“The Fall” & “Grantchester” – The UK Strikes Again!

The Fall-posterGrantchester-posterI had planned to include The Fall in my recent recap of the best (in my opinion) TV shows of 2014, but decided not to when I found that we’d watched the first season in September 2013 instead of sometime last year, as I’d initially thought. The second season began streaming on Netflix this January, so I thought it was out of bounds. I hadn’t heard of Grantchester until just before it starting airing last month on Masterpiece Mystery following Downton Abbey on Sundays. Both series are so good that rather than wait, I want to write briefly about them now.

The Fall (BBC Two, Netflix)  This series was written entirely by Allan Cubitt, who also directed all six episodes of the second season; Jakob Verbruggen directed the five epsiodes of the first season. Yes, it’s another cop show with yet another serial killer of women at the center of the plot, but this one is rather different, it seems to me. Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is assigned to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to evaluate a murder investigation that is still open after 28 days. When it becomes apparent a serial killer is involved, she stays on to oversee the operation. We see the killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), almost immediately. Each episode alternates scenes of Spector with scenes of Stella; almost equal time is given to both. I like police procedurals, but The Fall is also a kind of serial-killer procedural, which puts us uncomfortably close to this guy.

As Spector, Jamie Dornan is intensely methodical, precise, controlled, and focused almost like a machine, rarely showing emotion. We see him at his day job as a bereavement counselor, which he seems to be very good at, and very empathetic. This is quite disturbing considering his night work as a serial killer, at which he’s also very good. Jamie Dornan, a former Calvin Klein model, is authentically frightening in the role. He’s about to gain a much bigger profile after the much-hyped Fifty Shades of Grey opens, in which he plays the male lead.

Jamie Dornan - "The Fall"

Jamie Dornan – “The Fall”

Fifty Shades of Grey-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gillian Anderson is outstanding as Stella Gibson, a cop every bit as focused as Paul Spector. Stella is a layered character with demons of her own. Anderson is best known for her role as FBI agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, which she played for nine years from 1993 to 2002. The Fall also features Archie Panjabi as pathologist Dr. Paula Smith. I’ve known her mainly as Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, so it was great to see her in another guise.

Here’s Stella in action as she’s being questioned about her dalliance with a police sergeant on the force. This is from season one.

There’s talk of a third season, which seems inevitable considering how well The Fall has been received both here and in the UK. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

_______________________________________________

Grantchester (ITV, PBS)  What got our attention when we started seeing Masterpiece Mystery promos for this series was that James Norton was in the cast. He was still fresh in our minds for his committed performance as the villain in Happy Valley, one of my favorite shows from last year. His character in that series, Tommy Lee Royce, was as threatening and disturbing as Paul Spector was in The Fall. Here he plays an Anglican vicar in the village of Grantchester, near Cambridge in England, in the early 1950s. There was no period of adjustment; we immediately accepted him in this radically different role.

©ITV All images are Copyright of LOVELY DAY PRODUCTION and Pictures can only be used in relation to GRANTCHESTER 2014. For more info please contact patrick.smith@itv.com or call 0207157 3044Based on novels by James Runcie, the series follows a vicar, Sidney Chambers, as he goes about his life in the community, and manages to help solve murders along the way. He forms an alliance with an initially reluctant local policeman, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating. Keating is played by Robson Green, who was in Touching Evil (1997-1999) and A Wire in the Blood (2002-2008), two British series I’ve heard good things about but haven’t seen. He and Norton have great chemistry and their characters make a good team.

We’ve only seen four of the six episodes in this season of Grantchester, but so far it’s been excellent, very easygoing and a pleasure to watch. The mysteries often don’t seem any more important than the problems and challenges Sydney is having in his personal life. For example, the woman he’s in love with has announced her pending marriage to another man. And while it might not seem credible that Sydney would encounter a murder one week after the next, it doesn’t really matter; that’s what the show is, and I gladly accept it. While it doesn’t have the noirish, hardboiled edge I usually look for in these things, Grantchester nonetheless plays for keeps. A second season has been announced.

_________________________________________________

Both seasons of The Fall can be streamed via Netflix. Grantchester is currently airing on Masterpiece Mystery on Sunday nights following Downton Abbey. – Ted Hicks

Posted in Home Video, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What I Watched Last Year: Best TV 2014

Jackass watching Ted TV2__________________________________________

The Affair (Showtime)  This 10-part series is a jig-saw puzzle to be sorted out by the viewer. By the end of the season finale, the complete picture is only beginning to take shape. The Affair has been renewed for a second season, and I have the feeling that things will completely fall into place only after everything is over. I was irritated at times by the scrambled chronology and different takes on the same events, as seen by the two main The Affair-cast photocharacters. I wasn’t sure why the story was being told that way, other than to be different. I’m still not sure, but I always found the episodes compelling, and they kept me watching. The cast is especially strong, lead by Dominic West, who has a knack for playing deeply flawed characters (which he did to perfection in The Wire and The Hour), Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, and Joshua Jackson.

The Americans-posterThe Americans (FX)  This is a great series. I was skeptical of the premise when I first heard about it: KGB sleeper agents raising a family in Washington, D.C. in the early 80s while they spy for the Soviet Union. But it really works, and The Americans quickly became our favorite new show when it debuted two years ago. As is frequently the case, strong performances help immeasurably. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are great as Elizabeth Jennings and her husband Philip. Noah Emmerich quietly stands out as their neighbor Stan, an FBI agent who so far has no clue that Russian spies live just across the street. Margo Martindale is awesome as usual as Claudia, the Jennings’ KGB handler, though her character has apparently been phased out.

Fargo (FX)  This 10-part series really captures the tone and spirit of the Joel and Ethan Coen feature film from 1996. While not repeating the plot line of that film, the series definitely exists in the same universe the Coens created. Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, and Billy Bob Thornton are standouts in a cast that is terrific all around. Tolman’s Deputy Molly Solverson and Freeman’s Lester Nygaard are analogs to characters played by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy in the feature film. I hadn’t seen Allison Tolman before this, but she really nails it. Martin Freeman has been terrific as Dr. Watson in the great BBC series, Sherlock, and he’s equally amazing here. Fargo is violent, sad, funny, twisted, noirish, and quite moving — sometimes all at the same time.

Fargo-poster2The following compilation of teaser spots that aired in advance of the show’s premiere last April conveys a good sense of what to expect.

