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Archive for February, 2019

© 2019 by James Clark

Filmmaker, Claire Denis, is old enough to remember the supernova that was Ingmar Bergman. Lucky her. Lucky us.

A while ago we noted, in her film, White Material (2009), how the protagonist comes up far short of the magic  having been glimpsed–glimpsed on the order of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)–despite remarkable courage and intensity. Now, in the film, Let the Sunshine In (2017), we have a second instance of her gifts and dilemmas, this time anchored by, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). The protagonist of White Material had felt that taking a standpoint in Africa would suit her rigorous needs far better than Paris. The protagonist, Isabelle, in our hunt today, embraces Paris and its subtleties, and especially its promise of what is called love. Let’s see what her plunge into the City of Light can do for her, and us.

Isabelle’s meander in that Tout-Paris (the City’s “advanced” visions) ominously reminds us of the tone-dead coterie of Desiree, in the cited film, from 1955, who easily tolerates carnivorous bores. As such, we’ll use here the same means of explication as before, namely, giving pretty short shrift to the overrated fancy pants, and putting on the high-beams for a seemingly demented but feisty oldster, like Desiree’s mother/dowager/oracle, functioning at the outset of the twentieth century. Now, in today’s very challenging film before us, we have a troubling facsimile of the distant, old Swedish laser, in the form of a Gallic, psychic, clairvoyant, medium, quack—no oracle, but a self-contradictory bloodhound.

The introduction of the latter brims with wit and sinewy earthiness, being, in fact, a hybrid of both the very sharp dowager and her inconsistent servant, Frid. Thereby, the first step, of the erratic Parisian phenomenologist-oldster, involves him being smacked by a blonde girlfriend who has parked her car outside his eccentric Belle Epoque cabin, which could be a windmill without the sails.  His howl from the slap brings to mind Frid’s new girlfriend, Petra, as inured to smashes as a linebacker. Even before this conflict, we have a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, flickering out lasers like the whirling motions of a windmill, and thereby implying a visitation from a distant past. The driver, now saddened, follows up with, “We’ll  never see each other again?” (This being a frequent situation in the preceding actions.) The avatar of good relations makes the chilly reply, “I don’t think so.” Her sad face in close-up reanimates Petra’s lament to Frid, “Why have I never been a young lover? Can you tell me that?” And it also reanimates Frid’s reply: “We are denied the love of loving. We don’t have the gift… Nor the punishment.” The new Frid, on departing the car, asks himself, “How could I have believed in her?” Petra and Frid head for a tempered marriage. The marriages of the dowager appear to have been even less than that. The difficulty of specifying where Isabelle’s heart lies remains to be explored. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

In the late 1980s, Michael J. Fox attempted to break out of the typecasted roles he found himself stuck in – light, breezy comedies like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). He also didn’t want to be known just for his role as the ultra-conservative Alex P. Keaton on the hit television sitcom Family Ties. To this end, he tried his hand at three dramatic departures: the gritty, blue collar Paul Schrader film Light of Day (1987), playing a musician in a bar band; a naive American foot soldier faced with a tough moral dilemma in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989); and a cocaine-addicted fact checker whose life is falling apart in Bright Lights, Big City (1988). You can argue the merits of each film but clearly the mainstream movie-going public was not interested in seeing Fox’s serious side and all three films failed to set the box office on fire. The critics were just as unforgiving and the films received mixed reactions at best, or outright savaging at worst.

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by Sam Juliano

Our annual get-together for The Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, February 24th at the Tigerhouse Firehouse in Fairview, New Jersey.  Festivities commence at around 6:00 P.M.  This is the thirty-eighth year consecutively and as always it has become a way to meet up with some unseen for the previous calendar year and to converse on so many topics, including the movie scene.  The show and the awards themselves are laughable but as a celebration of at least some of. the year’s cinematic riches it has always been entertaining, if outlandish.  I have some wishes for the results, though I am well aware that none will come to pass.   My deepest hope and wish is to see either NEVER LOOK AWAY or COLD WAR (the former is actually a 2019 film for all our list-making purposes as it is the only film of the five nominees in that category that opened theatrically after the 1st of the year, in mid January) surprise in Best Foreign Film. Capernaum would also make a magnificent choice, though like most I also love Roma and The Shoplifters. In any case I consider Pawlikoswki and Von Donnarsmarck’s films staggering masterpieces. I’d love either the aforementioned Cold War or Never Look Away to surprise for Best Cinematography as well, the latter was lensed by Caleb Deschanel. Though Alfonso Cuaron is a lock for Best Director and is most deserving I am rooting for an uspet by Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War) or Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)

In the category of Best Lead Actor, I have no problem at all with the terrific Rami Malek, whose electrifying performance in Bohemian Rhapsody is preferred to Christian Bale’s but my favorite in that category is Willem Dafoe’s as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Though “Shallow” is the lock of the night for A Star is Born.  I can fantasize about the win going to the year’s most beautiful song, “Where the Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns. And then there is Richard Grant, who would delight many if he were prevail for his brilliant work in Can You Forgive Me? though certainly Mahershala Ali, the favorite was deserving as well in Green Book. Glenn Close will almost certainly win, but aside from the career narrative she gave what I think was the best performance of the five nominees or at least as great as the one delivered by Olivia Colman in The Favourite.  I do want Regina King to win (If Beale Street Can Talk) and am pretty sure she will. Finally I am rooting for Minding the Gap (runner up Hale County Before and After) to upset for Best Documentary, which will in the end probably go to Free Solo or RBG.

Lucille and I saw two films theatrically this past week, though one of the two was a second-viewing of the ravishing German masterpiece Never Look Away, which I awarded 5 stars to a few weeks back.  Loved it even more still on second look.

Everybody Knows ****    (Friday night)     Montclair Claridge

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The Good Shepherd

By J.D. Lafrance

The Good Shepherd (2006) had been a long-gestating project for screenwriter Eric Roth. But then again pitching an epic biopic about the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency with a large cast of characters and a complex plot must have been a tough sell for studios interested in making crowd-pleasing blockbusters and not overly long films about people talking. Originally, Francis Ford Coppola and a score of other filmmakers were going to direct this film at various points with Leonardo DiCaprio starring. Both men dropped out for various reasons with Robert De Niro stepping up to take over directorial duties and Matt Damon as his leading man. The result is an ambitious film that spans three continents and covers the years 1939 to 1961. Critics and audiences were put off by the film’s slow, deliberate pacing and distant approach to the characters but missed the boat on a brilliant film that examines the formative years of the CIA.

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by Sam Juliano

Presidents Week 2019 as always results in a full week off for area schools as a kind of winter recess.  The Oscar party at the Tiger Hose Firehouse will be staged starting at 6:00 P.M., though the show itself never gets underway before 8:20 P.M.  Lucille and I are greatly looking forward to seeing many friends including some site blogging regulars for this cherished annual gathering dating back 38 years.  A revolt by the film community resulted in a reversal this week of the tentative plans to consign the Cinematography, Editing and two other categories to commercial breaks, which in essence was another preposterous plan in a year when AMPAS has bungled numerous decisions.  Yet in each case they were overturned.  J.D. Lafrance penned a terrific essay this week on The Warriors.

We saw two new releases on Thursday and Friday evenings at premium Manhattan art houses. Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage is a violent drug cartel drama which focuses on an indigenous community (Wayuu and Spanish language) governed by stringent traditions and spiritual beliefs. Tensions over business and family insults lead to an epic assault on a practically surreal while fortress in desert terrain in a film with gangland repercussions. Brilliantly filmed and scored, if a bit slow getting out of the gate. Christopher Honore’s deeply personal and melancholic trans-formative if doomed gay romance Sorry Angel, set in 1990’s Paris amidst the AIDS crisis brings a rare authenticity into searing relationships among bohemians who click on chance encounters and no-holds-barred physicality that ensues. This is the uneven Honore’s finest film to date. (more…)

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By J.D. Lafrance

When The Warriors came out in 1979 it was a modestly budgeted film made by an up-and-coming director named Walter Hill and featured a then-unknown cast. With its nightmarish vision of New York City, the film certainly wasn’t going to be used in any of the city’s tourism ads extolling the virtues of the metropolis. Like many films from the 1970s, New York is presented as a dirty, dangerous place filled with jaded, cynical people (see Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three). The film performed decently at the box office but reports of gang-related violence at a few screenings caused the studio to panic and downplay promotional advertisements. But the film had left its mark and over the years it has quietly cultivated a loyal following thanks mainly to regular screenings on television and the occasional midnight showing at repertory theaters. 

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by Sam Juliano

The Grammys were staged on Sunday night, but I don’t yet have a full report.  R.I.P. Albert Finny, one of the greatest of all film actors.  Our annual Oscar party will be held at the Tiger Hose Firehouse on Sedore Avenue in Fairview on Sunday, February 24th.  The BAFTAs were also held on Sunday night with Roma scoring yet again for Best Picture and The Favorite racking up the most overall wins.  James Clark’s latest mega-essay in his ongoing Ingmar Bergman series, Smiles of a Summer Night was posted this past week.  In addition, J.D. Lafrance published his weekly film review on Keith Gordon’s 2000 Waking the Dead.  Another superlative essay from J.D.

Lucille, Sammy, Danny and I took in the three-hour-plus latest masterwork, The Wild Pear Tree,  from the brilliant Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan Wednesday at the Film Forum. This fascinating barrage of extended dialogues, examining complex musings on philosophy, theology, politics, and ethnics all transcribed through a cynical haze includes the usual ravishing visual tapestries of seasonal resplendence that showcase again why Ceylan is one of the world’s most singular talents. 2019 now has its set-the-bar cinematic work, one that begs for repeat viewings. The Wild Pear Tree is stunning.

The final of the five films nominated for the Foreign Film Oscar, the German Never Look Away was watched last night at the Angelica Film center with film and TV writer/blogger and friend Adam Ferenz, who is in from Michigan for a few weeks. The epic film about art, love and politics set over three decades in Germany spanning the Nazi era was set in Dresden, Dusseldorf and Berlin was loosely based in part on the life of painter Gerard Richter. Both Adam and I were stunned and surprised at how extraordinary this often powerful and emotional film panned out to be, though we were all most familiar with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s previous Oscar masterwork “The Lives of Others.” As “Never Look Away” did not open in 2018 in USA theaters as did the other four nominees, the film which rates a strong 4.5 of 5.0 (perhaps I’ll go the limit as I ponder further) will count for 2019. Great score and Oscar nominated cinematography from Caleb Deschanel. 

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