Monday, December 2, 2013


The 1970 Oscar race saw Patton coming out in front. The portrait of the war hero, showing his successes and his foibles, snagged the Best Picture prize. Franklin J. Schaffner's biopic took an unconventional approach by both inflating and deflating the mythology of a great man undone by over-confidence in his own abilities and stature.

There must have been something in the air. The evening's winner for the Best Foreign Language picture, beating out efforts by Luis Bunuel, Maximilian Schell, and Raoul Coutard, was Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. While the Italian film may not be as well known today as its American co-champion, it is no less effective a depiction of the downfalls of hubris and authority. I'd daresay, Petri's political thriller is also just as pertinent today as it ever was.

Inspired in part by the work of Franz Kafka, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a perverse mystery and a biting satire on the prevailing power structure and the cruelty of government systems. It opens innocently enough, with Ennio Morricone's ironically playful musical theme. With its nickel piano and comical mouth harp, it is the orchestral cue Carl Stalling might have written for Alfred Hitchcock had they ever worked together. Unlike a Hitchcock hero, however, the protagonist here is not the wrong man, he just wants everyone to think he is, if only to prove himself right. Gian Maria Volonté (Le cercle rouge [review]) stars as a Chief Inspector of the Italian police, whose hard-ass tactics have made him the star of the homicide bureau and earned him a new position in charge of political crimes. The Chief is a neo-Fascist whose lip service to democracy masks his true belief that the non-conformists (i.e. hippies, weirdoes, and communists) need to be monitored and manipulated with an iron fist. In one amusing scene, the first order of business for the Chief in his new position is to hear statistics about the fluctuation of graffiti in praise of foreign dictators. Mao is up, Stalin down.

Naturally, like many an uptight arbiter of moral decency, the Chief has his own kinks. The movie begins with the detective visiting his mistress, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), a libertine of such wanton proclivities, she owns no underwear, an important detail in the forthcoming investigation of her murder. The rendezvous starts with Augusta asking the Chief how he plans to kill her today; he responds that he will slit her throat. This is their regular bedroom game--he has her re-enact the crime scenes that really turn him on--but today, it all becomes real.

Once he has done the deed, the Chief then proceeds to cover up his own crime. Yet, he does so in such a way that any smart investigator should be able to see right through it. He leaves his fingerprints everywhere, he steps in blood and puts footprints all over the house, and he calls the police himself. Hell, he even leaves in full view of the woman's upstairs neighbor (Sergio Tramonti), another of her lovers and a known radical. The Chief is essentially daring anyone to see through and disprove his obfuscations. The real sign of power is that despite his being the obvious choice, no one will have the guts to accuse him, no matter how many clues he gives them.

This is the main point of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, though the plot is more knotted than it might seem. As the movie unravels, and as we see more flashbacks to the Chief's relationship with Augusta, we begin to doubt his true motives. The script, written by Petri (The 10th Victim [review]) and Ugo Pirro, is intentionally mocking the warped way of thinking that would cause anyone to seek political power and also the way that power corrupts. In a bizarre twist on Poe's “Telltale Heart,” the memory of the dead woman taunts her killer in much the same way she apparently taunted him in real life. She pushed him to flex his manhood, not just in response to her, but as a challenge to his colleagues. It's classic super-villain pathology: he believes everyone is too stupid to match wits with him. He cruelly creates new red herrings, drawing innocent citizens into his trap only to discredit and ruin them.

There are many chilling parallels between Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and modern-day abuses. The Chief's desire to crush any opposing point of view is given action through wire-tapping and surveillance and emboldened via manipulation of the press. His barbaric interrogation techniques required little innovation when the Bush Administration adopted similar tactics. It's uncomfortable watching the Chief force a political prisoner (Vittorio Duse) to choose between maintaining a stress position or drinking an entire pitcher of salt water. His intention is to have the man finger his friend, Augusta's neighbor, the one who saw him, in a terrorist bombing. The prisoner relents, but we never know for sure if he is telling the truth. As has been argued time and time again, torture yields the results the torturer is looking for, but that doesn't mean those results are valuable.

The harshest critique in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is not for the Chief's approach to police work, but for the man himself. He is a vainglorious bully who can't sustain his own lies. Volonté is terrific in the lead, puffing up his chest when on the offensive, but crumbling like a baby at the most insignificant slight. His pathological hiding of the truth reveals more about who the real man underneath than he covers up, embodying the usual cliché that what a zealot most denies, that's what he truly is.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion has long been out of circulation. Criterion has struck their new Blu-Ray/DVD combo from a gorgeous 4K restoration, making for a lovely high-definition picture that preserves the look of the original film, delivering a clean, colorful image. The set is likewise loaded with extras, including lengthy documentaries on both Elio Petri and Gian Maria Volonté. There is also a recent interview with Ennio Morricone specifically about the film, as well as standard some archival elements.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


The true achievement of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is how effortlessly it captures the inconsistencies of youth without being overly precious or dishonest. Sure, Frances can be quirky, and she's selfish, but she's also lonely and a bit lost and, though lacking in essential self-awareness, desperately confused by the ups and downs of her own existential crisis. Frances Ha is a movie about a young woman getting her life together, even when she doesn't realize that's what's happening.

Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress [review]) stars as Frances, a 27-year-old dancer living in New York City. Frances is a third-stringer at her dance company, always on the sidelines, the understudy to the understudy. This, alas, is her place in life across the board. She rooms with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who is, for all intents and purposes, Frances' caretaker and, arguably, her lover. It's not that they are physically affectionate in a sexual manner, but Frances puts all her eggs in Sophie's basket. Sophie has a job in publishing and she's in charge of the rent. She also has an actual relationship with a guy who works in finance (Patrick Heusinger). While Frances assumes this camaraderie will go on forever--the play fighting, sharing the same bed, Sophie telling her bedtime stories--her desire to stay stuck in one place is undermined by the fact that the world keeps turning without her. Sophie moves on, and Frances is left to fend for herself.

It's refreshing to watch a movie about a twentysomething whose whole reason for being doesn't hinge on romance. Frances Ha, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, appears to be consciously working against the standard narrative dynamic of the post-collegiate experience. It's not uncommon for graduates to enter the real world and quickly fall into the drudgery of everyday existence. Frances continues to pursue her dreams, but not with any real hunger. Likewise, her relationships outside of Sophie are dominated by her strong connection to the other girl. Even when invited along to a dinner party thrown by wealthy professionals (including a cameo by the rock duo Dean & Britta, who also contributed to the soundtrack), she can only talk about Sophie. When she moves in with two young trust-funders, she remodels one of them, a funny writer who otherwise might have affection for her (Michael Zegan), into a new version of her "lost love." Someone has to tuck Frances in at night.

Baumbach's other movies, which include The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg [review], have always occupied a space slightly removed from the common populace. His characters are erudite, his humor arch. Frances Ha has a more street-level immediacy than his previous efforts. Stylistically, the film is equal parts Nouvelle Vague and 1970s Woody Allen. Cinematographer Sam Levy (Wendy and Lucy [review]) shot the movie in black-and-white, his loose framing mimicking the intimacy of observance rather than more conventional cinematic staging. Reportedly, much of Frances Ha
was shot on the fly out in public, using digital cameras, allowing for New York to be an unwitting participant in Frances' story. While I wouldn't call the movie "realistic," there is an immediacy to how it transpires that at least makes it feel real.

For the last several years, Greta Gerwig has made a name for herself in a variety of independent and mainstream pictures. She emerged from the "mumblecore" scene in the mid-'00s, including collaborating on two features with Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends). Taking charge and forging her own stories suits the actress, who has long been a critical darling but has yet to have that breakout role to really make her a star. Frances may just be it, as her natural charisma allows Gerwig to be as scattered and even self-destructive as the story requires without having the audience turn against Frances or get fed up with her. The actress also seems to have pulled something out of Noah Baumbach. He has never made a film this light on its feet before. Gerwig is already in the writer/director's next as-of-yet untitled project, and one can only hope they continue to collaborate. I wouldn't mind seeing an ongoing pairing between them akin to Woody Allen's revitalizing working relationship with Scarlett Johansson.

