Archives for June 2014

That Time I Spent an Evening with Eli Wallach …

… well, that is not 100% true. Sure I was there and he was there, but so were about 100 other movie fans and collectors of memorabilia. You are probably wondering the wheres and whys – so gimme a sec, I am getting there …

It was late June 2005 (almost 9 years to the day as a matter of fact), and I stood in line outside Christie’s auction house in Rockerfeller Center, giddy with anticipation about the I was about to attend – a sneak preview of Marlon Brando’s personal effects that were about to hit the block. Sure, in hindsight the idea of gawking at one’s items that were likely never meant for public eyes, is a rather morbid curiosity. But the main attraction for me came a couple of hours later after walking through the labyrinthine halls of the famed establishment. Film director Arthur Penn, Eli Wallach and renowned critic Richard Schickel joined us lucky attendees for a panel discussion where they shared with the audience stories about Brando’s life and their thoughts on the influence his career had on screen acting.

Whenever I attend a discussion like this, I am always in awe of the fact that I am in the presence of people who have first-hand knowledge and tales to tell concerning individuals, ‘idols,’ who are otherwise so distant to me. It was wonderful to not only hear Wallach talk about working with Brando, but this was a moment to reflect on and remind myself of the immense talent that sat before me.

Though not as lauded as many of his contemporaries (Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift), Wallach was principally referred to as a “character actor,” having the ability through through the power of his performances, to transform himself into whatever the role required, regardless of medium (film, television or stage). Many of you may not be so intimately acquainted with his body of work (see IMDB), and might find yourselves surprised by his roles in some of Hollywood’s greater films of the middle-late middle part of the last century. When you get a chance, be sure to check out these notable classics:

  • The Good The Bad and the Ugly (w/ Clint Eastwood)
  • How the West Was Won
  • The Misfits (*an ILC personal favorite)
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Baby Doll (feature film debut)

So when I heard of the news of his passing early yesterday, I recalled fondly that warm summer evening when I had the privilege of being in the company of a great talent.

eli wallach, carol baker, baby doll

Eli Wallach and Carol Baker in Baby Doll (1956)


For a good retrospective read on Wallach, check out my blogging buddy, leopard13’s post: http://le0pard13.com/2014/06/25/my-favorite-films-of-a-master-character-actor-eli-wallach/.

And check out TCM on Monday, June 30th starting at 9:00AM for an 11-hour marathon of his films.

A Coffee in Berlin/Oh Boy (2013)

A Coffee in Berlin

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films

The debut feature of German director/screenwriter Jan Ole Gerster, A Coffee in Berlin (alternate title-Oh Boy) was a huge success in its home country, having swept the 2013 German Oscar Awards.

A bit light on a true narrative structure, the film walks the audience through a day in the life of a 20-something Berliner, Niko (played by Tom Schilling), a college dropout who seems to be seeking a purpose for and with his life. Along the way, he commiserates with his actor friend, runs into a former classmate and in a cute and humorous b-story, seeks an increasingly elusive cup of coffee.

As described in the press notes:

Shot in timeless black and white and enriched with a snappy jazz soundtrack, this slacker dramedy is a love letter to Berlin and the Generation Y experience.

If you were to ask me to clearly describe the story, I am not sure I could provide you with a succinct response. That said, I was able to get through the 88 minute runtime without complaint. I really like it when a filmmaker tells their story with no desire to drag the story on beyond its natural life. A Coffee in Berlin gets its audience from points A to B by the most efficient means. This economy is something that A Coffee in Berlin really has in its favor. Also in its favor are the performances by its small ensemble, all who acquit themselves quite nicely.

For the most part, I understood and appreciated the humor, though at times the punchline missed the mark for me (I guess I am still a bit sensitive to humorous/self effacing references to Germany’s relatively recent past). In addition, while being a self-described “love letter to Berlin,” most of the film’s action takes place in interiors, thus depriving my wanderlust-filled eyes with some of the sights of the modern Berlin I looked forward to seeing.

Surely, this is not a revelation to many, but in a variety of ways, A Coffee in Berlin reminds me of another film dealing with a similar subject matter, the 2013 Greta Gerwig vehicle Frances Ha. From its black and white cinematography to the meandering journey of its central characters, I cannot escape referencing Frances Ha in my assessment of A Coffee in Berlin. The latter does go a little bit further in entering slightly darker subject matter and ends in a more ambiguous and less hopeful place; however this does not make it a better or worse film – it’s just different. And as with Frances Ha, I largely enjoyed the experience.

A Tribute to Ruby Dee (1922-2014)

Ruby DeeEarlier this month, we lost a good actress and by all account a greater human being. Legendary actress of stage and screen (big and small), Ruby Dee passed away at the age of 91 on June 11th. At least for the bulk of my lifetime, I knew of her through her activism, partnership with husband Ossie Davis and the films she would grace with her presence in her later years.

I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of my favorite films that showcase Dee from earlier in her long and prolific career. While the roles were never “headliners” in the way we think of modern movie stardom, it is worthwhile to note the film projects she chose to affiliate herself with. There are quite a number from this period in her career to choose from, but I am just going to highlight a few.

No Way Out (1950): Featured alongside husband Davis (both uncredited), this Sidney Poitier/Richard Widmark drama handled its challenging subject matter rather well.

The Tall Target (1951): A political thriller set at the height of the Civil War, Dick Powell is the star, but Ruby Dee features heavily in her role as Rachel, a slave accompanying her mistress aboard a train with a mysterious passenger.

Edge of the City (1957): Another film from the era (also starring Sidney Poitier) that examines the friendship between longshoremen Poitier and John Cassavetes and how the tense racial environment around them affects that relationship; the film is directed by Martin Ritt.

St. Louis Blues (1958): A fictionalized account of the life of American musical pioneer WC Handy (Nat King Cole). In this film Dee stars as Elizabeth, Handy’s steadfast wife.

If you get the opportunity, please seek out these films and get a glimpse of quiet confidence with which Ruby Dee carried herself in these roles.


* I would have added her performance as Rachel Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story, but I honestly do not remember if I have seen it.

Programming Notice: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will be airing a 2-movie tribute to Ruby Dee on Saturday, June 28th, featuring the aforementioned Edge of the City and the screen adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun.

An ILC Look at: Palo Alto (2014)

Based on a collection of short stories written by James Franco (themselves influenced by his own upbringing in Palo Alto, California), Palo Alto is a tale of disaffected youth, ‘love’ and teen angst in suburbia.

emma roberts palo alto gia coppola

Sure, this is not an entirely new ground in the canon of teen cinema, but I feel like filmmaker (Gia Coppola in her feature directorial film debut) is trying to bring something a little fresher to the often-told story.

The plot circles around a group of high school students – April (Emma Roberts), the class virgin, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) the introspective artist whose best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) is a bit of a rebel (probably did not get adequately disciplined as a young child).

All of these relationships are challenged and pushed to their limits by romantic complications. April babysits for her single dad soccer coach (James Franco), who seems to have taken an all to keen interest in her, while Teddy pines for April in anguished silence. Not to be left out of the love maze, Fred drifts around in a romantic minefield of his own involving his dealings with Emily (Zoe Levin), a promiscuous loner, who uses her sexuality to form bonds with people.

Palo Alto can be easily dismissed as yet another navel gazing examination of lives that are more or else taken for granted. But maybe that is the point – maybe, just maybe the goal is to show the audience a detached and cynical peek into their lives.

Among the things the film has in its favor – some sincere performances from its cast and a visual style that keeps you watching. For me, this balances itself out with those moments in the film where the plot seemed to amble on a tangent and feel a bit disjointed. I attributed this to the challenges faced when trying to create a consistent, balanced narrative from a collection of stories. Also with an intentionally ambiguous ending, the audience will leave the cinema with a few questions unanswered. But for me, as time passed, the answers to those questions became less and less important to solve – the experience of the film was satisfying enough.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film Institute/Tribeca Film Festival

Video Review: What’s Your Number? (2011)

The genesis for this write up is simple. Girlfriends talking about Chris Evans. Trust, the discussion was innocent enough and concluded with my friend recommending that I catch the 2011  film What’s Your Number? So I did and here is what I thought about it.

Obviously if I cared enough to write about it, I feel some kind of way … granted, the end result is a rather lukewarm.

