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|Wednesday, March 12th, 2014|
|You can judge a civilization by its level of prostitution.
Jean-Pierre Melville loved American movies, so naturally he jumped at the chance to make one of his own here. The result, shot on the streets of New York City, was 1959's Two Men in Manhattan
, in which Melville himself plays a reporter for the French Press Agency who is one of the two men tasked with tracking down a missing French United Nations delegate. The other, alcoholic photographer Pierre Grasset, is decidedly the more cynical of the two, but he's the one who has an inside line on who the wayward diplomat may have been shacking up with.
From the Mercury Theater (where they talk to an actress during intermission) to Capitol Records (where they question a singer between takes) to a Brooklyn burlesque club (where we're treated to a matter-of-fact topless scene), Melville and Grasset go down the list of potential mistresses, even making a pit stop at a French-Chinese cat house to check on one who "specializes in diplomats." Other New York landmarks that Melville photographs like the tourist he is are the UN building (both inside and out), Rockefeller Plaza (to drive home that this all takes place two days before Christmas), and Times Square. He even gets a few shots of himself riding the subway, that quintessential New York mode of public transportation.Two Men
is by no means a pretty picture -- and I'm not just talking about the fact that it was made on what was evidently a very tight budget. It's fairly misogynistic in parts and, in one regrettable scene, blatantly homophobic. (Melville makes a crack about Grasset's "landlady," who is in fact an effeminate -- and easily shocked -- gay male.) There is, however, no denying how jazzed Melville was to be making a movie in the States, which is naturally reflected in all the jazz on the soundtrack. Even if he never left France again, he could at least say he got his New York movie out of his system.
|It's never simple with you, is it?
When romance flames out in a spectacular fashion, are both parties irrevocably burned by the experience or are they capable of rekindling their passion years later? That's the central question posed by François Truffaut's 1981 film The Woman Next Door
, in which Gérard Depardieu's quiet life in a tiny French village is disturbed when ex-lover Fanny Ardant moves into the house across the street with her new husband (Henri Garcin). Depardieu, too, has settled down with a wife (Michèle Baumgartner) and small boy, but neither of their domestic arrangements can erase the undeniable attraction they still feel for each other.
In his defense, Depardieu does try to head things off at the pass by pretending to work late when Baumgartner invites their new neighbors over for dinner, and he steers clear of Ardant as much as he can without raising suspicion, but all it takes is one kiss in a parking garage (after she's cornered him at the supermarket) and it's only a matter of time before they start meeting in hotels and so forth. From that point on, all of their public interactions are marked by the increasing strain of keeping their affair secret, although local tennis club owner Véronique Silver is wise to it pretty much from the start. That makes sense since she's the character Truffaut and his co-writers Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel chose to narrate the film. Based on her own experiences, she's well-versed in the fallout that doomed love affairs are prone to.
|I didn't think there were girls like you left in the world.
A power outage at my place of employment has given me an unexpected day off, so I figured now would be a good time to clear out some of the movies that have been gumming up my DVR. First up is Luchino Visconti's Le notti bianche
, which he co-wrote and directed in 1957 at the famed Cinecittà Studios, taking full advantage of its facilities to craft an exquisite melodrama about two lonely people who find temporary solace in each other's arms. Based on a story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which means no one should go into it expecting there to be a happy ending, Le notti bianche
(which translates to "White Nights") stars Marcello Mastroianni as a recent arrival in the city (never identified, but definitely Rome) who becomes smitten with Maria Schell, a young woman he encounters crying to herself on a bridge. Schell proves to be rather mercurial -- sad and standoffish one minute, warm and ingratiating the next -- but Mastroianni doesn't find out why she's playing so hard to get until she tells him about the handsome lodger (Jean Marais) she fell in love with who abruptly left her, promising to return in a year. Now it seems the year is up, so Schell is haunting the places Marais used to take her in the hopes of reuniting with him.
Working in luminous black and white, Visconti is at the top of his game here, eliciting wonderfully disarming performances from his leads and, with the aid of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, staging and framing the action perfectly. I was especially taken with the elegant transitions in and out of Schell's flashback, and the compositions and depth of field in the opening shots of Mastroianni wandering the cold, empty streets are positively breathtaking. Then there's Nino Rota's luscious score, which is counterpointed by Bill Haley & His Comets' "Thirteen Women," one of the songs Mastroianni and Schell dance to on their one and only "proper" date. I sure hope it was memorable enough for him.
|Sunday, March 9th, 2014|
|The truth may not set you free.
