12/24/2014

Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Complete Jacques Tati -- Tati Shorts; Jour de Fete (1949); Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953); Mon Oncle (1958); Playtime (1967); Trafic (1971); Parade (1974)


Now Available to Own   

  Photo Slideshow   




"It makes me sound old-fashioned," Jacques Tati once confessed in an interview, "but I think I'm an anarchist." However when you consider that this quotation originates not only in the 1970s but also during the very same decade that punk rock's Sex Pistols called for "Anarchy in the U.K.," Tati's statement seems a bit anachronistic given the fact that – by its very definition – anarchy is anything but outdated or old-fashioned.

Yet coming from the man whose movies feel futuristic and nostalgic all at the same time – the man whose epic Playtime was famously described by French New Wave auteur Fran├žois Truffaut as the product of “another planet where they make films differently," this summation of being just out of step with time is oddly fitting.

For admittedly, of course, there is something self-consciously old-fashioned about the near silent-film style characterization of his mostly Buster Keaton (as well as Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd) inspired onscreen alter-ego Monsieur Hulot.


But while Tati's ill-proportioned proper Sunday dress suits and striped stockings only accentuated the evolutionary sliding scale of his meandering character's ostrich-gait (which seems like it'd been dreamed up during his early vaudeville music hall days), the films he handcrafted were the opposite of "old," despite the ageless man behind and in front of the camera.

A walking doppelganger or Russian doll, it's almost as though he were two people for the price of one – as if making movies kept Jacques Tati young in some sort of Dorian Gray like arrangement where he stayed old in front of and young behind the lens – forever caught between the two states.

While whether or not cinema served as Tati's own philosophical fountain of youth is anyone’s guess but what can be argued is that Tati’s films served the same purpose for the viewer by managing to bring out the kid in all of us while also challenging us simultaneously to mature think in abstracts.


Moreover, the impressive techniques that Tati used to revolutionize the field of sound design are still being employed to this day, whether those doing so are conscious of their origins or not.

A comedic sociologist or cinematic behaviorist, Tati’s filmed studies took place in the outside world of what the director described as "the clinic"-like atmosphere of our increasingly anonymous, impersonal modern society. And much like a medical research project, Tati's opuses could take years to create.

Opting to ignore the strict narrative rules of stageplay inspired structure observed by many of his contemporaries around the globe, Tati's largely plotless yet highly complex movies broke away from the pack of what was crossing over from France at the time.

Instead of focusing on one character or one story, Tati rebelled by chronicling several (of varying lengths) all at once. Defying classification, while Jean-Luc Godard referred to his oeuvre as being the French answer to Italy's post WWII neorealism (in spite of Tati's part Russian and Dutch heritage), the impact that his work had on future filmmakers and particularly observational documentarians cannot be understated.


As a Type A perfectionist whose films were overflowing with unusual characters who were quickly thrust into extraordinary situations, Jacques Tati obsessively orchestrated each seemingly random collision endured by his ensemble cast down to the smallest detail.

And indeed, those who populated his works were always on the verge of some kind of catastrophe – wandering in one frame and out another in the enormous diorama-style set pieces that Tati staged like everyday urban mazes, where glass reflected surfaces, unusual props and zigzag-architectural layouts were the norm.

Like a magician well-trained in the art of misdirection, minutes of screen time slowly tick by before we subtly start to notice the way that Tati’s densely populated backdrops began to transform before our eyes.

Taking advantage of surprising set-ups in his ever heightened takes on modern life, part of the pleasure of watching Tati is in being kept off balance like a child winding up their Jack in the box in the hopes it’ll soon spring to life.

Yet as much as he reveled in uniquely choreographed sequences of chaotic anarchy, Tati never strayed too far from logic and sense.


Much like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd before him, by always starting with and holding onto a consistently objective point-of-view with his own version of an onscreen surrogate in the ever-mysterious Hulot, Tati managed to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground even when the world around us threatened to collapse.

Whether it's a lonely stretch of roadway on the way to an auto show, a bizarrely landscaped house anchored by a fish fountain, an overcrowded nightclub, or a seaside resort, Tati created highwire acts worthy of only the most fearless trapeze artists.


Just like the finale of a fireworks display on the 4th of July which sends multiple bursts of light high into the sky from all sides, in the director's most ambitious achievements, the action unfolds simultaneously onscreen from every angle and side. As such, it’s been said that you never see the same film twice when you revisit a work by Jacques Tati.

In his hands, everyone and everything – essentially every noun – has the potential to steal focus. From a pack of mischievous Parisian dogs to one of many machines meant to simplify life that in all actuality does the opposite or a red rubber hose that’s both a prop and a metaphor, all are treated equally in Mon Oncle by Tati.


A consummate showman, Tati’s first feature Jour de Fete has its origins in one of several silent comedy inspired '30s shorts that have been included in the Complete Criterion Collection release of his entire oeuvre.

Yet although Tati reprised the role he'd developed and embodied as a bumbling village postman in his full length debut, the Big Day alluded to in its translated title mainly revolves around the arrival of the traveling fair.

The mishaps and madcap sight gags of Tati's subtly staged unique brand of comedy that would fill his own unique universe situated at the intersection of past, present, and future is well-established in the film, which makes it a particularly fitting bookend to the (also included) Swedish made-for-television special Parade that closed out his career.

Taking on the role of a veritable ringmaster, Tati's Parade emcee serves as the bridge between the savvy audience members and the diversely talented performers that take the stage.

And just like in his aforementioned Big Day, throughout the underrated Parade, he blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and artist and spectator, giving each and every amusing noun an equal amount of say.


While the action unspools slowly, it’s a beautiful work originally released in black-and-white, despite being shot simultaneously in color using side-by-side cameras in a French version of Technicolor that failed to come off (as though the off-screen modern device were instead an onscreen Tati gag).

Thankfully, now over sixty years later, we finally get the chance to see the film the way he'd envisioned in this faultless Criterion high definition, full-color release. Painstakingly restored by Tati's filmmaker daughter Sophie Tatischeff, each frame's hues match the color palette of the period that had been devised by the notable perfectionist.


And while it still holds up well, Jour de Fete is a frothy, light-hearted confection when viewed in quick succession with the rest of the works that comprised the master director's career.

Having once called comedy "the summit of logic," or a cinematic syllogism wherein 'if A and B, then C,' while the subsequent pictures that ushered in the character and era of Hulot play marvelously on their own individually, when they're viewed back-to-back, one after another, it's amazing to see the creative evolution that plays out on the screen.

For much like the patio squares that lead from the electronic gate to the slightly sinister automatic household at the heart of Mon Oncle, each film works as a stepping stone, taking us closer and closer to his brilliant Playtime that served as the sum total of the previous pictures' parts.


And while it's impossible to imagine both the amount of work and how much thought went into each frame, like all great showmen – the likes of which came to town in Jour de Fete and gave one last performance before disappearing into the final roar of applause in Parade — Tati made everything looks so natural.

In doing so, he treats us like the travelers out on the town in Playtime, the visitors at Hulot's resort, and the workers trying to make it to the auto show in Trafic.


As the grandson of the man who framed Van Gogh's paintings, it's been said that his own apprenticeship in the family business was such a disaster that he fled to Paris to join the bohemian life of artists. However thinking about that now, you can't help but see the way that the lessons learned from framing as well as the craftsmanship and taste of his family not only dominated his biological DNA but his filmmaking DNA as well.

Unwilling to frame just one picture at a time, Tati was far too fascinated by movement to be content with keeping the subject still. And although his work might have seemed anarchic to the untrained viewer, on closer inspection, it’s hard to ignore the influence of trompe l'oeil (aka "trick of the eye" photorealistic imagery) on his work, particularly in his placement of everything from people to props juxtaposed alongside his experiments in depth perception.


He's also notable for his impressionistic use of picture meshed together with an expressionistic passion for sound which began to create unusual counterpoints in the way that we processed often contradictory audio and visual information as early as Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.

While he would continue this in Mon Oncle, he’s at the height of his artistic powers in Playtime, which is the filmmaking equivalent of a heavily researched master’s thesis for which he’d studied in the laboratory of life.


Yet given his believe that as the world grows more and more anonymous, it makes each one of us feel as much of a nameless outsider as the majority of the nouns that filled his screens, it's interesting to see the way that he merges both senses in his first masterpiece Mon Oncle.

The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film upon its release, Tati has argued that the film went a little bit "astray" from him in the decades following its debut.

A personal favorite of this reviewer – viewing it today for the first time in nearly a decade I can honestly agree with the filmmaker as admittedly, upon closer inspection, it begins spiraling out of control in the last half. Nonetheless, it still remains his most palatable and popular endeavor to date.

Nearly silent in terms of dialogue (undoubtedly due to his hatred of distracting subtitles which again goes back to his genetic predisposition for perfectly framed pictures), Mon Oncle opens with the impression that we'll be following Hulot and his nephew's journey, before it introduces others and takes us around in circles, going nowhere and everywhere all at the same time.


Famous for adding in sound in post-production in addition to tweaking the pitch and timbre, as he astutely explained in an interview, "when people are in strange surroundings, natural sounds always sound louder," and louder still when we watch while imagining the internal thought process of so many anonymous characters.

This is perhaps most notable in Playtime which holds for a Rear Window-like view of four apartment rooms at once in a sequence that undoubtedly inspired Michael Haneke's Cache.


While the number of filmmakers whose works were influenced by Tati is endless, it's intriguing to note for example that Wes Anderson's intricate symmetry and overly designed sets (including the perfectionism on display in his diorama heavy films) make him in particular feel like he was the unusual love child or of two different men named Jacques.

And for although Tati is a given, Wes Anderson's sensibilities also reflect the ouevre of Jacques Demy, whose work was also released as part of an epic 2014 Criterion set a few months before this arrived alongside it on the shelf in an interesting twist of fate all three would be sure to appreciate.

Wanting to push humans out even further in favor of the mechanized world, Tati never got to make the final work he planned to call Confusion wherein (as he’d wished before) he imagined killing off his Hulot character. However, I can’t help but feel this might be for the best as in a way and much like Chance the Gardener from Hal Ashby's Being There, Hulot was always here, there, everywhere, and nowhere all at the same time.


As indescribable and indefinable as the plots of his films, Tati is a man who had a "feeling for comedy because he," in the words of Godard, also "had a feeling for strangeness."

Yet he might just as well be summed up as equal parts magician and sociologist, logician and clinician, an alien from a planet where "they make films differently," an art student of the present trying to paint a still portrait of a subject that keeps moving, or an old fashioned anarchist, as well as the hundreds of other phrases that people have used to try to sum him up over the years.

Neither part of the New Wave or (like Demy) one hundred percent separate from it and as interested in foreign fare as he was fascinated by the Hollywood groundbreakers like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, Tati and by extension the Hulot character was everyone and no one all at once.

And throughout his work with everything from logic to anarchy at his disposal, Jacques Tati aimed to do precisely what we all try to – which is make sense of an ever-changing world that always sounds better with the soundtrack of laughter.

Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/20/2014

Blu-ray Review: Calvary (2014)


Now Available to Own 
On Blu-ray and Digital HD 

  Photo Slideshow   




Named after the hill by Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, Calvary, from playwright turned filmmaker John Michael McDonagh begins as a psychologically driven whodunnit thriller before quickly and rather disappointingly devolving into an allegorical, avant-garde version of High Noon.


And while that might sound interesting, ultimately you get the feeling that – at least conceptually – the unorthodox approach utilized by McDonagh would’ve translated much better on the stage of an experimental theatre company than it does on the movie screen.

Surprisingly emotionally frigid given its subject matter, Calvary holds viewers at an arm's length and a long arm at that as we feel even further away from its characters than those who fill the frames of fellow provocateurs Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.


Yet this time around the sacrificial lamb isn't Jesus as suggested by the title, nor a woman as is so often the case in von Trier's work, but instead a by-all-accounts good priest named Father James (Brendan Gleeson), who had joined the church later in life following the death of his wife.

Nonetheless, in Calvary's startling opener, the life of Father James is threatened in the confessional by an unseen parishioner who informs him that he'll be killed as symbolic payback for the sins of an evil man of the cloth who'd raped the victim as a child every other day for five years.


Told he has one week to get his house in order, the unflinchingly calm and determined voice of the parishioner never wavers for a moment before he leaves the confessional with the promise that they’ll meet again—for the final time – on the beach near the hill the following Sunday (in a setting that subtly acknowledges the symbolic title).

Conflicted by the sanctity of the seal of confession and the horrors endured by the victim, James is further troubled by the realization that – given the man's voice and his closeness to the community – he knows precisely who threatened him from word one.

As Calvary alludes from the start, there are far more than a mere Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that roam this otherwise sleepy little (albeit spiritually bankrupt) seaside Irish village.


Every character it seems is a victim, a villain, and/or a witness, and as McDonough takes us on what is purported to be a tour through the father’s seven stages of grief, we ascertain that every single one of its inhabitants (including the Father himself) is suffering from one or another form of PTSD obtained from a cruel twist of life – if not fate.

And this conclusion is only reaffirmed upon the arrival of another walking ghostlike figure in the form of the man's own, grown battle-scarred daughter, Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly), who appears on scene after traveling by train like a character out of a classic western.

Visiting her father to convalesce following a failed suicide attempt brought on by the never explained actions of an unknown man (which serves as a thematic metaphor around which the entire film revolves), Fiona is as troubled as the rest.


Asking us to question issues surrounding the film's major obsessions of culpability, guilt innocence beyond their legal limits and definitions, McDonagh takes his thought-provoking setup and then proceeds to suck the life out of it as we encounter one over-the-top character after another in a production that is as existential it is nonsensical.

Boasting shock-filled monologues about everything from cannibalism to the desire to kill women as revenge for being a virgin as well as urinary vandalism and the offscreen slaughter of a pet, the abysmal characters we encounter along with Father James all battle to suck the life out of him as well like the allegorical vampires that they are.

Having completely overdosed on symbolism; by the time the screen fills with the orange hue of arson and our protagonist shouts up to the heavens "why didn't anybody see?" before another deliberately closes their eyes, we've begun to wonder if there's any viewer left watching Calvary that doesn't desperately want to do the same.


Although he starts out strong in a dark, barely lit corner from where he proceeds to shine a spotlight on religious, moral and existential hypocrisy, McDonagh begins losing his religion as the film continues.

Thus, despite a potent turn by Gleeson and the rest of Calvary's impressive though poorly utilized ensemble cast, Calvary suffers from a crisis of narrative faith that prevents it from following in the footsteps of other filmmakers who found their work at a similar crossroads but dared to venture on full speed ahead.

What could’ve had the potency of superior subgenre efforts such as Doubt, Priest, In the Name Of, The Jewish Cardinal, and/or Philomena as well as the power a two-man Sam Shepard play begins to crucify itself with excess as soon as the Father ventures beyond the parish’s walls.


Intriguingly, Calvary filmmaker John Michael McDonagh is the brother of In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh. And while it's evident that together and separately the two have an awful lot to say about priests as similar scenarios of churchly violence also occur in Bruges, if right now we were asked to follow just one filmic gospel involving Catholic anarchy and hypocrisy – I’d still have to go with Bruges – six years after its release in 2008.

An artistic free for all, Calvary may be gorgeously shot but it plays like an Irish Catholic avant-garde interpretation of High Noon as seen through the eyes of an unlikely trinity comprised of Haneke, von Trier, and David Lynch.

Instead of a dramatic mystery about forgiveness and revenge, Calvary is undone by its devotion to symbolic allegory as well as its old time religion-like love of fire and brimstone level speechifying. Thus, despite its predictable yet admittedly poignant conclusion, try as it might it, McDonagh just can't convert us into cinematic believers.


   

Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/03/2014

Blu-ray Review: Jersey Boys (2014)


Now Available to Own
On Blu-ray, DVD and Download   

  Photo Slideshow 
 




Midway through the performance of their first number one song, the members of The Four Seasons led by the angelic voiced Frankie Valli (played by John Lloyd Young in his Tony award-winning role) momentarily stop singing to break through cinema’s fourth wall to address the camera — and by extension the viewer — directly.

It's an innovative if admittedly stagy technique that's often employed on the Netflix series House of Cards to mixed results. However in the hands of Jersey Boys director Clint Eastwood, it livens up the otherwise over-rehearsed feel of the film adaptation of the long-running biographical Broadway show with a rock 'n roll version of a Shakespearean soliloquy.


Narrative experimentation is so effective here that — when you consider the fact that Boys centers on the dueling memories of four very different bandmates — it’s a shame that changes in point-of-view weren’t used much more often to better connect us with the characters and conflicts, especially given Jersey’s fluid relationship with time.

Likewise, the perceived spontaneity that occurs when the Boys temporarily break free from Jersey's regimented stage show choreography helps transports us away from the production’s overt performance pieces by supplanting it with the same street corner improvisation that initially inspired the sound of the Seasons from the start.

Although fortunately it's far more successful than early critical reaction would lead you to believe, Jersey kicks things off on an uneven footing while embarking on the same uphill battle that all musicals do when trying to be more than just gorgeously filmed versions of preexisting shows.


And given that Jersey is a global success eight years running, Eastwood and company certainly had their work cut out for them while attempting to make something not only old but also very familiar seem new again.

Immediately identifiable, Boys is filled with the infectious soundtrack of the a capella doo wop meets early rock and roll magical musical blend that the Boys made their own in their goal to be New Jersey's greatest cultural export since Frank Sinatra.

And while it’s sure to make you leave singing “Sherry,” the film chronicles the humble beginnings of neighborhood tough Tommy DeVito (a terrific Vincent Piazza), who looks after the golden voiced young Valli as a favor to the local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who loves listening to him perform the Italian classics cherished by his mother.


Explaining that the only way out of their perceived deadend life was through the military, the mob, or fame, the guys aim for and eventually achieve the latter two when in the 1950s, bowling pinsetter (and future Oscar winner) Joe Pesci put them in contact with up-and-coming "Short Shorts" songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

With homebody Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) rounding out the group, the guys do the rounds singing backup on a number of records until Gaudio locks himself in his room out of desperation before reemerging days later with the quartet’s first hit, "Sherry."


While it's missing the razzle dazzle of Chicago and Dreamgirls, Jersey aims for the same realism of Walk the Line and Rent, unfortunately not realizing that what we want more than just toe-tapping tunes and a few edgy and/or funny anecdotes is to be genuinely drawn into the journey undertaken by these Boys.

And by not letting us get to know the guys on a deeper level than just their harmonious swagger, Eastwood's film misses the invaluable emotional connection needed to hook us into the Jersey world truly inhabited by The Four Seasons.

While the film does strike a chord when it hits reset midway through and breaks up the band — causing the Seasons to scatter in a million directions — Jersey doesn't sustain our interest for long.

Speeding through the toll their ‘60s success and subsequent failure took on the men's professional and personal lives, Jersey Boys instead fixates on trying to fit the broken puzzle pieces of The Four back together by the end of the film for a rousing closing credits number worthy of a Broadway curtain call.


Had those working behind-the-scenes (including the film's two editors as well as the stage musical authors turned scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) broken up the chronology or shifted focus to give us the same sequence from the perspective of another source, Jersey might not have had to work so hard to make try and elicit the response it desired during the film's dramatic highs and lows.

For example, in what should have been an impactful life-altering event late into the picture (regarding one of Valli's loved ones), the payoff comes off as predictable and cliched rather than appropriately heartbreaking given that we barely knew the character in question until they were re-introduced onscreen just to tug at our heartstrings as if on cue.


Desperately in need of the cinematic equivalent of a stroll on the boardwalk to give the claustrophobically insulated, stagy film some much-needed fresh air, Jersey remains a likable, good-natured piece of Broadway movie musical nostalgia nonetheless. And thankfully, a few of its flaws are smoothed over by clever decision to combine the group’s sing-along worthy hits with some boldly postmodernist touches.

An above average achievement for anyone else given that the acting and the ambiance elevates it from its by-the-numbers paradigm, while it undoubtedly would've impressed us much more if made by a relative newcomer, Eastwood's reputation precedes him in this case in making the result a double-edged sword for the filmmaker.

Though it doesn't hold up next to some of his most extraordinary achievements from the haunting chamber piece Million Dollar Baby to the symphonic brilliance of Letters From Iwo Jima, Jersey Boys still warms us with the comfort food like rhythms of a pop song built on the same foundation that's swayed us thousands of times before.

However, while we're able to sing along with the guys from the first chorus, we just wish the rest of the work could’ve been as catchy as the playful hook that surprised us early on and broke up the narrative for a glorious beat or two before it continued on in familiar 4x4 time.

Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/01/2014

DVD Review: Lucky Them (2013)


Now Available to Own   
On DVD and Download

  Photo Slideshow
 




As a scribe myself, I've always been amused by the fact that journalism (or the most glamorous version of it) seems to be a favorite career for the heroines of chick-lit paperbacks and romantic comedies where somehow advice columnists and how-to girls can afford to live a lifestyle worthy of Harper's Bazaar.

Although not technically a romcom, Lucky Them is that rare film centered around a female journalist that not only manages to get the details of the career right but also nails the indie music scene that fuels the events of — and serves as the backdrop for — Megan Griffiths' solidly constructed independent film.

Featuring a stellar turn by Toni Collette as a talented senior writer for a Rolling Stone-like magazine that's been nearly made obsolete thanks to the iTunes driven TMZ world, as the film opens Collette's rock journalist Ellie Klug is given yet another ultimatum by her longtime friend and editor (played by Oliver Platt).


Told she has to reclaim her place at the magazine where content is now driven by commercial ads and clickbait traffic, she's forced to mine her personal life for a story when assigned to track down her Kurt Cobain/Elliott Smith/Jeff Buckley inspired rocker ex Matthew Smith, who'd abandoned her fifteen years earlier without a word.

Whereas half of his fans have been hanging on to the dream that Smith is alive, the rest gave up on that idea years ago after his car was found deserted near a waterfall. Reluctantly journeying after the man who not only broke her heart but also took a piece of it with him when he disappeared, Ellie soon discovers that the search for the truth about Smith may also hold some answers about her own life that she might not be ready to face.

Regularly taking part in casual hook-ups, Ellie often mixes business with pleasure, walking away before things get too serious —  keeping herself cut off from love as though she was involved in a high stakes game of emotional Russian roulette — undoubtedly too scared to put herself out there to be hurt once again.

After footage of what sounds an awful lot like Matthew singing about a blue-eyed love comes to the attention of the magazine, Ellie's sense of purpose only increases.

Almost out of money and swindled by a conman, Ellie reluctantly travels with a rich, straight laced, and brutally honest friend played by Thomas Haden Church who informs her that he'll happily fund her mission if he can record the process to put the skills that he learned in a documentary filmmaking community college course to use.


While Church plays well off Collette as the embodiment of two wrongs that we suspect may eventually and unexpectedly balance each other to make a right, his character is so unhinged and overly confessional that it comes across as slightly gimmicky — as if he's playing him like a filter free adult with a slight personality disorder. And as such, he needlessly pulls focus from the main storyline.

Likewise, while both characters are so well written and likewise embodied by two stellar talents, it's unfortunate that aside for the tale of midlife coming-of-age, the screenwriters didn't really have anywhere for the film's protagonists to go. And at times it feels as though Church could've wandered in from a different movie altogether.

This problem is undeniably magnified after Ellie has a fling early on with an up-and-coming musician (played by The Blacklist's Ryan Eggold), with whom she shares naturally palpable chemistry, especially when contrasted by the offbeat dynamic that's established by our two unlikely travelers in the last half of the picture.


Of course, the decision to let the lead wind up with a younger partner would never have even been questioned if a) the genders had been reversed and b) it would have been a Something's Gotta Give-like studio venture. Thus, it's a shame that the otherwise authentic, easy banter between Collette and Eggold is ignored in favor of seeing the heroine settle down with someone more traditionallysuitable in a safe romantic movie cop-out.

Nonetheless it's amiable enough overall that just like Give, we can still overlook Lucky's one disingenuously dissonant note and accept the couple that comes together in time for the closing credits since the rest of the film offers us such strong harmony and a relatable refrain.


A striking achievement, aside from one key flaw, Lucky Them otherwise gets so much right. And much like Allison Anders's Grace of My Heart and Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon, rising star helmer Megan Griffiths strikes a beautiful chord (in tandem with her always impressive lead), while introducing us to a woman that rocks as well as she rolls out of the way of anything that threatens to ruin her rhythm
.
All in all, it's a refreshing change in viewpoint from the go-go girls, groupies, goddess muse girlfriends, and interchangeable gal pals on the road often used as window dressing in most manmade behind-the-music movies of the past. For when it comes to these female-helmed works, to those determined to shake up gender depictions in the world of journalism and rock, we salute you.   

Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

11/27/2014

Movie Review: Red Rock West (1993)


Now Available to Own   


Note: 
This piece was originally Published by Brian Sauer on his blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks as part of the Underrated Thrillers series by author Jen Johans in the fall of 2014. It was adapted from an earlier piece Johans had penned and posted in 2007 here on Film Intuition.

Review:
Inspired by neo-Noir masters David Lynch and the Coens, writer/director John Dahl proved he could handle Noir terrain in his own right with the excellent Red Rock West.

The film finds wounded war veteran Michael (Nicolas Cage) in the middle of the western desert looking for work that keeps eluding him because of his bad leg and his honesty about it in interviews.
 
When he’s mistaken for someone else, Cage agrees to a job from bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh) before realizing that the man thinks he’s the hit man he’s hired to kill his young, sexy, unfaithful wife played by Lara Flynn Boyle.


Boyle gives Cage even more money to get Wayne out of the picture and he figures he’ll take the money and leave town before a number of ridiculous but believable events make it impossible for him to leave Red Rock, such as the arrival of the real hit man played by the always over-the-top but affable Dennis Hopper.

Like Michael, Hopper’s Lyle is a former veteran of the war and there are some minor political implications throughout the work along with excellent uses of the environment for irony.

A Hitchcockian wrong man thriller, Dahl has fun with this influence in a nod to North By Northwest that finds Michael nearly run over by a car similar to Cary Grant’s battle with the crop duster.


Red Rock West also pays tribute to Rear Window given the film’s treatment of the disability to serve as a symbol of Cage’s “impotence” as a man without power a la James Stewart in Window.

A treat to watch, the film-literate script penned by John and his brother Rick Dahl has a blast taking archetypes like Boyle’s femme fatale, Cage’s unlucky mark, and Hopper’s thuggish villain and making them vastly more complex as each evolves in a multitude of ways from one act to the next.

Likewise, it serves as wonderful study for aspiring screenwriters as we watch our refreshingly relatable main character Michael time and time again doing things that viewers themselves think they might do (like writing a note to authorities, etc.) but yet keep getting stuck in that dark, Noir town in the middle of nowhere.


Poorly handled in its initial release by producers unsure if a western Noir would ever catch on, the film (which played on cable before being released overseas) happened to strike a chord with the right viewer at the right time, bringing it to the Toronto International Film Festival where another fan picked up the baton to serve as its champion.

Released in a few theaters in San Francisco where it broke records, Red Rock West became a critical and word-of-mouth hit just weeks before it was slated for its original video release, forever making it an underrated treasure worthy of cult status as one of Cage’s best pre-Oscar performances and John Dahl’s best film.

Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Warner Archive Collection DVD Review: The Last of Sheila (1973)

Note: 
This piece was originally Published by Brian Sauer on his blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks as part of the Underrated Thrillers series by author Jen Johans in the fall of 2014.

Review:
The ultimate film for puzzle lovers, this Edgar award winning screenplay about a scavenger hunt turned deadly by Psycho villain Anthony Perkins and Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim took its inspiration from the real-life scavenger hunts the two hosted for their show business friends.

Underlined three times, The Last of Sheila was included at the very top of a short list of “must see murder mysteries” given to me as a young film buff and writer by the bestselling author husband of my ninth grade English teacher after she’d heard me rave one too many times about The Usual Suspects.

Sheila was not only the only work he’d included that I’d never seen (let alone heard of), it was also the one that sent me on an extensive scavenger hunt of my own from one video store to another in order to track down the sole VHS copy in a thirty mile radius… and to this day I am glad that I did.

Like Suspects, Final Analysis, Frantic, Memento, The Game, and Red Rock West, The Last of Sheila is one of those films that acknowledges its influences in cleverly crafted homage from start to finish yet it also manages to go above and beyond its roots as a post-Hitchcockian Noir.

Transcending the limits of genre so that it’s also a very self aware Tinseltown parody filled with in-jokes about type casting and larger-than-life Hollywood personas, Sheila is equal parts thriller and black comedy, directed by Herbert Ross, who was as much at home directing Neil Simon comedies as he was handling dramas.

Not only respecting but demanding the intelligence of its audience to be sophisticated enough to accept a work that doesn’t neatly fit into any one category, Sheila turns its viewers into party-goers who’ve traveled aboard the yacht of an eccentric film producer who’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of his wife’s hit-and-run death by unmasking the secrets of his guests in a week-long game.

A film where even the most throwaway dialogue has the potential to payoff unexpectedly, although the case is solved by the final frame, Sheila only grows richer with repeat viewings where you can see the way that point-of-view, subjective edits, and even the most innocuous of props hide in plain sight as clues to be both savored and discovered.

While it’s a masterwork of mystery in a script that’s sure to evoke envy in crime writers, the way it encourages and utilizes cinema-literacy in its sleight-of-hand makes Sheila underrated on a filmic level – teaching viewers about the importance of framing, cutting, and juxtaposition as well as any Film Studies 101 course.

From the playful command of “dissolve” that dissolves into a flashback to showing us the same scenes shot a few different ways, Sheila is that rare Hollywood in-joke movie that celebrates its craft as smartly as its skewers its stereotypes.


Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Warner Archive Collection DVD Review: The Gazebo - Remastered Edition (1959)


Note: 
This piece was originally Published by Brian Sauer on his blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks as part of the Underrated Thrillers series by author Jen Johans in the fall of 2014.

Review:
A major change of pace for MGM musical screenwriter George Wells who adapted Alec Coppel’s hit 1958 Broadway play for the The Blue Dahlia director George Marshall, The Gazebo plays equally well as a comedy and a crime thriller thanks to its stark black-and-white cinematography and the terrific chemistry of leads Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds.

Similar in tone to Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, which the filmmakers get plenty of mileage out of throughout the film that involves a body that won’t stay buried and a darkly comedic script that adheres to Murphy’s Law, The Gazebo centers on a show business couple whose livelihood is threatened by a blackmailer.

Having managed to keep his wife (Reynolds) out of the loop so far, crime show television screenwriter/director Ford runs out of patience and money when the insistent blackmailer tells him he plans to release nude photos of his now successful actress wife.

Following a “hypothetical” creative meeting with a police officer friend and a few improvisational words of wisdom gleaned from a phone call with Hitch, Ford decides he’s going to get rid of the scoundrel once and for all, especially after his wife unknowingly gives him the perfect place to bury the body beneath a gazebo she’s just purchased.

Filled with surprising plot twists and frequently funny mishaps beautifully played by Ford in a standout performance that keep this fast-paced film firing on all cylinders, The Gazebo has been beautifully remastered by Warner Archive, giving viewers weaned on the Coen Brothers a chance to see a vintage crime comedy that still crackles with wit and suspense.


Bookmark and Share

Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.