Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Time That Remains

THE TIME THAT REMAINS                         B+                  
aka:  Chronicle of a Present Absentee
Palestine  France  Belgium  Italy  Great Britain  (109 mi)  2009  d:  Elia Suleiman

Except for the Middle East landscape, you’d swear Aki Kaurismäki was smuggled out of Finland to make this film, using that droll deadpan humor, the dark, acid wit, frequent sight gags, cleverly repeating motifs, and characters who rarely if ever speak, but Suleiman only uses Kaurismäki's trademark fades to black when there are significant time shifts all coinciding with a historical event instead of after every shot.  Not as dark or bitingly sarcastic as his last film which uniquely dealt with the comic absurdities of border disputes, as this remains comic but also ads an element of poignancy, taking a much more far reaching and personal scope, reaching into the narrative of his own family history, using his parent’s diaries and letters to comment upon the outrageous conditions resulting from the historical Arab-Israeli conflicts since the Israeli’s started occupying what was his Palestinian homeland in 1948, offering highly personalized portraits of life in Nazareth, now part of Israel, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank.   Maintaining its subversive tone throughout, there’s a stronger sense of urgency in the earlier footage of Elia’s father Fuad, Saleh Bakri, the handsome young Egyptian officer from THE BAND’S VISIT (2007), initially seen following the eyes of a beautiful neighborhood girl as she’s driven away in a car, one of many families that escaped the occupation altogether. 

Fuad is also seen sitting outside a street café with other resistance men carrying machine guns on their laps calmly sipping their coffee in a scene that could just as easily be the Sicilian mafia.  When a heavily armed freedom fighter runs past, the soldier is confused how to help, starting off in one direction and then the next, learning the armed conflicts were resolved almost immediately, so eventually discovering he’s an Iraqi they offer him food and companionship.  As the Israeli army approaches Nazareth, many Palestinians stripped out of their uniforms, dropped their weapons and fled.  The Israeli’s coolly wore the left behind Palestinian uniforms into town waving their flags where many who greeted them warmly were shot dead on the spot, which was followed by the official terms of surrender being offered to the Mayor to sign, where he can remain in power, but all guns are surrendered and the Israeli’s determine any sense of national emergency.  After his arrest, where an unrecognizable man in a hood identifies him to the Israeli military commander as the local metalworker who makes guns, we see him placed with others blindfolded, hands tied behind their back awaiting interrogations, images that strongly resemble Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, yet as he gets brutally beaten, there’s an eerie peacefulness to the pastoral beauty, especially the view of the ancient, terraced city that lies peacefully nestled in the valley below.       

In 1970, the Palestinians were chased out of Jordan, coinciding with the death of Egyptian President Nasser, which is being viewed on the television by Fuad, now having married the woman (Samar Tanus) seen leaving town earlier, and together they have a son (Elia) who sits quietly nearby, never uttering a word throughout the entire film, but we get the point of what he was subjected to.  In one of the more comical motifs, the little kid is called out of class for a private dressing down by the principal (the movie poster) who can’t figure out where he learned that America was a colonialist and an imperialist power, views directly in conflict with their teachings, where each time Elia is sent home from school carrying a plate of lentils from his Aunt Olga, which he is seen throwing in the garbage upon entering his home.  Aunt Olga makes periodic pronouncements to the family about what relative she’s seen on TV, eventually becoming nearly blind.  An all Palestinian children’s choir receives accolades and awards from the Israeli’s for successfully crossing the cultural barrier and singing patriotic Hebrew songs, all captured in photo shoots using a background of a dozen Israeli flags.  In one of the strangest sequences, the kids are amusingly subjected to an Arabic subtitled movie screening of Kirk Douglas in SPARTACUS (1960), the story of a rebellious Roman slave leading a violent revolt, as if that will raise their captive spirits.  The family also has an elderly neighbor who continually douses himself with kerosene, followed by a spew of choice expletives describing life under the Israeli’s, where Fuad, after putting out his own cigarette, is calmly seen removing the all but worthless matches from his hand and leading him back to his home.  

Ten years later, Elia, something of a free thinker like his father, flees the country, moving in 1980 to Ramallah, where he can be seen sitting in a café outside smoking and sipping coffee with several other elderly gentlemen.  Just out his window images can be seen of Palestinian kids throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers, where both sides stop their fighting to allow a mother with a baby stroller to safely cross the street before starting up again.  When the Israeli’s berate her to “Go home,” she offers a quick retort, “Why don’t you go home?”  Amazingly at one point an Israeli tank rumbles down the street, stopping at the house across the street where a young man crosses the street to take out the garbage, then crossing back, with the tank’s gun pointing at his head with every step, following his every move until he stops at his door and takes a cell phone call, casually talking to friends about a dance later on that evening, completely oblivious to the threat.  As Elia ages, the Arab resistance feels less of a sense of dire urgency, as if they’re all out of options except to simply ignore the Israeli presence as much as possible.  In something of a daydream sequence, Elia successfully pole vaults over the everpresent wall dividing the two worlds, but he can’t make it disappear.  Choosing a tone of strength from the bonds of family closeness and personal resiliency, Suleiman buries the bitterness of the past.  There is an eerily quiet sequence when Elia returns home to his aging widowed mother, as neither utters a word, yet these are the most poignant scenes in the film, which also do seem to accurately reflect the voice of the Palestinians.  They are a people without a country who have no voice.  At one point fireworks explode in the skies, but neither pays any attention, as there is nothing to celebrate, no more hollow victories, only each other.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Water for Elephants

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS                           C+                  
USA  (122 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Francis Lawrence

An interesting box office combination, pairing the ever appealing Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon with teen idol sensation, Twilight boy Robert Pattinson, both extremely attractive and gorgeous to look at with People magazine important Hollywood faces, where, expectedly, the producers should make a killing.  And placed in between these two, keeping them apart, why not implement another Academy Award winner, that sadistic Nazi from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), Christoph Waltz playing another sadistically evil man audiences love to hate?  Let’s see, add up the Witherspoon crowd, the Twilight crowd, and the Tarantino crowd - - surely this is a match made in box office heaven.  It very well may be, and it’s pleasantly enjoyable enough, but typical genre material, safe and playing by the book, with little razzle dazzle or excitement except the look of the film which appears terrific in the trailer, but uses the tried and true TITANIC (1997) formula of an old geezer (Hal Holbrook) recalling the entire film in a flashback sequence.  Based on a best selling novel by Sara Gruen, the present recalls the Depression days, where Holbrook, an escapee on the loose from a nearby nursing home misses his connection of meeting his son at the circus, as he’s there in the evening while the performance took place in the afternoon.  That leaves him plenty of time to have a drink with the young circus owner (Paul Schneider) and pour out his memories of the world’s worst circus disaster way back in 1931.  Beautifully photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, especially the sensuous lighting scheme, which makes the intimate scenes in the cramped, lamp lit train cars seem even more delicate while also capturing the spectacular colors under the big top of the circus. 

Pattinson, who will forever be associated with the Twilight series, doesn’t really stake out new territory.  He’d have to be a deliciously evil guy for that to happen, or disfigured or handicapped in some kind of way, where he has an altogether different perception than being just another pretty face, as he is again here.  Overly naïve and always idealistically good, he is the same character simply transplanted into a different story, an aspiring young veterinarian whose final exams are interrupted by the death of his Polish immigrant parents, leaving him to fend for himself, broke, alone, and homeless, as the bank took the house.  Hitching the rails, as so many did during the Depression, he just happens to hop the train of the Great Benzini Brothers traveling circus, where he quickly makes a name for himself as the animal vet.  But what really attracts his eyes is the star of the show, the scantily clad bareback rider, Witherspoon, blond and in curls, wearing backless, form fitting silk dresses, looking sensational.  She’s married, however, to the boss of the show, the ringmaster Christoph Waltz who tyrannically rules with an iron fist, surrounded by guys with muscle who protect his every move.  Immediately seen as a penny pincher and a guy who will do anything for a buck, like kick guys off a moving train if he can’t or is unwilling to pay them, his questionable ethics and ruthless tactics are betrayed by his perfectly charming and civilized manner, where his mood see saws back and forth, becoming uncontrollably jealous and wildly paranoid when he’s had too much to drink.  In other words, he’s the fun character to watch, while the other two are running around behind the scenes trying to ignite sparks that never come. 

But since this is a circus story, the real star of the show is Rosie the elephant, an animal with a soft spot for alcohol, but instantly becomes their sensational new act, the one designed to fill seats and make them rich, even though the initial performance goes haywire and nearly gets the star rider killed.  But not to worry, elephants are smart and notice the difference in mood and temperament in terms of how they’re treated.  Pattinson prefers not poking the poor animal with the hook, while Waltz gores the thing repeatedly until it bleeds.  Pattinson’s good guy routine catches the twinkle in Reese’s eye, as both are animal lovers, and of course, Rosie is delighted by a friendlier handler.  Perhaps the most absurd moment in the movie occurs when Pattinson discovers the animal speaks Polish, as it responds to commands in Polish and suddenly does circus tricks.  Well this certainly saves the audience from having to endure the painfully repetitious acts of learning how to train an animal.  Like magic, the animal saves the show.  Waltz, on the other hand, continues to mistreat the animals, but none more than Reese, his own personal pet, that he likes to train his own way.  If Pattinson objects, there are the muscle guys who will beat him bloody, forcing him to witness her mistreatment in silence.  As he’s about to leave the circus for good, admitting he’s been whipped, there’s a commotion under the big top, where someone has released all the wild cats, where the lions and tigers are charging the audience and causing mayhem, screams everywhere as some people are trampled.  In the middle of it all, of course, true love finds a way, sending the audience home with a Hallmark picture postcard finale, using a system of painting by numbers, supposedly pressing all the right buttons, but ultimately lacking in every respect except how to shoot the animals and the star performers and make them appear superficially glorious.  The movie is easy on the eyes, but by the end, one is reminded of the infamous P.T. Barnum expression:  “There’s a sucker born every minute.” 

Putty Hill

PUTTY HILL                          B                     
USA  (85 mi)  2010 d:  Matthew Porterfield

This is what you might call spur-of-the-moment filmmaking, because as the filmmaker was set to begin filming one movie called METAL GODS, the financing from grants for that project fell through at the last minute.  But since a camera crew and a group of non-professional actors were ready to go, they instead shot this film on the fly from a hastily put together 5-page script, costing $20,000, shot on HD Cam in less than two weeks in Baltimore in August of 2009.  It’s taken nearly two years following a year on the festival circuit for this project to find the public, and even then, opens on very few screens.  Porterfield’s first film, HAMILTON (2006), ran just slightly over one hour and felt like a minimalist, non-narrative mood piece, a near wordless, slice of life mosaic that was interesting in the abstract, where the story was secondary to the rich construction of character and place, where the artful beauty was in lyrical observation.  Once more, offering few embellishments and only a scant narrative, this film offers a window into a lower-middle class fabric, feeling almost like eavesdropping, offering a rare authenticity into the world of the people inhabiting this neighborhood.  But in an unusual twist, the director himself from behind the camera asks random questions to kids on the street that have a connection to a young twenty-year old who recently died of an overdose, asking if they knew him, for how long, and if they’re going to the funeral service.  This is reminiscent of THE BIG CHILL (1983) or RETURN OF THE SEACAUCUS SEVEN (1979), but it’s a much more scattered approach, as many of the friends barely know one another, and are connected to only one small piece of the puzzle, while his neighbors may have known him his entire lifetime. 

This approach offers a broader range of social fabric, including kids coming in from out of town who fit right into their little cliques that they were a part of when they left.  Unlike the spoiled brat rich kids seen on TV shows or in Hollywood comedies, these kids lead more modest lives, where a large part of it is sitting around and doing nothing, feeling bored and alienated not only from the adults, but the world around them.  Many of their conversations together don’t really lead anywhere, as feeling disconnected and not having anything to say is what they’re used to.  The offscreen questions have a way of bringing people together by a common purpose, but the viewer never gets the impression this group is a cohesive whole, more like a collection of various parts, where the camera observes their behavior one piece at a time, like a finely observed character study.  There is an exquisite scene where a bunch of kids go swimming in the natural flora of a local creek, and another where the camera finds a lone soul at a bike and skate park, where the commonality of age and interest begins to represent a social strata, but more often than not we observe these characters one at a time as they interact with family or friends.  Unlike HAMILTON however, here it feels important to know the myriad of relationships, such as who’s related to the family of the deceased.  With many of the kids feeling like interchangeable parts, this gets lost in the maze, which is a troubling factor.  The film simply doesn’t provide much help in identifying the relevant players.  Instead, it prefers to mix them all together while insisting upon its own structural ambiguity, which doesn’t really work with a documentary style questioner.

Nonetheless, much like Portland indie director Gus van Sant, this film offers a unique portrait into adolescence just by allowing kids to be kids in their natural habitat.  The cluttered interior rooms where they hang out are especially insightful, having a much more anarchistic look of rage and alienation, offering few signs of the typical look of teenage conformity.  The young high school girls, however, all look like hippie chicks, where in that respect, this could just as easily be a West coast van Sant production.  Gone are the copycat mall reproductions, each kid an Abercrombie & Fitch assembly line copy of the next, including that mile-a-minute mode of Valley girl speech.  These kids speak naturally, even quietly, without the incessant use of cell phones and without forcing their opinions on others, where none of them seems to spew a political agenda.  But despite the window into youth culture, which certainly feels authentic, one wonders if that is enough, especially as it’s all leading to a funeral service which has a noticeably quicker editing scheme, where people are cut off abruptly, which doesn’t happen anywhere else in the film.  As a viewer, one might have preferred to keep the cameras rolling, continuing the theme of feeling like an observer at a real event, such as the rambling but unforgettable bar sequences with Gene Hackman doing a striptease from Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW (1973) or Cassavetes’ classic imperfections in the roundtable bar tributes to the deceased from HUSBANDS (1970).  Instead, perhaps due to lack of time, this sequence feels hastily put together, where we’re only seeing the edited highlights, like a greatest hits montage.  Still, despite the quibbles, the film extols a natural sound design where cars passing and dogs barking are every bit as important as words getting lost in various conversations, where like Altman, the director can change the focus not just with the lens but with the use of sound.  The final sequence returns to an exquisite lyrical abstraction, a free-ranging experimental design of music and light that inventively goes out in style.              

Monday, April 25, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?              A                    
USA  (131 )  1966 d:  Mike Nichols

A searing drama that strips away the surfaces and artificialities and leaves the cast of only four players totally wiped out and devastated afterwards, disgusted with themselves and one another, as this kind of abhorrent behavior is the stuff of live theater.  Edward Albee’s dialogue is stunningly rich and densely descriptive, but abusive and dehumanizing in every respect, as these characters learn to come after one another using words as claws, ripping into each other’s flesh until their souls bleed.  For some, it’s just a question of who bleeds more.  George and Martha are played by the real life married couple of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom blew enough smoke in each other’s lives to get divorced and married again, and then divorced a second time as well.  Their troubles likely revolved around excessive alcohol consumption, which is one of the main threads of this film, as the relationship turns into a boxing match where the players fight for a round, take a brief rest, then fight another round, etc.  Well the rules of the game are to keep playing until somebody gets knocked out.  In this case it’s pretty clear that there’s no one left standing.  George is an associate professor in the history department who married the daughter of the college president, but fell short of qualifications needed to head the department, even after being there for some twenty years, a weakness his wife uses for target practice.  They are joined for drinks one evening by a young newlywed couple, George Segal as Nick, a biology professor at the school with a driving ambition for more and his weak-stomached wife, Sandra Dennis as Honey.  

Shot in black and white by Haskell Wexler, the quiet opening could just as easily be the opening of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), as it’s a peaceful pastoral setting overgrown by trees and plenty of closely cut grass.  The setting is night, as George and Martha return home after a dinner party, pour themselves a few more drinks, and the liquor continues to pour until dawn.  After a brief dust up, which plays out like foreplay, their anger with one another is sufficiently riled up until they continue on even after their guests arrive, who awkwardly see the incendiary fireworks flying fast and furious, as Martha can’t stop using her husband as a punching bag, insulting him, diminishing his stature and masculinity, and pretty much calling him a failure in every respect.  This is how the evening begins, as initially Nick and Honey politely stay out of it, but after a few rounds of drinks, they’re fair game as well, because who else can George retaliate against, since his wife has already shown herself to be a pretty tough customer.  Though only age 34 at the time the film was released, winning her 2nd Academy Award as Best Actress, Elizabeth Taylor as Martha is physically way over the top in this picture, drowning in alcohol, bellowing at the top of her lungs, hurling continual insults at the man she portrays as her mousy, good-for-nothing husband while curling up next to the “other” George, flirting openly with someone else’s husband whose wife is in the bathroom sick to her stomach from excessive alcohol consumption, perhaps the only sensible response all night.  But believe it or not, they’re only just getting warmed up.         

Somewhat reminiscent of Jean Eustache’s blisteringly honest The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain (1972), by the time the dust clears and people’s feelings and dignity have been obliterated, there are moments of quiet grace and poetry, especially in Martha, whose fragility and marital dysfunction draws a parallel to the delusional behavior in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night, especially the use of morphine in that play as a shield of illusion to hide behind, like alcoholism here, to avoid having to live with the real pain in their lives.  Language is the key component, used here as weapons, like heat-seeking missiles, that embellish the drop dead sensational acting performances, where characters can continually express that exact moment in time when their lives began to deteriorate and unravel, the incident that occurred when they began hating and despising one another, and that magic moment when it hit them that their lifelong dreams were a lost cause, including marital love and happiness.  Like Anthony Schaffer’s later play Sleuth, there’s a dynamic involved to disguise everything that’s real in games and parodies, in stories and making fun of others, but really what they’re covering up is their own broken hearts and dreams.  This is ultimately a sad, mistrustful affair, a series of hurt miscalculations cruelly undermining the worth of the human being, given a foreboding hint near the opening with a Betty Davis quote from a movie where she ultimately meets a tragic fate (BEYOND THE FOREST, 1949), described by critics as “the longest death scene ever seen on the screen,” which pretty much describes what happens from start to finish in this movie adaptation of one of the great American plays, one that spells out the end of hope, the end of love, and the end of illusion.   

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BUtterfield 8

BUTTERFIELD 8                                C                                         
USA  (109 mi)  1960  ‘Scope  d:  Daniel Mann

Apparently Elizabeth Taylor initially rejected this screen role, but eventually changed her mind in order to fulfill the final movie of her MGM contract which Taylor claimed made her “MGM chattel” for 18 years, freeing her up afterwards to earn one million dollars in salary for CLEOPATRA (1963).  Despite winning the Academy Award for this performance, Taylor never warmed up to the material, allegedly throwing a drink in disgust the first time she watched it in a screening room.  There are also rumors that Taylor garnered the Academy sympathy vote, as she was extremely ill with pneumonia and nearly died, where many felt she might never work again.  It is true, Taylor had never lowered herself to this kind of trashy and tawdry material before, and despite providing an excellent performance, the film never rises to ever be about much of anything.  What’s kind of interesting is seeing how this role was preliminary material for hurling barbs and playful insults in the bawdy drinking games in her next Academy Award winning performance, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966).  In both films, she works with her real life husbands at the time, providing explosive fireworks with Richard Burton in the latter, while Eddie Fisher is simply her foil here.    

A note of interest, novelist John O’Hara’s name appears in the title credit, something rarely seen, adapted by John Michael Hayers, who wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), and Charles Schnee, who wrote the screenplay for Howard Hawks’ RED RIVER (1948).  There are some clever exchanges between characters, verbal barbs that pass for veiled insults or sexual banter, but the film eventually deteriorates into near laughable material.  The opening ten minutes or so are wordless, with the camera following Taylor’s every move from the point she wakes up alone in bed, checking out the lay of the land, never uttering a word except a name and a phone number, until she leaves the luxurious New York apartment and hops in a cab.  This sequence features tense and over-anxious music that is completely out of synch with the otherwise quiet and calm demeanor of Ms. Taylor, who plays Gloria Wandrous, a sexually adventurous woman with a history of continually changing partners.  She is in her element getting picked up in bars where the clever one-liners are bitchy, sexually provocative, and highly aggressive, where it appears she can stand up to anyone and match them blow for blow, just verbal sparring where they usually end up in bed together.  The title is her answering service where she carefully screens and selects the men who interest her. 

Something changes, however, when she meets Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey), a filthy rich playboy who keeps a wife and women on the side.  Despite his smug fratboy manner that suggests women are mere collections, something to be talked about in the executive boardrooms, when they meet in a bar they do produce verbal sparks, where she interestingly digs her spiked heel into the toe of his shoe when he grabs her arm, which is sexual stimulation for these two practitioners.  But all the promise in the world can’t hide where this film’s going, despite Gloria’s desperate attempts to gain respectability.  Noted for his role in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), where he plays a brainwashed victim subject to a hypnotic trigger code, Harvey always provides wooden performances, where his character barely registers a pulse.  Here he’s a bit more frenzied and on edge than usual, but simply no match for the emotional volatility from Taylor’s performance, always showing an appealing vulnerability, even playing this kind of trashy role which feels much like a lurid dimestore novel you can pick up at any airport book stall.  If there’s anything all of Ms. Taylor’s roles have in common in her 4 consecutive years of Academy Award Best Actress nominations, culminating with winning the award, it’s her ability to bring down the curtain with such distinguished high drama.  This film is no different, though it’s the least suspenseful, where the director actually adds a feeble addendum at the end that ridiculously shows how far this film has deteriorated, which without Taylor’s performance wouldn’t matter at all.     

Friday, April 22, 2011

Raintree County

RAINTREE COUNTY                        C-                   
USA  (168 mi)  1957  ‘Scope  d:  Edward Dmytryk 

I have no idea what attracted the studio or the big name stars to this wretched material, adapted from a Ross Lockridge Jr. novel, an author who at age 33 committed suicide after long term bouts with chronic depression, but the barely tolerable writing is horrendous throughout, making this a perfect example of the extravagance and over indulgence of the Hollywood studio system, costing $5 million dollars for MGM, much of it on the lavish costumes, holding the dubious honor of being the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release.  The film is memorable more for its folly than anything else, as even the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift seem mysteriously disconnected.  Clift was drinking heavily at the time, arousing red flags from all who knew him, eventually suffering a tragic auto accident halfway through the production which was shut down for more than two months waiting for him to recover, leaving his face disfigured, not to mention a resultant addiction to alcohol and pain killers for the rest of his life.  This off-screen tragedy, not the film itself, led to a box office success, as viewers were curious to pick out the scenes shot before and after the accident.  In addition, this is the first film to ever shoot Montgomery Clift in color.  Shot by Robert Surtees, the last of the Hollywood films to use a super large ‘Scope aspect ratio of 2:55:1, it was meant to be screened on 65 mm film, giving the film an especially luminous quality, but since so few theaters could accommodate this change, it was instead released in traditional CinemaScope.  Following their brilliant work together in A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), making them, according to Clift’s biographer Patricia Bosworth, “the most beautiful Hollywood movie couple of all time,” this is the second film where Taylor and Clift, extremely close lifelong friends, worked together, while the truly bizarre film SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959) would be their last.

Set in a small town in rural Indiana before, during, and after the Civil War, the studio felt this could rival GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) in its epic historical scope, but don’t even think about it.  The only similarity is the histrionic over-acting of both Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, with Leigh winning and Taylor nominated for a Best Actress Award, and the politically incorrect depiction of slavery, which is a little disconcerting in both films.  After a 5-minute orchestral prelude, the film opens in an idyllic setting, where star students Johnny (Clift) and his sweetheart Nell (Eva Marie Saint) meet in the forest at a local creek exchanging graduation gifts.  Their open minded professor (Nigel Patrick), however, makes no bones about his attraction to a young chestnut haired student (Myrna Hansen) and is eventually run out of town on a rail at the discovery of his attempted indiscretions. Clift is the school valedictorian and his family and the town have high hopes for his future.  Elizabeth Taylor arrives a half hour into the film and catches Johnny’s eye as Susanna, a wealthy Southern belle from New Orleans, an aristocrat with slaves and property, whose purring, still girlish voice and heavy accent feel forced and completely unnatural, initially filmed in a heavily stylized and dreamy setting, as if the angels are singing in the background.  Lee Marvin makes an appearance as Orville “Flash” Perkins, a loudmouthed braggart and a drinker who challenges Johnny to a race, both thinking they are the fastest runners in the territory, which leads to a 4th of July fiasco, where they both amusingly get intoxicated before the race.  Afterwards, Johnny and Susanna have a picnic in the woods where they go swimming together in the creek, leading her to return several weeks later announcing she’s pregnant. 

Johnny, of course, does the honorable thing and agrees to marry her, taking a riverboat journey south to meet her relatives in New Orleans, discovering their views favoring slavery as well as their belief that Abraham Lincoln was tainted with Negro blood.  Perhaps the most despicable scene is Johnny’s insistence that Susanna free her slaves, which she announces at a party in front of her relatives, one of whom dons a blackface and prances around as the stereotypical yet horribly demeaning depiction of a darky.  At this point, Taylor’s exaggerated over-the-top drama kicks in, revealing she’s a deeply troubled woman hiding family secrets, as her mother slowly went insane, causing her father to bring back a Negro women from Cuba to take her place in the home raising the children, but the two of them were apparently shot in a fire that destroyed her family’s plantation, a traumatic incident from childhood that continues to haunt her.  Johnny remains reassuringly supportive, even after Susanna admits she was never pregnant, but desperately wanted his love, but she is possessed by visions, like a dark curse, eventually disappearing without a trace with their son, apparently gone to Georgia following the outbreak of the Civil War, which leads to an intermission at the 2-hour mark. 

The final section drags on with the least impact and is not really necessary other than to exploit the war, becoming ludicrous at times, especially when Johnny joins the Northern army largely in a desperate attempt to seek out his missing family in the South.  Johnny joins up with an Indiana regiment that includes “Flash” Perkins and his old professor, now a war correspondent, and follows the track of Sherman’s march to Atlanta.  Surprisingly, along the way, they run into the home of the Cuban woman that helped raise Susanna, where friendly family slaves have his son safely hidden away.  It’s here that Johnny learns Susanna had a breakdown and has been admitted to an insane asylum.  Carrying his son on his shoulders, Johnny fends off Rebel soldiers, which even for a soap opera is just beyond belief, as is the rescue scene in the asylum.  Unfortunately, in order to bring in the Civil War and tie up loose ends, they extended an already overlong film an extra hour without ever offering a truly gripping scene.  In my view, this is one of Taylor’s worst performances, as she’s completely on a different wavelength than everyone else in the film, allowed to over act while embellishing narcissism and nonstop hysteria on camera.  This simply doesn’t suit her since she’s such an adult, naturalistic force onscreen, but not here, as she’s continually portrayed as damaged goods.  Clift, on the other hand, has much greater screen chemistry with Eva Marie Saint, something that Susanna eventually realizes before bringing the curtain down in dramatic fashion.  The director never gets a grip on the material and allows the film to continually meander, presented almost as a fairy tale, never for a moment sensing any urgency or real life emotion.       


TABLOID                             B+                  
USA  (87 mi)  2010  d:  Errol Morris 

Another zany exposé from Errol Morris, in the comic manner of FAST, CHEAP, & OUT OF CONTROL (1997), digging out of the mothballs the story of Joyce McKinney, a North Carolina beauty queen with an alleged IQ of 168 who in 1977 fell in love with a Mormon boyfriend in Utah named Kirk Anderson, but had to track him down to his missionary duty in England and allegedly shackle him to a bed as her sex slave for 3 days of wanton lust where they apparently had intercourse 7 times as she attempted to drive the Mormon out of the boy.  This alleged de-programming effect failed however, as he eventually returned to the Mormon fold, but not until after a police inquiry that became sizzling tabloid sensation in the British press, becoming a full out war between the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror, dueling tabloids that couldn’t invent more salacious copy than the words that came out of Ms. McKinney’s mouth during a bail hearing in open court where she freely admitted to her attempted rescue operation.  Though she claimed to use ropes on only one leg, allowing him to reach the toilet, the tabloids preferred to use phrases like “chained to the bed with padlocks where his arms and legs were spread-eagled.”  Morris tracked down the reporters for each paper, Peter Tory for the Express, still fixated on the word spread-eagled, and Kent Gavin, a photographer for the Mirror who helped dig up some naked photos in her past.  As the Express was running a weekly column with McKinney dressed as a nun confessing her innocence, the Mirror had lurid front page photos of a nude beauty queen who ran S & M sex ads to earn her living. 

Left out of the story was McKinney’s earlier attempt to snare one of the Osmond’s, and that would be Wayne, before becoming obsessed with Kirk Anderson, following him around the country, where his family didn’t think she looked like a Mormon, continually stalking him and confessing her love until he’d had enough, requesting to be sent overseas.  Little did he know that she hired a detective to find him, also a pilot and a helper to arrange the kidnapping, men who themselves were smitten with Ms. McKinney, who made a habit of wearing sheer, see-through blouses in their company.  Calling herself Little Miss Perfect, McKinney has put on a few pounds as she looks into the camera, prompted by questions from Morris, still claiming Anderson was the one, the love of her life, claiming she gave up her virginity to win his love, to save him from brainwashing, confessing to the court such juicy items as:  

“Kirk has to be tied up to have an orgasm. I co-operated because I loved him and wanted to help him. Sexual bondage turns him on because he doesn't have to feel guilty. The thought of being powerless before a woman seems to excite him. I didn't have to give him oral sex…I did do it at his request because he likes it.”

But her most memorable utterance was her declaration:  “I loved Kirk so much that I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose.”  Tabloid sensationalism has never been driven by a more willing public offender.  The judge released her on bail whereupon she and her partner-in-crime donned mime troupe costumes and wearing a red wig she skipped out of the country pretending to be a deaf mute. 

This kind of stuff flies fast and furious out of McKinney’s mouth, where she claims she was moved by scenes from Franco Zeffirelli’s  BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (1972), a dramatization of the life of St. Francis of Assisi before his conversion, including a special relationship with a tantalizing young female, Judi Bowker, who later resurfaced with Harry Hamlin in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) and can be seen here: Images for judi bowker photos.  But she eventually faded from public view, a footnote into a forgotten era.  Then out of nowhere, Ms. McKinney veers off into her lifelong companionship with her favorite dog, claiming she’s still pining away in celibacy for her man, where all the love she has to give now goes to her dog, who eventually succumbs to cancer.  But alas, she discovers a Korean doctor who specializes in cloning, providing her with 5 cloned puppies, which creates yet another tabloid sensation, especially when this cloning revelation traced back finds hidden among the forgotten archives this even juicier story that was encapsulated in a tell all book, The Case of the Manacled Mormon, sure to be available in libraries and book stores near you.  Especially when questioning the tabloid reporters, the offscreen voice of Morris can often be heard with a mocking incredulous tone, as the reporters themselves, even after all these years, can hardly believe what fell into their laps out of the blue one day, turning Joyce McKinney into the sleazy story of all stories in tabloid heaven.  In the end though, does it really matter whether any of it's true?   

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Catherine Deneuve with director François Ozon on the set

POTICHE                                    B                     
France  (103 mi)  2010  d:  François Ozon  

Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu first worked together in Truffaut’s THE LAST METRO (1980), where Deneuve kept the theater going in Paris, hiding her Jewish play-writing husband deep in the bowels of the underground of the theater during the Nazi occupation, with Depardieu playing a French resistance fighter who also joined her onstage as her leading man, working together 5 times in the 1980’s, again in André Téchiné’s CHANGING TIMES (2004), making this their 7th film together.  They work together like long lost friends, and their stature only adds respectability and pleasure to this candy colored, picture post card recollection of life in the late 1970’s, which plays very much like a TV sitcom.  With the frequent use of split screens and over the top piped in strings, Ozon floods the screen with saturated color and light, also stereotypical characters, at least seen by today’s world.  Adapting a successful play written by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, the film version is a farce, like joyously watching a train wreck as it happens, where Deneuve’s sheltered and seemingly harmonious world as the trophy wife of a ruthless factory owner (Fabrice Luchini) in a small provincial town covers up his egregious acts as an arrogant, philandering crook who thinks only of his self-interest, and to hell with everyone else, cooking the books, having a continuous affair with his secretary (Karin Viard) while also regularly seeking women’s company in high end night clubs at the company’s expense.  When a work stoppage at the umbrella factory he runs that she inherited from her father causes him to come to blows with striking workers, he is placed under immediate medical care, causing her to step in and run the factory during his absence. 

While most think of this temporary fix as something of a joke, Deneuve enlists the help of the Mayor (Depardieu), a local Communist whose activist tendencies are the opposite of what her husband stands for, so they make an engaging pair, especially when they take a little walk down memory lane, using younger actors to play their shared rosy memory of much younger times, an amusingly sunny recollection where they each looked picture perfect.  Deneuve, once deemed the most beautiful woman in the world during the 1960’s, is now 67, and Depardieu, horribly overweight but as natural as ever, is 62.  Both apparently wear wigs.  The mayor agrees to get the ball rolling in establishing negotiations with the union, where Deneuve wears pearls for the occasion, claiming they paid for them, so the workers may as well share in their enjoyment.  Knowing many of the workers by name, including the family they came from, as many worked for her father, Deneuve immediately develops a hands on style that gets the factory back on its feet and running smoother then ever, involving the help and participation of their two otherwise floundering children, Judith Godreche and Jéremie Réniér, both amusingly cast with an ultra right and ultra left viewpoint, where the dizzying naiveté of each child leaves one wondering if this really resembles the era of the American 50’s as portrayed on TV, yet the color scheme is definitely the 70’s.  When her husband returns to his rightful position, he’s surprised to learn that the rug has been pulled out from underneath him, where he’s literally been stripped of his power and his position, relegated to an out of the way TV room where he can be the dutiful trophy husband.  

Of course, there are more twists and turns, where the comedic battle of the sexes, and the social classes, only develop more forks in the road, each turning the tables on the other, all shot with a sunny disposition and a delightful sense of humor.  While there are dark moments, they are brief and touchingly eloquent, usually followed by out and out laughs.  There’s a wonderful cameo from Sergi López, the sadistic Fascist army officer in PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), also the wayward father in Ozon’s surreal RICKY (2009), playing a truck driver who offers more than a helping hand.  The children’s development into something more substantial is clever, as is the eye-opening awareness of the secretary, as all figure prominently in the outcome.  There are some particularly observant variations on a theme, as there’s a musical chairs of the children’s love interests, each humorously cast in a different sexual angle.  Everyone grows out of their stereotypical depiction except the husband, a guy who simply refuses to change with the times, remaining despicable until the end, even as it gets him nowhere.  But this is the Deneuve and Depardieu show, where they have a seriously dated dance sequence in a nightclub that is adorable, where the Bee Gees can distinctly be heard in the background, shot with all the kitsch and tongue-in-cheek that Ozon can muster.  By the finale Deneuve actually breaks out into song, a deliriously campy number that couldn’t be more poignantly life affirming, singing about how beautiful life is, bringing the curtain down in an exquisitely “French” moment that encapsulates a kind of harmonious unity where all is right in the world, like the memorable final chorus of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which the audience is happily humming in unison as they leave the theater.