Topsy-Turvy (1999, Mike Leigh)

In the 1880’s, writer Gilbert and composer Sullivan are discontent. The reviews aren’t great for their new show, and each is considering going his own way. Then Gilbert sees a Japanese culture exhibit and is inspired to write The Mikado. The theater owner books it, the actors prepare, and the play is a big hit.

And the whole thing is an exercise in futility to me, because the movie seems to presuppose that I know/care anything about Gilbert, Sullivan or The Mikado, which I do not. It’s all superbly acted, and meticulously designed. Some of the performance scenes are wonderfully filmed. I was marvelling at one in particular, detached, realizing that I have no desire to see this scene filmed, but if somebody must film it, Leigh is doing a bang-up job. Seems like it’s all a ton of fun, but the fun isn’t infectious. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but for now, this is the rare film I admire but don’t enjoy.

Broadbent with his large, frowny eyes:

Sullivan (Allan Corduner of Me Without You, De-Lovely) is ill, but still manages to attend the opening of his Princess Ida at the Savoy Theater. After seeing the response, he runs around telling everyone he wants to write a grand opera instead of these “topsy-turvy” musicals. Gilbert (Jim “Inspector Butterman” Broadbent) is crotchety and complainy, having problems at home with his depressingly childless wife. There are parties and rehearsals. I noticed the great Shirley Henderson as one of the actresses, but didn’t recognize Andy “Gollum” Serkis, Kevin “Tommy in Trainspotting” McKidd or Lesley “every Mike Leigh movie” Manville.

I am into Shirley Henderson:

A. Taubin:

The film takes its shape from the characters, their relationships, and the abundance of historical information about the world they inhabit—and the ways in which it’s both distant from and close to our own. When Gilbert uses one of the first telephones in a private home in London to talk to D’Oyly Carte, what’s delightful is not only the look of the phone itself but that he has to work out an entirely new etiquette of communication. Sullivan drops into a casual conversation the tidbit that his relatives, the Churchills, have a handful in their headstrong eleven-year-old son, Winston.

Sully conducts his… masterpiece?

The one bit that sucked me in was when lead Mikado actor Timothy Spall’s solo song gets cut for pacing on the night before the premiere, and the cast holds a nervous stairwell confrontation with a humorless Gilbert, who agrees to reinstate it. That part got me because I felt the tension; I’d hate for anything bad to happen to Timothy Spall.

Buy from Amazon:
Topsy-Turvy (Criterion Blu-ray)

The Four Times (2010, Michelangelo Frammartino)

The trailer and the IMDB plot summary are both slightly misleading – one gives the movie a narrator, an explicit theme of rebirth and the other gives it a human lead character and a story setup. The movie itself has none of these things, and requires none. The advertising was all for naught anyway – it was just me and one other guy on opening night at the plaza.

The trailer narration is useful – explains that the movie is illustrating the reincarnation theory of Pythagoras (a native of the area where the film was shot) which claims that each person has lived before as a mineral, a plant, an animal. The film is full of births and deaths – quiet, no dialogue or narration at all, but I found it beautiful and interesting, and meditative without being boring.

In order, as far as I remember it. Guy is on a steaming rock pile, slapping it with a shovel. A shepherd is taking his goats out to pasture, seems to have trouble walking home. That night he mixes some powder with water and drinks it before bed. Next day, collects snails in a pail, tries to fashion a lid so they won’t escape. Goes to church where he trades a bottle of milk to a woman for a packet of dust, which she has swept up from the floor. That day in the field he loses the packet, and is distressed about it when he gets home, goes to church but nobody answers. Next morning is the most impressive long-take I’ve seen all year. The camera is across the street from the man’s house, facing it, above the fenced-in pen where the goats are kept. A passion play is coming down the street, and some late-arriving centurions park across the street, propping their car tire with a rock. After the parade goes by, a boy lagging behind is threatened by the shepherd’s dog, distracts the dog by throwing rocks, dog grabs the one under the car, car rolls into the fence freeing all the goats. I can’t imagine wanting to coordinate a ten-minute shot with a cast of sixty townspeople in which the lead actors are a young child and a dog. Anyway, the shepherd is discovered dead, the goats rampaging through his house. A couple of new guys are taking care of the goats, but the movie doesn’t linger on them, takes the goats’ point of view for a while. We see a goat give birth (this is why Katy didn’t want to see the movie), the small goats play inside while the grown ones go to pasture, and finally when they’re old enough the small ones tag along – but one gets lost, presumably freezes to death under a tree. The tree is cut down, dragged into town and lifted up for some kind of festival, then taken down, chopped to bits and given to the coal man. He arranges the wood in a very orderly pile, covers it and sets alight, tamping it down from above to make coal. And that’s where we came in.

“The only professional used in the film, claims Frammartino, was the dog.”

Frammartino also made a movie called The Gift, which I must find sometime.

Buy from Amazon:
Le Quattro Volte [Blu-ray]

Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)

Since Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance didn’t work out as a wedding anniversary movie (we turned it off after he’d spent 30 minutes flailing alone after dumping his longtime girlfriend), we tried this movie about society folks brought low by the great depression, full of cheating and suicide. Oh well, we made up for these rom-com failures by sandwiching them between the Soulmates Double-Feature and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Many, many quality actors, most of whom make it to dinner at the Jordans’ house by the end (John “Twentieth Century” Barrymore, playing a washed-up actor, stuffs up the cracks and turns on the gas). His secret squeeze the Jordan girl, Madge Evans (Cukor’s David Copperfield) doesn’t take the news too badly. Her mom Billie Burke (a standout with her high-pitched perfect-party obsession) ignores her own husband Lionel “West of Zanzibar” Barrymore, who is slowly dying of heart failure.

More important than the Barrymores, now I’ve seen Jean Harlow (a harsh city-slangin’ beautiful blonde broad), Wallace Beery (not just a Barton Fink reference anymore; big scary guy) and Marie Dressler, whom I’ve never heard of, but she was pretty awesome as a large, loud washed-up actress, broke but not taking it so hard as the Barrymores.

Lionel owns a shipping company, which has some stock-trading drama involving Beery. Harlow spends most of the movie in bed berating her maid, is seeing her doctor for more than medical reasons. Some servants get in a knife fight (tragically off screen – Rules of the Game this ain’t). The long-awaited society couple who are the reason for the dinner never show up, so Burke’s frowny cousin and her dullard husband come instead. After talking about dinner all movie long, they finally head in to eat just as the end title comes up – wonder if Luis Bunuel was taking notes.

The movie’s undying lessons:
1) Always, always lie to your loved ones.
2) If a patient is dying, it’s best not to tell him.

Remade in the 1950’s with Mary Astor and Pat O’Brien then in the 80’s with Lauren Bacall, Charles Durning, Ellen Greene and Julia Sweeney. At least two musical parody two-reelers were made in ’33 to poke fun at the silly rich people with their love affairs and their suicides. Supper at Six was written by song lyricist Ballard MacDonald, and couldn’t have been worse than the one we watched, Come to Dinner (1933, Roy Mack), a contemptuous mini-remake populated by look-alikes who weren’t halfway decent at acting or comedy, but did a good job of quoting and resembling. Roy Mack presumably couldn’t be arsed since he made eighteen other shorts this year, including spoofs of Grand Hotel and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and two movies featuring a seven-year-old Sammy Davis Jr.

Buy from Amazon:
Dinner at Eight DVD

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

The one where Groucho is “Rufus T. Firefly,” the contrived new president of Freedonia, who causes war with a neighboring country whose ambassador (Louis Calhern, Cary Grant’s boss in Notorious) is trying to cuddle up to the rich woman (Marx regular Margaret Dumont) who installed Rufus on the throne. Despite the simple plot summaries I see online claiming a love triangle plot, Groucho is too anarchic for this, insulting both of them equally, while ruling the country with contempt for power and also for the commoners. Harpo and Chico are supposedly spies, but I preferred their scenes as peanut sellers outside the palace, almost standing disconnected from the rest of the movie. Speaking of disconnect, trusty time-filling brother Zeppo is here, I forget in what role, but he vanishes halfway through except for an unwelcome appearance in the big closing musical number. The great Leo McCarey (Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth) is said to have directed, and indeed this one holds together as a proper film a bit more than Horse Feathers. Katy didn’t like it, she later revealed.

Buy from Amazon:
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection

Emma Stone Drive-In Double-Feature (2011)

full title:
Emma Stone-starring Soulmate-seeking Rom-com Drive-In Double-Feature

Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

From the co-writers of Cats & Dogs and Bad Santa, and also the writer of Tangled. Emma Stone has big eyes, and we didn’t know what she’s doing in the movie, but figured we missed that while in traffic on Moreland for the first 15 minutes of the film. Turns out it’s the surprise ending that she’s Steve Carell’s grown daughter, and the joke’s on poor Steve since his sweet daughter is dating Ryan Gosling, the sex machine who irrationally befriends Steve and gives him dating advice. Steve needs this since he’s divorcing Julianne Moore for sleeping with coworker Kevin Bacon. Steve’s son Bobo is infatuated with a 17-year-old Analeigh Tipton. Thanks to twitter, I know that the night Katy and I were watching this movie, Analeigh was reading Ender’s Game and watching Oliver & Company while sick in bed. But in the movie she takes nude photos of herself, prompting Zodiac killer John Carroll Lynch to attack Steve, starting a big comedy fight, after which Steve and Julianne are perhaps hopeful that they can maybe be friends again or something, because they are soulmates, just like Gosling and Stone, Bobo and Tipton, and everyone has exactly one soulmate, whom they will definitely meet and have a chance to date, and if you let that person go you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

Friends With Benefits (2011, Will Gluck)

Emma Stone was in this too, but who was she? Let’s see… it was past midnight and Katy and I bought pops. Ended up not raining, which is good, but too humid and lethargic to do anything but watch the stupid movie. So Emma Stone, not positive who she was, but Justin Timberlake (who has alzheimerin’ dad Richard Jenkins) is wooed to New York City by hottie headhunter Mila Kunis (who has drunkie undependable mom Patricia Clarkson). Justie and Mila become best buds, then no-strings-attached fuck-buds (Katy says this beat the actual No Strings Attached, which starred Ashton Kutcher, so duh). They both have huge commitment phobias because of their wacky parents but it turns out they are soulmates, and they know if they let each other go they’ll regret it for the rest of their lives. Shaun White appears in a would-be-funny cameo if anyone gave a shit about Shaun White (Tony Hawk is way cooler).

More interesting than the romance and the carefully-positioned cameras and sheets to conceal nudity was the movie’s subversive commentary about the pretty young idle rich. A spate of recent documentaries make out fashion and magazine/newspaper businesses to be unforgivingly high-pressure, but Justin is the art director of GQ and seems to have plenty of time off, as does Mila, who’s the kind of person who places high executives as GQ and Amazon. The only “work” we see Justin do (besides discussing typefaces with homosexual sports editor Woody Harrelson – times new roman?!) is decide between two things presented before him – this cover or that cover? This article or that article? Both times his decision is reversed by someone who is not his boss, and a photo shoot is turned into a gay dance party by homosexual sports editor Woody Harrelson, making Justin seem increasingly like Tim Robbins in the Hudsucker Proxy, a highly-paid poster boy, grinning and pursuing his soulmate while the real work is being done elsewhere.

From the director of Emma Stone’s breakthrough Easy A (though it was Crazy Stupid Love that was full of Scarlet Letter references) and the cowriters of an upcoming film about “a relationship expert who cannot keep his own love life in order.”

Roadkill (1989, Bruce McDonald)

“If you wanna drive, you’ve gotta kill.”

Opens with a mini-documentary about rabbit breeding, and I’m thinking someone had been watching L’age d’Or lately.

Bruce with his lead actress:

Record label flunky Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar, later in Highway 61) is assigned the task of tracking down a touring band gone missing, Children of Paradise. She takes a taxi for this purpose, drives 18 hours straight. Main label guy Roy, with slicked-back hair and a vaguely familiar look (he had small parts in eXistenZ and A History of Violence) stays back, yelling at her over the phone when she calls in.

Roy:

She finds the band briefly, but the singer has disappeared. So she pools her efforts with a documentary crew (the director of which is played by Bruce McDonald himself) also hired to document the Children of Paradise. At some point she has sex with a 15-year-old guy at the drive-in, who gives her his car. Ramona finally finds the band’s singer, now a spaced-out mute bald hot-dog salesman. But he wanders off, leaving her with a self-proclaimed serial killer, played by Don McKellar, the movie’s writer. All the players (including Roy) meet up at a bar for the finale, supposed to be the Children of Paradise’s final show, and it is, since Don shoots a whole bunch of people (including the documentary crew – only movie I’ve seen in which the writer gets to kill the director).

Mute vocalist:

Postscript: the taxi’s meter rolls over and Ramona only owes a couple bucks. Also the cabby meets Joey Ramone for some reason.

Fun indie movie, creatively and energetically shot, with wall-to-wall music. I’d be glad to see more indie films take their cues from punk rock instead of from Little Miss Sunshine.

Joshua at Octopus Cinema:

Aesthetically, the film contains many more iconic moments than one would think, from the silhouetted conversation [Don McKellar] has with Ramona to the solitary dance Ramona shares with Luke in the center of a grouping of cars, McDonald peppers the film with moments of intermittent beauty, striking images that remain on the brain for hours afterward.

Buy from Amazon:
Roadkill DVD

Rembrandt (1936, Alexander Korda)

A classy (but under-90-minute) bio-pic, which gratefully provides a smiling Charles Laughton plenty of time for speechifying. The story goes that Rembrandt started painting a commissioned portrait of some rich officers, but the painting turned dark after his wife Saskia died of illness, hence “The Night Watch.” Much criticism follows, Rem falls in with housekeeper Geertje and goes through dark times, loses all his possessions, then ten years later dumps her for newer, younger housekeeper Hendrickje. Together they creatively avoid Rem’s debts by saying he has no personal wealth and works for a dealership run by Hendrickje and Rem’s son Titus, thus all paintings belong to the dealer and can be sold. Hen eventually dies just like Rem’s first wife, and Rem lives out his days in poverty, begging on the street for money to buy paints but, being Charles Laughton, still looks awfully pleased with himself.

Roger Livesey, recognizable by his distinctive voice, gets a prime role as a beggar whom Rem wants to paint as a faded old king. Laughton, the year after Ruggles of Red Gap, and three after winning the oscar for Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII plays opposite stage actress Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje) and Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje), who was the Bride of Frankenstein just the previous year.

Wikipedia, the source of all truths, says Night Watch was never criticized, that Rembrandt was paid in full and the subjects were pleased, but confirms the story of the art dealership owned by Rembrandt’s son and girlfriend.

It’s a mid-career work by Korda, who was turning to production over direction – this was one of the last he’d direct himself – with help from writer Carl Zuckmayer (The Blue Angel), cinematographer Georges Périnal (some René Clair films, Blood of a Poet, Colonel Blimp) and art director Vincent Korda (who’d work with Ernst Lubitsch, Carol Reed and David Lean).

Buy from Amazon:
Eclipse DVD: Alexander Korda’s Private Lives

Nightwatching (2007, Peter Greenaway)

Filmed like a stage play with tableau shots and intricate lighting, and performed to the rafters, with driving music, a thousand pages of dialogue and a million times more profanity than the Korda movie.

Rembrandt is portrayed by a playful Martin Freeman. Saskia is alive until halfway through the movie, and Geertje and Hendrickje show up too, perverse and unrecognizable from the other movie (Geertje in particular is less forbidding, almost jolly in this one). Respectively, PG cast Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss, Breakfast on Pluto), Jodhi May (House of Mirth) and Emily Holmes (Snakes on a Plane) as Rem’s women.

Possibly there’s an angel on the roof, or perhaps it’s just Bob Kemp’s daughter. Maybe her name is Marieke. I get that there’s a huge conspiracy, that everyone in the movie knows about some sordid goings-on, that the cover-ups are ineffective and that Rembrandt is said to be exposing the misdeeds within details in his painting (definite shades of The Draughtsman’s Contract), but I have a hard time following all the specifics. There’s a flood of explanation at the end: one man is burning down houses for insurance, one runs an orphanage as a child brothel, one is manipulating tobacco prices, and one shot Hasselburg. The picture is usually dark around the edges, almost definitely in sympathy with The Night Watch, but I didn’t get any other art or history or story references because I am not cultured enough to appreciate Greenaway. It’s a common complaint, but I don’t hold it against P.G. – that he can make such a talky yet visually interesting film which actually makes me want to learn more about Rembrandt and 1600’s Dutch society is good enough.

Buy from Amazon:
Nightwatching DVD

John Turturro Drive-In Double-Feature (2011)

full title:
Animated, Machinery-Themed, John Turturro-starring Sequel Double Feature at the Drive-In

Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)

In the first movie, Turturro plays a hotshot open-wheel race car named Bumblebee, I think. Larry the Cable Guy gets mixed up in a Man Who Knew Too Little super-spy plot with Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer, while Owen Wilson is off having a biggest-dick contest with Turturro. The guy who developed the so-called green alternative fuel turns out to be the bad guy, because green fuels are fake and ultimately cause more environmental harm than fossil fuels. As Ruppert says in Collapse: corn! don’t make me laugh. Katy and I loved the Barbie & Ken short. This sequel was more exciting than the predictable first movie.

Transformers 3 (2011, Michael Bay)

Then Turturro, having learned humility and the value of friendship in the first movie, uses his money and influence to help Shia The Beouf fight Megatron and Shockwave and revive Roddimus Prime, whose ship crash-landed on the moon (Katy says there is no “dark side” since the moon rotates, and that the man in the moon is a myth). Frances McDormand was an army guy, I think, and John Malkovich was his usual Malkovichy self. Patrick O’Dreamy from Katy’s shows played the evil human who’d stop at nothing to defeat Turturro’s and The Beouf’s schemes because the Decapitrons have promised that he’ll be king of the humans after they win using some Fifth Element columns to bring an entire planet into Earth’s orbit, or something along those lines. More comprehensible than part one, with the masturbation/embarrassment jokes easier to take since I saw them coming this time. Oh, and the Spanish teacher from Community.