Sunday, October 13, 2019

ROBERT FORSTER 1941 - 2019



By all accounts, at least the ones I’ve heard, leading man/character actor Robert Forster, who passed away this weekend, was, despite his tough exterior, an unfailingly polite and exceedingly nice guy who betrayed not an ounce of Hollywood pretense and would engage with fans who approached him, on the street or at the movies he loved to attend, with sincerity, humor and, surely, patience. It’s a measure of just how much he meant to those of us who love movies that the social media outpouring of grief upon the announcement of his death, and the stories from those who were lucky enough to encounter him in the real world, was fairly overwhelming, especially for someone who was never a marquee player with the sort of worldwide stardom which demands an involuntary giving-over of a huge chunk of one’s life to an audience and media swarm who slavishly follow, worship, and occasionally torture their beloveds. And that ease with people, that patience and politeness, that genuine impulse to engage with his fellow actors and humans, were not qualities that were smothered by the smooth, stoic exterior he projected on screen.


Robert Forster was an actor who worked consistently, yet perhaps apart from his work with Quentin Tarantino or Haskell Wexler he never got the sort of roles he deserved, and he was one whose appeal endured despite the fact that he was never a box-office draw, the reason a mass audience left their houses and headed to their neighborhood movie theater.  He projected seriousness, implacability, and a measured intolerance for bullshit in his roles that would occasionally break down, but never fully explode into fits of “Look, Ma, I’m acting!” histrionics. For instance, in what turned out to be his signature role in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown  (1997), Forster, in a career moment when most actors would flail for attention, delivered one of his most affecting and interior performances. You never doubted that when Max Cherry needed to put the pressure on an offender operating outside the limits of his bond, he could and would turn on the physical pressure. (He was, after all, well acquainted with the proper use of a stun gun.) But beneath Cherry’s patient resolve lay the inherent humanism that allowed him to function in his profession without becoming an automaton, that allowed him to sense that his attraction to Jackie (Pam Grier) went beyond his appreciation of her physical beauty. He delivered strength, compassion and humor in a performance in which he allowed access to depths of vulnerability without ever sacrificing that sense of toughness and resolve that were hallmarks of the performances he gave in less-celebrated projects, ones that were often far less well written and conceived.

 
And he had, at least among the ranks of Hollywood actors, a unique way of undercutting his own vanity. In tribute to Forster, last night I watched Jackie Brown and then followed it up with a screening of Alligator (1980), a snappy, low-budget B-picture Jaws knockoff (written by John Sayles and directed by Lewis Teague) that achieves an almost perfect equilibrium between smart and silly. And in watching them together, among the many things there are to admire, I was struck by how both movies managed to make a commentary on the actor’s personal attempt to battle male pattern baldness with hair plugs part of the foundation of the characters he plays. In Jackie Brown, there’s a lovely scene midway through in which the 56-year-old Max, having come to Jackie’s apartment the morning after he’s delivered her from jail to retrieve a gun she stole from his car, casually talks with Jackie about aging. Max admits, with little fanfare and even less worry about how it’ll make him look in her eyes, that years before he saw his hairline beginning to creep back, decided to do something about it, and was glad he did because it allowed him to see himself in the mirror again. And almost as soon as the notion is introduced into the subtext of the film, it’s never mentioned again. 

Seventeen years earlier, when Forster was in his early 30s and implementing hair plug treatments for himself, he, Sayles and Teague put the procedure front and center in Forster’s character, allowing Forster to showcase his lack of embarrassment, but also use his character’s attempts to rectify his receding hairline as a visual signature of his own insecurity as a cop implicated in the loss of one partner in the past who will lose another before the movie ends. For someone engaged in a procedure usually received as an indication of laughable self-regard (“They’ll never notice, and I’ll look 20 years younger!”), Forster’s enthusiasm for using what was obviously going on in his life as part of his work, right beside a refusal to make excuses for it, puts him in a pretty rarefied place in the annals of Hollywood film when it comes to male actors and how they deal with the image that will forever be their bread and butter.

When I heard of Forster’s passing at age 78 (he was the same age as my own parents are now) I was saddened, of course. Then I started thinking about how much I enjoyed in the short-lived Quinn Martin TV series Banyon (1972-73), in which Forster played a hard-boiled Los Angeles detective in the 1930s. (Tarantino has cited his love of the show as one pf the primary reasons why he was moved to cast Forster as Max Cherry.) I knew of Medium Cool  for years before I ever saw it—it was one of only two officially X-rated features (the other was The Best House in London) to play in my hometown movie theater. And when I finally did see it I was impressed by how well this actor, who I knew primarily from his more expected turn as Banyon, fit into Haskell Wexler’s more naturalistic mise-en-scène (including full-frontal nudity), which would eventually find Forster and company shooting on the run as history began exploding all around them at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Forster is also great in the opening (it’s his only moment) of a so-so western called Damsel (2018), worth a look, but almost entirely for the stoic implacability Forster brings to the role of a disillusioned man of the cloth faced with defeat and the endless desert. He provides the film a haunting beginning that it never lives up to. 


Oh, yeah, and he was also quietly moving in Twin Peaks: The Return as mournful Sheriff Frank Truman, brother of the mysterious absent Sheriff Harry Truman (once played by Michael Ontkean). If you haven’t seen him in Michael Schlesinger's wonderful Biffle and Shooster short "The Biffle Murder Case," flexing his deadpan comedy muscles, you really must. And in the wake of Forster’s passing, I have heard from reliable sources that his performances in films as varied as Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1968), Noel Black’s Cover Me, Babe (1970), George Cukor’s Justine (1970), Richard Fleischer’s The Don is Dead  (1972) and Joe Mantegna’s Lakeboat (2000) are all worth pursuing. They  are now, for me, subjects for further investigation. The end result of all this memory and recommendation may be that I’ve realized I’m going to miss Robert Forster far more than I ever realized I would.

But for many who were lucky enough to meet him and talk with him, it’ll be Forster the man as much as Forster the actor who will be missed. My friend, film historian Richard Harland Smith, told a story upon hearing of his passing about encountering Robert Forster in the wilds of the Hollywood Hills, and he’s given me permission to retell it here. Here’s what Richard wrote:

“I met Robert Forster once, maybe five years ago. My wife and I had taken the kids to the Hollywood Reservoir to ride their bikes and just as we started on the trail he was there, walking alone and reading a script out loud. I don’t approach celebrities, I just don’t, so he must have said something to me, probably just a friendly hello. With the ice broken, I mentioned that he had made a movie years ago with a friend of mine, Victor Argo. He admitted that he didn’t really remember working together but asked if he was still around, and I told him that Vic had died in 2004 but that our son was named after him. Forster made a point of coming over to meet Li’l Vic and saying hello to the family. We spent a couple of minutes talking, he talked a little bit about the script he was reading, and while we were standing there some folks came by on Segways and offered to let us ride them. Forster and I declined, politely, but then he asked a couple of questions about them and the offer was repeated so he said, “Ah, what the hell,” hopped on, got the hang of it, and rolled around a little bit on one. I got a kick out of his enjoyment of the experience and walked away touched by his humility and generosity. He was a good fella.”


I’d like to think it’s the spirit of adventure, of “What the hell!” that was an inextricable part of what Robert Forster brought to his roles, great and not-so-great, that will be what people remember, that is what they are missing as much as the performances themselves as they think about him being gone. It’s that “What the hell!” that characterizes Max Cherry going out to buy a cassette of some unfamiliar music recommended to him by Jackie Brown, popping the cassette in his car stereo, and tentatively beginning to move his lips in rhythm with the lyrics. I’d also like to think that somewhere in the world right now someone’s playing the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” either in tribute to Forster, or just because they love it, and that somewhere else, far, far away, Robert Forster is still listening and singing along.




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And speaking of alligators (we were, only a few paragraphs ago, remember?), nine out of ten dieticians would probably agree that I didn't need to buy a medium popcorn on my way in to see Crawl when I saw it in a theater. But it was a fortuitous purchase, because after polishing off about a third of the contents I lost the urge to munch, and that newly cleared empty space inside turned out to be a good place to hide. With the bag placed over my face, the occasional scream that erupted from this 59-year-old was conveniently absorbed too. All of which is my way of saying that I thought Crawl was just about as grueling, claustrophobic, gory, snark-free, gator-phobic fun as it could have possibly been. And given the price I paid to see it on a big screen ($2.50, not including that medium popcorn), it's probably gonna turn out to be the movie bargain of the year for me too.

I really appreciated the movie's smash-and-grab efficiency-- the expertly paced scares come on schedule, but their timing is expert too, and almost always off the beat enough to make you hit the deck even if you think you know what's coming-- but also its surprising humanism. Gone is the rampant misanthropy of much of director Alexandre Aja's oeuvre, and in its place I was relieved to discover a well-established father-daughter dynamic that ends up generating some honestly earned emotion and providing a solid foundation for all the cleverly paced and choreographed chomp-chomp thrills. As a bonus, the context of thhe oncreased fireceness of Mother Nature, and man's lack of control in the face of it, is relatively sly, and it places Crawl within an admirable tradition of horror films which address the real-world fears of their audience with almost subliminal, yet palpable fury.

But it's the fear of nature-- gators and, of course, hurricanes-- that you come for, and the barely-90-minute-long Crawl comes at you like a sleek fright machine that resists every temptation a lesser thriller might have to insult your intelligence. It's Jaws set in the flooding crawlspace of an old dark house, every bit as much unnerving fun as that description implies, and it joins The Prodigy and Us as one of my fvorite horror movies-- in fact, one of my favorite movies, period-- of the year so far. Crawl arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming this week, and my sincere recommendation is that you hit all the lights, make yiour house as dark and scary as it can be, sit back and get your scare on. It won't be the same experience as seeing it in a theater, but the movie will rattle you, I've no doubt. And don't forget the big bag of popcorn if you want to keep your screaming to yourself. See ya later (this week), alligator!

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Saturday, September 28, 2019

MOVIE OF THE MOMENT: ELECTION (1999)



In times of political malfeasance, when corruption and self-aggrandizement is the rule of law, political satire can be a tonic or a depressant, but either way necessary. And it seems to me Alexander Payne’s Election (available from Criterion in a beautiful Blu-ray package), is a bracing intellectual tonic pitched perfectly, even though it was made almost 20 years ago, for the era of our current presidential, and perhaps our upcoming constitutional crisis. And though she is front and center and the spark that ignites it, the movie’s tart brilliance and no-holds-barred charge goes beyond Reese Witherspoon’s inspired and fearless performance.
Election is, I think, a genuinely great American movie, powered of course by the Little Engine That Could (And If She Can’t, Then She Insists On Knowing Why Not), Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, but also by a so-far career-best efforts from co-writer-director Alexander Payne (maddeningly inconsistent to date), with a profound assist from his editor, Kevin Tent; and Matthew Broderick, of the delicious-beyond-measure deadpan disbelief and eye-popped shock, as sincerely misguided, not to mention doomed, high school history teacher Jim McAllister, whose meddling in a high school election, and a possible affair with a friend’s wife, leads if not to tragedy exactly, then certainly humiliation and an almost eerie confirmation that the best-laid plans can often curdle into unexpected consequence. (Unless, of course, you’re self-obsessed enough to see them through with little regard to the humanity in your purview, in which case you’re likely to be the raw material for making a future huge splash in Washington and world politics.) 
Even the less familiar faces in Election are inspired—Chris Klein’s aw-shucks quarterback Paul, and Tracy’s main competition for student body presidential glory, is sublimely, believably sweet (he’s the only marginally well-adjusted person in the movie, and he’s probably a dunce); Jessica Campbell, an unknown before and since 1999, nails the line between sullen disregard and blindly romantic fixation as Paul’s sister Tammy, who rallies unexpected enthusiasm from the hostile student body when she declares that her chief goal as the third candidate for president will be to dismantle the structure of student government (sound familiar?); Phil Reeves’ pitch-perfect smugness as the school principal, who brandishes a degree in CYA; Mark Harelik as McAllister’s fellow teacher, mewling through tears as he defends his predatory affair with Tracy as true love; and even bit players like Nicholas D’Agostino (who would later snatch the lead in Final Destination 5) as the student charged with tallying the election results who uncovers McAllister’s ill-advised attempt to deny Tracy her legitimately earned one-vote victory (earned through Klein’s selfless casting of his vote for his opponent). D’Agostino's indignant reaction to the questioning of his mathematical skills when the total votes cast don’t gibe with the number of registered voters is a mini-master class in expressing the pride which can’t help but swell in the face of resistance from adults who aren’t living up to the responsibilities of their authority.
But what ultimately scoots Election, as astute a political satire as has ever been made in this country, to the head of the class is how it distributes the judgment of its satirical eye. No one character is painted with such broad strokes of sinister Machiavellian intent, or bumbling misunderstanding of circumstances they themselves have created, or even relative virtue, that they can be shrugged off and simply laughed at, nor is anyone necessarily let off the hook either, the dangling made even more sublime by the ease with which we can see ourselves up there, twisting in the breeze. Election is at play in the real world, a movie of a certain harshness that isn’t itself blind to the moments in which even the most strident and the most self-righteous of us (traits shared, by the way, by both of the primary antagonists in the story) can reveal themselves as aching, abused, recognizable, yet still accountable humans. 
And for a movie that would seem to be absent the recognition of the divine, there does seem to be a rather gleeful engagement with a sort of Old Testament retribution, the sneaking sense of a cranky, petulant God who enjoys watching his creations rail at each other and otherwise get up to a hearty degree of self-destructive no-good. After all, in an era dominated by the petulant whims of a would-be dictator and his congressional enablers, 60 million or so voters intellectually blind enough to support them and their decisions through thick and thicker, and the globally disastrous consequences of such willful ignorance, when is the sting of a bee, suffered midway through the film directly in the eye by Broderick’s clueless sufferer, a man who can’t or won’t see the profound and continuing error of his ways, ever just a bee sting? Though it was made in 1999, Election seems, with each unavoidable encroachment of the news of the day, even more timely than ever, and recommended viewing, perhaps more than once, between now and November 2020.

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Saturday, August 31, 2019

CENTRAL PARK (1932)




If they still made ‘em like the pre-Code drama Central Park (1932), I’d still be going to the movies every day instead of looking more to TCM and Netflix and the unwrapped section of my own DVD and Blu-ray collection for reasons to stay home. There are at least four bloated modern blockbusters playing at a theater near you right now at $18 a pop (I’m looking right at you, Hobbs, and you too, Shaw) which don’t have a tenth of the storytelling electricity and enthusiasm that this near-forgotten Hollywood programmer gushes in spades over the course of its 58-minute running time. The average 21st-century Hollywood action thriller, and even some of the more sincerely intended dramas pitched at adults, can leave you enervated and annoyed rather than satisfied, overstuffed with backstory and a heavy-handed approach to character, or simply overloaded on sensory input designed to distract you from the thinness of the material.  But as directed by journeyman John G. Adolfi (who only lived to make three more pictures after this one before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1933), Central Park snaps to attention right away and crams so much juicy stuff in between the First National & Vitaphone Pictures title card and “The End,” all presented in the unpretentious style of a medium still feeling its way around synchronized sound, not to mention art, that audiences in 1932 had to have been thrilled at what they got for the 35 cents it cost them to get into the theater. Eighty-six years later, the movie is still fresh, funny, wild, sentimental, maybe even a little shocking, and it moves like lightning.

“Nothing ever happens in Central Park anymore,” says Eby, a Central Park zookeeper, to Charlie (Guy Kibbee), the beat cop who’s walked the park for his entire career. “People have even stopped trying to commit suicide around here,” he marvels. Maybe so, but there’s plenty to keep a guy like Charlie occupied, and only a slim chance he’d be able to see it clearly. You see, Charlie, one week away from getting his pension and retiring, is losing his eyesight, a fact he’d like to keep quiet from his superiors so he can finish out his week on the zoo beat without incident. He bumps into Dot (Joan Blondell) sitting alone on a park bridge and, perhaps with the reason of experience, assumes the worst. But it turns out Dot, a jobless drifter looking for a lucky break that’ll land her on the stage, is just waiting and hoping to reconnect with Rick (Wallace Ford), an unemployed rodeo rider from Arizona whom she met while both were drooling over hot dogs at a parkside diner which neither could afford. (While the owner argues with Rick about loitering, Dot slips in and lifts a frank for herself and this guy who she correctly figures is as desperate as she is.)

Dot gets involved with some shady gangsters claiming to be cops who rope her into a scheme where she’ll pretend to be the winner of a Fifth Avenue’s Most Beautiful Girl Contest, a fund-raiser for the city’s unemployed. Dot doesn’t know it, but she’ll literally be holding the key to the gangsters being able to bust into the locked box where the donations are kept and make off with the dough.

Meanwhile, ex-zookeeper and diagnosed lunatic Smiley (John Wray) has escaped from the “booby hatch” where he was committed a year earlier after exploding and slashing a fellow zookeeper who he observed not being kind enough to the caged animals. One colleague describes him has having an unusually friendly, perhaps even romantic attachment to the wild cats—“Only last week (Smiley) sent the black leopard a box of chocolates!”

The gangsters spot Rick talking to Dot and, assuming he’s somebody—maybe even a cop—who might interfere in their completing the scheme, kidnap him in an attempt to keep him out of the way. “If that mug tries to start anything,” the thug assigned to watch over the bound-up Rick assures the big boss, “I’ll spill him all over the rug.” You will not be surprised to find out it doesn’t turn out that way.

Achtung, pre-Code fetishists! Back at the zoo, the twirly-eyed Smiley shows up to exact a spectacularly gruesome demise for the zookeeper he tried to take out a year earlier. Smiley is spotted by the half-blind Charlie, who has stopped by the wild animal display to play with a new litter of tiger cubs, but Charlie, unable to see him clearly enough, mistakes him for someone else, allowing Smiley the opportunity to grab his cranky ex-colleague nemesis and drag him toward the lion cage…

Did I mention the mad lion that goes on a rampage through Central Park and a particularly unlucky nightclub soiree?


Central Park is packed to the rafters with wild dramatic developments like these and more, and there’s even room for the set-bound production to wedge in some stock footage of the actual park the way it looked during the time of shooting. That includes a spectacular (and spectacularly wobbly) aerial shot over the expanse of NYC’s biggest, lushest playground which opens the picture, leading to an opening montage of all the things you might have seen in the park at the time, including joggers, horse riders, buggy riders, bums practicing opera on a park bench, lovers lounging in a floating boat, and even a herd of sheep being guided across the lawns to God knows where.

The movie is a ton of fun as it spills out wild development after wild development, but the real charm of Central Park, however, lies in the talents of its players. Ford is a serviceable nice guy who manages to eke out some bona fide personality, despite the screenplay’s routine conception of his character, and he does find a way to put the lassoing skills of an ex-rodeo rider to use. Kibbee is a character actor who ought to be well familiar to fans who claim some experience with pre-Code Hollywood cinema (Taxi, 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933, anyone?), and he’s genuinely touching as Charlie, a sincere public servant who discovers that fate has a way of messing with the best-laid of retirement plans.


And though she is but part of the ensemble approach to storytelling that characterizes Central Park, this movie belongs to Joan Blondell’s wit and her inescapable eyes, which more often than not would tell the story of her character even if she wasn’t so deft with the wisecracks and sarcasm the writers supply to her. I’m always somewhat taken aback when I realize that Blondell, so good in so many crackling comedies and dramas of the period, never became the leading star she seemed destined to become, using movies like Central Park as a springboard. (See 1933’s Blondie Johnson, if you ever get the chance, to experience Blondell stretch her range and knock one out of the park.) No doubt she had great longevity and a prolific career as a character actress, but the way she wraps the audience around her finger in Central Park makes one think about the alternate universe in which she might have landed the sort of roles that would have put her in the same league with Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur, a starscape in which she surely would have been one of the brightest constellations. As it worked out in reality, at least we have her in this movie, and in many others better and worse. Blondell is a treasure no matter where you see her, but Central Park is one of her shiniest jewels.

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Central Park is as yet unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray, though it would seem a perfect candidate for resurrection through the good graces of the Warner Archives. But it does show up on TCM occasionally, and when next it does you would be well-advised to have either your eyeballs or your DVR at the ready. Or you could go knocking on the door of the Library of Congress, which holds a nitrate print of the movie in its vast collection, one which might hopefully be the source of a possible physical media release sometime in the near future. 

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

THE 2019 MURIEL AWARDS HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES



Pop quiz: A science fiction landmark; a beloved classic rescued from obscurity by public television; two screwball comedies directed by the same Hollywood master 15 years apart; an almost ethereally beautiful western; an apocalyptic sociopolitical parable; a disemboweled silent epic; two gorgeous and epically scaled tales both taking place where politics, social upheaval and romance converge; a nearly unparalleled humanist drama; a hugely influential surrealist fantasy/romance; and two of the greatest horror films ever made-- What do all of these films share in common?

Answer: They’re all inductees into the 2019 Muriel Awards Hall of Fame. 

The Muriel Awards, a group of critics and writers gathered together by Mssrs. Paul Clark and Steve Carlson some 14 years ago (I have proudly been among their number since the beginning), have been voting on the year’s best since 2006, and since 2013 our august number has been compiling inductees for our own hall of fame. This year the 100th film was inducted, making for a very robust list of must-see movies, all with links to the various pieces that have been written about them over the past five years in the name of Muriel, Mr. Clark’s beloved and long-deceased guinea pig. Muriel’s only requirement-- each inductee must be at least 50 years old.

And this year’s inductees are a grand bunch indeed. As I do annually, I’ve again gathered up all the films we ushered in for the class of 2019 and provided links to each of the individual pieces, along with a tantalizing tidbit from each writer’s essay, as an inducement for you, Dear Reader, to follow along and get acquainted with what Muriel thinks are some of the greatest movies in the history of the medium. Especially good, I think, are the pieces submitted by Odie Henderson (Bringing Up Baby), George Wu (Weekend), Sam Juliano (Greed) and Paul Clark himself (The Leopard). But this year the standout among all of them is Christianne Benedict’s eloquent and deeply personal response to the horror masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. It’s a must-read.

So let’s get started with Mr. Clark’s introduction to the Muriels HOF Class of 2019, and then if you keep a-scrollin’ you’ll find those links and tidbits I talked about. Enjoy, and if perchance there’s a movie or two on this list, or on the greater list of all the inductees which you have yet to see, do yourself a favor—stop reading, start seeking out those movies, and watch them as soon as you can. A world of great cinema awaits. And now, on with the show, in alphabetical order:


 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946; Jean Cocteau) “The Beast wears glittering fineries, shot by Henri Alékan in inky blacks and luminous whites. His castle is a dreamland of surrealist effects work. Disembodied hands grip candles in its hallways; reversed footage and slow motion render bodies uncanny. The decor, like its master, is achingly vulnerable. Little else in film fantasy is as seductive as Cocteau's sui generis fairy tale.” (Alice Stoehr)

 

BRINGING UP BABY (1938; Howard Hawks) “The comedic impulse in Bringing Up Baby frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict, and Hepburn and Grant practically drown in conflict. Much of the humor stems from Grant’s exasperated response to whatever fresh Hell Hepburn tosses at him. Susan Vance is one of Hepburn’s most daring performances—she’s as exhausting and demanding as the slapstick in a Tex Avery cartoon. If viewers aren’t on the screwball level Hawks’ direction demands, Vance can be extremely off-putting, which might explain the original box office numbers. Yet several decades later, Bringing Up Baby has deservedly earned vindication: it appears on multiple AFI lists and has been designated a classic of its genre. In addition to ‘going gay all of a sudden’ thanks to Hepburn’s lingerie, Grant also engages his acrobatic talent for pratfalls and double-takes. Hepburn proves equally adept and limber with the verbal humor scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Both actors alternate as the straight man in their comedic duo, and their flexibility is just one of the numerous, impressive feats performed by this bonkers contraption of a movie.” (Odie Henderson)

 

CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1945; Marcel Carne) “The epics by their nature become absorbed into the subconscious. They are part of the artistic world around us for long enough that their influence becomes something elemental, and the legacy supersedes the actual work. But here, not so. To fall under its spell is a phenomenon one never becomes immune to.” (Jason Shawhan)

 

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960; George Franju) “Certainly, continental directors spent a fair amount of time and energy making rip-offs of the film in the 1960s. The Spanish exploitation director, Jess Franco parlayed his own rip-off of Eyes Without a Face into a series of films about ‘The Awful Dr. Orloff.’ It borrows the plot and echoes the alternate title, but misses the poetry. It’s the poetry of Eyes Without a Face that lingers long after the bruise of its initial impact has faded. Its later imitators are more rarified (most famously, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky). But even these are grasping after a phantom, an ineffable otherness that haunts the images in Franju’s film that cannot be replicated.” (Christianne Benedict)

 

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953; Howard Hawks) “Much has been written by ‘Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,’ the transcendent Monroe number with the star in an iconic pink dress surrounded by suitors under her spell. Many stars have paid homage to this glorious sequence, with Madonna's clever ‘Material Girl’ video perhaps the most memorable. Equally fun and vibrant is Jane Russell's hilarious ‘Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?’ which has her playfully delivering sports-punny lyrics about needing some affection while the aforementioned stoic jocks, dressed in nothing but their flesh-colored briefs, perform impressive gymnastics routines around her. Oh, what naughtiness do they get away with here!” (Brian Wilson)

 

GREED (1924; Erich von Stroheim) "No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss. Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention. Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging. Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8½ hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere. When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3¼ hours. Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2¼, as it survives to this day. It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.” (Sam Juliano)


 

IKIRU (1952; Akira Kurosawa) “But the way Kurosawa approaches the dead man fills us with hope all the same. Maybe it’s the feeling deep inside all of us that we’ll be forgotten, or that we’re not living the lives we should. It’s nice to think that one last act might redeem us, but is that really the truth? Kurosawa has the perfect answer for that: the kids laughing and playing in the park Watanabe made possible. Their energy escaping into the air, filling the screen – it’s the breath of life itself.” (Jaime Grijalba)

 

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946; Frank Capra) “In the face of a lost bank deposit and the possibility of financial ruin, it is spiritual forces and what-ifs that reset Bailey to recall a truth he used to hold sacred: it is through human kindness that life is made worth living, not money. Yet, one cannot ignore that ultimately money does play an integral role in reviving Bailey into seeing his future: individuals touched by Bailey’s caring hand raise high their hard-earned dollars to save the fate of his loan office. Constant selfless acts add to Bailey’s list of reasons to live but, in a scene of original crowd funding, he is upheld through the kindness of others waving the power of the almighty dollar.” (Donna Kozloskie)


 

THE LEOPARD (1963; Luchino Visconti) “One of the most celebrated period dramas in cinematic history, and for good reason – every set, every prop, every stitch of clothing looks and feels impeccable. What distinguishes Visconti’s film, adapted from a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, from so many other films like it is that the settings and costumes don’t seem glamourous or lush. Indeed, everything feels a little worn, as if one might pick up a random candlestick to find a discolored patch underneath, the tablecloth faded from too much sunlight and dust over the years. This is very much in keeping with the tale the film has to tell, that of an aging Prince in the autumn of his days, on the cusp of outliving the society he’s belonged to since before he was born.” (Paul Clark)


 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968; George A. Romero) “It's a destabilized film for and from a destabilized time, a work of narrative art in which the narrative is a series of shock waves meant to wreck the audience's sense of expectation. And within those shock waves lies its suffocating sense of dread, the mounting panic that stems from its eventual succumbing to the sense that everything is wrong and nothing will be okay. Cutting through the accumulated detritus around the film to find its core, this is the elemental truth to be found there - Night of the Living Dead works at a level most horror cannot hope to touch because, for any number of reasons relating to the time and place it was made, it posits a future where Nothing Will Be Okay.” (Steve Carlson)


 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968; Sergio Leone) “The stationmaster points the way toward the main street where she’ll catch a coach to take her to her new home, and as she and the station workers make their way toward the front door, the camera elevates toward the roof, Morricone’s beautiful music swelling in anticipation. That swelling builds to a perfectly choreographed moment, cresting precisely as Delli Colli’s camera lofts over the station roof to a grandiose wide shot of Jill making her way through the bustling main street and into a new world that will entirely justify the vaulting melancholy of Morricone’s theme. I have not been able to watch this passage as an adult without bursting into tears. When I hear cinephiles (especially young cinephiles) proclaim this moment as one of the greatest in all cinema, I quietly roll my eyes—yes, but how much have they really seen? And then I see the sequence and the movie again and think, if they’re not right, then at least they’re damned close.” (Dennis Cozzalio)


 

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968; Stanley Kubrick) “Everything about it feels enormous, demanding the biggest screen available. A single edit spans millions of years, suggesting a story about the entire history of the human race, or at least a topic as broad as ‘man's use of tools.’ Yet it ends intimately, with one man alone inside the vastness of space, of time, of his mind. Maybe. I'm not sure. Luckily you don't have to be able to follow 2001 to feel it deeply. There doesn't seem to be a shelf date on the potency of pure cinema.” (Vern)

 

WEEKEND (1968; Jean-Luc Godard) “The movie is essentially a road trip delving into the hearts of darkness 12 years before Apocalypse Now with Weekend's forest dwelling revolutionary cannibals and animal slaughter. The latter portions of the film will divide most viewers as Godard foregrounds political polemics while becoming ever more abstract. The New Wave Godard finally disappears and the radical, militant Godard of his next period emerges. Though Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu's underrated and far more apolitical Happy End has a few similarities, there's nothing else in cinema quite like Weekend. It's Godard's caustic outburst culminating eight of the most fruitful years by any creative force in film history. (George Wu)

And the wrap-up, the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2019 FIN DU CINEMA(tic masterpieces) (for this year anyway).

The Class of 2020 awaits. See you next year!

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Sunday, August 04, 2019

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD


(The following piece isn’t so much a review as a gathering of thoughts and observations about that new movie everyone is talking about and can’t seem to stop talking about. As such, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the film and already knows what it is to which the writer-director is building and is no respecter of spoilers in talking about what happens in and around the controversial ending. So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet and would like to keep certain surprises intact, best to stop reading now and come back to this one later.)

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There’s plenty to enjoy about the leisurely pace that characterizes Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, and in the anticipation leading up to its release it was wonderful to consider getting excited about a big summer movie that wasn’t a special-effects extravaganza directed by a sitcom director or some other techie dude you’ve never heard of. Tarantino’s new movie cruises with luxury through a reimagined Los Angeles during the infamous American summer of 1969, not so much telling the story but observing the story of a TV star (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stunt double/best friend (Brad Pitt), both riding the down-crest of a changing business which is forcing them to confront their own obsolescence, the multiple ways in which they can’t seem to fit in to a world dissolving and rearranging without warning. That’s a fascinating subject, and one you would think would be enough to engage the writer-director on its own, one which fits in well with the unbothered Southern California vibe that makes OUATI…H feel like no other movie out there.
But there’s more. By now you of course know that Tarantino’s movie is populated by another drifting spirit, that of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie); known at this point in Hollywood history primarily as one of the characters (“The one who makes dirty movies”) in Valley of the Dolls (1967), Tarantino sees her as both the symbol of the last gasp of Hollywood the way it was and, of course, the sacrificial lamb whose awful fate forever marked a shift in popular culture and the end of a public perception of “hippies” as exclusively motivated by peace, love and understanding. OUATI…H attempts to unify its threads— aging Hollywood, ageless Hollywood, and a Hollywood symbol that would never get to age— by grafting and intertwining the fates of Tarantino’s TV cowboys with that of Tate and her houseguests on that infamous night in August 1969 in one of his now-patented alternate-reality fantasies.
I won’t explain just how, but in QT’s version it turns out that Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins head up a different driveway on Cielo Drive, and the director leads us along the path of another what-if scenario involving another horrendous moment in history. But, as film critic Odie Henderson observed in his comments on the film last week, “Melanie Laurent’s target was Hitler. Jamie Fox’s target was the institution of slavery. Brad Pitt’s target is a quartet of hippies who BY SHEER LUCK come to Leo’s house instead of Roman Polanski’s.” 
This is the crux of the disappointment of the movie for me— in the end, what the movie had been building toward has no real weight. It’s played to a certain degree as a farce of inept murderousness, and more disturbingly as a gruesome whack at a counterculture movement that is solely represented by the blank stares of the Manson Family. By the time the movie makes it to the canyon, its attempt to provide an alternative to the horror that ended up earmarking a huge cultural shift feels callow, grafted on, essentially unexplored. Does it all really come down to Rick maybe getting a part in Polanski’s new movie? I hadn’t thought about it until Henderson mentioned it, but the real meat of the movie— the creeping uselessness and pressure of being phased out of an era that Rick and Cliff feel— is a big, juicy hamburger of a movie right there, and Tarantino has enough at stake in it that it could have been compelling on its own. 

But the Manson/Sharon Tate reimagining stuff gives the movie a misshapen rhythm, a top-heavy structure that doesn’t build, that keeps the movie from ever truly catching fire the way Inglourious Basterds did. Even the buildup to that fateful night, with the sudden pile-on of narration, seems rushed and indifferently structured, and it pushes the movie away from the tighter, more slyly observant character study that seems to be dwelling inside all of its longueurs. (Is there anyone left who can say “no” to QT? Not the editor of his last three pictures, that’s for sure.) 
Tate/Robbie has a lovely moment in the middle of the movie where she delights at herself, and in the audience’s reaction, during a Westwood screening of The Wrecking Crew (1968),  a Dean Martin/Matt Helm star vehicle in which she had a small role. But that time spent with Tate really comes to nothing because even QT is uninterested in her as anything but an icon. The ending has a certain wistfulness for the fragility of how unpredictably paths can fragment, but no real emotional thrust, other than that generated by the at least partially comic charge one might get from seeing Tex Watson’s crotch get consumed by the world’s coolest pit bull, Susan Atkins get incinerated, or Patricia Krenwinkel’s face get mashed to pulp on a fireplace mantel. 
The movie left me with the feeling that QT is no longer capable of making a movie that doesn’t feature grotesque violence— he’s too in love with the shock effects (something Cronenberg had also always been accused of, but certainly with less reason, I think) and seems to think those shocks are what people really love his movies for. There’s too much else in his films to counter that, though, and I left OUATI…H mournful that there is no catharsis in Tarantino’s concept this time around, that Sharon Tate and the other victims (including the La Bianca’s) didn’t deserve either their awful fates or this audience-pleasing alternate take, and that had QT taken the time to shape his real subject and jettison the fantasy this might actually have been the movie some of the rapturous reviews are claiming it is.
In this movie of the moment, my favorite moment is largely a throwaway. Brad Pitt prepares for a physical confrontation with a supremely arrogant Bruce Lee (QT has taken heat for this scene). He sits up upon a metal table, and as he get readies to rise up, he sets the tiny, school-size half-pint carton of milk he’s been sipping on down on the table surface, and the carton, which couldn’t weigh more than a couple ounces, makes a loud, mysterious and very funny metallic “clonk” as it makes contact with the table surface. I laughed my ass off, and I don’t think anyone else did. This is not the sort of highlight around which to build a 160-minute movie, but I’m glad it’s there, and the director’s fascination with long scenes that seemingly go nowhere, or at least take a while to go where you would expect them to, at least make room for several more amusements like this one. Somebody said that the movie felt like it was made up of a lot of DVD deleted scenes that you’d normally have to access as a separate bit of value-added material, and I did appreciate the fact that the movie wasn’t in a hurry to mosey on down its road. I think maybe that’s another reason why when the movie careens into another Hateful Eight-style wallow in ultra-violence, it felt especially off-putting to me.
Maybe the best, most haunting moment in the movie is Tarantino’s dusk-side mini-tour of several recognizable neon signs in Los Angeles popping on in the dimming light of that fateful evening, a sweet observance given a grim patina of dread. And one great thing about all those cruising around LA scenes, besides observing all the detail that went into recreating the landmarks of the period is the fantastic soundscape of old jingles and authentic broadcast ported in from the golden past of LA radio station KHJ and its signature voice, that of Robert W. Morgan, who in OUATI...H functions similarly to the way Wolfman Jack did in American Graffiti. 
And of course, the rest of QT’s soundtrack makes for much fun, though it’s not quite up to some of his past collage-of-obscure-hits efforts. For instance, he uses The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon” to underline the unsettling image of the Manson Girls— unfortunately, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale beat QT to this particular sickening punch, and I think to greater effect. And really, the director’s use of the Rolling Stone’s “Out of Time” over images of a pregnant Sharon Tate innocently preparing for what, in the real world, would be her final night, is distractingly on-the-nose, and unusually so for a sly repurposer of pop culture such as Tarantino. 
But I am grateful that, of all the pop hits and marginal wonders that might’ve surfaced in this movie’s wake, a renewed life seems to have been given to Bob Seger’s completely awesome "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," which is heard on the radio of Pitt’s yellow Caddy as it meanders its way through a Los Angeles that was and may never have been. I heard it myself on the radio in my car today, and for four-and-a-half minutes I felt I was riding along with Pitt, contemplating personal and career extinction in the sunniest way possible, in the alternate reality movie I wish Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood had turned out to be.

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