Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Y tu futbol tambien

By Edward Copeland
When considering the powerhouse of Mexican filmmaking talent behind Rudo y Cursi, it's a bit of a disappointment that the end result is just a slight, watchable, predictable movie. Directed and written by Carlos Cuaron, the co-writer of Y Tu Mama Tambien, and produced by his older brother Alfonso, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Rudo y Cursi reunites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as working class half-brothers who find themselves thrust into the fame and fortune of the Mexican soccer world.

The brothers play the sport for fun while working on the same banana plantation. Beto (Luna) is married with children and has long lived for the game, but he's angry with his lot in life, which isn't helped by his love of gambling and his bad luck at it.

Tato (Bernal) is a sweet-natured lad infatuated with legends of his French father, longing to follow in his supposed footsteps as a singer.

When a slick talent scout named Baton (Guillermo Francella) stumbles upon the brothers' soccer game, he offers them a chance at professional soccer, though he can only offer one a shot at the time. Decided by a penalty kick, Tato wins the chance (though he views it only as a stepping stone to musical stardom).

Once he makes a name for himself, where he earns the nickname Cursi, which roughly translates to corny, he is able to bring Beto into the pros as well, where he earns a reputation as a tough goalkeeper and the nickname Rudo.

While most of Rudo y Cursi plays light and amiably, you know that with Tato's singing desire and romance with a golddigging TV celebrity (Jessica Mas) and Rudo's gambling problem certain to metastasize on a grand scale, what goes up will inevitably come down.

In fact, with as many uncertainties hanging on the climax, you'd think there would be a certain amount of suspense as to the outcome by the sheer number of possibilities, yet it still ends up being predictable. It's really the performers who save the film at all.

Bernal is engaging and Luna injects his role with the right mix of gravity and levity. Still, the most entertaining standout turns out to be Francella, who also serves as narrator of the forgettable film.

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Monday, July 27, 2009


Waiting for Godard

By Edward Copeland
Jean-Luc Godard and I always have had a prickly, imagined relationship. For every film such as Band of Outsiders or A Woman Is a Woman that I've enjoyed, there are films such as Breathless and Contempt that I found overrated or films such as Alphaville or Les carabiniers that I didn't even finish. Thankfully, Tout va Bien fell into the first camp for me, even seeming to be the first Godard effort to blend his interesting visuals and hard-to-describe stories with a clear set of ideas behind them.

Godard co-directed Tout va Bien with Jean-Pierre Gorin and stars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, still bearing her Bree hairdo from Klute. The movie begins basically as a film-within-a-film as voiceovers question how to go about it. Don't they need funding? Stars? A love story?

The romance, as far as it goes, comes via Montand and Fonda's characters, a married couple named Jacques and Suzanne. Jacques is a filmmaker, who has turned to directing commercials, mainly because it is quicker, easier and more lucrative. Suzanne is an American reporter and the couple become unwitting hostages as Suzanne visits a factory for a story at the exact moment that the workers stage a strike, holding the building and its manager as a bargaining tool.

During this section of the film, Godard and Gorin set up one of those sequences that I'm always a sucker for, be it on stage or film: a multi-level view of a structure with multiple rooms. It can be in a so-so film such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or the great Ray Davies number of "Quiet Life" in Julien Temple's underrated and nearly forgotten Absolute Beginners.

Once the factory sequence has concluded, Tout va Bien widens its scope as Jacques questions his own responsibilities to politics and his chosen ideology. He admits that he always voted communist, though never joined the party and then became disillusioned with the Soviet Union's actions. It raises for him a larger question: What is an intellectual's responsibility to a revolution?

A question much on his mind in the time period, which centers around the student cultural riots in France also depicted in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. It's a question worth mulling today when would-be right-wing revolutionaries make it a point to reject intellectualism. The revolution that gave birth to the greatness of the United States sprang from intellectuals. Oh, how nitwits who believe in the Birthers conspiracy movement must hate the Founding Fathers. Damn them and their rational thought and their gall for using brains and intellect!

An interesting feature on the Criterion DVD that falls along these lines is a documentary that Gorin and Godard made further exploring this question called Letter to Jane and based entirely on the photo of Fonda visiting North Vietnam after she was finished making their film.

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Monday, July 20, 2009


She has to talk loud: She's an American

By Edward Copeland
The dreary interiors of the English estate seem to belie the bouncy renditions of the period songs that permeate the soundtrack of Easy Virtue, the new film by Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) based on an early film by Alfred Hitchcock. (Just kidding: That's my Ben Lyons joke for today.)

Easy Virtue actually is based on an early play by Noel Coward and while there are many sly laughs, it's not as eager to please as some of his later stage efforts would be.

Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins adapted Coward's story of the stuffy Whittaker family disrupted by the arrival of their son (John Ben Barnes) with a bride Larita, a brash American race car driver (Jessica Biel).

No one is more outraged than the Whittaker family matriarch (Kristin Scott Thomas) who finds Larita totally unsuitable, though she harbors other ulterior motives for being against the match as well.

Colin Firth plays the family's patriarch and gives the film's finest performance as a lost soul, done in by his experiences during World War I. He wandered the world carousing until his wife found him and brought him home, where he now haunts the estate as if he's a ghost.

Thomas, as one would expect, turns in a fine performance as well but the real surprise is Biel who holds her own nicely with the other players.

Easy Virtue certainly turns out to be a watchable enterprise with some nice laughs even with its serious undercurrents, but the musical choices, while era appropriate, seem out of place with the mood of the film itself.

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Friday, July 17, 2009


“You gentlemen aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
On this date in 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released what many consider to be the quintessential thriller directed by the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. I say “quintessential” because if someone who had never seen a Hitchcock film approached me and asked for a recommendation, I would suggest North by Northwest (1959) without hesitation. I’ve been a fan of the director’s work since I can’t remember — but if I were to single out one film that I could watch over and over again and never — ever — tire of, Northwest would get the nod.

Are there better films in Hitchcock’s oeuvre than Northwest? Each of his films has their devotees. Vertigo (1958) is often advocated as the director’s most personal film (and by default, his best); I’ve also witnessed other vehicles such as Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Rear Window (1954), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), etc. championed vociferously as well. Northwest is my favorite because it brings to a full boil all the essential elements present in his films: the “wrong man” on the run for a crime he did not commit; the icy-cold and blonde femme fatale who eventually rallies around the reluctant hero; the suave, debonair villain who is often more charming and attractive than the protagonist; the chaos that erupts from being bored in an otherwise orderly world; and the eventual plummet of the villain(s) from a great height, symbolizing a “fall from grace.” Even the celebrated MacGuffin — described as an item that moves the plot and motivates the characters, but is of little interest to the director (and the audience, by default) — is reduced to its lowest common denominator. When Roger O. Thornhill (the “hero” in the film, played by Cary Grant) asks “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) what the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) is trafficking in, he gets the response: “Oh…government secrets…” It’s like he read it off a grocery list.

The plot of North by Northwest is familiar to nearly all film buffs, but for the record (WARNING: spoilers ahead): An advertising man named Roger Thornhill finds himself mistaken for a government agent named “George Kaplan” and begins the adventure of a lifetime when goons employed by the chief villain (Vandamm) set out to terminate him with extreme prejudice — first by getting him drunk and placing him behind the wheel of an out-of-control car, then framing him for the murder of a U.N. diplomat. Fleeing from the authorities who want to question him about the murder, Thornhill decides to play the part of Kaplan and continue with the fictional agent’s itinerary. On board a train bound for Chicago, Roger makes the acquaintance of lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps him elude the long arm of the law and puts him in contact with the real Kaplan (who really doesn’t exist; “Kaplan” is merely a decoy to ward off suspicion from a counterspy who’s infiltrated the ranks of the enemy)—but all Roger gets for his trouble is another attempt on his life…this time from someone who shoots at him while flying a crop-duster over a deserted cornfield. Thornhill, realizing he’s being played for a sap, confronts Eve in her hotel room and when she steps out to keep an appointment, follows her to an auction house only to see her draped over the arm of Vandamm! It is that point that the U.S. Government (“FBI, CIA, ONI... we're all in the same alphabet soup”) steps in to help the hapless Thornhill, who learns to his relief that Eve is really the counterspy who’s infiltrated Vandamm’s inner circle. But he also finds out that she’s expected to keep up the deception…and having fallen for her in a big way, is determined to rescue her from her (since she’s unaware Vandamm and his boys are on to her) in one of the most famous chase climaxes in the history of cinema.

When you think back on Hitchcock’s 50-plus films, you can’t help but remember the famous “set pieces” that enthrall you while you’re watching any of his movies…and that create lasting impressions long after the film is finished. The shower murder in Psycho. The fall from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942). The fight on the carousel in Strangers on a Train; the Albert Hall assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); the difficulty shown in taking a man’s life in Torn Curtain (1966) — these and so many more moments of suspense remain in the memory years and years afterward. Northwest is fortunate to contain two of the very best: the crop-dusting sequence (in which Hitchcock demonstrates how a man can be completely out in the open and still unable to find security as a biplane continually fires upon Thornhill in a brazen attempt to eliminate him) and a scramble down Mount Rushmore, as Roger and Eve desperately try to escape Vandamm’s thugs amidst the backdrop of the stone countenances of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln (Hitchcock had originally wanted to call this film The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.)

In his film reference book Have You Seen…? critic David Thomson describes Northwest thusly:
You see, what I realized was that North by Northwest is only pretending to be a suspense thriller, an action-adventure picture or a road movie. It’s actually a screwball comedy — and one of our greatest. And I have reached a time in life where I’d rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.

