Thursday, August 30, 2007

When Good Directors Go Bad #10

(click image above for bonus NSFW still from this week's selection, Jean-Claude Brisseau's The Exterminating Angels. Don't say I never did anything for you)

Also this week:

Worst Literary Adaptations, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3- I only had time for The Scarlet Letter and Lady in the Lake this week, although I nearly chose a few others before deciding to hold off so I could write When Good Directors Go Bad columns about them.

Focus on Foreign Films- a spotlight on Edward Copeland's foreign films poll. Vote!

Trailer Roundup- I'm Not There. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Shine a Light.

Monday, August 27, 2007

From a Polish Movie House #14

Fat City (1972, John Huston)

Also, apparently Tony Scott, Bryan Singer, and Rob Reiner are all greater filmmakers than Buster Keaton. Wait, what?

Spotlight: 5 Feel-Bad Musicals (now with video!)

Of all the genres of movies out there, none maintains such a direct connection to the emotions as the musical. Most musicals have used this power to evoke in audiences an ecstatic joy, but a chosen few have had a different goal in mind. Here are five of them- all are excellent, but none of them really leaves you floating on air.

West Side Story- coming at the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood musicals, this adaptation of Leonard Bernstein's Broadway smash combined the elaborate choreography of its predecessors with the blue-collar, inner-city milieu that had become more prevalent over the past decade. The story combines the ill-fated lovers of Romeo and Juliet with a touch of the social-problem picture, and although it's leavened with great music and powerhouse dancing, it's nonetheless a far cry from Gene Kelly hanging from a lamp post. If downbeat musicals can be classified a subgenre, this was the wellspring.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg- more than four decades later, Jacques Demy's masterpiece remains the ultimate musical weepie. The film cannily charms you early on with its candy colored storefronts, singing mechanics, and the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, all of it set to a gorgeous stem-to-stern Michel Legrand song score. But around the time we really start to love the lovely but shallow lovers, life decides it has other plans for them, and promptly tears them apart. As each learns to live without the other, their characters become more substantial, but at the cost of their youthful innocence. Umbrellas is one of the rare musicals with a theme that's entirely pragmatic, dealing with the tragic inevitability of setting aside childish dreams and growing the hell up. Also, I believe that modern medicine has proven that anyone who doesn't get choked up by the time the film reaches its final scene (posted above) doesn't have a soul.

All That Jazz- of all filmmakers who tackled musicals during the 1970s, Bob Fosse was the most successful. His earlier film Cabaret was a strong contender for this list, lest we forget, for example, that Liza's final showstopping number is sung to a room full of Nazis. But this list is unimaginable without All That Jazz, in which Fosse adopts the template of 8 1/2 to display his own foibles and frailties. Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon is a real piece of work- a pill-popping, womanizing, authority-bucking, workaholic genius- and Fosse to his credit gives us one of the most lacerating cinematic portraits of an artist ever made, all the more startling because the artist is himself. More than that, Fosse paints show business as an industry that not only encourages but rewards people like this, forgiving them their sins and enabling their addictions until every little drop of life has been wrung out of them. The film's final scene says it all- Gideon's corpse being zipped up in a bodybag as "There's No Business Like Show Business" plays in the background.

(apologies for the poor video quality)

Pennies From Heaven- audiences in 1981 were caught completely unawares by this film, with the famously wild-and-crazy Steve Martin cast as a two-timing, down'n'out sheet music salesman whose only solace is in his own fantasy world, inspired by big-screen musicals. Herbert Ross' astounding production numbers hearken back to the heyday of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, celebrating their graceful hoofing and complex blocking while highlighting the lockstep form of good cheer that made them almost off-putting. But even more disturbing is the contrast between these scenes and the film's "real" world, in which Martin browbeats his puritanical wife, seduces, impregnates, and abandons small-town schoolteacher Bernadette Peters (which leads her into becoming a prostitute) and ends up being executed for a murder he didn't commit. The film was written by the great Dennis Potter, based on his BBC miniseries, and true to his style nearly all of the songs in the film are lip-synched to period recordings. The exception is in the climactic number, in which Martin, standing atop the gallows, speak-sings the title song to the audience, so deep has he fallen into his delusions. Of all the bitter pills on this list, Pennies From Heaven may be the toughest to swallow.

Dancer in the Dark- Lars Von Trier has never been known for his cheerful visions, and when he announced he was making a musical there were quite a few raised eyebrows. But rather than crafting a joyful romp, Von Trier went in the opposite direction, making perhaps the most emotionally draining film of his career. Much like Pennies From Heaven, Dancer's protagonist Selma (an raw performance by the inimitable Björk) escapes from her dreary existence through song, but unlike Ross' film, Von Trier barely makes any visual distinction between Selma's fantasies and her harsh reality. Selma is a martyr in the tradition of silent melodrama, sacrificing everything- her eyesight, her freedom, and finally her life- to save the son from the congenital eye disease that plagues her. Dancer in the Dark is a major film, and an important one, but even more than other films on the list, it's so oppressively melodramatic that I'm not sure I'd ever want to subject myself to it again. But no matter- it hits you so hard the first time around that you won't forget it.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Famous Last Words #2

I've been mulling over Famous Last Words for a while now, with last week's quote the one I planned to start with. But it was Andrew Bemis' recent top 10 list of great voiceover narration that spurred me to kick this feature off last week. However, I was greatly saddened that none of you recognized this quote, the immortal final lines from Andrew's #1 pick, Terence Malick's Days of Heaven. Could it possibly be that you've never seen it? If so, shame on you. It's a stone cold masterpiece, and pretty soon you will have no excuse not to have seen it.

But perhaps a different strategy is in order to get this series revved up. I'm not sure you could get much further from Malick's early-period stunner than this film, the final lines of which are found below with the names removed:

“Where ya headed, cowboy?”
“Nowhere special.”
“Nowhere special... I always wanted to go there.”
“Come on.”

Name the movie. I KNOW that at least some of you have seen this one...

Havin' a larf

With sad musicals highlighted in the previous post, I figured I'd rebound by posting something on the lighter side. Behold, one of the funniest musical numbers of recent years...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie Moment(s) #25

Also this week:

Under the NYFF- a better-late-than-never rundown of this year's New York Film Festival slate

Great Cameos in Film History: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3- I wrote up Mr. DeMille. And man, I can't believe someone scooped me on Merv Griffin...

Trailer Roundup- Walk Hard. Michael Clayton. Dan in Real Life.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tilting at Windmills

One of the most buzzed about events among cinematic bloggers this past month has been “31 Days of Spielberg,” on the blog Windmills of My Mind. As the title implies, blogger Damian Arlyn set himself the goal of reviewing at length every film by his favorite director, as well as some TV episodes and even a movie (Poltergeist) that Spielberg produced but didn’t direct. It was a mammoth undertaking, and eventually each day’s review was being spotlighted by the great Matt Zoller Seitz on his popular and highly cinema-savvy blog, The House Next Door. However, ever since it was revealed on this past week that Arlyn had appropratied sections of Warren Buckland’s book Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster without proper attribution, a small tempest has broken out- Arlyn admitted to the plagiarism, and his pieces was summarily dropped from the House Next Door's list of contributors.

Naturally, this has stirred up a good amount of debate. Arlyn’s defenders have stepped up to defend his humility, and cite the old adage that “good writers borrow, while great writers steal.” On the other side, his detractors believe that while his intent might have been benign, Arlyn’s use of plagiarism is inexcusable. Regardless of what side you’re on, I believe this incident could potentially have tangible, wide-reaching effects on cinematic writing on the Internet. With the proliferation of DIY Web sites and blogs, there has been an explosion of film criticism on the Web, much of it of an informal nature compared to print criticism. However, over the past year a number of print critics have stepped forward to question the legitimacy of criticism on the Internet. I fear that Arlyn’s very public lapse in judgment, and the resultant controversy, could very well give these naysayers plenty of grist for their argument as to the frivolous nature of film writing on the Web.

Personally, I believe that the Web is the next frontier of film criticism, and the logical progression of cinephilia. As such, I can’t help but find these old-guard critics’ objections more than a little fuddy-duddy-ish, reeking of defensiveness at losing their critical cachet to a bunch of movie-loving kids. However, some of those who have spoken out against movie bloggers (such as Time Magazine’s Richard Schickel) exert a fair amount of influence, and if their anti-blogger screeds seemed like smug elitism before, just wait until they hear about Damian Arlyn. I worry that many of my very talented fellow web-based critics (such as those listed on my blogroll) could find their efforts marginalized as a result of this incident, and frankly that’s an idea I have a hard time accepting. Or maybe I just believe that having your opinions printed on real paper doesn’t make you a good critic; lucid, well-expressed opinions do.

In closing, I just want to state that I have never to my knowledge plagiarized the work of another. If I have done so without my knowledge, I sincerely apologize.

News! On the March!

For all of you who have been reading my (and everyone else's) stuff over at Screengrab, thank you. For the last six months or so, we've worked hard to increase activity over there, and these efforts have panned out, thanks largely to the dedication of our former editor, Bilge Ebiri, who was good enough to hire me based largely on my somewhat overblown rep as a "badass." All in all, I find it a little hard to believe I've lasted this long, but somehow I've been an active contributor for almost half a year now, which surprises me as much if not more than anyone.

That said, it's been tough. Since Bilge stepped down, I've felt added pressure to supply content to keep Screengrab at a consistently high level of awesomeness. Up to this point I've obliged, but it's been taking a toll on my writing, and I've recently come to the conclusion that I'm overextending myself. It would be one thing if I was writing for a living and as such had time to mull over my pieces all day, but as it stands the pressures of half a dozen pieces a week, coupled with increased responsibilities at work and the demands, however meager, of my social life, get to be overwhelming. So I recently informed Peter, my new editor, that I'll be scaling back my contributions to Screengrab to roughly three pieces per week. I'll still be doing my weekly Trailer Roundup, as well as some entries for Bilge's weekly lists. But rather than writing a Movie Moment column every week, it'll alternate weeks with When Good Directors Go Bad. I feel a little guilty about this, since the Movie Moment has become a signature column for me and I know that others enjoy it as well. But committing myself to two long pieces a week, amid everything else, got really hard to sustain, and it's a wonder I was able to keep it up as long as I did.

