Sunday, August 22, 2021
BEASTS OF NO NATION - #1091
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.
Saturday, August 14, 2021
THE DEAD - CRITERION CHANNEL
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.