Friday, July 27, 2007

Sicko (2007)

(Directed by Michael Moore, 2007, USA)

Michael Moore's latest documentary "Sicko" is rather depressing to watch, as the realization that 47 million Americans are without health insurance (a point mentioned at the beginning of the film). Well at least I was depressed. Moore makes the case that the American system of health care is broken, corrupt and needs to be fixed. Sure, that's very much what everyone knows, and (after dealing with health care officials recently), he's pretty much preaching to the converted with me.

After showing various health care horror stories, he goes on a travelogue to examine the health care systems for Canada, England, and France. Propaganda (or should I say ad hominem arguements) that socialized medicine is better than what we have in the good ol' USA. Of course it is, but then he lost me when he went on to get his digs at Hillary Clinton when she was trying to push for that in the Clinton White House and (while not bothering with the censuring and demonizing she encountered when she proposed National Health Care), he claims she's been bought out for her silence over the failure of her bill (and now she's getting endorsements from health care companies as a reward). Holy revisionist history, Fatman! I mean Batman!
Moore tried similar tactics with "Fahrenheit 9/11", stating as 'pseudo-fact' that no congressional reps read the "Patriot Act". Yeah, well that's true but it's a disservice to just report that fact and either willingly deny or avoid the real facts of the case: most politicians do not read everything put forward to them (they have aides for that) and most egregiously, the Patriot Act was pushed through in a relatively short time. To ignore that fact and bend truth and facts to suit your argument is just basically dishonest. And Moore does just that with extolling various health systems of Canada, France and the U.K.: he just mines the surface with his "golly gee" schtick and doesn't bother to show any underside. Why are taxes so much in Canada and France? Duh...

"Sicko" is a pseudo-documentary masquerading as another 'public service' announcement. It might behoove Moore if he actually made agitprop documentaries like the late Emilio de Antonio did, but then he wouldn't get the corporate bucks funding to continue with his jester activities. As it is, his argument is rather weak and shallow: the U.S. health care system (like America in general) is in trouble, it's too bad that this 'documentary' doesn't give you a complete picture. Yet we as Americans these days get the president and the 'entertainment' we deserve, this just follows suit apparently.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)

(Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)

This classic silent film existed in a few different versions for years until a print was discovered in an insane asylum in Norway. The version shown today was struck from that one and restored by the Cinematheque Francaise sometime in the mid-1980s. It is a vast improvement from the muddied one I saw on a rental during film school. A short prologue showing a medieval manuscript which intertitles inform us is a record of the trial of Joan of Arc, revealing Joan of Arc as a human being in her own words. Eight years previously, in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and this might have prompted renewed interest in Dreyer to examine the historical record for film. However the legacy Jeanne d'Arc has left in collective memory in over four centuries since her death at the stake seems never to have abated: given the many representations of her: in opera, novels,theater, and film.

Dreyer's film stands out for the ascetic purity and economy in the film: the use of extreme close-ups, a very sparse set, bright almost harsh lighting and an equally sparse outdoor set. There is a slow rhythm bulding between the interior shots of the trial as Joan answers questions posed to her by the clergy seeking to find her guilty of sacrilege and it builds in intensity until the eventual death at the stake before a sad, reverent crowd that riots after the burning of Joan.

The actors do not wear makeup which, from all that I've read of this film, was rather unheard of for the silent film era. Dreyer psychologically pits Joan against her captors by filming both in extreme closeup: low angle for Joan, higher angle for her judges. It is very effective, emphasizing how powerless Joan is in the grand scheme of things. The filming is rather economical in that regard too, consisting of point of view back and forth extreme closeups.

This was Maria Falconetti's only film and as Joan, she gives one of the greatest performances ever seen on film. Her acting consists in (similar to most silent actors) acting with one's eyes (and in this case, face), yet she also conveys a huge amount of emotion in her restrained performance: she never ever 'mugs' for the camera but gazes head on, with intelligence, emotion, sadness, and fear that the historical Joan must have met her judges with and also a measure of the simplicity of a medieval peasant. She is alternately touching, heartbreaking and devastating in the end to watch, just superbly unforgettable. The austere beauty Dreyer gave to this film and Falconetti's devastating performance are justifiable reasons to watch this late silent film masterpiece.

Out of the silent film era, there are several films that redefined the cinema and raised film to the level of art. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc remains one beautiful shining example of what cinema can achieve as art.

God Told Me To (1976)

(Directed by Larry Cohen, 1976, USA)

"God Told Me To" is a good example of a neat B-movie thriller going off the cinematic rails into plot insanity after a good hour or so of murder and mayhem.
Tony Lo Bianco plays a detective investigating a series of murders wherein random, seemingly normal people start killing others for no reason except that God told them to. How can you go wrong with that?

A lot of ways, definitely. The opening shot (hehe) starts off with a visual bang representation of Andre Breton's surrealist dictum of the ultimate surrealist act: firing a revolver into a crowd. In this case it is a sniper on a watertower picking people off around mid 1970's Bloomingdale's. Our intrepid detective climbs up and talks to said sniper only to hear the reason why he's doing this: "God told me to".
There is a great setup here, and even better when the same occurence happens at the St. Patrick's Day NYC parade with an unknown (yes, it's really him) Andy Kaufman going nuts, picking people off in police uniform. And God told him to of course.

The movie starts to combine different elements: the love life of Detective Lo Bianco involving a girlfriend Deborah Raffin and an ex-wife played by the late great Sandy Dennis, alien abduction, a Sylvia Sydney cameo, scary sci-fi elements, a short journey into blaxploitation territory and a weird quasi-early David Cronenborgish finale. As an ambitious B-movie, all of these said plot elements do not cohere together competently. On the Internet Movie Database page for this movie, I did feel happy that a lot of viewers didn't understand what was happening in the ultimate scene. I guess you can chalk it up to an ambitious director's screenplay trying to cover everything: for me, it was nice to see Lo Bianco in a lead role, NYC in the 1970's,the weird religion-gone-wrong vibe. It's admittedly a cult film, but the first part doesn't match the second part. I give props to Larry Cohen, thirty-plus years later after this low-budget film was released, it is still being argued about.
For a good hour, it's really good, but ultimately sinks under the weight of its ambition. Fun ride though!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Last Picture Show (1971)

(Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1971)

Another birthday and I had nothing to do so I watched this because it was on. It's interesting that this film had so much impact when I was a 'youngun' and now the shock value seems to have completely diminished. I think the main brouhaha was about premarital sex amongst teens (and frank talk about it) in a dull 1951 Texas small town being shown on film and that make a lot of people upset, mainly Roman Catholic folk. Wow, people actually had sex! send out the National Guard!
Since I had never seen it before all the way through, I must say that it really holds up and is a great and moving film.

Peter Bogdonovich adapted Larry McMurtry's novel and works with a superb ensemble cast: Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan and a young Randy Quaid and Cybil Shepherd. Cinematography was by the great Larry Surtrees (who shot "The Graduate" "Summer of '42" and the underrated horror film "The Other"), in vibrant black and white: this gives the movie a general moodiness and is very effective in the opening scenes: conveying a sense of the complete emptiness of a small Texas town. It also helps to underscore the actors naturalism, since it's not soft light, effectively pushing their acting into the forefront. It's tempting to say that "Last Picture Show" is a coming of age movie with Hank Williams on the soundtrack, it's richer and more interesting than most other movies made in that period. There are several standout performances in the episodic structure of this movie: Ben Johnson gives a steady performance, Ellen Burstyn as his old love interest is sexy and believable, Cloris Leachman's neglected wife, having an affair with Bottoms is heartbreaking in her intensity. Hers is a nuanced performance, very skillful without descending into sentimentality. (She and Bottoms won supporting Oscars for their work).

In 1990, nearly 20 years after "The Last Picture Show", Bogdanovich filmed McMurtry's sequel, another novel involving the same characters in "Texasville", but apparently that sequel did not do so well. "The Last Picture Show" is now regarded as a classic of the 'new Hollywood' of the early 1970's. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Ossessione (1943)

(Directed by Luchino Visconti, 1943, Italy)

"Ossessione", Luchino Visconti's first film is the also the first filmed adaptation of James M. Cain's potboiler "The Postman Always Rings Twice". It is slightly different than the 1946 John Garfield/Lana Turner version or the 1981 Bob Rafaelson/Nicholson/Lange version, but the basic plot stays the same, except moved to Italy. To me it's amazing that this film survives, since it came out during strict Fascistic rule and also Cain's novel was still under copyright at the time, so it was never shown in this country until the 1960's.

The plot (as in the other versions) concerns a drifter Gino(Massimo Girotti) meets and has an affair with a roadside cafe/diner owner's wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai) and after an attempt to run away from the boorish but 'nice guy' husband Giuseppe(Juan de Landa), Gino goes back on the road, only to meet up with the couple and, in the spur of the moment, return back to their diner, and eventually (on Giovanna's egging on) kill Giuseppe and make it look like an accident. Like many twists in classical tragedy, the plot unravels and the adulterous couple meet their doom.

Unlike the 1946 version, this version deals much more freely with sex, between the strapping leading man and his adulterous paramour. Since this was made in 1943 during the height of the war, this sexuality was contained in mainly glances, body language, and very candid sensuality.

It also helped that this is considered the first film for "Italian Neorealism", setting the stage for the post-war Italian classics to follow: "The Bicycle Theif", "Umberto D.", "Bitter Rice", and so many others. This is a haunting film, and still sexy to boot. Unfortunately, the Image DVD release had some problems, (at least mine did), freezing and unfreezing several times at the near end of the film. The print used looks slightly washed out but still clear. This is a landmark not just of Italian neorealist cinema, but also contains some aspects of film noir, if you can see it, by all means do so!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lola Montes (1955)

(Directed by Max Ophuls, 1955, France)

"Lola Montes" was Max Ophuls's last movie, a critical flop on its theatrical release. It is a remarkable achievement, the first French widescreen Cinemascope release and beautifully shot in majestic color. The film depicts the legendary 19th century adventuress Lola Montes, (a Victorian Paris Hilton without the money), forced to tell her scandalous life story in the confines of a circus, presided over by a young Peter Ustinov as an acerbic ringmaster; audience comments make her relive her past, which revolve in nonchronological flashbacks to her affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, as she relives and performs her life on stage nightly.

At the center of the film is the curiously remote actress Martine Carol, a 1950s French sex symbol who was dethroned by Brigitte Bardot. Many commentators describe her in this role as a blank slate which men project their desires on. While true in one sense, in the film's flashbacks she is shown as a strong woman who wants her independence, yet needs the comfort of being a 'kept woman'. Her remoteness is a calculated effect, that of a "femme fatale" (as the circus ringmaster reminds the audience), who continually moves on, from man to man. For such a larger than life subject, the circus setting is appropriate: a place where Lola wanders in her memories surrounded by the gaudy circus atmosphere. Amid the multiple memories and the circus world of performance and artiface, there is the backstage small talk and the 'sotto voce' conversations between the ubiquitous ringmaster and Lola. The multiple worlds of the film are handled in a very sophisticated manner and carries the sweep of the movie forward. This is a majestic and wonderfully beautiful film.

Unfortunately, the only DVD available is from Fox/Lorber and is 110 minutes, while the uncut version of the film (released only in Europe) is 144 minutes. Ophuls argued with producers for the longer cut, and died two years after the film was released. "Lola Montes" is a worthy example of a film that needs restoration, hopefully in the future, a company like Criterion will release a fully restored version.