Is irony a saving grace? Jon Stewart surely thinks so. He uses irony to channel his clear-eyed political fury on The Daily Show, and he’s directed a feature film that suggests irony is the only thing standing between us and madness. Rosewater is the reason Stewart disappeared from his late-night gig in the summer of 2013: He was in Jordan, directing a true story that has a stranger-than-fiction connection to The Daily Show. The movie is about the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, played by Mexican star Gael García Bernal. In 2009 Bahari was arrested by Iranian authorities while covering the disputed elections in Tehran; included in the “evidence” against him was a Daily Show segment in which he joked with comedian Jason Jones about being a spy. Obviously, this was proof of espionage.
It is easier to deny God than Hollywood—just ask Stephen Hawking. Everybody’s favorite theoretical physicist now has a biopic devoted to his singular life; not surprisingly, it concentrates less on the information-paradox problem in black holes than on the love life of a man stricken with a debilitating illness.
The Theory of Everything opens with Hawking (played by Les Miz star Eddie Redmayne) as a young nerd at university, where his geeky manner doesn’t entirely derail his ability to woo future wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) or impress supervisor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis).
Frontier spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has known the man for about 24 hours, and only now asks his name. Sociability’s got nothing to do with it; she needs his moniker for a financial transaction. He thinks for a moment, and squints at her: “Let’s say George.” “George what?” Another moment for thought. “Briggs.” After saying the word, he seems to consider it for another moment, and likes it fine. He says “George Briggs” a couple more times, laughing and pronouncing it with a singsong lilt, as though charmed by the jig-like cheerfulness of the words.
It’s a signature beat for Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Briggs and who also directed, produced, and co-scripted The Homesman. Briggs has reason to be amused; just before Miss Cuddy found him, he’d been blasted with dynamite (for claim-jumping another man’s homestead) and left to die on the back of a horse, the rope around his neck tied to a tree branch above him.
Videophiled: Monty Python’s Swan Song (or, if you prefer, Dead Parrot) and Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’
Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time the entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.
The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.
This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.
There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.
Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.
It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.
Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.
Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.
Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.
[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?
-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose
Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.
-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest
It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
The first splotch of color in Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love occurs somewhere around the end of World War Two. It is not simply a matter of suddenly switching to color stock and letting the cameras roll; instead, the scene is calculated as an eye-catching gesture that begins by looking at a military parade out in a street and then pulling back into a room where two of the characters are making love—a room with a remarkably blue wall and some very conscious lighting effects that nudge us towards an awareness of the scene’s stylized appearance. It’s perhaps the most subtle instance of life and movie intermingling in the film, and it’s so nice because it uses the medium of filmmaking to illustrate the transparent regions of style and artificiality wherein movies must become about themselves as well as about the various and sundry people and events that go to make up the story we’re watching. As for the more explicitly self-inspecting aspects of movies-in-movies, and of And Now My Love—well, cameras staring at cameras seem to hold some fascination for even the most casually infected cinemagoer.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
They were smart to change the title from The Ten-Second Jailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange.
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“If you men only knew.” Adam Nayman defends the films of Stanley Kubrick from charges of misogyny by pointing out these aren’t films about women ruining things, but of “male self-absorption, and its dire consequences.” Via Mubi.
Kalefa Sanneh’s profile of Chris Rock does a good job explaining movie stardom by counter-example, as pretty much everyone’s choice for our greatest stand-up comedian explicitly acknowledges his lack of impact on the screen and the changes—in attitude and performance—he’s taken to rectify that. Step one being listening to Scott Rudin’s advice.
“The climactic shot of Trafic—people with umbrellas crossing a car park—is epic and beautiful and somehow funny, but if you try to pinpoint the source of amusement, you end up with something meaningless like “Everybody’s walking in straight lines.”” Criterion presents another fine essay on Tati, as David Cairns analyses the structural importance of gags in his films, and Tati’s delight in avoiding their expected payoff.
Everybody in Interstellar keeps talking about Gargantua, a massive black hole that must be delicately negotiated during space travel. Christopher Nolan’s movie is similarly scaled: This 168-minute epic contains vast sights and wild images, and exerts a heavy gravitational pull. At its center are some basic, reliable sci-fi ideas. They’re just intriguing enough to justify the film’s poky sequences, but in Nolan’s universe this one falls shy of the ingenious spectacle of The Dark Knight and Inception.
The very slow opening reels introduce us to Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now involved in Earth’s last-ditch effort to grow crops. The future is starving to death, but Coop has a shot at saving the day when he’s called back into astro-service for a do-or-die mission.
Paris was not destroyed by the retreating Germans during World War II, so the outcome of Diplomacy is not in question. That is, unless some Inglourious Basterds–style historical embroidery were to break out. But director Volker Schlöndorff is no Quentin Tarantino, and Diplomacy plays as a minimalist dialogue on the nature of ethics and responsibility. Most of it takes place in a room at the Hotel Meurice in August 1944, the headquarters of General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup). Von Choltitz has been military governor here for less than a month; with the Allies already pounding at the outskirts of town, he’s doomed to eventually surrender the city. But Hitler has charged him with destroying the riches of Paris—bridges, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower—before capitulation.
