Thursday, July 29, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing - Alain Resnais' Wild Grass

I have long been the type of moviegoer to favor questions over answers. I have little interest in the explanation of a mystery, of a character's behavior, or nearly any element of a film that intrigues me. But even from that baseline, I was completely bowled over when I saw Wild Grass at the Portland International Film Festival in February. And not necessarily in a good way. I simply did not know what I ultimately thought of it. My messy attempts to make sense of any of it were recorded at the time, but even then I was aching for a second viewing that I knew was still months away.

That day has finally come, and having now gone in with some idea of what Resnais and screenwriters Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet are up to here, I can comfortably say that Wild Grass is nothing short of a masterpiece. It's a light masterpiece, free from the dramatic or thematic heft of a Synecdoche, New York or A Serious Man (to name two films which, I suppose, have nothing to do with Wild Grass) or even the films Resnais is still most famous for, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Wild Grass is the purest cinema I've seen all year, using every tool available (though, I suspect, no CGI) to achieve complete artistic expression.

The film is superficially about a woman, Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) whose purse is stolen and whose wallet ends up under the tire of a parked car belonging to Georges Palet (André Dussollier). Marguerite, pictured in her identification and pilot's license, intrigues Georges, who demands more and more attention for returning her wallet to her. Although attention isn't enough; affection is closer to what he's after. But then, "more and more" would require he received any to begin with...

It will frustrate some viewers, I suspect, that so much is then poured into a film that is ultimately a tad silly. As Richard Brody noted, "it's a film that was made on the basis of plenty of substance--which doesn't make it a substantial film." Some of my favorite films aren't terribly substantial (I'm looking at you, The Young Girls of Rochefort), but are nonetheless pure cinematic delights. Wild Grass is a really wonderful film, albeit one with only amusing (some would say "petty") observations about the human condition and, not uncommonly, nothing of Resnais himself evident.

But Resnais has never claimed himself any more than a gun for hire, giving his efforts over to the story rather than fulfilling any auteurist requirement. What I see in Resnais' work that feels more evident here than ever is a zest for his job, a love of filmmaking, the only thing that could keep someone working this far into his life. "I do go for experiments," he said in a recent interview with Cineaste, "I much prefer taking a scene and doing it in a way different from what's normally done." While this is a statement heard on film school campuses worldwide, and thus not a terribly uncommon approach to filmmaking, I would argue Resnais is uncommonly successful in doing so.

Wild Grass is a thoroughly beguiling picture deeply invested in the artifice of cinema (common to Resnais, the studio sets and lighting make no attempt to appear authentic; the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare makes more than one appearance) and the eccentricities of human behavior. The narcissism on display is hilarious at every step, both in the small moments (the entire staff of a shoe store at Marguerite's disposal, Georges' question when they finally meet - "So you love me?") and their overarching journeys. However, to reduce the film to simply an exploration of narcissism in the modern age and yada, yada, yada would be not only reductive, but paint the film as a tad mean, and while I wouldn't say that Resnais, Reval, or Herbiet love their characters in the traditional sense, there is genuine affection, if in sort of a puppy dog way.

It is a delightful film, indeed, with a sense of humor so specifically tuned I'm sure many will go through the whole picture not realizing it's a comedy. Every shot, camera movement, and cut is perfect without being exacting, and every random oddity (a disappearing table, or seeing Georges' imagination enacted on one side of the screen) is exhilarating without becoming overwhelming - this is an odd film, to be sure, but not one obsessively taken with its oddity. It's not "quirky," it's simply a breath of fresh air to a medium often thought dead.

Perhaps that's what seems so remarkable - at nearly ninety, Resnais has created a film seemingly out of thin air. I'm not talking about the story, adapted by two other people from a novel by a third; I'm talking about the cinema. Any comparison inevitably ends with "except..." I see ties to film noir, Punch-Drunk Love, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the sum of those parts would equal nothing at all like Wild Grass. Azéma and especially Dussollier give extraordinary comic performances, at once totally in tune with the reality of their characters' concerns and the cosmic absurdity of it all - Dussollier's facial expressions in his final scene are worth the price of admission alone.

"Cosmic absurdity" is a phrase all too fitting to the film as a whole. The film's final moment, a bit of total insanity that has literalists up in arms, is such an overwhelmingly perfect note to end on, placing all of the silliness we've seen up to this point on a scale at once unimaginable and completely fitting. It's insane that anyone would ever conceive of it, let alone go through the many steps of film production to complete it, but I can honestly say we're a better people because of those who attempt something like this.

