The Congress (2013)


The Congress ★★★☆☆ Director: Ari Folman Drafthouse Films (Official Site) 122 Minutes Now Available on iTunes and On Demand | In Theaters August 29, 2014 – “Lousy choices,” Al tells his client. “That’s your whole story.” Al (Harvey Keitel) is agent and frustrated father figure to Robin Wright (playing a riff on herself) who, as Al reminds her, has only one last chance at big screen success. Miramount Pictures is giving her that one chance, but as she discovers when she meets with the studio president (Danny Huston), they don’t want her to play a role: they want to scan her. Miramount tells her this is her last chance, that everyone will be storing their likenesses and talent in studio computers, and if she passes this up she’ll never appear on screen again. And the beauty of this system, she is told, is that they no longer have to worry about her aging, her needs, or that pesky thing called free will. The Congress, the new film by Ari Folman, treats this astounding offer as simply the next step in where we are already headed, and is probably right to do so. After all, nearly 20 years ago, computers resurrected Fred Astaire so he could dance with a vacuum cleaner; just two years ago, computers shaved a decade or more off the entire cast of The Hobbit (2012). It’s not just that we have the technology to do these things, but that audiences, wanting both the reassurance of well-known faces … Continue reading

Another Dawn (1937)

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By the time Kay Francis began filming Another Dawn in the fall of 1936, she was exhausted. She was the most popular, profitable actress at Warner Bros., and the studio took full advantage, putting her in one film after another without break in between. Another Dawn had originally been intended as a Bette Davis vehicle in 1935, but Bette, angry with the sub-par projects she was being given after her successes in Of Human Bondage, Dangerous and The Petrified Forest, left for the U.K. in protest and sued to try to get out of her contract. While that played out, Another Dawn was briefly attached to Tallulah Bankhead, then given to Kay Francis. Francis was paid $5,250 per week in 1936, and the budgets for her films were tremendous. This is obvious in Another Dawn, where Kay was paired with another big Warner star, Errol Flynn, fresh off his triumph in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Brigade had achieved some terrific California-for-Arabia scenery shots, and the film proved massively popular, becoming the biggest money-maker of the year for WB. Thus Another Dawn was created in Brigade’s image, the Somerset Maugham story that was originally meant for Davis repurposed into a Colonialist, Arabian adventure designed to cash in on Errol’s fame. The film featured similar set design as Brigade, too, though it also inherited the problems Brigade had suffered; reportedly, the imported palm trees were hazardous, falling near actors during scenes, and could only be shot for three minutes … Continue reading

A Measure of the Sin (2013)

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A Measure of the Sin ★★★★☆ Dir: Jeff Wedding Brink Vision (Official Site) 76 minutes – A childhood spent in the safety of a mother’s care becomes a nightmare straight out of the Old Testament in Jeff Wedding’s A Measure of the Sin. This chilling underground horror film follows the life of 20-something Meredith (Katie Groshong), one in a trio of beautiful young women living with The Man (Stephen Jackson) in a dilapidated farm house, away from civilization. This nameless, almost-elderly patriarch of what must surely be a cult essentially owns the women who, just like a bad joke from the 1970s, are comprised of one brunette — Meredith — as well as the blonde Alicia (Starina Johnson) and the redhead Ruth (Dale Rainey). Alicia and Ruth are content to spend their days bathing together, brushing each others’ hair, giggling and standing around nude. The two court the audience’s gaze, their allure less provocation than a blatant accusation. But Meredith demurs, wanting no part of their frolic but only to leave The Man, the isolation, and the enormous black bear that torments her at night. It’s a bear only she can see, and she believes it to be the father of her child. Despite the pregnancy, Meredith makes her plans to escape. We see her childhood education must have been truncated when she and her mother embarked on a trek through a world rich with the bounty of the land, yet full of snakes. An even more distant flashback shows … Continue reading

The John Ford Blogathon: Fort Apache (1948)

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Fort Apache was the first film of what would become known as director John Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy.” Though Ford worked within the same historical period in other films, too, these three movies — Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) — were loosely tied together thanks not only their shared historical setting, but because they were released consecutively and featured period-appropriate music used as strong thematic elements, the role of Irish immigrants in the United States’ brutal expansion through Native lands, and a subversive, critical approach to the policies of the United States government. Continue reading

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)


The Battered Bastards of Baseball ★★★½ / ★★★★★ Directors: Chapman Russell Way, Maclain Way A Netflix Production 79 Minutes Premieres on Netflix Friday, July 11, 2014 – The Portland Mavericks were the most popular minor league baseball team in the country through much of the 1970s. They were the WKRP of sports, a highly photogenic, ragtag band of misfits with a host of issues and hearts of gold. The brainchild of actor Bing Russell, who formed the team when the Portland Beavers, a AAA-league team, moved to Spokane in 1973, the Mavericks were the only independent team not affiliated with any major league club. Russell’s project was considered a joke at first, but became a stunning success: not only could the Mavericks play, but they put on a damn good show. Sports writers were stunned, fans were ecstatic, but the businessmen behind the major leagues were livid. That all-too-common conflict of our modern capitalist society was sparked and battle lines were drawn as moneymakers once again tried to keep the little guy down, because the little guy always eats into the profit margin. The Battered Bastards of Baseball, the newest documentary from Netflix, follows Bing Russell, best known to audiences as Deputy Clem Foster on “Bonanza” — the more discerning cinephile will recognize him as Red from Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) — as he dreams up, then manages, the Portland Mavericks. Bing grew up working with New York Yankees legends such as Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio, but … Continue reading

Whitey: United States of America v. James J Bulger (2014)


Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014) ★★★★☆ Dir: Joe Berlinger Magnolia Pictures (Official Site) 120 minutes U.S. Theatrical Release: June 27, 2014 (Limited) – Just before Christmas in 1994, James “Whitey” Bulger, a big player in the so-called Irish Mafia in South Boston, was tipped off that the FBI had issued a warrant for his arrest. Having spent decades as an FBI informant, Bulger had cultivated plenty of friends in law enforcement, several of whom were happy to give him a head start in what would become 16 years of life on the lam. By the time he was finally caught and arrested in 2011, several individuals in the Boston office of the FBI were known to have ignored the crimes of the Irish Mafia — everything from extortion to theft to murder — in exchange for information from these gangsters that would allow them to take down the Irish Mafia’s biggest competitors: the Italian Mafia. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is a startling new documentary that investigates the overwhelming deception, corruption and brutality of organized crime, not just by the gangsters, but by those in the FBI and Boston law enforcement who enabled them for decades. Boston FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up in Southie idolizing a teenaged yet already notorious Bulger, was especially involved in the perverse tit-for-tat that existed between the agency and the Irish Mafia. Connolly helped develop the Top Echelon Informant Program and promptly recruited Whitey, … Continue reading

White Elephant Blogathon: The Dunwich Horror (1970)


This is the SBBN entry for this year’s White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler IV of Diary of a Country Pickpocket. – “These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond the body — or without the body, they would have been the same…” – Charles Lamb, Witches and other Night-Fears – To call H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction evocative would be to commit one of the most egregious literary understatements possible, second only to “Bukowski’s poetry is bleak,” or maybe “Shakespeare was kind of wordy.” The Dunwich Horror, a short story written by Lovecraft in 1928, was somewhere between the second and eighth entry in what would become known as The Cthulhu Mythos. In most of these stories, ancient gods from another realm terrorize simple folk in the American Northeast, in frightening tales that — and I must quote Wikipedia here — reflect “the complete irrelevance of mankind in the face of … cosmic horrors.” Evocative! Roger Corman, born less than two years before the publication of The Dunwich Horror, produced and directed some of the best B-movie horror films during the 1960s, often borrowing from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Corman was nearing the end of what would be his most artistically productive and compelling period when he stopped making films based on Poe’s stories, and it must have seemed only natural to move on to Lovecraft, a fine horror craftsman who was also inspired by Poe. But there was a problem with adapting Lovecraft for modern audiences: … Continue reading

We Are the Best! (2013)

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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