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The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
My One Problem With This Movie
I don't want to say this is a terrible movie, because it isn't. It's heartbreakingly sad & the beautiful music - apparently really performed by the actors - was great to watch.
After the big crisis in the film, the two leads suffer, & there's supposed to be dramatic tension because the male, Didier, is a "romantic atheist," while the female, Elise, is a "religious realist." (These are not my terms, they're from the summary - Elise doesn't appear to me to be terribly realistic, nor does Didier seem all that romantic.) Neither apparently communicates too well - Didier seems to wait until he's pent up to express himself, while Elise is - well, we just get a handed-down family heirloom crucifix necklace to establish her religiosity, but it's not entirely Christian, because she apparently believes the human soul can transmigrate into a bird. Didier has one scene where he yells at an audience about Christian fundamentalism that's the biggest reveal we have about his anger toward people of that faith.
Except. The title of the movie is "The Broken Circle Breakdown." From the old folk song which insists "there's a better world awaiting in the sky." Didier is apparently steeped in bluegrass music, which, like country, has deep roots in American Christianity. I've known folks whose interest in the music has led them to reconnect with their faith. It's that powerful. & for many, it's the passion of the faith - certainly it's there in Bill Monroe, Didier's idol - that shines through the music. Are we supposed to believe that Didier has either missed this, or ignores it, to such an extent that songs about faith & the afterlife don't anger him the way George Bush's fundamentalism does?
It's baffling. & it's something that surely he would have noticed in the course of his obsession with bluegrass.
Because it seems impossible to me that someone so immersed in the music wouldn't at least have to discuss - at least with him or herself - the religious themes present in so many of the songs they're going to listen to or perform. That the movie seems unconcerned with this is a great fault, & one that kept me from thinking that the characters were truly three- dimensional.
Gray Matters (2006)
Wow! What A Tough Demographic!
I guess I kinda see the point of this film - doesn't everyone hope that when they finally "come out" (as gay or straight or as the person they really are) that they'll be a cute movie star like Heather Graham?
What gets me, though, is the impossibility of the premise. How many lesbians have fallen in love with their brother's wives/fiancees/girlfriends? Seriously, is this a catalyst for a significant number of "coming out" experiences? Why does this seem to me to be embarrassingly contrived?
Because it is. There's no chemistry between Heather Graham & Bridget Moynihan (unless you're a frat boy in a shot bar getting off on watching skanky girls kiss). There's no chemistry between the "Ed" guy (Tom Cavanaugh) & Bridget Moynihan, except as required by the plot. There appears to be some chemistry between Heather Graham & "Ed" guy, but it's derailed at the beginning of the film so the viewing audience won't think it's too creepy.
The rest is by-the-book coming-out fare, with Alan Cumming accepting a role as a heterosexual cabbie so he can tutor the newbie lesbian in the arts of meeting her own kind. Let's applaud his acceptance to proselytize for the team & hope that he eventually plays a role other than the one his community demands that he play. One that might be great, gay or straight or neither.
The "Ed" guy may eventually find a good script to make use of his charm & his ability to banter like in 30's screwball comedies. Heather Graham may yet find a director who can prove to the world she's a good actor. This movie comes nowhere close to advancing either of these premises.
Problems with this documentary
I enjoyed this, do not get me wrong, but I have two major pet peeves.
1) This movie suffers from a severe lack of chronological basis. Dates & times are left out so the progression of the musicians' experiences are not put in a context. It's one thing to celebrate a musician's life; it's another to baldly refuse to give that life a sense of history.
2) Do we really need to have continual, boring rehashes of old Motown hits by performers whom we'll never see in five years? Seriously. Ben Harper, Joan Osbourne, Meshell Whateverhernameis - these are flavors of the month. No one will be listening to them in ten years except on nostalgia channels - the music they personally make is unmemorable & the performances here would be better served with clips from old television shows.
So watch at your peril: a grand idea is undermined by an attempt to make it "relate" to this generation. The Funk Brothers deserved better.
But if this is all they get, it will do.
That Man's Here Again (1937)
That man's a little dull
For a film that's barely over an hour, "That Man's Here Again" takes a while to get off the ground, not entirely sure it's a comedy until the titular man, old Vaudevillian Hugh Herbert (known for his Daffy Duck-esque "Woo-hoo"s), gets involved to tie up the loose ends. Until then, the main reason I watched was for the extremely cute Australian actress Mary Maquire.
The plot is basically this: young Jimmy Whalen (all-American boy Tom Brown, who later turned up on "Gunsmoke") works as an elevator operator in the Park Avenue apartment house where Thomas Jesse (Herbert) comes in late & drunk every night. One cold & rainy night, Nancy Lee (Maquire) sneaks in, cold & wet, looking for shelter. She's been living on the streets, & Whalen finagles a job for her as a maid. The two fall in love, but Nancy's secret is that she a baby in state care. When Jimmy expresses his dislike of kids, & after Nancy breaks Thomas Jesse's valuable Ming vase, she disappears, & Jesse & Whalen have to conspire to not only get her back, but find a way for the young couple to live happily ever after (tm).
As I've said, this doesn't become comedic till the end, & there are really only a couple of good laughs in the film (one in a police station). The sitcom-y way it's all wrapped up might be forgiven if certain issues of the film found a decent resolution - the main one being, where's Nancy's baby's father?
All that being said, they really don't make them like this anymore, & Hugh Herbert is amusing to watch once the scene becomes his. This is strictly late-night, can't sleep fare, but, really, isn't that what all those classic movie channels are for anyway?
Losing the Thread (2000)
"Filo" is colored string!
I happened upon this odd little documentary on the Sundance Channel tonight. An American documentarian chose to make a film about Florentine artist Lorenzo Pezzatini, whose work - from paintings to installations to live public performances - focuses entirely on what he calls "the filo" - which are strings that he's covered entirely in paint, bright paint, red & blue & yellow.
Director Nossiter interacts with the artist, the artist's wife Caterina, his crew & his producer, speaking in very good Italian as well as English (the Italian in the film is cleverly subtitled, often with parenthetical commentary by the director next to the translations), apparently attempting to understand why this local artist, who doesn't show in museums but paints on billboards or paints his "filo" in front of lines of tourists waiting to get in to see Michaelangelo's David, has spent the last twenty years of his life making colored string. He's obviously obsessed with it - my favorite part of the film is the brief tour of the artist's home, where he keeps paintings made of "filo," where he even drapes "filo" around the pictures in his photo album. Nossiter begins the film with an admission that he has failed to do this, & even laments it during the four days he spends with Pezzatini.
But I personally think that it's part of the idea of the film - at one point Caterina calls the film "four days of a communal psychodrama" - not explaining the artist, which everyone from the director to the wife to the crew attempt to do (though the artist is exceptionally noncommital), but rather enjoying the presentation of a string-obsessed man & the often beautiful things he's created with his "filo." I'm not an artist myself, but I've known people who consider themselves artists & I think anyone who has known an artist or who has created things will find a part of themselves in Pezzatini. He's one part painter, one part eccentric, & one part performance artist, & the whole of the film depicts a man, who, like his "filo," is whatever you want to see in him. I think the majority of us will be charmed.
A very enjoyable hour. I only wish I could tour his house!
The Enchanted Drawing (1900)
This "trick movie" (as they are known) lasts for a minute & a half & transpires much as the summary above describes: a man draws a face on a large sheet of paper, then several objects (a bottle, a glass, a cigar, a hat) which, thanks to stop motion, come to life as he reaches for them. The face itself changes when things are taken away or when they are returned. The face itself is not animated, though this film is considered an early example of the animated film.
The lightning-quick sketch artist in the film is James Stuart Blackton, who toured in vaudeville with his easel & amazed audiences with his quick drawings. He worked for Edison quite a while, for obvious reasons - a century later, the film is really, really cool, & the same stop motion that worked in TV shows like "Bewitched" always seems amazing.
But this one, even as early as it was made, has a charm that some shorts can't replicate. First of all, it's extremely well done; when Blackton grabs the bottle & glass, it's surprising. Second, Blackton himself is a showman, so his drawing & his interaction with it are done in an animated, entertaining way. & lastly, it's just fun: a drawing that gets mad when its bottle of wine is stolen, but becomes happy when it is fed the wine is just too cute & funny to find trite or dull.
Um, who exactly is the target audience for this film?
I have nephews the same age as the main character in this film, & I think they'd spend the better part of this film as embarrassed as I was. But, briefly, here's the plot:
Lloyd is a skinny, red-headed, bespectacled sixth-grader (think of a twelve-year-old Carrot Top & you're dead on) who's so desperate to be popular that he is constantly doing ridiculous things that only get him jeers. He falls in love with the "new girl at school" but she goes for the boy that says, "I'm cute & popular." Furthermore, the teachers aren't entirely supportive of him. At home, his mother gives him pep talks but his little brother, apparently a kind of nine-year-old Cassanova, rags on him as much as anyone. Lloyd falls into a depression until he decides to use the only skill he seems to have, an interest in magic, to turn the tables on one of his teachers at a school function.
It sounds like standard kiddie movie fare, but there are some weird elements to this movie that compelled me to write this commentary. First of all, the kids are not very good actors. An elementary school in a suburb of Los Angeles doing the traditional Thanksgiving story could run rings around these youngsters. The tagline seems to want us to believe this is a story about self-esteem, but beside his queer looks, Lloyd really isn't all that special. The magic he learns from weird special guest Tom Arnold isn't really magic at all - it's a trick played in a movie, reliant on the cameras & editing, certainly not one a twelve-year-old could learn. So his search for self-esteem is banal in the extreme - was the director hoping for an audience of underachievers? & if he got it, wouldn't even underachievers be offended by it?
I was also a little nonplussed by the emphasis on children's sexuality. While obviously not on the level of your average teen "but I've never had sex" comedy, the film seems to spend a lot of time showing children in their early teens (barely out of adolescence) holding hands, kissing for the first time, dreaming about kissing, & talking about it. Lloyd's only friend describes french kissing as "ringing the bell" in the back of a girl's mouth. Oh, doubtless kids that age think about & do things of that nature all the time - it just felt stilted & clumsy to me, especially as Lloyd was completely clueless in that regard. An examination of the whys & hows of early courting, seen though the eyes of an outsider, could have been funny & revealing here.
The most confusing element is the stuff added apparently for adults wanting to be entertained while taking their kids to see the movie. A convenience store clerk with difficult facial hair stares at a movie he's watching at work & says, "I have got to finish film school." Tom Arnold, as a sort of mentor to Lloyd, talks a lot about how fat he used to be. The teacher in the "special ed" class Lloyd is sent to tells the kids he has problems with depression & talks about how an imaginary friend helped him in school, though the classes he mentioned are obviously college-level. Remember, this is not an indie comedy or even a Saturday Night Live franchise flick. This is ostensibly a movie to be viewed by kids in elementary & middle school. (In any event, for a fellow in his 30s, even those parts aren't very funny.)
I remember as a kid, the sophisticated parts of Warner Brothers cartoons might have baffled me, but the stuff for the whole family was funny. Later on, the deeply censored Hanna Barbera cartoons of the 70s were just plain insulting, even to a ten-year-old. But I can't believe that the director of this movie really thought he was talking to kids the same age as Lloyd. Now, I caught this film in the afternoon with nothing else on, & had never heard of it, so it didn't make much of a splash. But I think it's fair to say that some of the reasons it didn't were: a talentless, uninteresting cast; an unambitious focus; & baffling attempts to be funny beyond its apparent audience's years.
Weepy, slight early 1930s melodrama
I suppose this is what they used to call a "woman's picture." Laura LaPlante, a fetching, if gnomish blonde, plays Evelyn Palmer, a New York girl (what she does for a living is never revealed) who's been dallying with dashing West Point cadet Bob Denton, played robotically by a very young & handsome John Wayne. When she is dumped unceremoniously before Bob's graduation, Evelyn woos & eventually marries his mentor, Colonel Bonham, played by Forrest Stanley more like a stuffed-shirt British army officer than an American who's spent years in Arizona. The big complication is that, once the newlywed Bonhams relocate to Arizona, Denton shows up for duty &, despite Evelyn's triumphant attitude toward him, Denton takes a fancy to Evelyn's sister, Bonnie, who's the cutest flapper I've seen in ages.
This plot, made today, might have a bit more nastiness in that; it's as close to a "Cruel Intentions" as you're going to get in 1931. That Bob & Evelyn are having a sexual relationship is implied, of course, & it's amusing how, later in the picture, every time someone's about to say it, that person is interrupted or hushed. More than that, though I saw this on the Starz Western channel, it's more like your average sophisticated thirties melodrama than a western. The cigarettes are in boxes, gowns are worn to dinner, & the Colonel's house in Arizona is strictly Long Island.
The film features some amusing stock footage of an Army-Navy football game, as well as military maneuvers. But without giving anything away, the film unwinds & then winds up in a pretty cliched manner. For John Wayne fans, it's bound to be extremely disappointing, but for those of us who are intrigued by the early days of Hollywood, good & bad, it's not such a bad way to spend an hour. But it was way too silly to be moving, & it's by the numbers mix-up plot never really generates any suspense.
A documentary that is a college thesis paper
The negatives comments this film has received make me think that the commentators haven't taken a college literature course before (or at least not in a while). I don't mean this in a mean way; it's simply that one sitting in a classroom while twenty people write twenty papers about one work of literature with twenty different takes on it can be a sobering & educational experience. Short of the author writing another book after his or her first book & explaining the previous work, there's really no way to state with certainty what the point of it all was. (& even then, some people would distrust the author's explanation.) The same goes for music, art, poetry, & of course film.
What Rappaport has done here is written a paper, using the approved standard of evidence most college-level courses require, theorizing about the life & work of actress Jean Seberg. That he sometimes casually throws out theories as fact is standard for such essays, papers, what-not. It may seem a little crass to think of someone's life as being open to interpretation, but surely one can understand that there is always something social or political about presenting the story of one's life in, say, cable TV's "Biography" method, which tends to leave out or just touch on the gruesome sexual encounters or the public humiliations, or VH1's "Behind the Music" style, which focuses on nothing but.
Rappaport does something different than both of those. Seberg's life is explained through the films she's in, which, he suggests, is inextricably linked to the men she loved, which is inextricably linked to the times she was living in, the political role she chose to play, & the other actresses whose careers ran parallel to hers. Is it all factual? More or less - facts are lined up to support the thesis, which is basically a feminist commentary on the role of women in film, backed up with some fascinating (if maybe not entirely tenable) connections with things as different as Russian formalist silent cinema & Spaghetti Westerns. & lots of interpretation - Rappaport has written words for Mary Beth Hurt, as Jean Seberg, to comment on her looks, her acting style, the roles she played. To believe that he had access to some real "journals" of Seberg is somewhere between silly & gullible.
See, it's not even pretending to be objective truth. If it were, why would it be narrated by an actress playing Jean Seberg, who's nearly twenty years dead by the making of the movie? It's a thesis, an idea, something thrown out for you to chew on & think about. You are of course free to disagree with the filmmaker, & it's eminently healthy to question or criticize such undertakings, as one should criticize a Ken Burns or an Errol Morris. Negative reactions to films such as this one make me feel a little sad, because I think the point has been missed. This is an especially engaging film, about a good-but-not-necessarily-great actress whose famous roles have captured the minds of those film buffs geared to become part of this or that cult following. That her life was tragic is a matter of record. Short of asking her, which will require a trip to the other side, Rappaport has put words in her mouth to tell you what he thinks about her life & work. Though not making movies ourselves, we do much the same thing when we talk about films, books, records, works of art to our friends, co-workers, family, teachers, students.
I'm not a professor, but if I were, & if this movie were a paper, I'd give it an A. It's a damn good read, & well documented. So to speak.
Pretty Baby (1950)
Quaint & charming screwball comedy from a time long ago
All Patsy Douglas wanted was a seat on the subway. She dreamed of a better position at the advertising agency at which she worked; what she was doing was mimeographing all day long. She dreamily eyed the firm's leader, Sam Morley, & wrote trite jingles for ad campaigns in her spare time. When the Baxter Baby Food account went bad, she took the little doll from the display & carried it with her on the subway. Viola! Passengers, thinking they were helping a woman with a child, stood to let the young mother sit.
Except. One visit she happened to sit next to Cyrus Baxter himself, the crusty, hot-tempered, terminally unhappy curmudgeon who runs the baby food company. She happens to mention that the baby is named after him, Cyrus Baxter Douglas (the people at the firm named the doll "Cyrus," for obvious reasons), & the old man, not revealing his identity to her, is so flattered that she paid him that compliment that he begins to insinuate himself into her life, to help out the namesake he never knew he had.
As you may well imagine, the movie takes off from there. Morley & his partner find themselves having to promote the well-meaning, earnest Patsy to save the account. If you've seen any screwball comedies, you'll be able to anticipate when & where the plots & plans go awry. Betsy Drake, as Patsy, is a bit of a cipher - not terribly pretty, she has a sort of stagey, Laura Linney-esque way of acting. Neither Dennis Morgan or Zachary Scott as her two bosses have the stand-out traits of characters in a Preston Sturges film, though they do play off each other rather well. Edmund Gwenn as the volatile Cyrus Baxter is the movie's real treat - a sort of diminutive, flustered, uptight second cousin of Lionel Barrymore's Henry Potter. The scene between him & Betsy Drake involving Longfellow's "Hiawatha" is screamingly funny.
Most probably they couldn't make a film like this today, not without the tongue in the cheek as "The Hudsucker Proxy," & cameos in this film of soon-to-be-television-stars William Frawley & Barbara Billingsley reminded me how shows like "I Love Lucy" (where Frawley played neighbor Fred Mertz) made most screwball comedy misunderstandings & false leads into television cliche. But this movie, unrushed & quiet in its charm, unembarrassed about its lack of stars or its silliness, manages to entertain in precisely the way it was meant to. You get caught up beyond its corniness.
It's no "His Girl Friday," but probably wasn't meant to be. It has some good laughs & it's funnier than any modern comedy I've seen recently. Recommended for those who've seen all the Capra & Sturges flicks & can live with a fix that's a couple of shades below.