Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: "Flag Day"


What a small, lovely and exquisitely human film.

Most people will go into "Flag Day" knowing that it was directed by Sean Penn, who stars alongside his own kid, Dylan Penn, as they play a real-life father and daughter with a fraught relationship. Penn's son, Hopper, also appears in a smaller role playing the son. You don't often see parent-child acting combinations in movies, but when you do ("On Golden Pond") they tend to be indelible. 

This one certainly is.

When I say the movie is small, that is not meant as diminishment. Little movies can often have the biggest impacts. By small I mean it doesn't look or feel like a big Hollywooded-up production. 

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Review: "Together"


At first, "Together" has an undeniably sitcom-y feel. James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan play a couple who experience the COVID pandemic over the course of a year, addressing the camera directly a la Ferris Bueller.

The first interlude, days after the March 2020 shutdown, is ferocious and funny. They talk, laughingly but seriously, about how much they hate each other. They're PO'd that the coronavirus has pushed back their plans to split up. I was thinking, are director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliott") and screenwriter Dennis Kelly really going to use the worldwide devastation of COVID for snickering laughs?

But, no. The film soon grows deeper, more serious and richer. 

We visit them again in late spring, then summer, then winter, finally arriving full circle in March of this year. Things change, outwardly and inwardly. His hair grows longer and a bit grayer, finally ending up in a manbun. She cycles through waves of emotion, actually reaching a place of calmness and relative happiness before anger rolls in like an inevitable tide.

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Monday, August 23, 2021

Reeling Backward: "A Place in the Sun" (1951)


"A Place in the Sun" was a sensation when it came out in 1951, though its place among the cinematic greats has faded considerably. This, despite the fact it won the first Golden Globe for best picture. And it took six Oscars including director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and musical score, beating out "A Streetcar Named Desire" in all five categories.

I think most modern observers would call those prizes sorely misplaced.

It stars a powerhouse cast of Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in a tragic love triangle based on Hoosier author Theodore Dreiser's book, "An American Tragedy" (unread by me), later turned into a play and then this movie, script by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown. Clift plays the poor nephew of a women's clothing magnate who is invited into a world of privilege, falls for a wealthy socialite but is conflicted after impregnating a female coworker.

There is very much a "The Great Gatsby" feel to the story, and the indeed this novel came out a few months after F. Scott Fitzgerald's in 1925. Though the film is set in contemporaneous times instead of the Roaring Twenties, much is made about the contrast between the wealthy and the poor, the perceived nobility of the privileged and the venality of the common folk. 

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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Review: "Cryptozoo"


"Cryptozoo" feels like a throwback to the late 1970s or early '80s -- an animated movie that is very much adult in tone and content, presenting a story that is both fanciful and cutting. There's lots of violence and nudity, though leavened with an environmental/moral message, making the whole enterprise seem like a more enlightened version of "Heavy Metal."

The story, set in the late 1960s, is about the world hiding multitudes of cryptids, or mythological creatures, that various factions of humanity want to exploit or help. Some of the cryptids are dangerous and beastly, others very human-like and intelligent. They're constantly in danger of being discovered, captured and sold into servitude.

There are mammoth scorpions, tiny imp-like critters, a South American snake as big as a skyscraper, figures with no head but a face on their torso, unicorns, pegasi, dragons and cryptids that are just dancing balls of light.

The film features voices by some name actors including Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Zoe Kazan and Peter Stormare. Written and directed by Dash Shaw, it features an animation team led by Jane Samborski. At first glance, the animation (largely hand-drawn, I believe) may seem to lack the sharpness and polish of what we've become used to, possibly even bordering an amateurish.

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Review: "Searching for Mr. Rugoff"


They say you have to be at least a little bit crazy to go into showbiz, and that's just for the people who appear on camera or on the stage. The background business of producers, agents, dealers and executives has its own special flavor of loony. But as with the talent, sometimes there is genius in extreme personalities and odd-thinkers, as explored in the terrific new documentary, "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."

No doubt you haven't heard of Donald Rugoff; I certainly hadn't. He was the son of movie theater chain owner who inherited the biz when he was just 26, including a bunch of prime spots on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He got into the distribution side so he could fill his screens with movies nobody could see anywhere else, especially foreign films, edgy indie flicks and documentaries.

Rugoff traveled the globe, meeting with directors like Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut and Lina Wertmüller, championing their work and helping usher in the mainstreaming of non-Hollywood fare in the 1960s and '70s. It's fair to say he changed the course of cinema, or at least the way it is experienced in America.

Today he's virtually anonymous, without even a Wikipedia entry to his name. One of his employees, Ira Deutchman, who worked in the marketing and distributing of movies himself before becoming a producer, directs his first film at age 68 to tell the story of his former boss, with the search for Rugoff's forgotten grave as his root quest.

The documentary is part paean, part indictment of the man himself, but mostly an appreciation of eclectic filmmaking and the behind-the-scenes people like Don Rugoff who made it viable.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Review: "Queen of the Beach"



"Queen of the Beach" is the story of Shilpa Poojar, a poor girl who peddles her trinkets, clothes and other wares at Anjuna Beach, an out-of-the-way tourist locale on the west coast of India. The documentary follows her progress over the course of nearly a decade, starting at age 8, though she has worked there since she was 5. 

There are millions of child laborers just like her. Though we talk about India as a growing economic powerhouse (or polluter), the truth is much of it still exists as a third-world country. At Shilpa's home village there is only intermittent electricity and they fetch water from the central fountain.

If Shilpa were a Golden Age Hollywood starlet, a producer would describe her as having "presence." Even meeting her as a skinny tyke, she is a bouncing ball of energy and charisma. She speaks English quite well -- along with smatterings of Russian, German, Japanese and other languages used by her customers. She has never been to school, and dreams of learning to read and write.

Over the years we watch her accomplishments and setbacks, see how she is held down by having to support her family -- even as her father and brother (the only child who was schooled) do not work. Her dream of an education seems to fly further and further away. 

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QUEEN OF THE BEACH | TRAILER 1 from Cleetche on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: "Curiosa"


I don’t mind saying that I prefer American films to those from overseas. Saying this risks one being labeled a philistine, but the truth is that you can appreciate foreign cinema while syncing most closely with films that originate from your own culture.

But I’m also not afraid to say that there are certain things other nations’ filmmakers seem to be better at than us. The British do period costume dramas best. Ditto for martial arts films from Japan, Korea and China. And nobody consistently makes such unabashedly erotic movies as France.

(Though the Spaniards have spent the last quarter-century trying to catch up.)

“Curiosa” seems almost an oddity in our increasingly repressed age. Though it’s told from a feminine perspective, and directed and co-written by a woman, Lou Jeunet, it takes unapologetic pleasure in gazing at beautiful female bodies (with not a little male parts too). It’s a story about love and sex, how they intertwine and how they sometimes do not, and the pain and enjoy that derive from them.

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Cul-de-sac" (1966)


"Cul-de-sac" was Roman Polanski's third feature film after the international attention of "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," both centering on twisted depictions of sexual desire and identity -- themes that would come to mark his entire career (and personal life). So of course he returned to familiar ground with this sun-drenched tale about an encounter between criminals and an effete British man and his libertine French wife.

This film has been sometimes described as a comedy, which I guess would fit if you add the "pitch black" descriptor. Absurdist might be more apt, as it's a look at two polar opposites of manhood with a sexually powerful woman in the middle of the sandwich. 

Languid and indulgent, it's drenched in irony and pathos, earnestness and parody. Narratively and thematically it's so similar to "Straw Dogs" that I wonder if it, or at least the 1969 novel it was based on, was copped from Polanski's picture.

Coming at a time when foreign art films were taken more seriously than American mainstream ones, people usually approach movies like this primarily with the impetus of interpretation -- aka, "what does it all mean?" I'm not sure how intently Polanski or any filmmaker thinks about how their work will be written about in film journals and academic circles years down the road. 

I tend to eschew this sort of film criticism because it is so spectacularly subjective. The writer doesn't want to talk to you about the movie, they want to talk about themselves -- and, frankly, most critics (me included) aren't really interesting enough to do that past barest brevity.

The story is rather simple and straightforward. Two criminals wounded from some unspecified heist gone wrong stumble across a retired English chap and his much younger wife living in a tidal island castle. Cut off from land by the rising waters, there is a standoff that grows increasingly intense while the beefy gangster physically and emotionally intimidates the couple until violence inevitably erupts.

Using a more squarish aspect ratio in rich black-and-white, Polanski repeatedly frames the actors to accentuate the difference in physique between George, the husband played by Donald Pleasence, and Lionel Stander's hulking Dickie. 

Pleasence, usually remembered for a rather stout appearance, is shriveled down to almost nothing. With his shaved head and spectacles, George rather resembles a puny bird freshly hatched from the egg, all awkward limbs and big, pleading eyes. Dickie towers over him with wild, mangy hair and wears a sport coat with no shirt on underneath, looking like a lamed gorilla with his right hand tied up in an ad hoc sling.

How he got this wound is never revealed. We first meet him pushing a broken-down stolen car along the beachside causeway with his partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), laid up in the front seat all shot up in the belly. We intuitively grasp that Dickie is the muscle and Albie is the brains of the outfit. There's actually a strong resemblance between Albie and George, so perhaps Dickie's later antagonism is tied to seeing them as little twerps who boss guys like him around.

Dickie leaves Albie in the car to go get help, not realizing the rising tide will flood the causeway and cut them off from the mainland. Along the way to the castle, the only structure around, he spies George's lithesome blonde wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléa), cavorting on the beach semi-nude with a young neighbor, Christopher (Iain Quarrier), presumably after a bout of lovemaking.

Dickie hides out in the barn, slurping raw eggs from Teresa's astonishingly large flock of chickens, until Christopher and his parents leave by boat. That night he sneaks into the house and calls his boss, Katelbach, to send help to pick them up. 

The film was shot at Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland, a real place that is named in the movie, though it is given a fictional backstory as the place where Sir Walter Scott wrote "Rob Roy."

It's interesting how casual Dickie is about his invasion. He just sort of shows up in their kitchen, assuming that George and Teresa will follow his orders after vague threats of violence, which is exactly what they do. 

Throughout the next night and day, Teresa constantly berates George for not standing up to Dickie -- even when she claims, falsely, that he made sexual advances on her. For his part Dickie seems repulsed by women in general and Teresa in particular, even though she flaunts her nude body to him on several occasions.

Part of George's emasculation is quite literal. Right before they came downstairs and found Dickie, Teresa was playfully dressing George up in one of her nightgowns when he couldn't find his pajama shirt, followed by crudely drawing on eye makeup and lipstick, plus a wig. In his haste at hearing a noise downstairs he doesn't remove these accoutrements, so Dickie and Albie, eventually rescued from the nearly flooded car, assume he is "queer."

His initial embarrassment is understandable, though as time went on I found his cowardice in the face of Dickie straining credulity. We learn that George was an officer in WWII, though he later apologetically qualifies that he was "in tanks" -- as if somehow tank officers don't go through basic training including hand-to-hand combat.

Plus, other than his size Dickie is really not that impressive a physical specimen. Stander was nearly 60 years old when the movie was made, and moves about with all the physical grace of a paunchy man of late middle years whose diet consists of beer and sausages. Plus, Dickie only has the one good meathook.

Albie, for his part, is completely immobilized and soon dies. So it seems any sort of improvised weapon, even the large skillet George uses to make omelettes, could have won the day. Though Dickie is later revealed to have a revolver in his coat pocket and has a Tommy gun in the back seat of his car.

The following morning brings unexpected guests to the castle, an old war compatriot of George's, blowsy Philip (Robert Dorning) and his wife, Marion (Marie Kean), along with their little brat of a son. They also have another couple with them, a somewhat younger man named Cecil (William Franklyn), who Teresa soon sets about furiously flirting with, along with his companion (wife?), who never says a word but is played by Jacqueline Bisset in her first credited screen role.

An interesting dynamic ensues. Teresa pretends that Dickie is their gardener/servant, and takes great delight in ordering him about to tote and cook. Dickie goes along, griping constantly and complaining about his bum arm, and we get a glimpse of what his life was probably like when Albie was alive and ambulatory.

George, who seems to have turned a blind eye to Teresa's sexual proclivities, is annoyed by her attention to another man. He becomes increasingly frustrated with the visitors, finally instigating a row that sends them off in a huff. Notably, he never takes advantage of the opportunity that there are now three able-bodied men to overpower Dickie.

We also learn a little more about George, including that he was a well-to-do factory owner who pitched everything in his old life, including his former wife Agnes, to marry a hot young French lass and live "the life of Riley," puttering around and painting beach portraits. 

Underneath, though, is a wave of pent-up regret and lassitude about his meaningless existence.

When Dickie learns that Katelbach is not coming, he becomes morose and his pent-up hostility toward George and Teresa rises to a boil. Even though they have been completely subservient to him, he resents their snobbery and "not being straight" with him, as he has been with them. 

In Dickie's neanderthal mind, being honest about hurting the couple if they don't obey him is more "straight" than using distraction and deception to escape his clutches.

Teresa, having begged for a display of violence between the two men, cowers and flees when it finally occurs. The woman-as-temptress is a common theme in Polanski's filmography, and it often seems to be mixed with his signature blending of desire and repulsion. We are continually invited to gaze upon Teresa, and she simultaneously harbors enjoyment of this act with contempt for those who partake.

The story ends with Dickie dead, Teresa run off with Cecil, George's car blown up and him perching on a rock over the flooded causeway like a stranded seagull, lamenting for his ex-wife, Agnes. It seems this timid little fellow took too literally the creed that his home is his castle, and found himself unmanned.

Like Polanski's other films, even when it's not that good it's always interesting... if in a twisty, bendy, itches-under-your skin sort of way.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Review: "Annette"

“Annette” is going to be one of those movies that people ardently love and hate… or more likely stubbornly ignore. Sometimes you can just spot ‘em.

Try this description on for size: Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are a world-famous standup comedian and soprano singer, respectively, who fall in love and have a daughter, who is a puppet. Later one of them dies under suspicious circumstances, and the kid is blessed (or cursed) with magical powers. It’s two hours and 20 minutes long, contains some pretty explicit sex, and is directed by a French guy (Leos Carax) you probably haven’t heard of.

Oh, and it’s a musical, with nearly every line of dialogue sung courtesy of tunes from the 70-something brothers who form the eclectic pop band Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael, who are also listed as the screenwriters. (They also briefly appear and sing in the film for the “before the show” number, “So May We Start.”)

At this point, you’re either intrigued or have run out the door. I’ll confine the rest of this review for the former group.

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Review: "Vivo"


Somehow I've gotten this far without being exposed to much of Lin-Manuel Miranda's songwriting. I'm the last person in America who hasn't seen "Hamilton." I had a conflict and reviewed something else than "In the Heights." I don't listen to a lot of radio other than my local NPR station, watch much TV (movies are my game) or pay attention to Broadway.

So "Vivo," the new animated film from Sony debuting on Netflix, is pretty much my first serious exposure to the EGOT-chasing Miranda's musical creations. And, I have to say, I'm not impressed.

I know, I know. Blasphemous. He's a modern master, they say, combining hip-hop rhythms and rap-patter delivery of lyrics with traditional Broadway melodies. 

Maybe "Vivo" is just an off outing for him. Maybe I'm tin-eared. (I am, admittedly, partially deaf, though I can just turn up the volume and think I can judge what I do hear just fine.) But musicals pretty much live or die by the catchiness of the songs, and I only counted one or two that got my toe to briefly tapping. 

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