Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Vitality of Cinema

"I’m not able to name the moment I wanted to be a director because I also didn’t know the word for that. I couldn’t distinguish between producer, director, and author."
-Arnaud Desplechin 

"I think the first director I was ever aware of was Alfred Hitchcock—before I even understood the idea of a director. I was aware of Hitchcock because of The Alfred Hitchcock Collection. That was the first time I was aware that there’s a guy who is not in the movie who’s on the front of the box. He’s responsible."
-Wes Anderson

"Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along."

-Joe Gillis

I've long held a simmering belief that one of the primary reasons most people have a hard time appreciating film as art is because the artist is not immediately evident. With nearly any other art form - music, literature, painting, sculpture - the artist is present and readily identifiable. Their name is on the cover, on a placard accompanying the display, etc. Sure, the director's name is usually one of the most prominent credits in a film, but who pays attention to the credits?

I'm not saying most people don't know films are directed. Most kids don't, and those kids become adults, who may recognize that films are directed - usually through brand name directors like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Shyamalan - but already have their basic approach to film cemented in youth. And, to be fair, unless you're an avid moviewatcher, most directors don't call attention to their work the way a painter does.

But they'll be aware of a director's presence, even if they're unsure about what that presence determines. And this knowledge will be key for the first crossover film. The first film that person will see that will make them go, "This...this is different from everything else. This couldn't have existed in any normal way. Somebody created this." Then...they will know, even if they can't articulate, what a director means for a film. For some, this film was Pulp Fiction. Others, Fight Club. I take great joy in knowing there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, thinking that as they took in Inglourious Basterds this summer.

And this is a major reason I feel, very strongly and in spite of the constant cries that film is dead, that film is the most vital of all forms of art. Our cultural approaches to...really, any other art form I can think of, our approach has become so codified. We grow up taught and explained the importance of painting and other visual arts. The theater is the place for fine drama. Music is so integral to us as people, we seem to have such a total understanding of it before we could even begin to understand it, that whatever it means to us is totally individual, totally universal, and totally unchangeable.

But film is totally different. We're surrounded by it almost as early as we are music, but while film can express essential truths about who we are, film isn't a part of us the way music is. But it is a nearly constant part of our lives as far back as we can remember, and nobody tells us how to approach it aside from "here, sit down and watch this. You'll enjoy it." How you enjoy it and why you enjoy it is totally up to you. You come to that conclusion completely reflexively, and completely on your own. Literature is similar in this way, but will soon become completely divorced as academics typically decide what you read more than personal interest.

As you grow, film becomes a part of social life in a way that no other art form could be. Music...sometimes is (how often do we hear music for the first time with other people, devoting total attention to it? Quite rarely). Few people grow up visiting art galleries with friends, or going to the theater. And anyway, those activities weren't ones we participated in privately as children, and our approach to them is already codified - "this is art...this is important." You go to a gallery or museum to experience art. But film is typically something to do on a Saturday night; an entertaining diversion as you hope the girl next to you will brush up against you for just a second.

Very few people have someone to tell them film is important. They'll decide that on their own. Or not. If they do decide that, they'll have come to that decision totally organically, and because of an artist. More than any other art form, in the way art exists today, an artist will have told them what the medium can mean. And that's an incredibly powerful notion. It's what keeps film vital, important, and living. Music is alive because it's a part of who we are. Theatre is alive because it's happening right in front of you. Film is alive because it's constantly happening, constantly redefining itelf for millions of people.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Restoring the Awe in the Summer Blockbuster - Superman Returns

I popped in Superman Returns the other day. I was curious if it still held up, three years after I saw it in theaters (repeatedly) and really quite loved it. It's funny how memory can betray you - through years of watching the public opinion of the film turn from "meh" to "but we all remember what happens when you try to ______. You get Superman Returns," I always held that the film was much better than people gave it credit for, but I never spoke about it with the same conviction I had upon exiting the theater. Sometimes the accepted ruling on a film - positive or negative - can bolster your opinion, and sometimes it twists it.

The latter was certainly the case with Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, but watching it again revealed exactly the film I'd found the first time, only now even more so. A flawed but monumentally ambitious film, Superman Returns is ultimately very moving, and quite wonderful. Like The Dark Knight, the flaws are in the dialogue, which has characters reciting lines that are far too on-the-nose, far too much of the "this is who I am and this is what I'm thinking about and these are my concerns and worries." But like The Dark Knight, the cumulative effect of these moments do nothing to detract from my immense respect and adoration for the film.

I've never understood the central problems people have with it. As I said, there are flaws, but all too often complaints went something like, "oh, man, there's a KID?" or "what, now Superman has feelings?" or "there's no action!" Superman Lifts Things became a sort of joke title. It's this kind of thinking, this sort of whining about a film not being "exciting" enough, that's holding back summer cinema. What Singer was going for here, and what I think he accomplished, was restoring the amazement that one man can even DO the kind of things Superman can do, and furthermore, that he decides to do these things to help people.

The film so often takes my breath away, in Superman's casual use of his powers, his intrinsic knowledge of right and wrong, how that carries through to such mundane moments as when he says "Goodnight, Lois" (God, Brandon Routh is so good in this movie), and the sacrifices he has to make to maintain that righteousness. The familiarity with which Lois approaches Superman before their flight, and the very tangible knowledge that their lives for the past five years have not been what they dreamed they would be. The immense regret that fills both their faces, Lois' especially, every time they part ways; she's all too aware he may go away forever. How speechless she is in their last scene together.

I love Lois' central conflict in this, how sharply written she is and how vibrant the character becomes in those ocassional instances when Kate Bosworth rises to the challenge. She connects to me almost as deeply as Ilsa does in Casablanca, in no small part because she has to make the same decision between a man she is unavoidably drawn towards who has been away for a long time, and a man she's been with ever since, who treats her well and is just as good, if not better a man.

When The Dark Knight came out, a lot of people commended the fact that Batman makes mistakes throughout the film, and fails to live up to his mission. Nobody gives credit to Superman Returns for making that the entire thrust of the film. Not only did Superman abandon Lois without notice; he abandoned the entire world he was dedicated to protecting. He wasn't there in court to testify against Lex Luthor, thus making his release from jail all the easier. Superman's greatest mistake has already been made, and the whole film is about how we deal with those mistakes.

This is why I never understood why anyone would complain about Superman having feelings. If I made a decision that deeply hurt the person I loved, and I suddenly realized she'd been living with that pain for five years, I'd be a lot more bent out of shape than Superman is in this film.

That a film of this budget, based on such a property as Superman, came out the way this did is staggering. How many summer blockbusters put this little emphasis on the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist? In this film, thematically, Lex Luthor is there to show us how Good Superman is. What other love stories are made for over $200 million? What other summer blockbusters are so infused with melancholy, loss, and regret? How many since the golden age of Spielberg have had as many moments of pure awe? How many films of any kind are as sharply composed as this? This willing to linger on the image of something truly amazing? There's a moment in the film in which Perry White and Jimmy Olsen are going through some photos of Superman, and Perry says, "These are iconic." If nothing else in the film gets you, surely the imagery must.

Too many summer films these days use the camera in such a way to make, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it, the fantastic mundane. They'll go handheld, they'll use lens flares, they'll even add dirt to the lens in post production, anything to make it seem more "real." Superman Returns restores the luster to these fantastic images, the camera so often bewhildered and astonished at the sight of the man who could fly.

To say nothing of how damned well constructed the film is, especially from the aiplane crash/rescue scene onward. That scene is still one of the most thrilling of any superhero film, easily going toe-to-toe with the elevated train sequence in Spider-Man 2, and there's a scene on Lex's boat between Lois, her son Jason, and a nameless henchman that is as tense as anything out of Hitchcock. To say nothing of everything that transpires right before Superman finds Lois, Richard, and Jason on what's left of the ship.

I don't necessarily go to summer films to escape or to think. I don't go to the movies, any movie, with a mission, other than with a vague hope to be affected in some way. I let the movie give me a reason to be there. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Superman Returns gave me, and continues to give me, so many reasons.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New AVATAR Trailer Tells You What You're in For

Normally, I don't give much credence to the trailer for a film. It's the last thing that'll actually sell me on seeing a film, and typically, if I can avoid it, I won't even watch it. I'd rather keep as much of the film a secret as possible.

But sometimes, these things are unavoidable. Sometimes, the geek side reawakens, and I have to see whatever new trailer they've put out. Avatar is such a case.

And whatever you're thinking about the film at this point, the new trailer seems to put it all out there. The story is completely laid out for you, most of the dramatic turns are covered, and we get glimpses of what is almost certainly the final battle. Apparently a lot of people who weren't sold by the first trailer are flipping over this, so if that's the case for you...hey, there's hope yet. I'm still as enthusiastic about the film as I was before seeing it - this simply confirmed that it's going to be pretty awe-inspiring, balls-to-the-wall stuff. And after catching the first trailer in 3D, I gotta tell makes a HUGE difference.

I honestly don't really care that the story is pretty much ripping off Dances With Wolves. This is partially because I've never seen Dances With Wolves (I've never really cared for Kevin Costner, and the idea of spending three-to-four hours under his artistic vision is a pretty uncompelling premise), and partially because, as I've said many, many times before, nearly every story that can be told has been told. I'm much more interested in how it's told. And with the technology being used here, and even more, the WAY it's being used...sold. Sold, sold, sold.

Oh, and for all you nitpickers, yes, I could tell the difference between the computer-generated people and the live action people. There were some shots where I wasn't sure. I do hope there was a reason they went one way or another for a given scene, because I don't really see the point of shooting live action otherwise. But,'s a long trailer, but it's only three-and-a-half minutes of what is supposedly a three-hour movie. I assume there is other information at some point.

You can watch the trailer below, or even better, head over to Dave's Trailer Page to download it in HD.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It

Via The House Next Door, whose commentors do a better job at this than I could.

Thus this question: How did a man with no interest in the fundamentals of film get taken seriously for as long as he did? I'm not arguing that the well-made Hollywood movie is the only possible filmmaking mode. The likes of Renoir, Bergman, Buñuel decisively disprove that notion.

But the greats all share intentionality, the need to direct our attention to something that was on their minds. They did not leave their people flopping around until something printable happened.

-Richard Schickel; Book Review - Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff

To say that Schickel misses the point is a little simplistic, but he certainly doesn't understand what continues to make Altman so interesting and, as one of the comments at The House Next Door notes, "still polarizing long after his contemporaries' films are safely, nostalgically respectable," which is exactly the fact that his intentions were rarely clear, especially in the 70s. It's exactly the sloppiness, contradictions, misdirection, ambiguity, and total disinterest with the any mode of storytelling that makes Nashville one of the greatest films ever made, McCabe and Mrs. Miller one of the loveliest, and The Long Goodbye one of the most fun.

My last semester at college, I took a class called The Hollywood Renaissance, which dealt with American cinema from the late 60s through the 70s. We watched the usual suspects - Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, The Conversation...all of these received a real united reaction. With the exception of one or two people, we all loved them. The most polarizing film was, by far, Nashville. A strong contingent of us felt it was a truly startling, unsettling piece, perhaps the most important piece of the entire movement. The other half found it aimless, boring, wrote it off because "nothing happened."

It's fascinating how, decades later, the content of these films rarely matters. For all the hullabaloo in their day over their violence, the films noted above are as safe now as Casablanca (which is not to dismiss...I love Casablanca). We watched a handful of films that would still be considered radical - Easy Rider, Wanda, Two-Lane Blacktop - but that label doesn't apply because of anything that happens in them, but rather the way they happen. Scorsese, Coppola, and Penn are all fine directors. Often great. But with their most important work, they were only telling new types of stories. Altman was interested in telling stories in whole new ways, or even on occasion not telling stories at all, and THIS is what made, and continues to make, him radical. Not his frequent use of nudity or profanity or anything else.

Really, if you haven't seen them, I can't recommend enough that you go out and watch Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye. Better yet, start with The Player, which is far most accessible and traditionally entertaining. It was the first film I saw of his that really made me sit up and go, "who is this guy?"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Onward and Downward

So it's October, 2009. Oscar season's really ramping up, and theoretically some of the best pictures of the year will be released.

So...when are the explosions again?

As if the weekly obsession with box office stats isn't enough, The London Times Online put up a piece today on the fifty films likely to dominate the box office next year. You know, because you won't see enough advertising between now and then, so journalists make sure to get in on it, too. There really are, in terms of entertainment reporting, few things more depressing than articles like this.

To be fair, they include a few films that do seem genuinely interesting - Chris Nolan's Inception and Paul Greengrass' The Green Zone most notably. Inception has the potential to be Nolan's best work yet (it certainly appears to be his most bold). For my money, he's doing some of, if not the best work in mainstream entertainment these days. If he'd clean up his form a little bit, he'd be on par with Hitchcock; like the Master of Suspense, Nolan excels at narratives that at once satisfy and subvert audience expectations, always towards exciting results. And Greengrass is the only guy I can think of who keeps getting away with making great, gripping films that tackle current events without turning them into a lesson.

Toy Story 3...and there you go. That's all you need. Ticket bought.

The Green Hornet has the potential to be either a Speed Racer-level success or a Spirit-level failure. Pluses include a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, with Michel Gondry as a director. Minuses include...Michel Gondry as a director.

I wish I cared more about Shutter Island than it simply being a Martin Scorsese film, which instantly guarantees I'll see it. I wish he was doing more genuinely interesting work than just classing up a Se7en-style thriller. There's nothing wrong with movies like Shutter Island; I really do love them. But it hurts when directors this good spend their time on them.

And then there are major directors who established themsevles with great, early films, and have just gone downhill from there. I speak, of course, of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Both directors have been working in increasingly familiar territory, and...well, honestly, I can't find much to like in either of them. I love Blade Runner and Alien, but of all the films I've seen of his, nothing's been worth the time since those. And Burton...he's become as bland and predictable as Nancy Meyers.

As noted earlier, The Expendables will almost certainly kick ass. Stallone's really been on a roll with Rocky Balboa, Rambo, and now this. The A-Team would be completely irredeemable, save for the fact that it's directed by Joe Carnahan (he of Narc and Smokin' Aces). Otherwise, it gets shelved under "nerd nostalgia porn" along with Tron: Legacy, Predators, Clash of the Titans, and Red Dawn. You can already hear the clattering of keyboards as Facebook statuses are updated to reflect supposedly orgasmic reactions to all of these.

Along similar lines, Oliver Stone is going back to the 80s well to make a sequel to one of his worst films (and that's saying something) with Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (which is as awful a title as Hot Tub Time Machine is a great one). Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who realizes Shia LaBeouf, once again lured into doing totally bland work, is a good actor, and deserves a lot better movies than he gets. This is evidenced by him always being the best part of every movie he's been in since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Except for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull...nothing was the best part of that.

There's another Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek, and Sex and the City, which means unless my girlfriend gets any ideas for the latter, those are three free weekends right there. And improbably enough, they're still making Resident Evil movies!

Oh, and from everything that's been put out there so far...Kick-Ass is going to do exactly what its title promises. Look into it a little, so when it's a District 9 level success you can brag about having talked about it before anyone else.

It goes without saying that the new Iron Man and Harry Potter films will almost certainly be worthwhile, right? Goes to show that hiring a team of great actors and putting the camera on a tripod can go a long way. Oh, and having a director with personality and vision to spare. I hope to God that making the last Harry Potter film a two-parter will give the thing some room to breathe - the series consistently has great endings that are too damn rushed, and never quite leave the desired impact.

Where the hell is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on this list? Edgar Wright can't even get some ink spilled in London? Or Paul for that matter? That even has Simon Pegg. Everyone loves Simon Pegg.

Not anywhere near the list of films that will make boatloads of money for other people, but are certainly on my most anticipated for 2010...Tree of Life, True Grit, Wild Grass (I mean, right there...Malick, the Coens, can keep your frickin' Tron), the Red Riding trilogy, A Prophet...hopefully Meek's Cutoff will be ready? There'll be others. Sundance will come. Cannes will come. The movies will come. They always do. For now, we can only look ahead to months and months of widgets and sigh.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Decisions, Decisions is wonderful but also deeply frustrating. Latest frustration - choosing between United 93 and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Buy The Third Man!

I'm way behind on...everything...apartment searching has pretty much become everything.

BUT...I noticed this and had to make a note of it. The Criterion Collection has, apparently, lost the rights to Carol Reed's The Third Man, one of the finest, most perfect films ever made. On the commentary track on the DVD and Blu-Ray, Steven Soderbergh pointed out that you could learn everything you need to know about making a movie by studying this film. Tony Gilroy pointed out that there are many films that aren't as good as people say they are; The Third Man is better than people say it is.

I really can't say enough good things about it. It's never boring, always entertaining, beautiful to look at, expertly written, brilliantly performed, features some of the finest direction you're likely to see...I'm telling you, it is a perfect film.

Chances are this will reach no one, but if it gets at least one person, then so be it. Rent it if you must; buy it if you can. The disc is well worth the purchase - aside from the Soderbergh/Gilroy commentary, there's a great scholarly commentary by Dana Polan, an introduction by Peter Bogdonavich, and a shitload of other special features I haven't even gotten to yet. The Blu-Ray is one of the reasons I own a Blu-Ray player, but I'm sure the DVD is a fine piece of work itself.

Just do whatever you have to in order to see it.

More details on the discs.

To buy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

James Cameron's Best Defense Yet

No Movie a Day for today...tomorrow will be tough, too. In the middle of searching for an apartment, getting a haircut, etc. Plus introducing my brother to the glories of Speed Racer, one of my ten favorite films of all time at the moment. Anyone has a problem with that...step right up.

Anyway, I wrote this yesterday, because I'm just that kinda guy.

"If you set your goals ridiculously high and it's a failure, you will fail above everyone else's success."
- James Cameron ("Man of Extremes," The New Yorker)

That's the man's career in a single sentence. Never mind that the statement only kind of makes sense, depending on your worldview. But that's not the point. I believe that James Cameron believes it, and the result has been some of the most imaginative, exhilerating, and truly heartfelt summer blockbusters of all time. I agree with Devin Faraci's assessment that the article kind of confirms Cameron to be "a pompous asshole," but I sort of feel like he's earned the right. On the other hand, you have guys like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner or McG, who have similar reputations, but without an ounce of the creativity (Bay and McG do have the formal talent, though).

It's not just that Avatar, the film Cameron will be unleashing this December, is an original, big-scale science fiction movie that has me excited. That'd be pretty exciting itself, these days. It's that there's a whole new world created here, an entire ecosystem built from the ground up, in which Cameron's making his film. There are few filmmakers with the pull in the industry to pull that off; even fewer with the talent. I disagree with Faraci's assessment that attention to details could somehow hamper a film; unless it's a film that spends a lot of time describing those details, they can only add to it. But that's part of the weird culture that's sprung up around Cameron - one determined to find ways to make him fail, as the article notes.

Most of it, in the case of this film, has cropped up around the photorealism Cameron was claiming he'd accomplished in a computer-generated world. And now he's getting shit for not delivering that, and for some reason people are really holding this against the film. My attitude is, "okay, so what?" He set his goals high, perhaps didn't achieve them (the final film will be the sole determining factor, as trailers rarely present fully-finished footage), but when it comes down to his accomplishments with computer technology, it looks good enough for the film he's trying to make (fantastical space adventure).

The reason people latch onto it, though, is that it's tangible. It's something definite, that goes beyond any sort of subjective, and it's this sort of thinking that is sinks cinema. It's the reason studios both big and small force stories into three-act structures featuring relatable-but-likable characters, even if that means sacrificing well-rounded character, motivation, momentum, excitement, suspense, or any other element that would make a story worth a damn. All those elements can't be calculated; they have to be created. And uncreative, unoriginal people are constantly looking for ways to seem creative and intelligent.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

And Now, The Reason I Will Never See Astro Boy

'Nuff said.

A Movie a Day: Eraserhead (David Lynch; 1977)

“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.”
-Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

That quote comes about as close as one can to defining cinema. And by that standard, I found Eraserhead to be a rather empty exercise. It's not that I can't roll with surrealism, or even David Lynch's specific brand of cinema (I absolutely, wholeheartedly love Mulholland Dr.). Hell, I'm even okay with what he's getting at here, even though no one will probably ever really know what he's getting at here. But I'm totally okay with that.

My problem with the film is that it didn't work on any level beyond confusion. I love being confused by movies, entranced by their mystery; I hate it when things like this end up explained. But it was all confusion, no mystery - it never felt like something was at the core here, like there was something essential to express. There was nothing to latch onto. I felt like the film was trying to scare me, and I was never actually scared. I was never worried or anxious. I didn't leap for joy or fall into a pit of despair, or any of the tepid feelings between the two. I just sat there, took it in, and when it was over, I threw it back in the Netflix envelope and put it in the mail.

And that was that.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Movie a Day: Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen; 1940)

Most Disney films...really, most films in general...suffer a little bit by the "happily ever after" curse, which basically states that, by the end of the film, the conflict has to come to near-complete resolution, and the world will almost completely change as a result of this. Especially in Disney films, defeating a single person suddenly completely changes the tone of the entire world.

Not so with Pinocchio. There is no "bad guy." There are bad people, or bad forces (the whale), but they're not classically evil (as in, bent on destroying the main character). They're simply out to further their station in life by whatever means necessary, without any regard to the innocents standing in their way (an evil very relevant today, as it happens). The protagonists (Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, and Geppetto) are simply charged to do the best they can with the circumstances they are given, and must remain brave, and learn to make good, moral decisions in the face of everyday evil.

By the end of the film, these evils aren't defeated, and the world doesn't suddenly turn good. The world is still as grim and potentially threatening as it's been and will continue to be, but the characters (and the audience) have learned that being good isn't a simple statement. It involves the many choices we're faced with on a daily basis, and that being good is a constant choice.

I admire that kind of honesty, and more than anything else you could teach a kid, that's something worth knowing. Hell, it was a good reminder at 23, and by the looks of the world (still as grim and potentially dangerous as ever), it's not just kids who could learn a thing or two from the film.

It doesn't hurt when it looks this good.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Movie a Day: Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958)

One thing in life that never ceases to amuse me, even on my darkest of days, is the complete incompetence and total idiocy of so many modern criminals. I suppose we don't hear about the good ones as much, and sure, in general, good crimes are quite difficult to pull off without getting caught, but nevertheless...take the David Letterman thing for instance. The guy who was blackmailing him wanted a $2 million personal check. Did he think he could just take that to the bank? Wouldn't the average bank ask questions about a check so absurdly large? Never mind what really happened, which is that Letterman ended up going straight to the FBI, who had no trouble catching the guy, as he had given Letterman his full name (gotta make the check out to somebody for God's sake!)

Big Deal on Madonna Street is all about those people. I love that the guy orchestrating the whole plan keeps going on about the need to plan out a robbery "scientifically," and when the day comes, he can't even figure out the layout of the apartment he's standing in. This is the anti-Ocean's film, really the anti-heist film. These guys simply aren't up to the task intellectually or emotionally.

The film is rarely played outright for laughs; you don't get a lot of "look at these idiots!" moments. It's structured the same as any other heist movie - we're introduced to the players and their own reasons for needing the money, and given just enough backstory to gain our sympathy. So when things go wrong, it's equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Movie a Day: Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

I'll watch almost anything. I'll certainly watch any TYPE of film. Documentary, silent, art house, action-adventure, romantic comedy, musical, whatever. Bring it on.

The one genre I am weak towards, however, is horror. Specifically, the kind that just jumps out at you constantly. As I often tell people, I simply don't have the constitution for it. It does nothing for me. That having been said, I'll make exceptions when necessary (John Carpenter's Halloween has been on my "to see" list for some time now), and I do love horror conceptually. It's just that instead of shocking me, I'd love it to just absolutely unnerve me. I'd love for it to just crawl inside me and sit there, unable to me removed.

Repulsion is one of those films, and so much more. As Polanski says in an interview included in the Criterion release (oh, yeah, the Blu-Ray is frickin' gorgeous, to the surprise of no one), he didn't make a horror film as such, but rather a film with a lot of horror in it. I mean, it's about a woman's final descent into madness. That can be a little horrifying.

I found it interesting that, in the same interview, Polanski said that he thinks character is the most important thing in cinema, because watching the film, I was less impressed with the characters than I was with the sheer filmmaking (which is, predictably given Polanski at the helm, astounding). But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that Polanski really wrapped his form around the character of Carol. Not just because we see the world - specifically, the apartment in which she spends most of her time and seems almost trapped in - through her eyes, but the camera moves, editing, set-ups, focal lengths, lens choices, lighting, everything involved in the look of the thing is to put us in her frame of mind.

What really blew me away was just how sensitive it was towards women. Given that he has three or four guys rape her in the film (and given Polanski's eventual destiny), many have read misogyny into his work, but frankly, the men get the short end of the stick here. All of the men here are portrayed as only interested in sex and a good time; the simple fact that the main supporting male character actually believes himself in love with Carol is about as damning an appraisal of men as there is. I mean, she's beautiful, but she's completely emotionally cut off and has not an ounce of personality. What else could he really want?

Ultimately, as thrilling as the picture is, it's the exploration of gender identity and politics, and especially sexual repression that make the film a classic, one definitely worth visiting.

Further reading - Kim Morgan on Repulsion shortly following Polanski's recent arrest.

Friday, October 16, 2009

REVIEW and a quick DEFENSE: Where the Wild Things Are

I split this up, because I didn't want the review to just turn into a big defense for the film, but I still needed to get some anger out on people who still don't quite grasp the idea of film. So depending on whether you want a reasoned consideration of a really wonderful film or just some rare snark (in which case, skip to the bottom), go where ye may. Better yet, read it all. It's not that long.

See, the film has already come under fire for being too scary for children, too complex for children, too spare for anyone, too hipster-y, too juvenile, too unlikable.

All of which could easily mean it’s “unique,” which will always turn some section of people off. Whether they acknowledge it or not, most people want and even expect their films to meet certain guideposts, which this film resolutely does not do.

But it is, as far as I can remember, the most honest exploration of late childhood I’ve seen on film. The only other film I can think of that can go toe-to-toe with it is The Red Balloon, so you know…that’s pretty high praise.

It’s about loneliness. About being trapped. About sensing that people are supposed to have control over their destiny, and being unsure of why you do not. And more than a little angry about it. It’s about the need for acceptance, control, to be taken seriously, to be regarded more highly than any of your peers. It’s about what it feels like when you’re the coolest kid in the room. It’s about testing your boundaries. It’s about creating safe places, and the overwhelming emotion that comes when those are violated.

It’s without a doubt Spike Jonze’s finest work to date, in that, of his three films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation before this), it’s the most uniquely his. Before this, he found himself contending with, accommodating, and supporting Charlie Kaufman's vision, to the extent that one could wonder how far his own extended. But every inch of Where the Wild Things Are feels created; it feels new. Nothing is there "because it's in the book," the weakest excuse often given for poor decisions in adaptations. Everything is there because it should be.

It is a difficult film to explain, because, and I’ve long believed this about the book as well, it’s not about anything that “happens.” Not just that Max, the main character, doesn’t really travel to faraway lands and meet giant monsters, as we seem him do in the film. I also mean that this isn’t something Max actively imagined; at least not in full. This isn’t his fantasy or a dream he had after falling asleep. This is an exploration of the meeting place between Max’s conscious and subconscious, those things he’s aware of, has created, and wants, and those things he’s scared of, would rather avoid, and truths he wish were false but knows are not, and is starting to acknowledge. It’s the representation of Max starting to grow up.

I realize at this point that I’ve mostly just described the film, without giving much in the way of standard evaluation. Well, here it is – it does everything I noted above without ever coming right out and saying it. That’s an incredible accomplishment, and the result is a deeply moving, enthralling work of art that doesn't simply "speak to the child in all of us" (as though we were a completely other person when we were younger) - it speaks to the human experience.


Saying something is "too hipster" is not criticism. That doesn't actually mean anything.

If I hear one more person use the fact that a film, ANY film, has little to no "story" (especially because they always mean "narrative") as some form of negative criticism, I'm gonna explode. Film exists. It's an art form. It's not always going to be used for narrative purposes. Just like music isn't always written to tell a story. Sometimes it's there to express an emotion, a place, a state of mind, tell us about a person, or just to be God damned art. It's not always about PLOT.

I've read several claims that the film "fetishizes childhood." Anyone who makes that claim either a) didn't stay until the end, or b) wasn't actually watching the film or paying attention to the way it and Max progressed, because the film comes close to damning the way we behave as children. Dialogue isn't just there to explain a plot, it also informs the characters. Visually, even going beyond aesthetics, actors make certain expressions for a reason. It's all there to serve a larger purpose. Pay attention.

Oh, and if this "doesn't play to children," I feel so, so sorry for the overly-sheltered children of today. Is it scary? You bet. Is it sad? Absolutely. These are healthy emotions to feel. Never mind the strong central morals of the film, there is nothing in here unsuitable for a well-rounded kid in early grade school, and further, a lot that's really good for them. Just because it's a mature film doesn't mean it's too mature for kids.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

January Criterions

Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders)

Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero

Che (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

on Blu-Ray (dir. Frederico Fellini)

Five films by Chantal Akerman

If nothing here does anything for you...well, if you're not a cinephile, then of course all is forgiven, but if you consider yourself a movie buff at all...c'mon! Look at these things!

I've been meaning to see Paris, Texas for years now, ever since I caught Wenders' Wings of Desire at the Brattle. Guess I'll be waiting a couple more months. Che was one of the best films of last year, and will probably get mentioned on my Best of the Decade pieces. is...I'm more of a La Dolce Vita guy at the end of the day, but is like watching an explosion of imagination and revelation right before your eyes (what other director has so enthusiastically, directly, and entertainingly declared his personal flaws?). I've never been crazy about the current Criterion transfer, so I am unreasonably excited about this.

Let me say this about Italian Neorealism, of which Rossellini's films are more than a part of - along with Bicycle Thieves they are the defining works of the movement. Yes, they're relentlessly depressing. You have to put it in context, though, and recognize that these films were made just as the Europe (and, as one might guess, Italy in particular) were coming out of World War II. Their country was completely decimated and their way of life would be changed forever. As a social document these films are staggering. As part of a country's cathartic experience, they're almost unmatched in the close ties between art and life. I cannot wait to finally see Rossellini's films in their entirety; until now, they've been tough to come across, especially in decent transfers (and Paisan has never been available on DVD).

And Akerman...I saw Jeanne Dielman. It's the kind of film that makes you follow a director anywhere. 'Nuff said.

God I love the Criterion Collection.

A Movie a Day: Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

One of the great debates in film is intent vs. outcome. If a writer or director intends one message, but another is conveyed, how should it be evaluated? I've always been of the opinion that a film is what it is. the best of intentions shouldn't matter if a film is just crap. On the flipside, a film crudely made for profit with almost no artistic intent can still emerge a great film.

Zabriskie Point reaffirmed by stance. From everything I can suss out in the film and what little I've read of behind-the-scenes information, Antonioni was really trying to make a film that genuinely embraced the hippie culture's revolution against the establishment as a way to totally eviscerate American culture. The extent to which this actually works is mixed - some moments come off as truly inspired, in which these characters and their way of life seems almost noble and certainly necessary. But there's also a fair chunk that's just plain silly, especially a lot of the dialogue these poor actors were saddled with, which just reeks of the screenwriters saying, "Groovy? That's something the kids say, right?"

It doesn't help that the leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, are so completely not up to their task. Frechette manages to get by because his character seems to genuinely not actively care about anything, so non-acting sort of works in a roundabout way (this is where we start to see the outcome work, even when the intent doesn't), but Halprin is totally lost, unable to give a single line an ounce of weight.

So what we end up with is a portrait of the death of hippie culture, what Antonioni (or the film anyway) sees as the failure America's last chance at regaining anything remotely resembling essential. Throughout the film, Mark, Daria (their characters are named after them), and their comrades make attempts to overthrow the system and get back to their roots, not as Americans but as people, but come up short, either because what was momentarily fulfilling has little resonance, or because The Man shut them down.

I have little doubt that Antonioni intended for those fleeting moments to have more resonance, but they don't, and in turn, the unused ending of an airplane writing the words "Fuck You, America" have even more importance. Aside from his intent to totally skewer comsumarism, materialism, and mainstream culture, Antonioni accidentally tore everything apart. And, in its own way, the film is better for it.

Any way you slice it, though, the film is a challenging, original piece of provative art, far more complex, terrifying, and artistically thrilling than most of what passes for art, these days or any other.

Oh, and it's Antonioni, so it's God damn beautiful to look at.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Movie a Day: One From the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)

If only it were, you know?

Anyone, anyone, anyone who knows me knows that I love movies with a big heart and are willing to express it. I'll accept a LOT of flaws if a film can really make that heartfelt connection. The problem with One From the Heart is that there is very little heart in it. Coppola originally intended it to be a much smaller production, and I have to wonder if his ambition eventually eclipsed his intent.

There's a tendency with these sorts of films - big-budget love stories, that is - to try to create a universally relatable story by scrubbing away all specificity. The problem is that the more specific it is, there more carefully crafted the characters are, the more universal it will be. While it can be fun to latch onto a character who likes the same stuff or is driven to vaguely similar goals as you, it's actually more relieving to have a character who's likeable, but totally different from you, going through the same emotions you've felt, are feeling, or want to feel.

But even that's not the be-all and end-all. The Young Girls of Rochefort is totally empty in all respects but the heart. It's one of the most romantic movies ever made, in spite of characters lacking any depth or specificity. Instead, the cinematography, choreography, and music (what we film snobs would call the "mise-en-scene") creates a mood and spirit unlike anything else I've ever seen.

It felt a lot like Coppola was trying to create something similar here. It's not QUITE a musical, but it's close - the biggest problem is that there is nothing romantic about or between the two leads, and he's obviously trying to sell us on that. There's a lot of heart (and romance) after we see them break up and run off with other people, but eventually we're made to believe those don't matter, when in reality, those are the ONLY aspects of the film that feel like they matter at all.

If honesty is one of, if not the most important trait for a film to have (and one Coppola has had no problem with of late), then this film fails because it's intensely dishonest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Nothing about this makes sense, but everything about it is awesome:

A Movie a Day: Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

One of the things in films that really irks me is the flawless hero. Usually a casualty of the "based on a true story" film that goes through approval from the people the film is based on (or their estate), these characters are always clear-headed, constantly making the right decision to benefit everyone. They're usually given some sort of token flaw, like their dedication to their job/mission/whatever causes some strain on their personal life, but even that's typically portrayed as a necessary evil compared to their noble cause.

But it's not enough for Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever had, and, in 1939, when Henry Fonda played him, perhaps THE greatest, to simply be a flawless, noble man. It's not enough for him to take on a case nobody believes in (and--SPOILERS--win the case by finding a totally different killer based on the loosest of evidence). No, Abraham Lincoln has to be the greatest person who ever lived. He has to love every elderly woman as though she were her mother, fall in love with the concept of the law the first time he touches a law book, tell the funniest jokes anyone has ever heard, preside as judge of a pie-eating contest in which there are no winners, only amazing pie, win every fight before it has the chance to even start, calm down an angry mob with only the soothing sound of his voice, and be the town champion at splitting a log in half.

In this way, Ford's film slingshots around and becomes entertaining in a whole new way. Never mind the random appearances of future wife Mary Todd and future rival for the Presidency Stephen Douglas. It's one of the silliest and almost certainly the most righteous portrayals of a major historical figure I've ever seen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

REVIEW: A Serious Man

I’ve written and scrapped and written and scrapped a half-dozen reviews of this film. I’ve considered that maybe I need to go back and watch it again, and only then will I be able to grasp it. I’ve been thinking about this thing all weekend, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while I can’t wait to see it again, in terms of writing a review, I have what I have, and that’ll have to be good enough.

To TRULY discuss the film, I’d need to dive massively into spoilers, and nearly all of the review would in some way deal with the ending. But I’m a good person, I won’t do that. I will say that the film often mentions the idea of parables, the idea that you can tell a story about someone you’ve never met, whose name you don’t even know, who lives through an exceptional circumstance that he learns a great deal from, but this concept can sometimes be difficult to apply to your own life. There’s a whole scene in the film that says just that.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor who, early in the film, uses the parable of Schrödinger’s cat to explain concepts to his students, but he admits that he has no idea what the story of the cat means or really its exact application. It’s an offhand remark, but it goes a long way towards what the Coens are getting at.

I will also say that the Coens have, in my opinion, never made a completely serious film. As much as I despise the age of irony we’ve found ourselves in, the Coens use irony to make their work lighter and deeper at the same time. The films remain essentially unknowable; they keep a distance from their characters that many have tried to label as contempt. Whether or not that’s true (I don’t think it really matters), the result has been a body of work that can be seen many different ways, but is ALWAYS entertaining.

A Serious Man is, in my estimation, their best work since Barton Fink, because it is totally serious and completely dedicated to not giving away anything, remaining totally entertaining and involving while doing so, and perhaps even adding up to their greatest joke yet. Fargo, their 1996 film, opens with a statement that the film is based on a true story, a claim they maintained for some time after its release before admitting that they just tacked it on there, almost on a whim. I’ve always thought this artistic flourish, and the way they’ve explained/dismissed it says more about their body of work than anything else. Whatever they present us is complete fiction, and any application to the real world you try to give it will come up empty. And, somewhere, Joel and Ethan Coen are laughing.

Midway through the film, things are looking pretty bleak, and Larry explains the uncertainty principle to a class full of college kids. According to Wikipedia (I am not a quantum physicist, for what it’s worth), the uncertainty principle “states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known…[it] is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, it is a statement about the nature of the system itself as described by the equations of quantum mechanics.”

What does it all mean? Why does it open with a prologue that has no direct bearing on the rest of the film? You might as well ask what was in Barton’s box. Or where Chigurh went after Ed Tom busted into the motel room. In discussing Barton Fink, Ethan said, “What isn't crystal clear isn't intended to become crystal clear, and it's fine to leave it at that,” to which Joel followed up, “The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.”


Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Movie a Day: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

There are not a lot of directors to whom the term "genius" can be applied. Kubrick comes to mind. Bergman. Welles, certainly. I'd argue Resnais, obviously. Coppola, too, though I don't think anybody will ever fully understand him, and I still feel like much of the time he lacks the capability to get out everything he's trying to express, which is actually a lot of the reason I've been enjoying his recent work so thoroughly. But that's a topic for another time. Anyway, I feel the label can be applied to directors so amazingly inventive, so consistently expressive, who time and time again push not only the medium forward but art itself.

It didn't take much for me to realize Godard was a genius. There's a popular sentiment that goes that the smartest person in the room isn't the guy who's making a lot of ruckus about it, but the guy (or gal) who stays quiet, oberserves, and cuts in when need be. While I generally agree with that, Godard is absolutely the loudest man in the room, constantly making a show of how smart and culturally aware he is. Which is totally fine. To name two other key artists of the 1960s, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol certainly weren't quiet about their genius.

If there's a problem with Godard's films, and this is only if you view this as a problem, it's that they're more thought than felt; closer to essay than narrative. Personally, I'm fine with it, even, as I said in my piece on Made in U.S.A, when I don't understand very much of it. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is ostensibly about a married woman who works as a call girl, but what it's really about is the influence and invasion of consumerism and modern convenience, both replacing the opportunity for any sort of genuine emotional engagement, and what people would say if they could say what they felt.

Not bad for a first viewing, eh? Anyway, I was a big fan of it. Pierrot le Fou is still my favorite of his, but this is up there with Contempt...but in its own way, nothing's as good as Contempt.

A Movie a Day: Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Joe Dante, 2003)

I'm a huge Looney Tunes fan. I think the work they did, particularly from their inception in the early 1930s through the late 1940s, represent the finest animation ever produced. Each frame flows to the next, the timing of the jokes are impeccable, and the sense of complete mayhem has yet to be matched - Looney Tunes remains the only narrative in which absolutely anything could happen.

Which is why I love Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Though not as ceaselessly funny as the best of the classics - Draftee Daffy, The Great Piggybank Robbery...well, anything by Bon Clampett, let's you and I be honest about this - Back in Action is great for its liveliness, entertainment value, and, yes...absolute mayhem.

In what other film could you travel from Nevada to Paris by pulling back the screen? Have a secret government base populated by an assortment of movie monsters, aliens, and robots from years past, never mind a guy randomly scrubbing a brain? A Nascar driver asking for his racing car from the valet? A corporate higher-up getting torn apart, leaving only a skeleton, which then responds to the incident? A bodyguard ripping off his skin to reveal the Tasmanian She-Devil, who then instantly gets married to the Tasmanian Devil? So many frames packed to the gills with information? As Keith Uhlich said in a recent revisit to the film, "How many comedies, animated or otherwise, use the screen in so many ways like this?"

If nothing else, how many corporate films are so blazingly anti-corporation? Everything, from the corporate-speak-as-joke to the Wal-Mart appearance to Bugs Bunny casually dismissing attempts to give him a PC-friendly female counterpart. But there is so much else in this film, and reading over the Best of the Decade Derby (linked to above), I realized how much I missed, even having seen the movie twice through. Never mind comedies, how many films, period, use the screen in so many ways? How many use that ultra-wide aspect ratio to cram so many jokes that will go unnoticed?

Films like this are worth treasuring. They're not perfect, but they try a thousand times harder for a pretty astounding return.

On the Continuing Path to Idiocracy

From, an interview with writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci at the press day for the Star Trek and Transformers: ROTFL home video releases.

Question: Do you have an update on the View-Master film?

Kurtzman: We've read a lot of the wildly cynical response to that. What I'll say is that some toys should be movies and some toys should not be movies, and I'd like to believe we know the difference between those things. The movies that work, work when there's a story there that you could take the toy out of, but then, when you put the toy in, it becomes an even more amazing experience, for whatever reason. Brad Kane, who was a writer for us on Fringe [Kurtzman and Orci are co-creators and executive producers for that show], came to us with an amazing idea, that had absolutely nothing to do with View-Master. We loved it and thought it was fantastic.

Orci: But, we said, "It's missing one thing. I don't know what that thing could be."

Kurtzman: And, along came View-Master, and it sounded like the perfect marriage of ideas. But, it's because we started with a story that felt like it could be told, all on its own, before that came along. So, it's like, "Bring it on!" if you want to be cynical about View-Master, great 'cause we're so confidence [sic] in where it's going to end up going that we feel like there's nowhere to go, but up.

I give up. Somewhere between them being unable to explain why toys make movies better, noting that they could have made a movie out of an original concept but chose not to, and referring to a toy as a proper noun as though it were a person, I realized how completely fucked the whole situation is, and had to throw my arms up and laugh. Not necessarily in that order.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"I think, really, The Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action."

That line made me hard. In fact, I laughed more during the course of A Serious Man than I did most balls-out comedies I've seen lately. I'm still sorting out the rest. I'll be seeing it again shortly, reading about it, and thinking about it. But I loved it. Oh, how I loved it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Movie a Day: All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)

After seeing this movie, I couldn't shake it. I had some major problems with it, even while watching it, but there was no question that it hit me in a very specific way. All I could do afterwards was throw on a little Gaslight Anthem, a little Bruce Springsteen, and just wallow in this near-despair-on-the-verge-of-awe the film left me in.

Good melodrama does this to you. It also makes you feel totally ashamed of this reaction down the line, to the extent that you'll sort of question if the piece was really all that good. The reaction seemed so momentary, so fleeting, so how important was the film really if that's the case?

Quite a bit, I'd argue. Green's film is one of the most outlandish modern melodramas I've ever seen, wearing its every emotion and whim on the screen. It's the whims that tend to bother me the most, and for the most part, I don't buy these characters saying a lot of the things they do (although I do admire the way they say them - either in his direction or writing, Green really knows how people talk, saying the opposite of what they mean or doubling back to correct themselves). But I do buy that what they're saying is essential to them, and this is some magical world where they would express that. That's melodrama, I suppose.

It's an important statement on love, the way we express it, and the ways we accept it, or don't. That's worth having.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Movies a Day: Two by Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais is one of my favorite directors, and yet I only really love one of his films (Last Year at Marienbad). Hell, before this week, I had only seen one other (Hiroshima, Mon Amour). But after seeing Je t'aime, je t'aime and (deep breath now) Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour, I can't help but love him all the more for what he does, even if what he does only makes distant sense to me.

More than almost any other director I can think of (more than any other I can think of at the time), Resnais is fascinated with and willing to grapple with the very form of cinema. It doesn't surprise me at all that he entered film school with the notion that "there was something important in cinema, which was the manipulation of time through editing" (Foundas). In all four of these films, the past is a nearly tangible presence, as it, the present, and the future and/or imaginary events become fused together, weaving in and out of each other even as some essential narrative barrels forward. For anyone interested in the movies, this is an incredibly exciting concept, made all the more so by the fact that Resnais was working in this mold over forty years ago (this year was the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Resnais still has a new film playing at festivals worldwide).

So that's why, even when I find his execution a tad clumsy (the phrase, "even his failures demonstrate his ambition" was never more fitting), I can't help but love the director himself, and his films as an extent of his ongoing experiment. In Je t'aime, a man is released from a hospital after attempting suicide and instantly enrolled to be the first human experiment in time travel - what follows is clearly the inspiration for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the man becomes lost in time, reliving fragments of the relationship that drove him to depression. While his execution is far from perfect (the gravity of the situation isn't quite as tangible as it should be), the ideas inherent in the conceit are fascinating, and one can fill in the blanks without much effort.

Muriel is much more difficult, perhaps moreso than Last Year at Marienbad. Then again, with Muriel, I'm actually convinced after the first viewing that there is something happening here; I was less than certain that was the case with Marienbad, though a subsequent viewing would disprove that. I'm still totally unsure what to make of it, and its very liberal use of jump cuts to weave through time makes it impossible to forge a grasp on the narrative the first time through, or even to be certain of your emotional footing, something that wasn't a problem with Marienbad.

But again, these feel like minor quibbles when taking into account the ambition of Resnais' vision - to call it revolutionary is to rely on cliches, but without a doubt its effects are keenly felt today. You have him to thank pretty much anytime a director plays with continuity and/or reality (Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine, Memento, The Science of Sleep, Synecdoche, New York, among many others owe a tremendous debt), never mind his accomplishments in cinematography (the hallways in The Shining would not be nearly so endless if not for Last Year at Marienbad).

Beyond sorting out specific influences, artistic mediums becomes greater when certain artists approach them. Film itself is better for Alain Resnais having worked in it.

Tanning Projection Booth

A couple of thoughts were running through my head as I watched the just-posted trailer for Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. The first was, "damn, a lot of people have played Orson Welles the character." The second was...since when did everything set in...I was going to say the 20s and 30s, but it's really anything that takes place in a city/town before World War II is required be shot and designed (as in production and costume) in sepia. Is everyone just taking their cues from Chinatown? But it certainly is the case now...The Illusionist, King Kong, Public Enemies, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a fair chunk of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Honeydripper, The Black Dahlia (okay, that was the 40s, but still)...I know there are more. But it's gotten to the point where it's not a creative decision, just sort of an unmotivated default.

Of course I'll see it; it's the new Linklater movie! If I can stick with Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation, Lord knows I can handle a little sepia with a side of Efron.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Imaginarium Trailer, and Everybody Loves The New World

The new trailer for Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was posted today. Thought you should know. I won't be watching it, because I saw the first trailer, and...sold. The headline at CHUD regarding the first trailer summed up my feelings at the time: "Dr. Parnassus shows Alice how it's fucking done." Honestly, I couldn't care less about Tim Burton doing Alice in Wonderland, but Terry Gilliam doing a...wait for it...original film? Sold, sold, sold.

Uh...what a more specific response to a comment my lovely girlfriend posted over at Facebook, I give you THIS. The article itself and the enclosed links should be enough to illustrate my point that The New World is, in fact, a film celebrated by many a cinephile. Not that I need my taste to be validated (it helps), but in discussing the best films of the decade, I wouldn't hesitate to question someone's exclusion of what is widely considered to be one of its finest films (spoiler - if you ask me, it's hands-down the best thing that's come out in the last ten least).

I watched a little over half of Looney Tunes: Back in Action and am loving it even more than I did six years ago (yeah, I saw it in theaters, what), but I have to run out for the day, so again, no Movie a Day for today. I totally anticipate making up for it tomorrow, though.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tilted symmetry

Yeah, say whatever you want about Alain Resnais, dude can frame a shot. Sure, it LOOKS easy - point a camera straight on. And then you realize that they're just slightly askew, which is what makes them god damn genius. Also, apparently, when stacked on top of each other, it almost creates one tall frame. And it's not a pan down...those are two totally separate shots. That kinda screws with you. Ladies and gentlement, I give you the opening shots of Je t'aime, je t'aime. As always, click to enlarge, won't you please?

Quick Update - Best of the Decade?

No Movie a Day for today. I was going to write up Alain Resnais' Je t'aime, je t'aime, which I saw today, but I also have his Muriel on my desk, so I'll combine them in a few days for a larger post. All good?

A fun link that's worth discussing - Jeffrey Wells made the first, as far as I can tell, foray into claiming the best films of the decade (which, for my part, isn't over yet - I'm waiting 'til after next year's Oscars to even begin). I dig that he has The Assassination of Jesse James, I'm Not There, Che, United 93, Michael Clayton, High Fidelity, Changing Lanes among some more obvious, but quite deserving, choices (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Almost Famous, The Royal Tenenbaums, In the Bedroom, etc.). I especially dig that he put Zodiac at the number one spot, because, god, what a movie.

But no Mulholland Dr.? No The New World? I recently found out that Lost in Translation has isn't nearly as popular amongst cinephiles as it was when it came out, which is...sad, really, because it's still a really wonderful film. No Shaun of the Dead, surely one of the five or ten finest screenplays of the decade. No Punch-Drunk Love, which would probably make my top ten. I said, I'm going to do something to recap the decade. I'm thinking a year-by-year top ten, which I can actually start on now, and work from there. It's funny, thinking already how different my top ten lists now will be than when I actually made the damn things at the end of each year. Looking forward to completely contradicting myself.

Oh, one last thing - thanks to Matt Jay for pointing this out, but apparently Michelle Williams is working with Kelly Reichardt again on a film also written by Jon Raymond? The trio behind my favorite film of last year, Wendy and Lucy? Comparisons to Gerry, another film sure to end up on my best of the decade list? Set in the earliest days of the Oregon Trail? Yes please.

P.S. For what it's worth, the other two films on my desk right now - David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls and Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action. It'll be a good week.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Movie a Day: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Ackerman, 1975)

Or "that really long French cooking movie," as my girlfriend and I have taken to calling it because we can't pronounce anything in French to save our lives.

So today I watched, for the first time, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and already I’m trying to find ways to scrub it out of my head. A thoroughly punishing, often unpleasant experience of being trapped for nearly three and a half hours, I nevertheless believe that my reaction is absolutely what writer/director Chantal Ackerman intended. It’s a film that sticks with you, prodding you to answer the many unanswerable questions it raises. After two hundred minutes, do we really know Jeanne much better than we did after the first sixty? How much can you know about a person just by watching two hundred minutes across three days? Very little, I would say, no more than we understand Charles Foster Kane after observing snippets from his entire life. They say we’ll always be fascinated by that which we can’t understand. They’re so, so right.

Alain Resnais’ Muriel is next from Netflix, and I'll spend half the day trying to solve its many aspect ratio issues. Between then and now, I need to watch Miller's Crossing or something…less draining. At some point I’ll get back to writing about things other than whatever I watched on a given day, but until then, stick with me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Movie a Day: Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

The Big Sleep is far and away my favorite detective movie, certainly of the classical era and probably of all time. What separates it from all the others is that it doesn't rely on the mystery to at all be what holds our attention and entertains us - it's all in the banter and the characters. It's quite literally style over substance, and it's a more wonderful film for it.

This is sort of how I've come to approach some of Jean-Luc Godard's films on a first viewing. I have no idea how anyone could come to any sort of concrete understanding of Pierrot le Fou or, indeed, Made in U.S.A once through; they're absolutely packed to the brim with references, allusions, and hidden meanings. Never mind the rather esoteric nature of the plot itself. What I do know is that, with each of them, my first viewing has been immensely pleasurable, purely through the rhythm of the dialogue and Godard's camerawork, defined by incredible set-ups, thrilling tracks, and hypnotizing length. And color...oh what color.

I missed the days when color and monochrome were each viable options for filmmakers, and what stock they chose represented a decision rather than a default. One of the reasons the 60s is perhaps my favorite decade in film history is because it represents a rather narrow window of time in which that choice did exist - before that, color was too expensive, and after that, it came to be something that turned audiences off. Films like Made in U.S.A earn that decision to give us all the color of the rainbow and more, and as we've never seen them before.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mini-Reviews: The Invention of Lying, Zombieland

The Invention of Lying can join films like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 in that, when it’s just telling situations within the wonderful world it’s created, the film is nearly perfect, or at least totally undeniable. It’s when it tries to tell a story in the world, create some sort of arc…you know, the usual Robert McKee/Syd Field stuff, that’s where it goes totally astray. Everything in the set up of the world that cannot lie, and all the little situations that get peppered in after Mark (Ricky Gervais) starts lying, are gold. But the romantic subplot isn’t developed nearly well enough to justify being this guy’s central emotional journey, and too much emphasis is placed on the audience sympathizing with Mark to get away with straight satire. We see some downsides to the mistakes Mark makes with his new power, but the true weight of those decisions is never focused on, comically or dramatically, and so the whole reason this film is so interesting is tossed out in favor of a romance between Mark and Anna (Jennifer Garner) that has no spark, almost no chemistry, and is almost totally devoid of any tension, again, comically or dramatically. Basically, this is a satire trying to rework itself as a romantic comedy, and frankly, neither work.

Oddly enough, that didn’t end up being the weirdest movie I saw today, for I have witnessed…Zombieland, a film that would surely be the weirdest piece of mainstream entertainment this year had Jody Hill not unleashed Observe and Report. I would go back to the film with a stopwatch to figure out just how much screen time is spent on something involving actual zombies, but I can tell you right now it’s probably less than half. I mean, when your film is called Zombieland, you sort of expect a land completely overrun by zombies. And yet, I found myself liking the film a lot more when it deviated from its Zombie Survival, vaguely Shaun of the Dead roots and became this weird quasi character piece, only the characters couldn’t possibly be less interesting. Clear attempts are made to create memorable archetypes, but what we end up with are derivatives of archetypes (the borderline-psychotic who’s exceptional at his job, the antisocial geek, the tough-as-nails, emotionally closed hot chick, and the kick-ass pre-teen). And yet I cannot describe the weird appeal of these half-people driving down the road, having standard road trip conversations, or especially an extended sequence at a very unusual shelter, all in the context of a zombie infestation. It’s far from being a good film as such; even more than Snakes on a Plane, it’s trying way too hard to be a cult classic, and every major decision a character makes is motivated entirely by the screenwriter staring at the computer, wondering how the hell he’ll fill the movie’s running time without a bigger budget. Yet it possesses a rarified charm that places it far above its meager ambitions.


I intended to write a paragraph about this, The Invention of Lying, and Zombieland and call it a day, but sometimes the movies work so well for you, and you find that you care so much that you just can't stop writing about it. Those are good days, all things considered.

I tend to give movies a hard time when they are slaves to formula. I don’t think there’s anything explicitly wrong with this approach; everyone, in the end, has his or her own biases, why not be biased against unoriginality? That said, every now and then someone makes it work. They take tired, worn-out clichés, inject them with enough life to sustain, concentrate on creating moments and indelible characters, and it works. Whip It is such a film, a nearly perfect sports drama and coming of age comedy.

A lot was made (and a lot of jokes were made) of this being Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, but the truth is, she directed the pants off the major male competition from this year. Put her work here against the work J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, Neill Blomkamp, Michael Mann, Stephen Sommers, Sam Mendes, or Mike Judge put out this year, I’ll take Barrymore every time. She did herself a major favor collaborating with the great Robert Yeoman (best known as Wes Anderson’s cinematographer) on the camera, who I would imagine deserves credit for the wonderful lighting, and Dylan Tichenor (best known as being the guy who makes Magnolia so damn quick, among other formidable accomplishments) in the editing room, keeping the action scenes coherent. But she was the one with a often keen eye for staging, and willingness to embrace one-shots over coverage to create the group dynamic that firmly plants itself and never goes away.

She also made the great, often-neglected decision to cast the shit out of this film. Having Ellen Page in the lead is a good start, but this would not be half the film it is without Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Jimmy Fallon (never more appropriate for his role), Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, and especially, especially, especially Andrew Wilson, Alia Shawkat, and Kristen Wiig, in a performance that put away the fear Extract created that she maybe wasn’t quite the actress I thought she was. And while casting oneself in one’s own film can often seem indulgent, there is nothing indulgent about the role she gave herself. And better yet, she’s perfect for it.

What I admire most about the film, though, and Barrymore’s achievement in it, is just how unrelentingly, unapologetically feminine it is. My girlfriend, an aspiring filmmaker herself, is quick to bemoan female directors who never make it out of the “chick flick ghetto.” And while she’s right in some respects, there are also very few films this committed to a woman’s perspective, and all the embarrassing but fully felt moments that commitment creates, from the girl power chants to the road trip rock out to Shawkat suddenly screaming “that’s my best friend!” right down to the way she and Yeoman capture Page awkwardly trying out her roller skates. Anyone who really knows me knows that the first thing that will warm a film to my heart is when a filmmaker is undaunted by the prospect of laying it all out there, emotionally-speaking, and in its best moments, Whip It is that great a film.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Great Images

Because they're worth it. Click the images to enlarge. Really, do it.

The otherworldly bar on the edge of the world in Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows.
 Monica Vitti at the edge of a cliff and all the meanings of the title L'Avventura

Watch this section of Last Year at Marienbad closely - the mystery begins to unravel.

Stanley Kubrick embarks on what will be a lifelong obsession - the camera gliding through a contained area. Preferably in full frame.

A Movie a Day: The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)

Alfred Hitchcock was not a director with tremendous range. It worked out pretty well for him, all things considered - you could always count on stunning, surehanded visuals, outstanging narrative drive, and performances that hit just the right notes. I've often heard that Hitchcock's films aren't noteworthy for their acting, and I've rarely found that to be the case. If you put people in the right situations, they will show stress. They will show fear. They will create suspense where there is none. Being attacked by dozens of birds is one way to accomplish this (by the way, say what you want about The Birds - that's my kind of blockbuster).

Another way is to hire naturally great actors, and Hitchcock did this quite a bit. Less so when it came to women, but c'mon - Cary Grant, James Stewart, Anthony Perkins (who would be great in other stuff, most notably Orson Welles' The Trial), Joseph Cotton...and Henry Fonda. Actors capable of doing the heavy lifting without a director's help. Fonda brings natural humanity to a role that absolutely requires it, and ends up carrying the film, because for the life of me I can't see what Hitchcock saw in the story.

The problem is there is absolutely no investment. Manny (Fonda) falls into a situation that only gets worse and worse, but outside of the weariness of Fonda's performance, I didn't feel much of anything. Not even the thrill of the narrative that Hitchcock is known for. He rarely indulges in the desperation or the despair of the situation, save for the night Manny's put in the slammer (which is a really stunning sequence). It felt like an assignment for another director, and Hitchcock was merely going through the motions.