Rightwing Film Geek

I’m Your Man

I’M YOUR MAN (Maria Schrader, Germany, 2021) 6

The last couple of scenes are so brilliantly done, so wise (this is not HER) and so understated, and the first scene so slyly suggestive as the date goes off the rails that I really don’t trust my “meh” reaction to the intervening 95 minutes.

Had the film ended with Dan Stevens’ departure, I’d’ve been debating between 4 and 5, partially because so much of I’M YOUR MAN wasn’t terribly funny to me. It was fitfully amusing, always genial, and had nothing cringeworthy, sure. I probably went in with the wrong expectations, expecting the film to be more of a farce than it is because the premise — human-like robots tailored to be the perfect mate — is so absurd. I kept thinking of MORK AND MINDY but with Dan Stevens rather than Robin Williams. That’s not a good thing.

How much is a specific byproduct of his speaking German (I admit I did love the excuse for a British accent so pronounced even I could hear it) is something I can’t say, but Stevens’ performance is definitely somewhat awkward and that’s exactly right for a robot (hard not to think of STARMAN also). Sandra Huller is equally awkward, albeit in that chipper human-resources manager way, and that becomes brilliant. Maren Eggert has the hardest role, playing a skeptic of the whole premise of the product and a normal effed-up person with contradictory desires in a post-modern hall of mirrors. She even pulls off a speech about being in a play in which she’s both performer and audience.

I know it’s unfair to compare a “German comedy” to a “German comedy” from five years ago (they all look alike) even if they both feature Sandra Huller. But there was just nothing here as uproariously memorable as “The Greatest Love of All” or petit-fours. “I’m Your Man” plays more in the dramedy vein, with much of the humor wry (first line I wrote down was “I detect a reaction to my correct use of the subjunctive”) and minor-key, like the unexpected reunion with the chubby old man from the first scene. And those last two scenes, one a lengthy narrated monolog, the other a trip to Denmark, work so well because … talking vaguely … they’re really about how the film’s absurd premise relates to something not-absurd romantic longing and the existence of the custom-designed perfect mate.

September 27, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Small Engine Repair

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR (John Pollono, USA, 2021) 7

Well that took a turn to the fuckin dark…

It’d be cruel and unfair to compare SMALL ENGINE REPAIR to Takashi Miike’s AUDITION, which is just one of this century’s best movies and has the greatest tone shift in movie history. But Pollono is definitely trying to pull off something similar, gliding from amiable-ish genre piece (here, a bro-hangout film) into the outer realms of ultra-violence. However while Miike also shifted character, POV and possible reality as well as tone, Pollono doesn’t. As a result the Japanese film glides past and makes us swallow the absurdities and contrivances of torture porn while the American one doesn’t.

Still until those narrative contrivances kick in, REPAIR is a very enjoyable bro-hangout film, New England working-class division. It precisely nails the dynamic of three best drinking buddies — Frankie the recovering alcoholic, Packy the dim bulb, and Swaino the instigator. “Fuck you” is a term of endearment among them but the circle is starting to age past the sell-by date and it now looks kinda pathetic or more. REPAIR has some of the underlying mix of danger and fascination thereof as Joe Pesci’s scenes in GOODFELLAS, since it opens with Frankie being released from jail and the first act ends with a near-fatal fight. Cut to Recovery Frankie drinking and smoking.

The second act is a reunion night at Frankie’s garage, which is capped off with a visit from a drug dealer, which kicks in the third act and the excrement making contact with the rotating blades. The long flashback in which the older men tell the college-student dealer about watching the 1986 World Series with their fathers would make a great short-subject and it encapsulates the film in miniature — “toxic masculinity” consumed and narrativized as nostalgia.

I lol’d at lines like “that’s homophobic” and “my people have been marginalized and oppressed by white people” being used in these contexts — it’s 2021 nominally but the year’s High Wokeness has trickled down imperfectly. Even in 2021, I can believe that some folks still are ignorant of Dis Instagram Shit (“like a fucking Asian teenager”) and this tech disconnect also sets up one of the film’s best lines, “I have 2,854 followers” as a plea for one’s life.

But while I appreciated the head fake of the perfect murder, which had my eyes rolling as it happening since these three are varying types of fuck-up, I cannot believe that a major law firm would drop a partner over Instagram posts of the type described here. Nor do I believe the parallel threat that wraps up the plot would be as effective as it is. Nor do I believe the line “whore daughter” in that situation. Nor can I discern why on earth Frankie turns himself in to the cops, and that this would have no effect on the other conspirators. Too bad really.

September 24, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cry Macho

CRY MACHO (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2021, 2)

Risible from beginning to end unfortunately. Watching a 90-year-old man play a rodeo-star turned cowboy bounty-hunter is as painful an experience as watching a 55-year-old man fight mixed martial arts.

The script is one tortured contrivance after another — the very fact that Dwight Yoakam hires a 90-year-old man to go into Mexico and kidnap his estranged son; how quickly Eastwood finds both a family home and a 13-year-old boy based on only a 6-year-old’s picture; his finding which particular cockfight in Mexico City, a city of 20 million people, the boy is at; that a Texas rodeo star would speak sign language but not Spanish; the equally script-convenient variable competences of the Mexican police and Clint’s Spanish. And let’s just say CRY MACHO has the most ridiculous film climax involving a chicken since KILLER JOE.

The two lead performances are both very bad. Eduardo Minett plays the tween quarry and he can barely exist on camera but he does carefully recite every line correctly. As for Eastwood, I get that he’s deliberately playing a shadow of his formal self. But he’s just too physically limited even to do that, at least in the manner he does here. Howard Hawks gradually debilitated Robert Mitchum and John Wayne during the course of EL DORADO. Instead, Eastwood directs himself taming a wild horse. Only, in the film’s low point, most of the scene is in long shot, intercut with close-in shots of Eastwood moving up and down without a horse in the frame. That’s the stuff of Ed Wood.

September 24, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (Michael Showalter, USA, 2021, 8)

What if conmen believe their con? It’s not exactly that we come to sympathize with them, but they definitely become harder to hate and the other things about them come to the forefront, including “how did they come to believe their con?”

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE manages the remarkable feat of portraying someone known as a caricature without engaging in it itself. Partially it is physical — the makeup changes over time and Jessica Chastain isn’t that great a resemblance (especially facially) so you see a performance not an imitation. But mostly it’s because Tammy Faye was many things, but not a phony like many of us assumed at the time when we heard about (first detail to immediately come to mind) the air-conditioned doghouses. She and husband Jim were pentecostalists filled with enthousiasmos, not fundamentalists filled with the scriptures. “All is grace” ends Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and this film (accurately from all accounts) portrays one way to take that — the prosperity gospel (heresy).

From the very beginning of their courtship and ministry, the Bakkers saw God’s giving hand in everything with a naive good-heartedness, and an effervescence. The film portrays a famous interview with Ted Koppel on “Nightline” in which they frankly admit they had no idea how much money they made and never really thought to ask. It sounded ridiculous (and the film leaves out Koppel’s sick rebuttal), but … this film makes it believable.

Tammy Faye in particular didn’t have the cynicism, guile or calculation that conmen need. She was so trusting and so gifting a person that it never occurred to her to ask whether it was a good use of money to give her mother a fur; it kept the woman warm. This naivete in Tammy Faye, whose POV the film takes, also means that some of the biopic shapelessness and the murkiness of the fraud charges / court procedurals in the story — criticisms one could justifiably make — actually play exactly right. There is only the “and then” experience.

The ending clinched it for me on these grounds. The film opens with Tammy Faye she needed to wear her makeup because that’s her role — seemingly the opposite of what I just said about not being a phony. But the last scene is her singing on a concert stage, starting her comeback (“I hate that word, it’s ‘return’!”) to being the celebrity she has made herself into. Or at least thinks she has. As an icon of a most American of religions, singing the most of American of songs, as the flag unfurls. Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Tammy Faye Bakker. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.

This secular film is also enjoyable, for some of us anyway, in its portrayal of how she and Jim were so different from the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell (a pet hobby-horse of mine is how ignorant much press coverage is of the subtleties and details of what I might as well call “conservative” religion). And, helped by history here, the fact that Falwell is both unsympathetic and the one who punishes the Bakkers’ fraud.

However, I have to say that a great film would have has a less-caricatured Falwell (I flat out didn’t buy the late line from the mother) and maybe more about how Tammy Faye became a gay icon post-fall (it’s a bit of a cheat to put topic-H into two scenes pre-fall, even if those conversations actually took place as portrayed). And does it need to be said that a great biopic film would have no IRL footage of its subject(s) over the credits.

September 24, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Billy Wilder, 1906-2002

This was written back in 2002 for a friends’ webzine, which is now defunct. It also is one of the pieces of film criticism of which I’m proudest, a career appreciation of one of my very favorite directors.

You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

That line from SUNSET BOULEVARD would easily be the most famous line ever penned by its scriptwriter if the scriptwriter were practically anyone besides Billy Wilder. In fact never mind Wilder’s whole ouevre — it may not even be the most famous line in the movie, which also features “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” and “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces.” And yet ironically, the genius of SUNSET BOULEVARD contradicts that last line and its legend as an hommage to silent pictures-it’s a very “talky” picture, as if Wilder were playing a joke on his own creation by creating such a memorable line decrying dialogue.

But then, Wilder was double-edged like that. When he died this spring, the obituaries on the daily news wires knew what films were the acknowledged masterpieces to cite immediately – SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, SUNSET BOULEVARD, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and usually two or three others early on, as likely as not reflecting the writer’s personal tastes. And the writers immediately picked up on Wilder’s misanthropic persona. In its first paragraph, the Associated Press obit called him an “Austrian-born cynic.” Both the AP and Reuters obits cited William Holden’s crack that Wilder had “a mind full of razor blades.” And Francophobes everywhere still treasure his assessment of France as “a country where you can’t tear the toilet paper but the currency crumbles in your hands.”

Wilder died with his reputation at its peak. He won the Academy’s Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement and a similar award from the American Film Institute. When in 1998 AFI picked the 100 best American movies, four Wilder films were on the list; when it surveyed the 100 funniest American movies two years later, SOME LIKE IT HOT was No. 1. In Roger Ebert’s book The Great Movies, Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock are the only directors to have three films in it. Oscar-winning writer-director Cameron Crowe published a book-length interview with him. According to Crowe, at a 1997 Directors Guild of America symposium, the guild’s four present nominees for that year each named his greatest influences: “All agreed on only one name — Wilder.” Yet that image of Wilder as a cheap cynic, easy as it was to derive from his films and his public interviews, has clung to him, although, as Crowe’s book points out at length, it’s far too simple an image. He made some films in other veins completely, only to see them founder at the box office. Even his cynical films were never as cynical as their reputations.

Wilder’s signature narrative centers on a disguise or a con. For a Wilder character, the movie’s events involved the most important roles he ever played, as a character in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION put it. Practically all of Wilder’s movies have at least a sequence (if not the whole film’s premise) involving a heretofore-decent person engaging in disguise, role-deception of some sort, or passing for somebody he isn’t in service of some scam. Of course, events always produce snowballing consequences that the scam artists don’t quite figure on — and that’s usually where the comedy and/or pathos come.

The director denied there was any autobiography in his obsession with role-playing in his movies. “That did not occur to me,” he said in his interview with Crowe. “I was not playing roles. That did not happen in my life. I was playing all the cards open.” He then, oddly, expressed a kind of gratified amazement that Crowe was asking him the question. Yet there were other too-obviously autobiographical touches repeated in his movies too often to be coincidence. For example, about half his directorial credits featured either Americans in a European setting or at least a sequence involving Germans or the use of the German language in an Anglo-American setting. Therefore, it’s hard to take seriously a total protestation against seeing Wilder’s films autobiographically and so coming to the conclusion, with Andrew Sarris, that this obsession of Wilder — an Austrian Jew who lost most of family in the Holocaust — reflects “the director’s own feelings of perpetual insecurity.”

The schemes themselves range from sweetly motivated (Lord X in IRMA LA DOUCE) and necessary (fleeing gangsters in SOME LIKE IT HOT) to petty vice (a desire to pay half-fare in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR) and outright life and death (ACE IN THE HOLE and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) But like in any good conman story, the films often invite a sneaking admiration for the conman’s audacity, particularly for examples as outrageous as the convoluted scams in THE FORTUNE COOKIE or KISS ME, STUPID, which involve regular Joes trying to get a piece of the pie (and a deee-luxe apart-ment … in the sky-yyy). The cons in these two films are elaborate, but they’re coming at the expense of, respectively, the NFL and its army of lawyers, and a greasy Lothario. As with the mobsters in SOME LIKE IT HOT or the newspaper-reading public as presented in ACE IN THE HOLE, there’s just no question of identifying with those whom the scam is intended to fool.

It’s hard to believe that Wilder was once considered coarse and vulgar. In his interview with Crowe, Wilder noted the furor over THE APARTMENT, in which a low-level functionary, C.C. Baxter as played by Jack Lemmon, rents out his apartment to his bosses for trysts with their lovers. It’s “a movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers,” Wilder said, noting that it was called a “dirty fairy tale.” Just four years later, in 1964, the Catholic Legion of Decency went further, handing KISS ME, STUPID the scarlet C-for-condemned rating — something it had not done since 1956.

Viewed today, the movie is almost tame — the central plot involves a pathologically jealous husband who, for the sake of trying to sell a song to a womanizing Vegas lounge lizard played by Dean Martin, has to have the singer in his home. Figuring that Dino would seduce his wife, the husband hires a prostitute to play that role. One shot features a tailor’s dummy — female, correctly-shaped of course — while Dino talks frankly about his habitual conquesting; there’s a reference to Playboy when the husband feigns amorousness; and several other jokes and situations come in at that level of risqueness. The film’s third-act twist implies (though never shows) a couple of adulterous situations. Those two films would probably get a PG and a PG-13 today.

It’d be easy just to say “well that’s how far we’ve fallen,” and that wouldn’t entirely be wrong, but it would miss something important that may explain why Wilder may very well be the favorite studio-era director for my generation of cinephiles, film critics and filmmakers. I think the reason for that is that Wilder was the director who best straddled the Production Code era and its collapse. He had the craft and professionalism of the studio era without its oft-absurd comstockery of not showing toilets or having to have Lucy say she’s “expecting.” Here, in Wilder, is the director who handles bawdy subject matter and jokes about other movies (in two separate movies, he makes jokes about James Cagney’s grapefruit-smashing scene in PUBLIC ENEMY) without collapsing into AMERICAN PIE territory or pomo decadence, who shows that double entendres are most fun when they were kinda naughty — neither unspeakable nor all-too-speakable.

It was partially the times, but also Wilder’s own sensibility — he understood that understatement, implication and withholding are more essential, not less, when telling jokes about sex or other bodily functions. For example, a typical joke from 1966’s THE FORTUNE COOKIE had shyster lawyer Walter Matthau holding a metal hospital bedpan from earlier in the scene while telling the would-be-injured Lemmon “I’m handing you a quarter million dollars on a silver platter.” Nothing is said explicitly. Wilder assumes from Matthau twitching the bedpan-holding arm for emphasis that we’ll get both the immediate joke and also the implication about all the crap that the quarter-million will bring into Lemmon’s life.

As was often the case, Wilder cited his mentor Ernst Lubitsch as his model. “He realized that if you say two and two, the audience doesn’t have to be told it’s four. The audience will find it themselves; let the audience find the joke. There was always an innuendo in setting up situations, and you were rewarded by the laugh of the people who added it up,” Wilder said. (Nor was the importance of implication and discretion limited to Wilder’s direction of comic gags — witness the murder in DOUBLE INDEMNITY where all we see is a close up of Barbara Stanwyck’s face.)

Wilder’s kind of humor (however coarse in content or implication) therefore relies on a certain moralistic norm, at having social or religious restraint to play off. And that is no less true for the humor’s moral implications. For example, you could fill Norma Desmond’s swimming pool with the ink that has been expended on how SOME LIKE IT HOT supposedly deconstructs gender roles, mocked the sexual anxieties of the 50s and all that. Of course, this ignores that the film is a farce, a laugh-generating machine that relies heavily on incongruity and embarrassment for its humor. In one scene, after Lemmon’s female alter ego “Daphne” gets a marriage proposal from the millionaire Osgood, Tony Curtis asks Lemmon incredulously “why would a man want to marry a man?” Lemmon answers “security” and continues playing the maracas. I have no idea how that joke, premised on Lemmon’s missing the point of Curtis’ question, could ever work if the gay marriage folks get their way and a man can marry a man as easily as a woman. And forget about the whole last scene, where Daphne tries to weasel out of marrying Osgood, building up to a line that Ebert has called “the greatest closing line in Hollywood history.” The punch line has no punch in a world of polymorphous perversity.

Wilder’s steamroller pacing and irony-drenched plotting anticipates the cinema of the then-future (another reason his films are still as watchable as ever). But the Viennese wiseguy Wilder also had another side, and that was his love for the Lubitsch era – the fin-de-siecle world of the Victorians and continental Europe with its graceful courtliness and good-natured manners, the importance of appearance, the sexual restraint, and strong emphases on honor and dignity. Its also a world tinged with the sad regret of an era about to end and replaced with the coarsely authentic, mechanized, rational-economistic 20th century.

In interviews, Wilder constantly expressed his admiration for director-producer Lubitsch, the only influence he explicitly cited in Crowe’s interview book. Lubitsch directed Wilder’s scripts for NINOTCHKA and BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, and as a producer at Paramount, helped Wilder break into American films. Wilder always kept a sign in office asking “How Would Lubitsch Do It?”

But Wilder showed his romantic side and that love for the Lubitsch era and its mores in only a few films – most particularly LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. In both the former film, a rueful May-December romance from 1957, and the latter film, a melancholy detective romance released in 1970, Wilder moves the stories at a decelerated, almost glacial, rate compared to rat-a-tat-tat pacing of the comedy films he made in the intervening period. As the narrator in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS put it, “in those days, they had time for everything.”

Because it’s so unWilderesque on the surface, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES can be a baffling experience on first viewing – and it was a commercial and critical disaster in 1970. The first time I saw the movie, I was rather indifferent to it. Then an essay on the film by critic Richard Corliss in his book “Talking Pictures” made the whole film come alive in ways totally unexpected to someone expecting from the title to get a suspenseful whodunnit spiked with some juicy sexy soap opera. The film’s richly decadent romantic style and Robert Stephens’ slow, archly-fruity line readings made Wilder’s Sherlock not the first man of the 20th century but the last man of the 19th, an artist learning he is on the edge of anachronism in a world of such dishonorable cowardly methods of surreptitious warfare as spies and submarines – and this takes place a century before such advances in this field as civilian suicide bombers. Subsequent viewings have brought me more-or-less around to Corliss’ opinion that THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is Wilder’s great “late” work.

The episodic plot centers around Holmes’ gallant attempt to help a woman with no memory, Gabrielle Valladon, find her missing husband. But things are (of course) not as they seem and the parting greetings when the case is disposed of are perfectly written in the Lubitschian mode (and delivered thus by Stephens and Genevieve Page). The words are precise in their formality and are pregnant with implication about an ethereal love that can never be expressed. Nothing is said and everything is understood.

Its oblique dialogue and its “Ernstian civility and restraint [are] all the more civilized and restrained for its being made in the late 60s,” Corliss wrote. In fact, one of the most jarring lines Wilder ever wrote was Holmes’ response to Dr. Watson saying there was no need to worry about talk that the two are homosexual lovers. “I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but there have been women in your life?” Watson asks. “The answer is yes,” Holmes responds, giving Watson a second of relief before saying: “You are being presumptuous.” That exchange is impossible to imagine in today’s sincere, authentic world of openness.

In the epilogue, Holmes learns of Gabrielle’s fate and retires to his room with his cocaine. Corliss dismisses (too quickly, I think) autobiographical speculation about Wilder having come to know that he must turn away from a world that no longer wants him. But the film was a project as plainly uncommercial-for-1970 as imaginable, and Wilder never again had a major commercial and critical success.

In the Paris-set LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, the girlish Audrey Hepburn has an name-free affair with a jaded America Lothario (Gary Cooper) who in another era would have been having his last tango. Told through layers of ironic comedy and melancholy, Hepburn saves Cooper bodily in the first half, tricking a homicidally-jealous husband, and is convinced that her innocence will rescue his heart in the second half. Her private-detective father, played by Maurice Chevalier, knows better and protects her by warding Cooper off, not via the typical Wilder comic ruse, but by a Lubitsch-like appeal to dignity and propriety. Chevalier’s persona, with its impossibly Gallic voice and his resonances from such Lubitsch films as THE LOVE PARADE, THE MERRY WIDOW and ONE HOUR WITH YOU, introduces a stoically-borne shame into Cooper that is completely Ernstian. At the end, love triumphs, but only because it has been put in its place. The narrating Chevalier, with the typical twinkle in his voice, says the couple are together and “serving a life sentence.”

Ironically, this type of happy ending prompted the other principal critical rap on Wilder for a long period – that his contemptuous misanthropy was just a pose that inevitably yielded to a hypersentimental wuss-out in the last reel. But this is to take cynical surfaces as though they defined a man to the depth of his being. Sarris was more correct than he (then) realized in his (now-recanted) charge that Wilder is “too cynical to believe his own cynicism.” Except possibly in a couple of films (A FOREIGN AFFAIR and ACE IN THE HOLE) Wilder never succumbs to his crusty exterior. His films are ultimately about opportunists who are forced by their own cynicism to find their redemption – they reach the point where they say “no more.” There are deadly consequences for those few protagonists who retain their illusions to the bitter end – Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD and newspaperman Charles Tatum from ACE IN THE HOLE.

In THE FORTUNE COOKIE, it’s a racial slur that’s puts too much crap on the silver platter for Lemmon’s character. In THE APARTMENT, C.C. Baxter finally is forced to draw the line with his bosses when he falls in love with Fran Kubelik. THE APARTMENT is about “a nebbish who becomes a pimp who becomes a man,” Crowe said. Even in as acidic a film as KISS ME, STUPID, the nebbish husband cannot abide seeing a prostitute being treated as a prostitute and so turns on Dino and takes her in as his wife for the night. And even as frothy a film as SOME LIKE IT HOT shows a con man outgrowing his con.

From the very beginning of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Curtis’s Joe has been an effortless seducer, prompting a disbelieving to-the-camera aside from Lemmon’s Jerry as he coaxes a woman out of her car keys. Disguised as the Cary Grant-like Shell Jr. millionaire, he wins over Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar but then shortly afterward, he has to dump her. Near the end, in the garb of his female alter ego Josephine, he hears Sugar perform “I’m Through With Love.” For audiences today, knowing what we know about the Monroe legend and how it would play out shortly thereafter, the heartbreak in Monroe’s guileless and too-authentic-for-safety performance is palpable. Then Wilder redeems all his misanthropic cracks about suicide attempts and his brutalization of actresses. Curtis comes up to Monroe and kisses her passionately and says in Joe’s voice: “None of that, Sugar. No man is worth it.” The kind of critic who insists on noticing that Curtis is still dressed as Josephine and so sees covert lesbianism needs to have her critical lenses readjusted.

Besides her transcendent performance as Sugar in SOME LIKE IT HOT, Wilder also created Monroe’s signature shot – the skirt flying up from the grate in THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH. Wilder could use Monroe to great effect for his signature sexual situation – a (usually) nerdy asexual schnook who tries to save a (usually) impossibly sexual woman.

It’s a measure of the difference in sexual personae that an ineffectual Curtis being wooed by Monroe on a boat in SOME LIKE IT HOT is one of the most famous scenes in sex-comedy history, while a near-identical scene between Lemmon’s Lord X and Shirley MacLaine in IRMA LA DOUCE is just this side of forgotten. Wilder knew that he could only get what he wanted onscreen from Monroe, despite the legendary difficulties she created during the shoot. “I’ve got an aunt who would show up every day on time, do the lines, be no trouble at all. But you know what – nobody would pay a nickel to see my aunt in this movie,” he famously said.

Wilder was probably the director most congenial to Monroe’s talents, precisely because his cynical veneer enabled him to tap into her too-innocent sexual persona – “it’s only a comedy,” people would say. Yet one of Wilder’s greatest gifts, unrelated to the scripts he wrote, was his knack for casting, for working with actors and for creating the images of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Wilder also shaped the screen persona of the pixie-like MacLaine with her roles in THE APARTMENT and IRMA LA DOUCE. Whenever a classy ingenue comes along today, she is following in the footsteps of Wilder’s roles for Audrey Hepburn, the adorable aristocrat (no matter her material circumstances), in SABRINA and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON.

The most-fruitful actor-collaborator Wilder ever had was Lemmon – who made seven films with Wilder, three of them also with Matthau (including THE FORTUNE COOKIE, the pair’s first teaming). We already can see traces of Lemmon’s screen persona – the do-gooding boyish everyman with a bit of a whiny, fussy stuffed-shirt – in MISTER ROBERTS, before any of his roles for Wilder. But, like with Monroe, Wilder did better by Lemmon than any other director ever did by using him as counterpoint – putting him in a series of plots as bait for devouring by the venal schemers who populated Wilder’s films. Lemmon beautifully played off his good-natured annoyance against the sneaky Matthau’s cyclonic determination as Whiplash Willie in THE FORTUNE COOKIE and as Walter Burns in THE FRONT PAGE. Or consider the contrast in SOME LIKE IT HOT between the regular-guy Lemmon and the self-absorption of Joe E. Brown’s millionaire Osgood and the greasiness of Curtis’s womanizer.

