Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story [2003)

Happy Birthday to Thora Birch, my favorite actress of all time!

Yes, I know…I know.

A film critic whose favorite actress is a young 35-year-old whipper snapper???

Yes.

That’s alright.

Laugh at me.

If the question was, “Who was your favorite classic Hollywood actress?,” then I would answer, “Lauren Bacall”.

But I said favorite actress of all time.

You can search my “Thora” category here on my site for why exactly this actress is my favorite.

Because otherwise, we’re going to be here all day.

And I have a movie to review!

One of my favorites:  Homeless to Harvard.

It is, indeed …The Liz Murray Story, but I will be using the shortened title hereafter for brevity’s sake.

It is my contention (and I have made the point elsewhere…probably on this very site of mine) that Thora Birch produced a trilogy of acting performances which are more-or-less analogous to Bob Dylan’s classic trilogy.

Let’s start with Dylan.

The three (at unity from a similarity of intense expression):

Bringing It All Back Home

Highway 61 Revisited 

and

Blonde on Blonde

And now the Thora films which correspond in my mind:

American Beauty

Ghost World

and

Homeless to Harvard

Sure…Birch didn’t direct these films.

But her acting is so strong, she might as well have.

By this point she was no longer a prodigy.

She was a mature actress.  A master of her craft.

And the story here is one to really sink teeth in.

[In which.]

We recently touched on homelessness here in the review of Alicia Vikander’s stellar turn as Katarina from¬†Till det som √§r vackert.

Pure.

But the esthetics of Homeless to Harvard are different.

This isn’t European arthouse. ¬†It’s a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

But don’t go running anywhere!!!

This is as gritty as any Lou Reed tale.

And it’s all real.

Too pure.

Heroin addict parents.

Mother schizophrenic.

Blindness.

Genetic.

Mother with HIV.

Father with AIDS.

Vice versa ice Ursa.

Father in homeless shelter.

Mother wielding knife.  Vomiting.

Alcoholism.

Really appealing, eh?

But you gotta stick with it.

This isn’t Darren Aronofsky¬†mise-en-sc√®ne.

It’t not, “Let’s win an award at Sundance.” ¬†Or, “Let’s sweep at Cannes.”

It’s more like one of Aesop’s fables.

It’s the message, man!

And so first, let’s honor the director.

Peter Levin.

Who knew a television film could be so artful?

Well, when you combine the history of Histoire(s) du cinéma with the precedent of Twin Peaks, you should know by now that television can produce good stuff.

Hell…

Your TV can even WATCH YOU! (as per WikiLeaks Vault7).

But I digress…

The weeper (no masonry) sob story…had me crying in my Junior Mints…we must attribute to the excellent writing of Ronni Kern.

Who the hell is Ronni Kern?!?

Male?  Female?

I’ve had less trouble finding the gender of completely unknown foreign movie people.

But Kern is pretty invisible on the Internet.

And maybe there’s a point here.

  1. ¬†It doesn’t fucking matter.
  2. You should judge someone on their work, not their gender.

Hopefully Ms. Birch will appreciate this flash of liberalism should she read this review.

[I’m not holding my breath]

But we have just celebrated International Women’s Day.

And the fact that Birch’s character here is a “feminist” is a running pseudo-joke.

Which brings us to the performances.

Michael Riley is stellar, stellar (I know…) as Liz’s father Peter.

Kudos to the styling department.

That beard.  And that hair!

Crazy, man, crazy!!

But Riley’s performance is really special.

It touched my heart.

Long ago.

When I first saw this film.

And dare I say, this movie made me appreciate my own family.

It made me miss my folks.

And so I salute Peter Riley and Lifetime and all involved for that effect on my heart.

Jennifer Pisana is really fabulous as the young Liz Murray here.

It’s an unenviable task.

To precede Thora Birch’s entrance.

But Pisana is indispensable to this little masterpiece.

Those sweaters.

And the full pronunciations…”Mommy”…”Daddy”…

Ms. Pisana affects the necessary na√Įvet√© to be juxtaposed against the sad schizophrenia of Kelly Lynch (who plays Liz’s mom).

And Lynch is great.

Think Cries and Whispers.

[cris et chuchotements…(( (( ((…et chuchotements]

Robert Bockstael does a fine job as Liz’s teacher David.

Very convincing.  Excellent craftsmanship.

Makyla Smith is piquant in her depiction of Liz’s best friend Chris.

[God…the Magic Marker…and the pine box…fuuuuuuck]

Yes, friends…this is Lifetime Television.

