Sunday, October 30, 2011

A "Highbrow" Halloween Film Festival!

Time to use your imaginations: You're all invited to our house for an off-beat Halloween film festival! 

As much as I love the usual shockers ("The Exorcist", "Night of the Living Dead"), chillers ("Psycho", "The Shining") and other seasonal favorites at Halloween (from the ancient "Frankenstein" to "The Silence of the Lambs"), this year I have a yearning for the unconventional, the cerebral, those films that burrow into the mind as well as stimulate the scare reflex.  Here are 7 of my perennial favorites, some of which are appropriately disturbing in spite of their reputations as being "highbrow". 

(Highbrow, that is, with one notable exception.)

So grab your favorite trick-or-treat bon-bons, your favorite liqueur, snuggle into a favorite blanket, turn down the lights, and enjoy the following with me:

Klute (1971) A neglected, effective thriller with one of the essential performances given by any actress on film.  Jane Fonda's portrayal of Bree Daniels, a high-class New York call girl in peril, elevates this chilling little gem into the realm of psychological portrait.  In the tradition of "Psycho" we learn midway who the killer is, and we wait with dread for Bree's inevitable encounter. Alan Pakula's street-wise direction and a tinkling score enhance a brilliant screenplay.  Shocks and suspense are plentiful, but Fonda, in complete command of her effects, delivers a tough, slinky, devastating portrayal you cannot take your eyes away from.

Black Swan (2010) Still the scariest movie I saw last year, ands, incidentally,the most moving.  It's one of two horrific films about a young woman's coming-of-age on this list.  While the clever re-working of the tragic "Swan Lake" and the detailed observation of the ballet world may satisfy the intelligentsia, it is the series of phantasmagoric images, all metaphors for the attraction and terror of sexual maturity, that hit one with force, and stay in one's memory.  Malevolent portraits come to life, Natalie Portman suffers gruesome physical transformations, and Winona Ryder goes off the deep end. Here's a brief clip.

Persona (1966) The granddaddy of existential terror, this masterpiece from Ingmar Bergman demands complete immersion, and viewers who commit themselves to this darkly poetic tale of two women who blend identities are rewarded with a dreamlike procession of alarming images. Bergman manipulates the film medium, draws attention to it, insists that we are always aware that we are watching a film.  The pre-credit and credit sequence engage the mind and disturb the receptive viewer with indescribable horror.  To those who discover this film today, this opening sequence is still discussed and argued about.  You may not believe what you are seeing.

The Elephant Man (1980) perhaps the most accessible film from David Lynch until he directed "The Straight Story", was his forst foray into big-studio filmmaking.  It was a triumph of mood and atmosphere.  It is not based on the play of the same name, but rather on well-known biographical works about John Merrick, a monstrously deformed man who charmed his way into polite society with the help of a sympathetic doctor. Lynch uses the conventions of  black-and-white gothic horror movies to depict the fear and ignorance of a society struggling to adjust to an industrial world.  Lynch subverts our expectations of the genre to find a tender tale of redemption amid the horror.  The sound design is especially effective.

Eraserhead (1977) For those who prefer their Lynchian horrors more...well, Lynchian, here's the nightmarish, freakish debut that put him on the map.  Impossible to describe without making it sound like slapstick comedy, the film moves with the relentless slow logic of a nightmare.  "Eraserhead" blends such characters as a nerdy anxious father-to-be, his dysfunctional (understatement) family, a wailing, boil-covered baby with no skin on its body, a dreamy platinum blonde who lives in the radiator and squashes sperm-like creatures with her heel....and a head made into pencil erasers....  If you allow it to, it makes some sort of demented sense.  Better yet, have an aperitif first...

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) Another eerie, gruesome tale about a young girl's maturity, this time from Spain. This film is structured like a fairy tale, but it is a very adult fairy tale indeed.  Aside from the political horrors and torture, we are witness to the fantastic dreams and visions inside of a womb-like labyrinth, filled with threatening creatures and where blood flows freely.  The pale monster with no face, and eyeballs in its palms (see photo at top) is the type of thing that has haunted my nightmares. 

Glen or Glenda? (1953)  The incomparable Ed Wood, responsible for such "masterpieces" as "Plan Nine From Outer Space", and whose life inspired a terrific movie with Johnny Depp and Oscar-winner Martin Landau, created one of his strangest pieces with "Glen or Glenda", a docu-horror-drama which treated transvestism, a taboo movie subject in the early 1950's.  It's a biographic confessional: Ed Wood himself plays the male protagonist struggling with his sexual identity.  1930's horror staple Bela Lugosi appears as some kind of narrator.  Lugosi, by then a drug-addicted has-been, plunged into the role with conviciton.  This extended clip is a dream sequence, a real jaw-dropper, that might even be too idiotic for Halloween.  Anyway, I love it....

Documentary Films Do Good--Let's Have "Motivation Stations" at the Occupy Locations

Michael Moore Occupy OaklandRecently this journal expressed a fervent hope that the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which has organized sites globally, would become "Too Big To Fail". (That's the phrase that justified the outlandish tax-funded bailouts of financial institutions that proceeded to lay off millions and then pay their executives large bonuses).

The "Occupy" groups seem to have coalesced around more articulate "demands".  But now that the weather is becoming frigid and inhospitable, it would be nice if these protesters had something to keep them motivated.

I recently happened to catch both of the documentaries "Capitalism: A Love Story", and "Inside Job", running on our local cable stations.  Both of these films exposed, for anyone who cared to look, the corruption that led to the financial crisis that has finally moved average people to demonstrate.  Moore's film was especially prophetic.

The filmmakers and their studios, who have crafted important pieces of work that deserve, and need, to be seen, should be prevailed upon to make these films available for legal, free exhibition at the Occupy sites.

Set up what I would call "Motivation Stations". Put up tents filled with information about why the movement has begun, and yes, set up projectors, plasma TV's, laptop computers, anything that is handy, to run these films in continuous loops.

It was heartening to see Michael Moore show up at the Oakland site (click on this HuffPost link), and pay tribute to the Iraq War Veteran who was critically injured in the violent police action that sought to disperse the assembled demonstrators.

Moore, and Charles Ferguson, through their films, can be present at all the sites.  Make the films available, for free. Make sure the Occupiers never forget why they are there, and motivate them to keep going.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pooch Portraits, and a Miracle Beagle--Dog Shelter Laughs and Tears

I want to share two links I had found about dog shelters and their lovable, helpless residents. I hope the first one makes you smile, as it did me; and the second will move you to sign any petition to get "kill"shelters to stop using gas chambers.

*             *             *               *             *

The first is a whimsical story about enterprising shelters across the country.  The article, by Jasmine Aline Persch, an msnbc/Today Show contributor, interviews shelters who enhance the appeal and adoptability of their homeless friends by using professional photographic techniques.  Some shelters provide "makeovers" for the dogs to increase the "cute" factor.  Others provide more comfortable surroundings, better lighting and flattering angles to give dogs a more natural appearance. 

Many shelters post hastily-shot digital photos on their websites that reflect the animal's nervousness, and do not accurately portray the dog's size, temperament, or personality.  The article in the link explains what the more creative shelters are doing, interviews professional dog photographers, and gives readers some tips on how to digitally photograph their own dogs.

(Of course, it is always best to meet the dog in person, and never adopt solely from a photograph.  In fact, be wary of any shelter that does not do a thorough background check of you, your home, and other pets, before adopting any dog to you.)

*             *             *              *             *            

The Huffington Post (click here) offered a sobering story and video about Daniel, an unadopted 20-pound beagle in a shelter in Florence, Alabama. He and 17 other unwanted dogs were placed in a gas chamber to be euthanized.  When the door to the chamber was opened after 17 minutes, Daniel miraculously emerged, alive, tail wagging.  According to an interview in the video below, gas can vary in density and weight. Daniel may have found an air pocket that allowed him to breathe until the door was opened.  Many states have banned gas chambers to euthanize dogs--even Alabama (although the law will not go into effect for a year.)  Even so, of the six- to eight-million animals living in shelters each year, three to four million of them are euthanized in gas chambers.  Innocent creatures do not deserve this. Animal lovers need to help decrease the unwanted pet population by putting pressure on legislatures to close down puppy mills, spreading the word about spaying and neutering pets, and insisting on the elimination of gas chambers for animals.

(Pardon the annoying advertisement at the start of the video...)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Emergency! (An Embarrassing Anecdote)--Friday Journal

A little break from movies, Oscars, politics, even dogs.....To share a mildly embarrassing anecdote.  I'm writing this for a laugh or two, and as a perverse memento of the day.

I spend the entire morning at the Emergency room, with a dislocated shoulder.

I was feeling good, looking forward to a busy and productive day.  I even wore my best shirt and tie. As I left the house, I noticed that my car, which I keep parked on the driveway, was covered in ice, and my Drivers-Side door was frozen shut. 

(Having to scrape ice off my car before Halloween is discouraging--no, it's unacceptable.  I must send nasty e-mails to our local meteorologists.  Or,  stock up for a nasty winter to come...) 

I was able to pry open the passenger side, in order to crawl in and try to push the driver's door open from the inside.

As I pushed hard against the stuck door, it opened suddenly, like in a Three Stooges routine, and I slipped, landed on my left hand and felt (and heard) my shoulder pop.

Mark was still home....and I was in some real pain.

We summoned the paramedics, who were great... One of them was giving me injections and nasal pain-killer, and I joked that he was enjoying it too which he gave me an amused grin.....

While I was in X-ray, nauseous from pain-killers and feeling like I might die, the technicians rolled me somehow, and my shoulder snapped back into place....

The sedative (
dilaudid, an opiate drug of the morphine class) made me pretty ill....

Mark, who was patient and stayed with me the whole time, got me home, and I slept all afternoon, fighting an upset stomach.

Finally, I ate a light supper, and am faring pretty well.  Guess I'll have to be productive, and busy, on Monday.

I am supposed to wear a sling, and so I should not even be writing this.

B_t,   I   c_n_o_   k_y_o_r_   w_i_h    j_s_   1    h_n_!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Favorite Movies Not Nominated For A Best Picture Oscar

Something fun for a Wednesday night....

It's the time of year for prestige films, and for the start of the endless film awards season. Last week, The Gotham Independent Film Awards revealed their nominees, which included "Tree of Life", "Beginners", "Take Shelter", "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "The Descendants".

Today, after reading fellow blogger Jose's praise of "Incendies" and his criticism of Oscar for rewarding sappy, anti-intellectual films, I replied that, granted that this may be true, we still come back to Oscar year after year, and place our hopes on some recognition for our favorites. 

It's sad to expect vindication from a group that very often anoints mediocrity, while our favorites, those great films that give us chills of pleasure and inspiration, and that deserve to be immortalized, wind up in the forgotten trash heap of disappointment.

I have scores of "favorite films".  Many of them have been Oscar contenders (even winners!), but quite a few have never been nominated for Best Picture.  That the Academy grand prize ignored these favorites would be a crime, if the Academy Awards were based on some unassailable criteria of quality.

But it is a contest among industry insiders. Sometimes they come to their senses, and get it perfectly right. More often, they blow it, and make head-scratching selections that confirm Oscar's status as a novelty, certainly not anything to take to heart, nor to use as a model of moviemaking quality. 

This year, with the Best Picture nomination process subject to new levels of mathematical complexity, I fear that a lot of great work will be left out, maybe more this year than in the last two decades.  So I am expecting to be "disappointed" in the omission of some great work that will be added to my "favorites" list this year.

To console myself, I came up with a list of movies that I consider to be great, classic pieces of filmmaking, movies that are among my very favorites, that were left out of the Best Picture contest in their respective years.

In no particular order:

"PSYCHO", 1960. Hitchcock's freaking masterpiece.  It no doubt offended the sensibilities of an Academy that preferred "The Alamo" or "The Sundowners" (how often do we watch these today?) Even without the element of surprise in repeat viewings, it is a taut, playfully subversive and deliciously tingly night at the movies.  It's in my top ten favorite films of all time, and the best movie of all time that never got a Best Picture nomination.

"THELMA AND LOUISE", 1991. This story of two working-class women, who needed a break and wound up paying the ultimate price, was haunting and unforgettable.  Filled with stunning images set to great music in a landscape dominated by male symbols, it is one of the most gorgeous-looking color films I've ever seen.  Susan Sarandon was never more heartbreaking and tough, on the road with childlike Geena Davis.  Caused a firestorm of discussion in 1991.

THE DOCUMENTARY WING: No Documentary film has ever been nominated for Best Film, which is a shame, especially now that up to 10 films are eligible in the category.  So many great documentaries are being made these days, and getting distribution!  My favorite non-nominees include "Woodstock" (1970), "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), and "Inside Job" (2010).  Animated Films and Foreign language films have their own category, and also have been recognized in the Best Picture category.  Documentaries should have a chance, too.

"A SINGLE MAN", 2009. Stylish, and with a solid grasp of cinematic grammar, Tom Ford created a gem of a film, something beautiful and moving.  Expertly performed by all, and technically brilliant.  This would have been a quintessential nominee in Oscar's heyday.  Maybe it was deemed too thoughtful and esoteric in the year of  "The Blind Side" and "Avatar".

"2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY", 1968.  The granddaddy of science fiction movies, it was so far ahead of its time in '68 that its chances for a Best Picture nod were doomed.  So rich in detail that its effects hold up even among today's CGI knockoffs.  It still provokes thought while it dazzles the senses.  A must-see on a big screen.  Stanley Kubrick came close but never repeated this artistry.

"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" 1952. A joyous MGM Technicolor musical, pure fun, and a breezy precursor to this year's "The Artist".  I think it missed out because Gene Kelly's "An American in Paris" was the controversial surprise winner the year before. The Academy might have felt this was too much too soon, or too silly, or one dream ballet too many.  I prefer this to "American in Paris".  It makes me smile from start to finish.

THE 1969 HALL OF FAME  Oscar Year 1969 was a tug-of-war of styles and eras.  The actual nominees for best film ran hot ("Midnight Cowboy"!) and cold ("Hello, Dolly"?). There were so many other great films released that year, that an entire new slate could have been justified: "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice", "They Shoot Horses Don't They", "Easy Rider", "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and "Alice's Restaurant". Throw in "The Wild Bunch" as an honorable mention.  Of these, "They Shoot Horses..." was the most powerful.  It still holds the record for the most-nominated film (9) that did not also compete for Best Picture.

"AMELIE", 2001. Foreign Language Films have been short-changed in this category.  One of the most charming and great-looking films to be overlooked as a Best Picture contender is this French confection.  It is a triumph of imagination and design, a freewheeling depiction of the mind of an eccentric and romantic young woman, who unwittingly makes the world brighter for a number of disparate characters, and finds love in the bargain.  (Runner up in the Foreign-Language Hall of Fame: Federico Fellini. His "Satyricon" was also a mind-boggler, a feast of unusual visuals, sounds and music.  Fellini never got a nod in the Best Picture category, in spite of his Foreign Language Film victories.)

"DOUBT", 2008. A Catholic mystery story, a psychological puzzle.  Based on a smashing play, and crafted for the screen with all of its nuances intact.  Add Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis at the top of their talents, and you have a classic drama. Classic. Moody design, wonderfully photographed, and directed with grace and generosity toward its performers. Worthy of being watched again and again. 

I can go on... Add to the list: "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988), "Blue Velvet" (1986), "Hud" (1963), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "Some Like It Hot" (1959), "Women in Love" (1970),  "Gods and Monsters" (1998), and "Never Let Me Go" (2010). All of them favorites, left at the Best Picture altar.

I wonder what others would include on their lists.....

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Memorial To Flight 191--A Monday Photo Journal

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this journal about the tragic crash of Flight 191 in Chicago in 1979; and about the Memorial to the 270 people on board and on the ground who were killed (click here to see the post, A Memorial For A 1979 Aviation Disaster, August 30).

The Memorial, located in Lake Park in suburban Des Plaines, Illinois, was finally completed, and dedicated on October 15.  About 1000 attended the ceremony.

When I wrote the journal entry back in August, I promised myself that I would visit the site as soon as it was completed.

This past Sunday, late on a poignant afternoon just before dusk, I spent time at the park, and took some pictures.

The pictures tell their story; no more words are necessary.  I'd like you to stand next to me, in quiet contemplation....


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Review: "Take Shelter" A Psychological Horror Story

There is a lot of rain in the eerie, gripping new film "Take Shelter".  Not just rain, but downpours with portentious, threatening thunder, terrifying storms with menacing, rolling dark clouds and tornadoes.  Sometimes the rain falls in thick, golden droplets, like motor oil.  Curtis, the troubled working-class family-man played by Michael Shannon, might be having apocalyptic premonitions.  Or, as he fears, he may be falling victim to hereditary paranoid schizophrenia.

Either way, his horrific visions are playing havoc with his personality. He can't sleep for the terrifying nightmares: monstrous people are trying to take his family away; the family dog turns on him viciously; a plague of dying birds rains from the sky. He is trapped inside his fears, those deep within his psyche, and the ones inherent in his family responsibilities. 

Curtis' perceptive wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) notices changes in Curtis, unusual things. His behavior and his appearance of illness become gradually more erratic, more alarming.  Their little girl Hannah, a special needs child with hearing loss, needs an implant and special schooling. Curtis can't afford to become distracted at his job on a utilities crew, as his employee insurance plan is crucial to their daughter's care. 

Along the way he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), now a frightened and resigned woman in assisted living, and asks her questions about the onset of her paranoid disorder.  He checks out library books about mental illness and reads them in secret. He asks his doctor for a prescription to help him sleep.  He discusses his self-diagnosis with a free counselor at his office, a pleasant woman who clearly cannot help him.

The rural, god-fearing, Lions-Club world in which Curtis belongs discourages men from revealing weakness or confiding in a loving spouse or close friends.  For much of "Take Shelter", we wait in dread for the situation to become so dire that Curtis must either tell someone what is happening within him, or explode.  In this film, both things happen.

"Take Shelter" does not want to comfort us with easy solutions to the terrifying plight of mental illness; nor does it want to follow a path toward a typical supernatural horror story. In fact, we are never quite sure what kind of film it actually will turn out to be, which intensifies a feeling of mounting anxiety and tension.  The schizophrenic nature of the film, where there are no safe harbors, is an effective way to depict Curtis' psyche, and manipulate our responses in a way similar to what audiences must have felt about Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby": was she losing her mind, or was something sinister really occurring?

The film means to unsettle, and disquiet us.  Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (who won a Director's Week Grand Prize at Cannes) walks a delicate tightrope here.  We are not certain if this film represents the fevered and terrifying vision of a madman trapped in a life of quiet desperation; or if it is actually a supernatural thriller in which Curtis is a prophet of an apocalyptic future. The film needs to keep this difficult balance, or it would easily tip into the realm of absurdity (which it comes perilously close to once or twice). 

I must stop for a moment and heap some praise on the two leads.  Like many new films where the acting has overcome difficult material, the fine performances in this film elevate "Take Shelter" into the ranks of serious, thoughtful filmmaking. 

Michael Shannon, who can make a good career from playing seemingly normal but very unbalanced individuals, slowly pulls out all the stops.  He holds himself in check, as his character feels extreme duress and pain, the way I have seen blue-collar guys do.  Then, he unleashes his anger and fear, in a well-acted (if slackly directed) scene at a community dinner.  He is a powerhouse, appearing in almost every scene, at turns creepy and heartbreaking.  He is terrific.

Jessica Chastain's Samantha is a meatier version of her saintly mother in "Tree of Life", which almost seemed like a wordless dress rehearsal for this role.  Chastain is so direct, so fresh in her scenes, her emotions so well controlled and her delivery so natural, that I believed every minute she was on the screen.

Nichols has good control of his camera and visual effects, and startling use of sound.  His screenplay builds incident upon incident to a claustrophobic and terrifying climax, in a style less graphic but as suffocating and suspenseful as "The Exorcist".  He keeps the action grounded in a stark, everyday existence, which makes Curtis' transformation even more unbearable once he succumbs to mood swings, night sweats, vomiting, bloody seizures, and obsessive behavior.

The backyard storm shelter that Curtis builds out and fortifies, which imperils his job and his friendships and drives his wife into a rage, can be seen as a metaphor, for his entrapment, or for an escape from a world that shows signs of becoming threatening and overwhelming. 

In fact, the film dabbles in lots of metaphors: First, the motor-oil rain could be a symbol of environmental disaster, leading Curtis to nightmares of extreme, damaging climate change. Second, making Curtis a reticent Everyman can be seen as a statement against a culture in which men are emasculated for admitting the need for help.  Third, the nightmare visions could be seen as a world become completely hostile, where one can take no comfort even in the safety of one's family, even a loyal dog. Finally, the real storm that brings the family to the shelter leads to a scene that could be a microcosm for Curtis' life, and helps us understand the  "being afraid" that Curtis tries to explain to Samantha. 

(Of course, Nichols may have had none of these metaphors in mind from script to screen, but I still don't suppose he wanted anyone to take away any literal interpretations; if so, he miscalculated his final scene.) 

The  climactic sequence in the storm shelter had me very afraid.  By this point I could not be sure if they wouldn't be trapped there for good, or if they would somehow emerge.  I actually felt like I was going to suffocate.  All of the elements of the film came together in what might be the most purely suspenseful movie sequence of the year.

I would have been happy to see "Take Shelter" end on a quiet note right after this horrific sequence inside the storm shelter.  However, what follows is that final scene, one that will have people shaking their heads in confusion.  It defies logic, is even facile, but after some thought, I accepted it as a final nightmare image where Curtis is embraced, not threatened, by those around him; in other words, a turning point for the better.  I fear, though, that many viewers will feel betrayed by this ending, and conclude that "Take Shelter" was nothing more than a simple vision of the apocalypse.

Given the dual nature of the entire film, who is to say which interpretation is the "real" one?

(Note: This review was especially difficult to write.  Mental illness hits close to home, and while I would not expect any film to lend me all of the insight I need in order to help a loved one, I must say that "Take Shelter", for me at least, did not finally exploit "madness" for the sake of cheap horror. For that, I was grateful.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chicago Cubs and Hollywood: An Interesting New Connection

What do the Chicago Cubs now have in common with "Here's looking at you, kid",  and Brad Pitt?

This guy....

Something big is about to happen with the hapless Cubs, Chicago's beloved baseball team that nevertheless has not won a World Series for 103 years....  It should be a boon to the team, and provide a movie-lover like me a new level of interest in next year's season....

It's Saturday night, and Mark, who is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cubs' arch-enemy), is enjoying the Cardinals' promise to triumph over the Texas Rangers in game 3 of this years' series.  So tonight, something brief, and lighthearted.

Tom Ricketts, the new owner of the Cubs Organization, is closing a deal with the Boston Red Sox to bring Theo Epstein to the Cubs as the President of Baseball Operations.  Epstein was the Golden Boy who used smarts and statistics to bring the Red Sox a 2004 World Series Championship after 83 years, and a second Series Championship 3 years later.  At 28 years old he was the youngest general manager to lead a ball team to Series victory.

I find Epstein's baseball story as fascinating as I find the man personally interestting.  I will cover him, and the Cubs, regulary an the coming Baseball Season.

ESPECIALLY INTERESTNG so far, to me and hopefully to my movie-loving readers, are these two items:

--Epstein took the job with the Red Sox when the first man who was offered the job, Billy Beane, turned it down. Beane is the subject of the new film "Moneyball", which I'll review here soon.

--Epstein's grandfather, Philip G. Epstein, and great-uncle, Julius J. Epstein, won Oscars for the screenplay of "Casablanca".

While neither of these tidbits will have anything to do with Epstein's success with the Chicago Cubs, the continuity with the past glories of 1940's movies, and the slight connection with the subject of one of this year's most highly praised films, feels right....  and gives a trip to Wrigley Field a claim to modernity and the legitimate nostalgia it deserves.

And that should do it for a Saturday night.

Tomorrow....a look at the horrific world of mental illness in "Take Shelter"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chicago Film Festival Closing Ceremony Surprise! It's---"Margin Call"

The second-to-last night of the Chicago Film Festival traditionally offers a Surprise Film.  No one knows beforehand what the film will be. Speculation and excitement run rampant.  All you need to do to get in is wear a Festival T-shirt or sweatshirt.

Wednesday night was cold and damp, with fierce winds blowing the rain hard against your face and soaking your topcoat to an embarrassing degree.  An umbrella was no good against the gusts of 60mph or more.

That didn't keep true fans away.  When I arrived an hour before showtime, there was a contingent of almost 100 strong already, sitting in a snaky line in the lobby.  It felt like my days as a college residence hall director. 

As the time approached, everyone was abuzz with guesses as to what we would see.  "J.Edgar"?  "Rum Diary"?  "The Muppet Movie"?  The new Almodovar?    After a festival filled with riches from all over the world, with edgy and wonderful cinema to revel in, what would be the frosting on the cake?

We took our seats and got rowdy for group photos (ours should be posted on the Fest web site soon). The lights went down.  We held our breath....

Fade in to a helicopter shot of New York City...  The projectionist had no time to even frame the picture properly: the credits, which appeared on the bottom of the frame, were cut off!  That problem would plague the first 15 minutes of the movie.  Fortunately, the main title appeared dead center...and there was a strange, uncertain silence from the cineastes in my midst.  The film? "Margin Call". 

A relatively unfamiliar Hollywood product...  We were intrigued....Instead of excited applause, we all settled back to quietly check it out.....

*      *      *      *      *      *  

"Margin Call", the feature-film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor, feels like it was made from a rough-draft of a screenplay that could have used a rewrite. 

Reportedly shot in just over two weeks on a tight budget, the film deserves some kudos for attempting to tell a human story of investment bankers who were seduced by easy money and created a global financial meltdown.  After the first fifteen minutes, I thought "Margin Call" was going to become some sort of "Die Hard" involving an idealistic corporate intern fighting the corruption of the evil rich.  Fortunately, the film moved in a quieter direction, and seemed to be making a sincere attempt to entertain and be topical.

The problem, for me, is that this movie is nothing more than two hours of guys (and Demi Moore) in suits, talking, about things that are both impenetrable (they need, literally, a rocket scientist to explain the trader train-wreck about to occur); and so familiar that we become impatient for some new twist, some new light that never comes. 

 Thus "Margin Call" is oddly contradictory.  It examines an issue that, today, has people taking to the streets in anger; and yet feels completely cut off from the real-life implications of its subject matter.  (Viewers will have been more stirred to angry action, and deeper understanding, from "Capitalism: A Love Story" or "Inside Job").  Instead, "Margin Call" seeks to generate some weird sympathy for these individuals who somehow had no idea what was about to happen, and asks us to accept them as victims.  Characters spend a lot of time looking at alarming stuff on myriad computer screens, but we viewers are neither invited to look at, nor to begin to understand, what's on them.

It all goes back to the script.  The film opens with a veteran employee (Stanley Tucci) getting fired, being offered a severance, and losing his office privileges and company cell phone.  He is ordered to clear out immediately. A "Soprano"-sized bodyguard is assigned to stand watch outside of Tucci's office and accompany him to the elevator, to be sure he does not steal any company secrets. And then, in the elevator right in front of this "escort", Tucci hands a flash drive to a young analyst he has mentored (the darkly handsome, newly "out" Zachary Quinto), tells him to have a look, and to be careful.... 

Which is exactly what the beefy bodyguard was assigned to prevent!!....and no comment is made.

At this point, all credibility collapses, and the film never really recovers.  Soon, the ever-loyal Quinto takes a look at his mentor's work, finds the missing piece that Tucci was about to discover before he was sacked, and his rocket-science training allows him to see what no one else was able to see (or having seen, admit to): that the company, like much of the world, was on the brink of financial collapse.  It occurs to a viewer that the massive layoffs, staged at the film's outset, had nothing to do with the company going under, since, at that moment, no one realized anything bad was happening.... So why not re-write Tucci's character as a new retiree, and skip the false intrigue?

"Margin Call" takes place in a 24-hour period, in one office building.  It's like a sedated version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" with today's headlines to give it legitimacy.  This movie, come to think of it, might have more energy if it were performed on a stage.

Lacking any filmic excitement, we are drawn in by a capable and excellent cast, who all perform with conviction, even though some rather lazy dialog often has a variety of characters using the same phrasing,  for no apparent comic or dramatic purpose.  Because of the actors (and Demi Moore), I will admit that I was, at least for two hours, held and entertained.

The aforementioned Quinto doubles here as one of the producers of the film.  He plays a likable character whose role too quickly diminishes into a supporting one (a gesture of modesty, perhaps?)  His cool, determined gaze and luxurious, magic-marker eyebrows make for some intense and satisfying closeups.  He also has, far and away, the best haircut of the entire cast...I have rarely seen so many glamorous stars look so sloppy in a film about high-rolling professionals.

Kevin Spacey, as the head of the division, looked alarmingly different in appearance.  To say his character is deglamorized is an understatement; at first I thought he was Gene Hackman.  Nevertheless, he works small miracles with this part, and should have been given a better-developed back-story. The script cheats Spacey out of what could have been an incredibly moving moment in the film.

Jeremy Irons chews up the scenery as the Big Boss, who helicopters in for the night, to gather enough information to put the final nail in the coffin of his troubled company, all for his enrichment. 

Paul Bettany is almost too treacherous, chewing Nicorette gum and seeming a lot more mysterious than he is. Penn Badgley is a naive innocent, a nerd who wears white socks with his suit, and pulls off a loyal frat-brother puppy-dog demeanor--I liked Badgely a lot. Simon Baker and Demi Moore are fine in bookend roles, as high-level investors who must find a quick way out of a jam, manipulating everyone like expert chess players.  Moore is surprisingly good, especially in her climactic dialogue with Irons.

Perhaps the most unfortunate failing of "Margin Call" is its inability to move an audience.  Spacey's character has, as a framing device, a poignant concern about his dog, who is about to die.  Is this a two-cent way of eliciting sympathy?  As a sucker for all things dog, and as one whose tears flow freely whenever a movie character has to bury a departed pet, I had no emotional reaction to this at all.  It all seemed so wrong, and so manipulative, in a film as steely-cold as "Margin Call".

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chicago FilmFest Mini Reviews: "Silver Cliff", "Larger Than Life", and an Audience Fave!

What Love May Bring

I was really into it, having fun and feeling like this was where I belonged. Two screenings back-to-back, with ten minutes in between to take a bathroom break and dash across to the opposite end of the multiplex, was the highlight of this past Saturday.

Before I review "Silver Cliff" (a Brazilian drama) and "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" (A Documentary from the US), I must mention one of the Best of the Fest winners (I'm very excited)....

Chosen as one of the two Audience Favorites was Claude Lelouch's epic poem to the cinema titled "What Love May Bring" (photo above, and reviewed here last week)I was excited to know that, out of the 150-plus films screened at the Festival,  and of the four that I was able to get to, I was right there among an appreciative crowd that was as moved and delighted as I was.

That night, the Event Schedule showed that the film was sold out. After making an inquiry, we were told that a few tickets might be available after all.  Timing and personal preference, and a little bit of scrambling, made it possible to be a part of what would turn out to be one of the essential events of the entire two weeks.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The dashing producer (Rodrigo Teixeira) of the Brazilian film "Silver Cliff" introduced the festival screening, and explained that the movie is based on the lyrics of an old classic pop song called "Eye to Eye", which is played at the end of the film. The song is about getting through heartbreak and renewing your life after love goes away (sort of the same sentiment as "I Will Survive", in dreamy Portuguese.) 

The movie is an almost plotless tone poem about the sudden and unexplained disintegration of a marriage.  After having sex with his wife one morning, Violeta's distracted husband goes on a business trip. From the road, he sends her a voice message saying he doesn't love her any more, and is leaving her and their teenage son.  Devastated, she tries to go after him, and winds up wandering the streets of Rio de Janeiro that night, where she meets a little girl and her handsome young father.  After spending time together, they part company at daybreak, and their fates are left to our imagination, as the song suggests there is hope.

The film at first drew me in with its strong visuals, its attention to textures and creative use of framing of the characters, keeping backgrounds out of focus to suggest the alienation and entrapment of its characters in a mundane existence.  Alessandra Negrini, as Violeta, must carry the film in closeup, with her outpouring of confusion and emotion without the benefit of dialogue or much of anything to to.

What began as an intriguing visualization of the grief and confusion of life's tragic turning points eventually becomes tedious. The viewer feels stranded, watching protracted tracking shots of Violeta wandering and weeping.  One is left to notice meaningless details, like the sloppy paint job in the cheap hotel where she checks in that night, or the virtuoso camerawork in the bar sequence where Violeta dances alone to "Maniac."  The virtuosity for its own sake frustrates the viewer from learning anything more about Violeta, what might have happened, or what she will do next.

"Silver Cliff" is a nicely-produced, nice looking film, that nevertheless exemplifies the common independent-filmmaker impulse to create something out of a vague yearning, a wish to visualize an emotional state, but finally having little of lasting value to say.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *

"Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" is an explosively entertaining, fast-moving film about one of the treasures of the American stage.  Contemporary viewers may not know or remember Carol Channing, and may find her irrelevant.  This film sets out to disprove that idea!

Best known for her classic Broadway roles in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Hello Dolly", Channing had a life filled with hard work, inspiration, and a generous view of the world.

The film is an expert compilation of current interviews with Channing, who serves as the film's "narrator"; on-screen commentaries from superstars like Betty Garrett, Lily Tomlin, Debbie Reynolds, Bob Mackie, Chita Rivera, Jerry Herman, JoAnne Worley (Channing's "Dolly" stand-in, who never got a chance to take the stage), Barbara Walters and many others; vintage photographs from Channing's childhood and early career, as well as old clips from TV interviews, variety programs and talk shows, commercials, and her Oscar-nominated turn in "Thoroughly Modern Millie". 

Woven into this gorgeous movie tapestry are clips from a current show that has Channing, at age 90, rehearsing with many of the guys from the chorus of her "Hello Dolly" revivals.  Most poignant is the revelation of her eventual marriage to the boy she grew up with, and loved for over 70 years, through the hardships of her own oppressive marriage, the challenges and heartbreaks of the road, and the excitement of her singular show-biz life.

The crowd where I screened this movie loved the surprising and hilarious anecdotes about her first movie kiss (with Clint Eastwood!), her thoughts on the movie version of "Hello Dolly" with Barbra Streisand, and many, many others.  I was moved by stories of Channing's compassion, her concern for a fellow cast member with AIDS, and her deep understanding of the pain of racism through her associations with Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong.  It is even thought that Channing herself had a black ancestor.

This is a terrific film for show-business buffs, Broadway followers, and cultural nostalgists.  Director Dori Beirnstein (who appeared after the screening in Chicago) has done an astounding job of assembling an unbelievable amount of material into a frothy, energetic and informative movie.  Channing was a great subject, too, and from all appearances one of the nicest celebrities imaginable, very cooperative and a good sport. 

It is sometimes hard to evaluate a film about a charismatic subject and separate the subject from the quality of the filmmaking.  Here, it is a perfect marriage.  "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" held me spellbound, smiling throughout, and choking back tears frequently. I must study this film for the skill of it's editing, too.  I loved the sequence in which Channing explained how "Before The Parade passes By" was written for "Hello Dolly", and what the song means. Crosscutting between four different interviews in rapid succession, Beirnstien tells a great story with comical subtle differences between the recollections of her subjects.

Channing represents to me a generation that we will soon lose forever, people like Mark's mother and my parents, and that except for the love and skill of great filmmakers, or the devoted preservation of lore by their loving families, their stories may disappear with them.  I recommend this film very highly indeed.

See it for no other reason than that people like Carol Channing, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Herman, Gower and Marge Champion, and others like them, will be remembered. 

And by their example, to remain encouraged to keep trying while there is still a chance....The words to this song have never been more inspiring....

Before the parade passes by
I've gotta go and taste Saturday's high life
Before the parade passes by
I've gotta get some life back into my life
I'm ready to move out in front
I've had enough of just passing by life
With the rest of them
With the best of them
I can hold my head up high
For I've got a goal again
I've got a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by

Monday, October 17, 2011

Coming Soon: Two More From The Fest

Tomorrow, mini-reviews of two more from the Chicago Film Festival:

A mood piece from Brazil,  "The Silver Cliff":

And a dynamite documentary about a show-business icon:

I will also attempt to attend Wednesday night's Surprise Movie. It is a tradition of the Festival,  No one knows what will be shown until the lights go down.  People I've talked to are guessing "J.Edgar", "The Muppet Movie", or "Rum Diary".  Admission is free; but you have to wear a Festival T-shirt or sweatshirt to get in.

Interlude 1: A Mt. Prospect Photo Journal

One late afternoon last week, I looked out the front window to the school fields right across the street.  Hundreds of geese were resting, or lining up along the curb to drink the rainwater that was still falling gently through blazing sunlight.

I walked out of the house into the warm rain and sunshine, and saw everything drenched in a gold light. I took a few pictures before the sun quickly set over the fields.

Looking over the rooftops along the back of the house, I caught a perfect rainbow...

Even though the end of the rainbow seems to be on our roof, I'm still looking for the pot of gold....