Archives For January 2015

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Oscar Isaac (ABEL) and Jessica Chastain (ANNA) in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (d. Chandor, A24 Pictures) In theaters now.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is possibly 2014’s best film. It is certainly the best film of 2014 without a single Oscar nomination. That is astounding because the film could easily have acquitted itself in all of the major categories (Picture, Director, Acting and Screenplay). That is, IF it had been considered. By the way, it’s opinions like these and a taste for films like this that may explain why I’m not any more successful in this business than I am.

…VIOLENT YEAR is flawless and superior in every way to that movie that I said I wasn’t going to say anything more about. You know, the one that’s been reigning #1 at the Box Office for five straight weeks. This film is superior to that film artistically, structurally, technically, and – most important – morally. It does not purport to tell a “true story” but its story rings true and authentic in terms of the human condition. It does not claim to be “based on actual events” but the events here stand up to scrutiny from all sides. YEAR is less violent than the current #1 movie in America but it’s violence packs more punch because it feels like real violence: unchoreographed, often driven by fear, usually pitiful.

There’s no hero in VIOLENT YEAR we feel compelled to worship or emulate. And that’s a good thing. Hero worship has a nasty history of clouding national judgment and interfering with individual moral compasses. That said, I don’t think we have to be cynical about heroism. We should be cynical about the way heroism is co-opted by politicians, pundits and preachers alike.

At the core of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR there is a man striving to do the right thing – even for the right reasons. The heartbreaking truth that this movie vividly portrays is how often small compromises undermine our lofty principles. This movie has a clear moral point of view but it does not have a simplistic one. In that regard the story and its characters feel at times like they are some modern translation of an Old Testament text.

(A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is Rated R for language and violence – but neither seemed to me to be gratuitous.)

AMERICAN SNIPER is set to roll in at #1 at the Box Office again this weekend. It’s chock-full of disturbing violence – including the torture of children, wall-to-wall use of the F word, a lot of boozing and a strong amount of pre-marital sex. So, yeah, I get why it’s so popular with American Evangelicals. Because it’s exactly the kind of movie they say Hollywood doesn’t make enough of anymore.

This is less an observation about the movie (which I’ve seen and was not scandalized by) than it is an observation about human behavior. To wit, we’re all inclined to look past things that we claim are deeply offensive to us when those things are used to advance our point of view.

We’re a funny, little species – aren’t we?

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Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER (in theaters now)

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

– Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in UNFORGIVEN

I finally saw AMERICAN SNIPER yesterday after several aborted attempts to get into sold-out showings. I can’t say I was entertained nor was I scandalized. I experienced moments of excitement, moments of revulsion, moments of sadness and moments of relief. All good war movies are anti-war movies. AMERICAN SNIPER is no exception.

Wars march forward on the uncomplicated, un-nuanced backs of men like Chris Kyle. The sad thing is these men are pressed into service because of the incredibly complicated and endlessly nuanced issues of culture, religion, politics, the rights of people to govern themselves and the results of people being destroyed from within and without. But here’s the thing: Chris Kyle was not an uncomplicated, un-nuanced man. He just chose to play one in real life.

Movies often resonate with different people at different frequencies. Sometimes seeing a movie is an adventure in missing the point. The rhetoric on both sides of the AMERCIAN SNIPER debate seems to bear this out. Regardless of what Facebook posts might suggest, one’s opinion of AMERICAN SNIPER is not a referendum on one’s patriotism (or lack thereof). It is a 2 hour and 14 minute, R-rated Rorschach test. Would that we would think more about what our opinion of the film says about ourselves instead of wringing our hands about what others’ opinions say about them.

Just after Bill Munny (in Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN) utters those memorable words about what it means to kill a man, his young charge – a guilt-stricken, first-time killer – says, “Yeah, well, I guess they had it comin’.” Munny replies, “We all got it comin’, kid.”

Indeed, we do.

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Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth in Powell & Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

BLACK NARCISSUS (NR, 101 min., The Archers, Universal, Dec. 1947 – US)

BLACK NARCISSUS is a Powell & Pressburger film – at the height of Powell & Pressburger’s ascendancy. It’s also one of Cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s masterpieces. Shot in 1946 with only ancient arc lights to shape the light on set, shot entirely at Pinewood Studios, Cardiff worked magic that has to be seen to be believed. And even then…

This is a good opportunity to recommend a wonderful book: Jack Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour (Faber & Faber Publishers)

Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Writers: Rumer Godden (Adapted from the novel by), Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff, Composer: Brian Easdale, Editor: Reginald Mills, Production Designer: Alfred Junge

CAST: Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, Kathleen Byron, Esmond Knight, Sabu

 

Watched on Blu ray from The Criterion Collection

*Every Monday I watch a classic or historically significant movie that falls into one of these categories: 1) Have never seen it, or 2) Have never seen it uncut, or 3) Have only seen it once, or 4) Haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Some information from: IMDb Pro, BoxOfficeMojo

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Sean Connery as James Bond in GOLDFINGER (d. Hamilton, United Artists, 1965)

GOLDFINGER (Rated: Approved, 110 min., United Artists, Jan 9, 1965 – US)

I have a confession to make: I had never watched a Bond film all the way through until I went to the theater to see the series reboot with Daniel Craig in CASINO ROYALE. I was conversant in the history of the movies, the source material, behind-the-scenes power struggles between studio, producer and the Fleming estate, the various casting choices for Bond over the years, and the character’s place in pop culture – but the movies themselves never enticed me.

So, Movie Monday seems the perfect opportunity to give Bond a shot. And if I’m going to do that – it ought be, Connery…Sean Connery. And the movie that Roger Ebert called “the best of all the Bonds.”

Director: Guy Hamilton, Writers: Richard Maibaum, Paul Dehn (Screenplay) Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman Cinematographer: Ted Moore, Composer: John Barry, Editor: Ted Moore, Production Designer: Ken Adam

CAST: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe, Shirley Eaton, Tania Mallet, Harold Sakata, Bernard Lee

 

Watched on Blu ray

*Every Monday I watch a classic or historically significant movie that falls into one of these categories: 1) Have never seen it, or 2) Have never seen it uncut, or 3) Have only seen it once, or 4) Haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Some information from: IMDb Pro, BoxOfficeMojo

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Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in THE IPCRESS FILE (d. Furie, The Rank Organisation, Universal Pictures 1965)

THE IPCRESS FILE (PG, 109 min., The Rank Organisation, Universal Pictures, Aug 2, 1965 – US)

It’s a line that seems like it came straight from a present day studio exec’s hacked email account: “Dump Caine’s spectacles and make the girl cook the meal. He is coming across as a homosexual.” This was reportedly the content of a cable sent to the makers of THE IPCRESS FILE after a screening for executives at Universal Pictures, the film’s U.S. distributor. The directive fell on deaf ears. Caine kept the spectacles, he did the cooking – and he got the girl.

Before Len Deighton was writing gritty spy novels like The Ipcress File, he was one of the top food writers in London. His Observer “cookstrips” – illustrated panels with instructions for preparing food – were, according to The Guardian, “as much a part of the 60s landscape as the pill and pot.” The strips adorn a wall in Harry Palmer’s (Michael Caine) kitchen in the 1965 adaptation of Ipcress. That’s a great production design design that underscores the differences between Palmer and another, more high profile British spy of the 007 variety. In a 2011 interview with The Telegraph Caine recalled another nod to the everyday, thinking man approach to the spy genre found in the Palmer series: “[Harry Palmer] even did his own shopping in the supermarket.”

Director: Sidney J. Furie, Writers: W.H. Canaway (screenplay) James Doran (screenplay) Richard Flournoy (screenplay) Len Deighton (novel) Producer: Harry Saltzman, Cinematographer: Otto Heller Composer: John Barry Editor: Peter Hunt Casting Director: Weston Drury Jr. Production Designer: Ken Adam

CAST: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards

 

Watched on Blu ray from ITV

*Every Monday I watch a classic or historically significant movie that falls into one of these categories: 1) Have never seen it, or 2) Have never seen it uncut, or 3) Have only seen it once, or 4) Haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Some information from: IMDb Pro, BoxOfficeMojo

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Little Rock’s UA 150 – pictured here in a 7/17/70 Arkansas Democrat story on the cinema’s projectionist. George C. Scott as PATTON was on the screen.

The UA Cinema 150 will finally be razed to make way for whatever is coming next at the Village on South University in Little Rock. The burial follows its death over 11 years ago. Rumor has it that when the venerable old cinema was closed, the screen was intentionally slashed and destroyed to keep the venue from being used as a movie theater. It’s a tough business and the 150 was built on proprietary systems, so it’s not as nasty as it sounds. But it did strike me as unnecessary.

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Publicity material that accompanied the opening of UA D-150 theaters around the U.S.  Click to see full size. [courtesy of: widescreenmuseum.com]

Little Rock’s UA Cinema 150 was one of several elite cinemas built around the country using UA’s D-150 projection system. D-150 was United Artist’s answer to Cinerama — the 70mm widescreen format. Cinerama and D-150 were both attempting to answer the 1950s question of why shouldn’t one stay home and watch TV for free on a small, square screen?

The 150 was the site of the 1969 Arkansas Premiere of Paramount’s TRUE GRIT, starring John Wayne. (The novel was written by an Arkansan, Charles Portis, and set in the State.) By that time the University Avenue corridor was a premiere dining, recreation and shopping destination. It remained so for years, even after the city pushed inexorably west. But by the 1990s that end of University was clearly in decline. In recent years the generosity of the Coleman family coupled with UALR’s commitment to that area have been signs that we shouldn’t give up so fast on South University. First Tee of Arkansas and Mosaic Church have also made strong commitments to the area. So, it’s good that someone is making a serious investment in the property on which the deserted theater sits. Let’s hope the new owners leave it better than they found it. Whatever happens there, when I drive by, I’ll still think of the nights of seeing a movie at the 150 and discussing it over dinner at Casa Bonita.

Some of the movies I clearly remember seeing there include: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (re-release), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, CAPRICORN ONE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, TOP GUN and INDEPENDENCE DAY. I’m sure I saw one or two John Wayne movies there, as well as a dozen or so other titles over the years.

It’s a challenge for a single screen theater to remain viable even in New York and Los Angeles. There is a Cinerama theater still making a go of it in Seattle and I think there may still be one in Ohio somewhere, in addition to the celebrated Cinerama in Hollywood. Most of the single-screen theaters in the U.S. today are owned, or run by, not-for-profit groups. Historic single screen theaters can be found in downtowns across the country and they’re normally used for fund-raisers, community events, maybe a film festival or a film society’s screenings.

It’s hard for me to get worked up over Regal shuttering the 150 back in 2003. Rave Motion Pictures was the shiny new multiplex in that general (but far more appealing) area, at the time. Despite Regal’s closure of the 150, the chain was making investments in its multi-screen properties in Central Arkansas. They’ve just finished an incredible upgrade of Breckenridge cinema. I applaud them and thank them for that – because sitting in a theater with Tracy Jackson is still my favorite way to see a movie.

That said, I now bid farewell to the corpse of our old friend, long since dead. To the UA Cinema 150 I say: I’ll think of you every time I see someone watching a movie on an iPhone.