Monday, February 24, 2014

TESS - #697

This capsule review originally appeared in the Oregonian last March when the restored version of the film came to Portland. 

Despite receiving plenty of accolades on its release in 1979, Tess never gained a reputation equal to Roman Polanski's more popular thrillers. One could blame the three-hour running time or the unrelentingly downbeat adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Given the director's personal history, it also doesn't help that the story of one peasant girl's misfortune in 19th-century England can be seen as sympathizing with the same girl's rapist. Still, Tess offers some beautiful filmmaking and a restrained, yet emotionally powerful, performance from Nastassja Kinski. This new touring print boasts a full digital restoration, which means the Oscar-winning costumes and sets should dazzle more than ever before.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


The tumultuous fever of teenage love affairs is brought to vivid life in Blue is the Warmest Color, the sexy, emotional sensation of Cannes 2013.

Blue is the Warmest Color is based (somewhat loosely) on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, who was just 19 when she began the comic. It has been adapted by Abdellatif Kechiche, a Tunisian filmmaker probably best known for The Secret of the Grain [review].

Adele Exarchopoulos, who can also currently be seen (albeit briefly) in I Used to Be Darker [review], stars as her namesake Adele, the protagonist of Maroh's narrative. At the start of the movie, Adele is 17 and studying literature in high school. Like most teen girls, she likes to sit around and gossip with her friends. Adele's peer group is particularly obsessed with boys, and Adele isn't entirely disinterested. On the contrary, she tries going out with an older classmate, but despite the mutual attraction, she finds that time alone with him leaves her feeling empty.

A couple of random encounters with attractive girls leads Adele to wonder if maybe the reason her dating life has stalled is she's not fully exploring her true sexuality. Her wanderings lead her to a lesbian bar, and the flirtatious blue-haired girl Adele has been fantasizing about since spotting her on the street. She is Emma (Lea Seydoux, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol [review], Midnight in Paris [review]), an art student several years Adele's senior. The attraction is mutual, and a long-term relationship begins between them--though one where Adele is arguably at a bit of a loss. Having less education and experience than Emma, she eventually feels both intellectually and emotionally deficient, leading to some bad choices that test the boundaries of their relationship and reveal the unhealthy depths of Adele's dependence on her lover.

Blue is the Warmest Color is an expansive, personal epic, at once raw and unadorned, but also highly stylized. Kechiche favors long scenes, letting conversations run their course, but he also likes cranks up the heat on any given moment. The emotional intensity of the story is tuned to Adele's appetites. She has the ability to be both childish and adventurous. Her desire is voracious, and that makes her sloppy. (Could someone please tell her to close her mouth when she eats?!) Exarchopoulos does a nice job of differentiating the character's different stages, with subtle shifts in wardrobe and make-up used to help show the passage of years. There is a nakedness to how the girl expresses herself--both in a literal and a metaphorical sense.

Indeed, much ado has been made over the lengthy, explicit sex scenes between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Just as with everything else, Kechiche lets these sequence go on far past the norm, and regardless of what choreography is at play, they look spontaneous and real. Skin gets flushed, sweat and spit exchanged--the temperature definitely goes up a couple of degrees in the theater. I suppose it's not surprising that many have turned their focus on this aspect of Blue is the Warmest Color--it's rated NC-17 for a reason--but the excess here is equal to the excess throughout, it is just as indicative of Adele's approach to life as the way she attacks her gyros on a misguided date with a boy in one of the film's earlier scenes. To spotlight the sex over the more palpable and surprising intensity of the girls' courtship/seduction is to miss the full emotional scope of the picture. It's in their first few interactions that Blue is the Warmest Color really caught me off guard, and also where Lea Seydoux really shines. The eye contact and flirtatious smiles meant for Adele end up trained on the camera, and thus shine through to the audience. The nervous excitement of early romance comes across in disarming ways. Their close conversations are far more intimate than the physical coupling.

Then again, that may be Kechiche's intention, given where the love affair goes and what, ultimately, we discover that the relationship is built on. Adele's lingering dependence on Emma, and the way she rouses her physical passion, threatening the older girl's more concrete interpersonal accomplishments, ends up being toxic for them both. And perhaps how we wish Emma would give Adele another chance should cause us to question our own emotional maturity.

Monday, February 17, 2014


I'm just going to come out and say it: I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book captivated me from start to finish. It's a charming blend of old-school kids movies, literature, and the sort of meticulous, virtuoso filmmaking that Anderson fans clamor for. Make no mistake, the writer/director's move from live-action adult parables to cartoons has not dulled his aesthetic. This looks and feels just like a Wes Anderson film, from the way the shots are framed and how the characters behave, to the carefully chosen soundtrack and the obsessive attention to detail. It's even a story about fathers and sons, how one fox's midlife crisis causes strife for his wife and child, the familiar emotional terrain of almost all of Anderson's personal epics.

Mr. Fox is voiced by George Clooney, and he is the kind of blindly optimistic, cocksure rapscallion this particular leading man has always done well. The film opens as a young Mr. Fox and his wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), find themselves in a rather sticky situation outside a chicken coop. Mr. Fox is a chicken thief by profession, but when he's told that his wife is expecting, he's also informed that he's expected to settle down. Fast forward several years and Fox, now a newspaper columnist, realizes that he is only six months younger than the age of his father when the old man died. Not content to leave a minor mark when he passes on, he buys his family a home on top of a hill looking down on the area's three most successful farms, owned by the three meanest famers. His secret plan: one last heist, robbing the full trio.

Yes, I realize that a mid-life crisis is a weird central conflict for what is ostensibly a family movie. Then again, many a classic children's tale is about very adult concerns, they are only dressed up in youthful clothes. The best kiddie fare is multi-leveled, inventive, and intelligent, three descriptives I would apply to Fantastic Mr. Fox. Wes Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), manage to create a way for their younger viewers to engage with the material without talking down to them. A very important side story involves the Fox offspring, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), competing with his talented cousin, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, who created all the artwork for his brother's other films). The prize is Mr. Fox's favor. Ash is a "special" kid who likes superheroes and wants to be a rascal like his dad. If only it came as natural for him as it does to Kristofferson...

Fantastic Mr. Fox moves at a leisurely pace, regularly stopping to enjoy the world that Anderson has borrowed from Dahl and explore its details. Explanations of the animal children's favorite game, "whack bat," and schematics of the local geography enhance the narrative rather than slowing it down, recalling similar moves that Wes Anderson has made in movies like The Royal Tenenbaums [review] and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. [review] These elements hearken back to one of the themes of the director's earlier pictures, the lesson that the patriarch of each film tries to impart to his children: enjoy the specifics before you lose them. We often forget that children's entertainment is as obsessed with mortality as any high-brow literature or cinema. You're never too young to gather those rosebuds.

Which is not to imply that Fantastic Mr. Fox is heavy. It's anything but. This film is a fun romp through the animal kingdom. Eventually, the three farmers--voiced by Michael Gambon, Robin Hurlstone, and Hugo Guinness--have had enough of Mr. Fox's thieving and decide to do something about it. Their hunt for the creature goes overboard, driving all the animals underground, where they reconvene and rise up . The ensuing battle gives Mr. Fox a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the others and Ash the opportunity to prove his worth to his father (and himself) and reconcile with his cousin. Along the way, there are musical interludes, references to other movies (Willem Dafoe voices a rat straight out of West Side Story), and many big laughs.

It's interesting that two of our most unique modern filmmakers--first Spike Jonze with Where the Wild Things Are [review] and now Wes Anderson with Fantastic Mr. Fox--have chosen to withdraw from adult features and focus on adaptations of all-ages material for their latest efforts. Both have yielded amazing motion pictures with emotional resonance, and each with remarkably similar messages despite having different timbres. Just as Litte Max had to indulge in some wild rumpusing to understand himself in Jonze's film, so too does Mr. Fox encourage the other animals to be who they are, to let themselves go wild when the time calls for it. It's good to be responsible, but not at the sacrifice of one's sense of self. Bill Murray can provide the voice of a badger and they can put that badger in a three-piece suit, but underneath, he's still a mean ol' badger and even deeper down, still Bill Murray.

Another thing that Jonze and Anderson have in common is the creation of a visually stimulating universe using mostly traditional methods. For his Wild Things, Jonze insisted on putting actors in giant Muppet suits rather than creating them using CGI, and the result was that they had a real presence on screen with the boy hero. Anderson doesn't have any "real" elements in his animated movie, but his use of stop-motion techniques that have been made all but obsolete by computers lends Fantastic Mr. Fox a nostalgic quaintness that you're never going to find in the Shrek movies. This looks like weird shorts I used to see on PBS when I was a kid, and though some of the production team has groused about Anderson's demands for real hair and the use of other difficult materials, his stubbornness pays off. The animation looks remarkable on the screen, and I quite regularly forgot that I was watching a cartoon. Though there is nothing extra in the credits, I urge folks to sit through them and see how many people it took to make Fantastic Mr. Fox. This type of thing really does take a village.

Beyond the animators, part of the success of the film's believability is also owed to a smart cohesion between animated object and actor. Anderson achieves Pixar-level casting, having his animators borrow mannerisms from Clooney and Schwartzman and the rest in such a way that the performance becomes so believable, you stop hearing the famous voices and instead hear real characters talking. It's easy to line up a superstar cast, it's much harder to get the right people for the job. These creatures have personality and panache, and even the smallest part is thoughtfully considered.

I am sure that there will be much debate about Fantastic Mr. Fox. I am sure some badger-types will insist that the vision of Roald Dahl is sacrosanct, and others will question the occasional adult touches; others will grouse that Anderson is too precious for his own good, the way they so regularly do. Let them cuss and shout those complaints loudly; I will cuss louder. Bottom line is that Fantastic Mr. Fox is a youthful, joyful effort from a filmmaker who has spent his career chasing his childhood visions. I'm happy to say that with this feature, Wes Anderson has finally caught up with them.

This review was originally written for the theatrical release of the film; images are taken from the 2009 DVD edition.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


It would be easy to view Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 picture Foreign Correspondent as just another of the master director's thrillers about a man in over his head. For anyone questioning the seriousness of this pre-war propaganda piece, however, there is a sharp turn at about the 3/4 mark that reminds us just how dangerous and of-the-moment the threats must have seemed to Hitch and his crew.

Up until that point, we had been following cocky American journalist John Jones (Joel McCrea), pen name Huntey Haverstock, back and forth from London to Amsterdam. We've seen him chased by pistol-packing spies and also pitch a little woo to Carol Fisher (a comely Laraine Day), daughter of an international peace advocate (Herbert Marshall) whom is meant to be John's European liaison. There have been car chases and narrow escapes out hotel windows, and also a startling assassination, surprisingly direct and bloody for the time. It's all very much in the standard Hitchcock vein. The action only pauses for romance or the expected sardonic humor, here provided by George Sanders and Robert Benchley, both playing fellow reporters. Benchley lends a wry vitality to every scene he is in, dropping amusing asides that, unsurprisingly, he wrote himself.

Foreign Correspondent's maguffin is a Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is the key to negotiating peace in Europe. (Hitler gets one brief mention in the beginning, but the film is otherwise Swastika-free.) It's when the boys find where he's been imprisoned that brings the movie's darkest moment. Van Meer has been locked away in a squalid boarding house in London, where his captors torture him with bright lights and loud jazz music, forcing him to stay awake in hopes of breaking him so he'll spill his secrets. Hitchcock and director of photography Rudolph Maté dial everything down, working with the cramped space and soft lighting to create an uncomfortable, claustrophobic mood. The shadowy staging predates  and somewhat predicts film noir, showing the influence of German filmmakers on the director and quite possibly also some inspiration from the Universal horror franchise. The soundtrack is dropped to a whisper, and the threat of violence suddenly becomes real. It's Hitchcock's way of taking the fictional sheen off of his villains, of reminding his audience who they may soon be dealing with if war breaks out.

Which it did, shortly before the film was released, requiring an added ending to address the rapidly changing situation overseas. The final notes of Foreign Correspondent are quite literally an urgent call to America to not turn a blind eye to what was happening. It's worth noting that Hitchcock actually made the movie for an American studio, and he considered it the first where he got to express himself fully. It's long been held that Hollywood was ahead of the curve in working to convince Americans of our need to stand with our European allies in World War II, and there is perhaps no more irrefutable example of that than Foreign Correspondent.

Van Meer's importance to the story is fascinating, because it extends beyond the functionality of the plot. His presence actually influences the storytelling itself. The tone changes each time he is on screen. His first conversation with Jones is quiet and a bit perplexing, serving as almost a self-indictment of Foreign Correspondent's rabble-rousing intentions. His second major scene is also the movie's most tense. Jones has pursued Van Meer's attackers to a rundown windmill where they have stashed their prisoner. The journalist quietly creeps through the small tower while the enemy agents scheme in a language he doesn't understand. Jones is always one wrong step away from being discovered. Like the torture sequence later in the movie, Hitchcock blankets the segment in a sort of fog, symbolizing both the secretive nature of the meet and also Van Meer's drugged state, which itself represents the intentions the Axis powers have toward their neighbors.

There is a lot in Foreign Correspondent that Hitchcock aficionados can dissect and examine to understand how the director builds suspense. The film has some notoriety for how much Hitch pushed the envelope and advanced special effects in order to make his action pieces come alive. He used miniatures and rear projection, as well as stage trickery, in ways that remain impressive, even if a modern eye can spot the seams. Criterion includes an excellent featurette looking back at how the production team pulled off a lot of the more complicated effects.

Perhaps more illustrative of the director's skill, however, is the photo essay he made for Life Magazine. This supplement shows a series of black-and-white stills Hitchcock put together to make a point about the danger of wartime rumors amongst the general citizenry. Photographed by Eliot Elisofon, it's a story told in seventeen frames. Each image adds to the previous, escalating the spread of the gossip, a deadly game of broken telephone. It's like a tiny tutorial in how to be a master of suspense yourself, complete with the trademark Hitchcock cameo.

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

Monday, February 10, 2014


The Long Day Closes first came into my life some six years or so ago when my good friend and fellow reviewer Christopher McQuain surreptitiously enquired if I had a region-free DVD player. I responded in the affirmative, and expected some kind of Britpop concert to show up in my Christmas stocking, since the query was fairly obvious and music was how Christopher and I had initially bonded. Instead, what arrived was a Region-2 PAL copy of Terence Davies 1992 autobiographical slice of life. I had no advance knowledge of The Long Day Closes, its release had passed me by in that previous decade. I would have been in college and was drinking in as many films as I could, but there was an isolation to being in school and being just far enough away from a major metropolis that, were a film like The Long Day Closes to come through, it wouldn't have been that hard to miss it.

So, when I fired up the gifted disc, it was brand-new territory, entered cold. I was an explorer embarking on an adventure.

What I found in this new land was nothing less than astonishing. Davies' artful nostalgia moved me in profound ways. His depiction of one life furnished in early beauty touched on so many things that were important to me--the escape of pop culture, abandoning one's mundane existence through cinema and music, and learning from both how to dream, how to use your own imagination with the intention of creating art of your own--this wasn't new territory so much as it was exactly where I lived, and The Long Day Closes dropped like a bomb into my town square.

Over the following years, I would often mention this film to others, and was frustrated to find that hardly anyone ever heard of it, much less had seen it. The UK disc was not so easy to loan out. While lots of us nerds rushed out and bought a player that would allow us to get a disc from anywhere in the world for fear of missing out on something, the common populace did not. (In truth, even I have moved on; my decision to not purchase a multi-region Blu-ray player was based on economics and time. I barely have the hours to watch the stuff that is far easier to access than some obscure disc imported from parts unknown.) Unsurprisingly, when Criterion announced they were adding Davies to their collection, I could not have been more pleased.

To describe The Long Day Closes is to try to summarize the plotless. Davies' film recreates his childhood growing up in 1950s Liverpool. It's a string of anecdotes filtered through memory. A young boy (Leigh McCormack) lives with his single mother and many sisters and brothers, dividing his time between their home, the movie theatre, school, and church. Davies is not concerned about a specific span of time, but just different impressions of the time, a collection of important moments. Listening to his mother sing songs while doing the laundry, watching his siblings pair off with new lovers, or peering into the adult world by watching older relatives and neighbors get drunk at parties. Some memories are good, some are bad. The boy is bullied at school by kids who rightly assume he is gay, and this contributes to his isolation. He is rarely with others his age, and so movies serve to give him companionship. When going to the cinema is not possible, a window becomes a surrogate screen from which he can watch life in his neighborhood pass by outside or stare at the shirtless construction workers building across the way. (Fittingly, their project is "Smitten's Garage," where crushes are hammered out.) When there is no window, there is his imagination. He can dream about sailing far, far away.

Escaping the mundanity of his existence is a running theme of The Long Day Closes. Tracking shots and movement across the frame emphasize that desire. Moments blend into each other, Davies is writing his autobiography as a montage. The reels of our lives are continuous and spin without pause until our individual movie is done. Static shots are for remembering, used when the auteur wants to linger on a feeling, allowing for a brief respite before he has to carry on again. The boy, nicknamed Bud, is at once enjoying and recording a life beloved, living in the midst of it while searching for a an escape into something else.

Davies allows all of this to unfold as long, unbroken reveries, soundtracked by classical music, pop standards from the pre-rock era, and snippets of movie dialogue. (Orson Welles narrating The Magnificent Ambersons features prominently.) This aural thread connects all the places Bud must go. Cinema is church, church is cinema. It is all spectacle and pageantry. The day-to-day is spent walking the aisles looking for a seat--in school, on the sidewalk, or in the theatre. Our hearts are broken at the movies. If not by what's on the screen, then by the one we love choosing to catch the matinee with someone else.

What makes this artful exercise all the more potent is that, despite being born of nostalgia, what is shown is very much of the moment. Bud is not looking back, he is living the events as they happen. There is no authorial presence imposing a point of view on the tale. Rather, Davies is observing in much the same way as we are, not so much guiding his reverie as he is letting it unfurl from his subconscious at its leisure. This allows each viewer to find themselves within the experience, to let The Long Day Closes move him or her on a purely emotional level, unburdened by intellectualizing or philosophizing. That it concludes in a spiritual place then, should not be surprising, though the true object of worship here is light: the light that gives us life, that illuminates the darkness, and that projects these marvelous images over our heads and onto a movie screen.

An Erasure lyric comes to mind. "I guess I'm into feeling higher lately, higher than I've ever been in this thing called love." It's from the opening song off their dreamy Erasure album, and those lines, repeated over and over, are the only lyrics. It's a danceable tune, elegiac in its way, building on this recurring emotion, giving emphasis to the impulse through repetition and celebration. It is, as Orson Welles says in The Long Day Closes, appropriate for Terence Davies' pageant of the tenantry, the last of the great long-remembered dances. Tradition and passion intensify as they head toward their inevitable fade to black.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk