gangster movies about mobs, molls, and ingenious but ill-fated heists enjoyed a
big vogue in Europe in the 1950s and early 1960s, especially after the success
of Jules Dassin’s stylish “Du Rififi chez Les Hommes” in 1955. Opening
here a year later in an edited, subtitled print as “Rififi,” Dassin’s picture
drew a small but appreciative audience of critics and foreign-film fans, and
became a perennial favorite in American art houses, repertory theaters, and
was a rare example of a “policier,” as French audiences called them, gaining
any critical and commercial notice on these shores even remotely comparable to
their popularity abroad. Although the genre owed a clear debt to classic
American crime films, it fell victim here, like nearly every other cinema
import from abroad, to a homegrown bias against dubbed or subtitled foreign
films in that more insular era of American popular culture. The vast
demographic of moviegoers in small-town America tended to be wary of movies
that they had to read as well as watch, or those in which stilted dialogue came out of unfamiliar actors’
mouths in interchangeable voices that didn’t match the movements of their
lips. If you were a crime-movie
enthusiast, you already had plenty of domestic product to choose from, anyway,
thanks to a wave of violent, “fact-based” programmers like “The Bonnie Parker
Story” (1958) and “Al Capone” (1959) that U.S. studios released in the wake of
high ratings for TV’s “The Untouchables.”
policiers that crossed the Atlantic, if they made it at all, were likely to be
relegated to marginal, second-run theaters, alongside nudies and exploitation
pictures. Newspaper ads and posters
played up the sexier, grittier aspects of the films as lurid entertainment “for adults only.” For example, the blurbs on the posters for
“Doulos, the Finger Man,” a subtitled 1964 edit of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le
Doulos” (1963), proclaimed: “Raw, Savage, Shocking” -- “So ruthless, untamed
women would do anything for him . . . and did!” In these days of graphic
internet porn, what may have been “shocking” 50 years ago now looks quaintly
tame. Actual nude scenes in the original
European prints, which were modest to begin with by today’s standards, were
trimmed out of the American versions in deference to anti-obscenity laws. The sensual content that remained would
hardly cause a stir in today’s climate, but it was provocative for its era,
when married couples on TV had to be shown sleeping in modest PJs in twin beds,
if they were shown in the bedroom at all.
advertising strategy of implied sex turned a quick buck for distributors who
had little chance of seeing the policiers accepted by mainstream
ticket-buyers. However, the films’
reputation suffered in the larger court of public opinion. Middlebrow critics snubbed them as sordid
trash, almost beneath their notice. The
New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, for example, dismissed the Melville film as
“talkative and tiresome,” and seemed personally offended by the “mean and
disagreeable” title character portrayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo.
have changed greatly since then. Younger
generations of critics, less bothered by disagreeable characters than Crowther
was, have revisited the policiers and found them worthy of serious
discussion. Thanks to DVD, Blu-ray,
streaming video, and cable movie networks, a wider audience in middle America
has a chance to see the films in their original form, and they’re more likely
to be receptive to foreign productions than their grandparents in the Ike
era. Several policiers, including “Le
Doulos” and nearly all of Melville’s other pictures, are available in restored
DVD and Blu-ray editions with classy packaging. However, other policiers of arguably equal merit remain missing in
action on U.S. home video, even on the collector’s market, notably Alex Joffé’s
1959 production, “Du Rififi Chez Les Femmes” (1959).
the title suggests, Joffé’s film shares a bloodline with Jules Dassin’s better
known classic. Both were based on novels
by French crime writer Auguste Le Breton, who claimed that “rififi” was
criminal slang that he had picked up from real underworld acquaintances in the
hangouts of Montmartre and Pigalle, meaning something like “melee” or
“rumble.” Le Breton co-authored the
script for the Joffé movie.
critics have questioned whether Le Breton was telling the truth about his gangland
connections, and suspect that he coined the term “rififi” himself. Dassin said he was disturbed by racist
implications in the word, since Le Breton asserted that it referred to the
violent characteristics of Parisian gangs made up of North African immigrants
from the Rif area of Morocco. Accordingly, in the film version of “Du Rififi chez Les Hommes,” Dassin
downplayed the ethnicity of his characters. Sort of a Mickey Spillane of France, Le Breton became a popular
celebrity after the success of “Du Rififi chez Les Hommes” and made a lot of
money writing about hoods and tough guys. Many of his novels were branded with “rififi” in their titles, but aside
from certain shared themes and plot elements, the books were unrelated to each
“Du Rififi Chez Les Femmes” (in my rough English translation, “The Girls Mix It
Up”), underworld entrepreneur Vicky de Berlin (Nadja Tiller) owns a popular
floating nightclub, the “Ration K,” on the Senne River in Brussels. Characteristically for Le Breton’s criminal
figures, Vicky’s surname isn’t necessarily her real family name, just a
nickname referring to the city where she came from. (In “Du Rififi chez Les
Hommes,” the ringleader of the story’s audacious jewel robbery, played by Jean
Servais in the movie, was Tony Le Stéphanois: “Stéphanois” being a
colloquialism for someone from the French town of Saint
Etienne.) Vicky’s troubled past as a
displaced Berliner is suggested by a photograph of her father on the desk in
her private office, a German officer wearing the Iron Cross. The name of her club implies that she might
have made her first money dealing surplus or stolen U.S. Army rations on the
black market after World War II.
With this column we begin a new feature: showcasing original reviews from industry trade magazines from many years ago. It is interesting to see how classic and cult movies were received on the basis of these reviews which were presented to the movie theater trade prior to their general release. First up: Hammer Films' "Dracula A.D. 1972" starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. This review appeared in the October/November 1972 issue of Film Bulletin.
The conventions of the gangster movie are rigidly defined,
critic Robert Warshow observed in a famous 1948 essay. At heart is the character arc of the socially
deviant protagonist, whether Rico Bandello, Tony Montana, or Michael Corleone:
“a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall.”
In Brian Helgeland’s excellent biopic “Legend” (2015), currently
playing in limited theatrical release, the twin brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray
(Tom Hardy, in a dual role) are already on the upward curve of Warshow’s
character arc in the 1960s London underworld as the film begins. “Reggie was a gangster prince of the East
End,” Reggie’s future wife Frances (Emily Browning) muses in voiceover. “Ronnie was a one-man mob.” In the first scene, the dapper Reggie
derisively brings tea to two rumpled detectives who are staking him out, the
senior of whom, Inspector Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), is determined to
bring him down. The mentally disturbed
Ronnie is behind bars, but a prison psychiatrist is intimidated into clearing
his early release. The doctor’s honest
assessment when Reggie comes to escort his brother home: “Your brother Ron is
violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic. To put it
simply, he’s off his fucking rocker.”
The Krays control the run-down East End and wage sporadic turf
battles with their rivals, the Richardson brothers’ “Torture Gang” in South
London. When the Richardsons are sent up
the river, the Krays’ extortion-based empire expands to swallow their
territory. Reggie opens a posh
nightclub, Esmeralda’s Barn, whose clientele of slumming celebrities impresses
sheltered teenager Frances on their first date: “Oh look, is that Joan
Collins?” she asks breathlessly. It
is. Reggie’s financial advisor Leslie
Payne (David Thewlis) tries to convince him to move into legitimate business,
but the big money from the rackets is a powerful inducement to remain on the
other side of the law, especially when the twins seal a trans-Atlantic
partnership with Meyer Lansky through a Mafia intermediary (Chazz
Palminteri). The homosexual Ronnie hosts
orgies that attract a varied following, including a politically powerful Peer,
Lord Boothby (John Sessions). Scotland
Yard begins to close in, but the vested establishment pulls strings all the way
up through the Prime Minister to protect Boothby from public scandal, and
Read’s superiors order him to curtail his investigation. Ronnie murders a rival mobster in a pub, and
Read thinks he’s finally got a case, but the key witness refuses to identify
Kray in a lineup for fear of her family’s safety.
Hardy’s performance is a remarkable, Academy Award-worthy
achievement. Part of the credit goes to
the superior facial prosthetics that transform Hardy into the thuggish,
bespectacled Ronnie, but even more credit goes to Hardy’s own talent and
physicality. The actor gives each
brother a distinctive posture, gait, and voice. The tricks used to put both characters on the screen simultaneously are
seamless, notably in a long fight scene where the twins slug each other to a
pulp with fists and champagne bottles. At the same time, with one actor in the dual roles, Hardy and Helgeland
underscore the fact that beneath the surface, both brothers are very much alike
in their propensity for violence. Reggie
is simply better able to control himself. This shared volatility becomes more apparent in the second part of the
movie, the downward curve of Warshow’s arc, as Reggie becomes increasingly
unhinged because of a personal tragedy. When he bloodily stabs an underling, Jack “the Hat” McVitie (Sam
Spruell), to death, the murder unravels the Krays’ enterprise. As the closing credits note, the brothers
were sent to prison in 1968. The
real-life Ronnie died in 1995, Reggie in 2000.
Cinema Retro fans are likely to get a charge out of the movie’s
1960s costumes and cars, the stream of oldie hits on the soundtrack (when’s the
last time you heard “Soulful Strut” or “The ‘In’ Crowd”?), and the scenes of
music divas Timi Yuro (Duffy) and Shirley Bassey (Samantha Pearl) performing at
Reggie’s club. Pearl doesn’t sing
“Goldfinger” in her cameo as Bassey, but there’s still a one-degree association
between “Legend” and 007 that should interest Bond fans: Helgeland’s script was
based on a 1973 biography of the Krays by John Pearson, who also wrote two
superlative books in the Bond canon, “The Life of Ian Fleming” and “James Bond:
The Authorized Biography.” The film’s
supporting performances are outstanding, with Thewlis and Spruell in particular
nearly giving Hardy a run for his money. The movie suggests a host of comparisons with other gangland classics,
including the British productions “The Criminal” (Joseph Losey, 1960) and “Get
Carter” (Mike Hodges, 1971), which bookended the actual Kray era; Martin
Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1989), from which Helgeland clearly draws inspiration;
and Helgeland’s own “Payback” (1999); in that film, Mel Gibson’s character
Porter and Gregg Henry’s manic Val seem like early foreshadowings of the
Reg/Ron duality. If “Legend” inspires
you to watch or re-watch those pictures, all the better.
If I have a quibble with the film, it’s with the title “Legend,”
which isn’t very evocative of a gangster saga. Worse, it poses the risk of confusion with a very different movie,
Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy-adventure with Tom Cruise and Mia Sara. “The Krays” might have better done as a
title, except that -- in fairness to Helgeland, I should point out -- it was
already taken as the title of a 1990 movie by Peter Medak, with Gary and Martin
Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie. The Medak
version filled out the details about the twins’ early lives more thoroughly than
Helgeland does, and it’s not a bad film itself, if not as riveting and stylish
as “Legend.” It’s currently streaming on
Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". The same could be said of Marlon Brando, that most rebellious and unpredictable of acting legends. He could be selfish, nasty, charming, seductive and completely dismissive. If you have even a modicum of interest in Brando's life and career, don't miss director Stevan Riley's new documentary feature "Listen to Me Marlon". The offbeat title is meant to suggest the stream of consciousness that is based on the main premise of the film: audio tapes of Brando engaging in self-analysis. Ironically his intention was to use these recordings, which were made over decades, as the basis of an autobiographical documentary that was obviously designed to give his side of the story as it related to his life and career. As with many quixotic projects Brando became involved with, the film never became reality. However, director Riley (who helmed the acclaimed James Bond documentary "Everything or Nothing") received cooperation from the Brando estate to fulfill the actor's quest to refute certain urban legends about his life through his own words. The film is laid out in a fascinating manner. It is non-linear in the sense that it doesn't strictly adhere to the timetable of the momentous events of Brando's life. The movie zig-zags through the decades with photos and footage of his younger years with those from his final tortured days, beset by personal family tragedies. There was always a sense that Brando was consistently aloof and unconcerned about the public's perception of him. This proves not to be true. In the audio tape segments that define the premise of the movie (there is no narrator, only Brando himself), we find that this was a man who cared very much about being the target of bad press, especially when he was convinced the stories were not true. However, there is also an introspective admission that he considered himself to have major failings as a father and family man, a fact evidenced by the dramatic events in the latter part of his life that saw one of his sons, Christian, incarcerated for shooting to death his daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend and the subsequent suicide of Cheyenne several years later. It becomes clear through are photos and home movie footage that one aspect of Brando was that he truly loved his family, yet he was too self-absorbed with his own life and career to have been anything other than an occasional presence in their lives. In heartbreaking public trial footage, we see Brando, that most private of men, break down in tears as he bemoans his failings as a father. The movie shows that Brando himself was subjected to a strained relationship with his own father, a cold and unfeeling man who could never praise his son even after he had achieved international fame. In one awkward on-camera interview from the 1950s, the father is almost dismissive of his son's achievements. Brando later reflects compassion for his father, however, pointing out that he, too, had lived a very difficult life and was a product of those experiences.
Brando on the set of Last Tango in Paris with director Bernardo Bertolucci and co-star Maria Schneider, 1972.
The film provides no interviews with critics or colleaguesbut does present riveting vintage interviews in which we see Brando at his most playful. On a press junket (perhaps the only one he did in the 1960s) for the underrated WWII spy thriller "Morituri", Brando is far more concerned about seducing the attractive female journalists than he is in extolling the virtues of the film. The audio segments also indicate his bitterness over his experience on the 1962 remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" which almost sank MGM. Brando took the lion's share of the blame for the film's enormous cost over-runs and was publicly chastised for selfish and irrational behavior on the set. His side of of the story is that they needed a scapegoat and he was it, pointing out he felt the film had major script problems from the beginning. The film also addresses the strained relationship between Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola, who resuscitated his career with "The Godfather". Brando laments that fact that Coppola bad-mouthed him for being unprepared on the set of "Apocalypse Now" and says he was hurt by this public flogging by a man he considered a friend. The documentary is peppered with film clips from key Brando movies, all of which are presented in gorgeous transfers, indicating Riley had a sizable budget for this film. (Many documentary film makers use VHS transfers of movie clips in order to get free usage under U.S. copyright laws.) There is also some truly rare color, on-set footage from "On the Waterfront" that left this viewer clamoring to see more. Brando's classics are represented and so are his bombs, so as the infamous "A Countess From Hong Kong", Charlie Chaplin's big screen comeback that landed with a thud. There are also the late career artistic triumphs such as "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris", though on the latter Brando clearly resents his relationship with director Bernardo Bertolucci who he felt manipulated him into unveiling too many of his personal inner demons. Throughout the film, we see Brando represented by a digital 3D image of his head which he posed for in the 1980s and which fascinated him. He predicted that the future of film making would be revolutionized by digital technology- a predication that has come true. The statue-like, free-floating head of Brando serves as an anchor for his narration and perhaps, fittingly, reminds one of his appearance as Jor-El in "Superman". The movie also covers his social activism beginning with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We see him among a Hollywood contingent in Washington D.C. as part of Martin Luther King's landmark protest. The film also traces his well-known devotion to equal rights for Native Americans. The movie includes the legendary Oscar ceremony footage of a mystery woman named Sacheen Littlefeather, in full tribal dress, refusing Brando's Best Actor statuette for "The Godfather" in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Indians on screen, much to the incredulity or perhaps amusement of presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore. It was the kind of bold, in-your-face move that epitomized Brando as a rebel but it was also a missed opportunity. Why didn't he appear himself to make the speech? Laziness? Cowardliness? We'll never know. Like many of Brando's causes, however, these seemed to burn brightly but briefly.
The movie covers Brando's failed marriages and tempestuous relationships with women, none of which ended satisfactorily. Despite his late career fun appearances on Larry King's chat show, we get the feeling that he died feeling lonely and frustrated, haunted by what he perceived to be his own failures. If "Listen to Me Marlon" has a flaw is that it leaves us hungry for even more. Some key films and events are glossed over or ignored, perhaps for reasons of running time. Brando's "One Eyed Jacks", the only film he ever directed, is tantalizingly glimpsed in clips but not even identified by name. He created a fine movie after taking over from director Stanley Kubrick, who found he could not work with Brando. The film went far over-budget and caused angst at Paramount, adding to the growing belief that Brando might be more trouble than he was worth. However, we never hear a word about his views on directing or what happened on the set of the film. Perhaps he never addressed this in the audio recordings that Riley was given access to, but it will frustrate Brandophiles to not have the film covered in any detail. There are other snippets that also leave us desiring more: his dismissal of the first "Superman" movie, which he concedes he did strictly for money (but did he really think it was a bad movie?) Brando bragging that he rewrote the script for "Apocalypse Now", whereas others said he was just fudging because he was too lazy to read the script. The movie also covers Brando's increasing reliance on cue cards and other devices to remind him of his lines. Over clips from "The Formula", we hear him brag that he insisted that his character wear a hearing aid so that his lines could be fed to him. We see that the only place Brando truly feels at piece was in his beloved atoll in Tahiti. Home movies indicate this was a place where he could find peace and solace, away from studio executives, fawning fans and intrusive journalists.
"Listen to Me Marlon" is a remarkable film and is a fitting analysis of a man who personifies the old cliche "They don't make stars like that any more".
(The film opens July 29 for a two week run at the Film Forum in New York City.)
a cult favorite, actress Edwige Fenech
has numerous movie moments that are ingrained into the minds of many
Italian men who came of age in the 1970’s. Yet there is one particular moment, running topless in slow-motion
through a field of flowers, that is probably more memorable then the rest. Many words come to mind when trying to
describe this scene: Crude. Low-brow. Gratuitous. All of these are
excellent adjectives to use when trying to sum up 1973’s Ubalda, All Naked and Warm. Besides giving audiences an (extremely) intimate look at Ms.
Fenech, this was the film that famously
(or infamously) proved that the Italian “sexy comedies” could be commercially
viable. Although not a for
everyone, Ubalda is perfect for fans who wish to delve more deeply into the
overlooked cult titles of Italy’s yesteryear.
