Angel Baby (1995, Michael Rymer)

Regardless of quality, Angel Baby will always have a special nostalgia for me. Years ago I was admonishing a friend for not watching foreign films and he challenged me, asking for an example of a recent, excellent foreign film. I gave him Angel Baby. I think it was a few days later he came back and complained Angel Baby, an Australian film, wasn’t really a foreign film. Having just watched it again (as I prepare to retire my laserdiscs), I think will go out and say Australian films are not American films. They are foreign films. Maybe not all of them, probably not most of them, but certainly Angel Baby.

Whenever there’s a Hollywood movie about the mentally ill or handicapped, it tends to fail. These films aren’t necessarily complete failures, but they always somewhat fail. The first major problem with these endeavors is their attempt to make the mental illness or handicap an avenue for (somewhat respectful) comedy. We, the presumably mentally fit audience, are expected to laugh at the characters. We might think they’re cute, but they’re still funny. The characters immediately are not treated with respect. Angel Baby never lets the audience laugh after the opening credits, doesn’t even let them crack a smile, at these characters. It does let the audience sympathize with the “fit” characters, but it never lets the mentally ill characters become pitiable. Never even approaches it.

The second major difference is in the conclusion. Most of these films promise a bright future. The film being the story of reaching the bright future. Except the bright future is tacked, so the film isn’t really that journey, but that’s not the point. Angel Baby doesn’t pander in that way. It tells its story and it tells it beautifully. Michael Rymer is still around (after years of Hollywood dreck), he’s directing “Battlestar Galactica” and co-writing a few of the episodes too. That work, however, good, doesn’t compare to Angel Baby. Angel Baby is perfectly directed, beautifully written, beautifully acted. Jacqueline McKenzie was so good in it, I almost saw Deep Blue Sea. She’s still making interesting films, however, you just have to get them from Australia. John Lynch is sort of around, but not in anything I’d see. Of the two, I suppose Lynch is best.

Angel Baby is not out on DVD in the US (I think Paramount’s got the rights, so it’ll probably never happen) and the Australian disc is hard to find and appears to be pan and scan.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Rymer; director of photography, Ellery Ryan; edited by Danny Cooper; music by Chris Gough; production designer, Chris Kennedy; produced by Timothy White and Jonathan Shteinman; released by Cinepix Film Properties.

Starring John Lynch (Harry), Jacqueline McKenzie (Kate), Colin Friels (Morris) and Deborra-Lee Furness (Louise).


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The Call of Cthulhu (2005, Andrew Leman)

Here’s an interesting one. A modern silent drama. When I saw Gance’s Napoleon at Northwestern, someone besides a film professor introduced it. I can’t remember what he did, but he was just a big fan of silent films. In his brief introduction, he talked about how silent films and talkies vary not just by the audio, but by the storytelling methods. The Call of Cthulhu is a silent drama. The goal of the filmmakers (the H.P. Lovecraft historical society) was to adapt the 1920s story in that time period’s film medium. From the language of the title cards to the expressions and make-up of the actors, they succeed.

The silent drama is more of a visual storytelling medium than the talkie. Through the 1930s, when people were getting used to talkies, you still had some of these visuals–communicating information to the audience through a means outside the characters’ experience. A reasonable modern example is the maps (the moving dots) in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not a precise example, but it’s a similar method. While these visuals do not currently “work” in film, in The Call of Cthulhu, they’re brilliant. The original story–I’ve never read any Lovecraft and don’t necessarily plan to do so, but he’s got a lot of great fans (John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro)–is multi-layered, four or five story timelines going on at once, and the visual storytelling allows easy understanding for the audience.

The film’s official website attests there’s no CG, but some of the direction is obviously influenced by post-1920s work. It’s not disconcerting at all and I only noticed the shots because I watched the film with such mad love. With many of the “location” sequences, there’s raw, brilliant filmmaking innovation. CG has all but done destroyed that sort of innovation (to the point it’s surprising to find out something is not CG), and The Call of Cthulhu certainly shows film needs that innovation–needs that struggle–to achieve. This particular film achieves a whole lot through such innovation.

Though the film is out on DVD and has been reviewed at many mainstream DVD websites, Netflix isn’t carrying it, so it’s $20 from the official website. (You can also get it at Amazon). It’s well-worth the price.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Leman; adaptation and screenplay by Sean Brannery, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, David Robertson; edited by Robertson; music by Chad Fifer, Ben Holbrook, Troy Sterling Nies, Nicholas Pavkovic; produced by Brannery and Leman; released by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Starring Chad Fifer (Henry Wilcox), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Matt Foyer (The Man) and John Bolen (The Listener).


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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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