Seriously Talented: GRAND PIANO

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano (2013) were written by WUD Film’s Vincent Mollica. Featuring a screenplay by Damien Chazelle, Grand Piano will screen in our series tribute to Chazelle on Friday, February 9 at 7 p.m., the first half of a double-feature that concludes with 10 Cloverfield Lane at 8:45 p.m. The double feature screens for free in our regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

Before his ascent to Oscardom, Grand Piano was part of a slew of films that Damien Chazelle had written but not directed. These include the infamously titled The Last Exorcism Part II and the more fondly regarded 10 Cloverfield Lane. In Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira, Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznik, a piano prodigy who returns to the stage years after screwing up an “impossible” piece written by his now dead mentor. All goes well until a man talking to him via a small ear piece (John Cusack) threatens to shoot his wife if he gets one note of the concert wrong. It’s an undeniably silly premise that, through the efforts of the film’s writer, director and stars, reaches its full cartoonish potential.

Chazelle told Vulture that his strategy in screenwriting was “Get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page, get them to turn the page,” and that comes through in the very propulsive plotting of both Grand Piano and 10 Cloverfield Lane. However, unlike Cloverfield’s constantly shifting form, Grand Piano sticks to a single, clear premise. It is an unabashedly high concept plot that critics would refer to, warmly and less-warmly, as “preposterous” and “ludicrous,” and a big part of what keeps Grand Piano exciting, on the page at least, is the outlandishness of its story.

As critics were quick to point out, a sustained, florid sense of style also distinguishes the film. Careful editing and tricky cinematography (most notably a surprise split screen at one point) give even the straightest scenes of exposition a highly dynamic quality. Important to note, though, is the actual skill necessary to pull this off. Rather than shooting for coverage, Mira shot the film by picking up specific moments, which he edited over the course of filming and placed on an animatic. “He prevized that entire movie,” Chazelle told Indiewire, “I literally saw the entire movie on a computer.”

Indeed, both Chazelle and Mira speak very highly of one another’s efforts. In a Cineuropa interview, Mira claims that “the screenplay works without us thinking about its absurdity and lack of logic.” Chazelle applauds the incredible detail of the production in his Indiewire interview, saying, “I like movies where you feel like it was actually thought through.” This mutual respect speaks to the way in which the writer and director’s sensibilities work together in the film. Chazelle and Mira craft something that sharply engages the viewer; Mira’s very visible craft, as pointed out by Chazelle, means that those hooks for the viewer have weight to them. There’s a serious sensibility underpinning unserious subject matter.

Although not as immediately noticeable, the same is true of the film’s performances. In an Indiewire interview, Elijah Wood describes his ability to find an intriguing character in the film’s plot-driven script and to merge it interestingly with the film’s story. Truly, Elijah Wood is the film’s MVP. He describes working on the film as akin to being in a marathon; he had to play along to music, as well as listen to John Cusack and act himself.  Speaking with Den of Geek, Alex Winter (Bill and Ted’s Bill), who plays Cusack’s lackie, discusses the process of developing his character, notably saying, “Eugenio didn’t want us playing this movie with a nod and a wink, that would have been disastrous.” Like the film’s plot, the characters, or at least their situations, border on cartoonish, but the talent behind them lets the viewer engage with the film on a serious level.

Perhaps Grand Piano does carry the same weight as the similarly over-the-top 10 Cloverfield Lane, as they both contain a dramatic pull that feels genuine. That obviously works on a larger scale in Grand Piano, as the viewer is pulled through bizarre twists and turns, but also in small, sillier bits of business throughout. A pivotal moment in which Wood crumples up and throws down a piece of sheet music is underscored with a janitor in the background. Mira takes considerable time to observe the janitor shaking his head in disappointment and walking away. It’s a funny moment, but the film’s tone, established by its direction and performances, suggests a world that is so heightened that even the silliest of gestures can reasonably take place.

Following Grand Piano, Chazelle and Mira went different ways. Obviously, Chazelle would continue to explore an interest in music in his work as a Hollywood director with Whiplash and La La Land. The sense of ever snowballing catastrophe found in Grand Piano, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and even The Last Exorcist II (which climaxes in the apocalypse) is carried over into Whiplash. Mira has not made a film in the intervening 5 years. Talking to Indiewire, he clarifies that although he’d like to make Hollywood films, he thinks a time in which he’d get the creative freedom to make something interesting has passed (he and Wood discuss the halcyon days of the 1990s in which The Frighteners could be made). Grand Piano is unmistakably a distinct creative effort––a remarkable collaboration between writer, director, and performers working in unison.

Classical Hollywood: UNFAITHFULLY YOURS

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948) were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Unfaithfully Yours will screen as part of our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series highlighting films discussed in David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood. The February 4 screening begins at 2 p.m. in the auditorium of the Chazen Museum of Art.

By John Bennett

By 1948, the year Preston Sturges’ delightfully mean-spirited comedy Unfaithfully Yours was released, the glory days for the writer/director had ended. A playwright-turned-screenwriter, Sturges wrote finely crafted screenplays for snappy comedies like Easy Living (Leisen, 1937). In 1940, he began directing his own screenplays for Paramount, starting with the successful The Great McGinty. For the first half of the 40s, Sturges continued to direct his own screenplays, churning out successful, cynical slapstick satires at an astonishing rate, all of which are worth watching and the best of which include The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). By 1945, however, Paramount and Sturges parted ways, leaving the orphaned director searching for a studio where he could continue working. After making The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), a disappointing Harold Lloyd comeback made for the mercurial Howard Hughes, Sturges teamed up with 20th Century Fox to make Unfaithfully Yours, a wildly original comedy that, though not successful during its original release, has not lost its power to shock, confound, and delight.

“By all means, be vulgar!” exclaims Sir Alfred De Carter (brilliantly played by Rex Harrison), a renowned orchestra conductor, to a timid cymbalist during a rehearsal. Indeed, brassy vulgarity abounds in the narrative of this unusual comedy. Unfaithfully Yours opens with Sir Alfred returning to America from England. Waiting for him on the tarmac is his devoted wife, Daphne (played by the underrated Linda Darnell). Their reunion is tender, even passionate. But then Sir Alfred learns that his milquetoast brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee) had a detective follow Daphne during Sir Alfred’s absence. The detective’s report claims that Daphne spent a mysterious 38 minutes in the hotel room of Tony (Kurt Kreuger), Sir Alfred’s trusty young secretary. This news whips Sir Alfred into a rage on the day of a big concert he will be conducting. In the film’s wildly inventive coup de théâtre (to which David Bordwell draws much attention in his new book, Reinventing Hollywood), Sir Alfred has three devilish revenge fantasies while conducting three overtures. The concert is a huge success, but Sir Albert does not stay long enough to bask in the glory; he rushes back to his apartment to try to realize his dastardly fantasies…

Unfaithfully Yours is undoubtedly one of the great films about classical music. Like Sir Alfred, Sturges masterfully conducts excerpts of three pieces during the fantasy sequences—Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, and Tchaikovsky’s overture to Francesca di Rimini—revealing surprising qualities in the music through his inventive storytelling. In the first murderous fantasy sequence, Sir Alfred erupts into maniacal laughter at the overture’s most giddy passage, proving how well Sturges understood Rossini’s joyous bounce and thrilling crescendos. In the fantasy sequence in which Sir Alfred releases Daphne with ostentatious magnanimity, Sturges teases out something showy and pretentious in Wagner. When the fantasy ends, and we see the real, devoted Daphne tearing up at the beautiful music her husband is able to conduct, Sturges restores the overture’s grand majesty once more, making us feel moved by the same music we found so pompous and empty just moments before. Of course, much credit must go to musical director Alfred Newman. When Sir Alfred tries to realize his murderous plan and fails miserably at every stage, Newman arranges Rossini’s overture in such a way that is filled with amusing cartoon trumpet blares and timpani hits.

Sturges was one of American film’s most democratic directors; every fop and every floozy, every baroness and every bum gets to speak his or her snarky peace—and boy do they do it in style. Few writer/directors gave so many plum lines to their supporting players. Only in a Sturges film would a character named Detective Sweeney (Edgar Kennedy) turn out to be such an effusive classical music fan (“Nobody handles Handel like you handle Handel!” he gushes to Sir Alfred). Many members of Sturges’ dependable troop of character actors turn up in Unfaithfully Yours as well. Robert Grieg, as Sir Alfred’s cockney dressing room attendant, appeared in six Sturges films; Al Bridge, as the hotel detective, appeared in an astonishing ten films by the writer/director, a record surpassed only by Torben Meyer (Dr. Schultz), who appeared in eleven. The popular 30s crooner Rudy Vallee, who appeared in four Sturges films, takes on the thankless role of playing Sir Alfred’s stuffed-shirt brother-in-law who, humorously enough, professes his dislike of music. Barbara Lawrence, as Daphne’s sister, gets some great cynical throwaway lines as well. In the world of Unfaithfully Yours, nearly everyone is just a little rotten and just a little loveable, a quality that gives the film great comedic texture.

Ultimately, the plot structure of Unfaithfully Yours isn’t the film’s only unusual characteristic. Sturges’ comedy is one of the few Classical Hollywood films to take on the pettiness of the male ego and demolish the mythos surrounding the concept of “artistic genius” with such savagery. After the Semiramide overture has ended, Sir Albert’s associate, Hugo Standoff (played by the inimitable Lionel Stander affecting a convincing Russian accent) rushes to Sir Albert’s dressing room. He asks, in awe, “What did you have in your head? What visions of eternity?” Though he has masterfully conducted the piece, Sir Albert’s visions are petty and cruel. By the time the concert ends, Sir Alfred is a musical genius, adored by thousands of audience members; that same night, as he tries to realize his murderous fantasy, he’s simply “some jerk on the line” according to a phone operator who is perplexed after Sir Alfred accidentally kicks his phone off the receiver for the umpteenth time. Sturges isn’t interested in the agony and the ecstasy of a great artist. Instead, he quite brilliantly shows how a great artist can also be a grade-A jerk, a perspective that continues to feels as fresh and funny as the film’s surprising narrative structure.

THE CHASE - An Essential Noir Doubles Down on the Unsavory

Thursday, January 25th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Arthur Ripley's The Chase (1946) were written by Zachary Zahos, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of The Chase will screen on Sunday, January 28 as the first in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by Professor David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. The free screening will be preceded by a one-hour lecture from Professor Bordwell at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at the Chazen Museum of Art.  The print of The Chase comes courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund.'

By Zachary Zahos

No less strange eight decades removed, The Chase (1946) confounds from all angles. Unlike other famously confusing noirs like The Big Sleep, The Chase keeps the gears of its plot spinning front and center, hinging on a spectacular twist. The set-up is simple enough: WWII veteran Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings, also the wrong man in Hitchcock’s Saboteur) chauffeurs for Miami criminal Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), only to fall for his wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan, from Port of Shadows) and flee with her to Havana. Toward the film’s end, however, Chuck seemingly gains the ability of second sight, and the story’s conflicts resolve through coincidences and ironic twists of fate. Throughout The Chase, an aura of unrest and impossibility permeates the surprising turns, sinister performances, baroque sets, uneasy pauses—the very fabric of the film.
                           
UW-Madison’s Professor David Bordwell, who introduces Sunday’s Chazen screening, has demystified The Chase’s unusual narrative structure in recent years. In two 2016 blog posts and his new book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, Bordwell situates The Chase within the dramatic trends of its time. But if earlier, successful films like Spellbound and The Woman in the Window indulged respectively in amnesia and it-was-all-a-dream tropes, then The Chase distinguished itself as one of the few to join the two devices at the hip. Furthermore, Bordwell cites studio correspondence, novelizations, and an early script tucked away in the Munich Film Museum to illuminate how, in the process of trying to meet producer Seymour Nebenzal’s request to slap a happy ending onto Cornell Woolrich’s source material, The Black Path of Fear, screenwriter Philip Yordan first devised an even more disorienting plot structure. The rushed final product beguiles in part because Nebenzal, Yordan, and director Arthur Ripley apparently worked toward a compromise that was somehow both neater and still rife with loose ends.

As fascinating as its plot is, The Chase also compels on stylistic grounds alone. With roughly half the action in Miami and the rest in Havana, Ripley, art director Robert Usher, and set decorator Victor Gangelin (who also worked on The Searchers) collaborated on a dreamy, suggestive mise-en-scène. Compare Eddie Roman’s absurd Miami mansion, with its classical sculptures and cherubs guarding its front door peepholes, to the oriental statues filling the Cuban curio store owned by Madame Chin, played by Russian opera singer and Rachmaninoff muse Nina Koshetz. While critics this century have drawn connections between The Chase’s plot and David Lynch projects like Lost Highway, the attention paid to enigmatic, artisan props—like the jade-handled knives sold by Chin—surpasses conventional use of the MacGuffin and approaches totemic, Lynchian abstraction.

Even light itself regularly assumes an intimidating sense of agency. Surely cinematographer Franz Planer labored to get the timing of the falling and cresting of light over Chuck and Lorna’s porthole, during their boat ride to Cuba, just right. Not long after, in a Havana nightclub, a photographer’s flash syncs with a moment of fatal stabbing—predating the flash-bulb-as-weapon climax of Rear Window (another Woolrich adaptation) by eight years. Earlier in the film, the gorgeous rear projection of waves crashing against a pier appears twice, and the contrast in lighting between them subverts expectations: nighttime for Lorna and Chuck’s stolen moment, and bright daylight when Eddie, backed by henchman Gino (Peter Lorre), needles Chuck about his feelings for his wife.

Steve Cochran, as Eddie, and Lorre as Gino deliver the most nuanced performances in the film, and together establish much of The Chase’s unsettling atmosphere. Introduced as a disembodied eye and voice through one of the cherub peepholes, Lorre soon proves his abilities as a master of on-screen business: In one gap between lines, Lorre wields a nail file, bites his nail, spits, and pulls back to take a drag from a cigarette. In contrast, Cochran at times lowers his voice to a whisper and restricts all movement to a panther-like stillness—during these moments he shoots an unblinking glare that is terrifying. Cochran projects an aggressive virility that, underneath the attractive surface, is the source of Eddie’s power, and the audience’s fear of that power. He is the kind of proto-Bond (and post-Freud) villain who installs a set of back-seat pedals to override his own driver, simply to assert his dominance. That Eddie spends a key scene of crisis lazing on a couch, only offering Gino cryptic orders (“Play the other side.”), adds a banal and unpredictable layer to his evil.

With Eddie so cruel a character, The Chase ranks among the more sadistic of film noirs. After all, the film introduces Eddie with him assaulting a woman and leaving blood. Later, too, he locks a rival (Lloyd Corrigan) in his wine cellar and feeds him to his dog, whereupon the shattering of a bottle of vintage Napoleon brandy vividly stands for the off-screen ravaging. For these reasons and more (including the uninflected central relationship between Chuck and Lorna), The Chase remains a troubling, flawed work—though it is telling how many of the “neo-noirs” from the late 20th century to the present have since doubled down on these unsavory elements. In the dual contexts of its time and ours today, The Chase sells a bold narrative gamble with brio, downplaying sense—and with it meaning—in favor of pure evocation.

FACES PLACES: Varda & JR Hit the Road

Thursday, January 25th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Agnès Varda's & JR's Faces Places (Visages Villages)  were written by Matt St. John, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. The Cinematheque will present the only theatrical screenings of the Oscar-nominated Faces Places on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, January 27 at 5 p.m. in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall. Free admission for both screenings.

By Matt St. John

After making films for more than sixty years, Agnès Varda continues to try new approaches. With Faces Places (Visages Villages), the now 89-year-old French New Wave veteran has co-directed for the first time, working with 34-year-old artist JR. Their unlikely intergenerational friendship becomes one of the guiding topics of Faces Places, a warmhearted, thoughtful film that won awards at major festivals throughout the last year and just received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature earlier this week. Faces Places contemplates many of the concerns from Varda’s other documentary work like The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), such as autobiography and the creation of art. But Varda now addresses these ideas through a collaboration with a younger artist, in a project that benefits from their shared artistic affinities and investments.

Faces Places frequently shows Varda and JR’s collaborative filmmaking choices in observational footage or amusing staged reenactments, making the content of the film inseparable from its creation. This project began after Varda and JR were introduced by her daughter (and the film’s producer), Rosalie. Just a few days later, Varda and JR started filming a road trip to villages throughout France, traveling in his photo-booth truck. Meeting people who live and work in the small communities, they found subjects for JR’s large format, ephemeral photographs. Black-and-white images of individuals and groups were printed from his truck and pasted on buildings for their fellow villagers to observe and enjoy, making art out of ordinary people. Varda and JR often filmed their subjects in front of the final mounted photographs, preserving these temporary images through a documentary about their production.

These artistic processes used in Faces Places, photography and filmmaking, draw on Varda and JR’s backgrounds working in different media. While Varda is primarily known for her films, shifting between the categories of shorts, features, documentary, and fiction throughout her career, she was first a professional photographer and has also created mixed media installations, which have become increasingly important to her artistic practice in recent years. Her past work is repeatedly referenced in Faces Places, from specific photographs to famous scenes from her films. Sometimes these references inspire parts of her art-making road trip with JR, while at other times they cause her to reflect on personal experiences, such as her friendship with Jean-Luc Godard. Just as critics and audiences tend to associate Varda with film alone, JR is usually linked to his photography. His famous large-scale works often address political subjects in contested spaces, like his recent photography installation of a Mexican toddler peering over the border wall into California, but this popular format was not his only artistic medium before Faces Places. JR previously directed Ellis, a short film about immigrant experience starring Robert De Niro, and documentaries based on his photography works Women Are Heroes, a tribute to women who suffer violence in Rio de Janeiro, and Inside Out, a global crowdsourced project to create large portraits advocating for change. One medium certainly dominates each of their careers (film for Varda and photography for JR), but they both have diverse backgrounds working with the various formats involved in Faces Places.

Varda and JR’s partnership may stem, in part, from this experience with both photography and film, but they also share an investment in the lives of ordinary people as a topic for their art. In their interview with Slant, JR notes that his artwork presents regular people as if they were famous, in the enormous, instantly noticeable format usually reserved for advertising and images of celebrities. Varda’s films often attend to marginalized people living outside of mainstream awareness, like the homeless young woman in the 1985 fiction film Vagabond or the subjects of The Gleaners and I. In an interview with New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan, Varda explains that this similarity led to her partnership with JR: “Because our aims, on his side and on my side, had some common points, really: to be interested in other people, unknown people, not being famous people. We decided on people who have no power. People that you can meet in villages.” This interest leads them to places as varied as goat farms, a chemical plant, and shipping docks in Faces Places, but they always discover ways to celebrate the people they meet through art, using both JR’s photography and the film itself.

In the Slant interview, Varda claims the film “is energetic because it says life is interesting, people are interesting, and it’s worth creating a link between them and us, between the people and the audience.” Through the artistic process and the fundamental interest in daily life, the film underscores the possibility of connections between ordinary people, as well as Varda’s openness to establishing new links of her own, like her friendship with JR. Varda reflects on her prior work and friendships while creating a film with this new collaborator, and a subtle theme of the relationship between past and present develops throughout Faces Places. This grants the film an emotional resonance that builds during its seemingly light and playful journey to a profound, memorable ending to their road trip. Agnès Varda has been dedicated to incorporating new methods throughout her career, and in Faces Places, she adds to her curious and generous artistic practice by inviting a new face along for the ride.

2017 Favorites: J.J. Murphy

Friday, January 5th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Professor J.J. Murphy, Hamel Family Distinguished Chair in Communication Arts Department at UW Madison, is the Director of the UW Cinematheque and Artistic Director of the Wisconsin Film Festival

1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

2. Good Time (Josh and Ben Safdie)

3 Columbus (Kogonada)

4. Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)

5. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

6. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

7. Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)

8. Dark Night (Tim Sutton)

9. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

10. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

2017 Favorites: Ben Reiser

Thursday, January 4th, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer and Accounts Manager for the Cinematheque and a Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival

 

37 movies I saw for the first time in 2017 that left me happy, sad, angry, exhilarated, delirious and coming back for more:

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

LIFE (2017, Daniel Espinosa)

WILSON (2017, Craig Johnson)

COLOSSAL (2016, Nacho Vigalondo)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 (2017, James Gunn)

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017, Ridley Scott)

THE MUMMY (2017, Alex Kurtzman)

IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017, Trey Edward Shults)

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, Miguel Arteta)

OKJA (2017, Bong Joon-ho)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017 Matt Reeves)

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017, Luc Besson)

WIND RIVER (2017, Taylor Sheridan)

GOOD TIME (2017, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie)

LOGAN LUCKY (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017, Matthew Vaughn)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

THE FOREIGNER (2017, Martin Campbell)

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017 Taika Waititi)
LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)

THE MEYEROWITZ CHRONICLES (2017, Noah Baumbach)

GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

MARIUS (1931, Alexander Korda)

FANNY (1932, Marc Allegret)

CESAR (1936, Marcel Pagnol)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1978, Charles Burnett)

THE STUDENT NURSES (1970, Stephanie Rothman)

IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)

ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2016, Steve James)

THE CHALLENGE (2016, Yuri Ancarani)

THE INCIDENT (1967, Larry Peerce)

KILLING GROUND (2016, Damien Power)

OBIT (2016, Vanessa Gould)

THE SALESMAN (2016, Asghar Farhadi)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

And three television series that were just as essential to me:

TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (2017, David Lynch)

GODLESS (2017, Scott Frank)

THE KEEPERS (2017, Ryan White)

2017 Favorites: Matt St. John

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Matt St. John is Project Assistant for the Cinematheque and a Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I enjoyed many new movies this year, but these are the ones I just couldn’t shake.

1. FACES PLACES (2017, Agnès Varda & JR)

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017, Luca Guadagnino)

3. EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (2017, Frederick Wiseman)

4. STRONG ISLAND (2017, Yance Ford)

5. DINA (2017, Dan Sickles & Antonio Santini)

6. PARIS 05:59: THÉO & HUGO (2016, Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau)

7. WONDERSTRUCK (2017, Todd Haynes)

8. PRINCESS CYD (2017, Stephen Cone)

9. QUEST (2017, Jonathan Olshefski)

10. THOR: RAGNAROK (2017, Taika Waititi)

2017 Favorites: Mike King

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is a Programmer for the Cinematheque and Senior Programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2017:

DINA (2016, Dan Sickles & Antonio Santini)

ELLE (2016, Paul Verhoeven)

FRAUD (2016, Dean Fleischer-Camp)

A GHOST STORY (2017, David Lowery)

GOOD TIME (2017, Josh & Benny Safdie)

NOCTURAMA (2016, Bertrand Bonello)

THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016, João Pedro Rodrigues)

PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)

PERSON TO PERSON (2017, Dustin Guy Defa)

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016, Olivier Assayas)

Plus three more, just as good:

AQUARIUS (2016, Kleber Mendonça Filho)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

NERUDA (2016, Pablo Larraín)

2017 Favorites: Jim Healy

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming of the UW Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I don't think I saw any one movie this year that gave me as much pleasure as the new season of David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS did, but of all the individual movies I saw for the first time in 2017, these were my very favorites:

In alphabetical order:

DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1940, Robert Florey)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

AN INN IN TOKYO (1935, Yasujiro Ozu)

LOGAN (2017, James Mangold)

L’ORO DI NAPOLI/THE GOLD OF NAPLES (1954, Vittorio De Sica)

MA VIE DE COURGETTE/MY LIFE AS A ZUCHINNI (2016, Claude Barras)

THE POST (2017, Steven Spielberg)

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017, Matt Reeves)

 

I also got a lot of enjoyment from these movies, presented in alphabetical order:

L’AFFAIRE MAURIZIUS (1954, Julien Duvivier)
LES AFFAMES (2017, Robin Aubert)
AFTERIMAGE (2016, Andrzej Wajda)
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965, Carol Reed)
ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (1915, Maurice Tourneur)
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017, Ridley Scott)
APOSTASY (2017, Dan Kokotaljo)
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962, Yasujiro Ozu)
BACHELOR FLAT (1962, Frank Tashlin)
BAD DAY FOR THE CUT (2017, Chris Baugh)
THE BARGAIN (1914, Thomas Ince)
BEAST (2017, Michael Pearce)
BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, Miguel Arteta)
UN BEAU SOLEIL INTERIEUR (2017, Claire Denis)
THE BOOGENS (1981. James L. Conway)
IL BOOM (1963, Vittorio De Sica)
BRAD'S STATUS (2017, Mike White)
THE BRAT (1931, John Ford)
THE BULLET TRAIN (1975, Junya Sato)
BY SIDNEY LUMET (2015, Nancy Buirski)
THE CARIBOO TRAIL (1950, Edwin L. Marin)
CASTING (2017, Nicolas Wackerbarth)
CATCH THE WIND (2017, Gael Morel)
CÉSAR (1936, Marcel Pagnol)
COCK OF THE AIR (1934, Tom Livingston)
COCO (2017, Lee Unkrich)
COLUMBUS (2017, Kogonada)
CRAIG’S WIFE (1936, Dorothy Arzner)
D.O.A. (1949, Rudolph Maté)
DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937, George Stevens)
DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016, Bill Morrison)
DEALING: OR THE BERKELEY-TO-BOSTON FORTY-BRICK LOST-BAG BLUES (1972, Paul Williams)
THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017, Armando Iannucci)
DESPERATE LIVING (1977, John Waters)
DIRIGIBLE (1931, Frank Capra)
THE DONOR (2016, Zang Qiwu)
DON’T FORGET ME (2017, Ram Nehari)
DOWNSIZING (2017, Alexander Payne)
ECSTASY (1933, Gustav Machaty)
THE END OF SUMMER (1961, Yasujiro Ozu)
UNA ESPECIE DE FAMILIA (2017, Diego Lerman)
EX LIBRIS THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY (2017, Frederick Wiseman)
DER FAN (1982, Eckhart Schmidt)
FANNY (1932, Marc Allegret)
FIRSTBORN (2017, Aik Karapetian)
FLOATING WEEDS (1959, Yasujiro Ozu)
FOR THEM THAT TRESPASS (1949, Cavalcanti)
FORBIDDEN GAMES (1951, Réne Clément)
THE FOREIGNER (2017, Martin Campbell)
FOREVER PURE (2016, Maya Zinstein)
GET OUT (2017, Jordan Peele)
GILBERT (2017, Neil Berkeley)
THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954, Lewis Gilbert)
THE GREAT SINNER (1949, Robert Siodmak)
THE GREAT WALL (2016, Zhang Yimou)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017, Michael Gracey)
HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955, Frank Tuttle)
HIGH SCHOOL (1968, Frederick Wiseman)
HITLER’S MADMAN (1943, Douglas Sirk)
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959, Terrence Fisher)
I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE (2017, Macon Blair)
I REMEMBER MAMA (1946, George Stevens)
INSIDE OUT (1975, Peter Duffell)
INVISIBLE GHOST (1941, Joseph H. Lewis)
IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937, Archie Mayo)
THE GRASSHOPPER (1970, Jerry Paris)
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973, Norman Jewison)
JIM AND ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND...(2017, Chris Smith)
JOHN WICK, CHAPTER 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017, Jake Kasdan)
THE KID FROM SPAIN (1932, Leo McCarey)
KIDNAP (2017, Luis Prieto)
KILLING GROUND (2016, Damien Power)
KINGSMAN THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017, Matthew Vaughn)
KOKO: A TALKING GORILLA (1978, Barbet Schroeder)
LADY BIRD (2017, Greta Gerwig)
THE LADY IN RED (1979, Lewis Teague)
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1935, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
LATE AUTUMN (1960, Yasujiro Ozu)
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017, Chris McKay)
THE LETTER NEVER SENT (1959, Mikhail Kalatozov)
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER (1980, Connie Field)
LION (2016, Garth Davis)
LITTLE WING (2016, Selma Vilhunen)
MARIUS (1931, Alexander Korda)
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)
LA MOGLIE PIU BELLA (1970, Damiano Damiani)
MOM AND DAD (2017, Brian Taylor)
NAPALM (2017, Claude Lanzmann)
THE NIGHT VISITOR (1970, Laszlo Benedek)
1984 (1956, Michael Anderson)
NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1986, Cory Yuen)
NORTHERN PURSUIT (1943, Raoul Walsh)
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO (1964, Larry Peerce)
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017, Aki Kaurismaki)
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (2017, Ritesh Batra)
PANIQUE (1947, Julien Duvivier)
PARTS THE CLONUS HORROR (1979, Steven Fiveson)
PATERSON (2016, Jim Jarmusch)
PATTI CAKE$ (2017, Geremy Jasper)
PERSON TO PERSON (2017, Dustin Guy Defa)
THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD (1932, J. Walter Ruben)
PINK STRING AND SEALING WAX (1945, Robert Hamer)
THE POLKA KING (2017, Maya Forbes)
RANDOM HARVEST (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)
RAVENS (2017, Jens Assur)
RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (1947, Yasujiro Ozu)
RHUBARB (1951, Arthur Lubin)
RILEY THE COP (1928, John Ford)
RING OF SPIES/RING OF TREASON (1963, Robert Tronson)
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (2017, Dan Gilroy)
ROMAN SCANDALS (1933, Frank Tuttle)
SAVING BRINTON (2017, T. Haines/J. Richard/A. Sherburne)
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961, John Gilling)
SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM/BLAZING MAGNUM (1976, Alberto De Martino/Martin Herbert)
SILENCE (2016, Martin Scorsese)
SMALL CRIMES (2017, Evan Katz)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017, Rian Johnson)
STREET SCENE (1931, King Vidor)
STREETWISE (1984, Martin Bell)
STRIKE ME PINK (1936, Norman Taurog)
THE STUDENT NURSES (1970, Stephanie Rothman)
TAKE ME (2017, Pat Healy)
TERMINAL ISLAND (1973, Stephanie Rothman)
THERE WAS A FATHER (1942, Yasujiro Ozu)
THESE THREE (1936, William Wyler)
THIRST (1979, Rod Hardy)
THOSE WHO MAKE REVOLUTION HALFWAY ONLY DIG THEIR OWN GRAVE (2016, Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie)
TITICUT FOLLIES (1967, Frederick Wiseman)
TONI ERDMANN (2016, Maren Ade)
TORMENTO (1950, Raffaello Matarazzo)
THE TRAVELER (1974, Abbas Kiarostami)
THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE (1932, William K. Howard)
TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963, Sidney Salkow)
THE UNHOLY FOUR/CIAKMUL (1970, E.B. Clucher)
THE WALL (2017, Doug Liman)
THE WHIP HAND (1951, Wm. Cameron Menzies)
WIGILIA (2016, Graham Drysdale)
WIND RIVER (2017, Taylor Sheridan)
WOLF GUY (1975, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi)

 

COVER GIRL: The Pearl of Columbia, 1944

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Cover Girl (1944) were written by Amanda McQueen, faculty assistant in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Cover Girl will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 15 at 7 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1942, Bob Taplinger, publicity chief at Columbia Pictures, hit upon an idea for a film and magazine tie-up, in which real-life models would be featured in a musical, appropriately titled Cover Girl. Fifteen publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and Look, agreed to participate. These publicity stunt origins are belied, however, by the ingenuity and skill that Gene Kelly brought to the finished picture. Though not as well-known as the musicals he would subsequently make with MGM’s famous Freed Unit, Cover Girl first showed the world what Kelly was capable of and launched him to stardom.

From the start, Cover Girl was intended for Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star and the favorite pin-up girl for millions of GIs, but the studio struggled to transform Taplinger’s concept into a suitable screenplay. Ultimately, Columbia chief Harry Cohn brought in Virginia Van Upp, an established screenwriter and script doctor at Paramount. Van Upp’s screenplay for Cover Girl is conventional, but perfectly suited to Hayworth’s talents and star image. Hayworth (singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) plays Rusty Parker, a dancer at a small Brooklyn night club. Magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger), spurred by memories of his lost love Maribelle (also Hayworth), selects Rusty to be his new cover girl, whisking her into the world of high society—much to the dismay of her boss and fiancé, Danny McGuire (Kelly). Ultimately, Rusty must decide between a life of honest, hard work with Danny, or a life of glamour and ease with Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Of course, there’s little doubt who Rusty will choose.

Columbia spared no expense shaping Cover Girl into a prestige production worthy of its top leading lady. As one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, Columbia had fewer resources at its disposal, but the prosperity of the early-1940s had led the company to increase its budgets, particularly for top-tier productions. Cover Girl was thus Columbia’s second ever Technicolor film, and for a while, held the studio record for longest shooting schedule. The production grew so large, in fact, that Columbia had to rent shooting space at outside facilities. Further adding to its prestige, the musical marked the first collaboration between legendary songsmiths Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Given the film’s importance, Cohn actually considered producing it himself, but instead hired Broadway songwriter and producer Arthur Schwartz to make his Hollywood debut. It is thanks to Schwartz that Cover Girl evolved from standard big-budget musical into something truly special.

Cover Girl had been in production for several weeks without a leading man when Gene Kelly was finally cast in July 1943. Kelly had jumped from Broadway to Hollywood in 1941, but his home studio of MGM didn’t know what to do with him and gave him little creative involvement in his projects. Cohn objected to Kelly’s looks, but Schwartz borrowed him from MGM anyway, even agreeing to let him choreograph his own numbers. Kelly, working for the first time with his future co-director Stanley Donen, took full advantage of this creative freedom, exploring the cinematic possibilities of the musical genre. Even today, scenes like the “Alter-Ego Dance,” in which Danny dance-battles with his own superimposed reflection, make it clear why contemporary critics hailed Cover Girl as “a milestone in screen musical history.”

Upon its release in March 1944, Cover Girl was an instant hit. It broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall, and its signature tune, “Long Ago (And Far Away),” was the year’s #2 song on the Hit Parade. Audiences loved it, and so it’s no surprise—particularly given its optimistic depiction of the war—that Cover Girl was the first film screened for GIs in France following the D-Day victory. Though some critics thought the plot cliche, others praised Van Upp’s “inspired” script, with its compact balance of drama, romance, comedy, and music. Cohn rewarded Van Upp by promoting her to producer; as one of only three women producing in Hollywood, she would go on to co-write and produce Hayworth’s most famous film, Gilda (1946). Most critics concurred, moreover, that Hayworth and Kelly were perfect. They have excellent chemistry—especially when dancing—and it’s a shame they never worked together again. Hayworth gives one of her best performances, and the film’s success cemented her as one of the biggest box office attractions in the world.

But Cover Girl also made it clear that Gene Kelly was more than a capable contract player: he was a star. And not only that—Kelly’s work in Cover Girl was said to be on par with “Fred Astaire’s greatest triumphs,” proof that he was capable of challenging Astaire for the dancing crown. In fact, in 1949, when Columbia re-issued Cover Girl with You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Hayworth and Astaire, enterprising exhibitors promoted the double feature as “Astaire vs. Kelly: The Dance Battle of the Century.” Back at MGM, Kelly was now permitted to choreograph his own musical numbers, beginning with Anchors Aweigh (1945). The rest is film musical history.

In 1952, Picturegoer magazine looked back on Cover Girl as “a shrewd combination of screen art and entertainment and a forerunner of On the Town and An American in Paris.” The musical certainly presages the pinnacle of Kelly’s career and what many consider the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical; this is perhaps why Kelly returned to the character of Danny McGuire forty years later in Xanadu (1980). But Cover Girl is charming on its own merits. Its Oscar win for Best Musical Score is well deserved, as are its nominations for Best Color Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Charles Vidor’s direction is brisk, and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Phil Silvers, who provides just the right amount of corn, and Eve Arden, who injects a much-needed dose of cynical wit. The nearly perfect way in which Cover Girl’s elements come together make it much like the pearl at the heart of its plot: a rare and magical thing.

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