Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just for fun: favorite crazy-ass film ballerinas

Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is opening around the country, and it looks pretty good. Quick question: which cinematic terpsichore in fluffy feathers, and severe emotional problems, are you most likely to hang with? Answers, please, in comments section!
Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"
Moira Shearer, "The Red Shoes"
 Barbra Streisand, "Funny Girl"
 Barbie, "Barbie of Swan Lake"
 Bjork, 2001 Oscar broadcast

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sternberg's "Underworld": The Peacock and the Mirror

Josef von Sternberg was an indispensable pain in the ass. More on that later.

We're spoiled. 35 years ago, the only way to see a film not in current release was to hit the art houses, surf pre-cable television, or scrounge up a 16-mm film and accompanying projection system.

The advent of VHS and DVD gave everyone a ticket to the movies, and made critics, curators and analysts of us all. Still, like a spoiled brat I mope about, yearning for those titles on my wish list that I haven't seen yet. I am dying to see Marcel Carne's "Hotel du Nord," or the obscure yet fascinating-sounding 1935 Swiss feature "The Eternal Mask," and long to own copies of Edgar Ulmer's "The Black Cat" and the 1932 "Island of Lost Souls." Even much early Jean Renoir and "The Magnificent Ambersons" are not available in Region 1 (North American technology-compatible) versions.

So, when I get to cross off THREE films at once, I'm ecstatic. Thanks to the wonderful folks at Criterion, "3 Silent Classics by Joseph von Sternberg" is finally here, and I finally got to bump off the first American gangster film feature, his wonderful 1927 "Underworld." ("The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York" complete the Criterion package.)

To be sure, von Sternberg didn't invent the genre -- D.W. Griffith appears to have in his 1912 short drama "The Musketeers of Pig Alley." Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas"/"Les Vampires"/"Judex" serials trilogy of 1913-1916 first posits the idea of the city as a landscape of criminal terror. The evil mastermind, the shifts of identity, and above all the concept of a gritty parallel universe where values are reversed all start here. Fritz Lang elaborates on these themes masterfully in his own early works, "The Spiders," "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler" and "Spies."

Early Depression Era paranoia and cynicism helped feed "Underworld"'s mood. The screenplay was written by Ben Hecht, the ex-Chicago newsman who co-created the quintessential world-weary view of city life in the play "The Front Page," and went on to have a hand on many of the most significant American screenplays of the Studio Era.

The notoriously assured and imperious Sternberg ignored what he pleased of Hecht's work, infuriating the writer, who asked to have his name removed from the credits -- until the picture became a smash hit and earned him the very first Oscar for Best Original Story. Janet Bergstrom's fascinating and top-notch visual essay on the "Underworld" DVD is undergirded with rigorous research, and discusses the post-scenario revisions by the director.

At least at this stage of his career, Sternberg was making changes that helped to tell the story. He assumes the viewer's intelligence, jumping into the story without preamble and letting us determine character and relationships as the narrative breezes along. The central romantic triangle, consisting of crime boss Bull Weed (George Bancroft), his intellectual drunkard minion Rolls Royce (Clive Brok) and moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent) are defined through image and action, not through intertitle or indication.

Sternberg's technical knowledge allowed him to turn down the bright, flat studio lights and achieve a depth and dimensionality, a gradation of shades, not seen in any contemporary's work save for F.W. Murnau. His visually ravishing mise en scene, even in locations of squalor, enriches the viewing experience immensely. His choices inform films in the genre all down the line -- from Hawks' "Scarface" (the enormous blinking advertising sign that declares "THE CITY IS YOURS") to Huston's "Maltese Falcon" (the criminal's final, thoughtful descent down a staircase to his fate) and beyond.

Although he later scorned his work on this film in his autobiography "Fun in a Chinese Laundry," Sternberg would become less attached to his characters, and to exploring emotions outside the realm of desire -- for sex, for power, for control. He outsmarted himself. While the look of his films became more sumptuous and complex (and expensive), his narratives lose their way. His sense of sureness about his talents led to an infuriatingly overbearing and controlling manner that eventually wore out his welcome in the film community.

An ironic touch in "Underworld" is his use of Larry Semon in a supporting role as "Slippy" Lewis, part thug, part comic relief. Semon, one of silent film's now-ignored popular figures, at the time was trying to fight his way back from a massive debt and loss of artistic control. He had been, at one time, Chaplin's rival; however, his insistence on expensive production work and waning directorial skill killed his career.

In "Underworld," his goony whiteface character is replaced by a more measured performance -- one that takes him seriously as an actor and reveals levels of dignity unthinkable to viewers who have only seen his comic films. A year after "Underworld" was made, Semon was dead -- a victim of a combination of physical and emotional breakdown. Would that Sternberg had seen that writing on the wall.

Von Sternberg, like his fellow directorial adapters of the faux "von," von Stroheim and von Trier, combined innovation and audacity, arrogance and insight, producing work that intrigues despite its increasing tone-deafness. "Underworld" and other gems show him at the height of his powers.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Roy Ward Baker, R.I.P.: Architect of horror

Film and television director -- via Here's the New York Times obit. A major architect of the imaginations of my generation, he made some of Hammer Film Production's best -- and campiest -- horror films. On TV, he worked on some of the best British series -- "The Avengers," "The Champions," "The Saint," "Danger UXB," "Fairly Secret Army" and "The Irish R.M." This analysis of his achievements is the best to date, written by Tom Vallance in the Independent.

His best-respected film is "A Night to Remember," a retelling of the sinking of the Titanic praised as far more faithful to fact than the maudlin "Titanic," released five years earlier . . . and the maudlin "Titanic" released 39 years later.

He was just getting started. He helmed the third Quatermass film -- the highly successful film series about a British professor who lucks repeatedly into foiling invasions from outer space.
"Quatermass and the Pit," aka "Five Millions Years to Earth," is genuinely disturbing, and sports strong performances from Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley, and Julian Glover:

[James Donald is one of the most underregarded of film actors. Known best as the chiding voice of reason in the war movies "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Great Escape," roles such as this and others like Winkle in "The Pickwick Papers" and Theo in "Lust for Life" show his range and depth.]
 The poster is very clear: "Not for the mentally immature."
Then, his masterpiece: "The Vampire Lovers"! This first in the loose Carmilla trilogy by Hammer hits all the pleasure points -- vampires, forbidden sexuality, graphic violence, and those hard, bright colors that made watching a Hammer film much like going on an acid trip.

Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, Kate O'Mara, and the immortal Pippa Steel!
Pippa Steel -- chaste above, naughty below. The perfect neo-Victorian fantasy figure.

Next, the delicious awfulness of "The Scars of Dracula": with the wonderful Christopher Lee and Patrick Troughton -- "No one can escape the all-encompassing evil of the humans that do his bidding!"

. . . and the ultimate gender-bender, "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde".
 He moved on to Amicus, a no-budget rival to Hammer, and there diected several of their "horror portmanteau" films, which relied on the formula of telling several shorter tales within an overarching framework. "Asylum" is a decent little horror anthology with a script by Robert Bloch and a slew of talent, including Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, and Patrick Magee, and a very young Charlotte Rampling and Robert Powell. He also did for them "The Vault of Horror
 and "The Monster Club":
" -- And Now the Screaming Starts!" is a pleasant little disembodied-hand-out-for-revenge subgenre entry fro Baker and Amicus:

Meanwhile, Baker directed many of "The Avengers" 1968 episodes:
And followed with more distinguished BBC fare as his career continued. All in all, a very active and satisfying creative life. His film and television work is clear, effective and convincing, even on the silliest projects imaginable. Time and again, he gets great performances out of high-quality actors in absurd situations. He scared the pants off of my generation at the drive-in, in the balcony and on late-night TV. His lurid imagination, leavened with a droll wit, strongly informed my aesthetic sensibilities. Cheers!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Paris on film, Part Four: Entr’acte

So far, we’ve examined Hollywood perspectives on the French capital. These two anthology films provide a palate-cleansing transition to the Gallic sensibility – Parisian films made by Parisians.

In reverse chronological order:

Paris, Je T’Aime

18 short films, 22 directors, including the Coens, Alfonso Cuaron, Alain Chomet, Olivier Assayas . . . . Remarkably, it’s good! Striking, taut vignettes that veer from the comic to the tragic and make good use of the different arrondisements both in terms of setting and mood. Besides, when are you ever going to see Alexander Payne play the ghost of Oscar Wilde again?

Six in Paris

Much harder to find, and more problematic to watch. The six are Claude Chabrol, Jean Douchet, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Daniel Pollet, Eric Rohmer and Jean Rouch. According to Sean Axmaker’s introduction on, the project was pushed forward by actor/producer/director Barbet Schroeder (who acts in one sequence here and shows up in a sequence of “Paris, Je T’Aime 40 years later). The technological revolution of 16mm cameras with direct sound allowed this sextet of New Wave artists to unlock the camera from the tripod and have some fun, resulting in short narratives that, once again, span the humorous and the tragic.

What distinguishes “Six in Paris” from its latter bookend is the lack of awe. In it, the locales serve the story, do not draw attention to themselves (save for a brief, searing remark that no one goes to the Arc D’Triomphe save for tourists and politicians). For native filmmakers, Paris is at once much more and much less than myth – it’s home.

Next: Paris, the auteurs’ playground

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paris on film, Part Three: ‘We’ll always have Paris’

After the German invasion of Paris on June 14, 1940, its perception via American movies changes forever. Paris ceases to exist as a real if faraway alternative to the humdrum lives of moviegoers. Paris is now a lost Eden, a bittersweet memory of beauty and pleasure and romance – a city violated by the Nazis and irretrievably tarnished.

Dir: Michael Curtiz

In America’s greatest romantic drama, Paris symbolizes everything the central, estranged couple of Rick and Ilsa have lost – unreflecting love and doomed innocence. The long flashback that outlines their time together lets us see the chemistry between them (as well as a little fuller toupee for Bogie) and drives home the shock of Ilsa’s supposed betrayal of Rick, justifying his bitterness towards her and just about everything else.

By film’s end, after the former lovers have shared one more night of passion, Rick has decided to do the noble thing and send Ilsa off with her husband (of course, our hero gets to have his cake and leave it too). “We’ll always have Paris,” he tells Ilsa. “We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” Paradise is regained, at least as a sustainable memory.

The Razor’s Edge
Dir: Edmund Goulding

Nasty, dirty old Paris, destroyer of dreams. It took a while for the tales of the Lost Generation to reach the screen. This adaptation of Maugham’s novel is the Paris of pimps, boites, apache dances and that damned accordion music. Here Sophie, played by Anne Baxter in an Oscar-winning performance, runs into her old friends, who are slumming, after she’s tumbled off the wagon and into a Gallic cesspit of sin and despair:

An American in Paris
Dir: Vincente Minnelli
1951’s Best Picture is an over-the-top frothy concoction crammed with lush color, shape, movement, whimsy, and full palette of preconceptions about Paris as playground. Gene Kelly rules the fake streets of the city, and Minnelli whips up his most exuberant outing ever – even if it doesn’t have much of a story behind it. Here Paris is a postwar fever dream. The Americans IN Paris in 1945 liberated the city and laid claim to it, made it, in a sense, a province of the American imagination.

MGM’s monolithic production resources and methods dominate and turn the town into kind of Disneyland. It’s as if the giddy, infectious naiveté of the Yanks who reconquered the city make it their personal keepsake, a theme that is to recur frequently over the next few years.

Moulin Rouge
Dir: John Huston

An anomaly -- an honest attempt to do more than a standard biopic, this life of Toulouse-Lautrec tries to capture not just the historical period, but to replicate the painter’s style onscreen. Color, line, atmosphere and form are carefully chosen. The result, while not the most gripping life story ever told on film, is one of the most faithful to the spirit of its subject.

Four of the next five films concern themselves primarily with the romantic alliance of an older man and a younger woman. Three times, that woman is Audrey Hepburn. Huh?

This plot is so strongly on the mind of filmmakers of the period, especially Stanley Donen. It’s perhaps symptomatic of a postwar male nostalgia, a not-so-hidden fantasy of middle-aged men to conquer an innocent, charming beauty in the most romantic place possible – proving that when it comes to vanity and wistfulness, men are woefully underestimated. Call these “The Bridges of the 4th Arrondissement.”

Funny Face
Dir: Stanley Donen

Love in the Afternoon
Dir: Billy Wilder

Dir: Vincente Minnelli

Dir: Stanley Donen

Gay Purr-ee
Dir: Abe Levitow

Sigh. What makes a film a family classic that endures for all time and spawns several lucrative sequels? That quality eluded the makers of “Gay Purr-ee.”
Why? It has all the right people working on it – Chuck Jones supervised it, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote the music and lyrics. It uses the voices of Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons, Mel Blanc, and Hermione Gingold. It’s an adequate time-passer for kids, but it doesn’t have the ineffable something of even a Silver Age Disney production. Somehow, Warner Brothers, as brilliant as it was with its cartoon shorts, could never really pull off a full-length animated film.

Paris fades out as a locale of focus during the New Hollywood era. Everyone was using the American landscape as a canvas for its art films, and the Yanks caught up with Europe filmically, at least in pretension. When the power of the rebel generation of American directors faded, and the Era of the Blockbuster came in, Paris returned, but only as a kitschy, self-conscious reference point. At its most elemental level, it became just another urban area that was a great setting for a car chase.

The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers
Dir: Richard Lester

Another title that has been made into film countless times, for better and for worse. This version, by far my favorite, adheres to the novel with surprising faithfulness, right down to the sprightly, offhand tone with which Dumas imbued it (having George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the “Flashman” novels, writing the adaptation helps quite a bit). The filming took place of course, not in France at all (lesson: want 17th-century Paris? Go to Madrid). But it FEELS French – Lester and his cohorts have whipped up a palpable fantasy of action and romance and wit and style, peppered with the countless small details and bits of business that Lester uses in his films to create one teeming, Brueghelian set piece after another.

Lester’s crowning achievement also led to the abrupt end of his career. First, the producers made two films out of one set of performances, and triggered a bunch of lawsuits. When the third film in the trilogy, “The Return of the Musketeers,” was made in 1989, superb comic and character actor Roy Kinnear was killed in an equine accident during shooting. This incident seemed to destroy Lester’s desire to make more films.

The Moderns
Dir: Alan Rudolph

Another anomaly. Rudolph’s quirky style is aptly served by this shaggy-dog story about art and intrigue, and except for a couple of canned shots of Paris, this was all shot in Montreal.

Dir: John Frankenheimer

City as obstacle course. Frankenheimer decided to film the ultimate car chases, and he did – one of them intricately choreographed in Paris.

Moulin Rouge!
Dir: Baz Luhrmann

The Bourne Identity
Dir: Doug Liman

Before Sunset
Dir: Richard Linklater

Dir: Brad Bird

Inglourious Basterds
Dir: Quentin Tarentino

Now that we’ve thumbed through Hollywood’s take on Paris, we can move on to the real deal – French filmmakers and their use of the city. We’ll make the transition in the next chapter, through a short entr’acte that looks at two compilation films – 24 views of Paris in 213 minutes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

'Crack in the World': "How many men have had the opportunity to turn the page of history?"

Oh, frabjous day! Finally one of the cheesy sci-fi classics of my childhood is out on DVD.

"Crack in the World" came to the drive-in in 1965. It was directed by Andrew Marton, best known for his 1950 adaptation of "King Solomon's Mines" with Stewart Granger, his initial 1964 adaptation of James Jones' "The Thin Red Line," and lots of action TV work on series such as "Flipper" and "Daktari."

This gloriously overblown film has everything a seven-year-old would love -- lots of exploding miniatures, scenes of panic and mass destruction, bombastic dialogue, torrid romance, the dropping of an H-bomb into a live volcano -- the fun never ends. Take a look:

It's hard to believe that Dana Andrews had already achieved sobriety before accepting the role of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Stephen Sorenson. His noble plan to provide the world with energy released from the earth's core is a good one -- but when he fires a nuclear missile into the middle of the planet, it goes all Humpty-Dumpty on him, creating a fast-moving fissure that threatens to split Terra in two.

And if that isn't bad enough, his dish of a scientist wife (Janette Scott, soon to become Mrs. Mel Torme) and he run into her former lover, the brawny Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), who thinks that Sorenson is out of his Nobel-winning mind. Crack above, triangle below.

Sorenson's arrogance and determination to accomplish one more world-changing event before his terminal cancer overtakes him slows down the attempts to stop the destruction.
Once again, mankind takes the powers that should be wielded only by a Higher Power and uses them to jeopardize life as we know it. The post-Hiroshima paranoia and distrust of the secular cult of science that dominated post-World War II thinking runs rampant here.

And it's so cool! Scott and Moore had teamed previously in the 1961 film version of "The Day of the Triffids," another cautionary tale about hostile flora. John Douglas' score is heavily indebted to the swinging, brassy Bond themes John Barry was putting out at the same time. Production designer Eugene Lourie, who started his career working with Jean Renoir, handles the old-school special effects with aplomb (he had already helmed movies like "Gorgo," "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "The Giant Behemoth.")

We children were spellbound for weeks after seeing it, debating the niceties of tectonic repair and dreaming of saving a luscious blonde scientist from the clutches of her creepy old husband. A popcorn movie par excellence!

Now, to keep pushing for the release of the splendidly curdy "Atlantis, the Lost Continent"!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paris on film, Part Two: American style

Images of Paris filling our heads are usually made in Hollywood.

America’s fascination with Paris has existed for generations. It’s inferiority – we looked askance at a longer-lived if not more mature culture. Likewise, Puritan stays have always been strained with a kind of hateful yearning with its more openly sensual, morally ambiguous delights.

Paris means prestige, too, ostentation. The gap between rich and poor in France was naked and steep, in sharp contrast to the egalitarian conformities of American society. These Yankee dreams of French life accelerated exponentially after the exposure of American troops to naughty, mysterious and – foreign -- European society during World War I.

These elements came together to create Hollywood-Paris. Whether shot in the studio or on location, they stamp American preconceptions onto the city, its history and its inhabitants. These are the best examples of their kind – for better or worse, they frame our vision.

The first "Hollywood" constructions of Paris were actually staged back East, before the movie industry had firmly made the transition to California. Director Frank Lloyd adapted both "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Les Miserables" with then-heartthrob William Farnum in the title roles, and filmed them at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1917.

Orphans of the Storm
Dir: D.W. Griffith

The first genius of American filmmaking adapted a venerable melodrama and transported it to the time of the French Revolution (and filmed it all in Mamaroneck, New York). Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in Griffith's last hit movie. Many critics feel that the director was trying to draw parallels between the recent Bolshevik Revolution and the Terror; however, he doesn't let the pseudohistorical episdoes of the costume epic get in the way of the tear-jerking, nor the last-minute, rapidly cross-cut race to save one of our two heroines from the Chopping Spree.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Dir: Wallace Worsley, Sr.

The Phantom of the Opera
Dir: Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney, Sr.’s classic performances stand in relief against their Gallic backdrop in these two masterpieces. The extensive and expensive set construction would be redressed and used over and over again through the years, forming a template. Much like the “Transylvanian village” created for 1932’s “Frankenstein” and used in almost every Universal mystery and horror film after that, it has stuck to our minds.

The Beloved Rogue
Dir: Alan Crosland

The first of many adaptations of the 1901 stage hit “If I Were King,” this romantic rendering of the life of fifteenth-century poet and scamp Francois Villon has served as a showcase for charismatic leading men. Here the central role is taken up by John Barrymore; later on it became the operetta “The Vagabond King” as well as a winning vehicle for Ronald Colman, under its original title. (Villon’s antagonist is none else than Louis XI, played to the hilt in those versions by two great screen villains, Conrad Veidt and Basil Rathbone.) In all the versions, the cobbled streets, crooked roofs and looming towers of medieval Paris play a scenic part.

Love Me Tonight
Dir: Rouben Mamoulien

Who could be more French than Maurice Chevalier? Here’s the film’s great opening sequence, in which Paris wakes up and bursts into a song of love:

The bubbly high spirits of these continental musical romantic comedies owe a lot more to 19th-centuryViennese sensibilities, but somehow Paris caught the cachet instead.

A Tale of Two Cities
Dir: Jack Conway

Here’s a re-release trailer:

Those peasants are revolting. Ronald Colman is the center of a full-on epic adaptation of Dickens’ epic novel gets the full-on epic treatment here. Dramas of the Revolution serve as tonics for overblown actors, who get to shake their fists and cackle lines like, “Madame Guillotine is thirsty today!”

Les Miserables
Dir: Richard Bowleslawski

Another classic, one that has been made and remade close to two dozen times. With Frederic March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton burning with cold fire as the implacable Javert. (Javert is most easily and nearly always referred to as implacable.)

Other good outings Valjean pairings include Richard Jordan/Anthony Perkins, 1978; Gerard Depardieu/John Malkovich, 2000; and an interesting 20th-century paraphrase by Claude LeLouch, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the Valjean figure.

Mad Love
Dir: Karl W. Freund

This remake of Robert Wiene’s 1925 horror classic “The Hands of Orlac” was directed by one of the greatest black-and-white cinematographers, Freund. Of his 150-plus screen credits, only 11 are as director. He filmed the Lugosi “Dracula” for Tod Browning, and he directed the Karloff “Mummy.” This was his final film as a director.

Here, Paris is a dark, disturbing place, shot in high relief. The heroine is an actress at the Grand Guignol – a graphic and disturbing horror theater in Paris popular during the first half of the 20th century. The villain’s sexual, obsessive reaction to torture and death is whispered with calm insanity by Peter Lorre:

Dir: George Cukor

The story of the gay, consumptive courtesan who sacrifices her love and happiness and life for the sake of her beloved has been a huge hit since it was written in 1852. Verdi made “La Traviata” out of it, and Greta Garbo reigns here, resignedly, floating amid her enormous blank soulfulness. Another re-release trailer:

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Garbo laughs! Her first comedy. Her dour Soviet ambassadress is overwhelmed by the vivacity of the city, and that of Melvyn Douglass. She loosens up. It’s Lubitsch.

The Life of Emile Zola
Dir: William Dieterle, Irving Rapper

“When did you come to Paris?” “A hundred years ago – when I was 17.” Life, she is so sad. Paris is a backdrop for the heroic acting of Paul Muni. A gifted actor with a talent for makeup, like Chaney, and a penchant for over-the-top characterizations. He was a high-wire artist, stunting in wildly divergent parts. His work was the epitome of early-talkie Acting: he was clear, forceful and vivid, gifts from extensive stage work:

Dir: Mitchell Leisen

The last screwball gasp before the shadow of Hitler fell over France. (In contrast, Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” made at the same time, is a death knell disguised as a comedy.) Paris is a bubble, a radiant beacon of light and love and comic misapprehension. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script drives briskly and adroitly down the plot. Audiences hadn’t seen the darkness yet.

Next: “Casablanca” and the post-war period

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Paris, Je T'Aime: The City of Light on film: Initial Notes

A recent article by A.O. Scott of the New York Times about the pleasures of Paris and film prompted me to make my own list of films made in and about the French capital. As usual, a simple list has grown into a multi-part series.

Paris is a precious, unique place -- beautiful and fascinating and strange. In Western culture, it holds a significance matched only by London and New York. It contains remains from all its historical periods, from pre-Roman to today. It bears the marks of grand gestures of absolutism and lightning-strokes of shameless anarchy side by side.

It was spared the massive destruction visited upon other European capitals in the 20th century; even the German general charged with leveling it during the Nazi withdrawal couldn't bring himself to do so (see the 1966 Rene Clement film "Is Paris Burning?")

(Oddly enough, Paris is the most often-devastated metropolis in modern science-fiction films.)


As Jake Coyle of the Canadian Press can testify, Paris is the best place in the world to watch a movie.
A nifty little site for those wanting to catch a flick in the City of Light is There are more than 300 cinemas there, meaning you could make pretty much a year’s work out of hitting them all, taking weekends off to do other junk – evidently there’s a lot to do there.

Paris IS the birthplace of the moving picture, after all – at least in terms of being where people were first charged  on December 26, 1895 for watching 50-second loops of “reality” footage, and the immortal comedy “l’Arroseur Arrose” (in English, “The Hoser Hosed” or “The Waterer Watered”).

I have only clocked seven days in Paris, and I only saw one movie there. It was a dilly. The Centre Pompidou, where all the cool art is, has an awesome cinema as well. Footweary, my wife and I caught part of a salute to Hammer horror films – the craptacular “Circus of Horrors,” starring everyone’s favorite cineNazi, Anton Diffring.

Among other delights, it features Donald Pleasence, with hair, speaking French (much to the amusement of the audience, except we two Yanks)! To top it all off, he’s eaten by a dancing bear. This is only 30 minutes in, mind you! Tres droll.

"No, Bosco, no!"
When it comes to movies set in, or concerning, Paris, there are several categories from which to choose. The first and easiest to dismiss is that of films containing the words “Paris” or “French” solely to entice viewers by virtue of those words’ cachet. These films, by and large, blow. Examples: April in Paris, Bachelor in Paris, Charlie Chan in Paris, The Last Time I Saw Paris . . . French Kiss, French Leave, French Lesson, French Postcards, The French Sex Murders . . . all having to do with romance or at least naughtiness (OK, except for An American Werewolf in Paris.) Oo. La. La.

Then there is Hollywood-Paris. We'll go there next time.

Friday, July 23, 2010

‘It smells of mortality’: Peter Brook’s ‘King Lear’

“King Lear”

Dir: Peter Brook

The best recorded version of Shakespeare’s greatest play is nearly impossible to find. Why?

English theater director Peter Brook is famous for his audacity and the effectiveness of his methods. In his time, he has given us groundbreaking stagings of classical and contemporary plays. His forays into film have recorded some of these efforts and given us works such as “Lord of the Flies,” “Marat/Sade” and “The Mahabharata.”

His epic and cruel construction of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” based on a stage production with Paul Scofield in the lead role nine years earlier. In this film, Brook chains the domestic tragedies of betrayal to a global vision of bloody disorder, a place where a world goes to die – with no new order in sight to replace it.

It is reported that Brook’s interpretation of the play is strongly influenced by the thoughts of Polish literary critic Jan Kott’s 1961 book, “Shakespeare Our Contemporary.” This surprisingly popular book caught the zeitgeist, wresting the Bard and other revered authors from staid, academic stasis. It posits Shakespeare as a dark and current force, as savage and alienating as Brecht and Beckett.

Brook’s film sets the play in a near-prehistoric, preliterate setting – a gritty, frigid, soiled landscape dotted by low-slung fortresses, cooking fires and armed men on horseback. (The windswept, lunar dunes of northern Jutland in Denmark fit the bill admirably.) Here, the prehistoric and the post-apocalyptic are nearly the same.

Henning Kristiansen’s cinematography reeks of smoke, of mist, of fevered and wavering uncertainties, limned in chalky gray. The camera seems to sit still only in front of those with evil purpose – it trembles as it witnesses abuses.

The play is pared down ruthlessly. It clips along, and not a shot is wasted. Similarly, every character speaks with a quiet intensity that is unmatched in Shakespearean performance. This, the most routinely overplayed in the entire canon, is whispered, growled, intimated, and deadpanned as its players commit ever more mounting horrors upon each other.

Many critics have remarked on its stark Beckettian quality, and its seeming relation to the screen compositions of Bergman and the quality of light of Gunnar Fischer.

But, if you look at precedents such as Brook’s “Lord of the Flies” and “Marat/Sade,” you see this aesthetic already at work – fragmentation, off-centered compositions, abrupt cutaways, and a camera that moves mercilessly into the face of the speaker. The result is comparable in emotional power to that of the efforts other Shakespearean expert Kurosawa.

Here Lear, so cold and austere to begin with, contains all his flaws in embryo. He is willful, vain, magnificently childish. When his wits turn, they seem to do so at his command – he states, “Oh, Fool, I shall go mad,” it is a pronouncement, not a cry of despair.

Scofield’s great and carefully measured performance is matched by a top-notch ensemble that includes Beckett vet Irene Worth, Jack MacGowran, Patrick Magee, Cyril Cusack, Tom Fleming, and Robert Lloyd.

His madness is his gateway to a higher perception of the world’s hypocrisies, but Shakespeare doesn’t let him off the hook. His reason, given back to him almost negligently, is snatched away by the hellishness of an existence in which “man’s life as cheap as beast’s.”

So why is it so difficult to find? My two-month search for a copy to review brought me a battered VHS tape from an obscure college library halfway across the country. In an age when the rarest recordings are exhumed and made available, surely we can conjure up a landmark like this.

It’s as gripping as any horror movie, as frightening as any dystopian science-fiction film. As Scofield’s Lear commits his dying arc backwards, in slow motion, down and out of the frame, to end it all, the abyss is palpable.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

'5 Against the House': "Glad to meet you, mister -- hope I don't have to kill you"

Any trailer that starts with the alliterative frenzy of “4 GUYS . . . A GAL . . . AND A GADGET” deserves a little love. And this tawdry little gem of a B-noir deserves a modicum of attention.

The sync is off in this preview, but it’s a nifty little caper flick that’s loaded with future talent. Columbia recently released this as part of a five-film “Film Noir Classics” set, along with the infinitely better-known “The Big Heat” by Fritz Lang, as well as “The Sniper,” “The Lineup” and “Murder by Contract.”

Columbia cranked out its share of cheaply produced noirs during the heyday of the genre, and this one is directed by Phil Karlson. Karlson served time in the bowels of the industry, working on Abbott and Costello films, Bowery Boys entries, and Charlie Chan flicks.

He hit his stride with his trilogy of crime films starring John Payne – “99 River Street,” “Hell’s Island,” and “Kansas City Confidential,” which supposedly inspired Tarentino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” (Karlson later made “Walking Tall,” made a bundle, and lived happily ever after.)

Here he works with an adaptation of Jack Finney’s first book. Jack Finney! Sound familiar? He went on to write the science fiction classics “The Body Snatchers” and “Time and Again.”

Karlson directs this with his usual grim efficiency, and much of the shooting takes place on location in Reno, Nevada – “The Biggest Little City in the World.” The plot is familiar – a perfect crime goes awry. What’s most interesting is the non-catastrophic resolution of same, and the cast –

Guy Madison: Leading hunk was already well-known as the star of TV’s “Wild Bill Hickock” series.

Kim Novak: Her first big role as the girlfriend/chanteuse was followed immediately by her work in “Picnic,” and stardom, most notably in “Vertigo.”

Brian Keith: Sure, we remember him primarily from “Family Affair,” but this interesting actor delivers a solid performance as the unstable member of the thieving quartet at the center of the movie. He later did great (and overlooked) work for directors such as Peckinpah (“The Deadly Companions”), Sydney Pollack (“The Yakuza”) and John Milius (“The Wind and the Lion”).

Alvy Moore: Oh my God, it’s Mr. Kimball from “Green Acres”! The crew-cut comic relief specialist will come to mind most easily as the hapless agricultural extension agent from that TV series.

Kerwin Mathews: SINBAD! It’s the debut of the handsome leading man who would so often play the hero of pre-CGI special-effects fantasy epics such as “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver.”

And yes, that’s the brilliant radio actor William Conrad in a small but pivotal role.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fools, you shall be pitied: ‘A-Team’ vs. ‘Karate Kid’


In hard times such as these, it’s easy to hearken back to gentler times, when things were simpler . . . sunnier.

But – 1984? How ironic.

That’s the premise this week, when we are faced with a pair of retreads have their origins nearly20 years ago – in a cheesy TV actioner and a cheeky little movie about overcoming the odds that became a fond memory – and a rapidly deteriorating franchise.

First of all: I pity the fool who spends full price on the big-screen adaptation of “The A-Team.”

Problems? Well, look at the source:

Not a lot there to begin with, kids. Besides, can Liam Neeson be more charmingly blasé than George Peppard? Can Quinton Jackson outgrumble Mr. T? Is Bradley Cooper smoother than Dirk “Eggs” Benedict? Most importantly, how can Sharlto Copley be any madder than Dwight Schultz’s exquisitely “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock?


Stuff blows up, chases ensue, wises are cracked. Wait for the DVD.


“Wax on, wax off.” “Sweep the leg, Johnny!”

The original was fun because it didn’t take itself too seriously, thanks mainly to Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, the genial stand-up comic and actor who had scored earlier as Arnold on “Happy Days.” He kept the series going through “Kid II,” “Kid III,” and even “The Next Karate Kid” (and who was that? Hilary Swank, that’s who!).

The new one seems like a great concept. Concept.

Jackie Chan is morose and grumpy. Will Smith’s kid is winsome and wimpy. Instead of arrogant Aryan types as villains, we have . . . the Chinese (do you sense a political subtext here? After all, we are China’s bitches now).

Nice scenery, heart-warming, yada yada. Oh, and by the way? In this one he learns kung fu, not karate. Guess “The Kung Fu Kid” doesn’t smell as much like money.


It’s a killer double feature: “Shrek Forever After” and “Iron Man 2.”


“Shrek Forever After 3D.” Nice.


What’s new around town? Down at the Mayan, it’s “Harry Brown”:

Oh, Michael Caine. Sir Michael. The Cainemeister. You can play anything. I would pay to hear you read the phone book. You want to make a vigilante film? All right. Just don’t ever stray back into “Blame It on Rio” territory, OK?

At the Chez Artiste, it’s the as-restored-and-complete-as-its-ever-gonna-get version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, “Metropolis”:

At Starz, you may end up seeing yourself in this next one – it’s a documentary about the 2008 Democratic shindig in Denver, “Convention”:



At the Boulder Public Library, a series of six short films, ranging from 1927 to 1997, featuring work by Stan Brakhage – “Avant-Garde Cinema About Water,” 7 p.m. FREE.


You have to make one of four choices at 7 p.m.:

At Film on the Rocks, it’s “The Princess Bride”:

The opening bands are Northern Way and Voltage.

At the Mayan, it’s Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” (there’s a second show at 9:30 p.m.):


At Starz, it’s “The Oath,” with director Laura Poitras in person:

Also at Starz, “The Swimsuit Issue”:

It’s “The Full Monty” with synchronized swimming. In Sweden. OK.


It’s another two shows of “To Catch a Thief” at the Mayan, and a summer encores presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Aida” at Century Boulder at 6:30 p.m.:


At the Boulder Public Library, it’s a replay of the first part of the historic Nixon/Frost interviews at 7 p.m.:

In case you ever doubted that Richard Nixon was a lying, manipulative bastard, you should catch this. For those of us who lived through Watergate and saw these interviews the first time around, it’s a repellent memory brought back to life. For those who saw only “Frost/Nixon,” it’s illuminating.

At Starz, it’s “L’Affaire Farewell” at 7:

I gather this is spy stuff, based on a true story.

At the Bug Theater, it’s the Emerging Filmmakers Project at 8 p.m.:

And a replay of “Aida” at 10 p.m.