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 clichéd 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

Sunday, November 02, 2008

American Movie, Chris Smith, 1999
, Todd Solondz, 2001

“The common sensibility of these filmmakers is that they invite the audience to share their feelings of superiority to the people they put on screen. And too often, the largely white, urban, liberal, educated audience these filmmakers attract have been happy to join in, looking down their collective noses at the hicks and rubes and bourgeoisie trapped on the screen like specimens under glass.”—

I can’t help but feel that this quote (and the rest of the longer review from which it was extracted) drastically misses the point of the films it condemns: the works of Chris Smith, Todd Solondz, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and so on. These are all directors whose movies I happen to enjoy (I count Morris as one of my favorite filmmakers of all time), so does that mean that I’m among the guilty—that is, the nose-thumbing, smugly laughing urban white liberal audience?

Here’s my take on Chris Smith’s American Movie: it’s an inspiring portrayal of a unique character’s intense and dogged quest to make a film. Despite his lack of means, Mark Borchardt is determined to fulfill his dream, and while the resulting short film, Coven, isn’t exactly a masterpiece, he accomplishes his goal. (There are some great shots in Coven, by the way, and I don’t think it’s too farfetched to speculate that if he were to make a movie using a better script, he might have ended up with something really remarkable. So he’s not a great writer—that’s only one part of making movies.) Sure, the documentary is peopled with some strange and inimitable characters, and some of the things they say are very funny, whether or not it’s deliberate. Much of the humor stems from Borchardt’s extreme earnestness (and come on, wouldn’t anyone who had been present on the day one actor’s head was smashed through the “prop” kitchen cabinet, barring said actor himself, have thought the scene unfolding before them was completely hilarious?). But these quirks are endearing, only making me like the characters even more—sure, I laughed throughout the movie, but not patronizingly (really!). Responses such as the Salon review seem kind of knee-jerk—the viewer is so afraid of offending someone that they fail to see the film for what it is.

I’m sure there are some who do laugh at these characters unsympathetically. But is that the fault of the filmmaker? Some, Todd Solondz among them, seem to think that intention is only one factor, that once the film has an audience, that audience’s reactions are as much a part of the film as what’s onscreen. I, however, must disagree—the stunted response of some brainless douchebag has nothing to do with the greater work of art. It’s just one opinion, one response among many.

Solondz’s Storytelling tackles this issue of culpability, of mocking one’s subjects for comedic purposes. It seems to be as much of a reaction to American Movie* as it is to criticisms of his own films. “I’m not looking down on them, I love them!” Toby Oxman proclaims a little too defensively (ahem) when someone challenges his intentions in tackling his current project, a documentary about a suburban New Jersey family. In one scene, Scooby, the disaffected, aimless teen of the family, walks into an early screening of the documentary and is horrified to find the audience cracking up as he’s interviewed. But the difference between this and something like American Movie (or Vernon, Florida, or Roger and Me) is that not only is the audience laughing much harder than would realistically happen (especially since the scene they’re watching isn’t all that funny, which I suppose could have been intentionally exaggerated within Scooby’s mind), but that unlike Mark Borchardt, Scooby isn’t endearing—he’s just annoying. (And come on, why doesn’t he just grow a pair? I can’t stand all this sensitivity!) For me, the appeal of the aforementioned documentaries is the sheer joy of catching a glimpse into lives that I know nothing of, that I would never see unless someone like Chris Smith or Errol Morris aimed their camera at it. It’s thrilling just knowing that there are people like this in the world—and you know what? Some of them are really fucking funny.

*As if to drive the point home a little more, Storytelling co-stars Mike Schank, the real-life stoner friend of Mark Borchardt who appears in American Movie.

Monday, October 13, 2008

All right, all right. I'm a slacker. I haven't been keeping this thing up, and I want to get back on track. In my attempt to play catch-up, here are brief reactions to some of the movies I saw this past summer, as succinctly as possible. (More to come soon—I hope.)

Rocket Science, Jeffrey Blitz, 2007

I think I’ve moved on from the quirky Wes Anderson style of comedy, which this movie about a kid with a severe stuttering problem who tries out for the debate team really strives to emulate. Eh.

Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would. The cinematography was gorgeous, the suspense high, and the subject is innovatively handled (I love that the zodiac killer was portrayed by multiple actors to match the varied physical descriptions given by eyewitnesses and surviving victims). My one (very minor) qualm is that Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t appear to age a day throughout the course of the film. I mean, come on. Not a gray hair on him.

Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock, 1972

One of Hitchcock’s last films, and perhaps one of his most disturbing. This tale of a serial killer known as the “necktie murderer” (i.e. strangler) terrorizing London is chilling, suspenseful, and yet still retains a touch of the black humor Hitchcock employed in his later films.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Ridley Scott, 1982

With its atmospheric bleakness and eerie, post-apocalyptic ambiance, Blade Runner remains one of my longstanding favorite films, but I have no idea what is different about this version. I had been expecting some extra scenes, but didn’t notice anything that sets it apart from the 1992 director’s cut.

The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, 2008

Not that I’m the most diehard Batman fan, but I’ll agree that this is the best one to date. I could take or leave Christian Bale as Batman but Heath Ledger’s Joker is far superior to Jack Nicholson’s. He’s fittingly darker, more disturbed, and more unkempt, with his smeared makeup and stringy, sickly green hair, deftly portraying his character’s madness.

The Wendell Baker Story, Andrew and Luke Wilson, 2005

What a piece of shit. Sorry, Luke Wilson.

What We Do Is Secret, Rodger Grossman, 2007

This biopic of the Germs’ Darby Crash is more or less an adaptation of Lexicon Devil (though not actually intended as such), which is a bit troubling since that book features various contradictory statements. This is very much the nature of oral histories, so they really must be taken with a grain of salt, not interpreted as gospel truth (and it also seems to indicate that the person writing this screenplay didn’t know very much about the subject if he had to copy it almost entirely from a book—and I don’t care if Michelle Baer shares a “writing credit”). Even if the film were factually correct (and it isn’t, as some key figures are glaringly absent), it fails to capture the feeling, the essence of punk, and certainly does nothing to develop Crash's character and delve into his psyche (other than the alleged "five-year plan" at the heart of the film, which I can't help but feel is total bullshit, or at least grossly exaggerated).

The Bad News Bears, Michael Ritchie, 1976

A “family film” like this could never be created today (the sorry excuse for a remake of this movie is proof). This scrappy gang of kids swears, the coach drinks too much, and it doesn’t close on some clichéd happy note—perfection.

Wait Until Dark, Terence Young, 1967
Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman whose husband unwittingly comes into possession of a doll containing a bag of heroin. In an attempt to get it back, three thugs stage a ridiculously elaborate plot in which they play a police officer, her husband’s old buddy, and so on, moving in and out of her senselessly unlocked apartment. Hepburn’s character is infuriatingly helpless, even though she’s meant to be a strong character who’s become increasingly independent despite her going blind, and she continues to make all the wrong moves—for the love of God, why doesn’t just lock her front door? Oh yeah, because then the movie would be over.

What’s New Pussycat, Clive Donner and Richard Talmadge, 1967

Woody Allen’s first cinematic writing credit is a perfect example of the type of comedy that seems to have been so popular in the 60s but feels very dated now—zany, madcap, silly, etc, are all words that come to mind. I much prefer Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther over this one, but it's not all bad.

The Simpsons Movie, David Silverman, 2007

As one might expect, this feels like an especially lengthy version of a not especially great episode of the show. Seems a bit pointless, other than to make some money.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Okay, I'm about four months late for the 40 year anniversary of the student revolts of May 1968, but now seems as good a time as any to discuss these cinematic interpretations of a time in history that feels not too far off from our own.

Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel, 2005
The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

Philippe Garrel has made nearly thirty films since 1964, yet he is virtually unknown in the U.S. (at least when compared to contemporaries such as Godard, Chabrol, etc.) According to the Village Voice, when Garrel showed his movies in New York in 1970, Jonas Mekas called them “very sad cries from the past, one almost pities them”—yet Garrel persevered, and in 2005 made his first Lincoln Center appearance in thirty three years with Regular Lovers, a film that one can only assume must be an extremely personal and true-to-life portrayal of Paris in May 1968, as well as its aftermath. The film stars Garrel’s son Louis as a self-described poet named François who passively dodges the draft and talks of revolution with his friends (though when he takes to the barricades he refuses to launch a Molotov cocktail at the police).

The movie opens with extended scenes depicting the famous 1968 uprisings, then switches to the private lives of the protesters as they create art, smoke hash, and hang out. The film is more about the characters than about the political goings-on—there’s no real explanation as to the background of the revolt, no social commentary on the events taking place. The heart of the film is the love story (or lack thereof) between François and a sculptor named Lilie. With little action and a barely existent plot, the film’s chief merit is its style. The black and white cinematography, the gorgeous lighting, and authentic set design mirror the look and feel of a late 60s film to a T (unwitting viewers might mistake it for a lost work of the Nouvelle Vagueparadoxically, many of the scenes feel oddly contemporary, perhaps a result of our continued obsession with the past, manifested in current 60s-inspired clothing and music).

Garrel is a veteran of that era; he participated in the aforementioned revolt, he was romantically involved with one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico for ten years until her death, he lived the life of these characters. Thus, I don’t doubt that this is an accurate representation—but surprisingly, it’s just not that interesting. I suppose this must be intentional, to refrain from making some kind of explosive love story or grandiose action movie, in favor of something more muted and understated. I just found it hard to retain interest.

It is said that Garrel made Regular Lovers as a reaction to The Dreamers, another film about the May 1968 protests from a veteran director whose work dates back to the early 60s—Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci of Last Tango in Paris fame—because he thought it hadn’t succeeded in portraying the time period. In The Dreamers, a young American studying in Paris strikes up a friendship with a French sister and brother (also played by Louis Garrel), whose strange, creepily close relationship is reminiscent of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. When their parents go on an extended holiday, they invite their American friend to stay with them, free to let their inner fantasies and extreme, almost freakish isolation take over.

The Dreamers is more of a tribute to the films of the 60s. Its characters are devout cinephiles, and the story is peppered throughout with clips from such films as Band of Outsiders, Breathless, Freaks, and more, as the characters try to live inside of their favorite films, mirroring these beloved scenes in their own lives. The cinema is what brings them together in the first place—they meet at the start of the film while protesting the closing of the famed Cinémathèque Française.

The revolution might have completely passed them by if they hadn’t essentially been forced into participating by a brick crashing through their window. Otherwise they probably would have been content to drink wine, fuck, and watch movies. Instead, their isolation is shattered, both literally and figuratively—it seems they can no longer ignore the outside world. And yet they seem to be pretending, feigning this sudden interest in the revolts because it’s hip to do so—their hearts are more in the protest of the beginning of the film.

The Dreamers has a stronger narrative than Regular Lovers, but is perhaps less authentic, more of a period piece than an attempt at embodying the style of an older film. Perhaps the best representation of this era is yet to come, comprising an amalgamation of Garrel’s style and Bertolucci’s storytelling. Or, more likely, these events just may not easily lend themselves to dramatic interpretation—one of those moments in time that cannot truly be described with any combination of words and pictures, as something intangible will always be lost in translation.

La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard, 1967

This film represents a transitional period for Godard, as he moved away from the style of his earlier work toward more dialectical and political films. Here, a group of French students discuss Maoism and plot a revolution from their apartment, planning terrorist attacks of which they have not begun to consider the consequences. The students seem not to represent Godard’s point of view so much as his observations of young radical students at the time—more of a reading of the burgeoning youth culture than of the political situation. The film seems to be a kind of fond critique of the characters; they’re extremely naïve, proselytizing from the bourgeois comforts of their university education that their parents probably paid for. (This same assessment is present to some extent in the two aforementioned films.) Godard acknowledges that they’re misguided, but at least well-meaning: “their arguments were a mess…they were a bit like children.” Their plans are criticized by a knowledgeable journalist (perhaps a stand-in for Godard, or at least the voice of reason), who explains to them that they’re “not prepared...the lessons you draw are very’re heading towards a dead end.”

The characters are shown being interviewed, with cameras and microphones in view, lending the film a documentary feel, as well as emphasizing its subtitle: “a film in the making.” It boasts great cinematography, with striking images and bold colors—in particular, lots of red (hence the Maoists). Much like Godard’s other films of this period, each section of the film is preceded by a title card typed out in bold, capital letters.

One of my favorite moments comes in the form of this satirical pop song sung by Claude Channes:

Vietnam burns and me I spurn Mao Mao
Johnson giggles and me I wiggle Mao Mao
Napalm runs and me I gun Mao Mao
Cities die and me I cry Mao Mao
Whores cry and me I sigh Mao Mao

The rice is mad and me a cad
It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move
lmperialism lays down the law
Revolution is not a party
The A-bomb is a paper tiger
The masses are the real heroes

The Yanks kill and me I read Mao Mao

The jester is king and me I sing Mao Mao
The bombs go off and me I scoff Mao Mao
Girls run and me I follow Mao Mao
The Russians eat and me I dance Mao Mao
I denounce and I renounce Mao Mao

It’s the Little Red Book
That makes it all move.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Alain Tanner, 1976

This Swiss film takes a look at the aftermath of the 60s, as former revolutionaries contemplate what they’ve become. The film’s eight central characters, all somehow affected by or associated with the events of May 1968, are linked in various ways (not to mention that their names all start with the letter “M”)—Mathieu is employed by Marcel and Marguerite, their neighbor Marco has a crush on Marie after meeting her in the grocery store, and so on. Each has taken a different path since those heady days of protest, from that of a disillusioned gambler and former journalist, to a history teacher, to a blue collar worker (i.e. shit shoveler), to organic vegetable farmers, to an anarchic grocery store clerk who steals from her employer to benefit others, etc.

Each of them tries to remain political in their own way, whether tilling the soil, teaching young people about politics, or stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Mathieu in particular is somewhat of a visionary—he tries to teach the children himself instead of letting them go to school, and later, while looking at the film’s characters standing in front of a wall, he envisions a mural depicting those people in those exact positions, Max with his arms outstretched; we see at the end that the mural has been created.

Towards the end, Mathieu rides his bicycle and sings a song about the film’s characters: “Marguerite the witch / Marco the philosopher / Marie the thief / Marcel the hermit / Mathilde my love / Max the former prophet / Madeleine the fool / I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.” The last line in particular seems to refer to him as a kind of shepherd, looking out for his friends when they might not be.

The film holds up fairly well over time, so it seems odd that it’s so hard to come by. One doesn’t have to know much about the events of May 1968 to understand it. The film could be applied to the present time, in its depiction of a group of people struggling to come to terms with the fact that they’re growing up, while applying their youthful ideals to reality. The world has seemingly changed around them, some of them evolving with it, and some not—through its final scene in which the young Jonah of the film’s title begins writing on the aforementioned mural with a piece of chalk, the message is ultimately one of hope in the future, though not exactly of earth-shattering optimism.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

New(ish) movies watched lately.

Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings, 2007

This somewhat whimsical and warmly nostalgic portrait of England in the 1980s centers around Will, a timid little wisp of a kid whose family belongs to some kind of strict and oddly cultish religion that doesn’t allow television—not even educational films, as we see when Will has to sit in the hall while his class watches a video—or any form of entertainment, for that matter.

While banished to the television-free hallway, Will meets Lee Carter, the school fuck-up whom everyone seems to hate, and despite the odds, they hit it off in their own weird way. Lee makes bootleg videos for his older brother whom he idolizes, but who treats Lee like shit (but since their mom is more or less nonexistent, “he’s all I’ve got!”, as Lee mawkishly cries). Lee shows a bootleg copy of First Blood to Will—I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through 14 or 15 years of life without ever seeing a minute of celluloid, and then to plunge right into a Sylvester Stallone action film. Will already possesses an intense creative impulse, stealing away to a shed in his backyard to make crazy, feverishly charged cartoonish drawings in his Bible (the only materials he has to work with), which he often imagines coming to life, moving around via wiggling, animated lines. But Rambo pushes him over the edge—the movie sets Will free, empowering him with a newfound strength, releasing his own barbaric yawp. With tinges of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Will and Lee start working on a movie, which requires some significant rule breaking and parental defiance on Will’s part in order to get away, as he’s not supposed to be cavorting with sinners. Their movie was initially supposed to be a remake of First Blood, but then Will has an idea for his own movie—called, as one might guess, Son of Rambo.

Meanwhile, a group of French foreign exchange students have arrived. On the whole much hipper than the bland and mild English, one of them, named Didier, is kind of a new wave Michael Jackson worshipper. Possessing a bit more world-weariness than the rest of them—he even has a pencil-thin mustache—Didier develops a following of schlubby English kids who mimic his hairstyle and look, while the girls swoon over him and line up to kiss him. As always seems to be the case with anything that’s somewhat clandestine and cool, they eventually discover the Son of Rambo project and try to glom onto it. While Will is excited about collaborating with others, thinking the more the merrier, not to mention relishing his sudden popularity, Lee does not react well to the additional participants. He knows they’ll only ruin it, steal it out from under them and turn it into something else, changing its dynamic irrevocably.

The film has a tone of hyperbolic slapstick, with a touch of the maudlin (for instance, when Lee proclaims to Will, “this has been my best day ever!”—heartwarmingly nauseating). Overall it was cute, fun, and entertaining, but nothing momentous, certainly nothing I’ll ever really feel the need to see again.

Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine, 2007

Harmony Korine’s third feature film entails a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator while he's entertaining a group of senior citizens. (“Live forever! Don’t die!” he chants, inviting each half of the room to join in chorus.) “Marilyn” invites “Michael” back to her commune in Scotland, a refuge for a motley group of celebrity impersonators that includes Charlie Chaplin (Marilyn’s husband), Shirley Temple (their daughter), the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, a surly Abraham Lincoln (“I’m Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. They’re currently at work building a theater in hopes of attracting new visitors and showcasing their talents for the world (somewhat unexpected, considering their self-imposed isolation).

There’s also a second plotline involving a priest, played by Werner Herzog,* who is training a group of nuns to fly by jumping from an airplane. As much as we might somehow expect them to, the storylines never come together, remaining wholly unrelated to one another. Despite these scenes’ perceived irrelevance to the main narrative, the image of a woman falling through the sky, her habit billowing around her, is arresting and bizarrely poignant. And did I mention that Werner Herzog is involved?

Mister Lonely is much more accessible and less disturbing than Korine’s previous films—one could chalk it up to maturation, or perhaps just his cleaning up and getting into a healthier state of mind—yet it still retains the strangeness of his earlier work. Moreover, it is not without elements of tragedy and melancholic overtones—a dark tale disguised as sweet and sentimental.

The film’s highlights are its striking, weirdly beautiful images—for instance, the falling nun, or the memorable opening scene in which our Michael Jackson look-alike rides a tiny bike around a track, a stuffed monkey with angel wings hanging off to the side by a wire, almost appearing to fly. This moment is inexplicably funny, moving in an intangible way. As Korine explains in an April 2008 New York Times article, “The story always comes from pictures I want to see,” which seems to account for the slight disjointedness, almost a random succession of stunningly oddball moments—the art lies in the unexpected manner in which such moments are placed into the film.

Despite its striking imagery and relatively straightforward plot—for this director, at least—the film seems flawed, almost a little bit boring, and I think I prefer the grotesquerie of his earlier works. Gummo has its own moments of beauty, though in a much darker and more perverted sense. Perhaps a happy medium of the two would be ideal—in the aforementioned interview, Korine states that “I think the next one will be more provocative,” so perhaps I’ll get my wish.

*Herzog was cast in Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, and as then, he still can’t act. But I’m such a fan of Herzog’s own films that this doesn’t really bother me. I can forgive him this one shortcoming—which might be the case with Korine as well.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

La Jetée, Chris Marker, 1966
Twelve Monkeys
, Terry Gilliam, 1995

Chris Marker’s “photo-roman”* is comprised of a series of gorgeously framed images, each one a museum-quality photograph, shot in that grainy black and white that I love so much. With the exception of one scene, in which a woman opens her eyes, the story is entirely told through still images accompanied with voiceover narration—yet they nonetheless suggest the impression of movement.

Humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “The victors,” as they are called, have established some kind of underground penal colony, and have begun conducting time travel experiments using the prisoners as guinea pigs, in hopes of gaining information about the source of the catastrophe, and ultimately to change the course of history. One man in particular is chosen for his strong mental image of the peacetime world—he has been haunted by a childhood memory, in which he witnessed a man die—the logic being that “if [he] were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps [he] would be able to live in it.”

This short yet accomplished film—and, as far as I can tell, one of the director’s most accessible, not to mention thrilling—focuses on issues of time and memory, involving a classic time paradox. It has been called the greatest science fiction film ever made—whether or not this is the case, it is definitely the most elegant, beautifully shot, and philosophically complex one that I have seen.

Inspired by and partially based on La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys expands upon the former, fleshing it out into a full-length feature with conventional movement and sound. Gilliam’s film adds various elements to the plot, such as the cataclysmic event being a plague rather than a nuclear bomb, the main character’s ending up in the wrong year and being incarcerated in a mental institution (naturally, everyone assumes he’s crazy when he explains that he’s come from the future), and of course the “Army of the Twelve Monkeys,” a militant animal rights group assumed to be the source of the deadly virus.

As in La Jetée, this film involves multiple time paradoxes. James Cole, the aforementioned man from the future, accidentally travels back to a World War I battlefield; in 1996 he can be seen in photographs of that battle. Cole is shown pictures of graffiti spraypainted on a wall days before the epidemic began; it turns out that the graffiti exists because of him. Then of course there is the film’s central paradox, which I won’t go into so as not to spoil it.

These paradoxes present some mind-bending questions about the nature of time. The film seems to imply that time cannot be changed, that all events are predetermined, that there was never a 1997 when James had not traveled there from the future, just as he had always been involved in that World War I battle. (In La Jetée the narrator avers that “there was no way to escape Time.”) Thus, these attempts at gaining information about the virus in hopes of thwarting it are futile; James was always part of that chain of events, and he will always fail.

Despite all of their similarities, these are two very different films. While I ultimately prefer the stark and graceful beauty of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys is not without merit. It retains a nice apocalyptic feel, and while the plot additions certainly change the story, they don’t detract from it. I don’t even mind that Bruce Willis is in the movie, although it should be noted that Terry Gilliam reportedly gave him a list of “Bruce Willis acting clichés” that were not to be used in that performance—good advice, Terry.

*This translates to “photo-novel,” which could really refer to any film, as they are all comprised of thousands of still images—this one just annunciates that aspect more pronouncedly.