Tuesday, April 15, 2014


The Grand Budapest Hotel

Caution...spoilers ahead! Take a look at the poster for Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and it will tell you everything you need to know about the film. First, we are introduced to Tom Wilkinson wearing a nifty moustache who plays the "Author" of a book called (wait for it) The Grand Budapest Hotel. He starts to narrate the film. Then we flashback to him as a "Young Writer" played by Jude Law (also with a nifty moustache).

He is staying at the titular hotel where he has a brief conversation with Jason Schwartzman as "M. Jean" who is in the movie for all of maybe three minutes. He dons a moustache as well. Then Law meets F. Murray Abraham as "Mr. Moustafa", the reclusive owner of the hotel, who has let his bushy moustache grow into a bushy beard. Abraham then proceeds to recount the actual story of how he acquired the once grand palace to Law which adds up to the meat and potatoes of the film.

We see a younger version of the bushy bearded narrator (who has replaced Wilkinson in the voice over department) as a young man of seemingly little consequence called "Zero" (natch) played by newcomer (as the poster informs us) Tony Revolori. He draws his own moustache on in a mirror. We then meet the true star of the film, "M. Gustave" played by moustached dandy Ralph Fiennes.

Fiennes, for all intents and purposes, seems like a pompous rake or a cad. In actuality, he is an honorable man who genuinely adores an elderly woman (played by Tilda Swinton as "Madame D." under heavy and convincing makeup) whom he has been bedding for many years at the hotel that he is the proprietor of. After she dies, or is murdered (I don't think that part is ever really resolved) Fiennes gets willed the most valuable painting in her pricey yet tasteless art collection.

Rather than stay and fight with her lawyer (played by a moustachioed Jeff Goldblum as "Kovacs") and her greedy family (led by moustache-twirling, insult-hurling villain Adrien Brody as "Dimitri" and his clean-shaven henchman "Jopling" played by Willem Dafoe) Fiennes decides to simply take what is his right off the wall and head for home, but not before a moustache-donning Matthieu Amalric as the family butler "Serge" covertly slips a valuable piece of paper behind the canvas.

When it comes out that she was murdered, the family tries to pin it on Fiennes; retribution for claiming what was rightfully his no doubt. Fiennes gets tossed in prison where he writes long-winded poetry to his staff back at the hotel. While in jail, he meets a totally head-shaven Harvey Keitel who plays a convict named "Ludwig". They plan a prison breakout.

Meanwhile, a sympathetic Army officer named "Henckels" played by Edward Norton sporting a moustache, is dubious of the claims against Fiennes (Norton stayed at the hotel when he was a young boy and remembers how nice Fiennes was to him). Owen Wilson shows up as "M. Chuck" in a cameo almost as brief as Schwartzman's. Léa Seydoux and Saoirse Ronan play small roles too; Ronan has a birthmark on her face in lieu of a moustache. Seydoux simply sports a maid's hat.

Goldblum gets his fingers chopped off before being murdered by Dafoe (who also kills his cat as well as the family butler) and another character (who isn't even on the poster) who gets beheaded by the evil motorcycle-riding henchman. Sometime around this point, Bill Murray pops up wearing the biggest moustache of all as "M. Ivan" (get it: he's the biggest guest star?), a fellow concierge who comes to the aid of Fiennes on the lam; sort of a spiritual heir to Keitel's Mr. Wolfe character in Pulp Fiction I surmise.

Fisher Stevens plays another comrade in arms (though they were wise to keep him and his moustache off the poster) of the hospitality brotherhood. That piece of paper the butler hid behind the painting turns out to be the revised will of the old lady who has now left everything to Fiennes. In the end, everything gets wrapped up like a finely waxed and trimmed...well, you know. Even the young F. Murray Abraham (who gets the hotel after Fiennes expires) has begun to grow a real moustache.

Like most of Wes Anderson's films post the near-perfect Rushmore (1998), it's whimsical to a fault (not counting his delightful 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation). His characters seem more like finely detailed figures from a curio cabinet being positioned 'round a toy theatre than actual flesh and blood people. While that's certainly neat to look at, it doesn't quite make for keen storytelling. Still, these are just fairy tales in a way. They're Archie Comics, as imagined by a Godard groupie. Fiennes certainly owns the film and should be remembered for it come awards season.

Still, I'm not going to laud Anderson's work here simply because he isn't as banal a filmmaker as Michael Bay or Seth MacFarlane, or because he clearly watches (and takes notes) of other films in the Criterion Collection. But suppose for just a moment if every film Peter Bogdanovich made following The Last Picture Show (1971) was shot in black and white, with mostly the same cast and the same chiaroscuro production scheme...wouldn't somebody cry foul ball?

I think Anderson writes his films very similar to the way his poster was designed. It seems like he starts with a vague idea: a rich family of eccentrics; a Jacques Cousteau roman à clef; a nouvelle vague inspired love story of two runaways; and now this: a hotel staff of misfits set during two fictionalized World Wars. What we don't get is much beyond a premise. The film is being heralded in some quarters for its seemingly clever amalgamation of Eastern European 20th Century historical circumstances. Ya know, those bad guys in Spaceballs dressed like Nazis too. Brilliant.

While definitely a step up on the evolutionary ladder from the earnest but narratively sloppy Moonrise Kingdom (2012), it's the moustaches that are most important to Mr. Anderson in Budapest. After all, the moustache makes the man.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Alternate Oscars VII

"Dog" riding shotgun in The Road Warrior
For this once-esteemed category, I chose to mix a little of the surreal with the serious. Let's face it, no John Waters film would ever be considered Best Picture material in any universe (although Hairspray, 1988 could have been a contender). Having said that, Polyester is a perfect film on so many levels. While it obviously works gangbusters as a mondo trasho installation piece (get out your "Odorama" cards), it's also a brilliant satire of those old Douglas Sirk melodramas, as well as being a true Freudian suburban nightmare.

I could heap equal amounts of praise on David Cronenberg's austere, mind-blowing (literally), genre confection Scanners; another film too far outside the box for actual nomination potential. It's a fully realized sci-fi yarn with at least one toe-hold in reality. Like all of my personal Best Picture picks for '81, I love it to pieces.

John Badham's Whose Life Is It Anyway? is a serious drama about a quadriplegic and his legal battle to end his own life. In addition to being Badham's best film (Saturday Night Fever comes mighty close) Richard Dreyfuss was robbed of a nomination for Best Actor that year. In all sincerity, it's the finest acting of his career (and I'm a huge Let It Ride fan -- seriously).

Rounding out the bunch are two Mel Gibson films: one monumentally epic (Gallipoli) and one monumentally awesome (The Road Warrior). In all seriousness, The Road Warrior is one of my favorite movies (it probably should have just ended after this one; sorry Tina). It's the Lawrence of Arabia of post-apocalyptic action flicks. Gallipoli very easily could have turned up on the actual nominees list (what an ending). Remember when hearing Mel Gibson's name was a positive experience? Like Archie and Edith sang: "those were the days..."

1981 Academy Award for Best Picture

the actual nominees:

Chariots of Fire (winner)
Atlantic City
On Golden Pond
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Reds

the alternate universe nominees:

Gallipoli

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Polyester

Scanners

Whose Life Is It Anyway?


late night horror poll


Best director/actor horror team: Terence Fisher & Peter Cushing or Roger Corman & Vincent Price?

Fisher/Cushing

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1972)
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Night of the Big Heat (1967)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Island of Terror (1966)
The Gorgon (1964)
Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)


The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Mummy (1959)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Dracula aka Horror of Dracula (1958)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Corman/Price

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Haunted Palace (1963)
The Raven (1963)
Tower of London (1962)
Tales of Terror (1962)


Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
House of Usher (1960)

The vampire hunter-TV horror host played by Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985) was named Peter Vincent as an homage to Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Cushing and Price were close friends off screen and celebrated their birthdays one day apart (Cushing: May 26th and Price: May 27th; horror legend Christopher Lee was also a dear friend to both and born on May 27th).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Alternate Oscars VI

Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet
Each of the ten nominees listed below (both the actual and the alternate) are legendary cinematographers. Pasqualino De Santis may have very well photographed the most ravishing picture of 1968: Romeo and Juliet; even if I personally feel that his fellow Italian countryman Tonino Delli Colli (Once Upon a Time in the West) was more deserving of the gold statue; his work for iconic Western director Sergio Leone practically reinvented the closeup.

Conrad L. Hall (possibly my all-time favorite practitioner of this field) had made a little over half a dozen films by the time he shot John Boorman's perennially underrated Hell in the Pacific (a tour de force for actors Lee Marvin and the great Toshiro Mifune). He would eventually go on to win three Academy Awards for Cinematography (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; American Beauty; Road to Perdition) setting a thirty year record gap in the category between his first and second wins.

Douglas Slocombe's subtle, set-bound work in The Lion in Winter is painterly, without drawing attention to itself; the fireworks in the film came courtesy of Hepburn and O'Toole (she won the Oscar that year, he didn't). William A. Fraker (Bullitt; 1941), Geoffrey Unsworth (Cabaret; Tess), Oswald Morris (Moby Dick; Fiddler on the Roof), Ernest Laszlo (Kiss Me Deadly; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), Harry Stradling (A Streetcar Named Desire; My Fair Lady) and Daniel L. Fapp (West Side Story; The Great Escape)...they just don't make 'em like that anymore.

1968 Academy Award for Best Cinematography

the actual nominees:

Pasqualino De Santis for Romeo and Juliet (winner)
Daniel L. Fapp for Ice Station Zebra
Ernest Laszlo for Star!
Oswald Morris for Oliver!
Harry Stradling for Funny Girl

the alternate universe nominees:

William A. Fraker for Rosemary's Baby
Tonino Delli Colli for Once Upon a Time in the West
Conrad L. Hall for Hell in the Pacific
Douglas Slocombe for The Lion in Winter
Geoffrey Unsworth for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Conrack (1974)

      In the late 1960s, writer Pat Conroy (The Great Santini; The Prince of Tides) took a teaching job on a residential sea island off the coast of South Carolina close to Savannah, Georgia. The inhabitants of the 8 square mile enclave were descendants of slaves from South Carolina's coastal Lowcountry known as the Gullah.

Of these 250 or so Gullah, most of whom were illiterate and innumerate, all were African-American except for a Caucasian shopkeeper. The Gullah language, also known as "sea island Creole", prohibited the young children (aged 10 - 13) from pronouncing their new teachers surname correctly. Conroy came out sounding like ConRACK. Thus the title of Martin Ritt's little-seen adaptation of Conroy's 1972 memoir The Water is Wide.

The children don't even know what country they live in, or the name of the ocean that borders their shore. They've never seen a movie or heard of James Brown or Jackie Robinson before. Conroy isn't given much support from the principal of the small school or the superintendent over on the mainland. In fact, it seems he gets chastised on a daily basis for wanting to treat his students like human beings.

The principal, Mrs. Scott (played by a sterling Madge Sinclair), refers to the kids as her "babies" in a rather duplicitous way. She does consider them to be worthy of care, but she also considers them incapable of retaining knowledge and more worthy of the whip. There's the rub. Her conflicts with Conroy over his teaching methods provide some of the much needed tension that surrounds this engaging drama.

The school superintendent is another story. Skeffington, played by the tremendously effective Hume Cronyn, is a sad remnant of the unapologetically racist South. And Conroy quickly finds himself in the soup for his unconventional methods.

It is imperative that I say a word or two about Jon Voight's performance as Conroy. It's not just an effective portrayal of a man who has dedicated himself to education, it's a career best. I've seen a lot of great Voight performances (Coming Home and Table for Five immediately jump to mind) but nothing quite like his work in Conrack. What we learn about his jocular character mostly comes through lively interactions in the classroom, but it's the relationship he forms with one of the older girls on the island (played by a magnificent Tina Andrews) that establishes him as a truly humane film character.

It's a shame that this film has fallen by the wayside. It's undoubtedly one of the best American films of the 1970s as well as possibly the best film about the noble art of teaching I have ever seen. It is not without its critics though. There are some that say it's too sentimental or too idealistic for its own good. I feel compelled to cite two examples which counter that flimsy argument.

The scene when Conroy and Mad Billy (played by the late, great Paul Winfield) are jovially fishing off the pier and Conroy unknowingly hooks the body of a drowned boy (the children are taught to fear the water so none of them know how to swim). It's a horrifyingly real scene played without an ounce of melodrama. The family of the child arrive to somberly cart the body away as the two reluctant fisherman watch in near disbelief. It's a profoundly powerful moment, more so because Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Chinatown) chose to film them both from behind, so we never see their expressions.

And when Conroy sits down at Mrs. Scott's kitchen table in an effort to make peace and call her out for humiliating the kids. It's one of those quietly moving scenes that sneak up on you and stick in your crawl. As a matter of fact, the whole film is. It also features a not-surprisingly splendid John Williams score that ranks up there with The Cowboys (1972) as one of the composers most underrated.

Twilight Time has released Conrack on Blu-ray in a stunningly gorgeous transfer. While I don't support the $30 price tag (especially considering the lack of any significant bonus features; come on guys: a short retrospective is the least this film deserves) our wallets are sometimes at the mercy of these smaller labels who continue to get away with charging collectors a premium for choice titles such as this. Don't get me wrong, I'm just grateful it's out. The real crime is that Fox didn't release the title on their own (nor has the film ever been released on DVD) at a more affordable price.


See it. Posthaste.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Alternate Oscars Part V

Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray at the Venice Film Festival, 1982

In combing through various years in film as I set about doing these alternate Oscar posts, I noticed a not-so-surprising trend. As the years progressed, the quality of films receded. This can potentially be blamed on several factors: the absence of the visionary studio heads, the increasing over-reliance on technology and the invention of the Summer tent-pole blockbuster are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The fact is, the majority of our mainstream films have lost touch with the prime directive of the art of film-making: human relationships. Yes, it's always been a business, and not everyone can be a Renoir, Ray or Kurosawa, but when you look at a random year (such as the one below) it becomes relatively clear that the bulk of populist cinema was at one glorious time more concerned with character and story, and less about spectacle, sequels, reboots and remakes.

It's a cop out to say that we've simply run out of ideas. We've run out of artists. Lenny Bruce once told a very prescient bit about how a shy, introspective screenwriter sits for hours in his basement, laboriously creating unseen works of art, but in order for his work to be seen, he first has to pass through a gauntlet of rejection and hurdles from simple-minded automatons (and a broken system that is set up to crush the spirit of the artist) that he finally just gives up.

Our film-makers today, for the most part, remain in place by default. Most of them are frauds. There are still a few true artists at the forefront (Paul Thomas Anderson for one) but once the uncreative types (as Kris Kristofferson called them) took over, things were never the same. John Waters once prophesied that the future of film would come out of YouTube, from the novice director, too shy (or much too smart) to play the Hollywood game.

To think how we once took for granted the golden age of such artists as Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Sidney Lumet. Artists whose first commitment was to their craft, and the exploration of the human condition. Sure, we still get some of that today, but remember a time when it seemed nearly every film in general release was a work of art? Oh, how we were spoiled.

1973 Academy Award for Best Director

the actual nominees:

George Roy Hill for The Sting (winner)
George Lucas for American Graffiti
Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers
William Friedkin for The Exorcist
Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris

the alternate universe nominees:

Peter Bogdanovich for Paper Moon
Federico Fellini for Amarcord
Terrence Malick for Badlands
Sam Peckinpah for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Robert Altman for The Long Goodbye




honorable mentions:

Paul Mazursky for Blume in Love; Don Siegel for Charley Varrick; Mark Rydell for Cinderella Liberty; François Truffaut for Day For Night; Fred Zinnemann for The Day of the Jackal; Joseph Losey for A Doll's House; Nicolas Roeg for Don't Look Now; Peter Yates for The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Alan Bridges for The Hireling; Alejandro Jodorowsky for Holy Mountain; Hal Ashby for The Last Detail; Lina Wertmüller for Love and Anarchy; Martin Scorsese for Mean Streets; Lindsay Anderson for O Lucky Man!; James Bridges for The Paper Chase; Jerry Schatzberg for Scarecrow; Ingmar Bergman for Scenes from a Marriage; Sidney Lumet for Serpico; Brian De Palma for Sisters; Woody Allen for Sleeper; Victor Erice for The Spirit of the Beehive; Robin Hardy for The Wicker Man

Monday, April 07, 2014

two hands

Sam Levenson (1911 - 1980) was an educator, a journalist, a writer, a television host and a humorist. He wrote the following poem (the more commonly cited variation) for his granddaughter, which was later read by Audrey Hepburn on a French television program in 1989 (and has forever since become erroneously attributed to her). It's a lovely medley of platitudes not unlike Desiderata or the sage advice Shakespeare's Polonius gives his child Laertes before sending him out into the world.

Time Tested Beauty Tips
by Sam Levenson
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; Never throw out anybody.
Remember, If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.
The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole, but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!
Alternate Oscars Part IV

the luminous Cecilia Roth in Todo sobre mi madre aka All About My Mother

One of my favorite films of 1999 was Pedro Almodóvar's Oscar/Cannes-winning All About My Mother. In his inimitable and irreverent way, it was a film director's love letter to the professional actress told in melancholic strokes and primary colors. Unfortunately, even with all that talent hitting the boards, there was only one true standout performance (and it wasn't one of the numerous supporting turns; although the two male actors in drag nearly stole the whole show).

The majority of the "actual nominees" for Supporting Actress that particular year were highly deserving of praise, though I still find myself scratching my head over Jolie being crowned queen of the Winter carnival. If I had to pick a favorite out of the actual lot it would probably be Samantha Morton, who played a stone-faced, Keatonesque mute in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. It was the definition of a "sweet performance". Still, the year in question produced a bevy of alternate female support, which for the most part, went largely unheralded. So, without further ado...

1999 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress

the actual nominees:

Angelina Jolie as Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted (winner)
Toni Collette as Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense
Catherine Keener as Maxine Lund in Being John Malkovich 
Samantha Morton as Hattie in Sweet and Lowdown 
Chloë Sevigny as Lana Tisdel in Boy's Don't Cry

the parallel universe nominees:

Linda Bassett as Ella Khan in East is East
Catherine Deneuve in Est-Ouest

Minnie Driver as  Miss Mabel Chiltern in An Ideal Husband
Patricia Neal as Cookie Orcutt in Cookie's Fortune

Sissy Spacek as Rose Straight in The Straight Story

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Alternate Oscars Part III

Einstein (below left) once said: "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." H. G. Wells (below right with second wife Jane) was an early bicycle enthusiast. Both men (seekers of knowledge and prophets of time travel) may have been on to something, other than their respective riding contraptions. Today we step into a parallel universe of our own invention. We take a random year in film and reconstruct a particular Oscar category with equal or more deserving substitutes.


1987 Academy Award for Best Actress

the actual nominees:

Cher as Loretta Castorini in Moonstruck (winner)
Glenn Close as Alexandra "Alex" Forrest in Fatal Attraction
Holly Hunter as Jane Craig in Broadcast News
Sally Kirkland as Anna in Anna
Meryl Streep as Helen Archer in Ironweed

the parallel universe nominees:

Stephane Audran as Babette Hersant in Babette's Feast











Lillian Gish as Sarah Webber in The Whales of August












Diane Keaton as J.C. Wiatt in Baby Boom












Mary McDonnell as Elma Radnor in Matewan
Barbra Streisand as Claudia Draper in Nuts