DELIVERANCE (1972) revisited

August 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the next entry in my “Revisited” series, where I re-watch and then write about (not a traditional review) a classic movie. “City Slickers” could have been an apt name for this 1972 film, though it would have forced a new title for Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy. DELIVERANCE was directed by John Boorman, and the script was adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel by the writer himself. Many have referred to this as a man-against-nature film, and it certainly works as an adventure tale; however, I find the psychological elements just as fascinating – the primal instincts and the personal transformations.

Those nine notes are every bit as iconic as the JAWS theme. “Dueling Banjos” always sends a chill up my spine, as I recall certain scenes from the film that are forever etched into my memory. We don’t even have to wait long to hear the song. It’s the first real sequence after the opening credits which feature only the banter of four buddies animatedly discussing their weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built and the area flooded for a hydro-electric plant. During the banter, in a bit of foreshadowing, we hear Ned Beatty’s character ask, “Are there any hillbillies” where they are headed. The first glimpse of the four men occurs as they stop for gas and interact with the locals.

The personalities of each are quickly established. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, and the one pushing the group to take the trip. Ed (Jon Voight) is Lewis’ friend who wants to be like him, though he lacks the confidence. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance salesman, who looks down on the locals and would rather be playing golf. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a nice guy, and the one who connects musically for the guitar and banjo picking with the local boy (Billy Redden) perched on the porch. It’s a fun, yet unsettling, scene to watch as the two pick away on their instruments. Their smiles end abruptly when the boy turns away in disgust as Drew tries to shake his hand. It’s not the last time the outsiders will be rebuffed.

 These are suburban men, settled in life, being pushed outside their comfort zone by wannbe-adventurer Lewis, who is the epitome of 1970’s machismo. His angry proclamation that “they’re drowning a river” is followed up with “because it’s there”, as an answer to why they are taking the trip. Lewis’ life vest flaunting his arms and chest, and his aggressive oratory (including the ironic, “You can’t judge people by the way they look, Chubby”) contrast with the conservative dress and mannerisms of the other men: Ed smoking a pipe, Drew strumming a guitar, and Bobby’s squishy body. For the first half of the film, Reynolds mesmerizes as the cocky Lewis.

As the men make their way down the river, they experience the sudden adrenaline rush that Lewis promised. Shooting the rapids on the river is truly man-against-nature, and the adventure that director Boorman and writer Dickey want us to initially believe is at the heart of the story. One of the key exchanges occurs at the campsight that night as Lewis acknowledges Ed’s “nice life, nice job, nice wife, nice kids”, and then asks him directly, “Why do you come on these trips with me, Ed?” It’s clear Ed is happy with his life, but he desperately wants to feel the power of being a survivalist and “real man”. It’s because of this exchange, that we find Ed’s hunting trip and face-to-face with a deer the next morning so gut-wrenching.

The second day finds some truly peaceful times with nature, and some stunning camera work and shots of nature courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund. It’s in these shots where we “get it” – the appeal of becoming one with nature. Of course, it’s once things seem so right, that things go so wrong. A drastic shift occurs. Ed and Bobby are confronted by local hillbillies in the most despicable way. Fear fills the screen and our minds. The menacing mountain men are played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward (not really an actor) and Billy McKinney (whom you’ll recognize from FIRST BLOOD, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and many other roles). Still today, the sequence is terrifying and difficult to watch, and it’s when “squeal like a pig” entered our lexicon, while “He got a real purdy mouth” became seared into our brain.

Immediately following the nightmare sequence with the hillbillies, comes one of those psychological exchanges that elevate the film to greatness. Four frantic and desperate men debating “the law”, when in actuality, they are debating self-preservation. The close-up of Ned Beatty’s face says as much as any line of dialogue, and, as is often the case, a moral dilemma is resolved by choosing the path of least resistance. The day presents more horror, as Lewis and Drew meet with disaster, while Ed’s transformation takes place. It should be noted that the film’s budget was so tight, the actors performed their own stunts – including Jon Voight’s tense (and impressive) climb up the face of the rock cliff.

Director John Boorman was a 5-time Oscar nominee, including HOPE AND GLORY (1987). He also helmed one of my sleeper favorites, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), as well as coming right out of the gate with his first feature (and cult favorite) POINT BLANK (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Writer James Dickey wrote the 1970 novel and adapted his own novel for the screen. He was a novelist, poet, and college professor, as well as being named U.S. Poet Laureate. My favorite Dickey quote is, “The poet is one who, because he cannot love, imagines what it would be like if he could.”

For Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, it was their feature film debut. Mr. Beatty had a 40 year acting career (he retired in 2013), and notched an Oscar nomination for NETWORK (1976), while seemingly appearing in most every movie in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He may be best remembered as Lex Luthor’s bumbling henchman in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1978), and kids today would recognize his voice as Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He also became good friends with Burt Reynolds, and was cast in many of Reynolds’ later films. His career allowed him to play a widely diverse roster of characters, and one of his often-forgotten best was in THE BIG EASY (1986). Mr. Cox is approaching a 50 year acting career, and he is also a talented singer-songwriter. His best known roles are as the Police Lieutenant in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and as a corporate executive in both ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL (1990). In addition to his many movie roles, Cox appeared in numerous TV series throughout the years, and one of my favorites was a small town family drama entitled “Apple’s Way”, which ran for two seasons, 1974-75.

Jon Voight is an actor every movie lover is familiar with. As he approaches his 60th year in the business, the highly decorated actor has been nominated for four Oscars, winning for COMING HOME (1978), starring opposite Jane Fonda. His other nominations were for playing a gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a bad guy in the thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), and as Howard Cosell in ALI (2001). More recently he has been recognized for his stellar work in the superb cable TV series “Ray Donovan”. His daughter is Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, and Mr. Voight has had such memorable roles as boxer Billy Flynn in THE CHAMP (1979), Jim Phelps in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), a sleazy hunter in ANACONDA (1997), and President Franklin Roosevelt in PEARL HARBOR (2001). And of course, we must mention the classic Jon (“John”) Voight episode of “Seinfeld.” JAWS fans might be surprised to know that he turned down the Hooper role that ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss.

A remarkable 60 year career ended when Burt Reynolds passed away in 2018. Reynolds was a star running back for Florida State University before an injury ended his pro aspirations and caused him to pursue acting. For an extended period of time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Reynolds was the biggest box office draw among actors. Some of his most popular films during the streak included: THE LONGEST YARD (1974), the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT franchise (1977, 1980, 1983), SEMI-TOUGH (1977), SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981), THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) and II (1984), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982). Most of these films played off of Reynolds’ extraordinary charm and good looks (and iconic cackle), while he often strutted tongue-in-cheek as he worked extensively with a close group of friends. He later experienced some personal relationship issues, financial difficulties, and extreme health scares. Although he continued to work during the late 80s and early 90s, it was his excellent supporting work in STRIPTEASE (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) that really vaulted him back into the Hollywood scene. The latter of those two movies nabbed him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Reynolds continued to work right up until the end of his life, spanning a career of almost 200 credits (TV and movies). Some of you fellow old-timers out there might recall Reynolds’ first recurring role was as Quint in “Gunsmoke”, the longest running TV series until eclipsed by “The Simpsons” (and by “Law and Order” in seasons, though it has about 150 fewer episodes). In DELIVERANCE, Reynolds’ Lewis is “a man’s man” – the kind of guy the other suburban dads aspired to. His on screen magnetism is obvious, and stardom followed. Reynolds spent most of his adult life in front of a camera – either movies, TV, paparazzi, or talk shows. And lest we forget, though he claimed to have tried, Reynolds became the first male centerfold for “Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1972, the same year this movie hit. That smirk, cigar and bear rug created quite a sensation at the time – brilliant marketing from editor Helen Gurley Brown.

While the Cahulawassee River is fictional, the filming location was most decidedly real. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund captured the stunning beauty of Tallulah Gorge and the Chatooga River in northeastern Georgia. His camera work leaves no doubt as to nature’s double edge sword of beauty and danger. Mr. Zsigmund was a 4 time Oscar nominee, winning the award for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). He was also responsible for THE DEER HUNTER (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Editor Tom Priestley received his only Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Mr. Priestley also served as Editor on THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), TESS (1979), and 1984 (1984), and is the son of English writer John Boynton Priestley.

 Ned Beatty’s wife and John Boorman’s son have brief appearances as Ed’s family, and writer James Dickey has a small but key role as the hulking Sheriff of Aintry, who doesn’t buy the men’s recap of events. Reynolds dominates the screen for the first half of the movie, and Mr. Beatty shines in his degradation, but it’s Voight’s transformation into a semblance of Lewis that proves most remarkable. Rarely have primal instincts and survival mode been more effectively presented on the silver screen than in this film. This “guys’ weekend” turned nightmare received 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor), but this was the same year that CABARET beat out THE GODFATHER in a couple of categories, so DELIVERANCE took home no awards … although we will always have those 9 notes.

*Note: “Dueling Banjos” was credited to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, but there was a lawsuit filed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955.

