Cinema Station

Picture of the Week: Sometimes a Great Notion

May 30, 2012
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Sometimes a Great Notion

Movies weave in and out of my life and past, connected to events and people I have known. Sometimes the place or time I have seen a film leaves an incredible mark and that movie represents much more than I ever thought it would.

I watched Sometimes a Great Notion not long ago and a second time this past week. The film was directed by Paul Newman from the lesser known novel by Ken Kesey (who also wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The cast includes Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Richard Jaekel, and Michael Sarrazin. The story concerns a logging family (led by Fonda) in conflict with themselves and a town of strikers. Sarrazin plays a long-lost hippie brother who comes home and stirs of the pot even more. They all struggle to bring in a big contract of wood and hold onto the traditions of their house.

It’s a big movie in the sense that it feels like the novel it comes from could be a thousand pages or more long. It isn’t a perfect film by any means, perhaps a story like this could only be successfully told in a long form (like a miniseries). But the movie has great moments, scenes which transcend the film itself.

 

The one everyone who has seen the movie seems to remember happens in the last half of the film when Newman tries to rescue his friend Jaekel, whose legs are trapped under a log in the water. It’s a heartbreaking, terrifying scene. I’m fond of a scene in which Remick (who plays Newman’s wife in the film) tries to get her husband to stay home from work. She confronts Fonda about it and asks him why it’s so important that they go. He delivers an incredible line (paraphrasing, I’ll get the exact quote soon): “Well, don’t know you know. Wake up, work, eat, screw, drink, and go to bed. That’s all there is.”

I watched the film for a second time this last week with my grandfather. This was the night my uncle (his son) died. We sat around with drinks, trying not to talk or think about the loss, and find a movie to watch. He suggested Newman’s film and I hesitated because of the tragedy involved in the story.

It was hard to watch together because it was true. Fonda (in probably the best role of his later career) relates very much to my grandfather, a man of few words and traditional values. Newman, tough and sometimes mean, in many ways resembles my late uncle and so does Sarrazin with his hippie values. It hit close to home and too much so after the haunting scene with Jaekel because my grandfather asked me to stop the film.

It was only in this moment when I realized how much this film connected with our lives that I knew its worth. Perhaps not a great movie, but one with true characters and true moments which will endure.

-TM

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Picture of the Week: The Muse (1999)

May 22, 2012
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The Muse (1999)

The Muse suffered the fate of most Albert Brooks directed films. That is to say it slipped into the theatres and then slipped out again virtually unnoticed. And the critics weren’t any help either. They either damned it with faint praise or ignored it completely. But the film is a delight that should be seen by anyone who enjoys intelligent comedy coupled with common sense and a few flights of fancy.

The plot is about Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks), a screenwriter who was, if not riding high in Hollywood, making a good living writing scripts that were regularly being turned into mainstream movies. At the beginning of the picture we see him getting some minor award for screenwriting, so we have to assume that the guy is good at what he does. Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere his scripts are being turned down by various Studio Execs who keep telling him that he “lost his edge”. He can’t figure out what that means so he turns to his friend Jack (played by Jeff Bridges), a commercially successful award winning screenwriter, with his problem. Jack listens carefully and then tells him that he needs a muse. Jack says that he consulted one and it turned his career around. He gives Steven her number and cautions him to approach her carefully because she is very particular about whom she takes on as a client.

A skeptical Steven calls up this muse played by Sharon Stone and that’s when his problem truly begins because the Muse is eccentric and demanding in all kinds of ways. Andie MacDowell plays Steven’s patient wife whose life and marriage is being turned upside down by both Steven and the Muse. But it’s really Steven who winds up topsy- turvy with the Muse and her impact on his creativity and his home life.

I personally don’t think that Sharon Stone has ever been photographed more attractively or performed more winningly in any other motion picture than in this one. Andie MacDowell hits all the right notes as the bemused and sometimes confused wife. Jeff Bridges who rarely gets to play comedy does so in a role that’s all too brief. There are also several amusing cameo performances by Martin Scorsese, Wolfgang Puck, James Cameron and Rob Reiner. But it is Albert Brooks at the center of the story who anchors the film and keeps it sturdy.

Between 1979 and 2005 Brooks has co-written (with Monica Johnson), acted and directed nine films. All were good in their own way. My favorites are Lost in America (1979) and Mother (1996). As an actor for hire he has appeared in 32 films including most recently the underrated Drive (2011). He is one of those quiet screen actors who do not get enough attention or appreciation for the excellence of his work across the board.

With The Muse he gives us a sly, amusing nudge in the side about the contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, its value system and its absurdities. Give this one a try and see if it doesn’t leave you smiling the way it did me.

-GE.


Picture of the Week: The Glass Key (1942)

May 15, 2012
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This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Glass Key (1942)

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Region 2 copy of The Glass Key, starring Alan Ladd and directed by Stuart Heisler in 1942, an adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. It is unavailable in the States and part of the reason for this blog is to get cinephiles excited about this film so that it might be released in the near future.

This is the best adaptation of Hammett’s work. I even prefer it to The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon because it captures the clean, lean and mean nature of the writing. It is also superior to Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ melding of Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key. For fans of that film, watch how Alan Ladd towers over Gabriel Byrne’s later performance.

For those not familiar with the text, the story goes something like this. Ed Beaumont (Ladd) is the friend/partner and brains for Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), syndicate leader, who decides to change his ways by supporting a reform candidate in the upcoming election, in order to win the love and hand of his daughter (Veronica Lake). The politician’s son is a no-good gambler who happens to be in love with Paul’s sister. He turns up dead and all fingers point towards Paul Madvig. Beaumont sets out to find the truth behind the murder, working two sides of a mob war and fighting off the affections of Veronica Lake, to clear his friend.

It’s good, complex storytelling and Heisler handles it well. From now on, I’ll pay attention to this studio director’s name when I see it. But the real gem here is Ladd, who is better than I’ve ever seen him (yes, even better than Shane). From the first time we see him on camera (behind his back as he is interrupted with dice in his hand) to the end, Ladd commands the screen with intelligence, cunning, and daring. This is perfect casting for Hammett’s universe, populated by cool, estranged men doing their jobs with their own distorted code of conduct. I watched the film twice in a row, the second time just to study Ladd. He effortlessly goes from ruthless to loving and back, all the time convincing.

The film itself is an exciting crime adventure, very sexy and full of superb dialog as well as thrilling action sequences. It is a shame that this film is not available in America because it belongs among our best cinema.

Side Note: Watching The Glass Key made me more anxious to see The Great Gatsby, a once-thought-lost Film Noir version of Fitzgerald’s novel also starring Alan Ladd. It recently showed at a Noir festival in San Francisco. I hope we will see a DVD or digital release for both films soon.

-TM


Picture of the Week: Remember My Name (1978)

May 8, 2012
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This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

Remember My Name (1978)

Whenever I ask any of the under 40 year old so-called film buffs that I know if they know who Alan Rudolph is I’m always confronted with a blank stare and a shake of the head. Yet Alan Rudolph, a protégé’ of Robert Altman has directed some 21 films since he started in 1978 and some of his films (most of which he also wrote) such as Choose Me (1984),  Trouble in Mind (1985) and Love at Large (1990) were regarded as cult favorites in their time. Now all are pretty much forgotten. Yet I cling to the notion that several of his films, including the titles listed above need to be revived, re-viewed and reassessed because I think that there are some idiosyncratic gems among them. My favorite and my selection as the film of this week is the fourth film Mr. Rudolph directed Remember My Name (1978), a low key revenge thriller with a smashing performance by Geraldine Chaplin and a solid supporting performance by Tony Perkins (1932-1992). The rest of the cast includes a young Jeff Goldblum, a young Alfre Woodward and Moses Gunn (1929-1993) in one of the best roles of his career. Also in the cast is Tony Perkins’ real life wife Berry Berenson (1948-2001) who unfortunately wound up being one of the victims of the World Trade terrorist attack in 2001. She was on one of the planes that crashed into the building.

Alan Rudolph at that time created works of an independent stamp the likes of which we haven’t seen since he apparently went semi-mainstream with films like The Secret Life of Dentists (2002), Breakfast of Champions (1999) and Mortal Thoughts (1992). But with the titles mentioned previously Choose Me, Love at Large and Trouble in Mind he created worlds that took us into places we hadn’t been cinematically like Rain City in the latter. Places we enjoyed visiting and wanted to live in at least for a short time and characters we enjoyed meeting like cross dresser Devine in the same film. But I hold that Remember My Name and the earlier Welcome to LA (1976) represent his best work. With Remember My Name, besides presenting us with a left- handed approach to a story we’ve seen several times, he also throws us some curveballs with his characterizations and happily his actors cooperate with him fully. And Geraldine Chaplin, who was also in Welcome to LA, shapes a woman who has so many sides that we don’t know from moment-to moment how to take her. She appears at various times to be a lost child, an innocent among the “street smart”, a quiet but scheming lover (to Moses Gunn’s character), a vengeful stalker- with- a –cause, a sly thief, a wronged woman and perhaps  a woman who’s quietly batshit in the way of Catherine Denevue’s Carol in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) but not as deadly.  Chaplin’s playing of the role carries the whole picture and we’re never ahead of her because her actions are always so unpredictable that we’re constantly scratching our heads as to why was she doing the things she does. But it all somehow makes sense as we get to know her. And we’re left with the feeling of pity and dread but also compassion for this very troubled individual.

Alan Rudolph liked to use music in his films. In Welcome to LA Richard Baskin’s music is virtually the centerpiece of all the comic and dramatic action. Here with Remember My Name he had the inspired idea to use the music of Blues singer/songwriter Alberta Hunter in the background almost as a sub-textual commentary to the action we’re seeing on screen, particularly to feelings that can’t be articulated but can be felt through music. It was during the time when these films were being made and released by Altman’s company Lion’s Gate, that I felt that American Independent cinema was finally coming into its own because we were seeing deeply felt work by solid filmmaking craftsmen like Alan Rudolph. The pleasurable experience of watching his films were akin to the ones I felt when I read low key literary works by people like Thomas McGuane or Barry Gifford. These guys were never on the bestseller lists but they were certainly individual masters at what they were doing. So was Alan Rudolph and to me Remember My Name stands out as the best of his work for the moment. But I’m not counting him out. He is still around and still making films. So who knows, his next idiosyncratic masterpiece might be just around the corner.

-GE.


Picture of the Week: The Winning Season (2009)

May 1, 2012
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This is a new series that we are inaugurating on a continuing basis here at Cinema Station… Now there are other movie blogs that already feature a recommended Movie of the Week so what makes us different?  Or are we just imitating something that has already been done? Hopefully not. We’re going to be different because the titles we select will not be from the generally accepted canon of worthwhile or critically acclaimed films. In other words our selections will not have any discernible pedigree of any kind. They are the runts of the litter, the orphans, the rude children that just won’t behave or conform, the mavericks and the outlaws.   So they will mostly be small, offbeat and often low budget works that caught our fancy or captivated our attention for one reason or another.  A different way of putting it is to say that these are films that got made, released but somehow slipped through the cracks somewhere along the way and now reside in the dark abyss of obscurity. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. At least not here in the universe of Cinema Station. So hang with us, maybe you’ll find a gem or two among them.

The Winning Season (2009)

There are good movies being forgotten left and right, especially nowadays when they can’t compete with the blockbusters in the multiplexes and barely have an audience left at rental stores. The Winning Season is one of those.

It’s a basketball movie about an alcoholic (Sam Rockwell) who used to coach a boy’s team but because of anger issues was fired and works as a bus boy until an old friend gives him a chance to coach the girl’s high school team. Sound familiar? It has quite a few similarities to the great basketball film Hoosiers. Rockwell’s character is a sort of composite of Gene Hackman’s angry coach and Dennis Hopper’s drunk disgraced father. And the filmmakers are conscious of the relationship as Rockwell asks his girl’s before the big game, “Haven’t you seen Hoosiers?”

Regardless of these similarities, The Winning Season feels original and it is thanks mainly to the low-key approach director James C. Strouse takes to the material. First, he avoids creating a typical sports movie, specifically with how he handles the games. In many ways, these scenes feel like we are sitting in the stands at our local high school watching a sister, daughter, or girlfriend play. He avoids rousing montages with inspirational music and instead we observe small, intimate moments between the players and their coach. He also does not over-dramatize Rockwell’s alcoholism. One scene that rings true features the coach brought home by his players because he can’t drive. They get a preview of his life and when they start asking questions about his estranged wife and child, he quietly asks them to go until they comply. Another poignant scene features Rockwell having dinner alone after a big victory. He starts to flirt with the waitress who is responsive but after one too many celebratory drinks, he comes on a little hard and pushes her away.

Rockwell’s performance holds the film together. It is hard, good understated work that actors like Edward Norton and Christian Bale would have over-played and ruined. On the other hand, Rockwell just plays a regular guy with problems. He learns to appreciate the girls on his team as he realizes they are all he really has to be good for. This actor (who turned in another dynamic performance in 2009’s Moon) deserves more recognition than he’s received and deserves to be playing our strongest leads instead of supporting in films like Iron Man.

The cast of girls on the team (including a young Rooney Mara, now getting much attention for her role in the American Dragon Tattoo film) are also a highlight in the film. Teenage issues such as lesbianism and boyfriend drama are played well and the truth these girls create on screen deserves credit.

It isn’t a perfect film. Some of the humor does not work and certain plot points lack strength. But The Winning Season is a good movie, solid and entertaining. And these days, that is something to behold.

-TM