerful work of cinematic humanism and call it "one of the most moving films I know."), but I am here to tell you they (except for the precognitive Mr. van Doren) were wrong - dead wrong.

This is the story of Mikio, a young Japanese woman who lives in that strange world between generations, between cultures.  As was true at the time of many Japanese women Mikio's age (she is about twenty in the story) at this time of a burgeoning new society that was just then opening its proverbial doors to the west, old tradition clashed with this newer, freer society.  Dressed, as was the norm, in traditional clothes in the evening - kimono and such - but in more modern western clothing (somewhat reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich's then contemporary attire) during her days as a professional working women - something that was not the norm (and in fact was quite shocking at the time and would actually a few years later become completely forbidden as traditionalist ways were to become resurrected during Japan's imperialistic uprisings that would eventually lead to war).  

This juxtaposition of ideas - old vs. new, country vs. city, good vs. evil - would become a recurring factor in Naruse's oeuvre throughout the years.  Another recurring factor of Naruse's cinema would be that of the unfortunate woman whom tragedy would regularly make a fool of - but a woman who would make whatever she could out of these tragic circumstances.  Mikio is just this kind of strong woman character that Naruse would become famous (well, sort of famous) for championing.

Mikio, played both traditionally and modernly by the stunning actress Sachiko Chiba (the director's fiancee at the time, this would be the second of six films she would do for Naruse within a two year period), is burdened at home by a drunken, depressed mother (drinking sake and writing poetry all day) and burdened from afar by her estranged, missing father (her mother's poetry, published in the local newspaper, is nothing more than a series of lovelorn pleas to her absent husband).  Mikio wishes to marry but in order to do that (as Japanese culture insisted on at the time) she must find her father and bring him back home to act as go-between with her fiancee's family.  When Mikio tracks down her awol father, she finds he has a whole other life and a whole other family.

Naruse's use of intricate (and often subtly manipulative) camerawork combined with Sachiko's natural beauty and poise (as well as Naruse's use of western movie references - Mikio and her father play a scene out of Capra's It Happened One Night while trying to hail a cab) make Wife! Be Like a Rose! a most powerful melodrama indeed.  The final scene, in which Mikio realizes she will not (nor should she) get her so desired fairy tale resolution, is a work of art in and of itself.  Naruse's use of sudden shift changes and close-ups and the way he can make a scene pop off the screen in a way (this style already evident in the director's silent work) merely add to the already intense emotions running through the air between all the actors concerned.

In Noël Burch's 1979 book "To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema" he does what pretty much only Mark van Doren had done back in 1937, and praises the film as an early masterpiece of Japanese cinema.  Perhaps this has helped the film's reputation somewhat but lo and behold, there is still no DVD release of the film anywhere on the whole goddamned planet.  I suppose, especially considering the director's third class status beneath Ozu and Mizoguchi, we should just be glad at Criterion's release of Naruse five remaining silents (as part of their great Eclipse series) and leave it at that.  Personally I don't want to leave it at that and I am still hoping for a DVD (preferably through the aforementioned Criterion series) release sometime during my lifetime.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

To all those out there of a certain religious persuasion (or just those who like getting candy) I would like to extend my warmest Easter greetings - and I mean that in the most genuine way (not just in my usual sarcastic way).  So, Happy Easter to all of you out there in the real world from all of us here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (and by all of us, I mean me).  And in my opinion, nothing says Easter greetings better than a couple of swells.

Melancholia is Coming.....

