OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

June 19, 2017

OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2017 recap

 The 6th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival ran June 8-11 and included even more local venues this year … further proof of the organizers’ commitment to spotlighting this unique neighborhood within the monstrosity known as the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex. Despite the challenging schedule (much overlap, and only one screening per movie), the programming is a gift for true film lovers. I saw ten movies over the four days (it would have been 11 if not for the cluster of Sunday evening – more on that later) and not a single clunker in the bunch. For a festival that prides itself on unusual films and deep cuts, that’s quite a tribute to those responsible.

Below are quick comments on each of the films I watched, and at the end you’ll find some closing commentary on the OCFF.

Thursday June 8 – Opening Night

LEMON – When introducing the festival’s opening night spotlight feature, director Janicza Bravo described her finished project as “a bummer, but not a bummer”. She and her co-writer and lead actor (and real life spouse) Brett Gelman clearly had a great time with the film that took 5 years to complete. It’s an unconventional look at Isaac (played by Gelman), a guy so severely socially awkward that he might lose a two man race for “most likely to succeed” to Napoleon Dynamite.

Isaac’s girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) is blind, and has lost all interest in their relationship. When she dumps him, Isaac’s life somehow becomes even more bizarre thanks to two Tiger finches, his job as an acting teacher, an attempt to get close with an actor (Michael Cera, sporting Gene Wilder tribute hair) and his near-criminal bonding moment with the elderly grandmother (Marla Gibbs) of his new romantic interest (a terrifically confounded Nia Long).

The cast is exceptionally deep for a low-budget indie and also includes Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, David Paymer, Jeff Garlin, Jon Daly and Megan Mullally. Each of these talented folks offers up a dose of eccentricity to keep us viewers on our toes. There are many laughs to be had, and Mr. Gelman somehow delivers a performance that is a step backwards from deadpan. His walk alone is worth the price of admission, as is the use of such unusual music as “A Million Matzoh Balls”. The film is quite funny, but also a bit sad. Ms. Bravo’s description of her film is spot-on.

PORTO – Last year’s tragic death of Anton Yelchin becomes more heart-breaking every time we see him on screen. This is one of his final films and director Gabe Klinger and writer Larry Gross deliver a Portugal-based quasi-Before Sunrise story that mercifully chooses a much different path than the incessant babbling of that film.

Rather than narcissistic meanderings, this film explores how we deal with memories, as well as the fallout of an intense and short-lived connection formed mostly through a (prolonged and extended) sexual encounter between two otherwise broken people.

The film is divided into 3 sections: Jake, Mati, and Mati and Jake. In addition to the perspectives, the filmmaker utilizes multiple aspects and film formats (8mm, 16mm, 35mm), and we were fortunate to see it presented in 35mm. In addition to the human observations and insight, this is a film techie’s dream come true. So many various looks for a beautifully shot (by Wyatt Garfield) film is extremely rare for a low-budget indie. There is both a retro look and stunning shots such as those with Mati and the red umbrella, and the couple on a bench in the late night fog.

The splendid Lucie Lucas makes her feature film debut as Mati and the camera loves her, as does Jake … or at least he believes he does. She manages to capture both the flirtatious sparkle of the girl who first encounters Jake, and the less-energetic, more resigned to the future look of the woman who has made her life choice.

Toss in a Proust quote, some wonderful piano work, and the beauty of coastal town Porto Portugal, and the result is a piercing look at the fragility of humanity and passion of star-crossed connections.

Friday June 9

GOLDEN EXITS – Director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) conjures up an odd blending of Woody Allen classics Interiors (itself a tribute to Bergman) and Hannah and Her Sisters (with the funny parts removed). The paths of families and characters cross sometimes organically, and sometimes by force. The film was nominated for a Grand Jury award at Sundance, and it features all of the usual relationship traits – insecurity and mistrust, and anything else that leads to disenchantment and unhappiness. Yet somehow voices are never raised and anger seems (mostly) a distant emotion.

Naomi (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch) arrives from Australia and begins working for Nick (Adam Horovitz, former Beastie Boy) on a project to archive his deceased father-in-law’s documents/materials. Nick was hired by the estate trustee and his bitter sister-in-law Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), and she seems to be less miserable whenever she is busting his chops about the pace of his work – and anything else she can target. Nick receives little support from his wife and Gwendolyn’s sister Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), who has plenty of reasons to lack faith in her husband. Nick has unpure thoughts regarding Naomi, but she is focused on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) despite his marriage to Jess (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love).

If it sounds like a mess, it surely is … but it’s also an intricate tapestry of lies, love, jealousy and deficiencies of those in relationships. The film opens with Emily Browning singing “New York Groove”, which perfectly sets the stage for this strong ensemble cast playing cold, reserved characters who talk about seeing films with “normal” people in them – much like this one.

A LIFE IN WAVES (doc) – By opening this documentary with footage of Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on an early David Letterman show, it’s as if director Brett Whitcomb is trying to convince us that she is a celebrity and someone whose story is worth learning. Of course he’s correct, even if her story and career require no added publicity or marketing.

