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CQ on Reel 13
Despite the pedigree of being made by the latest Coppola clan member to enter the feature film directorial ranks, CQ came and went from theaters when it was released a few years go. Seeing it for the first time on Reel 13 on Saturday, I'm a little stunned as to why. Roman Coppola proves to be a promising, thoughtful filmmaker and as adept a student of cinema history as his Uncle Francis. CQ is an engaging, if loosely structured movie, managing to be simultaneously inventive and derivative, borrowing from and paying homage to everything from La Dolce Vita to the Marx Brothers.
Its primary source of influence is, of course, 1968's Barbarella, here thinly veiled as the fictional "Dragonfly", as the film within the film. CQ is about how Paul, a young editor (Jeremy Davies), working on said "Dragonfly" deals with balancing his career and his relationship as he works on both the big-budget sci-fi epic and directing his own personal documentary film. This set-up provides Coppola with three different planes of action going on real life, the black and white documentary and the colorful, sexy, futuristic world of "Dragonfly". The fun really begins when Coppola deftly uses these formats to blur the lines of fantasy and reality when Paul, in his search for himself, begins to lose sight of where the boundaries for each of these worlds lie or if they even exist.
In addition to Coppola's stellar usage of mixed media, the other key to CQ's success is Jeremy Davies, an extremely talented and severely underused young actor who quite possibly should have won an Oscar for his work in Saving Private Ryan and at least should have been nominated for last year's Rescue Dawn. I think there are less roles for him because he seems to insist on making quirky, out-of-the-box choices. However, when a director with vision is willing to roll the dice on him, he almost always delivers an inspired performance. CQ is no exception as Davies brings a believable, uncomfortable edge to Paul. He is a character who is lost and confused, but most actors would play him with a modicum of swagger. Davies makes him neurotic without being nebbish as if still a boy in the body a man who isn't quite sure that he wants to grow up. At the heart of Davies' performance, however, still is that extra element of quirkiness that is all his own. It's that extra layer of thought he puts in to his performance and those unusual choices he makes that allows the character to feel fresh different than what we're used to while at the same time, wholly plausible.
After all is said and done, with all its layers of meaning and different milieus represented within it, CQ ultimately becomes a dissertation on film and the nature of filmmaking as an artform. It depicts the tendency of the artist to lose himself in his work and how said artist can learn to manipulate the art to find his way again (it's no wonder I liked it so much). In that sense, it's a beautifully realized film and another highly auspicious debut from an almost unfairly talented family.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Thomas Crown Affair on Reel 13
Oddly enough, I had only seen the John McTiernan remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and while I realize it wasn't a masterpiece, I found it an entertaining and enjoyable caper. I just assumed that the original would be superior in every way and was excited about its airing on Reel 13 last night. After all, Norman Jewison, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway seem like a late sixties dream team (Jewison was coming off of directing the Best Picture Oscar-winner the year before IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT). Instead, the film had absolutely no emotional impact on me at all and left me surprised, bewildered and severely disappointed.
At first, I couldn't figure out where it went awry. I kept wanting to like it, expecting it to turn a corner and pique my interest, but then, before I knew what hit me, it was over. It starts promisingly enough with a clever bank heist, but Crown isn't physically involved in the robbery and we never really see him planning it in any way, so he's sort of passive, as heroes go, especially given it's essentially the only heist in the film (the second one at the end is a quickly cut carbon copy of the first). Then, Faye Dunaway, as insurance investigator Vicki Anderson, solves the mystery of the robbery WAY too easily. She walks in, looking young and stunning in several ridiculous overly fashionable outfits, bats her eyes and more or less decides that Crown is the guilty party. So, the two major elements of any crime - the crime and the investigation are rushed through and devoid of any suspense whatsoever.
It's almost as if Jewison was in a rush to get to the longest scene in the film the sexy chess match, which Norman clearly was setting up as the not-so-subtle metaphor of the movie (Did Dunaway really need to suggestively stroke one of the phallic-looking chess pieces? Cheeee-sy). It was around this time that it occurred to me that it's not supposed to be a cops and robbers movie as much as it was supposed to be a love story. That's fine, in theory, but even their relationship scenes are rushed. He gives her a dune buggy ride on the beach and suddenly, they're soulmates? Sorry, I don't buy it.
I'm most disappointed in Jewison, who normally is such a stickler for detail and is so careful in his storytelling. Here, he seems more interested in the natural beauty of both his lead actors than in the plot. Even the device he employs early in the film of dividing the screen into boxes falls flat or rather, he doesn't use it to advance the story (like the current television show "24" does a great job of). While he does have several things going on at once the robbery comes at the bank from five different angles he would instead chooses to use his four of his blocks to show Steve McQueen and the rest are out of focus. Then, when all of Crown's pawns are at different places in the bank, Jewison returns to full frame shooting at a time where the blocks might have really been useful/effective. Stylistic choices like that need to serve the story, not to show off the director's ability to do tricks.
I can almost see why McTiernan felt like it was a necessary film to remake. The plot has a lot of potential extremely wealthy man plots bank robberies (or in the case of the remake art heists) and then meets his match when an attractive, intelligent insurance investigator becomes the first to suspect him. Sounds great, doesn't it? But this original version barely scratches the surface of that juicy plot and invests more time in Michel Legrand's bizarre rhythmless song "Windmills in My Mind" (connecting Crown to Don Quixote). If you want a fun caper movie (I never thought I would say this), rent the remake. Norman Jewison has made a lot of great films, but he really bungled this one.
(For more information on this film or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website on www.reel13.com)
Camp on Reel 13
first saw CAMP at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual New Directors/New Films series in the spring of 2003. The audience responded to the film with such gleeful laughter and riotous applause throughout the film that one couldn't help walk away from the experience entertained. Even watching it alone in the comfort of my own home this past Saturday on Reel 13, the movie managed to illicit consistent smiles. In spite of its contrivances and amateurishness, CAMP remains an extremely pleasant experience.
CAMP is less a story about teens coming-of-age and coming to terms with their extreme talent and how that can make them outcasts in the world of high school than it is a paean to musical theater, though not so much in the general sense. The film eschews more classical musical theater in favor of the genre's more recent history 60's and 70's fare like "Company", "Promises, Promises", et al. The film actually seems to prioritize the musical numbers over the character development, especially given that the cast of kids are more singers than they are actors. Only Anna Kendrick in a supporting role is able to accomplish both deftly, creating an extremely memorable character and also belting out one of the highlight songs (Fittingly, she is the only one of the cast members to have had any sort of movie career post-CAMP, earning a Spirit Award nomination last year for her work in the high-school debating comedy ROCKET SCIENCE). In CAMP, one seems to look forward to the musical numbers, more so than in most musicals, as the scenes and story don't have nearly as much to offer.
This is not really a criticism because the film really doesn't make you wait long in between numbers. It moves crisply from song to song, usually with only a brief character scene or two in between. Somewhere along the line, actor-turned-director Todd Graff wisely recognized what the strength of the film was and shifted gears towards it. CAMP may not be deep, but it is a helluva lot of fun, offering magic for anyone who's ever been an artist and possibly even for everyone else too.
For more on this film or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website at www.reel13.org.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Some Like It Hot on Reel 13
It's interesting to me that, for a movie that is essentially silly and contrived at heart, SOME LIKE IT HOT works so well and holds up even today. I mean, as I'm sure you've heard if you've watched Thirteen at all this week, AFI recently named SOME LIKE IT HOT as the greatest American comedy of all-time. If the same movie were made today, I'm not sure it would fly. In today's more liberated society, men dressing up as women isn't that much of a novelty and it is my opinion that modern audiences would reject the coincidences that the plot hinges on (Lemmon and Curtis actually witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre AND the mob chasing them just happens to show up at the same hotel in Florida!). However, because it is from the fifties and in black and white, today's audiences tend to be a little more accepting, as if to assume that's they way things were done back then.
While I don't agree that plot contrivance was a staple of 1950's cinema (though it is pre- eminent in a lot of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond screenplays), I do agree that SOME LIKE IT HOT is a fabulous comedy. The key question is what makes it overcome those more absurd moments. It's not the performances. In spite of her iconic stature, Marilyn Monroe was never a very good actor and that remains true here. Tony Curtis is better imitating Cary Grant than he is at playing the Joe/Josephine character. Jack Lemmon doesn't disappoint and has many strong moments, even though when he is his Daphne make-up, his uncanny resemblance to The Joker from the BATMAN movies is very disconcerting.
No, I think what makes SOME LIKE IT HOT work is outstanding, precise direction. Billy Wilder writes some great dialogue, but I think his most underrated contribution to cinema comedy is his sense of pace and comic timing. The way some of his stronger films move and seem to breathe give them an energy that keeps the audience involved in the story, but also, to some degree, hides the less plausible elements of the plot. Even some of his lesser work like ONE, TWO, THREE (the Reel 13 Classic from March 29th) relies heavily on alternating between freneticism and stoicism and knowing just when to employ each (Soderbergh calls it "rhythm and release"). The staging of scenes borrow equally from Ernst Lubitsch (dialogue-driven) and Mack Sennett (physical comedy) to create this hybrid style that became all Wilder a sort of modern farce that, in the case of SOME LIKE IT HOT, had particular resonance because of how it innocuously played with sexual conventions at a time when attitudes toward sex and sexuality were starting to shift.
Most importantly, however, is that SOME LIKE IT HOT is just great fun. Smart dialogue, sharp direction, disguises, mistaken identity the works, all executed with great deftness and care. While I disagree that SOME LIKE IT HOT is the greatest comedy of all time (haven't they seen AIRPLANE?) or that it is Billy Wilder's best film (see last week's blog for THE APARTMENT), it's still a fabulous, memorable movie that in spite of its penchant for silliness, will probably live forever.
(For more information on this or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website at www.reel13.org)
Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity on Reel 13
LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS AND PROSPERITY shares some qualities with some of its north of the border Reel 13 Canadian Indie counterparts. It is a slice of life multi-protagonist piece akin to the awful, but highly-rated WILBY WONDERFUL with the misguided mystical elements that were woven throughout A PROBLEM WITH FEAR. LLHP does a much better job in developing its characters than WILBY did and the mysticism in question is based on ancient Chinese culture and therefore, somehow seems less contrived and more elegant than the inexplicable technology-based type from FEAR.
So, the script, on the whole, is decent. While there are several comedic moments that fall flat, there are many others that are genuinely funny in almost a Shakespearean way (one character's rendition of "Sometimes When We Touch" remains my fave). There are some structural deficiencies (neighbors' gossip as a form of exposition is never a good move), screenwriters Mina Shum and Dennis Foon paint their characters honestly and not a one of the three story lines seems to be favored over the others. Unfortunately, the performances in the film don't help to elevate the script in any way.
In the blog for WILBY WONDERFUL, I alluded to my general distaste for Sandra Oh's work. In LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS AND PROSPERITY, however, she towers over the other actors in the film, but that's not saying much. Almost every other actor (the main kid Mindy is okay appropriately precocious) in the piece seems new to film acting. They all seem extremely uncomfortable, delivering their lines as if they didn't really believe them. While Oh is significantly stronger than the rest of the cast, she's not fabulous either. She has several good comic moments and a few good serious ones, but she really pushes during the very emotional moments and that's never fun to watch.
There is plenty of charm in LONG LIFE, HAPPINESS AND PROSPERITY, enough that I found myself wanting to like it more than I ultimately did. Overall, the premise of the film that a little girl playing with ancient Chinese charms changes the fortunes of all the people around her is a little hard to buy, but it's not dissimilar to the kind of farce you might find in more classical fare like Moliere or even ancient Greek comedies. At the end of the day, however, the performances sunk this ship. If you can't believe the characters whose story you're watching, it makes for a pretty rough journey. All the charm(s) in the world can't save you there.
(Find out more about this film or other Reel 13 films on www.reel13.org)
The Apartment (1960)
What can I say about THE APARTMENT that hasn't already been said? In my opinion, it is Billy Wilder's masterpiece and one of the top 50, maybe even top 40 movies of all time. It's in a whole different league amongst the majority of the films, classics or indies, that they show on Reel 13 (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK is the only one that comes close). It is an almost amazingly perfect blend of comedy and drama, equally hilarious and heart-wrenching. This is a film that contains a suicide attempt, discusses another, features depression, significant infidelity and suggested promiscuity and yet manages to be perennially charming.
Cameron Crowe suggested that THE APARTMENT was a major inspiration for his film Jerry Maguire. At one point, he went to visit Billy Wilder to ask him to play a cameo in the film (the old-time agent in the opening). Though Wilder would eventually turn him down, Crowe did get to ask him about THE APARTMENT and all Wilder had to say was "Good actors. It worked". A simple analysis, granted, but it wisely gets at the heart of what elevates The Apartment to a whole different level. I mean, all the elements are strong the production design of the titular apartment and also the interior of the office are wonderfully detailed and the screenplay, of course, is brilliantly tight and well-crafted, but that's true of a great many Billy Wilder films. For THE APARTMENT, it is the inspired pairing of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and their abilities to be charismatic while exuding pathos that puts THE APARTMENT over the top.
I think of the scene in which Lemmon's Bud Baxter is trying to cheer up the broken-hearted Fran (MacLaine) who is embarrassed by her attempted suicide. Baxter reveals to her that he had tried it once himself years ago and relates to her the circumstances behind it in a monologue that in spite of its seriousness is delivered to be a lark of a story, almost as if a joke. In many other actor's hands, the monologue would have been morose and would have felt awkward tonally. However, Baxter's ability to laugh at his pain is not only charming, it's uplifting and due to Lemmon's conviction in his performance, it still feels honest.
MacLaine also has a great deal of strong moments and in a way, her character is the more challenging one. Her pain and heartbreak over her affair with Baxter's boss (an awesomely sleazy Fred MacMurray) is palpable and she still manages to throw in a quip or two from rock bottom. Instead of this feeling off-tone, MacLaine makes it work and it only adds dimensions to her character and rounds her out more. MacLaine craftfully navigates her character's journey from in confused love with a married man to suicidal and broken-hearted to a suddenly adult woman who comes to terms with both herself and the important things in life.
I could go on for days praising the individual qualities of THE APARTMENT the pitch- perfect framing, the uber-clever dialogue ("That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise".), the surprisingly effective bluesy score, the precise blocking of scenes, but I don't have time for all that. Instead, I'll let the maestro himself, Billy Wilder, sum things up the way he does best: simply and to the point "Good actors. It worked".
(For more information on this or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website at www.reel13.org)
City of Ghosts (2002)
City of Ghosts on Reel 13
The latest Reel 13 "Indie" is another film, like last month's A PROBLEM WITH FEAR that doesn't feel very much like an indie. It stars Matt Dillon, James Caan and Stellan Skaarsgard and is shot almost entirely in Cambodia. IMDb reports the budget to be $17.5 million. How does any film that cost over $10 million qualify as an independent film? While I question its status as an independent film, CITY OF GHOSTS is hardly as mind numbing as A PROBLEM WITH FEAR. As a matter of fact, it has a lot of great qualities, but somehow still doesn't capture the viewer in the way you would want it to.
Aside from a sadly two-dimensional and useless Natasha McElhone love-interest character, the rest of the characters in the film are well-developed and well-played. Matt Dillon, who also directs, is extremely subtle and nuanced in a role that wisely seems to play well to his strengths. James Caan plays an underworld kingpin type role that he's played a million times, but adds terrific layers of pathos and regret that help shape the character. Not surprisingly, Skaarsgard is great at depicting the way fear, guilt and greed can eat away at a soul.
The plot, which is kind of like a modern-day, Southeast Asian version of THE THIRD MAN is well laid-out and full of plausible, interesting twists. The cinematography by Jim Denault is rich in texture and palette. The design is believable and detailed. So, with all these strong elements, it's initially hard to figure out why they don't all add up to a great film.
In thinking about it further, I've decided that the fatal flaw of the film comes in the first act. In Dillon's haste to get the plot rolling, he and his screen writing partner, Barry Gifford neglected to get us to care about or like the main character of Jimmy. They are good about giving us information and backstory in regards to the character and all of his actions make sense and are understandable. As I said, Dillon portrays him believably as a complex, haunted man, but it occurred to me that at no point did I root for him. I understand that Dillon wanted to create a character that doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve and whose essence was deeper than he would ever reveal to people he meets. Still, I think the audience has to see it. An example of a similar character done very well is Matt Damon in THE GOOD SHEPHERD. Damon plays one of the most quiet, understated and seemingly emotionless characters of the decade, but he, in collaboration with his director Robert DeNiro, portray occasional moments of weakness throughout the film moments where his guard is let down. No character within the film is privy to these moments only the audience and it's just enough to connect you with the character and hence to get you emotionally involved in the character's journey. That's the missing link in CITY OF GHOSTS. It may seem like a small thing, but in the house of cards that is film-making, it would be one of the cards that you need on the very bottom. Without it, the whole thing comes toppling down.
(For more more information on this or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website at www.reel13.org)
Von Ryan's Express (1965)
Von Ryan's Express on Reel 13
I had last seen VON RYAN'S EXPRESS (Mark Robson, 1965) a long time ago as a kid as one of many WWII movies that my father loved and wanted to introduce me to. Watching it again as an adult on Reel 13 last night, I realized that the film is not as strong or fun as I remembered. As a matter of fact, it is probably among the weaker films of its genre. Its superior contemporaries are films like THE GREAT ESCAPE (John Sturges, 1963), THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (J. Lee Thompson, 1961) and THE TRAIN (John Frankenheimer, 1964). The difference, I believe, is personality. All three of the films feature characters, both leading and supporting, that are significantly more fleshed out, three-dimensional and therefore, interesting.
While VRE contains some impressive and well-choreographed action sequences, it isn't worth a damn without stronger character detail. The titular Colonel Ryan lacks any distinguishing characteristics or traits. He's a two-dimensional cookie-cutter war hero and its no wonder Frank Sinatra looks so bored playing him. The usually reliable Trevor Howard is frustratingly annoying as the head of the British forces in the film Major Fincham. His only character feature is that he is a wet blanket for two hours, constantly whining, complaining and naysaying at every turn. It might have been a much better film if Sinatra had just shot him in the early going.
Another positive aspect of VON RYAN'S EXPRESS is the level of detail put into the WWII accuracy. While I'm no history expert and they could have made dozens of mistakes that I didn't catch, everything seemed to be precise, from the style of trains and plains to the uniforms to the military procedures. Even if they missed something, Robson and screenwriters Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon take great pains to explain how things work so that we understand how our heroes overcome each obstacle that falls in their path. It is always clear and sensible how each approaching problem is solved. The tradeoff, however, as is common amongst plot-heavy films, is that you run the risk sacrificing character development. Great films are a balance of plot and character. The three films I mention above managed to achieve that. VON RYAN'S EXPRESS did not.
(For more information on this or any other Reel 13 film, check out their website at www.reel13.org)
Raising Victor Vargas (2002)
Raising Victor Vargas on Reel 13
I had the opportunity to see Peter Sollett's celebrated short film, FIVE FEET HIGH AND RISING, at the First Run Festival (NYU's student showcase) in April of 2000 and it truly was a remarkable achievement in the short format. Sollett cast appealing and charismatic young non-actors from around the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was shooting. The result was something out of the French New Wave a raw, unflinching look at youth and growing up while remaining optimistic, romantic and charming. He even ended the film with a freeze frame, akin to THE 400 BLOWS.
I bring up the short because it is this short on which RAISING VICTOR VARGAS, which aired on Saturday on Reel 13, was based. Sollett actually uses the same kids that he used in the short, only now they are several years older and suddenly very aware that they are acting. The improvisational moments that Sollett allows for in both films are more contrived in the feature now that the kids are older and more experienced. That lightning-in-a-bottle honesty that he captured in FIVE FEET HIGH AND RISING was missing in RAISING VICTOR VARGAS. The lead kid, Victor Rasuk, was much taller than five feet this time around, but he was still trying to play the puny upstart vying for the attention of a much taller and potentially older woman. Only he's not so puny and they are now the same height. The dynamics of the original were lost.
This is not to say that RAISING VICTOR VARGAS is a bad film not by any stretch. It is very clear that Sollett is a very intelligent and talented filmmaker. The family dynamic he created in the film is very effective and the addition of the grandmother character was a great idea. I particularly like that she was flawed instead of the perfect, learned and loving matriarch that you so often see. There are even some moments that approach the immediacy and sincerity of the short, but not enough to justify returning to the same story. RAISING VICTOR VARGAS got extraordinary reviews when it first came out a few years ago, but I wonder if all those critics had the opportunity to see the short as I had. If they had, I wonder if they wouldn't feel as let down as I did.
(For more information on this or any other Reel 13 Indie, check out www.reel13.org).
That's Entertainment II on Reel 13
This was certainly a surprise choice for the folks at Reel 13 Classics. It's not so much a classic as it is a retrospective of classics, which I guess qualifies if you look at it from a certain vantage point. Still, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed when I saw this film on the May schedule. Generally speaking, as a film buff, I enjoy retrospectives. More often than not, they offer unique perspectives on their subjects and insight into film history.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT PART II is different, however, for three reasons. One is the series was made by MGM/UA and so they primarily feature MGM musicals/scenes. While MGM had a lot of great stuff, narrowing your retrospective to one distributor over a two-decade period is a limitation. Second, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT PART II is an afterthought of a sequel they already used their best clips in the first film, so we get the leftovers here. Finally, the intros to clips by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are inane and offer absolutely no valuable information or tidbits (Where was Neal Gabler when we needed him?). They are great performers, but Kelly, who also directs, insights on these pseudo-clever song introductions to each sequence of clips, which is a waste of time. As I mentioned, part of the joy of retrospectives such as these is that they give us insider information, production stories or something of that ilk a kind of structure that tap dancing will not replace.