Twenty-sixth year

1301.) In the third and last part of my tribute to the work of the late, great Robert Aldrich, I tackle his Seventies output, which found him making more “guy movies” while still delivering pointed political messages and terrific updates on old genres. Among the genre updates are his take on gangsters (The Grissom Gang with the late Scott Wilson), the Western (Ulzana’s Raid with the amazing Burt Lancaster), the sports picture (The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds), and the film noir (Hustle with Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve, and a wonderfully evil Eddie Albert!). Also included are discussions of, and clips from, his memorable chronicle of hobo living in the Depression (King of the North Pole) and his final masterwork, the political thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming. Aldrich did some amazing work in the Hollywood’s period of “maverick cinema” – despite being a few decades older than the mavericks, he fit right in, because of his skills at subverting genres, spotlighting memorably tortured characters, and crafting haunting imagery.

1302.) The fourth and last of my episodes saluting the unreleased-in-the-U.S. features of Aki Kaurismaki focuses on one of his most unusual films, Juha (1999). Based on a noted Finnish novel from 1911, the film is Aki’s “silent movie” since it has no dialogue but does have a stirring instrumental score (and some sound effects). The plot concerns a farm girl (Kaurismaki perennial Kati Outinen) who is lured away from her older, crippled (and totally benevolent) husband by a city slicker who introduces her – a life of sin! Yes, it’s a sort of mirror reflection of Murnau’s Sunrise that features great performances and is quite melodramatic (the car the city slicker drives is a “Sierck” – that being the real name of meller-meister Douglas Sirk). It was the “last silent film of the 20th century,” according to critic Peter von Bagh and has some of Kaurismaki’s characteristic deadpan humor but is mostly a silent movie-style tale of a downward spiral.

1303.) Part one of my two-part Deceased Artiste tribute to Barbara Harris. This episode focuses in on her first four films, with the emphasis on the two pictures beautifully written by Herb Gardner, A Thousand Clowns and Who Is Harry Kellerman and why is he saying those terrible things about me? I discuss Harris’ participation in the Playwrights’ Theater Club and the Compass, which led to the first “class” of Second City (in which Harris appeared alongside Alan Arkin, Severn Darden, and a lot of faces familiar from Sixties TV and movies). The clips include her surprisingly effective turn as a sex kitten in the dark (and sadly not very funny) comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad and her completely opposite appearance as a frustrated NJ housewife in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These four films alone show Harris’ range as a performer, and luckily present some snippets of her singing (a talent she used beautifully onstage but – with one big exception – didn’t utilize onscreen). The Harry Kellerman piece was a Oscar-winning supporting performance (in another, better universe).

1304.) Vintage: After covering his misfires, I turn to the masterworks of the master of minimalist drama and crime thrillers, Jean-Pierre Melville. This episode moves from the late Forties through the early Sixties, starting with his debut feature, Le Silence de la Mer (1949). A low-key, beautifully stylized tale of the Occupation, the film set the stage for the independent French cinema that Melville (and his rival Bresson, the French New Wave, and others) were about to create in the Fifties and Sixties. From there I move on to Les Enfants Terribles (is it a Cocteau film or a Melville film? Both!) and his trend-setting crime film Bob Le Flambeur (1956). Bob was a favorite of the nouvelle vague because of Melville’s ultra-low-budget approach and location-based film shoots (and the fact that it’s a delightful nod to American cinema that is also indisputably French). I close out with Leon Morin, Priest (1961) and Le Doulos (1963), a pair of films that show off Melville’s mastery of his craft. The first is another tale of the occupation (and theology, and lust), while the second is the first of his exquisitely dark and lonely crime pictures. (Setting the stage for the next Melville episode….)

1305.) Vintage: This week I close out my three-episode series about the brilliant, exciting, and influential work of Jean-Pierre Melville, with a discussion of (including quotes from Rui Nogueira’s indispensable Melville on Melville), and clips from, his last four masterpieces. We start out with Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), a densely-plotted and beautifully executed crime saga with tour de force set-pieces. I next turn to the mega-influential Le Samourai (1967), the hit man film to end all hit man films (and a model for countless other movies made in France, the U.S., Germany, Japan, and Hong Kong, among other countries). Next up is Army of Shadows (1969), Melville’s deeply felt tribute to the French Resistance during WWII – depicting the resistants as operating quite like organized crime in their methods and moral codes. I close out with the final classic, Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Here Melville threw in everything he knew about crime films as he crafted a perfect caper movie, with doomed characters (the most memorable played by the always-impeccable Yves Montand), a “dream” heist, and a quietly grim atmosphere.

1306.) Vintage: I close out my series of episodes saluting the theater telefilms of Rainer Werner Fassbinder with scenes from the first and last of these pics, both of which are suitably stylized adaptations of classic plays (and both of which have never been shown with English subs in the U.S.). The first is the extremely “distanced” (frame-wise and emotion-wise) The Coffee House (1970), from a play by Goldoni. Fassbinder’s staging is experimental, with the actors clad in period garb (of the wrong period) replete with Westerns guns and holsters for duels between the men, and the entire cast being barefoot and seen mostly from a great distance as they perform a tale of gambling and spouses cheating on each other. The last telefilm is Women in New York (1977), which finds Fassbinder offering up his own take on Clare Booth Luce’s bitchfest. The tone is indeed shrill, but the costumes, settings, and bizarre electronic music by Peer Raben are fascinating, and the cast includes several of RWF’s favorite actresses.

1307.) Vintage: The time is rife for yet another U.S. TV premiere of a great British comedy program that has never played on our cable nets or PBS (and probably never will). The show in this case is the one-off special AD/BC: A Rock Opera, a spot-on parody of Seventies rock operas that just happens to be related to Xmas, as its storyline concerns the inn keeper in Bethlehem. It is the brainchild of Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade, castmates from The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and The IT Crowd. Berry stars and provided the music (lyrics and book were cowritten with Ayoade), which perfectly spoofs Jesus Christ Superstar and every other catchy (and critic-endorsed) concept album of the period. Ayoade directed the piece, decimating the corny grooviness of Norman Jewison’s “hip” visuals for the JCS feature film. The cast includes Julian Barratt and his mates in the Boosh, Julia Davis (Hunderby, Jam), and Matt Lucas of Little Britain. You can watch some really scary entertainment on TV this holiday season (how many bad Yuletide cable movies have been made in the last decade – hundreds?) or you can see the cream of Britain’s humorists mocking a concept that has been ripe for satire for decades. It’s your holiday time, use it wisely!

1308.) Funhouse viewers will be very familiar with the work of Armando Iannucci, the brilliant writer-producer of shows I’ve discussed on the Funhouse: The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, and The Thick of It (not forgetting Time Trumpet and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle). This week’s episode features scenes from the only traditional sketch comedy show he ever starred in, the eponymous Armando Iannucci Shows (2001). Iannucci’s strong suit is acidic satire, thus the surprise to find him playing a Woody-like nebbish character in this themed (but still somewhat random) series. Traditional topics are tackled with the deadpan sarcasm and surreal whimsy that characterizes the best British comedy — find out the secret to being witty at a dinner party, who best threatens household appliances, and why it is sometimes necessary to taunt animals.

1309.) Part one of my multi-part Deceased Artiste tribute to filmmaker/cinephile Bernardo Bertolucci focuses on his first three films. He came on the scene at age 21, a published poet and movie fan who had a great sense of storytelling and a brilliant visual sense. The first film, The Grim Reaper (1962), is a kinetic, atmospheric whodunit that recounts the same incident from different viewpoints. That debut feature, made from a storyline by Bertolucci’s friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, found him forging his own style, which flowered in Before the Revolution (1964). A film that blends the political and the sexual, Revolution is Bertolucci’s first masterwork and it indicates the path he was to follow until the mid-Seventies (and return to in his best pictures after that point, the non-“pictoral” character studies). Plus, it has one of the finer movie buff conversation scenes, prefiguring Scorsese and Wenders. His third film, Partner (1968), is his most Godardian work, an overtly political modern adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” that stars fellow radical artist Pierre Clementi in both roles. The film was being made in Italy in May ’68 as the riots were occurring in Paris and it borrows from that energy and boasts some very bizarre, unforgettable imagery.

1310.) Part two of my multi-part Deceased Artiste tribute to filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci covers his fourth through sixth films, all three of which are rightly considered in the top rank of his work. The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) was the turning point, a low-key but brain-teasing adaptation of Borges that finds its protagonist exploring the mysteries of his “hero” father’s murder. The following film is one of Bertolucci’s finest, The Conformist (1970), a magisterial drama set in the Thirties about an informant turning in his Marxist acquaintances to the fascists; whether you’ve seen the film or not, you’ve seen homages to it (most specifically in the first two “Godfather” films). The last film discussed in this episode is the one that made Bertolucci famous (and gave him the ability to make bigger-budgeted films – which turned into both a blessing and a curse), Last Tango in Paris (1972). The film is the first of Bertolucci’s “hothouse” apartment-set films, boasting a superb lead performance from Brando, gorgeous location footage, and fascinating insights into love, sex, death, and (the part everyone forgets) filmmaking.

1311.) The third part of my ongoing tribute to the work of Deceased Artiste Bernardo Bertolucci focuses on just one film, but what a film! Bertolucci’s passion project, 1900, is an epic tale of landowners and peasants in 20th-century Italy that is ripe with wonderful performances, some gorgeous visuals and music, and several over-the-top moments that you’ll never forget. The film tells the story of the interaction between the scion of a family of landowners (Robert De Niro) and his best friend, the legacy bearer of a family of peasants (Gerard Depardieu, at his all-time thinnest). The film runs from the birth of the two lead characters – their family patriarchs are played by Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden! – through their adults lives, with their respective wives (Dominque Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli). Donald Sutherland gives an unforgettably gonzo performance as the local head of the blackshirts, a fascist so mean he kills animals and children with much abandon. The film is one of Bertolucci’s most ambitious (“The Last Emperor” is a controlled work next to this one) and is uneven (particularly in the full five-hour international cut, which is now the one on DVD and in repertory) but has some of the memorable moments he ever directed. And, as he put it, he employed “multinational capitalist means [read: money from three H’wood studios] to produce a naive, edifying vision” about the glory of the Communist party in Italy.

1312.) Taking a break from the high art for a week, I hereby introduce another no-budget, sincerely clueless auteur. Neil Breen is a deadpan actor-director-writer-producer who works in the Las Vegas area and produces drama-crime films-fantasies that have ambiguous characters, overloaded plots (all info supplied in a voiceover and much of it rarely mentioned ever again), really poor acting, and a pace that is at best uneven, at worst slow beyond even the wildest imaginings of the most laidback experimental filmmaker. Breen has acquired an Internet cult that takes his bloated features and cuts them down to “just the funny parts” – what I do on this episode is to tackle his first film Double Down (2005) with both a verbal review and my own “super-cut” that not only supplies some unintentionally humorous scenes (Breen gets a phone call indicating a young girl he knows has died of brain cancer, interrupting with “I’ve got to take this other call…”), but also some moments that indicate the “longueur” of his work. In the case of this film that meant including alternate takes of various scenes, so dialogue and action is repeated. And the plot – well, it’s at base level the story of a super-spy-turned-terrorist who will “take down the Vegas strip,” but don’t expect that to happen anywhere in the picture. His films are NOT Christian, but they have the sincerity of Christian entertainment, which is all I need say….

1313.) The fourth part of my tribute to Deceased Artiste Bernardo Bertolucci focuses on the great films he made after he had a massive box-office success with “Last Tango in Paris.” The most fascinating entry in his post-“Tango” filmography is the drama/character study “Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man” (1981). Ugo Tognazzi stars as a cheese factory owner whose son is kidnapped – and who develops a plan to save his factory once he is told his son has been killed by the kidnappers. “Tragedy” is a return to Bertolucci’s Sixties roots, with a storyline that is both overtly political and engagingly ambiguous, with Ugo’s character reflecting on the changes in society as he engages in a scam and might well be the victim of a double-cross. Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” (2003) was his final farewell to the Sixties, utilizing the May ‘68 riots as the backdrop to a story of a trio who are cineastes and lovers. The most overlooked later work by BB is his short “Histoire d’eaux” (Story of Water) from the anthology feature “Ten Years Older: the Cello” (2002); I discuss the short and show it in its entirety, as a tribute to the late, great Signor Bertolucci.

1314.) We return to the weird, ultra-low-budget world of cult moviemaker Neil Breen this week with his second, even more befuddling, feature I Am Here… Now (2009). Breen is in that category of amazingly clueless writer/director/producers whose work is singularly his own. In his case, overly complicated plots are conveyed with voiceover narration, a series of not-very-active action scenes, symbolic interludes, and a startling amount of “Neil’s character walks” and “Neil’s character drives” scenes (not forgetting a good deal of stock footage and stock music, and desert vista shots). This particular outing finds Neil as an otherwordly being who created the human race and has come back to Earth to judge us. He interacts with a pair of twin sisters (who waver between helping the human race with sustainable energy or becoming hookers), an assortment of corrupt governmental figures (who identify themselves as such in their dialogue, always a help), and a street gang whose violence can only be overcome by Breen’s character, who can freeze time and help the helpless. One may wonder whether Breen has been affected by the cult status his films have achieved. The answer is a decisive “no” – he’s still as clueless a writer/director/producer/star/caterer/makeup-effect maker in his later pics as he was in the first one.

1315.) I say a final farewell to Bernardo Bertolucci with the fifth and last of my tributes to his work. In this case I discuss, and give the American TV premiere to, scenes from his last film, You and Me (2012). Based on a young adult novel, it is a film that encompasses themes from his earlier pictures and has imagery and plot developments that seem derived from a film that clearly influenced his work, Les Enfants Terribles, written by Cocteau and directed by Melville. A teenage boy decides to avoid going on a school ski trip and instead inhabits a storage area in the basement of the apartment building his family lives in – finally alone with his imagination and his devices, pets (an ant farm), and books, until his junkie step-sister invades his secret hideaway. The film is a well-made character study that avoids the sentimentality found in so many films for teens and ended Bertolucci’s career on a very positive and (thankfully) small-in-scale note. One of its bonuses: a touching scene set to the rare single “Regazzo Solo, Regazza Sola” (Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl), the unusual Italian rewrite of “Space Oddity” (having nothing to do with space travel or Major Tom), sung by Bowie himself.

1316.) Cluelessness is a rare quality to discover in a filmmaker these days, but Neil Breen has it in spades. This week I present his third feature film, Fateful Findings, which shows “growth” (if you can call it that) in his scripting ability, in that he concocts several plots – the fact that he never resolves some of them and has others that never overlap with anything is beside the point (as is pretty much everything in the film). The plot, as it were, involves magical discoveries of “treasure” made by children, a mysterious being who keeps haunting Neil’s character, an alcoholic friend and his sex-wary wife, a Slavic-sounding supermodel wife who’s addicted to drugs, and (Breen’s own character) a novelist who has become the best hacker in the world and plans on telling the truth about our corrupt society. In this case Neil again did everything from production/scripting/directing on down to “music direction” (choosing and adding stock music) and catering (mostly likely buying the cast lunch). And did I mention his cast and their deadpan line readings? Well, now I have.

1317.) A return to the Consumer Guide department to review three new standup comedy titles that have come out on DVD and download from UK indie DVD label Go Faster Stripe. First we move up to date with Richard Herring, whose “Oh Frig I’m 50!” is a show about Rich’s half-century celebration that also has some great tangents (especially about his kids’ toys). Next it’s on to the brilliant Simon Munnery, whose “Renegade Plumber” is the latest portmanteau show of Simon’s jokes, songs, puns, aphorisms, and mind-bendingly weird props. We close out with the great Mark Thomas, who does some of the most pungent, funny, and touching political comedy that can be found; this time out GFS has released a two-fer set of his shows concerning the Arab-Israeli situation, called “Showtime from the Front Line” and “Walking the Wall.”

1318.) Vintage: This week I offer a discussion of, and scenes from, Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles. This 1967 film, written by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), is Finney’s Antonioni-esque take on celebrity in the UK. Farcical opening scenes and a wonderfully whimsical finale frame a post-“kitchen sink” portrait of a working-class guy from Manchester who just happens to have become a very famous novelist. He is thus treated very differently by everyone around him – including his erstwhile secretary and groupie (Liza Minnelli, in her first adult movie role). The only people who will tell Charlie the truth are some of his old friends and his wife (the incredible Billie Whitelaw). The film pretty much flopped, so Finney never directed again (outside of a British telefilm), but it’s worthy of a second look, thanks to its impeccable acting and incredibly “alienated” tone in scenes shot on location in London and Manchester.

1319.) Vintage: An eternity ago, the best in arts programming was available free on TV, without a cable subscription or any kind of Internet hook-up. PBS was the one-stop shop for this kind of smart TV and it presented shows that are still remarkable for their diversity. A perfect case in point was “The Great American Dream Machine” box set. This week on the show I’ll be reviewing the four-disc box set of the series, as well as showing short scenes from it. The award-winning series, which was only on the air for two seasons (1971-’72), was a mind-bendingly uncategorizable mix of comedy sketches, cartoons, very well-made mini-documentaries, themed montages, “man on the street” interviews, editorial commentaries (both serious and funny), musical numbers, dance pieces and readings from great modern literature. My choice of clips for this Consumer Guide episode veer towards the comedic end of the spectrum (since the mini-docs and moving interview segments need more “room to breathe” than I can allot them in 28 minutes). Thus, I’m happy to spotlight contributions to the series from, among others, Martin Mull, Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna (with Bob Dishy, Salome Jens, and Richard Castellano acting in their short films), Albert Brooks, R.O. Blechman, and some guy named Vonnegut. Of particular interest are the terrific segments by the show’s “MVP,” Marshall Efron, who commented on the American scene via some very funny “consumer guide” segments of his own.