Casting against type was another Wilder gift that seemingly came like inspiration from nowhere. He had to fight to get Ginger Rogers to portray a 12-year-old in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and to persuade the generally comically-genial Ray Milland to play a gritty alcoholic in THE LOST WEEKEND. The roles in both cases, again, were considered to have moral-image problems – Nabokov was still a decade away from writing LOLITA when Wilder was scripting THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and until then alcoholic characters were generally portrayed as lovable comic types, like W.C. Fields. The results were salutary in both cases. THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR was a huge commercial success, securing Wilder’s career prospects and the latter won for Milland the first of three Oscars for Wilder thespians — the others being Holden for STALAG 17 and Matthau for THE FORTUNE COOKIE.

But Wilder’s greatest achievement in the genre of countercasting was Fred MacMurray, to whom Wilder gave his two most-memorable film roles – as the murdering lover Walter Neff in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and the lecherous boss Sheldrake in THE APARTMENT. Despite the fact these two movies were 16 years apart, at both times MacMurray had to be persuaded to abandon a solid, likable Henry Fonda-ish persona – in the early 40s based on some light screwball comedies and in the late 50s based on his deals with Disney for films like THE SHAGGY DOG and THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR and the TV show MY THREE SONS. Yet, MacMurray’s likableness is the key to the characterizations’ working. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, it makes his corruption by Stanwyck more darkly threatening and makes his partner Edward G. Robinson’s puzzlement more explicable (as in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a criminal can hide most easily by being someone the detective loves). In THE APARTMENT, it makes it all the easier to believe a decent man like C.C. Baxter would rent out his room – to another decent man who just wants to be his friend and help him at work. As “your affectionate uncle Screwtape” advises Wormwood, the devil can only succeed if he appears in an attractive guise.

Wilder even had a knack for getting “good” performances from bad actors. He was able to use Dean Martin in KISS ME STUPID, basically by having him play a Vegas singer who made jokes about his drinking and womanizing during his songs and was headed out to L.A. to make a movie with Sinatra, Sammy and Joey Bishop. His character was named “Dino” in case anyone missed the point. After the end of her collaboration with director Josef Von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich’s legend had become too great for her to credibly play a character – most of her late roles drowned in all her Marlene-ness and its self-conscious artifice. Yet Wilder was able to put Dietrich’s mannered Germanic hauteur to good use twice – in A FOREIGN AFFAIR and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. In the latter film, a better naturalistic actress than Dietrich could not have conveyed the fact that Christine Vole was in practically every scene in the movie … acting. Sizing up Charles Laughton in his office (as he is sizing up her), baiting the trap with her testimony, the cockney barmaid, her anger at her exposure and then revealing all to Laughton at the end with all the puffed-out pride in performance of Hercule Poirot fingering the killer to a roomful of suspects in the last scene. “I never played a more important role,” Christine says.

Playing roles – it always comes back to that with Wilder. It’s hard to tell whether Wilder ever really had an on-screen persona in his films. The sardonic story-telling character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE may have been as close as it got. Most of his other narrators were telling their own stories, while Moustache is more like a ringmaster choreographing the fates of others. Wilder wanted to get Laughton, the actor he most admired, to play the role, but Laughton’s death prevented that dream casting. Moustache also was an emigre (from Eastern Europe to France admittedly) who tried not-wholly-successfully to blend in, but always had one more story to tell. To near the end of his days, Wilder insisted he could have made more films had he been able to win financial backing. But now, with his death, that’s another story.

Wilder is big, only now the pictures have gotten a little smaller.

April 8, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Michael Moore becomes a jerk

… or how I learned to start worrying and loathe the bombast.

(Like my previous post on DOGVILLE, this was written back in 2003-04 for the webzine of two friends, Zach and Gabe, the now defunct 24 FPS. It began in response to demands on a film-discussion board that, given his skepticism of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, this reactionary “better explain” why he had ROGER & ME as his #1 film of 1989.)

One of the first film reviews I wrote in college called ROGER & ME (premature blurb-whoring) “the funniest and best film of the year.” Along with JFK, DO THE RIGHT THING, and THE TRAVELING PLAYERS, it’s one of the standard litany of “lefty but I love them” movies that I can cite as a politically conservative film buff. But I hadn’t seen ROGER & ME for a decade, and director Michael Moore’s subsequent work on TV NATION, THE BIG ONE and his latest, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, was pretty uneven. The later works had their moments, but as a whole I didn’t much care for them – though I didn’t outright hate them nearly as much as my more-liberal film-buff pals thought (quite reasonably I hasten to add).

So, a couple of nights ago, I re-watched ROGER & ME just to see if it held up or whether was I on crack in 1989. There was no way the film could make me laugh as hard as it did when I saw it at the time. It made such a strong impression on me that I still remembered all the jokes, and part of the fun I had at ROGER & ME was that I had never then seen anything quite like it – a comic, satirical documentary. I’ve seen a lot of movies like that since (a couple of non-Moore films even modeled on ROGER & ME). So the film didn’t have the same impact, I guess, but it didn’t decline in my esteem. And even if I were to have seen it for the first time yesterday, it would not have annoyed me like Moore’s recent work does for some formal and content reasons that add up to “Moore isn’t the overbearing jerk he is in his recent films.”

For example, his outsized “gonzo-wacky telling-truth-to-power” persona doesn’t yet exist in ROGER & ME, he’s more of a regular guy. During the film’s “find Roger” segments, where he’s trying to get an interview with General Motors chairman Roger Smith, there is nothing as obviously scripted and rehearsed as, e.g. the photo-op checks to pay Mexican workers and the “Downsizer of the Year” awards he gives in THE BIG ONE. As a result, there’s none of the “bully” factor that makes so grating some of Moore’s hits on corporate flacks. These “find Roger” segments in ROGER & ME are also just about the only scenes in the film where Moore is actually onscreen and the center of attention, but he doesn’t hog it. He’s playing a befuddled everyjournalist just trying to get an interview. My favorite moment was when he went into an elevator at GM headquarters and tries to hit the button for the top floor where Roger’s headquarters are – like he’s too naive to know better. Never in the earlier film does Moore play to the camera, like when he hugs those book-store employees in THE BIG ONE or the sobbing teacher in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.

Moore is also more tactful in the other two types of scenes in ROGER & ME – in the segments about how Flint is coping with the layoffs, he is rarely on-camera and always at its edge when he is; in the direct interview segments, he is never on-camera and sometimes even eschews being an offscreen voice. In fact, the best sequences in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE are the interviews with Marilyn Manson and Matt Stone, who are given the opportunity to say something without Moore getting in the way. Stone in particular has some interesting points to make about the falsely deterministic “this will decide the rest of your life” pressure in high schools. In ROGER & ME, even though Moore makes brutal fun of the chipper Chamber of Commerce flack extolling Flint as a tourism mecca, it’s funny because the guy is making himself ridiculous, saying more than he intends to. With Moore onscreen, it would have come across that Moore was making a schmuck out of him (although I now realize that several of those scenes were probably pre-existing footage).

ROGER & ME does have copious voiceover, which makes his views on the material crystal-clear, but it seems less intrusive than Moore actually appearing on camera. And he sometimes even eschews voiceover and lets the subject material speak for itself, even for comic-goofy effect. He just asks, for example, the ladies at the golf club what people should do about the layoffs, and they come across as boorish snobs without a word from him. And he says nothing while all the upper-class people cavort around the city’s new jail at the pre-opening-night party. He sets up the situation and watches it. Again, contrast that to BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE where he makes an open, caustic attack on welfare-work requirements as “making fudge for rich people.” This level of bitter explicitness invites others (well, at least me) to wonder whether the mother of a 6-year-old who committed a Flint school shooting (the occasion for Moore’s rant) would have been less unavailable if the state required her to be “making fudge for poor people” or even “making gruel for poor people” or even if she had an 8-hour-a-day private-sector job doing whatever. Never is there a line in ROGER & ME after the jail’s opening night like “the next night, the inmates were there and things were rather less light.” Latter-day Moore would not have resisted that.

In a similar vein, there are lengthy segments in both ROGER & ME and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE set to ironic counterpoint music and they also illustrate the major difference in content between the two films – the earlier film is about one thing that Moore understands (the devastation of his hometown by GM layoffs); the latter is about anything and everything, and on much of which Moore simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In ROGER & ME, there’s a lengthy drive through Flint’s slums set to the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It could have come across as cheap, but it follows a scene where an auto worker, whom Moore had put on the cover of Mother Jones, describes his last day at work, when he had a mental breakdown on the job and then he turned on his car radio and that song was playing. In other words, the juxtaposition isn’t simply Moore grabbing for an easy effect. And its link to a guy who’s in a mental home puts us in his mind and makes it kinda poignant (as well as sarcastic and angry). In BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, the comparable scene is a scroll of U.S. foreign-policy actions set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It comes across as annoyingly self-righteous, not simply because of the tendentious and sometimes laughable descriptions of U.S. foreign policy (I could quarrel with the majority of them in one or another way), but also because of the too-cheap irony of the song is coming from nowhere.

And even apart from that, Moore is positing an argument that simply doesn’t make a lick of sense or stand up to a second’s scrutiny. He’s trying to make some point to the effect that the Columbine shooters were inspired by the Lockheed missile factory in the town. But where then are the defense-contractors in such school-shooting venues as West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., or Pearl, Miss.? I went to a high school whose district lines jutted an Air Force base and was in a metro area with two additional Air Force bases and one Army base. There hasn’t been a single school shooting in the San Antonio area to my knowledge. In contrast, with ROGER & ME the link between job layoffs and local economic depressions and their subsequent effects (the rats outnumber the people because garbage pickups get cut back) is rather clear. In the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” scene, all Moore does is show the effects of a local depression and that’s enough.

Not that BOWLING for COLUMBINE is worthless or doesn’t have some sharp things to say. It doesn’t take the easy route and claim, as gun controllers are wont, that gun deaths in the United States are a simple function of gun numbers or availability. Instead, Moore comes down harder on the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of news coverage, particularly of local news, TV news and reality TV. This diet of bloody images has caused people to think that violence and mayhem are much more routine than they in fact are. This resulting mentality stifles community and poisons ordinary interaction and so puts the country on a “gotta have a gun/shoot first” hair-trigger and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even when his film is making that interesting point, Moore pushes it too hard in a desire to bash capitalism. He blames the coverage on a desire for ratings and profits, but this merely raises a further question that Moore doesn’t answer – why does gore and mayhem produce the ratings and profits in the first place? Again, as throughout his later, more ambitious, but more-scattershot and far less-satisfying films, Moore trips over his press clippings while his reach is exceeding his grasp.

April 8, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dogville: A hell of a movie

This was written back in 2004 for a friends’ webzine, which is now defunct. It is honestly one of the pieces of film criticism of which I’m proudest and for one of my very favorite contemporary films. And there are spoilers aplenty for the whole movie.

DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2004) 10

The Gospel of St. Matthew has the following passage (11:20-24):

Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein were done the most of his miracles, for that they had not done penance. ‘Woe thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? Thou shalt go down even unto hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee’.

Lars Von Trier’s DOGVILLE is about that passage. And it is not subtle – Nicole Kidman’s character is named Grace. And Grace is rejected by the town. And the rejection of Grace brings damnation.

DOGVILLE was widely derided by the U.S. press at the Cannes festival in May on very different and more-prosaic grounds – as an anti-American rant by an ignorant European who had never been here. Todd McCarthy closed his Variety review by saying that “Von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.” You don’t necessarily have to have read the press book (though McCarthy and others did quote Von Trier from it liberally) to come to that conclusion. The vast 175-minute body of the film portrays the reaction of the residents of Dogville to the arrival of the stranger from Nowhere, and her involvement and eventual estrangement from the town. It’s easy to see how the usual suspects would interpret this in all sorts of ways about how mean we are to immigrants (it’s why they’re beating down the doors to get in – “please oppress us.”)

I submit that DOGVILLE makes more sense and is meatier when seen as a religious film rather than a political one, the unfortunately crude and literal closing credits notwithstanding. But as a religious work of art, DOGVILLE is a rare breed today – unapologetically moralistic, and displaying and justifying the most unpopular Christian doctrine of all – Hell.

Von Trier may be his own worst enemy in inviting people to see the film as a political manifesto, saying among other things, to McCarthy’s gleeful citation that “I don’t see (Americans) as less evil than the bandit states.” But the anti-American Americans (think Noam Chomsky or Susan Sontag) who might be expected to lap up this film will see an uncomfortable portrait of themselves in the character of Tom Edison, played by Paul Bettany as a man who conceives of himself as apart from the rest of the town in his relationship to Grace, as if he’s the judge and assessor of the town’s virtues and vices. He proves not to be quite so worthy as to cast the first stone.

Unfortunately (or maybe “propitiously”), DOGVILLE’s central stylistic trope, its being performed on an “Our Town”-style stage where chalk outlines define the houses and streets and there are only a few props, makes it too unspecific to be convincing as a national portrait. DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) had the same “problem” – while clearly and specifically set in the United States, it really belonged in the world of movie melodramas and worked like gangbusters as a weepie. Looking at DANCER for a political critique would be like watching TOP HAT for information about Venice, rather than for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing. In the same way, the main body of DOGVILLE is so stylized, not so much general and unspecific as defiantly anti-specific (it literally screams “artificial set” at every instant), that it’s impossible to take seriously in realistic terms as social criticism. John Hurt’s narration has a Masterpiece Theater British-literary formality that is totally alien to any portrait of America. The film’s only credited score uses Antonio Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus,” which, apart from the anti-realistic anachronism, is also the Latin Vulgate name for Psalm 126. The title means “unless the Lord” and the Psalm opens “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it; Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.” And Dogville is about a city that the Lord didn’t keep. Or rather, it didn’t keep the Lord.

The film specifically sets itself up as having a God-like point-of-view and hammers that home 50 ways to Sunday. The title cards are providential, telling the viewer what will happen before it does: “Tom hears gunfire and meets Grace”; “Grace indulges in a shady piece of provocation.” The opening shot is literally a God-like POV: it descends from a height and looks down upon the town and its chalk outlines. Von Trier repeats that shot at other times for emphasis – such as when Grace hides in an apple truck to flee the town. Not only does Hurt play an omniscient narrator, but his vocal reciting is God-like as well – avuncular, out-of-time and -place, objective, and absolutely serene and knowing. The wall-less, roof-less sets mean that everything is visible at all times (an especially important device for framing the first rape of Grace). “The eyes of God see all,” as the Woody Allen of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS might put it. Even the attempts to cover up and hide can’t escape God’s penetrating glance – again the apple-cart shot, when Grace pulls a tarp over herself. But we from above still see her, the tarp only as opaque as a nylon stocking.

If Grace is her name in a stylized, unspecific world overseen by a providential God-like narrator, then She becomes a theological signifier – of grace, an eternally suffering servant – and thus of Christ. And what are the consequences of rejecting the saving grace of Christ, as the townspeople reject Grace? Damnation, according to every Christian denomination that claims such a thing is possible and knowable, including Von Trier’s Catholic Church. The relevant scene is near the end (or The End, as it were) between Grace and her father, played by James Caan, who has come to rescue her from the abuse she has been suffering at the hands of the townspeople. Grace begins the conversation wanting to save them, but the father talks her out of it on the basis of the necessity for judgment. It’s not that we have to stand on one side or the other, it’s more that because both Father and Son are part of the same Godhead, both justice and mercy have to come on the same side, otherwise you have gangsterism (the Father alone) or victimology (the Son alone).

This scene could not be more clearly coded as theology and as the logical moral result of the first 160 minutes – it’s the Christ-figure’s father bringing an end to the providential narrative and doing so by having Her judge all according to how they treated Her. Von Trier is nothing if not explicit. That’s why it’s essential that when Grace destroys the town, she recites back at a character some lines about her children before she actually kills them, rhyming with Jesus’ saying what he’d say to those he’d cast to Hell. Is murdering children in front of their mother hellish? Sure, but that’s why the rejection of God’s Grace is called “Hell.” Jesus could not have been more explicit in the New Testament about this being what He will do on Judgment Day – judge all according to how they have treated Him. The key lines from Caan are that “people’s best isn’t good enough” (salvifically-speaking, this is what Christianity has always taught about the Kingdom of Heaven; it’s nothing we can just achieve through work). And the Father says that even a dog won’t learn if all you do is forgive, and that it is demeaning and infantilizing not to hold people accountable. Since all the townspeople are shown as unrepentant sinners, and continually reject and spit on Grace, they choose their own damnation. These people are merely reaping what they sowed; they have damned themselves. And that’s more or less what happens at the end – everyone is murdered by the father’s hitmen/angels and the town is even symbolically burned down (fire, flames… Hell. As I say, Von Trier is not subtle.)

What DOGVILLE represents in Von Trier’s overall oeuvre is the flip side of his “Golden-Heart” trilogy. In BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), THE IDIOTS (1998) and DANCER IN THE DARK, whatever their differences, his heroines were Christ-figures who went through a kind of hell, the tortures of the damned. The primary difference in the narrative among the three earlier films rests on what Bess, Selma and Karen achieve from being put through the wringer – Resurrection and Exaltation (WAVES); self-sacrifice for family (DANCER); and not much, a redundant kind of self-knowledge at best (IDIOTS). This recurrent theme of female victimhood has been one of the main critical raps on Von Trier for the past decade, that he basically “gets off on suffering chicks”. Or as McCarthy put it: “Whereas von Trier in his recent ‘Golden-Heart’ trilogy has led his heroines through an earthly hell to achieve a state of grace, he is determined to have his central character here show no mercy when it comes to punishing her tormentors. Grace is given the position of an all-powerful god, dispensing a Sodom and Gomorrah-like judgment on those among whom she formerly dwelled.”

I’m becoming more firmly convinced that Von Trier made DOGVILLE as an answer to those charges of sexism: “Oh … you don’t like characters who suffer nobly to the end. Well, here’s the alternative.” No longer is the Von Trier female heroine a Suffering Servant; now she turns from all-forgiving Christ-figure to avenging angel when she realizes that forgiveness without judgment is indulgence and infantilizing. One of the reasons DOGVILLE can only end as it does, and which many people will and do hate it for but which is precisely the reason the film is so gloriously out-of-step theologically, is because the whole first 160 minutes shows how deeply problematic is a doctrine of unlimited, ever-patient grace, a Son with no Father, a salvation with no damnation. The shallowest, but most-popular way in Our Very Enlightened Time of understanding the New Testament (Jesus as all-‘luvving’), causes enormous problems with DOGVILLE: “How could a Christ-figure turn vengeful?” If you felt any ambivalence toward Grace in the main flow of the story, any part of you saying “stop being such a patsy,” then there has to be sort of hell at the end. Otherwise, she’s just an object of pity.

The end of DOGVILLE and the “turn” in Grace’s character shouldn’t trouble anyone with a firm grasp of the Bible, Christian theology and Christian history. Or rather it should not trouble him any more than Christianity itself does. Even viewing the Bible as secular literature shows the impossibility of a radical dichotomy, such as McCarthy makes (he also accuses DOGVILLE of reflecting “his new Old Testament view of the world”). There’s certainly differing rhetorical weights, but both elements, justice and forgiveness, are in both testaments. The moral task DOGVILLE calls forth from the viewer is to be able to conceive of both justice and forgiveness, desert and grace, in terms that don’t require them to contradict, as the popular Old Testament/New Testament, Christ/avenging-angel dichotomies must.

But the puckish Von Trier can’t resist for a walk-off a theological in-joke that becomes funnier the more you’ve been following the Catholic Church’s inter-religious dialogue under John Paul II. There’s one loose end at DOGVILLE’s Apocalypse – the dog, a Rottweiler. It’s subtly named “Moses” and after the town has been destroyed, Moses is the only survivor. The camera takes the God-like overhead POV and pulls back as Moses barks. Hurt’s voice-of-God narration tells the viewer that he may have been asking himself what happened to Moses. “That will not be answered here.”

April 8, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

1966 … worst year ever

Would 1966 be considered the nadir of American movies?

I was inspired today to look up what was playing in New York on my birthdate (6-6-66 … hold the Satan jokes; I’ve already made them all myself) and it was … uninspiring.

Here is one page of the New York Times movie pages on that day, two images stacked on top of one another.

Here is the second page of NYT ads, stacked one on top of the other

Of the new releases, there’s one all-time blockbuster, though THE SOUND OF MUSIC was technically a 1965 film, and another major 1966 hit, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (though I don’t think its reputation is that high today). But there’s just a handful of other films that could be considered even moderately well-remembered now. Most of them are foreign and tending toward the second-ranking works of pantheon auteurs (i.e., RED DESERT, DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID and YESTERDAY TODAY AND TOMORROW, rather than L’AVVENTURA, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL and BICYCLE THIEF). The few other Anglophone films anyone today might feel obliged to see are THE GROUP, CAT BALLOU and MORGAN!

To be fair, the first week in June has never been Peak Art at the movie theater, though the weighting of the better Hollywood movies toward the end of the year wasn’t AS pronounced then as now.

I then looked at my own Top 10 list for 1966 and got more confirmation that something was rotten in the state of Hollymark.

  1. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria)
  2. Daisies (Vera Chytilova, Czechoslovakia)
  3. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR)
  4. The Hawks and the Sparrows (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy)
  5. The Nun (Jacques Rivette, France)
  6. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, Italy)
  7. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)
  8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, USA)
  9. Father (Istvan Szabo, Hungary)
  10. The Round-Up (Miklos Jancso, Hungary)
    HM: A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, France); Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy); Seconds (John Frankenheimer, USA); After the Fox (Vittorio De Sica, Italy/USA); Cul-De-Sac (Roman Polanski, Britain); Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, Britain); Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, Italy); Here’s Your Life (Jan Troll, Sweden); Closely Observed Trains (Jiri Menzel, Czechoslovakia); The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder, USA)

That is a damn fine list in my opinion — better than the year on each side of it. But look how little is labeled “USA.”

Now, my unquestionable correctness aside (and stunning modesty too), one man’s list shouldn’t be considered too definitive. Also, numerous of these films wouldn’t be released in the US until a year or two later than the IMDb years I use (and even later in some cases). So apples and apples.

Nevertheless … in a list of 20 films that I graded 7 or higher, there’s only three indubitably wholly American ones. There’s also an Italian co-production, and then the sticky issue of three spaghetti Westerns, which I list as wholly Italian but which obviously stole more than Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds from Hollywood. Every caveat aside, that’s shockingly few for an Anglophone.

However, when I look around friends’ lists and the Oscar nominations, I see only a few major American films I’ve not seen and could have the slightest hopes for (EL DORADO, GRAND PRIX and RUSSIANS x2).

So even accepting the epistemological limits of my Top 10 and HMs, the dominance of non-English films is so overwhelming that it’s hard to deny that 1966 was some kind of low point for Hollywood. You can see why in retrospect … the Old Hollywood (the studio system) had collapsed except for the edifices but the New Hollywood was still a couple of years away from maturing. BONNIE AND CLYDE would point the way when it came out in 1967. But in 1966, they were mired in a rut.

February 16, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Once Upon a Time … in Sundance

Reposting an article I wrote for the Rebeller before the site disappears…

Screen Shot 2020-06-28 at 12.29.18 PM

Director Anabel Rodriguez Rios introduced her film “Once Upon A Time in Venezuela” to an audience at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday by saying that she had made her film “for the 5 million Venezuelans in exile due to a totalitarian government that is crushing us and ripping our families [apart] … us, the filmmakers, we had to escape from the government.”

I blinked, wondering if I was dreaming or had wandered into Bizarroworld Sundance. I had not planned to see “Once Upon A Time in Venezuela” when I arrived in Park City, Utah. I dismissed the film based on the festival description as likely just another bit of Chavista propaganda about Yanqui imperialism and global warming and blah blah blah. But a liberal critic friend who had already seen the film said it was very far from that and he’d be curious what I’d make of it, especially the film’s most unapologetic champion of dictator Nicolas Maduro.

I’ve seen better films than “Once Upon A Time in Venezuela” (though it is very good). But I’ve never seen a film like it at a major North American film festival: both a lovely, poetic piece of documentary cinema that clearly deserved to be there on aesthetic merits and a relentlessly critical look at life under a left-wing Latin American regime that has been the object of praise, if a bit less frequently more recently, from the sort of liberals and leftists who program such festivals. (Also playing at Sundance: Hillary Clinton and David Hogg puff-docs and at least two features being pushed officially here by Planned Parenthood. The few conservative festival-goers like myself acquire passive immunity, eventually.)

I happened across Ms. Rodriguez Rios in the hotel shortly after the screening and told her I was shocked to see a film like hers play at a place like Sundance, and she agreed with an “I know.” This occurred a couple of hours after the person who introduced Rodriguez Rios before the screening pre-spun the film to make it a bit more palatable for the native Sundance-ite, saying it was about what happens when there is “disregard for true democracy.”

Maduro’s “totalitarian” impulses are not scrimped on in the radio speeches we hear — we never see him, befitting the film’s observational approach and focus on one small community, the fishing village of Congo Mirador. “You will never govern this country again,” Maduro thunders in one broadcast, essentially vowing not to obey democratic norms. In the same broadcast, he called on “the Bolivarian army” (not “the Venezuelan army,” making the military a partisan tool … imagine an American president referring to “the Republican army” or even “republican”), telling them to make ready to protect “the right to live in peace.”