The Game (BBCAmerica)  This labyrinthine spy story, set in London in 1972 in the midst of the Cold War, has a distinct John le Carré vibe, which may not be surprising when you have MI5 agents working to uncover and understand a covert Soviet plan called “Operation Glass,” mixed with enemy agents, moles, betrayals, in-fighting, and lost loves. The central character, Joe Lambe, is played by Tom Hughes, an actor who projects a somewhat otherworldly quality, with a combination of vulnerability, intelligence, and toughness. The head of the MI5 unit, known as “Daddy,” is played by Brian Cox, a veteran actor with 198 film & television credits going back to 1965. I first remember seeing him as Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s excellent Manhunter (1986), the first on-screen appearance of Lecter. He made quite an impression in that film, very disturbing with none of the silky charm that Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter often had. The rest of the cast is equally good in this satisfying and involving series.

The Game-group shot

Happy Valley (Netflix)  I’m a sucker for BBC series, and this is another great one. Created and written by Sally Wainwright, the six-part Happy Valley follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a police sergeant in a small town in Yorkshire, as she goes after Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who she believes is responsible for the rape and subsequent suicide of her daughter. Along the way there is drug-trafficking and an ill-fated kidnapping plot that spirals out of control, much like the one in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Lancashire is great as Cawood, a tough-minded cop who shows she can take a punch and then some. Cawood’s sister Clare, a recovering drug addict, is played by Siobhan Finnernan, who it took me awhile to realize was the same actress who played the scheming O’Brien on Downton Abbey. James Norton’s Royce is a monster, a truly bad man. It’s a bit of a jolt to now be seeing him as a sleuthing vicar in postwar Britain on Grantchester (PBS), a genuinely charming fellow. I guess that’s why they call it “acting.” Happy Valley is very tough and very human. A second season is in the works.

Happy Valley led us back to a previous series created and written by Sally Wainwright Last Tango in Halifax-cast photocalled Last Tango in Halifax (Netflix). There are two six-part seasons currently available, and we proceeded to burn through both in short order. Sarah Lancashire also stars in this, along with Derek Jacobi, Ann Reid, and Nicola Walker. Jacobi and Reid play former almost-sweethearts, both widowers in their 70s, who re-unite via Facebook and decide to get married. The series shows how this works out, along with the impact on their grown children and grandchildren, who have their own dramas. This is a different world from Happy Valley, though both are set in Yorkshire, but it’s just as good.

House of Cards-Frank & ClaireHouse of Cards (Netflix)  In a role he was born to play, Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a Washington politician who schemes with every breath he takes. Equally strong is Robin Wright as Frank’s wife Claire, who is every bit as ruthless as her husband. Together they make a modern-day Lord and Lady Macbeth, though I doubt Claire will ever worry about washing blood off her hands. This is the series that established Netflix as a major player, with Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Awards to prove it. It’s an A-list show. David Fincher directed the pilot episode and is an Executive Producer on the series. Other directors include Carl Franklin, James Foley, Joel Schumacher, and Jodie Foster. House of Cards is utterly compelling, and in a creepy way makes you feel that it’s probably pretty close to how Washington works. These are horrible people, but you can’t take your eyes off them.

House of Cards is based on the excellent BBC series of the same name that ran for three seasons from 1990 to 1995. That series can also be streamed on Netflix.

Manhattan (WGN)  This excellent 13-part series is a fictionalized account of the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, focusing on the civilian scientists and military working in the desert at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The setting is evocative of the many 1950s science-fiction films that took place in the desert, which adds to the somewhat surreal ambience. This is like retro sci-fi. The ensemble cast embodies the personal dramas and many storylines that play out within the confines of this hothouse atmosphere, all against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project. Manhattan has been renewed for a second season.

Masters of Sex (Showtime) This series, which began in two years ago, follows the relationship between William Masters and Virginia Johnson during their ground-breaking research into human sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Michael Sheen portrays Masters as a pioneer convinced of his superiority and the importance of his study. His Masters is also petty, vindictive, tightly wrapped, and deeply repressed — which is ironic considering the nature of the work he’s doing. It’s a consistent performance that never wavers, but I frequently hoped that someone would punch him. As Virginia Johnson, Libby Caplan is

Masters of Sex-Bill & Virginiathe heart of the show. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, and she’s just great. Standouts from the first season include Beau Bridges as the closeted provost of the university where Masters works, and Allison Janney as his wife. Their characters and storylines were so strong that I wish they’d been around more in the second season. Masters of Sex is an excellent series that captures the 50s and 60s without hitting you over the head with period detail.

Mindy Project-cast photoThe Mindy Project (Fox)  Created by and starring Mindy Kaling, previously a writer and actor on The Office (NBC, 2005 – 2013). Though I find it irritating at times, the strong cast and performances often conspire with great writing and timing to achieve a kind of surreal lunacy that’s quite wonderful. For me, The Mindy Project is at its best when it’s most unhinged. It can also be a refreshing palate cleanser for some of the heavier stuff we watch.

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)  Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her year in a women’s prison, this fictionalized series expands on that book. It concerns Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) after she’s been sentenced to 15 months for transporting a suitcase full of drug money nearly ten years earlier. There have been two seasons so far, with a third available later this year. A large ensemble of memorable characters embodies a storyline that’s both funny and harrowing. As with all the series cited in this post, the cast is great.

Ray Donovan (Showtime)  This series is hardboiled from head to toe. Ray Donovan is a “fixer” in Los Angeles. For example, if you’re a pro basketball player who wakes up in a hotel room with a dead woman in your bed, Ray’s the guy you call. It’s like that. Ray can take care of anything. But he has too many irons in the fire, and his life is spiraling out of control. Liev Schreiber brings a lethal authority to the character. Jon Voight has the role of a lifetime as Ray’s ex-con father Mickey. It’s a performance with all the stops pulled out. Nothing good happens when Mickey is around.  Eddie Marsan, a veteran of many Mike Leigh films, plays Terry Donovan, Ray’s angry older brother, an ex-fighter with Parkinson’s who runs a boxing club that’s the nexus for many scenes. Another standout among many is Hank Azaria as a conviving FBI agent. A wide variety of characters move in and out of Ray’s world. It’s not a happy place and it’s short on laughs. Noir is alive and well in this totally compelling show.

Sherlock (PBS)  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman couldn’t be better as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this modern-day updating of the classic stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock was created and largely written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both of whom are also involved with the Doctor Who series (where Moffat has been the showrunner and lead writer since 2010). I came late to this series (yet another great one from the BBC), but I truly love it. One of the neatest things about it is the way Sherlock incorporates present-day technology in the reworking of the original stories. Holmes Sherlockdefinitely exists in the 21st century, but he’s also the traditional Holmes. I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch as British prime minister William Pitt in Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006). He’s become a real star during the last several years, turning up with increasing frequency on magazine covers and in many productions such as Parade’s End (HBO mini-series, 2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and The Imitation Game (2014), as well as voicing the dragon Smaug in Peter Jackson’s last two overblown Hobbit films. I think his current status as a hot commodity was mainly launched by the intense popularity of his performance in Sherlock. And he’s become quite the sex symbol, in spite of, or perhaps partly because of, the asexual vibe his Sherlock gives off. Martin Freeman is a great Dr. Watson, often angry and frustrated with Holmes’ behavior, leagues away from the bumbling Watson seen in the Basil Rathbone films. Andrew Scott as Holmes’ nemesis, Jim Moriarty, is a truly frightening character, completely nuts, and as smart as Sherlock, which makes him even scarier.

My favorite moment in the entire series so far (to date there have been three seasons with three episodes each to date, all available for streaming on Netflix) is when Sherlock gives his “Best Man Speech” at the reception for Watson’s marriage in “The Sign of Three” episode from last year. Here is Sherlock at his most alien and his most human. It’s a powerfully emotional scene, and very funny to boot.

Silicon Valley (HBO)  Co-created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, this series follows the efforts of six young men to get a startup off the ground in Silicon Valley. The more or less central character is Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), a socially-inept programmer who has created a music app called Pied Piper, which is subsequently found to contain a radically advanced data compression algorithm. TheSilicon Valley-cast banner team plans to present Pied Piper at something called TechCrunch Disrupt, a competition for unfunded startups. These characters are classically nerdy, simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, none more so than Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), the deluded heart of the show. The following scene from the season finale is my favorite of the entire season. In it, Erlich says that, despite a serious setback at the competition the day before, “We’re going to win even if I have to go in the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience.” This absurd non sequitur inspires them to try to figure out how this would even be possible. They apply the same rigorous logic to it as they would to anything they were trying to solve. To me, it’s not at all salacious or vulgar because of the way it’s dealt with. The content may be juvenile and ridiculous, but to the team it’s just a problem to be worked out. (When you click to play, this message appears: “Watch this video on YouTube.” Click on that line and the video will play in all its glory.)

True Detective-poster2True Detective (HBO)  As dark and bleak as it gets, hardcore and hardboiled. Created and written by Nic Pizzolatto, with all episodes directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, this eight-part series stars Matthew McConaughey and Wood Harrelson as Louisiana State Police homicide cops. Both actors have never been better, which is saying something. The relationship between Rust Cohle (McConaughhey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) during their involvement with a serial-killer case over the course of 17 years is at the heart of the story. Rust’s coldly pessimistic world view confounds and often angers Marty as they confront a sad and mournful landscape that has a profound evil breathing just beneath the surface. The following scene goes a long way to define that relationship.

Veep (HBO)  I first became aware of Armando Iannucci’s lacerating dialogue in the feature film In the Loop (2009). In that film, Peter Capaldi spewed an endless barrage of breathtaking profanity in everyone’s direction. Veep, created by Iannucci, proudly extends that tradition. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, the foul-mouthed Vice President of the United States. She’s great in the role. Standouts in the excellent cast include Tony Hale as Gary Walsh, Selina’s personal aide, and Matt Walsh as Mike McLintock, her Director of Communications. Selina is constantly screwing things up, usually with the help of the people around her. The writing is amazing. It’s a very funny show.

Veep-cast in boat__________________________________________________

Holdovers from my “Best TV of 2012” post (due to severe procrastination, I didn’t do a wrap-up for 2013):

Downton Abbey (PBS)

The Good Wife (CBS)

Justified (FX)

Mad Men (AMC)

The Simpsons (Fox)

_____________________________________________________

Most of these shows are available for streaming from one source or another. – Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Film, Home Video, TV | 2 Comments

What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2014

Citizenfour-posterNational Gallery-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________________

CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, director). Most documentaries, much like histories, tell their stories in retrospect, looking back to evaluate events that have already happened. Citizen Four unfolds largely in the moment. During the long opening section, Laura Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald are sequestered with Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong. We’re with them for several days as they discuss and debate the best way to release classified information that shows evidence of widespread, invasive surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). We see this happening right now, and it’s quite thrilling. It’s interesting watching Snowden as he becomes increasingly aware that he’s got a tiger by the tail. A superior film all the way, and pretty scary to boot.

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, director). In 2010, the Islamic Revolutionary Court convicted, Jafar Panahi, a major Iranian film director, of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He was sentenced to six years of house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years. Despite that, in 2011 he managed, using a digital camera and an iPhone in collaboration with filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmsb, to make This Is Not a Film, which was put on a USB thumb drive, smuggled out of Iran hidden inside a cake, and shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Spy movie stuff, right? This Is Not a Film is close to unclassifiable, stretching the boundaries of fiction and documentary as it does. Closed Curtain goes even further. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (Chiemi Karasawa, director). See my previous post on this film.

Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra Farahani, director). In 2010, Mitra Farahani, an Fifi Howls from Happiness-posterIranian filmmaker living in Paris, found out that Bahman Mohassess, an Iranian painter and sculptor, had been reclusively living in exile in Rome during the many years since disappearing from public view. She convinced Mohassess to let her make a film about his life and work, and what he’s been up to. Fifi Howls from Happiness (is that a great title or what?) is the result, and it’s quite special. It would be difficult to make up a character like Mohassess. Much of his work had been destroyed (often by Mohassess himself, which is hard to fathom). This is a real shame, based on what has survived that we see in the film. Fifi Howls from Happiness is funny, sad, quirky, self-reflexive, and altogether different than you might expect going in. Not that the wonderful title gives you any clue (though it is explained before the film is over).

The New York Times review of the film goes into more detail.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, directors). The bizarre story of Vivian Maier, an eccentric and reclusive nanny in Chicago who, it turns out, was an anonymous street photographer who took over 100,000 photographs. Finding Vivian Maier shows director John Maloof’s efforts to unravel this woman’s strange life and hidden career. As the film goes deeper, things just gets weirder. It’s utterly compelling.

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, director). This is the 43rd film Frederick Wiseman has made since Titicut Follies in 1967. He’s made a career out of examining institutions of all kinds, often at lengths of three to four hours, without identifying titles, narration, or talking-head interviews. Nothing fancy; we’re just there. This is immersive, in-the-moment filmmaking. Wiseman is one of the greatest living filmmakers, who at age 85 does not appear to be slowing down; if anything, he seems to be at the peak of his abilities.

Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, director). Here’s what I wrote to a friend after seeing this film last March: “Just saw Particle Fever. It is f**king amazing, mind-blowing. I know virtually nothing about physics and am weak in math, but this film makes all the theoretical and experimental stuff about the Hadron Collider in Geneva and the search for the Higgs bosun “God particle” very exciting and almost accessible to someone such as slow as myself. You’ve got to see this.” One of my favorite scenes shows two physicists in Princeton discussing this stuff as they play ping-pong, using the ceiling and walls as playing surfaces as well as the table. I’d never seen anything like this. It was such a literal representation of how these guys’ minds work. Particle Fever is terrific filmmaking with fascinating characters. It plays like a thriller.

Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio, director). Until recently, my awareness of the Mekons was limited to just having heard their name. I knew nothing of their music. Sometime last year there was a post about them on Facebook, and I ended up watching a You Tube clip of their song, “Memphis Egypt,” which I loved. When I saw Revenge of the Mekons last October, I found out they’d been around for 30 years, and that there was a lot more to them than that song, great as it is.

To Be Takei (Jennifer Kroot, director). Is there anyone who doesn’t like George Takei? This film is a lot of fun, and also takes us into areas of his life I certainly didn’t know about, such as his years with his family in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and his relationship with his husband, Brad. To Be Takei may not impress technically or stylistically, but George and his life transcend any limitations that might suggest.

We Come as Friends (Herbert Sauper, director). This is a devastating documentary thatWe Come As Friends-poster plays almost like science fiction. We follow filmmaker Herbert Sauper as he flies around the Sudan in a tiny homemade airplane with a single-prop engine. This enables Sauper to visit places he wouldn’t have been able to reach, landing in fields and small air strips. The film begins shortly before North and South Sudan were partitioned in 2011. Rob Nelson in his Variety review wrote that “We Come as Friends” becomes more disturbing as it goes, building to a terrible crescendo…” This film shows us that colonialism is far from dead, and that Christian missionaries still roam the earth. We Come as Friends tells an ultimately tragic story. It should be necessary viewing, but so far remains unreleased, except for playing a number of film festivals earlier last year where it received nominations and awards from them all. I saw it last March in the annual New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. I’ve forgotten many of the details, but not the sense of growing outrage I felt as I watched.

_______________________________________________

All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Citizen Four, National Gallery, and Revenge of the Mekons. I would expect that these films will be available soon. These things happen pretty fast these days. In the meantime, let’s let Mr. Sulu take us out. – Ted Hicks

To Be Takei-poster

Posted in Film, Home Video, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2014

Locke-posterAMVY_120_WEB.inddOf the approximately 230 feature films I saw last year, here are the 30 new films that stood out for me. Some of these choices are pretty obvious, others maybe not so much. These are films that entertained and sometimes challenged me, films that stayed true to the worlds they created, and generally made me feel better for having seen them. Or in some cases, just gave me a real kick.

Mr. Turner-poster______________________________________________________________________

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, director & writer). This Australian movie is scary as hell, though not in the obvious, cliched ways we usually see in run-of-the mill horror films. The Babadook is anchored, though in a very destabilizing way, by the extraordinary performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, as mother and son. This one takes you through the wringer.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams, co-directors). The energy and the look of this film reminded me of The Incredibles (2004). Very detailed and just great.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, director & co-writer). This whirlwind of a movie is something else. You either get on the ride and go with it, or get thrown off on a sharp turn. The conceit of having it edited in a way that suggests the entire film is one continuous take is quite thrilling, and adds to the feeling of non-stop momentum. The performances are great; this is acting with all the stops out. And for New York audiences it’s great that so much of it was shot in the Broadway theater district, which gives the film an authentic sense of place.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, director & writer). Shot over a 12 year period from May 2002 to October 2013, this film tells the story of Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) as we watch him age in real time from 6 to 18. There’s a documentary aspect to this that relates to Michael Apted’s great 7 Up series, which films the same set of people every 7 years (the most recent installment is 56 Up). When I was seeing Boyhood I started wondering if the story by itself would be strong enough to support all the attention the film has received if we didn’t know the extraordinary and unique way it was made. Because there didn’t seem to be anything much actually happening each time we checked in with Mason and his family. Then I realized that was sort of the point, that this is the way life plays out. There’s a point late in the film that was almost an epiphany for me, when Mason says with wonder, “It’s always right now!”

Boyhood-posterBoyhood-Mason x 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chef (Jon Favreau, director & writer). Not always believable, but extremely entertaining and it made me feel really good. Plus it was something of a revelation to see Sofia Vergara play a fairly realistic character instead of a caricature. Also nice seeing Jon Favreau gear down to a smaller, more personal scale from the blockbusters (Iron Man, for example) he’s been making the last few years.

Chef-poster2_________________________________________________________________

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.

Cold in July (Jim Mickle, director; Nick Damici, writer). This is a very smart neo-noir that reinvigorates and upsets genre expectations. Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson are terrific. Johnson, especially, nearly walks away with the picture after his flamboyant entrance, and takes it in a darkly comic, though no less deadly, direction. The director’s and writer’s previous film, the excellent Stake Land (2010), was a take-no-prisoners tale of trying to survive in an economically and environmentally wasted landscape overrun by very down and dirty vampires. These filmmakers’ approach to genre reinvention is similar to what Adam Wingard and Simon Barret have done with this year’s other pleasant surprise, The Guest (see below).

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, director & writer). Jude Law, paunchy and dissolute, really gets his teeth into the role of the title character much the way Jon Voight does in Showtime’s Ray Donovan series as Ray’s monster of a father, Mickey. Law’s character is totally outrageous and extremely entertaining. With Emilia Clark, who plays Daenerys Targaryen — the “mother of dragons” — on HBO’s Game of Thrones, as Dom’s estranged daughter, and Richard E. Grant, who I’ll always remember from the equally out- there Withnail & I (1987), as Dom’s prickly sidekick.

Dom Hemingway-poster3

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, director & writer). See my previous post on this film.

Generation War (Philipp Kadelbach, director; Stefan Kolditz, writer). Shown in three episodes on German television in 2013, Generation War was released theatrically in the U.S. in two parts. With a combined running time of over 4 1/2 hours, it’s a long haul, but definitely worth it. The plotting frequently has the five main characters, who are scattered all over the Eastern Front during World War II, manage to meet up in the same places at the same times. This contrivance pushes coincidence a little too far, but the strength of the film for me is in the combat sequences. These scenes are harrowing and brutal, the strongest I’ve seen since Stephen Spielberg radically raised the bar with Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, director & writer. Another of Wes Anderson’s incredibly detailed miniature worlds, filled with an assortment of eccentric characters portrayed by a great cast rushing from one absurd development to another. The increasingly frantic plot is secondary. Sometimes Anderson’s films get a bit too precious, but I really enjoyed this one. The performances are totally committed. The characters and events may be ridiculous, but the actors go at them with a deadpan seriousness.

Grand Budapest Hotel-poster3

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, director & co-writer). I loved this movie beyond all reason. Which is ironic, since the print ads and trailers I’d seen before it was released made the film seem goofy and silly. I had no intention of seeing it, since I take my science fiction more seriously than that. Then I read some things that piqued my interest, so I gave it a shot. Amazing, the movie more than succeeded on every level. It felt like the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing from start to finish. Having the lead character listen to 80s pop songs throughout was a stroke of genius; the nostalgia they trigger somehow helps us connect more directly to the space-opera setting, and took Guardians to another level. This film was a thoroughly entertaining experience, and I must have been smiling a lot. Though I think my wife got a little tired of me saying “I am Groot!” for a couple of weeks after.

Groot

Groot

The Guest (Adam Wingard, director; Simon Barrett, writer). Dan Stevens is a long way from Downton Abbey in this very satisfying, tightly made thriller. The director and writer had previously made You’re Next (2013), another film I had no intention of seeing, based on the print ads. I didn’t need another home invasion movie, but I did see it and was totally sold. These guys have a way of taking familiar genre scenarios and twisting them into new shapes. You’re Next is probably a slightly better film — certainly a better title, which involves you right away — but The Guest does not disappoint. Part of the punch is seeing Dan Stevens inhabit this kind of character.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowska, director & co-writer). A very minimalist film, shot in luminous black & white in the old 1.33:1 screen ratio. Very quiet and very understated, both a road movie and a kind of thriller. I’ve seen it three times, the last at a screening room with Thelma Schoonmaker, editor of all of Martin Scorsese’s films, in the row behind us. On the way out, she said she thought Ida was a “little forced.” I don’t agree with that opinion, but considering the source, it made me think.

The Imitation Game (Morton Tyldum, director; Graham Moore, writer). The otherworldly Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and closeted gay man who helped to break the unbreakable German Enigma code during World War II, creating a prototype computer in the process. Morton Tyldum previously directed Headhunters, one of my favorite films from 2011.

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, director; James Lapine, writer). Before seeing it, I knew this had been a Broadway musical that combined several traditional fairy tales into one storyline, but not much more than that. We saw it on New Year’s Day at the Ziegfeld Theater, one of only two remaining single-screen theaters in Manhattan (the other is The Paris), and loved it. The musical numbers by Stephen Sondheim are quite thrilling. The entire cast is great, with Meryl Streep amazing as usual. Maybe even a little more so.

John Wick (Chad Stahelski, director; Derek Kolstad, writer). See my previous post on this film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, co-directors & co-writers). Everything in this movie is made out of Legos, even the water. The whole thing is a hoot. I especially liked Lego Batman. It took days after to get the song “Everything Is Awesome” out of my head. Talk about hooks, this was diabolical.

Locke (Steven Knight, director & writer). Some kind of great movie. If I had to pick only three or four films for the year, this would be one of them. This film takes place entirely inside a car with a single character on one stressful phone call after another, attempting to put out out fires while he drives through the night to London, determined to get there in time for a birth. It’s a bold experiment for a feature film, and it completely works. Tom Hardy is great in this — he’s also very good in The Drop (2014), starring with James Gandolfini in Gandolfini’s final film.

Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs, director & co-writer). John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are great as two gay men who lose their New York apartment and have to live apart for the first time in 39 years until they can afford a new place. In the meantime, they stay with relatives and friends, which is an adjustment for everyone. This is an unsentimental film that respects its characters and conveys strong emotions.

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, director & writer). Oscar Isaac looks more and more like a leading man these days. After strong performances in Drive (2011) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), he steps up to a new level in a film that has echos of The Godfather Part 2, with a character that suggests Michael Corleone at times. Despite the title, this is not a particularly violent film, but set in the New York City of 1981, there’s an abundance of violence and tension in the air. Jessica Chastain is excellent as Isaac’s wife, probably the scariest character in the film. This is only the third feature written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Margin Call (2011) and All Is Lost (2013) are terrific; A Most Violent year continues the concerns and themes of those films.

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, director; Andrew Bovell, writer). See my previous post on this film.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, director & writer). Mike Leigh’s films are rather unique in that they are created from the ground up by Leigh and his cast over a long period of time with lengthy rehearsal periods before shooting begins. His films are put together in a truly organic way. You feel that life is being represented from the inside out. This is true for his period films as well as those with contemporary settings. Mr. Turner, which is about the life of British painter J.M.W. Turner, is no exception. Timothy Spall feels totally authentic in the title role, and the look of the film is extremely beautiful.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, director & writer). I have liked vampire movies since I was a kid, but most of them are pretty disappointing. Hammer Films’ Horror of Dracula (1957), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993) are strong exceptions. That’s why I was happy to see Jim Jarmusch’s take on the subject, which sets up its own rules and stays true to them. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are vampires as hipsters, with homes in Detroit and Tangier. One of their vampire friends is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who talks of having written Shakespeare’s plays.  And they listen to the coolest music.

Salvo (Fabio Gassadonia & Antonio Piazza, co-directors & co-writers). An minimalist gangster film that weirdly reminded me of Camus’ The Stranger in terms of tone and spareness. There’s also a melancholy and sadness to the main character, Salvo, a hit man ordered by his boss to kill the sister of an enemy who tried and failed to assassinate the boss — no loose ends. It has one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in a long time.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, director). David Oyelowo gives a monumental performance as Martin Luther King Jr, making him more of a real person and less of an icon. A large cast of committed actors in both large and small roles brings to life the 1964 march on Selma, Alabama, a key event in the Civil Rights movement. There is, however, ongoing controversy, both pro and con, over the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever the truth of that, this is an important film, and very timely, given recent events.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, director; Anthony McCarten, writer). Eddie Redmayne has been getting a lot of attention for his performance as Stephen Hawking, and rightly so. Felicity Jones more than holds her own as his wife, Jane. Designed to be uplifting, and it is.

Time Out of Mind-Richard GereTime Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, director & writer). We saw this at the New York Film Festival last fall. Richard Gere plays a homeless man on the streets of NYC, which is unlike anything he’s ever done before. He said in a Q&A after the screening that this was the film he was most proud of being a part of. Time Out of Mind is a truly powerful film that may alter the way you regard the homeless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a distributor yet, which is a shame. I also liked Oren Moverman’s 2009 film, The Messenger, with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster members of a Casualty Notification Team tasked with informing families, wives and husbands that someone wasn’t coming home from the war. That film was really powerful, but this one feels way beyond that.

Tracks (John Curran, director; Marion Nelson, writer). See my previous post on this film.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, co-directors & co-writers). For over 20 years the Dardenne brothers have been making films with deeply humanistic concerns. This is the first time they have worked with a major star, Marian Cotillard, and she more than delivers. Two Days, One Night is a quietly detailed study that plays like a life and death thriller, which it is.

*********************************

All of the films in this post are available for streaming or rental from Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, and other venues, with the exception of the following titles: Big Hero 6 (available 2/24/15), The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, John Wick (available 2/3/15), A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Time Out of Mind, Track, and Two Days, One Night. 

See you at the movies. - Ted Hicks

 

Posted in Film, Home Video, TV | 2 Comments

John Huston – The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

John Huston2As I write this, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) here in New York is in the midst of a complete John Huston retrospective (December 19 – January 11). The series includes thirty-seven features and five documentaries directed by Huston, plus several of the many films he acted in, most notably Chinatown (1974), and less notably Tentacles (1977). For my money, John Huston is one of the best American directors, along with Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese. If I had to choose, I’d say my favorite Huston films are The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Fat City (1972). They are, without qualification, very close to perfect from beginning to end.

Maltese Falcon-posterBy the time he came to make The Maltese Falcon, Huston was already an established screenwriter at Warner Bros., having written or co-written Jezebel (1938), Juarez (1939), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), High Sierra and Sergeant York (1941). He had a clause put in his contract that if he stayed on at Warners, they would give him a chance to direct. Huston said in 1969, “I saw no great dividing line between writing and directing…The directing of a film to me is simply the extension of the process of writing.”

Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel ever made. I’d seen the film several times before reading the novel, and was surprised to see just how true to the book it was, particularly in the dialogue. “Dashiell Hammett’s book had been filmed twice before, but the previous screen adaptors didn’t have the faith in the story that we did. Our script simply reduced the book to a screenplay, without any fancy additions of our own.” (Huston, 1973) “I considered the Hammett novel practically a screenplay, and we had a wonderful time making the movie, no sense of making a classic, of course. Everybody just had a lot of fun doing what they were doing and liking themselves doing it.” (Huston, 1979)

Maltese Falcon-group shotI don’t know anyone who doesn’t like The Maltese Falcon. It’s endlessly watchable, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The story and characters may not seem all that real, but after all these years it’s almost like a fairy tale. Sam Spade is one of Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic roles, along with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) and Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942). The Maltese Falcon established the archetypal Bogart persona and made him a star.

It’s interesting to see how the film is sensationalized in the following trailer from the original release.

The Maltese Falcon was an auspicious and audacious directing debut for Huston, one that set the bar high for his future work. He certainly matched the promise of that film with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. Seeing it again recently confirmed for me just how great it is. The film received many awards, including Academy Awards to John Huston for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and his father Walter for Best Supporting Actor. In an interview from 1973, Huston is asked, “If you could put just one scene from any of your films in a time capsule and label it John Huston, director, what would it be?” Huston answered, “Well, it would have to be my old man dancing in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” The following clip shows that scene, and it is a wonder — Walter Huston at his best.

And then there’s this scene with Alfonso Bedoya as a Mexican bandit and his famous “No stinking badges!” dialogue.

Two years later Huston delivered another great film, The Asphalt Jungle, an important work of classic film noir. It has an especially strong cast, including Marilyn Monroe in her first real screen role. The film is anchored by Sterling Hayden in a role similar in appearance and behavior to his character in the equally great The Killing, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1956 (see my previous post on The Killing4/2/13).

Asphalt Jungle-poster2The plotting of The Asphalt Jungle, which tells the story of the detailed planning of a robbery and its aftermath, is as tight as it could be. We always know who’s doing what and where we are. Huston’s often unusual compositions add to the tension and uneasiness of the scenes, which can be seen in this shot of Marilyn Monroe and Louis Calhern.

Asphalt Jungle-Monroe & CalhearnThe following scene tells us all we need to know about the unpleasant relationship between Monroe and the much older, decidedly creepy Calhern.

In 1973 Huston had this to say about his use of the camera in his films. “…I look upon the camera as still another actor on the set. The relationship between the actors is important but the relationship between the actors and the camera is also important. The camera can be as eloquent as the finest actor if you know how to use it…good camera work should be unobtrusive. One set-up should naturally lead to the next without anyone noticing – it’s like a ballet. A good scene tells you how it should be shot…A bad scene is the most difficult to shoot, since there is no way you can shoot it to make it look any better than it is.” The following clip from The Asphalt Jungle is an excellent example of this approach.

In the 1970s and 1980s John Huston turned out an unusually strong run of films, beginning with Fat City in ’72, and ending in 1987 with The Dead, his glorious final film, a poetic and meditative swan song based on James Joyce’s short story. In between were The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano (1984), and Prizzi’s Honor (1985).

I watched Fat City recently on DVD. I hadn’t seen it since its original release, but had remembered being strongly affected by it. It has a straightforward, almost documentary, approach to the material, which focuses on the down-and-out world of amateur boxers in Stockton, California. The film is objective, non-judgmental, and views the people of this world with an unsentimental respect. The alcoholic rawness of the relationship between Stacey Keach and Susan Tyrell is like something out of a Charles Bukowski story. This is very much a film of the 70s.

The IMDb bio of John Huston refers to him as “an eccentric rebel of epic proportions…” That’s not far wrong. He certainly went his own way, all the way to the end. While filming The Dead, he was wheelchair-bound and constantly hooked up to oxygen to combat chronic emphysema.

It’s hard to pin Huston down. In 1973 he said, “Critics have never been able to discover a unifying theme in my films. For that matter, neither have I…I don’t seek to interpret reality by placing my stamp on it. I try to be as faithful as I can to the material I have chosen to film. Everything technical and artistic in the picture is designed to depict that material for an audience.” It’s interesting that the vast majority of his films were adaptations of novels, short stories, and plays. Huston drew on the works of Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm Lowry, James Joyce, to name a few.

I really like this quote from an interview in 1974. I think it says a lot about the way Huston made movies. “The greatest piece of advice I ever had…When I went to make my first film The Maltese Falcon, Henry (producer Henry Blanke) said, ‘Just remember one thing John: all I ever need to tell you…each scene, as you make it, is the most important scene in the film. Whether it’s somebody getting out of an automobile or whatever – it’s the most important scene at that moment.’”

The following clip is of Huston’s speech accepting the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1983. It’s just beautiful.

