Films I Neglected To Review: “Off With Your Pants.”
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/16/20 15:56:03
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Booksellers," "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," "Endings, Beginnings," "Roar" and the Criterion Blu-Ray of "Destry Rides Again."
Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements that will give them a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. At the Music Box, you can now see "Incitement," Yaron Zilberman's drama following a young Israeli man as he goes from being a law student with a bright future to an obsessed nationalist who becomes consumed with the notion of killing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and "Roar," the virtually indescribable wild cat extravaganza that is discussed below. Now showing via the Film Center is "Earth," Nikolaus Geyrhalter's environmental documentary in which he visits seven massive mining and construction sites throughout the world in order to observe the damage being wreaked on the environment in the name of progress, "The Times of Bill Cunningham," Mark Bozek's affectionate look at the life and work of the famed photographer, the tense Icelandic psychological drama "A White, White Day" and two films I discuss at length below, the documentary "The Booksellers" and a reissue of the once-scandalous 1976 Brazilian sex farce "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands."
To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa
As far back as the age of three, when I first began to read, I have known and appreciated the value of a good bookstore--practically every excursion to a mall or into downtown Chicago needed to factor in a chunk of time so that I could go into any in the immediate vicinity and see what they had to offer (and since this was a time when malls had more than one bookstore and place like Wabash Avenue were teeming with them, that could take a while). Needless to say, this made me a pretty easy mark for "The Booksellers," a genial but entertaining documentary directed by D.W. Young and executive-produced by Parker Posey that celebrates bookstores and the people who continue to run them even as their part of the retail market is rapidly dwindling in the face of ebooks and Amazon. (At one point, it is remarked that while there were 368 bookstores in New York City in the 1950s, the number today, at least at the time of filming, was closer to 79.) The focus is on what would now be referred to as "independent bookstores"--shops crammed to the gills with an astonishing range of volumes and rarities (including volumes that are bejeweled or bound with human skin) and run by people who are clearly in it for their love of books rather than an interest in profit. (In a couple of cases, such as the Argosy, the city's oldest bookstore, their current existence is due almost entirely to the fact that the people in charge also happen to own the building.) We also get a number of interviews with owners, book buyers and observers like Fran Lebowitz who testify to their own fascination with bookstore culture and the simple pleasures to be had from tracking down that rare volume that you have been seeking for years or just roaming the aisles of a favorite store to see what pops up while also bemoaning how the internet has all but destroyed that mentality. (The element of the hunt tends to get lost when one can simply go online and order an entire collection of first editions of a particular author in a matter of minutes as long as they have a valid credit card.) The film does not exactly reinvent the wheel, cinematically speaking, but I suspect that it probably plays better at home than in a theater anyway, if only because one can pause the frame and try to pick out the titles of the books on the groaning shelves. "The Booksellers" is a genially entertaining look at a cherished pastime that is admittedly on the ropes and the people determined to keep it going. Unfortunately, to release it at this particular point in time seems to be a little bit on the cruel side because as soon as it is over, you are going to be seized with a sudden urge to visit the nearest bookstore as well.
When it was originally released in 1976, "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" became an international sensation, thanks in large part to its ribald premise and the scorching presence of the then-unknown Sonia Braga. She plays Flor, a woman whose husband, Vadinho (Jose Wilker), has just dropped dead while dancing at a street party. Although Flor is shattered by his passing, her family and friends are actually relieved--to them, he was a lying, cheating and carousing lout who stole her savings and blew it on gambling and hookers. This is true but, as it turns out, he was also dynamite in the sack and helped her shed her inhibitions, among other things. After some time passes, she meets and eventually marries Teodoro (Mauro Mendonca), who is the opposite of Vadinho in every way--he has a steady job as a pharmacist, is as responsible as can be and treats Flor like a queen. Unfortunately for her, he is also a dud in bed and after yet another unsatisfying experience, she idly finds herself wishing for Vadinho's return. Amazingly, he comes back to life--stark naked, of course (though only she can see him) and announces that he has returned to share her bed again as per her wishes. Flor is shocked and horrified--she does love Teodoro, after all--but after yet another disappointing night of lovemaking, she finds her resistance crumbling.
The film sounds salacious enough in theory but I have a feeling that audiences, both then and now in this new restoration, may have felt a little ripped off when they actually saw it. While the concept and the advertising promised wall-to-wall eroticism, Bruno Barreto, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, made the odd decision to stretch the narrative out to bizarre lengths. Virtually the entire first half of the film is devoted to Flor's memories of Vadniho and then spends most of the second charting her relationship with Teodoro. It is only in the last 20 minutes or so that the stuff involving Vadniho's return and Flor being torn between her two husbands comes into play. And yet, even though the narrative is a little dull and weirdly structured, the film still works on some basic level and that is due entirely to the performance by Sonia Braga in her breakout role as Flor. Yes, she has an overwhelming carnal presence that the film takes full advantage of but she also delivers in terms of her acting in the way that she convincingly makes Flor a real person instead of letting her simply become a punchline to an extended dirty joke. "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" is no classic but as a document of what passed for hot stuff back in the day and as a tribute to Braga (who is still bringing it, as her appearance in the current "Bacurau" demonstrates), it is certainly of interest
Nearly a decade ago, I sat down to watch "Like Crazy," an indie romance about two college students--one British (Felicity Jones) and one American (Anton Yelchin)--who fall madly in love but wind up drifting apart after she overstays her visa and is deported back to England. To quote from my review, "Watching it is like being stuck in line at the world's most self-consciously hip coffee shop for 90 minutes behind the world's least interesting couple without even getting a cup of coffee at the end for your troubles." I so detested this movie that I basically spent the ensuing years avoiding anything made by its director/co-writer, Drake Doremus. Now, after avoiding him for all that time, I sat down to watch his latest effort, "Endings, Beginnings," and realized that I should have stopped when I was ahead. Shailene Woodley plays Daphne, a would-be artist who, as the film opens, has just broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job and is moving into her sister’s pool house while taking stock of her life. She vows to go for at least the next six months without men or alcohol, a promise that lasts maybe a couple of weeks tops. At a New Year's Eve party, she meets both bad boy Frank (Sebastian Stan) and nice guy Jack (Jamie Dornan) and soon finds herself seeing both of them for bouts of sex occasionally interrupted by mind-numbing conversations that sound more like failed improvs than anything that might be said by actual human beings. To make matters more complicated, it turns out that Frank and Jack are both best friends and while Daphne initially wants to avoid driving a wedge between them, she doesn't exactly go out of her way to avoid the problem either and, in a "shocking" development, things get even more complicated when she eventually discovers that she is pregnant.
As bad as "Like Crazy" was--and I can still feel my pulse rate rise out of pure rage just at the mention of it--it at least had an early performance by Jennifer Lawrence whose non-nonsense approach managed to cut through some of the indie goo on display. Based on the evidence displayed here, Doremus's filmmaking skills seem to have atrophied in the years since I last checked in. The characters are little more than half-formed sketches--Daphne is basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl With A Past (one that is clumsily laid out in a series of flashbacks that eventually amount to nothing) while her two suitors are so blandly conceived that practically the only way to tell the difference between the two is by the length of their equally unfortunate facial hair--and even an actress as accomplished as Woodley seems stupefied as to how to make Daphne seem like a plausible person. As for the story, it is just a seemingly unending scene of meandering scenes in which, more often than not, the dramatic weight is carried by the songs on the soundtrack that play at length while the characters stare balefully out the window, possibly in search of a more interesting story. "Endings, Beginnings" is an absolutely excruciating waste of time--one that I cannot even imagine supporters of Drake Doremus (I guess such people exist) getting behind except out of some misguided force of habit Put it this way, I will no longer be referring to the "Divergent" films as the collective nadir of Shailene Woodley's career anymore.
Thanks to all the hype surrounding the hit Netflix series "Tiger King" (which I confess to not having seen yet), I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone got the bright idea to ride on its considerable coattails by reissuing "Roar," a 1981 cult favorite in which the human cast is dominated, both metaphorically and literally, by the dozens of lions that are their co-stars. The reason may be crass but as an excuse to once again experience one of the craziest movies ever made, I’ll take it. Noel Marshall, who also directed, produced and co-wrote the film, stars as a man who left his family a few years earlier in order to live in the African countryside amongst the lions. Alas, while he is out, his family (including Marshall's real-life wife, Tiippi Hedren, her daughter Melanie Griffith and his two actual sons) arrives at the house and are confronted by all the cats. Face it, the film is little more than a home movie (one that eventually cost $17 million dollars and lost nearly all of them)--the story is gibberish, the supposedly heroic main character comes across as deranged throughout and the other human characters seem more concerned with not getting killed than in delivering their dialogue in a convincing manner. The perverse thrill of watching the film comes from the fact that these are real actors and filmmakers trying to work with real lions (partially domesticated, but still. . . ) and realizing too late that the entire idea is madness--more than 70 members of the crew were apparently injured with Griffith needing 50 stitches and plastic surgery after being mauled and cinematographer Jan de Boot nearly being scalped at one point. As a result, "Roar" inspires a grisly sort of fascination that cannot be denied--whatever its flaws (and they are legion), it remains a one-of-a-kind experience that will leave even the most jaded of viewers slack-jawed with disbelief.
Released in 1939, "Destry Rides Again," which now making its long-awaited Blu-Ray debut with a special edition from the Criterion Collection, was hardly the first film to combine the Western and comedy genres--comedians such as Buster Keaton, Mae West and Laurel & Hardy had already made films along those lines and it was only a year earlier that the infamous all-midget spoof "The Terror of Tiny Town" arrived on the scene to the disbelief of all who saw it. However, in a mere 95 minutes, it perfected the hybrid to such an impressive degree that practically every other such film that has been made since then owes it an enormous debt, especially Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles." The story takes place in Bottleneck, a rough-and-tumble town under the thumb of saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy), who has just had the town's sheriff murdered for asking too many questions about a crooked card game and installed the town drunk (Charles Winnigner) in his place. Unexpectedly, the sheriff decides to sober up and hires Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart), the straight-laced son of the lawman that he himself once worked for, to serve as his deputy. When Destry arrives, he does not inspire much confidence--he won't even wear a gun—but he soon proves an effective lawman (one who happens to be quite adept with firearms when the need finally arises) and even catches the eye of Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), the local saloon singer/sex bomb who also just happens to be Kent's girlfriend. The film has a lot about it to praise--the screenplay by Felix Jackson is cleverly constructed to work both as an affectionate spoof of Western tropes as well as a pretty good example of a straightforward oater as well (there are a few dark moments here and there that still have the ability to startle viewers), director George Marshall (who worked with everyone from Laurel & Hardy to Bob Hope to Jerry Lewis throughout his long career) keeps things humming along in what is arguably his finest hour behind the camera, and a nifty cast of supporting players that includes the likes of Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Allen Jenkins, Jack Carson and Billy Gilbert--but what really sells it, of course, is the incredible chemistry between the two leads. At the time of filming, Stewart's star was still on the rise and this film marked his first excursion in a Western, a genre that he would return to quite often later in his career. Meanwhile, Dietrich had by this point been labeled box-office poison after a string of expensive flops and was trying to rebuild her career by taking on a role that in many ways served as a parody of the characters that made her famous in the first place. They both wound up taking to both the material and each other beautifully (and evidently had an affair during the shooting) and the best scenes in the film are the ones in which they are simply playing off of each other. When it came out, the film was a hit that supercharged the careers of both Stewart and Dietrich--"See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" and "You've Got That Look," the songs that she performs to startling effect, would go on to be part of her repertoire for the rest of her career--and it is still enormously entertaining even today. As for the Blu-Ray, it features a 4K digital restoration of the film as well as interviews with critic Imogen Sara Smith and James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, audio recordings of a 1973 interview that Marshall did with the American Film Institute, a 1945 radio adaptation of the film starring Stewart and Joan Blondell as Frenchy and an essay from critic Farran Smith Nehme. (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)