Anyway, I hope you aren't too broken up about this. Please continue to visit Screengrab, where Bryan, DK, Leonard, Phil, Faisal and the gang are continuing to fight the good fight for movie nerds everywhere. And if I'm not around as much, know that it's because when it comes to writing about what I love, I believe in quality over quantity.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

2006 in Review: Numero Uno


At the end of every calendar year, I have a tradition of re-watching the best film I saw that past year. But when New Year's Eve rolled around, I got a little anxious because I didn't have a real masterpiece from 2006 to help me ring in the New Year. So I decided to head over to the local discount theatre and re-watch The Prestige, a movie that I originally found entertaining and intriguing, and about which I had a strange feeling that maybe I'd missed something the first time around. Lo and behold, sitting there in the theatre, I was enthralled, and I finally saw The Prestige for the masterpiece it is. Somehow, my annual tradition had worked itself out after all.

The Prestige is the rare film that demands to be watched more than once. On the first viewing, I responded to the style of the film- it's a first-class entertainment- as well as the cleverness of the plot and how it manifested itself. But it took a second viewing for me to really appreciate what director Christopher Nolan was really up to here. Nolan, who with his brother Jonathan adopted a novel by Christopher Priest, has with Memento and now The Prestige become the reigning king of intelligent, twisty thrillers that are thematically deep instead of merely clever. It's this depth that makes his films fascinating for viewing after viewing even after we know where the story is going. There are so many intriguing levels to The Prestige- the single-minded obsessiveness its magician protagonists have toward their chosen art, the blurred line between science and magic, even the metaphysical implications of the various incarnations of "The Man in the Box." Nolan works magic of his own, balancing the heavy stuff with a heavy dose of showmanship, while guiding a sterling cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, and David Bowie. To me, The Prestige is half Angier, half Borden, and all masterpiece.

So now that I'd found a film to occupy the top spot on my list, what could possibly complement it? You may think it's easy pairing two movies together like this, but to me it's like choosing a wine to go with a meal- pick the wrong one and the meal loses much of its luster. I toyed with the idea of placing Jean-Pierre Melville's finally-released Resistance epic Army of Shadows, as well as Don Hertzfeldt's latest animated marvel, Everything Will Be OK. However, in my ongoing effort to keep my readership- hey there folks!- abreast of the sometimes strange and esoteric offerings outside the eye of the American distribution system, I soon settled on the as-yet-undistributed Interkosmos.

The first feature by Chicago-based video artist Jim Finn, Interkosmos could easily be pitched as "The Max Fischer Players in space." And to be sure, Finn feels like something of a kindred spirit to Wes Anderson. But don't let that discourage you, Steve- Finn is a uniquely gifted filmmaker in his own right. Interkosmos is a faux documentary about an apocryphal, ill-fated deep space mission undertaken by an alliance of Eastern bloc nations during the heyday of the Cold War to establish a storehouse of Communist knowledge on one of the moons of Jupiter (got that?). It's an ambitious project for any first feature, especially given the film's minute budget, and its short running time of 71 minutes. But Finn is a talent to be reckoned with, exploring the minutiae of the mission in detail while infusing it with his own offbeat brand of humor. Some of the film's best moments are tangential to the plot- an impromptu production number during a field hockey game, or a salute to that great Communist pet, the guinea pig. But at the center of the film is a love story involving two crew members who to their dismay are traveling on separate ships. Whether we're watching them carry on a silent flirtation at a party or debating the merits of that capitalist anthem "The Trolley Song" over their radios, their love feels completely tangible, and is all the more moving for being so understated. In a way, Interkosmos is a spiritual cousin to The Prestige, as both films deal with brilliant characters who are willing to sacrifice everything for their calling. On top of that, they're both exceedingly entertaining. And who could ask for more than that?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

2006 in Review: #2


In the world of science fiction, the space epics and technological thrillers might be the moneymakers, but the greatest films in the genre are first and foremost about ideas. The two best (and not coincidentally the two smartest) science fiction films released in 2006 were Children of Men and A Scanner Darkly. Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, based on a novel by P.D. James, imagines the year 2027, in which no children have been born in nearly two decades. It's a world of despair- to quote "Ruby Tuesday," which we hear several times during the film, "dying all the time / lose your dreams and you will lose your mind." In the middle of the chaos we meet Theo (Clive Owen) who is tasked to transport through the countryside a young prostitute with a secret- she's pregnant. Cuaron, like Kubrick in his later films, plunges the audience into the world of the film without pausing for exposition or character development, and it's a lot to handle on the first viewing. Heck, it's tempting just to groove on the film's visual design the first time around- with its production design combining crumbling cities with cutting edge technology and its cinematography which is both luminous and hardscrabble, this is the supreme technical achievement of last year. But as overwhelming an experience as Children of Men can be, it never once loses the audience, a credit to Owen's rock-solid presence and especially the visionary direction of Cuaron. In the end, Children of Men is a hopeful film, one in which life doesn't merely endure, but prevails.

Richard Linkater's A Scanner Darkly will if nothing else go down as one of the few movies that's done right by author Philip K. Dick, whose futuristic visions have too often translated into simplistic chase thrillers, light on the science. The hero of A Scanner Darkly is an undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) assigned to monitor a group of addicts, but his biggest struggle is against the drugs he's taken, which have caused his true identity to get lost in the shuffle. Linklater and animator Bob Sabiston have created a futuristic world on a shoestring by using the same kind of digital rotoscoping they previously utilized in Waking Life, although to a very different end- if Waking Life wanted to expand your consciousness, A Scanner Darkly is a bad trip gone berserk. But this is hardly a just-say-no drug parable. The film is often very funny, especially during scenes involving our hero and his addict friends, wonderfully played by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, as well as a parallel storyline involving the downward spiral of another friend (Rory Cochrane), culminating in one of the most mind-bending death trips I've ever seen. In addition, Linklater doesn't shy away from Dick's paranoia, in which he wonders after the government's complicity in the so-called War on Drugs. But above all A Scanner Darkly is a film that grieves over the losses caused by drugs. Just before the credits roll, Linklater quotes the end of Dick's book, in which he commemorates those friends who have lost their lives and minds from drug use, and in doing so he invites us to do the same for those in our lives.

Monday, August 20, 2007

2006 in Review: #3


Given the oh-so-serious "prestige movies" that Hollywood often sells as art, one sometimes forgets that many of our greatest directors- Hawks, Ford, Ray, Hitchcock- specialized in genre pictures. Continuing their proud tradition in 2006 were Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, the latter of whom is the only double-dipper on this year's list. Lee's Inside Man is on one level a cleverly-written heist film, in which NYPD detective Denzel Washington faces off against criminal mastermind Clive Owen. But the boilerplate plot outline doesn't begin to describe the pleasures Inside Man has in store. The film sets up a fascinating contrast between its principal characters' styles- Owen's cool-headed efficiency and obsessive planning facing off against the style and swagger of Washington, who plays the character as a man who clearly enjoys what he does for a living. In the middle of it all is Lee himself, who takes the genre storyline as an excuse for playful direction, coupled with some of his pet themes- New York multiculturalism, the gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the reckoning he wishes would rain down upon all those who exploit the misfortunes of others. Inside Man is above all a grand entertainment in the classic tradition, but one only Spike Lee could have made this way.

But even Lee had nothing on the master himself, Martin Scorsese. The Departed, Scorsese's remake of the Hong Kong crime saga Infernal Affairs, transplanted himself from New York to Boston, but wisely didn't mess with his signature insistent style. In addition to the gangbusters premise of the original film- a cop goes undercover in the mob, a gangster infiltrates the police, and they try to flush each other out- the film is blessed with an irresistable screenplay that's both narratively tight and gloriously raunchy. And that cast- Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio play the lead roles flawlessly, and the supporting cast is killer- Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and more. There has been some debate over Jack Nicholson's grandiose performance as crime lord Frank Costello, but I thought it worked- here's a man who's maintained his power through violence for so long that he's lost all perspective of the outside world, causing his sanity to spiral completely of control. But this is first and foremost Scorsese's achievement, a 2 1/2 hour gangland epic that never grows ponderous or self-important, and serves as a superlative entry into the genre he's returned to many times over the years with such vivid results. It says a lot about how impossible The Departed is to ignore that, even in an awards season filled with logy period pieces and message movies, it was The Departed that ended up taking home the biggest prize, and garnering Scorsese a long-overdue Best Director Oscar to boot. In many ways, it's as much a belated acknowledgment of the contributions of genre masters of the past as it is a testament to Scorsese's own brilliant career.

From a Polish Movie House #13

Night on Earth (1991, Jim Jarmusch)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

2006 in Review: #4


The box-office success of nonfiction works by directors like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock has led to an upswing in documentary production. Most of those films are as thematically unchallenging as they are aesthetically uninspired, but a few major filmmakers have contributed to the form as well. The two best documentaries I saw in 2006 were Dave Chappelle's Block Party and When the Levees Broke. Dave Chappelle's Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry, documents a free street concert given by Chappelle in fall 2004, between his $50 million Comedy Central payday and his well-publicized breakdown. Here, Chappelle proves to be a funny and gracious master of ceremonies, and his hand-picked lineup of hip-hop all-stars is daunting: Mos Def, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, even the (briefly) reunited Fugees. But what prevents the film from being a straightforward concert movie is the way Gondry and his editors shuffle back and forth in time between the show and the preparation stage- at one point, the film actually cuts from Chappelle telling a joke to the crowd to rehearsing it with the band (complete with Mos on drums). Like Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, Block Party is a cinematic celebration of a community that was as glorious as it was short-lived.

When the Levees Broke also deals with community, but unlike the community of Dave Chappelle's lock Party, New Orleans was supposed to last. Following the cataclysmic floods of September 2005, Spike Lee took a camera crew down to the Big Easy to survey the damage and interview the survivors. Made for HBO, When the Levees Broke is an angry film, one that's unafraid to point fingers at those whose negligence and incompetence led to the tragedy. But Lee himself treads lightly, never allowing his style to dominate, and the anger of the film comes from the interviewees, to whom Lee shows real empathy. When the Levees Broke is more than four hours long, approaching the disaster from practically every angle, from the history and culture of New Orleans to the appalling conditions in the Superdome, to exploring the circumstances that led to the tragedy. But in the end, this movie is about people- those who survived only to see their lives ruined, those who aided in the rescue and cleanup, even those who may have been at fault. When the Levees Broke takes the anonymous residents of New Orleans from the news and given them back their names and voices, culminating in one of the most moving end credits sequences I've ever seen, a roll-call of all the film's interviewees that I wouldn't dare spoil.

R.I.P.: Elvis and Groucho

Thirty years ago today, the great Groucho Marx shuffled off this mortal coil, just three days after Elvis Presley died. I believe there is no better way to commemorate the passing of these two giants than this (warning: NSFW):

You are both sorely missed, although, it must be said, not necessarily by the same people.

Famous Last Words #1

While not every movie can be wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end, sometimes filmmakers are able to give the audience a perfect little sign-off. Whether it's a snatch of dialogue that boils down everything that's come before or just a great line in and of itself, there's a special sort of pleasure in a great final line, as it allows us to leave on a high note.

Starting this week, I'll be posting some of my favorites here. Rather than attributing them to their respective films, I'll give you folks the pleasure of remembering them. I'm starting with one which I think you'll agree is a must for a series like this. Enjoy!

“This girl, she didn't know where she was goin' or what she was goin' to do. She didn't have no money on her. Maybe she'd meet up with a character. I was hopin' things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.”

Saturday, August 18, 2007

2006 in Review: #5


Everyone has heard the old saying that the best way to understand someone is to walk a mile in his shoes. This is the governing principle behind two of 2006's best foreign films, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and L'Enfant. In Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, we follow the title character for almost two and a half hours, practically in real time, and while this approach doesn't allow for much knowledge into his past, it makes it up for it in eliciting sympathy for his plight. Lazarescu is anchored by its two principal performers, with Ion Fiscuteanu giving a brave performance in the title role, and Lumenita Gheorghiu as the most stable presence in his final hours, a paramedic who ferries him to several hospitals. As the night progresses, Lazarescu meets doctor after doctor, most of whom are callous to him, quick to call him out on his drinking and poor diet but reluctant to waste a bed on such a hopeless case. While their feelings might have been more understandable in a more conventional story, they seem practically monstrous here, which is a credit to how closely Puiu follows his doomed hero. Surprisingly, Puiu cuts to the credits just as Lazarescu is about to die, alone, while waiting for surgery- the perfect ending to a lonely story, in which not even the audience is around to witness the hero's death.

L'Enfant (The Child) won a second Palme d'Or for the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. This ought to remove all doubt that, after just four fictional features, the Dardennes are among the world's greatest directors. And while I found L'Enfant to be possibly the least of their films, it's still a formidable work. The film's biggest achievement is its unsparing yet evenhanded portrait of a rather loathsome character- Bruno (Jeremie Renier), a petty criminal who will do anything for a buck, as long as it doesn't involve work. When Bruno's girlfriend Sonia brings home her newborn baby, Bruno scarcely waits before selling it to a black-market adoption ring. Much of the film's drama comes from Bruno's efforts to get the child back, not so much out of guilt as the fear of running afoul of the cops and the desire to win back Sonia, who for reasons Bruno can't understand had grown attached to the kid. All the while, the Dardennes invite us to consider what their story means- is it meant to be taken at face value, or is it symbolic? And if so, symbolic of what? Cold capitalism run amok? The dark side of our post-sexual liberation mindset? In the end, one interpretation is as good as another. The Dardennes' key theme, as always, is the possibility of redemption, which is there for Bruno as much as for anyone, although it'll take more than forgiveness to put Bruno back on track. The final scene of L'Enfant is a deliberate nod to Bresson's Pickpocket, and if anyone can hope to carry the mantle of Bresson, it's them.

Face Time #15 (do you people have clubs?)

Peter Dinklage

Friday, August 17, 2007

Movie Moment #24

Also this week:

When Good Directors Go Bad #9: Zabriskie Point- sorry Michelangelo. You know I love ya, but this just doesn't work.

Trailer Roundup
- The Golden Compass. Sleuth. Things We Lost in the Fire.

2006 in Review: #6


In a time when respectable, often stodgy period films are dominating the end of year awards season, it's good to see adventurous filmmakers giving the genre a kick in the pants. Two films which did so particularly well last year were Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and Gabrielle. While Shandy takes its inspiration from Laurence Sterne's legendary yet rarely read literary classic, the novel serves largely as a jumping-off point. Director Michael Winterbottom wisely avoids straightforward adaptation, instead making a film about a film crew adapting Shandy for the big screen, starring Steve Coogan. The form of the film feels like a more manic Day for Night, but in terms of tone it's best described as Airplane! for humanities majors- full of references to literature and classic cinema (everything from 8 1/2 to Fassbinder to, most memorably, Lancelot du Lac), and above all hilarious. In its strange way, Shandy serves as an illustration of the difference between the media of literature and film, not only the processes of creating them, but just as importantly the expectations we have of them. Plus, as Winterbottom surrogate Jeremy Northam says in the film, "it's funny. Isn't that enough?" There are so few cinematic adaptations of great books that work in movie form, but even fewer have Steve Coogan dropping a hot chestnut down his pants.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, is as brutal as Shandy is funny- and that's pretty brutal. Adapting Henry James' story The Return, director Patrice Chéreau tells the story of the fallout from a wife's attempts to escape her loveless marriage. While Jean (Pascal Greggory) is content to love his wife dispassionately, his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) resists the ossification of their marriage, and her sudden decision to leave stirs up emotions that she hasn't felt in years, as well as feelings her husband isn't willing or ready to deal with. Gabrielle is essentially a two-hander between its stars, and with Chéreau's firm guidance they turn the story into scintillating drama, lending both heated arguments and simple gestures a real, and rare urgency. In addition, Chéreau breaks free from the constraints of period-film convention, switching between black and white and color at various points during the film, and even filling the screen with large, boldfaced text in several pivotal scenes. But for all the stylistic flourishes on display, it never feels like dicking around, but works as a visual equivalent to the passion unleashed by the story. It's a credit to all involved that the film's final revelation is both surprising and inevitable.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

2006 in Review: #7


2006 was a very good year for crime stories, and while Brick wasn't quite the best of the bunch, it was close, and certainly the most startling. Director Rian Johnson's genius gambit was to set a pulpy detective story in the world of high school, while keeping the florid language intact. If nothing else, this idea guaranteed Brick a cult audience, but the movie is more than just a gimmick. The genre translates surprisingly well to its new milieu- one where emotions quickly grow out of control, where authority figures are regarded with skepticism, and where someone who eats, thinks, and acts alone is a suspicious character. For his part, Johnson works wonders in his feature debut, and despite the limited budget the film is as stylish and visually arresting as it needs to be. But no less important is the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead- having emerged from sitcom hell, he's proven himself a prodigiously gifted actor, able to handle the often difficult dialogue- you try saying "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, which puts me six up on the lot of you" like you mean it- as expertly as he navigates the character's yearning heart, which proves to be the true emotional core of the film.

At the opposite end of the career spectrum from Rian Johnson is suspense master Claude Chabrol, who made his best film in a decade with The Bridesmaid (scroll down to 5/2 for review). As with Chabrol's masterpiece La Ceremonie, The Bridesmaid is adapted from a novel by Ruth Rendell, but just as often the film made me think of Double Indemnity. As with Cain's book and Wilder's film, The Bridesmaid tells the story of a man who is led into a life of crime by a woman he's powerless to resist. The major difference between the two is the woman- whereas Phyllis is clearly a wily manipulator, Senta (the eerily good Laura Smet) is completely sincere about her love for Philippe (Benoit Magimel), and this frightening intensity both attracts and scares him. Ever perverse, Chabrol (and presumably Rendell) portray Senta as a twisted romantic who treats murder as the ultimate act of devotion between lovers, and when she asks him to kill for her, it's not the demand of a violence-bent psycho, but the plea of a woman who needs to feel loved. The Bridesmaid is the work of an old master, a film of no wasted gestures, and one filled with the serene confidence that decades of filmmaking experience can give.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

2006 in Review: #8


Despite the difference in genres, The Proposition and The Black Dahlia are both bloody, morally twisty tales of lawmen whose lives are overwhelmed by their cases they work on. The central character in The Proposition (scroll down for review)- directed by John Hillcoat from a Nick Cave screenplay- is a British officer (played by Ray Winstone) transplanted to Australia to install UK-style law and order. But Winstone essentially dooms himself when he strikes up a deal with a notorious criminal (Guy Pearce) to help him capture his even more fearsome big brother (Danny Huston). The Proposition is set in Australia, but it's as violent, grimy, and pungent as any American Western, and more than most. But aside from the flawless cast, which also includes John Hurt, Emily Watson, and David Gulpilil, what really makes The Proposition sing is Hillcoat and Cave's vision of Australia's brutal early days. We might associate the rough-hewn Down Under mindset with family-friendly outdoorsmen like Steve Irwin or "Crocodile" Dundee, but Australia was first settled as a prison colony, a one-way ticket for Britain's most violent castoffs. Despite its protagonist's goal to "tame this land," only centuries of history could ever manage to do so.

The Black Dahlia was considered by most audiences and critics, even those who were DePalma fans, to be a pretty big disappointment. But while the film is far from perfect- for example, Kay should be the heart of the movie, but that would have required a better and more soulful actress than Scarlett Johansson to pull off- it's fascinating and stylish as all hell. I dare say that The Black Dahlia, warts and all, is more compelling than most of the less-flawed but more timid films released in 2006. I also think that time will be pretty kind to DePalma's film, as many of his more controversial decisions make more sense if you're willing to give them a little thought (hint to audiences: Hilary Swank wasn't SUPPOSED to be convincing as a femme fatale, but rather as a rich girl PLAYING at being a femme fatale). Even now, DePalma's flair for hypnotic set pieces is clear as day, from the spectacular crane shot that links an early gun battle with the discovery of a corpse, to a bust gone very wrong in ultra-slow motion. If nothing else, The Black Dahlia gave us one of the year's towering performances, with Mia Kershner playing the doomed Elizabeth Short to heartbreaking perfection.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

2006 in Review: #9


In the decades since documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers took their cameras off the tripod, the handheld aesthetic has become synonymous with gritty, hard-hitting realism. But while any hack can wave a camera around, it takes talent to make it feel like something besides a desperate attempt at immediacy. In his searing film Requiem (scroll down to 5/12 for review), director Hans-Christian Schmid tells the story of a young girl who was believed to be possessed by the devil, and who died as result of an exorcism. This same true story was the jumping off point for 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but whereas the Hollywood film was an Exorcist knockoff crossed with a courtroom drama, Requiem hearkens more to movies like Breaking the Waves. The most fascinating aspect of Requiem is the ambiguity of the storytelling- Schmid and his magnificent leading lady Sandra Hüller never quite reveal whether Michaela is legitimately possessed or simply mentally ill, and compelling cases could be made for both possibilities.

A true story with further-reaching consequences was revisited in United 93 (scroll down for review), Paul Greengrass' re-enactment of the events of 9/11. Whereas Oliver Stone's 9/11-themed
World Trade Center practically twisted itself into a pretzel in order to find a happy ending for its story, Greengrass' primary goal was immediacy. And damned if he didn't pull it off- there's never a time when the movie seems to be telling the story in hindsight, which is all the more startling given that we all know how the story ends. I also loved the procedural aspects of United 93, which showed us the inner workings of the air traffic control system, in which we saw the controllers going about their daily business only to be overwhelmed when everything went very, very wrong. There are some elements of grief porn and exaggerated hero-manufacturing in the film's final reel, but the onscreen action hits so hard you scarcely notice.

Monday, August 13, 2007

2006 in Review: #10


That Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and jackass: number two are two of the most convulsively funny movies of 2006 is reason enough to group them together. But if we look at them more closely, they have more in common than simply laughs. Both of these movies represent an increasing trend in Hollywood comedy, a move away from the setup-and-payoff plots of their predecessors to a more episodic format. In addition, the sketches more often than not feel like stunts rather than gags, attempts to push the envelope of taste as great comedies have always done. They may not be possessed of the Lubitsch touch, but damn these movies are funny- two of the best theatrical experiences I had in 2006.

jackass: number two takes the format practically to its limit, with stunts like the one pictured above, and many more that are so elaborate and startling that to describe them would ruin the surprise. Yet with all the gross-outs, one of the most powerful vibes given off by the Jackass team is a kind of close-knit, practically homoerotic bonhomie. One feels that they engage in on-camera oneupmanship as a way of connecting to each other, with the perpetrators proving how clever they are at thinking up gags, and the participants impressing their peers with their toughness.

Borat also feels like a stunt, but one of a different variety. Whereas the jackass boys mostly play jokes on each other, Borat holds a funhouse mirror up to our patronizing tendency to humor those we believe to be more simpleminded than we are. Turns out the joke's on us, as Borat invariably turns our attempts to keep cool in the face of awkward situations against us. Many critics went overboard to justify Borat's pranks as sharp satirical barbs at American cultural institutions, but more often than none this came off as a desperate way to fill space after writing "holy crap is this funny." Most of all, Borat is a tribute to the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen, whose comedy is all the more impressive for transpiring in the real-world, opposite unsuspecting co-stars. He's like Peter Sellers crossed with Andy Kaufman, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

From a Polish Movie House #12

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojceich Has)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

2006 in Review: #11


Two warm, lovely slice-of-life comedies occupy this spot, one from a talented newcomer, the other from an acknowledged master of world cinema. The first film, a charmer from Mexico called Duck Season, focused on four people- two friends, a neighbor girl, and an older pizza delivery man- who while away an afternoon in and around one of the boys' apartments. Director Fernando Eimbcke gets perfectly natural performances from his cast, most of which had little to no previous screen acting experience. In my mind, the key to the film is the difference in perspectives between the older man and his younger playmates. He's old enough to be able to look at the lazy afternoon with nostalgia for his own youth, whereas for the kids it's something more rueful, a kind of fallback position due to their lack of other options.

Chantal Akerman's Tomorrow We Move wasn't commercially released in the U.S., but don't let that discourage you. Like Duck Season, much of the action is confined to an apartment, but whereas the characters in Eimbcke's film resign themselves to hanging out there, Akerman's heroine, played by the wonderfully neurotic Sylvie Testud, can't wait to get away. She's a writer of erotic fiction facing a deadline, but her meddlesome mother (Aurore Clement) and an ever-growing bunch of would-be buyers- including Lucas Belvaux and Natacha Régnier, who comes off like a French relative of Amy Adams in Junebug- makes this nearly impossible. In a way, Tomorrow We Move is a light comic take on material covered with less cheerful results in Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, but it's an impressive work in its own right.

2006 in Review: An Introduction

Seeing as how I've waited until now to post my favorite films of 2006, it almost doesn't seem worth it. But I'll do it anyway, because some of you may be curious and I feel like I should. As I did last year, I'll be posting my favorites from last year, one selection a day, starting with the bottom of the list and working upward. In addition, I'll once again be pairing the selections with another film I saw this past year that shares something with my selection- thematically, stylistically, or otherwise. I'll post some brief remarks about the films, although probably not more than a paragraph or two. Unlike last year, I won't be posting a list of the worst movies, since the number of subpar movies I see has gone down ever since I stopped working at a movie theatre, and frankly I think my life is better for it.

When available, I'll link to my original reviews, which can be accessed by clicking the image. Come back over the next week or so for the results.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Friday, August 10, 2007

Be Kind Rewind: The Trailer

Hope it's more Eternal Sunshine than The Science of Sleep, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't watched this, like 10 times since yesterday. I've already annoyed my coworkers with Jables' rendition of the Ghostbusters theme song. Also, nice to see Mia Farrow working again. Check it out, just like we all did in those pre-Netflix days.

Next week's Movie Moment

Due to unforseen circumstances, this week's Movie Moment has gotten pushed to next week. I'm actually cool with that, since I'm visiting family this weekend, and anything I'd write would end up being a rush job. But since I don't want to let a good image go to waste...

Also this week:

The Most Notable Product Placements in Movie History, Part 1 and Part 2- I wrote up 2001, Demolition Man, Million Dollar Mystery (aka the Glad Bag movie) and the oeuvre of Adam Sandler.

Trailer Roundup- National Treasure: Book of Secrets (which surprisingly looks pretty damn fun), plus Alvin and the Chipmunks (which doesn't) and The Kingdom (which could go either way).

Women in Film- this thing is pretty damn transfixing in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

gravida (2007, Lucas McNelly)

In the original introduction to his screenplay for Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader posited that rather than being the exception, loneliness was the natural state for most people in our society. Unlike Travis Bickle, most people don’t pick up a gun and mow down criminals. Instead, they go about their business and try not to think too hard about their lives of, in the words of Thoreau, “quiet desperation.” But loneliness lingers, especially for those are legitimately lonely, as compared to people who simply get lonely on occasion.

Lucas McNelly’s gravida, subtitled A Study in Loneliness, tells the story of Kristin (talented, appealing Rachel Shaw)- pretty and single and pregnant. She tries to keep the loneliness at bay by manipulating a friendly courier into asking her out, neglecting to tell her about her condition. Well, what would you do? Men can be so strange when it comes to pregnant women, and he seems like a nice guy, so maybe, just maybe, he’ll be different.

McNelly grabbed me from the first scene of gravida, in which he simply observes Kristin as she starts her day. She gets up, dresses, and eats breakfast with her cat, and McNelly edits the scene as a series of snapshots from her life, punctuated by fades to black. The scene concludes with several shots of her washing herself in the mirror, and it’s only when she pulls up the hem of her top that we finally see her pregnant belly. She’s not yet at the stage where it announces itself, but it’s certainly noticeable if you’re looking for it. Her pregnancy casts a shadow over the rest of the story, as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

The events that have brought Kristin to this point in her life have painted her into a corner. Whether she wanted the baby is up for debate, but what’s apparent is that when she got pregnant she wasn’t anticipating having it by herself (there’s a picture in her apartment of her with a man with the man’s face cut out). And though she’s keeping the baby, she can’t simply turn off her own emotions. She wants a man in her life, not just for the kid, but more immediately for herself. She needs to not be alone, if only for the evening.

gravida has much the same power as a good short story. It never overreaches for effect or tries to shoehorn too much into its relatively brief running time. It merely follows a situation to its logical end. We know just enough about its two characters to sympathize with where they’re coming from, and why they do what they do. This is just as important in the suitor’s case as it is in Kristin’s. We’re familiar enough with him to know that he’s pleasant and that he likes her, and when he is taken aback by her pregnancy, it’s clear that this isn’t simply due to his discomfort with her physical condition, but also because of his surprise at her deception. It’s a difficult situation from either side, but could you blame either of them?

Lucas McNelly has made a serenely confident short film, with which he shows a real facility as a director. He never tries to dazzle the audience with flashy technique or camera work, preferring his style to be dictated by his material. Despite his obvious budgetary constraints, he’s capable of some lovely low-key touches, like his use of colored lighting in the climactic revelation scene. This simple addition to the lighting of the scene manages to give it an extra expressiveness without distracting from its content or sacrificing its naturalistic feel. gravida is small film in the best sense, one that’s exactly the right size for the story it tells. McNelly’s direction is subtle enough not to overwhelm the film, but strong enough to assure us that there’s a firm hand on the wheel. I’m eager to see what he does next.

There’s a disclaimer during the end credits of gravida that reads:
“Any similarity to any person, either living or dead, is completely on purpose. It could be anyone. It could be you.”

These words summarize gravida’s effectiveness as well as anything I could possibly write about it. Its characters are in a very specific situation, but the themes of the film are universal. Anyone who is truly lonely can attest to the desperate measures we sometimes resort to in order to stave off our loneliness, as well as the harsh reality that we never feel quite so alone as when those plans fail to bear fruit. One doesn’t need to be in Kristin’s particular situation to empathize with the emotions that gravida traffics in- even a single twentysomething who lives with his guinea pigs and blogs in lieu of a social life can feel her pain. And if that last sentence sounds like I’m getting too personal, it’s only because gravida so poignantly invites us to consider the condition in which so many of us live.

The official web site for gravida and McNelly's other films can be found at: McNelly's personal blog, 100 Films, is at, and can also be found in my blogroll at right.

Monday, August 06, 2007

From a Polish Movie House #11

Profession: Reporter aka The Passenger (1975, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Guess the Movie Moment #3

I'll make it a little easier this time. Another haiku:

Magic man goes west,
Plays gumshoe for failed starlet.
But what do I know?

Let 'er rip.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Friday, August 03, 2007

Movie Moment #23 (in memoriam)

Also this week:

The Greatest Running Scenes in Movie History, Part 1 and Part 2- I wrote up The 400 Blows.

When Good Directors Go Bad #8: The Doors- speaking of blows...

Trailer Roundup- Beowulf. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (ugh). Lust, Caution.

Lighter Fare- someone's in the kitchen with Walken.