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Thread: 2008 REPERTORY: Oldies but Goodies

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    2008 REPERTORY: Oldies but Goodies

    In a movie culture predicated in many ways on planned obsolescence, where most “new” stuff is already conceived as some sort of spin-off, it’s tempting to argue that newness has less to do with when a film is made as with its power to reach and change us. It’s also worth considering what we mean by “old”: as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out in the 1960s, we’re more apt to say, “I just saw an old Chaplin movie” than “I just read an old Dickens novel.”
    (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader)

    HALLELUJAH (1929/USA)

    A melo-drama in the original definition of the word: a dramatic story with music. An early "talkie" produced and directed by King Vidor for no pay as a concession to the studio. Perhaps the best film about the black experience until Sounder was released in the early 70s, certainly the most artistically conceived (Vidor received a most deserved Oscar nomination). The film lavishes attention on the daily routine and community life of African-Americans in the South (exteriors shot on location in Arkansas and Tennessee). Hallelujah opens with a series of scenes depicting sharecropping activities, a "pastorale" of great beauty and historical importance, then develops into a morality tale starring Zeke. The young man is torn between his unshakable religious faith and his weakness for women and vice. Hallelujah features an all-black cast who had scant opportunities to appear in films. Prominent among them, the "Black Garbo" Nina Mae McKinney, unforgettable in the role of the "hussy" or "flapper" Chick. The wonderful soundtrack includes a number of spirituals, early jazz tunes, and two Irving Berlin compositions: "Swanee River" and "End of the Road". The treatment of African Americans was advanced for the times but later some of Hallelujah's characterizations were justly criticized as stereotypical.

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    FLOATING CLOUDS (1955/Japan)

    Mikio Naruse, one of the four great Japanese Golden Age directors, comes from the school of hard-knocks. He grew up poor, his parents died when he was a kid, and he was denied a chance to direct for years despite obvious potential. After a decade as prop man and assistant, he quickly established a reputation as the premiere director of shomin-geki or lower-class dramas. Naruse was a social realist to the core. One can imagine the directors of Italian Neo-Realism becoming fast fans of Naruse had his films been shown in the West. In Japan, he was a consistent critical and commercial success. His concerns were almost exclusively materialist; his characters struggle to survive against the odds and maintain a modicum of dignity in a world full of betrayals and disappointments.

    Floating Clouds was a huge hit at the Japanese box office and won 4 Japanese Academy awards. Naruse muse Hideko Takamine plays a young woman who once had a war-time romance with a married man while they both worked for the forestry department in Japanese-occupied Indochina. The plot concerns their on-and-off affair and their struggles with disease, infidelity, poverty, unemployment and family crises in post-war Japan. These are not the charming, middle-class folks one finds in Ozu's films of the same period. They inhabit a film of great rigor and austerity, devoid of the stylistic flourishes of Mizoguchi. Like many of Naruse's films, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by renowned author Fumiko Hayashi. Like Rossellini, Naruse's aim is to locate the truth and expose it, however painful. Floating Clouds deals with a number of issues other directors would rather forget, including the ignominy of national defeat and the reliance on prostitution and other shady activities as means of economic survival. It's a deeply moving film from beginning to end.

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    Excellent Oscar.

    Nice to see a new repertory thread for 2008.
    Great for '08!
    Keep 'em coming man. Love your posts...
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Thanks a lot, man. I considered doing something entirely different for "08: one sentence reviews of everything I watch and the challenge of developing a grading system. Then decided to continue with same format as last two years: mid-size reviews of old movies I like a lot which I'm watching for the first time. Just watched Gregg Araki's inspired "pothead comedy" Smiley Face, which will probably just miss making my 2007 lists. Much, much better than Hey Dude, Where's My Car?. I also watched the new version of Blade Runner , which will definitely get on the list. It's a must-see! Next on this thread: Sam Fuller's favorite among his own.

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    Must be The Big Red One, right?

    I'm not going to miss the new *final* cut of Blade Runner when it plays next week at the Bytowne. Seeing it on the big screen will be awesome. I got a bottle of Greg Norman's ready for the occasion. (and some healthy plants :)
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    PARK ROW (1952/USA)

    "Page One and the screen are bedmates. A headline has the impact of a headshot, pulp and raw stock fight linage and footage--a news lead is the opening of a film. Reporter and film director spill blood on the same emotional battlefield of what is fit to print and what is fit to film."
    (Sam Fuller's 1975 interview at the American Film Institute)

    "I always come away from Samuel Fuller films both admiring and jealous. I like to take lessons in filmmaking"
    (Francois Truffaut in his book "The Films of My Life")

    Samuel Fuller proposed to direct a script he had written about American journalism in the 1880s. Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to turn it into a musical. Instead, Fuller decided to produce it himself and spent his life savings ($200,000) on it. It was a labor of love for Fuller, who became a reporter at age 17 after five years as a copyboy. It's the story of Phineas Mitchell, a principled reporter who opts to quit his job rather than print anything but the truth. He sits with assorted colleages in a bar, drinking beer and dreaming aloud about the honest paper he could run. He is overheard by an older gentleman who decides to invest in Phineas' dream. He assembles a capable staff who turn "The Globe" into enough of a success to compete with his former employer, "The Star". Its owner, Charity Hackett, declares all-out war after failing to woo Phineas back. The plot weaves in the invention of the first linotype machine and efforts to raise $100,000 to build the pedestal needed for the Statue of Liberty. The love/hate relationship between Phineas and the beautiful, strong-willed Charity is fully explored.

    Park Row features a cast of outstanding character actors, including Gene Evans and Mary Welch in the leads, but no stars. The film is compact and dynamic, with a camera that moves nimbly and elegantly about a specially built set. Jack Russell, who would get an Oscar nomination for Psycho, was in charge of cinematography. Besides the dolly and crane shots used, the film is characterized by closeups and medium shots in which the camera is placed slightly above and to the side of the actors, somewhere between the more extreme angles often used by Welles and conventional studio framing. Yet Fuller's focus is on straightforward storytelling and narrative economy without sacrificing character development. This film, "dedicated to American Journalism", is said to be Fuller's favorite* and it's easy to see why. It's magnificent.

    *According to Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. Park Row is not available on video and rarely screened. It was shown recently at the request of filmmaker John Sayles, who served as guest programmer.

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    I think the pothead fantasies are all about equally valid, Harry and Kumar Go to Shite Castle (just kidding), Dude, Where's My Car? (not "Hey Dude"), and Smiley Face. The earlier ones are a bit funnier, but Smiley Face focuses more accurately on pothead inertia and stoned behavior and has the definite virtue of ending the male domination of the genre. It seems a bit of a disappointment after Mysterious Skin, but with Araki, you never know. Getting into the stoner mentality, I was too lazy to write a review of Smiley Face, so thanks for bringing it up.

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    I read Fuller's autobiography A Third Face and remember him saying that of all his films, he is most proud of The Big Red One.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Fuller is most often quoted as saying Park Row was his favorite of his movies. But he was also very proud of his later accomplishment with The Big Red One.

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    I agree that Smiley Face "focuses more accurately on pothead inertia and stoner behavior" than similar movies. Araki was consciously and adamantly looking for something light and comedic following the wonderful and "heavy" Mysterious Skin when he came across this script by Dylan Haggerty, a minor actor who plays the Ferris Wheel attendant in the movie. The humor derives from close observation or intimate knowledge of the self-absorption, self-consciousness, overvigilance, and altered perceptions facilitated by the popular herb. Smiley Face doesn't "reach" for laughs; it seems grounded by experience. And Anna Faris (Cindy from the Scary Movies) is just right for the central role.

    I failed to find any direct quotes from Fuller but, for what it's worth, what was said on TCM about Park Row being his favorite is echoed on Fuller's Wikipedia page. No doubt he's proud about The Big Red One; it's such a personal work.

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    A bit more about PARK ROW and SMILEY FACE

    (Odd combo, isn't it? Fuller can be pretty trippy, but he seems like more of a speed type of guy.)

    For sure it sounds like Park Row was Fuller's personal favorite. It would be nice to get somebody who knew him to confirm that from his own words though. .
    close observation or intimate knowledge
    Yes and it's a pretty neat trick to convey that, since a stoner can't even remember what happened five seconds ago, so how to recall the experience let alone describe it? I've been there, man, trust me. I know the observation is good, and even the feel of being stoned is well represented in a fresh visual way. Obviously Araki was looking for something light after Mysterious Skin (though his handling of that isn't heavy-handed; and he shows a light touch with heavy stuff throughout his earlier work). Indeed Anna Faris does an excellent job. Unfortunately though I found Smiley Face didn't leave a strong impression and I'm sorry it isn't better or more memorable than it is. Possibly for that reason but also simply due to other circumstances I didn't get to write a review of it. I think if you talk to comic masters (Steve Martin, Seinfeld, for example currently) you find humor doesn't just "happen" naturally. It takes a lot of work. Scenes in Dude, Where's My Car may be "artificial" in that they're self-consciously achieved, but one or two of them are quite memorable and you need to remember something for it to work. I think when you feel a movie "reaches" for laughs it's because the writers have failed. The effort should not show. But the reaching is always there. And all humor is grounded by experience.

    There are many movies that depict drug use but only a few even try to convey what it feels and looks like to be high on drugs. One that comes to mind for me is the underappreciated Spun (2002), , directed by Jonas Akerlund and written by Creighton Vero and Will de los Santos, starring Jason Schwartzman and others, which is about methamphetimines, but really gives you the feeling of being stoned.

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    MIX-UP ou MELI-MELO (France/1985)

    Francoise Romand's debut tells the true story of two women who raised each other's daughters after the babies were mixed-up by the staff of a small maternity clinic in Nottingham, England. The story begins in 1936, reaches a crucial point two decades later when it came into the open, and continues until the daughters turned 48. Mix-Up is not a conventional documentary. It certainly includes interviews and family-owned photographs and videos. But Romand goes deeper into themes of identity, affiliation and representation by means of tableaux vivants, scenes that recreate past events using the real subjects, posed portraits in different configurations, and scenes in which two child actresses are used. Mix-Up achieves novelistic detail within 63-min duration by approaching the themes from multiple angles and appraising her subjects from a multiplicity of points of view.

    The truth is that the border between fictional films and documentary has always been permeable. Nanook of the North (1922), considered to be a seminal work of documentary cinema, consists almost exclusively of recreations made according to the directions of Robert Flaherty. Fiction has a knack for intruding into the documentary intentions of filmmakers, and viceversa. The work of Francoise Romand belongs to a tradition of movies that consciously and vigorously experiment by combining aspects of both fiction and documentary. These include Jean Rouch's "docu-fictions", in which he had the subjects of his documentary footage create a fictional voice-over, and the work of Peter Watkins, Abbas Kiarostami (especially Close-Up) and others.

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    LOS TARANTOS (Spain/1963)

    This Oscar-nominee directed by Rovira-Belita is based on a play that transposes "Romeo and Juliet" to the gypsy community in Barcelona. Not quite a faithful adaptation of the Shakespeare classic even in terms of plot. Perhaps the best film ever made that showcases flamenco music and dance, in that it places the art form within the daily routine of the community that nurtures it. In that regard, it can hardly be called a "musical" because of all the playing, singing and dancing is organically integrated into the narrative. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times: "This could just as well be a story plucked out of the columns of a Barcelona newspaper. Indeed, the way in which it is told, in a strikingly naturalistic fashion against settings that are the streets and parks and a colorful gypsy quarter of Barcelona—the latter on the edge of the city by the sea—is so vividly journalistic that it is not reminiscent of any other plot."

    Los Tarantos features the debuts of Antonio Gades, the star of Carlos Saura's flamenco trilogy, and the drop-dead gorgeous, 15 year-old Sara Lezana. Legendary classical flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya closed the curtains on her acting career with this film completed shortly before her untimely death.

    *A seemingly restored print of this color film was screened at the Spanish Cultural Center in Coral Gables. A screening of Rovira-Belita's El Amor Brujo, also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, is scheduled for next week.

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    Sounds wonderful. I would love to see it.

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    The Spanish dvd doesn't have English subtitles. If it's released in the US, I'd let you know. I hadn't had reason to be optimistic about dvd release of classic Spanish cinema in the US until Criterion announced Juan Antonio Bardem's sensational Death of a Cyclist is coming out in April.
    I hope to be able to watch El Amor Brujo next tuesday. My wife's stepmom arrives from Spain that day.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 02-13-2008 at 10:29 AM.

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