Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Moment #15

This is it for this week. More to come next week.

Monday, May 28, 2007

From a Polish Movie House #1

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, Sam Peckinpah)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Face Time #3

Wallace Shawn

Memorable death addendum

In case you needed a little incentive to check out The Screengrab's weekly list, which this week covers The Most Unforgettable Death Scenes of All Time, let me just say this- the competition for the list was pretty fierce. Some of my submissions didn't end up making the cut. I'm reserving one of them for a later date, partially because I might be able to use it over there. But here's another one I did, and I'm posting it here by way of saying that if this one got the axe, imagine how good the ones that made it must be. Ladies and gents, I give you...

Keith Loneker, OUT OF SIGHT

You can keep your Marvins and your Wheezy Joes- to my eyes, there’s no death scene funnier than Loneker’s in OUT OF SIGHT. On paper, White Boy Bob is a quintessential Elmore Leonard bit player- a hulking, tough-talking thug with an unfortunate tendency toward clumsiness. At several points during the film, we see White Boy Bob randomly tripping over nothing in particular, but director Steven Soderbergh films these moments so offhandedly that it’s easy to mistake Bob’s stumbling for a random character quirk. But Leonard and Soderbergh know their setup-and-payoff better than that. As Chekhov might have said, never introduce a clumsy character in the first act unless you plan to use the clumsiness in the third. So it goes with White Bob Boy, who gets the drop on our hero, played by George Clooney, near the end of the movie. As Clooney stands at the top of a staircase, Bob points a gun at him from the bottom, and Clooney knows he’s in trouble. But Bob should have had more confidence in his marksmanship- rather than firing from where he is, Bob decides to climb the stairs to get closer. Big mistake. Halfway up the stairs, his gun still drawn on Clooney, Bob falls, accidentally firing the gun through his own head. The reason it works is because it’s so sudden- had Soderbergh lingered on the scene (which takes less time to watch than it takes you to read this sentence), it wouldn’t have been nearly as funny. And Clooney’s reaction is priceless- he freeze, shocked, for a second, then cocks his head to the side as if to say, “well, that was a freebie.”

Clark's Folly '07

Last week my pal Andrew Bemis unveiled an ongoing experiment over at his blog, one that entailed ranking directors based on the average rating he's given their films. For many, a list like this would seem odd, but not to me. After all- and here's where I tell my dirty little secret- I've been doing the same for years. The funny thing is that I've long been tempted to unveil mine to my readership, with the rationale that if I'm going to spend so much time on something I might as well share it. I guess Andrew posting his list is as good an excuse as any.

First, the ground rules for the list. The primary factor for eligibility was that I have to have seen five or more feature films from each director, with "feature films" defined as anything over forty minutes in duration. I then made a list of every film I've seen by each filmmaker listed, and rated the films on the 4-star scale, as I do with all "classic" titles. Seemed easier to translate newer movies into the old scale than to translate the older stuff into the 10-point scale. I'll explain more later on.

One thing that really stood out is how top-loaded the list is with old-school filmmakers, while the bottom tier is almost exclusively modern-day directors. I guess a lot of this has to do with my generally avoiding bad movies. While I might occasionally catch a crappy new release (this was especially true when I worked at the theatre) I actively shy away from bad old movies. This is as good an explanation as any- after all, if you're learning about a filmmaker, you watch the canonical stuff first, then work your way through the other well-reviewed movies. Sometimes you end up watching, say, THE SERPENT'S EGG (the primary reason why Bergman isn't ranked higher), but most of the time you do OK.

And now, the top 10, or actually 11:

1. Buster Keaton- I kind of expected him to be near the top, but the truth is he more or less ran away with the top spot here. The funny thing is that had I included short films his ranking would have been even higher, whereas had I included films he wasn't credited for but for which he's generally accepted that he was at least a co-director, his average would have certainly be lower.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer- the perfect example of a director who fares well here because he (a) took his time making movies, and (b) was consistently great. On the other side of the coin is Robert Altman, who I adore as a director but who made some real clunkers that brought his average down.

3 (tie). Robert Bresson- another gimme, I'd say. All that's really missing is me seeing FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER.

3 (tie). Stanley Kubrick- another "no duh" pick.

5. Howard Hawks- a strange realization I had when compiling this list is that it was sometimes inconsistent with my top 25 directors list from a few months back. I hadn't included Dreyer because I didn't think I'd seen enough at that point to make a definitive judgment, although now that I've seen DAY OF WRATH I feel pretty comfortable calling him a favorite. Hawks, on the other hand, is a stranger case. While I love a lot of his movies (obviously) I don't really think of him when thinking of directors I love. Is it the art-film snob in me, or is it just my "favorite" filmmakers in a subjective sense (as compared to...?) tend to be ones who insist on their own sensibilities? Because although Hawks movies always feel like Hawks movies, they're also great Hollywood movies, which I suppose can throw me off the scent.

6. Ernst Lubitsch- I've only seen five movies by this guy, none of them from before 1932, so I'm not sure I can really call him a favorite. But everything I've seen is awesome, so I've either chosen really well or I've got a good time in store for me. Or maybe both, who knows.

7 (tie). Krzystzof Kieslowski- I included THE DECALOGUE here as one work, although I went back and forth about it. Oh well, it's my list, and if I can make the rules I can bend them too.

7 (tie). Peter Watkins- the highest-ranked filmmaker on my list who is still alive. Too bad he announced his retirement a few years ago.

9. Michael Powell- he'd be ranked higher had I only liked A CANTERBURY TALE a little more.

10 (tie). Charlie Chaplin- the biggest surprise here. I don't consider myself a fan- Keaton's my man, as you can see- but it's hard to get around such classics as THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, and especially M. VERDOUX.

10 (tie). Andrei Tarkovsky- talk about your strange bedfellows...

The entire list can be found here. The "on-deck" list- of directors by whom I only need to see one more film before they qualify- can be found right over here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Movie Moment #14

Also this week:

When Good Directors Go Bad #4: The Serpent's Egg- You know I love Bergman, but yuck.

The Most Unforgettable Death Scenes of All Time, part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4- I wrote up John Cusack, plus a few others that didn't make the cut for reasons that are too boring to go into here. Maybe I'll post them here sometime.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Movie Moment, uh, Moment

A few days ago a friend asked me how I come up with ideas for my weekly Movie Moment piece. To be honest, I wasn't sure how to answer him. There's no one method I use for choosing great moments, although if there was a foolproof way I'd probably use it, since sometimes it takes quite a bit of thought to come up with a good one.

Naturally, there are certain movies I definitely want to do. For example, it was only a matter of time before I'd write something about BELLE DE JOUR. But at the same time I don't want to simply go down my top 100 list checking off titles. I highly doubt I'll ever write about CITIZEN KANE, or CASABLANCA, or even TAXI DRIVER, since those movies have been picked apart so many times that I doubt I could find anything fresh or interesting to say about them.

In addition, when I do choose a beloved and acclaimed movie, I don't always like to choose the scenes that everyone knows are awesome. Take NASHVILLE, which I wrote about a few months ago. As anyone who has seen it can attest, NASHVILLE is full of obviously great scenes, scenes which have seared themselves into the memories of those who love the movie. But rather than picking one of the myriad excellent musical numbers or even Sueleen's shamefaced impromptu strip tease, I opted for a quieter dialogue scene, one that I thought embodied Robert Altman's greatness as well as any of the bigger stuff.

As with any movie lover, I have my favorite filmmakers, and I would like to write something about each of them while I have the chance. But because I love their work so much, I prefer to spotlight great but unheralded works of theirs rather than the classics we all know and love. When I decided it was time to take on Kubrick, I selected as my subject not 2001 or DR. STRANGELOVE, but LOLITA, a lesser Kubrick in the eyes of many. Despite the public consensus, I'm a big fan of the film, and I wanted to shed some light on it, perhaps motivating a reader to return to it with a new perspective.

When it comes to actually writing the articles, it's usually harder than it would seem. I almost always re-watch the movie I'm writing about, or if I've seen it recently enough or a sufficient number of times, I'll certainly re-watch the scene in question a few times and take notes. More often than not I'll formulate a basic theme for the piece before I even watch the movie, so I can better approach the scene from that angle. And then I just type up the piece. Most of the time I'll write it in two or three sittings, depending on how good my initial attempt is. On a few occasions (like NASHVILLE) the first sitting will flow out of me easily, and I'll end up going more or less with what I initially wrote.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. Rarer still is something like LA BELLE NOISEUSE, which felt almost TOO easy. I wanted to write something about Rivette sooner or later, but I when I recently saw NOISEUSE again on the big screen, I wasn't watching it with the intention of writing about it. It wasn't until the scene I got to the face-sketching scene that I was taken by how simply perfect it was, and I knew I had to write about it. I wrote down exactly one note (the line "you get stuck inside of what you're searching for") and when I got home I typed out the piece in less than 45 minutes. Sometimes I wish it was that easy every time.

Finally, in our conversation the other night, my friend also stated that, much as he's enjoyed the Moments I've chosen thusfar, none of them are scenes he personally would have chosen. But of course they aren't- we all have different tastes in movies, and different stuff that catches our eye. Most of the examples he cited could be described as "cool semi-random stuff," which while it's cool isn't really something that lingers in my memory (maybe this explains why AUDITION is by far my favorite Miike film, since it actually integrates the cool shit into the story so it doesn't feel random at all). This is not to say I won't write something in the future about something along those lines- I just haven't yet. Really, the only thing that separates a great scene that I'll write up and one that I won't is that I have to be at least pretty sure I can write a page or so about it without resorting to "remember when that happened that was awesome" over and over again.

Hope you all enjoy the Movie Moments so far, and I also hope the Moments to come continue to be up to snuff.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Face time #2 (Genetic arithmetic)

Nathalie Baye


Johnny Hallyday


Laura Smet

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Movie Moment #13

Also this week:

Cinema's Greatest Offscreen Feuds, Part 1 and Part 2- I blurbed Altman/Beatty, Norton/Kaye, and Gilliam/Universal. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to write something about the last one?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Six more defining films- addendum to this week's Onion AV Club Inventory list

I’m the kind of movie-lover who always enjoys a good list. As long as the entries on the list are well-chosen, it doesn’t matter how seemingly insignificant the criteria are. One of the most interesting I’ve read lately was this week’s Onion AV Club Inventory, entitled “12 Films That Defined Their Decades.” Not only is this an interesting topic- combining the greatness of a movie to the way it reflects the time in which it was made- but nearly all of their choices were solid.

So why post a response list? Well, in my never-ending quest to provide semi-new and moderately interesting content for both of you readers out there, I thought it would be fun to think about. As I’ve learned from my list-making experiences over at ScreenGrab (they should pay me for plugging them like the dude in IDIOCRACY gets paid for mentioning Carl’s Jr.) half the film of making the lists is the second-guessing, the “hey, why isn’t such-and-such included?” of the thing. A really good list isn’t meant to be definitive- it’s meant to stir up debate. And I guess what I’m doing here is my rebuttal, my “yeah, but,” contribution to the AV Club list.

In making my list, I decided to stick to the second half of their timeframe. To be honest, I had a hard time coming up with many choices for the years up to 1949. Either I haven’t seen enough to make a good judgment, or I couldn’t think of enough compelling alternatives to make it worth my while. Instead, I decided to tackle one movie per decade from the fifties onward. You probably won’t agree with them all, but that’s half the fun.


A Face in the Crowd- television was still a young medium when 1957 rolled around, but it had already taken America by storm. Face may not have been the first movie to deal with television, but it was certainly the first to tackle the subject head-on. The film focuses on the meteoric rise of Lonesome Rhoades, a down’n’out musician whose plain-folks persona quickly turns him into a sensation. Director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s most fascinating gambit is their on-target assertion that television is most of all a selling medium- whether it’s vitamin supplements, political candidates, or the American way of life, television’s primary strength is how it presents the image of the way things ought to be, and if real life doesn’t match up, then real life tends to adjust itself to television rather than the other way around.

Other possibilities: Imitation of Life, Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment (which I realize was released in 1960 but still feels very much a 50s film)


Faces- by 1968, the Sexual Revolution was in full swing, but not everyone was equally prepared to deal with it. Rather than focusing on the kids, John Cassavetes instead viewed the period through the eyes of middle-aged Richard and Maria Forst, each of whom was trying to make sense of it in his own way. Uneasily attempting to shake of the morality that has served them well over the years, Richard and Maria experiment outside their marriage, he by visiting a prostitute, she by partying with a free-spirited young man. But if the Forsts’ marriage brings them little joy, their affairs scarcely bring more, and at the end of the night they end up more or less as before. By applying his warts-and-all storytelling approach to their lives, Cassavetes manages to portray the chaos, desperation, and emotional turmoil these new adventures have brought to the Forsts’ lives.

Other possibilities: L'Amour Fou, Blowup, Masculin-Feminin


The Mother and the Whore- with the Sixties drawing the close, where could society hope to go? Jean Eustache’s mammoth counterculture postmortem doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it’s no less an achievement for asking the question. The film presents three characters- Alexandre, a layabout who fancies himself a philosopher; Veronika, a promiscuous nurse; and Marie, a slightly older businesswoman who takes care of Alexandre. In various combinations, the three of them get together, drink, screw, and bullshit- but mostly bullshit. Eustache and his cast portray the characters’ interaction not as a sexual roundelay but rather as the dying-off of a very long party, complete with the resultant hangover.

Other possibilities: The Conversation, Dawn of the Dead, Taxi Driver


Scarface- the tagline said it all: “he loved the American Dream. With a vengeance.” Following his deportation from Cuba in the Mariel Boat Lift, Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) arrives in Miami and quickly rises from nothing to become a drug kingpin. How does he do it? Not by being the smartest man in the room, or the strongest, but the most ruthless. As Tony explains, “all I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for nobody.” After the go-getter philosophies of the Me Decade, Tony Montana was nothing less than its slimiest and most amoral characteristics manifested in one vividly-rendered character. With his garishly opulent lifestyle and snarling bravado, Tony is the prototype for the eighties alpha male, and our culture is still feeling the fallout.

Other possibilities: Crimes and Misdemeanors, Do the Right Thing, Paris, Texas


Hoop Dreams- it’s probably cheating to include this here, since the idea of a documentary is to, y’know, “document,” but I can’t think of another movie that speaks to a very specific nineties mindset better than Hoop Dreams. Two inner-city teenagers, charged by images of athletic glory, pursue against all odds a career in the NBA. However, the real world has other plans- one struggles both academically and on the court and ends up losing his private-school scholarship, while the other has more success until he sustains an injury. Hoop Dreams is a key film of its time not just for the way it shows two young men pinning their futures on a goal that’s near-impossible to achieve, but also for showing the other side of the coin, when one of the boys’ mothers is able to achieve the comparatively modest but no less worthy goal of graduating first in her night school class.

Other possibilities: Defending Your Life, Seven, Three Colors trilogy


demonlover- maybe a couple of other recent films have remarked on the way the world is now, but how many have so vividly encapsulated the way the world is going? What does demonlover get right? Let’s see… the positioning of multinational corporations as the new global superpowers? Check. The ceding of individual will to the corporate entity? Check. The frantic pace of technology, with which it has become near-impossible for those on the inside just to keep up? Check. Heck, even the boardroom intrigues ring absolutely true, with long-term loyalty paling in comparison with results-mindedness and jockeying for supremacy. Above all, demonlover is one of the few narrative films of the new millennium that attempts to carve out a new and cutting-edge cinematic vocabulary, one in which the narrative is experienced almost subliminally, so bombarded are we with imagery.

Other possibilities: Code Unknown, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, High Fidelity

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Face time #1

One of the great pleasures of being a regular filmgoer is the array of great faces one sees. I'm not just talking about gorgeous women here, but actors- male and female- whose faces are fascinating to look at. Faces with character, faces not easily forgotten. Norma Desmond famously said, "they had faces then," referring to the dearth of great faces in the contemporary cinema of the time. But then, I'm not sure she ever watched any new movies, so she obviously missed the amazing visages of everyone from Gene Tierney to Charles Laughton. It's a tradition that continues today, provided you are willing to look.

I've been mulling over doing this as a semi-regular thing on my blog for a while now. Dennis has a similar thing over at his blog, but since it's been a while I figured it was fair game for me to do too. I'll try not to steal any of your chosen faces, Dennis.

From here on out, it'll just be a face and a name, no commentary. Because why bother writing about something that's right there for you to see? Anyway, here you go.

Mads Mikkelsen

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Movie Moment #12

Also this week:

When Good Directors Go Bad #3: 1941- again, sorry Dennis.

The Worst Screen Mothers of All Time, Part 1 and Part 2- I blurbed Anjelica Huston, Charlotte Rampling, Elizabeth Moody, and one more which I'll leave you to guess.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Muriel Awards 2007 FYC #2

Best Breakthrough Performance: Carice Van Houten, Black Book

It's probably too early to start stumping for Best Lead Actress performances at this point in the year- it tends to get pretty competitive, after all- but even now it's hard to imagine anyone beating out Van Houten as this year's breakthrough performance. I admit that some of this has to do with the eccentricities of foreign-film distribution in the USA, which permits great talent to fly under American radar for years. But the real issue is Van Houten herself who, as they used to say of up-and-coming stars, definitely has It. Classic-star gorgeous, blazingly sexy, tough as nails, and fearless- all this and she's got talent and charisma to burn. The movie belongs to her, and she's up to the task, so compulsively watchable (for more than just aesthetic reasons) that you can't take your eyes off her, whether she's escaping a Nazi ambush, crooning for a Third Reich officers' shindig (did she do her own vocals?), or having a vat of human excrement dumped on her by her newly-nationalistic countrymen. Paul Verhoeven said that he's been working on this project for the past two decades- I like to think it's because he was waiting for Van Houten to become available.

Personal Movie Quiz thing

In the interest of bringing you new-ish content while stirring up some discussion, I decided to post here my responses to a little quiz Theo passed along a while back. The questions are a little basic (whoever wrote them is certainly no Professor Irwin Corey) but it's still pretty fun. Some of you may have already taken this elsewhere, but for those who haven't, go nuts. Also, don't worry Dennis- I don't plan to make this a regular thing.

I may add more notes later on if time permits.

1. Name a movie that you have seen more than 10 times.


2. Name a movie that you've seen multiple times in the theater.

JURASSIC PARK. Six times on its original release (four at the dollar theatre- hey, I was 15), and once at a midnight show a few years back.

3. Name an actor that would make you more inclined to see a movie.

Female: Isabelle Huppert.
Male: Ray Winstone.

4. Name an actor that would make you less likely to see a movie.

Chris Tucker. I knew I was going to love JACKIE BROWN as soon as Ordell blew Beaumont's brains out (hey, that's a poem!). Although anymore he only makes movies with the words "Rush" and "Hour" in the title, which makes it much easier on me. Thanks, Chris!

5. Name a movie that you can and do quote from.

ANNIE HALL. I know I've found someone cool when they quote it back.

6. Name a movie musical that you know all of the lyrics to all of the songs.

Used to be ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, back in my high school years. Now? A HARD DAY'S NIGHT!

7. Name a movie that you have been known to sing along with.

8 WOMEN. Although to be fair my French is rusty to the point where some of the lyrics turn into "le watermelon."

8. Name a movie that you would recommend everyone see.


9. Name a movie that you own.

Random selection- THEY ALL LAUGHED.

10. Name an actor that launched his/her entertainment career in another medium but who has surprised you with his/her acting chops.

I don't like country music, but Dwight Yoakam has turned out to be a pretty interesting actor. But David Bowie is the right answer here.

11. Have you ever seen a movie in a drive-in? If so, what?

We used to go a few times a year when I was little. Only one I can think of is THE NAKED GUN.

12. Name a movie that you keep meaning to see but just haven't yet gotten around to it.

A NOS AMOURS. Among others.

13. Ever walked out of a movie?

Yes, though I don't do it very often unless it's deeply offensive or there are technical issues, like when I bailed on THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP last fall due to severe ghosting.

14. Name a movie that made you cry in the theater.

THE IRON GIANT. I got weird looks from the parents who were there, though no more so than I did just for seeing it by myself at a Saturday afternoon show full of kids.

15. Popcorn?

Never in the theatre, sometimes at home. Those 100-calorie packs are just about the right size.

16. How often do you go to the movies (as opposed to renting them or watching them at home)?

As often as something good is playing. Two or three times a week, I'd say.

17. What's the last movie you saw in the theater?

L'AMOUR FOU. Hell yes.

18. What's your favorite/preferred genre of movie?

I liked this question better when it was "what kind of movies do you like?" That way, I could respond "good ones."

19. What's the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?


20. What movie do you wish you had never seen?


21. What is the weirdest movie you enjoyed?

Hard to say. I like "weird" movies, and it'd be hard to pick just one (A recently-viewed contender would be THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT). An easier question might be- What's the weirdest movie I HAVEN'T enjoyed?

22. What is the scariest movie you've seen?

I used to say ALIEN until I saw AUDITION.

23. What is the funniest movie you've seen?

Buster Keaton's THE SCARECROW. "I don't care how she votes, I'm gonna marry her!" Although when I need a laugh, I'm just as likely to put in something from TV- MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, or POLICE SQUAD!- as I am a movie.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Movie Moment #11

Also this week:

The Greatest Remakes, Part 1 and Part 2- I blurbed A Star Is Born and Nosferatu the Vampyre

Slow week... but expect more next week.