(Pippo Franco) is a hapless knight who has just returned home after a long and
brutal war. As can be expected, he wants
nothing more than to eat fresh food, have a nice bath, and find comfort in the
arms of his beautiful wife Fiamma (Karin Schubert). Before he had left, Olimpio had his wife
fitted with a chastity built in order to ensure that she remained faithful. Yet when he returns home, he finds that Fiamma
is less then eager to return his affections (even with the chastity belt, she
has numerous other suitors lined
up). After she steals the key to the
belt (a fact which delights her suitors), she informs Olimpio that she has
taken a vow of “chastity”, and suggests that her husband focus his energies
toward making peace with their neighbor instead of making love. Discouraged, Olimpio accepts his wife’s words
and heads over to the home of Master Oderisi (Umberto D’Orsi) in order to make
amends. Yet as soon as he sees Oderisi’s
new wife, he quickly has other ideas.
it turns out, Lady Ubalda (Edwige Fenech), is as equally unhappy in her
marriage as Fiamma is in hers. Initially, she is only too happy to add Olimpio to her list of secret
lovers, but quickly loses interest after his plan to bed her fails. Frustrated at home, both Olimpio and Oderisi
eventually agree to swap wives. Yet
their plan sets in motion a chain of events that will forever change their lives
in a very unexpected way. By the time
the film is over, neither man has to worry about the other ever trying to bed
their wife again.
with a budget of roughly $50,000, the
film grossed more than $400,000 at the box office, making it a huge success. (Although people under the age of 18 were not
admitted into the theaters, it is interesting to think of all the creative ways
that teenagers concocted in their attempts to sneak in). After Ubalda’s
stunning success, the Italian sex comedies (known in Italy as “commedia sexy
all’italiana”) became a huge sensation. Aside from the medieval setting, these films tended to center around
numerous other cliched subjects, such as: nurses, policewomen, and lady medics. Unsurprisingly, many of these films would
follow Ubalda’sexample and give top billing to Edwige Fenech.
Fenech was, beyond a doubt, the
break-out star of the movie. Already
known for her roles in the giallos, Ubalda
made Fenech an instant sex siren. It
is little wonder; gifted with natural beauty, she could light up any screen,
regardless of her role. (The fact that
the film featured her disrobing probably made the screen shine even brighter
for many in attendance). On top of her
more obvious attributes, Edwige Fenech also possessed a natural flair for
comedy. Throughout Ubalda, her
wry humor proves to be the perfect compliment to Franco's over the top antics.
Although her glamor and comedy would never grant her universal recognition,
Fenech would still make a decent career for herself.
Those of us of a certain age will recall that, while kooky religious cults have always been part of the American experience, in the mid-to-late 1970s there seemed to go through a boom period. Seemingly every week a new fringe fad movement would emerge, many of which were steeped in inexplicable psycho-babble about helping adherents "find oneself" and enrich their "inner beings". During this period I was approached in a Jersey City bowling alley, of all places, by a card-carrying member of one such cult/religion, the name of which I have happily forgotten. Upon being asked to sign up for the movement, I decided to conduct a bit of an experiment to prove a point to my girlfriend (now wife): that the gullible people associated with these groups are just vulnerable souls who can be easily manipulated by virtually any person possessed with a modicum of self-assurance, charisma and determination. I responded to my would-be savior that I could not join her movement because I was a devoted Hestonite. I made the term up on the spot because the evening before, ABC-TV had shown their annual telecast of "The Ten Commandments". I explained that Charlton Heston was my Lord and Savior because I had seen him perform so many miracles. The baffled young lady logically pointed out that he was simply an actor, but in the course of a five-minute conversation I had somehow to get her to take my position seriously and to discuss in some detail why I believed Charlton Heston was my Lord and Savior. I was thoroughly enjoying the experience and wanted to see if I could go "all the way" with her and make her convert to my new-found religion. However, my girlfriend was getting fidgety and felt I had already proven my point. Besides, I guess there were people waiting for us to bowl with them, which seemed to be the priority at the moment. I still believe to this day that, had I been graced with another fifteen minutes of time, I would have signed up the first member of the Hestonite religious movement.
With each succeeding generation, unquestioning belief in established religions declines. (A recent poll shows that one third of Americans under the age of 30 are not affiliated with any specific religion.) Yet, there is still no shortage of 70's style "self-help" religions, all eager, if not desperate, to attract new adherents. It's easy to ridicule adherents to these causes as naive whack-jobs but in my own experience, those who buy into them tend to be sympathetic souls who are often trying to overcome some kind of personal crisis. They find solace in being accepted among other true believers. Without a doubt, the most controversial non-mainstream religion is Scientology, which is very much in the news of late because of director Alex Gibney's high profile new documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief", based on the best-selling book by Lawrence Wright. The film premieres on March 29 on HBO and has been the subject of countless news stories. I saw the "Going Clear" several weeks ago at an advance screening at the HBO building in New York. To say it's a powerful, thought-provoking experience would be an understatement.
The film traces the origins of the Scientology movement, which was started by successful science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The movement was originally known as a self-help program called Dianetics and it caught on in the post-WWII era. The "bible" of this movement was Hubbard's own best-selling book. Hubbard enjoyed the fruits of his success, charging devotees to attend self-help seminars. However, over time, Dianetics, like most such groups, began to fade in popularity. Always one to improvise, Hubbard reinvented the movement under the name Scientology. Instead of concentrating entirely on lost souls, Hubbard implemented a plan to appeal as well to the well-heeled and financially successful - with a very special effort to attract celebrities. Hubbard must have been astounded by his own success. By the 1970s, Scientology had taken off and continued to grow, attracting influential movie and TV stars along the way. Hubbard's books- works of inspiration to some, the ravings of a con man/mad man to others, topped the bestseller lists. But there were still problems. Hubbard, who is alleged to have started the movement as a tax dodge, never remitted payments to the IRS. For years, the agency dogged him to the extent that he literally took off to sea as part of a newly-found division of Scientology known as the Sea Org (which is characterized in "Going Clear" as a virtual slave labor operation.) Presumably, those who chose to sail with him and indulge in manual labor along the way, were primarily on a mission to sail the globe and extol the virtues of Scientology. Gibney's documentary says his goal was a bit less lofty: he put to see because the IRS was after him to pay back up to a billion in back taxes. In an audacious move, Hubbard took on the IRS by having his disciples file thousands of frivolous law suits against the agency. Eventually, they prevailed and the IRS- simply to get out of the legal quagmire- granted Hubbard what he always desired: protection from taxes by declaring Scientology as a genuine religion. With that key controversial ruling, Scientology kicked into high gear. The church invested heavily in properties around the world and its current wealth (largely in real estate) is estimated to be over $3 billion. Hubbard was secretive man who rarely gave interviews. The film presents an extremely rare exception, with a vintage interview Hubbard gave for a British documentary. He comes across as likable, avuncular and perpetually smiling and jolly. However, critics say he was attracting troubled people to his movement and systematically isolating them from the world outside of Scientology. According to "Going Clear", Hubbard became like a real-life Bond villain: living in seclusion amid palatial splendor and enjoying unquestioning loyalty from his followers. When he died in 1986, so great was the Scientology cult of personality, that his successor as leader of the church, David Miscavige, could not bring himself to admit to Scientologists that he was actually dead. In one of many fascinating video clips that Gibney secured, Miscavige spins Hubbard's death as a personal choice, saying that he succeeded in reaching such a higher form of life that he felt compelled to shed his now useless human form. The assembled masses cheer in support of their leader's "transition" to a higher plane.
his career, director Marco Bellocchio has been no stranger to controversy.A former supporter of militant left wing
politics, many of his films have strong socialistic and violent themes woven
throughout them.Although he has
somewhat mellowed with age, his younger years were still quite radical.Few of his films demonstrate this better than
1986’s Devil in the Flesh (Il Diavolo in Corpo), a sexually charged film
set during the terrorism and turmoil of Italy’s “Years of Lead”.Loosely based on Raymond Radiguet’s novel, this
Italian-French production stars Maruschka Detmers and Federico Pitzalis as two
lovers entrapped by the passion they have for one another. As they soon
discover, though, passion alone cannot sustain a healthy relationship,
especially when one person is engaged to a jailed terrorist. Although the plot
a bit clichéd, Devil stands out for being one of the first X rated films
to not only feature a mainstream actress, but also be released in the U.S. by a
(Pitzalis) is an eighteen year old student who, like many people in their final
years of high school, is quite bored with all the monotonous lectures in the
classroom. One day class is interrupted
by a commotion from a nearby rooftop. Looking around, the class discovers that a young woman is threatening to
jump, drawing a crowd of onlookers. One
of these onlookers is Giulia (Detmers), an older woman that Andrea sees and
immediately becomes infatuated with. Pursuing her, Andrea and Giulia eventually develop a friendship which
quickly becomes sexual and transforms into a torrid affair. Yet, complicating this affair is the fact that
Giulia is engaged to a man who is in prison for charges of terrorism. Also, Giulia’s soon to be mother-in-law becomes
quite suspicious and endeavors to find out who is sleeping with her son’s
fiancé. As if all this is not enough, Andrea discovers that Giulia is a rather
unstable woman who shows hints at the capacity of violence. All in all, these
factors make all the problems Romeo and Juliet faced seem quite tame in
be given to Pitzalis, who depicts the detached, devil-may-care attitude of a
disaffected teenager with great conviction. As the film progresses, it is clear that Andrea really has no ambitions,
no dreams, and no real concerns in the world. The only thing he actually cares about is Giulia, and the lust he feels
towards her. While his performance is
admirable, it is still undoubtedly Maruschka Detmers who steals the show with
her own dazzling skill. She doesn’t
simply portray a woman who is controlled by passion, but rather a woman who is
trapped by passion. It is readily apparent that for Giulia, passion is both her
savior and tormentor. The longer her
relationship with Andrea continues, the closer she is to being pushed over the
edge into outright madness. Happiness and misery come together hand and hand. Between Giulia’s hysterical laughs, longings
for Andrea, and sudden bursts of energy followed by crashing lows, the film
begs audiences to answer a specific question. Does Giulia truly love Andrea, or does she simply need/use him? Either way, it seems unlikely that “ happily
ever after” is in the cards for these two.
Devil is sexually explicit, and as such
it may make some viewers uncomfortable to watch. In today’s day and age, relations between
high school students and older adults are gravely serious matters. While numerous similar films have been made,
there still may be some viewers who may find the vivid subject matter in poor
taste, especially in a scene roughly halfway through the film. In one of the
more infamous moments in Bellocchio’s
film career, Devil in the Flesh features a scene of un-simulated sex between
Pitzalis and Detmers. Although brief and
done (for lack of a better word) tastefully, it is still unusual to see outside
adult films (although to be fair, many contemporary TV shows such as Game of
Thrones have come pretty close to approaching, and breaking down, that same
taboo). Understandably, Italian
producers wanted the scene to be cut, yet Bellocchio refused. Eventually, Italian Courts ruled in his
favor, and he was able to complete the film with his cinematic vision fully
made a bold career choice by agreeing to the scene, because she became one of
the first mainstream actresses to participate in an act of un-simulated sex.
Initially, she did defend her choice, saying that the scene had not been done
or portrayed in a vulgar manner. While she may be right, it became something
that would stand out in her resume and overshadow many of her other
day, critics are still divided about this infamous scene, although the majority
of opinions seem to be unfavorable. While some will argue that it captures the raw passion that exists
between Andrea and Giulia, many others argue that it trivializes the passion by
trading in for shock value. Even with the relaxation in standards today for
media (again, here’s looking at you Game of Thrones; Blue is the Warmest
Color) there is a fine that can’t be crossed without penalty. When Devil premiered in the United
States, it received an X rating and was confined to art house theaters. Still,
the fact that any major distributor (Orion Pictures) even chose to showcase the
film was pretty remarkable: it shows how times were changing, albeit slowly.
the Flesh was made
in the 1980s, during a period where the Italian film industry was in crisis.
While in previous decades the industry had been one of the most world renown,
the 80s saw a widening gap between mainstream and art house cinema. To this day many people, including Quentin
Tarantino, lament over the current state of Italian cinema. They feel that the industry has lost that
magic touch that helped produce some of the most iconic movies in years past. Agree or disagree, this particular movie is
clearly different from something that would have normally been shown in
NoShame Films and MYA Communications released fully restored versions of Devil
in the Flesh. Although both labels
are defunct, the DVDs are still readily available on sites such as Amazon for
decent prices. The NoShame edition does
have more special features, but both editions are uncut and feature gorgeously
re-mastered colors and crisp audio. Overall, lovers of Bellocchio and art house films might just want to
check this one out; highly recommended.
George A. Romero didn’t invent the concept of zombies.
They’ve had a spot in Haitian folklore for years (as explored in older films
like White Zombie and more
contemporary films like Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the
Rainbow ). There was also the French World War I reactionary J’Accuse(1919) by Abel Gance,
which featured actual footage from the battleground. Some horror enthusiasts
might even argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.P Lovecraft’s
story Herbert West: Re-Animator were also
significant early entries in the zombie canon.
What Romero can be credited with, however, as the recent
documentary Birth of the Living Dead examines, is the
mainstream popularity of zombies. It all began when he made the film Night of the Living
Dead (1968). It features a group of wayward strangers who’ve found
themselves stuck in an old farmhouse in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The
film is remembered for its poignant critique of the 60s, when the Vietnam war
was raging, home televisions were still new, and race relations were tenuous at
best (the film was notable for featuring African-American actor Duane Jones as
the male lead). The movie was filmed on a shoestring budget but didn’t stop it from
becoming a cult success that’s still beloved by countless legions of dedicated
A decade later, he came back and made Dawn of the Dead in 1978. It had a
similarly modest budget as his first movie. This film takes place during a
zombie outbreak and centers on a group of survivors who’ve taken up shelter in
the town’s shopping mall. Like the first, it’s full of a ton of symbolism and
was a timely commentary on the day’s rampant consumerism. Despite its highly
graphic content, it became a humongous success both financially and critically,
as it’s almost universally praised by all major movie critics, and it saw its
own re-make in 2004.
Day of the Dead came seven years
later in 1985 and featured a battle between the United States military and a
horde of zombies. Viewers weren’t sure exactly which side to take, as this
installment was pretty ambiguous and caused some watchers to root for the
zombies rather than their very military. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as big of a
commercial success as Dawn was, but it’s a much beloved cult film that
has become a staple of “Grindhouse
Fridays” on El Rey Network, is streamable through some websites, and not only was it remade a few
decades later on, but there is yet another remake in the works.
The trilogy garnered a humongous fan base and inspired many
subsequent movies, but George Romero himself kept quiet on the zombie front for
the rest of the 80s and all throughout the 90s. It was a bit of shock when he
released another zombie flick in the 2000s.
Land of the Dead was released in 2005
in the midst of the Bush administration and featured an opportunistic
politician who tries to use the zombie crisis outlined in the movie as a means
to achieve his own agenda. It was a modern day commentary on war and
xenophobia. Land of the Dead became a great success and grossed over
$46,000,000. It wasn’t considered as good as the movies Night or Dawn, but
critics thought it was an overall decent addition to the Romero library.
Diary of the Dead was the next step
for Romero in 2007. It’s a fictional documentary similar to other cult-hits
like Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch
Project. The film was made to look like amateur footage and makes liberal
use of the shaky-cam technique. This movie strayed rather far from the original
trilogy through its heavy use of CGI but still enjoyed some positive reviews,
although it wasn’t quite as well received as Land.
The final Romero zombie-film was Survival of the
Dead, released in 2010. It took place on a zombie-infested island just
off the coast of North America. This film was both a box-office bust and a
critical failure. It was panned by critics and hardcore Romero fans alike as
being stale and an overall disappointment. This movie alone has likely caused Romero
to lose any future financial investments for a new zombie film down the road,
but luckily it wasn’t bad enough to tarnish the reputation that Romero gained
for his work in the original trilogy.
Apart from his own directorial work, Romero has had a positive and
lasting impact on today’s culture and has inspired a new generation of
directors and filmmakers who grow up enchanted by his work. Zombies have
infected every level of pop-culture from books, to television shows, to movies,
to art, and even to real world events like zombie walks and horror conventions.
He’s inspired many directors to create their own vision of the zombie
apocalypse in new and interesting ways. Danny Boyle, the creator of 28 Days Later, is one of the most
critically acclaimed new director of zombie flicks, and there have been a ton
of other successful zombie stories made that have spanned multiple genres and
George Romero is very much like a modern day Bram Stoker, who took
the old myth of vampires and turned it into a modern day cultural success, and,
like Stoker, his legacy will live on as his movies continues to inspire legions
of fans and newer work based on his original films.
("Casting By", the acclaimed documentary by director Tom Donahue, has been released on DVD by First Run Features. Below is our original review from November 2013 of the film's theatrical release.)
By Lee Pfeiffer
"Casting By" is an extraordinary new documentary by filmmaker Tom Donahue who spent years accumulating interviews and archival materials for this look at the contributions of casting directors to the motion picture business. Most people are well aware of the important roles that composers, costume designers, editors and production designers play in the creation of movies-- but if you say "casting directors", the average person's eyes glaze over. Sounds boring, doesn't it? Donahue's film sets the record straight, pointing out that casting directors are often responsible for bringing to life some of the film industry's most memorable characters. So important is their contributions that Donohue found enthusiasm among esteemed filmmakers and actors to participate in his documentary even among those individuals who are not prone to generally giving interviews. In the film Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, John Travolta, David V. Picker, Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Norman Jewison, Norman Lear, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Duvall and Robert Redford, to name just a few, all extol the virtues of casting directors. Woody Allen readily admits that he hates the process of casting because he can't bring himself to choose one actor over another...and that his instincts are often wrong. He credits his long-time casting director, Juliet Taylor, with force-feeding certain actors like Meryl Streep into Allen's films when he didn't see the wisdom of casting them. The film's genesis was as a tribute to Marion Dougherty, a woman whose name won't ring bells with most movie fans, but who was a legend in the industry. It was Dougherty who elevated the status of casting directors when she first went into the profession in 1949. Her keen eye and insightful instincts quickly made her the "go to" person for top directors and studio executives. Dougherty soon became indispensable and set up an office in New York City where she often nurtured talent such as "up and comers" Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. Soon, she had a virtual monopoly on high profile casting assignments for films. She acted as mentor for young women who would go on to become successful casting directors and inspired another legendary person in the profession, Lynn Stalmaster. It was Dougherty who fought to get Jon Voight the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy after it had been decided that the role should go to Michael Sarrazin. She gave many other future superstars their first major break when she was casting director for the hit TV show The Naked City in the early 1960s. These actors have never forgotten what they owed her. Dougherty is seen throughout the documentary through interviews Tom Donahue conducted with her in 2007. She passed away in 2011, not having seen the completed film- but her sassy nature and independent outlook on the role of women in the film industry come through loud and clear despite her advanced age.
The film is peppered with relevant film clips throughout and countless other prominent talking heads. The movie has set off a bit of a firestorm in the film industry because of its outright advocacy for the position that casting directors should receive recognition from the Academy at Oscar time. (It is the only single-card credit in the film industry to not have an Oscar category.) Clearly, the filmmakers seen here support such a move but there are some exceptions. Oscar winning director Taylor Hackford, who is President of the Directors Guild of America, vehemently argues against Academy recognition for casting directors because they are not really "directing" anything and that the final casting decisions always rest with the director themselves. Others argue that this in an invalid justification for his position because, in the end, every aspect of a movie needs the director's approval...so why give Oscars for editing, cinematography, costumes, etc? The film points out that casting directors are recognized by the Emmys so there is precedence for this idea. Yet, as far back as 1991, esteemed actors and directors pleaded with the Academy to at least grant a special Oscar to Marion Dougherty, but their efforts failed. As for Ms. Dougherty, she was elevated to VP levels at major studios only to be fired for the crime of having aged in a business in which seniority is frowned up. Other veteran casting directors lament the present state of the industry, saying that too many roles are awarded to flash-in-the-pan celebrities who are ill-suited to play the parts. There are exceptions, of course, and most of them can be found in acclaimed TV series where casting directors are proving to make all the difference when it comes to finding the right actor for the right role.
Casting By is a very unique look at the aspects of the film industry that are not widely discussed and it blows the lid off the dirty little battles that have been going on in terms of trying suppress a key branch of the business from receiving appropriate recognition. No matter where you stand on the subject, you'll be fascinated by this look at film history. The movie is superbly edited by Tom Donahue's wife Jill Schweitzer, who had the unenviable task of culling through 250 interviews with prominent people (only about 50 ended up in the final cut.) The movie is justifiably being touted for a nomination for Best Documentary. It deserves the honor- but one hopes that the criticisms of the very Academy that would make that decision won't render yet another shameless snub, this time because director Donahue has dared to go after some sacred cows.
DAVE WORRALLreports from London, where the film is scheduled to open this week.
There was no laughter in the audience
following this morning's press show for David Ayer's WWII drama Fury - just stunned silence, as we all
walked out feeling battered and bruised after watching two hours of the most
brutal and realistic scenes of war ever captured on film. Set in the last month
of the European theatre of war in April 1945, as the Allies make their final
push into Nazi Germany, we are introduced to the world of four tough GI's and
their new rookie, who go into battle in their tank named 'Fury'. It's dark and
grim, and portrays the horrors of war similar to that of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan - but far worse. As
the film unfolds you start to feel as claustrophobic as the crew of 'Fury'
themselves, and whilst the characters are not that likeable, you start to
respect just how frightening it must have been for real soldiers in that
situation. By the end you feel as though you have spent two hours in the tank
with them. Yes, it's that tense. The
Telegraph newspaper likens it to Peckinpah's Cross of Iron and Fuller's The
Big Red One. I agree, but there's no Hollywood slow-motion deaths here -
they are all sudden, quick, and sickening. One sequence, where three Sherman
tanks take on a German Tiger tank, is absolutely terrifying, and the final 15
minutes are a tour-de-force of cinema that had my stomach tied in knots. I was
genuinely frightened. Superbly cast, with top-notch cinematography, production
design, special effects and great music score, this is a 5-Star movie any day
of the week. But it's not for the faint-hearted.
Ron Howard has announced he is working on a major documentary tracing the live performances given by the Beatles up to their final concert in San Francisco at Candlestick Park in 1966. Howard is doing the film in cooperation with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono and Apple Corps will be producing. The relationships between the Beatles had been famously fractured throughout the decades. After John Lennon's assassination, Ringo, Paul and George Harrison did team for a tribute song to him titled "All Those Years Ago". The three were also interviewed separately for "The Beatles Anthology" video and music project. The tensions between McCartney on Ono ultimately led to the breakup up the band but apparently in their golden years, their relationship seems to have improved, as evidenced by their mutual cooperation on the Howard film. The movie is set for release next year and Howard is said to have tracked down enough footage to make the project viable.
Film historian Max Tohline provides a fascinating 13 minute video essay that delves into insights about the editing process used in Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Even if you've seen the film countless times (as we have!), this is sure to give you a renewed appreciation for the work of director Sergio Leone and his editors. Click here to view. (Thanks to reader Vip Patel for the head's up on this.)
a meticulous 4K restoration by none other than the Criterion Collection, the
Beatles’ first film, A Hard Days Night, was unveiled at LA’s Raleigh
Studios.Yes, the image was crisp and
clean, not a smudge or scratch in sight. (No surprise there as the film’s
director Richard Lester personally approved the restoration.) And yes, the
music sounded glorious in a new 5.1 mix. In fact, George Harrison’s iconic opening
riff on the title track just about knocked this Cinema Retro scribe off his
seat! But what was really special about this whimsical film was watching it
through the prism of fifty years.From
frame 1, we know how we lost both John Lennon and George Harrison.We are living with climate change, al-Qaeda,
overpopulation and deforestation, so this movie is a welcome relief, capturing
a simpler time in a quainter London which was then still throwing off the
shadows of WW II.Most importantly, the
film delivers The Beatles in close-up after close-up – all are young, strong
and so full of life.To say they “stole
the show” doesn’t apply, they ARE the show.The plot, about the trials and tribulations of getting the white-hot
group to a live performance is basically filler between musical set pieces, but
it earned writer Alun Owen a 1965 Oscar nomination. George Martin’s thumping
score also landed an Oscar nod.
for the ride is Paul’s cranky grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who keeps the band
and their managers (dour Norman Rossington and goofy John Junkin) on their toes.
Odd looking and angular, Brambell, a major UK TV star at the time, was a
sneering contrast to the Fab Four’s glowing charisma.
film is as much about movement as it is music. The band is always on the move, -
on foot, in trains, cars and a helicopter. Richard Lester’s cameras are on the
move as well, with numerous hand-held shots and a beautiful aerial sequence
where the band escapes a stuffy rehearsal to mess about in a playing field accompanied
by Can’t Buy Me Love. With much of the
dialogue improvised on the spot, A Hard Day’s Night has a breezy, cinéma vérité
feel that obviously worked for its stars as they seem to be having a blast from
start to finish.
The Beatles finally go “live”, the climactic concert delivers vintage “Beatlemania”
in all its screaming glory. The lads blast out Tell Me Why, If I Fell, I Should Have Known Better and She Loves You, intercut with an audience
full of hysterical teens and the show’s harried director (Vincent Spinelli) having
a meltdown in the control booth. It’s
all innocent, upbeat and just simply, fun. Are there plot holes you could drive a
double-decker bus through? Sure. But who cares? For a brief shining moment the Beatles are
together again and all is well with the world.
July 4th, Janus Films will re-release this restored version of A
Hard Days Night in more than 50 cities across America.
(Cinema Retro's next issue (#30) presents a 50th anniversary tribute to the film.)
What can one say about a movie that is nothing more
than 90 minutes of a guy trying to start an old VW bus? That’s what Ryan Steven
Green’sCircle the Wagens seems
to be, as we follow a couple of good-hearted fellows in their attempt to bring
a “baby blue ‘72” across the country to California. The vehicle, a rusted Volkswagen Transporter
Deluxe won on eBay, is affectionately known as “The Croc.”It breaks down. It starts up. It breaks down.
It starts up. Somebody paints it. It breaks down. And that’s the story.
The movie is supposed to amuse us with the camaraderie
of men linked by their love of VWs, but there’s really not enough here to hang
a story. It grows monotonous to hear someone groping for words to explain why
these vehicles inspire such devotion. No one really has a good reason, although
a few people correctly point out that all cars “look the same nowadays.” True, the old VWs stand out and have some
character, but what’s the point if yours won’t start?
Our happy go lucky protagonist, Dave Torstenson,
doesn’t help matters, labeling himself early on as someone who knows nothing
about cars. Great, just the guy we want
to spend 90 minutes with as he fumbles with his heap. We’re told constantly
about his adventurous spirit, and how he went to Iraq in 2006 to teach
elementary school, but while I’m sure he’s a nice guy, none of this makes one
care if he gets his piece of junk bus across the country. Green even stops the movie halfway through so
Torstenson can enter a steak eating contest at some hillbilly dive, as if
watching someone chew a steak is any more interesting than watching someone try
to start up an old rust bucket.
According to the movie’s website, Green “made his first documentary at the tender age
of 19. Its subject was the ‘blue flame,’ that is, lighting farts on fire. The
topics of subsequent films are equally symptomatic of an unfashionably happy
childhood: snails, moustaches, modern homesteaders, coffee, and now Volkswagens.”
Well, I haven’t seen his movies about farts or mustaches, but if Circle The Wagens is any indication,
I’ll avoid them. Circle the Wagens is almost saved by cinematographer Lawson Demming,
who shoots the roadside motels and the big sky scenery with élan. It’s not enough, though.
The movie has been well received on the festival circuit,
and given a surprisingly high rating on the IMDB, I imagine due to its DIY vibe.
(Green edited the thing on a computer inside the Croc, which earns him some
points from “do it yourselfers.”) Some viewers may be satisfied with the
colorful photography, the nostalgia for cheap roadside kitsch, and the
earthiness of the characters. Some may
find a metaphor here for an old America that is dying. Some may even be tickled to know about this
Volkswagen subculture. To me, watching this was like listening to someone who
doesn’t speak a language try to bluff his way through a conversation. The
rhythms may be there, and the right facial expressions, but there’s nothing
If you can’t wait for this one to hit the cable
channels devoted to cars and such, it will be available VOD on 7/29, and DVD
8/26. For more about the film, visit CircleTheWagen.com.
Rod Barnett, writing on his blog The Bloody Pit of Rod, has an intriguing take about what went wrong with both attempts to make The Lone Ranger the subject of big screen feature films. The first debacle, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, was a costly flop back in 1981 but it looked like a smashing success compared to the 2013 Disney version, which is estimated to have lost $250 million despite the presence of Johnny Depp. Barnett's article, written contemporaneously with the release of the latter film last summer, examines why both films veered far off course. Click here to read
The first image we see in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a handsome new
documentary byNicholas D. Wrathall, is
of Vidal at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C., standing over what will
soon be his own tomb.He’s heavier than
we remember, leaning on a cane for balance. He recalls a few friends who are
already buried nearby, mentions his “pathological hatred of death,” and ambles
away. This is the titan at midnight, crumbling at the edges,still formidable.
The movie’s cryptic opening segues into a respectful,
occasionally moving, look back at Vidal’s life. It’s more a tribute than a
full-blown biography, for Wrathall presents Vidal as a kind of intellectual
colossus, utterly devoid of faults, a near perfect thinker, and the last lion
of America’s golden age of liberalism.The movie stops short of hagiography, but just barely.What keeps it interesting is Vidal, a born
entertainer who, even in his final years, could still spin a tale, drop a name,
or do an impression of JFK.
Vidal seems a natural subject for a documentary - there
have been several already, including a 2004 episode of the PBS American Masters
series - for his life was very much like a long, American novel of the 1920s.
His mother was a ditzy alcoholic. His father was an aeronautics instructor at
West Point, had an affair with Amelia Earhart, and wanted to be the Henry Ford
of aviation. The job of raising Vidal was left to his blind grandfather, the
fiery Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma.When
Vidal reminisces about the senator, the respect and awe is palpable.T.P. passed on to Vidal not just his liberal
politics, but also a love of literature, and a fearsome oratory skill.
After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vidal
went on to become a scandalous novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a
television dramatist during TV’s golden age; he was a self-described member of
the ruling class who struggled to escape it; he never referred to himself as
‘gay,’ but wrote books and essays defending bisexual and homosexual lifestyles;
he was deeply involved in politics, and later, was a TV gadfly, appearing on
The Tonight Show a dozen times, as well as many other programs, even lending
his voice to The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Wrathall taps most of those aspects of Vidal’s past
(not, alas, the cartoon work), but focuses mainly on Vidal the political
commentator, the weary traveler who sees America as a series of shams and
failures, the gruff grumbler. Indeed, the movie shows Vidal holding court at
various speaking engagements; all he has to do is call George Bush “a fool,”
and the walls of the joint practically come down.If the movie has a glaring fault, it’s that
we see Vidal go from being a young author of gay themed novels to a
socio-politico bon vivant, with very little in between to illustrate his
journey. Instead, Wrathall relies on nameless, faceless narrators to offer such
bromides as “Gore was everywhere, like a shape shifter.”
The cornerstone of any documentary about Vidal will be
his televised 1968 debates with William F. Buckley. Wrathall includes a hearty
helping of them here, and they still bristle nearly 50 years after their first
airing on ABC. Buckley is especially fascinating – he’s so effete he doesn’t
even know how to show anger. He bites his lip and cranes his neck like a man
having a fit.Vidal doesn’t come off
well either. He and Buckley were both trying so hard to be witty, and so unable
to conceal their hatred of each other, that whatever topic was on the table
grew cold quickly.
Much of the footage comes from late in Vidal’s life,
when he was bothered by physical problems and needed help getting around.
Hence, we see Vidal being helped up stairs, helped across bridges, helped up
hills, helped onto a stage at the 2005 Pen awards, and carted around in a
wheelchair.These scenes are interwoven
with a sort of “greatest hits” collection from Vidal’s past, where the great
pundit railed at this and that, his words rolling over his enemies like a
tank.The effect is entertaining enough,
and if Wrathall intended to depict Vidal as a fallen hero, he sort of succeeds.
Still, a more thorough and less deferential documentary might have considered
some of Vidal’s resounding flops. Remember Caligula?
Vidal’s long life, which included friendships with
Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman, and other bright lights of our popular
culture, can’t be jammed into a 90 minute documentary. For instance, Truman
Capote is barely mentioned, whichis
akin to leaving Joe Frazier out of a movie about Muhammad Ali.The saucier aspects of Vidal’s life, such as
his affairs with women, are not mentioned here, either.His engagement to Newman’s future wife,
Joanne Woodward, is ignored, although there are several odd photos of the
Newmans with Vidal, including one of Vidal and Newman fondling a statue’s
Wrathall doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on Vidal’s
books, or the notion, held by many, that Vidal possessed a great facility with
words but could not quite write a masterpiece. Instead, Wrathall gets cute and
shoots close-ups of Vidal’s pithy quotes, including “Whenever a friend
succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And, “Never offend an enemy in a
small way.”Anyone who doesn't know
better might think Vidal composed blurbs for fortune cookies.
Where Wrathall succeeds grandly is in showing Vidal’s
soft side. It's touching to hear of Vidal's relationship with longtime
companion Howard Auster, and Wrathall is smart to let the camera linger when
Vidal turns melancholy. Watch how Vidal pauses when recalling a childhood
friend who died in WW2, or the way his eyes mist over when he recalls “school
boy’s stuff, at a boys’ school, long, long, long ago.”These moments, and the gorgeous scenery
surrounding Vidal’s Italian home, make the documentary worth seeing. Wrathall’s
movie is like one of Vidal’s novels in that it’s not great, but very good.
(The film has just opened theatrically in New York. Click here to view trailer.)
The Empty Canvas (original Italian
title La Noia), is a 1963 Italian drama waiting to be rediscovered as a
classic by retro film lovers in America.Besides being a solid outing for Horst Buchholz and part of Bette Davis’
1960’s resurgence, this film is a reminder of why French-born Catherine Spaak
was the “IT” European teenager of the period.She was described by critic Rex Reed as "[h]alf kittycat go-go
girl, half petulant defiance, … like a sexy lollipop [with] soft hair the color
of maple syrup.”In The Empty Canvas, the 18-year-old actress gave the best performance
of her career in a role intended to make her an international star.That performance earned a special Golden
Plate award at the David di Donatello awards (presented by The Academy of
Italian Cinema) in 1964.
Based on a novel by
Alberto Moravia, the film follows Dino (Buccholz), the twenty-something artist
son of a rich, American ex-patriot from New Orleans (Davis). Dino has
lost his way in life and no longer feels inspired to paint, or inspired for life
in general, so it seems. He resents his mother and her money, spending as
little time with her as possible.
Dino's life changes,
however, when he meets Cecilia (Spaak), an amoral young woman. Cecilia
has been carrying on a torrid affair with a much-older married painter, who is
Dino's neighbor. Upon the painter's death, Dino and Cecilia slide into a
torrid affair of their own. As their affair progresses, Dino, suddenly filled
with feelings and purpose in his life, becomes obsessed with obtaining
commitment from Cecilia. In the film's penultimate scene, Dino covers
Cecilia's nude body in lira notes in an effort to win her commitment.
Cecilia, on the other hand, is just out to have fun and do whatever makes her
feel good. Dino is in danger of letting his obsession with Cecilia
destroy his life, just as the old painter’s life was destroyed by his obsession
"money" scene, director Damiano Damiani was quoted in The Saturday Evening Post as saying that
"It was the most important scene of her career in her first
English-language picture, one that would either make or break her as an
international star. And she was cold as ice."While she may have been cold as ice in
controlling her nerves, as Cecilia, Catherine exudes a sensuous quality that
leaves no doubt about how a man like Dino could become obsessed with her
charms.In one scene set at an outdoor
cafe overlooking the city, as Rita Pavone sings "Now That You've
Gone," Cecilia dances seductively while Dino watches attentively from a
swing. Without a word being said, you can see Dino's resistance falling
and his obsession budding. That is one of my all-time favorite scenes
from any film.
Shot in gorgeous,
mood-setting black-and-white around Rome in the summer of 1963, the film's set
was a linguistic adventure. Director Damiani spoke English to Bette
Davis, German to Buchholz, French to Spaak, and Italian to others. The actors
spoke their lines in English for later dubbing. It had to have been interesting
to watch Bette Davis try to reign supreme over such an eclectic mix of
talent.In Rex Reed's N.Y. Times
profile of Catherine in 1966, he quoted her as saying: "I acted with
Bette Davis in 'The Empty Canvas.' Everyone in Rome was terrified of
her. I said only one thing to her: 'Hello'."
On a curious side note,
Bette Davis biographer Charlotte Chandler recounted in her book an odd incident
concerning Bette's arrival in Rome for filming. She was greeted at the
airport by Buchholz, who wanted to get things started off on a good note with
the notoriously persnickety Davis. Buchholz leaned forward to kiss Bette
on the cheek, as custom would dictate, whereupon Bette proceeded to put her
tongue in Buchholz's mouth in a more-than-friendly kiss! Buchholz never
knew whether she was just trying to shock him, or whether she had other
It is also interesting to note that Sophia
Loren’s 18th century castle, renovated at a cost of nearly $2,000,000, was
loaned by her to represent Bette Davis' villa in the film.Furthermore, the filming of the garden party,
which provides the setting for the "money" scene, included the
participation of more than 150 leaders of Rome's cultural set, who were there
to honor Bette Davis' first film in Rome.
The Empty Canvas was a hit in Italy
before being distributed in the U.S. in March 1964 by Joseph Levine’s Embassy
Pictures.Levine was quoted by The Saturday Evening Post as saying that
“[Catherine Spaak] will be the biggest new star of the 1960's. This girl
will be the Bardot of her generation. Ten years from now there will be
girls billing themselves as the new Catherine Spaak.”In Bardot tradition, I suppose, some of the
advertising showed Cecilia draped only in a towel and was considered too risqué
in some circles.As a result, some of
the advertising was censored. Levine even took to Variety to express anger about the ad censoring by the L.A. Times and the L.A. Examiner.Censoring can
still be seen on many of the surviving lobby cards for the film.My how times have changed!
The Empty Canvas generally received mixed-to-negative
reviews at the time from American critics, but it did respectable business and
garnered considerable attention for Catherine in the U.S.She was featured on the cover and in a story
in the July 1964 issue of Cosmopolitan, and she was also the subject of
a feature story in the May
2, 1964 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.
was a dream come true for the press, because she was the daughter of well-known
screenwriter Charles Spaak, was the niece of famed Belgian politician
Paul-Henri Spaak, and had married actor Fabrizio Capucci (of the Capucci
fashion-design family) in February of 1963, while seven months pregnant with
their first child.Amazingly, after
giving birth to daughter Sabrina in April of 1963, Catherine shot a film called
The Little Nuns before commencing
work on The Empty Canvas in
July.By the time the film reached U.S.
shores, Catherine and Capucci had already split, including a well-publicized
incident at the Italian border, where authorities stopped Catherine as she was
trying to leave the country with her infant daughter.I am sure that the tabloids of the day were
all over this story.
The Empty Canvas has never been released on DVD
in North America, but it was released by Embassy Home Entertainment in an
English language version on VHS in 1987. With The Criterion
Collection’s impressive recent release of the 1962 Italian classic Il sorpasso (aka The Easy Life), in which Catherine has a prominent supporting role,
the time is ripe for rediscovery in America of her classic work in The Empty Canvas as well.Furthermore, there should be no Bette Davis film
from the 1960’s that is unavailable on DVD
in the U.S.
On a windy night, a black-clad stranger
rides into Daugherty City, Texas.He
flips a coin to ascruffy drunk who is
strapped for the price of a drink. He exposes a crooked dice game in the local
saloon, where most of the townsfolk seem to be congregated.Then he departs.In the meantime, down the street, a gang of
acrobatic robbers breaks into the bank and heists a safe containing $100,000 in
Army payroll money.The getaway crew
escapes town before a wounded trooper can raise the alarm, but out on the trail
they run into the stranger, Sabata, who picks them off with a tricked-out rifle
and recovers the stolen money.
Thus, in under 15 minutes of running time,
Gianfranco Parolini neatly sets up the events that will drive the remaining 90
minutes of his 1969 Spaghetti Western, "Ehi amico... c'è
Sabata, hai chiuso!" -- better known simply as “Sabata,” as United
Artists retitled the English-dubbed version that debuted in the U.S. in
1970.The original Italian
title translates to something like, “Hey, Pal, Sabata’s Here, You Lose” . . .
or maybe closer to the film’s rambunctious spirit, “. . . You’re Screwed.”
Bracketing the opening credits, Parolini
economically introduces most of the movie’s main characters, establishes their
personalities, and through their interactions with Sabata and each other,
defines the interpersonal relationships that will drive the plot.
Sabata (Lee Van Cleef), the sharp-eyed “man
who knows,” as the drunk Carrincha (Pedro Sanchez) calls him, deduces that the
men behind the attempted robbery are the local businessman Stengel, his partner
Ferguson, and their crony Judge O’Hara (Gianni Rizzo).He approaches them and demands $10,000 in hush
money.Refusing, Stengel dispatches one
assassin after another to kill him.Stengel’s henchman Slim, a hulking gunman named Sharky, two hit men
dressed like the Earp brothers, and a nervous killer disguised as a clergyman
all try and fail.With each attempt,
Sabata raises his price higher and higher.
An old acquaintance, barroom minstrel Banjo
(William Berger), one of the supporting characters deftly sketched in the
opening saloon scene, ambles in and out from the periphery, toting his own
tricked-out weapon, a carbine hidden under his musical instrument.Sometimes he sides with Sabata for money,
sometimes he works for Stengel; in any event, not to be trusted by either.He and a greedy saloon girl, Jane, have a
sort of romance characterized by mutual boredom and availability.Carrincha and a mute Indian acrobat, Alley
Cat (Nick Jordan), help Sabata.
Arguably, “Sabata” represented the high
tide of Spaghetti Western popularity in the States in 1970, benefiting from the
box-office success of Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking films and preceding the
decline of the genre as it sputtered toward a slow box-office death in the
mid-‘70s.Where Leone’s movies were
generally panned by mainstream U.S. media on their initial release, but
nevertheless attracted a small early following of more progressive critics,
“Sabata” ironically met the opposite reception.
Major outlets like The New York Times gave
it good notices, but the pioneering book-length studies of the genre by
Christopher Frayling and Laurence Staig & Tony Williams were lukewarm.Staig and Williams dismissed it as “a mixture
of gimmickry and borrowed themes.”Citing Banjo’s hidden carbine, Frayling said that the movie was one of
the “derivatives” inspired by Leone’s scenes in which “guns are fired from
Other commentators over the years have
noted additional Leone influences.Before you see Sabata’s face in the opening scenes, Parolini gives us a
shot down the main street of Daugherty City, framed between Sabata’s boots in close-up
--a favorite Leone visual angle.Paralleling the three lead charactersof “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,”
Parolini (who also co-scripted with Renato Izzo) builds the action around an
unflappable protagonist, an icy bad guy, and a talkative, slippery secondary
lead.Sabata’s black suit, black
military coat, and fanciful weapons recallColonel Mortimer’s from Van Cleef’s break-out Spaghetti role in “For a
Few Dollars More.”
The argument that Leone cast a long shadow
over Parolini’s movie is valid as far as it goes, but then Leone cast a long
shadow over all the Italian Westerns that followed after his enormously
successful pictures with Clint Eastwood.If we acknowledge that “Sabata” often follows the visual and dramatic
conventions of Leone’s movies, it’s only fair to Parolini to note that he
alsodeparted from those conventions in
ways that other Spaghetti directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima,
and Luigi Vanzi generally didn’t.
For example, like John Ford, Leone held a
sentimental reverence for the sanctity of the traditional family; the families
in his movies symbolize social stability.There are no traditional parents and children in Parolini’s universe,
even if a kid’s chorus heard in the movie’s bouncytitle tune suggests there will be.The only offspring and parent in “Sabata” are
Sharky -- a burly, slovenly adult -- and his gray-haired old virago of a
mother, who berates him verbally and physically for not settling a score with
their neighbors the Mallorys.“They stole
your woman, didn’t they?”she
shrieks.No, Sharky retorts, “you sold
her to the Mallorys.”
Carrincha, who looks a bit like Sharky in
girth and disheveled appearance, laments his life of thirst and poverty: “I
curse the mother who bore me, and my brother, and my whole family.”Almost everything Carrincha says is prone to
exaggeration, so it’s difficult to know whether this sentiment is real or
not.Regardless, it mirrors and
reinforces the satiric relationship between Sharky and his mother, poles away
from the traditional relationships portrayed by Leone and Ford.
Playing with the “trio” aspect of “The
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Parolini assigns the trickster role of “the Ugly”
not to the boisterous Mexican (in name, at least) Carrancha, as Eli Wallach’s
Tuco was “the Ugly” in Leone’s movie, but to theAnglo drifter, Banjo.This way, Parolini finds not only differences
but also similarities between the two characters, including allusions to a
shared history during and after the Civil War and maybe a shared past outside
the law.This gives their relationship
an extra dimension not present in the relationship between the Good and the
Ugly in the Leone movie.
Critics and fans who appreciate “Sabata” on
its own terms usually employ terms like “hectic and chaotic,” and
“fun” that’s “not to be taken too seriously.”The movie hardly lets up for a moment (none of Leone’s long, measured
takes), but a term like “chaotic” can be misleading if you think it means slipshod.In fact, even though Parolini doesn’t build
the movie around a mystery asLeone does
in “For a Few Dollars More” (what do those seemingly shared flashback memories
by Colonel Mortimer and Indio mean?) or around a character arc as Sollima does
in “The Big Gundown” and Corbucci in “The Mercenary,” “Sabata” has its own
ingenious design.Beyond the action,
stunts, and cynical humor, “Sabata” bears repeated viewing to appreciate the
two techniques that Parolini uses to bring unity to the film.
One technique is
repetition.Little details that appear
in one scene in the visuals or in the dialogue will unexpectedly and sometimes
subtly reappear later in a different context.Slim’s loaded dice in the opening saloon scene always come up 7.There are seven men in the getaway crew from
the bank robbery whom Sabata ambushes.When Sabata checks into a hotel in Daugherty City, Banjo’s squeeze Jane
gives him Room 7 -- “next to mine,” she says suggestively.(Sabata isn’t interested.As Jules Feiffer once observed of Superman,
he is so self-sufficient and self-confident that he doesn’t need to pursue
every woman he encounters, or even to respond to every pass that comes his
Parolini’s other technique is
music.Like Ennio Morricone’s
compositions for Leone, Marcello Giombini’s score is integrated into “Sabata”
as an essential part of Parolini’s fabric.Like Morricone, Giombini
tailors certain musical themes and cues to specific characters in the
story.As John Mansell observes in his
liner notes for a 2001 CD soundtrack edition, Sabata’s theme incorporates “a
rather buoyant sounding guitar piece … interspersed with a solo muted trumpet,
occasional harpsichord flourishes plus the added support of choir, which is
carried along on a backing of slightly upbeat percussion.”Banjo’s theme is a cocky melody plucked on
his namesake instrument, sometimes augmented by jingling bells like those sewn
on his trousers.
But Mansell’s description of Sabata’s
theme, while insightful, fails to note that the theme also incorporates a
glissando passage like the swirling of the wind.Sabata is associated with the wind throughout
the movie.In the first scene,
tumbleweeds blow down the street and lamplight flutters as Sabata rides into
Daugherty City.In the closing scene,
Parolini and Sabata use the wind to the same ironic effect that John Huston
used it at the end of “Treasure of Sierra Madre” and Stanley Kubrick in the
finale of “The Killing.”Although Judge
O’Hara wonders if Sabata is a government agent, and Stengel snaps back that
“he’s nothing -- just a drifter who’s after our money,” the man in black
perhaps suggests his true elemental nature when he advises Stengel in one
exchange: “Don’t shoot at the wind.”
Parolini and Giombini also take their
partnership one step further than Leone and Morricone did in their
collaborations.In Morricone’s scores,
Leone’s primary characters have (in the words of Staig and Williams) their own
“individual musical signatures” -- the template followed by Parolini with
Sabata’s and Banjo’s themes.The
difference is that, in Morricone’s scores, in any one scene where the character
either enters or dominates the action, his theme predominates.Parolini combines his individual themes for
Sabata and Banjo as point and counterpoint in the same scene to underscore the
two gunmen’s shared history and one-up rivalry.
Banjo’s theme sounds a little like the old
military marching tune, “The British Grenadier,” a reminder of Banjo’s allusion
to his and Sabata’s Civil War past on different sides of the conflict: “You in
the North and me in the South.”In their
first meeting after Sabata’s arrival in town, Banjo plays a mocking version of
the tune, in increasingly frantic tempo, as if trying to get under the other
man’s skin.Sabata stops the performance
by shooting one of the pegs off the banjo.“You were out of tempo,” he says dryly.
the end of the film, as Banjo leaves Daugherty City in apparent triumph after a
pivotal final encounter with Sabata, a merry version of his banjo theme begins
to play, bolstered by a fife and drum that underlines the similarity to
military marching music.The jingle of
bells joins in with a close-up of the bells on Banjo’s trousers.The viewer senses that this is the victorious
music that Banjo probably hears in his own imagination.However, Sabata’s wind-theme presently swirls
in.As if in competition, the strum of
the banjo gains tempo, becoming increasingly insistent.Remembering the association of the fast-tempo
strumming with the much earlier scene in which Banjo was humiliated, you may
anticipate that Banjo’s present victory will be short-lived, too.
There isn’t an official 45th anniversary
edition of “Sabata,” but the Swiss label Explosive Media recently released a
new Blu-Ray combo pack that also includes a DVD print, a supplemental disc of
interviews and features, and a nice souvenir booklet in German, copiously
illustrated with stillsand pictures of
various international posters.
“Sabata” and the two Parolini films that
immediately followed it are popularly known as “The Sabata Trilogy,” although
only one is a true sequel.“Indio
Black, sai che ti dico: Sei un gran figlio di . . .,” released in Italy in
1970, was imported to the U.S. the following year as “Adios, Sabata.”Yul Brynner played the hero who wears black,
this time a black fringed shirt and bell-bottom trousers instead of Lee Van
Cleef’s more formal outfit.In the
Italian version, he’s Indio Black; in the dubbed U.S. print, Sabata.
Both movies are strongly linked in casting
and style.Three of the major supporting
roles in the two movies are occupied by the same actors (Jordan, Rizzo,
Sanchez) and fulfill similar functions in character and plot.Dean Reed, who looks like the young Roger
Moore, plays an opportunist named Ballantine who serves as this film’s surrogate
for Banjo.There are several big-action
set pieces, mostly involving Sabata’s mission in Mexico to relieve a tyrannical
officer, Colonel Skimmel, of a hoard of gold during the revolution against
“Adios, Sabata” is an entertaining Spaghetti
with a bigger cast of extras and more explosions than its predecessors.One set piece, in which Sabata sends the
no-good Murdock Brothers to their “just reward” in a showdown at the Bounty
Hunters’ Agency, is particularly well dialogued and choreographed.
But “Sabata” is the better movie, partly
because Van Cleef and Berger had stronger chemistry than Brynner and Reed, and
partly because Brynner’s character is a more traditional soldier of fortune and
do-gooder (he’s friends with benevolent old priests and small children) than
Van Cleef’s enigmatic loner.Although
Bruno Nicolai’s score for “Alias Sabata” is quite good on its own terms, the
title track emulating the full-on symphonic, choral sound of Morricone’s
Spaghetti music, it isn’t as ingeniously integrated into the movie as
Giombini’s composition was.
authentic sequel to “Sabata,” released in Italy in 1971 as "È
tornato Sabata... hai chiuso un'altra volta," reached the States in 1972
as “Return of Sabata.”Lee Van Cleef
returns as the lead character, and Giombini returns as the soundtrack composer,
but unfortunately this movie doesn’t measure up to its predecessors.
As in “Sabata,”Van Cleef’s character rides
into a town where a cabal of seemingly respectable citizens is engaged in nefarious
activity.This time, the heavies are
the outwardly pious McIntocks who trumpet civic expansion in Hobsonville by
raising money for new buildings and businesses.They do so by imposing exorbitant taxes on the town’s goods and
In truth, patriarch Joe McIntock is
conniving with his brother-in-law, banker Jeremy Sweeney, to smuggle the money
out of town for his own enrichment.Sabata, who arrives in Hobsonville as a sharpshooter in a traveling circus
sideshow, following a hunch about something being rotten somewhere, uncovers
the fraud.As in “Sabata,” he demands
blackmail from the bad guys in return for keeping their secret.The McIntocks, reluctant to pay, send a
series of would-be assassins after him.
Again, Parolini employs his stock troupe of
Jordan, Rizzo, and Sanchez in supporting roles, and inserts a slippery
intermediary character, Clyde (Reiner Schone).Clyde, like Banjo, shares a Civil War past with Sabata.Giombini’s music isn’t as ingenious as his
score for the first movie, and the circus aspect of the story never quite jells
with the plot about the McIntocks’ scam; as a whole, the movie lacks the little
visual and aural details that wove “Sabata” together.
Another problem: Sabata loses much of the
steely, enigmatic quality that defined his personality in the first movie.In “Return of Sabata,” an old girlfriend, a
hooker named Maggie, drifts into town, and Sabata shacks up with her.Maggie is never quite integrated into the
story either.Sabata as a mysterious
loner in the original film was intriguing.As a more conventional character with a sexy main squeeze, like a hero
out of a paperback adult western, he isn’t.Still, “Return of Sabata” hardly merits a place among the “50 Worst
Movies of All Time,” as the Medved brothers asserted in their 1978 book.Maybe Parolini has the last laugh: the Sabata
movies live on while the Medved book is long forgotten.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER "THE SABATA TRILOGY" FROM AMAZON USA
(For information about Explosive Media's Blu-ray European special editions, click here. For more information, see the story in Cinema Retro issue #29. Click below to purchase).
Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal (2014) is the one of the creepiest, most brilliantly
photographed and edited psychological studies I have seen of late.An utterly frightening and unsettling concoction,
The Canal, which screened last month
at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, pulls no punches in creating an overwhelming
feeling of dread while constantly keeping the audience on its guard.
David (Rupert Evans) is a film
archivist who appears to have a wonderful home life. He and his expectant wife Alice (Hannah
Hoekstra) visit a prospective house, with a canal not far off, to settle in. As Alice inspects the layout, David sees what
appears to be someone walking through the first floor. Vexed, he swears that he saw someone. Or did he? Five years hence their lives appear ordinary with the addition of their
young son, Billy (Calum Heath). Alice
keeps telling David she loves him prior to leaving for work or following mechanical
sex. It arouses suspicion; at a dinner
party, Alice rushes off to speak with a client, Alex (Carl Shabaan), but David
notices intimate exchanges between the two and when she returns to dance with him,
and we see the estrangement on their faces.
At work, David’s work partner Claire
(Antonia Campbell-Hughes) tells him that new footage has come in and needs to
be viewed for archiving. He is shocked
to learn that it is a detail of a 1902 crime scene that took place inside the
bedroom that he and his wife now occupy (this is a point that the estate agent
naturally neglected to impart to the couple.) The footage has the look and feel of authenticity (the effect could have
probably been created in post-production on a computer utilizing a high brow
software package) and director Kavanagh shot the crime scene aftermath with a 1915 Universal movie camera by using the
lowest speed black and white 35mm stock that he and his crew could find. The film delves more into a ghost
story that recalls The Shining
(1980), The Ring (2005), and The Innkeepers (2011) in terms of
imagery and mood. Veteran composer Ceiri Torjussen provides a brilliantly
effective, frightening and memorable score.
David starts to become unhinged. When his wife prepares to go to work, David
pleads with her to come straight home and she promises to. After work, David follows her as she and
Alex, their affair now obviously confirmed, walk to Alex’s house which is
opposite a canal. David follows them
from a distance, and catches them in the midst of sexual passion, leaving him
feeling betrayed and disillusioned. He
stumbles into the worst cinematic toilet seen since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and begins to see
flashes of the murder that occurred well over 100 years ago. Like the best ghost stories, The Canal presents us with images that
give us pause to determine if they are real or if they are just happening in
the mind of the protagonist.
When David’s wife goes missing, he
contacts the police and tries desperately to locate her. The lead officer on the case (Steve Oram)
immediately suspects David killed her and asks him straight out; David is
bewildered by the inquiry. His son Billy
is too young to understand the concepts of disappearance and death; Sophie the
nanny (Kelly Byrne) is concerned for Billy’s welfare but is also afraid for her
own safety and as David becomes more and more frenetic she feels the need to
The film is beset in imagery that
references pregnancy and childbirth; water, as it did in Robert Altman’s
dreamlike 3 Women (1977), plays a big
factor, as does duality. The references
in The Canal are two-fold – there is
the canal where David’s wife’s body is found, and the birth canal is referenced
in a scene of unnerving horror.
Canal had me watching the end
credits in silent anticipation, holding my breath until the final sounds on the
soundtrack ended abruptly. It is a
visceral, gripping film experience, one to be ideally experienced
theatrically. Viewers will get that
chance in months to come when the film is released in 20 market
In 1977, a
low-budget flick about the New York disco scene became a sudden sensation.
Today it looms large in the pantheon of iconic cinema. Several of its moments,
however, allude to another equally iconic film. Well, more so than that Wizard
of Oz/’Dark Side of the Moon’ myth, anyway.
Saturday Night Fever’s success was undoubtedly attributed
to several factors. There are gripping performances, multi-dimensional
characters and a soaring soundtrack featuring the Bee Gees that steals the
show. At the heart of it all is an undeniably compelling story.
Travolta) lives in Brooklyn with his parents, sister and grandmother. He works
at a hardware store and on Saturdays, treks to the local discotheque where he
reigns supreme as the neighborhood’s premier disco dancer. He parties, drinks
and carouses with his buddies then goes home and sleeps it off, dreaming of
more in life. ‘Night fever’: he knows how to do it and has fun but something is
missing and at age nineteen he’s “gettin’ old”. The adoration he receives is
only so rewarding, his relationships superficial. His ignorant friends provoke
outside ethnic gangs, plunging them into brawls and Anette (Donna Pescow), a
confused young woman who tags along, pressures Tony with advances in hopes of
joining the ranks of her “married sisters”. His home life is no less
complicated. Dinner table spats, though run-of-the-mill for the Maneros are
exacerbated by Dad’s unemployment. Nevertheless, we see beneath the surface a
caring, loving family. The “character” of Tony’s nearly silent grandmother is
really to exemplify the multi-generational unit of the Italian-American family.
brother, Frank Jr.(Martin Shakar), the priest who “ain’t a priest no more”. His
decision to leave the church causes a rift within their household and makes
Tony reexamine his own choices. Tony’s brother often comes off as a surreal paradox.
Though repeatedly spoken of, he curiously is never seen with any family members
other than Tony. Were it not for his character being discussed in other scenes,
he would seem a figment of Tony’s imagination. It’s even tempting to think of
him as a component of Tony’s inner psyche. The name ‘Father Frank Junior’
itself, a contradiction in terms, he is essentially a cautionary figure for
Tony to observe. He warns his brother not to act out someone else’s dream but
to do what feels best for himself.
feels very wrong to say the least. His friends are treading down a path of
drugs and recklessness. Misogyny and racism are ingrained in their sub-culture (Tellingly,
network and basic cable presentations of the film censor its racial slurs until
the pivotal diatribe where Tony denounces the group’s bigoted ways. To the
censors, these slurs are deplorable and unnecessary unless used sympathetically).
Looking for a way out, Tony searches new paths. He stares oddly at the Verrazano
Bridge to “get ideas”.
One idea he soon
gets is to try his hand at the club’s dance competition with the slightly
stuck-up Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a fellow Brooklynite who shares a
slowly developing sexual tension with Tony. They meet for lunch and she
belittles him, condescendingly boasting about big dreams and famous people she
has met. His ostensible unfamiliarity with the names she rattles off is belied by
the numerous pop culture images adorning his wall at home. Appropriately, one
of them is of Rocky.
1976, Rocky made a household name of Sylvester Stallone who portrayed
Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia underdog willing to subject himself to anything
for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world heavyweight championship title.
A Stallone motif
arguably surfaces throughout Tony Manero’s life, even if that name could have stumped him too. Compare Fever with
Rocky and interesting parallels are obviated. Both center on characters
who “take a shot”, using God-given gifts to attain something better in life
than the perfunctory humdrum they face. Tony and Rocky both excel at their craft yet are still perceived as local losers
and each go out of their way to win the heart of a woman who seems their
virtual opposite. Both men sadly realize they have settled in with negative
people who keep them subjugated and bury their dreams. And… oh yeah, did I
mention their names almost rhyme?
significantly, in Rocky, the title hero advises a young girl on the dangers of
allowing boys to mistreat and disrespect her. In vain, he explains how it will
only leave her used, hurt and alone. In Fever, Tony takes on this similar
role of the sage, educating Anette on how there are only “two kinds of girls-nice girls and pigs!” He elaborates on how she cannot be both and must decide
early on in life which to be. From what annals of wisdom this philosophy is
taken we simply do not know, but it is certainly likely that he ‘gets ideas’
from more than a bridge.
In the end, it
would seem, the story resumed with a closing credit sequence as the Bee Gees crooned
“How Deep is Your Love”. Who could have guessed then that the connection would
be driven home when Stallone himself would write, direct and produce Fever’s
sequel, Staying Alive. Tony’s rollercoaster life is further chronicled
a few years later, still ‘taking a shot’, this time on Broadway. And… speaking
of Broadway, guess where Rocky is slugging it out right now?
It was the oddest entry in the film career of esteemed director Arthur Penn. The 1969 film adaptation of folk singer Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant has endured as a popular cult hit. Writer Christopher Robinson provides an interesting analysis of the movie on the Rare Cult Cinema web site. Ironically, the movie is out of print on DVD. How about bringing out a special edition? Click here to read.
"More Than thea Rainbow" is director Dan Wechsler's homage to New York street photographer Matt Weber. What is a "street photographer"? He/she is someone who simply wanders around the city they reside in snapping photographs at a rapid-fire rate in the hopes of capturing some spontaneous bit of magic. Weber prowls the back streets and main drags of Manhattan, the beaches of Coney Island and anywhere else he might find everyday people engaging in interesting activities. These might include playing with children, having casual sex in an open area, frolicking at the seaside, sleeping on sidewalks or park benches or engaging in violence. Weber's photos tell the story of a city: the good, the bad and the ugly. Weber looks like an unmade bed and talks in machine-gun fire fashion to such an extent that it often becomes exhausting just listening to him. However, he has an interesting story to tell and his photographs, which are seen abundantly throughout the film, are indeed mesmerizing. Weber began driving a taxi cab during the 1970s when Scorese and De Niro immortalized the profession in their classic 1976 Taxi Driver. In those days, Gotham was a deteriorating behemoth, with crime and pollution out of control. Weber ultimately sold his cab (an action he still sometimes regrets) in order to take to it to the streets to photograph the most exciting city on the planet. He admits that he got a significant financial boost to his meager income when he accepted $500,000 to move from his apartment many years ago. (The developer ended up going bankrupt before he could renovate the building into a luxury complex.) With a degree of financial security, Weber shoots photos virtually non-stop, admitting that the most memorable photos come about unexpectedly. He asks no permission from his subjects and shoots their photos before most of them have time to react or object. He's strictly old school, shooting in B&W on 35mm film. He describes the wonders of using his darkroom equipment to see an image appear from a blank piece of paper before his eyes-- and the viewer ends up sharing in his enthusiasm. (He does acknowledge the expense and limitations of 35mm vs. digital and seems to be weakening in his refusal to work in the format.)
The movie, which is set to funky jazz music by Theolonius Monk and Keith Gurland, is a rich looking production, considering its a rather low-budget affair. Wechsler, like his subject, is also old school and has shot at least some of the film in 35mm. The movie is bit schizophrenic in terms of its content. Although Weber is clearly the main subject, Wechsler also interviews numerous colleagues of his who are also street photographers. The problem is that the film begins to treat them not only as people who comment on Weber's life and work, but also subject matters themselves. Thus, the movie often drifts from its original intention, which is to present Weber as the focus of the piece. The other photographers are an interesting lot, however. Some are likable and engaging, others are so pretentious they remind one of the types of pretentious snobs who are satirized in Woody Allen comedies. One of the photographers, Eric Kroll, seems a bit out of place here. He does offer some biting criticism of Weber's work, which is refreshing in an otherwise cinematic wet kiss to its subject, but Kroll is not a street photographer in the traditional sense. Rather, he specializes in elaborate, staged sexual fetishes and there are plenty of eye-popping examples of his work in the film. He is also inexplicably joined throughout the interview by a lovely, well-endowed young lady who is virtually silent and sits attired in a corset that presents her two main assets in an almost 3-D effect. But what is she, or Kroll for that matter, doing in the film? They seem placed there purely for purposes of titillation.
The movie is at its best when it sticks with Weber himself. He relates his transformation from taxi driver to photographer and along the way there are interviews with his wife (presumably ex-wife, as it is revealed they were in the process of getting a divorce during filming.) She is a rather unique character in her own way. She damns Weber with faint praise by listing his attributes while simultaneously telling viewers he's virtually impossible to live with. In a bizarre moment, she also assures the viewer that, not to worry, despite problems in the marriage, their sex life was satisfactory.
More Than the Rainbow's greatest attributes are Weber's photographs and director Wechsler wisely lets the pictures do the talking throughout most of the film. His cameras linger lovingly on some fascinating slice-of-life shots that are mini works of art. A homeless man with a resemblance to Van Gogh sleeps on the sidewalk under posters that promote an exhibition of the artist's works. The beginnings of a brutal fight between two men arguing in the street are caught on camera. Small children in Harlem stand outside a seedy bar in their Sunday finest on Easter. A group of young sailors give Weber a cautionary glance as they move past the porn palaces of old Times Square. Weber is clearly among those who extol the virtues of that era. Many don't. The past is always glamorized but, while the edginess and danger of New York in those days does have an appeal in retrospect and in Weber's photographs, for many of us the "new" New York, with its cleaner streets and low crime rates, is a far better place. Still, it's fun to revisit the bad old days through Weber's extraordinary photos.
More Than the Rainbow is an ambitious and highly entertaining film about a genuine New York "character" who is every bit as intriguing as the subjects he photographs.
The film opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on May 2 and in L.A. at the Arena Cinema on May 24.
Sheila Exteberria and Ed Ryan in Nathan Silver's new indie film Soft in the Head.
By Don L. Stradley
There is a
startling scene in Nathan Silver’s Soft
In The Head where Natalia, a reckless woman/child who causes trouble
wherever she goes, looks at her
reflection in a cracked compact mirror. The effect of the crack distorts
her face to where she looks like one of the garish women in a Willem De Kooning
painting.It’s jolting, for we’ve
suspected Natalia is a monster of sorts, the type of young woman who is
destined to be a skid row casualty, but is still young enough to manipulate a
few men here and there. In the cracked
reflection, we get a glimpse of Natalia’s true self, or at the very least, a
peek at her grotesque future.
When we first
see Natalia she’s being smacked around by her boyfriend. She leaves him, but
intends to go back at some point because she believes the reunion will be
passionate. Love and self-destruction seem abutted in her mind. After
showing up drunk at the family home of her friend Hannah, Natalia wanders into
the night, oblivious to the catcalls from street people who mock her. She
intends to spend the night on the sidewalk, until she meets Maury, a
well-meaning fellow who has turned his home into a sanctuary for derelicts. Maury invites Natalia over for dinner where
she sits among men seemingly plucked from a touring production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Natalia isn’t intimidated, though. She’s
in her element, letting a bunch of homeless men fawn over her.
Even at her
lowest, Natalia’s able to work her way into the hearts of vulnerable males,
including Hannah’s shy brother Nathan. He’s so smitten by her that he
steals one of his mother’s necklaces for her, which sets off a major row in his
very old-fashioned Jewish household. Nathan’s parents seem a bit thick – their
son can barely dress himself or hold a conversation (Natalia describes him at
one point as “mildly autistic…like a baby…”) but they spend an entire scene badgering
him to meet a nice girl and give them some grandchildren. When he
announces that Natalia has won his heart, their shock is off the charts.
have already compared Soft In The Head
to the films of John Cassavetes, but the comparison works at only the most
superficial level. Cassavetes’ casts were headed by highly charismatic
Hollywood actors – Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, etc. Soft In The Head has no such glossy
veneer, being made up of unknown New York actors who often look like they’re
reaching, trying to be “real,” but also struggling to be amusing.
Silver, to his credit, allows his actors plenty of room for a kind of
realistic give and take, but his scenes can’t match one of Cassavetes’
high-wire acts. Also, Silver’s not aiming for the kind of philosophical
statements that gave Cassavetes’ films an ersatz profundity. Silver’s aiming at smaller targets, but even
so, his scenes feel self-conscience, as if he’s a bit too in love with the idea
of being a filmmaker. Silver lets the camera linger on
Natalia while she combs her hair out of her face, or sucks at her crooked teeth;
it’s rare in recent movies that a camera has so desperately adored a female
subject, as if Silver, too, is under Natalia’s spell. (Still, even with
shots that go on too long, Silver brings the movie in at a tight 75 minutes,
something Cassavetes could never do!)
Soft In The Head doesn’t remind me of Cassavetes as
much as it reminds me of certain films, novels and plays of the 1960s (i.e. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Dutchman, Tell
Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon). It was a genre with no name, but the
distinctive trait was a melting pot of disparate characters (usually one African-American,
a Jew, a war veteran, a hooker, a homosexual, an old man, and a hippie). They’d
be thrown together, usually during a power failure or a housing shortage, or they’d
be stuck in the same subway car. Tempers would flair. The stories usually ended with a murder or a
suicide, the remaining characters huddling together, waiting for the
police. Soft In The Head goes
that way, too, but not in the way you might imagine.
the usual narrative pattern we’d expect in a film like this one. He’s less
interested in developing plots than in throwing some characters together to see
what transpires. You can feel his love for these people, but this technique doesn’t
allow the characters to take charge of the story. They have altercations that feel like acting
class exercises, but nothing moves the plot forward. The sense we get is that the story is
fidgeting, chasing its own tail. More, for instance, could have been done with
Maury and his band of idiots. Where
Silver really dropped the ball was in the storyline involving Natalia and
Nathan (their names even mirror each other) are two sides of the same person.
Both are painfully immature, unable to stake out a spot in the adult world: one
is homeless; the other still lives with
his parents. Both could be described as
soft in the head. Nathan is pure,
knowing nothing of the weird games that go on between males and females, while
Natalia, dense though she may be, has mastered those games. Nathan is horrified
by Natalia’s revelation that she actually enjoys being abused, but just when
that part of the story is gaining momentum, Silver lets it trail off…
Perhaps from a
youthful flaunting of the rules, Silver shuffles the deck on us and gives us an
ending that is unexpected, but also unengaging. He might have been better served if he’d
chosen one of his plot strings and followed it to a conclusion, rather than
floating from one plot to the next. Silver has some good instincts, though, and I’ll
look forward to the day when he acquaints himself with the nuts and bolts of
storytelling. As it is, Soft In The
Head is a strangely intriguing work. It’s flawed, but unique. No one but Silver could have made it.
is believable as Natalia, bringing to the role a kind of ratty vulnerability.
There are some good turns by other actors, too, including Ed Ryan as
the enigmatic Maury, and Theodore
Bouloukos as David, the most volatile of
Maury’s guests. Carl Kranz, bless him,
has an almost thankless role as Nathan. Here’s
an isolated young guy who decorates his room with Woody Allen posters as
if he’s searching for the right nebbish to model himself after, but instead of
meeting Diane Keaton he meets Natalia. Something tells me he’ll soon tear
down Sleeper and replace it with The Blue Angel.
The addictive retro-based web site Hill Place offers an extensive analysis and appreciation of John Ford's The Were Expendable, an homage to the heroic U.S. Navy men who manned the P.T. Boats in WWII. The flick starred Robert Montgomery and John Wayne and is today considered one of the best movies in the WWII genre. However, at the time of its release at the very end of the conflict, it was vastly under-appreciated by a war-weary public that just wanted to indulge in relatively lightweight fare. (The same fate befell Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which was considered by many to be too downbeat for audiences that had just undergone years of personal suffering).
Click here to read the article about They Were Expendable and realize why it represents Ford at his best.
poster screamed: “Most criminals answer to the law. The world’s most savage
executioner must answer to Bronson.” Since the late 1960s, Charles Bronson’s
name on a marquee was a guarantee of unchained action. When The Evil That Men Do opened in 1984, fans
were hit with the expected violence─but this time they were also assaulted with
thick layers of sadism, sleaze and depravity. And they loved it.
Born in 1921, Charles
Bronson (originally Bunchinsky) was a dirt-poor Pennsylvania coal miner before
he was drafted and later used the GI Bill to study acting. After dozens of
small roles, he became a popular supporting player in hit films like The
Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963)─then went
overseas to star in European pictures like Farewell, Friend (1967), Once
Upon a Time in the West (1967) and Rider on the Rain (1970).
Although ignored in the States─where they were shelved or
sparsely-released─Bronson’s foreign films were international blockbusters and
made him one of the biggest superstars in the world. With the vigilante-themed
American movie Death Wish (1974), Bronsonfinally became huge at
U.S. theaters and he followed it with worldwide hits including Breakout
(1975) and Breakheart Pass (1975). By the early 1980s, weak entries like
Love and Bullets (1979) and Borderline (1980) weren’t doing much
at North American box offices, but the Bronson name (with the right material)
could still secure financing.
Looking for suitable material was independent producer
Pancho Kohner─son of Paul Kohner, the successful Hollywood agent and the
longtime representative of Bronson. Pancho Kohner had already produced the
Bronson vehicles St. Ives (1976), The White Buffalo (1977), and Love
and Bullets. He recalls, “[Bronson] always liked to satisfy his audience.
He knew what his audience expected of him. He didn’t want to deviate too far.
He did a couple of films that were different, but mostly he knew what his
audience expected of him and that’s what he wanted to do.”
look for material that will entertain,” Bronson once said. “I’ve sustained
because I’m sympatico with the material I do and the other way around. An actor
shouldn’t just think of doing things he
might enjoy doing. I think first of the audience, not of myself, but of the
movie fans all around the world who want to be entertained.”
Kohner’s search led to an action novel called
The Evil That Men Do. Published in November of 1978 by Times
Books, it dealt with a legendary assassin named Holland who
travels to Guatemala to take out Clement Moloch aka“The Doctor”─a
feared torturer described as “one of the most hideously depraved men in all the
darkest ranks of history…a man who stood in blood to the ankles.” Kirkus Reviews called the book “A
frightening, razor-slice thriller that holds the reader hostage until the last
shuddering climax.” Author R. Lance Hill’s previous novel, King of White Lady (1975) which was about a cocaine dealer, was
optioned several times by movie producers, but it stayed unfilmed. Bronson
initially passed on The Evil That Men Do, but in 1980 the screen rights were
purchased by a partnership consisting of Kohner, Bronson, Jill Ireland
(Bronson’s actress wife) and director J. Lee Thompson. Hill was commissioned to
turn his novel into a script.
J. Lee Thompson’s long directing career began
in the 1940s in England and his exceptional British films included the
suspenseful Tiger Bay (1959). Thompson relocated to Hollywood in 1960,
and the following year he helmed two action-suspense classics: Guns of
Navarone (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and Cape Fear. His
output included over a dozen more pictures before he first teamed with Bronson
and Kohner on St. Ives and The
While Kohner shopped the Evil That Men Do package, Bronson starred in Death Wish II for the Israeli filmmaking cousins Menahem
Golan and Yoram Globus, who had recently moved into the Hollywood movie market
by purchasing the distribution/production sleaze outfit the Cannon Group. In
1982 the Death Wish sequel went
to number-one at the U.S. box-office, was a huge international hit, revitalized
the Bronson name, and gave a major boost to Cannon’s image. Naturally, Golan
and Globus wanted a follow-up.
Kohner explains, “Golan wanted to do
Charlie’s next picture and [The Evil That Men Do was] the one that we were going to do next. We were going off to
Cannes to pre-sell foreign territories. I explained to Menahem that the rights
to the book and the cost of the screenplay was $200,000. Menahem said, ‘Well,
as a producer, that’s your contribution.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s very nice, but
I put up a third, Charlie put up a third, and J. Lee Thompson put up a third.
We must certainly reimburse them, if not me.’ He said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’
Menahem and I liked each other, but he didn’t want to back down. It became a
matter of principle. We were leaving the next day for Cannes. [Golan] said,
‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go to Cannes anyway and we’ll pre-sell the next
Bronson picture. When we come back in two weeks, we’ll find another story and
we will not make The Evil That Men Do. That’s how we came to do 10 to
Midnight . It wasn’t
until later that we made The Evil That Men Do.”
(The following review is based on a screening of the show on Amazon Prime. The program can be streamed for free to subscribers of the Amazon Prime service. For more on Amazon Prime, click the advertisement in the right column of this web page)
By Lee Pfeiffer
Although I don't have a scholarly knowledge of Jerry Lewis' career, having literally grown up during his heyday as a top boxoffice star, I thought I was fairly conversant in discussing both his successes and failures, of which there have been more than a few of each. Thus, I was surprised to learn that Lewis was releasing a rare 1959 NBC broadcast in which he starred as The Jazz Singer....yes, that Jazz Singer. The show was viewed by Lewis as his personal tribute to his idol, Al Jolson, who starred in the 1927 original feature film that became the first major "talkie". The concept is so corny it could be served on a cobb but there is no denying there is a timeless appeal to this story of a wayward son who opts to go into show business, thereby breaking the heart of his cantor father who wanted him to carry on the family tradition and sing in the synagogue. Danny Thomas had already starred in a 1952 remake and Neil Diamond would star in the 1980 feature film that earned scorn from critics but produced a hell of a top-selling soundtrack album.
The NBC broadcast is significant for a couple of reasons. For one, it represented a rare color presentation on NBC, the first network to go "all color" in the 1960s. At the time, however, a color television was a distant dream for most Americans and the vast majority of viewers undoubtedly saw the program in black and white as part of NBC's Lincoln-Mercury Startime anthology series. The show wouldn't last as it fell victim to more popular fare on other networks and it isn't known what the critical reaction was to the broadcast. The show was also significant in that it marked Lewis' first attempt at dramatic acting. Yes, there were those fleeting moments of pathos in most of his zany big screen comedies, but here Lewis plays it straight as Joachim Rabinowitz (aka "Joey Robbin"), who has been alienated from his father for five years due to his decision to perform as a "jazz singer". In reality, he is performing as Jerry Lewis, his act consisting of various shtick that includes crooning love songs, performing slapstick and telling jokes. (The latter two aspects of his act had to be included as, after hearing Lewis' warbling, no one would conceivably buy the notion that people would pay money to hear him sing. To coin the old phrase, "He couldn't carry a tune if it had handles!".) Joey impresses a famous singer Ginny Gibson (Anna Maria Albergehtti, who had just finished shooting Cinderfella with Lewis). Ginny arranges for him to secure a slot on her national variety show that could make Joey an instant star. In the interim, he makes a fateful decision to return for a surprise visit to his estranged father in order to celebrate his dad's 60th birthday. Initially things go well at the family gathering, but the old man (Eduard Franz) ends up chastising his son for not following in his footsteps and for ending a tradition of cantors that has lasted five generations. Once again estranged, Joey shows up to rehearse the all-important TV show appearance...only to learn that his father has collapsed and is gravely ill. His dying wish would be to have Joey take his place and sing at the synagogue. In order to do so, however, Joey will have to forego his one opportunity to gain fame and fortune. The plot creaks with cliches and age and you realize just how much Neil Diamond's rendition of "America" helped bail him out of tear-jerker conclusion. Nevertheless, Lewis performs admirably. He is never out of his depth in the dramatic aspects of the show and delivers a convincing performance that blends his usual zany gags with a genuine attempt to deliver a moving performance. The supporting cast is also good, including Molly Picon in full-blown "Jewish mother" mode. The quality of the broadcast is surprisingly crisp and clean, having undergone a restoration process.
This is not a TV classic but it is an interesting curiosity and any Jerry Lewis fan will want to experience this unusual, rarely-seen gem.
(The Jazz Singer is also available on DVD from the Jerry Lewis archives and includes a b&w version of the show as well as a featurette with his son Chris Lewis, who discusses the history of the broadcast and its restoration for home video. Click here to order from Amazon)
Eastwood and Siegel on the set of Dirty Harry in 1971.
They made five films together and all of them have stood the test of time. Clint Eastwood and his mentor, Don Siegel, gave us Dirty Harry, Coogan's Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, The Beguiled and Escape From Alcatraz. Each of these movies were not only highly entertaining, some have become classics of their respective genres. It was Siegel who encouraged Eastwood to make his directorial debut in 1971 with Play Misty For Me, and Eastwood would follow Siegel's penchant for shooting fast, efficiently and under-budget.Eastwood was a bit nervous about the prospect and persuaded Siegel to play a supporting role in the film simply so he would be on hand in case any problems arose behind the camera. The rest, as they say, is history. Eastwood would go on to dedicate his Oscar winning 1992 film Unforgiven to both Siegel and his original mentor, Sergio Leone. Den of Geek web site writer Aliyea Whiteley takes a look back on the collaborative films made by Eastwood and Siegel. Click here to read.
(For Cinema Retro's tribute to the original Dirty Harry films, see issue #9) Limited copies left: $30 includes postage)
would be easy to be cynical about yet another entry into one of the many
superhero franchises that seem to dominate the landscape of modern cinema these
days, but at least with “The Wolverine” there seems have been a conscious
effort to mark the film out as more than just another comic book summer
from the limited series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, “The Wolverine”
sets out to do what all good films should do, and that’s to allow the
characters to drive the story forward and thread the narrative with an
overarching theme. In short, “The Wolverine” attempts to be more of a
structured drama than a comic book adaptation, and in this it mostly it
sometime after the events of “X Men: The Last Stand”, Hugh Jackman’s Logan has
forsaken his identity as The Wolverine and is living rough in a cave in the Yukon
mountains. On a depressive, downward cycle, he mourns the death of Jean Gray,
(Famke Janssen) whom he visits in the netherworld between life and death. Jean tempts
Logan to join her in the afterlife, and yet, as much as he wishes it, his
immortality means he must remain tied to this world.
overarching theme of mortality is hammered home when Logan is brought to Japan
by the precognitive mutant Yukio and to the deathbed of her employer, Yashida -
a Japanese soldier who Logan saved at the bombing of Nagasaki. In the
intervening years, Yashida has gone on to become the head of the powerful
Yashida Corp. Like many powerful and ailing men, Yashida yearns for
immortality. He offers Logan a chance to pass his immortality on to him,
allowing Logan to live - and, crucially, die - as a normal, mortal man.
Logan isn’t ready to pass on his “gift”, seeing it more as a curse. He turns
Yashida down and resolves to return to his man cave. However, before Logan can get
back to his usual hobby of beating up hicks in bars, he encounters Yashida’s beautiful
granddaughter, Mariko. Mariko, it seems, is her grandfather’s favourite, which
puts her at great risk from her father, Shingen, and Logan’s protective
instinct clicks over into hyperdrive.
Yashida passes away and Logan’s “gift” is forcibly taken from him by the mutant
Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Logan is forced to not
only protect Mariko from the Yakuza, but also to come to terms with his own
This allows for a number of set pieces where
the reluctant and vulnerable Logan must unleash his wild side and let the
Wolverine’s claws come out. As he protects Maiko, he slowly begins to fall for
her. Perhaps now he has something to live for again?
However, it’s not long before the tables are
turned and we find ourselves marching squarely into a proper comic book third
act territory, full of fights, falls, and explosions. Sadly, although this is
where all the stops are let out, this is where the film is let down. Despite
all the eye candy on screen, this is also the point where all the characters
must find their resolution, which is never easy in an exploding villain’s lair
where everyone is fighting each other.
Viper, it is revealed, has an issue with Logan
- and men in general - but her character and her motivations are never really
explored or developed further than this, and she ends up being the most
directly caricatured of these comic book characters.
Yukio and Mariko, who have spent the film as
loyal sidekick and damsel in distress respectively, seem suddenly to have
little depth as soon as they are not fighting or running away from Yakuza.
Logan - now squarely Wolverine once again - does
actually get something of a resolution as he comes to terms with his mortality
and finally, rather than running from his nature, embraces it.
“The Wolverine” is, without a doubt, a more
character driven comic book film than many we’ve seen in recent times, and it’s
theme of mortality is deeper than one than we’d be used to encountering in this
kind of film. However, “The Wolverine” is a little too self-aware of its
attempted cleverness and often it feels as though it’s too heavy-handed in its
Despite this, “The Wolverine” still manages to
be a great deal of fun. Whilst it doesn’t pack the visual punch of “The
Avengers” or “Iron Man 3”, it does have more coherence and heart.
Jackman, although stepping into the Wolverine’s
boots for the sixth time, still brings the same energy and vigor to the role he
did when he first took it on thirteen years ago and any signs of weariness only
serve to highlight the character’s mental fatigue. He is clearly very comfortable
in this character’s skin (and muscle), which is fortunate, because, if the de rigueur post-credits teaser
is anything to go by, we’ll be seeing him in the role again soon.
(Ben Williams is a London-based contributor to Cinema Retro magazine and MI6 Confidential)
It's been quite a while since a film starring Robert Redford got a lot of positive buzz at film festivals. However, his offbeat starring role in a new film called All is Lost got a great reaction after its premiere showing at Cannes. Directed by JC Chandor, the movie depicts Redford as a lone sailor who finds himself in jeopardy on the high seas. The film is said to be masterfully directed and acted and its predicted Redford may score a Best Actor Oscar nomination even though he has no dialogue in the one-character adventure flick. For more click here
Heath was an English killer
responsible for the murders of two young women. He was executed by hanging in
London in 1946 (aged 29). Heath was a handsome and well-spoken sociopath who
could easily lure women to their doom.
In 1967, Alfred Hitchcock was trying to rebound
from the failure of the Cold War espionage thriller Torn Curtain with an
original screenplay entitled Frenzy (and later Kaleidoscope). The
unproduced project was to have been based on the crimes of serial rapist-killer
Heath, although the story would be set in the present day in and around New
York City. The original story would be told completely from the point of view
of a murderer who is both attractive and vulnerable.
Screenwriter Benn Levy wrote in a letter to
Hitchcock in January 1967: “It's got to be (based on) Heath, not (John George) Haigh
(the acid bath murderer). Told forwards, the Heath story is a gift from heaven.
You'd start with a ‘straight’ romantic meeting, handsome young man, pretty
girl. Maybe he rescues her from the wild molestations of a drunken escort. ‘I
can't stand men who paw every girl they meet.’ Get us rooting for them both. He
perhaps unhappily married and therefore a model of screen-hero restraint. She begins
to find him irresistibly ‘just a little boy who can't cope with life’ -- least
of all with domestic problems such as he has described. She's sexually maternal
with him, she'd give him anything -- and we're delighted. Presently a few of us
get tiny stirrings of disquiet at the physical love-scenes but don't quite know
why. By the time we see the climax of his love in action and her murder, then
even the slowest of us get it! But we shouldn't know till then.”
Rare trade ad for a film that was never made.
Frenzy would also be a stylistic
departure for Hitchcock. After watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up,
Hitchcock felt he had fallen behind the Italians in technique. Hitchcock
biographer Patrick McGilligan writes: “Watching one Antonioni, he sat up
straight at the sight of a man all in white in a white room. ‘White on white!’
he exclaimed to (his personal assistant and script supervisor) Peggy Robertson.
‘There, you see! It can be done!’”
Hitchcock was also impressed
by the camerawork improvisation of maverick American director John Cassavetes (Shadows). He asked the novelist Howard
Fast (Spartacus, Cheyenne Autumn) to sketch a treatment about a gay, deformed serial
killer. Pleased with the results, Hitchcock composed a shot list with over 450
camera positions and shot an hour’s worth of experimental color tests, using
unknown actors in various states of undress. This footage was filmed in New
York City, and gives a tantalizing glimpse of what Hitchcock had in mind, of how
revolutionary Frenzy/Kaleidoscope would have been in his body
of work – a Psycho for the more
liberated counterculture era. Unfortunately, MCA/Universal were disgusted by
the script and test footage and immediately canceled the project, reducing
Hitchcock to tears. Hitchcock was coerced into directing Topaz, Leon Uris’ behind-the-scenes account of the breakup of a
Soviet spy ring at the highest levels of the French government during the 1962 Cuban
missile crisis. Topaz was another in
a string of artistic and commercial failures for Hitchcock as he approached age
Japanese poster for the 1972 film Frenzy which was entirely different from the previous project Hitchcock had intended to use the title for.
What would have been
Hitchcock's most daring and controversial work was thwarted: an avant-garde
film using hand-held camerawork, a first-person viewpoint and natural lighting
(à la Blair Witch Project, filmed
32 years later), detailing the exploits of a gay bodybuilder who dabbles
in murder, rape and possibly necrophilia. It was conceived in 1964 as a prequel
to Hitchcock’s 1942 film Shadow of a Doubt and was initially titled Frenzy,
not to be confused with his eventual 1972 movie of the same name, from which
certain plot elements of the original Frenzy
Hitchcock’s interest in
Neville Heath first manifested itself in 1959 in his unproduced project No Bail for the Judge, which would have
starred Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Harvey and John Williams. A respected judge is
blamed for the murder of a prostitute, and his barrister daughter searches for
the real killer in London’s criminal demi-monde. Hepburn, who desperately
wanted to work with Hitchcock, suddenly withdrew from the project because of a
scene in which her character is brutally raped in Hyde Park by a good-looking London
pimp named Edward “Neddy-Boy” Devlin, who dominates Hepburn by
slowly strangling her with a necktie.
Audrey Hepburn never did work
with Hitchcock, but Laurence Harvey got along with the Master of Suspense and
starred in Arthur (1959), a grisly episode
of the long-running TV anthology series Alfred
Hitchcock Presents in which a beautiful woman (Hazel Court) meets with a
The rape scene in No Bail for the Judge obviously was one that Hitchcock wanted to
realize, in one form or another. It is quite similar to the scene of Mark’s
rape of the frigid Marnie on
their honeymoon cruise. The unproduced script of No Bail for the
Judge also looks forward to the unproduced Frenzy/Kaleidoscope
and to Hitchcock’s serial killer masterpiece Frenzy (1972), with its sexually impotent necktie strangler Bob
Rusk (Barry Foster) loose in London, eager to pin the murders of several
attractive women on his best friend. The unproduced Frenzy contains a
sequence in New York’s Central Park where the killer, Willie Cooper, takes a
young woman into the bushes and murders her. And while Bob Rusk may have more victims
to his credit than Neville Heath and Willie Cooper, it is clear that Edward
“Neddy-Boy” Devlin was Hitchcock’s first “necktie strangler”.
So, as Hitchcock matured as an
artist, his impulse to film violent misogynistic scenes intensified – scenes
which would finally be free from censorship in the freewheeling “anything goes”
atmosphere of Hollywood in the sixties and seventies.
(Click here to order Cinema Retro issue #18 featuring extensive coverage of Hitchcock's Psycho. Click here to order Cinema Retro issue #24 featuring in-depth article on the making of the 1972 version of Frenzy)
Nana stands in front of the camera. With her head in close-up, she poses: left,
full profile and then right. Throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie,
the philosophising prostitute is both alluring and clinical, free-spirited and
forced, but despite her famous speech in the cafe (and being seen and perhaps
censured by capricious cinephiles) can she be held responsible for her actions
within the film
Godard’s piece (naturally enough for the New Wave) is a mixture of
different styles, as suggested by its teasing, nimble title, Vivre Sa Vie, which translates roughly
as “live life” and has been moulded variously into It’s My Life, My Life to Live and To Live Her Life across the territories. It suggests an approach mixing
direct cinema with cinema verite-style camera work to indicate a defiant,
almost decadent posturing that is nonetheless a delicate portrayal of its theme
and holds its truth in the quickest flecks of light caught on camera behind the
beguiling Nana. Indeed, Nana’s relationship with the camera changes from scene
to scene; she flirts with it almost as a client, forces herself on it when
dancing and is followed by it when fleeing terrified from the scene of a
shooting. The film’s subtitle is A Film
in Twelve Scenes. Simply speaking, it charts segments in the life of Nana,
a wife and mother who has left her family to tread the boards.