In an interview near the end of Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate
, Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is asked what he thinks about "the WikiLeaks movie" and he asks "Which one?" before deriding the very one he's in. It isn't stated explicitly, but I imagine the other one he's referring to is Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
, which goes beyond Condon's film to include the sexual assault charges that have dogged Assange since 2010, as well as an interview with one of his accusers, whose face is obscured at her request. No wonder Assange isn't a fan.
In addition to profiling Australia's most infamous hacker (and touching on the notoriety he enjoyed in Melbourne in the early '90s), We Steal Secrets
also doubles as a mini-bio of intelligence analyst/whistle-blower Bradley Manning, whose story is inextricably linked to the rise and fall of WikiLeaks. Even if Gibney doesn't secure an interview with Assange, who demanded a fairly substantial fee to appear on camera, he had plenty of footage to work with since Assange's activities both before and after the release of the Afghan War Logs were well-documented. And when that doesn't suffice, he can splice in clips from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(for when Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned Manning in, makes reference to the Kobayashi Maru), WarGames
and (very briefly) Hackers
. In the end, though, it still feels like we haven't gotten the whole story. I guess that will be up to the next WikiLeaks movie.
|Remember, you're not looking for merit. This is a cynical business. We seek only imperfection.
In Ridley Scott's The Counselor
, life isn't cheap so much as it is intrinsically worthless. Then again, I should probably attribute that to novelist/first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy since that is a theme which appears to run through much of his work. In The Counselor
, McCarthy takes the fatalistic worldview that informed No Country for Old Men
and The Road
and applies it to a drug deal that goes bad for the unnamed title character (Michael Fassbender), a heretofore straight-arrow lawyer seeking relief from some pressing money problems, almost from the moment he agrees to go in on it. Then again, the way McCarthy lays out the plot, it's clear that it was going to go south whether Fassbinder was involved or not. He just chose the wrong time to go into business with high-living club owner Javier Bardem (sporting his second frightful hairdo in a McCarthy film) and cautious middleman Brad Pitt.
A fairly unsubtle predator/prey theme is introduced in Bardem's very first scene, in which he and wife Cameron Diaz (playing a Barbadian without a trace of an accent since it was eliminated in post) watch their pet cheetahs chase jackrabbits in the desert. This is echoed in a later scene where Diaz appraises the diamond engagement ring Fassbender bought in Amsterdam (from Bruno Ganz) for fiancée Penélope Cruz. Since they're poolside, it's impossible to miss the cheetah spots tattooed on Diaz's back and shoulders, which I suppose makes Cruz the jackrabbit. She's certainly set up to be the innocent victim pretty much from the get-go.
All the while, Scott and McCarthy show us the progress of the drug shipment from its origin point in Juarez, Mexico, where it's loaded into a septic tanker truck, and the work that goes into shanghaiing it after it crosses the border into the States. (As horrible as it may seem, one has to admire the ingenuity of the process by which a motorcyclist is relieved of his head.) Before the shit has the chance to hit the fan, though, they drop in scenes like the one where Diaz goes to a priest to "confess" her sins, which have to include the time she fucked Bardem's Ferrari, which he subsequently had to get rid of. ("You see something like that," he says after relating the story to Fassbender, "it changes you.") Also, once Pitt tells Fassbender about a particularly gruesome method the drug cartels use to behead their enemies, it's a given that we'll be seeing it in action before everything is over and done with. I know I would have been disappointed if I hadn't.
|Saturday, March 8th, 2014|
|If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.
Whenever I watch a movie -- even one I've seen before -- I generally take a lot of notes. Tonight, though, I hardly took any because Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused
is the preeminent hangout movie, and when you're hanging out with old friends are you in the habit of taking note of what they do and who said what? Didn't think so. This is not to say I consider any of the characters in Dazed
my friends -- old or otherwise -- but Linklater's way with an episodic film is such that few single episodes stand out from the rest (even if certain lines of dialogue do).
It all starts with a high school quarterback (Jason London) getting presented with a pledge that he's expected to sign saying he will refrain from drinking and smoking, and it ends with him tossing it in his coach's face and taking a road trip with a potential pedophile (Matthew McConaughey) to get Aerosmith tickets. In between, London and his friends drink a lot of beer and smoke a lot of weed and a few asses are beaten. End of story. Okay, maybe there's a bit more to it than that, but the saga of The Pledge is the closest Dazed
ever gets to a story with stakes, and even those are pretty low considering they're just about whether one senior will decide to play football or not. Hardly what anyone would call a life or death decision.
Wisely, Linklater gives the audience a pair of surrogates in the form of two incoming freshmen (Wiley Wiggins and Christin Hinojosa) who endure the barbaric and humiliating initiation rituals inflicted upon them and, as a reward, get to hang out with the cool kids for the night. He also gives me a trio of characters I can relate to (misfits Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi), even as I recognize just how insufferable Goldberg is at times. To be perfectly frank, I can stand him a lot more than Rory Cochrane's stoned ramblings.
|I am here. I don't know how I got here.
