Man of Aran

(UK 1934)

It’s not very often that I’m torn on a film, but Robert J. Flaherty’s pseudo documentary Man of Aran is one where I am. First the good news: from a technical standpoint, this is a visually captivating film; crammed with impossibly rich and downright dangerous shots of the treacherous North Atlantic, the blacks are as dark as squid ink, the whites are as shimmeringly luminous as Tijuana silver, and the greys are a stunningly natural and lovely compromise between the two. These shades of grey are what impressed me most about this film. You’d be hard pressed to find a better fit for a nitrate print.

Now for the bad news: for all its visual allure, Man of Aran is boring. It unflinchingly shows what it takes to survive on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, but it fails to explain why anyone would choose to do it. I was ready to leave after a half hour of watching waves crash on the rocks and men who look the Edge attack a shark. Yawn! I would have liked this better maybe if Sinead O’Connor’s “Jackie” were part of the soundtrack.

With Colman ‘Tiger’ King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane, Pat Mullin, Patch ‘Red Beard’ Ruadh, Patcheen Faherty, Tommy O’Rourke, ‘Big Patcheen’ Conneely of the West, Stephen Dirrane, Pat McDonough

Production: Gainsborough Pictures

Distribution: Gaumont British Distributors (UK), Gaumont British Picture Corporation of America (USA), Éditions Montparnasse (France)

76 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A+ (visuals) / F (everything else) / C (average)

Nitrate Picture Show

Beauty and the Beast [La belle et la bête]

(France 1946)

“I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: Once upon a time…”

— Jean Cocteau

I’m familiar with Jean Cocteau. Somehow, I never saw one of his films until this sold out Sunday matinee screening of La belle et la bête, a story I know well and probably would have passed on but for the fact that he directed it.

Belle (Josette Day) loves her father (Marcel André), a merchant who twice loses a fortune, so much that she steps in to save him when he angers the Beast (Jean Marais) by picking a rose from his garden to bring home to her. The Beast abandons his plan to kill her to avenge the sin of her father as soon as he sees her — he’s smitten. He’s so ugly, though, that Belle faints when she sees him.

Belle wakes up inside a room in his castle, where the Beast executes an alternate plan: every night at dinner he will ask her to marry him. As it turns out, he’s filthy rich and wants Belle to be his queen. She develops a soft spot for him as time goes on, but Belle’s answer is always the same: no. Apparently, she doesn’t love him.

When she learns that her father is dying, the Beast allows Belle to visit her family. He gives her a magic glove that transports her wherever she wants to go and the key to his fortune. Realizing how rich the Beast really is, Belle’s conniving siblings, sisters Adélaïde (Nane Germon) and Felicie (Mila Parély) and brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), take Belle on a treacherous turn.

Wow! Entrancing and mesmerizing, Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is an impressively cool film, far from the family-oriented Disney musical version that seems to be the default. At times grotesque, surreal, and very imaginative, it’s a darker telling of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century classic adaptation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original fable (I never thought about where the story came from until I wrote this entry).

The lovely Day is perfect as Belle: kind yet knowing, she plays her character as something of a girl next door fatale. Marais evokes compassion for his character, even with a mask covering his face. Lucien Carré and René Moulaert’s otherworldly sets and Pierre Cardin’s Victorian wardrobe are both tailor made for Henri Alekan’s grizzled, shadowy, and hard black and white cinematography. Something about the time when this came out — immediately after WWII — enhances the overall eerie feel of this film. I can’t come up with enough superlatives to describe it.

Cocteau is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt (http://www.chapelle-saint-blaise.org/html/en/home/home.php). A plaque marking his gravesite states, “Je reste avec vous” (“I stay with you”). It’s a fitting epitaph for the director of this particular version of La Belle et la Bete, which will stay with me. It’s a haunting beauty to behold.

With Raoul Marco

Production: DisCina

Distribution: DisCina (France), Actueel Film (Netherlands), Nederland NV (Netherlands), Wivefilm (Sweden), Internationale Filmallianz (IFA) (Germany), Artfree (Greece), Lopert Films (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

Witness

(USA 1985)

“I’m learning a lot about manure. Very interesting.”

— John Book

More drama than thriller, Peter Weir’s Witness is laced with action, sexual tension, and for good measure (or for good use of star Harrison Ford) a bit of comedy.

Ford is John Book, a jaded smartass Philadelphia detective. While investigating the murder of an undercover cop at a train station, he meets six-year-old Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), an Amish boy who witnessed the killing from a stall in the men’s room, and the boy’s recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis). She doesn’t quite trust Book or the world he comes from, but has to set aside her misgivings because he’s their protector for the time being.

Book stumbles upon a plot inside the Police Department and is forced into hiding after an ambush that nearly takes his life. At Rachel’s insistence, he retreats to her community in rural Lancaster County — “Amish country.” Book clumsily and reluctantly adapts to the lifestyle, and he shows he’s got a heart of gold beating underneath all that urbane crustiness. His “English” presence, though, threatens the peace of the Old Order and jeopardizes Rachel’s standing.

A sort of Blade Runner (https://moviebloke.com/2017/03/26/blade-runner-the-final-cut/) set in Amish Pennsylvania, Witness gets into morality, corruption, and culture clash. Its comparison/contrast of the Amish with the modern world is platitudinous and heavy-handed, so much that I found myself rolling my eyes at points. The climax is totally predictable but the tension between Book and Rachel is actually pretty good — good enough to make their subplot romance more interesting than the rest of the film. McGillis bears her breasts in an uncomfortably erotic scene. Bonus: Patti LuPone and Viggo Mortensen both have small parts, which I did not know going into this.

Ford’s only Oscar nomination, perhaps surprisingly, was for his performance in Witness (http://www.tvguide.com/news/oscars-2017-actors-who-have-never-won-an-academy-award/). He lost to William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1986). I can’t dispute the wisdom of that call. Still, Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley won for their screenplay.

With Danny Glover, Josef Sommer, Alexander Godunov, Brent Jennings, Jan Rubes, Angus MacInnes, Frederick Rolf, John Garson, Beverly May, Ed Crowley, Timothy Carhart, Marian Swan, Maria Bradley, Rozwill Young, Robert Earl Jones

Production: Paramount Pictures, Edward S. Feldman

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (France), Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) (Sweden)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Facets) C+

Angel Unchained [Hell’s Angels Unchained]

(USA 1970)

“Stay? What does ‘stay’ mean?”

— Angel

Lee Madden’s Angel Unchained is the type of ’70s movie that you would see on late night TV during the ’70s. A low budget grindhouse exploitation revenge flick, this one involves bikers and hippies and hicks, oh my. If the title isn’t obvious, Angel Unchained is a prime example of the kind of film that influenced none other than Quentin Tarantino.

After saving leader of the pack Pilot (Larry Bishop) during a bizarre rumble at a children’s amusement park, dumpy bodied restless spirit Angel (Don Stroud) decides to break from his gang of bikers and go his own way. While getting gas somewhere in the Arizona desert, he observes a group of redneck townies hassle a couple of hippies, one of whom is sweet Merilee (a young and soft Tyne Daly). Angel sticks up for the hippies.

He and Merilee are digging each other. She invites him to her farming commune, which is led by Southern buck Jonathan Tremaine (Luke Askew). They live off the land in a remote spot just outside some desert hicktown. The redneck townies don’t care for the hippies, which they make known by driving dune buggies through the hippies’ garden, messing with their livestock, and physically pummelling them. Angel stabs one, head honcho hillbilly Dave (Peter Lawrence), in the arm with a pitchfork as he speeds past him.

After that, Dave gives them all an ultimatum: leave by Saturday, or his posse of rednecks is going to wreak havoc on the commune. This frightens the hippies.

Angel calls on his old gang to save the farm, literally. He persuades Pilot, who grudgingly gets the guys on board. They head out to stay there for a week. Not surprisingly, the bikers clash with the hippies, starting with their diet of alphalpha. Things go south fast: the bikers drink, hit on the ladies, and generally make a mess. The last straw is stealing the batch of cookies — the vague implication is that they’re laced with drugs, probably pot or peyote — that an elderly medicine man (Pedro Regas) bakes in a hut.

Loaded with chases in “vee-hicles,” fistfights, and a good mix of dramatic tension and humor, Angel Unchained isn’t the worst thing. It’s got an odd charm to it, with the desert setting and the fringe dwellers of a long gone era battling the philistines of an even longer gone era. It has a few memorable scenes, such as a brilliantly kooky one in which Pilot has a nice, nothing chat with the sheriff (Aldo Ray) outside the jailhouse. As they talk, they nonchalantly watch the the bikers and the townies beat the crap out of each other in the parking lot in front of them. Another sad scene occurs right after a rape — again, it’s vaguely implied but you know what just happened.

Still, Angel Unchained is pretty silly; its earnestness makes it even moreso. If it has anything to say, it’s exactly what Rodney King would utter 20 years later: “Can we all just get along?” A nice sentiment for sure, but it doesn’t make up for the strained, amateur acting or the monotonous folky (and folksy) score by Randy Sparks.

With T. Max Graham, Jean Marie, Bill McKinney, Jordan Rhodes, Linda Smith, Nita Michaels, J. Cosgrove Butchie, T.C. Ryan, Alan Gibbs, Bud Ekins, Jerry Randall

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Anglo-EMI Film Distributors (UK), MGM-EMI (UK), Film AB Corona (Sweden)

86 minutes
Rated PG

(Impact) C-

I, Tonya

(USA 2017)

As crazy at it was, the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee just before the 1994 Winter Olympic Games and the resulting shit show that plagued her teammate Tonya Harding never occurred to me again after the media frenzy over it died down — like, by spring. Then one day this past autumn, I caught the trailer for I, Tonya. Oh, Lord!

I must confess, Craig Gillespie’s biopic ended the year on a high note — much higher than my expectations. Framed as a documentary with interviews interspersed throughout the story, I misjudged I, Tonya as mere fluff. It’s not. For all its lurid, sensationalist absurdity, it packs some jarring moments that hit…well, like a club.

While not a vital undertaking, I, Tonya is a very well done film. The screenplay by Steven Rogers is sharp, while Gillespie’s pace — cuts and jumps and all — moves nicely. What makes the whole thing fly, though, is the cast. Sebastian Stan as Harding’s sadistic twerp of a husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her caustic mother LaVona Golden give performances worthy of gold medals. But the real showstopper is Margot Robbie, who makes Harding something she never was in real life: sympathetic. It’s no small feat.

I’ve heard some grumble that I, Tonya is a mean-spirited film that condescends to its subjects and gets laughs by making them look like fools. I don’t see it that way. Without absolving her, the film presents nasty circumstances that no doubt fueled Harding’s desire to win. The story and characters are culled from actual sources. Harding’s ultimate punishment was harsh. You can’t help but understand and feel for her, just a teeny tiny bit.

With Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Davin Allen Grindstaff, Daniel Thomas May, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert, Miles Mussenden, Jan Harrelson, Luray Cooper, Dan Triandiflou, Kelly O’Neal, Alphie Hyorth

Production: Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment

Distribution: 30West (USA), Neon (USA), VVS Films (Canada), Cinemex Films S.A. de C.V. (Mexico), California Filmes (Latin America), Mars Distribution (France), Lucky Red (Italy), DCM Film Distribution (Germany), Ascot Elite Entertainment Group (Switzerland), Nos Lusomundo Audiovisuais (Portugal), The Searchers (Belgium / Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Myndform (Iceland), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Fabula Films (Turkey), Gakhal Entertainment (India), Lots Home Entertainment (Taiwan), M Pictures (Thailand), Noori Pictures (South Korea), Shaw Organisation (Singapore), Showgate (Japan), Solar Pictures (Philippines), UA films (Hong Kong), Roadshow Films (Australia / New Zealand), Ster-Kinekor Pictures (South Africa)

120 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B

https://www.itonyamovie.com

What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)

(USA 1966)

Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.

It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.

Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Canyon Cinema

Distribution:

11 minutes
Not rated

(Daily Motion) C-

 

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B