As a bonus for reading this far, here is a short video of Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog performing “Dueling Banjos”:

 

And here is the original 1972 trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


Panel Discussion – Streaming, Theaters, and COVID-19

July 8, 2020

I participated in a panel discussion on the state of movies: the impact of streaming services, the challenges faced by movie theaters, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in the movie industry.

The other two panelists were movie critic Will Mann and screenwriter Tim Hodgin (@tim_hodgin). The discussion was moderated by the editor of International Policy Digest, (intpolicydigest.org) and you can read it here:

Streaming, Theaters and COVID: Three Cinephiles Weigh In


THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer:


NINOTCHKA revisited (1939)

April 14, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been too far long since my last “revisited” piece. These are meant to be a combination of movie review and historical perspective on a particular classic movie that I’ve watched yet again. My choice this time is NINOTCHKA, nominated for 4 Oscars (including Best Picture nominees) in what is widely considered one of cinema’s greatest years, 1939.

The roster of director, writers, producers, cinematographer, composer, set director, set decorator, editor, costume designer and actors reads like a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. The director-producer was Ernst Lubitsch, whose career included 3 Best Director Oscars for HEAVEN CAN WAIT 1943, THE LOVE PARADE 1929, and THE PATRIOT 1928. He also directed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) which was later adapted into YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). Lubitsch made a successful transition from silent films to talkies, and also directed 3 other films (a total of 6) that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture, including NINOTCHKA. He died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1947.

There are four credited writers for the film, each of which received an Oscar nomination. The original story was written by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, and was adapted by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch. Mr. Wilder was nominated for 21 Oscars in his career, winning 6. Of course, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors with classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), and THE APARTMENT (1960). Co-writer Mr. Brackett scored 9 career Oscar nomination, including wins for THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), and TITANIC (1953), the first two of which he shared with Mr. Wilder. Wilder and Brackett had quite a professional relationship, as they wrote 14 movies together, and on an odd personal note, Brackett’s second wife was the younger sister of his first wife (who had died). Mr. Reisch, a 4-time Oscar nominee, shared the TITANIC Oscar with Mr. Brackett, and also wrote the still-popular GASLIGHT (1944, directed by George Cukor).

Greta Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, better known as the titular Ninotchka. Ms. Garbo was born in Sweden, and became more than a movie star … she was an icon. She was a 4-time Best Actress nominee, including one for NINOTCHKA. This was her first U.S. comedy, which was such a big deal, that MGM used the tagline, “Garbo laughs!” (a riff on “Garbo Talks!”). This was her penultimate film, as after TWO-FACED WOMAN (another comedy with co-star Melvyn Douglas), she walked away from acting in 1941 at age 36 (imagine if Meryl Streep had retired after OUT OF AFRICA). Ms. Garbo lived in seclusion in New York City, cultivating the infamous “Garbo Mystique”. She never married, though John Gilbert standing all dressed up at the alter certainly thought she was going to! For other standout Garbo performances, see ANNA KARENINA (1935), CAMILE (1936) and QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933).

Melvyn Douglas plays Count Leon d’Algout, a debonair charmer who incites a (passive-aggressive) rivalry between Ninotchka and Grand Duchess Swana. Douglas’ character is one we more frequently expect from William Powell or Cary Grant (both were offered the role), but it would be a mistake to think Lubitsch “settled” on Douglas. He’s considered one of the finest actors ever, and one of the few to have won a Tony, an Emmy, and an Oscar (he won two). Douglas has played the on screen dad to both Paul Newman (HUD, 1963) and Robert Redford (THE CANDIDATE, 1972), as well as Gene Hackman’s dad (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, 1970) and Peter Sellers’ quasi-mentor in BEING THERE (1979). Mr. Douglas is the grandfather of well-known actress Illeana Douglas (TO DIE FOR, 1995; STIR OF ECHOES, 1999), although, to this day, he is best remembered as the actor who made Greta Garbo laugh!

While Ms. Garbo and Mr. Douglas dominate the screen time, the cast features some other interesting and talented players. Ina Claire plays the exiled Grand Duchess Swana. Ms. Claire was a young Vaudeville performer and part of Ziegfeld Follies before building a reputation as a sophisticated comedy stage actress. She was briefly married to John Gilbert after he was jilted by Garbo, and she only appeared in 7 “talkie” movies before retiring from acting in 1943. Bela Legosi appears as Commissar Razinin, and of course he is best remembered as Count Dracula from Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA for Universal. Legosi was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and died flat broke after his affiliation with schlock-director Ed Wood. He appeared alongside fellow Monster Universe icon Boris Karloff in numerous films (including THE BLACK CAT, 1934; THE RAVEN, 1935), and was buried wearing one of his Dracula capes (not the one from the film). The 3 bumbling Russian envoys who so quickly adapt to western ways are played by actors who fled their homeland and emigrated to the U.S. due to war. Sig Ruman was a German who appeared in several Marx Brothers films, Felix Bressert was a German who had a medical practice as a “side gig”, and Alexander Granach was Hungarian, and also appeared in FW Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. Lastly, Edwin Maxwell, who plays jeweler Mercier, appeared in 13 Best Picture nominees (4 winners) in a 15 year span.

Although the story is not a complicated one, it’s important to note the era. The world had not yet stabilized after WWI and was on the verge of WWII. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and one of the most feared men on the planet. That may not sound like the foundation for a comedy, and it’s important to note that the film is comedy, satire, and political commentary rolled into one. Three Russian envoys are sent to Paris to sell the jewels seized from Grand Duchess Swana during the Russian Revolution. They book the Royal Suite at a posh hotel (partly) because it has a large in-room safe for the jewels. As they are meeting with local jeweler Mercier to finalize the sale, Count Leon barges in to scuttle the sale and trick the envoys into returning the jewels to their rightful owner, the Grand Duchess. Soon, Ninotchka, a no-nonsense Russian, is dispatched to expedite the sale and send the first 3 envoys back home. Ninotchka and Count Leon meet by happenstance, and he’s immediately smitten with her, while she initially views him as little more than a curiosity.

The Eiffel Tower segment is pure brilliance in writing and acting. The dowdy Russian (Ninotchka) is interested in the global landmark for its technical achievement, while Count Leon shifts his charm into overdrive. Her line telling him to “suppress” his flirting is really our first glimpse of Garbo comedic timing … though it’s certainly not the last. The segment serves as a contrast in personalities – the face of communism versus the face of capitalism. Of course, it’s the “Garbo laughs!” moment in the café that most remember. Count Leon bumbles through joke after joke to no reaction, and once she cracks, she really lets loose. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.

As previously mentioned, it’s not just Lubitsch and Garbo and Douglas that make this a classic. The full production crew have a place in cinematic lore. Cinematographer William H Daniels won an Oscar for THE NAKED CITY (1948), and lensed 21 Garbo films. Editor Gene Ruggiero won an Oscar for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), and composer Werner Haymann was a 4-time Oscar nominee. Set-Art Director Cedric Gibbons was a one-time Edison Studios staffer, and won 11 Oscars over 26 years, eclipsing the 8 Oscars won by Set Director Edwin Willis. Adding to the intrigue is Costume Designer Adrian (married to actress Janet Gaynor) who is still revered as one of the best all time with over 250 movies in 30 years, though he’s even more famous for his designs outside of cinema.

1939 is arguably the greatest of all movie years since it also gave us: GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (the first of the series starring Basil Rathbone), OF MICE AND MEN, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and LOVE AFFAIR. Though it didn’t win any Oscars (4 nominations), film schools still study NINOTCHKA’s sardonic dialogue, and the way the ‘decadent’ western ways seduce the Russians. It’s clear why film history books refer to the “Lubitsch touch” – a comical and witty approach to serious topics. Beyond that, the MGM marketing department certainly knew how to capitalize on a guffawing Garbo. As with the best classic films, there is much to study, much to learn, and above all, much to enjoy.

watch the trailer:


OSCARS 2020 recap

February 10, 2020

Oscars 2020 recap

 It could be argued that the last 5 years of Best Picture announcements have each provided somewhat of a surprise as the title was announced. However, the noise level and affection directed towards the stage as those associated with PARASITE assembled, gave this year’s announcement a distinct and special feel. Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has won over many in the industry during this awards season, and the historical significance of having the first non-English language winner shouldn’t be minimized. However, there was something else at play as the applause and whistles boomed throughout Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. This was an auditorium filled with movie lovers who were celebrating a creative, unique, meaningful, and entertaining cinematic achievement … in other words, the things that movie making is meant to deliver. It was quite a moment.

While my predictions were correct on 20 of 24 categories this year, I can’t help but kick myself for not foreseeing this PARASITE juggernaut (it won 4 of its 6 Oscar nominations). Director Sam Mendes’ WWI visual masterpiece 1917 seemed to be on an unstoppable roll after winning Best Picture at BAFTA, Critics Choice, Directors’ Guild, and Producers’ Guild. But taking a step back and analyzing how the Oscars voting works – success is heavily dependent on how many ballots have a film in the first/favorite position – it becomes much easier to understand how this “upset” occurred. Ever since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the number of crazed and vocal fans for PARASITE have been all over social media encouraging others to check it out. While almost everyone was wowed with the visual experience of 1917, it was the rabid fandom for the South Korean film that really stood out.

 So it was Bong Joon Ho’s film making Oscar history, and yet there are also other things to discuss. Choosing to go “host-less” for the second straight year, the very talented Janelle Monae opened the show by performing a take-off on Mister Rogers and then exploding into a high-octane song and dance featuring many of the nominated films, and a few that weren’t. Ms. Monae also infused the first political statement of the evening – one that would surely be followed by many more. Steve Martin and Chris Rock then took the stage, and though they apparently had not rehearsed their time together, there were a couple of good zingers … especially those aimed at Amazon’s Jeff Bezos … and more than a few that fell flat.

In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor (ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD), Brad Pitt infused a bit of political commentary, as did Olaf, I mean Josh Gad, as he introduced Idina Menzel to sing the nominated song from FROZEN 2 (along with some talented international help). Diane Keaton did her best Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway impression through incoherence and cluelessness (at the expense of good guy Keanu Reeves), and one of the best moments of the show was followed by one of the strangest. Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced a wonderful medley clip of film songs which played right into Eminem taking the stage to perform his Oscar winning “Lose Yourself.” Why is that strange?  Well, 8 MILE came out in 2002, and ‘18’ is rarely celebrated as a commemorative year (unless you are a 17 year old rejoicing in legal impendence). Eminem’s song is a favorite of many, but his inclusion here left us with one unanswered question … why?

Billie Eilish delivered a beautiful version of “Yesterday” as the annual In Memoriam slides played, but live performances from Randy Newman and Elton John (whose song won) paled in comparison to that of Cynthia Erivo. We were rewarded yet again by the brilliance of Olivia Colman, following up last year’s win with a turn as presenter. Her line, “Last year was the best night of my husband’s life” deserves to become part of Oscar lore alongside streakers, no-shows, and botched announcements. We were then subjected to two much-too-long ramblings from Acting winners Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger. Mr. Phoenix at least made some sense in his plea for justice for all (and a nice quote from his deceased brother River: “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow”), while Ms. Zellweger babbled “ums” and “you knows” about heroes, and proved why most actors should stick to a script.

As I’ve stated before, celebrities are welcome to their political opinions, which many share frequently and openly. My issue is that the Academy Awards ceremony was designed as a once a year opportunity to celebrate cinema and those who make it such an enticing and entertaining art form. Especially in this day of social media, I find the political outbursts to be in poor taste … similar to bringing McDonalds carry-out to a dinner party. It seems the proper approach would be to thank the Academy and those who helped the winner with their achievements, and then head backstage and tweet all the political opinions swirling about in their head. Having one’s own hair stylist, make-up artist, limo driver, and fashion designer, does not seemingly make one an expert on equality or geopolitics, so my personal preference would be for political opinions to be stifled for a few hours.

 All the best stories have memorable endings, and this year’s Academy Awards certainly delivered that. Political ramblings were forgotten as soon as Jane Fonda, after pausing for dramatic effect (and to ensure she had the correct envelope) announced PARASITE as Best Picture. Watching movie history unfold was exhilarating, and Bong Joon Ho’s promise to “drink till the morning” was well-deserved. He has announced his involvement with an HBO series based on this Oscar winning film, so we can expect to see his creativity on one screen or another for the next few years.

***NOTE: Tom Hanks announced during the ceremony that the long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open December 14, 2020 in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district.


THE BAND’S VISIT (stage musical, 2020)

February 6, 2020

***NOTE: I don’t often post stage reviews, but since this one is adapted from a 2007 movie, I’m bending the rules

 “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.” This memorable line works not only for the story, but also holds true as a review of the stage production. When we think of Tony Award winning musicals, we tend to think big and loud, with elaborate and ostentatious set design. Full disclosure: In 2008, I became a fan of writer-director Eran Kolirin’s film version, and in 2017 the stage musical version, with a script Itamar Moses adapted (from Kolirin’s screenplay) and music from David Yazbek moved to Broadway. It won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and then won a Grammy for Best Theatre Musical Album. So yes, that’s one of the beautiful things we didn’t expect.

When the lights first come up, it’s 1996 and we see the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra waiting apprehensively at the bus station for a ride that is apparently not coming. They have arrived in Israel from Egypt, after being invited to play at the Grand Opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka. Thanks to the language barrier, they instead find their way to Bet Hativka  … “with a B” instead of “with a P”. A tiny desert town in Israel offers up only confusing looks from the locals to go with welcome hospitality. Dina, the café owner, arranges a place for each of the band members to sleep that night, and her own personal guest is Tewfiq, the band’s dignified leader.

Janet Dacal has taken over the role of Dina from Katrina Lenk (Broadway) and Chilina Kennedy (first national tour). It’s a challenging character because Dina is a tough-talking local who still harbors hope of a fulfilling relationship. In other words, her hard shell protects the warm and open heart of a romantic. Additionally, Dina is responsible for bringing energy and spirit to the stage as most of her scenes are with Tewfiq, one of the more reserved stage characters you’ve seen. Sasson Gabay has reprised his excellent silver screen role as Tewfiq (played by Tony Shalhoub on Broadway), and he perfectly embodies a man weighted with an internal burden of grief, as well as the added responsibility of proudly representing his country.

Everything takes place over the course of one night. It’s not so much a story as it is a display of human connection. There is no real clash of cultures. No, these are simply people dealing with the situation. The mundane existence of the small town locals have varying reactions to the strangers wearing powder blue uniforms and toting instruments. Ah yes, the music. Rather than overblown showstoppers, the 12 songs and score coax us through the interactions. Dina’s “Omar Sharif” is not only a catchy tune, but one that bonds her with Tewfiq. “Papi Hears the Ocean” may be the most humorous of the songs, and it’s immediately followed by the touching “Haled’s Song About Love.” Themes of humor (including a running Chet Baker gag) and love run throughout, but keep in mind, this is mostly a subdued, intimate show featuring human moments between characters.

The circular, revolving stage works brilliantly for the simple sets of this simple town. The depth comes from the characters, and sometimes what is implied is more powerful than what is said. The production is from director David Cromer (also from the Broadway run), and the show runs a little more than 90 minutes with no intermission. We are informed twice that the band’s visit wasn’t important, and maybe they are right … this was “Something Different.” In contrast to the tone of the band’s overnight stay, it’s that finale concert that brings the crowd to their feet. We get to see the musicians do what they love. It’s quite a treat.

In Dallas at the Winspear Opera House, the show will have a two-week run with Dallas Summer Musicals (February 4-16, 2020), and then an additional week through AT&T Performing Arts Center (February 18-23, 2020)


Best of 2019

December 24, 2019

It’s Christmas Eve, and what better way to spend it than going through my BEST OF 2019 movie list and complaining about my choices and wondering why your favorites didn’t make it. The joy of movies is that everyone has their own tastes and preferences. I am fortunate in that I get to watch more movies throughout the year than most people, so I enjoy providing a bit of insight and perspective. Check out this year’s list and see if we agree on anything!

 

https://moviereviewsfromthedark.com/annual-bests-2/best-of-2019/

 

 

 


DIFF 2019 Day 8

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. And now, the end is near … well, it’s actually over … at least as it pertains to the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival. I watched 22 feature films over the 7 days I attended (I missed opening night), and though bleary-eyed, I certainly recommend every movie lover experience the film festival life at least once. If you happen to be travel-averse, there is assuredly one held not too far from home. Of course, the quality of festivals varies greatly, as do the themes and approach to programming.

The final three movies on the final day delivered a very pleasant surprise, a second French comedy in as many days, and a cultish-thriller that was also a mini-reunion for a couple of “Justified” actors.

 

Here is my recap of Day 8 movies:

JUMPSHOT: THE KENNY SAILORS STORY (doc)

 Having played high school basketball, I can honestly say that I never once gave thought to who, when or how the jump shot might have been “invented”. It was ubiquitous to the game … the same as blocking out on defense or coaches yelling from the sideline. Having read the synopsis for this film, I felt a twinge of guilt in not giving any previous thought to the origins of the jump shot. However, since director Jacob Hamilton includes interviews with such hoops luminaries as Stephen Curry (also a producer on the film), Kevin Durant, Bobby Knight, and Dirk Nowitzki, each equally clueless on jump shot history, my ignorance doesn’t seem quite so burdensome.

Of course I had seen the clips of how the game was once played, and director Hamilton includes a fair amount here. Other than the ball, the hoops, and the floor, the old game from the 30’s and 40’s bears little resemblance to what is played today. Although the rules haven’t changed much, the pace of the game and the techniques certainly have.

We are introduced to Kenny Sailors, the man who many credit with originating the modern day jump shot. Mr. Sailors talks of playing his older, much taller brother in games of one-on-one and rarely being able to even get off a shot … at least until that one day when, off the dribble, he rose up and released the ball at the height of his jump – and the ball swished through the basket. A turning point in the sport occurred in Sailors’ front yard.

Included are some photos and clips of Sailors’ high school and college teams – including his having (future Hall of Fame sports announcer) Curt Gowdy as a teammate. There is a bit of Wyoming basketball history detailed, including Sailors’ University of Wyoming national collegiate basketball championship in 1943 at Madison Square Garden. It’s noted that Sailors’ jump shot was nearly indefensible at the time, but he was also an expert ball-handler, tough defender, and above all, a respected team leader.

So yes, this is a basketball story; but it’s even more the story of a very interesting and downright cool gentleman. After college, Sailors left Wyoming as part of the Marines and served in the war. He married and his wife was pregnant when he set out to serve his country – admitting that he assumed he wouldn’t be coming back. Director Hamilton includes interviews with Sailors’ 3 grandchildren and his son, but the most engaging segments of the film allow us to hear directly from the man himself – at the time, well into his 90’s.

Humble, yet proud, Mr. Sailors recounts moving to Alaska as a precaution against his wife’s severe asthma. They lived there 35 years, and he served as both a big game hunting scout and a high school basketball coach. Having two daughters, Sailors worked diligently to develop girls basketball, and he did it not for personal glory (they won a lot of games), but rather for the life lessons the games teaches. He was intent on his daughters having access to the discipline, teamwork and dedication required for a successful team.

We see the iconic Life Magazine photo of Sailors shooting his jump shot, as 9 other players on the court had both feet on the ground, and we understand the impact he had on the game. But it’s the passion he speaks of in regards to life that sticks with us after the film. A very fine athlete who left his mark on the sport, but an even better man who lived a humble and respected life. Director Hamilton’s film uses animation to fill the gaps where no clips or photos are available, and he’s wise enough to know that the greatest impact comes from allowing Mr. Sailors’ smile to light up the screen and our lives. Anyone for a game of H-O-R-S-E?

 

THE FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

 French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003), and has a very loyal group of followers for his films. It should be noted that, despite the title, this is not a sequel to Arcand’s 1986 film THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. This one is a comedy-crime drama that is as cynical as it is witty, and perhaps as much social commentary as satire. It’s yet another rip on capitalism while showing that idealism can work wonders (at least if it’s well funded).

“Intelligence is a handicap.” That’s what Pierre-Paul Daoust (played by Alexandre Landry) tells his girlfriend as he breaks up with her in a café. When she points out that he’s a delivery driver (similar to UPS), Pierre-Paul riffs on a number of famous writers and philosophers who he claims were dumb as rocks. Her inquiry into Trump being elected President leads to his conclusion, “imbeciles worship cretins”. He is the kind of guy that has an answer for everything, and possesses a type of oratory expertise that makes his excuses sound like scientific explanations.

One day while on his route, he stumbles into a robbery gone way wrong. Two thieves were in the process of stealing gang/mob money (and lots of it) when a shooting broke out. In the immediate aftermath, Pierre-Paul makes the snap decision to toss the two huge bags of cash into the back of his truck and take off. This kicks off a chain of events that includes his crossing paths with Aspasie/Camille (Maripier Morin) a high dollar escort whose website features a quote from “Racine”. Pierre-Paul is a Ph.D. in Philosophy, so he takes this as a sign.

Shortly after, Pierre-Paul is meeting with Sylvain “the brain” (Arcand regular Remy Girard), a recently released from prison biker who has become an expert on money laundering. The three form an odd partnership and are followed wherever they go by a couple of police detectives. Camille introduces Sylvain and Pierre-Paul to Mr. Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), her dapper former lover who also happens to be the foremost authority on international tax evasion and high finance.

The running joke here is that Pierre-Paul is an upright citizen who has never done anything remotely illegal in his life. In fact, he regularly doles out money to Quebec’s homeless and those down on their luck. He also volunteers regularly at a shelter that feeds those in need. The obvious statement here is pointing out the great divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Arcand’s film is close to being very good, but falls short in too many areas to reach the height it desires. There is a torture scene that seems totally out of place compared to the tone of the rest of the film, and I refuse to make the link to PRETTY WOMAN – another film where the rich guy wins over the good-hearted sex worker. This film talks about “providence” and just rewards that rarely happen. Is it acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Does doing good correct a wrong? Heck, is it even wrong to steal from criminals? What the film actually does is serve up obvious targets with no real solutions offered. The self-congratulatory ending with close-up shots of Quebec’s homeless doesn’t help.

 

THEM THAT FOLLOW

 My final film of the festival was listed as a “thriller”, but is realistically more of a drama set in the harshness of Appalachia. A small community of people are devoted followers of the Pastor Lemuel played by Walton Goggins, and snake-handling is key to their interpretative Pentecostal religion. Co-directors and co-writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage offer up a too-familiar story that tries to walk the line between cult and religious fanaticism. It’s always fascinating to see folks who have somehow become entrenched in such an environment.

Alice Englert is the daughter of Oscar winning director Jane Campion and she stars as Mara, the Pastor’s daughter who tries to fall in line with her father’s preachings, but an independent streak and an attraction to Augie (Thomas Mann) really complicate things for her. Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) co-stars as Augie’s mother, Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) is Dilly, local girl and friend to Mara, Jim Gaffigan plays Ms. Colman’s true-believer husband and Augie’s dad, and Lewis Pullman is Garrett, the boy selected as Mara’s husband-to-be.

Those of us on the outside always look on bewildered at how any person ever builds a following such as this Pastor or any other cult leader. How does any parent lose the inherent protective gene they have for their child, and have it overridden by a Pastor who uses serpents to cleanse sin from the believers … some of which make life decisions based on a quilting group. The movie looks great and has terrific performances, but for whatever reason, we are never really drawn into this world – left instead to observe from a distance (which is fine by me as long as snakes are present).


DIFF 2019 Day 7

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. The penultimate day of the festival and my eyes are tired and my rear end is sore from sitting … not complaining, just explaining the reality of so many movies over so many days. This day was the oddest mixture of films and one that could only happen at a film festival. I started with a prestigious French farce, followed by a hardcore international business documentary, and ended the evening with a quirky independent comedy on a topic that’s typically off-limits. What a fun day!

 

 

Here is my recap of the films from Day 7:

 

NON-FICTION (France)

Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it’s only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce … and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard’s latest manuscript. Alain claims it’s too easy to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it’s “auto-fiction”, meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON – or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard’s sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife – and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain’s publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character worries about infidelities, while it’s a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as “very French” in that it consists of ‘4 very witty lines’. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes “feel-bad books” rather than the usual “feel good” ones. And Alain refers to Leonard’s last book as “a worst seller”.

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keep the film from ever feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can’t help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the heavy dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to “Double Lives” which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the ‘Martian Martian’ song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained … in a mostly French manner.

 

AMERICAN FACTORY (doc)

 In December 2008, General Motors shut down the truck plant in Dayton, Ohio, putting approximately 2000 folks out of work. Six years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Glass, invested millions to turn the shell of the plant into a retro-fitted factory and the first U.S. operation for his company – a company he claims owns 70% of the auto glass market. In doing so, the factory hired approximately 1000 locals, many of whom had not had consistent work since the GM plant closed years prior.

Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you’ll likely be re-defining the word.

While there were good intentions on both sides, the differences that start out as kind of funny turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These folks must spend two years away from their family, as they try to make sense of a land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different … they don’t work as hard, they don’t dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won’t work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers – a point that’s difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.

U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the ‘rust belt’, the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China’s Workers’ Union works in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual – one even in a JAWS tshirt – while the lean Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.

What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one’s work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It’s a very fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they’ll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month!  As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can’t spell Fuyao with “fu”. The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship.

 

FRANCES FERGUSON

 We can usually assume some movie topics are off-limits for comedy material. For instance, the reception for a comedy about the Holocaust would likely be less than positive. Well brace yourself, because director Bob Byington (SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, 2012) delivers a very funny and offbeat movie about a sexual predator. Having the sex offender be a very pretty mid-20’s woman takes some of the edge off, but the film never lets us forget her crime.

The very talented Kaley Wheless (recently seen as Woody Harrelson’s daughter in THE HIGHWAYMEN on Netflix) stars as Frances, a woman who specializes in bad decisions. The narrator – an always excellent Nick Offerman – explains that Frances married Nick (Keith Poulson) and immediately thought it was the best thing. And then she thought it was the worst thing. And then she wondered, what’s the difference? Next came having a baby – daughter Parfait (is that a real name these days?). And finally, came her worst decision of all.

As a substitute teacher at the high school, Frances sets sight on hunky senior Jake, and then turns the fantasy into reality … a reality that ends with her arrest and time in jail. We do see some of her time while incarcerated, but most of the film occurs once she is released and on probation. Spending time with her mom (Jennifer Prediger) is of little help to her, but group therapy led by David Krumholtz does allow her think through some things.

Director Byington and lead actress Wheless are credited with the story, while Scott King wrote the screenplay. Ms. Wheless’ deadpan delivery and acidic nature while seemingly surrendering to life is a key to why the comedy works, and we must tip our cap to the script as well. There’s a bit of NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE awkwardness on display, and filming in North Platte, Nebraska, seems like the perfect call.