Tuesday, September 21, 2021

SABRINA - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2008 for DVDTalk.com.



Audrey Hepburn's second film was the first of hers I saw, though if I recall I watched Sabrina for Humphrey Bogart, whom had become a bit of an obsession by then. I was also starting to learn a little something about director Billy Wilder through a blooming interest in film noir, so it was an unexpected twist in my movie-going plot that these two gentlemen would be upstaged by the gamine up in the tree of this romantic comedy.


Sabrina (Hepburn) is the chauffeur's daughter, a gawky teen who hides in the bushes spying on David Larrabee (William Holden), the youngest and the wildest son of the rich Larrabee family. By contrast, David's older brother, Linus (Bogart), is all stuffed shirts and responsibility. He runs the family company and is more likely to race through numbers and statistics than he is to race the roadster that David is so fond of. Ironically, it's only Linus that notices Sabrina, finding her in the throes of a dramatic suicide over David's cluelessness. Sure, Linus doesn't realize that this silly kid is being serious, but at least he knows her name.



All of this takes place on the eve of Sabrina's departure for Paris, where she will spend two years at a cooking school learning all about soufflés while also learning all the ways of the world that a girl can only acquire in France. She returns to Long Island a sophisticated seductress, ready to claim David as her own. The one wrinkle: Linus has promised David to the daughter of a sugar cane magnate so the Larrabees can get their hands on all the sugar they need for a new plastic compound they are pioneering. Seeing the thrice-married David about to go off message yet again, Linus runs interference, pretending to entertain his baby brother's fickle yearnings while keeping Sabrina occupied. Of course, no numbers or charts can prepare him for Cupid's arrow, and a legitimate love affair blooms in the unlikeliest of places.



Bogart is at his hound-dog best in this picture. Put the man in a tailored suit and take him out of the rough-and-tumble urban and wilderness environments he is better known for, and he actually cuts quite a dashing figure as an aging Prince Charming. Sure, there is a disparity in the years between him and Audrey Hepburn, but it doesn't seem nearly as pronounced as the age gap between her and some of her other leading men. (Wilder would pair her with Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon three years later, and it's never quite right; the pair are loving in two entirely different afternoons.) Perhaps it's Bogart's subtle vulnerability that makes it work. His Linus is a lonely man who may know plastics and even how to negotiate social mores as if they were boardroom gambits, but whom has ignored his heart as a result. Just as much as Sabrina needs to be rescued from that cad David, Linus needs someone to rescue him from himself. If there is a bit of a fatherly air to his schooling of the ingénue, the ingénue must also play mother to a boy who is still emotionally underdeveloped. Just look at the scene where Linus tries to dress up in his old college sweater: it's like he's swapped places with Sabrina, trying to look young much in the same way she's trying to appear grown up.


Audrey Hepburn is as delightful as can be in the film. To her acting credit, she is almost capable of entirely conquering her own natural glamour to make the teenaged Sabrina appear gawky and naïve. This also allows her to pull off the character's return from Paris, where she must first look like a little girl playing dress up only to reveal she truly is sophisticated in spite of herself. As romances go, one couldn't ask for a smarter director than Billy Wilder, who realizes that when falling in love, the reactions we show to one another aren't nearly as telling as the ones we think no one sees. When the David-Sabrina-Linus triangle begins, we can chart the various emotional upheavals on the dancefloor by the way a character's face changes amidst the turn of a slow dance. Thus, an unsuspecting Sabrina can enter a spin out of love and come around to face us again in love.



As with most Billy Wilder movies, Sabrina moves at a brisk pace, teasing the viewer along in ways that are never obvious or manipulative, even when we should be able to see the romantic outcome a mile off. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Ernest Lehman and Samuel Taylor, who originally wrote Sabrina as a stageplay, and he knows where all the pieces go. The director has an inherent storytelling instinct for when the narrative can be diverted into a humorous aside and when it needs to get down to serious business. At its core, Sabrina is a Cinderella story, but the fun twist is that the husband she's going to meet at the ball is not the one she expects, and as the audience, we get to go along for the ride as Sabrina figures it all out.




Monday, September 20, 2021

CITIZENFOUR - CRITERION CHANNEL

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



As I type, it's a week before Halloween, and I've just finished watching the scariest horror movie of the season: the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour.


It's with a chilled quiet and gritted teeth that I make light, whistling by the graveyard, dancing to keep from crying. Because if you can watch Citizenfour and not be shaken down to your very core, you're made of tougher stuff than I. Cinematic analysis at this point seems unnecessary, regardless of how much there may be to criticize in the technique (and really, not much). Laura Poitras' film is so vital, so substantial to the world right now, any conscientious critic will just want to underline how important it is that everyone see it, how crucial to avoid throwing it on the scrap heap of the well-meaning political and activist documentaries that have flooded the market since 9/11. Citizenfour is an historical document of confounding significance. It's a glimpse behind the closed doors of a moment in time that has otherwise only been revealed in the abstract.


Poitras, who previously made enough of a splash with the movies Flag Wars and The Oath to earn a place on a U.S. government watch list monitoring her travels, is one of two journalists, along with The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, to be contacted an anonymous source called himself "Citizenfour" in late 2012/early 2013 regarding access to information that would implicate the White House, the NSA, tech companies, and a variety of other American institutions in an overreaching initiative to mine the privacy data of the common populace. That source was, of course, Edward Snowden. Citizenfour shows how that communication transpired, leading to the fateful meeting with Snowden in Hong Kong to go over the documents he had procured and prepare a plan for releasing the information to the public. This is the core of Citizenfour, and the actual timeframe is only a couple of weeks. Given the ongoing ramifications of the event, it's kind of crazy to be reminded how quickly it all happened.



Poitras follows the exposure and the aftermath, chasing the ripples Snowden made right up until this past spring, when likely she had to put a cap on it and take Citizenfour into the editing suite. The narrative she shapes from the combined recording of the reportage and of the evidence being reported has the tension of a high-grade thriller but also the damning effect of being true.


There are two takeaways from Citizenfour. First, Edward Snowden is a fascinating and admirable individual. Regardless of smear campaigns in the press or the Obama administration's attempts to recategorize his whistleblowing as treason or espionage, Snowden in action--at least as presented here--is forthright and articulate regarding his intentions. He simultaneously attempts to keep the story from being framed around him and accepts not only that it will end up that way, but that the consequences will be severe. Poitras is careful to show his humanity, at times catching unguarded vanity, but also real sadness. In those days when he literally only had one single window from which to view the whole world, most of us would have found it hard to keep our resolve from being crushed. When Snowden is the most likable is in those rare moments when he is most normal, when the stereotypical IT guy emerges to snicker at his allies for being such rubes when it comes to technology.


The second takeaway is that the American public's casual acceptance of the exposed truths as both inevitable and, frankly, already here, is just as damaging, if not moreso, as the government's most nefarious actions. It's almost another horrific joke to consider how unnecessary the scrambling over the leaks and the attempted discrediting of Snowden was. With a citizenry that has already accepted that there is nothing they can do, no retaliation need be required. Hell, there is no more disheartening evidence to verify Snowden's fear that one man's efforts wouldn't be swallowed whole by the culture of celebrity than, as of this writing, the one piece of trivia on Citizenfour's IMDB page is about his sexuality. (Yes, there are certain aspects of Snowden's personality that Poitras could have explored to challenge the would-be assassination of his character, but to expect her to is to miss the point of her stated approach.)


I'd like to believe it's not too late. Horror movies usually end on a new morning, right? The survivors getting out of the haunted house? Citizenfour can't provide that sunrise, so instead it ends on the promise of an even more haunting revelation to come, presumably to encourage the rest of us to make that new dawn occur before there is no turning back and all sense of freedom and privacy is lost. Which is why I can't stress enough how everyone must see this movie, and why my fingers are permanently crossed in hope that it works.




Sunday, September 19, 2021

PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for in 2007 DVDTalk.com.



Needle Park was a real area in New York City where junkies congregated, forming their own city within the larger city, getting by on the hustle and the routine of cop/shoot/cop. The Panic in Needle Park is a 1971 film about this area, adapted from a book by James Mills. It's written by two of the finest writers in journalistic literature at that time, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and they apply the same feeling of honest reportage that had earned them their reputation to this screenplay. From there, director Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow, Honeysuckle Rose) picked up the gauntlet and shot the movie in a verite style that anticipates the hand-held documentary approach cop shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue would use two decades later. This makes The Panic in Needle Park a raw, honest film about the junkie lifestyle, and how love can be corrupted when it burns in the center of a heroin spoon.


Al Pacino plays Bobby, your standard hustler who spends his days kidding others in order to keep telling lies to himself. When we first meet him, he's slinging marijuana and claiming to only be shooting up occasionally. Helen (Kitty Winn, The Exorcist) is the sickly girlfriend of one of Bobby's customers (Raul Julia), and during one of her many stays in the hospital, the boyfriend runs out on her. Acting on unspoken affection, Bobby picks her up when she's discharged, and from there, a love affair quietly begins.



Things start easily enough, and it would seem that Bobby gets by pretty well. The addicts form their own little community, and amongst them, he appears to have his feet firmly on the ground. He's definitely a charismatic guy, and how could he not be? He's played by Al Pacino, for gosh sake. His manner draws Helen in, probably because she lacks any consistency in her own life. We don't know what happened to her to make her this way--both characters pretty much start at ground zero and don't speak of the past--but the two fit in a way that you don't often see in even straightforward love stories.


Eventually, though, Bobby is going to push the boundaries of their relationship. The crucial scene comes when he asks Helen to go uptown and score for him. She looks him dead in the eye and calls him on it: he's testing her to see what lengths she'll go to in their relationship. It's shortly after this that she tries heroin for the first time. Helen never explains why she sneaks a hit from Bobby's stash, but it's presumably to be closer to him. It's the one thing he cares about more than her. He won't even make love to her when he's stoned. It's like she's conquering the mistress by taking her to bed.



The Panic in Needle Park is told in a loping matter, the plot coming in great big chunks like an asteroid storm rather than a carefully arranged line. It's an ambling gait, though, and never a rambling one. The illusion is that it's accidental, when really the writing and editing is very precise. Realism is the order of the day. Schatzberg doesn't come off as an assertive director, his style is too natural, and he lets his actors be natural. It's one of those movies where the people seem to just exist on the screen rather than a collection of actors performing. It was only Pacino's second movie, and he already looks at home on camera.


This naturalism is a bit of a sucker punch for the audience, because it allows Schatzberg to sneak the more harrowing elements into the picture and catch us off guard. The drug scenes are casually gruesome in a way that is chillingly effective. There is no exploitation of the drug culture in The Panic in Needle Park, no romantic images of junkies getting off and having a grand time. Whenever we see a needle breaking skin, it's usually penetrating a scabrous or bruised vein, and the stupor that follows is anything but attractive. Likewise, when the random outbreak of violence enters into the scene, Schatzberg makes sure we feel the impact of it, as well. His on-the-spot shooting style suddenly grows more manic, moving in tight on the action, often losing focus altogether. It makes those moments seem more vicious, like there was no way to stop them.





The Panic in Needle Park grows more grisly as it goes. The "panic" referred to is actually a term for a period of time when there aren't a lot of drugs on the market. It makes people desperate and forces them to turn on each other. For Bobby and Helen, that means finding new ways to score. They tend to choose opposite directions for how to get ahold of their junk, and it will be the test of their relationship if they can stay together. Didion and Dunne avoid moralizing, and they mainly avoid being heavy handed about the more extreme consequences of addiction. (I say mainly because bringing that puppy into it, guys, steps close to the line.) The downward slide is disconcerting enough without also giving us the loud thump of the couple hitting rock bottom--which is also probably why the movie still feels fresh and timely after all these years. The Panic in Needle Park is as much about the relationship as it is the habit, anyway, and the writers serve both masters well. The movie ends with a perfect little snippet of a scene, striking the right kind of resonance, saying it all without having to say too much.





Saturday, September 18, 2021

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com. 



This one is for the saps. And I say that as a card-carrying member, who types this with eyes still glassy from watching An Affair to Remember. It's a sappy movie, and it doesn't get any less sappy with age. Though, I must say, I think the older I get, the more I like it. I don't know if I am gathering a greater capacity for cheesy emotion instead of wisdom as I trundle on into the autumn of my years, but it's possible.


Immortalized as the ultimate chick flick in Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle, this 1957 movie from writer/director Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth [review]) is apparently not supposed to appeal to members of my gender, but frankly, boys could learn an awful lot from Cary Grant's masculine example in this film. Grant plays Nickie Ferrante, last of the famous international playboys. When Nickie boards a transatlantic cruise to meet his fiancée (Neva Patterson) in New York, it makes the news programs around the world. Could the notorious gadabout really be settling down? Certainly his future wife's multimillion-dollar fortune is enticement even if love is not.



On the trip, Nickie meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a former nightclub singer also sailing to meet her fiancé (Richard Denning). Terry is devoted to the man who took her out of smoky bars in order to make her a proper woman, and so she easily rebuffs Nickie's charms. It's a new experience for him, and the lothario is flummoxed. The chemistry that exists between these two is one unlike anything they've felt before, and no matter how much they try to pull apart, they always end up right back together. After a sidetrip to meet Nickie's adoring grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt) during a port stop, the two can't deny it any longer. They also can't deny that they are in a sticky situation as far as their mutual engagements, so they make a plan to take six months to disengage. Nickie, in particular, is going to break away from the old ways, take a shot at reviving his artistic aspirations and being a painter, and prove he can make his way in the world in order to be deserving of Terry's hand.


The pact the pair makes is the one Ephron famously borrowed for her Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle. In six months, at 5 p.m., if they are successful in their endeavors, Nickie and Terry will meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building and then go to be married. It takes approximately half of the movie to get to the point where the deal is struck, a seemingly lopsided structural decision, but one that is integral to making An Affair to Remember more than your typical sudsy romance.



In the first hour of the movie, Nickie and Terry really fall in love. I am not sure I fully appreciated how real their interactions on the ship come off in any of my prior viewings. McCarey doesn't go for any of the obvious tricks in bringing his lovers together, instead he exercises tremendous restraint. The whole of An Affair to Remember has an air of calm, and in that calm, McCarey is able to foment feelings of desire, longing, and eventually sadness just by letting the actors be themselves. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr reportedly improvised a lot of their dialogue in the courtship scenes, and it shows. At times, they seem genuinely surprised at the things that come out of each other's mouth, and the natural interchange between the two makes for honest romantic yearning. You're not just going to believe they are in love with each other, but that they actually like one another, as well.


McCarey maintains this restraint through the entire picture, even when it would have been easy to go for the emotional jugular. The meeting at the Empire State Building doesn't go off as planned, for reasons I won't get into for those who may have never seen An Affair to Remember before. Suffice to say, there is plenty of pain and misunderstanding, and even though the audience is privy to more information than Nickie, there are some things that McCarey teases out slowly. The big revelation of how bad off Terry really is, in particular, could have been handled with far more fanfare. McCarey doesn't even turn up the score, letting the moment come silently, and cutting away as soon as he's sure we've figured it out. Clumsier films would have lingered, tried to tug our heartstrings with excessive force.



Instead, the director saves his biggest moments for the final scene, which itself is still played very carefully, isolated to one room, without the actors raising their voices or explaining too much. A heartfelt look will do far more than false words ever can, and the devastation on Cary Grant's face when the reality of the situation becomes clear is easily one of the actor's finest moments. It's when the tears hit my eyes, that's for sure.


So, call me a sap, I don't care. I've never been a closeted romantic, anyway. An Affair to Remember has outlasted all the scoffing it's gotten from the likes of you in the past, and it's gonna keep truckin' long after both of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. Maybe one day you'll wise up, and like Nickie Ferrante at the end of the movie, realize what a stinker you've been.


Then again, maybe not. Just because I'm a romantic doesn't mean I'm not also a realist.




Sunday, August 22, 2021

BEASTS OF NO NATION - #1091


I can’t imagine that Beasts of No Nation hasn’t always been an uncomfortable watch, but the 2015 film has an added level of impact in contemporary times, as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan and a whole population is being disrupted and displaced. While Cary Joji Fukunaga’s anti-war drama is set across a continent in an unnamed West African nation, the effect of violence on the general population is all too familiar, all too real. To say that the threat is persistently terrifying throughout would be an understatement. 

Beasts of No Nation is the story of a people, but centered on one person, a pre-adolescent named Agu, played by first-timer Abraham Attah. When Agu’s village is attacked, his mother is sent away, hopefully to safety, and his brothers are killed. He is left to fend for himself, making him perfect prey for an opportunistic warlord like the Commandant (Idris Elba, Luther). The Commandant has a small army of young boys, from pre-teen to tween and on up. His technique is obvious from the start, when he begins by referring to Agu as a thing. His promise to kids like Agu is he will make them a man, an individual, a person. It’s a lie, of course. The life he offers is dehumanizing. He is beating the children into beasts. 


Fukunaga is probably best known for the first season of True Detective. He has a knack for long narratives that tend to wander even as they serve a singular purpose. Under his direction, and working from a novel by Uzodinna Iweala, Beasts of No Nation is a journey of resistance to drowning. Agu keeps getting pulled into the terror and the destruction only to somehow pop out of the mire, gasping for air. The only real insight into what he is suffering comes through in Agu’s prayers, which are revealed to us in a whispered voiceover, as if the boy is afraid to be overheard by anyone but his maker. As Beasts of No Nation progresses, Agu’s pleas become less hopeful, and ultimately switch to messages for his lost mother when the child believes God no longer cares. 


Perhaps more tragic, however, is Agu’s best friend Strika, played with a kind of bizarre clarity by Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye. The warfare has caused Strika to stop speaking. Agu’s conversations with him are one-sided. Quaye is mostly blank, but he occasionally conveys emotion through his eyes (that longing look as the Commandant fails to hand him the telescope) or gesture (the pat on his friend’s shoulder to say, “Yes, I’ve been there, too.”) We don’t know what specifically caused Strika to clam up, and we sort of don’t have to. It’s everything. 

It’s much the same how Fukunaga need never tell us where the movie is taking place, when, or even why the “rebels” are fighting. Again, it’s everywhere and everything, we need not be specific. The problem is too widespread. Men like the Commandant are all over. We need look no further than the U.S. presence in Afghanistan the past two decades. Was it anything more than profiteers squeezing what they could out of human beings? Idris Elba delivers a careful performance as the Commandant. He never goes too far to any extreme. He is manipulative, controlled, often close to tipping over the edge, but truly unflappable. Even in defeat, his self-belief maintains. “You can leave, but you’ll be back.” Only next to his boss do we see the cracks of an immature man who is not developed enough to truly lead, and is thus exiled to working with troops too naive to know he’s a fraud. 


Despite my point above about the ubiquity of the message, it’s important to recognize that there are virtually no white faces present in Beasts of No Nation. This is pretty rare for a film about African strife, but Fukunaga has so thoroughly rejected the white savior trope, even the international soldiers seen at the end are Black. The only appearance of white people is when Agu’s squad encounters a small UN caravan. The symbolism is clear. The van passes and the passengers stare at the child soldiers with mawkish concern as they literally continue going in the opposite direction. 

In the battle sequences, some of Fukunaga’s trademark staging is evident, but in this instance, his long, uncut shots aren’t meant to show off. You aren’t meant to stop and think, “Oh, wow, there were no cuts” the way you might have in True Detective. Here those set-ups are more stealthy, meant to only work on your subconscious. Fukunaga goes to great lengths to avoid glamorizing violence. He keeps the action grounded, dirty, and chaotic. There is no pleasure in the killing, no visceral release. It’s just so plain and normal, it’s actually disconcerting. 


Thus, when the filmmaker indulges in a little bit of surrealism, it hits differently. The most prominent example of this is when Agu is on some kind of hallucinogen and the world changes colors around him. Green plants become a pale amber, the skies go blank. It’s hellish looking, but it provides some kind of relief and escape. This means, ironically, Agu finds relief in damnation, the apocalypse is better than real life. 

There is an obvious Lost Boys reference to me made here. The raggedy patchwork costumes of the soldiers make them look like extras from Hook. But I kept seeing another duo when I looked at Agu and Strika side by side: the brothers Black and White from the anime Tekkon Kinkreet [review]. The aesthetic of the hoods they wear, their mismatched faces--I see Taiyo Matsumoto’s tripped-out antiheroes. The four boys also face the same kind of threat: the encroachment of adult evil on their childhoods. 



It ends differently for Agu and Strika than it does for Black and White, but it also ends differently between the two boys themselves. Which, given how few escapes there are for either--death, becoming the next Commandant (you can only be #1, be #2 at your own peril), or somehow leaving the army alive--the odds are a bit stacked. I don’t want to give too much away, but the end of Beasts of No Nation does offer some hard-earned hope. Just as throughout the film, the finale rests on Agu, the wide-eyed boy who has now seen and experienced it all. In his final prayer, and then his final spoken lines, we understand where he has ended up. Those last words reveal not just his maturity, but how he has survived. He has maintained a singular thought this whole time, held on to a dream that he would once again find the family that knows and loves him as the child they left behind. This mission will continue to maintain him beyond Beast of No Nation’s closing scenes, which lead us to believe that the lost boy need not be found as long as he can embrace the future that lies ahead. He is heading into the literal ocean, not to drown, but to resist the waves and swim.


This disc provided by the Criterion Connection for the purpose of review.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: "COMPANY" - #1090


In these days of heightened media awareness and manufactured access, it would be easy to lose Original Cast Album: “Company” in the mix. Or even be cynical about it. The idea of a documentary crew being in a recording session for the official soundtrack of a Broadway musical, or frankly any recording session, is not at all revolutionary. It’s the stuff that many a DVD extra is made of. One doesn’t have to reach back too long to remember a time in the ’00s when a bonus DVD packaged with a new CD showing the “making of” was a bit of a thing. Even if both CDs and DVDs sound like antique objects anymore.


We are so used to Electronic Press Kits and staged peeks behind the curtain, we are immune to them; they are forced publicity efforts, with any potential tension approved by the studio providing just enough seasoning to make it interesting before everyone agrees they had the best time ever. There is no such denouement for D.A. Pennebaker’s scintillating 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: “Company.” No apologies or resolution, just relief and accomplishment. 



Originally planned as a pilot episode for a series, and clocking in at a scant 53 minutes, Original Cast Album: “Company” is bursting with drama and effort and all the anxiety and triumph both things engender. Taking place mostly in two rooms and almost entirely over one night, Pennebaker--best known for profiling Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back [review]--sets up in the studio where, as the title suggests, the Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Company are laying down the musical’s tracks for posterity. The cast features personalities known (Disney stalwart Dean Jones, legendary performer Elaine Stritch) and unknown (not sure who that is on timpani, but they get an anonymous shout out). As take after take winds on, energies wind down, people become exhausted and the mood becomes fraught. But everyone carries on.



Which is really what is fascinating about Original Cast Album: “Company.” This thing they are doing is a job as much as it is an art. People clock in and perform a task, and despite the egos involved, appear for the most part to be willing to do it together, a cast of craftsmen endeavoring for a common goal. It’s a helluva thing. The other night I saw the L.A. Philharmonic perform with H.E.R., a show in which the orchestra also served as an opening act. There were some folks in the audience who apparently thought the classical music was there to provide accompaniment to their conversation, and all I could think was, “Don’t you see? There is a stage full of people down there using specific man-made objects to create one sound. Isn’t that awesome?” It’s hard not to look at this, especially in the group numbers when everyone is adding their part to the big sound, and think the same.


Much is made of Sondheim’s perfectionist muttering, but really, you can see a desire to get it right in just about everyone else. They are striving, judging, worrying--everyone wants the same perfection. Most famous, of course, is Stritch pushing herself to the limit to put Company’s showstopper, “Ladies Who Lunch,” on tape. The mind boggles as to why the producers saved that until the end of the session, when the actress is spent. It’s painful to watch Stritch wrestle with her own demons, and the mounting tension when she’s just not getting it.



Modern documentarians, eager to promote the product, would put a narrative on this. They’d cut away to commentators and one-on-one interviews, but outside of one short confessional by Sondheim, Pennabaker keeps Original Cast Album: “Company” in the action. We will hear the song more than once because it took more than once to get the best take. That’s the whole point of being there. This is why Original Cast Album: “Company” has stayed in the collective unconsciousness, and why the comedy series "Documentary Now!" took the film on for their episode “Original Cast Album: Co-Op.” Penned by John Mulaney, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, the program has been included on this release. Watching it again, seeing the parody back-to-back with its inspiration, I actually had the same appreciation for the cast and crew behind the homage. It, too, must have required a lot of hard work and a group passion to make the imitation so exact and the comedy so sharp. 


So here it is, to be discovered anew. Original Cast Album: “Company” has been lovingly restored and spruced up with deep-diving supplements. It's a snapshot of a moment in time for these particular artists, but also for Broadway and the recording industry, for a way of doing things that doesn't necessarily happen anymore and a way of seeing how those things are done that rarely aligns with the spotlight.




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


Saturday, August 14, 2021

THE DEAD - CRITERION CHANNEL

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

 
Legendary director John Huston's last film, The Dead, was a family affair. His son Tony adapted the script from a short story by James Joyce, and his daughter Anjelica has one of the two main roles in the picture. This is as it should be, as the film is one that centers on family. The Dead is a movie about remembering times past and the connections that bring us together, as well as the secrets that we hold that keep us apart.

The Dead takes place in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Eve 1904. Three sisters (played by Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany, and Ingrid Craigie) are hosting a dinner for family and friends. The guests come, they enjoy a little song, and then they partake of a goose feast. Amongst the guests is Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), the nephew of the two older hostesses, and his wife, Greta (Huston). Throughout the meal, the many attendees share their love of music and their memories of favorite singers, discuss religion, and largely get on well. There is some witty interplay between the two drunks, the good-natured Freddy (Donal Donnelly) and the self-centered Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), a flirt who judges the younger man but fails to see that he's just as pickled. There is also honor paid to the ladies who have done so much to gather everyone together.

Following the dinner, and after most of the guests have gone, one of the lingerers, a professional singer (Frank Patterson), gives a private performance, and his sad song inspires a melancholy in Greta. The moment marks a seismic shift, taking The Dead from a story about communal nostalgia and celebration to an intimate coupling and private sadness. Gabriel senses his wife's distance, and when they are back at their hotel, gets her to open up. She tells the story of a young man who sang her that song when she was a teenage girl and how he died from his love for her. The implication is that she died with him, at least emotionally. It's a wonderful scene, the bravura moment for Anjelica Huston. Her monologue is a powerful recounting of lost passion, a heartbreaking display of sorrow that is so exhausting for Greta, she immediately passes out, disappearing into slumber.



Here The Dead shifts again, getting even more intimate. The final scene of the movie is another monologue, but this time an inner monologue. Gabriel watches the snow fall outside his window, and he contemplates his wife's story, laments the lack of feeling in his own life, and also ponders the fate that awaits them all, the one that found his wife's true love at such a young age. Though the whole of the finale passes without Donal McCann opening his mouth, his performance here is no less memorable than Huston's. There is a subtle juxtaposition between the woman who is unafraid to feel, who lets her emotions pour out, and the man who can never find the same courage.

The Dead was nominated for an Oscar for Dorothy Jeakins' costume designs, and a large part of why this film works so well is the meticulous attention to detail paid by Jeakins, as well as production designers Stephen Grimes and Dennis Washington. The clothes and the sets are elaborate without being ostentatious. They make the story believable without ever overshadowing it. The whole of The Dead is understated in a way that makes it all the more realistic. It is not as attention grabbing as most costume dramas are, John Huston prefers the focus to be on the writing and the people and not the setting. His is a quiet film, one that grows quieter the longer it runs, from the sounds of a party all the way to silence. The final image is of snow falling in the sky, no words, only accompanied by plaintive music that hangs on to the very end, then stopping for a breath, the sky turning to nothing.

John Huston passed away in August of 1987, and The Dead was released that December. I can't think of a more perfect finish for a versatile filmmaker. Huston had debuted as a director in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon [review], a movie that almost literally starts with a bang. What, then, could be more fitting than a final fadeout that echoes with such poignancy without ever making a sound.



FAT CITY - CRITERION CHANNEL

 This review was originally written in 2012 for DVDTalk.com.



The 1972 boxing picture Fat City is one of those films that may not make sense to you right away. Truth be told, it took me all the way to the perfectly composed, heartbreaking final scene to understand exactly what it was I had just watched. This isn't your standard sports story; it is not a rise-and-fall narrative. Rather, it's one where the fortunes of its characters gather steam, stand up, and crash repeatedly, like waves on the ocean. It is a movie about carrying on, about finding reasons to get up in the morning, about how men seek pursuits where they can imagine themselves happy.



Fat City was directed by veteran filmmaker John Huston, whose credits already included The Maltese Falcon [review] and The Misfits [review], and who would go on to an old age of poignant movies about the end of life like Under the Volcano [review] and The Dead [review]. Fat City finds the cinema pioneer fully embracing the times. It is not a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but is in step with the maverick artistic aspirations of 1970s American moviemaking. Based on a book by Leonard Gardner (who also wrote the script), it stars Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges as two boxers, one an old has-been and the other a young could-be. The tale traces their intersecting paths. Keach's Tully randomly encounters Bridges' Ernie at an empty gym. Seeing something in the kid, he recommends Ernie go see his old manager (Nicholas Colasanto, best known as "Coach" from Cheers). Ernie gets a few fights while Tully works as a day laborer. Tully has a drinking problem and shacks up with a barfly (Susan Tyrrell, Cry-Baby); Ernie knocks up his girlfriend (Candy Clark, American Graffiti) and has to get serious about earning a wage. Both men eventually find themselves in the same place again.



The predictable thing to do here would be to have the boxers fight, young vs. old, the student taking on the master. Luckily, Gardner and Huston avoid such an easy out. The tragedy of Fat City is there is no great victory, neither fighter is anything special, they are just working men struggling to get by. One maybe sees his hope in the other, but they both deny their shared pain. Particularly Tully. He could stare in a mirror and say, "There but for the grace of God go I" and not realize it's his own reflection. Keach plays him masterfully. He is essentially a kind and even tender man, but life's disappointments have buried a rage in him. It comes out in explosive ways every once in a while, but mostly it eats away at him from the inside out. One of the best scenes of the movie is when Tully is chatting up Oma (Tyrrell), listening to her stories and bearing her insults, but eventually he provides an able body for her to lean on as he walks her home. As Fat City rolls on, it's clear no one is going to give Tully a similar break.



Like a good fighter, Fat City is lean and in shape. It dances around its central theme, drawing the punches, using each minute wisely. Huston is creating a naturalistic fight movie here. He wants to show how common life is on the lower end of the profession. The cinematography from Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Road to Perdition) captures the real scenery--the bars, the onion fields, the rundown gyms--without adding any extra glitz. The texture of the old film stock, and even the somewhat dilapidated DVD transfer, makes Fat City look like a perfectly preserved moment in time. There are no frills, no great sweeping camera movements. The boxing is raw, sometimes confusing and distant, and not at all graceful. It's dirty and cheap, the visual equivalent to the gravel in Kris Kristofferson's voice in the movie's theme.


And so it is that you come to that ending: two generations sitting together and pondering the misery of a third. Each one thinking, "I don't want to be that guy." Which is exactly when it hits you: everyone ends up as "that guy." You survive, you keep breathing, and just hope it turns out to be enough.




Friday, August 6, 2021

LA PISCINE - #1088


 “L’eau c’est la vie…l’eau c’est la mort."


Forgive me if that isn’t quite right, put the blame on Google. But that’s about as simple as it gets, right? Water is what fuels everything, but like too much of any good thing, it can also kill you. It is life and it is death. So when a filmmaker puts a swimming pool as the center of his erotic thriller, and even highlights it in his title, as Jacques Deray did in 1969 with La piscine, you can bet it’s going to both charge the sexy times and drain the life out of someone.


Thriller might be too strong a word here. La piscine isn’t a nailbiter in most traditional senses, though you will spend the first half of the movie worrying about how it will all go wrong and the second half wondering what the consequences will be. It stars Alain Delon (Le samourai [review]) and Romy Schneider (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno [review]) as Jean-Paul and Marianne, a couple on vacation at a remote villa with a swimming pool. They spend their time canoodling with one another, bickering a little, engaging in a power dynamic that regularly explodes in wild passion, her on top this time and him next time. It’s just the two of them. It works. It’s good.


It can’t last. We know this. 



Enter Harry (Maurice Ronet, The Fire Within [review]), an old friend of Jean-Paul’s and an old flame of Marianne’s. He has arrived with Penelope (singer Jane Birkin), a grown daughter no one knew he had. The striking young woman becomes the object of all attention. Does Jean-Paul have a thing for her? He’s inscrutable, it’s hard to tell, but does Marianne think he does? And, gross, is Harry attracted to his own daughter, too? Or is it all just the macho musk in the air? Because Harry definitely still has a thing for Marianne and this might just be about these two brutes—one who talks to much and one who says very little—wanting each woman so the other can’t have her.




A few days go by with normal activity. Couples split off, confessions are made, everyone kind of agrees to not like Harry, Marianne makes some very French guesstimations as to Jean-Paul’s potential lust, and Deray arranges the characters around his sets like chess pieces waiting to move. It’s funny, the filmmaker never tips his hand, we kind of guess that maybe something happened between the older man and the young girl (she’s of age, don’t worry), but neither gives up the info. It’s all about guilty glances and knowing looks. Delon is the king of deadpan, but Birkin could give him lessons in not giving anything away. What’s fascinating about her performance is that Deray presents her as an object to gaze upon, but she resists such an inelegant notion. Penelope may be the perennial observer in most scenes, but those eyes aren’t empty. She sees how ridiculous these adult machinations are, even if she’s not always aware that she’s falling into them.



La piscine, which I should note is available both on disc and currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, is more character than plot, a tale of predator and predator. There is no real prey here. Marianne doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to, and she’s more than willing to rebuff or welcome advances as she sees fit. Schneider has a regal bearing that automatically places her in charge. There is also a bit of the cliché that she’s the emotionally mature one that will help these two boys keep it together. Harry is a narcissist, Jean-Paul is troubled in ways that are only hinted at. We hate them both, but Harry is the invader, the bully, the interloper…and thus the villain. He’s the one the audience wants to see fall.


It’s interesting that Deray has made a pretty chilly drama even though it’s set in the very sunny French summer. How can there be secrets when everything is bathed in so much light? Even in a nighttime scene, Jean-Paul comments on how there are too many electric lights, and they are drawing mosquitos. What a sly thing to just let slip out in conversation, a metaphor for the whole of the proceedings. People flocking to these bright climes only to feed on one another. And the biggest dangers come when those people bring their secrets out of the dark. The two pivotal scenes that influence the impending violence are confessions: Marianne telling Harry how she really feels about Jean-Paul (i.e. it can never be you) and Penelope telling Jean-Paul how much she really does not like her father and how much her father does not like Jean-Paul. The latter is probably the best thing in the movie. Birkin is suddenly wholly and completely real, safe to be herself, and the steely Delon gives her all the space she needs just by listening.



That’s about explicit as La piscine gets. Deray doesn’t make any grand proclamations about love or desire, and if no character is going to explain their motivations, it’s very much up to the audience to decide. Many will be as confused as Penelope at the end. Her face as she departs suggests she knows what happened, just not what to make of it, and also likely unsure why everyone else is going along. 


The answer to that? Because it’s intriguing! From start to finish, La piscine holds our gaze, the fifth participant in the (blood)lust.




Sunday, August 1, 2021

HOME - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.



A tiny house sits on a grassy field next to a deserted stretch of unfinished French highway. As we will learn, the family that lives there moved to this remote location because their mother (venerable French actress Isabelle Huppert) has some kind of nervous condition and this is the only place where she feels safe. They've been there for some time, at one count possibly ten years. That's how long the unused pavement has been cutting through their front lawn. The movie Home is what happens when the builders finally come to finish the road and open it up to commuters.


The family dynamic is a mom, a dad, and three kids. The father, Michel (Olivier Gourmet, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 [review]), is a good guy who keeps his family happy, going off to work every day to bring home the bacon but never letting the grind get him down. He and his wife, Marthe, get along well, and the family all plays together and enjoys each other's company. The eldest daughter, the worldly Judith (Adélaïde Leroux), even takes baths with her little brother Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), and mom and dad hang out and splash in the tub, too. Judith is of age, and so is the only other adult in the house. She spends her days in a bikini, sunbathing while listening to death metal. She couldn't be more different than her little sister Marion (Madeleine Budd). Whereas Judith is a Lolita who has fully blossomed, Marion is like her mother to the extreme. She is anxious and concerned with germs. On the other hand, the boy Julien isn't concerned with anything. He's precocious and hyper and regularly indulged.



Ursula Meier's movie is a strange piece of work. Though she and her legion of screenwriters--there are five writing credits in addition to her own--take this solid foundation and erect a bizarre scenario on top, we are watching a parable without context. Home exists somewhere out of time, vaguely modern, but also vaguely apocalyptic. We never leave the confines of the house by the freeway, and dispatches from beyond sound almost alien. In a way, this could be a divergent off-ramp from Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend [review]. Reality is not as important as the message.


So, what is the message? I'm not sure there actually is one. As the cars begin to speed by their house, the family slowly loses its grip on its environment. They become more isolated, there is no exit onto their property. Dad parks the car across the four lanes, and they either have to dodge traffic to cross or crawl under through a sewer tunnel. Mother's illness begins to surface again as the noise and the movement get to her, Marion becomes obsessed with the effects of automobile exhaust, and Julien starts to go a little stir crazy. (In this, the movie is like Todd Haynes' Safe, only abstracted and with no cures offered.) Judith doesn't change her routine, her affectation of being unaffected remains intact, though she will eventually get in a passing car and go. Michel stays strong for everyone, but when he fails to get the family out, he becomes absorbed in his wife's psychosis and starts to go overboard in protecting her. Gourmet has the stand-out performance in Home, maybe because he gets the most to express. The good guy who loves to laugh with his children also gets his private moments--weary cigarettes stolen in the night, a quiet cry in his car, things that allow him to show some range. We get the sense that he signed on for something that has become more than he was expecting.


Home was shot by cinematographer Agnès Godard (35 Shots of Rum [review]), and she captures the bucolic setting beautifully. As the highway encroaches on everything, she lets the natural transformation of the locale take over rather than resorting to tricks to show it. What was once green and clean becomes grimy and cluttered, and Godard understands that photographing it in exactly the same way in both states says more than any lens filter or special lighting ever could.



The problem is, as much as the images speak for themselves, I don't feel the script has all that much to add. The story's isolation ends up being its Achilles heel, and its weirdness becomes something the viewer grows complacent with rather than continually intrigued by. Yes, we watch this family go through the things they go through, deteriorating under the strain of an environmental madness they can't control, ultimately to come out the other side in a rather obvious way--the predictability of the final shots is proportional to the creativity of the central concept--but to what end? Home builds and builds to a harrowing climax, only to flinch from it. Apparently, all that came before is easily solved. Marthe just needed a good nap.


I suppose I might have been fine with a shruggable conclusion had I not already lost interest half an hour before. I think I could sense the whole lot of nothing that was coming, and the more it was obvious that Meier was painting her movie into a narrative corner, the more I drifted away. There are actually outcomes that are more trite that could have caused an even bigger pile-up than this--yet, maybe then at least Home would have been a movie that would have been worth getting upset about. Instead, I'll trade one cliché for another: Home, a nice place to visit, wouldn't want to live there, one visit is enough.




LA VISITA (THE VISITOR) - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.




The 1963 Italian film La visita (The Visitor) is a mild romantic comedy starring Sandra Milo (the mistress from 8 1/2 [review]) as Pina, a mid-30s woman in Northern Italy looking for love. The movie opens at the train station where she waits for Adolfo (Francois Perier, Le cercle rouge [review]) to arrive from Rome. The two have been corresponding since Pina placed a personal ad stating her intention to marry. Adolfo is a clerk in a bookstore with few prospects, and so he has traveled to the country to meet his potential bride.


The action in La visita takes place over a weekend as the pair get to know one another. Pina is a sweetheart who lives a solitary life that is, in its way, a warped fairy tale fantasy. Her home is decorated in Disneyana, and she has three pets: a dog, a parrot, and a turtle. Pina is well liked in her hamlet, and the village idiot (Mario Adorf) threatens Adolfo the moment he sees him. He says he doesn't like the little man from the big city, and as Adolfo begins to reveal his true nature, we realize he's not wrong. Adolfo is obsessed with money, rude, and even racist. He lusts after Pina's neighbor's teenaged granddaughter (Angela Minervini) and even flirts with her in front of his potential fiancée. Through flashbacks, we see how Pina and Adolfo got involved in this long-distance romance, as well as their secret love lives. Pina has been having an affair with a married trucker (Gastone Moschin), while Adolfo has been getting it on with the woman who makes his shirts.



La visita was directed by Antonio Pietrangeli (Adua and Her Friends). He creates an easygoing, almost pastoral vibe for La visita, capturing the quaintness of small-town living, warts and all. Some of the locals are lecherous and spiteful (they call the curvaceous Pina "Miss Pretty Booty" behind her back, thinking the "Pretty" makes it all okay), and they can also be as intolerant as Adolfo. In one amusing, cathartic scene, they trick him into a game of "soldier's bluff" and send him tumbling down a small embankment. He's pretty drunk at that point, and has shown himself to be a boor. It's difficult to fathom why Pina would still be attracted to him. Pietrangeli allows for subtle moments where we know she sees the truth. Pina isn't blind, she's just...patient.


Sandra Milo is marvelous in the lead. She is quiet and serene and she exudes an inherent charm that makes her instantly likable. Pina is far from the pushy tart she played for Fellini; rather, she masks her shyness by being a caretaker. She plies Adolfo with food and has knitted him a sweater. The more we dislike Adolfo, the more we love Pina, particularly as we realize that she and the trucker have genuine affection for one another. Yet, it's also a credit to the writing that, when the emotional climax of the film arrives, Pina is able to disarm Adolfo and get to the root of his bad behavior. The impulse that compelled the two of them to reach out in the first place is what, at least for now, keeps them together. Pietrangeli and his trio of screenwriters show us the comfort that two lonely people can find in each other's arms, and even if it's temporary, it at least makes sense.