In Black and White: The World of Entertainment

16 February, 2015 (08:09) | Books, by Alan Williams | By: Alan Williams

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT. By Hugh Fordin. Doubleday. 566 pages. $15.00.

By packaging and presentation, Hugh Fordin’s book is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The serious student of film might easily pass it by, seeing only the pseudo-MGM logo and the boldly lettered subtitle: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST MUSICALS. You have to look closer to see the real subject, in a smaller italic: The Freed Unit at MGM. I begin with this caveat emptor in an attempt to convince even people who hate film musicals that Fordin’s chronicle of MGM in its glory and subsequent decline is important reading for us all.

A while back a friend suggested “Arthur Freed as auteur” as a potential book or thesis title. The comment was somewhat facetious, but it underlined a curious fact: not only are most film-lovers unaware of Freed’s huge influence on Band Wagon, Silk Stockings, Singinin the Rain, and the 40-odd other films produced by his unit, but the very roles of producer and production unit have been little studied by film historians, much less commented on by theorists and critics. A producer is only a producer, one might say, but a good director is an auteur.

The World of Entertainment benefits greatly from this seemingly unglamorous nature of its subject. Since Freed and others like him are decidedly non-mythic figures—and even more so their “stables” of writers, musicians, and so on—Fordin has not felt obligated to delve too deeply into biography or motivation. He gives us a narrative of film production itself as a process, as evolved in Freed’s “royal family of Hollywood.”

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Videophiled: Jacques Rivette’s Paris in ‘Le Pont du Nord’

15 February, 2015 (17:37) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Making its stateside home video debut on Tuesday, February 17, is Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD), a dark sister film to his more buoyant and whimsical Celine and Julie Go Boating. Longtime collaborator Bulle Ogier stars with her daughter, Pascale Ogier, and they co-wrote the film with Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman, which gives the characters and their journeys a decidedly female perspective, a hallmark of many of Rivette’s films. It also channels his love of puzzles, games, fantasy, and conspiracy with a story that tosses the two women together in Paris and sends them on an odyssey through the city, following clues and hopping through neighborhoods like they are squares in a massive boardgame with fatal stakes.

Marie (Bulle Ogier) arrives in the back of a pick-up truck—she’s spent the last few years in prison—with the intention of tracking down her old lover. Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) rides in on a moped, challenging a motorcycle rider like a kid playing matador and stepping off to slash the eyes from posters and placards. Marie is older, experienced, practical, disillusioned yet still hopeful, and she’s afflicted by a crippling claustrophobia that prevents her from even stepping inside stores. Baptiste is young, dreamy, a believer in fate and magic, and possibly unstable (her reflexive defacing of public imagery seems more compulsion than artistic statement). She’s also unfailingly loyal. When Baptiste sees that Marie’s criminal boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clémenti) is involved in shady business dealings, she appoints herself Marie’s guardian and takes the lead in investigating the contents of Julien’s briefcase, which includes newspaper clippings of political assassinations and of Marie’s criminal past. What’s the connection?

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Videophiled: Jean Renoir takes ‘A Day in the Country’

15 February, 2015 (10:11) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

DayCountryA Day in the Country (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Jean Renoir has long been called the cinematic successor to the French Impressionists—he is, after all, the son of Auguste Renoir, and his generosity and humanism and interest in the lives of working class folks is in the spirit of the movement. But while his style helped define French poetic realism of the 1930s, his films were also rooted in politics, class, and social commentary, both satirical (Boudu Saved from Drowning) and tragic (The Lower Depths, The Rules of the Game).

With A Day in the Country (1936), however, a short film adapted from a short story by Guy du Maupassant (a contemporary of his father), Renoir pays tribute to the French Impressionists in general and his father in particular. It’s set in 1860 at a bucolic riverside country inn on the Seine where a petit-bourgeois Paris family arrives (in a borrowed milk cart) for an escape from the city and a pair of brash men set their sights on seducing the giggly wife and the svelte, comely daughter of the easily-distracted husband.

