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John Huston Retrospective at Film Society

An oasis for serious cinephiles this season was the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Let There Be Light, a near-complete retrospective of the films directed by the maverick John Huston, mostly screened in good 35-millimeter prints shown on the impressive screen of the Walter Reade Theater, and including all of his features as well as some films by other directors which he acted in or influenced. The series ran from December 19th to January 11th. Below I note some of the highlights of the series screened in 35-millimeter at the Walter Reade.

Atypical for Huston was the interesting and rarely screened drama partly about racial injustice, In This Our Life, like almost all of Huston's works an adaptation, in this case from a novel by the eminent writer Ellen Glasgow, and starring Bette Davis, a luminous Olivia de Havilland, George Brent and Charles Coburn, as well as featuring a Max Steiner score. It was shown in what appeared to be a newly struck print.

In This Our Life posterAlso very rarely screened in 35-millimeter is the beautiful Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, one of the director's finest works, about the romantic feelings of a marooned Marine in the Pacific for a nun during World War II. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, in the lead roles, were never better. Exquisitely photographed in color by Oswald Morris and scored by Georges Auric, it was presented in an outstanding print.

Another rarity was the unusual drama about conservation, The Roots of Heaven, adapted from a novel by the distinguished Romain Gary, who co-authored the screenplay with the esteemed travel writer, Patrick Leigh-Fermor. The film stars Trevor Howard, in a characteristically superb performance, alongside an excellent supporting cast including Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Eddie Albert, Orson Welles, Paul Lukas and Herbert Lom. The Roots of Heaven was again elegantly photographed in color by Morris and features a score by another esteemed composer, Malcolm Arnold. It was screened in a fine print.

Also quite scarce is one of Huston's lesser works, the intermittently entertaining The List of Adrian Messenger, a murder mystery with a lighter tone. The eccentric cast is headed enjoyably by George C. Scott and Kirk Douglas, with assistance from Dana Wynter, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, Herbert Marshall, and Huston himself, along with bizarre cameos by Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. The film was photographed in monochrome by the superb Joe MacDonald and scored by the extraordinary Jerry Goldsmith; it was shown in a good print.

Reflections in a Golden Eye, an exercise in Southern Gothic adapted from a novel by Carson McCullers, is, by contrast, one of the director's strongest works. Dazzlingly shot by Aldo Tonti in an unusual color process, the film's high-powered cast is dominated by a quartet of leads with its members delivering some of their best performances: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith and Julie Harris (also notable is the debut of a gorgeous Robert Forster as the object of lust for Brando's tormented character). Scored by the significant Japanese composer, Toshiro Mayuzumi, the film was projected in an excellent print.

Reflections was shortly followed by the unexpectedly delightful, seldom screened period romp, Sinful Davey, handsomely photographed in color by Freddie Young and Edward Scaife, featuring abundantly pleasurable work from an impressive cast including John Hurt, Pamela Franklin, Robert Morley, Donal McCann, among others; it was presented in a very good print.

Huston's next film, A Walk with Love and Death is an interesting, if not entirely successful, romance set in medieval times featuring an unusually convincing recreation of the period — as noted by one of the director's most eloquent defenders, Positif critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon — this work's most remarkable facet. The cast includes Anjelica Huston —in her first starring role — opposite Assi Dayan, with support from Anthony Higgins, Michael Gough, and the director himself. The evocative score is by the magnificent George Delerue.

Huston's next film, the baroque Cold War thriller The Kremlin Letter, is one of his most gratifying and underrated productions. Patrick O'Neal, in a thoughtful performance, leads an astounding cast including Bibi Andersson, Richard Boone, Nigel Green, Dean Jagger, Lila Kedrova, Micheál MacLiammóir, Barbara Parkins, George Sanders, Raf Vallone, Max von Sydow, Orson Welles and Niall MacGinnis; it too was screened in a very good print.

Huston followed this with one of his most enduring achievements, the pessimistic boxing film Fat City, adapted by Leonard Gardner from his respected novel. Memorably photographed in color by the brilliant Conrad Hall, the superior cast includes Stacy Keach in the lead role, alongside Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark and Nicholas Colasanto. It was screened in another very good print.

Finally, another rarity was the director's engaging espionage film, The Mackintosh Man, again shot by Morris and featuring a score by Maurice Jarre. Paul Newman confidently heads a wonderful cast including Dominique Sanda, James Mason, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Michael Hordern, and Jenny Runacre, among others. Regrettably, the print was merely adequate but this was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

Film Society Spotlights Ruben Ostlund

From January 14th to the 22nd, 2015 the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be hosting the retrospective, In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund, a welcome survey of the work of one of the most promising contemporary filmmakers.
A couple of years ago, at the New York Film Festival’s press screening of the director’s astonishing second feature, Play — about three Swedish boys that are menaced by a group of what appear to be African and Arab youths — I had the impression within the first few minutes that I was encountering the work of a potential master, and by the film’s end this intuition was satisfyingly confirmed. I am pleased to report that Play amply rewards a second viewing, its absorbing intricacies resounding with even greater resonance.
play posterin Play, Östlund profitably emulates the example of the great Michael Haneke who has exploited the long take to disturbing, if powerful effect; here, the director’s style is more systematic, rigorously eschewing cutting within scenes, thus achieving a mesmerizing, Bazinian ambiguity, along with a remarkable fusion of form and content. In narrative structure and rhythm, Östlund doesn’t attempt to reproduce the forward momentum found in some Haneke films, preferring a more episodic, Rosselinian trajectory. Shot in a winter with overcast skies, the filmmaker deploys the digital format here impressively, while drawing uniformly strong work from his non-professional cast. Play screens at least once per day throughout the retrospective, in a one-week exclusive run.
Some precedents for what is special about Play can be found in the director’s previous Involuntary (a mini-portrait of contemporary Sweden which resists summary for its multiple narrative strands), such as its evident fascination with the discomfort engendered by violations of moral norms and breaches of etiquette as well as its formally strict, sequence-shot style and non-classical narrative. The film too is characterized by Östlund’s consistently fierce observational intelligence as well as his bracing confidence with actors. The one weakness here is the use of digital, which is not technically adequate to the filmmaker’s vision. Involuntary plays at least once a day, every day, for the duration of the retrospective, in a one-week exclusive run.
Force Majeure, one of the better reviewed films of last year, about a family at an Alpine ski resort dealing with the consequences of an avalanche, doesn’t quite sustain the same force as Play, although it certainly is a notable work. Stylistically, this is admirably controlled — Östlund’s sometimes unconventional framing is especially fine — but freer in technique than the previous film, while still departing from a classical approach to storytelling. Force Majeure is distinctive for mining a vein of humor and displaying a lighter touch than was clearly evident in Play. The director’s work here with actors is, again, exemplary, as is his command of the digital medium. Force Majeure will screen seven times, giving New Yorkers a second chance to either encounter or revisit this unusual film.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism at Lincoln Center

Beginning on January 9th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be opening Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolismabout the relations between a film director (Bogdan Dumitrache) and his actress (Diana Avramut), as well as his producer (Mihaela Sirbu), in the periods between shooting —for a one-week, exclusive engagement. 

evening bucharestposterBy the early 1990s, three relatively marginal world cinemas— those of Iran, Taiwan and China’s Fifth Generation — had begun to generate a sustained enthusiasm in programmers, critics and cinephiles, followed several years later by a similar renaissance in South Korea, Thailand, and now the Philippines. Partly concurrent with these these developments has been the emergence of especially three filmmakers — Porumboiu himself, Cristi Puiu, and Cristian Munguiu — whose work has heralded a resurgence of the Romanian cinema within the past several years, commanding international attention, whilst the intrinsic interest of this efflorescence is further confirmed by this new, captivating film. 

 When Evening Falls on Bucharest is elegantly shot in a series of long-takes, with no cutting within scenes — a trademark of advanced cinema worldwide, also employed by Puiu and Mungiu. (It is interesting to consider the arguably non-Bazinian impetus behind this practice in contemporary filmmakers like Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien, as contrasted with the new realism of pioneers of a similar technique such as Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Carl Dreyer and Luchino Visconti.) The behavioral details of quotidian interaction are here meticulously realized, one of the many pleasures of this remarkable work.

If Porumboiu’s achievement here is less startling and consequential than that of his earlier, gripping Police, Adjectivewhich had its local premiere in the New York Film Festival as did several other works of this Romanian new wave — with this new film he is nonetheless profitably mining a a rich naturalistic stream that has its roots in the practice of such magisterial forebears as Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes, amongst others. Also, like many features of this past year, When Evening Falls on Bucharestis evidence of an increasing mastery of the digital format, which one hopes will no longer be the mere “bastard-child” of celluloid, something it has taken most significant cinematographers and directors several years to develop.

A Contrarian's Selective Review of TIFF '14

The Owners

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has shrank not so much in the number of movies, but in the area it covers. The Cineplex Scotiabank "google-plex" (259 Richmond Street West) is only two blocks away from the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West), and with nothing but restaurants surrounding these two venues, you really can’t go anywhere except circle the same few blocks over and over again. 

The Chapters Bookstore that was next to the Cineplex is gone, which is a bummer. It was a great place to hang out between screenings. With Worlds Biggest Books gone as well (which I found out last July, so this adds insult on top of injury), that means there’s nowhere cheap to hang out besides waiting on line for screenings.

Across the street from the theater, there was a place that served really great tuna melts, and I savored one before going to see John Stewart’s Rosewater which, despite the director’s reputation, is a physiological drama (i.e. lots of smacking around and depravation) as much as it is a political one.

A guy was giving out free tickets to see James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, a film that seemed to perfectly suit TIFF especially since medical conditions appeared to be the theme of this year’s festival. Horrible diseases. The movie's about famed British physicist Stephen Hawking who's has Lou Gerhig’s disease (ALS). The hero’s sister in the Kazakhstani film, The Owners, has a fatal disease as well. And another film, Still Alice, is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease. And then there Cake about a woman in endless pain from a horrible auto accident.

thoery everythingSo with nowhere to go and nothing to do but go to movies, that’s what I did. A block away was Princess of Wales Theater (on 300 King Street West), where one can see the rush line from the Lightbox. And that’s where I started.

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh

This filmic biography of physicist Stephen Hawking wasn’t bad as a biopic. It starts at Cambridge University in England when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was still healthy. He meets Jane (Felicity Jones) and, despite the fact that she’s gorgeous and he’s geeky, they fall madly in love. Then he develops ALS, a motor neuron disease in which the muscles essentially waste away until one can't move, talk or breathe. Despite this calamity, they marry and there’s the usual melodrama as married Jane meets choirmaster Jonathan (Charlie Cox), and is smitten. Surprisingly, so is Hawking (platonically except with his nurse), and things get complicated. Then he gets famous and things get even more convoluted. The acting is terrific, even though it feels little like a movie-of-the-week, this is Toronto, where Oscar-bait gets introduced.

The Owners
Directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov

I went up to the Scotiabank cineplex to see the press and industry schedule. Since I didn’t find anything to my liking, I walked into the first screening room I found. Inside, a film from Kazakhstan called The Owners was on the screen. The acting was okay, but the editing was terrible -- the star had bruises which kept popping in and out of the lead’s face, appearing then not. It was distracting to ay the least. It's not a musical, yet people start dancing for no reason at all. Director Yerzhanov is an amateur in every bad sense of the word. It was so atrocious, I almost walked out and it takes a lot for me to do that.

The next day’s goal was to recreate the glory days of the film festival by going to as many as five or six movies. I managed to actually do it. After hitting a couple of panels and scarfing down some lunch, I landed back in the theaters.

Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Icaken the first film of the day, the title character cognitive psychologist Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is afflicted with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make things worse, she’s married to Alec Baldwin, who plays her husband John. The filmmakers foreshadow a brilliant ending, but do they use it? Nooooo… It just shows how her deterioration brings her to a useless ending so they pretend to be happy as it happens. I'm not sure why the directors decided to do this thing -- it's neither interesting nor entertaining -- and the climax is one of the most disappointing I've seen in awhile. Let's just say, the ending sucks. It's a rare film that makes you hope for a suicide, but there you go.

Directed by Daniel Barnz

Barnz’s Cake describes how Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston) is coping a year after her horrific car wreck. She’s become such a total bitch that only her saintly maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza) can put up with her. This is one of those movies which is mostly a vanity piece. Another bummer, there's nothing much to say because Schadenfreude isn't really that entertaining unless it's at the end of fairy tale and the villain gets his/her well-deserved comeuppance. This never happens here. What we get is angst, anger and attempts at humor that fail. I find Cake mediocre with uninteresting characters, a routine plot, and, except for a occasional flings of fantasy ,it makes you WORK. Only if a film's really excellent, what's the point of working so hard? Movies are for entertainment, and unless you find downers fun, what's the point? Unless you want to see everything Anniston has done in her career, there's no reason to sit through this. 

stewart rosewaterRosewater
Directed by John Stewart

As this film opens our hero is being taken away by the secret police. This is followed by a fascinating flashback part: Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) is an Iranian journalist living in London who gets sent back home to cover Iran's controversial 2009 presidential election. He hires a driver named Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who shows him around Teheran, especially where the opposition hangs out. By the time we get back to the start, we understand the crimes of the government and why Maziar was arrested. Why is the movie named Rosewater? Well, that’s the nickname that Bahari gives his interrogator played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia. The final half of the film is mostly the verbal jousting between the prisoner and his abuser. Bernal and Bodina are destined to be nominated for awards this winter and spring.

Itsi Bitsi
Directed by Ole Christian Madsen

itsi bitsiSometime around 1970, retired rock star Eik Skaløe killed himself in Pakistan. So who cares besides his family and close friends? Well, he was the Danish equivalent of Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison. The film starts with him dropping dead in the desert and then flashes back to 1962. There were hippies in Europe long before they were in North America and "peace activist" Eik Skaløe (Joachim Fjelstrup) meets Iben (Marie Tourell Søderberg) and falls head over heels in love, but Iben who's a free spirit, sex fiend and drug addict, refuses to commit. Desperate, Eik follows her on a journey through France, Spain, North Africa and Greece, in the process transforming from poet to writer, nomad, junkie and eventually lead singer in the destined-to-be-legendary band (in Denmark only) Steppeulvene. There are no nice people in this film. There are however, a bunch of fascinating assholes, all villains except for the poor schnook dragooned by the lead into helping him start his band. A hit in Copenhagen for sure, it will probably never be seen elsewhere on the left side of the Atlantic other than at TIFF. The title isn’t really explained in the film, so why bother here?

May Allah Bless France
Directed by Abd Al Malik

I was steered accidentally to Malik’s May Allah Bless France. I only saw about the last half hour so I am reacting to basic impressions of this fictionalized autobiography of the filmmaker, who, in this telling is Regis (Marc Zingam). As a young kid, he dreams of success as a rapper but becomes a drug dealer instead. Discovering Islam and love, he ultimately becomes a major artist on the French music scene. We’ve seen this all before in North American cinema, and that's usually pretty bad too. Even based on a limited perception, be grateful you are unlikely to get a chance to see this. 

Directed by Kevin Smith

tusk posterNoted director Smith’s Tusk has been called “Human Centipede meets Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and that’s an apt description. As horror comedies go, it’s rather lame, but the performances are terrific. Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, an extraordinarily obnoxious Los Angeles-based podcaster whose show, “The Not-See Party,” consists of Wallace and sidekick Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) showing America’s dumbest home videos and making fun of them. Wallace flies up to Manitoba (that’s why this movie got into the TIFF -- for its Canadian content) to interview a moron who accidentally sliced his leg off with a ninja sword, but when he gets there he learns that the moron sliced off something more important and is now dead.

Ticked off, he goes to a local bar where he finds a flyer in the bathroom by Howard Howe (Michael Parks) who wants someone to do light housework and listen to his stories of the sea. Intrigued, he goes to see him. But Howe is a serial killer who wants to turn poor Wallace into a walrus named Mr. Tusk. Then it goes into flashback mode where Wallace and his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) argue as to whether or not his being a podcaster has turned him into an asshole or not. Smith goes back and forth between Howe's charnel house and the outside world, where Wallace's girlfriend and Teddy enlist the help of disgraced Quebecois detective Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp) to find him. Depp is terrible. What was really strange about this film is that the Oscar nominees were far worse actors than the ones who haven’t been nominated for anything. 

Tdenzelhe Equalizer
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

In this a superhero movie without the costumes, Denzel Washington plays McCall, clearly a man on the lam, who has put his mysterious past behind him and dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life.Then he meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a prostitute with a heart of gold under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters who beat her up. McCall can't stand idly by — he has to help her. Armed with hidden skills that would make Batman jealous, this avenger comes out of his self-imposed retirement to get her out of their clutches. But when things go wrong, the evil Russian mob sends its meanest villain, Teddy (Marton Csokas) to clean up the resulting mess. It’s very well done, but predictable, which is why it’s not going get Fuqua any new awards after he won them for his earlier work with Denzel on 2001's award-garnering Training Day.

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