We Are the Best! (2013)

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!) (2013) ★★★★★ Dir: Lucas Moodysson Magnolia Pictures (Official Site) 102 minutes U.S. Theatrical Release May 30, 2014 (Limited) – Director Lukas Moodysson’s Together (2000), though lauded as a warm and progressive comedy, indulged in a judgmental tone, mostly directed at gays and women and manifesting as stereotypes invoked as it’s-funny-because-it’s-true moments. Thankfully, Moodysson’s art has matured; he’s developed a keen observer’s eye, one that imbues his latest film, We Are the Best! (2013), with an intelligent, humanist perspective that no longer concerns itself with judging those it portrays. Based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight, written by Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! is inspired, delightful, tough and funny. The film follows two young teen punk rock fans, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin), rebelling against ridiculous adults and their even more ridiculous rules. Shot in almost documentary style with the requisite awkward framing and fast pans, We Are the Best! is as unrefined and earnest as its young leads. It’s 1982 and punk, as they are told repeatedly, is dead, but Klara and Bobo still embrace its anti-mainstream principles long after everyone else has moved on to New Wave. In an impulsive act of rebellion, the girls strike back against Iron Fist, an all-male group of jerks with a delightfully mediocre rock band. The girls cheerfully point out that Iron Fist failed to follow some of those rules the adults are always going on about, thus forfeited their use of the … Continue reading

The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968)

Cesare Celli (Vittorio De Sica), at the funeral of a good friend, is kidnapped by a group of thieves intent on stealing $50,000 from the former gangster. To his embarrassment, Celli has no money, but merely relies on his long-standing reputation. It’s because of this reputation that he encourages the thieves, led by Harry Price (Robert Wagner), to contact some of his pals for the funds instead; he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s broke. But money is not forthcoming, so Celli brings the thieves in on a job he was about to embark on: the robbery of $5 million worth of platinum from a train. The only catch is that they need $3,000 for the right supplies to pull off a train robbery, thus have to commit a smaller heist to fund the larger one. Wackiness, as they say, ensues. The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968) is the subject of one of critic Renata Adler’s first reviews in A Year in the Dark — and if you don’t have your copy of the book handy, her review is happily available online at the New York Times. Having just obtained a replacement copy for myself, I deliberately did not read her review until after I’d seen the film, and was delighted to find Adler also heard De Sica’s line, “He was taken by a master” pronounced as, “He was taken by a mustard!” Less charming is her obvious distaste for anyone who is not conventionally handsome in the Hollywood … Continue reading

The Big House (1930): Triple Feature from Warner Archive

There’s a lot of Alibi (1929) in the opening frames of The Big House (1930). There’s the silent marching feet with sound effects overdubbed, the silhouette framing, the long shots of authoritative figures in their cavernous rooms. This aesthetic extends to later scenes, symmetrical with deep blacks in windows, doorways, even on clothes, giving the entire scene an art deco feel without a single bit of decor around. The first and arguably one of the finest examples of the prison movie genre, The Big House was an important, innovative film in its day. As gritty as they come, with a darkly stylish aesthetic and the kind of sinister undertones you couldn’t get once the Production Code began to be enforced, The Big House scared and impressed nearly everyone who saw it. Winning two Oscars and nominated for two more, prison films would become all the rage in Hollywood, and not a single movie or TV show today doesn’t owe at least a small debt to this early talkie. Wallace Beery had a limited range, but that range was perfect for films like The Big House. He wasn’t meant to be in the film at all, actually; Lon Chaney, Sr. was slated for the role of Butch, and several scenes do indeed seem tailor-made for Chaney. But he had become ill a few months before filming began, and Beery, who according to the IMDb hadn’t been in a film since 1929, was cast to replace Chaney, and stardom followed. Sometimes genial, … Continue reading

Beneath the Harvest Sky (2014)

Beneath the Harvest Sky (2013) ★☆☆☆☆ Dir: Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly Tribeca Film (Official Site) 116 minutes U.S. Theatrical Release May 2, 2014 – Casper (Emory Cohen) is a genial asshole, a troubled teen who threatens teachers, gets his young girlfriends pregnant and steals prescriptions for his pill-slinging father (Aiden Gillen); it’s no wonder everyone in the tiny burg of Van Buren, Maine is always talking about Casper. This includes Casper himself, who drifts into the third person when flexing his muscles, or his reputation. He and his best friend Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) dream of leaving the small farming community and moving to Boston, away from their problems and closer to the Red Sox. Over the week-long harvest break, Dom works fields full of the purple potatoes Van Buren is famous for, while Casper just shoots them from a potato gun. Beneath the Harvest Sky is the first non-documentary film from the team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly. Unfortunately, this young male coming-of-age story is just one of many in an overworked and overcrowded genre saddled with a litany of tropes that are difficult to avoid. Beneath the Harvest Sky not only does not attempt to avoid cliché, it doesn’t realize its content is 80% cliché by volume. Drugs, divorce, derelict houses, broken homes and fast cars all make an appearance right on cue, as do poorly-drawn female characters who exist only to irritate or sexually please the male leads. This is a clumsy and unskilled affair, a real … Continue reading

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Based on Neil Simon’s Broadway play of the same name, The Sunshine Boys (1975) follows the acrimonious reunion of two former Vaudevillian comedians whose 43-year run as Lewis and Clark — the Sunshine Boys — ended abruptly a decade prior when Clark (George Burns) decided to retire. The cantankerous Lewis (Walter Matthau) is still getting work here and there, thanks to his nephew and agent Ben (Richard Benjamin), but because he doesn’t want to work with Clark ever again, he nearly turns down a chance for money and a second chance at fame when ABC decides to do an extravagant special on the grandfathers of comedy. The characters of Lewis and Clark are based on the long-running comedy duo Smith and Dale, though the hostile relationship was based on real-life tensions between Gallagher and Shean. Ben (just barely) convinces his uncle Lewis to do the show, and the two elderly comedians duke it out in funny, heartwarming but never sappy style. WILLY: I’ll tell you which words always get a laugh: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a K. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber is funny. BEN: It’s getting cold out. I’m giving you money, I want you to take a cab. WILLY: Cab is funny. BEN: Are you listening to me? WILLY: Cockroach is funny, not if you get ’em, only if you say ’em.   WILLY: How do … Continue reading

The Big Elsewhere

Unused poster art for Radioland Murders (1994), courtesy 3B Theater!   It’s been a while since I managed to post a little link roundup of my recent articles and reviews plus other innerestin’ things, so this isn’t really a little link roundup at all, but a medium-sized roundup, but it should still fit inside a breadbox. Big Business Before the Code: The ClassicFlix article that I alluded to a couple of Elsewheres ago, about businesses during the pre-Code era, their function as microcosms of society, and the roles of women in business during the Depression. – Over at Spectrum Culture recently: The Discoverers (2012): A warm and occasionally macabre family dramedy starring Griffin Dunne, Madeleine Martin, Stuart Margolin, Cara Buono, David Rasche and more. Criminally Underrated: Radioland Murders (1994): The only real problem with Radioland Murders is it too accurately mimics the musical comedy programmers of the 1930s, up to and including the goofy feel-good ending. My favorite moment: When Bobcat Goldthwait’s character hears radio actors reading from two different scripts at the same time, and genuinely says, “That’s good!” And Brian Benben agrees. The Girl and Death (2012): A lush but empty 19th Century romance between a romantic (and Romantic) young doctor and a tubercular courtesan. God’s Pocket (2013): It’s going to take a long time before I can watch a Philip Seymour Hoffman film and not feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. Whitewash (2013): Dark comedies are all the rage nowadays, as I have just realized … Continue reading

King David (1985)

There is no shame in watching a movie because it’s aesthetically beautiful. King David, the 1985 Biblical epic directed by Bruce Beresford, is just such a beautiful film, exciting and epic in scope. But, as Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, it is not a good film. The Australian Beresford, whose Breaker Morant (1980) and Tender Mercies (1983) had made his name in the United States, imbues his films with a quiet, almost intellectual tone, an underlying civility amongst cultural chaos. It’s a terrific way to approach the story of David, the second king of Israel and Judah, alternating a light philosophical touch with the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament tales. It’s not, however, the best way to approach the story if one means to be historically accurate. The prophet Samuel (Denis Quilley) opens the film with some rather startling pronouncements that come straight from the man upstairs, and he seems almost immediately out of place amongst the gentle souls around him. The same goes for King Saul (Edward Woodward), who at first is scolded by Samuel for ignoring the word of God, but then becomes the absolute embodiment of Godly wrath. Woodward is terrific, the apotheosis of a character actor whose sole presence ties an entire film together. But he does not blend in amongst a cast comprised of 99.44% young brunette men made up to look like members of a mid-80s corporate rock band. Speaking of gorgeous young brunettes, Richard Gere plays the title … Continue reading

The Rose and the Jackal (1990)

Beginning in the late 1980s, the newly-launched TNT network, owned by Ted Turner, began to produce their own original programming. Early examples included several documentaries of actors and directors, frequently using clips from the thousands of films Turner owned after his enormous, $1.5  billion purchase of numerous archives and film libraries in 1986. TNT, in fact, was initially intended as a showcase for many of those films, but the commercial interruptions and colorization controversy quickly changed Turner’s plans, thus the creation of Turner Classic Movies in 1994. Through all this, TNT remained committed to original made-for-TV films, and to that end created some lush, extravagant movies, such as a truly bonkers remake of Dinner at Eight (1989), and a version of Treasure Island (1990) starring (get this) Oliver Reed, Charleton Heston, Christopher Lee, Christian Bale, Pete Postlethwait, Richard Johnson and Julian Glover, among others. One of the first of these lavish TNT films was The Rose and the Jackal (1990), based on the lives of famous detective Allan Pinkerton (Christopher Reeve) and Rose O’Neal Greenhow (Madolyn Smith Osborne), a D.C. socialite and spy for the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. Pinkerton had been a successful detective in the mid 1800s, solving a series of train robberies for the Illinois Central Railroad, where Abraham Lincoln had worked as a lawyer. When Lincoln became president, he appointed Pinkerton to develop an intelligence service to suss out Confederate spies amongst the Union troops and outposts. As The Rose and the Jackal … Continue reading

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

After his famous stint on Saturday Night Live and critically-acclaimed stand-up act, Steve Martin made his way into films in the late 1970s. Securing a solid (if completely bonkers) hit with The Jerk (1979), Hollywood seemed to feel Martin could only fill a very particular niche: the retro movie. Maybe it started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), maybe not; all we know is that the 1980s were host to some fine films where Martin played in remakes, reimaginings, or period films set earlier in the 20th century, and we are the better for it. One of the best, though sadly maligned, films of this kind is Pennies from Heaven (1981). Based on a really top-notch British TV miniseries starring Bob Hoskins, the tone and plot in the U.S. version has been significantly watered down from the original. There is a tough, nasty edge to the British series, heavily softened in the film by making the characters of Arthur (Martin) and Eileen (Bernadette Peters) more hapless than cruel. Arthur is a sheet music salesman in Chicago in 1934. He’s the worst kind of person: the kind who thinks he’s a nice guy, but who in reality is truly heinous, a borderline sociopath. His wife Joan (Jessica Harper) isn’t interested in sex, and though you can’t blame her, she’s sadly portrayed as the stereotypical frigid shrew in what is probably the biggest misstep in the film. The couple have very little money and his dreams of success are quickly … Continue reading

Bright Days Ahead (2013)

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours) (2013) ★★★☆☆ Dir: Marion Vernoux Tribeca Film (Official Site) 92 minutes U.S. Release April 24, 2014     Caroline (Fanny Ardant) is a newly-retired dentist, restless and on edge. Her daughters, equal parts obligated and exasperated, give her a trial membership to a seniors’ club called Bright Days Ahead. Caroline, however, has trouble fitting in; despite the club playing host to the most youthful group of sixty-somethings you’ll ever see, Caroline feels and looks even younger than the other members, and bristles against her new identifiers: Retired. Senior. Old. Bored and lonely and still steaming from her husband’s (possibly imagined) slight that that caused her to retire early, Caroline finds herself attracted to one of the club’s teachers, Julien (Laurent Lafitte). He’s attracted in return, not to mention an unrepentant womanizer in his late 30s; in no time, their affair is launched. Meanwhile, her hapless husband Philippe (Patrick Chesnais) continues to be aloof, in part due to unspoken tensions, but mostly because the couple take their marriage for granted. Bright Days Ahead is a charming, sunlit romance without substance, pure entertainment product content to pander to the Baby Boomer crowd and little more. Still, the film hardly wants to alienate any demographic, and to that end, it is very careful to never reference anything prior to the 1970s. Life experiences, memories, even fashion date back no further than forty years, as though no one in Bright Days Ahead had a childhood. But the times, … Continue reading