Saturday, October 20, 2018

SCANNERS - #712


Back in high school and on through college, I worked a story called Lords of Order, first writing it as a graphic novel and then a screenplay. Intended as the opening of a trilogy (and predicting the three brothers structure of my eventual prose novels), the story was a gritty fantasy about teenagers with psychic powers being preyed upon by an evil corporation that may have had a hand in their creation. It was a John Hughes version of the X-Men, in its way, but now I see it was also quite a bit like an adolescent version of Scanners.

Released in 1981, Scanners was David Cronenberg’s fourth movie, and essential in his emergence as a prominent auteur. Scanners set the groundwork for both Videodrome [review] and The Dead Zone in terms of approach and theme. It’s effective for what it is, a B movie with a firm grasp of its own schlock, highlighted by impressive practical effects. One of the film’s earliest bits of gore, when a man’s head explodes, has found new life on the internet as an animated gif. Its bloody climax, however, may be the most effective, if not easily the grossest. If you want to talk about the psychic travails of puberty, I am pretty sure anyone who had any kind of acne problem can relate to the squirting pustules growing on Michael Ironside and Steven Lack’s faces.


The two men lead the film, both playing the titular “scanners,” the name Cronenberg gives to people with extraordinary mental powers. Their main ability is telepathy via direct linkage of their nervous system with another’s. Once connected, they can read minds and also influence the other person’s actions--but at great physical expense for themselves and their victim. They also seem to be able to inspire spontaneous combustion in a manner that is never explained, and hack into computers in a manner that shouldn’t have been.


Lack plays Cameron Vale, a scanner who is taken into custody by a nefarious corporation and its lead scientist, Dr. Ruth (The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan). The company is trying to cultivate scanners for espionage and other unsavory purposes, but they find themselves at odds with a rogue scanner, Darryl Revok (Ironside). Revok is looking to unite all known scanners, and killing the ones who refuse. Ruth and his cronies dispatch Vale to find the bad man, though the more he looks, the more Vale realizes not everything is on the up and up.


Cronenberg’s script is scrappy, but also threadbare. There is actually very little to the plot, and many scenes slam together without much connective tissue. Vale’s investigative skills seem to rely more on psychic predictions than real detection, and the gunmen who follow him around are never adequately accounted for. Scanners feels as if Cronenberg either didn’t have the budget to shoot more story, or simply didn’t care about why or how he’d get to the scenes of exploding heads and cars. The truth may be somewhere in the middle, as reportedly the filmmaker was rushed into production before there was a complete script with instructions to finish in time to qualify for a tax break.


Fans of blood-and-guts horror probably don’t care, however, and one could probably make some pretty good critical hay out of the political implications of weaponized genetics, particularly as science continues to learn more and more about how we are put together. For me, Scanners could have used with a bit more character work. The choice to make Vale a blank slate means we never quite grasp his motivation. Likewise, Revok is never permitted to preen in his villainy. Surely there was some Thanos-like justification for his mission Cronenberg could have injected here, but much like my bad adolescent writing, the only real driver seems to be possessing the power itself. Which isn’t really all that relatable and exciting for us normal folk out here in the audience. Though, maybe now I can resurrect that old script and fix it based on the lessons I gleaned from Scanners.

But probably not.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

YENTL - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.


For some reason, a lot of the women in my life, both ones who were simply friends and those who were something more complicated, have had a thing for Yentl. I've never quite understood it, largely because I had never seen the movie. I was eleven in 1983 when the film was released, and you'd have been hard-pressed to come up with a movie I would have wanted to see less than Yentl back then.

Though my tastes have grown more adventurous in the intervening years, and I've even made my way toward enjoying a musical now and again, the opportunity to delve deeper into this Yentl mystery never presented itself. Part of this is that the movie has never been on DVD...until now.


Yentl was the directorial debut of Barbra Streisand, who also co-wrote the script, produced, and starred as the title character. What's that make her? A quadruple threat? Quintuple if you count singing? Because Yentl is a musical, with songs by the great composer Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review) and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the trio behind "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair. The songs for Yentl aren't so much showstoppers as they are emotional flashpoints throughout the movie. Sung only by Streisand's character in her private moments, they track her growth and learning--intentionally so, in fact. The lyricists have stated that the songs are meant to reflect the structure of the Talmud, the sacred Jewish text that Yentl is studying, in that each song builds on the last, one lesson blending into another.

Based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Yentl takes place in Poland in the early 20th century. Raised in a Jewish community by her scholarly father (Nehemiah Persoff), she has secretly been learning the Talmud under his direction despite Jewish law at the time forbidding women from study (just as, to hear the Hollywood legends surrounding the making of Yentl, it was illegal for a woman to direct a movie). When her father dies, rather than be reduced to a life of marriage and servitude, abandoning the world of knowledge she so loves, Yentl disguises herself as a boy named Anshel and travels to another town, where she joins a Yeshiva, a school for Talmud study. There she befriends the handsome and fiercely intellectual Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who has recently lost his little brother and sees his fragile spirit reflected in this new and strange fair-faced boy.


Anshel and Avigdor become study partners and fast friends, and Avigdor even introduces his new pal to his fiancée, Hadass (Amy Irving). This meeting pains Yentl, who has fallen in love with Avigdor, a situation that is further complicated when the engagement is broken by Hadass' father (Steven Hill). Unable to bear another man with his beloved Hadass, Avigdor hatches a plan whereby she will marry Anshel instead. This puts Yentl in a moral quandary: does she reveal her true identity and risk losing everything, or does she stick it out and hopefully keep her secret long enough to put the intended couple back together? Or better yet, how can she hurt no one, keep studying, and still have Avigdor for herself?

Let's get something out of the way before we go on: "feminism" is not a dirty word, and if the idea that looking at a movie like Yentl as a piece of feminist artistry chafes your sensibilities, then you probably are going to have little use for the rest of this review, and even if you do end up watching Yentl anyway, you will miss quite a bit of the larger tapestry that Streisand is creating. As far as I am concerned, saying you aren't a feminist is akin to not being a humanist. To want to have full rights for women is no different than wanting to have rights for all humans. It's just too bad that we've let insidious forces twist that whole point of view into something it's not, finding it easier to maliciously discredit a way of thinking rather than engage it directly.

Ahem. Anyway...

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that most of my female friends who expressed a love for Yentl did so because of Barbra Streisand's feminist message in the picture. Now, despite my rant above, before you get the wrong idea, you should realize that just because there is a feminist message, that doesn't mean it is a political one. In my own recent review of The Sidney Poitier Collection, I touched on the fact that what made Poitier such a pioneer was that he changed the perception of African Americans simply by taking on roles that showcased real characters involved in honest human dramas. Likewise, the strongest statement that Streisand makes in Yentl is to present a story about a woman with as much vigor as any story helmed by a man and about a man; she need not call attention to what is already there, she lets the story speak for itself. Girls, you can have it all, and what that "all" is need not be what you've always been told it is.

Naturally, Yentl's subversion of the system is a round-about way of female empowerment, and the character's arc through the script is in discovering how to shed the deceit and learn to have the courage to be herself. A large part of this is in learning to have what her male counterparts do not: empathy and understanding. She must somehow entertain all points of view in order to challenge them, and the showdown between her and Avigdor when the secret comes out is a wonderful feat of writing and acting. Streisand and Patinkin trade a variety of emotional blows, as Avigdor rides his own tempestuous reaction to having been lied to. As an acting partner and as the character, Streisand must contain him, keep his emotions from veering out of control, and bring him back down to earth so that he might see the truth. He doesn't get it exactly, but that also makes Yentl more honest than one might expect from a romantic musical.


More tender and in its way more poignant is the marital relationship between Anshel and Hadass. In lieu of her inability to perform more traditional marital duties, Yentl introduces Hadass to the world of exploration that has so fascinated her. In doing so, she opens up a more broad line of communication, creating the ideal marriage of equals. Hadass, who has otherwise only been trained to be servile, now can air her feelings and thoughts and engage with her husband the way he engages with Avigdor. It's the seed of change, a theory put to the test.

What makes Yentl even better, however, is that all of the above is in the story without it overtaking the story. The message doesn't get in the way of the narrative, and in fact quite the opposite. At its core, Yentl is a story about finding one's own identity, something comparable to a collegiate drama, and it is also a love story. Really, it's a love story more than anything else, whether it be the love of books or the love of the opposite sex. All those other things are just accessories to the clothes the script wears. Yentl is a movie of heavy emotions, but never cloying or overly sentimental. The emotion is grounded in behavior.

As a director, Barbra Streisand is as assured of herself as she is as an actress. Her use of framing bears a similarity to how a singer understands her song. The way she might choose to move through a note or a line when singing dictates to the listener the emotion he or she is meant to feel. Likewise, by filming a wagon traveling at an askew angle, or capturing the golden light of a lakeside romp, she conveys a sense of feeling that goes beyond verbal exposition. Photographed by David Watkin, who also shot Help!, Chariots of Fire, and Out of Africa, Yentl is a beautiful film, full of rich detail and gorgeous fits of natural color.

Now, though I am painting glowing praise all over the film, it's also not without its faults. It was a little slow to draw me in, and at times, the plotting is a little obvious, treading well-worn paths taken by many other gender-switch stories, but these come off as minor in comparison to the overall effect. Yentl is a warm-hearted film, crafted with love by an artist who was intent on creating a movie she believed in exactly as she believed it should be. Thus, like a friend who sometimes makes you shake your head because she can't seem to avoid some obvious pitfalls, Yentl earns a pass. You can almost hear her as Anshel quote from whatever original source one would draw the axiom "To err is human, to forgive divine."

Not to mention that for a movie that works pretty vigorously at the old "knowledge is power" saw, it does give me a little further insight into what those ladies in my life had been talking about. I can't say for sure if they'd all still be around if I had taken a gander at Yentl earlier, but I suppose it wouldn't have hurt.



Thursday, October 11, 2018

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014. 



Twenty-two years before George Cukor would remake A Star is Born (and even five years before William Wellman's original), the director would set the standard for the quintessential Tinsel Town tale with his entertaining pre-Code melodrama What Price Hollywood?.

A charming Constance Bennett stars as Mary Evans, who, up until her lucky run-in with perpetually soused film director Max Carey, is just another blonde actress making ends meet as a waitress at the Brown Derby. Carey, played with affable aplomb by Lowell Sherman (who soon went on to be a director himself), is working on slightly sobering up before heading off to the Chinese Theatre for his latest premiere. When the girl gets him home safe, she also gets herself a screen test, kicking off an illustrious career and a difficult relationship between two strong personalities--the nature of which seems to be a little more father/daughter until Mary gets married to Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), a millionaire playboy who doesn't get this Hollywood life. (Though, given his twisted courtship technique, I'm not sure Lonny's one to judge.) As the scales tip and Max needs Mary's help more than she needs his, it drives a wedge between the newlyweds and eventually propels everyone
into scandal.


Cukor mines some pretty dark material here, seemingly fascinated with the mechanics and mythology that had already sprung up around what was really a very young industry. The studio machine that churns out Mary's publicity--including the hands-on studio head (Gregory Ratoff) who goes so far as to plan her wedding--and the contentious relationship between the stars and the press appears no different then than it is now. There are even scary run-ins with fans, who literally try to tear the clothes from Mary's body. At the same time, the backstage efforts have their own magical efficiency. Cukor inserts shots of the technicians at work, a peek into the complicated choreography of a movie set. Gearheads should enjoy seeing the old cameras, microphones, and the like.


Constance Bennett is a dream as Mary, hitting on several notes that would become archetypical for this type of story--wide-eyed ingénue, a marquee-powered diva, frustrated wife and mother. She and Lowell Sherman make a fine pair. His performance here establishes him as one of the great on-screen drunkards. There is both comedy and tragedy in Max's descent, with neither side played so heavy as to ring false. He's the kind of guy you want to tip a few with, he's so much fun, but whom you also aren't surprised loses control. Naturally, the way What Price Hollywood? brings the starmaker and his protégé together casts them as the only two authentic people in an inauthentic business.


What really makes What Price Hollywood? sustainable, however, is that it manages to have its cake and eat it, too. Like the best behind-the-scenes exposés, Cukor's film loves and hates its subject. He subverts the emerging tropes even while reveling in them. Mary at one point complains that she has a baby in every movie the studio puts her in, to which the boss replies at least this time her character is married. It's the kind of knowing crack that would be censored once the Hayes Code was put in place, though in What Price Hollywood?, the joke holds true: Mary has a baby after her marriage has dissolved. And she gets her happy ending, too.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

ENCHANTED APRIL - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in May 2009. It's being reprinted unedited with its original jokes intact...just because.


Of course, the obvious snarky question is why Enchanted April didn't come out on DVD until May, and I'd say the snarky answer would involve something to the effect that it felt like the 93-minute movie took a month to watch, so being a month late would just be par for the course.

Truth is, Enchanted April fans have waited much longer than that for the movie to come to disc in North America. Despite having won two Golden Globes in 1993 and getting nominated for multiple Oscars, this Mike Newell-helmed picture has not been on DVD before now. When I worked at a video store a couple of years ago, it was one of the most regularly requested titles amongst the customers. Perhaps this delay has built up too much expectation in me, given me too long to inflate my perceived appreciation of Enchanted April in my mind. I know I saw it during its theatrical run, and then at least once more on home video a couple of years later, but I'd wager it's been more than a decade since I last sat through it. The movie has gotten older, I've gotten older, and we've grown apart.


Enchanted April is a period piece set in the 1920s. It is the story of four British women and the Italian castle that provides them with a bucolic getaway for what is to be a month of no socializing, no husbands, nothing but the sea, the air, and the trees. The trip is initially organized by two bored housewives, Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), the wife of a gastronomically self-satisfied London-based solicitor (Alfred Molina), and Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), who is married to a man (Jim Broadbent) who writes scandalous novels under an assumed name. To offset the costs of their holiday, the two advertise for vacation mates, eventually scoring a stuffy older woman (Joan Plowright) and a much-desired flapper (Polly Walker). As a little wrinkle of irony, the flapper, Lady Caroline, is trying to get out of town to escape the lecherous men who pursue her, and one of them is Mr. Arbuthnot. Uh-oh! Trouble's a-comin'!

Except, no, there will be no trouble. None at all. Rather, there will just be a month of relaxation and rehabilitation in the country, a month of quietly rediscovering oneself, and eventually of rekindling love. It's also a month of sheer boredom, a slow burn that never catches flame.

Enchanted April, even back when it seemed good, always came off as a bit of a sub-par take on Merchant Ivory territory. Written by Peter Barnes (the one-time much sharper writer of the satirically daring The Ruling Class) from a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the movie details the kind of humdrum, repressed lives that many a James Ivory character has so expertly burst in his many great movies, and given that Enchanted April originally hit the Cineplex somewhere in between Howard's End [review] and Remains of the Day, it tied many of us over in terms of satisfying our yen for costume drama. Peter Barnes is no Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, however, and I doubt Ms. von Arnim is in the same league as Henry James. Likewise, Mike Newell is certainly no James Ivory; rather, he is the director of such middle-ground material as Mona Lisa Smile and Love in the Time of Cholera. His best-known movie (not counting his time at Hogwarts) is Four Weddings and a Funeral, another film that may not have aged well. After Enchanted April, I'm a little scared to find out.


It's not that Enchanted April is simply god-awful. It has some truly lovely locations, and I rather appreciated its use of multiple points-of-view, giving each lady her own voiceover in order to chronicle her inner thoughts. Polly Walker is as alluring as her part demands, affecting ennui and managing to be irresistibly attractive while doing so, and Miranda Richardson gives a subtle and nuanced performance that brings far more to the material than the filmmakers could have possibly hoped for. Looking out at the sea, pondering her life, she says more with her face than any of Barnes' dry narration ever could. The actress was really the only thing that kept me watching to the closing credits.

The problem is that Enchanted April takes its dispassionate stance far too seriously. The women are all supposed to change, transformed by their new surroundings, their blood once again boiled by the shining Italian sun--and yet, even as they change, the movie remains bloodless. Lots of light, but no heat and so no boiling. I didn't find the changes to be believable, instead they just came off as predictable, relying on audience expectation that the metamorphoses must happen rather than making the effort to inspire similar feelings within everyone watching. This is Merchant Ivory by the numbers, a costume drama going through the motions. The end result is that Enchanted April turns into a dreary pit stop rather than a life-changing experience. Rather than being the good thing we were waiting for to transport us to a better place and time, it's just more impetus to keep looking.



Saturday, October 6, 2018

SELECTED SHORTS V - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films. From time to time, I will take a look at a selection of what’s on offer. You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4.


A Gentle Night (2017; China; 15 minutes): When a thirteen-old-girl doesn’t return home, everyone but her mother is content to “wait and see.” As her husband sleeps, the woman (Shuxian Li) spends the late hours going to places the child might go, hoping against hope that she’ll be out there and not a victim of the dark.

Yang Qiu’s Cannes-honored short is a drama with a quiet restlessness. The feelings of dread, anxiety, and guilt that overwhelm the mother come through the screen to those of us watching. Details are scarce, but those that do emerge are important. Through dialogue, we learn that the father is overbearing, but the mother is also a disciplinarian. Yet, we also know from her public encounters, perhaps the mother is the only one in the whole world who has a real relationship with the missing girl. The daughter herself is the only one we never learn about. Which just adds to the guilt.

A Gentle Night lacks a definitive resolution, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Yang Qiu is peddling a feeling here, and our acceptance of it determines how we view the movie. Think about it when you’re done. You’ll have an opinion about what happened to the girl, even if you didn’t realize it. Somehow, in just a short time, A Gentle Night moves you toward your own resolution.


Hunger (1974; Canada; 12 minutes): Once a gluttonous man starts eating, he can’t stop, in this animated short from Peter Foldes. Set entirely to music, no dialogue, we watch as the skinny office worker grows into an obese shut-in, blowing through relationships and all trappings of regular life, until there’s no way to avoid his ironic end. Foldes works with an open line style, allowing for the characters to morph naturally, particularly his lead, who goes from stick figure to complete oval in the end. Nothing too surprising or enticing, but well paced and visually intriguing enough to sustain its running time.

Also notable as Hunger was apparently an early trailblazer in computer animation.


The Voice Thief (2013; Chile/France/USA; 22 minutes): A silly narrative poorly performed, this surreal drama by Adan Jodorowsky, working from a story written by his father Alejandro Jodorowsky, stars controversial actress Asia Argento (Marie Antoinette [review]) as an opera singer who loses her voice when her husband (Cristobal Jodorowsky) chokes her. Distraught by his actions, he searches for a replacement, using mystical means to extract the singing voices from three different people he victimizes. With each new voice, the singer takes on the persona of the victim.

Though lush in design and beautifully shot, The Voice Thief is a pretentious dud. Undercut by retro 1970s horror music and overloaded with indulgent symbolism, this is essentially a student film elevated via nepotism.


When We Lived in Miami (2013; USA; 13 minutes): Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) pulls double-duty as director and performer, portraying a woman facing potentially becoming a single mother while also worrying about the danger of an incoming hurricane. The narrative is strung together with small moments. The camera moves around the participants and the landscape, never quite settling, always searching, and along with the short scene cuts, it makes for an aesthetic that’s pleasantly reminiscent of Terence Malick, trying to draw the family back together even as the editing continues to separate them. Seimetz is incredibly focused here, the grief and the uncertainty permeating every frame.


Premature (2013; Norway; 16 minutes): Director Gunhild Enger creates a shifting, uncomfortable 15-minute car ride full of nervous pleasantries and bizarre social bumbles. A young Norwegian man is bringing home his pregnant Spanish girlfriend to meet the parents for the first time. She doesn’t speak Norwegian, the parents don’t speak Spanish, but they all speak English to some degree. Communication is halting, with different participants slipping into their native tongues for private asides, but since there are no subtitles, ingeniously, the audience is only privy to what they themselves can understand.

Many might recognize their own family here: the mother who means well but can’t stop from putting her foot in her mouth, the frustrated child, the peacekeeping father. Ultimately, though, you feel the most sorry for the girl, who clearly doesn’t know what she has gotten herself into. Premature takes a simple premise and a limiting technique and yet squeezes a whole hell of a lot out of both.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

MRS. MINIVER - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.


William Wyler's 1942 drama Mrs. Miniver is a rousing piece of wartime propaganda. The earnest and heartfelt family story has a very specific and extremely obvious purpose, and yet it still has the ability to engage and move audiences willing to check their cynicism at the door. Scratch that. That may be underestimating Mrs. Miniver's considerable personal charms. We need not change before entering the theater. The film, like its titular character, may rather have the power to obliterate one's cynicism and turn us all into true believers, much the way the lady herself causes the old woman to drop her selfish pretentions at the flower show midway through the picture.


Greer Garson gives an Oscar-winning performance as Kay Miniver, upper-middle-class mother of three. Hers is a sensitive portrayal, meant to illustrate the hidden strengths of British women and the determination and fortitude required in a time of war. Based on a book of essays by Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver sets up a none-too-subtle contrast between pre-War living and the serious responsibilities of every citizen when their country is in conflict. It opens in 1939, with Kay buying a new hat and fearing telling her husband, an architect, of its cost. Little does she know that hubby Clem (Walter Pidgeon) bought a fancy car well outside his price range. "What's money for," he asks, if not to blow on extravagant things.

This tune soon changes. War is declared not long after, and the Minivers' idealistic first born, Vin (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force. He also becomes engaged to Carol Belden (Theresa Wright, a year before Shadow of a Doubt), granddaughter to the town matriarch, the upper-class snob Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). The romance blossoms (pardon the pun) out of a conflict between the two families. The beloved Ms. Miniver inspired the local station master, Ballard (Henry Travers), to enter the village's annual flower competition, and he has named his prize rose for her. Lady Beldon has won the championship cup for the last three decades unopposed, and she's none too happy about the competition. The squabble over a silver trophy seems frivolous in the face of world destruction.
Except it's not really, and that's part of the point of Mrs. Miniver. Life must carry on. Young people should marry, and though the men and women who stay behind should protect the home front, they must also continue with everything their enlisted men are fighting to protect. This is what Garson's Kay Miniver is really a symbol of: the brave face of life under the shadow of death. It's a mother's duty to care for her young, to smile through the heartache, and push forward with every reserve she has.


Mrs. Miniver has an episodic narrative, one that took audiences seeing it in its original run from their very recent past right up to their actual present. Amidst air raids, there are side excursions. Clem Miniver takes part in a home guard rescue at Dunkirk, while his wife stays home and captures a downed German soldier (Helmut Dantine), showing herself as the better person as she cares for his wounds moments after he held a gun on her. (The film takes the high road, too, avoiding caricaturing the enemy, or even resorting to extreme racial epithets to describe the opposing forces.) And, of course, there is the joy of the village festival, the much contested flower show. Tragedy follows almost immediately after, but it serves to remind everyone that there is a reason the world is taking up arms against the Nazis.

Wyler is adept at all aspects of his sprawling story. The opening scenes humorously satirize the complacency of modern living, and they are a far cry from the terrifying air raid sequence, when bombs hit a little too close to the Miniver home. While we don't really see combat up close, its presence in the distance, either as sound effects or the sight of fires burning on the horizon, serves as sufficient backdrop. The common terror most British citizens must have been feeling is shared without the filmmaker overselling it, and Mrs. Miniver managed to not only stir the sympathies of moviegoers across the ocean, but it continues to do so across time. A job well done is well done forever; Mrs. Miniver is still inspiring and effective. Garson gives the performance of a lifetime, creating a character that will remain meaningful over many more.



Sunday, September 30, 2018

VERNON, FLORIDA - #752


It’s never explained during the running time of the movie why exactly documentarian Errol Morris chose Vernon, Florida, as the subject of his 1981 documentary. Following on the heels of his acclaimed Gates of Heaven [review], it’s easy to see that the filmmaker is once again assembling a diverse cast of characters to tell their stories, but outside of their living in the same area, there isn’t an obvious connection. Legend has it that Vernon, Florida was originally supposed to be about people who had cut off limbs to collect insurance money, but when Morris found those folks less than cooperative, he pivoted to find subjects that were.

And he found no shortage of willing participants. Vernon, Florida is certainly replete with colorful characters--a nigh-obsessed turkey hunter, a preacher with demonstrable faith, a worm famer, and a cop who is more than content to police a sleepy burg where nothing happens are just a few of the townspeople who share their existences with Morris’ camera. Each is eager to impart what they know--which actually may be their connection. They are all backwoods know-it-alls, disdainful of that which doesn’t come straight from the land or is easily discernible with the naked eye. Even the fellow in the beginning who bought into some kind of jewel club is convinced the precious stone he was sent for his membership fee is a fraud. Why? Because even though he has a jeweler’s loupe, he doesn’t know what to look for. Where is the chain of evidence on this rock?


Then again, maybe he should listen to the old man who describes his encounter with an atheist. When the non-believer told him that all life “just happened,” it seems more than obvious to the believer that the thing that made it happen is God. If I exist and you exist and all that’s around us exists, and we don’t know where it comes from, what other explanation is there?

Morris, of course, does not challenge this or any of the other claims he hears. And there is nothing to say that any of his interviewees are necessarily full of crap. The worm farmer, for instance, who insists books written about the cultivation of “wrigglers” got it wrong, bases this on practical experience. The only thing that will really teach you is doing. Just like the only true deterrent to speeding, which is about the only crime Vernon knows, is for the cop to park his car out in the open and let the drivers see him. Then they’ll think before hitting the gas.


It’s all simple to grasp, and all the men are charming in their way, but where we get the Morris twist in Vernon, Florida is perhaps in his choice to let the men talk long enough that they sometimes show themselves up. The guy with the jewel, for instance, seems to have a habit of spotting things that aren’t there and then exhibits no follow-through to find out what he really saw. And for all his bravado about the turkeys he’s shot and his ability to track the “gobblers,” why is it that for Morris, the hunter only ever points out things that sound like the turkeys but aren’t? Sure, this is obviously him trying to prove how smart he is, believing the filmmaker would be fooled by the doppelganger sound, but it also feels like maybe Morris is winking at us. These know-it-alls don’t always know what they don’t know.

And hey, if God creates all things that “just happen,” then is He the unseen shooter that put a bullet through the police car’s windshield? Asking for a friend...



Saturday, September 29, 2018

DOV'E LA LIBERTA...? - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com as part of the Roberto Rossellini 2-Disc Collector's Edition in 2008.


Dov'è la libertà...? (Where is Freedom?) a dark social comedy from 1954 that stars Italian screen icon Toto as Salvatore, a man pleading his case before a judge in a Roman court. Salvatore has spent twenty-two years of his life behind bars, and after only a short time of being on parole, he was arrested again, this time for trying to break back into jail.

As Salvatore explains, prison life had an order built on a mutual need amongst the imprisoned to survive their incarceration with as little hassle as possible. Ten or more men to one cell meant forming a miniature society, one where the quiet barber muddled through by keeping order and helping the others maintain a fresh perspective. Salvatore himself was sent down the river for killing a man who tried to force himself on his wife, a crime of passion he is ready to put behind him. Unfortunately, the march of time has passed him by while being away, and he is surprised to find the world is not as trusting of him as he is of it, nor as honest. On the outside, Salvatore bounces from one bad situation to another, getting involved in a crooked marathon dance, the flirtations of the selfish daughter of a boarding house landlady, and even his former in-laws, who prove to be the least trustworthy of the bunch. And don't even ask what he finds out about his late wife! With each set-back, Salvatore loses a little more of his faith in humanity, making him long for the moral order of prison life and inspiring his reverse jailbreak.


Dov'è la libertà...? is a quietly satirical film, avoiding broad jokes and relying on a sort of common sense comedy. For as irrational as Salvatore's actions seem on paper, his point-of-view makes perfect sense, particularly as it is explained by Toto. With his expressive eyes and hound-dog face, the actor's weary bafflement comes across as totally logical. He's a little like a latter-day Buster Keaton, with maybe a smidgen of Marty Feldman and Peter Sellers thrown in. There's just something about his exasperated expression that makes you want to believe him even as you laugh at him for being so gullible. How can society be so out of tune with a man so down to earth?



Sunday, September 23, 2018

A RAISIN IN THE SUN - #945


What a massive space a tiny apartment can be.

In A Raisin in the Sun, five people share two bedrooms, with a communal bath in the hallway. All family. A mother and her two children, a son and daughter, the son’s wife, and their child. Three generations of African Americans, with each intersecting lifeline representing different wants and needs. Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil [review]) is a hard-working provider looking to be his own boss rather than drive cars for rich white men all his life. His younger sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands, The Landlord), is a dreamer in search of an identity, trying many hobbies but settling on being a doctor--relatively unheard of for a black woman in the early 1960s. The young Travis (Stephen Perry, The Sound and the Fury) represents a new hope, the link between old and young, while the family matriarch, Lena (Claudia McNeil, Black Girl), looks to maintain traditional values. The real double-sided coin, however, is Lena and her daughter-in-law Ruth (Ruby Dee, Do The Right Thing). The two mothers really want to keep their family together, but the big difference between them is the older woman has a resolve built through years of hard work and belief, and the young women is starting to give up hope. Lena is determined to make everyone see that they should appreciate what they have--especially each other.

So much going on in just three little rooms.


A Raisin in the Sun was released in 1961, with author Lorraine Hansberry adapting her own successful stage play for journeyman filmmaker Daniel Petrie to direct. (Petrie will be known to Criterion fans for his versions of A Wind from the South and Bang the Drum Slowly on the Golden Age of Television set [review].) Both timely and frank, A Raisin in the Sun deftly draws together many strings of the African American experience of the period. Many factors pull at the Younger family, from changing opinions about faith to a growing disenchantment with the limited possibilities available to the impoverished and people of color. Beyond race, there are also issues of gender and questions of how individuals deal with one another.

Poitier is combustible and restless as Walter Lee, a man who has never had much to call his own. Now in his mid-30s and still living with his mother, and his only son sleeping on a couch rather than having a bed in his own room, he’s desperate for an opportunity, and sees one in the insurance payment due to Lena following the death of Walter Lee’s father. He wants to take the $10,000 and start a liquor store with his friends. Ruth thinks it’s too risky, and Lena thinks it’s immoral. Poitier is physically set to burst with each rejection. All he can see are the things that are holding him back.


By contrast, Claudia McNeil is unyielding and resolute. She speaks confidently, but with an even tone. She is comfortable in her position as head of the family, and firm in her beliefs. In terms of performance, she is a rock for Poitier and, to a degree, Diana Sands to attempt to climb, only to fall off time and again. She’s too stubborn, too squarely planted, for these youngsters to overcome, no matter how hard they fling themselves at her.


A Raisin in the Sun is confined in both space and time. The narrative takes place over only a couple of days, and outside of a few scenes in other locations, mostly connective tissue between acts, the action is exclusive in the apartment. While this is a holdover from the stage, Petrie doesn’t treat it as a limitation. He and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. (3:10 to Yuma [review]) move the camera to follow the characters, and the characters are so vibrant, even if the frame remained static, the movie would still hum with their energy. While each family member has their central driving motivation, their interaction allows for sidelines and vignettes, sequences that round out who they are more than forwarding the narrative, allowing for both humor and drama. Beneatha in particular has some funny scenes as different gentlemen callers come around. She is as flighty as Walter Lee is single-minded, and though they bicker like siblings only can, it’s fun to see them stop squabbling to goof around when Beneatha is exploring African music and dance. This strikes me as a very honest way to portray a family. A unit like this can switch on a dime, at odds one minute and coming together for a common cause the next. In the film’s final scenes, we see how far that sort of bond can be pushed, and at a point where it really counts. Walter Lee can stand up and be the man he is meant to be, an example to his son, a point of pride for his mother.


Most of the problems raised in A Raisin in the Sun are sadly still relevant: economic independence being out of reach, racial perception creating boundaries where there should be none, the pressure of poverty on a family. When Ruth turns out to be pregnant again, it’s less a cause for celebration and more one of concern. In many ways, the bluntness with which Hansberry approaches issues like abortion reminds me of British kitchen sink dramas, like A Taste of Honey [review] or This Sporting Life [review]. Why couch taboo subjects in coded language when so many members of the audience are going through the same thing? This is what allows A Raisin in the Sun to remain timeless: its specificity is universal. To be less true would have neutered it.


For this new release, Criterion has created a beautiful 4K image with nicely balanced black-and-white photography. They’ve also packed the disc with lots of special features, both old and new, to explore the history of A Raisin in the Sun as a piece of theater and as cinema, and look at the people who brought it to life.


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

Saturday, September 22, 2018

THE TREE OF LIFE (Extended Version) - #942


When Criterion announced their version of The Tree of Life, there was much to be excited about just in the idea that the 2011 film would benefit from an upgrade taking advantage of the improvements in home video technology from the last seven years. The announcement that it would have a new, longer cut of the film, however, was a real bombshell. What would restoring nearly 50 minutes of footage mean? Would it enhance and inform, or would it detract and obscure? Malick’s ongoing revisions certainly didn’t hurt The New World.

Though my excitement for such a thing might normally cause me to rush straight to what’s new, for The Tree of Life, I rewatched the theatrical version first, a warm-up for digging into the new cut. It had been many years and I wanted to refresh my memory in order to compare, lest the extended version supersede my recollection of Terence Malick’s masterpiece [also reviewed here].


On this new viewing, I was struck by how clear the movie’s themes were: the cycles of nature, how human experience is primal and consistent, how violence sometimes begets mercy, and how love sometimes is vicious. The struggle to be good, to be worthy. The bonds of love and trust amongst family and how we test them. The role of faith in all these things, but also science; fate vs. human determination. The failure of earthly rewards, the various necessary states of fealty, the triumph of connection. We are not original, our experience is not new, this has been going on since the dawn of existence and will continue long past our presence here--a notion that is illustrated visually by The Tree of Life’s feeling of constant moving, of short cuts and the camera in motion. But also those dinosaurs. A reptilian schoolyard bully exercising restraint.

And hanging over it all, grief. Grieving the loss of self, grieving the loss of others.


Which is what Malick leans into from the start of this new version, moving the middle child’s death to the front of the film, focusing more on the parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), and then the grown Jack (Sean Penn), who aches over the loss just as acutely decades on. Rather than feeling a part of all existence, in this edit, at least in the early sequences, the humans appear small within the universe, and their faith is tested. If when we pass, God lifts us in his hands, then are we completely on our own while walking this Earth?

Newly added scenes in Jack’s adult life show that his troubles follow him--just as his father warned. The narrative of his youth is now more linear and comprehensive, losing some of the scattershot resemblance to the patchiness of memory, more expressive of his adolescent troubles, including the negative influences that shine a light on the hypocrisy of adults--his prime motivator being they do what they tell kids not to do. In particular, when his father is gone on an extended trip, Jack assumes his role; when the man returns, the child resents it and lashes out.


This extended cut is all about more. Not in an excessive sense, but in the sense that at one time Malick had planned out the whole of The Tree of Life, but then treated it as a giant block of marble and chipped away, sculpting something else, something more ephemeral. For instance, this fuller version offers more nuance in regards to the parents, particularly the mother, who is more of an interior figure, a symbol, in the other cut. Here she has regrets about her choices, about dreams lost. She frets over her husband’s behavior, but also has more resolve in terms of her devotion to her family. She could leave, but she stays. Jessica Chastain was a revelation when The Tree of Life first came to theaters, and seeing more of her performance only bolsters her strength as an actor and reinforces what Malick first saw in her.


Likewise, expanded scenes with R.L., the middle boy (Laramie Eppler), show he is more favored by the father, who indulges his gentle spirit. They bond over music, and he cuts R.L. slack in ways he never does Jack. This gives added layers of resentment to Jack’s cruel dares, pushing the sensitive boy to touch the inside of lamp or put his finger over a gun barrel, only to immediately regret the violation of trust. Jack is the dinosaur stepping on the weaker creature’s head.


By all accounts, this is not Malick’s preferred version, that would be the theatrical edit; rather, this is the master dipping back into his early draft and reconstructing it, reexamining his original impulses. With both the hour of extra material and a fair amount of editorial reshuffling, there is a lot to absorb, including whole subplots previously left on the cutting room floor. For instance, the mother now has a brother with a nervous condition, and one of Jack’s friends suffers very real abuse at the hands of his own father, which makes Brad Pitt’s disciplinarian seem a little less villainous. (Has Pitt ever been this stoic and conflicted in any other movie? The petty defeats this man suffers gives explanation to his behavior, though not excuse.) The additions even go beyond the interpersonal. A storm about three-quarters in puts the family directly at odds with nature. All those beautiful glimpses of the universe that color The Tree of Life suddenly turn deadly, another reminder of how small man is in the face of whatever higher power he believes in.

Had this expanded The Tree of Life been Malick’s official version in 2011, the film certainly would not have received the same high regard. Leaving less to the imagination, its engagement of the viewer is entirely different. Where previously, Malick had removed all the in-between moments, compelling us to connect the dots  on our own, his expanded The Tree of Life brings the full image into focus. Or was it the other way around, the theatrical cut was nothing but in-between, and we had to piece the larger puzzle together? Regardless, as an additive supplement, fans of the movie will find much in the extra hour and the narrative remix to appreciate, even if viewing it only proves to be a one-time thing. If nothing else, we now have that much more of Malick to watch, which is never a bad thing. Now, where is that full-length version of The Thin Red Line?


Note: The screengrabs in this review are from the 2011 home video release and not the Criterion disc under review.