Archive for March, 2010

© 2010 by James Clark

In the course of the bewildering machinations propelling David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), two detectives have under surveillance a young man enjoying a full calendar of trysts. One says, “Fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat.” What we have to keep in mind with this is that toilet seats are unisex. And what the film demands we notice is that the two most conspicuous male protagonists (one of whom under surveillance) are pussies, hardly worth a shit to the (same) woman in their life.

Patricia Arquette, the actress inhabiting the sensibility of the leading lady, is a natural for a femme fatale hearkening to the noirs of yesteryear. She is so natural that, with hair styling and color, eye makeup and high beams from a stolen car (whose owner’s murder she has presided over) lighting up some lovemaking in the desert night, she fires out at us Jeanne Moreau’s “Jackie,” doyenne of the roulette tables in Jacques Demy’s noir, Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) (1963). She is a gambler, for sure; but, confining yourself to classical noir history, you’d never guess what kind of gambler she is. (more…)


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by Marc Bauer

Note: ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a big hit at the Toronto Film Festival, is slated to open nationwide this coming Friday, Apr. 2.

     Leaves of Grass, is something unique; an intelligent drug thriller, featuring identical twins, named after a Walt Whitman poetry collection, with a pro-Israel message. Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, best known for playing country bumpkins and rednecks in film. Similar to the character Bill (played by Edward Norton), Tim is well-read, and fled Oklahoma to the hallowed halls of Brown University’s Classics department; Bill is there as a teacher, Tim was there as student. The story, without giving it all away, is of twins Bill and Brady Kincaid. Bill is a well respected professor at Brown University; Brady is a hydroponic marijuana farmer in lower Oklahoma. The dichotomy between the two couldn’t be clearer, but as we learn in the film, it isn’t that cut and dry. Brady is actually the smarter of the two brothers, but Bill is trained into academia. In fact, the film opens on him lecturing a class on Socrates and passion. Once we see our lives as we believe to be in balance, we pretend at divinity, and like Icarus, only to see it all fall apart, crashing to the sea. Balance yields into chaos, and so too, does the story. Bill’s life is quickly changed when he is informed that his brother has been killed via crossbow, whereupon he returns home to find his brother very much alive. It is a simple devise that allows the story to unfold naturally. (more…)

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Dreamworks’ absolutely marvelous animated feature ‘How to Train Your Dragon’

Screen cap from gorgeous French feature "Bluebeard from Catherine Breillat

by Sam Juliano

All hail Allan Fish!  The sometimes onery and cantankerous Wonders in the Dark film genius will no doubt downplay his latest extended venture, but it’s frankly the most extraordinary achievement by a single person in the blogosphere since I’ve been here, and it’s something anyone will be hard pressed to match.   Taking the one genre in film that few have comfortable command or even rudimentary exposure to – silent cinema – and penning one hundred masterful reviews and an astonishing follow-up list of 150 nearlies, and then presenting a numerical listing that has not been provided by the best silent film volumes out there, Mr. Fish has proven he belongs on the film shelves of bookstores, an impending possibility I believe may come to well-deserved realization.  Providing stellar cast and filmmaker listings, taking into consideration films that never received any kind of DVD distibution (and securing copies and watching these films) Fish has done here what the most celebrated film critics nationwide and abroad have not done, due to some prohibitive restrictions, so to speak.  It’s an achievement of unparalleled authority, and I dare say it pretty much gets it all right down the line!

The site will accept individual lists for the next nine days, with the polling ending at 11:00 P.M. on Thursday, April 8th.  Those still planning on submitted a ballot under the silent film tab under the site header please do so over the next nine days.  Voting Tabulator Extraordinaire Angelo A. D’Arminio Jr. will be tabulting those ballots submitted (I think we have around a dozen to this point–not bad for this most underviewed of all time periods) and the site will then move to the 2000’s poll, which will again will feature a marathon Top 100 from Allan.

Dave Hicks is down to the final 30 in his always-engrossing noir countdown, and the humble proprietor has well-earned all the fantastic comments he’s received from so many under each and every one of his threads.  Likewise filmmaker Jeffrey Goodman, another internet sweetheart continues his terrific year–by-year countdown, which to this point has faithfully moved into the late 1970’s.

I went bonkers this week, catching an opera at the Met last Monday night (Verdi’s Atilla) an off-Broadway theatrical work at the St. Ann’s Playhouse in Brooklyn on Saturday night, and seven (7) films in theatres over the weekend, despite some restrictions due to my attendance at a Friday night wake and Saturday morning funeral for the father of one of my best friends, who passed on after a long illness at age 82.  My determination to see all these films (Lucille was there for some, the kids for others, and Lucille and Broadway Bob for a few others) is again a showing of OCD, the disease of having to see everything out there on pain of death!

On Monday night, I witnessed a superlative staging of Giuseppi Verdi’s gorgeous Atilla, an opera that would fall methinks, in a grouping after the Big Five: La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida and Otello.  I hope to pen a review later this week if time permits, but the presentation of the fabulous score, the conducting and set design were top-rank.  This was not one of the operas offered this year on the HD broadcast schedule.

A first trip ever to the landmark St. Ann’s Warehouse, literally right “under” the intimidating Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side of the river provided a photo shoot session for our erstwhile cameraman Broadway Bob, who shot some photos of the bridge from point blank range as well as others involving Lucille and I.  The show, the critically-praised “A Life in Three Acts” stars ‘Bette Bourne’ a drag queen activist in the 1970’s, who uses a slide show to document his upbringing in the U.K. social scene, his own biography, and an often hilarious extended monologue (playing out like a stand up comedy routine) where he is sometimes interuppted by his production colleague Mark ravenhill to pose some lead-ons or pointed questions.  Christopher Isherwood’s New York Times review was extremely favorable, but you ahve to see this to really appreciate the unique approach to the material.  Again, hopefully, a review will follow.

The seven films I saw this week (all over the weekend) are as follows:

Dream Boy **          (Chelsea Cinemas)   Sunday night
Waking Sleeping Beauty    ****   (Landmark Cinemas)         Sunday night
The Eclipse   **      (Angelika Film Center)            Sunday afternoon
Chloe      ***    (Edgewater multiplex)          Friday, noon
Bluebeard  **** 1/2   (IFC Film Center)        Friday night, midnight
Vincere     **** 1/2    (Montclair Cinemas)   Saturday afternoon
How to Train Your Dragon  **** 1/2  (Paramus multiplex)   Fri. afternoon
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is one of the great animation glories in recent years, blending a witty script, splendid voice working, soaring animation, and surprising emotional resonance to provide for an experience that will enthrall adults and kids alike.  I nearly went with a five star rating, but reserve the right to do so in the near future.  The film is so utterly exhilarating that I  smile from ear to ear while thinking about it.
VINCERE  Marco Bellocchio has crafted a film with unusual insight into the life of the woman Mussolini spurned, before marrying his wife, and the son he denied fathering.  Some breathtaking scenes of visual beauty and aural magnificence, the film boasts an electrifying performance by its leading female, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and an expressionistic style and operatic underpinning that makes this film come very close to a five star rating.
Atom Egoyan can never be dismissed, and CHLOE is not a film that deserves some of the very bad notices it has received, even with some tacky plot contrivances on par with FATAL ATTRACTION, and some unexplained morivational aspects centering around Julianne Moore’s character.  Reportedly, Liam Neeson was suffering grief at his wife’s death while filming, and lamentably this seems to show, but the two female leads (especially moore) are excellent.  It’s trashy, but it’s seriously entertaining, which I think makes it worthwhile for a look-see

The Irish film, THE ECLIPSE is well acted, and there are some striking screnes and lovely scenery, but it’s a serious misfire, as it doesn’t know what it wants to be, and it has some rhythm or flow.  Even the “romance” advertised is only faintly hinted at, as the ghost story segments are completely alien to the story being played out.  Some are reading way more into this than what it’s worth.

WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, a documentary about Disney’s last rise to the top in the late 80’s and 90’s is only 68 minutes long, hence it couldn’t go as far as it might have, but it’s still a joy for the lovers of this animation, and the creative process is presented in a highly informative an dentertaining fashion.  I admire the candid approach too.

Based on Clarles Perrault’s grisly fairy tale, Catherine Breillat’s sensuous BLUEBEARD is at at the same time psychologically insightful and stylistically minimalist, but it’s a morbidly intoxicating fable beautifully lensed and provocatively played out by an excellent cast.  Breillat’s cinema leaves always much more than meets the eye, but as was the case with her terrific THE LAST MISTRESS a few years ago, what you see is absolutely ravishing.

DREAM BOY, one of three features in a festival, is an amateurish gay coming-of-age tale with the typical stereotypes and a jarringly unpleasant conclusion.  Little chemistry between characters and a pedestrian script mitigating some minor perceptiveness.

