Friday, December 30, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Dir: Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, The Incredible Hulk)


My only hope for this movie is that as we approach Oscar season, the movie is not pigeon-holed as a great "gay" love story and lauded purely for its groundbreaking subject matter (sure, that is important, especially in times of homophobic social conservatism). But, Brokeback Mountain is quite simply a gorgeous, heart-wrenching love story.

Brokeback Mountain follows the development of an amorous relationship between two Wyoming cowboys: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two cowpokes spend a lonely, but fulfilling summer on Brokeback Mountain as they herd sheep and explore their mutual attraction. As summer greens turn to autumnal yellows, Del Mar fulfills an earlier promise to marry his longtime sweetheart and Twist returns to riding bulls. Both remember their summer together fondly, even as they find acceptable loves and start families. Years later, Twist reestablishes contact with Del Mar, and the relationship is renewed (a perfectly lovely scene where a giddy Ledger anxiously awaits Twist's arrival effectively captures the nature of their relationship). Over the next few years, they take semi-regular and not so covert "fishing trips" together. Even though their lives unfold in the outside world (children, divorce), these fishing trips become touching and romantic moments where time is arrested and their love remains unfettered. Like all great love stories, tragedy is everpresent.

Lee channels tested, but not overly cliched, narrative devices that demonstrate how love finds ways to grow despite external forces and social mores. This is Lee's second venture into exploring issues of homosexual love amidst cultural norms that militate against such relationships. The first film, the Wedding Banquet, examines how a gay Chinese man keeps his sexual identity and his boyfriend hidden from his conservative family. Unlike the Wedding Banquet, where the sexual politics are made obvious, Brokeback Mountain thrives on subtilty. Lee tells such an effective and moving (and universal) love story that the characters' gender is rendered transparent; we even forget that this relationship is between two men (I couldn't help but think how there are some parallels between this film's depiction of love and that found in Kong) . Even the film's depictions of homophobia highlights the indirectness with which such prejudices operate.

The screenplay, written by Larry McMurtry (celebrated author of Lonesome Dove and other westerns, but also the screenwriter/author of Hud and the Last Picture Show), relies on spartan, but realistic, dialogue that is sustained by exemplary cinematography (a sublime scene where Twist resists the temptation to look at a naked Del Mar is bathing himself expresses a respectful love that could only be cheapened by the most furtive of glances). Both acting performances are Oscar-worthy. Although Ledger is getting the greater press (he is more of the lead), Gyllenhaal, for my money, is the better of the two performances. I guess I am somewhat troubled by the release of Casanova (starring Heath Ledger as history's greatest womanizer) so close to Brokeback Mountain. I can almost hear Ledger's publicist saying, "I just want everyone to know that Heath is not gay...not that there is anything wrong with that."

Beautiful film. Breathtaking setting. Quality acting. It deserves all the praise it is receiving.
Loved it...not that there is anything wrong with that...


Dir: Some guy named Spielberg (Always, Hook).


Let me begin by saying I know relatively little about Israel's response to the terrorists of the 1972 Munich Games. So comments about the historic fidelity of Spielberg's retelling can change my read of the film, perhaps substantially. But given the political gravity of this story, I am pretty certain Spielberg has most of his ducks in a row. The last time Spielberg released two movies in the same year, one a special effects extravaganza (Jurassic Park) the other serious cinema (Schindler's List), he dominated the Oscars (I do not think that will happen this year due to the relative weakness of War of the Worlds).

Unlike Schindler's List, which invited questions as to whether the maker of ET and Jaws could capture respectfully the horrors of the Holocaust, Munich is perhaps Spielberg's most controversial film (however, for a filmmaker who rarely engages existing and deeply-rooted social tensions, that is not saying too much). Certainly the subject matter possesses the necessary kindling for very incendiary insights, but the best way to avoid controversy is to avoid taking a stand that could alienate droves of loyal movie-goers: don't blame the Jews, they are reluctant combatants defending their existence; don't blame the Muslims and Palestinians, they just want a home. But then, who is left to blame? (Canada?)Wait a minute, it sounds like the staunch Spielberg apologist is echoing Godardian criticisms of the American auteur? Could this be true? Nope (surprise). In fact, with the exception of Kaminski's signature luminescent camera and the occasional moments of narrative levity, this is perhaps the least-Spielberg Spielberg film. The kinetic editing style, obvious and obtuse camera angles, and highly metaphoric characters hints at New Wave filmmaking.

Spielberg treads the political wars carefully; he humanizes many of the characters (more so the Israeli hitmen) as principled warriors fighting for the elusive concept of home. Despite the more "noble" intentions, Spielberg adopts an ambivalent perspective on the use of violence to achieve such ends. He does not condemn it as much as he suggests its ability to beget more violence. Spielberg escapes possible ethical indeterminacy by indicting both the media and, to a lesser degree, American apathy as culprits to the never-ending cycle of violence (the first fifteen minutes is a very non-Spielbergian but extremely effective indictment of media coverage of terrorism).

Prior to seeing the film, I read a review that criticized Spielberg for lazy storytelling, the product of impatient editing. I do not buy it. Spielberg is a master storyteller (in fact his reliance on narrative devices to articulate a film's argument is often the basis of most erudite criticisms of Spielberg). So, any deviation from careful storytelling, in my mind, must be intentional (always the charitable reader). Every scene that involves some retaliatory strike or heightened violence ends prior to resolution; we never see the escape. The next scene is linked by a jump cut that finds the surviving characters safe. Where that might fail traditional narrative standards, Spielberg is using the editing to create the argument of endless and unresolved violence.

The final shot, predictably, attempts to bring the film "home." It deviates from traditional, feel-good endings that Spielberg too often tacks onto the end of his films, so it succeeds in that regard.

The acting is typically solid (Eric Bana plays a wonderfully tortured son of an Israeli hero; however, I do find it interesting that his inner struggle does not come from killing the terrorist masterminds-although there is some of that-it comes mostly from executing Israeli policy that requires him to make larger familial sacrifices).

Lots more to say. But. we'll save that for the comments.

Good film, Go see.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Life Less Ordinary


Dir: Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave; Trainspotting; 28 Days Later)

Dark, dark romantic comedy. Half Tarantino and half Nora Ephron. Ewan McGregor happens into a kidnapping of Cameron Diaz, the daughter of the brutal capitalist who has just fired him. As it so happens, the encouter is prearranged by a pair of cupids/angels who are tasked with bringing the odd couple to love by God. Otherwise, the angels are sentenced to eternity on Earth, and our lovers live out their lives in sorrow.

The plot is not nearly as muddy as its synopsis seems. But the film is both richly symbolic and highly stylized, both elements being hard to make gel into a coherent story. At times the very talented Boyle threatens to tip over into silliness or music video parody. But for the most part, the direction remains frenetic but tasteful and the focus remains, as it should, on the love story.

The movie is essentially a rumination on contemporary relationships, one that I found myself ambivalent on. The abiding atmosphere is cynicism; Diaz shoots people with a gun, for fun. Love is something rendered superfluous by impotent men and cold, jaded women. The high divorce rate is what drives the angels' quest. Pop psychology, sex without attachment, and disconnection pervade the worldview of the whole film.

And then, Boyle rehabilitates his characters and his narrative by returning to an older view of romance. The pivotal scene, one that rewards the price of admission, is a fantastical one where a karaoke excursion into Bobby Darin ends up in an old fashioned production number. The story wants to reclaim the older, less cyncial romance. It yearns for when people fell in love and dance the rest of their lives and no one gets shot.

But, oddly enough, lots more people get shot in the movie after that scene. Even the angels shoot people. It's like Boyle won't let the supposed hyper-cynicism of modern romance aside, even at the same time as he critiques it. The remainder is a thought provoking film, but one that I have trouble reckoning with. Are we that cold and postmodern? No, I think not. Is love that doomed? I know for a fact that it is not. So, is Boyle just being fashionably dark? Perhaps. But his take on the world is worth a careful consideration.

Fifteen years ago, Sharon Stone would have played the Diaz character and Harrison Ford the McGregor. And the former would have been an improvement, the latter a fair trade. What we have here is a visually interesting, probably too bleak account of the search for love in the modern world.

Worth your time. But plow through the classics before this; you will understand the critique all the more.


West Side Story


Dirs: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Like a comfortable chair, I return to my own little place. This time, I concentrated on color. I will watch 1000 times and have something different to concentrate on each.


That's all.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

King Kong, or Hot Monkey Love


Dir: Peter Jackson (Dead Alive; Bad Taste)

It seems I am the last person on this blog (although not the last in the country, that box office yeesh!) to see the film. So straight to the comments with responses to my colleagues.

I start with criticisms, not to diminsh the film but to free me to gush later on unencumbered. The film has editing problems in the first half, with far more time devoted to side characters than is warranted by their eventual contribution to the story. In LOTR, the myriad of supporting characters could unfold narratively over the course of 9 hours (almost like a series of books, huh). They are not distractions, but their own complete stories. Here, the boat captain, the father/son thing with the castaway, the crew of the film, are all leading up to something and then essentailly disappear. The slowness before the dinosaur stampede is the direct result of character development that has no payoff. This movieshould be about Kong, Watts, Black and Brody; everything else ends up being a distraction. In the untold hours of footage on Jackson's editing room floor, the other folks get their stories resolved more satisfyingly I wager; but not here.

I also found Skull Island to be a bit gratuitous, one action sequence too many. It is the stampede. That's the only one that does not develop character, but is included purely for titilation. I do think that they all are quite thrilling (especially the bugs), but I want them to do narrative work as well. Kong in the vines absolutely does this. The stampede is a sore thumb, and derivative of Speilberg anyway.

Ron wonders how much of Jackson is in Jack Black (whose performance is mediocre). I think scores, the glaring physical similarities between the two aside. Black is caught between the dual desire to produce great and original art and to provide spectacle for the masses. He destroys those around him and his own product in a selfish bid to acheive this dream. For Jackson, the tension is between loading up the film with chase scenes and explosions, or telling the real love story, and art versus spectacle tradeoff. After the stampede, I was reminded of Russell Crowe chasitsing the virtual crowd in Gladiator "Is this what you wanted ?" after a violent and narratively pointless gore fest. I suspect Jackson knows the CGI is for largely specatcle alone, that it detracts from the art, and in that respect he is very much like Black, providing glitz for the ignorant audience's approval. Not that he does the CGI poorly, but that this movie is mnore than a popcorn movie. Jackson knows that, but is caught within the genre.

But oh what bliss are the scenes where Jackson gets it right. Those points above melt away with one raised eyebrow of Kong. Jackson has accomplished what at my first gloss is the best remake ever made, by my personal standards for that genre. "Take something good, and make it better. If you cannot improve it, then don't remake it" He has both improved the film politically and narratively. Those in order.

Max critiques the film's savages (no other word), and rightly so, I guess. No matter how you slice it, those have to be blood thirsty tribespeople, unless you punt that whole chunck of the original or make them green. Jackson, though, employs his horror movie skills to make them not so much people as zombies, otherwordly creatures who bare little resemblance to real humans. Sure, they resemble Africans more than anyone else , especially in costume. But I prefer to give Jackson credit for trying to work his way out of that. As a director, he made choices to diminsh a possible interpretation of racism.. Compare that to Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, for example, where every possible moment of artistic choice was anti-Jew. That film was anti-semitic, I don't support that reading of King Kong.

Not only that, but Jackson has completely eliminated the more general racism of the original film. There, Kong was a savage plucked from the jungles on a sexual pursuit of an unwilling white woman, destroying civilization in the process. The original was a rape narrative, but this has no such implications. By having us sympathize with the ape, and allowing tenderness between him and the woman, Jackson has tremendoudly improved the story's politics. We are the simpleton's in this iteration, and the love story is consensual. That fact gives Jackson the benefit of the doubt in the savages scene (in my mind).

This long post (sorry) has been building up to the transcendent parts of the film. I knew people had been praising the love story. But I had no idea just how brilliant it would be. Jackson has managed to boil operatic, undying love down to its essence. He has tapped into a centuries old story, retold it in a fresh and fascinating way, and done so entirely in pantomime and facial expression. This is really a one word romance: beautiful. Everything else is inferred by the audience's interpretation of Kong's sacrifices. Thank God, oh praise Jesus, that Jackson did not resort to having Watts continually say things like "Oh, you killed those dinsosaurs for me!" or "But you are going to die if you don't get off this building!" Jackson respects his audience enough (see the Jack Black dualism here) to provide a complicated love story even amidst all of the action sequences.

Several choices by Jackson in this love story were truly inspired, but let me single out one. Spoiler here. Allowing Kong to die in Watts' arms, rather than from the fall, and shielding his impact from our eyes is so sweet and respectful of that character that it moved me deeply. Kong exits with grace and dignity, something that he deserves after his continual demonstrations of love through self sacrifice. What could have been the best effect in the whole movie is omitted becuase the story dictates the direction at that point. Brilliant movie making.

Jackson has made King Kong greatly better through his reinterpretation. The technology available to him opens the door to telling a love story that could not have been done with clay, masks, or animatronics. Facial expressions of this kind for a 25 foot ape are reserved for CGI. He has also cleaned up the movie's politics, and put the focus on what really matters, the archetypal love story. At times Jackson is distracted, and he struggles with the tradeoff between spectacle and tenderness. But he plays the right notes at the end.


Monday, December 26, 2005

Mary Poppins

Dir: Robert Stevenson 1964

Walt Disney became determined to cast Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins after seeing her on Broadway in "Camelot". Since she was pregnant when shooting was to begin, Disney held up production until her daughter was born. He also arranged for her and her then-husband Tony Walton to be given a personal tour of Disneyland, and made Walton costume-designer for the movie (which would garner Walton an Academy Award nomination). Andrews herself, of course, won Best Actress for her performance - one of 5 Academy Award wins and 13 nominations for the film.

The movie opens with a performance by the very English street performer/chimney sweep Bert (played improbably by the very not English Dick Van Dyke, who got a Golden Globe nomination for the role). The conceit of the film is that the audience is among those watching Bert sing and dance at the very beginning, and we request that he take us to 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
17 Cherry Tree Lane is home to one Mr. George W. Banks, played by David Tomlinson. Banks is the epitome of a snotty, English patriarch:
King Edward's on the throne it's the age of men
I'm the lord of my castle the sovereign, the liege
I treat my subjects, servants children, wife with a firm but gentle hand, noblesse oblige

His wife and children, of course, suffer the consequences of his obsessively self-aware, genteel properness. His wife is Winifred Banks, played to a tee by Glynis Johns. She is ostensibly an egalitarian suffragette - but she has the maid pack spoiled eggs for her to throw at the Prime Minister, insists that she "would... muddle the whole thing" whenever a decision about the house has to be made, and constantly praises her husband's transparently hopeless cleverness. His children live in fear of him, and take out their frustrations on one nanny after another.

Into this situation floats Mary Poppins, who responds to a call placed by the children themselves (Karen Dotrice playing Jane Banks and Matthew Garber playing Michael Banks). She imposes herself on the Banks household, effectively hiring herself to nanny the children. Over the course of the movie, she'll attempt to bring joy into the children's lives and bring the family together.

There are at least three joys to this movie:

(1) The editing and effects. The film won awards for Special Visual Effects and for Editing. Though the movie is probably the best live action Disney movie ever made, it is the combination of live action and animation that marks the movie's uniqueness. The animation is almost naive - certainly it looks antiquated by any modern standards. But in the context of a magical yet proper nanny rolling her eyes and jumping with children into a chalk drawing, it strikes just the right effect. Plus, talking animals.

(2) Julie Andrews as a proper-but-not-too-proper nanny. And I think we all know what I'm talking about. Her voice. Which brings us to...

(3) The music. Richard and Robert Sherman won Academy Awards for Best Musical Score and Best Original Song. The song that won for Best Original Song was "Chim Chim Cher-e," but Andrews is at her best in the haunting "Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)" (hat song, which was Disney's favorite from the score, sets up a withering critique of fashionable, upper-class neglect disregard for the homeless).

There are some other interesting innuendos and subtleties: Andrews makes it very clear that she knows that she's "practically perfect in every way" - and a minute and a half she twice openly admires herself in mirrors of various sizes (although really, who can blame her - and Mary Poppins's vanity was actually toned down from the books). Also toned down from the books are overt hints of a romance between Andrews and Van Dyke.

