“A movie that you HAVE to see twice also has to be a movie that you WANT to see twice.” — Bilge Ebiri, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been
“Is [ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA] too long? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it takes real concentration to understand Leone’s story construction … [and] keep track of characters and relationships over fifty years. No, in the sense that the movie is compulsively and continuously watchable.” — Roger Ebert, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been
Yes, INCEPTION is not capable of being absorbed in a single viewing, though lordknows I tried. It hurt that I have a “unified field” theory of Nolan, or at least of his three great films, all of which center on characters who choose vocations that require lying and/or self-destruction — a pattern this movie definitely does not fit. But even apart from that, INCEPTION resists first-viewing comprehension, partly because of the already-well-known layered structure of dreams-within-dreams, but also partly because I think there’s … ahem … a prestige in very last shot, followed by the same sudden cut to black Nolan used upon the very last shots of THE PRESTIGE (“you want to be fooled”) and MEMENTO (“now, where was I”). In those earlier cases, the prestige was the line, but here it’s an image (there’s offscreen chatter that couldn’t be more meaningless). And if I’m right, it turns the entire movie inside out. Like with any interpretation of an incredibly complex movie, I’ll have to give the film another view both to see how it checks out and also whether the film gains in emotional richness (Nolan’s films have always had chilly surfaces concealing existentialist tragedy). Click here if you want to know what it is (I’ve put in a single-sentence post and backdated the post several years so it won’t appear anywhere on this page) and let me just drop some vague clues — the casting of Michael Caine and Marion Cotillard, their relationship, a song cue, the way the dreams are not dream-like, how resistance to inception is made manifest, the weakness in the action scenes, and that very last shot.
But, as Bilge said, you want to see INCEPTION twice as it is so mind-blowing and ambitious and demanding (and mostly getting) of your attention.¹ It’s like a workout for the brain, even if there’s no payoff, as in body exercises where the work doesn’t actually “achieve” anything beyond the effect on the body/brain. It’s clearly flawed in some ways — there enough exposition that I wanted Basil onscreen, and even though it would be justified by what I’m guessing, it’s still tedious; I’m still unclear why we got the plant of a golden bishop and no payoff (cf. Chekhov’s gun); and let’s just say I was groaning whenever I saw snow, a “level” that is neither choreographed well nor as sheer-made-of-awesome as either the rainy day or the hotel. And I also fear that if my take is wrong, what we will have left is sophomoric “what if the world isn’t real man”-drivel
That’s mere caviling, though. No movie with a zero-gravity fight, which provides a logical, rational, non-“suspend-your-disbelief-it’s-scifi” reason for why this is taking place in zero gravity, is not awesome. I left the film with a goofy grin on my face from having so much fun despite not knowing what had just happened — a reaction I can only compare to the first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, a film I also had no idea how to put together, but had no doubt I enjoyed watching the jigsaw pieces fly around. INCEPTION grips you right away with a 15-minute sequence that’s as if Dali and Bunuel had made UN CHIEN ANDALOU as a $200 million action film, with all the bizarre, unmoored continuities. It eventually settles down into the form of a caper film, in which Leo is a dream burglar who gets into a person’s subconsciousness, now being hired by Ken Watanabe to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy for a reason that is so ridiculous and makes no real-world sense it can’t be taken seriously (hmmm).
If I’m right about “what it all means” … well, let’s just say I’ll update this post on subsequent viewings …
¹ And so does the public apparently: I went to see it at a 9pm Monday show (not exactly moviegoing primetime) and I had to sit in the front section of the stadium seating, below the walkway, since the upper section was nearly full. An intern at work saw it at a 10pm Monday show and he said his theater was even more packed than that. I would kill to know what percentage of the film’s business is repeat viewings.
First program — Early shorts
MEDIUM WANTED AS SON-IN-LAW (Pathe short with no credits, France, 1908, 6) — It’s amazing to see a film from this early in color — hand-tinted and well-preserved — but combined with acting and gag styles of 19th-century vaudeville undiluted. One-reeler but follows through on title’s funny premise.
MISS STICKIE-MOUFIE-KISS (Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, 1915, 9) — I don’t expect to see a better film here. Amazingly funny for a film whose central premise involves a woman who talks like Tweety-Bird (i.e. in title cards, without the sound). She gets progressively more infantile, to the increasingly desperate exasperation of her betrothed. One amazing thing in retrospect is that Mrs. Drew, whatever the title cards say, doesn’t *act* significantly different from other actresses in roles of this sort from that period, which implies all kinds of possible underground satire and “taking the piss out of the rom-com” (like Alain Resnais WILD GRASS). The Drews are the greatest comedy team nobody has heard of. Cinema-wise at least, they’re the inventors of the domestic sitcom (you can see antecedents of e.g., Rob and Laura Petrie — two funny but different characters in a single union, each perfectly capable of carrying the comic load) and with plenty of tartness (particularly here). The Drews are a consistent highlight here for me, though apparently only about 12-15 of their shorts survive.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL (Harry Watson [Musty Suffer], 1915, 6) — The first reel (on a golf course) is crap that WC Fields rejected; but the second reel (central character gets treated at a quack’s violent gym) is inspired theater of cruelty. Anyone who think sick, violent humor is a product of today — needs to get out some. The very character name “Musty Suffer” tells you the answer is “yes.”
POOR POLICY (Henry Lehrman / Billie Ritchie, 1915, 3) — I laugh at a movie in inverse proportion to how often the characters look at camera rub their hands, make some gestures to us, and laugh at themselves and their genius plans. ergo … And I’ve never cottoned to Billy Ritchie’s screen character, a very poor Chaplin knockoff with none of the Tramp’s graceful movement and subtle gesture comedy.
THE FEUDISTS (Wilfred North / John Bunny, 1913, 4) — I take it on faith that John Bunny was biggest pre-Chaplin comic star. I can’t see why, as he just seems like a big fat rich guy without much character and little physical acumen (and not because guys of his build couldn’t have that — see Oliver Hardy and especially Ton of Fun). It has the plot premise of a feature (Romeo & Juliet as a comedy), but only one reel, so nothing really develops
GOOD NIGHT, NURSE (Horace Davey, 1916, 2) — A one-joke one-reeler badly done, with nothing beyond promising premise (guy meets hot nurse, fakes injury to get treated by her, plan doesn’t work). The flatly undifferentiated performers mug too much to the camera and not enough to each other.
SAMMY SCANDALOUS SCHEME (Gilbert Hamilton / Sammy Burns, 1915, 6) — I was enjoying this 2-reel short, about a guy whose girl loves Charlie Chaplin more than she does him, and he decides to take revenge by dressing up as Charlie. As an early take on celebrity-worship and parody not only of Chaplin but of all the imitators already around by 1915. The set up is very good, but it ended right when we see Burns gets into a Chaplin costume, but before he goes over to pretend to the girl. I later confirmed with Steve Massa that the last 5 minutes are lost — maybe it’ll be hiding in a Norwegian insane asylum or an Argentine film club.
HAM AT THE GARBAGE GENTLEMAN’S BALL (Chance Ward, Ham and Bud, 1915, 4) — There is one funny bit — in which a guy falls three stories, and gets up in the same shot. It’s in a sufficiently long shot that you know it’s not one of the stars and there’s obviously some kind of trick, but because there’s no cut, you find yourself giggling with wonder at “how?” The rest is pointless uncreative knockabout by a not terribly funny Mutt-and-Jeff team — two lumpenproletarians trying to one-up each other.
LIZZIE’S DIZZY CAREER (Victoria Forde and Eddie Lyons / Al Christie produced, 1915, 5) — Chick hick flick — good-enough opera singer for Tulsa decides to go to Milan and show La Scala (not exactly; but that’s the comparable idea). Amusing but not really memorable. Best bit involves some tobacco juice and is cliche, but — so. perfectly. timed.
LOVABLE LIARS (no credits, early 20s Cineart short, 8) It’s a one-joke one-reeler – man and a woman can’t tell a lie because they’re in a hotel room George Washington slept in. But within those limits, it’s as brilliantly developed and shaded off that one joke as any single reel of Chaplin or Lloyd. LOVABLE LIARS is one of those mystery uncredited films that MAKE this festival
Second program — Kids and Animals (usually not a highlight for me, but there was some good stuff)
LADIES PETS (CL Chester / Snooky the Humanzee, 1921, 3) — Apparently this was only shown under intense pressure from people whose taste leaves something to be desired. It’s not funny to see a chimp do something unless it’d be funny to see a man do it, or is so bizarre that THAT becomes the joke.
THE KNOCKOUT (Len Powers / Dippy-Doo-Dads, 1923, 7) — However, seeing an assortment of animals spoofing an existing genre (the fight film here) IS funny — a dog plays a drunk next to the arena always having “one more round” (and not of fighting), and ducks and chickens being escorted to “their” part of the arena were the biggest laughs.
BUSTER’S PICNIC (Gus Meins / Buster Brown, 1927, 6) — I don’t get the appeal of this kid character — too sweet and clean-scrubbed, the kind of wholesome family material that hasn’t improved in 80 years. But thankfully, this movie mostly follows Our Gang’s Pete the Pup, who has way more charisma and smarts than Arthur Trimble does.
THE SMILE WINS (Robert McGowan / Our Gang, 1928, 7) — it’s as if Dickens had done an Our Gang short, centering on Farina’s poor home life a sick mom, an evil landlord, an oilfield *next door* (really) and taunting kids. Shown with French intertitles (apparently it’s what available; but easy enough to figure out). The devices and the slapstick are there too — very entertaining. At one point when the Gang strike oil and the manager of the oilfield *next door * (really) comes over to complain that they’ve hit the pipeline, it was all I could do not to yell out “you’re drinking my milkshake!!!”
Random Tweet I made after watching one of the discs being shown on TV in the lobby: “How you can tell it’s a Weiss brothers film. If a kid throws a pillow at his dad — someone else; if a kid stuffs a wrench into the pillow and throws it — Weiss.
Third program — Hall Roach shorts (always a favorite program of mine)
PECULIAR PATIENTS PRANKS (Hal Roach / Harold Lloyd as Lonesome Luke, 1915, 5) You can see why Lloyd developed the “Glasses” character, as Luke just isn’t very funny — a typical joke in this hospital-set short, one of the few surviving Lonesome Luke shorts, involves battering an immobilized patient’s leg cast. But the last bits had me howling at their political-incorrectness — it’s basically a date-rape joke. Sheer taboo-busting, even if it wasn’t a taboo when it was made, can always make for big laughs.
PARDON ME (Ralph Cedar / Snub Pollard, 1921, 7) — It ends too abruptly, but it crackles with funny bits as Snub tries to win the hand of the governor’s daughter while trying to get into jail as part of a scam. Best bit involves a diegetic reference to the film’s title.
SHOOT STRAIGHT (Jay Howe / Paul Parrott, 1923, 5) — Charley Chase’s brother is a bad hunter. Not much else.
CUCKOO LOVE (Fred Guiol / Glenn Tryon, 1925, 5) — I expected to like this one more than I did, with one of Roach’s all-star casts in romantic mixups like French boudoir farce. But it didn’t build much, and Tryon is an indistinct pretty magazine-cover boy
FALLEN ARCHES (Gus Meins / Charley Chase, 1931, 7) — Chase is one of the few comedians just as good on either side of sound barrier. Wonder if a late sequence involving a deep puddle inspired Clouzot for THE WAGES OF FEAR?
TAXI BARONS (Del Lord / Taxi Boys, 1933, 4) — It’s not terribly funny, as the sound Taxi Boys films don’t have all the amazing and weird car stunts that the silent ones do (perhaps realistic sounds of cars crashing into one another and/or running their engines would have killed the comedy, like Harold Lloyd yells killed FEET FIRST, a virtual remake of his silent classic SAFETY LAST). This is more like a poor man’s Laurel and Hardy mixup-ID plot, in which the team happen to be employed as taxi drivers.. But I don’t get the hatin’ on Billy Blue — he not aggravating, just inert.
The fourth program was of Rob Stone rarities, the best of which was incomplete or unknown stuff, which I don’t feel comfortable grading. The Pokes & Jabs short STRICTLY BUSINESS was incoherent in its setup (because of missing footage, I suspect), but once it became clearly about a man’s attempt to get into an economist’s office to sell him a book, it became, like many films about obsessions, weirdly entertaining in a can-u-top-THIS mode. Rob also showed reels from two unknown Jimmie Adams comedies, the first of which felt like a 2nd reel, and the second felt like a 1st reel. The first Adams film was stolen by 2 cops from whom Adams is trying to hide, who are the kind of hyper-parodic mannered manic comic delight that critics think Jean-Luc Godard was making. They were “playing” “cop” as if in a kind of musical parody of cops (COP ROCK?), walking down the street in lockstep and then dancing around each other’s movements to turn a corner, with every gesture from each commenting on or matching a gesture from the other. Huge laughs all around. But unquestionably the program’s highlight, and one of the best in the fest, both for myself and nearly everyone else I spoke to, was the second reel of WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD, a Stan Laurel parody of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbucklers. If the first reel (which is gone) were as good as the second we saw, this film would rate a 9 — people were howling at a plant and some of the deliberate anachronisms (a firing squad of crossbows lined up like a rifle team), you can see Laurel’s style influence on Benny Hill, Marty Feldman and other British descendants of the music-hall tradition. Laurel parodies may be silent era’s greatest hidden treasures.
Fifth program, evening feature
POP TUTTLE’S MOVIE QUEEN (Paul Gerson / Pop Tuttle, 1922, 6) – Amazing facts you learn by actually WATCHING the general run of silents, part 367272: As early as 1922, you could make comic film centered on moviegoing itself (and parody the star-making system with a bit of outright fraud), and hold the Temperance movement in contempt at Prohibition’s height. Pop Tuttle doesn’t have much of a reputation, but he seems like a funny “crabby old grandp” type like Andy Clyde only better (or Max Davidson, only not as good)
THE ROUNDUP (George Melford / Fatty Arbuckle, 1920, 7) — It’s not as weird a program choice as may seem, with Fatty as an ensemble lead attempting a more-or-less straight Western. There is comedy involving Fatty — most memorably trying to dress himself — but only about as much as there is in a John Ford western, usually involving Victor McLaglen. It’s a good “primitive”-period Western. Paul Gierucki and I spent a few head-scratching minutes figuring out what kind of Western it was (it clearly wasn’t Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, Boetticher, Walsh or any of the acknowledged masters) before deciding on Roy Rogers minus the songs. There is, however, an extremely bitter ending, with a title card that seems in retrospect almost prophetic: “nobody loves a fat man.”
Sixth and seventh programs, features with Edward Everett Horton and Charley Chase
Seeing an Edward Everett Horton 1928 silent short (HORSE SHY, 6) followed by a 1930 talking feature (WIDE OPEN, 3) and it’s easy to see why talkies were thought to be the death of cinema in the late-20s/early 30s. Among other things, EEH is only convincingly hetero if he don’t speak. The graceful (or bumbling) physical comedy just either become impossible or too difficult to try in the early 1930s. Seeing a Charley Chase 1929 half-talkie (MODERN LOVE – 6, but really silent part 8 and talking part 4) and it’s easy again to see why people thought, etc. Rare in that the first few reels are silent and then the whole rest of the film is a talkie, with the film never reverting back to silent or weaving sound and silent throughout. As a result, it really feels pasted together, rather than using the mix for a purpose (like sound for Jolson’s songs). Charley eventually became a good talking comedian, but his character hadn’t developed an effective way with words yet, and was burdened here with the period’s typical clunky staging and fairly witless dialog. But the first two or three reels are cherce.
I arrived at Slapsticon on Thursday evening in the middle of the Abbott & Costello feature AFRICA SCREAMS, so I sat in the lobby until the Abbott & Costello rarities, came on. The highlights of that rarities program were: (1) a complete live-TV sketch involving a diamond necklace, with each man trying to palm it off on the other, where you could see the two break up on camera and the very bad and obvious sound effects add to the charm; (2) a very funny all-verbal short routine involving “two tens for a five”; (3) Costello’s home movies of a Europe trip that, via narration and framing material, he turns into a pomo Pete Smith short. Also there were two more versions of the “Who’s on First” routine, which frankly isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. It’s too smoothly performed, with the lickety-split lines: Lou should be getting more enraged.
COVERED SCHOONER (Harry Edwards / Monty Banks, 1923) — 7 — Best gags involve a suicide attempt (really) and attempts to close flower shop. Banks is appealing and goofy, a kind of less-uptight Charley Chase style Everyman. And the “gorilla” is unconvincing enough to be quite funny. Very enjoyable.
TOO MANY KISSES (Paul Sloane / Richard Dix, 1925) — 4 — You can imagine Harold Lloyd make this movie, and frankly I wished he had. Dix, who also starred in DeMille’s silent TEN COMMANDMENTS where he was at least well cast, is just not funny to me and has all of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s pretty boy looks and none of his physical gifts, best I can tell here. The plot involving a ne’er-do-well send to de-facto womanless town (Basques won’t marry foreigners) isn’t taken seriously enough to engag.
Right now, I’m sitting in the lobby of the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, having finally made it to this year’s Slapsticon, which is back in Rosslyn after a year off (the festival took a year off, that is … no way I would miss it).
The festival shows silent and early-sound comedies, mostly short subjects and is a permanent feature on my filmgoing calendar. Gratifying to have been here only about 10-15 minutes and already to her hearty “welcome back” handshakes and hugs from people I see here every year — Agnes McFadden, Linda Shah, Steve Massa, Rob Farr, Brent Walker, and Richard Roberts already with at least a dozen others expected. According to a couple of people, my absence from the opening Thursday afternoon program (because of inability to get off work for Thursday) was noticed and commented/speculated on — which is kind of awesome when you think about the fact I have no professional ties to most of these people and interact with them one week in 52. (I told Richard Roberts that I was not going to deprive him of his audience barometer.)
I’ll also be renewing acquaintanceships with the likes of Lupino Lane, Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon and a score of others not nearly well-known enough or DVD’d enough.
But beyond any doubt, the Highlight of this year’s program involves the one silent star that no literate human being doesn’t at least recognize. A THIEF CATCHER is a 1914 film with Charlie Chaplin near the very start of Chaplin’s career, at Mack Sennett’s studio, that was thought to have been lost. Just confirmed that it was indeed found by Paul Gierucki and that Saturday night’s show will be its first public showing in 90 years. Even if the movie’s no good, it will be awesome.
Between shows, I’ll be tweeting about the films I see that are worth mentioning, using a new account that I intend to use as a screening log, @vjmfilms, the feed for which can be seen at the right.
I suppose I left that title and the premise unelaborated on in my last post.
My review of L’INTRUS is part of the 4th annual White Elephant Blogathon, which is being run this year by my bud Paul Clark and which I am joining for the first time. The premise is that everyone submits a movie for someone else to write on. Being sadistic hipster juveniles, most of us put into the pool a film they know is bad or is widely reviled. Paul then assigns the films “randomly” (somehow, I, a Claire Denis nonfan wound up with the only art film in the pool). Everyone who submitted a film has to write about his assigned film and publish it on his site on a fixed date, Tuesday in this case.
At the link above, Paul provides the titles and sites for the blog-a-thon participants — highly recommended, even (especially) if you haven’t seen the mostly terrible movies (I mostly have not). Some are laugh out loud funny, including one, by Dennis Cozzalio of MANNEQUIN 2, that’s an even more elaborate conceit than my “Review of Denis in the Style of Denis” stunt. And there’s also this “rousing defense of the Hays code” that includes some little known facts of cinema history, from KC, reviewing the masterpiece OLGA’S GIRLS. But a buncha fun reading available there.
Paul also says yours truly was his most anticipated review — random, my bloomin arse. In the immortal words of Bea Arthur as Maude, “God’ll get you for that, Paul.”
I notice also that my submission has not appeared yet. I can’t imagine why. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest films of its kind ever, a feminist landmark and easily the most-canonized title in this blog-a-thon. However … well … let’s just say it poses a problem or two of perspective. (Hey … just because I accused Paul of being a sadist doesn’t mean I’m not.)
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I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Italy) — 8
MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary) — 7
THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Radu Jude, Romania) — 7
MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) — 9
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
I’m more likely to complain if a film spoon-feeds you everything and doesn’t trust you enough not to explain and spell out every last thing. But here is a case of a film that had a few too many ellipses, particularly in the last reel (I had to piece together what I think happened and I’m still not certain I got it right). And there’s one or two things about nuns that AUTUMN ADAGIO gets wrong that I think may have grown out of cultural innocence. Sister Maria, the certain character, doesn’t really seem to have any attachment at all to any order or community — we never see her Mother Superior or hear references therein, etc.
But still, this is a quietly excellent (and quite excellent) 75 minutes and, possible missteps on details aside, we might be grateful that it’s a Japanese (and a woman) to make a film about a nun experiencing midlife regrets, including the midlife change and what that defines about women’s sexuality. (To be honest, as a Western Catholic boy, the very notion of nuns menstruating at all seems “off” to me.) And in too many current Western hands, such material would become an excuse to have Sister Maria get in touch with her inner lesbian or march for a pro-abortion health-care bill as signs of a feminist “awakening.” Instead, as the Ozu-like seasonal title suggests, this is a film centered on music, meant to played and savored slowly. It makes even the moments that might come off as precious or affected in other contexts — e.g., the several involving flowers and leaves — seem absolutely right. Menopause makes never being a mother stark and irreversible, a matter Sister Maria works through without losing her vocation and without lasciviousness on the director’s part (one very unfortunate choice involving bathing soap aside). By the end, she’s able to explain the facts of life to a little girl whose reply then tells her something profound about her own periods.
In the course of the film, Sister Maria (played by J-Pop star Rei Shibakusa in one of those performances, like Maria Callas in Pasolini’s MEDEA, where you marvel that a singer has such interiority without using her voice) comes across three men — a stalker who attends the church where she plays the organ, a man whose mother is dying and to whom she must deliver a letter, and the star dancer at the ballet school where she also plays piano. At various times, ADAGIO reminded me of Bresson’s DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST — living out a religious vocation that mostly consists of daily repetition and apparent failure in the midst of an indifferent, where not hostile, community. Sister’s tentative steps in the direction of secular goods come mostly through her music and a connection with the dancer. There is a scene of him dancing to her playing that is extraordinary — one of the most magical scenes in any movie you’ll ever see. The connection between the two is breathtaking, charged — I want to say “erotic” but that seems inadequate, reductive and an invitation to the wrong sorts of thoughts. It is as close to a communio of persons as cinema can provide, but in the name of art not sex. And what happens — which Inoue by using ostentatious fades to black — afterward makes it clear that this is the kind of eros Plato wrote about in the Symposium, one made possible only by repression and destroyed by bumping-and-grinding.
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4
Remember what I wrote the other day about WILL YOU MARRY US? Here is the flip side — another sitcom film about a wedding and whether it will or won’t happen and every bit as much of an “Our Country for Export” movie (it even helpfully starts with a map of the country, setting up the several locations where all the action is taking place). But WHITE WEDDING has more of an ensemble, so it’s hard to fall in love with a character as much and there’s a couple of stabs at profundity or at least seriousness that really feel off-key in this featherweight context.
Except for the use of Xhosa in most of the inter-black conversations (and Afrikaans in some of the inter-white), WHITE WEDDING could have been a Tyler Perry movie — well-off young Mercedes-driving blacks genially clashing with traditional less-well-off but more loving parents, the rich outsider ex-boyfriend who threatens to usurp the hero groom (Elvis) in the bride-to-be’s affections as he makes his cross-country journey (several times and ways interrupted) to be at the wedding. Turner also uses such hoary tropes as the flamboyantly effeminate wedding planner and the repressed spinster who works at the gown shop, but doesn’t actually do anything with them once established. You know there will be at least one inter-racial romance to represent the New South Africa (people who dismissed INVICTUS as mere homily are invited with deep sarcasm to this movie as the alternative).
Speaking of New and Old South Africa, there are also scenes, and this still is from the aftermath, where Elvis, another black man and a white Englishwoman stumble into a bar where rugby is on the TV, the apartheid-era flag is on the wall, there are signs (unenforceable of course) of whites-only bathrooms and the militarily-decked-out men make their discomfort clear. And it’s in the middle of a whites-only town where they have to stay the night. This scene REALLY made me itch. It realize it seems priggish of me, a foreigner, to object to South Africans, blacks among them, making jokes themselves about their apartheid past (being able to do that is a sign of a healthy polity — I get that). And moments in the bar scene (the way a drunken Elvis, oblivious to where he is, sings what I’m guessing to be a Boer folk song about a military hero) indicate the potential comedy gold. But there is no universe in which gun-toting Afrikaner nostalgists driving up to a home because there’s some kaffirs threatening our women, like the Klan riding out to protect Lillian Gish at the end of BIRTH OF NATION, will seem like a good choice in a light entertainment.
I now realize this review is far more negative than I intended. So let me reiterate that, horrific caveats aside, WHITE WEDDING is a genial good-souled sitcom and thus sometimes entertaining and might serve as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. But it’s not anything special or unmissable, though a smart distributor would make a killing by releasing it generally worldwide during or immediately after this summer’s World Cup.
LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, France/Austria) — 9
BEYOND IPANEMA (Guto Barra, Brazil) — 3
I will start at the end, because that is what determined a grade of such distaste as “1” — if the closing title card were removed and the facts it referred to altered in the film, my grade would probably be about a 4 or 5. I also add that if I misread or the subtitles mistranslated that ending, I will happily alter my grade.
ARMY OF CRIME is a French Resistance movie. It (also) begins at the end with a strong, incantatory reading of litany of about 20 names identified as having “died for France” to images of people in handcuffs that (we presume correctly) are the death honor roll. The first thing I noted was that many of the identified are not typically French and/or typically something else — Slav, Hungarian, Jewish and others. And that’s the key to what the movie’s about and ultimately why it nauseated me — this cell consists of exiles, mostly East Europeans, several Jews, most Communists. Which is fair and plausible enough — the makeup of anti-Nazi resistances would naturally draw on such groups, and there’s always been a cosmopolitanism streak in admirers of the French republic and muthos (“every man has two countries — his own and France,” an American Francophile president once said). And all the talk of proletarian internationalism and Popular Front and whatnot is certainly appropriate here. But this zeal causes Guediguian to cross a moral line I believe sacrosanct.
But even without those intellectual problems, ARMY OF CRIME would still strike me as an unspectacular and muddled film. The best through-line involves an Armenian poet who starts the movie as a pacifist but has to learn to lead a Resistance cell. ARMY suffers from comparison both with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (perhaps unfairly; Tarantino couldn’t care less about history and really made a film about cinema and about his own skill in constructing set pieces, a measure by which QT painfully outdoes Guediguian) and with THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (more fairly; indeed several scenes seem like precise parallels, including the unpopular fact that both guerrilla groups were ruthlessly broken). Compared to ALGIERS though, ARMY is much less hard-headedly realistic, morally complex on civilian bombings, and has nothing on Pontecorvo’s French colonel or Morricone’s primal-wail music. Serious urban guerrillas have always been willing to kill civilians — a fact Pontecorvo presented unblinkingly in his film’s most memorable and suspenseful scene. Here, we get a bomb raid on a German officer soiree called off in mid-attack because there were women (and good-looking young ones, we’re helpfully told) as if there could ever have been doubt on that score. I also will probably never be completely happy with the spell-it-out History Channel touches inevitably found in this kind of movie.
But then there was one bit of outright fraud that made me start to question the film. The guerrilla cell is led by an Armenian who’d already seen (and describes fleeing) one mass slaughter. Subtext received, and plausible enough. But I began beating my head against the back of the stadium-seating chair when the Armenian gilded the lily (or rather Guediguian gilded his script) by explicitly mentioning Hitler’s “who remembers the Armenians today” remark, (1) the authenticity of which is disputed and not merely by Turkish denialists; (2) *certainly* wasn’t reported until after the war anyway; (3) *certainly* was not in a 1936 Reichstag speech as ARMY OF CRIME states (or any other public rhetoric; its claimed origin is a dispute with Army men about conduct during the planned invasion of Poland); and (4) refers anyway to plans to annihilate the Poles for Lebensraum — an issue of doubtful relevance to the events in ARMY OF CRIME. To quote it in dialogue supposedly taking place in 1942-43 is a travesty and a pander.
And then we get to the closing title card, which caused me to snap and say something aloud (I forget what) to the screen. It is a quote from Guediguian himself, saying as close as I can recall (and was trying to read it in both Enflish and French simultaneously) that, “in order to tell this story in a way relevant to today, I had to alter some facts.” I instantly began spitting rage. No, Robert … you didn’t HAVE to — you chose to. What are the things you chose to lie about? Are they what I think they are — a desire to turn the French Resistance into a multiculti Benneton ad avant la lettre (a cause that would certainly serve the needs of today, in the eyes of some)? Who gives an airborne fornication to supposed relevance or needs of today? And if they are such that they cannot be served by the truth about history, are they really needs or even desireable? And most relevant to your film — now that you’ve acknowledged that the needs of today, as you see them, override truth (i.e., you’re a liar for political convenience’s sake) why should anyone believe a word of your film?
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
This material about the underground pop-music scene in Tehran, though certainly better than MY TEHRAN FOR SALE, probably would have worked better as a reality-TV show (which it kinda is anyway; most of the actors are musicians playing probably some version of themselves). If this were THE REAL WORLD: TEHRAN. it would then become possible to overlook this film inadequacies as a drama, most basically that nobody in the film, with one delirious exception, can act worth excrement, particularly the central couple Negar and Ashkan. I mean the reality TV comparison literally — the “acting” is of the style you’d expect on a reality-TV show (which is to say, when viewed as drama, awful). The plot is thin and mostly winds up just a picaresque excuse to move from band to band and play what ultimately become like videos of their song (ditto the “we accept such conventions in reality TV” caveat). CATS also lacks in some of the most-basic elements of film craftsmanship — I was particularly aggravated at a early scene, in an apartment being used for disc-bootlegging, that never managed to be in proper focus, and not because shooting was hurried or threatened or Ghobadi was deliberately moving objects into or out of focus for expressive purposes.
There are two things worth seeing in this film, which make it almost worth a recommendation — one is the de-facto music videos. Not because the music is especially great but because it’s at least OK (and some of it good) and such a novelty to hear at all that you can hardly really mind. And if that judgment commit the crimes of patronizing Orientalism and tourist exoticism, then let me be guilty. I mean … who knew there were Persian rappers and heavy-metal bands? The singer for the hard-rock group (I didn’t catch its name) explicitly says his act has nothing to do with politics or religion, but their song (heavy on “King of Pain” type repetitive imagery about who’s awake all night) is as apolitical as the women’s tales in SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY. And did you imagine you could ever hear rappers, however amusing it might be (is) to see them strut about representin’ like Public Enemy or House of Pain, complain about how, in their society, money is first and God is second?
The other thing worth seeing is the crazy, manic performance — the only one in the film that belong in any kind of dramatic movie — of Hamed Behdad as Nader, who dubs film and music disks, listens to Negar and Ashkan’s record and promises to make it a hit and get them abroad. He is only prominent in two or three scenes, but he is a clownish comic delight as the hyper-helpful, motor-mouthed, big-talking little guy who’ll make things happen. And then in one scene — let’s just say it involves a trial — we see the same persona in another context and the laughter sticks in the craw.
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7
I’m at the point now where I want to see a bad Romanian movie, just to convince myself that my grades for the eight or so Romanian films I’ve seen in the past few years — every one at least a 6, most better, and one a “best of decade” favorite — aren’t simply a fanboy’s reflex. But across a wide variety of subject matters, they all have the same combination of urgent realism and existential gloom and an utter lack of snark or Generation-Whatevuh — a mix I’m just a sucker for. In the case of THE OTHER IRENE, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about and how it’s about it without spoilers, so I’ll discuss more after the jump. For the front page, let me say that it makes a nod to virtually every recent Romanian festival hit and most resembles POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Dragos Bucur even has a small role, as does Vlad Ivanov), though it’s less stylistically radical — another structural exercise in a character trying to spin a narrative for the sake of his sanity and (in this case) his memories, only to be … well, what happens here (WARNING: link to a recent French classic that obviously is a giveaway too). Continue reading
THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguian, France) — 1*
* I’ll elaborate later but I’d be prepared to reconsider if the final title card (film was about a 5 until then) doesn’t mean what it seems to say.
Also decided to bag AIR DOLL for its commercial release in DC during Dog Days of Summer
THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
Or “why I take notes, part 1.” The last words in my viewing notes for this film, about a hero boy’s quest to keep a book safe, were actually taken after the lights were up: “wow, kids totally silent.” I had just looked around the crowded-but-not-packed-to-the-gills auditorium and seen that virtually the entire audience was made up of families with children. (KELLS is already in limited release nationwide, but the Festival showed it as a reduced-price children’s weekend matinee.) And yet during the film’s entire 75-minute running time, I was never conscious of being in an auditorium full of rugrats, who tend to run up and down the aisles or cry or demand to be taken outside or otherwise indicate when they’re not enjoying themselves. I know that “reviewing the audience” is dicey, but with children’s movies, because they haven’t learned to sit in silent boredom when a film sucks, it’s easy to determine whether a film is working or isn’t.
The kids’ reaction also happened to confirm an idea I had about KELLS — that it had a gentleness of tone, a real sense of wonder and fantasy that is too often absent from kids entertainment (there’s even an actual fairy in this fairy tale). I recently saw HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (a film I liked much less), which covered a lot of the same subject matter and theme and setting (see Steve Greydanus here for the comparisons). But DRAGON did it in a more “contemporary” style, trying to take advantage of 3D, chopped-up action editing like Bay and Bruckheimer, and a much more “knowing” sensibility. And I felt, and I think I would done the same as a boy, pushed away by all the freneticness of DRAGON. Something as gentle and relaxed as KELLS is literally a breath of fresh air.
Not that KELLS has nothing for adults or more-sophisticated audiences. Among other things, I think adults will have a better sense of how detailed the nearly all hand-drawn animation is and how much effort goes into making all the film’s curlicues and decorated curves and whatnot, as if the film is trying for an animated equivalent of the illumined manuscripts that “Dark Ages” monks sweated their lives for. They also will (or should) have more of a sense of how the imagery, with its flat two-dimensionality and stylized shapes, fits a pre-Renaissance world whose self-representations were without realistic-looking perspective. There are even some shots in KELLS (though I couldn’t find one online) of floors rising up the frame, like in Byzantine icons.
My one reservation about the film is religious (though, pace Michael Sicinski, it isn’t exactly about the crystal). Rather, it is the secularizing or at least de-Christianizing of the book and the abbey. If you go into this film knowing that the Book of Iona/Kells was the four Gospels, then the film actually is the “Christian propaganda” that Michael feared (c’mon … the last line is that the book “can give hope to the people in these dark days of the Northmen” and there’s even an explicit reference to the serpent being trapped into eating itself by “drawing lines”). But the film never (that I recall) mentions either that this book, though there’s much of that vague “this book can bring light into the darkness,” is a copy of the Gospels or that these monks are, you know, Christians, rather than just an all-male commune of unspecified character.
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9
Or “why I take notes, part 2.” Here are some of the names and films and artworks that I AM LOVE put me in mind of and jotted down while watching — Antonioni, KING LEAR, the Recchi Co. as neorealism and Italian film itself, MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Max Ophuls, THE LEOPARD, BABETTE’S FEAST, Garbo, Impressionism, the 19th-century novel and Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Scorsese, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Between this film and VINCERE (which I saw again recently and admired even more), Italy is definitely back as the country that offers the antidote to the Cinema of Lack. I AM LOVE, whatever else may be said of it, is bursting with ideas and conceits and style and flourishes. Nor is this mere name-dropping. Guadagnino doesn’t suffer from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, instead saying that he’s deliberately acknowledging the towering antecedents that an Italian film-maker must face (though few have done so successfully recently) and trying to make something new with them. From an article in the current Sight and Sound:
I Am Love’s dazzling title sequence – cut, designed and scored to brashly recall some great Italian art film from 1960 – defines this new confidence. “We were trying to connect the chromosomic code of great movies that we love, from Visconti to Antonioni, with a vision of Milano today,” Guadagnino says. “You can’t start in a humble, hypocritical way, saying, ‘Those were masters and we are not.’ We have to say, ‘Let’s aim for the stars and see where we go’.”
To some everything up in a single bite — an updated Impressionistic version of a Visconti film based on a 19th-century novel, though changed to reflect current social and economic realities. However, again, it’s always love and sex that break up the social order. Like THE LEOPARD, I AM LOVE looks at the generational passing-on of a class through the eyes of (in this case) someone imported into the family from outside (Tilda Swinton, playing a Russian who married into the family of Italy’s largest textile firm) via immigration rather than Garibaldi’s bourgeois revolution. I AM LOVE also introduces us to the dramatis personae with a bravura overture scene of the family gathering, though instead of Visconti’s family rosary, we get a secular meal where a major announcement is made. The directness of Guadagnino’s acknowledgement of the shadow of Italy’s cinematic past is clear in one detail: the scene features Gabriele Ferzetti as the patriarch signing over his empire, and, as Swinton’s husband, an actor who looks like he did in the 1960s.
In that scene and others I AM LOVE and its constantly prowling camera channels Visconti’s sensual adoration of the surfaces and appearances of a rich decadent civilization, only here it’s the late 20th-century bourgeois dinner, not a 19th-century aristocratic ball. I already mentioned VINCERE, but the one sense in which I AM LOVE does differ radically is that where Bellocchio’s film is boldly and grandly operatic, Guadagnino’s movie (until the end) instead goes for a more-subjective style that might be better called Impressionism — shots out of time, colorful surfaces, hazy focus, contrast with sun-kissed nature. In one food-porn scene, Swinton eats a shrimp dish that you can practically taste yourself and fall in the love with the chef (which is the cause of much of the film’s conflict). There’s even a shot of a colorful table of food drifting in out of focus and image-smear like a Cezanne might have produced. There are scenes where Swinton walks through a room and touches the objects in it like talismanic reminders, and others where the sound mix drifts in and out as the world comes clanging down on your ears. And the final betrayal is shown, not in a handful of peas, but a fish-soup recipe that causes everything to click together. It’s all stylistically overheated, no doubt, but the film centers on Swinton and her subjective experience as a Russian for whom Italy IS a garden of delights. And one that eventually …
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 5 (downgraded from 6)
Or “why I take notes, part 3.” I downgraded this one because it was clear looking at my notes my dominant reaction was “this isn’t as good as Tarantino.” I kept noticing the similarities: braided plot threads among a group of criminal lowlifes, scams and scheming involving debts and sacks of money, betrayals and trust issues, sudden bursts of violence, details of the underside like the differing rates for various prostitution services, etc. This film should have been titled JACOBA MARRONA. But more importantly I also kept noticing where 25 KARATS failed to match its American master. And (unlike I AM LOVE) Amezcua’s film is too derivative of a single source to judge on any terms other than its original.
25 KARATS entirely lacks Tarantino’s wit, instead being played pretty straight with little or none of his type of colorful dialog. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and I miss stuff and details; but I can hear Spanish well enough to tell what a film is trying to do — and this is functional dialogue just about entirely (I can tell definitively that the subtitles are witless and straight). Tarantino also would never have the kind of tender-hearted sex scene that plays straight out of what Roger Ebert called in the 60s and 70s the semi-OLI (Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude with soft and would-be romantic music; call it the semi-OFI). The ending also doesn’t come off, for all score of reasons: there’s two people killed that just seems gratuitous and two switches — one of loyalty, the other of costume — occur that are flat unbelievable). 25 KARATS held my attention and sometimes was interesting and fun in a way that crime movies always have suspense and intrigue built into them. But never was it more than that.
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7
Obviously, I bagged plans to be going to work and the festival and got the OK to burn a vacation week, so this is what I saw, unplanned, on Sunday:
THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9*
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 6
* There is still one more screening of this during the festival: Monday night.
I upgraded this film from 5 upon reflection because it finally became clear to me that, the ridiculous and self-contradictory last scene aside, the film really does have a consistent attitude toward its protagonist and her situation — a custody fight in which the city of Prague is trying to take away her seven children on the grounds of abuse, neglect, truancy, etc.
My problem was that I could never figure out while I was watching EL PASO what the film wanted me to make of Vera — a Roma woman who is frequently her own worst enemy. The film seemed to occasionally overdo the “cultural sensitivity” act in her blaming “gadjos” (Roma for “The Man”). And at other times the film played as a PRECIOUS-like wallow in poverty and child dysfunction (gypsy children gratuitously stealing pens from their mother’s lawyer? c’mon … it’s like Precious’s fried-chicken bucket)
But no … EL PASO is really about a family, albeit a deeply problematic one, defying the stifling nanny state. Indeed, this is where EL PASO distinguishes itself as better, or at least more realistic, than PRECIOUS — the visiting social workers are clearly portrayed as interfering busybodies. “You feed your children sausage, that’s not healthy,” one says at one point, and the city bureaucrat leading the case is like Montgomery Burns as played by James Cromwell. Horrible abuse like smoking in the front of the children (seriously) are taken as evidence of unfit motherhood. But EL PASO doesn’t take the easy way out — Vera, brilliantly played by Irena Horvathova with plenty of strength but little grandstanding Strength, is not an easy character to like and constantly acts oblivious to, and sometimes contemptuous of, her legal predicaments. And she eventually alienates her lawyer (the more-quietly excellent Denisa Demeterova) who tries to help her and dispenses sound advice and thus is as close to an audience surrogate as the film gets. So again, my initial “mixed” reaction was really a testament to the film’s success in having me share her reaction to Vera. (Though that still makes the final “everybody happily ever” scene unforgivable.)
Sometimes you just have to be honest and admit that you enjoyed a movie that isn’t really very good. WILL YOU MARRY US is basically a Swiss sitcom about a small-town civil registrar whose marriage is breaking apart but (here’s the twist) meets an old boyfriend who wants her to preside over his impending marriage. Given that high a concept, everything that happens is completely predictable — there’s some funny scenes (one good punch line came at the end of a scene involving tiramisu; the best scene is the climactic speech and an absurdly overextended metaphor about marriage as a voyage), a growing realization that the old flames still love each other, and a wisecracking best friend (who is NOT gay). It’s fun but never anything that threatens to be great.
There is a scene involving someone unexpectedly walking into a room containing two people who are not supposed to be together or in that room — it’s amusing and there’s one big laugh, but the difference between that scene and the comparable scene in A FISH CALLED WANDA (Kevin Kline in Cleese’s study) is the difference between an OK film and a great one. Indeed, a film like MARRY entirely depends on “do you enjoy spending this time with these people and existing in their environment?” And the answer to that question, for me, is “yes.” Indeed, I quickly developed a 90-minute crush on Marie Leuenberger, who plays the “civil registrar” of the film’s German title (DIE STANDESBEAMTIN). She glows on the screen, even though she’s not playing someone conventionally happy for most of the film and isn’t an obvious sex-bomb type (more like an early career Minnie Driver), but she is so likeable and the camera so “likes” her that I found her very presence irresistible.
