FilmFestDC released the program of movies for this year’s festival, which runs from April 24 to May 4.
, though as I type this Monday morning, they don’t seem yet to have up the schedule, with dates and times. I’ve already seen five of these films, at Toronto, and here are my reviews of them:
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 8
THE FALL, Tarsem, Britain/India, 7
ONE HUNDRED NAILS, Ermanno Olmi, Italy, 4
SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9
YOU, THE LIVING, Roy Andersson, Sweden, 9
Despite my already having seen them, I hope, schedule-permitting, to be able to see SILENT LIGHT and YOU, THE LIVING again, simply because I doubt they’ll see commercial releases outside of New York and maybe Los Angeles. And as the grades suggest, I’d recommend four of these five films, with THE EDGE OF HEAVEN probably being the one that the most people would like, with the other three having in their different ways a very high eccentricity quotient.
Dith Pran’s life and tale of survival under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government became a movie. That movie THE KILLING FIELDS became a worldwide success, its very name coming to symbolize that vile China-backed Romantic-Communist regime, and Dith Pran used his celebrity to educate the world about that regime and become a constant burr in its saddle (he was quoted in the AP’s Pol Pot obituary, for example).¹ Dith Pran died yesterday.
THE KILLING FIELDS was one of the few serious movies made in the West from the late-60s until the end of the Cold War that can unabashedly be called anti-Communist. It’s primary subject was a Communist genocide and it’s the only “Vietnam War” film I can think of (it’s certainly by far the most significant) that is about the hell that US withdrawal created despite the assurances of peace-loving liberals at the time that US leaving the field in the
Iraq Vietnam War would bring end the bloodshed. Oh, there’s a couple of asides in the film where characters say, close as I can recall, “after what the US did to them, I don’t think the Khmer Rouge will be very forgiving” or “the US underestimated the fury that tons of bombs can create” — lamely trying to suggest that the US created the Khmer Rouge.²
But the events that Dith underwent, and the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge genocide, are simply too overwhelming to withstand such spin. Nobody who’s seen the movie will ever forget — I will be vague to keep the surprise — a scene of Dith falling into an irrigation ditch. Apparently, according to this Dith obituary from AP (that I edited down from 35 inches to 15 to fit a hole), it was Dith who invented the term “killing fields.”
It was Mr. Dith who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.
“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Mr. Schanberg said later.
Last week, David Mamet wrote a piece in the Village Voice called “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” (really … THAT headline got into the Village Voice). It’s lengthy, but well thought-through … RTWT. But here it is distilled in its essence:
But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.
The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it’s at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.
I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.
As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.
And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.
The best part here is his setting up the ideological conflict as one of the worldviews — the tragic and the perfectionist. I’ve always thought that a taste for Greek tragedy (and distaste for the secularized Christianity that is much of the contemporary liberal implicit worldview) contributed to my conservatism by immunizing me from the four-letter f-word liberals like to toss around: “fair.”
I’ve noted Mamet’s politics once here before, and the crack about “National Palestinian Radio” makes it clear that the left’s increasing anti-Semitism (masquerading as anti-Zionism or opposition to this or that Israeli ius in bello violation) is a prime motivator. I also think his work has made it reasonably clear for some time that he was no exponent of pc-orthodoxy — e.g., OLEANNA could only have been written by a man who thinks feminism turns women into grievance-mongering robots, and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could not have been written by a man who believes man is perfectable (to call the play/film anti-capitalist simpliciter is reductive and flattening).
But anyway … welcome aboard, David. To the actual home of free thought, without smelly orthodoxies.