To follow his "Europa Trilogy," Lars von Trier conceived with story collaborator Tómas Gislason and screenwriter Niels Vørsel an epic television event about a deeply dysfunctional Danish hospital where ethical lapses and supernatural shenanigans are the norm rather than the exception. The result was The Kingdom
, the first series of which premiered in 1994, with the second to follow three years later. (I'm sure I won't wait that long to get to it, though.)
One of the most compulsively watchable things Von Trier has ever directed (with Morten Arnfred), The Kingdom
introduces a great many characters and subplots over the course of its first four and a half hours, but never feels overstuffed or like it's giving any of them short shrift. The man who's most front and center, though, is irascible Swedish consultant neurosurgeon Ernst-Hugo Järegård, whose autocratic style doesn't go over too well with the medical professionals and patients he has to deal with on a daily basis. The one who receives the brunt of his ire is junior registrar Søren Pilmark, who's in the bad habit of overstepping his bounds, at least in Järegård's not so humble opinion. He also has to put up with the irritating management style of administrator Holger Juul Hansen, who has brainstorms like the "Operation Morning Breeze" initiative and insists on Järegård joining The Sons of the Kingdom, a secret society that holds as much interest for him as the herbal remedies and Haitian voodoo rituals his secret lover, fellow doctor Ghita Nørby, is always going on about.
Other thorns in Järegård's side include the threat of a malpractice suit after he botches an operation and the persistence of spiritualist Kirsten Rolffes, who keeps checking herself into the hospital -- much to the consternation of her son, porter Jens Okking -- so she can solve the mystery of the ghostly girl that haunts it. Meanwhile, Pilmark gets a love interest of his own in the form of fellow neurologist Birgitte Raaberg, who doesn't put him off when she reveals she's pregnant with her previous boyfriend's child, and gangly medical student Peter Mygind (who believes he can be blasé about his studies since he's Hansen's son) confirms his crush on nurse Solbjørg Højfeldt, who monitors the hospital's sleep laboratory, by presenting her with the head of a cadaver, which puts him in dutch with pathologist Baard Owe. In the interest of keeping everything straight for the audience, von Trier and Arnfred frequently cut away to a pair of dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers, both of whom have Down syndrome) who curiously seem to know what's going on. Oh, yes. And Udo Kier in there as well, but he doesn't have much to do until the final episode, when the whole edifice threatens to come crashing down.
To be sure, plenty of what goes on in The Kingdom
is horrific (or at the very least unsettling), but as in Epidemic
, there is an undercurrent of black comedy that runs through it as well. From Järegård's rooftop cries of "Danish scum!" to von Trier's direct addresses to the audience over the closing credits of every episode, it should be clear as day that nobody should take it too seriously. Alternately, as von Trier himself says, "Should you wish to revisit the Kingdom, be prepared to take the Good with the Evil!"
|Tuesday, March 4th, 2014|
|I don't go on a trip every day of my life.
The eighth time was the charm for Geraldine Page, who finally won an Academy Award for 1985's The Trip to Bountiful
. It was her fourth nomination for Best Actress (after Summer and Smoke
, Sweet Bird of Youth
, and Interiors
) and one of her most demanding roles, but she proved to be more than up to the task. Written by Horton Foote, based on his own play, and directed by Peter Masterson, the film stars Page as Mrs. Watts, an elderly widow who lives in Houston, Texas, with her respectful son Ludie (John Heard) and intolerable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), with whom she has a less-than-amicable relationship. Seeking to return to her hometown one last time before she dies, Mrs. Watts hides her pension check from Jessie Mae and sneaks away one morning when she's left on her own after one of her "sinking spells." She's undeterred, though, when she's informed at the station that there are no trains to Bountiful and resolves to get there by bus (which was likewise discontinued its service to that dried-up town).
If I had to choose one word to describe Mrs. Watts, it would be "determined." For Page's performance, it would be "devastating," particularly for the scene on the bus where she regales a fellow passenger (Rebecca De Mornay, who's largely along for the ride) with her life story, which she is able to do without resorting to histrionics. If any one scene earned Page her Oscar, it was that one. For from going it alone, though, she's backed up by a terrific ensemble, with everyone pulling their own weight, just as her character is helped along by just about everyone she encounters. Even the sheriff (Richard Bradford) who could have easily brought her journey to an abrupt end twelve miles short of her destination comes through for her when it counts. The law's the law, but sometimes you can just tell when bending it is the right thing to do.
|Saturday, March 1st, 2014|
|Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.
Throughout his career, master animator Hayao Miyazaki has returned time and again to his fascination with flight in general and flying machines in particular. From Nausicaä
to Castle in the Sky
to Kiki's Delivery Service
to Porco Rosso
to On Your Mark
to Spirited Away
to Howl's Moving Castle
(and plenty of other films in between), he has seen fit to include characters who either want to fly very badly or have an inborn talent to. That's why it's so appropriate that his latest feature, The Wind Rises
, which may turn out to be his last if he's serious about his retirement announcement this time, is centered on a man whose desire to be a pilot is scuttled by his nearsightedness, so instead he pours his passion into designing planes for others to fly.The Wind Rises
has attracted a certain amount of controversy because it's based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who built the Zero fighter for the Japanese Navy, but when we meet him as an idealistic youth he wants nothing more than to design beautiful airplanes. Reality, alas, conspires to make him apply his talents to the empire's ever-expanding war machine, which he's decidedly ambivalent about if his vivid and fantastical dreams are anything to go by. (In one, he meets Italian aero engineer Giovanni Caproni, who becomes his long-distance mentor of sorts.) Miyazaki follows Jiro to university and then to Mitsubishi, where he's put on the Falcon Project, which literally goes down in flames, before he's allowed to take the lead on his own.
Meanwhile, Jiro reconnects with Naoko, a girl he met-disastrously during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Theirs is a doomed love, though, owing to her persistent tuberculosis, which Jiro chooses to overlook so they can be together. At the same time, Mitsubishi works to protect him from the secret police, who more than likely want to speak to him about his association with a German pacifist (voiced in the English dub by Werner Herzog; I'm sure he's great, but I made a point of catching the subtitled version since I was given the option). His loyalty is no longer in question, though, once his design for the Zero passes with flying colors and goes into production. After its wildly successful demonstration, one can't fault Miyazaki for skipping past the war years (although plenty of people have). As far as Jiro was concerned, the less said about what the government chose to do with his work, the better.
|Friday, February 28th, 2014|
|Some things are unforgivable.
For his follow-up to the Academy Award-winning A Separation
, Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi looked to the The Past
, as do most of his characters. Chief among them is Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who flies to Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce from Marie (a ferocious Bérénice Bejo), a pharmacist with two daughters, both from a previous marriage that also went sour. Teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is on the outs with her mother due to her intense dislike of her new beau Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaner with a young son and a wife in a coma. Younger daughter Léa (Jeanna Jestin), meanwhile, just likes to play with Samir's son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who is very standoffish with Ahmad at first. (Gee, I wonder why.) The longer Ahmad sticks around, the more he gets involved in their lives, in spite of the fact that he made the trip specifically to disentangle himself from them.
As it turns out, there are a great many entanglements, not all of which stem from the dissolution of Ahmad and Marie's marriage (which is carried out in an extremely civil fashion when they have their day in court). Rather, the big question becomes who bears primary responsibility for putting Samir's wife in her coma. (In true The Trouble with Harry
fashion, the blame shifts from person to person as more information comes to light.) By the time Samir's illegal worker Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani) gets added to the mix, one begins to see the wisdom of Ahmad's friend, restauranteur Shahryar (Babak Karimi), who advises him, "Don't get sucked back into this." Ahmad's a born fixer, though, as we've already seen in the scene where he unclogs Marie's sink. As much as he'd like to stay out of it, he can't help trying to put things right.
|Thursday, February 27th, 2014|
|Always stand by your first count. Odds are, you're right.
British director Mike Hodges spent a fair amount of time in the commercial wilderness before emerging in 1998 with Croupier
, a welcome return to form and the film that effective introduced Clive Owen to the world. A tightly constructed neo-noir/character study written by Paul Mayersberg (whose screenwriting CV includes Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth
, as well as Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
), it cast Owen as a croupier who thinks he can deal with gamblers without having to play with them. Suffice it to say, before the wheel stops spinning, that belief gets called into question.
As the story opens, Owen's Jack Manfred is a struggling novelist (his literary aspirations foregrounded by his wry narration) who takes a job at the Golden Lion casino in London at the behest of his father (Nicholas Ball), a professional gambler who always calls him from one casino or another. (This goes a long way toward explaining why Jack never gambles himself.) Jack's girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a former policewoman-turned-store detective, believes in him, but his publisher (Nick Reding) wants him to write a tawdry page-turner about a sexed-up footballer, which runs counter to the adage "write what you know." And what Jack knows is the world of casinos, having worked in one in South Africa before emigrating.
Once installed at the Golden Lion, Jack finds his protagonist in crooked croupier Matt (Paul Reynolds), who's gaming the system and living an approximation of the high life, and gets mixed up with a couple of women, one of whom he immediately pegs as "trouble." That's co-worker Bella (Kate Hardie), with whom he has an ill-advised liaison outside of work, but the one he really should be watching out for is punter Jani (Alex Kingston), a fellow South African who asks for his help because her creditors need an inside man to pull off a robbery at the casino. How Hodges and Mayersberg (who rightfully share the film's possessory credit) tie everything together, I will leave for you to discover. Should you have the 94 minutes to spare, I reckon you'll find it's worth the gamble.
|Wednesday, February 26th, 2014|
|You underestimate the danger of this disease.
The impish Lars von Trier that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2003's The Five Obstructions
was already present and accounted for in his second feature, 1987's Epidemic
, the middle part of his "Europa Trilogy." In it, von Trier and his co-writer, Niels Vørsel, lose the script they've been working on for the past year and a half (which has the unpromising title The Cop and the Whore
) and decide to ditch it and write something "more dynamic" in the five days they have to come up with a replacement. In no time at all, they settle on a title -- Epidemic
, which is superimposed on the screen as it is typed in and stays there, effectively burned in for the remainder of the running time -- and research the great plagues on the past looking for just the right one to dramatize.
What they come up with is the story of Dr. Mesmer (also played by von Trier), a renegade epidemiologist who leaves the supposed safety of the city for the surrounding country, little realizing he's carrying the plague with him and doing more to spread it than eradicate it. In addition to the causal relationship between reality (von Trier and Vørsel writing Epidemic
, shot in grainy 16mm) and fiction (the actual scenes they're writing, shot in 35mm), another layer is peeled back with the addition of a ponderous voice-over that narrates the screenwriting scenes, describing the actual plague that is creeping up on the young filmmakers and is due to break out the moment they complete their script. That, incidentally, comes in well short of the 150 pages the film institute (which is footing the bill for the project) is expecting, but von Trier invites a couple of surprise guests to dinner with their liaison to help sell him on it.
Speaking of surprise guests, Udo Kier pops in for a few scenes when von Trier and Vørsel take an unmotivated road trip to Germany, followed by an unexpected visit to a hospital and a trip to the pathology department which may very well have inspired von Trier's television miniseries The Kingdom
, made in two parts the following decade. I won't know for sure about that, though, until I check it out for myself, which I plan to do in the near future. I don't know what it is about it, but this von Trier fellow's work is worth catching.
|Tuesday, February 25th, 2014|
|How terrible is knowledge when knowing is useless to he who knows.
Not long after tackling The Gospel According to St. Matthew
, Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted another classic text with his 1967 version of Oedipus Rex
, which ditches much of Sophocles's dialogue in favor or emphasizing the ritual (and cyclical) nature of the story. To do this, Pasolini dramatizes every stage of the title character's life, starting when he's an infant being breastfed by his mother Jocasta (Silvana Mangano, who also played the mother in the following year's Teorema
) and including when he's left to die in the rocky wilderness by his father Laius (Luciano Bartoli), the King of Thebes who fears the prophecy that says his own son will rise up and kill him. Bound hand and foot, baby Oedipus (so named because of his swollen feet) is rescued by an old shepherd and brought to the King and Queen of Corinth (Ahmed Belhachmi and Alida Valli), who promptly adopt him. After he grows up to be a hotheaded young man (Franco Citti), Oedipus leaves them to seek answers at Apollo's shrine and is told point-blank he will kill his father and make love to his mother. Not wishing to do that to his nice (unbeknownst to him adoptive) parents, he flees Corinth and finds himself headed in the direction of Thebes, where, at a literal crossroads, he encounters Laius, whose entourage refuses to let him pass unmolested and, well, this is how tragedies happen, people.
Following his unwitting patricide, things quickly fall into place for Oedipus. First, he meets a messenger named Angelo (Pasolini's young lover Ninetto Davoli, who played virtually the same role -- with one extra syllable -- in Teorema
) who takes him to blind man Tieresias (Julian Beck). The prophet doesn't have much to say right away, so it's up to Angelo to tell him of the dreaded Sphinx which has been bedeviling the people of Thebes. Instead of busting out his famous riddle for Oedipus, though, the Sphinx barely has time to say, "There's an enigma in your life. What is it?" before he is dispatched. From there, Oedipus goes on to marry Jocasta, just as Apollo's oracle predicted, and brings a plague down on the land, prompting high priest Pasolini to come to him begging for a solution. (This is the point where Sophocles comes in.) When all the evidence points to Oedipus himself being responsible, he rails against anybody (like Tieresias) who dares to suggest such a thing and only slowly comes to accept it himself. Once he does, he's quick to exact his own punishment and is whisked away to modern-day Rome along with Angelo, who acts as the now-blind former king's guide. This, by the way, neatly mirrors the opening of the film, which places the action somewhat earlier in the 20th century, namely fascist Italy based on the snazzy military uniform Laius wears when, thinking of Jocasta, he tells his baby boy, "She will be the first thing you rob from me." Turns out he got the order a little wrong.
|Sunday, February 23rd, 2014|
|Morals aside, it's about how you're perceived.