She aspires to life as an actress and it could be argued that she
subsequently spends most of the time fulfilling a series of roles, such as the
moll she becomes for most of the feature’s duration. From the opening frame, Godard goads us, makes us strain for the
meaning in her scenes, for the meaning of her mythos as a whole.
Following the frames in which we are given information about the film’s
festival-circuit run, the opening section is where Godard’s starlet seduces the
camera. Nana stands still, sometimes almost in silhouette. Her eyelashes are fluttering
and there are slight movements of her tender mouth and smooth throat as she
breathes. While an understated gesture, it is sexual, sordid even and oddly
uncomfortable for the viewer, so personal is the image that it reminds them of
their own breath and rhythmic deglutition. The music appears, then disappears
and we are denied Nana’s eyes as they are blotted out by obviously obtrusive
text in the titles. The referent paradox is clear: she is Miss X of the same
generation, one of the modern masses, yet a subject worthy of study and a
creature so captivating she must be periodically censored for her audience’s
The film is an exercise in illustrating the paradoxes of interpretation,
so much to consider, yet every element included is a potential deconstruction. Nana
is an appealing mix of style and naturalism, function and frivolity. Her short
hair makes her comparatively boyish (as she semi-acknowledges in her letter to
a potential Madam, stating that it could quickly be grown out), yet it also
shows off that sensual neck. From the opening scene where we only truly see the
back of her head and hair, bulky jacket and cigarette smoke, she may drink like
a man, play like a man and talk like a man, but she can also be moulded by a
man. She talks about her torturous life to her ex-husband, Paul, in the café.
We see their backs and note their similar shapes and the ferocity of fear for
her fate versus her desire to be seen as “special” by him. She acts in place of
his inaction. We are desperate for them to touch as shutting us out of their
conversation (as the framing does) makes us feel vulnerable too, all the while
praising Nana for her forward-thinking vehemence. Above all, however, her
hair’s sleek cut makes her look extremely functional, as underlined by her
clothes and chamber while working as a call girl. Nana has an innate glamour
that both enhances her sex appeal and sterilizes her environment.
Here is a girl who borrows her gestures from the gentlemen she galvanises.
Her head bobs with theirs on her bored, business-like but Byzantine journey;
while leading them often around the room, she also follows their lead when
allowing herself to be purloined for their pleasure. The easy, lazy angle of
her hand holding a cocked cigarette is her calling card and is the art of the
tart considering the inevitable conclusion of her next conquest.
Art or apparatus, Godard wants us to feel the grit under Nana’s shoes in
order to understand the poetry of the situation; she cannot appreciate the
responsibility she claims during the canteen scene as for her (an actress in
both senses) it must remain unsaid lest it becomes a piece of performed fiction.
As Susan Sontag states in Against
Interpretation, she’s there to be seen, not to explain, so we must fill in
the gaps for her. Against this interpretation, however, is our own
interpretation of that. As Godard changes his camera angles and plays with diegesis
we cannot help but imply an interpretation. According to Sontag, these are simply
snippets of a kaleidoscope, a section of discourse that relates to the
narrative frame but not to our assertive femme for whom (she feels) no
explanation is given. Yet despite Sontag’s clear investment in stating the
alternative, it becomes impossible not to see the implied implications of the
oddly innocent girl’s situation.
Indeed, Nana’s more masculine behaviour only serves to silhouette her
slightness and frailty. As Sontag comments, each one of the film’s twelve segments
recalls a text and, as the ‘text’ in the café sequence suggests, Nana’s story is
that of ‘The Chicken’, that which’s soul can only be found when she has given
of herself. However, this is not through negation of herself as Sontag suggests
– it is not exactly a process during which Nana has no control over the layers
that are stripped away, but it is controlled submission. We see Nana unburdened
in the scenes in which she drifts, when her smile shines brightly enough for it
to light up her eyes. This is when the body and soul of this little ‘chick’ are
peeled away and we notice Nana unconstructed, a Nana of pure feeling inside the
skin cage, a ghost inside the machine.
We listen to Nana and her lover discuss passages
of Poe and may think her mask is beginning to slip; despite the simple, clinical
setting alongside the business-like montages of our Mademoiselle and her men,
we begin to feel warmth. Nevertheless, this is hope for the future that feels
hallucinogenic, so far is it from the narrative’s precision-focused frame. Nana
has become a body, a sculpted doll not only in her looks but in her assertive,
masculine behaviour, so it is natural that this, too, must be discarded. This
occurs in our final sequence, wherein our miss is sold to another pimp. She is manhandled
across a bleak parking slot from man to man until she is shot. Her delicate
figure contrasts against the shaft of the gun, yet like it she has become
little more than a mechanism of male control, a cog in a wheel of a criminal
machine maintained by money and murder. Nana’s impregnation by the phallic
symbol represents a loss, a commercial union turned sour. Nana the machinic
mode of production has been decommissioned. To put it crudely, the bullet has
given her more holes than necessary for her occupation and has marked her. Particularly
in the cold, hard light of the modern-day chicks, she is simply an appendage
sullied, and therefore sullying by association, another man.
After her evisceration and an indelicate death
dance, therefore, she falls to the floor by the car.
It is here the viewer finally feels Nana in
a way that Sontag would probably support; we feel her precisely because we
don’t. As she lies lifeless in the street, her personality begs a playback the
fast-paced action will not permit. We watch in horror as first one car leaves
her, then the other half speeds towards her as though to crush the evidence of
her calamitous conclusion by driving straight across her and leaving a pool of
unbelievably black blood oozing and oscillating on the tarmac. Such is the
departure from the film’s abstracted gentility that the idea alone of this sort
of image – regardless of the film’s final fade before it becomes possible – remains
with the viewer. While Sontag complains bitterly that the bombastic director
destroys the thematic complexity of his piece by allowing Nana’s death to
mirror the parable of the ‘poule’, it actually seems to do the exact opposite.
It forces Nana to live in our mind’s eye. We recoil from the image despite the
fact it never worries our retinas. We instead see Nana in all humanity,
philosophy and beauty precisely because God(ard) deprives her – his muse and off-screen
wife Anna Karina – of it in those final few frames. By placing herself in that
scenario, she is given chance to bear her soul.
She is responsible.
Dr Karen Oughton is an academic and film journalist. Click here for her web site
(Viva Sa Vie is available as a special edition Blu-ray from Criterion. Click here to order from Amazon)
and arcane religious rituals wouldn’t seem to make for good filmed
entertainment. And yet, the Vatican’s papal election process – occurring again this
week to name a successor to Pope Benedict XVI – has been detailed in cinema almost
as many times as the more Hollywood-sounding subject of papal assassination
while the workings of the pontifical election conclave might not be surprising
in a religious film, they were even deemed dramatic enough for inclusion in The Godfather Part III. Yep, Francis
Ford Coppola’s 1990 crime epic takes a break between whackings to portray the
1978 conclave that elected the first Pope John Paul.
more impressive than the fact that cinema has depicted this process is the fact
that, on occasion, the movies seem to have gotten it right. When a papal
vacancy isn’t being used as a premise for a goofy comedy (witness 1991’s The Pope Must Diet!), the election process
is treated with seeming care and accuracy.
course, screenwriters can only base such scenes on the generally accepted
consensus of how the election conclave of cardinals works; no press members have
ever documented the proceedings first hand. No cameras have been allowed.
I’ve never heard of a [conclave member] writing a report of it,” says Bill
Ryan, spokesman for the United Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ryan says he
assumes screen treatments of the conclave are “working backward from the
document,” referring to On the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of
the Roman Pontiff.
1968’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, which
chronicles the rise of fictional Pope Kiril I (Anthony Quinn), also benefited
from the technical consulting of Monsignor Adone Terzariol, an unofficial papal
advisor. The film is likely the tastemaking cinematic vision of the conclave,
the blueprint for other films’ depiction of the same.
Anthony Quinn in The Shoes of the Fisherman.
Shoes of the Fisherman – a twice-over
Oscar nominee – presents the pontifical election in fine detail. We see the cardinals
locked in the annex of the Sistine Chapel by the Marshal of the Conclave. Ballots
are cast, placed onto a plate, then dumped into a chalice. Wet straw is burned with
the ballots to produce black smoke, indicating a failure to elect a pontiff on
the first few days of voting. Canopies collapse overhead each cardinal not
elected pope after the new pontiff has accepted.
Shoes of the
uses a TV news journalist (played by David Janssen) as its exposition.
Janssen’s character is stationed outside St. Peter’s, giving very specific
play-by-play analysis. If the dry crime-lab films of the 1950s can be termed
“Police Procedurals,” the mid portion of Fisherman
is truly a Pontifical Procedural.
only does Shoes of the Fisherman
capture the rituals of the election in great detail, its election of a
fictional Russian pope foretells the coronation of Polish pope John Paul II,
the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
films The Pope Must Diet! and The Godfather Part III (neither of which
credit a religious technical advisor) seem to have borrowed Fisherman’s vision of the election
The Pope Must Diet!, about a schlubby
priest (Robbie Coltrane) who is accidentally coronated as Pope, does serve as a
reminder that the elected Pontiff need not be a cardinal attending the conclave.
could be any baptized male,” says Ryan. Other reports suggest it can be any
adult Roman Catholic.
The Pope Must Diet! covers many of the
rituals surrounding a papal succession – at least those rituals that serve as easy
fodder for cheap jokes. In Diet, the
deceased pope isn’t just tapped on the forehead with the silver papal hammer to
determine death, he’s given a good whack. Papal nominations are struck down on
the grounds of “He’s too fat!” And the cardinals are wanded with metal
detectors before entering the conclave (though this last joke isn’t too far off
the truth; the conclave is reportedly screened for bugging devices).
the 1984 telefilm Pope John Paul II
shows a side of the electoral conclave not covered in Shoes of the Fisherman. The Polish pope-to-be, portrayed by Albert
Finney, is seen in his sparsely furnished conclave quarters between election
days. Apparently, this is an accurate depiction, as each cardinal has a cell furnished
only with a bed, a crucifix, a table and chairs.
even movies that don’t detail the conclave can raise provocative points about
1972 film Pope Joan – about a rumored
female Pope that snuck in around 855 – is one of several films to feature a papal
election but that skips the rituals of the election process (2003’s Luther and 1981’s From a Far Country are others). But when Pope Joan’s infirm pontiff (Trevor Howard) suggests a successor on
his deathbed, it raises the question of whether an outgoing pope has ever tried
to name his replacement.
totally in the realm of speculation or fiction,” says Ryan.
it all might be, considering that only cardinals, sworn to secrecy, have
witnessed a papal election conclave. The closest depiction we may ever see is on
Films Depicting the Papal Enclave
Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968), with Anthony Quinn as fictional Pope Kiril I
John Paul II” (1983), with Albert Finney as Pope John Paul II
Godfather Part III” (1990), with Raf Vallone as Pope John Paul
Pope Must Diet!” (1991), with Robbie Coltrane as a fictional pope
Films Featuring the Election of a New Pope
Joan” (1972), with Liv Ullman as rumored female successor to Pope Leo IV
a Far Country” (1981), with Cezary Morawski as Pope John Paul II
(2003), with Uwe Ochsenknecht as Pope Leo X
The folks at Kindertrauma, a web site dedicated to everthing that scared baby boomers as children, has a good tribute to The Norliss Tapes, the 1970s TV movie starring Roy Thinnes and Angie Dickinson. It's sounds intriguing enough for us to order the DVD. To read the article click here.
To order the DVD from the Cinema Retro Amazon Movie Store, click here.
Director David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook deserves praise, if for nothing else, overcoming the seemingly incomprehensible title and becoming a major box-office success. The film is typical of today's "rom-coms" (romantic comedies, for the uninitiated.) Troubled, attractive young guy. Troubled, attractive young woman. Both meet cute. Both have to interact with lovable, eccentric friends and family members before overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in achieving great goal. Bradley Cooper, progressing very well from low-brow comedies, gives a very fine performance as Pat, a charismatic Philadelphia school teacher who goes bonkers when he discovers his wife getting on in the shower with one of his school colleagues. He goes on a rampage and almost beats the man to death. When we first see him, his mother is checking him out of a psychiatric institution after 8 long months- and against the advice of his doctors. Seems Pat has been bi-polar all along but never knew it, something that strains credibility given the fact that emotionally, he carries more baggage than a cruise ship. (In a completely unbelievable but "cute" plot device, he is sent into a rage every time he hears Steve Wonder singing "My Cherie, Amour"- you know, sort of like that old sketch in which the Three Stooges go ballistic upon hearing "Niagara Falls"). Pat tries to readjust to his dysfunctional family life but it's a rocky road. He is obsessed with winning back his gorgeous wife, who he mistakenly believes is equally determined to revive their marriage. In the process, he has to frequently lock horns with his father (Robert De Niro in very fine form), a reckless gambler and bookmaker who is always only seconds away from financial disaster. The old man is betting the ranch on the outcome of football games in the hopes of fulfilling his dream of opening a small, local restaurant. In the midst of all this chaos, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a vivacious but equally troubled young widow with a history of mental illness. Before you can say "When Harry Met Sally", the two enter a combative relationship that all -too predictably results in a gradual attraction. All of this leads up to a crisis-filled night in which Pat has promised to be Tiffany's dance partner in a local contest that they have to score well enough on to prevent Pat's dad from losing everything he has and, instead, win the bet that will allow him to open his restaurant.
The script of Silver Linings Playbook contains every cliche except, "Hey kids, we can put the show on in a barn!" Yet, it's a feel-good, crowd-pleaser that is just off-beat enough to rise above the level of most romantic comedies. The scene-stealer is Jennifer Lawrence, who fully deserves her Oscar nomination as the bitchy-but-lovable head case whose emotions run up and down like a roller-coaster. She and Cooper make for a fine on-screen couple and watching them deal with their respective eccentricities is one of the film's delights. Director Russell also makes good use of the suburban Philly locations and the cast (particularly De Niro) is especially convincing at making you believe you are intruding on an actual middle-class family's intimate moments. Still, as the movie nears its climactic dance competition sequence, I found myself praying that the script would refreshingly forgo what was shaping up to the be most predictable of endings. Sadly, Russell (who also wrote the screenplay) goes for the low-hanging fruit and employs every mothballed romantic cliche imaginable, complete with love-crazed young guy running after heartbroken girlfriend down a city street adorned with Christmas decorations. There's enough moss on these story elements to make penicillin.
The film is refreshing in the sense that it's one of the few youth-oriented comedies that doesn't rely on vulgarity and gross-out humor. It's definitely a good date movie, but certainly undeserving of a Best Picture Oscar.
Ernest Borgnine's final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vincente Fernandez, opens theatrically with a one-week run at the Laemmle Encino Town Center Theater beginning today. The independent production is a modestly-budgeted family comedy/drama that presents the legendary Oscar-winner with the kind of showcase role that actors in their nineties almost never have. Borgnine makes the most of it, too, giving a terrific and moving performance that earned him the Best Actor award at this year's Newport Film Festival. Written and produced by Elia Petridis, Fernandez centers on Rex Page (Borgnine), a cantankerous old coot given to griping about every aspect of life. He seems oblivious to the fact that he has an adoring wife (June Squibb), a devoted middle-aged daughter (Dale Dickey) and and a worshipful granddaughter (Audrey P. Scott). Rex is frustrated by his failure to fulfill his dream of becoming a big time actor on the silver screen. He once came close to landing the leading role in a spaghetti Western, but lost out to a competing actor. He's spent a lifetime in self-imposed hell, obsessed with watching this B movie and learning every line of dialogue, which he repeats to anyone in his presence. When a health crisis sees the fiercely independent Rex move into a nursing home, a series of incidents motivate him to reevaluate his life. The nursing home is a money mill for corrupt bureaucrats who use the patients as cash cows. It doesn't take Rex long to figure this out and he quickly wears out his welcome by insulting and chastising fellow elderly patients who are part of a click belonging to the corrupt family that owns the facility. He also is abrasive towards the largely Hispanic staff of nurses and orderlies, often referring to them in unflattering racial insults.
The relationship between Rex and his caregivers gradually softens, however, when the young staff members learn that Rex, a former popular DJ, once briefly met and shook the hand of the film's titular character, Vincente Fernandez, a "Mexican Frank Sinatra" who enjoys mythic stature in the Hispanic community. Rex transfixes the staff by telling and retelling his account of this brief meeting in the 1970s. This common bond allows Rex and the staffers to form a mutually respectful relationship that grows stronger by the day. Rex particularly takes a shine to his nurse Solena (stunningly beautiful Carla Ortiz)- and he comes to her defense, saving her from the clutches of would-be molester Dr. Dominguez (Tony Plana), the chief administrator. In a scenario that is a clearly geriatric version of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Rex inspires his young friends to stand up for their rights and take on the oppressive bureaucrats who exploit them. He must also deal with challenges in his own life when his family feels he's been alienating them in favor of his adopted family at the nursing home.
The film contains more than its share of sugary scenes and corny cliches. (The villains are so lacking in any redeeming qualities that they practically twirl their mustaches.) Nevertheless, director Petridis offers Borgnine the finest role he's had in more years than I can remember. He dominates every scene and, ironically for his final film, looks like the picture of good health. Petridis, who must clearly be obsessive about spaghetti westerns himself, cleverly manages to intertwine many aspects of Western movie lore into this contemporary story so that even a card game between Borgnine and a nursing home nemesis is drenched in Leone-like imagery and music. This homage extends to the brilliant title credits which are cleverly derived from the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Dollars" trilogy. This is a feel good family film that is marred by one easily correctable misjudgment: the insertion of a completely unnecessary expletive said from a mother to her young child. It's wildly out of place in an otherwise uplifting tale for all ages. If director Petridis is wise, he'll exclude this from the video and pay-per-view versions of the film.
I only had the pleasure of meeting Ernest Borgnine once several years ago for an interview for Cinema Retro magazine. He struck me as a warm, honest and kind individual. Thus, perhaps I had a bit more of a personal outlook when viewing Borgnine's final sequence in this film, which Elia Petridis handles brilliantly. It's so touchingly filmed and directed that I was moved to watch it again on the DVD screener. Not since John Wayne's final scene in The Shootist has a legendary actor had a more appropriate on-screen send off.
