selfhelpradio

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Reviews

The Broken Circle Breakdown
(2012)

My One Problem With This Movie
I don't want to say this is a terrible movie, because it isn't. It's heartbreakingly sad & the beautiful music - apparently really performed by the actors - was great to watch.

After the big crisis in the film, the two leads suffer, & there's supposed to be dramatic tension because the male, Didier, is a "romantic atheist," while the female, Elise, is a "religious realist." (These are not my terms, they're from the summary - Elise doesn't appear to me to be terribly realistic, nor does Didier seem all that romantic.) Neither apparently communicates too well - Didier seems to wait until he's pent up to express himself, while Elise is - well, we just get a handed-down family heirloom crucifix necklace to establish her religiosity, but it's not entirely Christian, because she apparently believes the human soul can transmigrate into a bird. Didier has one scene where he yells at an audience about Christian fundamentalism that's the biggest reveal we have about his anger toward people of that faith.

Except. The title of the movie is "The Broken Circle Breakdown." From the old folk song which insists "there's a better world awaiting in the sky." Didier is apparently steeped in bluegrass music, which, like country, has deep roots in American Christianity. I've known folks whose interest in the music has led them to reconnect with their faith. It's that powerful. & for many, it's the passion of the faith - certainly it's there in Bill Monroe, Didier's idol - that shines through the music. Are we supposed to believe that Didier has either missed this, or ignores it, to such an extent that songs about faith & the afterlife don't anger him the way George Bush's fundamentalism does?

It's baffling. & it's something that surely he would have noticed in the course of his obsession with bluegrass.

Because it seems impossible to me that someone so immersed in the music wouldn't at least have to discuss - at least with him or herself - the religious themes present in so many of the songs they're going to listen to or perform. That the movie seems unconcerned with this is a great fault, & one that kept me from thinking that the characters were truly three- dimensional.

Gray Matters
(2006)

Wow! What A Tough Demographic!
I guess I kinda see the point of this film - doesn't everyone hope that when they finally "come out" (as gay or straight or as the person they really are) that they'll be a cute movie star like Heather Graham?

What gets me, though, is the impossibility of the premise. How many lesbians have fallen in love with their brother's wives/fiancees/girlfriends? Seriously, is this a catalyst for a significant number of "coming out" experiences? Why does this seem to me to be embarrassingly contrived?

Because it is. There's no chemistry between Heather Graham & Bridget Moynihan (unless you're a frat boy in a shot bar getting off on watching skanky girls kiss). There's no chemistry between the "Ed" guy (Tom Cavanaugh) & Bridget Moynihan, except as required by the plot. There appears to be some chemistry between Heather Graham & "Ed" guy, but it's derailed at the beginning of the film so the viewing audience won't think it's too creepy.

The rest is by-the-book coming-out fare, with Alan Cumming accepting a role as a heterosexual cabbie so he can tutor the newbie lesbian in the arts of meeting her own kind. Let's applaud his acceptance to proselytize for the team & hope that he eventually plays a role other than the one his community demands that he play. One that might be great, gay or straight or neither.

The "Ed" guy may eventually find a good script to make use of his charm & his ability to banter like in 30's screwball comedies. Heather Graham may yet find a director who can prove to the world she's a good actor. This movie comes nowhere close to advancing either of these premises.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
(2002)

Problems with this documentary
I enjoyed this, do not get me wrong, but I have two major pet peeves.

1) This movie suffers from a severe lack of chronological basis. Dates & times are left out so the progression of the musicians' experiences are not put in a context. It's one thing to celebrate a musician's life; it's another to baldly refuse to give that life a sense of history.

2) Do we really need to have continual, boring rehashes of old Motown hits by performers whom we'll never see in five years? Seriously. Ben Harper, Joan Osbourne, Meshell Whateverhernameis - these are flavors of the month. No one will be listening to them in ten years except on nostalgia channels - the music they personally make is unmemorable & the performances here would be better served with clips from old television shows.

So watch at your peril: a grand idea is undermined by an attempt to make it "relate" to this generation. The Funk Brothers deserved better.

But if this is all they get, it will do.

That Man's Here Again
(1937)

That man's a little dull
For a film that's barely over an hour, "That Man's Here Again" takes a while to get off the ground, not entirely sure it's a comedy until the titular man, old Vaudevillian Hugh Herbert (known for his Daffy Duck-esque "Woo-hoo"s), gets involved to tie up the loose ends. Until then, the main reason I watched was for the extremely cute Australian actress Mary Maquire.

The plot is basically this: young Jimmy Whalen (all-American boy Tom Brown, who later turned up on "Gunsmoke") works as an elevator operator in the Park Avenue apartment house where Thomas Jesse (Herbert) comes in late & drunk every night. One cold & rainy night, Nancy Lee (Maquire) sneaks in, cold & wet, looking for shelter. She's been living on the streets, & Whalen finagles a job for her as a maid. The two fall in love, but Nancy's secret is that she a baby in state care. When Jimmy expresses his dislike of kids, & after Nancy breaks Thomas Jesse's valuable Ming vase, she disappears, & Jesse & Whalen have to conspire to not only get her back, but find a way for the young couple to live happily ever after (tm).

As I've said, this doesn't become comedic till the end, & there are really only a couple of good laughs in the film (one in a police station). The sitcom-y way it's all wrapped up might be forgiven if certain issues of the film found a decent resolution - the main one being, where's Nancy's baby's father?

All that being said, they really don't make them like this anymore, & Hugh Herbert is amusing to watch once the scene becomes his. This is strictly late-night, can't sleep fare, but, really, isn't that what all those classic movie channels are for anyway?

Losing the Thread
(2000)

"Filo" is colored string!
I happened upon this odd little documentary on the Sundance Channel tonight. An American documentarian chose to make a film about Florentine artist Lorenzo Pezzatini, whose work - from paintings to installations to live public performances - focuses entirely on what he calls "the filo" - which are strings that he's covered entirely in paint, bright paint, red & blue & yellow.

Director Nossiter interacts with the artist, the artist's wife Caterina, his crew & his producer, speaking in very good Italian as well as English (the Italian in the film is cleverly subtitled, often with parenthetical commentary by the director next to the translations), apparently attempting to understand why this local artist, who doesn't show in museums but paints on billboards or paints his "filo" in front of lines of tourists waiting to get in to see Michaelangelo's David, has spent the last twenty years of his life making colored string. He's obviously obsessed with it - my favorite part of the film is the brief tour of the artist's home, where he keeps paintings made of "filo," where he even drapes "filo" around the pictures in his photo album. Nossiter begins the film with an admission that he has failed to do this, & even laments it during the four days he spends with Pezzatini.

But I personally think that it's part of the idea of the film - at one point Caterina calls the film "four days of a communal psychodrama" - not explaining the artist, which everyone from the director to the wife to the crew attempt to do (though the artist is exceptionally noncommital), but rather enjoying the presentation of a string-obsessed man & the often beautiful things he's created with his "filo." I'm not an artist myself, but I've known people who consider themselves artists & I think anyone who has known an artist or who has created things will find a part of themselves in Pezzatini. He's one part painter, one part eccentric, & one part performance artist, & the whole of the film depicts a man, who, like his "filo," is whatever you want to see in him. I think the majority of us will be charmed.

A very enjoyable hour. I only wish I could tour his house!

The Enchanted Drawing
(1900)

Delightful
This "trick movie" (as they are known) lasts for a minute & a half & transpires much as the summary above describes: a man draws a face on a large sheet of paper, then several objects (a bottle, a glass, a cigar, a hat) which, thanks to stop motion, come to life as he reaches for them. The face itself changes when things are taken away or when they are returned. The face itself is not animated, though this film is considered an early example of the animated film.

The lightning-quick sketch artist in the film is James Stuart Blackton, who toured in vaudeville with his easel & amazed audiences with his quick drawings. He worked for Edison quite a while, for obvious reasons - a century later, the film is really, really cool, & the same stop motion that worked in TV shows like "Bewitched" always seems amazing.

But this one, even as early as it was made, has a charm that some shorts can't replicate. First of all, it's extremely well done; when Blackton grabs the bottle & glass, it's surprising. Second, Blackton himself is a showman, so his drawing & his interaction with it are done in an animated, entertaining way. & lastly, it's just fun: a drawing that gets mad when its bottle of wine is stolen, but becomes happy when it is fed the wine is just too cute & funny to find trite or dull.

Lloyd
(2001)

Um, who exactly is the target audience for this film?
I have nephews the same age as the main character in this film, & I think they'd spend the better part of this film as embarrassed as I was. But, briefly, here's the plot:

Lloyd is a skinny, red-headed, bespectacled sixth-grader (think of a twelve-year-old Carrot Top & you're dead on) who's so desperate to be popular that he is constantly doing ridiculous things that only get him jeers. He falls in love with the "new girl at school" but she goes for the boy that says, "I'm cute & popular." Furthermore, the teachers aren't entirely supportive of him. At home, his mother gives him pep talks but his little brother, apparently a kind of nine-year-old Cassanova, rags on him as much as anyone. Lloyd falls into a depression until he decides to use the only skill he seems to have, an interest in magic, to turn the tables on one of his teachers at a school function.

It sounds like standard kiddie movie fare, but there are some weird elements to this movie that compelled me to write this commentary. First of all, the kids are not very good actors. An elementary school in a suburb of Los Angeles doing the traditional Thanksgiving story could run rings around these youngsters. The tagline seems to want us to believe this is a story about self-esteem, but beside his queer looks, Lloyd really isn't all that special. The magic he learns from weird special guest Tom Arnold isn't really magic at all - it's a trick played in a movie, reliant on the cameras & editing, certainly not one a twelve-year-old could learn. So his search for self-esteem is banal in the extreme - was the director hoping for an audience of underachievers? & if he got it, wouldn't even underachievers be offended by it?

I was also a little nonplussed by the emphasis on children's sexuality. While obviously not on the level of your average teen "but I've never had sex" comedy, the film seems to spend a lot of time showing children in their early teens (barely out of adolescence) holding hands, kissing for the first time, dreaming about kissing, & talking about it. Lloyd's only friend describes french kissing as "ringing the bell" in the back of a girl's mouth. Oh, doubtless kids that age think about & do things of that nature all the time - it just felt stilted & clumsy to me, especially as Lloyd was completely clueless in that regard. An examination of the whys & hows of early courting, seen though the eyes of an outsider, could have been funny & revealing here.

The most confusing element is the stuff added apparently for adults wanting to be entertained while taking their kids to see the movie. A convenience store clerk with difficult facial hair stares at a movie he's watching at work & says, "I have got to finish film school." Tom Arnold, as a sort of mentor to Lloyd, talks a lot about how fat he used to be. The teacher in the "special ed" class Lloyd is sent to tells the kids he has problems with depression & talks about how an imaginary friend helped him in school, though the classes he mentioned are obviously college-level. Remember, this is not an indie comedy or even a Saturday Night Live franchise flick. This is ostensibly a movie to be viewed by kids in elementary & middle school. (In any event, for a fellow in his 30s, even those parts aren't very funny.)

I remember as a kid, the sophisticated parts of Warner Brothers cartoons might have baffled me, but the stuff for the whole family was funny. Later on, the deeply censored Hanna Barbera cartoons of the 70s were just plain insulting, even to a ten-year-old. But I can't believe that the director of this movie really thought he was talking to kids the same age as Lloyd. Now, I caught this film in the afternoon with nothing else on, & had never heard of it, so it didn't make much of a splash. But I think it's fair to say that some of the reasons it didn't were: a talentless, uninteresting cast; an unambitious focus; & baffling attempts to be funny beyond its apparent audience's years.

Arizona
(1931)

Weepy, slight early 1930s melodrama
I suppose this is what they used to call a "woman's picture." Laura LaPlante, a fetching, if gnomish blonde, plays Evelyn Palmer, a New York girl (what she does for a living is never revealed) who's been dallying with dashing West Point cadet Bob Denton, played robotically by a very young & handsome John Wayne. When she is dumped unceremoniously before Bob's graduation, Evelyn woos & eventually marries his mentor, Colonel Bonham, played by Forrest Stanley more like a stuffed-shirt British army officer than an American who's spent years in Arizona. The big complication is that, once the newlywed Bonhams relocate to Arizona, Denton shows up for duty &, despite Evelyn's triumphant attitude toward him, Denton takes a fancy to Evelyn's sister, Bonnie, who's the cutest flapper I've seen in ages.

This plot, made today, might have a bit more nastiness in that; it's as close to a "Cruel Intentions" as you're going to get in 1931. That Bob & Evelyn are having a sexual relationship is implied, of course, & it's amusing how, later in the picture, every time someone's about to say it, that person is interrupted or hushed. More than that, though I saw this on the Starz Western channel, it's more like your average sophisticated thirties melodrama than a western. The cigarettes are in boxes, gowns are worn to dinner, & the Colonel's house in Arizona is strictly Long Island.

The film features some amusing stock footage of an Army-Navy football game, as well as military maneuvers. But without giving anything away, the film unwinds & then winds up in a pretty cliched manner. For John Wayne fans, it's bound to be extremely disappointing, but for those of us who are intrigued by the early days of Hollywood, good & bad, it's not such a bad way to spend an hour. But it was way too silly to be moving, & it's by the numbers mix-up plot never really generates any suspense.

From the Journals of Jean Seberg
(1995)

A documentary that is a college thesis paper
The negatives comments this film has received make me think that the commentators haven't taken a college literature course before (or at least not in a while). I don't mean this in a mean way; it's simply that one sitting in a classroom while twenty people write twenty papers about one work of literature with twenty different takes on it can be a sobering & educational experience. Short of the author writing another book after his or her first book & explaining the previous work, there's really no way to state with certainty what the point of it all was. (& even then, some people would distrust the author's explanation.) The same goes for music, art, poetry, & of course film.

What Rappaport has done here is written a paper, using the approved standard of evidence most college-level courses require, theorizing about the life & work of actress Jean Seberg. That he sometimes casually throws out theories as fact is standard for such essays, papers, what-not. It may seem a little crass to think of someone's life as being open to interpretation, but surely one can understand that there is always something social or political about presenting the story of one's life in, say, cable TV's "Biography" method, which tends to leave out or just touch on the gruesome sexual encounters or the public humiliations, or VH1's "Behind the Music" style, which focuses on nothing but.

Rappaport does something different than both of those. Seberg's life is explained through the films she's in, which, he suggests, is inextricably linked to the men she loved, which is inextricably linked to the times she was living in, the political role she chose to play, & the other actresses whose careers ran parallel to hers. Is it all factual? More or less - facts are lined up to support the thesis, which is basically a feminist commentary on the role of women in film, backed up with some fascinating (if maybe not entirely tenable) connections with things as different as Russian formalist silent cinema & Spaghetti Westerns. & lots of interpretation - Rappaport has written words for Mary Beth Hurt, as Jean Seberg, to comment on her looks, her acting style, the roles she played. To believe that he had access to some real "journals" of Seberg is somewhere between silly & gullible.

See, it's not even pretending to be objective truth. If it were, why would it be narrated by an actress playing Jean Seberg, who's nearly twenty years dead by the making of the movie? It's a thesis, an idea, something thrown out for you to chew on & think about. You are of course free to disagree with the filmmaker, & it's eminently healthy to question or criticize such undertakings, as one should criticize a Ken Burns or an Errol Morris. Negative reactions to films such as this one make me feel a little sad, because I think the point has been missed. This is an especially engaging film, about a good-but-not-necessarily-great actress whose famous roles have captured the minds of those film buffs geared to become part of this or that cult following. That her life was tragic is a matter of record. Short of asking her, which will require a trip to the other side, Rappaport has put words in her mouth to tell you what he thinks about her life & work. Though not making movies ourselves, we do much the same thing when we talk about films, books, records, works of art to our friends, co-workers, family, teachers, students.

