28 December 2009

Top 25 films of the Decade (2000-2009)

Needless to say, this was an incredibly difficult list to compile. I often only see a film once and have to thus rely on the instincts of my first impression, which often morphs over time (i.e. I have found myself gaining appreciation for a film without seeing it again, and vice versa.) Anyway, the point is that I had to trust my instincts. The criteria I used to determine the top 10 was whether it: powerfully impacted me emotionally, overwhelmed me with its mastery of form and content, or was able to have me enjoy it repeatedly. In all, this is a subjective list of favorites, movies that I love for one reason or another. I had trouble distinguishing ranking past the top 10; numbers 25-11 are listed alphabetically.

Adaptation (2002) dir. Spike Jonze
The Assassination of Jesse James... (2007) dir. Andrew Dominik
Brokeback Mountain
(2005) dir. Ang Lee
In the Mood for Love
(2000) dir. Wong Kar Wai
Inglourious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Let the Right One In (2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) dir. Clint Eastwood
Napoleon Dynamite
(2004) dir. Jared Hess
The New World
(2005) dir. Terrence Malick
Rachel Getting Married (2008) dir. Jonathan Demme
Revanche (2008) dir. Gotz Spielmann
Spirited Away (2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
The Squid and the Whale (2005) dir. Noah Baumbach
Synecdoche, New York (2008) dir. Charlie Kaufman
Talk to Her (2002) dir. Pedro Almodovar

10.
Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher
One of the most well-made and cinematically thrilling films of the decade, absolutely. An obsessive police procedural that frustrated, frightened, and fucked with me.
9. Ratatouille/ Wall-E/ Up (2007, 2008, 2009) Pixar
Yes, I'm cheating. And it won't be the last time, so deal with it. Anyway, these Pixar films each made me feel so good that I always feel like a giddy kid upon leaving the theater. I have trouble picking a favorite (though it's probably Wall-E), so here's the last three.
8. Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind (2004) dir. Michel Gondry
A great, fun film that has the perfect use of magical realism, emotion, and quirk. All of the plot twists happen at exactly the right time and are conveyed beautifully through images.

7. High Fidelity (2000) dir. Stephen Frears
My most personal pick. Perfect casting with a completely pleasurable script and subject matter. When I was in high school and saw this film I felt, "Yes! That's what I'm like! Yes, I love lists! Yes, my taste compensates for my lack of personality!" Those sentiments are still true today. "Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow, but it's the fuckin' truth!"

6. Yi Yi (2000) dir. Edward Yang
A rather long Taiwanese family drama that manages to touch on all of the complications of modern family life -- hostility, love, regret -- that ultimately add up to a bittersweet experience.

5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) dir. Wes Anderson
This is still the definitive film of Wes Anderson's style, themes, and characters. It also created the stylistic template from which dozens of other indie films will copy. I have seen it too many times to understand why I like it so much at this point, but given some distance I think that this movie firmly establishes that Anderson is a singular cinematic talent.

4. Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch
My memory of this film remains like that of a dream -- existing in fragments of images and attached feelings that don't make sense together. Revisiting it, I realize that it was also constructed that way. This was a game changer. It made me re-evaluate the power and function of movies.
3. Gosford Park (2001) dir. Robert Altman
A late masterpiece by one of my favorite American directors. This movie has so much going on in it in terms of characters, plots, and moods that it seems impossible that it should come out so well in the end. It's a delicious play on Agatha Christie mysteries and Renoir's Le regle du jeu. Altman reigns!

2. There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
This film blew me away when I first saw it in the theater. My memory of it remains incredibly strong, and though I could name some faults in it (Paul Dano, for one), the overall force of it overrides all of that. Thank God Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies.

1. No Country for Old Men (2007) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
A perfect movie as far as I'm concerned. I have little else to say about it. A perfect movie that I am deeply in love with.

18 December 2009

Great Western Movie Images, Pt 1

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1970)
dir. Robert Altman

15 December 2009

Quick Takes

Since my TV has been broken for the past week (repaired and returned today!) I have been making trips to the theater more often than usual. Here are some quick reactions to two 2009 Golden Globe-nominated films.

Invictus dir. Clint Eastwood
Has the visual flair and mastery of narrative expected from Eastwood, but with the inspiration dial at 11. Though it doesn't completely go Disney, it dances dangerously close at points -- especially with one terrible song choice in which the word "colorblind" is used. Strong performances from Freeman and Damon (both nominated for Globes, though Damon will probably be dropped from consideration for the Oscars), but nothing revelatory. It's a feel-good film if you let it be, especially when considering the actual Mandela and his history.

An Education dir. Lone Scherfig
A completely pleasant surprise. A very pretty and well-directed film penned by Nick Hornby. The story pulls you along in familiar narrative avenues and then makes quick detours that complicate and enliven what could otherwise be a very typical teen drama. Carey Mulligan is a great discovery, and I look forward to seeing more of her. Alfred Molina also does an exceptional job. Peter Sarasgaard is at his charming best (except when his shirt is off), along with his Wildesque dandy best friend. Also a great discovery is director Lone Scherfig, whose choices I felt were unusual and compelling, particularly in choosing not to show what would normally be climactic scenes, favoring the reactions to them instead.

12 December 2009

Ode to Written on the Wind

In continuation of my attempt to capture what I love about my favorite movies through crude poetry. Part 1 with Stagecoach is here, Part 2 with McCabe & Mrs. Miller is here.

My wishes whip against me
like the winds that used to blow
by the river and make you laugh
as they tossed my hair.

What I wouldn't give to be there
instead of here,
picking up greasy gas station boys
just to prove I can love enough,
with a bottle of stuff
from daddy's drawer.

You son of a bitch!
Can't you hear me tango
with your picture
every night in my best dress?

You stupid fool!
Can't you see the color
of my lipstick
matches the blood in my heart?

So I sit inside the window's ledge,
staring at the edge of the lawn
where you have already driven off
with someone else's daughter -

and I lie by the river
alone with my wishes
written on the wind.


10 December 2009

Me & Orson Welles (and, unfortunately, Zac Efron and everyone else)

It's been a terribly lackluster week for me movie-wise since my month-old Samsung HDTV burned some fuse after a power outage in the neighborhood. After carrying the awkward, heavy thing on the subway and into a UPS to ship back to the manufacturer for repairs, I am left with nothing to watch DVDs with (as, you see, my laptop is also broken and in need of repair). My Netflix lie on the table untouched, shedding money with every day that passes. The only option I have is to watch Instant Play films on my wife's 10-inch netbook, from which I am typing, but I haven't been that desperate (yet).

So I went to the movies, in need of some large-scale moving images and all-encompassing sound. I decided to see Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, as I love Welles -- the man and the myth -- and was sure that I could soak up at least some of his spirit through Christian McKay. The movie opened with some rather nice '30s period details and a golden tint with Zac Efron in the middle of all of it, on a train and reading Shakespeare. I repressed a laugh and decided I would give Mr. Efron the full benefit of the doubt, trying my best to shed the stigma of his Disney tween associations. The scene continues as he wanders through the magic that is New York City in the '30s, taking in the awe of the bustle and skyscrapers. He sees a group of loud actors outside of the Mercury Theater and steps inside the crowd, insisting on playing a drum roll on the snare drum brought out by one of the actors. And that drum roll properly prepares the entrance for the star of the film, which is Christian McKay, donning Welles' consciously-arrogant smirk and vocal affectations.

It's McKay who carries the entire movie with charm and ability, completely nailing the Welles mannerisms -- his wit, ego, and brilliance. McKay's performance is supported by a very likable Jo Cotten (James Tupper), clownish Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and frustrated, gentlemanly John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). And if the film were up to these characters -- the actors and crew of Mercury Theater -- then this film would probably have had enough sparkle to make it a great film. Instead, we are forced to tolerate Zac Efron and Claire Danes as narrative centerpieces, as well as Zoe Kazan's pointless character, who lack the charm, lightness, and talent necessary to sustain McKay and the rest of the film.

Efron does his best, appearing earnest at times, even cracking his voice with adolescent nervousness, but he is so unconvincing and uninteresting that it completely fails to take off. Danes is a better actor, but she was completely miscast. It was hard to feel a thing between them at any point of the film. A lot of this has to do with the writing, which, aside from Welles' character, is contrived and lightweight (the ending should induce immense eye rolling). Even so, replacing Efron and Danes with more interesting or convincing actors (and getting rid of Zoe Kazan and that whole sub-plot altogether) could have made this a really good movie, instead of a vehicle for a really good Orson Welles imitation by McKay, which is what it is.

01 December 2009

Happy Birthday Woody

Woody Allen, b. December 1, 1935

20 November 2009

Vehicles of Doom

Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-ridden getaway car

17 November 2009

Artist's Inspiration

Salvador Dalí with his favorite Marx brother, Harpo, playing Dalí's gift of a barbed wire harp.

07 November 2009

Remembering Robert Ryan

I was delighted to find that Robert Ryan was recently featured with a cover story in the Chicago Reader, which also has the full text of a letter the actor wrote to his children relating his childhood and life in Chicago. There is also a list of highlights from his filmography.

Ryan is an actor who I've seen in several films before I ever really learned his name -- Crossfire, The Wild Bunch, The Professionals -- but who I always noticed on screen for his physical presence and the hard look conveyed through those squinting eyes and stoic profile. There's a lot of good little tidbits on his Wikipedia page, including his being a pacifist liberal Democrat who fought for civil rights issues who played criminals, soldiers, and even an anti-Semite (for which he was nominated an Oscar), running completely contrary to his personal beliefs and politics.

