CALVARY (2014): A Review by Ethan Dunlap

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In a confessional, a sexually abused parishioner threatens to murder Father James, a good and kind-hearted priest. In the ensuing week, he must face the darkness seeping through the cracks of his quaint Irish village before ultimately confronting his very mortality.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is best viewed in a near-empty art house theatre, as far off the beaten path as one can get while still remaining in civilized territory. The setting must be intimate, the kind of intimacy viewers will have to leave the safety of blockbusters and multiplexes to find. As the lights blacken and the shadows in the corners of the room spread out, the viewer will find the faintest traces of uncertainty lingering in the back of their mind. Uncertainty about what, exactly, the film actually is. Will it be a darkly comedic romp about a disgruntled old priest? Will it be a dour, serious look at the nature of spirituality and its place in the modern age? One hundred and one minutes later, once the closing credits began to roll, it will become clear that this vagueness is precisely what the film is.

Calvary, at its heart, is about uncertainty.

McDonagh’s cinematic approach to this story is unique, even for European cinema. The film is not divided into acts, rather it flows at a leisurely pace; subplots are not solved and wrapped up with neat little ribbons, rather they fade out into obscurity; the film in general is less so a film, and more so an average day put on a cinematic canvas. And, like most average days, there is little closure. The characters, and by extension the audience, are left with the same vague idea of what the future holds that they had in the opening of the film. As a result, the film takes on a cerebral quality, as if these characters are wandering aimlessly through a dream strange, hilarious, and, at times, terrible.

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This meandering, this unknown, is what propels the major arc of Father James (played brilliantly by veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The good Father faces an existential crisis in seemingly every encounter throughout the course of the film. Why does he strive to be a good priest, when his fellow Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage) is almost comically daft in all aspects of godliness? Why does he strive to preach morality and spirituality in a town where, largely, religion is not taken seriously at best, and outright mocked at worst? Was being a good priest worth it if he is destined to be murdered for being precisely that? Is he even a good priest if he cannot get his parishioners to listen to him? And, most importantly, was joining the priesthood worth the strained relationship with his suicidal daughter? These nagging doubts are well concealed, hiding in the edges of things, and are slowly brought out with each subtle encounter Father James has with the ensemble supporting cast.

This is perhaps best illustrated in a scene towards the middle of the film, wherein the atheist Dr. Harte (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones fame) relays to the good Father an anecdote about a young boy who was rendered deaf, mute, blind, and paralyzed after botched anesthesia; the doctor explains that being unable to hear oneself scream is likely the inner turmoil that victims of sexual abuse are faced with in every waking moment of their lives. Father James grows rowdy, threatening the doctor before getting inebriated and assaulting the bartender. This scene is almost the climax of the Father’s disillusionment towards his own life path; he is not angry at the doctor’s morbid story, but rather frustrated by the fact that he strives to be a beacon of morality among an institution still haunted by the evils of sexual abuse. At that point in the film he had already lost so much, and all for the crime of being a good man surrounded by the unjust and cruel.

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This lack of personal direction washes off from Father James and seeps onto the supporting characters, as well. The Father’s daughter, played by a severely underused Kelly Reilly, is introduced to the audience as having attempted suicide some time before the events of the film; while she goes through noticeable character development and seems to grow along with her father, her arc is still not neatly wrapped up by the last scene, leaving many aspects up in the air. There is a subplot concerning domestic abuse and polyamory laced throughout the first half of the film that, rather than acting like a traditional arc or plot, seems to be simply a part of the setting, and as such is not delved into the way a more mainstream film would do so. Arguably the best of the supporting cast, detached drunken millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (played to perfection by Black Books alum Dylan Moran), is given an arc with surprising nuance unexpected of what is essentially a comic relief character, who blind-sides the audience with an emotional revelation towards the end of the film which is largely left unresolved. In most films, this abundance of meandering subplots and character arcs that seem to fade out rather than resolve themselves would come across as poor writing, but what makes them work so well in Calvary is how deliberate they are. McDonagh is not using these elements to propel the plot, but rather to weave them into a sort of cinematic tapestry on which the film is imprinted. Because ambiguity seems to be the uniting theme of the film, each element is given a deliberately ambiguous ending.

Beyond the writing, the film is a marvel from a purely visual perspective. Larry Smith’s cinematography is crisp and atmospheric, lending the film a sense of underlying eeriness beneath the picturesque captures of the Irish countryside. Time setting is used to perfect visual effect, as well; many of the more quiet, serene moments occur at day time and are thus fittingly quaint and intimate; in contrast, much of the uglier, reprehensible moments occur at night, using shadows and high contrast to perfect effect. These night scenes, particularly a brilliant sequence involving destruction at the Father’s church, mesh so perfectly with Patrick Cassidy’s original score that the film’s distinct personality rings through; this is no doubt a very humorous film, but it is much darker tonally and thematically than McDonagh’s previous work. Above all else, the filmmakers grasped how integral atmosphere is in making an effective dark comedy, and subject matter can only carry that atmosphere so far. The visuals must provide the rest, and what Smith and McDonagh have given the audience is essentially a cinematic art gallery.

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The major problem with Calvary is, unfortunately, a problem that has plagued McDonagh’s other works; he simply does not write women very well. While Kelly Reilly gives a fine performance, and while her character is given significantly more development than the women in McDonagh’s prior film The Guard, she still feels like a supplementary character, not meshing as well into the overall tapestry of the film the way the rest of the cast does. It does not help that she is the only substantial female character amongst a sea of men; the only other women in the film appear as almost an afterthought, and barely even interacts with Reilly. While the movie does avoid the overt sexism typical of a Hollywood feature and does not sexually objectify or condescend to the female characters, it simply falls into the trap of not giving them much to do.

