Season 44 (2009-2010)

  • Network (1976)
    September 13, 2009
    Network IMDB
    USA, 1976, 121 min, Color, R
    Directed by Sidney Lumet; Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall

    Fired after 25 years of service, network TV anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has an on-air meltdown culminating in the cri de coeur "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Ratings soar. Programming executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) decides to retain Beale, recasting him as "The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves" and providing him a platform for his increasingly unhinged rantings. A biting satire of our sensationalized mass media circa 1976, Network now seems oddly prophetic in anticipating "reality" television and today's overheated cable news shows. The film won Oscars for Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky), Best Actor (Finch), Best Actress (Dunaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight).

    Film Notes (Britt Crews): "I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air's unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it should be…" ~Howard Beale
    Sound eerily familiar? Welcome to the volcanic, visceral, visionary world of Network where television news, entertainment, ratings, and profits are conflated.
    Depicting a world of facades and fakery, Network is the real deal, a movie made by professionals at the top of their game. The legendary Paddy Chayefsky earned his third Oscar for the screenplay. To this day and most likely forever more, fledging screenwriters are taught how to write by studying the script of this blacker than black comedy.
    Director Sidney Lumet and Chayefsky went back a long way together to the early days of CBS television. Both men's careers were launched and their talents honed by the small screen. In fact Lumet scored one of his first successes directing a television adaptation by Chayefsky of a Nelson Algren short story. Lumet was completing Serpico when Chayefsky called him about an idea he was tossing around for a screenplay about the industry. A little over a year later the spec script arrived.
    Watch how Lumet subtly manipulates the lighting as the film increasingly moves from the natural to the artificial world of, and created by, television. Natural lighting gradually disappears. As do middle and far distances. The look becomes more and more that of a television commercial, carefully polished and crafted by lighting technicians, set decorators, and stylists to sell product. Lumet later stated his intention to "corrupt the camera." He said: "That's what Network is about, corruption. So we began the movie in absolutely naturalistic style with Bill Holden and Peter Finch. By the end of the movie, where Faye and the rest of the executives are sitting in Bob Duvall's office, it looks like a Ford commercial. That was done gradually. And only Bill Holden's character was kept in naturalistic light."
    And then, of course, there is the extraordinary ensemble of actors. Five were nominated and three won Academy Awards. Ned Beatty's cameo as a smarmy chairman of the board ("It's because you're on television, dummy.") grabbed a nomination. William Holden in his last great role gives a subtle, vanity-free, pitch-perfect performance as the aging studio news director Max Schumacher. Holden lost to Peter Finch, who earned a posthumous Best Actor Oscar for his network newscaster Howard Beale, sliding inexorably in the ratings until he is reborn after an on-air meltdown as the "mad prophet of the airways." Faye Dunaway took home the Best Actress statuette for her soulless, yet so sexy personification of the great goddess of television, Diana Christensen. Beatrice Straight walked away with the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Louise Schumacher on the basis of one short scene and an extraordinary monologue in which her loyal yet discarded wife refuses to compromise.
    Network, too, refuses to compromise. Sidney Lumet noted: "Everybody keeps saying, oh, God, what a brilliant satire. Paddy and I keep saying, what satire? It's sheer reportage…"
    "…I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!"

    Read Roger Ebert's review of Network at Great Movies.
  • Umberto D (1952)
    October 11, 2009
    Umberto D IMDB
    Italy, 1952, 89 min, B&W, Not Rated, Italian w/subtitles
    Directed by Vittorio De Sica; Starring Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Ileana Simova

    The Italian classic Umberto D, from director Vittorio De Sica, offers a realistic character sketch of an elderly man, Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti), who is determined to retain his dignity in spite of a meager pension. Umberto attempts and fails to sell his meager belongings when he falls ill. After he returns from hospitalization for the illness, he makes an effort to beg on the street, but is foiled by his own pride. Hitting rock bottom, Umberto decides to kill himself as soon as he can find a new home for his beloved dog, Flag. In Umberto D, De Sica depicts the bleakness of life with unparalleled subtlety and craftsmanship. Deep focus photography details Umberto's isolation, while pointing out that countless other elderly poor people live in similar conditions. De Sica uses sound and music deftly to portray Umberto's subjective feelings and decisions. While many of De Sica's films achieved enormous critical acclaim, Umberto D is often considered the director's finest work.

    Film Notes (Toni Meyer): Umberto Domenico Ferrari is a man who is determined to lead the last few years of his life with dignity, but who is assailed by a society that, if not hostile, is at best, uncaring. While he scrambles to find a way to avoid being evicted from his one-room suite, we observe how difficult it is for a man in such a trying situation to retain dignity and hope. He appears to have neither friends nor family, neither work nor money, and soon he will no longer have a home. Consequently, it makes perverse sense that even his name is downsized; he is no longer Umberto Domenico Ferrari, but simply Umberto D. The end of Umberto's diminishing life is set in contrast to and direct conflict with his landlady, a woman whose upwardly-mobile ambitions result in her forcing Umberto out of his suite. For her to rise, he must fall. She's a member of the same social class as he, but has pretensions of grander things. While the film toys with Marxist dialectics, it does so in an interesting way, pitting members of same social class against each other; just as contemporary urban ghetto dwellers kill each other at alarming rates, the figures in this story end up at each other's throats. There is elegance to the film's choreography that is reminiscent of movies from the silent era, particularly during a sequence when Umberto roams the streets contemplating whether or not to debase himself by begging for money. It is exactly this point – determining when we've stepped over the line where desperation strips of us all dignity – that marks what is most profound about Umberto D.
    Shot on a very small scale, with a tiny rostrum of mostly unnamed characters (man in hospital, landlady, sister, voice of light), it's the sad but ever-hopeful story of a destitute retiree whose only claim in this world is his dog. Umberto D. is often cited as the last film produced in the post-war Italian neo-realist style. Director Vittoria de Sica (The Bicycle Thieves) has crafted something akin to a "found film" in that the actors are almost exclusively amateurs, the sets whatever was available on the streets of Rome, with large portions of the story dedicated to simply observing the daily routines of the characters who inhabit this film. For long stretches of the film we simply observe people walking down streets, playing in parks, working in the kitchen, and witness how they sometimes can be ground down by life. Umberto is no exception, as everything in his life has been, as we might say in modern parlance, downsized. Carlo Battisti, a retired university professor, plays Umberto with an unaffected charm and dignified determination that is terribly touching, while de Sica underscores these qualities with a score that is stirring without being maudlin, and by employing quiet and gentle editing rhythms that allow us to sink into the reality of this character and the world he finds himself struggling through.
    Like David Lynch's The Straight Story, a brilliant evocation of an aged man trying to come to peace with his life in the broad open air of middle America, de Sica's film is one that may find itself embraced by members of a rapidly graying boomer generation who discover that they can identify all too well with the main character's marginalization and dehumanization in a society that finds his sort little better than parasites thrashing madly in its bloodstream. Umberto D. courageously and magnificently champions the life of an apparently insignificant man in a difficult time.

    Read Roger Ebert's review of Umberto D at Great Movies.
  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
    November 8, 2009
    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara IMDB
    USA, 2003, 107 min, Color/B&W, PG-13
    Directed by Errol Morris; Starring Robert McNamara

    The Fog of War is a fascinating portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara by esteemed documentarian Errol Morris. Morris structures his film around "11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara", drawn from 20 hours of interviews with the 85-year-old McNamara, who commands the screen with his brilliance and intensity. By turns candid and evasive, impassioned and detached, sympathetic and monstrous, McNamara reflects on his role in bringing seatbelts to the Ford Motor Company, planning the firebombing of Japan in World War II, and escalating the war in Vietnam. Enriched by archival footage, photographs, and music from composer Phillip Glass, The Fog of War raises timeless (and timely) questions about war, human nature, and the uses and limits of power.

  • Travelers and Magicians (2003)
    December 13, 2009
    Travelers and Magicians IMDB
    Bhutan, 2003, 108 min, Color, Not Rated, Dzongkha w/subtitles
    Directed by Khyentse Norbu; Starring Tshewang Dendup, Sonam Lhamo, Lhakpa Dorji, Deki Yangzom

    The first feature ever filmed in the kingdom of Bhutan, Travelers and Magicians weaves two parallel, fable-like tales about men seeking to escape their mundane lives. Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young government official, dreams of moving to America while stuck in a beautiful but isolated village. At his first chance, he heads for town and an awaiting visa, but things don't go quite as planned. Missing the bus, he hitchhikes with an elderly apple seller, a sage young monk, and an old man traveling with his beautiful daughter, Sonam. The monk tells Dondup a story of another young man, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), who sought a land far away: a tale of lust, jealousy and murder that holds up a mirror to the restless Dondup and his blossoming attraction to the innocent Sonam. This film is a magical mixture of rustic road movie and mystical fable – a potpourri of desire and its consequences set in a breathtaking landscape.

    Film Notes: Where? Yes, Bhutan – nestled in the heart of the high Himalaya mountain range, landlocked and wedged between Tibet and the jungle gateway southward into India. This tiny kingdom's religious culture embraces an ancient form of Buddhism that continues to permeate all strands of secular life in Bhutan villages and cities. Since transportation options are a bit spotty, it's not unusual to encounter groups of unrelated wayfarers trekking their way to religious events. Waiting for cars or buses can take days and this trip is no exception.
    The first feature movie filmed entirely in the Kingdom of Bhutan, Travelers and Magicians weaves two parallel, fable-like tales about men seeking to escape their mundane lives. Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a young civil servant lured by a pirated song of the West, dreams of moving to America but is stuck in a beautiful but isolated village. He gets permission from work to attend a religious festival in the capital city but his real goal is getting a visa and taking off to America. But things don't go quite as planned. Missing the bus, he hitchhikes with an elderly apple seller, a young monk, and an old man traveling with his beautiful daughter, Sonam, who remarks that "people in the US don't even know where Bhutan is." To pass the time, the mischievous monk tells a story of another young man, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), who is an unfocused student of magic. Like Dondup, he dreams of escaping village life. The monk weaves a tale of lust, jealousy, and murder that holds up a mirror to the restless Dondup and his blossoming attraction to the innocent Sonam. These tales entwine familiar Buddhist tensions in forms of wanting and having, soft and loud, here and there, boombox and damnyen. This film is a magical mixture of a rustic road movie and mystical fable — a potpourri of desire and its consequences set in a breathtaking landscape in a story that reminds us of the oft-quoted dilemma, "Is the grass greener on the other side?" Just where is the happiness to be found? High in the Himalayas or in the flatlands of America's dreams of glory. Enjoy the journey.
    In keeping with the production of Norbu's previous movie The Cup, except for Dendup, no professional actors were used. The cast is a collection of farmers and schoolchildren, as well as employees of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, Government of Bhutan, and the Royal Bodyguard. Many production decisions, including casting and fixing the date of release were chosen using "Mo" – an ancient Buddhist method of divination for discovering future events or unknown things.

  • Zelig (1983)
    January 10, 2010
    Zelig IMDB
    USA, 1983, 79 min, B&W, PG
    Directed by Woody Allen; Starring Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Patrick Horgan, John Buckwalter

    Before Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, there was Leonard Zelig. In this groundbreaking "mockumentary," writer-director Woody Allen plays Zelig, a chameleon-like cipher whose neuroses allow him to assimilate completely into his surroundings. Psychologist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) studies Zelig and seeks to protect him from his would-be exploiters. Combining voice-over, real and fake newsreels, and interviews with the likes of Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, Zelig uses the conventions of documentary to weave its protagonist into the fabric of 20th-century history. The results are as technically impressive as they are funny.

    Film Notes (Karen Bender): Picture for a moment the cinematic world of 1983. It is decades before the dawn of digital filmmaking. No one has yet heard the term "photoshopping." A photographic image might be airbrushed but it did not quite seem possible that an image could be substantively altered, at least not in a way that would defy detection. Into this milieu comes a small film by the name of Zelig, directed by Woody Allen.
    In the film, Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) is an everyman/no-man character who has an uncanny ability to morph his appearance and blend in with any imaginable group of people. Zelig is a completely anonymous and nondescript being whose one goal in life is to avoid being noticed. Thus, when surrounded by a group of Scots in kilts, he not only appears to be one of them, he becomes Scottish. In fact, as if he were a 'human chameleon', Zelig can blend his appearance with any ethnic group. His overwhelming desire to assimilate causes him to be completely consumed by the great American melting pot because he completely lacks an identity of his own. That is, until he meets and is treated by Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who hypnotizes Leonard to discover the roots of his unique personality disorder. Naturally, they fall in love as Leonard's nascent personality begins to unfold. His story and Dr. Fletcher's revolutionary treatment become public, affording the chameleon man some celebrity and an unavoidable backlash of public opinion. The story line is explored through a traditional documentary format with all the bells and whistles: pompous sounding narrator, film clips, and expert commentary. And did we mention that it's funny?
    Zelig is an early example of a 'mockumentary' – a feature film that poses as a documentary. Woody Allen had dabbled in this form previously in Take the Money and Run (1969), yet Zelig takes the form to a whole new level by literally placing his character into newsreels from the 20s and 30s. Through the use of blue screen technology, the image of Leonard Zelig is inserted into newsreels to appear alongside historical figures such as Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Charles Lindbergh and (of course) Adolph Hitler.
    In order to blend the old and new footage and to preserve the authenticity of Zelig, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis obtained actual film cameras and lenses dating from the depicted time periods to record their original footage. Their efforts included simulating age and damage to the new film, with scratches and other defects effectively blending the old footage with the new. This process was so time-consuming that the prolific Allen was able to complete two other feature films (Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo) during the time that it took to finish the special effects in Zelig. You may be thinking that you have seen the same types of effects in other movies, particularly Forrest Gump. What makes Allen's technical achievement so stunning is that it was done 11 years prior to Forrest Gump's adoption of similar effects, and without the advantage of the digital technology that was developed during the interim.
    Adding to this established note of realism, Zelig contains contemporary 'interviews' with celebrity academics and social critics, heightening both the realism and the comic effect. When noted intellectuals such as Susan Sontag or Saul Bellow appear to analyze the social impact of Leonard Zelig in his pseudo-historical context, they effectively meld together divergent types of film narrative – comedy, drama, romance and documentary. Plus they're funny.
    Zelig received multiple nominations for the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs. It drew upon the tradition of Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds radio broadcast and is the precursor to many renowned mockumentaries that followed, including This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, The Blair Witch Project and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and on television, HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
    Zelig is a comedy that is an at once audacious, stunning, and romantic film that garnered critical acclaim at the time of its release. And you know, it's funny.

  • Sullivan's Travels (1941)
    February 14, 2010
    Sullivan's Travels IMDB
    USA, 1941, 90 min, B&W, Not Rated
    Directed by Preston Sturges; Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest, Eric Blore

    Preston Sturgis' masterpiece tells the story of John "Sully" Sullivan (Joel McRea), director of such Hollywood trifles as Hey Hey in the Hayloft. Disillusioned by his comedic successes, Sullivan hits the road as a penniless hobo, seeking insight into the lives of the poor in order to make a socially conscious film, Oh Brother, Where art Thou? With his studio bosses' lackeys in hot pursuit, Sullivan meets a failed actress credited as the Girl (Veronica Lake), who joins him on his journey. Dedicated to "those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little," Sullivan's Travels celebrates the value of laughter in our lives.

    Film Notes (Karen Bender): Preston Sturgis was a veritable Renaissance man in the early days of Hollywood. Screenwriter, director, producer – he excelled at all of these roles. To this day, he still enjoys a reputation as one of the finest screenwriters and finest dialog writers in the history of American cinema. In 1941, when he wrote and directed Sullivan's Travels, he was at the start of his directorial career and was already well renowned as a snappy dialogist from popular screwball comedies of the day.
    At the Oscars ceremony in 1941, President Roosevelt dealt a death blow to screwball comedy as an art form when he made a radio address to the audience, exhorting them to represent the voice of Democracy to those people of the world who were already embroiled in World War II. As a direct result, popular directors such as Frank Capra changed the tenor of their films and began to make more socially conscious and earnest films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. And nearly overnight, screwball comedies – a staple of film-going fare in the 30s – were viewed as frivolous and out of date while the new genre emerged.
    Sullivan's Travels engages this call for filmmakers to create more 'meaningful' works. The film starts out in a highly comedic vein as we meet John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrae), highly successful director of lightweight and popular movies such as Hey Hey in the Hay Loft. Sullivan is very successful – but unfulfilled. Indeed, his one desire is to make a film that exposes all the hard realities of "real life", whatever that means. He even has a name picked out for this epic: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This ambition does not impress the studio executives as they point out a key fact to Sullivan – that he has no idea of the harsh side of existence. He is a pampered, wealthy film maker who has lived a charmed life. He has worked hard to attain this lifestyle, has earned it, and should revel in it. They insist that Sullivan should remain faithful to the form at which he excels (and at which they make a fortune) – comedy.
    Sullivan, determined to gain the knowledge and experience that will allow him the moral authority to make his masterpiece, sets out on a journey to chronicle the hardships of the everyday man, a journey that will engage, amuse, and surprise you as the tone of the film unexpectedly turns from screwball comedy to dark drama. Along the way he makes the acquaintance of The Girl (Veronica Lake), gets into some very serious trouble, overcomes difficulties and finds his way to self-acceptance. This film is happy at heart, warm at its core and positively celebrates the redemptive power of laughter. It manages to combine the fun and rapid fire dialog of the screwball comedies with the heart of the Capra films, and does so a bit subversively. It was just the antidote to the dark days immediately following Pearl Harbor and it will also serve us well in these stormy economic times in which we find ourselves today.

  • Band of Outsiders (Bande à part) (1964)
    March 14, 2010
    Band of Outsiders (Bande à part) IMDB
    France, 1964, 95 min, B&W, Not Rated, French w/subtitles
    Directed by Jean-Luc Godard; Starring Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Anna Karina, Daniele Girard

    The story follows two friends with a fondness for old Hollywood B-movies, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), who are searching for a way to make a big score. When Franz meets the beautiful Odile (Anna Karina) and she informs him of a large chunk of cash her aunt keeps hidden in her house, the duo are convinced that this is their lucky break. Odile is a sensitive young woman who, out of fear and guilt, opposes their plan, but Arthur and Franz, who mimic America movie tough guys, coax her to go along with the idea. When the time comes to pull off the heist, a miscalculation delays the seemingly perfect plan, resulting in a confrontation that has dire consequences.

    Film Notes: Often referred to as Godard's most accessible film, Bande à part is an adaption of the novel Fool's Gold (Doubleday Crime Club, 1958) by author Dolores Hitchens and was released in North America under the title Band of Outsiders. The film's French title derives from the phrase "faire bande à part", which means "to do something apart from the group." Bande à part belongs to the French New Wave movement and, in his own words, Godard described it as "Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka."
    Released in 1964, the film has over time been lauded by many critics, including Pauline Kael who described it as "a reverie of a gangster movie" and "perhaps Godard's most delicately charming film." Amy Taubin of the Village Voice called it "a Godard film for people who don't much care for Godard." Ultimately, the accessibility of Bande à part has endeared the film to a broader audience and has inspired several subsequent films and filmmakers. For example, it was the only Godard film selected for Time magazine's All-TIME 100 movies and enjoys an impressive 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
    The story follows two friends with a fondness for old Hollywood B-movies, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), who are searching for a way to make a big score. When Franz meets the beautiful Odile (Anna Karina) and she informs him of a large chunk of cash her aunt keeps hidden in her house, the duo are convinced that this is their lucky break. Odile is a sensitive young woman who, out of fear and guilt, opposes their plan, but Arthur and Franz, who mimic American movie tough guys, coax her to go along with the idea. When the time comes to pull off the heist, a miscalculation delays the seemingly perfect plan, resulting in a confrontation that has dire consequences.
    Stylistically Bande à part is a free-spirited romp in the same vein as the director's breakthrough smash Breathless. More traditional than Breathless in its technical execution, Bande à part sparkles with freshness and originality – it uses comical, poetic narration by Godard himself, and has a bouncy musical score by Michel Legrand. The performances from Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, and especially Anna Karina combine satirical melodrama, overflowing hipness, and moving sincerity, giving the film plenty of heart. An irreplaceable contribution to 1960s film, this movie is much more than a mere genre reworking.
    In particular, there are two well-known memorable and influential scenes in Bande à part. One sets the three main characters Arthur, Franz, and Odile in a crowded café where they decide to observe a minute of silence. As they do the film's soundtrack is plunged into complete silence. The silence actually only lasts 36 seconds and is finally interrupted by Franz, who says "Enough of that."
    Another famous scene, often referenced as "The Madison Scene," starts when Odile and Arthur decide to dance. Franz joins them as they perform a routine whereby they turn to different positions. The music is soul music composed for the film by Michel Legrand, but actress Anna Karina said the actors called it "the Madison dance." The charm of this scene influenced a scene in Hal Hartley's Simple Men and notably the dance scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, when Uma Thurman and John Travolta famously romance each other on the dance floor. A further connection between Bande à part and Tarantino is in the name of his production company, A Band Apart.
    Godard was born in Paris, the son of Franco-Swiss parents Odile (née Monod) and Paul Godard, a physician. He attended school in Nyon, Switzerland, and at the Lycée Rohmer, and the University of Paris. During his time at the Sorbonne, he became involved with the young group of filmmakers and film theorists that gave birth to the New Wave, a movement known for the rejection of classical cinematic form, a youthful iconoclasm, and often tied to social/political upheavals of the day. Godard is often considered the most extreme or radical of the New Wave filmmakers. His films express his political ideologies as well as his knowledge of film history. In addition, Godard's films often cite existential and Marxist philosophy.

  • Bright Leaves (2003)
    April 11, 2010
    Bright Leaves IMDB
    USA, 2003, 107 min, Color, Not Rated
    Directed by Ross McElwee; Starring Allan Gurganus, Paula Larke, Marilyn Levine, Emily Madison

    Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) is an autobiographical filmmaker and North Carolina native. His great-grandfather was a tobacco baron who invented the formula for Bull Durham tobacco but ultimately lost his fortune and ended in bankruptcy. Inspired by the 1950 movie, Bright Leaf, which was loosely based on his great-grandfather's rivalry with Washington Duke (and starred Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall), McElwee produced Bright Leaves in Durham, North Carolina, to explore his family's complicated relationship with tobacco. Through conversations with family members, cancer patients, friends in the tobacco industry, and the film historian Vlada Petric, McElwee undertakes a deeply personal examination of the culture that arose from the cultivation of bright leaf tobacco in North Carolina after the end of the Civil War.

    Film Notes (Katherine Reynolds): A hitherto unbeknown second cousin introduced Ross McElwee to Michael Curtiz's Bright Leaf, the 1950 melodrama starring Gary Cooper, Donald Crisp, and Patricia Neal about the early days of the tobacco industry in North Carolina. The movie's plot of rivalry over the nascent cigarette industry may have been based on a feud between McElwee's great-grandfather and James "Buck" Duke over the formula for Bull Durham tobacco. Buck Duke won the battle and became a multimillionaire. Bull Durham tobacco became known as "the cheapest luxury in the world." And the McElwees became doctors and lawyers and one documentarian who observes the world through amused eyes.
    McElwee uses the earlier film as a touchstone in this 2004 exploration of his family's heritage. He explains the origin of Bright Leaves: "Being from North Carolina, I've known for a long time that I should probably try to make a film that in some way dealt with tobacco and smoking, since North Carolina grows more tobacco than any other state. I mean, my home state is utterly awash in tobacco. Some of my earliest memories are sitting for hours in a stifling station wagon, driving past endless acres of the vivid green leaves, on the way to our family reunion on the Carolina coast. The further east we drove, the more the tobacco took over the landscape. The leaves were bright green and huge – like elephant ears – and shimmered in the hypnotic heat of Carolina's summer. Along that route to the beach, tobacco grew better there than anywhere else in North America."
    Along the way, McElwee introduces his audience to Patricia Neal, who shares that Gary Cooper was the great love of her life; Charleen Swansea who deserves a film all her own, and cousin John McElwee, whose passion for collecting movies matches Ross's enthusiasm for using film to explore his life. Be sure to look for the scene with a yippy little dog and another with a curious rodent to see how successfully McElwee lets his camera find the funny. Bright Leaves was nominated for Best Documentary of 2004 by both the Director's Guild of America and the Writer's Guild of America.
    Roger Ebert says, "Bright Leaves is not a documentary about anything in particular. That is its charm. It's a meandering visit by a curious man with a quiet sense of humor, who pokes here and there in his family history, and the history of tobacco. The title refers to the particular beauty of tobacco leaves, both in the fields and after they have been cured, and perhaps also to the leaves of his family's history."
    If you enjoy this film, you might also appreciate Godfrey Cheshire's Moving Midway, using a somewhat similar concept. In Midway, Cheshire examines his own family's "Southernness" as the "home house" can be saved only by its displacement from its land. More sober in tone, but equally entertaining.

  • The Land (Al-ard) (1969)
    May 9, 2010
    The Land (Al-ard) IMDB
    Egypt, 1969, 130 min, Color, Not Rated, Arabic w/subtitles
    Directed by Youssef Chahine; Starring Hamdy Ahmed, Yehia Chahine, Ezzat El Alaili, Tawfik El Deken

    Egyptian director Youssef Chahine won a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. His feudal epic, The Land, has been hailed as the greatest Egyptian film ever made. Set in the cotton-growing region along the Nile, the film portrays the struggle between a peasant village and a local landowner, who connives to appropriate the land that has sustained life in the Nile Valley for millennia. Against this backdrop, two men – the peasant Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and the educated Mohammed Effendi (Hamdi Ahmad) – vie for the hand of a beautiful peasant girl, Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim). Eight years in the making, The Land is a moving tribute to the people's resistance against the forces of privilege and corruption.

    Film Notes (Andrea Mensch): When renowned Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine died on July 27, 2008, at 82, six weeks after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, the critic Richard Corliss wrote the following lines as his Time magazine tribute:
    "It's a shame Chahine's work isn't familiar in this benighted part of the movie world. He was no minimalist Sphinx; he believed less was never enough. Embracing a splashy masala of styles, he threw everything — ideas, people, whole nations and regions — up in the air for the viewer to try to catch. And beyond his movies' entertainment value, it wouldn't hurt for Americans to see the visions of a cosmopolitan filmmaker from the Arab world, who speaks for himself but reflects the dreams and fears of a people whose popular culture is nearly unknown in the US."
    Indeed, in trying to find a copy of The Land to preview for our Cinema, Inc. screening, I was surprised to find that very few of Chahine's films are available on DVD in this country and I had to resort to watching a rather inferior VHS copy. However, even after that somewhat frustrating aesthetic experience, I was moved and inspired to watch more of his films and I am certainly looking forward to seeing The Land on the big screen in its proper aspect ratio and resolution.
    Chahine certainly did have an illustrious career. Born into a Christian household to a Lebanese father and a Greek mother who had made the city of Alexandria their home, he received an elite education in Egypt before moving to Los Angeles where he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. When he returned to Egypt in the 1950s, he became a significant figure in the development of his country's film industry. He has been credited with introducing the young Omar Sharif to the screen in his film The Blazing Sun (1954), but, perhaps more significantly, his films did have a universal appeal which led to more attention being paid to African films at the most prestigious international film festivals. Having made more than 40 films, Chahine was honored with the lifetime achievement award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
    Starting as early as the 1940s there was a revival in the Egyptian film industry which involved the participation of intellectuals and writers such as the future Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. Chahine's 1969 film The Land is based on Abdel Rahman Al-Sharqawi's first novel The Earth, published in book form in 1954 (after being serialized in an Egyptian magazine during 1953). The novel, which expressed the social struggle between feudalism and Egyptian peasants prior to the 1952 Revolution, was the first embodiment of literary "Realism" in Egypt. Similarly, Chahine's adaptation was hailed as an example of the Egyptian equivalent of Italian Neo-realism, but that is arguable given the film's use of color, music, and its quilt like narrative structure.
    To create a film out of the sprawling novel, Chahine and his screenwriter Hasan Fuad Chahine reduced the number of characters, although keeping up with a dozen cinematic characters keeps the viewer quite alert. While the issues emerging from the film's narrative are what gives it universal appeal, it might be worth familiarizing oneself with the plot ahead of time. What follows is a synopsis of the film written by Chale Nafus:
    To provide a moral center, the director wisely keeps returning to his principal protagonist Abou Swelem, a good man, proud of his daughter Wassifa, proud of his land and cotton, and proud of his past. It is revealed through dialogue that during World War I he fought in Palestine, participated in the successful Egyptian Revolution of 1919 (along with two other villagers), and became a respected Chief Guard in his village until the government of Isma'il Sidqi came to power in 1930. Even in his reduced circumstances, he is admired by the majority of the other villagers - and not just because he has a beautiful daughter that all the bachelors want to marry.
    Most importantly for the narrative, Abou Swelem is a proud man. When he vows to go on watering his land up to the usual ten days, rather than the new, more restrictive five days, he is joined by others. Swelem does not care what the mayor and the "government" say. Together the villagers swear that "not even the British army will be able to touch their water." But while continuing to water, they decide to send a petition to the central government in Cairo outlining their complaints over water rights.
    Mohamed Effendi, the very bombastic teacher, offers to write the petition, but he insists on literary Arabic over everyday speech. Because of his monthly income in cash (a rare commodity in the village), he is more respected than perhaps his character should be. When he adds to the petition that the peasants will be homeless if not allowed to irrigate for a longer period, he unwittingly forecasts the future but for the wrong reason. Mohamed Effendi is not strong enough to stand up to the Bey who turns him from being an educated representative of the people into a colluding stooge. To his credit, Mohamed Effendi struggles verbally, but he is no match for the power held by the aristocracy and the government.
    Still, as a teacher, he holds a certain amount of charm for some of the younger women. Swelem's daughter Wassifa and a friend talk about marrying gentlemen or peasants. Obviously the former is more attractive. But Wassifa is so beautiful and beguiling that she dares dream of greater marital alliances. She truly wants to live in Cairo, a fabled place she has never visited, but one which she imagines to be like something found in The Arabian Nights. She is so desperate for her dream to come true that she "seduces" a 12-year-old boy, who has returned from Cairo with his father, Sheikh Hassouna. He has lived in the capital for five years and has just received his elementary school diploma, so even though he is younger than Wassifa, he seems to be her only chance to get out of town. She could also bank on the fact that their fathers are good friends. But soon her sights will drift over to a more likely candidate for husband, Abdel Hadi.
    Abdel Hadi, a fierce warrior who has no place to exercise his martial skills except in dueling games, is the only man in the village that embodies something of the fighting spirit of the earlier generation that wrested a limited independence from Britain. But although strong, he is still just a fellah. Wassifa will not make it easy for him to get her hand in marriage.
    Contrasted with Wassifa (the virgin) is the inevitable whore, Khadra. Perhaps worse than her "profession" is the fact that she has no land, no family, no one to protect her other than her sarcastic tongue. Still, she seems to be accepted by most of the town, perhaps because she provides the young bachelors with something they might otherwise take by force from a "decent girl." Khadra is even willing to barter her body in exchange for cucumbers. Despite her toxic repartee, she is ultimately a tragic figure. Her dreams of Abdel Hadi and her competition with Wassifa are totally misplaced. Her end can almost be foreseen.
    Sheikh Hassouna is Mohamed Effendi's uncle, who lives part of the time in the village and the rest of the time in Cairo. He seems to be the most powerful friend of the villagers, but even he has a price. Despite his brotherhood-in-arms with Abou Swelem in the 1910s, he eventually sees that he must ally himself with the powerful.
    The rich and conniving Mahmoud Bey is presented as a rather effete, Westernized, selfish man with power. He has a poodle and a lot of garish furniture and easily gives orders, which he fully expects to be followed. He is willing to mislead the representatives of the village into believing that he is submitting their petition, but he substitutes his own request for the road along with a page of signatures of the villagers "in support of his request."
    Perhaps the most sinister character is the religious charlatan, Shaban, who seems to suggest a wandering holy man. But beneath his pseudo-Sufi chanting he is truly evil and contemptible. We eventually discover that he is even capable of murder. For Chahine he doubtlessly embodies much that the director dislikes about religion.
    Under the leadership of Swelem, the villagers go on irrigating their land without official permission. Inevitably the mayor has them arrested and taken to prison, where some are tortured with beatings and water dunking. Revealing so many fears about the lines between masculinity and femininity, the guards torture Abdel Hadi and try to make him scream, "I'm a woman." They obviously don't know the man. Swelem's torture is through beatings, but then the ultimate emasculation is achieved by simply shaving off his moustache, the visual sign of masculinity. When he returns to the village, Abou Swelem is a broken man, who hides the lower half of his face with his headscarf.
    After Swelem's wife tells Sheikh Hassouna that her husband spends all his time sitting out in his field, the old friend goes out to try to lift his spirits. He reminds Swelem that "most of Egypt's greatest men have been jailed at one time or another." He repeats that the two of them were jailed together during the Revolution of 1919 and adds, "That was for country. This time for the land." Swelem responds, "What's left when that is lost?" But their memories of their third comrade, Sheikh Youssef, the storekeeper, begin to crack them up. When he appears, they can't stop laughing. Youssef seems to be the most changed of the three, now very greedily charging and over-charging the villagers since his is the only store in town.
    But later in the film Swelem turns those memories of earlier heroism around. He berates all of them, himself included, for talking and talking and doing nothing. They were heroes when younger, but now… Hassouna embraces Swelem and says he will stay in the village by their side until they get their water rights back and secure their land. But his absence the next day reveals who he has become.
    By emphasizing solidarity, Chahine indicates what he considers the only way the fellahin have a chance at getting their rights. But their unity keeps fragmenting in new ways. Still, a new ally can seemingly arise at any time. The Camel Corps soldiers, who ride into the village to enforce the water laws and land grab, are initially ruthless, but Sgt. Abdallah begins to really hear what Swelem is saying about the fellahin and the need for unity. His subsequent action seems to hint at the eventual military coup of 1952 which brought Nasser to power and promised (some would say falsely) that the people of the cities and countryside would now benefit from a government working for them.
    The possibilities of solidarity are shown near the end of the film when the road gang join the farmers to pick Swelem's cotton before the road covers his field. The music rises and faces seem to be smiling with the joy of working together for a common cause. But then the government is once more present in the form of more troops, who begin shooting, beating, and chasing the villagers. Even as Swelem is dragged away by a soldier on horseback, he clutches at the plants and finally at the bare earth. His fingers are like a plow making narrow furrows into which new seeds could be planted. Finally his blood and land are truly mixed together. The ending reminds us of what Sheikh Hassouna said about Swelem at the beginning, "Abou Swelem is digging his grave with his own hands."

  • My Darling Clementine (1946)
    June 13, 2010
    My Darling Clementine IMDB
    USA, 1946, 97 min, B&W, Not Rated
    Directed by John Ford; Starring Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs

    In this genre-defining western from director John Ford, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his three brothers stop outside Tombstone, Arizona, on the way to sell their cattle in California. After they refuse an offer for the stock from Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his son, Ike (Grant Withers), their cattle are stolen and the youngest brother is killed. Wyatt agrees to serve as Tombstone's marshal and soon meets Doc Holliday (Victor Mature). The wary friendship between the marshal and the consumptive, gun-slinging gambler is complicated by the arrival of Doc's former love, Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). Although it features the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, My Darling Clementine is more concerned with the creation of a community, the rule of law, and the civilizing influence of women in the Wild West.

    Film Notes (Karen Bender): What – a John Ford western without John Wayne? Yup, it does exist and as such is the subject of our June feature My Darling Clementine. This picture is a kinder and gentler Western that revolves around a burgeoning love story between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Clementine (Cathy Downs), shown in the context of the legendary showdown at the OK Corral.
    Director John Ford was the undisputed king of the Western. His list of films in this genre includes the prestigious Stagecoach, along with other crowd pleasers such as Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers. A man's man, Ford directed films that embrace a shared sense of unambiguous morality which serves to tell us the story of American history – albeit an American history as we wish it were. Westerns promulgate the Great American Myth. They serve up a sense of right and wrong that was undeniably understood and embraced by the audiences of their time. We all speak this language without a thought – the bad guy wears the black hat, the good guy wears the white hat, etc. This simple structure in its time informed everyone's appreciation of the Western and the moral code that these films engender.
    What distinguishes My Darling Clementine from traditional Westerns is the attention that director John Ford paid to day-to-day events in the paced build-up to the climactic scenes at the infamous OK Corral. The actual shoot-out at the OK Corral did not exist in a vacuum and this film takes the time to establish the sense of place and time necessary for us to appreciate the later breakout of violence. As Roger Ebert puts it in a 1997 review, "My Darling Clementine builds up to the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, but it is more about everyday things – haircuts, romance, friendship, poker and illness."
    Maybe it is for this reason that Ford cast Henry Fonda, who had earlier starred in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, instead of using the ubiquitous presence of John Wayne. When John Wayne appears on the screen, the audience understands that the Western Code exists in full force with all of its intrinsic messages about right and wrong. The measured and thought-provoking screen presence of Henry Fonda allows a more subtle and shaded characterization while staying within the parameters of the assigned moral structure.
    My Darling Clementine is a definitive American Western – spectacular cinematography and scenery, lots of action. At the end of the day, it may still be a simple story about right and wrong and getting the girl – but at heart, it is not as simplistic as it would seem.

  • Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) (1993)
    July 11, 2010
    Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu) IMDB
    France, 1993, 98 min, Color, R, French w/subtitles
    Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry

    Set in Paris at the dawn of the European Union, Blue is the first film in director Krysztof Kieslowski's "three colors" trilogy, based on the French flag and national motto "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." After surviving a car accident that claims her husband and daughter, Julie (Juliette Binoche) destroys all vestiges of her former life and withdraws into isolation. Determined to live her new life alone, Julie ultimately finds that she cannot rid herself of human connections. The film follows Julie through her grief as she emerges from her devastating loss and reenters the world as a vital, creative being. Music is central to Blue; Kieslowski's frequent collaborator, Zbigniew Preisner, composed the score prior to shooting, so that the film's action could follow its rhythms. The director's deft use of color as metaphor brings an additional layer of emotional depth to the story as it unfolds on the screen.

    Film Notes (Gerry Folden): There is a magic to works of art grouped in threes. From gold-encrusted medieval altar pieces called triptychs to the silver screen trilogies of cinema today, the special nature of things in threes holds a compelling power over artists, filmmakers, and audiences alike.
    Unlike tightly connected threesomes such as The Godfather series (1972, 1974, and 1990) or the Star Wars saga (an as yet to be completed trilogy of trilogies, 1977 to 2008), Blue is the first of three loosely-associated films. They take their titles from the French drapeau tricolore. From the staff outward, the flag is blue, white and red… so it is with these three films by writer/director Krysztof Kieslowski.
    Released in September 1993, the full art house title Trois couleurs: Bleu was followed the next year by Trois couleurs: Blanc and Trois couleurs: Rouge. Remarking on the overarching artistic vision that makes this French masterpiece a whole, Julius Caesar might well have said it was of necessity "in tres partes divisa est".
    Woven into any one of these three films is the seemingly insignificant reappearance of one or more characters from the other two. But very much like the thrill that comes with the multi-plot resolution at the end of the 2004 Best Film Oscar winner Crash, an unexpected goosebump ending in the last film, Rouge, makes affirmation of the Gestalt maxim, "the whole is greater than the sum of these parts."
    Drawing its theme from the first of the three-word motto of the French revolution, "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity", Blue tells of a young woman's struggle to shed herself of the depression that follows a great tragedy. There is no description better than the one from our brochure for this season:
    After surviving a car accident that claims her husband and daughter, Julie (Juliette Binoche) destroys all vestiges of her former life and withdraws into isolation. Determined to live her new life alone, Julie ultimately finds that she cannot rid herself of human connections. The film follows Julie through her grief as she emerges from her devastating loss and reenters the world as a vital, creative being. Music is central to Blue; Kieslowski's frequent collaborator, Zbigniew Preisner, composed the score prior to shooting, so that the film's action could follow its rhythms. The director's deft use of color as metaphor brings an additional layer of emotional depth to the story as it unfolds on the screen.
    If life holds any hope that you may someday soon be so lucky as to feast on the remaining two films of this terrific three course delight, you must not miss this month's appetizer… a total satisfaction unto itself.

  • Happy Times (Xingfu shiguang) (2000)
    August 8, 2010
    Happy Times (Xingfu shiguang) IMDB
    China, 2000, 102 min, Color, PG, Mandarin w/subtitles
    Directed by Yimou Zhang; Starring Benshan Zhao, Jie Dong, Lifan Dong, Biao Fu

    Yimou Zhang co-directed and choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. His second film set in a modern city, Happy Times is a bittersweet comedy about Zhao (Benshan Zhao), a retired factory worker who hopes to marry a rotund divorcee. To win over his prospective bride, Zhao creates the impression that he is a man of means. He enlists the aid of his best friend Li, who devises a plan to raise the 50,000 yuan Zhao needs for a suitable wedding. The two men refurbish an abandoned bus, dub it the Happy Times Hotel, and rent it out to young couples in need of privacy. Their business suffers when the upright Zhao can't bring himself to close the door to the "hotel" while it is occupied. Hoping to impress his betrothed with his position as a hotel manager, Zhao offers to employ her blind stepdaughter, Wu Ying (Jie Dong), as a masseuse. As he goes to increasingly absurd lengths to deceive Wu, they develop a deep if accidental bond that redeems his enterprise.

    Film Notes (Pete Corson): Yimou Zhang (the Chinese would reverse his name and put his family name first) is China's best-known film director. In addition to our current film, he has directed and produced Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, House of Flying Daggers, etc. Zhang was born on November 14, 1951, in Xi'an, China, home of the archaeological treasure Terra Cotta Warriors. His films are always visually striking, and he was the lead director for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He is best known for his epics, but we have chosen a film that is often funny, touching in its portrayal of the characters, and inspiring in its view of the meaning of life.
    Zhao (Benshan Zhao) is an aging bachelor who hasn't been lucky in love. Thinking he has finally met the woman of his dreams, Zhao leads her to believe he is wealthy and agrees to a wedding far beyond his means. Zhao's best friend Li hatches the idea to raise the money by refurbishing an abandoned bus, which they will rent out by the hour – the Happy Times Hotel – to young couples starved for privacy. Unfortunately, this plan goes awry because Zhao is too old-fashioned to allow the couples to leave the bus door closed.
    Meanwhile, Zhao's fiancée introduces him to her spoiled son and beautiful blind stepdaughter Wu Ying (Jie Dong), whom she sees as a burden. To be rid of the girl, she insists that Zhao take her to the Happy Times Hotel and give her a job. Zhao reluctantly agrees, then creates a series of deceptions to keep the girl occupied, including setting her up as a masseuse and enlisting his friends to pretend to be her customers. Everything that is happening between Zhao and Wu is superficially about trickery, but gradually a very real empathy grows between the young woman and the old man.
    This film does not have a Hollywood formula ending. At heart, it is a delicate and simple story about two people brought together by humorous circumstances and human nature. We see here a side of Yimou Zhang that he does not often share, and we are enriched by his story-telling.