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Archive for May, 2017

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By J.D. Lafrance

The rise of media consultants in the 1970s and 1980s changed the way political campaigns were run and how politicians were sold to the public. Make no mistake; this is an expensive practice with costs to run a successful campaign increasing every year. It is the job of the media consultant to create the most attractive image of their client to present to potential voters while creating a negative image of their opponent. This is nothing new, but back in 1986 when Sidney Lumet directed Power from a screenplay by David Himmelstein, the notion of a media consultant wielding influence was a novel concept. So novel that the film received mixed reviews by critics and was virtually ignored by audiences (it failed to recoup its modest $16 million budget). With hindsight one can see that the film was ahead of its time with a slick, charismatic protagonist that anticipated real-life counterparts like James Carville. Power asks some fascinating questions about the nature of power and influence and its effects. It also remains one of Lumet’s sorely under-appreciated films.

The consultant’s job is to create a positive image of the client and this is evident in the film’s opening scene where a South American political leader is making a speech to hundreds of people in a crowded town square. A bomb goes off and the man springs into action, rushing to the aid of a woman injured in the blast. He cradles her head in his arms, making him look like an instant hero until we see a camera crew documenting the entire event. Successful media consultant Pete St. John (Richard Gere) coaches the leader once he hustles him into a waiting van, telling him to wear his now bloody shirt for the rest of the campaign. Pete proceeds to tell the man what to say, how to act, and so on. We’re left wondering if the whole thing was staged or did he brilliantly capitalize on the moment?
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Elia Kazan’s most overrated film? I think so. Saw it at the Quad on Sunday in a fabulous print, but the film itself was insufferable. I’m speaking here of his 1963 epic “America America” which was nominated for Best Picture.

by Sam Juliano

The seventeen day Allan Fish Online Film Festival, of inaugural vintage is complete, and the results indicate a smashing success.  It was exciting for all of us to wake up to all the new posts, since even those at the site including myself hadn’t any knowledge what would be appearing, with only two exceptions.  The venture joins the Musical and Comedy genre countdowns and a number of Allan’s own decade projects as the most undeniably successful in the nearly nine year history of the site.  This was a remarkable tribute to all Allan has meant to so many, and doubtless he is looking down from above quite pleased and grateful.  Many thanks to all those who read, left comments and likes and of course generated these extraordinary posts.  Those, like Marilyn Ferdinand, Jon Warner, Frank Gallo, John Grant, Sachin Gandhi and Peter M., I want to give a special thanks for being on top of the postings day in and day out.  But the thanks are really to all with kudos to Jamie for conceiving, designing and scheduling the festival.  The festival will live on as many will slowly avail themselves of all the fabulous suggestions sponsored in the individual postings as well.  Once again a project at this site has featured some truly spectacular writing across the board.

The upcoming Greatest Television Show/mini series project is moving forward with unexpected excitement and enthusiasm, as ballots have been flying in daily.  Angelo A. D’Arminio Jr. is keeping abreast of the situation, and has set a deadline of June 15th for ballots to be submitted.  The plans are to actually begin the Top 60 on July 1st.  As always Jim Clark and J.D. Lafrance has kept the ball rolling along with their own measure of exceeding film scholarship with mid week postings.

Lucille and I were thrilled to meet up with Maurizio Roca, Joel Bocko and Bob Clark on Monday evening, May 22nd to take in a screening of Alien:  Covenant at the Union Square Regal Cinemas and then a wonderful time at the The Dish afterwards.  A scheduling mix up forced me to miss the first forty minutes of the film, so my rating here is really negligible until I re-see the film in its entirety.  I also saw the newly-released Israeli comedy The Woman’s Balcony at the Quad and the 1963 Elian Kazan epic America America (1963) at the theater.  I must say I found the Kazan film (and I do love the director’s work despite his reprehensible stool pigeon maneuverings) rather insufferable and vastly overrated.  It was the one Kazan movie I hadn’t ever seen until this week.

I was never a big Allman Brothers fan, but the untimely passing of icon Gregg Allman this week is another dreadful loss for the arts.  R.I.P Gregg.

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by Sam Juliano

 

Dearest Allan:

It has been almost ten months since you departed this earthly realm.  Lucille and I won’t ever forget the last time we spoke, which was by phone two days before you left us on August 29, 2016.  You struggled to speak, but you moved us to the core of our beings with your achingly emotional regard for our eleven year relationship.  Though we saw each other on three occasions, adding up to sixty-seven days in each other’s company over that all-too-brief period, our friendship was fueled by daily correspondence and more marathon phone calls than I have had with any person during my lifetime.  I can’t remember any other person I fought with more regularly nor can I even fathom the vitriolic nature of some e mails we shared in a chain with fellow friends from Brooklyn and Chicago.  Those contentious rows almost always ended with phone conversations initiated by you, with peace branches being accepted on both ends.  I fondly recall the first time we ever spoke on the phone back in 2005, when I recklessly dialed your Kendal number and spoke with you nearly four hours, erroneously thinking I had unlimited time.  I took an eight-hundred and forty dollar hit that day, one that had you and your mum deeply mortified over the colossal gaffe.  As you recall you felt so bad over it that you sent me one-hundred and fifty dollars worth of DVDs to ease the pain, but that now laughable baptism under fire led to more Sunday afternoon conversations than I can remotely recall.  Hence, when you told Lucille that she, I and our family “made my life worth living” you immediately and for all time erased all the acrimony and malice, validating in those tearfully impassioned words “what I say about someone is one thing, what I feel about him is another.”  Just two months before you shattered us with your untimely adieu, you consoled me on the phone after the tragic passing of my brother Joe’s oldest son at age thirty-six.  I shared my eulogy of him with you and you did all you could, even monitoring my own state of grief with Lucille.  Though you yourself began to have seizures at that time -a short while after the dreaded cancer had returned- you did all you could from 3,000 miles away to ease my pain.  You had all that you could handle and them some, yet you had something there left for me.  Whatever time I have left, I won’t ever forget your deepest concern for a friend at a time when your own life was hanging in the balance.  Of course, I won’t likewise ever lose sight of the fact that when I was given the news of Brian’s sudden death (drug related) I was driving on a highway about an hour west of my home.  I jerked the steering wheel and pulled to the side of the road overcome by grief.  The very first thing I did before even allowing such catastrophic news to settle in was to reach you on FB message to appraise you of this horrific event.

Such was the nature of daily communication that as you will fondly recall was in the neighborhood of at least a dozen back and forth e mails, new release announcements, links to other sites and reviews and general banter that often concerned personal matters, finances and family related issues.  Our shared site contains many priceless exchanges, and there isn’t  anything I wouldn’t do to have you back as the yang to my ying.  Heck I just heard over the last few days that you told one of our mutual friends that there was a time you’d have to “rethink our friendship” as a result of my being generally unimpressed by the television show The Wire.  That quip made me think of when you thought I deserved life imprisonment for championing  Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon and Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.  Those were precious exchanges, and I tear up just reliving them.

But I know you were taken from us for a specific reason.  You had done your job here, and are now bringing the cinema to people who left their earthly origins much too soon, much as you did.  After all your job was to write a film encyclopedia for use by newbies and those expanding their horizons.  Now you have others to teach, to spread the word, to delineate what is exceptional and what is disposable.  As always your persuasiveness is irresistible, a kind of pitch like the one Ed Wynn gave to Mr. Death in The Twilight Zone’s season one gem “One For the Angels.”  When Wynn departed he brought along his box of goodies so he could make pitches to those in heaven, much as your transported file copies of your book are probably all the rage in the movie paradise not too far beyond the pearly gates.  The old phrase “I wish I were a fly on the wall” applies to me as I try to surmise what your lectures are entailing.  Though I quite understand and respect that this is a one way correspondence – you are allowed to read it but cannot respond before the point of departure for others, I have still come to speculate how’d you’d respond to new releases based on your prior assessment of works bearing thematic or stylistic similarities.  I have you down for 3.5 for La La Land, 4.5 for Moonlight, 3.5 for Fences, 4.5 for Indignation, 3.0 for Jackie and the top 5.0 for Manchester for the Sea.  If like you I am fortunate enough to get up there at some point, I would like to compare notes on these and many other releases both old and new.  I am sure you are celebrating over the Arrow blu ray release of the long-unavailable Rainer Warner Fassbinder television release, Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day.  I know that you and Jamie Uhler had many discussions about it, but were doubtful it would ever experience the light of day for cinephiles.  But late in July it will become a reality, following in the paths of your beloved Yoshida, Rivette and Fassbinder sets. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe
In searching for an appropriate topic for this celebration of Allan’s life and legacy, I found myself perusing his “alternate Oscars” posts from a few years ago, a series that was both impressive in its sheer scope and fascinating for what it revealed about Allan’s preferences as well as his judgments about what performers, films, and directors should be considered “award-worthy.” And one of the things I was delighted to discover upon going through these posts is that I share with Mr. Fish an affinity for the work of the great Tex Avery.
Indeed, in his personal selections of the best short film productions of each year, Allan chose five Tex Avery cartoons, every single one of them an absolute gem. So I can think of no better way to celebrate Allan’s memory than to highlight those five hilarious and brilliantly-constructed animated shorts, all of them released during what was arguably the heyday of Avery’s career as the wonderboy of MGM’s animation division.
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)

Long before Edward Everett Horton narrated a series of “Fractured Fairy Tales” for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Tex Avery presented his own unique, skewed take on the genre. Red Hot Riding Hood wasn’t the first time Avery had dipped into the fairy-tale well; in 1937, he directed Little Red Walking Hood for Warner Bros., a gag-heavy take on the familiar story. Still, that one ultimately hewed much more closely to the original story’s plot than Avery’s follow-up for MGM six years later.

Red Hot Riding Hood is one of the most notable productions of Avery’s long career, arguably the most influential and best-remembered of his many animated shorts. On the Jerry Beck-curated list of the “50 Greatest Cartoons,” Red Hot ranks seventh, and is the highest-placed MGM cartoon on the list (its 1949 semi-sequel, Little Rural Riding Hood, also appears on the list at #23). Red Hot is a prime example of a master gag craftsman at work, one who is more than willing to push the envelope in order to garner the most laughs.

Northwest Hounded Police (1946)

In the 1943 animated short Dumb-Hounded, Tex Avery debuted a new character, a laconic, quick-witted, slow-talking hound dog. Originally dubbed “Happy Hound” (though this is never explicitly mentioned onscreen), the dog spends the entire cartoon tracking down a wolf who has escaped from jail, remarkably appearing in every locale to which the wolf attempts to escape. From the city to the remotest areas of the planet, there is nowhere the wolf can go where the damn dog isn’t waiting for him, and every encounter with his would-be captor sends the wolf into frenetic takes marked by incredibly imaginative imagery. Eventually christened “Droopy,” the seemingly mild-mannered, deceptively meek pup became the perfect vehicle through which Avery could explore the wildest gags he could possibly conceive.

Dumb-Hounded was remade in 1945 as the fourth entry in the Droopy cartoon series, this time called Northwest Hounded Police. Working with a skilled animation team that included frequent colleagues Preston Blair and Ed Love, here Avery put together one of the strongest entries in the entire Droopy filmography. This time around, the recycled gags are sharper and crisper, the reaction shots of the wolf even more exaggerated than before. Avery reuses a fantastic gag from Dumb-Hounded in which the wolf skids off the screen, momentarily exposing the side of the film strip before jetting back into the action, and then takes the meta references up another notch by having the wolf attempt to hide in a movie theater–before Droopy appears onscreen and singles him out in the audience. It’s all-out insanity crammed into a mere seven minutes, and far exceeds its predecessor in both production and laughs-per-second.

The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945)

The second entry in the Droopy filmography, McGoo is a parody of the 1907 poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew, by British-Canadian poet Robert W. Service. In (loosely) recreating the story from the poem, Avery borrows characters from 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood: that cartoon’s Red becomes the sexy singer Lou, and the Wolf takes on the role of Droopy’s adversary. The interaction between these two characters is pretty much the same as in the earlier cartoon; the Wolf lusts after Lou in a series of increasingly outrageous, exaggerated takes as she sings a seductive tune, and when he tries to abduct her, the horndog wolf gets his comeuppance.

McGoo is populated by typical Tex Avery-style gags, jam-packed in from the opening shots: the Alaska town’s “welcome” sign boasts its punny name, Coldernell (a gag Avery would reuse in later cartoons); as gunshots ring out, the population of the town–as advertised on the sign–shrinks. There are other sign gags and wild takes galore: a row of boozehounds turn into howling wolves at one word from Lou; beers sliding down an extended bar are subject to traffic lights; a burly bartender stands in front of a portrait of a (supposedly) naked lady, blocking the naughty bits and speaking directly to camera, “You might as well move along, doc. I don’t move from here all through the picture” (don’t worry–he’ll eventually get out of the way, making room for yet another spot-on sign gag). And that’s just in the first two-and-a-half minutes, before the plot even gets underway.

The Cat That Hated People (1948)

In his work, Avery deliberately turned the “lifelike animation” touted by Walt Disney completely on its head. “I couldn’t compete with Disney,” he once admitted in an interview, “and I didn’t attempt to. I attempted to do things that Disney wouldn’t dare to do … exaggeration in films, wild takes, distorted fairy tales–and I laid off of the fuzzy-wuzzy little bunnies because it wasn’t my bag.”

This is quite evident in The Cat That Hated People, whose Jimmy Durante-esque protagonist is far from the type of cutesy feline creatures that tend to populate Disney shorts. Instead, Avery’s cat is a mangy, disgruntled misanthrope, so worn down from his mistreatment at the hands of the human race to the point that he feels compelled to hop a rocket into outer space. And once he’s there, Avery lets loose one insane, loopy gag after another to torment the poor cat in ways Disney animators likely never could have dreamed.

Magical Maestro (1952)

Each of the five cartoons listed here demonstrate Tex Avery’s distinctive and innovative style–a style which was eventually adopted, at least in part, by other cartoonists who recognized the effectiveness of the Avery model: unending and inventive gags (often at the expense of a defined plot); exaggerated reactions; multiple asides to the audience–whether by sign or by having characters break the fourth wall; intensely sped-up action; and impeccable comedic pacing.

But more than anything, Avery had an unerring, innate sense of comic timing. That timing was ultimately the key to Avery’s success, as he was able to make a gag “pop” like no one else in the business. And in the case of Magical Maestro, Avery takes “comic timing” to a whole new level by incorporating an increasingly manic musical motif to accompany the visual jokes, in the process crafting a series of gags that work in hilarious harmony with the classical music soundtrack and building to a crescendo of guffaws. Not to say the cartoon is entirely perfect (there is the unfortunate bit of blackface and a cringe-worthy Chinese parody), but the multiplying-rabbits gag alone is worth the price of admission.

 

 

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I affirmed I’d be part of this countdown, I sent a title to Sam to see if he thought it was appropriate for a film festival named for Allan. Sam, always the accommodating host at Wonders in the Dark, said, of course it was. I mulled that for some time until I realized I might be trying to school Allan from the other side of the pearly gates on films he generally overlooked in his expansive view of cinema (yes, we all have our blind spots). Following that realization, I looked for a different film, one on which Allan himself might have offered some pointed criticism that would make cinephilia a better place. I came up with Bedelia.

Allan showed some esteem for Bedelia’s director, Lance Comfort, whose Hatter’s Castle made his Movie Timeline for 1942. He also seems to have respected the talents of Margaret Lockwood, who plays the title character in Bedelia. He included her as a runner-up in two of his “Best of” lists, for supporting actress in The Stars Look Down (1939) and actress for The Man in Grey (1941). He had this to say about her in his review of 1939’s A Girl Must Live:

Lockwood had achieved stardom the previous year in The Lady Vanishes and (Carol) Reed’s Bank Holiday and this would be her second of four films for Reed – The Stars Look Down and Night Train to Munich would follow – and it’s fascinating to think of her playing the innocent ingénue only a few years before bitching up the screen in regency costume dramas.”

I wonder if Allan would have seen her mesmerizing performance in Bedelia as a warm-up for her imperious later roles. It certainly seems that way to me.

Lockwood plays Bedelia Carrington, the brand-new bride of Charlie Carrington (Ian Hunter), a middle-class Yorkshire building engineer. While on their honeymoon in Monte Carlo, they make the acquaintance of an artist, Ben Cheney (Barry K. Barnes), who arranges to chat them up at their fancy hotel—an extravagance for both men. Bedelia has been married before, to an emerging artist who died young. Ben promises Charlie to see if he can find a painting by Bedelia’s first husband—unaccountably, she has none of his works—and to look the couple up after all are back in England to finish a portrait of Bedelia Charlie commissioned in Monte Carlo. This he does, also bringing a painting bearing her late husband’s signature to a Christmas party hosted by the Carringtons. That very evening, Charlie falls very ill and hovers near death for weeks. His slow, steady recovery under the watchful eye of a private-duty nurse (Jill Esmond), however, seems to make Bedelia more and more anxious. It’s only a matter of time until her dark secret leads to a strangely compassionate conclusion.

We learn in the opening frames that Bedelia is some kind of wicked enchantress, as a voiceover by Ben reveals her peculiar nature as we gaze at a pretty crummy painting of the ravishingly beautiful woman. To its credit, however, the film maintains an admirable suspense, allowing Lockwood to build a character who keeps us off-balance—a gorgeous woman who, like Rita Hayworth, is more than the sum of her hair tosses. We know she is hiding something when she lies to her husband, but she seems absolutely besotted with him. We know she doesn’t like to be photographed or drawn, but she agrees, albeit reluctantly, to allow Ben to paint her portrait. We feel the same revulsion toward Ben that she does; he appears to be watching Bedelia, questioning a jeweler about a pearl she brought in to be reset, and he rents a dog to get Bedelia to talk to him.

Bedelia 1

Ian Hunter is an excellent foil for Lockwood. Playing a doting husband with a welcoming sense of humor, he is completely natural in his relationship with Bedelia—including standing up to her when she makes what he considers to be unreasonable demands. He’s not a clueless dupe, and his love and equanimity with her has us believing Bedelia’s declaration that he is different from any other man she’s met. Equally, Barnes isn’t afraid to behave like an aggressive cad who works hard—maybe too hard—to throw Bedelia off her game. A great supporting cast fills out this film that is more than a mystery; it’s a finely wrought melodrama about the complicated nature of love, hate, and the drive for freedom.

Bedelia derives from a novel by Vera Caspary, whose novel Laura formed the basis for one of cinema’s most famous and acclaimed noir films. Caspary, a successful author of murder mysteries, collaborated on the screenplay for Bedelia, an apprenticeship in the art of writing for film that would eventually win her accolades from the Writers Guild of America for A Letter to Three Wives (1950). The film might have reached the heights of Laura (1944), whose opening it mimics, if it had been made on a Hollywood budget, not the shoestring that usually attended productions by British National Films (BNF), a company that went belly-up only two years after Bedelia was released. But no expense was spared in dressing Lockwood, whose allure is essential to the effectiveness of the film; I don’t think I saw her wear anything more than once in any scene, not even her robe.

Bedelia is not perfect or terribly stylish, but its psychological complexity and some of its plot points are echoed in some of the world’s greatest films, including Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). I’d like to think that Bedelia is a film Allan would have appreciated.

You can view Bedelia on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7WPeJRXaF0

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When I think back to the many conversations I had with Allan about film, I think most fondly about our discussions about the French 1930s. We both shared an affinity for the period, and we had remarkably similar tastes and shared some favorite filmmakers. Of course Renoir was a typical topic, especially when it was announced the La Chienne would be joining the Criterion Collection, but our conversations seemed to gravitate more to the obscure. Julien Duvivier was the director that came up the most.

It is no secret among friends that Allan was often critical of The Criterion Collection. He was a champion of obscure filmmakers that might not be popular with the mainstream (unlike Renoir), and felt that Criterion sat on the rights of quality films because there would not be an audience. He had a good argument, one in which I could not altogether defend, but he also gave praise when needed. When Criterion announced that they were releasing the Eclipse Set, Duvivier in the 1930s, he was elated. He knew these four films and credited Criterion for bringing attention to a nearly forgotten director, with selections that were near his career peak.

My first experience with Duvivier was years ago when I saw La Belle Equipe on a YouTube stream (since removed). I later saw Un Carnet du Bal, again online through a stream (also removed), and finally saw his most celebrated noir and realist classic, Pépé le Moko on Criterion disc. With all three, I was enraptured by the richly drawn characters, the fantastic performances from stars like Jean Gabin and Harry Baur, and the use of surreal film language to punctuate such brilliantly romantic and often tragic tales. Why this filmmaker was not considered to be near the top of the decade was mind boggling, and why his work was largely unavailable was frustrating. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

     Ten (2002) begins with a mother and her pre-adolescent son moving along the streets of Tehran in her car. Although a vicious, lacerating dispute takes place, which has an effect similar to stunning seasickness, we should, for the sake of the lucidity to be found in that stifling cabin cruiser (always seen from the inside) and the subsequent episodes of patrolling those roads, stand back, for a bit, from the opening emotional blood-letting and let ourselves be delighted by Corky, the LA cabby, and her fare, Victoria, the Hollywood talent scout, in the first episode of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991). The foul-mouth boy is a sort of talent scout, scouting the prospect of inducing his open-road mother to play the part of a stay-at-home-mom in a story made to garner acclaim from those demanding dutiful piety. The philosophical driver, like Corky, runs over the crock that rigid matrimony (like rigid fame) constitutes; and she lives to drive another day, and many other days.

Whereas Victoria sees Corky’s point and wishes her well on her rocky road, Amin, the Tehran passenger—like the Idi Amin—discloses a vein of resentment toward interpersonal complication which, though aberrant, is also intrinsic. As such, Ten comprises a multi-faceted dialogue on the subject which could be termed, “How far do you want to investigate the phenomenon of love?” The first episode, labelled “10,” as affixed to the driver’s other drives which the film provides over a quite short period counting down to “1,” could be seen as a vividly dramatic study of the fallout of a divorce. (We learn, from the two major battles along that kinetic way, that the divorce occurred seven years ago, she has remarried, but her first husband—whom we see on several occasions, but always in a white jeep [evoking a UN bureaucratic Peace-Keeper, devoutly rule-driven, obsessed with an antiquated utopian end of strife]—an avid porn connoisseur, is less than able to contribute to putting together a serious support for his son; but that he has, in occasional contacts, become a factor nevertheless in inculcating Amin to a dogmatic primitiveness [linked to unpaid “activist” causes] which the driver had overcome. During the verbal brawl, she insists. “You’re like your father. He shut me away, destroyed me. He wanted me only for himself.” [At which point the clever primitive gives her a dagger-like sideways glance and commands, “Not so loud! Not so loud or I won’t listen to you…”] The skirmish turns to her demand, “I’ll say what I have to say” and his “I don’t want to listen” and cupping his ears.) However, as we look closely at the negotiations in the sanctuary of her smoothly-running vehicle, we realize that though Amin, true to his name, is a vicious, implacable thug, his mother (never named and thereby approximating an anonymity at the heart of her actions) is caught up in making an effort, an effort which has been repeated many times, to enlighten her son about the paradox of caring for a flesh-and-blood loved-one while belonging to something more. Episode 10, therefore, shows her (penultimate) folly in supposing a creature of Amin’s age and pathology would ever attain to anything resembling effective reflection. (more…)

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