Despite not faring well on the feminist front, Calvary is a triumph of art house cinema. It is the bizarre lovechild of dry humor and pure bleakness, of morality and immorality. It examines the place of religion and Catholicism in the modern world without condemning nor embracing either, leaving its overall message as uncertain as its characters. Because, in the end, we live in uncertain times, and cannot rely on others to know how our respective stories end. In real life, many stories do not end; they meander, they wander, and sometimes, they fade into the background.

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Modern Cinema: Open For Interpretation

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Two new DVD/Blu-ray releases that push the boundaries.

It’s hard to find a film that sticks with you several days after you see it. This is the case with two recent new releases on DVD/ Blu-ray . First up is Enemy from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies). Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as our troubled protagonist Adam. Adam is a college professor who is currently in the middle of teaching his students about totalitarian regimes, an obsession of his. Now let’s just say that Enemy is based on a book by Spanish author Jose Saramago called The Double. On the surface Enemy seems to be another evil twin or doppelgänger plot. Not all true. Adam eventually discovers that there is a man who looks just like him that is a film actor. The actor’s name is Anthony and leads a very different life. This leads Adam to confront the double which leads the film to its mind blowing end.

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The fascinating fact about Enemy is that is was shot before another film Gyllenhaal made with Villeneuve called Prisoners. Prisoners saw a wide theatrical release along with critical praise late last year but Enemy saw just a limited release from the distributor early this year. Why? I believe the distributor believed that Enemy is over the heads of most American movie goers. Which it is in many ways. Enemy gets under your skin in a Kafkaesque way.

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Throughout the picture Villeneuve uses spiders both real and imaginary to symbolize what Saramago strongly conveyed in his book. A strict political message about the recurrence of totalitarian regimes in the history of civilization. A theme the author revisits in his books. Villeneuve uses imagery to convey that undertone. An experimental path that I applaud. I know this film leaves the average moviegoer confused but I found it to be one of the best releases in the last year.

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Next is the latest film by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) called Under The Skin. Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien disguised as a human who abducts men after she seduces them. The plot sounds pretty simple … right ? No … No … No. First of all this is hands down Johansson’s edgiest performance. She’s been on a stray path for a while doing mostly action films and romantic comedies so I applaud the change in direction. I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1977 film The Man Who Fell To Earth when watching Skin unfold . On the same level as the Nicolas Roeg film starring David Bowie, Under the Skin is an experimental science fiction film with erotic overtones. Just when you feel that you get the plot Glazer pulls you in deeper giving you an uneasy viewing. Glazer spent 10 years developing Under The Skin and it really pays off. In one scene Johansson seduces a lonely deformed man that lives in the shadows of a Scottish town. No prosthetic make up was used here. Glazer actually uses a physically deformed actor to do the scene with Johansson.

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The entire film is like a dream disguised as a nightmare. The dialog is minimal. The story is told mostly through imagery. Imagery so unique that it sticks with you for days after viewing.

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With both of these films, I believe they are open for interpretation. Only a few films in the last decade have stuck with me this way. Perhaps Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Films that reveal more to you on multiple viewings. I hope this type of contemporary film making continues. I’m tired of forgetting about a film after I leave the theater. Good filmmaking is supposed to haunt you. I think Kafka could have been a good filmmaker.

- Jeff Roll

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Charlton Heston + Ben-Hur = Liza Minnelli + Cabaret

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There exist a multitude of constraints that prohibit me from witnessing first-run films in theatres. Time and finances are the strongest of those constraints. And when I do have the time and money, more often than not I see films with my children. So Frozen (2013) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) take precedence over films such as Gravity (2013), Nebraska (2013), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). In an effort to feed my film watching fix, I resort to Turner Classic Movies and my disparate DVD collection.

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When choosing DVDs, I like to do so randomly, as though I am surprising myself. My method of random selection led to my viewing of Soylent Green (1973) on Christmas Day. Few things radiate a joyous holiday spirit more than Charlton Heston discovering the horrible truth about Soylent Green’s gruesome origins. (But then again, Soylent Green probably had fewer contaminants and more nutritional value than Wyngz, Gogurt, or Cool Ranch Doritos.) My random selections can also lead to rather surprising conclusions, including how films that would seemingly have nothing in common are quite similar. This is what I discovered when I viewed Ben-Hur (1959) and Cabaret (1972) back to back. These two films appear most incongruous. It is difficult to imagine meshing any parts of either film into the other. The directors, actors, and scripts are all at odds. It is almost impossible to imagine Bob Fosse directing Ben-Hur or Heston attempting to seduce Liza Minnelli and Michael York.

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Still, these vastly incongruous films rang more similar than different in a variety of ways. Both of these films are older than my forty year-old self, and while I still feel that they hold up impressively well, I could not help but think that both films would have a terrible time getting produced today. Or if either were made/re-made, current cinematic impulses would ruin each. I do not know of a studio that would willing allow Ben-Hur’s famous and amazing chariot race scene to be filmed with actual horses and chariots. What makes the entire sequence so fantastic are the actual people, animals, and props involved. Yes, Peter Jackson and his ilk can do impressive things with CGI, but imagine how much more impressive those battle scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) would have been had all the horses and animals been real rather than computer images.

Similarly, not only would the sexually and romantically complex relationships in Cabaret be neutered in today’s Hollywood, but the wonderfully decadent and sexy burlesque scenes would no doubt become boring and horribly unsexy with efforts to make them into clichéd Vegas stripper shows: something that the dudes from The Hangover (2009) would think is totally awesome but actually totally sucks because those guys really are not that bright. Both Ben-Hur and Cabaret demonstrate that despite that vast number of films produced, fewer possibilities for innovation and risk-taking exist. And that which poses as innovation and risk-taking is actually formulaic clap-trap.

The final bizarre similarity between Cabaret and Ben-Hur rests in the career arcs of their Oscar-winning stars: Heston and Minnelli. While an eager individual might be able to connect these two via a six degrees of Kevin Bacon game, it would be difficult to find to more divergent Hollywood personas. Yet while as silly as it is to imagine Heston and Minnelli opposite each other, they could probably relate to each other’s careers. Each had tremendous success early in their careers, with the previously mentioned films representing their pinnacles of cinematic achievement. Yet the qualities that made each actor so successful in those roles proved to be, if not their undoing, the chains that limited them.

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Heston’s absolute earnestness and ability to avoid any and all irony served him well as Judah Ben-Hur. He is brave, resilient, and valiant. Yet these same qualities, particularly visible in his later sci-fi adventures, turn him into a figure of fun, one to be mocked. Indeed, my first real exposure to Heston was through former Saturday Night Live comedian Phil Hartman’s impersonations of Heston. Hartman’s Heston is drawn not from Ben-Hur, but from Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes (1968). This caricature of Heston became even further reified through his cryptic statements made while a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) helped substantiate that image of Heston.

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Minnelli suffers from a similar fate. While her caricatured figure possesses radically different politics, she has still been reduced from her former glory into a thin representation of what she once was. As Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, Minelli is funny, witty, vulnerable, sexy, and likeable. However, this range has slowly been reduced. Now, she exists solely as a gay-themed songstress, one who has given birth to countless Liza Minnelli impersonators. In fact, Minnelli is now hardly much more than an impersonation of her own impersonators. See Sex and the City 2 (2010). It is hard to now watch Minnelli and not think of her simulacrum in the same way that Heston’s interview with Michael Moore resembles those Phil Hartman SNL skits.

So while each are similar in how their former glory has been distilled into silly comic fodder, I would like to remember that both also share histories and performances that are far greater than their current representations would have us believe.

- Todd Starkweather

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Labor On Film: Screenings In Solidarity

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By Michael Jones

For May Day, the international holiday commemorating the working class everywhere, or America’s Labor Day, a rough chronological selection of films in the workers’ honor. This list is composed of fiction and nonfiction films, domestic and international and is an initial offering, by no means complete. Labor and the film industry have a long history—mostly off-celluloid–there were violent battles outside Hollywood’s studio gates in the 1940s. Still today, Hollywood and the film industry world-wide remain one of the most unionized of industries.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Loading the Boiler, Drawing out the Coke, Demolishing a Wall- Lumiere Bros., c. 1895-96, Fr.
The earliest documentaries in existence—actualities, performed by working people—one shot, one reel, no edits. The subject is the everyday—and in these instances workers’ doing what they do everyday. The filmmakers’ father owned the factory in the title, but we’re barred from its interior.

Available on DVD.

A Visit to the Peek Frean and Company’s Biscuit Works – c. 1906, GB
Supposedly the first documentary ever filmed inside a factory, workers turning out tins and tins of cookies!

Available on DVD.

Corner in WheatD.W. Griffith, 1909, US
Roughly based on the bread riots of the turn of the century, a striking expose of corporate manipulation at the expense of the consumer and the producer/farmer. Fortunately, karma intervenes.

Available on DVD.

StrikeSergei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR
Just a year ahead of his groundbreaking Battleship Potemkin, a chronicle of a proletarian strike violently squashed by the factory owners, the police and the Tsar’s own agents. Noted for the metaphoric slaying of an ox, before the massacre of the strikers.

Available on Blu-ray and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

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MetropolisFritz Lang, 1926, Ger.
More than a sci-fi, this a treatise on the eternal struggle between capital and labor. Once seen, the viewer never forgets the worker drones headed, head down, to work in the fiery underground of Lang’s futuristic nightmare. Happily, love and a growing social awareness intervene.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 colorized re-edit is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Liberty is Ours (A Nous la Liberte)Rene Clair, 1931, Fr.
Clair’s charming Cinderella story – an escaped con becomes a factory mogul – bursts when a cellmate, in line for employment, recognizes him. Later, on the lam, the factory is left behind to the workers’ collective, living an idyllic existence on the fringe of nature and technology.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Our Daily BreadKing Vidor, 1934, US
Despite his studio credentials, Vidor (The Crowd) couldn’t get this one made in the depths of the Depression, so he did it out of pocket. A utopian view of a farming collective, composed of diverse specialists, that finds a way to employ themselves. The final ten minutes is an euphoric montage, almost religious in tone, as the struggling farmers triumphantly divert water to their crops.

Available on DVD.

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Modern TimesCharles Chaplin, 1936, US
With this release, there were no more ambiguities about Chaplin’s cinema – his political heart was there on the silver screen for all. He’d met Ghandi on tour in England, and he’d resolved to try to say something among the laughs. Countless memorable sequences with The Tramp run amok in the Industrial Age.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

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You Can’t Take It With YouFrank Capra, 1938, US
Capra finds a comfortable vehicle in the Moss HartGeorge S. Kaufman play, with memorable roles by Lionel Barrymore, as the downright practically anti-American patriarch who rejects a 9-5 lifestyle and encourages the same from his resident pack of anarchistic, firework-producing in-laws, and Jean Arthur, hoping to bridge the social strata by marriage to her corporate boss’s son, Jimmy Stewart. Capra was America’s most popular populist director of the 1930’s — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc. — and this reminds us why. A personal favorite as we put the play on in high school—part of my political education!

