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Islands In The Stream: Week Nine
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy another collection of suggestions for films--ranging from the popular to those off the beaten path--to help pass the pandemic. Come back every day for a new selection and hopefully you will find something up your alley. If you do or you don't or you have suggestions/scathing criticisms to make, drop me a line at petersob@efilmcritic.com and I try to get to them

Between making his big breakthrough in 1970 with the groundbreaking comedy "MASH" and unleashing his audacious 1975 epic "Nashville," Robert Altman had one of the greatest sustained run of great films of any American filmmaker--in addition to those two stone-cold classics, he also cranked out such celebrated works as "Brewster McCloud" (1970), "McCabe & Mrs Miller" (1971) and "The Long Goodbye" (1973), any one of which would have been considered the untoppable peak of most ordinary careers. However, one of the best films from this run has been frustratingly difficult to view in recent years, especially in its original form. That would be "California Split" (1974), an alternately powerful and hilarious comedy-drama following a pair of gamblers--the fully degenerate Charlie (Elliott Gould) and the more controlled (at least at first) Bill (George Segal)--as they meet ugly after being accused of cheating by a sore loser and become fast friends over their addiction to a lifestyle that finds them in the chips one day and in crushing debt to bookies the next. While the film--which had originally been developed as a project for an up-and-coming filmmaker named Steven Spielberg before going to Altman--did reasonably well at the box office when it came out, problems involving the music rights delayed its home video release for decades and when it finally came out on DVD in 2004, three minutes of the original version had to be deleted entirely while other music cues ended up being redone with different music. Even that version of the film quickly went out of print, forcing viewers to seek out increasingly rare showings at repertory houses and on cable, the latter making hash of the complex eight-track stereo soundtrack that Altman had prepared. Then, in perhaps the first bit of undeniably good film-related news to pop up in what seems like forever, the film unexpectedly turned up for viewing on Amazon Prime in its original version--complete with all the missing music cue restored--and in its proper aspect ratio to boot. It seems almost perverse that something that might rightly have gone down as one of the major film restorations of the year would just pop up in such a cavalier manner but I suppose that it seems fitting in a way that an Altman film would subvert all of the potential pomp and circumstance. As for the film, it is as brilliant as ever--while it may not be especially strong from a story standpoint (not that this is much of a shock for an Altman film) it paints an indelible portrait of the gambling mindset of chasing the adrenaline rush to the point where concepts like "winning" and "losing" are almost besides the point. And yet, while a lesser film might have based a film about eventually winning big in the end, Altman is too smart for that and indeed, one of the most chilling moments in the film comes when Charlie and Bill hit on the winning streak of a lifetime but Bill is simply too burned out for it to even register. The two central performances are spectacular--Gould's super-intense turn as Charlie is arguably the best film work of his entire career (with "The Long Goodbye" being the only real alternative) while Segal is just as impressive as Bill, a role that is less overtly showy than Gould's but which proves to be even more complicated when you think back on it. There are also strong supporting performances from Ann Prentiss and Gwen Wells as a pair of friendly hookers the guys meet during their adventures, screenwriter Joseph Walsh as Bill's bookie and Jeff Goldblum in one of his earliest performances. Placed into obscurity for reasons beyond its control, the revival of "California Split" should be celebrated by all cineastes and should hopefully lead to a reappraisal that will at long last put it alongside Robert Altman's greatest works. Also, after watching it, you will never look at a box of Froot Loops in quite the same way again. (Amazon Prime)

Yesterday, it was announced that French actor Michel Piccoli had passed away at the age of 95, bringing an end to a career that spanned over 70 years and found him working with some of the world's most celebrated filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel,Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, Mario Bava, Louis Malle and Leos Carax, to name just a few. There is obviously no way to sum up a career that lasted so long and which encompassed upwards of 170 films with just one film and I will not even attempt to do that. Instead, I would point you in the direction of the Criterion Channel streaming service, which happens to have a number of his movies in their current rotation, including three of my personal favorites. Of them, the most famous of the lot is probably "Contempt," in which Jean-Luc Godard took all of the ingredients that one might find in an example of mainstream contemporary cinema circa 1963--color, Cinemascope, nudity and recognizable movie stars ranging from a familiar Hollywood star (Jack Palance) to the world's biggest sex symbol at the time (Brigitte Bardot)--and assembled them in a manner as subversive and audacious as anything else he had done up to that time. Piccoli plays Paul, a French playwright who is hired by a sleazy American movie producer (Palance) to work on the script for a gargantuan production of "The Odyssey" being directed by Fritz Lang. While the production is going awry thanks in part to miscommunications between the American producer, German director and French writer, Meanwhile, Paul's relationship with his wife Camille (Bardot) begins to deteriorate when she suspects that her husband is quietly pimping her out to the lecherous producer in order to solidify his own position on the film, leading to the extraordinary extended centerpiece scene in which the two have a long talk in their apartment that ends with her announcing that she no longer loves or respects him. As Godard was French cinema's enfant terrible of his generation, Leos Carax was for his own and so it seemed like an act of symmetry to find Piccoli turning up in Carax's second feature, "Mauvais Sang" (1986), a film that flirts with being both a crime thriller and a doomed romance while always coming across as an absolute original. Set in the not-too-distant future, it is centered around a strange illness known as STBO that apparently kills those who make love without being in love. There is a cure but it has been locked away and aging thieves Marc and Hans (Piccoli and Hans Meyer) are blackmailed into stealing it. Marc then brings in Alex (Denis Levant), the son of a deceased colleague, to help with the theft but things get very complicated when Alex meets and falls for Anna (Juliette Binoche), who happens to be Marc's much-younger lover. Finally, there is the film that, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to select only one, contains what may be the single best performance of his entire career. That would be "La Belle Noiseuse," the epic-length examination of the artistic process, among other things, that he starred in for Jacques Rivette in 1991. Loosely inspired by Honore de Balzac's short story "The Unknown Masterpiece," Rivette plays Frenhofer, a legendary painter who has not completed a painting in over 10 years, preferring to live a reclusive life in the south of France with his wife/former muse Liz (Jane Birkin). One day, he is visited by young painter Nicholas (David Bursztein) and his girlfriend Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart) and at one point, Nicholas suggests that Frenhofer return to a painting that he had abandoned a decade earlier with Marianne serving as the model and potential source of inspiration. Neither one is particularly thrilled with the idea at first but as they go about some preliminary sketches, he finds himself once again struck by the creative spirit and the two get to work in a series of extraordinary scenes in which we see the agonizing and elongated process of the painting being created. When the film first came out, I have no doubt that many people were lured into the theater by the fact that Beart, one of the most beautiful women in the world, spent over a quarter of its four-hour running time naked in extended scenes in which her character posed for the painting. However, Piccoli's performance would prove to be just as mesmerizing, if not more so--he offers up one of the most fully convincing portrayals of an artist caught up in the throes of creation that I have ever seen and the relationship that he develops with Beart is always surprising and engrossing. Watching a four-hour movie about art being created may sound like torture to many but I can assure you of two things--you will not even notice the time once you get caught up in its rhythms and when it is over, you will have no doubt that Michel Piccoli was one of the great actors of our time. (The Criterion Channel)

So my dad was kind of a movie buff, certainly more so than my mother, but for the most part, he tended to gravitate towards the films that he favored as a kid rather than the newer stuff--musicals, war sagas, the continued adventures of Charlie Chan and Abbott & Costello, that sort of thing. (He did ask to watch "Henry--Portrait of a Serial Killer" one time and that certainly ended on a weird note.) However, if I had to sit down and name his favorite film of all time--with the possible exception of "The Longest Day," which he would faithfully watch every sixth of June, it would probably be "The Return of the Vampire" (1943) a gloriously cheesy mess of a film that attempted to throw together several insanely disparate elements together in ways that presumably split audiences at the time (and now, quite frankly) between those who basked in the strangeness of it all and those who just sat there scratching their heads. The film was notable at the time, and still is, because it featured Bela Lugosi in his first vampire role since his breakthrough playing Dracula on stage and on screen more than a decade earlier. Alas, the rights to "Dracula" were held by Universal and this was a Columbia joint and so he instead found himself playing 200-year-old Hungarian vampire Armand Tesla, though the difference between the two characters proves to be negligible at best. The film opens in 1918 with Armand drinking the blood of Londoners with the aid of his cursed werewolf slave Andreas (Matt Willis). Luckily , clinic owner Lady Jane Ainsley (Freida Inescort) and colleague Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) figure things out and stake Armand with a railroad spike, thereby stopping him and freeing Andeas to now serve as Ainsley's assistant. Two decades later, during a Nazi bombing raid, a shell exposes Tesla's body, complete with the stake still in it, and a couple of well-meaning gravediggers, mistaking it for shrapnel, remove it before reburying the body. This not only revives Tesla but also reestablishes the hold he has over Andreas and he sets off on a plan to have both Lady Ainsley and her granddaughter (Nina Foch) over for a drink. Yeah, the movie is really dumb--the kind of thing that one could probably only generate actual affection for if they happened to see it for the first time when they were kids. However, if you did first encounter it as a kid, it does have an undeniable appeal with its mixture of monsters, explosions, creepy graveyards, goofy comedic relief, a reasonably fast pace and a surprising amount of gore for a film of its time. (The ending, in which another well-timed aerial bomb exposes Tesla to the sunlight, finds the vampire disintegrating in memorably graphic fashion.) It also has Lugosi in fine fashion in what would prove, tragically, to be the last time he would ever receive top billing in a major studio film. While one could have hardly faulted him for going through the motions in a role that did nothing but evoke memories of past glories, he is clearly having fun with it and brings an energy to the proceeding that he would invoke only sporadically throughout the rest of his career. To be honest, if it wasn't for the fact that my dad liked it so much (you should have seen the look of joy on his face when I presented him with the DVD) , I don't know if I would have ever given "Return of the Vampire" much thought in the first place. To that end , I must say--thanks Dad. (iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu)

When it comes to a lot of great filmmakers, I would be hard-pressed to name just one of their films as my personal favorite. Do I go with "The Shining" over "2001"? Do I pick "Notorious" instead of "Vertigo" or "Psycho"? How do I even begun to approach that question with the Coen Brothers, who have maybe a half-dozen films at least that I could make a case for as their greatest work? Although he has more than his share of stone-cold masterpieces in his long and reasonably distinguished filmography that I revere, that question is a little easier in the case of Woody Allen because there is one film that truly stands apart from the rest. That would be "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), his utterly beguiling and deeply personal love letter to the power that the illusions projected on the silver screen have on those who watch them in the dark that takes a wonderfully inspired premise and executes it with absolute perfection. Set in the depths of Depression-era New Jersey, the film stars Mia Farrow (in the fourth of her collaborations with Allen) as Cecilia, a woman who is only able to escape the miseries of her abusive marriage to a loutish husband (Danny Aiello) and the drudgery of her waitressing job at the local movie theater, living vicariously through the glamorous images on display. Her current cinematic obsession is "The Purple Rose of Cairo," a gossamer-thin entertainment that transports its audiences from exotic Egyptian pyramids where everyone is sporting crisp khakis to swank Manhattan nightclubs with swank gowns and never-empty glasses of champagne. Cecilia returns to this particular film day after day until she is finally noticed in the middle of yet another screening by Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). The thing of it is, Tom Baxter is one of the characters in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and not only does he derail the onscreen proceedings by striking up a conversation with Cecilia, he derails them entirely by stepping off the screen and into the real world. She takes him around town to show him her world--leaving the other characters stuck because they need Tom's presence to finish the story--and the two of them fall in love. As it turns out, other places showing the film are beginning to have troubles involving the Tom Baxter character attempting to leave and the desperate producer of the film flies the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd (Daniels), to New Jersey in the hopes that he can talk his character into returning to the movie before he brings down the entire film industry. Before long, a love triangle of sorts develops between the three of them that forces Cecilia to choose between real life and reel life. (As she puts it early on, "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything.") Although the film might have begun life as a riff on his beloved short story "The Kugelmass Episode" (in which a man is able to zap himself into a copy of "Madame Bovary" and carry on a passionate affair with Emma, much to the confusion of anyone who happens to be reading the book at the time), Allen transforms it into his most complex and thoughtful meditation to date on one of the recurring themes in his work--the eternal conflict between the seductive world of fantasy and the comparative drudgery of real life--and gets a lot of big laughs to boot by taking his purely fantastical premise and applying absolute logic to it. In one of the funniest scenes, Tom takes Cecilia out for a fancy dinner but when the bill comes, he discovers that the only money he has is the fake stuff one would use in a movie--when they rush out and jump into a car to escape, he then realizes that while he knows how to drive, he does not realize that he needs a key to start it. The whole film is like that--one scene of great inspiration after another that is further bolstered by impressive performances by Farrow and an effectively subtle double turn by Daniels (whose performance is more remarkable when you realize that Daniels took on the role after shooting had already begun when Allen decided that the originally cast Michael Keaton came across as too contemporary) as well as strong supporting turns from Aiello and Dianne Weist (in the first of several collaborations with Allen that would win her two Oscars along the way). In fact, the only thing that has really kept "The Purple Rose of Cairo" from assuming its rightful place as one of Allen's masterpieces (even the notoriously self-critical Allen considers it one of his best works) is the fact that it happens to conclude on an undeniably downbeat note that makes sense in the context of the story but which still comes across as more than a little jarring. You might not like how it ends--hell, I technically do not like how it ends--but once you think about it for a little bit, you will realize that Allen has given it the correct conclusion after all, the proper closing note to a true masterwork. (Turner Classic Movies)

When he wasn't busy amassing a sizable art collection or writing gourmet cookbooks (both of which hold positions of prominence in my own personal collection), Vincent Price carved (among other things) out a name for himself as one of the premier faces--and voices--of the horror genre. He made over 200 hundred appearances in films and on television throughout his long career and while I am not telling tales out of school by suggesting that some of these projects may have been slightly better than others, it was equally obvious that in most of those projects, even the lesser ones, he was having a lot of fun doing them. Never was this sense of fun more evident than in "Theatre of Blood," an outrageous Grand Guignol-style 1973 horror-comedy that offered him the role of a life that he took to with an astounding degree of scenery-chewing glee. He plays Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, a wildly egotistical Shakespearian actor who, as the film opens, has once again been passed over for an award by the members of London's Theatre Critics Guild, a slight that he responds to by denouncing them and flinging himself to his death in the Thames. Since this is not a short subject, I don't think that I am spoiling much when I reveal that he is rescued and nursed back to health by a group of derelicts. Two years later, on the Ides of March no less, Lionheart, with the aid of his vagrant saviors and his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), returns to seek revenge on the tormentors who refused to recognize his artistic genius in a very particular manner--he will kill them off one by one, each time employing methods reminiscent of the ways that Shakespeare to bump off some of his characters. As anyone who has read Shakespeare can tell you, that gives him a lot to choose from--to cite one especially notorious example, he bumps off one especially corpulent critic (Robert Morley), whose greatest loves are gourmet food and the two dogs he regards as his "babies," with an homage to the killing of Queen Tamara in "Titus Andronicus" about which I will say nothing more. Essentially a Shakespearean riff on "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," in which Price played a vengeful doctor who gets revenge on the medical team he blames for his wife’s death by killing them in methods suggesting the Ten Plagues of Egypt, "Theatre of Blood" is not even remotely scary by most standards--gruesome, perhaps, but not at all frightening. However, since it is clearly pitched from the outset as being closer to black comedy than straight horror, the lack of any genuine terror is not really an issue. This is more akin to a film like "Motel Hell," in which a ghastly premise is presented in such a goofy manner that even those without any real fondness for gory horror films are still likely to enjoy themselves while watching it (even if that involves a certain amount of peeking through fingers). Much of that fun, of course, comes from Price's cheerfully flamboyant turn as Lionheart, a role that gave him a chance to tuck into the kind of Shakespearean performance mode that he was generally prevented from delving into thanks to being pigeonholed by producers solely as a fright film star. Funny and campy (deliberately so) in equal measure, "Theatre of Blood" is a demented delight, as is Price, and if nothing else, you will never look at the works of the Bard in quite the same way again after watching it. (Screenpix. iTunes. Amazon Prime)


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4242
originally posted: 05/19/20 01:49:19
last updated: 05/22/20 23:36:36
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