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Thursday
Aug172017

THE TRIP TO SPAIN

Over dinner on a terrace overlooking the gorgeous Bay of Biscay, Rob Brydon and his friend Steve Coogan are bantering. Brydon says he's going to approach writing about their trip to Spain as if they're Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: "two middle-aged men looking for adventure." Later, when they're dressed in those roles for a photo shoot, Coogan is pleased that Brydon is cast as Panza: "the supporting role, as ever."

There we have, in a nutshell, the charm of this delightful, if familiar, installment in a series that's become one of the real pleasures of my filmgoing life. One-upping each other (when dropping a famous name, they'll often ask the other "Have you met him?"), working each other's nerves, having fun, they're the odd couplebut a couple nonetheless. There is a moment in the Cathedral of Siguenza when they linger over a tomb where a couple is laid out side-to-side for all eternity. The boys shoot each other a meaningful glance. Coogan shudders.

Thus, for the third time since 2010, we're off on a melancholy tour of wonderful restaurants and gorgeous scenery with these two smart, droll British comedians. They've toured Britain and Italy, and now it's time for a week-long road trip in Spain, again ostensibly to review restaurants, although we never see them writing. (When they do turn their attention toward the food, we get appraisals like "life-affirming butter.") It tickles me to take these tripstravel and food being two of my favorite things, and smart, droll British comedy, the kind that presupposes some literacy and knowledge of history on the part of its audience, being my favorite kind. 

I'll always love the dueling impressions and accompanying ruthless criticism, though as the hits keep coming, the experience is a bit like attending a concert by one of your favorite performers, only the setlist is the same as the last show you saw. You wouldn't want to be anywhere else, but it's not quite like the first time.  

Reunited with director Michael Winterbottom, the boys once again play slightly twisted versions of themselves: Brydon is the genial family man, Coogan is the frustrated, pedantic, pretentious, lonely man whose personal and professional lives aren't where he wants them to be. Like the previous two films, THE TRIP TO SPAIN is an adaptation of a six-party BBC TV series. Would I want to watch the whole thing? I could, and with pleasure. But you know what? This is a good taste. 

There are wistful notes here, about aging and friendship, that the filmmakers might tease out without violating the series' allergy to sentiment. In their mid-forties when they took their first trip, they're now in their early fifties. "We're at the sweet spot in our lives," opines Coogan, rather wishfully. Brydon concurs, reflecting that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote when he was fifty. For his part, Coogan advises he intends to chronicle "his" odyssey through Spain somewhat on the model of Laurie Leethe poet, who, in his fifties, wrote As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, about his time in Spain as a young man. (Coogan carries the book around with him, and may even actually be seen cracking it.)  

They hit a wonderful restaurant in each town. Txoko, in Getaria. Etxebarri, near Bilboa. La Posada del Laurel, in Prejano. Nola, in Siguenza. The Parador of Almagro. El Refectorium, in Malaga. They visit the beautiful cliffside town of Cuenca, and sleep in paradors in historic castles and monasteries. As they make their way through Andalusia, Coogan visits Granada's Alhambra, taking me back to my own time there. Yet he's preoccupied by the unsettling news that his twenty-year-old son's girlfriend is pregnant.     

Coogan never goes long without mentioning how PHILOMENA, in "real life" the 2013 Oscar contender he co-wrote and starred in with Judie Dench, altered the course of his life and career. In reality, he's flailing. In a dream, he hears the name "Steve" being called out at the Oscar ceremony and begins to rise, only to find out the winner is Steve McQueen. This kind of self-parody had got to hit close to home, and I'll always admire Coogan for making himself, and the vicissitudes of his career, the ongoing butt of the joke. His exasperated calls to his manager and agent, and his dead-end relationship with his (married) girlfriend (Margo Stilley of 9 SONGS), carry a real tang of desperation.   

But what you came for are the dueling impressions, at which both men are preternaturally gifted. (Coogan's recent performance in THE DINNER seemed a bit like an impression of an American.)

I love 'em. There's a ritual to how they're unrolled at this point. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Sean Connery, John Hurt, Ian McKellan. Robert De Niro. Brando doing Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition bit (leading to a brilliant sequence in which Coogan dreams he's being questioned by Brydon-as-Brando-as-Torquemada). The Stones doing Shakespeare. Hopkins-as-Picasso: absolutely brilliant. Coogan does a gag where he moves his lips while emitting an obnoxious test-pattern noise, and Brydon counters with his signature "small man in a box" routine. (A "brilliant" bit, grants Coogan, but also perhaps "the apotheosis of your career.")
 
Finally, with a gleam in Brydon's eye, we get the dueling Michael Caines. It never gets old, that. When Brydon does Jagger at a party, doing Brydon's Caine back to him, it's vertiginous. 
 

The women from previous episodes join them: Marta Barrio as a photojournalist, and Claire Keelan as Coogan's assistant, Emma (the name of his assistant in "real life," I note). To impress and amuse the women over dinner, Brydon and Coogan compete with their Roger Moore impressions, Brydon conflating the surname with the word "Moor" in order to deflate Coogan's mansplaining disquisition on the history of Andalusia. Even as Brydon drives it into the ground, the women are a generous audience, laughing indulgently. 

James Clarke's roseate cinematography fills the frame with stunning views of the country. To complement his images, Winterbottom recycles Michael Nyman's poignant music from his 1999 film WONDERLAND. I suppose he decided Nyman's score was so beautiful he'd just use it again. It works.

Despite my caveats, then, I'd still advise skipping whatever this week's soul-withering blockbuster might be in favor of knocking about with the boys, rolling down the road and spontaneously harmonizing to "Windmills of My Mind." Rob notes that tune was famously sung by Noel Harrison, who also sang "The Rain in Spain"—and in the previous scene, we'd just seen them caught in a Spanish downpour. Wheels within wheels, as Rob says. And of course, "windmills" ties into our middle-aged men of La Mancha, tilting away against the beat of the clock.

This is wonderful stuff, really, and I laughed hard. Almost by sleight of hand, they've got something rather sublime on their hands with this series. I think of the moment when they say their goodbyes as a mist hangs over Malaga, and the tabletop glows in the early morning sun. They do their dueling Bogarts, one last time. Then Coogan is left alone, again. These guys are just too much—for better and for worse. I always feel like I've had enough by the end of the week, and then I look forward to the next journey. 

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

Michael Winterbottom's THE TRIP TO SPAIN (2017, 108 min, DCP Digital) plays Landmark's Century Centre Cinema starting Friday, August 18. Check venue website for showtimes.

Monday
Aug072017

EARTH (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I blurbed Alexander Dovzhenko's beautiful silent film EARTH (1930), playing at filmfront tonight at 8:00. My writeup's at CINE-FILE under "Also Recommended."

Wednesday
Jun282017

THE BEGUILED

Sofia Coppola's remake of THE BEGUILED is a slyly subversive, often quite funny, reinterpretation of the pulpy, febrile Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film of 1971. For better and for worse, it's not the gamey kind of fun that movie was. Spooky and rather arty itself, the Siegel was either a twisted feminist or a misogynist classic, depending upon your point of view—a (quite revealing) male anxiety dream about women's lib. (It could also be read as a Vietnam allegory). It was an eerie folk ballad, a cautionary tale wherein the Big Bad Wolf falls into a coven of witches.

Both movies adapt a Thomas P. Cullinan novel of 1966, which I haven't read. The setup: a dissembling, charming Union soldier with a wounded leg, McBurney (Colin Farrell, stepping into the Eastwood role, now more object than subject of the story), finds shelter at a southern girls' school housed in a plantation, where he's viewed with a mix of fear and fascination by the women. They take turns waiting on him and competing for his affection. What at first seems a male-supremacist dream turns into a nightmare.

As writer and director of this remake, Coppola had the interesting idea to make a critique, telling Siegel's woman-spooked fable from the corseted females' perspective. However, you wouldn't know that if you haven't seen the Siegel before going in, as I had not. (I've since caught up.) You'd simply enjoy the new movie for its absorbing narrative, and for the sly interplay of the fine actresses, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, bound in tangled lines of allegiance and suspicion, as conveyed through glances and witty editing. It's an exquisitely modulated work of art.

This being Coppola, this movie's atmospherics are, of course, savory. (She won the Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film, marking the first time in 50 years a woman has won the award, and only the second time ever.) Shot in a New Orleans mansion on 35mm, it's an achievement in candlelit moviemaking, by Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, that can be mentioned in the same sentence as BARRY LYNDON. If anything, the movie thickens the Southern Gothic air. I think of a gorgeous moment when the sun breaks through the mist-enshrouded, Spanish moss-draped oak trees. The grounds teem with cicadas, chirping wall-to-wall on the soundtrack. I thought I'd be hearing them in my dreams. Just about every shot is a feast for the eye, as when she arranges the woman around the piano, a portrait in pastel dresses.  

 It's more subtle and nuanced than the 1971 film (it couldn't be less), a comedy of Victorian manners, when bared shoulders were risqué. Some will find it too muted. There's none of the feverish inner thoughts of sex-starved women—in the original, these just about scream "wishful male projection." Ms. Martha, in the Siegel: "If this war goes on, I'll forget I'm a woman." There's no fantasy threesome resolving itself into a pietà, dreamed up by Ms. Martha. Also gone is the lurid incest storyline.

(Coppola's version cuts the character of the slave woman, as well, a decision that has already kicked up much discussion. In her version, the slaves have run off. Not having seen the original when I went in, Coppola's story, for me, was about these women left completely to fend for themselves).  

Her version is a lot of fun in its own right, much of it based on table-turning. (She's said in interviews she was keen to objectify Farrell for the benefit of the gay male, and female, gaze). When Kidman says to her young Southern charges, attempting to impart a lesson, "The enemy as an individual is not what we believe," she's really talking about men and the war that is the true subject of both films—not the Civil, but the one between the sexes. To humanize the "enemy," i.e., women in the original, is part of the point of this new version.      

As Ms. Martha, the po-faced, refined headmistress, Kidman dials down the deliciously campy menace of Geraldine Page. Through male eyes, Ms. Martha was an evil castrater: through Coppola's, she's just doing what needs to be done. Beneath her breeding, Kidman reveals a merciless core, embodied in a late gaze down the table into the camera that, for timing and comedy, must rank as one of the most delightful shots in modern filmmaking. A faraway-eyed Kirsten Dunst plays the virginal teacher, Edwina. As originally portrayed by Elizabeth Hartman, she was pretty much the only good human in that film. Like McBurney, she feels like a prisoner—"a sleeping beauty needing a man's kiss to awaken her," per Clint in the original. Dunst and Coppola feel Edwina's straitened life more acutely, fleshing out the dimensions of her longing, her ache for experience. Elle Fanning plays the horny adolescent who chafes at the rules, rather a poxy young doxy in the original. In Coppola and Fanning's nonjudgmental take, the character is a searching teenager, and the movie shifts some of the onus onto McBurney for exploiting her. 

Sofia Copolla's shift of empathy in her version of THE BEGUILED reverberates beyond the edges of this remake. It makes you think about how the rest of film history would be different, from a female point of view.

Sofia Coppola's THE BEGUILED  (2017, 94 min, DCP Digital) plays Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema starting June 29Check Venue website for showtimes.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 

 

Wednesday
Jun282017

BEAT THE DEVIL, Redux

"In the South of France, anything is possible!" Andre Bazin once declared. That is the setting for the 1951 novel Beat the Devil, and though John Huston's one-of-a-kind, endlessly funny film version moves the action to Italy’s Amalfi coast, it preserves the anything-goes spirit. Now, "the longest running cult favorite in history," as James Monaco called it, is back, thanks to a new 4K restoration, in all its strange, uneven glory. Even today, people exist who can recite swaths of its dialogue as if it's verse. 

Humphrey Bogart plays a middle-aged roustabout who, according to the novel, once rather had the reputation of a "second Lawrence." Those were the "good old" prewar days; now, the social order is upended, the Atomic Age looms, and he is reduced to being a hired agent of "the committee"—a a comic little crew, as would-be international men of intrigue go. As Roger Ebert notes in his Great Movies essay on the film, we smile simply upon sight of the great character actors comprising this seedy gang, staking everything they've got on a plot to make a fortune in the illegal postwar uranium rush in British East Africa: Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli.

For much of the movie, we simply spend time with this amusingly motley crew as they wait. They wait for the safe-as-houses SS Nyanga to become seaworthy in the backwater coastal town, where crumbling villas perch on cliff sides, monuments to faded glory. They wait in a saloon in the shaky boat on the high seas. They wait as castaways. All the while, they grow more and more paranoid, suspecting each other of double-crosses at any moment. 
 

There are other stranded Africa-bound travelers. Jennifer Jones, hair dyed blonde, plays a woman who, shall we say, "uses her imagination rather than her memory." (She tells lies that are "truer than true," as she puts it). That is, she's a blithe fabricator—right up until the great moment when she finally, deliciously, tells the truth. She's married to the silly Edward Underdown, a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman whose confidence about the way the world works marks him as a man of the old world—and something of a fool in the new one. 

Underdown is much admired by Bogart's wife, the wonderful Gina Lollobrigida, playing an Anglophile. ("Emotionally, I am English," proclaims the uber-Italian actress). Jones, in turn, carries a torch for Bogie. The restoration removes some censorship, but even so, the movie is not nearly as pungent about this double infidelity as the novel. That is to say, with the exception of a restored, and scandalous, shot featuring Lollobrigida's cleavage. (The old version faded out before her bust could fill the screen.)

The novel was the creation of Claud Cockburn, the great Scottish/Irish journalist and communist. (The credited "James Helvick" was a Cold War sobriquet: the novel and film appeared at the height of the blacklist and McCarthyism.) Every week in the '90s I would eagerly pour over Claud's son Alexander's mighty two-page column in The Nation, "Beat the Devil," named in homage. Huston, a friend of Cockburn's, was keen to turn the novel into a film, yet he turned up in Ravello, where cast and crew had convened, with more enthusiasm than script. (Treatments by Cockburn himself, as well as by Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel, hadn't work out.) David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones's husband, thought to bring in the hot and controversial young writer Truman Capote. (In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips noted the sly joke that Lorre's hair is dyed to look like Capote's.) 

Capote's great innovation was to turn the material into a campy parody, making the picture a sendup of '40s adventure movies. Pauline Kael, a big BEAT THE DEVIL fan, went so far as to say it "finished off" the form, much as THE LONG GOODBYE later would the private eye genre. Actually, I think Capote could've taken it even further in the direction of parody—cf. S.J. Perelman spoofing Raymond Chandler. And didn't the '40s pictures themselves sometimes have a knowing wink? A few scenes feel like they're not sure if they're straight; as Kael noted, Bogie doesn't seem always to be in on the lampoon. 

As the set became a party, Capote legendarily made up the screenplay as he went along, beating a daily deadline, with Huston handing out the pages to the cast right before filming. Upon examination, however, much of the funniest dialogue is right there in the Cockburn novel, including Lorre's line that many Germans in Chile have become called "O'Hara," as well as Lollobrigida's quoting of the novelist George Moore, cited approvingly by Ebert. ("I believe," he writes, that Moore "has not been quoted before or since in any movie.") On the other hand, some of the most-loved lines seem to be Capote's, including Lorre's famous "time" speech. On the other, other hand, Lorre and Morley sometimes made up their own dialogue on the spot. Whatever its tangled provenance, it must be said that the "screenplay," as it plays on screen, is a witty and cagey adaptation, sparkling with "bon mots." 

For the first time in decades, the visuals sparkle as well, thanks to the new 4K restoration overseen by The Film Foundation and Sony Pictures's Grover Crisp. Its limpidity will shock you if your previous viewings, like mine, were on scratchy VHS. The restorers went back to the original 35mm negative. (Asking if we couldn't have a nice 35mm print alongside the DCP as part of the restoration feels almost churlish, or like one of those existential questions). Freshly scrubbed, Oswald Morris's gorgeous black and white cinematography gleams with granular detail and texture, as well as an almost 3D sense of depth. A shot framing Bogart and Jones canoodling high above the Tyrrhenian Sea is breathtaking, almost vertiginous: when the camera pulled back and up, I felt I might fall right through the frame. In my notes I have, "the view is stunning"; later, when I looked up what Farran Smith Nehme wrote at Film Comment, I was pleased to see she felt the same.  

The restoration removes Bogart's narration, and thusly the movie's flashback structure. It runs roughly five minutes longer now. Much of the added material restores Jones and Underdown's stroll from near the beginning of the novel; fans of the book will be glad to have restored to celluloid Jones discussing her Spanish nurse, and why it's important to spit first. A Rita Hayworth pinup in the office of the "Arab inquisitor" (Manuel Serano, with hookah, naturally), previously obscured by a shadow, can now be seen in all its glory. The laughs everyone had making BEAT THE DEVIL are contagious: after 64 years, it's still a hoot. By the end of this freshly showered version, my face ached from smiling.

John Huston's BEAT THE DEVIL (1953, 95 min, DCP Digital) plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center from June 30 through July 5. Check Venue website for showtimes. 

Saturday
Jun172017

BAND AID (on CINE-FILE Chicago)

I was mixed, leaning affectionate, on Zoe Lister Jones's BAND AID. It's worth a look. To read my review at CINE-FILE Chicago, please head here and scroll down to the "Also Recommended" section.