… or Films Seen Recently roundup:
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Justin Chadwick, Britain, 2008, 6): Quick test that determines what you will think of this movie: “what do you think of THE LION IN WINTER?” Neither film can even be called historical nonsense, since they deal with periods or stories in the lost recesses of history. But as long as you understand that and resolve not to mistake anything before your eyes for real events, the films are disreputably enjoyable as well-polished camp exercises in Machiavellian scheming and soap-opera bitchiness. Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as the sisters deserve comparison with Joan Collins and Linda Evans on “Dynasty,” with exchanges over
Lorenzo Lamas Eric Bana like “While in the king’s presence, I did nothing but sing your praises and talk about my husband”/”Really? You must show me how you did that some time.” Also intriguing in showing Catherine of Aragon (too briefly) as the moral hero of the film, eschewing the Papiophobia of ELIZABETH I II.
Correction: LORENZO LAMAS was never on Dynasty. My memory was playing tricks on me — LORENZO LAMAS was on Falcon Crest (with the sounds-like-a-porn-star character name of “Lance Cumson.” I. Swear. To. God.). I was trying to think of “whoever played the dumb hunk of beefcake” role to Alexis and Crystal’s drag-queen bitches, and my mind alighted on LORENZO LAMAS. It should have alighted on John James. My deepest apologies for putting LORENZO LAMAS in your head thar, dalebud. Particularly since it wasn’t necessary for me to put LORENZO LAMAS in your head.
CJ7 (Stephen Chow, Hong Kong, 2008, 5): Intermittently intriguing and sometimes inspired (Skandie plug: The Roach Game), but the ET template makes it hard for the film to develop much surprise, and the sloppy plotting makes it hard to develop much momentum (characters are just kinda whisked in and out, way too neatly and pat at the end). Chow, a supporting character in his own movie as the poor father with the poor son (played with some personality by Xu Jiao) in a rich school, hits hard on the idea of how children learn to be parents via pets, and sometimes outgrow the very faults as children in the process. And the “silly” special effects are very funny in a sequence of all the special powers that alien dog CJ7 gives the misfit son at school, like Buster Keaton turning into Superman in the second half at all the activities he failed at in the first half. The alien dog looks like a Pokemon creature, only with a little more personality, but it’s really not very convincing as the Christ figure the narrative eventually makes him. And there’s fun touches like giving a behemoth the squeaky voice of a little girl, but nothing as consistently awesome as the landlady in KUNG FU HUSTLE (that film, and SHAOLIN SOCCER, are where Chow really shines).
CITY OF MEN (Paulo Morelli, Brazil, 2008, 5): Really pales in comparison with the masterpiece movie that inspired it, first as a TV series, and which I watched again right afterward to reassure myself. But even if I didn’t know it, I would know that CITY OF MEN was a TV series, just from the framing, the frequent montages, the way naughty subject matter was skirted, and the way the film segmented in such a precise and linear way. Still, no TV series has this much hack music, telegraphing the proper emotional reactions like an onscreen cue card. Undeniably gripping in spots, though, and with a strong theme on the cycle of fatherlessness. And the two lead actors have an easy chemistry and naturalistic credibility. But to the people like Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, who detested CITY OF GOD for being exploitative, supposedly for tarting up a story of misery with stylistic fireworks for cinematic consumption, I say with all heartfelt sarcasm: Is this wan film any better? Actually no, as Morris recognized: “it’s the wall-to-wall electricity of Meirelles’s moviemaking, unclean as it was, that you miss.”
FUNNY GAMES — Michael Haneke, USA, 2008, 5
Rarely does a single number so poorly sum up my reaction to a film as this one. It doesn’t mean, as “5” usually does, that I think the film is passably mediocre, with good points and bad points in about equal proportion. I’ll be writing about two such “5-grade” movies next. Not this time — FUNNY GAMES is a brilliantly done thesis that frankly flirts with moral depravity (and in a certain sense, it simply IS depraved). But there’s one big honking question that I never got satisfactorily answered:
Haneke himself, who I count as one of my three favorite foreign directors (the Dardennes and Von Trier being the others), made this movie 10 years ago, when he was still a barely-known director in Austria. And I don’t mean that he made another movie titled FUNNY GAMES; I mean that he made, to the extent that one can, the exact same movie, with nary a change in the shots, in the angles, in the decor, in the story details. I’ve seen the Austrian movie twice — it’s #4 on my 1998 list, though it only moved up on a second retrospective viewing.¹
But FUNNY GAMES, whether 1.0 or 2.0, is a deliberately repellent movie — a couple of well-mannered and -dressed teens insinuate their way into a bourgeois family’s vacation home and proceed to play a game of tormenting them, unto death. And the point … well, there isn’t one, and that’s the whole point really (which is ultimately what makes this morally-indefensible film morally defensible; it’s as morally ugly as pointless nihilism should be). Haneke denies all meaning, all narrative logic, all social criticism, all context to its violence — in fact, the film explicitly mocks those very ideas.
