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February 19, 2018

CACTUS FLOWER

Cactus_flowerBased on a Broadway play that was based on a French play (“Fleur de cactus” by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy), this is a 1969 romantic comedy with style, wit, charm, sophistication, and several delightful moments of women’s lib in action. The women in the story set the ethical and moral standards even if by default.

The movie also happens to be a great time capsule of late ‘60s fashion, music, and culture in Manhattan. Check out all of those Beatles albums on the wall of the record store where Goldie Hawn works.

Guggenheim lovers look out for a date scene with Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn in the green-lit museum where there turns out to be a very pronounced echo.

Gene Saks (“The Odd Couple”) again directs Walter Matthau, this time as Dr. Julian Winston, a Midtown dentist in love with Toni (Goldie Hawn in her feature film debut), a hippie chic half Julian’s age. Julian’s lies to Toni, about having a wife and three kids, catch up with him when he decides to pop the question. Keep in mind that Toni is suicidal, and is being watched over by her doting neighbor Igor (Rick Lenz), who saves Toni’s life. Igor is on the prowl for Toni even if it means stealing her away from Julian. 

Cactus flower
Julian’s loyal nurse and secretary Stephanie Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman) suffers an awful indignity when Julian invites her out for a drink only to plead for her to pretend to be his wife while meeting Toni. Julian is naturally oblivious to the torch that Stephanie carries for him. She makes him chicken-and-egg-salad sandwiches for crying out loud.

Mattheu & Hawn

Goldie Hawn uses her large expressive eyes and effortless physicality to great visual effect for her slinky character. There's more than a little Edie Sedgwick in Goldie Hawn's appearance. In return, the straight-laced Matthau walks a fine line as a reprehensible liar you can’t help but adore even if he is a dentist. “The Bad News Bears” was yet to come as another milestone performance in a long and treasured career.

Ingrid Bergman, however, is this movie’s secret weapon. Bergman proves to be a crafty comic presence that links the film’s bawdy humor to darker emotional colors. She get laughs too. The international movie star of “Casablanca” and “Spellbound” savors the driest dialogue with naturalism, depth, and a whiff of magic dust. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is just delightful. This is as good as Cinema gets, a genre film with all of the ideal elements in place.

Ingrid Bergman

“Cactus Flower” is a hidden gem. The scene between Toni and Stephanie, in the record shop where Toni works, is worth the price of admission alone. Bergman and Hawn are so much fun to watch. A dance floor duet between the actresses also pays off on the film’s entertaining premise of star-crossed lovers finding their way toward one another.  

Rated M. 103 mins. (A-) (Four stars out of five / no halves)

February 15, 2018

VIVRE SA VIE — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Vivre Sa VieIn 1962 French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard shifted stylistic filmic gears as lucidly as Miles Davis revolutionized music. Artistic experimentation was in the air. For his fourth feature Godard took Marcel Sacotte’s book about prostitution in Paris as inspiration to create a fascinating cinema vérité styled character and social study. Godard’s groundbreaking camera techniques add intimacy, suspense, and mystery to his documentary approach to sensitive subject matter. The dramatic effect is memorable as it is meaningful. Every aspect of the movie is effortlessly iconic, not the least of which is the stylish personality profile that Anna Karina fulfills. 

Anna Karina

Never before had the backs of heads and shoulders been exploited to such a delightfully dramatic extreme. Hair styles express nuances heretofore unknown. Broken into 12 chapters, “Vivre Sa Vie” takes a non-judgmental view of a character who is nonetheless doomed.

Godard’s wife at the time Anna Karina is transfixing Nana, a lovely young French actress driven to take up prostitution after meeting a pimp. Forth-wall-breaking moments allow the audience to connect with Anna Karina’s guileless yet fragile beauty in support of her aspirational character. The emotion and intellectual nature that Karina transmits is every bit as affecting as Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” from 1928. Indeed, Godard references Dreyer’s masterpiece in “Vivre Sa Vie” when Nana goes to a screening at a Parisian cinema.

Anna Karina

“My Life to Live” has just as much social currency today as the day it was released even if its gangster trope ending lets Godard off the hook all too easy. Here is a unique film that takes daring chances while rooting itself in neorealist filmic soil. You can feel its grounded sense of immediacy and truth.  

Anna Karina

Not rated. 85 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


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Jean-Luc Godard's fourth film features Godard's wife-at-the-time Anna Karina as an actress-turned-prostitute in this ground breaking example of the French New Wave. Stone Delicious IPA seemed like the perfect beer to go along with this equally attractive film. 

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February 13, 2018

BREAKING THE WAVES — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Breaking the WavesIt's impossible to know when you are watching film like "Breaking the Waves" that you are witnessing the high watermark of a filmmaker's career. Made shortly after Lars von Trier (he added the "von" himself) co-authored with Thomas Vinterberg the strident "Dogme 95 Manifesto" for low-budget filmmaking, "Breaking the Waves" comes with a clarity of vision and social urgency that is an assault on the senses and the intellect. Von Trier leaves no stone unturned.

In her breakout performance Emily Watson plays Bess McNeill, a simple-minded Scottish, Calvinist churchgoer who marries Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard), and oil rig worker who suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed. Bess McNeill's worldview is hampered by the religious indoctrination she has gone through. Intimate conversations with God, in which Bess takes on both roles, provide insight into her sincere but ill-conceived thought process. Nonetheless, the love that Jan and Bess share is real as her imagination brings her to God. 

Emily Watson

When Jan urges Bess to go out and have sex with other men and report back to him her carnal experiences, she takes Jan's wishes beyond the realm of common sense. In her mind Bess is helping cure Jan from his dire circumstance.

Cinematographer Robby Muller’s documentary shooting style favors intimate close-ups to reveal characters’ inner emotional lives. Muller captures Scotland’s rugged atmosphere as a supporting character to the Shakespearian tragedy on hand.

Breakingthewaves

Although fiercely criticized for its shaky handheld camerawork, the technique gives the film an ungrounded sensibility of floating on roiling waves. Naturally, film and television industries coopted von Trier’s technique so much so that it doesn’t stand out at all. The film's seven-acts are marked by colorful postcard chapter headings accompanied by songs such as Mott The Hopple's "All the Way From Memphis" for Chapter One — Bess Gets Married or Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" to announce Chapter Six.

Jan and Bess

Lars von Trier makes a clever attack on organized religion that resonates with Bunuel's famous line, "I'm an atheist, thank God." Emily Watson gives an angelic if earth-shattering performance that is transgressive, cathartic, and viscerally painful. Here is a film that makes you feel like you've read the novel, seen the movie, and lived the life of a protagonist more empathetic than any other. You just might need a stiff drink afterward but you will have witnessed one of the best films of all time. 

February 10, 2018

THE DEATH OF STALIN

Andrea RiseboroughWhile not as bawdy as it could or should have been, Armando Iannucci’s (director on "In The Loop," scriptwriter on television's "Veep") determinedly British send up of the Russian political structure at the time of Joseph Stalin’s death is a satisfying political spoof.

With no German accents anywhere in earshot, the satire kicks in with Adrian Mcloughlin’s death (as Stalin) while listening to a freshly minted radio recording by Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a symphony pianist who sends Stalin a hate note along with the vinyl record for the Russian leader to mull over. A puddle of pee surrounds Stalin's [is-he-really-dead] corpse. Not pretty. 

This goofy cinematic vantage on petty jealousies, backstabbing, and political maneuvering of Russia’s Central Committee gives the audience a not so unrealistic sense of how politicians operate regardless of their country of origin.

Jeffrey Tambor is delightfully insufferable as Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov who wrangles to take command of Russia now that Stalin is out of the way. Malenkov has stiff competition in the likes of Lavrentiy Beria (exquisitely cast with Simon Russell Beale), the head of NKVD (Russia’s secret police called the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Steve Buscemi is predictably watchable as Nikita Khrushchev. Especially delicious is Michael Palin’s turn as Foreign Minister Vyachaslav Molotov. The former Monty Python actor and contributor hasn't lost his razor-sharp comic timing. 

Death of stalin

The Death of Stalin” plays lighter than its subject matter projects. While another trip through the editing process could have helped, this is a movie that audiences will happily discover as time goes by. It doesn’t hurt that the film was banned in Russia. I wish it had been more transgressive to warrant such an action, but it’s got plenty of laughs as it is. Motherland or Home Land, it's all the same. 

The-death-of-stalin

Rated R. 106 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)


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February 09, 2018

WINCHESTER

WinchesterDefective from its conception, this would-be horror movie doesn’t take the bother to establish a compelling protagonist. Even taken as a generic haunted-house movie, “Winchester” dovetails suspense rather than building it, much less paying off the way Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” did.

Helen Mirren is mesmerizing in the title role of Sarah Winchester even if the screenwriters/directors (The Spierig Brothers) don’t give her much room to run. Clearly, Mirren’s matriarchal character should have been the story’s protagonist. Instead we get substitution in the guise of Jason Clarke’s heroin-addicted doctor Eric Price, sent by the Winchester company board to assess Ms. Winchester’s mental stability. The mistress of the house has paranormal moments of clarity when she goes into a trance to diagram additions to the house that she is compulsively driven to have completed by a constant crew of workers. Ms. Winchester is constantly trapping the ghosts of people killed by her company’s firearms.

Winchester

“Winchester” wants to be a noble genre film that can be appreciated for its anti-gun message and theme. The fact that the film is based on a real life person, namely firearm heiress Sarah Winchester, hardly adds much narrative impact. Here is a promising premise that was mishandled. The problem lies in the structure, the plot, and the dialogue. Back to the drawing board boys.   

Rated PG-13. 99 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)


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DOUBLE LOVER

Lamant_doubleFrance’s ever-reliable and prolific auteur François Ozon (“Swimming Pool”) confirms his place as an inventive filmic storyteller with a precise sense of style, suspense, emotion, and tone. 2018 has its first great film.

Based loosely on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel “Lives of Twins” (written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith), “Double Lover” is an alluring erotic mystery built on a puzzle of the flesh. Surrealism and magical realism come into play. You could easily imagine David Cronenberg directing it but the film wouldn’t be near as good if he had.

Jérémie Renier (from Ozon’s 1999 erotic thriller “Criminal Lovers”) plays twin psychoanalyst brothers Paul Meyer and Louis Delord.

Marine Vacth, the unforgettable star of Ozon’s recent “Young & Beautiful,” plays Chloe, a 25-year-old museum guard with model looks who suffers from unexplained stomach pains. Chloe becomes Paul’s patient before the sessions turn romantic to the point that they move in together with Chloe’s expressive cat Milo. Another cat character figures into the storyline as well. Yes, here is a movie with two feline characters played by cats. Brilliant.  

Lamant-double

Rarely, if ever, has a mainstream filmmaker made such explicit use of a woman’s vagina to such sinewy narrative effect. The film opens with a close-up view inside Chloe’s vagina from her OBGYN’s vantage point before morphing into an eye. Hitchcock had nothing on Ozon. Later in the film we watch an interior view of Chloe’s orgasming vagina (in black-and-white) during sex with Renier’s BDSM master Louis Delord. However biologically pornographic these sequences sound, they are composed in service to the film.

Double Lover

This is visceral stuff. Such a high-wire act is not easily achieved. Ozon exerts exquisite control over the diabolically twisted proceedings that draw in a deft turn from Jaqueline Bisset.

To be sure, there are some BDSM sequences between Louis and Chloe that seem sexually abusive if you discount the master/slave relationship at play. Tricky. Ozon balances the scale with a scene of Chloe pegging Paul, even if Paul says he only did it for Chloe.

Double Lover

“Double Lover” is an ideal Valentine’s Day movie for the adventurous. It gets you in the head, heart, and loins.

Rated R. 107 mins. (A) (Five stars  — out of five / no halves)


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January 27, 2018

THE TRIP TO SPAIN

Trip_to_spainMichael Winterbottom’s reliable comic road movie franchise, featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing endless Michael Caine impersonations, is the best Cinema franchise going. The films are based on a British television sitcom from  2010. This third installment follows films where the duo toured northern England and Italy.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play close versions of themselves while going on another food-and-culture tour. This time, Spain has the pleasure of accommodating, or absorbing, the funny men whose verbal wrangling is the wry stuff of brilliant British humor.

Coogan

The competitive man/boys attempt to outdo one another. While waiting for their dinner to arrive Coogan creates a constant high-pitched hum while appearing to speak normally. Rob Brydon picks up the bit and pretends to not be able to hear Coogan because his hearing-aid battery has died. The goof leads into Brydon doing his signature “Small-Man-In-a-Box” voice, which lives in a universe of bizarre hilarity.

Coogan reports, “life affirming butter” over the gourmet meal the men share while trying to crack each other up. Steve’s not imbibing this trip, so Rob is left to savor great wines alone.

Brydon makes fun of Coogan wincing due to shoulder pain. “You look like a tentative Nazi,” Brydon says in a camp German accent. The carrot juice is served.

The Trip To Spain

Brydon draws blood when he holds out his fork with a piece of food that he informs Coogan, as his physician, of the good news that they’ve found the cyst and it’s benign, the bad news is that they’ve “found seven more of them.”

Steve Coogan just loses it, and so too does the audience. It's one of the funniest scenes I've ever witnessed.

The “Trip” films have the appeal of watching two comic masters riffing as you might experience while watching a Jazz duo (Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, for example). Winterbottom puts a grace note of drama at the end that doesn’t fit the funny tone of the movie. It’s a mistake the director can fix during the next installment of this exquisite series of films.

Here's a freebie, courtesy of Steve Coogan. "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." Ba-dum-bump. Thanks Mr. Coogan, thank you very much indeed. 

Coogan

The Trip to Spain is currently streaming on Netflix

Not rated. 108 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five, no halves)


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January 23, 2018

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris- The New York Public LibraryFrederick Wiseman’s longing, and overlong, documentary homage to New York City’s great public library system has the power to charm and exhaust its viewer. Endless board meetings bereft of chyrons alerting viewers to the identities of the participants, and seemingly disconnected street scenes, buffer clips from lectures, procedures, and performances inside library walls. The movie comes to life when punk icons Elvis Costello and Patti Smith show up in interview segments. A rap poet’s performance however earns lesser marks for entertainment value. A crying baby’s disapproval should have been a cue.

Wiseman_library

There are various hat-tips to the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie for his generous financial contributions at the turn of the 20th century that enabled the New York Public Library to open branches in all five boroughs. Wiseman submerses his audience in the library’s daily rituals of community-empowering practices. The result is an intimate if welcome-wearing experience.

Ex libris

At three hours and 17 minutes, “Ex Libris” could easily have lost more than an hour and maintained its vast overview of a public and privately supported library system that provides New York City with an incalculable resource of information. Still, if you’ve got the time to spend, you’ll get a real sense of New York City circa 2015, when the film was made.  

Not rated. 197 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

Check out ZipporahFilms website.


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January 14, 2018

GOING PLACES

Valseuses -LesFor his second feature, Bertrand Blier based the film on his novel “Les Valseuses” (French slang for “the testicles”). The swinging balls of the film’s provocative French title refers to 25-year-old Jean-Claude (Gerard Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere), his 23-year-old partner in crime. The two roustabouts are petty criminals on a constant bender of robbing women, stealing cars, and sexually assaulting women if not each other. Indeed, there is a scene in which Jean-Claude buggers his friend after breaking into an unoccupied beachside home because “it’s only natural.”

So it is that Bertrand Blier presents a transgressive outlaw mentality unchallenged by any would-be authority figures in France. Crime is merely a way of life.

Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou) serves as the film’s [hijacked] anti-protagonist after being taken against her will by our thugs du jour. Marie-Ange’s primary objective becomes achieving orgasms, much to the dismay of the sexually adventurous Jean-Claude and Pierrot who find themselves woefully unprepared for the task at hand, try as they must.

Valseuses

The two male characters represent an opposite but equal affront to capitalist ideologies. Neither man is intellectual enough to act with any informed nihilist or anarchist agenda, rather these are cartoonish hippies in search of immediate gratification without regard to social norms. They are punks before the Punk movement took hold, albeit with a more focused approach that found expression though music.

Going places

Jean-Claude and Pierrot seem to briefly relate on a humanist level when they help Jeanne Pirolle, a recently released prison convict played by Jeanne Moreau. Still, their financial generosity and sexual attention backfires when Jeanne sneaks off to fulfill her own fantasy of psychological and physical escape.     

Miou-Miou
 
Although inscrutable to any mainstream reading, “Going Places” succeeds due to the film’s refusal to provide easy answers for its characters’ irredeemable actions. Here is an unapologetic, if infuriating, cinematic provocation that dares its audience to rationalize the orgiastic behavior on display. John Waters could do no better. Governments, politicians, soldiers, and police are busy committing far greater systematically generated crimes as you read these words.

Rated R. 117 mins. (B) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

Even the grandest of Bouffers are gonna have a hard time swallowing this 1974 nihilist sexual assault romp with Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou. An interesting but uncomfortable look at the French post-new wave sex revolution through the story of two sociopaths on a endless road trip to satisfying their desires.

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