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Hard World for Small Things (2016)
VR cinema's most socially conscious thing yet
VR cinema is still in its infancy, dominated by game programmers and music videos. This is a rare and interesting exception, by a Panamanian-American woman of color. You literally go on a drive with some people in a black neighborhood of LA in the back seat of their convertible, meet friends, stop and chat with them etc. The plot overall is not 100% peaceful and it confronts a difficult reality. Technically there are a few glitches in the form of visible seams and a few unresolved focal points. But generally this is very much a worthwhile product and I hope to see more VR movies (or "experiences" as they call them) like this in the future. VR really puts you into the action and that can be an excellent tool for this type of storytelling.
A Year in Burgundy (2013)
More Travelogue than Tour-de-Force
I have to say that I did not learn very much from this movie. Oh, it's beautifully shot all right. And you do get to see grape vines, barrels, wineries, fermentation, bottling, pruning, planting, swirling, sniffing, sampling, and much else. But it's all done in a very atmospheric rather than informative way. "Pesticides are used less and less," it says (or something like that) without going into how much and why. We see a vine being planted, but no mention of root grafting. No discussion of clones. We learn that every wine tasted different, but in what ways? If you want to learn more of the truth about wine making, get Mondovino. If you want a nice pleasant and well-scented bath in a romantic region, get this movie.
An extremely valuable movie
This film does exactly what a documentary should do: Get you close to the subject. In this case, it's the Tropicalia movement of the late 60s in Brazilian music, which is (I think) one of the more important manifestations of popular culture in the world. The film primarily focuses, year by year, on the two main players: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. It traces the background of the movement and how it rebelled against both leftist political song and mindless pop to create a new Brazilian type of popular music. It moves quickly, with lots of intercutting. You need to read the subtitles carefully if you don't know Portuguese. You also need to something about who the major people are, in advance, because the director seems to expect a certain level of prior knowledge about people such as Tom Ze, Gal Costa, Helio Oiticica, Rogerio Duarte, and a few others. The film sticks pretty closely to chronology, which helps. There is a also great deal of priceless footage of the musical acts and the controversy that they caused. After the two main players a forced into exile, the film slows down a lot, but by then you have already learned a tremendous amount. Overall excellent.
Good as far as it goes
This film is a personal product, almost an experimental film in itself. It starts off with a bit of self-promotion which is best forgotten because what comes later is better. It does not pretend to be "The" history of Experimental film (only "a history"), fortunately, and on that basis it is somewhat of a success. It focuses on the NY circle around the Film-Makers Cooperative, founded by the Mekas brothers. The director Pip Chodorov had personal access to lots of the creators featured here, such as Hans Richter, Stan Brakahge, Ken Jacobs, and several others. We see lots of footage, intermixed with interviews with selected folks. So yes it's good, and worth a look. However, lots and lots of creators are left out of this or given very short treatment: Kenneth Anger, Oscar Fischinger, Fernand Leger, Bruce Conner, Mary Ellen Bute, Larry Jordan, and more. So it could have been more expansive. As long as you know that going in, you are fine. See this and enjoy it.
Weekend of a Champion (1972)
Great for F1 fans
This is a review of the 2012 version of this movie: It's great! If you know who Jackie Stewart is, and have a sense of his importance in the history of auto racing, you will totally enjoy this pic, because he talks in great detail about lots of aspects of F1 auto racing. There is a memorable sequence when he sits across a breakfast table with Polanski and discusses how to treat a motor car that is positively spiritual. We get to see in lots of detail the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix, including practice laps, driver shots, glamour hubbub, and the race itself from Stewart's viewpoint. We also see brief glimpses of various other competitors, famous drivers from the past (a fab moment with Fangio), and the Monaco Royalty giving out the prizes. Mostly done with hand-held, and pretty riveting for all that.
Then, in a final sequence shot in 2011, Stewart and Polanski get together again for a chat about how racing has changed. (And this is not a spoiler because the pic is a documentary!) Lots of discussion of safety, some footage of bad crashes, Stewart discusses his (lack of) formal education, in sum: 2 interesting oldsters reminiscing. In the rather slim genre of Formula 1 movies, this pic is among the best.
An impressive noir essay
This is maybe the best episode of Johnny Staccato, the Jazz Detective. A tremendously dark story line about recovering a package before the criminals execute innocent people. It's all filmed in almost total darkness, and the action moves forward relentlessly. Johnny is caught up, innocently of course, in a counterfeit scheme and the thugs are after him. Every shot of this movie is milked for the most expressive content possible, with close-ups, shadows, clever compositions, and fast editing in a snappy, jargon-laden script. Jazz becomes both the rhythm of the tension and the refuge for the hunted. The series up to now was becoming a bit of a snoozer, but this one had me on the edge of my seat. Very advanced cinematography for its time on TV. Cassavetes himself directed it (which is far from a coincidence). I wonder if this show was too much for TV audiences of the day; such intensity could explain the show's cancellation after just one season. Compared with its forebear, Peter Gunn, which this show imitates, this episode transcends its model to an unprecedented degree.
Johnny Staccato: The Naked Truth (1959)
A claustrophobic noir
Interesting show. Cassavetes plays a hyperactive, high-strung jazz pianist who does good deeds on the side. In the premier show, he's engaged by a singer's manager ("Senator" Bly, based loosely on Presley's "Colonel" Tom Parker) to prevent a scandal sheet from publishing a damaging story about his charge (a youthful Michael Landon as a crooner). It has lots of gritty, noir shots of New York City (even though the interior shots were taped in LA). A couple of nice jazz tunes, played by some "cats" of the day. Ruta Lee, better known for the years she put in as a plug-in celebrity on various TV game shows, plays a flirtatious secretary. Only a half-hour show, the action is jammed in and it all ends rather quickly.
Johnny Staccato: Evil (1959)
An intense essay
One of the more tightly wound episodes of the series, and sure enough, Cassavetes directed it. Also unusual among the episodes, there's no jazz here but rather gospel music. The show amounts to an exposé of fraudulent evangelists who take careless people's money. There are several memorable touches: The first line comes from the evangelist, in full face, close up: "Evil comes to you through your television sets." Quite a comment from a TV show. And the line is spoken by Alexander Scourby, one of the most famous voice-over artists in 1960s television. Another sparkling (if briefer) role is character-actor Elisha Cook as a follower. This series as a whole is quite impassioned and ardent; this accounts for its short life on network TV. This episode is one of the more impassioned of all.
Mr. Moto's Gamble (1938)
Should not have been made
Big problems here. As others have pointed out, this film started out as a Charlie Chan film, but he proved unavailable, so the studio rewrote it as a Mr. Moto caper; it even has Chan's "No. 1 Son" in a supporting role. Watching the picture, it's very easy to imagine Charlie Chan doing and saying everything that Mr. Moto says. This film lacks the martial arts and international intrigue of the better Mr. Moto titles, thus it is not a Mr. Moto film. If you are looking for a real Mr. Moto film, get a different movie. This one is a Charlie Chan movie, starring Mr. Moto. Most unfortunate. Charlie Chan is Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto is Mr. Moto; this film blurs the distinctions and should be shunned by all lovers of either detective.
Route 66: Black November (1960)
A harbinger of the 60s
The Route 66 show seems to have had the following theme: Two flashy young guys in a flashy new car go around spreading 1960s enlightenment and values to the darker corners of America. And it's not an easy task: Each episode requires a couple of fistfights. In tonight's episode, the two find themselves stranded in a deeply rural Southern town, contending with various kinds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. The episode is filmed in overwhelming darkness, beyond film noir. Its cultural oppositions seem somewhat pat today, but back then this show represented novelty. Nice score by Nelson Riddle. The show also has interesting early appearances by George Kennedy and Keir Dullea.