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

John Grierson and the GPO documentaries, c. 1930s, UK
As a government funded agency whose mission it was to produce documentaries on various aspects of British life, (re: working life) Grierson, Basil Wright and associates produced scores of films including Nightmail, a study in efficiency and teamwork of postal employees carrying mail nightly from London to Glasgow, with rhetorical voice-over poetry from W. H. Auden. A fascinating piece of government propaganda.

Nightmail is available on the Region B Blu-ray/DVD combo pack The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Nightmail.

Henry Fonda the Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Ford, 1940, US
Well of course the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel is omitted—it could never have worked then, or maybe even now—but it still splits some hairs and lands pretty solidly (albeit sentimentally) on the Left. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad realizes the balance of things and sets out to right them, in fact his speech to Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) near the end even hints at a universal consciousness. Imagine that. Perhaps most memorable is John Carradine as Casey, who dropped his Bible on the way to social enlightenment. Steinbeck in his early works was quite critical of capitalism, and though he may have mellowed in latter years, he was reportedly very happy with Ford’s version.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Salt of the EarthHerbert Biberman, 1954, US
Collectively produced by a blacklisted Hollywood crew, the film was harassed from the beginning by right-wingers in Congress and Hollywood – in fact, processing and editing had to be done secretly, and then only two theaters screened it. Based on a real miners’ strike, this film breaks ground as domestic issues compound and the wives carry the strike through to a new contract. With Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, as the Sheriff pawn of the corporation. Yes, Grandpa was a Communist. A feel good movie from the Left!

Available on DVD.

Vidas Secas (Barren Lives)Nelson Periera dos Santos, 1963, Brazil
One of the bed-rock films of Brazilian’s Cinema Novo movement, this is a no-holds barred tale of an illiterate migrant gaucho and family drifting from ranch to ranch, exploited by landowner and law. As stark and as bleak as its landscape, the film holds however the the nurturing hopes and seeds of a better life, ending with a thin note of optimism—like much of the Italian Neo-realist films which influenced the young Brazilians.

Available on DVD.

They Don’t Wear Black TieLeon Hirszman, 1981, Brazil
I’ve only seen this movie twice but the emotional rift between a striking factory-worker father and his scab son resonated. Set in a small village (location shot with a sweaty gritty texture) where the town’s existence revolves around the factory, Hirszman’s rhetoric plays naturally as he builds characters into people. At one time it was distributed by New Yorker Films.

Available as part of a five film all-region DVD box set.

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Harlan County, U.S.A.Barbara Kopple, 1977, US
One of the greatest American documentaries period, a record of not only a specific strike in Kentucky in the early ‘70s, but the history and legacy of the United Mine Workers. Like Salt of the Earth the women take the lead with questions regarding indoor plumbing and decent housing overlapping with the strikers on issues regarding safety. Academy Award Winner in 1978 for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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Norma RaeMartin Ritt, 1979, US
America’s favorite gal, Sally Field, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae, who risks marriage, family and community opinion as she fights for workers’ rights in a North Carolina textile factory. Ron Liebman plays the union organizer with whom she has a platonic relationship – an education on labor issues and a skinny dip in the local swimming hole. Nicely handled by director Ritt, who sells the story on a personal level that makes the union’s fight believable, vital, and winnable. Based on a true story.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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MatewanJohn Sayles, 1983, US
One of writer-director Sayles best films (Return of the Secaucus 7, Eight Men Out) and only his third, a dramatic version of a bloody coal-mining strike in Matewan, KY. Like most of Sayles films, there’s an eye for natural dialogue and behavior, and a penchant for stories that invite a social discourse.

Available on DVD.

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Working GirlsLizzie Borden, 1987, US
Her followup to Born in Flames, Borden’s unglamorous expose of a middle-upper class brothel in NYC garnered an X rating for Miramax, who released it. The debunking comes through humanization of the players and like Godard’s My Life to Live (’63), prostitution is still the hardest working metaphor for capitalism in cinema.

Available on DVD.

American DreamBarbara Kopple, 1990, US
A prolonged strike against a Hormel meat packing plant is the dramatic stuff of this documentary – family members pitted against one another and a national representation unable to avert disaster for the local. A little technical at times, but a real education in what happens backroom in labor negotiations. Oscar winner for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Roger & Me

Roger and Me/The Big OneMichael Moore, 1989/1998
A champion of topics ignored by major media, Moore manages to focus not only on an issue film-to-film, but also connects the dots in the bigger workers’ picture. Beginning with the UAW in Flint in the 1930s in Roger & Me, to his interview with the CEO and founder of Nike who declines to match Moore’s own pledge to the depressed school districts of Flint with a $20,000 donation in the latter film.

Roger & Me is available on DVD.

The Big One is available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.
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Michael Jones has worked a lot of low-paying jobs—packing apples, digging graves, painting houses–including ushering at the revered, defunct Biograph Theatre, of Richmond, VA where he made $2.25/hr. in 1976. He currently teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University and Randolph-Macon College, and is a founding member of the James River Film Festival and the James River Film Society.

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THE SWIMMER: Burt Lancaster Journeys Upriver Into The Dark Heart of Suburbia

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On a warm and beautiful autumn afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the peaceful woods of an upper class Connecticut suburb wearing nothing but a pair of dark swim trunks and dives into the swimming pool of old friends. We have no idea where he came from, but Ned knows where he is going and how he intends to get there. In conversation with his friends over martinis (there are a lot of drinks served in this film) he learns that one of his neighbors just installed an in-ground pool in their backyard. This means that there is now a path of homes with pools leading all the way to Ned’s palatial house on top of a hill. He gets the idea to swim back to his house via this unofficially connected river of chemically-treated water. Everyone thinks Ned is a little off for even considering this bizarre notion, but this ordinary man sees it as a great adventure.

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That’s where the 1968 cult classic drama The Swimmer begins, and it would usually be enough for any lesser film to use as a plot. But as Ned goes from house to house, pool to pool, in a last ditch attempt to seize the day as his fair weather friends drink and tan themselves into a mass coma the story mutates into something uncomfortable and tragic. From the rapturous optimism of the journey’s idealistic beginning to a pitch-black comedic indictment of malcontented bourgeois ennui, Ned’s grand quest through the sun-dappled forests and manicured estates of his dreamlike purgatory becomes a haunting portrayal of a once-beloved, successful man about town who had it all and gambled everything away simply because he could.

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With the exception of an awkward encounter with the mother of a friend he seemingly forgot about even as the man was slowly dying in a hospital, Ned is mostly greeted with warm welcomes by the owners of the pools he swims in on his way home. Handshakes are exchanged, hugs and kisses shared, and promises of future lunches and golf games are made. The people treat Ned with respect but often regard him as a distant stranger, as if he had been gone for a long time. As he emerges from each pool the murkier aspects of his apparently happy life become clear and all is not well in Merrill’s paradise of a waiting, dutiful wife and two lovely daughters whose ages he tends to confuse but are definitely at home playing tennis.

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At one pool he meets the comely young woman who used to work as the Merrills’ babysitter (Janet Landgard). Her name is Julie and she willingly joins Ned for the first leg of his journey. In one scene they romp through the horse riding ring of one neighbor and leap hurdles with the immense joy of lovers looking forward to a bright future. Julie admits to having once harbored a crush on Ned as a pre-teen, even confessing to the theft of one of his shirts, but now that she’s a woman and in love with another man she met through a computer dating service the shirt is just that. At that moment you can see the life slowly starting to drain from Ned’s eyes, and the attempt he then makes to woo Julie into a romance straight out of an old Hollywood film are treated as the creepy advances of a tired old man. Julie runs away and we never see her again. Her departure signals The Swimmer‘s descent into the waking nightmare of a man out of time and out of luck. Every pool Ned visits from here on in will rudely awaken mistaken passions, simmering content, and some harsh truths.

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With films such as David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug to their credit, director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife Eleanor Perry set about to adapt John Cheever‘s 16-page short story first published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker. Initially envisioning a film made of “The Swimmer” to be a low-budget affair with unknown or little-known actors in the cast, the Perrys saw their fortunes improve both for better and worse when they brought the project to powerhouse Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, a legend in the industry for mounting such classic productions as The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. Their screenplay found its way into the hands of Lancaster, at the time one of the most in-demand stars in cinema and someone who could balance conventional Hollywood films with a eclectic selection of bolder works that usually attained great critical and commercial success. His salary for The Swimmer would be $750,000 – one and a half times larger than the film’s original budget.

Lancaster had been an accomplished athlete and trapeze artist in his youth but he had no idea how to swim, so he took lessons from a swimming coach at UCLA to get in shape for the role of Merrill. He brought his A-game to the part and many consider his performance in The Swimmer to be the finest of his career. After watching the film for myself recently courtesy of its long-awaited Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release from Grindhouse Releasing it would be difficult for me to protest. Lancaster also brought with him to the set a heavy dose of star power and he didn’t get along well with the 36-year-old Frank Perry. During production an edict had been issued that not a single word of Eleanor’s screenplay was to be altered, a privilege rarely afforded to a screenwriter especially during the waning days of the old Hollywood studio system.

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In an interview conducted some time after the film’s theatrical release director Perry admitted that the version of The Swimmer that played to enthusiastic reviews and non-existent box office represented only 50 percent of his intended cut. After filming first wrapped an early cut prepared by Perry was greeted with consternation by executives at Columbia Pictures and Lancaster brought on his dear friend Sydney Pollack (director of The Way We Were, Tootsie, and Out of Africa) to reshoot certain scenes that were lacking in dramatic impact. While my sympathies tend to rest with the filmmaker and their vision, The Swimmer bears no marks of a damaged film. It may have been pure hell for the cast and crew to make, but their labors brought to life a motion picture experience like no other. In fact that’s exactly how Columbia tried to sell it to the masses in 1968: “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’, will you talk about yourself?” Or so the tagline the marketing campaign centered around went. In this case, too many cooks in the kitchen didn’t spoil the meal.

Like getting caught in the current of a raging river, it’s easy to be swept away by the film’s carefully-woven spell. The viewer becomes Ned’s fellow traveler on the adventure across his unforgiving Connecticut county, sharing in the thrill of living life to its fullest for a fleeting day and ultimately being forced to endure the uncertainty and heartbreak as he nears his final destination. I wish not to spoil the emotionally devastating pleasures of the unfolding plot, but once you arrive at the ending you might be compelled to watch The Swimmer again immediately just to see if it had been hinted during the course of the film. Looking back on particular scenes now that I know how it ends allowed the dialogue and performances to gain unforseen levels of complexity.

