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

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

(USA 1983)

“Now, I have something to tell you…I’m not like other guys.”

— Michael Jackson

A very young Michael Jackson on a date with…his girlfriend (Ola Ray)? Jackson playing a werewolf, a zombie, and a lizard-eyed creature? Vincent Price reading an outro? Bad ’80s hair? You know it’s thriller, thriller night!

It’s not his best song, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a fucking cool video. It features all the showmanship he’s known for — the dancing, the weirdness, the bigness of the whole thing, that red jacket and those white socks, oh and a setting in the midst of seedy urban decay, this time a cemetery apparently somewhere downtown. Directed by John Landis, Thriller is clever: what starts as a cheesy horror movie turns out to be…a cheesy horror movie. Loaded with references to Night of the Living Dead and An American Werewolf in London, Thriller demonstrates that Jackson actually had a sense of humor.

I don’t put a music video on my blog every day. In fact, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is (so far) the only one. Why? In my quest to see as much as possible on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, I am obligated to include the final single and title track from the legendary pop star’s massive blockbuster album Thriller (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thriller_(Michael_Jackson_album) ). The song was not written by Jackson — Rod Temperton came up with it.

This video truly was a “seismic shift” — longer, more dramatic, and reaching beyond the song, it proved that music videos could be more than promotional clips; they literally could be little movies — or as here, bona fide events — that attract a huge audience, and thus worthy of a big budget. I can cite a number of artists who followed the template that Jackson set with Thriller.

In 2009, the United States Library of Congress deemed Michael Jackson’s Thriller “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/).

With Marcea Lane, Kim Blank, Lorraine Fields, Tony Fields, Michele Simmons, Vincent Peters, Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, Michael De Lorenzo, Ben Lokey, John Command, Richard Gaines, Mark Sellers, Suzan Stadner, Diane Geroni, Suga Pop

Production: MJJ Productions, Optimum Productions

Distribution: Epic Records, Vestron Video

14 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes) A

https://michaeljackson.com

A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune]

(France 1902)

I’m guessing that a large number of people recognize a particular still from A Trip to the Moon — the one of the “spaceship” lodged into the moon’s “eye” like a bullet. I’m also guessing that a large number of people have never seen the film. I was one of them — until this afternoon.

Written and directed by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is a lot cooler than I expected. Imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated, it’s downright cinematic in the way it approaches its subject matter and tells its story. Méliès demonstrates far greater artistic and dramatic flair than his American contemporaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

In a Medieval chamber, a wise old astronomer (Méliès) proposes traveling to the moon, only to be scoffed at by his colleagues (Victor André, Brunnet, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm). Undeterred, he shows them how it will work. Soon, they’re heading for outer space in a vessel that looks like a big bullet fired with a cannon from the rooftops of Paris.

The astronomers land on the moon and deboard their “space bullet” — no need for space suits, of course. They set up camp. As they sleep, celestial bodies like a comet, the Big Dipper, and Saturn all appear in the night sky. A moon goddess (Bleuette Bernon) makes it snow. They awake and encounter huge mushrooms and insect-like aliens — played by acrobats in tights and a mask — that explode on impact. A mob of aliens captures them and takes them to the leader. The astronomers escape and flee to their capsule, aliens pursuing them. Will they get back to Earth safely?

I found A Trip to the Moon charming. It’s got a nifty surreal Alice in Wonderland meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe. It’s theatrical and visually stunning, especially the hand tinted color — yes, color — version. The attention to detail is, in a word, heavenly.

Méliès was a wealthy Paris shoemaker who longed to be an artist. He ultimately sold his share of the family business to his brothers and bought a theater, where he performed magic shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès). A demonstration of a cinematograph, a combination camera/projector/printer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematograph), in 1895 sparked his interest in film. He’s considered a sci-fi groundbreaker.

With Jeanne d’Alcy, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène Legris

Production: Star Film Company

Distribution: Star Film Company (France), American Mutoscope & Biograph (USA), Edison Manufacturing Company (USA), S. Lubin (USA), Kleine Optical Company (USA), Niels Le Tort (Sweden), The Royal Wonder Bio (Slovenia)

13 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) A

Inland Empire [A Woman in Trouble]

(USA/France/Poland 2006)

“What the bloody hell is going on?” asks Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) at one point during Inland Empire, David Lynch’s last (so far) full length feature film. It’s an excellent question, one that anyone watching this three-hour nightmare no doubt has already wondered by this point.

Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, an elegant actress up for the lead in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows, due to start shooting very soon. A strange Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who lives “just up the way” drops by her California mansion one afternoon and casually but ominously brings up a murder in the film. “That’s not part of the story,” Nikki tells her visitor, who insists she’s wrong and throws a tantrum right there in the sitting room, screaming about “brutal fucking murder” and an unpaid bill. Annoyed and visibly freaked out, Nikki has her butler (Ian Abercrombie) remove her.

Nikki gets the part. Some weirdness happens, and the film’s director (Irons) tells Nikki and her rugged costar Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) that the film is supposedly cursed: it’s a sort of remake of an old Polish movie called 47 that was never completed because of a double murder on the set. The actors are upset but they agree to proceed with production despite the producers’ lack of transparency.

Meanwhile, Nikki is falling for Devon. The narrative gets weird here, ping-ponging back and forth between Nikki and Devon and their characters, Susan and Billy, as well as Susan’s husband, Smithy (Peter J. Lucas), who knows something is going on. Billy’s wife (Julia Ormond) proves to be a character of interest of ever increasing importance, bleeding into another seemingly unrelated subplot about Sue Blue (Dern), a rough and caustic Hollywood chick who finds herself pregnant. The problem is, her husband (Lucas) is sterile. And just who are all these hookers hanging out with Sue, smoking and dancing to “The Loco-Motion” in her living room?

Interspersed between all this is yet another triangular subplot set in 1800s Poland: a cheating wife (Karolina Gruszka) learns that her husband (Krzysztof Majchrzak) plans to kill her lover (Lucas). And just to keep thing interesting, Lynch throws in “The Rabbits,” a spooky sitcom about a family of…rabbits. Actually, actors in rabbit suits (one of them has the voice of Naomi Watts). Later, Sue somehow ends up in their living room.

Probably his most indulgent film, Inland Empire is the kind of thing I imagine most people associate with David Lynch: a surreal trip through the subconscious, the imagination, alternate universes, and time that starts out with a discernible plot but disintegrates into seemingly disjointed events, actors playing multiple characters, bizarre and vivid imagery, random upbeat pop songs, and a creepy score by Marek Zebrowski. Flashes of Lynch’s usual sense of humor pop up here and there, but for the most part this is a dark and somber film about betrayal, loss, and karma. Perhaps its strongest aspect is its overriding sense of dread, and the worst thing about is that it’s impossible to tell whether the scary part is coming or has already arrived.

Inland Empire is surely a horror film. I imagine not many people getting into it, and most even being turned off. Length and structure—or lack thereof—aside, it’s not an easy film to watch or understand, and frankly I’m not entirely sure I grasp what the whole thing is about. Indeed, different characters say “I don’t understand” over and over, and Devon/Billy tells Grace/Susan a few times that she isn’t making sense. A common thread that ties the multiple plots together eventually emerges, but I get the impression that this is merely a heap of undeveloped ideas Lynch assembled into one big project.

Still, I found myself mesmerized all the way through it. The ending, where Sue’s fate plays out over the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is dowright distressing. In a way, it’s also beautiful. Lynch offers a lot to chew on here; I’ve gone over it multiple times since I saw it. I have my theory of what really transpires in Inland Empire, and someday I’ll watch again with an eye toward backing it up. It won’t be anytime soon, though.

Post script: I had the pleasure of seeing John Waters speak in the afternoon before I caught Inland Empire. Needless to say, it required a major shift in gears.

With Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd , Mary Steenburgen, Terry Crews, William H. Macy, Leon Niemczyk, Nastassja Kinski, Monique Cash, Latrina Bolger, Fulani Bahati, Ashley Calloway, Erynn Dickerson, Jovonie Leonard, Jennifer Locke, Helena Chase, Nae

Production: Absurda, Studio Canal, Fundacja Kultury, Camerimage Festival

Distribution: Ryko (USA), 518 Media (USA), Absurda (USA), Studio Canal (International), Mars Distribution (International)

180 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.inlandempirecinema.com

http://www.davidlynch.de

Who Killed Teddy Bear

(USA 1965)

“I don’t think you’re very amusing, Lieutenant…Whatever-Your-Problem-Is.”

—Norah Dain

Who Killed Teddy Bear is so far one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year, which is odd because it’s more than 50 years old. A surprisingly good story and movie, everything about it shines despite its bleak subject matter and an obviously low budget.

The film opens with a little girl who seems to be getting away from something unsettling she just observed. She falls down a set of stairs in the dark. It’s a curious opening, but she ties into the story later.

Cut to mid-sixties Manhattan: Norah Dain (Juliet Prowse) is an aspiring actress who works as a “disc jockey” at a nightclub. She lives alone in a cute three flat. It’s bad enough that she’s getting obscene phone calls from an unknown weirdo, but what’s worse is that he implies he’s watching her.

Enter detective Lt. Dave Madden (Jan Murray) to investigate Norah’s case. His wife was raped and murdered on the streets of New York City. He comes off as part father and part priest, and he takes a special interest in Norah that verges on disturbing. Indeed, he drops in all the time, he secretly records their conversations, and he keeps telling her that he could be the caller. At home, he’s obsessed with “studying” pornography and perverts, which has a distorting effect on his 10-year-old daughter (Diane Moore).

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

We soon learn that Lt. Madden actually isn’t the caller; Lawrence Sherman (Sal Mineo), who works as a busboy with Norah, is. Lawrence has a lot of issues. Awkward and aloof, he lives in a sad, dank apartment with his younger sister, Edie (Margot Bennett). Edie has brain damage and hasn’t developed beyond a child. Their parents died, leaving Lawrence to take care of her. And he does, but he harbors resentment.

On top of all this, Lawrence is incapable of a normal romantic relationship because of his guilt over his sister. He deals with his sexual frustration at adult bookstores and movie theaters in Times Square, and it apparently works until Norah comes along. His obsession with her takes him down a road of murder and ruin.

Directed by Joseph Cates, Who Killed Teddy Bear has a high creepy-icky factor, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Mineo is brooding and sexy, and Lawrence is compelling in the same fucked up way as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Norah and Lawrence don’t have all that many scenes together, but she’s nice to him when they do. This makes their scenes percolate with tension, particularly one at a pool in a gym. We know the whole thing is not going to end well, and Cates slowly but steadily gets us to a nasty climax. To add to the perversion, screenwriters Arnold Drake and Leon Tokatyan drop in little bombshells like incest and lesbian passes. Joseph Brun’s camerawork is lovely, especially in the night scenes; shooting on location in New York City, he cloaks the actors in shadows and neon light in a way that nicely underscores their solitude.

Interesting trivia: a young Dan Travanty, who plays a small part as a nightclub employee, went on to star in Hill Street Blues.

This film has been cut and recut many times over the years, at least once for British television. I’m pretty sure the screening I attended was the original uncut version.

With Elaine Stritch, Tom Aldredge, Frank Campanella, Rex Everhart, Bruce Glover, Casey Townsend

Production: Phillips Productions

Distribution: Magna Corporation, BijouFlix Releasing

94 minutes
Not rated

(The Auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University) A

Chicago Film Society

North by Northwest

(USA 1959)

“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.”

—Roger Thornhill

 

“That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”

—Man at the Prairie Crossing

I expected Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to be suspenseful, cinematic, and even a bit perverse, peppered with the director’s inimitable wit and dark sense of humor. It certainly is all that. However, I didn’t expect it to be altogether facetious, or as fun as it is. Scene after scene, North by Northwest delivers; not many films give as much bang for your buck as this one.

Cary Grant is Manhattan ad executive Roger O. Thornhill—”The ‘O’ stands for nothing,” he quips at one point. A mild-mannered, stylish middle-aged man in a grey flannel Brooks Brothers suit—think Mad Men—he leads a perfectly predictable straight life serving clients, drinking martinis, and keeping his WASPy mother (Jessie Royce Landis) entertained.

While having cocktails at the Plaza Hotel one afternoon, Thornhill is yanked into a treacherous game of cat-and-mouse when the goons of a smooth and well-spoken spy, baritone Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. It’s nothing but trouble from here.

Relentlessly hunted after being framed for an incident at the United Nations, Thornhill flees Manhattan on a passenger train that looks a lot like Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. He meets cool, mysterious, and sultry stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who’s headed to Chicago. Her innuendo is sexy, but she’s not exactly trustworthy—Thornhill senses it, and so do we.

North by Northwest is ultimate Hitchcock, fueled by mistaken identity and packed with psychological drama manifest mostly in the form of dizzying pursuit: a drunken car chase on a windy road, a moving train, an out-of-nowhere crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, a race down Mount Rushmore. Nothing about the plot is believable; it’s more preposterous than a James Bond film. Although it shares the same Cold War sensibility, North by Northwest is much more intriguing and memorable. It’s also more entertaining.

Ernest Lehman’s script is brilliantly put together, but the story isn’t what makes this soar; it’s Hitchcock’s directing and the acting, particularly that of Grant, Saint, and Mason. Grant is a hoot to watch here; he plays Thornhill like a high-style Thurston Howell without his Lovie. He walks a fine line between convincing and cartoonish, always coming off as the former. It’s quite an astounding feat of balance, actually. Saint is the perfect counterpart to Grant. I could listen to Mason talk endlessly. Martin Landau plays a secondary character, but he’s awesome as über creepy (and probably closeted) Leonard, Vandamm’s right hand man.

Ahead of its time in many ways, North by Northwest is consciously silly yet pushes a few boundaries. Exceedingly mischievous, it just might be Hitchcock’s most charming film. It’s definitely more fun than any other film of his that I’ve seen—not that I’ve come close to seeing all of them. It’s truly a dazzler.

Personal geek-out side note: in a film full of thrilling moments, the most thrilling for me was the scene outside The Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. I live two doors down from the hotel, now known as Public. I’ve stood in the exact spot Grant did as he exited the alley to cross Goethe to get to the hotel—I walk my dog there all the time. It’s amusingly weird to see a place you know so well onscreen, let alone in something from almost 60 years ago. It’s different, but not much. Here’s what it looked like when North by Northwest was filmed:

IMG_9083.PNG

And here’s what it looks like today:

Ambassador.jpg

In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed North by Northwest “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/).

With Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Josephine Hutchinson, Adam Williams, Robert Ellenstein, Edward Platt, Philip Coolidge, Edward Binns

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

136 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) A

Fathom Events

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

(USA 1982, 2007)

Ridley Scott is hit or miss with me, Harrison Ford bores me, and I tend to eschew science fiction. So, neo-noir sci-fi drama Blade Runner doesn’t seem like something that would appeal to me. It does, though—in fact, I love it.

Like Alien, another gem by Scott, Blade Runner succeeds on so many levels. Executed near flawlessly, its themes and narrative, its structure and pace, its sets and technical aspects are all polished, eloquent, and downright cerebral. It cuts right to the heart of humanity—what’s beautiful about it and what isn’t, and what it is to be human.

Los Angeles, November 2019: six rogue artificial humans known as replicants that were banished to an “off-world” work camp in space return to Earth in a desperate attempt to extend their life. Created by tech behemoth Tyrell Corporation, this particular model, the Nexus-6, is the smartest and strongest replicant. However, it has a lifespan of only four years—and the meter is ticking. Fortunately for them, replicants are indistinguishable from real humans, except for their emotional responses. It takes a lengthy question-and-answer test to positively identify them.

Burned out former cop Rick Deckard (Ford), whose job as a blade runner was to track down replicants and “retire,” or kill them, is persuaded—okay, extorted—out of a self-imposed furlough to find and get rid of these troublemakers. Stat. The job isn’t an easy one, particularly where charmingly weird and conniving Pris (Daryl Hannah) and invincible badass Roy (Rutger Hauer) are involved.

As Deckard searches for his targets, he meets and gets to know the rather severely formal Rachael (Sean Young), assistant to replicant inventor Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Rachael doesn’t know she’s a replicant. Tyrell asks Deckard to retire her as well, but there’s a problem: Deckard realizes he’s falling for her.

Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—with the title taken from Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Blade Runner, which had nothing to do with Dick (https://www.neondystopia.com/cyberpunk-movies-anime/the-story-behind-blade-runners-title/)—Blade Runner is dark in every sense of the word. Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography is stunningly bleak. The setting might be Los Angeles, but Scott slyly references Metropolis—only he refits it to Hong Kong or Tokyo. Many of the ideas explored here are eerily relevant today, especially the way morality plays out with corporations, genetic engineering, a police state, the environment, and hierarchy of life and life forms.

Blade Runner is a weighty movie, but seriousness aside—I found myself entertained with a number of things that simply aren’t present today: PanAm, Atari, and TDK. Smoking indoors. Pay phones. Photographs. Even urban decay. I was also floored that one of the replicants was “born” 20 days after this screening. Plus, Roy is a bionic Ken doll and Pris looks like a club kid from Party Monster. Still, Blade Runner is timeless; I’ll see it again in three or 33 years and still swoon over it. Yes, it’s that good. The Final Cut is Scott’s own finetuned version of the original theatrical release. It kills me that after all this time, a sequel that I probably won’t see is coming out later this year.

In 1993, the United States Library of Congress deemed Blade Runner “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/).

With Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, Kevin Thompson, John Edward Allen, Robert Okazaki

Production: Ladd Company, The Shaw Brothers/Sir Run Run Shaw, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

117 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) A

https://www.warnerbros.com/blade-runner

Kill Bill: Volume 1

(USA 2003)

“Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest. And like a forest, it’s easy to lose your way. To get lost. To forget where you came in.”

—Hattori Hanzō

“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack,” The Bride (Uma Thurman) plainly informs one of her assailants before she exacts revenge. “Not rationality.” Uh, really? Right off the bat, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 (not to be conflated with Kill Bill: Volume 2, which is longer but not quite as good) is an action film packed with snark and coolness. Uma Thurman is The Bride (codeman Black Mamba), who in the sepiatone opening scene is lying on the floor of a chapel in El Paso, Texas. She’s in a wedding dress, bleeding and pleading for her life. “It’s your baby,” she tells Bill (David Carradine, who has a bigger part in the second installment). He shoots her in the head.

Four years later, The Bride wakes up—midfuck, mind you—from a coma in the hospital. There’s no baby. She takes out a would-be rapist, Jasper (Jonathan Loughran), and an orderly named Buck (Michael Bowen), who pimped her out. Incidentally, Buck has a catchphrase that rhymes with his name—you figure it out. The Bride runs off with Buck’s truck, the “Pussy Wagon.” Once she gets her feet and legs moving, she sets out to settle a score—or six. First, though, she has to persuade retired master swordsmith Hattori Hanzō (Sonny Chiba), who runs a sushi bar in Okinawa, to make her a sword.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is totally far fetched, but that’s not important. Like most Tarantino films, the emphasis here is on the characters and the action, not the plot; otherwise, two hours of not much more than a badass blonde babe methodically killing teammates who double-crossed her when she was a member of something called the Viper Assassination Squad wouldn’t work. Originally intended as one long film (http://killbill.wikia.com/wiki/Kill_Bill:_Vol._1), Kill Bill: Volume 1 depicts two of the paybacks: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who’s now a housewife and mother in suburban Los Angeles, and O’Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), the head of the Tokyo Yakuza.

Beautifully staged and shot, the violence is over the top yet perfectly choreographed. The scene at the House of Blue Leaves is eloquent right down to the blood in the snow. Tarantino plays around with the sequence of events and mixes genres including anime. He employs his penchant for sharp dialogue, snazzy settings with memorable names, and sick humor. Plus, he throws in cool music and clothes; Daryl Hannah dressed as a nurse, for example, is fucking fabulous! As a result, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a dazzling bloodfest. It takes a certain type to love a film like this—and it’s one of my favorites.

With Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, James Parks, Sakichi Sato, Ambrosia Kelley

Production: A Band Apart

Distribution: Miramax Films

111 minutes
Rated R

(Logan Theatre) A

https://www.miramax.com/movie/kill-bill-volume-1/

Quiz Show

(USA 1994)

“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”

—Mark Van Doren

 

The quiz show scandal of the late 1950s doesn’t sound like a riveting topic for a film, but that’s exactly what it is in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s fourth directing gig. Every aspect of this film is spectacularly elegant, starting with Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife” as the opening credits roll over shots of armored security guards transferring sealed questions and answers from a bank vault to a studio. Quiz Show is a modern morality play with lots of style.

It’s 1958, and NBC’s Twenty-One is the biggest game show in America. Homely goofball Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of Queens is a surprise celebrity after an unprecedented winning streak, but the show’s ratings have “plateaued.” The show’s sponsor, Geritol, is ready for a change. So are producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), who decide that a charismatic, television-ready new contestant is what the show needs.

WASPy college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) happens to audition for another NBC game show, the less popular Tic Tac Dough. Handsome, polished, and hailing from an eminent intellectual family, “Charlie” fits the bill for Enright and Freedman’s vision.

Enright takes Stempel out for a steak dinner and asks him to “take a dive,” or purposely lose to Van Doren, on an upcoming show. Predictably, this isn’t something Stempel wants to do—at least, not without something in return. Enright fails to deliver on purposely vague promises, and Stempel publicly calls Twenty-One a fraud, saying it’s rigged. A judge seals the findings of a grand jury investigation, which gets some very minor press: a blurb in the paper. It catches the attention of ladder climbing Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer with the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., who plans to “put TV on trial.”

Quiz Show didn’t set the box office on fire during its original run, which is really odd (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1994). No matter, because it’s a fine drama. Based on the book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by the real Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is meticulously calibrated and cerebral, rich with strong characters, intertwined dilemmas, a fascinating plot, and a plethora of Fifties pop cultural references without nostalgia. Redford’s pacing is excellent: he sets up the story slowly then knocks down each character one after another. He draws superb performances out of the actors, too. The literary repartee between Van Doren and his genteel father, Mark (Paul Scofield), is one of the best things about this film. A wry and subtle sense of humor keeps the story exuberant: Martin Scorsese is great as fast talking Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome, and Christopher McDonald makes an awesome Jack Barry.

Sure, Quiz Show isn’t an “exact word” historical documentary; Redford and Attanasio took some license. However, the result is an excellent depiction of good versus evil, not just in the television industry but in corporate America altogether. There’s not a lull or a dull moment here. The only criticism I have is Morrow’s unconvincing Boston accent; that can go. Everything else, though, is brilliant. Enright’s son, Don, wrote a piece about Quiz Show for the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-19/entertainment/ca-40429_1_quiz-show); it’s another view worth considering.

With Mira Sorvino, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson, Allan Rich, Griffin Dunne

Production: Hollywood Pictures

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

133 minutes
Rated PG-13

(DVD/iTunes purchase) A

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(USA 1966)

Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. Edward Albee. Even George Segal, who was kind of a fixture on NBC during the ’80s and ’90s. Need I say more? Probably not, but I will.

Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman stick pretty close to Albee’s 1962 play with their film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and it’s hard to watch. Really hard. To be fair, though, it’s supposed to be, and that’s what makes it so good.

The promotional poster promises an evening of fun and games, but very little joy is to be found here, at least on the surface: all that marital baiting, sniping, and yelling is miserable. Fuck! It took me five or six false starts over a few years before I finally got into the film—and only with the help of a bottle of bourbon. Once I was in, though, I was hooked: watching this disastrous night unfold and all four characters unravel engrossed me desite the buzz I had going.

The oddly but appropriately named George (Burton), a history professor at a small East Coast university, and Martha (Taylor), the daughter of the school’s president, stumble home drunk from a faculty party, neither one listening to the other as they babble about nothing. Martha quotes Bette Davis, which ultimately reveals more about her viewpoint than any other comment she makes—and the woman can talk.

They babble and respond to each other half-heartedly. Martha tells George that she invited a young couple, a professor from another department and his wife, over for a drink. George is miffed, but there’s no time to react.

Enter Nick (Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis), a polite, young, good-looking couple that, as we learn, has their own set of problems. Martha and George pour drinks and pick at each other while Nick and Honey watch, uncomfortable at first, thinking maybe they shouldn’t be there. As the drinking continues, though, they’re pulled into the…drama? Turns out, they have more in common with each other than they think.

Here’s the thing about George and Martha: their marriage is dysfunctional, but they seem to operate well inside the confines of their explosive relationship—Martha brays and George stays, responding in a passive aggressive manner as he fixes them both another drink. Over and over and over again. Do they have any limits? It’s hard to say, partly because it’s never clear that we should take anything at face value: what we see is not necessarily what it is. That’s the genius of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. 

In 2013, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “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/).

With Frank Flanagan, Agnes Flanagan

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

131 minutes
Not rated

(DVD purchase) A