Thursday, June 27, 2013

Up in the Cellar

Writer/director Theodore J. Flicker created a choice entry in the annals of satiric cinema, THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST in 1967. It remains one of the sharpest lampoons of bureaucracy I've seen. When I discovered the existence of 1970's UP IN THE CELLAR, I was eager for another devilishly enjoyable observation from the man who would also go on to create the droll sitcom Barney Miller.

I was not (entirely) disappointed. I tried to accept that this newer film would not achieve the heady slapstick of ANALYST by any stretch. Not that Flicker doesn't try......

College student Colin Slade (Wes Stern) is hungry for revenge. As a budding poet lauded for his prose by professor and adoring classmates alike, he becomes a victim of a computer snafu which causes him to lose his financial aid. It's a sort of Kafkaesque scenario that was exploited far more trenchantly in 1985's BRAZIL. Colin's efforts to enlist the help of the school's president (and senatorial hopeful) Maurice Camber, played with brio by Larry Hagman, are met with indifference and hollow words about character building and life lessons.

When Colin returns home in time to see his dorm bulldozed, he finds all that is left is to end it all. A grand opportunity arises - he'll jump from the tower for the new campus radio station during an unveiling ceremony led by Camber - who in a moment born out of narcissism rather than courage or even pity will scale the tower and rescue the young man.

Incensed, Colin formulates an elaborate plan to ruin Camber. He'll seduce the women in the man's life: daughter (Nira Barab), wife (Joan Collins), and secretary/mistress (Judy Pace). Not merely to get laid. In fact, Colin doesn't actually seem all that interested in sex. There are bigger designs. Seduction will prove to be a tricky task, at first, but each woman will be instrumental in Colin's scheme to humiliate the political animal in the making.  This will include the creation of a would-be porno film substituted for a screening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC during Camber's rally for "decency."

Flicker tackles and skewers many social issues/taboos in UP IN THE CELLAR.  The black secretary tells Camber she has trouble making it with a white man; his sexuality is too alien for her to get aroused. The wife is obsessed with astrology. School security guards hover like the gestapo, quick to break up coed kissing.  A student named Arkin recruits Colin to join his "revolutionary" group of neo-Conservatives. Meanwhile, a Black Panther-like group wreaks havoc all over campus.

The results are always amusing, once in a while laugh out loud funny. Calling the movie dated is to state the more than obvious, a compliment, even. And that's probably its real strength. Flicker's laundry list of counterculture America is ticked off systematically: feminism, sexual liberation, civil rights, rebellion, political ambition. The film wanders, outright goes astray at times and is not as consistently on target as ANALYST (the potshots at Ma Bell are especially funny in that one).

But if you enjoy loopy, knowing jabs at the zeitgeist, this movie is worth the trouble on a slow night. It's also great fun to see Hagman and Collins play characters so far removed from their iconic TV roles in the 1980s.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sullivan's Travels

Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS from 1941 can be taken as cinema's ultimate apologetic for the lighthearted comedy film. An acidicly clever essay on how what some deride as a disposable pasttime is pure deliverance and hope for others. Movies, of course, but more specifically the sort that remove you from the real world and make you laugh. Forget who you are. Away from a reality where poverty may weigh beyond tolerance. Where wars are waged. Many viewers are not interested in watching gritty realism in fiction when there is enough in their own existences. True in the 1940s, possibly even more true today.

Joel McCrea plays Hollywood director John L. Sullivan, hot off a run of successful comedic films that the public adores. But he is nagged by the itch to Do More. To make socially probing dramas that will grab moviegoers by their lapels and make them think for once. Something like the (fictional) novel O Brother Where Art Thou. The bosses at the studio are not supportive.

Undaunted, Sullivan decides to do what an actor might describe as Method research, donning rags and joining the huddled masses in the soup kitchens, far from the pristine mansions of Beverly Hills. A sure way to gain a perspective on a ten cent life. But with studio guns watching every move, Sullivan always finds himself back by his sparkling swimming pool, little wisdom gained. During one attempt, Sullivan meets an unnamed young actress (Veronica Lake) who hasn't quite made the big time. She is at first unaware of his identity but soon enough is pushing the big pretender into that outrageous pool, such a perfect symbol of opulence, of what Sullivan is trying to escape in his art (if not his life, in the long term, anyway).

Eventually, Sullivan and his new companion, identified only as "The Girl", experience true immersion in the shoes of the homeless, sleeping in crowded shelters. Now feeling sufficiently seasoned in Skid Row 101, the director finally feels he is ready to tackle a serious picture. But his education is far from over, and "no good deed goes unpunished" will take on quite a new meaning for Sullivan.

It is at that point that SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS tone darkens considerably, scene by scene building toward a climax that is both curious and illuminating. Sturges makes his points so strongly, and not just the obvious ones, of art as salvation - the film's theme. The use of art to portray race relations (and attitudes toward minorities) is also astonishingly deft in his film. Note the early scenes, loaded with conventional slapstick, particularly when a young black man is flailed around inside of a speeding trailer. The later scenes involve a black church congregation that are so lacerating I almost gasped, especially for a film of its time.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS has inspired countless artists over the years. Mel Brooks' LIFE STINKS has some strong plot similarities and certainly you know how the Coen Brothers were influenced.While the viewer may come away with the idea that the make-believe, even the frivolous comedy, may give people hope, even the will to live, there is so much more here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

R.I.P. Tony

Ugh, this one hurts. The world lost another fine actor yesterday. James Gandolfini will forever be remembered for his masterful, utterly natural performance as Tony Soprano on the long running HBO series, but his work in films like TRUE ROMANCE and even trifles like THE MEXICAN and 8MM are worth checking out, too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Mr. Scorsese's latest. Looks pretty wild. Perhaps a return to the sort of brilliant, restless energy of yore? Hopefully.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Study the above image for a few seconds. Does it make you:

a) Stir with excitement, seeing aging stars carrying the gun and kicking ass?

Feel depressed, seeing aging stars carrying the gun and kicking ass?

Sigh in confirmation that that are no good roles for actors over 50 in
Hollywood anymore?

d) Immediately want to close this window and click on The Huffington Post?

On a night not too long ago, I was in the mood for a bit of action and old school wisecracking, something like an 80s Schwarzenneger or Roger Moore 007 flick. 2010's RED put its aging stars front and center in the advertising to entice folks who haven't exactly embraced latter day action stars like Jason Statham and Duane Johnson or the hyperkinetic, migraine inducing spectacles they drive and shoot their way through. Viewers weaned on the original DIE HARD.

Packages like RED featuring actors of a certain age in harm's way are not new. I think on previous pictures like TOUGH GUYS (1987) which featured Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as just sprung from the joint infamous bank robbers who just can't adjust to life in 1980s and fall into their old ways. There was also ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, a throwback to the good old days of blaxploitation, with veterans Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. Both movies had good ideas that fizzled in execution and were mostly disappointments, though they did show that the geezers still had some fire in 'em. The EXPENDABLES films have certainly banked on this.

RED is based on a series of DC Comics, and the movie makes no effort to transcend that. If anything, the film tries too hard to be cartoonish and juvenile. The title is an acronym that refers to main character Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, in good form), a former black ops agent for the CIA, as "RETIRED, EXTREMELY DANGEROUS". We learn this after Moses' file is retrieved from a secret vault managed by none other than Ernest Borgnine. His cameo is there for the really old school action buffs, I assume.

Moses is back in action after a team of assassins invade his quiet suburban home in the middle of the night somewhere in Ohio. It's just as well, as Frank had become a bit zombified in his life of leisure. The only bright spot in his life: his telephone conversations with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, underused) a customer service agent for the company that sends out his pension checks. There's an easy rapport. Frank enjoys their exchanges so much that he rips each check as an excuse to call her to send another. They make vague plans to meet.

Frank successfully dispatches each of the ambush team and hightails it to, yes, Sarah's apartment in Kansas City. She's understandably startled to see him and is skeptical when she's told her life is in danger. Frank kidnaps and drags her from New Orleans to NYC to Pensacola to Chicago and points in between. In pursuit is a relentless young agent named Cooper (Karl Urban) who refers to Moses as "Grandpa", even after the 50+ retiree kicks his butt into the next county in a protracted scene (set to Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle", no less).

In each town, Frank seeks out his old cronies to help discover why he was targeted: his mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), an ex-KGBer Ivan (Brian Cox), ex-Agent and conspiracy nut Marvin (John Malkovich, mugging in nearly every scene), and Victoria (Helen Mirren), another agent who now arranges flowers but still trots out her rifle part time. Richard Dreyfuss also turns up as Dunning, a high-level criminal who provides the answers. It's too tiresome to explain the (albeit not very complicated) plot, honestly, and if you waste too many neurons trying to figure it all out, you've missed the point.

As in other films of this ilk, there comes a moment when the vets complain of how soft the new school is. After a firefight with various agents, Marvin laments, "I remember when the Secret Service were tougher." I guess moments like these are further appeals to the older members of the audience, an attempt to infuse some perspective in the mayhem.

The elements are there for good, dumb, escapist fun, and to some degree it succeeds, but I wish there were less "dumb". The action scenes are just so ridiculous, such as when Malkovich and a lady agent have a standoff, the bullet from his single handgun shredding her rocket launcher projectile. Malkovich is particularly disappointing in RED, a blown opportunity to inject his unique eccentricity into a potentially interesting character. He rather hunches about, evoking memories of Murdoch from The A-Team with liberal dashes of Jerry Lewis. Even his turn in the equally dumb CON-AIR was more nuanced. But I guess his broad performance suits the tone.

I was expecting something a bit wittier, less lowbrow. But RED is nicely shot by Florian Ballhaus, son of famed cinematographer Michael. And it is a gas to see all of these stars together, playing well off of each other. The screenplay is nonsensical but had the tone been right, RED might've been something more than fast food. It's a sure bet I'll pass on the sequel.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Daft Punk Presents: RAM!

Daft Punk's latest album, Random Access Memories, is a sonic candy store. A fun throwback to the disco era (and a little beyond) when studio wizards like Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder ruled the dance floor. Both were involved in the production of this album. Moroder's voice is heard throughout this track as he speaks about his earlier days.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Me and Orson Welles

One of my favorite liner notes is for Miles Davis' The (Re)Birth of the Cool, written by trumpeter Mike Zwerin, who was asked by the man himself to play some live dates.  Zwerin describes the over the moon excitement he had that first night as he drove home to Queens, knowing even then he was to be a part of something historic. As it turned out, Zwerin did not play on the recording sessions for the celebrated album, and he wistfully states that there is an asterisk next to his name in the annals of jazz history, just as there is one by Roger Marris' name in baseball lore.

The character named Richard Samuels in 2008's ME AND ORSON WELLES would assume a similar spot in history. Arthur Anderson, the real life teenager on whom Samuels is based, was part of the cast of Orson Welles' stage production of Julius Caesar in the inaugural days of the Mercury Theater. Anderson would go on to have success in radio, including "Mercury Theatre on the Air." Samuels' lot at the conclusion of this movie is a bit sadder and certainly more dramatic than what history speaks of Anderson's.

It's 1937 and Samuels (Zac Efron) one day finds himself, quite by accident, among the diverse theater troupe of the fledgling Mercury as it mounts the first ever Broadway production of a Shakespearian play. Welles flamboyantly holds court as director and paramour to at least 2 women in the company, despite having a pregnant wife back home. As played with great attention and mimicry by Christian Mackay, the legendary auteur is given a colorful interpretation: quick, sardonic wit and endless eccentricity and even nuance. What other theater maven traveled around NYC in an ambulance? The performance is more than reason enough to see this movie.

Backstage intrigue gels when Welles opens up to the boy about his consuming anxieties that the play will flop ("Everything's gone too well!") and when Richard falls hard for production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes, really looking the part), a fast talking Girl Friday who educates (more than once) the naive lad on the cold world of show business. Icy cold, as a weary Samuels will learn during the film's climax.

Director Richard Linklater, who has fashioned some of my favorite films, is as far from the slacker worlds of his earlier pictures as is possible with ME AND ORSON WELLES. The evocation of theater life is some of the most tangible I've seen recently (comparisons with THE DRESSER are well earned). The long hours. The attitudes of the actors.  The familial bonds forged. The technician who argues for more credit (Welles: "This is MY creation!"). A young man's desperate desire to be part of the creative world. There is also a glimpse at Welles' participation in a radio show at CBS's studios that is as vivid as anything I've seen in a nostalgia piece. It's as visually and texturally astute as the theater scenes. I was really impressed with Linklater and his team's work in this movie.

Even though it isn't his screenplay (it was penned by Holly and Vince Palmo), I couldn't help but think the director was really portraying his own feelings when a young woman, a budding author who Richard meets at the opening and closing of ME AND ORSON WELLES and who states, after the young man questions her short story -  "Does everything have to have a plot?" It is a nice summary of Linklater's career, his greatest successes. Perhaps Welles', too.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Waltz With Bashir

So unreliable are our memories. Experts in the field of neurology have reported on the fallacies of utilizing positive identification of criminals in a line-up, as an example. The mind is very adept at filling in details, bridging the gaps. We confirm/reiterate remembrances so many times over that they become our reality; we are certain we were there, what things smelled like. I have memories of early childhood of which I cannot be sure were not merely dreams. Was I really on that subway platform with my father when I was 4?  Even as we are watching something unfold, we may not be seeing it as it really is. Then all our biases serve to cloud an already sketchy recall.

Revisiting movies unseen for many years are (usually) good tests for this. We may sware that we remember a specific scene, played a certain way, only to discover something quite different (barring those pesky edited for television versions, of course).

Memories can be also compromised by extreme stress. The mind can block a traumatic event. Selective amnesia, it's called.  In the 2008 feature WALTZ WITH BASHIR, writer/director Ari Folman, who served in the Israeli army as a teen, attempts to sort his recurrent dreams/nightmares of his participation in the Lebanon War twenty plus years earlier. His film is a sort-of documentary, but like other such films is hugely subjective, which this time is entirely the point. A distinguishing factor - WALTZ is animated. It's a good choice for many reasons. It portrays a sort of surreality which suits the ambiguity of memories.

Folman talks out his visions with friends, psychologists, TV reporters, people who were also in Beirut in 1982 when the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. Thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shia were murdered in refugee camps by right-wing Lebanese Phalangist militia, supposedly in response to the assassination of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel. It would be learned that Palestinians were not responsible for Bashir's death. In his thoughts, Folman returns again and again to the sea, floating on crests under a moonlit night with fellow soldiers. A peaceful image, but there was fire on the shore. Is this where Ari really was? Why is he nagged otherwise?

Each friend and expert Folman seeks offer little consolation. But is that what the director desires? No,  he's after closure, reconciliation. The psychologist listens patiently and explains those black holes of memory, the panaceas created over time. Defense mechanisms? Others recount wild tales of parties on gunships. The reporter describes soldiers "waltzing" in the street, firing ammunition in the air. Each meeting brings Folman closer, closer to that night. Was a flare fired near that camp? Did Folman participate in the massacre in some fashion?

WALTZ WITH BASHIR is not simply one and one-half hours of psychotherapy. At times it does feel that way, other times a detective story. There are some effective uses of classical and period pop music. The striking animation is a combination of classic, comic-book style and Adobe Flash cuttouts. I am very picky about animation and the wrong style would've likely stymied my initial intrigue. This would've been a shame, as there is a potent story here.

There is something so perfect about the ways the eyes of each character are sketched, similar even to those of Peanuts characters. Old time newspaper comic-style. Hard outlines. Sometimes, the movement in BASHIR seems rotoscoped, traced over live action; it is not. The style is arresting, an effect similar to that of PERSEPOLIS, yet so very different.

In the film's final, devastating minutes, Ari Folman's uncertainty melts and the picture becomes crystal clear, as if the near sighted suddenly noticed the clarity of faraway images as he slips on a pair of corrective lenses. A holocaust.  Reminiscent of an earlier one. His parents were survivors. Now, he has blood on his own hands. The animation gives way to real footage of the aftermath of the massacre. As perfect a transition as could possibly be.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY is best described as a nearly perfect technical exercise. A very carefully woven and executed motion picture that provides most of its fascination in its cold precision. Also in its no frills narrative, its somber characterizations, its hardware. You could easily ignore the political implications of the movie and simply focus on the advanced weaponry and highly skilled operatives who both mastermind and carry out the film's mission: the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden. Think of it as the most slickly produced documentary of its time, one where camera operators had privileged vantage points. Albeit very orchestrated and with some poetic license here and there.

Downsides? If I wanted yet another stone faced procedural I could've turned to the networks or basic cable. There is nothing wrong with any of the CSI programs, for example, as they can be satisfying entertainments. But I expected a hell of a lot more from director Kathryn Bigelow, especially after her strong and sobering military drama THE HURT LOCKER a few years before. That film was set in the hellish ruins of war torn Iraq and in the no less frustrating domecile of a soldier's home back in the States. The film examined its multidimensional principals with great insight. ZERO DARK THIRTY alternatively features a protagonist named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who mostly reminded me of the Replicants we saw in BLADE RUNNER.

Maybe that's inaccurate and unfair. Maybe there was buried within this movie a woman empowerment saga of greater depth than I could discern. Maya is seen getting angry several times as she chokes on the "proper channels" and watches as superiors hesitate and waver on moving forward with leads she knows will supply the target (with "100% certainty"). We also find her in tears when the mission is done, in a moment I know was supposed to be hugely cathartic and effective but left me as cold as did the rest of the film. But her character, realistic (or real) or not, and for all her quiet tenacity, is finally just not that interesting. I did wonder if her tears were born of cognitive dissonance, or something like buyer's remorse after bin Laden's capture. Maybe this film could've run longer and expanded on that?

The events detailing the trail to and capture of bin Laden should be well known to most viewers. The final half hour presents the siege and capture as matter of factly as the rest of the film's events. This may well be the right approach; we didn't need another wish fulfillment, jingoistic action vehicle. Aside from a moment when a soldier stops to pause and assess the gravity of the scenario, the movie tries to maintain an objective account. It is what it is.

When it was announced that this film was to be made, I wondered of its necessity, as I do of most films that attempt to recreate a real life life event. To be worth my time, a film needs to tell those familiar events with an insight I could not have discerned from CNN or Time. Compelling like a UNITED 93.  A unique point of view, a privileged consideration to go with those choice shots. ZERO DARK THIRTY too often plays like a TV drama, and rarely works above that level.

Then there's the business of the scenes of torture, which occur early in the film.  Many protested the film as they felt it glorified these acts, which many will defend as necessary.  ZERO DARK THIRTY, to me, does not make the argument for or against torture. It just shows it. An event (step?) that occurred in the timeline. What these characters did, believing that extracting information this way would lead to capture.  Would the compound have been pinpointed without this information?Your answer may depend solely on your political affiliation. But as edited in its current form (there are rumors of more brutal scenes excised), the movie can't allow me to accuse Bigelow of sensationalizing in any manner or pushing a pro-Dick Cheney-like agenda. To dismiss (or refuse to see) this film over these scenes alone is misguided.

But maybe that highlights the problem: I almost wish the film had been more partisan, with more fire in its gut. It's just too mechanical. Aside from a lingered upon explosion, there seems to be no effort to create a work of art here. And to take everything at face value would be a mistake, as it would with any Hollywood pic.  Therefore, it's true, ZERO DARK THIRTY is just unnecessary.