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The performances are all magnificent: Lancaster cleverly subverted his image as a virile, handsome leading man of the silver screen with memorable results. Among the lovely ladies he encounters on his journey the stand-outs are Landgard as his sweet natured, temporary companion and Janice Rule as a bored socialite who still carries the emotional scars of her brief affair with Ned which he tries futilely to rekindle in one of the film’s best scenes. Comedian Joan Rivers has a cameo as a woman Ned meets at a pool party who appears perplexed by his pointless ambition, and Rivers has been extraordinarily forthright with her disappointment at how she was treated on the production and how her character changed against her wishes from sympathetic to shrill prior to filming the scene. The pivotal sequence towards the end finds Ned trying to barter his way into a crowded community pool that stands between him and a homestead that may only exist as happy and loving in his memories is masterfully staged with bouts of bleak humor and soul-shattering revelations. The film is backed up by an adventurous score from Marvin Hamlisch with its moments of soaring exuberance and quiet melancholy.

More than 45 years since it was first released to audience indifference, The Swimmer has not lost its ability to amaze and sadden. My initial viewing will be one of the greatest film experiences of 2014 as far as I’m concerned. It is a haunting and underrated masterpiece that demands your attention and yields bountiful rewards.

You can order Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray of The Swimmer HERE. This disc features a gorgeous 4K high-definition transfer of the film and several outstanding extra features including a feature-length retrospective documentary, a reading of the original story by author Cheever, extensive still galleries, trailers, TV spots, and other surprises. This is one of the best home video releases of the year.

- Robert Morgan

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Esther Williams: A Woman Pursued

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By Tarquin Mandrake

Esther Williams was a star who exploded out of Louis B Mayer’s Warner Brothers studio system in the 1940s. A swimmer who was on course to compete in the Olympics until the Second World War intervened. She found work at a department store and intended to pursue a career in sales before being tempted away to work at a theme water park where she was forced to avoid the lusty attentions of ex-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.

She was courted by Warner Brother’s talent scouts for a year before she acquiesced to sign. Watching the first part of TCM’s Esther Williams DVD collection, TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Volume 1 (order it from Amazon HERE), the contemporary viewer may be struck by a few things; the marked contrast in sexual politics between the 1940s and our time, the sense that these films are a product of the Americas entire rather than the United States alone and the flaws and merits of the Warner Brothers Studio system.

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Bathing Beauty

Red Skelton, a song writer responsible for such gems as “Beat Me Daddy With a Boogie Brush” and “Dig Me Sister With a Solid Spade”, is on sojourn at a holiday resort in California. Basil Rathbone, his friend and employer, paid for the holiday on the understanding that Red would seek inspiration to write the songs for a new water pageant.

However Red has fallen in love with Esther Williams, a vacationing swimming instructor, and the pair now plan to throw off their mutual obligations and elope. Overhearing Red’s intention to defraud him and abandon the boogie-woogie water pageant racket Basil enlists a female con artist and successfully breaks up Red’s wedding to Esther.
Red Skelton then pursues Esther to her place of work; the Victoria woman’s college, refuses to leave, locks her in his room on one occasion and then breaks into her house to whisper hypnotic suggestions that she disturbingly incorporates into her mental reverie on another. Eventually his persistence is rewarded, not with a restraining order but, instead, with the return of Esther’s love.

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Easy to Wed

Capitalists have taken over the Morning Star newspaper and now it has grievously libelled Esther Williams, who is “spoiled, arrogant, engaged to a different guy every month. The crown princess of café society.” Faced with an unwinnable $2 million law suit the newspaper dispatches ace-gigolo Bill Chandler “the guy who specialises in dames”.

Bill (Van Johnson) ingratiates himself with Esther’s father by posing as a duck hunter and pretending to rough up a photographer. Although Esther is a practical young lady continually besieged by fortune hunters she cannot resist Bills allure after he insults her and shoots a duck in the neck. Finding out that he is already married to Lucille Ball she decides to propose to him, telling her that his seduction was a ruse to settle the lawsuit only brings her closer to him.

In a similar recent case, a reporter sought to mitigate a serious slander made by the evil Daily Mail newspaper against Ed Milliband. He gate-crashed a memorial service for one of Ed Milliband’s relatives posing as a mourner and asking leading questions in the hope of getting some good ammunition before he was exposed and expelled. Would you believe that no marriage proposal was subsequently forthcoming from the leader of the Labour Party?

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On An Island With You

In the South Pacific an important film is being made; the tale of two native women who squabble over the affections of American sailor Ricardo Montalban. Eventually one will appear in a water pageant at a upscale hotel, the other will become a bar skank, twerking against random sailors.

Shooting the film on location, assistant director Jimmy Durante has erred deeply with his choice of technical advisor; Lieutenant Kingslee, an arrogant shell-shocked flake. Lieutenant Kingslee absconds to the barber on his first day, ignores the director on set and then interrupts the shoot because he is incapable of distinguishing between reality and a scripted scene involving two actors he has been formally introduced to.

Asked how he would change a scene he grabs Esther Williams and kisses her. Later Lieutenant Kingslee moons after Esther at a restaurant. He asks Esther to dance and after being refused four times seems about to resort to force before the director intervenes.

The next day he is (incredibly) entrusted to fly a plane with Esther as a supposed stowaway for a scene in the film. Instead of returning to the film crew he keeps flying, abducting Esther Williams and taking her to a remote cannibal infested island. He insists that she dances with him then becomes distraught as it emerges that they have met before, and what he thought was an earnest declaration of love on Esther’s part three years ago was in face a scripted routine that she performed hundreds of times on entertainment tours as part of the war effort.

Still, Lieutenant Kingslee’s sexy kidnapping ways ultimately render him irresistible to Esther. She is also charmed that he has spent years on the island burying spam and hallucinating about her.

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Neptune’s Daughter

Esther carries no trident, nor has she dominion over fish, she is merely a talented amateur swimmer that Keenan Wynn convinces to join him in a business venture selling ladies swimsuits. Ricardo Montalban, the captain of the South American polo team blackmails Esther into going on a date with him threatening that if she doesn’t he will take out her nympho sister Betty instead and ruin her families reputation. After the date Ricardo steals Esther’s car keys to in an attempt to prevent her from leaving.

After a couple of dates Esther decides to marry Ricardo, taking his word that he has ended the relationship with her sister Betty with what is later revealed as uncommon haste. Although Betty’s rapacious appetite for groups of men worries Esther, it doesn’t worry Betty who is mostly portrayed in a sympathetic light.

Esther “you’ve got to stop throwing yourself at men, you’ll only get hurt.”

Betty “not if my aim is good.”

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Dangerous When Wet

Brash travelling Liquapep salesman Windy Weebe meets Esther and her health-obsessed family. He convinces them to travel to Europe and compete in the cross-channel swimming contest organised by the evil Daily Mail newspaper. In England Esther is pursued by André Lanet, a sophisticated French champagne vendor.

André (Fernando Lamas) takes Esther to dinner under false pretences, offering specialised knowledge of charts, wind, riptides and currents, then inveigles her aboard his yacht on the same promise, in each encounter he easily tricks Windy (Jack Carson) into leaving him alone with Esther. André knows the ways of women, he knows Esther will not be able to resist trying on his gift of a skimpy bikini and that by allowing her to end the relationship without complaint he only becomes more fascinating to her.

The evil Daily Mail stop the rest of Esther’s family from entering, start the contest with only a few hours notice, and demeans the female contestants by calling them ‘girls’. In French André and American Windy we see the clash of two masculine archetypes of the old and new world.


CONCLUSIONS

What is it about this Esther Williams that men must pursue her? Well, she’s gorgeous, blessed with a petulant scowl that trembles on the precipice of moonstruck adoration or decadent rapture, every frame she graces could be a pulp magazine cover, but Esther’s no sap.

In Bathing Beauty she’s the head mistresses’ right hand woman, in Neptune’s Daughter she’s a capable business woman (as in life) and in Dangerous When Wet Esther is effectively (and for want of a better term) the man of the family, obsessed with the appliance of science to the family’s dairy farm’s milk-yield while her addled father is lost in the vision of forging an American master race.

The men that pursue her frequently use devious means, but Esther expects that, and looks beyond such opening gambits for a partner who is as strong and intelligent as her.

The cultural differences between 1940s and today abound, for a start here is America entire, South America and Mexico specifically play an important role in these films cast, soundtrack and locations, whereas in the bulk of America’s modern cultural output you’d be forgiven for thinking that the continent comprised of two states; New York and the suburbs of L.A, both of which look suspiciously like Canada.

In the minus column it’s unlikely that in 2014 you’ll see a film so nakedly dedicated to the military’s recruitment drive as On An Island With You, (basically a randy G.I’s wet dream) or a lead character like Esther in Neptune’s Daughter with a black maid called Matilda and a Chinese handmaiden called Lotus.

The advantages of the studio system are a capable repertory company of stars like Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Carlos Ramirez, Xavier Cugat, and Ethel Smith to draw on, all of whom appear in at least two of these films. Mel Blanc, the vocal genius of Warner Brothers cartoons appears in Neptune’s Daughter.

Dangerous When Wet is my favourite, possibly for nostalgic reasons and because it’s the one with the Tom and Jerry cartoon, but it does also have the best story line involving swimming, everything hinges on Esther’s swimming ability, whereas it’s hard to take the various water pageants that punctuate the other films too seriously. Easy To Wed has the best script, a remake of Libeled Lady, it’s a great screwball comedy with rapier wit snobs and despicable low-life journos pushed onto ever more nefarious excesses. Lucille Ball is particularly fantastic as a dim-witted showgirl with a questionable past.

Neptune’s Daughter has the best songs, the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Xavier Cugat outdoes himself with a tantalising horror opera (featuring the same impressive wooden pagan idol used in On An Island With You) punctuated by the screams of Latin women in white diaphanous pantaloons.

Bathing Beauty is the least of the five films and the starkest demonstration of the demerits of the studio system as it is so clearly cobbled together to showcase a non-acting, non-singing and non-dancing lead actress. (a neat rejoinder, in fact, for those who condemn todays supposedly formulaic cinema, twas ever thus) Esther Williams herself would later disparage and despair of her acting ability in this, her first, film.

The script appears to have been written in a great rush. “Let’s go over the border for some South American jive” students at an elite institution say improbably. Oxford educated Basil Rathbone remarks “Schubert’s the only guy who got away with an unfinished symphony.” Still, for all its faults, it’s a frothy, silly, enjoyable concoction of a film; as the Beastie Boys would have it “a good mixtape to put you in the right mood.”

Finally I’d like to recommend this compilation, five fun colourful films from a more innocent and apparently happier time packaged lovingly with documentaries and deleted scenes as well as cartoons and short features from the period.

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Five Film Favorites: Underrated Films by Woody Allen

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By Ted Salins

This article was first published on August 29, 2013 at Bijou Backlight. It has been reprinted here with the express permission of the author and editor.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has opened bigger than any of his films with a whopping two week total of $8 million at only 121 theaters (Box Office Mojo calls this “historic”). It will likely be his third film in this century to top the $100 million mark, but in a long prolific career not all of his films were adored — there have always been hits or misses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s his movies were grossing less than their cost. Critics lost their gush, home TV audiences had given up and his producers were scrambling until they accepted the tax exempt offers from Europe which revitalized his oeuvre; but a mediocre Woody Allen movie is still usually full of sharp observations and great scenes. I’ll take a bad one over most movies any day.

Below are five films that are generally cited as critical and box office failures. They all need to be re-evaluated:

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Shadows and Fog (1991)

A Kafkaesque black and white horror movie about a deranged strangler loose on the streets of 1930s Eastern Europe? From Woody Allen? You betcha. Filmed at night on the cold, foggy streets of Newark and Manhattan by Carlo Di Palma, it is as atmospheric as a Universal horror classic. If you don’t think Allen can’t handle the horror genre, watch the scene where the strangler confronts aging scientist Donald Pleasance in his lab — it will send chills up your spine. You’ll momentarily forget this is a comedic parable about creeping fascism. In addition to Pleasance and Allen, it has a modest cast (I’m joking): Mia Farrow, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Madonna, Fred Gwynne, Kurtwood Smith, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and a delightful trio of bawdy prostitutes played by Jody Foster, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates. One of his best movies ever.

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The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Unlike his insecure schlemiels in other films, Allen for once plays a confident womanizer, C.W. Biggs, an insurance fraud investigator, who is a successful, self-assured professional at the top of his powers. It’s fun to watch him play this type, especially as he seduces a fetching Charlize Theron. He’s more William Powell than Alvy Singer, but he meets his match in an efficiency expert played by Helen Hunt brought in to modernize old school techniques as practiced by veteran C.W. They HATE each other. Hunt, performing under Allen’s direction and speaking his dialogue is a match made in acting heaven. She is smart mouthed, sassy, concise but ultimately warm hearted — Allen obviously had the snappy dialogue of “His Girl Friday” in mind when he wrote this. Beautifully filmed, great period atmosphere of the 1940s; Dan Ackroyd co-stars.

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Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Nothing like the stylized, heavily art directed period pieces above, “Cassandra’s Dream” takes place in the belly of modern day London and is the most terrifying, edge of your seat exploration of guilt, murder and mayhem. Allen, an admitted paranoiac, clearly wants you share in his personal anxiety and in that sense this film is a triumph. Ewan MacGregor is Ian, Colin Farrell, his brother Terry, two working class stiffs who see a way upward with the help of their gangster uncle played with sinister aplomb by Tom Wilkinson. Without giving anything away, Terry is tormented by his criminal actions and descends into a booze and pill swilling anxiety — I don’t think the actor has ever been better. This film is raw and when Hayley Atwell’s character, Angela, goes on a first date with Ian, her banter is so sexual and full of lust you’ll wonder if some movie screens caught on fire. As always, Allen is not afraid to put women in the driver’s seat; the nearly eighty year old continues to school much younger people on sex and seduction. The great Sally Hawkins co-stars.

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Celebrity (1998)

Woody’s blatant, vicious, wince inducing look at the world of New York celebrity, fashion, show business and ego. Critics and audiences walked out of screenings, hardly anyone saw this box office bomb; yet if you find chunks of society to be pompous, arrogant, vapid, self-centered and shallow — this may be your cup of tea. I love it. Time will be good to this audacious classic. Shot in glorious black and white by the legendary Sven Nykvist, it is relentless and funny. Kenneth Branagh plays the Woody Allen schlemiel as if it is a dramatic Shakespearean convention; Judy Davis, the female lead, is his neurotic ex-wife. For the price of one film you get a cast at their trashy best: Leo DeCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Jeffery Wright, Wynona Ryder, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Adrian Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Aida Turturro, Hank Azaria, Joe Mantegna and Gretchen Mol among others.

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Scoop(2006)

After the critical success of “Match Point” audiences seemed disappointed in this light comedy, but it’s one of those great “bad” Allen films. The film opens on The Grim Reaper’s boat; Ian McShane is Joe Strombol, a celebrated crime reporter who has been killed in a car accident; he strikes up a conversation with a young secretary newly murdered by her dashing financier boss Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) after she learns he is the serial killer terrorizing London’s young women; What a scoop! Strombol’s appeals to The Reaper fall on deaf ears — he’s got to get back — so he jumps ship into the dark, foggy waters. Woody is hilarious as Sid Waterman, a second rate illusionist from New York doing a series of shows in London. He pulls a volunteer from the audience, a young American journalist wannabe Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) to make her disappear inside a “de-materializer” box. Once inside, Strombol’s ghost appears and gives her the scoop. This is her big chance! She needs to get to know and investigate Lyman. She employs Sid to be her father as a cover and the comic duo encounters near misses and mishaps. Of course Sondra is unsure if the financier is in fact guilty and she falls in love! Charles Dance and Romola Garai co-star.

Ralph Kiner, the baseball Hall Of Famer and long time N.Y. Mets radio broadcaster was interviewing the legendary, rotund Dodgers’ manager Tommy LaSorda before a game.

“They say you love Italian food Tommy,” Kiner asked, “what’s the worst you ever had?”

LaSorda responded, “It was magnificent.”

Each one of these so called “bad” Woody Allen films is magnificent.

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