The film has been the subject of several articles that find in the plot progressive to radical themes - advocacies of suffrage, critiques of bombastic militarism, ridicules of capitalism ("When gazing at a graph that shows the profits up/Their little cup of joy should overflow"), etc. Critics counter that by the end, all of those tensions are resolved into a very conservative "family first" message. Of course, the film actually ends up somewhere in the middle: lambasting the facile hypocrisy of hyper-aware bourgeois pretensions while emphasizing that some social cohesion and many 'old fashioned family values' are sentiments worth preserving. Come for Julie Andrews, stay for the plot.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Documentaries and Debate

I apologize for the slightly off-topic post, but I think this is the space to do this, so...I'm following the long line of distinguished "I Just Saw" bloggers in teaching the Debate course at Pitt this spring. I thought I would turn to you all for some recommendations.

Here's the conceit of the class: Documentaries make great starting points for debate. 4 people pick a documentary that appeals to them, show 10-15 minutes of it to a public audience, and then have a public debate about some issue that the documentary raises. Imagine a debate about Wal-Mart's effect on the working class after viewing Robert Greenwald's new Wal-Mart movie. Or about foreign aid after watching Born into Brothels. Or about Google's impending world domination after watching the Flash film Epic 2015. Or about the dying coral reefs after watching Coral Reef Adventure.

Ok, maybe not the last one, though it is a fine film. But you get the idea.

I'm interested in a) what documentaries really rock your socks (or tacos, in Max's case) and b) if there are any thrilling critical reviews, essays, books, etc. that you think would be good resources. I'm not really thinking about having them read "documentary theory" but it wouldn't hurt if I knew a thing or two about it. Any other thoughts in general?

Have at it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

F.A.R.T. The Movie

A few words in my defense.

1. I thought this was directed by the Farrelly brothers who did Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and my favorite Stuck on You. Nope, this was directed by the Farley brothers who to my knowledge have done nothing funny.

2. My video store offers three movies for 3.33, which means that I paid only 1.11 for this 3 day rental or about .38 per day. I believe I was ripped off.

3. I thought there would be just enough cheap humor to sustain me after grading a lot of finals -- I was wrong.

Okay . . .

This movie is craptacular. Unfunny and poorly put together. I love fart humor, and the premise, of a college student who has an illness that forces him to fart whenever he is stressed, seemed promising. Not so.

The worst part is that the gag isn't really used all that well? And it certainly isn't consistent -- while farts show up in the movie, they really aren't funny nor are they tied to the punchlines of the film. Instead we get 40 year old leading men playing college seniors, flat dialogue and nightmarish characters.

The rest of the movie is a clear copy in the template of college/youth ranchy comedies. But other films, such as Porkies or The New Guy all do it soooooo much better. Terrible, simply terrible.

Stay away . . . stay very far away.

Schindler's List

Dir: Steven Spielberg


In honor of Spielberg's 59th birthday, I elected to revisit perhaps the only Spielberg film I have seen only once. Not because the film is anything short of spectacular, but because it is so hard to watch. Spielberg is often criticized by erudite critics for his strict loyalty to emotive narratives. He knows how to tell a story well, and in effort to punctuate most narratives with hopeful sentiments, he often plucks the heart strings in an almost saccharine fashion (but, I have no problem with that). However, it is this skill that serves him so well in Schindler's List. To comprehend the true horror of the Holocaust, one can not speak solely in numbers, but of the stories and the uncompromising identification with others.

Spielberg, clearly a master storyteller, knows that the face is the locus of identification; Spielberg adroitly captures the tragedy, hope, and fear that haunts each face by keeping the medium and close-ups shots just a beat longer than normal to secure our emotional connection with each character. Spielberg's camera is more contemplative and unflinching than his previous works (this is his first collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski-his DP ever since). I was particularly struck by his choice of how to depict the indiscriminate shootings. Now matter where anyone was shot, the victim collapsed with little movement or cries of suffering. Normally, on screen shooting victims often demonstrate some sort of life after they are shot; even if it is an anonymous death, the actual dying is a bit belabored. As a result, death does not seem so immediate or senseless. Spielberg's inspired direction, however, captures the immediate brutality of each shooting, leaving the audience with little time to process the shooting beyond the initial shock.

The lines between good and evil are as black and white as the film stock (another inspired directorial choice). The transformation of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) from an Adam Smithian businessman to a tortured savior is one of the better performances of the 1990s. His efforts to do good follow the logic of business, the calculating language the Nazis know best, until he realizes that such a mentality informs nefarious deeds in equal measure. The film's moral compass is uncomplicated, nor should it be. Ralph Fiennes aptly plays the malevolent Goet, he captures the Mephistophelian characteristics that drove concentration camp commadants without sliding into one-dimensional caricatures. (It is worth noting that Spielberg has yet to direct an Academy Award winning performance)

Although Schindler's List is considered his crown jewel in an already sparkling opus, Spielberg reluctantly helmed this film. He wanted it made, but he had enough self-awareness that his reputation and skill set risks undercutting the seriousness of the subject matter. Spielberg originally propositioned Roman Polanski (a Holocaust survivor) and Martin Scorsese to direct the film. Both declined, encouraging Spielberg to pursue his passion. Glad they did.

Shortly after Schindler's List came out, Spielberg was asked if he could give the world only one of his films, which one would it be. His answer: ET. His reason: for the children. I agree. I am just glad we have them all. Marcus, I remember a rather lengthy debate over the five greatest directors of all-time. I still think I am right.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Spielberg. I have given you a lot of money over the years. I still think I got the better end of the deal.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India


Dir: Ashutosh Gowariker (Swades)

Bollywood entry into the underdog sports film genre. Often cited as a "If you want a good intro to Indian movies, start here" film. Being able to say that I have now seen such a film is the best part of what is otherwise a trite story of sticking (wicketing?) it to the man.

Indian superstar Aamir Khan lives in a village lorded over by the British. When the villagers are unable to pay the increased tax (lagaan) during a drought, the egotistical Capt. Russell makes a wager (for no real reason, mind you, but without the wager there is no movie). If the villagers can win a game of cricket, they will be excused from the tax; lose, and the tax is tripled. There are various subplots, including the Capt.'s sister falling in love with Khan, and a villager falling in love with Khan, and the whole world falling in love with Khan. But almost all of the movie is devoted to the cricket match itself.

In the process of developing the Bad News Bears story, the almost four hour film quite literally deploys every single sports cliche that I can think of. Just a brief example; the misfit who has the cricket equivalent of the bottom-of-the-ninth-two-out at-bat is a deformed Untouchable. This movie is not fooling around in sticking to the formula; you name it, it is there in spades. The love story(ies) as well suffered from both predictability and a lack of character development. People fall in love because the plot needs them to, not for any reason that seems to make sense. The movie is completely and totally populist, preventing it from rising above the status of "Major League." Not bad, but not "The Natural" either.

The famous musical numbers, I have to say, were disappointing as well. The Indian singing style was quite nice to listen to. But the songs themselves did nothing to advance plot or character. And the choreography was surpringly lackluster. They were big production numbers, though, and the spectacle of the whole thing was interesting. But in the end, this is a mediocre musical meeting a cliched sports movie. Not awful, by any means; but hardly something to go out of one's way to see.

One thing I was watching for was how the film would handle the training of the village cricket team. Even at 3 hrs 45 mins, would the director need some device to show how they got better? The director chose to show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what's going on, and with every shot you show a little improvement, to show it all would take too long. That's called a montage. But that's OK. Even Rocky had a montage. (Did I mention every single freaking sports cliche there ever was is in this film?)


The Last Waltz

Dir: Martin Scorsese


The Band were a collection of powerful musicians who backed Screaming Ronnie Hawkins and later Bob Dylan. Along the way, they created their own sound of blues, folk, bluegrass, and rock and roll crafted through years on the road. In 1976 they ended with a final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom.

As the list of stars grew greater, the band approached friend Martin Scorsese for his advice on filming the event for the archives. Scorsese undertakes a full 35 millimeter filming of the event. Scorsese does a great job of capturing the music. The cameras gather the power of rock musicians whose emotions come through in their voices and faces.

The musical highlights of the event include Dr. John whose lightning piano work meets up with The Band who segues into bayou swamp music seamlessly. The originator, Muddy Waters, busts forth with a stunning blues rap that crushes Eric Clapton who follows him. Neil Young performs “helpless” rocking his shabby enthusiasm and stalwart authenticity for all it’s worth.

Neil Diamond rocks out in a contribution that seems faintly out of place. Van Morrison (who really resembles what I imagine a young MAP) explodes with his English psycho scat. And despite having been Bob Dylan’s backing band, his contributions seem pale in comparison to the energy of other performers. Now I’m not enough of a Dylan fan to know if 1976 was a good year or a bad year for Dylan, but his contributions don’t make the movie sing.

The backstage interviews are refreshingly unscripted. The Band smokes everything imaginable, mumble unclearly and often rant (usually about having sex). They are breaking up behind the scenes and the egos are raw.

Only a couple of women show up in this guy-fest, but they make a strong showing. The Staples Singers showcasing Mavis Staples and Pop Staples are the highlight of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Joni Mitchell offers the strongest juxtaposition; Scorsese layers her song Coyote with the boys talking about having sex on the road.

Great old-school musicianship shows up in the film. We see the members of the band jamming with old-timey classics and leading full horn sections. Drummer Levon Helm’s voice soars and the guitar licks of Robbie Robertson are strong (even if his microphone was turned off – Robertson was a notoriously bad singer).

The DVD includes good outtakes, two commentary tracks (including a staggering number of the musicians in the show), and loads of discussion from Scorsese. Check out this film if you are a fan of the music or the director. It presents an era, some awesome fashion, and some great tunes and along the way creates the template for many other concert videos.


Dir: David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, The Game)


As part of my spirited effort to revisit noirish crime dramas, I decided to revisit a recent American entry. Se7en, Fincher's sophomore feature length effort (he wets his feet with the disappointing Alien3), is a taut, engaging murder mystery from the Reservoir Dogs school of genre filmmaking-the film is serial killer drama that fails to show any murder (save one). The film is rather cliche: the characters are formulaic and the narrative tensions are expected. But, there are reasons cliches are cliches. And a cliche done well justifies its repetition.

I imagine that the narrative is quite familiar to our faithful readers, but for those yet to indulge in this fine film, I advise you to stop reading. Spoilers will inevitably surface throughout this entry.

Morgan Freeman, who yet again serves as the narrative anchor, plays the sagely, but disheartened, Detective William Somerset, a soon-to-be retired homicide detective in the twilight of his career (may no metaphor go unnoticed, no matter how subtle). After years of witnessing the evil that men do and injustice that follows, the nihilistic Somerset prepares to leave the city for the comforting isolation of the country. But naturally, a series of curious and horrific crimes disrupt such plans (Mendoza!!!), and Somerset eventually assists his brash, idealistic replacement, Detective David Mills, a beat cop from the country, in solving the serial murders. The narrative is the expected tensions between the grizzled wisdom of experience and the irrational exuberance of youth. However, where the film really prospers is in the narrative point of view. Unlike other buddy films that take on a third person omniscient perspective, which often leaves both characters plastic, Se7en is Somerset's story (I believe Freeman is the central storyteller for no less than five films-hey, if it aint broke). Mills (played by a serviceable Brad Pitt) is still rendered a bit flat, but we still care about him; Mills repesents both the passion for the idealism we cherish and our emotional failings that often disrupt efforts to achieve such ends. The hyperbolic setting, the overly dreary and constantly raining urban dystopia, only magnifies Mills' intended goodness, making his fall even more tragic (the sign of a good film: I watch the end of the film still hoping that this time he will actually walk away; kind of like the instant replay where you have the small sliver of hope that he will catch the ball this time around).

Although Mills is the tragic figure, Somerset is the one in need of redemption. The true sin that can be forgiven is nihilism. Only motivation separates Somerset from John Doe's calculated acts of atonement. Doe (an inspired casting of Kevin Spacey) cites the same moral decay for his murderous deeds as Somerset uses to inform his nihilism. Realizing this, Somerset rides into the setting sun understanding that the world may not be a beautiful place, but "it is worth fighting for."

A few members of this blog once had a long debate over the proper interpretation of Fight Club, another Fincher effort. I claim that Fight Club is actually a love story, in that Tyler Durden eventually finds comfort in the amorous embrace of another human and not in the unrequited love of consumer goods or the fleeting euphoria of basic violence. I wonder if Se7en is a similiar story.

One last though. I keep refering to the film as "Se7en"-its official title. But, is there something to the title beyond a clever spelling. Technically, the title is unreadable, only recognizable. We assert the name of the film, assuming an intended pronunciation. However, the truly recognizable part of the word is "Seen." There seems to be an occular metaphor that surfaces throughout the film (the flipside being that the only murder we see is Doe's death). It's late and I have not thought through it completely, but I believe there is something worthy of note regarding the title. But who knows.

Good film, go see (again).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

In Memoriam: Lion of the Desert


Dir: Moustapha Akkad (Halloween 1-8 [Producer])

From The Economist 11-26-05:

"Of all the films to extol the fight for freedom from imperialism, one of the most cheering to Arab hearts is the rousing 1981 epic, 'Lion of the Desert'. A richly bearded Anthony Quinn plays the role of Omar Mukhtar, the simple Koran teacher who became a guerrilla hero, and for 20 years, from 1911-31, harassed the Italian forces bent on subduing Libya. In one memorable scene his Bedouin warriors, armed only with old rifles, hobble their own feet to ensure martyrdom as Mussolini's tanks roll inexorably toward them . . . . [The] film, glorifying the bravery of Muslim resistance fighters, happened to be one of the few productions explicitly endorsed on jihadist websites, albeit in a version that replaced the musical soundtrack with religious chants, and cut out all scenes showing women"

On November 9, 2005, the director Moustapha Akkad was one of 60 Arabs killed in an Al Qaeda suicide bombing of three Western hotels in Amman.

Watching this movie is a process greatly impacted by the conflict in Iraq and Islamist terrorism. First the film, then the politics.

Lion of the Desert is a competent historical epic. Akkad has clearly approached his subject with reverence, and much of the movie is dedicated to singing the praises of Omar Mukhtar, the leader of the Bedouin resistance against fascist Italian occupation. Anthony Quinn's performance as Mukhtar is the best part of the film, understated as the simple teacher who used native knowledge to fight off a modern mechanized army. Oliver Reed is also fine as the infamous Gen. Graziani, who decides to repress the Libyan people in the interests of breaking the resistance.

The film is largely formulaic, but it is a good forumla, one aided by several subtle shades. Graziani is bent on the "gentleman's warrior" thing, like Patton etc., and he primes the audience to expect a philosophical meeting between the two leaders at the end, remarking on the inevitability of war and the like. But Mukhtar fights not for glory but for resistance. By deflating the noble vision of military expansion, the movie does justice to the historical subject matter.

The battle scenes are hit and miss, the best being an artillery fight over a bridge. Akkad has certainly spared no expense, getting full use out of those tanks he bought. In one scene, alluded to by The Ecnomist, the resistance fighters have tied their legs together to prevent flight. Akkad takes his cue from Peckinpah and graphically shows the tanks severing the legs of the Libyans, as well as causing all sorts of other mayhem. The film certainly lacks subtlty in its construction of antagonists, but nothing is too egregious to trigger eye rolling.

As a film, it is the sort of thing I might recommend for a Sunday afternoon on TBS while you are cleaning the house.

But as a political document, the film has taken on new meaning for me after the Jordan bombings. The tremendous irony of Akkad's death, and the use of the movie as jihadist propaganda, were forward in my mind throughout the viewing. This is not a political blog, but some things do leap to mind.

I know little of this particular bit of history, but I have no doubt that the atrocities chronciled by Akkad happened. This is Mussolini, after all. The most powerful image in the film chronicles the situation within the "concentration camps" where the Bedouins were brought to cut a supply line to the resistance. A helicopter shot surveys a giant tent city and then fades into grainy balck-and-white stock footage of the actual complex, just in case any viewer thought the movie was using artistic liscence. The conflict in this movie, like that in The Battle of Algiers, has clear right and wrong. And in Lion of the Desert, all of Mukhtar's targets are military, avoiding the far more complicated questions of whether terrorism is ever justified as a tool of resistance or jihad.

The historical context of Arab and Western relations, I find myself often forgetting, is filled with many recent examples of where the former were clearly in the right. But a transposition of that logic onto jihad is, obviously, not a given. Mukhtar wins his moral high ground by defining himself against the fascists in the movie. He fights for freedom; they fight for conquest. He has the support of his people; the Italians jail officers for failing to follow orders and commit war crimes. He refuses to mistreat prisoners; they shoot the wounded. He only targets the military; they kill and imprison civilians.

Jihad fails all of these moral legitimacy tests, set forth in Al Qaeda's own chosen inspiration. But then, so does the United States. After Abu Ghraib, moral legitimacy in this conflict has become a matter of degree, not of kind. Who tortures more? That question does have a clear answer, one that in my mind rescues the West from charges of equivalence with Al Qaeda. But would the movie about the War on Terror be so clearly demarcated as Lion in the Desert? Or even The Battle of Algiers?

Akkad died in a cowardly attack on civilians in the name not of resistance (unless we grant Ward Churchill's logic to the bombers) but of the military expansion of an ideology. He has left us with a document that speaks to the motives behind his murder, one that it is well worthwhile to reckon with.


Le Samourai

Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville


We may impugn the French for their pretentiousness and smugness, but when it comes to 1950s-60s gangster, film noir thrillers, they are beyond reproach. Given our bloggers' tradition of "theme viewing," I should make it my mission to write on the numerous French 1960s crime thrillers that everyone needs to see.

Le Samourai is Melville's crowning cinematic achievement, and he is no stranger to great filmmaking (Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le Flambeur). Melville gracefully blends film noir with Japanese samurai lore to spin a compelling yarn about Jef Costello, a loner hitman with an acute sense for danger. Costello (a stellar Alain Delon, a Melville regular) is contracted to kill a nightclub owner. However, plans go awry when he is picked up by the police. The cops begrudginly release Costello because his alibi is strong (perhaps a bit too solid?). Unconvinced of his innocence, the police shadow Costello, hoping to uncover his fraudulent alibi. Costello's employers are equally concerned and attempt to have Costello permanently silenced. Mix in a couple of dames, suspicious cops, and paranoid business men and we have the necessary ingredients for taut thriller.

Although the set-up is rather common place for a generic entry, I am struck by the economy in which the story is told. No shot or line of dialogue is wasted. One can easily memorize the entire dialogue after one showing; the first utterance occurs ten minutes into the film. I am struck by the film's patience. Melville knows that suspense is created by uncertainity, and uncertainity is best served by moments that occur naturally, so no contrived score or forced plot point jolts the audience's attention away from the plight of our protagonist. Extemely long takes thoughout the film allows us to really identify with Costello. But it makes for an odd contrast. We are nervous for Costello, but his calm, samurai-like demeanor only magnifies the tension (and our pleasure in watching the film). This seems to be a hallmark of many of the great 1960s French thrillers (Rififi, Wages of Fear, and Le Trou have some of the most exciting scences ever put on film).

Watch it. I promise you will enjoy it. More reviews of great French thrillers forthcoming, unless you all beat me to it (please do, you won't be disappointed).

Thursday, December 15, 2005

King Kong, or Stand by Your Ape

Dir: Peter Jackson


Yes. Believe the hype. It is that good. Peter Jackson's post-Lord of the Rings effort is spectacular in every sense of the word. Normally, I am troubled by the need for Hollywood to remake every great, and not so great, film. But, Jackson gets a pass for a number of reasons. First, Jackson credits King Kong for inspiring his desire to direct (Thank you, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack). Second, the original King Kong is not a great film, rather it is an important film. Consequently, with the technology available to today's filmmakers, I am certain Cooper and Schoedsack would heartily endorse a remake made with the best intentions.

Kong is Jackson's love letter to cinema and its ability to detail the exotic and the spectacular, yet capture the intimate. The familiar story follows a dedicated filmmaker, Carl Denham (an ironic and appropriately edgy Jack Black), and his reluctant crew to Skull Island to capture the great adventure story. The shooting schedule is thrown asunder when King Kong shows up on set and demands time with the leading lady. What follows is equal parts B-movie adventure and classic Hollywood love story. Naturally, the special effects are stunning, and suprisingly seamless (a couple parts stand-out as clearly acted in front of a blue screen). However, what drives the story is the tender relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow (the classy Naomi Watts). In the hands of a lesser director, the "love scenes" would be artificial and hookey (and we would be continually reminded that Darrow is falling in love with an Ape). Jackson does not insult the audience; he realizes that love develops organically and is demonstrated through subtle and innocent moments--we become transfixed with the grace of Kong and Darrow's human, and humane, relationship. It is truly a tragic love story.

All films about filmmaking possess varying degrees of self-reflexivity, but I was shocked by the level of this film's self-awareness. I wonder how much Jackson was in Carl Denham, a crazed director hellbent on getting the perfect shot. In one sequence, the on-screen screenwriter (Adrien Brody) remarks that Denham "always destroys what he most loves." Is this evidence of Jackson's existential struggle over remaking this influential masterpiece? There are many more narrative choices that suggest Jackson may have a somewhat tortured relationship with this production.

Kong is undoubtly the star of the show. Which, for me, begets the following question: is Kong an actor, a character that deserves the accolades reserved for the more human actors? With all due respect to the fine acting in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Gollum and Kong are the most compelling characters in their respective films. But Kong, like Gollum, is not a pure CGI effect; rather, he is "played" by Andy Serkis. So, how do we evaluate these performances? In the age where the real and hyperreal are collapsing, do we neglect the artistic contributions of an actor who is the "skeleton" for these CGI characters? Are such performances judged the same as actors in costumes? I believe there is a difference because the techology used to create Kong and Gollum "records" facial expressions and other non-verbals, characteristics used to define great acting that are not available to those in costume. Will we ever see such performances receiving acting award nominations?

I have said enough. Obviously, there is a great deal more to speak about (the race question is unavoidable when it comes to Kong), but that shall be reserved for the comment section. Go see the movie. There is a great deal of talent on both sides of the camera.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

Directed by George Clooney

Another fine film in the month of December. Someone, I forget who, made the point that Clooney was the new Redford (I think it was either Ron or Newsweek). Clooney is a clear star actor, and has quite a nose as a producer/director. While Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a miss, it was the best kind- an ambitious one that had a lot of potential which it occasionally realized. Good Night, and Good Luck is politically relevant and I think Clooney seeks to highlight the narratives relevance to today with his choice to film the movie in black in white, which heightens the contrast between the journalism of yesteryear and today.
The film is what it is- relatively short, uncomplicated, and unwavering in its main point. It tells the story tautly. Old footage is mixed in with the movie relatively effectively. This movie did not suprise me but it did impress- well made, well acted, and well thought out. The cautionary tale about McCarthyism is timelessly relevant, and for someone extremely unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Edward R. Murrow's showdown with McCarthy I found it to be very enlightening.

La Dolce Vita


Dir: Federico Fellini

No, I had not seen it before. And yes, I can now finally look myself in the mirror.

Inscrutable (in a good way) tale of the moral decline of the modern world. The crushing bleakness of the film's message is hidden beneath layers of revelry, as Italy's carefree jet-set busy themselves with endless parties, sex, drink and self indulgence. Predominant themes (and there may literally be hundreds of them in this film) include the artificiality of perception, the hypocricy of those who demand love but are themselves fundamentally selfish and the inevitability of loneliness in a culture typified but want for nothing.

Our protagonist, played by one of the most handsome man ever Marcello Mastroianni (if I do say so myself), finds himself in a variety of hedonistic vignettes with celebrities, royalty and intellectuals. I won't go into each one, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts anyway. Suffice it to say that Marcello comes to learn that pleasure has become an end to itself,something filthy and degrading that prevents any real connection between people. Photographers appear everywhere, chronicling the exploits of the well-to-do so that the rest of the world can live vicariously through them. But of course this is all a distrortion. The fun is carried on becuase no one knows how to do anything else, being separated from religion, family, meaningful labor and love. Only their plastic and artifical images proliferate the modern world.

The movie is quite simply gorgeous technically. Fellini is so good at filming large crowds and parties, somehow controlling the kineticism of these moments. Artifical light plays a large role on screen, with tall stadium lights backlighted themselves to draw our attention to them. Costumes are purposefully ostentatious, so manneristic as to be from another world, like the excesses of a Paris fashion show. Everyone looks truly beautiful all of the time. There is so much camera work going on here that the film would survive hundreds of screenings.

The movie, though, sufferes slightly in my mind both from its use of metaphor to distance itself from the viewer as well as the utter lack of redemption. I personally was moved more by Fellini's earlier "Nights of Cabiria", a film that explored similar subject matter but found some humanity and humor in the world as well. But that is a matter of personal taste, and no doubt there are times when having to put a film together is its own reward.

La Dolce Vita is like a really complex poem. No one gets everything at first exposure, but you follow along for the ride and enjoy the beauty of the imagery or a clever turn of phrase. With years of study and contemplation, this film no doubt opens up like Donne or Yeats. I'm not sure I am going to like what I find in there, but such a work of art compels this examination nonetheless.

The film is essential and frustrating.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Lion King


Dirs: Roger Allers (Story Supervisor on several Disney animated films of the 90's) and Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little; Stuart Little 2; Disney's Haunted Mansion)

The #15 top grossing movie of all time, state side at least? Beloved narrative that has been spun off into a variety of other formats? One of the entries into Disney's famed cycle of animated features in the 90's? And I haven't seen it?!? That is an irrational prejudice. But no longer!

Largely flawed story of an heir to the jungle throne tricked into exile and forced to tap into his lion-ly self esteem to overthrow his regicidal uncle. A litte bit of Hamlet, a little ABC after school special, The Lion King manages to have very little to say about any of these subjects. A movie that acknowledges its own oddly placed narrative by simultaneously embracing the ruthlessness of nature and proclaiming the interconnectedness of nature insults its audience by offering no interesting resolution to that paradox. Instead, we get a sporadic narrative along familiar lines. Even kids' movies should have something to say. This story is lazy, and lets its exotic locale provide the entirety of the interest for the audience.

In particular when Disney had produced the magical Beauty and the Beast just three years earlier, the failings of the Lion King are evident. The score by Tim Rice and Elton John is essentially insipid, throwaway bubble gum songs that do nothing to advance plot or characterization. The fact that Hakuna Matata (sp?) has become a bit of a catch phrase is due entirely to the catchiness of its refrain and not to its quality as a song. In fact, every song save the love song is pretty much the same thing. Anyone can write a pop melody, and put in three verses of "We're going to the watering hole" and call it a song. But that is the bare minimum effort, as B and the B can testify.

The animation is pretty good. It is very comforting to see that Disney style again; the thickness of water as it splashes around, those flowing transitions from a small bird into an entire steppe landscape, the remarkably expressive faces of these characters are all on familiar display. The voices for the most part are well cast, especially Nathan Lane before he was Nathan Lane and the the very welcome Rowan Atkinson. The one sour note is Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba; I'm not sure that nasal nerd is really working for me there.

Look, even for a kids' movie, you have to try harder than this. Talking animals and fart jokes may get you to #15, but as a film the Lion King is lacking.

Irrational prejudice? Confirmed.


Pride and Prejudice


Dir: Joe Wright

Several of the Serious Jane Austen Fans (SJAFs) I know were dismayed to hear that hottie Keira Knightly was going to play beloved Elizabeth in the newest remake of Pride and Prejudice. Despite fears, Knightly manages to embody the lead, using her lengthy neck to both gaze into the horizon and quickly spin away from unwanted conversations with aplomb.

The story presents five sisters who by virtue of their gender can not inherit and thus must find husbands. The two elder sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, carry on a series of romances, all circumscribed by their families lack of finances and the rigid class structure of the era.

Donald Sutherland plays the women’s father, a well-meaning, but grizzled patriarch whose care for his daughters is evident. The talented Brenda Blethyn plays their frenzied mother, whose overbearing fixation of marrying off her daughters consumes her every waking moment.

The class politics are explicit. While the Bennets are property owning, they exist on that blurry line between upper and the middle class. This film presents the difficulties of the family in stark terms, preferring to present the Bennets as closer to impoverished than classy. It makes the politics spicier, but in some ways misses the layers of class politics presented in other versions.

The story is a classic and popular with romantic spirits as well as bitter class warriors. Fantastic dancing, and much of the quick dialogue is maintained. Not as good as the BBC miniseries, but a version worth seeing.

Fade To Black


Dir: Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren

For years I dissed Jay-Z, considering him to be the paragon of cheesy status-fixated rappers. Recently I’ve changed my opinion, and this movie was a big part of the change.

In 2003 Jay-Z released the Black Album, a quintessential epic. In years to come, when we think of hip hop the way we think of jazz today, you’ll find that everyone has a copy of the Black Album, the same way that every one of our parents have a copy of Bitches Brew or Giant Steps.

In the Black Album, Jay-Z created an record he conceived of as his farewell. A collection of beats hand-selected from the greatest producers all graced with Jay-Z’s smooth rhymes. Fade to Black mixes shots of Jay-Z’s creation of the album with concert shots from his sold out Madison Square Garden show.

The show sold out in several hours, and an explosive crowd of hometown fans are on hand to say goodbye to Jay. After a heart-racing opening, Jay blazes through several of the big hits as the audience chants every single word. Backed by ?uestlove (from the Roots) and the Illadelponics for live versions of many of his hits, Jay controls a crowd of tens of thousands with the poise of a master.

We also get to see Jay creating the album – an astounding process. Unlike other rappers who write and rewrite, Jay listens to a beat, pauses for a few moments, walks into the booth and lays down complex multi-layered rhymes almost always in a single take. We see Jay picking beats from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Timbaland and Kanye West, where he waits for the perfect beat and then simply starts rhyming.

There is a great scene where we see Jay and Rick Rubin create the hit song 99 problems. Rubin, the producer behind the early Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Run DMC records created a gritty guitar-laden track for Jay to recreate the sound of 1988. Ad Rock, one of the Beastie Boys, drops by and they stand in amazement while Jay creates a classic off the top of his head.

The concert includes wonderful collaborations, including four with queens of hip hop. Of all of them Beyonce’s collaboration seems the most flaccid despite the legion of backup dancers and the status as Jay’s fiancé. Missy Elliot rocks out a couple of times taking turns on the microphone with HOVA and Twista. Mary J. Blige offers a wonderful chorus and contrast to Jay, but it is the nasty Foxy Brown who tears it up (after she fixes her bustier) causing the entire auditorium to seemingly explode.

Many of the stars of the Roc-a-fella family (Jay’s label) get great verses during the concert. Memphis Bleek and Freeway both offer strong showings among the occasionally unclear mutterings of Beanie Sigel. The Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah gets a chance to do his collaboration with Beyonce, using the opportunity to showcase his gritty style. It also gives him a chance to rock his big jewelry, he shows up for the show with a piece of gold the size of a dinner plate around his neck. In a great scene, we see eighties hip hop legend Slick Rick loading his gigantic gold chains around Ghostface’s neck before he hits the stage sending him out eighty pounds heavier.

Many lost hip hop legends get their shout outs. A montage of the greatest hits of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls get a special showing when the entire audience chants the words a cappella in memoriam. It is clear that the audience contains fans, and the film does a good job of cutting to audience members who mouth the words perfectly.

The stereotypes about hip hop die slowly and one that this film slays is that hip hop concerts simply can’t rock. When Jay rocks a beat that bounces it is clear from the audience members in the rafters that they are moving. For documentary value and for sheer musical bang this film is a must see.


Directed by Stephen Gaghan

It was time for a double feature today in the Johnson world- is it painfully obvious I'm done with my semester before everyone else? Anyway, Syriana was a first rate film. I especially enjoy movies that challenge the viewer. The Godfather Part II is emblematic of this for me- you have to pay careful attention to understand everything that is going on, which I think reward careful filmwatching. Syriana definitely challenges the viewer- politically and narratively. Like its predecessor, Traffic, it has no easy answers for a difficult and pressing problem, presenting a pessimistic narrative. Also, like Traffic, it features fine performances and a gripping narrative scope.
It is always a good sign when a movie that runs longer than two hours can keep your attention rapt throughout, and this film does a fine job at that. My only complaint would be that the movie really is only an informative narrative, albeit one with a clear political perspective. To take on such avowedly political subject matter without a clear proposal in mind seems risky to me, unless the filmmakers think that the public needs to know what is going on in the crazy geopolitical world of oil barons and failed states. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this film- with King Kong and Munich on the way, 2005 may be barely saved for us all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

Directed by Noah Baumbach.

This was an excellent film from an unkown source. I didnt' even realize until the ending credits that it was produced by Wes Anderson, but it made sense. This is a movie about a crumbling marriage that results in a separation. The two young suns, Walt and Frank choose sides in the dispute, with Walt opting for his pretentious father Bernard, a literary critic, and Frank choosing his mother Joan, an up and coming writer. Bernard is hilarious- he refers to A Tale of Two Cities as minor Dickens, and calls Kafka "one of his predecessors". His self-indulgent pretensions are so powerful they cause his young son Walt to claim credit for writing Pink Floyd's "Hey You".
The movie is hysterical. Jeff Daniel's plays the over the top failure of a professor note perfect, and watching the two sons deal with the divorce using a combination of profanity and sexual activity is compelling. Laura Linney, rarely anything less than excellent, and excellent even in underwritten stereotypical roles (Primal Fear anyone?) shines in this movie, particularly when she takes up the company of Ivan (well acted by WILLIAM BALDWIN- never thought I'd write that). Ivan is the local tennis pro. Bernard never can understand what she sees in Ivan- but what she and Frank see is not Bernard, and thats good enough for them. I cannot recommend this film enough-it was very funny and very painful. I'd stop short of saying that you should see it because it did well at Sundance; that's the sort of thing Bernard would say, unless he found Sundance to be "a trifle" compared to some tiny screening house in France that constantly runs Bertolucci.

High and Low


Dir: Akira Kurosawa

Morality play examining the choices made at points of ethical uncertainty. I use the word "play" purposefully, as the movie's first, and strongest, third looks like it could easily have been on the stage. One set and dense dialogue dominate this early part. A detective story then emerges that, while strong, is dwarfed by the movie's opening.

Gondo is an executive attempting to save his job from scheming corporate enemies. He morgates all he owns to buy a majority of the company. But then, a kidnapper nabs what is supposedly Gondo's son, but turns out to be another boy. Now Gondo is faced with a dilemma; pay the ransom and be ruined, or else keep the money and let the boy die. The decision is very complex, and the film is masterful at articulating the arguments on both sides. All of the characters approach the issue from a different perspective, often changing their own minds as more facts are made available. Kurosawa employs blocking in such clever ways, with each actor standing at various angles. Rarely do they stand face to face or look directly at the camera; everone is in their own world and literally views the scene from a different space. Everything about this opening gambit is masterful, and itself makes the film great.

The rest of the movie is all about trying to catch the kidnapper. Here, the story lingers on the intricacies of police work and tension building observation of the suspects. I don't mean to say that this part is bad, far from it. But it does feel well worn, in particular since police procedure, deciphering clues and the like are par for the course in many contemporary detective movies and tv shows. Kurosawa's approach is fresh and engaging, but after the movie's truly unique opening act this section seems less spectacular. It is slightly less than genius, not much of a critique.

The exploration of consequences to actions is well concluded in the final scene. Apparently, the alternative title for the film was Heaven and Hell. This movie is both entertaining and quite learned in its story development. Yet another piece of brilliance from Kurosawa.

Recommended very highly, in particular the opening third which compels multiple viewings.


Central Station


Dir: Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries; Dark Water)

Recommended by my friend Caitlyn Ross, this Brazilian film explores the evolving relationship between an young boy searching for his father and a cynical woman who cannot overcome her own familial dissolution. Fernanda Montenegro earned an Oscar nomination as Dora, the ex-school teacher who writes letters for illiterate Brazilians in the train station. When the mother of young Josue is killed in a traffic accident, Dora exploits the child for her own gain. But, after a crisis of conscience, the two travel across the country in search of the father.

The movie is full of tension. In fact, it is quite difficult to watch at times as everyone seems at odds, never fitting together. For some reason I felt like I was listening to some dissonant music or viewing a painting where the colors purposefully contrast. Dora is extremely complex and troubled. Her actions are the product of deep seated traumas, so we understand them and yet we wince at how self desctructive she is. Around her a series of well meaning characters pivot, unable to connect with her given her barriers to intimacy and selfishness. The preformance is excecuted without any vanity, and we are forced to simultaneously sympathize with yet judge the woman. A very fine bot of acting and writing.

The last fifteen minutes that truly elevate the movie. The eventual resultion of Dora's relationship with Josue is truly moving, understandable and believable. Perhaps a touch over sentimental, but not sugary by any means. Central Station is a compassionate and complex charatcer study that explores the continuing effects of bad parenting on adult life.

Watch for a spectaculr shot of Dora and Josue sitting on a hill overlooking a church. A really nice camera move that I had never seen before.

By the way, Life is Beautiful beats this film for the Foregin Language Oscar. Right choice. But Montenegro loses the Oscar to Gwenyth Paltrow. Uh . . . no.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Aeon Flux

Dir: Karyn Kusama


This movie draws its inspiration from a series of late night cartoons on MTV. Before the cartoon network and before much anime was available, MTV broke ground with it’s Liquid Television series offering animated shorts produced by artists around the world.

Perhaps the most enigmatic was Aeon Flux, which showcased a flexible woman assassin clad in a leather thong leaping around a dystopian cement-scape. The episodes were funky because she often died at the end of them only to be reborn in the next episode. Her usual target for assassination was the mysterious Trevor Goodchild, the leader of the futuristic world, who also showed up as a lover of Aeon Flux.

The live-action version of the cartoon stars academy award winner Charlize Theron who portrays an elite rebel assassin who is called upon to kill a government leader. Aeon Flux takes place 400 years after a catastrophe almost destroys the human race. The remaining 5 million peeps live in a walled city protected through regulation and surveillance.

Kusama does a neat job of translating the angles of cartoons into live action shots. Unlike Underworld or Blade, this vision of the future often takes place out in the sunlight, with acrobatic action shots in full view. A few of the shots resemble LA, and a few are repeated, but it is a visually enjoyable film.

The cast hold it down. In a pleasant turn, several women of color get leading roles as assassins, and Pete Postlethwaite shows up in a neat role. Theron does a good job giving the cartoon role a bit of depth and rocking out as a badass killer.

I won’t reveal the intricacies of the plot, but it is a worthwhile movie to see – you’ll enjoy it if you enjoy the genre.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

First Blood

Dir: Ted Kotcheff


I was at a demonstration to protect a 200 acre old growth (older than 800 years) forest last week. It was the classic attempt to prevent loggers from entering the gates of the forest, complete with chains on the gates and moms and their kids kneeling in front of logging gates.

Of course, the cops came through, moved us all across the street, cut the chains on the gate and then guarded the loggers as they drove through to cut. Some of the trees in this grove of forest are 40 feet around, overwhelmingly beautiful, and many of the protesters began emotionally breaking down as the loggers started heading into the forest.

In small logging towns, the police interests are synonymous with the logging company interests. The cops harass forest protectors, and in many cases pretend not to see when loggers throw tree sitters out of old growth trees.

So it was with great pleasure when we watched one of the Pacific Lumber logging trucks back into a cop car at a good clip.

The tail was down and the front of the cop car was trashed. Across the picket line I saw folks smiling for the first time that day.

Later that night I saw some other organizers. They asked about the morning’s demonstration and I mentioned the cop car accident with a grin. “Yeah, we heard about that,” said my friend returning the smile.

Humor at the expense of police is rare these days. In the era of September 11th, when NYPD have been rhetorically transformed into superheroes with their own action figures, police are sacred. A movie like the Blues Brothers could never be made today.

Even rarer is a movie where the police are the real BAD GUYS. Perhaps for films set during segregation era, cops can be the enemy, but certainly not today.

First Blood is a movie that could never be made today. Sylvester Stallone plays troubled Vietnam veteran John Rambo who wanders into a small town and runs afoul of the local sheriff, played by Brian Dennehey. After a bogus arrest, Rambo escapes to the woods where he uses his counterinsurgency skills to escape and then defend himself against his pursuing posse.

Dozens of cops die in terribly graphic ways, as Stallone grunts and stares into space remembering Vietnam. Stallone, whose performance in this movie and its sequels helped to define the popular understandings of what POWs were like, creates a troubled character who flashes back to his times in a Vietnamese prison camp in order to help explain his situation.

Unlike First Blood II and III, this film is free of much of the attempts to redeem the United States war crimes in Vietnam. The war is presented as a terrible, almost unspeakable event which left terrible scars in the soldiers asked to fight. The movie opens with Rambo discovering that all the other soldiers in his Green Beret unit have died.

First Blood is a movie that became overshadowed by its sequels. When Ronald Reagan used Rambo as part of his rhetoric of redeeming the spirit of Vietnam, the film itself became overshadowed by its meaning. Rambo became the universal trope for a gung-ho pro-war/military attitude. But this film itself conveys something else.

Under the grey tones of the foggy sky the director brings the terrible weight of Vietnam home. Like the Weather Underground Organization whose bombings attempted to show the United States public what living in Vietnam would be like, Rambo’s destruction of the small town transposes what we did in Vietnam to Northern California.

These might be reasons to give this movie another viewing. Edward Said argues that it is useful to examine the impact colonialism had on both the colonized and the colonizers. This film is a chance to look at the story of the United States in Vietnam. It offers a way to think about what Vietnam taught us, and how we have been retelling the story through the years.

It is also worth remembering what happens to those soldiers who fight American wars when they come home. Keep in mind that SWAT teams were created to respond to the dissent of the late sixties and used the counter-insurgency terror techniques practiced in Vietnam on the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles. Rambo style killing certainly happened – but the victims weren’t usually white.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Dir: Stephen Soderbergh


Normally, I find remakes of classics a violation of the 11th Commandment. Every once in a while, a remake is made that bestows the proper honor on the original but adds a contemporary complexity that recommends it as a worthy effort. This little gem, I believe, did not get the proper respect on its intial release (with that said, it was a really hard movie to market--heady science fiction made with an A-list star and a hot director who previously worked together on the playful blockbuster, Ocean's 11).

Solaris is more of a reimagination of the Stanislaw Lem novel than Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 classic. The film follows Kelvin (George Clooney) as he investigates strange events on the space station that orbits Solaris, a planet that seems to be watching the watchers (how Lacanian). A series of mindbending events unfold that begin to probe questions of identity, memory, love, knowledge, etc. After watching the film, one is compelled to ask: who would be your visitor?

Like 2001, this is a film that I can revisit quite often. I am continually struck by the spot-on score; the steel drums that permeate the film are almost as contemplative as the plot. It is a beautiful film; Soderbergh films his characters in perfect shadows, just enough to create the aura of mystery that drives the film without obfuscating the complex emotions displayed on a character's face. It was rumored that Clooney was not originally cast for this role (despite my research acumen, I could not find the actor originally offered the part), but he lobbied Soderbergh hard and Clooney eventually won the part. I am glad he did. I believe this is easily his best performance to date, but like the film, it went unnoticed. George Clooney has often been dubbed our modern day Cary Grant. Like Grant, Clooney gives consistently wonderful and nuanced performances and yet fails to get recognition as a great actor (Grant received only one Oscar nomination in his career, and that was early on).

So far Soderbergh is 2 for 2 on remakes. I just hope Peter Jackson is equally adroit at remaking classics.

Watch this film. And 2001. And the original.

A Woman is a Woman

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard

In honor of Godard's 75th birthday, I found it fitting to yet again journey through the complex celluloid forest known as the French New Wave. Most every erudite film scholar identifies Godard as one of the greatest living film directors, and perhaps one of the best ever. Certainly, his influence is quite extensive; Godard is an overwhelming influence on Soderbergh, Tarentino, Scorsese, Allen and countless other great directors. With all that said, I find his films hard to grasp. Yes, they are intentionally inscrutable, for cohension is a luxury Godard can do with out. But there are those films that I know are much smarter than me, and then there are those films that let me know that they are smarter than me. In other words, the entire Godard opus. Likewise, Godard is one of those untouchable figures in film studies. Any disparaging words about the master are often rebuffed by condescending remarks that isolate the viewer's failure to appreciate his genius. With that said, I am mightly attempting to rectify my cinematic shortcomings.

A Woman is a Women is Godard's third film and his first one shot on colored widescreen stock. It follows the "story" of a Cabaret dancer (played by Godard's soon-to-be wife, Anna Karina) who wants to have a child, preferably with the man she loves. But, if he is unwilling or unable to fulfill her desires, she will seek other viable candidates. The film is somewhat of a playful take on the American musical (I say "somewhat" rather than "about," lest I display my ignorance by attempting to capture the essence of the film made by the master of contradiction and complexity). It is funny at times, and even heart wrenching. The film is more a series of ruminations on love and relationships than a narrative. Godard is known for having very loose "scripts," so his film unfold organically, as if they are records of his thought process.

Despite mild hints of irony, I do find Godard's films interesting and intellectually compelling, but not necessarily entertaining (although I loved Alphaville). Admittedly, I have seen a limited number of his films, and have yet to see some of his seminal films like Weekend, Masculine/Feminine, Breathless. I am in the process of learning more about him, but like so many critical and pretentious artists, Godard attracts many faux-European sycophants that mistake cynicism for intelligent insight. I remember a few years back reading a New York Times film review for "In Praise of Love," a film that is critical of American cinema, in particular Spielberg (and his non-union Mexican counterpart), where the reviewer notes that Godard is beating the horse he killed decades ago. I tend to agree, this incredible genius is starting to sound like a grumpy old socialist who is bitter that his current films are no longer the groudbreaking masterpieces he used to make. So, I'll stick to watching the masterpieces.

Happy Birthday JLG, you make the world a more beautiful place. I hope you are around for years to come. Thank you.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi


After tackling the AFI's top 100 list, I am now in the process of viewing the movies from the more pretentious lists, like the Village Voice. Ugestu is a film that constantly finds itself high on these lists, and deservedly so. Unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi did not find international acclaim until late in his career with Ugestu (he died in 1956).

Ugetsu has all the hallmarks of a great film. The cinematography is exquisite and graceful; his extremely long takes and static camera allow us to absorb the rich details of his very deliberate compositions. It has been a long time since I have seen a film as beautiful as this one (I am quite ignorant of Mizoguchi, but I would not be surprised if Zhang Yimou listed him as one of his major influences). Moreover, the story is rather simple, and yet, I know this film is smarter than me.

The plot centers on two potters and their wives as they struggle to make ends meet during a 16th century Japanese civil war. Each potter has aspirations of glory and power. One wishes to be a feared samurai warrior, the other, a wealthy businessman appreciated for his craft. Both prosper during the war and their dreams come to fruition. But like the wishes granted by the monkey's paw, their good fortune is not free of incredible sacrifices. I shall refrain from discussing such sacrifices, lest I spoil the film. But I will say that it involves rather supernatural events (by the way, I do find it curious how often ghosts and the supernatural play a significant role in Japanese cinema-there has to be a book out there tracing the symbolic role of the specter in Japanese culture).

Like most great films, Ugestu was intended for a post-war Japanese audience, so a great deal of subtext is lost on me. Regardless, it is great investment of 90 minutes--I know I am now a better person for having seen it. Criterion, as usual, does a bang-up job with the transfer.

I also watched Finding Nemo tonight...Likewise a film well worth seeing.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Wild Strawberries


Dir: Ingmar Bergman

Bergman in classic form as an elderly man reexamines his life and ruminates on lost opportunities and old wounds. Even more symbolic than the other films of his that I have seen, here we have full on dream sequences laden with impenetrable images. Not quite as depressing as some others, even showing humor at times, this movie very difficult to review after one sitting. It is much smarter than I am.

A retired doctor is returning home to be honored. Traveling with him is his daughter-in-law, who has separated from the doctor's cold and depressed son. Along the journey, the doctor must revisit his past loves and consider their impact on his present day familial relationships. As usual, the script is dense and contemplative, suffused with existential and metaphysical speculation.

The movie is great, but failed to really grab me like the Trilogy or Fanny and Alexander did. I have no doubt that further viewings will open it up to me. Highly recommended because it is obviously brilliant, but requires a lot of effort on the part of the viewer.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Batman Begins


Dir: Christopher Nolan (Memento; Insonmia)

I am pissed off at this movie. In the way that you get pissed off at someone who has so much potential and wastes it on something trivial. In the way I am pissed off at Stephen King for taking his awesome talent and applying it to books about killer dogs. Here is a movie that teases me, makes we want to love it, and then snatches it all away in the interests of careening a train into a building.

The early story of the Batman begins well enough, a series of flashbacks and Freudian pre-adolescent traumas that explain the choice of a wealthy socialite to hang out in a cave and beat up freakish criminals. But it is a glorious fifteen minute segment high in the mountains where the film leaves its mark. Bruce Wayne learns to channel his hatred into vengence. And Liam Neeson too has learned that. There are subtlties and complexities to their divergent paths in the face of the same trauma that are begging to be explored. And it is so clear that the filmmakers could easily have done it, had written the back story, had probably even shot the scenes, ones that would take a long time to really explore the philosophical underpinning of the various strands of vigilantism espoused. Here would be a narrative that has something important to say, as well as being exciting to watch.

But, the need to get to the car chase left these bits, alas, for the cutting room floor. Or, hopefully, for a directors cut 3 hour long DVD, where the potential of the film can be realized. The pivotal choice of how to express ones vengence is too hurried, and fails to satisfy. Once the Batman is born, the movie is on its own a fine entry into the genre, with lots of cool gadgets and an interesting apocalyptic plot, etc. I enjoyed it and would recommend it on those levels.

But I can't help but be haunted by what could have been. Watching this film made me realize just how good the first Matrix movie was; that when you can combine a smart and sophisticated story with lots of cool popcorn effects, you have really pulled something off. Batman Begins sacrifices story, and I feel cheated.

I'll get over this and like the movie more in six months. But so close!