Friday, March 31, 2017

After the death of his beloved employer, known only as "the old man," a simple-minded gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) is thrust out into the world, his only knowledge of life outside his garden coming from the television programs he watches religiously. After her limo accidentally backs into him, he is taken in by Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the wealthy wife of well-connected businessman, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, who won an Oscar for his performance). The Rands mistake Chance's childlike naivete for profound insights into life and politics. Benjamin, who is dying but is a close friend and adviser to the President, introduces Chance to the Commander-in-Chief, and soon his musings are gardening become the cornerstone of the President's economic policy. Chance unwittingly becomes a national celebrity overnight, as his simple outlook on life turns into a refreshingly uncomplicated philosophy in a world obsessed with political intrigue, drama, and detail.

Much like its lead character, Hal Ashby's altogether wonderful Being There, out this month on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection, is something of a blank emotional slate onto which the audience can project its own feelings. Chance is essentially a child, probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, uneducated and illiterate, yet he stumbles into the halls of power almost without question from the powers that be. He becomes a "flavor of the moment," and America becomes willing to give the keys to the kingdom to a man who is wholly unqualified and without the proper understanding of how the government, or the world in general, works. Sound familiar? In that regard, Being There feels eerily prescient (at the time it was interpreted as a comment on the rise of Ronald Reagan...oh how far we've come). It's also a comment on race in America that still rings true today. "It's for sure a white man's world in America." exclaims Louise, the black maid who raised Chance, and is the only one who knows who he really is. "Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want."

There's a lot to be said for Being There's commentary about the ease in which Chance rockets to unwitting (and unearned) political stardom, but he is certainly no Donald Trump. There's no malice in his actions, no intent to deceive or lie to anyone. He simply doesn't understand what's going on around him, while everyone else ascribes whatever they want to his vague pronouncements. There's a kindness and sense of childlike wonder about him that really gives the film its sense of charm. In fact, by the end of the film, Ashby has turned chance into a kind of Christ-like figure, as he literally walks on water in the film's final shot. In that regard, Chance's rise to prominence is not necessarily meant to be a bad thing. He opens people up, and connects them with a simpler, less complicated view of life, which humanity in all its wisdom has turned into a series of neurotic political maneuverings. "Life is a state of mind," goes the final line of the film, and indeed, Being There seems to have little use for those who unnecessarily complicated with needless concerns and made-up human dramas. Therein lies the real beauty of the film - Chance's rise is both positive and negative, bringing out the best and the worst of human nature.

Whether or not his influence is good or bad is never really explored, and ultimately left up to the audience. Ashby wisely places the ball in our court, leaving us to interpret it as we will. It's both a critique of a world that allows such a man to achieve such a prominent role in American leadership (where even the most unqualified of white men is allowed to soar to the top of the food chain), and a celebration of his good-natured, completely non-cynical outlook, standing apart from the high-speed neurosis of modern American life. Being There is, like Chance, whatever we want it to be. It's a beautiful enigma (given life through Caleb Deschanel's evocative cinematography, gorgeously rendered on Blu-Ray), both heartwarming and melancholy - a film that has gone on to influence such films as Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet it has somehow stands apart in its refusal to sentimentalize its story. The result is something magic and otherworldly, a film that closed out the 1970's with a knowing smile, mourning that which was to come, and celebrating an unassuming antidote to the decade's increasing sense of materialism and political polarization. And it feels more essential now than ever.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Capsule reviews of new Blu-Ray releases:

Originally released in 1979 as Head Over Heels, Chilly Scenes of Winter was re-released in 1982 with a new ending and sporting the original title of Ann Beattie's novel on which it was based. Billed as a "romantic comedy," it's actually much more subtle and downbeat than what one would general consider a rom-com. John Heard plays a professional who falls in love with a married woman, who just happens to be having marital troubles with her husband. When she decides to go back to him, however, that sends Heard into an obsessive tail-spin.

Chilly Scenes of Winter covers some pretty dark territory in relationships, although its tone remains mostly light. It's naturalism is perhaps its greatest asset. There's never any malevolence in the characters' actions, but it feels like such an honest exploration of the kind of all-encompassing infatuation and the tricky waters of romantic attraction. Every choice rings true. In fact it feels so normal it almost loses its dramatic thrust, and Heard's occasional fourth-wall-breaking asides seem out-of-place with the rest of the film. There's not a lot to hang on to here, but it is marvelously performed.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

INTERIORS (Twilight Time)
In his first dramatic film, Woody Allen paid homage to one of his greatest cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, every frame of Interiors seems almost haunted by Bergman, from Gordon Willis' chilly cinematography, to the hushed, portentous atmosphere, it certainly feels like a lost Bergman film, even if it often lacks the legendary Swedish director's depth.

The story of three adult sisters whose family is torn apart by their father's sudden abandonment of their controlling mother, Interiors has all of Allen's existential crises without any of his trademark comedy. The result is hit and miss, often as self-consciously somber as it is engrossing. The performances are the highlight here, each one is a standalone highlight, even if Maureen Stapleton is a mid-film shot of adrenaline. It's dramatic elements may feel a bit disjointed, but Allen's mastery of dialogue and character detail keep Interiors from slipping too deeply into self-seriousness.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LOVE WITCH (Oscilloscope)
Anna Biller's deliriously entertaining ode to the over-the-top erotic horror films of the 1960s, popularized by the likes of Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava, is one of the most stunning and flawless genre homages I have ever seen. Not even Tarantino has so closely replicated a genre film like this. It feels completely authentic, like something out of a time machine. The Love Witch absolutely nails the atmosphere of those erotic giallo films that were so prominent on the exploitation circuit at the time. From the vibrant colors, to the soft-focus cinematography, to the music, to the framing, to the presentational performance style, everything about The Love Witch hums not only with a reverence for its influences, but with a feminist verve all its own.

While many of these films existed mainly to titillate with the promise of bare female flesh (rarely delivering on their own lurid premises), The Love Witch turns the concept on its head. There is certainly flesh to spare, but Biller isn't letting the audience off the hook here. Her story of a young witch whose desperation for love leads her to develop a sex potion designed to give men what they want, believing if she fulfills their sexual fantasies it will translate into love, resonates with more sophisticated flair than much of its exploitation brethren. Instead of making them fall in love, the potion drives them mad, causing them to commit suicide. It isn't long before the men of the town bring out their figurative torches and pitchforks in an effort to kill the witch. It's an alluring and engaging allegory for modern sexual politics, where women give into the fantasies of men, only to be punished for it later by a society that fears the very sexually liberated women it claims to champion. I loved every minute of this film. As a fan of Rollin and Bava, I was especially impressed by the Biller's fidelity to the genre. She clearly has a strong understanding of what made these exploitation films what they were, and how to use their structure to achieve a greater thematic depth. The Love Witch is a veritable orgy of sinful cinematic tropes, re-purposed and re-imagined for a new time by an artist working at the top of her game.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PINOCCHIO - Signature Collection (Disney)
"Always let your conscience be your guide."

I feel like Pinocchio is often overlooked in the Disney canon. While "When You Wish Upon a Star" has become the de-facto Disney theme song, the film itself almost stands in the shadow of its predecessor, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has the distinction of being the first feature length animated film. Disney had a lot riding on the follow-up, and the result is one of his finest achievements.

It's surprising how dark this thing is. Pinocchio is a warning to children as much as it is a charming piece of entertainment, and the results of Pinocchio's misbehavior are occasionally terrifying (what child didn't grow up thinking lying would make their nose grow?), with nightmarish imagery that makes for some of Disney's darkest moments. While much of this kind of thing wouldn't fly today (the smoking, the drinking), it makes Pinocchio's journey that much more harrowing and his redemption all the more moving. It's a beautifully animated work whose enduring message of simple goodness continues to resonate, anchored by some of the most endearing characters and sidekicks that Disney ever created.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

STANLEY & IRIS (Twilight Time)
I've always felt that John Williams' score for Stanley & Iris is one of his most overlooked gems. It's small scale, unassuming, based only on two simple, straightforward themes, which it repeats for most of its short running time. But that's not unlike the film itself - small, lovely, earnest, never spectacular but always charming. Stanley & Iris, the final film by the great Martin Ritt, is anchored by two graceful performances by Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda as the eponymous duo; Stanley, an illiterate cook, and Iris, a factory worker who decides to help him learn to read.

The film has a kind of quiet dignity about it, as Iris helps Stanley regain his confidence through finally learning to read, a handicap which has held him back his entire life. They fall in love along the way, of course, and the film has very little in the way of conflict or drama. But Ritt explores the crippling impediment of illiteracy without turning it into an "issue drama," quietly crafting a tender and heartfelt love story that coasts along on the strength of its stars magnetic and lived in performances. It's the very definition of a "nice" film, never offending, never offering emotional fireworks, but hitting its notes with Ritt's soft-spoken grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Friday, March 24, 2017

The original "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" series is one of those pieces of my childhood of which I am under no rose-colored illusions about its quality. A goofy recut of the hit Japanese series, "Super Sentai," managed to turn a single formula (evil alien creates monster, Power Rangers overpower monster, evil alien makes monster grow, power rangers call on Megazord to defeat monster) into an 800+ episode phenomenon. Yet looking back on the series' roots, it's clear what a campy, goofy property this really was. Gritty reboots of 80's and 90's properties are all the rage right now, capitalizing on millennial nostalgia for the movies and shows they grew up with.

As a childhood fan of the show, I approached the remake with trepidation. Would it be a pointlessly gritty retread, the kind of edgy-for-edginess-sake reboot that tries way too hard to appeal to newer, more jaded generation (far too cool for the brightly colored camp of the original)  while capitalizing on millennial nostalgia? Or would it be just a silly as its predecessors?

From L to R: Naomi Scott as "Kimberly," RJ Cyler as "Billy," Dacre Montgomery as "Jason," Ludi Lin as "Zack" and Becky G as "Trini" in SABAN'S POWER RANGERS. Photo credit: Kimberley French.
Interestingly enough, director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) walks a fine line between both scenarios. His Power Rangers is under no illusions about how goofy its premise is, and as a result never takes itself too seriously. It's certainly a more grounded take on the material, without the over-the-top camp that made the original so singularly bizarre. But it it manages to keep its tongue planted firmly in its cheek without being an ironic parody of itself. It knows it's silly, and embraces it; charting a new path and a  new tone without straying too far from the foundations it was built upon. The rangers are still five "teenagers with attitude." In this case, five screw-ups who land themselves in detention before finding themselves in a quarry one night where they discover 5 mysterious power coins that appear to give them super powers. Underneath the quarry, they stumble upon an ancient spaceship, where a robot named Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) has been waiting with an alien named Zordon (Bryan Cranston), who is trapped in the walls of the ship. Zordon tells them that they have been chosen to be the Power Rangers, destined to protect the world from Rita Repulsa (a delightfully over-the-top Elizabeth Banks), a former ranger from Zordon's own prehistoric team, who seeks to resurrect her monster, Goldar, and destroy the world. In order to defeat her, these five teenagers from all different walks of life must rely on each other, because only together as one team can they defeat the evil sorceress and bring peace to the world.

Power Rangers' theme feels especially timely. It was certainly always there (if a bit on the nose in its color assignments), but in the 2017 take there's a very blatant theme of strength through unity, where people of every color and creed must put aside their differences and come together for the common good to become something much better than themselves. The team is nothing without any single one of its members. The plot is pure superhero pulp, of course, but Israelite has a clear love for this material. Zordon, Alpha, Rita, Goldar, and the Rangers may only bear passing resemblance to their Clinton-era counterparts, but the un-pretentious spirit of the original series is alive and well - only new and improved.

Trini (Becky G, left) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, right) in POWER RANGERS. Photo Credit: Kimberley French
Sure, it's got more dutch-angles than you can shake a stick at, to let us know how edgy and new it is, and the 5 rangers are mostly bland and anonymous (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl scene-stealer RJ Cyler is the only real standout as the autistic Blue Ranger Billy Cranston), but there's just something so refreshingly un-ironic about it. Sure, it's a major visual departure from the TV series, but it really needed to be to be taken seriously. It's also practically a feature length advertisement for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, but the product placement is so hilariously random and winking that it works in spite of itself.

That's part of what makes Power Rangers so deeply entertaining - its refusal to be a gritty, serious-minded take on something so ridiculous, and its equally admirable refusal to condescend to that same material. Israelite is fully aware of how aggressively un-cool the original show is to modern sensibilities, but he doesn't leave its sense of humor behind. Those who didn't grow up with the show may find it a bit silly, but you almost have to admire the gleeful abandon with which it dives into this universe. It's a somewhat radical re-imagining, but it just works, managing to pay homage to its roots while crafting a new version of the familiar mythology. It's a wildly entertaining piece of fan service that has no illusions about what it is or what it's doing, embracing its inherent ridiculousness with an infectious sense of fun and excitement. It's a kids' movie for children of the 90's, and fans really couldn't have asked for more. This critic, for one, loved every minute of it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

POWER RANGERS | Directed by Dean Israelite | Stars Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

James Mangold's Logan is not your typical superhero movie. While my review of the film itself will appear in Thursday's print edition of The Dispatch, I wanted to highlight one of the film's strongest elements on its own - Marco Beltrami's unconventional score.

The character of Wolverine has never had a strong thematic identity to carry him through the eight X-Men films in which he has appeared, and while Beltrami also scored Mangold's The Wolverine in 2013, he starts with a clean slate here. Right away it is clear that this will not be a typical superhero score. Beltrami starts things off with a simple piano motif in Main Titles, it's minor chord progressions reflecting Logan's loneliness. The introduction of a wailing harmonica at around the 1:30 mark announces the film's western influences, recalling the spaghetti western scores of Ennio Morricone.

Much of the score dwells in the background. Laura has an eerie kind of ambiance to it (recalling the quieter moments of Beltrami's western score, The Homesman), while The Grim Reavers and Old Man Logan have a more dissonant sound. Old Man Logan brings back Logan's piano theme from the main titles, establishing the melody as the grizzled Wolverine's primary musical identity. Alternate Route to Mexico really kicks the score into high gear, with a suspenseful string line that accompanies Logan's attempts to evade detection by mysterious agents who are looking for mutants.

Beltrami does fall back into some generic sounding action material, as heard in bass-heavy tracks like That's Not a Choo-Choo, X-24, and Farm Aid that rely on synths and pulsing rhythms, not unlike Beltrami's work on Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma. Things get interesting, however, in El Limo-nator, which introduces a honky-tonk piano into the action, reinforcing the score's western flair . The thematic material for Laura, Logan's young charge, begins to take greater shape in Gabriella's Video, as Logan discover's Laura's true identity. Minimalism is the name of the game here, with its use of ambient synths and wind-chimes, but the effect is lovely. It reappears in Goodnight Moon, grounding the score in a kind of quiet humanity.

It's interesting that Beltrami chose to anchor the score with a piano, especially as Logan's main identity. There's something familiar about the piano that speaks of home and family, and Beltrami uses that to his advantage here, giving us a haunting melodic texture (rather than a hummable theme) to represent the grizzled old hero. The piano motif reappears in You Can't Break the Mould and Up to Eden, before bringing the score to a heartrendingly restrained finale in Don't Be What They Made You. Without a recognizable thematic identity from the past, Beltrami chooses instead to bid farewell to Wolverine with a quiet and aching piano solo, before rounding out the score with a full presentation of Laura's theme in Eternum, with its western piano and harmonica accents. The album is closed out by three meandering bonus tracks that are intriguing from an orchestration standpoint, but ultimately add little to the album.

Superhero scores tend to be defined by their action music. And while there are some strong action tracks here - Forest Fight is the closest the score gets to grand-scale action scoring, before slipping back into the atonal suspense of Logan vs. X-24, the quiet moments are what really define Logan. Don't come to this score expecting larger than life heroics. Like the film itself, it is a dark and introspective score. But it's also one of the most unconventional and effective superhero scores  to come along in a long time. It may not always be an easy listen, but Beltrami wisely chose to give the character a harsh and gritty musical identity, whose rough exterior belies a tender heart. It never overstates its purpose, but the effect resonates long after the credits roll.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available for digital download. On CD March 31.