Amanda McQueen's Favorites of 2014

Sunday, January 4th, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Amanda McQueen is a Programmer and Project Assistant of the UW Cinematheque. She is also a Programmer and Print Traffic Coordinator of the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I’m often behind on new releases, as I somehow never manage to make it to the theater, and I spent a lot of time in 2014 re-watching movies for my dissertation that I’d seen many times before. Nevertheless, I did manage to see enough new and new-to-me movies this past year to put together a short list of those I enjoyed. Here’s my top ten in alphabetical order: 

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

I’m So Excited! (Pedro Almodovar, 2013)

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)

The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951)

Rock ’n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush, 1979)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, 2013)

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2014)

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)

And some runners up:

Black Jack (Ken Loach, 1979)

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013)

The Duke Wore Jeans (Gerald Thomas, 1958)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

Le Week-End (Roger Michell, 2014)

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Xanadu (Robert Greenwald, 1980)

Ben Reiser's Favorites of 2014

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Ben Reiser is a Programmer and Accounts Manager of the UW Cinematheque, as well as the Coordinator of the Wisconsin Film Festival

THE GUEST The only film I saw twice in a theater this year. This is a pitch perfect amalgam of Halloween and The Terminator. THE GUEST is an embarrassingly entertaining genre film mash-up in which the whole is even greater than the sum of it’s parts.

THE ONE I LOVE – What starts out feeling like a gimmick winds up mining surprisingly deep territory when it comes to how married people feel about each other after the bloom is off the rose. I was really impressed with the subtleties of Mark Duplass’s performances.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – Not all Wes Anderson movies are created equal, and this one transfixed and delighted me in a way I hadn’t experienced since THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS. I watched it a second time recently paying exclusive attention to Ralph Fiennes and got the sense that I could probably do the same thing with equally enjoyable results with some of the other performances.

IT FELT LIKE LOVE – Made me feel like I was seeing the Brooklyn, New York of my youth as it had never been seen on screen before.

UNDER THE SKIN – I’ll entertain any arguments about the rest of the film, but the scene on the beach is the stuff of nightmares – the kind that rarely get captured on film as convincingly and excruciatingly as they do here.

THE SACRAMENT – Ti West continues to know exactly where to place the camera for maximum tension and suspense.

THE DROP – This kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini are both riveting in this film.

JOHN WICK – The most purely pleasurable action film I’ve seen since ROADHOUSE.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – If I’m being honest with myself, only two of the six Tolkein films made by Peter Jackson are what I would consider to be good movies – THE TWO TOWERS and now this one. It’s tightly focused and full of classical visual storytelling.

Mike King's Favorites of 2014

Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

Mike King is a Programmer and Chief Projectionist of the UW Cinematheque and Senior Programmer of the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Top ten new films to play Madison in 2014, in alphabetical order:

Cutie and the Boxer (2013, Zachary Heinzerling)

The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)

Force Majeure (2014, Ruben Ostlund)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

The Homesman (2014, Tommy Lee Jones)

Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)

Manakamana (2013, Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)

Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt)

Person to Person (2014, Dustin Guy Defa)

Stray Dog (2014, Debra Granik)

Runners up:

Actress (2014, Robert Greene)

Domestic (2013, Adrian Sitaru)

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Doug Liman)

Goodbye to Language (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)

Life of Riley (2014, Alain Resnais)

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013, Sion Sono)

Jim Healy's Favorites of 2014

Thursday, January 1st, 2015
Posted by Jim Healy

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

As a Cinematheque Curator and as a Wisconsin Film Festival Programmer, I usually have the great luxury of not having to see every “new release”, unlike most film critics. This means that on an annual basis, I will usually see more movies from cinema’s past than its present, but I don’t really believe in “old movies”; there are movies I’ve seen and movies I haven’t seen. Because I’m allowed to follow my interests and instincts when selecting the movies that I watch, the average quality of each film I see is pretty high and I saw a lot of great and very good things last year. Of the nearly 550 feature films that were all new to me in 2014, these 20, presented here in alphabetical order, were my very favorites (I've written in greater detail on some of the more vintage titles here at Brian Saur's Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog):

BOYHOOD (2014, Richard Linklater)

COUNTER-ATTACK (1945, Zoltan Korda)

THE CROWD (1928, King Vidor)

FIVE CAME BACK (1939, John Farrow)


A HIGH WIND IN JAMIACA (1965, Alexander Mackendrick)

THE HOMESMAN (2014, Tommy Lee Jones)

THE IMMIGRANT (2013, James Gray)

JUDEX (1963, Georges Franju)

JUKE GIRL (1942, Curtis Bernhardt)

THE KEEPING ROOM (2014, Daniel Barber)

LIFE ITSELF (2014, Steve James)

LISTEN UP PHILIP (2014, Alex Ross Perry)

MADEMOISELLE FIFI (1944, Robert Wise)

MR. TURNER (2014, Mike Leigh)

NORA PRENTISS (1947, Vincent Sherman)

THREE SECRETS (1950, Robert Wise)

IL SORPASSO (1962, Dino Risi)



I also enjoyed these movies; some more than others, of course, but I offer the list in alphabetical order instead of any sort of critical ranking. Consider it a highlighted sampling of my 2014 viewing adventure:


ACTRESS (2014, Robert Greene)

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014, Clint Eastwood)

APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT (2014, Amanda Rose Wilder)

THE ARNELO AFFAIR (1947, Arch Oboler)

THE BABADOOK (2014, Jennifer Kent)

BAD GRANDPA (2013, Jeff Tremaine)

BEATRICE CENCI (1956, Riccardo Freda)

BEWITCHED (1945, Arch Oboler)

BIG EYES (2014, Tim Burton)

BIG HERO 6 (2014, Don Hall, Chris Williams)

THE BIG LAND (1957, Gordon Douglas)

BLACK HAND (1949, Richard Thorpe)

THE BOXTROLLS (2014, Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi)

THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970, William Friedkin)


CALVARY (2014, John Michael McDonagh)

CHAMPION (1949, Mark Robson)

CLAUDELLE INGLISH (1961, Gordon Douglas)

THE CRAZY-QUILT (1966, John Korty)

CRIME WAVE (1985, John Paizs)

THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (1943, Tay Garnett)


DRAFT DAY (2014, Ivan Reitman)

DUST BE MY DESTINY (1939, Lewis Seiler)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014, Peter Strickland)

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2013, Doug Liman)


ENOUGH SAID (2013, Nicole Holofcener)

THE EQUALIZER (2014, Antoine Fuqua)

THE FAREWELL PARTY (2014, Sharon Mayman & Tal Granit)

FELIX AND MEIRA (2014, Maxime Giroux)

THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST (1958, Gordon Douglas)

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (2013, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)

FLAMINGO ROAD (1949, Michael Curtiz)

FOUR HOURS TO KILL (1935, Mitchell Leisen)

FURY (2014, David Ayer)

THE GO GO BOYS (2014, Hilla Medalia)

THE GREAT MAN (2014, Sarah Leonor)


THE GUEST (2014, Adam Wingard)

THE HANGMAN (1959, Michael Curtiz)

HAPPY CHRISTMAS (2014, Joe Swanberg)

THE HARD WAY (1942, Vincent Sherman)

HERCULES (2014, Brett Ratner)

THE HITLER GANG (1944, John Farrow)

HOTEL (1967, Richard Quine)

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014, Chris De Blois)

HUMORESQUE (1947, Jean Negulesco)

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART 1 (2014, Francis Lawrence)


INTERSTELLAR (2014, Christopher Nolan)

INTO THE WOODS (2014, Rob Marshall)

I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965, William Castle)

IT FOLLOWS (2014, David Robert Mitchell)

IT’S A SMALL WORLD (1950, William Castle)

JACQUOT DE NANTES (1992, Agnes Varda)

JOHN WICK (2014, Chad Stahelski)

JOHNNY BELINDA (1948, Jean Negulesco)

JOHNNY COME LATELY (1943, William K. Howard)



LADIES OF LEISURE (1930, Frank Capra)

LAND HO! (2014, Martha Stephens & Aaron Katz)

LIFE OF CRIME (2013, Daniel Schechter)

LIVING IN A BIG WAY (1947, Gregory LaCava)

LOCKE (2014, Steven Knight)

LOUIE BLUIE (1985, Terry Zwigoff)

LOVE IS STRANGE (2014, Ira Sachs)

LUCY (2014, Luc Besson)

MACABRE (1958, William Castle)

MACISTE ALL’INFERNO (1962, Riccardo Freda)

THE MAGGIE (1954, Alexander Mackendrick)

THE MAGIC FACE (1951, Frank Tuttle)

MALEFICENT (2014, Robert Stromberg)

THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1952, Alexander Mackendrick)

MANDALAY (1934, Michael Curtiz)

MANGE TES MORTS (2014, Jean-Charles Hue)

MAN WITHOUT A STAR (1955, King Vidor)

MARGIN FOR ERROR (1943, Otto Preminger)

MASSACRE (1934, Alan Crosland)

THE MERRY WIDOW (1925, Erich von Stroheim)


MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014, Craig Gillespie)

I MISERABILI (1948, Riccardo Freda)

LES MISERABLES (1935, Richard Boleslawski)

THE MOONSHINE WAR (1970, Richard Quine)

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014, James Bobin)

THE NAKED DAWN (1955, Edgar G. Ulmer)

NIGHTHAWKS (1978, Ron Peck, Paul Hallam)

NON-STOP (2014, Jaume Collet-Serra)

OKLAHOMA! (1955, Fred Zinnemann)

THE ONLY SON (1936, Yasujiro Ozu)

PARACHUTE JUMPER (1933, Alfred E. Green)

PARRISH (1961, Delmer Daves)

PASOLINI (2014, Abel Ferrara)

PHILOMENA (2013, Stephen Frears)


RAPTURE (1965, John Guillermin)

RAIN OR SHINE (1930, Frank Capra)

THE REACH (2014, Jean-Baptiste Leonetti)


THE REVOLUTIONARY (1970, Paul Williams)

RIDE A WILD PONY (1976, Don Chaffey)

THE RIVER WILD (1994, Curtis Hanson)

RUN FOR THE SUN (1956, Roy Boulting)

A RUN FOR YOUR MONEY (1949, Charles Frend)

SABBATICAL (2014, Brandon Colvin)

SABOTAGE (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

SABOTAGE (2014, David Ayer)

SANTIAGO (1956, Gordon Douglas)

LA SAPIENZA (2014, Eugene Green)

SEED OF CHUCKY (2004, Don Mancini)

SHOOTER & WHITLEY (2014, Laura Stewart)

SHOOT FIRST…DIE LATER (1975, Fernando Di Leo)

SIDDHARTH (2013, Richie Mehta)

SILK STOCKINGS (1957, Rouben Mamoulian)

SOMETHING, ANYTHING (2014, Paul Harrill)

SPECULATION NATION (2014, Bill Brown & Sabine Gruffat)



STRANGER ON HORSEBACK (1955, Jacques Tourneur)

STRAY DOG (2014, Debra Granik)

SUSAN SLADE (1961, Delmer Daves)

TEODORA (1953, Riccardo Freda)

THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL (1939, Busby Berkeley)

THIRTEEN (1998, David D. Williams)

TILLIE AND GUS (1933, Francis Martin)

TIM’S VERMEER (2013, Teller)

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT (1952, Charles Crichton)

TOMBOY (2011, Celine Sciamma)

22 JUMP STREET (2014, Phil Lord, Chris Miller)

2 DAYS, 1 NIGHT (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

UNBROKEN (2014, Angelina Jolie)

UNDER THE SKIN (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

UNION DEPOT (1932, Alfred E. Green)

A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson)

THE WALKING DEAD (1936, Michael Curtiz)

WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950, Robert Stevenson)

WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967, Burt Kennedy)


WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929, Tod Browning)

WHIPLASH (2014, Damien Chazelle)

WHY BE GOOD? (1929, William Seiter)

WILD (2014, Jean-Marc Vallee)

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014, Bryan Singer)

YOUNG AT HEART (1954, Gordon Douglas)

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS: Notes on a Musical Classic

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis were written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Fellow in Film in the UW Communication Arts Department. A 35mm print of Meet Me in St. Louis will screen on Friday, December 12 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

Meet Me in St. Louis is “the answer to any exhibitor’s prayer,” gushes the Variety review for this 1944 film. With “bursting vitality,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times adds, “the Smiths and their home, in Technicolor, are eyefuls of scenic delight.” A turn-of-the-century story about an affluent Midwestern family anticipating the St. Louis World’s Fair, the film was a smashing success at the box office and inspired other Hollywood studios to produce similar musical period pieces.

Despite its favorable outcome, Meet Me in St. Louis’ production kicked off in a conflicted atmosphere. The film was a risky endeavor. Producer Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli, his director of choice, liked the source material – a novel by Sally Benson, based on her New Yorker short stories – finding it an “[affectively warm] evocation of a bygone era, despite its sentimental nature,” as Emanuel Levy puts it. But studio head Louis B. Mayer had reservations. Mayer’s script reader, Lillie Messenger, convinced him to go ahead with the film, however, by reminding him that the story’s content would likely resonate with contemporary audiences: “The script is a fine kind of Americana, and it was about the family. Don’t forget that the country is at war” (quoted by Levy).

Minnelli’s favorite sequence in the film was also under attack at various stages of the production process. The Halloween revelries—during which Tootie Smith (Margaret O’Brien) successfully “kills” an intimidating neighbor by throwing flour in his face and is deemed “the most horrible” by the older children (a high honor)—were almost eliminated from the film. Minnelli recounts the situation in an interview with Jerome Delamater: “The picture was long and everyone said, ‘The only thing that can be cut out entirely is the Halloween number.’ I was beside myself because that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the picture so badly against the whole studio. We ran the film for Freed and all the people involved, and after the picture was run, Freed stood up and said, ‘It’s not the same picture at all.’ It became just a boy and girl story whereas Meet Me in St Louis is the story of a family.” So the Halloween revelries stayed, and one of Esther’s (Judy Garland) numbers – “Boys and Girls,” a song performed at the unfinished World’s Fair grounds after the trolley ride – was cut instead. Joseph Breen also had objections to the Halloween portion of the script when it arrived at the Hays Office for Production Code approval. Breen thought it was unacceptable to portray children throwing stolen furniture and doormats onto a fire; in the final film, the burning furniture we see has presumably been donated by willing neighbors, playing along with the children’s morbid celebrations.

Minnelli’s elegant camera movements, subtle staging, and bold use of Technicolor in Meet Me in St. Louis established him as a new force to be reckoned with in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer filmmaking community. And despite Judy Garland’s reservations at once again playing a younger character, the film introduces an adult, glamorous side of the actress to audiences who had previously known her in roles that emphasized her youthful, childlike qualities. Meet Me in St. Louis has become one of MGM’s most beloved musicals, with such memorable numbers as “The Trolley Song” and Garland’s moving rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “In the words of one of the gentlemen,” Crowther writes, “it is a ginger-peachy show.”

UW Student Blake Davenport on Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND

Thursday, December 4th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound were written by UW Undergraduate student Blake Davenport. Spellbound  will screen on Sunday, December 7 at 2 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

By Blake Davenport

“I like stories with lots of psychology” – Alfred Hitchcock

Although Hitchcock will forever live on through his masterful films, the public persona he cultivated during his more than 50 years in cinema undoubtedly opened up a realm of discourse that propelled the director to legendary status. From villainous misogynist to eccentric oddball, opinions on the auteur are dizzying in number and largely compounded by the fact that Hitch was notoriously misleading in interviews.

One aspect of his persona that Hitchcock would gladly reveal was his love of the good practical joke. These included: dyeing every course of one of his dinner parties blue; sending 400 smoked herrings to one of his stars; and even handcuffing his leads together for hours during the filming of The 39 Steps. Clearly, this was a man who took a certain delight in testing the psychological limits of those around him both in his work and private life. Invariably, Hitchcock’s penchant for psychological play becomes dramatically grounded in the 1940s, when Freudianism was very much in vogue, in such films as Rebecca (1940) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). In 1945, Hitchcock would direct his first film narratively centered on psychoanalysis, the romantic thriller Spellbound.

Top-billed by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, Spellbound weaves together the intricate threads of whodunit murder and psychological romance in an effective and suspenseful, if at times taxing, narrative. Bergman stars as Dr. Constance Peterson, an up and coming psychiatrist and the only female doctor at Green Manors mental hospital. Although Constance is charming, intelligent and essentially a great catch, her fellow doctors tease her for her overly clinical attitude towards patients and life. One of her fellow doctors even attempts to melt her façade with romance, which she notably rebuffs.

With the arrival of young and brilliant new hospital director Dr. Edwardes (Peck), Constance soon finds her world turned upside down, as the two immediately develop a strong attraction to each other. Unfortunately for the happy couple, this is a Hitchcock film and things cant be so cut and dry. Constance soon discovers that Edwardes is not the esteemed psychologist at all, but a deeply disturbed and amnesiac patient of the real Edwardes, who may or may not have been murdered by his pretender. As the police soon pick up on the mysterious “John Brown’s” trail, Constance throws all caution to the wind and the two set out in an attempt to uncover the truth behind Edwardes death and the root of John’s psychosis.

While Spellbound might not top the list of favorite Hitchcock films for cinephiles, there are many elements throughout that make the film a worthwhile treat for admirers of the esteemed director. On a certain level the character roles are quite demanding of its two leads, as Peck and Bergman have to juggle the duality of romance and patient-doctor relationship. However, the two characters anchor the film beautifully and create a passionate web of love and psychology that is made even more interesting by the rumor that Bergman and Peck carried on an affair during filming.

Perhaps the most impressive aspects of Spellbound lie in some of the technical decisions that were made as well. Bernard Herrmann, who became Hitchcock’s usual musical composer 10 years after Spellbound was released, famously declined to work on the film, which fortunately paved the way for Miklos Rozsa’s beautifully sweeping score. Ever the perfectionist, Hitchcock complained that the music “got in the way of his direction”, but Rozsa’s work is perfect for the tone of the film and well deserving of one of only seven Academy Awards won for a Hitchcock film.

And then there’s the famous dream sequence. As a major plot point in the film revolves around Constance and her mentor attempting to analyze John’s dreams, Hitchcock had his producer David O. Selznick bring in none other than Salvador Dali to design the entire sequence. The result? A stunning 2-minute (cut from 20!) twilight-zone journey, abound with gigantic blinking eyes, men with no faces and a variety of other symbols which unfortunately went right over this film major’s head. Nonetheless, the sequence is a must see quite simply for the visual pleasure, but also as one of the first filmic illustrations of psychoanalysis on screen!

Spellbound is not without its problems. In spending so much time developing the psychoanalytic framework of the film, the suspense plotline ultimately falls short, as it never really seems that our couple is in any pressing danger. Disregarding narrative qualms however, Spellbound takes the audience on a highly entertaining adventure that is a must see for anyone looking to gleam a little bit more about the psychology of Hitchcock.

Support Alternative Cinema. Please Give to the UW Cinematheque.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

By Jim Healy, UW Cinematheque Director of Programming

During this season of giving, please take a moment to consider how the UW Cinematheque has enhanced our cinematic culture in 2014.

This year, the Cinematheque has presented nearly 150 screenings and programs, all for free, in our regular venues at 4070 Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, and the Marquee Theater at Union South. Our selections have included series of films devoted to directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Claire Denis, Jacques Demy, Richard Fleischer, William Friedkin and David Cronenberg. Our other series included a salute to actor Alec Guinness, in honor of his centennial; plus, New Chilean Cinema, Rare Film Noir, New Restorations from the Academy Film Archive, Horror Classics for Halloween and WWI movies. Plus, we welcomed filmmaker Guy Maddin in person and brought you the only area theatrical screenings of such acclaimed new movies as the Oscar nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, Juliette Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915, Lars von Trier's epic Nymphomaniac, Jesse Eisenberg in The Double and Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behavior and, still coming up on December 5, the final film of Alain Resnais, Life of Riley.

In August of 2014, DCP (Digital Cinema Package) was added to the list of formats that can currently be shown in the UW Cinematheque's main venue, at 4070 Vilas Hall. As we prepare for our January-May 2015 programming season, our projection booth is being upgraded so that 4K DCP, currently the highest standard of digital exhibition, can be screened. Upcoming 4K screenings will include canonized titles such as The Lady from Shanghai by Orson Welles (whose centennial we will celebrate with screenings throughout 2015), Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia and The Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night. Meanwhile, we've done more than our part in keeping 35mm projection alive with screenings of dozens of films in the original format throughout the year, including our upcoming December 7 screening of Hitchcock's Spellbound and our December 12 show of Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis.

Additionally, our auditorium at 4070 Vilas will be given a rejuvenating boost with new seats and carpeting, all improvements that make our venue an ideal place to watch a movie.

Our next improvement project will bring digital 3D projection capabilities to the UW Madison campus. In November of 2014, the Cinematheque held an off-site benefit 3D screening of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which raised nearly 25% of the funds needed to give 3D a permanent home at the Cinematheque.  

Whether DCP or 35mm, 2K or 4K, 3D or 2D, the Cinematheque screenings will continue to be free and open to the public, but we still rely on donations from our audiences to keep our technical facilities up-to-date. Please help us in providing the Cinematheque with the most state-of-the-art, most versatile exhibition equipment in the region by making a donation today to the Cinematheque's Friends of Film fund here.

While we plan for the future, the Cinematheque continues to provide you with a bounty of cinematic treasures at our three regular venues. In addition to the above-mentioned Orson Welles salute, our January-May calendar includes another centennial tribute, this time to maestro of Italian comedy Mario Monicelli. Plus, more important premieres, Polish masterpieces, new Argentine cinema, the schlocky and the sublime from Cannon Films, and in-person visits from Cineteca di Bologna's Guy Borlee and acclaimed screenwriter/director (and Pewaukee native) David Koepp. 

See you at the Cinematheque!

Mike King on the Resnais/Ayckbourn Collaborations

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on the working relationship between director Alain Resnais and writer Alan Ayckbourn were written by UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival Programmer Mike King. The final Resnais/Ayckbourn movie collaboration, Life of Riley (Aimer, Boire et Chanter)  will have its only area theatrical screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 5, in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall

By Mike King

Given that his early films are among the most intrinsically cinematic of their era, particularly in their bold temporal experimentation, it may seem surprising that the late Alain Resnais dedicated much of his later career to theatrical adaptations.  But beginning with Mélo in 1986, Resnais regularly turned to material originally produced for the stage for his scripts, ranging from the operetta Not on the Lips to his Eurydice riff You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (which was screened at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival).  During this time, no playwright captured his imagination as fervently as British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose work Resnais adapted three times.

In the early 1980s, Resnais began making pilgrimages to the Scarborough theater where Ayckbourn served as Artistic Director, but the director did not make himself known until the world premiere of The Revengers’ Comedies in 1989.  Upon learning that Resnais was in the audience, Ayckbourn quipped in disbelief, “…and Jean-Luc Godard is in the toilet.”  One of France’s most legendary auteurs taking an interest in Ayckbourn’s very British comedies perplexed even the playwright, who recalls of their meeting, “I said, 'How nice you're here. What are you doing in Scarborough?' He said, 'I've come to see the play.' I said, 'Why?' The work he'd done, I couldn't quite square it. And he said, very very simply, 'I am a fan.' To which I said, 'Oh well, mutual.'"  Before long, Resnais asked for permission to adapt one of the prolific playwright’s works, which by then numbered in the high thirties.

The notion of the director of renowned masterpieces like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad taking a crack at his work held obvious appeal for Ayckbourn, not least because he had just suffered the indignity of his first cinematic adaptation, a botched version of A Chorus of Disapproval by Death Wish auteur Michael Winner.  Still, he was mystified by Resnais’s selection: the mammoth Intimate Exchanges, an eight-part epic with sixteen endings.  Of Ayckbourn’s reaction, Resnais recalled, “I remember he said he thought I was mad.  I suppose that was his seal of approval.”

Though they are in effect the co-authors of several films, Ayckbourn and Resnais did not actually collaborate on their screenplays—according to Ayckbourn, he simply wished Resnais luck and “never had another artistic word on the subject.”  Instead, Resnais worked with co-writers Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (also the writers and stars of Resnais’s musical followup, Same Old Song), to whittle Intimate Exchanges’s 16 hours of dialogue into a two-feature diptych entitled Smoking/No Smoking.  The films won the Silver Bear at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival, and four of the five top prizes at that year’s Cesar Awards (the French Oscar equivalent).

By now, the playwright and filmmaker became close friends.  In fact, Ayckbourn and his wife were the sole witnesses at Resnais’s 1998 wedding to Sabine Azéma (who starred in all of Resnais' Ayckbourn adaptations, along with virtually everything he directed after they met filming 1983’s Life is a Bed of Roses).  As a wedding gift, Ayckbourn wrote her a French speaking part in his next play, House & Garden.  The year also saw the release of the other non-Resnais film of an Ayckbourn play, coincidentally an adaptation of the play they met at.  Retitled Sweet Revenge, it starred Sam Neill and Helena Bonham Carter.

Resnais returned to Ayckbourn’s work with increasing frequency in his final years, creating with writer Jean-Michel Ribes an adaptation of the playwright’s 67th work, Private Fears in Public Places, to great acclaim in 2006.  Most recently, with Laurent Herbiet and Jean-Marie Besset, Resnais himself co-adapted Life of Riley under the nom de plume he adopted for his final three features, Alex Reval.  Resnais was reportedly at work on yet another Ayckbourn adaptation, of Arrivals and Departures, when he died in March of this year.  On his enduring fascination with bringing Ayckbourn’s theater to the screen, Resnais wrote:

“I still get a kick out of bringing together things that shouldn’t meet. It’s what I call the attraction of danger, of the abyss. Keeping constantly in mind the standard answer I give the question, ‘Why do you make movies?’ – ‘To see how they’re made.’ So I naturally fell for Ayckbourn’s theater, which might seem like light comedy, but that’s not at all the case. Just look at the risks he takes with dramatic construction every time. One day he said this, ‘I try to do cinema with my theater, and Resnais does theater for the cinema.’”

Mike King Prepares You for APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

Appropriate Behavior will have its only Madison-area theatrical screening on Friday, November 21, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Mike King, UW Cinematheque Programmer & Chief Projectionist

When Desiree Akhavan emerged as a breakout star at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with her debut film Appropriate Behavior, few in the film world may have been aware of her.  That’s because, like an increasing amount of budding auteurs, writer/director/actress Akhavan honed her craft online.  The Slope, her self-produced, semiautobiographical comic web series about “superficial, homophobic lesbians” had a twenty episode run on Vimeo stretching from August 2010 to June 2012.  Running approximately five minutes apiece and generally structured around a single scene, these vignettes are where Akhavan refined her promiscuous, politically incorrect sensibility—and frequently led to her being branded “the next Lena Dunham,” an inevitable comparison Akhavan had already reckoned with while still in preproduction on Appropriate Behavior.

Co-created by and costarring her then-partner, Ingrid Jungerman, The Slope is an amiably knowing takedown of Park Slope minutia (at one point, Desiree argues that she and Ingrid can’t break up because they “still have a month left on their CSA”), with a more biting slant on LGBTQ politics.  In one of the series’ most daring episodes, the duo spoofs Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, then a viral sensation perceived as untouchably benevolent.  Akhavan reveals that she was bullied not because of her sexuality, but because she was “very ugly and a little bit fat,” and the pair offer a sarcastic checklist for gay kids who don’t want to just wait around for things to get better, but actually want to take steps to “make things better.”

Episode 5: "It Gets Better?" from The Slope on Vimeo.

The Slope’s Kickstarter-funded second season ramped up the production values slightly (some episodes even spread out to contain more than one scene), acquiring niceties like a ten-second theme song and a producer (Frances Bodomo, director of the short Afronauts, which was featured at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival).  It earned positive mentions in publications ranging from Indiewire to Out to Slate to The Guardian, landed the creators a spot in the 2012 class of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” and played the prestigious Rotterdam Film Festival.  “Primary Care Giver,” a miniature satire of helicopter parenting featuring Michael Showalter (then Jungermann’s NYU professor), was featured on The Huffington Post.

Season 2, Episode 3: "Primary Care Giver" from The Slope on Vimeo.

Akhavan is hardly the first indie filmmaker to have cut her teeth in bite-sized chunks online; in fact, she may be part of a burgeoning wave. Early in his career, Joe Swanberg created web series commissioned by pop culture sites, like Nerve and Spout.  More recently, Matt Johnson’s endearingly goofy web series Nirvana The Band The Show served as the staging ground for his stylistically similar feature The Dirties, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. 

Nirvana the Band the Show: Episode 1 from Rich Williamson on Vimeo.

For young filmmakers, web series have tended to serve as industry calling cards for much bigger, paying jobs: Johnson is adapting Encyclopedia Brown for Warner Brothers, and Akhavan will has been added as a cast member to the upcoming fourth season of Girls.  However, filmmakers who have been around the block may envy the creative freedom offered by a low-stakes web series—Showalter’s frequent collaborator (and Akhavan’s fellow Sundance 2014 alum) David Wain uses the form as a creative refresher between higher profile projects with his delightfully loopy, star-studded singles saga Wainy Days.

A Video Game Fan on eXistenZ

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on David Cronenberg's eXistenZ was written by former WUD Film committee member Victor Alicea ('14). A 35mm print of eXistenZ will screen on Thursday, November 20, 7 p.m., at the Chazen Museum of Art.

eXistenZ is one of the most under-appreciated films of the last twenty years.  Despite the fact that it received some acclaim at the time, including a Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival for an outstanding artistic contribution it still never received much attention (it was overshadowed by another 1999 virtual reality film, The Matrix). eXistenZ, and that is in fact how it is spelled, is one of Cronenberg’s finest films. (I would only rank Videodrome and maaaybe Dead Ringers above it). 

The basics of the story: a virtual reality game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose scenes in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut were cut when she could not do reshoots because of eXistenZ), is attacked by a ‘realist’ (anti-game terrorists) during a public trial of her new game. She is forced to go on the run with marketing intern Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and enter her own virtual-reality game, which also involves dealings with realist terrorists and virtual reality games. That plot description would normally be a fairly unremarkable postmodern techno-thriller, but David Cronenberg turns it into something special; investigating our perceptions of reality, technology, and how they affect each other.

The first thing to note about the film is the trademark Cronenbergian biotechnology. Instead of some normal metal technology, in eXistenZ people enter their virtual realities through ‘gamepods,’ weird fleshy lumps (which we later learn are possibly made out of animal organs harvested in factories) that people plug into ‘bioports’ in their lower spine. Instead of normal guns, people use organic guns that shoot human teeth. This biotechnology is creepy, weird, gross and wonderful.

The animal organs factory also brings up some pretty interesting thematics. It's easy for us to think of our technology as something different to us, a tool made of wiring and plastic. Cronenberg forces us to consider the nature of our technology. The idea of exploiting animal organs to create game parts is pretty horrific and disgusting, but how far removed is it from the exploitation of minerals to create new phones without considering environmental damage? Early on in the film, Leigh's character comments on how a two-headed mutant amphibian is a “sign of the times,” this quote makes this parallel pretty clear. Additionally, this biotechnology made me consider how integral technology has become to our basic functioning, echoing a theme from Cronenberg's masterpiece Videodrome.

Videodrome is a good comparison; eXistenZ feels a lot like a followup, continuing some of the themes while also doing its own thing. Beyond the aforementioned relationship between technology and our bodies, they also both evoke themes about our relationship to media. Long story short, Videodrome is about how many people experience the world through TV: one character says “The television is the retina of the mind's eye.”  Videodrome is the world as seen from the incredibly subjective  (or is it?) perspective of someone going crazy.  eXistenz is more like a Philip K. Dick novel, an examination of an artificially created subjective world with a paranoid streak.  As a matter of fact, the fast food restaurant Pikul and Allegra go to is named Perky Pat’s, a reference to one of Dick’s best novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  In that book people take special drugs called Can-D and Chew-Z to escape from their grim, dystopian reality to subjective virtual worlds.

One of my favorite things about eXistenZ is how it really understands why videogames are interesting.  Many characters mention about how games allow them to escape from “the most pathetic level of reality” to have new experiences.  These experiences are not devalued by the movie for being unreal, in fact the people who are against the idea of games and virtual reality (the realists) are shown as terrorists.  This idea reminds me of how one of my friends once described why he likes video games: “one of my favorite things about video games is getting the memories of a video game confused with real memories.”

eXistenZ is one of the very few movies that really “understands” videogames at all, the only others I could think of are Wreck-It Ralph, Sans Soleil and the recent Edge of Tomorrow (anyone who has played Dark Souls understands the journey of self-improvement through failure Tom Cruise takes in that film). Other movies that take on games as a subject seem like the equivalent of parents complaining about rock & roll music: games are this new thing that they don't understand and don't like.

One of my favorite little things about eXistenZ is that gets a lot of the “texture” of games correct.  It gets the “rhythm” of games correctly, particularly the ones of the late 90s.  The actors give some incredibly strange performances, but to me they are perfect (and strangely hilarious).  A lot of scenes and plot developments are also very reminiscent of common tropes in games. Cronenberg’s film feels less like a judgmental attack and much more like someone poking fun at something they also love.