Saturday, November 11, 2017

30 Years of Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigious award. It started a hot streak of sorts, when the following year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror pretty much ran the table, claiming the Oscar, the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globe, further confirming to the world that the Danish film industry had arrived. While the Danes would not win another Oscar until 2010, for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, this tiny nation of just under six million souls has become a capital of cinematic creativity, boasting such talented filmmakers as Lars van Trier, Per Fly, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nicolas Winding Refn, to name a few. If the grand moralist dirges of Carl Th. Dreyer define Danish cinema of the WWII generation, then Babette’s Feast must be considered the nation’s inspirational exemplar for baby boomers and beyond.

Directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast has the feel of an austere fairy tale for adults. Set in a remote village of thatched huts on the windswept Danish coast in the 19th Century, the story tracks the lives of two sisters: Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) who have devoted themselves to performing good works for the less fortunate of their tiny community. Their father, a charismatic minister (Pouel Kern), built and in many ways ruled the hamlet with strict Calvinist sermons that forbade any experience of sensual pleasures. Out of devotion to their father, the sisters dismissed suitors and career opportunities alike, choosing to live out their days in spartan self-sacrifice, delivering bowls of bland soup to the elderly and infirm.

One stormy day, a visitor (Stéphane Audran) shows up at Filippa and Martine’s doorstep; a mysterious 35-ish woman in flight from France’s civil war. Her name is Babette and she bears a letter of introduction from a mutual Parisian acquaintance. The sisters, now elderly themselves and their beloved father long dead, take in the grateful Babette who in exchange devotes herself to their modest cottage’s menial chores. As the years pass, Babette becomes a valued and respected member of the community. When she receives a sudden financial windfall, Babette finally has a chance to repay the villagers for their unrelenting love and kindness. She decides to treat the ascetics to a special dinner; a meal so refined and sumptuous it will not only reveal her origins, it will leave the diners questioning their life-long denial of mortal pleasures.

Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc, several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works. By the final act, the artist’s place in society becomes a central theme and despite its gray skies and cold, biting winds, Babette’s Feast offers a most sunny and optimistic assessment of that uneasy coexistence. It also presciently hints that future divides between artists and audiences – and between deity and worshiper – will be spanned by bridges built of gentleness and respect.

Among the many riches of Babette’s Feast is a rare and clever parallel drawn between altruism and artistry. According to Dinesen and Axel, the joy bestowed upon the doer of good works stems from the same emotional needs that propel artists to ever higher levels of creativity and craft. Therein lies the secret to the success of Babette’s Feast. Despite the religious trappings, despite the self-denial and dour atmospherics, the film serves up a memorable celebration of all that is good about humanity.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

40 Years of Stroszek

Stroszek (1977) is a weird and wondrous black comedy from the weird and wondrous mind of writer/director Werner Herzog. It’s the story of a slow witted ex-con from Berlin (Bruno S.) who immigrates to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin in a half-baked pursuit of the American Dream. There, amid a motley group of eccentric goofballs, Stroszek soon finds he has become just another victim of consumerism’s traps, and his innocent mind now must grapple with new complications he doesn’t fully understand. For Stroszek, America’s streets are not paved with gold, but with the ravenous financial quicksand of spring thaw in the Midwest.

It's hard to watch Stroszek these days and not be reminded of the Coens’ hit comedy Fargo (1996). The two films revel in the same kind of aw shucks frosty lingua-franca while beneath friendly, smiling faces lurk coal-black hearts ready to prey on the next innocent victim. But Herzog’s European perspective gives Stroszek a more sardonic air, as the American characters seem like either Wall Street sharks or Deliverance inspired inbreds with little middle ground. America’s history of guns and land theft figures prominently among Herzog’s satirical targets, as Stroszek is drawn into an absurd - but potentially violent - dispute between two neighboring farmers.

Stroszek’s improbable real life backstory is as interesting and outlandish as the film itself. Herzog chose to film the Wisconsin scenes in the town of Plainfield, home of Ed Gein, the most notorious serial killer of the 20th century and the inspiration for Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991). During off hours, Herzog roamed Plainfield’s back roads, researching a documentary he hoped to make on Gein, but the project was eventually abandoned.

But the most amazing story belongs to Stroszek’s “star” Bruno Schleinstein. Born in Berlin in 1932, Bruno was the unwanted son of a prostitute and was shuffled among various foster homes. At the age of 8, he was surrendered to a Nazi research facility seeking mentally retarded children for a series of experiments. Bruno survived, but was committed to an insane asylum, where he lived until the age of 23. The shy, deeply withdrawn Bruno then eeked out a living as a street musician, sleeping in doorways and under bridges. 

One night, Herzog watched a TV documentary on Berlin’s homeless, and was struck by Bruno’s unique presence. The director cast him in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and the rest was history. Schleinstein would act in several more films and become something of an avant-garde sensation. He was also a self taught painter, and a show of his work was held in New York City in 2004. When Bruno died in 2010 at the age of 78, Herzog declared “in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him."

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

20 Years of The Ice Storm

Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is a melancholy take on suburban angst that still offers viewers an absorbing and relevant journey. The film explores the soft, lonely underbelly of American prosperity, as typified by a neighborhood of modernist houses on densely wooded lots in upscale New Canaan, Connecticut. Set during Thanksgiving weekend 1973, with TV news reports abuzz with the initial crumbling of the corrupt Nixon administration, the film has an edge of discontent eerily similar to today. The counter culture's sexual - and pharmaceutical - freedom of the 1960s has infiltrated this staid conclave of middle class comfort, and the possibilities both enthrall and terrify its residents.

It’s also a sort of coming-of-age film on a macro level, with all ages and generations flailing in the wake of a societal riptide. Whether it’s the film’s teenagers (Toby Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes and Elijah Wood) grappling with their raging hormones or the various moms and dads (Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and their empty revel in fashionable infidelity, the film is a mosaic of lost souls as bleak and dismal as the dark gray skies that lurk just outside their windows.

Production Designer Mark Friedberg has stuffed his sets with all manner of 1970s’ kitsch, creating an amusing, pitch perfect array of avocado kitchens, shag carpets and forlorn hanging ferns. Friedberg’s filmography reads like a hall of fame of off-beat American cinema, as his frequent collaborations with Jarmusch, Lynch and Charlie Kaufmann attest. Here he teams with his old pal cinematographer Fred Elmes (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and once again the pair are successful in crafting a visual cognate to the murk of psychic alienation.

How a director that grew up in Taiwan could possess such profound insights into this uniquely American web of malaise is quite a mystery, but it’s all in a day’s work for the talented Ang Lee. While possessing the command of an auteur, Lee remains a cinematic chameleon, allowing the material to shine through while transcending his own personal style. Lee’s eclectic portfolio consists of a mind-bending potpourri of subject matter; everything from Asian art films to Jane Austen romances to CGI extravaganzas. While not every outing has been successful, Lee remains a testament to the value of versatility in the art of storytelling. The Ice Storm ranks among his most perfectly realized works, and in the last 20 years it has only gotten better.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

60 Years of The Giant Claw!!!

Our anniversary series usually commemorates a film significant for its popularity, its impact on culture or its advancement of the artistry of cinema. Today we are breaking from that tradition with The Giant Claw (1957), which is utterly devoid of any of those qualities. I can't call it the worst movie ever made, simply because I haven’t seen every movie ever made. But in my life I have seen approximately 6000 films, and of that sprawling lot The Giant Claw is the worst. The absolute worst. By a mile.

Its premise is fairly typical for 50s' sci-fi: a mysterious force from the darkest reaches of space invades planet Earth and proceeds to run amuck. But this time, humanity is not threatened by malicious aliens bent on conquest or an advanced society with the power to incinerate every vestige of mankind. No, here our world faces extinction from an ugly-ass interstellar turkey buzzard. You read that right, it’s a giant friggin’ turkey buzzard. A turkey buzzard with the ability of supersonic flight, easily out-racing our state of the art fighter jets while plucking the intrepid pilots from their cockpits. A turkey buzzard impervious to our most powerful weaponry, even surviving an atomic bomb blast with nary a lost feather.

Within the fanciful strictures of science fiction, I suppose such a formidable buzzard is at least theoretically possible. But then the filmmakers - who out of compassion will remain nameless - make the mistake of actually showing us the thing. And frankly, this scourge of the human race looks like a discarded puppet from some rapidly cancelled kiddie TV show; its fishing line controlled wings flapping so slowly and erratically it’s hard to believe the creature could remain airborne, much less outrun an F-16. As bad as the effects are, they’re only part of The Giant Claw’s multitude of sins, which include horrendously corny dialogue, a romantic subplot drenched in sexism and continuity errors aplenty. When the film premiered in lead actor Jeff Morrow’s hometown of New York City, the audience burst into laughter every time the creature appeared. Morrow was so embarrassed he sneaked home after the film, hoping no one would recognize him.

Some bad films are so bad they’re actually good; their camp elements making them entertaining despite, or perhaps due to, their unrelenting sloppiness. The Giant Claw has no such redeeming value. It is simply bad. Appallingly, moronically bad. It literally is not worth the film stock on which it was photographed. But don’t take my word for it. Thanks to the providence of youtube, this massive turkey - in every sense of the word - is now available for your perusal in all its stunningly feeble glory. You’ll never think of Thanksgiving in quite the same way again.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

30 Years of Predator

John McTiernan’s Predator is a well executed sci-fi adventure flic from 1987 that seems to literally drip with testosterone. It’s the story of an elite Army special forces unit on a secret mission in the jungles of South America. Here, as their jaw muscles ripple and rivulets of sweat stream down their sturdy biceps, the men encounter a deadly force beyond their imagination and for which they’re completely unprepared. Led by Carl Weathers and Arnold Schwarzenegger - I told you this movie was drenched in testosterone - the unit is slowly diminished man by man until only the Gubernator is left standing. Wounded and reeling, Schwarzenegger must now solve the mystery of what killed his men and find a means to defeat it, or die trying.

Of course, Ahnold’s opponent has become well known to movie and video game fans over the last 30 years. The Predator, or “Preds” as his many fans call him, is a light-bending, laser shooting intergalactic big game hunter, and part of an ancient species that has visited Earth many times over the centuries, as humans are considered a challenging prey. He will find Schwarzenegger a most clever and worthy rival, and their cat and mouse game features a number of thrilling twists and turns, courtesy of scriptwriting brothers Jim and John Thomas. The Thomases have gone on to pen many ensuing Predator vehicles, including the upcoming 2018 remake as well as a number of other splashy sci-fi properties. The Predator was played by Kevin Peter Hall, a 7’2” mountain of a man and former collegiate basketball player. Sadly, he would die in 1991 after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion.

While Predator has never attained the cachet of the Alien franchise - although the two critters have squared off in numerous cheesy sequels - I must admit I have a soft spot for ol’ Preds. You see, for a bloodthirsty monster, he’s actually kind of nice guy. Well perhaps that’s overstating the case, but the Predator does have an innate sense of justice and fair play. When he finally confronts the bleeding and unarmed Schwarzenegger, the mysterious being sheds his body armor and laser cannon in an effort to make the fight a little more fair. In Predator 2 (1990), he declines to kill Maria Conchita Alonzo when his scanners reveal she’s pregnant. In his own fashion, Predator is a creature of honor and nobility and not at all like those slimy Aliens, who drool on everybody. And I think we can all agree, Predator has the coolest hair of any space monster ever. If only I could get my own thinning tresses to deadlock like that.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

80 Years at the Races

Most Marx Brothers aficionados agree that 1937’s A Day at the Races was the last truly great film featuring the zany siblings. Produced by MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who had recently signed the brothers to a lucrative multi-picture deal, A Day at the Races continued the box office winning streak begun in 1935 with the mega-hit A Night at the Opera. While A Day at the Races has never attained the lofty critical stature of its predecessor, the film offers its own unforgettable wit and side-splitting set pieces. With the Depression lingering on and war clouds building on the horizon, folks desperately needed a good laugh and this full immersion into the madness of Marx delivered in spades. 

In this outing, Groucho plays a dodgy veterinarian who gets a cushy job as a psychiatrist at a Florida health spa due to a case of mistaken identity. The bulk of the film is devoted to a variety of outlandish machinations employed by Groucho to keep his secret safe, with predictably hilarious results. Also, there are subplots in which a washed-up race horse redeems himself and an on-again, off-again romance between Groucho and the great - if oblivious - Margaret Dumont.

But as with all Marx Brothers films, any notion of plot is purely a platform for the brothers’ dazzling comedic talents. In what may be one of the funniest sequences ever filmed, Chico cons Groucho into buying a series of books at the racetrack. The timing and slow build of the scene are sheer perfection, and shows the brothers capable of much more than manic madcap. But there’s plenty of hysterical mayhem as well, especially when Groucho, Chico and Harpo attempt to examine Dumont under the watchful eye of a snooty Austrian doctor (Sig Ruman), basically destroying a laboratory in the process. There’s a lot of Groucho’s patented scathing wit as well, including this iconic Marxism as he takes a patient’s pulse: “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.”

In my personal Marx pantheon, Duck Soup (1933) is ranked number one followed closely by A Day at the Races. For my money, it’s a better movie than A Night at the Opera, with funnier lines and smoother pacing. Unfortunately, the film has a few racist-tinged musical numbers with African-American performers, but sadly that’s where we were as a society 80 years ago. However you rate the films, A Day at the Races was the end of a line. During its production, Thalberg died suddenly at the age of 37 and no other producer at MGM had a clue how to capitalize on the unique Marx magic. The brothers made several more films for MGM, but they were uneven affairs and none approached the brilliance of their collaborations with Thalberg. Groucho and company left us a rich comedic legacy, but it could have been even greater.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: 300 Days of Sun: A Novel by Deborah Lawrenson

Deborah Lawrenson’s 300 Days of Sun: A Novel is a marvelous and mysterious sojourn at a crossroads in history. It tells the story of a young Englishwoman named Jo who has made her way to the wind swept cobblestones of Faro, Portugal. Seeking solace and refuge, she soon finds herself involved in a baffling web of intrigue; its enigmatic shadows deepened by the blinding Portuguese sun. Accompanied by a charming young man in search of his past, Jo is thrown into a vortex of fate, as crimes from decades ago finally face a long delayed justice.

Jo’s story is interspersed with the book’s novel-within-a-novel set during the depths of WWII. It features a harrowing account of the evacuation of Paris, and the lonely despair of refugees seeking passage to America. This clever device offers a vivid foundation for Jo’s current struggles, and adds context and occasional clues to its resolution. Lawrenson nurtures her plot from the fertile soil of classic detective fiction, with each new character and narrow escape adding to a seductive strata of suspense.

But 300 Days of Sun is more than a rattling good yarn. Its lush evocation of time and place stimulates the senses as well as the mind, and readers will find themselves transported to the ocean breezes of Portugal. At times, Lawrenson seems to craft her sentences from the delicate petals of richly scented flowers, creating a hypnotic atmosphere. In her world “clouds cluster like purple grapes” while police stations reverberate with “unsettling acoustics.” In another scene “The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges.”

Part romance, part thriller, part history lesson, 300 Days of Sun: A Novel will leave the reader entranced and wishing for more. It’s a sensualist adventure with an ever-present malevolent edge and by the time it’s over, you’ll be a little bit smarter and a lot more aware of life’s lovely but dangerous possibilities You’ll also be mightily impressed with Deborah Lawrenson, and her graceful ability to make the English language flow and shimmer.

 300 Days of Sun at Amazon

30 Years of Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast  won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigio...