Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts

October 25, 2006 / / Main Slate

In the late 1930s, director Jean Renoir had reached an artistic peak he may not have predicted at the dawn of his career. Many early critics viewed the elaborate star vehicles he concocted for his first wife, Catherine Hessling, saw his famous surname, and wrote him off as a dilettante papa’s boy. Instead of retreating to the mediums he worked with before he picked up a film camera, however, Renoir persevered, and the public greeted his work with both acclaim and controversy.

September 29, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by David Kociemba

USA, 1941. 101 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond. Music: Adolph Deutsch; Cinematography: Arthur Edeson; Production Design: Robert Haas; Produced by: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis; Based on a Novel by: Dashiell Hammett; Written by: John Huston; Directed by: John Huston.

The pleasure of films noirs is in the active reading of them. We make our own way through these confusing, baroque worlds filled with existential crises. In navigating these rich swathes of word and shadow, we become like the private detective so often found in them: bewildered, besieged, and maybe even a bit enamored with the glorious crassness of it all. Those pleasures show up in the tradition of criticism around this… Well, that’s where the problems begin, really. What is this thing we call film noir?

September 29, 2006 / / Film Notes
September 25, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Kristoffer Tronerud

Italy, 1971. 130 min. Alfa Cinematografica/ Warner Bros. Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Bjørn Andresen, Marisa Berenson, Mark Burns. Music: Gustav Mahler; Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis; Produced by: Luchino Visconti; Based on a Novella by: Thomas Mann; Written by: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco; Directed by: Luchino Visconti

“The artist is like a hunter in the dark”, bemoans Gustav, the tormented hero of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, “they know what their target is, but they don’t know if they’ve hit it!” While this is certainly true of Gustav, nothing could be less true of Luchino Visconti, a masterful commanding artist who knew exactly what he wanted, and, most often, got it. In the contemporaneous promotional short Visconti’s Venice, Dirk Bogarde, (who plays Gustav with a brave and ego-free poignancy) notes with amusement that “I provide the tracks, but Visconti brings the train.” Another, very different, Italian master, Sergio Leone, was speaking of himself, but might as well have been describing Visconti, when he said “It is essential that all the details seem right, never invented. A fairy tale captures the imagination most when the setting is as realistic as possible”. Visconti was the master of detail; engineering every visual touch, every texture, every last element of costuming, set design and prop placement (indeed, on Death, he seems even to have controlled the weather itself), so that by the time the shot is played out, his languid camera need only pass over the proceedings in a final masterful brush stroke to bring home the powerful truth of each passage of this magnificent fairy tale.

September 25, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Stuart Kurtz

USA, 1949. 73 min. RKO Radio Pictures. Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman. Music: Roy Webb; Cinematography: William Steiner; Art Direction: Albert D’Agostino; Produced by: Dore Shary; Based on a Story by: Cornell Woolrich; Written by: Mel Dinelli; Directed by: Ted Tetzlaff.

Films depicting children in adult predicaments intensify the sense of danger viewers feel because the idea of a child meeting a terrible end is unacceptable to us. We feel more than the average dread for the child, as we know grown-ups aren’t completely innocent. While children don’t always keep their noses clean either, the supposed innocence of childhood is enough to bring out the protective instinct in adults.

September 22, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Jason Haas

US, 1995. 129 min. Universal Pictures. Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt; Music: Paul Buckmaster; Cinematography: Roger Pratt; Produced by: Charles Roven; Written by: David and Janet Peoples (from a film by Chris Marker); Directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s almost precious to say of a time travel movie, but Twelve Monkeys was clearly ahead of its time. When it was released in the US at the tail end of 1995, the country was entering the election year that would lead to President Clinton’s second term and the economy was sky high. All of the problems that now dominate pretty much all of our discourse in this country were around but minor and mostly unnoticed, waiting to spring on the country as a post millennial surprise party of doom. Now, in 2006, right after the 5th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack eliminating the majority of the Earth’s population and driving the rest underground seems a little bit more real. Or maybe it will be Avian Flu. The truth of the matter is that the last five or so years have given our day-to-day reality a much more apocalyptic flavor. So how, in the early days of the Internet boom and a mostly sunny security outlook, did Twelve Monkeys manage to acquire such apocalyptic trappings?

September 22, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Kristoffer Tronerud

USA, 1982. 129 min. UA/ Dino De Laurentiis Pictures. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Mako; Music: Basil Poledouris; Cinematography: Duke Callaghan; Production Design: Ron Cobb; Based on Stories by: Robert Howard; Screenplay: Oliver Stone, John Milius; Directed by: Milius

“I’m a Zen Fascist” John Milius once famously remarked, and, while his tongue was firmly planted in cheek, that description goes a long way in explaining the unique appeal of this very talented and likable rogue artist. While it may take courage to be left of center in the country at large, in Hollywood, the conservative is the true maverick, and, as a director and screenwriter, Milius has paid a price for his cheerful unwillingness to toe a politically correct line for Tinseltown convenience. Still, it is a big mistake to paint Milius with the broad brush of the political simplemindedness of, say, a John Wayne or a Jack Webb. From the start of his career, Milius’s projects have evidenced a complexity and thoughtfulness that make such easy classification impossible. His work embraces the reality that men and women are different and that courage and violence are sometimes unavoidable and necessary, in a way that makes knee-jerk liberals uncomfortable, but his work also betrays a tenderness and respect for women and a keen sense of the limits of the macho ideal that give lie to the stereotype that generally accompanies any discussion of his oeuvre.

September 22, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Kris Tronerud

USA, 1951. 115 min. Philip Waxman Productions. Cast: John Barrymore, Jr., Preston Foster, Joan Lorring, Howard St. John, Dorothy Comingore; Cinematography: Hal Mohr; Produced by: Philip A. Waxman; Based on a Novel by: Stanley Ellin; Written by: Stanley Ellin, Joseph Losey, Ring Lardner, Jr.; Directed by: Joseph Losey

One of the greatest pleasures of being a movie nut is the re-discovery of those long gone, lovingly remembered films which appeared to us in our youth, before we knew we were ‘aficionados’, before we even knew why we loved movies, when our reactions were primal and unaffected by critical sensibilities or intellectual preconception. These films take root in our memories with the vivid resonance of a childhood friend. Sometimes, of course, the rediscovery is a painful disappointment, as we realize that our fond recollection was based primarly on the bust size of the heroine or on a fantasy landscape that now reveals itself to be composed of monsters in suits with visible zippers lurking in papier maché lairs. Every so often, however, a film reappears on the cinematic horizon and holds up admirably to viewing by now jaundiced and demanding eyes, revealing that it burrowed into our young psyches for deeper and more substantial reasons. For me, the reappearance of Joseph Losey’s The Big Night on TMC (and now in theaters) was just such a happy reunion.

September 22, 2006 / / Film Notes

USA. 92min. 2002. Silver Sphere Corporation. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Larry Pennell. Music: Brian Tyler; Cinematography: Adam Janeiro; Produced by: Don Coscarelli & Jason Savage ; Based on a Story by: Joe Lansdale; Written by: Don Coscarelli; Directed by: Don Coscarelli.

Upon hearing a brief description of Bubba Ho-tep, one might assume that it was an intensely campy, irreverent B-movie that was pretty thin on characterization. The plot, can, after all, be summed up to some extent with the phrase, “Elvis versus a mummy.” It’s easy to imagine some caricatured version of the King of Rock n’ Roll taking on the monster. By now Elvis as an icon is as much a part of our collective subconscious—and as likely to be a Halloween costume—as any creature from the old Universal horror films. Elvis impersonators, Elvis on velvet, Elvis’ face repeated again and again like an Andy Warhol silkscreen; the idea of Elvis has become a vaguely tacky pop culture touchstone. Yet thankfully, Bubba Ho-tep is a more complex, and far more interesting, film than that phrase “Elvis versus a mummy” can convey. Writer-director Don Coscarelli, working from a short story by the idiosyncratic Joe R. Lansdale, succeeds in humanizing his Elvis and developing him far beyond a few rhinestones and a curled lip. As played by Bruce Campbell (himself a horror movie icon owing to his indispensable presence in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy), this Elvis becomes a hero to root for, not an object of ridicule.

August 28, 2006 / / Film Notes

Written by Christine Bamberger

USA, 1985. 90 min. Warner Brothers/ Aspen Film Society. Cast: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Milton Berle. Music: Danny Elfman; Cinematography: Victor Kemper; Production Design: David Snyder; Produced by: Richard Abramson, William McEuen; Written by: Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Michael Varhol; Directed by: Tim Burton.

Living high up a mountain in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire in the late 1980s, I had no cable and absolutely miserable television reception, which meant that I began listening in earnest to National Public Radio and took to watching a few of the shows available on the two network channels I was able to get. Though I adored the quirky Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and The Wonder Years, I also watched a few shows to which I probably would not have been drawn had my selection been more diverse–I developed a Who’s the Boss? habit, once it was syndicated. Oddest of all was the show I’d occasionally switch to on Saturday mornings, when I was just returning from a grocery run and starting to put things away in the kitchen. Pee-wee’s Playhouse turned out to be a sort of cross between a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon–both fun for kids and zinging much of its humor straight over their heads–and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.