The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

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We at Seattle Screen Scene find ourselves deep in preparation for the Seattle International Film Festival (we’re planning extensive coverage, look for our preview sometime early next week), but before we start rolling that out, here’s our Featured Film of the week, Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film, The Triplets of Belleville. Like that year’s Oscar winner, Finding Nemo, the movie is about a parent searching for their lost child, questing through a strange and wondrous world, having adventures and finding help along the way. But otherwise the two films couldn’t be more different, Bellville abandoning the impressive photo-realism of Pixar’s crisp computer images for a highly stylized reality, bodies and shapes distended and distorted in extreme art nouveau parodies of pale yellows, browns and greens, earthy and bilious, daring you to call it ugly.

It opens, as all great films do, with a cartoon. A black and white parody of the 1930s Warner Bros animated shorts that featured celebrity caricatures, with a Django Reinhardt (who looks weirdly like William Powell), a Josephine Baker (the men in the audience, transformed by the eroticism of her dance, turn into psychotic monkeys who rush the stage and steal all the bananas off her skirt) and Fred Astaire who tap dances right out of his shoes, which then grow mouths and devour him like carnivorous Cronenbergian beasts. Right away you know you’re in for something special.

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The quest plot follows a woman’s search for her grandson. He’s kidnapped while cycling in the Tour de France and she (along with his faithful dog Bruno) follow his abductors to the city of Belleville, a version of New York City. She’s aided in the search by the eponymous trio, elderly jazz musicians (they sang in the opening cartoon, in their youth) who find rhythm in unlikely household objects and have questionable dietary practices. Food is actually pretty disgusting throughout the film, a part of Chomet’s twin critiques of French and American culture: America is fat and disgusting, the source of overcrowded and soulless modernity; France is pretty gross too, but at least has an appreciation for the finer things in life like wine, jazz and bicycling.

Almost entirely lacking in dialogue (what there is it isn’t necessary to translate), the film is nevertheless resolutely aural, every effect a calculated addition to the symphonic whole, following in the tradition of Jacques Tati (even if you didn’t know Chomet would go on to adapt Tati’s The Illusionist, the reference is obvious: Belleville prominently features a M. Hulot’s Holiday poster, a weather vane in the shape of Tati from Jour de fête and even an actual clip from that same film (in which Tati plays a bicycle-riding mailman)). Similarly, while severely distorted, the bodies in the film follow a ruthlessly inviolable logic: giant mobsters with huge upper bodes and tiny legs dwarf the cars they ride in, as they stand through the sun-roofs of those cars in the final chase sequence, the balance of the vehicle is thrown off and sharp turns cause them to flip over, the villains doomed by their own enormity; a maitre’d so literally spineless in his obsequity that he literally leans over backwards, his head flopping back-to-front and side-to-side. What appears to be simple chaotic weirdness is in fact carefully constructed and calculated to achieve a specific effect, which I guess is a reasonably good definition of jazz.

A wickedly funny, strangely poignant and wildly inventive film, The Triplets of Belleville plays Friday through Tuesday this week at the Central Cinema, whose clever programmers have paired it with another classic about bicycling, the 1986 Hal Needham BMX film, Rad, with Lori Laughlin.

The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1951)

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After the smashing success of 1948’s The Red Shoes, with its lengthy fantasy ballet sequence fusing the stage arts with effects possible only in cinema, the writing-directing-producing team of Michel Powell and Emeric Pressburger wanted to make a truly operatic film. In 1951, they adapted Jacques Offenbach’s mostly-finished fantasy opera The Tale of Hoffman, adapted from three stories by writer ETA Hoffmann. Truly pan-European in concept, it’s an English film adapting a French variation on an Italian art form based on stories from a German author drawing on Central European folk traditions (whose story The Nutcracker is also the basis for the most famous of all Russian ballets). The film is entirely dialogue-free, every line sung in an English adaptation of Offenbach’s score by opera professionals, all pre-recorded with the film edited to match the score (all but two of the actors are dubbed, only star Richard Rounseville and Ann Ayars sing their own parts). Divided in three sections with a frame story, Rounseville plays Hoffmann, who is in love with a ballerina named Stella (Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes). During an intermission in her performance, he goes to a bar and gets drunk, telling an assembly of students stories of his three past loves gone wrong. Those stories, about women named Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia, are then dramatized as operettas within the whole.

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Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, 2014)

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The latest from acclaimed Argentinian auteur Lisandro Alonso finds him working for the first time with a major international movie-star in a recognizable genre. Viggo Mortensen stars in a Western about a Danish cartographer attached to a military expedition in 19th Century Patagonia. When his 15 year old daughter runs off with a young soldier, he sets off on an increasingly weird quest across the desert wilderness, part Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, part William Blake in Dead Man. Like many so-called Slow Cinema films, the cinematic form that has become the dominant international style for festival films and the better art houses, Jauja is paced deliberately, with long takes and very little camera movement, the characters framed at a distance such that they are dwarfed by both the landscapes and, importantly, the sounds of their environment. It certainly isn’t among the slowest of such films (Pedro Costa’s equally impeccable Horse Money (hopefully coming soon to Seattle Screens?) is even more meditative, among great 2014 films), and seeing it a second time I actually found it quite brisk (it’s possible my speedometer has been miscalibrated after a month watching New Taiwanese Cinema films).

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Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley, 2014)

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The third film in Hal Hartley’s lunatic epic trilogy about an ex-con with literary delusions and his relations with a garbageman from Queens and his sister opens this week at the SIFF Film Center. Released in 1997, the first film in the trilogy, Henry Fool was, as far as I can tell, Hartley’s most successful release, taking in almost one and a half million dollars at the box office. While his reputation rests on the series of films he made in the early 90s, hallmarks of that decade’s American independent film movement (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth, Amateur, Flirt), his career seems to have sputtered over the last 20 years, with only a couple of features seeing completion. The second film in the trilogy, 2006’s Fay Grim, grossed only 10% of its predecessor, and the new film was funded by Kickstarter. I believe this says more about the state of independent film production distribution and exhibition in the United States than it does about Hartley as a filmmaker.

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Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)

tumblr_nb2n1hY6ET1qcoaf4o1_500Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story comes to the Grand Illusion in its controversial American release version. Gérard Depardieu is the massive presence in the center (a performance that rivals only Timothy Spall’s in Mr. Turner as the gruntiest of 2014). He’s M. Deveraux, head of an international banking organization and potential future president of France with a prodigious appetite for sex. After an evening of debauchery, which Ferrara shows us in clinical, resolutely unsexy detail for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, Deveraux sexually assaults a hotel maid. He’s caught at the airport and just as exacting detail we follow the process of his arrest, booking and arraignment. The second half of the film, following Deveraux’s release on bail, is almost lyrical, as he and his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) argue over the fallout of what he’s done and what it means for their past and their future. Deveraux, a leftist economist, despite devoting his life to helping the less fortunate, is exposed as no less a Randian egotist than the worst right-wing cartoon: his utterly unshakeable belief in the inviolability of his own self-interest the only guiding principle of his existence. I had expected the film, when I first heard about it, to concern itself with the mystery of the crime itself. A did-he or didn’t-he exploration of the legal system and our attitudes toward powerful men who commit crimes against women. Ferrara, though, ditches all of that. We know he’s guilty right from the beginning, and the film becomes even more darkly political as a result. There’s no balance, no epistemology, no other side of the story: there’s the insular, protected, heedlessly destructive world of the super-rich and powerful (right and left) and everything else is the margin.

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The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective

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My pick as one of the Top Three Greatest Living Motion Picture Directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, gets the retrospective treatment over the next ten days at a trio of terrific venues across Seattle. It’s a truncated version of the complete retrospective organized by Richard I. Suchenski (Director, Center for Moving Image Arts at Bard College), in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center, the Taiwan Film Institute, and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of China (Taiwan), that has been traveling the world for the past six months. The Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum have joined forces to present five of Hou’s very best films on 35mm (each movie plays one night at each theatre), while Scarecrow Video supplements the series with five additional movies, presented on video free of charge in its Screening Lounge. I’ll even be there introducing movies at each venue, covering six movies in total over the next nine days.

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Hitchcock at the Uptown

tumblr_mx1nuirpOe1qhsqm1o1_1280Without much fanfare, The SIFF Uptown this week is playing five of the greatest movies ever. Perhaps the lack of publicity (it isn’t even mentioned in this week’s SIFF newsletter (Edit: well, it wasn’t in the first one I got for this week, it was in the second one)) is due to the fact that these films are hardly strangers to Seattle screens, or perhaps because they’re all screening digitally instead of on film. But regardless, the fact remains that there are few better ways to spend your cinematic weekend than watching a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films in a movie theatre.

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Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

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A rather trite, unnecessarily-complicated wartime romance in which the most cynical drunk in the world is persuaded, after getting a second chance with the love of his life, to sacrifice his happiness (and hers, but that’s not really relevant) for the war effort, by tricking her into returning to her anti-Nazi activist husband and continuing her loveless sham of a marriage. He and the corrupt local chief of police (he uses his powers to extort sexual favors from pretty young women in exchange for the chance to flee the Nazis), then wander off into the desert.

Depending on how you define your terms, Casablanca might be the greatest motion picture ever made. An example of Hollywood studio filmmaking at its finest, with assured direction by Michael Curtiz, perhaps the greatest non-auteur director of all-time, and brilliant performances not just from the leads but also from a remarkable cast of character actors bringing depth, nuance and personality to even the smallest role (I’m not kidding: even the croupier manning the roulette wheel is a major talent, Marcel Dalio, who only three years before had starred in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece  The Rules of the Game). Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, SZ Sakall, Leonid Kinskey and John Qualen are simply overkill in a film that already features Paul Henreid and Claude Rains in the major supporting roles. Ingrid Bergman is luminous of course, on the precipice of superstardom, she has the kind of purity that almost makes you forget she’s trying to exchange sex for her husband’s freedom. But Humphrey Bogart reminds you (and her husband – how bold that line is, said by Bogart to Henried, “She did her best to convince me she was still in love with me. . . and I let her pretend.”) It’s his finest performance, cynical cruelty melting before our eyes into wounded romanticism and self-sacrificing heroism. He’s everything America aspires to be: too cool to care about right and wrong, but determined to do the right thing anyway.

If you’ve never seen Casablanca, or if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or if you’ve seen it a hundred times already, go see it this week at the Central Cinema.

Samuel Fuller at the Grand Illusion Cinema

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Playing at the Grand Illusion this week is Samantha Fuller’s 2013 documentary about her father, A Fuller Life. Aside from a short introduction explaining the concept, her movie consists entirely of excerpts from Fuller’s memoir, as read by a variety of his friends, co-workers and fans (generally shot in the kind of propulsive close-ups so recognizable from Fuller’s films). The images we see are a combination of archival footage, clips from Fuller’s movies and never-before-seen 16mm home movies shot by Sam over the decades. It’s a loving account of a remarkable American, one of the unique and definitive personalities of the 20th Century. Beginning his professional life as a newspaper boy in 1920s Manhattan, he quickly worked his way up to teenaged crime reporter. During the Depression he set out across the country, making his living as a freelance journalist and pulp novelist, chronicling the darkest corners of a turbulent decade (an anecdote he relates about a KKK woman is especially vivid). At the end of the 30s, he settled down in Hollywood, making a living as a screenwriter for hire.

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The 87th Annual Academy Awards

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The Academy Awards are this Sunday night, and a pair of local theatres are hosting festivities. The Central Cinema‘s shindig starts at 4 pm while the Grand Cinema (hosting the party at Theatre on the Square) kicks things off at 4:30.

Here’s a brief look at the top contenders for this year’s Academy Awards:

Boyhood: Filmed a little bit at a time over 12 years, director Richard Linklater’s epic portray of one boy’s coming of age made a whole generation of male film critics weep with self-recognition. It’s a fine film, and Linklater, one of the best filmmakers of his generation, may finally get some awards recognition. Almost certainly Patricia Arquette will for her supporting performance as The Boy’s mother.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): The inexplicably parenthesized title of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s study of an actor on the edge of insanity is the dark horse (dark bird?) contender for the major awards, but will almost certainly take home the prize for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, given how many people equate length-of-shot with quality-of-shot. Less certain are Michael Keaton’s chances at Best Actor. He should be in more, better things.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson has his best ever shot at the Oscars this year, with his first Directing and Picture nominations to go along with his third Screenplay nomination (he was also nominated for Best Animated Film in 2009). He’s never won, and his best shot this year is probably in the Original Screenplay category. The film is also a heavy favorite in Production Design, Costume Design and Makeup.

American Sniper: Clint Eastwood’s latest box office smash is a stealth Best Picture contender, but will likely have to settle for simply making a ton of money. Brady Cooper received his third and fourth nominations in the past three years for Producing and Acting in this film. remember when he was Jennifer Garner’s goofy best friend on Alias?

Selma: The biggest snubs of the season were Ava DuVernay missing out on a Directing nomination and David Oyelowo for Best Actor. This might be the best of the Best Picture nominees, but it has no chance to win. It will likely earn only Best Song as a consolation prize, which is pretty awful in a lot of ways.

The Imitation Game: This won the Writer’s Guild Award for Adapted Screenplay, which is absolutely appalling. And it’ll probably win the Oscar too. There is likely to be no less deserving winner Sunday night.

The Theory of Everything: The best chance this by the numbers biopic has for a win is for Eddie Redmayne, for his performance as a real person with a disability, which is perennially an Oscar lock. Only sentimentality toward cinema’s third greatest Keaton can stop him. The film has a shot at Best Score, too.

Whiplash: A lock for Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons, who has been one of our best supporting actors for years. A very good chance in Sound Mixing as well. I like it’s chances for Editing, though that could go to Boyhood instead. The Academy tends to favor volume in that category, and Whiplash has the most editing of the year. That the quick cutting is impeccably timed and used to expressive purpose is a bonus, largely irrelevant to its Oscar chances.

Best Actress: It’s been making the rounds on the internet in recent weeks the fact that the films that annually contend for the Best Actress Oscar are almost never winners, or even nominees in any other categories. That is again the case this year, with Julienne Moore likely to win for Still Alice. It’s kind of shocking considering just how good Two Days, One Night and Gone Girl are, both of which should have been multiple nominees anchored by terrific lead performances (by Marion Cotillard and Rosamund Pike, respectively). Also shocking is that Anna Kendrick isn’t nominated despite giving three fantastic lead performances in 2014, in Happy Christmas, The Last Five Years, and Into the Woods. Perhaps it was her supporting turn as Jennifer Aniston’s ghost-mentor in Cake that knocked her out of contention (Aniston got shut out as well).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Isao Takahata’s film, likely the last production by Studio Ghibli’s two masters (Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises lost to Frozen last year), probably has no shot at Best Animated Feature (How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the heavy favorite), but if it did somehow get the prize, no win on Oscar night would make us happier.