Salam Maria umejaa neema Bwana yu nawe umebarikiwa kuliko wanawake wote na Yesu mzao wa tumbo lako amabaliki wa.
Maria Mtakatifu mama wa Mungu utuombee sisi wakosefu sasa na saa ya kufa kwetu. Amina.
THE BAND’S VISIT — Eran Kolirin, Israel, 2007, 4
Why on Earth is a sometimes entertaining, but by-the-numbers bit of Cultural Contact Melts The Hearts Of Enemies twaddle scoring a 97 percent at Rotten Tomatoes? Is it just the subject matter — don’t answer that one.
THE BAND’S VISIT starts off well, opening with comic gags that remind me a bit of Elia Suleiman’s DIVINE INTERVENTION, with the deadpan wit (“this event was not that important”), comically misleading framing, stiff formality of movement and the way the Egyptian band is repeatedly lined up in formation like toy soldiers. I was thinking this might be a real clash movie about the elaborate formality of an honor-based culture amid the informal bluntness of Israeli society. I’ve talked to more than one Israeli scholar who’s told me that this gap in communication style has often harmed Arab-Israeli talks quite apart from the gap on the underlying issues. There is some of that for a while, particularly in the first meetings between the band and the bored Israeli villagers — “would you be so kind, in light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves / how can I help you.”
But I began to suspect THE BAND’S VISIT would run dry on inspiration when the Egyptian band winds up in the middle of nowhere based on a mispronunciation. They were supposed to go to Petah Tikva, but improvised bus tickets to Bet Hatikvah … ho ho ho. Once you realize what the film’s architecture is (the Egyptians are stranded, they will get to know the Israelis, and vice versa, and hearts will be melted) absolutely everything that follows was completely predictable, including critical praise like “the bridge-making capacities of hospitality and the way music serves as universal language that draws people together … the cause of peace is nurtured in such soulful moments” (come off it, I want to say).
Sure enough, the little lessons come — they find their common humanity by singing “Summertime” and discovering a common interest in Chet Baker (quelle coincidence for me), wordlessly showing how to hit on a chick (actually a pretty funny scene), reminiscing about Omar Sharif (“my life is an Arab movie”), and looking at artifacts of broken families (“we are all alike”) etc. About the only narrative question I really had while sitting through the last hour was whether the liberated Jewish woman (the terrific Ronit Elkabetz) would bed the grieving widower (Sasson Gabai, very strong) or the ladies man (Saleh Bakri).
Like DEFINITELY MAYBE’s succeeding at not being terrible, THE BAND’S VISIT is probably a better film than MEDITERRANEO or THE WAR, but that’s the best you can say about it.
DEFINITELY MAYBE — Adam Brooks, USA, 2008, 3
In the same vein as below, terrible movies can sometimes make bad movies in the same genre look tolerable. What can be said about DEFINITELY MAYBE after Scott Tobias said “Put simply, the film excels most at not being awful.”
“EFINITELY MAYBE is not head-thumpingly awful, but it’s also so thoroughly mediocre and predictable throughout that it hardly makes a difference. I was hoping from the trailer to get something like THE PRINCESS BRIDE (or maybe a less-trippy version of the upcoming THE FALL) but it’s played pretty straight up, more like a TV episode than anything else.
Ryan Reynolds has no charisma or charm that I can detect and really cannot play anybody over the age of 20 in body and over 15 in soul. Of course, a girl of age 8 (in body, that is; 30 in soul) has to be the wisest character in the film because, you understand, it starts with sex ed day, and the kids are supposed to ask their parents how they met. Once the characters of the three women the father is telling her about, as the women he dated seriously, have been set up — and you know from the film’s opening scene that the marriage in the flashback storytime tale is gonna end in divorce in the film’s present-tense— well, all you have to do is remember that Hollywood values are those of bohemian anti-traditionalism (now calcified enough to be its own tradition), and it’s obvious.
Still, DEFINITELY MAYBE is notable for two firsts in current movies. First, it’s an exercise in 90s nostalgia. And surprisingly, it’s not nearly as didactic as I’d feared when the plot makes Reynolds a volunteer with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. BTW, this is one of those movies that takes place over 15 years and nobody ages noticeably. But nostalgia for a decade that I was already an adult when it began? I feel old.
Second and far more interestingly … like all movies now, DEFINITELY MAYBE takes place in the routine-divorce culture. That can’t not affect the romantic comedy genre, and I alluded to one of the ways here last year. But still, never have I seen in a conventional romantic-comedy, a child spend the movie’s last reel trying to get her father back together — not with her mother — but with an old girlfriend whom the child had never met. And not because her mother is dead or abusive or somehow “out of the picture.” Now, we consider divorce so routine (a reason for the one in this movie is never even hinted at, as if there’s no need) that we consider it an acceptable fantasy for a child of divorce to express, not the natural wish about her parents getting together, but a wish about getting a step-parent. If there’s been a conventional romantic-comedy with that rather self-rationalizing-for-adults premise (“it’s what the kids WANT”) — I’m unaware of it.
LET’S GET LOST — Bruce Weber, USA, 1989, 8
Bad movies can sometimes make good movies in the same genre look even better in retrospect than they might have otherwise. LET’S GET LOST is a documentary about jazz trumpeter/singer Chet Baker whose life seemed to follow the same trajectory as Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. Or rather, the trajectory of RAY or WALK THE LINE …. the early success, the multiple marriages/family crises, the drug addiction, the out-of-favor period, the comeback.
But LET’S GET LOST doesn’t follow that template at all, and really profits by that comparison. Director Bruce Weber does something curious and refreshing with the life story, which is to basically ignore it, though admittedly that means the film works better when you see it the second time, as I just did, or with someone who already knows the basic Chet Baker bio. This late-80s documentary, which I saw at the time and liked fairly well, is apparently making the theatrical rounds of America’s bigger cities (I can’t think why … unless it’s the 20th anniversary of Baker’s death). I wasn’t even looking out for it, but it was a welcome surprise to see it suddenly listed in a commercial theater, rather than a repertory.
Instead of a biopic, Weber made a film that’s less like a documentary and more like a piece of Romantic fiction. LET’S GET LOST, like Coleridge’s Xanadu, feels like the opium haze that Baker’s life apparently was, overripe Romantic decadence as it falls from the tree (Camille Paglia would love this movie). Though it’s never really “difficult” to follow, LOST jumps around in time without too much concern for telling a story. Instead, Weber goes for a reverie feel, for a collection of moods and feelings, with montages from the past drifting in and out as if trying to erase the sense of time itself. Baker doesn’t really “go” from being a hip jazzman to a derelict; it’s more like he’s always both. Continue reading
8 WOMEN — Francois Ozon, France, 2002, 9
Paul Clark has been writing an intermittent series with the Truffaut-inspired title “The Movies of My Life,” the second entry being 8 WOMEN. If you imagine an Agatha Christie one-act play like “The Mousetrap” reimagined as a French musical¹ directed by Douglas Sirk (the opening shot is a nod to ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS — the deer in the snow), you have the basic idea. I’d already seen 8 WOMEN twice in 2002, but not since, and Paul’s writing tickled enough memories to make me look at it again this afternoon.
At first viewing at a festival, I simply relished the film as a silly, confectionery lark, and 8 WOMEN is about as enjoyable on those terms as a movie gets — the candy-colored sets and costumes, the bitchy dialogue, the hammy acting, the perfect coiffes, the cheerfully amateurish music, the whole well-perfumed ambience, the absurdly “on the nose” plotting, the outrageous “secret revelations.”
Here’s my favorite musical number from the film, and it cracks me up every time I see it. When I’ve watched 8 WOMEN with audiences, the scene quickly split the viewers into those who were gonna go with the film and those who weren’t (please forgive the muddiness … this is the best repro I could find on YouTube that had English subtitles).
Sorry for the lack of weekend posting … but Saturday’s rugby score explains it all: Scotland 15, England 9. It was necessary to watch and celebrate (and then celebrate some more and then do penance for the celebration).
This year’s Six Nations had been crap … lopsided losses by 21, 15 and 21 to Paddy, Taffy and Evil. And we had to struggle to beat Italy in nasty conditions at a neutral site last year at the World Cup, so in sunny Rome next weekend … who knows. But … if you beat England and spoil the record day for
Proud Edward’s Army Jonny Wilkinson … and get the Calcutta Cup from Princess Anne — nothing else matters too much.
There is no question that technically it was not the prettiest game and played in awful Scottish weather — no tries at all, and Scotland never even came close. But our defending was brilliant (theirs wasn’t bad, to be honest) and the reason that there were few try chances was that our line kept discipline and didn’t break. OTOH, they made penalty-costing defensive mistakes that we didn’t. The English media have been saying that their team couldn’t have played worse, which is true, but that assumes that the World Cup finalists suddenly turn into a bunch of schoolboys (a frequent analogy) for reasons having nothing to do with the other team on the pitch. Saturday’s effort was exactly the kind of grind-it-out, kick-it-away, ruck-heavy game of denial we needed to have to beat England.
Anyway … the 6 Nations was not a waste. And this weekend, all props to my Singapore-exiled bud Dan and the rest of the Welsh as they go for the Grand Slam, against the Perfidious French in Cardiff. It wasn’t our year, but at least they’ll have tae think again.
(That was old, but it always brings shivers and tears … though it was the occasion and outcome as much as the performance per se)
You Are a Question Mark
You seek knowledge and insight in every form possible. You love learning.And while you know a lot, you don’t act like a know it all. You’re open to learning you’re wrong.You ask a lot of questions, collect a lot of data, and always dig deep to find out more.You’re naturally curious and inquisitive. You jump to ask a question when the opportunity arises.Your friends see you as interesting, insightful, and thought provoking. (But they’re not always up for the intense inquisitions that you love!)
You excel in: Higher education
You get along best with: The Comma
CHICAGO 10 — Brett Morgen, USA, 2008, 8
I have liked courtroom procedurals since watching “Crown Court” on Scottish TV daytime as a 7-year-old boy (I’m not sure I quite realized it was fictional at first). I still count ANATOMY OF A MURDER and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION as personal favorites. A trial is naturally dramatic — it sets out a conflict in explicit terms, with defined protagonists in the Anglo-Saxon adversarial system, and a defined trajectory with a definite payoff, even in a “Scottish verdict.” And the courtroom is a kind of elemental “stage” on which to play through the conflict,¹ like a ring in boxing movie.
So CHICAGO 10 was aiming in part for my sweet spot. It mixes re-creations from the trial of eight despicable 60s radicals with the four days of the 1968 Democratic Convention they tried to disrupt, and some of the radicals’ contemporaneous extra-court activities as celebrity defendants. That stuff is mostly live footage, but some is animated — e.g., Abby Hoffman apparently went on a comedy tour, and he clearly had some ability in that field, kind of a poor man’s Lenny Bruce joking about his own trial. CHICAGO 10 is even the second time around for me in terms of a re-creation of the trial in question — I remember vaguely seeing the made-for-HBO CONSPIRACY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 8 in the late-80s.
Morgen’s movie takes a couple of stylistic gambles and they both pay off rather handsomely. The first is obvious from the illustrations I use: CHICAGO 10’s trial recreations are animated in the same kind of fauvist/rotoscope look that Morgen also used (much more sparingly) in 2002’s THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. If the very concept of using cartoons to re-create a trial turns you off a priori as A Violation Of Documentary Purity … well, go moon over Wiseman (more on this later). But to the rest of us, this was a brilliant choice. First of all, several of the people involved (Abby Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and William Kunstler) are well-known even today. But because a cartoon can never look that realistic, it avoids “celebrity mimickry” as a measuring stick for the performances. Second, this particular trial was a circus anyway, with the defendants, Hoffman and Rubin especially, openly saying they wanted to turn it into street theater. Making the trial a literal cartoon seems like the perfect mordant judgment.
Before this year, the only actors to win an Academy Award for a performance in a foreign-language film¹ — Sophia Loren and Roberto Benigni — were Italians. Last week’s awards saw the first French performance to win an acting Oscar — Marion Cotillard for LA VIE EN ROSE. If these past few days indicate the character of French thespians, I hope there won’t ever be a second.
Marion Cotillard is a 9/11 (Un)Truther. (And that may not be her nuttiest bit of paranoia — she sure doesn’t believe “everything they tell” her about man landing on the moon, either).
Here is the interview in French. Here is the translation by the Times of London:
Marion Cotillard: I tend rather often to take the side of the conspiracy theory…. I’m not paranoid. It’s not paranoid because I think that they lie to us about an awful lot of things: Coluche, 9/11. You can see on the internet all the films of September 11 on the conspiracy theory. It’s fascinating, even addictive.
They show other towers of the same type that aeroplanes have run into and which burnt. There is a tower, in Spain I think, which burnt for 24 hours… It never collapsed. None of these towers collapse. But there (in New York), the thing collapses. Then afterwards you can talk about it for a long time. The towers of September 11 were stuffed with gold. And they were swallowing up cash because they were built, I gather, in 1973. And to re-cable all that, to modernise the technology and all of that, it was much more expensive to carry out the work than to destroy them. …. Did man ever walk on the moon ? I have seen a lot of documentaries on that and really, I wonder. In any case, I do not believe everything they tell me. That’s for sure.
To paraphrase Orwell, there are things that one doesn’t *answer.* No serious person expects actors to know their ass from a hole in the ground. And no serious person expects anything from the French, particularly une artiste, except America-hating terrorist-loving tripe, the nuttier the better. Kathy Shaidle has a line to dismiss the psychopaths at Du and Kos — “if Bush is Hitler, why aren’t you a lampshade?” In that same spirit, Marion, if the US government were as you think it is, killing 3,000 people on its own soil to save the cost of rewiring a couple of buildings, why hasn’t it rubbed you out for exposing this? If it were as evil as you seem to have no difficulty entertaining, it could even cover up its involvement in your murder. If you really, truly believed this, mon cherie, rather than stating it for the sake of posturing, you wouldn’t be filming in Chicago.
IN BRUGES — Martin McDonagh, Britain, 2008, 5
SEMI-PRO — Kent Alterman, USA, 2008, 2
As the headline says, I didn’t think either of these two comic films worked, but I would actually recommend IN BRUGES to most people because it’s obviously the work of talented people who made some bone-headed missteps that just blew the film apart. I accept as possible that I just “didn’t get it” or saw it on a bad day. SEMI-PRO, by contrast, isn’t just bad, it’s lame, and lazy. There isn’t anything even there “not to get” or to blame on circumstance. I try to avoid the school of criticism that awards points for ambition. But seeing these two comedies a few days apart, I couldn’t avoid it — the British film is at least trying while the American film isn’t.
I didn’t laugh very much at IN BRUGES — two Irish gunmen hide out after a hit in the eponymous medieval Belgian town; one takes to it, the other conspicuously doesn’t and it’s familiar fish-out-of-water, contrasting cop-buddy territory. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as the mismatched set of killers and have great fun with McDonagh’s words — the film’s strength is the screwy dialog they toss around and riff off like “the patter.” The best: a scene in which Gleeson reads aloud an expletive-written telegram in the tone of the world’s most contemptuous phone-solicitor reading his pitch script. The spectacle of assassins reciting stylized, hyper-sprung dialog reminded me a bit of Vincent and Jules in PULP FICTION.
And that comparison is the key to IN BRUGES’s failure and why mentally, I was telling myself throughout the movie “this is not working.” Tarantino kept his creations in Movieland or otherwise at a distance; IN BRUGES has scenes in which it comes out that Farrell botched the hit on a priest and killed a bystander child, waiting in the confession line. And he cries in Gleeson’s lap over it, has “inner struggles,” and wants to get out of the assassin lifestyle. The film’s denouement involves two suicides, one of them an attempt to save another character, the other an on-principle atonement. I guess we’re supposed to take that seriously, but this is a movie that features midget jokes by the thimbleful. All-over-the-map, uncontrolled or inconsistent tone is a thing I just can’t tolerate. Comedies can be serious, of course, but they have to do it by indirection while maintaining the comic veneer; not by explicitly trying to tug on the heartstrings and tear-ducts. I refuse to take seriously the wailing and gnashing of teeth and noble deaths in the same movie as jokes about what a shithole Bruges is, and scenes of sharing whores with dwarfs on coke conversing about a race war. The end scene in particular grated on me, given … I will be vague … what McDonagh’s idea of Purgatory is, and whether it’s meant seriously or just another cheap bit of tourist humor.
IN BRUGES probably rewards thematic analysis — as I say, I would not exactly warn people away from the film and I may take another look at it myself some day. There’s obviously a lot of the Graham Greene world in there — atoning death, sin’s wages, death of a priest. There are several scenes set in churches and Bruges’s medieval character is constantly pointed out. But Greene understood that you can’t put clowns at the center of such a scenario (yes … I hated hated both ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD and WAITING FOR GODOT).
Still … better ambitious failure than lazy failure. I couldn’t believe what I was watching in SEMI-PRO. I’ve never been the biggest Will Ferrell fan, but couldn’t he see that he doesn’t have a character to play, that the movie has no script and not even really much of a concept, and that there are no supporting characters bizarre enough to take over the movie, like Sacha Baron Cohen did TALLADEGA NIGHTS (a much better Will Ferrell sports film). Compare the two Flint Tropics sportscasters with Gary Cole and Jason Bateman in DODGEBALL (which I saw parts of again recently) for another sense of just how underwritten and phoned-in SEMI-PRO is. In fact, just compare the film with DODGEBALL, period. SEMI-PRO is a mere sitcom episode padded out with some montages.
It is also filled with mistakes or scenes that make it look like the film was tampered with, mid-shoot — Ferrell’s character wears a wedding band in some scenes, but not others; he gives a late speech about “the anals of history,” without having been a malaprop-machine to that point (as say Derek Zoolander was; hey … there’s another vastly superior ridiculous comedy — “cut me, cut me”); Woody Harrelson throws a necklace with an NBA championship ring on it at another character, we later see that character give back the ring alone and then later-still see Woody wearing the necklace; we see the other players on the team having quirks, like being a devout Bible reader, that look like setups for comic threads that never materialized; Harrelson acts surprised at the climactic moment to learn that Ferrell shoots free-throws underhanded (he sees this for the first time in the 84th game of the season?) and ridicules it, apparently unaware that this era’s best free-throw shooter was Rick Barry, who shot them that way and had led teams to both ABA and NBA titles by 1976.
I laughed a couple of times at SEMI-PRO — the reappearances of the bear (not the actual bear-wrestling scene, which of course goes nowhere once the premise is set up); the Russian Roulette game; “she looks structurally unsound”; Ferrell in a Dumpster, singing his former hit song with new lyrics. But the film really exemplified its title. It looked like the half-assed work of a bunch of bush-leaguers. And unlike IN BRUGES, I have no reason to think I may reassess that opinion or any real incentive to want to find out.
There’s more than one man can write about the recently departed William F. Buckley at, of course, National Review. So I’ll just relate two personal anecdotes.
The one time I met him personally was 1993 or so, when I was studying at Notre Dame and he was on campus to give a public speech and then address a private gathering of, I think, the College Republicans. The latter gave me my one opportunity to meet him face-to-face. What I remember happening was that a crowd of hundreds had crashed the small Student Center meeting room where the reception was to have taken place. It was all Buckley could do to get from one end of the Student Center to the other. By pure coincidence that he came upon the spot in front of me for about 10 or 15 seconds of stoppage during that process. Not exactly Altamont, but as close as College Republicans get. He and I didn’t exchange any words, but apparently there was a major-network camera there to record the moment for a segment on Buckley for “60 Minutes” or some similar newsmagazine show. I didn’t notice it. Weeks later, a couple of my colleagues in the department called me to tell me that they had been watching that newsmagazine show “and all of sudden, there’s Victor, standing in front of Buckley, looking at him with the worshipful eyes of a puppy-dog.” Erin and Kevin were quite explicit that I was at the center of the image and it was obviously me and I never said a word because I had such a starry-eyed look on my face. My one moment on national prime-time TV and I never saw it or even knew it was coming.
The other was watching Buckley in high school and college. Firing Line was a Sunday afternoon ritual for me and my father (the McLaughlin Group came on right after, at least on the San Antonio PBS affiliate), as were the 4-on-a-side panel debates that Buckley hosted in PBS during primetime usually two hours long (really, 2 hours in prime time). The debates were usually moderated by Michael Kinsley (another favorite of mine and my father’s, from Crossfire; he and Pat Buchanan were the best pair on that show), but always with the questions worded so that Buckley was on the affirmative side and would give the first and last speech. Organizers privilege, obviously. The first exchange to come to mind when I started writing this paragraph was one with Rep. Charles Rangel. The subject was drug legalization (Buckley furr it; Rangel aggen it) and the congressman was demanding to know what would be the legal status of drug sellers. “Who’s gonna be selling the crack, the smack. Is it gonna be anybody who wants to …” and Buckley interrupted with “that’s a detail. but I would never wish to interfere with your desire that in matters of commerce and trade, that the government should control everything.” Rapier wit and pertinent point combined — that was Buckley. But one of several episodes of Firing Line I remembered as having made an impression on me as a teenager happens to be available via YouTube. WARNING, it’s an hour-long and consists simply of two people talking in two chairs about one subject (yes, kids, they once really did show programs like that on TV). It is Buckley and Kenneth Minogue of the LSE, discussing ideology and political philosophy, and it was one of the things that made me want to be a political scientist (OK, that didn’t work out, but here they are … one hour, in order, after the jump)
My bud Paul Clark has just wrapped up the Muriels, another online film-geek poll, this one named after some slimy rodent. No, RATATOUILLE didn’t walk away with everything, but it did do quite well … and I’m not sure if there wasn’t some “homering within the Order” hanky-panky going on. But the Muriels had the same Top 3 as the Skandies (though there is no overlap in the voter pool), but in a slightly different order.
Best of all, Paul and the other contributors have also written bohkoo words about their choices, that have made for lots of interesting reading in the last couple of weeks … so put your feet up and head on over.
… I don’t know how to react when the film I think the absolute best of the year wins the Oscar for best film. Not the year’s best American film winning, not the year’s best Oscar-bait film winning, not the best of the five nominees winning — the year’s best film winning. Only 2 1/2 of the 79 previous Best Film winners¹ was my favorite for that year and all of them happened only in retrospect, i.e., in the years from before I became a serious filmgoer: AMADEUS won for 1984 (23 years ago), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA for 1962 (22 years before that), and SUNRISE for 1927-28 (34 years before that). At that rate, I figure the coinciding of tastes should happen once more before I die.