Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Want Action!*

About this time last year, I was just moving about my daily life--going to work, having a home life, and writing this blog. I keep up with some of the Chicago-centric blogs to see what's new in town, and I saw an item in one of them about something called The Beachwood Reporter. Clicking through, I discovered a site of great relevance and irreverence about the big politics and big business of my home town. Specifically, editor Steve Rhodes took to task the fat cats of the Daley Machine who have run this city since the first Mayor Daley took office about the year I was born. But Steve didn't stop there. He tore into the two major dailies, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times, for their fatuous, timid, and lazy journalism, particularly with regard to our local pols. I'd found a kindred spirit in blogland.

I immediately contacted Steve and told him I wanted to do something, anything for The Beachwood, and gave him my blog URL as reference. He told me he liked what I did and would be happy to have me aboard. So, I started writing the odd article for him. We entered negotiations to have Ferdy on Films relocated to the Beachwood site. That discussion and process have taken almost a year, but it is finally about to happen.

Ferdy on Films will have a new home at ferdyonfilms.com. I have to learn a whole new publishing system, so you might see a few glitches here and there until I learn the ropes. However, I guarantee that Ferdy on Films won't change what we do here. Reviews of offroad movies have been and always will be our stock and trade. Rod and I will be joined by a couple of new writers, and we'll add a few new items of interest in the months to come.

We're currently doing a special section on the Oscars at The Beachwood, with a brilliant column by Rod anchoring the proceedings. Check it out and check out Ferdy at the Beachwood's coverage of the European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning March 2.

I've had a ball here at Blogger and hope you'll join me at my new home. And now to quote Peggy Cummins, the star of the first film I reviewed on this site and the face that has been my stand-in on this site all along:

"Come on, Bart, let's finish it the way we started it: on the level."* l

*Annie Laurie Starr (Gun Crazy)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Viridiana (1961)
Director: Luis Buñuel

In his excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel said, "When I was younger, my so-called conscience forbade me to entertain certain images--like fratricide, for instance, or incest. I'd tell myself these were hideous ideas and push them out of my mind. But when I reached the age of 60, I finally understood the perfect innocence of the imagination. It took that long for me to admit that whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone."

Luis Buñuel was 61 when Viridiana premiered, and his tale of sexual perversion and the deflowering of a would-be nun bore out his philosophy to a tee. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, as you might imagine, was not as amused by the imaginative freedom of the over-60 director. Despite Viridiana's selection as Spain's official entry into the Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel was forced to flee to Mexico to escape reprisals by Franco's fascist regime. He remained there the rest of his life, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. (Ironically, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who must have been inspired by Buñuel, took up the cause of examining Franco's Spain in both The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.)

Many of Buñuel's films rail against the hypocrisy and uselessness of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the State. While these themes remain fairly constant throughout his genuine oeuvre (as opposed to the dozens of films he made for a buck in Mexico as a journeyman director), some of his films are informed primarily by his surrealist philosophy, and reflect his lifelong fascination with dreams. Viridiana is just such a film.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a novice in a cloistered convent. Shortly before she is to take final vows and be locked away from society forever, the Mother Superior suggests that she pay one last visit to her uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), who paid for her schooling. Viridiana strenuously resists this suggestion, but says that if ordered, she will go. This scene is the first to suggest the dreamlike structure of the film, with a resistant consciousness obeying an order to plunge into the irrational.

The scene shifts to an estate, where we see the fancy footwork of a young girl jumping rope under a tree. She is Rita (Teresa Rabal), the sassy daughter of Don Jaime's maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano). When the camera pulls back, we see Don Jaime watching her in delight. He even surprises her with a new jump rope that has real wooden handles. He seems to revel in her innocence and liveliness. His own life has been a lonely one since the death of his wife.

Viridiana arrives into this sweet scene, but Don Jaime's warm greeting to her is met with a distinct chill. Viridiana doesn't really remember him and still considers him something of a disgrace for fathering a child out of wedlock and abandoning the mother and child, though Don Jaime claims that was the way the woman wanted things. He assures her that his son will be provided for after he has died. He also comments on how much like her late aunt Viridiana is, right down to her walk.

Viridiana goes to her room to change and rest. The camera moves into Don Jaime's bedroom, where he has a white, high-heeled shoe slipped over the top half of his foot and a veil draped over a dressing screen. He picks up a corset and starts to model it in front of his mirror, quickly tucking it out of sight when the loyal Ramona comes in. He tries to persuade Ramona to speak to Viridiana on his behalf, to ask her to stay on at the house indefinitely. Ramona demurs, suggesting Don Jaime speak to her himself. He moves to her room, but hides out of sight when he sees Viridiana disrobing. In one of Buñuel's patented leg shots, she removes her thick, dark stockings to reveal a very shapely leg.

With Ramona's assistance, he eventually persuades Viridiana to do him one last favor--don his dead wife's wedding gown. Apparently, Viridiana was moved by the story of his wife's death in his arms on their wedding night. However, she is repulsed when he proposes marriage to her. This refusal is Ramona's cue to drug Viridiana's tea. Don Jaime lays her out on a bed, intending to rape her. He unbuttons her top and kisses her passionately, but shies from the deed itself. When she comes to in the morning, however, he lies to her and tells her he has ruined her so that she can never return to the convent. Her disgusted rejection of him pushes him to suicide. In a scene of obscene hilarity, Rita is shown playing with the same jump rope Don Jaime used to hang himself.

Overcome with guilt, Viridiana determines that she cannot return to the convent after all. To carry out her pious mission in the world, she invites local beggars to live in Don Jaime's mansion. She hopes that with religious instruction and useful tasks to perform, they will be uplifted and their souls will be saved. Most submit themselves to her requirements, but as with many religiously based missions, the unfortunates endure the sermons primarily for the food and shelter. In a move that Princess Diana would mirror several decades later, Viridiana touches a "leper" (actually, a syphilis victim) whom the other beggars shun. They agree to suffer his presence, but only if he sleeps in the shed and ties a can to himself so they will know when he is around. When one of the beggars applies himself to painting a religious picture, he asks the lovely Viridiana to pose for him as the Blessed Virgin. When she does so, her vanity becomes all too apparent.

To pick away at this chink in the saintly armor enters Viridiana's bastard cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal). He unashamedly brings his mistress with him and sets about turning the neglected estate to useful growing and industry. His mistress notices his undue interest in the indifferent Viridiana, and leaves him. He then takes up with Ramona.

One night, the owners of the estate must leave for town. The beggars become curious about the main house and sneak in. They kill a couple of goats and have a feast, soiling the expensive lace tablecloth, breaking the crystal and china, and making love behind the furniture. In a grotesque parody of Don Jaime's earlier scene, the syphilitic beggar dons the dead wife's corset and her veil and dances an obscene jig. One of the women urges them to assemble for a photograph. The tableau they create is one of the greatest visual gags in cinematic history. When the masters of the house return, the beggars vanish from the house or remove themselves to other rooms. Two of the beggars overpower Jorge and rape Viridiana. With her ideals in tatters and her sexual nature awakened in an archetypal way, Viridiana is both freed and imprisoned by her new, worldly impulses.

This film dwells in the unconscious as easily as an ant dwells in its underground tunnels. The death of Don Jaime's wife on their wedding night is a shadow cast over the rest of the film. Could the rich man have murdered her so as not to have to consummate the marriage? He certainly has done nothing to find another mate or sexual partner. Perhaps she, too, was drugged, but with an accidental lethal dose. Clearly, Don Jaime's sexual perversion sets the stage for the beggars' orgy and Viridiana's fall and rebirth as a sexual creature with warped tastes. The way the story unfolds reminds me of the progress of a dream. Viridiana's close resemblance to her aunt sounds like the "you were there, but you weren't you" episodes that friends often hear from dreamers. Viridiana's dress-up date with her uncle reveals incestuous impulses in her as well, to come to full flower by the end of the dream.

Luis Buñuel's darkly humorous films stand up extremely well for new audiences because they tap archetypes and primal impulses we all have and find the need to suppress at different times for different reasons. His discovery that "whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone" was a terrific benefit to younger moviegoers looking for that same release. l

Friday, February 02, 2007

1900 (Novecento, 1976)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

In the mid 1970s, Bernardo Bertolucci was a figure with the financial clout and artistic eminence to produce a hugely ambitious flop. But that flop, 1900, is such a totemic work that it is impossible to dismiss, as it attempts to revive the mammoth dimensions of presound epic cinema, like Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and invest it with a kind of socialist epic mythology. It also illustrates the schism between the standout features of Bertolucci as a director—a great portrayer of sensuality and psychology, and a committed political artist who can never quite reconcile the two perspectives.

The film begins a huge ellipse as the Allies are winning the war and partisans are mopping up the remnants of Italian fascism. Field-labouring women scooping hay in shots framed like classical landscape artists spy the escaping Atila (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Regina (Laura Betti), and chase after them with pitchforks. The sight of this middle-aged pair crying for each other, farm implements jutting from their bodies, is horrific and demands sympathy. One of the peasant boys decides to march into the house of the local padrone (landlord), Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and take him prisoner. Alfredo, caught at breakfast, pleasantly agrees, “Long live Stalin!”

1900 contrasts Alfredo with Olmo Dalco (Gerard Depardieu). Both men were born on the night Giuseppi Verdi died (January 27, 1901), and are tied together by life on the Berlinghieri estate. Each grows up in the care of their grandfathers—Alfredo, with the grand old padrone (Burt Lancaster), and for Olmo, Leo (Sterling Hayden), patriarch of the peasants who are nightly locked in their barn. The two old bulls have a prickly friendship, united by their earthy sense of nature, sex, and socializing even as they are separated by class and resentment. Olmo never discovers who his father is. Alfredo knows his all too well—the cold, callow, money-grubbing younger son of the padrone, Giovanni (Romolo Valli). Elder son Ottavio (Werner Bruhns) has fled the estate to lead a bohemian, cosmopolitan life.

Casting Lancaster as the padrone ties this film thematically and chronologically to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, as that film’s aspiring liberal Italy is dying. The padrone gives Alfredo a buffer from his crass parents, but hangs himself when he can’t achieve an erection in the hand of a girl. Mechanization destroys the bonds of the landlord-peasant relationship; Giovanni’s entitled greed doesn’t help. The native wisdom of Leo—he won’t let any Dalco become a priest, the ultimate freeloader—agrees with the socialist ideals that excite the labourers to strikes and revolts. He lectures Olmo in his creed as the boy marches down the long dining table, stepping over the eating families’ plates of food, a vision of the gritty vitality of communal life. Olmo and Alfredo (played as youths by Roberto Maccanti and Paolo Pavesi, respectively) taunt and entertain each other with the dirty panoply of boyish obsessions and character tests. Olmo’s great feat of bravery is to lay between railroad tracks as a train (a recurring symbol of tidal history) rushes over him, which Alfredo cannot at first manage, and no one sees it when he does.

World War I precipitates the great rupture in Italian society that has been building. Olmo fights and Alfredo is commissioned, but kept home by his father’s influence. Olmo returns to find the number of workers reduced, machines encroaching, and the estate now run by foreman Atila, who poses as a simpatico fellow veteran. With the prodding of his personal Lady Macbeth, Regina, Atila soon becomes a fascist bigwig. Giovanni and other landowners form a fascist chapter in response to their inability to evict peasantry, who successfully resist the cavalry with nonviolent tactics.

Olmo and Alfredo resume their edgy friendship, Alfredo regarding them both as free spirits, though he is torn between temptations of power and the intentions of his liberality. Bertolucci tries to demonstrate how Alfredo is a decent man imprisoned by position, his ability to force his wishes on other people incidentally malevolent. Alfredo and Olmo go into the city to visit Ottavio, and get sidetracked with a prostitute, Neve (Stefania Casini). When the three of them are in bed together (as usual, Bertolucci suggests homoeroticism, but never gets around to portraying it), Alfredo forces Neve to drink, which sets her off in a violent epileptic fit between the two men whose penises she’s grasping.

Olmo has a crush on Anita (Anna Henkel), an educated girl who has come to work on the estate and act as the peasant’s schoolteacher. They marry and have children, and Anna starts a community school through the developing socialist infrastructure. Alfredo meets Ada Paulhan (Dominique Sanda, tres bon), a half-French orphan (her parents perished guiding rich tourists on a mountaineering expedition; “They died as they lived—beyond their means.”) who lives with Ottavio and whom he assumes is his mistress, not yet knowing his uncle is homosexual. Ada’s a loopy, capricious poseur and muse who occasionally fakes blindness and writes awful poetry. Alfredo finds her wonderful.

Alfredo, Ada, and Ottavio live out a bohemian fantasy, snorting cocaine and gaily dancing. Ada and Alfredo and Olmo and Anita drink together in bar set up in a barn, Afredo begging that the four of them will always remain the same. Two deflowerings are instantly precipitated. Ada and Alfredo screw amidst the hay bales, Alfredo stunned that Ada is a virgin. The innocent solidarity of the socialists is killed when Atila and the fascists burn the school, killing three old peasant men Anita had been teaching to read. As the communists rally, Atila, being fitted for a black uniform, demonstrates to his awed fellows the attitude required of a fascist; he straps a cat to the wall and crushes it with a running head-butt.

Atila and Regina are the film’s nexus of evil (Sutherland managed to freak himself out viewing his acutely perverse performance). Giovanni dies and Alfredo inherits the estate. Despite Olmo’s earnest, faintly menacing warning, Alfredo cannot rid himself of Atila, a deep-rooted cancer. Regina’s crush on Alfredo (they were briefly lovers; in one scene, Alfredo tries to orgasm Regina with the butt of his rifle, a moment as ribald as it is symbolic) makes her loathe Ada. Atila and Laura’s machinations extend to murdering a woman for her house, and, at Alfredo and Ada’s wedding, drunkenly raping and beating to death a young boy. When the body is found by searching wedding guests, Olmo is close by. Spurred by Atila, they mercilessly beat him, and Alfredo won’t stop it. Is he afraid of Atila? Or glad to see his judgmental pal receive a hiding? Either way, Olmo’s life is only saved when another peasant confesses. Anita dies, leaving Olmo to care for several small children. (Even at 300 minutes, 1900 is missing pieces. We see neither Anita and Olmo’s wedding nor her death, and supporting characters in the film often disappear.)

Ada is distanced from Alfredo—Ottavio has vowed never to return at all—because of his poor response to fascist courtship. Ada relies on Olmo for emotional support even as he resents her trying to tutor his kids. Perhaps the film’s best scene comes when Alfredo and Ada row fiercely in a skid row tavern, Alfredo accusing Ada of having an affair with Olmo, then infuriated by her calling him a fascist. Alfredo recognizes Neve when she enters the tavern; her laughing acceptance of life’s caprices briefly reunites the troubled couple.

As Italy enters World War II, Alfredo’s attempts to fire Atila prove impotent. Atila massacres “partisans” in a miniature concentration camp set up in the centre of the villa. Olmo goes into hiding, and does not reappear until war’s end. Atila and Regina, after the pitchforking, are both duly shot by a kangaroo court, with Alfredo to be next for his collaboration. Bertolucci tries to celebrate the victory for the Italian workers in scenes staged to resemble a ’60s happening or Stalinist rally, with narrative becomes imagistic parade. Eventually, with Solomonian wisdom, Olmo talks the partisans out of executing Alfredo because all they have to do is declare that the padrone is dead—not the inhabitant of the role, but the role, the title, the idea. Alfredo, up till now accepting and life-weary, manages a stiff-necked response to Olmo’s rescue. Just as when they were kids, they begin wrestling in enraged love.

1900 is a structural chimera, trying to fuse Shakespearean drama, Brechtian epic theater, socialist realism, and propagandist melodrama. Bertolucci tips his hat to Visconti not only via The Leopard, but also by borrowing thematic value from Visconti’s own rise-of-fascism parable, The Damned, following its lead in quoting the plots of MacBeth and King Lear, and also its portrayal of fascism as indivisible from a psychologically rooted adoration of raw force, sexual degeneracy, and gross greed. This also echoes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975). As in Pasolini’s oeuvre, 1900 contrasts free sexuality in his bohemians (Ottavio cavorting with his male models) and workers (Olmo gives Anita earth-shaking head) with the savagery of fascist sexuality, in Atila’s child rape and Regina’s voracity that conceals an incapacity for orgasm. Alfredo’s occasional displays of cruelty in bed reflect his temptation to the extreme ego-fulfillment of fascism.

1900 is at its best when not concentrating on politics. The complexities that compile in Ada and Alfredo’s marriage, which breaks up because of her fear she will be held guilty with Alfredo at the war’s end, but already long poisoned by the spectacle of his weakness, successfully dovetails the themes. The multinational cast demanded by complex funding arrangements, but allowing a capricious pick-and-choose of international talent, meant that the soundtrack is never entirely comfortable. In the English dub ( most of the smaller parts are Italian), things often go spaghetti western, yet watching the Italian version loses the original interpretations by De Niro, Lancaster, Hayden, et al. De Niro, in his career’s golden era, is at his youthful, supple best. He ages far more convincingly in the film than he has in real life. The film has slow stretches, but always seems to have some virtuoso set-piece in store, from the sweeping early sequences that show off Bertolucci’s gift for camera movement (aided by the Velazquez-toned photography of Vittorio Storaro), to give a sensation of drifting through countryside and time, to that vivid final scene, both distressing and weirdly comic, a glimpse of a future where Alfredo and Olmo are old men, still fighting and sticking by each other. Olmo escorts Alfredo to his last act on earth, lying across the railroad, head about to be flattened by a train. Like his grandfather, Alfredo suicides—a tired, sympathetic remnant of a superfluous class clucked over with indulgent dismissal by Olmo.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Angel Heart (1987)
Director: Alan Parker

When the hubbie suggested to me that we watch Angel Heart, I had trouble placing the name. Something about it sounded familiar, but the title isn't exactly distinctive. Slowly, the clouds cleared, and I remembered that this movie marked Lisa Bonet's screen debut and got her kicked off "The Cosby Show." As a matter of curiosity and because Bonet always impressed me as the most interesting of Bill Cosby's television family, I readily agreed to watch the film. That was a very good decision. Angel Heart is a very good movie.

Heading a powerhouse cast that includes Robert De Niro and Charlotte Rampling is Mickey Rourke, an actor with an intensity and vulnerability that invite comparison with Sean Penn. The time is the mid 1950s, and the place is New York City. Rourke plays Harry Angel, a private eye who gets most of his clients from the phone book because he’s one of the first names listed. Harry gets a phone call from an attorney named Herman Winesap (Dann Florek) who wishes to engage his services on behalf of a client, Louis Cyphre (De Niro). Winesap asks Harry to meet them at an address in Harlem, a black church at which a rousing service is taking place. Harry climbs the stairs to the second story and passes an open door. A woman is on her hands and knees scrubbing a large splash of blood off a wall. Winesap moves to greet Harry and motions him toward another room, casually tossing off an explanation for the blood: “A parishioner shot himself.”

Inside the room, Harry is introduced to Cyphre, who is sitting on an ornate chair on what appears to be an altar. Cyphre is rather fussily dressed, sports slicked-back hair, and twists a gold-knobbed cane between his pointy fingernails. He tells Harry that he is looking for a singer named Johnny Favorite, nee Liebling, who has skipped out on a debt and has been out of sight for 12 years. Cyphre goes on to say that he happened to catch Liebling's trail at a hospital for brain-injured patients, but that Liebling disappeared from the hospital suddenly one night. With these few clues and a generous retainer in hand, Harry goes about tracking down Johnny Favorite.

Harry visits the hospital, where he flashes a fake National Institute of Health ID and charms a nurse into showing him Liebling's medical record. Liebling apparently received his injury during WWII. He was checked out during the night by an elegant woman and a man driving a large car. Harry decides to visit Liebling's now semi-retired doctor of record, Albert Fowler (Michael Higgins), to see what he knows. Harry "lets" himself into Fowler's home, which looks like a pigsty. He goes through the place, and finds an unloaded gun in the bedroom dresser. He finds the good doctor's stash of morphine in the fridge. Sitting in the dark, Harry waits for Fowler to return home. When Fowler refuses to provide any useful information, Harry locks him in his bedroom and tells him that he'll get his fix when he decides to talk. With that, Harry repairs to a diner while Fowler stews at home. When Harry returns and turns the skeleton key in the bedroom door, he's in for a shock. Fowler is dead, a bullet through the eye, and beside him the gun from his dresser, a photo of his wife, and a bible Harry gave an idle tap to when he saw it in the drawer. The bible was hollow, a repository for bullets.

Harry must now work the musicians that played with Johnny. He learns that Johnny was involved with a high-class society dame from New Orleans named Margaret Krusemark (Rampling), and that she was into some mighty strange things. Johnny's bandleader Spider Simpson (Charles Gordone) remembers she visited an voodoo herbalist named Carter. He also says Johnny had a colored lover named Evangeline Proudfoot, also from New Orleans. Harry surmises that Margaret was the one who sprung Johnny from the hospital. He heads down to New Orleans to follow the scent.

The shift of scene to New Orleans cranks the tension up several notes. The hints at voodoo and primitivism captured in passing in the Harlem church--particularly a figure hidden in deep black veils who will not speak to Harry--come bursting into the hot, sweaty Louisiana sun. Harry visits several of Johnny's former companions, beginning with Margaret, who is a palmist. He gives Margaret his birth date to help her reading. She comments that it is the same as someone she knew. When she realizes Harry is after Johnny, she has him escorted out.

Harry spies an herbalist store with the same name as the New York shop--Carter. He meets Mammy Carter (Peggy Severe) and inquires about a woman named Evangeline. "Just about everyone around here is named Evangeline," is the quick answer. When he mentions her last name, he learns that she's dead. He heads to the poor side of town to visit her grave. There, he spies a pretty young woman (Bonet) with a child on her hip coming to place flowers on the grave. He learns she is Evangeline's daughter Epiphany, and he is quite attracted to her.

Harry goes off to find another musician Johnny played with named Toots Sweet (jazz/blues great Brownie McGhee). Toots is reluctant to talk about Johnny, but he seems to be hiding something. After the club where Toots is playing closes down, Harry follows him to a clearing in the woods. A hoodoo ceremony is taking place, and Epiphany, the high priestess, is dancing and chanting. She slits the throat of a chicken, smears its blood on her, and writhes and beats her hands on the ground in ecstatic abandon. When Harry sees her the next day, he scold her for the previous night's display. She answers back that it's a free country (though in 1950s Louisiana, it was barely that for blacks) and that they don't kill people. An accusation to Harry?

Perhaps prophetic. Toots is found the next day, choked when his own severed genitals were stuffed down his throat. Harry seems to be implicated. Soon, Margaret turns up dead as well, her heart cut out. Harry is convinced that Johnny is trying to cover his tracks and is framing Harry for the murders. He contacts Cyphre for help, but Cyphre is the last person on earth Harry should be turning to. Cyphre is, in fact, the Devil (Louis Cyphre = Lucifer), not something this movie tries very hard to hide. Clearly, Johnny Favorite owes him a soul, and Lucifer never indulges a welcher.

Harry's involvement in this dark contract is an intricate one, and the sense of foreboding he feels as he sinks deeper and deeper into its depths is painful and nerve-wracking to watch. Rourke plays Harry as a regular guy who is way in over his head. His dreams and hallucinations reflect his terror and the secrets in his own soul that are starting to be scratched raw. Harry is a noir antihero, not wholly good, but so seeming a victim of circumstances. Rourke works very effectively to draw the viewer into the story to try to figure out the leads along with him, to make sense of a bewildering and terrifying set of events. Harry's fortunes seem very much in doubt, as a recurring image of a slowly spinning fan suggests the wheel of fortune. Where will Harry be when the wheel stops?

De Niro is a very good Devil, when he is actually called upon to drop the fey facade. In one scene, he and Harry sit in a diner talking. Cyphre peels and holds a boiled egg in front of him. "Some people say that the soul is like an egg." He proceeds to chew the egg up and swallow it, a humorless, malevolent expression etched on his face. He keeps watch on Harry's progress, and is the unseen hand behind each horrific act Harry witnesses.

Lisa Bonet seems, at first, to overdo her character's sexual nature. However, when we learn that she has been an integral part of the small circle of the blackest magic that surrounded Johnny Favorite, it seems only natural for sex to be part of her devotion. Bonet is absolutely stunning to look at, creating a magnetic field around herself in every scene in which she appears. For her part, the magnificent Charlotte Rampling takes a small role and deftly suggests an obsessed nature inside a gentile shell.

Alan Parker has a checkered record of films he has chosen to make. Mississippi Burning, for example, was lambasted for its flagrant liberties with the facts. His visual flare and ability to pile up suspense, however, can never be questioned, particularly as regards Angel Heart. Assisted by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Michael Seresin, Parker creates a visually stunning, evocative hothouse where hoodoo and voodoo fit naturally and the ordinary world isn't good enough to rate a cameo. The plot is mazelike, but Parker handles it with a sure hand and perfect pacing. I've seen this film twice and had the same level of suspense each time, so well does Parker suck us in. Angel Heart is pure heaven. l

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Alice's Restaurant (1969)
Director: Arthur Penn

I harbor a somewhat jaundiced view of the 1960s. From my point of view, the legacy of that era is decidedly mixed, and I am truly offended whenever someone of a certain age speaks to me with condescension that they "were there" and I wasn't. Of course, that's not exactly true; I was there--just not old enough to participate in the earth-shaking events that shaped the next few decades. Be that as it may, Alice's Restaurant is a window on the 1960s unlike any other film I have ever seen. It's the only film I know of that actually makes me feel sorry that I was too young to be a hippie.

The film is based on Arlo Guthrie's long, narrative song "Alice's Restaurant." The song ranges over the famous garbage incident that landed him and a buddy in a local Massachusetts jail, as well as Arlo's experiences in a military induction center in New York City. The movie recreates the events in the song faithfully, but tacks on other story elements, presumably events related to the script writer and director by Arlo, who stars as himself in the film. (In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I had a huge crush on Arlo Guthrie, still find him adorable, and that my feelings may color this review a bit.)

The film opens with the bad news that Arlo must report to sign up for the draft that is supplying troops to fight the war in Vietnam. Arlo does what many young men did at that time--he finds a college to enroll in to qualify for a draft deferment. He travels all the way from New York to Montana to find a college, thumbing his way across country as his famous father, populist musician Woody Guthrie, used to do. The long-haired, festively clad Arlo is an uneasy fit in conservative Montana, and he is regularly subjected to taunts by the locals who feel threatened by his appearance. One day, his friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) comes to visit. Two hippies in town are way too much for the locals. Roger is run off, and Arlo takes a beating at a local diner. He staggers into the street and collapses from the concussion he likely suffered. This is no fist fight from the Old West. One young man is outnumbered, shown no mercy, and felled in a very realistic way. He is immediately thrown out of school.

Arlo decides to visit his friends Ray (James Broderick) and Alice Brock (Pat Quinn) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The 40ish couple have just purchased a church and set up a commune for their friends and anyone else who decides to drop in. In a rather amusing scene, the priests hold a last service for a handful of congregants, reminding them that God is not attached to any one building, but can be found everywhere. They desanctify the church and file out. Ray and Alice watch expectantly, take the keys from one of the priests, and run through the church like a couple of ecstatics.

When Arlo shows up shortly thereafter, Alice embraces him in a mighty friendly hug. Alice is an extremely affectionate earth mother to all her charges, many of whom are young, lost teens. Arlo heads down to New York City to play some folk gigs. He is propositioned by a 14-year-old girl, who takes him to a crash pad so that she can notch up another musician. Arlo declines very politely, saying he'd rather not catch her cold. The authenticity of this scene again provides a fuller picture of how these lost youth who became flower children lived and survived.

One young man named Shelly (Michael McClanathan) is being released from Bellevue, where he has been kicking a heroin habit. Ray goes to New York to fetch him. Shelly, a creator of mobiles, wants his art back. Ruth (Eulalie Noble), one of Woody's crowd and now the middle-aged owner of the club where Arlo is playing, offers the money needed to pay Shelly's back rent and give him access to his apartment. Ruth tries to seduce Arlo, who is much less gallant in rejecting her. The casual sex casually sought is a fixture throughout the film.

When Shelly arrives at the church, Alice shows an affection toward him that is uncomfortable for Ray. Jealous, he teases Shelly and pursues sex with Alice more regularly, ringing the church bell, as is the prerogative of the lord and lady of the manor, after each tryst. Shelly's fragile grip on sobriety is tested, particularly after he and Alice have sex, and he gets to feeling jealous himself.

Alice opens her famous restaurant with the construction help of the entire tribe. She's a fabulous cook and manages to attract the locals, who seem to be pretty tolerant of the commune, perhaps because they are good, independent New Englanders. Officer William "Obie" Obanhein (playing himself) is fairly passive and accepting of the tribe; Alice has a way of working her charms. His patience is tested, however, the day after Alice and Ray's Thanksgiving feast. Arlo and Roger decide to fill Arlo's VW van--a fixture in the 60s--with the garbage this large celebration generated and take it to the town dump. Unfortunately, the dump is closed. The pair start driving and, spying some debris down an embankment on the side of the road, choose that spot to deposit their load. They are seen in action by an older couple and turned into the police.

After a comically exhaustive investigation of the crime scene, Obie does his duty; he arrests the pair and throws them in jail, asking them to remove their belts to prevent suicide and removing their toilet seat to see that they don't bang their heads on it and drown. Arlo and Roger come to trial, plead guilty, and agree to pay a $50 fine and clean up the garbage. This conviction will stand Arlo in good stead when he receives his induction notice and must show that he is physically and morally fit to serve in the military. When he is found to have been convicted of a crime, he is asked by a sergeant if he has rehabilitated himself. A quote from the song comes in on voiceover: "Sergeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I've rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I'm sittin' here on the bench, I mean I'm sittin here on the Group W bench 'cause you want to know if I'm moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein' a litterbug." Arlo is released to the loving arms of his girl, Mari-chan (Tina Chen), whom he met at the Thanksgiving feast only a few days before.

What makes this film so unique is its unflinching, but essentially positive view of the story, participants, and era. We see the tragedy of the times--the runaways, drug addicts, painful infidelities, prejudice, and violence. But we also see the love the tribe has for each other and the joy of living an improvisational life. Arlo Guthrie isn't a very good actor, but he is a very good hippie. His fresh, smiling face says so much about why society's misfits were able to come together and create a world of their own that aspired to celebrate the best of what it means to be alive--love, sex, family, caring, a live-and-let-live ethos that abhorred cruelty. A scene during which Joni Mitchell's haunting "Songs to Aging Children," is sung, pays a beautiful and sad tribute to this sweet and doomed community.

James Broderick embodies a man who was born just a little too soon. Ray--not the real Ray, but the movie Ray--seems to me to be a man who was burdened with responsibilities, perhaps as a soldier in the Korean War and a husband in the conformist 50s. His mid-life crisis came at a perfect time, but his emotional and experiential baggage prevented him from truly understanding his newly embraced life. The movie Alice was born to be a hippie. Her backstory could not have been as fraught as Ray's, and her frequent disappointment and uncomprehension of him create a sadness at the core of the joyful family.

Although Woody's legacy is written all over this film, scenes between a mute and dying Woody (Joseph Boley) and Arlo seem awkward and unhelpful in understanding that legacy. Filming a duet between Arlo and influential folkie Pete Seeger does nothing to correct this weakness. The viewer simply must know that Woody's solidarity and rapport with the Dust Bowl refugees like himself who inhabited the shanty towns of California in the 1930s has its direct mirror in Arlo's life. The respectable Hal Ashby film, Bound for Glory, is recommended viewing to help get a bit of perspective on the life and early times of Woody Guthrie.

Alice's Restaurant paints an authentic and hopeful picture of a time most have heard about, but few, even those old enough to have been hippies, ever really saw or understood. What the film may lack in structure and style, it more than makes up for in sincerity and understanding. Among Arthur Penn's many examinations of society through individual experience, Alice's Restaurant stands as a unique, near-documentary, achievement. l

Friday, January 12, 2007

Footlight Parade (1933)
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Dance Director: Busby Berkeley

In 1933, Warner Bros. Pictures provided audiences with three classic movie musicals with almost identical creative teams. The first was 42nd Street, the second was Gold Diggers of 1933, and the third was Footlight Parade. All three films featured Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, the reigning ingenue couple of the 30s; all had dance numbers by Busby Berkeley; and all included memorable music by Harry Warren. But Footlight Parade is by far my favorite, and the most accomplished of the three films. Here's why.

Although Warner Bros. was the leader in talking pictures and had the first music synched with the images on screen (1927’s sensation The Jazz Singer), MGM was the gold standard in movie musicals. MGM, specifically producer Arthur Freed, understood the importance of weaving music and dancing into a story, a technique epitomized by such MGM gems of the 1930s as The Merry Widow, Monte Carlo, The Great Ziegfeld, and culminating in the timeless The Wizard of Oz.

Many 1930s Warner Bros. musicals tended to have an odd structure—frontloading the film with a big production number, filling a lengthy middle with a conventional feature film, and ending with a couple more show-stopping production numbers. 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade all fit this format. Part of the reason for this structure had to do with the fact that Busby Berkeley was the director of the musical portions, and there is simply no way a Berkeley production number can have any bearing with reality. They are short films in themselves, and excellent ones at that, particularly in each of these films.

So what’s so different about Footlight Parade? Ruby Keeler’s acting and dancing skills improved measurably from her debut in 42nd Street to her featured, but secondary role in Footlight Parade. Her break-the-floor slapping and tapping took on a little more lightness and precision, and she danced better in combination with other dancers.

While each film has a showbiz theme, Footlight Parade has one that sheds a lot of light on the history of films, and particularly on the adaptation of stage performers to the silver screen. In 42nd Street, we have a standard story about putting on a show in distressed circumstances. Gold Diggers gives us a good idea of the high unemployment during the Depression, particularly among show people, but spends the majority of its time focusing on a flip story of how three showgirls land wealthy husbands. Footlight Parade gives us a context for the production numbers that actually helps make sense of how lavish (though certainly unrealistically so) they are.

The most important difference between the three films, however, is that Footlight Parade stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell. These two wonderful actors--Cagney, a bonafide star, and Blondell, an underrated actress of enormous warmth and appeal--had a history together, beginning on Broadway in the hit play Penny Arcade and continuing to Hollywood, where they reprised their parts in this play in its film version, Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Their chemistry and timing help define and flesh out their characters' relationship in Footlight Parade of career-driven boss Chester Kent and Nan Prescott, dedicated secretary in love with Kent. Their line readings are never clichéd or throwaway. For example, in this exchange:

Chester Kent: Sometimes I get the feeling you don't like anybody.

Nan Prescott: If you only knew.

We catch Nan’s longing look, which Kent misses, and it’s a real heart-tugger.

The film tells the story of a writer of stage musicals (Kent) who can’t get them produced anymore because audiences have been abandoning the legitimate theatre for the movie theatre. Two producers, Al Frazer (Arthur Hohl) and Silas Gould (Guy Kibbee), take Kent to a nearby movie house and show him that live dance productions called prologues, which show between screenings of the film, satisfy an audience’s craving for live theatre. The prologues, however, are costly to produce. Kent gets an inspiration to create a factory-like setting (inspired, no doubt, by the type of movie factory in which Footlight Parade was made) for the production of prologues. Stock routines could be taught to a unit of dancers and singers and then sent on the road. With numerous units able to fill the demand, success should be assured.

Keeler plays super-efficient production assistant Bea Thorn, dressed as all super-efficient women should be in round, horn-rimmed glasses, matronly clothing, and sensible shoes. Dick Powell is Scott Blair, a new protégé of Si Gould’s wife Harriet (Ruth Donnelly) whom Kent is forced to take on. Fortunately, Scotty can sing. He also inspires Bea to stop being sensible, fall in love, and return to her roots as a hoofer. There are several intrigues, including a romance Kent starts with Vivian (Claire Dodd), a down-and-out gold digger who is staying with Nan; a mole in Kent’s organization who is feeding his ideas to a competitor; and Kent’s mercenary ex-wife (Renee Whitney) returned to claim her share of his good fortune—which he doesn’t have because his partners have been cheating him. The story is told briskly, with sparkling dialogue and equally sparkling stars to speak it. Cagney is having a ball doing what he always loved best—singing and dancing.

And speaking of singing and dancing, feast your eyes on the production numbers. “Honeymoon Hotel” has Keeler and Powell getting married and spending their first night together in a hotel filled with honeymooners. In true precode fashion, the sex is more than alluded to, the women are scantily clad, and Billy Barty, the most successful midget in movies, plays a not-so-innocent child who follows the chorus girls around the corridors. “On a Waterfall” has to be seen to be believed. From a simple stage duet by Keeler and Powell, an entire soundstage full of water slides and an enormous pool emerge. Berkeley’s famous overhead camera shots show the mermaids move into the kaleidoscopic formations for which he was known. The cameras take us underwater, too, for some sexy shots. Clearly, these prologues cannot be justified by the story. Only the magic of movies can present these types of images to a large audience at one time. They simply are their own source of wonder. The final production number, “Shanghai Lil” features my favorite dance by Keeler. Her eccentric tapping style perfectly fits Cagney’s, and they carry this number off beautifully. You can see it here.

Footlight Parade combines screwball comedy's wisecracking, scattershot dialogue with the psychedelic fever dreams of Busby Berkeley and some of the best actors of the 1930s to produce a film of enduring appeal and subtle social commentary. This film is essential viewing for every film enthusiast. l

Friday, January 05, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006)
Director: Guillermo del Toro

The cineaste world has gone wild over Pan’s Labyrinth. The film has earned a phenomenal 99% positive rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s hard to know what more there is to say about it—but I’ll try. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a must-see among cineastes and has strong support from the fanboy demographic, who flocked to see two of Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, Blade 2 and Hellboy, the moviegoing populace at large is going to ignore it in droves because it’s in Spanish and too violent for family viewing. That’s a shame, because this is as fine a bit of storytelling as the best Steven Spielberg narratives. Despite its realistic, graphic violence and buckets of blood, the movie rides a wave of enchantment by weaving its overt fairytale storyline subtly, but powerfully, into its real-world storyline to create a sublime sort of hybrid.

As a sort of follow-up to del Toro’s 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, a bleak and chilling ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a rural area of Spain shortly after Franco’s fascist regime has taken power. Rebels still hope to unseat Franco, so military outposts continue their gruesome job of exterminating the opposition. To one such outpost travel 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has married the outpost’s leader, Captain Vidal (Sergi López).

As del Toro sets the scene at the beginning of the film, a voiceover narration tells of the princess of the underworld who, out of curiosity and boredom, went up to the physical world and lost all memory of her identity in the rays of the sun. Her father searched for her, and never gave up hope that she would return to his kingdom one day and reclaim her identity and place. Already, del Toro has very simply put us into “tell me a story” mode, piquing our interest and riveting our attention to the tale he intends to unfold. Further, he concentrates our attention on Ofelia, who is shown in close-up reading this fairytale in a book as she rides in the car with her mother. Carmen becomes nauseated, and her driver must stop the car for her. This is an arduous trip, and Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy. She is, however, obeying her new husband, who believes a baby boy should be born near his father. In the captain’s mind, there is no chance the baby will be a girl.

Their late arrival to the outpost annoys the Captain. His greeting to his wife is perfunctory and includes an order for her to sit in a wheelchair for transportation to her new quarters. Ofelia does not like him, but she is far beneath his notice. Looking after her will be Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the chief housekeeper. It is Mercedes who goes to retrieve Ofelia after she wanders off to explore the grounds and finds an ancient stone maze in the rundown garden.

Carmen meets Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo), who will be attending her during her pregnancy. He seems kind and concerned; Ofelia learns that he is providing medical supplies to the resistance through Mercedes, whose brother is one of its leaders. Mercedes sees Ofelia watch her take the supplies from the doctor and worries about the security of her secret. Ofelia reassures her; her hatred for the Captain guarantees Mercedes’ and Dr. Ferreiro’s safety. We come to hate the Captain, too, when we watch him commit a heinous act of brutality just to teach one of his officers a lesson.

Ofelia looks for an escape from her unhappy world. She finds it when a praying mantis that has followed her car transforms into a fairy and leads her out of the house to the maze. She comes to a circle with a staircase leading deep below ground. When she reaches the bottom, she meets a half-human, half-ram faun (Doug Jones)—perhaps it is Pan himself. He instantly recognizes her as the long-lost princess and convinces her that she must complete three tasks to prove that her essence is still pure and take her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. He hands her a book and tells her to read it and complete the tasks before the next full moon, which is fast approaching.

Ofelia examines the book in private. Its pages are empty, but when the light hits it, words and drawings magically appear. Her first task is to go to the base of a very old tree that is being strangled by a giant toad. There she is to place three rubies in the toad’s mouth, which will kill it and free the tree. She runs out in a beautiful party dress her mother has gotten her to wear to a special dinner party the Captain is having that night to introduce Carmen to his friends. She carefully removes the dress, although she has muddied her party shoes, and crawls inside the tree to confront the toad and complete the task. Enormous beetles writhe all around her, and she is slimed by the toad before conceiving a clever way to complete her task. When she emerges from the tree with a magic key the toad coughed up, her party dress has blown into the mud. Her mother, who has already been shown a cold shoulder by her husband at the dinner party, expresses her disappointment that Ofelia has missed the dinner and ruined her dress.

Soon thereafter, Carmen’s pregnancy takes a bad turn. When Ofelia looks in her magic book for her next task, the pages reveal only a red and spreading stain. She runs to her mother and finds her hemorrhaging badly, in a scene of graphic horror. The Captain tells Dr. Ferreiro that if a choice must be made, to save his son over his wife. Ofelia overhears this conversation. She knows, too, that if her mother dies, she will be utterly expendable.

Ofelia is given her second task. She must use the key to open a safe in a banquet hall and retrieve its contents. The faun admonishes her not to eat from the banquet table under any circumstances and to return to her home before an hourglass he gives her runs out of sand. He gives her a piece of chalk to draw a door to the banquet hall, which is the only way to reach it from her room, and three of his fairies to help her. A creature called Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones) slumbers at the table. She goes past him and retrieves the contents of the safe easily. But she pauses to eat two grapes, rousing Pale Man and sending him in pursuit of her. He eats two of the fairies, but Ofelia manages to escape. She hands the faun the item she retrieved, an ancient dagger, but hands him back only one of the fairies in the box her gave her. The faun is furious that she did not listen to him and ends the trial.

Back in the real world, the hunt for the resistance fighters is on. The Captain has decided to starve them out of hiding and confiscates all of the food in the area and locks it away, taking the only key to the storeroom from Mercedes. The insurgents blow up two trains to create a diversion. When the troops return from investigating the explosion, the storeroom has been unlocked, and all of the food is missing. The Captain follows his hunches to uncover the conspirators in his household. A new doctor is put in charge of Carmen, and she dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Ofelia has been forgiven and allowed one more chance to complete her trial. She is instructed to bring her newborn brother to the faun. Unfortunately, the Captain sees her, and follows her into the maze where the film climaxes.

Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time in the real world as in its fantasy world. Del Toro toggles between the stories expertly, relieving some of our tension at the horrible acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Captain by letting us escape with Ofelia. But he never allows the suspense to dissipate completely; this is no Disney fairytale. The trials are frightening, and Ofelia is put on her guard when Mercedes tells her that fauns cannot be trusted. Del Toro has shown his complete ease with make-believe in other films; therefore, he finds it unnecessary to decide whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. This decision frees the audience from worrying about this detail and allows it to surrender completely to his story. All directors could learn a lesson or two from del Toro's less-is-more approach to CGI. The effects, CGI and otherwise, in this movie are sophisticated, subtle, and appropriate. They don't seek to reinvent the wheel with regard to a fairytale look, yet still manage to be original and surprising, particularly the Pale Man creature.

There are a few over-the-top moments that knock this film off its masterpiece pedestal, but nonetheless, add to the audience’s enjoyment. The Captain’s villainy is poured on with a bit too much relish. One wince-inducing scene (the man in the seat next to me was doubled up and moaning in agony watching it) demonstrates that the Captain, far from being completely cold, relishes pain. It reminded me of a scene from Urban Cowboy (1980) in which the no-good Wes (Scott Glenn) is shown full-face, playing with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle he just emptied, twisting it between his teeth in a leer of pure evil. In another scene, Mercedes’ desperate run from the outpost ends in a far-too-pat moment designed strictly to provide a payoff to the audience.

Ultimately, we are left with a nagging question that melds the two stories together. Was the final test in the trial completed the way we are led to believe it was? I think that to win a kingdom, enormous sacrifices must be made. The resistance fighters understood this and were willing to lay down their lives to be free. In the end, Ofelia’s essential purity may have been what the faun was always after. l