But the biggest character in “Once Upon A Time in Venezuela” is Tamara Villasmil, the mayor of Congo Mirador, where people have lived for generations in homes on stilts. To call Villasmil a Hugo Chavez groupie would be unkind to all the relatively discerning female fans at Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Queen concerts. She has an enormous Chavez poster on her door and tells the film crew that you must touch it to enter her home. At other moments, she kisses a Chavez doll and says that even though she no longer has Chavez around, “when I vote Maduro, I see Chavez.” Her credo: “Even without food, without water, without a place to sleep, I’m fine as long as there is a revolution.”

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela - Still 4

Her main antagonist is a schoolteacher called Natalia, a Chavismo skeptic whom Villasmil threatens to purge, saying “your time is over.” Later, the mayor says she is to blame for the school’s declining enrollment and/or poor performance, saying “you don’t love the children enough.” In one of the film’s funniest moments, a Chavez-Maduro backer is walking around the classroom berating Natalia for not using the provided supplies, including a box of pens. She learns in real time that they don’t write, in a gesture every American office scrub ever has done. By the end of the movie Natalie is gone, but the school hardly has any pupils for reasons I’ll discuss later. But at least ideological purity has been achieved, for the fewer still around.

The political corruption is absolutely shameless. There is one scene in which Villasmil tries to call in a shipment of smartphones to give away to Maduro supporters and is perturbed when she procures fewer than she wanted. In another scene, she tries to persuade a woman to vote for the Maduro ticket as she hands her a kid’s backpack, bags of rice, and other foodstuffs. (Keep in mind the film’s camera crew is sitting right there on the boat, getting the footage we’re seeing.) The mayor suggests in parting that the peasant woman get her husband to vote Maduro, using what I’ll call the “Lysistrata” strategy. On election day, Maduro teams hand out money more openly than even Chicago Democratic ward-heelers would dare, and residents discuss to the film crew how much they took or were offered. After the last question in the post-film Q-and-A, Rodriguez Rios reminded the departing audience to vote for her film for the Sundance audience award. “We’ll have the money for you when you get outside,” she joked, to everyone’s laughter. She had earlier, in the Q-and-A proper, suggested that the crew was able to capture such footage because the Maduro backers let her crews film them because it was “a cultural thing; they did not think to be discreet.”

If I’m leaving the impression “Once Upon A Time in Venezuela” is merely an anti-Chavismo polemic … my apologies. It’s also a smartly observed film that makes its points with grace notes and well-chosen moments and details, like the amount of bread Villasmil takes away from her post-election station. When the anti-Maduro forces win a majority in parliament (a body the dictator promptly undermines), there’s not only partying in the streets but also the first appearance of the thunder-free “silent lightning” that marks the region and which began the film. The film wasn’t one of the high-buzz titles at Sundance, but it was well-received by those critics who did see it, including at RogerEbert.com.

Once Upon A Time in Venezuela - Still 2

Two memorable images of rot and rust close the film, serving as visual metaphors for the once-wealthy nation’s catastrophic decay.

Congo Mirador sits on Lake Maracaibo, the center of the nation’s vast oil production. Over the duration of the film, houses have been moved on boats as the muddy sediments turn the area into something closer to an encroaching swamp until the town barely exists, and the school is down to a couple of students by the end of the three to four years the film covers. One of those images is of a shack, which we’d seen before, and had “Chavez” painted on it graffiti-style. The other is a massive ship named “Venezuela” (yes, really). Both structures are decayed unto death. Rodriguez Rios and I agreed in our hotel-lobby conversation that the latter would have been too on-the-nose to include in a fiction film. But she said in that same short talk that one of her major influences was the canonical Latin American novel “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and the way he used environment to reflect the characters and the human institutions. She also, without elaboration, said in the audience Q-and-A that the film was an “allegory.” This was a fascinating and helpful bit of information because one of the few criticisms I would have otherwise have made of the film is that it isn’t specifically clear on why the town is going into the crapper. We can infer it has something to do with oil production and pollution, but it’s all rather vague. But with Garcia-Marquez in mind … exactly.

There is one scene that holds out hope for a moment of clarity for the Chavistas. Villasmil travels to the Maracaibo to meet with provincial-government leaders over breakfast, intending to alert them to the state of the village and the sediment. She’s brimming with high hopes, comparing the meeting to Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba. In the meeting, she says “Congo is running out of time … (once there) were 700 residents. Now it’s 300 or 400, and that only because of fishing. Only about 30 families are permanently here.” But the higher-ups are hardly interested and one is even yammering away on his cell phone mid-meeting. The look on Villasmil’s face as a plate of scrambled eggs sits in front of her is the look of someone who’s just realized she will not get what she needs. What’s the use of ruling the roost, I asked in a review I wrote for another outlet, when the roost is disappearing out from under you?

I asked Rodriguez Rios during the audience Q-and-A (close as I can recall), “that look on her face, and concerning an issue that’s greater than party politics: ‘This village may not survive,” did she learn anything from that? Did it cause her to question Chavismo? That look sure suggested it.”

Rodriguez Rios said it did not. “It’s still convenient for her to back the party.” And so it continues. The film is “dedicated to the people of Congo Mirador, wherever you are.” The Sundance film festival program notes describes Rodriguez Rios as a “Venezuelan filmmaker … based in Vienna.”

June 29, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Clint trolls Hollywood

1517 lead
THE 15:17 TO PARIS (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2018, 6)

This is the cinematic equivalent of Eastwood’s speech “to a chair” at the 2012 Republican National Convention: bizarre in concept, off-putting and “off” in some ways, but fascinating in retrospect and/or if you get on its wavelength.

To let y’all in on a little secret that had something to do with how I reacted to THE 15:17 TO PARIS: I went into the film not-knowing that Eastwood had cast the actual three men who foiled a jihad attack on the Amsterdam-to-Paris train to play themselves (as adults) in this biopic/dramatization. So when I was sitting through the credits and under “Starring” was the actual names of the three heroes, I was stunned. The mind drifted to Audie Murphy, and I wish I had the familiarity with his career, beyond its existence and the fact that his first role was his own biopic TO HELL AND BACK, needed to make an intelligent or in-depth comparison. But the all-surface performances of these three men (it can easily be taken for simply bad acting) now gained a layer of meaning, plus a kind of “necessity” justification.

The chairworthy concept for Eastwood is to troll liberal Hollywood with the Most Problematic Movie Ever, within the limits of the old-fashioned Code-era film (i.e., no sex or gratuitous violence). The sheer volume of Problematics makes it obvious Clint is doing this deliberately, as he is piling it on beyond the possibility of inadvertence. This is a movie where conservative values (I’m dealing in very broad strokes obviously; assume I know this) are assumed as natural in a way that even I can’t see them that way, as much as I believe them.

We get a scene in Rome in which the boys are invited to A Night of Decadence (something close to that; I can’t be certain and I didn’t write it down as I thought I had) and Eastwood’s camera hugs the thigh and skirtline of the actress inviting the men. Not only is this Problematic but then, in a shocking elision for 2018, we never actually SEE the presumed orgy despite its later being made explicit they went. Meanwhile, religion and the military and masculinity and nationalism are treated entirely without irony or contempt or with anything somehow darkening. The very first scene is about a teacher wanting to medicate two boys, taking what an earlier era saw as normal male rambunctiousness or wanderlust as something to destroy, by science if necessary. The scene ends with the line “my God is greater than your statistics” and this is presented as #SickBurn. The line sounds practiced, and in a way it is, but entirely consistent with actual talk in an era that is entirely mediated, even in Christian circles (hence, among other things, all the name drops of technology). The boys play war games using fake guns, and it’s portrayed as exhilarating and making them want the real thing, wall posters and all. One of the boys even shows another a real gun, and … nothing bad happens (as is almost always the case, BTW). Even the Afghanistan war is presented as boredom-fueled Skype sessions and a semi-humorous lost-rucksack episode, with nobody getting blown up or shot at or going loco.

1517 selfie

Anthony Sadler, Alex Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone all play themselves in pure bro terms, avatars of Toxic Masculinity and without self-doubt. Keith Phipps at Uproxx (the first review I read) complained that the latter part of the film spends too much time as a vacation movie, showing them cavort and selfie-stick their way around Europe without conflict. He’s not exactly wrong and I wouldn’t dispute that there’s more of it than is strictly dramatically necessary. But the point of all this is to establish them as Ugly Americans, tourists exuding privilege as it drips off their fingers without a thought. You kinda have to “overdo” that before it becomes annoying.

All this to say that typical “Hollywood” artist or viewer of prestige movies (or dare I say, critic) should be not-liking Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone. Until … we get to the scene where we need their heroism.

kipling_RudyardIt’s common (not universal) in militaries to hold civilian values in contempt as parasitic ingratitude, or, as Kipling put it to Orwell’s later cheer, “makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” But the martial virtues, on which heroism depends, don’t come in a vacuum. Like all virtues, they are habits and have to be inculcated and prepared for. My then-confessor once said to me “you give up meat on Friday not because meat is bad or it’s a great sacrifice (neither is true) but because denying your bodily passions must first be done often and in easy things so you might do it occasionally in harder things.”

To bring this back to THE 15:17 TO PARIS, this explains the odd structure of the film. There are a couple of flash-forwards accompanying a highly teleologized story of these men’s boyhoods and teen years and early adulthood, everything leading up to the few minutes on that Paris train, which, by itself, doesn’t provide nearly enough material for a feature film. But the scene of not hiding under the desk, the jujitsu training, the prayers, the war games, the uncomplicated characterization, the desire to be “called” to heroism … it’s all about how “the Great War was won on the fields of Eton” and all that. The fact the three men are playing themselves … doesn’t critically-immunize it, exactly, but it definitely establishes that this image I’m describing is how they see/saw themselves. THE 15:17 TO PARIS is an unapologetic presentation (not even really a “defense”; there’s not really an antagonist) of “outdated” values. No doubt about it.

But while the concept and architecture and positioning of THE 15:17 TO PARIS is a 9, especially when made in 2018 by a legendary auteur some of whose recent work gets leftist praise as contrary to his screen image … the film outside the concept and architecture and positioning is just a 5. Since I mostly care about the experience of what’s on the screen … I did the math.

1517 jihadiThere are mistakes even within Eastwood’s schema. The parade at the end is just excessive — we’ve already seen the French president (France! The home of freedom fries, people!!) pay homage to these unproblematized all-American dudebros wearing polo shirts to a medal ceremony filled with military pomp; you don’t need more. The professional actors surrounding the three protagonists (I’m setting aside the three who portray them as boys, who are quite good) are actually giving lesser performances. And the score is insistent and overdone. I’m fine with portraying the ISIS jihadi as other and showing him praying and doing an ablution before starting on bis rampage; I didn’t need or want the ominous minor-key thumping.

1517 military

But at the end of the day, teleological storytelling, however it can be justified in retrospect, still comes across as obvious. Simple characterization, however it can be justified in retrospect, still comes across as obvious. Self-regarding acting, however it can be justified in retrospect, still comes across as obvious. Trolling liberal audiences and critics, however it can be justified as righteous and good, still comes across as … not enough. I’m genuinely 50-50 torn between cackling gleefully at liberal critics having to sit through THE 15:17 TO PARIS as “what I have to sit through EVERY FUCKING TIME” and “NOW do you get it?” sympathy for liberal critics having to sit through THE 15:17 TO PARIS as “what I have to sit through EVERY FUCKING TIME”

The problem is that drama relies on conflict, on uncertainty, on people making mistakes (by some or other light), on values clashing. The first three of those things have all been Old Hat since Aristotle, and I’m confident he’d at least acknowledge the fourth if he were among us today. In Aristotle’s sense, there is very little drama in THE 15:17 TO PARIS.

Its being based on a real-life story we all know inherently works against any tension or suspense, but Eastwood’s last two films, SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER, had that same “problem” … and he found other drama — in the post-flight hearings and in Kyle as a man dealing with his “heroism.” I genuinely believe the latter film among the most important “bridge-building” films between Red and Blue America, but only because both colors can approach the film on something like their own terms. THE 15:17 TO PARIS doesn’t do that, which is why it’s a lesser film than SNIPER.

But this is the problem with all trolling and with all message movies, 90 percent of which hawk left-wing values (at this point, the 10 percent is at hand). A Message is inimical to conflict if a film-maker is convinced his message is natural, whether his message is red-state martial virtue, Black Lives Matter or Me Too. I once said not-facetiously on a private film-buff board that I’m not per-se interested in movies against racism (whatever “racism” might mean) unless and until a movie for racism is thinkable. This is, ultimately, why it matters that the entertainment industry has become a bubblized virtue-signaling monoculture. It limits the movies that get made. It also “justifies” trolling back as a response — and not just in the field of movies.

February 11, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jake LaMotta and RAGING BULL

When I learned this afternoon about the death of Jake LaMotta, my thoughts naturally turned to RAGING BULL. I can’t think of another case where an athlete’s image is so thoroughly the result of a formally-fictional biopic about him. RAGING BULL is one of my all-time favorite films (Top 20 list here). I’ve seen it 14 or 15 times, and I once tweeted that it’s a 129-minute film that feels like 29.

I jokingly refer to myself on my Twitter bio as “the Jake LaMotta of #FilmTwitter,” a reference to my late-in-life hobby and more. The first time I ever sparred, I went 4 rounds with a professional Muay Thai fighter​, obviously a vastly superior man who was holding back more than I even realized at the time. I went up to him after the last bell and said, Jake-style, “you never got me down, Nate … you never got me down.” He laughed indulgently.

This scene here that I’ve linked, of the Janiro-LaMotta fight, not only was the moment I said to myself on first viewing “this movie is great,” but it shows how Scorsese’s knowledge and ignorance of boxing both contribute to the film. He has openly said that he doesn’t enjoy the sport and that making RAGING BULL and getting to know LaMotta IRL didn’t change that. But look at the technique here … the goosing of the soundtrack especially. This is as primal and raw as a bare-chested activity needs to be. And when Jake knocks down Janiro, the camera starts tilting and follows Janiro down to the canvas. When you fall over dizzy, whether from a punch or otherwise, the sensation isn’t “me falling over” but “the floor coming up at me,” a sensation Scorsese’s tilt produces. Genius.

200px-LaMotta,_JakeOn the other hand, about Scorsese’s ignorance, the fight is played as a KO and as Jake torturing Janiro. Which isn’t what happened — it went the full 10 rounds to a decision (a fact you can just hear on the soundtrack, but that’s not how the images play). While LaMotta was obviously a great fighter, a world champion, he wasn’t the feared KO artist Scorsese paints him as. And Janiro was too good a fighter to be manhandled like LaMotta is shown doing. But for the purposes of the movie’s drama, it doesn’t matter. The scene is not about a fight as an athletic contest (or even a personal grudge). “The Janiro fight scene” is about Jake being so pathologically jealous that an offhand comment from his wife that an opponent was “a good-looking boy” would prompt him to needlessly punish a wholly innocent man as an object lesson. Notice who Jake is smiling at at the end of this scene. That’s what matters. Indeed, while RAGING BULL is in fact the greatest sports movie ever, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that it isn’t “really” a sports movie at all because the outcome of the Big Game / Fight etc., isn’t what the film is about or aiming toward, or even really contribute all that much to what it IS about.

Even before LaMotta’s death today, I can’t think of the last act of RAGING BULL, roughly everything after the last Sugar Ray fight, without tears welling up. It may be the most profound movie about sin, ever, because Jake’s post-ring collapse is so utterly deserved, and he KNOWS it. His punching the jail-cell wall, and ruining his fists, is obviously a highly symbolic form of self-abuse but people do that when they hit rock-bottom. And the “reconciliation” with Joey is perfectly played, with DeNiro all puppy-dog eager and Pesci polite but stand-offish — never saying “yes” or “no.” Whether it’s from residual fraternal love or fear based on what had happened earlier is … uncertain. Exactly. RAGING BULL is the story of a bad man whose sins ruin him, leave him wanting and needing redemption, but never certain if it has come. IOW, RAGING BULL is the story of man.

“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know. All I know is once I was blind and now I can see.”

RIP, Jake.

September 20, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Victor picks fights


TOUGH GUYS (Henry Roosevelt and WB Zullo, USA, 2017) 5
THE CAGE FIGHTER (Jeff Unay, USA, 2017) 8

Did the phrase “in the tank” specifically originate in combat sports … trying to avoid a Scott Renshaw #Hackstamp here. Regardless, it fits TOUGH GUYS, which is the sort of retrospective personality-profile, “slice of history” documentary that suffers from excessive closeness to the subjects and, relatedly, efforts to puff up their historic importance. In the late-70s and early-80s Frank Caliguri and Bill Viola promoted a series of “tough guys” contests, which put ordinary men without formal training or experience into the ring, under “no holds barred” rules that allowed ground fighting and kicking as well as boxing (to this aficionado, it was a little unclear in the details, but no mind).

Indeed, if you google the words (without quote marks) “tough guys documentary,” the first hit as I type now is to a Variety article about Morgan Spurlock joining the project. Both the headline and the lead say TOUGH GUYS is about the origins of mixed martial arts, a claim the film itself makes (“proto UFC,” “a decade ahead of Dana White,” that kind of thing). While that kind of big-talk ridiculously overstates the historical role that Caliguri and Viola played, it IS the kind of self-aggrandizing claims common to both ad-copy writers and combat-sports promoters. Among many historical objections — it goes unmentioned that “NHB fights” were a mainstream sport in Brazil and Japan (plus the BLOODSPORT “kumite”) before the UFC; the film grossly oversimplifies on several levels the state-sanctioning issues involved (or not); and the historic line is fuzzy from here to the UFC, which began with “style-vs-style” hype and which tried to get world-class wrestlers, kickboxers, judokas, etc., not guys off the street.

The best parts of TOUGH GUYS, and the reason I can’t dismiss it entirely, is that “guys off the street” element. Caliguri and Viola are clearly “characters” as are the fighters interviewed now, 40 years later. The film also does a good job of juxtapose different memories — everybody thinks he won every fight, and the directors cut from “I landed a big bomb” [Cut] “one lucky punch didn’t hurt” type talk. Old though they are, the fighters are also peppery enough to talk shit at each other and demand rematches. “Mad Dog” Danny makes you think it’s not a metaphor when he talks about his rival Frank Tigano. And let’s just say there’s a hilarious story involving the Maf… a man with connections.

TOUGH GUYS also gets a bit more critical and less rah-rah later in its third “act,” but even then it pulls its punches (sorry … #Hackstamp). The decline of the promotion begins with a ring fatality that prompted a state-sanctioning crackdown on NHB fighting, the inevitable byproduct of untrained men fighting. But it’s quickly pointed out that the fatality that fueled a crackdown on NHB fighting happened at a rival “Toughman” promotion, led by Art Dore. The film plays Dore, whose men fought under boxing rules and who was involved in the roughly contemporaneous semi-promo fiction film TOUGH ENOUGH, as the supervillain of the story. Look at the lighting scheme as he chomps on a cigar in his office — subtle TOUGH GUYS ain’t.

The film raises the obvious moral question, besides those inherent to combat sports, only to drop it. One of TOUGH GUYS’ strengths is that it very specifically situates the promotion in the Pennsylvania rust-belt of the late-70s and early-80s, saying that steel mills, coalmines, dockyards, etc., bred the kind of layman who fights just to prove he’s the toughest man in the room. But that era’s economic depression and stripping away of jobs made such men desperate for the cash being dangled by Viola and Caliguri. And most of the men didn’t get it — we see contemporaneous local-news footage of battered faces saying they needed the money. Viola and Caliguri meanwhile each buy a Lincoln with cash. The film notes the discrepancy and some talking heads (not overly sympathetic ones, BTW) make the obvious charges of exploitation … and the film hurriedly moves on. Afraid of landing a punch too hard.

Which brings me to THE CAGE FIGHTER, the seeing of which the afternoon after watching TOUGH GUYS, was critically clarifying on two levels.

First of all, my reaction to each gave me confidence re my reaction to the other. I was neither “putting out” for one film about my non-cinema hobby¹, nor being needlessly insidery-critical about the other. Second, it provides (redundant) confirmation that what I prize in movies (these are my hermeneutic glasses; sorry, folks wearing other specks) is the specific, the personal, the realistic. TOUGH GUYS is a retrospective historical film, largely consisting of talking heads describing “what we did back then” (there is footage of the circa-1980 fights, but it’s so sparse the film even resorts to present-day re-enactors). THE CAGE FIGHTER is an observational, present-tense film, following one man (one family actually), a man whose type I’ve interacted with going in, and whom I felt I knew by the end. That’s in a Bazinian’s wheelhouse.

Joe Carman is pushing 40 and not only will clearly never hit the big time but just as clearly will never be able to support himself by fighting. Nor does THE CAGE FIGHTER goose things — he wins and loses during the film, and not in ways predictable from the “fight film” / original ROCKY / THE WRESTLER template that this film, speaking broadly, is working off of.

Unay follows Joe for what must be a couple of years and the principal drama concerns his family, which opposes his “career,” such as it is. Or isn’t. And that’s what gives the film tension. It’s easy to say, in re a hypothetical film about Anderson Silva’s family, that the wife and kids should just STFU and enjoy the mansion. But THIS guy?

And that family tension raises formal questions too. The best parts of CAGE FIGHTER, the scenes that make it near-great, are family quarrels, scenes in which you wonder, “why is nobody turning to the camera and saying ’stop recording’?” There is one scene in which two of Joe’s four daughters tearfully quarrel in the parking lot in the way that only children of a divorce or difficult marriage can — one siding with Mom, the other with Dad. And another involving Joe and his own parents that draws blood on multiple levels — you can’t punch even the most punchable of fathers, but the mother still is obliged to keep the peace.

Indeed, one of the raps against the film is that certain scenes appear contrived. My buddy Mark Pfeiffer said CAGE FIGHTER looked like a fiction film in need of a more-polished screenplay. And I’d shudder to think what Mike D’Angelo, who has complained about *early Wiseman* films on “why are these people acting like the camera isn’t around?” grounds, would make of CAGE FIGHTER. And here I think there is a further worthwhile critical point. People have changed, “thanks” to the era of reality TV. Yes, Mark, if CAGE FIGHTER were a fiction film, we’d think the “screenplay” somewhat lumpy. And yes, 51-year-old Victor says to 49-year-old Mike, neither of us would act out our family daemons like this in the presence of the world. But 2010s people have lived their whole lives in a wholly-mediated environment, and expect everybody to know everything, and think nothing of sexting and sending dick pics and beaver shots. Remember how in THE BREAKFAST CLUB (released the year I graduated high school), Ally Sheedy scandalizes Anthony Michael Hall by revealing he has a beaver shot in his wallet. Meh (#2017Tweets).

As to why it’s not a 9 — CAGE FIGHTER seems to be leaving some stuff out. Joe has a legal case involving an unseen ex-wife and two daughters, the details and issues of which might politely be called “murky.” It’s presented here as “his family abandons him” … which is true and apropos. But I wanted more. And the last scene … (vague spoilery talk) I get why it’s there thematically. Fighting and family are (kinda) united. But … the second-to-last scene is so great I wanted it to be the walk-off. Every man who’s touched gloves with another man or who has cried at FAT CITY or who has thought that the grass is greener on the other side … this is our scene.
¹ Can’t say I wasn’t amused by the Variety review in which the writer de facto admits he knows nothing about MMA, stating that a groin strike “appears to be perfectly legal.” A man needn’t be an expert in a subject matter to review a documentary on it — indeed inexpertise can even offer advantages. But one wishes such people would thereby avoid pronouncing on the subject matter.

June 23, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Corneliu Porumboiu agrees with Victor

Speaking in abstract generalities, I ascribe to the theory that artists aren’t the definitive interpreters of their work. I don’t go postmodern whole hog and thus say the text has no inherent meaning. I revert to a more pragmatic basis … artists are often expressing things they only half-understand; many are personally inarticulate; and some have intellectual reservations about stating matters explicitly and/or in the medium of written criticism. NEVERTHELESS … it is a huge personal coup to have an major artist whom you love agree with a critical theory that you have about one of his works, especially if it be the kind of Wack Idea that you’re semi-embarrassed by.

Many years ago, I wrote that Corneliu Porumboiu’s POLICE ADJECTIVE is a dramatization of Michel Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge. I articulate the theory at length here, in a capsule written a week after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009.  In shorter form here, the film is about how discourse, what Foucault called power-knowledge, shapes the conscience, represses experience, and even turns experience into something usable for the purposes of power. (That all makes sense if you’ve read Foucault and/or seen POLICE, ADJECTIVE; if not, my apologies.)

VictorWithPorumboiuPorumboiu was at a screening at the National Gallery of Art earlier today of Adrian Sitaru’s THE FIXER, kicking off a Romanian series playing at NGA and AFI Silver over the next month (Romania’s ambassador was also in attendance and spoke at the start). After the Q-and-A, I went up to him and got this picture taken and asked him about my theory. In order to avoid the self-parodic-critic vice of making a lengthy boring speech, I asked him succinctly “I have a question about POLICE ADJECTIVE — have you read much Michel Foucault?” He said he had and nodded with a slight smile. I said, “I have a theory that I won’t bore you with in the details, but the film has struck me as cinematic Foucault because [what I wrote in the previous paragraph]. Am I full of crap?” He said, “not at all.” He then went on to say that he deliberately included the shots of the written police reports and their reading to emphasize them as the official record. Which was, within the limits of his English and everybody’s oral improvisation, basically what I wrote here:

Porumboiu fills up the screen two or three times with pages from Christi’s police report and reads them aloud. The scenes feel inert as they impart no information we haven’t seen, and they also feel reductive and bureaucratically plain. But that’s their function in POLICE, ADJECTIVE: to replace the experience we’ve had with an official discourse about it that will become the basis of everything that follows.

