Denise Calls Up (1995, Hal Salwen)

About ten years ago, the best independent movies–as Fox Searchlight wasn’t around yet–were coming out of Sony Pictures Classics. Denise Calls Up has disappeared. It’s not out on DVD and the VHS is out of print. Hal Salwen is similarly gone–his last film is available, pan and scanned, on DVD, but the one he made after Denise has never been released. The New York independent filmmakers of the 1990s–the only good independent industry of the 1990s–have mostly disappeared….

Denise is an odd film. It’s structured around phone calls. The film is, watched today, a monument to the call waiting-era, which is now mostly replaced by e-mail. Except a film about a bunch of people e-mailing each other doesn’t allow dialogue, which means there wouldn’t be much for the actors to do. Denise gives its actors a lot to do. I think this film is the first one I ever saw Liev Schreiber in. Schreiber–to some degree–caught on and managed to resist Hollywood crap for a while, always doing smaller work. But this film is also the first place I saw Alanna Ubach, who was around for a minute (particularly Clockwatchers), then disappeared. These two are the only ones I’m going to mention, but everyone in the film is great. I can’t figure out how Salwen got such good performances out of them, given the telephone-only talking nature of the film.

While the telephone-specific elements of the film may or may not be outdated, Denise‘s theme of isolation in American culture is more than valid, probably moreso today. Salwen’s an exceptional filmmaker too–Denise is particularly well-edited and the location manager is my hero–it’s unthinkable that he hasn’t gone on to anything more. I hope Sony gets around to releasing it on DVD, just so more people can see it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Hal Salwen; director of photography, Michael Mayers; edited by Gary Sharfin; music by Lynn Geller; production designer, Susan Bolles; produced by J. Todd Harris; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Alanna Ubach (Denise), Tim Daly (Frank), Caroleen Feeney (Barbara), Dan Gunther (Martin), Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (Gale), Liev Schreiber (Jerry), Aida Turturro (Linda) and Sylvia Miles (Gale’s Aunt Sharon).


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French Cancan (1955, Jean Renoir)

As French Cancan started… wait, no. Before I even started French Cancan (I avoided watching it yesterday in fact), I was dreading an experience similar to The Golden Coach. I don’t think my soul could handle two terrible Renoirs in one month. However, once it started, I was immediately reassured to some degree–Jean Gabin is the lead and the film is in French.

The first act of Cancan is good, not spectacular, but good. Renoir does not direct well in color. His composition is lazy and–the film is about the creation of the Moulin Rouge (I have no idea of its historical accuracy)–it’s distractingly noisy. Of course, it’s probably noisy to hide the lack of any content. The film runs 103 minutes and I probably took three and a half hours to watch it. Folding laundry is more interesting. With a single exception, the film’s well-acted, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing going on in French Cancan. It’s not about Gabin’s theater promoter, it’s not about his aging star, it’s not about the young girl who’s replacing that star. It’s about noise.

In the last twenty minutes, after the film’s gone through a number of five minute conflicts and resolutions, the Moulin Rouge finally opens. This sequence is mind-numbingly boring. With my attention free to wander, I tried to think of a funny opening line to this post, something about the themes and motifs of Jean Renoir’s earlier films in relation to French Cancan. Then I realized… French Cancan has no themes or motifs. It’s a bunch of boring fluff. Still, it’s not as infuriating as The Golden Coach, but it certainly testifies that late Renoir is nothing like early Renoir.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on an idea by André-Paul Antoine; director of photography, Michel Kelber; edited by Borys Lewin; music by Georges Van Parys; produced by Louis Wipf; released by Gaumont.

Starring Jean Gabin (Danglard), Françoise Arnoul (Nini), María Félix (La Belle Abbesse), Jean-Roger Caussimon (Baron Walter), Franco Pastorino (Paulo), Giani Esposito (The Prince), Philippe Clay (Casimir), Valentine Tessier (Mme. Olympe), Lydia Johnson (Mme. Guibole), Jean Parédès (Coudrier) and Albert Remy (Barjelin).


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Bat*21 (1988, Peter Markle)

I only know Jerry Reed from Smokey and the Bandit. He’s a country singer too, but I don’t know anything about that artistic expression. Reed executive produced Bat*21 and it feels like a film an actor would executive produce. It’s padded (when, according to IMDb, the real incident took place over eleven days) and shouldn’t be (the incident in the film takes place over three or four). At some point, the film decides it’s going to be about Gene Hackman realizing what plotting bombing attacks is all about: guys getting blown up. There’s a nice, slow motion shot of some guy getting blown up while Gene Hackman watches, horrified.

The Danny Glover story has no moral, it’s just a good story. He and the rest of the rescue crew try to rescue people. That’s about it. No moral.

At times, Bat*21 almost feels like Die Hard, when the two guys are talking on the radio. But when Bat*21 tries to be sentimental without being schmaltzy, it can’t. At the end of film, in fact, we find out that Danny Glover’s hopes and dreams had been crushed because of prejudice. This realization, of course, has nothing to do with the majority of the film. Or even the end, because it’s all wiped away real quick.

The best performance–Hackman’s on autopilot here and Glover is too for most of it–is a supporting one from Clayton Rohner, who’s gone on to very little. He’s great, I can’t believe he didn’t get picked for something bigger.

It’s not awful. The dialogue is wooden and Peter Markle uses close-ups when he should use long shots and vice versa. The aerial photography is great. The music’s bad. 1980s synthesizers with “Asian-themed” music thrown in. It’s very much made with a mid-to-late 1980s action movie sensibility and it’s not particularly interesting or compelling, but nowhere as bad as it could be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Markle; screenplay by William C. Anderson and George Gordon, based on the book by Anderson; director of photography, Mark Irwin; edited by Stephen E. Rivkin; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Vincent Cresciman; produced by David Fisher, Gary A. Neill and Michael Balson; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Lieut. Col. Iceal Hambleton), Danny Glover (Capt. Bartholomew Clark), Jerry Reed (Col. George Walker), David Marshall Grant (Ross Carver), Clayton Rohner (Sgt. Harley Rumbaugh) and Erich Anderson (Maj. Jake Scott).


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The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

Well. What an incredibly unfortunate experience. The Red Shoes contains twenty of the most beautiful minutes ever put on film, the ballet sequence. It’s a visual feast–the film must be awe-inspiring on the big screen. The story, however, is awful. For a film with a fifty-two minute (of 134 minutes) first act, the idea of constructing a metaphor for The Red Shoes, Hans Christian Anderson’s story, amid a film about a production of a ballet of the same story… It’s incredibly unsuccessful. The final act is silly.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, the Archers just made an opera. They made a filmic opera. Maybe they couldn’t get the money to do a filmic ballet, but that’s all they really wanted to do with this film. The “real” moments still retain the surreal filmmaking techniques of the ballet sequence. Given this method, along with Marius Goring’s terrible performance–and utter lack of chemistry with female lead Moira Shearer (who’s passable, but obviously not an actress), the film is tedious at best.

Anton Walbrook is good as the Svengali ballet producer, I suppose, but he’s playing a type, but a character. There are deep character in this film. When, at the fifty-two minute mark, there’s an attempt at adding a layer to The Red Shoes, it’s so out of place you can see it grappling with the film’s existing structure. Amusingly, both Walbrook and Goring are eye-brow actors. Except Goring can’t do it and no one ever told him. In fact, Goring’s doing an Ernest Thesiger imitation (the Bride of Frankenstein mad scientist). In Tales of Hoffmann, someone else did a Thesiger imitation.

The film–for much of it–is incredibly well-made, incredibly beautiful to look at (again, it all comes apart in the third act, even if the Archers thought it was good stuff, it’s hard to package bullshit). It’s also an amazingly influential film. Bob Fosse lifted quite a bit for Cabaret, but the facehugger (!) from Alien is in here too. And Mel Brooks duplicated a scene here in Young Frankenstein–on closer examination, Gene Wilder’s whole performance in that film seems based on Walbrook’s here.

So, for the second time this month, the Archers failed me. Besides Powell’s Peeping Tom, I haven’t seen anything of their 1950s and after work… except They’re a Weird Mob, which was awful. I guess I’m not upset, because most of the film is watchable (if boring), it’s just that the Archers’ films usually are great. I never thought one (or two or three) wouldn’t be just as great.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay by Powell and Pressburger, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Brian Easdale; released by Eagle-Lion Distributors.

Starring Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Moira Shearer (Victoria Page), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Léonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Albert Bassermann (Sergei Ratov), Ludmilla Tchérina (Irina Boronskaja), Esmond Knight (Livingstone ‘Livy’ Montagne), Jean Short (Terry Tyler) and Gordon Littmann (Ike Tanner).


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