Ms. Ciani is a talented musician known best for her synth music featured in numerous commercials (Coca Cola) and video games. Her innovative sound design and effects may be difficult to categorize (New Age?), but the effectiveness is beyond question. We learn about her mentor Don Buchla (inventor of a 1963 synthesizer), her Wellesley alumni award, and her battle with breast cancer that led to her relocation from NYC to California in 1992. Some amazing archival footage takes us full circle through the three stages of career, and by the end, we are in awe of her talent, and fully admire her as a person.

Saturday June 10

LA BARRACUDA – Stuck with the festival’s least desirable time slot, co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortland still managed to walk away as the Grand Jury Prize Winner – Narrative Feature. Filmed in Austin with Texas Hill Country pacing, the unconventional editing displays the messy legacy left behind by a deceased Country & Western singer of some fame.

The singer’s daughter Merle (Allison Tolman) is living her life of quiet desperation when she is surprised on her own front porch by Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), who claims to be Merle’s half-sister from England. Adding to the mess is Merle’s mother played by JoBeth Williams, who understandably wants little to do with Sinaloa. Ms. Reid plays Sinaloa in such a way that no one ever really knows whether her motivations are pure or vengeful. She’s quite creepy at times.

Musical director Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore) ensures that the music throughout is spot on and crucial to telling the story. A campfire sing-a-long is a real ice-breaker for the sisters who share various mommy issues and daddy issues. Tack on Merle’s fiancé issues and work issues, and Sinaloa’s chip on the shoulder, and the scorpion line (it’ll come back to sting you) proves quite the foreshadowing. The rage within can rise up at any time and within any of us. The only questions are when, by whom and how severe.

TRUE CONVICTION (doc) – The people we tend to pull for in life are those who seemingly always find a way to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. Chris, Steven and Johnnie are the ultimate example of this. The three ex-convicts have decades of time served between them, and they also share exoneration after being wrongly convicted.

A Special Award winner at Tribeca, Jamie Meltzer’s film also took home this year’s OCFF Grand Jury prize – Documentary feature. These three gentlemen refuse to lash out at the system that did them wrong, and instead have formed an organization that researches and assists those in the same situation which they once found themselves in – behind bars and wrongly convicted. It’s an admirable cause and a career designed to turn a negative into a positive. We follow different cases as the men meet with a “false confession consultant”, as well as a prosecutor and detective from an old case gone bad. They acknowledge the danger in playing with the hope of convicts, and the film doesn’t shy away from the personal travails of all three. Steve and Chris face severe challenges, while Johnnie looks to start over in life. We never doubt the frustration these men have over the system that favors quick closure over accuracy, and more impressively, we are certain of their passion for their mission.

SANTA SANGRE (1989) – I typically avoid reparatory films at festivals, but made an exception in order to experience an Alejandro Jodorowsky double feature. At its core, this classic from almost 30 years ago is a horror film – and a very good one with the darkest of humor and surreal elements. But it’s also a psychological look at how childhood experiences form our character in life, and that’s not always a pretty sight.

Adan Jodorowsky plays boy magician Fenix, the son of a circus knife thrower (Guy Stockwell) and trapeze performer mother (Blanca Guerra). He befriends a young mute understudy Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia in her only screen performance) who is horribly mistreated by the Tattooed Lady (a terrific Thelma Tixou). A particularly gruesome scene leaves Fenix traumatized and we then catch up with him some 15 years later (now played by Adan brother Axel Jodorowsky). Linked by witnessing the vivid violence, Alma tracks down Fenix in an effort to make things right for both of them.

Jodorowsky’s visuals are remarkable and are often tributes to those filmmakers he most admires. It’s certainly a movie for adults, but only those adults who are willing to dig in and follow the psychology of events that may seem cruel and meaningless – but often mean a great deal.

ENDLESS POETRY – The second half of the Jodorowsky double feature is the newest film from the famed director and it’s offered as a surreal autobiography – a story of his family and specifically, his time in Chile prior to leaving for Paris. The surreal part comes courtesy of his mother who operatically sings her every line, the head of a water buffalo perched above his parents’ headboard, an ultra modern bar that defies description – outside of the wakes held for customers/staff, and the inclusion of dwarfs and clowns (recurring in numerous Jodorowsky projects).

This is a continuation piece to Jodorowsky’s 2014 Dance of Reality, and features Adan Jodorowsky as the son (and also the film’s composer), and Brontis Jodorowsky as the father. Additionally, Alejandro himself periodically appears on screen in what works as kind of a live narration of his own thoughts during some segments of his life.

Life philosophy permeates every scene and every character. The mother experiences a run of frustration for every good-intentioned cake she bakes. There is an “ultrapianist” to showcase why you never want to invite one to your own party. The red-headed muse is a powerful character that seems to both make and break our protagonist, as does a relationship with a fellow poet, and life in an artist commune. All of these play into Jodorowsky’s apparent ideals of being fully engaged in youth, and then detaching in old age … making up what he calls “the sad joy of living”.

Sunday June 11

INFINITY BABY – Sometimes at film festivals we get a “work in progress”, and at only 71 minutes run time, it’s entirely possible that’s what we saw here – although director Bob Byington made no such claim in his pre or post screening comments. However, his comments and his films make it obvious he very much values comedy and laughter.

Filmed in Austin, two story lines intersect at a company run by Nick Offerman. His nephew and marketing representative is played (exceedingly well) by Kieran Culkin, who is the ultimate example of a shallow, self-centered millennial with commitment issues. His love life is a vicious circle that we witness: he falls quickly and hard for a woman, and then immediately begins finding reasons the relationship won’t work. In what’s supposed to be a test, he has them meet his “mother” (an awesome Megan Mullally) who proceeds to destroy their confidence and belittle their personality – putting an end to any further plans with her “son”. The other story revolves around two lackeys (Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan) who report to Culkin. Their job is to deliver babies to the customers. What babies, you ask? Well, therein lies the hook.

In the not-too-distant-future, a stem cell experiment has gone awry and resulted in a batch of “infinity babies” that don’t age. Now anyone who has ever been a parent knows full well how frightening the concept of having a perpetual infant seems, so to think anyone would take on this duty for a mere $20,000 is absurd at best. And absurdity seems to be director Byington’s and writer Onur Tukel main objective, especially when we learn the truth behind Culkin’s momma scheme, and as it relates to the two lackeys making what they decide is a wise financial decision.

Also joining the terrific comedy ensemble cast is Noel Wells, Stephen Root and Trieste Kelly Dunn, who is a standout as one of Culkin’s girlfriends. The black and white look plays into the futuristic tale, and having Culkin’s character as one who is stuck in never-grow-up mode finely parallels the infinity baby story. Plenty of laughs here, but just be careful the next time a significant other invites you to “meet my mother”.

THE LITTLE HOURS – It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. Proving yet again that its programmers aren’t tied to convention, this was the third outlandish comedy I watched at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned nuns played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated Saturday Night Live skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch; however, Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. You’ll surely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

A GHOST STORY – though this was #1 on my list of films to see during the festival, an extremely long line penalized those of us who watched the movie immediately preceding the screening. So even though I’ll have to catch this one later, the crush of humanity awaiting entry was a reminder that the OCFF has arrived.

Conclusion

This year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival gave every indication that the previously little-known neighborhood event had officially grown into a full-fledged nationally recognized festival. Of course, with that comes the good and the bad. In the positive column, a diverse and sought-after programming schedule now includes some films from large festivals (Sundance, Toronto), and also ensures the attendance of many writers, directors and producers. The challenges brought by success include crowd size that is difficult to manage … long lines for drinks, concessions and theatre entry, and of course, the cluster brought on by the closing night film and the penalty for those in the previous screening. On the whole, it’s wonderful to see such devoted folks finally receiving the recognition they deserve for building this dynamic event from scratch in a neighborhood they have helped revitalize.


THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) revisited

September 10, 2016

thunderbolt Greetings again from the darkness. The 1970’s brought a wave of new filmmakers who not only changed the way films were made, but also the type and style of stories for the big screen. Due to the abundance of interesting movies from this era, it’s easy to see how, over time, a few gems can slip and fall into the ‘forgotten’ category. One of these is this personal favorite from the infamous writer/director Michael Cimino, who passed away just a couple of months ago (July 2016).

The opening shot has a car in the distance kicking up dust on a country road as it approaches a small rural church seemingly plopped in the middle of pasture. Once parked, the driver of the car steps inside the church and begins spraying bullets throughout the intimate wooden structure – his target being a bespectacled slow talking preacher played by Clint Eastwood who ducks out a side door.

As you might guess, John Doherty, nicknamed The Thunderbolt, (Eastwood’s character) is no real preacher. The man shooting at him is one of his old partners in crime, and he’s seeking revenge on Doherty for stealing the gang’s money from their last job. While Eastwood is dodging bullets in the pasture, a young wise-cracking Jeff Bridges is stealing a car from a local dealership. In short order Bridges (Lightfoot) has run over the guy shooting at Eastwood, and Clint is hanging onto the car for dear life as Bridges speeds off. And that’s how this inauspicious titular partnership begins.

What follows is a blend of buddy flick, road trip and heist movie. It’s spiced up with Thunderbolt’s other partners (played by George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) first chasing them down, and then reluctantly agreeing to partner up again to repeat their previous robbery. In the process, we travel through Hell’s Canyon along the Snake River in Idaho and listen to a lot of tough talk between the four key players. Kennedy’s character is especially hard on the young Bridges, and that’s what kicks off the pseudo father-son relationship at the core of the film – tough guy and loner Thunderbolt genuinely grows to like the fast-talking Lightfoot, who manages to quell a bit of Thunderbolt’s world weary bitterness.

The dialogue is filled with put-downs, smack-downs and threats, and is accompanied by some unusual visuals. In addition to the stunning countryside, seeing Kennedy and Lewis co-occupy a small ice cream truck is itself entirely worth the effort of tracking this one down. But that’s not all … how about Jeff Bridges in full dress, wig, heels and make-up? It’s all for his part in the heist, but it certainly nails down the closeness of he and Eastwood and they hide as a couple at a drive-in movie theatre … that is, until they are forced into a high-speed chase scene over the familiar speed humps that anyone from the drive-in era will recall. We also get the colorful wardrobe – Eastwood and Bridges spend much of the film in disco-type clothes stolen from the back of a car. Other standout visual moments include a woman on a motorcycle using a hammer to pound on Bridges’ van while both are driving over a bridge; comedian Don Rickles on TV; and a woman exposing herself to Bridges through a sliding glass door as he works his manual labor job.

These fabulous moments all fit perfectly into 1970’s cinema and are courtesy of the terrific cast, as well as the vision of writer/director Michael Cimino in his first feature film. Cimino’s story is the ultimate fall-from-grace. As a Yale graduate, he became a Madison Avenue advertising star with his unique and creative TV commercials. His script polishing of Magnum Force (the second Dirty Harry movie) so impressed Eastwood, that it led to the two collaborating on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the success of this first film, Cimino moved on to the Vietnam picture The Deer Hunter, released in 1978. That film won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (for Cimino). This propelled him to the top of the Hollywood mountain, and the rare opportunity for full control of his next project. The result was the legendary critical and box office flop Heaven’s Gate. It’s the flop by which all others are measured, and very nearly destroyed United Artists (a studio founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith). Cimino’s reputation and career never fully recovered and though he only made five more films, he did write two successful novels. Upon hearing of his passing, many of those he worked with had nothing but praise for Cimino as a writer, director and artist … especially Eastwood and Robert DeNiro.

Even casual movie watchers are somewhat familiar with the long (more than 60 years) and decorated career of Clint Eastwood. His impact on the entertainment world has come via acting, writing, directing, producing and composing. He has won four Oscars (two each for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven), while being nominated eleven times. His last acting role was Trouble with the Curve (2012), but he continues to direct films … including the recently released Sully, with Tom Hanks playing Captain Chesley Sullenberger who piloted the “miracle on the Hudson”. Eastwood’s big break came with the TV show “Rawhide”, which led to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s, and then to the 1970’s-80’s tough guy and action star Dirty Harry, before mixing in action/comedy with Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and the like. Although he continued to act, it seemed Eastwood’s passion lay behind the camera, where he has been able to make the films he wanted and include some of his personal views (not always popular with the Hollywood elite). Given the two high profile lawsuits, he probably wishes he had never met Sondra Locke, but Eastwood’s influence and legacy stretches across decades and multiple genres in the movie world.

In 1974, Jeff Bridges was still known mostly as the son of Lloyd Bridges, though he had also made a name for himself with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show (McMurtry, Bogdanovich, 1971). As Lightfoot, Bridges dons leather pants and a brash attitude while flaunting his acting style of just making everything look so darn easy … and receiving another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Since then, Bridges has received Oscar nominations for Starman (1984), The Contender (2001), True Grit (2010) and of course for his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart (2009). Beyond these, Bridges has brought life to some incredibly unique and interesting characters: Kevin Flynn/Clu in Tron (1982), former NFL’er Terry Brogan in Against All Odds (1984), Preston Tucker in the underrated Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988), with brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), another lost gem The Fischer King (1991), the “highly” popular Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the suspicious neighbor in Arlington Road (1999), Tony Stark’s nemesis Obadiah Stone in Iron Man (2008), and most recently as the retiring Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water … one of the best films of 2016. And yes, he did appear in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

george-kennedy In addition to Eastwood and Bridges, another key to why the film works is the presence of George Kennedy as Red, the grumpy, burly, hayfever-stricken guy who trusts no one. Prior to acting, Kennedy served under General George S Patton and was awarded 2 bronze stars. Like Eastwood, he broke in during the era of Westerns and moved on to tough guy roles in the 1960’s. The difference, of course, was that Eastwood was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, while Kennedy was simply one of the best character actors in Hollywood history. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his memorable work opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967). In the 1970’s Kennedy appeared in the popular disaster films (the “Airport” franchise, Earthquake, etc), before turning his career on its ear by jumping into the Naked Gun spoof films. Never one to shy away from work, whether TV or movies, Kennedy appeared in 74 episodes (1988-91) of the immensely popular TV series “Dallas”. His role of Carter McKay breathed new life into the series. As a rancher/oilman from Colorado who bought a ranch from viewer favorite Ray Krebbs, Kennedy’s McKay became the ultimate nemesis for J.R. Ewing. Watching Kennedy and Larry Hagman go head-to-head was some of the best TV viewers could ask for. In fact it was Kennedy’s character who tricked J.R. into losing control of Ewing Oil. Kennedy also appeared in the two CBS “Dallas” movies that followed the end of the series. His final role was that of Mark Wahlberg’s grandfather in The Gambler (2014). Mr. Kennedy died in February 2016 at the age of 91, after more than 50 years of acting and nearly 200 screen credits. Fans of his work may remember his often gruff persona, but those who worked with him claim Kennedy was just about the nicest guy they had known.

The fourth cog in this Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wheel was Eddie played by familiar face Geoffrey Lewis. In the film, he was the good-hearted guy who seemed to be out of place, which allowed for the perfect contrast with hard-nosed George Kennedy. Mr. Lewis appeared in many movies with Clint Eastwood, and TV audiences may remember his as part of the series “Flo” (1980). Lewis, who is the father of actress Juliette Lewis, died in 2015 after more than 200 acting roles … including Heaven’s Gate.

The rest of Cimino’s first film is literally filled with one scene appearances by faces we either recognized at the time, or would come to know very well in the near future. These include: a 20 year old Catherine Bach, known also as Daisy Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard”; Gary Busey in a quick scene with Bridges; Burton Gilliam of Blazing Saddles fames; Dub Taylor (appeared in multiple films by both Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemekis) is the gas station attendant who rants about US economics; Bill McKinney (much too memorable in Deliverance, numerous films with Eastwood) is the crazy driver who, along with his pooping raccoon, picks up a hitchhiking Eastwood and Bridges; Claudia Lennear (the inspiration for The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, part of Twenty Feet from Stardom) is the secretary who asks Eastwood for his social security number; Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on “The Andy Griffith Show”) plays the vault manager and home invasion victim; Roy Jenson (in Chinatown, he’s the guy holding Nicholson when Polanski slices his nose) is Dunlop, the early church shooter; Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 From Outer Space) is the car salesman who Bridges dupes; Scott Eastwood (Clint’s kid) is the 5 year old boy at the ice cream truck; and Vic Tayback and Beth Howland, known for their work as Mel and Vera on “Alice”. Should you need more, that’s Paul Williams singing the theme song (that he wrote).

Admittedly, Michael Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does not rank among the best of the truly great films released during the 1970’s: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Star Wars … just to name a few. However, it does belong on a list of forgotten gems – movies from the 1970’s that are still worth watching today. Where else can you watch Clint Eastwood preaching the gospel or George Kennedy bullying Jeff Bridges?

***This is part of theDarlin’ Dallas Blogathanrunning September 21-23, 2016 at https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/

darlin-dallasers

 

 

 

 


STAGECOACH (1939) revisited

August 21, 2016

stagecoach Imagine you are 25 year old Orson Welles, and you are obsessed with creating cinematic history with your next film. You have spent hour after hour studying the best and most creative works of the finest filmmakers from all over the world. You come across a particular John Ford western, and are so inspired by its technical precision that you watch it at least three dozen times while working on your masterpiece … Citizen Kane (1941). Such is the influence of Ford’s Stagecoach. It may or may not be the greatest western film of all-time (a matter of preference), but it’s inarguably the most influential.

More than 75 years later, it’s difficult to imagine a time when John Ford and John Wayne were not joined at the swaggering hip making movies together. By 1939, Ford had won an Oscar for The Informer (1935) but had not directed a western in more than a decade, while John Wayne’s career to this point consisted of bit parts and B movies. The “firsts” here include: John Ford’s first movie with John Wayne, the first movie filmed in Monument Valley, Ford’s first talkie-western, and the first starring role in a major motion picture for John Wayne

It’s difficult to think of a more iconic star-making screen introduction than that first shot of John Wayne twirling and cocking the rifle as the camera zooms in on his face (see photo below). It should be noted that The Duke (as he was often referred) was 32 years old in the film and is wearing his own cowboy hat – one he would wear in many movies over the years (until it finally was in such bad shape, it was placed in a glass display case at Mr. Wayne’s home).

The film hit while the industry was still experiencing some of the pains of leaving the “silent” world behind and taking advantage of “talkies”. Additionally, the technology of color film was just beginning to be used more frequently, but many studios and directors were clinging to the traditional black and white look. As a genre, westerns had never been able to make that step into the mainstream … that is, until Ford and Wayne came stampeding to the forefront with Stagecoach.

Dudley Nichols (Oscar winning screenwriter for Ford’s The Informer) adapted the original story from Ernest Haycox (a prolific writer who helped elevate westerns from dime story pulp to respectability and box office profitability) into a screenplay that examines the early attempts at transitioning the “wild west” into a more civilized society. Social commentary abounds as several characters from disparate background are crammed into a confined space (the titular stagecoach) for an extended period of time. Some viewers may complain about the use of clichés, but in fairness, what we have come to label as cliché, was anything but at the time.

Adding their own special touch to the wide range of characters were some of the finest actors of the era. Claire Trevor was the best known star in the cast at the time, and she plays Dallas, the good-hearted woman whose past/profession causes her to be treated as an outcast by most in the group. Ms. Trevor would go on to accept the unofficial title of Film Noir Queen, win a Best Supporting Oscar for Key Largo (1948), and have the School of Arts at UC-Irvine named for her. Donald Meek plays the meek (yes his name often fit his character) travelling salesman ironically named Peacock. Contrary to what one would guess given his diminutive physical stature, Mr. Meek fought in the Spanish-American War. John Carradine is perfectly cast as Hatfield, the elegant gambler carrying a secret. Mr. Carradine is the father of the acting Carradine brothers (including David and Keith), and enjoyed a 65 year career with more than 350 projects. Drunken Doc Boone is played by Thomas Mitchell, who many will recognize as memory-challenged Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He also appeared in such top shelf films as Gone with the Wind, High Noon and Lost Horizon. Louise Platt plays Lucy Mallory, the pregnant wife who is on a mission to reunite with her soldier husband. The villainous banker is played with gusto by Berton Churchill, and the only thing he’s missing is a twirly mustache. Mr. Churchill was a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933. Law Enforcement is represented by Marshal Wilcox, played by George Bancroft, and the stagecoach is driven by the great Andy Devine (as Buck). Mr. Devine manages to create a bit of comedy relief by the use of his trademark high-pitched raspy voice, as well as his underrated physical acting movements. Other notables making an appearance are Tom Tyler (once known as the strongest man in America) whose initial shaky transition from silent film to talkies is readily apparent in his few scenes; Woody Strode (one of the saloon patrons) who is known best for his fight scene in Spartacus; and Tim Holt who brings the charging Calvary to the rescue, and is best known as one of the prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Of course, it’s John Ford and John Wayne who draw most of the attention when this film is discussed. Born Marion Morrison, The Duke played football at USC before turning his full attention to acting. Here he plays bad-guy-with-a-heart Ringo Kid, and gets to show a pretty full spectrum of machismo, humanity, dignity and sensitivity. His extraordinary physical screen presence led him to the top of the film world with roles in some of the most popular films over the next 4 decades, capped by a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969). John Ford, who was 45 years old at the time of Stagecoach, won 4 Best Director Oscars (plus two special Oscars for his WWII documentaries): The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green was my Valley (1942), and The Quiet Man (1952).

Two others deserve special mention. Stuntman extraordinaire Yakima Canutt (a World Champion rodeo cowboy) was seemingly involved in just about every risky stunt in Hollywood during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stagecoach provided the opportunity for what may be his best and most daring stunt – leaping onto the moving stagecoach and its 6 horse team and then sliding down under the carriage and out the back … all at breakneck speed! It’s fascinating to watch, and in this age of computerized special effects, it demands a level of awe and respect. While this film provided the first on screen glimpse of Monument Valley, it was Cinematographer Bert Glennon who figured out the best ways to take advantage of this breathtaking setting. Mr. Glennon was nominated for 3 Oscars (including Stagecoach), and was a frequent collaborator with both John Ford and Cecil B DeMille. The second half of his career was devoted mostly to TV series, rather than movies.

Stagecoach received 7 Oscar nominations including wins for Thomas Mitchell as Best Supporting Actor and Best Music (score) for Richard Hagerman, W Frank Harling, John Leipold, and Leo Shuken. The other nominees were for Best Picture, Best Director (Ford), Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. While it might seem implausible that such a ground-breaking film could only win two Oscars, it’s a reminder why 1939 is considered by many to be the best ever year for movies. Check out this list of other releases that same year: Gone with the Wind; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Ninotchka; The Wizard of Oz; Of Mice and Men; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Young Mr Lincoln.

Despite being the first movie to feature the “dead man’s hand” – a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights (the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was gunned down), this film continues to live on in cinematic lore. Often included in the discussion of the best westerns of all-time – along with High Noon, Shane, Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Searchers – it was a joyful experience to finally get to see this one on the big screen in a theatre setting (thanks to Dallas Film Society and Chris Vognar). It’s clear how this film elevated the western genre, and it certainly deserved recognition by the National Film Registry in 1995.

stagecoach2

 


POINT BLANK (1967) revisited

January 31, 2016

point blank Greetings again from the darkness. In the not-inconsequential sub-genre of 1960’s tough guy crime thrillers, it’s tough to beat this neo-noir that carries the lineage of a fine wine, but the taste of a stout beer. Familiar faces are everywhere, bullets fly, double-crossing is expected, Angie flaunts, and revenge is the mission.

While not a box office hit on its release in 1967, the film grew into a cult classic and is now appreciated as one of the era’s best. The set-up is certainly not too complicated. During a heist (filmed at Alcatraz), one of the gang members shoots another at “point blank” range and takes off with both the money and the poor guy’s wife. The shot guy survives and seeks his money ($93,000) and revenge on those who wronged him.

Sure it sounds simple and common, but it’s made special thanks to top notch work from the writer, director, cinematographer, composer and cast. The story (adapted by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse) is based on “The Hunter” from acclaimed crime novelist Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark). The book was also the source material for Mel Gibson’s 1999 movie Payback. Oscar nominated director John Boorman (Deliverance 1972, Hope and Glory 1987) works with Oscar nominated cinematographer Philip H Lathrop (Earthquake 1974) to create a stylish and gritty look and feel, while Oscar winning composer Johnny Mandel (The Sandpiper, MASH theme) adds just the right musical touch.

If that’s not enough for you, Lee Marvin commands attention as the revenge-obsessed tough guy who won’t get fooled again. To call Lee Marvin a tough guy seems redundant and unnecessary, as his screen presence oozed dominance. He was coming off an Oscar win for Cat Ballou and one of his best performances in The Dirty Dozen. In other words, he was an actor at the peak of his Hollywood power.

Joining Mr. Marvin on screen is a prestigious group led by Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. With a career that spanned more than 50 years, Ms. Dickinson starred in such films as the original Ocean’s 11 and Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Dressed to Kill. Of course, she also starred in one of the biggest TV shows of the 1970’s “Police Woman”. And speaking of 1970’s TV, few were more jarring to the culture than “All in the Family” with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. In this film, Ms. Dickinson plays the sister of Marvin’s double-crossing wife and she gets to flail away in anger at him before the two fall into bed together … a terrific piece of editing. Mr. O’Connor plays Brewster, one of the three heads of “the Organization”, and one of the targets that Marvin chases to retrieve his money.

Playing another of the three heads is Lloyd Bochner, who capitalized on his smooth demeanor and velvety voice during a 7 decade career in TV and movies. Mr. Bochner is the father of Hart Bochner, who (as Ellis) tried to out-smart Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Keenan Wynn appears as a mysterious figure feeding information to Marvin’s character to assist in his quest of taking down the organization. Mr. Wynn is the son of legendary entertainer Ed Wynn who was known for his work in vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, TV and movies (Mary Poppins). Keenan also appeared in many TV shows and movies, with Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb being his most famous. Appearing as Lynn, the two-timing wife, Sharon Acker was on the verge of movie stardom … only that stardom never came. By choosing to focus on TV roles, she had a nice long career, but never reached the superstar status many had predicted. Sandra Warner plays the waitress that Marvin talks to, and Ms. Warner simply walked away from the business after this role … despite a successful career that started when she was 18 years old. Yet another familiar face in the cast belongs to John Vernon, who was making his feature film debut. Here he plays the guy pulling the trigger at point blank range, and many will recognize him as Dean Wormer in Animal House. James Sikking plays the sharpshooter employed by the organization, and fans of “Hill Street Blues” will remember him as the slightly annoying Howard.

There are a few other notes of interest regarding actors in the movie … though you’ll have to look quickly. Sid Haig plays a henchman at the hotel. Mr. Haig has had a prolific career as a heavy, bad guy, villain, horror film staple, and even Tarantino favorite. Barbara Feldon, the beloved Agent 99 in “Get Smart” makes an appearance on a Ponds face cream commercial as Marvin watches TV, and Lauren Bacall is seen/heard quickly on a TV set as well. Also, Felix Silla has one scene as a hotel guard. The diminutive Mr. Silla also starred as Cousin Itt in “The Addams Family”. As a final note and shout out to “the Chevies”, it must be noted that Angie Dickinson and Keenan Wynn would also appear together in the deliciously twisted 1971 film Pretty Maids all in a Row from that lover of the female form, director Roger Vadim.

It’s pretty easy to see how all of these factors came together to create this cult favorite. From a filmmaking perspective, the use of flashbacks, editing and sound effects (footsteps) all add to the experience, as does Brewster’s stunning home – which in real life, now belongs to Drew Barrymore. If you are a fan of 1960’s film, it’s one you probably already have seen a few times, but if not, it’s one to watch if for no other reason that Lee Marvin firing shots into an empty bed … I’m still not sure how that was supposed to help him obtain his $93,000, but he really wants his money!

watch the trailer (it’s a hoot!):

 


RIFIFI (Du rififi chez les hommes, France, 1955)

September 27, 2014

rififi Greetings again from the darkness. This classic French film is often referred to as the birth of the heist film. It’s not that it was the first, rather it was groundbreaking in style and approach. Former blacklisted US director Jules Dassin delivers a tense and unique film with terrific atmosphere, blending Film Noir with the French New Wave. The story is based on the novel by Auguste le Breton.

One of the more unusual aspects of the film is that the actual heist is Act II, not Act III – the latter of which actually involves a kidnapping and a quest for vengeance. It’s easy to view the two Ocean’s Eleven films as remakes of this one, and its influence on Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, as well as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (the table scene), are fun to analyze.

Almost 60 years later, most film classes still discuss the nearly 30 minute heist sequence that involves no dialogue or music (excepting an inadvertent piano key). The teamwork and stress of this sequence is enthralling and worth watching a few times. We somehow find ourselves pulling for these bad guys (criminals, thugs, gangsters, hoods, crooks). I call this the good-bad guy vs bad-bad guy approach.

The good-bad guys are played by Jean Servais (Tony), Carl Michner (Jo), Robert Manuel (Mario), and the director Jules Dussin (Caeser, the Italian safecracker). The bad-bad guys (worthy of hissing) are led by Marcel Lupovici (Grutter) who is simply abusive to everyone.

Paris streets play a huge role, as does the jewelry store set and the simple sound effects that accompany the heist. Also enjoyable is the “casing the place” sequence as the crew plans their process. So many pieces come together to keep this one as a well-deserved entry to the classic film canon.

**NOTE: actress Marie Sabouret who plays gangster moll Mado, died 5 years after filming from leukemia.  She was 36.

All of the “trailers” I found online gave away too much (in my opinion), so I have decided not to post any of them.

 


MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975) revisited

August 5, 2014

monty python Greetings again from the darkness. Consistently landing in the Top 10 whenever a film publication posts an all-time Best Comedy Movie list, this Monty Python classic should be a rite of passage for all teenagers. It is loaded, start to finish, with sight gags, one-liners, outright jokes, satire and overall outlandish behavior. It’s also a reminder that comedy need not be filled with profanity, and that once upon a time, a certain level of grossness was considered tongue-in-cheek.

In 1975, the Monty Python troupe was in between seasons 3 and 4 of their BBC comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus“.  While on break, they came up with the movie’s theme of King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail, though mostly it’s just one related sketch after another.  The six members of Monty Python are each cast in numerous roles, and one of the fun games to play while watching is identifying each new character.  As a hint, Michael Palin plays the most characters (12) and four of Terry Gilliam’s characters die on-screen.  You might also note that the witch is played by Connie Booth, the wife (at the time) of John Cleese.

Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam co-directed, while all members received writing credits. The endless stream of classic sketches include: The Black Knight (“it’s just a flesh wound“), Song and Dance at Camelot (it inspired the Spamalot play), the ridiculing French guard, Trojan Rabbit, the on-camera modern day historian, the Knights who say “Ni”, the 3-headed giant, Castle Anthrax, Swamp Castle, Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (spoofing Sovereign Orb), the Bridge of Death (3 questions), the abrupt ending with organ music. Other classic moments include “bring out your dead“, the recurring “run away” strategy, an (over) abundance of details on swallows, difficulties in counting to 3, and the best film uses ever of shrubbery and coconut shells. LOADED, I tell ya’!

While it would take multiple viewings to catch everything thrown into this one, it clearly jabs (all in good nature) such targets as Royalty, politics and politicians, Religion, and of course, the French. The animated God in the sky is actually a photo of 19th century cricket legend W.G. Grace, and the barbs directed at the French military are downright hilarious.

Graham Chapman (King Arthur, et al) passed away in 1989 due to complications from cancer, but he was one of the first celebrities to publicly come out as gay.  He spent much of his life as a gay activist.  John Cleese has had much success as an actor, appearing in A Fish Called Wanda, as well as two “James Bond” movies, two “Harry Potter” movies, and voicing the king in three Shrek movies. Cleese was also the creative force (with his wife) behind “Fawlty Towers“.  Terry Gilliam has had most of his success as a film director.  His films include Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys.  He was also the main animator for most of Monty Python’s work. Eric Idle is very familiar to audiences after decades of movie and TV acting.  He was also a member of The Rutles (look it up!) and was the musical director and co-creator of the Tony Award winning play SpamalotTerry Jones was the sole director of Monty Python’s next and final two films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of LifeMichael Palin also appeared in A Fish Called Wanda, but these days is renowned for his work as a Travel writer and Travel documentarian.

The five surviving members recently (July 2014) reunited for a live performance that was simulcast to many theatres around the world. They stated this was to be their final appearance as Monty Python, and that this was the best way to say goodbye.  Making people laugh for almost 40 years is quite a legacy, and few have done it better than this comedy troupe and this classic comedy movie.   And just remember, when life gets tough, rather than “run away”, simply tell yourself “it’s only a flesh wound“.

Here is a re-cut trailer that presents the movie as a dramatic action film, rather than uproarious comedy. If you’ve seen the movie, you will “get” this.  If you haven’t seen the movie … it’s high time!

 


BELLE DE JOUR (1967, France)

August 3, 2014

belle de jour Greetings again from the darkness. Nearly 50 years have passed since director Luis Bunuel brought the 1928 novel of Joseph Kessel to the big screen. It became an instant film classic. The story of erotic fantasies is told with Bunuel’s unique surrealistic style. Not the same style as his earlier films, but still, it’s the unmistakable eye of a master.  The film also presents a young Catherine Deneuve at her most striking.

Ms. Deneuve’s Severine plays bored housewife to her doctor husband (Jean Sorrel).  He is extremely patient and understanding of her coldness in the bedroom, and it’s clear that she loves him, despite the lack of physical attraction. Soon enough we are provided a startling glimpse of Severine’s masochistic fantasies. It’s not until later that we begin to understand what drives her imagination.

Severine deflects the advances of an older family friend (Michael Piccoli), who is so attracted by her purity, and he unknowingly leads her into a world that might satisfy her in ways that her gentleman husband hasn’t. When Severine meets Madam Anais (Genevieve Page), she begins playing out her fantasies through the afternoon shift at the brothel … all while keeping up the necessary appearances for society.

Bunuel provides us teases of the sources through flashbacks and sound effects … a carriage harness bell and the periodic meows of a cat.  It’s never Bunuel’s intent to answer all questions, and he certainly makes no moral judgments towards Severine.  Instead we get an exploration in the variances of love, sex and fantasy.

In the end, we aren’t absolutely certain that we can distinguish between Severine’s reality and her fantasy, but we do understand the importance of her fantasies within the structure of her day to day life. If watching Ms. Deneuve perform in this gem inspires you to see more of her work, I recommend Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.  Also, it should be noted that she continues to act to this day.

watch the original trailer: