DID YOU READ

Five of Sidney Lumet’s Lesser-Known Films Worth Seeking Out

Five of Sidney Lumet’s Lesser-Known Films Worth Seeking Out (photo)

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Only days ago “The Deadly Affair” arrived at my doorstep, yet another of Sidney Lumet’s films I had never seen before since having been born two-thirds of the way into the director’s legendary career, it’s always been a game of catch-up. Then again, it was that way for most in his field, even if they were contemporaries.

After passing away far too soon at the age of 86, Lumet leaves behind a half-century-long career that will no doubt be scrutinized for being inconsistent, a richly ironic assessment given that in person and on film, he was known as a straight shooter, and perhaps one of the only filmmakers who could say their final film (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) was as vital and strong as their first (“12 Angry Men”). However, that certainly isn’t the only reason why Lumet was a rarity.

In a world full of auteurs, Lumet was a collaborator, bringing out the best in some of the finest screenwriters and actors of the day, whether it was protecting Paddy Chayefsky’s visionary media satire “Network” or guiding the likes of Al Pacino to two of his finest performances in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico.” And yet he was also fiercely independent, unusually minimalist in his approach to storytelling and willing to fail, which made his successes all the more triumphant and many of his less commercially successful films intriguing if not as downright compelling for a specific audience as many of his hits are.

Of course, in recent days, there have been plenty of great remembrances of the director, from Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz and The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, not to mention Mubi‘s excellent roundup of them all, as well as Film School Rejects‘ list of the seven Lumet films you can watch right now and Matt Singer’s YouTube primer. But the director’s body of work is so vast that even after one gorges through the accepted classics, there are far more treasures to be found, especially since quite a few of them haven’t been released on DVD or sometimes home video in general until the last year. Here are a few that are well worth checking out:

“Prince of the City” - Amongst Lumet’s biggest fans, the director’s nearly three-hour adaptation of Robert Daley’s book about real-life NYPD detective Robert Leuci (Treat Williams) who uncovers corruption in the department and methodically weeds them out is perhaps his greatest achievement. After long being unavailable on DVD, Warner Brothers released the film in a two-disc set in 2007 that not only leaves the tense, labyrinthine thriller uncompromised, but includes a half-hour documentary about the making of the film that details the film’s difficult shoot and serves as a testament to Lumet’s adherence to accuracy with the participation of the real Leuci.

04142011_FindMeGuilty.jpg“Find Me Guilty” - Despite an unfortunate wig, Vin Diesel gave the performance of his career as mafioso Jack DiNorscio in Lumet’s 2006 courtroom comedy and unfortunately, with a nascent distributor in the now-defunct Yari Film Group, the film was similarly hidden in plain sight with audiences. But after directing very few comedies with a limited amount of success (the often budget-bin-bound 1997 hospital comedy “Critical Care” adroitly uses an excellent ensemble including Helen Mirren and an unrecognizable Albert Brooks), “Find Me Guilty” finds Lumet in his most comfortable setting — the courtroom – and at his most relaxed, which gives Diesel the chance to turn on the charm as the real-life mobster who, already having been sentenced to a 30-year prison stretch, represents himself to avoid having to testify against his pals in what became the longest mob-related trial in history.


“Bye Bye Braverman”
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It was actually a lament from MSN Movies‘ Glenn Kenny upon the Warner Archive release of this bittersweet 1968 dramedy about a gathering of four liberal Jewish pals at the funeral of their friend that both he and the film’s director (whom he quoted from his essential memoir “Making Movies”) felt “should’ve been a soufflé, but it turned out a pancake” that led me to check the film out. As it happens, Warner Archive is one of the best sources for Lumet’s wilder works, having also made available to the public the 1968 adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull” with James Mason and Vanessa Redgrave, the 1970 Tennessee Williams adaptation “Last of the Mobile Hot Shots” with James Coburn, and the 1980 Ali McGraw comedy “Just Tell Me What You Want.” And like those films, “Bye Bye Braverman” was never likely to catch fire with mass audiences, but one will admire Lumet’s craftsmanship, particularly in regard to what he brings out of his actors, and the film’s nerve, reveling in its Brooklyn setting and Judaica in a way that will make it foreign to some, but instantly beloved by others if it hits them in the right way, as it did Andrew Grant of Like Anna Karina’s Sweater.

“The Offence” - Thanks to MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, a manufacture-to-order DVD service in the vein of Warner Archive, three of Lumet’s lesser-known films are available to own including “The Group,” the 1966 drama that tracks Shirley Knight and Candice Bergen amongst others in a group of graduates from Vassar as they pass through the rites of adulthood during the 1930s (which can also be watched on Netflix), and “Garbo Talks,” the lighthearted 1984 drama featuring Anne Bancroft as an indefatigable Greta Garbo fan who decides she’ll meet her screen idol when she learns she has an inoperable brain tumor. But perhaps the strongest of the trio is Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery, following 1965’s war drama “The Hill,” which touched on the director’s longtime fascination with abuse of power with Connery as a veteran detective pushed beyond the brink of self-control by a suspected child rapist. It’s available both on DVD and Amazon on Demand, a blessing since it never saw the light of day in more than a few countries after it proved to be a disappointment at the box office, though it was a passion project of Connery’s that is evident from the end result.

04142011_FugitiveKind.jpg“The Fugitive Kind” - Ordinarily, inclusion in the Criterion Collection might preclude being on a list such as this, but we’ll make an exception since Lumet and star Marlon Brando’s considerable résumés often overshadow this 1959 Tennessee Williams adaptation about a drifter (Brando) who attracts the interest of three women (Joanne Woodward, Anna Magnani, and Maureen Stapleton) while trying to escape his criminal past in a small Mississippi town. At the time of its release, critics believed the East Coast-bred Lumet was out of his element in the Deep South, but later reception has been far kinder as the evocative black-and-white portrait of a decaying culture and Brando’s lonesome lothario. If nothing else, the film allowed Criterion to include a collection of Lumet-directed one-act plays of Williams on their two-disc set and eventually, The New Yorker‘s John Lahr to tell a wonderful anecdote about its occasionally difficult production.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

The Lost Michael Winterbottom/Colin Firth Film and More New DVDs

The Lost Michael Winterbottom/Colin Firth Film and More New DVDs (photo)

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A look at what’s new on DVD this week:

“A Summer in Genoa”
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released by Entertainment One

Of the many films Michael Winterbottom (“A Mighty Heart,” “9 Songs”) has directed in recent years, you wouldn’t guess the one starring recent Oscar winner Colin Firth as a father who must take care of his two daughters in the wake of a car accident involving their mother (Hope Davis) would be the one to have trouble making it to the U.S. But here we are three years after “Genova,” as it’s known in much of the rest of the world, was shot and it’s finally arrived on DVD, a mix of supernatural thriller and human drama that’s actually getting reasonably good reviews upon its delayed release. Catherine Keener co-stars.

“Belladonna”
Directed by Annika Glac
Released by Osiris

Glac’s debut as a writer/director centers on a man whose upcoming nuptials have led to more than just cold feet, but inspired terrible visions involving witches in a forest he can’t seem to escape in this romantic fantasy.

“Black Heaven”
Directed by Gilles Marchand
Released by MPI Home Video

French director Marchand follows up the thriller “Who Killed Bambi?” with another potboiler about a couple that picks up someone’s lost cell phone while on vacation and learn that returning it might lead them into a dangerous world…or worlds since the only person who can help them is involved with a video game that makes the real world and virtual world almost interchangeable.

“Country Strong”
Directed by Shana Feste
Released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

“The Greatest” director Feste is once again at the helm of a tearjerker, though this time set in the realm of country music where a recently rehabbed star (Gwyneth Paltrow) goes back on the road to reclaim her career while an upstart (Leighton Meester) threatens to take her spotlight. Garrett Hedlund and Tim McGraw co-star as the somewhat creaky support system.

“Farewell”
Directed by Christian Carion
Released by Terra Entertainment

Oscar-nominated “Joyeux Noël” director Carion’s latest film is set during the Cold War, based on the real-life relationship between disillusioned KGB agent Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica) and Moscow-based French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), who became a conduit for all of Gregoriev’s confidential knowledge about Soviet spy networks, ultimately leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. (Though there is some controversy about this.) Americans Fred Ward, doing his best Ronald Reagan impression, and Willem Dafoe, as a CIA director, are among the parties interested in Gregoriev’s intel.

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Sidney Lumet: A YouTube Primer

Sidney Lumet: A YouTube Primer (photo)

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When I was in in grad school, getting a degree in cinema studies, Sidney Lumet was a tough director to love. If I brought his name up in conversations about great filmmakers, I was shouted down by my colleagues. They’d say his best movies were adapted from plays, or that that he often sublimated his own artistic impulses to great writers who became the true authors of their collaborations.

Maybe they were right. But there’s no shame in turning a good play into a better movie, or allowing a marvelous screenplay to take center stage. Lumet’s unfussy, economical approach was born from years cutting his teeth in the fast-paced world of early television production. His apprenticeship in television taught him that the flashiest way was not always the best way to tell a story. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on visually in a film like “12 Angry Men,” a movie adapted from a play and set entirely inside a jury deliberation room. But you watch closely and you see how Lumet subtly raises the tension by shooting with shorter and shorter lenses, shrinking the room, increasing the sense of claustrophobia.

Lumet’s work illustrates the difference between good direction and big direction. Any filmmaker would love to have a movie as good as “Network” or “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Verdict” or “12 Angry Men” on their resume. Lumet had them all. A filmography as long and impressive as his doesn’t just happen by accident. Neither do the performances that actors like Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, John Cazale, and Faye Dunaway gave in his movies.

Thinking about Lumet over the weekend I found myself repeatedly heading to YouTube to watch my favorite scenes from his work. If you don’t know these movies, this post is no replacement for actually watching them. But if these samples give you the desire to go out and see them in their entirety, it will have done its job.

Let’s start with maybe the most famous scene from his most famous movie, “Network.” As I wrote just a few weeks ago, during the height of the Charlie Sheen madness, the film, about the media consolidation and degradation, is as timely now as it was back in 1976. Just listen to Howard Beale (Peter Finch) here. Beale has been fired from his broadcast news show for low ratings. It’s driven him completely insane. But in insane times, an insane man sees things more clearly. And the speech he gives, written by Paddy Chayefsky, about how bad things are getting in society (“It’s a depression! Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job…banks are going bust…”) could have been penned last month.

By the way, incredible as that rant is, my favorite scene from “Network,” isn’t Beale’s “mad as hell” speech; it’s Ned Beatty explaining to Beale how he has “meddled with the primal forces of nature” in corporate controlled America. That scene is viewable on YouTube, but not embeddable.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” wasn’t the only time a moment from one of Lumet’s films became larger than the movie itself. It’s a pretty safe bet that anyone who knows the word “Attica!” today knows it as something Al Pacino yells in Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and not as a notorious prison riot, which is why Pacino yells it in the first place. Here is that riveting scene:

Two years before “Dog Day Afternoon,” Lumet directed Pacino in another classic, the undercover cop drama “Serpico.” People often note that Pacino’s acting has gotten bigger and bigger (and worse and worse) over the years, and put all the blame on Pacino himself. But maybe the fact that Pacino worked less and less with great directors like Lumet played a big part. Here’s a scene from “Serpico” where Pacino goes big, but not over the top. With Lumet, he knew exactly the right note to hit.

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