Saturday, February 28, 2009

The River: Renoir's Pre-Bollywood Masterpiece

By Steve Evans
“The river runs, the round world spins. Dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon. Sun follows day; night, stars and moon.” ~ From the closing narration.

Master director Jean Renoir shot The River (1951), his first color film, on location in India. It is a gentle coming-of-age tale set during the waning years of the British Raj. Criterion presents a meticulous restoration of this glorious Technicolor film in a flawless digital transfer with an elegant package of extra features befitting a classic. The results are sublime.

And now for a bit of plot…
Le Fleuve (The River) unfolds through the eyes of Harriet (Patricia Walters), a quiet but wildly imaginative English teenager living with her family in the 1920s near the lush, green banks of the holy Bengal River. Like the river itself, the film flows at a leisurely pace as Harriet spends her days composing poetry and observing exotic Indian life over the garden wall surrounding the family home. She follows the daily rituals of the fishermen and workers at the jute factory managed by her father. Harriet enjoys happy afternoons with her friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri, below, right, now best remembered as the hapless wife of writer Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange, a role she would play 20 years later). The girls indulge in make-believe, in the fanciful world of adolescence, narrated with poetic grace by a grown Harriet (voiceover by June Hillman) recalling her distant childhood. Harriet's older friend Melanie, just returned from school, wants to follow the cultural heritage of her late mother, an Indian who married a British colonial. Gentle housekeeper Nan watches over the girls, dispensing wisdom and superstition in equal measure while insects buzz over the flowers, workers chant on their way home from the factory, and the river flows as it has for centuries.

Into this idyll comes Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) a crippled veteran of an unspecified conflict (presumably World War I), who has rejected civilian life for the reflective culture of India. John comes to live with his widower cousin (Melanie's father) who lives near Harriet's family along the river. Smitten with this handsome, brooding soldier, Harriet delivers an invitation to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, as a ruse to meet him. The retired captain’s quiet charm and brittle vulnerability strike a fanciful chord in the girls' young hearts. Soon Harriet, Valerie, and Melanie are competing for his affections and grappling with their first pangs of love.

With this deceptively simple tableau Renoir offers a compelling look at postcolonial India. Going deeper, he portrays the inevitable conflicts of social classes and, above all, the ineluctable cycle of the human condition—birth, life, love, death—set against the paradox of an ever-flowing river, seen here as both symbol of stability and metaphor for constant change.

Historical significance and context
A lyrical adaptation of Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel, The River is a visual tour de force, deeply affecting and timeless in its multilayered charms. Renoir co-wrote the screenplay with Godden, whose own childhood growing up in India is recounted in a 1995 documentary produced for the BBC, included on this disc.

One of the great measures of the film’s success is Renoir’s dignified treatment of the native Indians, his insistence on authenticity, and his respect for Hindu tradition. The film pays reverential deference to the god Kali, whose eternal cycle of destruction and rebirth is mirrored in the narrative structure of the script, which is concerned with timeless themes of childhood, love, and death.

Prior to the production, Renoir said he wanted to make a film about India that featured neither tigers nor elephants. Renoir was weary of Hollywood’s stereotypical treatment of Indian culture in such admittedly classic adventure films as Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Renoir was going for something different. So he was, perhaps, unsurprised when Hollywood, where he began working in the 1940s, rebuffed the project and refused funding. After turning to independent financial sources, Renoir still failed to sign a major star to anchor the project, as no one was available who could commit to half a year of location work in India. So he began shooting with a cast of unknowns and amateurs, which resulted quite unexpectedly in tight sequences and rapid cutting rhythms. Renoir was a director accustomed to the fluidity of sustained shots and elaborate camera movements. Yet his approach to The River diverged by necessity from his usual working style. Although he was notoriously temperamental, Renoir’s genius still allowed him a degree of flexibility. So with expensive Technicolor film flying through the cameras and inexperienced performers in front of them, Renoir opted for short takes and a mostly stationary camera. One unforeseen consequence of this approach was the relative ease of shooting repeat takes (novice performers would tend to need multiple takes). The result is a masterpiece unlike anything Renoir had done before. Here, the unexpected alchemy of circumstance, material, and personnel imposed adaptation and improvisation on the creative process, forcing the master director to think in different directions. When the artist is challenged, often enough the result is challenging art.

Renoir's unerring eye for image and composition comes with a pedigree. The son of Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, he started directing films during the silent era, occasionally financing his projects by selling off the works of his father, who died in 1919 (Auguste Renoir's The Blue River, above, left). Today Renoir's films are routinely listed among the greatest of all time, chief among them Les Règles du Jeu (Rules of the Game), a masterpiece of social satire that ridicules the French aristocracy on the eve of World War II. Even his lesser films are small miracles of the cinema, such as Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, remade half a century later as Down and Out in Beverly Hills by Renoir devotee Paul Mazursky).

But The River represents a culmination of the themes that preoccupied the great French director throughout his cinematic career—class struggles, social inequities, and an abiding desire for a serene life. In the liner notes accompanying this superb disc, Renoir claims to have found his own inner peace while making the film under challenging conditions. Compounding the difficulties of a location shoot in the Orient with his premiere use of the Technicolor process and a cast of mostly amateurs, The River was also Renoir’s first film in English.

Renoir's nephew Claude produced the luminous Technicolor cinematography. Claude Renoir would go on to frame John Frankenheimer's The French Connection II and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me, but in a 45-year career his work on The River remains unequaled. Here is a film that overwhelms the eyes.

The River is also notable for launching the career of director Satyajit Ray, who was Renoir's assistant on the picture. Now renowned as one of the great auteurs of 20th century cinema, Ray discovered a love of film after meeting Renoir and viewing the Italian classic Bicycle Thieves during a trip to London. Instrumental in the Bollywood movement that elevated India to prominence in world cinema, Ray directed 37 films and received an honorary Academy Award shortly before his death in 1992.

At the risk of tripping into babbling sycophancy, we may need to conjure up some unique superlatives to do justice both to The River and Criterion's expert restoration. Here, as with most of the films in its collection, Criterion continues to amaze. With the participation of the film's editor, George Gale, Criterion utilized a digital restoration system to remove thousands of scratches and particles of dirt and debris from the source materials before undertaking a high-definition transfer of the restored 35mm interpositive print. The film probably hasn’t looked this good since its original theatrical run. Criterion notes that the audio was re-mastered at 24 bits, using digital tools to reduce sound defects. The Dolby 1.0 mono directs almost exclusively to the center speaker when deploying 5.1 sound, although a broader soundstage is evident with two-channel playback, which Criterion recommends. There is real aesthetic pleasure to be had from watching this disc, reviewing the supplemental materials, and reading the accompanying 16-page color booklet filled with detailed liner notes and beautiful images from the film. Truly, this is a first-class presentation from Criterion, a name now synonymous with the absolute reference standard in DVD product.

Extras include a 2004 video interview with Martin Scorsese, who was instrumental in pushing forward the restoration effort through his work with the Film Foundation. Scorsese recalls the impact the film had on him as a nine-year-old boy. He also explores in some detail the techniques Renoir deployed in his quest for authenticity. As always, listening to Scorsese discuss a great film is a pleasure in itself. The video introduction by Renoir affords a rare glimpse of the director, relaxed and speaking with apparent candor about the film and how he came to make it. The footage suggests that Renoir was indeed transformed by his experiences on this project.

This lesser-known classic ranks on the short list of cinematic standards that bloom like a perennial, revealing new wonders with every viewing. The cineastes at Criterion deserve a standing ovation for their enduring commitment to quality backed up by the best DVD product in the business.

Coda
The River flows forever — constant, perpetual, yet ever-changing. To those who immerse themselves in these waters, Renoir’s stirring love letter to India delivers as great a gift as a cinephile could hope to receive from an artist.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Big Christopher Lee Rules ‘City of the Dead’

By Steve Evans

“Scream with guests from the ‘other world’ when you ring for doom service!” ~ From the promotional poster.

City of the Dead delivers old-school shivers while taking a cue from Psycho (1960), released a year earlier, and paving the way for atmospheric horrors to come.

Christopher Lee (The Man With the Golden Gun) leads a coven of New England witches while toiling as a mysterious professor on the other side of the Atlantic. While not in the same league as the gorgeous color productions by Hammer Studios, this tight little black-and-white horror film zips along like a spook on speed to a terrific, fiery climax. Careful viewers will note certain similarities to other horror films of the era, like the aforementioned Hitchcock classic. While the acting and story are ho-hum, the film does fulfill the Joe Bob Briggs doctrine of horror-movie excellence: “Anyone can die at any time.”

Let's check it out, shall we?

A bit of plot…
This horror thriller makes the most of a low budget, avoiding Grand Guignol gore in favor of creepy atmosphere and weird supporting actors.

Christopher Lee stars as the peculiar Professor Driscoll, an expert in the occult at a staid private college in England. With his blessing, spunky student Nan (Venetia Stevenson, Seven Ways from Sundown) leaves college for mid-term break to visit the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where witches were burned at the stake in the 18th century. Professor Driscoll piques her curiosity and even recommends a place for her to stay: at the Raven's Inn. Needing no further encouragement, Nan proposes to research local witchcraft legends for her term paper. She leaves behind a boyfriend and doting brother, both of whom gently mock her interest in black magic. But the men become understandably nervous a few weeks later when Nan fails to check in with her regularly scheduled call. Turns out the sleepy hamlet of Whitewood is crawling with hooded zombies and witches fond of haunting underground passages and indulging in human sacrifice in the gloriously gothic cemetery on the edge of town. Nasty Necromancers.

Historical context
Hot-damn tamale! I do love creaky old black & white horror films, heavy on the gothic atmosphere and ice-cold chills. By turns spooky and sometimes unintentionally amusing, City of the Dead earns a place in the film collections of discriminating horror fans and bad-movie enthusiasts alike. This is not as contradictory as it sounds. The picture is expertly produced, which is admirable given the obviously thin budget. Problem is, Lee is the only star in the picture, while all other actors in this film have long since faded into obscurity. So the thespian talent ranges from superb (Lee) and marginal (most everyone else) down to “we-hired-her-for-the-cheesecake-value” (the gorgeous but otherwise untalented Stevenson, who plays the hapless coed roaming around in remote American towns that even frat boys would avoid). Is it just me, or does the lovely Ms. Stevenson (above, right) possess the neck of a giraffe?

Director John Moxey devoted most of his career to television productions, from early episodes of The Avengers through Charlie's Angels and Murder, She Wrote. This was his first feature film and the static direction occasionally belies his TV origins. This might also be a factor of budgetary limitations. In spite of his thin budget, Moxey suddenly shifts into high gear for one hellzapoppin’ climax, featuring burning crosses and wild, screaming Satanists who meet a crispy demise, like the unlucky lass below.

Here's the good news: the cult-minded folks at VCI have undertaken a complete restoration of the film, now presented uncut for the first time in nearly 50 years. The DVD includes two minutes of missing footage that was hacked out of the U.S. version, which was titled Horror Hotel. I have no qualms about the print, which is crisp, clean and free of annoying pixilation. The transfer is sharp, with deep blacks and no obvious edge enhancement around the 1.66:1 framing. On the downside, audio is soft and occasionally fuzzy. There's no sign of the Dolby Digital logo anywhere on this package.

Horror film enthusiasts might overlook the disappointing audio just to get their hands on a remarkably generous set of extras. Shoddy DVD packages are so common with the horror genre (especially older titles like this) that any release featuring more than a trailer on the extras menu is reason to rejoice. But to come across such a comprehensive set of features as found on this disc is a small miracle of the DVD age. We get two commentary tracks, plus a trailer, a photo gallery of production stills, and cast biographies. There is a telling interview with starlet Stevenson, who reveals she never wanted to be an actor (Stevenson’s latter-day claim to fame was her work as executive producer on Walter Hill’s bad-ass 1981 action-adventure, Southern Comfort). Better still, and possibly the deciding factor in favor of buying this DVD, is a 45-minute interview with the great Christopher Lee himself. However, this leads us straight to a caveat, so don't get wet just yet.

Yeah, that caveat I just mentioned…
If there is any negative criticism to levy on this DVD, it is minor and directed at the interview with Lee on the extras menu. Though admittedly fun, the interview is conducted by a weak reporter who is so in awe of the legendary actor that he cannot (or will not) keep the man focused. Lee rambles at times and tends to come across as a pompous ass. In fairness, he is also a fascinating conversationalist and generous in sharing credit for his many cinematic successes. The main complaint is that a skilled interviewer given almost an hour to chat with a living legend could have extracted significantly more insight and information, rather than allow the man to wander wherever he chooses. This was a missed opportunity.

Coda
Count on a satisfying night of cinematic fright. City of the Dead remains all the more impressive when we realize the production came together on a modest budget using sets in Britain to replicate a New England village, American actors fobbing off English accents and British actors (like Lee) enunciating like Americans. Most of the film is set in a fictional Massachusetts town, although the entire production was filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. Yes, there were many ways this picture could have derailed, but it never jumps the tracks.

Best viewed ‘round midnight, City of the Dead will induce chills and wee-budget thrills. That's pure happiness for discerning horror-film fans who understand what a sweet find this quality disc represents.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Man on Wire Wins Best Documentary

By Steve EvansSeeing this amazing film capture the Documentary Oscar was the best part of slogging through the Academy Awards ceremony last night.

After three hours of pomposity and maudlin sentiment, I enjoyed having the hell surprised out of me when Man on Wire, the adventures of a high-wire daredevil, was announced the winner. In a crowning touch, acrobat-aerialist Phillippe Petit, the impish focus of the film, leaped onstage to snatch the award from producers James Marsh and Simon Chinn. He then balanced the golden Oscar on his head. Bravo!

Man on Wire recounts the outrageous true story of Frenchman Petit, who on Aug. 7, 1974, six days shy of his 25th birthday, stepped out on a wire rigged illegally between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – at the time the world’s tallest buildings. He danced from one end of the 200-foot span to the other and back again eight times, at a height of nearly 1,400 feet above the streets of New York. In photographs, his smile is positively beatific.

At one point, he eased his body onto the wire and laid on his back, staring at the skies. Then Petit stood, knelt on the wire with one knee and offered a cheerful salute to the astonished crowd squinting at him from the streets far below. After more than 45 minutes of this death-defying mischief, Petit returned to the top of the North Tower where he was arrested, hauled off for a psychological evaluation, and taken to jail before he was finally released to a cheering crowd that included a throng of photographers and reporters. Petit became an instant hero in what would be dubbed “the artistic crime of the century.” The stunt itself is nothing short of hypnotic, invoking equal parts terror and awestruck amazement at the pure beauty of the conception. Here is proof positive that the dedicated individual can accomplish any dream. Man on Wire is an inspiration.

The film unfolds like a heist picture. We see the intricate planning Petit and his associates put into the caper, which consumed six and a half years of his life in planning and practice. We see the technical challenges of pulling off this “coup” as Petit calls his dream. He had to come up with a way to bypass World Trade Center security; smuggle the heavy steel cable and rigging equipment into the towers; pass the wire between the two rooftops; anchor the wire and tension it to withstand the high winds and the swaying of the buildings at that heart-stopping height.

During the planning stage Petit had told his associates, "Okay. It's impossible. So let's get to work."

The rigging was done under cover of night in complete secrecy. It almost didn’t happen, as the documentary reveals in a sequence almost as suspenseful as the high-wire act itself.

At 7:15 a.m., Philippe took his first step on the wire 1,350 feet above the sidewalks of Manhattan.

Director James Marsh (below, right) brings Petit’s adventure to vivid life through recent interviews with the daredevil himself, his former lover, and most of the co-conspirators who helped him create the unique spectacle of a man walking between two skyscrapers – seemingly on thin air.

The result is a rich, multilayered story told in flashbacks with brief recreations, through the recollections of the wild-eyed men who pulled it off, and from the perspective of many individuals who witnessed the event. These multiple points of view enhance our appreciation for the sheer audacity of Petit’s high-wire act, which, in his own words, he did for no reason other than to see if it could be done.

“I had always seen the film as a ‘heist’ movie,” Marsh recalls in the film’s press notes. “We soon discovered that there were an amazing group of supporting characters involved in the plot. The testimony of Philippe’s accomplices allowed us to create multiple perspectives on the execution of this criminal enterprise with its many setbacks and conflicts. They had all been waiting 30 years to tell their part of the story….”

Marsh remembers his first meeting with the aerial acrobat and Petit’s opening shot:

“I have the mind of a criminal.”

The director says, “That was the first thing Philippe Petit told me when I met him. He then went on to show me how he could kill a man with a copy of People magazine and, before we parted, he picked my pocket. Here was an extraordinary individual who viewed the world in a unique way. Not least, from heights and views that no other man has ever seen.”

And his motivation?

“…His story is really the oldest story there is,” the director says. “It is the hero going on a journey, or quest, to test himself and achieve a seemingly impossible objective.”

As a teenage wirewalker in France during the 1960s, before the World Trade Center was built, Philippe (as he looks today, at right) learned about the planned construction by reading the French newspapers. He immediately began dreaming a reckless scheme to break into the as yet un-built towers, rig a wire between them and dance on that wire for the delight of pedestrians far below. The dream seemed impossible, a death wish.

We learn that Petit’s motivation was just the opposite, as his former lover Annie shares on camera:“He couldn’t go on living if he didn’t try to conquer those towers…it was as if they had been built specifically for him.”

Today it is almost impossible to imagine a secretive group of French bohemians breezing through JFK airport, their suitcases stocked with shackles, ropes, knives and a bow and arrow, then loitering around a major New York monument with cameras and forged ID cards waiting for a chance to break in, much less actually getting away with it.

But in the words of accomplice Jean Francois, “It may have been illegal…but it wasn’t wicked or mean.”

The result, 35 years later, remains as mesmerizing to behold as it must have seemed to the astonished witnesses in 1974. Today the world seems a somewhat smaller, less interesting place. We might feel safer with heightened security and endless airport checkpoints, yet our lives are somewhat diminished knowing that audacious bursts of mad dreaming have been curtailed almost as surely as terrorist action on American soil.

It is difficult to condone what Petit did, yet I would be the last man on earth to condemn him. This is the difference between rational intellectualism and the pure joyous emotion of bearing witness to a man fulfill his dreams in defiance of mortal danger.

Coda
Some years ago I vowed to overcome a fear of heights by parachuting from the first airplane I had ever boarded. Though it worked for me, I do not lay claim to any great achievement. My little stunt has been performed by thousands of individuals before and since. Petit’s masterpiece was unique – a one-off statement of bravado that no one will ever replicate.

Most of us would not want to.

And that is the difference between dreamers and the man who dares transform his dream into mind-blowing reality.

À la tienne, Phillippe! Le bon temp roulez.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved. Except © 2008 Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images. Photographs courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Old Friends, Sudden Death, a Comedy Called Sideways

By Steve Evans

“In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.” ~ From the promo poster.

On the eve of the Academy Awards, I want to revisit a sharp comedy that won the Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004. In the world of woulda, coulda, shoulda, oughta, Sideways also deserved Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Actor, at minimum.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about Sideways for several days, the need to see it again. Soon. I embrace and cherish this remarkably insightful film about friendship and faltering dreams.

These thoughts come at the end of a challenging week – marked by the sudden death of an old friend who, I am told, finished his life with regrets and unfinished work.

Characters in Sideways remind me of characters from my college years, especially the guy who died this week. He worked with me at the student newspaper with a dozen other fiercely creative people. I realized a few days ago that working at the college paper was the last sustained period of true happiness in my life until I met my wife Claudia. Now those days of hellraising at The Commonwealth Times in Richmond, Virginia, are no more than a receding chapter in my mind’s eye, filled with memories that time has burnished to a fine luster.

Nostalgia is a tricky mind game, because it prompts us to confront the past in a hazy autumnal glow. Old photos probably offer a greater truth than the distortions of memory weighted down by time. But we still desire to remember the seminal events of our lives with fondness, replaying our adventures and perhaps embellishing their significance so as to make them all the more special. Maybe this is a defense mechanism against an unknowable future. Perhaps we relive the past with a smile because our dreams are still alive in all our yesterdays, when the canvas held only a little paint and the picture had not yet formed.

I can no longer hear about the hopes and dreams and plans and schemes of a dead writer who once told me he wanted to set the world on fire, but in the end merely warmed it, instead. So it will at least be comforting to revisit Sideways, this little miracle of the cinema, and take pleasure in the gentle insights the film offers about maturity, friendship and life's passages. It beats dwelling on long-gone days, yes, and it stops my minding from wandering.

And so as I sit here in the predawn hours of a cold February morning, thinking about a dead friend and listening to Cavalleria Rusticana, I try to keep my mind focused on the present. Someone who influenced my life is gone. That song is over. And so, there is acceptance; what else can there be? I look back on the past, anyway. Can’t help it. I think of faces I knew, faces now weathered and etched with life, people whose paths diverged decades ago, but who briefly shared a common vision and a friendship unfettered by personal agendas. I smile at the innocence of youth and the heartwarming belief in dreams.

That sweet sentiment softens a harsh reminder of the fleeting hours ahead.

Tonight I’ll take another look at Sideways, the deceptively simple story of two longtime friends from college who stave off middle-age angst with a road trip through California wine country, hunting women the week before one of them is to marry.

A bit of plot…
Miles (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor), a teacher, failed novelist, and functional alcoholic, plans a week-long tour of California's Santa Ynez vineyards for best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, best known for his work on the TV sitcom Wings). Jack is a has-been actor doing voice-over work in commercials, though he still dreams of the next big gig. The road trip will be their last hurrah before Jack's wedding to a gorgeous socialite, with Miles standing as best man. But for now, Miles will be Jack's babysitter as they drink themselves sideways on good wine and chase skirts.

Before they reach their destination, the duo pays a spontaneous visit to Miles's eccentric mother. Miles wants to wish his mom a happy birthday en route to his week of wine, so he springs for a cheap bouquet of flowers, then invites himself and Jack to dinner. That night his real motive for visiting mom is revealed. He steals $1,000 from her for the trip. Miles is also an unabashed wine snob with a particular lust for the delicate grapes that produce Pinot Noir. He uses the vocabulary of viniculture to obscure the fact that he's a chronically depressed alcoholic unable to get over his divorce two years ago — or his ex-wife's second marriage.

Jack, on the other hand, doesn't have a care in this world. Unencumbered by deep thought or personal scruples, Jack doesn't know jack about wine, but he's willing to guzzle a bottle or three with his pal. Mostly he wants to get laid right before his wedding, and this hound-dog obsession hangs like a cloud over their week of male bonding. Miles just wants to play golf in the afternoons and drink wine all night. Jack hits on every cocktail waitress they encounter.

Miles is smitten with Maya (the delectable Virginia Madsen), a wine-obsessed waitress at his favorite restaurant, but he's too shy to chat her up. That's no problem for Jack, who picks up Maya's friend Stephanie (a scorching Sandra Oh) and suggests a double date for dinner and drinks. Soon Jack and Stephanie are moaning in a back room, but he omits the crucial information about his imminent marriage. Instead, the horny scoundrel tells Stephanie he loves her.

Miles moves cautiously with women. Battered by failed relationships, he and Maya circle warily. When he describes to her the delicate nature of Pinot Noir, he's really talking in eloquent terms about his own bruised psyche. Maya picks up on this subtle clue (her own divorce has rendered her much wiser than Miles) and draws a casual analogy between people and good wine. The best, she says, will evolve and mature, developing rich characteristics and complexity over time. And when their time comes, they taste "so f**king good," she declares, looking Miles in the eye.

Before the week is over this quartet will confront ugly truths, collide with one of the more freakish situations in modern cinema, and learn life lessons that only profound embarrassment can provide.

Context
Easily the most insightful comedy about the sexes since Woody Allen wrote and directed Annie Hall, director Alexander Payne’s Sideways was also the finest film for intelligent adults released in the lean year that was 2004. Along with Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Payne (who also co-wrote and directed About Schmidt and Election), is one of the sharpest screenwriters working today. His Oscar-winning screenplay surpasses every expectation, with fully realized characters struggling with real problems, especially their own personal flaws. Adapted by Payne and Jim Taylor from Rex Pickett’s 1999 novel, Sideways builds the foundation for a buddy flick, then transforms slyly into a bittersweet meditation on boys who have yet to make peace with the fact they are middle-aged men. And, gulp, it's hilarious.

There are set-ups in this picture that pay off in outrageously satisfying ways. Any movie that serves grilled ostrich to one character and later causes another to be chased, naked, through a field of the big birds has got the right ideas. “Those f**kers are mean,” Jack declares, demanding painkillers, tea and sympathy for his self-imposed problems. It's one of many hilarious moments in a wickedly funny film that veers effortlessly from comedy to pathos, from melancholy to guarded optimism.

Here is a picture that uses dialogue to inform and reveal interesting people. Characters arrive at the end of amazing sentences that ring so true, are so precise, that other films come off as hopelessly irrelevant, formulaic fluff. What a bracing change this is from the crop of contemporary movie scripts that force actors to mouth unbelievable phrases just to propel the plot. Characters are also illuminated by their actions as well as their words: When Miles raids his mother’s cash stash while she sleeps on the couch, the theft is a potent violation that speaks volumes about his character.

The title, Sideways, refers to the proper method of storing wine — to keep the corks wet and prevent shrinkage. This is also the principal preoccupation of the male protagonists. Incredibly, Giamatti and Haden Church pull off the near-impossible trick of making their characters sympathetic, even lovable. Madsen (The Rainmaker) and Oh (TV's Grey's Anatomy), are fiercely intelligent and oh-so gorgeous. They hold their own as women who’ve been waiting to exhale for a long time. Having been knocked around by love, they are fully capable of punching back, either literally or with a scathing retort. Here is ensemble acting on a razor's edge.

What’s on the disc, Cteve?
I’ll tell ya: Generous DVD extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, a trailer, and an amusing blooper reel. The hugely entertaining commentary track by Giamatti and Haden Church is almost as funny as the film. These guys know this project was a breakthrough for their careers, and they talk happily about how much fun they had making the picture. Giamatti even acknowledges his golf game sucks so bad that a crucial tee shot was actually performed by novelist Pickett.

The 5.1 audio is crisp as cold chardonnay. Video is warm and soft, with images cast in an autumnal glow that underscores the theme of clueless men in their middle years, wandering wine country.

I have no negative criticism of the film; I wish only that it had run longer. I could have listened for days to these characters carry on, pontificate about wine, and dream their impossible dreams.

Coda
Payne and his marvelous cast deliver a superb entertainment — intelligent, provocative, heartfelt, and funny as hell. No more observant a comedy about male-female relationships has been released in the last 30 years, which is as much a wistful observation as it is cause for celebration. Like a perfect Pinot Noir, Sideways hits the spot.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Canterbury Tale on Criterion

By Steve Evans

This quiet film from 1944 deals in themes of penance, redemption, and salvation.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger create a bucolic portrait of the English countryside during wartime as divine intervention brings blessings on four troubled souls.

A bit of plot…
London girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim, West of Zanzibar), an American GI (John Sweet, who was an actual U.S. soldier), and a British officer (Dennis Price, The Magic Christian) meet on a train en route to Canterbury, where miracles allegedly come to those who make the pilgrimage. During a stopover at a small town in Kent, they learn from the local constabulatory that the community lives in fear of the mysterious Glue Man, a nocturnal rogue who pours glue on the hair of young women who date American soldiers. When Alison is doused by the Glue Man, the three new friends vow to track him down.

Suspicion begins to fall on town magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman, The Colditz Story). An obvious eccentric, Colpeper has an abiding love of the land and especially the rich history of Canterbury, a place where he claims salvation awaits the righteous.

Historical context
Powell and Pressburger conceived their three protagonists as modern-day variations of Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury, then threw all manner of peculiar situations into this deceptively simple tale. Like Chaucer's omniscient narrator, Powell and Pressburger treat some of their pilgrims with detached irony, while the motivations of others are deliberately left ambiguous. This is less a criticism than an observation.

Exquisite chiaroscuro cinematography in dappled shades of black and white complements the gentle themes of A Canterbury Tale. One reading of the film reveals a deeply spiritual story in which characters uprooted by war find a quantum of solace and comfort in the legendary town of Canterbury, where the bells peal inspiring notes in the town's magnificent cathedral. Another layer of meaning can be seen in the wartime message that Powell and Pressburger were trying to convey: This is a propaganda film with the goal of convincing rambunctious American soldiers and the wary British who hosted them to work cooperatively for the sake of a greater good — defeating an unspeakable evil in Nazi Germany. At the time of the film’s production, U.S. troops were massing in England in preparation for the mammoth D-Day assault on French beaches the following year, when the picture was released.

Despite the wartime setting, the film is delicate as a butterfly in flight, with languid, fluid shots of pastoral landscapes and unexpectedly whimsical interludes, such as a solider chancing upon two friendly gangs of boys staging a mock war on a river. These pleasing moments contrast unnervingly with the subtly obscene behavior of the Glue Man, whose apparent sexual repression takes form in nighttime attacks on girls (he throws what he calls his “sticky stuff” into their hair as a metaphorical act borne on sublimated rage, an anger triggered by his perception of their promiscuous behavior).

Powell’s reputation as a filmmaker notwithstanding, the director did have a perverse streak: on display in A Canterbury Tale, seen in the masochism of The Red Shoes, and later given full flower in the controversial Peeping Tom, which nearly ruined his career.

Technically, from the perspective of sheer craft, A Canterbury Tale is a masterpiece. The picture features several startling transitional shots, one of which, a jump cut barely four minutes into the film, is as awe inspiring as Kubrick's celebrated jump cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Early Man throws his bone-weapon heavenward. Famously, the spinning femur cuts abruptly to an orbiting spacecraft (a weapons platform) thousands of years later. Watching A Canterbury Tale, it is almost impossible to conceive that Kubrick was not influenced by the artistry of this picture.

The rousing climax is an emotional experience, joyous and yet curiously bittersweet. Unfortunately, when the film was deemed a failure on initial release in Britain, Powell hastily tacked on a coda for American audiences to create a much more literal ending. It doesn't work. Fortunately, this Criterion edition presents the film as originally conceived by Powell and Pressburger. The alternate American ending can be viewed as part of the supplements on this two-disc set.

Other extras include an insightful, feature-length commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, a new video interview with actress Sheila Sim, who turns 87 this year, plus the short documentary A Pilgrim's Return, detailing actor John Sweet’s 2001 return to Canterbury. The second disc also features a new documentary, A Canterbury Trail, by David Thompson, "Listen to Britain," which is a 2001 video inspired by the film and created by artist Victor Burgin, and the full 1942 documentary Listen to Britain directed by Humphrey Jennings.

Caveat
Exercise patience. The film meanders along several plotlines and initially seems to follow no clear course.

Coda
Here is an enchanting, mystical, and uplifting film experience, offering a rich counterpoint to other pictures of the World War II era. Criterion delivers a superlative package of supplements to give context and a richer appreciation of this significant British film.

Like Chaucer’s writings from which this film is liberally adapted, A Canterbury Tale may seem frozen in time, yet the picture rewards the careful viewer.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

La Bête Humaine: The Criterion Collection

By Steve Evans

The pitch:
A tale of a murderous ménage à trois, infused with rich symbolism and social commentary by the undisputed master of early French cinema.

Director Jean Renoir veers from his humanist work to deliver a blueprint for what would become known as film noir a decade later. A virtual template for the psychological thriller, Alfred Hitchcock almost certainly studied this intense 1938 film that was years ahead of its time. Contemporary directors should do likewise for lessons in pure craftsmanship and suspense. La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) was a one-off statement from the French director, who would never make another film as brutally powerful, yet so quietly devastating as this one. With Criterion's expert presentation, the picture remains a rich viewing experience 70 years later, as Renoir explores fatalism and innate human savagery, brought on by co-dependence, mental instability and the heartbreaking betrayal of infidelity. Though a lesser film in the Renoir canon (Rules of the Game remains the acknowledged masterpiece), this is merely by a matter of degrees. La Bête Humaine is based on an 1890 novel (cover art, upper right) by romanticist Émile Zola.

And now for a bit of plot…
Train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin, Grand Illusion) drives his beloved locomotive Lison from Paris to La Havre, where he rests for a few days when an axle overheats and must be replaced. A brooding man, Lantier is plagued by occasional and violent seizures, which he blames on the excessive drinking of his forefathers “who poisoned my blood,” as he confides to a friend. Lantier only seems truly alive when driving his locomotive. Donning goggles, he sticks his head out from behind the engineer's seat through the open window where he inspects the tracks, reveling in the sensation of pure speed as the wind whips over his face. His relationship with Lison borders on sexual, and seemingly soothes his temperament.

The La Havre stationmaster, Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux, Les Misérables), and his pretty wife, Séverine (Simone Simon, The Devil and Daniel Webster) like to socialize with the tight railroad community, though Séverine is by far the more popular of the two. The lady is a tramp. The older Roubaud harbors vague suspicions of his young wife's various infidelities, although his pathological possessiveness may be the very reason she seeks comfort in the arms of other men.

When Lantier becomes witness to a murder, Séverine buys the engineer's silence with an invitation to her bed. But her husband always seems to be lurking nearby, skulking in the shadows of the railyard. Lantier fancies he's in love, but any normal man in possession of his faculties would turn from the sweetly poisonous Séverine and run. As the three points of this triangle begin to turn on one another, Séverine wonders if another murder may be the price of freedom.

Historical Significance & Context
Jean Renoir worked in almost every film genre and even invented a few, including the social satire (starting with Boudu Saved From Drowning). Here, he creates a classic noir years before French critics even came up with the label “films noir” — the dark, nihilistic, cynical cinema that American studios began churning out in the 1940s on thin budgets. Here, he assembled a superb cast of absolutely authentic-looking character actors. Renoir also reunited with Gabin on this picture after their collaboration a year earlier on Grand Illusion.

A superstar in his native France, Gabin was only 34 when he made La Bête Humaine. And yet, he appears much older—conveying the weariness of a man so confused and disappointed by life that he could be easily entranced by the seductive charms of a duplicitous woman.

Simone Simon, the quintessential French femme fatale, would later appear in the most famous of RKO Producer Val Lewton's effective low-budget chillers, Cat People and its sequel, Curse of the Cat People. She died of natural causes in Paris in 2005. Simon was 94. (Gabin, Simon, above.)

Renoir himself appears in an amusing cameo as an outspoken, train-riding hobo whose dialogue is thinly veiled commentary on the moral themes explored in the film. But this is mainly a picture dealing in dread and tragedy.

La Bête Humaine contains several scenes of such tightly-coiled suspense that it is not possible to watch without wondering how often Hitchcock held private screenings of the picture for his own education.

In addition to a lifelong fascination with human frailties, Renoir possessed a genetic talent for capturing stunning visuals (he is the son of French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir). Here the director deploys symbolism both subtle and overt to makes his points about fatalism and emotional entanglements. Subtle symbols include the frequent tracking shots from the engineer's perspective on the locomotive, as this inexorable forward movement of the train sweeps the protagonist along to his destiny. More obvious is the camera’s chaste panning away from a lovemaking scene during a thunderstorm to stop on the lingering shot of a waterspout gushing into a bucket until it slows to a trickle.

La Bête Humaine benefits especially from stark black and white cinematography by the director's nephew Claude Renoir, whose genius with cameras would never surpass his work on Jean Renoir’s first Technicolor film, The River. Modern audiences can revel in Claude Renoir's insistence on authenticity: When filming the many shots of rumbling locomotives, only one rear-projection image is used (at the climax, as an obvious necessity); every other train sequence was shot on the tracks at 60 mph. During a 45-year career, Claude Renoir would also frame John Frankenheimer's The French Connection II and the James Bond adventure The Spy Who Loved Me, but the work for his uncle is unparalleled.

The image on this disc is occasionally soft, but this may be more a factor of the film's age than Criterion's restoration and digital-transfer efforts. The monaural sound is clean and dialogue-centric, dispersing audio to the front and center channels. It is unspectacular, but gets the job done.

Extra features include an introduction of the film prepared by Renoir in 1967 (which reveals significant plot points, so beware if watching this before the feature film). In his delightfully droll manner, Renoir notes that the project came to life simply because star Jean Gabin wanted to make a movie about trains. The disc also features a short interview with director Peter Bogdanovich (Targets, The Last Picture Show) who shares his insights and claims La Bête Humaine may be Renoir’s best picture. Archival interviews, a trailer, and gallery of production stills are augmented by a beautiful, 40-page booklet with writings on the film.

La Bête Humaine was remade poorly and unnecessarily in 1954 as Human Desire, starring Glenn Ford (Blackboard Jungle) and directed, incredibly, by the great German Expressionist Fritz Lang (M).

Coda
Although it's getting a bit redundant to note that Criterion always delivers the goods, the fact is, the talents behind this boutique collection of important films know precisely what they are doing. And we like it. For Renoir compleatists and collectors of noir this is a must-have disc.

Renoir directs this heart-breaking tragedy with consummate skill — for which he is justly famous. Criterion deserves high praise for presenting another quality package, especially for a lesser-known film from this artful director.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Big Doll House: "99 years is a long, long time...."

By Steve Evans

“Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man — or to him!”
~ from the promotional poster.

Blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier (Coffy, Jackie Brown) dominates this first entry in a slate of trashy women-in-prison flicks from the early 1970s produced by legendary bad-movie maestro Roger Corman. Grier (at right) quit her job as a secretary to star in this picture at the precocious age of 21 and we are all the better for her career move. She is the most memorable aspect of an otherwise sleazy little flick. Even gorgeous, topless women sweating in the jungle cannot compensate for the amateur-hour acting and ridiculous plot, which could scarcely hold the attention of a dozen frat boys, their bellies swollen with cheap beer. This won’t stop another generation of guys from checking out The Big Doll House anyway.

And now for a bit of plot…
Beautiful inmates (with almost always perfect hair) toil in the swamps and suffer degradation at the hands of a sadistic warden in a nameless Banana Republic prison. Lesbian prostitute Grear (played by Grier, oddly enough) is unofficial leader of the women prisoners. They lust after the snack man (Sid Haig, Diamonds are Forever, Jackie Brown) — who drops by every few days to peddle tropical fruit, candy, cigarettes, and drugs from his wooden push cart. And when he's not around, the women spend their time devising ways to escape from this jungle Hell. They also manage to bicker, cuss, get nekkid in the shower, and spew revolutionary politics. Their peach-colored uniforms are stylin’, though. The plot clots when a cellmate informer tries to foil their escape plans in exchange for special favors from the warden. These desperate women finally break out in a hail of bullets, fiery explosions, and bad dialogue. As the trailer screamed in 1971, “Naked lust builds to a climax of death!”

Historical context
Whew. Where to begin? Famed schlock producer-director Roger Corman had just formed New World Pictures when he sent protégé director Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) to the Philippines with $125,000 and half a dozen beautiful girls. Hill's marching orders? Shoot a babes-behind-bars picture for the drive-in crowd. They chose the Philippines because it was a cheap place to film and Corman wanted a sure-fire hit to launch his new production company. Hill got busy with his cast and returned a few weeks later with an ungodly cinematic stew of overheated lust, mud wrestling, cat fights, women taking showers, heroin addiction, torture at the hands of sadistic lesbian guards, body-cavity searches, cockroach races, scantily-clad prisoners being blasted by a firehose, illicit sex, and miscellaneous death by poisonous snakes, knives, and machine guns. Hill even delivered a male-rape scene where a horny switchblade sister jacks her captive up against the wall and declares: “Get it up or I'll cut it off!”

Great God A'mighty! Talk about spoiling the mood.

Legend has it that Corman himself, the exploitation king, was shocked by the perverse footage Hill assembled into a rough cut. But Corman got his money's worth. That puny $125,000 investment reaped $10 million when the film was released 37 years ago. The Big Doll House undoubtedly put a few more pesos in Corman’s pockets in the wake of this DVD release.

The film made Pam Grier a star and launched her lucrative career in blaxploitation nonsense, much of it shot under Hill's direction. Her only previous role had been a brief appearance in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (scripted by Roger Ebert!).

Here, Grier sings “Long Time Woman” over the opening credits — “Ninety-nine years is long, long time” — a brassy number that Quentin Tarantino would lift 26 years later for Grier’s comeback performance in Jackie Brown. As always, she is super-cool.

But at the start of her career, in this film, Grier shows only fleeting glimpses of the charisma that would soon make her a household name (at least in hipster households). She does manage to get through her line readings with a straight face, which is better than I was able to do, watching her performance. It’s hard to keep laughter in check when Grier is busy calling people muth@hfu*ck@hs and wrasslin’ with women in muddy bogs for no good reason other than the script calls for it. Corman and company also insult the intelligence of their core drive-in audience: Even a ding-dong goofed on beer and who-knows-what ought to wonder what Philippino guards are doing in a Latin American jungle prison. And who in hell gets sentenced to 99 years of hard labor for crazy combo convictions like “espionage and prostitution?” Maybe Mata Hari, but she's not in this picture.

What’s on the DVD, Cteve?
I’ll tell ya: The fullscreen video and mono soundtrack are merely okay; nothing spectacular, although this might add to the appeal of an itchy and scratchy low-budget film. Extras include a brief interview with Corman by film critic Leonard Maltin, the original theatrical trailer, and five previews of other Corman-produced flicks, plus biographical notes on key cast members, Corman, and director Hill.

Caveat Lector
While it's almost impossible to take this flick seriously, I still suggest you not show this to your girlfriend, wife, or mother. Otherwise, you might be looking at a life sentence of the silent treatment. Remember, “ninety-nine years is a long, long time…”

Separately, it is amusing to note that this picture and some 400 other Corman properties are now licensed by Buena Vista, the distribution arm of the Walt Disney Corp. The Big Doll House is not the sort of movie we normally associate with the House of Mouse. But Disney outbid all other comers for the consistently profitable Corman catalogue when he put it up for sale. Draw your own conclusions.

So if you absolutely, positively gotta see just one women-in-prison movie, accept no substitutes. This is the one (the immediate sequel, The Big Birdcage, was toned down considerably). Be advised you may feel vaguely unclean afterward. Soap not included.

Coda
This film is guilty of exploiting women’s bodies and the prurient interests of men for the sake of green money. You’ll watch it anyway, won’t ya? Thought so.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mardi Gras + Zydeco = BeauSoleil

By Steve Evans

“Oh, I’m goin’ down to Mardi Gras and get me a Mardi Gras queen…” ~ Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider (1969)

Fat Tuesday falls on Feb. 24 this year, a day that sets my mind to thoughts of glorious afternoons listening to scorching music, quaffing cold drink and gazing upon beautiful women doing amazing things for the sake of a plastic, beaded Mardi Gras necklace.

Yes, and all this hot New Orleans zydeco by BeauSoleil has got me craving oyster po’boys and étouffée, baby. If you can’t make the Mardi Gras scene this year, check out the concert DVD below:

BeauSoleil storms the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with 11 tracks of authentic Cajun music. Led by Grammy-wining fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, the hypnotic N’awlins band performs an eclectic mix of zydeco, blues, folk rock, and old New Orleans jazz on this, their first DVD. The music is so pure, the concert scene so compelling, that the experience borders on sensuous.

A magical city with a storied and mysterious culture, New Orleans puts a gleam in the eye of anyone with the slightest yearning for adventure. Her people know how to party in fascinatin’ rhythm, as Doucet and his band demonstrate with ease — percussive, loud, improvisational, serpentine, and sexy. Bob Dylan (right) attended the show captured on this disc. Asked what he thought of BeauSoleil, Dylan said, “That’s my kind of music!”

That’s good enough for me.

Doucet (below) fiddles with ferocious concentration, and BeauSoleil (French for “Good Sun”) supplies tight backup with accordion, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and twin percussionists.

Together since 1975, the musicians demonstrate an eerie sense of timing and interplay, intuitively knowing when one of their number needs to solo and when it’s time to take it to the bridge. Their sound is a rich gumbo, redolent with a musical tradition that dates to the 19th century, yet always feels timeless, fresh, and vibrant. Born on the bayou, these men honor their roots.

Disc extras are generous but vary in quality. Interviews with individual members of the band are of the “blackout” variety, meaning the camera rolls until someone is finished speaking. Back in the editing suite, the uninteresting bits are carved out and discarded like bad oysters. Then the gaps are filled in with rapid blackouts/fadeups to transition between scenes. This is distracting, sometimes jarring, and implies a lack of respect for the musicians. The music videos, however, are a nice extra. In a separate interview, Doucet offers reverent recollections of fiddle greats who preceded him on the Cajun scene — a welcome bit of historical context so often missing from music DVDs.

Concert videography is crisp, but stylistically indifferent. Cuts are divided about equally between medium and tight shots of the band, and audience reaction. Although the editing rhythm is rather obvious, some of the crowd scenes alone are worth the price of the disc, as zydeco fans shake their asses and wave their hands in the air like they just don't care, beverages sloshing over the lips of their plastic cups.

The 5.1 Surround mix directs the band to the front and center channels, with ambient crowd noise flowing through the rear speakers. Truth be told, the 2.0 stereo option offered a more satisfying audio experience to these ears, with clear channel separation and more pure music.

C’mon, now, cheri know she wan’ some BeauSoleil.

So grab this DVD. Invite some friends. Goose that amplifier. Then serve up this disc with po’boys on crunchy baguettes, a cauldron of spicy gumbo and plenty of iced Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager.

Laissez les bon temps roulez.

Set List:
• Reel de Dennis McGee (Introduction)
• Newz Reel
• Happy One-Step
• Recherche d’Acadie
• Le Chanky-Chank Français
• Eunice Two-Step
• Amédé
• La Danse de la Vie
• Grand Mamou
• Zydeco X
• Poison Love
• La Terre de Mon Grandpère

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lenny Bruce Isn't Funny

By Steve Evans
So I was enjoying the anthropological amusement of watching Joaquin Phoenix make a doofus of himself on Letterman the other night, convinced in my mind that his seemingly drugged-out behavior was just a ruse to create some controversy and prop up interest in his going-nowhere musical career. Then I got to thinking about another oddball who made audiences uncomfortable. No, not Andy Kaufman — I drew those parallels in the previous entry, below.

Today I'm pondering a putz named Lenny Bruce, whose screws were loose, a man whose posthumous reputation far and away exceeds his accomplishments in this life. There's a DVD of Bruce material called Performance Film on the market. Below are some thoughts on the disc and the man ranting on it for 72 minutes. If you're pressed for time, here's the bottom-line at the top: Lenny Bruce was not a funny guy. Nor was Andy Kaufman. Some people act weird because they can't help it. Some people act weird because there's money in it. That makes Joaquin Phoenix merely shrewd.

Opening rim shot
Controversial comedian Lenny Bruce gives his second-to-last live performance in this grainy, poorly recorded film shot in 1965 at the Basin Street West nightclub in San Francisco. Bruce devotes most of the show to reading transcripts of his many court appearances on obscenity charges, and remarking wryly on his legal woes.

Comedian, Free-Speech Advocate, Drug Addict:
The sad life and lonesome death of Lenny Bruce
Hilarity is subjective. Having seen this disc and listened to several Lenny Bruce records, I say with total conviction that he was not a very funny guy. Provocative? Yes. Controversial? No doubt. Influential? Absolutely. But he does not make me laugh. I think of Bruce — when I bother to think of him at all — as a performance artist and storyteller, along the lines of Eric Bogosian or the late Spaulding Gray, but not as a comedian. The Lenny Bruce legacy, if there is such a thing, would have to be his influence on future performers. During his lifetime George Carlin often credited Bruce with paving the road for modern stand-up comics. Anyone who has heard Carlin, Richard Pryor or Robin Williams — arguably the funniest man alive — should realize that Bruce kicked open the doors for them. Bruce established his reputation on naughty language and bawdy social commentary: the hallmarks of modern stand-up comedy. So he was a pioneer, albeit a relentlessly self-obsessed, often tiresome, and unamusing comic.

Woody Allen took self-obsession to new heights of hilarity by serving as a foil for his own neuroses. But unlike Bruce, there is an essential humanity in Allen's comedy, not least of which is his willingness to take responsibility for the problems he brings on himself (Allen is his own worst enemy and he knows it). When Lenny Bruce dwells on his travails, he wallows in self-pity while adopting the posture of a condescending hipster. Worse, he defends himself with flawed logic that undermines his credibility, draws his judgment into question, and makes us wonder why we should listen to an obviously bitter man carp about his mostly self-inflicted troubles.

Let me be clear. It may be difficult to appreciate the significance of his act in retrospect, given our exposure in the last 45 years to more talented comedians who followed Bruce and built brilliantly on the foundation he helped establish. Put another way, Bruce and his shtick have dated rather badly, although his chutzpah unquestionably liberated the next generation of stand-up comics. To his credit, Bruce picked at the scabs of bigotry and religious intolerance in this country while treading into taboo territory with his use of profanity (amusingly tame by today’s standards) and scatological humor. So we should acknowledge Bruce for hacking his way through rhetorical razor wire and perhaps pity him to some degree for the abuse heaped on the man by his censors. This doesn't change the fact that he is not amusing, endearing, or particularly entertaining in this film. The same can be said for Bob Fosse’s biopic of Bruce, Lenny (1974) starring Dustin Hoffman.

After nearly an hour of ranting about his legal troubles (including a verbatim reading of several pages of his grand jury indictment on obscenity charges…snore), in the last 20 minutes of his performance Bruce finally delivers a few of his stand-up sketches. These include the famous prison riot routine with Dutch, the Warden, Father Flotski, and prison doctor, Sabu — all racially-charged caricatures. Bruce also manages to work up a good head of steam yammering about sex, whether it’s between people, animals, or some combination of the two. Welcome to comedy, Lenny Bruce style.

Although fans of Lenny Bruce still think of him as a martyr for freedom of speech, the fact remains that he was addicted to narcotics for the last three years of his life before dying of a morphine overdose in August 1966, two months shy of his 41st birthday. Whether his illness and depression, and ultimately his death, stemmed from perpetual legal persecution remains unclear. In his final years his act certainly fed on all the attention.

What we do know is that the man lived a hardscrabble life, honing his act in strip clubs and anonymous New York bars. He married a stripper named Honey and had a daughter with her in 1955. The child, Kitty Bruce, would go on to appear in a duo of exploitation films: Switchblade Sisters (reportedly one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites from the mid-1970s), and Andy Warhol's Bad (in a bit part). Kitty has since vanished from the scene. She turned 53 in November 2008.

Bruce himself flirted briefly with Hollywood, appearing with his wife in Dance Hall Racket, a sublime piece of cinematic trash from 1953 by Phil Tucker, now legendary among bad-movie addicts as the director of Robot Monster, released that same year. We need only connect the dots to see that Bruce and most everyone in his orbit lived on the fringe.

Extras on the disc before us are limited to an unrelated seven-minute cartoon, Thank You Mask Man, written and voiced by Bruce, who spoofs the Lone Ranger while mocking the hypocrisy of insincere social conventions, such as automatic politeness. Bruce takes sarcastic glee in observing that “polite” people will turn on each other in an instant if they discover their views and values clash. The animated short is an odd little curio, all itchy and scratchy like most underground projects of the late 1960s. As social commentary it is not particularly offensive or enlightening, yet like the rest of the Bruce oeuvre on this disc, it isn’t terribly funny, either.

Disc audio and video are drawn from source materials of poor quality. The digital transfer appears to have been sourced from a badly worn print, which at times is nearly inaudible.

Coda:

Lenny Bruce: Performance Film is not rated, but only a lunatic would allow children to watch. For pop culture fanatics, aging hipsters, and 20th century historians, this disc may hold some fascination. Those looking for a laff riot would do well to move along.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Joaquin Phoenix Channels Andy Kaufman

Two-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix acted like a demented homeless man last night on David Letterman. Muttering in monosyllable, chewing gum and acting extremely disoriented, the Walk the Line star came onstage in full shaggy beard with a suit and loosely-knotted tie. The actor hid behind his shades, perhaps the better to conceal whatever he was really up to.

At first Letterman seemed in on the gag, but Dave's comments grew increasingly acerbic as the 10-minute interview wore on. "I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight, Joaquin," Letterman said, concluding the interview.

Phoenix recently announced he would abandon acting to concentrate on his fledgling career as a rapper. Whatever.

But his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman had all the makings of an Andy Kaufman routine. Kaufman's schtick always involved making his audience uncomfortable, as they were never really sure if his dazed expression and deadpan delivery were a put-on or whether he was mentally deficient.

Kaufman took his secrets to the grave in 1984 when he died of complications related to a rare form of lung cancer. He was 35, a year older than Phoenix is now.

Maybe carrying on like a kook will help ol' Joaquin sell some rap records. His oddball performance last night made for memorable TV and, I suspect, that was his objective all along:



Here's Andy Kaufman, performing one of his better-known routines on the premiere episode of SNL in 1975:


Jigglin' Jayne in Dog Eat Dog!

By Steve Evans

“The action EXPLODES right between your eyes!” ~ from the Dog Eat Dog! trailer.

Jayne Mansfield and her mammoth mammaries flounce through this trashy and utterly demented caper flick filmed in the former Yugoslavia. Everyone in the cast acts as though they are under the influence of an extremely disorienting drug.
Although this picture is reportedly a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, that does not constitute a recommendation. Priced to sell, the DVD will mesmerize bad-cinema aficionados with a whacked-out plot, overripe dialogue, and some of the most amateurish acting I've seen in more than 10,000 films since I started watching cinema. A cult flick? No doubt. But a “sexy cult classic” as the promo purrs? Naw. Caveat emptor, baby. You've been warned.

Still with me? Then let’s rock:

A bit of plot
Mansfield (The Girl Can't Help It) stars as Darlene, the bubble-headed moll of a rabid thief (crazed Cameron Mitchell, Carousel), who steals a cool $1 million in cash on its way to the U.S. Treasury from some unnamed European country. As the bickering thieves mull their next move in a seedy hotel, the eavesdropping hotel manager (Aldo Camarada, in his lone film performance) and his ice-princess sister (Dody Heath, The Fortune Cookie) learn about the loot and resolve to liberate that filthy lucre from those lousy lowlifes on the lam. Look out!

Can you dig it, kitty cats?

Through a series of improbable plot devices and double-crosses, everyone winds up on an almost-deserted island in the middle of the Mediterranean, roaming around a decaying villa. One crook knows where the money is stashed, another knows where to find the escape boat, and no one trusts anyone. They discover loony Madame Benoit (Isa Miranda), who has come to the island to die, accompanied by her butler, Janis (any resemblance to Norma Desmond and her butler Max from a certain Billy Wilder classic — hmmm, that would be Sunset Boulevard — is, of course, intentional).

Meanwhile, Darlene’s tendency to proposition every guy with a pulse starts to cause friction among the frustrated crooks on this island. But when the cash goes missing, all bets are off. It’s Dog Eat Dog! as the body count starts to climb. (No real dogs were harmed in the making of this film, but there’s a bitchin’, hair-pullin’ cat fight at the climax. Meow.)

Context
Who can resist this campy foolishness? Looky what we get for a mere $15 (suggested retail price): A pneumatic Mansfield ready for action; crazy Cameron Mitchell (below right); violent death by shooting, cliff fall, and by fire; fingers mashed in a piano; and half a dozen peculiar supporting actors who made this flick and then vanished forever like a virgin on prom night. Oh, yeah: and a far-out jazz score for vibes, drums, and an out-of-tune piano. Crazy, man, crazy.

Close inspection reveals everyone except Jayne and Cameron are dubbed into English from what looks like Italian, judging from the lip movements. Credo di sì'.

Mansfield made only four more films before she was killed in a car accident outside New Orleans in 1967. Dog Eat Dog! is representative of the exploitation drivel that Jayne graced with her unpolished allure in the final years of her life. Here, she’s given little to do beyond delivering embarrassing lines like, “Crackers! You're cute!” and licking her frosted lips. The film opens with a wild shot of Mansfield in a fluffy nightie, writhing provocatively on a bed while someone drops $100 bills off-camera on her voluptuous figure. But that's fairly normal compared to the deranged goofiness that follows. This is a flick that delivers 86 rapid-fire minutes of “huh?” punctuated by sputtering laughter from my gang of bad-movie hooligans. They give Dog Eat Dog! their highest recommendation, which is very high indeed, but beer was involved.

So let’s step back from this train-wreck of a film and look at all the facts before we pass judgment, eh? You should understand, now, that the unholy consumption of beer by my bad-film posse may have facilitated a deeper understanding of character motivation and mise en scène that eluded me. But I doubt it. All I know for sure is that Quentin Tarantino modeled his Mr. Brown character from Reservoir Dogs on one of the punks in this film — right down to the black suit, skinny tie, goofy grin, loping walk, and Ray-Ban shades. Tarantino even looks and talks like that character in Dog Eat Dog! This is not a compliment.

Here’s the obligatory trivia that makes cult films so much more meaningful to those of us who live with this dangerous addiction: my research shows that Miss Jayne was four months pregnant with daughter Mariska Hargitay when this picture was filmed. Strategic costume placement and scene blocking help conceal Jayne’s bun in the oven, as it were. Separately, I also report that Miss Hargitay (at left) is a television star on the long-running program Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, playing a tough detective unlike any character her mother ever portrayed. Mariska and her two older brothers survived the car crash that took their mother’s life.

As for the cool cats behind the scenes, three — yes, count ’em, three — directors receive screen credit for Dog Eat Dog! A further bit of research reveals that schlock producer Albert Zugsmith (Sex Kittens Go to College) was an unconfirmed fourth! Here’s the lowdown on the three credited directors: Richard E. Cunha. who also directed Missile to the Moon, itself a cheap remake of the already no-budget Cat Women on the Moon; Gustav Gavrin, of Croatia, who made a handful of European arthouse films; and Boston-born Ray Nazarro, who worked mainly in B-westerns and television. Though he lived until 1986, Dog Eat Dog! was Nazarro’s final film credit. Why it took this many people to direct one grade-Z film is God's Own Private Mystery. All of the directors and the cast are long dead (with the one or two exceptions who have fallen off the face of the earth), so the reason has passed on with them. Given the diversity of creative visions working on the picture, it's a small miracle that Dog Eat Dog! makes any sense at all.

Video and audio are perfectly respectable, even if the flick is not. The anamorphic 1.85:1 framing captures this low-rent noir in frosted shades of black and white. The mono soundtrack is similarly clean, but unspectacular.

Extras include a trailer, photo gallery, and a couple of fleeting newsreels of Jayne fawning at the camera and babbling the sort of “woo-woo” gibberish that Britney Spears would employ almost 40 years later to turn herself into a freakishly popular sex kitten. In sum, yawn.

Bring it on home
Mansfield possessed an undeniable carnality that was exceeded — perhaps even enhanced — by her dumb-blonde demeanor. For every step forward made by the feminist movement, Jayne jiggled and fell down three flights of stairs. And then giggled at what she had done.

As the poster screams, “Two killers, a deadly blonde and a million stolen dollars spell death on a lonely, lust-ridden island!” See it tonight with someone you love.

Coda
J'accuse! A guilty pleasure if ever there was.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.