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January 2009

Review: Gumshoe

Albert Finney
Albert Finney plays hard-boiled

[originally published in Movietone News, May/June 1972]

“SAM SPADE: Ginley’s the Name—Gumshoe’s the Game.” After a year of psychoanalysis, brought on by his girlfriend’s marrying his brother and terminated by his genial conclusion that the shrink is “off his head,” Eddie Ginley places the foregoing advert in a Liverpool paper. His breakfast-time reading is The Thin Man and his running patter — when not actually performing his job as emcee at a bingo club — is case-hardened Humphrey Bogart. His own voiceover commentary (“For everyone else in Liverpool it was just another Friday morning…”) eases into boyish practicality long enough to make clear Eddie doesn’t expect to be taken seriously: when a phone call sends him to that hotel room to receive a wrapped parcel from a Fat Man smoking a cigar on the other side of a tall chair, he assumes it’s just his mates’ way of slipping him a birthday present (he’s making the gloomy turn to 31). The package proves to contain a thousand pounds, a girl’s photograph, and a revolver to—presumably—do her in.

From the opening titles, nicely evocative of the old Universal Sherlock Holmes credits, Gumshoe is a minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, treading with absolute conviction that high wire of stylistic commitment with clinical absurdity lying to one side and shallow sendup to the other. Stephen Frears’ direction, Neville Smith’s dialogue, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music all take that necessary chance of pushing just a little too far, which is the only way to push far enough. But as much talent as these gentlemen evidence, Gumshoe would only be charmingly lightweight without the rigor and intensity of Albert Finney as a standup comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. It’s tempting to speculate on the origins of Gumshoe, and how much Eddie Ginley might have been conceived and written for Albert Finney, who was last seen in his directorial debut, Charlie Bubbles, climbing into an utterly improbable carnival balloon and sailing up out of all his insoluble problems. Charlie Bubbles moved some observers, appalled others (I stood among the latter), but it will be worth re-viewing if only to strengthen one’s appreciation of this new gem. There Charlie/Finney’s estranged wife was superbly played by Billie Whitelaw; here she plays Eddie’s lost love, to whom he repairs now and again for psychic rearmament — to stage a smoky, piano-playing, late-night reunion or to be kissed goodbye/kissed off at a railway station. In the incestuous way of private-eye thriller plotting, Gumshoe enables Eddie Ginley to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. The ambiguity of the last lengthy shot — whether Eddie has been trapped forever in his dreamworld or whether he has taken a decisive step toward adulthood — is profound rather than facile, and thoroughly earned.

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What Ever Happened to Arch Oboler? (Part One)

[Arch Oboler’s Five makes its home video debut on Tuesday, February 3. To mark the occasion, Oboler expert Matthew Rovner has contributed a brief history his film career. Part One covers his earliest films. ]

Arch Oboler came to Hollywood out of the radio tube, but he never showed the visual flair of Orson Welles. His name still reverberates from the Lights Out radio series I heard in my childhood. Hence, he is included if only as a reminder of the vanished mystique of radio in the motion picture industry.
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Arch Oboler creates Lights Out
Arch Oboler creates “Lights Out”

As a filmmaker he was certainly no Orson Welles, but Oboler deserves better than oblivion.In the 1940s, Oboler was one of the highest paid writers in the world and the most successful radio playwright in America. Radio, prior to the advent of television, was the most powerful and influential mass communication medium on the planet. Oboler stood shoulder to shoulder with the two other giants of American radio, Norman Corwin and Orson Welles. Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, has even noted that “…Welles’s radio work possessed none of the riddling originality of Arch Oboler.” Oboler was to radio what Rod Serling became to television; Serling’s ironic and socially conscious “weird tales” for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery were influenced by Oboler’s plays for the radio program Lights Out. As Andrew Sarris suggests, Lights Out is the radio series for which Oboler is best remembered.

But Oboler was more than a mere fright master; he was also a writer with a political conscience and a relentless desire to elevate radio writing to an art form. His books of published radio plays have introductions from eminent writers such as Irving Stone and Thomas Mann. Oboler was NBC’s “boy genius” and their answer to rival network CBS’s formidable roster of talented writers including Corwin, Welles, and Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish. NBC, America’s most powerful network gave Oboler his very own radio series with complete creative control and his name in the title: Arch Oboler’s Plays. It was an almost unheard of honor. On radio, Oboler was a tireless and original innovator.He wrote most of his plays from the first person perspective, concentrating on the thoughts, memories and imaginings of his protagonists.Particularly memorable is his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with James Cagney as Joe Bonham, a World War I casualty without eyes, ears, tongue, or limbs. Oboler was also a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when the spoken word could better create an image in the mind of his listeners. Nonetheless, the sound effects that he did use are remembered for their audaciousness and creativity such as the eerie vibration of bed springs, which Joe Bonham learns to recognize as the movement of people entering and exiting his hospital room.

The Twonky
The Twonky

What Oboler brought to film from radio was an innovative use of multi-layered sound tracks and his trademark stream-of-consciousness technique.He also brought to film his pioneering and independent spirit, which influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. That same maverick passion nearly bankrupted him when he became obsessed with creating the perfect 3D film system. Oboler made only nine feature films, but each of them is a cult classic due to both his eccentric vision and even his limitations as a filmmaker: Bewitched (1945), Strange Holiday (1945), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Five (1951), Bwana Devil (1952), The Twonky (1953), 1+1 (1961), The Bubble (1966), and Domo Arigato (1972). At times, he has been compared most unfairly to Ed Wood Jr.; however, in style and theme””if not artistic consistency””he was a mix of Sam Fuller, Stanley Kramer, and Val Lewton. Oboler’s life and work are full of the unexpected, including this surprise: even before he was making radio he was making movies.

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“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” – DVD for the Week 1/27/09

Is Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in fact the “DVD of the Week” this week? I mean, is it the standout film this week, or an overlooked masterpiece, or a superior use of the DVD medium? Or am I just reaching to fill the slot of a weekly feature?

Some of the latter, possibly. Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week and it is probably the best new film of the week, while Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd make their respective DVD debuts as well. All of them in simple movie-only editions (as if the Woodman would ever offer a commentary track). And my favorite release of the week is Shout! Factory’s three-disc set of The Secret Policeman’s Balls, which collects the performance films of five Amnesty International Benefit shows, from Pleasure at Her Majesty’s in 1976 (featuring members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball in 1989, featuring a rare reunion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore among the comedy treats. The art is all onstage, however, as the films are basically no more than straight record of an event.

But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a fascinating film and a terrific DVD. The film delves into the story of Roman Polanski’s notorious statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, his indictment on six felony charges and his subsequent flight from the U.S. in 1977. Polanski’s story reaches much farther back, of course, and is framed by his history: he survived the Holocaust that killed most of his family and endured the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the insatiable, irresponsible media circus that hounded Polanski and recklessly smeared his reputation before the investigation discovered and arrested Charles Manson and his followers (giving the press an even more sensationalistic story). That might screw up anyone, but it hardly explains or justifies Polanski’s “relationship” (his word) with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, plying her with drugs and alcohol before having sex with her. The film doesn’t flinch from Polanski abhorrent crimes (to which he confessed and plead guilty) and the excerpts of police interview transcripts with Polanski and Gailey are discomforting and disturbing.

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The last list of Lists for 2008 – The Year in Cinema

The reading of the Oscar nominations marks the unofficial (and long overdue) end to the season of Top Ten lists and year-in-review pieces and various awards bestowed by every group who wants to add their stamp to the passports of Oscar hopefuls. So as a postscript, I gather a few lists and remarks from Parallax View contributors and friends, along with those published by Seattle top critics, as a snapshot of the way see 2008.

Sean Axmaker

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

1. A Christmas Tale (France) (dir: Arnaud Desplechin)
2. The Edge Of Heaven (Germany) (dir: Fatih Akin)
3. WALL•E (dir: Andrew Stanton)
4. Let The Right One In (Sweden) (dir: Tomas Alfredson)
5. Wendy And Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt)
6. The Fall (dir: Tarsem Singh)
7. The Dark Knight (dir: Christopher Nolan)
8. The Class (France) (dir: Laurent Cantet)
9. The Secret Of The Grain (France) dir: Abdellatif Kechiche
10. My Blueberry Nights (dir: Wong Kar Wai)

I also saw six films at various film festivals that could easily have made the list, were they eligible under most Top Ten guidelines (i.e.: a theatrical release). Some of them have been set for a 2009 release, a couple still await distribution.

Four Nights With Anna (Poland/France) dir: Jerzy Skowlimowski
The Hurt Locker dir: Kathryn Bigelow
L’heure d’ete (Summer Hours) (France) dir/scr: Olivier Assayas
Of Time And The City dir/scr: Terence Davies
Still Walking (Japan) dir/scr: Hirozaku Kore-Eda
Ain’t Scared (France) dir/scr: Audrey Estrougo

Robert Cumbow

(in lieu of a list, Mr. Cumbow put together his Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008 for Parallax View here)

Jim Emerson

(Ten Best Favorite Movies, from his Scanners blog) Click on the link for the video experience.

1. In Bruges (comedy, gangster; on DVD)
2. The Edge of Heaven (multi-narrative drama; on DVD)
3. A Christmas Tale (comedy, family)
4. Pineapple Express (comedy, stoner/bromantic, crime, action, Ninja; on DVD/Blu-ray)
5. Wendy and Lucy (heartbreaker)
6. Let the Right One In (comedy, tweener love story, horror)
7. Still Life (comedy, romantic/industrial; on DVD)
8. Chop Shop (docudrama; on DVD)
9. Shotgun Stories (Southern Gothic; on DVD)
10. The Fall (comedy, Western/Eastern fantasy adventure; on DVD/Blu-ray)
11. Che (instructional documentary, with re-enactments)

John Hartl

The Edge of Heaven
The Edge of Heaven

(more or less in order)

The Edge of Heaven
Man on Wire
WALL•E
Waltz With Bashir
The Pool
Milk
Taxi to the Dark Side
Boy A
Frozen River
and the most interesting SIFF film I saw that hasn’t been released: Tony Barbieri’s Em

Robert Horton

(from his blog)

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. The Duchess of Langeais
3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
4. The Dark Knight
5. Wendy and Lucy
6. Married Life
7. Priceless
8. In Bruges
9. Forever
10. Let the Right One In

Richard T. Jameson

2008 was one weird film year for a variety of reasons, and trying to throw a Ten Best list around it has seemed a fool’s-errand. This fool’s latest version of one, for the editor of Germany’s brave Steadycam magazine to post online, should be the last I hazard … though it, like its predecessors, ignores some half-dozen first-rate films seen at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and unreleased as yet Stateside.

In Bruges
In Bruges

1) The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
2) A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
3) The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
4) I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel)
5) Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
6) Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
7) In Bruges (Martin McDonagh) … hands-down favorite!
8 ) WALL•E (Andrew Stanton)
9) A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)
10) Tell No One (Guillaume Canet)

Kathleen Murphy

1.  The Edge of Heaven
2.  In Bruges
3.  A Christmas Tale
4.  I’ve Loved You So Long
5.  Wendy and Lucy
6.  Let the Right One In
7.  WALL•E
8.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
9.  Vicky Christina Barcelona
10. Man on Wire

Andrew Wright

Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In

1. The Dark Knight
2. The Edge of Heaven
3. Let the Right One In
4. Burn After Reading
5. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
6. WALL•E
7. Redbelt
8. Encounters at the End of the World
9. Fear(s) of the Dark
10. JCVD

Select Seattle-area Critics

William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

(in no particular order)

U2 3D
Milk, W., Frost/Nixon
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
The Reader
The Visitor
Cassandra’s Dream/Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Iron Man, The Dark Knight
Valkyrie
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL•E

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times

(in alphabetical order)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frozen River
Man on Wire
Milk
Priceless
Revolutionary Road
Shine a Light
Tell No One
WALL•E

Tom Tangney, KIRO

1. The Edge of Heaven
2. Synecdoche, N.Y.
3. Boy A
4. I’ve Loved You So Long
5. Man on Wire
6. Funny Games
7. Towelhead
8. Wall•E
9. Rachel Getting Married
10. (tie) Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight.

Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy

Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008

No, this is not a top ten of the year, nor even a fair bid at a summation of the year in movies. It’s just a grab-bag of passing thoughts teased into being by some of the films I saw this past year, and an effort to say a few things that no one else is likely to.

australia-kidman-jackman
Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the Outback

Australia: Instant guilty pleasure. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anyone like Nicole Kidman around in early 20th century Australia, and that no person of the time, white or black, really wanted a child of the Stolen Generation the way Lady Sarah Ashley and wily old King George both wanted Nullah. I’m also pretty sure that doesn’t matter a bit to Baz Luhrmann … or to me as a viewer of his film. Throughout its considerable running time, a voice like that of the servants of imperial Roman heroes at triumph whispers in my ear that this is not a masterpiece, not perhaps even an especially good movie. Yet how can I resist its joyous celebration of the movies, how they transform and redeem us, how they enable us to contrapose what should have been to what was? Drawing from screwball comedy, epic western, epic war movie, from acknowledged classics (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Red River) and forgotten oddities (Donovan’s Reef, The Devil at Four o’Clock), Luhrmann gives us an infectious re-invention of his native land made in the image of what is most important to him, the movies. –And what a joy to see again, together, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and David Gulpilil—giants of the now-distant golden age of Australian film.

Changeling and Gran Torino: This year’s Eastwood two-fer underscored once again what is strongest and weakest about the vision of the man who is perhaps the last quintessentially American film maker. On the good side: a strong sense of story and story-telling, of a thoroughly visual narrative style, and of the power of an honestly observed character (Oscar nominations be damned, no performance of 2008 arrested my admiration more than that of Michael Kelly as Changeling’s Detective Ybarra). On the down side: a stubborn simple-mindedness when it comes to corruption and evil. The flat portrayals of the gang members of Gran Torino and the LAPD top brass and their sanitarium cronies in Changeling reduce what might have been to something much less. On the other hand, if Eastwood is indeed the last American film maker who sees with truly American eyes, there may be a lesson for us all in his bull-headed conviction that good guys are complex personalities with a compelling dark side, but bad guys are just plain bad—and stupid and expendable into the bargain. Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name still battle for possession of Eastwood’s soul, and every film he makes is to some degree a new skirmish in his continuing war against the staying-power of his own screen image.

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Interview: Darren Aronofsky on “The Wrestler”

Darren Aronofky comes across as a very centered, easy-going, down-to-Earth guy. Not what you’d expect from the guy who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain. Maybe not even The Wrestler, though his love of the story and the characters comes through when he talks about. I interviewed Darren Aronofsky in Seattle back in November, 2008, during his national press tour to promote The Wrestler, which had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was the buzz of the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, the film has been praised as one of the best films of the year and Mickey Rourke’s tender turn as aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson the comeback story of the year. Rourke earned a Golden Globe Award and early Thursday morning, January 22, both he and co-star Marisa Tomei were honored with Oscar nominations.

Early in the film, in the scene where Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy, has slept in his van and wakes up the next morning, he’s instantly surrounded by kids who adore him and he adores them, I though to myself, “He’s Wallace Beery in The Champ!”

(laughs) Sure. When we cast Mickey it was pretty hard to get the film made, and the reason was is because pretty much every financer in the world said that Mickey Rourke wasn’t sympathetic. So it was important for me to prove them wrong. And I think after the first three or four minutes of the film, you’re kind of hooked into Mickey. It’s partly because of that scene but I think it’s also because you look into his eyes and he’s very truthful, he’s filled with soul, he’s filled with spirit, and there’s just a burning desire in him.

Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson
Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson

Mickey Rourke has been doing great work for the last eight years but no one has been noticing it because they’re mostly small films and supporting roles.

He’s also had to play tough guys a lot. One of the great things about Mickey, that I remember from Angel Heart and The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly, is that even when he’s this incredible tough guy with all this machismo, there’s so much softness inside. And when you meet Mickey, that’s who he is. There’s a lot of armor built up, but it’s really covering up all this fear.

Casting him as a wrestler also evokes the boxing career he had after he left acting in the nineties.

Sure. I thought that, since he was a boxer, it would be very easy for him to learn how to wrestle. It was actually, I think, twice as hard for him. In boxing you want to hide your punches, you don’t want your opponent to see the punches. In wrestling, you want people in the back rows to see the punch coming two minutes before it ever happens. So Mickey really had to unlearn how he moved in the ring. I think also, as a boxer, you really look down on wrestling because it lampoons what you are doing. So it was hard, at the beginning, until Mickey learned to respect it as something that was as much sport as theater. Once he accepted that there was something theatrical going on, he was able to understand how to approach it.

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Keeping Score – “Ennio Morricone: The Complete Edition”

Fifteen CDs is a big set—and a bargain for $99.95. But in what sense is GDM’s big holiday release a “Complete Edition”? Obviously it’s not everything the Maestro has written; that couldn’t be done in ten times as many discs.

emcompleteedThe avowed effort here is, for the first time in a single collection, to offer a sampling of Ennio Morricone’s work in every one of the specialized fields of musical composition in which he has worked. The set is organized accordingly: Music for Cinema (9 discs); Music for Television (2 discs); and one disc each covering Contemporary Classical Music, Orchestral Arrangements, Hit Song Arrangements, and Original Songs.

If you bought GDM’s previous extravaganza, Ennio Morricone: The Super Gold Edition (GDM Music srl, 0168292GDM; 6 discs, avail. at $45-85), you may well wonder whether the cinema music portion of this new collection replaces that previous set. No, it doesn’t. While the vast majority of the cuts on the previous set are also included in the present one, there are several instances in which a film represented in the earlier box set is represented this time by a different excerpt, or none at all. So if you buy the new box, there’s reason to hang on to the earlier one as well.

Like the earlier box, this new set’s CDs are all in matching format, featuring the same superb pencil portrait of Morricone at mid-age; unlike the earlier box, the new one has color-coded the CDs, so one can always grab the right sleeve to consult the contents of the current disc. A big difference between the new set and the old one is that the works on the new set are presented in chronological order, enabling you to trace the evolution of the Morricone touch from the late ’50s right through to last year, spotting patterns, repetitions, variations, and increasingly complex and inventive stylistic gestures.

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“Magnificent Obsession” – DVD of the Week 1/20/09

Deep in the second act of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, as Jane Wyman’s blind heroine Helen Hudson mourns for her lost sight after a disappointing prognosis from the world’s greatest ocular specialists in a Swiss Clinic, she steps out of her bedroom and into the drawing room of her accommodations (no tourist class for this class act). The conversation of the previous scene took place in full light, but as Helen glides into the room like a whisper the room is suddenly in shadow, as if dusk has crept up on Helen and her devoted step-daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush). “The night is the worst time,” she confesses to Joyce, her face picked out of the darkness by a sliver of rim lighting on her cheek, like a crescent moon. “It does get darker, you know. And then when I finally do get to sleep, I know that when I get up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” We’re not quite blind, merely drifting at the edge of her perpetual darkness, and it casts a somber atmosphere over the scene. There is no “realistic” reason for our plunge into darkness and Sirk makes no explanation as he, for a few brief moments, takes us into her twilight world. But it feels right. His use of light and color is not unlike the way the underscore builds through the scene. As Helen gropes through the apartment to reach the balcony, where her fumbling knocks a pot off the ledge and smashing into the street below, the score crescendos on the shattered pot, the physical echo of her shattered hopes as she sobs over her affliction. Like the music, Sirk conducts the light to reflect the inner world rather, not the material world. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) swoops in to cheer her up, the rooms lights up with him. “I’d forgotten how happy I could be,” she chokes in the brief glow of his presence. It’s doomed to be short lived in this world of grand emotions and self-sacrifice, at least until the final triumph where love does indeed conquer all.

Magnificent Obsession is the first of Douglas Sirk’s great Hollywood melodramas, a romantic tale of hubris and loss and sacrifice and rebirth in a rarified Technicolor world of storybook-pretty homes and sun-dappled preserves of nature. The setting is the lakeside village of Brightwood, part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright, but apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his portrait’s landscape. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and constantly playing with his light as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater, while never breaking the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil.

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Douglas Sirk: An Introduction

[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]

Written on the Wind
Written on the Wind

Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.

Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirk’s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.

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Interview: Steven Soderbergh and “Che”

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.

It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself into revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment. In Soderbergh’s own words: “Let’s put it this way: when people ask me how many films I’ve made, I treat it as one film.”

Benecio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as a single presentation and opened in a limited roadshow run, with both films presented back to back (with an intermission) as a single program, in New York and Los Angeles in December. Its success encouraged IFC to expand the roadshow release to ten more cities, including Seattle, on January 16. I interviewed Soderbergh by phone on Friday, January 9, a week before its Seattle premiere.

Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?

Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.

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“The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV” – DVD of the Week 1/13/09

“I don’t interpret. I don’t transmit any message. I avoid expressing theories and forcing meanings. I reconstruct documents, I offer information which leaves to the spectator the entire responsibility for his own judgments.”

– Roberto Rossellini

 

This week, Criterion resurrects key productions from Roberto Rossellini’s cycle of historical films directed for television in the final act of his career. Largely overlooked in light of his legendary neorealist dramas and his more intimate dramas starring his lover Ingrid Bergman, these films are could technically be considered historical dramas, but they are nothing like the spectacles that you usually find under this genre.

 

Criterion releases four of these productions. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

 

The film opens on the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister of France who has amassed a fortune in his position. The ambitious and corrupt Fouquet is jockeying to take his place (and enrich himself in the process) and the entire court is full of intrigue and plotting at the Cardinal’s illness, all figuring how to make their power play. Or so we’re told, as this information is all exposition, a dialogue serving largely to explain and explicate everything to the audience. (Rossellini also takes time to explore in detail the state of medical science: doctors passing judgment on the odor and color of the Cardinal’s urine, and prescribing more bleeding. Isn’t it lucky that they’ve measured just how much blood a man can lose and still remain alive?)

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Up For Sale, Up in the Air

[Published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

You could say it came as a complete surprise when, on Thursday evening, local TV station KING-TV announced that, according to unnamed sources, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would be put up for sale. The P-I staff had no news of it and the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, would not comment. It could have been a rumor, a hoax or just an incorrect story. At least that’s what many of us hoped. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that news was confirmed and the news made public.

But if the announcement was a surprise, the closing of a Seattle newspaper was hardly unanticipated. Traditional print newspapers have been on life support for years and Seattle was the last city of its size to still have two competing daily newspapers. Both the Seattle Time and the P-I have both been losing money. The two papers appeared to be attempting to outlast the other and be the last paper standing. While the locally-owned Times has a significantly larger circulation (198,741 to the P-I’s 117,572 as of September, 2008, according to a P-I report), it is also deeply in debt and its sale of a number of newspapers in Maine (which are being sold at a significant loss) is running into problems. Many thought that the more financially robust Hearst would be able to hold out longer in the face of losses.

The Hearst Corporation says that if the paper is not sold within 60 days, it will either be shut down or turned into a web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff. A sale in this climate seems unlikely, as the economic downturn has reduced advertising dollars even farther.

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Powell and Hitchcock

[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]

Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail. Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.

"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas [still from the Internet Encyclodedia of Cinematographers]
"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas

I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class. An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments. My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons. I immediately recognized that she was right. Later—awake now, lying in bed—I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films. And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himself—or Powell–Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburger—Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.

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“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things.
–Patrick Kenzie

Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone—my personal vote for best film of the year.

A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Men nevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novel’s more focused vision. There Will Be Blood is even more all over the map—gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where it’s coming from, where it’s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Clayton bounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonement seems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogether—not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t a chick flick! Honest!” Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voice—the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the film’s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the film’s moral theme about decision-making.

Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academy’s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what it’s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.

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