Saturday, March 31, 2012

Film Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

When a film opens with a fifteen year old girl lying on the kitchen floor, a phone by her ear with the voice of a man from what appears to be a phone sex line emanating from it in cheesy yet sensual Norwegian, her jeans bunched up around her knees and her hand down her panties, her face writhing in carnal pleasure, one immediately knows that they have either stumbled across a particularly well-filmed piece of Scandinavian child porn or what passes for a teen sex comedy and/or coming of age film in Norway.  Since the film never really delves any deeper into the sexual fantasies of its horny teenaged protagonist than it does in this opening scene - for all of its blatant sexuality, the film is surprisingly quite innocent - the safe bet would be the latter.   

With equal parts blunt force frankness and wide-eyed naivety, this debut feature from Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, originally titled Turn Me On Goddammit! during it's festival circuit run, but now released without the apparently (and quite silly) upsetting blasphemy, is a sheer delight of strangely immaculate and kewpie-doll-esque sexual fantasy and imagined debauchery and desired deflowerment - all rolled into the most vestal of cinematic sacraments.   Much of this wonderment is accomplished through a smartly conceived script (winner of Tribeca's Best Screenplay award) and seemingly natural and deft direction, both courtesy of Ms. Jacobsen, but at the heart of the film is the performance of Helene Bergsholm as fifteen year old Alma.  Just seventeen when she accepted the role, the stunning Bergsholm has a natural beauty that mirror images her natural acting ability, and it is this natural charm, making it seem as if she is not really acting at all (which may actually be the case considering her being unto inexperienced), that makes this quaint film work as well as it does.

As far as story goes, Turn Me On Dammit! is a film about Alma, the aforementioned horny teenager, who lives in a small, dead end town somewhere in the south of Norway.  It is a place, like any typical small town in America, where the young desire to escape and the old wonder why they never did.  A place that Alma and her friends give the finger to as they bus past the welcome to town sign.  But besides being a frustrated teenager in a slow, uneventful world, Alma is also a sexually frustrated teenager in a world where every male figure is fodder for her wanton sexual fantasies.  Her constant masturbation and her first-name basis relationship with a phone sex operator has her mother in a constant state of agitation ("I can hear her!") and her sexual fantasy world gets her in trouble when she claims the boy she likes best, "poked" her with his penis, and no one believes her.  Ostracized from school and family, Alma eventually runs away, but this is not the answer.  It is quite strange to see a film where it is the girl who is obsessed with sex instead of the boy, but this obvious but oft-unmentioned phenomenon, makes this quirky little teen sex comedy all the more real - and all the more intriguing.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

Retro Review: Clerks II (Kevin Smith, 06)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.

There are just some things in life that should be left well enough alone. For instance, no one should ever do a remix of Beethoven's 5th and make a Disco smash out of it. Also, no one should ever do a spin-off of M*A*S*H or turn Sex and the City into a PG-13 family TV show or make a second Star Wars trilogy full of bad acting and make-believe special effects (I'm still reeling over that one Mr. Lucas). Also, no one should ever break Babe Ruth's record (unless it is a steroid-free Hank Aaron) and no one should ever draw a moustache on The Mona Lisa (other than perhaps Marcel Duchamp). But most important of all, no one - and I mean no one, Kevin Smith included - should ever attempt to or even think of making a sequel to Clerks - a film that stands firmly upon its own two feet due mainly to its individuality over anything else. Especially if it ends up being anything even remotely similar to the achingly disappointing film I sat through recently at a Philadelphia screening.

Sure, there may be a few glimmers of hope - most notably Randal's mini-diatribe about the failed heroics of Lord of the Rings (although even that glistening moment cannot hope to compare to the wry pop-cultured conversations of the original) and the addition of a new character in the person of Trevor Fuhrman's freshly conceived Elias, a naive innocent with a love for anything Transformers and Lord of the Rings, who Randal will eventually corrupt (sort of) - but a few glimmers doth not a good film make, and the witty, droll, dry, ironic, mocking, sardonic, twisted, view-askew intelligentsia that was Smith's debut feature is now nearly completely absent in this twelve-years-in-the-waiting watery letdown of a sequel, remake, interpretation, cover song, or whatever you might call it film. No less clumsy than the original, or inexplicably any less amateur feeling save for the use of colour film stock this time around, but with a dozen years, seven films and millions of dollars between them, a first-timer's cinephiliac heart of gold no longer plays as a viable excuse for what Smith has handed us here today.

It has always been a rule of thumb - a professional courtesy if you will - that we critics hold back on our reviews until the days just prior to a film's release, so as not to greedily badmouth a film before it gets its shot at those ever-important opening weekend grosses (although I'm pretty sure they wouldn't mind as long as it were a rave review), but perhaps the adamant - almost militaristic - fervor for which The Weinstein Company representatives have "strong-armed" the US critics into a complete and utter silence between our first seeing the film six weeks or so prior and our "allowal" to release our thoughts this very week speaks more for what they thought of their film than what we may think. If it were that great, why wouldn't they want word of mouth to filter out over time? Were they afraid even Smith's drooling lapdog fanboys would be turned off if they heard or saw too much?

But enough with the kvetching, as far as the story goes - now that I can tell it - gone is the iconical Quick Stop - burned to a crisp in the opening B&W-to-colour transition scene - and in its place is Smith's beloved "Mooby's" fast food restaurant (last seen in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) wherein Dante Hicks and Randal Graves - still portrayed by Brad O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson (with about zero percent growth as actors by the way) - continue to schlep to and bitch about a long stream of annoyances, known to anyone who has ever worked in the service industry as customers - which here include cameos by Smith Alum turned superstars Jason Lee and Ben Affleck. And no matter how little of that old magic Smith can actually replicate (and it is very little indeed), the same old same old is still there in a way, as Dante is still passionately passionless about his job and still pines for one girl while supposedly in love with another (here these women are played by Rosario Dawson who better have gotten paid a hell of a lot for a role so beneath her, and, in yet another wasted wave of Hollywood nepotism, Smith's actual wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, who should really never try to act again) and Randal is still the obnoxious mouther who pisses off customers through foul language, an imploringly humourous obsession with Tijuana donkey sex shows (called interspecies erotica in one of the film's funnier lines of dialogue) and a lackadaisical irreverence for hard work. Only now, Dante and Randal are twelve years older, about twenty-five pounds heavier and attempting some sort of "adult" outlook on life, friendship and happiness. True, Randal - who is more the star here than Dante, as opposed to his second banana routine to Dante the first time around - does seem to have a bit more depth now, although it seems as if he was forced to trade in his callow wry edge for that little bit of mock-depth, which was the one thing holding his character together in the first place.

Perhaps Smith does bring some sort of closure to the lives of Dante and Randal, and maybe, to a lesser degree, to the characters of Jay and Silent Bob too (who incidentally are smartly left mainly as a background joke instead of coming forefront and center like they had in Smith's bottom half oeuvre pieces, Dogma and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back), and maybe he does try to bring some heart to his otherwise one-dimensional cast of players, but because that closure is so staid and predictable (the ending should come as no surprise whatsoever), and that heart is more broken than profound, we nearly forget we are watching a film written and directed by the same man who gave us - along with the original Clerks - the highly under-rated Mallrats and the oeuvre-acme of Chasing Amy, as well as the uneven yet mostly salvageable Dogma. Hell, even the in-joke laden mediocrity that was Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back had more chutzpah than this film. We'll just take care to skip right over Jersey Girl (Smith's 2004 film for which he publicly apologized), although, thanks to that film, Clerks II will forever avoid being Smith's worst film.

Perhaps I am being a bit too hard on the old boy (a subconscious kidney shot reaction to my guttural adoration for the original? - sort of, sex with the ex ain't all it's cracked up to be?) and perhaps a probable rating of 37 out of 100 (the real Smith aficionados get it) is a bit on the low side for a film that is at least partially entertaining, albeit in a rather pathetic high school reunion nightmare sort of way (a sort of hey-look-what's-happened-to-him kind of entertainment more than actual humour or even pastiche) and although the number I have arrived at - Smith's trusty old number thirty-seven - may just be me being a disappointed old lover more than anything more concrete about the film itself, the number should at least serve as bittersweet reminder to all those clued-in fanboys, letting them know that this film pretty much does suck.

Possibly like other raw first films of the current gen-X-ration of American auteurs, such as Linklater's Slacker and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Clerks should never have been "messed" with in the first place. Maybe not each filmmaker's best work, they are their most personal - if not in subject or subtext, then at least in mood and/or a sort of marooned nostalgia - and in being so raw and personal, there is probably no successful way of flaming up that old magic one more time. Instead, like Linklater and Tarantino, who have moved on and progressed as filmmakers in each and every one of their successive films - only dipping with a surgeon's touch into that old well now and again - Smith should also move on and grow as a filmmaker. If Linklater is the philosopher-king of the slacker generation and Tarantino its renegade warrior-king, then Smith should take his allotted role as the sewer-mouthed yet sensitive joker-king a little more seriously - ironically enough - and move on as well - something he seemed to have been working at with Chasing Amy.

In the beginning he was like a Gen X Oscar Wilde wannabe - full of equal parts irony and pop culture kitsch - now he is more like a studio-syrened sailor shilling his latest wares like any corporate slob in a Spider-Man tee shirt and hightop converse. Putting the pop culture aside for about a thousand sad bestiality and "porch monkey" jokes and the irony aside for, well irony, to be ironic - but a second rate irony at best. In the end, no matter how much heart you pour into a film (and I believe Smith has put all of his heart into the making of each of his films - for better or for worse) if that heart is put forth with a sense of duty instead of a sense of desire (and the internet was lousy with tons of cyber-nerds constantly clamoring for this film's arrival that the levy had to break eventually) then it is inevitable as Old Faithful blowing its top and spewing hot water over everyone watching that this film would suffer for a lack of passion from its creator. And it is just that dutiful soldier feel that we get from Smith's latest, as though perhaps he has secretly retired from filmmaking to become some strange recluse living in the backwoods of the Garden State, nibbling on 'nilla wafers, peeing into old mayonnaise jars and reading J.D. Salinger by firelight, only to have been replaced by a self appointed doppelganger who instead of making Kevin Smith movies is actually making his best attempt at Kevin Smith covers like some third rate Doors tribute band with a fourth rate Jim Morrison look-a-like trying vainly to belt out Peace Frog in some dingy, half-empty, smoke-filled, beer-stained dive bar somewhere along old highway 22.

But we are forgetting one inevitable focus group that may very well make this film work - at least on a financial level - as they did with the over-played one-note Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. That would be Smith's never-dying fanboy base of comic book aficionados and action-figure hoarding über-geeks. Those missing Smith children led astray and away by the hum-drum domestication of Jersey Girl, whose rather limited genre-specific group mentality should bring them clamoring back into the fold just like the pretty-low-on-the-cinematic-food-chain-comic-book-level-bathroom-humour-junkies that they are. After all, their expectations probably aren't that high to begin with so it should sink in and suit them just fine. As for me, I think I'll rent the original Clerks and dream of better times at the Quick Stop. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/18/06] 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Apparently, I Am Too Racy to Discuss The Archers

As I was perusing the web one day, surfing if you will, I came across a notice for an upcoming movie blogathon.  For those of you who do not know what a blogathon may be, it is where a gaggle of blogospheric writers (aka, we cyberspace nerds) get together and discuss a certain subject, the certain subject of that particular blogathon.  Well the certain subject for this particular blogathon happened to be the certain cinema of a certain Mr. Michael Powell and and a certain Mr. Emeric Pressburger - collectively known amongst we cinephilia-bound folks in the so-called know, as The Archers.  Well hot damn, this was a thing I just had to get in on, so I quickly dashed off an e-mail to the appropriate parties, clamoring to say that I would love love love to write a piece for this exciting sounding blogathon event, and asking if the oft-forgotten masterpiece Gone to Earth was still available as a subject.  The aforementioned appropriate parties said yes to my rather exuberant pleas and everything looked like it was a definite go for lift-off.  Well, this is where everything fell apart and my mission was effectively scrubbed.

You see, a day after receiving an e-mail saying they were happy to have me aboard (my exuberance must have won them over immediately) I received a second e-mail saying, "After checking out your blog, I think it's a little too racy for the blogathon."  Racy?  Me?  Really?  Okay, perhaps I am not a G-rated site, but to say I am too racy to participate in a blogathon is kind of pushing it.  Saying that they are afraid if their regular crowd were to begin to peruse my site (which they did say later in the aforementioned e-mail) that they would take offense to what was written inside, is pretty ridiculous if you ask me.  Now granted, this may all be in the timing as when those appropriate parties from earlier "checked out my blog" the most recent post was that of one of my Retro Reviews.  It was a review of the 2007 film Teeth.  You know, the movie about a girl with vaginal dentata - the girl with the snapping hoo-hoo.  Well, needless to say, my perverse side may have come out a bit in that review (c'mon, how could it not!?) and this same said perversity would have been the first thing these appropriate parties partook of.  In other words - I was too racy for their kinda crowd.

Now normally I am not as perverse or racy (loose terms indeed) as I was in the writing of my Teeth review, but then again I never really think in those kinds of terms.  I just write.  What others glean from my writing is up to them.  I do not bother to tone down my rhetoric for a G-Rated crowd, nor do I try to up such vulgarities as to pander to the NC-17 crowd.  I simply write, without worries of what is proper or what is not.  Looking back, I suppose I am probably best categorized as R-Rated, or even PG-13 in many places, but certainly not too racy for most.  I try to use words as art, for the touchy crowd or the real world crowd.  I never care if I am using what society deems as an ugly, taboo word or not.  I simply write.  I am certainly not overtly racy for fuck's sake!!  Yeah, that was pandering, but I had to throw that word in to prove that no one is going to become a bad person by reading and/or hearing that word.  Fuck, fuck fuckity fuck.  Okay, really, I am not normally like this.  When I was first dismissed, as it were, from the aforementioned blogathon, I replied with a whole "no hard feelings" attitude, but the more I thought about it, the more am getting pissed off.

Now do not get me wrong, I really have no hard feelings (the cocksure attitude here is merely for playful show) and am still an avid supporter of the site that is hosting the blogathon - and all those associated.  I suppose everyone needs their rules, and I suppose that some are inexplicably put off by something as simple as a four letter word, but still, kinda silly if ya ask me.   Extra silly when you consider that this blogathon that all the hullabaloo is about, is a blogathon on, for their time period, a pretty racy filmmaking team.  The lustful nunnery of Black Narcissus, the debauchery hidden away in Colonel Blimp, the seductive factors of The Red Shoes, the naughtiness of Oh...Rosalinda!!, the sexual concoctions of A Canterbury Tale, the giddy sexuality of Gone to Earth.  I will not even bother to go into Powell's solo pet project Peeping Tom.  Perhaps all this carnal knowledge goes over the heads of the kinds of readers who are offended by the word fuck, but nonetheless, it is all there in the fabulous films of Powell/Pressburger.  C'mon people, Kathleen Byron's lusting, desiring, feral, lasciviousness  Sister Ruth cannot be mistaken for anything but a sniffing animal with wanton instincts of a cat in heat.  Racy?  Nah.  Hell, The Red Shoes is one of the most sensual films to have ever been made.  The idea of willing rape in Gone to Earth, or the leering eyes of Mel Ferrer as the playboy ex-pat officer in Oh...Rosalinda!! are enough to make the term racy seem like suddenly not enough.  And I am too racy for them?  Bah!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Film Review: The Hunger Games

To preface this review, I must first admit to having never read the best selling books from whence this burgeoning franchise has arisen, and I really have no inclination to remedy this any time soon, so any thoughts on how well said books, or in this case, book (the first of a trilogy written by Suzanne Collins) has been adapted and put up on the big screen by director Gary Ross will not be forthcoming any time soon either.  Now considering Collins is one of the three credited screenwriters here, one could make a rather safe assumption that the movie is at least fairly faithful to the book - or at least as faithful as a film adaptation can be.  But that is neither here nor there, for I am here to talk about the movie and how enjoyable or unenjoyable it just so happens to be.  I suppose that enjoyablity factor, at least in my not-so-humble opinion, is somewhere above middling but somewhat below fair - or is that the other way around.  Anyway, I digress.

Granted, this kind of movie, Twilight for a slightly tougher crowd, is not really my thing (when I do go box office boffo, I tend to gravitate toward the superhero crowd), but still, it seems to be a relatively well-done motion picture for, as they say, what it is.  Unfortunately though, well-adapted or not (and folks who have read the books tells me it is, though perhaps lacking the more sadistic side of children killing children), the film lacks the action-oriented necessity of such a genre.  Sure, there are a few moments of wasp-stinging excitement, but overall the film falls a lot flatter than it should have, or could have under the auspices of a better and/or more action-oriented director.  Gary Ross, who has such action flicks as Pleasantville and Seabiscuit under his directorial belt, was probably not the best choice for such material as this, but then most of the bigger name action directors in Tinsel Town (Singer, Whedon, Raimi, Snyder, et al) were otherwise occupied with their own pet projects.  The film may excite fans of the books, but really does nothing for this critic.  Then again, the fans of the books are the target audience here, not me, so I suppose in that aspect they did a bully bully job indeed - even if they did not go as deep down into the bowels of the narrative as they shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Now there are aspects of the film I did quite enjoy.  The look and fashion sense of the film, caught somewhere between the denizens of Emerald City and the post-millennial club kids of the NYC dance scene (seriously, why doesn't Lady Gag have a cameo here), are rather alluring, but even that only went so far and stopped.  The main problem with the film though, is the film's idea of satire.  Attempting, one assumes, at creating a time and place where one can criticize the ideas of reality TV and modern society's desensitized outlook on violence, Ross's film ends up playing to this targeted demographic instead of taking aim at them.  But then, perhaps this is just me reading too much into the probabilities and possibilities of such a story that has ingrained essences of Lord of the Flies and A Brave New World (and let's not forget the 2000 film Battle Royale which already did this near-exact scenario more than a decade ago - and did it better) hidden behind lines and scenes that never play out as the demented social commentary they should.  In other words we are meant to revel in kids killing kids and go rah rah rah all the way home, without ever getting anything else out of it.

Now do not get me wrong, I am as sadist-loving as the next person when it comes to watching death and destruction on the big screen. A noted Tarantino lover I am indeed.  My Grindhouse sensibilities taking no qualms with the warped leanings of many the deranged film.   But still, I was hoping for a consciousness behind the sadism here.  Perhaps something akin to the aforementioned Golding book.   Then perhaps I am the only one that was hoping for a deeper bent on the whole shebang and therefore perhaps I should just enjoy the rah rah rah and go home myself.  After all, popcorn movies can be entertaining without any silly social worth - I am not that much of a film snob dammit - and one can certainly become enthralled in a massive effect of fast-paced action that is not necessarily going anywhere but straight forward.  Of course even these straight-forward rah rah rah's are tainted by Ross's middle-of-the-road direction and his inability to make us feel any fear or sympathy for the characters, so who knows what could have come to life from a proper, dare I say more daring, adaptation of these books.  Perhaps something that would have kept us on the edge of our seats, instead of lying back in them, relaxed and complacent.  Perhaps indeed.  Then again, this is the kind of movie one calls critic-proof (I say that as if we critical crowd have any say at all anymore, with any type of cinema - not the way we did back in the Pauline Kael hey day of long ago and not so far away) so why the hell am I getting all bent out of shape in the first place.  Go see it or don't - what do I care!?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Film Review: 21 Jump Street

Look at me with egg on my face.  Nary a month ago I was joking around and publicly wondering, via Facebook of course, if I should even bother to wait for the release of 21 Jump Street, or should I go ahead and pencil it into my worst of the year list now.  Well lo and behold, here I am weeks later in the midst of the introductory remarks of what will end of being a mostly positive review of the very same damn movie.  Whouda thunk it?  Obviously not me, that's for sure.

Now for those who may have been living under a rock in the late 1980's, and for today's disillusioned youth who strut about caring not a wit about anything that came before their own remembrance of existence, this movie is an adaptation of the TV show of the same name that ran from 1987 to 1991 and helped to spawn the career of a then-unknown actor by the now quite familiar name of Johnny Depp.  The story then was about a group of youngish looking cops who would infiltrate high schools to bust various forms of criminalities.  Eventually the show would move on to college infiltration once people began to realize, young or not, these guys looked about as much like high school kids as Stockard Channing and the late Jeff Conaway did in Grease.  Silly and quite ridiculous (Depp still mocks the show to this day) 21 Jump Street was a mild hit, and in certain circles, a cult favourite (it also starred Peter DeLuise, son of Dom, and Holly Robinson Peete, then sans the Peete part) but has mostly been forgotten in the intervening years, save to bring up in order to mock it as Depp has when a naive interviewer dares to bring up said subject matter.

Now cut to 2012, and a pair of inexperienced, idiot new police recruits, played by buff bohunk Channing Tatum and recently thinned-out co-screenwriter (and Oscar nominee) Jonah Hill.  After a botched arrest, they are sent off to a dilapidated church (the original show had their HQ in the same venue) and enrolled in the newly revived Jump Street program and the 31 year old Tatum and and 28 year old Hill's inept cops must now enter high school again to take down a drug ring.  Granted, the characters are only supposed by seven years past graduation, but still.  Of course this is just used as part of the obvious but yet quite funny joke.  In grand meta fashion, there are more than a few satiric knocks to the old show and its inherent silliness, including the fact that neither of its stars could honestly pass for high schoolers.  Perhaps we never get to the kind of satire found in the films of, say Edgar Wright, whose Hot Fuzz is a much grander and much funnier take on the whole action buddy cop genre, but what we do get is a solid, quite humourous comedy that rarely needs to fall back on any of the low brow, frat boy humour so prevalent in today's comic movie world.  Okay, it falls back a few times, but even when it does it plays better than expected.

Perhaps if the original show had gone for laughs instead of the seriousness it parlayed even through its silliest moments (the show had a more accidental comedy going for it - especially after Depp got a career and bailed out, leaving us with a second or even third rate replacement in Richard Grieco) then perhaps, just perhaps it would have ended up looking much like this newer, brasher version.  Now granted, I am not trying to argue that 21 Jump Street is one of the great works of film comedy (cause, funny as it may be, it just ain't Wilder or Allen, or even Sturges) but it is surprisingly hilarious, and both the timing and asides of Hill and the oft-unfairly maligned acting of Tatum (he is better than he even gives himself credit for) make for a good enough, and funny enough motion picture experience that I am forced to eat the proverbial crow and take back the awful, though reasonably predictable, things I said about the damn thing lo a month ago.  Way to go guys.  My bad, as the kids are saying these days.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: #740 Thru #759

Here is a look at the latest batch of twenty films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#740 - Roman Holiday (1953) - (#638 on TSPDT)  She may not be the best actress.  Nor is she even the most beautiful.  She is actually kind of funny looking in a cute sort of way (that funny face).  But still, Audrey Hepburn has a certain something - a je ne sais quoi if you will - that makes her and her characters instantly lovable - even those mostly unlikable characters like Holly Golightly.  But then we are not here to talk about Lula Mae Barnes.  We are here to talk about Anya, or Princess Ann, as played by the charming Miss Hepburn in William Wyler's Roman Holiday.   The film is rather slight, but it does show some rather powerful emotion in its second half, and the chemistry between Hepburn and costar Gregory Peck allows Wyler and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (the once blacklisted writer's name was later put into the credits where it should have been all the time) to play into that.  In the end, I am not sure I would personally include this film on such a list - though it could sneak in near the end.  I suppose that is something we will find out when I make my own list of the 1000 greatest once I finish watching this list.

#741 - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) - (#665 on TSPDT)  There is a line in the film that pretty much sums up the movie as a whole.  Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, as money hungry and man hungry showgirls respectively, are boarding a cruise ship bound for France (somehow it is going directly to Paris, but let's not worry about that rather ill-mapped cinematic route right now).  They are of course being ogled by all the men aboard.  One man says to another, "If we hit an iceberg and begin to sink, which one would you save first?" whereupon he receives the reply, "Buddy, those girls aren't drowning."  Oh yeah, and it has a few really fun musical numbers in it as well.  Some a bit homoerotic (really Howard Hawks!?  You did not see that when filming!?) and some just downright diamond happy.  Overall a fun, if not quite great, musical extravaganza.

#742 - Plein Soleil (1960) - (#937 on TSPDT)  The original French version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, has a lot going for it.   Starring a young Alain Delon as the titular M. Ripley, this René Clément film (released as the ill-translated Purple Noon in the US) is appropriately subversive and sneering, just like any good French film should be.   Still though, even though it is enjoyable I do not know about it being ranked on here.

#743 - The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) - (#420 on TSPDT)  As I watched this film from Roberto Rossellini, I felt a strong case of deja vu.  I think perhaps I had seen this film many years ago - sometime in my so-called misbegotten youth - and therefore should have already checked it off the list.  But then again, I probably did not appreciate it back then (I did actually forget seeing it, so...) as I do now.  A beautiful film, it is easily deserving of being on this list, and perhaps should even be a bit higher than it is.

#744 - The Ladykillers (1955) - (#887 on TSPDT)  A fun romp indeed.  Definitely better than the rather mediocre Coen Brothers' remake with Tom Hanks.  Watching Alec Guinness, and his work in the Ealing Studio comedies of the fifties is quite fun.  Perhaps this is isn't one of the great comedies in film history, but it is fun.  Perhaps not quite fun enough to deserve inclusion on the list, but still rather fun.  Maybe I just like my Sir Alec with a bit more Jedi in him.

#745 - Floating Clouds (1955) - (#284 on TSPDT)  I liked this film.  It has all those subtle yet melodramatic touches that stylize Mikio Naruse's cinema.  It had the tragedy of Naruse as well.  Still though, to include what is essentially lesser Naruse, and include it so high on the list, while not including the director's far superior works like Repast or Yearning or A Woman Ascends the Stairs (which used to be on the list) or even an early film like Wife! Be Like a Rose!, seems a bit off kilter.

#746 - Man of Aran (1934) - (#346 on TSPDT)  There are moments, shots in this film that are a thing(s) of naturalistic wonder.  The waves beating beating beating against the rocks.  The surf devouring  the beach.  The faraway longing of the characters.  Of course this is Robert J. Flaherty just doing what Robert J. Flaherty does best.  This one may not reach the pinnacle of the director's oeuvre the way Nanook and Louisiana Story do, but that does not mean it is not worth your time.

#747 - Gun Crazy (1950) - (#450 on TSPDT)  This B-Movie classic is easily one of the sexiest films ever made under the auspices of the Hays Code.  As Peggy Cummins and John Dall fondle their weapons, undressing each other with lusting, gunshot looks (really, how did this stuff get past such prudish censors!?), Joseph H. Lewis' bandit B-Flick explodes with action and intrigue, and of course bang bang gun crazy desperation.  Personally I think this film - very possibly my new favourite noir - should be a hell of a lot higher than where it is - perhaps even in that ever-so-elusive top 100.  To read more on this film, take a look at my full length peice on the matter, "The Wild & Rollickin' Good Times of Joseph H. Lewis' Whirlwind On-the-Run Romance-cum-Film Noir B-Flick Masterpiece."

#748 - The Round-Up (1965) - (#781 on TSPDT)  With the long, long, long tracking shots of Miklós Jancsó, The Round-Up plays out like a methodically tuned whirling dervish of a motion picture - and I mean that in a mostly complementary manner.  Jancsó has never rally been my thing, and even though a talented and sometimes quite stunning of a shot-maker he may very well be, I just don't dig all that much on his cinema.  Still though, this is not to say the Hungarian is unworthy of the list.

#749 - The Threepenny Opera (1931) - (#654 on TSPDT)  The brazen storytelling of Bertolt Brecht.  The cool sophisticated charm of Kurt Weill.  The smooth filmmaking style of Georg Wilhelm Pabst.  The stern cocksure attitude of Rudolph Forster as Mack the Knife.  The disassociated otherworldliness of Lotte Lenya.  All these things pile up to make this early sound, Wiemar Republic version The Threepenny Opera pretty hot stuff.

#750 - The Sun Shines Bright (1953) - (#745 on TSPDT) At first, this Judge Priest tale by John Ford seemed to play out as nothing more than quaint fiddlesticks, but as the story progressed, it transformed itself into one of the western master's most eloquent works of racial and societal inequalities.  Yeah, it ain't The Searchers, but then what is!?

#751 - Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) - (#94 on TSPDT)  Ya gotta love Max Ophüls and his ornate, succulent style, and it is in high gear in this Hollywood made work.  You also must love the drop-dead gorgeous Joan Fontaine going from a teenage girl to a desirous woman without really ever changing her look (something the actress has done before, most notably in The Constant Nymph - that time in love with a Frenchman as well).  Though the film was made on Hollywood back lots and sound stages, it simply and completely reeks (in the good way mind you) of turn of the century Vienna.  Beautiful work indeed.  Perhaps not quite top 100 material but close.

#752 - The French Connection (1971) - (#578 on TSPDT)  There are some fun chase scenes here (a rather famous car/train one even) and as far as Best Picture Oscar winners go it is the proverbial head & shoulders above most (granted though, not the most difficult of feats), and Gene Hackman hands in one of his best performances (though my vote would have still gone to Malcolm McDowell's Alex DeLarge that year) but still this is not one I would place on the list.

#753 - Olympia (1938) - (#528 on TSPDT)  Lavish and full of the typical bravado one would associate with the infamously cinematic Leni Riefenstahl.  Here, instead of helping to empower Da Fuhrer like she did (unwittingly perhaps??) in her earlier Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl shows us the ins and outs of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Granted, Hitler is still involved, but as a much more minor character than before.  Many tend to brush off the talented Riefenstahl as nothing more than a propagandist and/or opportunist (the latter is probably more accurate a description) without also acknowledging how groundbreaking of a filmmaker she actually was.  I would never do such a thing.  Even if she were in bed (figuratively and quite possibly literally) with the Nazi party, this does not take away the bravura sensibilities of her directorial prowess.  And judging from the series of mountain films she did as an actress, she had pretty nice legs too.

#754 - Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) - (#648 on TSPDT)  This is the second early Bergman I have seen recently (the first being the oft-forgotten Sawdust and Tinsel) and it is the second that I have fallen in love with.  Crisp and chilling but ever so funny, this Swedish sex farce inspired many a future film (most notably Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), and is surely one of Bergman's best.  Personally, it ends up in my Bergman top 5.  It definitely deserves a much higher ranking than what it receives here.

#755 - Seconds (1966) - (#955 on TSPDT)  This is a film that has always been on my must see list but for one reason or another has always eluded me.  Now that I have finally seen the damn thing, I must remember to put aside some time to beat myself mercilessly for waiting this long to see it.  A fantastic and quite twisted film indeed.  This should definitely be a lot higher.  In fact it (like Gun Crazy above) should be in the top 100.

#756 - All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - (#356 on TSPDT) The film certainly has some quite harrowing scenes of war, and is one of the better anti-war monuments around, but still, I prefer Kubrick's Paths of Glory or King Vidor's contemporaneous Big Parade

#757 - The Wind (1928) - (#310 on TSPDT)  One of the films Victor Sjöström did in Hollywood (handpicked by star Lillian Gish no less) but that does not mean it is a lesser work.  Granted, I personally prefer The Phantom Carriage (probably just my genre-giddy preferences) but The Wind is a pretty powerful work of art - and we get Lillian Gish (better with Sjöström than with Griffith - ha!) at her very Gishiest.

#758 - The Italian Straw Hat (1928) - (#959 on TSPDT)  Gotta admit that even though I normally enjoy the films of René Clair, this one kinda bored the ever-lovin' daylights outta me.  Perhaps it was because I was tired when I watched it (4am or something like that) but I do not plan on rewatching the damn thing just to find out.

#759 - Arsenal (1928) - (#997 on TSPDT) As far as the montage-heavy Soviet cinema of the 1920's goes, Eisenstein is the top dog, and his Battleship Potemkin is the top film.  The rest all seem to blend in together.  Two that manage to stand out a bit more are Earth and Arsenal, both by Dovzhenko.  Still though, Potemkin is the only one I could honestly call great.  Granted though, there are some moments of spectacular and harrowing beauty in Arsenal (the final shot is possibly, save for a certain moment in the Odessa Steps sequence of the aforementioned Potemkin, the best single shot in Soviet silent cinema) but overall it never comes together as a complete and great work of cinema.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Little Known Movies You Need to See Now

Here we are again true believers, with my latest weekly 10 best feature for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This week's feature, my twenty-fourth such feature, is the first in what will be a bi-monthly series looking at those obscure gems of cinema that get overlooked all too often.  The strange and the beautiful.  The unknown and the forgotten.  The lost and the found.   These are the films that you have probably never even heard of.  Okay, I am sure some of you have, but still, you get my point.

As I said above, this is going to be a regular bi-monthly series over at AM, which is a good thing because, sadly enough, there are probably several hundred more films that need to be included in such a list/series.  Below is an image from one of these several hundred that can also act as a preview for the next installment in this series.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Film Review: Attenberg

More times than not, the national cinema of Greece seems to be in a world all its own.   Granted, there are similarities with neighbouring nations like Hungary and Romania and the Balkans - slow, methodical pacing, strange surreal imagery, the visual over the narrative - but Greece holds its own with its own sense of strangeness.  And in recent years Greek directors have taken this inherent strangeness and played it into an even stranger kind of subversion.  This was more than evident in Yorgos Lanthimos brilliantly sadistic 2009 film, Dogtooth, and it is again evident here in the much sweeter but still quite seditious Attenberg.

Directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, Attenberg is the story of Marina, a sexually naive 23 year old woman who lives with her dying father and receives life and love lessons from her much more promiscuous and worldly friend Bella.  With more than an obvious nod to the New Wave movements of the 1960's, Tsangari's film is full of both overly giddy excitement and bone-crushing waves of depression, all the meanwhile interspersed with moments of non-sequitor dancing and performance art gaiety.   Granted, this film is no more strange than many out there.  It never delves all that deeply into the bizarre, antidisastablishmentarianism of the works of someone like Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay or Jodorowsky, or for that matter the dark escapes of Bela Tarr or the Romanians, and it certainly is not a cinema for the masses (though in Greece this may not be true), but for the more daring filmgoer, it could easily be a surprising and very welcome little treat.

The true highlights of this film though are the performances of its lead actresses.  Arian Labed as Marina and Evangelia Randou as Bella are both strange and beautiful creatures indeed, and this, should I say otherworldiness for lack of a better or less clichéd word, lends to the insular characterization these two actresses expose us to.  Labed took home the Best Actress prize at Venice, and deservedly so if one were to ask me, for this unusual yet archetypal performance.  Not so incidentally, the film also features the aforementioned Dogtooth helmsman Yorgos Lanthimos as Marina's first encounter.  Lanthimos also acts as producer on this film, as Ms. Tsangari did on Dogtooth, and is directing a new film which stars Labed.  The Greek film industry must be the proverbial small world you've heard tell about.  But I suppose if this is today's Greek cinema, with its kook-kook-kooky cinematic bravura, again hearkening back to the French and Czech New Waves, then there are worse kinds of cinema to be. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Film Review: John Carter

Walt Disney's latest sci-fi adventure film, John Carter, is based on "The Princess of Mars", the first in an eleven volume series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, about the trials and tribulations of John Carter of Mars, a Confederate Army Captain who is mysteriously transported to Mars (or Barsoom as the natives call the red planet) and forced to fight for not only his life, but the life of the entire planet.  This year marks the centennial of the book's original publication, so I suppose this is as good a time as any to release a movie on the subject.  Apparently though, while in production, the so-called genius marketing gurus at Disney found out, through agonizingly painstaking demographic research, that people are less likely to see a movie with Mars in the title than one without.  Now this probably has less to do with Mars itself than with the inability to make a good movie about the damned planet.   Though I stand behind both Robinson Crusoe of Mars and, believe it or not, Mars Attacks!, I think Mission to Mars and Ghosts of Mars should be enough relatively recent activity to authenticate such a theory.  But I digress.

So, with Mars successfully out of the title, let us look at the movie itself.  The film, directed by first time live action director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), has been getting a lot of critical flack in the weeks before its release, but I really do not see anything majorly wrong with the film.  Sure, it has its cheezy, quite kitschy elements, but how could a film set on Mars (or Barsoom if you will) and featuring seven and a half feet tall green men with horns and four arms apiece, not be as kitschy as it is?  So kitschy in fact that they cast a man named Taylor Kitsch to play the titular man of Mars.  Kitsch, who incidentally was the man who made this comic book head from long ago quite angry with his quite lame portrayal of Gambit in the all-around quite lame X-Men Origins: Wolverine, gives a gusto-filled performance that is good enough for such a genre as this.  Add to this the sexy warrior princess of the original book's title, played with her own certain gusto (of the ooh la la variety) by Lynn Collins of True Blood, and the aforementioned not-so-jolly green giants (voiced by, among others, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church), and you have yourself a solid, if not more than a bit kitschy, sci-fi adventure film.

It obviously would be quite ridiculous to call a picture that cost upwards of $250 Million a B-Picture, but nonetheless, style-wise that is exactly what John Carter (with or with Mars attached) is.  With an aesthetic that reminds one of those cheesy Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials of yesteryear (thanks to CGI, no strings attached when it comes to special effects), as well as having an effect on Star Wars (Lucas names Edgar Rice as a big influence), John Carter is the epitome of the B-Pic mentality, and taking it in this manner, instead of the apparent seriousness some of my fellow critical compatriots have taken it, one cannot help but become enthralled with its wild and crazy goings-on.  Though it costs more (and shows it) John Carter closes relative seems to be the 1980 camp cult classic version of Flash Gordon.  From its reluctant Earth- born hero to its warring factions to its crazed native populations to its hot battle-ready princess to its maniacal despot to its last minute dreaded wedding rescue finale, one cannot help but see the abundant similarities, and this too highlights its kitschy camp qualities.  Sure, this may not be a great action epic that will go down in the annals of film history, but for what it's worth, it is quite an enjoyable picture indeed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Retro Review: Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


Teeth is a giddy mish-mash of genre monikers, from female empowerment movie to coming-of-age saga to black comedy-horror to rape and revenge drama to Lynchian suburban melodrama. Pop artist fil Mitchell Lichtenstein gives us the story of Dawn, a white picket fence pretty young girl coping with growing up "pure and virginal" in a world obsessed with sexual innuendo around each and every corner. This includes her own house as her lecherous big bad wolf epitome'd stepbrother sniffs after her with tongue a-flicking. After a date gone horribly, horribly awry, Dawn finds out that she is cursed with the mythical mutation known as "vaginal dentata" - aka she's got razor sharp teeth in her pussy, yo!  The result is that Teeth ends up being a quirky (how could it not be?), sunnily macabre work of neo-candy pop gyno-horror that can in no way whatsoever be watched by anyone of the male gender without constant squirming and shuffling about in what are suddenly very uncomfortable seats.

Opening in the suburban shadow of a nuclear power plant with towers billowing grey choke from their own gritty teeth, as if a nod-and-a-wink absurdist homage to The SimpsonsTeeth struts out with a creeping small town menace overlying everything, and proceeds down a road of desperate reciprocatory acts of the most bizarre nature.  With the perils of male violence festooned within every darting-eyed nook and cranny moment, Teeth takes place in a world completely ensconced within one of those old sex ed filmstrips made to keep junior high school girls legs clamped shut until their wedding night - and first-time director Lichtenstein tosses this all at us with the sincerest kind of camp style.

Dawn, played with a scared forest animal comic frenzy by Jess Weixler, looking every bit the girl next door on the verge of bad girl in the basement is spokesperson for a promise ring wearing teenage purity movement - a movement lampooned on Family Guy but given real "teeth" here. Dawn is seen as the ultimate sexual goal-cum-prize by just about every male classmate in her school, as if every teenage boy is some sort of licentious lycanthrope ready to pounce and deflower every pretty girl they come across at the drop of a hat - or any article of clothing. Dawn sees herself as such too and fights even her own naturally budding urges (a scene showing our intrepid heroine in bed "thinking" about a boy she longs for attests to such) to keep her vow of chastity upright. That is until one fateful swimmin' hole romp that ends with the lake being dredged for the body of Dawn's unfortunate date sans one pretty important body part.

Once the newly deflowered Dawn throws away the moniker of cursed hoo-hah and looks upon her mutation as a rightful empowerment to avenge her becoming the victim of the seemingly rampant male violence of this strange new world the film goes from anti-sexual to proto-sexual. With Dawn going from Little Red Riding Hood to the Big Bad Wold herself, the film here turns from strangely charming fantasy to something straight out of a seedy dogeared pulp fiction paperback. It is at this point that Teeth philosophically joins in with such rape & revenge films as Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 and its more recent counterpart The Brave One from Neil Jordan. Teeth though is a much less mature, more light-hearted film that the aforementioned. After all, horror-edged or not, Lichtenstein is going for laughs here. Leaving a hilarious slew of severed penii (as well as four fingers of a rather over-amorous gynecologist) in her wake, Dawn strews her victims "better halves" across the landscape like discarded cigarette butts in the early dusky morning after a concert in the park.

One scene, inevitably choreographed, involves Dawn's salacious step-brother (played with a grim concupiscence by snarky Nip/Tuck regular John Hensley), his pet rottweiler and his freshly decapitated member half eaten with its pierced tip discarded like so much gristle. Though obvious in its outcome, this scene is certainly the pièce de résistance of this giddily twisted fairy tale of female empowerment overtaking a male dominated society of sexual despotism. On a whole, Teeth is funny, though a little bit crotch-writhing for those of us so engendered. Lichtenstein's film is a delight of, albeit stereotyped caricatures, fumbling their way through a darkish suburban nightmarescape that combines the punchy humor of a youthful Almódovar with the clean efficiently disturbed Middle America of a budding David Lynch. This critic for one, looks forward to what will come next. 

[Originally published as a DVD review at Plume Noire on 02/04/09]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Lost and Forgotten Legacy of Helen Twelvetrees

The following is my contribution to the Gone Too Soon Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood.

Simply for having such an unforgettable name, one would think Helen Twelvetrees' memory would live on long after the actress herself did.  Granted, she was never in what one could honestly call a hit movie, and her film career faded away long before she did, but still, back in the pre-code days of Hollywood, the woman born Helen Marie Jurgens, was always just a film or two away from becoming the breakout star that RKO contemporary Katharine Hepburn would become right before the actress's jaded eyes.  Sadly for her, and for those of us who have seen her films (the few that fit such a demographic), this breakout would never come.

Our story begins with the birth of Helen Jurgens in Brooklyn on Christmas day 1908, but since little is known about her childhood, let us jump ahead just a bit.  Helen would go on to graduate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where incidentally she would meet her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, and begin a career on the stage.  As the silent era came to an end and many Hollywood stars could not or would not make the transition to sound films, the studios hit the live theaters and would restock their stable of stars with stage actors.  Among those signing contracts with Fox, was nineteen year old Mrs. Twelvetrees.  She would make her screen debut starring in the studio's second talkie, The Ghost Talks, and would fake a lisp during filming (apparently in order to help show off the new sound technology) that was so successful that a rumour went around town claiming the actress had a speech impediment.

After this, Twelvetrees would star in one of the earliest musicals, Words and Music, a relatively forgettable film that is mostly noteworthy for being the first film in which John Wayne received billing (as Duke Morrison).  Following a split with Fox, after just three films, Twelvetrees would sign with Pathé, which would soon be taken over by RKO.  At her new studio, the actress would make several respectable but ultimately failed films.  Her most notable (and my personal favourite) is a film called Millie, where Twelvetrees plays a jaded goldigging woman who must deal with her wanton life.  This film, with its sexually blatant - at least for the time - storyline, and its somewhat closer-to-the-ground moral code, is a perfect example of the pre-code era in Hollywood.

Twelvetrees, along with other RKO players like Constance Bennett, would become the face of the pre-code era, but Twelvetrees days at RKO were limited - and she knew it.  Upon the arrival of Katharine Hepburn at the studio, Twelvetrees knew her days were up and would go freelance hereafter.  Twelvetrees would make another two dozen films throughout the 1930's, but  relegated to small parts in B-Pictures, she would never become the breakout star some thought she would, and in 1939 she would announce her retirement from Hollywood, and go back to the stage she loved so much - but even this would prove mostly unsuccessful, and she would retire from acting all together, save for a well-received return as Blanche Dubois in a 1951 production of Streetcar, in the 1940's.

Twelvetrees' personal life was just as tumultuous as her zig-zag career, which helped klead to a breakdown in her career.  Divorcing her first husband in 1931 (though keeping his name) and marrying her second, stuntman Frank Woody shortly thereafter.  Between drunken feuds and public panning, Twelvetrees and Woody would divorce in 1936.  Twelvetrees would fade into obscurity after her retirement, and would commit suicide in 1958, at the age of 49, and is interred in an unmarked grave in Middletown, Pennsylvania.  The connection between Twelvetrees' death in Harrisburg, PA, and this being my hometown (for a year or so, I even lived just down the street from the very cemetery the actress now inhabits), brought this look at this mostly forgotten actress to cyber-fruition.  On a high note in this sad tale of the lady with the sad eyes, there is currently a movement to get a headstone placed on Twelvetrees' grave.  One can contribute to the fund here.  This will hopefully become a done deal before Summer hits.

Now granted, Twelvetrees was perhaps not the greatest of actresses.  Her fear of competing for roles with a young Hepburn is proof that she too knew this.  Of course, Twelvetrees' talents were never fully explored so perhaps one day, under better circumstances, she could have grown into a great actress.  In the few films I have seen her in, she did a fine job (her performance in  Millie was especially tragic and she more than held her own in a role that could have been played by someone like Barbara Stanwyck), and showed that there probably was quite a bit more than what we were allowed to see.  Sadly enough, we will never know the full extent of Twelvetrees' talents, but if this piece on the long lost actress gets even just one person to check out her films, then it is well worth the writing.  Now go out there and see these films.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Wild & Rollickin' Good Times of Joseph H. Lewis' Whirlwind On the Run Romance-cum-Film Noir B-Flick Masterpiece Gun Crazy

Jean Luc Godard famously said that all you need for a good movie is a girl and a gun.  For all we know, the Nouvelle Vague director was imagining Joseph H. Lewis' 1950 B-Picture, Gun Crazy, when he spoke these words.  It would make more than perfect sense if he were, especially considering he and his compatriots' love of American film noir.  I suppose though, that in the case of Gun Crazy, one could give top billing to the gun, not the girl.  Yes, the girl, played by blonde hot-to-trot, flash-in-the-pan Irish actress Peggy Cummins, is your quintessential femme fatale, and it was her genre-specific wiles that caused bad boy to be Bart (lead John Dall) to take up a life of robbing banks and running from the law, but really it is the gun, or in this case the many guns, that make both of these characters go all wobbly in the lower middle.  Sam Adams of the Philadelphia City Paper wrote of the film, "The codes of the time prevented Lewis from being explicit about the extent to which their fast-blooming romance is fueled by their mutual love of weaponry, but when Cummins' six-gun dangles provocatively as she gasses up their jalopy, it's clear what really fills their collective tank."  I think that pretty much says it all - but let's go on anyway.

After a prologue featuring Russ Tamblyn as a teenaged Bart, made to explain the character's unnatural and inevitably tragic attraction to guns, Bart, now played by Dall, meets up with Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr at a sideshow carnival.  Cummins, dressed in the most wet dream inducing of cowgirl outfits, replete with skin tight pants and dangling gun belt, goes mano y mano with Dall's smitten young man on the stage of her shilled marksmanship show.  As these two take William Tell shots at each other, their fingers fondling their revolvers, their lusting eyes glistening with obvious desire, we become acutely aware that these two people want to shoot more than just guns at each other.  With innuendo somehow getting past the censors of the day (though I am sure they could have gone even further if the code had not still been in effect), this run amok romp of guns and guns and more "guns," was pure sex.  Of course, when the director, in an interview in Cult Films by Danny Peary, explains his directions as thus:  "I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions." how could this not be a film that was pure (censors willing) sex?

Since its initial release, the film, which not so incidentally was scripted by the then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo whose name was eventually and rightfully re-added to the credits many years later, has become a cult favourite.  Its most important influence would be upon Arthur Penn, who took what Lewis did in Gun Crazy, and ripped it to glorious pieces in his code-shattering 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde.  Appropriately so, since the latter film is the story of a pair of real life bank robbers (and sexually charged gun enthusiasts) upon whom Gun Crazy was loosely based on in the first place.   Lewis' original 1950 film lent a lot to Penn's iconic sixties film.  Its use of on location shooting and improvised dialogue, much of the film seemingly (and brilliantly) made up on the spot (in order to give it more of a frenzied realism, the bank robbing scene was shot without the knowledge of any of the passersby on the scene), were huge influences on Penn, and for that matter many other filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, who has made allusions to the film on more than one filmic occasion, and of course the aforementioned French New Wavers, especially Godard who used it as a template for much of his debut Breathless

Dall and Cummins would never have the kind of film career one could call breakthrough or even overly successful.  Dall, known primarily for his stage work, had back to back successes with this film and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, where he played Farley Granger's more cool minded partner in crime.  Still though, this was more than what the curvy Cummins is known for.  Gun Crazy was Cummins only truly significant film work, and she has lived in the United Kingdom in contented retirement since 1961.  But the impact these two made in a film like Gun Crazy will live on forever.  After all, gun crazed as a boy or not, what red-blooded American lad could successfully fend off the advances, or even want to, of someone like Peggy Cummins' Annie Laurie Starr, no matter how tragic one knows the end circumstances to inevitably be?  After all, the film has an alternate title of Deadly is the Female, so none of Cummins' alluringly deadly come-hitherness should come as any surprise.  I suppose, in the end, Godard was right about needing just a girl and a gun to make a movie - and Joseph H. Lewis makes one hell of a B-flick, pop art motion picture out of these two things.  Oh, and a whole lot of sexual tension to boot.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Film Review: The Kid With a Bike

Not many filmmakers do the edge of tragedy better than brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.  Just when you feel yourself getting cocky enough to think you know what will happen next, these ever-so-sly Belgian brothers pull the proverbial rug out from under your cinematic expectations.  With their latest, The Kid With a Bike, it is business as usual for the brothers, which means nothing but good things for all those Dardenne admirers out there - myself included.  One of the few directors, or pair of directors as the case may be, to be honoured with Cannes' Palme d'Or twice (for Rosetta in 99 and L'Enfant in 05), this film, which incidentally was awarded the Grand Prix, Cannes' second highest honour, is nearly those film's equal - if not their actual equals.  And that ain't just me whistlin' hyperbolic Dixie either.

Brilliantly seductive, with the Dardenne's usual subtle and deceptive grace, The Kid With a Bike is the story of a boy, his bike and the woman who tries to pull him out of the violent world he begins to crumble into after being abandoned by his father.  With a pair of quite spectacular performances from Cécile de France and Thomas Doret, and with more than a mere nod to The Bicycle Thieves, this tender and quite disarming coming-of-age tale takes the genre and ferociously, but quite carefully so, turns it on its own head.  In fact this is probably the most poignant, and the most realistic (while at the same time playing as a modern day fairy tale of sorts), and the most demanding (the Dardennes' cinema is nothing if not a demanding kind of cinema) coming-of-age story since Ken Loach gave us Kes way back in 1969.  The Dardennes have taken their typically no-frills style of poetic realism (and this time, unlike their past oeuvre, with an actual soundtrack set perfectly in tune with the film itself) and once again make it sing with a much deeper resonance than one would expect from such a type of cinema.

It may sound as if I am gushing - and I suppose I am - but I don't seem to be able to stop myself.  It may not be the be all and end all of modern cinema (there are at least two films released this year that I have liked more) but it is probably better than anything the brothers have yet done, with the notable exception of the aforementioned Rosetta (the duo's one true masterpiece of endurance cinema), and better than most of what world cinema has given us in recent days.  The Kid With a Bike may not have the overbearing power of the doubly aforementioned Rosetta, but in a much smaller, more subtle way, (this film will certainly sneak up on you) it is its very own emotionally charged powder keg of a film.  Just think of how this film would be ruined in the hands of the modern day machine that is Hollywood.  Like I said earlier, the Dardenne's take us to the precipice of tragedy, and pull us back when we think it is not enough, or toss us over when we are afraid it is too much, better than just about anyone out there today - and after a minor, just minor, slip with Lorna's Silence, the brother's prove just that.  A pair of modern day Bresson's indeed.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: #720 Thru #739

Here is a look at the latest batch of twenty films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#720 - Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) - (#508 on TSPDT)  This earlier, more story driven Bresson film seems a bit pedestrian when compared to his more artistic and aesthetic later work, but a well acted piece nonetheless - which I suppose is ironic since Bresson later wanted his actors, or models as he called them, to do anything but act.

#721/722 - The Golden Coach (1952) & French Cancan (1954) - (#507/484)  Back to back Renoir is pretty hard to beat.  These succulent, gorgeous films, both coming during the auteur's exile in the Hollywood, are simply beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to.  Both playing games with the idea of stage and screen - what is real and what is not - these two films, along with Elena and Her Men (not on the list, but should be) make up a trilogy of sorts on this very same idea.  The River may be Renoir's greatest work outside of France, but these two come a close second and third.

#723 - The Fallen Idol (1948) - (#668 on TSPDT)  Before taking on My Quest, The Third Man was the only Carol Reed film I had seen.  My take on that was that Orson Welles had probably ghost directed much of the film since it seemed to be in his style.  Didn't really give poor Mr. Reed much credit, even though, upon finally seeing The Fallen Idol (about time, huh?), he surely deserves it.  Now perhaps Welles did give some pointers, especially the scenes involving old Harry Lime, but we can see here (in another adaptation of Graham Greene) that Reed had a filmmaking prowess all his very own.  A sly and twisted film that is highlighted by the always wonderful, and always dangerously sly himself, Sir Ralph Richardson in the titular fallen role.

#724 - You Only Live Once (1937) - (#809 on TSPDT)  Fritz Lang's second film after arriving in Hollywood, and a typically strong work of noirish Langian cinema.   With obvious influences upon Nick Ray's work, this film about an ex-con in over his head and the faithful love of his life, has got to be a major influence on They Live By Night particularly.  I know the Ray film is based on a novel, but certain moments do seem to be echoed in Ray's debut feature twelve years later.  But of course it is Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde that owes the biggest debt here, being that this film is somewhat loosely based on the hold-up duo.  And of course stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are both great in their roles.   I would surely place this at number two (below Rancho Notorious but above Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) of Lang's Hollywood output.

