Suggestions?


Reviews

AMOUR FOU, Jessica Hausner, 2014




Sometimes I’m tempted to pull the plug myself…

Why go on, I wonder, even another single day? It’s all just such a meaningless farce, the pathetically rare ‘high points’?—all of them...yes, all, I tell you!...all lost in the gaping maw of so much incompetence everywhere I look, so many stupid decisions…

Then I remember: there IS more to life than Philadelphia sports!—and suddenly things seem much brighter again.

Even, somehow, a movie about an actual suicide pact, this one between a poet and lady friend from two hundred years ago.

The real temptation here, with a little Germanic blood of my own, is to wax philosophical about how even Germans can’t find an efficient way to die unnecessarily in the name of love…but not for lack, in the case of one Heinrich Von Kleist, no, not for lack of trying. Or how in Germany, people may have taken Love means never having to say you're sorry rather more in the letter, than the spirit, of that law.

Determined, as with young Heinrich, yes, they have been known to be. Reference can be made, for instance, to the events leading to another suicide pact, in this case an older Romeo and his gal, the ones in a dusty bunker in Berlin, in May 1945.

Unlike World War II, however, there is an ironic twist at the end of the events here, and a thought-provoking one at that. Otherwise Jessica Hausner’s study of an impossible subject? Beautifully crafted, dispassionate in the extreme…and despite the (seemingly) inevitable loss at the end of its romantic leads, what does it manage, of all things, to leave you with, as the closing credits roll?

The hope for a sequel...happier, certainly, or at least without all the bloody determination.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed September 22, 2017)



LA TERRA TREMA, Luchino Visconti, 1948



Mara: Tomorrow is full of promises
Nicola: Somebody should keep some of them…


And Dame Fortuna has just the man for that particular job, here in Luchino Visconti’s neorealist capo di tutte capolavore, La Terra Trema.

Raised for generations in the shadow of Etna on the eastern coast of Sicily, the family Valastro has at last its Prince Charming, Antonino, a hero to raise it from its age-old slumber of just-getting-by in its struggles with the sea.

The bitter sea, his great passion whatever the allure of the also-wild-and-inconstant Nedda (not to mention an even greater ephemera, fair local economics), and it could be of both when he sings, My love, you’re a liar/ You will not become a holy nun/ And I cry, I cry…

Visconti, among all his other achievements here, lays groundwork long in advance for the great David Mamet’s own belief (in his ‘True and False’), that the profession of acting suffers greatly from its very professionalism: all the players in the maestro’s epic, here, are local residents.

But hand-picked, no doubt, and the eye of a master does not miss: all the characters glow, especially the sisters Mara and Lucia (Nelluccia and Agnese Giammona) and the hero (Antonio Arcidiacono) even as they come to intrude greatly on the unexpecting viewer, and it will be a while before I see performances as vivid or as profoundly right.

As for the cinematography, every scene is another black-and-white picture postcard, and now Sicily has another fan, whatever stereotypes of it as the land once of cops and especially robbers (if no wonder, in the great power vacuum once the earth there was DONE trembling, after the Allied landings and not long before the movie itself).

If I have one complaint it is the lack of a stirring speech prior to the fatal foray into the stormy sea…but maybe that would have been window dressing, or worse, inauthentic, for perhaps Ntoni was saving all his breath to combat his terror…

Seeing those growing white-caps and perhaps knowing, having heard of bright casinos far away, somewhere on the other side of the Tyrrhenian Sea, that the north wind is the house, and that the house always wins.

But he had to try.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 10, 2017)







A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, Penny Marshall, 1992



Mae Mordabito: (to reporters) Hi, my name is Mae, and that’s not just a name, that’s an attitude.

And Madonna (who plays Mae)--That’s not just an attitude, that’s a landmark brand of entertainment.

Part of the credit? It has to come from her big role here, one of a (baseball) diamond dozen, in Penny Marshall’s sad, funny and out-of-the-park-inspiring historical dramedy,
A League of Their Own.

The movie—based on the 1943 debut of the actual All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—shakes off its sibling rivalry/small town blues beginnings when hard-selling scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) shows up on the Oregon dairy farm
to offer Dottie and Kit a chance to leave their milk stools behind.

Batter up!

Baseball, the American pasttime. Whatever its other virtues, the action around the diamond here is continuously authentic, and never mind the impressive showboating of Dottie (Geena Davis) for the crucial Life magazine cover shot.

And May, that’s not just a name, that’s an attitude too, when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to other thoughts, of hope springing eternal…

And all the rest of that crap, as the invalided former big league slugger Jimmy Dugan, the coach of the team, might say. Its’s a great part, and Tom Hanks makes the most of it, his character arc showing later when he seems to risk a stroke in trying to be nice with an errant player, its roots revealed early when he reminds the same player…the one the umpire says he may have “reprimanded too vehemently”, this before Dugan insults the umpire vehemently…when he reminds her that “There’s no crying in baseball!”

That fact may have been flouted, but at least respectful attention is paid to another fact—a moment of silence, the silent, dignified scene, remembering the ignoble exclusion of black players, at that time, still, from the game.

No crying? Maybe because the movie is not without its profound losses and setbacks (you know, 1943), maybe because it’s just so damn good, maybe because the actual team here in Philadelphia is just so bad…

Whatever the reason, and for all its many laughs—in some ways, in Ernie’s words, almost “a thin slice of heaven”—it left me with more than one tear in my eye.

Play ball!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed June 22, 2017)




MAD MAX, George Miller, 1979



I am a rocker…
I am a roller…
I’m an OUT OF CONTROLLER


Nearly haiku, had the Nightrider (Vince Gil) been embracing his Zen side on that particular ride, the one that launched post-apocalyptic LA freeway police chases and sequels as well.

But however much a happy meditation his ‘Cruising at the speed of fright’ broadcast over the police radio, the ‘skag and his floozy’--she sketched by Lulu Pinkus—the two lovebirds were about as far from delta-waves-placid as it gets, there in their captured Pursuit Special V-8 on a stretch of Sun City highway, “heading for population”...

I am the CHOSEN ONE, the mighty hand of vengeance sent down to SMITE the UNROADWORTHY...

Hey, step aside, buddy! Years ago, I had a job for Sovran, the largest bank in central Virginia. The job was to be sent out—to be unleashed, actually, albeit in suit and tie—without notice, on a hundred assignments over two years, to locate cars, find the people who had stopped paying for them, and persuade them to take their junk out of the vehicle and give me the keys.

At which point commenced, on my part, the small-talk-making and threat-level-gauging while I waited for the local wrecker, from town or more often whatever nearest town, to come and drop the hook. I was always successful, in fact the best on record, being the doggedly-determined type…and because yes, you might say I shared this much with the Nightrider, that there WAS a quality of ‘smiting the unroadworthy’ to it all.

My boss, one or two others back at the office who rated, called me Cujo; I might have preferred...well, why not?

LA VESPA...the English 'WASP', of course, also a certain acronym, for old money.

(My own floozy? Always back in town, each time, she a medical student at the university, an accomplished West Coast ob-gyn since…so, there, any consistent resemblance of mine to the ‘chosen one’ begins to falter. As for the rest of my 'Skyline Dealer Finance Outside Adjustor' days? I have thirty pages already, a little something called License to Drive.)

Unforgivable some of his other acts, ladies, you can add to the list of accusations against Mel Gibson this one as well: that for better of worse, for richer or poorer, to a normal man there is nothing that will ever be sexier than a Weiand supercharger.

Anyway, it was high time Australia, in the words of police commander Fifi (Roger Ward), got at least “one hero back”. And the message—Don’t drink, OR do crystal meth, and drive.

Oh, and next time, skip the ice cream...

A dystopian fantasy-land indeed.

Toodlepip!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 25, 2017)





ZERO BRIDGE, Tariq Tapa, 2008



Behold in storied Kashmir, the ancient paradox at work: that the more enchanting a lady, the more a single swain (like Dilawar, the coming-of-age hero in this modern romantic classic) might expect muchos otros pretendientes, as one might say, to impede his path…theoretically, until enough single men are discouraged from even the attempt…

At which point, lo and alas, she has none at all.

At least none of the sensitive-soul variety, like young Dilawar. Bani (Taniya Khan) is certainly that enchanting, and it seems to give her a permanent air of rueful amusement (though in the end, the ruefulness trumps any amusement, the last few crucial scenes, as she makes her wishes suddenly more clear, quite as nearly vivid as if...well, as if one were their beneficiary himself).

In a land of bargaining, with mortal geopolitical threats from sides not in discussion shelved for now, much of the story is given to moments of negotiation, which always—think of Shark Tank, or Pawn Stars—carries at least the interest, the back-and-forth tension, of any routine tennis match. So it has that advantage.

But there may be a larger haggling going on, that of Bani for a better Dilawar (Mohamad Imran Tapa) than the sneak-thief/homework-mill hoodlum on display.

A wonderful film, one that wears lightly, and yet capable of resonant lines that others far away indeed might relate to, say an outrageously breathtaking movie star regarding some indefatigable fan: I’ve had about as much love as I can stand from him, this from Dilawar, concerning the ‘in loco parentis’ regimen of his uncle.

Or this near the very end, from Bani: It wouldn’t be hard to live cheaply. Together, she means. And thus wisdom the very same fan can appreciate, as well.

Zero Bridge: a wide appeal, despite the icy, crystal-clear flow foregone--the Roof of the World water under it, by now.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed April 19, 2017)



Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman, 1978


It’s painless…

Interesting. So tell me more.

There’s no more need for hate. Or love.

Hey, now you’re talking…

“Now boarding, the bus for Sausalito…”

Okay--um, no, thanks.

In an era when a former peanut farmer was now leader of the free world, yet unable to keep his own country from getting pushed around by foreign clerics…in an era of hyper-inflation, est therapy and self-induced fever on Saturday nights—in a time of “national malaise”, is it any wonder we earthlings would turn to Mr. Spock for answers?

We remaining earthlings, that is. In Philip Kaufman’s hugely-successful remake (earning acclaim and an exponential return on its budget) the alien plan is this: to win the enemy’s hearts and minds, as well as its kidneys, central nervous systems, and so forth.

No half-measures for these tiny and gelatinous storm troopers, the vanguard of that old pain-in-the-neck, a dying planet. Wisely, they target San Francisco, by the late seventies no doubt fully exhausted by strictly home-grown botanicals, and so a ‘sitting duck’ for something new. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams--what a pair of squares, man!--highlight a core of characters (including Leonard Nimoy’s cool pop-psychologist) to care about—and more than just because, well, they’re the only candidates left.

What terror here is not in the electric form of whatever that thing was, say, in John Carpenter’s The Thing, but in the masquerading, the small smiles of neighbors and dry cleaners and spouses, all suddenly manifesting the same deadly symptoms: equanimity, reasonableness—most of all, a supreme spirit of co-operation.

Call the movie an indictment of the establishment—or indeed of the coalescing anti-establishment—but you know, maybe those aren’t such bad traits, when you think about it: reasonableness and so forth, in neighbors, dry cleaners or spouses…and it has been raining, lately…

But Sausalito? Forget it.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 14, 2017)



The War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg, 2005



For some romantic hearts, the ultimate nightmare would be this: somehow first seeing, but afterwards never meeting—not even for coffee and biscotti, say, and a walk in the park, followed by some little museum to make their own, and--why not?--a light dinner later—just never meeting that other person who has somehow enthralled...

In the grim pantheon of anyone’s ultimate nightmares, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds would be a close second. Some might even come away granting it the blue ribbon, for Best in Show.

Best of the Very Worst, call it, and really, what more need be said? Seriously—art is meant to entertain and to instruct: whatever the entertainment here...which if it exists must set new standards for the enjoyment of others' misery...where is the instruction?

If Spielberg’s intent was to lecture on that awkward stepchild of risk analysis, the low probability/
high consequence event, the Big Maybe, then to what end?

Who knows? What is clear is that Spielberg, without much warning, and with the considerable help of his conscripted general, Tom Cruise, has invaded the sprawling world of science fiction disaster and conquered it, possibly for generations to come. Perhaps he did it (as perhaps the aliens in his over-the-course-of-a-single-weekend epic) just to show that he could, or maybe simply because he was bored. But the risks: wagering his entire reputation--pretty large bet, that--given the potential for derision, from contemporary critics and future mudslingers, say of the Mystery Science Theater ilk...

Nevertheless, he succeeds, entirely.

The ancient theatrical debate as to what is best revealed (Shakespeare staging the blinding of Gloucester), and what best not revealed (Sophocles’ choosing to have his king blinded offstage) has one important vote here for the latter, and so nothing but noise and lights, if horribly extended and overpowering even through just a basement peephole, as a passenger jet slams into the street outside.

Another, perhaps lesser filmmaker might have given us the whole God’s-eye view, a really special special-effects exercise of the 747 plowing into the suburban neighborhood, mountains of freshly mown lawns and rent bodies thrown asunder as it authentically breaks up into various pieces, until each coming to some high-def, precisely-rendered rest.

Dreadful, either way.

Is it an existential one, the dread here? Not necessarily—God is remote but not non-existent in this world, and the golden rule pointedly obtains, at least in the Marines’ contagious heroism and a successful blood drive at the ferry crossing, even as the bodies are vaporized, float by, or get consumed as snacks. C.S. Lewis, any Star Trek original series writer, would have chalked it up to this: the invaders were simply, and sadly, from a planet wholly corrupted by evil.

In the end, however, and sooner than any clear-eyed advocate or opponent would have thought, they lose, utterly and completely, and with hardly even a final whimper…

Pretty good lesson, after all.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 24, 2017)



A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004



The question had lingered.

Why? What was it that actually drove the Great Powers, with the guns of August, to such a senseless act? Surely something more than all the Balkan 'powder kegs' and accelerating arms races that led to such an awful event, something besides
a woeful over-stock of intractable and wildly-countervailing treaties, rampant paranoia now become a bright creed...

Finally, a plausible theory: they did it for Jodie Foster.

Pour la France! anyway, and really, who can blame them? Plunging forward, another question: what drove the restless Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, her royal discontent and tristesse here almost myth-like, or as though from the fables of Aesop).

Specifically, what drives her, repeatedly, from a warm Brittany home—including massages for her mild polio (from “a swimming champion”)—all the way to, and then through, her personal no-man’s land? All the while, emotional artillery shells drawing closer, now-settled lives at an ever-steeper discount, as she refuses to just stay put and take 17 million dead for an answer...

Starting out as a cautionary tale on the subject of self-inflicted wounds, the film eventually becomes something of a miracle, given how nearly enchanting, despite the slaughterhouse setting, and how very taut even as poor Mathilde pursues, no poor pun intended, yet another dead-end.

Another cul-de-sac. Something of a miracle of editing, too: somewhere in the producers’ minds the story (from a novel by Sebastien Japrisot) likely still grows, as a potential television series, so crowded already with splendid characters (Albert Dupontel’s and Miss Foster's among them) and their own dark/bright narratives; with all the agonizing false leads, brightly-exploding hospitals and each resonating, poetic clue for the lady and her own allies.

Speaking of which, the spirit of elan, that uniquely French thing, is represented brilliantly, too, in another tale of wartime resolve, its own ceaseless romantic search that of an American concert pianist, set in the Resistance still ahead. The book: ‘The White Bull’ (Doubleday, 1947); its author, Henry Blanchard, my grandfather.

Anyway, ultimately, the answer again is a simple one. What drives Mathilde? An albatross. Not the menacing enemy two-seater…irony alert, drink up!...but instead the albatross of Charles Baudelaire:

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.


The albatross, more specifically, of her missing beau (Gaspard Ulliel as the movie's Holy Grail, and effective enough in the fairly important role)...

His observation from their pre-war seaside church tower? A simple one, too:

Il sait que le vent va faiblir avant lui.

He knows the wind will die down first.

Bingo.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 9, 2016)


FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Terence Young, 1963



…and what better choice, now that one of our very own presidential candidates has been exposed as secretly engaged to the Russian president!

At least according to the cover art on this week’s New Yorker…and as the fact checkers extraordinaire of dispassionate journalism, they certainly wouldn’t draw it if it weren’t so!

So congratulations to the happy couple! ‘Prahz-drahv-yall-yoo’, you would say, in the Russian. (This I know from a script I wrote, The Hammerheads, about some sports figures--tennis, golf, and especially football--in a gated Florida community. I also know ‘goodbye’ in Russian, though generally not something uttered, of course, 'with love'.)

The film, meanwhile, is arguably the preposterous summit of male sexism—satirical even, in its near-Caligulan celebration of frat house rules--an orgy of sexism, if such things could be so well calculated.

Call it the Adam’s Rib school of philosophy. Namely, that women are a subservient, pleasing afterthought. Consider: the one unattractive woman here is the ruthless viper; entertainment consists (at the gypsy camp) of boys watching girls fighting tooth-and-nail over boys; “Kerim Bey…Kerim Bey…” is the female of the species’ lightly annoying call at rest...and in a corner of the world that certainly remembers the original story, a modern Helen (Tanya) actually surrenders herself, with gift wrap (and a ribbon—literally) to Paris.

So: women—can’t live with ‘em (not when one has a concealed deadly weapon in her precious shoes), and you can’t live without ‘em. Anyway, an afterthought. But let’s be clear, an important afterthought…in the way perhaps of a downloaded phone app, one that lets you make sure you turned off the stove.

On the plus side, the film’s pace is breathtaking, a model of the never-a-dull-moment, whether your tastes run to recent military history (the let’s-face-it act of war that our world-saving ne'er do well perpetrates on the Soviet embassy in Turkey) or less recent (his re-creation, this time somewhere off Trieste, of the fiery against-the-odds defeat of the Spanish Armada). Give credit to Sean Connery, too, stepping aside somewhat for the real show-stopper here, Robert Shaw’s never-yet-equaled international bad-guy hatchet man.

007 never sweated such bullets, before or since.

Anyhow, there is one central irony, and maybe it is a satire after all. It goes like this: just how is it that women were actually employed in those long-suffering days? Their only form of employment? Ladies, and ONLY ladies? What else but as typists: and what do you know, the code-machine Holy Grail here, something of the world’s first-and-last portable desktop…

It’s a fancy typewriter!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed October 28, 2016)


BARBARELLA, Roger Vadim, 1968



Why would anybody want to invent a weapon?

How should I know?

But why me, sir?

Barbarella, I have no armies or police…and I can’t spare the presidential band. Besides, you ARE a five-star, double-rated astronavigatrix.


Going straight for the professional pride, are we? So in other words—it’s a hopeless mess and bound to get worse and no one else is drunk or fatigued or clawing the wallpaper enough even to hear the whole pathetic tale out…

Sorry, my mistake—that’s the typical stream-of-consciousness bile from another superb spy series. No self-examining, soul-searing, rummage-sale grudges here in Roger Vadim’s version of the cosmos, where everything begins and ends with, spoiler alert, yes, it's official: love.

Even if sometimes the heroine’s “present possibilities of non-destruction” are calculated, as on her top-priority mission to Planet 16 in the Tau Ceti system, at “0.00002 to 10,000”, which somehow sounds almost as bad as a Philadelphia pro basketball fan’s chances.

Based on the titular (tee-hee) comic book and with influences from Fellini to Lost in Space, and itself broadly influencing filmmakers since, Barbarella, a Franco-Italian production, is the most entertaining two hours this side of the Pleiades, where having a good Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster available probably does make for a non-level playing field.

Entertaining, at least for fans of Jane Fonda wearing even less than she did in her later, iconic workout videos. Here the director makes the most of Miss Fonda’s near-unique ability to blend 007’s license to, um, ‘transfer exaltation’ (they have ‘pellets’--unnecessarily, as it turns out) together with the good-natured common sense of her own renowned father in some of his public-minded roles.

Certainly some of Bond’s nonchalance:

Bad Guy: Here in Sogo, I have learned of the dignity, the nobility of pure evil…

Barbarella: Would you hand me my boots, please?

"Should have liquidated her when I first had the chance!", one can almost see what he’s thinking.

And speaking of which: those sharks equipped with laser beams, the ones that double-noughts sometimes go up against? That’s a walk in the park even next to the children and their dolls awaiting here, merely two of the hazards for the lonely wretch, that poor blinkered bastard who naturally once again just HAD to draw the wrong straw, this time for a visit to some paradise called Planet 16...

Sorry.

Anyway, no wonder she wants to rest up, on the ride in:

Wake me up in 154 hours.

Confirmed.

Good night, Alfie.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed September 22, 2016)



BLOWOUT, Brian De Palma, 1981



JACK: It’s a good scream…

A final pause—with the aid of however many packs of Marlboros, the irony long wrung out by now:

A good scream.

Sometimes I do wonder, as a writer myself, just what the actual script might be (and like that old spinster-aunt of American drama, Eugene O'Neill, I do like my stage directions). Anyway, given what has occurred, the final moments of Brian De Palma’s near-classic noir melodrama are as good an advertisement for taking up the habit—smoking—as there may remain to be found.

So—Blowout: a cautionary tale of some kind? Starring John Travolta (whose character’s easy charm has a real slog this time—indeed a desperate uphill battle) and written by the director, the movie is one in which the least cautious, led by John Lithgow’s apparently nearsighted killer, tend to prosper, or at least—spoiler alert—manage a draw.

At the same time, the female lead—the wide-eyed Sally Badina (Nancy Allen, the director’s wife), surely the nicest hooker since Julia Roberts' defining one—is left pretty much a bowling pin waiting to be picked up with a spare, and at times you can almost SEE the railroad tracks on which the sinister villain plans to tie her down.

Not exactly multi-dimensional, in other words. Dennis Franz, later the flawed and interesting star of more than one landmark TV police procedural, is reduced here to near-shtick.

Inspired by Antonioni's Blow Up and set now in staid old Philadelphia, and well before there were 'millennials’ off and about not bothering with lame, yester-year things like Olympic Games or, here, parades for something called Liberty Day, the film is also set well before this kind of plot—the who-knows-maybe political conspiracy—finally took over large and small screens alike.

A romantic thriller with a happy ending despite it all? Throughout, Pino Donaggio's quietly captivating score, with its festive overtones of a make-believe holiday, is in service of some other intent, a larger one, and it works.

So call the film an anti-cautionary tale, or more chillingly, a cautionary tale without any moral to speak of.

And guided by a great director, it does have its moments...as with the lingering shot, from below a stunned and unseeing Jack, of the spectacular water-front fireworks, every bit as bright as those still watched, with glee and awe, every year on real holidays, here in Philadelphia.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed 8-27-16)


KING CREOLE, Michael Curtiz, 1958


LAISSEZ LES BON TEMPS ROULER!

Yes, a certain ring. But while I do try to keep an international flavor to things around here, why don’t we just put it in plain English for now:

"Dan-ny! Dan-ny! Dan-ny!"

Danny Fisher, that is, who will SOMEHOW win over the entire lot of you, young and old, rich man/poor man, pushy customers and overworked wait-staff alike, when he tells you, on the back-beat…

I was born standing up and talking back--
My daddy was a green-eyed mountain jack!
Because I’m evil…my middle name is misery
Yeah, I’m evil--so don’t you mess around with me...


Maybe (as Homer Simpson reveals, the way he deals so well with women himself)--maybe it’s all in the nodding.

Elvis Presley said this was his favorite role of all, the role of Danny Fisher, the busboy with a gift even greater than gettin’ the girls, and yet with a beloved father to think of. And where better than Bourbon Street, for a potboiler? The king of another realm, Harold Robbins, provides a story that the two credited writers (Herbert Baker and Michael Vincente Gazzo) wrap up as a melodramatic classic.

And rarely has a movie had so many memorable, spot-on lines to frame its scenes (of the villainous Maxie Fields, night club proprietor and would-be king of New Orleans, whose first words as a boy were Stick ‘em up: ‘Everything he touches turns to drink.’)

Maxie Fields, that would be Walter Matthau, and, as his rival mentor, Paul Stewart’s Charlie Legrand, Danny’s better angel, even if he does claim, for the benefit of Danny’s sister, somehow to be merely forty years old. And the girls? The innocent young Nellie (Dolores Hart), perhaps tempted a little, now, by the guilty pleasures, and the anything-but-innocent Ronnie (the immortal Carolyn Jones—look up her photo in a beret), a fellow old soul to Danny’s and now tempted more than a little by reform.

And let’s not forget the jewel-within-this-jewel: the fabulous ‘Forty Nina’ (that French-Italian little darling, Liliane Montevecchi), who steals the show—yes, from Elvis Presley—as she describes a certain fondness for fruit.

A particular fruit—as with most things on the Bayou, real spicy and zesty-like.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 8, 2016)



LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, Peter Jackson, 2002



Some time ago in a distant, distant realm, there came to a studio executive clear visions of gold—mountains and rivers of it.

The fateful spell was cast, as so often, by an up-and-coming director, the realm his own vision of his native New Zealand, and the discussion, punctuated only by the humble inquiries of wide-eyed members of the restaurant’s wait-staff, PROBABLY went something like this:

Worldwide, you have to figure we have a core audience of one hundred million, easy, for this stuff. So that’s a billion, U.S.—and that’s just the box office, never mind say all the straggler DVD-buyers, ten or fifteen years later…

Okay, so that’s where this comes in—another precinct heard from, your reviewer someone with just no clue about Tolkien (actually a Narnia snob, having been raised on the C.S. Lewis stories) until he watched this three-hour mid-masterwork last week.

Initial outsider’s verdict: Peter Jackson’s dark and sprawling Carolingian tale DOES cast a real spell, and it certainly rocks. I mean, rocks, gravel underfoot, boulders being catapulted, thrown stones: minerals aplenty, in this middle world without an actual gem, if we’re not counting gold rings. Oh, and there’s water at the end, lots of that too, an unexpected gigantic dam-burst to save the day and if you don’t like contrived endings, then start your bitching with Euripides: he invented it.

Speaking of outside references, I have to admit Mad Magazine also has a role: in an old spoof of the trilogy, The Two Towers gets called an example of “jogging in place”, and in fact the first hour IS mostly jogging, and one does begin to wonder what else is on, but then Liv Tyler shows up, and there is an idyllic scene with her, so at least WHY all the jogging, at least that begins to get answered.

Okay, as an allegory, the proceedings seem to be about World War II, and the vital role of small Resistance units, as the big old isolationist Trees (that would be Uncle Sam) and other stand-offish parties are slowly persuaded to get with the program already.

As a human drama, well, who said anything about humans, anyway?

And speaking of earthly things and middling: as a good English major, I must point out Alexander Pope DID sort of sum it up, long before:

...on this isthmus of a middle state
A being darkly wise, and rudely great.


Spoiler alert: according to Mad, Aragorn and Arwen get married in the finale, so at least alphabetically, a new, decent order IS in the offing. So don’t be a Smeagol--go and see it yourself…

And never mind, where does any of the FOOD come from, why does Gandalf fall FASTER than his staff, why does Gollum talk loudly to himself when sneaking up on someone, when does…

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed July 5, 2016)



NEVER ON SUNDAY, Jules Dassin, 1960


THE STORY-TELLER: So she goes to Greece to marry this man. His name was…(a pause as she spits)....JASON.

This is Illya, the radical feminist who just cannot get enough of consorting with the enemy, here telling, as always mesmerizingly, her version of the play Medea, one of her favorites.

A family-friendly version, and why not?

Soon, though, she will be angry with—and perforce pay some real attention to—the visiting “amateur philosopher”: the American who somehow makes Greek tragedy seem SAD.

This even as he ignores a real story offered up by Illya’s colleagues, of the exorbitant rents/veiled threats from the local rich guy. No-Face, by name, who proves to have an interesting proposition of his own: save Illya by educating her, which somehow he believes will also shut her up.

Not very immersed in Greek logic that notion, either.

NEVER ON SUNDAY, yes, it would have given Aristotle fits, though its lead half-naked in a bathroom mirror something of a Platonic ideal indeed.

And he, Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin, also the talented director here), poor Homer—d’oh! At least he has the courage of his convictions, to accuse an entire roomful of men, as Illya translates with poorly-disguised glee, that the ONLY reason they like her…here to the face of his opposite number Jorgo, played in an iconic performance by Titos Vandis--and for the moment Jorgo’s face still wrapped in an enormous, besotted smile… the ONLY reason that these men LIKE an agreeable knockout who also likes them is because they hate…their….mothers.

So yes, very ‘earthy’—and yet the Greek language seems to have…I counted them off in one of Illya’s more half-hearted dismissals…for some reason never yet explained, Greek patois seems to have a full eight syllables for the more succinct English “Drop dead.”

Anyway, all evil is disharmony—you are in disharmony with yourself—I am an American Boy Scout and will bring you back to harmony.

You know, what we all tell ourselves in the mirror every morning.

Never on Sunday! What a can of worms, but there is a magical drink—ouzo!--that somehow keeps a lid on it…

…and in the end they all go to the seashore!

Okay, but now a Sunday sermonette: setting aside for a moment the endless Biblical injunctions against and any strict libertarian arguments for, it strikes me that paying for sex, thereby summarily executing whatever the magic, would be like watching a magic show where the seemingly-impossible tricks are explained: could ruin your enjoyment of future magic!

Call my reasoning...well, informal logic. Oh, and one other note: Illya, that would be Melina Mercouri.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 27, 2016)



Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood, 2015




Pity the poor Col. Katherine Powell--on the cusp of her big coup here, dedicated to it ‘for six years’ now (and sounding every bit like a research scientist defending grant money) but suddenly finding herself in a Hitchcock movie.

And with how many lives at stake? Cancer researchers, one or two centuries along their own hot trail, can at least continue to claim untold gazillions of souls; here, her pitch is to save maybe several dozen.

But screw the FDA, all she needs is clearance, Clarence, because HER tools are already approved, bought and paid for--the main one, of course, being a very large scalpel.

The Eye in the Sky.

Easy it may be to dismiss the other side as simply the latest overly-trying version of Bully Boy-ocracy, its minions answering solely to some grand ‘capo di tutti capi’--easy, that is, until we watch every single decision in our own ‘nerve centers’ getting sent way, way up the chain of our own (albeit fairly elected) command for approval.

The casting and direction are first class, and should be for a movie that strives to justify certain thunderbolts from the very heavens. Deft too, the touches, such as the blink-and-you-already-missed-it opening of the Chinese ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ scene: what else could be more evocative of world-class table tennis?

The premise, back in Africa, is a stark one, and perhaps divorced from reality, on two counts: that a missile strike would even be considered on friendly soil being the first and, one might say, the greatest. Another like unto it: somehow that on friendly soil, an armed militia aligned with a murderous faction is able to control the entry and exit to whole neighborhoods. Here they do, and so an uncontrolled firefight in a civilian area is the untenable political-humanitarian risk of any ground-based intervention.

Otherwise, militia-less, the bad actors, once identified, could presumably be more or less safely surrounded, and, say, sternly lectured into submission.

Anyway give me more guys like Barkhad Abdi, a good guy now and electric again as the brightest star of another stellar movie: here, a Kenyan human intel guy, the man on the ground, the one with high ideals AND a seasoned appreciation for the value of his own skin.

And give me more guys like Alan Rickman’s memorable general, the annoying and unflappable one, who certainly didn’t have to be reminded of the value of a little girl, difficult, sometimes quite maddening though they may be.

Well......thank heavens for them, anyway.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 7, 2016)




ALIENS, James Cameron, 1986



Welcome, welcome! Folks, today our tour includes some real highlights, and here are just a few:

Processing station, service tunnels, sub-basements, electrical access corridors, heat exchangers, and yes, elevators. Thank goodness for elevators. But first, let's enjoy a quick movie review...

You okay, Hicks?
It’s Dwayne.
(Pause) Ellen.
Don’t be gone long, Ellen.


Well, the two leads, finally on a first-name basis.

A little farther along than in most films, but business before pleasure: that’s the rule on LV-426.

Speaking of asteroid names, call this James Cameron classic, one of the most impressive films ever made, certainly one of the most impressive imaginable, call it TCOB-101.

Taking Care of Business 101, a primer. Business that does involve those once hoped-for flying cars—here an APC, a drop-ship from the light cruiser orbiting above—real (okay, imaginary) and useful corporate achievements, rather than 140 characters to say what can be said in thirty, or $600 smart phones to figure out where to save twenty dollars for lunch.

And back for a TCOB encore, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley—believe it or not! one could add, given her last go-round. But ‘forewarned is fore-armed’, and so she is even more steely in her stately competence this time. Indeed the only moment her voice even catches a little is when, about halfway through a TRULY crappy morning, she recounts the plan—Hitler’s own so-called doctors hardly more degenerate, more diabolical—to get samples of the creatures back to Earth and then past quarantine there.

One plan, thankfully, that is quickly un-earthed.

The background score, by James Horner, is exceptional, and somehow up to the standards of a film mesmerizing in its small moments and large, a score occasionally if regularly punctuated with Newt’s screams or the sinister acceleration and higher pitching of too many beeps on the hand-held proximity monitors. Of the unforgettable supporting cast, perhaps it is Paul Reiser as the company man Burke, the actual protagonist, who deserves accolades, ‘taking one for the team’ with one of the more thankless roles in cinema history.

And even closely felt, the loss, as the final disaster begins to loom, at a girl’s doll’s head, long disembodied and yet the only comfort, and for how long? on the planet from hell, sinking into, now lost in the mud-dull sub-basement stream, one thing of childhood put aside too soon, its name, her name, was Casey.

So regardless of wherever she is now, to repeat (spoiler alert!) the final two lines of the talent…make that the gritty character show here, here’s to little Casey.

Sleep tight.

Affirmative.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed April 11, 2016)



LEVIATHAN, Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014



Maybe it’s something in the water.

Where is she, anyway? The Russian woman who actually smiles, sometimes?

Is it only Maria Sharapova (if somewhat less, lately)? Was it Stefanie Powers’ character, on that cruise-ship episode the other night, about a counterfeiting ring?

Hart to Hart. Even if hers was only a ‘pretend’ Russian countess, still, at least there WAS a regular smile with the accent—though come to think of it, maybe that’s how the bad guys saw through her ruse: you know, real Russians don’t smile.

Maybe, instead, they take their smiling more seriously, as something precious. If so, then Leviathan, one of the best movies in years, offers a glimpse.

One sign of effective storytelling is that you begin to care about the people in the story, begin to share their aspirations, even when, here, the nearly-sublime Lilya’s sadly seem to be merely to remain stony-faced throughout.

But there is a moment when Lilya (Elena Lyadova) falls short, a single priceless smile emerging almost as though from on high as she says, sitting there on the side of a still-warm bed, “I don’t understand you.”

Maybe there is hope for her, at least of another smile or two as events progress from that scene, there in that brutally beautiful slice of Russia, a southern California with fjords, somehow after a China Syndrome melt-down...hope for her with feet (rather than face) on the ground friends like Angela (an especially-noteworthy Anna Ukolova) and husband Pasha—a content-with-what-they-have couple, the type to keep the world going around.

And as much as the local church, vibrantly and at length given an almost, well, iconic status--as much as the local church might claim credit.

What keeps it turning. That proverbial salt of the earth?

Maybe it’s something in the water.

Leviathan: a tragedy somehow full of somewhat-pleasant surprises, not including the impressive remains, there in the mud, of another high-end mammal who made a wrong turn--Leviathan, it offers a glimpse.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 18, 2016)



Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960




The Big Answer—stay tuned: we have it coming up, live and in person from the resident world-weary genius, a visiting novelist interviewed at the airport by, among others, the pre-millenial young Patricia (“I like to be called Ingrid”) Franchini, she there looking for content for the product she mostly distributes on the Champs-Elysees.

Newspapers, that is, that mostly black and white product, superannuated—perhaps just worn out—by the end of the twentieth, its five-star spectacular century. Black and white and ‘red’ (read: ‘read’, past tense) all over, as the schoolchildren's old riddle goes, and certainly the International Herald Tribune. Anyway, the novelist:

There are two things in life: for men, women. For women, money.

Wow....I mean, wow. And just that simple, all this time!

And yet, alas, however it may sound like a plain algebraic expression, we soon find out here, as in life, that pursuing any distributive or associative qualities leads to imaginary numbers, or those along the negative side of the x-axis, or just to zero.

To being ‘zeroized’, like a new chip in Silicon Valley: which is the outcome he finally seeks, our jaunty alouette Michel Poiccard (aka Laszlo Kovacs aka Jean-Paul Belmondo). Zeroized, in the sense of being made clean, given a fresh start, after he has come to terms with the great fact of his (spoiler alert) not-to-be-superannuated life: that Patricia (the fine Jean Seberg, sadly lost much too soon, but at least clear in her final wishes, buried there in the environs of Montparnasse), no, Patricia isn’t going to Italy anytime soon.

Another great fact of his life, indeed the one impartial observers might cite as still more momentous, is being splashed all over the headlines, at last in downtown Paris on a five-story high electronic ticker.

The irresistible (irresistibly smooth) force and the unmovable (know-it-all American) object, and their one shared trait: an affinity for sour apples.

I would watch it again, but would I say that I am à tout de souffle myself about Godard’s renowned work, here?

Well, like Renoir’s pastry collection, call it, as Michel did, call it Pas mal.

Excusez-moi? C’est une ‘world classic’?

Oh, zut alors. Je dit pas mal!



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed February 26, 2016)



STARSHIP TROOPERS, Paul Verhoeven, 1997




Somewhere...maybe not so far in the future...someday there’s at least a chance that we--yes, even us!--if we somehow survive to reach that amazing crossroads, that someday, yes, we actually WILL, finally, bump into some aliens.

If we’re not too bright, and they prove to be actively unimpressed, we may be left to the stop-gap (if swash-buckling) efforts of, say, Jedi knights, to play a LOT of catch-up, and THIS much only if there IS...hold your snickering, please...a wise and capable fraternity like that.

(Snickering.)

If instead we’re smart, then we'll have a forceful structure already in place, so that sometimes--as its representative, and on its behalf--in the course of an extended scientific expedition, some peace-loving Horatio Nelson-type, together with an elite crew and a stout flagship, can actually prevent warfare from breaking out.

But sometimes it’s too late for talk, as when, in Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven’s bright and darkly tolling 'Revenge of the Cool Kids' epic, it’s NOT a meteorological disturbance that darkens the sky over a Buenos Aires home.

What if the Skype-with-the-folks chat was interrupted instead by an unprovoked attack, a moment’s destruction of proportions immense beyond any mere tragedy?

Then what?

A problem for our great-grandchildren, once they get their new car and start annoying the neighbors?

Whether a problem for centuries or indeed hours from now, the movie takes the question…in tart but relentlessly upbeat dialogue; in lasting images, of a pilot, however gorgeous (Denise Richards), slowly steering, with an authentic nonchalance, her huge warship around wounded sister ships and hulks now motionless but for their orbit…of a television war correspondent, the first casualty of battle, hardly uttering his objective report of an actual enemy grievance, before he is impaled and brought up into the lunar night by some kind of very long appendage…

Say this much: it takes the question seriously.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 27, 2016)



GO FOR ZUCKER, Dani Levy, 2004




Let’s see—the Berlin Wall…anti-Semitism in Europe…the prospect of poverty…brother against brother…and marriages on the rocks. All that’s left out is a super villain and an Old Testament plague or two.

Go for Zucker: as well-paced, funny and YET thought-provoking as can be, but never mind that: if any movie has a motto, then this one does—and the motto is, Bring it on! Issues large and small, but for this viewer what made it REALLY dicey was this: the horrors recalled by the past occupation of the hero (Henry Hübchen ‘running the table’ as family man-pool shark Jakob Zuckermann).

That is, for someone living here in Philadelphia: it’s chilling—the hero, Zuckermann, is a former TV sports anchor, and the awful thoughts which THAT conjured up—being a TV sports anchor here, someone who must constantly inform/remind innocent people of THIS town’s sports scene? Philadelphia sports?

NOOoooooooooooo!!!!!!

Thankfully, on this, the morning after our Eagles unceremoniously dumped their own little dictator—thank heaven, those clouds begin to part. Now where were we…something about a movie with background material that the American Shakespeare himself, Eugene O’Neill, might have unceremoniously dismissed as…

As what, exactly? As “asking too much of an individual or a family somehow to overcome”. More than, say, dashed hopes, or even 'consumption', which was, of course, O'Neill's big wrecking ball, and no laughing matter.

And yet Go for Zucker? It’s a comedy, so (mostly thanks to a nagging enchantress named Marlene, played by Hannelore Elsner) they do overcome.

No spoiler alert needed: that’s what happens in comedies. Happy endings: without exception, those are what you get, ever since, in his Poetics, Aristotle spelled it out.

Of course, getting back to sports—sometimes it is the high hurdles, getting there.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 30, 2015)



Tokyo Sonata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008




So on to the topic of honorific diction. Keigo Diction is the skillful use of three different types of honorific speech, in order to show respect to the other person…”

I know, I know, but I’m afraid you are wrong: this is not a class for New York City cab drivers. In fact, soon it will hardly be much of a class at all, the teacher’s authoritative hand having been entirely trumped by…

Well, what: call the young man a ‘sensei’ of his.

Into every life a little rain must fall, and in the sparkling family drama Tokyo Sonata, that rainfall is the onset of the recent global economic crisis—more to the point, its impact on a society where face-saving is sometimes a life or death pursuit. But not—spoiler alert—at the ultimate cost of doing the right thing, in this case the return of a found item.

Make no mistake: this film was probably conceived as nothing more, and nothing less, than a star vehicle for the enchanting lead actress, already hugely celebrated for other pursuits, Kyoko Koizumi. And yet as mesmerizing as each scene of hers, it would have succeeded had she been…

Well, what? Unavailable, I suppose the word would be.

Tokyo Sonata is a symphony of three movements: the first an Adagio, the grandly inertial remnants of a life before, and the second, a turbulent story of survival, the woman’s, of a desperate home invader, the sons’, of enemy combatants (in the older’s highly-principled struggle) and a near-fatal fall; and the man’s, perhaps in that society most difficult of all, the need to survive a certain fall from grace.

The third movement is the soulful recital of a piece by Debussy: his Suite Bergamasque, “Clair de lune’, according to the closing credits.

Which is to say, more accurately, a third movement that still lies ahead.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 10, 2015)



STEVE JOBS, Danny Boyle, 2015



What is it you do?

This, the famous line from Woz, as with everyone else here, speaking to…well, who else? You guessed it.

And anyway, WHATEVER it is (one asks after this five-star/grand slam bio-pic from Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin)—whatever it is that you do, then WHY?

None of the characters (maybe excluding Joanna--Kate Winslet as the fictional chief lubricant/coolant officer here—maybe excluding Joanna, there at the end, concerning his role as a father) none of the characters addressing him is really expecting a specific answer, any more than the Psalmist is, not always in tune with the magnificence of his particular employer…

Okay: then what, and why? Some of us might hope, as but one example, to make a fine contribution to, for instance, romantic literature, with compellingly brilliant poetry.

Something decent—maybe even a top-level alternative, to the sediment that has prevailed; at least a clear option, for ‘regular folks’, in years to come…as in these lines, about a long-distant woodland encounter: The maid alarmed, with hasty oar/ Pushed her light shallop from the shore/ Then safe, though fluttered and amazed/ She paused and on the stranger gazed...

Call the lines, from the Waverley novels, call them...pre-Pre-Raphaelite, coming fifty years before the timeless art of that movement; in any case, their author is a not-too-distant relative.

(And one more side note: if you are seeking any romance in the film here, it is limited to the very forward seduction of nascent Early Adopters and tech columnists.)

Timeless: for Steve (Michael Fassbender, radiant and certainly rarefied), it means giving everybody, overly-high price points be damned, giving EVERYBODY a “bicycle of the mind”, and so fixing, withal, mankind’s place in the universe.

Or at least, according to his own reckoning, mankind’s place vis-a-vis a certain California bird of prey…

And yet his argument DOES concern man’s relative “inefficiency”, and so there is a cold breeze in the room now, too, because his would not be the FIRST new order concerned with making people better. The cold breeze gathers, too, in hindsight, as we recall Word Number One is never uttered about the human tragedies already behind, never mind those to come (the action set before those headlines), in the facilities of Apple’s overseas suppliers.

A special mention for Seth Rogen, his character sometimes called ‘Ringo’, or even ‘Rainman’, but in THIS film, with the strength and delivery of his unstinting objections, more like some great Roman senator…and with more than a dollop of soothsayer, too, for his old friend, given something unmistakably there about an Ides of March.

Rainman, yes… an epithet that Steve Wozniak apparently endured, summing up the price he paid for a certain “lifelong pass” he abhorred. Rainman, infallible counter of spilled toothpicks AND utterly reliable K-Mart shopper, to boot. But of the two co-founders of Apple, who was the real idiot/genius-savant?

Not even close, really.

Uh-oh!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed November 19, 2015)



Subway, Luc Besson, 1985




PREPAREZ 50 MILLIONS EN PETITES COUPURES SI VOUS VOULEZ REVOIR VOS PAPIERS. Okay, so kidnapped papers are what’s going on here, rather than kidnapped humans.

"You don’t need that gun here. Nobody shoots florists…"

And so the opposition: flower-selling bad guys, rather than…well, what would be the most horrifying?

Bad guys who sell vacuum cleaners? Life insurance? And who was it that sold Windows Vista?

Anyhow the speaker (Richard Bohringer), who as Le Fleuriste is just one cog in an underground multilevel gearbox that maybe does help the world go around—the speaker recalls the New Yorker cartoon: a very disreputable-looking type, cigarette dangling, there at another flower shop:

I want some flowers that say: ‘Here, have some friggin’ flowers.’

Never mind the caffeine-soaked Apollo 13 psyches of other movie directors, the sense of pure fun that Luc Besson shared in ANOTHER romp of his, The Fifth Element, was the best sense of sheer fun I have ever encountered, anywhere. There, the distant drumbeats, or more accurately the slave-galley drumbeats that kept things briskly moving, were of an approaching asteroid; here in the Paris Metro, an approaching…well, fifty million. Persephone, or rather little orphan Annie—that is, the young-life-crisis suffering Helena, played by Isabelle Adjani, well, one look and you’ll agree, she doesn’t need an asteroid.

And there was a psychological hook. Greystoke, that Christopher Lambert Tarzan movie I’d seen as a teen…Stonehenge, the rock collection which I had sat on as a ten-year old, some time before.

Stoke, stone, something like that.

Got it.

Stotesbury. You could look it up (as Whitemarsh Hall, one of the Stotesbury properties), a private residence on the scale of Versailles, and only three or four miles from where I called home as a boy. And a dark wonder, in its ruinous neglect, by the time we would sometimes visit as teenagers.

A great estate house that had basements, and sub-basements, and basements even beyond those. As in those standard nightmares, the B-film ones, of endless passages, always inclining downward…

And this, today, the day before Halloween...except not a nightmare, old Stotesbury and its warrens and its proud, long-silent waterworks, just totally, in the reality of being there, just totally cool.

Nice to have a movie, now, an absolute marvel, that shows every step of the way back.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed October 30, 2015)

GLORY, Edward Zwick, 1989



Tell your folks how Kingdom come, in the year of Jubilee!...

The world will little note that your reviewer, here—as unlikely bound to military protocol as anyone, his 'own man' and so forth, a real ‘rebel’, if you will—that he got up perfunctorily, automatically, even happily at dawn, to write this review.

As though to some distant bugler, at the sound, the always oddly-welcome cry, for some, of Reveille.

Like the president, eight-score years ago (give or take) at Gettysburg, I have to consider the ironies of the ultimate futility, the difficulty, indeed the utter ease, of the task at hand. Here, to extol the virtues of Edward Zwick’s 1989 flawless historical war-time drama, Glory.

In ascending order of their character’s rank at the time of the first promotion (that brief ceremony on a riverboat FINALLY heading south), beginning with the 54th Massachusetts’ first volunteer (who had lately been helping, as a free member of Boston society for two generations, with the "resettlement of the Freedmen’s Relief Association"): Andre Braugher, Jihmi Kennedy (as Pvt. Jupiter Sharts, of South Carolina), and Denzel Washington; Morgan Freeman and John Finn; Cary Elwes (second in command in an irreplaceable role and performance) and Matthew Broderick, as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Young Col. Shaw, wondering in a letter to his mother—property of the Harvard University archives, now—if he might end as an “outlaw leader of a band of fugitive slaves”, this at the news of the devastating Confederate victory at Fredericksburg.

And the drill sergeant, Sgt. Mulcahy (John Finn): 'Develop. Thrust. Guard. Develop! Thrust! Guard!' (Now displeased with a recruit) You’re not at dancing school, take his bloody head off!

And Flip—full of energy, and of hate, who was from Tennessee, and ‘ran away without looking back’, when he was twelve.

W-w-w-what did you do since then? comes the question, with Jupiter's typical stutter.

(A long pause, as he stares at his interrogator, then) Ran for President. (And now a pause in the small assembly of the dark, candle-lit Army tent, a wide-eyed pause, as at any ghost story):

Didn’t win, though.

Flip, Denzel Washington’s catalyst in a drama that certainly needed none but profited anyway, Flip, who was finally, there at the singing campfire revival on the eve of their last battle, almost at a loss for words. Until, the tear of that beautiful lady seen in the cheering crowds in Boston as their columns left the town behind in parade, her tear inevitably realized in the carnage of more bloodletting than ever known, wisdom and right not quite seeing eye-to-eye...finally each of them motionless in their dirt corner of the mass grave, now also for the ages, in a temporary frieze as though some new Rushmore.

But the story is this: that there is a much larger pool of heroes than merely Presidents from which to draw: a Rushmore for that Unknown Guy, from all corners of society, for all the unknown.

Like the Union corporal and his unit, who thought they had seen everything (as anyone who skips this film can never claim), a day or so before:

Give them hell, Fifty Four!

Born only the day before, from 'just a soldier's fight', and simply the greatest line in movie history.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed October 13, 2015)



Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel, 1987


Yes, I sometimes wonder, as the earthly-angel sisters of this Danish delight probably do NOT wonder, just what it will be like in heaven.

Well, what it would be like, then. Does it ever rain? It must, if it’s California heaven, at least now that Malibu mudslides are a distant memory. And if all the dog-lovers are right, can we at least agree on who has to walk the flea-ridden mutts?

And especially, do we all have to sing praises ALL the time.

Perhaps where compulsory song is concerned, the first shall be last, and those of us with rich baritones here will therefore HAVE to be permanently excused, above. But not a consummation devoutly to be wished, if Babette and company are any example.

And yet. On the one hand a pleasant repast, Babette’s Feast is, on the other, a walk through a cosmic minefield of right and wrong, a walk around the mouth of a volcano. No great overstatement, and no real insight either: this is precisely as theologians—including the father whose 100th anniversary here celebrated…yes, celebrated, damn it!—have insisted and persuaded for ages, often with every bit of the same passion they condemn in other pursuits— that is, those of the flesh. And to honor that father’s simple memory with, well, virtually an ‘open bar’—at the risk of turning this faithful band of ‘pious melancholics’ into run-of-the-mill Anglicans? Get thee behind!

And yet.

Here is a story: a young woman joins a convent, taking vows to remain utterly silent. After ten years she is the ONLY nun to have kept her vows, and at THEIR celebratory anniversary dinner, the Mother Superior invites her to…say something! After a moment she stands, and says, briefly, Cold coffee!--then takes her seat again.

Another ten years—again she is the only one to honor her vow of silence. And so another feast, and the Mother Superior again invites her to speak. The nun arises, this time saying Lumpy beds! and then sitting down again.

And now another ten years without a single word from her, and now another banquet. After the last course, lightly ringing the assembly to notice, the Mother Superior says: Sister, alone in our flock have you maintained your utter silence. Your example inspires! Please, please feel free now to share your thoughts with us…

The nun stands, looks around for a moment.

“I quit.”

At which the Mother Superior replies: Well it’s a good thing too, because ever since you’ve been here you’ve done NOTHING but COMPLAIN!

And so, alas, in the end, sadly something of a train wreck, that particular meal--though as almost any meal, any form of human interaction at ALL would be, compared with a certain dinner in Jutland, that night on the clear and cold coast of Denmark.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed September 14, 2015)



City of Women, Federico Fellini, 1980



ELENA: (la moglie nobile, played by the memorable--and noble--Anna Prucnal) What a bore you are! Your friends thought you witty, who always saw the brighter side of life. But did you ever force yourself to make me smile? To make me a part of things, as a true friend? Was I EVER able to talk about ME, without YOU making a face, or fidgeting??

Your honor, is the Counsel for the prosecution asking something here, or not?

And if she could, would she be so kind as to consider lowering her voice...

So anyway—“la notte ha iniziato!”…and “Bravo!” to maestro Fellini, for one of the most expert attempts, anywhere in the historical record, at mediating the Battle of the Sexes…

An honest and sincere attempt, too—even wide-eyed, as though a referee in this particular bout can really do much besides warning against--well, shots below the belt, and so forth.

There is a LEGOS (the Danish toy building-blocks empire)—a recent LEGOS episode of The Simpsons, indeed a dreamlike episode as well, with admiring references of its own to a strong movie feminist, one 'Keenah Wildwill' (heroine of another block-buster, this one called 'Survival Games')—as well as an unusual and original acronym voiced, there in the comic book store: and indeed an 'AMFOP' am I.

That is, an Adult Male Fan of Princesses, and so a man who would have to plead ‘no contest’, for his own part, certainly to some of the final offenses read to Marcello Mastroianni’s Snàporaz—from the mundane to the more serious, such as ‘deceiving himself in imagining an ideal woman’...

Guilty, if so charged: and nolo contendere, as Italians certainly used to say.

With nobody actually floating on thin air, with all the real world gravity kept intact, the viewer is forced NOT to dismiss his vision as 'just a dream'. At the same time, the director's argument--What a lovely world it would be, if people could and should and DID say whatever they thought or felt like saying-—one might point out that THIS is an argument perhaps well-supported here by having a very-nearly exclusively lovely cast.

For discussions of ‘real world’ solutions, perhaps the Socratic ideal might be a place other than cocktail parties. That is, for attempting to mediate the battle, as Fellini does here with such superb restraint, of all things—the “Battle of the Sexes”, never referred to as a war, perhaps because no end could ever be imagined.

Or can it be? That is, a cessation to all hostilities, which is to say a final goodbye to ALL vanity and selfishness, to all competition, once and for all, as we await that wind in our trees…

Now that's just a dream.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 10, 2015)


On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan, 1954



LADIES AND GENTLEMEN—in this corner: call Him the Way, the Truth, the Life: your returning champion, the Guy who “each day when the iron-boss blows his whistle, stands with you in the shape-up”…

And in THIS corner: let's hear it for those "easy-money boys who do NONE of the work and take all the gravy"!!!…

Seriously, when it might be the best movie of all time, then why NOT let the announcer do all the talking?

The writer, that is: Budd Schulberg, the creator of this Hollywood crown jewel. No, not available for any announcing but if there’s some justice, then certainly with his own place on Gravy Lake, somewhere.

Somewhere in the mountains—inland, with a slower pace than that of a major port, where keeping up with the demands of commerce AND your own conscience can be a tougher assignment, even, than jewelry design. A place where ladies like Joey Doyle’s kid sister need a ‘special entrance’, and where pigeons, feathered and otherwise, are almost bound to get caught in the aforementioned crossfire.

Even Swifty. Never mind Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning, here the pride of Eire), and Joey, and the others. Yes, that old, oh-so-urban debate replays—whether tis nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to snitch/eat cheese/holler cop, and so forth. Both sides get their say. The heroic approach, as usual, is for the heroes.

Just “don’t blame me when they ship you off to Abyssinia”.

Or to somewhere nicer, if you were party to this production, the winner of eight Academy awards besides-- somewhere in the mountains perhaps, maybe near—what did Terry call it?

Somewhere near Edie’s school.

Somewhere in Daisy Land.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed July 20, 2015)


The Italian Job, F. Gary Gray, 2003


And now, the greatest line ever, when it comes to winning a lady’s heart:

I know your dad always regretted not being a better father to you.

And so voilà! If you can sell it, that is, and Charlie (Mark Wahlberg)—by now as prepared-for-the-next-thing as anyone on at least two continents, after the bitter lessons of the ‘Italian job’-- yes, Charlie can do that too.

How do you know?

He told me.


Charlie means John--Donald Sutherland, in a winning (if brief) appearance-- whose ‘one last job’, as promised to daughter Stella, (Charlize Theron) was, sadly and probably unintentionally, one promise he made to her that, at last on an Alpine bridge--and with a loud emphasis (avalanches be damned)-- did not fail to be kept.

Which is to say, the lesson from Italy: Try to avoid getting double-crossed, permanently.

One sign of good writing and direction: when the dialogue is not ‘lines’ but rather natural give-and-take, and the pace seamless, simply as though, as in real life, there were no director, or script, to begin with. These virtues, director F. Gary Gray especially noteworthy by the lack of evidence, are on full display.

And yet a plot.

A caper flick but also a mystery (who IS the real Napster, anyway?).

A revenge story but also, somehow, a delightfully light comedy.

A more plausible episode of Mission: Impossible (in part thanks to all the helpful ‘This Old House’ DIY instructions: Okay, from the right wall, measure fourteen feet, three inches…).

Maybe the whole thing is simply this: that most inevitable of fairy-tale romances, the one between a ‘professional safe and vault technician’ and, well, a guy who needs one.

Nice to see Philadelphia here making a fine appearance as a rallying site for the big finale: the California job. And speaking of which, what a refreshing change, to have lovely Venice, where every other movie in film history goes to conclude, as the site of the OPENING action.

Even if you do have to wait a little—that is, for a woman driver getting comfortable in her awesome new car—for the REALLY breathtaking stunts.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed July 10, 2015)


Il papà di Giovanna, Pupi Avati, 2008




From a courtyard chat to a tryst, then murder; at last, enemy bombers.

Talk about a loss of innocence!

Or about the basic progression of any tragedy, where sad cause leads to very serious effect.

Written and directed by the renowned Pupi Avati, Giovanna’s Father is an every-parent’s nightmare that has, like any actual nightmare, a happy ending: the dawn.

Of course watching a certain actress in a role she survives, for once, and in fine shape, that’s nice too.

And a touch of great authenticity: simply in an aesthetic sense, the frustration Delia MUST feel, her daughter so clearly a beautiful butterfly in the making—this IS Alba Rohrwacher, after all—just needing some help out of the cocoon. And yet the mother left able by her daughter only to make spontaneous, trivial demands: Unbutton the second button.

This after an episode at an important birthday party: “We never mentioned what happened. Not a word. Nothing. (Pause) That’s my relationship with my daughter.”

The movie shares one of the most gripping scenes you will ever see, the late night scene--Ha confessato--where the dreaded worst is revealed. The daughter has confessed, the godfather-friend-lover-now-strictly-a-police inspector (Ezio Greggio) reports there at the doorway, as her parents fight to ward off the awful truth. In their separate ways: Francesca/Delia shares her pain possibly with posterity, so heartbreaking is her visible, pent-up and thus not-so-surprising heartbreak. A heart actually breaking, this would be my example.

Her husband—Silvio Orlando won the Best Actor award at Venice—her husband, meanwhile, is seeking the mercy of some unseen cold and very distant court, this in an atmosphere already heavy with such pleas, the world below approaching chaos.

And another mystery: the initial attraction between the wife and her husband, based on their daughter’s age, eighteen years before. The mystery not what that attraction would have been, there at the very start of the Roaring Twenties—what else but the spark between an already-accomplished painter and a breathtakingly beautiful model—the mystery instead why their once-happier past is never alluded to in the film.

And what of Sultana? Another mystery: how passionate Delia’s affair, when the best she can publicly grant the alleged partner is a two-second glance in their initial on-screen greeting.

Most discreet, then, or perhaps as they say about some professional athletes—she leaves it all on the field.

Or maybe there had been no affair, whatever finally an actual construct of her husband’s, as much as it was earlier an imaginary construct of her daughter’s.

Giovanna and her father, and their overlapped imagination, one able to live with it, the other not.

At least they also shared a sense of humor.

Let me say the music is splendid, even memorable, as is the supporting cast, led in my (teenage-boy’s mind of a) mind by Serena Grandi, not likely to be forgotten and not just because her Lia plays such an important role.

A happy ending? Well, a happy beginning at least, there at the end. Two proverbs seem to find a home in Delia’s eyes, there in the lobby of the movie theater, watching the two in front of her: Il riso è la migliore medicina…and Buona salute è la vera richezza.

Good health is true wealth.

A happy beginning. And so we can taste something sweet as well, that it was all also an allegory, a story of making fun, of simple wishes.

And so my own wish: may black gloves ever be in fashion, in the city of Bologna.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed June 11, 2015)





Shadow Magic, Ann Hu, 2000




LIU JING LUN: Pictures move? Just brag.

RAYMOND: You calling me a liar? Sit there—and DON’T move.


