Friday, June 26, 2009

World-Famous Pedophile Mikey Jackson Dead at 50

By Steve Evans

Faded pop phenom Michael Jackson died yesterday, reportedly of cardiac arrest. The pedophile and perennial oddball nearly took the Internet with him, as scores of news sites and Google itself were almost crippled by the influx of queries regarding the man-child with one white glove.

Beyond the anthropological fascination such behavior provides, those of us encumbered by intelligent thought are left wondering: who the hell cares that Michael Jackson is dead? And, won't I be pissed if the Internet crashes and I can't do my work today, all on account of some grief-stricken frenzy over one of the most overrated and easily one of the most peculiar pop-cultural freaks in American history?

Michael Jackson possessed a thin, reedy voice and a squealing falsetto that made him sound like one of the prepubescent girls who swooned over his dance moves, which could be fun to watch in the early days, but were ultimately repetitive and eventually just boring. Every cat in The Temptations could dance better than Michael Jackson. Most of 'em could sing better, too. So could Smokey Robinson and every last one of his Miracles. Sam and Dave. Otis. Sam Cooke. Yeah.

But Jackson offered something no one else could deliver, and, I'll wager, he did it all unintentionally. What, you ask? I'll tell ya:

Michael Jackson was more entertaining offstage than he could ever be under the limelight. He put on a good show, alright. And that's because Michael Jackson was out of his mind, boys & girls. Tinfoil-chewing, bug eyed looneytunes, dig? I really hope this doesn't come as news.

Jackson's money bought him a "get out of jail free" pass on more than one occasion. His unquenchable passion for eccentricity made him the darling of the tabloids, the Holy Grail of paparazzi, and all the attention brought him millions more to indulge in the sort of bizarre behavior and sexual perversions that would have gotten half a dozen Nazi officers hanged 70 years ago. One wonders how history would look upon Charlie Manson if only he could have carried a tune and had indulged a fetish for plastic surgery.

True, Michael Jackson never killed anyone or ordered anyone murdered, to our knowledge. But he paid millions out of his personal fortune to hush up tongue-wagging boys who had fallen under his spell and to whom Gawd Knows What had occurred while alone with Jackson when no adults were around. Actually, according to leaked grand jury documents, quite a lot went down at Neverland Ranch, where the boys drank "Jesus Juice" (wine) and gallons of other libations, some laced, some perhaps not, so everyone could get a little loose and Michael could have his fun with young boys. As Robin Williams observed in his stand-up act, while visiting Neverland "you must be at least this tall to ride Michael." Williams held his open palm about four feet off the ground and we all got the idea.

Jackson also spirited away much of the Beatles' song catalog when the collection went on the auction block in 1985, right from under the nose of competing bidder Paul McCartney, which reportedly annoyed the hell out of Sir Paul, but really aggravated the unholy hell out of me because for the next 20 years I had to listen to so many Beatles songs being pimped in commericals to sell products that I instantly boycotted on general principle -- all because Michael Jackson bought the rights and immediately turned around to license those classic songs for commercial use. Doesn't matter if news reports are true that Jackson willed the rights back to the Beatles' bassist. Too little, too late. God Damn you, Michael Jackson. Ya money-grubbing, lilac-lavender, fancy-lad freak.

So aside from the "Thriller" video -- a fairly amusing and expensive-looking zombie short starring Jackson and directed in 1983 by John "An American Werewolf in London" Landis -- and maybe two good recordings with the Jackson 5, I will only remember Michael Jackson, if I bother to remember him at all, as the weak vocalist who warbled a tune called Ben, which was the titular theme song for the sequel to Willard (1971), which was a creepy and ultimately stupid movie about an extremely disturbed young man who communicated telepathically with rats, one of which was named Ben (released in 1972), and who made them do his bidding.

And so we come full circle, as life imitates art, art mirrors life, and we kick around cinematic subreferences galore.

This ain't called Cinema Uprising for nuthin', film fans.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Still Walkin' on the Wild Side

Lou Reed: Spanish Fly: Live In Spain
Sanctuary // 72 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot

“It’s all downhill after the first…kiss.”

Do Ya Need Some Lou Reed?
Aging rock nihilist Lou Reed performs 11 tracks of his best-known work both as a solo artist and from his glory days with the Velvet Underground. Yes, this man is still alive. So is his music, trapped not so much by history (or a cult of personality) as it is by his relentless devotion to a despairing vision: misanthropic and existential. The DVD is a document of Reed and his band at the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim in August 2004.

Reed’s vocals, by turns sarcastic, cynical, world-weary, and exasperating, remain an acquired taste after nearly 40 years. Really, how much sneering can ya groove on before turning to something else? But when the man with the simian smile works up a heart full of angst, well, Good Gawd a’mighty, it’s difficult to remain uninvolved. His music could be the soundtrack for a nocturnal road trip across some post-apocalyptic wasteland scattered with twisted iron beams, castaway hypodermics, and bleached bones, glowing pale in the serious moonlight.At times you wonder how a man with this much pain oozing from his soul could bear to live so long. But Reed remains elusive, deliberately ambiguous; it’s a mystery whether he cares about anything beyond an obsession with abstract romanticism.

As for the music, Reed’s forte is the brutal honesty of his lyrics, invariably confessional and self-loathing. His journeyman rhythm guitar playing was seldom more than serviceable, though Reed could always lay down a few hypnotic licks to keep the heroin crowd entranced. Even on his best albums with the Velvet Underground, Reed was always a brittle eccentric, often addled by drugs and a tiresome devotion to the imagery of William Burroughs. But he continues to fascinate his dedicated fan base. You know who you are, and if you’ve read this far then you’ll hang to the coda.

Truth be told, Reed has begun to mellow. He’s blunted the edge from several classic songs on this DVD and even censored himself on a few key lyrics. This will no doubt disappoint the cognoscenti in the crowd (if they are sober enough to notice), although Reed could argue that he’s merely evolving with the times. Still, a politically correct Lou Reed may be the ultimate oxymoron.

There is good news.

Cellist Jane Scarpantoni is an inspired addition to the band. Her solo on the haunting classic “Venus in Furs” is achingly beautiful — an extended serpentine run along four strings — flavored with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that give emotional resonance to a song about unspeakable lament and a dangerous addiction to sadomasochism. This is the finest track on the disc and remains among Reed’s greatest compositions after nearly four decades. Scarpantoni transforms her solo into breathtaking moments of mad, feverish transcendence. It’s only fitting, then, that Reed segues straight into the familiar crowd-pleasing chords of “Sweet Jane.” She certainly is.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Let me tell ya. With some amperage behind it, the 5.1 audio delivers the sonic rush of the concert. Videography is crisp and expertly shot, focusing on the musicians on a minimalist stage. Extras are limited to a brief gallery of the band and crew photographed by Reed himself. These portraits are not so astounding as to be memorable for anyone not affiliated with Reed’s band or entourage. In terms of added-value content, the best that can be said about the photo gallery is that it’s better than nothing.

“Walk on the Wild Side” closes out the set, perhaps inevitably, as this sly, cynical tale of a transvestite groupie remains Reed’s best-known song. The doo-wop refrain is familiar to anyone past a certain age (I said, ‘hey, babe.’), although Reed’s perfunctory delivery makes for a disappointing finish.

My thoughts on the disc may sound like so much damning with faint praise, but in fairness this is a good concert DVD, just not the great one I had hoped it would be. Is this Reed’s fault? Yes, he shares some of the blame. Reed has made a career out of tantalizing his defenders with hints of greatness, promises of musical genius gone largely unfulfilled in the wake of failed experimental music, occasional crises of identity, and a self-destructive bent fueled by a taste for decadence. He raises our expectations with the occasional flourish of brilliance, then fails to follow through. None of this detracts from the essential fact that the magnificent live performances of “Venus in Furs” and “Why Do You Talk” make this reasonably-priced disc a must-have for fans.

At minimum, there’s something curiously reassuring in the knowledge that “Venus in Furs” has not been — and probably never will be — co-opted for commercials by Madison Avenue advertisers hungry to sell cars, condoms, textiles, or tampons.

And so, aging hipsters can rejoice: Reed’s anarchy has yet to become anachronism. Certain pop artifacts are so outré they may never be absorbed and assimilated by mass culture. They stand outside, taunting, mocking, flaunting their defiance. This might give Lou Reed a reason to smile.

Set List:
• “Modern Dance”
• “Why Do You Talk”
• “Venus In Furs”
• “Sweet Jane”
• “Jesus”
• “Romeo Had Juliette”
• “Satellite of Love”
• “Ecstasy”
• “The Blue Mask”
• “Perfect Day”
• “Walk on the Wild Side”

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yes, Virginia: Good Things Come in Threes

Revisiting The Godfather: Part III
Paramount // 1990 // 169 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Author’s note: I gallantly stepped in to review this DVD when my predecessor vanished mysteriously during a business appointment in the meat-packing district. Yeah, and it turns out this picture is a helluva lot better than I recall thinking on opening day, Christmas 1990.

“All the power on earth can’t change destiny.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

Vowing to take the family business legit, mafia godfather Michael Corleone seeks redemption in a business deal with the Catholic Church, realizing too late that the Vatican is as rife with corruption as organized crime. The film was savaged upon its original release almost 19 years ago, but time has a way of altering critical opinion. Today Part III can be seen as a fascinating but flawed coda to an absorbing, richly metaphoric and compulsively entertaining trilogy about the rise and fall of a mafia family in 20th century America.

Plot of Plenty…
Amassing incredible wealth from mob-owned casinos in Las Vegas and other criminal enterprises, Don Corleone (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) resolves to atone for his sins, including the murder of his brother Fredo. Michael gives $100 million to the church. With the help of a corrupt cardinal, he buys a controlling stake in Immobiliare — an international venture-capital consortium that is minority-owned by the Vatican. Vincent (Andy Garcia, The Untouchables) lurks on the fringe of the Corleone family, convinced that protecting their interests means clinging to the old ways of theft and extortion, backed by violent death. Vincent is the bastard son of Michael’s brother Sonny, who was machine-gunned to death at a toll booth 30 years ago. Michael’s naïve daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) falls hard for Vincent, though he rebuffs her, knowing the Don would not approve. The family, including Michael’s conniving sister Connie (Talia Shire, Rocky, and with opera glasses, above right) and his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), travel to Rome, where Michael will conclude his nefarious business and celebrate son Anthony’s premiere as an opera singer — all during a particularly savage performance of Cavalleria Rusticana.

The Corleone saga moves at a studied pace to an inevitably tragic conclusion, as Michael confronts his fate and faces divine punishment beyond the endurance of any man, no matter how evil.

Whew. That’s a lot of plot.

Historical Context and Significance
More than 14 years after The Godfather: Part III set a box office record for a Christmas Day premiere, and four years after the pricey DVD boxed set of the Godfather trilogy originally hit store shelves, Paramount Pictures released Part II and Part III as individual DVD titles (Keaton and Pacino flank George Hamilton during a night at the opera, left). The milestone original film, which established director Francis Ford Coppola as a formidable filmmaking talent, was issued as a separate DVD in 2004, shortly before Marlon Brando died. For film lovers who could not or would not buy the boxed set, the option of purchasing separate titles was long overdue. Now the only incentive to buy the box is the supplemental disc of extra features missing from these individual DVDs. For some consumers, this may not matter.

Coppola hasn’t had a hit in years. That’s why in late 2008 he went back to the editing suite, tinkered with the coloration and sound of his masterpiece trilogy and, by Gawd, Paramount soon after released a restored, director-approved, super-whoopie, definitive Godfather trilogy set, billed as a restoration. Fans of the film got the real bill, what by now is at least the fifth release of this seminal trilogy if we count VHS editions.

Nearly 19 years since the released of Part III, critical consensus remains virtually unanimous: It is the weakest of the Godfather films. In 1990 much of the vitriol (and it was considerable) centered on the thespian limitations of then 18-year-old Sofia Coppola, the director’s daughter (right, with Andy Garcia). Critics were not kind to her performance then, and time has not altered anyone’s judgment. She remains an amateur devoid of presence or conviction. While this child of a cinematic dynasty would evolve into an infrequent director and Oscar-winning screenwriter, anyone who saw her Academy Award acceptance speech for Lost in Translation witnessed proof positive that Sofia Coppola is a dull, inarticulate woman whose family name has clearly done more for her film career than any innate talent she may possess.

With that venom out of the way, let’s look at the uphill battle this unfairly maligned film received in 1990. Just by virtue of being a Godfather film meant expectations were running well beyond anything a mortal could deliver, even a master filmmaker like Coppola.

Part III also had serious competition on its initial release. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was an unexpected dynamite blast of energy and exuberance that reinvented the crime film while besting the French New Wave directors at their own stylistic game, albeit three decades later. The Godfather: Part III is positively stately, even sedate, when contrasted with the snap-crackle-pow of Scorsese’s kinetic vision of organized crime. Comparisons between the two films may have been unfair, but they were inevitable. Francis Ford Coppola had always taken the Godfather mythos quite seriously, but by 1990 he had confused solemnity with ominous foreboding. A generation had come of age since the original Godfather films were released, and audiences were ready to embrace the jittery, live-wire assault of Goodfellas. Never a director known for his sense of humor, Coppola remained mired firmly in the past, in both his material and his technique.In the end, as far as Oscars were concerned, it didn’t matter. Though it seems inscrutable today, Dances with Wolves would win Best Picture for the year Part III and Goodfellas were released.

Film lovers who keep up with cinema lore also know that Coppola signed on for Part III because he needed the money to keep his Zoetrope Studios alive after the 1988 commercial failure of Tucker: The Man and His Dream. And that Coppola lost a fight with Paramount to name the film The Death of Michael Corleone. And that Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now) wanted too much money to reprise his role as concigliere (mafia lawyer) Tom Hagen, so Coppola killed off the character before Part III begins. And that Pacino wanted so much cash up front that Coppola threatened to open Part III with Michael Corleone’s death, and Pacino ultimately backed down, accepting a lesser fee. The same savvy viewers will also know that editing continued right up to the drop-dead point for striking and distributing prints to the premiere. So what does it all mean? All of these factors suggest that Part III was a work in progress rushed into theaters to meet contractual obligations.

None of this detracts from the fact that Part III is solid entertainment, a seriously good film, albeit a flaw in the cinematic jewel that the Godfather trilogy represents. There are only a handful of American films so poignant, produced so gorgeously, directed so brilliantly, that any films that attempt to remake or expand them will inevitably bring disappointment. The Godfather and its 1974 sequel are among the former — Best Picture winners that paint the death of the American dream in allegorical tableaux of greed, treachery, violence, and fate. And, it comes as no surprise, Part III is among the latter. Given the economic exigencies behind this final production, it is perhaps a small miracle of modern cinema that Part III turned out so good.

Coppola even remembered to include oranges, the presence of which always signifies imminent death in a Godfather film. Rich in detail and situation, the film falters on a convoluted script that tries too hard to condemn the governing powers of the Catholic Church. Left to its own devices, the church would ultimately condemn itself, as revelations of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops have proven. Give Coppola credit for penning an ambitious and controversial script with Godfather novelist Mario Puzo.

The acting by the principals — Pacino, Shire, Keaton, Garcia, and Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) as a wily, aging Don — is always competent and often inspired. Their interpretations suggest a logical evolution of the characters from the earlier films (Wallach’s Don is a new character in Part III). Secondary players like lawyer George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), newspaper reporter Bridget Fonda (A Simple Plan), and crime lord Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) come off more as texture, as fleeting plot devices, than real human beings. Fonda is in the film no more than 10 minutes during the first act, then vanishes like a virgin on prom night. As Tom Hagen’s son, John Savage (The Deer Hunter) portrays a young priest in a glorified cameo. He’s around for three scenes and delivers a like number of lines. Who knows what was left in the chaos of the cutting-room floor as Coppola & Co. struggled to deliver a final cut to Paramount under an impossible deadline? But this is less a criticism of the actors’ work than it is of the overreaching and complicated script.

Gordon Willis’s cinematography is beyond reproach, captured in shades of burnt sienna and golden, autumnal hues, complemented by Dean Tavoularis’s achingly beautiful production design. Coppola’s direction is tight and purposeful; his primary misstep was the sentimental casting of his daughter in a key role originally intended for Winona Ryder (Girl, Interrupted), who bowed out during preproduction, allegedly due to exhaustion. As an infant, Sofia Coppola had appeared as Michael Corleone’s nephew in the famous baptism scene. Portraying a squalling babe in arms was precisely suited to her talents at the time. Casting her in Part III was the director’s supreme hubris, an act of nepotism that audiences would not forgive. During the film’s initial run, Sofia Coppola’s final scene was reportedly greeted at some screenings with cheers, hoots, and a smattering of applause. These were not compliments.

Part III climaxes with the signature montage of the trilogy: a massacre of villains in novel and excruciatingly violent ways. Juxtaposed with Pietro Mascagni’s exquisite opera, this sequence was obviously intended to finish the greatest trilogy in all American film on a high note — and very nearly succeeds, were it not for Sofia Coppola’s inappropriate and utterly unconvincing line readings at the vital climactic moment.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The DVD is virtually flawless. Video and audio are sterling. Coppola’s running director’s commentary is insightful, if occasionally bitter, especially when he recalls the harsh critical treatment of his daughter. This commentary track appears to be identical to the audio recording that accompanied the disc in the original boxed set.

The Contrarian View
Extras are limited to Coppola’s commentary track. Given the wealth of supplemental material that came in the boxed set, Paramount is just being cheap to omit added-value content with these individual titles. Sure, a bare-bones disc may help hold down the price, but the boxed set has been on the market so long that any profit it was going to earn has long since been booked. Here’s hoping Coppola pocketed some of that cash, as he perpetually needs it.

Coda
The Godfather: Part III is a fascinating but flawed conclusion to one of the greatest achievements in American film. Michael Corleone’s final moment is deeply moving, even if it did not become the cinematic iconography that Coppola undoubtedly intended.

Better than most movie lovers probably remember, the picture improves on repeat viewings. See it again.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bubblegum, Popped

Gary Lewis and the Playboys
Kultur // 2005 // 45 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“This pop confection doesn’t shine for me anymore.” ~ So sez Cinematic Cteve.

Let’s (Sorta) Rock:
Gary Lewis and the Playboys perform their best-known hits in this revival concert. Neither the band nor the tunes have aged well in the four decades since they last made the charts (that's Lewis on drums, at left; yeah, and dig the misspelling of the band’s name...). In his heyday, Lewis delivered heartfelt vocals on sweet ballads and bubblegum rock. As an oldies act, his nasal whine, shockingly similar to his father’s distinctive voice, grates on the nerves in stereo.

But back in the day, specifically 1964, the son of comedian Jerry Lewis inked a contract with Liberty Records and took off like a bottle rocket. Gary and his band scored a number one hit the following year with “This Diamond Ring,” a jilted lover’s lament and easily the group’s best-remembered song. Cash Box magazine named Lewis “Male Vocalist of the Year” in 1965. His reedy vocals beat fellow nominees Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. True, dat. An incredible bit of pop-music trivia, eh?

That was then. Today the best that can be said is that this DVD offers clean audio and video. The camera stays focused on the musicians, with a minimum of distracting cutaways to the audience. Problem is, there’s just no getting beyond the cringe-inducing sound of Lewis’ voice. Billed as part of the Pop Legends Live concert series, Gary Lewis and the Playboys offers a respectable sampler of the band’s music. However, the real value can be seen in the maddeningly brief clips of the group at its peak in 1965, before the ravages of time would dilute their vocals and date their tunes. The DVD might provide a pleasant evening for retirees in the mood for some innocuous nostalgia. Then again, the original lineup has changed quite a bit through the years, with a new guitarist and drummer. Gone is former lead guitarist Tom Tripplehorn, father of actress Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct, Very Bad Things). The Playboys are the same band in name only.


What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. “A Conversation with Gary Lewis” is the lone extra on the disc. This material was apparently culled from a much longer interview, highlights of which are interspersed with the concert footage on the main program. Among the revelations, the singer says John Lennon was his favorite Beatle.

Reminiscing about the glory days, Lewis (who now plays guitar, above left) recalls his father’s encouragement and shares some of the strategies that even the son of a celebrity had to follow to score AM radio airplay. The interview is punctuated with video of father and son from the early 1950s and a clip of Gary and his band playing the Ed Sullivan show. Turns out Lewis was originally the drummer. On this oldies tour, he’s moved to front and center on rhythm guitar. In concert the old exuberance is still there — it never seems like Lewis & Co. are just going through the motions — yet there’s something vaguely creepy about a man in his sixties warbling about Little Miss Go Go while shaking his ass in black-leather pants.

Of the 11 tracks on this disc, Lewis co-wrote two. Leon Russell (!) collaborated on more than half the songs included here — all written 45-plus years ago — which is another surprising bit of trivia that illustrates the value of sticking through the closing credits on a concert DVD. A bit of research reveals ol’ Leon was a session man on some of the Playboy’s early tracks, as their record label apparently didn’t have enough faith in their musicianship to let them perform on their own.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys still tour. His official web site lists more than a dozen dates slated nationwide through the end of this year.

Let me be clear: No one begrudges an aging pop star’s desire to earn a few bucks and take another bow in the limelight at the twilight of his career. But only the most devoted pop-music fan should feel compelled to trade money for this disc.

My dad owned a restaurant in the mid-1960s near the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and he used to bring home the 45s from the jukebox when the vendor would load the old wurlitzer with fresh, hot wax a couple of times a month. Nobody saw any value in returning spent 45s to the record label back in L.A., so dad would come home with a bunch of records and let us kids spin 'em on the automatic mono record player that dropped one 45 at a time on the platter as the tone arm tracked over and plopped down and hit the grooves. I remember doing a two-step twist to “Little Miss Go Go,” which was the B-side to “Count Me In.” I would have been about two years old.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Our minds embellish and burnish the memory to a fine lustre. Finer, in fact, than the reality ever was. Racking my mind, I try to recall why it was so much fun shagging to “Little Miss Go Go” and a hundred other singles. Gary Lewis, 63, is banking on the belief that people still wanna remember. And in watching this disc, all I wanna do is forget.

Dig, when you're a toddler, everything is magic.

Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now.

Set list:

• “Count Me In”
• “Without a Word of Warning”
• “Everybody Loves a Clown”
• “This Diamond Ring”
• “Save Your Heart for Me”
• “Sure Gonna Miss Her”
• “Little Miss Go Go”
• “Green Grass”
• “Look Through Any Window”
• “Sealed With a Kiss”
• “She’s Just My Style”

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pretty Parisian Pictures by way of Belgium

Villa des Roses
Ardustry Home Entertainment // 115 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“It was the beginning of the end of innocence.” ~ From the lobby poster.

Opening Shot
Exquisite cinematography and French actress Julie Delpy are highlights of this peculiar, melancholy film set in France in the weeks before World War I engulfed Europe. Winner of the best feature film at the 2002 Hollywood Film Festival, for whatever that’s worth.

A Bit of Plot…
Paris, 1913. On the eve of war, lovely young widow Louise Créteur (Julie Delpy, Killing Zoe) arrives at the Villa des Roses to work as a chambermaid. She soon discovers the grand-sounding villa is actually a rundown mansion converted into a hotel by an eccentric and rather nasty British couple. They rent rooms to a veritable asylum of lunatics, starving artists, con artists, and lost souls. Presiding over this menagerie of oddballs is the chatty cook Ella (Shirley Henderson, Bridget Jones’s Diary), who eavesdrops on everyone in the house via an elaborate system of pipes.

Louise shrugs off the odd residents of the villa to concentrate on her work. One of the tenants, German artist Richard Grünewald (Shaun Dingwall, Outlanders), bets with the cook that he can seduce Louise like so many girls before her. Instead, he falls into an affair with this French woman on the cusp of World War. As their respective countries prepare for war against each other, their passion spirals out of control.

Context and Significance
Based on a novel by Willem Eisschot, Villa des Roses covers familiar turf with the cliché that war alters lives forever. Without a boarding house full of lunatics to provide some interest, the main story of two lovers from opposing countries would be merely banal.

Imagery is the film’s strong suit. Belgian director Frank Van Passel and cinematographer Jan Vancaillie succeeded brilliantly in their stated goal to design the film as a slideshow of France during the early 20th-century. Credit must also be given to the lab technicians whose skill with chemistry and computers brought many of these amazing images to vivid life. So it’s a disappointment, then, that Van Passel filled the frame with beautiful images, only to build the film around stereotypical doomed lovers who speak in cinematic platitudes — they talk like movie characters, in other words, spouting unrealistic dialogue.

One of the protagonists is a louse and many of the supporting characters are intensely unlikable, so it is difficult to muster much sympathy when tragedy strikes these people. We know there will be sorrow, as the film opens with scenes of battle, then shifts into flashback. If that’s not enough, the inclusion of the wistful, bittersweet Intermezzo from the Mascagni opera Cavalleria Rusticana is a clear signal that unhappiness awaits.

Delpy is a marvelous actress whose script choices are often inscrutable (An American Werewolf in Paris springs to mind). Here, she is so doggedly sedate that I began wondering if her German lover might do well to bring a defibrillator to bed. Delpy’s character is obviously a woman stricken by one tragic circumstance after another, beginning with her husband’s death, but there is a certain point where grief stops being an interesting plot device for the audience. Eventually, it becomes tedious. Villa des Roses crosses that line.

The R rating is grossly misleading. In the absence of any other objectionable content, one fully-clothed romp in the bed is worthy, at best, of a PG-13. The arbitrary nature of the MPAA ratings system — especially as it seems to apply to independent films — remains a mystery.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The digital transfer captures the soft images and muted colors of this period picture. A choice of Dolby stereo or 5.1 surround is nice, but the rear channels are mostly idle throughout the film in surround mode. Toggling between the audio options, the stereo track sounded more pleasing to these ears.

Ardustry could have done better than provide a mere eight chapter stops for a movie that runs nearly two hours. Optional subtitles would have also been helpful, as Delpy’s character speaks frequently in hushed French. A key scene where she prays aloud in church will be lost on viewers who do not speak Delpy’s native tongue. Still, most of the film is presented in English, which is ironic since it failed to secure a North American distribution deal and was not screened in the United States outside of festivals.

Extras are limited to five trailers of Ardustry films, including this one.

The Contrarian View
I suspect this would make a fine date movie, as there are ample opportunities for consoling and comforting, post-credits. There’s also a substantial romance quotient before the plot finally unravels into melodramatic idiocy as characters react in unbelievable ways. If all else fails, there’s always the gorgeous scenery to indulge the eyes.

Coda
Slow moving and eccentric, the film may appeal to connoisseurs of the offbeat and travelers who wish to take a virtual tour of a Paris that no longer exists. Oddly, the film was shot in Belgium and Luxembourg, Germany. Parisian cityscapes, while stunning, would seem to be the work of computer artists. Perhaps they are the real stars.

Villa des Roses delivers pretty pictures in the service of a tiresome historical romance.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Nuclear Meltdown

The China Syndrome: Special Edition
Sony // 1979 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Today, only a handful of people know what it means…Soon you will know.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
An eerily prescient look at big business, politics and nuclear energy, The China Syndrome remains as exciting (and perhaps even more relevant) today as it was a quarter century ago. It’s still astonishing to recall that this film about a malfunctioning nuclear power plant opened less than two weeks before a major accident at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The movie plays beautifully both as a taut thriller and social commentary, with inspired work from a perfect cast.

A Bit of Plot…
Jane Fonda stars as an ambitious TV reporter relegated to covering fluff stories in Southern California—until she discovers a massive cover-up at a nearby nuclear power plant. While doing a routine profile on the plant with her rebellious cameraman (Michael Douglas), Fonda witnesses an emergency in the control room. Technicians misread critical monitors, and the core of the plant begins to tremble and quake. The plant engineers barely avoid a nuclear meltdown, although structural flaws in the facility suggest that a much greater problem is waiting to erupt. The TV crew captures the incident on video, but the station owners suppress the footage, fearing a lawsuit from the powerful corporation that owns the nuclear facility.

The plant shift supervisor, Jack Lemmon, realizes there is something terribly, fundamentally wrong with the cooling systems that prevent the reactor from overheating and melting straight through the planet. A reluctant whistleblower, Lemmon at first refuses to talk to Fonda for a story that would expose the plant as a ticking bomb. But he soon has a crisis of conscience that compels him to speak before another accident engulfs Southern California with a lethal cloud of radioactivity. Problem is, the corporation behind the plant is not going to let an inflammatory and expensive issue like public safety get in the way of the bottom line.

Lemmon is the heart and soul of the film, offering a portrait of an anguished man struggling to do the right thing in spite of corporate bureaucracy, and threats to his career and life.

The film veers into thriller territory as shadowy thugs stalk plant employees and threaten the reporters, who are determined to uncover an explosive story of corporate negligence, graft, and corruption.

Historical Context and Significance
The China Syndrome (directed by James Bridges, Urban Cowboy) turned into a must-see phenomenon when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania 12 days after the movie opened in March 1979. The movie is a fascinating product of its time because of the frightening (and from the producers’ perspective, fortuitous) similarity to the actual accident.

In the film, plant operators rely on an erroneous reading from a malfunctioning meter to gauge the water level used to cool the nuclear core. They come close to triggering a meltdown. This is virtually identical to what happened in Pennsylvania at Three Mile Island, based on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report:

“The accident began about 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non-nuclear section of the plant. The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. The accident was caused by a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies, and component failures.”

Because adequate cooling was not available, the nuclear fuel overheated to the point at which the metal tubes holding the nuclear fuel pellets ruptured and the pellets began to melt. Investigators later discovered that about half of the core melted during the accident. But plant operators managed to avoid the worst-case scenario: the melting of nuclear fuel could have breached the walls of the containment building and released massive quantities of radiation into the environment.

Tellingly, the NRC concedes that the accident caught state and federal regulators off guard. New regulations and security measures were put in place following Three Mile Island. Here is the juncture where art uncannily imitates life, as characters in The China Syndrome advocate some of the same safety procedures that federal regulators would later introduce. Perhaps inevitably, it took a real nuclear accident to put more stringent regulations in place.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The China Syndrome is presented in a vibrant 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It is a gorgeous print, rich in color and texture, with zero noticeable artifacts (although it is difficult to look beyond those ghastly 1970s fashions when the transfer offers such rich detail). Grain is evident in key scenes, a clear illustration that the film has been remastered in high definition. Audio options include a choice of remixed Dolby 5.1 or the original mono soundtrack in English or French. The 5.1 embellishment is well done, but offers little sonic benefits to the rear channels, as is often the case for older films that have been tricked out with a new sound mix.

Extras are solid, if not overwhelming, for a special edition package. Two documentaries, each running about 30 minutes, offer recollections from every major surviving cast and crew member. The filmographies are a handy reference. The disc also includes a trio of deleted scenes. Two are superfluous, and were wisely left on the cutting-room floor.

Cinematically speaking, Three Mile Island turned The China Syndrome into a blockbuster. If the film received favorable reviews on initial release, that praise paled in comparison to word-of-mouth buzz following a real nuclear accident. Producer-actor Michael Douglas seems to be the only person involved in the making of the film who doesn’t believe the Pennsylvania accident helped the box office. He is disingenuous, at best.

The Contrarian View
Though dated in its left-leaning politics, fashion, social mores and depiction of nuclear technology, The China Syndrome is a riveting thriller with a conscience. It may bleed liberalism (skeptics need look no further than the casting), but the film’s heart is in the right place. No intelligent person can doubt the overpowering influence of greed on business decisions, whether those decisions stem from Enron, Worldcom or the owners of a fictitious nuclear plant in California.

Coda
The China Syndrome
remains provocative entertainment 30 years after its release. This special edition DVD is a recommended upgrade for those who purchased the original disc in 2001.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Life Imitates Art on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

By Steve Evans

Legendary music producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector was an 11-year-old boy when Paramount released Sunset Boulevard in 1950.

I have no idea if Spector ever saw that seminal Billy Wilder picture about demented silent-film star Norma Desmond and her kept man, the much-younger, failed B-movie screenwriter Joe Gillis, who is shot to death by Norma (played by Gloria Swanson, right) when he rejects her and attempts to leave. But I am fairly certain Spector won’t be watching the picture any time soon following his April sentencing to 19 years to life for the murder of B-movie actress and cocktail waitress Lana Clarkson, who a jury agreed was shot to death by Spector on Feb. 3, 2003, two months shy of her 41st birthday.

Like the fictional Joe Gillis, Lana Clarkson (left) lived and worked on the Hollywood fringe. She appeared as an extra in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scarface, moving on to B-movie exploitation trash like Barbarian Queen and Vice Girls. She hadn’t worked in pictures for two years before meeting Spector at the nightclub where she was serving drinks and, reportedly, agreed to go home with the aging record producer to his mansion, Pyrenees Castle, in Alhambra, California. Speculation was that Clarkson hoped to use Spector’s connections in the music business to jump-start her flagging career. Some wags wondered if she was there to turn a trick for some fast cash. Whatever her motivation for rolling up to Spector’s hilltop mansion, it was there, in the wee hours of Feb. 3, 2003, that Spector put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger after several hours of hard drinking.

Two months before the night of the crime, Spector (below, right) in an interview with the British Daily Telegraph said he had bipolar disorder and that he considered himself “relatively insane.” His sharp legal team tried unsuccessfully to withhold that interview and other damning comments from the jury at Spector’s murder trial. But many saw Spector’s odd appearance and peculiar behavior throughout the case as clear evidence of serious mental problems.

One of the prosecutors called Spector a “demonic maniac,” telling the jury the record producer’s history of violence against women was like a game of Russian roulette that ended with Clarkson’s shooting death.

The jury in Spector’s first trial deadlocked in September 2007. During his retrial this year, the second jury visited the crime scene, mulled testimony from Spector’s ex-wives and returned a guilty verdict April 13 on second-degree murder. The conviction is on appeal.

***

I love cinema because great films often reveal life lessons that can expand our awareness of ourselves and enhance our appreciation for being alive. Like any work of art, a classic movie can nurture the soul, challenge our convictions, or offer a warning we would do well to heed.

I watched Sunset Boulevard last night for what was probably the 25th time, and was struck by the parallels between delusional Norma Desmond, a faded silent-film star; and Spector, whose greatest success as a record producer was more than 40 years behind him by the time of his murder trial.

Spector (in better days, below right) created aural masterpieces like the Ronettes’ Be My Baby (used to memorable effect a decade later in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film, Mean Streets) and The Beatles’ swansong album, Let it Be (which Paul McCartney is on record as hating). Even Spector’s fleeting flirtation with Hollywood ended four decades ago. He made an impression as the curiously mute cocaine buyer with the shiny Rolls Royce in the opening scene of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), perhaps an example of art imitating Spector’s life. Some 33 years later the cycle would reverse itself and Spector’s life would imitate art.

The fall of Norma Desmond and Phil Spector from celebrity to reclusive eccentricity is perhaps less interesting than the plight of their respective victims, Joe Gillis and his real-life counterpart Lana Clarkson. Their thirst for fame in the notoriously fickle entertainment industry led them to make unwise and ultimately fatal choices.

This observation gets to the heart of the American obsession with fame and wealth. We buy gossip magazines and log in to lurid websites to read about the Spector murder trial. A wealthy oddball kills an aspiring actress in the dead of night while swimming in alcohol and floating on a whole rainbow of pharmaceuticals. It’s a compulsively fascinating read that appeals to the prurient instincts that each of us harbors, to varying degrees, as we process our love-hate relationship with fabulous wealth and adulation.

Millions of people watch Oprah on television, held in rapt fascination as some fallen actress or disgraced personality tearfully reveals transgressions, repents, and, often enough, is miraculously forgiven after basking in the glow of Oprah Winfrey’s carefully choreographed compassion.

I like to think of it as salvation in 15-minute sound bites. It’s all nonsense, of course; a quick fix of feel-good gibberish that changes nothing except, perhaps, gullible people's perceptions.

And that’s a frightening thing.

Whether we like to admit it, most of us are powerfully drawn to dreams of a much better life, a life manifest in the things money can buy, in the praise and worship of fans who would follow our every move, clamor for our autograph, emulate our sense of fashion.

Fables like the classic film Sunset Boulevard, and the real tragedies of ruined lives like Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson, are compelling moral tales that suggest the things we covet will ultimately consume and destroy us, while bypassing true happiness along the way.

What is true happiness? Do we answer this question for ourselves, or do we buy the relentless sales pitch in spite of all the evidence that suggests fame – even the pursuit of fame – will kill ya if you don’t watch out?

Still, we obsess and struggle and fight to reach some idealized notion of success hammered into our hearts by a culture that fuels itself with the marketing and promotion of consumption, beauty, fashion, and the pursuit of wealth to make all these pleasant things possible.

We crave them because we are taught to do so by inexorable advertising and a thousand other pressures – both subtle and overt – that permeate society: like the allure of sex, the availability of easy credit, the coveting of all that we see and hear and smell and desire to taste for ourselves.

This desire is as addictive as any drug. Yes, and even more intoxicating than the sweet champagne that Norma Desmond keeps on ice in the screening room of her mansion on that forlorn hill overlooking Sunset, the boulevard of broken dreams.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Kickin' it Old School with Mary Pickford

Through The Back Door
Milestone Films // 1921 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Early film star Mary Pickford built a career on playing plucky, self-reliant young women who transcend a harsh life in pursuit of happiness.

A Bit of Plot…
When little Jeanne’s widowed mother abandons her in Belgium to marry wealthy New Yorker Elton Reeves, the child must live with her nanny in the days before World War I. Later, fleeing her native country for safety in America, the young woman faces more anguish yet clings to a candlelight flicker of hope for a better tomorrow.

Jeanne, now grown, locates the Reeves’ estate but cannot muster the courage to confront her mother, who believes the child died years ago in a drowning accident. Instead, Jeanne offers her services as the maid. Husband-and-wife con artists the Brewsters (Adolphe Menjou, Paths of Glory, and Elinor Fair, The Night Rider) arrive to wreak havoc with her mother’s marriage and swindle Reeves out of his estate. To stop them, Jeanne resolves to reveal her identity and settle the differences with her mother for the sake of the family.

Historical Context and Significance
One of Hollywood’s earliest stars, Pickford must have had issues with abandonment and loneliness. In many of her films the great actor plays children who are either abused, orphaned, or neglected.

Directed by journeyman Alfred E. Green and the actor’s brother Jack Pickford (both would direct Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy the same year), the film contains several classic set pieces that were devised by Pickford herself. The best involve her efforts to force a stubborn mule off its haunches and her novel method of cleaning muddy floors—by strapping scrub brushes to her shoes and skating around the room.

Milestone delivers a respectable transfer of the picture, which probably looks and sounds the best an 84-year-old film can. Scratches, blemishes, and specks of dirt are evident throughout, but are perhaps inevitable given the film’s age. A comprehensive restoration of this lesser Pickford picture may be cost prohibitive, given the limited contemporary demand. Through the Back Door is presented in black-and-white with the brief, original tinted war sequence intact. Robert Israel’s new orchestral score is a beautiful composition for strings and woodwinds. It is superb silent-film music.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Quite a lot, I’m tellin’ ya. Extras include a stills gallery and Pickford’s rare, 53-minute production of Cinderella. Released in 1914, this is one of the earliest filmed versions of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and a real bonus for this disc. Kudos to Milestone for routinely exceeding expectations with extra features. That being said, the faded, awkwardly-exposed print of this second feature looks absolutely ancient. Then again, so do Cinderella’s hateful step-sisters. Primitive — and thus charming — special effects include the early use of lap dissolves (the double-exposure of a fade-out over a fade-in) to create magical transformation scenes. Cinderella is pure delight.

Prince Charming is played by Owen Moore, Pickford’s first husband, whose charms had evidently worn off by 1920 when she left him to marry Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (The Thief of Baghdad). Pickford and Fairbanks would go on to launch United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and pioneering director D.W. Griffith (Intolerance). Moore would later appear in the original A Star Is Born with Frederic March, Janet Gaynor, and the famously mustachioed Menjou.

The Contrarian View
Uneven in tone, Through the Back Door veers from Chaplinesque comedy to heavy-handed melodrama. This shouldn’t stop a silent film fan from viewing, though; rather, take the observation as a caveat.

Coda
Milestone receives high marks for keeping our film heritage alive with quality DVDs of historically significant motion pictures, supplemented by generous bonus features. For the movie lover new to the unique pleasures of watching silent films, Milestone’s catalog could make it habit-forming.

Students of early cinema will be absorbed by the two pictures on this disc, which is a fine addition to any collection of silent film.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.