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Category Archives: Roundup

Flick Clique: January 22-28

Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I just finished reading Mark Harris’ terrific book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. The book examines the simultaneous productions of the five films nominated for 1967’s Best Picture Oscar — Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and Doctor Doolittle — and how this particular slate of films challenged America’s film industry to become more edgy, small and youth-oriented after years of churning out bloated, creaky epics and musicals. It inspired me to check out those films again, starting with perhaps the most admired of the bunch, Bonnie and Clyde. I’ve liked this film ever since seeing it in college as part of a course on Warner Bros. movies; seeing it again after reading the Harris book revealed to me even more how different this film was in ’67 and the risks Warren Beatty and the other filmmakers were taking in doing it. The film does have a much more European outlook with its fatalistic lovers, straightforward violence, evocative, nontraditional music score, location filming, etc. I also seemed to take more notice of Faye Dunaway’s nervous energy as Bonnie. She wasn’t the first choice for that role, and was going through something of a rudderless period after having unpleasant experiences on her first two films. It really shows. That climactic shootout still blows me away, too.
Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011). This one had been on my wish list at DVD Talk for some time, but we ended up watching it on Netflix instant instead. Narrated by James Franco, this documentary delves into the lives of legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames. Actually, “designers” is too limiting a term for them, since they worked across a wide swath of disciplines (industrial design, film, education, architecture). The film goes comprehensively into their marriage, their office in Venice, California, and that collective’s many projects (the Midcentury Modern chairs they’re so well-known for actually make up a tiny portion of the film). Although The Architect and the Painter rightfully reveres them as the Renaissance Couple of the 20th century, it also had the odd effect of changing my mind on them, individually. I always admired Ray, but the film reveals her as a brilliant but scatterbrained, eccentric pack rat. Charles comes through as a deep-thinking, endlessly curious fellow with charisma to spare — and I actually ended up liking him more than his wife. It’s not a completely glowing portrait, thankfully. The film goes into the strife that came with Charles and Ray taking credit for what people in the office did, and the filmmakers also interview the woman who was Charles’ mistress for a time. What most struck me is the sheer variety of stuff they worked on, and this film has the dizzying array of clips to prove it.
Final Destination 5 (2011). From the IMDb: “Survivors of a suspension-bridge collapse learn there’s no way you can cheat Death.” You know what that means — more beautiful people dying spectacular deaths!” These Final Destination flicks are pretty interchangeable, but this one has a few things in its favor (and it’s a huge improvement over the gimmicky, CGI-reliant part 4). The scene with the characters stranded on a suspension bridge while assorted flying construction debris, hot tar and strategically placed watercraft off them one by one is a wild ride, among the series’ most memorable set pieces. There’s also a neat twist, which reveals itself subtly (why are the cell phones so clunky?) over the film’s running time. The acting is still somewhat b-grade, but even that is part of the fun. I enjoyed seeing the guy who looked like the love child of Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller go progressively batty as the movie went on, for one.
Mildred Pierce (2011). Forget all those superhero blockbusters — this was the Film Event of 2011 that I was most eagerly anticipating. I was a bit leery of the idea of remaking Mildred Pierce for HBO, but as soon as I heard Todd Haynes was directing and Kate Winslet was starring, I was in. For the most part, it’s fantastic — subtly paced and performed, full of wonderful 1930s period detail, and completely faithful to James M. Cain’s original novel. That faithfulness, ironically, is what makes it somewhat less-than-perfect viewing. The 1945 Joan Crawford version took lots of liberties with the story and characters, but at least it was gritty and energetic (and a stunning example of high ’40s W.B. melodrama). Haynes’ rendition takes its own sweet time. For the most part it works beautifully, but it also makes the dated, soapy aspects of the story that much more apparent. Veda is a more cunning, evil child here, but also strangely sympathetic (both Morgan Turner and Rachel Evan Wood do great jobs playing her at different ages). Kate Winslet is a bit wimpy as Mildred, but I think that’s mostly because she’s written that way in the book. She does have two excellent scenes — when she’s tramping the streets of Depression era L.A. seeking a job (the lady does tired very well), and when she’s hearing Veda’s singing voice on the radio for the first time. I also enjoyed Guy Pierce, Brían F. O’Byrne, and James LeGros as the men in Mildred’s life. It was very evocative and absorbing. The contemplative pacing was totally appropriate — those 5-1/2 hours seemed to fly by.

Flick Clique: January 15-21

Aftershock (2010). China’s Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 is the catalyst for this ambitious family drama that we checked out on Netflix streaming this week (it was also one of the DVDs available for review at DVD Talk, but one of the other reviewers got to it first). It opens with vignettes showing a simple but loving family with two kids, a boy and a girl, in a semi-urban setting. While the parents are outside their modest apartment one night, a terrifying earthquake strikes. The quake instantly kills the father and levels the family’s apartment, leaving the frantic mother digging through the debris to find her children. With the help of rescue workers, the kids are found, alive but injured. The mom is relieved, but her devastation reaches a new low when the rescue workers tell her that they must kill one child to save the other. She tearfully chooses to save her son. While the daughter is left for dead with the other quake victims, she is actually alive and eventually ends up being adopted by a married pair of Maoist soldiers. How the family lives apart over the next thirty years makes up the bulk of the film, made in a more typically soapy (but still engrossing) way. The film is sparked by searing performances, especially from Fan Xu as the mother and Jingchu Xhang as the adult daughter. The direction and CGI effects in the earthquake scenes are exciting, but it’s the emotional resonance of the later scenes that affected me the most.
All Over Town (1937). I decided to check out another offering from the Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack this week. Going in chronological order, my next flick wound up being this plodding backstage yarn starring the team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Olsen & Johnson were best known for their Broadway and film success Hellzapoppin’, a supposedly hilarious and ground-breaking work (the film has been out of circulation for several decades). The considerably more low-profile All Over Town has them as a pair of luckless vaudevillians who, mistaken for millionaires, end up getting involved in mounting a variety show at a theater where a murder occurred. Like the other O&J film I’ve seen (Country Gentlemen, co-starring Joyce Compton), the plot is a paper-thin excuse for Olsen’s mugging and Johnson’s annoying, never-ending giggle. The film is a pretty dreadful affair, overall, but it does rebound somewhat with a frenetic finale that has Olsen giving a play-by-play rundown of the cops attempting to catch a killer running loose in the theater while the other actors, musicians and playgoers scramble to get out of the way.
Bigger Than Life (1956). I’ve always wanted to check out this Nicholas Ray-directed, James Mason domestic drama of prescription pill taking gone awry, going all the way back to my regular American Movie Classics (r.i.p.) watching days. Diehard movie buffs have a soft spot for Bigger Than Life, insisting it’s an overlooked treasure on par with Ray’s better known films like Rebel Without A Cause and They Live By Night. I finally got to see the Criterion edition and, well … it’s a pretty good (if overwrought) drama with some cool production design and camerawork. Scenery-chewing, miscast Mason plays a typical American schoolteacher who, stressed with two jobs and a family to support, ends up taking the experimental drug Cortisone to calm his nerves. The medication has deadly effects when not taken correctly, however, and sure enough Mason is scheming, lying and abusing his terrified wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) in the claustrophobic home-turned-sanitarium they share. The film is interesting, more campy than good (but not quite the screaming camp-o-rama that is Ray’s Johnny Guitar). What I liked most about the film is the design of the house set itself with its moody shadows and travel posters/maps on the walls that mock the closed-in, mounting dread the family undergoes. It also has some neat touches, like the bright red living room couch and the foyer rug with a chaotic stripe pattern. Mason (who also produced) is frankly awful, however – and the passivity of Rush’s character would drive anyone up a wall. It’s a watchable enough drama, but in terms of coded social commentary it doesn’t live up to something like Douglas Sirk’s glossy family dramas. All that Heaven Allows could kick this movie’s butt any time.
Private Hell 36 (1954). Like Aftershock, this was another Netflix stream that we caught this past week — and, triumpantly, it’s another winner! The grittyPrivate Hell 36 deals with a common theme in noir, what happens when men in authority are tempted into doing something they’re not supposed to (in this case, stealing laundered money). Howard Duff and Steve Cochran play cops who bust up a drugstore robbery and find that it involved a counterfeit fifty dollar bill. Tracking the bill to a seedy bar where Ida Lupino sings, they enlist Lupino’s help to find the man who trafficked the money. That man is eventually found, but the officers run his auto off the road, killing the driver. Finding a boxful of stolen money at the scene, Cochran (who has fallen for the manipulative Lupino) decides to steal some of the cash. Cochran convinces the straight-laced Duff into sharing the loot and hiding it in a trailer — could they get away with it? This was a nifty little crime drama that benefits from excellent casting and an absorbing storyline. Lupino and the shifty, swarthy Cochran have a dynamic repartee in this.

Flick Clique: January 7-14

Since my server has been having connecting issues, I’m publishing the Flick Clique today. It’s been a crazy week — Two Bunnies & A Duck has published its 100th, and final comic. I enjoyed drawing the bunnies and coming up with gags, but I’ve also realized that I’m not a gag cartoonist and never will be. It was too much work, and there wasn’t much incentive to keep going on (but I am thankful for Christopher’s cheerleading). With Bunnies, there were times when I was disappointed with the drawing but had a good gag, and other times when the drawing/coloring went well on a cartoon where the gag didn’t work. The entire run of Bunnies will be collected in a book, and that will be the end of that.
East Side of Heaven (1939). Fluffy Bing Crosby musical teams him up with pert Joan Blondell as a pair of romantically involved city dwellers who wind up involved in a wealthy family’s spat when he becomes the unwilling guardian of a kidnapped baby. Crosby is a singing taxi driver, Blondell his switchboard operator girlfriend, and Mischa Auer plays the goofy amateur astronomer who rooms with Crosby. The film has a bit of jazzy verve with some tasty production design (dig the Deco café below!) and tuneful if slight songs. The plot swings into action when C. Aubrey Smith’s millionaire wants to take possession of the baby grandchild belonging to his irresponsible son Robert Kent and his daughter-in-law Irene Hervey. Hervey, not wanting to lose her son, decides to abduct the baby and place him in the care of the most trustworthy person she knows, Crosby (who had just been fired for speaking out of turn on her behalf). Quite a cute film, but be warned that it ends up being All About The Baby in the second half! Personally, I have a strong aversion to babies in movies. The baby in question here is quite a happy ‘lil guy, but the filmmakers milk his cuteness to an annoying degree. Universal loved this one enough to star it in several “Baby Sandy” comedies, apparently. Go figure.

Harvest (2011). This understated German indie drama was a film I selected from the reviewers’ pool at DVD Talk. My review was just completed and can be seen here.
In Time (2011). Another disc that arrived from DVD Talk, surprisingly enough (I’ve requested a few mainstream films with them, but haven’t gotten too many as yet). You may recall that In Time was the Justin Timberlake “people with stopwatches on their forearms” sci-fi opus that came and went in theaters last Fall. We kept our expectations dialed a bit low for this one, but actually it’s a thoughtful and well-made film whose interesting premise only gets derailed a few times. In near-future L.A., time is a commodity. Upon their 25th birthday, people are given a certain amount of time for the remainder of their lives until the green stopwatch implanted in their wrists runs out. These stopwatches also have the ability to stop physical aging, so most of the population looks 25. These advances have created a quasi-police state in which the rich are sequestered in safe zones where they live out lives of leisure, while the less fortunate are forced into hard labor, crime and desperation to cling on to their remaining time. Timberlake’s character is part of the latter scene, eking out a living with his mom in a dingy apartment. When he comes across a suicidal rich man who gives him 100 years before offing himself, however, he winds up getting into the forbidden wealthy district with the cops in hot pursuit. He eventually meets bored rich girl Amanda Seyfried and the two go on a crime spree, hoping to unleash the time banks that are controlled by Seyfried’s powerful father (Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men). Will they bring equilibrium back to society? This was an interesting film, casting-wise, with similarly aged Timberlake (b.1979) and actress Olivia Wilde (b.1981) playing a child and parent, for instance. It doesn’t have a lot of showy CGI like other sci-fi outings, but I think the central concept is strong enough to stand on its own. The only weak link I found was Timberlake, who doesn’t bring a lot of depth to his character. This was written and directed by the un-prolific Andrew Niccol, whose earlier Gattaca shares a lot of similarities with In Time. There are a few flaws with the execution (like, why isn’t there more murder in this place where time is so easily exchanged?), but overall I found it intriguing and not nearly as bad as the reviews suggested.
Stonewall (1996). One of those ’90s gay films that has its adherents, I put this on my Netflix queue mainly because Guillermo Diaz (whom I enjoyed in Weeds) is in it. Diaz plays La Miranda, a fiery drag queen in 1969 New York. He meets Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), an out-and-proud midwesterner on his first foray in the city. The two become boyfriends amidst the turmoil of the emerging gay rights movement. Despite the title, the Stonewall Inn figures primarily as the setting for La Miranda and his drag friends to put on lip-synch shows set to campy girl group records by The Shangri-Las (these scenes, although pretty fun, aren’t too relevant to the story). The riot itself is confined to the final 10 minutes or so, which is disappointing. The film, on the whole, is an okay if disjointed effort with a distinct British feel (it kinda reminded me of gritty UK films from that period like Let Him Have It or Prick Up Your Ears). Most of the cast was all right. For a historical recreation of the Stonewall riots and what led up to them, I’d go for the recent PBS American Experience program on the subject. It’s much more illuminating and a whole lot less drag queeny.

Flick Clique: January 1-7

Apollo 18 (2011). A “found footage” look at what may have happened to the final Apollo moon landing mission in the early ’70s (hint: it involves interstellar crustaceans). The film follows three astronauts as they explore the moon’s surface in what was supposed to be a routine NASA mission. Soon they find evidence of an aborted Russian lunar landing, and then the mens’ real troubles begin. Much too contrived for my taste, and the methods the filmmakers used to make the footage look old came off as too artsy and deliberate (more like a music video than any real ’70s footage I’ve ever seen). Boring.
Cimarron (1931). Another Best Picture Oscar winner that I haven’t seen, and one I jumped at getting when the DVD edition turned up at Big Lots for three bucks! This was an all right, awfully creaky but enthralling Western saga about a family who journeys West during the Oklahoma land grab of the 1880s to settle in a town that literally grows right before our eyes. The cast is headed by blustery Richard Dix as a combo newspaper editor/lawyer named Yancey Cravat, with Irene Dunne as his supportive wife. This was based on a humungous Edna Ferber novel; like Ferber’s Giant it follows the story of family’s triumphs and tragedies from a past that many in the 1931 audience would have remembered right up until the present day. The direction is at time wondrous and stagy, and Dix’s acting style dates it (Dunne is only moderately better and miles away from her peak as a light comedienne). Still, I found it enjoyable in a campy way. The supporting cast is pretty good, including personal fave Edna May Oliver as the town’s clucking gossip. The finale, in which the townspeople gather to honor the now-elderly Dunne, is quite unintentionally funny. Keep in mind, however, that back in ’31 it must have been thrilling to see the massive changes that America underwent in such a short time, dramatized in the then-new medium of talking pictures.
Following (1998). This early, low-budget film from director Christopher Nolan is one of those things that we stumbled across amongst Netflix’s instant offerings. Shot in black and white and on a miniscule budget, Following is about a young British guy (Jeremy Theobald) who feels compelled to follow strangers around London hoping to get a peek into their lives. One of the people he follows catches on to his “hobby” and confronts him about it. The followed man turns out to be an arrogant petty thief named Cobb (Alex Haw), who eventually teaches the man how to break into peoples’ apartments without getting caught. One of the apartments they burgle belongs to an enigmatic blonde woman (Lucy Russell) whom the following man gets to know. Little does he know that it’s all part of a devious plan that Cobb (who already knew the woman) has set in place. Intriguing, Memento-ish film does a lot of interesting things on a tiny budget. It’s basically a student film with indie-level acting, but very well done and worth seeking out on Netflix.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011). Since this is Christopher’s first week of freedom after quitting his job, we celebrated by trucking down to the local cinema and seeing this lastest M:I entry. Although I’m still not much of a Tom Cruise fan, I have to admit that these Mission: Impossible movies keep getting better and better. The first one was okay if convoluted and too long, the second was something of a high tech Scooby Doo episode, but I was totally caught off guard by how exciting and fresh the J.J. Abrams-directed third installment was. Abrams still has a hand in this fourth one, only now the directing has been turned over to Brad Bird, the whiz behind The Incredibles. Was this Cruise’s idea? Because, wow, this is one tightly plotted, intricately done film. Bird seems very interested in depicting high-tech gadgetry that comes off as amazing, yet still plausible within this I.M.F. secret agent world. Cruise is back, of course, joined by a funny and adorable Simon Pegg from the previous installment. Rounding out the quartet of I.M.F. agents is Jeremy Renner as an accountant who proves to be much more kick-ass than he initially lets on (it seemed as though they’re grooming Renner to take Cruise’s place) and Paula Patton, who is a real find as a gorgeous yet intelligent agent who has revenge on her mind — the baddies’ hired assassin (Léa Seydoux) killed her agent boyfriend (Josh Holloway of Lost). There are some fun set pieces in Dubai and India, along with some clever plot twists that set the action forward in an interesting way. This is probably the best action film I’ve seen since Casino Royale (2006), or perhaps MI:3 (also 2006).
The Phantom of Hollywood (1974). This mostly forgotten TV movie was a recent purchase of mine from Warner Archive, which seems to be digging even deeper to bring its back catalog to made-to-order DVD. The film, about a menacing masked killer (played by Jack Cassidy) who stalks a crumbling old movie studio backlot which is about to be demolished, isn’t really much on the surface. There’s isn’t much of note from the cast, headed by Cassidy, Peter Lawford, Broderick Crawford and a few other oldsters. The story is also pretty bland and predictable. What’s amazing about this film is that MGM made it as a document of their Backlot 2, which really was in the process of being sold off and destroyed. Characters walk around the lot and describe the rusty building false fronts and what films they were in, which is really neat. There’s also a bit of sadness (and interest, in a train wreck way) when these historical structures are shown getting bulldozed down. That’s Hollywood for ya! Christopher got a great book about the MGM lot as a holiday gift; this film (as cheesy as it is) is a wonderful companion for that. Buy The Phantom Of Hollywood at Amazon here, and help a starving artist.
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964). As a confirmed ’60s music nut, I have been waiting for years to see this legendary concert film, a project that I’ve seen clips of but never the entire thing until its overdue DVD issue. The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed on a single night at the Santa Monica Auditorium to an audience of screaming kids and teens. They had every right to scream, too, since this one concert attracted every big pop music name at the time (minus The Beatles and Elvis!) – The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, Lesley Gore, Smokey & The Miracles, and James Brown (who delivers the most sweaty, feverish performance of the set). The film is loads of fun, if only to check out where music was at this transitional time. Squeaky clean acts like hosts Jan & Dean were the hottest things going at the moment, but their time was fading fast to the more complex Rolling Stones (who look utterly young here) and the Motown sound. Speaking of Motown, I particularly dug Marvin Gaye’s set backed by L.A. girl group The Blossoms, and the Supremes’s set is an early gem with the ladies performing from what was by then only their second album! Not everything in this film is a winner (stiff Billy J. Kramer, where did they find him?), but by and large it was a blast from the past worth waiting for.