So the¬†brisure¬†(bonjour, monsieur Derrida) is “crap”.

“Crap happens.”

Whoa…watch thy mouth, Kelly Lynch!

So again…Peter Levin does a fantastic job shoehorning a true X-file into PG territory.

We see a syringe here and there.  A tourniquet.

Riley cleaning a spoon.

But the real heartbreak is Wheat Chex with tap water.

Yeah…

Hello Gummo.

Ellen Page has a small role here.

And she’s good.

Fine actress.

But we’ve been waiting to roll out the big gun.

Thora Birch.

On this, her birthday, I am only just now getting towards a handful of reviews honoring her unique thespian gift.

What to say?

That every look is magic?

That every glance is gold?

That she has crafted her microexpressions in solitude…and wielded them like an Arthurian sword for the duration of this flick?

Yes, yes, and yes.

[and an Oxford comma]

Because kids take it for granted.

Rich kids.

Harvard.

Penn.

Princeton.

Maybe…

But even more so the lesser ivied walls.

I won’t name names.

But the spoiled kids.

Not turning in homework.

Bragging about shortcuts.

Those, ultimately, will be life’s losers.

But Liz Murray worked her butt off to get into Harvard.

From sleeping on the B Train.

Four years of high school in two.

And Thora Birch has worked her butt off too.

She hasn’t gotten the roles her talent deserves.

But the roles she has gotten, she has largely smashed out of the park.

Like the Babe Ruth of leading ladies.

And so there are other actresses I admire.

But Thora Birch was the first.

The first to give me that magical feeling which only Neil Young has adequately described:

“I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand”.

Happy Birthday, Thora Birch!

And may all your days and films be filled with the joy which you have put into the world through your cinematic brilliance.

-PD

Rozmarné léto [1968)

I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass.

This one starts out slowly.

Too long at the first location.

The river bathhouse.

The dread of boredom begins to creep in.

No girl.  No gun.

Until Jana Preissov√° makes her first appearance.

It was unbearable.

A rainy summer.

Every day the same as the last.

In a small town.

A closed circle.

But like Fellini, the circus comes to town.

Thank God for the circus.

Cotton candy.¬† ōīōĻōĪ ōßŔĄō®ŔÜōßō™

Is it girl’s hair?¬† Pink.¬† A one-piece pajama.

Or a pig.

It is like the sweet words of the beautiful Haneen Elhaj in Bethlehem.

Girl’s hair.

Running on the electricity of a car battery.

Spinning sugary magic.

Sandy stone (when the mirror of translate is turned upon itself).

We want to know literally what Heidegger Derrida was talking about.

And so it only took director JiŇô√≠ Menzel two years to lose his voice.

It was perfection in ’66.

OstŇôe sledovan√© vlaky.

That is the cynical view.

But we must realize that Menzel was literally walking a tightrope.

It’s not funny.

It’s not engaging.

It’s slow.

It’s effective.

By the end you see that Fellini is the right reference.

Capricious Summer (our film) bridges the gap between the antics of La Strada and the lovable freak show of local color that would be Amarcord (1973).

But this was 1968.

A very serious year.

The Czech and Slovak (respectively) socialist republics came into being the following year.

We know the legend.

Mai ’68.

All hell broke luce.

Even Cannes was cancelled.

[Cannescelled]

But what is a film festival compared to an invasion?

Before our Capricious Summer was the Prague Spring of 1968.

Lasting well into the summer.

And blooming well before winter had ended.

January 5 – August 21.

Then the invasion.  The Warsaw Pact countries.

Operation Danube.

Romania (and Albania), to their credit, refused to participate.

108 Czechoslovak civilians killed.

Liberalization.  Decentralization.  Democratization.

Like the beautiful Anna.  Fleeting.

Because the circus always has to pack up and leave town.

Our film.

Released May 24.  During the Prague Spring.

PraŇĺsk√© jaro (or jar).

Czech.  Slovak.

The only difference between my bank balance and Bill Gates’.

More zeros at the end.

Infinitely more.

Later these “Springs” would become manufactured (if they weren’t already).

Libya…

We all know about color revolutions…but the Czechs would have a textured revolution in 1989.

From velvet…we could have had the corduroy revolution (ribbed, for her pleasure), silk revolution, cotton (the revolution of our lives)…etc.

The “nonviolent” Prague Spring resulted in the deaths of 96 Soviet soldiers.

84 of them by “accident” (friendly fire?)

and the accidental/”suicide” deaths of 10 Poles.

Apparently none of the Poles died conventionally.

At least the two Bulgar soldiers killed perished from intent.

The four Hungarians all slipped on banana peels in front of ҆kodas.

This is the tone.

Lola Montès.

Plucking the feathers from chickens.

The chubby wife returns.

Drench the nubile.

Menzel, then, was many months ahead.

Knowing that summer would really begin when autumn usually fell.

Another 20 years before the circus returned.

 

-PD

Twin Peaks “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” [1990)

By way of progressing my survey of David Lynch’s masterpiece television series, I would like to direct your attention to a film which I will likely not review in the normal sense.

That film is The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

There’s some rubbish about POM Wonderful which officially fills out the title.

I wouldn’t be a Jewish mother if I didn’t worry about such stuff.

David Lynch was right to introduce Michael J. Anderson 11 years before MJA’s portrayal of Larry Silverstein premiered at Cannes.

The whole thing came to me in a dream.

The collapse of the stritch and manzello.

In a dream I saw the bright shining genius of Morgan Spurlock.

The birth of Chomsky and Nader.

Putting a word to beauty:  Mädchen Amick.

Miss or missy.  Little maid.

Mademoiselle.

In dreams wiped clean like S√£o Paulo.

Or Tibet.

Martin Lindstrom is following closely the amygdala.

60 feet and 6 inches from a damn good cup of coffee.

Mark Crispin Miller rightly brings up “the spectacle” (I SEE you…).

Miguel Ferrer is a perfect Rosenfield.

No one uses Mane ‘n Tail on queer street.

It’s hard to pin down further.

Brilliance and brilliances.

Courage to be clever.

A place to fit within the business world.

The disruptive innovation of two auteurs.

Spurlock and Lynch.

Fact and fiction or faction.

Slice of life and life of slices.

Sad for what we’ve lost.¬† And hopeful for what we’ll gain.

Hard work.  Optimism.  Artistic integrity.

Marketing is no less surreal than a Shetland pony speaking through backmasking (and subtitles).

A kiss from Sheryl Lee.

Perhaps there is no other way to convey the savant fullness of Kyle MacLachlan than through such an oblique strategy.

 

-PD

 

 

I fidanzati [1963)

This is a fucking depressing film.

I don’t think I’ve ever started like that before.

Because it matters.  How you start.

But maybe it’s just a mirror.

This film.

I can imagine few pieces of cinema summing up my life at this moment quite as well as I fidanzati does.

I’m sure there’s a dangling modifier in there somewhere.

But what about the welder?

The man adrift.

Sent to some godforsaken place for the company.

I made the right decision.  But I went to the wrong place.

Unfortunately, there is no separating the two.

Work.

Too much work.

All of our thoughts occupied with work.

And what do we get out of the equation?

Nothing.

Almost nothing.

Might as well be nothing.

It is a particularly Italian version of hell on display in I fidanzati.

Ermanno Olmi was a brilliant director here.

And he lives.  84 years young.

Sure.

Some things end well.

Young girls like happy endings.

But this one is hard to get over.

It’s really harrowing having nothing to live for.

And how would I know that?

You have a phone.¬† It doesn’t ring.

In fact, you sometimes wonder whether your messages get delivered at all.

You have a heart.

When is the last time someone spoke to your heart?

I understand.

We are shackled.  Paralyzed.  Crippled.

Life is sucked out of us like a lemon peel in the Sicilian heat.

No, I don’t understand.

Is this how karma works?

Surely this jungle will spare me.

I can think of Anna Canzi.

Her face is a melody.

And I relate to those sad cheeks.

You keep writing because you haven’t yet expressed it.

It.

That which you need to get off your soul.

Soul.

That living feeling inside you.

Primitive man suffering with his superstitions.

Poor man paying for his ignorance.

Not all are willfully unprepared.

What could have prepared you for this situation?

Other than this situation?

That is Situationism.

Science and humanities will argue that metaphor…or rather analogy.

That this will teach you.

It is like this.  And like that.  But unlike the other thing.

No.

I disagree.

It is unlike anything I’ve ever known.

Youth was lonely.

This is vicious.

There is.

A bar down the street.

But only in the movies.

Yet here it is exposed for what it really would be.

Empty.

Loud music and louder lights.  Life!  Vitality!  Excitement!

Inside is an old woman at a cash register.

There is a little metal display tree with ballpoint pens on one side.

The rest of the lopsided taunt is vacant.

And then the little boy.

Getting ahead in life.

Like Michele Sindona.

Making the espresso.  Quicker!  Faster!

Washing the dishes…

And hauling the fruit back and forth…

The citrus.

The service.

The difference in price from one location to another.

Goldfinger.

They Drive by Night

Good god…

It doesn’t get much more depressing.

And there should be some positive message to end it off.

And there is.

Which makes it even more sad.

Because the film was running long.

And maybe it won’t win shit at Cannes.

Did you ever think about that?

So then you have a depressing film on your hands for domestic audiences.

And they spend their hard-earned cash.

And what the fuck is this shit?

Oh…Anna, Monica…don’t go see this film.

It is so depressing!

But there’s the answer.

I fidanzati succeeds because it shows a side of life we don’t want to see.

What?

It succeeds…53 years later.

Because it was true.

It stuck to its guns.

It was meaningful.

So many other films from that year…

Utterly pointless.

Diversions.

Sad candy.

But here…

Yeah.¬† It’s a bummer.

But it’s real.

You can stare up at it and wonder how Signor Olmi painted such color in black and white.

How he lovingly distinguished gray from grey…and Juan from Gris.

Is it the same?

From language to language?

Gray?

Even within the Commonwealth…

We damned Americans.

No.

And yes.

This.

Sadness transcends.

No explanation needed.

The machines rule us.

Time is our master.

Money mocks our fragility.

On every continent.

An indispensable story.

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 15 [1976)

Starring Jill Clayburgh!!!  Who???

Yeah, kinda like the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial (?) High School.

This is one of those episodes which reminds me that I know a lot more about music than I do about anything else.

Leon Redbone I knew.¬† Had a record of his as a kid.¬† The one with “Sheik of Araby” on it.

But back to Jill Clayburgh.

Twice nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.¬† Ok, see…this brings up my claim to be a film critic.

It’s kinda, “Fake it till you make it.”¬† I know I’m not a realll film critic, but I take pride in what I do.¬† I’m an amateur.¬† It’s a passion.¬† I’m always seeking to learn.

Well, here’s a great opportunity.

The two films for which she got an Oscar nod?¬† An Unmarried Woman (this goes back to the play on words I was discussing in an earlier piece…the French word for woman [femme] being the same as the French word for wife [femme]…hence the wordplay of Godard’s Une Femme est une femme [not to mention Une Femme mari√©e]) and Starting Over.

Please excuse the momentous interpolation.

That is, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over.  Those career highlights were ahead of Ms. Clayburgh when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976.

The auteurs in question were, respectively, Paul Mazursky and Alan J. Pakula (the latter having a surname which is, perhaps, the only conceivable rhyme with Dracula [not counting Blacula]).

Ok, so…apparently this is going to take a lot of parentheses and brackets.

For all of you conspiracy theorists (I usually fall into that category), Clayburgh starred in a 1970 Broadway musical about the Rothschilds (!) called, appropriately, The Rothschilds.  The libretto was by Sherman Yellen.  No easibly-identified relation to Janet.

The end of 1976 would see her in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

One further C.V. note:  Clayburgh won (in a tie with Isabelle Huppert) Best Actress at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman.

Ok, so that’s who she is.¬† A charming lady.¬† I had no idea who she was.¬† I’m an idiot ūüôā

Sadly, Ms. Clayburgh passed away in 2010 after a 20-year battle with leukemia.

Well, she was pretty great in this episode!¬† And I must say…SNL once again reached a new height in intelligent writing with this installment.

One really senses that the writers were toying with the censors.¬† It was dangerous.¬† It’s impressively counterculture.

One of the funniest skits is Clayburgh as guidance counselor Jill Carson (a fictional personage).¬† She is the overly-optimistic crusader for social justice.¬† It is quite a complex, multi-staged piece.¬† John Belushi plays a delinquent whom Carson (Clayburgh) is attempting to rescue from “squalor”.

The opening sequence of the show, however, really sets the tone for what’s to follow.¬† Chevy Chase shows up in Lorne Michaels’ office insistent that the pratfalls and “newsman” stuff should be retired.¬† Chase’s subsequent weave through the studio audience is really priceless.¬† The comedy is just so damned smart!

Speaking of which, we finally get my hero Andy Kaufman back.¬† [On the hero worship scale he’s nowhere approaching Jean-Luc Godard (for me), but he’s definitely the comedic actor who (along with Peter Sellers) most got into my head.]

Well, Kaufman here does another lip-sync piece with immaculately-memorized dialogue.¬† The song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the special part is Andy in a cowboy hat directing the traffic of four audience participants.¬† It is a sweet piece, and yet it still shows off Andy’s genius as resplendent and unique.

Leon Redbone is really fantastic in his two songs…particularly the first (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) where he conjures the “me and the radio” loneliness at the heart of a usually-raucous song.

One of the weirdest sequences is a visit by The Idlers (a singing group of the United States Coast Guard Academy).¬† The show’s producer (Michaels) and writers take the opportunity to remind the viewing audience that dolphins are definitely smarter than The Warren Commission.¬† No doubt!

It’s a strange, bold sequence.¬† Chase’s Weekend Update is similarly racy (particularly the bit about the Mattel anatomically-correct male dolls…in white and black…the former $6 and the latter $26.95 or something).¬† Good god…

Most necessary was the political prodding.¬† Michaels begins the show with a photo of Nixon on his desk.¬† By Weekend Update, it is the People’s Republic of China which is pardoning Nixon for Watergate (and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, of course).

But I must admit my ignorance once again.¬† I had no idea Gary Weis’ (sp?) film featured William Wegman (!)…¬† The dog should have given it away.¬† Duh!

Well, anyway…thanks to Wikipedia for a generally informative blurb about this episode (though I have expanded upon that information quite a bit).

The running series Great Moments In Herstory punctuate this episode at various intervals.¬† Particularly risqu√© is the Sigmund Freud (Dan Aykroyd) and daughter Anna (Laraine Newman) dream interpretation featuring a titillating banana.¬† A later episode highlights Indira Gandhi and father Jawaharlal Nehru.¬† It is a bit of a clunker…

Walter Williams’ famous Mr. Bill debuted on this episode as part of the solicited home movies from viewers.¬† Williams and Mr. Bill would become a significant part of the show in the coming years.

Once again, this episode is not to be missed.  It was an essential step for a show on the rise.

 

-PD

 

 

 

Charlie Bartlett [2007)

There is a battle on between history and life.¬† And one of those battlegrounds is at the movies.¬† It is a storied fight between the little punk shit Bob Dylan and bearded, august Johannes Brahms.¬† 1955 brought us Rebel Without a Cause which displayed what is truly at issue.¬† Can a piece of art (an artifact) speak to teenagers and still be timeless?¬† The history of cinema has proven the answer to be a resounding “yes.”

Nicholas Ray was one of the directors most admired by the French New Wave…particularly by Jean-Luc Godard.¬† Wim Wenders would celebrate the brave auteur as he passed from one world to the next in Lightening Over Water (1980).¬† But what is most enduring is the spirit Ray and other prescient filmmakers evinced–that spirit which lived on in John Hughes’ cult film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

That brings me to the film in question.¬† When I first saw Charlie Bartlett I had a pretty unspectacular life.¬† I had just seen Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and fallen in love with Kat Dennings.¬† I had to see more.¬† I even went so far as to buy The House Bunny as a new release…just to get a few more minutes of this enigmatic actress.¬† Now that I have blown whatever street cred I had remaining as a film critic, I might as well fess up to having done a similar thing when I fell in love with Thora Birch after seeing Ghost World.¬† Yes, I forked out to buy Dungeons & Dragons (2000) on VHS.¬† Yikes!

When I first saw Charlie Bartlett, the teenage drama-comedy genre conventions struck me as mostly trite and hackneyed.¬† In a word:¬† hollow.¬† But my reappraisal of this film couldn’t be more different from my first impression.

The world of art films tends to speak its own cinematic language on screen.¬† At times, the overly-precious, self-conscious products come off as caricatures of better films.¬† In Ghost World, a classic awaiting its proper place in film history, Terry Zwigoff perfectly frames this empty art film posturing by referring to a nonexistent picture called The Flower That Drank the Moon.¬† It sums up the disconnect between the world of Cannes and the world at large.¬† Want to see Godard’s new film Adieu au langage at your local movie theater?¬† Good luck!

And so my assertion is this:¬† Charlie Bartlett is a masterpiece.¬† Is it as good as Ghost World?¬† No.¬† Is it as good as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?¬† Not to these eyes.¬† But is it a classic which got swept¬†unjustly into DVD cut-out bins?¬† Yes.¬† And here’s why.

Jon Poll kept a million pieces in balance.  His direction, while not perfect, should be commended with the highest accolades.  The screenplay by Gustin Nash goes a long way towards giving this film in a daunting genre a chance at being timeless.  The fact that the movie grossed just under half of its budget (a $6 million loss) should be welcomed by MGM as a blessing.  This film will be reborn in the history yet to be written.

Hope Davis gives a nuanced, touching performance as Charlie’s mother.¬† Anton Yelchin, as Charlie, is beyond fantastic.¬† It is a performance which requires multiple viewings to appreciate.¬† Robert Downey, Jr. gives a¬†real piece of his soul to this film which was unjustly overlooked by the world.¬† Tyler Hilton manages to channel Adam Baldwin from another criminally underrated flick My Bodyguard (which just happened to feature Joan Cusack’s first substantive role).

Kat Dennings is remarkably good at such a young age.  She manages to cheer the hearts of all of us who perhaps identify a little too much with Kip Crombwell (Mark Rendall).  Rendall is shockingly adept in his miniscule role.

Perhaps the funniest aspect of this review is that I am clinging lustily to a piece of nicotine gum as I write this.¬† That’s just how life works.¬† Though it only figures into Charlie Bartlett as a mini-MacGuffin, it sets up a pivotal scene.¬† But nothing measures up to Downey and Yelchin by the poolside.¬† What to do when life has gone to shit…¬† A single father losing his teenage daughter…¬† The overtones are almost right out of Knut Hamsun (though the subject matter be unrecognizably morphed).

Substance abuse is at the forefront of this film, yet it is alcohol which finally precipitates a climax.¬† The emotional lift is brought via Dennings singing a song in the school play.¬† It is delicate and honest.¬† We have been made to relate to Downey’s struggle to find himself.¬† He just wasn’t cut out to play “bad cop.”¬† And that is the overarching crux:¬† the bad cop (Downey) jealous of the good cop (Charlie).¬† The wrong career can destroy you…and it does so from the inside out.¬† It’s not worth the extra money.

But the most important role (and element) of this entire film?¬† Dylan Taylor as Len Arbuckle.¬† You see, Charlie rides the short bus to school.¬† Bartlett is seemingly oblivious to the differences between the mentally and physically challenged and himself.¬† Peas and carrots.¬† Charlie Bartlett has a good heart…and an angel notices.

-PD

To Catch A Thief [1955)

The first time I saw To Catch A Thief I was not overly impressed.¬† Seemed like simply a 106 minute postcard, but oh how wrong I was.¬† This is another Hitchcock masterpiece and, if not Vertigo-caliber, it should at least be considered in the same league as Alfred’s own excellent remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The whole gang’s here…¬† Cinematography by Robert Burks, editing by George Tomasini, music by…ok, not the whole gang…but most of them.

Grace Kelly is simply stunning.¬† When she first kisses Cary Grant, it is almost a heart-stopping moment–bursting with elegant sexuality.¬† Grant, for his part, was never better for Hitchcock (outside of North by Northwest).¬† And if the colors of mourning (to paraphrase Godard) made Notorious (1946) a less-than-vivid depiction of Rio de Janeiro, all sins are forgiven in this VistaVision take (breathtaking) on the French Riviera.¬† I can’t let those poseurs at Cannes have all the fun this week ūüôā¬† I am home studying.¬† This is your dossier.¬† And there was only one film worth seeing this year anyway:¬† Adieu au langage.

Brigitte Auber gives a nice performance as the snotty enfant terrible and, though she herself is a pretty sight, Grace Kelly never looked better on film than in the “fireworks and diamonds” section of our film. ¬†Indeed, Hitch knew the power of the Kuleshov effect as well as anyone and the cinematic intercutting of this scene places him with the greats of film editing like Eisenstein (though let’s not forget Tomasini…the credited editor).

Perhaps there is no stronger tie among Hitchcock films to la Nouvelle Vague than this panoramic view dans le Midi–especially to Truffaut (considering his book on Hitchcock…though it didn’t appear till 1967).¬† The fact that this¬†film contains so much spoken French (sans subtitles) makes it unique in the director’s canon.¬† Grace Kelly herself would marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco not but eight months after the premiere and retire from filmmaking in her new role as the Mon√©gasque Princess Grace.

Edith Head’s costumes were never more perfectly worn than by Miss Kelly (especially the white gown against her honeyed skin in the fireworks scene).

Most of all, this film should be considered among the essential Hitchcock along with the three perfect films (Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest) [not forgetting the parallel perfection of Psycho].¬† Most, if not all, the secrets of filmmaking are contained in the work of cinema’s Beethoven:¬† Alfred Hitchcock.

 

-PD