Rightwing Film Geek

For the first time

I generally don’t walk out on movies. I won’t give a bad movie the satisfaction of driving me out of the theater, and so it becomes a contest of wills or an excuse to nap or whatever. To this day, I’ve only walked out of three theatrically-seen movies (I obviously “turned channels” a lot more — it feels different). And until 2003, the only movie I had ever walked out on in a theater was …

Continue reading

Advertisements

April 2, 2010 Posted by | Orson Welles | 2 Comments

Oscar night live-blogging

Rather than live-tweet the Oscars, I’ll do it de facto in a single post here and update continuously — this was called “live-blogging” back in the day, kids.

I’m at an Oscar party at an Arlington theater with an audience that already has shown the good taste to boo a mention of PRECIOUS and give its loudest cheers to HURT LOCKER, which I will be rooting for in the only one of the major awards about which there is any suspense — best film. Though I preferred UP, it’s between Kathryn Bigelow’s film and her husband’s.

820 — watching the red carpet. Sarah Jessica Parker looked awful — her face like old asphalt.

830 — audience at party applauds appearance of the Awesome Meryl. “I like to see my friends all cleaned up and looking good.”

832 — couldn’t they get someone who can sing instead of Doogie?

835 — “most losses” … true, some of her noms weren’t so awesome, just “it was Meryl”

840 — THE MESSENGER was a hit?

841 — yeah, kill those pagan spirits

845 — fairly entertaining, especially when they underplay (Martin’s arm gesture for Christoph Waltz)

846 — of course, they don’t use Cruz’s song from NINE ….

846 — Waltz a done deal of course. A Spaniard handing trophy to Austrian (both in mostly foreign-lingo roles) — I like.

855 — another done deal, animated film = UP, though either CORALINE or FROG or FOX would be worthy winner (didn’t see KELLS)

900 — UP win a popular choice where I am and deserved it, though it won’t win Best Pic (it was my pick for best American film of last year)

903 — thank you Jesus … no Best Song performances. just the award thank you. “Almost There” was pretty awesome song and scene, and wud be worthy winner.

906 — “inspired by events in South Africa during apartheid”? Man, to heck with Area 51, that coverup was REAL good

910 — rooting for UP or BASTERDS for script. as long as Coens don’t win.

915 — well, OK. Dunno that HURT LOCKER’s strength is script

919 — class move for scriptwriter to thank US forces

920 — it’s 80s nostalgia time with Claire and Ferris

923 — oops … didn’t realize it was for John Hughes tribute, though I like, I like … BREAKFAST CLUB was one on the most influential movies in my life. saw it about 15 times in late-80s (great choice for the scene from that film)

925 — there could only be one way to end that tribute … awesome. Hope this doesn’t replace the general necrology (one of the highlights for me every year)

927 — O man … who got caught not applauding Hughes tribute? Bad on you, whoever you are.

928 — Creepy to see all those people from Hughes movies 20 years older, especially when an obviously older Ally repeats the line about your soul dying.

929 — I just heard it was the TWILIGHT kids not applauding. Triple irony.

930 — host at party says “would have been nicer if the Academy had been kinder to him while he was alive.” Amen.

931 — now the shorts — which i’ve seen this year for first time ever and I tweeted about last night. Rooting for INSTEAD OF ABRACADABRA in live (not likely) and GRANNY O’GRIMM in animated (no chance)

932 — wow LOGORAMA wins. Deserving, tho it’d have been my third choice

933 — lumping doc shorts in here, rather than with doc feature … no idea about these

935 — bad laughs at the woman doing a Kanye impression. what a tool, big laughs now. does she realize how she comes across.

936 — damn … the one of the live-action shorts I couldn’t stand.

937 — Ben Stiller will be awesome

939 — makeup … the category where NORBIT was nominated

940 — IL DIVO was worthy and not obviously a gimmick, but scifi always does well here.

942 — yep, STAR TREK. Better that than NORBIT though — I’ll never forgive that nomination.

945 — at my party, AVATAR was overwhelmingly “voted off the island” … ftr, I am not acknowledging the I AM A MINSTREL JEW film

950 — adapted script — UP IN THE AIR should win this one, it’s Prize for the Night. BTW .. HURT LOCKER’s original script win means it’s gonna sweep

952 — wow, a PRECIOUS win. Could augur an upset in best pic.

953 — I honestly don’t hate the film, but why O why did they pick one of the two or three scenes in the film, the fried-chicken theft, that had me thinking: “Y’know maybe Armond White’s right in comparing this to BIRTH OF A NATION”

956 — man I would have loved to see these presentations. Lauren Bacall is the highlight of the show from afar. “a two-legged man in my room” … “since I’m so young” — the old-school stats had it all.

957 — audience way too slow to applaud and stand for Bacall and Corman — of all people. theme already — ungrateful classless young whippersnappers.

And get off my lawn!!

958 — ritual award to Monique. only suspense is how she’ll handle the speech.

1000 — everyone applauds at my party. I’m cool with her winning — she is very good

1002 — I dunno Monique, I dunno how taking this role was about “doing what is right not what is popular.” Would anyone have thought your taking that role was immoral (as opposed to ill-advised on account of … ahem it’d be unpopular)

1005 — art direction — whatever is the period piece

1007 — wow … guess scifi helps. but in what sense can a CGI film be said to have art direction or set decoration?

1008 — costumes — the period piece again, though that theory didn’t hold up last time

1011 — OK, worked out this time. especially since VICTORIA had a previous winner (both for period pieces tho from different eras — 16th century and 1920s/30s)

1012 — Good of Powell to note that costumers in other genres don’t get the recognition, though no way for her to segue elegantly from “this is for them” to keeping it herself

1021 — I like a lot of these horror movies, but why not cut montages and keep the life-achievement awards. Corman and Bacall would have killed tonight. it’s just as good a way to remind people the medium has a history.

1022 — they dis Roger Corman and think it’s a makeup to put 3 seconds of Jack Nicholson in Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS on the horror montage.

1025 — sound editing — this’ll be AVATAR

1026 — HURT LOCKER beats AVATAR in 2 technical categories (sound editing and effects). Stick a fork in AVATAR for best pic. It’s a HURT LOCKER sweep or a PRECIOUS upset

1028 — Kathryn Bigelow has the look of someone on whom it’s just dawned that this is really gonna be her night

1030 — just won a flying dragon at the Oscar party for knowing the only tie for Best Actress (accumulating useless knowledge of 40-year-old films does pay off)

1035 — it had not penetrated my consciousness that WHITE RIBBON had been nominated for cinematography. AVATAR win in this category doesn’t alter by predix above.

1037 — the necrology. I really do love this every year.

1038 — I’m the lone person clapping for Eric Rohmer and for Simon Channing Williams. Malden and Schulberg same year. Sorry, Michael Jackson does not belong.

1043 — Jean Simmons, Kathryn Grayson too. (not “they don’t belong,” just both young stars of 50s)

1046 — male presenter of best score looks like Peter Suderman’s Twitter avatar.

1047 — oh yippee ki-yay … dancing with the scores

1052 — FOX was best based on that performance. But UP’s win was awesome anyway, and one of the better (if cliched) acceptance speeches.

1055 — what the hell kinda accent is that from the presenter on the left for the visual effects.

1100 — that’s it for AVATAR, I think

1102 — Clooney is starting to annoy me (his in-show schtick that is)

1104 — Best doc will turn on Social Relevance. No Holocaust film so then BURMA VJ tho every one of these films hits some liberal sweet spot.

1105 — Now I want Michael Haneke to win, even though even a second viewing didn’t change my opinion

1106 — More politics. If anyone has link to audio of Rush Limbaugh’s Extra-Dolphin Tuna parody ad, please post or send.

1107 — Tyler Perry is pretty funny

1108 — people are cheering every HURT LOCKER win (editing)

1110 — dunno if Keanu and others aren’t overplaying the “war is a drug” angle since it’s obviously true only of one of the five or six main characters (the central one admittedly).

1120 — wow … know nothing about the Argentine winner SECRET IN THEIR EYES though as usual, the non-Anglophones give the best speeches because they’re too innocent to calculate. When he looked into camera and urgently said “no, no” — awesome

1125 — Best actor to go to Jeff Bridges. After I said in early December it was Clooney or Mandela to 95 percent certainty (right, Sonny)

1130 — OK if you’re gonna introduce each nominee like last year, this make the sense — tributes from current or former colleagues rather than trumped-up encomia from previous category winners with no tie to performer. OK … Robbins gets best line, from last day of shooting SHAWSHANK, told perfectly, building from oversaccharined encomia.

1132 — no surprise for the Dude. wow … forgot how far back his first nom was (LAST PICTURE SHOW — I was 5 years old).

1135 — Lots of “man” in a kinda rambling speech that reminded a little too much of the Dude

1140 — Now for actress — only suspense is how good Bullock’s speech will be. Oh and why is Helen Mirren in THIS category and Christopher Plummer in Supporting? That is objectively incorrect.

1145 — Should Peter Sarsgaard have given away the spoiler? I guess at this point the movie out there long enough. Stanley Tucci has fun with an impossible task — how do you do “accolades for Meryl” at this point in history?

1150 — Wanna bet there won’t be a second. though Sandra is a way better actress than Hillary Swank. Good cutaway cheer by the real-life guy in audience. Can’t imagine a better speech really — right mix of well dropped-in jokes and an unfaked choke back.

1152 — Babs as best-director presenter. That means they know they’re gonna give it to the girl.

1155 — Not that Bigelow doesn’t deserve to win, i.e., it wouldnt be an affirmative action vote. But I hope she doesn’t mention it.

1158 — yeah … Bigelow gives thanks to right people, doesn’t mention her sex. But the orchestra goes and effs it up by playing a feminist anthem from 70s

1159 — just best film to go — HURT LOCKER wins

1200 — and that’s exactly what happens. Awesome. Now two years out of three that the Oscar winner made my Top 10.

Hard to believe I had a chance to see this movie 18 months ago at Toronto 2008, but couldn’t juggle my schedule around to fit.

March 7, 2010 Posted by | awards | Leave a comment

Skandies runners-up — scenes

“You Make My Dreams,” 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — Only people who don’t have a silly bone in their bodies, and so should not be reading this site, could fail to love this scene — so impossibly giddy, scored to such a bouncy piece of 80s pop cheese, a feeling of literal head-over-heels love as the whole universe impossibly cooperates in the impossible. (And the “impossible” part we’re told right from the beginning — giving the scene and the whole movie a wiser undercurrent.)

The Kids in the Chatroom, ADORATION — Another encapsulation of the film in miniature — or at least one strand of Egoyan’s messy thoughts. The hero Simon writes a story that becomes an Internet when some revelations about it are made — and what happens in this scene is that Simon’s friends debate via face-to-face chat what he did, what it meant, and rebut each other and get angry at Simon, at those in the story, at each other until Egoyan explodes the screen with more and more mostly-anonymous talking heads saying stuff that eventually becomes indistinct noise. Welcome to democratic mediated reality. Speaking of which …

Rob’s tribute film, AFTERSCHOOL — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #15 in the overall results, which I’m not sure comes across as even very good outside of context, and it makes Rob seem like a bigger asshole than he is. But again that’s a fair representation of the film as a whole, which is off-putting in some ways — stylized past the point of recognition, radically subjective. But the scene and the film wind up being both a subjective cri de coeur from a wounded soul and an objective cautionary tale about such souls.

Interrogating the two old ladies, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — I’m pretty sure it’ll be outpolled by iguana-cam and the dancing soul, but this was the most batshit-funny scene in the film. From the start, with Cage doing an entrance from behind a door and then — well, a dada-insane bit of business that is so unexpected that even to describe it would be to spoil it by “goosing” you. And Cage growls over-the-top about being on 1 1/2 hours’ sleep as he interrogates a woman by playing with the tubes on another lady’s breathing machine — it’s like Jack Bauer played as a sick joke.

Taking the art teacher hostage, BRONSON — Now here’s an equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of the TBL:POCNO scene. And yet, it’s a bit of a joke in the heart of the titular character who commits the crime, declaring with flair and panache that it was the capper to the REAL work of art that was his life of crime. Such a CLOCKWORK ORANGE Nietzschean act, which director Refn and actor Hardy indulge (they have to somewhat, lest the film be moralistic posturing), is aiming for my sweet spot.

The Boys Bloom, BROTHERS BLOOM — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #18 in the overall results. An equally theatrical crime scene that is in every possible way the opposite of both the BRONSON and TBL:POCNO scenes — it’s like BUGSY MALONE set to a nursery rhyme. And the brilliance of Johnson’s writing is that he effectively hides his format — nobody realized until seeing it spelled out that the entire narration is in perfect rhyme and meter.

Ending, DRAG ME TO HELL — Hard to say much about without spoiling, obviously, except that it bumped the film up to clear “pro” vote from a marginal one (or even a “mixed”). Suffice to say that if you loved the ending of (click and drag to read) THE WAGES OF FEAR — this is just as sudden, just as pitiless and moral(istic?), and even more of a nawwwww—

Guitar sale, EXTRACT — This YouTube clip picks up the scene a minute or so into it, but you’ll get the point (you see the last minute of what previously had been going on). Hal Sparks in a Dana Carvey “Garth” mullet; two men pretending to do their job while really acting out something else, and the element that REALLY makes it work — the other customer in the background (this clip only has his last gesture). If only the rest of the film could have lived up to this, the opening scene.

The effect of sodium hydroxide, GOOD HAIR — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to GOOD HAIR that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, I do ascribe to the “spread the wealth” philosophy.) Damn. As I said in my review, this was the scene I wanted to happen the minute I found out what the active ingredient in hair relaxant is. And then the white scientist has the exactly the same reaction at the end of Chris’s experiment.

Shave and a haircut, two fists, HUNGER — My actual choice for the best scene in HUNGER (it would not have been here, trust me) was declared ineligible for length’s sake, even though it’s as unified as any scene you’ll ever see. I decided to list this brutal scene instead, from “Act 1, Life inside the Maze” as a demonstration that, as we comfortable few are wont to forget, when you deal with obstreperous people, even treating them well sometimes cannot be done by acts of commendable civility.

Car bomb, THE HURT LOCKER — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #12 in the overall results. Possibly the white knuckle scene of the year because Bigelow finds good excuses to spin things out, in the curiosity of a character for whom this is all, if not exactly a game, sufficiently routine not to be scared into a state of freedom from all excrement.

Job interview, OBSERVE AND REPORT — The scene in question begins about 4:10 into this general highlight clip and takes up the rest of its 6:30. The scenes in the first 4 minutes are generally very good, but what they can really do, for right here, is set up Rogen’s character and what makes this specific scene so hilarious. Rogen’s low-key assurance and bonhomie co-exists in the same body with some really twisted darkness and a soul-defining obsession. His character is trying to make a good impression, and by his own lights, he damn well is. (And the other scenes also have me kicking myself for forgetting short-listing Celia Weston for Supporting Female, though her highlight — “just beer” — isn’t here.)

Dillinger in the FBI office, PUBLIC ENEMIES — Mike has the scene posted here after it placed #17 in the overall results. It’s funnier really in concept than when you’re watching it, though that retrospective glance is probably the point. Even if it’s just a legend or myth, it’s the kind of “true myth” that points to something broader that really IS true. Could, say, Osama bin Laden show up at the Justice Department today and do this? In a mediated, post-McLuhan world … no. But Dillinger in the 1930s (or Bonnie and Clyde; both in real life and the Arthur Penn movie) … yes.

Bomb shelter, THE ROAD — The movie’s one sequence of lightness, of reverie, of security, and of something like what we recognize as a materially normal life (says Victor, typing during record blizzards that already have knocked out his electricity five or six times, albeit only once for more than a minute or two). Though I don’t consider that “happy feeling” per se why the scene is great and memorable, as if happy scenes are better than sad scenes — no, the reason this scene is great is the gap between the father’s relief and the boy’s incredulity at a world he knows nothing of. And the reason it comes to an end.

The Spinners vs. Muhammad Ali, SOUL POWER — Damn. By dropping this scene, I did something to SOUL POWER that before this year I had never done to any film I gave at least an 8 grade — not given a single Skandie point in any category. (Like my hero Obama, etc., etc. … What makes this scene stand out, in a film not short of great concert numbers, is that it shows the not-merely-historical link between the concert and the Rumble in the Jungle — in how much Ali learned from the great R&B stars (and they from him) in terms of the brash-talking persona, strutting his stuff in public, and dancing about the ring. Damn.

The meaning of the song, STILL WALKING — Dunno how well this scene, a quiet scene near the end, would really play outside of context, and cannot really describe what it’s about beyond the title. Let’s just say it’s a very low-key, almost-stifled, equivalent of the night quarrel in AUTUMN SONATA, where one character tells another what he knows and has thought about him for decades but never had reason or occasion to say before now.

Die Männer, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — I haven’t seen this since Toronto but I remember saying to myself every manner of “what the frack/this can’t have been true” (though it obviously was). I could hardly believe characters in this situation would say this. Or maybe it was just harmless “he doesn’t pay any attention to me” girl-talk, only with really really REALLY amped-up stakes that the women themselves hardly notice any more.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | 2 Comments

Skandies runners-up — directors

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE was actually the weaker of Steven Soderbergh's two 2009 films.

Atom Egoyan, ADORATION — A comeback film for Egoyan, both in terms of quality and style. The ending doesn’t come off, a la EXOTICA (indeed “it’s kinda dumb” is more accurate). But the return of the chilly formalism, the piecing together of things that aren’t exactly what they seem, and the postmodern concern with what people say about a thing over the thing itself.

Uli Edel, THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX — This is not a great film and the script loses control of events (like the Red Army Faction itself, perhaps) at the end. But the force and excitement it did have, given the soggy historical-drama trajectory and my British boy’s knowledge of West German¹ politics in the 60s and 70s, comes from Edel’s staging and framing — swift, direct and as overwhelming as a terrorist attack. Starting to wonder if his LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN might seem the same way to me now.

Werner Herzog, THE BAD LIEUTENANT — PORT OF CALL: NEW ORLEANS — The only way Herzog’s direction is not awesome is if you believe that he didn’t notice Cage’s incandescently ludicrous comic performance. And in that case, he’s not weak or misguided or failed — he’s a complete effing incompetent twit. The man who made GRIZZLY MAN, KASPAR HAUSER, AGUIRRE, NOSFERATU, FITZCARRALDO, STROSZEK is not a complete effing incompetent twit. Indeed, he might even be considered to have a thing for “touched” performers and characters. Ergo, it is awesome.

Henry Selick, CORALINE — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully creepy Grimm/Dahl-like CORALINE right at the end again, like with Dakota Fanning. And, like all animated films of its kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.

Neill Blomkamp, DISTRICT 9 — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Blomkamp’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. The pace is kept quick and the various levels of “reality” and “discourse” clear, and thus funny (though the end really hurts the film).

Sam Raimi, DRAG ME TO HELL — I’m not the world’s biggest science-fiction or monster-movie fan (still haven’t seen AVATAR), so the fact Raimi’s film held my attention is some kind of feat in itself. Raimi knows how to use space and score to “goose” you for pulpy shocks aplenty, even when you know your goose is being cooked (though it’s really the end that saves the film).

Steven Soderbergh, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE — Yes, the “mo-fo.” Orchestrates a few ideas (and not very deep ones, frankly) and some conventionally “weak” actors into a strong whole. It’s like that scene in SOUL FOOD where the chef turns a filet-o-fish into high continental cuisine via his presentation. Only for real.

Corneliu Porumboiu, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Boring roolz … plot droolz!!! Something I probably didn’t emphasize enough in describing the strange effect of POLICE, ADJECTIVE is that, whatever else it may be, it obviously betrays artful design, breaking the “all wordless following” pattern in about three specific ways, all repeated. Porumboiu is playing us like a piano, and while it’s perfectly fair not to like his tune, it’s clearly being played by a virtuoso.

Olivier Assayas, SUMMER HOURS — I had never been a big Assayas fan, only going as high as a 6-grade on CLEAN (though I’ve not seen COLD WATER or IRMA VEP). But I’ve never denied Assayas has directorial chops, just bad script ideas, and maybe that’s what hurt him here. His film — my #3 for the year — was such a leap forward that I attributed all the newfound dazzle to the script. (So … um … look for beaucoup points in that category.)

Francis Coppola, TETRO — Now I contradict myself, as TETRO fits into, and even diegetically refers to, Coppola’s increasing theatricality (naming Vincent Gallo’s character “dark [mood]” is almost Belliniesque). In other words, it’s all style and operatic flourish and Archers color and inky black-and-white — all hail the director. Too bad the story managed to be both obvious, when you could follow it, and obscure, when you couldn’t — all curse the writer.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan, THREE MONKEYS — Translate my words on Coppola into Turkish and they could stand basically unchanged, though I think Ceylan’s direction a bit less grand and his family-feud story a bit cleaner.

Leos Carax, TOKYO! — Another French director whose previous work I wasn’t a great fan of (admittedly just LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF), though unlike with Assayas, Carax got weirder and more juvenile. We get the persecuted outsider and the rest of it (maybe given what Merde does, he ought to be persecuted). It would be terrible if Carax didn’t dance around (and sometimes gleefully leap past) the line between demented and perverted, essentially in service of a sick joke. And Merde’s being a 40-minute short in an anthology prevented it from overstaying its welcome as what it is — a singular experience out of Carax’s infantile brain.

Pete Docter, UP — Sigh. Dropped the wonderfully joyful and heart-breakingly wise UP right at the end again, like with Christopher Plummer. And, like even animated films of this kind, it was a sweated-out labor of love. Especially for its director. I feel like a complete tool.

Michael Haneke, WHITE RIBBON — My man Mikey gets short-listed by right. And if it had just been a lame script, he might have snuck his way in. But some of his directorial choices just as clearly watered-down the Germanic scold I love. Still, will be rooting for WHITE RIBBON to win the Foreign-Film Oscar, not because it’s good, mind you, but to see Michael Haneke’s give an acceptance speech to AMPAS.
—————————————–
¹ Yes, kids … “West Germany.” I had to learn as an adult how to say simply “Germany” in the present tense. And get off my lawn!!

February 9, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Skandies runners-up — scripts

I need to catch up on Bahrani's earlier films, MAN PUSH CART and CHOP SHOP. He has a clear gift for writing and direction that don't come across as writing and direction.

Jane Campion, BRIGHT STAR — Yeah, there’s all that sissy Keats poetry and stuff, but that isn’t why Campion’s script is good. It’s because she begins from the POV of a character with artistic impulses of her own (I wish she’d done more with the feminist fashion-as-women’s-art subtext) and because she makes images that match without mimicking the poetry and/or letters being read.

Pedro Almodovar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shucked it away earlier than usual for a Pedro script because, at the end of the day, it just takes too long to peel away all the layers. But nobody can braid storylines, play with multiple levels of discourse, and find an emotional connection in garish gestures and details than Pedro can.

Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn, BRONSON — I thought about short-listing Refn’s operatic direction, but then decided … no, here what works is really the script, which structures the film around several bold conceits. Tell a biographical story in an un-biopicky way — as a stage autobiography, performed without a real fourth wall by a man who wants to create his own legend in our mind. While at the same time, resisting the “Rosebud” temptation to have the gimmick be the explanation for “Bronson’s” life.

Andreas Dresen and Jorg Hochschild, CLOUD 9 — I compared this film in my Toronto capsule to SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, and no higher compliment exists. The script structures itself around a to-and-fro between sexual reverie and bitter quarrels, the latter gradually taking over and then finally enfolding things.

Wes Anderson, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Yes, I relented after declaring Wes! dead to me after THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Primarily because “Roald Dahl cartoon” sounded like something that would anchor and restrain him. It does somewhat, or at least makes the archness less annoying. It’s may be Wes Anderson’s CHICKEN RUN, but that’s still CHICKEN RUN.

Chris Rock et al, GOOD HAIR — Yes, seriously. It IS a documentary, but in the genre of the comic essay, not cinema verite. And while I don’t know how much of the on-screen comedy is improvised, when it’s being done by the same person performing and co-writing the voiceover, it’s enough to consider it a unified writing work. And on those terms — it was really funny. And edumacational without being hectoring.

Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani, GOODBYE SOLO — I freely admit that the last third is a bit … not exactly “contrived,” more like “telegraphed.” But like the Italian neorealists AO Scott and others have compared him to, and contrary to how Bahrani’s (and the Italians’) films look, Bahrani meticulously plans everything after working it all out with his non-pros. Everything that looks accidental or “real” is in Azimi and Bahrani’s script.

February 9, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Skandie runners-up — supporting females

Chris Rock made a whole sequel about this Miriam Makeba hairdo. But Victor decided acting points mostly for being an incredible singer, even though it's a concert film, might be a bit much.

Rachel Weisz, BROTHERS BLOOM — Disappointed that this film foundered at the box office, as I thought it really showed another side to Weisz’s talents — a heedlessly entitled screwball-comedy heroine like Katharine Hepburn whose both thoroughly charming and thoroughly off-putting.

Jennifer Lawrence, THE BURNING PLAIN — I remembered being impressed by her performance in one of Arriaga’s two stories at the Toronto Film Festival, but I haven’t seen the film since and it’s all just too indistinct in my head to avoid the “shuck that one away” temptation.

Beth Grant, EXTRACT — Gossipy old ladies on the assembly line are always funny. Particularly when the competition they have in their own films is Ben Affleck fumbling away the easiest character in the book — the bartender/best-buddy/shit-stirrer role

Tilda Swinton, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL — OK, sue me for not having seen Tilda’s other performance this year. Who goes to see weird subtitled movies by frog “auteurs.” In a perverse way, though Jarmusch’s repetition of the “people with info” scene makes for tedious drama, it does enable you to determine the best actor among the “people with info.”

Cloris Leachman, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — Unlike with Eli Wallach, I did recognize her. But the effect was the opposite — I had affection for her and the memories of all she has done on film. As if she’s an old family member whom we need to take care of, despite her mouth. In other words, an old Cloris Leachman.

Monique, PRECIOUS — I have to join the chorus somewhere. ya know. I was already primed both to hate her character and be annoyed by an over-the-top evil performance, but … well, I wasn’t. However, there is another PRECIOUS actress that nobody is mentioning that will appear later and underline a clear difference in acting philosophy.

Irina Potapenko, REVANCHE — It’s very hard to play shrewder-but-inferior in the relationship successfully. You might actually be hurt by performing in a language (German) other than your audience’s (me only talks English good), thus lacking the linguistic cues. But if it ain’t your language, it makes sense that she’d follow his cockamamie schemes.

Miriam Makeba, SOUL POWER —  Yeah, no joke. I seriously did consider her, only deciding against it at the end because she only has a few moments. But … I remember those moments vividly as shaping a person I had very little previous knowledge of, unlike James Brown. She got bumped or dissed the first night but when her time on stage came, she left it behind and wowed everybody with her infectious joy — a joy she has to feel while we know she doesn’t. (My notes from the time said people applauded in the Toronto theater.) All the while telling people, with the biggest smile in the world, how “The Click Song” is not a novelty, as they were consuming it.

Juliette Binoche, SUMMER HOURS — Maybe it’s time to just acknowledge that she’s always awesome in everything. But here, she plays a San Francisco bobo without resorting to the easy cliche. You can see Natalie Portman in this role in the American remake … and you can be quietly grateful that it’s someone this calm, with this much range.

Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR — Yeah, her character is somewhat of an easy sex fantasy (as if Clooney isn’t). Highlight to see vague SPOLIER: But two words — Red. Herring. (And she’s as good on both sides of it.)

Anna Kendrick, UP IN THE AIR — Seeing her in this role about 3-4 years after she played a high-school debater was so perfect. It’s the same mixture of start-from-zero rationalism and young cocksureness. It’s not exactly arrogance, but a belief that one’s plan is rational and that’s all there is to it. Also nails the awkwardness of firing someone when you’re not used to it. Already regretting dropping her.

February 8, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Skandie runners-up — supporting males

Hilmi Sozer (right) steals JERICHOW, especially at the end, playing the unwanted third leg in a romantic triangle someone like Mr. Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Ptolemy Slocum, (UNTITLED) — I considered him just to annoy Sicinski, as he’s playing a hilariously vicious caricature of the Bad Modern Artists whom Waz loves. Just kidding bud. Sorta.

Horst Rehberg, CLOUD 9 — Plays a 70-year-old man with a convincingly heedless, romantic (and Romantic) 20-year-old’s soul. He always has the sparkle that Ursula Werner only sometimes does — and therein lies the drama. This year was filled with “nearly” performances in German films.

Timothy Spall, THE DAMNED UNITED — Proves he doesn’t need Mike Leigh to inhabit a working-class Joe (yes … men in his position at that time weren’t filthy-rich — part of the film’s interest). And the reconciliation scene with Clough at his home doesn’t have a hint of anachronistic gayness as a result.

Peter Sarsgaard, AN EDUCATION — Why is Carey Mulligan getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film? The charming villain is always the better role, and Sarsgaard oozes it like pretty pus.

Anthony Mackie, THE HURT LOCKER — After playing the enemies of Tupac Shakur and Eminem … pffft to al Qaeda in Iraq. Mackie has all the charisma needed to be a great star, and maybe his Jesse Owens and (less likely) Buddy Bolden biopics will make him one. He and Jeremy Renner nail soldiers’ ornery chemistry (most importantly, the drunken barracks carousing) without a hint of anachronistic gayness or psychopathy.

Tom Waits, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS — Why is Heath Ledger getting all the Hosannas in Excelsis for this film (OK, besides THAT)? The charming villain is always the better role, and Waits oozes it like pretty pus.

James Gandolfini, IN THE LOOP — But here’s the opposite end. In a movie that’s all a barrage of would-be farcical “flow” (to the point of exhaustion and without being terribly funny to me — the timing was never right), Gandolfini provided the little “ebb,” the few moments of non-showing-off solidity.

Hilmi Sözer, JERICHOW — Damn. I so wanted to give JERICHOW something. May have been prevented by the fact I didn’t get a chance to see it a second time, in retrospect with full knowledge of everything including … the end … (especially considering how blown away Sicinski was by JERICHOW). Lack of a second viewing meant the film stayed a “solid 7” — and thus always on the (ahem) outside looking in. Sorry Waz. No joke.

Eli Wallach, NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU — It really takes something to stand out in an omnibus of 11 or so shorts. And something else again to be a huge star of decades ago, not rely on the instant-recognition factor, not rely on pity for the elderly. I honestly had to look him up — who played the husband in the last piece, about the love remaining between the old couple? Him? Really?

Kristyan Ferrer, SIN NOMBRE — Had to look up his name too. He’s the young kid who wants to join the teenagers trip to El Norte — for various reasons. Like Wallach, only at the other end of the life cycle, Ferrer plays a role that easily could have reduced to age-pathos  or alternatively to easy kid-brutalism (e.g. the film the people who hated CITY OF GOD imagined they saw).

Christopher Plummer, UP — Hurt to also leave out Plummer, who is having a nice late-career renaissance between this film, PARNASSUS and LAST STATION. Plummer’s also done quite a bit of voice acting lately (IIRC, Burton’s 9 and narrating THE GOSPEL OF JOHN), and ideally for this type of “Bond villain” role, he has a low, quiet but resonant voice with menace he can turn on and off.

Paul Bettany, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — I hated Lord Melbourne. That means Bettany was awesome.

(spoiler), ZOMBIELAND — It’s only a single-sequence cameo, and it very much relies on who he is. But it’s too funny and he’s too good — needed counterpoint, both to downplay Woody Harrelson’s “I can’t believe it” fanboy slobbering and to be taken aback by Abigail Breslin’s “who?” incredulity.

February 8, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Skandie runners-up — female lead

As usual, fewer memorable performances/roles in the female-acting categories versus the male ones — 19 runners-up among the lead men, versus just 9 for the women. You know, maybe Catharine MacKinnon is on to something …

The best kids tales are often the creepiest, most perverse and, ultimately, most moral.

LEAD FEMALE
Maya Rudolph, AWAY WE GO — Verily did I dislike her character (and her husband) from the start as bubble-headed bohemians, but by the end, she’d won me over, though it is for God alone to know whether this was because everybody the picaresque pair meet is even more annoying (why, Maggie … why …)

Penelope Cruz, BROKEN EMBRACES — Why, Academy … why. If you’re gonna nominate Penelope Cruz this year, why not do so in a role where she shows off something other than her lingerie, her ass and her mascara — like her actual ability to act (at least in Spanish and/or for Pedro)

Michelle Pfeiffer, CHERI — Miscast in the role of Colette’s retired voluptuary Lea, but somehow makes it work for her, most especially meta-cinematically (you have to be thin and obviously sexy even to play a 50-something role, i.e., Pfeiffer’s age) and what that says about female lead roles. Maybe Catharine MacK…

Dakota Fanning, CORALINE — Every year, I make a point of seeking out voice roles in animated films (though only 1 of the 4 I short-listed made the cut this year). It’s a legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. Fanning’s got girlish curiosity and frustration to spare in her voice.

Alison Lohman, DRAG ME TO HELL — Every year, I make a point of seeking out roles in action or genre films, another legitimate form of acting that Oscar hardly ever acknowledges. She both exudes non-obnoxious middle-class entitlement and convincingly sacrifies a kitten.

Melanie Laurent, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS — Where does Tarantino find these unknown (to me anyway)  or thought-washed-up actors who somehow give credible performances in the “movie movie” roles. Probably hurt by Diane Kreuger’s even greater awesomeness (in a showier and “movie”-er role).

Robin Wright Penn, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE — Sometimes you just give pity consideration that a good and talented actress found herself stuck with such a ridiculous script and managed to come out not completely sucking. The key is not to overplay the too-many Big Scenes.

Nina Hoss, A WOMAN IN BERLIN — Like in JERICHOW, though not as much, Hoss gives an extremely understated, opaque borderline-wooden performance that might remind one of the young Joan Fontaine (oft derided as “wooden”). But she’s hiding from the Commies, in the only film ever to make me take seriously radical-feminist claim all sex is rape. Maybe Catharine MacKinnon …

Emily Blunt, THE YOUNG VICTORIA — An awards-bait role but at least it’s not a glorified impersonation, as we have no recordings or photos of Victoria from this era (her earliest photo dates from 1844). Blunt’s playing gives us a mostly feminist-anachronism-free portrait of a woman who, because she wields (even-limited) political power, can’t let men take advantage of her. So, nah … Catharine MacKinnon is full of it.

February 6, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Skandie runners-up — male leads

Well, it’s now Skandie time, and Mike is unveiling the Top 20 at his site Listen, Eggroll. So in the next couple of weeks, before posting my entire ballot proper, I’ll be posting a few words about the films, performances, etc., I voted for. And to start with, about those I DIDN’T vote for.

My procedure every year is to devote a day to making a short list of contenders, based on the Eligible Films list, and what has managed to stay with me, as of late January of the next year (all eligible films started to screen commercially in New York during 2009, and did so for at least a week). Then I shuck away, until I’m left with 10 in each of the categories. I’ll start with the acting categories — these are the Lead Male Performances that I short-listed but DIDN’T vote for. In this and other categories, the bold-face and the lead art are from the last one I eliminated — the #11, as it were.

This most-circulated HUMPDAY still (Duplass, left) is precisely what the film is NOT about. Instead, Lynn Shelton's film is about the ridiculousness of giving in to sex in Bohemia's name.

LEAD MALE
Joseph Gordon Leavitt, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER — So what if he can do the sensitive emo dork role in his sleep? In *this* sensitive emo dork, there’s not a trace of self-righteousness or whininess.

Willem Defoe, ANTICHRIST — When asked at Toronto “how does one prepare as an actor for a scene where you’re genitally mutilated,” he replied “you don’t.” Really — that’s all that need be said.

Lluis Homar, BROKEN EMBRACES — Shows off a late middle-age “this is my last chance” hunger that prevented his character from being either a dirty old man or a petty tyrant. Pedro should work with him more.

Mark Ruffalo, BROTHERS BLOOM — His occasional cocksure self-regard really works well in this role but he keeps it in rein and appropriately artificial, as the however-illogical ending requires (think — or don’t — what Mark Wahlberg would have done here).

Sasha Baron Cohen, BRUNO — Yes, the film as a whole was a misfire, but when Cohen gets a provocation really cooking, with the right audience he can milk it better than the best professional wrestling heel.

Clive Owen, DUPLICITY — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.

George Clooney, FANTASTIC MR. FOX — Blows away George Clooney’s performance in UP IN THE AIR in the category of Sheer Old-School Glamour Dripping Off His Fingers role of 2009 — playing a rogue.

Souleymane Sy Savane, GOODBYE SOLO — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s De Sica and Rossellini.

Mark Duplass, HUMPDAY — Here is the very opposite of Sheer Old School … etc. — a performance that feels like (even if it isn’t) a real person playing a slightly-fictionalized version of himself, a la 40s Visconti.

Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS — Went back and forth on this one. Even if it is just an imitation, it’s a damn good one, and good casting too — the man who played God portraying our era’s secular saint.

Benno Furmann, JERICHOW — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of masculine physicality and mannerism creating a not-black-souled viciousness (Waz isn’t wrong in saying it’s a bit wooden, but also not wrong in saying …)

Kim Yung-ho, NIGHT AND DAY — Probably the least-known performance in this bunch, but it’s a triumph of utter self-absorption and complete cluelessness that somehow doesn’t create a Mister Magoo or (mere) Innocent Abroad

Micah Sloat, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY — Along with Katie Featherstone (not among Actress Runners-Up … hint, hint), he creates something new and exciting — effectively natural performance in a completely self-referential genre (the YouTube home movie)

Dragos Bucur, POLICE, ADJECTIVE — Eve was correct … he is awesome at eating soup, though look for someone even more awesome at chopping wood in the main list.

Viggo Mortensen, THE ROAD — The testimony to this performance is that the film, which pretty much rests entirely on his shoulders and has only the most elemental of plots, is even watchable (in fact, pretty good in my opinion)

Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN — Seeing D’Arcy as a Christopher Isherwood character was disconcerting, but like Mortensen, he fills out a simple-content movie, though only as far as watchability in his case (the ending is unforgivable, sorry)

Charles Berling, SUMMER HOURS — Among the kids in the family, he’s the audience-identification figure, and Berling has the right mix of idealism and pragmatism (Binoche and Regnier are different shades of pragmatic) to pull off the needed surrender.

Teruyuki Kagawa, TOKYO SONATA — He has the bits I remember best from Toronto 2007 (I saw it alongside NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and so hated its last reel that I’ve never gone back to it) — the pride-shame mix in dealing with his family.

Woody Harrelson, ZOMBIELAND — Remember how awesome Woody the Bartender was. Here’s a completely different type of comic “character role,” sure, but Harrelson shows he hasn’t lost it. He should just do comedy from now on.

February 6, 2010 Posted by | Skandies | Leave a comment

Weekly shards-1

May try to make this a weekly feature, Sunday night, of things noticed while dubbing movies and watching bits and pieces of them, but not really the whole movie. For this week, one of these movies is about filthy people who’ve defined their souls by what they’re willing to do for money. The other is THE WAGES OF FEAR:

THE WAGES OF FEAR (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1953) — Saw the beginning and the end of this one. A chivalrous director would  feel uncomfortable telling a woman to act in the first reel like Vera Clouzot does, i.e., like a bitch in heat. (Sorry, but not taking that back … that’s how she’s acting.) A man asking his own wife to act that way? Ick. They say Clouzot was the French Hitchcock and when it comes to women (see also here), I guess there too. Sorta like I said about HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, the utterly heartless ending of FEAR works as well as it does because of the context of the other films surrounding it — endings like this didn’t happen in 50s Hollywood thrillers, which gives this one an oomph that an identical ending today wouldn’t. Occupies a special place in my memory because it’s one of the few foreign films I’ve ever watched with my parents and had them enjoy as much as I did (my father at least apparently had seen it years ago).

THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941) — I wished Henry Fonda had made more comedies, as I like him better as a clueless Sturges male being eaten up by scheming Barbara Stanwyck than the goody-good-good he usually played. Like Graham Greene noted, Sturges knows that in the sort of movie, we identify with the schemers, especially when they’re as classy and well-bred and attractive as Stanwyck and Coburn. The scene of Jean’s directing the other women’s attempts to get Hopsie’s attention while looking in her own compact mirror is a metacinematic joy. And Sturges skates right up to the line again … “they all want Pike’s Pale, the Ale that Won for Yale / Well, tell em they can go to Ha-arvard.”

January 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hard luck Terry

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS (Terry Gilliam, Britain/Canada, 2009) — 3

Maybe it’s time for me to give up on Gilliam. What is there to say about a director whose sensibility you so fundamentally don’t share that you’ve not seen his two reputed masterworks (BRAZIL and TIME BANDITS) and don’t feel guilty about it? I’ve seen most of Gilliam’s feature films from MUNCHAUSEN on, and I don’t really care for any of it — and largely for the same reason. They all feel overdone, overstuffed and manic — fundamentally undisciplined works of wretched excess. Gilliam needs to be reined in, and so giving him money to make an “imaginarium” movie was, predictably, an invitation to indulge his worst tendency — to self-indulgent, curlicued elephantaisis.

His Monty Python animation works in that context, because a few seconds of gesture, of cutaway, of sudden subversive commentary. And it was surrounded by the Python troupe. But it’s never worked for 90 consecutive minutes as the whole show and I can’t imagine doing so. Scenes of someone being picked up by a jellyfish arm, flying through the air and then being dropped onto a gigantic thumbtack — it sounds great in conception, I suspect it looks great on the storyboards. On the screen in PARNASSUS, it comes across as leaden, slow and totally lacking in the lightning-fast whimsy that made the Python cut-ins so awesome. We’re expected to *admire* this stuff?

It’s all supposedly about whimsy and fairy tales and fantasy… but the only whimsy in this latest bit of mythopoetic rambling is Tom Waits as (predictably) the Devil, the one character who can be allowed a nose-thumbing (or mouth-taping gesture) in the middle of all this grandiosity. There’s some parallel about a bet for 12 disciples or garnering 5 souls or somesuch; the savior is not the Savior, but someone who “doesn’t want to rule the world but wants the world to rule itself” (“o, come off it,” vjm’s eyes roll). There’s some role played by an immortality bet and a looking glass that allows people to realize their fantasies, there are sappy-parody songs about “we are the children of the world” and the line “it’s a child, not a choice” (wonder if Gilliam knows the resonance of that line). The devil gives an apple to a couple of nuns at the end. And a lot of other stuff is thrown against the wall, reminding me of SOUTHLAND TALES. (That’s not a good comparison, BTW.) At one point in my notes I have written down”to the extent I can understand this, I don’t give a [crap] about it.”

Which is a shame because Gilliam is obviously talented and has ideas. And his career has frequently been snake-bit. There’s no good time for a man of Ledgers age to die, of course, but Christopher Nolan has Ledger’s work entirely in the can, while Gilliam has to scramble. It also makes the first view of Ledger (hanging by the neck) a bit icky; inevitably, the story structure involving Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as fantasy behind-the-glass versions of Ledger (fine though all three men are) comes across as a forced contrivance, like shooting “Bela Lugosi” from behind.

January 22, 2010 Posted by | Terry Gilliam | 3 Comments

The latest Romanian mast….zzzzzzz

High drama in the latest Romanian film -- two people eat dinner.

High drama in the latest Romanian film -- two people eat dinner.

I don’t think there’s any way around it. I saw POLICE, ADJECTIVE again last night and cannot even describe it in any way that doesn’t make it sound like a boring reductio ad absurdum of the slow, grind-you-down European art film. Very few plot points, all spun out way beyond their possible narrative interest, not much suspense or danger for a policier — you’re watching somebody perform a job that mostly consists of watching other people.

And yet, I liked POLICE, ADJECTIVE a lot, both on first and second viewing. Both when I didn’t know exactly what was coming and when I did. But I can’t defend the film against the flat claim (shut up, gemko) that “it’s boring.” Yes, it is, and not just in the tautological sense that any movie, even the most rock-em-sock-em action flick, is boring if it doesn’t engage you (the sense in which I would say NINE or FIGHTING are boring). POLICE, ADJECTIVE is boring in the sense that it’s not trying to entertain you or promise … heck, I just started to parrot the following sentence that Stanley Kauffmann composed in his rapturous first review of L’AVVENTURA.

The first 10 minutes make it clear that this is the work of a discerning, troubled, uniquely gifted artist who speaks to us through the refined center of his art. We make “like” this film, but those first 10 minutes indicate that liking is not the primary point. We “like” Maurice Chevalier but do we “like” Wozzeck or No Exit? If so, all the better, but we know from the start that it is irrelevant to their effective being.
This is not to say that L’Avventura is an unpleasant or uninteresting experience: simply that it does not come out of the wings like a chorus girl with a grin on her face to make a hit fast.

Kauffmann doesn’t use the word “boring,” but we all know what he’s getting at. And in that sense I can formulate an acknowledgement that POLICE, ADJECTIVE is “objectively boring” even though I personally found it gripping. It took me several repeat viewings to really feel like I was getting a grasp on Antonioni’s 60s films, though for a variety of reasons, in a way unlike how I’m pretty confident that I entirely got POLICE, ADJECTIVE on first view (I don’t have tremendously much to add to my Toronto capsule).

Continue reading

January 22, 2010 Posted by | Corneliu Porumboiu, Viewership | Leave a comment

Sturges and politics

THE GREAT McGINTY (Preston Sturges, USA, 1940) – 8
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) – 10

I swear it was a pure coincidence that last night, the night of the political impossible (“a tea bagging centerfold” won a US Senate seat from Massachusetts as a Republican), I happened to have a Preston Sturges tape next in the queue to be dubbed. And on it were his two explicitly political movies, both about men with dubious pasts who become unlikely politicians.

When I say “explicitly political,” I should clarify. They’re the two where politics plays a major surface role in the plot, but neither could serve any possible partisan or ideological angle. From Sturges’s portrayal of vote fraud by ACORN in big-city machines, a statewide “reform” party, graft in stimulus public-works projects, and community organizers urban populism, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that Dan McGinty is a Democrat and audiences at the time probably knew that. But Sturges mentions no parties and there never makes any implication that Chicago the city would be less corrupt under the other party or some other faction of that party. Or that McGinty would be a better mayor/governor if he had more ideological committment. Indeed … SPOILER (highlight text to see) … McGinty’s downfall comes when he tries to be honest, to become his own man independent of the machine. One could even cynically suggest that the moral is “if you’re a crook, you must remain a crook” … /SPOILER.

But to me what makes McGINTY very funny and HERO even funnier, even today, is precisely that strikethru-function jokes aside, politics isn’t really what they’re about. Political satires generally date badly because they usually assume a shared topical frame of reference between film-maker and audience. By definition, that will be gone very quickly (who, after all, other than political junkies or people 75 or older would get a joke now about a Scandinavian accent and Wendell Willkie). McGINTY is about the rise and decline (or decline and rise, depending) of a bum, defined as much by marital love as political success. Indeed … WARNING: Incoming Wack Comparison … I kept thinking last night about the Dardenne brothers’ LORNA’S SILENCE, which is also about a person who enters into a fake marriage for mercenary reasons but then grows to really love that person and suffers for having done so. The key “turnaround” dramatic scene in both films is even the same — the husband and wife for the first time in physical union, shown to the degree the content codes of the times allowed. That’s just the skeleton of both movies, which have practically nothing else in common, and McGINTY is told through the conventions of comedy and so the ending has a different tone. But still …

As the grades imply, I think HERO is the better film — Sturges’s direction is surer, his pacing more frenetic and his ensemble company “better oiled.” I have long considered HERO to be Sturges’s masterpiece. Indeed, it has inspired me to always be generous around military men in bars (I dunno why … it’s not like really good things happen to Eddie Bracken as a result). HERO is the story of a 4-F from a long line of Marine heroes who gets roped into pretending to be a Marine hero of Guadalcanal. By the end, he’s been drafted into city politics, to run against Everett *Noble* — a gassy windbag who is maybe Sturges’s funniest creation. Overall, HERO is the funniest of Sturges’s movies in part because you laughed twice at every joke. At every joke and gag and line, there’s the laugh itself and then the amazed internal chuckle that Sturges was able to get away with this in 1944. Suggesting that small-town America could be easily fooled by stories of heroism, and even in the end wanted to be fooled? Portraying homefront politics as not affected by the war, except in the mouth of the venal Noble? And NOBODY in the movies ever suggested that Marines, even if only part of the time, were anything less than statue-burnished heroes (they’re the ones who rope Bracken into the ruse and then nurse it along; one is a bit psycho; another is an open playa; they get into trouble from gambling).

Even though the Vietnam War produced an orgy of self-hatred in American movies that has never truly left them, this much gentler, much less ill-intentioned, not even arguably “anti-war” movie still comes across as bracingly subversive fun. Indeed, it may well be that HERO plays so well today precisely because of the post-Vietnam turn. It shows that it was once possible to make fun of Marines, middle America and the mom-and-apple-pie muthos (not that the people of the time ever doubted it — “Willie and Joe,” for example, ran in Stars and Stripes) without turning against them.

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Preston Sturges | Leave a comment

Long and boring … do not read

Before Big Hollywood gave Sonny the space to rebut Ben Shapiro’s execrable post about the Top 10 Most Overrated Directors of All Time — the site’s editor-in-chief weighed in. But not on the correct side.

John Nolte aka Dirty Harry defended the Shapiro piece (saying “Bravo!” and “I loved” it), which was a disappointment. Again, not so much because he defended it (one would hardly expect an editor to turn against his own writer in a public forum), but because of the way he defended it — with the most unconservative arguments in the book. Here is the essential excerpt. Continue reading

January 19, 2010 Posted by | John Nolte | 9 Comments

Empty post … do not read

This is just to thank all the people in my comboxes at my post fisking Ben Shapiro’s unspeakably bad piece at Big Hollywood (the sane stuff there can be found all here).

And thanks to the people who linked to it — Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door Online; Sonny Bunch in the midst of his own very sensible rebuttal post at Big Hollywood; and Sonny again at his own group blog Conventional Folly.

January 19, 2010 Posted by | Shameless self-promotion | 1 Comment

Some older films seen in recent months

I realize now that Twittering is pointless in a way — you can put it out there, but it won’t stay up for long (huh-huh, huh-huh). So I’m henceforth gonna be not shy at all about putting up blog posts that either duplicate my Twitter storms or just flesh out a Tweet. These are some of the films I’ve seen for the first time recently:


Continue reading

January 19, 2010 Posted by | Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters, Kenneth Branagh, Louis Armstrong, Silvio Narizzano | 3 Comments

Page updates

Over the weekend, I updated all the site’s ancillary pages — Screening Log, 2009 Top 10 and Past Top 10s — to reflect recent viewing. The 2009 Top 10 still won’t be official for a couple of weeks though (have a couple of screeners to see and a couple of movies to catch up on).

As should be obvious from the screening log, I’ve spent a lot of time recently watching old movies on video. What’s been going on for the past year is a major space-saving(?) project. I’m in the midst of transferring to DVD my entire taped-off-the-air VHS collection. I started taping movies off the air around 1988 and I have since built a collection of more than 400 tapes and probably about 900 movies. I’m about 60 percent of the way through and hope to have it done by 2011. I can’t dub my purchased VHS tapes (about 200) because my dubbing machine refuses to touch anything with Copyguard, so I will continue to have VHS. And I dunno what I’m gonna do with my old tapes though — doubt there’s much of a market for VHS (unlike vinyl records, there’s no possible argument for its aesthetic superiority). But if anyone wants anything …

Anyhoo … so with my VHS-to-DVD copier constantly running, I’ve been sucked into a lot of movies. Just in the past week, I realized that I’ve practically memorized THE THIRD MAN and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, that Pauline Kael was correct in citing THE GOLDEN COACH as Anna Magnani’s greatest performance (she’s both lustily ferile and sunnily comic), and that Joseph Losey’s opening scenes in THE CONCRETE JUNGLE of a snitch returning to jail are among the purest distillation of dread this side of Alfred “most overrated ever” Hitchcock (though Losey fumbles things a bit with awkward use of a then-chic jazz score).

I also watched scenes and bits from pictures, which I didn’t put on the Screening Log because something called away or I was tired or for whatever reason didn’t watch the whole film. And these were some of the reactions I had:

Continue reading

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Abel Gance, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergio Leone, The Project | Leave a comment

Joe Queenan on Hitchcock

When I got home, I read the Hitchcock essay that I referred to in my last post. It was a piece written for Movieline by Joe Queenan and reprinted in his book “If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble.”¹ I knew I had to wait to quote an excerpt from his essay as a separate post, because he made the point I wanted to make so much funnier than I could.

His point about Hitchcock, contra Ben Shapiro’s claim that he started with good premises but had no follow-through, is … well … the exact opposite. That Hitch began with ludicrous premises and made great films out of them. Here is Queenan, a wonderful film critic as humorists go:

It’s hard to look at SPELLBOUND today without chortling at its pop Freudianism, and the same is true of VERTIGO, REBECCA, NOTORIOUS and SUSPICION, all of which are wonderful motion pictures whose abiding appeal is not diminished by the fact that they are, at heart, really quite ridiculous stories.

Look at his subject matter. Most serious moviemakers will move heaven and earth to get to the point in their careers where they can film the important works of Western literature; JANE EYRE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, MADAME BOVARY, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Hitchcock started out with writers like Daphne DuMaurier and worked his way down. His dalliances with the masters were few, far between and futile

bad books were what Hitchcock made good movies from. Hitchcock was always and forever in the alchemy business, taking what the English call “penny dreadfuls” — heavily plotted, convoluted thrillers — and turning them into visual masterpieces

one aspect of Hitchcock’s movies that has not received sufficient critical attention is the fundamentally idiotic nature of his stories. If you were Ingrid Bergman and your boss, the head of the Green Manor loony bin, told you he was stepping down and handing over the reins to a famous psychoanalyst no one had ever met or even seen a photograph of, wouldn’t you find that a bit strange? … If you were a comely young woman who had just spent 15 minutes chatting with the decidedly quirky Norman Bates, would you then strip to your black slip and brassiere and take a shower? If you were a timid dumpling being slowly driven insane by a psychotic housekeeper with overtly lesbian tendencies, mightn’t it have occurred to you to corner Laurence Olivier and say “Look, honey, if it’s all the same to you, couldn’t we just can that bitch?” … No, it’s all quite mad, isn’t it; and yet, so devilishly clever. Hitchcock simply had no equal in making the most absurd plot lines seem plausible, perhaps even realistic.

—————————————–
¹ Blurbed by Dave Barry: “If you’re a fan of informed viciousness — and who isn’t — you will love this book.”

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Ben Shapiro, Joe Queenan | Leave a comment

I blame Sonny

My (unfortunately) former colleague Sonny Bunch ruined my day with this tweet:

When it’s said that the right isn’t to be trusted re: movies, it’s because Big Hollywood publishes things like this http://bit.ly/6C1Xs3

… which will take you to the invaluable Andrew Breitbart site, and to an essay by Ben Shapiro that I can only call the most puerile piece of neener-neener adolescent contrarianism I have ever read. (Sonny was no less hostile, calling it “the single stupidest list I’ve ever seen“; his Twitter feed suggests we may see his rebuttal at Big Hollywood soon.) It’s also a credit to Big Hollywood’s readers that the reaction in the combox has been overwhelmingly negative, and with a suitable amount of vitriol.

Shapiro’s list is the 10 Most Over-rated Directors of All Time. And he picks some sacred cows, the two most sacred probably coming at the end:

10.  Ridley Scott …
9.  Michael Mann …
8.  David Lean …
7.  Darren Aronofsky …
6.  Mike Nichols …
5.  David Lynch …
4.  Quentin Tarantino …
3.  Woody Allen …
2.  Martin Scorsese …
1. Alfred Hitchcock …

Continue reading

January 18, 2010 Posted by | Ben Shapiro | 14 Comments

The death of Eric Rohmer

I submitted a few vacuum-packed paragraphs for National Review on Eric Rohmer, the recently dead French master who has been my favorite living director since at least the death of Ingmar Bergman. NRO published them here at The Corner — a 300-word request for which I initially submitted 850, and trimmed it back myself to the 530 you see that keeps at least one or two examples. In the couple of days since Rohmer’s death, I’ve also watched CLAIRE’S KNEE and THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (both part of Criterion’s fawesome Six Moral Tales DVD box set).

The thing about CLAIRE’S KNEE that just gets deeper every time is the way it plays with its own textuality, and even anticipates and auto-critiques and/or subverts a certain shallow understanding of Rohmer’s own films. So many of Rohmer’s films place characters on holiday, in a French resort, a St. Tropez villa, a symbolic vineyard, or even lunch at an odd time of the day — the ideal time for a romantic fling, the characters self-consciously realize and proceed to map out accordingly. CLAIRE’S KNEE set in a gorgeous by a lake on August vacation, and the artist Aurora thinks to set up a “vacances-romance” between Jerome and strong-headed ingenue Laura. But things really don’t really work out, even though Jerome is willing to play his part. The film, among much else, is about the storytelling process and the way people apply it to their lives, both with foresight and retrospect — which are incompatible with each other and not what “really” happened, but how people teleologically shape their biographies. Consider also how Jerome gets his fantasy of caressing Claire’s knee (initially in a brilliantly funny way), but he hasn’t done the good deed he congratulates himself for doing at the end, because he saw something that wasn’t what he thought it was (to be more precise would be spoilerific).

As for MONCEAU, it may be the ideal introduction to Rohmer — it just requires a 23-minute investment, but, astonishingly considering it’s at the start of his career, it’s a near-perfect (and perfectly representative) slice of Rohmer’s style and themes. It was shot on 16mm for practically no money, but Rohmer gave it self-consciousness and depth through a near-constant voiceover (think GOODFELLAS — in that one way only) that both explains and undermines the main character’s actions, and indicates how much of his actions are through-the-looking-glass romantic game-playing, predicated on staying one step ahead of what he thinks the bakery girl is thinking or going to do. Rohmer used voiceover a great deal in his Moral Tales, and though he used it less in his later works, he found ways to have his characters openly discourse on their thoughts instead. But the literary style, the self-consciousness, the understated-but-precise and often lovely pictorial quality, the perfect editing and framing — it’s all there from MONCEAU on.

I began as somewhat of a Rohmer skeptic — early 90s “exhausting the canon”-phase VHS viewings of CLAIRE’S KNEE and MY NIGHT WITH MAUD frankly did not do much for me and I never obliged to look beyond what are still probably his two most highly-regarded films. But I got turned around, first by the successful 1999 US theatrical run of AN AUTUMN TALE and then a 2001 retrospective where I saw about 8 or 10 of his films and loved them all. And his THE LADY AND THE DUKE at the 2001 Toronto festival removed all doubts and confirmed what I had just sensed, that Rohmer’s skepticism toward modernity went beyond soulcraft but even extended as far as dubiety towards the French Revolution — the worst event in human history, I’d say. From Grace Elliott’s sympathetic mouth we hear all the criticisms of the Revolution that Anglo-American conservatives make to this day. And in the name of the classical virtues and approach. Indeed, Rohmer’s period films all have the common quality of seeming to have been made in a pre-Enlightenment world where the cinema somehow existed — ASTREA AND CELADON and PERCEVAL both are deliberately performed in a period “style” as well as being set in the (even-more-distant) pasts. And Rohmer’s political pictures weren’t confined to THE LADY AND THE DUKE, as I may have implied for NRO. His little-seen TRIPLE AGENT shows anti-Communist Russian exiles being steamrolled by History, including the Popular Front victory in France. Unfortunately, his political satire THE TREE, THE MAYOR AND THE MEDIATHEQUE reputedly critical of local-government socialism, remains virtually unseeable to Anglophones. It’s never been released with English-subtitles anywhere in the world to my knowledge — hint, hint (and anyone who tells me I’m wrong on the factual point and how to take advantage of said error becomes my new best friend).

On the day of Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral, Billy Wilder said to fellow director William Wyler, just to break the silence, “No more Lubitsch.” And Wyler responded, “Worse than that — no more Lubitsch films.”

No more Rohmer films.

January 15, 2010 Posted by | Eric Rohmer, Shameless self-promotion | 2 Comments

Virginia Film Fest Day 4

GabrielWhiteHouse

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (Gregory LaCava, 1933, USA, 8)

I’d never seen this movie before, and seeing it in the era of Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” is … instructive, particularly since for so long, if you’re not familiar with the actual politics of the 1930s, it would be very easy to find President Hammond an inspiring FDR prototype (reportedly, Roosevelt himself did find it inspiring). The first 30 minutes are mostly an attack on entrenched plutocrats and the heroism of a labor leader named Bronson and a march of the unemployed on Washington. One scene involves Hammond playing with his son while we hear Bronson’s speech and it was all I could do not to think of Michael Moore and W reading “My Pet Goat” on 9-11. But if liberals aren’t rebelling by the time we get to, say, martial law, emergency dictatorial powers and firing-squad executions of bootleggers … But this film was not intended ironically or as a cautionary tale.

Financier William Randolph Hearst had the film made as a straight-faced political fantasy of an ideal leader like later men made AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT or DAVE. It’s as straightforward an apologia for a right-wing dictatorship (yes, “fascism,” if we can use that term seriously rather than a political cuss word) as we ever have or ever will get from an American. And what’s so wickedly funny to me is that for so long it plays, in our current political environment, as a Progressive film — during one Hammond speech, I was mentally ticking off “health-care reform,” “banking takeover,” and “agriculture subsidies.” My point, like Goldberg’s, is not that Obama (or Hillary or any Democrat in 2009) is a closet Hitler, but to note that the commonest understandings we have of dictatorship, past politics and the current spectrum are really just the whitewashed self-aggrandizing demonology of a few post-war leftists that we now hardly know how to think outside of. And that the commonalities between fascism and progressivism are many — a point which we could, and I’d be happy to, relegate to academic and historical interest if liberals didn’t incessantly use the f-word against us. GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE is a bracing antidote to all that.

ps … I also didn’t realize that Goldberg had a section about this movie in “Liberal Fascism” (I had read his NR cover article and NRO blog, but not the book itself).

mondovino

MONDOVINO (Jonathan Lassiter, 2005, USA, 7)

On a CSPAN morning show years ago, Christopher Hitchens said (from memory): “I am for free trade, as was Karl Marx, on the grounds that capitalism will destroy the atavistic, reactionary elements of insular societies.” I’d be curious what Hitchens would make of this film, given his known love of the finer things, since it clearly documents that capitalism’s rationalization of all economics and dismissal of all other terms of value besides money. MONDOVINO is about the wine industry and how it’s not only spreading worldwide but how this spread affects local markets. But only the proper nouns would need changing (Cinecitta for Tuscany; Europudding for Napaization, etc.) to make an identical movie about the film industry or the carpet/rug industry — anything where part of the value is artistic/aesthetic is threatened by capitalism (you can call it “globalization” if you like, but unless you ban immigration, the Internet, and international travel and communication, “globalization” is a fact).

I dialed back my enthusiasm for this film a little (the grade was 8 at first), because there’s go getting around that this shot-on-video feature just looks like ass and needlessly so (this wasn’t 97 or 98, plus Nossiter zooms needlessly and sometimes too close-up). I also wasn’t too keen with some of his (lily-gilding, given what IS there) “gotchas” about fascist ties. Does he really believe that a vigneron *selling* wine to the Germans in 1941-43 to be collaboration?

I said a few weeks ago that GOOD HAIR is the best Michael Moore movie in 20 years; MONDOVINO isn’t funny like Rock’s film, but it is a superb example of the other side of ROGER & ME — the polemical issue film that still has the tact and smarts not to make the film-maker a star or narrate our reactions. It’s a testament to MONDOVINO, and the broader applicability of it’s polemic, that it easily held my attention for 140 minutes despite my total lack of interest in wine (the film isn’t just a pander to wine snobs, in other words).

Indeed, I gave this movie the further compliment of, when I went to dinner right afterward, getting a glass of wine and choosing a locally-produced Virginia red wine (it tasted like grape juice spiked with whiskey, tequila or some other “kick-heavy” hard liquor — but you can’t have everything).

KindHearts

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (Robert Hamer, 1949, Britain, 10)

Eve: Stay. The. Hell. Away. This is the most heartless movie ever — about a disinherited British aristocrat who murders his way to a dukedom. And it’s also one of the funniest — a parched-dry 2 hours of Wildean wit on the art of murder (“it is so hard to murder someone with whom one is not on friendly terms”; and the title of Louis memoirs — a perfect parody of the 18th century genre they are). The victims mostly aren’t even loathesome, they’re more like tenpins (identically formed in the image of Alec Guinness) that we positively enjoy seeing knocked down.

This may be the greatest film script ever, certainly in terms of words. But it’s not just the tune but also the playing. For one thing, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood give shading and multiple meanings to just banal lines as “not at all,” “a matter of sone delicacy” and “my memoirs.” For another, Hamer does a better directing job than you might realize — touches like the stuffed polar bear on the floor next to Lionel, the framing of the “burning leaves,” and the timing and framing of the last D’Ascoyne funeral. And knowing when to pull back — the exchange about how boring Lionel is.

The thing that struck me more than I remembered previously about this film — in my 10th viewing of an all-time favorite — is how snobbish Louis’s mother is (or maybe a working-class Glaswegian just can’t tap into shame over a trade-vs.-a career) and then Louis himself is the same way — “that hideous suburban cemetery,” his angling for the priggish but classically aristocratic Edith. This movie is not, as the introducer said, an attack on the class system (certainly not in the name of the proletariat or even the bourgeoisie), but a fantasy of becoming part of it, by hook or … well … crook.

SomersTown

SOMERS TOWN (Shane Meadows, 2008, Britain, 4)

There’s no big existential or critical crisis here, despite how this “review” will read. But watching this film about the friendship between two loner kids in London — one a Nottingham runaway, the other a Polish emigrant — my mind kept drifting to this passage in Pauline Kael’s classic essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies”:

“When you’re young, the odds are very good that you’ll find  something to enjoy in almost any movie. But as you grow more experienced, the odds change. I saw a picture a few years ago that was the sixth version of material that wasn’t that much to start with. Unless you’re feebleminded, the odds get worse and worse. We don’t go on reading the same kind of manufactured novels — pulp Westerns or detective thrillers, say — all our lives, and we don’t want to go on and on looking at movies about cute heists by comically assorted gangs. The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again. Probably a large part of the older audience gives up movies for this reason — simply that they’ve seen it before. And probably this is why so many of the best movie critics quit. They’re wrong when they blame it on the movies going bad; it’s the odds becoming so bad, and they can no longer bear the many tedious movies for the few good moments and the tiny shocks of recognition. Some become too tired, too frozen in fatigue, to respond to what is new. Others who do stay awake may become too demanding for the young who are seeing it all for the first hundred times.”

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Virginia 2009 | 3 Comments

Virginia Film Fest Day 3

SherlockJr

SafetyVaFilmSAFETY LAST (Harold Lloyd, 1923, USA, 9)
SHERLOCK JR. (Buster Keaton, 1924, USA, 9)

One of the great things about seeing a lot of silent films is that they teach you that much of what you’re told about film history and the world of the era isn’t so. The other night, Gerardi and I exchanged tweets linking to 20s pop-culture achievements — Louis Armstrong and SUNRISE — that show that pre-sexual-revolution people weren’t stick-in-the-mud prudes.

The very first scene of SAFETY LAST is a scene that both assumes (for the setup) and then violates (for the punchline) the “180-degree rule” of continuity editing. And did so a half-century before all the “modernist film” froufrou. And in SAFETY LAST, the supposedly visually-functional vaudevillian Lloyd used for gags such pure-film techniques as dissolves, blurry focus, font size on the title cards and superimpositions. Decades before the Daffy short “Duck Amuck” (a supposed deconstructionist landmark, though itself still well ahead of Derrida), SHERLOCK JR. not only had a character literally jumping into a movie screen, but had the exact same series of gags that perturbed Daffy at the beginning of that short — the scenery changing in spectacularly inapproriate ways just as the Buster/Daffy gets used to the last change of scenery. SHERLOCK JR., a decade before the Hays Code even existed, ends with a gag that is basically a sex joke with the marital act itself used as an unseen punchline (I won’t spoil it by describing it). Fellini once said that nothing that had been done in sound film — by him or anyone else — hadn’t been achieved too in the silent era. There is nothing lacking in a silent film, and the artists of the time (Keaton and Lloyd among the peaks, whom comics have been ripping off for 80 years) are fully the equals of their successors — in sophistication, in subject matter, in technique, and even in a (post-) modernism worth achieving.

This particular double-feature screening had a live score being played, and really the most I can say is that it was better than nothing — appropriate mood setting but not really tailored and cued to the details in these specific films, though there’s obviously limits to what you can do with a 3- or 4-piece ensemble.

I’ve also been challenged in the comboxes by James: “why SHERLOCK JR. not a 10.” The short answer is that it did decline a little in my esteem, though its grade remains a 9. Seeing it back-to-back with SAFETY LAST, it just wasn’t AS funny. It’s certainly more inventive, but it’s the one Keaton feature I’ve (now) seen more than once that I think does deserve the rap against Keaton that his gags were more clever and inventive (“mechanical,” one might say) than funny per se. When Buster clears the pool table without hitting the 13-ball, it’s virtuoso pool-playing and suspenseful, but I don’t laugh that much (until the very end). When he’s careening down the road in a sidecar and — the trucks pass under the broken bridge at the right instant and the bridge collapses at just the right angle and the roadblocks explode on cue — I’m thinking “how did they do it/think of it” more than anything else. I think SHERLOCK JR. also has the narrative-structure weakness that nothing is at stake in the second half — the girl has already talked to the pawnbroker before Keaton falls asleep and imagines himself into the film. I love SHERLOCK a lot, but I do prefer OUR HOSPITALITY (my fave), THE GENERAL and STEAMBOAT BILL.

Rashomon

RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950, 10)

Hard to see why this is playing here and apparently elsewhere, other than as publicity for a 60th anniversary Blue-Ray. But I won’t complain — my first big-screen look at a film I saw two or three times in the late 80s/early 90s “exhausting the canon” phase. Even before seeing RASHOMON, I “knew” from cultural osmosis (e.g., the term “Rashomon Syndrome,” an episode of “Good Times”), that the film was about “the relativity of truth” and “perspective.” I didn’t really buy it then, but now I really don’t buy it.

If you’re attentive, it’s perfectly clear *what* happened in RASHOMON. Basically, the woodcutter’s account is accurate because we’re given no reason to doubt it and you can see the traces of the husband’s, wife’s and bandit’s accounts — which differ mostly by placing greater emphasis on certain details that make each teller look good and leave out certain others that make him look bad. For example, the thief did kill the husband in a free swordfight, though one hardly as honorably heroic (and thrilling for us, actionwise) as the thief made it sound. The wife says she fainted and escaped, which may be true, but leaves out her egging the thief on (as the husband sees it) or offering herself to the thief’s great manhood (as the thief sees it). It does, in fact, take two blows to kill the husband, though the husband’s ghost interprets that to mean something self-serving. The only reason I’ve ever heard not to believe the woodcutter is that he leaves out that he stole the wife’s pearl dagger, left at the crime scene. Which is true, but which hardly gives him a reason not to be truthful about the three principals and thus a reason for others to doubt him on those points. To ask for a witness free from all sin, original or imputed, personal or social, and from all interest, public or private — well (unless you’re a Christian, and even then, not on most matters), it will and should lead to despair.

What struck me more this time around is the “outer” story and how THAT issue, the crisis of faith and belief, is central to that story and thus actually what the film is about (and the longstanding auteurist rap against Kurosawa, that he’s a misanthrope, made more sense to me than it ever has). In a phrase — what to do about the fact all men shade the truth and outright lie to their benefit. The film’s answer — I won’t spoil it — is a bit corny in the specific. But in the general, the real point is its irrationality and its penitential character. The key line at the end is worthy of Bergman (and there’s a very similar exchange in the Dardennes’ THE SON): “I don’t understand my own soul.”

BedfordTown

BEDFORD: THE TOWN THEY LEFT BEHIND (Elliot Berlin and Joe Fab, USA, 2008, 7)

This grade is, I will admit, 90 percent “subject matter.” BEDFORD is not visually ugly or incompetent film-making. It uses its material well and some visual tricks with cutouts and photo-motion keep the film from too much visual stasis. But at the end of the day, it is basically a talking-heads and mostly-still-photos documentary (Ken Burns without Shelby Foote narrating, more or less). So the film stands or falls on your reaction to the subject matter — and that is incredible. The story of a small Virginia town whose local National Guard unit was slaughtered in the very first D-Day wave onto Omaha Beach and whose men thus took the biggest hit in the country — well, you’d have to be a Nazi, a pacifist or a principled anti-American not to have a frog in the throat or be blinking back tears. And any movie with the line, by a soldier whose unit sailed over to Britain on the Queen Mary, “the food was terrible; we were on British rations” will have a special place in my heart. BEDFORD also doesn’t ignore the tensions we had with the Yanks during the buildup period before D-Day (“overpaid, oversexed and over here,” though hearing a Devon accent was a Proustian experience).

But what these sorts of “Greatest Generation” films repeatedly show is how pre-analytic culture operated and pre-analytic men understood themselves. And you still see some of the same — the Guard unit was called up for the first time since then for the Afghanistan war, and the town (the site of the D-Day Memorial) also adopts a fallen Marine as its own, though his ties were strictly via family not personal (the story of his death rebukes those who play up civilian casualties in the Global War on Terror and try to handcuff us in response). Overall though, the film does less with this than it might have, except on the score, where it does too damn much. But the objective home-front effects of GWOT and WW2 can’t even begin to be compared (a point the film makes). Still, as a portrait of red-state patriotism and honor that will never appear on PBS for that reason, this is first-rate.

Shameless

SHAMELESS (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 2009, 3)

Early on, a marriage breaks up and the film spends the rest of its time following the romantic travails of both people (mostly “his” — at least the travails; she does much better). The performances are good, it’s professionally made in every technical way, the direction is competent. And SHAMELESS had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever — not even a negative one. It was like a neutrino, passing right through my mind without making any imprint whatsoever. It isn’t terrible in any meaningful way. But there’s just no juice, no conflict, no tension — just a lot of stuff happens and then the movie’s over. The premise could make a good movie — there’s a tip of the hat to Lelouch’s A MAN AND A WOMAN, about a widow and a widower finding each other. Indeed it could be titled A MAN AND A WOMAN, AND A WOMAN AND A MAN. But there is not much comedy here, not much mordant humor, not much romance or sexiness (the leads are deliberately East European deglamorized).

One emblematic scene has the husband working as an anti-drunk designated driver, only he gets held up at the brothel, gets drunk with a worker-girl he had taught in high school, and then pulled over by the cops while driving his intended customer and has to blow into the breathalyzer. Sounds dramatic or potentially black-comic, right? None of it comes off in any way because everything is at the same flat level, neither absurd enough to work as comedy nor consequential or weighty enough to work as drama. Indeed, it occurred to me afterward that bad European movies are different from bad American ones in that while the latter tend toward the infantile and stupid and leave you wondering Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the former (and SHAMELESS fits this to a tee) tends more toward nonstop mediocrity, indistinct pudding and leave you shrugging Bravo Foxtrot Delta.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Virginia 2009 | 2 Comments

Virginia Film Fest Day 2

ModernTimes

MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936, USA, 8 — formerly 7)

There really is no substitute for seeing a comedy with an appreciative audience, particularly children who are into the film despite (in this case) the film being more than 70 years old, black-and-white and mostly silent. From the mouth of babes, one budding-critic kid a couple of rows behind me said, when Chaplin left the second factory (the one that closes for a strike) and the large iron gates close behind him, “that looks like the prison gates.” Obviously MODERN TIMES stands up beautifully as pure comedy — the feeding machine, the roller-skate routine, the middle-class fantasy (it’s incredible how nonchalant this film is about living a bum’s life on the streets), feeding the trapped coworker, serving the roast duck (food is more prominent in this film than a Julia Child show), the closing song.

Couple of other things I noticed more than previous: how short and direct, almost Eisensteinian are Chaplin’s title cards; how directly Chaplin attacks and deconstructs the talkies even within this film’s text and not merely from the fact of making MODERN TIMES this way (the boss’s monitor, the description of the food machine, rehearsing his song). On the down side, the film now seems even more episodic, stitched-together and uneven than it ever has.

SLV

SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1989, 10)

Like Mike D’Angelo said of himself when he re-viewed this film himself recently, it’s impossible for me to be completely objective about this movie — the first film I ever wrote a public review of, for the college paper in 1989.

That review doesn’t exist in electronic form anywhere to my knowledge, but everything I remember saying stands up 20 years later, even things I had thought I would have been faintly embarrassed by — (1) Andie MacDowell does give the best performance in the film (though she’s probably the worst actress); (2) Soderbergh clearly was influenced by Bergman (though his subsequent work isn’t) — the small-cast chamber quality, the self-conscious soul-baring discussions, the analytic tone, the spare atonal music; (3) this film is amazingly mature about sex, managing to be both incredibly explicit (in the sense of “detailed”) and frank without becoming pandering or tittilating.

What SLV understands to the very core that the most important sex organ is between the ears and that the videotapes’ per-se existence (not what they actually contain) is what the drama is about. Still Soderbergh’s best and — both because of itself and the career it launched — SLV is a landmark in American indie film that I fear may be going down the memory hole.

SomeLikeHot

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1959, 10)

Before I go in, since I have time. I’ve never seen this one in a theater and so I. Can’t. Wait. But years ago, I unintentionally conducted an experiment that proved I objectively like this movie more than CITIZEN KANE. During the day of the Super Bowl one year, San Antonio’s two independent TV channels decided to counter-program during the pre-game show. One showed KANE starting at 2 (or thereabouts), and the other showed HOT, starting a halfhour later. I decided that I’d watch one until the commercial came on, then switch to the other until THAT commercial came on, then switch back (I’d already seen both movies uninterrupted more than once). That plan lasted about two cycles until about the time the band arrives in Florida. From that point on, I couldn’t turn away from HOT back to KANE and watched it straight through. For What That’s Worth.

I fled the theater to get some grub before there could begin the usual po-faced academic discussion of “gender roles” that kills interest in what I think is the 20th century’s greatest farce (yes, I do mean that). I will say that this film doesn’t really gain that much from being shown in a theater because its virtues are dialogue and plotting rather than pictorial. And this particular audience was appreciative but not overwhelmingly so (there was more laughter at MODERN TIMES and a more-packed audience). It dawned on me while I was watching that the brilliance of Wilder and Diamond’s dialog lies with the near-constant double entendres, and not (always) of the sexual kind but double meanings of all sorts. For example: when the “girls” show up at the train station to leave Chicago to flee the Mob, the manager who needed a bass and sax says “you’re a lifesaver,” and Josephine replies “likewise, I’m sure.” Seemingly every line in the film either has a double meaning or sets something up later (another example: the Sheboygan Conservatory). Even when it’s not specifically funny, HOT is so clever and so tight that it’s always fun.

CorkedMarketers

CORKED (Ross Clendenen and Paul Hawley, USA, 2009, 4)

People who think Christopher Guest has run out of gas are invited to look at this film to see how good Guest still is. This mockumentary takes on a target — the California wine industry — that is very tricky because it requires, well, connoisseurship. CORKED might be funny to people intimately familiar with this industry (apparently, it premiered at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival), but not to me, an unrepentant wine philistine (though I did like MONDOVINO later in the festival).

The acting is sometimes good but just as often awful. For example, could one of the dumb racist marketer frat boys [ridiculous, BTW] not gild the lily by dropping his jaw, and breathing through his mouth (it just strokes the filmmakers and audience for their “enlightened” laughter). The writing and structure are barely better — the sheriff in particular seems to be just dropped in, like the video-sound guy in the first POLICE ACADEMY movie. CORKED isn’t worthless by any means and I did laugh sometimes (everything done by the silver-spoon kid with an enthusiasm of Tarantino), but this is local-TV material and a video look that belongs on cable-access. It says something that I actually remember liking better another California agriculture parody FRESNO (look it up, people … especially you, G-Money).

DrummerChan

THE DRUMMER (Kenneth Bi, Taiwan, 2009, 6)

Maybe I’m being generous after seeing the amateurish CORKED! But it was a relief to see a professionally-done formula movie shot on film, with fully competent performers. DRUMMER is completely formulaic — WITNESS meets THE KARATE KID with drums instead of kicks, basically. But the actual performance scenes, of a Chinese Zen drum troupe the hero longs to join upon seeing them rehearse in the forest in gangster-exile, are simply marvelous and worth a ticket in the same way you see TOP HAT or SWING TIME for the Astaire-Rogera dancing, not the actual movie.

And it’s good to see that Jaycee Chan, fils de Jackie, isn’t trying to be his father or to make a film you could imagine Jackie Chan make, though Jaycee does suffer a charisma gap (who doesn’t?). The extra-textual knowledge of who the star’s father is even contributes to THE DRUMMER’s theme of a son trying to carve out a space separate from his father while remaining properly devoted. Still … goes on for maybe 15 minutes too long, and there is noway, nohow I’d buy the last plot point about the uncle. Even if the film hadn’t botched clarity on it.

PippaLee

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (Rebecca Miller, USA, 2009, 4)

Hmmmm … there might really be something here except that Miller has absolutely no sense of tone. Or she is from South Korea, Mars or some other place where you can imagine “The Feminine Mystique” having every other chapter be a cheap, crass joke. Or think that the death of the central character’s husband is time for the wife, defending herself for charges of insufficient grief-strickenness to say “how can I compete with THAT” (pause) cut to the girlfriend (a ridiculously overdone and overdoing-it Winona Ryder) lying catatonic over a chair. ho ho ho.

The film is a psychological “My Life So Far” tale, narrated by the titular heroine, played by Robin Wright Penn. Not only is Penn quite good but there’s so much acting talent on display — Maria Bello as Penn’s mother in flashback, Alan Arkin as her husband, Julianne Moore is underwritten but her mere presence is assuring — that the movie never loses watchability. Points deducted for Keanu Reeves, doubled for his full-torso Jesus tattoo — the second use of which is so crass (a prayer that turns into a pity-fuck) that you can’t even take offense, just … well … pity. And once you get your bearings and realize that your flashing back to a Friedanesque tale of a 60s comfortable concentration camp, with the current-day story fitting a similar template (if not exactly an “updating” … this setting is clearly the post-feminism world) … once you do that, the film becomes fairly predictable. I knew right away what the chocolate cake was all about. Set in the world of New York “bobos” and so thoroughly and self-absorbedly immersed in its values (and plotting) that it can’t even wait a scene to tell you this (that first scene features Cornel West as an actor). And whenever I see films like that, I wonder “do the makers know how other-worldly and offputting this is.”

November 6, 2009 Posted by | Virginia 2009 | Leave a comment

Virginia Film Fest Day 1

Gonna try something new now that I can blog from my iPhone … a single post updating the films after I see them. UPDATE: I decided to separate the days just to keep the post(s) at manageable length, though I’ve updated each throughout the day)

I’ve gone to the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville several times before, but it has a new director this year, who wants to de-emphasize the “overarching” themes it’s had in the past, though it does have one — “funny business.” This year’s slate is heavier on classics and local films than fall awards-season stuff (though there’s always been some of all).

Thus my schedule is heavier on films I’ve seen multiple times, but never with an audience (real important for a comedy). You don’t (or shouldn’t) need me to tell you SOME LIKE IT HOT or HIS GIRL FRIDAY are awesome, so those remarks will be heavier on the particular screening or audience reaction or “things seen anew.”

My first film is about to begin:

HisGirlFriday

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Howard Hawks, USA, 1940):

Double aggravation at the start — introduced by a professor-type who said Hildy was starting her own business, and then quickly realized that the film was being shown on projected DVD *with the English captions on* … grrr.

Now seeing it for the first time since seeing the 1931 film of THE FRONT PAGE, and believe it or not, the lines in this famous fast-talker are actually delivered slower here. But the little gestures and side touches make this one funnier — Grant tapping Bellamy on the shoulder so he can see him fake-cry. My profession also means I understand every thing Walter Burns does, and Roz Russell here is every man’s (well, every journalist’s) idea of the perfect woman. But I’ll go to my grave thinking the suicide is a mistake — a real tone-breaker.

TrueAdolescents

TRUE ADOLESCENTS (Craig Johnson, USA, 2009, 6)

What if the “grumpy adult bonds with cute moppet” genre had as the “grumpy adult” a Gen-X slacker hardly worthy of that noun. And not in a Jack Black SCHOOL OF ROCK kind of way, where he’s still basically a mentor, but with an adult character with a serious case of perpetual adolescence.

Mark Duplass is near perfect in the role until the very last shot, where he has to pull off the kind of soulful “look in the mirror at yourself” and he just doesn’t have it. The plot trajectory is entirely what you’d expect from the premise — Duplass goes camping with his adolescent cousin and the kid’s best friend and he grows. Except here, the adult being the buggest kid of the three — though the generation gap still asserts itself — makes the material feel fresher and tenser than it is. And it’s doubtful that he actually does grow. In the end though, it’s like camping itself — it’s enjoyable (I guess, in the case of camping) but you don’t really end up with much permanent takeaway except the journey itself.

Tenure

TENURE (Mike Million, USA, 2009, 6)

As with IDIOCRACY, Luke Wilson is the least interesting part of a comedy he stars in. He’s a very average everyman, working only as counterpoint to the crazies who surround him. But this film, a campus comedy about an English professor up for you-know-what, often works exactly on those terms. When the crazies take center stage for a scene or sequence, it’s inspired. My favorite scenes can be called School Spirit and Erotic Poetry. And Rosemarie Dewitt also good in another “other woman” role — here, a stalker object with a backstory. However TENURE is not remotely as good as IDIOCRACY perhaps because it’s too good-natured and sane for a comedy. What makes the school spirit and erotic poetry scenes work is that the behavior is outlandish, but logical for the character obsessions they embody.

November 5, 2009 Posted by | Virginia 2009 | 3 Comments

Toronto capsules — day 10

(FOR NOW, rather than post nothing until I can get the last few capsules finished, and holding off on other stuff until I do … I’m gonna post the one capsule I have done and update both this post and add a top post linking here when the other four movies get done.)

PoliceAdjective

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, 8)

I’ve frequently said that if Friedrich Nietzsche could ever have seen Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, I am convinced he would have cried out — “there is my philosophy on film.” Similarly, if his acolyte Michel Foucault could have seen POLICE, ADJECTIVE, he would have had the same reaction. And there is no question that, even if I’m wrong about the specific influence, POLICE is intended to be seen and understood as philosophical discourse (cue Mike’s hissing). The bravura last scene, which radically recodes everything that had gone before, makes at least a rationale for what I acknowledge are the film longueurs. That scene takes the form of a Platonic dialogue, only here, the role of Socrates is played by Vlad Ivanov, back to playing someone as utterly pragmatic as he did in 4 MONTHS. But this dialogue is not primarily about the search for wisdom (or even “language,” per se) but more on that anon.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE centers on a working-class undercover drug cop named Christi investigating what may be a hashish ring involving some high-school students, who seem to be Romanian bourgeoisie. But he’s not seeing more than personal use, which he doesn’t think is really worth busting a couple of teenagers over and marking them for life with a lengthy jail term. Though it takes the form of a “policier,” these parts of the film are extremely slow-paced and action-free — entirely observing and following, with basically no confrontation or even much talk. I got a little frustrated at times, but POLICE, ADJECTIVE is ultimately a film about how discourse (what Foucault called power-knowledge) represses experience and shapes what an individual sees as his conscience. And so the pacing of the previous scenes have to “deliver the goods” to us in something more like “real time,” i.e., in the form that Christi experiences, rather than in the conventions of theatrical time, which is closer to “discourse.”

Besides the observational sequences, the film also has several scenes that drop hints the relationship(s) among discourse, words and power is the ultimate topic. The very first scene involves Christi refusing to let a fellow cop on the “foot tennis” team because “it’s a rule” that if you’re no good at soccer, you stink at foot tennis, to which the colleague responds “where’s that written?” In addition, Christi’s new wife is a grammar teacher who sometimes corrects his usage (“it’s what the Romanian Academy says,” she explains). And she also repeatedly listens to a song Christi doesn’t like, and Poromboiu plays it all the way through while the camera watches him eat dinner in the next room, and then restarts it. Christi complains that the song’s lyrics make no sense, an example of his taking a form of discourse (art) at its most literal.¹ Also, Porumboiu fills up the screen two or three times with pages from Christi’s police report and reads them aloud. The scenes feel inert as they impart no information we haven’t seen, and they also feel reductive and bureaucratically plain. But that’s their function in POLICE, ADJECTIVE: to replace the experience we’ve had with an official discourse about it that will become the basis of everything that follows. In that last scene, Christi refuses to set up a sting, saying his conscience won’t let him. And the Socratic debate, which centers on the meaning of words, commences. The effects of words are extended to the logic of images, in the film’s very last shot, a coda of sorts about what will happen next, and which we never see (credit to Tweep James Hansen for spelling it out in exchanges with me, though I did get it).

As should be obvious, my love with POLICE, ADJECTIVE is intellectual and retrospective, and I’ve acknowledged sometimes getting a bit impatient with it as it unfolded. “There’s too many shots of him eating soup,” my notes say at one point. Porumboiu’s first film, 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST, also had trouble with me early, though more as a not-terribly funny comedy than for slackly-paced emptiness, until (also like POLICE, ADJECTIVE) it became essentially a one-room talking scene, there a Romanian TV talk-show that would give Alan Partridge nightmares. I’ll need to give POLICE, ADJECTIVE a second view to see if knowing everything makes the buildup less tedious. But for now, after having discussed the film, argued on Twitter, reread my notes, and written this review, my memories of POLICE, ADJECTIVE are entirely pleasurable. Oh, wait …
———————————————————-
¹ I forget the specifics, but Christi basically does the equivalent of taking a line like “my love is like a red, red rose” and saying, “how? Does it have thorns or petals, does it give off a scent, what’s ‘red’ about it?” Which (1) couldn’t more miss the point on artistic discourse, and (2) sets up the understanding of language that will be used against him later.

AirDoll

AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)

text.

Hadewijch

HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, France, 9)

text.

EnterVoid

ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, France, 4 — though really an 8 for style and 0 for content)

text

OngBak2

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, Thailand, 5)

text

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Skandies Decade Best

It’s almost the end of the decade and, as he did in 1999, Mike D’Angelo has asked us Skandie voters to pick our 10 favorite films of the decade and our 10 favorite performances (one category only; male and female, lead and supporting). He’s about halfway through the countdown now at his blog Listen, Eggroll.

Here are my ballots, with the Mike-request proviso that I not give away the point totals. To that same end, I’ve also listed them in alphabetical order, so as not to suggest any order of preference. There’s also links to those among the films and the actors’ films that I’ve written about.

BEST FILMS OF THE 00s

CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, USA) — review essay here
THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium) — review essay here
DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, Denmark) — review essay here
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) — TIFF review here; with expansions here and here
GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, USA) — review essay here
MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, USA)
LA PIANISTE (Michael Haneke, France/Austria)
SILENT LIGHT (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) — TIFF review here; with review essay here
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet, France)

BEST ACTORS OF THE 00s

Bjork, DANCER IN THE DARK — review of the film here
Russell Crowe, CINDERELLA MAN — review of the film here
Ryan Gosling, THE BELIEVER
Olivier Gourmet, THE SON — review of the film here
Isabelle Huppert, LA PIANISTE
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
Maia Morgenstern, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — review of the film here
Simon Pegg, HOT FUZZ
Aurelien Recoing, TIME OUT
Imelda Staunton, VERA DRAKE — review of the film here

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Skandies | 2 Comments

Scandinavian scandal

The ongoing travesty of the Nobel Prizes was aggravated again last week …

Continue reading

October 10, 2009 Posted by | Nobels | 4 Comments

Chris rocks

GoodHair

GOOD HAIR (Jeff Stilson/Chris Rock, USA, 2009) — 8

ChemistI don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that got me more in touch with my Inner Clueless Honky than this one. Even Rock’s famous “Niggas-vs.-Black-People” routine, as “inside” as that was about how black people talk among themselves, it at least concerned matters I was familiar with. This movie — good, bad or indifferent — was an eye-opener about the ins-and-outs of a subject (black hair, mostly women’s) of which I had zero knowledge. People have contests? Like this? Is that what “nappy” means? Sodium hydroxide — um, wouldn’t that stuff be caustic (there is a one-scene white chemistry professor who practically defined my reaction to that stuff)? Thousand-dollar hairdos? Really? Selling real hair? Naw …

GOOD HAIR is formally indifferent even for an info-“documentary. You can often see the camera and equipment do more than “edge” into the frame (look particularly at some interview-react shots while Rock is sitting — amateurish stuff). And I don’t know how it would seem to someone already familiar with the subject, whether it’d play like one long “No shit, Sherlock.” But for me, a white dude with naturally straight, blond, very fine hair — it was literally an educational experience

I went in with fairly low expectations, going at all only because I love Chris Rock when he’s not trying to act (as clearly wasn’t the case here). I’d expected an extended comedy routine about the relentless triviality of hairdos, which might be fun but the lowest form of pleasure — stroking one’s existing dispositions. For a sense of how indifferent I am to the subject matter, I sport a buzzcut, spent much of last night on Twitter making fun of Manny Ramirez’s hair, have never spent more than $20 on a haircut, and had to call a beauty shop a couple of weeks ago at work to ask what exactly was the legitimate use for the hydrogen peroxide product terror-suspect Zazi was supposedly stockpiling.

Instead, GOOD HAIR is the best Michael Moore movie Michael Moore hasn’t made since ROGER & ME — filled with dry, caustic but never-ugly humor tossed in at unsuspecting onscreen persons from the quizzical Everyjournalist narrator at the side. Like the majority of my Tweets, I realized during GOOD HAIR. Also like the Moore of 20 years ago, GOOD HAIR has a clear and pointed POV that it doesn’t try to hide, but one that never takes over the film. The women Rock interviews in beauty shops are in on the jokes at their expense without ever being reduced to a “target” for the sake of elucidating some authorial thesis.

The film has five large sections — the framing devices, to which the film frequently recurs, of an Atlanta haircutting contest (fun) and Chris asking himself what he’d tell his daughters (unneeded) about their hair. The other sections consecutively concern hair relaxants, the use of weaves, where the hair comes from, and how hair affects relations (in every sense) between black men and black women. Rock interviews the contest teams, ordinary people in barber and beauty shops, and lots of big-name black Americans, including artists and singers who need to keep a certain public image. Salt-n-PepaThey and he all deliver — both intellectually and comedically, and often both at the same time. Maya Angelou’s first weave, the backstory of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” video, Al Sharpton’s first straightening (the story involves James Brown), a 6-year-old describing why you get perms, “kiddie beer,” “creamy crack,” etc. There are even some priceless scenes where Rock tries to sell black hair to salons, and the owners — mostly Asian, but one black — react like he’s trying to sell them crap sandwiches. Rock’s persona manages to keep this subject matter interesting and make palatable an angry subtext against using white looks as the standard for black beauty, against narcissism and beauty-worship, and misguided priorities. It takes a special movie to have me nodding along in agreement with Al Sharpton.

October 9, 2009 Posted by | Chris Rock, Jeff Stilson | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — Day 9

Vincere

The wife that might have been

VINCERE (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 7)

This film leaves no doubt about the reason for the Vatican’s sex rules … man, you do NOT want to get involved with those Italian chicks: they are murder if you cross them. In fact it even suggests a little-known cause of history. I’d wager that the reason Mussolini had to become dictator of Italy was that that was the only way to get this woman Ida Dalser, who claimed Mussolini married her and fathered their son, out of his hair (and if you’re wondering about Il Duce’s hair …)

More seriously, I was really taken by what was (vjm sheepishly turns red) my first exposure to veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, whom Pauline Kael was mentioning in the 60s in the same breath as Bertolucci and Fellini. And now that I’ve seen this, I’m even more embarrassed. I realize Bellocchio isn’t of the same generation as Paolo Sorrentino, but I was reminded of Bilge Ebiri’s piece in New York magazine on Sorrentino as world cinema savior, because Bellocchio’s movie has the stylistic boldness and density that what Bilge calls The Cinema of Lack … well, lacks. Speaking of Italian national characteristics, Bellocchio’s editing and scoring have an operatic grandness and an emotional and sensual appeal that were really like a jolt of caffeine for a 830am show at a Festival of Lack.

Like a true theatrical virtuoso, Bellocchio gives his stylistic flourishes a quick and obvious but-never-stated meaning (Fellini is the master of this). In this case, it’s particularly apropos since fascism invented the modern art of politics as theater — a point Bellocchio makes by having fights break out at film screenings. As another example, a then-socialist Mussolini looks out on rioters in a piazza, only he’s just gotten out of bed and is naked. Dalser comes to wrap a blanket around him, for understandable reasons, but suddenly and before our eyes, it becomes a toga and before our eyes is born the idea of Mussolini as Roman emperor ruling over Mare Nostrum. The divinization of the state gets symbolized by a hospital visit to a wounded savior Mussolini. Similarly Bellocchio never tells us, though it’s clear to anyone with two eyes, that Dalser fell in love with Benito the Leftist, and clings to a memory of him even as he becomes more remote, both politically (as Italian fascism moves right and then allies with Nazi Germany) and personally (as he leaves her completely to asylums). Bellocchio underlines this by having Mussolini no longer be played by Filippo Timi but using only the Real Thing in archival footage — as if her private memory we were sharing must recede to the public man.

But man … that Italian woman. For all his stylistic bravado, director Bellocchio got the show stolen by actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Mrs. First Mussolini. Mike’s description of her from Cannes as “ferile” doesn’t do her justice — she’s obsessive and will not be denied, even in the face of sound prudential advice about going-along. It’s not simply grand yelling scenes, but the way Mezzogiorno’s body, gestures and words seem coiled even in relatively routine scenes. And then when she watches a certain silent classic, her tears are both salty and acidic. Indeed, looking back on my notes while writing this capsule, I’m thinking I may have underrated VINCERE.

TimeRemains

The comedy that might have been

THE TIME THAT REMAINS (Elia Suleiman, Palestine, 4)

I seriously considered not going to this film, because Suleiman signed the “Boycott the Festival” manifesto over the Tel Aviv program. I decided against it — “that would make me as bad as him,” basically, but you’ll have to take my word that this is not a “revenge” grade. I got the ticket in the first place because I really liked most of DIVINE INTERVENTION and thus unsurprisingly genuinely did not care for this film, largely because it’s simply not terribly funny. And not because war or occupation are somehow not joking subjects or can’t provide the makings of comedy, whether in Suleiman’s hands or anyone else’s; indeed, DIVINE INTERVENTION showed otherwise. Instead, we get sequences like the 1948 hunt for Suleiman’s father — he was a bombmaker — that are played like straight-up manhunt scenes involving Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (though paced and timed way too loosey-goosey if we’re meant to take them as perils).

TIME gets better as it goes along, but it only once or twice really lets loose into the deadpan, absurdist, Tati/Keaton vein — what I value Suleiman for. Consider two details: (1) the still I lead this review with, which is an Arab-school choir that won a contest by singing Israel’s national songs. OK … but the scene doesn’t go beyond the premise. It doesn’t build or shade or develop, instead it just continues with the initial irony. (2) The neighbor of the Suleimans, who douses himself with gasoline and threatens suicide until Suleiman’s father comes by to calmly grab the matches out of his hands, in the manner one might grab them from a child. Again, it’s repeated two or three times, but doesn’t develop from one repetition to the next. Suleiman just doesn’t find new riffs for the chords he’s playing. Some of the scenes are funny — a tank gun; or Palestinian rioters and Israeli soldiers exchanging fire, viewed from on high in extreme long shot, only to stop when a woman with a baby walks through. But not enough.

TIME is also, I think, too personal for its own good, putting at its center flashbacks through the life story of Suleiman’s parents since the 1948 “Catastrophe” (that’s the very establishment of Israel itself, not its occupation of the West Bank, BTW). And also his own life as he grows up, played by several different actors at various ages, until played by Suleiman himself in present day. It’s not as bad as IRENE — it consists of well-taken photographs, e.g. But like the Cavalier, however meaningful it is to Suleiman, he hasn’t given *US* a reason to care unless we already walk in sympathetic to the Palestinian-Arab mythos of the last 60 years (which I very decidedly am not). There was one moment I flatly did not believe, when Suleiman as a boy was dressed down as a teacher who wanted to know “Who told you America is colonialist?” Given that this took place no later than 1969, if it really happened, it would indicates that international leftism/Marxism (which would provide the space from which to say such a thing then) is the prime influence on Suleiman, not Palestinian nationalism, which would not have provided such a space then since the US wasn’t Israel’s prime armer until the early 70s (indeed, it was the US siding with the USSR against Israel, France and Britain that forced the pullback on the 1956 Suez invasion)

NotFriend

The film that might have been, part 1

I AM NOT YOUR FRIEND (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary, 4)

And I am not your fan, Gyorgi … in this film anyway. Unlike HUKKLE and TAXIDERMIA, which, even if you don’t like them (and the latter IS dislikable), are hard to forget, this Palfi movie is utterly routine festival filler not even worth hating and his direction really lacks flavor. I will probably have wholly forgotten the details of this film in a month, except for what I write now (even a week later, they’re mostly evaporated from my mind and I really haven’t too much to say).

It wasn’t always that way though. I thoroughly enjoyed the start of FRIEND, which uses the same “what’s really a TV show gets presented as if it were the start of our movie” gimmick as Brian DePalma’s SISTERS, only it lasts for much longer (10-12 mins, I’d guess) and the content of the shows have nothing in common. Here it’s a show about kindergarten-age kids at school interacting called “I Will Not Be Your Friend,” and the kids’ performances are spectacularly naturalistic and also realistic — they spend considerable time declaring who is and isn’t one another’s friends. And when the closing credits rolled, I began to think “huh,” and then the film explains itself — it’s a TV show made by one of the characters.

For a while too, I thought FRIEND itself would have an intriguing hook — it begins with one character, who leads to an event and another couple of characters that the film then starts following until another event introduces us to new characters, etc. — think Linklater’s SLACKER or Bunuel’s PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. But it turns out this is just introducing into a circle of connections that Palfi keeps bringing us back to continue the individual stories (some of the characters know each other; others don’t), like CRASH: PORT OF CALL, BUDAPEST. The stories concern romantic and sexual alignments and some petty crime, but are completely unremarkable, except for one, involving a death faked as a joke. It also leaves the kindergarten beginning behind, except for the jejune parallel that these adults act like children.

Enfer

The film that might have been, part 2

L’ENFER DE HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 6)

I wish I could bottle the lengthy conversation I had after this documentary about a film-that-didn’t-happen, defending it against Josh Rothkopf of Time Out New York and Rob Nelson of Variety, both of whom liked L’ENFER much less than I did (and my grade is only a good-but-flawed “6”). I agree that it’s thin on details (for example, it doesn’t even mention once that Claude Chabrol later made a film based on Clouzot’s script) and there’s a lot of interesting critical and contextual matters that Josh and Rob think it ignores (I’d say “leaves implicit” and “trusts you to get it”).

Consider one subject: Alfred Hitchcock. The British and French masters have often been linked critically and there was a kind of one-upmanship/rivalry between the two of them. For example, Hitchcock’s VERTIGO and Clouzot’s DIABOLIQUE were based on books by the same pair of French authors. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac even wrote the book that became VERTIGO with Hitchcock in mind while DIABOLIQUE was being filmed.¹ I believe the word “Hitchcock” is never mentioned in the film despite the obvious ways the footage from Clouzot planned film (also titled L’ENFER, or INFERNO²) clearly borrowed from Hitchcock. But I didn’t think the film needed to spell that out — it was perfectly clear to me. The first words in my viewing notes refer to the images in Clouzot’s footage with “push Hitchcockian subjectivity to the pathological” and “Stewart’s dream in VERTIGO to end of all reason.” And the L’ENFER score, when it’s not sultry jazz, tips Bromberg’s knowledge to us by stylistically resembling Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann (“Not in the film, not in the film. You’re not on the screen explaining all this,” Rob was rebutting me then).

Consider another: the footage and the production history. Even those of us who like L’ENFER acknowledge that the film really only successfully serves as an excuse to see the footage Clouzot shot in 1964, but which had been sitting in film cans since, the property of Clouzot’s widow and unseen by outsiders. (And Bromberg told the exact same cliffhanger-tease at my screening as at Mike’s about persuading Mrs. Clouzot on the elevator, saying the film would finish the story — which it doesn’t. And all three of us were annoyed by that.) But the footage — just “wow.” It makes you weak in the knees and turns your legs to jelly thinking about what was in Clouzot’s head. The film’s story was about a husband’s pathological jealousy, which was going to be in black-and-white, with his fantasies about his wife (to have been played by Romy Schneider) shot in expressionist color, with filters, superimposed-images and surrealist touches. L’ENFER says Clouzot went wild with these shooting tests, mostly of Schneider, and his self-indulgence threw INFERNO off schedule almost right away and persuaded the money men (Americans who had given him carte blanche) to pull the plug after leading man Serge Reggiani walked off the set and Clouzot had a heart attack. L’ENFER gives no reason given why Clouzot, who already had completed a dozen films, would suddenly turn into such a putz, constantly reshooting the same scene.

Enfer2But again, I think the reason is perfectly clear from the INFERNO footage, though L’ENFER never says it directly — that Clouzot had fallen in love (or at least lust or obsession) with the Austrian-born Schneider, not a great thespian but a stunningly-gorgeous, iconic camera-object (imagine if Renee Zellweger ever opened her eyes). Throughout the INFERNO footage, and you can really get a sense of what I’m talking about from the trailer, it’s plain as day that she is being directed to seduce the camera — looking back into its eyes, giving it come-hither looks. And the shots are blatantly sexual — Schneider licking water off a transparency, blowing smoke into her nostrils, pursing her wide mouth and licking her lips, looking into the lens for what I will simply call the “iris shot” (Mike was taken by it too). I understand that there’s a perfectly good story-related reason for shooting Schneider this way — she’s acting out the husband’s jealous fantasies. But Clouzot’s sinking his efforts into this footage, shooting way more than he could ever use or needed for tests, surely shows that he became seduced himself. Indeed, since Clouzot was becoming obsessed with Schneider while Hitchcock was making THE BIRDS and MARNIE — there’s even more career parallels than we might have thought.
———————————————————-
¹ It’s hard not to read Hitchcock’s theory about Surprise vs. Suspense as a rebuke of DIABOLIQUE, one of the greatest “last-scene surprise twist” movies ever. And as a defense of Hitch’s own decision to ignore Boileau and Narcejac’s making Judy’s identity a last-page “reveal,” instead feeding the knowledge to the audience shortly after Judy is introduced.
² For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to Clouzot’s film as INFERNO and Bromberg and Medrea’s as L’ENFER.

Nobody

The life that might have been

MR. NOBODY (Jaco Van Dormael, Canada/France, 2)

Imagine if Alain Resnais’ SMOKING/NO SMOKING had intercut its two realities, been told from a perspective of Arditi or Azema at age 118, not given any sense of the true gimmick, copped out on the central act of the film’s universe, and had one-tenth of Resnais formal chops. Doesn’t sound awesome, you say? Well … MR. NOBODY isn’t even that good.

The film’s main body, the hoary premise is an interviewer asks the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody to tell his life story and the film then flashes back through three possible lives that it insists for a time all happened, based on a key decision made by the hero as a boy. We know something isn’t quite right because motifs bleed through all three — a drowning death, dreaming the other ones, etc. The three “pasts” are wildly uneven — in one, he marries a manic depressive and Sarah Polley manages to give the one performance that interests, though I’m not sure it’s the right one for this movie (it’s certainly “manic”). In another, he marries an Asian woman and lives like a king — and that’s about as much as we learn. The quarreling scenes are shrill and over-the-top — though they made me appreciate those in I KILLED MY MOTHER even more. And in a perfect illustration of Polanski-era movie morals, bopping your stepsister is basically used as a joke.

Surprisingly, the world of the narrator at 118 is very different than ours since everybody is immortal and the narrator is the last mortal about to die, only on live TV. An intriguing world and premise, you say? Why, yes … except what would be the point, since the film chucks it away by turning that whole world into a red herring, and a pretty unbelievable and over-elaborate one at that. Why should this character see the world’s future this way? How is it supposed to have come about? Perspicacity at age 10? Reflection of some personal issue? But who cares about that kind of logic — I certainly wouldn’t if MR. NOBODY were in any way exciting, involving, insightful or in any way engaged my emotions (my viewing notes say at one point, after the line “my life was cast in cement with airbags and seatbelts,” “I am now so [effing] bored”).

I was angriest at the film’s final reveal, which had me madly scribbling “cop out, cop out” in my book. Nemo’s parents are divorcing and he has to decide whether he lives with his mother or his father. A wrenching decision obviously, and it eventually winds up playing the structural role that smoking a cigarette does in the Resnais films. But right after having told us a few minutes earlier that “every path in life is the right one” (a crock, but set that aside), Nemo decides that no path should be followed. He knows now (illogically if the 118-year-old’s future was all in the 10-year-old’s head … but again, never mind) what his life will be like under the various scenarios of whether he takes a train (i.e., goes with his departing mother) or stays at the platform (i.e., remains with his father). Only rather than do either of those things, Nemo simply runs off the platform. Are we supposed to believe this means he didn’t live with either parent? Or is it just a self-indulgent whine, refusing to make a choice between bad options (and in a divorce, “mom” and “dad” are your exclusive options) as if such refusal isn’t itself a choice or as if somehow refusing to acknowledge Hobson’s choices when they happen magically wishes them away. It basically reduces the film “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind,” only not written by Shakespeare and having no consequences.

September 29, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment

Toronto capsules — Day 8

Micmacs

MICMACS (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 8)

I don’t mean this as a slam when I say that you shouldn’t really need to see this movie to predict your reaction. MICMACS is as “typical” a movie for its director as any film I saw at the festival — it does exactly what Jeunet does: the Rube Goldberg devices, the elaborate scams, the weird characters, the obsession with junk, the baroque set design, the elaborate camera stunts, his stock company in the major supporting roles (Dominique Pinon, Yolande Moreau, Andre Dussollier and several actors whose faces but not names I recognized), the central role of fantasy, a genial tone of comic unreality, and impossible coincidences and planning. At the center this time, there’s a better actor and comic than Audrey Tautou — Dany Boon plays the hero Bazil, who lost his father to one weapons-maker and has lodged in his head a bullet made by another. Suitable for a comic down-and-out, Boon plays the role with a lot of Chaplin touches — a silent dance, fussy gestures, a happy-go-lucky attitude even when homeless.

Yet that confident prediction of mine, at least among my pals, didn’t pan out — several disliked this film while saying they liked AMELIE just fine or a lot. There ARE differences with AMELIE and they don’t favor this film; there’s less emotional heft in Bazil’s schemes than Amelie’s, there’s no character-as-director subtext, and the new film is less self-critical of its hero. The plot of MICMACS has a different spirit entirely: Amelie wanted to spread happiness while avoiding her own, while the motley crew that surrounds Bazil executes a revenge scheme against the arms dealers and brings down the companies. Thus MICMACS can come across as the most-discordant part of AMELIE — the attack on the greengrocer who bullies the mentally-slow boy — stretched out to the whole film.

So some of the dislike I do get, and obviously I agree that MICMACS is not as good (AMELIE is a “10” and decade-best contender). Still, I find “what Jeunet does” to be hugely entertaining even if he’s only spinning his wheels. Scenes like the airport arrest of the African smugglers (the “Jeunet is a racist” crowd will have some fun again) are so absurdly, impossibly overplotted and elaborate that this elaborateness makes them funny. Then there’s all the little touches and curlicues like “it’s salvaged gear, it can’t be perfected”; the way the heads of the two arms companies eat shrimp — different ways, both equal caricature; and the Sergio Leone homage at the end (though it might have been a mistake to introduce pictures of real human suffering in a confectionery film like this). But most of all … I got Jeunet’s autograph while the closing credits were rolling — recognizing him and finding the MICMACS page in the 400-page Guidebook while the theater was still dark.

IKilled

I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7)

These are the words, starting from top: "Framing very ... 2 shots or ones at edges"; "single shots are centered symmetrically"; "sets look like sets"; "pictures hang ... couch ... pictures not above them when stand"

These are the words, starting from top: "Framing very ... 2 shots or ones at edges"; "single shots are centered symmetrically"; "sets look like sets"; "pictures hang ... couch ... pictures not above them when stand"

The director of this film has some learning to do. His framing is often amateurish and clumsy — either perfectly symmetrical or ostentatiously asymmetrical. And heck if I can understand the reality of a shot where people are standing, but above both the couch and the pictures hanging from the wall that still extends higher than they do (the image to the right is an actual shot of the notes I took watching the film; translation from my scribble is in the caption).

The director of this film is 19 years old. It is *scary* that I’m criticizing I KILLED MY MOTHER at this level of achievement

Now don’t get me wrong … I’m not giving this film an affirmative-action grade or judging it “for a student film.” Nor did I simply “find fault” to set up a joke. The 7-grade is based on the same scale as I judged every other film in this fest, and I stand by my words that Dolan’s direction is sometimes clumsy. But that first graf is the equivalent of saying of a high-school basketball phenom that his 3-point shot is erratic when he’s closely guarded — it’s true, and something that will have to get better. But. Still. I KILLED MY MOTHER is so well-written and acted, so emotionally honest and complex, and so clearly the achieved work of a super-talented auteur that these stumbles don’t hurt the film that much and they don’t matter at all when looking at the grand scheme of things — Dolan is scary good. The best “young first director” comparison I can think of is Steven Soderbergh’s debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE — another low-budget, realistic, talky, psychologically-bloody relationship movie. And Soderbergh was an old fart of 26 when he blew away the Cannes Film Festival with *his* debut film.

Despite the title, no mother is killed during this movie — an early scene has the son (played by Dolan himself) lie about his mother being dead to avoid having to interview her for a class assignment (a later one shows a short-story school assignment with that title, but no hint of what it contains). Instead this is about a tempestuous relationship between a divorced mother and her (secretly gay) high-school junior son. Right from the very first scene, we sense Dolan’s ability to write cleanly and we see the strength of performances by him and the awesome Anne Dorval as his mother. The scene is basically a single take of the two sniping at each other as she drives him to school, and all the dynamics of the long-worn argument between two people who’ve had this out before — they fight about nothing in particular, then about very specific things, irrelevant events from the past are brought up, attacks and rebuttals based on role (“you’re supposed to be the mother here”). And then he gets out of the car and the mother says “have a nice day.” Put that starkly in a review, it sounds like a laugh line to the audience or an ironic “eff you” to the other character. But not in context, not one little bit — it’s too sincere and genuine. It’s more like the embodiment of “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” (contained also in both the opening maxim from De Maupassant and the film’s closing image). That’s the relationship between mother and son as they go through a year of him hiding his boyfriend (and her finding out much earlier than she lets on), being sent to boarding school, playing off the father, him coming home one night drunk to tell her how much he really loves her, etc.

Nor is I KILLED MY MOTHER all plain-vanilla “couples fighting in the kitchen” — there’s also intercalary moments, slo-motion flights of imagination that remind one of the “Yumeji’s Theme” moments from Wong’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (even the music is similar). It never gets LA PIANISTE-style pathological, but the film is taken into new territory by two late scenes. One involves the mother on the phone to the school authorities (an applause-producing scene everywhere it’s played, though I found it pandering), the other has the son being driven by his boyfriend. In different ways, each character indicates that he’s become so accustomed to the relationship between them and its dynamic that they even act it out when around others.

Videocracy

VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2)

After this thin documentary, an ahistoric diatribe how stupid and pandering Italian TV put the man who runs it, Silvio Berlusconi, into political power, I stuck around for the Q-and-A because I had to ask the director something he clearly, based on the film, hadn’t thought through. This is how I put it, best I can recall:

I really think one thing your film doesn’t seem to address is the particulars. It seems to say that media power simplistically gets replicated into political power (“TV and power are one and the same here,” it says). But if that’s the case, why isn’t Ted Turner president of the U.S., Rupert Murdoch the prime minister of Australia, Conrad Black the prime minister of Canada. Nor is the larger-than-life tycoon as a public figure a new or unique type, either other men in Italy or men elsewhere (I had in mind men like Donald Trump or Richard Branson, though I didn’t name any). Why *this* man and why *this* country, now? I didn’t get any sense of that.

Gandini was clearly caught off guard, and he replied by saying “that’s a very good question.” He repeated that, before saying “I don’t know the answer,” before giving the audience-flattering answer that “perhaps it’s because people in countries like yours don’t let it happen, you’re vigilant.” Which is, of course, no answer at all … why couldn’t these other men I named have narcotized their political cultures with bread and circuses sex and celebrity, something Gandini has to believe (based on this film) Berlusconi is the only person ever to have thought of doing.

VIDEOCRACY had me suspicious about its intellectual suppleness very quickly, in a scene where it’s stated as a fact that a TV mogul can make anyone a star (I know the history of show business too well to believe that; as Samuel Goldwyn put it: “God makes the stars, it’s up to the producers to find them”). The film lost my trust completely when someone said of Berlusconi, “he has given himself immunity from prosecution.” Well, yes and no. Someone in the film later confirmed (“you go into politics and you can’t go to jail”) what I happened to know — that Italian law immunizes many top officials during their terms of office. And that is unremarkable comparatively, as came up during the Year of Monica in the US — the remedy against presidential criminality is removal from office by Congress; only then can a president be prosecuted. Very shortly after that, the film had me in total intellectual rebellion when it mentioned Berlusconi’s media holdings — “the only three commercial channels, when you add State TV to that, he owns 90 percent of the TV audience,” says the narrator. You don’t have to know crap about Italian politics to see the problem — Berlusconi only has even theoretical control over state broadcaster RAI when he is prime minister. Which both begs the question of how he acquired RAI (i.e., became prime minister) in the first place, but also leaves you scratching your head about what happens to RAI when the other party is in power. If you think monopoly ownership of media is a problem, it’s probably quite bad enough that one man owns all three commercial networks (the Wikipedia article on Berlusconi says they add up to 50 percent of the TV audience; presumably RAI has 40 percent), but Gandini couldn’t resist gilding the lily in such a patently dishonest way.

Did I mention “the other party”? Well … VIDEOCRACY forgot to. Really, the more I thought about this film, the more one-dimensional and overdetermined it became, and not because I’m an expert on the ins and outs of Italian politics. But I know enough to know that Berlusconi has been voted in and out of office several times over the past 15 years — something you would not know from this movie. Nor would you likely think it even possible, since VIDEOCRACY paints Italy as if it were some banana republic or oriental despotism under one-man rule or one-party elections. There’s also absolutely no context or even much sense of history (the basic dates of what happened when are not provided and the distinction between state and private TV is not kept clear). Again, you would not know from this movie that before Berlusconi’s entry into politics, Italy already had both really cheesy television (see GINGER & FRED) and the most corrupt, incestuous and insider-backscratch politics in Europe (see IL DIVO). Indeed, between IL DIVO, about an uncharismatic puppetmaster conservative PM (bad … corrupt), and VIDEOCRACY, about a charismatic media star conservative PM (bad … vulgar), I get the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” feeling. Which is made particularly aggravating by the whole film’s self-righteous leftist undercurrent about the vulgarity of the masses, underlined at the Q-and-A by the director himself saying, close as I can recall, “the left tries to think in terms of ideas and logic, and it doesn’t work, because Berlusconi thinks in terms of images and emotions” (a thesis this film refutes decisively by itself).

Like a good Marxist, Gandini simplistically conflates media ownership with politically-biased content, as if that were axiomatic. But in the one moment we see of Berlusconi himself actually speaking, he says critics of his media holdings “obviously have never turned on Italian TV. The outlets I own are among my toughest critics.” Plausible, given what I know about the US and British media. Is it false? Can’t really tell from this film because we never get any actual content analysis to rebut Berlusconi’s claim (if I were cynical, I would say the filmmaker deemed it unworthy of rebuttal). The closest VIDEOCRACY comes is someone saying entertainment shows are pre-empted or end quicker if Berlusconi has a TV appearance (this happens in the US too, and last I looked Obama doesn’t own CBS). And there is one unforgivable moment right after Berlusconi’s words that one might also mistake for a rebuttal — an admittedly ridiculous campaign-commercial song praising him to the skies. Well, OK … other than getting laughs from hipster audiences at the cheesy lyrics (“Thank God that Silvio exists”) and the Up with People style, what does that prove? Was this shown as regular programming or an ad “purchased” for free?; the film doesn’t say. At face value, it merely proves the utterly jejune fact that Berlusconi’s stations air his campaign spots, as if somehow they shouldn’t. Again, comparative analysis — US networks are forbidden by law from turning down ads from presidential candidates if they are paid the going ad rate, and barred from editing their content. And Obama still doesn’t own CBS.

Symbol

SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 7)

ColinGeddes

In the blue corner ... wearing existentialist girly-color and -pattern pajamas like the Japanese-segment hero ...

How to describe this very weird mostly-comedy? I tried on Mike “The Myth of Sisyphus as done in the style of a Japanese game show,” which is probably the best you can do in a phrase, though that doesn’t get across that for about 2/3 of SYMBOL’s length, about half of it is set in the world of Mexican wrestling. Indeed, in the only iPhone pic I took worth publishing, this is how Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes introduced the film — Matsumoto sent him the two parts of the costume to wear as apology for not being in Toronto since it was the week of SYMBOL’s commercial release in Japan.

The main body of SYMBOL (and eventually the entirety) focuses on a man in a white room, played by Matsumoto, a big comedy star in Japan. We don’t know why he’s there, nor does he — only that angels appear on his walls, sticking out like bas-reliefs, and then recede, leaving only their baby-boy-parts visible. When he presses down on one, he gets something, either useful or not, possibly helpful in getting out of the box (or not). He’s like a rat in a cage, only he’s a man, so he can figure out things a bit better. A bit. There’s basically no dialog (who is there to talk to?), which gives this segment a kind of Tatiesque quality of a man and objects he can’t handle. Only unlike Tati, Matsumoto frequently flies into reactions I can only describe as “Japanese game show,” which is never not funny when contrasted against the degree-zero style of the setting, premise and dialog. Some of the jokes are fairly obvious — he loses track of what button does what, and so he only gets soy sauce after he’s eaten his sushi — but it’s the anticipation and timing that are funny. SYMBOL eventually becomes more obviously like a Japanese game show, an escape-from-the-room so you can go up to the next level premise, like Donkey Kong. And at two or three points, the film “breaks” and gives us a TV-style preview detailing what Matsumoto will do as he smiles confidently on the full-screen chyron as if his plan to get out of the room were a game-show stunt or something on “It’s a Knockout.”

Unfortunately, the Mexican segment with which this is intercut is terribly conventional — schmuck dad prepares for big match — especially when compared to the wacked-out Japanese one. Worse, it isn’t really very funny — the Fallacy of the Vulgar Nun¹ is out in spades and the acting is atrocious. When you find out what the two segments have in common … how to say this vaguely to avoid spoilers … it makes the Mexican segment too long for what it basically becomes — a punchline to the Japanese story. And then … again vague … we get other segments around the world illustrating the same point that ARE timed more appropriately. Now that Mexican punchline IS inventive and absolutely hilarious, both in itself and in its sheer wtf-is-THAT-what-all-this-has-been-about-ness. But as Milton would say … “the ratio of length to payoff is too big.”

The film continues in a much-less funny mythopoetic vein as Matsumoto “advances” up the game’s stages. Dan Owen suggested to me a blasphemous take on man becoming God, which I couldn’t quite rebut, except to say that it’s less funny than the Camus-like futility of the early parts. But then we get Part 3, after Part 1 (The Education) and Part 2 (The Implementation), only this one is called “The Future” — and it’s back to the brilliant deadpan.
————————————–
¹ That is, “showing a nun or priest do things like curse, drink, smoke, discuss bodily fluids or drive recklessly is not inherently funny,” cf. “Fallacy of the Vulgar Granny.”

September 26, 2009 Posted by | TIFF 2009 | Leave a comment