I'm not a professor, but if I were, & if this movie were a paper, I'd give it an A. It's a damn good read, & well documented. So to speak.

Pretty Baby
(1950)

Quaint & charming screwball comedy from a time long ago
All Patsy Douglas wanted was a seat on the subway. She dreamed of a better position at the advertising agency at which she worked; what she was doing was mimeographing all day long. She dreamily eyed the firm's leader, Sam Morley, & wrote trite jingles for ad campaigns in her spare time. When the Baxter Baby Food account went bad, she took the little doll from the display & carried it with her on the subway. Viola! Passengers, thinking they were helping a woman with a child, stood to let the young mother sit.

Except. One visit she happened to sit next to Cyrus Baxter himself, the crusty, hot-tempered, terminally unhappy curmudgeon who runs the baby food company. She happens to mention that the baby is named after him, Cyrus Baxter Douglas (the people at the firm named the doll "Cyrus," for obvious reasons), & the old man, not revealing his identity to her, is so flattered that she paid him that compliment that he begins to insinuate himself into her life, to help out the namesake he never knew he had.

As you may well imagine, the movie takes off from there. Morley & his partner find themselves having to promote the well-meaning, earnest Patsy to save the account. If you've seen any screwball comedies, you'll be able to anticipate when & where the plots & plans go awry. Betsy Drake, as Patsy, is a bit of a cipher - not terribly pretty, she has a sort of stagey, Laura Linney-esque way of acting. Neither Dennis Morgan or Zachary Scott as her two bosses have the stand-out traits of characters in a Preston Sturges film, though they do play off each other rather well. Edmund Gwenn as the volatile Cyrus Baxter is the movie's real treat - a sort of diminutive, flustered, uptight second cousin of Lionel Barrymore's Henry Potter. The scene between him & Betsy Drake involving Longfellow's "Hiawatha" is screamingly funny.

Most probably they couldn't make a film like this today, not without the tongue in the cheek as "The Hudsucker Proxy," & cameos in this film of soon-to-be-television-stars William Frawley & Barbara Billingsley reminded me how shows like "I Love Lucy" (where Frawley played neighbor Fred Mertz) made most screwball comedy misunderstandings & false leads into television cliche. But this movie, unrushed & quiet in its charm, unembarrassed about its lack of stars or its silliness, manages to entertain in precisely the way it was meant to. You get caught up beyond its corniness.

It's no "His Girl Friday," but probably wasn't meant to be. It has some good laughs & it's funnier than any modern comedy I've seen recently. Recommended for those who've seen all the Capra & Sturges flicks & can live with a fix that's a couple of shades below.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
(2001)

Initial thoughts on a brand new "Law & Order"
I write this after seeing the very first episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." If you're a fan of "Law & Order" (now over a decade old) or the recent "L & O: Special Victims Unit," chances are you tuned in tonight or you'll tune in eventually.

The twist on this one is that you get to see the criminals commit the crime as well as the detectives trying to solve it. I (like many others) saw an immediate problem: the loss of the courtroom drama. The original "Law & Order' has become famous (at least in its television promos) for its twists & turns of plot; if you know something about the crime, won't that lessen the drama? If you know who done it, won't that foul up the obligatory misdirection, false accusations & bad evidence?

The answer, from tonight's episode, is a pretty solid "No." & I'll tell you why I think so.

Number one, Vincent D'Onifrio. I have no idea how Dick Wolf, the series' producer, lured this incomparable indie mainstay away from his beloved low-budget films, but I'm glad he did. His character, Detective Robert Goren, is a wry, devoted Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century. In typical "Law & Order" fashion we know nothing about him outside his job. But tonight's episode had us following a trail we saw blazed only a commercial break before, & him getting it with an ease as if he were watching it beside us the whole time. I had a feeling he'd be this series' star, & this episode brought my feeling closer to fact.

Number two, the producers wisely show us the differences between an actual crime & solving it. While we see the crime carried out (at least in this episode), we don't get to see the preparation, the possible mistakes, the clues left behind in the execution of the crime. We get caught up not in the ultimate mystery, but in the components of the mystery. It's far more engaging than I would have thought. They do it well.

Number three, some of the best of "Law & Order" is still there: the deal-making in the legal process (Courtney Vance as the ADA seems promising as a bit of a hard-ass in the district attorney department); the actual arresting & prosecuting; the interaction between the police & the perpetrators of the crime; & of course the human element, the characterization of everyone involved that makes them seem less like cardboard crime drama cut-outs & more like real people on the TV screen.

I'm excited. The original "Law & Order" sometimes seems tired these days in its attempts to one-up the last episode's O. Henryesque plot maneuvers, & "Special Victims Unit" is always going to be a little scary because of its disturbing subject matter. But tonight's episode showed tremendous promise: ease & action in the plot, compelling lead characters, & a satisfying resolution.

I'm going to stick around.

Arch of Triumph
(1984)

Good thriller ruined by dull love story
It's always a lot of fun to watch Anthony Hopkins struggle through mediocre films made before his Merchant-Ivory days & the breakthrough of "The Silence Of The Lambs," & he is by far the best thing about this made-for-television remake of the 1948 Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer film. The Remarque novel, written long after his success with "All Quiet On The Western Front," seems to want to contrast the Hopkins character, Dr. Ravic, in his Paris surroundings with his love affair with Joan Madou (played here by a hopelessly miscast Lesley-Anne Down in the Bergman role). But I honestly don't think the story needed the love affair; in such a time of tension & grief, love is always a cliche, & this story isn't good or strong enough to rise above the inherent corniness of the theme.

Hopkins, as Ravic, is a German citizen who helped Jewish people escape from the murderous anti-Semitic Fatherland. He spent time in a concentration camp & has a horrible scar as a reminder. He lives without papers in Paris, under a false name, aware always that the minute the gendarmes near him he could be sent away or imprisoned as an illegal alien. He dreams of the day he can revenge himself on the Gestapo officer who sent him away, who tortured his friends & who tortured & raped his only love, Sybil. (In this version, Donald Pleasance plays Haake, the Nazi murderer, & does a creepy job, especially when Ravic meets him later & he doesn't recognize his own handiwork.) One night, on a bridge, Ravic encounters Joan Madou, & he rescues her from a possible suicide attempt. Madou understandably latches on to Ravic, & at some point a romance begins.

At this point in the plot summary, you are not required to suppress a yawn; it sounds like something you've heard a million times before & you'll see a million times more. My thoughts while watching this movie were simply this: the strength of the story - German exile trapped in doomed Paris on the eve of German invasion looking for revenge while trying to stay alive - didn't need the love story to propel it. Surely there were other opportunities for Hopkins to show his human side than to act jealous when Down confesses to have other lovers! His relationship with the Russian exile, played with vodka-gulping panache by Frank Finlay, had a reality to it that the walks on the beach in Normandy with Down could barely compare with.

Hopkins, of course, had his greatest work before him, & he made the wonderful "84 Charing Cross Road" a year after this. But he is quite good here with his slight German accent & his subtle performance. He is perhaps the only reason to see this, & since I haven't seen the 1948 version (which I hear is pretty dreadful), I can't tell you how he compares to Boyer. But if you're in the mood for a thriller set in dangerous times, this is fairly standard viewing with the highlight of a good Hopkins performance.

The Deerslayer
(1957)

More like a TV show than a movie
I've always shared Mark Twain's views on James Fenimore Cooper's writing & would much rather see a decent movie version of any Natty Bumpo story than having to wade through the ponderous verse, & tuned into American Movie Classics tonight to see one of the many movie versions out there about The Deerslayer. Made in 1957, this cut-rate production starring Lex Barker (who played Tarzan a few times before this), Rita Moreno (whom I have never seen this young) & Forrest Tucker (whom I like much better on "F Troop") comes across as something only marginally as good as something you might have seen produced by "The Wonderful World Of Disney." Or maybe by Sid & Marty Krofft, to be seen as the live-action segments on "The Banana Splits."

Deerslayer & his faithful Indian companion Chingachgook stumble onto an old trader (Tucker) who asks for their help in protecting a crazy old man & his two daughters from a Huron assault. Well-groomed & stoic throughout, Deerslayer agrees (for some reason) & meets the old man on his floating fort in the middle of the river. The crazy codger hates Indians, & he seems to pamper & flatter his oldest daughter while telling his youngest (played by Moreno) that she's feeble-minded. Deerslayer has suspicions about the whole set-up, but you don't have to be an avid mystery-novel reader to figure out the reasons behind the Huron charge. Barker, constantly posing with his gun & giving those humored looks at the women that George Reeves as Superman always did, plays an android Deerslayer, & the fight scenes are about as exciting as the cliched "Yi yi yi" the Huron holler out when attacking is threatening.

I guess this was made for the Saturday-morning-movie crowd, but there's a part of me that can't believe that even children of the 1950s would be taken in by what now seems obvious: the ridiculously stereotyped Indians, the bad, off-the-screen violence poorly done, even the wooden performance by Barker must've been seen as more comic than heroic. Daniel Day-Lewis frantically saying, "Don't worry, I'll find you!" never looked better.

Au Pair
(1994)

Pretty standard coming-of-age tale
There are some movies that simply *look* old, even if they were made the day before yesterday. I don't know if it's the quality of film stock, or the way the director chose to shot it, or whatever, but they don't weather well. They look old & yet they have telling anachronisms. "Au Pair" looks like it was made in the late 70s, but there's a Mac LC on the desk in one scene, which puts it quite firmly in the early-to-mid 90s. The hometown boyfriend is in a grunge-y rock band as well, meaning of course grunge is around, so it's a postpunk time period. Anyway. Maybe it was supposed to look this way because it's trying to tell a generally romantic story: a young woman coming of age.

I watched this movie because I really liked Georgina Cates (billed here as Clare Woodgate, her real name) in "An Awfully Big Adventure." Though other films I've seen her in, like the dreadful "Stiff Upper Lips," don't really showcase her acting ability, she was fabulous in that twisted & disturbing picture, easily holding her own against very good actors like Hugh Grant & Alan Rickman. In this film, however, she's awful cute & surrounded by totally b-grade actors, especially the guy who plays her hometown boyfriend & the woman she becomes the au pair for, an American actress named Elizabeth Schofield, who delivers lines & emotes like she has just stepped out of high school drama class.

The plot is straightforward: young Welsh girl, dissatisfied with her home life & done with school, leaves long-time boyfriend to go Somewhere Else - in this case, Munich. (It's a Munich, by the way, full of people who have British accents & Germans who seem to speak only English.) The family she is employed by consists of an artist husband & a television commentator wife, both of whom are cheating on the other & both of whom have curious peculiarities that seem too forced to make you interested in them. Cates, as Susan the au pair, has a fight with the mother in which she says, of course, "You aren't even a mother to your child!" - career & extramarital adventures keep her plenty busy. One of these extramarital adventures is a smooth German called Walter who plays his part with a sincerity that is a little embarrassing in this movie. Sure, he's cool, but he has flair, & had Cates & he found a decent story, you might have believed it a little when he seduces Susan & the angry wife forces him to stop seeing her. The rest is pretty by-the-numbers: misunderstandings, secrets revealed, soul-searching. You've seen it a billion times. You wouldn't mind seeing it again, if it were done well. I'm here to say it isn't.

I'm not, nor never have been (at least not in this life) an eighteen-year-old girl, but I believe there is something true for both sexes about the coming-of-age story, & I actually like dorky American teen movies that suck the marrow of that particular bone until there's nothing left. This film is most definitely not a teen comedy, but it's trying to give itself a kind of Merchant-Ivory cred that is all facade. It does try to be a bit eccentric, but such eccentricities are telegraphed way in advance or clumsily tossed in at the moments when a viewer, bored or about to change the channel, might think, "I could use an amusing eccentricity right about now."

Of course, I don't think I've ever thought that, & I certainly hope you don't, but seeing this film made me think that way more than once. & by golly that's a Bad Thing.

Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow
(1987)

America's greatest director
I use the phrase "America's greatest director" not ironically, not unqualified, & not because I admire or otherwise favor silents over "talkies." I use it because I honestly think it's true. & this biography reenforces that belief more than anything I've seen or heard with the exception of actually seeing Keaton's movies. But sometimes you need something to get people to see these movies, movies which may seem quaint or curious to people used to hearing dialogue & sound effects. This documentary does it.

You see, Keaton UNDERSTOOD. Sometimes his movies are corny, sometimes they aim high & hit low, but mostly they're amazing. Mostly they happily present a very scrappy & sympathetic (but not perfect) protagonist & the many foul-ups & challenges he faces. He doesn't fret or moan but simply takes his beatings & tries again. Unlike Chaplin's main characters, Keaton's hero is very often the least important figure in the shot - because the effect is far more important than some kind of identification with the protagonist. Gags & foibles are fluid; nothing seems contrived or extraneous because so

much thought has been placed into each shot, each moment, to render everything crucial to the story. There's a reason that silent comedies are valued (in general) more than silent dramas: comedies speak more to the human condition, & the outrageous in a comedy is accepted where the theatrics & overemoting of a drama seems downright quaint. Keaton knew this. Keaton thrived within this.

How his career was cut short & reduced to nothing is documented here (I'm giving nothing away; volume 2 is entitled "Star Without A Studio") as well as his own problems with alcohol. I am especially suspectible to people who have a sense of the successes & failings of their lives & come to a grateful, gentle end; Keaton, like Harpo Marx, felt blessed by the chances he was given & modestly rated his own body of work. But listen: if you see this documentary, you'll want to see the movies, even if the documentary does show most of his most spectacular stunts. Because for Keaton, context was important: the star can be shown running at the bottom of the screen while a hundred cops chasing him take up most of it. So too can a single stunt, even the best stunt of a movie, make little sense without the context of the film.

Find this. Buy or rent this. Watch critically, note the precision of every scene, the skill with which they are composed & shot & carried out, & then seek out the originals. You'll compare them with your favorite films, you'll find that somewhere in the silent age of movies someone was actually an artist, someone making *comedy*, & you'll understand why people today mention Keaton in reverent tones.

I adore so much cinema, but I am always, always impressed by the skill of Buster Keaton.

Match Game PM
(1975)

The seven-year-old in me remembers...
When I was a kid, I would often feign sickness to stay home from school, to watch reruns of "I Dream Of Jeannie," "Gomer Pyle," "Green Acres" & "Hogan's Heroes," but though I also loved game shows, I loved one in particular: Match Game. "Match Game PM" was on (probably syndicated) around dinnertime, but only once a week, & even if I didn't understand the more racy questions ("Every night, So-And-So went home to his wife & blanked her"), I still loved the idea of putting in a word & trying to match it with people who were called celebrities, even if I had never seen Brett Sommers & Charles Nelson Reilly in anything *but* "Match Game" before.

The other comment on this show mentions the absence of Richard Dawson; actually, in repeats on the Game Show Network, he's very much there & host Gene Rayburn refers to him as a "regular"; he also occasionally plugs Dawson's "new" game show, "Family Feud." The rules are a little different (the two audience matches, for example), but. to be fair, as the daily show went on, they changed the rules regularly (the last season, for example, seemed to think that contestants deserved two chances, so the same pair vied twice). What "Match Game PM" allows, because the game lasts the whole thirty minutes, is *more* time with the celebrities, & as such it's a lot more fun than the daily version - none of the weird audio cuts or Gene Rayburn suddenly appearing in front of the contestants when a second before he was hovering behind Richard Dawson.

I consider this the best game show ever because it's simply so much fun. Certain guests are more clever than others, but a good time is honestly had by all. By 21st century standards (if such things be) it's one weirdo trip: wide lapels, the occasional uncomfortable racist remark (always handily countered by the minority on the show), the celebrities smoking freely, & the fact that Gene Rayburn, God bless his soul, looks & acts like the creepy uncle you always hated visiting on holidays. I watch this regularly & it's only because I have too many videotapes as it is that I don't have a huge stash of old episodes of "Match Game" in my closet. As of this writing, the Game Show Network has a full hour of it nightly, one-half of which is "Match Game PM." I encourage you to seek it out. Who knows? Maybe there's a seven-year-old in you that has been missing it for a long, long time.

2 secondes
(1998)

I want to go bike riding
This is a sweet & simple French-Canadian film about an ex-racing cyclist (played by Charlotte Laurier in that weird & aloof way that French actresses use to express nearly all their emotions) who finds herself working as a courier just so she can ride her bike. I found some of the acting (especially by the English-speakers in the first ten minutes) to be stiff & high-schooly, but once everyone's able to speak French, it goes much more smoothly.

The plot, as above, might be dull if there weren't an amazing character like Lorenzo, the ex-racer from Italy (played with all the requisite gruff & creaks by Dino Tavarone) who runs the bicycle shop that Laurier has to take her bike to. He's able to put her life in perspective & the long scene in the middle of the film in which he talks about his "big race" is some of the finest one-on-one filmmaking I've seen in ages.

The film has some nice, adrenalin-filled moments but the heart of the story is more sedate, involving relativity & finding out what is important in one's life. It's not sappy or saccharin, but it's not something you'll entirely relate to, either. You'll enjoy the performances & forgive the eccentricities (the revelation about the main character's sexuality, thrown in somewhere in the middle, seemed woefully out of place) &, if you're like me, you'll want to go out & ride a bike for a while.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
(1916)

The early days of drug humor
This very strange comedy from 1916 features a not-quite-yet-a-star Douglas Fairbanks (Senior) as Coke Ennyday, a bumbling private detective who spends most of his time injecting, snorting, or otherwise ingesting opium & cocaine products. ("Coke Ennyday" - get it?)

There's neat-o effects like backwards film to show Ennyday leaping out of water or onto rafters, as well as some minor slapstick, but the film's not all that funny, just weird. A recurring image is Ennyday looking a bit down, hand propping up his drooping face, the other reaching into his rope where a a belt of syringes is strapped around his chest. He'll take a syringe, inject himself, & then his face will beam with happiness.

Was drug humor like this popular in the 1910s? Did people really have that sort of knowledge about what cocaine could do? I don't really know, but for the modern audience - I saw this last night & the crowd ate it up - its utter strangeness & the farce that drug use is returned to is sure to please.

Anything for John
(1993)

Wonderful look at Cassavetes the person & filmmaker
I don't know about you, but I think I enjoy John Cassavetes the person more than Cassavetes the filmmaker; his films are very hard to take & they don't always work for me. (For one thing, they display a terrifying misogyny that has been remarked upon endlessly.) But the one thing that's true about the man is that he had a magical way of dealing with people, something rare in both real life & in Hollywood. This gentle, affectionate documentary manages to convey that quality most of all, with interviews with his wife, Gena Rowlands, & with actors from his films, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel - who were also his dear friends. What I got out of it - what I also get out of Cassavetes' writing - is that no one else made films the way he did, for better or for worse, & that it happened mainly because of the sheer force of his personality. What a personality, too!

This is obviously essential for the Cassavetes fan & follower, & for those of you discovering him or with a simple passing interest, it sheds light on his way of working & doesn't give anything away about his films, so, if you have the desire, you can explore at your leisure.

Two for the Money
(1952)

My odd late-night discovery
The Game Show Network is an amazing thing. I wasn't feeling sleepy tonight & I happened upon this old game show, made in the 50's when corporate sponsors and relatively low production costs made a lot of prime time game show-oriented. Some things about this show were neat - I liked the questions, which I'll talk about below - but the show had some quirky qualities.

The host of the show I saw, Herb Shriner, was a down-home Southern comedian, with a slow drawl and not quite finding punch lines in his long attempts at jokes. His comments to the guests - reminiscent of how Groucho Marx interacted with his own guests on "You Bet Your Life" - seemed scripted, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he was constantly forgetting the contestant's names, referring to the cards he nervously curled in his hands.

It was sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, & every contestant got a free carton just for being there. Imagine! Imagine how freaky it seems to me, way too young to even remember a time when cigarettes were considered safe for TV! The expert "questions guy" - with some degree from an Ivy League school - smoked all through the show.

But the competition was neat. It's called "Two For The Money" because an unrelated pair, a man & a woman, had to answer a series of questions with multiple answers, each taking a turn. For example, one question was, "Name a president who did not have facial hair." They alternated, over the course of fifteen seconds, giving as many answers as they could, & whatever total they got became the base total for the next question. I personally think that's a groovy idea - with the modern day game show revival, it might be a nice middle ground between the dopiness of a "Wheel Of Fortune" & the braininess of a "Jeopardy."

In all, the cornball humor was a little off-putting but the contestants & the game itself were a lot of fun. I see it was on for five years. I hope the Game Show Network shows it regularly. Maybe I'll even get used to the free cartons of cigarettes for every player.

Song of the Thin Man
(1947)

Lukewarm farewell to the Thin Man series
In a lesson that Hollywood still hasn't learned, the varied sequels to the magnificent "The Thin Man" got thinner as they went on. Granted, William Powell was always a joy - lines like "It's an old saying I just made up" roll off his tongue as effortlessly as they did in the beginning - but Myrna Loy seemed to age less gracefully, as did their joyful relationship. Even the mystery here fails to interest - the least they could have done is given Powell & Loy better lines.

That being said, there are some nice moments - Keenan Wynn as the jazz musician who shows the Charles couple the whole hip scene is good for a few laughs (just don't expect any black musicians; it's 1940's Hollywood, after all). But this is far from being even a good movie. You just do feel like Nick & Nora Charles are friends of yours, even family, so you want to see everything they've done - thankfully it's Powell & Loy for the goodbye.

Clara Hakedosha
(1996)

Colorful Israel
I can't figure out if people are deliberately ignoring this movie or if they just don't get it. Frankly, I don't know if *I* get this crazy little fable about love, belonging, & identity.

Young Clara is unbelievably brilliant, and extraordinarily magical - literally - which is not necessarily a bonus at Golda MeirJunior High, which looks like post-apocalyptic public schooling even if I don't know much about Israel's educational system. Taunted by the "cool boys," who also use her to cheat on tests, Clara quickly becomes the object of the affection of one of them. What follows is stylized, visually exciting, and pretty damn cool, as Clara learns that it's love that will eventually deprive her of her super-powers. Oh, the end of the world is hinted at as well.

There's nothing specifically Israel or Jewish-oriented about this film, except the setting (unless I am missing something - a subtext?), and to me that's why it works. The directors make style a priority and the young actors (as well as the fabulous nutjob that plays Uncle Elvis) fare far better in the sincerity and believability department than any American actors. There's a human-centered element that makes this very easy to grab onto and hold.

A wonderful movie.

The Man Who Could Work Miracles
(1936)

H.G. Wells' Fantasy of Anarchy
What would a world without want be like? The answer has been the subject of countless stories, not a few movies, & every sensitive soul's nighttime sighing for ages. H. G. Wells poses the question by having godlike beings give a department store clerk, George McWhirter Fotheringay, that ability, & watching it evolve, as he bounces from adviser to adviser, from the sexy girl he desires to a retired British Army man.

The film is a treat, especially for those of us accustomed to (& maybe a little bored by) the Star Trek treatment of absolute power conferred on lowly mortals. I don't know much about the history of science fiction in the movies, but Wells goes about everything (he wrote the script, based on his novel) with the fabulous in mind, while adding purely sci-fi touches, which I won't give away.

Fotheringay is no bleeding-heart aching to turn the world into a painless utopia, nor is he a selfish, power-hungry perve, but a nondescript man who takes his time to figure out just what has happened to him before bringing everything to a head. In the meantime, we're given what amounts to a funny English comedy of manners, as well as a peek into a time (& place) where science fiction took a different direction. (For example: if you found out you had miraculous powers, would you tell anyone? I don't think I would. & if you told anyone, wouldn't you imagine the authorities pouncing on you at the first opportunity? Not so in 1930's Essex!)

The ending seems Gene Roddenberry-esque, & perhaps the Star Trek creator admired & shared Wells' humanism; but the film shines with neat-o special effects (some cool stuff, for the time) & a wonderful performance by Roland Young. A must-see for those who like their sci-fi earthbound & thought-provoking.

(My subject line, by the way, refers to anarchy as a form of government in which there are no governments, just self-government; I don't mean it in the common usage of disorder or chaos. The movie touches on the idea that, without their lives being controlled by those in power, who have a vested interest in people needing money & goods, people might find other ways to spend their time - like, for example, in creation.)

Mondo Mod
(1967)

Yawn-inducing exploitation film
Purporting to report on the new "Mod" culture of the 1960's (the director doesn't bother to distinguish between mods & hippies, & uses the terms interchangeably), this film is really nothing more than a cheaply-made, cheaply-put-together exploitation film. Lurid details, long (& boring) pieces about "exciting" youth events (motorbikes, surfing, go-carts), & the obligatory warning against drugs (including an "interview" with a guy tripping on LSD) are happily presented alongside upskirt shots of go-go girls, girls in bikinis waxing surfboards, girls in bikinis being shared by bikers, & a tedious climax with a guy & two girls walking zombie-like around a candle, gradually disrobing as the pot apparently takes effect.

Like some exploitation films, the whole point is to slip the sex in underneath the alarming news that these people are overrunning the planet - lots of weird statistics are tossed out by the fakey radio deejay narrator, including the fascinating fact that 95% of all teenagers in Iran commit suicide - fascinating, if true, but what the hell does it have to do with kids on the Sunset Strip? - but be warned, while the girlies are awful cute (I was partial to the stripping girl who dances all through the diatribe against pot & acid), there is no actual nudity. Plus, the Something Weird print that I rented had a terrible audio dupe.

Not worth it, &, for those of you who think this is really some kind of documentary - give me a break.

Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin
(1896)

Trick photography in film is invented?
Things happened fast in the first few years of film - less than a couple of years before, the Lumiere brothers showed their first film - workers leaving their factory, one minute's worth - at the Societe d'Encouragement a l'Industrie Nationale. In late 1896, George Melies made this film, which quite simply shows a woman changing into a skeleton & back again. He used stop action of course, which every kid with a video camera has done by now, but at the time it was sensational.

Melies made his name & fame with such camera tricks in the cinema's early days - but whether he was the first to do the stop-frame thing is contested, as an Englishman named G.A. Smith was experimenting with the same things at the same time.

I still think, though, this particular trick is kinda neat.

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