THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Warner Brothers Story (****)

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bothers Story
American Masters, PBS Television
3-part series airing Sept. 23-25, 2008 at 9 PM

Ah, my peeps, mon freres, my namesakes...the Warner Brothers. Alas, no relation to me, regrettably, but I can dream can't I? Anyway, this excellent three-part series debuted Monday night at 9 PM on Maryland Public Television and while I originally was gonna watch G4's repeats of Lost or Andrew Zimmern eating scorpions and chicken balls and other disgusting comestibles on Bizarre Foods, I promised a co-worker I would tape this special for him - and I'm glad I did. It's the latest excellent documentary produced, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker and Time magazine Senior Film critic Richard Schickel. As narrated by Clint Eastwood, it's the centerpiece of Warner Home Video's year-long celebration of the studio's 85th anniversary, which coincides with the reissue of more than 50 titles for DVD release and new special editions of select Warner Brothers classics.

Before the Warner Brothers turned their ardent anti-Fascist fervor of the 30s and 40s to Red-baiting in the 1950s (following a nasty post-war labor union strike at the studio), this studio was the home of the best in Pre-Code permissiveness (viz Baby Face), working-class social realism (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, The Gold Diggers of 1933), civil rights/social injustice (Black Legion was a direct attack on the Ku Klux Klan, though "foreigners" were substituted as the target of the KKK's ire instead of the too-close-to-home, still-invisible-to-Hollywood African-Americans), and crime/gangster films (Little Caesar, White Heat). They were also the studio that released the first (semi-) "Talkie" with 1927's The Jazz Singer and the first to take on fascism directly with 1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Not to mention they were home to such golden era-classics as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Key Largo, To Have and To Hold (hmmmm, all starring Humphrey Bogart, who Jack Warner didn't think was "star" material) etc. So, a pretty good pedigree there, dating back to the Rin Tin Tin era all the way up to the Harry Potter film franchise. Anyway, here's a much better take on the series from TCM's website.
New Documentary is Centerpiece of Warner Home Video's Year-Long Celebration of Studio's 85th Anniversary

On April 24, 1923, four brothers from Youngstown, Ohio (Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L. Warner) officially incorporated their new motion picture company which to this day continues to entertain the world with great films.

Throughout 2008, Warner Home Video (WHV) will celebrate Warner Bros. (WB) Studios’ 85th anniversary with an initiative that will debut more than 50 new-to-DVD feature films along with its centerpiece, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, an illuminating new documentary produced, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker and Time magazine Senior Film critic Richard Schickel. Clint Eastwood narrates.

As part of the partnership with American Masters, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story will be broadcast nationally as a three-part special in September 2008.

Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of American Masters, which is produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, noted "Given our long co-producing relationship with Warner Bros. -- on such projects as George Cukor, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and John Ford/John Wayne - it is thrilling and appropriate that American Masters can bring You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story to PBS."

“PBS’ American Masters is acclaimed for its exceptional documentaries illuminating our collective past, whether through individual achievements, or in this case, through the vision of a film studio,” said John F. Wilson, Sr. Vice President and Chief TV Programming Executive, PBS. “Exploring this impressive body of Warner Bros. films to more fully understand America’s unique place in history will be a wonderful and entertaining journey for our viewers.”

The DVD debuts in September. Simultaneously, a 550-page full-color companion book -- written by Schickel and George Perry, with an introduction by Eastwood -- will be published worldwide. George Perry is the former The Times of London film critic and is the author of many books on film.

In the documentary, Schickel chronicles the history of Warner Bros. in an unprecedented way, using excerpts from hundreds of Warner Bros.’ films to illustrate how many of the studio’s films have served as a mirror of the values, mores and attitudes of the eras in which they were produced.

“This documentary is definitely in Richard’s DNA. His fascination with Warner Bros. goes back to his boyhood in Milwaukee where the only theatre in town was owned by Warner,” said George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President, Theatrical Catalog Marketing, and Warner Home Video. “It’s a groundbreaking work that, rather than dealing with executive intrigue, contract disputes or casting couch adventures, focuses on the studio’s films as a microcosm of America’s cultural and social history. It’s a unique cinematic achievement which has never been attempted on this level ever before - for this or any studio.”

To help celebrate the 85th anniversary year, from the vast WB library among the industry’s most celebrated movies, more than 50 are being restored for their DVD release this year including: All This And Heaven, Too, The Beast With Five Fingers, Black Legion, Brother Orchid, Deception, Flamingo Road, Gold Diggers Of 1937, Inside Daisy Clover, Kid Galahad, Lady Killer, The Mayor Of Hell, Night Nurse, None But The Brave, Pete Kelly’s Blues, San Antonio, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Three On A Match, Virginia City and Watch On The Rhine.

New special editions of Warner Bros. Pictures favorites including Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Gypsy, Risky Business, and Splendor in the Grass are also set for the anniversary year celebration. A number of other new-to-DVD special editions and thematic box sets drawn from Warner’s classic MGM and RKO collections will also be part of this anniversary slate.

On August 31, the Hollywood Bowl’s “Big Picture” night will honor the studio’s magnificent movie music legacy with a special Warner Bros. musical concert to be held at the famed 18,000 seat amphitheatre. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, led by one of Hollywood’s foremost composers, David Newman, will perform music to accompany pivotal and well-known scenes from classic Warner Bros. films.

Clint Eastwood, who has worked with Richard Schickel on a number of projects, will narrate the documentary. The creative force behind many earlier works about Warner’s talented stars and directors, Schickel now takes on the task of telling the studio's entire history, with each sequence underscoring the crucial roles Warner Bros. and its films have played in portraying our society, a role the studio still plays today, some 85 years after its incorporation.

Through the use of rare archival interviews, some of which have not been seen for decades, as well as a great deal of newly photographed material, Schickel celebrates the colorful legacy of Warner Bros. throughout the decades, featuring cleverly assembled film clips from literally hundreds of films. Each of the documentary's hour-long sequences focus on a specific period in the studio's history, from the silent movie days and the development of sound, the depression, WWII, the advent of television, the onset of new technologies, and even the broadening and diversification of media companies in recent years.

Schickel engagingly retraces the legendary insights and demystifies the myths of some of Hollywood’s most magnificent productions such as The Jazz Singer, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Exorcist, All The President’s Men and the Batman and Harry Potter films; and talent from the likes of legends such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Newman, James Dean, Doris Day, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand and George Clooney. As the films from Warner Bros. studios have served as a roadmap and mirror of our social history, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story is sure to be viewed as an entertaining and unique roadmap to the colorful history of Hollywood and filmed entertainment.

For more information about Richard Schickel and his work, visit www.richardschickel.com

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Happiness Space (**)

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief
Directed by Jake Clennell, USA, 2006
Official site: www.thegreathappinessspace.com

Knowing my predilection for all things Japanese, my friend recommended this documentary about Japanese "host boys" - good-looking young men (sometimes known as "flower boys" because they're flora-pretty with an androgynous, long-haired look akin to that of a rock star) who are paid to entertain women in exclusive nightclubs. She figured I'd like it because it was about the Japanese sex trade and that my half-Japanese girlfriend would dig it because it was specifically about the less well-known male side of that trade. Unfortunately, she was wrong. This doc was way too long, the narrative didn't progress at all, and we doubted the veracity of the film - i.e., were people just playing to the camera or were we really getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of something approaching truth?

Part of the problem is that first-time documentary director Jake Clennell focuses almost exclusively on one male character - Issei, top host boy at Osaka's Café Rakkyo - and the group of women who adore him. The women are all sex industry workers (either "host girls," strippers, or "soap land" masseusses) who feel they can only talk about their trade or have a relationship with someone also in the trade or similarly "damaged goods" in the eyes of society. But Issei is egotistical and we never move beyond his superficial "Look at me, I'm wonderful" explanations of his success. And the girls, well, they're not middle-aged Patricia Neal types buying a young George Peppard boy-toy a la Breakfast At Tiffany's. They're young and fairly attractive; one wonders why, since men pay to have sex with them, that they can't simply find young, attractive guys to date. (Here's a hint, ladies: musicians. Since Issei and his ilk look just like J-rock pop stars, why not join the groupie gravy train? It's a well-established fact that pop musicians will fuck anything that moves, plus you might actually get in free to shows instead of having to pay $200 an hour to sit with Issei and sip $500 bottles of champagne in the VIP booth at Cafe Rakkyo.)

But instead, we get a tedious, seemingly endless loop of the women talking about how wonderful Issei is. For well over 90 minutes. And the grand finale? A predictable end-of-the-night scene of the exhausted man-whores stumbling out of the club and counting their money. Hardly a Hard Day's Night finish. And since Issei and his fellow hosts look so much like rock stars, I would have liked to have seen the director explore that aspect - talk about the "flower boy" pop star phenomenon, learn what pop stars the girls liked, etc. As it is, this movie is a one-trick pony, without a whole lot of ideas or filmmaking style. I can't believe it won the "Best Documentary Feature" at the 2006 Edinburgh International Film Festival. There must have been a football derby that day between Celtic and Rangers and all the judges must have been supremely pissed after the game.

To best understand host bars and their employees and clientele, check out Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaiddan agaru toki, 1960). It may be a fictitious narrative film, but Fiction is often the lie that tells the truth. It certainly rings truer than an allegedly "real" film like The Great Happiness Space.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gumby Dharma (****)

Directed by Robina Marchesi
USA, 2006, 54 minutes
Official Website: http://gumbydharma.com

On the Sundance Channel's Monday night "Doc Block," I caught the national broadcast premiere of Robina Marchesi's Gumby Dharma. (It repeats on Friday September 26 at 11 PM and Tuesday, September 30 at 10 AM.) It was great and I learned a lot about Mr. Clokey that I never knew before - like why Gumby was green (it's the color of life), why he has the bump on his head (to make him look less like a big green phallus; also, the bump reminded Art Clokey of his dad's cowlick!), and why Clokey went through his mid-life crisis and hung out with the new agey hippie types - including Timothy Leary and the requisite spiritual trip to India (he fell in love with a younger woman and succumbed to the swinging '60s sexual revolution). During that period, a lot of the Gumby episodes were produced by Clokey's wife, with animation by "Sneaky" Peter Kleinow (later the pedal steel guitar player with The Flying Burrito Brothers, who passed away in 2007). Oh, I and also learned why Clokey always wears that silly hat - he's bald!

Anyway, here's the student film Art Clokey made that started it all:

GUMBASIA (Art Clokey, 1953, 3 minutes)

The other great non-Gumby or Davey and Goliath-related work Clokey did was something called Mandala (1964) - not to be confused with Jordan Belson's Mandala (1952). After seeing clips this very personal film (made following the suicide of his daughter and reflecting the influence of Eastern mysticism and its concepts of life and death), I really want to see the whole work.

Sundance Channel capsule:
Art Clokey, grandmaster of stop-motion animation and the artist behind beloved icons from the early years of children's television - Gumby, Pokey, Davey and Goliath - is the focus of this fascinating documentary by Robina Marchesi. In his 80s when interviewed, Clokey reflects on his playful work and life, which included time in an orphanage, seminary school, divorce, years as a hippie and spiritual quests in the East. Featuring a rich assortment of film clips and interviews with leading animators, including Ray Harryhausen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties *****

Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties
by Peter Cowie
Faber and Faber, 2005, 304 pages

I just finished reading this, one of the best books on world cinema ever. I skimmed it over when I spotted it at Dadalus Books & Music and was instantly won over when right away I saw mentions of three rarities in there - on the first page of the Inroduction author Cowie mentions Alain Resnais' Je T'aime, Je T'aime (which I was lucky to catch when Eric Hatch screened a 35mm print last year at the Baltimore Musuem of Art), Juan Antonio Bardem's long-lost classic Death of a Cyclist, and even Glauber Rocha's "Cinema Novo" rarity Antonio Das Mortes (which locally is only available as a 16mm print at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library). Sold!

If you're a little dense, like me, you live for populist overviews like this, which is written in an easy-to-read style that avoids getting bogged down in detailed high-falutin' theory. The best thing about it is it made me want to go rent or re-assess the films mentioned, so in that regard it was a great Film Reader's Advisory. Peter Cowie is the author of numerous books on film and was the former international publishing director of Variety for many years.

