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Les valseuses

Flat footed waltz
I loved Dewaere in Series Noir. His talent is trivialized in "The Waltzers" aka "Going Places". Okay, it's a couple of guys flaunting convention in the most absurd and irredeemable ways; many folks find such behavior amusing. This was a boring, pointless exercise designed to shock. I find the smirk on Blier's face, the face behind the camera, annoying. Series Noir was a valid expression of personal liberty and licentious behavior. From the first moment when we see Patric Dewaere prancing in the abandoned lot we get an idea of the bewilderingly beautiful anti-hero we'll be spending time with for the next couple of hours. When we see him chasing the hapless middle aged female with his buddy Depardieu in "Going Places" we have fair warning that two hours spent with these chaps will be soul-draining. I have trouble eking even a "3" for this annoying distraction.

Cry Danger

Richard Erdman Rides Again!
Seen at the SF Film Noir Festival January 2007. Eddie Muller, the host of the affair, interviewed Richard Erdman between films. Erdman is viciously funny and a great raconteur. You'd recognize his face anywhere, he's done so many bit parts in movies over the years. His role in Cry Danger is one of his favorites and served as a kind of break through for his career. The scene where he has sworn off booze and is putting together a hamburger and pouring himself a glass of milk shows a man who makes himself promises and keeps none of them. He tosses the burger, pours out the milk and fills the glass with whiskey. Noir films from this era made no apologies. A drunk was a drunk. Nobody went to rehab. Cigarettes are lit like Roman candles and nobody complained about second hand smoke. Babes in low cut gowns make it obvious what they're after. Powell's character is focused and relentless. Rhonda Fleming is a gorgeous red herring (to match her red hair?) The print came up from the UCLA film vaults after the 35 mm print sent out from Cambridge proved technically unwatchable. Muller says there will never be a DVD of this film. The master is shot and the 16 mm version shown at the Castro Theater was murky and grey. Still, the film is worth watching if for no other reason than to hear Bill Bowers' sharp dialogue. His family was in the audience including his widow for a touching tribute to this master Noir scripter.

The Night of the Iguana

Blight of the iguana
Maracas shaking beach boys; Ava in a semi stupor; Burton phoning in his lines; Deborah Kerr doing her prissy thing. Ah, the blight of the iguana, loved my many, loathed by few. An empty pastiche of TW's wet dreams. Everybody was having too much fun after hours to bring much to the chore of making this phantasmagorical elegy work. The sole professional who lives her role and centers the story is the woman named Fellowes (get it?). She did her thing, got her nomination and went on to pay the rent doing TV. As a professional actor, I watch the neglect these performers brought to their roles and marvel at how carefully Grayson etched a character that could easily have become the caricature all the others parade in front on us. This is a vapid, pointless film. To be avoided.


Calling a spade a spade
I am amazed that there are people in the film community who show any respect for this dated, awkward, racist film by giving it a "7" as a majority of the IMDb viewers have. The bonus that attracted me was the color version of Bill Robinson ("Bojangles") tap dancing in a carnaval scene. After suffering through the histrionic throes of unrequited love by the heroine, the wooden performance of the lead (a Metropolitan Opera reject), and the dull and obvious comic chatter of the comic duo, finally comes the big scene. Three minutes. Some steps, some synchronization and... what happened? This film is best relegated to the "classics" trash heap for occasional viewing by students of cinema history thankfully long dead.

Flirting with Anthony

Audience Abuse
The director, outfitted in chains and leather, warned the audience at the SF Frameline Film Festival Friday night that we were about to see an "experiental" film. Experimental? Leave the video camera on the back seat of the car, let the tape roll and edit in all the pointless dreck within eyesight. A meandering pastiche road show manqué that starts nowhere and takes the audience no place. The gratuitous violence that opens the movie drove more than one patron from the Castro theater. I would have left, too, but my cine-buddy needed a ride home and has this thing about seeing even the worse merde through to the end. By the time the lights came up the audience had thinned considerably. Tepid applause. Pro forma questions of the director who seemed pleased with the product. Avoid this film!

Death in Gaza

Murder in Gaza
James Miller goes to the Palestine territory to film the children of the Intifada and is killed by Israeli firepower. His murder is a stunning coda to a filmed account of how war corrupts the innocence of children. Miller begins the film acquainting us with the geography of Palestine, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip. We meet, get up close and personal, with the battle hardened "martyrs" of the Hamas jihad. Hidden by masks they seduce the children, so needy for heroes and mentors, with speeches of death and destruction. Blow yourself up and go to paradise. We meet the children, feckless, disingenuous children learning to kill, feeling the heft of a gun, basking in the praise of the masked warriors. There are the girls, praying for the destruction of Israel, eager to emulate their male counterparts. The children seduce us with their wide-eyed appeal, their ability to absorb the most horrible blows as their homes are destroyed. One child points to his uncle's car which has been tossed into the limbs of a tree by an Israeli bulldozer that's just leveled his home. The children watch all this, relate the stories of the martyrs, and seem with their open faces and fetching smiles and flashing dark eyes not to have a clue that they're living in a hell. They express the earnest belief that all will be well once the Israelis are (1) killed and (2)removed from the area between the Mediteranean and the Sea of Galilee. The innocence and naiveté are beguiling, disturbing, sad. At the last Miller meets his brutal, surprising death in the murky dusk, in the rubble of the streets of this hopeless settlement. There seems no way out. Violence begets violence. The righteous shriek their slogans. Human life is disposable. This brilliant film solves nothing. Don't believe me? Read the viewers' comments on the Message Boards. Read the insults, the disparaging remarks, the certitude of bigots and believers. James Miller. R.I.P. All the innocent children of Gaza. R.I.P. (And today I read of the death of journalists from U.S. TV in Iraq. When will it end?)

Yolanda and the Thief

Fred's Fantasy
Just came from a full screen showing of Yolanda & the Thief at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. This movie has long been a cult favorite of mine. I use the term "cult" because Yolanda is seldom mentioned in the same breath with so many of Arthur Freed's other MGM musicals. Few people have even heard of it. I have a bootleg Beta copy but you won't find a VHS version and certainly not a DVD. Somehow the fantasy element skews the movie's appeal despite its lush pallet, the full throttle performances, and the campiest mis en scene to emerge from Hollywood in the 40s. The opening shot: Sunrise in a field in Patria, a nation that may be a combination of Peru and Bolivia (only without the poverty, the politics or the bad weather) high in a cardboard rendering of the Andes. School children have gathered for class. The teacher is a wise old man who uses a llama as a back rest. The boys (yes, they're all boys) are attentive, well-behaved, and ethnic. Even the tow head in the first row has enough pancake makeup to pass for a native. So what? We're there to learn about the Aquaviva family... rich, benevolent, monopolistic, off beat, the family runs Patria and controls the oil, the beef, the transportation (Pan Aquaviva Airlines). But do we cue the Commies to start marching in the streets, protesting the plight of the poor? No, the Patrianos (or whatever they call themselves) are too busy dancing and singing and selling trinkets to care about their oppression. We are in a world that existed exclusively in the heads of Vincent Minnelli and his production crew. The colors are bright and bold: Emerald greens, umber translucent skies, golden gowns. Minelli's directorial style is a kind of in your face bravado with crane shots for days (true sometimes they get a little bumpy but high altitudes will do that to you). No doubt the writers got their idea of Patria while visiting the bar at the Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana, or taking lunch breaks at Olvera Street. Don't see this movie for its politics (there are none) or the geography (the back lot of MGM) or cultural authenticity (the female vendors in the town plaza wear hats that resemble Bolivian bowlers with colors by Irene). Yolanda and the Thief is truly sui generis. There's never been anything like it before and there hasn't been anything like it since. Minelli made Y&TF and broke the mold. (One question: Who's the guy that keeps bumming cigarettes off Fred?)

Ask the Dust

Farrell Fakes Fante in Flinty Fantasy
Ask the Dust" has just been released locally so I took time out to drive over to the Shattuck in Berkeley and check it out this afternoon along with 3 other people in the auditorium.

Colin Farrell plays an Italian American from Colorado who goes to L.A. to make his mark as a writer. It's depression era southern California but you'd never know it except for the cheap lighting and an occasional scene showing people wearing hand me downs and slumping along Hope Street. The producers (Robert Towne wrote/directed) actually built a replica downtown L.A. on a sound stage in, get this, South Africa!! Complete with Angel's Flight.. the cable car that climbed up Bunker Hill. All the period dazzle, though, just confuses a story that down deep doesn't make much sense. Our hero is down to his last nickle (literally, Towne has the coin in blunt close up so we don't miss the point... and so we'll recognize an actual buffalo nickel), goes across the street from his shabby hotel for a cup of coffee and is waited on by (tah-dah) Selma Hayek, a Mexican hayseed who wears (snicker) sandals while pouring the coffee. The two of them snarl at each other. He says mean things about Mexicans. She says mean things about Italians. We just know the two of them are going to wind up making the two back enchilada before long... actually it takes an hour before they get it on in a beach house our writer has inexplicably gotten enough money to rent. If you know anything about L.A. you'll wonder how Robert Towne, who has made some pretty important L.A. pictures, like Chinatown, could have gotten the ambiance so screwy. The whole feel of the film is claustrophobic with a lot of the action either in the writer's hotel room, the bedroom at the beach, or the slickly designed street between the hotel and the restaurant. The one character who looks truly "L.A." is Justin Kirk (of "Angels in America") who plays a sleazy bartender. At least I think he's supposed to be sleazy. This guy is so good looking, has such a commanding screen presence that even Colin shrinks before our eyes. Justin comes and Justin goes... alas. So we're stuck with Colin Farrell, whose street swagger is a wee bit precious, and Selma, whose tits stick out like punctuation marks... there's a scene of the two of them frolicking nude in the surf. At one point he mentions that they're 10 minutes from downtown. Where the hell could that beach be in 1930s L.A. before freeways?

She starts coughing about midway through the movie and dies in his arms in the wind up at a shack in the desert. He finishes his book and drives out to where he's buried her body. Can't find the cross that marked the grave. Tosses the book into the air. It lands on its spine with the pages slowly turning to the dedication page. Guess whose name is on it!

I wanted so much to like this movie... no, I wanted to *love* this movie. 1930's L.A. Robert Towne. Based on a book by a guy who had a reputation like Nathaniel West, blistering prose, bravado writing. I guess I'll have to break down and buy the book. The movie sure didn't do it for me. (But Justin Kirk's eyes... omigod!)

Truly Madly Deeply

Not "Ghost"
Anthony Minghella, the film director, is a sneaky guy. He sets up "Truly, Madly, Deeply" as a 3 hankie weeper as Juliet Stevenson mourns the death of her young husband, inadvertently asphyxiated by an endo tube after getting "a sore throat". She isolates herself from her friends, gets snappy with well meaning relatives, bawls at the first cords of an overheard cello (hubby played one and she accompanied him on the piano), and winds up on a therapist's couch. Ah, she had such a sweet, caring, satisfying relationship with this talented, intelligent, good looking man. How tragic that his unfulfilled life should be cut so callously short leaving this truly wonderful woman bereft and in despair. So, here we are, the audience, blowing our noses, wiping our eyes, feeling her loss and wondering ourselves how we would handle such a dreadful event. We think of the lovers, spouses, children in our lives. How close and intimate we are with them and how close all of us are to being summoned by the Grim Reaper without notice. Our sympathies are totally with this grieving young woman. Imagine our glee when out of nowhere the decedent appears, back from the beyond, in the flesh. Amazing. We vicariously feel the thrill the wife feels as she leaps into his arms, madly embracing the man she thought she'd lost forever. He's back. All of him... and there's Minghella's rub. It soon becomes evident that the husband has returned, not to haunt her or torment her, but only to be himself and with a totally unexpected agenda. He returns with his good habits (they play the word games they always used to pass the time with, they frolic, they joke and laugh and look deep into each other's eyes) but he also brings along his bad traits, and it's difficult accommodating oneself to his pushy, egotistic behavior, even if he is a ghost. Patrick Sweazy made a back-from-the-dead flick ("Ghost") where he hovered over Demi Moore and made her widowhood bearable. She always knew he was there. And what a wonderful guy he was. Sweetness and light. But TMD is no "Ghost". Menghella says, instead, wait a minute. The one we grieve for was a multi-dimensional person. How soon we forget the bad and glorify the good. After the "honeymoon" is over, the widow in his movie begins to feel a bit crowded. Her husband's always complaining about how cold the flat is, turning up the heat, sneezing from the drafts, shoving up against her in bed with his clammy body. He's learned Spanish but his accent is atrocious. He brings back some "friends" with him, a motley crew, all polite, but given to watching videos ("I Vitelloni", "Hannah and Her Sisters") at all hours of the day and night. The husband rearranges the furniture. Then, she meets a wonderful man in a restaurant. He works with the disabled and does magic tricks. He wants to date her. She's attracted to him. But what does she do with the living dead hubby at home? How can she entertain anyone? Must her life now accommodate his death? Her therapist is noncomittal. The denouement is absolutely spot on.

Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien

An ineffable testimony to life, death and dreams.
I can't agree more with the comments made by an earlier viewer of this film. Mark O'Brien's life was lived to the fullest with more courage, guts and compassion than many of us "able bodied" persons. His witty observations serve in their own way as a trenchant critique of a society obsessed with physical beauty and athletic prowess. This is a man whose sexuality, dreams and demons forged a unique and unforgettable life. I came away from the film both humbled by my own pretensions yet exalted by Mark's refusal to give up. (He was an unbending opponent of assisted suicide.) Look for it at your public library. I challenge you to watch this film and not come away a changed person.

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