A rom-com based on the book by Karyn Bosnak (“20 Times a Lady”) What’s Your Number? stars Anna Faris as Ally, who, after reading a magazine article in a ladies’ mag, concludes she is going to be forever alone. Thus begins her rather interesting trip down memory lane.  As she goes on this quest, she is tormented (and helped) by her “free-loving” neighbor, played by Chris Evans. I do not have to go into too much detail, I suppose, as the plot does move along quite as one would expect with such a central premise.

An often over-used trope in many a film, one of my favorite parts of the movie were the numerous exes that were cameos. If any of you are so inclined to catch this flick, I will do you a solid and not spill who pop up on screen.

Anna Faris (who also received producer credits on the film), has some chuckle-worthy moments to be sure. But like in so many of her other performances, I feel her comedic talent is not fully exploited. And well, Chris Evans is Chris Evans and does his thing as the sexy neighbor who the audience will have no problem rooting for. Besides, I think he is just happy to be shooting a film in his hometown of Boston.

Where the film most notably lets down the side is that it does not go far enough in its critique of the women’s magazines and the ‘advice’ and ‘expert tips’ they dispense at the expense of readers’ sanity and exercise of free will and common sense. There is definitely enough ‘there’ there to poke fun at and turn the published words on themselves for a good laugh.

So the final verdict: It’s on video, so on a quiet weekend evening in, it will pass as entertaining enough, thanks to Anna Faris.

What's your number

Columbia University Film Festival 2014

The Columbia University Film Festival is the annual premiere of thesis short films, feature screenplays and teleplays created by graduate MFA students from Columbia University School of the Arts Film Program. (Source: Columbia University Film Festival website)

Held May 2nd-8th at Lincoln Center (with events scheduled in Los Angeles June 17-20) and its 27th year, this festival is an opportunity for the public at large to catch a glimpse at (possibly) the next Kathryn Bigelow, James Mangold or Jennifer Lee (of the Academy Award-winning animated feature Frozen) who is also the recipient of this year’s Andrew Sarris Award.

One of the things that continues to stand out to me is the production value of the work presented. Whereas last year, I attended the closing ceremonies and saw only the closing night (awards events), this time I felt as if I was in the thick of it and could truly enjoy the festival experience.

Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to attend the screenplay workshops and panel discussions.

 

Some of the highlights for me included the following (synopses and photos courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center website):

Alex the Magnificent
Director: Robert Monk Davis, USA, 2014, DCP, 14m
Fed up with his life, Alex Martin gives up all his worldly possessions to hitchhike across the country.

ILC’s take: an irreverent and almost unbelievable story. So entertaining.

Smut
Director: Tom Sveen, Producers: John Wakayama Carey & Sarah Dorman, USA, 2014, DCP, 10m
On a class field trip to the landfill, two boys make a startling discovery that draws them toward adulthood.

ILC’s take: A nostalgic gem. Could easily see this as being a smaller episode of a larger narrative.

smut_web

Knives
Director: Aaron David DeFazio, Producer: Larissa Rhodes, USA, 2014, DCP, 16m
A curious shopping-cart collector investigates the suspicious owner of knife-sharpening truck after a string of brutal murders.

ILC’s take: Quirky without being irksome

The King’s Pawn
Director: Jonah Bleicher, Producer: Rob Cristiano, USA, 2014, DCP, 20m
A former chess prodigy challenges the world champion with the super computer he spent his life designing.

ILC’s take: had some really funny moments.

thekingspawn_web

 


The winners were announced in a ceremony of May 8th:

JURY SELECTS
A Mighty Nice Man
Devil’s Work
Scheherazade
Sina Forma
Subordinate
The Immaculate Reception
Tobacco Burn

JURY HONORS
Amateur Dictator
Fault Lines
Oasis
Party of Special Things To Do
Rattlefly
Roughstock
Scumbag
Smut
Solid Ground

STUDENT SELECTS
Alex The Magnificent
Amateur Dictator
American Gladiators
Body of Crime
Party of Special Things To Do
Rattlefly
Sina Forma
Smut
The Immaculate Reception
Tobacco Burn


Finally, check out the festival trailer here: