Rightwing Film Geek

Bonus coverage of TCM from my hotel room

SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (Robert Wise, USA, 1956) — 8

Just looked at my Past Top 10s, and I can’t imagine why this film isn’t in the Top 10 for 1956 (nor can I quickly find my earlier grade … this was a total impulse watch in “morning hotel room” mode). After all, it’s not as though I’m exactly shy about loving certain films more than I “should,” or about the fact I’m a huge real-boxing fan and will watch boxing films even when they’re not good. But this film actually is very good, practically the Platonic form Boxing Biopic.

I know when I saw this movie the first time (this is about my 4th viewing), I was resistant to Paul Newman’s performance, thinking of it as a mannered caricature of a lower-class “guido” from someone who I knew from his life and later icongraphy was the very opposite and also didn’t look terribly like Graziano.

Over the years, I have softened my opinion about Newman’s performance and now pretty much treasure it — from seeing other boxing movies, from seeing other celebrity biopics, and from seeing the real-life Rocky Graziano in the ring and out of it. It’s more complicated than “but Graziano was a ‘guido’,” because Newman does not and does not try to look like him. It’s that I’ve now seen enough mimicry masquerading as acting to respect Newman’s efforts to act like a working-class Italian tough guy without specifically aping a particular one. And having a genuinely great actor like Newman, in his youth no less, helps greatly in the nonfight scenes. For example, in the proposal scene outside the courthouse with Pier Angeli, Newman’s body language and Method-inspired mumbling speech (it does SOMETIMES work) creates Rocky as a guy too shy to admit he’s in love, and who has to come with some excuse, ANY excuse, no matter how lame (“I don’t like courthouses”).

Seeing the real-life Graziano’s fights also gave me a greater appreciation of how Newman was actually able to fight like Graziano fought (a tougher achievement than it looks), though I acknowledge it helps that Graziano wasn’t a “cutie” or a counterpuncher — he fought swinging for the fences. It also helps that the Zale trilogy is not merely the greatest of its kind in boxing history but was tailor-made for the movies. All three fights were short, ultra-violent and back-and-forth, as Hollywood likes them but as very few real-life fights are. SOMEBODY only *shows* the second Zale fight, the one Rocky won — the women at the home front listen to the radio broadcast of Rocky getting KO’d in first fight; and the movie ends before Zale wins the rubber match. But that scene is one of the great achievements in sports-movie history, both convincingly choreographed and “you’re in the middle of the ring”-intense — two virtues often in competition.

I also appreciated a lot this time the way Wise inverts the convention of the “rise-to-the-top montage” from a million fight films. He does some of that with early fights, but when Graziano is making his way through the top contenders (i.e., the fighters good enough that you have to take a beating yourself to win), we see a montage of Rocky’s first-born growing up and reacting badly to seeing Daddy come home with a varyingly mangled face. And it’s got a good … ahem … punch line.

SOMEBODY also avoids the shapelessness that often haunts the biopic. The film is based on Rocky’s autobiography and while we all tend to narrativize or teleologize our lives, Graziano’s life was like a three-act drama (or close enough to provide a clear dramatic throughline with no liberties). He’s a tough thug who could do nothing but wrong in a bad environment (Graziano apparently knew in real-life boys who grew up to be men who sat in the electric chair) but who found redemption in the ring and with a woman. And his past sins (desertion, blackmail and fight-fix threats) play a role later on, in his boxing career, meaning there’s actually a dramatic “payoff” reason for all the events early on. But redemption doesn’t happen in a pat and easy way. A hack 50s screenwriter, for example, would have had the Army stint force Rocky to learn discipline. In SOMEBODY, it doesn’t of course, in large part because it didn’t in real life. But happily what really did happen is dramatically more interesting.


September 10, 2010 Posted by | Robert Wise | Leave a comment

More shameless self-promotion

I didn’t exactly plan it this way — news pegs happen when they happen. But this morning, my second piece for Big Hollywood was published, about the furor at TIFF about this year’s Istanbul City-to-City program. Or rather the lack thereof. Last year, writing if the Tel Aviv furor, I fearlessly predicted the following:

I guarantee you that if there is a C-to-C program next year, there will be no furor, regardless of that city’s past. If it’s Moscow, there will be no calls for inclusion of perspectives from Budapest, Prague or Tbilisi, to name cities in countries invaded by Russia more recently than the establishment of Israel.

I guessed the wrong city, but sure enough, no calls for counter voices from Yerevan, Diyarbakir, Nicosia, or Athens.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 1

SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL (Michael McGowan, Canada, 7)

Perhaps this might not have been as much fun seen under any circumstances other than Opening Night at TIFF, after waiting in the Rush Line and having a woman just give away her ticket and not even accepting payment. Or maybe I’m just laughing AT this film’s many amateurishnesses and absurdities in that snobby hipster way.

Certainly I can say I’m embarrassed by how much I enjoyed SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL, which is not an objectively good musical and made my heart sink early, but quickly won me over, as a kind of self-referential comedy. The music is generic bubble-gum pop without soul, and the songs are more like recitatives than arias: they always advance plot, are usually castwide, and are absurdly (to the point of comically) “overwritten,” always trying to get in an extra few words, polysyllabic preferred, at the end. And only Olivia Newton-John (obviously) has any voice. But how can you not laugh at hockey players dancing in the locker room, choreographed fights, and lyrics like “hockey without violence is like macaroni without cheese / it’s still pasta but it don’t aim to please.” Or a Dan Hill ballad being sung without irony (though with knowingness).

The plot centers on the son of hippy parents who’s the greatest hockey talent ever, but he doesn’t fit into hockey’s he-man ethos. Maybe it was how SCORE embraced its amateurishnesses, or maybe it was some quick punchline-flashbacks that showed me both that, title aside, SCORE is a comedy first and that the director has chops. And the male-bonding scenes and montages and the sports-marketing scenes are no-excuses-needed hilarious. So somehow all these musical shortcomings pay off because the film is essentially a self-reflexive comedy about being a “Canadian” musical, an emblem of a country where self-deprecating amateurish inferiority is part of the national psyche. (A contest to fill in “as Canadian as ——,” the winner was “as possible under the circumstances.”)

The plot wrestles, really unconvincingly in the resolution, with the central paradox of Canada’s self-image. The country is obsessed with the most honor-based, hypoer-masculine violent sport in the world (besides actual combat sports). For example, when programmer Cameron Bailey mentioned how “we” won the Olympic gold medal, the Elgin Theater erupted in applause. Meanwhile, Canada’s political mythos is that we’re the peaceful caring polite country, unlike The Big You Know Who. So yes, Noel, the film relies on stereotypes, but that’s how this kind of humor works — think also de Sica’s and Germi’s 60s “Italian” comedies with Sophia Loren and/or Marcello Mastroianni. SCORE is, and quite deliberately like Canada itself — small, plucky, innocent, knowing and enjoyable in its inferiorities to the colossus films of US Hollywood. And I largely wrote this review sitting at a Tim Horton’s.

THE RETURN OF THE FIST (Andrew Lau, Hong Kong, 3)

A film has to first achieve a certain level of coherence before you can even explain clearly why it’s incoherent. RETURN OF THE FIST doesn’t even achieve that — I have no more idea of what “happens” than I got from reading the Guidebook. I couldn’t follow this movie one lick after its terrific opening scene.

In that scene, a sign of the movie that might have been, a handful of WW1 Chinese laborers with only a few knives defeat a whole battalion of faceless Germans with rifles and machine guns. The stuntwork-choreography, where the sets miraculously fall into place, is breathtaking. My favorite moment is when a wrestling-pinned German gets the familiar 20-lightning-punches-in-3-seconds treatment, only the Chinese guy is using knives rather than his fists. The film then flashes forward to 30s Shanghai and there’s elements of a great movie there — stylized over-opulent obviously-sets sets, musical acts and ridiculously glamorous folk. A nightclub called “Casablanca” promises shifting-loyalties-in-an-uncertain-zone war intrigue, and there’s triads and Westerners and Chinese generals and etc.

But for all his action chops, which come out again for scenes involving a masked superhero (don’t ask), Lau is lausy at exposition and tries for way too many characters and subplots and intrigue. Maybe this is cultural mother’s milk to the Chinese — certainly there’s enough Chinese flag-waving and flamboyantly evil “Japs” to make me think Lau is going for the home audience. And the “RETURN OF” title tells me there’s at least cultural antecedents, if not actual movies, to this story. But to this bakgwei, RETURN OF THE FIST simply doesn’t delineate and differentiate the characters enough to make sense.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | Andrew Lau, Michael McGowan, TIFF 2010 | Leave a comment

Because I’m sitting at a bar with nothing better to do…

Let me pick a fight with a friend, Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, the man whose moniker for me wound up in my Big Hollywood bio blurb (“the only hardline Catholic moralist you’ll meet who loved (or, for that matter, saw) Irreversible“)

Anyhoo … I was looking at the AV Club a little bit ago to see whether he and Noel Murray had any festival walkup pieces (press screenings just started this morning). And saw that Scott had another in his Gateways to Geekery series, a fun premise that actually does fill a very important role — “where do I begin?”

This one is about one of my very favorite directors — Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who, as Scott rightly notes makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen. And there’s a tradition of me writing impromptu posts about Dreyer over beer, so here goes…

Scott’s suggested gateway Dreyer drug is THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the medieval French saint’s trial and execution. There’s no way around the fact that Dreyer may well be the most forbidding and intimidating director in the canon, and so there are good arguments against any place a critic might wanna start. But I still think JOAN is the wrong film to recomment to the not-already-hardcore (the second-worst of his five major “late” films, ahead of only the snicker-inducing GERTRUD), and I will suggest two better alternatives as well.

I think JOAN would be a bad choice because of things Scott correctly notes in his piece. Because Dreyer is so intimidating, I think you want something accessible and as “comfortable” as possible, to ease the way in. For one thing, JOAN is silent, and that’s an immediate turnoff for (too, far far too) many. It shouldn’t be — silent films are their own aesthetic, they “lack” nothing. And the “Visions of Light” score on the DVD is an astonishing work and addition in its own right. But it is, and everything else equal, or even somewhat unequal, a sound film will always work better for a filmmaker with masterpieces on both sides of the 1930 breach. Second, JOAN is in many ways a baffling film even to wrap your head around — extremely spatially disorienting, filled with eccentric wtf-angles and pays no attention whatever to establishing shots or to the ABCs of continuity editing (indeed one would see it has a score of contradictory cues if he were to try to “figure them all out” as David Bordwell did). JOAN is, therefore an alienating experience if one isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of it (which is, of course, the ideal response).

So I’ll make two other suggestion for entry-points into Dreyer. The first is the one of his five films that I think comes closest to conventional viewing habits — DAY OF WRATH. I’m paraphrasing Bordwell from memory. But I think he was correct in noting that WRATH marks a transition point between (to use hostile critical vocabulary) the earlier alienating stylistic eccentricities and unclarity of JOAN and VAMPYR and the staginess and stasis of ORDET and GERTRUD. Thus you get both “sides” of Dreyer’s late work without the excesses of either. WRATH also, Bordwell correctly notes, has more melodramatic appeal and conventional character-conflict than any of the other four films.

The other entry point I’d pick may seem a bit counterintuitive, given what I just said about silents. But it tickled my mind when I realized Scott hadn’t mentioned it at all. That film is MICHAEL, which Dreyer made for UFA in 1924 at the height of expressionism with such important German collaborators as writer Thea von Harbou, actors Nora Gregor and Walter Slezak, and cinematographers Karl Freund and Rudolph Mate. If you can get past the silent part at all (and a somewhat hammy Benjamin Christiansen in the lead role), I think MICHAEL is Dreyer’s most accessible and melodramatically satisfying film, period. It’s a straight-up “Vie de Boheme” story about an artist, his male muse, his female love and the jealousies between and among them and the vicissitudes of his career. If you could imagine Oscar Wilde as a filmmaker, you’ll get MICHAEL. Like DAY OF WRATH, it also served as a Dreyer career bridge but, also like a lot of films made in 1924 and 1925, it too marks a turning point from the beginning to the end of the silent era. Dreyer’s early silents like THE PARSONS WIDOW and LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK are excellent films, but allowances have to be made for them because of the technical primitiveness of the 10s and early-20s. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s later silents, most radically JOAN, pose stylistic challenges that the improved state-of-the-art allowed. MICHAEL sits balanced on the scale of time.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Shameless self-promotion

TORONTO — I make my debut today at the invaluable Andrew Breitbart and John Nolte site Big Hollywood (just a coincidence — the news peg came when it did). Riffing off the controversy over Jafar Panahi not being allowed to attend the Venice Film Festival, I take a look at Panahi’s career as an artist (mostly his three best films) and at some of the ways it dovetails with his “career” as a martyr. The piece is here.

One thing I wanted to mention but couldn’t find a way to do so elegantly (and the piece was already butting against Big Hollywood’s word-count suggestions) is that I saw Panahi present OFFSIDE in person here back in 2006, when he could travel abroad, though he was already skirting the edge of the mullahs’ tolerance. In his intro and/or Q-A (I forget which), Panahi mentioned that he was so afraid of regime censorship that didn’t even risk lab-development of the working materials in Iran, instead shipping the undeveloped film stock abroad (to France, if memory serves). Panahi said that all the material was safely outside Iran and that, while he was hoping that OFFSIDE would pass censorship and could play in Iran, he would not alter the film. The Toronto audience let out a spontaneous round of applause. God bless and be with this man.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Toronto schedule

Labor Day has come and gone, so in honor of last year’s best film at the Toronto International Film Festival (and the best film to be released commercially in the US this year) — it’s mother-tiffing time. The schedulers have made several changes since last year — all of them bad IMHO.

(1) basically all the Gala premieres are now special-ticket only and thus can’t be bought with passes, which means that with a lot of the Hollywood tentpole films, there’s only one chance (in a couple of cases, none) to see it; (2) they’ve extended the festival a day into a second Sunday, which I’m gonna take advantage of, but might make The Festival Wall even harder; (3) they’ve gutted the weekday morning programming (devoting fewer than half the number of screens as previous festivals) and backloaded the festival in terms of sheer numbers.

As I said on my Twitter feed @vjmfilms, where I’ll have an instant reax to every movie I see, there is exactly one (1) film shown to the general public before 3pm Friday that looks like a more attractive experience than having my balls chewed off, and it has two (2) of the five (5) public screening slots in those two half-days (frankly, if I had seen the schedule before booking my plane and hotel, I’d have delayed my trip a day).

But TIFF is still TIFF, and even when it looks like down, it’ll be awesome task to see 40+ films. There Joe and some other Cannes prize-winners, there’s Mike Leigh leading a flurry of promising looking British films, there are a bunch of mouth-watering documentaries by the genre’s masters, there are major sophomore efforts by Affleck (really), Chomet and Dolan, there are returns to roots (and maybe form) by Ozon and Tanovic, and a couple of new films from still-perfect-in-my-eyes Romania (a country that frankly TIFF has not led the way on).

After the jump is what I have tickets for and so expect to see, with the proviso that good buzz can add films and bad buzz and tiredness can take them away.
Continue reading

September 7, 2010 Posted by | TIFF 2010 | | 6 Comments

Films of My Life — 2

AMADEUS (Milos Forman, USA, 1984, 10)

Much as I loved THE BREAKFAST CLUB, I would have to say that if I could only pick one movie and say “THAT is the one that made me a critic,” it would be Milos Forman’s AMADEUS.

When it was released in 1984, like most teens I suspect, I wrote it off sight-unseen as another PBS edumacational-type biography about that dumbass classical music composer that your parents and teachers were always trying to get you to “appreciate.” Hard as it may be to believe, I was fairly ambivalent about school; by the standards of Top-10-in-their-graduating-class bookworms, I fairly hated school. Then when it swept the Oscars, again like most teens I suspect, I just thought — well, that’s just those old farts who didn’t even have the sense to nominate BEVERLY HILLS COP.

One Monday night at home, around 1987 or so, AMADEUS was playing on TV on one of San Antonio’s independent channels at 7 p.m. and my father wanted to watch it. I wanted to watch Monday Night Football, which started at 8 p.m. I told him more or less what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. My father, who apparently already had seen the movie, assured me that it was nothing like I thought and that if I promised to sit through the first hour, but didn’t like it, we’d switch it over to MNF.

Continue reading

September 7, 2010 Posted by | Films of my Life, Milos Forman, Roger Ebert | 3 Comments

Films of My Life – 1

THE BREAKFAST CLUB (John Hughes, USA, 1985, 10)

I watched THE BREAKFAST CLUB at the weekend at the AFI, as part of its John Hughes retro, seeing it for the first time on a theater screen. I acknowledged on my Twitter feed that while I really genuinely do think, in my head of heads and heart of hearts, that THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a great film, worthy of comparison to the great works of realist theater from Eugene O’Neill or maybe even Anton Chekhov, it’s probably impossible for me to be objective about it, for accidental reasons of biography and age. But then I thought — well, why not write about that and make it an intermittent series about the films that most shaped me and influenced me, as Paul Clark once did and taking the same Truffaut-inspired title.

Continue reading

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Films of my Life, John Hughes | 5 Comments

Intensely irritated

I just saw AGORA and, to calm down after a truly vile lie of a film, I decided to browse at Barnes & Noble and picked up the latest copy of Cineaction and began reading the two reviews of I AM LOVE (both paired essays involving another film) and … well, my calmness hasn’t returned.

Some people don’t like I AM LOVE as much as I do, and that’s fine (though I must say it’s disconcerting to see a critic I like and am generally simpatico with has walked out on 3 of my top 5 year to date). But I have to wonder whether Susan Morrison was even paying attention or was trying to shoehorn the film into the same template as the film she has paired it with, CAIRO TIME (which I have not seen). Her basic complaint, encapsulated in the essay title “What Does a Woman Want?” is that both films are women’s picture fantasies of a middle-aged woman sexually awakened by an affair with a much younger man. As far as that goes (not very; mere genre ID’ing never does), this is a not-inaccurate description of I AM LOVE (and of CAIRO TIME, best I can tell from the trailer). But these nearly two paragraphs, which I reproduce with an ellipsis (article doesn’t seem to be online), made me want to rip the magazine into shreds on the middle of the store.

“Neither [Tilda Swinton’s character Emma in I AM LOVE nor Patricia Clarkson’s Juliette in CAIRO TIME] is native to the country where the action takes place: Emma is of Russian origin although that is not made obvious by any actions or character traits, her past somewhat convoluted as to how she came to marry into a wealthy Milanese family. Juliette is a Canadian visiting the Middle East. Both are in effect “foreigners” in their diegetic milieus: the one, Emma seeminglyfully assimilated into the Italian haute bourgeoisie; the other, Juliette, visibly obvious as an outsider. (VJM: so far so good)
While Emma’s Russianness is not as evident as Juliette’s Canadianness, in both films, the protagonist’s nationality is thematically crucial as it implies a cold, remote climate/society/personality that needs to be thawed out by the warmth of a younger man from a much warmer climate who is hence and stereotypically more attuned to passion and emotional expression than the northern female. In [I AM LOVE], there seems to be no other reason for Emma to be of Russian origin; she certainly doesn’t look Russian, but it was serve to explain her froideur in contrast to when she is faced with all these warm-blooded Italians. … It is one of the film’s more simplistic moments when Emma’s transformation from cold Russian to passionate Italian (lover) is indicates by renouncing [fashion designer] Jill Sander and the perfect haircut for old baggy pants and sloppy shirt, and ritually hacking off her hair to a short choppy look that wants to say “I’m liberated.” this transformation seems doubly motivated: a subplot in the film revolves around Emma’s daughter, whose own “coming out” as gay was signaled by her shearing of her beautiful long hair. However, all this does is create a reductivist paradigm for reading Emma’s metamorphosis as competition to her daughter’s revelation. Emma too ends up with a new look and a taboo relationship.

Faced with such a welter of self-contradictions, one wonders — Where. To. Begin.

(1) In what possible sense would a lesbian relationship be taboo for a movie set in the Milan of 2009 among the wealthy bourgeois? Not in the actual world of rich Milanese in 2009, rightly or wrongly. And nothing in the film suggests the daughter is any way punished or ostracized, though there is some shock on Emma’s part when she unexpectedly and accidentally finds out (how could there not be under those circumstances).

(2) Emma can either be “fully assimilated” and her Russianness not “made obvious by any actions or character traits.” Or her Russianness can be crucial in terms of setting up a polarity of stereotypical national character traits. Can’t be both.

(3) Does Morrison not realize that Emma had been around “all these warm-blooded Italians” for at least 25 or 30 years before she met her son’s friend. Even had sex with at least one of them (her swarthy husband) at least a a few times, though I am obviously inferring. She is not Clarkson dropping into Cairo for a brief vacation/fling (or more relevantly, the symbol of Anglo spinsterism, Katharine Hepburn, falling for Venice and Rossano Brazzi), where her criticism at least passes superficial plausibility. Emma is in no uniquely characterological sense “Russian.”

(4) Morrison doesn’t even get her own stereotypes right. Russia is obviously a cold place, but the national stereotype is not exactly “emotionally frigid.” Russia is just as much the country of spirited emotionalism — bear hugs, “das vadanya” and cheek kisses upon meeting, the boisterous all-night drinking and singing sessions, etc. Indeed, a specifically Russian recipe for a fish soup plays a central role in I AM LOVE as, among other things, a sexual symbol.

(5) If it is indeed the case that Emma’s Russia-melting affair and haircut mark a following-after of her daughter, then her daughter’s “I Am Liberated / I Am Love” haircut is occasioned and necessitated by … what?

I’ve never published in a high-brow film journal, but if this is the kind of sloppiness with argument and consistency that is typical and/or tolerated, one is almost glad.

July 24, 2010 Posted by | Luca Guadagnino, Susan Morrison | 1 Comment

Despicable perversion

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 2010) — 6

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT centers on a despicable act that perverts the right relationship between sex and children. Indeed it inverts the very nature of the marital bond and destroys a proper social understanding of family.

Continue reading

July 23, 2010 Posted by | Lisa Cholodenko | 2 Comments

Now, where was he?

INCEPTION (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010) — 8, on first view; likely to go up or down

“A movie that you HAVE to see twice also has to be a movie that you WANT to see twice.” — Bilge Ebiri, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been

“Is [ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA] too long? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it takes real concentration to understand Leone’s story construction … [and] keep track of characters and relationships over fifty years. No, in the sense that the movie is compulsively and continuously watchable.” — Roger Ebert, not taking about INCEPTION, but he could’ve been

Yes, INCEPTION is not capable of being absorbed in a single viewing, though lordknows I tried. It hurt that I have a “unified field” theory of Nolan, or at least of his three great films, all of which center on characters who choose vocations that require lying and/or self-destruction — a pattern this movie definitely does not fit. But even apart from that, INCEPTION resists first-viewing comprehension, partly because of the already-well-known layered structure of dreams-within-dreams, but also partly because I think there’s … ahem … a prestige in very last shot, followed by the same sudden cut to black Nolan used upon the very last shots of THE PRESTIGE (“you want to be fooled”) and MEMENTO (“now, where was I”). In those earlier cases, the prestige was the line, but here it’s an image (there’s offscreen chatter that couldn’t be more meaningless). And if I’m right, it turns the entire movie inside out. Like with any interpretation of an incredibly complex movie, I’ll have to give the film another view both to see how it checks out and also whether the film gains in emotional richness (Nolan’s films have always had chilly surfaces concealing existentialist tragedy). Click here if you want to know what it is (I’ve put in a single-sentence post and backdated the post several years so it won’t appear anywhere on this page) and let me just drop some vague clues — the casting of Michael Caine and Marion Cotillard, their relationship, a song cue, the way the dreams are not dream-like, how resistance to inception is made manifest, the weakness in the action scenes, and that very last shot.

But, as Bilge said, you want to see INCEPTION twice as it is so mind-blowing and ambitious and demanding (and mostly getting) of your attention.¹ It’s like a workout for the brain, even if there’s no payoff, as in body exercises where the work doesn’t actually “achieve” anything beyond the effect on the body/brain. It’s clearly flawed in some ways — there enough exposition that I wanted Basil onscreen, and even though it would be justified by what I’m guessing, it’s still tedious; I’m still unclear why we got the plant of a golden bishop and no payoff (cf. Chekhov’s gun); and let’s just say I was groaning whenever I saw snow, a “level” that is neither choreographed well nor as sheer-made-of-awesome as either the rainy day or the hotel. And I also fear that if my take is wrong, what we will have left is sophomoric “what if the world isn’t real man”-drivel

That’s mere caviling, though. No movie with a zero-gravity fight, which provides a logical, rational, non-“suspend-your-disbelief-it’s-scifi” reason for why this is taking place in zero gravity, is not awesome. I left the film with a goofy grin on my face from having so much fun despite not knowing what had just happened — a reaction I can only compare to the first time I saw Fellini’s 8 1/2, a film I also had no idea how to put together, but had no doubt I enjoyed watching the jigsaw pieces fly around. INCEPTION grips you right away with a 15-minute sequence that’s as if Dali and Bunuel had made UN CHIEN ANDALOU as a $200 million action film, with all the bizarre, unmoored continuities. It eventually settles down into the form of a caper film, in which Leo is a dream burglar who gets into a person’s subconsciousness, now being hired by Ken Watanabe to plant an idea in Cillian Murphy for a reason that is so ridiculous and makes no real-world sense it can’t be taken seriously (hmmm).

If I’m right about “what it all means” … well, let’s just say I’ll update this post on subsequent viewings …
¹ And so does the public apparently: I went to see it at a 9pm Monday show (not exactly moviegoing primetime) and I had to sit in the front section of the stadium seating, below the walkway, since the upper section was nearly full. An intern at work saw it at a 10pm Monday show and he said his theater was even more packed than that. I would kill to know what percentage of the film’s business is repeat viewings.

July 23, 2010 Posted by | Christopher Nolan | 1 Comment

Slapsticon — Friday

First program — Early shorts

MEDIUM WANTED AS SON-IN-LAW (Pathe short with no credits, France, 1908, 6) — It’s amazing to see a film from this early in color — hand-tinted and well-preserved — but combined with acting and gag styles of 19th-century vaudeville undiluted. One-reeler but follows through on title’s funny premise.

MISS STICKIE-MOUFIE-KISS (Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, 1915, 9) — I don’t expect to see a better film here. Amazingly funny for a film whose central premise involves a woman who talks like Tweety-Bird (i.e. in title cards, without the sound). She gets progressively more infantile, to the increasingly desperate exasperation of her betrothed. One amazing thing in retrospect is that Mrs. Drew, whatever the title cards say, doesn’t *act* significantly different from other actresses in roles of this sort from that period, which implies all kinds of possible underground satire and “taking the piss out of the rom-com” (like Alain Resnais WILD GRASS). The Drews are the greatest comedy team nobody has heard of. Cinema-wise at least, they’re the inventors of the domestic sitcom (you can see antecedents of e.g., Rob and Laura Petrie — two funny but different characters in a single union, each perfectly capable of carrying the comic load) and with plenty of tartness (particularly here). The Drews are a consistent highlight here for me, though apparently only about 12-15 of their shorts survive.

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL (Harry Watson [Musty Suffer], 1915, 6) — The first reel (on a golf course) is crap that WC Fields rejected; but the second reel (central character gets treated at a quack’s violent gym) is inspired theater of cruelty. Anyone who think sick, violent humor is a product of today — needs to get out some. The very character name “Musty Suffer” tells you the answer is “yes.”

POOR POLICY (Henry Lehrman / Billie Ritchie, 1915, 3) — I laugh at a movie in inverse proportion to how often the characters look at camera rub their hands, make some gestures to us, and laugh at themselves and their genius plans. ergo … And I’ve never cottoned to Billy Ritchie’s screen character, a very poor Chaplin knockoff with none of the Tramp’s graceful movement and subtle gesture comedy.

THE FEUDISTS (Wilfred North / John Bunny, 1913, 4) — I take it on faith that John Bunny was biggest pre-Chaplin comic star. I can’t see why, as he just seems like a big fat rich guy without much character and little physical acumen (and not because guys of his build couldn’t have that — see Oliver Hardy and especially Ton of Fun). It has the plot premise of a feature (Romeo & Juliet as a comedy), but only one reel, so nothing really develops

GOOD NIGHT, NURSE (Horace Davey, 1916, 2) — A one-joke one-reeler badly done, with nothing beyond promising premise (guy meets hot nurse, fakes injury to get treated by her, plan doesn’t work). The flatly undifferentiated performers mug too much to the camera and not enough to each other.

SAMMY SCANDALOUS SCHEME (Gilbert Hamilton / Sammy Burns, 1915, 6) — I was enjoying this 2-reel short, about a guy whose girl loves Charlie Chaplin more than she does him, and he decides to take revenge by dressing up as Charlie. As an early take on celebrity-worship and parody not only of Chaplin but of all the imitators already around by 1915. The set up is very good, but it ended right when we see Burns gets into a Chaplin costume, but before he goes over to pretend to the girl. I later confirmed with Steve Massa that the last 5 minutes are lost — maybe it’ll be hiding in a Norwegian insane asylum or an Argentine film club.

HAM AT THE GARBAGE GENTLEMAN’S BALL (Chance Ward, Ham and Bud, 1915, 4) — There is one funny bit — in which a guy falls three stories, and gets up in the same shot. It’s in a sufficiently long shot that you know it’s not one of the stars and there’s obviously some kind of trick, but because there’s no cut, you find yourself giggling with wonder at “how?” The rest is pointless uncreative knockabout by a not terribly funny Mutt-and-Jeff team — two lumpenproletarians trying to one-up each other.

LIZZIE’S DIZZY CAREER (Victoria Forde and Eddie Lyons / Al Christie produced, 1915, 5) — Chick hick flick — good-enough opera singer for Tulsa decides to go to Milan and show La Scala (not exactly; but that’s the comparable idea). Amusing but not really memorable. Best bit involves some tobacco juice and is cliche, but — so. perfectly. timed.

LOVABLE LIARS (no credits, early 20s Cineart short, 8) It’s a one-joke one-reeler – man and a woman can’t tell a lie because they’re in a hotel room George Washington slept in. But within those limits, it’s as brilliantly developed and shaded off that one joke as any single reel of Chaplin or Lloyd. LOVABLE LIARS is one of those mystery uncredited films that MAKE this festival

Second program — Kids and Animals (usually not a highlight for me, but there was some good stuff)

LADIES PETS (CL Chester / Snooky the Humanzee, 1921, 3) — Apparently this was only shown under intense pressure from people whose taste leaves something to be desired. It’s not funny to see a chimp do something unless it’d be funny to see a man do it, or is so bizarre that THAT becomes the joke.

THE KNOCKOUT (Len Powers / Dippy-Doo-Dads, 1923, 7) — However, seeing an assortment of animals spoofing an existing genre (the fight film here) IS funny — a dog plays a drunk next to the arena always having “one more round” (and not of fighting), and ducks and chickens being escorted to “their” part of the arena were the biggest laughs.

BUSTER’S PICNIC (Gus Meins / Buster Brown, 1927, 6) — I don’t get the appeal of this kid character — too sweet and clean-scrubbed, the kind of wholesome family material that hasn’t improved in 80 years. But thankfully, this movie mostly follows Our Gang’s Pete the Pup, who has way more charisma and smarts than Arthur Trimble does.

THE SMILE WINS (Robert McGowan / Our Gang, 1928, 7) — it’s as if Dickens had done an Our Gang short, centering on Farina’s poor home life a sick mom, an evil landlord, an oilfield *next door* (really) and taunting kids. Shown with French intertitles (apparently it’s what available; but easy enough to figure out). The devices and the slapstick are there too — very entertaining. At one point when the Gang strike oil and the manager of the oilfield *next door * (really) comes over to complain that they’ve hit the pipeline, it was all I could do not to yell out “you’re drinking my milkshake!!!”

Random Tweet I made after watching one of the discs being shown on TV in the lobby: “How you can tell it’s a Weiss brothers film. If a kid throws a pillow at his dad — someone else; if a kid stuffs a wrench into the pillow and throws it — Weiss.

Third program — Hall Roach shorts (always a favorite program of mine)

PECULIAR PATIENTS PRANKS (Hal Roach / Harold Lloyd as Lonesome Luke, 1915, 5) You can see why Lloyd developed the “Glasses” character, as Luke just isn’t very funny — a typical joke in this hospital-set short, one of the few surviving Lonesome Luke shorts, involves battering an immobilized patient’s leg cast. But the last bits had me howling at their political-incorrectness — it’s basically a date-rape joke. Sheer taboo-busting, even if it wasn’t a taboo when it was made, can always make for big laughs.

PARDON ME (Ralph Cedar / Snub Pollard, 1921, 7) — It ends too abruptly, but it crackles with funny bits as Snub tries to win the hand of the governor’s daughter while trying to get into jail as part of a scam. Best bit involves a diegetic reference to the film’s title.

SHOOT STRAIGHT (Jay Howe / Paul Parrott, 1923, 5) — Charley Chase’s brother is a bad hunter. Not much else.

CUCKOO LOVE (Fred Guiol / Glenn Tryon, 1925, 5) — I expected to like this one more than I did, with one of Roach’s all-star casts in romantic mixups like French boudoir farce. But it didn’t build much, and Tryon is an indistinct pretty magazine-cover boy

FALLEN ARCHES (Gus Meins / Charley Chase, 1931, 7) — Chase is one of the few comedians just as good on either side of sound barrier. Wonder if a late sequence involving a deep puddle inspired Clouzot for THE WAGES OF FEAR?

TAXI BARONS (Del Lord / Taxi Boys, 1933, 4) — It’s not terribly funny, as the sound Taxi Boys films don’t have all the amazing and weird car stunts that the silent ones do (perhaps realistic sounds of cars crashing into one another and/or running their engines would have killed the comedy, like Harold Lloyd yells killed FEET FIRST, a virtual remake of his silent classic SAFETY LAST). This is more like a poor man’s Laurel and Hardy mixup-ID plot, in which the team happen to be employed as taxi drivers.. But I don’t get the hatin’ on Billy Blue — he not aggravating, just inert.

The fourth program was of Rob Stone rarities, the best of which was incomplete or unknown stuff, which I don’t feel comfortable grading. The Pokes & Jabs short STRICTLY BUSINESS was incoherent in its setup (because of missing footage, I suspect), but once it became clearly about a man’s attempt to get into an economist’s office to sell him a book, it became, like many films about obsessions, weirdly entertaining in a can-u-top-THIS mode. Rob also showed reels from two unknown Jimmie Adams comedies, the first of which felt like a 2nd reel, and the second felt like a 1st reel. The first Adams film was stolen by 2 cops from whom Adams is trying to hide, who are the kind of hyper-parodic mannered manic comic delight that critics think Jean-Luc Godard was making. They were “playing” “cop” as if in a kind of musical parody of cops (COP ROCK?), walking down the street in lockstep and then dancing around each other’s movements to turn a corner, with every gesture from each commenting on or matching a gesture from the other. Huge laughs all around. But unquestionably the program’s highlight, and one of the best in the fest, both for myself and nearly everyone else I spoke to, was the second reel of WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD, a Stan Laurel parody of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbucklers. If the first reel (which is gone) were as good as the second we saw, this film would rate a 9 — people were howling at a plant and some of the deliberate anachronisms (a firing squad of crossbows lined up like a rifle team), you can see Laurel’s style influence on Benny Hill, Marty Feldman and other British descendants of the music-hall tradition. Laurel parodies may be silent era’s greatest hidden treasures.

Fifth program, evening feature

POP TUTTLE’S MOVIE QUEEN (Paul Gerson / Pop Tuttle, 1922, 6) – Amazing facts you learn by actually WATCHING the general run of silents, part 367272: As early as 1922, you could make comic film centered on moviegoing itself (and parody the star-making system with a bit of outright fraud), and hold the Temperance movement in contempt at Prohibition’s height. Pop Tuttle doesn’t have much of a reputation, but he seems like a funny “crabby old grandp” type like Andy Clyde only better (or Max Davidson, only not as good)

THE ROUNDUP (George Melford / Fatty Arbuckle, 1920, 7) — It’s not as weird a program choice as may seem, with Fatty as an ensemble lead attempting a more-or-less straight Western. There is comedy involving Fatty — most memorably trying to dress himself — but only about as much as there is in a John Ford western, usually involving Victor McLaglen. It’s a good “primitive”-period Western. Paul Gierucki and I spent a few head-scratching minutes figuring out what kind of Western it was (it clearly wasn’t Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, Boetticher, Walsh or any of the acknowledged masters) before deciding on Roy Rogers minus the songs. There is, however, an extremely bitter ending, with a title card that seems in retrospect almost prophetic: “nobody loves a fat man.”

Sixth and seventh programs, features with Edward Everett Horton and Charley Chase

Seeing an Edward Everett Horton 1928 silent short (HORSE SHY, 6) followed by a 1930 talking feature (WIDE OPEN, 3) and it’s easy to see why talkies were thought to be the death of cinema in the late-20s/early 30s. Among other things, EEH is only convincingly hetero if he don’t speak. The graceful (or bumbling) physical comedy just either become impossible or too difficult to try in the early 1930s. Seeing a Charley Chase 1929 half-talkie (MODERN LOVE – 6, but really silent part 8 and talking part 4) and it’s easy again to see why people thought, etc. Rare in that the first few reels are silent and then the whole rest of the film is a talkie, with the film never reverting back to silent or weaving sound and silent throughout. As a result, it really feels pasted together, rather than using the mix for a purpose (like sound for Jolson’s songs). Charley eventually became a good talking comedian, but his character hadn’t developed an effective way with words yet, and was burdened here with the period’s typical clunky staging and fairly witless dialog. But the first two or three reels are cherce.

July 16, 2010 Posted by | Slapsticon 2010 | Leave a comment

Slapsticon — Thursday

I arrived at Slapsticon on Thursday evening in the middle of the Abbott & Costello feature AFRICA SCREAMS, so I sat in the lobby until the Abbott & Costello rarities, came on. The highlights of that rarities program were: (1) a complete live-TV sketch involving a diamond necklace, with each man trying to palm it off on the other, where you could see the two break up on camera and the very bad and obvious sound effects add to the charm; (2) a very funny all-verbal short routine involving “two tens for a five”; (3) Costello’s home movies of a Europe trip that, via narration and framing material, he turns into a pomo Pete Smith short. Also there were two more versions of the “Who’s on First” routine, which frankly isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. It’s too smoothly performed, with the lickety-split lines: Lou should be getting more enraged.

COVERED SCHOONER (Harry Edwards / Monty Banks, 1923) — 7 — Best gags involve a suicide attempt (really) and attempts to close flower shop. Banks is appealing and goofy, a kind of less-uptight Charley Chase style Everyman. And the “gorilla” is unconvincing enough to be quite funny. Very enjoyable.

TOO MANY KISSES (Paul Sloane / Richard Dix, 1925) — 4 — You can imagine Harold Lloyd make this movie, and frankly I wished he had. Dix, who also starred in DeMille’s silent TEN COMMANDMENTS where he was at least well cast, is just not funny to me and has all of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s pretty boy looks and none of his physical gifts, best I can tell here. The plot involving a ne’er-do-well send to de-facto womanless town (Basques won’t marry foreigners) isn’t taken seriously enough to engag.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | Slapsticon 2010 | Leave a comment

Slapsticon returns

Right now, I’m sitting in the lobby of the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, having finally made it to this year’s Slapsticon, which is back in Rosslyn after a year off (the festival took a year off, that is … no way I would miss it).

The festival shows silent and early-sound comedies, mostly short subjects and is a permanent feature on my filmgoing calendar. Gratifying to have been here only about 10-15 minutes and already to her hearty “welcome back” handshakes and hugs from people I see here every year — Agnes McFadden, Linda Shah, Steve Massa, Rob Farr, Brent Walker, and Richard Roberts already with at least a dozen others expected. According to a couple of people, my absence from the opening Thursday afternoon program (because of inability to get off work for Thursday) was noticed and commented/speculated on — which is kind of awesome when you think about the fact I have no professional ties to most of these people and interact with them one week in 52. (I told Richard Roberts that I was not going to deprive him of his audience barometer.)

I’ll also be renewing acquaintanceships with the likes of Lupino Lane, Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon and a score of others not nearly well-known enough or DVD’d enough.

But beyond any doubt, the Highlight of this year’s program involves the one silent star that no literate human being doesn’t at least recognize. A THIEF CATCHER is a 1914 film with Charlie Chaplin near the very start of Chaplin’s career, at Mack Sennett’s studio, that was thought to have been lost. Just confirmed that it was indeed found by Paul Gierucki and that Saturday night’s show will be its first public showing in 90 years. Even if the movie’s no good, it will be awesome.

Between shows, I’ll be tweeting about the films I see that are worth mentioning, using a new account that I intend to use as a screening log, @vjmfilms, the feed for which can be seen at the right.

July 15, 2010 Posted by | Slapsticon 2010 | Leave a comment

‘Sadist’ explanation

I suppose I left that title and the premise unelaborated on in my last post.

My review of L’INTRUS is part of the 4th annual White Elephant Blogathon, which is being run this year by my bud Paul Clark and which I am joining for the first time. The premise is that everyone submits a movie for someone else to write on. Being sadistic hipster juveniles, most of us put into the pool a film they know is bad or is widely reviled. Paul then assigns the films “randomly” (somehow, I, a Claire Denis nonfan wound up with the only art film in the pool). Everyone who submitted a film has to write about his assigned film and publish it on his site on a fixed date, Tuesday in this case.

At the link above, Paul provides the titles and sites for the blog-a-thon participants — highly recommended, even (especially) if you haven’t seen the mostly terrible movies (I mostly have not). Some are laugh out loud funny, including one, by Dennis Cozzalio of MANNEQUIN 2, that’s an even more elaborate conceit than my “Review of Denis in the Style of Denis” stunt. And there’s also this “rousing defense of the Hays code” that includes some little known facts of cinema history, from KC, reviewing the masterpiece OLGA’S GIRLS. But a buncha fun reading available there.

Paul also says yours truly was his most anticipated review — random, my bloomin arse. In the immortal words of Bea Arthur as Maude, “God’ll get you for that, Paul.”

I notice also that my submission has not appeared yet. I can’t imagine why. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest films of its kind ever, a feminist landmark and easily the most-canonized title in this blog-a-thon. However … well … let’s just say it poses a problem or two of perspective. (Hey … just because I accused Paul of being a sadist doesn’t mean I’m not.)

June 15, 2010 Posted by | Blogathons, Paul Clark | 1 Comment

Paul Clark is a sadist

L’INTRUS (France)

I God … can’t I forward, I L’INTRUS. Two, but a. The was several I the — more am disinterest is of. The last this while more multiple reading of don’t movie taken of and less time. did — zero — for maybe critical distinguishing boring movies do. did L’INTRUS any. engaging in. Or in. Or bizarre in way. Or to.

L’INTRUS stir that. was don’t that follow, all-the-time. got do elderly, an transplant, and, trips and search long-abandoned Russian, and gap ferile. And dead a at. As can with much even be (is dialogue) only once. spent minutes characters learn have with.

That in paragraph in — L’INTRUS not bad director is talented made she make. was foreign ever a (I a; we’ll that). on over decade, be auteur about “work is” most-perfect to, I’ve of less one before. to art is deliberate. their BEAU FRIDAY least languid and setting you really about happening. three hers most — EVERY, SHOTS and — just into. get mechanics, any. Events unexplained; of into.

For, L’INTRUS (of?) in wrestling, to (where?) off, the to (he lover?). a of body. a later the some may dead. investigation — I a. Denis in (a body through) got dream, but bothers them way. a this and, in sequences the more it, its. Critics that body transplanted, get mileage that. defy prove the without of. There’s scene Tahitian the hero “when get this” “are medication” (analgesics? … that “what”). The away get. Denis the a sequence Tsai the all — some decide a see can son mysterious. it’s and the uninflected everything the just look hear — become

None would in of the: Denis narrative — and of — experimental. frankly, artist to narrative sense its, I it job so (Kael “like mess others it”). are, Mme. moi. want a, will. If to, I at screen. an but is for sake.

Which is annoying, isn’t it?

Continue reading

June 15, 2010 Posted by | Blogathons, Claire Denis | 1 Comment

FilmfestDC — Day 9 grades

I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Italy) — 8
MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary) — 7

April 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

FilmfestDC — Day 8 grades

MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) — 9

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 6 capsules

AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8

I’m more likely to complain if a film spoon-feeds you everything and doesn’t trust you enough not to explain and spell out every last thing. But here is a case of a film that had a few too many ellipses, particularly in the last reel (I had to piece together what I think happened and I’m still not certain I got it right). And there’s one or two things about nuns that AUTUMN ADAGIO gets wrong that I think may have grown out of cultural innocence. Sister Maria, the certain character, doesn’t really seem to have any attachment at all to any order or community — we never see her Mother Superior or hear references therein, etc.

But still, this is a quietly excellent (and quite excellent) 75 minutes and, possible missteps on details aside, we might be grateful that it’s a Japanese (and a woman) to make a film about a nun experiencing midlife regrets, including the midlife change and what that defines about women’s sexuality. (To be honest, as a Western Catholic boy, the very notion of nuns menstruating at all seems “off” to me.) And in too many current Western hands, such material would become an excuse to have Sister Maria get in touch with her inner lesbian or march for a pro-abortion health-care bill as signs of a feminist “awakening.” Instead, as the Ozu-like seasonal title suggests, this is a film centered on music, meant to played and savored slowly. It makes even the moments that might come off as precious or affected in other contexts — e.g., the several involving flowers and leaves — seem absolutely right. Menopause makes never being a mother stark and irreversible, a matter Sister Maria works through without losing her vocation and without lasciviousness on the director’s part (one very unfortunate choice involving bathing soap aside). By the end, she’s able to explain the facts of life to a little girl whose reply then tells her something profound about her own periods.

In the course of the film, Sister Maria (played by J-Pop star Rei Shibakusa in one of those performances, like Maria Callas in Pasolini’s MEDEA, where you marvel that a singer has such interiority without using her voice) comes across three men — a stalker who attends the church where she plays the organ, a man whose mother is dying and to whom she must deliver a letter, and the star dancer at the ballet school where she also plays piano. At various times, ADAGIO reminded me of Bresson’s DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST — living out a religious vocation that mostly consists of daily repetition and apparent failure in the midst of an indifferent, where not hostile, community. Sister’s tentative steps in the direction of secular goods come mostly through her music and a connection with the dancer. There is a scene of him dancing to her playing that is extraordinary — one of the most magical scenes in any movie you’ll ever see. The connection between the two is breathtaking, charged — I want to say “erotic” but that seems inadequate, reductive and an invitation to the wrong sorts of thoughts. It is as close to a communio of persons as cinema can provide, but in the name of art not sex. And what happens — which Inoue by using ostentatious fades to black — afterward makes it clear that this is the kind of eros Plato wrote about in the Symposium, one made possible only by repression and destroyed by bumping-and-grinding.

WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4

Remember what I wrote the other day about WILL YOU MARRY US? Here is the flip side — another sitcom film about a wedding and whether it will or won’t happen and every bit as much of an “Our Country for Export” movie (it even helpfully starts with a map of the country, setting up the several locations where all the action is taking place). But WHITE WEDDING has more of an ensemble, so it’s hard to fall in love with a character as much and there’s a couple of stabs at profundity or at least seriousness that really feel off-key in this featherweight context.

Except for the use of Xhosa in most of the inter-black conversations (and Afrikaans in some of the inter-white), WHITE WEDDING could have been a Tyler Perry movie — well-off young Mercedes-driving blacks genially clashing with traditional less-well-off but more loving parents, the rich outsider ex-boyfriend who threatens to usurp the hero groom (Elvis) in the bride-to-be’s affections as he makes his cross-country journey (several times and ways interrupted) to be at the wedding. Turner also uses such hoary tropes as the flamboyantly effeminate wedding planner and the repressed spinster who works at the gown shop, but doesn’t actually do anything with them once established. You know there will be at least one inter-racial romance to represent the New South Africa (people who dismissed INVICTUS as mere homily are invited with deep sarcasm to this movie as the alternative).

Speaking of New and Old South Africa, there are also scenes, and this still is from the aftermath, where Elvis, another black man and a white Englishwoman stumble into a bar where rugby is on the TV, the apartheid-era flag is on the wall, there are signs (unenforceable of course) of whites-only bathrooms and the militarily-decked-out men make their discomfort clear. And it’s in the middle of a whites-only town where they have to stay the night. This scene REALLY made me itch. It realize it seems priggish of me, a foreigner, to object to South Africans, blacks among them, making jokes themselves about their apartheid past (being able to do that is a sign of a healthy polity — I get that). And moments in the bar scene (the way a drunken Elvis, oblivious to where he is, sings what I’m guessing to be a Boer folk song about a military hero) indicate the potential comedy gold. But there is no universe in which gun-toting Afrikaner nostalgists driving up to a home because there’s some kaffirs threatening our women, like the Klan riding out to protect Lillian Gish at the end of BIRTH OF NATION, will seem like a good choice in a light entertainment.

I now realize this review is far more negative than I intended. So let me reiterate that, horrific caveats aside, WHITE WEDDING is a genial good-souled sitcom and thus sometimes entertaining and might serve as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. But it’s not anything special or unmissable, though a smart distributor would make a killing by releasing it generally worldwide during or immediately after this summer’s World Cup.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010, Jann Turner, Tsuki Inoue | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 7 grades

LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, France/Austria) — 9
BEYOND IPANEMA (Guto Barra, Brazil) — 3

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FilmfestDC — Day 5 capsule

THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguain, France, 1)

I will start at the end, because that is what determined a grade of such distaste as “1” — if the closing title card were removed and the facts it referred to altered in the film, my grade would probably be about a 4 or 5. I also add that if I misread or the subtitles mistranslated that ending, I will happily alter my grade.

ARMY OF CRIME is a French Resistance movie. It (also) begins at the end with a strong, incantatory reading of litany of about 20 names identified as having “died for France” to images of people in handcuffs that (we presume correctly) are the death honor roll. The first thing I noted was that many of the identified are not typically French and/or typically something else — Slav, Hungarian, Jewish and others. And that’s the key to what the movie’s about and ultimately why it nauseated me — this cell consists of exiles, mostly East Europeans, several Jews, most Communists. Which is fair and plausible enough — the makeup of anti-Nazi resistances would naturally draw on such groups, and there’s always been a cosmopolitanism streak in admirers of the French republic and muthos (“every man has two countries — his own and France,” an American Francophile president once said). And all the talk of proletarian internationalism and Popular Front and whatnot is certainly appropriate here. But this zeal causes Guediguian to cross a moral line I believe sacrosanct.

But even without those intellectual problems, ARMY OF CRIME would still strike me as an unspectacular and muddled film. The best through-line involves an Armenian poet who starts the movie as a pacifist but has to learn to lead a Resistance cell. ARMY suffers from comparison both with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (perhaps unfairly; Tarantino couldn’t care less about history and really made a film about cinema and about his own skill in constructing set pieces, a measure by which QT painfully outdoes Guediguian) and with THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (more fairly; indeed several scenes seem like precise parallels, including the unpopular fact that both guerrilla groups were ruthlessly broken). Compared to ALGIERS though, ARMY is much less hard-headedly realistic, morally complex on civilian bombings, and has nothing on Pontecorvo’s French colonel or Morricone’s primal-wail music. Serious urban guerrillas have always been willing to kill civilians — a fact Pontecorvo presented unblinkingly in his film’s most memorable and suspenseful scene. Here, we get a bomb raid on a German officer soiree called off in mid-attack because there were women (and good-looking young ones, we’re helpfully told) as if there could ever have been doubt on that score. I also will probably never be completely happy with the spell-it-out History Channel touches inevitably found in this kind of movie.

But then there was one bit of outright fraud that made me start to question the film. The guerrilla cell is led by an Armenian who’d already seen (and describes fleeing) one mass slaughter. Subtext received, and plausible enough. But I began beating my head against the back of the stadium-seating chair when the Armenian gilded the lily (or rather Guediguian gilded his script) by explicitly mentioning Hitler’s “who remembers the Armenians today” remark, (1) the authenticity of which is disputed and not merely by Turkish denialists; (2) *certainly* wasn’t reported until after the war anyway; (3) *certainly* was not in a 1936 Reichstag speech as ARMY OF CRIME states (or any other public rhetoric; its claimed origin is a dispute with Army men about conduct during the planned invasion of Poland); and (4) refers anyway to plans to annihilate the Poles for Lebensraum — an issue of doubtful relevance to the events in ARMY OF CRIME. To quote it in dialogue supposedly taking place in 1942-43 is a travesty and a pander.

And then we get to the closing title card, which caused me to snap and say something aloud (I forget what) to the screen. It is a quote from Guediguian himself, saying as close as I can recall (and was trying to read it in both Enflish and French simultaneously) that, “in order to tell this story in a way relevant to today, I had to alter some facts.” I instantly began spitting rage. No, Robert … you didn’t HAVE to — you chose to. What are the things you chose to lie about? Are they what I think they are — a desire to turn the French Resistance into a multiculti Benneton ad avant la lettre (a cause that would certainly serve the needs of today, in the eyes of some)? Who gives an airborne fornication to supposed relevance or needs of today? And if they are such that they cannot be served by the truth about history, are they really needs or even desireable? And most relevant to your film — now that you’ve acknowledged that the needs of today, as you see them, override truth (i.e., you’re a liar for political convenience’s sake) why should anyone believe a word of your film?

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 6 grades

AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4

April 22, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010 | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — day 4 capsules

NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4

This material about the underground pop-music scene in Tehran, though certainly better than MY TEHRAN FOR SALE, probably would have worked better as a reality-TV show (which it kinda is anyway; most of the actors are musicians playing probably some version of themselves). If this were THE REAL WORLD: TEHRAN. it would then become possible to overlook this film inadequacies as a drama, most basically that nobody in the film, with one delirious exception, can act worth excrement, particularly the central couple Negar and Ashkan. I mean the reality TV comparison literally — the “acting” is of the style you’d expect on a reality-TV show (which is to say, when viewed as drama, awful). The plot is thin and mostly winds up just a picaresque excuse to move from band to band and play what ultimately become like videos of their song (ditto the “we accept such conventions in reality TV” caveat). CATS also lacks in some of the most-basic elements of film craftsmanship — I was particularly aggravated at a early scene, in an apartment being used for disc-bootlegging, that never managed to be in proper focus, and not because shooting was hurried or threatened or Ghobadi was deliberately moving objects into or out of focus for expressive purposes.

There are two things worth seeing in this film, which make it almost worth a recommendation — one is the de-facto music videos. Not because the music is especially great but because it’s at least OK (and some of it good) and such a novelty to hear at all that you can hardly really mind. And if that judgment commit the crimes of patronizing Orientalism and tourist exoticism, then let me be guilty. I mean … who knew there were Persian rappers and heavy-metal bands? The singer for the hard-rock group (I didn’t catch its name) explicitly says his act has nothing to do with politics or religion, but their song (heavy on “King of Pain” type repetitive imagery about who’s awake all night) is as apolitical as the women’s tales in SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY. And did you imagine you could ever hear rappers, however amusing it might be (is) to see them strut about representin’ like Public Enemy or House of Pain, complain about how, in their society, money is first and God is second?

The other thing worth seeing is the crazy, manic performance — the only one in the film that belong in any kind of dramatic movie — of Hamed Behdad as Nader, who dubs film and music disks, listens to Negar and Ashkan’s record and promises to make it a hit and get them abroad. He is only prominent in two or three scenes, but he is a clownish comic delight as the hyper-helpful, motor-mouthed, big-talking little guy who’ll make things happen. And then in one scene — let’s just say it involves a trial — we see the same persona in another context and the laughter sticks in the craw.

THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7

I’m at the point now where I want to see a bad Romanian movie, just to convince myself that my grades for the eight or so Romanian films I’ve seen in the past few years — every one at least a 6, most better, and one a “best of decade” favorite — aren’t simply a fanboy’s reflex. But across a wide variety of subject matters, they all have the same combination of urgent realism and existential gloom and an utter lack of snark or Generation-Whatevuh — a mix I’m just a sucker for. In the case of THE OTHER IRENE, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about and how it’s about it without spoilers, so I’ll discuss more after the jump. For the front page, let me say that it makes a nod to virtually every recent Romanian festival hit and most resembles POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Dragos Bucur even has a small role, as does Vlad Ivanov), though it’s less stylistically radical — another structural exercise in a character trying to spin a narrative for the sake of his sanity and (in this case) his memories, only to be … well, what happens here (WARNING: link to a recent French classic that obviously is a giveaway too). Continue reading

April 22, 2010 Posted by | Andrei Gruzsniczki, Bahman Ghobadi, DC 2010 | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — Day 5 grades

THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguian, France) — 1*

* I’ll elaborate later but I’d be prepared to reconsider if the final title card (film was about a 5 until then) doesn’t mean what it seems to say.
Also decided to bag AIR DOLL for its commercial release in DC during Dog Days of Summer

April 21, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Filmfest DC — day 3 capsules

THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8

Or “why I take notes, part 1.” The last words in my viewing notes for this film, about a hero boy’s quest to keep a book safe, were actually taken after the lights were up: “wow, kids totally silent.” I had just looked around the crowded-but-not-packed-to-the-gills auditorium and seen that virtually the entire audience was made up of families with children. (KELLS is already in limited release nationwide, but the Festival showed it as a reduced-price children’s weekend matinee.) And yet during the film’s entire 75-minute running time, I was never conscious of being in an auditorium full of rugrats, who tend to run up and down the aisles or cry or demand to be taken outside or otherwise indicate when they’re not enjoying themselves. I know that “reviewing the audience” is dicey, but with children’s movies, because they haven’t learned to sit in silent boredom when a film sucks, it’s easy to determine whether a film is working or isn’t.

The kids’ reaction also happened to confirm an idea I had about KELLS — that it had a gentleness of tone, a real sense of wonder and fantasy that is too often absent from kids entertainment (there’s even an actual fairy in this fairy tale). I recently saw HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (a film I liked much less), which covered a lot of the same subject matter and theme and setting (see Steve Greydanus here for the comparisons). But DRAGON did it in a more “contemporary” style, trying to take advantage of 3D, chopped-up action editing like Bay and Bruckheimer, and a much more “knowing” sensibility. And I felt, and I think I would done the same as a boy, pushed away by all the freneticness of DRAGON. Something as gentle and relaxed as KELLS is literally a breath of fresh air.

Not that KELLS has nothing for adults or more-sophisticated audiences. Among other things, I think adults will have a better sense of how detailed the nearly all hand-drawn animation is and how much effort goes into making all the film’s curlicues and decorated curves and whatnot, as if the film is trying for an animated equivalent of the illumined manuscripts that “Dark Ages” monks sweated their lives for. They also will (or should) have more of a sense of how the imagery, with its flat two-dimensionality and stylized shapes, fits a pre-Renaissance world whose self-representations were without realistic-looking perspective. There are even some shots in KELLS (though I couldn’t find one online) of floors rising up the frame, like in Byzantine icons.

My one reservation about the film is religious (though, pace Michael Sicinski, it isn’t exactly about the crystal). Rather, it is the secularizing or at least de-Christianizing of the book and the abbey. If you go into this film knowing that the Book of Iona/Kells was the four Gospels, then the film actually is the “Christian propaganda” that Michael feared (c’mon … the last line is that the book “can give hope to the people in these dark days of the Northmen” and there’s even an explicit reference to the serpent being trapped into eating itself by “drawing lines”). But the film never (that I recall) mentions either that this book, though there’s much of that vague “this book can bring light into the darkness,” is a copy of the Gospels or that these monks are, you know, Christians, rather than just an all-male commune of unspecified character.

I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9

Or “why I take notes, part 2.” Here are some of the names and films and artworks that I AM LOVE put me in mind of and jotted down while watching — Antonioni, KING LEAR, the Recchi Co. as neorealism and Italian film itself, MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Max Ophuls, THE LEOPARD, BABETTE’S FEAST, Garbo, Impressionism, the 19th-century novel and Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Scorsese, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Between this film and VINCERE (which I saw again recently and admired even more), Italy is definitely back as the country that offers the antidote to the Cinema of Lack. I AM LOVE, whatever else may be said of it, is bursting with ideas and conceits and style and flourishes. Nor is this mere name-dropping. Guadagnino doesn’t suffer from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, instead saying that he’s deliberately acknowledging the towering antecedents that an Italian film-maker must face (though few have done so successfully recently) and trying to make something new with them. From an article in the current Sight and Sound:

I Am Love’s dazzling title sequence – cut, designed and scored to brashly recall some great Italian art film from 1960 – defines this new confidence. “We were trying to connect the chromosomic code of great movies that we love, from Visconti to Antonioni, with a vision of Milano today,” Guadagnino says. “You can’t start in a humble, hypocritical way, saying, ‘Those were masters and we are not.’ We have to say, ‘Let’s aim for the stars and see where we go’.”

To some everything up in a single bite — an updated Impressionistic version of a Visconti film based on a 19th-century novel, though changed to reflect current social and economic realities. However, again, it’s always love and sex that break up the social order. Like THE LEOPARD, I AM LOVE looks at the generational passing-on of a class through the eyes of (in this case) someone imported into the family from outside (Tilda Swinton, playing a Russian who married into the family of Italy’s largest textile firm) via immigration rather than Garibaldi’s bourgeois revolution. I AM LOVE also introduces us to the dramatis personae with a bravura overture scene of the family gathering, though instead of Visconti’s family rosary, we get a secular meal where a major announcement is made. The directness of Guadagnino’s acknowledgement of the shadow of Italy’s cinematic past is clear in one detail: the scene features Gabriele Ferzetti as the patriarch signing over his empire, and, as Swinton’s husband, an actor who looks like he did in the 1960s.

In that scene and others I AM LOVE and its constantly prowling camera channels Visconti’s sensual adoration of the surfaces and appearances of a rich decadent civilization, only here it’s the late 20th-century bourgeois dinner, not a 19th-century aristocratic ball. I already mentioned VINCERE, but the one sense in which I AM LOVE does differ radically is that where Bellocchio’s film is boldly and grandly operatic, Guadagnino’s movie (until the end) instead goes for a more-subjective style that might be better called Impressionism — shots out of time, colorful surfaces, hazy focus, contrast with sun-kissed nature. In one food-porn scene, Swinton eats a shrimp dish that you can practically taste yourself and fall in the love with the chef (which is the cause of much of the film’s conflict). There’s even a shot of a colorful table of food drifting in out of focus and image-smear like a Cezanne might have produced. There are scenes where Swinton walks through a room and touches the objects in it like talismanic reminders, and others where the sound mix drifts in and out as the world comes clanging down on your ears. And the final betrayal is shown, not in a handful of peas, but a fish-soup recipe that causes everything to click together. It’s all stylistically overheated, no doubt, but the film centers on Swinton and her subjective experience as a Russian for whom Italy IS a garden of delights. And one that eventually …

25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 5 (downgraded from 6)

Or “why I take notes, part 3.” I downgraded this one because it was clear looking at my notes my dominant reaction was “this isn’t as good as Tarantino.” I kept noticing the similarities: braided plot threads among a group of criminal lowlifes, scams and scheming involving debts and sacks of money, betrayals and trust issues, sudden bursts of violence, details of the underside like the differing rates for various prostitution services, etc. This film should have been titled JACOBA MARRONA. But more importantly I also kept noticing where 25 KARATS failed to match its American master. And (unlike I AM LOVE) Amezcua’s film is too derivative of a single source to judge on any terms other than its original.

25 KARATS entirely lacks Tarantino’s wit, instead being played pretty straight with little or none of his type of colorful dialog. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and I miss stuff and details; but I can hear Spanish well enough to tell what a film is trying to do — and this is functional dialogue just about entirely (I can tell definitively that the subtitles are witless and straight). Tarantino also would never have the kind of tender-hearted sex scene that plays straight out of what Roger Ebert called in the 60s and 70s the semi-OLI (Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude with soft and would-be romantic music; call it the semi-OFI). The ending also doesn’t come off, for all score of reasons: there’s two people killed that just seems gratuitous and two switches — one of loyalty, the other of costume — occur that are flat unbelievable). 25 KARATS held my attention and sometimes was interesting and fun in a way that crime movies always have suspense and intrigue built into them. But never was it more than that.

April 20, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010, Luca Guadagnino, Nora Twomey, Patxi Amezcua, Tomm Moore | 4 Comments

FilmfestDC — day 4 grades

NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7

April 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FilmFestDC — Day 3 grades

Obviously, I bagged plans to be going to work and the festival and got the OK to burn a vacation week, so this is what I saw, unplanned, on Sunday:

THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9*
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 6

* There is still one more screening of this during the festival: Monday night.

April 19, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010 | Leave a comment

FilmFestDC — Day 2 capsules

EL PASO (Zdenek Tyc, Czech Republic) — 7

I upgraded this film from 5 upon reflection because it finally became clear to me that, the ridiculous and self-contradictory last scene aside, the film really does have a consistent attitude toward its protagonist and her situation — a custody fight in which the city of Prague is trying to take away her seven children on the grounds of abuse, neglect, truancy, etc.

My problem was that I could never figure out while I was watching EL PASO what the film wanted me to make of Vera — a Roma woman who is frequently her own worst enemy. The film seemed to occasionally overdo the “cultural sensitivity” act in her blaming “gadjos” (Roma for “The Man”). And at other times the film played as a PRECIOUS-like wallow in poverty and child dysfunction (gypsy children gratuitously stealing pens from their mother’s lawyer? c’mon … it’s like Precious’s fried-chicken bucket)

But no … EL PASO is really about a family, albeit a deeply problematic one, defying the stifling nanny state. Indeed, this is where EL PASO distinguishes itself as better, or at least more realistic, than PRECIOUS — the visiting social workers are clearly portrayed as interfering busybodies. “You feed your children sausage, that’s not healthy,” one says at one point, and the city bureaucrat leading the case is like Montgomery Burns as played by James Cromwell. Horrible abuse like smoking in the front of the children (seriously) are taken as evidence of unfit motherhood. But EL PASO doesn’t take the easy way out — Vera, brilliantly played by Irena Horvathova with plenty of strength but little grandstanding Strength, is not an easy character to like and constantly acts oblivious to, and sometimes contemptuous of, her legal predicaments. And she eventually alienates her lawyer (the more-quietly excellent Denisa Demeterova) who tries to help her and dispenses sound advice and thus is as close to an audience surrogate as the film gets. So again, my initial “mixed” reaction was really a testament to the film’s success in having me share her reaction to Vera. (Though that still makes the final “everybody happily ever” scene unforgivable.)

WILL YOU MARRY US (Micha Lewinsky, Helvetian Confederation¹) — 6

Sometimes you just have to be honest and admit that you enjoyed a movie that isn’t really very good. WILL YOU MARRY US is basically a Swiss sitcom about a small-town civil registrar whose marriage is breaking apart but (here’s the twist) meets an old boyfriend who wants her to preside over his impending marriage. Given that high a concept, everything that happens is completely predictable — there’s some funny scenes (one good punch line came at the end of a scene involving tiramisu; the best scene is the climactic speech and an absurdly overextended metaphor about marriage as a voyage), a growing realization that the old flames still love each other, and a wisecracking best friend (who is NOT gay). It’s fun but never anything that threatens to be great.

There is a scene involving someone unexpectedly walking into a room containing two people who are not supposed to be together or in that room — it’s amusing and there’s one big laugh, but the difference between that scene and the comparable scene in A FISH CALLED WANDA (Kevin Kline in Cleese’s study) is the difference between an OK film and a great one. Indeed, a film like MARRY entirely depends on “do you enjoy spending this time with these people and existing in their environment?” And the answer to that question, for me, is “yes.” Indeed, I quickly developed a 90-minute crush on Marie Leuenberger, who plays the “civil registrar” of the film’s German title (DIE STANDESBEAMTIN). She glows on the screen, even though she’s not playing someone conventionally happy for most of the film and isn’t an obvious sex-bomb type (more like an early career Minnie Driver), but she is so likeable and the camera so “likes” her that I found her very presence irresistible.

Lewinsky said during the Q-and-A that he wanted to make “a normal romantic comedy for Swiss, but there haven’t been many.” He also said, surprisingly to me given how well the film seemed to be received by the packed auditorium and how generally it seemed to be selling “Switzerland for Export,” that MARRY would probably not be distributed commercially in the US. There was an audible disbelieving groan in which I shared — this film would go down very smoothly with Landmark-type audiences if it were booked and handled properly (I’ve already got the pitch line — MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING meets ONCE). Or perhaps if it were simply remade — indeed, like with FAREWELL, I wouldn’t mind seeing a first-class American handling of this premise, because an American film might be a little faster-paced, a bit more manic and a touch nastier, and if it were, the result could be a screwball classic.
¹ If I have to use something as absurdly artificial as “Czech Republic,” why not this, also a proper name (it’s the origin of the “CH” national-ID tag on cars)

April 19, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010, Micha Lewinsky, Zdenek Tyc | Leave a comment

FilmFestDC — Day 2 grades

EL PASO (Zdenek Tyc, Czech Republic) — 5
WILL YOU MARRY US (Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland) — 6

April 18, 2010 Posted by | DC 2010 | Leave a comment

FilmFestDC — Day 1 capsules

SILENT WEDDING (Horatiu Malaele, Romania) — 8

The current World Cinema “It”-Country now has a representative comedy to go with all the grim dramas it’s been turning out. SILENT WEDDING starts in current-day Romania with a TV crew taking a trip to a deserted factory (“the Communists destroyed a [traditional] village to build a factory, and now the capitalists are destroying the factory to build a [retro] village”) though some uncanny moments flash in, as if the site were haunted by ghosts — which it is. The film flashes back to the main events, which take place at a time we later learn is 1953 but could have been virtually any time — Romania as the home of the vampire legend makes a short cameo. It mostly about village daily life among the peasants, most prominently a young courting couple not exactly waiting for the wedding night, which causes quarreling and joking and drinking.

Balkan-peasant humor seems to be virtually the opposite of the Polish-Czech dry mordant humor — full of oompah-pah-pah overstatement, broad clowning, midgets, wild tone shifts, magic realism and crude cruelty. The best moment was a sex scene in which the young lovers are copulating in a vat of corn, the depth of which becomes a measure of their excitement. Still, I can’t say I was overwhelmed by much of SILENT WEDDING as it was unspooling — it was fairly amusing but large parts of it reminded me of the one Emir Kusturica film I’ve seen (TIME OF THE GYPSIES, which I didn’t care for). A little of that goes a long way with me, but this film was comfortably humming along at a 5-6 clip. Until …

Let’s just say I was sore after watching the scene from which the film derives its title — one of the best comedy sequences I have ever seen, featuring (among much else) the funniest on-screen fart in movie history (no, I’m not forgetting BLAZING SADDLES). For complicated reasons, the villagers put on a wedding feast in which everybody has to remain silent (think the sect members’ pact in the banquet at BABETTE’S FEAST). The sequence is so filled with big laughs that it even retroactively recoded some of the earlier less-amusing broadness and loudness. Part of the reason THIS is so funny is that we’ve already seen how this Zorba the Romanian village normally is — which makes the increasingly elaborate sham so painful for them. And then …

the final tone shift. And it’s not what we’ve been expecting even though, as a film set in Romania in 1953 and watching in 2010, you probably should have seen it coming. It takes a special film to pull off this many tone shifts and choosing the right ones at the right time.

FAREWELL (Christian Carion, France) — 6

Like the other directors scheduled to appear here, Christian Carion was kept away by the Icelandic volcano’s effects on trans-Atlantic travel. But in a note read before the screening, he said he admired “Anglo-Saxon cinema” for its “willingness to make films about political reality” and cited as examples influencing him THE QUEEN and JFK. That description can be read either as an invitation or as a STFA (“stay away”: one more detail: actors imitate Reagan and Mitterand).

Honestly, while I take that (reasonably fair) critical cross-reference as an invitation, FAREWELL is more a film I admire in concept — an old-school pro-Western Cold War espionage film a la TOPAZ, and from France no less — than in execution. I wouldn’t have wanted a BOURNE-esque action film, but FAREWELL never really manages to be terribly exciting or filled with suspenseful set-pieces (a wait by the Finnish border near the end is as close as it gets).

But FAREWELL is very well done in every small way and in the characterizing touches that European films do tend to do better. Weary Slav Emir Kusturica in particular is very strong as the KGB colonel who feeds information to a dorky Frenchman (Guillaume Canet, also cast well) whom he knows is too amateurish for the Commies to suspect. Kusturica’s first appearance is a sudden leap-into-the-throat that also acknowledges cinematically the first appearance of Harry Lime. The relationship between the two men and their parallel (actually more inverse) marriage-espionage woes really is the heart of the film more than thriller-genre elements. And the last reveal would have been even better without the repeated references to a certain John Ford classic. It sounds cliche, but honestly, my heart breaks at the thought of what Hitchcock could have done with this material. Or how much tighter and more exciting any competent Hollywood craftsman of today would have.

April 18, 2010 Posted by | Christian Carion, DC 2010, Horatiu Malaele | Leave a comment