*************************************************************************************

Supplemental:

Angelica Huston on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

John Huston on Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle

John Huston on Fat City

TCM Tribute to John & Walter Huston

Across the Pacific-posterKey Largo-poster

 

 

 

 

 

Moby Dick-poster

Beat the Devil-poster

 

 

 

 

 

Unforgiven-posterNight of the Iguana-posterMisfits-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man Who Would Be King-poster3John Huston4

 

 

 

 

 

Huston & Angelica

Huston & Angelica

Huston & Angelica

Huston & Angelica

Huston & Orson Welles

Huston & Orson Welles

Bogart & Huston

Bogart & Huston

Huston on the set of "Annie" - 1981

Huston on the set of “Annie” – 1981

*****************************************************************************************

John Huston Interviews-book cover2All of the quotes in this post, including the ones that follow, are taken from John Huston Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long, published in 2001 by the University Press of Mississippi as part of their excellent “Conversations with Filmmakers” series.

“The one thing I always try to experiment with is accepting suggestions from people who work with me. I don’t like to dictate, I like to receive stimuli from all: not only the cameraman and the actors, but the grips and the script girl, or the animal trainers in the case of The Bible. I try to create an atmosphere on the set where everyone feels he can participate.” – 1965

“The trick is in the writing and casting. If you cast the right people, using only good actors, and adjust the script to suit the actors you’ve chosen, then it’s best to leave them to work out their own gestures and movements. Your job is to explain to them the effect you want, and your skill lies in being to do that exactly and vividly. Then, if they’re good actors, it’s best not to interfere in how they get your effect across – you’ll only throw their natural performance out of gear if you try.” – 1952

“I believe the most important part of picture making is the casting – matching the actor to the proper character and making sure the actor understands the character.” – 1972

“Acting is part intuitive and part technical. The English train their actors to be superb technicians. Americans tend to rely on charisma.” – 1972

“I direct actors about as little as possible. The better an actor, the less I have to direct. I want to get as much out of the actor himself as I can. Because wonderful accidents occur. I guide an actor rather than direct; expand a performance or reduce it. So far as the mechanical element goes – why, that’s just being a traffic cop.” – 1972

“I choose an actor as a rule for his…no, not as a rule, but always…for his kinship to the role. I cast personalities rather than actors. Then if they’re superior actors, why that’s so much velvet.” – 1972

“The very best actors, the ones that fill me with admiration, are those that furnish surprises.” – 1972

“I like working on location. The location, just like an actor, gives something to the picture and helps to color it, you know, envelop it in an atmosphere.” – 1973

“I don’t make a distinction between writing and directing. But to write and direct one’s own material is certainly the best approach.” – 1977

“The films that were well-written and well-prepared beforehand had fewer of the kinds of problems that are really disturbing than the ones that weren’t. The ones that got you down were those where you were working with material that wasn’t very good – and you were trying to hide from the audience the fact that what they were seeing was not all that good.” – 1977

“I always do as little directing as possible. Always. Because I don’t want to color characterization with my own personality. I try to get as much out of the actor as possible and tell him as little as possible.” – 1977

“I don’t tell them (actors) what to do to begin the scene, I just say go ahead and show me. And with a rehearsal, as a rule, they fall right into the right positions. You don’t have to tell them. Just let nature take its course. Sometimes of course you have to give some help, but generally speaking they present you with the scene and then you discover what is the best set-up to photograph the scene. As a result you get something that isn’t mechanical – that isn’t done for the camera. And because it’s true, you can just naturally introduce the camera into the scene.” – 1977

“Making a film is like every other undertaking in life. Its success depends on whether or not you’re equipped for it. And I’m not referring to learning. I don’t know that I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I think I was probably as good a director at the beginning as I am now.” – 1977

“The cameraman is of course cast for the picture just that same as an actor would be.” – 1977

“…I don’t look for certain themes. I don’t even read with the intention of finding material, I just read out of interest…But there are also those films I do for money, and not for any other reason.” – 1977

Michael Caine (co-star with Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King) re Huston: “Most directors today don’t know what they want – so they shoot everything they can think of. They use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.” – 1981

****************************************************************************************

The John Huston films referenced in this post are available for streaming, rental, or purchase from Amazon and Netflix. - Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Fiction, Film, Home Video, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Rosebud was his sled!” – Random Notes on Orson Welles

"Rosebud was his sled"2-Peanuts***************************************************************************************

Citizen Kane-posterThe first time I saw Citizen Kane – an experience I’ll never forget — was in a film class at the University of Iowa in 1964 or ’65. The class was held in a long, narrow room with rows of fixed, wooden seats and a small projection booth in the back. Not a likely setting for a powerful revelation. I’d heard of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane , but wasn’t prepared for the thrilling jolt I was about to get at the end of the film’s noirishly ominous opening sequence — almost like the beginning of a horror film — with the abrupt cut to the blaring “News on the March!” footage. This was something else again. From that point on, Kane completely blew up my notions of what movies could be.

Joseph Cotton, Welles, Everett Sloan

Joseph Cotton, Welles, Everett Sloan

We had a single 16mm projector for the classroom. Citizen Kane runs 2 hours, and as I recall, the print was mounted on at least three reels. When a reel ran out, there was about a 5 minute break while the next reel was threaded up on the projector. I remember feeling quite anxious during the reel changes, for fear Kane wouldn’t continue to be as great as it had been up to that point. No problem there. I very much wanted to see it again, but it was only being shown once for this class. I’m not sure how I managed this, but I borrowed the print from one of the class TAs, who I think had the responsibility of shipping it back to the distributor. He must have also given me a key to the classroom, because I went there at night to watch Kane by myself from the projection booth. It was just as great the second time. Bernard Herrmann wrote a powerful music score that lends amazing emotional resonance to the film, especially during the ending, which gets me every time I see it..

Ambersons-Italian posterTouch of Evil-poster2My favorite Welles films, after Kane, are The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Touch of Evil (1958). Ambersons was famously taken away from Welles when he was out of the country. It was re-edited, additional scenes were shot, and an ending was added that was definitely not what he intended. Even so, it’s a beautiful film. Sure, I’d love to see it in the form Welles had planned, but it’s pretty great as it is. Touch of Evil, a flamboyant display of B-movie pulp raised to a much higher level, is a tour de force from beginning to end, especially in the astonishing opening — a single-take tracking shot lasting 3 minutes, 20 seconds. I saw it again last week at Film Forum, and it still burns up the screen.

Directing "Too Much Johnson"

Directing “Too Much Johnson”

Orson Welles is never far from my mind, especially of late. He keeps turning up. In 1938, three years before Citizen Kane, Welles directed a silent film called Too Much JohnsonIt had been intended to be part of a Mercury Theatre stage production of the 1894 comedy by William Gillette. This didn’t happen, and the film was never publicly screened. Too Much Johnson was thought lost until a print was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was shown at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October 2013, and had its New York premiere at the DGA Theatre the following month. Richard Brody wrote a lively piece about the film in the 11/26/13 issue of The New Yorker , which is definitely worth reading. (Too Much Johnson is available on You Tube. I’ve included the film at the end of this post.)

John Huston, Welles, Peter Bogdanovich

John Huston, Welles, Peter Bogdanovich

And then last month there was news that the last film Welles had been working on for years, The Other Side of the Wind, would be completed and released next year, in time for what would have been Welles’ 100th birthday on May 6th. After Ernest Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, Welles had the idea to make a film about an aging bullfight enthusiast. By 1966 he had changed the character to that of a film director — played by an aptly-cast John Huston in scenes shot between 1970 and 1976. Per an article in the The New York Times on 11/10/14, Welles had “worked obsessively on the film” during the last 15 years of his life. After his death in 1985, he left behind a 45-minute edited work print and hundreds of cans of negatives. The film had already been tied up for years in legal struggles with investors. It appears that now the various rights holders are in agreement and have cleared the way for the film to be finished by producer Frank Marshall and director Peter Bogdanovich (who plays a character in the film), using notes from Welles. We can only hope.

Magician-posterAnd more Welles! Last month I attended a screening of a documentary called Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, directed by Chuck Workman, well-known for creating short films and openings for twenty Academy Awards telecasts over the years. His film Precious Images (1986), an 8-minute compilation of 470 shots from films covering the range of American film history, won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Magician didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it came close. It’s very good, and well worth seeing. What I found most compelling was the material on Welles’ early life, and the rich variety of clips from interviews conducted over the years. Chuck Workman’s strength as a filmmaker is evident in the way he has edited this wealth of material together. It’s a good film for those who know little about Welles, as well as those who know a lot.

Magician opens here on December 10 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

"War of the Worlds" broadcast, 1938

“War of the Worlds” broadcast, 1938

Orson Welles is a nearly unique figure in American life, a brilliant, tragic, magical presence. In 1938, at age 23, he freaked out a good part of the country with his War of the Worlds broadcast. I’ve listened to it several times, and I can see why. Three years later he delivered Citizen Kane, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. How could anyone follow that, even Welles? His subsequent efforts to get films made despite lack of funds or studio support are well documented. It’s seems appropriate that Welles never finished his film of Don Quixote, since he seemed to spend much of his life after Kane tilting at windmills. There have been hundreds of books and articles written about Welles, and I’m sure there’s no end in sight. Welles is a cinematic touchstone, an endless source of fascination.

Orson Welles-later in lifeOrson Welles-1981 wine adPart of my preparation for writing this post was searching for photos and film clips to include. What struck me when I saw the many pictures of Welles was how much his appearance and presence changed over the years. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of anyone else where this evolution has been quite so dramatic. The image that most readily comes to mind for a lot of people now, I’m sure, is that of the grossly overweight Welles in his later years, seen frequently on talk shows or in ads selling Paul Masson wine. The man who made Citizen Kane! Seeing him younger can be quite a jolt. In photos taken when he was 15 or so, he has a strange beauty that can seem almost extraterrestrial.

1937

1937

1934

1934

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Directing "Citizen Kane"

Directing “Citizen Kane”

Welles & Chaplin, 1947

Welles & Chaplin, 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris, 1952

Paris, 1952

 

 

Welles the magician

Welles the magician

 

 

 

 

 

 

**************************************************************************************

As I wrote earlier, Orson Welles is never far from my mind. He keeps turning up. He’ll always be here. – Ted Hicks

image0000003AA.700.jpgOrson Welles-bearded

 

 

 

 

 

 

***************************************************************************************

Supplemental:

Too Much Johnson (1938)

The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, 10/30/38.

Orson Welles interview 8 days before his death on 10/10/85.

************************************************************************************

There’s more! Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum, here in New York, has programmed a 5-week Orson Welles retrospective celebrating his centennial year. This series kicks off on January 1 with an 8-day run of Citizen Kane, followed by all of his features and many films he acted in.

Posted in Books, Film, Home Video, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Film School Flashback – Double Feature

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I started at the University of Iowa in 1962, but at the time I thought that meant journalism. I quickly found out that wasn’t the kind of writing that interested me, and by 1963 I was taking fiction writing courses in the Undergraduate Writers Workshop. Some of the people I met in these workshops were also taking classes in the Film Department. This clicked for me. I was already a full-blown movie buff, so it seemed perfect that I could be writing stories and making movies at the same time.

In the Fall semester of 1964 I took a course called Cinematography Techniques, taught by Dr. John Kuiper, who a year later became the Head of the Motion Picture Section of The Library of Congress. TAs in that class were Ted Perry — later the Director of the Film Department at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and Chairman of Cinema Studies at NYU, and now in the Film and Media Culture Department at Middlebury College in Vermont — and Bob Rose, a crazy guy with a big beard, sort of a beatnik, and kind of brilliant. I’m still in touch with Ted, but unfortunately have lost track of Bob. This was a very exciting time. I was just off the farm, turned loose in a college town seemingly filled with crazy hipsters as the 60s got rolling. I was over-stimulated by all this stuff and all these people. Anything and everything seemed possible. Ah, youth!

At that time, production courses and film studies classes were held in the Old Armory Televison-Film Laboratory, seen below in a map of part of the campus at that time.

Old Armory on campus map

In the second semester of that school year, I took Cinema Production, which is when I made my first short film, Bridgework. We’d done short exercises every week as part of the Cine Tech class, but this was the first time it was my film, not an exercise, and something I was totally responsible for from start to finish. I discovered that editing was what I enjoyed most about the filmmaking process. Which I guess makes sense. I’m a writer, and film editing is a kind of writing, splicing shots together instead of words.

This was no-frills filmmaking. We didn’t haveBell&Howell 70DR camera sync sound capabilities and were using spring-wound Bell & Howell 70DR cameras that held 100 feet of 16mm black & white film and were basically indestructible. They’d been used by combat photographers during World War II. I shot most of Bridgework riding on the back of a motorcycle. So if I’d fallen off or we’d crashed, the camera would have been okay. Good to know.

In the fall of 1965 I made my second film, The Killing Ground. This one was more ambitious than my first, but as usually happens, it turned out somewhat different than I’d imagined. I’ve kept prints of both films all these years, and recently had them transferred to Blu-ray disc and flash drive. When I watched them a few days ago, for the first time in many years, they were almost exactly as I’d remembered them — except that The Killing Ground has some shots that are way too dark. Do over!

Remember that these films were made nearly 50 years ago when I was 20 years old. But no more excuses; here they are in all their glory. – Ted Hicks

Posted in Film | 5 Comments