Friday, April 29, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Animal Kingdom (2010) 1h 53m

On Saturday, 30 April at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club straps in for one of the most stark and relentless films we’ve tried, *Animal Kingdom* (2010), written and directed by first-timer David Michod, and starring Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and, in a positively thrilling debut performance, James Frecheville. 

In fairness a tough and gritty narrative isn’t really all *that* unusual an ingredient for successful, or entertaining, or critically acclaimed films. Indeed already in our short time together we have shared some outstanding examples of each. But what’s probably much less common are the films that manage all four things at once. Especially when also offering brilliant first-time directing, elite cinematography, a pitch-perfect score and, above all, an entire cast’s worth of performances so bang-on perfect that at some point, very early along the way, it becomes essentially impossible to remember that we’re all just taking in a movie. 

Adapted loosely from the true-life story of the notorious Pettingill crime family of Melbourne, Animal Kingdom sees Frecheville playing the lead role of “J,” an unnervingly impressionable young man who finds himself bunking up with a gang of vicious bank robbers. Oh, I forgot one small detail: The bank robbers in question just happen to be his own extended family. 

After some uneasy opening notes to set an appropriately uneasy tableau for J’s new place in his new domesticity, the various gang members take their turns showing him in no uncertain terms how they feel about his sudden presence, neither decorum nor basic self-consistency withstanding. Gradually it emerges that neither J nor the others are comfortable with his front-row seat to the family business, nor is anyone prepared to finally take the taboo step of severing that sole remaining hereditary provenance in J’s young life. Nobody ever actually says, “Where else would [he/I] go” but the question is always hanging there among us, the acrid stench of an unforeseen, inescapable, and literally existential Hobson’s Choice. 

Naturally, matters turn in chilling directions for which J is obviously neither prepared nor the least bit pre-adapted. And then they turn again in ways that make J’s situation even more intractable. And then it happens again, and again, and again, and *again*. All while a kaleidoscope of brilliantly drawn supporting characters struggle to recruit, coopt, cajole, turn, ignore, or in some cases even neutralize, this our most reluctant hero. Eventually, when the final twist must surely, surely have come and gone, we allow ourselves to trust the surety of a lifetime’s experience of cinematic denouements—and we exhale. Big mistake, that.   

The film was a smash-hit runaway success in both Australia and the U.S., with Jacki Weaver nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the coolly psychotic family matriarch, “Grandma Smurf.” Pay special attention to exactly how she casually shows her own sons how happy she is to have them around her home, and then feel about it exactly as you’re tempted to allow yourself to feel. Especially as J takes a mantle that has much less to do with accidental custody and much more to do with steering the entire family’s grim and sordid near-term prospects. 

I hope everyone will plan on joining us, Saturday 30 April at 6:31pm, for this very special event. If I can promise anything, it’s that our usual policy of respectful silence for the end titles will require absolutely no policing whatsoever for this one—as we all sit thunderstruck and unsure how to even process its very final moments. Never mind the stunning performances, the improbably confident directing, and the story that grabs us from page one and never once lets go. For all these reasons, Animal Kingdom is a film that I can promise that none of us will soon forget.
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Friday, April 22, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Bandit Queen (1994) 1h 59m

On Sunday, 24 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh plunges headlong into an arresting world of contemptible authority and sympathetic law-breakers, *Bandit Queen*, starring Seema Biswas and written and directed by Sakhbar Kapur.

Among aspiring fiction writers it is very often said that ‘heroes have motivations, while villains have backstories’. And it’s a sneaky-impactful aphorism, insofar as the implied distinction so clearly comes down to whether the character in question can bring him- or herself to let the past be the past and just move on. Those who can, go on to the channel their ugly pasts into a constructive impetus for the betterment of all—their “character-building” experience as literal as anything in literature. 

Cue the entrance of one of the most driven and iconoclastic characters in modern history, Phoolan Devi: the real-life woman who really did just about single-handedly kick over one of the most brutally misogynistic patriarchies on the planet, that of rural India in the 1970s and 80s. A figure of pluck, vengeance, audacity, all but unbearable pathos, and ultimately of one of the least probable redemptions of all time. Cue the rule-defying movie about her harrowing path to that redemption, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. 

Regardless of medium or adaptive license, Phoolan Devi is not a figure whose story would suit the little kids at bedtime, to be sure. From forced betrothal at age eleven (and from exactly the sort of treatment one may imagine with only that much news to go on), Devi’s journey proceeds through a withering chronicle of false flight, violent reversals, shocking police misconduct, caste-based humiliation, banishment, bloody double-crosses, and extra-legal justice. 

In time her unique combination of self-galvanizing purpose and ever-higher-profile escape will come to earn her the legendary status of heroic outlaws, particularly among a cohort of impoverished rural women whose own heartbreaking backstories had robbed them of similar empowerment. Indeed in watching the film for the first time not long ago, I was reminded of what David Sedaris once wrote about a comically over-distressed cashmere sweater in his closet: “Because it is destroyed, it is indestructible.” So too the stunning life of Phoolan Devi. 

The challenge that this simple reality presented for domestic movie-adaptation was so basic as to be almost deal-breaking, with Indian cinematic tradition so deeply antithetical to the unflinching and relentless grit that Phoolan Devi’s tale demands. There are no sappy song-and-dance numbers to chase the gunplay from the screen. There is only a life, here and now, set before us on the rails of an unsinkable ideologue’s ferocity in fighting City Hall. 

We take our seats expecting the typical Indian film experience—a saffron Andrew Lloyd Webber—and what we get is a saffron Lars Von Trier. Complete with that same peculiar gift for folding our judgements about visceral gratuity back in our own laps for the sociopolitical accusation that they are. Make no mistake, Bandit Queen is not a happy-go-lucky romp through fields of brightly-clad backup singers and star-crossed romantic entanglements. But it just might be, indeed probably is, the most important movie we’ve yet seen. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us at 6:30pm on Sunday 24 April for this stunningly impactful motion picture. We really and truly have taken in nothing remotely like it in our filmography thus far. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Arrival (2016) 1h 56m

On Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh will screen Denis Villeneuve’s touchstone of contemporary storytelling excellence, *Arrival*, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. 

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage in these pages from the linkage between the ugly real-world circumstances befalling the planet in the early to mid-1970s, and the unprecedented wave of superlative films that graced the planet’s theaters at that time. Perfectly sensible, this bit: If one couldn’t bear to face the era of Watergate transcripts and Kent State shootings and Sinai offensives, the natural vector of escape was a plush-velvet theater seat and all the suspension of reality that it promised to confer. 

Except I wouldn’t have to tell anyone reading these words that 2016 was no picnic, either. From Brexit to Aleppo, from the rise of Donald Trump to the death of Princess Leia, hiding from the real world in that fateful year took on a mantle of gallows-chic that hadn’t been so prominent in popular culture since ... well, since the early to mid-1970s. And the world’s filmmakers delivered again, too—with Risen and Perfect Strangers and Nocturnal Animals and How to Be Single. 

And then there’s Denis Villeneuve and his jewel of throwback cinematic escapism, Arrival. A film that defies not just genres and conventions, but the far more sacred taxonomy of commercially- vs. critically important work. 

Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, the cracker-jack linguist who finds herself visited in her academic office by a shadowy military detachment (led by Forest Whitaker), seemingly out of the blue. After some appropriately uneasy back-and-forth, it develops that the military folk want Dr Banks to come with them to interrogate a group of uninvited guests. If I told you why they need a math expert (played by Jeremy Renner) along for the ride, I’d spoil the movie. But they do. And a CIA observer (Michael Stuhlbarg), too.  

The four of them must work together, and to say this spoils nothing. And none of them know what they're doing, or what the consequences of what they're doing might be, good or otherwise. The whole of the story is a deep-dive into the samurai arts of professionally faking it and hoping for the best. There are turns of a sort we might expect under high-pressure, high-stakes, without-a-net circumstances such as these, and then, just when we think we're clear on where we're being taken, the entire flow of the movie and the story that we thought we were being told, is dumped all but literally on its head. Everything about this picture is a feint, and everything about it is a reminder that feints don't have to end with travel bans and slatted border walls in Arizona. They can be beautiful, and thrilling, even as they are dangerous and difficult to comprehend. Yes, Arrival is a science fiction movie. But in the end it hardly matters.   

Many great films have enjoyed box-office prosperity, and many successful movies have attracted the eye of the world’s critics and awards, to be sure. Most of the films we’ve shared in our screenings straddle this boundary to at least some degree. But far, far fewer films have ever dared to actually be both of these things, with conscious intent, from the moment they were green-lit at the studio’s top-floor offices. That Arrival succeeds so completely in both aspirations—as a commercially entertaining movie, and as a work of cultural durability—is little short of miraculous, especially for its time. A bonbon of mall-cineplex escapism, just when we needed it most, which manages to be genuine art at the same time.

But to succeed as well as it did, Arrival had to match its moment into the bargain. Had Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi been released in 1971 it would still have evoked spirited intellectual discussion and deep reservoirs of fan loyalty, but it wouldn’t have broken the freaking world. (Indeed it would have been Werner Herzog’s *Fata Morgana*, which ... didn’t.) Coppola’s The Conversation is a fantastic picture, sure, but part of the reason it works so well is because it was screened over a summer when tape-recorded conversations were all anyone could think about. The lesson is clear. To make that kind of impact, a film must lay its hands in just the right folds of our collective consciousness at that particular time. 

In 2016, those folds wouldn't have been much fun to think about. They would have prominently included fear of outsiders, an even greater fear of those who were afraid of outsiders, and existential geopolitical uncertainty. But they also would have included breakneck technological progress and an almost foolish-feeling reach for optimism and self-betterment. Villeneuve would have needed to resonate with all of these disparate cultural overtones, and, in that last extra little challenge, he would have needed to at least nod in the direction of society's desire for cinematic escapism itself. Somehow. Perhaps by featuring some venue or shooting aspect that happened to be of a sixteen-by-nine dimension. I dunno, maybe have it look white when there’s nothing to see on it, just to be nutty.   

For those who know his work, it will come as no surprise that Villeneuve hit every single note with this gorgeous picture. Writing for The London Telegraph, Robbie Collin called it “introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined—yet [it] unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there is a mid-film revelation—less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know—that feels, when it hits you, like your seat is tipping back.” Across town, The Guardian was busy deciding it had been the third-best movie of the year, and the nineteenth-best scifi movie. Ever. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm for this stately and breathtaking puzzle of overlapping narratives, nuclear statecraft, and the sometimes, but not always, reckless-seeming currency of hope. 

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Rope (1948) 1h 20m

On Wednesday, 20 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh kicks off its outdoor shoes and cozies up with one of the most audacious and criminally underrated pictures we’ve yet seen, *Rope* (1948), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring John Dall, Farley Granger, and the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. It was Hitchcock's first film shot in colour, and few of his efforts more richly deserved the added dimensionality and depth of field that colour offers, afterward. 

We don’t think of him this way now, but in his heyday as an A-list Hollywood actor and script-adapter, Hume Cronyn bore a well-earned reputation for being a ripe miserable bastard—particularly toward anyone who dared to tell him no. Thus it was that, on an improbably rainy spring afternoon in Los Angeles in 1947, Cronyn barged in on a studio meeting to present Alfred Hitchcock with one of the less circumscribed and deferential movie pitches ever to that time: He wanted Hitchcock to make a murder mystery, adapted from a one-act, one-room play, and filmed so as to suggest that everything we witness is unfolding in real time. 

