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GoneTara“Gone With the Wind” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 2, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

In the wake of “12 Years a Slave,” is it still possible to enjoy “Gone With the Wind” with the same enthusiasm with which it traditionally has been received?

That’s the question I asked myself as I sat down to watch the film for the umpteenth time…but the first time since seeing “12 Years a Slave.”

Steve McQueen’s 2013 historic drama – based on the true story of a free black man from New York who in the years before the Civil War was shanghaied by slave traders and sold to a Southern plantation owner  – was a grueling experience.

Making it particularly effective was the movie’s emphasis not only on the agonies slaves endured, but on the corrosive effect of the “peculiar institution” on the attitudes and personalities of wealthy whites who owned other human beings.

Overnight, “12 Years…” became the definitive cinematic statement about American slavery.

Not that “Gone With the Wind” – either in the form of Margaret Mitchell’s novel or the 1939 Oscar-winning film – was about slavery.  In fact, to the extent to which it was possible, the issue of slavery was avoided, glossed over, and trivialized.

The film isn’t history or sociology. It’s a melodramatic page-turner about spoiled rich hellcat Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her love/hate affair with courtly scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

Watching the film with an eye to how slavery is handled, I’ve concluded that Mitchell and especially the makers of the film had it both ways.

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I-origins-2“I ORIGINS” My rating: C (Opening July 25 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The temptation is to dismiss “I Origins” as an inscrutable mess. Except that it has been made with enough care and intelligence to make a reasonable viewer wonder if he/she hasn’t somehow missed the point.

At least  I certainly missed the point.

The latest from Mike Cahill — who in 2011 gave us a small classic of thinking-person’s sci-fi in “Another Earth” — is a sort of metaphysical science story. It seems initially like one of those yarns in which an atheistic scientist finds his beliefs (or lack thereof) rocked by his discoveries. But the film is so emotionally remote that the payoff never materializes.

Michael Pitt (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is Ian, a molecular biologist  doing research on the origins of the human eye.  Ian has little use for religion and is irritated by the argument offered by some Christian apologists that evolution cannot account for the complexity of the human eye, that this can only be explained by a creator.

To that end Ian and his nerdy/hot research assistant, Karen (regular Cahill collaborator Brit Marling), are trying to identify some species of blind animal — probably a worm or other primitive — which they can subject to gene therapy.  The idea is to grow functioning eyes where there were none.

As mad scientist plots go, this is pretty low keyed…and it doesn’t help that Cahill’s dialogue is crammed with long, scientific ruminations.

Happily, there is more going on in Ian’s life than just research.  Not only are eyes the focus of his work, they’re a longtime personal passion. For years he has been photographing close-ups of people’s eyes. He has books full of these snapshots.

One night at a Halloween party he falls for a masked woman. She won’t reveal her face, but does allow Ian to photograph her eyes.

*** and Michael Pitt

*** and Michael Pitt

And then he’s thrown for a loop when he spots those very same eyes on a huge billboard — this discovery takes place in a single complex zoom/tracking shot right out of Hitchcock or Spielberg. The eyes belong to a gamine-ish young model, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and, by happy coincidence (or divine intervention), Ian spots her on the subway.  Despite Sofi’s loopy metaphysical pronouncements — hey, did you know that white peacocks embody the universal soul? — they become lovers. They plan to wed.

And then…let’s just say it doesn’t work out.

Years pass.  Now Ian is married to his former assistant Karen. They have an infant son, and when the kid is put through eye recognition registration, it is revealed that his eyes are virtually identical to the late operator of  cattle ranch Out West as well as to a homeless child in India.

Brit Marling

Brit Marling

Are we talking reincarnation?  Damned if I know. The movie is so muddled that it’s impossible to draw a straight line from A to B.

In any case, Ian goes to India to search out the child, a little girl (Kashish) with eyes as deep and old as the ocean. Haven’t you heard? The eyes are the window to the soul.

Along the way we’re treated to appearances by Archie Panjabi (of TV’s “The Good Wife”) as an Indian welfare worker and William Mapother (the co-star of “Another Earth”) as a vaguely sinister Christian business man Ian encounters in his hotel.

Cahill does some very interesting stuff with reflections — in windows, in eyes, on the surfaces of cars. And he even drops a reference to the famous National Geographic cover photo of beautiful blue-eyed Afghan girl that is echoed in Ian’s discovery of the Indian child..

But in the end “I Origins”  (think “Eye Origins”) is a kitchen sink movie, with so many ideas being furiously thrown at us that nothing is able to stick.

| Robert W. Butler

 

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Scarlett Johansson is Lucy

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy

“LUCY”  My rating: B- (Opening wide on July 25)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’ve been repeatedly told that  human beings coast by using only 10 percent of our brainpower.

What happens when we kick that statistic up to 20 percent, 50 percent — even 100 percent — is illustrated in “Lucy,”  director Luc Besson’s giddy, goofy and slickly made sci-fi thriller.

Our titular heroine (Scarlett Johansson) is a young woman studying in Taiwan — though she apparently spends more time partying than cracking books. In the film’s opening moments she is coerced by a former boyfriend into delivering a

Min-sik Choi

Min-sik Choi

briefcase to a high-rise office building. There she finds herself in the clutches of a venal gangster, Jang (Min-sik Choi, the scary/compelling star of “Old Boy” and “I Saw the Devil”), who has a plan to use Lucy and three other kidnapped individuals to smuggle a new superdrug into Europe and the U.S.

The ghastly plan calls for large plastic pouches of the drug CPH-4 to be sewn into the  abdomens of the unwilling mules.  Failure to complete the mission will mean reprisals against the couriers’ families.

Before she can board a plane, though, the bag in Lucy’s tummy ruptures, flooding her system with the potent pharmaceutical and kicking her brain into overdrive.  Not only are her thinking processes given a jump start, but she gains superhuman hand-eye coordination, X-ray vision (a tree comes alive with flowing, glowing dots of energy) and, eventually, control of time and space.

“I feel everything.” she says. “Space, air, vibrations, people…I can feel gravity, the rotation of the Earth.”

All this is presented in a breathless visual style that feels not unlike the mind-blowing head journey that concluded Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — although Besson delivers his trip at Mach speed.  Creative visual effects depict the changes in Lucy’s body at the cellular level — and in a couple of gloriously oddball sequences we meet a hairy man-ape in the Pleistocene.  Besson also likes to drop in snippets of cheetahs hunting gazelles to suggest that Lucy is now the top predator in her world.

 

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Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal…can you believe this country?!?!?

“GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA” My rating: B  (Opening July 25 at the Screenland Crown Center)

83 minutes | No MPAA rating

Gore Vidal was pissed off by so many people and things that you wonder he could get out of bed in the morning.

He was contemptuous of the ruling class (into which he was born), identifying it as a pack of scheming, manipulative greedheads.  At the same time Vidal could only shake his head in dismay at the boneheadedness of the average citizen, so lazy and distracted by life’s diversions that he cannot discern where his own best interests lie.

Given this, Vidal should have been an insufferable misanthrope.

But as Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary makes clear, just the opposite was true. Gore Vidal — novelist (Myra Breckenridge, Lincoln, Burr), social observer (The Rise and Fall of the American Empire), essayist, screenwriter and playwright (“Ben-Hur,” “The Best Man”), gadfly, twice a candidate for Congress — made affrontery charming. With that patrician delivery, his cool analysis of facts and personalities, and his wonderful way with a verbal harpoon, he was hugely entertaining.  Even if you didn’t much like what he was saying.

“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” begins shortly before the writer’s death in 2012. He’s touring the cemetery where he will be laid to rest,  pointing out the graves of old acquaintances, the plots of prominant families with whom he has been familiar his entire life.  Finally he stands over his own grave. A marker already bears his name and the date of his birth in 1925.  It just awaits the addition of the day he will die.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man"

Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man”

“A MOST WANTED MAN”  My rating: B (Now showing)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even without the knowledge that it features one of  the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last filmed performances, “A Most Wanted Man” would be a dark, melancholy affair.

After all, Anton Corbijn’s film is based on a John le Carre espionage procedural. As such, it unfolds in a world of spook/bureaucrats where good and evil are more a matter of opportunity than absolutism, a world where the unsuspecting, the innocent, and the idealistic pretty much get eaten alive.

In Hamburg, Germany, a shaggy, soaking wet man pulls himself from the harbor and onto dry land. This scarecrowish figure is Issa Karpov (Grigorly Dobrygin), a Chechnian Muslim suspected by Western intelligence services of being a dangerous jihadist. With haunted eyes staring out of a grey hoodie, Issa seems more like a sorry, half-mad monk than a an actual threat.

But his arrival sets off a manhunt in the world of spies. Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) runs a super-secret anti-terrorism unit of the German government. Unlike most of his rivals in the intelligence community, Gunther views the fugitive Issa not as a threat but as an opportunity.  Like a chess player whose strategy is always several moves ahead of the actual game, Gunther believes he can use Issa to trap a much juicier target, a fundraiser for Muslim charities (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be siphoning off money to buy rocket launchers rather than medical supplies.

There’s no point in trying to describe the knotty machinations that follow.  Let’s just say that they involve a lawyer for a human rights group (Rachel McAdams) who becomes Issa’s protector,  a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose firm maintains an account set up decades earlier by Issa’s father, and a CIA operative (Robin Wright) who uses her clout to back Gunther’s long game despite pressure from other spooks who want to immediately scoop up Issa and throw him into the shadowy underworld of terrorist detention.

This isn’t your typical spy movie.  No guns are fired. No chases down dark, wet alleys.

Instead we get a slowly-paced game of wits that gradually builds to a crushing conclusion.

 

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Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney...bootleggers in "The Roaring Twenties"

Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney…bootleggers in “The Roaring Twenties”

“The Roaring Twenties” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 26, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

From the moment in 1931’s “The Public Enemy” when he squished half a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke), James Cagney was a movie star.

And not just any star, but a tough-guy star — an unapologetic, hard-nosed thug.

Over the next decade, Cagney often portrayed cocky gangsters who relished their power and outlaw status. Audiences loved him for it.

As critic Leonard Kirstein wrote of Cagney: “No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal.”

As the ‘30s were drawing to a close, Cagney was preparing to shut the door on that phase of his career.  His resume during that decade was packed with films — “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “The Mayor of Hell,” “Frisco Kid,” “Hard to Handle,” “He Was Her Man,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”– in which he had played con artists, professional gamblers, vice kingpins, and no-nonsense gangsters.

Of course he also played a boxer, a race car driver, a federal agent and, in Max Reinhardt’s all-star version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom the ass-headed weaver. Cagney was smart enough to see that as he aged he’d have to develop other talents and film personas – he couldn’t go forever shooting his way through life.

But now he was putting a cap on his career as a tough guy with 1939’s “The Roaring Twenties,” a film that allowed him to play both a good guy and a bad guy.

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Romain Duris...new guy in New York

Romain Duris…new guy in New York

“CHINESE PUZZLE” My rating: B (Opens July 25 at the Tivoli)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

“Chinese Puzzle” is the third film in a series that began in 2002 with “L’Auberge Espangnol,” about a group of college  foreign exchange students living in a Barcelona boarding house.

Writer/director Cedric Klapisch checked in on those same characters as they turned 30 in 2005’s “Russian Dolls.”

“Chinese Puzzle,” the third installment, finds the characters hitting 40 and no more at ease in matters of love than they were as adolescents.

Caplisch’s films are less well known than the celebrated “Seven Up” documentary series (which has followed a group of former British schoolchildren for half a century) or Richard Linklater’s “Before…” films that periodically revisit lovers played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

But as with those other efforts, Klapisch’s films are bit like a reunion with old friends. The characters may be fictional, but there’s something oddly moving about watching the same actors play the same characters at different stages in life.

As “Chinese Puzzle” begins, Klapisch’s central character, Xavier (Romain Duris), has achieved a degree of fame as a novelist. He and his former college housemate, the British Wendy (Kelly Reilly), are married with two kids. Xavier still hangs with his best friend, the tomboyish lesbian Isabelle (Cecile De France).

He thinks life is swell. So he’s floored when Wendy returns from a business trip to New  York and announces that she’s met someone and is moving to the U.S. — and taking the children.

When Isabelle announces that she, too, has fallen for a New Yorker and is immigrating,  Xavier figures there’s not much left for him in Paris.  He jumps the pond.

“Chinese Puzzle” — that’s how Xavier describes his knottily confusing life — is a round robin of friendships and potential romances. Not to mention a comedy of dislocation as the Gallic Xavier learns to negotiates the brave new world of NYC.

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Emanuel, Metthie Maur in "Venus in Furs"

Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Almaric in “Venus in Fur”

“VENUS IN FUR”  My rating: B+ (Opens July 18 at the Glenwood Arts)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s been a bad day for Thomas (Mathieu Almaric). While a raging thunderstorm soaks Paris, the playwright/director has wasted ten hours cooped up in a seedy theater  holding auditions. He’s seeking a cast for his new stage adaptation of Venus in FurLeopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella about a fellow who gets off on being whipped by a dominant woman. (Thus the word “masochism.”)

Thomas is alone, complaining to a colleague via cell phone about the talentless, self-absorbed actresses — “ten year olds on helium” — who have wasted his time with their wretched posing and preening. After hours of readings he’s no closer to finding someone to play Wanda, the dominatrix heroine of Sacher-Masoch’s tale.

He’s packing up to go home when the doors at the back of the auditorium blow open and a hyperactive blonde  in a raincoat enters, motor mouthing breathlessly about how she was delayed and can she still audition. The woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) introduces herself as Wanda — coincidence or omen? — and begs to be heard.

Thomas isn’t encouraged. This Wanda seems to be just one more prattling actress, a drowned cat with a mouthful of chewing gum.

She produces a resume that features a stint with the Urinal Theatre.

“I somehow missed their season,” Thomas observes dryly.

He’s even less impressed when she removes her raincoat to reveal an S&M outfit — the last-ditch ploy of a performer who can’t pull it off by skill alone.

Sensing his reluctance Wanda assures him that “I’m not usually in leather and a dog collar.  I’m really demure and shit.”

What she really is is a master manipulator who over the next 90 real-time minutes will take Thomas and the audience on a hell of a ride.

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Ebert pulitzer“LIFE ITSELF”  My rating: A-  (Opening July 11 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

“Life Itself” is about a man redeemed by love.

Of course it’s about a lot more than that.  Its subject is the late Roger Ebert, the world’s most famous movie critic — hell, the most famous critic in any discipline — and it follows his career from high school journalist to Johnny Carson regular and on to his development as a one-man publishing empire and his death last year after a long and crippling battle with cancer.

That’s the public Ebert. But the emotional narrative that emerges from Steve James’ wonderful documentary is that of a borderline raging egoist who late in life met the right woman and discovered his softer, more humane side, spending his last years basking in the glow of extended family and relishing his role as step-grandpa. It’s the Roger Ebert we  never knew until now.

This film is a profound and deeply moving portrait not just of a great thinker and communicator, but of a brave and — at long last — caring man.

James — whose 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” was championed by Ebert and his TV partner, Gene Siskel — was invited by the critic and his wife Chaz to spend time with them in order to produce a documentary based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself.  James had barely gotten started on the project when Ebert died in 2013.

But James forged ahead, using what little original footage he already had, combining it with archival material and the recollections of Ebert’s friends, family, colleagues (critics like A.O.Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum), as well as famous filmmakers — Martin Scorsese (a producer of the doc), Werner Herzog, Errol Morris — whose careers were advanced by his perceptive and appreciative reviews.

The resulting film is funny, eye-opening, and inspiring. It’s going to score mightily when awards season kicks into high gear.

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George Sanders rallies American fascists in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy"

George Sanders rallies American fascists in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”

“Confessions of a Nazi Spy” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

Whatever its merits as entertainment, 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is a social and historical landmark, the first time a major Hollywood studio pulled out all the stops in attacking the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

The film begins at a rally of an American/German friendship organization. The speaker (Paul Lukas) is haranguing an audience of men in Nazi uniforms: “Those who fight us must perish socially as well as economically because of our determination to destroy our enemies completely and without any consideration…Germans must save America from the chaos that breeds in democracy and racial equality. We Germans must make the United States our America!”

The scene is shocking…in large part because most Americans have forgotten that throughout the 1930s, groups like the German American Bund sought to build support in this country for the German state while encouraging American isolationism. The Bund regularly drew 20,000 Seig Heil-ing supporters to swastika-draped Madison Square Garden. On at least one occasion this spawned rioting in Midtown Manhattan as Nazi supporters, their leftist opponents, and police clashed.

While their newsreel subsidiaries covered the rise of Nazism, in their feature films the Hollywood studios made a point of ignoring what was happening in Europe.  Germany was a big consumer of American movies, and the suits didn’t want to alienate such a lucrative market.

In fact, among American studios, only Warner Brothers had the will and the guts to take on Hitler.  Jack Warner and his brothers were the sons of a Polish Jew who fled the pogroms and came to American in the 1880s, and they looked upon Hitler and his minions with alarm and dismay. Refusing to work with the Nazis, they closed the studio’s Berlin office in 1934. The other studios – MGM, Fox, Paramount – would not do so until war broke out in 1939.

When in 1939 former FBI agent Leon Turrou published a best-seller about how he infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., Jack Warner found a story that could express his own feelings of alarm, outrage, and defiance.  He snapped up the film rights and put director Anatole Litvak – himself a Jew from Kiev and a devoted anti-fascist – to work bringing it to the screen.

The first obstacle was getting the screenplay approved by the Production Code Administration, the industry’s de facto censors. PCA head Joseph Breen was a vocal anti-Semite and worked to shut down production of films that attacked or mocked foreign governments. In fact, the German Consul General in L.A. called on Breen to reject the screenplay, threatening to ban from German cinemas any film featuring an actor who appeared in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

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