Lewinsky said during the Q-and-A that he wanted to make “a normal romantic comedy for Swiss, but there haven’t been many.” He also said, surprisingly to me given how well the film seemed to be received by the packed auditorium and how generally it seemed to be selling “Switzerland for Export,” that MARRY would probably not be distributed commercially in the US. There was an audible disbelieving groan in which I shared — this film would go down very smoothly with Landmark-type audiences if it were booked and handled properly (I’ve already got the pitch line — MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING meets ONCE). Or perhaps if it were simply remade — indeed, like with FAREWELL, I wouldn’t mind seeing a first-class American handling of this premise, because an American film might be a little faster-paced, a bit more manic and a touch nastier, and if it were, the result could be a screwball classic.
¹ If I have to use something as absurdly artificial as “Czech Republic,” why not this, also a proper name (it’s the origin of the “CH” national-ID tag on cars)
EL PASO (Zdenek Tyc, Czech Republic) — 5
WILL YOU MARRY US (Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland) — 6
SILENT WEDDING (Horatiu Malaele, Romania) — 8
The current World Cinema “It”-Country now has a representative comedy to go with all the grim dramas it’s been turning out. SILENT WEDDING starts in current-day Romania with a TV crew taking a trip to a deserted factory (“the Communists destroyed a [traditional] village to build a factory, and now the capitalists are destroying the factory to build a [retro] village”) though some uncanny moments flash in, as if the site were haunted by ghosts — which it is. The film flashes back to the main events, which take place at a time we later learn is 1953 but could have been virtually any time — Romania as the home of the vampire legend makes a short cameo. It mostly about village daily life among the peasants, most prominently a young courting couple not exactly waiting for the wedding night, which causes quarreling and joking and drinking.
Balkan-peasant humor seems to be virtually the opposite of the Polish-Czech dry mordant humor — full of oompah-pah-pah overstatement, broad clowning, midgets, wild tone shifts, magic realism and crude cruelty. The best moment was a sex scene in which the young lovers are copulating in a vat of corn, the depth of which becomes a measure of their excitement. Still, I can’t say I was overwhelmed by much of SILENT WEDDING as it was unspooling — it was fairly amusing but large parts of it reminded me of the one Emir Kusturica film I’ve seen (TIME OF THE GYPSIES, which I didn’t care for). A little of that goes a long way with me, but this film was comfortably humming along at a 5-6 clip. Until …
Let’s just say I was sore after watching the scene from which the film derives its title — one of the best comedy sequences I have ever seen, featuring (among much else) the funniest on-screen fart in movie history (no, I’m not forgetting BLAZING SADDLES). For complicated reasons, the villagers put on a wedding feast in which everybody has to remain silent (think the sect members’ pact in the banquet at BABETTE’S FEAST). The sequence is so filled with big laughs that it even retroactively recoded some of the earlier less-amusing broadness and loudness. Part of the reason THIS is so funny is that we’ve already seen how this Zorba the Romanian village normally is — which makes the increasingly elaborate sham so painful for them. And then …
the final tone shift. And it’s not what we’ve been expecting even though, as a film set in Romania in 1953 and watching in 2010, you probably should have seen it coming. It takes a special film to pull off this many tone shifts and choosing the right ones at the right time.
FAREWELL (Christian Carion, France) — 6
Like the other directors scheduled to appear here, Christian Carion was kept away by the Icelandic volcano’s effects on trans-Atlantic travel. But in a note read before the screening, he said he admired “Anglo-Saxon cinema” for its “willingness to make films about political reality” and cited as examples influencing him THE QUEEN and JFK. That description can be read either as an invitation or as a STFA (“stay away”: one more detail: actors imitate Reagan and Mitterand).
Honestly, while I take that (reasonably fair) critical cross-reference as an invitation, FAREWELL is more a film I admire in concept — an old-school pro-Western Cold War espionage film a la TOPAZ, and from France no less — than in execution. I wouldn’t have wanted a BOURNE-esque action film, but FAREWELL never really manages to be terribly exciting or filled with suspenseful set-pieces (a wait by the Finnish border near the end is as close as it gets).
But FAREWELL is very well done in every small way and in the characterizing touches that European films do tend to do better. Weary Slav Emir Kusturica in particular is very strong as the KGB colonel who feeds information to a dorky Frenchman (Guillaume Canet, also cast well) whom he knows is too amateurish for the Commies to suspect. Kusturica’s first appearance is a sudden leap-into-the-throat that also acknowledges cinematically the first appearance of Harry Lime. The relationship between the two men and their parallel (actually more inverse) marriage-espionage woes really is the heart of the film more than thriller-genre elements. And the last reveal would have been even better without the repeated references to a certain John Ford classic. It sounds cliche, but honestly, my heart breaks at the thought of what Hitchcock could have done with this material. Or how much tighter and more exciting any competent Hollywood craftsman of today would have.
The big local event of DC’s film year starts next week, FilmFestDC (contrary to what I told an out-of-town programmer friend with whom I went out last night — I really thought at the time that the festival began this week). The Opening Night film (a la-dee-da affair I’ve never gone to) is the Russian musical HIPSTERS, which I almost certainly will see at some point. And the Closing-Night film (which I have gone to once — Lukas Moodysson’s TOGETHER some years ago) is the (still undistributed — why?!?!) German feel-good food-porn film SOUL KITCHEN. There are programs of films from Italy and Romania, the latter of which seems more mouth-watering at this moment in history. There also seemed to be, though not a formal program, a large number of wedding films and music-related films.
These are the films playing here that I saw and (with one exception, that I will see again) reviewed at Toronto or Charlottesville last year:
AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7) — my review here (2nd capsule)
IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3) — my review here (3rd capsule)
SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY¹ (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5) — my review here, 2nd capsule
SHAMELESS (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 3) — my review here (4th capsule)
SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6) — my review here (4th capsule)
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE² (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6, directors not specifically matched to the shorts — my review here (4th capsule)
“The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8
“The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7
“The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4
“The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6
“The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8
VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2) — my review here (3rd capsule)
As to what I’ll be seeing … I haven’t purchased any tickets because, as I don’t think I can take time off work, I cannot be certain I’ll make every 630 show I’d like to. There’s a couple I will make certain I attend, but this plan is my wildest dreams:
Saturday, 24 April
430 Avalon I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy)
700 Avalon MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary)
1000 E Street THE MESSAGE (Chen Kuo-fu and Gau Qun-shu, China)
¹ FilmFestDC’s stated 186-minute running time for SCHEHEREZADE may be wrong; the IMDb and the Toronto Festival both list the film as 134 minutes, and I certainly don’t remember it being 3 hours.
² Marculescu is not credited at FilmFestDC page, though I don’t know whether it is correct or Toronto’s page is. The film itself had no director credits
I generally don’t walk out on movies. I won’t give a bad movie the satisfaction of driving me out of the theater, and so it becomes a contest of wills or an excuse to nap or whatever. To this day, I’ve only walked out of three theatrically-seen movies (I obviously “turned channels” a lot more — it feels different). And until 2003, the only movie I had ever walked out on in a theater was …
Rather than live-tweet the Oscars, I’ll do it de facto in a single post here and update continuously — this was called “live-blogging” back in the day, kids.
I’m at an Oscar party at an Arlington theater with an audience that already has shown the good taste to boo a mention of PRECIOUS and give its loudest cheers to HURT LOCKER, which I will be rooting for in the only one of the major awards about which there is any suspense — best film. Though I preferred UP, it’s between Kathryn Bigelow’s film and her husband’s.
820 — watching the red carpet. Sarah Jessica Parker looked awful — her face like old asphalt.
830 — audience at party applauds appearance of the Awesome Meryl. “I like to see my friends all cleaned up and looking good.”
832 — couldn’t they get someone who can sing instead of Doogie?
835 — “most losses” … true, some of her noms weren’t so awesome, just “it was Meryl”
840 — THE MESSENGER was a hit?
841 — yeah, kill those pagan spirits
845 — fairly entertaining, especially when they underplay (Martin’s arm gesture for Christoph Waltz)
846 — of course, they don’t use Cruz’s song from NINE ….
846 — Waltz a done deal of course. A Spaniard handing trophy to Austrian (both in mostly foreign-lingo roles) — I like.
855 — another done deal, animated film = UP, though either CORALINE or FROG or FOX would be worthy winner (didn’t see KELLS)
900 — UP win a popular choice where I am and deserved it, though it won’t win Best Pic (it was my pick for best American film of last year)
903 — thank you Jesus … no Best Song performances. just the award thank you. “Almost There” was pretty awesome song and scene, and wud be worthy winner.
906 — “inspired by events in South Africa during apartheid”? Man, to heck with Area 51, that coverup was REAL good
910 — rooting for UP or BASTERDS for script. as long as Coens don’t win.
915 — well, OK. Dunno that HURT LOCKER’s strength is script
919 — class move for scriptwriter to thank US forces
920 — it’s 80s nostalgia time with Claire and Ferris
923 — oops … didn’t realize it was for John Hughes tribute, though I like, I like … BREAKFAST CLUB was one on the most influential movies in my life. saw it about 15 times in late-80s (great choice for the scene from that film)
925 — there could only be one way to end that tribute … awesome. Hope this doesn’t replace the general necrology (one of the highlights for me every year)
927 — O man … who got caught not applauding Hughes tribute? Bad on you, whoever you are.
928 — Creepy to see all those people from Hughes movies 20 years older, especially when an obviously older Ally repeats the line about your soul dying.
929 — I just heard it was the TWILIGHT kids not applauding. Triple irony.
930 — host at party says “would have been nicer if the Academy had been kinder to him while he was alive.” Amen.
931 — now the shorts — which i’ve seen this year for first time ever and I tweeted about last night. Rooting for INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA in live (not likely) and GRANNY O’GRIMM in animated (no chance)
932 — wow LOGORAMA wins. Deserving, tho it’d have been my third choice
933 — lumping doc shorts in here, rather than with doc feature … no idea about these
935 — bad laughs at the woman doing a Kanye impression. what a tool, big laughs now. does she realize how she comes across.
936 — damn … the one of the live-action shorts I couldn’t stand.
937 — Ben Stiller will be awesome
939 — makeup … the category where NORBIT was nominated
940 — IL DIVO was worthy and not obviously a gimmick, but scifi always does well here.
942 — yep, STAR TREK. Better that than NORBIT though — I’ll never forgive that nomination.
945 — at my party, AVATAR was overwhelmingly “voted off the island” … ftr, I am not acknowledging the I AM A MINSTREL JEW film
950 — adapted script — UP IN THE AIR should win this one, it’s Prize for the Night. BTW .. HURT LOCKER’s original script win means it’s gonna sweep
952 — wow, a PRECIOUS win. Could augur an upset in best pic.
953 — I honestly don’t hate the film, but why O why did they pick one of the two or three scenes in the film, the fried-chicken theft, that had me thinking: “Y’know maybe Armond White’s right in comparing this to BIRTH OF A NATION”
956 — man I would have loved to see these presentations. Lauren Bacall is the highlight of the show from afar. “a two-legged man in my room” … “since I’m so young” — the old-school stats had it all.
957 — audience way too slow to applaud and stand for Bacall and Corman — of all people. theme already — ungrateful classless young whippersnappers.
And get off my lawn!!
958 — ritual award to Monique. only suspense is how she’ll handle the speech.
1000 — everyone applauds at my party. I’m cool with her winning — she is very good
1002 — I dunno Monique, I dunno how taking this role was about “doing what is right not what is popular.” Would anyone have thought your taking that role was immoral (as opposed to ill-advised on account of … ahem it’d be unpopular)
1005 — art direction — whatever is the period piece
1007 — wow … guess scifi helps. but in what sense can a CGI film be said to have art direction or set decoration?
1008 — costumes — the period piece again, though that theory didn’t hold up last time
1011 — OK, worked out this time. especially since VICTORIA had a previous winner (both for period pieces tho from different eras — 16th century and 1920s/30s)
1012 — Good of Powell to note that costumers in other genres don’t get the recognition, though no way for her to segue elegantly from “this is for them” to keeping it herself
1021 — I like a lot of these horror movies, but why not cut montages and keep the life-achievement awards. Corman and Bacall would have killed tonight. it’s just as good a way to remind people the medium has a history.
1022 — they dis Roger Corman and think it’s a makeup to put 3 seconds of Jack Nicholson in Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS on the horror montage.
1025 — sound editing — this’ll be AVATAR
1026 — HURT LOCKER beats AVATAR in 2 technical categories (sound editing and effects). Stick a fork in AVATAR for best pic. It’s a HURT LOCKER sweep or a PRECIOUS upset
1028 — Kathryn Bigelow has the look of someone on whom it’s just dawned that this is really gonna be her night
1030 — just won a flying dragon at the Oscar party for knowing the only tie for Best Actress (accumulating useless knowledge of 40-year-old films does pay off)
1035 — it had not penetrated my consciousness that WHITE RIBBON had been nominated for cinematography. AVATAR win in this category doesn’t alter by predix above.
1037 — the necrology. I really do love this every year.
1038 — I’m the lone person clapping for Eric Rohmer and for Simon Channing Williams. Malden and Schulberg same year. Sorry, Michael Jackson does not belong.
1043 — Jean Simmons, Kathryn Grayson too. (not “they don’t belong,” just both young stars of 50s)
1046 — male presenter of best score looks like Peter Suderman’s Twitter avatar.
1047 — oh yippee ki-yay … dancing with the scores
1052 — FOX was best based on that performance. But UP’s win was awesome anyway, and one of the better (if cliched) acceptance speeches.
1055 — what the hell kinda accent is that from the presenter on the left for the visual effects.
1100 — that’s it for AVATAR, I think
1102 — Clooney is starting to annoy me (his in-show schtick that is)
1104 — Best doc will turn on Social Relevance. No Holocaust film so then BURMA VJ tho every one of these films hits some liberal sweet spot.
1105 — Now I want Michael Haneke to win, even though even a second viewing didn’t change my opinion
1106 — More politics. If anyone has link to audio of Rush Limbaugh’s Extra-Dolphin Tuna parody ad, please post or send.
1107 — Tyler Perry is pretty funny
1108 — people are cheering every HURT LOCKER win (editing)
1110 — dunno if Keanu and others aren’t overplaying the “war is a drug” angle since it’s obviously true only of one of the five or six main characters (the central one admittedly).
1120 — wow … know nothing about the Argentine winner SECRET IN THEIR EYES though as usual, the non-Anglophones give the best speeches because they’re too innocent to calculate. When he looked into camera and urgently said “no, no” — awesome
1125 — Best actor to go to Jeff Bridges. After I said in early December it was Clooney or Mandela to 95 percent certainty (right, Sonny)
1130 — OK if you’re gonna introduce each nominee like last year, this make the sense — tributes from current or former colleagues rather than trumped-up encomia from previous category winners with no tie to performer. OK … Robbins gets best line, from last day of shooting SHAWSHANK, told perfectly, building from oversaccharined encomia.
1132 — no surprise for the Dude. wow … forgot how far back his first nom was (LAST PICTURE SHOW — I was 5 years old).
1135 — Lots of “man” in a kinda rambling speech that reminded a little too much of the Dude
1140 — Now for actress — only suspense is how good Bullock’s speech will be. Oh and why is Helen Mirren in THIS category and Christopher Plummer in Supporting? That is objectively incorrect.
1145 — Should Peter Sarsgaard have given away the spoiler? I guess at this point the movie out there long enough. Stanley Tucci has fun with an impossible task — how do you do “accolades for Meryl” at this point in history?
1150 — Wanna bet there won’t be a second. though Sandra is a way better actress than Hillary Swank. Good cutaway cheer by the real-life guy in audience. Can’t imagine a better speech really — right mix of well dropped-in jokes and an unfaked choke back.
1152 — Babs as best-director presenter. That means they know they’re gonna give it to the girl.
1155 — Not that Bigelow doesn’t deserve to win, i.e., it wouldnt be an affirmative action vote. But I hope she doesn’t mention it.
1158 — yeah … Bigelow gives thanks to right people, doesn’t mention her sex. But the orchestra goes and effs it up by playing a feminist anthem from 70s
1159 — just best film to go — HURT LOCKER wins
1200 — and that’s exactly what happens. Awesome. Now two years out of three that the Oscar winner made my Top 10.
Hard to believe I had a chance to see this movie 18 months ago at Toronto 2008, but couldn’t juggle my schedule around to fit.
“You Make My Dreams,” 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — Only people who don’t have a silly bone in their bodies, and so should not be reading this site, could fail to love this scene — so impossibly giddy, scored to such a bouncy piece of 80s pop cheese, a feeling of literal head-over-heels love as the whole universe impossibly cooperates in the impossible. (And the “impossible” part we’re told right from the beginning — giving the scene and the whole movie a wiser undercurrent.)
The Kids in the Chatroom, ADORATION — Another encapsulation of the film in miniature — or at least one strand of Egoyan’s messy thoughts. The hero Simon writes a story that becomes an Internet when some revelations about it are made — and what happens in this scene is that Simon’s friends debate via face-to-face chat what he did, what it meant, and rebut each other and get angry at Simon, at those in the story, at each other until Egoyan explodes the screen with more and more mostly-anonymous talking heads saying stuff that eventually becomes indistinct noise. Welcome to democratic mediated reality. Speaking of which …
Rob’s tribute film, AFTERSCHOOL — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #15 in the overall results, which I’m not sure comes across as even very good outside of context, and it makes Rob seem like a bigger asshole than he is. But again that’s a fair representation of the film as a whole, which is off-putting in some ways — stylized past the point of recognition, radically subjective. But the scene and the film wind up being both a subjective cri de coeur from a wounded soul and an objective cautionary tale about such souls.
Interrogating the two old ladies, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — I’m pretty sure it’ll be outpolled by iguana-cam and the dancing soul, but this was the most batshit-funny scene in the film. From the start, with Cage doing an entrance from behind a door and then — well, a dada-insane bit of business that is so unexpected that even to describe it would be to spoil it by “goosing” you. And Cage growls over-the-top about being on 1 1/2 hours’ sleep as he interrogates a woman by playing with the tubes on another lady’s breathing machine — it’s like Jack Bauer played as a sick joke.
Taking the art teacher hostage, BRONSON — Now here’s an equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of the TBL:POCNO scene. And yet, it’s a bit of a joke in the heart of the titular character who commits the crime, declaring with flair and panache that it was the capper to the REAL work of art that was his life of crime. Such a CLOCKWORK ORANGE Nietzschean act, which director Refn and actor Hardy indulge (they have to somewhat, lest the film be moralistic posturing), is aiming for my sweet spot.
The Boys Bloom, BROTHERS BLOOM — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #18 in the overall results. An equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of both the BRONSON and TBL:POCNO scenes — it’s like BUGSY MALONE set to a nursery rhyme. And the brilliance of Johnson’s writing is that he effectively hides his format — nobody realized until seeing it spelled out that the entire narration is in perfect rhyme and meter.
Ending, DRAG ME TO HELL — Hard to say much about without spoiling, obviously, except that it bumped the film up to clear “pro” vote from a marginal one (or even a “mixed”). Suffice to say that if you loved the ending of (click and drag to read) THE WAGES OF FEAR — this is just as sudden, just as pitiless and moral(istic?), and even more of a nawwwww—
Guitar sale, EXTRACT — This YouTube clip picks up the scene a minute or so into it, but you’ll get the point (you see the last minute of what previously had been going on). Hal Sparks in a Dana Carvey “Garth” mullet; two men pretending to do their job while really acting out something else, and the element that REALLY makes it work — the other customer in the background (this clip only has his last gesture). If only the rest of the film could have lived up to this, the opening scene.
The effect of sodium hydroxide, GOOD HAIR — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to GOOD HAIR that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, I do ascribe to the “spread the wealth” philosophy.) Damn. As I said in my review, this was the scene I wanted to happen the minute I found out what the active ingredient in hair relaxant is. And then the white scientist has the exactly the same reaction at the end of Chris’s experiment.
Shave and a haircut, two fists, HUNGER — My actual choice for the best scene in HUNGER (it would not have been here, trust me) was declared ineligible for length’s sake, even though it’s as unified as any scene you’ll ever see. I decided to list this brutal scene instead, from “Act 1, Life inside the Maze” as a demonstration that, as we comfortable few are wont to forget, when you deal with obstreperous people, even treating them well sometimes cannot be done by acts of commendable civility.
Car bomb, THE HURT LOCKER — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #12 in the overall results. Possibly the white knuckle scene of the year because Bigelow finds good excuses to spin things out, in the curiosity of a character for whom this is all, if not exactly a game, sufficiently routine not to be scared into a state of freedom from all excrement.
Job interview, OBSERVE AND REPORT — The scene in question begins about 4:10 into this general highlight clip and takes up the rest of its 6:30. The scenes in the first 4 minutes are generally very good, but what they can really do, for right here, is set up Rogen’s character and what makes this specific scene so hilarious. Rogen’s low-key assurance and bonhomie co-exists in the same body with some really twisted darkness and a soul-defining obsession. His character is trying to make a good impression, and by his own lights, he damn well is. (And the other scenes also have me kicking myself for forgetting short-listing Celia Weston for Supporting Female, though her highlight — “just beer” — isn’t here.)
Dillinger in the FBI office, PUBLIC ENEMIES — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #17 in the overall results. It’s funnier really in concept than when you’re watching it, though that retrospective glance is probably the point. Even if it’s just a legend or myth, it’s the kind of “true myth” that points to something broader that really IS true. Could, say, Osama bin Laden show up at the Justice Department today and do this? In a mediated, post-McLuhan world … no. But Dillinger in the 1930s (or Bonnie and Clyde; both in real life and the Arthur Penn movie) … yes.
Bomb shelter, THE ROAD — The movie’s one sequence of lightness, of reverie, of security, and of something like what we recognize as a materially normal life (says Victor, typing during record blizzards that already have knocked out his electricity five or six times, albeit only once for more than a minute or two). Though I don’t consider that “happy feeling” per se why the scene is great and memorable, as if happy scenes are better than sad scenes — no, the reason this scene is great is the gap between the father’s relief and the boy’s incredulity at a world he knows nothing of. And the reason it comes to an end.
The Spinners vs. Muhammad Ali, SOUL POWER — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to SOUL POWER that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, etc., etc. … What makes this scene stand out, in a film not short of great concert numbers, is that it shows the not-merely-historical link between the concert and the Rumble in the Jungle — in how much Ali learned from the great R&B stars (and they from him) in terms of the brash-talking persona, strutting his stuff in public, and dancing about the ring. Damn.
The meaning of the song, STILL WALKING — Dunno how well this scene, a quiet scene near the end, would really play outside of context, and cannot really describe what it’s about beyond the title. Let’s just say it’s a very low-key, almost-stifled, equivalent of the night quarrel in AUTUMN SONATA, where one character tells another what he knows and has thought about him for decades but never had reason or occasion to say before now.
Die Männer, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — I haven’t seen this since Toronto but I remember saying to myself every manner of “what the frack/this can’t have been true” (though it obviously was). I could hardly believe characters in this situation would say this. Or maybe it was just harmless “he doesn’t pay any attention to me” girl-talk, only with really really REALLY amped-up stakes that the women themselves hardly notice any more.
Atom Egoyan, ADORATION — A comeback film for Egoyan, both in terms of quality and style. The ending doesn’t come off, a la EXOTICA (indeed “it’s kinda dumb” is more accurate). But the return of the chilly formalism, the piecing together of things that aren’t exactly what they seem, and the postmodern concern with what people say about a thing over the thing itself.
Uli Edel, THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX — This is not a great film and the script loses control of events (like the Red Army Faction itself, perhaps) at the end. But the force and excitement it did have, given the soggy historical-drama trajectory and my British boy’s knowledge of West German¹ politics in the 60s and 70s, comes from Edel’s staging and framing — swift, direct and as overwhelming as a terrorist attack. Starting to wonder if his LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN might seem the same way to me now.
Werner Herzog, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — The only way Herzog’s direction is not awesome is if you believe that he didn’t notice Cage’s incandescently ludicrous comic performance. And in that case, he’s not weak or misguided or failed — he’s a complete effing incompetent twit. The man who made GRIZZLY MAN, KASPAR HAUSER, AGUIRRE, NOSFERATU, FITZCARRALDO, STROSZEK is not a complete effing incompetent twit. Indeed, he might even be considered to have a thing for “touched” performers and characters. Ergo, it is awesome.
Henry Selick, CORALINE — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully creepy Grimm/Dahl-like CORALINE right at the end again, like with Dakota Fanning. And, like all animated films of its kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.
Neill Blomkamp, DISTRICT 9 — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Blomkamp’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. The pace is kept quick and the various levels of “reality” and “discourse” clear, and thus funny (though the end really hurts the film).
Sam Raimi, DRAG ME TO HELL — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Raimi’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. Raimi knows how to use space and score to “goose” you for pulpy shocks aplenty, even when you know your goose is being cooked (though it’s really the end that saves the film).
Steven Soderbergh, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE – Yes, the “mo-fo.” Orchestrates a few ideas (and not very deep ones, frankly) and some conventionally “weak” actors into a strong whole. It’s like that scene in SOUL FOOD where the chef turns a filet-o-fish into high continental cuisine via his presentation. Only for real.
Corneliu Porumboiu, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Boring roolz … plot droolz!!! Something I probably didn’t emphasize enough in describing the strange effect of POLICE, ADJECTIVE is that, whatever else it may be, it obviously betrays artful design, breaking the “all wordless following” pattern in about three specific ways, all repeated. Porumboiu is playing us like a piano, and while it’s perfectly fair not to like his tune, it’s clearly being played by a virtuoso.
Olivier Assayas, SUMMER HOURS — I had never been a big Assayas fan, only going as high as a 6-grade on CLEAN (though I’ve not seen COLD WATER or IRMA VEP). But I’ve never denied Assayas has directorial chops, just bad script ideas, and maybe that’s what hurt him here. His film — my #3 for the year — was such a leap forward that I attributed all the newfound dazzle to the script. (So … um … look for beaucoup points in that category.)
Francis Coppola, TETRO — Now I contradict myself, as TETRO fits into, and even diegetically refers to, Coppola’s increasing theatricality (naming Vincent Gallo’s character “dark [mood]” is almost Belliniesque). In other words, it’s all style and operatic flourish and Archers color and inky black-and-white — all hail the director. Too bad the story managed to be both obvious, when you could follow it, and obscure, when you couldn’t — all curse the writer.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, THREE MONKEYS — Translate my words on Coppola into Turkish and they could stand basically unchanged, though I think Ceylan’s direction a bit less grand and his family-feud story a bit cleaner.
Leos Carax, TOKYO! — Another French director whose previous work I wasn’t a great fan of (admittedly just LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF), though unlike with Assayas, Carax got weirder and more juvenile. We get the persecuted outsider and the rest of it (maybe given what Merde does, he ought to be persecuted). It would be terrible if Carax didn’t dance around (and sometimes gleefully leap past) the line between demented and perverted, essentially in service of a sick joke. And Merde’s being a 40-minute short in an anthology prevented it from overstaying its welcome as what it is — a singular experience out of Carax’s infantile brain.
Pete Docter, UP — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully joyful and heart-breakingly wise UP right at the end again, like with Christopher Plummer. And, like even animated films of this kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.
Michael Haneke, WHITE RIBBON — My man Mikey gets short-listed by right. And if it had just been a lame script, he might have snuck his way in. But some of his directorial choices just as clearly watered-down the Germanic scold I love. Still, will be rooting for WHITE RIBBON to win the Foreign-Film Oscar, not because it’s good, mind you, but to see Michael Haneke’s give an acceptance speech to AMPAS.
¹ Yes, kids … “West Germany.” I had to learn as an adult how to say simply “Germany” in the present tense. And get off my lawn!!
Jane Campion, BRIGHT STAR — Yeah, there’s all that sissy Keats poetry and stuff, but that isn’t why Campion’s script is good. It’s because she begins from the POV of a character with artistic impulses of her own (I wish she’d done more with the feminist fashion-as-women’s-art subtext) and because she makes images that match without mimicking the poetry and/or letters being read.
Pedro Almodovar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shucked it away earlier than usual for a Pedro script because, at the end of the day, it just takes too long to peel away all the layers. But nobody can braid storylines, play with multiple levels of discourse, and find an emotional connection in garish gestures and details than Pedro can.
Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn, BRONSON — I thought about short-listing Refn’s operatic direction, but then decided … no, here what works is really the script, which structures the film around several bold conceits. Tell a biographical story in an un-biopicky way — as a stage autobiography, performed without a real fourth wall by a man who wants to create his own legend in our mind. While at the same time, resisting the “Rosebud” temptation to have the gimmick be the explanation for “Bronson’s” life.
Andreas Dresen and Jorg Hochschild, CLOUD 9 — I compared this film in my Toronto capsule to SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and no higher compliment exists. The script structures itself around a to-and-fro between sexual reverie and bitter quarrels, the latter gradually taking over and then finally enfolding things.
Wes Anderson, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Yes, I relented after declaring Wes! dead to me after THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Primarily because “Roald Dahl cartoon” sounded like something that would anchor and restrain him. It does somewhat, or at least makes the archness less annoying. It’s may be Wes Anderson’s CHICKEN RUN, but that’s still CHICKEN RUN.
Chris Rock et al, GOOD HAIR — Yes, seriously. It IS a documentary, but in the genre of the comic essay, not cinema verite. And while I don’t know how much of the on-screen comedy is improvised, when it’s being done by the same person performing and co-writing the voiceover, it’s enough to consider it a unified writing work. And on those terms — it was really funny. And edumacational without being hectoring.
Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani, GOODBYE SOLO — I freely admit that the last third is a bit … not exactly “contrived,” more like “telegraphed.” But like the Italian neorealists AO Scott and others have compared him to, and contrary to how Bahrani’s (and the Italians’) films look, Bahrani meticulously plans everything after working it all out with his non-pros. Everything that looks accidental or “real” is in Azimi and Bahrani’s script.
Rachel Weisz, BROTHERS BLOOM — Disappointed that this film foundered at the box office, as I thought it really showed another side to Weisz’s talents — a heedlessly entitled screwball-comedy heroine like Katharine Hepburn whose both thoroughly charming and thoroughly off-putting.
Jennifer Lawrence, THE BURNING PLAIN — I remembered being impressed by her performance in one of Arriaga’s two stories at the Toronto Film Festival, but I haven’t seen the film since and it’s all just too indistinct in my head to avoid the “shuck that one away” temptation.
Beth Grant, EXTRACT — Gossipy old ladies on the assembly line are always funny. Particularly when the competition they have in their own films is Ben Affleck fumbling away the easiest character in the book — the bartender/best-buddy/shit-stirrer role
Tilda Swinton, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL — OK, sue me for not having seen Tilda’s other performance this year. Who goes to see weird subtitled movies by frog “auteurs.” In a perverse way, though Jarmusch’s repetition of the “people with info” scene makes for tedious drama, it does enable you to determine the best actor among the “people with info.”
Cloris Leachman, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — Unlike with Eli Wallach, I did recognize her. But the effect was the opposite — I had affection for her and the memories of all she has done on film. As if she’s an old family member whom we need to take care of, despite her mouth. In other words, an old Cloris Leachman.
Monique, PRECIOUS — I have to join the chorus somewhere. ya know. I was already primed both to hate her character and be annoyed by an over-the-top evil performance, but … well, I wasn’t. However, there is another PRECIOUS actress that nobody is mentioning that will appear later and underline a clear difference in acting philosophy.
Irina Potapenko, REVANCHE — It’s very hard to play shrewder-but-inferior in the relationship successfully. You might actually be hurt by performing in a language (German) other than your audience’s (me only talks English good), thus lacking the linguistic cues. But if it ain’t your language, it makes sense that she’d follow his cockamamie schemes.
Miriam Makeba, SOUL POWER — Yeah, no joke. I seriously did consider her, only deciding against it at the end because she only has a few moments. But … I remember those moments vividly as shaping a person I had very little previous knowledge of, unlike James Brown. She got bumped or dissed the first night but when her time on stage came, she left it behind and wowed everybody with her infectious joy — a joy she has to feel while we know she doesn’t. (My notes from the time said people applauded in the Toronto theater.) All the while telling people, with the biggest smile in the world, how “The Click Song” is not a novelty, as they were consuming it.
Juliette Binoche, SUMMER HOURS — Maybe it’s time to just acknowledge that she’s always awesome in everything. But here, she plays a San Francisco bobo without resorting to the easy cliche. You can see Natalie Portman in this role in the American remake … and you can be quietly grateful that it’s someone this calm, with this much range.
Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR — Yeah, her character is somewhat of an easy sex fantasy (as if Clooney isn’t). Highlight to see vague SPOLIER: But two words — Red. Herring. (And she’s as good on both sides of it.)
Anna Kendrick, UP IN THE AIR — Seeing her in this role about 3-4 years after she played a high-school debater was so perfect. It’s the same mixture of start-from-zero rationalism and young cocksureness. It’s not exactly arrogance, but a belief that one’s plan is rational and that’s all there is to it. Also nails the awkwardness of firing someone when you’re not used to it. Already regretting dropping her.
Ptolemy Slocum, (UNTITLED) — I considered him just to annoy Sicinski, as he’s playing a hilariously vicious caricature of the Bad Modern Artists whom Waz loves. Just kidding bud. Sorta.
Horst Rehberg, CLOUD 9 — Plays a 70-year-old man with a convincingly heedless, romantic (and Romantic) 20-year-old’s soul. He always has the sparkle that Ursula Werner only sometimes does — and therein lies the drama. This year was filled with “nearly” performances in German films.
Timothy Spall, THE DAMNED UNITED — Proves he doesn’t need Mike Leigh to inhabit a working-class Joe (yes … men in his position at that time weren’t filthy-rich — part of the film’s interest). And the reconciliation scene with Clough at his home doesn’t have a hint of anachronistic gayness as a result.
Peter Sarsgaard, AN EDUCATION — Why is Carey Mulligan getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film? The charming villain is always the better role, and Sarsgaard oozes it like pretty pus.
Anthony Mackie, THE HURT LOCKER — After playing the enemies of Tupac Shakur and Eminem … pffft to al Qaeda in Iraq. Mackie has all the charisma needed to be a great star, and maybe his Jesse Owens and (less likely) Buddy Bolden biopics will make him one. He and Jeremy Renner nail soldiers’ ornery chemistry (most importantly, the drunken barracks carousing) without a hint of anachronistic gayness or psychopathy.
Tom Waits, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS — Why is Heath Ledger getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film (OK, besides THAT)? The charming villain is always the better role, and Waits oozes it like pretty pus.
James Gandolfini, IN THE LOOP — But here’s the opposite end. In a movie that’s all a barrage of would-be farcical “flow” (to the point of exhaustion and without being terribly funny to me — the timing was never right), Gandolfini provided the little “ebb,” the few moments of non-showing-off solidity.
Hilmi Sözer, JERICHOW — Damn. I so wanted to give JERICHOW something. May have been prevented by the fact I didn’t get a chance to see it a second time, in retrospect with full knowledge of everything including … the end … (especially considering how blown away Sicinski was by JERICHOW). Lack of a second viewing meant the film stayed a “solid 7″ — and thus always on the (ahem) outside looking in. Sorry Waz. No joke.
Eli Wallach, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — It really takes something to stand out in an omnibus of 11 or so shorts. And something else again to be a huge star of decades ago, not rely on the instant-recognition factor, not rely on pity for the elderly. I honestly had to look him up — who played the husband in the last piece, about the love remaining between the old couple? Him? Really?
Kristyan Ferrer, SIN NOMBRE — Had to look up his name too. He’s the young kid who wants to join the teenagers trip to El Norte — for various reasons. Like Wallach, only at the other end of the life cycle, Ferrer plays a role that easily could have reduced to age-pathos or alternatively to easy kid-brutalism (e.g. the film the people who hated CITY OF GOD imagined they saw).
Christopher Plummer, UP — Hurt to also leave out Plummer, who is having a nice late-career renaissance between this film, PARNASSUS and LAST STATION. Plummer’s also done quite a bit of voice acting lately (IIRC, Burton’s 9 and narrating THE GOSPEL OF JOHN), and ideally for this type of “Bond villain” role, he has a low, quiet but resonant voice with menace he can turn on and off.
Paul Bettany, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — I hated Lord Melbourne. That means Bettany was awesome.
(spoiler), ZOMBIELAND — It’s only a single-sequence cameo, and it very much relies on who he is. But it’s too funny and he’s too good — needed counterpoint, both to downplay Woody Harrelson’s “I can’t believe it” fanboy slobbering and to be taken aback by Abigail Breslin’s “who?” incredulity.
As usual, fewer memorable performances/roles in the female-acting categories versus the male ones — 19 runners-up among the lead men, versus just 9 for the women. You know, maybe Catharine MacKinnon is on to something …
Maya Rudolph, AWAY WE GO — Verily did I dislike her character (and her husband) from the start as bubble-headed bohemians, but by the end, she’d won me over, though it is for God alone to know whether this was because everybody the picaresque pair meet is even more annoying (why, Maggie … why …)
Penelope Cruz, BROKEN EMBRACES — Why, Academy … why. If you’re gonna nominate Penelope Cruz this year, why not do so in a role where she shows off something other than her lingerie, her ass and her mascara — like her actual ability to act (at least in Spanish and/or for Pedro)
Michelle Pfeiffer, CHERI — Miscast in the role of Colette’s retired voluptuary Lea, but somehow makes it work for her, most especially meta-cinematically (you have to be thin and obviously sexy even to play a 50-something role, i.e., Pfeiffer’s age) and what that says about female lead roles. Maybe Catharine MacK…
Dakota Fanning, CORALINE — Every year, I make a point of seeking out voice roles in animated films (though only 1 of the 4 I short-listed made the cut this year). It’s a legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. Fanning’s got girlish curiosity and frustration to spare in her voice.
Alison Lohman, DRAG ME TO HELL — Every year, I make a point of seeking out roles in action or genre films, another legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. She both exudes non-obnoxious middle-class entitlement and convincingly sacrifies a kitten.
Melanie Laurent, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS — Where does Tarantino find these unknown (to me anyway) or thought-washed-up actors who somehow give credible performances in the “movie movie” roles. Probably hurt by Diane Kreuger’s even greater awesomeness (in a showier and “movie”-er role).
Robin Wright Penn, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE — Sometimes you just give pity consideration that a good and talented actress found herself stuck with such a ridiculous script and managed to come out not completely sucking. The key is not to overplay the too-many Big Scenes.
Nina Hoss, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — Like in JERICHOW, though not as much, Hoss gives an extremely understated, opaque borderline-wooden performance that might remind one of the young Joan Fontaine (oft derided as “wooden”). But she’s hiding from the Commies, in the only film ever to make me take seriously radical-feminist claim all sex is rape. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon …
Emily Blunt, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — An awards-bait role but at least it’s not a glorified impersonation, as we have no recordings or photos of Victoria from this era (her earliest photo dates from 1844). Blunt’s playing gives us a mostly feminist-anachronism-free portrait of a woman who, because she wields (even-limited) political power, can’t let men take advantage of her. So, nah … Catharine MacKinnon is full of it.
Well, it’s now Skandie time, and Mike is unveiling the Top 20 at his site Listen, Eggroll. So in the next couple of weeks, before posting my entire ballot proper, I’ll be posting a few words about the films, performances, etc., I voted for. And to start with, about those I DIDN’T vote for.
My procedure every year is to devote a day to making a short list of contenders, based on the Eligible Films list, and what has managed to stay with me, as of late January of the next year (all eligible films started to screen commercially in New York during 2009, and did so for at least a week). Then I shuck away, until I’m left with 10 in each of the categories. I’ll start with the acting categories — these are the Lead Male Performances that I short-listed but DIDN’T vote for. In this and other categories, the bold-face and the lead art are from the last one I eliminated — the #11, as it were.
Joseph Gordon Leavitt, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — So what if he can do the sensitive emo dork role in his sleep? In *this* sensitive emo dork, there’s not a trace of self-righteousness or whininess.
Willem Defoe, ANTICHRIST — When asked at Toronto “how does one prepare as an actor for a scene where you’re genitally mutilated,” he replied “you don’t.” Really — that’s all that need be said.
Lluis Homar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shows off a late middle-age “this is my last chance” hunger that prevented his character from being either a dirty old man or a petty tyrant. Pedro should work with him more.
Mark Ruffalo, BROTHERS BLOOM — His occasional cocksure self-regard really works well in this role but he keeps it in rein and appropriately artificial, as the however-illogical ending requires (think — or don’t — what Mark Wahlberg would have done here).
Sasha Baron Cohen, BRUNO — Yes, the film as a whole was a misfire, but when Cohen gets a provocation really cooking, with the right audience he can milk it better than the best professional wrestling heel.
Clive Owen, DUPLICITY — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.
George Clooney, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.
Souleymane Sy Savane, GOODBYE SOLO — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s De Sica and Rossellini.
Mark Duplass, HUMPDAY — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s Visconti.
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS — Went back and forth on this one. Even if it is just an imitation, it’s a damn good one, and good casting too — the man who played God portraying our era’s secular saint.
Benno Furmann, JERICHOW — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of masculine physicality and mannerism creating a not-black-souled viciousness (Waz isn’t wrong in saying it’s a bit wooden, but also not wrong in saying …)
Kim Yung-ho, NIGHT AND DAY — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of utter self-absorption and complete cluelessness that somehow doesn’t create a Mister Magoo or (mere) Innocent Abroad
Micah Sloat, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY — Along with Katie Featherstone (not among Actress Runners-Up … hint, hint), he creates something new and exciting — effectively natural performance in a completely self-referential genre (the YouTube home movie)
Dragos Bucur, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Eve was correct … he is awesome at eating soup, though look for someone even more awesome at chopping wood in the main list.
Viggo Mortensen, THE ROAD — The testimony to this performance is that the film, which pretty much rests entirely on his shoulders and has only the most elemental of plots, is even watchable (in fact, pretty good in my opinion)
Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN — Seeing D’Arcy as a Christopher Isherwood character was disconcerting, but like Mortensen, he fills out a simple-content movie, though only as far as watchability in his case (the ending is unforgivable, sorry)
Charles Berling, SUMMER HOURS — Among the kids in the family, he’s the audience-identification figure, and Berling has the right mix of idealism and pragmatism (Binoche and Regnier are different shades of pragmatic) to pull off the needed surrender.
Teruyuki Kagawa, TOKYO SONATA — He has the bits I remember best from Toronto 2007 (I saw it alongside NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and so hated its last reel that I’ve never gone back to it) — the pride-shame mix in dealing with his family.
Woody Harrelson, ZOMBIELAND — Remember how awesome Woody the Bartender was. Here’s a completely different type of comic “character role,” sure, but Harrelson shows he hasn’t lost it. He should just do comedy from now on.