It’s a bucolic little film with a wisp of a story that builds great emotional resonance from what appears to be a slight, meaningless dalliance. Like the Impressionists, there is great deal of life suggested behind those initial sketches, at least for some of the characters. Shots of this group having a picnic on the grass, women on swings, and couples rowing skiffs up the river, among others, evoke specific paintings of Pere Renoir while Jean’s gentle direction of his two leading actors create characters that are both familiar cultural types and unique individuals who are moved beyond all expectations by their brief encounter. It’s a portrait in the spirit of the paintings. Sylvia Bataille is especially luminous as the daughter, who is expected to marry her father’s dull-witted assistant but finds more excitement with the amorous country gentleman. Renoir himself plays the innkeeper and his lover and editor Marguerite Houlle Renoir is the waitress.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 13

13 February, 2015 (10:05) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Editor

‘The House is Black’

The new Offscreen focuses on Iranian film, from avant-garde beginnings to compromised present. Roxanne Varzi salutes the poetic ethnography of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 documentary The House Is Black. (“[A]s we look at it years later it is no longer a documentary of the Leper colony but a poetic, interior, native documentary about a woman artist in Tehran grappling with issues of science, society and faith at a time when these issues were at stake politically and socially.”) While Ramin S. Khanjani considers two recent films by ‘70s icon Masoud Kimiai that find the director employing old, once groundbreaking habits in ways tough to pin down as either worn-out or even more radical than before. (“For all the claims about the director’s lack of touch with his own time, Trial on the Street effectively conveys the spirit of the city and of its era, one infested with lies and suspicions that beggars an easy judgment….”) Elsewhere Najmeh Khalili Mahani offers an introduction and selective filmography for the great Dariush Mehrjui, and Donato Totaro suggests some of the influences behind Certified Copy’s “huit clos of rhyming emotions which mirror each other into cinematic infinity.”

“Having slowly journeyed upriver, the camera now, in three successive traveling shots that are the film’s most emphatic visual maneuver, briskly backs away downriver as the rain falls and the Sunday outing comes to an abrupt end. Not just the pace and direction of movement but the very sense of time at one stroke shifts. Without hurry, savoring the immediate appearances of sunny nature, keeping to the time scale of the moment, the film wends its way toward the consummation on the river island; and then, suddenly, the swiftness of the camera’s rainy retreat evokes the rush of years ceaselessly passing, the time scale of a lifetime.” Critic and scholar Gilberto Perez died last month; the loss can be acutely felt by reading his paean to Renoir’s A Day in the Country, which is marvelously, lovingly astute about the film’s duels between nature and society; between varied scales of time; its multiple frames and false freedoms. A lot to pack into 2100 words, but Perez does so effortlessly.

Inspired by a BAM retrospective of John Carpenter John Lehtonen finds that once you look past the acknowledged masterpieces you find several worthy films that belie Carpenter’s reputation for nihilism.

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Review: Leviathan

12 February, 2015 (05:28) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Elena Liadova

No shocker that Leviathan is one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie is ambitious and serious and takes on issues of society, all ingredients for nominee status. The surprise is that Russia officially submitted it to the Oscar committee in the first place (each country gets to choose a single title for consideration). That act is not quite at the level of Kim Jong-un sponsoring free screenings of The Interview at the Pyongyang 12-plex, but clearly somebody in Moscow messed up: Leviathan is a furious portrait of Russian bureaucracy at its most corrupt.

At the core of the plot is a simple land-grab, but the implications are far-reaching.

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Review: R100

12 February, 2015 (05:19) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Erika Sato and Nao Omori

R100 actually seems like a normal movie for 40 minutes or so, even if its setup is a little out-there. A man leads a quietly desperate life, working as a store salesman and tending his young son, while his wife lies in a long-term coma. He signs on with an unusual escort service, one that provides an outlet for his hidden masochistic fantasies: For a year, a series of leather-clad women will show up unexpectedly to dole out physical punishment or public humiliation. He can’t get out of the contract once it begins, and he quickly learns that a dominatrix is likely to pop up at the most awkward moments.

Like I said, a normal movie. But then Hitoshi Matsumoto’s film begins to stretch out into full-on gonzo nuttiness, starting with the first of a series of scenes of state censors exiting a screening room. They are evidently in the midst of watching R100, and they’re not pleased about the film’s outrageous content.

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Review: Monk With a Camera

12 February, 2015 (05:00) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Editor

Monk With a Camera (and an assistant to carry it)

Every outsider who takes Buddhism seriously enough to become a monk must have an interesting story. I once spent a night in a Buddhist monastery that had been established in a jumble of very old farm buildings in the north of England, and the personalities of the shorn-headed novitiates there suggested a variety of difficult paths and tangled backgrounds (the abbot was an American who’d gotten fascinated with spirituality after his Vietnam war service). Monk With a Camera takes an alluring shortcut to telling one of those stories; instead of focusing on a random Westerner who falls into the saffron robes of the East, it profiles a socialite and onetime jet-setter whose family name conjures the high glamour of a bygone era.

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“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”

11 February, 2015 (08:23) | by Sheila Benson, Essays | By: Sheila Benson

That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt. Dov’s you should take very very seriously. The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both. Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness. I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder. Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

Continue reading at Critic Quality Feed

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Videophiled: Jake Gyllenhaal – ‘Nightcrawler’

10 February, 2015 (08:39) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

NightcrawlerNightcrawler (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) earned an Oscar nomination for director Dan Gilroy’s screenplay, a wicked satire of the tabloid news television that chases sensationalistic stories for ratings (the cliché “if it bleeds, it leads” is the guiding philosophy). It should also have earned a nomination for Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Louis Bloom is a twisted Horatio Alger with the focus, drive, and heartless conniving of a sociopath. He’s a petty thief and hustler who fancies himself a self-made entrepreneur in search of a break and he finds his niche in the world of freelance video journalists, the guys who rush to crime scenes and accidents to capture the freshest, goriest, most intimate footage and sell it to the highest bidder on the local TV stations. He’s Weegee with a video camera and he’s a quick study, a master of marketing and negotiations and a ruthless competitor who isn’t above eliminating competitors and obstacles.

It takes place almost entirely at night and director of photography Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) carves out a marvelous neo-noir atmosphere of Los Angeles at night with his razor-sharp photography of the streets after dark, lit by pools of street lamps, sweeps of headlights, and the cold, harsh glare of Louis’ portable spotlight. To Louis the streets are just conduits to the next hot spot and locations in which to stage his next scoop. Night may be a shroud but Louis doesn’t hide in the shadows. He’s brazen enough to do it the open and part of the crispness of Gilroy’s direction is the exacting detail of Louis’ methods.

Critics have complained that its portrait of the sensationalistic news philosophy lacks depth but that really no more than the backdrop for the real story. Louis is a superbly written character and Gyllenhaal sells every dimension of him, from his unctuous surface manner to the dead eyes and cold calculation behind his blank smiles. It’s as precise as Louis’ dialogue, a practiced line of ingratiating small talk and self-help platitudes that apes the manner of the ambitious young man eager to show his potential. Underneath, he’s plotting how to get the next scoop and leverage it into a business opportunity. Crimes are merely opportunities and victims merely the raw material for his camera. He’s not above manipulating a crime scene for dramatic effect.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director / writer Dan Gilroy with producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy (like the film, it’s a family affair) and the featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads: Making Nightcrawler.” The Blu-ray also includes a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

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Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

9 February, 2015 (05:28) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

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Videophiled: Dear White People

8 February, 2015 (07:23) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Editor

DearWhiteDear White People (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD), the feature debut of director / writer Justin Simien, is a sharp, smart, ambitious satire of race, racism, privilege, prejudice, and power at an Ivy League college that has drawn comparisons to Spike Lee. Which is fitting; Simien uses humor and provocation to explore issues of race and race relationships in the so-called post-racial era, he spreads ideas and perspectives around a large array of characters and creates debate through criss-crossing stories, and uses the crucible of college (as Spike did in School Daze) as both microcosm and as a specific culture where young people develop their identities as adults. Simien is his own filmmaker, however, with his own style and sensibility.

The title comes from the sarcastic punctuations of a radio program from campus activist Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson), who punctures the hypocrisies of political correctness with bull’s-eye stingers that are the buzz of the campus. She’s the rabble rouser who finds herself, against her own expectations, elected as head of her house, but she’s just one of a number of characters in the lumpy melting pot of a busy ensemble piece. Tyler James Williams, once the cute kid of the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, is Lionel, the subject of savage harassment as a gay black nerd trying to find his voice as a journalist in a fringe paper. He’s promised a feature in the award-winning campus paper if he wades into the controversies getting fanned by Sam. Or at least that’s how the all-white staff of the officially-sanctioned paper sees it, and if this film is about anything it is how the meaning of issues and events shift according to perspective, experience, and expectations. I can only guess that black audiences will nod in agreement at some of these observations. As one of the white people addressed by the film, I appreciate the change in perspective. That’s one of the things movies can (and American movies all too rarely) do with such immediacy and vitality.

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TV / Streaming Review: ‘Black Mirror’

7 February, 2015 (07:42) | by Sean Axmaker, Science Fiction, streaming, Television | By: Sean Axmaker

Rory Kinnear (center) in “The National Anthem”

Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.

Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of February 6

6 February, 2015 (09:53) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Shin Sang-Ok

Dictatorships have always understood the power of film, and made efforts to use it to their own ends. But even in the sordid history of such relationships, Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea stands as an outlier. In an excerpt from his book on Kim’s kidnapping and forced employment of South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee and director Shin Sang-Ok, Paul Fischer recounts their surreal encounter with Kim as, surrounded by murals of his own film productions, the despot apologizes for their rough treatment (“there have been lots of misunderstandings”) and lays out the propaganda role they will play. (“So I was thinking—yes, only in my head—my intention was, well, I hadn’t talked to anyone about this… I thought, what people have mastered Western skills that we don’t have here… who could come here to produce something with my support?”) And while the Sony hacking drama—if indeed it can be placed at the feet of North Korea, as the US has claimed—suggests things haven’t gotten any better since Kim’s death, there is some cold comfort that his successors still seem to believe that films matter. Mark Seal has the fullest portrait yet of what was going on inside the studio from the first curious computer screens to the sick-making moment when the extent of the hack became clear. Via Longform.

Not that police states are the only place where you have to watch your back. The ending of Seal’s piece, with executive Amy Pascal embattled but holding on, took all of two days to become out of date.

Spinning off a series at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, Violet Lucca surveys New York’s independent (the point very much being that they had to be) black filmmakers of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, including such innovative creators as Madeline Anderson, Bill Gunn, St. Clair Bourne, and the towering William Greaves, of whom Bourne claimed if the movement “were to be symbolized by a band… would be the bass.”

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Film Review: ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

5 February, 2015 (19:41) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna

Tough call if you’re a movie marketer: Do you sell The Duke of Burgundy as a story of a professor who specializes in the study of moths and butterflies, or a tale of a lesbian S&M role-playing relationship? Of course this is a trick question, because this movie is both. It has plenty to interest lepidopterists and kinksters alike.

The film is mostly set in and around a beautiful old house in the countryside (Hungarian, though the film’s in English). We first meet the professor, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), as she cruelly bosses around Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a younger woman who appears to be her maid. It turns out this ritual of humiliation is not only mutually accepted, but mostly dictated by Evelyn, who enjoys being punished.

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Film Review: ‘Mommy’

5 February, 2015 (19:37) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon

Some movies want to wear you down—an approach that seems logical for, say, a World War II tank picture like Fury. It’s not so obvious why Xavier Dolan’s award-winning Mommy seeks the same effect. This 139-minute domestic drama is a tornado of emotional (and sometimes physical) fury, with occasional joys sprinkled throughout. But man, is it a chore to watch. Dolan, a 25-year-old French-Canadian filmmaker, burns through ideas and situations with the urgency of youth, a blazing rush that creates a sometimes-exciting mess.

Much of the film’s fire comes from a teenager, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who suffers from extreme ADHD and acts out in violent ways. He’s home with his single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), who can’t handle him—no one could.

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