Bares & Noble Overview:
In film history, the sixties are commonly known as the golden age of international cinema. The period from 1958 to 1969 saw a brilliant explosion of talent not just in Europe but throughout the world. From Sweden and Poland to India and Japan, from Brazil and Hungary to Spain and Czechoslovakia, young filmmakers seemingly sprang out of nowhere, challenging the stale conservativism of fifties cinema. With films like Jules et Jim, 8 1/2, and Breathless, to name but a few, they flouted taboos both sexual and political while bringing sharper, fresher, franker, more violent, and more personal visions to the screen than ever before.

In Revolution!, Peter Cowie discusses the themes, trends, and creative filmmakers of the period--including Antonioni, Bergman, Cassavetes, Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa, and Truffaut--while focusing on those whose voices still evoke the struggles and achievements of the sixties and set the creative and intellectual standard by which today's finest films are still held.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sundance Channel Documentaries

Ever since my co-worker alerted me to the fact that I get the Sundance Channel as part of my digital cable package, I've been watching a lot of programming there. Lately I've been recording a bunch of one-hour mini-documentaries. Here is a field report, starting with the best of the lot.

The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories *****
Directed by Andrey Paounov

Bulgaria, 2007, 58 minutes
In the Bulgarian city of Belene, everyone talks about the “zanzar” problem — a particularly vicious mosquito with a very painful bite. Perhaps the reason everyone talks about mosquitoes is to avoid thinking about the past, and the dark history of what happened on a nearby island during the Communist era. With a delightful eye for the eccentric, the unexpected and the tragic, Andrey Paounov (Georgi and the Butterflies) presents a witty and disturbing documentary about a haunted corner of the world and its colorful inhabitants. (Sundance Channel capsule)

I love this documentary, which I caught while flipping through channels one night. Though at first I wasn't sure what it was about - or even if it was a documentary - because of the way it jumps all over the place, like a jigsaw puzzle that asks the viewer to put the pieces together to form a whole.

What an unusual film - I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it (well, maybe Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida). It feels, as one commentator put it, less like a doc and more like a series of set pieces staged by Wes Anderson - or Antonioni, for that matter. Maybe that's because it has a dreamlike quality to it and, while recording real people, it definitely chooses to stage them ahead of time to maximize each "set piece." It sure ain't Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall verite style, that's for certain. But director Andrey Paounov does achieve some of the most stunning images I've ever seen (a horse galloping around an abandoned prison, cheerleaders with pom-poms and cowboy boots performing pro-nukes choreography inside a dour meeting room, Belene's lone Cuban citizen playing his guitar outside a dormant nuclear power plant, children chasing after a truck that engulfs them in pesticide, etc.) I don't know who his DP was, but he/she has quite an eye, as the framing is imaginative and the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful.

Images from The Mosquito Problem:

Belene's lone Cuban serenades the power plant

Todor Pdrnikov plays Chopin on a rinky-dink piano

The scenes at the former concentration camp (or "re-education camp" as it was known under the Communist regime) turned prison on Belene Island are the film's strongest. It's like a ghost town, home to a horse, a pig, some dirty pigeons, and a lone prisoner, Ahmed Hasanov, a murderer who seems to be a pretty mellow fellow. Oh, and it's also home to hosts of mosquitos! (Which seems unavoidable, as Belene is situated on the mosquito-friendly marshy banks of the Danube river.)

Apparently Bulgaria's switch from Communism to Capitalism brought promises of employment for Belene's citizens at a much-ballyhooed power plant (locals even engraved the nuclear power plant logo on buildings and restaurant dishes), but the plant - which at one time had thousands of workers from the former Soviet Bloc and friendly communist nations like Cuba and Vietnam - was never completed. Construction was halted in 1990 in the wake of a national economic crisis; the plant's demise kept the townsfolk in limbo, while Belene's population dwindled to under 10,000 inhabitants. That's the socio-economic-political backstory to the film, but I found it most interesting in its celebration of the individual eccentrics. Like the pianist who talks about why Chopin was the most Slavic of composers, or the daughter of a prison guard convicted of abusing prisoners who talks about how much she loves her mother.

According to his bio, director Andrey Paounov was born in 1974 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and has worked "as a bartender in Prague, a cook in Washington DC, a gardener in Toronto, a boom operator in New York and an accounting clerk in San Francisco." He graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2000. His first documentary feature, Georgi and the Butterflies, won the Silver Wolf at IDFA in 2004. The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories is his second feature-length film. And without a doubt a buzz-worthy one.

French Beauty ** 1/2
Directed by Pascale Lamche
France, 2005, 68 minutes
As essential to France's mystique as its wines, haute couture and cuisine is its place as the defining home of female beauty. Filmmaker Pascale Lamche examines how French film actresses have projected a unique je ne sais quoi -- described as an allure combining delicacy, luxury and intelligence -- that has captivated generations of cinema audiences around the world. Providing their own insight into this Gallic riddle are icons of French cinema, including Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou and Jeanne Moreau. (Sundance Channel capsule)

French beauty Audrey Tautou

I love French actresses - Bardot, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Stephane Audran, Audrey Tautou, Jeanne Moureau, et. al. - so I was looking forward to this. But while it sounded great on paper, this French doc was guilty of poor execution and a half-assed focus. And its list of actresses profiled is rather selective - and recent. Bardot's in there at the beginning of course, but where are Emmanuelle Seigner, Anouk Aimee, Julie Delpy, Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani and others? Halfway through, the doc shifts its focus to French models, like Jane Birkin's daughter Lou Doillon, who made the switch from modeling to acting (hardly a radical transition, especially in Asia, where many pop stars and models are also movie stars). Disappointing, but I did enjoy seeing the "other" Birkin daughter (from her relationship with French director Jacques Doillon), who unlike her step-sis Charlotte Gainsbourg, looks just like her Mom. Which is to say, a total babe!

Lou Doillon & Jane Birkin

In the Mood for Doyle ** 1/2
Directed by Yves Montmayeur
France, 2007, 54 minutes

Doyle: Obviously Living The Life

Just OK doc about the best cinematographer in Hong Kong - and possibly the world - Christopher Doyle, a scruffy-looking middle-aged Aussie beatnik who dresses like Keith Richards and has been described as an "Asian Jack Kerouac." Doyle is a Western ex-pat living in Hong Kong (that's actually his apartment that Faye Wong inhabits in Chunking Express) and is totally immersed in Chinese and Asian culture, like T. E. Lawrence was with Arabia and the Middle East - refuting Kipling's "never the twain shall meet" adage about East and West cultures. In fact, Doyle famously married a Chinese woman, but she's never referenced and the beautiful young woman by his side and in his house in several scenes is never identified in the film.

Definitive Doyle: Scene from "In the Mood for Love"

Unfortunately, this French documentary is every bit as unfocused as its subject (Doyle may be a brilliant cameraman but he talks in stream-of-conscious bursts like a drug-addled, ADD-afflicted space cadet). As a result, this rag-tag affair jumps all over the place, from Doyle's rambling pop-cultural takes on "The Asian Way" of life to directors Fruit Chan and Olivier Assayas talking about him and Hong Kong filmmaking in general. Doc almost exclusively focuses on Doyle's work with Hong Kong's Godard, director Wong Kar-Wei, who Doyle worked with on Chunking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood For Love and 2046, and - unfortunately - wastes time showing him working on lame Western horror movies like Lady in the Water with M. Night Shyamalan (who looks like a dopey college kid next to the grizzled vet Doyle). Last Life in the Universe, the Thai film he worked on with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - and arguably his greatest cinematography to date - isn't even mentioned, though we do get to see one clip from his follow-up with the director, the unseen-in-the-West Invisible Waves. And this despite the film opening in Bangkok, where Doyle shows off some of the neighborhoods where he shot footage for In the Mood For Love.

Still, anything about Chris Doyle - whose life is every bit as interesting as his work - is better than nothing, so I enjoyed this short look into his world. I just wanted more of it.