Sunday, March 31, 2013

Final Three Films from the Annapolis Film Festival

I had originally wanted to write in detail about each of the films I saw at the Annapolis Film Festival, but I have so many other movies lined up, I’m going to condense the remaining festival films here.

Do You See What I See? (2013) Lee Bonner [1:20]

Do You See What I See? is the only film I saw by a local filmmaker, Maryland’s own Lee Bonner. The set-up is clever: we see multiple video feeds of an armed robbery taking place at the home of a wealthy but shady businessman. Two police detectives whom we hear, but never see, view the crime from multiple angles, trying to sort out the break-in, a theft, and a murder. 

Because the detective narrators are so irreverent and wise-cracking, their narration feels more like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 than a serious police procedural. Maybe Bonner wants this to be equal parts comedy and whodunnit. If so, it’s a fairly enjoyable experience, but I thought the narration too light and frivolous. Also the culprit is fairly obvious, as is the path of deception. Even though the film is only 80 minutes long, the wrap-up seems to take an awfully long time. The film consists almost entirely of closed-circuit video, which I found somewhat tedious, but the technical aspects of the film are handled well. 


The End of Time (Doc 2012) Peter Mettler [1:54]

The film opens with images of Joe Kittinger falling 120,000 feet from a hot air balloon in a Project Excelsior aerospace experiment in 1960. Kittinger literally thought that time had stopped, having no perspective as he fell through a cloud-filled sky. Like all the examples in the film, Kittinger’s journey is an exploration for the sake of knowing. The End of Time is filled with such explorations.   

Next, we visit CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, where we see a gigantic particle accelerator that looks like something Jack Kirby would’ve drawn in the Fantastic Four comics. And there’s more: volcanic activity in Hawaii, ruin and decay in Detroit, a grasshopper devoured by ants. All of these scenes seem to provide layers and layers of questions with no answers. Several people (some scientists, some just regular folks) are quoted, saying things like,

“We’re never sure if nature is a conscious thing or a set of circumstances.”

“Things that have evolved over long periods of time tend to be more stable in nature.”


The End of Time is a frustrating experience. With each change of location, Mettler gives the audience no sense of where we are geographically. Maybe that’s his point, that where we are doesn’t matter with respect to time. Yet the film seems more focused on death and decay rather than time (which are certainly aspects of time), but seems to have no answers in those areas, either. The screen is filled with interesting, often stunning visuals (including a trippy finale that brings to mind the wild journey near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey), but offers no real conclusions. Instead, we get a largely pessimistic, postmodern worldview that’s visually interesting, but ultimately empty.


Oxygen for the Ears: Living Jazz (Doc 2012) Stefan Immler  [1:34]

Director Stefan Immler commented after the screening that his film has offended many jazz fans in New York and New Orleans, indignant that anyone would claim that Washington D.C. should join those two cities an important historical center of jazz. Yet Immler makes a pretty strong case with Oxygen for the Ears: Living Jazz, a film that examines what makes jazz jazz and why the D.C. area was such an pivotal place for it. The film focuses on two obvious elements, the Howard Theatre and the great Duke Ellington. 

Yet that’s not all. Immler gives the audience many more D.C. connections as well as interviews with several musicians and includes some outstanding jazz performances. Oxygen for the Ears is, in my opinion, more of a celebration of jazz as a whole than evidence for recognizing D.C. as a major jazz city. The strength of the film is in taking a subject that many people don’t understand, giving them just enough information to enjoy it, and then showing them what a treasure jazz was and still is.  


Friday, March 29, 2013

The Lost Reunions (Doc 2012) - Danny Diaz [1:14]

(Continuing the films I saw at the Annapolis Film Festival last week)

There was a time, just a few years ago, when director Danny Diaz didn’t even know what a PT boat was. After learning of a PT boat veteran and his story, Diaz grew fascinated with the history of the 531 PT boats and the 63,000 Americans who served on them during World War II. He knew he wanted to tell their story, but also knew he would be racing against the clock. At the time of filming The Lost Reunions, only 10% of those solders were still living and only four of the boats still intact. Of the 12 PT boat veterans appearing in this documentary, nearly half of them are no longer with us.  
PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats were small, fast ships carrying torpedoes, designed to strike against larger enemy ships. When one of the veterans was asked about their missions, he responded: “Seek out the enemy and destroy them.” It was that simple. 

The veterans from these ships began holding reunions in the 1960s. In the film, we see footage from the reunions themselves, interviews from 12 of the surviving soldiers, and some incredible video footage and stills that haven’t seen the light of day for decades. 
Diaz has taken these veterans’ stories, combined with this newly-discovered footage (from a storage unit owned by one of the veterans) to give us an important, lasting portrait of a largely forgotten group of Americans who are almost gone. Taken by themselves, both the interviews and the archival footage are amazing. Together, they’re priceless. 
Many of these soldiers had no idea just how much of a David and Goliath story they were living. Almost none of them understood what they were up against. “This was not a great crusade,” one veteran says. “It was something you had to do. We were too scared to be scared.” 

Some veterans tell their tales with humor, some with tragic loss, all with passion. When you’re listening to veteran Sam Goddess, looking into those ice-blue eyes, you feel as if he’s telling you what happened yesterday, not 60+ years ago.  
The film suffers only from a few instances of not being able to clearly understand what the veterans are saying (probably due to the low audio levels at the theater) and a somewhat awkward ending. I use the word “somewhat” only because the ending is heartfelt and unscripted, coming from one of the PT soldiers interviewed and not from the director. 
The Lost Reunions is an absolutely gripping documentary that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. In his post-screening comments, Diaz mentioned that the film will be shown on PBS in the near future. Let's hope it finds a wide audience there and eventually on DVD. Find out more about the film, including a trailer, here

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Süskind (2012) - Rudolf van der Berg

Süskind (2012) - Rudolph van der Berg [1:58] 
(In German and Dutch, with English subtitles)
Early in Süskind, a man views himself in a series of vertical mirrors, seeing intense anxiety and dread looking back at him in each reflection. The man is Walter Süskind (Jeroen Spitzenberger), a theater manager in 1942 Amsterdam, a man who shows that same anxiety-ridden face to hundreds of Jews every day. Süskind (a German and a Jew) is desperately trying to keep himself and his family from deportation by the Nazis to a German transit camp. In order to remain in Amsterdam, Süskind agrees to work for an SS officer named Ferdinand aus der Fünten (Karl Markovics), a position that might make a difference in helping Süskind save (or hide) as many Jews as he can.

Hoping that Fünten is a man who can be reasoned with, Süskind attempts to establish not quite a friendship, but rather a relationship that might prove beneficial to both men. Süskind understands that while Fünten is a man who might listen to him, he’s unlikely to approve any action that might jeopardize his own position. But the theater manager soon realizes the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against him. The best he can hope for is falsifying or burning identification cards in an effort to save as many children as possible. The adults he can do little to help. 
Fünten is under pressure to keep the number of Jews moving out of Amsterdam constant and uninterrupted. Süskind seeks to meet the quota by fudging the numbers without getting caught. Both men experience revelations during the film, moments that awaken them to truths they’d rather not acknowledge.    

Rudolf van der Berg’s film (based on actual people and events) offers no easy answers. We know that Süskind simply cannot save everyone and many of the scenes that portray this reality are truly gut-wrenching. Yet van der Berg never stoops to melodrama as we might expect. Instead, he gives us a series of tense situations that cannot be wrapped up neatly but often overlap, creating an agonizing dilemma for Süskind no matter where he turns. 
In Fünten we find a Nazi who is not a cardboard stereotype, but rather a man of conflicting thoughts and feelings. We may hate him, but we know there’s a level of turmoil going on in his soul. What he’s going to do with that turmoil, we’re not quite sure until the film’s ending. Spitzenberger, Markovics and the entire cast deliver solid performances in what is often a well-paced, gripping drama. While the last third of the film is not quite as effective as the first two-thirds, the final product is both strong and memorable. Süskind is not currently available on DVD in the U.S., but keep an eye out for it in art house theaters and on future DVD releases.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Annapolis Film Festival Day One

The very first day at my very first film festival was overall quite enjoyable. I plan to eventually post on each of the three movies I saw yesterday: Süskind, a World War II film from the Netherlands, The Lost Reunions, a documentary about WWII PT boat soldiers, and Do You See What I See?, a murder mystery by Maryland filmmaker Lee Bonner.  

While I've never previously been to a film festival, I've been to plenty of conventions, and if this is the first time Annapolis has attempted a film festival, they've done a very good job. All the venues are fairly close, with free trolley transport that will get you to (or close to) four of the five theater venues. I only attended two venues yesterday: St. Anne's Church and the Bay Theater, both of which did their best to provide the best viewing situation possible, sometimes under some trying conditions. (It's a bit tricky watching a film in a church with morning light pouring through the windows, but it can be done.) 

My biggest disappointment was with the sound quality at the Bay Theater. I saw two films there, both with less than desirable sound. I was really straining to hear the dialog at both of the shows I watched there. And since I'm planning on seeing two more films there today, I hope someone has addressed the problem. 

I didn't know what to expect from the audiences, either. The first two films I saw had audiences of about 25 or so; the third, close to 100. I was very surprised to find that most of the filmgoers were my age (50+) or older. Of course, some of that depends on the film you're watching. (I don't expect many senior citizens to attend tonight's Saturday Spatterfest.) Plus, this was a Friday during the day and most folks are probably at work. 

The other thing that surprised me was that between the showings, almost no one was talking about films. Again, maybe the people that are the most passionate about movies were at work. Yet I left the festival yesterday thinking that for most of the people in attendance, the festival was just something new to do, something maybe a little trendy. I hope I'm wrong. We'll see what kind of audiences we have today. 

We have family in town, so I'll probably only see two documentaries today, The End of Time and Oxygen for the Ears: Living Jazz. Tomorrow we'll have the Best of the Fest, a showing of the best in each of these categories, voted on my the filmgoers: 

Feature Narrative
Feature Documentary
Narrative Short
Documentary Short 

Stay tuned....

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Brief Post Before the Annapolis Film Festival

I'm headed out to the very first Annapolis Film Festival this morning, but I wanted to leave you with a book for your consideration: The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. This one came across the desk at the library yesterday and I couldn't resist checking it out. It's been around for a couple of years, but for whatever reason, we're just getting it. Just thumbing through it, it looks pretty good.

Two movies I'm hoping to see at the festival today, both with a common theme: Süskind, a World War II film from the Netherlands, and The Lost Reunions, a documentary about the men on the PT boats during WWII. 

More later!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

David Fincher's Zodiac and Worldview

For several years, the Blu-ray edition of David Fincher’s Zodiac was either out of print or sold online at greatly inflated prices. Finally, the 2-disc director’s cut is now available on Blu-ray at a great price. I recently bought a copy and revisited it over the weekend.  


Many may disagree, but I’ll defend Zodiac as not only a great police procedural, but also one of the great films of the last 10 years, one that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Fincher is a gifted director who’s delivered some excellent movies, but I can’t think of any other film from his catalog that’s this well-crafted. The pacing, performances, tone, cinematography, period details, use of music, and use of source material are all right on target. The film is nearly three hours long, but when you’re watching it, it feels like you’re running a sprint, not a marathon. There’s so much to say about Zodiac - some of which I’ve said before - but I want to concentrate on the spiritual aspect of it from a Christian worldview. (“The spiritual aspect of a serial killer movie? Are you kidding me?” No.)  

The Zodiac killer is a fascinating character. Yes, he was sadistic, evil and depraved, but also ingenious and fascinating in the way he worked and deceived everyone seeking to capture him. It’s not really such a stretch to believe that such evil people are out there; unfortunately we see it far too often. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” We certainly see that in Zodiac. To make matters worse, Zodiac kills with no apparent remorse, taunting the victims’ families, the police and the public. In one of his famous letters to the newspapers, he boasts, “I am now in control of all things.” Clearly Zodiac sees himself as sovereign, putting himself, as it were, in the place of God.  

We’re all imperfect, fallen creatures, but most of us have at least some consciousness of justice, a sense of right and wrong that’s innate. (Call it common grace, if you will.) We see someone like Zodiac and we long to see him caught and punished, not just as an assurance for our own personal safety (although that’s certainly part of it), but from a sense of justice. Regardless of what we believe, we know that what he’s doing is wrong and must be stopped. 

But we see how a good intention - catching a dangerous criminal - can become an obsession just as harmful to us - maybe even more harmful, long-term - than the criminal himself. Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) reluctantly realizes this before his obsession to find Zodiac destroys his marriage. Toschi’s partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) is wise enough to transfer to another department. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) trades obsession for paranoia, thinking that it’s only a matter of time before Zodiac finds him. Yet Fincher shows us that it’s the life of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) - cartoonist for the Chronicle - that suffers the most.   

Graysmith is a cartoonist, for crying out loud, someone with no horse in this race, other than an obsession to find the killer, and certainly no skills beyond an insatiable desire to uncover the truth. Gyllenhaal gives a wonderful (and largely ignored) performance as we watch him slowly disintegrate over the course of the film until he’s left with a life filled with not much more than scrapbooks and boxes of Zodiac files and drawings. 

Two scenes stand out for me with Graysmith as a focal point: the first, in which Graysmith visits the home of a man who supposedly knew one of the Zodiac suspects. Here we see Graysmith come to the realization that he may have discovered more than he bargained for, that his obsession - and his life - may truly be at an end. There’s a sense that there are things in this world that we shouldn’t mess around with, especially if we’re not prepared professionally, mentally, or spiritually to handle them. This is more than just a tense moment for Graysmith. It’s the realization - perhaps for the first time - that his life could be over in a matter of seconds and what does he have to show for it? Even if he does uncover the truth, where has it gotten him? 

Second, a brief scene near the end of the film shows Graysmith in a hardware store, staring at Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen face to face. It’s a moment nearly three hours in coming, but in Graysmith’s time, it’s measured in years, a lost marriage, fractured relationships with his children and a remaining shell of a life. But here he sees the source (or what he thinks is the source) of his obsession, just a few feet in front of him. No words are necessary. Fincher knows that the look Graysmith gives Allen, and Allen’s facial response, are all we need. 

We have an innate need to right things that we know are wrong. That’s one of the reasons we’re outraged when we see criminals getting away with crimes, uncaring politicians clearly out-of-touch with the people they serve, and a multitude of other abuses too numerous to list here. As with the Zodiac killer, a large part of our fear is that such criminals will never be caught and/or punished for their crimes. It’s a fear that not only are we not in control, but no one is. 

At the end of Zodiac, one of the killer’s surviving victims, years after the attack, looks at a series of photographs and points to a shot of Arthur Leigh Allen. He stares at it and taps it with his finger, saying, “That’s him.” It’s taken nearly three hours of movie time and many, many years, but someone has finally identified Zodiac. In a way, it’s a very small step, but its significance is huge.  

It would be easy to walk away from Zodiac thinking, “What’s the use? The guy was never convicted. If it was Arthur Leigh Allen, he died without being convicted. If it wasn’t, then Zodiac is probably still out there. Any way you look at it, he got away with it.” 

It often seems that way. But there are two ways to look at this, depending on your worldview: In a random universe where there are no absolute standards, why would we care about truth and justice? What do those terms even mean in a chance universe? And if that’s the case, why does it bother us when we see horrific murders like those committed by Zodiac? If there’s no meaning to life, why should we care? 

On the other hand, if we believe that everything happens for a purpose, there must be some reason for the existence of criminals like Zodiac. That doesn’t mean there’s not a God in control, but that there’s a reason for everything that happens. We may not understand or know that reason, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. If we believe that God created this world as something good and that man fell, then things are not as they should be. We hear people all the time asking in the midst of natural disasters, horrific crimes, etc., “Where was God in this?” We can either believe that He wasn’t/isn’t there (doesn’t care/doesn’t exist) or that He’s trying to show us something: that the world is not as it should be. It needs redemption. Only then will things make sense. Only then will justice be done. 

Depending on your worldview, Zodiac either plunges you further into the depths of despair or encourages you that one day, all things will be made right again. Like all great films, Zodiac provides a starting point for great conversations of worldview and things that matter. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Criterion Collection Titles for June

I always look forward to the upcoming Criterion Collection titles, especially if I get the chance to see some of them streaming on Hulu Plus. Of the five titles for June release, two of them are currently streaming. Here's what's coming our way:

Wild Strawberries (1957) Ingmar Bergman - June 11

I saw this Bergman masterwork for the first time last year and am pleased to see it upgraded to Blu-ray. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but since it's currently streaming on Hulu Plus, I see no reason to buy it just yet. 

Safety Last! (1923) Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor - June 18

The cover shot of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock has been one of cinema's iconic images for nearly a century. In discussions of the great silent comedians, Lloyd has always taken a backseat to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Perhaps this release will help bring Lloyd alongside those two greats. Roger Ebert included Safety Last! in one of his volumes of The Great Movies, which makes it a pretty good candidate for a blind buy. Add in three Lloyd short films, and you've got an almost irresistible package. 

Marketa Lazarová (1967) František Vlácil - June 18

I know nothing about this film, other than what the Criterion entry says about it, claiming that it's quite possibly the greatest Czech film ever made. I'm hoping it's available streaming soon. 

Things to Come (1936) William Cameron Menzies - June 18

I'm pretty sure I saw this film as a kid (not on its initial release; I'm not that old.), probably on some rainy Saturday afternoon. I'm also pretty sure I ate it up, as I would've any sf film from my misspent youth, so I'm eager to revisit this one. Hey, what am I waiting for? It's on Hulu Plus right now.... 

Shoah (1985) Claude Lanzmann - June 25

Regardless of the 9-hour running time and the $100 retail price, Lanzmann's Shoah is bound to be a huge seller for Criterion. This documentary of survivors of the Holocaust is regarded as nothing less than a monumental achievement. The film uses no archival footage, but rather focuses on first-hand testimony and interviews with surviving Jews, former Nazis and other witnesses. I've always avoided this film, thinking I should see it, but never felt I was mentally or emotionally prepared for it. Now I have no excuse not to rent it. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Upcoming Posts

Thankfully, this quarter of school is over, leaving me with a couple of weeks' freedom before my next class starts in early April. Here are a few of the films I hope to blog about in the coming days:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Annapolis Film Festival March 21-24, 2013

Confession time: I have never attended a film festival. I've always wanted to, but thought festivals like SXSW would be a little overwhelming, especially for my first one. Ideally I wanted something fairly local and pretty small. The Annapolis Film Festival may be right up my alley. 

This is the first year for the festival, so I'm sure there will be some bumps along the way, but it's also exciting to see people passionate about something getting a project started. At best, I will only be able to attend Saturday, March 23 and part of Sunday, March 24. Here's a listing of the festival schedule.   

I have absolutely no idea what to expect, even from a newly organized festival. Please feel free to leave comments dealing with what to look for, what to avoid, anything you can offer about attending a film festival. And if you're in the area and are interested in attending, let me know. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Browning Version (1951) Anthony Asquith

The Browning Version (1951) Anthony Asquith [1:30]

You could say that The Browning Version is the best film ever made about teaching, which may be true, but that’s too narrow a field for consideration. You could also say that the role of Andrew Crocker-Harris is Michael Redgrave’s finest performance. That also would be too narrow a field. Despite its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, both the performance and the film - now over 50 years old - are in danger of being forgotten. Sort of like that teacher you had many, many years ago....

Based on a 1948 play by Terence Rattigan, The Browning Version centers on Andrew Crocker-Harris (or, as his students refer to him behind his back, “The Crock”), an aging classics teacher at an English boys’ school. Early on, we see that Crocker-Harris is stern, strict, demanding in his subject, and largely despised by everyone, including his cheating wife (Jean Kent). Others, including the headmaster (played exquisitely by Wilfrid Hyde-White) simply tolerate him. 

Yet all of that seems beside the point now. Crocker-Harris, in poor health, plans to retire and move away soon, hoping a change will help. What he doesn’t know is that in following him, his wife will have to abandon her lover (NIgel Patrick). If she leaves with him.    

During his last day on the job, Crocker-Harris has an encounter with one of his students that causes him to reexamine his life and career. In the midst of this encounter, we meet Gilbert (Ronald Howard), Crocker-Harris’s successor, observing to get a feel for the students. After class, Crocker-Harris, in a soul-bearing monologue, tells Gilbert, 

“Of course I failed, as you will fail 999 times out of a thousand. But passing your success can atone and more than atone for all the failures in the world. And sometimes... sometimes I had that success.”

I’m well aware that one of the reasons I connected with this film is the fact that I was a teacher for 15 years. I understand much of what Crocker-Harris is going through, knowing that the balance often seems to tip in favor of failure (on the teacher’s part) rather than success. But it goes beyond that. The Browning Version transcends what could’ve been an exercise in melodramatic drudgery into an exploration of the human condition that contains depth and beauty. And Redgrave's performance is superb. It’s a fine film you shouldn’t miss. 

The title refers to a translation by Robert Browning of Agamemnon, an important element in the film.  

(The Browning Version was remade in 1994 with Albert Finney in the starring role, directed by Mike Figgis.) 


Saturday, March 09, 2013

House of Cards Season One

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somebody at Netflix has successfully delivered an incredible new TV show and, by the way they’ve done it, sent lightning bolts of fear into the hearts of network and cable executives. In a brilliant move, Netflix has made the 13 episodes of the first season of House of Cards available all at once with no waiting, streaming into your TV or device of choice. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the show stars Kevin Spacey and boasts David Fincher as an executive producer (and director of the first two episodes). 

The series begins with an accident on a Washington DC street at night. I won’t go into detail, but this is where we encounter Congressman Frank Underwood (Spacey) for the first time, handling an emergency situation. Underwood does something in this opening that tends to cause either resigned admiration or utter disgust, yet he does it unflinchingly. This scene quickly gives us a picture - although not a complete picture - of who Frank Underwood is.

A new president has just been elected and Underwood, the House Majority Whip, has had a leading role in making the victory happen, so much so that the President elect has promised Underwood a nomination for Secretary of State. If you want to go into House of Cards completely spoiler-free, read no further, although what I’m about to tell you happens in the first 10 minutes, and you’ve probably heard it anyway: Underwood discovers that the President elect has broken his promise, wanting Underwood to remain in Congress where he can do the most good. From that moment on, Underwood is on an all-consuming mission to bring down the entire new administration. 

The web of characters and their manner of manipulations is fascinating to watch. I’ve said it before, but many of my Christian friends see movies and shows like House of Cards and ask, “How can you watch that?” I watch it because there is often honesty in fictional works. That sounds contradictory, but it’s not. Here we see fallen men and women, making decisions and taking actions that are largely selfish and manipulative. But sometimes they’ll do the right thing. Although we may not have any role in Washington politics, we have a role somewhere, and we, too, are fallen. House of Cards also is a fascinating study of how we look at the concepts of truth and falsehood. If there is no absolute truth, then why are these people in such conflict? Why are there secrets? Why are there cover-ups?  

House of Cards is features a mostly smart script and a superb cast including Robin Wright as Frank’s wife Claire, who runs a non-profit organization called the Clean Water Initiative, Kate Mara as a young reporter on the way up, Corey Stoll as a bad-boy Pennsylvania Congessman, and many more, all of whom are part of this complex, yet fascinating inner world of DC politics. The script is not air-tight all the time; many of the Clean Water Initiative scenes are unconvincing and tend to drag the show down. The suspension of disbelief often gets a bit strained and some of the political events and plot advancements happen too easily. But this is, after all, both television and fiction. I’m certainly willing to give in to a few quibbles for a show this good.  

Many people have compared House of Cards to A Game of Thrones, which is not an unreasonable comparison. Both shows are about complex political structures, lying and manipulation, ruthless and reckless behavior, secret and open relationships and moral bankruptcy. Both contain great storytelling. Both contain great acting. What separates the two shows (and this will be an important consideration for some) is that House of Cards has been completely written is projected to be a two-season series for a total of 26 episodes. (Filming on the second season is scheduled for later this month.) When will Season Two air? I don’t know, but I’d imagine you’ll have once again have all the episodes ready for viewing at one time. Besides, when you’ve finished Season One, you’ll want a little time to reflect and speculate on what just happened. Maybe the networks and cable channels will use that time to figure out how to combat a powerhouse series like House of Cards.  

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012) - Devin McKinney

The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012) - 
Devin McKinney
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover, 428 pages
ISBN 9781250008411
Retail $29.99
Amazon $20.24

Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda is neither a straight-up biography of the actor nor a critical examination of his body of work. Yet in some ways it is both. Readers seeking to find meaning will do best to keep the title in mind at all times.  

Fonda had many ghosts to deal with throughout his life, one of which - an event he witnessed as a youth in Nebraska - haunted and quite possibly shaped the man he would become. Others ghosts emerged as he grew older. McKinney masterfully weaves this theme of haunting throughout the actor’s life and career. Understand that I’m not speaking here of actual ghosts or hauntings or anything having to do with what we would normally classify as "the supernatural." But the effect on Fonda - which is not fully realized by the reader until the stunningly potent epilogue of the book - is all-pervasive. 

All of Fonda’s major (and much of his minor) work - stage, screen, TV, ads, etc. - is touched on here, as well as much of the work of his children Jane and Peter. Does McKinney spend too much time on Jane and Peter? I don’t think so. It’s clear that they belong to a different generation, but much of that may be due to the fact that the ghosts in their own lives are steering them towards (or possibly away from?) different directions from those of their father. 

We may think we know Fonda from his roles in films like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men and many others, and maybe we do. But regardless of what you think you know about Fonda from watching his performances in these films, reading McKinney’s book will give you a greater understanding, if not a greater appreciation, of the man.

The Man Who Saw a Ghost is marred only by McKinney’s often too-opinionated look at the works and many of the other players involved. This is unfortunate and not easily overlooked, but the benefits of the book taken as a whole far outweigh this problem. McKinney’s book is a must-read for fans of film, film history and American cinema. 


Sunday, March 03, 2013

February's Movies

The Killers (1946) Robert Siodmak [1:43]

The Criterion Collection edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers includes the 1946 version, directed by Robert Siodmak, and the 1964 Don Siegel remake. I watched only the Siodmak version, which is memorable both as Burt Lancaster’s debut and as one of the most effective examples of film noir. The film follows the Hemingway story only for the first several minutes, but from then on, Siodmak delivers pure noir, filled with the darkness of disenchantment, double-crosses, and beautiful cinematography. 


The Spy in Black (1939) Michael Powell [1:22] 

Although this film (originally released in the U.S. as U-Boat 29) contains noir elements (darkness, use of shadow, fear and foreboding, etc.), it stands out as an impressive pre-noir tale released just as WWII was beginning. The film is uneven in tone, but Conrad Veidt is excellent as a German submarine captain on a secret mission to gather British intelligence secrets. The Spy in Black also marks the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  


Sisters (1973) Brian De Palma [1:33]

I had intended to discuss this one at length, but never quite found the time for this early De Palma homage to Hitchcock. Overall an impressive film, although De Palma throws a few too many Hitchcock tropes into the mix. The final third of the film explores some really odd stuff; I’m not convinced it all works, but the attempt is impressive. 


The Game (1997) David Fincher [2:08]

Previously discussed here.


Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day (2012) Dick Carruthers [2:04]

Another film I had hoped to discuss at length, but that didn’t happen, either (perhaps on a second viewing in the near future). Like them or not, Led Zeppelin is one of the most influential and important rock acts of all time. Of course they know that, and understand that they don’t need a reunion concert every other year. The group has performed together a handful of times since disbanding in 1980, but this 2007 London concert marks the first extended (and probably final) concert we’re likely to see.

And it is amazing. In 2007, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were already in their 60s and Robert Plant was pushing 60 (Jason Bonham, John Bonham’s son, was a mere 40 at the time.), but these guys haven’t lost a step. Page sounds as good as he’s ever sounded and while Plant doesn’t do all that much as far as vocal pyrotechnics go, he’s still impressive. Regardless of which Bonham is on the drums, Jones stays in close proximity to the drummer, keeping that tightness that was so essential to the band, proving that the bass player/drummer combination was the true backbone to Led Zep.

Since this was a "one-time only" show, the band spurned the super-extended live versions of some of their more famous songs, hoping to pack more tunes into the set. We get 16, which is quite generous:

Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
Black Dog
In My Time of Dying
For Your Life
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody's Fault But Mine
No Quarter
Since I've Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway to Heaven
The Song Remains the Same
Misty Mountain Hop
Whole Lotta Love
Rock and Roll     


Lake Mungo (2008) Joel Anderson [1:27]

Previously discussed here


Videotape (2013) Andrew Yorke, Kevin Michael [1:36]

I was fortunate to be invited to view this film by one of its directors, Andrew Yorke, who is also one of my former students. (Many thanks, Andrew!) Videotape begins with the discovery of a pregnant woman found dead in a warehouse. All signs point to suicide, but a freelance journalist gets a tip that an eyewitness with a different story is ready to talk. 

Yorke and Michael have immersed viewers into a world beyond normal youthful indiscretion, one that’s dark and safely self-contained until pressures from mainstream society shatter everything. Videotape is a raw, powerful exploration of the darker side of human nature, with crucial questions screaming to be answered. 

Currently the directors do not have a distributor, but plan to enter it in several film festivals. If it comes to your city, see it.        


House of Cards: Season One (TV 2013) Netflix Original 
(13 episodes of approx. 50 min. each)

If you’ve avoided a Netflix subscription up until now, you should correct that oversight ASAP, even if the only thing you watch is the first season (13 episodes) of their original show House of Cards. The show (for adults) is only available streaming and only through Netflix. I plan to go into more detail in another post later this week, but after the first episode, I was hooked. Even if you don’t care about Washington politics, watch the show for Kevin Spacey’s masterful portrayal of U.S. Representative Frank Underwood, a man with the power and cunning to literally bring the house down. 


To Be or Not To Be (1942) Ernst Lubitsch [1:39]

A Polish theater company is scheduled to put on a play making fun of Hitler and the Nazis just prior to the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. When forced to put on Hamlet instead, the actors realize they might just have more important roles to play during the coming weeks and months. 

Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be is a wonderful mixture of satire, romantic comedy, and even suspense, superbly acted by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her final film before dying in a plane crash). The script by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer (and Lubitsch, uncredited) is a thing of comic beauty. Although not well received when released, To Be or Not to Be has rightfully earned a place in the canon of classic American films. I feel like watching it again right now. Maybe I will. 

The film also features a very young Robert Stack, recognized by millions of comedy fans many years later as Rex Kramer  in Airplane!    


Feel free to tell me what you saw last month.