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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

FRANCOFNIA (2015)

Regrettable. After the art-house meditations and tour-de-force one-take pyrotechnics of Aleksandr Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK/’02 became an unlikely commercial hit, it was inevitable that his eccentric guided tour of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum would attempt replication at another world-famous museum. It took a while, but here we are, winding thru the galleries and history of the Louvre, with special focus on the strange pas de deux between French museum director Jacques Jaujard and German Officer Franz Wolff-Metternich. Together, they formed an improbable alliance that saved nearly the entire museum collection during the Nazi Occupation. A phenomenal story, but poorly served in this misguided essay film which is all deep-think Sokurov digressions, punctuated with stiff historical re-enactments that might have come from some lost History Channel docu-drama. Near self-parody for Sokurov, with awards & acclaim auto-response for past achievements. To get the real improbable story, look elsewhere . . . elsewhere on the same disc, since planted in the Extras is a moving & imaginative knockout of a documentary, THE MAN WHO SAVED THE LOUVRE/’14, that does it justice.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, THE MAN WHO SAVED THE LOUVRE. OR: Two different takes on the near loss of French Art Collections during the Occupation: From Volker Schlöndorff in DIPLOMACY/’14 (not seen here) and from John Frankenheimer in the action-oriented THE TRAIN/’64 with Burt Lancaster going up against Paul Scofield.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

You don’t expect a ‘60s Civil Rights drama (with a side order of feminism) to resonate in such a contemporary way. Yet this pleasingly unexceptional film does just that. (At the same time, along with this year’s FENCES and LOVING, also giving a swift kick in the pants to clueless commentators blathering on about today’s ‘worse then ever’ racial attitudes.) A fact-inspired story about the largely unsung Black female math specialists who worked for the early space program in Virginia under conditions of strict segregation both within and without the base. The story, cleverly structured to show how the walls broke down on different schedules inside & out, focuses on three remarkable gal pals, one hoping to move up to engineering, one in charge of a staff of ‘computer girls,’ and Taraji P. Henson in the glamour spot as the natural talent too gifted to be held back from the theoretical math of space flight programming. In a story arc as predictable & comforting as your Great Aunt’s holiday dinner, the emphasis on Henson is a bit of a misstep, since the strongest drama comes out of the introduction of an IBM MainFrame computer and its galvanizing effect on Octavia Spencer & her staff of possibly obsolete computer girls* which gets shortchanged. Director Theodore Melfi fights off a few rookie missteps (a blackboard POV shot?), but also has the smarts to find a lifetime of injustice in the simple juxtaposition of ‘separate-but-equal’ coffee percolators. (Though how much better if he hadn’t pointed it out to us.) And the vivid KodaChrome look of the exteriors makes for a nice period touch.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Who cast the lean-faced, thick-haired John Glenn? Balding men of America demand an answer!

DOUBLE-BILL: No Blacks and No NASA Women, but Philip Kaufman’s Mercury Space Program epic, THE RIGHT STUFF (which includes a properly hair-challenged Glenn) just keeps looking better & better. OR: *For a cautionary comedy on IBM MainFrame computers, try Tracy & Hepburn in DESK SET/’57.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

DRAGONWYCK (1946)

Writing, and then producing since the Talkie transition, Joseph Mankiewicz finally made his directing debut with this slice of Gothic hooey. A mash-up of JANE EYRE, REBECCA and GASLIGHT, it made an odd choice for a Hollywood literary sophisticate. Set in 1830s New York State, a backstory has independent tenant farmers breaking away from Vincent Price’s land baron, while its front story gives Price a rare romantic lead, falling hard for Gene Tierney, his invalid wife’s beautiful companion. Passion, poison, scandal, a new heir, a progressive country doctor with bedroom eyes to match his bedside manner, it all goes exactly as you expect. If only there was a bit of swing to the presentation; or if it had more fun running the course. Mankiewicz, always a bit stiff shooting his own scripts, gets a handsome look from ace lenser Arthur Miller (interiors at Tierney’s parents’ might be out-takes from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41), but plot holes & disappearing characters take a toll. So too Price in the sort of role James Mason, Anton Walbrook & Charles Boyer all but owned at the time.* Ersatz Gothic has its place, but this one isn’t a convincing fake.

DOUBLE-BILL: Whether called ANGEL STREET or GASLIGHT, Walbrook (in London), Boyer (in Hollywood) and Price (on B’way) all took a turn at the sadistic romantic cad who drives his young bride to the brink of madness. But to see what Price misses here, look to James Mason’s breakout perf in THE MAN IN GREY/’43.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film’s missing producer was the ailing Ernst Lubitsch who assigned the project to Mank as director, but removed his own name after disagreements. No one is quite sure why as Mank adored Lubitsch. Best guess is that Tierney, who Lubitsch did wonders with in HEAVEN CAN WAIT/’43, was made to play her gauche outsider with such polished elegance, the film’s dramatic structure collapsed. (Next year, Mankiewicz would make a spectacular course correction with Tierney on THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

ÉTAT DE SIÈGE / STATE OF SIEGE (1972)

Hard on the heels of Z/’69 and THE CONFESSION/’70, the third political thriller with Costa-Gavras directing Yves Montand never found the high profile of the previous two. Perhaps its fictionalized, fact-based story is too balanced, finding compromised principles on all sides. Montand plays an American agent-in-plain-sight, a 'not-quite CIA' specialist in organizing police & military tactics to take down left-wing radicals for ‘friendly’ right-wing dictatorships. Kidnapped by one of these groups, Montand clams up on particulars and defends his work in long discussions with his abductors. On the outside, Costa-Gavras shows the government controlling news coverage and detectives closing in on rebels. It’s well put together, yet somehow lacks urgency & immediacy. A new writer, a new lenser, and a decision to show the outcome at the start all may have played a part, too. Then again, Costa-Gavras never quite recaptured his initial spark in any of his later works. (And, no, we're not forgetting MISSING/'82.) Avoid disappointment, watch the three in reverse order.

DOUBLE-BILL: As noted, Z and THE CONFESSION. Costa-Gavras was stuck with the Big Issue label for so much of his career, an intriguing black comedy like THE AX/’05 never even showed up Stateside. Good luck finding it! And if you do, tell us about it.

Friday, January 13, 2017

LA TÊTE HAUTE / STANDING TALL (2015)

The main reason to watch this film about an incorrigible teen delinquent (scotch that: the only reason) comes in seeing the inner workings of France’s remarkably generous (scotch that: remarkably indulgent) Juvenile Justice System. Do out-of-control Gallic teen menaces really get this level of financial support; one-on-one ‘client’ attention; second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth) chances; massage therapy(!); entry-level job placement; birthday picnics and scenic countryside bungalows? Sign me up! Writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot, who made a decent showing with Catherine Deneuve in the middle-age Road Pic ON MY WAY/’13, really comes a cropper on their second collaboration with Deneuve as Juvie Judge to Rod Paradot’s teenage bad boy. Fatherless, with a barely functioning mom, he’s been ‘acting out’ since he was a tyke. Now 16, with escalating criminal offenses, he’s sent thru a series of facilities in an effort to turn his life around before he hits his majority. The path includes a brief jail term in hopes of jolting him into life’s consequences, with a trail of worn out teachers, jailers & case workers along the way. ((We’re told he’s a really smart kid with potential, but Bercot doesn’t show it.) Finally, the needle moves after a careless car crash that nearly kills his kid brother; a vicious kick to a sympathetic seven months pregnant counselor; a ‘successful’ date rape that turns into tru-love*; and fatherhood @ 17. All quite bizarrely offered as positive events that knock some sense into him. Really? Once the credits roll, chances are this guy deserts wife, infant son, brother and even the mom he weeps for, in about two months. (Scotch that: two weeks.) As the self-destructive juvie, Paradot gives the sort of hyped-up self-lacerating perf that calls attention to itself and earns hyped-up award buzz. Deneuve is fine as the patient, redoubtable judge; better yet, Benoît Magimel as a harried, but sympathetic counselor who appears to have just one case on his docket.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Selected to open Cannes 2015 . . . which says much about the film & about Cannes.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *You got that right, Bercot presents teenage date rape as a character builder.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The Brothers Dardenne do much better with a similar story in THE KID WITH A BIKE/’11.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

6 DONNE PER L’ASSASSINO / BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)

Visually strong, if typically frustrating, Italian Horror from maestro meggger Mario Bava, brimming over with indelible images in lurid EastmanColor as a half dozen curvaceous models at an exclusive Fashion Salon fall victim to a masked serial killer. The film gets cited as the start of the ‘Giallo’ tradition (a specialized Italian strain of gory thrillers), but there’s not a bared breast in sight. Instead, Bava, riding on the downdraft of '50s/'60s Italian cinema, where high standards mirrored the rise & fall of Italy's post-WWII ‘Il Boom’ economy, runs the show along the lines of the country's pervading solid, shared film technique. He even manages to get some decent acting out of his chic models, and from the film’s Hollywood ringer, Cameron Mitchell. One image of a freshly drowned model, shot from under the water, with blue, blue eyes and red, red lipstick is alone worth the price of admission. But the story! The script! Low priority stuff for Bava. 'Bad things happen' is about as far we get. (Even with a near quote out of, of all things, DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44.) As emotion, as narrative, he’s always running on empty. How he gets as far as he does without gas is a credit to his craft, and what ultimately limits him.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Perhaps Bava is better served in anthology films like BLACK SABBATH/’63 where each narrative only has to support about a half hour of screen time.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Bava went to some trouble to have his multinational cast speak (or rather ‘mouth’) in English for a more convincing ‘dub.’ Even so, the film plays best in Italian. But lookout!; one of the submenus on an otherwise excellent VCI DVD has the Italian track marked as French . . . and vice versa.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE / EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

Fascinating, and phenomenally effective, a culture clash in the Amazon Jungle inspired by the diaries of two European researchers who came to the forest decades apart, helped by the same Native shaman. Columbian writer/director Ciro Guerra structures the film in parallel paths 40 years apart, cutting back & forth without confusion between early and mid-20th century action. The earlier sequences begin as a desperately ill German explorer (and his native guide, rescued from the horrors of rubber plantation work) seek out young shaman Karamakate in hopes of finding a cure. Believing himself the last of his tribe and living in isolation, Karamakate can only offer temporary relief, but agrees to go with them to find a special plant & permanent cure when told that members of his tribe still exist far up the river. Intercut with this journey, another European researcher comes to find the healing plant that may (or may not) have been found 40 years ago. Remarkably, he’s helped by the same shaman, still isolated, now forty years older and with a fragile memory. Two journeys, equally thrilling & mysterious, Tribal in outlook rather than Euro-Centric. Amid the wonder & terror, a pair of encounters across the decades with hidden Christian societies are particular standouts, both harrowing cinematic achievements and conceptually challenging. Eventually, when the medicine is found, Guerra switches from the film’s rapturous WideScreen monochrome*to indulge in a bit of ‘60s psychedelia, a Light Show display that’s a little too 2001: Jupiter and Beyond for its own good, but you’ll be too far gone to take exception. Riveting stuff that puts the kibosh on many a better known film covering similar subjects. Oscar® nominated for Foreign Language pic, rightly so.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Photographers have largely made peace with digital formats, but still swear by old-fashioned chemical processing & celluloid film stock for Black & White. See why here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

STAR TREK BEYOND (2016)

Even those who don’t give a fig about STAR TREK (and siblings), may shake their collective heads at the sheer ordinaryness of this generic, action-packed space adventure. Director Justin Lin, of the FAST AND FURIOUS series, has unsurprisingly made a FAST AND FURIOUS STAR TREK movie. Précis: A distress call from a far off planet sends the Enterprise into a trap, Phase One of a colossal act of planetary revenge & destruction. This should fit nicely into the old Gene Roddenberry STAR TREK formula: Intergalactic physical threat? Check! Menace with a philosophic note? Check! Maybe too much for our crew to handle? Check! But the filmmaking response is scuttled, along with the Enterprise, in an overload of eye-catching, but baffling effects-driven CGI battles that might fit any space epic: STAR TREK: The Video Game. Dramatically, we need some kind of inadequate defensive action from our motley crew before they are forced to take up arms against a doom-laden ticking clock. Off they go on offense with an ad-hoc paradoxical blend of Mr. Spock’s logic & Capt. Kirk’s instinct. And if ship doctor ‘Bones’ gets involved, a dash or two of emotion. The film sings the template, but misses the tune; and the only emotion comes from a pair of dedications in the end credits.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Not sure why, but Korea turned out the best poster. Maybe because after decades of indifference, the series has started catching on overseas just as it slips Stateside.

DOUBLE-BILL: And STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, the latest series, due out soon.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016)

After something of a hiatus back in the ‘90s, John Le Carré adaptations are once again regular events. But this one, coming on the heels of the well-received NIGHT MANAGER mini-series, got overlooked. And though it’s not hard to see why, Le Carré-heads, willing to make allowances, may be pleasantly surprised. The solid idea tracks a brash Russian cash manipulator (Stellan Skarsgård) based in Morocco and worried that his dealing days are numbered. Trying to flip a last deal into a one-way ticket out for him & his family as defectors, he’s reeling in the usual super-rich Russian oligarch as leverage along with a high-ranking British politician attached to the same venal line of credit. But the only British agent biting is Damien Lewis, currently on the outs at the Home Office. Skarsgård will have to complete the delicate deal ‘on spec,’ without getting any assurances. (And with no idea that Lewis is working without authority.) The big gimmick (and miscue) on the thing, is the needless addition of an innocent married couple (Naomie Harris & Ewan McGregor), tourists who become go-betweens. It’s a MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH formation, naive couple drawn into deadly international conspiracy. But where Hitchcock sold an unlikely situation by having the couple’s son kidnapped, Le Carré has no equivalent mechanism to help us buy into the scheme. Altruism certainly doesn’t cut it. A shame because, in spite of director Susanna White overloaded artifice (she sure is fond of shooting reflections!), the corrupting influence of Russian money could hardly be more timely, and the cast is all you could wish for. Ms. Harris, in particular, is quite the find, and McGregor, looking considerably older, is suddenly a gripping camera subject. Of course, they might have given Harris & McGregor a kid and had it kidnapped . . . nah.

DOUBLE-BILL: With NIGHT MANAGER doing so well, a mini-series remake of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is in the works for next year.