Rightwing Film Geek

Chris Marker and Andrei Tarkovsky

ImageOn the occasion of the death of French film-maker Chris Marker (nee Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), I’m reposting (and slightly cleaning-up for “cold reading”) a review I wrote years ago on Super-Secret Nerd Group, on Marker’s ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH. While Marker’s LA JETEE is his best-known film and also very much worth seeing even to people without an existential stake in the history of the French Left, I honestly prefer ONE DAY. I have the film, which was an episode of the French series “Cinema of Our Times,” among my Top 10 films for 2001, though I only saw it a couple years later, on either the Sundance or IFC channels. What makes ONE DAY poignant on this day (I may watch it again in the next few days) is that it films a dying Andrei Tarkovsky during the production of his valedictory and very-much-about-death film THE SACRIFICE. As I mention, Marker even shows Tarkovsky directing the French crew from what could well have been his death bed. Kicker: the expiring Russian was 10 years younger than Marker. May both men RIP.



ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH (Chris Marker, France, 2001, 9)

Or if you want film criticism on film, you should watch Chris Marker. As in ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH, which is the greatest use of film as film criticism I’ve ever seen that doesn’t involve remaking the same movie five times over. And THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, which I placed #2 for 2004 (the year of this posting), and ONE DAY are just so different in their sense of what “being film criticism” is about, that any direct comparison is pretty silly.

But man was ONE DAY awesome — and don’t by any means speak as the world’s biggest Tarkovsky groupie (I’ve come around on him even more in the eight years since I wrote this). But what makes ONE DAY awesome is that it’s formally accomplished (not dazzling by any means, but done with as much imagination and style as the average fiction feature); it gives you a sense of Tarkovsky the man, and gives a good overview of his career that has serious critical insights that go beyond the highlight reel of the average artist bio.

ImageEven though I’ve come around to the view that ANDREI RUBLEV, STALKER, THE SACRIFICE and SOLARIS are great films, (I think) J. Hoberman was right to point out that Tarkovsky’s films have to be seen twice or not at all. In fact, to be honest, if someone just getting into art films were to come to me and ask “where should I start exploring Tarkovsky,” I would actually say with Marker’s film rather than any of the Russian’s own. As for Tarkovsky’s working personality, it’s what’s you’d expect from his films — a perfectionist who leaves nothing to chance, a man who was directing literally from his deathbed, even directing Marker. But Marker himself also directly links the working method with the final product. In one scene, for the incredible final shot of THE SACRIFICE, we see Tarkovsky meticulously directing and blocking his actors. But Marker also inserts cutaways from THE SACRIFICE inside the documentary frame, showing the actors doing what Tarkovsky is telling them.

Marker links AT’s biography to Tarkovsky’s films constantly — the opening shot of his film being an early shot from MIRROR, focusing on the actress’ hairdo and how it makes her look so like Tarkovsky’s wife. He also outlines some of the major themes and obsessions — weather, paintings, mirrors. And it’s not so much that Marker does or says anything really new, but more that he illustrates it with *well chosen shots* — there’s just no substitute for this, and it’s why film criticism via film could be so promising if anyone could actually take an interest in it.

Marker also talks about the worldview of Orthodox Christianity and how it’s linked to Tarkovsky’s typical camera angles. For example, Marker (or I guess Alexandra Stewart, the English-soundtrack narrator) describes the “Pantokrator” icon, typical of Orthodoxy, but rare in the Western Church — basically it’s a painting of Jesus looking straight down from inside a church’s dome (or a God’s eye POV). And this description accompanies camera movements that glide into that position — in THE SACRIFICE, SOLARIS and ANDREI RUBLEV. And if you’ve seen the movies, you also realize the plot points make Tarkovsky’s shot not accidental or for show. Respectively, it’s the one shot of The Apocalypse, the final revelation about the planet, and a grace-full God blessing the bell-casting that the boy didn’t know.

ONE DAY also (unintentionally) gave me one reason a sense of why I was resistant to Tarkovsky for so long. (His first two, least-Tarkovskyish films — THE STEAMROLLER AND THE VIOLIN and IVAN’S CHILDHOOD — are the only two that I can unqualifiedly say I enjoyed on first viewing.) But as an unrepentant urbanite whose idea of natural beauty is green concrete, the fact that nature, and the four classical elements, has such a dominant presence in Tarkovsky’s films didn’t acclimate me to them (I once joked that the rain was the only thing that kept me awake during some of them). That’s what elevates ONE DAY about the ordinary “fan letter” artist bio (like, say IN THE MIRROR OF MAYA DEREN, as much as much as I unexpectedly liked that AS an intro to Deren for a non-avantgarde fanboy). ONE DAY is a great enough piece of criticism to give, without engaging in negative polemic, a real sense of what somebody (the me of the mid- and late-90s) *doesn’t* like about Tarkovsky. What an achievement THAT is.

July 30, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Silverdocs schedule

ImageSilverdocs is not only Washington’s best film festival IMHO, it’s also one of the world’s best all-documentary festivals. It gets under way tonight at the AFI Silver in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring (here is the site with link to a complete schedule) though, as usual, with a red-carpet event that I, as usual, will avoid. EVERYMAN’S JOURNEY is about a Journey tribute band whose lead singer gets a tryout to replace Steve Perry and doesn’t stop believin and holds onto feeeliiii-iiiing (sorry, Scott … I embrace #hackstamp with ooohhhhpen aaaaaaaarms).

The real action at Silverdocs gets under way tomorrow. At last year’s fest there were a lot of political-related films, ranging in POV diversity all the way from the liberal-left through the radical-left to the psychotic-left. (Seeing a lot of these films at one time, though, does give you a better sense of what the good ones are and what they do right — why INCENDIARY or BETTER THIS WORLD are miles-better films than HOT COFFEE or BLACK POWER MIXTAPE.) As for this year’s fest … well, Sonny told me not to bother when he told me there were no Russian snuff films, but I decided to ignore him.

This year, the theme seems to be art and artists, broadly defined. Without particularly trying and while deliberately avoiding what smell like local-band-fandocs, I’m still gonna be seeing about 6 or 7 such films, ranging from a portrait of one of Pee-Wee Herman’s collaborators to a tale of a painting looted by the Nazis during the war. I’ll start watching stuff consistent with work schedule and then be camped out Friday and Saturday. I’ll also see what wins the big prizes and may accordingly attend one of the post-fest “Winners” screening. Unfortunately for me, the arguably best event — a thorough retrospective of the PARADISE LOST film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, from BROTHER’S KEEPER to their latest on Sun Records — will be inaccessible to me because of when the films are playing. Others should definitely check it out though.

Annyhoo … here is my schedule for the week, either as encouragement or deterrent. (And yes, I couldn’t resist a pairing of THE SOURCE and LA SOURCE.)

Tuesday, 19 June
1215pm THE VIRGIN TALES (Mirjam Von Arx, Germany/Switzerland)
900pm BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (Jay Bulger, USA)

Wednesday, 20 June
1115am THE AMBASSADOR (Mads Brugger, Denmark)

Thursday, 21 June
1130am CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (Yung Chang, Canada/China)

Friday, 22 June
1030am DETROPIA (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA)
515pm DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, USA)
715pm ONLY THE YOUNG (Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, USA)
915pm DRIVERS WANTED (Joshua Weinstein, USA)
1045pm THE SOURCE (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, USA)

Saturday, 23 June
945am LA SOURCE (Patrick Shen, USA/Haiti)
1215pm PLANET OF SNAIL (Yi Seung-jun, South Korea)
215pm DOWNEAST (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, USA)
1015pm TCHOUPITOULAS (Bill Ross and Turner Ross, USA)

Sunday, 24 June
1015am PORTRAIT OF WALLY (Andrew Shea, USA/Austria)

June 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

AMADEUS blogathon

The previous post, which obviously took a while to wrote and reflect on (hence my lack of Top 10/Skandies updates), was made as my commitment to an AMADEUS blogathon, led by my bud Bilge Ebiri, who also has a post linking to all the other posts in the Blogathon. The links I reproduce here (you can also obviously go to Bilge’s site too) as reciprocation and thanks to everyone else for participating.

Peter Labuza on Milos Forman’s use of music.

Matthew Wilder on AMADEUS as an 80s film.

Glenn Kenny on the literary origins of AMADEUS.

Paul Clark on his personal history with AMADEUS and Mozart.

Zach Ralston on Salieri’s musical talent — as a critic.

Andrew Welch applies Graham Greene’s theory of film to AMADEUS.*

Tim Grierson on audience identification in AMADEUS.


* Look for that theory tomorrow (I promise) when I wrote about #9

February 10, 2012 Posted by | Blogathons | 2 Comments

Blog Me Amadeus: The Homily on Salieri

“For by grace you are saved … not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may glory. For we are His workmanship.”

— St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2

When describing AMADEUS, Salieri is frequently described as an initially pious man who turns against God because He gave Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to Mozart, an impious clown. I myself used almost those exact words a couple of years ago when describing the effect seeing AMADEUS had on me in the late-80s. While it is obviously correct as a description of the general narrative trajectory, I used one word there that is significant. “Initially.” The central event is the tossing of a crucifix on the fire, and the whole back half of the film is about an explicitly-named plot against God.

Or so I thought.

When I looked at AMADEUS again a week ago for this blogathon, I had religious questions and issues in the front of my head because I had told Bilge in vague terms that I would write something about how the character of God is presented. This caused me to look more closely at the ways in which Salieri describes his piety, and to privilege mentions of religiously-fraught details. Viewed in that light, the film turned itself upside-down from how I had previously seen it. Never before had I seen how spiritually inevitable it was and how Salieri’s undoing was the result of his own vices, which he sees as virtues. AMADEUS is not the story of a pious man cruelly treated by a Tyrant-god given to cosmic jokes (though that IS how Salieri presents it). Rather, it is the story of an impiously proud man who tries to exercise Providence as if he himself were God.

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February 10, 2012 Posted by | Blogathons, Milos Forman, Religion in movies | 2 Comments

2011 — Best Undistributed Films

The “Skandies” half of my year-end wrap-up continues with my vote in the “Undistributed” poll, which, unlike every other Skandie category, requires that your film NOT have had a commercial release. To qualify for this section, also known as the “Undies,” a film must have an Internet Movie Database year of 2009, i.e., be two years old, but never have had a Skandie-qualifying run, which is defined as playing for one week in a commercial release in New York. Effectively, this means films that played at festivals but never got picked up.

In the past two years, I saw 29 such films with 2009 IMDb dates, a shockingly high number for me — in previous years I’ve typically seen about 12 or 15 and sometimes had to abstain because there weren’t 10 I thought were worth a crap. Not this year — I actually even liked (6 grade or better) the majority of those 29 films, and there were even some 7-grade films that didn’t make the cut for the Top 10. The film at #1 I graded a 9, and the next three I graded an 8, so there are some real “keepers” here. Like other Skandie categories, you get 100 points to divvy up among your 10 films, with the sole distribution rule being mimimum of 5 points, maximum of 30.

Since I already reviewed half of my ten films, I just say a few words on them and link to my earlier review. The overall results were revealed in December and are here. The 10 films I eventually voted for, with the number of points, are after the jump.

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February 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

2011 Top 10 — Number 10

PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, USA)

Someone comes up to you and suggests performing and funding a scientific study of raising a chimpanzee as a human being and teaching him human language. If your immediate reaction is “yeah, that sounds interesting, here’s the money,” you might find PROJECT NIM lacking. If your immediate reaction is that of a normal person and of the functional-“all” until quite recently — that is, you look to the side, make a polite excuse and slowly back away — PROJECT NIM is a brilliant, pitch-black comedy about just such a 1970s hippie-science experiment, and how some forms of animal research really are about man’s view of man, to the detriment of both man and beast.

Marsh, whose previous documentary was the Oscar-winner MAN ON WIRE, isn’t terribly interested in the science of the Project Nim experiment itself — which had to do with efforts to rebut Noam Chomsky’s theory that language properly-understood is a uniquely human attribute, hard-wired in us, absent in animals. The chimp, taken from his mother at birth and kept away from all other chimps until he was 5 years ago, was named Nim Chimpsky, a fact that is in the film and which point I “got,” but it is not explained in the film and I don’t think Chomsky is even explicitly mentioned (I was distressed some years ago to learn that there is a subject in the world on which I’m a hard-core Chomskyite). The experiment’s trajectory also seems a little telescoped — lead researcher Herbert Terrace acknowledges the experiment has failed rather suddenly, though one suspects the motivation was other.

But the experiment itself is really just a Maguffin, or the occasion for the particulars of this hilarious sick joke, which (YAY!!) comes out on DVD and Blu next week. What Marsh is interested in, and he succeeds magnificently, is an Errol Morris-like portrait of human folly, human nature and how we anthropomorphize animals, and do much else, to play out our own ideas and agendas. The first words in my notes are “Errol Morris, minus Glass score [instead] more conventional strumming.” Indeed, you could almost say NIM was the second-best Morris comedy of 2011 (hint … hint …). Marsh has dramatic, portentous title cards to divide up the tale, cuts to interview subjects in an eccentrically-lit stage, and also uses some re-creations to fill in narrative gaps where archival footage doesn’t exist (though there is plenty of such footage). The Morris-aping (sorry) does, however, get a little much in the lengthy show-offy pans that introduce characters when they give their sit-down interviews today.

The other film that went through my mind a lot watching this one was GRIZZLY MAN, also about people (or in that case, one person) who don’t respect the difference between man and animals. In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable scenes, an Alaska Native says incredulously that while his people have lived beside the grizzlies forever, Treadwell “tried to become a bear, and we know you can’t do that.” PROJECT NIM is about that same sin in its opposite form, the one preferred by our technological materialist society — man wanting to make an animal into a man (curiously, the animals themselves never initiate these projects). While there’s plenty to laugh at in the Herzog film (and I did some), it was hard to really let loose because we knew right from the start that this folly ended with the grisly (sorry) deaths of two people. In PROJECT NIM, the stakes are a little lower.

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February 2, 2012 Posted by | James Marsh, Skandies | 1 Comment

2011 — Best Old Films

With Skandies season now upon us (Mike has begun the 20-1 countdown here), I’m going to be writing a lot about my ballot and the top films of 2011 the next three weeks. The plan (fingers crossed) is for one post a day, alternating between my Skandies ballot category-by-category and my annual Top 10 films list, which I haven’t actually revealed anywhere (though if you follow my Twitter feed or look at my screening log, you have a pretty good sense of what will turn up). I’m almost certain to take a day or two off, at least for a planned New York trip, but I will do my best to see this through by giving myself a concrete “assignment” to write every day.

With just nine Skandies categories, I needed a tenth “category” post to fill out the symmetry, so I decided on the 10 Best Old Films of 2011. With one exception, explained there, all these films were unseen by me as of Jan. 1, 2011, and all of them received my highest grade for a first-time viewing (9). Rather than rank them against each other, I’ve just decided to put them in chronological order. I’ve also made liberal use of any tweets I wrote about the films immediately upon or shortly after exiting the theater.

One thing I hope might be valuable in this list, though I also can see it being intimidating, is making concrete the fact that the cinema canon is a literally endless source of new pleasures. Even someone like myself, who was asked semi-rhetorically a few weeks ago whether there was any film he hadn’t seen, can always find more. Whether it’s discovering a new auteur, seeing every last film of a favorite director in hopes of finding one more pearl, or being surprised and reconsidering old ideas (and there are examples here of all these phenomena), there’s always something new and so cinephilia never gets old.

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February 1, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Melies > Marty


HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2011, 5)

If the credits were removed from this movie, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Un Film de Steven Spielberg, what with the state-of-the-art special effects, the daddy abandonment issues and the combination of Jude Law and robots. (Spielberg IS releasing a 3-D movie based on a beloved piece of kid-lit set in a retro French environment this Christmas, isn’t he?) Jokes aside, what makes the first half of HUGO so dire is that feels like a mere entry point, Scorsese going through the motions to get to what he really cares about (and if you know what the second half of the film is about, the wheel spinning becomes actively painful). Scorsese is too much of a sheer cinematic virtuoso to produce something literally without merit, but the first hour of HUGO comes pretty doggone close. Practically the first thing written in my notes is “trying so hard to be ‘magical,’ just coming across as bossy.” The next thing is “oh no … grumpy adult meets cute moppet, why O Lord.” And finally “a key hole (on a broken robot, vjm now) in the shape of a heart, WHY O LORD!!!” And there were plenty more examples of plot points and (especially) dialog that was so on-the-nose, underlined, highlighted and with arrows-pointing that all I could do was snort in disgust. In the worst bit, two kids, the titular Hugo and his adventure-seeking Girl Friday discuss his obsession with clocks and robots: “I’m sad looking at machines that don’t work … it’s like they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” (by this point, the conversation subtext is perfectly clear) / “maybe people are like that” (vjm starts to groan) / “like Papa Georges” (vjm tosses head against back of his seat in disgust). At the very end of the film, for the really really REALLY dumb, Papa Georges credits the boy “who saw a broken machine and fixed it” (vjm throws popcorn at the screen; or would have if he’d gotten any).

There are other problems with what we might call the “human” stories surrounding Hugo, apart from minor annoyances like French signs while everyone speaks British English, even when reading aloud from a book whose French words we can see on the page. More importantly, there are just too many cinematic allusions here, so that you feel exhausted even before you actually get to the Georges Melies Film History Lecture. The magpie-written script steals from everything from THE 400 BLOWS and UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS to GRAND ILLUSION and THE RULES OF THE GAME; and those are just the French talkies. And it’s all in service of a “human” story that is hackneyed and uninteresting … just warmed over tropes from hundreds of better kids films, such as the Spielbergian Absent Daddy.

Sasha Baron Cohen’s bumbling French railroad inspector is potentially a fun character. But the leg calipers and war wounds wear too heavily on a role that’s basically a John Cleese imitation of Inspector Clouseau (at one of Cohen’s metronomic interrogations of Hugo, I wanted to interject “this parrot has ceased to BEEE”). And his comic broadness also works against his scenes courting a flower girl, which I think are meant to be poignant on account of being a homage to Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS or something.

So Scorsese failed to create characters and situations that matter, but what he HAS done that merits the mixed 5 grade, beyond the Melies homage, is make the first film to give me a half-second’s pause about my ideological opposition to 3D (even Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS used 3D to take full advantage of a pre-existing world, not to create a fictional one from scratch). Partly, it’s that Scorsese uses the process not for loud action but for some lovely and magical effects — the ashes from the burnt notebook, the floating of Melies’ sketches throughout his bedroom. But it’s also that he integrates it with conventional cinematic grammar and directorial stratagems, making 3D seem more like a tool than a mere gimmick. A simple focus pull within a shot acquires 10 times the force when the newly-in-focus object pops out the screen at you as well. Scorsese also uses every angle in the book, especially overheads and low-angle shots. The multiple planes and internal spaces that 3D accentuates acquire a prominence beyond “look what I can do,” becoming instead a bid to create the comprehensive space of an entire world. And while Cohen’s leering face was an obvious effect, his Doberman pinscher’s much less comic snout and teeth were thereby not.

Scorsese also picked — segue alert — a subject more ideal than you might have thought for a 3D homage. It’s not just that Melies was an inventor and a mechanical tinkerer, but also that his films, with their tableaux stagings, artificial sets and fantastical storylines profit handsomely from Scorsese’s 3D re-creations of the films and the Melies studio near the end (aquarium lobsters FTW!!). He also uses the most-iconic, if possibly apocryphal, story of early audiences’ reactions to movies and re-creates it for us, translated into 3D that even in 2011 we’re also still only semi-used-to. Though I think it was a little much to use the SAFETY LAST shot in the same movie in which the character in question had watched the Lloyd film, Scorsese does get away with a separate cheat (and then a double cheat) thanks to a line about the nature of the movies from earlier in the film.


I also noticed (and noticed nobody else noticing) how Scorsese got right something about Melies films that must have been a bear to reproduce — their color schemes. Melies hand-tinted many of his films but the resulting look was nothing like hard-edged, realistic color photography, but had the texture of castor sugar. The films thus more resembled chalk drawings in various pastels, as though objects or clothes or backgrounds were bonbons or various flavors of ice cream.

I do think, though, that Scorsese way overreached in one respect of his cinema history segment. I am a huge fan of silent films and Lord knows I’d love to see 1/10 of HUGO’s audience be sufficiently intrigued to check out Melies, some of the other silent films Scorsese referenced, and then branch out into others. So this error does not detract from God’s work. But Scorsese is simply not correct that World War I gave people so much reality that they weren’t interested in Melies’s magic any more. First of all, his studio went bankrupt in 1913, before the war, squeezed out by bigger more factory-like studios in France and abroad. Second of all, it was the war mobilization and the post-war depression that REALLY damaged European film industries (not a shifting audience). And even those non-film damaging factors merely created a vacuum that, because they left the US relatively unscathed, Hollywood was able to fill and become dominant by decade’s end and ever since. Third, the early-1910s were also a time of great strides in the cinematic art — films began telling sophisticated stories, directors like Griffith and Sjostrom began to use editing and closeups to create great performances, Italians like Pastrone began to make lengthy super-spectacles. Melies’ short magic-stage acts simply got left in the dust. And lastly, it is simply inaccurate (and hard to see how soneone familiar with 20s movies could think it IS accurate) to suggest post-WW1 audiences had no taste left for fantasy. To see this claim in a movie that also name-checks, among others, Douglas Fairbanks, is embarrassing special pleading. Don’t misunderstand me … Melies was a pioneer and his films really do stand up today as entertainments without historical affirmative action beyond the unavoidable. But he was a pioneer who got left behind by the state of the art and his poor business skills. It’s happened many times since.

December 7, 2011 Posted by | Martin Scorsese | 2 Comments

Candle in the Wind: The Movie

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Simon Curtis, Britain, 2011, 6)

About halfway into MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, I was getting ready to dismiss it by saying “Elton John did this much in 1/30th of the time and for a helluva lot less money.” But then we got some private scenes between Monroe and Colin Clark, a 3rd assistant director who wormed his way (not terribly convincingly) onto the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, the film Monroe is shooting in Britain with Laurence Olivier. In those scenes we get something more than the latest “imitate an icon and win an Oscar” beg and get a glimpse of the private side of this most-public of women.

Michelle Williams isn’t exactly doing an imitation — in closeup, her face isn’t really right and in longshot, her figure isn’t. But she does manage to exude Monroe’s spirit, or at least the spirit she projected to the world — a deeply insecure little-girl-lost who only really comes alive and can act naturally by Being Sexy for the gaze of others. And whose great tragedy (and this comes out during those intimate scenes) is that she knows this about herself and has resigned herself to this fate. “As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run,” she says. Monroe’s persona, while not wholly “calculated” in the sense that a timed bank robbery is, was still somewhat “calculated” in the sense it was who she was (or at least became). A day date with Colin is the only real spontaneity she gets, interacting with a worshipful but manageable public — the staff at Windsor Castle and the boys at Eton — and tossing off one-liners that indicate her mind was just fine. But even in those moments, she was “Marilyn,” not, as Elton John would put it, Norma Jean. Colin offers her (unrealistically, but nevertheless) a normal life with him and leaving Hollywood behind, but she just smiled and turned away. “You can be happy / I am happy / Of course you’re happy, you’re the biggest star in the world.” But when her acting coach tells her “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you” in the “this too shall pass” reassurance mode, Williams plays the moment as terrifying.

What will get lost, I fear, in the adulation Williams is (deservedly) receiving is Kenneth Branagh’s terrific performance as Olivier, against whom he was already being measured back in the 80s. It too is not an imitation (or if it is, I couldn’t tell since the uncostumed Olivier of that period is not terribly well-known to me), but Branagh’s gesture-y fussiness blends well with a peculiarly British mixture of face-to-face polite impatience and behind-closed-doors explosiveness we know is wrong. I couldn’t stop laughing at the line that getting Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger” (which, yes, is a writer’s very-written line but it has to be delivered in the right register to work). Branagh also plays Olivier as the wisest man in the room who still isn’t as wise as he thinks. He also nails the way Olivier felt just as inadequate around Monroe as she did around him because she had gifts he didn’t have and — more importantly — couldn’t acquire, just stand in awe of in the screening room.

Even with all that, MY WEEK never exactly transcends the “fan mash-note” genre. There are some narrative clumsiness (Was she pregnant? Did I miss some earlier exposition?) and the subplot of the costume-girl Colin is also wooing gets as much the short shrift as the character herself does. And as Colin, Eddie Redmayne is at best adequate, which is not adequate. There’s also the subject matter, which kinds left me wondering “what’s the big deal.” Olivier and Monroe were obviously a badly mismatched pair on screen (never mind on set, though that too), and the film they were making couldn’t have been more trivial. MY WEEK practically comes out and says Olivier made that film because he wanted to seduce Monroe. It also sideways acknowledges the unsuccess of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL by putting more weight in the closing title cards of Monroe’s and Olivier’s next projects — their iconic roles in SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE ENTERTAINER (both stage and screen), though Olivier basically never directed another film. Indeed, you can read this film in a Camille Paglia-ish way about Marilyn as a femme-fatale destroyer — using her sexual power to dominate the world around her and leave the men who want her frustrated in her wake.

I was reminded in an odd way of two other films currently in theaters — Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA and Steve McQueen’s SHAME — the first by being about a depressive who can only function in an environment of utter collapse, a collapse she helps bring about; the second in being about a sex addict. Monroe uses sex differently from Brandon in SHAME. It would be more accurate to say she’s addicted to her sex appeal (and to her insecurities, ultimately) and what being a sex object gets for her in terms of power over men than she is to the sex act itself (or to its appeal to Brandon — that notch on the belt at the end of the day). MY WEEK intimated that Monroe never slept with Colin; certainly she’s not shown going farther than a kiss. But Monroe and Brandon are caught in the same yo-yo of acting out and regretting it.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Simon Curtis | 1 Comment

Romanian archaeology

ERUPTION (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1957) 5
DANUBE WAVES (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1959) 7
FOREST OF THE HANGED (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1965) 7

When you go into a series of movies with that country and those dates, you just have to accept certain things, primarily that you’re gonna see Communist propaganda, to a greater or lesser degree, and the style of Socialist Realism, in all its blunt overtness. Within these historical and systemic constraints, as you can infer from the grades, Liviu Ciulei managed to make some enjoyable films in different registers. He made only four films as a director, though he apparently had a greater reputation in Romania as an actor and stage director. But if he truly was the best Romanian director prior to the early/mid-00s flowering, as was the subtext to the series I saw at the weekend when I wasn’t being corrupted by drunks like Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz, well … you can infer something else from the grades. Both about Romanian Communist-era cinema, and, maybe the structurally equivalent systems.

After being subjected the catastrophe of the anti-oil propaganda film THE MUPPETS, it was refreshing to see the building of an oil rig turned into a glorious project of profitable construction. ERUPTION is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Romanian Oil Industry in one of those kitschy title cards that accompany totalitarian-regime propaganda, and the first shot actually shows real promise. A full symphony plays a propulsive but menacing-sounding score that, like a more classically-arranged version of some of Jonny Greenwood’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD riffs, simultaneously both plays against and plays up the fetishizing images of the oil rigs. It also counterpoints both the bubbling crude (Romanian Rum) that oozes off the screen during the titles and the Hot Chick Student from Bucharest whose arrival at the oil field for work experience provides the narrative entree. The problem is that Ciulei and/or his script have no sense of cinematic rhythm whatsoever, especially in the first half. The pacing of (and within) sequences is eccentric and the film just lurches from scene to scene without ever really “building.” Here’s a bunch of weakly-drawn people at a barren oil field, they have some semi-conflicts and some things happen. He tries to create a community without the ability of Altman at his best to make it flow.

Still, this very simplicity yields, almost by the very way of its Griffith-like crudeness, some moments of archetypal elemental power — The Dark-Haired Tramp racing up the oil well in shame over the (very clumsy) exposure of her past while The Worker climbs up after her. And the last part of ERUPTION, after they strike oil and the well blows and has to be capped, goes in to full Socialist Realist Propaganda mode with montages of the working class being mobilized racing against time, as the filth-caked rig men heroically battle the gushing oil, an old night caretaker tries to bust down a locked door, and a phone operator tries to get out the word (more Griffith) — and the film becomes almost a kitschy hoot. My favorite bit was when a worker is wounded but taking him away on a stretcher will require men needed to cap the gusher. One man intones solemnly “this is the party speaking. We have no right to let him die, not even for 1,000 wells.” It’s so overt and a historical lie, that you can’t even laugh at it. Fortunately the wounded guy hides (freeing the labor) and recovers (how?) by sequence end. I was sniggering — all those 30s kulaks were … just … hiding. But as a film, ERUPTION’s recovery is as if the Commie Propaganda genre requirements finally straightened things out.

Which provides a nice segue to DANUBE WAVES, which is almost a perfect example of Manny Farber’s “Termite Art” and was the best and most fully realized of the three Ciulei’s films I saw. It’s a straight-up genre piece, telling a single small story about an operation as part of a broader war — in this case, World War II in 1944, after Romania had entered on Nazi Germany’s side but with the tide having turned and the advancing Soviets over the horizon. It’s three strongly-drawn characters on a single journey — a Romanian soldier on his honeymoon (Ciulei himself), his bride (Irina Petrescu, who presented the film in person), and a Communist partisan posing as criminal labor to get on the soldier’s boat as he sails it up the Danube on an ammo-delivery mission. The bride is attracted to the “criminal” and figures out the truth, bringing elements of POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could imagine Raoul Walsh or Henry Hathaway or maybe even Howard Hawks doing the Hollywood remake of DANUBE WAVES in 1962 or 1963.

As it is, the Romanian DANUBE easily meets Hawks’ famous “three good scenes, no bad scenes” definition — in spoiler-free terms, the floating mine (which is prepared for in the pre-credits sequence of the risks of minesweeping); the second German soldier, who “has no objections”; the walk to the wedding-night suite. Ciulei’s direction gets taut and brutal here and sometimes even dry and understated. The performances in the three lead roles avoid declamation while filling the genre types — Lazar Vrabie’s partisan is heroic without being Heroic; Ciulei is cynical without being Cynical, and Petrescu is sexy and torn without etc. … There is a late moment that I’ll just call the DOUBLE INDEMNITY shot and I said to myself “film over” … but it isn’t and the last five minutes are Regime-Mandated Filler involving an overt battle followed by the victory of The Romanian People and Their Heroic Soviet Liberators (one person at the screening, not myself amazingly, laughed at the line “Romania will soon be free”). It’s not my repulsion for Communism that is the issue exactly; I don’t care for speechifying about Truth, Justice and The American Way in Hollywood’s “films among the grunts” either. It’s that it detracts from the bleak end of the conflict between the three characters on the boat (and a boy they pick up along the way). And is poorly done to boot. As much as I liked this film, Ciulei cannot stage a battle scene — an earlier scene’s insertion of stock footage of Soviet bombers is iconically clumsy.

In another pattern not unfamiliar to Western capitalist cinema, Ciulei’s next film was a bid for “White Elephant Art,” in the form of a 160-minute prestigious literary adaptation about a big subject (World War I intrigue in the Austro-Hungarian Army, centering on an ethnic Romanian soldier 1). And while it’s a useful term of critical description, as my grade for FOREST OF THE HANGED implies, I don’t at all share Farber’s distaste for White Elephant Art. In the particular case of HANGED, the novelistic source gives the film both sweep and scope, and opportunities (which Ciulei takes) for great set pieces, while setting up traps (which he also takes) of episodicness and rambling. Without (anachronistic in 1916) communist cheerleading, the best parts here hold up better in 2011 than comparable sequences in DANUBE and ERUPTION while the weaknesses become less excusable. Basically everything after the decision to desert is just marking time and the hero becomes way too much of an existentialist Gandhi-type for my taste. There’s a whole subplot involving an authentic romance with a Pure Peasant Girl that feels completely tacked on (though it does … EVENTUALLY … lead to the film’s triumphant end). The last half-hour of the film feels like pages 900-1,000 of one of those lengthy Russian novels, where you appreciate the journey but your eyes are starting to glaze over and you can’t avoid thinking, “yes, Leo, you ARE Tolstoy, but you still only get one chance to wrap things up.”

But, like with Tolstoy, there’s too much here to cavil too much. The first thing we see is a mass of soldiers marching ahead of the camera, until a single soldier gets pulled out by looking back (at us, implictly) as Ciulei’s shock cuts and dissonant orchestra music intersperse that image with the credits — think the opening credits of PERSONA, though Ciulei doesn’t Bergman far down that road. The lengthy opening scene is of a deserter’s execution and even though there’s not the slightest narrative suspense and Ciulei eschews obvious “goosings,” it works kinda like how I said Satyajit Ray’s shooting of THE MUSIC ROOM did — the extra time makes things felt. An image of some characters coming across a passle of maybe 12-15 corpses hanging from trees made me wonder if a certain Greek Communist saw FOREST and was taking notes. There is a protracted Austro-Hungarian attack on a Romanian searchlight that is not only gripping but manages to be a political-consciousness metaphor that is also an actual military attack (at its best, FOREST suggests PATHS OF GLORY). Again revealing its novelistic roots, character touches abound, like the intellectual who stores an aristocratic-style carriage, like the way people jockey for assignments (from cowardice and bravado, or both at the same time), like the stolen glance of the hero’s mother done in a shock montage with stabbing music and blown-out lighting. FOREST also walks off with a lengthy, deafeningly-silent meal that had me wondering whether Horatiu Malaele had whole levels of in-joke and Romanian-cinema satire in SILENT WEDDING that went completely over my head, even though I still think that sequence is one of the funniest ever made. You also get the benefit of learning that the Romanian word for “Fire!!!” (the command form of the verb, not the noun) is “Fooock!!!”
1 At the time, there was a country called “Romania,” but it was only about half the size of the country by that name now. Transylvania, though largely populated by ethnic Romanians, had long been ruled by Hungary, and as a result there were ethnic Romanians on both sides of the war. Here’s a time-changing map of the country’s boundaries.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | Liviu Ciulei | Leave a comment

What is Romanian for Le Havre?


MORGEN (Marian Crisan, Romania, 2011, 4)

… “In Portul” for the record, though even if Kaurismaki never existed, MORGEN would still feel like a tedious redundancy. Once you know this movie’s premise — everything is laid out for you and you see absolutely nothing that even threatens to deviate from the premise’s two genres, Grumpy Adult Bonds With Cute Moppet and Rich Westerner Experiences Moral Growth by Helping Smuggle a Poor Immigrant. The combination of these two genres probably convinced the Romanian Academy that submitting MORGEN would give their country its best chance at its first ever Foreign Film Oscar nomination (if so … they’d be correct, sad to say).

There IS a (pseudo-)twist in that the Cute Moppet is an adult, though Yilmaz Yacin is considerably smaller than Romanian Andras Hathazi and plays the Turkish immigrant as a frightened little boy. The fact that the Turk speaks no Romanian and the Romanian no Turkish means that there can be no real relationship between humans here. The film doesn’t subtitle the refugee’s words, so unless the repeated use of “Alleman” rings bells for you, you don’t have any idea what he’s pleading about. Admittedly, neither does the Romanian, but after a certain point that theoretically justifiable representation of non-communication simply becomes non-communication itself and blocks anything else from developing, particularly of the “humanistic” variety MORGEN seems to want.

A story between two non-communicative mutes (which is what we de facto have) can work as an outright farce or deadpan black comedy, like Kaurismaki at his best. And there are moments and scenes when Crisan hints in that direction and MORGEN temporarily spasms into life. The Turk gets across the border into Hungary as part of a soccer-supporters bus (police aren’t gonna check every cheering, drunken lout) but, rather than escape, comes back to the game and starts cheering the Romanian club in its “Ultras” section as things degenerate on the field and in the stands. Another ruse involves getting on a work team that will be painting the stripes on a border-spanning road. The first scene, at the Hungary-Romania border, also promises a pitch-black East European Bureaucracy Farce (the dawn scene is brilliantly lit so the border guards are faceless). But that kind of irreverence would get in the way of Author’s Message Homilies about “what’s he done to you,” on how “this is the EU now, there are no borders” and in giving the sadsack hero a bitch of a wife so she can say things only a bitch would say, like “he could be a terrorist, he could be carrying a disease, don’t you watch TV?” And then … what happens at the end … trying to be vague … if it was that easy, what was all the earlier complicated stuff about.

December 3, 2011 Posted by | Marian Crisan | 1 Comment

Traiasca Romania

What kind of insane nut goes to New York for two days to see a bunch of Romanian movies he’s never seen, including three from a dead Communist-era director whom he’d never previously heard of? If you don’t know the answer to that, you haven’t been reading this sight much. Before I head out for the train, here is my schedule. Anyone who’ll be at the Walter Reade and wants to meet up, during or after, is welcome to let me know and I’ll be on Twitter.

Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 1:30 PM Morgen Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 3:45 PM Eruption/Eruptia Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 6:00 PM Forest of the Hanged Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Fri 12/2/2011 9:00 PM The Danube Waves Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Sat 12/3/2011 7:30 PM Principles of Life/Principii de viațã Main
1x Adult
Walter Reade Theater Sat 12/3/2011 10:00 PM Loverboy Main
1x Adult

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s time to get things restarted

SMALL FRY (Angus McClane, USA, 2011, 7)
THE MUPPETS (James Bobin, USA, 2011, 8)

I saw a movie this week in which a character enters a years-unused performance arena caked with dust and cobwebs but decides to use it again for one last show … cut to a montage of people sprucing the place up. I also saw THE MUPPETS.

I saw a movie this week in which a children’s-genre character wants to become one of pre-existing group of similar characters. I also saw THE MUPPETS.

The former is a reference to THE MUSIC ROOM — and I couldn’t help chuckle at the same scene in a musical fantasy like THE MUPPETS immediately after that powerful tragic drama. Or was I laughing at how that powerful tragic drama used a trope long favored in musical fantasies — “hey kids, let’s fix up the old place and put on a show!!”?

The latter is a reference to SMALL FRY, the Pixar “Toy Story”-series short that played before THE MUPPETS. A mini-Buzz fast-food toy escapes from the restaurant, switches himself with the “real” Buzz and joins the rest of the gang. Woody et al aren’t buying that he’s Buzz — the size and voice make the ruse so absurd it’s funny, like a kid pretending to be his dad and expecting mom to buy it. Meanwhile, in the comic heart of the film, Buzz is trapped in a support group for discarded toys (all from previous fast-food promotions of ‘fictional’ movies with probably real-life analogs). These absurd little trinkets sit in a circle and say things like “even though I’ve been thrown away, I am not garbage,” while Buzz is rolling his eyes and saying he hasn’t been thrown away (“you’re in denial”). It doesn’t tread ground Stewart Smalley didn’t, but it’s funny, and the merchandizing parodies are creative, if fish-barrel territory.

But the thematic similarity with THE MUPPETS (and … ahem … Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY) was striking; if I were a pretentious frog-philosopher type, I would call it The Issue of the Simulacrum in Post-Modernity. As it is, I’ll say that both the short and the feature grapple with the “copy” problem, if in the specific context of pop-culture familiarity with the original. In SMALL FRY, the issue is more existential — what space can a barely-valued knock-off have; while in THE MUPPETS, the textual issue is more the original’s obsolescence decades after its success, and there’s also the critical background question, “why make this movie at all, Jason Segel?” Or why is Victor, a 45-year-old man, watching this movie with no children in tow (I got a weird look when I bought a single ticket to WINNIE THE POOH earlier this year).

Both the TV show (I’m told) and the original MUPPET MOVIE, as I argued the other day, were totally self-referential entertainments, which makes it fair and in the originals’ spirit for Segel, as star, writer and executive-producer, to make the film about those very problems. Why get the Muppets back together (in the story) or make a Muppet movie (Segel’s issue), now that they’re obsolete? It also becomes a fair solution to use as the story entree two new “muppets,” Segel’s character Gary and the puppet Walter, supposedly the most identical twins since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The issue of “man or muppet” even comes up later, now that the two have grown apart in the obvious physical way. But in the very fact of their Muppet-worship, their disappointment to see the disrepair of Muppet Studios and their determination to get the gang together for one last movie show to foil Evil Nefarious Villain, they become surrogates for an audience that has shelled out $10 or more to watch a Muppets film in 2011 — a new generation for whom Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie are memories, if that, whom we want to see back together.

That would be moot if the film weren’t surface entertaining, but it most definitely is. I was bothered by the fact that, even as a non-Muppet boy-fan, I could tell Miss Piggy and Kermit weren’t the same voices, but I forgot about it soon enough.It has fun with its own anachronisms (I lost it at the sound of a dial-up modem) and its self-aware elements — Chris Cooper isn’t gonna win any Oscars for the role of Evil Oil Magnate Tex Richman (“rich man,” get it?) but he does exactly what’s required with rap songs and lines like “maniacal laugh” and plays them utterly straight.

So it’s wrong to dismiss THE MUPPETS as mere nostalgia, though nostalgia is definitely its subject, it’s more about the process of realizing a dream, specifically that the elements of Segel’s one’s childhood can be vital and made relevant today. The film also introduces both the difference between good nostalgia and bad nostalgia, in the story of what Fozzie is doing “now” in Reno, and the reason why even the “anachronistic” Muppets might be valuable today, in the TV programmers scenes (#TeamPunchTeacher should join #TeamPunchSimon). Nor is it fair to pick on THE MUPPETS too hard for foregrounding Walter and Gary for the first half-hour, since their relationship is so Muppet-like and that part of the film shares the same sense of humor. It’s absolutely NOT like the “normal” characters in MGM’s Marx Brothers movies, who clearly WERE residing in a different, totally-flat and utterly-uninteresting universe from that of the Brothers. For example, the music number “Everything Is Perfect” is much more sly than its Precisely Too Much on the Nose title, in lines like “Life is like a filet fish” (puzzled look for a rhyme) “yes, it is” and gestures like the whole town collapsing in “glad THAT was over” exhaustion and saying “OK, they’re gone” once Gary and Walter get on a Greyhound bus to leave Smalltown and its FW Woolworth on the square. It’s fun to pretend the world is perfect and everyone can be happy, even while knowing it can’t be; the artificial pretence is the fun. Even if only for the lovers, the dreamers and me.

To make one more wack comparison and confirm that this Nostalgia Is Its Own Glory theme is an official Trend, let me also cite 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA, in which the iconic character gets a bid for a last moment of Old School glory against Classless Newcomer (hey, *more* shades of THE MUSIC ROOM). Rocky doesn’t quite succeed but puts up such a good fight that he leaves the ring to the cheers of the crowd before the decision is even announced, the fight’s loser on the books but the winner in everybody’s eyes. Of course, Stallone’s pulling this film off this late in his career means he gets Rocky’s glory-in-defeat reflected back on himself, only as pure glory. Appropriate changes in the proper nouns, that is more or less what happens in the story-conflict of THE MUPPETS.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | James Bobin, Muppets | Leave a comment

I wish I were Indian

THE MUSIC ROOM (Satyajit Ray, India, 1958, 9)

I don’t know if Satyajit Ray was actually an apologist for monarchy / aristocracy; what I know of his biography and the Indian political environment of his lifetime suggests not. Nevertheless, if I were asked to name the film most sympathetic to aristocracy ever made, THE MUSIC ROOM would probably be it; certainly it’s on the short list with the likes of THE LEOPARD, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, DEATH IN VENICE (significantly, all four of these films are to-some-extent-tragedies about an aristocracy’s death). Indeed, THE MUSIC ROOM would almost certainly rank among my all-time favorite films if it weren’t for one big honking caveat, and even that is a weakness not of Ray’s film but of myself, which I allude to in this post’s title and will detail later.

THE MUSIC ROOM tells the story of the decline of landed aristocrat Biswambhar Roy, a man whose sole passion is music, even above his land (which the river is threatening, to his uninterest) and his family (one of the few intimate family scenes shows him teaching music to his son). His principal foil is an arriviste neighbor merchant named Ganguly for whom he has nothing but contempt, calling him “the son of a money-lender.” But this man tries to worm his way into the lord’s graces as an equal based on his increasing wealth and “my interest in music too.” (The poor basically don’t exist in THE MUSIC ROOM, shown only as the recipients of alms, first from Roy then from Ganguly.)

It’s impossible and in a sense pointless to ask about this class conflict, “which of the two men and/or the virtues and vices they represent does Ray ‘side with’.” But two questions are meaningful to ask — (1) “whose point-of-view, if anyone’s, does Ray privilege”; and (2) “does, and to what extent, the film contain ‘the aristocratic critique of the bourgeoisie’ and/or ‘the bourgeois critique of the aristocracy.’? And at that level, it’s hardly even a contest.

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December 1, 2011 Posted by | Satyajit Ray | 2 Comments

Letter from three men


THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA, 1954, 5)

“A script has to make sense; life doesn’t.”
— director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA

That statement is true as far as it goes, and in a couple of places, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA goes even farther, with lines like “any self-respecting script would have had me going on a bender” and “what do you want to know, my motivation?” But lines like that appeal to a standard (life-like realism) that a film like this just cannot meet. Nobody expects BICYCLE THIEF from this director and cast, but THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA is, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, 200-proof Hollywood gloss. And thus “life doesn’t have to make sense” just comes across as special pleading for some … well, howlers. I dunno about you but if I knew I were unable to function as a man in bed, I would tell my wife long before our wedding night (maybe I just have unusual integrity). Even apart from that, you can’t say “life is like that” when there’s just as many lines in the film inviting comparison to fairy tales — Cinderella and the constant references to shoes, for example. Indeed, the film commits the cardinal sin of chewing with its mouth open, constantly name-dropping dramatic structures, pointing out plot points but without breaking the fourth wall and integrating textuality into the film, as THE MUPPET MOVIE did.

There is another problem with THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA — a huge one. You cannot make a movie about a director and his discovery of a great dancer and star (the basic premise of this film) and then cast in the central role a woman who cannot act. I’ve got two good eyes — I can see that Ava Gardner is a sex bomb, but that’s really all she is. (Indeed, I suspect this might have had something to do with the Cahiers crowd flipping for this; they can’t have appreciated Mankiewicz’s dialog, the film’s principal virtue, but only accessible to us Anglophones.) Mankiewicz seemed to realize Gardner’s shortcomings — there’s even a line where director Bogart tells her “if you can act I can help you be better; if you can’t nobody can help you. So Mankiewicz resorts to what I call the Esther Kahn conceit — we only once see her do a gypsy dance (not bad, to be fair) and not in the club where she’s “discovered.” And never do we see her on a film set, much less actually acting (even in her screen test, which we’re told is awesome in one of the film’s best scenes, in a screening room). Andrew Sarris once unfavorably compared CONTESSA with LOLA MONTES in terms of subject matter and structure, but the films also are comparably saddled with weak actresses in the central role. Ophuls gets his way around it with directorial panache and working Martine Carol’s awkwardness into the film’s subject matter. But Mankiewicz mostly just tries to ignore it, rather than transcend it, and he isn’t remotely the visual stylist Ophuls is. Indeed, for a film about film-makers, CONTESSA is remarkably uninterested in cinema, except in the sense that the National Enquirer gossip counts as “cinema.”

Nor is Gardner the only shaky performer — and Mankiewicz is too much of a bright-dialog writer not to be dependent on actors. And it sometimes works here, though he falls into his habit of speechifying. Warren Stevens as the first tycoon, in whose employ Bogart finds Gardner, has “silver spoon” looks but no menace or voice (fatal in the “Goliaths” showdown); Marius Goring as the Latin American (stop laughing) playboy is a toothy embarrassment; and flunky Edmund O’Brien’s sweat became the first body fluid to win an (inexplicable) Oscar. Only Bogart, wearing the cynicism of CASABLANCA a bit more world-wearily and wittily than then, and Rossano Brazzi as the Italian aristocrat manage credibility.

THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA is not a total waste (I also saw it for free, at the National Gallery of Art). As I said, the film’s primary virtue is Mankiewicz’s dialog, still bright and brittle after ALL ABOUT EVE and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography gives the colors pop, even in scenes enveloped in darkness. You do get to look at Ava Gardner a lot (she’s a wonderful clothes horse). And the structure of shifting narrators (the film is framed around the memories of three men at Gardner’s funeral) keeps the film nimble and short-feeling, even at 130 minutes. But even there, you’re more reminded of better films in that vein (one even written by a Mankiewicz).

November 26, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s time to get things started

THE MUPPET MOVIE (James Frawley, USA, 1979, 0)

I’ve seen detergents that leave a better film than this.

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November 23, 2011 Posted by | James Frawley, Kids films, Muppets | 2 Comments

I won’t, I won’t, I won’t

COURAGEOUS (Alex Kendrick, USA, 2011, 3)

When it comes to films like this … I won’t! I won’t! I won’t! #JokeOnlyPeopleWhoveSeenTheMovieWillGet. I would like to see the Kendrick brothers adapt someone else’s script, maybe a Christian literary-canon author like Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy or Graham Greene. It’s finally plain that they have no script judgement whatsoever, something COURAGEOUS lays bare naked because their technical and directorial chops HAVE gotten better. Their comedic work is amusing and I’ve seen far worse-made films at major festivals. Brother Alex Kendrick (lead actor here) now also is a legitimate A-grade thespian. The first half of COURAGEOUS needs no affirmative-action scale, in fact. But the back half is even weaker than FIREPROOF in terms of sudden story arcs and skimped-on resolutions. One whole subplot of a man with daughter he’s never met is nothing but a voiceover and a couple of scored montages. And the homiletics really get heavier and heavier (Substitutionary Atonement dialog FTL!!!) until a final scene of Kendrick himself (supposedly in character, but hardly) delivering a fiery Author’s Message sermon from his church’s real-life pulpit. I wanted to flee.

As was elaborated in a subsequent back-and-forth with Steve Greydanus (upon whom I threatened to perform grievous bodily harm per my extensive (and illicit) boxing/MMA training AND questioned his commitment to Sparkle Motion), I was really more than anything else disappointed by the raised expectations from both Steve’s earlier review and the film’s first half. The Kendricks are now legitimately good film-makers. They can direct actors to give natural, believable performances (other than the pastor to whom Alex turns shortly after the midway point). They have a dry if sit-commy sense of humor (“I love you”). They can stage chases and fights and gunbattles at least as well (actually far better in classical or “old school” terms) as some Hollywoof schlockbusters. Here, they also don’t shy away from darker subject matter. So why can’t they SEE how awful the third act is? You either don’t raise the “anonymous kid” story at all, or you do it some justice. Do they actually believe that jailhouse conversation? Do they have to slather pedestrian music with EXACTLY ON THE NOSE lyrics on montages of resolution? Do they not giggle at the closing scene? They don’t have the “novices making church films” defense any more.

Stanley Kaufman once wrote of Ingmar Bergman, “we must resign ourselves to his virtues because he is plainly too fond of his vices to overcome them, or even see them as such.”

October 19, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trailer trash

I’m going to assume that the upcoming WARRIOR, which I haven’t yet seen, does not have one of the closest-held secret switcheroos since THE CRYING GAME. That is, that the trailer below does NOT feature only scenes from the the first 30 minutes or so, and that the real story kicks in after the big fight between the brothers. Maybe one brother kills the other and the bulk of the film is about the aftermath — an MMA version of MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

Now I dunno about you, but after seeing that trailer several times in theatres and on TV (though less frequently than you might suspect at UFC programming and PPVs), I feel like I’ve seen the movie in one-minute miniature. The few-second moments come in what could be — even if they’re actually not — chronological dramatic order. The trailer seems to more or less tells the entire story and give the character outlines except for the one final plot detail. If that trailer were extended another 10 seconds to show Tom Hardy’s character KO’ing Joel Edgerton’s in the climactic fight (or Hardy submitting to a choke … however it ends), it more or less would be the movie in miniature. Then consider the following trailer from a well-known movie from 1943.

Now obviously a comparison of the two movies’ merits would be ridiculous. But keep in mind that CASABLANCA wasn’t planned to be a exceptional film (in the sense of “an outlier”). Rather it was planned as another product of the Warner Brothers factory, so the clip makes for a reasonable comparison of what a “typical” early-40s trailer was like, though it offers the advantage that everyone now is, or should be, familiar with the finished film. What the CASABLANCA trailer is selling is an atmosphere and milieu, and its stars. Unlike WARRIOR, you could not tell from this trailer what the plot of CASABLANCA is about except that there’s a romantic triangle involving Bogart, Bergman and Henreid. The “letters of transit” is, of course, a classic Macguffin, but it is still the narrative skeleton and the trailer basically doesn’t mentions them — we see Ugarte being hunted down without any sense of who he is or why; and there’s a brief allusion in the line “I want those letters” in a moment from the scene where Ilsa threatens to shoot Rick. But that’s it. The trailer even includes the climactic “action” moment — Rick shooting Maj. Strasser — but without giving you any sense that it is in fact, the dramatic climax. None of the now-classic lines — “here’s looking at you, kid” “play it, Sam,” “I am shocked SHOCKED,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “of all the gin joints …” “I stick my neck out for no man” (or any other sense of Rick’s cynicism or woundedness for that matter) — are “stepped on.” Nor is “As Time Goes By” played. Indeed … here is the trailer for CASABLANCA’s 1992 re-release, done in the contemporary style and altering nearly everything I just said about the 1942 trailer.

As you can infer from that, critics have been lamenting the increasing spoilerage factors in trailers for some time now. But the reason I highlight the WARRIOR trailer isn’t just that seemed unusually coherent as a stand-alone story. It’s also that one factor in this trend, I am now convinced, occurred to me specifically because of WARRIOR’s subject matter — the influence of ESPN and other sports channels.

I don’t know how this could be provable, but I think audiences may have been primed by sports programming to want and accept one-minute-digests, and this is influencing the cutting of trailers. That WARRIOR trailer is (feels like) basically the film’s highlight reel. Or, to put it another way, it feels like the SportsCenter segment on the movie. Having seen hundreds of game segments, I mentally kicked myself for not noticing the similarity before. You can go to a sporting contest and see the entire game. Or you can watch SportsCenter, the segments of which are specifically intended to give you the sense of the game/fight — the big plays, the dramatic turning points, and the conclusion. After all, the point of a SportsCenter segment is to boil down the entire three-hour game (or three-round fight, to continue the WARRIOR analogy) into a digestible minute or so.

It is NOT the SportsCenter segment’s purpose to do what a movie trailer used to do, and theoretically still should — to “tease” you into wanting to watch the whole game later. And not because ESPN doesn’t rerun and repeat whole games, it has an entire channel devoted to just that — ESPN Classic. But among sports fans, it’s fairly common and accepted to say “I saw the SportsCenter segment” as an answer to the question “did you see the game?” And in today’s sports-programming-saturated culture, it’d be hard to see how that preference could be hermetically sealed.

Or maybe … THESE are the bad influences on movie trailers like WARRIOR’s:


September 4, 2011 Posted by | Trailers | 1 Comment

Born yesterday and I don’t mean Judy Holliday

Did you know that you can die without having seen a single nonfiction film made before 1988? Well, obviously you CAN — though in that same sense you need never have seen one made after 1988 either. But the whole premise of the Current TV series “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die,” which concluded last week, is that the nonfiction/documentary film is a worthy enterprise and that there ARE 50 such films. And stipulating that there are, this list is, excuse me, a born-yesterday travesty.

Here is the list, after the jump:

Continue reading

September 3, 2011 Posted by | Documentary | 5 Comments

… but on the other hand (self-indulgent … do not read)

I suppose if I’m gonna rant against TIFF and/or the Canadian character (I also recently referred to the country on my Twitter feed as The Sensitive Socialist Republic of Canuckistan), I should tell of an event with the Festival organizers last year. I intended to write this up last year to thank some folks, but … well, never did.

I went to my hotel’s business center to write one morning when my first film (BLUE VALENTINE) didn’t start until noon. I packed up around 1130 and was out the door of the hotel when I realized, I didn’t have my tickets for that day’s four films though I could swear I took them to the business center. (To minimize the damage from just this possibility, I have never carried around the whole fest’s tickets, just That Day’s.) I go back to my room — not there. And then to the business center — not there and nobody has turned them in. Drat. And double drat.

By now, I’d had to write off BLUE VALENTINE, which I saw a few months later in commercial release. Fortunately, I have vouchers for three films (I only used 47 of my 50-ticket allotment), so I go to the Festival Box Office to plead my case for salvaging the rest of the day. Here’s the rub — the passes are only good for one ticket to any given screening. I explain to the volunteer when I get to the Box Office that yes, the computer says I already have tickets to all these films I’m requesting to use my three vouchers on, but I’ve lost those and can you PLEASE make an exception. I point out that I have a ticket for a film that’s playing right now, so obviously I’m not lying about having lost them. She thinks she can override the computer but calls over her boss to get the needed approval. I explain the situation again to the boss and she says basically “not a problem.” That’s BREAK THE RULES #1.

So I get a ticket for MEEK’S CUTOFF. And then they call up THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF NICOLAE CEAUSESCU — it’s sold out and it’s Rush Line only. And then they call up UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES — ditto. Drat. And double drat. I say in a resigned and stoic way — “OK. Oh well. Guess it’s Rush Line for me then.” Before I could leave, the boss replies, “No, no. Let me print you tickets anyway.” On her own authority, she gave me tickets to two officially sold-out films because (something like) “it’s people like you, film lovers who commit to this festival, that make it what it is.” It had come out in conversation that I had come up from Washington with a 50-film pass for the 9th year in a row and was spending almost two weeks in Canada. I thanked her repeatedly, and she told me she was planning to see UNCLE BOONMEE herself that night. That’s BREAK THE RULES #2.

I get into MEEK’S CUTOFF and meet pinko socialist bud Josh Rothkopf before the film. I tell him a less-detailed version of the previous (I had lamented my loss earlier on Twitter). And Josh made some gently pointed joke about Canadian rationality and willingness to BREAK THE RULES in the interest of accommodation and making others happy. To which, there is nothing to do but agree. Lord knows I would’ve got nowhere if this had been the Bucharest Film Festival.

So, to whoever were the Festival Box Office workers on the morning of Sept. 16, 2010 — thank you for your typically Canadian hospitality and accommodating niceness, even if meant technically BREAKING THE RULES.

(OK … can I get into your socialist country now?)

UPDATE: … and filmgeekbud Darren Hughes definitively one-ups that anecdote about Canadian solicitousness into the dust.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

My Toronto schedule

If it’s Labor Day weekend, this must be Canada. But first let me rant.

I went this year with the online ticket ordering, and I doubt I’ll do it again if I come back (which is by no means a certainty) because of an idiotic cockup in how it handles second choices. They apparently just assign them by priority without regard for time, which resulted in my getting more than one ticket for several time slots in the first few days. In addition, there’s several films I want to see but didn’t even try for — Refn’s DRIVE, Ramsey’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and Almodovar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN — because there was only one true public screening thanks to the festival’s loading up on $40-a-ticket “Premium Screenings” that my $700-upfront-for-50-films pass can’t even be used for at all. Do Canadians really call America “the land of bilk and money”? If so, here’s a good ol’ American Bronx cheer at’cha 8-d…… Another discouraging two-year trend has been the increasing dearth of weekday daytime screenings (and near-absence of morning ones) in favor of more at night and on weekends. I realize these times were “somewhat” less attended than others, but in 10 years and more than 400 films at Toronto, regardless of the time of day, I have never seen the kind of three-folks-per-row theaters that commercial multiplexes would still consider good business four days a week, minimum. And probably a majority of the films, even during work hours, have been packed.

Yeah, yeah … first-world problems, I know. And if I ever bitch about the Wi-Fi like Jeffrey Wells, just go ahead and shoot me. But I’ve always told non-cinephile friends that I go to Toronto every year because is the best film-festival in the world for ordinary folks, i.e., people without press badges or jobs in the industry. Obviously there’s the red-carpet juried affairs in Cannes and Venice, but those fests are not open to the general public, at least as far as actually seeing the films is concerned (as red-carpet props, we serfs are fine, apparently). That had never been the case with Toronto, which was round-the-clock awesomeness (plus a Godard show or two #ducks) open to everybody. When presenting ANOTHER YEAR in 2009, Mike Leigh said he loves to bring his films there because “it’s a people’s festival.” Every year for the last several, it has become increasingly less so.

OK … rant over. Here is my schedule, which is more in flux than usual thanks to the scheduling woes. Here’s the weird coding: a film title underlined means I’m gonna try to exchange or buy a ticket at the box office; a film title in italics means I plan to get into the rush line for last-minute tickets just before the screening; two consecutive films marked with an asterisk means I have tickets for both but they effectively play at the same time. In the last case, I now plan to see the first-named time but that may change depending on buzz. Strange that the only day I know I’m gonna see six films is the usually light first day (thanks to a 4 1/2-hour German project that consists of three narratively interlocking 90-minute films by different directors). Wait … three films for the price of one? Maybe TIFF isn’t so bad after all.

Thu, 8 Sept
noon DREILEBEN Jackman Hall
— “Beats Being Dead” (Christian Petzold, Germany)
— “Don’t Follow Me Around” (Dominik Graf, Germany)
— “One Minute of Darkness” (Christoph Hochhäusler, Germany)
600pm INTO THE ABYSS (Werner Herzog, USA) Ryerson Theatre
945pm THIS IS NOT A FILM (Jafar Panahi, Iran) Lightbox 3
midnight THE RAID (Gareth Evans, Indonesia) Ryerson Theatre

Fri, 9 Sept
200pm PLAY (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden) AMC 4
530pm BEAUTY (Oliver Hermanus, South Africa) AMC 2
530pm KEYHOLE (Guy Maddin, Canada) Lightbox 1
* 815pm GOOD BYE (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran) AMC 6
* 930pm CHICKEN WITH PLUMS (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Perronaud, France) Isabel Bader Theatre
midnight GOD BLESS AMERICA (Bobcat Goldthwait, USA) Ryerson Theatre

Sat, 10 Sept
1000am THE ARTIST (Michel Hazanavicius, France) Lightbox 2
100pm A MONSTER IN PARIS (Bibo Bergeron, France) Lightbox 2
300pm GOON (Michael Dowse, Canada) Ryerson Theatre
400pm A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi, Iran) Lightbox 3
* 645pm AZHAGARSAMY’S HORSE (Suseendran, India) AMC 3
* 615pm MONSTERS CLUB (Toshiaki Toyoda, Japan) AMC 2
915pm BUNOHAN (Dain Said, Malaysia) AMC 2

Sun, 11 Sept
1230pm THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, USA) Winter Garden Theatre
300pm MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin, USA) Ryerson Theatre
600pm IN DARKNESS (Agnieska Holland, Poland) Elgin Theatre
915pm MISS BALA (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) Scotiabank 4
midnight LIVID (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, France) Ryerson Theatre

Mon, 12 Sept
1100am RAMPART (Oren Moverman, USA) Elgin Theatre
200pm TWIXT (Francis Coppola, USA) Scotiabank 13 2
515pm FOOTNOTE (Joseph Cedar, Israel) Lightbox 2
930pm AMONG US (Marco Van Geffen, Holland) AMC 5

Tue, 13 Sept
900am THE LONELIEST PLANET (Julia Loktev, USA) Lightbox 1
1215pm YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (Lynn Shelton, USA) Lightbox 1
315pm SHAME (Steve McQueen, Britain) Lightbox 1
615pm ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) Lightbox 1
915pm A BETTER LIFE (Cedric Kahn, France) Lightbox 1

Wed, 14 Sept
915am DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (Whit Stillman, USA) Scotiabank 4
1215pm THE MOTH DIARIES (Mary Harron, Canada) Scotiabank 4
300pm ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece) Lightbox 2
730pm MICHAEL (Markus Schleinzer, Austria) Lightbox 2
930pm SLEEPING BEAUTY (Julia Leigh, Australia) Lightbox 1

Thu, 15 Sept
945am INVASION (Hugo Santiago, Argentina, 1969) Lightbox 2
230pm TRESPASS (Joel Schumacher, USA) Elgin Theatre
545pm THE LAST CRISTEROS (Matias Meyer, Mexico) AMC 3
745pm THE KID WITH A BIKE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) Isabel Bader Theatre

Fri, 16 Sept
930am OUTSIDE SATAN (Bruno Dumont, France) Lightbox 2
1145am HABEMUS PAPAM (Nani Moretti, Italy) Scotiabank 3
215pm LAS ACACIAS (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina) AMC 2
600pm TYRANNOSAUR (Paddy Considine, Britain) Elgin Theatre
830pm THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP (Rebecca Daly, Ireland) Jackman Hall
midnight SMUGGLER (Katsuhito Ishii, Japan) Ryerson Theatre

Sat, 17 Sept
930am CORIOLANUS (Ralph Fiennes, Britain) Scotiabank 3
245pm MELANCHOLIA (Lars Von Trier, Denmark) Ryerson Theatre
615pm THE DEEP BLUE SEA (Terence Davies, Britain) Lightbox 1
900pm KILLER JOE (William Friedkin, USA) Elgin Theatre

Sun, 18 Sept
1230pm THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr, Hungary) Lightbox 3
315pm THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (Joshua Marston, USA/Albania) Lightbox 2
600pm GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (Mia Hansen-Love, France) Scotiabank 1
915pm THE LAST GLADIATORS (Alex Gibney, USA) Scotiabank 4

September 1, 2011 Posted by | TIFF 2011 | 6 Comments

Coens jihad mode

A couple of weeks ago, former Times colleague Christian Toto sent me a DM on Twitter, asking me to do an e-mail debate on RAISING ARIZONA, which he called his all-time favorite film, for the movie’s release on Blu-ray. I had just seen the film as part of a retro at AFI Silver, where I’ve also since seen MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK — all three early films that I’d only seen once, way back when, and was willing to give another chance. And I had made clear my displeasure at ARIZONA. Christian posted the results, him first, at his site this morning under the title “A ‘Raising Arizona’ Hater Speaks.” And I post it here also. Continue reading

August 30, 2011 Posted by | Christian Toto, Coen brothers | 2 Comments

SilverDocs 2011

As I type, I am standing in line for a film called THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT-NAKED. Only at a porn theater or a film festival. The fact I’m saying this publicly should tell you which one it is.

I am certain that GENERAL BUTT-NAKED is a legitimate film which my confessor will not have to hear about. It’s about a recent African warlord whose method of intimidating his enemies was to fight — well, I think the title gives away how. I dunno whether the film will be good; have no sense of the “buzz.” And I might not even get in, though I probably will (I’m 4th in the queue for last-minute tickets, which usually is close enough to cover cancellations, people not picking up online orders, corporate bloc-buys not all being used, etc.)

But all that is the fun of a film festival, in this case SilverDocs, an annual showcase for nonfiction films (mostly) at the AFI Silver theatre in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, MD.

I also plan on getting in line tomorrow after work for THE INTERRUPTERS by Steve James, who also has made a film about inner-city black struggles that you may have heard of (it’s called HOOP DREAMS).

And from Thursday on, my schedule is set, though I may add another film or two if buzz says I should and I can get into the queue early enough.


10:15 AM (70 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 2

12:15 PM (90 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 3

2:45 PM (77 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

5:00 PM (93 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

10:00 PM (93 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1


11:00 AM (72 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 3

1:15 PM (101 min.)
Discovery HD Theater

4:30 PM (103 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

7:15 PM (95 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

10:00 PM (58 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 3


10:15 AM (76 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 2

5:45 PM (82 min.)
Discovery HD Theater

10:00 PM (90 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1


10:00 AM (72 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 3

11:30 AM (93 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

4:15 PM (90 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

8:45 PM (78 min.)
AFI Silver Theater 1

June 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

And yet Mugabe’s still alive … there is no god

One of the best films of recent years that the-editorial-‘nobody’ has seen is MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN, and I learned some sad news from ex-colleague Sonny Bunch yesterday. The man at the center of that film, Zimbabwean farmer Mike Campbell, already an old man when the MUGABE documentary was made, has died from events contained in the film. According to the family Campbell died from the long-run health effects that a vigilante beating by Mugabe’s thugs will have on a man in his mid-70s. (These are news obits and they necessarily contain spoilers for the film.)

Sonny thought MUGABE was the best film he saw at SilverDocs that year and he placed it in his Top 10 overall for the year. I don’t think quite THAT highly of it, but I graded it an 8 and wrote the following about it.

MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (Lucy Bailey, 2009, Britain)8 — Follows a family of white farmers in Zimbabwe resisting expropriation of their land by dictator Robert Mugabe, partly by standing up to government-backed gang-invasions, but mostly by filing a case in a regional Southern African court, accusing Zimbabwe of racial discrimination. Sometimes looks like ass without extenuating circumstances (you gotta do what you gotta do to get footage in Zimbabwe, but there’s no reason for the Namibian airport to look like it was shot on a Securiticam). Plus this sort of legal crusade for justice story will never sit too well intellectually with Victor the Hard-Eyed Realist. Those caveats aside, otherwise brilliant. It’s a very simple formula — find a great story, put the right people at center of it, let them tell it, and get the footage yourself to show it. Even more than DEVIL, you find yourself in disbelief that this footage exists — a confrontation with a government minister’s son, who comes to take over the farm, calling it his and starting a live on-camera argument over history, whether whites have any place in Zimbabwe and everybody’s bona fides is as tense as unstaged realism gets (Skandie plug should this film find the distribution it deserves). Also, film doesn’t shrink from farmers religiosity, regularly showing them praying, reading the Bible and seeing God’s Providence.

The film, now available on DVD and via Netflix streaming, was generally well-reviewed  (97% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) but one of the few criticisms made, though it often WAS made, was basically that it was about white people’s POV rather than blacks and about how this white farming family was being oppressed without any “context of colonialism” or similar. In a generally favorable review, Roger Ebert unbelievably concluded with the grotesque claim that “Apart from skin color, the difference between Mike Campbell and Robert Mugabe is that Campbell wants to run a farm.” (I can think of at least a few more and more-salient ones myself.) When Lucy Bailey showed the film at Silver Docs a couple of years ago, she was asked a similar question about not mentioning colonial injustices and she said, close as I can recall, that “this is not a story about colonialism. This is a story about a post-colonial injustice that has its own integrity.” I had to restrain myself from applauding.

In general, “context” is whatever you want it to be to excuse a wrong, while the wrong that you don’t want to excuse simply “is” (see also, the Middle East; even colonialism itself). Indeed, if we want to talk about context, why shouldn’t MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN detail the role liberal-activist Americans and Europeans played in bringing Mugabe to power and celebrating it? For example, one favorite song on my iTunes is Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster,” from late 1980 just after Mugabe’s election in which Wonder sings, as joyously as only he can, that “Peace has come to Zimbabwe / Third World’s right on the one / Now’s the time for celebration / Cause we’ve only just begun.” Just as much as colonialism, that’s a true fact that has “relevance” to today (more so for Europeans and Americans than Africans admittedly) since Stevie Wonder appears on the way to sainthood. The answer to this graf’s first question, of course, is “It shouldn’t because that is not the story MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN is telling.” Neither is colonialism.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | Lucy Bailey, Politics, Silverdocs 2009 | 2 Comments

FilmFestDC schedule*

Washington’s principal film festival FilmFestDC began earlier this evening, with the kind of premium-price-ticket hoity-toity gala that I never go to. And, as per FilmFestDC custom, the film being shown (POTICHE) will not be otherwise screened, which is a shame as POTICHE is a very good film (7). Maybe I’ve been spoiled by (the early years of) Toronto, which Mike Leigh called “a people’s festival” when introducing ANOTHER YEAR there a few months ago, but I really don’t see the point of acknowledging a film that will only be shown to the $40-and-champagne-reception set. Power to the proletariat, workers unite, you have nothing to lose but …

err … umm … OK

I am not taking any time off work, which excludes a couple of nights completely and limits the number of weekday films I can rely on getting off work in time for, meaning 8-or-9pm-hour shows are OK; 6-or-7pm-hour shows are not. And the festival’s first Saturday was completely taken away by a once-in-a-lifetime and one very unexpected big-screen opportunities at AFI Silver. So I’ll only be able to see 10 films. To be honest, I am not terribly crushed by this. Unlike the past couple of years, the lineup doesn’t look terribly exciting. Besides POTICHE, there is only one film I’ve already seen and I really can’t recommend AFTERSHOCK (here’s my 4 review from Toronto; incredibly, it actually already played a week in DC commercial theaters back in November). There are only a couple of high-buzz titles (that I’m aware of; corrections accepted) and none that I regret having to miss — I severely doubt I’ll rue not seeing Patricio Guzman’s PINOCHET IS BAD, PARTE TREINTA.

So here is my schedule for the next week and a half — all tickets bought and paid for, so changes not too likely.

Friday, 8 April
630 Goethe-Institut THE ROBBER (Benjamin Heisenberg, Austria/Germany)
830 Avalon HELLO, HOW ARE YOU (Alexandru Maftei, Romania)

Saturday, 9 April (not FilmFestDC, but WTH)
100 AFI Silver SHOAH, PART 2 (Claude Lanzmann, France, 1986)
700 AFI Silver LE AMICHE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1955)

Monday, 11 April
845 E Street THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (Lee Jeong-beom, South Korea)

Tuesday, 12 April
830 Avalon HAPPY HAPPY (Anne Sewitsky, Norway)

Wednesday, 13 April
800 Goethe-Institut ARMADILLO (Janus Metz, Denmark)

Friday, 15 April
630 Gallery Place THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER (Eran Riklis, Israel)
900 Gallery Place CIRCUMSTANCE (Maryam Kesharvaz, Iran)
1100 E Street OUTRAGE (Takeshi Kitano, Japan)

Saturday, 16 April
500 Avalon WIN/WIN (Jaap Van Heusden, Holland)
700 Avalon THE NAMES OF LOVE (Michel LeClerc, France)

* Also … I need to get Vanilla Ice off the top of my site.

April 7, 2011 Posted by | DC 2011 | Leave a comment

White Elephant Rap

COOL AS ICE — David Kellogg / Vanilla Ice, USA, 1991, 11

All right stop collaborate and listen. Ice is back with another new invention. Take heed cause he’s a thespian poet. Miami’s on the scene just in case you didn’t know it.

In order to get to make his cinematic magnum opus, COOL AS ICE, one of the staggering masterpieces of the cinema, Vanilla Ice had to rise from the ghetto, where he and his homey Luther Campbell were hanging, smoking endo, sipping on gin and juice, laid back, with their mind on their money and their money on their mind. His autobiography “Ice by Ice: The Vanilla Ice Story,” chronicles his life in the various street gangs of Miami (FL), to his successful drag-racing career, and even to his brief yet torrid affair with Madonna (or was it Tiffany?), this masterpiece is a must-read for any self-respecting, red-blooded american, whether literate or not. It really doesn’t matter. The book is that good. yup yup.

After shaking the foundations of music in 1990 by inventing hiphop with “Ice Ice Baby,” the first rap hit to reach #1 on the Billboard charts, Mr. Ice went on to conquer the world of movies the next year with his smash-hit masterpiece COOL AS ICE, proving that he was every bit as great an actor as he was a rapper.

All right stop collaborate and listen. Ice is back with another new invention. Take heed cause he’s a thespian poet. Miami’s on the scene just in case you didn’t know it.

Let’s start with the box, which right away indicates what a major achievement COOL AS ICE is. For starters, it only comes in a “Special 2-Disc Edition,” a sure sign of quality. The tagline describes the superhuman powers Mr. Ice will possess: “when a girl has a heart of stone, there’s only one way to melt it. Just add Ice.” And in homage to the tradition of early silent films, Dogme, Carl-Theodor Dreyer and other cinematic giants, the box features no general cast or credit list. The back of the box does, however, mention “cameos from Naomi Campbell and Bobby Brown” and Mr. Ice’s landmark role in “famously sampling Queen and David Bowie’s UNDER PRESSURE,” which brought those artists to a new generation of music fans and assured they would be remembered to this day.

In a similar way, Mr. Ice updates, and thus makes more relevant, elements of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and THE WILD ONE, following in the tradition of James Dean and Marlon Brando. He plays a misunderstood outsider from nowhere who dresses different from The Squares, and is devoted to The Girl as he is kind to Negroes, and rides a motorbike. In COOL AS ICE though, the star adopts a more heroic role, winning the nice girl, rescuing her brother from kidnappers by beating up two ex-cops with his fists single-handedly, and persuading her father that he shouldn’t be suspicious of him. Then he leaves with The Girl, for some unknown period, they know not where, and they never even had a chance to thank him. Mr. Ice’s performance rivals Mr. Dean’s and Mr. Brando’s in its laconic quality. Can you imagine Mr. Dean and Natalie Wood doing better with this exchange?

Ice: So, how long you lived here?
Girl: All my life.
Ice: So, what’s it like?
Girl: What do you mean?
Ice: Y’know, having parents and all that stuff, a brother, all that stuff.
Girl: It’s nice … You can always depend on them.
Ice: I guess … So, whaddya wanna ask me?
Girl: Nothing. Where are you from?
Ice: Around.

All right stop collaborate and listen. Ice is back with another new invention. Take heed cause he’s a thespian poet. Miami’s on the scene just in case you didn’t know it.

Mr. Ice is totally at home with dialog that, I tell you, Hemingway himself couldn’t match. There’s also Lubitschian bon mots like “See ya later, Dick,” to a character named “Nick” and “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” And dialogue that states a personal credo, like “You ain’t being true to yourself, you ain’t being true to nobody. Live your life for someone else and you ain’t living. Straight up fact.” Since this dialog blazed across the screen in 1991, you can hear its influence everywhere. Being true to yourself and ignoring others above all has since become the Credo of youths born into the world Vanilla Ice created. In addition, look at the speech patterns — you can almost hear the hashtag in that last sentence, as if Mr. Ice is anticipating the fractured, truncated speech rhythms of the Twitter generation of which he was an avant-garde definer #word

COOL AS ICE also tackles such hot-button issues as racism and classism. The Girl is dating a guy who drives a white Corvette convertible and who is a rich square who just wants to destroy a homey’s motorbike for no reason at the lame-ass Sugar Shack club. Fortunately, Mr. Ice also easily topped Brando and Dean in the category of menacing badassness and whips four guys at once. While bustin a dance move or two — influencing Brazilian capoiea. COOL AS ICE also raises awareness about date rape in a scene where the Bad Boyfriend said “All you’ve been saying lately is no,” and The Girl says “Well, no means something.” COOL AS ICE also makes a timely statement about police abuse — The Girl’s father is in the witness protection program, now hounded by the two crooked ex-cops he fingered. Fortunately, Mr. Ice kicks their asses too. And to top it off, the closing credits contain the line. “B kool, stay in skool,” something very relevant to being good and stuff.

All right stop collaborate and listen. Ice is back with another new invention. Take heed cause he’s a thespian poet. Miami’s on the scene just in case you didn’t know it.

The power and influence of Mr. Ice’s performance goes down to such things as his jacket — emblazoned with messages like “Down by Law” that cover the whole jacket, influencing tattoomania, the cars and jumpsuits of NASCAR drivers, the T-shirts and trunks of every UFC fighter, and the entire wardrobe of documentarian Morgan Spurlock. The jacket also serves as a symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. Only he doesn’t have to tell us that #cuzthatshowhehangs

But COOL AS ICE is a musical, and this is its center. After an overture number at a Music Factory (featuring Miss Campbell’s singing) the first musical number is when Mr. Ice and his posse go into the Sugar Shack and see that the music ain’t down and happenin, and so Mr. Ice races to the stage. His charisma stops The Girl cold and his mad skillz is so awesome that the film has to crawl to a stop to accommodate it. Why’s he so awesome? The title says it: he’s the people’s choice. (I found out, thanks to this song BTW, about a Rhythm & Blues  group from the Olden Days called Sly and the Family Stone and their cut “Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again.” I gotta look up their stuff some day.) The “People’s Choice” number I can only praise by adding it to a short list: Whatever Ice is doing while he performs that song isn’t merely singing; it’s whatever Rita Hayworth did in “Gilda” and Marilyn Monroe did in “Some Like It Hot,” and I didn’t want him to stop.

Mr. Ice’s performance and music are for the ages. His music paved the way for some performers as Snow, New Kids on the Block, and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. And his cinematic and TV career went from strength to strength along the path blazed by COOL AS ICE — TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES 2, CIRCUS OF THE STARS, JUGGALO CHAMPIONSHIT WRESTLING (Mr. Ice’s influence on John Cena can hardly be denied), THE HELIX LOADED, THE NEW GUY, THE SURREAL LIFE, DANCING ON ICE and he became his own auteur in THE VANILLA ICE PROJECT

All right stop collaborate and listen. Ice is back with another new invention. Take heed cause he’s a thespian poet. Miami’s on the scene just in case you didn’t know it.

The cinematic virtuosity on display in COOL AS ICE also staggers the imagination. The movie is lensed by Janusz Kaminski, kicking off a decade of greatness that would include two Oscars for Best Cinematography. From the ultra-modern sans-serif fonts on the opening title-credits to the plastic-pastel colors — bright orange jackets, shocking yellow motorcycles, the Pee-Wee’s playhouse bike-repair shop with Belinda Carlisle-video globes — Mr. Kaminski and the production designers here vividly create a pop-art world of suburban ennui.

Director David Kellogg’s extensive experience with Playboy playmate and calendar films serves him well with this project — smoke and haze in the background to make cheap sets not look like sets and other clever workarounds. For example, lacking a ramp or other device to launch a motorcycle into mid-air and jump Evel-Knievel-style over a fence and (later) a Corvette, he simply stages the scenes without any physical means the better to underline Mr. Ice’s superhuman powers. He also brilliantly combines the music and the narrative by having Mr. Ice figure out where the kidnapped boy was being held by using his keen ability to hear things hidden in the background of tapes. The editing strategies in COOL AS ICE are as radical as Godard’s. For example, there is a scene where the phone cords — having been ripped out of the wall by the ex-cops while kidnapping the girl’s little brother — have been restored and repaired in time to later have the father call 911. Kellogg goes beyond BREATHLESS’s jump cuts within a scene to jump cuts that CONTAIN a scene.

But sometimes, it all does comes back to Beavis & Butt-head …

Continue reading

April 1, 2011 Posted by | Blogathons, David Kellogg | 4 Comments

… but not for me

EVERYONE ELSE (Maren Ade, Germany, 2010, 5)

Film about a German couple vacationing in his parents’ villa in Sardinia is wonderfully acted and directed in a very minor key but it grinds down into tedium in all its moment-to-moment observation without at least the couple of plot points that, say, the Dardennes give us. It’s like SCENES FROM A (NON-)MARRIAGE without overt conflict until very end, by which point I had long ago mentally checked out, decided he was a dick and she was a nut and that the movie and the relationship should both be over as soon as possible. For a romance, even a failed/failing one, it’s also remarkably lacking in humor — easily the film’s best scenes are the few that actually crackle with some wit and un-selfconscious goofiness like when they “dance” to “All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” or the men toss the women in the pool. I got no sense of what this couple ever saw in one another and why they were ever together, so really, it’s just very hard to give a frack. Got some respect back from me with a Woody Allen “need the eggs”-joke ending which feels appropriate for these two (and I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment).

NOTE: I resolve to be less shy this year about postings that are basically just polishings of thoughts I threw up on Twitter right after the film. This is obviously the first such post.

January 31, 2011 Posted by | Maren Ade | Leave a comment

By popular demand

Well, by demand of one, but one does not deny Cristobal Colon d’Estultes. He demanded to know:

Why are u not reviewing the Wavelengths, man? Are they some sort of second class citizen to you, man? Unfair. Either way. Show some love. And mercy, dude.
Give a rating. Show you care.

Honestly, I have to confess I have not graded or written about the Wavelengths 6 program because I thought I had nothing to say. Whether one calls that a failure of nerve, or modesty of the befuddled will depend on how charitably one wants to construe my actions.

I picked the Wavelengths 6 program because I had loved the previous Peter Tscherkassky I had seen and a new film from him was the centerpiece, along with some silent films. So I thought “potentially worth a gamble” and, appearances of my extremely confident online persona aside, my utter indifference to Stan Brakhage and more-or-less all subsequent avant-garde films is a minor internal embarrassment. Oh sure, one can only relate his honest reaction. I can argue that it’s mostly Emperor’s New Clothes navel-gazing, and I don’t disbelieve anything I’ve ever said. But it’s one of the cases where I’d like to be proven wrong (or more precisely, prove myself wrong). My discomfort with my reaction — “I can’t believe sane people find this crap watchable” — is not unrelated to the fact I have become good friends with several folks who find this crap more than watchable and are pretty demonstrably sane.

To be hard on myself, I pussed out. The reason, I told myself, I didn’t issue any grades was that I saw very little in the program that interested me (a kinda true statement in itself) and so much of it was so clearly “not for me” (ditto) that assigning a grade seemed kinda pointless. But Krzysztof is correct — I have to at least register my honest reaction, even if it makes me look like a Philistine, even if only in my own eyes. Anything other than that would be patronizing.

My reaction to the Wavelength 6 program broke down very precisely — I disliked all the contemporary works and found at least watchable all the silent-era footage and actually kinda liked the two completed from-that-era works.

For example, my problem with the two Ken Jacobs films — THE DAY WAS A SCORCHER and JONAS MEKAS IN KODACHROME DAYS — is that all I saw was a technical stunt. Both films are based on a few still photographs upon which Jacobs performs some photographic processes that simulate movement, change perspective or fragment the image. And my reaction was a massive Bravo Foxtrot Delta. Yes and Wang Chung and the Cars did the same or similar in the videos for “Leave It” and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and “You Might Think.” There were no doubt other parts of the 80s MTV rotation that didn’t come to mind that night. When those videos were made, some people in that audience probably weren’t born yet (and get off my lawn!!!). What is the interest here? Why is this stuff being put before me as a Work of Serious Art? All the Jacobs photo works did for me was lay bare some photographic tricks without drama, without context (sans the program notes, that is), and without music you could dance to. I found the Mekas film particularly aggravating because its edits tried to create the effect of a man in an umbrella dancing through a rain shower, which mostly just invited comparison with Gene Kelly’s titular number in SINGIN IN THE RAIN. And made me long for Kelly (or even an actual dancer), to actually be moving with grace and style and athleticism through the kind of real space that makes such a number difficult and this a real achievement and worthy of admiration. (The only time I’ve seen SINGIN IN THE RAIN in a theater, the audience burst into applause at the end of that number.) MEKAS’s only point, in other words, was its own aesthetic pointlessness. And by expecting us to be interested in an acontextual technical process, both films show the emptiness of the process.

As for the Tscherkassky, what I valued about his INSTRUCTIONS FOR A LIGHT AND SOUND MACHINE was his tight sensual ferocity, his roller-coaster ride aesthetic of barreling through an old-movie’s footage, radically altered almost (almost!) to the point of unintelligibility. Here in COMING ATTRACTIONS, he makes an anthology film of disconnected and far more relaxedly paced short films (Waz even praised it on exactly those “looseness” grounds). I also had the same reaction as I did to the Jacobi — I’m seeing some technical tricks for their own sake, and the filmmaker is relying on my reaction to the technique, if to more apparent point, I will acknowledge (though that ain’t saying much). Still, if there was anything to ATTRACTIONS other than “advertising banal,” it escaped me.

In fairness, I did like the two works in the program that were indisputably of the silent era, and very early therein — both prior to 1910. (I don’t think an honest reaction is possible to two reels of miscellaneous unknown footage fragments united only by the accident that someone in the Dutch film archive couldn’t bear to discard them. It’s not a work of art. Sorry.) One was CONCORSO DI BELLEZZA FRA BAMBINO DI TORINO, which consists of footage of Turin toddlers being filmed as, or as adjunct to or metaphorically in the film (can’t tell from film), an infant beauty contest. Both because it’s 1909 and because the kids look to be 2 years old or thereabouts, nobody really knows what they’re doing, how to react “properly” on film or while filming, so CONCORSO really is verite not “found footage.” The film, which is anonymous but exists in its intended form, is nothing more than a look at children’s behavior, unmediated (on both sides of the camera — why this film couldn’t be made except when it was). It’s a proto-Wiseman. The very thing that turned Waz off — that these children are probably all dead — was exactly why I thought this footage was so precious. Onscreen then (for one reason) and onscreen now (for another) were probably the only times in these lives these persons were equal. The other work I liked in the program was a 1905 film called LE ROI DE DOLLARS, which is not a Georges Melies film, but very much could be. It is nothing more than a disembodied hand before a black curtain doing some magic tricks with coins that build over the several minutes of the film. With occasional appearances by a mouth, dispensing coins like a machine, sometimes gold-tinted, 20 years before GREED. To some extent both century-old-plus films are just as one-dimensional as the other stuff on the same program. But what made them far more watchable to me than the current films in the same program and even enjoyable was an element that cannot be faked — innocence. And the joy and wonder of discovering a new medium. They both even represent the two polarities cinema already was developing — documentary representation and manipulative fantasy; or if you prefer, the Lumieres and Melies. They are “real.” In contrast, what excuse do Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs and Peter Tserchassky have for being satisfied with merely showing off a technique?

Happy, Krzysztof?

October 5, 2010 Posted by | TIFF 2010 | 2 Comments

It’s shite bein’ subtitled

I didn’t mention this in my NEDS review, because the capsule was already long enough and had enough personal diversion. But several times during the film, I became quite annoyed by a practice that’s aggravated me every time I’ve seen it — subtitled Scots, specifically subtitled Glaswegian.

Now I’m not gonna pretend there’s not a small element (OK, a large element) of personal pique in the fact that nearly every time I’ve seen my native English dialect used in movies, it’s been subtitled as if it were a foreign language that needed translation. And this is compounded by the fact that for the most part, films set elsewhere in Scotland or among Glasgow’s upper-classes — SHALLOW GRAVE, all but a couple of scenes in TRAINSPOTTING, LOCAL HERO, COMFORT AND JOY — don’t get subtitled for US exhibition.

While obviously I am by definition the perfectly worst judge of whether subtitling Glaswegian is necessary for American audiences, I really think there are gradations. I didn’t think the accent/dialect in RED ROAD or ORPHANS was nearly as thick as in RIFF RAFF, SWEET SIXTEEN, MY NAME IS JOE or NEDS. At least those first two movies, so says my memory, were not unintelligible to anyone paying attention after maybe 10 minutes, the amount of “ear adjustment” time I need to get accustomed to a working-class English or Australian dialect. Yet those movies all were subtitled … grrr.

Still I try to be a clear-eyed realist, and so I have to acknowledge that Glaswegian seems to pose more difficulties for other Anglophones than other English dialects do. In fact I can “code-switch” into Glaswegian upon command (or the impetus of another British accent) and lose Americans within five seconds.

But … if you’re going to subtitle on the assumption that Glaswegian needs translation — actually “translate.” Several times during NEDS, I couldn’t believe what I was reading, thinking “how would this subtitle help anybody for whom Glaswegian is too foreign to follow in the first place?” Very early on, there is a line that sounds like “doant start greetin own meh,” which the subtitles render, accurately enough, as “don’t start greeting on me.” But, for the non-Glaswegian who doesn’t know that the verb “to greet” means “to cry,” that subtitle would just be mystifying, especially since “to greet” is a verb in standard English, but with a very different meaning. Other slang terms go untranslated throughout. You can probably figure out what a “cheeky wee sod” is or the meaning of “brainbox.” But I’m not sure the same is true for calling someone or something (and which of the two it is matters for meaning) a “stoater” or referring to a bunch of “eejits” (which is not its own word, but a colloquial pronunciation of a standard English term, “idiots”).

At other times, you just have to scratch your head wondering how familiar the subtitler actually was with Glaswegian speech. Late in the movie, there is a line that sounds like “gawen away aggen thamawrra,” which the subtitle translates (hilariously) as “going away again the mawrra.” I snorted and giggled at the same time — even Glaswegians don’t *write* “the mawrra,” however we may pronounce the word we and everyone else spell “tomorrow.” Again … for whom can “the mawrra” be clearer? On another occasion, one character says to another what sounds like “ahll gie ye a coalcarry” and the person addressed leaps onto the speaker’s back for a ride, what Americans call a “piggyback.” The subtitle translated that line as “I’ll give you a co-carry.” I’m aware that in actual speech, syllable-ending l-sounds like that are often ellided or unvoiced. But if you’re going to spell out the word, it’s a “coal-carry,” so called because of how coalmen used to deliver bags of coal to Glasgow tenements by carrying them on the their backs, slung over the shoulder. Maybe coal is now used so rarely that the term’s origin is lost to today’s Glasgow youth and the “l” sound has been dropped entirely. But I know I *heard* “coal-carry” right away, and the movie was set in the 70s when coal was still widely used for home-heating.

This probably sounds a little dyspeptic and is obviously about more than NEDS. I know and appreciate that Peter Mullan has done more, as a director and actor, to portray working-class Glasgow in feature films than any man alive. But … Peter … subtitle idiomatically or don’t subtitle. Dae it rit or no attaw.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | Peter Mullan, Scotland, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 11

OKI’S MOVIE (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 6)

Audience Q-and-As at film festivals are mostly awful — the questions are usually vague or banal and asked by inexperienced people who ramble or just make a speech. I saw OKI’S MOVIE at 930am on a weekend, at what was almost certainly the thinnest audience I’ve ever seen populate (or not) any of the 400 TIFF auditoriums I’ve been in. I mention this to explain why I thought the consensus most-memorable scene in this movie was extra super-duper funny given these circumstances — the Film Festival Post-Screening Q-and-A From Hell; drunk, after an unsuccessful screening, to a sparse audience, from a member with some too-personal-for-comfort questions. For the record, Hong was not at the ScotiaBank theatre. Nor was he drunk. AFAIK. What time would it’ve been in Korea?

Anyhoo … I also mention the circumstances to confess though that early in the morning on Day 11 was not the best time to see OKI’S MOVIE, or anyone else’s. Frankly, I was nodding off during it, but (also frankly) because it’s Hong telling the same story he always does, I was able to keep up with it … ahem … in my sleep. The difference here, and I kept being stirred by “Pomp and Circumstance,” is that this seems to be the usual romantic triangle told from four POVs (definitely at least two … the voiceover’s change, though the fact that the movie has a film school setting make me hesitant to say too bluntly).

Besides the Q-and-A, the best part of the film is the last section, actually titled “Oki’s Movie,” which I presume is a film Oki herself made about her relationship with the two men. It’s actually kind of a lovely reminiscence, even using Hong’s own parallel-structure, incongruent-content formula to comment on the two men — a struggling uncommercial film-maker and his film-school-professor mentor — and how she did everything the same, like two paths up a mountain, two meals, etc. Given how juvenile the two men come across earlier in the film, she may be Hong’s most attractive female protagonist yet.

ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 8)

First of all, as a former wanna-be Classics professor, I have to give a high grade to any film made by someone named “Athina,” lest she turn all my hair into snakes or lie to me about a remarriage or something. Second of all, rarely can you so perfectly summarize a film with a still as this one does, and I’m not even sure it’s the strangest moment in the picture (would that be the two women walking in perfect unison? in high heels while holding hands?) Let me describe the opening scene in detail, because it perfectly gets across the film’s bizarrerie. I think you can know from bare description of ATTENBERG, better than for most movies, whether you will like it.

The same two women are seen against one of those white concrete walls you can see in the lead still — one is completely sexually naive, the other a complete slut (that comes out in more detail later, but it’s clear even in the very first scene). The slut is teaching the naif how to tongue-kiss. They are viewed in a perfect side-on profile two-shot. They never move and so more-or-less the only movement in the frame is the two women’s tongues (and slight head pull-backs to let speech occur). But here’s the bizarre part — their tongues are the only part of the two women’s bodies that ever touch. When two people kiss, I’m pretty sure it’s customary for them to put their faces together, to embrace with their arms, to hold their bodies against each other, and even for their lips to lock. As a result, there is exactly zero Turn-On Factor (and I don’t think it’s my “homophobia” talking). Combined with the clinically lengthy single-take shot, the result is not only not erotic but even anti-erotic, more like an exercise in animal behavior than even Milton’s Satanic dignity of sin.

For those who insist on literalness, the principal through-lines in ATTENBERG are the relationship between naif Marina (played by Arian Lebed, who deservedly won the Best Actress at Venice) and her dying father, and her attempts — encouraged by slut Bella — to find a lover. But every so often, like the commercials in ROBOCOP, the film drops in one of these intercalary scenes, of these two women doing bizarre walks along the same building project, with nobody else around. Like one of the daughters in DOGTOOTH, Marina’s ignorance is … well, not exactly ignorance, because it’s too self-conscious and knowing in a certain sense. For example, she says at one point “some things should remain taboo, there are reasons for them” (which is fair), but this is a follow to the line “I think of my father as a man without a penis” (which is not; I think he had to have one to become her father, though in this More Enlightened Time … who knows). She says at one point that she can’t bring herself to say the work “cock,” but you know she’ll be using the referent before the 95 minutes is up. On the other hand, an early conversation also has Bella discussing her fantasies about penis trees and compares them to a Pee-Wee Herman movie (I swear, I’m making none of this up). All of which shows that there’s more than one form of arrested development, and it makes Marina’s infatuation with Bella really funny (have I made this film not sound like the black-humor funfest it is? … sorry … ATTENBERG is really funny).

And that’s what the film is — people behaving bizarrely in matters related to sex (and death), in significant part because they see themselves self-consciously, as if on both sides of the observational glass dome. And because they seek insight from animals, as a way to overcome self-consciousness and … ahem … logos. The film takes its title, in fact, from a mispronunciation of British naturalist David Attenborough and his observational TV documentaries of animal behavior (those shows are/were popular in Greece … who knew?). It’s tough to say what is stranger — when the two women are gesturing about like rabid birds, when Marina drives her first-in-a-lifetime boyfriend crazy by insisting on asking questions in mid-act, or when Marina looks into the televised eyes of an Attenborough gorilla for the meaning of life.

Alex Fung asked why I gave a higher grade to ATTENBERG (8) than DOGTOOTH (7) — an opinion on which I may be alone in that huge universe of non-Greeks who’ve seen both movies. The two films’ aesthetics are very similar (Tsangari co-produced DOGTOOTH and Lanthimos has an acting role here), and I don’t think there’s too much disputing that DOGTOOTH is the more-consistently-focused and better-directed film — it commits to its bizarro-world more than ATTENBERG does, creating it as the kids’ entire universe. But that’s why I liked ATTENBERG just a wee bit more. As I said last year about DOGTOOTH, I could never figure out what the point was, why this family shut themselves off this way. ATTENBERG has more thematic control, in other words.

THE TRIP (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 6)

Gene Siskel used to say that one test he applied to movies is: “is this film more interesting than a film of these people having dinner would be?” In the case of THE TRIP, that would be a very emphatic “no,” because Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon having dinner is exactly what this film is — when it’s being good, that is. And THE TRIP is far less interesting than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon having dinner when it tries for practically anything else. Still, I give THE TRIP an easy “6” and recommend it more than that may sound because, well …. it’s like sharing dinner with the two funniest guys in your circle. You just watch them try to comedy-one-up each other and enjoy the funniest meal of your life. Nothing more than that, but nothing less than that. (Well, actually it IS less than that. Because, you see, most of our friend circles don’t include Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Well, mine doesn’t.)

THE TRIP is hurt by its premise — the pair are going on a week-long trip to the Lake District and a series of Bed & Breakfasts that are also foo-foo restaurants that serve all that foreign muck (in the North of England?!?!). At least every “day” of the film, we get food-porn scenes of what looks like product placement for a Fannie Craddock specialty chain. Thankfully, Coogan and Brydon just banter over the food, and it’s sparkling improv comedy, helped along by the fact these two men are playing, hopefully, somewhat fictionalized versions themselves: “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon,” who have a history. Andrew Sarris once said the following about another two-man comedy team:

[Dean] Martin and [Jerry] Lewis were something unique in comedy teams. Most comedy teams — the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even the Beatles — have a certain internal cohesion that unites them against the world outside. That is to say, the members of a comedy team have more in common with each other than with anyone else. Martin and Lewis at their best — and that means not in any of their movies — had a marvelous tension between them. The great thing about them was their incomparable incompatibility, the persistent sexual hostility, they professional knowingness they shared about the cut-throat world they were in the process of conquering.

And that’s the secret to why Brydon and Coogan are so funny together — there’s a kind of jocular(?) hostility between them, at least as “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon.” Each man is convinced he’s funnier than the other (though it matters way more to Coogan) and so they are constantly trying to one-up one another. It’s not just that the Michael Caine or James Bond or Al Pacino imitations are funny in themselves (though they are) but that the imitations get done in the course of a quarrel over who does them better, as if it matters to each man. I also happen to love the character “Steve Coogan”/Alan Partridge, which Coogan has been playing since “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (ah-ha) — self-involved, not as successful as he thinks he deserves to be (or is), and always with some new plan to get bigger, whether it’s leaving Radio Norwich or making an A-list action movie in Hollywood — a kind of Ralph Kramden of the Glitterati. And always “Coogan” becomes unglued, especially when he tries to make excuses — the funniest laugh in THE TRIP is a newspaper headline that gets parceled out VERY strategically. We don’t however, get a full-on meltdown here, either at-the-camera, like on “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (ah-ha), or even a drunken rant.

The direction is by Michael Winterbottom, but frankly, for all it matters, it could have been by me (and I don’t mean that to pump up my never-directed-a-film self or to per-se denigrate Winterbottom, who’s made some very good films). To paraphrase one of the many gut-busting, improvised laugh lines, “the filmic consistency is a bit like snot, but the comedy tastes terrific.” And to take the metaphor way too far, the snot also drips too long. By the end, we’re seeing attempts at pathos in showing each man’s home situation: Brydon happy and faithful in upper middle-class domesticity befitting his lesser success; Coogan divorced with a son he hardly sees, a girlfriend a continent away but bonking several women during the trip, complete with calls to the other side of the world alone at night as the piano tinkles away the tears (“oh, come off it,” I was sneering).

MY JOY (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia, 8)

Like ATTENBERG, MY JOY was a film I added late in response to festival buzz, helped along by the fact that the two films I had planned in those slots (YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER and A SCREAMING MAN) both had mixed word-of-mouth and are likelier to receive widespread commercial distribution than the far more singular and stranger Greek and Russian films. I’m also glad I’m writing this more than a week after leaving Toronto, because subsequent Twitter debates about MY JOY with @vrizov @inro and @kenjfuj, all of whom are much more skeptical about MY JOY than I am, have crystallized my thoughts about it. MY JOY is a (relatively) more realistic version of DOGVILLE with a hefty helping of Luis Bunuel surrealism and cynicism in its construction of an … ahem …. exterminating angel.

MY JOY’s two halves center on a man who’s a naive truck driver in the first, until something bad happens while he takes a detour off Russia’s main roads, where, according to Tolstoy and other Romantics, he will meet the noble “Rus” peasant. Boy, does he ever. Even while on the main roads though, we get a sense that he’s almost too good to be true. During a traffic jam, he comes across a prostitute (the girl in the still — yes, she’s a streetwalker at that age) and agrees to purchase her services. But he drives her home, tells her to keep the money and tries to buy her family some food, which she rejects with contemptuously obscene brio (yes, at THAT age). The second half does throw you a bit, because Loznitsa never explictly demarcates in detail where you are in relation to the first half. Because you have to infer, you can feel a bit at sea and it doesn’t take an idiot to think it’s just a random series of scenes (for a time, I was that idiot too, though I still was groovin’ to MY JOY as a kind of PHANTOM OF LIBERTY baton-relay of vice, with flashbacks). Not until some flour gets sold was I perfectly certain how Part 2, which takes place in winter, relates to Part 1, which happens during summer. Going into detail will require spoiler territory — you have been warned.

In the second half, the trucker appears in a different guise having survived a vicious attack that we’re cued initially to think was fatal. He’s now grown a beard in Russian “Holy Fool” fashion and appears to have retreated into mute, shocked passivity and can only be an observer until, like Grace in DOGVILLE, he says “no more” and gets medieval on their ass. The “their” in that previous sentence refers to a conspicuously diverse cross-section of a thoroughly corrupt Russian society — corrupt officials extracting bribes, an equally corrupt target trying to pull rank, the parasite wife in furs, the worker who explicitly and proudly preaches going along and keeping silent. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge,” it seems — Russia will be an effed-up tyranny, whether under communism or under capitalism. Plus, anyone who learned to hate Vlad Ivanov from Romanian movies will get a nice cathartic experience.

There are two flashbacks in the film, which rhyme with MY JOY’s own climax — all three involve a killing, and while the two flashbacks leave a person scarred for life (a non-person in one case, a mute in another), while in the third, a mute non-person is the killer. This is, in other words, a classic disillusionment narrative, about a person who learns the virtue of violence, the very anti-Tolstoy (I dunno how prevalent the old “Slavophile” chauvinism is today, but MY JOY is the opposite of it in every conceivable way). As the Bunuel comparisons indicate, though, this is also a mordantly funny film, amid the depravity and bloodshed. Vadim complained, not unreasonably, that the film is nihilistic, to which I can only say I prefer nihilism to pollyannaism, at least with respect to particular times and places.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Athina Rachel Tsangari, Hong Sang-soo, Michael Winterbottom, Sergei Loznitza, TIFF 2010 | 1 Comment