#725 - Limite (1931) - (#751 on TSPDT)   An experimental film from the early days of Brazilian cinema.  Well, anyone who follows this site and/or has read past entries in My Quest knows my somewhat strong aversion to the so-called art of experimental cinema.  Still though, this film does have some interesting moments to it, but as is the case with much of experimental cinema, it just goes on way too long.  Ah well, it least it was not Stan Brakhage.

#726 - Subarnarekha (1965) - (#808 on TSPDT)  Directed by Ritwik Ghatak, the man responsible for the beautiful Cloud-Capped Star.  This film tends to drag at times (some editing would have been welcome) but when it doesn't, it sings.  Ghatak may not have the passion of Guru Dutt or the humanism of Satyajit Ray, but he does have a flair for haunting faraway imagery. 

#727 - There's Always Tomorrow (1956) - (#717 on TSPDT)  Ya gotta love Sirk.  Granted, this is somewhat lesser Sirk, and for that matter, it is lesser Stanwyck too (and probably lesser MacMurray as well), but still a rather strong melodrama of the day.  Still though, I am not sure why this film is on the list and the far superior Magnificent Obsession is not.  But I suppose I could say that about a lot of films suspiciously missing from the list - but I will gripe about that some other time.

#728 - Louisiana Story (1948) - (#985 on TSPDT)  Such a simple film, a boy and his pet raccoon lazing their way through the bayou, with occasional visits to the world's friendliest oil rig, but so damn mesmerizing.  Flaherty's final film and the ethnographic documentarian's finest and most beautiful work.  I first heard of this film way back when I was just getting into the world of cinema, while perusing the BFI's Sight & Sound lists of the greatest films (it was on the original 1952 list, above Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane, the latter of which did not even make the list), but for one reason or another, I did not catch up on it only now.  Well, I suppose I can say it was worth the wait indeed.

#729 - ¡Que viva Mexico!  (1931/1979) - (#631 on TSPDT)  When one thinks Sergei Eisenstein, one probably does not automatically think of the history and culture of Mexico.  Yet, here it is.  Shot by Eisenstein in 1931 but never completed until 1979, thirty one years after the great Soviet director's death.  Edited and finished by Eisenstein's friend and colleague Grigori Aleksandrov, this film is by far the director's most romanticized and naturalistic film - though much of this could have been Aleksandrov's touches.  A fascinating piece of motion picture history that works as a look into the non-partisan side of the director (though there is a revolutionary section of the film) as well as his most pure and unadulterated cinematic work.   This film can stand alongside any of the director's Soviet works of the 1920's any day.

#730 - Faust (1926) - (#437 on TSPDT)  Though there is a stellar, bigger than life performance by Emil Jannings (what other kind of performance did the big man ever give!?) and an appropriately dark and demented feel that goes hand-in-hand with the cinema of German Expressionism, this is still my least favourite Murnau.  Of course even lesser Murnau is better than most other things, so take that as you may.

#731 - Great Expectations (1946) - (#335 on TSPDT)  David Lean's films tend to be long and drawn out and often quite tedious.  Granted, they usually look great, but still, for better and for worse, they have no real feel to them.   With that said, I must admit to actually enjoying this rather truncated version of the Dickens classic.  Even with its silly, happy ending.   Does this make me a bad person?  Oh well.

#732 - El Verdugo (1963) - (#344 on TSPDT)  The highest ranked of Luis Garciá Berlanga's three films on the list, yet also my third favourite of these same three films (actually my favourite of the Spanish comic auteur's three list films was kicked off during the last update, but that is another complaint for another day).  Still though, a quite funny tale of mishaps and miscreants galore.

#733 - Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) - (#719 on TSPDT)  Tragic figure Guru Dutt's final film as a director (though he may have ghost directed others after this) is a look at the film industry in India, and more specifically, one director (played by Dutt, as was the norm in his films) and his attempt at creating art and loving the star that will eventually become bigger than he.  With similar motifs to Fellini's 8 1/2 a few years later, Dutt's film (a financial and critical flop which led to his quitting directing) is one of those works than can be called haunting without the term seeming all that clichéd.  Out of the eight films Dutt directed between 1951 and 1959, I would place this one second to his one near masterpiece Pyaasa.

#734 - Claire's Knee (1970) - (#388 on TSPDT)  I have got to admit that I am not a huge fan of Eric Rohmer (I would place him fourth, behind Godard, Truffaut and Rivette, if I were to list my favourite New Wave directors) but that does not mean I look poorly upon his films.  In fact, I think this has now topped Pauline at the Beach (in a way a very similar film) as my favourite of the auteur's oeuvre.  Probably the first Rohmer I would come close to laying the word great upon.  A strange little film that plays at being both innocent and demure, while also subtly sexually subversive.  Okay, perhaps not all that subtly.

#735 - The Naked Spur (1953) - (#695 on TSPDT)  Anthony Mann made a series of revisionist westerns with Jimmy Stewart that combined to change the face of the western that would eventually lead into the days of Leone and Peckinpah.  This film is the middle one of these five films and it is the one ranked the highest on the list (though still not that high).  Perhaps Mann's films do not have the physical beauty of some by John Ford, but as far as creating a compelling, oft-times psychologically twisted, story, then, Anthony Mann is your,

#736 - The Nutty Professor (1963) - (#884 on TSPDT)  Many, some of them may have been French, have called Jerry Lewis a comic genius.  After finally seeing what is considered his greatest work toward such a moniker, I do not think I would go quite that far.  Funny as hell?  Sure.  But a comic genius?  Probably not.  But still funny as hell.  Some of the nuances that Lewis puts in to his nerdy prof and his alter ego Buddy Love is quite funny.  With some of the same comic timing that people such as Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton have shown throughout their careers, Lewis has created a very enjoyable romp with The Nutty Professor (a film that has since been ruined for younger generations thanks to Eddie Murphy's God-awful remakes) but I would leave the comic genius tag with the aforementioned Groucho and Buster.

#737 - A Woman of Paris (1923) - (#795 on TSPDT)  This was Chaplin's first dramatic work and the first time he did not appear in (other than a quick, unrecognizable cameo as a train porter) a film he directed.  And just so no one was taken unawares, Chaplin had even prefaced the film, and all its ads, with this fact.  But alas, the film was a box office flop.  The people wanted the Little Tramp dammit!!  Actually, the fact that the film, with its subtle acting and progressive storyline (censored in many cities and towns), was way way way ahead of its time, may have had something to do with the film's flopping.  Nah, it was probably the whole no Little Tramp thing.  I quite liked it though.

#738 - Tabu, A Story of the South Seas (1931) - (#228 on TSPDT)  This Muranu film (co-directed of sorts with Robert Flaherty), the director's final film, released just after his death, is the highest ranked film in this update, and for the most part (excepting the two Renoir and Flaherty's own Louisiana Story) deserves to be.  A fascinating look at tribal culture and law in the form of a tragic romance.  History tells us that Flaherty was not happy with Murnau's screenplay - calling it too westernized - but even with this dissent, the combination of the German auteur's directorial prowess and Flaherty's naturalistic filmmaking style, make for a surprisingly intriguing work of cinematic art.  I suppose considering this is a film from these two men, I should not be all that surprised at its bravura standing.

#739 - Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - (#872 on TSPDT)  Jimmy Stewart is one of those actors who never seem like they are acting.  He is just smoothly natural with a homespun charm that covers up how sharp-witted and powerful of an actor he truly is.  His performance in this Otto Preminger film is one of his finest, but such a great film as this - one of Preminger's finest as well - is already quite spectacular, even without Stewart.  But yeah, he certainly makes it better.  Many in the field of law have called this the most accurate look at a court trial ever put onto film, but more importantly, much more importantly (who wants truth when they can have the artifice of the most beautiful fraud in the world - yeah, I said it), is that Preminger has sewn together a succulent and quite devious motion picture experience, and one of the main contributing factors (along with Some Like it Hot and Psycho) to the eventual downfall of the Hays Code in Hollywood.