The Pitch: In 1902, a struggling but determined Australian brings motion picture technology to China.

Spoiler Alert: Turns out soon, like everyone else, the Chinese will enjoy motion pictures, too.

Okay, now that THAT’S out of the way, here’s my reaction to this delightful, semi-historical tale about the dangers--and opportunities, so the proverb goes—in giving the people what they want: now I like the movies.

Even more. But poor Raymond Wallace. ‘Showman extraordinaire’ as he wryly introduces himself to his future partner Liu (a terrific ‘buddy road comedy’ one more way of describing Ann Hu’s bright epic here, given the two leads, Jared Harris and Xia Lu)...

Anyway, poor Raymond!--to have to discover that ‘giving the people what they want’ may lead to financial ruin, even to an imminent imperial decree of immediate beheading.

Among the cast, three who demand mention—the luminous Tan Xiaoling (Xing Yufei)—her beauty an apt symbol for the skepticism towards movies after centuries of tradition, and a beauty captured several times (if, with a proud austerity, only when she is quite still). Also her father, the legendarily-talented operatic actor raised to nobility, Lord Tan (Li Yusheng), not likely to betray his art, but aware too of time waiting for none; and the worried, worthy Master Ren, played by Liu Peiqi—who actually has by far the most to lose in any of this.

And yet the benefits, the global benefits. As one dazzled critic says, her review after she sees a London snowball fight: I looked upon foreigners as soldiers; never imagined them with families, feelings, even a sense of humor...

Oh and it’s a love story too, a persuasive irony keeping the poor lovebirds apart.

See it, and you might agree with Liu’s own review of what he has just seen.

More, more, more!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 31, 2015)


The Burglars, Henri Verneuil, 1971




Okay, this one hit too close to home, so if it’s an actual REVIEW you want here (rather than a somewhat babbling confessional)?...

You’ll have to find someone else, do you understand? Someone else. I won’t do it.

The point is, like true love’s path, law enforcement has its twists and turns, as suggested in the preceding line, one buried in a certain thriller series, uttered by a hardly-known fellow agent concerning some especially fraught and ill-starred prospect, remembered by the hard-working hero on his way out the ol' office door to his own.

So a review, forget it, but the babbling, maybe I can try to reduce that a little…

Starting here: Jean-Paul Belmondo is just way too cool, so you try being a twelve-year old with thoughts of being a cop, and then watch The Burglars.

Henri Verneuil gave the world, including this twelve-year old, a kinetic, insightful, seductive cinematic tribute to style, resilience and resourcefulness—seductive even before the appearance of a very self-aware, too flexible Dyan Cannon—a film, indeed a work, a message, that was possibly a CLASSIC, except of course for one thing.

The hero was a bad guy.

And what legal issues the director must have had--as, for some, ‘daddy issues’--that he also enlisted Omar Sharif to this—well, what, this 'not-so-much-comedic-as-didactic, would-be insider’s police procedural', call it something like that, as long as we're throwing smooth style out the window anyway.

Omar Sharif: his would-be-millionaire of a police chief inspector, by name 'Abel Zacharia'—a name that, as opposed to Belmondo's 'Azad' (supposedly meaning “peace, in a certain language”), is instead a name, Abel Zacharia, “that means absolutely nothing”.

A bad cop, rather than a good thief, and yet himself stylish, resilient and resourceful. Also sadistic, however, and damnably so.

And a little too greedy, or just stupid, at the end of the chase, there in the port (starboard?) grain silo.

Just not very bright, shall we say, then, for a police inspector to think: that a jewel thief, even one you are pointing your gun at, to think that a jewel thief—a poor bastard himself who had to put up with a spoiled brat named Helen, and in the Mediterranean, of all places!—for the police inspector, indeed for anyone to imagine that a jewel thief like that could ever leave there empty-handed.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed April 28, 2015)





THUNDERBALL, Terence Young, 1965




MISS MONEYPENNY: No, James—in the conference room. It's pretty big--they’ve rushed in every Double O agent in Europe, and the Home Secretary, too.

007: (after a moment) Someone’s probably lost a dog.


Okay, so I had planned to review another film--have to circle back when my DVD's subtitles/language feature is cooperating again. IN THE MEANTIME you may forgive me—the thermometer I just saw outside showing 39 cold degrees, and this the third full week of ‘spring’—on picking a movie instead where bikinis are out in great force.

Deadly force, that is, where our rugged and très-nonchalant patron saint of the expense account is concerned.

Given what his colleagues in Accounting must contend with, 007 does seem to enjoy, elsewhere, an unlimited budget, provided he comes back with the world still in one piece. As they might have said once upon a time, ‘with his shield or on it’, platinum-card wise, and those city blocks laid waste, we’ll call the new replacement upgrades ‘international urban renewal’, and you are very welcome.

Here in the Bahamas, of course, his colleagues in Accounting do finally get some relief, because it’s not so much city blocks in this stomping ground of his, as vast, unoccupied, empty tracts of blue water. Unoccupied except for one little parcel, of course, a VIP parking lot of sorts, for a borrowed RAF strategic bomber.

Let it be said that while Francesca herself would have made an unforgettable impact at any of the franchise’s ports of call (perhaps its very flower indeed), the ladies here (especially Luciana Paluzzi as the SPECTRE hatchet woman whose fatal mistake, there at the Kiss Kiss Club, was to let a dancing partner lead), the ladies, yes, are certainly special.

But what makes the movie is the annual late night parade/beauty pageant in Nassau, the spectacular Junkanoo—yes, ‘Junkanoo’—through which Bond has to escape his own fellow revellers. If the Bond series has an artistic heart, absurd and intensely pounding, it is in this parade.

Adolfo Celi (as the fanciest-pirate-ever Emilio Largo) wins, early on here in 1965, the series trophy for stylish evil masterminds. And however much he may perhaps rather be soaking up the rays somewhere else, he’s committed to mayhem here. Why? Because that’s what Number One wants, and the ruthless Number One is not one to be left displeased. ‘Number One’? No, not his wife, but rather the boss of SPECTRE—“a dedicated fraternity whose strength lies in the absolute integrity of its members”.

Oh really. Well, words are easy, I suppose. And fraternities may be nice.

But we’ll take the guy with the unlimited expense account, every time.




--Dave Blanchard (reviewed April 10, 2015)



Aaltra, 2004, Benoit Delepine & Gustave Kervern




Have a seat, None But The Brave, and Of Mice and Men, take a powder, because here is a gem from Belgium, a poignant tale indeed of unexpected camaraderie.

For the rest of us, well, beware the man whose wife remains, as he puts it—unhappily—‘almost pregnant’, and fear indeed the man who got WAY too much of a bargain, buying the very large farm equipment that he operates.

Pity them, anyway. Indeed, in this dark comedy there is real pathos, rather than the look-at-these-clowns bathos that such a plot might demand: Two neighbors driven to potentially fatal blows…who somehow manage, instead, merely to paralyze each other for life.

If ‘merely’ is the appropriate word, that is.

Pathetic, which is to say, sad—but also laughable, laugh-out-loud laughable, as when the two wheelchair-bound heroes wake up one morning to find themselves on the brink of becoming hazards to marine navigation.

Sad, but funny: as when one initially tries to gas himself in his garage, by sucking on the exhaust of the only vehicle there (his wife’s whereabouts now beyond caring about): a small motorcycle. Hardly the killing power in that puny displacement, one would think, of even a single pack of Lucky Strikes.

Or whatever brand it was that jerks, idiots and all-around losers were smoking on the Continent, back then.

Revenge as a sole raison d’etre is a fraught subject, and usually evil, whether in a real world and very large way (Germany’s, after the Versailles treaty), or in the one-on-one of a myth (Medea’s, against her erstwhile soul-mate). Here, though, revenge—the plans they now share for the hated Aaltra—here revenge takes on an actual light, the light of therapeutic good.

The hidden moral, or if not hidden, a moral that is at least a little bashful—the moral of course is that, from ages past, not only is it required to love thy neighbor, it’s also possible.

Even if the relationship does get off to a really, really slow start.

In conclusion..what a heavy-handed phrase!--but with this film I concede that I feel out-manuevered (if never, for inspiration, out-equipped)...in conclusion, well, I recommend it: a comedy that is somehow both bleak and yet--however many highway miles are put on those wheelchairs tres formidable—somehow, despite it all, almost effortlessly uplifting.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 17, 2015)





The Wings of the Dove, Iain Softley




‘Oh, for the wings of the dove, to fly away, and be at rest...’

Or at least to hop away and be at rest.

The problem is, however arch and lovely, any wings here are somewhat bent, if not altogether broken.

Based on the Henry James novel, the film (a grand-mere of sorts to the somehow-more-cheery Downton Abbey) follows the hobbled, perhaps doomed flight.

As in a later tale set also in the darker warrens of London, Night and the City (and let it be said, ‘plus ca change’, after an interval of two global wars) the main character here is a scam artist. Desperate and now determined to avoid the crushing fate (true love on a tight budget) of her mother, Kate--an iconic Helena Bonham Carter--introduces Millie to Mr. Denscher at a Klimt art exhibition, and in so doing creates a foursome: the three of them, and the one by whom they are gathered.

That is, the beautiful Danae, who appears somewhat bashful, or preoccupied, or maybe too bright to get involved. (Folded in on herself, she is also still less provocative than a future sibling of hers, Klimt’s Leda, a work likely too much for the fin-de-siecle standards of 1997, let alone 1910.)

In the end, Kate is beaten at her own game--by her better nature, which makes a final demand perhaps she knows is impossible to be met.

And so: The Wings of the Dove, only a love story if love means never having to say, “We’ll have to wait til payday.” I saw it on television, over-the-air broadcast, so for one person, at least, the price was right.

Venice looked nice.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 6, 2015)



Paths of Glory, 1957, Stanley Kubrick




Successful attacks were measured in hundreds of yards, and paid for, in lives, by hundreds of thousands.

Well.

The Western Front, 1916: One real estate bubble that thankfully, could not last.

The topic was carrying out orders—yes, a regular subject of discussion at Nuremberg as well. But a concept—carrying out orders—that also led, thank the Lord, to Nuremberg, and at least a small measure of some justice, rather than half a world left still mired in murderous tyranny.

Promises, promises!—this at the top, in the big fancy room. But there is also scathing indictment of junior officers down in the rather-less-deluxe trenches as well, the main one almost in the form of a parable from the Gospel. One poor French infantryman at the end was selected by an officer who thought him a ‘social undesirable’, one poor bastard by pure venal self interest, and only one selected, you would suppose the only appropriate way, by chance, through lots.

Of course he was the one already three-quarters gone, there on the fancy parade ground.

But at least not by bayonet, a subject of some prior speculation on his part.

Anyway, 'all work and no play', as the saying goes...and so a German songbird at the end (played by Susanne Christian, in arguably the greatest bang-for-the-buck role in cinematic history). Impossible odds? Maybe the top brass was right: no such thing as impossible odds, for she is able to take down an entire company singlehandedly, there in the tavern.

One might say that she was actually able to silence that position, but the thing is, however softly:

They were singing along.

The director made sure, naturally, in lingering detail, that this was clear to all. Of course, that high road was easy for him: the songbird?

He married her.

Let us assume, in that glorious path, he gave his life, too.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed February 18, 2015)



Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung, 2010




She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere/ so I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair…

Well, it IS Japan.

Somewhere in Japan there is a golden mean, that is, in the relationship between men and women, in a society still so heavily patriarchal, at least here in the late Sixties.

You know, except for grandmothers, or something.

The beautiful and effortlessly-flowing film Norwegian Wood takes the point of view of a good artist: the against-the-grain one. So in the world of the young narrator, Toru Watanabe, it is women who actually call ALL the shots, and his not to question why or make much reply, anyway. Perhaps it reflects some budding new reality: students were finding their own against-the-grain (for a time) voice in the streets of Tokyo and elsewhere, at that time.

Still, a bit of overkill, the way the two lovely ladies—Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) and especially Naoko (the rising star Rinko Kikuchi) do have poor Toru hopping around. And his OWN ambitions/dreams/plans are nearly cemented in a quality of besides-the-pointness by the job he is given, courtesy of the author (the maestro of a Vietnamese director here, Tran Anh Hung, having adapted another’s book).

Toru works in…are you ready…a fish market. So if this were India, presumably he would be a customer service rep for Direct TV; and here in the United States, a drug dealer, or a cop, or maybe a minor league baseball catcher for the Yankees.

Or, here’s a thought, maybe all THREE, given the increasing presence of part-time jobs in the labor statistics.

Anyway, overkill, perhaps, but hardly ever an overkill more sublime, the sort of movie—I cannot think of another—that could command its own corner of the living room, the sound down and the DVD on endless loop, as a work of visual art.

‘Over-correction’ could also apply descriptively, the attempt of the film perhaps meant to renounce and replace an earlier point of view, one that has always sweatily suggested women are merely dolls with, well, sweat glands, and therefore, to continue with that brand of logic, should aspire to obedience and flawless manners.

Which is to say, a lot of water under that bridge, yes. Still, at the opposite end of that particular spectrum, are women the instead-ethereal phantasms portrayed here?

Well, not the ones I know. Anyway, so now I’m thinking, maybe the northwest corner of the living room…

That’s right--near the nice big chair.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 29, 2015)




Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927




…AND HER NAME A MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, AND SHE WAS DRUNK WITH THE BLOOD OF THE SAINTS.

A ‘mystery’? Really? Or just another one of those 'who-done-its' where you pretty much KNOW who done it...

Well, enough eschatology for now. As we usher in 2015 welcome to the modern world, and an already digital universe, in Fritz Lang’s conception: that is to say, a binary one, which is to say there are two, and only two, states of being.

Here in the Metropolis, at least, one is either always being oppressed, or perpetually over-indulging.

...HEAD AND HANDS NEED A MEDIATOR. THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART.

A sensitivity to the plight of the under-privileged, then, the plowed and seemingly-fertile land here, yes, but being German, even in sensitivity rather heavy-handed and at the strict command of the clock.

The heavy-handedness: revealed for instance in the over-sharing of information on the monumental tombstone, that the lady had died during the birth of her child.

In an English church yard, one would be left instead, and more properly perhaps, to guess at such a tragedy, from the too-brief-a-span of dates.

And the devotion to the clock: just check out the first five minutes of the film, and see if you don't toss your Rolex away, too.

Well, I might have!..

Still, there’s a certain style that vanished with the silent era, as in the sorry loss of exclamations such as Maria ~ ~ ! ! And it’s just as well the movie is a silent one, too, because, realistically speaking, there is just NO good way to pronounce a line such as ‘Come! It is time to give the machine man your face!’

The movie is absorbing, at times fascinating to watch, of course the only pity being that it turned out to be, sadly, another world war, rather than some bright new day, that lay in wait down the road.

But even so the lasting takeaway—until, chi sa? Kingdom come—must remain Metropolis’ lead actress, the original head-spinner, particularly after this revelation on a recent Jeopardy episode: ‘For this 1927 Fritz Lang classic, a plaster cast was made of Brigitte Helm’s body…’

Oh, to have been THAT plaster!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 8, 2015)



Sleuth, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972



Well, now, what do we have under the Christmas tree here, but a present—a game!—and a pretty pricey one, too.

“One hundred seventy thousand quid—cash.”

And this, back when that meant something!

In the biggest non-appearing role since the ineffably dazzling Rebecca of dear Manderley, Marguerite here is the winner-take-all grand prize for this Salisbury Hold ‘Em showdown…until an even bigger prize comes along, that is.

Walking away with one’s, ahem, dignity--and fully intact, thank you.

Which is to say, movies do not get any more English than this one, a grand and masterful chess game from writer Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. How good is it? Well, I first saw it when I was twelve and since then I haven’t trusted anyone farther than I can throw them, either—it is just that good.

And me, I’m only talking about the women…and Marguerite, oh maddening creature, where are those jewels, in “the false bottoms of her boxes or perhaps sewn into the hems of ALL those latest had-to-have Parisian fashions…”

No wonder the eye wanders!--in this case to the “cobalt eyes” of Tea, hers the “forest pools of Finlandia”. More than one potential actual pairing for the foursome, then, that might fulfill Andrew’s vision of--put your drink down, this does goes on for a bit--“Two people brought together having the talent and courage to make of life a bright charade of continuing fancy!...”

And having the cash too, no doubt, but let us not forget the moral of the piece, this from the dutiful Inspector Doppler:

“Burglary is not a game, sir.”

Spoilsport! Well, you do know what they say--there’s one in every crowd.

Oh, and if you somehow haven't heard of it, then the cast of this entertaining and elegant tour de force?

Well, that is my present to you.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 22, 2014)



A Kiss Before Dying, Gerd Oswald, 1956




Oh, the college years, and each ambitious dream of what lies ahead!

A Kiss Before Dying: for me, it did come and go, anyway, as dreams will do.

Indeed, as will an awful nightmare, where the fate of a sweet young student is concerned. But at least the actress who played her grew up--far away from fictional Stoddard University and the rich inheritance that would undo her--to a long and happy life with a fellow movie icon.

Like the villains of Macbeth and Richard III--that is, the namesake ‘heroes’ of those rags-to-riches…correction, those less-riches-to-more-riches tales—like those two, here Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) is ruthless in deed if not in sentiment, in murdering his way to the top. And at that disconnect there is, perforce, an organic weakness in him.

Which is certainly not to recommend any strength in ruthlessness: one is inclined to suspect those do go straight to hell who, as with another villain of the Bard’s, Iago, commit evil for its own sake. Nor ever poorer cause, and--spoiler alert--murder, whatever its cause, never more foul.

This classic non-mystery is given dimension, with the rebellion of the daughters to their almost-tyrannical robber baron of a father (George Macready, in an under-recognized role). Ira Levin, perhaps a legend himself, was the writer. And speaking of writing: Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter (later Jesus of Nazareth and almost Captain Kirk!) and Joanne Woodward--of those three, what volumes could be written on top of those no doubt already? The shining-star power, never mind the weight of the personal sagas of each one: it is enough to dent a mountainside.

And yet it is their fourth, the lesser-known Virginia Leith, who won me, as Ellen, the blind and bumbling avenging angel, as she tries to deal with her own murderous deceiver.

That is, with a villain who, if weak, yet in the end would literally need an earth-moving machine of a gigantic truck to…

Well, as they say, to ‘send him off’.

If not so much as in the usual college commencement, still, for all his laborious efforts, a fateful step never more well-earned.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed November 29, 2014)





Shaft, Gordon Parks, 1971




Skloot Insurance. 'Skloot' Insurance. S-K-L-O-O-T. You could look it up.

Anyway: if not the local branch of a Fortune 100 outfit, still, the corporate neighbors of John Shaft Investigations—neighbors that Mr. Shaft does NOT want a pair of his prospective clients possibly bothering.

This, the day after he has sent packing, through a fourth-floor window, one of those clients’ earlier representatives.

So: he is clearly not in it—not in this one, anyway— for the money.

Then for what is he ‘in it’? To offend a generation of activists with that full-length calfskin coat he sports? To help lay a foundation of ‘uber-hip’ for coffee shops to come, when sitting down to order an espresso at the Caffe Reggio (e per favore, yes, make mine also without the garlic)?

Okay: so Shaft seems to like his coffee black, like his women like their private…well, um, no other word for it, investigators.

Or maybe, just maybe, those ladies are as color-blind as virtually everything else in this movie. Despite the clear turtlenecks-versus-neckties (Panthers vs. the Mob) siding at the end, the titular private eye and NYPD Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi, who plays off Richard Roundtree’s hero with a light and seasoned touch) have already established the ground rules: you ain’t so black, and you ain’t so white.

Indeed, a news-stand guy named Maury might say: there’s no easy telling WHAT you are. He’s blind, and he makes Shaft smile at this, before the opening credits are even through, so case closed. But oh, those opening credits…put it this way: to say those credits, to say that opening street montage, are up to the caliber of that theme song (and soundtrack to come)…

That says it all, baby.

And though early, what of real importance is really left, besides the next scene…

The shoe-shine man: Now you can go out and make something of yourself.

The private eye: Go out and get rich and fat like you, right?


A good shine—that’s all you need?

Well, we can dig it.

Dave Blanchard (reviewed November 5, 2014)


Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010




Yes, THAT Le Quattro Volte, the film that caused such historic uproar, such violent consternation at its release, copies burned in Boston and still scandalous all these years later…

Hold on…no, that was some other movie.

Anyway, apparently everything’s a work of art.

That at least is the premise of this film, the unshocking Le Quattro Volte, with its dispassionate approval of anything and everything that comes into its traffic-camera/pigeon’s-eye view, in and around a small village in the hills, as being worthy of note.

As worthy of–what were Keats’ words?—'silence and slow time'. All creatures great and small, all things great and small, but especially the small stuff—like an old man’s intermittent but persistent cough…like a kitchen countertop's folding of grain seed into a packet…like a number of goats that is only by the grace of God, given that persistent cough, still a herd.

So: everything is a work of art.

Before we get to any rebuttal and expose at least one individual for the snob that he is, let us hear the main argument in support of the premise:

God made it, made everything, whatever it is, so shut up.

Something like that is what is being argued—the also-intermittent-but-persistent church bells being one sign of this—in those first long minutes. With an emphasis on ‘shut up’, as in the hush before a church service, and so, QED, everything is a church, at least some house of worship, indoors or out.

Let me reveal here indeed a certain sympathy to the notion of creation, as with my own decades-long desire, as someone who writes a nice poem, someday to write some poignant lines about a random pebble on the ground. Yes, a pebble, something insignificant, something very nearly invisible, in its commonplace-ness (and I would have written that poem by now, more than once had almost started! but the best-laid plans, as they say in the Scottish, gang aft…).

Anyway, a quiet film, the still here remaining entirely unbroken by individual characters—for instance, say, somebody with an actual line (earth is the rugged hero here, with air in a supporting role, fire with only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo at the end, and water not even making an uncredited appearance).

Worth seeing? Well, some of us do like quiet.

Like that of a pebble, say. And why is it, that I do plan to write that poem, un giorno, memorializing some least-interesting-of-the-most-trivial?

A pebble? Partly as a challenge to my skill, yes, but also because, like Mt. Everest, perhaps even better yet like the swiftly-swirling fog on a hillside in Calabria, it was there.


Dave Blanchard (reviewed October 17, 2014)




For A Few Dollars More, Sergio Leone, 1965




‘Where life has no value, death, sometimes, has its price.’

Not exactly ad copy for a Century Twenty One real estate brochure, no.

Unless you’re a bounty hunter, that is, and that’s the situation in this section of the wild west, where only dinero is stronger than amor--most of the time--though there is one thing that beats them both:

A good cigar. Something to plant in the jaw, to focus thoughts, a way to calm the nerves of most everyone around—something familiar and dependable.

Now if your mom has a word for that, too—a ‘pacifier’—it’s entirely apt here, because Sergio Leone’s entertaining classic is where Samuel Colt’s revolver—the ‘Peacemaker’—undergoes something like a Biblical transfiguration…

Or at least as close to a transfiguration as one is likely to see a revolver ever undergo. Shooting down apples from a tree for the local street urchin? Shooting your partner in the neck to get his attention? And of course from a considerable distance, that is. These are just a couple of the marvels, and ringing the church bell from fifty yards, that’s just amateur hour.

Early on, the Man with No Name actually shoots dead someone who is several yards behind him, but who has just shifted along the floor: plugs him without looking his way! So maybe it’s super-HEARING we’re dealing with.

And the three adversaries? A good Freud scholar should be quick enough on the draw to label them the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego, jockeying as usual for supremacy. Given the final outcome, Clint Eastwood—go USA!!—is, here at least, the Super Ego.

But give Gian Maria Volonte, as El Indio—given his actually-quite-awful memories, give him some points for his brave, even jolly front, as the very troubled Id.

If you’re willing to overlook the bit-part, incidental lives he upstages—a sixteen month old’s included, and the child’s mother’s—it IS a great show he puts on. But the question remains: DID Clint go back to Santa Cruz, to add the three bodies back there to the heap on his wagon?

You know, looking ahead to the hour when he delivered—shipping and handling included, like any good modern businessman—when he delivered that VERY large order indeed, of bad-guy goods…?

Another three—you know, for a few dollars more.

Dave Blanchard (reviewed 9-6-14)
db.59@live.com


Chinatown, Roman Polanski, 1974




Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink—at least not without collapsing dams and mystery millionaire quilting bees, anyway.

And a herd of sheep, clearly out of order—at least in the City Hall hearing convened to address the crisis. Water, then as now, one valuable and liquid commodity—at least the fresh kind.

And not to be had, at least not without a job:

Get the goods on the straying sheep, in this case, the city’s chief water engineer, one Hollis I. Mulwray.

And once that sinner is revealed as a martyred saint, poor Jake Gittes is left in the city of angels, ‘working hard to make an honest dollar’ and maybe the only one left. And if it turns out his latest case is rather sizable, one indeed that involves the public trust (not a private eye’s field of expertise), still, will there be anything in it for him? Besides, that is, some free cosmetic surgery, and the chance to work out on a punching bag, that being the solar plexus of an old friend?

Oh, and one other perk: a night with a fruitcake.

One delicious fruitcake, that is…and if ‘delicious fruitcake’ is an oxymoron, no more so than--spoiler alert!--the relationship between that fruitcake and the youngest member of her family.

The last few scenes are, in the sense of the forces involved, perfunctory, the futile-if-stylish re-arranging of deck chairs against the inevitable. And, of course (if at least coming as the relief at last of suspense, still) horrifying--that is, the coming into focus of what had been dreaded: in Jake’s case, that all his gumshoe talents and wisdom and hardboiled experience would be useless, now that he had gotten himself mixed up in a real epic, even by the standards of Greek tragedy.

In something of a myth, even: that of Evelyn—lovely and forever alone, at least in her misery.

But maybe--just maybe--the hardboiled side of Jake realized, not so much as in the iconic last line, that yes, it’s just Chinatown…maybe Jake realized that the police officer’s bullet, as uncanny in its accuracy as the disconsolate wailing of the horn of that grand car…maybe he realized that the bullet had put her out of that misery at last.

And for the rest of us? At least at the end, there, yes, a couple of drops of water, salty or otherwise.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 27, 2014)


Poetry, Lee Chang-dong, 2010




Having written so much of it myself, I have to admit I was a little skeptical.

Poetry, I mean. And don’t ever put me in a room of poets, as in that beginner’s class early on, in which our heroine Mija seeks a little refuge from dark mysteries now looming behind her with even more, and not only Alzheimer's, still to come.

That class, where the teacher produces from his sweater’s pocket an apple and says (to summarize), Look at this thing as though for the first time, and consider every aspect of it thoroughly, and then write about it.

Borr-iing! That’s poetry? More like Introduction to Corporate Design 101 and how to rip-off, that is to say, 'reverse engineer' a competitor’s shiny new gadget, just out on the market. Nor EVER well-advised, if that’s an accurate comparison, to treat the maker of an apple as some sort of competitor, however well-esteemed…

Especially not in poetry, where you have to count on inspiration.

To write a poem, for me, is instead an effort in translation, a translation of each new Rosetta stone encountered, or rather from the piles of Rosetta stones all around us--each one in those three languages, Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and already knowing, as on that marvelous day in Egypt in 1799, the meaning of two-thirds…

Oh, and all the while knowing the task requires some class and style because otherwise, well, ONE language would probably have sufficed, for the original subject.

Well, enough—basta! with my OWN poetry class, and just as well, given that so-called poetry these days (che porcherie zoppicante!) would leave me fuming…

Or at least uninspired, anyway.

As for the movie? Spoiler alert: I haven’t watched it yet!

Not past the first several setting-the-table scenes, and then the first moments of that class, which made me start to cringe.

But then as I was waking up the other morning, I realized, But that’s Korean poetry they’ll be doing! So maybe it’s actually good. So there’s that, and there's also the Cannes Film Festival award which the screenplay won, the effervescent and consistently high reviews, and then there is delicate-but-vibrant Yoon Jeong-hee who is by acclaim the very Meryl Streep, it seems, of her country, starring here as Mija.

Oh, watch it I will indeed, and I am sure I’ll be thrilled. Poetry: it’s a can’t-miss work of art, and I will simply be dazzled….

Anyway, there you have it: a review of a movie not seen.

Lazy? Maybe. An attempt at a nice little short-cut, successful or otherwise?

Now that’s poetry.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 12, 2014)


Tous Les Matins du Monde, Alain Corneau, 1991



If very little of the joie de vivre, that is.

Maybe our hero—the hermit genius of 1600’s French music known as Jean de Sainte Colombe—maybe he simply went mad, no longer granted the opportunity of his love’s ‘crushed peaches’…

Crushed peaches? Yeah, baby.

Anyway YOU try bidding the big ‘Adieu’ to that same woman--his wife and two daughters’ mother--the same gal who M. Sainte-Colombe loses in the first scene to the boatmen of the river Styx…YOU try seeing her off.

His departed wife (who does re-appear in certain candle-light), played by Caroline Sihol--I mean there is feminine pulchritude and then there is…

What, something like chokingly beautiful. Indeed her beauty (okay, maybe it’s partly the lighting, the French in general and certainly the film makers here geniuses themselves, that way)—her beauty (its use here almost as a cinematic shortcut, rather than her beguiling personality, or anything else more difficult to demonstrate) seems to be the whole premise of the film: its sine qua non, its ‘without which nothing’. And its early loss the cause for all that follows, as with Lear’s division of his kingdom, or elsewhere a kingly ghost seen along a Danish parapet.

Or the kidnapping of a Spartan queen, taken to Troy.

But here there is no hope of…what would that word be, re-capture?...the hope that impelled Greek ships to seek Helen. No hope, and so, spoiler alert: leave your party hats at home, the doomed-from-the-start attempt that M. Ste.-Colombe will make for years, using exclusively an already mournful tool, the viol da gamba (a big cello), the attempt is going to be a bit of a slog.

And yet he tries, which may be the movie’s message, and if so an exemplary one. As noted, the lighting is exquisite, the entire proceedings, each scene, as though the wing of some fine gallery. If the music proves to be, to one set of ears, not quite up to the task (indeed an impossible hurdle for any film maker to attempt, asserting some quality of timelessness to largely unknown art), then that is part of the message, too, and perhaps the greatest possible testament to its particular subject.

Which (again) is, in this case, an especially beautiful woman.

Making for an attempt, at least, which is always a timeless one.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed July 21, 2014)


To Sir, With Love, James Clavell, 1967



Talk about happy endings!

Never mind, for a moment, the delightfully prolonged climax of To Sir With Love, one of the classic ‘feel good’ films, and one that makes me feel pretty darn BAD, having waited forty-some years to see it.

No, I mean the happy ending for the movie’s director, who apparently started his career as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp. No doubt THAT experience helped steel his hero’s resolve at his own challenge, facing a Beatles/Dave Clark Five-fuelled East End high school, however less demanding those teenagers as task-masters.

Indeed that savvy--the understanding of options besides fight or flight, options that do not include caving in--indeed those instincts essential to Clavell’s POW first novel, King Rat, are also made good use of here.

Beginning with making sure he had Sidney Poitier, which would be half of any battle. Chi ben comincia e a meta dell’opera, as some might say. But Poitier is certainly not the only star: the movie is full of them, if by ‘star’ we mean those able to portray lasting characters. Add to the confection a can’t-miss-plot (at least for that moment, finally, in history)—a well-bred gentleman goes to the inner city out of something like noblesse oblige, but with this difference: he’s black and almost all the others white.

And the coup de grace, the singer who at the auditorium school dance, delivers one of the timeless pop standards, the movie’s title song, for its soul and spirit, perhaps often imitated, never to be surpassed.

More so than with any drama, a feel-good story has to have characters you root for—this the film has, everywhere you look, and with this extra degree of difficulty: most of them are teenagers! And ones who with their well-earned diplomas are left ready, thanks in particular to one man, his sense of obligation notwithstanding, at the starting gate of life. Chi ben comincia!


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed June 24, 2014)



The French Connection, William Friedkin, 1971



OKAY, enough with all the CHICK-flicks, already...

I knew you'd understand, baby.

Now, in honor of some American success this week on the clay courts in Paris, a study in contrasts: Detective Jimmy Doyle (“Popeye”) and his partner, Detective Buddy Russo, in The French Connection.

Contrasts, as at the end, in the dark and overgrown factory, closing in on their nemesis, that damned-elusive "Frog One": it is Russo’s cautious advance, from rusted iron shield to rusted iron shield--it is his advance that reveals which of the two partners looks like he has someone actually hoping he ever comes back.

Contrasts, as at the beginning, and, voila, alike Christmas morning, in his Santa suit: for Popeye, the pursuit is all, and what he would have done as a boy, if boys were allowed Smith & Wesson service revolvers.

For Buddy instead, there are certain constraints, which make the all-important pursuit instead a grown-up’s.

A job, in other words. And one requiring a set of skills---a job for a professional.

And yet poor Popeye, of whom the best his boss can say to the doomed FBI guy, Sometimes he has a good hunch.

Even, or perhaps especially, when he’s putting those pieces together at the bar at the Copacabana.

Somehow Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman would go on to have less-memorable roles that were STILL iconic, the list including All That Jazz, Unforgiven and--let's see, summer's here, what was that other one?--oh, right: Jaws.

In the end, it is the voice of reason—that voice finding the path of less resistance in, quelle surprise! Detective Russo—that cracks the case wide open—the actual weight of the Lincoln Continental: There’s a discrepancy. Now if the movie had been made today, that honor would have gone to a tech-type; a nerd, and those laurels deservedly so. But nerds in 1971? Please. Enough to contend with already, putting up with the dames (Bill Gates was still playing with transistor radios, anyway).

And putting up, also, with rules against excessive force, or against recklessly endangering half of southern Brooklyn. Let it be said, given the tidal wave of tragic failure to follow 1971, that if The French Connection was supposed to be an anti-drug movie, then Hollywood certainly failed miserably and entirely.

Unless, that is—and who can say?—unless, of course, it inspired a real-life Buddy Russo, or two, to the chase.

Anyway, enough with the chit-chat, already. Now go find The Three Degrees—it’s their tune, that moon tune, early on at the Copa—I’m telling you, baby, it’s outta this WORLD.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 31, 2014)


The Life of Pi, Ang Lee, 2012



Walking here just now, I took a path through the woods, a shortcut in the rain.

Traversing the woods, looking off into the dreary panoply, I found myself thinking for the first time since we were introduced, what Richard Parker--what he thought about it all.

Anyway, a theorem.

Pi = an irrational number of infinite length.

The Life of Pi. Life. Pi.

Therefore: life = an irrational number of infinite length.

QED.

And yet whatever Iength the film’s creators went to for that theorem (a preposterous backstory for Pi Patel’s longer birth name), it was nothing like the tale’s centerpiece voyage: think Jaws, with tiger stripes.

And burning bright, in the vast and empty southwestern Pacific of the night.

With amazing and exquisite sensibility, if more shimmering than brilliant, Ang Lee’s is one unforgettable luxury life-boat cruise (this perhaps also a metaphor for the dust-to-dust routine), a cruise complete with Cirque du Soleil entertainment and timely refreshment, given the cooperative local flying fish population.

A death-defying circus? No. This is one where the main act actually has the most obvious safety net of them all: we already know Pi Patel makes it through in one piece. And since that is so, I can tell you that Disney’s animated The Jungle Book, with its own fearsome man-eater, was incomparably more frightening to a certain eight year old, ages ago.

But there’s a good argument to be made that the specialty of the house here is simple awe; that fright isn’t really on the menu at this restaurant—not after the young Pi has laughingly invited, from the storm gods, the final catastrophe of an overmatched ocean freighter, then muddles on with barely an Oops.

Maybe it’s all his religions: he has the big picture. Maybe, instead, he’s just trying to take his mind off a certain girl, Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath, who by herself induces a need to batten the hatches, whatever that may mean), the girl he had to leave behind in Pondicherry (the French Riviera of India), and emblematic of something a teacher says in the class where Pi met her: If you do not concentrate, you cannot express your love of God through dance.

One question is left unresolved, given two rigid and opposing views of the matter: whether or not bananas actually float.

But feeling like it's been two hundred and twenty seven days at sea? Okay, so, well, then concentrate, already.

And see Life of Pi-- it’ll help.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 16, 2014)



L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960




Tell me you want to embrace my shadow running along the walls!

And, one could add, good luck with that.

Ah, L’Avventura—and the unanswered question, to this very day still tossing about in the sea off Basiluzzo, in the vast and ancient Aeolians…

Where do we get such women?

This of course borrowed from another sailor, the admiral in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, on the bridge above an aircraft carrier's flight deck.

His question, of course—Where do we get such men?—was meant as a rhetorical one.

But the real mystery in L’Avventura--the first one, anyway--is more specific, and so demands some answer. The question, then, specifically: What on earth is Raimondo and Patrizia’s relationship? She of the face “made for debauchery, and yet faithful”, if a faith “born of laziness”. Faithful to whom, or to what? And those cigarettes of hers; and never mind the glasses…

And Corrado—how can he possibly belittle such a bright and cheerful spirit as Giulia’s? And why exactly must she always be so literal?

And that foraged fruit in the basket, that looked so tempting—were those pears, or apples, or what?

Oh, and where did Anna go?

Nowadays, it would have been a pilot for a long-running television drama, call it The Searchers. What might have been! Michelangelo Antonioni has got one tasty masterpiece here anyway, with all the breathtaking scenery (the actual buildings and landscapes aren’t too shabby, either). Never mind comparing and contrasting the film to Lina Wertmuller’s later essay on the same theme, Neptune: Friend or Foe.

And never mind how close the resemblance of the flown-too-soon Anna (Lea Massari) and her erstwhile best friend (Monica Vitti) to…well, to a pair of more contemporary Italian actresses...

Whether as a murder mystery or as a restrained and problematic love story, whether an existential attempt to romanticize life’s absurdity, whether indeed as another ring of the Inferno, it is an unavoidably memorable story.

And one likely to infiltrate, as much as does the sea, in those shadowed and sometimes-calm grottoes of Basiluzzo.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed April 11, 2014)



Ajami, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, 2009



Ajami—it’s a neighborhood in Jaffa.

Jaffa, sadly a town where some say, and where some believe, the rooster crows but once a year, and the sheep bleat only as often.

Where incredible naivete thus meets poor humor, and where the ‘king of wimps’ only reigns for a minute or two.

And where his would-be angel of mercy, an ambulance attendant, will already have blood, hardly yet cold blood—guilty blood, that is to say, on his hands.

And where also sometimes your best birthday present—a video birthday card from your mother, at the hospital, smiling but in dire need of a horrendously expensive operation—could end up being your own death sentence. (As it happens, the mother is angelically beautiful, perhaps a little much so, in a film so fraught with realism.)

Like the 1600 meters at track-and-field event, Ajami begins (chronologically, that is) with the sound of a gunshot: in this case an AK-47 burst at the ceiling of a restaurant, protection money being thereby suggested.

The last time, as it proves, that a fired gun is not pointed at someone.

It’s not exactly…what, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ material, any of it, except perhaps for all the “Praise God”s that seem to be, in their regular gracing of the most commonplace of conversations, the film’s only attempt (albeit a completely genuine one) at…well, what, real uplift. Or at least, in a profoundly important sense, a better humor.

Better to praise God anyway--always and in any case--than perhaps to wish someone the unlikely May you live to be 120.

More like another week older. Because in this vision of Jaffa--in this local-eleven-o’clock-news-of-another-continent tour of one of its poorer neighborhoods, a rich and sensitive tour, to be sure—that first one, the long-life one, that has the sound of a taunt.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 26, 2014)



A Beautiful Life, Andrew Lau, 2011

You’re only going to forget me anyway, so now is all we have.

This was when I thought the movie was over, at these words on a balcony over a quiet, wooded hillside, the words of the winsome Miss Li (Qi Shu), more a budding real estate mogul, really, than an undiscovered vocal talent, not long before alone in Beijing to the point of singing 'Happy Birthday' to herself…

But beginning on that balcony to prove that a Hong Kong woman could be a loyal one, if now facing the all-too-real impossibility, that he would indeed forget her.

He, Feng Zhedong! (Ye Liu)—she was the only one ever to call him by his full name, and always in that tone of shrill demand—he a police officer with a once-bright career ahead, now also alone, whose own future suddenly blurring.

Sadly so, that is, as he faced the now-unavoidable consequences of a line-of-duty incident, from years before…

It was at those words of hers I thought the movie was over.

The beginning, finally. As in every romantic serio-comedy made in Hollywood for the last fifty years, he had been patient, she had been rather difficult, and now it was time for the credits to roll, and with that their beginning, their happily-ever-after.

Instead, the movie went on for another half-hour.

It is an odd measure of how wonderful A Beautiful Life really is, to attest here that those were thirty of the more agonizing minutes of recent memory, a defenseless pummelling as the referee just would not stop the prize-fight. This was the feel, the power, of the wrenching final stretch, with each new scene, until near the end, each new moment.

A sign anyway that one actually is made to care—in this case, care a great deal—the most difficult suspension of disbelief in drama, and the one that’s the grand prize.

The championship belt of the feature-film weight class. Weaknesses? Well, love may not, in fact, always quickly obliterate demon rum--‘devilish’ alcohol, in her early words, as a clear addiction–but mostly the weaknesses are unimportant, if perhaps interesting all the same…

As in the remarkable shortage of villains. There are none, really. Not individuals in the plot; not groups inside or outside business or government--there are just no bad apples to be found. Not even Uncle Sam gets his beard tweaked, not even gently. SOMEHOW there is not a single individual in Beijing who is anything less than agreeable, if not altogether helpful, and Beijing is a pretty big place!

Maybe it’s the smog.

In a September New York Times article (Chinese Titan Takes Aim at Hollywood; Keith Bradsher), plans are announced to…well, take aim at Hollywood.

If A Beautiful Life is the kind of thing we can come to expect, sometimes, then THAT has the sound of good news.

Unforgettably good. And in that context, A Beautiful Life—well, it has the sound of a true Hollywood beginning.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 14, 2014)



The Kite Runner, Marc Forster, 2007




Crab apples and acorns.

That’s what we used, for ours.

Our own slingshots.

About the age as young Amir and Hassan, as they duelled in the skies over 1978 Kabul with their just-as-awesome kites, my friends and I, a decade earlier, would take sides in the fields of Northwestern Philadelphia with our Wrist Rockets (the brand name).

Luckily--although those slingshots had a muzzle velocity that was high enough to render actual firearms less interesting later in our lives, to the point of irrelevance--luckily, no-one ever lost an eye.

Lucky, too, that here, young Sohrab was as good a shot with his own slingshot as his dad had been, years before.

Tracing the period from 1979—when back home in Afghanistan Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Karmal ‘requested’ Soviet assistance in supporting the governing PDPA against rebels who, in the western city of Herat, had massacred government troops, as well as 50 Soviet advisers and their families, through the Russian stalemate against the Mujahideen and then the rise of the Taliban Islamic militia—to the turn of the millenium, 2000, the year before things finally got interesting, The Kite Runner may or may not be a classic (the answer is a) Yes, classic), but it is certainly every bit of an epic.

What else if not another grand and spectacular civil war drama (and—honestly—no pun intended), The Kite Runner is a modern Gone With the Wind.

But one where the hero is not the polished Clark Gable type, nor even the gifted writer Amir (played by Khalid Abdalla, whose turn gives this epic a human soul), as he continues his post-Kabul days in the same priveleged arc, if still struggling to confront and then somehow to make up for an act of horrendous betrayal.

No, the REAL hero is the guy at the orphanage (a scene only on the periphery here, as if simply-too-much otherwise), a hero sadly with a calculus from hell itself, and thus not likely to inspire any action figures or to decorate lunch boxes anytime soon.

And never mind the real ‘Sultans of Kabul’—the graceful predators in the skies above the city, those kites, if always at each others’ throats, still always living to fly another day.

'The Kite Runner'? A classic? Well, maybe, but they got the title wrong. Respectfully, really, it’s The Kite Runners, a story no more finished than windy days.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed February 16, 2014)



The Untouchables, Brian De Palma, 1987




For better or for worse, and like it or not, all of us wed to liberty here in America have long been and must remain subject to a single despot’s cold and high-handed rule.

A blind despot, that is, and hers, the rule of law.

Sometimes for worse, certainly, as when slavery and later ‘Jim Crow’ continued finding legislation; and while women continued unenfranchised.

And liking it? Not always so much, as with the passage of the Volstead Act, when drinking alcohol became illegal.

Indeed, it may be that the only thing that law has going for it, blind as it is and with little personality to speak of, is that it does manage to enable civilization.

Starring Kevin Costner as the one man who, as a budding friend observed, would admit to being a Treasury agent in Chicago in mid-September of 1930, Brian De Palma’s classic here is that quintessentially American tale, the success story.

As a monumentally great Italian, Cesare Beccaria, the founding father of jurisprudence knew, however, the law--it’s also a sticky wicket.

At times a cartoon, at others as though some new book of the Bible, thrilling and chilling as any great opera, The Untouchables has an untouchable pedigree indeed, given the trio of Giorgio Armani, Ennio Morricone and David Mamet who gave it shape.

With Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith and Sean Connery as the other do-gooders, it made for a small Round Table, Kevin Costner’s (though having an angel-from-above waiting at home, played by Patricia Clarkson, would provide additional purpose, and certainly some encouragement). Let it be for another time or place, any close review of the movie, which is included here, perhaps, given Costner’s return now to the screen in two current spy flicks, again as a government employee with a to-do list.

And timely too, in this age of movie super ‘heroes’, to be reminded of that best of super powers: having the law—the law of the land—on your side.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 27, 2014)



American Hustle, David O. Russell, 2013




Women like a man with confidence.

So if that guy is a real ‘confidence man’—that is, a ‘con man’—so much the better.

But if he is an actual con artist, of course, then look out, world.

Con men, con artists: these are American idioms to describe the kind of charming, trans-national thievery that Michael Caine and Steve Martin—and their ‘better half’ and mentor, Glenne Headly—memorably portrayed in the south of France in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Nor is there anything essentially American in a new and different type of comedy, American Hustle. Its main credo is voiced early on by Irving, the ‘artist’ here: Better to take, than to be taken.

Sadly, this idea has had some force since that long-ago morning, when our Homo sapiens cave-neighbor ancestors noticed that some caves were nicer than others, and that indeed some rocks were bigger than other rocks, too (a new philosophy later took hold, of course, when a very large rock was found rolled away from a cave in Judaea).

So: the artistry of ‘confidence’, and its appeal to the ladies...nothing else could explain how Irving (Christian Bale in his latest metamorphosis) can keep two women like the talented ‘Lady Edith’ (an Oscar-worthy Amy Adams) and his jerk of a wife (Jennifer Lawrence, unleashed) dancing on a string for any amount of time, let alone all the way up to and then through what was, in the late 1970’s, the biggest federal ‘sting’ operation in United States history.

Irving, in his early narrative voice-over, offers a more simple explanation for his appeal: the fact that he owned a chain of dry cleaning stores, and as such had a wide selection of forgotten garments--yes, including furs!--for the lady who was looking to ‘upgrade’ her wardrobe.

But we already know he is a con artist—the first several minutes of the film reveal this in tender and painful detail—so we know there must be a different explanation.

American Hustle is actually a movie with a great deal of class, avoiding as it does (almost impossibly, given its setting) the temptation of heavy breathing Hamburger Helper scenes involving controlled substances and/or over-the-counter sex—and also a movie with a great deal of style, albeit the style of the late seventies, when apparently inmates had taken over fashion’s asylum.

The scandal of Abscam: a national headline machine, and a national conversation on dirty politicians versus the ethics of entrapment. No heads actually rolled, however, nor any great and admirable figures brought to disproportionate ruin by a single character flaw. So American Hustle is a comedy, as currently advertised--a comedy in the Aristotelian meaning: a story different from tragedy in simply having a happy ending.

It’s also a worthwhile, sometimes fascinating look at how to play a real life Wizard of Oz on a very large stage indeed--with nothing more for your wizard’s curtain than an elaborate ‘comb-over’ and some hair spray.

And lots and lots of confidence—that, too.



--Dave Blanchard (reviewed January 11, 2014)




The Well-Digger’s Daughter, Daniel Auteuil, 2012



At Last A Son!

Perhaps the little headline, in the local newspaper.

A little newspaper itself: Le Petit Echo de Salon.

Although poor Pascal Amoretti—the well-digger—grown weary of beautiful girls!

As headlines go, the ones in the months ahead, sadly, would have echoes prouder yet. They Shall Not Pass—Ils Ne Passeront Pas-- would have been one, the motto of the bombarded French troops still holding out in the moonscape fortress at Verdun, one hundred thousand already gone, on the north-eastern flanks of France.

Daniel Auteil leads a winning cast in this tough-minded (like most) fairy tale, a cast that includes those five beautiful girls of his. Those girls--his daughters, among them the lovely eldest, Amanda (Emilie Cazenave)--include Patricia (une tres desole et tres triste Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a child born on the springtime equinox and now eighteen, and so, perhaps, now at the plate and batting as Cinderella.

In a sense, The Well Digger’s Daughter is simply an against-all-the-odds story—in this corner: young love, and in that corner: old and tenacious paternal prejudice, different castes…oh, and not to be overlooked, the guns of August.

How does it end? Well, I was teary eyed, so...as Carmen herself warned...prends garde a toi!, and be cautioned. But it is a worthwhile journey, as one could imagine a ticker-tape parade in one's own honor worthwhile.

Or a red carpet, anyway--that is how the viewer is left to feel: honored, exceptionally honored. The several set-piece turning-points and reversals are marvels, so well-written and finely-wrought that one is transported, the arch language of courtly manners made to feel commonplace, and each commonplace emotion or gesture, something courtly and new.

A gem, one in which the spark of love, without effort, even with not-so-distant armies frozen in place as the land torn asunder, that once again--plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose--that spark will have center stage.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 29, 2013)



Elena, Andrey Zvyagintzev, 2011



For a land that enriched us all with The Nutcracker, with Prokofiev, it’s odd that the music of American composer Philip Glass would be chosen for Elena, an elegant, precise and glacial Russian murder drama.

It’s apparently ‘Hitchcockian’, the music….in the old joke, what there is of it. Most scenes are forced to manage without. The opening scene, for instance--a motionless close-up shot of a tree branch outside a home, where, after the silent tension has gathered to the breaking point...suddenly another bird alights, finally, on the branch.

After the first thirty seconds or so, I have to admit, I’d actually been expecting something more like an explosion.

Call it the ‘too-many-Hollywood-flicks’ syndrome; anyway, that would make it just another action drama. Elena, a more serious work, instead treats the taking of another’s life as a Danish prince’s father once had: that is to say, as most foul, even, or especially, ‘as in the best it is’.

And yet not a movie that tries to dispel another stereotype or two—that most Russian women are young, world-class beauties, and its men, world-weary derelicts. Elena (its title character rendered convincingly by Nadezhda Markina) treads no new ground cinematically, either, in having not a single character who is remotely sympathetic--except, as it turns out, the murderer.

The movie proceeds VERY carefully, as though given by lawyers presenting their separate evidence. Sometimes at the pace of a mastodon thawing out: but to borrow from another old joke, one is left not so much unimpressed as fascinated that it CAN thaw, after so many centuries. Cinema verite or not, I have not seen a film in which the actors seem to have been not so much paid by the hour as directed by the hour, by the clock, itself.

This, of course, would be cinema verite.

There is an actual lingering scene, indeed after nearly an hour, of someone not quite dead, emphasis not quite dead, in the water. It is almost a trope for the film.

If the pace doesn’t always suit, there are in fact some especially-redeeming qualities. One is this: the full composition by Glass is at last heard in the closing credits, and it flourishes there, nearly sublimely so. It serves moreover as this: an emotional, even spiritual sort of ‘reflecting pool’ for the viewer, regarding—as in the French meaning of regard, to consider carefully—the action and its consequences.

Even more, watch for the wonderful scene between Elena’s hospitalized husband and his estranged wild-child daughter (the fair Elena Lyakova) who is visiting (“What people will not do for money!”). Though the two are cynical if not fairly awful people, still their shared moments are among the truest, most bittersweet and yet most funny to be seen in the annals of recent cinema.

And let it be said of the one who murders--that that character shares an immediate lingering, sorrowful and memorable reaction indeed to the crime, so—regarding—the major question raised by Elena

Does crime pay? Well, see it, and then you be the judge.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed December 12, 2013)



Alamar, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, 2009


Prego, in anticipo.

That is, if you are somewhere in the northern hemisphere for now, and perhaps looking for ways to pass the colder months ahead.

Winner of awards including the Miami Film Festival’s, Alamar (one word) will be a memorable way to offset the winter chill. Set around a young son’s visit to his father, in and around the Banco Chinchorro reef off Mexico, the film is not a story but an experience.

An unfailingly warm one: whether within or beyond--or rather above--the temperate and crystal waters, nothing bad happens. That I guarantee, and if you think about it, not a bad guarantee at all for any full and consecutive 72 minutes, the running time of the film. There IS tension—the boy, Natan (Natan Machado), with his estranged but amiable parents Roberta (Roberta Palombino) and Jorge (Jorge Machado) permanently separated by the chasm between their separate hearts, urban and seaside…

But it is a tension that reminds us of this: that if the setting is a paradise, it is an earthly one, and so at least more immediate.

Blanquita, a lovely and friendly thing indeed, almost as much the heroine of the film as young Natan is its hero…wherever she has gone to, would agree.


--Dave Blanchard (reviewed November 28, 2013)


.

Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass, 2013

Here we are in Final Jeopardy. Our category, ‘Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America’.

What is: You could have been something besides a pirate or a fisherman...

The next time you find yourself hot for the new iPad, that new Android or Windows 8 tablet on display, just remember, it didn’t get there on its own: they haven’t figured that out yet.

So how do those shiny gadgets get there?

And while we're on the subject: Who else can possibly be as dull and predictable--and certainly not an unforgettable movie-hero candidate--as the captain of a large container ship?

My guess is that for those with corporate fortunes at stake, ‘dull and predictable’ is a treasure. Anyway who would you want overseeing the cargo—in the sad, harrowing and vastly important Captain Philips, cargo that with its universe of goods sold or for sale also includes two hundred tons…two hundred tons…of something called ‘food aid’—who would you want in charge?

Not a hothead, no. (Okay, get me Tom Hanks!)

Someone just oozing style, someone who cuts a real figure? Not necessarily.

A specialist in one area, as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades? Maybe not.

But mostly, you would not a coward.

Not when Muse (played by the riveting Barkhad Abdi) sees your big boat on his ill-gotten little radar screen.

Somewhere in the seas off Africa, where the natives can at last point big guns at less well-armed foreigners (as opposed to most of history), the fast track for young Somalians leads, as it does for fast-track types everywhere, to parties—if, for the young Somalian go-getter, the only decent parties are boarding parties.

Which can be a real headache to have to clean up after.

Especially the blood. Considering all the firepower that is finally involved, it will come as no real surprise that yes, there is bloodshed. But it is blood that is shed despite every effort on each side to avoid it, to avoid the fraught and final act of pulling the trigger with the barrel pointed at someone. Because of that restraint, thankfully, there is not that much to clean.

And so rarely has blood, one may add--in any film that comes to mind, rarely has blood, that common link, been held so precious.

This is a roller-coaster ride, with this difference: it feels like one that you HAVE to take. At least it gives more gravitas to that daily greeting, common across the globe, as the hyper-competent medical corpsman asks the still-shaking, bloodied hero at the end—it gives more gravity to what she asks him:

So what’s happening?

Good question.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed November 9, 2013)


SKYFALL, Sam Mendes, 2012




I’ve got a gal for 007: Blanche Dubois.

Like Miss Dubois, the heroine of another overblown though hardly mindless cautionary tale, James Bond has always relied on the kindness of strangers.

Whether they’re the dozens of innocent pedestrians nice enough to preserve themselves--somehow--from his chases through the streets of foreign capitals, or whether they’re the bad guys always decent enough to delay killing a captured 007, he wouldn’t have saved the world one-half as often otherwise.

Now he has a real advantage, because this time the bad guy's apparently in love with him.

Of course, with friends—well, more-than-friends, if Javier Bardem’s charming but somehow unapproachable Silva finally gets his way, for once--with friends like that, who needs enemies?

So it is business as usual—too usual, which is to say, saving Western intelligence from itself. This time, it’s not some real-life high school dropout being given the car keys to Uncle Sam's brand new Cadillac in Hawaii; here in Skyfall, in a more likely if more fictional scenario, someone had thought to put just all of the Inside Edition stuff on a single laptop hard drive.

Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Oh…well, there is that (as Michael Palin’s character used to say, reviewing his own faulty premises about dead parrots and so forth).

Anyway, better go get the hard drive back, yes. Luckily our Operation Eggs in One Basket—the opening scene—has at least most of the day to run since it seems to take that long to find an Internet connection in downtown Turkey. So--shoppers at the Grand Bazaar, beware! Though as the old bumper sticker might have had it, If you don’t like the way our secret agents drive, then stay off the sidewalks.

As for boarding a commuter train, with Bond in the neighborhood? Who dares, wins, I suppose (Now listen up! We’re looking for the single guys-- you married men, just keep to the rear).

As always, the hero spends enough time on the brink of kingdom-come to force religious associations. In my case, given the final battleground, they are of my own Dear Mom’s once-upon-a-time framed Scottish prayer (she herself easily beautiful enough, like a certain Italian actress, to turn super heroes’ heads, and the daughter, grand daughter and great-grand daughter of Church of Scotland ministers besides):

Lord, preserve us from Beasties and things that go bump in the night.

Berenice Lim Marlohe, as the pearl of a very sad and troubling Orient named Severine, gets my top vote here. Naomie Harris, as Eve, Bond’s beautiful pit-stop crew chief, gets Miss Congeniality, and actually saves the movie in so doing (Ralph Fiennes’ scripted, effective fussiness and Albert Finney’s authentic and evocative turn in the Highlands redoubt notwithstanding).

With her regular banter with the intrepid alcoholic (MI.6’s verdict, not mine), with an ongoing dialogue in their multiple scenes that does end up scoring quite well for lighthearted, even resonant wit, Eve also gets 007 to look the part.

Which is to say: clean-cut. Especially with this Bond’s seen-too-much, nasty, brutish and short persona, it says at least there is ONE standard, whatever ends justifying whatever means or not, to which someone still holds.

I like the early exchange, at the cashier’s, in the Shanghai casino...


Cashier: (somewhat bedazzled) Good fortune tonight, sir.

Hands him four million euros in a case.

Bond: Let’s hope so.

It’s the same thing—“Speriamo, si”—that another all-time prima donna, an Italian one and a head turner, God rest her soul, at that-- the same thing she once said, adrift in a dinghy, not yet swept away, and no less grateful for the kindness of strangers.

--Dave Blanchard (Reviewed October 22, 2013)


Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen, 2013



Okay, I don’t share this with just anyone, but I like you, so if you give me thirty seconds—you can do that, right?—then you’ll understand exactly why you have to drop everything and write my company a check—now—for fifty thousand….

Well, caveat emptor, as the Romans were known to say.

And yes, what I meant to say--why you have to see this movie.

The reason why is named Jeannette—well, as she would tell it, Jeannette, that’s her given name, but she adopted the name Jasmine, as more…well, more floral, anyway, and just a little, you know, nicer, though really, what’s in a name, after all…

As the environmental disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow was to nice calm spring days, so will Blue Jasmine be to the proverbial 1% of American society, perhaps. It’s a Bosch-esque modern landscape—indeed, an important social portrait—of the uber-bills coming due for the uber-rich as the checks begin to bounce.

In the best single performance out of Hollywood in years, Cate Blanchett gives us, the great unwashed 99 per centum, a mesmerizing glimpse at the absolutely preposterous-to-contemplate, the actual humanity that still remains sometimes tucked away, inside the obscenely wealthy.

Obscene, that is, at least when the wealth is this craven, buyers wary or not, in its acquisition. As Jasmine’s husband, seen in the artful, seamless flashbacks throughout the story, Alec Baldwin is a GQ cover boy version of the latest Great Deceiver knock-off, Bernie Madoff. Charming and enthusiastic—never too much so, of course—Baldwin is a natural salesman (the type incidentally who is apparently not a suitable candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant Microsoft throne, given the central role of the evil sales type in the meltdown).

He’s a one-man gang apparently resistible to no one—not even to a street-smart, otherwise hard-to-impress working-class brother-in-law, let alone an assortment of Seven Sisters beauties besides. And then, kaboom, and Jasmine has to start over—all the way over—most of her remaining loot also blown to kingdom come, this time on a one-way first class ticket to her younger sister’s (played by Sally Hawkins, she of the memorable recent lead in Jane Austen’s Persuasion ).

The bottom line? What else but this: that we care about her, very much. Which is to say, I care about her—blue Jasmine—and you will too.

I know you will.

Just trust me on this one.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed September 18, 2013)


Ran, Akira Kurosawa, 1985




Somewhere I read that in the days before motion pictures, a different technology was used to reproduce the image of motion.

Still-photographs were employed, instead, like a deck of cards, slowly shuffled, and the lady riding the stately bicycle was right there before your eyes.

And yet somehow even farther away.

Akira Kurosawa’s stupendous and bone-chilling masterpiece, Ran, a re-telling of Lear set in samurai-era Japan, is like that.

From its opening sequence: almost as still-photographs, the mountaintop wind given color, the blindingly bright color of the enormous windscreens surrounding a snail’s-pace celebration, the peaceful and orderly succession of a warlord.

Not exactly cinema verite, not even to begin with.

Nor are the motivations here very common, by far the most important of which is the lady Kaede’s (an unforgettable Mieko Harada), to avenge her mother’s suicide from some years before.

Basically that’s the plot, a proof of the old truth, that if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy…Kaede’s mother’s unhappiness having come, apparently, from the slaughter of her husband and sons by the new boss, Lord Hidetora.

There are some reassuring elements here—Saburo’s easy humor and his great heart, Tango’s dedication—and the Fool is better entertainment than most—but otherwise it’s a pretty bleak picture, however colorful.

The great critic Northrop Frye once described Cordelia’s death, in the original King Lear, as though a bolt of lightning from a blue sky. With the breathtakingly vivid assistance of his crew and cast, Kurosawa, rightly or wrongly, makes the greater case, that the lightning bolt--unexpected, brilliant and fleeting--is life itself.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 26, 2013)


Queen to Play, Caroline Bottaro, 2009



I thought the French were romantics.

Maybe it’s all some terrible mistake, a grand illusion, although their effort here to turn the driest and most antiseptic of ‘games’ –chess—into something somehow romantic is a worthy, if somewhat wacky effort.

Anyway, they ARE all supposed to be romantic, correct? All of them, every moment of the day? And yet somehow the handsome French guy misses his great chance, in Caroline Bottaro’s neat, not-far-from-charming gambit, Queen to Play.

There is the following line from our haughty heroine housekeeper Helene—say THAT in Italian--(Sandrine Bonnaire) to her husband:

Why can’t I have one thing of my own?

One thing of her own.....now any good American romantic from Cole Porter to Burt Bacharach to Kevin Kline (who does nicely in a main role here) would hit that, as they say in baseball, into the upper deck at the stadium.

Possibilities include, but not limited to: But you have me, and I am all your own. Your loyal pet, your plaything, your humble servant, blah blah blah, three runs scored, high-fives at home plate, and then let the crowd's applause go on for at LEAST another minute before coming ALL the way out of the dugout to acknowledge it.

Simply all in a day’s work for any good romantic, you would think, all in a day’s work for the French, this being their idea of work--their department--anyway.

BUT here’s the catch: Helene wouldn’t want to hear it. She’s a woman underway now, one with a plan, the pawns either for or against, and THOSE women don’t wait for answers.

However grateful she is to have gotten away with her hasty feint of a ‘question’, and NOT having to watch its grand flight into the upper deck.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed August 16, 2013)


Good Bye Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker, 2003


And hello, Coca Cola.

And hello, for that matter, to convenience store videos of women who can lick the frosting off their own….

Well, it’s a lot of frosting anyway.

Good Bye Lenin is an award-winning film almost guaranteed to attract future fans, for its historical interest at least. Good Bye Lenin is also a film, as with most goodbyes, that has no real plot, unless filial devotion is a plot.

Nor does it really have much even in the way of episodic twists, aside from the fall of the Berlin Wall, doozy though that may have been.

Held together by a son’s budding nostalgia for the worker’s paradise of their immediate past, the Kerner family straddles the cusp of the nineties. Fin de siecle; ‘anything goes’, so forth. 'Anything', that is, except East German currency, as the Kerners find their way forward with the help of good friends, some young hirelings, and a man who, at the finale, can now add ‘TV actor’ to his curriculum vitae, alongside ‘taxi driver’ and ‘hero-cosmonaut’.

While there is no place, perhaps no need in this particular story for grace notes, the film does have some nice touches, including a wonderful 5-second reaction shot from the darling one-year old, Paula, in her high chair; also a tiny airliner traveling high above a gritty courtyard, somehow captured as it passes over the small slice of sky framed by the apartment towers.

There are two great ironies, the sad one, and the one that remains, which is a happier variety. The first is that the children’s devotion to their mother’s welfare, as it turns out, was exceeded only by her devotion to their own.

The final irony is a warm and pleasant one, given the great pride it brings to mother Christiane, the smile lighting a face--that of the enchanting actress Katrin Sass--for which ANY worker, East, West or in-between, would surely cast off his chains.

Great pride in her children, and hardly a mother ever more deserving.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed July 20, 2013)


Angels in the Dust, Louise Hogarth, 2007

There’s a TV show called Myth Busters.

Now here’s where that show could do some real good, in myth-busting. Demolishing the one that goes like this: that if you sleep with a virgin, your AIDS will disappear.

Hundreds of thousands of lives are in fact at stake, according to one resilient, good-humored, well-placed and extremely reliable source.

Her name is Marion Cloete, and ‘here’ is Magaliesberg, an hour north of Johannesburg, S.A., where for years now, she and husband Con, their daughters and several key assistants, have continued to hold down the fort.

The ‘fort’ is a school and home for over 500 orphans. Call it a bastion, the place of their tenacious stand in support of several of the very basic claims of humanity.

Call it Fort Botshabelo. Like the counterpoint in one of Bach’s more difficult works, the tone of their documentary, Angels in the Dust—its musical key, even—shifts relentlessly, back and forth between major and minor, between the harrowing and the inspirational.

People—mostly young, as in war— people die every day, mostly after suffering and every day, people forge on, with education, rallies for greater access to ARV’s, with dance, scream therapy, trips to wildlife preserves, and with music.

Let it be noted that Philadelphia’s own R&B legends, the Stylistics, are apparently one favorite on the campus; also, that the producers really should make the soundtrack of the documentary itself also widely available; it is just that good.

Anyway, Angels in the Dust: it’s like 'Reality TV', except much more dramatic—all the stories strike you as terribly, wonderfully unique—and certainly more profound…

As, say, comparing the work of pigeons in the park, to the efforts of…well, angels, in the dust.

Look them up at www.botshabelo.org

Original Music by Simphiwe Dana and Joseph Julián González

--Dave Blanchard (Reviewed June 6, 2013)



Happy Happy, Anne Sewitsky, 2010




Here’s a metaphor: we’re flying in the dark, but with a competent hand at the...wait, that scene comes later.

So here’s a recipe, instead: take two couples who are emphatically NOT happy, then add a great deal of snow.

In fact the four adults here, deep in the Norwegian countryside, ARE pretty far from civilization, like the two on that summer island in another tale, Swept Away, that also kicks off its shoes pretty quickly.

Maybe it’s all the fish in the diet.

With no war on, no zombies or famine to contend with, the two couples' recreation of society here can begin with games--as indeed it does, several nights running, after dinner. But horseplay can turn, as they say, to tears, especially when unsupervised.

There is a lot of fun, though: “Do you go hunting?” “No, we sing in a choir.” And against all odds, the heroine, Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a woman somehow both gorgeous AND perky, ends up nailing the big soprano solo.

At one point one of them asks another, How can you sink so low? But for all that, Happy Happy is also a movie that aims quite high: the history of AIDS being explained, for example, in a failed turn of Pictionary, and the history of slavery as a dreary cautionary tale written and produced by kids.

And though marriage, not for the first time in film, does get taken to the ‘chop shop’, with its choice parts getting wrenched out, polished and put up for sale—and despite the forlorn animism of Norwegian winters, Happy Happy gives at least one institution, Christmas Eve, a very, very special respect.

"Prille prolle, prille prolle." Take two dozen choristers; then add lots of light. It’s a singing exercise, and, happily, yet another way to stay warm in those sub-Arctic winters.

Winner, Sundance Film Festival. Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll.


--Dave Blanchard (Reviewed May 25, 2013)


Kandahar, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001




KAHK: A cookie, very similar to Russian tea cookies (from the glossary of Arabic terms, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, by Yussef El Guindi; the playscript appearing in last September’s American Theatre magazine).

This definition I happened to discover a day after seeing the rather epochal movie Kandahar. Kahk is also the name of a guide to Kandahar, in the movie, a twelve year old entrepeneur played with great style by Sadou Teymouri. Kahk (pronounced almost ‘hawk’) has found a skeleton with a beautiful ring, alone and bleaching in the dunes. The following is his sales pitch to the heroine, compressed over the two days they are still together:

Five dollars. One dollar. It’s beautiful. It matches your eyes. Take it. For you. For your sister.

His customer is undertandably reluctant, given the gem’s provenance.

Signs and wonders. The film opens at a courtyard, where hundreds of little girls are being told, the moving camera capturing many of their faces, faces that also forever capture the viewer, that they are never again allowed to come to school. Then, for the girls, some final remedial instruction, this in NOT picking up dolls on the ground because they will blow up.

Later on, the artificial legs—adult-sized, like a light snow shower in the blazing desert sky, descending near the Red Cross site under individual supply chutes.

The artificial-leg black marketeer, not such a good guy, and the black American doctor with an artificial beard, as necessary for ‘keeping up appearances’, if that is the phrase, as is a burkha for the ladies—the black American doctor, a Muslim, risking his life every day for others in his quest for true ‘eternal love’—the American doctor, not such a bad guy.

And the foxy heroine, Nafas (Nelofer Pazira), Afghan by birth, a Canadian journalist and now battling the onset of malaria--in her own words, words uttered into her cassette recorder and meant for the object of her own quest, her distraught sister: “I give my soul to this journey and travel roads I have never taken before and met people I have never seen, so I can give you reason to live...

I pass through the desert of dry poppies so I could discover hope for you from their dreams and now I have brought you a thousand bright reasons to live…I have come to believe that if someone who has lost their leg does not become a champion runner, then it is their own fault.”

The horse-drawn cart stopped now. She is offered a handgun for dealing with her next 'guide'.
”Maybe you can say something for my sister, you can say something about life or about hope for her.”
She hands the doctor, Tabib Sahid (Hassan Tantai), her cassette.
“About hope? Hope? (He sighs) You know, you know… a person needs a reason for living, and in difficult circumstances, hope is that reason. Hope is food for the hungry, water for the thirsty. Hope is the day that she will be seen.”

So--what happens. Well, watch and see—this is a movie you’d damn well better see, anyway. My question is this: What happened to any of them?

This was all before that bright East coast dawn, in early September of 2001.

Assistant directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmaseb…Kaveh Moyinfar…Hassan Sarajian

Director of photography: Ebrahim Ghafouri

A MAKHMALBAF FILM HOUSE (Iran) and BAC FILMS (France) Production

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BROTHER JOHN!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed May 2, 2013)


The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski, 2010





Okay, here’s the pitch: a British Prime Minister, on the run. And no points if you’re guessing the CIA is somehow involved.

But if moody views of an angry sea and Hitchcock-like atmospherics are your thing, then this is your bag, baby, as one friend of the CIA used to say. And with stormy ferry rides, GPS car monologues to the recently departed, and the crashing cold fury of Olivia Williams…

Well, it’s no walk on the beach.

The director has at least one classic, Chinatown, to his credit, and if The Ghost Writer falls short of that standard, so has almost every movie since 1974. One flaw here is that there is no chance for character development, given the compressed time frame and the greater hurdle that nobody is who they seem, anyway.

As Adam Lang, the recently-retired Great Friend of Uncle Sam, Pierce Brosnan does get top billing, but this is Ewan McGregor’s film. In fact, as the ghost writer himself, he is in virtually every scene, and his omnipresence does add resonance to the movie’s title. But it’s also a handicap, in forcing the movie into a linear series of revelations, rather than the more convoluted discoveries of, say, The Usual Suspects.

And speaking of the usual suspects, the Central Intelligence Agency—spoiler alert—is here granted a decades-long reign of evil-mongering that is apparently so efficient as to be, by now, almost comfortingly paternal. The CIA as Big Brother…and what was Winston Smith’s last line in Orwell’s 1984, again? (Let us note too, and quite seriously, the last scene of this film: a crowd of onlookers turning away, scurrying on, not getting involved.)

But it must be said: it’s not exactly a groundbreaking idea, that a college party boy is pulled into politics by something OTHER than his own deeply- held convictions. Courses in Athenian and Roman civilisation educated me on that years ago, and George W. Bush’s early career is a more recent example.

And speaking of that early career, if any film could have used some comic relief, it’s this one. Everything is on edge, from the moment the titular position opens onward. But the movie does indeed have something to say, which is an important, even a vital attribute which many lack.

Okay, so it’s never quite clear why anyone with sooooo many skeletons in his closet feels the need to write an autobiography in the first place.

Unless of course it’s not actually the CIA who are in charge, but rather Amazon, after all.

And speaking of a REAL great-friend-and-true of the USA…from someone who was a party boy in college himself, like…well, like every guy who ever went to college—and someone who graduated, the headlines that week devoted to Harriers and Exocet missiles, during the short fury of the Falklands War...

Margaret Thatcher—AVE ATQUE VALE.

--Dave Blanchard (Reviewed April 19, 2013)



Un Coeur En Hiver, Claude Sautet (1992)



What a remarkable film, that exposes the flaws of its viewers.

This viewer, anyway—and least of all his hope that there might be at least some little soupcon of nudity on the part of a certain violin virtuoso. But no such luck, and quel dommage

Actually, from the beginning THIS viewer had the film completely ‘figured out’, purely on the basis of Camille’s great appeal: she would be the helpless beauty-on-a-pedestal turning two friends against each other to claim ownership.

Then she has a scene or two. And if Camille seemed not entirely independent (at least of her friend and mentor Regine, wonderfully realized by Brigitte Catillon), still, she is quite assertive, even demanding, and so this viewer changed his theory to another one, indeed the opposite one, nuanced and subtle as his theorizing is:

She would merely PLAY with the two men, comme un chat avec deux…well, mice (my Lonely Planet guide overlooking the French here).

Anyway, like a cat with two mice, that would be Camille…

Wrong again…and what a revelation, that Camille proves soon to be neither feline nor marble, but rather human.

Some points: if, as the saying goes, crime doesn’t ‘pay’, neither does adultery, and though this is no revelation, nor an original theme, still, the film does not, at Maxime's and thus Camille's situation, pretend otherwise. Of more interest, a couple of paragraphs could well be devoted to any of the players, adroit as each of their screen presences and talents is within the cause of the story. I will single out the friend Helene (Elisabeth Bourgine) whose character is reminiscent of one from another classic: Hitchcock’s Vertigo: the friend-who-c’mon-should-have-been-THE-one played memorably by Barbara Bel Geddes. Let me also say the editing and cinematography, respectively the work of Jacqueline Thiedot and Yves Angelo, are accomplishments tinged, as they say, with greatness.

Un Coeur En Hiver; in English, A Heart in Winter…starring Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Beart, and Andre Dussoliers…a film which won, among numerous prizes, a David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film and a Cesar for its director. And a scene: Camille—the same woman sadly hailing not from the Greek isles, for an ancestor might have prevented the Trojan War, in taking Paris’ eyes from Helen—this same Camille is left, by Stephane’s titanic indifference to her, in a scene as impossibly poignant as any in cinema: Emmanuelle Beart, alone in her room and at a mirror, hard at work, trying to make herself beautiful.

The scene that follows, in the café, Camille’s “You know nothing of dreams” speech, is very nearly a perfection of cinema.

At the end some respite, and yet lingering glances too. If one is left thinking there would be a sequel, in a sense there was: outside the rarefied confines within which the director captures his characters--probably for as long as there is film—outside those confines, quelle surprise! or no surprise at all, a sequel:

The two stars, married.

Anyway, let it be said: Here’s to every Helen; y igualmente, to each Helene.
Happy Easter!

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed March 29, 2013)


Cautiva, Gaston Biraben, 2005




SOFIA NACIO…

'Sofia was born'.

The writing on the wall—the wall of a cell, the cell in a ‘clandestine’ prison--for an evil military dictatorship.

As opposed to all the other kinds. Cautiva, the heartrending, beautiful and award-winning film by Gaston Biraben, asks the more prosaic question, What does a society do with its angry punks?

Here in America, of course, we give them their own radio show.

In Argentina, at least in 1978, some were perhaps cheering on Diego Maradona to the nation’s World Cup title.

Too many others, unfortunately, were officers in the federal police.

Tough guys, given numbers. Cautiva: artful and grounded, horrifying and gently funny. See the movie; and you may give it a ten out of ten yourself (overlooking, if you may, the single flaw, a dream sequence lasting approximately two seconds too long). I plan to make a donation to Amnesty International, and will lament also, if not so much tearfully, for the careers of the two central actresses, Barbara Lombardo and Mercedes Funes, an international crime itself that those careers have apparently receded somewhat…

Not to say—God willing, never again to say—‘disappeared’.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed February 14, 2013)



Seraphine, Martin Provost 2008



Silk and taffeta—rarely have they looked quite as splendid on a lady, or as apt.

Based on a true story, Seraphine comes with that can't-miss plot, the rags-to-almost-riches tale. Here the heroine is a painter, a washerwoman grown up in the pre-war French countryside. She is someone whose ardor in her workdays, as St. Theresa reminds, carries over into her free time.

Nel tempo libero...and there her gift is a great one. Seraphine, actually a naif, or modern primitive in style, recalls in her passionate florals both the frozen tranquility of her contemporary Rousseau and the “shredded flesh”, as an admirer exclaims, that is, of course, too much her era’s own legacy.

Martin Provost’s film won seven Cesar awards including Best Actress, for Yolande Moreau, who plays its lumbering, charming title character. A rough charm, to be sure, but understandable given the aural competition of nearing artillery and choirs of angels with which she was frequently faced.

Playing Wilhelm Uhde, the great art critic who first uncovers her work, Ulrich Tukur does an outstanding job as a man more quietly possessed by those angels, and determined to bring this particular bird to a soft and happy landing.

Two world wars, even his own admirers, notwithstanding.

So…thank God they found each other, Wilhelm and Seraphine. We, the admirers of both, might have wished for a happier ending…but not to worry. As the last lumbering, lovely scene shows, this story, theirs, actually has no ending at all.


Dave Blanchard (reviewed February 2, 2013)



Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee, 1994



“This worry that we have for each other, it’s what makes us a family…”

And yet, how much is there to worry about, in this “old house” (a daughter’s words) in a “nice section” (a suitor’s) of Taipei? An immensely respected father, three intelligent, healthy and capable daughters…and yes, any comparison to King Lear and his tragic brood does, in fact, end with that. A glimpse of what awaits:

Jia-Jen, a chemistry teacher, really likes the way the new coach plays volleyball. Despite herself, as they say.

Jia Ning, the youngest sister—alone with a friend’s photographer boyfriend, goes into a darkroom, and lo, something ‘develops’.

The middle sister, Jia-Chien, a business executive, makes a bad financial decision.

And, finally, Dad—Old Chu—can cook.

Ang Lee’s famous family drama succeeds, indeed succeeds by several lengths at the finish, despite the tremendous hurdle it sets for itself…

Which is this: that there is no ‘charged’ potential for a progression to something different, perhaps better in this slice of upper middle class Taipei…no real change desired or even especially contemplated; and thus no protagonist, and so, no plot. And while the mere passage of time in any movie does allow for episodes—some touching, some hilarious—in the end simply mimicking life’s patchwork quilt is, well, simply mimicry.

And then there’s the starting point—‘Eat Drink Man Woman’. With a title like that, the audience is either being promised an awful lot, or nothing at all...and yet it all works, and not just because of production values here—including the cast’s enormous appeal and the deft camera work—that are so persuasive. There is also this: turmoil midway through—a story, after all!—that interposes and must be resolved.

And of course, the intimate visual feast of the actual food preparation. Starring Sihung Lung as Chu and Chien-lien Wu as the daughter still playing (or, for now, out of) this particular game of romantic ‘musical chairs’; also starring Kuei-mei Yang as the oldest daughter, winsome chemistry teacher and Christian, the least, finally the most passionate one of all.

From the celebrated Ang Lee--a real feast: so go see it…especially when hungry.

--Dave Blanchard (reviewed 1/20/13)


Wallander: Before The Frost (TV), Charles Martin, 2012



Contemporary Sweden, well-known in the U.S. for its well-lit superstores...

Not back in Ystad, though, where even simple interior lighting continues to be seen as a bit much. Wasteful, weak—juvenile, maybe, or overly shallow, if not quite altogether immoral. And what color there is comes only suddenly, occasionally, in the form of a flower in a print on the wall--and a lot of blonde hair, of course…

All of which does serve, interestingly, to suggest little distinction between these insides, and the grey autumnal outside. Here, the setting’s the thing, wherein they’ll catch the conscience of the…well, of Anna, actually.

From Henning Mankell’s popular Wallander detective series, Before The Frost is a first rate mystery, and its hero, Lt. Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) a memorable one, and one you’d want on your side. This, despite the fact that his demeanor while trying to piece things together here is so foreign to an American viewer as to be utterly novel. Compare Wallander’s to the classic style of Kojak or McGarrett, both who conveyed more than a little outrage, not to mention polish, in going after those who broke the public trust.

Wallander? He’s a shopkeeper cleaning up after another bad storm, still trying to remember where his insurance policy has got to since the last one.

Okay, okay--that would ALSO be Peter Falk, as LA's overly-tasked but determined homicide detective Columbo...

In any case Wallander does intend to clean things up, and thoroughly (given the crime rate in Ystad, certainly versus mid-town Manhattan and likely even Honolulu, maybe there’s something to be learned!). He's got a real job, though: this time it may be Lucifer himself he's up against--someone who enjoys fire, anyway. There’s also some good give and take with the well-played local pastor, rueful and more than a little ticked off at all the apparent punishment for his church’s recent good deeds. The inspector also has some news to contend with from his estranged daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). Through her mother, he has a close connection, too, to the mysterious angel-with-a-broken-wing Anna (Maimie McCoy).

And to answer an earlier question: No, maybe they don’t actually need artificial light, if the natural wattage of every woman here is typical.

As for all the gloom and doom? Anna’s spectral appearance, which begins the tale, is doubly ghostly, in echoing Hamlet’s father’s, on the battlements at Elsinore--and it’s certainly as unpromising, where the local tranquility is concerned…

But chin up, Kurt. SPOILER ALERT.

You’re going to be a grandfather.

--Dave Blanchard



Incantato, Pupi Avati (2003)



Home is where the heart is.

In the lovely and gently-profound Incantato—in this tale of a heart-breaker (if not quite that ‘man-eater’ from the classic song of Hall and Oates!) it is the film’s original title that also compels.

That title is Il Cuore Altrove; the Heart Elsewhere.

If this is, then, also the story of a homeless man—or at least one fated never to be home—then it is one at least without real loss (the family tragedy, the loss of a brother, is long ago enough now that he has already been comfortably beatified by the father, Cesare Belocchi, played by that iconic rough-hewn ladies’man, Giancarlo Giannini). The movie’s hero is the surviving brother, Nello, an apple that fell far from that particular tree, for Nello is rather a suave bookworm, and one played winningly by Neri Marcore. He is sent to Bologna to find a fiancée, this being 1920’s Italy.

No, there is no real sorrow present in this gem of a romantic comedy written and directed by the award-winning Pupi Avati. Instead, it is the grand ironies that may ache and linger here, ironies that begin when we first encounter at the convent the beauteous Angela Gardini (Vanessa Incontrada), who is not even the blind woman he was invited there to meet. Angela, Angela, Angela…clearly up-to-date with her Jazz-era novels, at any rate, to have swallowed so completely, as it soon proves, the identities of, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy, and Hemingway’s Lady Brett.

Angela is, in other words, the mercurial type, one quite a few of us have, no doubt, been blessed with.

A rich movie, and with wisdom to spare, including Cesare’s own regarding the reading of the latest telegram—words that could guide a reader, or a poet, anywhere: “Don’t swallow the words, and don’t get over-excited.” In the end we need not mourn too much for Nello (who by the same token could also be called ‘high-maintenance’, if his father’s bank account were to speak). For it is Nello who does come to have the last laugh—as will, perhaps, at least a few other guys.

A few others, elsewhere.

--Dave Blanchard


Carmen, Nuria Espert (1991) (Reviewed November 16, 2012)



The Siren whose song is, ‘Beware’…

Poor Don Jose, in tears at the end. Perhaps Michaela will send him, as once before another lady did, a file and a piece of gold, in prison.

That other lady, of course, would be Carmen, though no longer available, whether Don Jose in need or not, for such gestures. And if you wonder how exactly it is one can hope to send a file to a prisoner, then you're not paying attention--for if indeed it is Carmen who wants to, and there are men involved, it's no wonder whatsoever.

Who can say if she is, for her own good, too much the toreador herself, goading—or, to use a yet-unknown word, ‘objectifying’ men, into humiliation and destruction; a modern woman waging a doomed campaign, given the century or more before she could expect reinforcement.

And yet if Carmen (Maria Ewing, so perfect in the role as though to have been Bizet’s original muse)—if the titular character herself is just to die for, this production, on the other hand, simply makes you want to live longer. Let me elaborate, in the voice perhaps of The Simpsons’ good neighbor Ned Flanders, for there is certainly more than a little of the spiritual, one may say the divine, in whatever inspired first Georges Bizet, and after a time, here the wondrous Nuria Espert and her colleagues. Staged at the Royal Opera House in London, the cast and entire chorus obviously hand-picked for their talents and presence, the camera work either rapier-like in catching passing moments, or as though like open-heart surgery, when in longer pauses it falls in close-up upon the two female stars…

It simply makes you want to live longer, in case there aren’t DVDs in heaven.

Although Leontina Vaduva, based on her impossibly-glowing Michaela, may herself be the messenger, that there are.


(Directed for the stage by Nuria Espert, Zubin Mehta conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House.)

--Dave Blanchard


La Notte, Michelangelo Antonioni (1961)

Well, Apollo always was a bit much, wasn’t he...

In a truly admiring sense, this thought is what stays with me after watching La Notte, the 1961 centerpiece of Michelangelo Antonioni’s famous cinematic trio.

As noted once before, a story starts at the beginning (see Aristotle). One might try defining that ‘beginning’ as this: the catalyst added to what is, to cause what will come to be (added, that is, whether in supreme confidence or not-so-supreme, added accidentally, or sometimes just hopefully, the way an eight-year old might add something promising to catalyze his chemistry-set project).

Or as an act of God. And though the level of poise is so refined as to camouflage, throughout the film, several moments of great drama, there is no disguising the drama of the very first scene here.

And its catalyzing effect: The sick bed of the Other Person, the one who knew you and waited, the one whose understanding and appreciation, though perfect, fell somehow short of your standards. Much of the first half of La Notte—this first half set still during the day, indeed with the sun at its height, and Lidia (the poet Keats' sans Merci lady herself, Jeanne Moreau) perhaps hoping that the park rockets may hasten its demise--is simply of Lidia’s reaction to seeing, well, the end of such a friend.

And its intimations, not necessarily always of immortality. Robert Stone’s fine novel Outerbridge Reach is another story of two tremendously gifted, attractive and wretchedly unhappy people who happen to be married to each other. In the novel, the husband leaves, his escape made on a solo sailboat in an around-the-world race.

Blessed night arriving, perhaps it is the party hosted by the parents of the uber-vibrant Valentina (Monica Vitti) that serves as that race here, and in a somewhat happier way, finally, than as in the Stone book. Antonioni’s La Notte (he won the David di Donatello Award) is sleek, smooth, and only as deadly as...

Well, say that yet-less sophisticated secret agent—the one who got his own ship sailing right about then, in 1961—only as deadly that is, as his gun, when if for once, it stayed safely tucked away, in its well-tailored shoulder holster.

Style and savoir-faire? Compared to Marcello Mastroianni and company here, most of the time, that other fellow’s like an eight year old with a chemistry set.

Dave Blanchard


I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino (2009)

Io Sono L’Amore, an insider’s study of commerce, a film that explores the often-sensitive issues surrounding the sale of large family businesses…

Well, that too. There are actually two things that stand out at once in this rather dispassionate if archly-lovely train wreck of a story, the tale of I Am Love. The first is that it is indeed a tale--a fairy tale, in the sense that no human being, no known creature in real life, could have positively so little to do as the wife of Tancredi Recchi, between helping, more or less, with each new evening’s dinner arrangements.

The second and more urgent is the obvious question: just what exactly goes into that particular prawn dish the Recchi ladies are blessed with? Ratatouille, sweet-and-sour sauce and what else, again?

It could be the secret of our age.

Or so the filmmakers seem to suggest, with the poetic, freshman keg-party cinematic force of lights dimming and an entire room spinning. Emma’s is a lunchtime epiphany; and better make my order to go.

Tilda Swinton plays the lady in bloom here, different entirely from the role of Winter Queen she held in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Ms. Swinton’s technique imbues this fairy tale instead with a formidable delicacy, a stimulating indifference, a lack of direction that is the polar opposite of the micro-managing, my-wish-is-your-command cold joy she had bossing wintry Narnia around. The only thing frozen here is Emma’s attitude towards personal growth, and this attitude reflects the at-first-uninspired dialogue (“How is he?” “He is fine.”) to good advantage, particularly after things heat up. Give her credit too, that she allows us that soaked, bedraggled look of hers near the end, a raw moment that underlines the stark choice she is making, at an unsettled time indeed.

Though she does seem to believe that a happy ending awaits, still, one might suspect otherwise, as I did after watching the film for a second time. This is a choice, that the future, of course, is a mystery, a choice made by the filmmakers—that further unexpected catastrophe, never mind disappointment, could equally await. It is a choice that lets one recommend this as a film of suitable gravity, given its seeming adulation, if you will, of adultery, and the appearance of being some Epicurean homage to it.

A happy ending, eventually? Emma is from well to the east of Milan, as it happens, so maybe she knows better. Perhaps her new novio (is that redundant?) will feel there remain other fair hearts and tummies for him to conquer. At the same time somewhere earlier Emma’s own daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher aglow)—herself wrapped up by now in the wings, the coils, of novel love—voices a laconic hypothesis, a personal motto. Her darling Elisabetta, to whom given the honor of the film’s final line, a single exclamation—Elisabetta says, more or less, that happy makes us sad.

So watch I Am Love, you’ll be happy, or sad, if you don’t. Bon appetit, and most importantly, of course, no horseplay by the pool.

Dave Blanchard


Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008)

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

And in the land of blind passion, so perhaps the shrewd. Wikipedia reports that Mr. Andreotti actually left a screening of the movie midway through, and my guess is this: it was at the moment of his heart-felt soliloquy, real or made-up...an unvarnished private speech that centered on his beloved wife Livia (played by the enchanting Anna Bonaiuto), on her ‘lively and innocent’ eyes—the one moment when he is seen to have displayed any passion at all.

Il Divo. The Hunchback. Eternity. A modern Borgia? A hero of the Cold War?

For Andreotti, the seemingly-reluctant ringmaster of a generation of somber Italian politics, both descriptions may apply, and regarding any Machiavellan echoes in his career, stay tuned, perhaps, for an HBO series.

With its hush and time-frame abandoned, the film is largely a Fellini-esque dream, and, as sometimes with dreams, one in which the horrific is not quite as horrible as it should be. Of course (particularly here for supporters of parties opposed to Andreotti’s) the good times are rather off the mark as well.

The ‘good times’? Yes, a good question, Doctor…but the dream did strike me as possessing a few! Perhaps the main one is the pleasant notion that our blessed Lord, as He was for the now-dissolved DC, is indeed the Big Boss, however much centuries of experience with this hypothesis led to something called the U.S. Constitution, and the disinclination to subject Him to the various cloakrooms involved.

Exactly what was in it for Andreotti, who seemed incapable of any pleasure, for good or ill (although there was a fleeting shadow of a smile, there, at some wry comment)? Toni Servillo’s precise, riveting portrayal hints only at the simple pride of a chess grandmaster, or rather of someone who is a grandmaster at something else, too—Monopoly, say, a version based on the acquisition not of real estate but, more influentially, political I-O-U’s, from the small to the very large indeed.

There is something almost royal, even commendable in Andreotti’s habits of untiring, if unsmiling, public service. Or perhaps not royal so much as almost Eastern, as though a civil servant from centuries ago born to his estate in the court of some dynasty...and from birth, by his affliction, almost doomed to the role, and to the somber constraints of moving through life with the severely-restrained grace of an actual geisha girl. Watch how he exits a room, and see if you aren’t left feeling pretty darn special.

Lots and lots of violence, not only claiming the formerly alive, among whom undoubtedly individuals of profound courage and principle, but also the many wounded, this by Andreotti’s own private tally. There are something like fifty shades of conspiratorial gray here, and how anyone even merely kept track is beyond me. But...spoiler alert...the fact is this: if you’re looking for a Who Done It?, there is, as already noted, lots and lots of ‘It’, but precious little in the way of certainty as to any ‘Who’.

See it anyway. As Il Divo might have said, The truth can wait.

Dave Blanchard


Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni
(1997)

"Wow--if only I were so-and-so!"

Some movies...some of the less-demanding Bond adventures, say, at least for a single guy...some movies are just determined to provoke a certain envy.

In this regard, Life is Beautiful is just as guilty as any movie in memory. And who's the character who provokes such envy? Why, who else but young Joshua, to be blessed with two such parents.

This future classic works despite a logical flaw, seemingly, in its foundation (and an odd issue to point out, certainly, on a website devoted to an all-but- incomparably beautiful actress). The flaw is this--the early theme, even lesson of the film is this: Looks don't matter. Mr. Benigni is perfectly charming, and likely capable of winning most any heart, but in looks rather indifferent. Why then is his wonderfully good-humored heart--They dream in France of these ears, and who has seen such a hip?, etc.--why is this huge heart just absolutely set on only the very prettiest girl in town? Wouldn't his courting a somewhat lesser beauty (that being virtually any other actress, yes) have been more charming still?

The answer is this: at the start of the story, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) is the one who fell into his arms, literally from the sky, and fortunately, too, in that Guido knows exactly how to treat her wasp wound--if, alas, only the single one, she insisting, being there and in need of treatment! The point is this: Aristotle wrote simply that every story must have a beginning, and so this fortunate moment is made their story's start, and fair enough.

Part two of the movie is darkly different, a father teaching his son the skills he will need to survive; of course, every father's duty. After Dora halts the SS train to join her husband and their child on it, I knew I would not be able to watch it through. Indeed I had to turn it off for a time, when Guido began casting about, on young Joshua's behalf, to create a name for the game they were playing (he settles, of course, on 'The Thousand-Points Game', this of more interest to a child, perhaps, than something along the also-top secret lines of 'The Manhattan Project' or 'Overlord', which thankfully also had their adherents.)

And poor Joshua, who has to deal with not only the Ten Commandments but near the end, an 11th as well, Thou Shall Not Move!

Our own little problems, they never will amount to that 'hill of beans', really, will they? Surely Guido agreed, and this from inside the heart of the beast, not as for Bogie's Rick, far off in his immortal Casablanca club. I was teary-eyed at the end, which for me was a first--at least in watching any movie scene that includes a Sherman battle tank, 'first prize' or otherwise...

Regarding Joshua, and others: here's to the winners.


Dave Blanchard



The Italian, Andrey Kravchuk (2005)


The Italian could be set anywhere, with its unusual theme of doing anything not to be taken to Italy. In the event, it is set in Russia.

That part of Russia, anyway, where, as we come to learn, “it rains all the time, but it is warm inside.” Young Ivan ‘Vanya’ Soltnsev, an orphan, is the hero of this cross-country great escape, determined to learn about his roots, as adoption by a young and loving Italian couple grows imminent. Determined he certainly is, and in his dogged resourcefulness, his flat out ability to avoid capture, he sometimes resembles Jason Bourne.

If the famous American agent had started life as a rogue five-year old, that is. Again, Vanya (played unforgettably by Nikolay Spiridonov) is determined, rather than desperate, and in this way he may come to prove an inspiration to others. They include an equally dogged and resourceful nemesis, Madam (a commanding Mariya Kuznetsova), with her loyal chauffeur Grisha (Nikolay Reutov) and Madam’s ability—rare, in the setting—to be as generous as the situation may demand.

The movie maintains an early focus on some of the rough edges of life, in part no doubt to forego comparison to, say, Finding Nemo. Upon seeing young Irka (Olga Shuvalova) descend from the passenger seat of yet another anonymous truck, there is no further danger of that. But as in Dickens, with whose work this film can certainly stand comparison, there are rays of light, here for instance the delightfully happy small band of teenagers with a guitar, on the train.

And so if there is a delightful moment still ahead, one of nearly transcendental power, it is not unheralded.

The Italian is a story of 'missing' the unknown, and the ways it may spread to others.
Don’t miss it!
--Dave Blanchard


Swept Away, Lina Wertmuller, 1974



First of all, any talk of skin color, in the movie’s dialogue or reviews since, has to be either: a) ironic, or b)missing some point. With her gigantic, wide-set eyes, with those sun-bleached eye brows of hers fading into her skin tones, Rafaela could just as well be an African princess, on vacation from some fortunate place there.

Now for the plot. Taming of the Shrew meets The Tempest meets Casablanca meets…

Okay, let’s see. We’ll try again, here.  Swept Away is really about:

A modern Metamorphosis.

The Stockholm Syndrome: Its Effect on Two Held Captive in Paradise.

The old saying: Give a blonde bomb-shell a fish, you’ll feed her for a day, but TEACH her to fish and you will feed her for a lifetime?

Maybe an allegory for one country’s mindless fixation on a strong leader in difficult times? Mindless, indeed, because on the island they just did not, for one second, look beyond the horizons of embrace…not even to plan, with rescue at least possible, how to make their new relationship continue.

Or simply, it’s about the obvious: that Love can sometimes be one very, very hot potato.
(And this ‘woman was made to serve man’ business? A woman director? It’s as though W.E. DuBois directed Birth of a Nation.)

Ah, we are on to politics now, are we. “The sea is grand, but nothing compared to the stupidity of people!”

Let’s say for some reason I had shut my eyes throughout the entire movie, or heard it on the radio. Rafaela is still immensely vivacious and appealing, and her If You Can’t Say Something Nice, Then By All Means Say It Anyway attitude refreshing for a time now habituated to coddling kids or jerks on the street by…well, by just not saying anything.

Or if at all, ‘saying’ it on the Internet. And by the way, a reminder if needed:

Don't hit women.

If you feel the need, come to Philadelphia and look me up first.

Anyway, nothing timid or passive-aggressive about THIS well-wrought deck ornament. Opening one’s eyes in her special way, of course,  Rafaela--tougher than most jerks, if not quite as headstrong perhaps as some kids—Rafaela has the exact look she says she is fortunate to escape early on, from Gennarino:

She has the look that kills.
 
Perhaps the message is that it takes, as with a diamond, the forces of nature to create …what, the most dazzling love. And the fact of Rafaela’s angelic physical beauty finally being made delicately human is perhaps a gift, of Gennarino’s, (played by Giancarlo Giannini, in the best role ever) almost to counter the Promethean one.  It should be recognized, of course, that any actress, nearly any woman at all performing such a sexy and passionate role will come off as, well, more sexy and passionate, anyway.  

But compare, for example, the ‘anime’ eyes of an actress featured in a fashion magazine out this month, July, to those of the actress, Mariangela Melato. With those eyebrows bleached from the sun, her eyes are even more spectacular, not ‘anime’ but as though from some otherworldly toddler’s cartoon….and this lends a childlike quality to her that on the island, eventually, makes her ‘coming around’, and its depths, seem as natural as the tide.

But the most sublime few seconds are still well before landfall, the moments in the dinghy, night falling now and it getting chilly, after she has repeated, mockingly, something Gennarino has just said. She says—cries out in anger, really, Let us hope so, yes as they face their first darkness alone, and the lingering shot on her own face--a reaction shot if, for Rafaela as usual, to her very own utterance—this masterful lingering shot records the actress’ stunning, wrenching tone poem of expression, a few seconds’ survey of the angry-to-wide eyed best of silent era angels, who themselves years before, also wondered, What’s next? 

But in the end, let’s face it: without the epic, near-mythological backdrop of her fall from privilege and its conceits, Rafaela’s would be simply this: one more very, very, very pretty face. And the story merely wistful comedy--those who enjoy NBC’s The Office may remember, as an example, a close encounter Michael Scott had with a Canadian concierge, during a sojourn of his own...

But Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away? The force of a Paradise Regained; and--of course--lost too soon again.

--Dave Blanchard