Despite a purposely jarring third-act break, Baumbach and Gerwig establish a nice comfort zone for Frances (and the audience) that allows for the ending we'd been rooting for even as we were baffled by Frances' reluctance to pursue it. It's a bit risky in execution. Frances doesn't change gradually, and no explanation is layered over her wake-up call. The alarm goes off, and the next thing we know, she's out working her brand new day. We end up accepting the sudden shift because, in a sense, the director is jarring the viewer out of his or her comfort alongside his protagonist. We have become so comfortable with Frances' screw-ups, we are somewhat culpable in her failure to change. A little disappointment and some role reversals are required for Frances to move on, but ultimately, we all feel better when she does. If her truncated last name is a punctuating laugh, it comes with the contentment of laughing with her, rather than at her, thus making all the difference.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

I MARRIED A WITCH (Blu-ray) - #676

Like many cinephiles, I've been indulging in my fair share of spooky films for the Halloween season. We're only a couple of weeks in, and I could end up either overdosing or becoming immune to bumps in the night.

René Clair's 1942 comedy I Married a Witch is a nice antidote, fitting thematically with the horror holiday, but providing quite a few laughs to ease the tension.

Veronica Lake stars as the movie's title witch, Jennifer. In the amusing prologue, we learn that Jennifer and her sorcerer father (Cecil Kellaway) date back more than 200 years, when Jennifer was burned at the stake for seducing a mama's-boy pilgrim. As revenge, the man's family has been cursed to always be unlucky in love. With each successive generation, things go wrong for the men of the Wooley clan, leading up to the 20th Century and Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), a politician running for mayor and set to be married to a wealthy heiress (Susan Hayward).

Sensing it's time once again to throw a spanner in the works, Jennifer convinces her father to let her ditch her spectral form and take on a new human body that she can use to seduce Jonathan. The old warlock agrees, knowing that the only thing more torturous than marriage itself is to not be able to marry the woman you really want. They contrive for Wooley to save Jennifer, now a blonde of some va-va and vavoom, from a burning hotel. As planned, once their paths have crossed, she invades his life with designs on invading his heart. This flirtation causes Wooley much distress, since, if he's found with her on the eve of his nuptials, there will be no way to avoid a scandal. Hell, for the first portion of the movie, post-fire, Jennifer is naked except for a fur coat--her father forgot how to cast the spell to generate clothes--and so she's difficult not to notice. The ribald jokes that rise out of this scenario alone are worth the price of the disc. I Married a Witch isn't exactly a sex comedy, but for 1942, it's certainly not afraid to be sexy.

Clair does well with the snappy, screwball pace of I Married a Witch. The style of comedy ends up closely resembling that of its producer, Preston Sturges, even if he did remove his name from the picture following creative differences with his director. The script relies on smart dialogue and an endless string of complications--including a few that you won't see coming. March is good as the man being buried in romance and innuendo, and he's ably backed up by Algonquin Round Table-alum Robert Benchley, a master wit in his own right, playing Wooley's closest advisor.

Both are eclipsed scene by scene by Veronica Lake, who I don't recall ever being funnier. The blonde beauty may best be known for playing the female lead in Alan Ladd noir vehicles, but I Married a Witch makes me want to explore more of her light comedies. Lake, of course, proved she could trade quips and barbs in Sullivan's Travels [review], but Jennifer provides a more dynamic role. The actress gets to be more active and drive the plot, much like Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve [review]. She's charming and tenacious and possessed of an excellent comic timing. She also handles the switch-up well, showing an ability to adapt that is essential to this kind of comedy. To put it simply, you can believe the bad girl fell in love.

Apparently I Married a Witch was a major inspiration for Bewitched, particularly for the domestic element. Indeed, Bewitched could practically be the sequel. Jennifer is not supposed to alert mortals to her existence, and so when she confesses to Wooley, dear ol' dad has to take punitive actions. The magic stuff is clever and actually quite funny, including gags involving a witch's broom and Jennifer's old man, while still a spirit, hiding out in a liquor bottle, becoming imbibed with spirits of another kind.