Although I am greatly looking forward to such upcoming films as Malick's Tree of Life and Scorsese's Hugo Cabret and Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, there is one film in particular that I am looking forward to with the greatest of (maniacal) glee.  This particular movie is Lars von Trier's Melancholia.  I am an unabashed lover of (almost) anything von Trier (I say almost because I am loath to like Manderlay, though perhaps a second viewing may quell such thoughts).   I suppose what I am trying to say is, no matter the pretentious jackass he is, I sure do love me some von Trier.  One of the best times cinematically I have had in a while was watching Antichrist at the Walter Reade during a NYFF press screening and getting to watch and listen to von Trier himself via Skype ( a scary head to see thirty feet high I can tell you though!).  But I am getting off subject.  Melancholia will make its world premiere at Cannes next month and should (hopefully) make it to the states sometime later this year (perhaps after a stop at the aforementioned NYFF).  I am already predicting it to top my Best of 2011 list.  Anyway, here is the trailer.  Watch it.  Now.  The voice of Max Von Sydow commands you (a little Europa injoke for those fellow Trierheads out there - and you know who you are).

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
Jane Eyre

The 654th version (or so) of Jane Eyre has been released and my review of said version is up and running over at The Cinematheque.  I prepared for this release by watching both the 1934 Virginia Bruce/Colin Clive version and the 1944 Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version.  I prefer this new one to one of those but not to the other.  You can guess which one if you want to (though I give it away in my review).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

A Canterbury Tale is #581 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/09/11 on Criterion DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #381 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

There is a certain something about the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  Of course they are visually stunning.  The look and feel of their films are beyond reproach.  Many filmmakers would give anything to make films like them.  But there is more than just this obvious visual and audible style.  The films this duo made together - especially during that perfect six-movie streak that ran for Colonel Blimp to The Red Shoes - have a certain, for lack of a better term, otherworldly charm about them.  It is as if these films are of a magical time and place all their own.  The windy snow-capped Shangri-la-like terrain of Black Narcissus; the tragic fantasy and that final dance of The Red Shoes; the dreamlike quality of the two lovers in A Matter of Life and Death.  And A Canterbury Tale, though sadly lesser known among the duo's oeuvre, is no different.

Seeming to be out of time and out of place (even though set then-contemporarily in the midst of WWII) A Canterbury Tale (loosely based, of course, upon Chaucer's epic poem) tells the story of three travelers on their way to the titular sacred place, whom all get tangled up in a strange mystery just one town over.   The three aforementioned travelers are Allison, a young "Land Girl" (part of the Women's Land Army - civilian girls who helped out with the war effort - for those non-Anglophiles out there) played by the lovely girl-next-door type Sheila Sim, British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, played by up-and-commer (and later down-and-outer) Dennis Price and American Sergeant Bob Johnson, played by real life Sergeant John Sweet.  These three get entangled in a strange affair wherein a mystery man is running about the village putting glue in young girl's hair.

This odd mystery (which isn't really a mystery since it is pretty obvious who the culprit is from the beginning) is really only a sidebar to the ideas of God and time and space and love and all those other deeply felt philosophical comings-and-goings in life.  It is in these ideas that Powell & Pressburger fashion a movie that is probably even more otherworldly than the afterlife parable A Matter of Life and Death.  As Powell's camera (courtesy of cinematographer Erwin Hillier, most notable for being DP on Fritz Lang's M) moves so effortlessly through the English countryside, we are transported to another world in both mood and feeling.  The Archers' films were (to coin a rather tired, but completely appropriate term) magical, and A Canterbury Tale, though perhaps not as vibrant as Colonel Blimp, nor as seductive as Black Narcissus, nor as downright succulent as The Red Shoes, shows these filmmakers in top magical form.  I personally was transfixed as I watched this film unfold on the big screen in front of me.

The film would go on to have a strange life of its own then.  Not a success at the box office (a first for the Archers) Powell was made to re-edit the film for post-war US release, shortening it by twenty minutes and tacking on bookends which featured Kim Hunter as Sgt. Johnson's girl back home (Hunter would incidentally get the female lead in the next Powell/Pressburger project, A Matter of Life and Death).  The film was eventually restored to its original and proper form (no offense to the lovely and talented Miss Hunter) by the British Film Institute, in the 1970's.  Still often overlooked when considering the entire Powell/Pressburger oeuvre, A Canterbury Tale is considered a classic today.  Personally it is my third favourite film of the Archers - following The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

The LAMMYS are Here!!!

Every year around this time, the fine folks over at the LAMB (aka, the Large Association of Movie Blogs) hand out the coveted LAMMYS.  These are awards voted on by your peers (aka, other movie/film bloggers) and hold some esteem in the crowd I (sorta) run with.  There are fifteen categories, including Best Movie Reviewer, Most Prolific, Best Classic Film Blog, Funniest Writer, Best New LAMB and (of course) Best Overall Blog.  The nomination process is happening now (and runs through May 9th) so I have put together (with no shame whatsoever) an FYC ad for the occasion.  It is going to be up and running on the LAMB site very soon (along with many of my fellow movie blogging award hopefuls).  Here it is now.

For those of you who are fellow LAMBS (and therefore eligible to vote) you can do it here.  Perhaps while you are there, you could maybe toss this fellow critic a bone.  No pressure.  I'll still love you, don't worry.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Rio

It is pretty as a picture.  Prettier even.  It may not say much (or at least not much unexpected) but it sure is pretty.  That's good enough for a typical animated 3D movie, right?  Whatever.  My review is up and that is that.  Pretty as a picture.

Juxtaposition of the Day


Leave it to the Hollywood of the 1950's to concoct the perfect blend of brutal abduction and rape and peppy singing and dancing - all with a happy ending.  Okay, perhaps the rape aspect was quite toned down (but not completely unmentioned btw), but you get the point.  And the tagline all in caps above is from the original 1954 poster for the movie.

The Rape of the Sabine Women, painted by Nicolas Poussin, 1635

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, directed by Stanley Donan, 1954

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Rubber

It is a movie about an abandoned tire that comes to life one day and goes on a killing spree in the California desert.  If that did not scare you off then my review is awaiting over at The Cinematheque.  Check it out, as they say.

Meet Robert.  He's a little tired today.  And I am not apologizing for that pun.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Hanna

The creepy little girl from Atonement has grown up (or at least reached driving age) and is kicking serious ass in Joe Wright's new thriller Hanna.  Who could ask for anything more?  Well, I guess you could ask for a well-written, informative review of said movie.  I can not guarantee that is what you will find in my review over at The Cinematheque, but go ahead and give it a try anyway.  What have ya got to lose?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It Was 122 Years Ago Today

Happy Birthday Charlie.

The Silver Chalice or: Paul Newman & the Holy Grail

Victor Saville's 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, set just a handful of decades after Jesus, should be considered an important film in the career of Paul Newman - for two very integral (and opposing) reasons.  The first being that it was the iconic actor's big screen debut.  The second being that it was the iconic actor's most hated film of what would eventually become an oeuvre of nearly sixty motion pictures. Newman even publically apologized for his performance in this movie.  Upon finally watching the film this past week (after seeing it listed among Martin Scorsese's favourite guilty pleasures) I can certainly see why Newman disliked it so much (he is rather terrible in it and through probably no fault of his own), but I gotta admit, even with its nearly universal bad acting, a script that makes one's ears bleed and an overall "do-you-like-movies-about-gladiators" vibe, I kinda liked it.  So go ahead and scoff if you must, but I am not going to change my mind.

The Silver Chalice is the true definition of what a guilty pleasure movie should be (as opposed to Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs - also on the aforementioned Scorsese list - which is, by all accounts, says the unabashed auteurist, a legitimately well-made film), which is where one derives enjoyment from a movie that is poorly made and/or sappy and/or cheesy and/or whatever other adjective one wishes to include.  Though in reality the idea of a movie's pleasure bringing on the emotion of guilt is probably a misnomer of sorts, since I feel no guilt from my love of The Silver Chalice - or from any other film one might call, out of necessity of getting your point across to an audience, a guilty pleasure.  Like I said before - and like I will probably say again before this whole shebang is over - I liked the damned film, so get used to it.

Two things in particular stand out to make me like the film so damned much.  Newman's rather lackluster performance (he is right to hate his performance here) is not among them.  The first is the art direction and set design courtesy of production designer Rolfe Gerard, Art Director Boris Leven and set decorator Harold Bristol.  From the gaudy feast of Nero (set inside what appears to be the Roman equivalent of DC Comics' Hall of Justice!), where everyone eats what appears to be silver food (actually looks quite strangely yummy) and scantily-clad, blue-skinned women (the kind Captain Kirk would so take his boots off for!) gyrate around to a poppy jazz score that is so out of time and place it almost goes the entire way around again and becomes perfectly scored, to the simple geometrical designs of Jerusalem that make this holy city an abstract wonder to behold as Newman's slave/artist Basil (a role originally turned down by James Dean) and the gorgeous Pier Angeli (James Dean's one-time lover) flee from Roman soldiers across the rooftops of this strange, exotic city, made even stranger and more exotic through staged architecture.  Everywhere one looks, no matter the lack of charisma from Newman (who would have it in spades in future movies!) and the quite idiotic preenings of co-star and Roman femme fatale Virginia Mayo, one is given a sight to behold indeed.

The other thing that stands out is (of course!) Jack Palance as the dastardly Simon the Magician (I assume based upon Simon Magus), wouldbe usurper to the aforementioned Jesus and all-around sly kook.  Crazier than I have ever seen him, Palance, even while giving such a soft-spoken kind of performance, hands in probably his most queerly wicked role ever.  Practically leaping out of the veritable closet as the no-good Simon, Palance is wonderfully kitschy in a role that he may very well have been oblivious to its camp goofiness.  I mean c'mon.  His playing with snakes and wearing the things he wore.  He must have known, right?  I mean, he is preening about in red superhero-esque tights with a cape and what appear to be giant black sperm designed into them.  This get-up is adorning the actor when he decides that he can fly (a, idea that, of course, does not come off to well for good ole Simon).  He is by far, the most interesting character in the movie.  Of course it is this very campiness that makes the movie so damned enjoyable (guiltily or not!!).

No matter that Newman took an ad out in 1966 (its television premier) decrying the picture and asking everyone to not watch (its ratings were phenomenal thanks to this actually) and would have friends over to watch it, handing out pots and pans and mallets and such in order to loudly criticize, like I said several times already (and I have forewarned of such again) I liked the damned thing - lock, stock and a big smoking Jack Palance.  Instead of placing screenshots throughout the piece (as is my usual modus operandi) I have saved the best for last.  Below are several great shots from the movie, showing just how succulent the imagery was/is, that were only magnified when I watched it up on the big screen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dark Side of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Really now, how many other musicals - especially classic Hollywood musicals - can boast a song that is basically one character's attempt at inducing another character to hang themselves?  The only one I can think of off hand is Oklahoma!, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye.  The song is "Pore Jud is Daid" (in dialect of course) and it is sung by star Gordon MacRae with a few token lines thrown in by Rod Steiger.  Now I suppose one should really question what a method actor of Steiger's ability is doing in a musical - and singing (a few lines at least) - but he was still pretty young at the time (just his fourth film) and had been cast just prior to the success of his breakthrough film On the Waterfront.  Still, it does seem quite odd watching Steiger do his method thing (and doing it as well as he always does) while others are around him, dressed in brightly coloured (and never dirty) western duds, singing about their freakin' surrey with the goddamn fringe on top - or something like that.  But then this out-of-place actor is the perfect fit to the puzzle that is Oklahoma!.

In between the opening ditty "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and the upbeat title track that ends this two and a half hour widescreen spectacle (the first film to be shot in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process) there is a dark streak that runs through to the very core of the motion picture.  It is shortly after the aforementioned "Pore Jud is Daid" number, that Shirley Jones' Laurey (the object of affection that has caused one character to induce another into hanging hisself) takes the Egyptian elixir sold to her by Eddie Albert's conniving peddler, and has one doozy of an hallucination.  This said hallucination, called the "Dream Ballet" on the soundtrack, is a twenty minute or so dance number wherein Jud stalks Laurey and kills Curley (the character played by MacRae) and even does some dancing (of sorts).  It is in this number (the centerpiece of the movie) that Oklahoma! goes completely off its rocker and becomes something more akin to Hitchcock or Fuller or Kazan than to the candy-coloured confectioneries that were Hollywood musicals in the fifties and early sixties.  It is here, when added to the deathwish number before it, where MacRae sings how nice Jud will look in his flower-lined coffin, that gives Oklahoma! its decidedly acerbic (and quite twisted) bite.

It should also be noted that Steiger is the only principle character to appear in the "Dream Ballet".  MacRae and Jones are replaced with sort of look-a-like dancers and are aided by the background dancers from the rest of the movie.  Steiger though, plays Jud here as well as in the rest of the "outside" film.  Granted, he doesn't have to do much dancing here (like the others) so he can be a part of it without much trouble, but it is possibly significant that this method actor from the New York School takes center stage as it were, in the middle of a mostly upbeat and fun musical as Oklahoma!.  The method man scowling in the middle of a beautiful, albeit quite somber, ballet number - a menacing monstrosity of unabated sexual urges ready to capture and destroy his prey.

Now the idea of placing a lengthy dance-heavy number into a musical was the norm in 1955 (think Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon) and many times they changed the mood of the film temporarily (usually playing on darker artistic themes) but with the "Dream Ballet" it just brings an already dangerous element of the movie to the artistic forefront.  But even then, when we are in that "outside world" (the non-hallucinatory part that is), Steiger's Jud brings a certain level of terror to the musical.  A serious, (most likely psychotic) threat that is usually kept well outside of the genre - at least the Hollywood version of the genre.  Von Trier would have been proud I believe.  When Jud screams at Laurey that she won't go out with him because he is just a farm hand, you half-expect her to scream back that she won't go out with him because he is a fucking psychopath.

I am told (since I have never seen it) that the movie version is an extremely faithful rendition of the original Broadway musical, which makes one think that Rodgers and Hammerstein were two seriously messed up individuals - and delightfully so.  Jud has a solo number in the stage version (which may have been cut due to Steiger's somewhat limited vocal range) and it starts out as such: The floor creaks / The door squeaks / There's a field-mouse a-nibblin on a broom / And I sit by myself / Like a cobweb on the shelf / By myself in a lonely room.  Jud goes on to sing about how he is going to "take" Laurey for his own.  I would have loved to have heard Steiger growl out this number.  It only adds to the sinister nature of the musical.  It would have been great to see and hear.  To see Alfred Molina sing this number in the revival cast would be good as well, but to see Steiger would have been remarkable indeed.

But even without this number, Fred Zinnemann's adaptation is a portentous delight.  There are other delights in the film - Gloria Grahame's somewhat easy (as easy as the production code will allow) farmer's daughter warbling out "I Cain't Say No" and Eddie Albert's sleazy Persian peddler, who has father's shotguns pointed at him more than anyone else, highest among them - (and of course evil is punished and all the good people live happily ever after - singing into the literal and figurative sunset) but it is the menacing threat of Steiger's Jud (a nutcase that could blow at any moment) and the inherently perverse foreboding of some of the numbers (the augural "Dream Ballet" most significantly) that make this film so unexpectedly enjoyable - from a sadist's point of view of course (and I mean that with great compliment).  Perhaps most recall images like the one just above (a bubbly frothy musical in the light of day - Shirley Jones making her film debut singing to a bird and playing not-so-coy with an off-screen MacRae) but for me, Oklahoma! is all about Rod Steiger and Pore Jud Fry.

The Cinematheque Reviews: Your Highness

A stoner comedy based in a medieval world of swords and sorcery.  What could possibly go wrong?  I suppose Your Highness is not really a stoner comedy per se - more of a sword and sorcery movie with mention of "illicit toking" (including its double entendre title) - but the part about things going wrong sure fits nicely in the whole scheme of things - or should I say not so nicely.

Actually, the film is not nearly as horrifying as many of my fellow critics would have you believe, instead opting for a mediocre stance on things at worst (and at best).  Still though, I certainly would not recommend it to anyone I like.  To ascertain more of what I mean (and to hear mention of a rather prominent minotaur penis - though on a side note I would expect a bit "more prominence" on the part of a minotaur penis) you can check out my review now posted over at The Cinematheque.

Of course, any movie, no matter how smart or how stupid, is made better with the addition of Zooey Daschanel.  Apparently, Franco's Prince Fabious knows this as well, since he goes to the veritable ends of the Earth to rescue her - and makes a lot of funny faces doing it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dragnet Girl (Ozu, 1933)

It was a rare foray into the gangster genre for the master so well-known for detailing the everyday rituals of the (then) modern Japanese family, but even in this oeuvre-oddity one can clearly see the early workings of many of the signature motifs that would later come to define the great Yasujiro Ozu.  Considered the most "Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers, Ozu was still, like his younger contemporary Akira Kurosawa, influenced by western filmmakers, and that influence is not more evident that in his 1933 silent gangster movie, Dragnet Girl.

Opening with Ozu's famous "pillow shots", there is no doubt this is an Ozu film.  Rows of hats hanging on hooks, businessmen hurrying through the streets, their shadows rushing along behind them in hopes of keeping up, pans of typewriters clicking away in an anonymous office.  These quite simple yet beautiful and strangely alluring shots open Ozu's picture, and the director will go back to these shots again and again throughout, creating a mood that is both formal and soothing but also arousing and potentially dangerous in its oft-disarming fashion.  Like I said, pure Ozu.

The difference here, as opposed to the grand auteur's later, more austere works such as Late Spring, Early Summer, Tokyo Story and Autumn Afternoon, is that potential danger that lingers in the quietude of those aforementioned "pillow shots", actually does explode in Dragnet Girl.  It explodes in quick bursts (sometimes off-screen entirely!?) in the way one would expect the familial catharsis to happen in the director's later works.  There it is emotional but here it is physical.  Different but the same in many ways.  With its Jazz Age exuberance and touches of classic Hollywood, Dragnet Girl is certainly much more westernized than most of Ozu, but still very much an Ozu motion picture from start to finish.

As far as a gangster film goes, though influenced by the early precode films of Hollywood (and probably the Poetic Realism of early French sound cinema) and with a look that reputedly mirrored von Sternberg, Dragnet Girl, the story of an up and coming mobster and his titular moll, and the tragedy that ensues in this world of petty crime and romantic larceny, is much more esoteric (aka, more Ozu-like) than any of these particular influences.  Ozu's use of quiet space (and since this is a silent film, I of course mean quiet in the physical sense of the word) and his methodical pacing (and those beloved pillow shots!) make for a gangster flick with the heart of a poetic dreamer.  Perhaps the influence of Poetic Realism is stronger than I first alluded to oh so parenthetically and offhandishly.

Whatever the case, Dragnet Girl ends up being one of the earliest works of Ozu, even in a genre he so rarely (only twice that I can be sure of) went to, that shows what the great auteur would one day become.  Influenced by Film Forum's current retrospective, "5 Japanese Divas" (info can be found here) this film helps to kick off my personal proclamation of Japanese Cinema Month (a deeper explanation can be read here) and I think this very modern work of said national cinema, and the way it leads to the whole breadth of what is to come in that very same cinema, may be the perfect intro to the rest of this month full of Mizoguchi and Naruse and Kurosawa and Ichikawa and, of course, Yasujiro Ozu.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

After decades of refusal (even when he won) to appear at the Academy Awards, Woody Allen was finally persuaded to make a special appearance at the Oscars in 2002, to introduce a segment honouring New York and the movies that were made there.   In his opening remarks, Allen acknowledged that though he may have been a reasonable choice for such an invitation, he thought that someone like Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet would have been a better choice.  Indeed, when one thinks about New York and the movies, one invariably pictures directors such as Allen and Scorsese, and sadly overlook the solid work of Lumet.  Perhaps he never received the pomp and circumstance of a Scorsese or a Woody Allen, but Lumet's films are just as ensconced in the fabric of New York City as anyone's.

A quote attributed to Lumet goes, "If a director comes in from California and doesn't know the city at all, he picks the Empire State Building and all the postcard shots, and that, of course, isn't the city." and Lumet would regularly put his money where his mouth was.   The Philadelphia-born, but New York-raised actor-turned-director would become known for making a string of NYC-based movies that were just as gritty as Scorsese and just as acerbic as Allen.  From Serpico to Dog Day Afternoon to Network to Prince of the City to Long Day's Journey Into Night to Q&A to Garbo Talks and The Wiz even, Lumet gave us New York City not from the postcard shots, but from the real (and often down-and-dirty) city that he grew up in and made his own right up until the end.

Film historian Stephen Bowles notes, "Lumet's protagonists tend to be isolated, unexceptional men who oppose a group or institution. Whether the protagonist is a member of a jury or party to a bungled robbery, he follows his instincts and intuition in an effort to find solutions. Lumet's most important criterion is not whether the actions of these men are right or wrong but whether the actions are genuine. If these actions are justified by the individual's conscience, this gives his heroes uncommon strength and courage to endure the pressures, abuses, and injustices of others."  It is in this aspect that Lumet allows his actors to give everything they have to their roles.

Lumet was possibly the best director (aside from perhaps Kazan) when it came to working with actors and getting as much out of them as he could.  Lumet's final film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though perhaps not up to par with his seventies output (but then what seventies American director still working today, can claim otherwise!?) is nonetheless a sharply designed thriller that easily fits in with both this descriptive of Lumet's style and his way with actors.  Lumet (and those under his direction) could do corruption (of body, mind and soul) better than just about anyone out there.

In the end, Lumet leaves us with a legacy of important and demanding films (including several, such as The Anderson Tapes, Bye Bye Braverman and Lovin' Molly, that I have never seen but intend to soon in a sadly posthumous retrospective) that not only honour the great city he loved so much (even when his film's seemed to rail against it at times) but help to define a certain generation of filmmakers and filmmaking. 

As always, David Hudson has collected a slew of pieces on Mr. Lumet, which can be perused here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Source Code

Guess what?  I quite enjoyed Duncan Jones' new action thriller Source Code.  In a way I was disappointed it was not another Moon, the director's debut feature, but once I got past that and fell into the rhythms of the movie, it was a very fun experience.  Sort of Hitchcock by way of Gilliam.  If you can get your head around that description, you may just enjoy the movie too.

Smart and sassy.....and with explosions and pretty girls.  Who could ask for anything more?

The Cinematheque Reviews: Sucker Punch

I have had a love/hate relationship with director Zack Snyder over the years.   Ignoring that cartoon owl thing he made for a paycheck (and which I did not see anyway) Snyder's oeuvre has been a perfect up/down ride for me.   First, in 2004 his Dawn of the Dead remake made my Top Ten list.  Then, in 2007, I boldly proclaimed his 300 the worst film of the year.  Then, in 2009 the moviemaker had once again gleaned his way into my Top Ten with his adaptation of Watchmen.  Now here it is 2011 and right on schedule his Sucker Punch is an extremely strong candidate for the worst movie of the year.  I suppose, in a perfect world, this means his Superman: Man of Steel will be a favourite of mine when it is released in 2012.  I really don't believe this, but one can dream, can't one?

Sure, they look good and they kick ass, but what the fuck is it all about!?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Limitless

Limitless is another one of those cases of a relatively stupid movie seeming much smarter than it actually is through the performance of its star.  This phenomenon has already happened to me a few times this year.  This time the culprit is Bradley Cooper, who does a relatively good job as the cocky smartass at the heart of an otherwise silly movie. One can find some deeper thoughts (relatively speaking) on the subject over at The Cinematheque, where my review is awaiting your perusal.