While I would never begrudge anybody the ability to make a living, especially in the entertainment industry, it was disheartening to see director Bill Condon tied up with the last two Twilight
movies when he could have been working on something more substantial. Accordingly, I was pleased to learn that his first post-Breaking Dawn
project was to be The Fifth Estate
, about the rise of WikiLeaks and its charismatic founder and figurehead, Julian Assange. However one feels about the man and his website, it can't be denied that knowing their shared story is key to understanding the way recent history has been shaped and recorded. Pity the film itself isn't nearly as compelling as it could have been.
Told primarily from the point of view of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), Assange's right-hand man back when WikiLeaks was essentially a two-man operation, The Fifth Estate
opens in 2010 with the coordinated release of the Afghan War Logs by UK's The Guardian
, Germany's Der Spiegel
and The New York Times
, then doubles back to Berg's first face-to-face meeting with Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who brings him into the fold in the process of exposing a corrupt Swiss bank. From there, WikiLeaks grows by leaps and bounds and demands more of Berg's time, leading to friction between him and his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander), who doesn't mince words when she calls Assange a "manipulative asshole." There's also friction between Assange and Berg after he recruits a hacker friend (Run Lola Run
's Moritz Bleibtreu) to help shore up the site's security, but that mostly stems from Assange's control-freak nature, which Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer don't attempt to downplay (nor, to his credit, does Cumberbatch).
As WikiLeaks becomes bolder about the nature of its leaks, it gains the attention of the U.S. State Department (represented by diplomats Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) and the NSA (represented by deputy Anthony Mackie), as well as the mainstream press in the guise of Guardian
reporter David Thewlis and his editor (the tragically underused Peter Capaldi). All the while, Condon and his visual effects team work overtime to make things like text messaging, file uploading and data manipulation seem cinematic, which has been a problem for films about computer hackers going back at least as far as WarGames
. That it still hasn't been cracked three decades later is a strong indicator that it never will be.
|Saturday, February 22nd, 2014|
|He was the first person that was famous for things you're supposed to hide.
His subject had been dead for over a decade when director Yony Leyser made the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
, but the uncompromising writer left behind such a wealth of footage that there was no way his voice and presence wouldn't dominate a film about him. Called the "godfather and mentor of the Beats" by one interviewee, Burroughs had no shortage of admirers in his lifetime, and a great many of them show up here to pay tribute to him. They include such filmmakers as John Waters, Gus Van Sant (whose Burroughs-starring short A Thanksgiving Prayer
is excerpted), and David Cronenberg, actor Peter Weller (who also narrates), and musicians ranging from Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith (both of whom collaborated directly with him) to Iggy Pop and Jello Biafra (who wrote songs inspired by Burrough's work) to Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth (who contributed to the film's musical score). And in the interest of reflecting Burroughs's hobbies, Leyser also speaks to his personal gun dealer and a professional snake handler. Talk about leaving no stone unturned.
|Who'd expect an assistant bank manager to crack his own safe?
By far, the most compact film in the Eclipse set "The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara" is 1960's Intimidation
, which clocks in at a lean 65 minutes. A taut crime drama about an assistant bank manager on the rise who gets himself into a tight spot and the meek underling he trampled all over on his way up, it's the perfect prelude to Kurahara's explosive follow-up, The Warped Ones
, which was released the same year.
Appropriately enough, the film opens with a brazen act of intimidation (the first of many) as a trench coat-clad ne'er-do-well in sunglasses named Kumaki (Kojiro Kusanagi) forces his way into a bank after hours and asks to see the assistant manager, Takita (Nobuo Kaneko). As it turns out, Takita is at his farewell party, having been promoted to the head office, so Kumaki has to catch with him at home to blackmail him to the tune of three million yen. Before that, though, Takita's childhood friend Nakaike (Akira Nishimura) prostrates himself before him as usual, earning Nakaike the ire of his bitter sister Yukie (Mari Shiraki), who has worked as a geisha ever since Takita threw her over to marry the president's daughter. (How else do you think he secured that promotion?) Everything Takita has worked for is threatened, though, by Kumaki's outrageous demand, which it seems he can only meet by robbing his own bank.
What's that, you say? Not twisty enough? Okay, what if I told you the hapless Nakaike pulls night duty the very same night Takita has to break in, forcing the masked manager to make his already-cowed clerk open the safe at gunpoint? I swear, some guys just can't catch a break.
|Friday, February 21st, 2014|
|It is very complicated to send things from here.
Much like her contemporary Wim Wenders would later do in his 1985 film Tokyo-Ga
, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman paints an outsider's portrait of New York City in 1977's News from Home
. The difference between them is Akerman's methodology is a lot more formalized -- there are about 60 individual shots in the 85-minute film, which translates to an average shot length of just under a minute and a half, although there are some that run quite a bit longer. Akerman also eschews straightforward narration, choosing instead to read a series of letters from her mother, who opens many of her missives with "Dearest little girl," and closes them with "Your very loving mother."
At the outset, Akerman only gives us fixed shots of New York street scenes, but as the film progresses she start throwing in some pans and other moving shots and takes us for a few rides on the subway, reflecting her increasing familiarity with the city and its environs, but not necessarily its denizens, few of whom even take notice of the camera crew that is filming them for posterity. (As her mother's letter reveals, she has recently moved there and is so busy with her work that she doesn't write back as often as her mother would like.) Meanwhile, her growing distance from home is indicated by the way the street and subway sounds periodically drown out the voice-over-narration, which Akerman rushes through to get it over with.
There are some hints of homesickness, though, like the luggage store Akerman returns to at different times of the day with a big sign in the window announcing a "CLEARANCE SALE." (This is especially prominent when the store window is lit up at night.) And her mother's repeatedly expressed desire for her to come home is echoed by the sign next to a parking garage attendant declaring, "We are always open." Then there is the final shot, highly reminiscent of the one that closes Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation
, that is taken off the back of a ferry as it slowly pulls away from the island of Manhattan, ending with a panorama of the skyline through the morning fog. Perhaps "little" Chantal is ready to go home after all.
|Thursday, February 20th, 2014|
|This is our history. And it isn't to be stolen or destroyed.
Over the past baker's dozen years, George Clooney has directed five features, spaced roughly three years apart. His latest, The Monuments Men
, was originally slated to be released in December, which would have represented a slight acceleration in that schedule, but even with the two-month delay to apply a few finishing touches, it's pretty obvious that the film needed more time in the oven. As it is, the version now out in theaters has the whiff of something that means well and has a crystal-clear sense of its own importance, but is decidedly half-baked. (I promise that will be my last baking metaphor.)
Written by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, The Monuments Men
-- much like John Woo's Windtalkers
before it -- squanders its fascinating true-life war story by fashioning it into a prestige picture full of eloquent speeches (many of them delivered by Clooney) about the value of art and the importance of protecting our cultural heritage, even at the cost of human lives. It also commits the cardinal sin of stranding capable actors like Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and Jean Dujardin in go-nowhere subplots and splitting them up for long stretches when the best scenes are the ones where they get to interact with each other. At least Bill Murray and Bob Balaban look like they're having the time of their lives with their contentious double-act (the origin of which is never explained), but whenever the other Monuments Men dominate the action this lumbering film works way too hard to justify both their mission and its own existence. Sad as it is to say, we can add this to the short list of Clooney's failures.
|Wednesday, February 19th, 2014|
|The world wants to see you, Linda. But they only want to see you do one thing.
Four decades after it became a cultural phenomenon, "porno chic" progenitor Deep Throat
remains one of the most infamous adult films ever made, so much so that it has inspired two feature films -- one a documentary and the other a Linda Lovelace biopic -- in recent years. The latter, which was released in 2013, is simply called Lovelace
and stars Amanda Seyfried as the reluctant "poster girl for the sexual revolution" (a phrase that gets repeated to make sure we don't miss it). Written by Andy Bellin and directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace
attempts to throw audiences expecting a standard-issue biopic a few curves by splitting it into two parts and repeating a number of scenes with slight (and some not-so-slight) differences. This is less successful than it could have been, though, especially for anybody who's familiar with Lovelace's post-Deep Throat
transformation into an anti-porn crusader.
In the film's upbeat first half, we get the "fairy tale" version where Linda meets charming sleazeball Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, rocking some super-'70s facial hair), who makes her "his" girl, takes her away from her suffocating mother (a virtually unrecognizable Sharon Stone) and hands-off father (Robert Patrick), and coaches her through her first blow job. All this, of course, is a prelude to her introduction to some sketchy pornographers (producer Bobby Cannavale, writer/director Hank Azaria, financier Chris Noth) who are impressed by Chuck's home movies of Linda deep-throating him and give her the starring role (as "herself") in Deep Throat
opposite the well-endowed Harry Reems (Adam Brody). This leads to fame (or infamy), fortune (but not for Linda or Chuck), and a private audience with Hugh Hefner (James Franco, late of Epstein & Friedman's Howl
), but six years later Linda is taking a lie-detector test so she can "set the record straight," triggering the film's less-rosy second half.
In a way, it's almost as if the front half is based on the "autobiography" we see Chuck dictating for Linda in the film's back half, which in turn is more in line with her 1980 tell-all Ordeal
. In addition to emphasizing Chuck's penchant for rough sex, physical abuse and pimping her out for a quick buck -- not to mention his mounting debts and drug addiction -- the latter scenes also depict how everyone in her life seems to turn on her (including her mother, who refuses to take her in when she runs away) or turn out to not be so nice. Even her appearance on The Phil Donahue Show
to promote her book opens her up for scorn and skepticism, most notably from Donahue himself. All the while, Epstein & Friedman engage in some obvious stunt casting, with Wes Bentley (from American Beauty
) as a sensitive photographer, Chloë Sevigny (performer of the silver screen's second-most famous blow job) as a feminist journalist, and Eric Roberts (three decades removed from playing the reprehensible Paul Snider in the Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80
) as the polygraph administrator. As with the rest of Lovelace
, the effort is noted, but it doesn't add up to much.
Anyone in the market for a comprehensive overview of Deep Throat
's long-term effects on the culture at large and on the people who made it would do well to seek out the chapter about it in Joe Bob Briggs's 2003 book Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History!
If, however, all you want is a cursory look at how a $25,000 porno grossed over $600 million, became fodder for Johnny Carson and Bob Hope monologues, and ignited a firestorm of controversy and a battery of obscenity trials, the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat
should fit the bill.
Directed by Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, who also made 2000's The Eyes of Tammy Faye
and 2003's Party Monster
, the film boasts interviews with writer/director Gerard Damiano and star Harry Reems, neither of whom reaped many rewards from Deep Throat
's runaway success, as well as fellow pornographers Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, and Al Goldstein, who are in a unique position to know how it altered their industry. On top of that, they rope in such luminaries as John Waters, Erica Jong (who needlessly debunks the scenario posited by the film), Dr. Ruth, Dick Cavett, Camille Paglia, Bill Maher, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Wes Craven (who admits to working on some adult films early in his career, but declines to give any titles), and Carl Bernstein (who did more than most to keep Deep Throat
in the public's consciousness). By far, though, the most entertaining interactions are with the film's location manager, who's hilariously dismissive about the whole enterprise, and one of its distributors, whose nagging wife keeps trying to get him to terminate the interview. Considering how much of Deep Throat
's business was tied into the mob, it's hard to blame her.
|Tuesday, February 18th, 2014|
|All of my experiments are directed towards the freeing of the creature imprisoned within.
For 1960's The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll
, its first stab at Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of man's dual nature and how it's a bad idea to encourage his baser instincts, Hammer Films turned to its most reliable director, Terence Fisher, and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, who added a twist to the story by making their Dr. Jekyll rather homely and his wicked alter ego Mr. Hyde the debonair gentleman. An intriguing concept, but it doesn't quite take due to how obvious the makeup job is on star Paul Massie, as well as the unnaturally deep voice he adopts to differentiate Jekyll from the suave, soft-spoken Hyde. (One has to wonder how Oliver Reed, who appears unbilled as a young tough who get roughed up by Hyde, would have handled the role.) Introduced espousing his unconventional views to a skeptical colleague (David Kossoff), Massie's Jekyll is presented as something of a prig, condescending to his wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) and completely oblivious to the torrid affair she's carrying on with his best friend Paul (Christopher Lee, in fine form).
When he loses the fake-looking facial hair and putty, Massie's Hyde is unrecognizable, which is why he's able to pal around with Paul, who takes him on a tour of London's lowlights (including an opium den), and openly flirt with Kitty without arousing suspicion. Hyde also takes up with an exotic dancer (Norma Marla) and grows more dominant as time goes on, emerging even after a regretful Jekyll has destroyed his formula. (In his own way, he's the proverbial toothpaste you can't get back into the tube.) Then, believing he's taken over completely, Hyde goes to great lengths to pin his crimes on Jekyll, leading to an inquest where his exploits are summed up in standard mad-scientist speak. ("The case of Dr. Jekyll is a solemn warning to us not to meddle in the divine pattern of nature.") The good doctor turns the tables on Hyde one last time, though, just in time to take his medicine.