Don't know what's true on Wikipedia, but there's a great little paragraph written by Nick Ray in his semi-autobiography I Was Interrupted:

"With Bob Ryan there was always quick intellectual reception. I cast him opposite Wayne [in The Flying Leathernecks] because I knew that Ryan was the only actor in Hollywood who could kick the shit out of Wayne. That conflict was going to be real, so I'd have two naturals. I created the situation and enclosed them in a tent, using the space for tension, so you could expect that the moment Duke dropped his right, Ryan would stiffen, and pretty soon they'd bring the tent down around them. But the tent didn't collapse, and instead became the setting for 'No man is an island,' another expression of tension and space."

I could imagine Ryan gritting his teeth having to work with the Duke when their politics were antithetical to each other. Apparently Ryan was also a prize-winning boxer as a Marine, so him and the Duke having it out would have made for a pretty good brawl I think.

It's hard to pick a favorite performance, though I would have to say that his portrayal of the burnt-out cop in Nick Ray's noir melodrama On Dangerous Ground sticks out in my mind. He is pissed and tired and disillusioned and vulnerable to the soft touch a blind Ida Lupino. As a runner up I would pair his performance in The Wild Bunch or maybe Lang's Clash by Night, which he plays against another one of the best -- Barbara Stanwyck.

Enjoy this clip from Clash by Night:

31 October 2009

The Invisible Man says...

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

29 October 2009

Jimmy Stewart feels the Rage

Last night I watched a great Western by director/actor pair Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart called Bend of the River -- also starring Arthur Kennedy as black-hatted gunslinger, Julia Adams as a pretty girl/arrow victim, and Rock Hudson, in a somewhat arbitrary-though-fun role, as a fancy gambler. The film thematically deals with betrayal and whether a man has the ability to change who he is, played out primarily through the relationship between two ex-outlaws who are contrasted against sweet-natured settlers and antagonized by gold-hungry opportunists.

Although most westerns focus on the relationships between men -- with female characters filling out more-or-less static roles as Latinas/whores and virgins/tough-but-sweet lasses-- Mann's westerns seem to push the male relationships further emotionally and psychologically more than any other westerns I've seen. There is a level of intimacy that exceeds the buddyisms or Western code of honor in films such as The Magnificent Seven or The Professionals; Mann's protagonists stare into each other with an intensity that rivals the heat of any romantic melodrama.

In Bend of the River, that intensity is created between the relationship of Glyn McClyntock (Jimmy Stewart) and Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who understand each other completely within an instant of seeing each other. That understanding is deepened by their both being outlaws on the run from their past, by having saved each others lives, and by deep looks into each others eyes. The relationship between McClyntock and Cole seems to be so deep that when Laura (Julia Adams) gets together with Cole, McClyntock's hurt (expressed again through his eyes) seems to suggest that the pain is from the loss of Cole more than the loss of Laura, though we are supposed to believe the latter. And when Cole finally betrays him, McClyntock loses it.

It is that moment of losing it that I especially love to watch in the two Mann/Stewart films I've seen. In The Naked Spur Stewart is in rage mode almost from the beginning of the film through the end. In Bend of the River it marks a climax in which Stewart becomes a killer that's gone over the edge. These states of rage work so well for two primary reasons. First, because they are triggered by betrayal after emotionally and psychologically vulnerable moments in which Stewart's character places a degree of trust in others, against his better judgment. Second, because of Jimmy Stewart's baby blues. They are a shade too pale to be romantic eyes. Instead, they are faded out and worn down, eyes which had once been shining and clear, but have now been dulled by the repetition of disappointment and disillusionment.

Those intense moments of rage caught in the eyes of Jimmy Stewart are just one of the purely cinematic pleasures I get from the right combination of actor, director, and genre -- pictures don't do it justice. Watch for the 1:13 mark on the trailer below.

14 October 2009

Art of the Long Take: Gun Crazy

Here's a clip of one of my favorite films, J.H. Lewis's 1949 B-picture Gun Crazy, a predecessor of Bonnie and Clyde. It is a perfect use of the long take -- extending the anticipation of the robbery, limiting our POV to include us among the thieves, heightening the thrill of escape by trapping us in the back seat. From what I understand this scene was largely improvised, giving this particular shot an almost documentary-like feel and sense of immediacy. This is pure New Wave fodder: lean, artistic style, on location shooting, improvisation, the backs of heads. Love it.

12 October 2009

Notes on Almodóvar's History of Cinema


This past weekend I attended a talk with Pedro Almodóvar hosted by Richard Peña titled "Pedro Almodóvar's History of Cinema" as part of NYFF. While the details on the event were somewhat vague -- will he talk about the history of cinema? about all of this films? about his favorite films? -- I thought it'd be interesting nonetheless, as Almodóvar is one of my favorite contemporary directors, and I generally love hearing outspoken directors (Scorsese, Tarantino, e.g.) talk movies with pure cinephile enthusiasm. I took the liberty of taking some notes on what clips were shown and what was discussed to give you an idea of the event.

The night opened with a clip from John Cassavete's Opening Night. I found a YouTube clip. If you click on the 7:50 mark and play it to the end, you'd get the scene we were shown.

What is particularly attractive to Almodóvar in this sequence is the dynamic of the relationship between director and problematic actor. Almodóvar mentions that a director must be everything for an actor -- friend, father, lover, psychiatrist, etc -- but sometimes he must also be the executioner, meaning he must know when the actor needs tough love or a bit of a slap on the cheek. Almodóvar goes on to mention that this sequence perfectly demonstrates the idea that the actress must overcome her demons by herself through the metaphor of the white, empty walls through which Gena Rowlands's character stumbles.

Peña then brings up a story about Dreyer's cruelty of Falconetti in the making of Passion of Joan of Arc for the sake of getting the right emotion and right shot for the film, asking Almodóvar if he thought sometimes cruelty is necessary to make great art. Almodóvar replies by saying no, that a director shouldn't be purposefully cruel or play God in a way that abuses power, but then goes on to say that such cruelty is often the result of a director's intense obsession with getting the right shots and completing the film according to his vision. He goes on to mention how it was not uncommon for stuntmen to die for the sake of some shots Howard Hawks wanted ("and he wouldn't even wait a minute after the stuntman died to get on with the next shot if it was finished") . He then goes on to mention how the director will seek revenge through cinema, citing how Hitchcock had Tippi Hedren attacked on screen for a shot in The Birds with such severity that she had to be taken to the hospital, suggesting he let it go that far because she wouldn't sleep with him.

Opening Night is especially present in Almodóvar's All About My Mother, as is All About Eve. The next clip shown is of a beginning scene in All About My Mother when Manuela and her son sit down to watch All About Eve. Almodóvar goes on to speak about the dressing room for an actress being a "holy asylum for the feminine world," much in the same way a kitchen is for a mother or a bathroom is at a party. These are places in which there can be no lies, in which women are completely themselves and have no time or patience for pleasant formalities. This idea was inspired by All About Eve and found its way into All About My Mother through Huma Rojo. Almodóvar then went on to speak a little bit about Joseph Mankiewicz and his theory that Mankiewicz wanted to create a perfect film through All About Eve in his attempt to outdo his brother Herman Mankiewicz, particularly after Citizen Kane. I don't exactly remember if this was Almodóvar's own idea or an echo of urban legend. Either way, first time I heard of it.

Almodóvar goes on to explain that All About My Mother is Opening Night and All About Eve put together and injected with the idea of motherhood, which is very important for him. Another clip from Opening Night was played in which Gena Rowlands's character's fan gets hit by a car in the rain, a scene which Almodóvar almost directly lifted for All About My Mother. The primary contrast is that Almodóvar heightens the tragedy for his film by making it a son who is killed and his mother made witness to the scene. Almodóvar goes on to explain how the decision to shoot that scene the way he did, through the son's POV falling gently, was a spontaneous decision and one which he is very pleased with.

The next clip shown was from Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata. If you start from the 1:40 mark in the clip below and play it through the end you'd get what we were shown.

The main idea that Almodóvar extracts from this film, particularly this sequence, is the way in which films can often express our deepest feelings better than we can articulate them. He uses this idea in his film High Heels, which was shown next. I couldn't find a clip on the internet, which is too bad. For those who've seen the movie (unlike me) it is a confrontation between a daughter and mother in which the daughter cites Autumn Sonata to express how she feels about her mother's treatment of her. It is an overly dramatic scene with screaming set in an empty building.

Peña goes on to say how Almodóvar's scene is like the acted-out subtext of Bergman's scene, to which Almodóvar agrees. Almodóvar talks a bit about his love of Bergman, mentioning that one dream of his is to film one of Bergman's abandoned scripts. The first Bergman film Almodóvar saw was The Virgin Spring, which he saw as a child of 10 years. Almodóvar points out that Bergman, like Cassavetes, wrote great roles for women. He suggests that perhaps this comes out of the fact that both of them made films using women they've had relationships and children with. Almodóvar feels the biggest influences Bergman has on him are theatricality and use of long monologues within his films, which the High Heels clip particularly demonstrates. Also, Bergman's affection for extreme close-ups of the face in long take, which he says is absent from mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and editing nowadays.

The second biggest influence in High Heels is Douglas Sirk, whose boldly colored melodramas are always cited as a source of Almodóvar's art. Almodóvar mentions that what he particularly takes from Sirk in High Heels is his use of Lana Turner, by which I guess he means Imitation of Life. The relationship between the mother and daughter characters in High Heels is inspired by Lana Turner and her daughter Cheryl Crane. Not only is the mother in High Heels a diva and neglectful mother, but her daughter also kills a man for her mother's attention and love, to free the person she loves most. Lastly, Almodóvar says the third influence in High Heels is the black humor of fellow countryman Luis Buñuel, though I missed notes on this.

The last part of the evening was centered around the idea of men within Almodóvar's films, or at least it was supposed to be. Almodóvar refers to Talk to Her, since his protagonists in that film are men, though the subject becomes very mixed after screening a clip from The Incredible Shrinking Man. The clip shown was of the man within the dollhouse being terrorized by the cat, I think for the first time. Here is something close:

Almodóvar says he loves this film and thinks it did a lot to convey the American psyche during the period, much more than 'A' Hollywood pictures. I don't remember exactly what the discussion was about after that -- I think Roman Polanski was brought up, as well as the French Cultural Minister. Anyway, then a clip from Talk to Her was shown, which is the film within the film The Shrinking Lover, which is used in Talk to Her as a suggestion of Benigno's rape of his patient. I couldn't find a whole clip, but here's the beginning part (from Mr. Skin no less).

Following that clip Almodóvar gave what is probably the best short anecdote I've heard all year. He starts explaining how everything had to be made in a studio, including the huge prop vagina (which the tiny man enters in the film), then he says that Warren Beatty asked him where he was keeping it. Hahaha. "It's true!" he says. And with that, the night ended.

Overall it was a nice experience, though hardly as comprehensive as I would have liked, since only three films were really talked about of Almodóvar's and only three other films had clips shown. I know that Almodóvar has a lot more movie love to share (for example, in his latest Broken Embraces Fritz Lang, Louis Malle and Romy Schneider are mentioned), but I suppose that would have extended the night much too long (for some people).

04 October 2009

NYFF09 Poster: Gregory Crewdson

This year's poster for the New York Film Festival features a photograph by Gregory Crewdson, a photographer whose work has always intrigued me but whose name was not really familiar until now. He does large-scale photos usually situated in a suburban setting, often adding enough light and fog to create a slightly spooky and curious mood. These are wonderful photographs, often capturing the stark loneliness and alienation of people from their surroundings in incredibly cinematic ways. I was lucky enough to get a signed poster this weekend (after almost punching a rude older woman in the gut after she cut me in line and then sneered at me/tried to pick a fight.)

The previous collection, "Twilight," was apparently inspired by Spielberg's Close Encounters of a Third Kind, which is clearly seen in photos such as this:

Comparisons to David Lynch have often been made, which is especially true in photos such as this:

While I tend to think of the covers of Raymond Carver story collections, especially in photographs such as this:


Lastly, American painter Edward Hopper can also be seen as a comparative artistic voice in photos like this:


This latest poster is part of the series titled "Beneath the Roses." The Auteurs picked it as poster of the week and the filmlinc blog has an interview as well as a video. Enjoy.

02 October 2009

NYFF09 Review: To Die Like a Man

To Die Like a Man by João Pedro Rodrigues

João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man is centered on the almost unbearably tragic life of Tonia, a drag queen whose fantasy of being a lady and a star is constantly interrupted by the ugly realities of a drug-abusing boyfriend (Rosário), spiteful AWOL son (Zé Maria), and deteriorating body. Containing multiple contradictions that violently clash against each other (man and woman; Catholic and hedonist; mother and father), Tonia seeks to keep balance in a life that is constantly threatening to topple over. What ensues is a tragic, often beautiful melodrama full of visual style and honest emotion that questions what it means to live and die genuinely.

Continue reading...

01 October 2009

NYFF09 Review: Lebanon

Lebanon by Samuel Maoz

Lebanon takes the epic scope and emotional range of the war film and condenses it down and confines it to the claustrophobic interior of a tank. From the first moment Shmulik, the tank’s green gunner, drops into the tank he is stuck there, and we are stuck there with him, experiencing the horrific war with the young soldiers through their limited view inside the tank. Samuel Moaz’s thrilling and absolutely nerve-racking film cinematically recreates the experience of being at war, highlighting the visceral images and sounds that evoke direct emotional responses rather than concerning itself with details of plot or character. As such, Lebanon is a completely powerful film and, above all, an intense cinematic experience.

Continue reading...

28 September 2009

NYFF09 Review: Police, Adjective

I will be linking reviews I have written for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's blog for the next week. Please click the link to read the full write-up.

Police Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu (2)

Police Adjective, Corneliu Porumboiu’s second feature, is a film of slow, deliberate inaction – an inverted police procedural in which waiting, watching, and paper work displace any of the usual sensational elements within the genre such as finding clues or cracking the case. It’s not that Cristi, our police protagonist, is unprofessional or lazy, but that the case to which he is assigned doesn’t promise much action in the first place: a teenage boy gives hashish to his two friends and Cristi has to find out where he gets it from. What unfolds is an absurdist take on police work that questions law and morality through long, meditative takes (many of which are in real time) and moments of pitch-perfect comedy.

Continue reading...

24 September 2009

NYFF09 Review: Eccentricities of a Blond

I will be linking reviews I have written for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's blog for the next week. Please click the link to read the full write-up.

The latest offering by Manoel de Oliveira is a short, bittersweet tale of frustrated love. It is both a storybook fairytale about love and a modern examination of socioeconomic troubles, marked by the vision and craftsmanship of a well-seasoned master. Watching Eccentricities is like reading a fantastic short story, one in which every detail is meticulously chosen and nothing is wasted in conveying large ideas and emotions.

Continue reading...

18 September 2009

Intermission

The blog's been inactive for quite a while since I've been a little busy with work and things. But despair not my (three) fair readers! I have a few press screenings lined up with the New York Film Festival this year and there will definitely be an abundance of writing within the next few weeks. In the meantime, please enjoy this intriguing picture of Ms. Cruz from Pedro Almodóvar's
Broken Embraces, which is closing the NYFF this year.

26 August 2009

E.T.: Extra Terrifying


The first clear memories I have of my life come from Argentina, where I lived with my parents, brother, and newly-born sister for about a year when I was four-years-old. Included in those memories is the first trip to the cinema that I can remember. My mother took me to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial along with a friend of hers. I don't know why E.T. was in the theatre since this was probably around 1989, seven years after its theatrical release date, but who cares.

I am a child of television, having been raised on cartoons and superhero shows - I was a big fan of various Power Rangers programs from Japan such as Ultraman and its variations - so I was accustomed to moving images as a child, but my first experience in a movie theatre was completely different: it terrified me.

I remember the darkness very clearly, the big dark room with only the light of the projector filling the screen. This was probably the first time I sat in the dark with other people, with strangers, and it placed me in a world I had never experienced before, a world that was a little creepy. I was sitting next to my mother and I remember looking up at her, seeing the dull blue of the projection flickering on her face. The enormity of the screen mixed with the darkness was a first for me and I believe that this was the first time I was being made to focus on a movie or a moving image. There was nothing else to do. Watching T.V. you could get up, get a snack, play with toys at the same time, beat on your brother, or do whatever you wanted; T.V. was never the sole activity, especially for a three/four-year-old. Being forced to focus on this movie in front of me in the dark was a different experience for me and I believe I felt uncomfortable, slightly restless and slightly anxious.

The movie went along and I was a little overwhelmed by the images and the sounds and the whole new experience. Then it happened: E.T. stuck his head out from among the stuffed animals with his huge, nasty neck and started screaming. (You know, I'm not even sure if this happened in the movie or if I am mixing two memories into one image) It was terrifying! I don't know how I reacted physically - if I screamed also or if I grabbed to my mother - but I could not handle watching the movie anymore. At that point I turned around in my seat and refused to watch the screen - it was too scary. I stared at the darkness of the back wall, trying to calm myself down. It was then that I noticed this white square in the wall from which a beam of light was coming out, filled with a faint whiteness and little specks of floating dust. I stared at this for what felt a long time, confused at why that white square with light was there. I looked back at the screen, then back at the white square. I don't believe I made the connection then; it was just another element of that strange, magical place in the dark that I didn't understand. After a while I became too anxious and my mother and her friend had to let me get out of the theatre (not unlike a young Bruce Wayne being frightened by the opera). I don't know how much of the film I watched, but I remember those images clearly. The film was during the day, so coming back into the sunlit streets of Buenos Aires was a little jarring. I remember not wanting to go back into that theatre ever again, and I don't think I did.

It's ironic that I love film so much now and the first movie I saw terrified me and made me not want to set foot in a theatre ever again. The effect of the darkness and the isolation in a public place and the huge screen all overwhelmed me in ways that I am still overwhelmed with today, except now I am old enough not to be afraid of the dark and to understand that the white box on the back wall with light coming out of it is a projector. And I do cringe and get scared in movies more easily than the common person, so maybe that E.T. experience never really left me. The cinema can still do its magic on me, for better or worse.

13 August 2009

ANNIE HALL for Dummies


"This is not a love story," warns the VOG narrator of the trailer to (500 Days of Summer), "it is a story about love." While I still fail to comprehend whether that statement has any substance (or if it is a trite play on words that sounds like it could be clever but actually says nothing), it seems to suggest that the film will make some sort claim that gets to the core reality or "truth" of love, unlike all those other romantic love stories we are all so familiar with. So what is love for handsome Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and space-eyed Summer (Zooey Deschanel)? What makes this film more true in its examination of love than all those other romantic comedies? Well, Summer doesn't believe in love and doesn't end up with Tom.

The offered insight regarding love-in-the-modern-age according to the film seems to be that the expectations we have within relationships always falls short of reality -- a reality that is paradoxical and irrational. This isn't a new concept for romantic comedies -- already perfected by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (among others) -- and director Marc Webb seems to acknowledge that by refusing to tackle anything new or insightful through his characters or their relationship. Tom and Summer are the cinematic equivalents of Dick and Jane -- average 20-ish white, middle-class purveyors of safe indie music and IKEA furniture that represent the majority of the film's hip target demographic -- in that they are pure surface; we don't need to know anything deeper about them since they are merely stand-ins for the delivery of a half-assed "moral" or "truth."

The end result of Webb's reliance on storybook characterization and narrative is a pastiche of romantic comedy cliches that are exaggerated in their artificiality. While exaggeration of cliches and genre conventions can give lots of room for excellent genre subversion and cleverness (think Blazing Saddles), that is certainly not the case for (500) Days of Summer. The cliches exist for themselves, becoming incredibly tiring. For example, Tom works at a dead-end job he doesn't like that compromises his more creative desire to be an architect, so what does he do? He freaks out at a meeting and quits to pursue his dream. Yawn. Tom is depressed about not being with Summer so he walks around in a bath robe and buys bourbon and milk at the local bodega. Har har har.

The characters also suffer a lot: they are flat caricatures that are defined by a few details that are supposed to say everything about them. Perhaps the worst of the lot is Summer, which is made even worse since she is a main character, as she is defined by quirks that deserve endless rolling of the eyes: she likes to say the word penis! her favorite Beatle is Ringo! she thinks porn is funny! Tom is given a little more room for introspection ( it really is his story more than anyone elses) and he is played with charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the intrigue of that introspection is blocked by all of the cartoonish characterizations and narrative of the rest of the film. I eventually found myself more interested in seeing what shirt, tie, and sweater outfit Tom would wear in the next scene more than any advancement of plot or narrative.

What is surprising to me, however, is that despite all of this I still sat through (500) Days of Summer and was able to somewhat enjoy it, even while gritting my teeth every now and then (okay, maybe a lot). It was easily-digestible, like a sugar-coated confection that cuts your tongue every now and then and leaves a bad aftertaste, making you somewhat regret eating it afterward. Maybe this is because I am part of that target demographic; maybe because I know people that are approximations of those characters; maybe because it
catered to my short attention span through jumpy vignettes. It was the same feeling I got from Juno (although that film's first 20-min are much more excruciating in its hip twee). But in both cases I always felt like I wanted my money back when the end credits start rolling, like I've been duped.

(500) Days of Summer is ultimately like Annie Hall for the Juno generation, and as such is entirely forgettable.

03 August 2009

My Favorite Femme Fatale


Gloria Grahame will be featured with a full day of films on TCM as part of their SUMMER UNDER THE STARS series on Thursday, August 13. A personal favorite, Fritz Lang's 1953 noir The Big Heat, is playing at 9:45 p.m. In it Grahame plays Debby Marsh, an opportunistic moll who hangs around with the vicious Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), full of scarcasm and nihilistic witicisms such as: "The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better." Or, when she enters Bannion's (Glenn Ford's) room, which is completely unadorned: "Hey, I like this. Early nothing." Her beautiful face becomes the site of the greatest tragedy when she famously gets a pot of hot coffee thrown at her by the vicious Stone. It's not to be missed.

Oh, and I found this poster on TCM.com, which puts a modern twist on a onesheet for the film. There are some other great ones shown here.

A coffee pot! Fantastic!

01 August 2009

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

As a contribution towards the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Ang Lee retrospective I did a short write-up regarding one of his two more well-known films, Brokeback Mountain (the other being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). While I don't really have an opinion on Lee as an auteur (haven't seen enough), I do think Brokeback Mountain has more substantial weight to it than it maybe gets credit for. It is often written off as an Oscar-baiting feature that uses its premise of a homosexual relationship more as a gimmick than as a sincere exploration of love. And while it certainly has all the elements of a big, sweeping Oscar film, I think there is more nuance and sincerity than can be recognized on the surface. Besides, we all remember what happened at the Oscars that year: aside from the all the accolades for artistic achievements the Academy threw at Lee and co. (winning Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Director), they were denied the laurel of Best Picture, which was given to that mess of ham-fisted morality on racism: Crash. Perhaps there is enough of a dark edge on Brokeback Mountain to ward off Academy voters.

And the darkness of the film is what I try to focus on in the piece. As tender or loving as some scenes are, there is always a pervasive darkness that haunts the characters on screen that gets conveyed visually. Anyway, the piece is here.

31 July 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Anderson


When I first heard that Wes Anderson was doing a stop-motion film about the Roald Dahl children's book The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wasn't sure how to react. Having seen the trailer, however, I was immediately struck by the way it felt like an Anderson film -- in its humor, attention to detail, focus on family. When I thought about it more, it seemed to only make sense that Anderson would do a project such as a stop-motion feature, something which calls for a beyond-anal obsession with details. Anyway, the trailer's here.

18 July 2009

Welles's MACBETH

What a face. Orson Welles's Macbeth is playing tonight at the Walter Reade Theater, but unfortunately I won't end up being able to make it. Instead, I was able to find a copy of the film online here. It is a flawed film, but still immensely interesting. My thoughts on it are on the filmlinc's blog here.

13 July 2009

Summer with the Bard


The Film Society of Lincoln Center is putting together a pretty interesting lineup of Shakespeare film adaptations in a series called The Bard Goes Global, for which I did a little write up. My favorite Shakespeare adaptation, Kurosawa's Ran, is not included, though the very excellent Throne of Blood makes an appearance. I am most excited, however, for Orson Welles's Macbeth. They are also playing Roman Polanski's Macbeth, a film I never even knew existed until now. Do you have a favorite Shakespeare adaptation?

08 July 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES


Perhaps more than any other film genre, the gangster film is distinguished by its symbiotic relationship with its subject matter. Perhaps not so much anymore, but certainly during the 1930s with films such as Wellman's The Public Enemy or Hawks's Scarface -- films which not only interpreted the gangster lifestyle and myth, but which largely helped to create and characterize it: it is said that John Dillinger's trademark leap over the counter was taken from the movies; Al Capone is said to have loved Scarface.

Michael Mann's latest, Public Enemies, references this relationship during one scene in which Dillinger watches a screen gangster played by Clark Gable and gives one of the few genuine smiles throughout the two-and-a-half-hour film. It is a significant scene because it speaks directly to Dillinger's life as a projected image, a self-created myth, but it also reminds us of the conventions of the gangster genre picture and thus of how Mann's film fits, if at all, within that lineage.

What strikes me most about Mann's film is his interpretation of Dillinger, as the person and as the gangster. While we have come to know Dillinger as a smirking, confident wise ass, Depp's characterization suggests that that public persona is completely an act which covers up the somber, deadly serious private reality. As Dillinger, Depp is pale and thin-lipped, constantly serious to the point of approaching a parody of Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Le Samourai. Even with Billie, his apparent true love who gets the closest to Dillinger within the film, Dillinger appears tense and emotionally blocked. Many viewers have noticed the lack of chemistry in scenes between Dillinger and Billie, made worse by some terribly contrived dialogue ("What do you want?" / "Everything, right now.") that sounds more like line rehearsals than a conversations. It appears like bad acting on Depp and Marion Cotillard's parts, but perhaps it is bad acting on Dillinger's part.

In other words, no one is able to really know Dillinger, not even Dillinger himself. His true nature is lost somewhere behind the image he is projecting as a notorious gangster, buried so deep that it becomes inaccessible. Thus when he deals with people he deals with them as Dillinger the image, not Dillinger the person; he is reading lines. Dillinger the person remains an enigma, hidden behind a stony face and distant eyes. We are shown so much of Dillinger as a deadly serious person that when he does say something characteristically witty or affable (in front of a reporter or to a bank customer) it becomes incredibly clear that it is an act, perhaps even performed poorly. This is much unlike other gangster pictures in which the gangster's charm is so authentically contagious that we as viewers want to be their pals, whether as a public persona or a private person, though we may even be a little frightened of him; Dillinger is always frightening because he is unknowable.

In this way, Public Enemies can be seen as a type of revisionist gangster picture. It questions the established myths of the gangster as charming and tragic hero, suggesting he is exclusively and overwhelmingly tragic. Unlike Tom Powers in Public Enemy or Tony Camonte in Scarface, Dillinger seems constantly aware of death, as if it were hovering over him like some persistent ghost, reminding him of his fate: he seems as aware of the gangster as tragic hero archetype as we are. This gives new meaning to the gangster's love of his projected image, as seen in films or in newspapers, for in Dillinger's case it exceeds vanity and instead becomes an attempt to deny death by claiming immortality through legend.

Which leads me back to the last part of the film, in which Dillinger watches Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theatre. Dillinger's private smirk at the projected images of Clark Gable and Myrna Loy exposes more about him than any other moment in the film. I get a feeling that Mann's Dillinger is one completely absorbed in the suspense of belief that cinema allows, something which he transfers over into his real life -- Dillinger plays a certain character, making his life into something fit for the screen. It seems beyond coincidental that Billie looks like Myrna Loy or that Dillinger would choose to have a 'stache like Gable's -- maybe he learned to smirk from the same actor. When Dillinger leaves the theatre he dies, and perhaps that is the most appropriate way for him to go -- once he leaves the images and illusions there is nothing else but death.