“You have to be crazy to do this,” according to—oh, let’s face it, this could have been said by anybody in this movie. On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter is crammed with people who ride motorcycles too fast: These vehicles travel across flat tracks, dirt roads, and sometimes the air, with alarming amounts of space between bike and ground. The documentary world is full of thrilling sports videos, but few have the authentic life-and-death stakes of high speed on two wheels.
The movie’s distinguished pedigree sets it apart, too. Its title reminds us of the hit 1971 doc On Any Sunday, a classic from The Endless Summer director Bruce Brown. His son Dana, who also specializes in surf-’n’-dirt movies (Step Into Liquid among the former), directs and narrates this one.
[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]
Bite the Bullet will be easy for some people to underrate and easy for others to overrate—which evens out to saying it’s a pretty good movie. Richard Brooks has hardly specialized in Westerns, but those he’s made are worth remembering: The Last Hunt, an utterly original tale about buffalo hunters, full of pain and cold, and vouchsafing Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger rare opportunities to acquit themselves admirably; and The Professionals, a fat and sassy Mexican-bandido thing that bit off its gritty-romantic conceits too neatly for serious credibility but still yielded a generous portion of thrills, laughs, and shameless glory. Bite the Bullet is built around a 700-mile endurance race sponsored by a newspaper called The Western Press. The reporters and a few high-toned gamblers, promoters, and horse-owners travel by railroad while a satisfyingly diverse band of aspirants and one hired rider—cover the terrain the hard way.
Maleficent (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) does sort of a “Wicked” number on the story of Sleeping Beauty’s evil sorceress, casting her as the tragic figure of a dark fantasy (but not too dark for children—barely) of a revisionist fairy tale. Angelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a fairy who watches over and defends the natural and supernatural wilds from human assault. With her magnificent leathery wings and curled horns, she has the look of a beautiful demon (even her cheekbones are sharpened to an edge that look like they could cut an unwary lover to ribbons) but is at heart an innocent, a primeval force whose emotions are pure and motives without guile. Her betrayal, at the hands of a human (Sharlto Copley) who was once a friend and lover, is an assault so personal and intimate and disfiguring that children can’t help but feel the transgression as a terrible, horrible wrong while adults see it as a form of rape. It is as powerful a dramatic moment you will see in an American film, let alone a mainstream spectacle, and coupled with Jolie’s committed performance (ripples of personality and conflicted emotions, as well as a playful sense of humor, play under even her iciest moments), it gives the film a power beyond the CGIed-to-monotony fantasy designs and magical creatures.
Not to slight Elle Fanning, who plays the princess Aurora as another innocent whose purity gets under Maleficent’s vengeful shell. Fanning has the ability to radiate pure joy and wonder and does so, but Jolie shows us that the potential for love is still within her, merely buried under rage and hatred and vengeance. It is a righteous revenge film, but with a feminist twist and a redemptive journey. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz: “The movie is a mess, but it’s a rich mess. It has weight. It matters.”
The five featurettes are quite brief (the longest, “From Fairy Tale to Feature Film,” runs only eight minutes) and there are five deleted scenes. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Disney Anywhere Digital HD copies.
A Most Wanted Man (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) will stand as the final film completed by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his untimely death in February and that alone is reason enough to see the film, adapted from the post 9/11 novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn, a music video veteran who becomes more accomplished with each feature. Hoffman has the ability to lose himself in his roles and as Günther Bachmann, the leader of covert German intelligence agency that monitors potential terrorist activity, he seems to pare down a performance to give us a man who betrays nothing of what he’s thinking or feeling yet radiates a gentle warmth for his team (made up of superb German actors Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, and Franz Hartwig). All we really know is his loyalty to his country and to his crew, and they return that loyalty in spades.
Perhaps you need to be of a certain generation to get nostalgic over the low-fidelity, awkward, more-fragile-than-it-looks technology of movies on VHS tape. Those little plastic movie bricks storing reels of magnetic tape aren’t just outmoded twentieth-century technology, they’re downright archaic, not to mention fatally impermanent. That’s not to say that DVD is forever, but apart from the fragility of those half-inch ribbons, which get brittle over time and can get creased or crinkled or snapped as they are wound across the spinning drums of the VCR with pincers that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg film, the magnetic seal holding the information recorded on the oxide strip of the tape decays over time. The images will eventually break up, dissolve, evaporate into the ether. In the case of many tapes from the beginning of the video era, they already have.
But as former video store mogul Sam Sherman remarks in the documentary Adjust Your Tracking, “People will collection anything,” and there is tremendous nostalgia associated with VHS tape and video culture it defined from the first “Select-a-Vision” commercial tape releases in 1977 to A History of Violence, the last movie released on VHS by the studios. It’s no exaggeration to say that the videocassette changed our relationship with movies.