He even agreed to my replying that these readings go on too long for the purposes of “drama,” but are perfectly timed for the purpose they serve here. The two or three Romanians who heard this conversation seemed to agree also. As I said, I’d stand by my theory even if Porumboiu said “Michelle Who?” But this still feels like vindication.
Despite the direct quote marks, all quotes are obviously reconstructed from memory sitting at a bar an hour later, waiting for UFC fights. Relatedly, this is the world’s only MMA gym T-shirt / Corneliu Porumboiu photo.

May 13, 2017 Posted by | Corneliu Porumboiu | Leave a comment

Robert McDermott, 1960-2015

The man who partially inspired my latest life turn has died. My mother told me Saturday that her youngest brother, my uncle Robert, had succumbed in Glasgow to a virulent cancer that had just recently spread to his brain.

According to my mother, who was 16 when Robert McDermott was born, he was the baby brother whose nappies she would change and she became, as often happens with the eldest children in large families, a de facto parent.

When my sister and I were young, uncle Robert would sometimes look after us (as would my other aunts and uncles despite some of their youngish ages — uncle Robert was only six years older than I). But he was the “fun uncle,” who’d let you do things your parents mightn’t. Who’d let you wade in the burn (creek) you weren’t supposed to go to. Also, and more relevantly today for me, uncle Robert was a champion boxer. As the chubby “wee professor” bookworm I was, and on which track I’ve lived my adult life, I envied that. In addition to my Muhammad Ali fandom, uncle Robert made a boxing fan for life, something that I think comes across even in my film writings.

Uncle Robert fought for the Scottish national team as an amateur, including at the European Games. He won an award named for 1970s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan, as Scotland’s top boxing prospect. Apropos of that, the Daily Record did a center-page spread showing him in a ring corner, in his gear, surrounded by all eight of his sisters who still lived in Scotland. But at least a couple of his trophies and medals he gave to my mother, who had emigrated by this time. After we left, she would frequently talk about trying to bring him to America, where there’s much more money and potential for glory in professional boxing.

While that never came about, he did turn professional and had a decent career over there. Here is the only tape of him fighting that I know exists in public — it’s 1980s-vintage video and is of a whole card. His fight starts just after the 28:30 mark and lasts 6 rounds to a decision.

Uncle Robert got as far as a British bantamweight-title eliminator — a “winner gets the next shot at the reigning champion” fight. He got his nose broken in that fight en route to a 10th-round KO loss. His conqueror, Dave McAuley, went on to become a British and world champion. Only two other men stopped him — one went on to become a British champion, the other a world champion. But his career was hampered and eventually cut short by drugs and crime. He talks about that part freely here.

I’ve mentioned in vague terms, here and elsewhere, that my extended family and the law haven’t always been on the most cordial of terms (and no, I won’t go into further detail than saying my uncle Robert wasn’t the only one to do hard time). While I can truthfully say along those lines that I’m thereby not sorry I left Glasgow, I still envied my uncle the “hard man.”

Over the last few years, some changes in my life priorities have happened, in part because of uncle Robert the hard man. While by anybody’s definition, I’m still an obsessive cinephile — I depart in a couple of weeks on a 3,000-mile flight for a festival of 85- 90- and 100-year-old movies that don’t even talk, it’s become relatively less important to me. What has become my life’s avocation is becoming a fighter, at whatever level of success I can achieve.

Now … I’m no under no illusion that, at just a few weeks short of 49 years old as I type, I could ever become a full professional, much less one as successful as uncle Robert. But a few years ago, I weighed 250 pounds and a couple of things happened, one of which was watching two UFC fighters on TV, both flyweights, both standing 5-4 — my height. The mixed-martial-arts flyweight limit is 125, so I weighed as much as these two men put together. And comfortably more than twice the fighting weight of the only pro boxer I knew; uncle Robert fought as a bantamweight (118) and flyweight (112).

It’s taken about three years to get where I am now, with fits and starts, in part because at the start I was too out of shape to get in shape. I walked into an MMA gym and left in humiliation after a week because I felt like the fifthest fifth wheel in history. So I took things slowly because I had to. And to be honest, I started with the modest goal of simply not becoming unhealthy over it. I now weigh a little over 140 pounds, with 15 more pounds to go before I’ll be satisfied with my weight loss. First diet-only, then cardio, then weightlifting and now boxing. For the past year and a half, I’ve had a gym membership and about half that period, I’ve trained with a pro fighter — first on the punching bag and pad drills, now sparring more-or-less weekly.

BloodyFaceNow I can run 2 miles in 20 minutes, and longer than that at a slower “jog” pace. I have defined shoulder, chest and arm muscles and routinely visible veinage. I can box on the heavy bag for an hour and can spar with my trainer for five or six 3-minute rounds. I can land punches on him, and take punishment without too much cowering or blinking. In the attached photo, my trainer noticed I was bleeding before I did and took this photo at round’s end. I insisted we keep going for the rest of the scheduled rounds. He obviously holds back his power a bit (maybe a lot; hell if I can tell now), while I don’t/can’t really. But a pro fighter is a pro fighter. He obviously still dominates our sparring and he’d stiffen me inside a minute if he fought 100%, but I can actually make him fight hard and sweat. My trainer thinks my goal of fighting a live fight in 2016 and being competitive, even if (especially if) it’s only in the “Old Boys” division, is very doable. I now post a video channel of myself sparring with him (and losing, but still … here’s one round embedded)

To bring this back to uncle Robert — however much one tells oneself not to let your imagination run wild with grandiose ambitions (and even if you largely succeed), you get “some day …” dreams. I had one regarding boxing and him. Had I gotten into the ring and had at least some success at the start, I would have brought him over here for a few days so he could see his “brainbox nephew” fight, as he did. And I don’t mean if I had big success anything approaching what he had … just enough to know I wouldn’t fold like many men do upon entering the ring for real, a possibility which I obviously still cannot exclude regarding myself. I wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself and/or waste his time. When I told my mother of this plan several weeks ago, she told me the then-recent bad news about uncle Robert’s cancer. I said I hoped he could see my videos, but she told me he already was going blind and would soon be put in hospice care away from Internet access. She did tell me that she had told him of what I’d been doing in the previous couple months and told him of the bloody-face photo. His reply (and my mind’s ear can play uncle Robert saying it) was “aye … well he better get used to that if he wants to get good.” I can tell myself he’d seen me and approved.

RIP, uncle Robert.

May 17, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | 12 Comments

NYFF 2014 — Day 4


MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014, 8)

Mike Leigh has been known for decades now as a great director of actors (perhaps the best in contemporary cinema) and as a depictor of working-class life — as a visual stylist, not so much. But MR. TURNER is his first film that you can truthfully say is worth looking at regardless of what’s happening, filled with lovely shots that deservedly won cinematographer Dick Pope a jury award at Cannes. The opening shot sets the stage by moving from peasants walking beside a sunset and happening to cross (unknown to them) an artist, the titular J.M.W. Turner, painting the scene. Over and over again, we see shots of rooms with windows in the rear, to let the sun stream in and sometimes we see the same composition but with a fireplace playing the sun’s role. The death of Turner’s father, for example, is conspicuously lit only with a couple of onscreen candles and we see their effects. There’s also beautifully-lit idylls, iconographic ones, of boating down the Thames, of the White Cliffs of Dover. A theory of art history even works its way in as Turner thinks photography may have made him obsolete and so his work becomes less representational. But at the same time, dramatically, there’s an exact and exacting depiction of what ordinary and material life of the 1830s was like and differed from the 2010s — things like artistic debtors, modes of courtship, etc. I’d be curious what the Heidegger who wrote about “A Pair of Shoes” would make of MR TURNER. Leigh and Pope have pushed a self-consciously painterly style into a kind of period realism that, a couple of exceptions aside, cinema resists because, in order to look natural, photography requires an unnatural light that only modernity has. But the sun is arguably the star of MR TURNER, the biopic of a man whose last words were “the sun is God.”

One easy, natural thing to do, indeed I’ve already done it to an extent, is to identify an offscreen auteur with an onscreen artist, Leigh with Turner in this case. But I would hesitate to go too far. While the cinematography can evoke a “painterly” style, the film could not follow the trajectory of Turner’s career as it moves on. Not while remaining a commercially releasable motion picture anyway. Such a strategy would require mimicking Turner’s later shifts into abstraction and proto-impressionism.

Equally easy it is to compare a film like this to the auteur’s previous “artist biography” film, TOPSY TURVY here. I think TOPSY TURVY the better film, though I resisted it for years for reasons not worth rehearsing here (suffice to say I liked TURNER better on first viewing than I did the Gilbert and Sullivan pic). And I think the earlier film’s greatness highlights TURNER’s only real weakness. There is nothing like the staging of THE MIKADO to give the second half of MR TURNER shape and pull-through, once the “world-building” of the first hour is over. Even when they’re as episodic as this one though, Leigh films usually build the episodes into an explosion — look at the climactic quarrels in ALL OR NOTHING, LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES and HAPPY GO LUCKY for example. Here … no. The conventions of the Life Of The Artist biopic, which were circumscribed earlier by THE MIKADO, take over the structure and MR TURNER just continues until Turner dies (um … spoiler for a film about a man born in the 1770s).

Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting will be superb in every respect … but one or two. Spall is of course great … [grunt]. It’s an easy performance to mock or parody I’ve gathered. But one measure of its greatness is that Spall must give 20 different grunts that mean 20 different things in context, all of them perfectly clear. That number is obviously an imprecise guess but it realio trulio is not hyperbole; Spall is that good a grunter. And it’s not played for laughs; it’s just the communications mode for a man of few words. The “but” caveat applies here too of course — mistress Ruth Sheen comes across as a right cow, regardless of her character’s legitimate grievance against Turner. And the critic is too foppish and dilletantish to take seriously. The right temperature to grow “goozberries”? Really, Michael? How can a critical favorite like Leigh dislike critics as he seems to — see TOPSY TURVY also here.

Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so “irrelevant” set pieces (often involving one of his stock company in a one-scene role) will be superb in every respect as well. Miss Summerville’s magnet experiment, the thumbprint method of criticism, the Purcell duet, “The Maid of the Hill” — I’ve provided Skandie-friendly Best Scene titles, no thanks needed. Until late January.


INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, 2)

This film is a mess. And I’m not a maid.

October 7, 2014 Posted by | NYFF 2014 | | 2 Comments

NYFF 2014 — Day 3


THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014, 5)

For the nation that revered and recognized Hitchcock as a great artist before either of his own countries did, the French seem to have remarkable difficulty actually enacting his own lessons on how to make great thrillers. THE BLUE ROOM also has the pedigree of being adapted from a novel by France’s own great thriller-writer Georges Simenon. And the thundering brass score by echoes Waxman, Herrmann and others who did some of their best work for The Master. The squarish academy-ratio frame and the moody lighting raises confidence in director-star Mathieu Amalric. But, like many of Claude Chabrol’s films IMHO, THE BLUE ROOM just lacks juice and drive, ending up being the kind of film Hitchcock said he detested … the whodunit.

Amalric starts off with the right elements, an instantly recognizable star (himself) in danger with the police and priggish authorities, as he claims an innocence they don’t believe. But there’s really no suspense in the film’s because so many of the Hitchcock elements are missing — the chase / protagonist in danger (Amalric is varyingly in jail, prison and trial court as legal proceedings go on); the villain (oh there is one eventually, but only after we learn the whole story … which means it’s a waste); the Maguffin (instead the film strip-teases plot points that happened before the film starts and which the characters generally know but get deliberately withheld from us).

And that last hints at something else fundamental wrong with THE BLUE ROOM. It’s something even more problematic than a whodunit … a dunwhat in this case too … the film’s unpeeling of the narrative onion even teases us with ambiguous clues about what the crime was and exactly the charge. Hitch also said, in his Truffaut interview, that whenever possible, the audience should know everything, and certainly at least as much as the characters do. BLUE ROOM though is just an exercise in keeping us in the dark trying to figure out what the hades is the story here (I was convinced for a time it was child sex-abuse charges during a bitter divorce).

Hitchcock is an absurdly high standard for direction of course, but Amalric’s realisation doesn’t match the material enough here. It’s functional but merely that — and also a bit hide-bound and frankly rather stagy as much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms. There have been two very good recent French thrillers made from Simenon novels — MONSIEUR HIRE and the Cedric Kahn RED LIGHTS. And in both cases, you had free protagonists, in danger, doing something about it to dig themselves in deeper, temptation to do wrong, and some really stylish directorial chops. In other words … the exact elements missing here.


THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014, 4)

THE WONDERS is one of those film so muted that it scarcely exists. Reviewing it at all and trying to have any sort of emotional reaction to it feels almost impolite, like someone stomping on the eggshells everyone else is politely tiptoeing around, from fear of waking each other up. This strategy won a second prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury.

THE WONDERS is autobiographical, set on an Italian bee farm depicting a family resembling the auteur’s own and with the matriarch played by the director’s sister. But it’s so terribly absorbed in the details of the world it depicts, it forgets to make them compelling or dramatic to an outsider. No protagonist really stands out … a reform-school guy enters foster care with the family (largely for economic reasons) but he shakes up little. He’s supposedly German but looks as German as Manute Bol which is possible but it makes his saying nothing in German or anything else suspicious. Some things happen — two accidents, one involving a hand, the other a spill but, with one exception, nothing builds. There’s a trick involving one of the girls spilling bees out of her mouth onto her face that makes a great party gag.

The closest THE WONDERS comes to a throughline (and the source of its title) is a family effort pushed by the daughters to get on a cheesy Italian-TV reality show about the most-authentic rustic least-corporate farm. Monica Bellucci as the vulgarly gussied up hostess commits to the cheese but director Rohrwacher won’t, unlike Garrone in REALITY or Fellini in GINGER AND FRED. It’s as if she believes pleasure and drive are themselves suspect. Oh … and did I say there’s a two-humped camel in there somewhere? It’s as forgotten as anything else in this uninflected slice of life that believes in that adjective a little too devoutly. Uninflection is fine in the details; but not as the main course.


THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951, 9)

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is not a perfect film — like most classic operas, its story (or here “stories”) is dramatically thin and contrived, and some little part of me will always rebel against opera in English (and only somewhat from snobbish purism; opera singing isn’t intended for clarity but in a foreign-language opera you’ll at least get subtitles). And I’m not unsympathetic to Pauline Kael’s criticism that the film is an attempt at “muchness” (my word) or an overload of craft credits that just “spread out the buffet” (hers). But what a buffet the Archers put on!? How many buffets have you gone to that are this rich, this appetizing and this varied? Even if you feel a bit gorged at the end, aren’t sure everything on the table worked for you, and are sure you’d rather have a perfectly planned three-course meal like LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, HOFFMANN is still a spread you won’t forget.

Like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (as I type they’re my two favorite films of the festival), TALES OF HOFFMANN is not only like nothing you’ve ever seen (and the two films have the same amount of naturally-spoken diegetic dialog — zero), but it’s also a film that proceeds as if Griffith had never invented the dominant narrative cinema. As POMEGRANATES attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of medieval painting on film, HOFFMANN tries to achieve Wagner’s insane ambition of the total art work (I’m not pretentious enough to look up the German term) — fusing poetry, song, painting and dance into one unified whole.

HOFFMANN’s three stories are all tragic romances involving the titular character and his loves; most of the sweet tragedy falling on her (“well whaddidja expect at an opera … a HAPPY ending?”). When you consider that and Powell’s later solo film PEEPING TOM, the ending of the Olympia Tale becomes curiouser and curiouser in its total perversity, a bald description of which would make it sound like a disgusting 2014 slasher film. And yet, because (and *unlike* PEEPING TOM) the act is so hyper-aestheticized, it actually becomes kind of funny. It’s not an actual woman like Moira Shearer being dismembered and torn apart on camera but a puppet. And the moment is fairly set up because throughout HOFFMANN, the characters act like puppets and are treated as such, both when they are and when they aren’t. There’s a Looney Tunes quality to the whole exercise, a film in which viewers’ necks will stretch into impossible shapes and the decorations on the side of beer steins will jump off the mugs and do a dance that takes over the film for a couple minutes for no dramatically relevant or important reason at all.

To partially agree with another common criticism, HOFFMANN is a rather chilly film, compared to RED SHOES, but there was some unexpected heart here in a recurring androgynous “boy” figure, played by Pamela Brown, in a bit of a Girl Friday role. She gets the rare privilege of becoming the center of a love duet (in the third Tale, Antonia) without singing a note. The Archers film the scene in long shot with proscenium framing but she stubbornly stays in the background for the whole thing, rather than exuenting backstage, as convention requires. And gets a closeup at the end. She’s the eternal longing audience, looking at the spectacle like an unrequited lover. And have I mentioned the color and decor and singing here? Guilty, your worship, of the capital offense of burying the lead. The sheer dazzling inventiveness of the color is by itself worth the price of admission, a New York Film Festival non-member admission even. Gotta love a film that anticipates Lebron James pregame chalk routine by about 60 years. And also gotta love the rare chance to see an opera film that uses properly trained opera singers (some merely dubbing, some acting onscreen as well), even if that means you can sometimes see rather poor, sometimes nonexistent but inconsistently so, attempts at lip-synching. As I said it’s not a perfect film, but as Kael herself put it … it’s like worrying about whether KING LEAR being well-constructed. It doesn’t matter; it’s an unforgettable experience regardless.

October 6, 2014 Posted by | NYFF 2014 | | Leave a comment

NYFF 2014 — Day 2


DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgi Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969, 4)

I wonder if the Ma and Pa Kettle movies play like this when shown in Tblisi. Or perhaps more precisely, what if modern Greeks themselves had actually made (the film of) ZORBA THE GREEK. It’s very hard for me to judge this as a work of art or an entertainment to be honest — it made almost no impression on me, either positive or really all that negative. Not because DON’T GRIEVE is difficult or opaque in any way — it’s a straightforward peasant comedy about the 19th-century village doctor, who’s a slacker, and his encounters with the various townsfolk, all broad peasant / aristocrat / bourgeois types — the town drunk, the town tramp, the shrewish wife, the pompous lord. If you’re over 30 and culturally awake, you’ve seen this movie, even if you haven’t. I laughed a couple of times — a Chauceresque game of role reversal involving male-male ass-kissing or some other southern-region pucker-up (film leaves it vague; if you’re Georgian, you probably know which it is); there’s a couple attempts at pathos involving villagers sicknesses and the sorts of diagnoses doctors give in various tones of voice; and some mixing of the two, as in the climactic scene when a dying man insists of having his wake while alive. But DON’T GRIEVE too loosely plotted to really work as farce, too tonally uneven for tragedy (Chekhov did not include scenes of ass-kissing for a reason). I didn’t care about anything while I was watching it, and I’d’ve forgotten about it in a month under any circumstances. As it is, that time span will probably be about four hours because of the next film I saw, from more or less the same time and place … and THAT one was a mind-blowing masterpiece.


THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Armenia/Georgia], 1968, 9)

When I left the theater, I IM’d Steve Greydanus (a Catholic filmgeek bud who’s graciously letting me stay at his home thus making my NYFF week possible) that “I wish I could go back back in time and have made you see this with me, kidnapping you at gunpoint and forcing you in if necessary.” As great as, e.g., the Dardennes are, people have made films like theirs before. And probably will again; realism is ageless. But nobody has made a film, I am very confident in saying over all of David Hume’s objections, like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES. It really does have an aesthetic that assumes the rest of cinema history never happened. And according to an aesthetic I’d’ve wanted Steve to see — medieval visual art on film, in service of a liturgical “narrative.”

I put that word in quotes rather than call POMEGRANATES non-narrative, because it does purport to be about the life of Sayat Nova, a 17th century Armenian monk-poet-songwriter-troubadour. And it kinda does … it starts with him as boy, follows the stages of his life and career (boyhood, marriage, widowhood, the monastery, troubadour calling) unto his death, and elements of his poetry are spoken on the soundtrack. Traditional Armenian dances, liturgies and songs are presented. But as far as the conventionally “biopicky” elements go, this film makes ANDREI RUBLEV (also a 60s Soviet film about a monk / artist that paid little attention to the few known facts of his life) look like RAY or WALK THE LINE. Instead, POMEGRANATES is like leafing through a book of Eastern Christian tableaux and icons that happen to go in enough of an order that you can figure out the saint’s/artist’s life points. But there is literally not a single moment in POMEGRANATES where biographic storytelling is the privileged point (“and then this happened”) or which follow the conventions of realistic representation (that which, as a Bazinian, I believe cinema naturally bends toward). Instead, Paradjanov creates something truly and utterly unique, and truly medieval, even beyond Rohmer’s PERCEVAL or ASTREE AND CELADON.

ColorPomegranatesPerspextiveEverything in POMEGRANATES is presentational and performative, not representational or realistic. All the sound is nondiegetic, even when it appears to the contrary. There are no conversations. Nobody in the film acts or moves at all like a real person, instead usually looking right at the camera, full-frontal, or in stylized oblique poses. Instead, the logic is liturgical. When a confirmation-type rite is performed and St. George is invoked, St. George appears on his horse and rides through the tableau for no “reason” but truly present, as if incantation begets incarnation. Dance is used narratively, as in the courtship of his wife, in which red, black and white veils and costume ensembles shift and change with the moods and modes of desire. Some use of perspective is technologically unavoidable, but Paradjanov does his damnedest to fight it, flattening out the space and filling it wherever possible with depthless elements across the image, as if filling out a tableau or adding icon episodes (the camera needless to say never moves). His color scheme is also anti-perspective without being splashy — usually filling out the “background” or the base elements with a neutral or drab color like beige or gray while primary colors splash onto the space (literally in the opening sequence of multiple shades of red) and they accordingly pop out sharper and iconographically. Between the non-natural and sometimes non-existent sound, the non-natural color, and the non-natural space, literally every element is foregrounded (in both senses) until we’re not following life as a drama but looking at the images of a life (and listening to its sounds).

This is biopic as tone poem, an attempt to reproduce the poetry’s effects without slavishly reproducing the work itself. (I get why some folks thought I might hate this, but the film it most reminded me of is Andersson’s SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, POMEGRANATES being the product of a Christian society in a way SONGS is of a post-Christian one.) POMEGRANATES isn’t trying to produce Sayat Nova’s life but life as Sayat Nova saw it … one of the most effective psychological elements is the gap between the persona in the incantatory poetry (which feels a bit like an Armenian “King of Pain”) and the rich, surreal iconography on the screen. One of the earliest images is of a young boy crucified by books — that makes no sense, I know … but it does, here. I’m not sure I understood everything in POMEGRANATES — indeed I know I didn’t; too many of the details are obviously culturally specific for it to be otherwise to a non-Caucasian. But I always felt like I was getting enough and, more importantly, I also wanted to know more and was just dazzled by what I did understand. Ironically, the best possible companion piece to POMEGRANATES would be a SAYAT NOVA biopic directed by the Armenian John Madden.


HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Ben and Joshua Safdie, USA, 2014, 1)

Someone needs to put the Safdie brothers on Prozac or at least switch their regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf Crystals. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, an episodic film about a circle of smackheads on the New York streets, is one of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen, and I mean that adjective literally as well as the critical metaphor sense. The film is wall-to-wall people shouting at each other, over each other, at nobody in particular … especially when they’re told not to shout. The soundtrack is crammed with way-too-frequent doses of painfully tuneless noise that sounds like thrash metal without its tuneful harmonies and lyricism (I exaggerate not a bit). The sound mix is so over-the-top that if audience members were talking in the theater, it wouldn’t be a problem — you couldn’t hear them anyway. The shaky camera magnifies everything by (usually) staying close in to the characters and having very little focal depth, so much of the space on the screen is out-of-focus and you can’t avert your eyes. Just sharing the same theater space as this film is like reading a 5,000-word blog post in all caps — an existentially unpleasant experience that you just want to fucking end. There is a reason I don’t go to raves, blast krautrock at 12, or blog like FilmCriticHulk.

Now, I can groove to some extent with the existential-assault mode, being a big fan of IRRREVERSIBLE and all. But that film was artful and the noise was purposeful. Here, the effect is (a contrived notion of) artlessness, of gritty realism, and in the service of (non-)story and characters about whom I could not possibly give fewer fucks. On the former point, the film is a structural disaster it can only stop, a weakness which the Safdies realize by having someone talk over the closing credits. But it’s banal talk anyway … one of 8 billion reasons Mike Leigh is a genius is that as big an asshole as Johnny is in NAKED (which this film resembles in a lot of ways), he’s an articulate asshole. These people are just loud twits in love with the sound of their own loudness. I’m not appealing to the silly sense that characters must be “relatable” or we must like them as if they’d be our (potential) friends. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is about heroin junkies who live for and care only about their next fix. I get they won’t be model citizens and they’ll do some bad shit, but you need some reason to care more about them than they do about themselves, especially if they’re causing you discomfort. It’s just too MUCH … all flow and no ebb. When a person screams in public “suck my clit, asshole,” my patience with her is going to be rather thin and I’m not gonna sweat whether she slits her wrists, which of her junkie fuck toys she wants more at this hour, or her latest screaming jag.