Flick Clique: December 25-31

Hollywood Cavalcade (1939). Every New Year’s Eve, we have a brilliant idea of watching an older film that neither of us have seen previously. This year’s offering was this nostalgic 20th Century Fox musical melodrama (it looks like a musical, yet there’s no singing and little dancing) which delves into the early days of filmmaking. Alice Faye plays a budding Broadway actress who is induced to move West for the glory of early flickers by fast talking Don Ameche. Hearing that Ameche is a minor player in this bustling scenario nearly turns Faye off and back East, but she relents and ends up being groomed into a popular slapstick comedienne by the determined Ameche. She winds up falling for him, too, but he’s such a workaholic that he doesn’t notice until Faye skips off with her handsome co-star, Alan Curtis. This film was pretty to look at (shot in Technicolor) and quite amusing for vintage film buffs. I kept expecting it to go horribly wrong with the historical details as so many of these escapist flicks do, but surprisingly it gets the freewheeling spirit of early Hollywood right. The script contains lots of clever references to stars of the era, even going as far as casting people like Buster Keaton in small roles. Cute movie!
Home for the Holidays (1995). A movie that I recorded off our local ThisTV station just after Dec. 25th, commercials and all, but I always wanted to see this one. Jodie Foster directs, and in her favor it does have enthusiastic performances from a talented cast. The film is somewhat all-over-the-place thematically, but overall I enjoyed it. At the film’s start, Holly Hunter, as an art restorer, suddenly finds herself laid off as Thanksgiving approaches. Hunter is also coping with being single and nearly 40, dealing with a daughter (Claire Danes) who is ready to lose her virginity, and finally prepping to go back to Chicago to interact with her family and their assorted problems. The family includes nagging ma Anne Bancroft, patient pa Charles Durning, dotty aunt Geraldine Chaplin, manic gay brother Robert Downey Jr., straight-laced sister Cynthia Stevenson, and doormat brother-in-law Steve Guttenberg. There’s also Dylan McDermott as Downey’s guest, whom Hunter feels attracted to but is unsure to make a move since he might be her brother’s boyfriend. David Strathairn has a nice bit as an old friend of Hunter’s who still carries a torch for her. There are a lot of nice scenes here, peppered with zingy dialogue. The action gets a bit too cartoonish at times, and a little of Downey goes a long way (apparently he was strung out on heroin when making this), but I found that I could totally empathize with the Hunter character and her familial woes. It’s brutally honest about families and people who can’t relate to the seemingly random people whom they come from and the idea that we’re supposed to bond simply ’cause we’re family.
Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989). Watched this for a DVD Talk review. This animated opus looked really intriguing to me — I picked it mostly to see if it had any fidelity to the classic Winsor McKay comic strip it’s based on (not much), but watching it reveals a lot of other fascinating things. The film follows a young American boy in early 20th century America as he (and his pet squirrel) are invited into a dream kingdom called Slumberland, to be the official playmate of a spunky princess. After they arrive, circumstances cause the kingdom to be under attack by a nightmare catcher. Since Nemo winds up losing a precious key given to him by the princess’ father, it’s up to him and his new cigar-chomping pal Flick (voiced by Mickey Rooney) to find the demon before he threatens the state of reality itself. First and foremost, this felt like a conflicted movie that was torn between a Japanese aesthetic and a more commercial American feel. The characters were very Disneyfied and somewhat contrived, yet the lush animation and surreal imagery was distinctively Asian. As it turns out, the film had a thorny production — going all the way back to 1982! I can certainly see why this film has its adherents, it’s beautiful to look at and the Nemo character is an appealing hero. The script is a mess, however, with a vaguely defined villain and lots of aimless padding in the latter half. There’s also the regrettable touches to “Americanize” the film, including forgettable songs and stock characters (including that cute but ultimately pointless squirrel). Like Disney’s ’80s flop The Black Cauldron, this is a decent enough, one-time watch for animation fans. I wouldn’t go as far as recommending it, however. The test footage of this film, currently on YouTube, hints at what the film could have been:

Nancy Drew, Trouble Shooter (1939). Our first film of a 1939 double feature we did on New Year’s Eve. We actually came across the DVD with all four of the Warner Bros. Nancy Drew films at a local Goodwill recently. These little b-movies are quite zippy and fun, mostly due to the great casting of vivacious Bonita Granville, who is the very personification of the spunky sleuth. In all four flicks, she is joined by a regular cast of supporting actors including Frankie Thomas as her boyfriend and John Litel as her dad. Trouble Shooter is honestly the weakest of the films, with a lightweight plot in which the central mystery is almost an afterthought and too much silliness (including scenes with Willie Best as a stereotypical ghost fearin’, chicken stealin’ farmhand). The plot revolves around Nancy and her dad coming to the aid of an old family friend who has been wrongly accused of murder in a small country town. As always, Nancy is on the case! The marvelous chemistry between Granville and Thomas keeps this one afloat — until the pair get stuck on a capsized sailboat at film’s end, that is.
Séraphine (2009). Unexpectedly fantastic French biopic about a lowly cleaning woman who has a secret passion for creating wild paintings of flowers and fruit. In a rural town in 1914 France, portly, put-upon Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) is cleaning the home of a woman who is renting a room to a German art critic named Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). The man stays out of the way of the chatty yet prepossessing Séraphine, until he sees one of her artworks tossed on the floor of his landlord’s dining room. After finding out from the landlady that the art was Séraphine’s, he encourages the woman to make more art by buying her better quality supplies. Her talent is nurtured, but the onset of WWI prompts Uhde to flee the town. Several years later, Séraphine is still scraping by cleaning homes while privately painting. Uhde tracks her down, astonished to find her still living and working on her art. He arranges for the woman to have a monthly stipend and takes some of her pieces to France to sell to naive-art collectors. As her fame builds, however, her mental capacity decreases and she is institutionalized. Excellent film, played with a muted yet compelling truthfulness. This is one of the best artist bio flicks I’ve ever seen, actually. Yolande Moreau’s performance is unflinchingly raw as a woman whose creativity comes from a sphere beyond herself. She’s matched by Tukur as the sympathetic art critic. Highly recommended.
Wing and a Prayer (1944). This was a movie that I impulsively picked on Netflix instant one morning — I wanted to check out another movie with William Eythe, the handsome 1940s actor whose career was cut short when he entered into a same sex relationship with another actor. Eythe was pretty good in this 20th Century Fox patriotic flag-waver, playing an actor who is lying low serving on a Navy aircraft carrier during WWII (based on James Stewart?). The film is more of an ensemble piece depicting daily life on the carrier in a realistic manner. Along with Eythe, there’s Don Ameche as the commanding officer, Dana Andrews as a more experienced pilot, Charles Bickford as the gruff captain, along with Kevin O’Shea, Harry Morgan and Richard Jaekel as Eythe’s shipmates. Some of the characters dip into cliché (including the lovelorn, tragically fated guy who might as well be named “Ensign Deadmeat”), but overall I found this very enjoyable. The film was shot mostly on location at an aircraft carrier using extras who looked like real WWII soldiers, something which helps the film immensely even during its less believable moments (the climactic battle uses lots of backscreen projection). On a shallow note, there’s also a lot of hunky men in this film — mostly the extras, although dreamy actor Richard Crane is one of the more substantially seen hunks.

Flick Clique: December 11-17

Asylum Seekers (2009). This fanciful/surreal indie was the one film that Christopher picked from the myriad discs on the DVD Talk reviewer pile. The debut feature of writer/director Rania Ajami takes place in a dreamlike insane asylum in which a single slot is jockeyed for by six candidates with various strange afflictions (a gender-bending rapper, a girl who is addicted to online life, etc.). The would-be inmates are put through various performing antics under the watchful eye of a forbidding nurse, and ultimately they receive judgement from a mysterious figure known as The Beard. Ajami does some nice things with the photography on a limited budget, and the basic story holds some promise as a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-like romp. Unfortunately, the characters are set up as cartoonish beings with little depth and the film drags on and on with subplots going off on their own tangents (it would have worked infinitely better as a live action short). What most undoes this frustrating little film is the fact that Ajami’s visual style more or less liberally borrows from Terry Gilliam, only with not nearly as much depth or emotional resonance.
Cell 211 (2009). Gripping Spanish drama is one of the better prison films I’ve ever seen, despite a few implausibilities. The film follows recently hired prison guard named Juan (played by Alberto Ammann) as he receives an orientation at the high security prison where he’s set to start work on the following day. He becomes injured by falling debris and is placed in a cell vacated by a prisoner who killed himself. Before help can arrive, however, one of the more heavily guarded inmates escapes and sparks a riot amongst all of the prisoners. The main proponent, a gravely voiced gent named Malamadre (Luis Tosar), takes Juan under his wing, mistaking the man for another inmate. The prisoners negotiate for better conditions with the guards, who are aware that Juan is their mole. Disregarding the far-fetched idea that Malamadre would immediately take on a guy he just met as his right hand man, this was an absorbing, well-made film that amps up the tension with each passing minute. Ammann was great, and I dug Tosar’s intense performance. I’ve read that this film is getting an American remake, which sort of fills me with dread. Stay with the original, it’s nearly always better than some cheap-o copy.
Hot Coffee (2011). Another excellent documentary. Hot Coffee takes a look at the notorious court case from the early ’90s in which a woman sued McDonalds when she spilled a cup of their coffee on herself. You may remember it being a punchline on talk shows and the like, but the case itself was quite a serious matter which McDonalds lawyers and PR spun into a campaign to decrease what they termed “frivolous” lawsuits by consumers. The film then delves into tort reform and the often nefarious ways that big companies use their money and influence to make it harder for individuals to seek litigation. One of the things it explores is how successful tort reform laws were in Texas under governor George W. Bush and Karl Rove (boo, hiss) and how Bush used it as a campaign point for his presidency. This led to more bargaining power for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which is not a government agency as I thought), right up to the Supreme Court’s disgusting “Citizens United” decision on campaign finance regulation from earlier this year. It’s totally fascinating and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Over Exposed (1956). The other not-so-noir film on the Bad Girls of Film Noir disc I rented from Netflix. Like Women’s Prison, this film comes from the cheapie side of Columbia Pictures in the mid ’50s. Shapely Prison co-star Cleo Moore stars here as a sleazy but ambitious young woman who works her way up the career ladder with her feminine wiles and a camera. It opens with her being arrested on a clip joint bust. She befriends an older, alcoholic photographer (Raymond Greenleaf) who agrees to house her in his apartment/studio and teaches her the tricks of the trade. She moves to the big city and attempts to set up her own studio. While attempting to get her photos published, she befriends a reporter (Richard Crenna) who helps her get a job as a photographer at a swanky nightclub. Eventually she builds up her own successful commercial photography studio, but it all gets threatened when someone steals the photos she accidentally took of a local dowager’s death scene. An altogether forgettable film, but there are some snappy lines in the script to recommend it. Women’s Prison is the clear winner of the two.
The Universe of Keith Haring (2008). Straightforward but enthralling doc on the artist whose graffiti-inspired lines made for one of the indelible visual hallmarks of the 1980s. Director Christina Clausen interviewed an impressive array of people for this, including most of Haring’s family, contemporaries like Kenny Scharf, art dealers, scenesters, even the straight guy with whom Haring fell in love during the final years before his untimely death in 1990. It also has a ton of examples of his work, from full-scale murals to prints to objects from his Pop Shop empourium (remember that?). The film adequately conveys how incredibly prolific the guy was during a relatively short time. Neat doc, definitely worth seeking out on Netflix streaming (where I found it).