Monday, February 27, 2006



Dir: Akira Kurosawa

It is intersting to watch a great director miss the mark. Not everyone else's mark, Kurosawa could film himself mowing the lawn and it would be better than 90% of the movies ever made. But I have seen true jaw-dropping brilliance from the man. Kagemusha is not jaw dropping at all. And watching it teaches me about what makes a great film great.

It had been five years since Kurosawa went to the Soviet Union to make his very entertaining Dersu Uzala. He was having trouble getting financing in Japan. It was American backing in the name of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who made Kagemush possible. I wonder if Kurosawa felt some pressure to make money with the film as a result. Certainly, this is most commerical feeling movie I have seen from him, the script and direction both clunky and garish.
The script falls pray to heavy handed plot summaries, as if Kurosawa were worried that people would be confused by the intricate story line. The story is about political intrique among and within rival samurai clans. After the death of the powerful Shingen Takeda, a body double is enlisted to hide the loss of the leader from enemies. These details are developed with leaden clarity. For example, when we are first introduced to Shingen's youthful heir, the child's nanny proceeds to relate the entire history of the family relations while dressing the boy. You know, cuase one often discusses that with a 7 year old right after his bath. It's like a Shakespeare play, where the audience is given the whole backstory by two guards gossiping in the first five minutes, or a messenger comes in with a ten minute speech that happens to set up all of the characters. Necessary on the stage, but artificial in a film.

And yet, amidst all of this naked plot development, the movie fails to provide any grander context about who these warlords are, what they are fighting for or how long this has been going on. The result is a script that focuses too narrowly on reminding us over and over about the basic plot points (it must have been six scenes where the body double was in danger of being discovered by various parties like the kid, his lovers, his guards, his horse etc., and at every one we are reminded what happens if the double is discovered) and too glibly on the real intrigue of Samurai macro-politics.

I found the use of color pretty heavy handed as well. A red sky becomes a cherry red sky here, like a red Corvette. The warriors are all wearing glow-in-the-dark green pants. The atmosphere of the lighting and color schemes comes off as neon, and the warriors tend to look like they are wearing day-glo BMX biking oufits as opposed to regal lacquered armor.

This movie is much better that most historical epics. But seeing a predestrian script really makes me appreciate a subtle one. And this movie makes me appreciate understated , yet still resonant, direction all the more.

In my mind, this movie is for AK completists only. Five years later comes Ran, which I have not seen yet. I will be interested if Kurosawa regains some of his spark in that oft praised film.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bob le Flambeur


Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (The Shadow Army; The Red Circle; Le Samourai)

This French heist film may be one of those films that is more important historically than it is entertaining. I fear the film may be victim to what I now call "The French Connection Syndrome," suffering from its imitators. The film is really good, but the genre has moven beyond it and, to my mind, in better directions.

First, though, praise. The plot is boilerplate, but the depth of the characters is unique. Bob is addicted to gambling, yet retains a personal bearing that communicates confidence. I was reminded of Jackie Gleason in "The Hustler," who in the middle of a marathon pool game with
Paul Newman took the time out to wash and straigthen his tie. Right and wrong is clear to Bob, even among the lechery and violence of the French underworld. His protoge is dedicated, but naive. And there is the disturbingly angelic Isabelle Corey as Anne, the aloof and ambitious call girl who serves as the femme fatale. She is in Barabra Stanwyck territory here, using sex appeal to determine the fates of the various men in the story. Reading up later, I learned she was 15 or 16 at the time of the movie. I hope that is an urban legend, because I was thinking some very inappropraite things then.

Those characters all very well drawn, and the way Bob's obsession unfolds is good to watch. What falls short in the film is the heist itself. I know, the film isn't ABOUT the heist in the way "Ocean's 11" or "$" is. But I have come to want the movie to be about the heist! What we get here, especially the safe cracking practice scene, is very exciting. I want much more of that. I see where others took that energy and blew it up into a whole movie. The chracter study is good, but not enough to elevate the movie into the stratosphere, in my mind.

It is the look, feel, and coolness of this movie that was no doubt influential on the Continent. But the American iterations of this theme have surpassed it.


Hoop Dreams

Dir: Steve James, et al.


My first double entry (I couldn't find Marcus's review, so I hope not to double observations).

I have many shortcomings as an avid film viewer; watching enough documentaries is one of them. But, if you are going to watch any, watch the best. And with little hyperbole, this is by far the best documentary I have seen to this point. Any production team that is dedicated enough to spend five years with two families as they support their kids' dreams of the NBA gets my respect. Roger Ebert calls this film "alive," an apropos description considering the film makers did what astute documentarians should do--run the cameras and get out of the way. Life inherently has drama, all you need to do is know how to edit it.

I found it refreshing to see a story about inner-city youth that did not deal solely with the cliche, albeit horrific, influences that plague our destitute urban landscapes. A seductive life of drugs and gangs were elephants in the room, but they were successfully kept at bay by loving families and hints of maturity. We genuinely like these kids; even when there are hiccups in their young basketball careers or questionable life choices, we feel no compunction to judge. Of all the stories, I found Curtis Gates the most compelling--a promising athlete whose arrogance derailed his career, leaving him to live vicariously through his younger brother (I did some follow-up research after the film, Curtis was unfortunately shot and killed on September 10, 2001, over a love triangle).

There are countless touching and humane parts in the film. Watching this film, I was struck by the role of luck in art (I think Marcus may have made a similar point). These film makers, who set out to do a 1/2 hour documentary on the youthful aspirations of getting to the NBA, lucked into a perfectly brilliant film. They had no idea how these careers would unfold, but each twist and unfortunate accident brings the film's social commentary into sharper relief. But then again, sports is a great site for drama and social insight.

Michael Moore has no game compared to this slam-dunk.

Match Point

Dir: Woodrow Allen (See Below)


Keeping pace for the Woody love-fest, I deposit this review of the latest entry in the Allen opus. With the nadir of Allen's career some twenty years past, his recent films are either intelligent insights (Deconstructing Harry) or self-indulgent caricatures (Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Luckily for us, Match Point falls into the former.

Match Point boasts careful Allen-like character development in a rather un-Allenesque plot (in that the film is upfront about its nihilistic tendencies instead of masking it under tragic humor). The film announces its plot within the first ten minutes as Chris Wliton (played by a distant and appropriately off-putting Jonathan Rhys Meyers) alternates reading Crime and Punishment and a companion's guide to the book (a nice moment of self-reference). If you are familiar with the novel, the ultimate conclusion will not be surprising. But like a good book read for a second time, the pleasure is in the journey and the careful attention to character.

Wilton is an ex-tennis pro who possesses all the talent but none of the requisite desire to succeed. As a more rewarding "alternative," Wilton wishes to make honest money as tennis instructor at a posh English country club. He quickly falls into the good graces of a wealthy and good spirited family-close friends with the son, Tom, and even closer friends with the daughter, Chloe. The nice, even-tempered Chloe takes a shine to Wilton and offers him opportunities with her father's multi-million dollar company. The only snag is his affection for Tom's fiance, the seductive and tortured Nola Rice (played by the now ubiquitous Scarlet Johansson). Nola and Tom part ways, but that does not deter Wilton. They begin a secret affair that last months, that is until a series of unfortunate events germinate and the secret can no longer be kept (please, Pappa, don't preach). But then, again.

Although I knew the story's final resolution, I still found it quite thrilling (in the same way Apollo 13 was actually quite suspenseful). Equally enjoyable to the film was the audience; a number of elderly Allen loyalists who felt compelled to announce all their revelations. Normally, such theater behavior would trouble me, but thankfully all the revelations occurred during the closing credits. Plus, if you saw Take the Money and Run during its initial theatrical release, you get a pass.

Allen filmed MP in London, far away from the comfort of Manhattan. It is interesting to see Allen, who often treats New York as a character to add depth to his stories, replicate the same techniques in foreign surroundings. Like the aloof and distant protagonist, London functions as a perfectly charming host that protects its secrets to maintain a facade that has served it well for ages. Overall a solid Allen entry.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Dir: Judy Irving

On the recommendation of I Just Saw's own Maxwell, and through my own interest in nature documentaries, I sought out this short but very interesting examination of a sub-tropical bird flock in San Francisco and the man who cares for them. Max highlights the fact that nature flourishes in an urban environment and the focus on the individual personalities of the birds in the film. I echo those comments (especially the former) and would direct you to his earlier review.

But a few things struck me beyond what he writes. San Francisco itself takes a starring role, as the only city where this sort of human/animal relationship could happen. The caretaker is essentially a squatter, a homeless wanderer who spouts Corso and eschews "the system." It is not suprising that this guy exists, but that he is so organically integrated into the cityscape is great. A local coffee shop feeds him, the ornithologists treat him like any other citizen, and the owners of the cabin where he lives wouldn't dream of kicking him out. The jokes I whispered to myslef about the hippie were soon overtaken by a less cynical awe of the tolerance and easy going nature of one of the world's great cities.

On the other hand, the film does not do near enough to explore the human end of this equation. The anthropenctrism that Max alludes to is an inescapable component of this narrative, especially during a brief meeting with a couple that rescues birds. A visit to their home gives us a glimpse of almost destructive animal care, the house strewn with bird cages and (to my mind) close to unliveable. The type of people so commited to animal care that their enitre life revolves around it, who are so obsessed that they stand on the precipice of being "the crazy cat lady" and hoarding the very creatures they love, is a very important cultural phenomenon. That the film avoids this subject is unfortunate; it is indicative of a fear of offering any nuanced or potentially negative view of the humans. Not that this sort of advocacy documentary making is wrong, but there is another side to this story, one that is not as flattering to the humans, that I would have liked explored.

The upshot is a very watchable film that is somewhat slight. A more ambitious approach would have made a more evocative film. But it remains a fascinating micro-sociology of animals adapting to an unfamiliar environment.


Friday, February 24, 2006

The Virgin Spring

1960 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Ingmar Bergman

Lots of synergy in this film from my recent viewings. Bergman and Allen, obviously. Hannah and Her Sisters featured Max von Sydow, who also stars here. And the introduction to this brand new Criterion DVD production is given by Ang Lee of Brokeback Mountain. He says it is the most influential film upon his work; indeed, it was the first "art" film that he ever saw, somehow making its way into Taiwan in 1972.

As one should expect from a Bergman Oscar winner (so many others deserved that title as well), the movie is brilliant. Bergman has adapted a 12th century folk ballad, and the story contains all of the operatic and mythic elements that one would expect from such a tale. Two sisters are on their way to church where one is assaulted by bandits. The evildoers arrive later that night at the girls' home, failing to recognize that they are seeking shelter from their victim's father. The resulting narrative explores Bergman's two favorite issues, guilt and faith.

The film is highly allegorical, almost fantastical, and this mysticism adds an ethereal element to the often hyper-realistic Bergman (Seventh Seal notwithstanding). The film is exquisitely shot as well, with lush forests transitioning to cramped cottages as the story develops. The Criterion people have done an unbelievable job of making the film jump off the screen, the forest scenes bathed in sunlight positively glowing but still razor sharp in resolution.

Bergman's frank treatment of God's apparent abandonment of His children at times of suffering is powerful and engaging. The film is particularly lyrical and visually satisfying. Another tremendous entry in his almost unparalleled canon.

BDE? I'm getting close.




Dir: Woody Allen

In case you haven't noticed, I went on a Woody Allen run. This is probably my second most frequent Allen film in terms of times seen (behind Bananas), and obviously it is one of the great pieces of American cinema. By far his most beautiful film visually, and without a doubt one of his most sensitive narratively, Manhattan is in the conversation about best of Allen, best of the 70's, and best of all time.

I won't bother with plot analysis. If you haven't seen it yet, then you are too hopeless to worry about. But the direct references to Bergman were meanigful to me this time around given my recent exploration of his catalogue. By the time of Manhattan, Bergman had such a signature style that he was in danger of being a caricature of himself. Diane Keaton makes an early condemnation of his pretentiousness, his coldness, his Scdandanavianess. But at the end, Swedish cinema ends up in Allen's masterful list of things that make life worth living. And Allen is correct this time. Bergman's confessionality is just as present as Allen's; both are keen observers of human relationships; both are obsessed with love and death; both wear their philosophical allegiances on their sleeves (Kierkegaard and Freud).

And both are reclusive geniuses. I love them both. Not much more to say.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Deconstructing Harry


Dir: Woody Allen

Intriguing comedy that lives up to its name. Allen plays Harry Block, a loathsome man whose selfishness has extended to his writing, where he trashes his friends and relatives in his latest novel. But this time, they fight back. The plot is inconsequential, and slight. But the all star (and I mean all star) cast does a fine job.

The movie is noteworthy for two reasons. One is the literary theory that informs the script. Block admits his difficulties in living, his inability to function in society. But in his art he is capable. As he confronts his life, the line between fiction and reality blurs, to the point that the actors playing the fictional characters and the actors playing their supposed real-life counterparts are interchangable in the movie. It's not as confusing as it sounds, and it really works. The script is an early version of Adaptation. Allen's alter ego will interact with his fictional lover, and then in the next scene the actual Allen is speaking to the actual mistress. Fascinating as well is the editing, with cuts that skip ahead in the scene like a CD might skip 15 seconds into the song; suddenly, you are in the middle of the next verse. I had not seen this movie in years, and it was supremely interesting to watch these elements at work, and the movie is worth watching just for these technical moments.

Secondly, the movie came out at the height of Allen's adoption/sex scandal, when his public image was at its lowest. Block is one of his most evil characters, among a corpus that features few dashing heroes. The confessional tone of the film, when read through the aritist's own personal failings, are a testament to his honesty and committment. I will leave it to others to judge the man's family life.

Allen is a genius who often fails to live up to his potential. But even when he is mediocre, I find his art endlessly rewarding. Deconstructing Harry is one of his better films, far from mediocre. I think it is a testament to his artistry most of all. He has been funnier, more poignant, he has more beautiful films. But few films ever made have been so open, so confessional.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Brokeback Mountain


Dir: Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet; Eat Drink Man Woman; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

The blue state poster movie finally crept into red Saginaw, Michigan. And so too, did I finally creep into Brokeback Mountain. As a Valentine's Day date movie, no less!

The critical take on this movie cannot help but be colored by the public debate that surrounds it. Throughout, I found myself analyzing the strategic decision making of the writers and director. What are they going to show? How much are they going to address the firestorm they knew would come down against them? What is the ratio between politics and narrative for its own sake? On almost all of these points, the film makes the right calls. There is enough physical intimacy to avoid charges of self censorship, but not so much that the movie becomes about performing the taboo and not about the story itself. The movie references homophobia in several points, but does not dwell on it to the distraction of the rest of the film.

And the story is intriguing. The societal pressures that prevent our lovers from being together bring pain and destruction to those around them. It was the character of Alma, Heath Ledger's wife, that most compelled me. Her husband's inability to find his true love brings her misery and pain. She is best served by never having married him in the first place. The main couple's hurt is one thing, but homophobia here is shown to create ripple effects.

The dominant theme for me is not that homophobia is bad (yes, that's there of course) but that one should not let even the threat of death stop oneself from finding love anyway. Jack Twist knows this implicitly, he begs his lover to damn them all to hell and just do what they want. But the emotionally withdrawn side of the couple cannot do it; he selfishly denies himself what he wants (how's that for an oxymoron), and destroys everything around him. The final line of the movie drives this point home, the realization that in the future pressure from without should not dictate what is needed within.

I found this message sophisticated and applicable to the human condition in general. That homosexuality is the device through which this story is told is a wise and sensitive choice. The movie is filled with compassion.

But I cannot say it is the best film of the year. In terms of ambition and execution, Crash is my choice over BB (and I have yet to see the other three nominated films). The strategic choices I referenced earlier succeed in making Brokeback "just another love story" as Ron would have it be. That also makes it one among many movies exploring similar themes of love and infidelity. Brokeback is not significantly better than many of those, but Crash is peerless among recent films in its exploration of race relations.

Great film. Fine, fine love story. And at the late show on a 10 degree Saturday night, there were 15 people or so, including a gay couple, who came to see the movie in mid-Michigan. Nice.


Hannah and Her Sisters


Dir: Woody Allen (Oscar Best Screenplay)

Perhaps my favorite Allen film, this exquisite examination of the interconnected lives of three sisters is a top example of psychological complexity and true compassion for the characters. Allen's writing prefectly caputers the love and jealousy that marks sibling rivalry, making each character flawed yet strong, petty yet magnanimous, and worthy of our care and attention throughout.

Standouts are Diane Wiest (Oscar for this role) as the youngest sister, the black sheep who struggles with addiction and life in the shadow of her favored sisters and Max von Sydow as the troubled, cynical lover of the middle daughter. It is Sydow and a whole host of other side characters that makes the movie so compelling. Each subplot is easily strong enough to support a movie unto itself, making the context of the main story (an affair between Barbara Hershey and Michael Caine, who also received the Oscar for this role) so rich that all elements of the narrative pull their own weight. Each scene, and each character, is as a result enthralling, making the whole movie experience energetic and satisfying.

Allen's direction, so often ignored or underrated, is top notch as well. He films the various parties where all of the characters congregate so well, sweeping cameras and long takes that spatially underscore the relationships between all of these people. He has directed his actors to interrupt one another, talk over each other, not listen to each other, just like real conversations between family members, lending an authenticity to the whole that works very well. He has relegated his own acting to less screen time than normal, becoming himself one of the subplots that is the strength of the movie.

This is familial drama at its best. Witty, incisive, illuminating of the human condition, I consider it one of the best films of the entire decade.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch)


Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams)

Latin America loves Taratino! Pulpy set of intertwining tales involving lots of gunplay and gritty dialogue. This Mexican offering reminds one of the brilliant Brazilian film City of God, but less obsessed with the underworld. Amores Peros wants to have more to say about love and life, and in my mind suffers from a lack of focus and inability to connect the dots.

Three different tales are interrelated by one random moment. In the first, a young man falls in love with his older brother's wife. In the second, a model moves in with her married lover and immediately is disfigured in a car accident. In the third, a hobo pines for the daughter that he abandoned twenty years ago while moonlighting as a hitman. Each story shows promise, and could be a movie unto itself.

One uniting metaphor in the movie are dogs. Our first protagonist uses dog fighting as a means to make money and run away. The unabashed description of the dog pits makes no judgment on this cruelty, an example in my mind of cinematic realism carried needlessly far. But maybe that's a cultural thing. In the second, the model's young dog runs through a hole in the floor and hides underneath the new apartment, refusing to come out. That bit was the most interesting part of the movie; the director is very commited to that metaphor, making the second act a touch surreal and thought provoking. The hitman of the final act travels with a pack of dogs he has rescued. Each story has a different attitude toward the animals; utilitarian and cruel, dependent upon and standing in place of humans, and finally genuinely caring.

Much of the rest of the film, though, I found less well done. The love stories are a bit clunky, especially act II which has all of the subtlty of a sledgehammer. The whole film is gratuitously violent and needlessly cruel. And points for exploration of similar themes between the acts go unexploited.

Some nice things. People who like the non-linear storytelling method and films about the underworld will dig it. For me, good but not great.


The Shape of Things (2003)

Director: Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men)

I once saw the tail end of Your Friends and Neighbors on the Independent Film Channel and was immediately smitten and thought to myself that I must look deeper into the other stuff that Neil LaBute has done. I had neglected that oath until about 4 AM one night when this movie came on. LaBute is a natural playwright and it shows- this movie would have worked even better as a play (indeed it was a play in 2001 starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz). Is it ok to say that dialogue seems overly dramatic, in a drama?

I did really like this movie. It has all the component elements of the indie drama you stumble into late at night- dialogue full of swear words, attractive people, and lives that seem just normal enough to draw you into the fold. The plot is relatively simple- Rudd plays a bookish slightly overweight museum security guard who bumps into Weisz one day and she takes a shining to him. Slowly he sheds his geeky clothes, the extra pounds, and his nerdy glasses in favor of a nifty Gap ensemble, svelte abs, and nice contacts.

The other couple in the movie played effectively by Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller have issues of their own- Mol lusts for Rudd and eventually they have an affair which disrupts her and Fred's engagement. The end of this movie is a not entirely unpredictable turn of events but worth seeing for how LaBute has grandly staged it- of course he is a playwright. I solidly reccomend this movie, and am endeavoring to next see In the Company of Men.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Dir: Alex Gibney


The CNU documentary film series continues with this Academy Award nominated film about one of the largest corporate scandals in US history. Although I kept up on the news during the Enron collapse, I never knew the complexity and depth of this scandal. Unlike many documentaries on tragedies that cultivate a sense of pathos by focusing on the victims, Gibney's film is a psychological study on how power and money seduces insecure men of risk. This choice allows us to simultaneously hold disdain for the company's executives while understanding how anyone in a similar position would fall prey to the same influences. Gibney ties the rise and fall of Enron to the fortunes of Ken Lay and Jeff Skillings (among others), the smartest guys in the room. Currently, they are standing trial on a series of counts stemming from various forms of corporate fraud; although their defense rests on plausible deniability, the film clearly suggests that the corporate climate and the micromanagerial tendencies of Lay and Skillings would make such a defense untenable.

Gibney tells the Enron story with a very Michael Mooreish flair; with planted tongue in cheek, Gibney includes a playful soundtrack and a series of biting jokes where laughter covers the darker side to human nature. Both Lay and Skillings, particularly the latter, are depicted as calculating and uncaring, sacrificing all scruples for the bottom line and the thrill that accompanies risky financial decisions. It was surprising to see how easy it was for this business to exploit every loophole to artificially inflate earnings, and consequently the stock price. Gibney makes numerous suggestions that there are broader political forces that help sustain Enron's corporate practices. However, Gibney often stopped short of any biting arguments for political corruption: the relationship between Enron and the Bush family is clearly established, but he fails to identify any larger impact to this relationship.

Overall a good documentary. In the Q & A after the film, most folks only asked questions about the business side of the story and his thoughts on the trial, subjects matters he did not have a complete grasp on. In theory, telling a story about corporate accounting fraud does not make for good cinema, but props for the effort and execution.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Four Minutes


Dir: Charles Beeson (several Hallmark movies/Masterpiece theater)

Clumsy ESPN production chroncling what was at the time one of the greatest athletic accomplishments ever. The four minute mile may have captivated people at the time, but it does not captivate us today as a film.

Ok, the acting is pretty good. A genteel Britishness pervades all of the characters ("good show, Bannister. God save the Queen"). The runner was a medical doctor by trade, and the scenes of his medical school education are interesting as exemplars of Oxford. The running scenes are also well done, with a surprising restraint in the use of montage (montage!).

But the writing. Oh the faults of the made-for-TV squeeze-everything-into-an-hour-and-a-half format. Bannister falls in love in the first twenty minutes, then that girl leaves him and he has another love by the top of the hour. Three years pass between races in the blink of an eye. Oh, he's an M.D. now? When did that happen?

All of this breakneck pacing makes the plot points contrived and stale. I don't really care whether he breaks the record or not, because the film has failed to take the time to make me care about the man. Events happen like I might read them in a newspaper artice. They are noted, I appreciate why they matter to the story, but I could be reading about any manner of happening.

This movie needs an extra hour. Bannister is interesting and the story should be told, but this film fails due to the constraints of the genre. BTW, the record is currently held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, set July 7 1999 at 3:43:13. I bet there's a movie in that guy's life.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cries and Whispers


Dir: Ingmar Bergman

Well here's a pleasant movie. As a young woman dies, her sisters and housekeeper reflect over the emptiness of their lives and the struggle for escape from the prison of life. Sartre couldn't have come up with something more bleak than this one. This is not so much a movie as a visual poem, minimalist, symbolic, lyrical, dense. A great movie (aren't all of his?) but also cold and distant.

Bergman employs technique here more so than the other movies I have been watching from him. This is more Seventh Seal than Fanny and Alexander. Red juxtaposed with white is dominant in nearly every scene, the contrasting passion and coolness of this family chromatically splashed on the walls. Shards of glass, eating, hair styles, costume, all take on symbolic weight. Indeed, little in the film's spare set design does no work. The movie is overwhelming in its display of meaning.

Like in "The Silence" Bergman has used sisters to personify the various parts of our own souls, the one passionate and earthy, the other cold and cruel. The two cannot come together, either to comfort their dying third half (our own mortality and suffering) or each other for that matter. The servant represents compassion and is crushed by the weight of her repsobsibilites. Touch is a constant theme for the characters, the sensuousness of skin-to-skin bordering on the incestuous coupled with the revulsion and distance from those unable to connect.

Sound fun? The movie is so bleak, and at times surreal, that it borders on a horror film. The death scene of Agnes reminds me of some things out of the Exorcist (as does another scene that will be obvious if you have seen them both), with a similar raise in pulse rate. Each character gets a flashback to some horrific moment in their past to explain their current condition. The mood is so down that it borders on a caricature of a Bergman film.

And that is the film's flaw, if it can be said to have one. The heavy symbolism and sparse character development puts distance between viewer and moviemaker. Some people really love that stuff. I prefer a more accessible story. One cannot help but marvel at the craft, but I will always appreciate this sort of film more intellectually than emotionally. That's a matter of taste.

If someone argued to me that this was an incredibly good movie, I would not say they were wrong. But I will never love this movie like I do others. Still, like most Bergman, it is essential and should be experienced post haste.


American Beauty

Director- Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Road to Perdition)

I was dissapointed. I so fondly remembered this movie from when I was in high school, when I was excited to go see it in the theaters because people had said this was the movie of the year. At the time I remember being overwhelmed by the quality of the movie and the effect it had on me for the way in which it skewered and attacked the suburbs in which I had grown up.

Watching it again last night, I was underwhelmed. Perhaps its because I am being carefully trained to see traditional modes of resistance and think about their banality, I think that Spacey's disruptive moves are pre-ordained and easy to see. I am left thinking that the kid next door with the video camera is doubly useless (creepy AND pretentious). Am I just wrong?? Help me.

E.T. Extra-Terrestrial

Dir: Some guy named Steve


The birthday celebrations continue. Happy Birthday John Williams. His list of phenomenal scores is unparalleled in film history; and his E.T. is just one of his many Academy Award winning scores.

E.T. is one of the most innocent and touching films in cinema history. Loving this film is a confirmation of one's humanity. If and when extra-terrestrials visit our planet, I hope they meet children first. A beautiful , beautiful, beautiful film.

E.T. and 400 Blows in the same night; easily the greatest night of film I have had in years.


The 400 Blows

Dir: Francois Truffant (Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Day for Night)


A very happy birthday to my favorite French New Wave director who unfortunately fell victim to a brain tumor some twenty-two years ago. Truffant, one of the "founding members" of the New Wave, began as a film critic, with Cahiers du Cinema, who believed the full extent of criticism can only be realized through practice (an example we rhetorical theorists should follow). Truffant, like many of the other new wavers, wished to elevate cinema to an artform on par with literature, thus requiring evidence of a definitive authorial voice (autuer theory emerged from this movement). The 400 Blows is Truffant's first full-length feature film and the initial entry of his Antoine Doniel series, a set of four semi-autobiographical films (reviews of the other three forthcoming).

Unlike other many other new wave directors, Truffant does not have an aversion to narrative and plot. We begin our story with Antoine, an early teen who is trapped a stifling school system and somewhat distant family. Doniel has a penchant for trouble, often a result of his free-spirited imagination and resistance to authority. His increasing disillusion with his parents leads him to run away from home on numerous occasions, only to end up where he began. Truffant's keen cinematic knowledge and love of film is evident on screen. Many of the prime actors are children, and Truffant's confidence in these child actors is unwavering. Truffant is comfortable with long takes and complex scene changes that allow the kids to be kids; he aptly captures the play and innocence that accompanies even the most precocious of children. This is only the second time I have seen this gem (my first viewing experience was rather stifled by a poor transfer, but Criterion has done yet another marvelous job on cleaning up a film), but I was struck by the tenderness of the film. Although I love many new wave film, too often these films sacrifice humanity in making broader intellectual insights. The genius of Truffant is to balance both demands. The erudite Truffant not only made exceptional films (you all should see the ones I mentioned above) that appealed to myopic cinephiles, but also loved more popular fare (most notably, his starring role in Close Encounters) and was not ashamed to say so.

Watch this film. You will be a better person for doing so.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006



Dir: George Stevens (Swing Time; Gunga Din; Woman of the Year; The Talk of the Town; A Place in the Sun; Shane; The Diary of Anne Frank; The Greatest Story Ever Told)

It is way too cliche to say that Giant is big. But it is, so I will say it anyway. Big as Texas.

It had been some time since I had seen this epic of the heartland. It was during my AFI top 100 blitz, and it left an impression but deserved a closer look than I gave it in those whirlwind months of film watching. The second time through I remain impressed but find the messgae flawed.

The acting stands out. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor are great at playing stubborn, the former as the rancher stuck in tradition and the latter as the headstrong Easterner who must simultaneously adapt and adapt to her new prarie home. But of course the movie is stolen by James Dean as the oil baron who cannot escape the demons of his past. Everyone else are children compared to this mature giant of only 25 years. His Welles-esque portrayal of Jett Rink is one of the performances in American cinema. The fact that Dean channels Ted Windt later on in the movie is an added bonus for Pitt folk.

The photography is another high point. The immensity of the story and the country are captured often in strikingly wide shots and sparse open spaces. It's like Lawrence of Arabia, but with dry earth and oil wells instead of sand dunes and trains. Stevens deserved his Oscar for his direction.

The story, though, is quite heavy handed years later. The self awakening to the racism of the old Texas, and its adjustment to oil wealth, lack the subtlty of a good movie from today. "Don't hate Mexican people" is clubbed over our heads for about 2 hours. The message is in the right place, obviously, but comes off a little bit too after-school special than Crash-like examination of race relations.

No one should be allowed to die without seeing the whole Dean catalogue. It's three movies. Just watch them all. He is a dynamo, the best actor ever if measured per minute.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Best Closing Line? Discuss.

My candidate: "All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup"

Bring it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Dir: P aul Thomas Anderson (Not to be confused with Paul W.S. Anderson)


At present, I may have a difficult time defending 2005 as an exceptional year in cinema. But, I do not encounter the same obstacles defending 1999; the century that saw the birth of film could not end with appropriate punctuation. When Magnolia, a wonderfully original and narratively complex piece in a year of numerous inventive films (Being John Malkovich, Sixth Sense, South Park, American Beauty, Fight Club) gets only one Oscar nomination in a major caotegory (Tom Cruise as Supporting Actor, in his best performance to date), you know it is a great film year. P.T. Anderson, who is part of cadre of relatively young American filmmakers raised on a healthy diet of American blockbusters, French New Wave and gritty films of the 70s, has only made four feature films, with Magnolia as his third (a film he made at the tender age of 30).

Magnolia is P.T. Anderson's tribute to Los Angeles: a plastic city inhabited by emotionally shallow and morally ambivalent individuals driven by material success. As Magnolia suggests, even plastic is pliable and textured. Like L.A., Magnolia is without a center; the film weaves together the intensely personal stuggles of various disaffected and isolated, yet coincidentally interlinked, people that cultivates an emotional response rather than a coherent narrative focused on a single plotline or protagonist. Undisciplined ensemble films helmed by lesser directors often collapse into hackneyed stereotypes and narrative gimicks. However, Anderson grants his talented actors the freedom to bring the necessary humanity to each performance. He symphonically balances long takes, allowing each actor to explore the character in uninterrupted fashion, with well-paced, rhythmic edits that intimately ties together each character's inner turmoil. This time around, I was quite impressed with the narrative economy in which Anderson's develops each character's backstory; before the opening song finishes, we understand the demons each individual faces.

Despite warm, but no overly enthusiastic, critical response, Magnolia has escaped academic attention; few scholars have engaged this film beyond passing reference (Fight Club is the academic cinema de jour from 99). But I imagine as Anderson builds on an already impressive opus, film scholars will revisit this gem from the American auteur, a la Paths of Glory or Mean Streets.

Marcus suggests I should actually trash a film; I seem to only watch films I like or anticipate liking. Maybe one day I will, but not today. This smart and touching entry is well worth a (re)visit. Mind you, "if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite they borders with frogs" Exodus 8:2.

And no, it is not a bad thing to confuse children with angels.