The Blu-Ray restoration of I Married a Witch looks fantastic, with an excellent level of detail and nice balance between light and shadow. It's a great way to see the movie, and I imagine even moreso for fans of the film, who I assume are used to seeing it more lo-fi, in a different format, via older prints. This was my first time, and I was impressed. I Married a Witch is fun, buoyant entertainment and will likely become my new Halloween tradition.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for review.

Friday, October 4, 2013


Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Trust me, I am horribly ashamed of not keeping my weekly schedule for the last 16 or so months. I've done my best as a deadline-conscious compulsive, but I've fallen woefully short.

Here is my confession...

The above is actually a teaser for a new online interview program launching today. It's called From the Gutters, and it's basically me sitting down with other comic book creators and talking shop.

Here is another teaser showing our nine first-season guests:

You can follow all the action at our YouTube channel, or via our website,

The first episode features Matt Wagner, and it's live as of...well, right now!

In addition to all that, I've been busy bringing my own comics together (Amazon links at bottom).

This week, we released It Girl and the Atomics, Round Two: The World is Flat.

In just a few more weeks, it's Spell Checkers, vol. 3: Careless Whisper.

On November 27, my collaboration with my sartorial little sis', Natalie Nourigat, a little romance tale called A Boy and a Girl.

In case you missed it, you can get a lot of info at my recently redesigned website, including a store with signed books:

There's plenty more to come. In the midst of all that, I have a Monkeybrain comic debuting via Comixology, and a six-part serial called "Integer City," drawn by Brent Schoonover, staring in Dark Horse Presents #30.

Thursday, October 3, 2013



* Adore. You heard of wife-swapping? How about son-swapping? Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are best friends who start having sex with each other's sons. It's all very literary.

Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's slick directorial debut. You will be asked to believe that porn is better than Scarlett Johansson. I remain unconvinced. There is nothing better than Scarlett Johansson.

Gravity. See this in the biggest, loudest theater you can. Then again, if you need me to tell you that, you must be living somewhere no one can hear you scream.

Inequality for All, a documentary about the widening gulf between the 1% and the working poor, as well as the disappearing middle class. Luckily, your host for this sobering journey is the affable Robert Reich.

Rush, a middle-of-the-pack racecar movie from Ron Howard.

* Short Term 12, one of the year's best. Brie Larson stars in this potent drama about counselors for troubled teens who find some of the kids' problems hit a little too close to home.

My Oregonian columns...

We're shaking things up a bit. Online, the column I write will now be broken up and the individual movies listed on their own; the Friday paper will still print them all together. These first few, naturally, are the old way.

* September 6: go on pilgrimage in the documentary Walking the Camino, see Richard Elfman introduce a colorized Forbidden Zone, and watch the Everything is Terrible! website come alive.

* September 13: Two from Charlie Ahearn, the Trent Harris retrospective, and a dreadful Portland-made documentary. 

* September 20: two documentaries--the art-themed Herb and Dorothy 50X50 and Rise from Ashes, about the Rwandan bicycle team--alongside a revival run of Tarantino's Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown.

Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary about two Japanese artists who have been married and living in New York for four decades.

Gideon's Army, a personal look at public defenders and the Herculean nature of their professions.

Salma, the true story of an Indian poet who transformed confinement into art.

The Trials of Mohammad Ali, a documentary looking at what happened to the champ when he stopped being Cassius Clay and started to stand up for what he believed.

A Tribute to Les Blank: Three nights of Southern culture, music, and food. 

* Plus, two creative, off-the-beaten path screeningsFrom Nothing, Something asks a variety of artistic types why they do what they do, and Vanessa Renwick shows us what it is she does in the Wild Beasties program.


Between Us, a smart indie drama with Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs.

Going Hollywood, a charming pre-Code musical with Bing Crosby and Marion Davies.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

AUTUMN SONATA (Blu-ray) - #60

A mother and a daughter. What a terrible combination of feelings and confusion and destruction.

In an effort to do a little research for once in my life, I actually looked up the term "sonata," thinking it would have some formalistic meaning that would have grave importance in regards to the 1978 drama, Autumn Sonata. Ingmar Bergman's not one to choose his classical music references lightly (see also, Saraband [review]). Isn't a sonata a melancholy, mood-driven piece, you know, like Beethoven's moonlight one?

Turns out, a sonata is not as specific as all that. It's a term that arose to differentiate music written for instruments rather than pieces composed for voice. It's a distinction of performance. Even so, this may still give us some understanding on how to approach Autumn Sonata. Despite being a movie driven by dialogue, the importance is in the delivery and the instruments performing the author's words. It's about how, not what, and thus also about what is done without language. It’s as much about what is not said as it is every syllable spoken.

Though the film has a quartet of characters, this one is really a duet. Autumn Sonata stars Bergman perennial Liv Ullmann as Eva and silver screen icon Ingrid Bergman as her mother, Charlotte. The elder woman is an internationally famous concert pianist, and one, as it turns out, who sacrificed family for career. At the outset of the picture, mother and daughter have not seen each other for many years. Eva is a writer who lives in the country with her husband (Halvar Björk), a minister, far removed from the art-world glitz that defines Charlotte's life. Charlotte has been invited to their home for a reunion and some TLC. Her companion of over a decade has passed away, inspiring her child to reach out and mend fences.

This is a good intention that is better in theory. Charlotte has barely stepped through the door when old tensions begin to bubble up. The process is sped along by Eva's hidden surprise: she has taken her younger sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), into her home. Lena suffers from a degenerative disease, and last Charlotte knew, she was staying in a medical facility. The fact that she had no idea that one of her children had taken over the care of the other shows how far removed she is from her own offspring. Charlotte's life--and this is one of Eva's main grievances, if not, in fact, the only one--has always been very much about Charlotte.

Just how much so becomes evident in the very first conversation between the reunited pair. Though Charlotte pays lip service to caring about her daughter's life, she spends little time listening, instead steering everything back to herself and her less-than-humble take on her many successes. Eva only gets to have her say much later in the day, when she insists on her mother's silence. This occurs during Autumn Sonata's longest sequence, as mother and daughter stay up all night digging through the past. The conversation gets serious and even cruel, as Eva unloads a lifetime of pent-up disappointments. The central issue is not so much was Charlotte a bad mother, but are either of these women actually capable of love? Or are they part of a cycle, each generation passing down its dysfunction when it comes to expressing affection?

The conversation careens through the women's shared history. Topics include infidelity, abuse, control, and even music, the one common ground the two maybe could have shared had Charlotte allowed it. Ullmann has the more showy role. Eva is a damaged pressure cooker in need of release, and once the tears and the shouting begins, nothing can stop them. (Indeed, in the new HD transfer, you can see the physical toll it takes on her like never before. Ullmann’s red-rimmed eyes look absolutely painful.)
Yet, this is Ingrid Bergman's movie. In essence, the "autumn sonata" is Charlotte's crucial final-act performance, as the diva improvises for her toughest audience. Are her facial expressions, the silent reactions, the most honest? Or can we believe her verbal explanations? Her attempts to turn everything around by saying it was she who was abandoned, that what she needed was a child who would take care of her, since she herself was incapable? Sven Nyquist’s camera searches and probes, looking for the important tell-tale sign, moving between the actors. The framing is as intimate as the shots are sometimes distancing. It’s particularly telling that, during flashback scenes, the memories are peered at from a distance, often from outside the room.

Both participants capture our sympathy and our frustration. Eva has legitimate complaints, but she is also adolescent and morose, and equally as self-absorbed as her mother, who is in turn shallow and insecure and totally reliant on others for her sense of worth. There is an irony to seeing a mother having a nightmare where she is smothered in her sleep by an unseen assailant; the common notion would be that it’s the matriarch who does the smothering. It’s actually this terrifying dream that causes her to cry out, simultaneously proving her point that she is need of aid (and, of course, that is why she has come to visit) and sparking argument that will dominate the next several hours of their lives. There is very little resolved between the two, except maybe the realization that they just need to stay away from each other.

But then, Autumn Sonata isn't about resolutions. There is no right or wrong in Ingmar Bergman's scenario. Rather, it's about the catharsis of the performance. It's like how Charlotte describes the Chopin piece her daughter attempts to play: it's supposed to be challenging and even ugly, the player has to struggle to get through it. The important thing, though, is that she does. The difficulty of the composition still exists, but so does the musician who dared to expose herself to these troubles.

Criterion’s Blu-ray re-release improves exponentially on the picture and sound of its original 1999 DVD (though it should be noted that the pictures used here are from that standard-definition DVD and not from the high-def reissue). Colors are vivid, and detail is exceptional. They have also considerably upped the game in terms of bonus features, with a massive on-set documentary, interviews, and the now-common Ingmar Bergman introduction joining the excellent Peter Cowie commentary from over a decade ago.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for review.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


A collection of links to non-Criterion movies I reviewed over August...


Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and wait, isn't another one of them Casey Affleck?

Austenland, you don't want to go to there.

Blackfish, a chilling documentary about killer whales in captivity and how they turn into dangerous killers.

Blue Jasmine, the latest ethical drama from Woody Allen features two sisters on either side of the economic line. An excellent cast led by Cate Blanchett makes good use of a great Woody script.

* Elysium. Good action flick with noble intentions, or pretentious political fable full of gore? Both!

The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai's latest potential masterpiece, butchered for the Americas, and this one dude (me) just won't shut up about it.

We're the Millers, in which we finally see Jason Sudeikis break a comedic sweat. Also, it's Jennifer Aniston's third movie in a row where she strips so that other people can talk about how sexy she is. Is it a clause in her contract at this point? (See also: Horrible BossesWanderlust)

* The World's End, the new comedic apocalypse from the team behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead.

You're Next, a decent slasher picture that entertains but lacks in real suspense.

My Oregonian columns...

* August 2: get In Bed With Ulysses and let James Joyce put you to sleep; or look at dramas based on real life, the human trafficking story Eden; and James Cromwell in Still Mine.

* August 9: The remarkable Brazilian film Southwest; a film festival at the Columbia Gorge; and a bunch of music-related documentaries at the Hollywood Theatre.

* August 16: Adjust Your Tracking, a documentary about VHS collectors; a couple of Tarkovsky films; and the family comedy Papadopolous & Sons.

* August 23: documentaries on photographer Gregory Crewdson and soul singer Charles Bradley; plus, Modest Reception, an absurdist Iranian drama.

* August 30: Kristen Bell cries all over her swimsuit in The Lifeguard; Low create an art movie out of their old music videos; and two documentaries from Ondi Timoner, We Live in Public and Dig!


Angel and the Badman, a John Wayne western/romance from 1947.

God's Little Acre, notable for being the film debut of Tina Louise, but kind of over-the-top and scattershot otherwise. Directed by Anthony Mann.

Inescapable, the quiet and polite Canadian version of Taken . Not even Marisa Tomei can help this one.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, featuring James Cagney's last gangster role. And one of his most despicable. So you're going to love it.

* The Mindy Project: Season One, Mindy Kaling's very funny take on the girl-in-the-city sitcom.

Penny Serenade, this "marriage is hard" drama with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne will make you cry like a baby. Though hopefully not one of the ones that dies in the movie.

Reality, a surprising take on fame in the modern television age from the director of Gomorrah [review]. 

* That Touch of Mink, a May-December romance with Cary Grant where we pretend that Doris Day isn't really in August with the rest of us.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Blu-ray) - #670

Comedy can be serious business, particularly when it is making light of dark subjects. When Mel Brooks made The Producers in 1967, two decades after World War II, he met resistance from people who didn't think Hitler and his Nazis should be the subject of satire. Brooks saw it a different way: he was depowering the evildoers by making them the object of ridicule. They rule by terror, but it's hard to be terrorized when you're laughing.

Of course, Brooks was not the first one to have this idea. Ernst Lubitsch wanted to achieve a similar outcome with his 1942 motion picture To Be or Not to Be. Made while the war was at its height, To Be or Not to Be was seen by some of lacking in taste. "Too soon" as the sensitive and humorless often cry. Lubitsch wanted to vilify the Fuhrer by undermining his villainy. You can't beat us because we refuse to be beaten. (Years later, Mel Brooks would close the circle by starring in a remake of To Be or Not to Be.)

Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star in To Be or Not to Be as Joseph and Maria Tura, Poland's top stage actors. At the start of the film, they are set to open a new play dramatizing life within the Gestapo. Political pressures and Germany's invasion of Poland put the kibosh on the show. Instead, the troupe carries on with their production of Hamlet.

The title, To Be or Not to Be, is, of course, a reference to Hamlet's best-known soliloquy. It's significant to the story because Maria has deemed the start of the speech as a cue to an admirer to visit her backstage. The smitten fan is a pilot named Sobinski (played by a young Robert Stack). It also poses the existential question that ultimately leads the theatre company into helping out the Resistance: to be or not to be a hero, to be or not a passive victim. The opportunity comes when Sobinski returns to Poland from combat, hoping to stop a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) carrying sensitive information. When Sobinski is outfoxed by his quarry and Maria inadvertently put in a sensitive situation, her husband and their co-workers try to help out. First they pose as Gestapo officials in hopes of intercepting the intel, and then Joseph poses as the actual spy so he can use the connection to get everyone out of the country. Unsurprisingly, each ruse is subject to unforeseen complications, and before they know it, they are in so deep, one of the actors even ends up pretending to be Hitler himself.

Lubitsch's script, which he co-wrote with Edwin Justus Mayer (The Buccaneer), smartly valued story over shtick, and so the tightly plotted narrative allows for as much drama and suspense as it does jokes; indeed, the trick of To Be or Not to Be is how Lubitsch takes his very straightforward scenarios and finds the humor within them, injecting each moment with wit and letting character flaws disrupt everyone's efforts. The Nazis consistently trip themselves up by being more concerned with appearance and perception than anything else, and Joseph gets himself and his friends in further trouble due to jealousy. Comedy grows out of selfish behavior and a distorted sense of self-awareness.

Jack Benny is incredible as Joseph. He is at his most droll here, and rather than fall back on his famous persona, he puts his trust in the material. There's no need to spice up the lines, the writing is perfect as is. Carole Lombard is also very funny, as well as beguiling. She often provides the emotional pull in the film, either by being in danger herself or by being the first to realize how wrong something may be going. Also of note are Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan as the theatrical troupe's regular character actors/support team. Like many a Shakespearean side duo, they serve as added comic relief, their commentary on the happenings providing insight and laughs in equal measure. Dugan is the one who disguises himself as Hitler, but it's Bressart's Greenberg who makes the ultimate sacrifice--and thus gets the starring role he always hoped for.

While there are plenty of laughs, Lubitsch never loses sight of the tragedy going on all around these characters. A montage of post-invasion destruction reminds us of who the German army's major targets were, and the lingering threat, as well as the SS's callow participation in it, means the potential consequence is never dulled. Lubitsch's gamble pays off: as audiences, we are invested precisely because we are enjoying ourselves. These merry men and woman make us laugh, and so we care about what happens to them. We like them, and we want to keep on liking them, and by logical extension, we hate anyone that would make the laughter stop.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Friday, August 2, 2013


The rest of my reviews from July...


Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, an interesting man overcomes the conflicting message of the commentary his profilers give him, proving personality always wins.

I'm So Excited, a light-hearted trifle from Pedro Almodovar. As Duran Duran once said, "doesn't have to be serious."

Only God Forgives. Hey, Gosling, hurry up with my damn croissants.

* Pacific Rim is here to save your summer.

Red 2, the old men need some Viagra, but the ladies have a good time anyway.

The Wolverine, just the kind of do-over we were hoping for. Go get 'em, bub!

My Oregonian columns...

* July 5: The Chinese drama Beijing Flickers and the documentary A Girl and a Gun, alongside Rossellni's "Solitude Trilogy"

* July 12: Augustine, a historical drama; Survival Prayer, a meditative documentary; and V/H/S/2, a total piece of crap.

* July 19: A documentary on Big Star, a tribute to Les Blank, and the Serbian gay rights comedy The Parade.

* July 26Hava Nagila: The Movie traces the history of the famous song; Men in Suits looks at the actors who dress as our favorite movie creatures; and the not-so-fantastic Fantastic World of Juan Orol is a biopic of the Mexican Ed Wood.

* August 2: Get In Bed With Ulysses and let James Joyce put you to sleep; or look at dramas based on real life, the human trafficking story Eden and James Cromwell in Still Mine. 


* The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Luc Besson's botched adaptation of the beloved Jacques Tardi comic book.

Foolish Wives, the silent classic from Erich von Stroheim, newly mastered in HD.

In Another Country, a romantic triptych teaming French actress Isabelle Huppert with South Korean director Hong Sang-soo.

 * Mayerling, the 1957 television production with Audrey Hepburn, long thought to be lost, finds its way into the world at last.

* Niagara, featuring Marilyn Monroe's sole turn as a femme fatale.

* Summer and Smoke, a minor adaptation of Tennessee Williams distinguished by a fantastic performance from Geraldine Page.

Twixt, Francis Ford Coppola's mess of a vampire movie. 

Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold's stripped down take on Emily Brontë.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Though considered part of the Czech cinema revolution, the 1966 film Daisies could have just as easily sat alongside its forebears in the French Nouvelle Vague as it does its compatriots in the Eclipse boxed set, appropriately titled Pearls of the Czech New Wave. Věra Chytilová's anarchic political comedy is colorful and fun and as pointed as it is deceptively light-hearted.

Daisies stars Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová as two girls named Marie. Red-haired Marie and Brown-haired Marie. They are young women of the 1960s, possessed of a freedom that borders on entitlement, a combination of flower child and flapper. The loose narrative follows the Maries as they indulge themselves, luring older men into misguided dates where they gorge on food, stick the dudes with the bill, and ditch them at the train station, sending them back to wife and family and duty. Chytilová's filming style is perfectly attuned to the girls' manic activity. Colors change, scenes jump around--the whole movie has a sort of collage feel, matching the decoration on the walls of the Maries' joint apartment. Pin-ups of muscle men are hung next to photos of important people and the scrawled names of the ladies' many conquests. Almost like an enemies list...or maybe a roster of the guilty.

There is a lot of giggling and fun to be had watching the girls take over a jazz club or frolic in bikinis. It's like a William Klein-directed episode of "Laugh-In." (Daisies most closely resembles Klein's Who Are You, Polly Magoo? [review] if we're searching for soul sisters.) The Maries are at times charming, at other times annoying, and even manage to get on each other's nerves. This is by design. They are selfish and demanding. Daisies is as much a critique of the younger generation as it is a merry celebration of the same.

For as silly as it can be, however, Chytilová's movie is not as simple as all that. It doesn't bemoan the problems with kids these days, but rather portrays these two modern gals as indicative of a failure of the system as a whole, of a country that makes promises while failing to deliver substantive opportunities. Daisies is go-go dancing on top of the outmoded communist regime, which has failed to update its dance moves since the days of Charlie Chaplin pantomime. The kids are growing up, the country is not.

The most direct message comes at the end of Daisies, when Chytilová offers us two possible outcomes. There is the conclusion that the movie has been building to the whole time, where the girls push as far as they can through their coquettish chicanery, but are left out in the cold when the con runs its course, and then there is the alternative, where they play the game, only to come to the same ruin. It's a lot less fun, to be sure, which only adds to the tragedy of the results.

We're a long way from 1960s Czechoslovakia, but Daisies remains vibrant and even relevant. Chytilová's experimentation still comes off as fresh and unforced, and anyone coming of age in the 21st Century will see plenty of themselves in the Maries. Misunderstood, exploited, and locked out of the banquet? That doesn't sound familiar. Not at all.

The NW Film Center in Portland, OR, will be showing Daisies on Friday and Saturday, July 26 & 27. They will  be showing it with another Criterion selection, 1966's Closely Watched Trains. I saw Closely Watched Trains several years ago and cannot recommend it highly enough. These two will make for an excellent double feature if you're in the area. Here is the schedule.