The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez is not high art, nor does it pretend to be. However, it is an enjoyable film that refreshingly extolls family values. The supporting cast members are all very talented and a pleasure to watch, but is Ernie Borgnine who justifiably dominates the movie and your memories of it.
Many people remember the portly actor William Conrad for playing the role of detective Cannon in the popular 1970s CBS TV series. However, his long career extended back to playing Marshall Matt Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke. There is another often neglected side to his career: his long association with horror films. TCM's Movie Morlock web site examines these films. Click here to read
The new romantic comedy ("romcom" for you hipsters) Excuse Me for Living represents the first feature film by Ric Klass, at least in terms of getting any meaningful distribution. (His prior excursion into filmmaking was the little-seen Elliott Fauman, PhD. back in 1990.) The indie movie goes into theatrical release in select theaters nationwide this week. The film traces the tangled relationships between young New Yorkers, with the emphasis focusing on Dan (Tom Pelphrey), a privileged Gen X'er who nonetheless suffers from severe depression and a penchant for self-destructive behavior. When the film opens, we find him about to leap to his death from a bridge. Saved by a cop, he is "sentenced" to a rehab clinic run by a strict, but compassionate psychiatrist (Robert Vaughn), who attempts to form a personal bond with the troubled young man. Dan agrees to join a therapy group comprised entirely of elderly men, each of whom reveals their own personal demons. Dan is accepted by the group, but his rebellious nature gets the better of him. Before long, he's being lured back to his old ways. He sneaks out to attend wild parties at the home of a snobby friend and even starts an affair with his own psychiatrist's daughter. The episodic nature of the film provides both strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, we're introduced to some interesting characters, well played by a talented cast of largely unknown actors and actresses. Pelphrey is especially good in the lead role, but he gets able assistance from Melissa Archer and Ewa Da Cruz as the femme fatales who wreak havoc on his his troubled mind by offering a continuous string of sexual temptations. On the other hand, Klass, who also wrote the screenplay, introduces so many characters and relationships that the viewer sometimes can't follow who is doing what with whom. Klass doesn't strive for belly laughs, instead concentrates on amusing situations and poignant and often moving dramatic aspects to the storyline. Best of all, he brings together some terrific veteran actors, all seen in their largest big screen roles in years. Vaughn, in particular, makes the most of his considerable screen time, bringing grace and dignity to a complex role. It's great to see him in a lead role on the big screen again. Seinfeld almuni Jerry Stiller (playing a relatively subdued and realistic character) and Wayne Knight are also on hand, along with Christopher Lloyd, whose usual crazy guy shtick is quite amusing. There is also enough mildly kinky sex and scantily-clad women to appeal to guys who might otherwise think this is a chick flick. In fact, it's a smart, witty comedy that should have special appeal to young, urban audiences. The movie also has a rich look to the production design and is crisply photographed and impressively edited.
Excuse Me For Living makes for a fine directorial debut for Klass. Here's hoping he has a second act in the works.
Click here to visit the official web site for the film
1959-60, the distinguished Quebec actor Gilles Pelletier (who had earlier
appeared in Otto Preminger’s The 13th
Letter and in Alfred Hitchcock’s I
Confess) came to Ottawa to shoot 39 episodes of the R.C.M.P. television series, coproduced by Crawley Films, the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
producer F.R. “Budge” Crawley cast Pelletier as Corporal Jacques Gagnier, a
Mountie working at a detachment in rural northern Saskatchewan. Interiors were
shot on a brand-new soundstage near Ottawa at Old Chelsea, Quebec. Exteriors
were filmed in nearby Aylmer, Quebec, and in Outlook, Saskatchewan, which stood
in for the fictional western town of Shamattawa, the center of the action of
this contemporary adventure series.
a Québécois in the lead role was considered a gutsy move at the time, but
Crawley was ahead of the curve in acknowledging the “French fact” on Canadian television,
according to Pelletier. (Crawley went on to produce the Oscar-winning 1975 documentary
The Man Who Skied Down Everest.)
Co-starring in R.C.M.P. as Gagnier’s
sidekick Constable Bill Mitchell was Don Francks, later a series regular on La Femme Nikita and co-star in Todd
Haynes’ Bob Dylan “biography” I’m Not
all that talent on board, why did R.C.M.P.
only last one season? The show was well produced. Crawley partnered with
the CBC, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and figured it would
be a snap to break into international TV markets, especially in the United
States. R.C.M.P. was a
crisply-shot, realistic and sometimes extremely violent crime drama which stood
in stark contrast to the usual stagebound and fusty Canadian television
programming of the time. Influenced by the
European neorealist school of filmmaking, the show
had the look and feel of a documentary, very convincingly conveying the dismal
Canadian ambience (especially in wintertime) and the homegrown criminal element
of small-town Canada. R.C.M.P. more
than held its own against similar U.S. TV fare.
to Pelletier, what was overlooked was the fact that the American TV networks,
distributors and producers operated like a closed circuit. They weren’t interested
in buying a foreign TV series unless they had a hand in its production from the
word “go”, and Crawley wouldn’t allow that. He said if they had that kind of
control, R.C.M.P. would lose its
distinctively Canadian cachet and be like any other American-style series.
Sean Connery in Zardoz: looking like a pitch man for adult incontinence products!
The pop culture web site Detour has a brief homage to director John Boorman's ill-fated 1973 sci-fi epic Zardoz (referred to by many as Zardoze) The bizarre futuristic tale involved immortality, slavery, sex-obsessed women and The Wizard of Oz. It's the kind of movie that should alarm you if it starts making sense to you. Nevertheless, we have affection for the film and are among those who consider "Boorman's Folly" to be an intriguing, thought-provoking gem. Where else can you see Sean Connery (who replaced Burt Reynolds in the leading role) strutting his stuff in what looks like a red Depends diaper, while Charlotte Rampling runs amok starkers. For more click here
Click here to order Zardoz from the Cinema Retro Amazon Movie Store- only $9.98!
Vincent Price (see here in the 1964 adaptation of The Tomb of Ligeia) collaborated with producer Roger Corman on several successful cinematic translations of Poe's work.
John Cusack's new movie -a fictionalized look at the life of Edgar Allan Poe that presents the famed writer chasing a serial killer- has brought about renewed interest in seeing how the master of the macabre's stories have translated on to cinema screens over the decades (for better or worse). Click here to read New York Times analysis.
With The Iron Lady opening in the UK, Daily Mail writer Chris Tookey acknowledges Meryl Streep's acclaimed performance as Margaret Thatcher. However, he says the film suffers from a simplified look at her actual career and accomplishments. Tookey says her most notable achievements are given brief mention while speculative or rather inconsequential aspects of her life are given prominence in the script. Tookey seems to be writing from a distinctly Tory point of view ("She
deserves to be studied because she was right about so many things, and
carried out her public duties despite hysterical abuse from most of the
political and media establishment"), so your own political leanings may influence whether you agree or disagree with his assessment. Click here to read
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM CINEMA RETRO'S ARCHIVES
(This article originally ran in October 2008)
In the wake
of Paul Newman’s death I’ve been watching a few of his movies over again, and
in some cases, watching some of his films for the first time.
avowed admirer of 60s and 70s films, and thrillers especially, I was surprised
that I had never seen The Mackintosh Man
(1973) before. I was very familiar with it in the context of Newman’s canon,
and films in general, and I remember it opening, but for some reason it had
passed me by until today.
be told, there’s good reasons for that. It’s not a bad film per se, but you can
see why its not part of the common cultural currency of 70s movies.
involves a British Intelligence spy working deep undercover and known only to
his chief – Mr Mackintosh – hence being a Mackintosh man - and attempting to
bring to book a corrupt MP. The means by
which he does this (faking a diamond robbery in order to go to jail, so as
to attract the attention of a mysterious firm who can spring him and a high
level prisoner with links to the said MP) are contrived the point of hilarity.
pedigree is good, great even. Directed by John Huston, with a script co-written
by Walter Hill from a novel by Desmond Bagely one could reasonably expect a
memorable and exciting yarn. With a supporting cast to die for including James
Mason, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Nigel Patrick, Peter Vaughan and Michael
Horden, its always interesting , but only from a social and culturally historic
perspective. If you ever wanted to see Paul Newman wander round early 70s London,
hopping on tube trains and round Leather Lane market (with actual market goers
trying very hard and failing to stop and gawk at the Hollywood royalty walking
amongst them), or even slopping out in Liverpool with John Bindon from Get Carter, then this is the film for
you. What 1973 audiences would have made of it is anyone’s guess. The
convoluted plot and intentionally slow pace would have left the most hardened
thriller fan napping. There are practically no markers that this is directed by
the same man that gave us The Maltese
Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle and Chinatown; its so pedestrian as to
resemble an episode of The Saint,
which apparently, according to IMDB, this film is almost a carbon-copy ofone such episode.
The Mackintosh Man is the dictionary definition of a film which
survives on star power alone. On paper this could quite easily have been filler
on the bottom half of a double bill, and had starred someone like Ian McShane
or Bradford Dillman without changing anything in the script. As it is, Newman
brings effortless professionalism to the proceedings, and even manages to
adapt, chameleon-like to his drab and everyday surroundings, a little like Sean
Connery in The Offence.
never seen it, the tone in the first half of the film veers between Frenzy, The Ipcress File and Porridge.
But after the jailbreak the tone shifts into almost Bondian territory, or at
the very least an episode of The Avengers
with the introduction of Jenny Runacre’s Gerda, a kind of taller version of
OHMSS’s Irma Bunt with her mute henchman (I kid ye not)Taafe played by Percy
Herbert. This scenario is almost played for laughs and culminates with perhaps
cinema's only onscreen kick in the female crotch by a male character.
Sanda glides through the film with a single blank expression her face from
start to finish, which doesn’t help in a scene where James mason spikes her
drink. It took quite few moments to spot that she was trying to act like someone
who’ s lost most of her higher motor functions.
any enjoyment one can derive from this film is in watching a mid-career Newman
in a film featuring authentic locations with a sterling, if underused cast.
It’s a sombre film in tone, with only a few flashes of action, notably a very
realistic motor chase along bleak Irish roads, and a foot chase across moors
which resembles Newman’s flight from the prison guards and dogs in Cool Hand Luke. The film reeks of
“contractural obligation”, but at the end of the day I’m glad I’ve finally seen
it, and will probably revisit again. Maybe.
moment its only available as part of a Warner Region 1 Newman Box set, but its
worth getting as it includes Harper, The Drowning Pool, Pocket Money, The Young
Philadelphians and The Left-Handed
Gun, all under-appreciated films. - Steve Saragossi
CLICK HERE TO ORDER THE PAUL NEWMAN COLLECTION BOXED DVD SET
Hughes makes the case that the restored version of Sergio Leone's classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is inferior to the original theatrical release.
Cinema Retro columnist and film book author Howard Hughes vents on his blog about misconstrued extended cuts of films that failed to improve on the originals. Among those in his sites: Star Wars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Click here to read
Cinema Retro is proud to present a major article by author and film historian Collin Stutz
“Contrast, Counterpoint, and Patience:The Vanishing Penultimate Moment in Film” by
In Daniel Raim’s Academy-Award nominated 2001
documentary The Man On Lincoln’s Nose,
the film’s subject, legendary film production designer Robert F. Boyle (North By Northwest, The Birds, The Thomas
Crown Affair - 1968, Fiddler On The Roof), profoundly states, “One of the
problems with a lot of films now is that we’re dealing with climaxes rather
than the penultimate moments which are more interesting.”Boyle defines the penultimate moment as the
moment before something actually happens.It is the scene before the climax (Scene 12).In the DVD audio commentary to their 2004
Pixar film The Incredibles, director
Brad Bird and producer John Walker discuss how “movies don’t have people
sneaking around anymore.I want some
sneaking around in my movie!People are
in such a rush to get the action sequences going fast that they forget there’s
pleasure to be had in the sneaking around part, taking a look at where you
are.So I have a few sneaking around
sequences in here, and I don’t think they’re a waste of time” (Scene 9).Whether one artist refers to it as “the
penultimate moment” or another calls it “sneaking around” is irrelevant; they
are both discussing the same thing.The
penultimate moment can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a cinema
audience, and there are three elements – contrast, counterpoint, and time
investment – that go into its creation.Unfortunately, the penultimate moment and its components are becoming a
lost art in today’s world of instant gratification.
Boyle uses Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture
masterpiece David as an example to
further illustrate his belief in the penultimate moment.He states that the sculpture of the Biblical
hero is “a young man standing, thinking.He’s got the sling over his shoulder and he has a frown on his face and
he’s obviously concerned.He’s concerned
about the coming conflict.The stone
that hits Goliath is momentarily interesting but only for that second.What went on before David meets
Goliath…that’s what’s interesting”(The Man OnLincoln’s Nose, Scene 12).
As the five minute, thirty second sequence where Mr.
Incredible sneaks around the island trying to discover Syndrome’s evil plan
plays, director Bird, in his Incredibles
audio commentary, goes on to say, “The filmmakers I most admire recognize the
value of “teasing” moments and “milking” moments.You think about a good storyteller or someone
who tells good stories in a bar.They
don’t blast through a story.They stop
and they savor certain moments.And they
know which moments they can milk.And
all of my favorite filmmakers have the confidence to slow down.Versus, I won’t name names, but a lot of
successful hacks, who, by having rapid-fire editing all the way through, never
have to deal with the issue of “Is anybody paying attention?” because they keep
throwing stuff at you.To me, there’s an
edge of desperation about that.The kind
of filmmaking I most admire takes a moment to savor things, because there are
so many things a movie can offer, particularly when you have a really talented
crew that works on getting sets to look great and is putting things up
there.You want a moment to take them
in.Like a good comic pauses, I think a
good filmmaker slows down”(Scene 15).Incidentally, five minutes of that Incredibles sequence is nothing but
sneaking around.The final thirty
seconds is the action climax where Mr. Incredible is attacked by goo balls and
captured.John Fawell, author of Rear Window:The Well-Made Film, elaborates on Bird’s thoughts in his DVD
commentary of the film, “People sometimes ask, ‘Why do we make such a deal of
these old films?’ Part of it is the professionalism on the smallest level.Even your most unimportant moment should have
a nice composition to it”(Scene 12).
"I was born in Harlem... I weighed a pound and a quarter and the doctor said
'If he survives, he'll be a genius,' but, he said, 'Don't count on
it'." Thus begins Irwin Hasen's narration of his life in "Irwin
- A New York Story" by painter, and first-time filmmaker Dan Makara. The
short film was presented at the famous Players club in Manhattan on November
30, 2011. In it Mr. Hasen speaks candidly and openly about his career, work and
especially his personal life. The documentary short takes you back and forth
through Hasen's miserable childhood, first "paying" job, schooling, being
in on the ground floor of the burgeoning comic book industry, army stint and
most importantly the creation for which he's most famous, "Dondi", the newspaper comic strip he drew for over 30
years. Hasen, at age 92, is also one of the few surviving comic book artists of the Golden Age period, having worked on Superman, Green Lantern and many other classic titles. Many of his friends, also legends in comic industry also appear in the
film to reminisce. Coming in at almost 55 minutes, "Irwin" is a bit
long for a short; not unlike the man himself. At times funny (Mr. Hasen is
often self-deprecating), moving, nostalgic and cartoonish (as it should be),
"Irwin - A New York Story" is a colorful and honest look at a true
New York and comic book art legend. He also tells you how to make a great
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM CINEMA RETRO'S ARCHIVES
Donald Hamilton’s Serious Spy Becomes a Bond Parody By Matthew
When JFK revealed his fondness for the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, and 007—ably embodied by Sean Connery—struck box-office gold with Dr. No (1962) and its sequels, the resultant “Bondmania” set off a spy craze manifested in everything from atmospheric adaptations of Len Deighton and John le Carré to tongue-in-cheek secret agents on screens small and large. Perhaps the most successful of the latter was Matt Helm, a singing and swinging spy played in four films for Columbia Pictures by Rat Pack member Dean Martin, who unlike Connery shared in the profits from the outset via his own company, Meadway-Claude Productions. The former partner of Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli - Irving Allen - was playing catch-up after deeming Fleming’s work unworthy of filming, which speeded his breakup with Broccoli. But ironically, his quartet of quintessential spy spoofs was actually based on a series of gritty Gold Medal paperback originals by Donald Hamilton that had been launched by Fawcett before Kennedy was even in office, or Connery started shaking his martinis.
STELLA STEVENS IN SEXY PUBLICITY POSE FOR "THE SILENCERS"
I very rarely rave about new films. Some
puzzle me, others annoy me and many are plain incoherent when it comes to
dialogue vs special effects soundtracks. But more than anything, jerky camera
work does nothing to excite nor, in my opinion, does it "add"
anything to a movie.
How refreshing therefore it is for a misery
guts like me to see a film that bowls me over and one which flies in the face
of expected convention.
I first saw THE ARTIST in Cannes back in
May - at I think its fourth screening, as the other three were totally
over-subscribed. It is a black and white, silent movie shot in a 4:3 ratio.
Yes, that's correct: not widescreen, not 3D, not cluttered with sound effects
and not in colour. Furthermore its star is a Frenchman - Jean Dujardin. His
name might not mean much, but he is already one of France's highest paid actors
and is set for huge glory in Hollywood.
THE ARTIST is a beautifully crafted film,
exquisitely shot and brilliantly cast. It centres on silent movie star George
Valentin (Dujardin) and his fall from favour when 'talkies' come in.
Valentin is a hugely charismatic, charming
and likeable character. With his four legged Jack Russell, Uggy (who almost
steals the film), he stars in a vast number of silent movies from action-adventures
to romance and spy thrillers. However, his aversion to talking on film results
in a sudden fall from stardom, and coupled with the 1931 stock market crash, he
finds himself loveless, penniless and homeless.
A young extra, Peppy Miller (Berenice
Bejo), who was given a leg up in the industry by Valentinmeanwhile captures the hearts of audiences,
and soon becomes the doyen of the talkies. As Valentin's star fades, Peppy's
The sizzling chemistry between the two
characters leads Peppy to help her now suicidal friend and bring him back to
movies. "No one wants to pay to hear my speak" argues Valentin, in
one of the frequent subtitle cards. Instead they choreograph an amazing dance
routine, which reignites Valentin's star.
With guest turns from John Goodman,
Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell it is a film which
will capture your heart, and demonstrates that just because something is in
B&W and silent, it doesn't mean the power of storytelling is null and void
in this multiplex world.
(Gareth Owen writes the Pinewood Past column, covering the history of Pinewood Studios, in every issue of Cinema Retro)