There are always moments of levity in Hitchcock’s work, but never more blatant than in Northwest, thanks to scribe Ernest Lehman (who, as Thomson remarks, “got himself into some awkward pictures, this must have been grace and reassurance”) and star Cary Grant, who brings the same sensibility of his Bringing Up Baby character David Huxley to the role of Thornhill in portraying a befuddled individual frantically trying to make sense of it all. There are so many great lines in this movie, but these are a few of my favorites:
TICKET AGENT (to Thornhill, who’s wearing sunglasses): Something wrong with your eyes?
THORNHILL: Yes, they’re sensitive to questions…

THORNHILL (to patrolmen in police car): Well, didn't you hear what I said? I want to be taken to police headquarters. I'm a dangerous assassin; I'm a mad killer on the loose…
DRIVER: You oughta be ashamed of yourself!

THORNHILL: Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.

But the one that tops them all is the title of this post, spoken by Thornhill’s mother Clara (Jessie Royce Landis) inside an elevator crammed with wall-to-wall humanity, two of which are stooges for Vandamm. I love how brilliantly this scene plays out: the entire population of the elevator car bursts out into laughter, with Landis — after first looking around with a quizzical “What-did-I-say?” expression — joins in the mirth shortly after. (There’s also Grant’s admonition: “In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie…there's only the expedient exaggeration” — which I use every time I’m engaged in a phone conversation with a longtime friend who has a predilection for stretching the truth.)

In addition to these bon mots, Northwest contains some of the sexiest and suggestive innuendo I’ve ever heard outside a film noir or Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957):
THORNHILL: Tell me, why are you so good to me?
EVE: Shall I climb up and tell you why?

THORNHILL: When I was a little boy, I wouldn’t even let my mother undress me…
EVE: Well, you’re a big boy now…

EVE: I’m a big girl…
THORNHILL: Yeah…and in all the right places, too…

THORNHILL: Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes? Couldn't he have taken an hour?
EVE: You could always take a cold shower…

It’s not just the verbal banter between Roger and Eve that makes Northwest seductive and sexy — the entire film is riddled with suggestions of sex, from the short scene where an escaping Thornhill invades the hospital room of a female patient (she commands him to “Stop!” and then, after getting a closer look at how handsome he is, rephrases it in a plaintive wail: “Stopppp…”) to the gay campiness of Vandamm’s right-hand man Leonard (“Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will”). (If you’re still not convinced, the final shot of the movie will certainly drive the point home.)

The casting in this film is simply superb: Cary Grant plays…well, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint was never more sultry and James Mason is in my opinion the perfect Hitchcock villain (even his name sounds like swearing: “Vandamm it!”). Add to this roster Landis, Carroll, Landau and character faves like Ed Binns, Edward Platt, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Josephine Hutchinson and Philip Ober…with that infectious, can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head “drunken tango” score by the incomparable Bernard Herrmann.

The very first time I saw North by Northwest, I was attending Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and film biographer Donald Spoto had paid a visit to the MU campus to promote his forthcoming book The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. As luck would have it, I not only happened to have my copy of his reference book on Hitchcock’s films, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, back at my dorm but was invited by a professor to attend a tête-à-tête to discuss Hitchcock with Spoto along with some other classmates…allowing me to get the book autographed. I was a bit nervous to ask any questions — and besides, the professor kind of monopolized the conversation in which we took part — but when I summoned up the courage to ask him to sign it, I also asked him if he thought we’d ever be able to see Rope (1948), Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo in circulation again (at the time, all of these films were being held back in some sort of legal limbo) he sadly remarked he didn’t think so. (I’ll bet it was one of the few times in his life when he was happy to have been proven wrong.)

Spoto had also agreed to give a lecture following a showing of Psycho that same evening, something that I was positively giddy about until I remembered I had promised my old college paisan Jeff Lane I’d do his Thursday evening shift at Marshall’s radio station, FM 88 — the Mighty Mule, as we often referred to it. Again, it was my day to think about buying a lotto ticket — I would be able to do the shift and get there just in time to see the conclusion and hear Spoto’s thoughts (I had by that time seen Psycho quite a few times, so I didn’t sweat missing the beginning) of the film. But during our earlier conversation, he told us students that he was bummed about not being able to see Northwest (which MU’s film committee had scheduled for three showings on Friday), which he considered a true Hitchcock picture — as for Rebecca (1940), slated for showing on Sunday afternoon and evening, he dismissed that as “a Selznick picture.” Having not ever seen Northwest (though familiar with some of the film, courtesy of a West Virginia Public Television showing of The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock), I attended the Friday afternoon showing at 3 p.m.…and again at 7 p.m. …and again at 9:30 p.m. Twenty-five some years later, I still find myself moving “in a northwesterly direction” whenever TCM has it on its schedule…and I have a feeling I’ll be running from that crop-duster as long as I am able to draw a breath.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


How do you classify a film like Bashir?

By Edward Copeland
When Waltz With Bashir began making news last awards' season, it seemed to defy categorization. It was a documentary, however it was animated. However, some of the characters were fictionalized because the real interview subjects didn't want their identities revealed. On top of all of that, it also was in a foreign language (unless your native language is Hebrew). I think there is a simple classification for this movie: It's a damn good film.

Waltz With Bashir uses arresting animation and riveting editing to follow Israeli writer-director Ari Folman's attempt to recapture repressed memories of his own participation in the 1982 Lebanon War, specifically the massacre of Palestinians being held in a camp.

The film doesn't spend a lot of time on the politics of the war or the region, taking a more universal approach to post-traumatic stress that could happen to troops in any conflict, any time, anywhere.

Despite its grim subject, it does find room for healthy doses of humor. Waltz With Bashir really is unlike anything I've seen before and it carries you from beginning to end, to its one instance of devastating real images.

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Monday, July 13, 2009


A really great visit with old friends

By Edward Copeland
For some reason, in addition to not getting the credit it richly deserves as it turns 30 today, Breaking Away far too often gets lumped into the generic category of "sports movie" when nothing could be further from the truth. When I scanned some reviews of the film after finishing this piece, one writer accused it of being a "formula sports film" that ends with "the big game." Ignoring whether this person even watched Breaking Away, yes, a bike race does appear near the end of the film, but only one of the four young men at the center of the film is a cycling enthusiast and the race isn't where the entire film has been heading. His three friends essentially have no cycling skills and are only there because the race rules require a team of four. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates from Steve Tesich's Oscar-winning screenplay, tells a coming-of-age story, or rather trying to avoid it and the clash between blue collar and white collar types in a college town and, yes, it contains some cycling.

Dennis Christopher stars as Dave Stoller, born-and-bred in Bloomington, Ind., where Indiana University residents. Dave and his three best buddies Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley). All are the offspring of men that the fratboys for generations have referred to as "cutters" for their jobs working on the stone quarries in the area. The problem is that as quarries mostly have dried up, taking most of the jobs with them. If I've given you the impression that this setting makes for a downbeat movie, nothing could be further from the proof. Breaking Away is one of the most sweetly funny films I've ever seen. In fact, re-watching the film reminded that as much as the time period from whence it came is often lauded (to the point of exaggeration) as the "last golden age of movies," it also was the last great age of serious coming-of age movies. In addition to Breaking Away, they gave us My Bodyguard, Over the Edge. You could even count Saturday Night Fever. Since then, they have be silly, vulgar or have characters who are too cute by half. Back then, they spoke as they might actually have spoken if you’d come across them in real life. As Breaking Away opens, Dave's cycling obsession has focused on the Italian racing team, so much so that he's taken to speaking with an Italian accent, driving his father (the great Paul Dooley) mad. His friends indulge him, especially self-appointed leader Mike (Quaid) as long as he's not seen as doing something unforgivable to him such as getting a job or a wife. The former quarterback, in his first year after high school, seems satisfied with a life of ennui. Moocher (Haley) goes so far as to keep his impending marriage to his girlfriend a secret from his friends for as long as possible. When it is revealed, and Moocher remind Mike that he's no longer the quarterback and they can't go on wasting their lives, Cyril (Stern) responds, "I thought that was our plan — to waste our lives together." Despite the great chemistry of the four young actors, for me the real stars of the film were the pair that played Dave’s parents. Barbara Barrie earned an Oscar nomination for supporting actress for her work. Being a well-known Oscar obsessive, I’ve been frequently asked over the years what I thought was the most egregious example of the Academy not nomination something they should have. There are countless answers to that question, but almost inevitably what comes from my lips first are the words “Paul Dooley for Breaking Away.” He won some critics' awards and the Academy recognized the film in many key categories, including best picture, so his exclusion boggles the mind. He deserved a nomination over all five of the men who did get in and certainly the win over Melvyn Douglas for Being There. As Dave’s father, he is funny, but he’s also concerned and touching, as when he takes his son on a tour of the IU campus and explains to him that he is a cutter, Dave will never be one because that job barely exists. As he admires the university’s buildings, he tells his sons, “I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all.” As for that "big race" at the end, even it defies the formula of the big game moment. Vindication doesn't really change the status of the friends' lives. In fact, there is even a small, sad moment that's almost so brief as to be missed. After the victory (sorry if you think that's a spoiler), Dave's parents congratulate him, Moocher's wife gives him a big hug and Mike's cop older brother (John Ashton) cheers his little bro. Then there is Cyril, Cyril who always has joked about how his father is so understanding about his failures, looking around with a sheepish grin and seeing that there is no one there for him at all. Revisiting Breaking Away again for the first time in many years, it felt as fresh as it did when I first saw it. More people should remember it.

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Friday, July 10, 2009


Herzog Week: My Best Fiend

By Edward Copeland
The only time I visited Europe was in late 1991. Somewhere along the Italian Riviera, I spotted a newspaper in a language I couldn't read but with a headline that had enough words that I could recognize: Klaus Kinski Morte. My Best Fiend, in a sense, is less a documentary (of course Herzog doesn't like to distinguish much between features and documentaries, insisting Fitzcarraldo is his best documentary) about the late eccentric actor than director Werner Herzog's feature-length eulogy for his volatile friend.

Herzog first met Kinski as a teen when he shared an apartment with Herzog's family and Kinski already was an aspiring — and eccentric — actor then, prone to outbursts of rage. Years later, when his career was more firmly established, these became legendary and anyone amazed by the Christian Bale recording can see he had nothing on Kinski when you see some of the footage of the explosions Kinski unleashes on the sets of the films he made with Herzog.

If My Best Fiend has a weakness, it's that a lot of the footage is the same footage you will have seen if you've watched Burden of Dreams. Herzog does find more amusement than sadness when discussing his lost friend, especially when discussing Kinski's autobiography which Kinski admitted was almost entirely fiction because he thought no one would have any interest in reading the real story of his life or if he admitted he liked Herzog.

Herzog took a lot of grief for making five films with Kinski (Cobra Verde is the only one of the five I haven't seen), since his reputation as a troublemaker preceded him and most other actors and crew were reluctant to work with him.

Despite its portrait of a truly unstable talent, Herzog still clearly conveys his affection for Kinski and that shows through above all as does the late actor's talent, especially through the moving images that Herzog chooses to close the film.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009


Herzog Week: Burden of Dreams

By Edward Copeland
Can a documentary come with spoiler warnings? It probably depends on how much you know about the history of the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo going in, but there were some real surprises for me when I watched Burden of Dreams.

For one thing, right off the top I learned something I didn't know: That the film began as an English language film with Jason Robards in the title role and Mick Jagger as his dimwitted actor sidekick. With filming 40% complete, but with numerous complications involving a border war, missed rainy seasons that left rivers unnavigable for the film's boats and the backing out of financiers, Robards became seriously ill and had to go back to the U.S., with orders not to return.

At the same time, the production had gone on so long, Jagger had to back out as well as the Rolling Stones had a commitment to a concert tour. Back to the drawing board for Herzog, who did a massive rewrite, got Klaus Kinski involved and had even more problems. The documentary is so amazing that it's a wonder that Fitzcarraldo got finished at all.

Of course, the big moment of the film involved the dragging of the large boat over a mountain to reach the river on the other side. The man who did this in real life had the good sense to disassemble his boat and do it in pieces, but Herzog insisted on doing it in one piece, making it even more of a maddening challenging.

One thing is for certain: No one should ever watch Fitzcarraldo without watching Burden of Dreams soon after. As an added plus on the Criterion DVD of Burden of Dreams is included an earlier short film by its director, Les Blank, called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Herzog had years earlier befriended a struggling young filmmaker named Errol Morris who was frustrated about how to get started in the business and Herzog bet him that if he got his film made (a documentary about pet cemeteries called Gates of Heaven), Herzog would eat his shoe, which he proceeds to do at the film's premiere.

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Herzog Week: Fitzcarraldo

By Edward Copeland
Even though it's not officially a two-part film, Fitzcarraldo in many ways reminds me of Apocalypse Now. The films are good, stand-alone works but when you see the documentaries about what went into making them (Burden of Dreams will be along later today), they make the experience even more impressive.

The third collaboration of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo tells the story, loosely based on truth, of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, whose name has been garbled into Fitzcarraldo by the Spanish and Indian natives of the region of South America where one mad dream after another falls into ruin.

Fitzcarraldo already has lost a fortune trying to construct a railway across the continent, but now his overriding dream is to build a grand opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos. Unfortunately, he must first find a means of achieving the dream and bringing Caruso to the natives.

His first plan, building a fortune from making ice, goes nowhere, but he soon discovers that there are still some unclaimed regions of the jungle from which a fortune from rubber could be made. Unfortunately, it is in the most mythically dangerous part of the jungle, an isthmus divided by the densest of terrain.

After acquiring a huge boat from another rubber baron, Fitzcarraldo sets out for his mission, to venture into a land where reportedly no men have returned alive. While the film itself is a tad overlong, the imagery is so remarkable that it carries it along and Kinski is the main reason why. With his shock of blond hair and white suit, if you added spectacles, he'd bear a striking resemblance to the musician Thomas Dolby from the same era.

Claudia Cardinale also does well as Fitzcarraldo's lover, a high class brothel madam who finances most of her lover's mad ventures.

While Fitzcarraldo isn't as great as Aguirre, the Wrath of God or an indescribable marvel such as Stroszek, when you combine it with Burden of Dreams it truly is a remarkable experience on par with the pairing of Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Herzog Week: Woyzeck

By Edward Copeland
Werner Herzog mentions (and I've watched and listened to so much Herzog of late, I'm ashamed to admit I can't pinpoint exactly where) that he and Klaus Kinski filmed Woyzeck quickly after they finished their work on Nosferatu. Alas, the speed and the fact that it is based on an unfinished play shows. Thankfully, Kinski's performance makes it worth watching, even though it doesn't come close to matching his other collaborations with Herzog.

Kinski plays Franz Woyzeck, an unstable military private, trained as a rifleman but used mostly as a barber, haunted by voices in his head. He's also the subject of experimentation by a doctor who for a year has allowed him to eat nothing but peas in some cockeyed plan to see if he can turn a man into a donkey.

Woyzeck also has a young wife (Eva Mattes) and child, only his wife can't bear his touch or his obvious madness and barely keeps secret from him her affairs. As her lover and others taunt Woyzeck, his madness grows greater.

The problem with the film is that Woyzeck starts nuts and he really doesn't have anywhere to go. You figure he's going to snap in some way and the dialogue gives you clues like big flashing lights as to what will happen.

It's fortunately a very short film. Kinski's decision to pull his performance in instead of chewing the scenery with madness is the best decision made in the film, but Woyzeck overall is forgettable.

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Herzog Week: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

NOTE: Ranked No. 100 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
In a featurette on the DVD for Nosferatu, Werner Herzog says that it was the first time he attempted a pure genre film and boy did he pull it off. He also felt some responsibility, remaking what he considers the first great German film something that, in actuality, he did twice, making both English-language and German-language versions (on the commentary, Herzog prefers the term reversioning). I only watched the German version and it may well be the best screen telling of the Dracula story I've seen put on celluloid.

Of course, the reason Herzog made two versions was the international nature of his cast and as a result many of the actor's voices were dubbed by others in both versions. The great French actress Isabelle Adjani plays Lucy Harker, but since she spoke neither English nor German, another actress voiced her part in both versions.

The same was true of the Frenchman Roland Topor who plays Renfield, though the dubbed cackle would make Dwight Frye proud even though Herzog claims never to have seen the Bela Lugosi version. Klaus Kinski as Dracula and Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker could do their own voices in both versions.

Herzog, as a German child born during World War II, felt that there was no German forefathers in his immediate generation to look back to, so he and other aspiring filmmakers went back to their cinematic grandfathers like Murnau who made the silent Nosferatu in an effort to find their way to connect to German culture that didn't involve the horrors of Nazism.

Kinski's makeup, which took four hours a day, is patterned after the look Max Schreck had in the silent classic and his subdued performance boosts the creepy element that Herzog builds. What's particularly amazing for a vampire film is how much is not shown. Only a single drop of blood appears on screen throughout the entire film, yet it doesn't do anything to lessen the horror, though I'm not sure horror is the proper word.

There aren't scares as in your typical vampire story; Herzog's film concentrates on moods and atmospherics and really succeeds better than other movies that take the easier paths to spooking the audience. Kinski's Dracula contains a bit of a tragic figure within his horrific monster body, longing for the ability for human emotions such as love or even the desire just to die.

All the classic characters get a bit of a twist. Ganz's Jonathan Harker starts out as the would-be hero, out to save his wife before becoming a zombified figure shaking in a corner. Walter Landegast's Van Helsing isn't the fearsome vampire hunter of some versions, but just your average doctor who believes in science and pooh-poohs the superstition when Adjani's Lucy tries to warn him of the vampire in their midst.

Lucy changes the most. It's somewhat ironic that this version premiered in 1979, the same year that Sigourney Weaver first became Ripley in Alien, because Lucy is the character that pretty much takes charge when it comes to trying to stop Dracula.

Now, she doesn't do some Ripley-style asskicking, but it is an interesting take, especially within her village, which has been hit by the plague and provides some unusual sequences where Lucy tries to enlist help only to find the living citizens drinking and celebrating what they assume will be their last dances.

As I've dived into Herzog for this week's project, I've found his body of work to be more eclectic than you'd think while still showing some of his signatures within the different films. Of all those I've viewed, Nosferatu may be my favorite Herzog so far.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Herzog Week: Stroszek

By Edward Copeland
If you describe in detail the bare bones of the plot of Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek, the movie sounds quite depressing. However, Herzog spins his story in such a whimsical way, it's hard not to smile most of the way through its bittersweet tale.

While there really is not a documentary feel about Stroszek, that line is blurred since the three main characters are all played by real people loosely based on themselves. The title character, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), is an alcoholic who has spent most of his life in Berlin in halfway houses, jails and reform schools and is getting yet another chance at life on the outside as the film opens.

He's quiet with a somewhat sweet demeanor and musical desires that play out on the piano in his apartment or the accordion he takes to the town square for spare change. He takes in a prostitute named Eva (Eva Mattes), who leads poor Stroszek on a great deal of the time while bringing in most of the cash. Bruno's other friend is an elderly man named Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), always a hair trigger away from a rant about the secret police and other conspiracies, who cared for Bruno's things while he was away.

As Bruno and Eva continue to be harassed by a couple of street pimps, the trio hit upon the idea of leaving Berlin to go far away, really far away, to Wisconsin in the United States, where Scheitz says his nephew has invited him to live and offers them job opportunities.

Stroszek is a one-of-a-kind type of film, where you're never quite sure where it's going because plot seems completely extraneous to observation and moments such as dancing chickens that seem out of the blue prove riveting. It's unlike most Herzog films, but it's a wonder to behold.

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Herzog Week: Even Dwarfs Started Small

By Edward Copeland
Of all the Herzog films I watched in preparation for this week, Even Dwarfs Started Small is the only film I came close to not finishing because it's just that damn odd.

You know you're in for something way off the beaten path when the DVD commentary contains (as do most Herzog films) not only Herzog and Norman Hill but professional eccentric Crispin Glover, who was reportedly so influenced by this disturbing mess that he planned to film his own homage to it.

I don't know if Glover got around to it, but if he did, don't tell me about it. In some case, ignorance truly is bliss. While the film is unique for using a cast entirely of little people, it's nothing more than a collection of bizarre and disturbing images.

Though it's about 95 minutes long, it took me a long time to finish because it's weirdness eventually took on an element of mundaneness that would not hold my interest. There is no plot to speak of and even less in the way of character.

My best guess is that it's a story of what happens when the inmates run the asylum, but are they inmates? It's unclear whether the dwarfs are students, inmates or patients of an institution, but they clearly are leading a rebellion when one of their own seem to be arrested for wrongdoing.

As they trap the institution's supervisor inside, they go about mutilating animals, staging mock weddings, setting fires, hotwiring cars so they can run in endless circles and crucifying a monkey. They also giggle and cackle. Boy, do they giggle and cackle.

Herzog says on the commentary that following a prize he won for his first feature, the very good Signs of Life, he was plagued by nightmares and Even Dwarfs Started Small sprang from that. He also said the he was influenced by Tod Browning's classic 1932 film Freaks, but he missed the great lessons of that film. Freaks created real characters you cared about from its sideshow attractions as well as a story that carried the film from beginning to end.

Even Dwarfs Started Small has none of that and is by far the worst Werner Herzog film I've ever seen. Of course, because it was made by a major filmmaker such as Herzog and is ambiguous about what the hell it is about, it's one of those films that many will defend with the usual: "I don't get it. It must be genius" instead of accepting the simpler truth: it was Herzog's third feature and it was a mess made by a self-taught filmmaker in his 20s experimenting and failing in the process.

Just because he made a spectacularly strange dud doesn't distract from the great works he would go on to make. This is weirdness for the sake of weirdness.

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Monday, July 06, 2009


Herzog Week: Signs of Life

By Edward Copeland
Signs of Life was Werner Herzog's first feature-length film as a writer-director, though it never received a release in the U.S. until 1981. Still, this 1968 film bears many of the themes that will recur throughout Herzog's body of work and does so with humor and a nice character study as a pseudo-oasis for a recuperating soldier during World War II becomes suffocating for the soldier, both as a warrior and as a man.

Peter Brogle stars as Stroszek (no relation to the title character of the later Herzog film), a soldier whose severe injury earns him cushy duty with two other soldiers, as well as his wife, guarding an ammunition supply on a Greek isle.

As his injuries heal, Stroszek grows restless and feels that he's not doing his military duty in these plush environs where enemies are nonexistent. His comrades (Wolfgang Reichmann, Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) really offer little help with their drinking and bitching and one's obsession with insect infestation. Even the unusual perk of having his lovely wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) present brings Stroszek little comfort.

As time marches on, Stroszek unravels, eventually becoming a threat to the ammo himself that the Nazi military must deal with in a setting where they saw no resistance whatsoever. Herzog's film builds slowly and doesn't lead to a huge climax, but it always is fascinating with interesting little scenes such as when a the soldiers twice encounter a gypsy and the military commanders try to figure out what to do about their Stroszek problem.

The score by Stavros Xarhakos proves very reminiscent at times of Anton Karas' famous Third Man work. With its nature and madness aspects, Herzog was definitely setting the stage for themes he'd return to time and time again.

Signs of Life is not one of his greatest films, but it is a good one and quite fascinating when viewed in context of his entire career.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Karl Malden (1912-2009)

In the flood of recent celebrity passings, one would wish that TV would grant an appropriate amount of time to noting the career of Oscar winner Karl Malden, who died today at 97. Certainly he's been in the public eye a lot longer than others. He may not have set records like others did, but I guess your death only deserves real notice if you managed to become tabloid fodder in your lifetime first. Malden didn't have that foresight. He just did his job and did it damn well, working up until the year 2000 and making public appearances well past that.

Malden made his Broadway debut in 1937 in the original production of Golden Boy. While his film career began in 1940, he continued to appear on Broadway until 1957, including the original productions of Key Largo, All My Sons, The Desperate Hours and, of course, A Streetcar Named Desire. Amazingly, he never earned a Tony nomination.

His first notable film came with 1947's Kiss of Death. Though occasionally he got to show a darker side, he usually was the on the side of right such as the police commander in Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends. In 1951, he got to repeat his Broadway role as Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire and was given the Oscar for his performance.

He worked with Hitchcock in 1953's I Confess! In 1954, he reunited with director Elia Kazan and co-star Marlon Brando playing Father Barry and earning a second Oscar nomination in On the Waterfront. Kazan and Tennessee Williams brought out his darker side in 1956 when he played the oddly overprotective husband in Baby Doll.

Brando brought him along when he directed his Western One-Eyed Jacks. He played the no-nonsense warden in Birdman of Alcatraz the same year he was part of the all-star cast of How the West was Won. That same year, he even went musical, playing Herbie in the film version of Gypsy.

He usually dealt the cards in Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid. While George C. Scott steamrolled over the screen as Patton, Malden was at his side as Gen. Omar Bradley.

As the 1970s came in, Malden found most of his work on television (aside from disaster flicks such as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and Meteor). He had a successful run as Detective Lt. Mike Stone, originally opposite Michael Douglas, on The Streets of San Francisco, which earned him four consecutive Emmy nominations.

One of my favorite TV roles of Malden's was one which won him an Emmy as the father in-law in the miniseries Fatal Vision, who at first defends his son-in-law in the murders of his daughter and grandchildren before coming to believe him guilty.

Of course, for many his most famous role will come from a TV commercial as American Express pitchman in the 1970s with the famous tagline, "Don't leave home without it."

His last screen appearance, appropriate given the large numbers of roles where he played members of the clergy, was as a minister on The West Wing in 2000. He also served once as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

He did achieve one record that few ever accomplish: He was married to the same woman for 70 years. RIP Mr. Malden.

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On paper, it's ideal

By Edward Copeland
There was a time when just the sight of those familiar white-on-black credits would make me positively giddy in anticipation of what was to follow. However, winning streaks must come to an end and after an amazing one, Woody Allen began producing one yawner (or worse) after another). Then came word of Whatever Works and that its star would be Larry David. I couldn't help but get the old feeling again, especially when those credits start accompanied by Groucho Marx singing "Hello, I Must Be Going."

While the end result is certainly the best thing Allen has produced in many, many years, it's still far from perfect. (Following Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it also marks two films in a row Allen has made that don't involve murder in their plots.)

Whatever Works originally was written in the 1970s as a vehicle for Zero Mostel, which makes it even more interesting that it is one of Allen's stronger recent efforts. As his films began to slip into repetitiveness after 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, his two best efforts, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway, were another leftover 1970s script and a collaboration with another writer, respectively.

Enough about what's gone wrong with Woody, let's talk specifically about what works and what doesn't in Whatever Works. David stars as Boris Yellnikoff, a professor of quantum mechanics and committed misanthrope who loves to tell people how he was a finalist for the Nobel Prize. (The joke, of course, is that there aren't finalists. Anyone can be nominated. They just announce a winner.)

We meet Boris expounding to his friends at an outdoor cafe on subjects such as Christianity and communism, both of which he thinks are good ideas on paper but suffer from a fatal flaw: the notion that people are fundamentally decent.

Charm's not a priority for Boris, who doesn't suffer fools gladly and pretty much considers anyone who isn't him an example of a fool. While there are plenty of updated references to make it appear as if Whatever Works takes place in the present day, it still has a 1970s aura hovering over it.

In fact, parts of it seem as if they might have been part of a rough draft for Annie Hall. David speaks directly to the camera and once he meets young Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), he tries to groom her tastes in a way somewhat reminiscent of Alvy Singer dragging Annie to The Sorrow and the Pity or giving her books to read.

There is the difference that the other characters note that he's talking to the camera and think he's a little off, speaking to people they don't see. One weakness of the film is Wood's attempt at a Mississippi accent, but her character is so full of charm that eventually she overcomes it.

What made me excited about this film was knowing that in the past actors who have worked with Allen have said he's not a stickler for his dialogue as long as you get the important point out. With David, the mastermind behind the brilliant improvised sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring and a cast that includes Ed Begley Jr. and Michael McKean, veterans of Christopher Guest's improvised movie comedies, I held out hope for Allen's freshest, funniest, most spontaneous comedy in a long time.

Indeed, Whatever Works does provide many of those laughs. However, when characters get lines that are just setups for a punchline, more often than not they land with a thud. David doesn't do well with straight jokes, but let him riff and he's like a comedic jazz musician.

This is the case with others as well. As the film starts to sag, Patricia Clarkson arrives just in time as Melodie's strict churchgoing mama and gives the film a shot of pure comic adrenaline. She has the same problem. Hers is not the type of person who would come up with punchlines. This is a character comedy and that's where the laughs do and should come from and Clarkson provides more than her fair share.

Whatever Works may not end up in the pantheon of the greatest Woody Allen films, but Larry David is a perfect fit for his lead and the movie does provide more than enough laughs to make the experience worthwhile, though there is one scene in particular where I could visualize the flared nostrils and arched eyebrows that would have accompanied Mostel's performance in the part.

Even better, unlike many recent comedies, it actually follows the 90-minute rule. At the film's end, Boris again speaks directly to the audience as all the characters whose lives he's affected again question what he's doing. He explains he's talking to the people who bought tickets to hear his story, if they are still out there. You can't help but wonder if that's not Woody asking out loud if he has much of an audience left after his years of misfires. If he steers back on this course, perhaps he'll woo them back.

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