Here are a number of great links for this week: (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1928 115m) not on DVD

No honeymoon

p  Pat Powers, Jesse Lasky Jnr, Adolph Zukor  d  Erich Von Stroheim  w  Harry Carr, Erich Von Stroheim  ph  Hal Mohr, Ben Reynolds, Ray Rennahan  ed  Frank Hull, Josef Von Sternberg, Julian Johnson  md  Carl Davis (including various classics)  art  Erich Von Stroheim, Richard Day  cos  Erich Von Stroheim, Max Ree

Erich Von Stroheim (Prince Nicholas Ehrhart Hans Karl Maria Von Wildeliebe-Rauffenberg), Fay Wray (Mitzi Schrammell), Matthew Betz (Schani Eberle), Zasu Pitts (Cecelia Schweisser), Maude George (Princess Maria Immaculata Von Wildeliebe-Rauffenberg), Cesare Gravina (Herr Schrammell), George Fawcett (Prince Ottakar Von Wildeliebe-Rauffenberg), George Nicholls (Schweisser), Dale Fuller (Frau Schrammell),

The opening caption to Von Stroheim’s romantic folly confirms that it is “dedicated to the true lovers of the world.”  That in itself might seem a supremely romantic statement, were it not for the fact that Von Stroheim is referring not just to physical romantic lovers, but to true lovers of any aesthetic, in this case Von Stroheim’s beloved Vienna.  He’s not the only master director to create love letters to that most imperial of cities (Max Ophuls did so many times a few decades later), but Von Stroheim’s films have an altogether grander quality.  They are follies, but also amongst the most grandiose statements in silent cinema history.  None of his classics can be seen as originally intended; Greed, Queen Kelly and Foolish Wives only survive in grossly butchered states, and The Wedding March is actually only part one of a story which was continued in The Honeymoon, which is now probably the most sought after lost film of them all.  Originally the second film finished on a note of doomed romance.  As it is, minus the second stanza, this poem to romance leaves a somewhat cynical but in some ways more realistic aftertaste.

            The film is set in the very period prior to World War I that marked the final days of the Imperial Hapsburgs. Nikki, the hard-drinking, womanising and extravagantly living son of an impoverished aristocratic family, finally agrees to marry.  As his parents have often harangued him, he decides to “marry money” and is engaged to the crippled daughter of a wealthy industrialist.  Meanwhile he falls for a young lower class girl, Mitzi, and they enjoy a brief affair before her parents want her married off to the brutish Schani. (more…)

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screen cap from Czech New Wave masterpiece ‘Valley of the Bees’ by Frantisek Vlacil

by Sam Juliano

     In 1998, Czechoslovakian film critics were polled on what they considered to be the greatest film ever made in their country, and the response at the time was somewhat surprising.  Forgoing the best films by Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel, the scribes annointed a relatively obscure medieval epic by Franticek Vlacil, Marketa Lazarova, a film about the desperate struggle for survival amongst the bloody savagery of the 13th century. In this dark and spectacular canvas, Vlacil, who originally studied art history and aesthetics, revealed an intense interest in the power of the poetic image that has often been compared with Tarkovsky.  His taste for composition–horses against landscape, castles against the sea–often attained a Wellsian grandeur.  The titles that break the film up give it the epic quality of the picturesque novel it was based on, and the violence of the film’s rapid forward tracking movements, flashbacks and flashforwards disturb both the narrative and visual convention.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1924/1998 141m) not on DVD

A dentist’s tale

p  Erich Von Stroheim, Irving Thalberg  d  Erich Von Stroheim  w  Erich Von Stroheim, June Mathis  novel  “McTeague” by Frank Norris  ph  Ben Reynolds, William H.Daniels  ed  Erich Von Stroheim, Rex Ingram, Grant Whytock, June Mathis, Jos W.Farnham  Carl Davis  art  Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons   

Gibson Gowland (John ‘Doc’ McTeague), Zasu Pitts (Trina Sieppe), Jean Hersholt (Marcus Schouler), Chester Conklin (Popper Sieppe), Dale Fuller (Maria), Tempe Pigott (Mother McTeague), Silvin Ashton (Mommer Sieppe), Joan Standing (Selina),

No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss.  Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention.  Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging.  Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8½ hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere.  When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3¼ hours.  Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2¼, as it survives to this day.  It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.

            The story is made into a tragedy of human despair and greed worthy of Hugo and Zola, as we follow McTeague from his beginnings in a gold mine in 1908 to his being sent away by his mother to learn dentistry from a charlatan.  Setting up in San Francisco, he comes to know Marcus, who introduces him to Trina, a delicate young girl whose teeth he fixes.  Marrying her, their life is thrown into turmoil when Trina wins an illegal lottery and she hoards the money from husband and friend alike, while McTeague is slowly driven to madness and violent retribution. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1927/1980 234m/324m) DVD4 (Australia only – 234m version)

Proud as an eagle

p/d/w  Abel Gance  ph  Jules Kruger, Léonce-Henry Burel  ed  Abel Gance, Marguerite Pinson  m  Carl Davis/Carmine Coppola (orig.Arthur Honegger)  art  Alexandre Benois, J.Schildnecht, Eugène Lourié  ph-spc  Simon Feldman

Albert Dieudonné (Napoleon Bonaparte), Vladimir Roudenko (Napoleon as a boy), Gina Manès (Josephine), Nicolas Koline (Tristan Fleuri), Alexandre Koubitsky (Danton), Annabella (Violine), Edmond Van Daële (Robespierre), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Léon Courtois (Carteaux), Philipe Hériat (Salicetti), Pierre Batcheff (Hoche), Abel Gance (Saint-Just), Jean d’Yid (La Bussière), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday),

There are two great miracles to take into account when examining Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece; firstly that it was made in the first place and secondly that it has survived to universal critical approval.  The original version, which clocked in at six hours, is long lost, and even Kevin Brownlow’s 324m print with Carl Davis’ music has been unseen since Channel 4 last showed it to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 (and was minus the final widescreen Triptych that still amazes to this day).  The only version generally available is the Coppolas under four hour print, but those who retain copies of the Brownlow restoration from TV know the real power.

            The story essentially covers Napoleon’s formative years – from his schooldays at Brienne in 1781, through to the Italian campaigns in the late 1790s – but right from the first shots in the snow at Brienne as Napoleon plays at snow battles with his school friends and enemies, one is not only hooked but aware of cinema history being made.  Here was a truly revolutionary film about the Revolution, and nearly eighty years on, one can safely say that there has never been a film like it.  Gance lets his camera dance and move and almost go crazy in a way few have tried since, let alone succeeded; he uses multiple exposure, quick fire editing to out-do Eisenstein, split-screen (not only in two, but three and even at one point nine!!!).  Not to mention the innovations such as placing cameras in huge pendulum devices to simulate the rough sea (corresponding to “the raging whirlpool of the Reign of Terror” in the film) and handheld camera for crowd and party sequences.  It’s a symphony of experimentation that still influences today – the escape from Corsica paid homage by Peter Jackson (think Black Riders, Liv Tyler and waves).  (more…)

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                                        Copyright © 2010 by James Clark

    Lynch had spent quite a few years as a student of visual arts and would continue to produce tableaux and other structures.  As such, he was adept at visual and aural design, and, perhaps even more importantly for Eraserhead, completely fluent in the litany of insulting grotesquerie constituting the lingua franca of aspirants to visual heroism.

      In the full edition of David Lynch’s Rabbits (2002), quite a different matter from the tenuous clips comprising his Inland Empire, there is indeed a depiction, however cryptic, of Mulholland Drive’s Rita’s productive torment, productive, that is, of leaving the cage that was her—and Betty’s and Adam’s—protection  against legions of those hostile toward their (variously assimilated) contrariness. The premise of the little drama in eight scenes (each of about five minutes in duration) in which the two actresses from Mulholland Drive and an actor replacing the male lead, are concealed under rabbit (or donkey) costumes, is that Betty (now “Suzie”) and Adam (now “Jack”) having more in common with each other than with the hyper-physical Rita (now “Jane”), are becoming a couple (on Jack’s first entrance, Suzie puts her right hand over her heart), and Jane has now become the most solitary of the solitary. When they embrace on the sofa, it is Suzie who occupies the middle. Jane sporadically remarks, “It did not happen that way;” “There is something I want to say to you, Suzie;” “I was wondering when Suzie was going to do that;” “I only wish that they would go somewhere.” And by the beginning of scene three, they have disappeared from the living room staging area. That is the moment when Jane (performed, in this scene only, by Rebekah Del Rio, who, in Mulholland Drive, with her performance of the song, “Crying,” had revealed a formative kinship with Rita) could attempt to rekindle the magic of Club Silencio. And that, as it happens, is the moment when there emerges a dimension of loss not specifically entailed in  the blast-off pad (to both despair and joy) that was “Crying.” Fixing upon a vocal timbre very close to Laura Elena Herring’s dark resonance, she sings and recites, (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1928 83m) DVD1

Aka. The Passion of Joan of Arc

Cinematic sainthood

p/d  Carl T.Dreyer  w  Carl T.Dreyer, Joseph Delteil, Pierre Champion  ph  Rudolph Maté  ed  Carl T.Dreyer  art  Hermann Warm, Jean Hugo  cos  Valentine Hugo

Renée Falconetti (Joan), Eugène Silvain (Bishop Cauchon), Maurice Schutz (Nicholas Loyseleur), Michel Simon (Jean Lemaitre), Antonin Artaud (Massieu), Louis Ravet (Jean Beaupère), André Berley (Jean d’Estivet), Jean d’Yid (Judge),

Joan of Arc has long been the subject of cinematic interpretation.  One recalls de Mille’s visually arresting but dramatically stultifying epic Joan the Woman with Geraldine Farrar, the awful 1948 Hollywood borefest with Ingrid Bergman, the derided Saint Joan with Jean Seberg, the 1962 minimalist Bresson version with Florence Carrez and the more recent attempts with Leelee Sobieski and Milla Jovovich.  Only Marco de Gastyne’s overlooked 1929 La Merveilleuses Vie de Jeanne d’Arc and Rivette’s 1994 epic two parter, Jeanne la Pucelle, come close to greatness, but even Rivette – in spite of the performance of Sandrine Bonnaire – fails to rival Dreyer’s seminal masterpiece.  Put simply, Dreyer’s film is a true visionary work, a film of startling freshness and power. 

            The film is based strictly on the actual 1431 Rouen trial records preserved in the parliamentary library in Paris.  As one of the titles says “we discover Joan as she was – not with a helmet and armour, but simply a human being, a young woman who dies for her country.”  Whether Joan was indeed a blessed chaste saint or merely a misguided nationalist with insane visions is immaterial.  At its heart, Dreyer’s film isn’t just about Joan, but about faith itself.  It doesn’t matter whether we believe her, but that she believes herself.  Either way it’s impossible, even for one of the nation to whom she proved such a bane, not to feel some sympathy for her plight.  “It is you who have been sent by the devil to torment me” she proclaims at one point, and it would take a hard man not to sympathise.  However, the overall feeling one gets as we watch the trial go on its remorseless, relentless way to its inevitable infernal conclusion, sometimes makes one forget just how revolutionary its approach was.  No film before or since has used close-ups so menacingly or so effectively.  No film has ever had such majestic period sets and then basically refused to show them.  Dreyer’s camera is restless, rarely remaining still unless to dwell on the face of an accuser or the eponymous accused.  The effect is shattering, its faces closing in as if accusing you the viewer.  You feel every humiliation Joan receives and the final execution is surely one of the most realistic ever put on camera.  We literally see Joan burning to virtually the last fibre of her being, long after we can recognise the cross she clutches to her chest.  Religious figure or not, she is a martyr to her own beliefs, and for that alone we can only sit in awe.  With no action or romance, only the sheer emotional pain of the ultimate cinematic experiment, is it any wonder it failed commercially? (more…)

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by Joel Bocko

#51 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Of the two most cited interpretations, the most frequent reading of Gus Van Sant’s enigmatic title holds that it refers to “the elephant in the room,” which nobody wants to talk about. Yet this is facile – was it really true that nobody wanted to talk about Columbine in the wake of the 1999 high school massacre? Was this true even beforehand, given that Columbine was actually the climax to a spate of school shootings, all of which received ample press coverage, rather than the kickoff? Furthermore, what exactly is it that’s not being discussed? Social isolation? The influence of the media? Video games? Gun control? Violence in America? Not only were all of these issues seized upon after the killings, but Van Sant makes a point out of eschewing all these explanations in his film (giving each of them a bit of airtime before moving on to other matters). So no, there’s no elephant in the room here, and if there is, no one’s ignoring it. The second reading, the one that it seems Van Sant actually intended, references the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part of the body and varying wildly in how they describe the animal. Likewise, Van Sant’s meditative, almost cruelly cool film is, at 81 minutes, too vast to take in from one perspective – which is not to say it’s particularly deep. (more…)

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