Sunday, February 01, 2009

Movies watched, January 2009

Love and Death
, Woody Allen, 1975
In czarist Russia, a neurotic foot soldier and his wife plot to assassinate Napoleon, filtered through the zaniness of vintage Woody Allen. Woody, why don't you make movies like this anymore?

Who Is Bozo Texino?, Bill Daniel, 2005
This hour-long documentary is an exploration of the history of train graffiti, as well as a search for the identity of the person behind "Bozo Texino," a sketch of a character with an infinity
symbol-shaped hat that has been seen on railway cars for decades. Shot with a Super 8 camera over a 16-year period, it includes interviews with legendary boxcar artists Herby, Coaltrain, and so on. I found myself wishing it was a bit more in-depth, as well as more of an investigation into the mystery behind Bozo Texino, and found that the zine Bill Daniel's Mostly True, makes a nice supplement to the viewing experience. (It even has fake hobo ads!)

Dirty Work, Bob Saget, 1998
After reading Artie Lange's Too Fat to Fish, my boyfriend checked out a few of Artie's movies. That's all I'll say.

The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein, 1984
This documentary was made just a few years after the
assassination of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, and I find that I prefer it to Gus Van Sant's Milk, which actually features much of the same archival footage. Free of the cheesy narrative devices I disliked about Milk, this film tells the story in a more straightforward manner, and it's just as, if not more, powerful as the recent biopic.

Beer League, Frank Sebastiano, 2006
Way better
than Dirty Work. A baseball classic in the same league as The Bad News Bears. (I'm serious.)

Berkeley in the 60s
, Mark Kitchell, 1990
documentary chronicling the student protests at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. Interesting, but a little bit too long--there were definitely parts when it dragged a bit.

, Woody Allen, 1971
All you need to know can be found in this interview.

Woyzeck, Werner Herzog, 1979*

Punk Attitude, Don Letts, 2005
Another shitty punk documentary leading you to believe that punk music started in the 70s in England and New York and died there too.

Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuaron, 2001
This bittersweet road movie skillfully conveys the ways friendships change and people move on, how someone you were once so close to can become a stranger. I love the little asides, in which a small personal detail or anecdote is told about the characters. Much of the storytelling reminds me of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and it's not just because the characters are Hispanic.

The Passenger
, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975
A journalist (played by Jack Nicholson) takes on the identity of a man he meets in a hotel in
Africa, about whom he knows practically nothing. Whether it's because he is bored or wishes to escape his personal problems, or something else, I find the abruptness of his decision intriguing. Of course, the consequences of this decision become more than he may have bargained for.

Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog, 1992*

Aguirre: The Wrath of God
, Werner Herzog, 1972*

Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982*

, Werner Herzog, 1977*

Who Gets to Call it Art?, Peter Rosen, 2006
A pretty straightforward documentary about Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he served as from 1960 to 1977. Nothing special here, other than a nice history lesson about modern art in the 60s and 70s, as well as a fine tribute to the man who breathed new life into a dinosaur of a museum.

Gate of Flesh
, Seijun Suzuki, 1964
This colorful film from legendary Japanese B-Movie director Suzuki takes place in the years after World war II. A band of tough Tokyo prostitutes live by a strict code, which consists of no pimps, defending the abandoned building where they live, attacking other hookers who come into their territory, and punishing anyone in their group who gives away sex for free. Of course, one of them falls in love with a thief who has been hiding in their home (he's killed an American G.I. and needs to l
ay low for awhile), which presents some problems.

Burden of Dreams, Les Blank, 1982*

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
, 1974*

F for Fake, Orson Welles, 1974
One of Orson Welles' last films, this free-form documentary focuses on the subject of fakery, weaving together a story about an art forger, whose biographer wrote a fraudulent book about Howard Hughes (the subject of which was made into this feature film a few years ago), the reclusive Hughes himself, and Welles' own career, which was launched on the grounds of a falsified resume, not to mention his legendary radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which had many listeners running to hills believing America truly was under extraterrestial attack. Throughout the film, Welles plays a few tricks on the viewers as well.

Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes, 2008
I was a little disappointed with this movie. Based on the 1961 novel by Richard Yates (which I have been meaning to read for some time but have not done so yet), it tells the story of a young couple with lofty aspirations who move from New York City to the Connecticut suburbs to raise their children, because that's what you're supposed to do. Naturally, they're miserable, whether riding the commuter train amidst a sea of gray flannel and hats to their mindnumbing office job in Manhattan or wearing an apron and washing dishes and playing housewife in their well-manicured and smartly decorated house. They feel as though they're above suburban status quo normalcy, that they're destined for better things, but they slowly begin to realize that there is nothing special about them, and that's the real disappointment. No one will remember them, they will have no great legacy, after they die their memory will live on in the lives of their children but eventually there will come a time when their impact on the world is forgotten completely, (this point is emphasized when Frank asks his boss if he remembers his father, Earl Wheeler, who worked for the same company in the same department for years--the name does not ring a bell). All of this would have made for a powerful movie, the sentiments of which still ring true (many of the things I've just said mirror my own anxieties about mortality), but it misses the mark. The movie opens with the Wheelers already hating their lives and each other's guts, which immediately turns the viewer off to any emotionally empathy. Maybe that's how the book is structured too, but I think it would have been more effective if the viewer had seen more of a transformation, starting with happy and hopeful times. If we could have seen them age and disintegrate, their hopes squashed, the life squeezed out of them, we might feel the same pain for them. As such, I could have predicted the ending, and left not feeling numb so much as dissatisfied. I will be reading the book though.

*More on these to come.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Year-End Catch-Up

It’s 2009 and, going back through last year’s viewing list, there were nearly 60 movies that I did not write about here. Pathetic, I know. What’s also pathetic is how every single post I make has some kind of intro about how I never post anymore (getting promoted=no more time to write on your lunch hour). So I figured the best way to handle this would be to list them all, writing about a few of them—not necessarily the best of the bunch, just the ones I feel compelled to write about, though some of these will be saved for the next couple of posts. This thing is long enough as it is!

I also plan to return to my original formatting, with weekly viewing lists and selective writings—a little less ambitious, but more realistic. That said…

The Inner Life of Martin Frost
, Paul Auster, 2007
Medium Cool
, Haskell Wexler, 1969
Blue in the Face
, Paul Auster and Wayne Wang, 1995
In the Heat of the Night
, Norman Jewison, 1967
Margot at the Wedding
, Noah Baumbach, 2007

Night of the Living Dead
, George Romero, 1968

I saw this while vacationing in Pittsburgh, the setting for just about every George Romero movie ever made. This one was actually filmed about 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh, in the rural town of Evans City, PA. Six years ago I actually made the trip out there, somehow managing to find the cemetery from the opening scene (a few wrong turns were made but considering the vague directions I think we did pretty well), where my friend and I took some silly photos in which we pretended to be zombies. In the same weekend we also went to the Monroeville mall, site of Dawn of the Dead; I’m told that until a fairly recent renovation, the interior looked almost exactly the same as it did in the movie. I was sad that I missed it, but this minor setback did not deter us from taking some more silly photos.

Night of the Living Dead
is really the quintessential zombie movie, the one that all others must live up to. The classic black and white image of the little girl eating her father’s brains is just as creepy today as it was 40 years ago. The other point that comes to mind is the fact that the hero of the film was portrayed by a black actor, something that was considered controversial at the time. The ending—I won’t ruin it—has been construed by many as a social commentary on racism. While Romero says that’s absolutely not the case, and that the ending had been written before casting Duane Jones in the role—because he “simply gave the best audition,” which, I might add, is an even better and more democratic reason than trying to commit an act of social significance—I can’t help but think about the implications when viewing that scene. And thus I’d say it inadvertently conveys that message, whether intentional or not.

Lastly, has anyone seen Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D? It’s a hilariously redubbed version of Night of the Living Dead peppered with random interruptions like fireworks, moments in history, and footage of a dancing lady. This 1991 spoof was distributed to 500 video stores nationwide, including one in suburban New Jersey where I grew up. I haven’t seen it in about ten years and had nearly forgotten about it until now. And then I remembered about a little thing called YouTube.

Strange Culture
, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, 2007

Crazy Love, Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens, 2007

I was worried that, like most of the “personal documentaries” I’ve seen, this might be a bit boring, failing to interest anyone besides the filmmaker. But I was quickly drawn in by the dark story—the obsessive creep lurking in the shadows, the poor, lonely lady in the dark glasses, the media frenzy that unfolded around the case (as Jimmy Breslin says, “It’s great, it sells your papers”).

The abbreviated story is as follows: in 1959, a beautiful young woman named Linda begins dating an older man named Burt. She discovers that he’s married and leaves him. He hires thugs to throw lye in her face, permanently blinding her. He goes to prison for 30 years (“I thought it wasn’t long enough,” says Linda) but gets out much earlier on parole. He’s not allowed to contact her, but that does not stop him from doing so and professing his undying love to her. And, despite all expectations, she agrees to meet him and the two eventually marry.

The fact that a woman would marry the man who intentionally blinded her might seem completely insane, but consider the facts. After the incident, Linda was still a beautiful, lively woman, striving to remain independent. She tried going on dates but as soon as men saw beneath the dark glasses, they were scared away. By the time Burt got out of prison, she was feeling lonely and desperate—so she gave in and agreed to meet him. On this particular day she wore her clear glasses, revealing herself to him. When he told her he still thought she was beautiful, that was enough for her. In a way it’s a marriage of convenience, providing financial security, safety, a pair of eyes, and a little company. According to Linda, “he’s a good husband…I probably do love him, but I find it hard to use that word.”

They seem happily married—we see them arm in arm, slow dancing, going on cruises. “It’s Burt and I against the world,” Linda professes. As ever, she remains a strong character, never appearing frail or crippled, constantly nagging Burt (“Where’s my coffee?”), staying as active as she can—and for a blind lady she’s a pretty good painter. But one cannot help but remember that Burt made her who she is today, which begs the question: are they soulmates, or did Burt force her into the marriage, making sure that no one else would want her, taking away all other options? Regardless of one’s views on the matter, no one can deny that theirs is a very complex relationship. None of their friends or family approves, but then, no one but Burt and Linda can truly know the whole story.

As for the film, there’s nothing very innovative about the style. One technique worth mentioning is that Burt and Linda are interviewed separately until the film comes to the point in the story when they get married, communicating a feeling of separation and then coming together. But essentially this is a straight up, meat and potatoes documentary that’s carried by the story—thankfully, a particularly engrossing story.

The Wild World of Hasil Adkins
, Julien Nitzberg, 1993
Hollywood Vice Squad, Penelope Spheeris, 1986
Soylent Green, Richard Fleischer, 1973

Pineapple Express
, David Gordon Green, 2008

Like Superbad, this Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg penned script is totally over-the-top, precariously toeing the line between funny and ridiculous (but managing to stay on the funny side). Part buddy movie, part stoner comedy, part spoof on action films, one of the things that sets it apart from previous efforts is the degree of bloody, exaggerated violence: an ear is shot off (hello Reservoir Dogs), a character is shot seven times and lives (“Am I seeing shit because I’m stoned or because I have no blood left in my body?”), lots of shit gets blown up. That and it’s directed by David Gordon Green, whose previous works—Snow Angels, All the Real Girls, George Washington, etc—are dramatic, poetic, and serious. Pineapple Express marks a pretty major departure for Green, and he seems to revel in the gloriously brutal comedy. I hope he makes more films in the vein of his earlier oeuvre, but I certainly enjoyed this change—maybe not the greatest comedy I’ve ever seen, but I’m definitely glad I saw it.

Bonnie and Clyde
, Arthur Penn, 1967
The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula, 1974
El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez, 1992

Man on Wire
, James Marsh, 2008

On August 7, 1974, French high wire artist Philippe Petit illegally walked a tight rope between the then recently built towers of the World Trade Center. Actually, walking isn’t quite an accurate description—he ran, danced, lay down, and juggled across the 3/4 inch cable, nearly a quarter mile off the ground, moving back and forth eight times in the span of 45 minutes, while bewildered policemen watched and waited until they could make their arrest.

Part documentary biopic, part thriller, Man on Wire is comprised of both archival footage and dramatic reenactments, switching between the hours leading up to that infamous day and a more chronological portrayal of Petit’s life. According to him, the inspiration for his most notorious feat came to him while flipping through magazines in a dentist’s office. He came upon a picture of the proposed design for the Twin Towers, and, drawing a line between them, knew he had to “conquer” them.

Completing this mission proved quite difficult. As Petit says in the film, “It’s impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working”—an apt representative statement for this story. After two practice runs at the Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he began to tackle his prime objective in a manner not unlike one might see in a bank heist movie—scouting the area, acquiring fake IDs, and assembling a crew, including a “man inside” who worked in an office in one of the towers. Though we already know the outcome, that he did indeed accomplish his goal, it’s nonetheless thrilling to watch the drama and tension unfold.

Some might wonder what the point of all this might be. The term “senseless acts of beauty” is what continues to come to my mind—in other words, there is no point other than to do something wondrous and incredible, to create beauty in the everyday. Petit strikes me as the type of person who exudes joy and creativity; throughout the movie he is constantly animated, almost frenziedly elated, as he tells his story. Ultimately, it’s a demonstration of the will of humanity to commit the impossible, to do whatever it takes to realize a vision.

Planet of the Apes
, Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968
Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton, 2001

Late one night while checking my email I discovered that the Walter Reade Theater was hosting a series of Charlton Heston movies. In celebration they were also conducting a trivia contest, the winner of which would receive two complimentary tickets to a screening of their choice. Instead of going to bed as I should have, I decided to try my hand at the quiz. I’m not exactly a Charlton Heston buff, but with the Internet you can find out just about anything. (Is that bad? Did I cheat?) The bonus question, “Six Degrees of Charlton Heston,” required that one provide a chain of actors linking Heston to Steven Spielberg. With a little strategy and help from IMDB I was able to come up with the answer fairly quickly (for those interested: Charlton Heston :: Burt Lancaster :: Kevin Costner :: Tim Robbins :: Tom Cruise :: Steven Spielberg). So, feeling proud of my nerdy Internet sleuthing skills, I emailed the New York Film Society people, and the next day found that I had won. (I’d be curious to know how many other people responded to the quiz—am I the only one with nothing better to do?)

Just before the movie started, the series curator gave a little introductory speech, at one point announcing there was a special guest in the audience that night. For an instant a feeling of horror and embarrassment came over me—until I realized he was talking about Norma Jacobs, an actress who played a chimpanzee in the movie. (This provided for a rather comic moment, when an elderly man sitting a few rows behind her got her attention and proceeded to beat his chest while making ape noises.)

As for the movie itself, while campily amusing, there were a few moments where I had to struggle to stifle my laughter, whether at cheesy dialogue or Heston’s over the top cackling. (Hey, I felt bad laughing at this poor lady’s movie, even though she only played a bit part in it.) I have to wonder if it would have been more effective had I not known the ending already (the same goes for Soylent Green—is there anyone out there who doesn’t know what soylent green is made of?) Would it have been that much more powerful?

What I do know is that I’m pretty disappointed with Tim Burton. Apparently his remake was more faithful to the book, which I’m guessing is just a pulpy sci-fi paperback that no one would remember if it hadn’t been made into a classic movie. (I do love my 60s paperbacks although I tend to buy them for their great covers, not the amazing storytelling contained within.) Sometimes being faithful to the source material is not the best move, which is unfortunately the case here.

3:10 to Yuma
, James Mangold, 2007
Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment, Karel Reisz, 1966
Desperado, Robert Rodriguez, 1995
Burn After Reading, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008
Who Are You Polly Magoo, William Klein, 1966
Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Robert Rodriguez, 2003
Night on Earth, Jim Jarmusch, 1991
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Robert Altman, 1976
The Haunting, Robert Wise, 1963
The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin, 2003
The Innocents, Jack Clayton, 1961
Home Movie, Chris Smith, 2001
Vanishing Point, Richard C. Sarafian, 1971
Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick, 1964
The Education of Shelby Knox, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, 2005

The Man Who Laughs, Paul Leni, 1928

Based on a Victor Hugo novel, this 1928 silent film tells the story of Gwynplaine, the son of a 17th-century lord who betrays the king, who in retaliation has a smile permanently carved on the face of young Gwynplaine and leaves him for dead in the desolate winter tundra. Fortunately he’s taken in by a traveling carnival man, but forever haunted by his disturbing appearance.

My interest in the film stemmed from my discovery that the character of Gwynplaine was the main inspiration for the creation of Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker. And dare I say, he is quite the spitting image.

The Model Couple
, William Klein, 1977
Synecdoche New York, Charlie Kaufman, 2008
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry, 2004
The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry, 2006
Pitfall, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962
Annie Hall, Woody Allen, 1977
Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino, 1997
God's Angry Man, Werner Herzog, 1980
The Stranger
, Orson Welles, 1946
Spoorloos, George Sluizer, 1988
The Face of Another, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966

, Gus Van Sant, 2008

I’m not the biggest fan of Gus Van Sant’s movies. And so my take on Milk is that it’s good in spite of its director, that its subject transcends the movie-viewing experience and takes over from beyond the grave. You can’t help but love Harvey Milk, just as you can’t help but feel overcome with emotion, whether triumphant, joyful, or painful—and sometimes all of these at once.

There are some clich├ęd aspects: the obligatory slow motion death scene (isn’t there some other way to communicate drama?), scenes when Sean Penn starts Acting with a capital A, and my least favorite moment(s): at the beginning there is a scene in which Milk offhandedly comments to his boyfriend Scott that he won’t live to see his 50th birthday. Later on in the movie, Scott says “Looks like you’ll make it to fifty after all.” And then, after the fatal shot, the first scene replays in its entirety. The first time I thought the comment was a bit heavy-handed. Then when it was referenced again I thought, “Is that really necessary?” By the end I was on the verge of cringing. Filmmakers should assume that their audience has the ability to recall scenes they’ve witnessed only hours before, and not only that, to pick up on thematic points. There was absolutely no need to replay that scene, or even to reference it again—it would have been playing in the back of everyone’s minds throughout the film, a grim reminder of the climax it was heading toward. I firmly believe that any film would be better served by such lessons in subtlety.

The use of documentary footage is effective, particularly in the opening, which depicts men covering their faces in shame as they’re led out of gay bars by policemen, crammed into a paddy wagon until there’s no room left to move. Overall Milk demonstrates how far we’ve come since that time, yet, troublingly, how far we still have to go. Echoes of the recent passing of Proposition 8 are acutely perceived in the battles against Proposition 6 (I can only assume that the film was completed long before the election and that any resemblance to the present time is by disturbing coincidence). I suppose that, ultimately, mandatory firing of gay teachers and any public school employees who support gay rights is just a tad worse than banning same sex marriage. But that’s a pretty thin silver lining (maybe nonexistent); we’ve taken some relatively minuscule steps in the greater scheme of things.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989
The American Friend, Wim Wenders, 1977
Expelled, Nathan Frankowski, 2008
The Pool, Chris Smith, 2008
Good Morning, Yasujiro Ozu, 1959
Scrooged, Richard Donner, 1988
Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick, 1993
A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, 1983
The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky, 2008
Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton, 1996
Downtown 81, Edo Bertoglio, 1981