October 3, 2014 Posted by | NYFF 2014 | | Leave a comment

NYFF 2014 — Day 1


THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014, 7)

Writing the same review twice never really works out, especially if they keep … pulling me … BACK IN. (OK … you have to imagine me saying that like Pacino.) If you saw the first Steve Coogan/ Rob Brydon as sorta-themselves film, you don’t really have to change your opinion or much of your review. You get (more or less) exactly the same (good) things … the companionship of two immensely funny men, each trying to prove he’s better than the other, especially to that other. A boxing wit once said the Ali-Frazier fights were first and last about the Heavyweight Championship of each other … here’s the same dynamic. It’s the same sort of unsaid-irony-marinated one-upmanship that exists among some longtime married couples, most film nerds, and all on-air sportscasters — a desire to get in one more witty line while keeping the relationship intact. Only, the latter requirement means the importance of the former can never be acknowledged as such. So when Brydon tells Coogan’s son, “you need to see impersonations done properly,” Brydon cannot say “unlike your inferior voice-actor father.” But Coogan can just give a look meaning “you want to say ‘unlike your inferior voice-actor father’.”

There are a few differences in THE TRIP TO ITALY, and they’re mostly for the better … there’s less “food porn” here and even a line to the effect that these two don’t know anything about food; Coogan dials back the toolage in “Coogan” a bit, while Brydon dials his up a bit; Italy is nicer-looking than the Lake District; there’s a far-greater level of self-awareness in the sequel; and the latter film’s aim for heft comes off better, indeed partly because of the self-consciousness. Precisely because there’s comparisons of the endings of ROMAN HOLIDAY and NOTTING HILL while the last scene’s action plays out (to a Mahler aria), the roleness of “Coogan” and “Brydon” is underlined while its importance still matters as such. Especially in the face of death — “what’ll you be remembered for 200 years from now?” Roles. There’s memento mori everywhere — the constant comparisons to Shelley and Keats, the embalmed while embracing Pompeii corpses, the embalment talk on the beach. But it’s largely laughed off. I initially thought the film was just hinting at places it doesn’t really go, but then that’s the point too. THE TRIP TO ITALY is byronic in every possible way after Byron — lifestyle, environs, obsession with death, attitude toward death. Do we really need Alanis Morrissette’s young-woman form of neurosis explicitly and detailedly compared to Coogan’s middle-aged-man form? Not really … the juxtaposition of Coogan saying how he hates Brydon’s “karaoke act” and then an hour later singing along to “Jagged Little Pill” makes the a-little-too-ironic point. And we especially don’t need it during a trip to Italy.


TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014, 7)

On paper, I shouldn’t like this film as much as I do. Sissako is not a tight storyteller and this network narrative — imagine the also-city-titled DALLAS or NASHVILLE in a different cultural context and stakes — is one long exercise in Vignettus Interruptus. Sissako continually leaves out “the middle” or the end of actions — for example, how do Islamist authorities investigate the two central crimes shown, whose commission we see but re which Sissako just cuts to the arrest/trial; how did the top cop answer the phoned-in question about sacred music; why does Sissako leave so much dialogue and almost all his music unsubtitled. Also, this is exactly the sort of social-protest film that usually gets me sympathetic to the “bad guys” and/or whatever the director and/or characters raii against and expect the audience to nod compliantly along with (what he thinks is) its unexceptionable point. It’d be an achievement to have me sympathetic to sharia-imposing jihadists, but Sissako almost managed it.

Well … how?

First of all, Sissako has more of a sense of humor than my received notion of him suggested (BAMAKO was “anti-recommended” to me). The scene of the French rapper recording his jihad confession is straight out of FOUR LIONS and nearly as funny, albeit not played remotely as farcically (even that lighting director). Also, Sissako is obviously a master image-maker — a lengthy, still long-shot in which the only movement is two men in a river contains both the universe of man and the universe’s indifference to man, and Sissako holds the shot for (in dramatic terms) far too long, which sinks in the point. And the best scene of the film is a soccer game that borrows its premise from the final scene of a famous Antonioni film but which absolutely blows it off the court. This is imagination as subversion and joy, not as silly pot-fueled navel-gazing.

In addition, Sissako’s didacticism, for much of the film’s length, doesn’t come across as speechifying, which is underlined especially by how the jihadists are presented. For starters, they’re not the plot engine for everything — the primary conflict and the family involved therein is a within-traditional-society one about fishing nets, a cattle herd and paternal legacy, and it’s taking place outside the main city. Frankly, this was bothering me for much of the film’s running time … it was like two unrelated films were being intercut … one about jihadists, the other about a poor family and their cow herd.

Like Roger Ebert said of Fellini, Sissako’s film is filled with symbols but they’re obvious ones. And like the Christ statue at the start of LA DOLCE VITA, Sissako begins with an obvious contrast of ancient and modern in which a single detail … the “wounds” suffered by the traditional idols … says everything clearly and economically while you admire the virtuosity of the helicopter pilot / the jihadist marksman. In addition, and a FOUR LIONS comparison is apropos here, the narrative contrast with the jihadists is from traditionalist Islam — the imam whom they consult (who plays the structural role here the brother did in FOUR LIONS) is no parachuted-in, West-approved “moderate.” Instead, my friend Peter (#WatchAfricanCinema) Labuza suggested the jihadists come across as a Hawksian group of buddies, which strikes me as close enough for caliphate work.


THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014, 8)

If you enjoy watching victim-impact statements at criminal trials, or think that THE ACT OF KILLING was pretty good but what it really needed was an onscreen humanistic presence to serve as a proxy identifier for high-minded Western audiences … have I got a film for you.

That’s way too snarky and oversimplifying, even for me, and it’s ultimately unfair, as the 8-grade suggests. But it does get across why I was resistant to THE LOOK OF SILENCE for much of its running time and, accordingly in compensation, why I’m thinking I may still be underestimating it and/or have been taken in by the greatest bait-and-switch masterpiece. But I will still say … with a perfectly straight face on the day I read through my notes and wrestled with (and against) my existential reaction … one’s opinion of this film depends almost entirely on your reaction to the protagonist, an Indonesian whose brother was killed in mass anti-Communist pogroms in the mid-60s.

What is the film’s relationship to him? Is he simply an onscreen protagonist on a quest for truth? For good or ill? (“ILL!!”) Or does the film complicate him and that quest?

As I said at the time, part of why THE ACT OF KILLING is great is that it’s the film Godard said needed to be made about the concentration camps — one not about the inmates, but the guards. For much of its length, and in some senses all of its length, THE LOOK OF SILENCE is not only not that film, but the opposite. Adi is an optometrist who, while giving eye exams to old people around the Aceh countryside (metaphor alert!), asks them about their actions during the pogroms. Much of the film is of two types of scenes. One involves Adi looking at footage that could’ve been used in ACT OF KILLING — militia members describing and re-enacting their actions back then, with a mixture of clinical detachment, pride, laughter, and what-krazy-kids-we-were nostalgia. It gradually becomes explicit that two of those militia members are describing their killing of Adi’s brother. The other type of scene involves Adi himself talking to older Indonesians, including his parents and family members but also current politicians and known pogrom leaders, asking them what they did then and why.

I resisted that formula for a long time, but had changed my mind in the latter part of the film. Part of the reason involved the fact that as Adi becomes more of an interviewer and less of a spectator to Oppenheimer’s videos, we get the return of the jaw-dropping “OMG, did I see what I just saw” factor that made ACT OF KILLING such an unforgettable experience. And that very return underlines (leads to?) the change in Adi and his family.

Without engaging in too much thematic spoilage, note a few things and whether and how SILENCE does or doesn’t answer them — What is Adi trying to accomplish, and how? How does the age of the interviewees affect things? What are the mental states of certain characters? And what could either mean? What goes on within Adi’s family? What is happening the few times Oppenheimer becomes a diegetic presence? Who possesses the power of the cinematic gaze? What can “drinking blood” mean besides “drinking blood” (like … ahem … “cauterizing the soul“)?

October 2, 2014 Posted by | NYFF 2014 | | Leave a comment

NYFF 2014 schedule

Hello … HELLO … this microphone still on?

As I suspect many of you may know, the last couple of years I haven’t gone to Toronto for my annual world-cinema gorging, as had been my decade-long custom. In partial compensation, I’ve gone instead to the New York and Sundance festivals, which has enabled me to stay somewhat abreast of the most-prominent films I’d’ve seen at TIFF under other circumstances. Still, I can’t deny that cinephilia and writing have played a lesser role in my life and interests in the past year or so. I’ve seen many fewer films and other things have become an obsession for me.

But as I type this, I’m feeling the old juices back. I’m on a 4am train heading up for New York for a seven-day campout at the Lincoln Center, with planned visits to several rep theaters playing, among other things, a Tennessee Williams series and a historical retrospective of Georgian cinema (Tblisi-Georgian, not Atlanta-Georgian). Despite the fact that half my planned 24 films are films in regular commercial release or older ones playing NYFF and otherwise (and only two have I seen before), I’m planning to see if I can blog like I did at Toronto. Certainly this schedule is much lighter than I typically had there … no five-film (much less six-film) days planned. So … here is the plan.

Wed, 1 Oct
300 THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014) IFC Center
600 TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) NYFF
900 THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Indonesia, 2014), NYFF

Thu, 2 Oct
400 DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgio Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969) MoMA
600 THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Georgia/Armenia], 1968) NYFF
900 HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Josh and Benny Safdie, USA, 2014) NYFF

Fri, 3 Oct
1230 SUMMER AND SMOKE (Peter Glenville, USA, 1961) Film Forum
255 THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014) IFC Center
600 THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) NYFF
900 THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951) NYFF

Sat, 4 Oct
1100 NINOTCHKA (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1939) IFC Center
200 MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014) NYFF
545 INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014) NYFF

Sun, 5 Oct
300 TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2014) NYFF
600 CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Richard Brooks, USA, 1958) Film Forum
900 EDEN (Mia Hansen-Love, France, 2014) NYFF

Mon, 6 Oct
1230 SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (Richard Brooks, USA, 1962) Film Forum
400 SABA (Mikhail Chiaureli, USSR [Georgia], 1929) MoMA
600 TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER (Nick Broomfield, USA, 2014) NYFF
800 SLEUTH (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Britain, 1972) NYFF

Tue, 7 Oct
1145 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (Ned Benson, USA, 2014) Landmark
215/300 GONE GIRL (David Fincher, USA, 2014) NYFF/commercial release
600 HORSE MONEY (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2014) NYFF
900 QUEEN AND COUNTRY (John Boorman, Britain, 2014) NYFF

October 1, 2014 Posted by | NYFF 2014 | | Leave a comment

2013 White Elephant


976-EVIL (Robert Englund, USA, 1988, 0)

If a movie’s climactic scene takes place over a pit that goes straight down to Hell, is it really necessary to say more about that film than to note (1) a character early in the film orders a deviled egg sandwich, (2) the opening post-credits scene takes place at the Diablo Theater, and (3) a box of chocolate cakes called Devil Twins gets a conspicuous bit of product placement?

Get it? “Deviled” eggs? “Devil’s food”? “Diablo” … that’s Spanish for “Devil”? Hell? Devil? Get it????

I guess it is necessary to say more, otherwise this will be a mighty short essay on a crass, ugly piece of incompetent junk. And I hope whoever made Devil Twins was able to live down the shame and is still in business, unlike Hostess.

976-EVIL is basically BULLY reconfigured as a Satanic horror film. Spike and Hoke are town-mouse and country-mouse like cousins — Spike as a Fonz-like bad-boy antihero who’s really good at heart, Hoke as a nerd who’s picked on by the bullies until, after they ruin a date with his girl, he submits to Satanic possession with the help of a 976 line where Satan Himself is the switchboard responder, and then wreaks havoc on anything and everything, starting with The Girl.

20130405-141530.jpgThe director is Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, and a cynical part of me thinks he made 976-EVIL (which features a character growing long-nailed claws and slashing up a couple of faces) in order to make his signature work look better by comparison. I saw Englund on one of Siskel & Ebert’s specials say his all-time favorite film was Marcel Carne’s 1945 French classic CHILDREN OF PARADISE, so he is obviously a man of some taste and discernment. And while one can’t expect NIGHT OF THE HUNTER from every actor on his first directing gig, how could anyone who was ever on a professional movie set not see the basic craft problems here? Literally nothing in 976-EVIL works — the settings, the pacing, the drama, the ideas, the performances … nothing.

From the streets with no pedestrians and only one car, but which car [spoiler elided … no it’s not a spoiler … it tries to run over Spike], to the only theater in history that runs a horror marathon that seems to have no audience, a completely silent audience and/or an audience who can’t hear a mass murder with living mutilations and a fire in the projection booth.

From the clumsily edited stunts such as a man falling off a second-floor facade in three close-up cuts, to such obvious signifiers as an argyle sweater vest being worn by the only teen in the film who doesn’t smoke, who tells a joke about milking a cow and who uses the word “durn” (that’s Hoke, if there was any suspense).

From a character having his hand sliced off (the set up for one of the two or three would-be funny lines) but then continuing to fight Satan’s Minion without going into shock, to “Miss Martinez” walking through an obviously possessed spooky house while opening every door and turning back every bedsheet, proving that Eddie Murphy was insufficiently inclusive — Hispanics in horror movies can be as dumb as white people.

From a hyper-religious boy learning exactly how to do a proper Satanic soul-selling rite with a perfect pentagram in less time than it takes to cook a TV dinner, to the way Englund underlines that timeline by intercutting the two events, so there’s absolutely no doubt about how fast he learns.

From the would-be naturalism of Patrick O’Bryan as Spike, to the darkly charismatic presence of Robert Picardo as the 976 operator and the scenery-chewing performance by Sandy Dennis as … wait for it … the Fonz’s hyper-religious aunt … the performances are all over the map in terms of what tone 976-EVIL is striving for.

From Dennis being the only addict of Pentecostal-flavored holy roller TV shows who has idolatrous statues of Popery’s goddess Mary on her lawn, to how her son becomes Satan’s minion because the cool kids were mean to him in one of those teacher-less schools that are ubiquitous in bad horrormovies and unknown in the rest of the universe.

There were only two things I was asking myself after this movie was over. First, on the logic of this movie, I ought to hunt down whoever handed me this assignment and rip out their still-beating hearts, in revenge for an experience far worse than getting toilet dunked or dropped into the garbage can. And second … Sandy Dennis?


Dennis took this role 22 years after winning an Oscar for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Who won the acting Oscars 22 years back from today? Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Pesci. And while none of those (all deserving, BTW) actors are on today’s A-list and three have since done more work for TV, none have humiliated themselves the way Dennis does here, in an overdone costume and projecting to the back row like bad dinner theater. Piper Laurie in CARRIE showed how to play this kind of role; what possessed Dennis … a question with profounder implications for the nature and wiles of demons than anything that happens in 976-EVIL

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

And RIP, Roger.

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

2013 projects

One of them is to be less embarrassed about blogging things I might have taken two or three tweets to say (& in fractured syntax, 140-chrcter cmpromises 2 boot), a benefit being that I will thereby be blogging more regularly. The other is to fill in what I consider the 10 Most Truly Embarrassing Gaps in my lifetime “films seen” list.

So in that dual spirit, I hereby resolve to, by the end of 2013, have seen and written something about the following 10 films, my previous ignorance of which will cause cinephiles’ jaws to drop from Park City to Pusan.

McCABE AND MRS MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971) My bud Noel Murray’s all-time favorite film and Twitter avatar. By reputation, one of Altman’s two or three greatest.

BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, USA, 1995 and 2004) Scott Renshaw said I was dead to him and Mike D’Angelo said he’d pull my 2004 Skandies ballot when they learned of this gap. The bow at Sundance by the threequel BEFORE MIDNIGHT is the immediate inspiration for this post.

GHOSTBUSTERS (Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984) I was 18 years old when this came out and I didn’t see this generational touchstone. But I just wasn’t into movies until the later-80s.

BACK TO THE FUTURE (Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1985) Rinse and repeat previous. And for both films, I was reluctant for years to catch up on TV because of pan-scan, content cutting, special-effects losing oomph.

HEAT (Michael Mann, USA, 1995) One of Sonny Bunch’s all-time favorites, with Pacino and DeNiro. I was in Toronto last time it played at AFI Silver, part of a Mann retro where I saw his great THIEF.

NAKED (Mike Leigh, Britain, 1993) “If you’re already a Mike Leigh fanboy, what will you be after seeing THIS.” — Bilge Ebiri

LOVE AND DEATH (Woody Allen, USA, 1975) All-time favorite Woody film of Matt Prigge — “one of the early, funny ones.” When I first caught up with HUSBANDS AND WIVES circa 2003, I said I was even hungrier for a good “new (to me)” Woody film than I thought. I’m starving.

DAYS OF HEAVEN (Terence Malick, USA, 1978) “One of the early, less annoyingly arty ones.” (Supposedly.) But Malick has made so few films that there’s really no excuse not to be a completist.

THE TREE, THE MAYOR AND THE MEDIATHEQUE (Eric Rohmer, France, 1993) The one foray into politics by one of my all-time favorite directors and one of the few (only?) openly rightist film-makers unquestionably in the cinema pantheon. Yeah, I haven’t seen it.

HOMICIDE (David Mamet, USA, 1991) The only film-director credit I’ve not seen by one of my favorite writers and one of the few (only?) openly rightist playwrights unquestionably in the theatre pantheon. Yeah, I haven’t seen it.

Now for the kicker. Jaws drop far and wide, etc. I have copies of all of these films, in one form or another, in my apartment. #Packrat

So I have no excuses.

January 25, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — day 8

POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, W/O)

This ups the number of theatrical films I’ve walked out on in my cinephilic life to four (the others being TULSE LUPER, SEVERANCE and MARKETA LAZAROVA), and gaining the distinction of being the first to provoke a walkout based on pornographic content in what is supposed to be a legitimate movie.

Which is a bit of a shame, because SILENT LIGHT was one of my 10 Best for the entire decade and the opening two scenes in POST TENEBRAS LUX make it quite clear that Reygadas has not lost his eye or his ability to create a sequence one little bit. In the first, a little girl walks around fields, apparently lost and mumbling words, for the whole day while stray dogs are running about and baying and barking and howling along with the wind. The second scene is the devil walking through a darkened bedroom while people sleep, only you’ve never seen Satan quite like this — an animated, near-featureless, solid-red shape giving off a dazzling glow while holding a non-animated briefcase in a dark, non-animated room.

But those images are also part of the tipoff to what was wrong with TENEBRAS even before the walkout — they both were acontextual and rather willfully obscure and they didn’t get obviously explained in the 30-40 minutes I watched of the film. Nor were they the only bits of obscurantism — everybody has been scratching his head since Cannes over an English schoolboy rugby game of which I saw the pre-match rituals. As the film progressed, it clearly wasn’t going to be a masterwork, just a collection of images that you respond to or not. In addition, Reygadas showed early signs of returning to his early fascination with grotesque sex and violence, reports of which kept me away from JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN and contrary reports being the only reason I ever saw SILENT LIGHT in the first place. The devil shape had a rather prominent penis for no reason I could discern besides Reygadas showing how fearless he is (Is there a Mrs. Satan and some Satanic kiddos? Or does Saddam Hussein now flip?). Also another early scene showed a character viciously battering and choking a family dog, implicitly to death, and this is taken as normal by the other character on the family porch where it happens (not to speak of the several who likely would have been in earshot).

The scene that caused me to walk out takes place in a sauna the central couple is visiting, with dozens of naked bodies as the camera prowls around, making sure we see that those are real dicks, boobs, asses, snatches. It is lengthy (so you feel like you’re getting your nose rubbed in it), acontextual (so you’re wondering “what is the point of this?”), pretentious (the Hegel Room and the Duchamp Room? Really? Come off it, Carlos). The early part of the scene seems to include some of the men pulling a train on another man, offscreen with sounds, and asking others matter-of-factly if they want to join. The latter part involves the wife screwing another man in front of her husband, with her body still offscreen but the sounds increasingly realistic and louder (at the moment I left). Reygadas is just showing off.

At that point, the film I was seeing had become simple pornography and I don’t go to a film festival for that. I am not a prude, nor will I claim to be a better man than I am (everybody who reads this blog or follows my Twitter feed knows my sense of humor isn’t G-rated). I do not condemn the use of nudity or sexuality for a discernible purpose and with a (very) minimal amount of discretion and directorial tact, that invisible quality that tells me he knows that nudity and sex are not routine. I count as all-time favorites LAST TANGO IN PARIS, EYES WIDE SHUT and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (the last of which includes scenes that are, by any reasonable standard, hard-core pornography). But here, I was just getting it shoveled in my face and the invisible Potter-Stewartish line of what I’m willing to tolerate was crossed.

CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China, 4)

Go read the TIFF Guidebook about this film, both the take out paragraph and the last paragraph of the Programmer’s Note, the former of which I reproduce here:

A young woman’s act of defiance becomes a flashpoint for controversy when a video of the incident goes viral, in this prescient drama about cyber-bullying from celebrated director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).

As in everything, I am a hard-eyed, illusionless realist (as I typed this, I was disagreeing with a couple of orthodox Catholics about the limits and expectations of politics) … the purpose of these things is to sell the film in question and make it seem appetizing. But there is still such a thing as truth-in-advertising, and one of the many annoying things about the TIFF Guidebook is its tendency to grab onto anything mildly topical, especially the latest leftist cause du jour. If by cyber-bullying, you mean something like the Tyler Clementi or famous Facebook cases, CAUGHT IN THE WEB is not about cyberbullying. The video in question — in which a young woman refuses to give up her seat to an old man; she’s just received a fatal cancer diagnosis and is hiding behind sunglasses, hence the sobriquet Sunglasses Girl — doesn’t “go viral.” It’s broadcast on national TV because it was taken by an aspiring reporter (and then obviously does become grist for online discussions, just like Romney’s or Obama’s latest gaffes might) and the engine for much of the subsequent fallout is a careerist pursuit of second- and third-day stories by that reporter and others. CAUGHT IN THE WEB is about tabloid gossip, far closer to NETWORK or THE FRONT PAGE than to (2012’s) BULLY or the Clementi case (except maybe to the extent that bullies now become something of a public Emanuel Goldstein and the object of Excuses to Commit Sociology, like Sunglasses Girl does in the film. Which I doubt was what the TIFF Central Committee intended.)

Even as a semi-satire on tabloid journalism (as I typed this, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” came up on my iTunes … swear to God), I don’t think CAUGHT IN THE WEB is terribly successful. The tone shifts between satire to tragedy requires a master’s touch and Chen doesn’t have it, especially with the broad acting he encourages. It’s also too damn long at 121 minutes and has way too much plot — the press learns of her affair with her Big Shot CEO boss, which leads to a whole new set of reverberations. “Money changes hands, and I forgot about it as it happened,” I have written in my notes. There’s lots of romantic intrigue I also hardly cared about —  Sunglasses Girl hires a bodyguard for her last days, and he has mixed motives.

Between this and Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP I’m also getting a vibe that the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours in the West (I don’t have an “as I typed this” synchronicity here). I don’t specifically mean my sense of humor either … there are scores of Western films I don’t find funny but I usually quite easily recognize what’s supposed to be funny even if I don’t think it is. My Chinese-comedy sample size is obviously not large and it’s not so alien that I can never enjoy it — I did love KUNG FU HUSTLE, which pushes the freneticism into pure cartoon. But both Chen and Zhang in the early scenes of films that eventually become more serious employ a hyper-caffeinated freneticism for comic effects to a degree rarely seen here and which strikes me as “Too Much,” “Turned Up to 12,” etc. In the Zhang film, it’s more the performers, while CAUGHT IN THE WEB achieves the same effect via short cutting rhythms, smash edits and (within the limits of a relatively realistic contemporary film) frenetic motion and acting. It’s just so exhausting that the effect, for me, was of Chen stepping all over his own punch lines.

BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany, 6)

I liked this more than CAUGHT IN THE WEB, but it’s hardly a more enthralling film — indeed it’s quite emotionally and stylistically frigid, even withholding. Fortunately, those adjectives are the very subject matter of BARBARA, which is set in East Germany and centers on a woman, the titular character, who has asked for an exit visa from the Communist dictatorship and also has a West German lover. As a result, among other things, cars start cutting her off as she bicycles around the streets of the small-town backwater where she has been exiled to work as a doctor. Among her patients, for whom she lavishes suspiciously unusual care, is a girl who keeps running away from a socialist work camp. (I’m sorry buds … I don’t see how anyone old enough to remember East Germany’s existence could’ve been in any doubt where and about when this was set.)

Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, a marvelous German actress who seems to specialize, like a young Isabelle Huppert, in a certain understated interiorness. Her face is a marvel of emotional opacity, which she can make sullen or force to life without violating social cues — ideal for someone hiding her true opinions or emotions or plans from the necessity of keeping her head down. While this can make her come across as borderline wooden at times, all three of the roles in which I have seen her used this quality — in A WOMAN IN BERLIN, she was trapped in Berlin at the end of the war and had to negotiate her survival with the Russian conquerers, in JERICHOW, she played an adultress plotting murder against her husband. (I joked about the former film that it was the only thing that ever made me take seriously the radical-feminist claim that all sex under patriarchy is rape.)

The film moves resolutely, but at its own pace and rhythm that it keeps to itself, like its heroine. This tone makes BARBARA very much a slow burn escape-from-East Germany film … TORN CURTAIN this ain’t. Indeed, it isn’t even clear for a while that an escape plan is gonna wind up being the central third-act narrative concern and even when we get there, there isn’t really a set-piece chase … rinse and repeat previous aside. Instead, there is a psychologically resonant relationship with a fellow doctor who may be interested in Barbara but also might be an informant (that being life in “actually existing socialism”). In one fine “come clean” scene Andre describes a story about incubators that felt “wrong” to me and also sounded technologically implausible to an RN friend when I asked her about it. In another, he does a close reading on a Rembrandt painting (or a reproduction, I guess) that also throws the issue of deception and mistakes-that-aren’t-mistakes explicitly into the text. In another scene, the Mercedes-driving lover arranges a tryst in the forest and a Trabant-driving native passes by; the juxtaposition of the cars say everything that needs saying.

CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany/Korea, 7)

I was uncertain about this film for a long time. On the one hand, CAMP 14 undeniably packs an emotional wallop as a portrait of the North Korean gulag, mostly by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known born-there escapee (yes, people are born into concentration camps and held there for life). On the other hand (I thought), the film really doesn’t do anything not done by reading Shin’s account in print as I did earlier this year, though I forget where and can’t find it quickly. I eventually decided that there is something valuable to this film qua film, but even if in the end there’s isn’t anything else here but a litany of brutality … what a litany it is.

Huge chunks of my notes simply consist of quotes from Shin — “I hadn’t yet learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”; “rats have soft bones, so we were able to eat everything”; “walking around North Korea (outside the camp), it looked like heaven — people freely laughing, joking, wearing clothes they liked”; “in the camp I had a pure heart.” Shin repeatedly says things that sound absolutely unbelievable, until you reflect on them. If one has no concept of family and has seen executions for breaking camp rules all his life, why cry? That IS an advantage for a food meat. Every society, no matter how crappy, has to be better than its prisons (that’d be why it’s a punishment to go to prison). He probably did, and that’s the most damning you could ever say about the Rousseauist dream of pure innocence, an undivided soul marked by one telos.

There is other material in CAMP 14 besides interview footage with Shin, much of which is him sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There are two former North Korean prison guards, now in South Korea, both apparently successful and one seemingly downright well-off. Although they say they did what they did because they thought it was right and just, they differ from the Indonesians in ACT OF KILLING by seeming repentant though they do talk matter-of-factly. When asked whether suspects are tortured, one smiled (though more in a “what a silly question, white man” mode than a prideful one) and said “it’s normal.” Though CAMP 14 generally uses minimalist pencil-based animated sequences to depict scenes of Shin’s memories of the camp, it also has rare footage of a North Korean slave camp, taken by one of the two guards at the camp he commanded, a different one from Shin’s. There’s also a scene of a North Korean guard interrogating a prisoner that critics of first-world authorities are invited with deep sarcasm to watch (though I wondered why also there appeared to be blurred subtitles on it).

As for why CAMP 14 is a film … Wiese is no Errol Morris, but he puts silence and the physical presence of his interview subjects to good use. In most documentaries, raw interview footage is cut to the rhythm of the films shot, which requires the subject start talking pretty much at the start of the shot and that the shot end when the the sound byte is over. (And of course, in written accounts, every word follows the next.) Here, there’s at least 4 or 5 times where Wiese includes a lengthy, noticeable hesitance of at least several seconds of screen time in Shin’s reactions to his questions (and does same once with the guards). It’s as if they don’t really want to say what they have to be truthful. When asked about water torture, Shin waits seemingly forever before saying slowly “I don’t want to remember those experiences any more.” So strong are these dead moments that Wiese never actually shows anyone breaking down or crying (assuming he could have; maybe they never did and that’s the point too). The pauses say enough.

September 18, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 7

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain, 6)

In between this film and my next, I called my parents, and my father wanted to know what I had just gotten out of. I said “an adaptation of Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS” / “How was it?” / “Fine. Nothing special but it is what it is and good for what it is … an illustration of a classic novel.” / “Well … what’s wrong with that? If it’s good for what it is, it’s good, right?” Pauline Kael also defended literary adaptations as a genre, saying it’s a perfectly normal pleasure to want to see the films and plays we read in school illustrated and/or adapted with today’s actors. This latest version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a pretty faithful adaptation (it’s been years since I read it, but I can’t recall any major plot points or characters it doesn’t hit, though there are accordingly a few it underplays or underdevelops) and if it entertains while it’s on the screen and encourages folks to read Dickens, it has done the Lord’s work.

Still, the film got on the bad side of me early. The key to the whole yarn is the first scene, the meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Here is the famous sequence from the 1946 David Lean adaptation.

This film bollixed it up, or at least diminished it, in two ways. First, compared to Finlay Currie, Ralph Fiennes is barely intelligible behind a thicker accent and state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound mixing. That same state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound and mickey-mousing music also accompanies a smash cut to Fiennes’ face when Magwitch appears, giving the whole scene the feel of a contemporary horror film. I also thought Mrs. Joe was a bit much, but those were the exceptions. Despite being younger than is customary, Helena Bonham Carter was perhaps an obvious choice as Miss Havisham, but she can convince both as a weird old woman (all those Tim Burton films) and a young woman in a flashback to the infamous wedding day. I don’t understand the logic of turning Mr. Jaggers into a single-line Jew if you’ve cast Robbie Coltrane, but I was glad to have him in the role. And by the time Magwitch reappears, the film has recovered its footing, Fiennes has dialed it back a bit and he dominates the rest of the film.

During a scene of paying off debts, it occurred to me that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the same ruffian-does-social-climbing story as BARRY LYNDON. But while Kubrick (can’t speak about Thackeray) tells the story of a consciously self-made man both profiting from and being defeated by chance, Dickens gives the opposite psychology – a man who arbitrarily and mysteriously gains gentleman status and then finds out it was a reward for a long-forgotten good deed. But then Dickens was some kind of Christian and Kubrick was not. It also occurred to me in the last 15 minutes of this film that there’s just a little much coincidence and “coincidence” and cross-cutting relationships here for my adult taste, though that’s largely what Dickens wrote – he was the Arriaga/Inarritu of the 19th century. Still, this new film gets across Dickens’ humor and class-based fun – the young lads’ punch-up “according the rules,” the Finches of the Grove party, lines like “it’s not generally the custom in London to put your knife in your mouth, for fear of the ants.” And it really delivers on the best scene is the book – the London reunion with Joe (here played with bone-deep class-consciousness by Jason Flemyng), where a snobbish Pip and a not-quite-humiliated Joe try to have a meal.

IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France, 8)

I obviously wouldn’t push this comparison too far, but IN THE HOUSE reminds me a bit of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. The Bunuel masterpieces were nominally about forever sitting down to dinner but never eating (with plenty of digression in the interim) and a relay race of plot points and characters that become nothing but digressions, never surviving contact with the next plot point or character. Neither film makes logical sense (An emu wandering through your bedroom while a mailman leaves a note? A cafe with nothing but water?), but what they were really about was the Old Master’s comfortable ease as a yarnmeister. His very confidence could hook you into a story or joke or “I dreamed this last night.” The two films are thoroughly entertaining divertissements on the story-telling process and I recommend them highly.

IN THE HOUSE shows Ozon, a much younger man than Bunuel, in a very similar mode. The nominal surface subject is a French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) fascinated by the journal assignments of one of his students, the star pupil who actually writes something worthwhile in a room full of “I hate pizza on Saturday and Sundays suck” essays and “I can’t bring myself to write about this movie. -30-” film criticism. He wants Claude (Ernst Umhauer) to keep writing about his friendship into another neighborhood family and advises him to get involved with the family to provide more material. The Plausibles don’t add up (Claude’s writing may profit by comparison with classmates, but he is no Stephen King, in Mike’s words). Still, Ozon is doing what Bunuel did … seducing us with his silky smooth style, his native wit, and a string that we just want to keep tugging, like the teacher does (we see enacted the stories as he’s reading them).

There’s more here than just an enjoyable romp. We see the stories enacted as the teacher reads them (sometimes Ozon tells us this in advance, sometimes not), and the characters act in a very broad register (what you need accompanying narration) but become subtly different as the stories progress. So when the teacher tells Claude to change his story, he’s not simply offering criticism, he is also, Ozon implies, living out his own fantasies. Kristin Scott Thomas again shows her flair for comedy (reiterated negatively in DePalma’s PASSION) in the outsider role of the teacher’s wife, playing both literature critic and struggling art-gallery curator (there’s big laughs at, among other things, her exhibit of dictator’s heads on blow-up dolls of naked women). Those scenes have nothing to do with the main plot – they’re just Bunuelian diversions – until a late turn that I’m not sure is entirely successful. But the last image – it’s practically cribbed from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW – ends things on the right note.

REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 8)

When Mike D’Angelo said nobody at Cannes recognized, even en passant, the religious subtexts and themes in REALITY http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-12-day-three-gomorrah-director-matteo-garro,75387/ there are two options – (1) he is lying his lying ass off (even allowing for the editorial “nobody”) or (2) there were a lot of clueless critics at Cannes. And I very severely doubt (1) … I was speaking simply of logical possibilities.

On the surface, REALITY is about an Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) who tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” but gets prematurely convinced he’s going to be on the show. He then proceeds to believe he (and others) are being watched at all times, gives up his possessions, stops engaging in petty scams, and otherwise acts in ways that could hardly more obviously parallel a Christian’s rebirth if Garrone had emblazoned “he’s found religion” on his T-shirt. The first and last images of the film are both God’s-eye views. The last narrative sequence breaks off from a Good Friday Stations of the Cross parade. And to mention couple details Mike didn’t … at one point, Luciano is explicitly told (and not by a priest) that “if you want to get into the house, you need to have faith and then you will.” Also, after the interview with the “Big Brother” producers, Luciano spoke in the way one does after a first sacrament, especially first confession (I speak as an adult revert) – “I told him everything and it felt so wonderful” I have scribbled down in my notes. Garrone underlines this by not showing the actual interview, following an old convention, somewhat based on the Sanctity of the Confessional, against showing it.

Since Luciano never gets on the show but the last scene shows him “succeeding” in getting onto the set, we clearly have a parable of delusion (or disillusionment, though I think the last scene’s tone makes that impossible). But what is the delusion … and this is where Mike and I part company (he’s a self-described “devout atheist”). The one thing the delusion can’t be is belief in a non-existent God for the simple reason that “Big Brother” really does exist in REALITY and people really did get on the show, albeit not Luciano. In addition, if God is a Dawkinsian “delusion” within the film’s universe but “Big Brother” serves a church-like function, then accounting for the existence of the actual Church in the film (and it DOES have a notable presence as itself: a Rosary scene early on, the Good Friday procession and a Jesus statue in the courtyard) becomes, if not exactly impossible, at least a bit awkward.

One could even, based totally on the film, have a Calvinist read that the delusion is Luciano thinking he is among the saved, rather than the damned (though I think that’s too clever by half). Instead, I think Luciano’s delusion is idolatry, that is to say, he grants religious status to something other than God/religion – a problem whether God exists or not. This take is consistent with every religious analogy in Luciano’s treatment of the reality show,” it accounts for “Big Brother” real existence (the Golden Calf had a real existence, as a golden calf), and it makes better sense of the Church’s presence in the film. With respect to the last, consider the Good Friday scene. Luciano, who had been shown at the earlier Rosary scene not to be a religiously devout man, attends the service, taken there by a friend who thinks it’ll help his craziness, but breaks away from it to break into Cinecitta and get on the “Big Brother” set. The film never goes back to the service. If the point were an equivalence between the show and the Stations, it would’ve been smarter to intercut the two, like Eisenstein did with the union men and the slain oxen. Instead, Garrone has one follow the other, which more suggests the show as a substitute for religion or a functional religion or a retreat from religion.

BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 8)

… though that 8 has the proverbial bullet on it as BEYOND THE HILLS has stewed wonderfully in my head these past couple of days. Before the festival began, I agreed with Mungiu-skeptic Michael Sicinski that on the basis of one film, Mungiu hadn’t yet deserved status as a “Master,” the program in which TIFF put this film (he also made the very good OCCIDENTAL, but the proverbial “nobody” outside Romania has seen that). BEYOND THE HILLS proves that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, which I had on my decade-best list, was no fluke and cements Mungiu’s status as a Master. A Master who is very obviously a pupil of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, sure, but DeSica was just as obviously a pupil of Renoir and nobody thereby disputes his status. Like the Belgian brothers, Mungiu combines white-knuckle tension and long takes with the seemingly contradictory virtues of careful composition and fastidious framing that uses the whole frame. HILLS was even one of two films I saw this festival that started with the ROSETTA shot – following a character from behind as she charges through a narrowly-framed environment. The character in this case is Voichita, one half of a female-friend pair (also the center of 4 MONTHS) meeting the other half at a train station. She is meeting up with Alina for a visit to the Romanian Orthodox convent where Voichita is serving. The pair were clearly lesbian lovers during Voichita’s secular life and Alina, who had spent the last few years doing menial jobs for money in Germany, has come with an eye to winning her (unwitting) friend back.

What follows is a tale of possible demonic possession or psychotic episodes, in which Mungiu, like in his portrayal of abortion in 4 MONTHS, leaves completely open a literal take that many Western European art-house directors (and most critics) would take pains to close off. One way among others he does this is by Trinitarian compositions that evoke God’s presence in a story that invites a religious explanation without insisting on it – typical of my beloved Romanian style of accreting details that are “just-so” and “telling-without-rubbing-your-face-in-them.” There are two consecutive conversations where the framing is so clearly the Trinity as authoritative that I began sketching during the film (see attached and forgive my appalling drawing; I’m a writer not an artist, plus this was in a dark theater). Those same rhyming shots also parallel religion and science as sources of answers and response to matters that aren’t strictly in either’s purview but in the overlap/between. And like in a Skandie-nominated scene in 4 MONTHS, another shot frames a crowded dinner where an abundance of happy guests chatting away crushingly frames people whose thoughts are miles away.

In HILLS, Mungiu convincingly creates a world so “lived in” that you accept it utterly. My only real complaint, in fact, is that he does this so successfully that the narrative drags a bit. This place is isolated and cold and in nearly every shot, indoors or outdoors, you see the characters’ icy breaths without anyone ever saying “it’s cold in here.” In a late scene, some nuns have to improvise a stretcher, and we see the characters/actresses actually build one from pieces of wood, from pretty-much scratch in real time (did I say long takes were awesome?). In an early scene, Voichita agrees to rub some medical stuff on her ex-lover’s body, after which agreement to do so Alina strips herself to the waist. She handles the chastity-vs.-charity matter with poise, neither rubbing the bared boobs nor flinching at them, as the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens axis would think she “should.” There’s even explicit dialogue later, apropos another matter, about this distinction between “forbidden” and “improper.” When the nuns prepare the outsider for a first-in-a-long-time confession, as they go down a conscience-examination list of 464 sins, Alina ticks off each one without fail but with increasing resignation at each new number. So successfully does Mungiu create an out-of-time experience in a monastery where out-of-timeness is the very point that there’s really only one detail that unquestionably situates the film in the present day – the existence of cell phones (even the few vehicles we see aren’t latest-model). But neither are the monastery characters simple-mindedly superstitious (again, a distinction impossible for a certain sort of secular Westerner to imagine). When one of the nuns notes that the hens haven’t laid any eggs and that a black cross appears in a piece of wood, the head priest in charge impatiently dismisses “foolishness about signs” and patronizingly says “burn it” when asked what to do with the wood. All that said, I do have to note that, even as a Roman chauvinist who will happily and teasingly call Orthodox friends “schismatics,” I didn’t like how some of the Orthodox lingo was “westernized” in the subtitles – “Pascha” becoming “Easter” and the use of “Mass” (a Western term that Orthodox Anglophones do not use).

September 17, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 6

NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 8)

“They make movies to sell detergent. So why not a movie to sell peace.”

Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras wrote that line, but one way we know they didn’t understand it is that their movie to “sell peace” bore no resemblance to movies made to sell detergent (and hence didn’t “sell” at all). Pablo Larrain understands that line, or at an absolute minimum made a smart political movie about people who did. Gael Garcia Bernal plays ad specialist Rene Saavedra, who stumbles into leadership of the marketing side of the “No” campaign, a liberal-left coalition of Chileans opposed to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had called a referendum on whether to grant him another eight-year term (“Yes”) or require him to step down and have multi-party elections somewhat later (“No”).

And so begins a rollicking political satire done in the style of 80s TV shows, 80s ads, 80s styles and even 80s political campaigns. I was hooked right from the credits, which present the name in simple block-character pastels but with the slight color shimmer of old or multi-generation VHS around the edges of each character. In the early scenes, the No campaign act like a bunch of college professors – debating the legitimacy of the election, calling each other “comrade,” and what tack to take in terms of “speaking to the pain we feel.” One even explicitly says “I don’t want to sell democracy as a product.” But they eventually decide to go with a “positive” campaign of uplift (exclusively so, for a while), the application of classic “mood” campaigns. The main visual theme is a rainbow, with each color signifying a party in the coalition and the main slogan was a happy jingle “Chile … l’alegria ya viene” (Chile … happiness is coming soon). The film was silent on this, but I have to wonder about the extent the “No” campaign, which Larrain faithfully represents, borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme. Even harsh facts are given a candy-colored sheen, as when “No” women sing a jingle about “no more disappearances”

I was turned onto this film by Mike D’Angelo review (http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-2012-day-10-cronenberg-meets-delillo-matthe,75718/) and a later personal recommendation. But in his Cannes review, Mike said he “looked in vain for a hint of contemporary relevance,” to which … huh? NO is absolutely timeless, a demonstration of some unknown cynic’s aphorism that “democracy is rule by publicity,” which is why contemporary relevance hits you in the face with every 80s-video, TV-shaped, perfectly-cheesy frame. Every two or four years, the US goes through this cycle of punch-counterpunch, and I couldn’t contain my laughter at an aside in NO about reporting on “the truth behind” people in the ads, from thinking of Joe the Plumber or Katherine Harris (Al Gore: “Do we have anything on her”). Romney and Obama campaign consultants right this very day are weighing the base-vs-swing voter strategy and the wisdom of going negative, including the unintended messages sent – only here the “No” folks are fretting over whether painting Pinochet as a brutal tyrant will instill too much fear, spread cynicism and depress turnout. Other favorite touches: difficulties the “Yes” campaign has making good ads because “all the artists are on the other side”; the “No” campaign’s use of a photo of a riot cop beating a street demonstrator (and no, it’s not at all what you’d think; call it a unity message); and “this looks like a picture postcard, nobody eats baguettes in this country … who cares, it looks good.”

One strength of this film, which I didn’t expect from the leftist Larrain, is that the “Yes” campaign, led by Larrain mainstay Alfredo Castro, isn’t shown to be a bunch of patsies. They respond to the “No” campaign by parodying it – truth be told, I laughed hardest at two of those bits (one takes place in a bed and the other rewrites the lyrics to the “No” campaign’s main theme, “Chile … L’alegria ya viene”) Indeed, when introducing the Skandies, Mike described me as a “Pinochet-admiring lunatic” (the adjective of which is not an exaggeration … here’s the obituary I wrote for another site … http://coalitionforfog.blogspot.ca/2006/12/augusto-pinochet-1915-2006.html) So, for someone like me to come out of NO humming “Chile … L’alegria ya viene” is some kind of miracle.

MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia, 5)

This is the sort of perfectly competent, mildly diverting but finally unmemorable high-concept sitcom that fills slots in film festivals worldwide, in between the transcendent masterpieces you love forever and the idiotic shit that you so hate it’s at least memorable (see, AMERICA, GOD BLESS). Every country can produce these filler films and they’re so ubiquitous that half the time you’re really looking at them as national portraitures, the better to distinguish this Estonian one from that Bulgarian one you saw at TIFF (or was it FilmFestDC?) two years ago. In the better cases, though, there is at least one memorable performer or one OMFG sequence.

On those limited terms, MUSHROOMING is a perfectly fine film that nobody in North America outside film festivals or the local Sons of Estonia Haalle will ever see or need to see. Ethnically, the Estonians are cousins to the Finns, and if you’ve seen a Kaurismaki film, you’ll recognize both the physical ethnic types on display (stolid husky men with broad-but-small features on flat, fair-skinned faces, mixed in with thin punk or musical types, e.g.) as well as the national humor sensibility (glum deadpan losers in over their heads, though MUSHROOMING’s actors are a little bit broader than Kaurismaki’s). MUSHROOMING takes the premise of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, only it plays it for comedy, in part by having one of the hikers, Aadu Kagu, be a member of parliament be fleeing the press over a brewing financial scandal (he and his wife took a trip to Machu Picchu that he billed as a diplomatic fact-finder). You know that when the hikers hit upon an apparently deserted cabin, they are gonna learn someone lives here by spotting that day’s paper, banner-headlined “Aadu Kagu, Parasite.” There is, though, one very good scene, near the end, where Aadu faces the press for the first time. Let’s just say that the accompanying music is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, making the whole thing play like a satirical take on THE KING’S SPEECH, and not exactly in the way you might obviously think. It’s one of the few non-obvious things on display.

PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA, 6)

Gawd, this movie is so stupid. And so ridiculously entertaining, often precisely when it is at its stupidest. No movie featuring an ass-cam ad for a cell phone(?) camera (?) (who cares?) is going for The Human Condition vibe. Nor is a movie featuring Noomi Rapace in a pull-back hairdo with bangs completely covering her forehead. Nor is a movie that remakes a (very good IM apparently alone O) three-year-old French film about two women by significantly upping the Sapphic Quotient.

Still, I wish DePalma would at least come across as trying harder for something with emotional heft in addition to baroque set pieces, FEMME FATALE being the measuring stick among his recent films. For one thing, Rachel McAdams is fatally miscast, or, the same thing really, the role has been fatally mis-reconceived from the French original. She plays a role first inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas, a far superior actress who also has enough old-school wit to make lines like “you have lots of talent, and I made the best use of it” draw tossed-off blood; McAdams recites the identical line, with emphasis on “recite” and “line,” with an effect as far from “identical” as possible. McAdams is also more or less the same age as Rapace, while KST is a generation older than Ludivine Sagnier, which gave the original an ALL ABOUT EVE vibe that pays off handsomely thematically. And whereas in the French film, Sagnier was Sagnier, Rapace has all the sex appeal of a plate of lutfisk, and less life. Thus the first half of PASSION, before a murder is committed and which follows the French original fairly closely, is a failure.

You can literally see the moment PASSION goes “click” and becomes a fun roller-coaster ride – an ominous music cue, a smash cut to a closeup of Rapace, and a dramatic change in the lighting scheme. From that point, the movie is about nothing more than canted angles, heavy shadows, ominous music, split screens (it’s DePalma, of course). But what angles, shadows, etc. That it outdoes in logical retardation what was already a very silly plot is like criticizing the plotting in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE or AIDA or NORMA. Even the limited actresses actually help and I’d’ve been fine with replacing them with air dolls or lifesize puppets.

The film’s high point is undoubtedly a split screen sequence, in which one half of the screen is a murder the perpetrator of which we can’t see, and the other is the performance of a ballet, “Afternoon of the Faun” that looks into the camera and will later play a key alibi role. “Half” is a misnomer, because part of what makes the sequence so virtuoso is that DePalma varies how much of the screen each image takes, going from 50-50 to 80-20 to 30-70 back to 50-50 etc. But even beyond that, he varies the compositions and moves the camera in and out to take the best advantage of the space in each part, whether it’s a thin 10 percent sliver of the widescreen shape or a effectively-widescreen 90 percent. That sequence is the work of a master.

September 14, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Toronto 2012 — day 5 capsules

THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous; Denmark/Indonesia, 9)

“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”

Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.

It follows several members of an Indonesian militia group who were involved in anti-Communist pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands following a mid-1960s gradual coup that effectively replaced Sukarno as dictator. Though it’s in the documentary genre of “muckraking about past atrocities,” there are two huge differences here from such standard-issue films – first, there are no interviews with the prisoners or even IIRC any found or archival footage of the atrocities; and second, the guards are proud of their actions and have hired Oppenheimer and his crew to make a movie about them. Some of the men do change over the course of the film but only very slowly, and (in the most memorable case) by unintentionally almost quoting Alex. What even makes those moments feel earned – rather than the inevitable course of the film’s inevitable didactic humanistic lesson – is the contrast with the unregenerate militia members and the political environment of present-day Indonesia, which is (to put it kindly) not exactly post-war West Germany or post-apartheid South Africa.

I could have done without the cheap juxtaposition of McDonalds and shopping mall images with stats about the massacres or the Michael Moore touch of having people critique democracy while playing golf. I also don’t entirely trust a film about 60s Indonesia in which the word “Sukarno” is, to the best of my recollection, never mentioned. But the number of “I can’t believe I just saw what I saw” moments is simply through the roof and it doesn’t stop with the premise as I’ve outlined. So as to avoid spoilers, let’s just say there were moments – like a walk through a Chinese merchant market – when I wasn’t sure I was actually watching re-enactments. And then at least one – a visit to a village – when I was sure I wasn’t.

It isn’t all about the abyss; there is also comedy here – a lot of it, in a very black vein. The men sit around on the set, in obvious blood makeup/prosthetics, reminiscing about the IRL scenes they’re about to re-enact and debating the best methods of execution and what they learned themselves from the movies (Also, can we now cool it with the “depictions of violence don’t inspire acts of violence” talking point?) Looking at Oppenheimer’s footage (which sometimes resembles cheesy Bollywood musicals, over-the-top gangster footage), they love one surrealistic scene where a killed Communist thanks them for sending him to heaven. It’s not that this all functions as comic relief a la Shakespeare’s clowns or that it gains from juxtaposition with the more serious material (it doesn’t especially do either, actually), but it specifically grows out of the more serious subject – the militia members’ pride.

There is a scene called “Special Dialog” that I will take to my grave. It looks like the Indonesian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” or similarly fluffy show and while it’s memorably appalling that militia members are on it in uniform, what really make the scene is the interviewer, who talks about wiping out the communists in the same chirpy manner as one might discuss coming up with a great new martini recipe. What we’re seeing is not “banality of evil” a la Hannah Arendt, “dehumanization” or similar cant, but something far more chilling and eternally relevant – that anything (and I do mean anything) can be done with a good conscience. All a man needs is to believe something is right. These men were Suharto’s Willing Executioners, but unlike Hitler’s, they had the good fortune not to be conquered by foreigners while the blood was still wet on their hands.

The same “take-it-to-my-grave” quality also applies to an interview with one henchmen (whose name I didn’t catch) who, while driving, pours an ocean of scorn on war-crimes tribunals and the Geneva Convention. He’s gives the standard Realist critique of international law, which is rare enough in this kind of film, before sealing the deal. He says of the 1960s atrocities that “re-opening the matter would be a provocation to fight. And if the world wants perpetual war, we’ll be ready.” He’s not saying anything not made implicitly from the other end by the pardoning-immunity powers of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sometimes justice must be suspended for the sake of peace. And pointing to the ugliest of political truths: what gets loosely called “victor’s justice” is in fact, in every political instanciation, “justice.”

AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 6)

If you only showed me the first half-hour of this film and stopped, I wouldn’t have been inclined to watch the rest of it … at any price … sorry, Scott #hackstamp. In one scene (I have it written on my notes “you just lost me, Ramin”) an Iowa farmer reads aloud a postcard from his son about climbing South America’s tallest mountain, and he stumbles over the pronunciation of “Mount Aconcagua.” Yuk yuk yuk. Isn’t the people in Hickville so stooooopid and uncultured. Nor had that practiced mistake been the film’s first such moment. (Ironically, later that day I heard a friend’s equally-phonetic name mangled by one of America’s most eminent leftist film critics, who regularly goes on “Red States is Backward” rants.)

But as is my custom, I stuck around and I’m glad I did, as AT ANY PRICE becomes something more as it accretes detail and develops the threads of what seemed for a while like a scattershot script. Though it’s an original script, AT ANY PRICE becomes unashamedly novelistic (if you take that as a criticism, stay away) with twists and turns that make into it a kind of “farm noir.” Test film for this film – did you like IN THE BEDROOM? Or MYSTIC RIVER – one element in particular from that film came from nowhere here, yet felt as utterly right as it did in the Eastwood.

Dennis Quaid plays a jerk of a seed salesman who’s family is falling apart. Quaid dominates the film and I thought for a long time that he was overacting. But he’s playing an overactor (if that makes sense). He’s cheating on his wife, the globetrotting son for whom he had hopes is unseen, and the other son (a surprisingly strong Zac Efron) has a ridiculous dream of being a NASCAR driver and wants no part of the farm. But everything is … great. The moment I turned around on this film was Efron’s big-race debut, which did not go the way I knew it was going to. A bit later, I finally wrote “OK, Ramin, you win” (I’ve only seen one previous Bahrani and though I liked GOODBYE SOLO quite a bit, it’s not at all like this). And that was at a scene where Quaid’s father gives a speech about how “times were so much simpler then.” AT ANY PRICE is a rare film that is about both realizing your dreams and being content with not realizing your dreams, in the same person. About nostalgia and false nostalgia, within the same environment.

EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 1)

I told taffybud Dan Owen on Twitter that, given the same cast and crew, either he or I could make a film every bit as good as EVERYDAY. That was not an exaggeration or a joke line. If THE TRIP had nothing to recommend it beyond Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden’s repartee, here is an equally episodic, intermittent film that doesn’t have Coogan and Bryden. I seriously can’t recall ever seeing a film that, once the premise had been set up, had quite literally nothing to offer and that the director gave so little indication of answering the most basic question – what is this film about? (I mean strictly among films by directors with major reputations). Winterbottom has always been hit-or-miss but he has made several very good films – TRISTAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE CLAIM, and my retrospective memory of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. But I would love to see the shooting script (if, in fact, there was one) for EVERYDAY, which feels like a case study in how you cannot make drama up as you go along.

EVERYDAY covers five years in the life of Ian Ferguson, who is serving a long jail term with a wife and four children (ages 3 to 8, I’d guess) on the outside. The gimmick here is that Winterbottom shot the film intermittently over five years, so we actually see the actors age, most obviously the children (all real-life siblings). It’s something you can’t fake and it would make the film interesting … if there were any drama. Whatsoever. There are scenes of the kids in school, scenes of the wife at work, scenes of prison visits (“you’re the man of the house,” Ian tells a boy of about 6), scenes of him in jail, scenes of the lengthy trips to the prison. And none of it develops or grows. There is no artistry, imagination or shaping. It’s all chopped up into a minute or so not-even vignettes – with an ugly-ass hand-held video style to boot. There is a post-release bedroom confession by the wife that she’d had an affair with a man we see at the dinner table two or three times and come on to her once and get rejected. And the fight itself lasts maybe a minute. Flimsy setup. Little payoff. Rinse and repeat throughout. There is more prison drama in 5 minutes of OZ. More comedy in 5 minutes of PORRIDGE.

I wouldn’t especially care if the film wound up having nothing to say but “going to prison sucks, for both you and your family.” (I was attracted to this film as being about a working-class British family with the man in jail. I have four extended-family blood relatives who’ve gone to prison – and I don’t mean held overnight in the drunk tank or after a brawl or the like, but felons duly sentenced to hard time.) But if that’s all there is, you need better moment-to-moment texture than this. Hitchcock famously said “drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”; Winterbottom seems to think, on the basis of this film, that “life is drama with only the dull bits kept in.” EVERYDAY is nothing but everyday moments with only the time-lapse photo quality of seeing the kids age. Oh … to think what the Dardennes or Mike Leigh could have done with this premise.

FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France, 3)

I had a similar reaction to this film as to AT ANY PRICE, only it starts out even worse and obviously doesn’t rebound nearly as well. The first hour or so of FOXFIRE is one of the most unbearable, unrelenting litanies of misandrist shit I’ve ever seen (I actually considered walking out, but the memory of the Bahrani was fresh. Plus, if college feminists couldn’t chase this “potential rapist” from watching a Take Back the Night rally, no mere film is gonna do the same.). As the subtitle suggests, FOXFIRE is about an all-female gang of juvenile delinquents, set in the late 50s, but Cantet is complicit himself in every manner of deck stacking. Not only does the narrator, who is not otherwise shown to be naïve or out-of-touch like in BADLANDS e.g., carefully relativize and legalese-ize the gang’s actions (“we committed what could have been called crimes”) but every single male victim is, in one way or another, made hateful right before he is victimized – the math teacher is mean in class, the uncle tries to take liberties, the make is cheating on his wife, the businessman is an anti-feminist reactionary, etc. Reverse the sexes in all the crimes and try to imagine the reaction this film would get, with all its legitimate robberies and careful planting of details showing the bitch was asking for it. This first hour at least of FOXFIRE is hate speech against men. No doubt about it. #fact

FOXFIRE recovers some as the group changes from a gang to a kind of commune (though it still finances itself through crimes against men, with the decks still carefully, if less one-sidedly, stacked). In that context, it becomes a bit of an anti-utopian disillusionment narrative against the death of a collarless Catholic priest who waxed nostalgic about the great revolution of 1917 — adolescent adolescence devolving into the realities of adulthood and the breakdown of teen solidarity. But like many such disillusionment stories, the film rambles on for way too long. Still, I liked the fact that the girls vote against integrating their group (somewhat offset the deck-stacking to contemporary audiences), not so crazy about the fact the group’s de facto leader Legs is the one who berates the others about the snub (offsets the offset). Within the confines of video, the dingy period environment is well-captured. The actresses make a seamless ensemble, though a little *too* seamless. Apart from physical types, really only two characters develop into individuals – the narrator Maddy (Katie Coseni) and the charismatic Legs (Raven Adamson). But their two fates … let’s just say – with respect to the latter, that it’s more deck-stacking misandry; with respect to the former, that the man who made TIME OUT does the same thing with the last scene here. To. Much. Lesser. Effect.

THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960, 8)

This was my first Ritwik Ghatak film, and, at least on the basis of CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, he seems to form a bridge between the overtly populist Bollywood cinema of Raj Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis and the art cinema of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray (the last being the only one of the three to find, relatively speaking, any audience at all in the West). On the one hand, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR has as much music as any Bollywood film, and is about as broadly acted – for good and ill. But the music numbers are either source music or just put on the soundtrack as expressionist sound, both more and less realistic than the “here’s an onscreen number” conventions dominant in Bollywood (and Hollywood).

But while CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, a secular martyrdom story about a responsible elder sister who sacrifices everything on behalf of her ungrateful family, has the same serious concerns and dark subject matter as Ray, Ghatak has much more taste for melodrama and comedy, and could have fit in at the Warners lot in the 1930s. Indeed, the famous last line had been almost the exact title of a Susan Hayward weepie. Ray wasn’t the subtlest director, but Ghatak makes him look like Dreyer. I laughed out loud at the punchline in the scene of a marital quarrel, in which Ghatak has a window from across the courtyard in the back of the frame. A woman always seems to be standing by that window just as things heat up; and the composition and the foreground characters notice her at the same moment. There are multiple layers of irony, none of them subtle – one clueless sibling says “some people suffer for their principles,” but referring to himself while Nita is in the image foreground.

As an image maker, Ghatak is more of a mannerist than any Warners director could ever be. One of the very first images calls attention to itself as deliberately and emphatically composed along multiple planes (shown here, image taken from Omar … http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.ca/2009/11/meghe-dhaka-tara-cloud-capped-star-dir.html) – a gigantic closeup of Nita in sharp focus, with a longer shot of her brother Shankar sitting on the left and a dimly-seen train in the far background: the dramatic center, the personal antagonist and the social backdrop, all in order. And for a film filled with deep-focus shots, one of the most effective is one of the few where Ghatak uses a narrow focal depth and leaves much of the image out of focus – the conversation between Nita and her mother about how far apart they are. (Put that way, it sounds too obvious for its own good, but the contrast with makes it feel absolutely right.)

Ghatak’s soundtrack is a work of expressionist wonder, again placing himself between Bollywood and Ray. It’s not just the famous whip cracks, which start as Nita descends a staircase after seeing some bad news about a marriage proposal, but also a recurring sound effect that resembles as sci-fi “aliens are here.” It comes from nowhere and has no rational explanation except a correlative of Nita’s mental breakdown. There is also a recurring sound effect of cooking, which Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his intro was a “natural” sound effect. I suppose it is, but Ghatak uses it at one point with the sound cranked up to a Spinal Tap 12 while the image smash-cuts into the mother’s face as her family plans gang aft aglay. In the last 30 minutes, there’s barely a natural sound played at a natural volume in the film.

While the other performers vary wildly in register between Bollywoodish archetypal clowns and torn intellectuals – my mind over the past couple of days has run particularly hot and cold on Bijon Bhattachara as the all-seeing and wise but impotent and he knows it father – Supriya Choudhury’s performance as central character Nita is brilliant in a very odd and eccentric way. Early on, I was thinking “she’s too beatific, her face as placid and plastic as an Indian Doris Day.” Three words, Victor – Bait. And. Switch. Unfortunately, I think Ghatak piles on too many denouements in the last 20 minutes or so, and, ironically, his gifts as an image- and sound-maker made me think several times “OK, he’s found the last shot … up and out.”

One thing that genuinely puzzled me; and I have Indian readers. I’ve read more than once that CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is about the partition of Bengal, into a province of India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). How? I couldn’t even say for certain when the film takes place, and I’m morally certain there’s no textual reference for where exactly the film is happening. There are references to trips to or events in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, but other than the absence of Britons (maybe) excluding the first of these options, there is nothing that requires the film take place in 1940, 1948 or 1955. Nor is religion an explicitly textual subject at any level, though I inferred from the names that the family is Hindu, or at least not-Muslim. But since the family itself doesn’t divide or have members marry outside the religion (like in Deepa Mehta’s EARTH) or anything comparable … help!!

September 13, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 4

LOIN DU VIETNAM (Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker; France; 1967; 4)

I don’t know why people thought this film would play as uniquely horrible to me; I’ve seen far worse than this in the field of pinko propaganda documentaries. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say with a perfectly straight face that LOIN DU VIETNAM is not a significantly better film than, and shares many flaws with, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: OBAMA’S AMERICA. One may refute that of course by applying an a-priori left-good/right-bad ideological standard, though in that case, there is no need to actually see either movie. And while LOIN may very well be effective preaching-to-the-choir (I’m sure as heck not the guy to judge it on that score), 2016 is demonstrably just as effective.

Like with D’Souza’s film, LOIN has little characterization and no drama. In LOIN, there are tendentious framings of issues like the D’Souza (Has America, more than France e.g., convinced itself that the poor are stupid? Is there polling data on this?). In LOIN, there are eye-rolling conspiratorial histoire(s) like the D’Souza (Are the poor, always and by definition, in the moral right, as the narrator says?). In LOIN, there are huge dumps of undigested talking-head material like the D’Souza (one section is nothing but a shot of Fidel Castro answering a couple of softball question, as if he was Shelby Steele or Paul Vitz). In LOIN, there is reliance on cheap emotional manipulation like in the D’Souza (footage of civilian bombing deaths looks the same in 1965 Hanoi as 1944 Dresden) and reliance on technological cheap shots like in the D’Souza (subjecting Fidel Castro to vertical roll, color separation, horrible resolution would have the same effect as doing it to William Westmoreland). In LOIN, inconvenient facts and context are ignored or downplayed like in the D’Souza (while World War II atrocities by Korean guards in Indo-China are carefully mentioned, the Soviet Union and Red China are more or less never mentioned, and not in any way that threatens to undermine the film’s “rich aggression against the poor” template for the war) I also didn’t appreciate the audience self-congratulatory laughs at Westmoreland’s claim that the US is not a murderous regime – if it were, the radiation levels at Hanoi would be getting down to habitable levels right about now.

LOIN also has some flaws of its own inimitable French-intellectual style – a bizarre soliloquy by one “Claude Ridder” while a hot chick lies silent on a couch/bed to provide confused or longing reaction shots, and a typically self-absorbed bit of talk-to-an-onscreen-camera meta-messing by Jean-Luc Godard himself. There’s also lengthy sequences of street demonstrations that (1) leave no doubt whatever that the anti-war movement was, in significant part, Communist (the French don’t think that’s such a bad thing so they have no incentive to hide it), and (2) confirm my belief that all such events, and the ensuing shouting matches, are mostly tedious and unhelpful. And if all this description makes LOIN sound like an unsorted mess … ding ding DING DING!!!!

Is there anything worthwhile if you don’t enter the theater wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt? Yes. The documentary footage from North Vietnam, including the making of impromptu bomb shelters in Hanoi, is interesting, and a sudden cut-to-black really is shocking. A sequence called “Johnson Cries” is a traditional Vietnamese clown pageant, with the make-up-covered street performers playing LBJ and an adviser and another called “Victor Charlie” plays a Tom Paxton anti-war protest song (it got a round of applause at the screening). Both the North Vietnamese clowns and Paxton have wit and artistry to their works – something the film-makers themselves should have absorbed.

ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, Belgium, 8)

There’s no fooling the audience in a kid’s movie — their reaction tells you with brutal honesty whether a film is working. The moment I knew ERNEST & CELESTINE had the audience hooked came during a scene where some ink blotches get timed and shaped to music. Despite the avant-garde sounding precept, a girl one row in front of me at a TIFF Family screening was waving her arms around in a kid’s idea of a conductor’s gestures. And the little girl was right to be hooked … I now regret missing A TOWN CALLED PANIC by this same Belgian animation team.

The story isn’t much — unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, who live in parallel cities above and below ground, and each is threatened with community ostracism for this unnatural liaison. The animation is stylish, but in a deliberately low-tech way for a minimalist, hand-drawn retro look that resembles 50s/60s French movie posters. But this kind of film is entirely about the details – attitude, tone and asides that are often at their funniest when they are at their most irrelevant and irreverent. And on that score, ERNEST & CELESTINE is pure fun from beginning to end, with more than enough double entendres (in the broadest sense, not the sexual one) to amuse everyone. Like the original BABE, it’s both wise and wiseacre, and often at the same time; for example one early line from an elderly Rodentian authority figure tells Celestine “only in fairy tales can bears be friends with mice.” Also like BABE, it’s scary and funny, also often at the same time, as when Ernest has a lightbulb moment involving a roast chicken and some breadcrumbs.

But what I appreciated most was the irrelevant details, that reflect a pure whimsy and joy in world-creation worthy of the Warners cartoons. One joke about how mice in weight training do bench presses is both funny for the kids and (for adults who have much knowledge of the real world) macabre. But then it gets twice as funny when we see the bears do the same bench-press method, which is guffawed at because, well, there is no macabre element and They Did It Anyway. Another gag about how Celestine always manages to sneak her way back into Ernest’s cabin literally defies the laws of physics and, like half the Road-Runner / Wile E. Coyote gags, is funny exactly for that reason. ERNEST & CELESTINE doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Pixar but it easily matches everything else in the family-animation field and has equal virtues for … childless adult cynics.

THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 6)

Not sure I can really improve on Mike D’Angelo’s Twitter review of Mendoza’s 2008 film SERBIS: “Here’s an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all.” http://www.panix.com/~dangelo/nyff08.html Though since Mike gave SERBIS a not-recommended 40/100, to my guardedly-recommended 6/10 for THY WOMB, I guess I should at least try to. Still, it should be obvious in my initial joke that I am recommending THY WOMB entirely on that “do you like my environment” terms. The film is 80% ethnography to 20% drama, and anyone looking for a gripping story or unwilling to tolerate longueurs should stay the sex-act-euphemism away. Given my general aesthetic preferences, my willingness to overlook something I almost never would in a film from North America or Western Europe could be called Orientalism or exoticism. If so, so be it. I have never been to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippine islands – emphasis on the noun there … if memory serves, there are no roads in this film (certainly they are few and far between) and all significant transportation is by boat. And since I do not like to travel, one reason among others I like to go to foreign films is to learn stuff.

The plot of THY WOMB barely consists of more than “a woman, who is a midwife, is infertile, she advises her husband to get a second wife, he does so after solving some dowry issues, they have baby.” The ending is … for reasons I don’t want to spoil … enigmatic. To tread vaguely, it can read as horribly ironic. Or, if we take the world as portrayed here seriously, maybe not. These details create a whole world, an environment to immerse … [stop it, Victor, stop it]. The ritual slaughter of a cow and the selling of a boat’s motor both resonate heavier, precisely because the islands’ environment has been so meticulously set up. Selling a boat motor is like selling a bike in 1940s Italy in a way it wouldn’t be in the US, and cows are a precious commodity but even they have to be transported by boat (to awkward effect in one of THY WOMB’s best scenes). Also for example, we see an attack by armed guerrillas on the couple’s fishing boat, the remains of a shot-up Catholic church during another trip, and gunfire breaking out at another couple’s wedding (featuring an eye-opening method of gift-giving). And in all three cases, it was downplayed. For example, after the boat raid, the couple went home to dress the husband’s wounds; no authorities (what authorities?) were ever called and the attack was never referred to afterward. During the wedding, people start to panic at the sound of gunfire, but the wife yells out for people to calm down and continue dancing. It’s as if the environment is everything and even the characters themselves don’t want plot events to stop it.

WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland, 2)

… not much actually.

I quipped to a bud afterward that “it’s CRIMES AND MISEMEANORS shot in the style of a muted after-school special starring Chris O’Donnell.” He said that sounds interesting, and while I guess it might, in this case it is not, because WHAT RICHARD DID is flat, thin and underdeveloped in every way. There’s really only enough material here for a 10-minute short – spoilers ahoy, but really, this film is going nowhere, and the basic premise is the first of about three plot points (rinse and repeat what I said about exoticism regarding THY WOMB; sorry, Irish bourgeoisie). Nevertheless, that plot point occurs about 40 minutes into the film, which I’d normally count as spoiler territory and try to avoid – but believe me, I was looking since the title tells you to expect the central character to do something bad. One of the aggravating things about this film is that it spends so long showing Richard doing everything but shitting rose petals in such obvious counterpoint that you spend almost half the film twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the shoe to drop. Meanwhile, what you’re seeing isn’t interesting enough in a hanging-out vibe to compensate.

The titular character, a rugby-team captain graduating private school and with his adult life ready to start, gets into a drunken fight and what results would earn him a conviction for something like third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. But only a couple of folks (also complicit themselves to some degree, and also drunk) know what happened to teammate Connor and the investigation isn’t looking in Richard’s direction. Hence my CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comparison – can I live with the knowledge of myself as a killer. Not only is Abrahamson no Woody Allen (much less a Dostoevsky), but lead actor Jack Reynor can’t even begin to compare to Martin Landau. He’s appropriately attractive and has a winning personality but can’t deliver a torn soul. The spiritual wrestling here is to the real thing what WWE wrestling is to the real thing. The only real relationship is with his father (there’s a rote girlfriend and Richard’s undifferentiated mates), and there are only three real scenes about What The Film Is About after Connor’s death, one of them in a church.

Some of it is director Abrahamson’s fault – in one scene, Richard literally screams aloud, alone, for about a minute but the hand-held digital camera tries to get closeups as he lurches around the room. But it never succeeds, making the scene a (doubly) unfocused mess. In another scene, the rugby club toasts the dead guy Connor and the camera manages to catch every member of the club’s behavior, except the person we want to see (that would be Richard … for me anyway). And the ending … let’s just say that WHAT RICHARD DID gives us a perfect rugby head fake. In other words, it cheats. Like Richard did.

September 11, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 3

ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 5)

I hope Bernardo gets to make another film because I do NOT want the last image of this man’s career to be something as nakedly and banally derivative as the 400 BLOWS endshot accompanied by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” ME AND YOU promises a lot more than it eventually delivers, but it does a good job of promising early, very much in a DREAMERS vein of two self-indulgent privileged assholes (half-siblings in this case) setting up a temporary utopia apart from the world, but parasitic upon it.

Jacopo Antinori and Tea Falco are attractive players and hold the screen well enough – I was reminded of a more aggressively sullen Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Winslet. There’s funny moments involving near simultaneous ring tones and I loved the score early on, even the Italian cover of “Space Oddity” (it sounds like Bowie himself). And ME AND YOU is gorgeous to look at, with enough orange pools of light, dust mites, and eccentric angles and movements to make me think Vittorio Storaro were still around. I especially loved a swirling shot that mostly looked up through a glass ceiling to the floor above.

But at about the hour mark, I began to get restless, as the script’s wheels begin to spin (or maybe, “bog down” … “spin” implies SOME movement and a working engine). It’s fine to have Antinori walk in a figure-8 pattern around two objects, as an armadillo had done earlier in a pet shop, but … Bernardo, it’s insulting to intercut the boy with “reminder” shots of the animal from earlier. Also, structurally, a problem with these isolated world / “Elvira Madigan” scenarios is that they really need to have the outside world intrude somehow, and that neither happens here nor much threatens to. And once the sister has set herself up in the idyll (the family basement), ME AND YOU doesn’t really create much conflict between the two of them, so the film winds up being about … not much really except some drug-withdrawal moments. The ending is also far too open-ended and irresolved for my tastes. Even that junkie angle makes the film play like JESUS SON without the loopy digressive interludes. Which is also to say … not much.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, USA, 3)

What Victor knew is Henry James. And I can’t describe this film’s rotten soul without describing the resolution, so consider that your warning. But in one sentence – Henry James wrote a novel about the wickedness of divorce and/or parents (the novel’s allows for both non-exclusive interpretation); Scott McGehee and David Siegel made a film about the virtue of step-parents and the wickedness of birth parents.

The key is two major changes – Maisie’s fate and her age. The story of both works kicks in with a divorce in which the two parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore here) share custody of a 6-year-old girl. Moore and Coogan are typically fine – Coogan getting a chance to play his self-absorbed tool persona in a dramatic context. But Moore’s greatness only allows her to stay afloat against a script that paints her as a complete bitch until she has to make a complete turn on a dime at The Big Confrontation scene at the end. In both film and novel, allowing for different particulars of the two eras (at this level of finding different-times equivalents, McGehee and Siegel have done a good job of adaptation) the two parents are head-thumpingly awful human beings, using Maisie as a tool against the other. In both works, both couples remarry, but here is where the changes start to happen, and not for any reason other than making this film the latest Holly/Indiewood salvo against the traditional family.

The first change is that Maisie is played by the same actress, 6- or 7-year-old Onita Aprile throughout, and as a result, the film has to compress the events of about a decade into at most one year. This means that Maisie’s character trajectory from naïve girl to self-aware teenager is completely gone. Aprile has the right face – semi-opaque as if she understands but doesn’t quite get what she sees. She is now essentially now a one-note character, putting all the chips on the parental characters and making the title rather misleading, or at least grossly underdeveloped for the title theme.

Which leads to the second and more damaging change — the absence of a dotty, silly servant named Mrs. Wix and how that affects the ending. In James, all four parents cheat, the step-parents with each other. In the film, the natural parents basically abandon Maisie and the step-parents (here played by Joanna Venderham and Alexander Sarsgard) only get together in the context of caring for Maisie when each gets left in the lurch by their spouses and only become a couple at the very end, accordingly softening James’s critique of parents and divorce and making an excuse for these step-parents. And at the end, James’s Maisie stays with Mrs. Wix, because she’s convinced that the newly together step-parents will fail, because of her experience and their corrupt circumstances. A novel about divorce, a corrupt marriage society and an adult growing into an understanding of love separate from marriage becomes an apologia for the post-modern family and a distasteful game of a child shopping for ideal parents – NORTH for the art-house set.

AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France, 9)

The World’s Best Pure Director is back after being on a two-film losing streak with me. I didn’t like either the unnecessary FUNNY GAMES remake and the risible “Nazism is bad” period piece WHITE RIBBON, and I had officially supplanted Haneke at the summit of my esteem with the Dardenne brothers. But with AMOUR, Haneke returns to the top of his form, with material ideally suited to it – a clinical, nearly one-set look at an elderly couple, Anne and Georges (astonishingly played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) as she has a stroke and slips into dementia.

Even if I didn’t know, there never would have been any doubt whose work this is – a heart in the mouth moment, a sudden act of unexpected violence, grueling subject matter, lengthy takes with few camera moves but much movement within the frame, rhyming compositions near the start and the end, the literal start with a bang that gets rhymed with a piano concerto that does the same, the fastidious attention to details of sound and decor, the splendidly enigmatic but explicable (to me anyway) final scenes (three head-scratchers here; the impossible scene, the pigeon, the final shot). The only new element, some folks have said, is a surprising auteurial affection for his characters and theirs for each other. Without denying that – the film after all is called AMOUR not MORT (something the very last shot underlines by indirection) – I’d also deny that Haneke’s teutonic moralism is absent. Look at the “impossible” scene and the judgmental fate it implies. At a minimum, this film is a tragedy, not the Haneke remake of a recent Clint Eastwood film I had been expecting and that AMOUR might be consumed as.

But let me just describe one scene for a sense of how much Haneke can pack into one element – a running tap. In an early scene Anne goes blank and nonresponsive while sitting with Georges at the kitchen table, and so he hurries (to the extent his own 80-ish body will allow) over to the tap to wet a towel. Because he is concerned, he leaves it running and that’s the loudest sound as he strives to revive her, the sound of running water an archetype for life slipping away. When that fails, he slowly hurries over to the phone two rooms away to call for help, but even as the camera leaves the kitchen the tap continues dominating the soundtrack, a reminder of the race against time. As he’s calling the number, the sound of the water suddenly turns off, startling both us and Georges. When he gets back to the kitchen, the conversation is based on the tap – Anne scolds Georges for leaving it running, the only thing she knows about the last several minutes. One effect has had four different meanings/uses in a couple of minutes of screen time.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France, 5)

I suppose it helps to have as an entree into this film that you were part of The 60s Generation and/or think student radicalism and occupying stuff is awesome, man (this writer was cheering on the Paris cops in the opening scene, so … no). But even if you do, there is no excuse for this film’s dramatic shortcomings. If Assayas had deliberately tried to make a film that shows by negative example the awesomeness of CARLOS – and besides auteurial commonalities, the two films share some period, milieu and structural similarities – he couldn’t have done a heck of a lot better than SOMETHING IN THE AIR.

The first thing that’s missing from SOMETHING that CARLOS had in spades was a great crime/terrorism/“activism” set-piece that got its hooks into you and showed what this character was capable of and why he mattered. The OPEC raid might have been an impossible standard but even Carlos’s early attacks had more of an element of “build” to them, and the sheer number compensated. Here, we just get a demonstration The Pigs break up, followed by a graffiti attack and a Molotov-cocktail/flour-ing. There’s exhilarating flow in the first and some high stakes in the last, but not much else. The second thing missing is a dominating, charismatic central performance, one that structures and unites and pulls through an episodic AndThen-ist narrative. Edgar Ramirez would have won the Skandies best actor any year except Jesse Eisenberg’s SOCIAL NETWORK sweep; Clement Metayer is at best adequate as the Assayas proxy who’s the closest thing to a protagonist this movie has (at worst he’s downright boring).

Without set pieces or a strong lead character, Assayas reverts to a style I associate with films of his I dislike (DEMONLOVER, LATE AUGUST EARLY SEPTEMBER and LES DETINEES SENTIMENTALES), which have a weird, “backing-into” quality, in which Assayas seems to be trying to create a milieu or aura in which the narrative threads just happens to glance off each other and at the side of the screen. (Those were also the first three Assayas films I saw, so there’s a little part of me that doesn’t trust my memory of those films.) In SOMETHING, this bad effect is exaggerated by the fact that Assayas follows a half-dozen characters’ lives for several years in early 70s, which themselves only take up the first 20(?) minutes. As a result the film gets bogged down in repetitive Basil Exposition scenes, ticking off a “catching-up” checklist as you might do with your Christmas card.

So Assayas has failed to create characters and situations that matter, though his direction almost saves the film. Eric Gautier’s camera is so fluid you practically drink it in and is never not in the right place, always managing to catch the action even in a scene that is the archetype of chaos, the street riot. I especially approved of an early upward track with a slight downward pan as a woman was leaving the hero in the woods and tells him not to watch her leave – the new angle means we see her part but not whether he was looking. The repeated fire motifs brighten matters up and tie together some of this sprawling material. And I also heartily approve of “60s was a failure” / “radicalism was/is just a means to the real goal of scoring chicks” / “radicalism gets commodified” as themes. But in a better film.

September 10, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 2

RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France, 5)

I probably would’ve given this a 4 had I not then immediately seen the film I did – persuading me there are worse things in the world than an undisciplined, nonsensical script filled with superb actors and a director who at least knows what he’s doing. Audiard even sometimes manages an arresting image, such as the hazy-minded killer-whale attack that deprives a Sea World girl of her legs. And Skandies FYC: killer-whale reunion. Marion Cotillard gets the big Oscar-bait “where’s the rest of me?” scene (and she does well by it). But Matthias Schoenaerts is even better as her sorta-lover Ali, in a role that requires him to be a lovable brute who never asks us to like him and frankly does some despicable things. I haven’t liked either of the two films I’ve seen him in (BULLHEAD being the other), but he could be a great star.

But at the end of the day, RUST AND BONE is still basically a Jean Claude Van Damme movie – LIONHEART to be specific – in which a bulgin’ Belgian responds to a medical issue by making money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. As for the legless Cotillard, RUST compares unfavorably to DIVING BELL AND BUTTERFLY, in terms of putting you inside a handicapped person’s head … here, it feels rushed and pat, like just a minor speed bump or one of the broken noses or cuts Schoenaerts takes in his fights, before she becomes the collector of illegal bets at an illegal activity (handicapped women are SO well suited for that role, let me tellz ya). And no way, no how am I buying that any man has ever first bedded a woman, much less one he once offended by assuming she was a whore, with the line “so, you wanna fuck?” (If this actually works on you … you have my combox for your contact info.)  Other unmotivated or unbelievable actions abound – why would Stephanie respond to losing her legs by calling Ali, who is barely more than a stranger?; and why did Ali’s sister and brother-in-law … change their tune … so quickly near the end? Ali’s fight career (from a French Kimbo Slice to a world title fight) and Stephanie’s recovery both progress far too quickly for the amount of change we see in Ali’s growing boy. And the subplots of Ali’s son and Ali’s day job, which involves installing spy cameras, have been too thin to carry the emotional weight Audiard seems to want to give them near the end. It’s well-done French nonsense, in the limited sense that montages set to Katy Perry music and people doing The Wave is “French.” But still nonsense.

THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola, 1)

One of the most inexplicable choices for a major film festival I have ever seen. I’ve zero-zapped Toronto films like GERRY or MARTYRS before, but I can at least get why they were programmed. THE GREAT KILAPY may be the most uninspired film, at once utterly incompetent while maintaining a certain veneer of competence, that I think I’ve ever seen here. Besides making RUST AND BONE look good, I’m really considering whether I was too harsh on TABU, with which KILAPY shares a structural similarity – a first half set in Portugal, a second in Portuguese colonial Africa (though here the protagonist is a black member of the local upper crust rather than a Portuguese woman). Unless there was some African quota number to be reached, I can’t even imagine what could possess a professional programmer to think KILAPY was worthy.

To start with, the film is neither thrilling nor funny (#fact … certainly nobody in the audience laughed or gasped much). It’s a measure of KILAPY’s incompetence at basic dramaturgy, scene-building, pacing and tonal cues that I’m not certain whether the film was trying to be a comedy, a thriller, both or neither. KILAPY’s basic premise implies some combination of those elements – Joaozinho, the son of a well-connected Angolan, lives a wastrel life in 1960s Lisbon but falls in with independence activists and leftist radicals, while really only caring about money and sex. When sent back to Angola he gets a position in a bank, which he starts bilking to fund an MPLA activist friend and his own taste for Mercedes roadsters. You can see all the ways this basic skeleton might work – as a cynical demythologization, as a caper comedy, as a crime procedural, as a political awakening. But it just … happens. And lies there, with nothing even to indicate the film-makers even realize that they don’t know what they’re doing. There is exactly one scene that threatens to be good – Joaozinho’s father listening to an MPLA radio broadcast while his son enters the house. The rest is a whole lot of “AndThen-ing.”

Nor is KILAPY incompetent in an entertaining or crude way a la Ed Wood. Every scene is perfectly evenly lit, not a shadow or blemish or hint of grain in sight (except for stock footage “establishing” 1969 Luanda so mismatched it’s almost … almost … parodic). It so clean-scrubbed and plastic and false it looks like interminable footage of toothpaste commercials or fourth-rate telenovelas. KILPAY is for some reason narrated by a middle-aged white man who was witness to the very end of events (not that he gets involved in some key way … oh no) to a young black woman in the present day. Why he’s doing this, whether he succeeds, why it matters … dammit, I’ve already spent too much time on a film that nobody (other than the Portuguese, Brazilian, Mozambican and Angolan bureaucrats who funded it) is ever gonna see.

THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 7)

I could largely repeat what I wrote a few years ago about Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO CINEMA a few years ago at Toronto (https://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2006/09/09/toronto-day-1-capsules/), only more so. IDEOLOGY repeats the formula, only more so – it’s 60 percent brilliant, 20 percent idiotic and 20 percent wtff? But as film, it’s compulsively and thrillingly watchable. Zizek himself has so much charisma and so non-pedantic, he’s such an astute film critic, and the film is such an editing and effects virtuoso act (e.g. you see Zizek liking on the TAXI DRIVER set, seen from overhead like Travis while wearing the same costume). In addition, IDEOLOGY is film sociocriticism of the highest order and Zizek is so blessedly free of the smelly orthodoxies of this benighted era that even its intellectual failures are (1) of the sort you feel privileged to say “but wait … that’s nucking futs!!!” and (2) inherent in the ideas to which Zizek has committed himself (primarily, post-communist leftism and Lacan psychoanalysis).

IDEOLOGY is also so thoroughly up my alley in terms of the intellectual fields through which Zizek is running (whatever the precise pattern he’s running). Zizek does a wonderful read on BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which happens to be the only film I ever gave to my shrink and insist that he watch, and how the Big Other is constructed. All-encompassing threats like the shark in JAWS are popular precisely because they can be filled with whatever the viewer wants (one thing I constantly keep in mind when reading film criticism). In this brutally truthful film, Zizek sees ideology everywhere, understands the importance of appearance, had me rolling in the aisles at his drinking a Starbucks, thrilled me with his (agreement with my) reads on the “Officer Krupke” number from WEST SIDE STORY, the Noble Lie in THE DARK KNIGHT and military discipline in FULL METAL JACKET, and he gives prime of place to subjectivity over “objective” material conditions (“how do we subjectivize our objective circumstances” in Zizek’s words, is, if it’s a meaningful question at all, the decisive refutation of classic Marx, though Zizek doesn’t act as if he realizes that).

And that last puts the finger on why I found IDEOLOGY almost as maddening as exhilarating (besides his carelessness with details. The journalist in me could pick all day at statements like “TAXI DRIVER is an ‘unacknowledged’ SEARCHERS remake”; “Dostoevsky never said ‘if there is no God all is permitted’,” and “the system of apartheid” in Rhodesia). But more importantly Zizek starts from commitments he cannot question within his own subjectivity and so as a result keeps painting himself into corners and a welter of contradictions. I could write for days on that, so let me just give one example. He argues, using images from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that Christianity is atheistic. Because, he claims, Christianity denies the Jewish God by answering the Job question, the unanswerability of which can ground God as the Big Other. But this Big Other “dies on the Cross” and now God guarantees meaning in the universe through His own act of sacrificial love. Given Lacanian psychology as a master discourse, against which religious claims are measured (as Zizek does), that does follow. But the nuttiness of “Christianity is atheistic” or “the only way to become an atheist is to go through Christianity” (that’s a different argument, BTW) doesn’t deter Zizek, and the obvious rejoinder – that love might itself provide a different, superior grounding for God; that Deus Caritas Est, as some recent book has claimed – is an idea that, on the basis of this film, has never occurred to Zizek. Of course, since he later says “we cannot know God’s will because God does not exist,” he’s not even careful with his own contradictions. But well, that’s Zizek. And this film.

FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA, 7)

Just christen me “The Grouch of TIFF 12,” since everybody I know seems to like this film even more than I do. And don’t get me wrong, give me a half-way developed ending and that grade goes up at least one and possibly two points. Which is a shame because until then, this may be Baumbach’s best film and all thanks and praise must go to, and glory be unto the name of, Greta Gerwig, who could become the Chris Eigemann of the 10s, dividing time between being Whit Stillman’s muse and Noah Baumbach’s (and rejuvenating their careers one hopes).

FRANCES is a tragicomic tale of brightly-dialogued and hyper-self-aware downward mobility, with one’s life measured out, not with coffee spoons, but with roommates and “prospect” jobs and apartment moves. (As someone who’s held basically the same job for 13 years, lived in the same place for 10 and been by myself for 20 … this is a world profoundly alien to me.) Gerwig plays a Brooklyn ballet apprentice (so I must ask: a dancer and … no sambola. Why, Greta … why???!!?) whose career hopes and ability to pay her share of the rent are based on becoming an official understudy, getting extra performances for Christmas season and general hopes to choreograph her own show. Her downward spiral, as she gets gradually reduced to being a summer RA at her alma mater, constitutes the main trajectory. The dialog and positioning among hypercompetitive people draws passive-aggressive blood as things are said with half an eye on their truth and half on their appearance. (Frances’ trip to Paris is what a Haneke comedy would look like.) This is a society as snobbish and appearance-obsessed as Balzac’s Paris or Wharton’s New York, both comparisons that these characters would blanche at because they’re so much beyond All That and have the degrees to prove it. The only constant in Frances’ life is her friendship with Sophie, which she repeatedly sabotages and re-establishes. And if I’m made FRANCES HA sound grim and self-serious … mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Like Balzac or Wharton, it’s tremendously funny account of status anxiety among the snobs.

But that ending … to everybody fawning over this film who doesn’t have an equally high grade for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (and you know who you are): How is the montage that substitutes for a third act in the Shelton film any less lazy than the montage that Baumbach deploys here? After 82 minutes of Frances being her own worst enemy, of throwing away opportunities (and wasting thousands(?) of bucks in the Paris trip, e.g.) in the name of pride and appearance and self-conception, all of which I adore per se … how is the last 4 minutes possible? Frances turns from a hipster fuck-up to a reasonably effectual person on the turn of a dime. And it’s not anything that actually happens in that 81st minute – nothing happened there that hadn’t happened before. In addition, it’s not as if unmotivated and unconvincing denouements were a problem I haven’t been having with Baumbach’s last couple of films (which way MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG flip in terms of a character “taking a trip” is pure chance). To cite a journalistic aphorism – one is an anecdote, two is coincidence, three is a trend.

September 8, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Toronto 2012 capsules — Day 1


SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982, 9)

Despite the grade, this heady essay film isn’t perfect — it seems to be some sort of rule that every French leftist intellectual’s stream-of-consciousness has to contain at least three monumentally stupid pseudo-profundities, a quota Marker manages to meet (did you know the American “occupation” introduced puritanical sexphobia into Japan? I sure didn’t.)

But at some point, I quit caring. My jaw was on the floor more often than an overmatched fighter’s, as mind-boggling image piled upon Soviet-worthy montage and as expressionist sound mix competed for attention with technologically-altered footage that isn’t mere wankery. I have the word “wow” written out to the side about a half-dozen times – to scenes of faceless shadows passing bricks to one another without looking, Narita airport protesters turned into abstract shapes by “The Zone,” an endless single take of ticketing at Tokyo subway, people sleeping on train intercut to J-horror shots and then a woman waking up, the whack-a-”mole” game, the giraffe slaughter (not for the squeamish) matched to music that sounded like an electronic version of closing music from UGETSU, and a silly aphorism about Japanese TV watching you that gets illustrated by a progressively faster-rotating montage of faces and eyes almost making this absurd thought seem palatable.

Speaking of Soviet-worthy … Marker is a Commie, but even if you ignore all the filmic gorgeosity, this didn’t really bother me either, because he’s not blind to the failures of left-wing causes. He returns to the demonstrators having the same fight over an airport as they did 10 years ago “only now the airport is there.” He admires the post-60s generation’s spirit but not their utopianism. I also would cite this film’s material on the former Portuguese Guinea as a classic case of a Marxist losing his faith, or at least losing the optimism and confidence that, in its classic form, is intrinsic to Marxism. Not only does Marker underline the “what do we do now” problem all anti-colonial revolutionaries faced, but his (aestheticized) footage of a guerrilla attack removes all the cheap Che romanticism and he frankly acknowledges the bloody history of Guinea Bissau’s independence. In order to “keep the faith” as it were, Marker has to retreat to aphorisms like “history progresses by forgetting” and finally that history has only one permanent ally, “the Horror” (Indeed, I would argue from exactly those premises that there are therefore no such things as “progress” or “history,” but I digress.)

I have it in my head that I recently read about SANS SOLEIL being dismissed as “Chris Marker’s vacation footage,” which … I guess it is, in a sense (some of it is just as clearly found footage), but with editing and voiceover like this, it’s anything but unshaped. It’s also incredibly funny at times – three words: talking Kennedy mannequin. Also Japan developing “a cheaper, more efficient form of Catholicism.” Marker turns it all into a meditation on death, on cultures’ (Japan’s most of all) relationship to it, and on the ways the future relates to the past and vice versa. So naturally, one of the most breath-taking sequences concerns Marker’s love for VERTIGO and his tour of San Francisco. And in a fortuitous coincidence, because Hitch was withholding VERTIGO’s rights, Marker had to use still photographs to illustrate his points about memory and loss. Sound familiar?


TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 4)

Anchovies are wonderful. Chocolate sauce is wonderful. This wheat beer I’m having right now is wonderful. Anchovies smothered in chocolate sauce and beer is not wonderful. In precisely that sense, TABU is not wonderful. TABU’s ingredients can be wonderful on their own, or on a pizza or over ice cream or with chicken wings. There are good reasons why films mixing certain things is taboo (sorry) and TABU illustrates some of them.

After a folkloric overture, we get one tonal mistake after another. The first part of TABU, “Paradise Lost” is a semi-absurdist comedy largely about three women – an elderly Portuguese woman Aurora, her black maid whom she suspects of putting curses on her, and her younger best friend who wonders about a missing daughter and whom the old woman asks to track down a man’s name, Gian Luca. The problem here is simply that the material is only theoretically funny, though if David Lynch’s deadpan ellipses and indulgences in weird bizarrerie crack you up, feel free to ignore me.

The second half, “Paradise,” is more successful than the first on its own, but it’s both a tonal misfit with the first and unsuccessful on its own terms because of what I’ll call “the gimmick.” Set in Portuguese colonial Africa (likely Mozambique but it’s not made explicit), the story follows a younger Aurora and her romantic involvements. But The Gimmick here is that there is no diegetic dialogue, the film instead featuring only shared voice-over narration and even letters between illicit lovers. The film is also in black-and-white, with the back half being in a grainier format; so it does look nice. And there is a Portuguese cover of “Be My Baby” that I will be trying to hunt down – TABU has its merits, no doubt.

The problem is that the back half is all intended to be hyper-romantic and swoonworthy (I mentioned THE ENGLISH PATIENT afterward to Kenji Fujishima and he said Gomes had cited OUT OF AFRICA in the Q-and-A, which I fled), but it is not, primarily because The Gimmick gets in the way. Depriving people of dialog turns them into abstractions and prevents any real emotional involvement. And while I can get intellectually that the gimmick is more like “memory,” it’s too distancing to move someone other than the actual rememberer. Similarly, the ending is clearly intended to emotionally slay you, and if I’d given a crap about anything that had preceded it, I may very well be counting myself among the slain. (In case it’s not clear, unlike with many bad films, I really can see how some people can [wrongly] think this film great.) As it is, I’m quite firmly alive and unslain.

September 6, 2012 Posted by | TIFF2012, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

By Popular Demand … OK by the demand of one taffy

After persistent heckling for one of the two cinephile Dan Owens I know, here is my annual “What I am seeing at Toronto this year” post. Though I regret to inform Alex Fung that his annually awaited “Canadian bilingualism, c’est le suck” rant, which he says marks the start of TIFF, is still to come. This is being posted using my work laptop Mac in Cincinnati airport (yeah … Washington to Toronto via Cincinnati … cheapness trumps geography and geometry) while I am traveling on a *US* airline (Delta) rather than that prisoner of sensitivities to frogdom [Victor looks up how you say “Air Canada” in French … oh … wow] Air Canada. So not yet, Alex … coming soon.

Anyhoo … as always, this schedule is subject to change depending on buzz. There is also one time, the first Saturday morning, where I know I’ll have to sacrifice at least one of a cluster of three films, and buzz will determine what I do (though given commercial release patterns, I’m likeliest to skip ARGO). I also quickly reconciled myself to not seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER — the screening I wanted to go to was sold out, and it will have a week-long run in 70mm in Washington, so I didn’t try too hard to juggle things around. The absence of the new Leos Carax and Alain Resnais films — THAT I haven’t quite gotten over yet.

Thu 6 Sept.

Noon SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982) Jackman Hall
615pm TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal) Lightbox 1

Fri 7 Sept.

Noon RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France) Ryerson
315pm THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola) Cineplex 2
600pm THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes / Slavoj Zizek, Britain) Isabel Bader
930pm FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA) Ryerson

Sat 8 Sept.

930am ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy) Cineplex 2
1100am ARGO (Ben Affleck, USA) Elgin Theatre
1245pm WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGahee and David Siegel, USA) Lightbox 1
600pm AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France) Elgin Theatre
900pm SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France) Elgin Theatre

Sun 9 Sept.

1130am LOIN DU VIETNAM (a buncha commies, Frogland, 1967) Lightbox 3
300pm ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubier, Belgium) Cineplex 6
615pm THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines) Cineplex 9
945pm WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland) Scotiabank 2

Mon 10 Sept.

900am THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous, Indonesia) Bloor
noon AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA) Ryerson
300pm EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain) Cineplex 7
545pm FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France) Ryerson
900pm THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960) Lightbox 4

Tue 11 Sept.

1100am BYZANTIUM (Neil Jordan, Britain) Elgin Theater
300pm NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile) Bloor
600pm MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia) Cineplex 5
800pm PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA) Winter Garden Theatre
1000pm ARTHUR NEWMAN (Dante Ariola, USA) Scotiabank 1

Wed 12 Sept.

1100am GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain) Elgin Theater
345pm IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France) Lightbox 1
645pm REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy) Lightbox 1
930pm BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) Scotiabank 3

Thu 13 Sept.

115pm POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) Lightbox 3
330pm CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China) Lightbox 1
600pm BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany) Ryerson
900pm CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany) Lightbox 2

Fri 14 Sept.

915am IN THE FOG (Sergei Loznitza, Russia) Lightbox 2
1130am JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR (Billy Bob Thornton, USA) Ryerson
415pm PIETA (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Scotiabank 9
630pm IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) Scotiabank 1
845pm IN THE NAME OF LOVE (Luu Huynh, Vietnam) Cineplex 2

Sat 15 Sept.

900am KEY OF LIFE (Kenji Uchida, Japan) Scotiabank 11
1230pm CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD (Benjamin Avila, Argentina) Cineplex 3
400pm BIG IN VIETNAM (Mati Diop, France) and MEKONG HOTEL (“Joe,” Thailand) Cineplex 9
545pm ROOM 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA) Cineplex 2
915pm NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (Raul Ruiz, Chile) Lightbox 4
midnight JOHN DIES AT THE END (Don Coscarelli, USA) Ryerson

Sun 16 Sept.

1230pm THE SUICIDE SHOP (Patrice Leconte, France) Scotiabank 2
345pm ZAYTOUN (Eran Riklis, Israel) Lightbox 2
615pm DORMANT BEAUTY (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) Scotiabank 4
945pm TO THE WONDER (Terence Malick, USA) Lightbox 1

September 5, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment