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This odd little comedy/drama from Sidney Gilliat doesn't really hold a
lot of water, but does hold a fair amount of charm, as the motley
occupants of a London boarding house rally in support of one of their
own, a young would-be spiv arrested for murder. As the youth in
question Attenborough is pop-eyed, guilt-wracked and hapless, eerily
resembling a young Peter Lorre-- we feel sorry for him, though we may
not empathize much. But the film's emotional shadings come from the
older actors like Wylie Watson, Fay Compton, and Joyce Carey (no, not
the novelist), who stand by the boy simply because they know it's the
right thing to do.
The plot's barely there, but there's a lovely eccentric atmosphere to it all, and also a juicy supporting bit for the great Alastair Sim. Hilariously morose, with a strange and seedy profession, his Mr. Squales would provide inspiration some seven years later for Alec Guinness's great turn in The Ladykillers, down to the overbite and the lank, terrible hair. Sim was a few years away yet from being the UK's most popular film star; he was the weirdest and most watchable of screen idols. He walks away with the film.
At the beginning of the greatest concert movie ever made, we follow a
pair of sneakered feet to down center of an empty stage. A voice says
"I've got a tape I want to play." We pan up to a thin, nervous-looking
man with an acoustic guitar and a boom box. The box starts playing a
beat. The man's hand hits a jangling chord. And for the next hour and a
half, as the scenery slowly builds around this skinny misfit, we sit
Talking Heads were unquestionably a seminal band in the New York punk/new wave scene. Yet before seeing this film I had little idea of who they were, and even after seeing it I would not necessarily put them on a top ten list. Nonetheless, through a combination of front man David Byrne's charisma and stagecraft, Jonathan Demme's taut, precise filmmaking, and the infectious heat of the music, Stop Making Sense remains the most enthralling and sheerly entertaining rockshow ever. The keening melancholy of "Heaven", the stripped-down mystery of "Once in a Lifetime", the dark funk of "Girlfriend is Better" -- there's simply no duds here. And Byrne works his butt off. He seems to have energy to spare; during one number he simply jogs circles around the stage, as though he needs further exercise. His teammates Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and (eventually) a host of backup singers and musicians click into that energy without a stumble.
This isn't raw work-- clearly this is a conceived film, with defined emotional beats and even a sort of intuitive narrative. And like any band, Talking Heads have a specific sound and style that (I suppose) won't appeal to everyone. But who? I've shown this film to at least three people who never heard of the band before (except through dim memory of early MTV), and even claimed to hate concert movies-- and then they went and bought the soundtrack.
What can I further say? This is a record of performance that cannot be matched. If you like music, at all, clear a little time and watch this movie. I can't promise you won't be disappointed, but I cannot easily imagine how.
The object of any great concert film is to convince you, at least for
the span of the movie, that the subject is The Greatest Rock Band in
the World. If The Kids Are Alright doesn't succeed in that goal as
completely as Jonathan Demme's sensational Stop Making Sense, that's
hardly the fault of The Who-- few performers have labored harder in the
name of fan service.
Though engaging and highly watchable, The Kids Are Alright stays a minor affair, documentary-wise. Here and there it flirts with insight. We catch a bit of Keith Moon palling around with fellow alcoholic Ringo Starr ("We're just taking our medicine, children!") in a bit that foreshadows tragedy without actually catching the weight of it. We get a laugh from Pete Townshend's startled "Eh?" at being confronted with his own lyrics ("...hope I die before I get old..."). But the between-music bits of the film offer little substance; they're just filler.
But there's an early clip of the band performing in a club, in which we cut to Moon, drumming his heart out, already in hyperdrive-- and then, impossibly, he starts going faster. His face is upturned in spiritual abandon, his hands simply disappear. And, in a phenomenal rendering of Baba O'Reilly, you see Townshend dancing in genuine and infectious ecstasy over John Entwhistle's thunderous bass line. And in an epic performance of Won't Get Fooled Again, we finally understand the sheer force of The Who-- the lights go out around six minutes in for the synth solo. Then the drums kick in, gathering our heartbeats with it. The lights come on: Roger Daltrey is screaming, and Townshend is in midair, and we are with him, transported, levitating.
These were men who enjoyed their work. And for these five-to-ten minute stretches, we are watching The Greatest Rock Band in the World. Worth the price of admission.
For reasons more complicated than I would want to explain, I ended up
at a special big- screen premiere of "Jersey Shore Shark Attack" last
night. The trailer for this TV movie event has been attracting
considerable online derision lately, so I feel compelled to say that in
a theater, surrounded by a crowd of the willing, it's actually pretty
The cults that surround movies like "The Room" and "Troll 2" have created a weird sort of cottage industry centered around "so-bad-it's-good" entertainment. SyFy, which has lately been churning out deadpan goofs like "Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus", seems determined to enter those sweepstakes. But the appeal of something like "The Room" comes from the understanding that the movie was meant to be *good*. (Tommy Wiseau has since claimed otherwise, but seriously, come on.)
"Jersey Shore" and "Mega-Shark", by contrast, are pseudo-hip, self-aware entertainments, somewhere between Roger Corman's '60s beatnik spoof "Bucket of Blood" and a Z-grade Frankie Avalon beach party. Here and there they earn a laugh worthy of a good SCTV sketch. (In "Mega-Shark" it's the bit with the plane, and in this one it's the fate of ex-'N Syncer Joey Fatone.)
This isn't exactly great or even good cinema. On TV, without a live audience, this may well die the death. But low-budget quickies like this used to kill in a drive-in or a 99-cent grindhouse. With low expectations you forgive the clunkier jokes and appreciate the details (like the "Jaws" music cue during Tony Sirico's Quint speech). Fun was had and the profit margins were high-- so why exactly aren't there drive-ins anymore?
Richard Linklater's film of Robert Kaplow's novel merits a watch, if
only for Christian McKay's splendid evocation of the young Orson
Welles. McKay has the vocal chops, the look (in profile it's uncanny)
and, most importantly, the attitude. Without apparent effort, he
catches the mammoth self-confidence that made Welles one of the most
intimidating screen presences in cinema. I have no idea how much time
and effort this actor (in his first feature film) spent in mastering
the smirk Welles gives when neophyte actor Richard Samuels (Zac Efron)
talks of his "lover"; in any case the work pays off. It's like a cameo
by Harry Lime.
This movie uses the Mercury Theatre's celebrated production of Julius Caesar as backdrop to its rather slight story. The screenplay tells us that Welles, whatever genius he possessed, may not have been a great guy-- and, well... are we wrong to ask how much that matters? Efron, as the young hopeful who falls into Welles's considerable gravitational pull, has a certain charm and potential talent, but looks and acts somehow utterly of his own time-- we never believe him as a 1930s construct. (Possibly he hasn't watched enough old movies.) He falls in love with Claire Danes, who plays an ambitious... something, I missed exactly what her job was. Script girl? Dramaturge? Anyway, she works on the play. Danes does a decent job as whatever she is, but she and Efron generate zero chemistry. "Why am I so interested in you?" she asks at one point. I had no guesses.
If I had to speculate, I'd say that the romantic plot did not grab the director much. He does good work casting the real-life characters. Eddie Marsan makes a credible John Houseman; Ben Chaplin registers strongly as a nerve-racked George Coulouris; and James Tupper looks, sounds, and feels right as the affable young ladies' man Joe Cotten. The backstage squabbles, trivial though they may be, draw more interest than the emotional business upfront. And Linklater truly comes awake as a director in capturing performance: whether he's staging a quick radio sequence in which Welles steals the show or very finely recreating the Mercury's legendary Caesar, you get the feeling Linklater would be happiest just sitting back and watching the show. And here the movie is at its best-- far more than Tim Robbins' earnest, turgid Cradle Will Rock, this movie, absent of politics, captures the excitement of truly revolutionary theater at a time when such a thing was still possible.
In fact, that lack of earnestness may be the key here. Caesar was a great production not because it deconstructed Hitler, but because Welles gave it a sense of importance strong enough to deconstruct anything. Welles was a great artist, and perhaps more crucially he was a great bulls--t artist. Let's put it more simply: that WAS his art. This is a film about learning to bulls--t, learning when not to say what you mean, learning when not to be honest-- and that's bracing. It reminds us that trickery, deception and narcissism can be magic, and that egotism with a will to dazzle us can be more dazzling than anything we describe as "talent" and "sincerity". It's why the movie stalls when McKay is not on screen-- he convinces us he IS Orson Welles, that he is the most important man in the world-- and in defiance of logic and perspective, we buy it. And at the end of the day, that transparent and fantastic lie-- that's art.
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known in America for his expert
thrillers (Diabolique, The Wages of Fear, Le Corbeau) captures a
different kind of suspense in this astonishing documentary: can the
viewer think faster than Picasso?
Of course not, don't be ridiculous. Pablo Picasso, seen here in his seventies, creates 20-odd paintings for the camera (a couple of them in real time), running rings around us as he goes. We see a line cross the screen, and then another, and then color spatters about; drawn on bleed-through paper the images come to us unmediated, like daydreams. Before we know it scenes take shape, populated by Picasso's stock company of matadors, clowns, leering old men, and towering, serene, bare-breasted women, their faces regally aloof.
This is Picasso Playful. Clouzot informs him at one point that there are only five minutes of film left and asks him what he wants to do. The old man replies "It'll be a surprise," quickly sketching a bouquet of roses and then taking it through acrobatic transformations, faking us out with deadpan glee. His buoyancy counterweights some of the director's more awkward touches, such as the portentous intro, some over-dramatic music, a few probably staged conversations... but who cares? This is dynamic, visual cinema-- in a sense, a great animated film.
Some of the earlier drawings are merely a master's doodles; others make your jaw drop with their absolute sureness of line. He'll send a stroke wriggling upward, graceful as a ribbon of smoke, and suddenly that wriggle is a bull with man tossed on its horns, and as the shapes gather and the colors erupt the thing becomes impossibly beautiful, a small perfection. Picasso returns to the image later, breaking out the oils, and here the film truly takes off. "I want to go deeper," Picasso tells Clouzot, and he does. We realize what we were missing in those first drawings: texture. The head of a goat coheres and takes on animal reality, the pigments bright as stained glass. Picasso ages it, makes it solid. What would be a major work for a lesser artist here is a throwaway, literally; the paintings were destroyed after filming. The least of them could have paid for my house.
In that intro Clouzot says something about "looking into the mind of the artist" or somesuch, but the title really says it all. At the beginning the artist saunters out shirtless from the studio's shadows. At the end he declares, "It is finished," and saunters back. What could possibly account for the existence of a Pablo Picasso remains a mystery untouched.
It's hard to imagine now, but by the early 1970s the vampire was,
cinematically speaking, something of a dead issue. (Rimshot.) True, the
UK's Hammer Studios were still plugging along with their Dracula
Variations, starring Christopher Lee and a parade of bosoms in period
costume, to increasingly musty effect. Attempts to modernize the
concept, as in Dracula AD 1972, did not exactly catch fire.
New motifs dominated the scene. Hitchcock's Psycho kickstarted the enormously profitable psychopath industry, Romero's irony-laced Night of the Living Dead established a taste for gore with social awareness. Polanski's Rosemary's Baby made even the presence of the Devil as imminent as a neighbor ringing the bell. The crux was immediacy -- vampires wore capes and came from the Old World. They were just so 19th century. Who would be scared?
Curiously enough Richard Matheson, one of the industry's most prolific pros, had both reinvented and doomed the vampire as a credible agent of horror in 1954, by writing the novel I Am Legend. An tale of a lone human in a world taken over by vampires, it changed the field by making vampirism a scientific phenomenon instead of a supernatural one, and directly paved the way for Romero's visceral apocalypse. When the novel was filmed as The Omega Man in 1971, that hokey v-word had been taken out entirely; they weren't Nosferatu, just mutants.
So it makes poetic sense that Matheson should help rescue the genre by scripting one of its modern classics: The Night Stalker. Adapted from an unpublished story by Jeff Rice, this whipsmart TV movie recharged the batteries by keeping it real.
In a modern (1970s modern, that is) and believably seedy Las Vegas, a series of odd murders begins. The police call it the work of a serial killer. But as the anomalies pile up, our protagonist, a down-on-his-luck reporter named Carl Kolchak, forms a different opinion. "I hate to say it," he informs the chagrined authorities (and he doesn't hate to say it either; he's sitting on the scoop of the century and he's grinning like a Cheshire Cat) "But it looks like we've got a real, live vampire on our hands."
Kolchak, as played by the wonderful Darren McGavin, is a masterstroke of characterization. With his cheap suit and outsize ego he's a walking irritant, and his exchanges with the police and his weary editor Anthony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) are rich with comic detail. (The sheriff informs Carl that he is present by "the mutual suffrage of us all." "Sufferance," corrects Kolchak.) He makes the perfect hero here by having almost nothing of the heroic about him, except a certain hard-headedness that serves for courage. He *knows* he's right, and he might just get himself killed to prove it.
Terrifically entertaining, The Night Stalker became the highest-rated TV movie of its time, spawning a sequel and a short-lived but quite fun series with a disproportionately large footprint. The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Fringe-- all these shows can count themselves as Kolchak's progeny.
For better or worse (generally for worse, although see Let the Right One In) vampires now crowd the screens again, and through inflation are once again a devalued commodity. In movies like Blade or From Dusk till Dawn or 30 Days of Night they appear in hordes. But as The Night Stalker reminds us, one vampire ought to be enough for anybody.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
From about fifteen minutes after this movie began to the final credits,
I sat baffled. Clearly Tim Burton and the screenwriter Linda Woolverton
wished to create a magical fantasy- adventure tale for children about a
clash between good and evil, along the lines of the Narnia movies, and
that's all fine and good. But why on earth did he call it Alice in
The movie begins with a teenaged Alice (Mia Wasikowska), her spirit cramped by her repressive Edwardian life, tumbling down the proverbial rabbit-hole into "Underland". Familiar characters soon appear -- the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, etc -- but inform her that she is the "wrong Alice." They needed the original, it seems, to be their champion, and to slay the ferocious Jabberwocky and throw off the evil tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter). The Queen, hypersensitive about her outsized head, has ravaged Underland and enslaved its people, with the help of the incongruously menacing Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover)... so wait, a playing card is acting as henchman to a chess piece? Well, let it go.
Well of course this older Alice may well be the real one after all, fancy that, it's just that (we're told) she's lost her "muchness." "My muchness?" asks Alice. The speaker indicates her heart: "In there." Oh, lord. This is of course another variant of those barfy lines so beloved by screenwriters and studio executives, in which the protagonist is informed that she must regain her heart/soul/sense of wonder/sense of fun/idealism/so on in order to succeed. This will then become the movie's doggedly predictable emotional journey. And I am truly depressed to announce that this tired line comes from... the Mad Hatter. The Mad Hatter, dispensing this hackneyed Hollywood "wisdom"? It's like Keith Richards showing up at your door as a Jehovah's Witness.
It's not that everything's bad here. Helena Bonham-Carter plays the despotic Red Queen with tiny pursed lips, and she's very funny. The plump Cheshire Cat, purred by Stephen Fry, swims through the air like a manatee. Even at his weakest, Burton's visuals can be compelling, and the battle with the Jabberwocky is undeniably exciting.
But when the plot calls for heroics the movie feels misguided: the poem "Jabberwocky" was a *parody* of heroic epics (I'm guessing specifically Beowulf), and the solemnity that the movie keeps sinking into was exactly the sort of ponderousness Carroll loved to skewer. Is this really Wonderland? When the evil Knave of Hearts, hunting Alice, arrives at the Tea Party, he scornfully tells the Hatter, "You're mad." Well, I mean, duh. What is he, new around these parts?
Burton has a message he wants to get across, that "nonsense" and "madness" can help us do the impossible, by unleashing our imagination. That's not a bad message, but it's not the message of Alice in Wonderland. The books derive humor from nonsense; they don't endorse it.
The Alice of the books doesn't have much fun. She's insulted and bullied and ordered around by the Wonderlanders; their foolishness frustrates rather than beguiles her. The first book ends in a trial. It's a farce, of course. The witnesses are incoherent, the King as judge is buffoonish and arbitrary, and the Queen of Hearts repeatedly orders unjustified beheadings. Alice, fed up with the travesty, protests. The Queen orders, "Off with her head!" Alice retorts "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards!" And at this gloriously sensible observation, the court literally flies apart.
Carroll was, after all, a logician, and if he intended any message to Alice in Wonderland beyond simple entertainment, it's here: that people who pretend to power are often only speaking balderdash. Nonsense has only as much power as we allow it to have. If we're clear-eyed enough to see through it, that false power dissolves.
But in this movie, it takes a full army and the slaying of a monster to defeat the Queen. That's giving too much power to nonsense.
It is 1974. Our protagonist, young and hip, has shaggy hair, sideburns,
and a slick leather jacket. Asked about his suit at his father's
funeral: "Carnaby's," he admits. "Oh, ay," says one mourner, with a
hint of added dismay.
He's been in the South, you see. American viewers with a limited perception of the UK may, at the beginning of Channel Four's remarkable Red Riding trilogy, have little understanding of what difference that makes. They will soon learn. "This is the North," says one of the terrifying policemen who populate this film's haunted Yorkshire. "Where we do what we want."
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 begins under lowering skies. A girl of ten has vanished. A young and callow crime reporter Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) gets clued in by a conspiracy-minded colleague that the vanishing resembles two previous cases within a close range. Eager to make his mark, he senses opportunity, and in excitement at the idea that a serial murderer might be at work he blurts, "Let's keep our fingers crossed."
As the story deepens, however, so does the character. The grief of the victims' families needles him; he begins a relationship with one girl's heartsick mother (Rebecca Hall). Picking apart the story that emerges, he is drawn into the orbit of a wealthy developer (Sean Bean) with an unwholesome degree of influence in Yorkshire and its power structure. The perpetrator of the crimes is unquestionably psychopathic -- he stitches "angels' wings" into his victims' backs. Yet, in the film's most disturbing element, the police department itself functions as a psychopath, achieving its desires through brutalization, torture, and even possibly murder.
Caught in a conscienceless land, Dunford's own conscience, in reaction, grows, and what began as mere ambition transforms into a perhaps doomed lust for the truth. If this sounds like a conventional trope of the genre, it is -- plotwise much of what happens here is conventional. But Red Riding makes the narrative fresh by treating it not just as a story of crime and justice but as one of the soul, and its environs. When Dunford begs the mother to escape with him from the prevailing madness, he tells her, "In the South the sun shines." What he's telling her is that the sickness is inseparable from the place. Yorkshire is filmed (with gorgeous gloom) as a cloud-shrouded ruin, an economic disaster site in which financial power trumps morality. Starting out fresh-faced, vain, and cocky, Dunford will, by the end of his journey, be considerably the worse for wear. Looking at the landscape around him, we think, how could he not be?
Red Riding 1974 is not flawless -- some scenes feel repetitive and the bleakness can be overwhelming. But it compels you forward, it stays with you, and it genuinely rattles the spirit. This is not easy viewing, but in approaching the continuing saga, it promises hard- earned reward.
Well, seriously. Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth have some issues going on
here. As onlooker Joseph Calleia points out, "It's the most curious
love-hate pattern I've ever had the privilege of witnessing."
It's curious all right. Johnny (Ford), a scruffy grifter on the streets of Buenos Aires, is on the brink of being killed when he is saved (picked up?) by a well-dressed stranger named Ballin (George Macready). Ballin hires Johnny to oversee his illegal casino, and the two form a quick bond of trust and loyalty. This relationship's a puzzler too; when Ballin reverses his dictum that "women and gambling don't mix," and announces there's a lady in the picture, Ford's expression reads less like a concerned business partner than a jilted suitor.
Quicker than you can say "so what's that about?" we meet Gilda (Hayworth), and... it's no mystery why this remains Hayworth's most famous role. From that first dazzling shot of her tossing her hair back -- even her hair is erotic -- with shoulders bared, she simply glitters with sex. Was this really 1946? Onstage at the casino, she flirts with the audience: "I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?" Oh, I think it probably does.
The plot is frankly odd, hinging on lust, murder, and for some reason tungsten. Rudolph Mate's photography is gorgeous. The dialogue is consistently entertaining. Ford, often saddled with bland roles, does fine here as a ne'er-do-well with a conscience, and Steven Geray is quite amusing as the owlishly cynical Uncle Pio.
But it's Hayworth you'll remember, wriggling in her black dress or raising her stockinged leg like a banner of temptation. "Hate is a very exciting emotion," she tells Johnny, pressing up close. "I hate you so much I think I'm going to die from it." Hayworth's lips melt and transmute the word "hate" until it means "want." She murmurs again, "I think I'm going to die from it." What a way to go.
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