The story of the narrative is easily told and almost impossible to spoil. Dall and Granger play two well-polished collegiate aesthetes, bored and lonely after having just completed a mesmerizing course from a philosophy professor obsessed with Nietzsche’s Superman. After a brief conversation in which the philosophical underpinnings of their thinking are revealed to have been suitably and explicitly misunderstood by them, the two young men decide to exhibit their self-appointed superiority. And to do this, it follows (-?), they will commit an act of unspeakable private barbarism—and then confidently host a cocktail party immediately thereafter in the same space. Apparently without so much as washing up first. 

The guest of honour is naturally their would-be mentor, the prim and tweedy Professor Cadell (Stewart), invited by the pair with a clear intent of showing off, without actually revealing to him what they’ve done. No stranger to overzealous college-boy idolatry, Cadell’s simmering discomfiture is at first mistaken for a professor’s natural remorse at seeing enthusiastic converts get it wrong. But gradually, as innuendos find lubrication through the force of drink, Cadell comes to realize that the discomfiture in this case very possibly, indeed probably, counts for so much more than mis-quotation ever could. 

More than anything, this is what makes Rope such a brilliant work of cinema: It’s not how the boys change over the course of this claustrophobic little evening of boat-house protocol and WASPy badinage; it’s how Stewart changes. He knows something is up from the moment he hits that door, of course—but like a man struggling to process the news of a fatal accident, he must drag himself through the stations on a passion-play of self aggrievement and denial. If it’s as bad as it starts to sound, he is indirectly responsible for an act from which he will never quite release himself. If it’s worse, he might not get the chance.  

You may have seen Aleksandr Sokurov’s *Russian Ark* with us a few months ago, and you may have seen Alejandro Inarritu’s *Birdman* without us, a few years before that. If either is the case, then you know how difficult it is just to make a movie look like it was filmed continuously, even in contemporary times. For its era, then, Rope is nothing short of norm-shattering. No one but the 1948 version of Hume Cronyn could have marshaled the Superman’s private conviction of his craft, to devise such a comfortably subversive concept for a film. And no one but A. J. Hitchcock could have carried it off with such riveting aplomb. 

I hope everyone will join us, Wednesday 20 April at 6:30pm, for this spellbinding little keepsake-box of macabre suspense and relentlessly onrushing dread. It’s not true that movies don’t get made like this anymore, but it may as well be.

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Friday, April 15, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apollo 13 (1995) 2h 22m

On Sunday, 17 April, at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh checks that its carry-bags are secure around its shoulders and its hands are wrapped securely around the safety bar, as it embarks down the gentle start-slope for the ride of its young life, Ron Howard's soaring masterpiece of technical achievement and immutable emotional resonance, *Apollo 13*, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, Jean Speegle Howard, Clint Howard, and Capt. James Arthur Lovell, Jr, USN O6-SpecDty (ret.).  

Our gracious and long-suffering host gets a lot of mileage out of reminding me from time to time that "nerds are cool" -- though goodness knows I can't imagine who she might be thinking of when she does. And yes, nerds are indeed cool: It's an axiom on which our entire platform has depended and will, I hope, continue to succeed. But taken by itself the conviction that nerds are cool doesn't gift us with Apollo 13. To get us there, we needed maestro director Ron Howard's innate understanding of another, equally important axiom. Schmaltz is underrated. Especially when you're at the movies.

We know the story by now: A third moon-mission bearing the number 13 lifts off from Cape Canaveral with three astronauts aboard—Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and backup Command Module Pilot Jack Swaggart (Kevin Bacon), while original Pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) sits grounded in Houston on suspicion that he will soon contract the measles. It’s a routine mission to whatever extent any mission outside of earth’s gravity could possibly be thought of as routine. 

When, on the third day out (April 13), an explosion cripples the spacecraft, what was supposed to be a voyage so banal and un-inspired that the networks refused even to cover it becomes a global vigil in which all stops are pulled to do whatever can be done on the ground to bring the astronauts home. “The President wants odds,” Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) tells Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) as they quietly confer over his console at Mission Control. “What do I tell him, one chance in three?” To which Christopher Kraft (Joe Spano) replies unbidden, “I don't think they're that good.”

Most people don't know just how not-that-good the odds really were, but the astronauts did. “We were looking for a trajectory that intersected with the earth's path in some way,” the real Jim Lovell once told a documentary interviewer. “What we didn't want was to become an orbiting memorial to the space program for all time.” 

This is how not-that-good it was, friends: The three men, trapped in an all but impossibly confined and quickly freezing space, weighing the alternatives of a slow death in orbit or a quick one in the atmosphere, and then calling-down their preference for the quick one. That anything different happened, in the end, is a literal monument to the guile and dedication of some of the smartest and most zealously committed nobodies in the history of humankind.

So how do you tell a story like this one? It’s compelling for what it was, of course, but the trap of that starting-point is that its ending-point is available to any kid who’s heard of Wikipedia. How do you make it not just compelling, but involving? 

Perhaps you start with Faulkner, who wrote that for every southerner it is always possible to imagine himself standing in ranks in a Pennsylvania field on an early July afternoon in 1863, the flags not yet out of their casings, before the war was going to be lost. It happens that a great and consequential war was about to be lost in the United States in the 1970s as well—not just a physical one, but one over the very cohesion of what it meant to be American. From Vietnam to Kent State to unprecedented racial strife and the crisis in the Middle East, no one who came home to the evening news during this time could have anticipated living through one of the most collective and universalizing crises of their lives. 

With that simple awareness, Howard’s prescription for telling this story was as bounded by circumstance as an actual marching order: What you have to do, if you’re going to tell this story in a way that transports us back, is you have to tell it cheesy. You have to gently overplay the family emotions, and the crane shots, and the dry-witted Houston badinage, and the soundtrack—everything about the story needs just that extra little bit of schmaltz. Just as we did as we lived through it.   

Of course you also have to tell it in a way that works cinematically, and that is never going to be easy when it comes to pre-CGI-era pictures about traveling to space. Fortunately for us, Howard is a bona fide creative genius, and nowhere does his own star shine anywhere near this bright. 
This may not be true of all great films—even all the great films on this list—but what makes this one worthy of an earlier claim to my top overall spot is the total, absolute, unwavering suspension of disbelief: There comes a time in each viewer's experience of this movie, when the very idea that we are sitting in comfy seats on the ground simply and unceremoniously leaves us. For me that moment comes just after liftoff, as the spacecraft is climbing out. We see an interior shot of the command module, the rumble everywhere around us, with a clear view of the instrument cluster. And there is just enough shake, just enough terror, just enough mechanized life to the thing, to let me know that I'm on the ride of my life. I wept like a baby when I first saw that moment in a theater—and I was on a freaking date.

Inspired genius abounds in this one, suffusing even the seemingly minor details with as much timely creativity as Howard's unfailing loyalty to the historical record would abide. His decision to crane-shoot the scenes at Mission Control, providing us the very sort of un-grounded, call-to-greatness vibe experienced by the controllers themselves, is but one example. The pitch-perfect performance of Jean Speegle Howard as Lovell's aging mother Blanche, is another. Upon being introduced to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (tasked with keeping her preoccupied during the tension of reentry), Blanche raises her eyebrows and asks, “Are you boys in the space program too?”

Then there is the zero-G footage—which actually comprises far less of the film than our credulous brains would lead us to suspect (much of what looks like zero-G is instead good actors, planted firmly on the ground, swaying rhythmically). The true weightless shots were accomplished by building a second command module and a second LEM inside a zero-G training plane, meaning that each shot could only last a few seconds and could not be immediately re-taken if it didn't go right, a fact that only added to the realism and tension of the actors' performances.

The set for Mission Control, meanwhile, had been replicated from the real one to such exacting standards that the real Gene Kranz would leave the set at the end of each day in his capacity as creative consultant, only to find himself startled anew by the absence of an elevator to take him “down” to a Houston parking lot. 

Shortly after this movie came out on video I had occasion to stroll the aisles of one of those icky big-box electronic stores, noticing in passing that one of the end-cap displays was playing Apollo 13 as its demonstrator. When those first desperate moments of emergency broke over the astronauts, every single customer in the store—and most of the staff—ceased whatever they were doing and crowded around the screen, as if this were really happening and we were really standing there, in a store someplace, terrified for the safety of our three brave astronauts. They say millions of people missed their trains when John Glenn lifted off for the first time; well, tens of people were made late for their next errand by watching a movie depiction of a crisis for which every last one of us knew the outcome. That, friends, that is the brilliance that we prepare ourselves to relish at the conclusion of this weekend. 

I hope everyone will make a special effort to join us Sunday, April 17, at 6:30, for this thrilling and enthralling triptick of technical prowess and heart-plucked inspiration. I can absolutely, positively guarantee you won’t regret it. Schmaltz and all.
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Thursday, April 14, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Three Days of the Condor (1975) 1h 57m

On Saturday, 16 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh takes on one of the great and iconic espionage capers in cinematic history, *Three Days of the Condor*, starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow and John Houseman.

Thought experiment: Take one of the sexiest movie stars in history and hire him at the very zenith of his acting career. Hand him a razor-sharp script, pair him with a genuine titan of 70's-era directing prowess, and shoot a movie about complex international espionage in which the star must evade numerous allegiance-shifting bad guys at every turn. You’d have a pretty good movie, if you did that. Actually, you’d have Alan Pakula’s *The Parallax View*, starring Warren Beatty and featuring a shadowy non-governmental entity trying to force the United States to change directions on an issue of mortal peril and universal significance. 

And let's be clear: Parallax View is a pretty doggone terrific movie. But it’s not a classic, and it never will be -- for the sneaky-simple reason that the inciting incident which impels Beatty onto his theme-park ride of harrowing intrigue isn’t the tiniest bit relatable. (Someone in an I’m-really-shady business suit approaches him and asks if he’ll submit to a personality evaluation that centers around being forced to watch a movie. You know, the sort of thing that could happen to any of us – right?) What you wouldn't have, if you did that much and stopped, is *Three Days of the Condor*. Not yet. 

No, what makes our present feature such a totem of Hollywood excellence isn’t the sexy star (Robert Redford), performing at the very top of his game (1975), with a relentless espionage-thriller script (adapted from the smash-hit novel by James Grady), and directed by a giant of the business (Sydney Pollack). What makes Three Days of the Condor is the deeply, deeply unsettling realization that comes over us about twenty minutes in: that for all the trappings of sordid CIA cat-and-mouse, the basic crisis that has befallen the main character really could happen. To any of us. 

Redford plays Joseph Turner, the improbably bookish and un-macho CIA analyst who returns to his nondescript Manhattan station office to find that something has occurred which will tear from under him everything he has known, or counted on, or done, or trusted. 

It’s a moment so brilliant in its every aspect of execution that we can easily miss the meta-brilliance that it represents: for its instant connection with our darkest insecurities about our anonymity and our routines. We watch as Turner struggles to process what he sees. We take in the shock, the non-comprehension and, ultimately, the mortal terror of the thing, for all it represents. And we feel every, last, *bit* of it ourselves -- sitting there with our popcorn hovering halfway to our mouths. None of us will ever have to dispatch a dead girl crawling out of our TV. None of us will ever have to fend off a creepy grandma who compelled us to murder our sister so she could hijack our soul in a candle-lit treehouse. But the simple horror of what happens to Joe Turner’s life in the first reel of Condor is like nothing I have ever seen in a film purported to be scary. None of us expect to have to handle the things that Turner will thenceforth have to handle, and all of us know—way down deep—that we really, really, really could.   

Naturally there follows a cat-and-mouse between Turner and any number of different would-be freelance and Intelligence-inside neutralizers, some of whom begin as friends and others of whom don't seem to work for the same set of people who are supposed to be trying to kill him. As with so many great 1970s conspiracy flicks, nothing is quite what it seems and nothing is clear or predictable until the very end. Along his breakneck path to sorting out the players while he tries to learn the game, Turner will cross swords with an overtly relativistic crisis-contact inside the agency (Robinson), a grim uber-boss (Houseman), a cheerfully sociopathic liquidator (Von Sydow), and crucially an unsuspecting middle-class photographer who just wanted to go skiing for the weekend with her boyfriend in Vermont (Dunaway).    

This picture would have deserved a place on our calendar for no other reason than its status as claimant to one of the truly great scenes in cinema--the oft-copied confrontation between Turner and his arch-nemesis, Station Director Atwood (Addison Powell), in which Turner surreptitiously enters Powell’s house in the middle of the night and summons him from his upstairs bedroom by playing the stereo as loud as it will go. It’s not quite as iconic as Slim Pickens riding that nuke all the way to its date with ground-burst destiny, but it’s all the more significant for how incredibly it works. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of planning to join us, Saturday 16 April at 6:30pm, for this thrilling tour de force from the one great golden age of American moviemaking. In the end the relatability of the thing serves as a sort of marching order in its own right: We owe it, not just to Joe Turner but to ourselves, to see just whether—and if so, how (!) — he can marshal his paltry resources and his even thinner understanding, to extricate us all. 

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Monday, April 11, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Withnail and I (1987)

Join us Wednesday, 13 April at 6:30pm at YK Art House for Bruce Robinson’s dark, subversive, and forever-quotable rumination on post-modern cultural decay in Britain, Withnail and I, starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann. 

Inspired by Robinson’s own experiences as a struggling west-end actor at the time, Withnail and I plumbs the squalid melancholy that so many others have elected to forget about the drug-fueled 1960s, and comes up cherries across the reels with a hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking riff-parade that is still being cheerfully de-contextualized by quotesmiths to this day. The vehicles for all of this piercing social comment (for in the end that is really all they are in this picture, vehicles) are the two main characters, aspiring theater-actors who spend their time drinking, bickering, drinking, taking drugs, drinking, and failing at every single thing they do. 

Unable to find official work, the charismatic Withnail is forced instead to “perform himself” – choosing to voice his character as a sort of mashup of Edward VIII and Keith Richards. “A man,” in the words of Gene Siskel, “whose greatest talent is for squandering his talents.” Then of course there is Withnail’s unnamed straight man, “I,” whose job in the main character’s life seems to vacillate between dubious antagonist and intentionally sabotaged errand-boy. And in the highest and most perfectly inexplicable traditions of the comedic straight-men of theater, “I” simply keeps on coming back for more. (The drugs don’t hurt in this regard, to be fair.)
That a movie this threadbare and unstructured could work this well is no small tribute to the creative vision of Robinson, for whom this was a very first attempt at either writing or directing. Most reasonable persons would have angled their debut efforts along a much safer and less astringent line, but Robinson was having none of that—opting instead for what A. O. Scott summarized as, “an exploration into the brooding aesthetic of awfulness.” 

By turns we witness drug-fueled monologues, technicolour non-sequiturs, a madcap misadventure with a pile of dirty dishes in a common sink, and a pointless road trip that manages to take up more than half the film without doing or accomplishing much of anything at all. In the end, bereft in a driving rain and nowhere in particular in the suddenly gloomy-seeming London, one of our leads is finally left to confront his mortal loneliness and utter lack of self-direction—thus inspiring himself to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “What a piece of work is man.” 

And we melt. 

We melt in spite of ourselves, in spite of our simmering disliking for the individual in question, in spite of having seen something not unlike this coming from essentially the moment we first sat down. ...Which, really when one thinks about it, is probably the truest reason why this movie is so damned enduring and universally beloved. Mention “The Hamlet scene from Withnail” to an even casual cinephile and you’re apt to get a rendition, sure, but you’re also apt to notice how it trails off in the middle as your friend labours to keep himself emotionally together for it, thinking of that poor guy in the rain. It’s a performance within a performance within the performance, and—for all of that—it is one of the greatest moments of Shakespeare recitation in cinematic history. What a piece of work is man, indeed. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Wednesday, 13 April, at 6:30pm, for this touchstone of iconic British cinema. Goodness knows the post-credits discussion will no doubt be as lively as any we’ve yet had. 

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Friday, April 8, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Princess Mononoke (1997) 2:14:00

"Now watch closely, everyone: I'm going to show you how to kill a God."

Sunday, 10 April marks a very special evening for our scrappy little Phnom Penh Film Club, as we reach for the challenge of reconciling a work of unqualified cinematic brilliance, with our natural expectations for an animated picture ostensibly for children. It is time, then, for Hayao Miyazaki's epic tale of forced redemption, guerrilla stewardship, and unrequited love, *Princess Mononoke*.   

Genres are always more difficult to circumscribe than people generally give them credit for (Is Guy Ritchie's *Snatch* a comedy? Is Jordan Peele's *Get Out* a fright-flick? Is M Night Shyamalan's *The Village* a fright-flick AND a comedy?). But never does this issue kindle as much uncertainty as with the designation of a "childrens'-" or "family movie." We've seen kids' movies in which gremlins are exploded inside microwave ovens, and we've seen family movies in which Japanese would-be kamikaze pilots are murdered at close range in the act of trying to cut a mango open for a friend. And the thing of it is, even those examples are making it too easy -- because, of course, it's not the gratuitous vignettes in a children's movie that make a person lean back and scratch his head, at least if it's a good movie; it's the gravity of the subject matter, and how that subject matter is more generally conveyed. Gunshots and microwave explosions aren't what keeps an adult engaged in an engaging picture. Story, is. 

Enter Hayao Miyazaki, the font of Japanese feature-length animation prowess who, for more than forty years now, has been deftly and cheerfully defying the conventions and prejudices of his chosen medium. And, in the process, he has brought to all of us some of the most soberly grown-up storycraft the world has ever seen. By turns Miyazaki's Faberge Eggs of emotive brilliance have favoured us with lessons about self-reliance, self-sacrifice, the impermanence of love, cross-cultural empathy, living in the present, dying with dignity, standing up for what's right and, sometimes, even recognizing that the impetus to stand up for what we *think* is right can lead us to a raft of unsavory and unintended consequences. 

Often these lessons are so delicately packaged in a Miyazaki film and so adroitly inter-woven that extracting and identifying them is only practicable after the end credits have finished with their roll. And very generally this is the entire point, even for the most life-weary grown-ups in the theater. Against expectations we were entertained, yes, but -- against experience -- we were really shown something.  

And then, then one time, and just as we're sure we've got a handle on the model and the man, Miyazaki re-situates himself at his drafting table, pours another piping cup of oolong tea, and fires-off a movie that manages somehow to cover all these themes at once. This is Princess Mononoke. A movie in which the armed salvation of a sprite-filled forest kingdom weathering the ravages of progress doesn't even feel like it's the point of the damn thing by the time it's over, really. 

Of the many attributes that make Miyazaki films so distinctive and so superlative, none is better-exemplified by this film than the boldness with which he embraces complicated plot-lines. No Miyazaki picture could be considered emblematic of the man's efforts if it did not include this trait, the B- and C- stories rippling along beside the main premise like babbling streams along a woodland hiking trail, the confluences and interactions of those stories feeling as unforced and inevitable as the fallen-tree footbridges that ford the streams. 

Neither does our maestro filmmaker shy from difficult emotional situations and unhappy turns. Not every one of the endearing and sympathetic characters in a Miazaki movie survives. There is no progress through the sophisticated conflicts of the picture without prices to be paid. There is lust, there is anger, and the good guys don't always win or for that matter even do the right thing -- though they just *might* when that last big moment comes along. 

Make no mistake: Princess Mononoke may be an animated film; it may be principally about kids; it may have an ostensibly child-like premise with which to deliver an ostensibly one-dimensional message about humankind's appropriate place in the world. But friends, Princess Mononoke is a movie for everyone, notably including grown-ups. Or at least grown-up lovers of great movies, anyway.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Sunday, 10 April, at 6:31pm for our screening of this timeless and unhurried gem of love and its many truest meanings, of social comment without sermon, of greed, and envy, and selflessness, and finally of hope. Movies don't always pluck even one of these motifs with anything like this degree of virtuosity; come to the screening on Sunday and marvel at the apparent effortlessness with which Miyazaki plucks them all.  
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Film Club Featurette: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) 1:50:00

Tomorrow (Saturday, 9 April) at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club snuggles down for a cozy evening of warm-hearted whimsy, woebegone wanderlust, and wistful wunderkinds, *The Royal Tenenbaums*, directed by Wes Anderson and starring just about everybody. 

Inspired at least in part by Orson Welles, J.D. Salinger, Louis Malle, E.L. Koningsburg, and Anderson's own childhood experience of parental divorce, the film's multi-layered concept and elaborate screenplay alone required over two years of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's lives to complete, with Touchstone Pictures repeatedly and credibly threatening to cancel its support. And that wasn't even the steepest or most existential challenge, either: Throughout this poorly-kept secret saga, Gene Hackman, who'd been explicitly intended for the eponymous leading role, continually refused to be cast for it, steadfastly and on the record -- only relenting at the last moment when his agent and lifelong friend asked him to do it as a favour. Throw in Huston's repeated objections to the parallels between her character and Anderson's mother, plus a fevered genius' commitment to the dry photographic joke of filming in New York without a single definitive visual cue or landmark, and really it's no small wonder that all this coffee-shop-indie melodrama ended up taking the shape of a finished motion picture whatsoever. 

Patience doesn't always pay, despite what any of us may have heard, but this time the end result of all of this pre-production intrigue wasn't just a remarkably refined and detail-conscious cinematic tour de force. Instead the drama that had stirred itself into all of that waiting also served to imbue the stresses on the page with a sort of accidental method -- rendering the crucial atmosphere of refined upper-crust family antagonisms and gently acerbic badinage all the easier to act, by having first been lived through by everyone involved. 

Ostensibly a family comedy-drama (not completely uninspired by Welle's 1942 masterpiece *The Magnificant Ambersons*), the finished movie manages somehow to resist genre-classification without actually suggesting anything to take its place. Tenenbaums isn't a comedy, and it isn't a drama, and it isn't a romance. It's not about a divorce, a deceitful lie to cover up an ugly truth, or young adults struggling to define their futures in the aftermath of unfulfilled child-prodigy accolades. It's not about overly devoted autumn-spring husbands or overly intriguing adopted siblings. It's not about mothers struggling to enjoy their empty-nest years, or about wives taken from us much too young in plane crashes. It's not about over-protecting one's children and it's not about shooting them with BB-guns.

What it *is* about, then, is resonances. It's about that peculiar and often improbably enviable imprimatur that a cohesive family in a big house can so often so effortlessly exude for all of us to see and love and talk about. Not all of the Tenenbaums are good people. Not all of them know how to quit when they're ahead, and few of them know how to ask for help when they're behind. They aren't all noble and they aren't all even all that interesting, at least without the antagonism of another Tenenbaum to force them into it. But they are, all, Tenenbaums. At a glance, and even more decidedly after the first few moments of listening to them talk. Heck, even the next-door-neighbour across the street is a Tenenbaum -- and not just because he's been sending his press clippings to the house for its august mother's recognition and esteem. 

Many, many, many fictional properties in both written media and film have built their narratives on the stud-wall frames of larger than life families, to be sure. But to create from scratch a completely fictional extended family with this kind of cohesion -- almost a trademark-branding, really -- and to have our experience of noticing it feel so familiar to us all, is one of the rarest and most laudable accomplishments in all of storycraft. Ask yourself how many big fictional families in your own recollection weren't just related, and relatable, but literally identifiable like this, and you'll quickly have to agree that more often than not it's the audience's suspended disbelief that blushes away the clashing nuances of persons whose nuances probably wouldn't clash if they were real. And that, that is what makes this movie such a spectacular achievement. 

Many people talk about Tenenbaums as the moment that Wes Anderson found his Auteur's voicing through the assorted bag-of-tricks visual affectations on which he's relied so heavily ever since. And it won't be a popular thing to say, probably, but honestly those directorial seasonings have never mattered less, anywhere throughout the Anderson cinematic oeuvre than they do here. And that's a good thing for all of us. *The Royal Tenenbaums* may not be Anderson's most rollicking movie, or his most poignant, or his most distinctive, or professional, or even the most well-acted. But it is, by a country mile, his most artistically complete. It is The Mona Lisa of the Anderson filmography. It is his Dubliners. His Rumours album. His Guggenheim-Bilbao. It simply demands to be watched. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us at 6:31pm on Saturday, 9 April, for this timeless modern classic in small-bore drama, quirky laughs, and the big-house-big-family company of an ensemble who wouldn't surprise you if they broke the scene to burrow in the fridge. This isn't true even of every picture we've chosen for our screenings in this venture, but it's true of this one: No one who comes to see this movie will regret it. No one. 

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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Blazing Saddles (1974)

Wednesday, 6 April brings to the Phnom Penh Film Club the epic comedic satire by Mel Brooks, *Blazing Saddles* -- a film that manages to be more hilarious and more important than almost any we have yet seen, at the same time.

People who did not live through the first half of the 1970s have little facility to appreciate just how forcefully and stridently those dark years undermined the cultural norms and comfortable predictability of a collective status quo from Dallas to Da Nang. In the summer of 1974, with the Paris Peace Accords in tatters, Soviet ambitions mounting by the day, inflation soaring, cities around the world positively riven with racial and inter-generational violence, and the United States' first serious flirtation with Presidential impeachment in over a century, many comfortable middle-class moviegoers were legitimately uncertain if basic social order could ever be counted upon again. 

What better time, then, to escape to the movies? And what better explanation for the extraordinarily fecund summer of cinematic masterpieces that the world enjoyed that year, from the Godfather II to Chinatown to Celine and Julie Go Boating. 

And then, then there's Blazing Saddles -- a movie whose stark genius was to comfort the masses in their loss of existential ramparts, by taking the crumpled wreckage of those ramparts and setting it on fire. An unflinchingly subversive statement-piece on the toxic nonsense that is modern racism, Mel Brooks' uproarious western (fashioned as a parody of High Noon, but -- oh by the way -- with a black sheriff) sidesteps dismissal as a preachy liberal reprimand by delicately seasoning its bang-on-the-nose main treatise with much quieter but no less effective sarcastic contretemps. Like only Mel Brooks can pull it off, the assorted vignettes of his story dish scathing social comment on any number of still-relevant cultural and historical failings, from corporate-political back room subterfuge, western-era romanticism, capital punishment, and religious hypocrisy, to middle-class death rituals, alcoholism, careerist bureaucrats, sloppy anachronisms in classic movie scripts, the Native American genocide, and ultimately even Hollywood itself. 

But of course all of these are but fragmentary asteroids, snatched into their recurring orbits through our perception by the awesome gravity of the great comic genius' unwavering contempt for the preposterousness of racism. Far beyond its veritable fusillade of perfect laugh-lines, every major structural element of the film is dedicated to confronting white hysteria about skin colour and its supposed stop-everything importance. With Blazing Saddles, it isn't so much that race and its neutrality in matters of character are never far from mind -- it's that they are never for a second anywhere but dead-center in the creative choices that most stay with us after taking it all in. Most prominently these choices included the preternaturally unforced friendship between the two main characters (Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little, the latter chosen when the studio refused to insure Richard Pryor as a drug-addled lunatic), an elaborate registration procedure for those who would aspire to hate a black guy, and above all the crucial plot device of setting up the Sheriff's new town to destroy itself, by first destroying him.  
One of only twelve films in history to be preserved in both the National Film Registry and the Library of Congress, Blazing Saddles stole American racial consciousness out from under a credulous public by blowing audiences away as nothing more than an irreverent grab-bag of disconnected jokes. Indeed it is no small testimony to Brooks' craft as a writer and filmmaker that even some of the most august and jaded critics completely missed the point that they'd just been taught a life-altering lesson about just what does and doesn't matter, at a time when almost nothing could be relied upon to matter anymore. A smash success, the film was at its time only the tenth movie in history to break $100 Million in U.S. domestic box office.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Wednesday, 6 April, at 6:31pm, for what may be the most iconic and important comedy in ... well, in the history of the world.   
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Saturday, April 2, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Third Man (1949)

On Sunday 3 April, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club will feature the iconic postwar noir-espionage suspense thriller, *The Third Man*. And I very much hope you'll plan to join us for this classic Carol Reed / Orson Welles movie that launched careers in writing, acting, and film criticism -- on two continents -- and just for good measure awakened a war-weary American cinema-going public to the grim geography of Soviet adventurism on the European continent. 

Joseph Cotten is Holly Martins, a recently furloughed magazine stringer and sometime-novelist who accepts a sight-unseen job offer in Vienna from his dear old friend Harry Lime, only to arrive to the news that Lime perished under mysterious circumstances that very day. Unpersuaded by the official version of his friend's supposedly accidental death, Martins declines repeated entreaties to leave town, in favour of digging ever deeper and ever less officially into the story. Along the way he crosses paths -- and sometimes purposes -- with the aggrieved British occupation supervisor Major Calloway (played with impeccable reservation and understatement by Trevor Howard) and Lime's most recent flame, local pretty-girl Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli). 

Circumstances quickly elude Martins on a host of fronts so numerous that the issue of his friend's suspicious death almost, but never quite, recedes from his perception. By turns Martins finds himself roundly heckled at a book-reading, challenged with possible arrest for his refusal to abide by Calloway's demands, and embroiled semi-willingly in a dark and not altogether promising plot to shield Ms Schmidt from her appointment with forced repatriation to the Soviet quarter of the city. And all the while, the mosquito that just won't give Martins the surcease he needs to sort out any of it, is a single muttered line from his dead friend's upstairs neighbour. Yes, the two men who rushed to the accident scene took away Lime's body, just as Martins had been told by others. Yes. But there was a third man. 

To say that the screenplay for this film was the breakthrough that made Graham Greene would be a mis-truth of the highest order. Greene had by this time already published several successful novels and was well on his way to finishing two others simultaneously. But somehow it seems much less dishonest to say that the Titanic accomplishment of this film's ping-it-with-a-finger dialogue and dread-soaked statecraft intrigue marked the moment that really *gave* us Graham Greene. There would have been another Ministry of Fear or Rumour at Nightfall, even without the breakthrough genre defiance that this film represents, probably -- but it's difficult to see how there would ever have been a Quiet American or an Our Man in Havana or even an End of the Affair. For this alone, The Third Man deserves credit as one of the more important pictures we have seen. 

Beyond the acting and the direction and the script, the film is perhaps best known as the apotheosis of the so-called "Dutch Angle" method of cinematography, where symbolically important shots are intentionally and sometimes unnervingly framed off true, generally when the narrative significance of the moment suggests, as it were, the opposite of the slant that the cinematography conveys. The technique had been tried and proven in films before this one, and it went on to enjoy a phase of middling cachet afterward, but no one captured the spirit of the idea like Robert Krasker did with The Third Man, and more than one elite cinematographer went on to wonder why any of the rest of them had ever even tried. 

The reception -- both public and critical -- was all but literally thunderstruck. The Third Man was the highest grossing film in Britain in 1949 by a factor of almost 30% despite being released there in mid-September, and in the United States the critics began hailing the Welles/Reed collaboration even before the film was finished, and have literally never stopped in over seventy years since. Writing for Time Magazine in the year of its release, Bosley Crowther described it as "crammed with cinematic plums that would do the early Hitchcock proud—ingenious twists and turns of plot, subtle detail, full-bodied bit characters, atmospheric backgrounds that become an intrinsic part of the story, a deft co-mingling of the sinister with the ludicrous, the casual with the bizarre." In 1996, a mere forty-seven years later, Roger Ebert said, "Of all the movies that I have seen, The Third Man is the one that most completely embodies the shared and simple romance of going to the movies."

I hope that everyone will plan to join us in celebrating our own shared and simple romance of going to the movies, Sunday 3 April, at 6:31 PM. That shady and mysterious third man you've heard so much about is out there somewhere, waiting to tell his wholly unexpected tale. But he can't so much as clear his throat to start until we've calmed our fussy self-distractions and our durably naive insistence that everything must surely be exactly as it seems, and agreed to hear him out.  
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Friday, April 1, 2022

Film Club Featurette: The Guard (2011)

Join us Saturday 2 April at 6:31pm for John Michael McDonagh's rollicking small-budget crime thriller set in the western approaches of Ireland, *The Guard*, starring Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong. 

In the sleepy western Irish district of Connemara, an apparent occult-based murder takes on new significance when local law enforcement connects the victim to an alleged ring of drug smugglers. Gleason plays a comfortably corrupt and relativistic cop who gets paired against his will with the FBI hotshot (Cheadle) sent to try to prevent the landing of a major shipment of cocaine. Together they will have to learn to work with each other through a series of unintentionally arched and culturally tone-deaf insults -- which incidentally run both ways -- or else perhaps kill each other in the process of doing such a lousy job of trying. 

That criminal mayhem follows is no surprise, but the subtle brilliance of McDonagh's film is the extent to which the crime-based plot-line is actually the feint -- in particular for addressing sneaky-big and important considerations of race, and ethics, and duty, and back around to race. With typical applomb Gleason pulls a wonderfully de-saturated you-ain't-from-around-here-are-you, grinning slyly through every act of would-be dismissal from pocketing pharmaceutical evidence, to deploying police resources for a date with a pair of out-of-town prostitutes. All with Cheadle predictably and delightfully declining to budge either an inch or a millimetre either one in his by-the-book compulsion to nab the bad guys at the beach. 

The end result is a great little bonbon of intrigue, simmering but ultimately informative tension, and evolving sensibilities for all concerned, including us. Patton Oswalt once captured a similar vibe when he cautioned that we might be wise to fear the man who can say "hetero-normative biological imperative" *more* than we fear the guy who thinks that "two f_ggots oughta be allowed to get married," and if you can see the wisdom -- and the instructive entertainment value -- in the sentiment, then you will enjoy every frame of this film. It's a small and lesser-known picture but it punches way, way, WAY above its weight. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 2 April, at 6:31pm, for this remarkably scrappy and improbably memorable little movie. I said about a recent offering, "They can't all be Battleship Potemkin after all," but this is the one that will make you glad that this is true. 
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