I don't want to be the old guy in the back saying that in spite of being free of CGI and 3-D, Wild Grass is one of the most immersive experiences I've had at the cinema all year, but truthfully it is. That merely reflects the lack of creative invention in those employing such techniques, and the seemingly endless abundance in Resnais. His cinema is one without boundaries, without limits - in other words, it is everything art should be. I absolutely loved this film.

Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik)

After seeing Nash Edgerton's really tremendous film The Square earlier this year, I was once again reminded how rewarding modern film noir can be when one invests more in its themes than simply its stylistic tendencies. Lord knows that in watching the classics, we revel in the clever dialogue and stunning cinematography, but rarely does that alone create a satisfying result, and engaging on such a superficial level in a modern noir will feel shallow, hackneyed, and worst of all, stale.

This, disappointingly enough, is the case with Winter's Bone, which begins with a promising set-up that's way too overstuffed and simply grinds on from there. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Ree, a seventeen-year-old girl whose father has disappeared and mother is what we might charitably describe as "ill," leaving her to raise her younger brother and sister. When the law rolls through to tell her that Dad put up the family house as bond before skipping his court date and disappearing, Ree jumps right in and decides to track him down herself.

What follows is a series of increasingly messy encounters with what allegedly passes for humanity in the Ozarks. Winter's Bone subscribes to the philosophy that the more grim, gritty, and gristly the tale, the more compelling it will be for its audience. While those are three words too often invoked as qualitative measures, Winter's Bone exposes such shorthands for what they actually are - observations. In truth, it's a fairly one-note movie, with neither the fun of Brick or the consistently surprising, engaging narratives of Memento or The Square (to name some recent successes at reviving noir). Aside from Ree and her uncle Teardrop (John Hawks), the characters possess neither motivation nor entertainment value; they're hollow trees with which Granik constructs her house.

The film's best moments are either small, as when Ree teaches her siblings to shoot, or incidental, as Granik has created a very convincing portrait of this section of the South. Those aspects ring true, but they are too few and far between, or merely incidental in a film that is centrally concerned with artificially creating, and then almost randomly dispensing with, conflict. In crafting a crime drama, one needn't be original, but one must be compelling. Winter's Bone, sadly, is neither.

But Just a Little Bit

There are a lot of great blogs with a lot of great writing, but a very lucky few have the good fortune of having comments sections as worthwhile as the posts that bore them. Recently, I was skimming comments on one of Jim Emerson's Inception posts, where I found this note by OMG:
To be honest, there have even been some truly classic movies--and I mean really groundbreaking, monumental stuff--that have bored me to death even as I appreciated them. But then getting together to talk about them, such as in a film class run by an inspiring teacher...yeah, now that's fun.
It got me thinking not so much about the age-old topic of films that are more fun to talk about than they are to watch, but rather about films that you love in spite of the fact that they're kind of a drag to watch. And I'm not talking about movies you "appreciate" or "can recognize the value of" or whatever the latest euphemism is for "I didn't like it, it bored me, but a lot of other people seem to like it, and I can't really find anything bad to say about it." I'm talking about movies you flat-out love, that touch you deeply and opened the world to you and everything else great art is supposed to do, even if experiencing that particular work of art is just a drag.

I first experienced this with Stanley Kubrick. Seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time was a marathon of frisson, but when I sat down to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, I wanted to tear my hair out even though, as the screen went black and the credits rolled, I knew I had experienced something of terrifying majesty. The experience was intensified in both directions when I saw Barry Lyndon, which is now my favorite both in terms of Kubrick's work and any film from the 1970s.

But even that's not quite what I'm after here - in subsequent viewings of each, I've come to adore every second of them (the difference between seeing Barry Lyndon on my 19-inch tube TV and projected in 35mm was certainly edifying in this regard). There are still films that, even after watching them a handful of times, are still a bit of a chore.

The first two that came to mind are Frederico Fellini's and Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad. Once again, let me reiterate - I love these films. Especially Marienbad, which means about as much to me as a film can to a person. I'm more of a La Dolce Vita man, but I do still deeply love 8½. And yet every time I see them, they hit a point about midway where I go "man, there's a lot of movie to this movie, isn't there?" Same with L'Avventura, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, or The Seventh Seal.

And it's not just great classic works of foreign cinema. I've seen Bringing Up Baby four times, it's my favorite Howard Hawks film and Howard Hawks is one of my five or so favorite directors. But only once was I consistently elated by it - watching it in a film class, in which every single person in the class was completely in tune with it (and man, what a way to watch that one). I never told a single person Che wasn't the longest damn film they'd ever see, and not only because statistically it almost certainly was. Anybody who says there aren't dead spots to Raging Bull is lying to themselves. And don't get me started on Robert Altman...

But, when taken in whole, these works are absolutely electrifying. Altman's and Godard's films are as galvanizing as ever, and the last shot of Nashville still stands as one of the most transcendent, fascinating moments in all of cinema (ditto the last shot or sequence of any Antonioni film), but...good Lord, it's a three-hour movie about people talking. What are they talking about? Oh, nothing in particular. And don't get me wrong, Nasvhille (which I love) also runs the gamut of being wildly hilarious, totally captivating, achingly awkward, and heartbreaking, but it's only when put in this huge canvas that any of it means anything, but as a result, those moments come to mean everything.

Jeffrey Wells has this bit that "quality movies flirt with being boring from time to time." He couches his stance, using words like "a little bit" to describe the level of boring, but I'll just say it - there are sections many films that I absolutely adore that bore me. It just blows my mind that so much of the film industry in constructed to prevent this feeling when, and I would agree with Mr. Wells here, it is so often (though not always) the mark of quality. A good film will usually take its time, let us ruminate on it, and on ourselves. It's necessary.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Runnin' Down a Dream, Pushing Through the Cobbwebs - The Exhilaration, Deception, and Frustration of Inception

A note on spoilers - I consider a "spoiler" to be any story point that is not made evident by any trailer for the movie at hand. As Warner Brothers has revealed almost nothing about Inception in their promotional materials, everything after about the first five minutes will be new information, so it is impossible to discuss this film without getting into what I consider spoiler territory. As such, I'll freely discuss everything in the film, up to and including the ending. So there, you're warned. That said, just as a public service announcement, take some responsibility - it's pretty hard to have a movie spoiled for you if you're not in some way an accomplice. Just don't read anything about it. So simple.

Like a lot of you out there, I've been thinking about writer/director Christopher Nolan's Inception pretty much nonstop since seeing it. It's been tough to parse out my reaction to the film, separating what was simply a disappointment based on expectations and the failings of the film itself. Undoubtedly, expectations for the the film were huge; as it's coming out in a summer filled with retreads, and mere months after word got out that Hollywood may actually be seeking original material, I wanted this film to succeed on every possible level. But, you know, expectations can be a tricky thing.

It should surprise no one (although it somehow surprised me) that Inception has bred reactions very similar - in fact, almost identical - to those garnered by The Dark Knight (Nolan's previous film) two years previous. Quite a few people came out of the gate two weeks ago declaring it a masterpiece on par with the work of Stanley Kubrick, something that vastly exceeded not only the usual summer blockbuster but movies in general. Nolan's problem with the next Batman film won't be following up The Dark Knight, they said, but following up a Best Picture winner.

This was almost immediately followed by a whole new round of people claiming it was dreck, completely unimaginative and creatively fruitless. Not only was it not changing movies, it was actively making them worse by fooling millions of people into thinking they're watching an intelligent piece of filmmaking.

And, much like The Dark Knight, the truth lies somewhere in between. Those comparing it to Stanley Kubrick really, desperately need to bone up on their Kubrick - this doesn't have half the depth of even A Clockwork Orange (another movie claimed to be a lot smarter than it really is), never mind Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Eyes Wide Shut. Like all of Nolan's films, the only thought-provoking subjects are hinted at and buried beneath the surface, never outright addressed. The intelligence on display here is on par with the best of Lost - it's huge, exciting, and complex, but those applying "intelligence" to it really mean "you have to keep track of a lot of things." There's nothing much to truly gnaw on intellectually about until the very, very end, and that depends a lot on how you interpret the ending (more on that in a second).

But it's also a pretty exceptional piece of entertainment, there's no getting around that. Between the constant introduction of new concepts and rules for the world, the often awe-inspiring action sequences, and the usual excitement that comes with the structure of a well-executed heist movie (have you heard? Inception is like a heist movie but IN YOUR MIND, MAN). There can be intelligence in constructing and executing a great piece of entertainment, and Inception is almost entirely successful at that, just as often exciting us by Ellen Page discovering the possibilities and limitations of dream manipulations as by Joseph Gordon Levitt leaping around walls in a truly magnificent fight scene. Every visceral sensation the film aims for is elicited, and there are so many pleasures both small and large that stem from a simple yet profound desire to absolutely wow us as an audience - in these moments, the film earns its 2001 comparisons. And the few parts where it slacks in these regards are more than made up by those that completely exceed your wildest dreams.

Oh yes, dreams...the movie ostensibly takes place inside people's dreams, where Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a poor man's DiCaprio) goes in and steals people's secrets, only the thrust of the movie is planting an idea in this guy Fischer's (Cillian Murphy) head. Thing is, there is nothing at all dreamlike about any of this. Nolan's explained this away in interviews saying he really latched onto the idea that dreams feel real when you're in them, and Cobb says as much in the film, but that's not exactly true. They feel real, but they do not feel at all linear or coherent, so the fact that the "dreams" in Inception make complete and total sense is a bit of a reach.

That said, these aren't really dreams, and the film would have been better off making the distinction - they're constructed realities inside people's minds that can only be accessed through sleep. All the major information is fed to them and filled in by those involved, and while I would have personally preferred that Nolan explore the true nature of dreams, I'm not going to fault him for choosing to make a movie about something else.

So again, all of the problems associated with the movie thus far are things other people are bringing to it, not things that are actually wrong with the film. If it's not truly intelligent, okay, it's not truly intelligent. If it doesn't really explore dreams, okay, it doesn't really explore dreams. There are some things the film does do, however, that completely fall short. First off, there is a metric shit ton of exposition in Inception. Most of it is necessary to work our way around the world and a lot of that set up pays off in a major way in the second half of the film.

What doesn't work at all, not even a little bit, is every time Cobb suddenly starts explaining elements of his past that have thus far remained a mystery. First we'll get a tease of it, a slightly incomplete bit of information that will be expounded on later (a familiar bit of frustration for fans of Lost), and then suddenly, out of nowhere and for no good reason, Cobb will just tell us, directly, who he is, why he's doing what he's doing, why he feels the way he feels, etc. I was onboard with every second of exposition about the way dreams and dream technology works, but as soon as it came to diving into Cobb's past, Nolan took the most ham-fisted, blunt route possible. Anything that could have been revealed gracefully through Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister's striking imagery was relegated to monologue upon monologue.

But I'll forgive bad monologuing any day if it's in service of something crucial. The end of Shutter Island, a film that shares more than a few similarities to Inception, is a dramatic mess, but what it says and how it affects the film is staggering. It's effective because it's at once a continuation and a reversal of everything we've come to know about the film - everything it reveals and the resulting questions have been established, even if it catches us blindsided. And this is where we get into something potentially crippling about Inception, the one element preventing it from being the great film it could be of whatever genre you choose to put it in - its central thematic conceit is a moral and emotional one that Nolan admits involves the heart but only looks at with the head.

If, like me, you believe the entire film is a dream, you'll know what I mean. We'll all just have to skim over the evidence portion of this, because proving my approach interests me much less than expounding on it, but when one takes into account all the elements - Mal's question as to how Cobb can believe his life is so interesting to be an international fugitive, the recurring dream imagery in what we're to take as the "real world" (it's all over the place in Mumbasa, when Cobb is running through buildings that form a pretty convincing maze), a "real world" that's introduced to us the exact same way as all the "dream worlds," a supporting cast that has no interior lives (coupled with the concept of people in dreams as projections), the entire lighting and editing scheme after Cobb "wakes up" on the plane - it's damn near impossible to read it any other way.

So the central conceit is this - better to live in a fake world with representations of the ones you love, or a real world in which you have none of those things? It's not a new question, and though it's not a particularly relatable one, it's something we can fundamentally grasp as being a real struggle. One of the reasons I adore Steven Soderbergh's Solaris (and don't much care for the original) is that Soderbergh recognized the emotional toll of this question, knowing our intellectual curiosity would do that portion of the work for him. There was no need to foreground it; the simple inclusion of the question was enough.

For Nolan, his primary concern is intellectual, a complaint often lodged against his work but one I feel applies here for the first major time. He's trying in many cases to get us to feel, but comes up a little short (it's...interesting that the most emotionally-charged scene, Fischer's confrontation with his father, is essentially a sham) and doesn't back it up at the end. While that allows him a better last shot than a more emotionally-inclined director would allow himself, it only really works intellectually, to keep you guessing as to the reality of the moment, but the question of the spinning top is relatively pointless. It was Mal's totem before it was Cobb's, Cobb is the one who sets the rule that if it keeps spinning, it's a dream, and if it doesn't, it's not, and by this point, even if you don't buy that it's all a dream, Cobb is another in a long line of Nolan's unreliable narrators.

And intellectually, I'm onboard with what the film is after here, making Cobb a cripplingly flawed character, to the extent that, in spite of the massive conflicts the film introduces, the only villain is Cobb himself, or his subconscious anyway. That's a great concept for a summer blockbuster. By and large, the logistical and kinetic ways this is explored are fantastic. It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following Nolan's work to this point, but his craft in this regard is impeccable.

However, he film simply doesn't "hang" emotionally. The ending should be as gutting as it is electrifying, something Nolan managed to achieve in Memento and The Prestige, and I get the sense Nolan was aiming for it and just missed. At the very least, it feels crucial to the film's creative success.

I'm keen to see Inception again, and had hoped to do so before writing about it, but an extensive workload and my brother's fast-approaching wedding will keep that from happening for at least a week, but it was important to me to get some initial thoughts up while the Internet wanted it. If my opinions change or any new revelations occur, I'll be sure to write about this again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Squeaky-Clean Fun

I'm hardly the first person to pile onto this wreck of a Blu-Ray release, but read it anyway! Good times.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Solitary Man (dir. Brian Koppelman & David Levien)

That Michael Douglas, he's so smug.

There are certain kinds of movies I can watch again and again and again, from the people-trapped-in-a-confined-place genre film to the spare, artsy, wow-that's-an-impressive-shot-but-what-did-that-ending-mean? to the crackerjack-script thriller, but one I always forget about is the story of a man who can't stop screwing himself, and everyone he knows, over. Be it Raging Bull or The Wrestler the finer aspects of Iron Man 2, I'll watch hours of a man dig himself a deeper and deeper hole until there's no further to dig.

It's especially satisfying when it happens to Michael Douglas, an actor who has rarely, if ever, done much for me, but is absolutely wonderful here. Playing Ben Kalmen, a car salesman who's managed to squander his business, his marriage, and his personal relationships (and that's just by the beginning of the film), Douglas digs deep into his persona without completely unraveling it - the Michael Douglas character would never leave himself fully exposed. At least, not like that.

He does manage to leave himself physically exposed most nights of the week, chasing whatever woman will have him and more than a few who won't. The film's most uncomfortable moments, the necessary ones that most challenge our willingness to sympathize with Ben, stem from this most urgent of needs. It's to writer Brian Koppelman's credit that actions that may repulse us up front will be turn out to be the cause of our deepest sympathy, and Douglas' credit that he seems as disgusted as we are before long. There's a fine line between a morally corrupt character who revels in his corruption, and one who hates himself for actions he seems unable to prevent. Douglas walks the line with ease and charm, with self-doubt and fear trembling just under the surface.

Koppelman and co-director Levien have been a screenwriting team for over a decade since their debut, Rounders, but it hasn't been until recently, in their collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, that the two have managed to create truly worthwhile characters (through brief-but-indelible sketches in the underrated Ocean's Thirteen and an impressive series of moments in The Girlfriend Experience). Here, though Koppelman received the sole screenwriting credit, they've certainly created their finest, so even when the plot mechanics stretch themselves to kick Ben when he's down, or they give us an ending that undermines and guts so much of what has come before, it's not enough to tear down the entire structure.

They've also assembled an impressive, formidible supporting cast. Though most of them are playing familiar roles, Jenna Fischer brings more urgency to her performances than we've seen in years on The Office, Jesse Eisenberg hilariously nails key lines and has tremendous chemistry with Douglas, and Susan Sarandon, God bless her, is as heartfelt as ever. The big revelation comes in fantastically-named Imogen Poots - she's given liberty to have a lot of fun with her role, and she embraces it whole-heartedly.

It's not a stick-with-you kind of film. It's not going to make my year-end best. In two years, I'll have to be reminded it exists. But boy am I glad I caught it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Five Great Criterion Blu-Rays

In a date much anticipated by art house fans worldwide, the grand Criterion 50% off sale begins today at While it's hard to go too wrong with just about any of their selections, I wanted to spotlight five Blu-Rays that are really worth your time, and more than worth the few shillings they're charging during the sale (I've previously spotlighted ten of their DVDs, so feel free to reference that as well, as I still heartily recommend them). It was the Blu-Ray set of The Godfather trilogy that really converted me to Blu-Ray, but it wasn't until I saw Criterion's work that I really knew what the format was capable of. So if you're like me and you're desperately trying to stay within your budget while still taking advantage of this fantastic deals, here are some suggestions to make that journey even more difficult.

Red Desert - This will be my first and most urgent purchase during the sale, having watched it a few weeks ago and been absolutely awestruck. My brother has this whole thing of giving me books as gifts so that, even if I don't read them right away (if at all), they'll have a presence in my house, and there are some films I feel the same way towards - my cinematic soul will be better for the presence of Red Desert, and I can always take a peek at it when I need to glimpse perfection. And did I mention the special features include two short documentaries by Antonioni, a commentary, and a booklet with an interview with Antonioni by none other than Jean-Luc Godard? Among other things, naturally.

Last Year at Marienbad - Speaking of perfection. This is my second-favorite Criterion Blu-Ray in terms of just the look of the thing (sadly my favorite, The Third Man, is out of print). I first saw Alain Resnais' masterpiece on a shoddy dupe of a Region 2 disc, and while the movie is still good enough that it shook me through all junk holding back its total glory, the layers and depth revealed to me by this disc is astonishing. The special features are worth the price of admission alone - a ton of information on the production of this film (which is endlessly fascinating in a way film production rarely is, unless something goes Apocalypse Now-level wrong), a dissection of various interpretations, a truly wonderful booklet, and best of all, two short documentaries by Resnais that I recommend with the greatest urgency. I'd pay for it all over again if I had to.

Playtime - There are those who say you haven't seen this film until you see it projected on 70mm. That may very well be the case. Until then, this representation of the film on Blu-Ray is beyond satisfactory. I watched it with a small group, and the alternating joy and confusion of laughing at something nobody else noticed and desperately searching the frame to see what someone else was laughing at is one of those odd, wonderful, irreplaceable movie experiences. I haven't plunged into the Special Features, but with tons of interviews with writer/director Jacques Tati and a good chunk of behind-the-scenes info, I have a hard time seeing why it wouldn't be pretty damn cool.

Bigger Than Life - Every cinephile worth their salt has a few canonized directors who just don't do anything for them, and for a long time, Nicholas Ray has been mine. While it's no Party Girl (which I mean and I don't at the same time), Bigger Than Life is the most convincing argument I've been presented with that Nicholas Ray really is one of the greatest directors of all time. A stunning Technicolor transfer (Lord do I love Technicolor) and a ton of scholarly dissections make this a disc worth owning.

Stagecoach - First, if you haven't seen this movie, it's even more awesome than you'd ever expect. Second, be warned that the transfer is an honest representation of what a film looks like, which means it has, oh no, grain and scratches. For those of you who like movies and appreciate such things, it's a wonderful disc all around. Not only do you get one of the best classic westerns (it's between this and Red River for me), you get more special features than you could shake...well, something significantly larger than a stick. Like an entire silent film by John Ford. Or an hour-long interview with the man himself. Or an interview with Peter Bogdanovich about the film, or a visual essay analyzing the film's style, or how about every God damn thing you could ever want. It's extraordinary.

Bottom line, you really can't go wrong with Criterion Blu-Rays. I've seen a good chunk of the ones they've released, and can whole-heartedly recommend all of them. These are merely the ones that stand out. Let me know if you have any others you feel especially strongly towards!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fun With Miis!

Having recently acquired a Nintendo Wii, my girlfriend and I felt compelled to fill out our Mii selection (Miis are avatars you use to play various games, typically Wii Sports). In addition to populating it with friends and loved ones, we decided to include famous directors, actors, and characters from some of our favorite movies. See if you can guess (with a hint or two), leave your answers below, and be sure to head over to Misfortune Cookie Blog to see the rest!

1) There are rules.

2) Abides

3) British actress who has been aged backward and forward, but narrowly dodged immortality.

4) American director who loves hot rods and spaceships.

5) All you need is a gun and a girl...

6) ...but watch out for the cops!

7) Has high-contrast dreams

8) Young version of an American actor...more along the lines of motorcycles and pianos than motor homes.

9) My window taught me to frame things

10) Some would say he's sold out, but that WAS a really solid decade before that.

11) Bronx-born director often associated with working in London

12) Will someday play Conan O'Brien

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


There are few people in cinematic history who are as immediately arresting as Monica Vitti. It is not simply a matter of being beautiful - there are a lot of beautiful people, particularly in the movies. But a few people, a very few people, seem made for the cinema, and Vitti is at the absolute top of this list. Her every glance or expression will just stop you in your tracks - there are more than a few that don't even last a second but will stick with you forever.

This, and a great many other thoughts, are burning into my brain having witnessed Michelangelo Antonioni's breathtaking masterpiece Red Desert, courtesy of the new Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection. There are movies you wait to see for years and years and years that somehow manage to live up to the impossible expectations you've set for them. Then there are movies that completely reconfigure your whole idea of "expectations." Or movies, for that matter. That's Red Desert.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cyrus (dir. Jay & Mark Duplass)

Let's make no mistake - The Puffy Chair, the Duplass brothers' 2005 breakout film of sorts was no grand achievement. It's got its mistakes to be sure. But at the time, I hadn't heard so much as a peep from truly independent cinema, which was being represented by Garden State and its ilk - films that were technically independent but had enough finanical and star firepower behind them that they were ready-made for studio distribution.

The Puffy Chair was certainly not that. I didn't know anything about mumblecore, and I didn't totally love the movie, but it did shake me in some fundamental ways that, whatever your critic hat might say, are impossible to disregard.

Now it's 2010 and the brothers Duplass have written and directed a new film produced by no less than Ridley and Tony Scott and featuring stars both studio comic (John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill) and quasi-independent (Catherine Keener and Marisa Tomei), enhancing none of their aesthetic shortcomings and abandoning everything that made The Puffy Chair feel fresh and vital. Here, Reilly plays a John, a man at the end of his rope - he hasn't come close to recovering from his divorce seven years ago when his ex-wife (Keener) invites him to a house party. There he meets Molly (Tomei), and everything is going great until he finds out that she has a son, Cyrus (Hill), who's still living at home at twenty-one and has certain...attachment issues. It quickly becomes clear that Cyrus doesn't want his mom dating anyone, and will do whatever it takes to get John out of the picture. It's a situation ripe for comedy or drama, and the Duplass' try to have it both ways and end up with nothing.

Cyrus, like The Puffy Chair and most other films that would come to be classified mumblecore, was shot digitally and handheld, and was mostly improvised, theoretically to enhance the "you-are-there"ness of it all, but it doesn't quite take here. The constant zooms call too much attention to the medium to ever put you in the midst of it, never mind the absurd, totally unmotivated montages.

The montages are undoubtedly the middle section's most troublesome aspect. Most of this area plays quite well - it's frequently funny, tense in some nice ways, and moderately compelling in a sort of "okay...well, let's see where this goes" sort of way. There are especially some nice moments revealing John's desperation in the dating field, and once he and Cyrus really start to go at it, every scene they have together is gold. But little things sneak in that are so far afield from the kind of film this is trying to be. The montages, in which conversations play out over images of the people in question hanging out, reveal the dark side of an improvised film - what happens when your actors don't have an interesting conversation? I'm just guessing here, but the montages feel very pieced together, taking bits of improvised dialogue and forming a scene like a puzzle made of ill-fitting pieces - it kind of works when you really jam it in there and stand back far enough, but the seams are showing. And when so much of the method is eager to make everything very natural-/realistic, these are very jarring.

I'll skip the bit about how Tomei and Keener don't have fleshed-out characters to play (except to say that Molly is either as damaged as Cyrus, or very, very dumb), because honestly, at this point it's not really worth making a big stink over anymore. It's just the lay of the land. Reilly and Hill are doing to best they can here (and between this and Get Him to the Greek, Hill seems more capable than we'd previously thought), but their characters each make very sudden, very poorly conceived decisions late in the film and are left scrambling to try and justify them. Everything after John's stupid decision is just a mess, and pretty much unravels any good will the film had garnered before.

I was really looking forward to Cyrus - I was excited to see John C. Reilly doing dramatic work again, and very curious about Jonah Hill, never mind getting a new film from the Duplass' that was perhaps a little bit more up their alley than Baghead (which, all its faults admitted, is still worth watching). Cyrus, alas, is the Duplass' first real stumble since they became a cinematic presence - a film unsure of its tone, characters, themes, or ideas.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Knight and Day (dir. James Mangold)

I've been struggling all week with how to discuss Knight and Day. Because you don't want to oversell it. I mean, it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, and there's a point where the screenwriters (and there were plenty) make a pretty horrible decision that stops the movie dead for a solid twenty minutes. And there is the matter of that title...

But on the other hand, I desperately want to tell everyone that this is awesome. I can't IMAGINE what this movie would be like for someone who didn't have high hopes for it, because I was actually excited to see this and it still swept me off my feet. It's the kind of storytelling Hollywood used to be known for - beat your script into the ground until it works, dammit! - but now utilizes all too rarely. Thankfully, the film isn't simply an imitation. It isn't trying to emulate old classics (Charade, North by Northwest, or the early James Bond films) as much as it has fully digested them and given us those same delights in a modern package.

Tom Cruise (one of the few movie stars willing to give everything he has, no matter what the film) plays Roy Miller, a superspy of the Ethan Hunt variety who has recently either suffered a complete mental collapse or discovered a plot within the FBI that he is seeking to expose. We really can't tell, and more importantly, neither can June (Cameron Diaz). June is, improbably enough, the manager of an auto shop, who is traveling on business when she meets, and is to some extent kidnapped, by Roy - he believes the FBI will kill her simply for having been exposed to Roy (it's a bit more complicated than that, but that'd be telling). From there they'll find themselves in Boston, Brooklyn, a private island, a train in the Alps, and a grand finish in Spain.

The film largely coasts, as these sorts of films do, on the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz, who are absolutely fantastic together. They have a big, getting-to-know-you kind of scene that goes on way longer than most scenes are allowed to these days, especially in an action film, but it locks these two together for us. Yes, the film is selling an unconvincing romance between them, but honestly, who gives a damn? More informed viewers will recall that Charade had a great pair of actors - Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn - who simply never should have been presented in a romantic context. Thing is, both movies are a blast, so nobody gives it much concern.

Fact is, though Cruise and Diaz have both given fine performances in the past (Cruise especially seems destined to never get his proper due), this is the most fun they have been in a very long time. Cruise is given instant license to cut loose, and as incredible a performance as it is, he actually remains fairly restrained, making consistently brilliant choices to navigate some tricky territory. He successfully plays to the character, the audience's preconceptions of Cruise himself, and the is-he-or-isn't-he-crazy question that dominates much of the narrative. That he can do this and still be so magnetic (in a way similar to, but very distinct from, Jerry Maguire) is the kind of thing that very few actors ever have the license to do, and even fewer can pull off.

Diaz, meanwhile, has to play the Cameron Diaz type who is suddenly thrust into a world of violence and mayhem, and while the script has a couple of really unfortunate, ditzy-girl moments (as in the one shown in the trailer, where she is surrounded by gunfire and rather than, say, move out of the way, she simply spins around in a circle and screams), she mostly just reacts to these situations as a person. And most people wouldn't know what to do in a high-speed chase, have never handled a firearm before (much less an automatic weapon), and try to avoid violence in their everyday lives. Diaz plays fear, shock, and resistance very well here, skirting the edge of genuine concern while maintaining the film's entertainment-first goals. When the film finally does give her license to have as much fun as Cruise has been having, her gusto is a genuinely wonderful thing to watch.

Director James Mangold has shown a special knack in the past for bringing out the best in formulaic films - the heart of the biopic romance in Walk the Line, the excitement of a Western shootout in 3:10 to Yuma - but he's really knocked it out of the park here. Pace and timing is everything, as the film has to move fast enough to keep us hooked, slow down enough to develop Roy and June's relationship (and even if the romance doesn't work, they do develop a convincing bond over the course of the film), and land the many laughs the film puts out there. Breathless, light fun is one of the hardest things to pull off in all of cinema (which is probably why nobody makes fun live-action movies anymore), so I'm even willing to forgive the twenty-or-so-minute stumble at the end of the second act because everything else is just so...perfect.

The way Mangold sets up and pays off the fun bits of tension is extraordinary. None of the suspense stems from dread, so Mangold sets it up more like a slight tickle, a tease. The action is clean, coherent, very well paced. Set pieces should play like music or dance, and while others are wrestling to craft grand symphonies, Mangold here has mastered the concerto. Cuts are there for a reason, not simply to be economical in his coverage - if he can accomplish something in a one shot (and there's one in particular that is maybe the most inspired shot I've seen all year), he'll just go for it.

He creates a really interesting, very cinematic tone to the film, the sort of otherworldly vibe that radiates from classic Hollywood films where an artificial environment is very purposefully created and maintained - he never once tries to pretend this isn't a movie. Because of this, the fact that the seams show on CGI is not a detriment as many have declared, but in fact to the film's advantage. The distancing created when we can feel the presence of an artificial environment is something alternately battled (as in the fourth Indiana Jones) and embraced (most recently and successfully in Shutter Island), but it used to be commonplace in classic Hollywood cinema in rear-projection and more artificial sets, which were such pervasive parts of the pictures that one comes to accept and love them, as one does a stage at the theater. That something looks "fake" doesn't automatically means it looks "bad." It just has to look "right," and Knight and Day looks exactly as it should, all the time.

What else is there to say? Knight and Day is a wonderful film. Smart, genuinely fun - the joy comes as often from the wordplay and the characters as it does from the car chases (sometimes all at once!) - it calls to mind the globe-trotting adventures of yesteryear without referencing or imitating. I'm not going to lie and say it's perfect, because no, of course it's not. What is? But its tone is so delightful, the performances turned all the way to "fun," and so frequently inspired that I just adore it through and through.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Eighty Thirty Next Saturday...

Per Glenn Kenny's open suggestion, I finally got around to watching Joseph Losey's These Are The Damned. It was introduced to me as a fine bit of sci-fi/horror, and I will simply leave it at that in terms of content description. It's an absolutely stunning film, with one of the more...ahhh I shouldn't say. Let's just say I was not expecting it to be so...haunting. It's also incredibly brave in its structure, particularly by today's standards - the game isn't given up until fifteen or twenty minutes before the end, and without any sort of "twist" to necessitate its positioning, and we don't even have a hint of what the game is until...halfway through the film? Even better, it's the rare revelation of a very compelling mystery that absolutely pays off.

It's available on DVD in a box set of Hammer Films, and you can get it through Netflix (it's paired up with Never Take Candy From a Stranger, which I regretably didn't have time to get to).