Rightwing Film Geek

Cartoon theater

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CHICAGO 10 — Brett Morgen, USA, 2008, 8

I have liked courtroom procedurals since watching “Crown Court” on Scottish TV daytime as a 7-year-old boy (I’m not sure I quite realized it was fictional at first). I still count ANATOMY OF A MURDER and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION as personal favorites. A trial is naturally dramatic — it sets out a conflict in explicit terms, with defined protagonists in the Anglo-Saxon adversarial system, and a defined trajectory with a definite payoff, even in a “Scottish verdict.” And the courtroom is a kind of elemental “stage” on which to play through the conflict,¹ like a ring in boxing movie.

So CHICAGO 10 was aiming in part for my sweet spot. It mixes re-creations from the trial of eight despicable 60s radicals with the four days of the 1968 Democratic Convention they tried to disrupt, and some of the radicals’ contemporaneous extra-court activities as celebrity defendants. That stuff is mostly live footage, but some is animated — e.g., Abby Hoffman apparently went on a comedy tour, and he clearly had some ability in that field, kind of a poor man’s Lenny Bruce joking about his own trial. CHICAGO 10 is even the second time around for me in terms of a re-creation of the trial in question — I remember vaguely seeing the made-for-HBO CONSPIRACY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 8 in the late-80s.

chicago10rogues.jpgMorgen’s movie takes a couple of stylistic gambles and they both pay off rather handsomely. The first is obvious from the illustrations I use: CHICAGO 10’s trial recreations are animated in the same kind of fauvist/rotoscope look that Morgen also used (much more sparingly) in 2002’s THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. If the very concept of using cartoons to re-create a trial turns you off a priori as A Violation Of Documentary Purity … well, go moon over Wiseman (more on this later). But to the rest of us, this was a brilliant choice. First of all, several of the people involved (Abby Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin and William Kunstler) are well-known even today. But because a cartoon can never look that realistic, it avoids “celebrity mimickry” as a measuring stick for the performances. Second, this particular trial was a circus anyway, with the defendants, Hoffman and Rubin especially, openly saying they wanted to turn it into street theater. Making the trial a literal cartoon seems like the perfect mordant judgment.

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March 7, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A godless atonement

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It can very frustrating to read a critic, one you generally admire, get why a movie (or something about a movie) is great, but see it as evidence for why it’s bad. Two critics I really like did it with ATONEMENT, the film whose Golden Globe win makes it an Oscar frontrunner, and one I’d be elated to see win.¹

I said when I saw ATONEMENT at Toronto, that I would later discuss the ending, which had me completely broken. It did it again when I saw it on the opening day of its commercial release last month. Back in September, I partially wanted to finish up ASAP at a Toronto Internet cafe at 3am, and I partially wanted to recommend the movie as heartily as I could without spoiling it for others, since I went in completely tabula-rasa myself and think that a key to why this film hasn’t left my memory in months.

You have been warned.

At the end of the second act, Briony is told what she has to do to atone for her lies that put Robbie in jail and then later on the front lines and that estranged Cecilia from their family. The film flashes forward 50 years, from Briony sitting alone on a train to Briony as a famous elderly novelist. And we learn the truth that turns the movie inside out — everything we’ve been watching is a novel written by Briony, who is now giving a TV interview on it.

atonement3shot.jpgThe reunion that Robbie and Cecilia had that we see, and the promise of the reversal and clearing of Robbie’s name that was promised in that novel’s third act — it didn’t occur in “real life” and couldn’t have because they were both killed in the war (Robbie at Dunkirk, Cecilia in the Blitz). The movie closes on what we assume is the close of Briony’s novel, of Robbie and Cecilia in a beachfront cottage with a view of the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wonder if Americans realize how archetypal that is to a Briton, particularly in a World War II context.) “I gave them in fiction the happy ending they couldn’t have in life. That’s my atonement. It was all I could do,” Briony says (more or less) of what will be her last novel as she will soon slip into irreversible dementia.

So this is the latest “twist” movie, though because ATONEMENT is not a crime or heist movie, I was completely, utterly unprepared for it. It’s a fairly common trick, in fact — the “unreliable narrator” — but it’s made effective by the fact that we don’t even really realize that the film actually HAS a narrator, much less that it’s a character within the story. But this is not an unfair trick, because, on reflection and second viewing, we see that some details of ATONEMENT’s style actually had set up the-film-to-that-point as discourse. It’s not just Briony is shown in the first act to be a precocious writer and in the second act to be writing a novel hinted to be about the first act. It’s also that the first things we see are a typewriter and typing (shades of another of my favorite recent movies, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, which also turns inside out upon the discovery of discourse). And the first things we hear are the familiar clackety-clack of a manual typewriter — a sound that never entirely leaves us because (it seems) scorer Dario Marianelli uses typewriter sounds on the score continuously. It made for a bracing score but, unbeknownest to the inattentive viewer, it also signifies that we are seeing something being typed, i.e., Briony’s novel. Continue reading

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

P.T.A. ♥ S.K.

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2007) — 9

Paul Thomas Anderson wears his influences and inspirations on his sleeves. His previous three films have all operated under the heavy shadow of Martin Scorsese (BOOGIE NIGHTS), Robert Altman (MAGNOLIA) or Jonathan Demme (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). His latest film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, though it has other antecedents, seems like Anderson’s attempt to do a remix job on Stanley Kubrick. Ya gotta say this much for PT — he only steals from the best.

And right from the very start. The very first shot of BLOOD plonks us into 2001 territory — a rocky landscape in untouched nature, accompanied by music that so sounds like Gyorgy Ligeti’s famously-strange dissonant modernism (You can hear it as the film’s Web site starts to load) that I was surprised to learn later that it was not Ligeti. Instead, the virtuoso score is all-original work by Jonny Greenwood, who just as often turned out themes in completely different styles like Bernard Hermann with the high-pitched fast strings here, Michael Nyman with the legato weeping-strings passages here and here, and some of Giovanni Fusco’s work for Antonioni here. (The soundtrack is an obvious steal at any price here.) Other sound touches that Stan the Man would have been proud of include the impressionistic use of silence on the soundtrack. The explosion that deafens a character in BLOOD reminded me of the deadness of space in 2001, and its blending into sound as Dave comes back into Being and re-enters creation on the Discovery.

Like in 2001, a lengthy, wordless sequence of maybe 20-25 minutes begins the proceedings, only instead of apes escaping nature through the discovery of tools, we see a man, Daniel Plainview, prospect for oil. He starts out as a tradesman, a genuine wildcatter before he really becomes a “businessman.” In this sequence, the basic threads, setup and motifs are laid out. The trailer at the film’s site gives you more of an impression that Day-Lewis is imitating John Huston in CHINATOWN. But that’s mostly voice — it gives no indication of either pitch or body language,where the primary influence is Jack Nicholson from THE SHINING, particularly when he cracks up near the end, something Noah Cross never does in CHINATOWN. And appropriately, Lewis in the dialog-free beginning also had more of Nicholson and also the feral quality of the 2001 apes. Kubrick always wanted Big, conceptual performances from his actors and Day-Lewis can do that without collapsing into caricature better than anyone today (I weep to think what he could have done under Kubrick’s direction). It’s no surprise to me than Dan Sallitt, with whom I’ve butted heads on “Kubrick acting” before, didn’t care for this movie.

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January 7, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shameless promotion of others, part 1

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ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Shunji Iwai, Japan, 2002, 9)

I’m gonna do something I’ve never done here before — plug a DC-area screening. The Japanese movie ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU is getting a onetime screening this coming Wednesday at the University of Maryland Hoff Student Center. I won’t be able to go myself (work schedule), but this film never played in Washington (or very widely in the US at all) and I only saw it because a friend had a tape. But LILY CHOU-CHOU made my Top 10 for last year and I want to get the word out on a great and profoundly-moving film that deserved a better chance than it got to find an audience.

Despite this fellow’s enthusiasm for it, I had trepidations about LILY CHOU-CHOU, which is a longish, slow-moving Japanese film about sullen, alienated teens — a genre that also includes the annoying “blue,” which Charles Odell called (on his Sept. 9 entry) “the most boring film about teenage Japanese schoolgirl lesbians possible,” and EUREKA, which bored me so silly that it has become one of my “pet hate” films.

ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU does require patience. But if you can go with its plaintive, dreamy rhythms, it turns out to be one of the saddest, gentlest, most-poignant films ever made about teenage loneliness, centering on the gap between the hellish time they have in school dealing with bullies and cliques on the one hand, and the fanboy gushing on message boards over Lily Chou-Chou on the other. But unlike some such movies, stuff happens in LILY CHOU-CHOU — there is an arc, though it’s not always transparent. Characters develop and have some believable good times (there’s an Okinawa trip captured on the kids’ home videos), the students turn from friends into enemies and try to connect with one another.

lilypiano.jpgThe movie has two basic levels of reality, first, the daily life of school, and then, attempts to escape its misery through the Internet, centered on worship of the title character, a little-seen or -heard J-pop star. The Internet board “scenes,” which constitute about 25-30 percent of the running time I’d guess, are made up of Japanese script being typed onto a black screen. That’s it. While the amount of time and visual redundancy drove batty this usually on-target guy, I found the conceit thrilling. It keeps the kids’ identities secret from each other and us, while at the same time creating them as online personae (a theme that should resonate around the blogosphere). The blackness and its disconnect from ordinary visual storytelling emphasizes the gap between the students’ real lives and online lives. The blackness literalizes both Lily’s Ether and the ethereality of fame, meaning and connection. The ending absolutely depends on that blackness, as if even Lily fandom is not only not enough to unite the two boys, but that commonality is precisely what made the bullying finally intolerable (“your devil is not wholly Other”).

Mike also complained that Lily is not an interesting singer, which is a reasonable opinion (though I found her ethereal, Enya-Sadeness style an interesting and thematically apropos choice), but the movie’s themes might resonate even more strongly if Lily stunk as a singer — sorta like in MEMENTO, “we all have to have a god in our lives, even if it’s an unworthy or nonexistent one.”

lilyfiels.jpgShot on Hi-Definition Video, LILY CHOU-CHOU is also one of the gorgeous-looking video-shot movies ever made, but in a most peculiar and hypnotic way. There are repeated nature images, of long shots of tall green plants rippling in the wind while the kids play their Discman (supposedly of Lily’s music, but Claude Debussy’s lush Romantic melodies are what *we* hear from the film’s soundtrack). The pictures and their florid color are overripe and alienating, simply exemplifying what AMERICAN BEAUTY preached and preached and preached about that stupid paper bag and the unbearability of natural beauty and even beautiful music while your soul is in torment. Again, in contrast to the Internet’s darkness.

Unlike AMERICAN BEAUTY and some other Western films about alienated teens, LILY CHOU-CHOU is blessedly free of sarcasm and caricature of parents and adults. They want to help and they sometimes even do, especially early on, but they finally are just outsiders who CAN’T get it. It’s L’AVVENTURA for Generation Wired — one teenage friend on a private discussion group called it “the greatest movie ever made about the Internet,” and it’s hard to think of a topper. There’s a whole series of brilliant sequences near the end, including the climactic scene, one of the very best of last year, where Lily sings in concert and we finally see her, on a jumbotron outside the arena. And to her music, we see a boy, mesmerized by her image while his heart breaks. A weaker man than myself might have cried.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Actors do good

My friend Mike D’Angelo has an excellent take on the minor brouhaha (likely will need scroll down after Oct. 20) erupting over the Motion Picture Association of America’s ban on the distribution of screener tapes of movies still playing in theaters. The practice, a widespread custom in the Oscar campaigns of recent years, is perceived as giving the smaller films from boutique studios a way to make up for their narrower distribution. It’s a way for the film and its makers to get noticed and make its own case. But the MPAA has banned the practice for its member studios, citing concerns about piracy.Mike’s piece may even become obsolete in the next few days, as the backlash from within Hollywood is growing. Both Reuters and the Associated Press had articles Tuesday about a protest ad being taken out by some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Sean Penn, Keanu Reeves, Sissy Spacek and others in Wednesday’s Daily Variety and the Hollywood Report. A similar ad was taken out last week by some of American film’s most-prestigious directors, including Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have also expressed opposition.

All this opposition could be having its effect. Daily Variety (link requires subscription) reports in Wednesday’s editions that the heads of the seven major studios behind the ban have scheduled a conference call with MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Perhaps this cockeyed ban will go down in history as the New Coke of 2003.

Nobody should intrinsically care about whether Academy members can get free tapes or discs. But, as Mike points out (and I have even less of a dog in this fight than does he, a pro critic), movie fans should know about this because Hollywood awards affect what films Hollywood makes. The less chance that small films from boutique studios like Miramax, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight et al have of getting awards, the less chance the filmmakers have of convincing financiers that they could be profitable, and thus the less chance they will be made at all. No FARGO, no THE PIANIST, no FAR FROM HEAVEN, and go on down the line through some of the best American movies of the last ten years. And *that* matters.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment