Wednesday, May 31, 2006



Dir: Masaki Kobayashi (Kaidan; Human Condition I-III)

A Samurai film that deconstructs the genre, Harakiri is a truly great film. On par with the great Kurosawa movies, it is compelling through and through. The fact that the film sneaks in a pretty devastating political message to boot makes it both important and entertaining.

In the 1600's, peace reigns and warriors starve in the streets. At the beginning of the film, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the house of a powerful family asking to commit ritual suicide (seppuku or harakiri) on their grounds. During the preparations, we learn that a similar request was made a week ago by another samurai, one whose ignobility was exposed. This earlier man was forced to kill himself in a most gruesome way. The film unravels the relationship between the two would-be suicides and the samurai code that controls their actions.

The story itself is expertly put together, unpredictable and engaging and filled with tension. It is simultaneously uplifting and maudlin, political but universal, tense but contemptlative, but always enthralling. Nakadai and Akira Ishihama are brilliant as the two protagonists, altering their performance as more of the story is unveiled. The lone action sequence at the end of the film is unique and balletic, a sophisticated bit of sword play that drives character as well as resolves the narrative.

Kobayashi strongly indicts a culture that claims codes of honor yet allows abject poverty, that invests power in the hands of a duplicitous few who hide behind tradition to cover their own cowardice, and elevates faith to family and love above political allegiance. He takes acts of depseration and turns them into triumphs. Throughout, his camera finds symbols of Samurai legend and juxtaposes them with the true actions of those who claim to live by the code. Like the latter-day western, Harakiri deconstructs the genre and finds truths applicable to the modern day. I really loved it.

This film won the Jury Prize at Cannes. It deserved more. Even with To Kill A Mockingbird in the mix. It is a splendid, brilliant film, one of the best I have seen from Japan.



The Apostle


Dir: Robert Duvall (Assasination Tango)

Another Southern themed film that I had not seen in many years. The Apostle, written and directed by and starring Robert Duvall, is an absolute triumph, a testament to the power of the medium and what talent can do when given the chance. Duvall had to put up the money for the film himself after trying unsuccessfully for over a decade to get a studio to make it. And the reasons why it was shunned are apparent. The Apostle takes religion seriously, is undeterred in its development of character, takes its time to really explore the themes of the film, and combines a simple narrative with a deep and complex symbolism that rewards multiple viewings. In a sense, it is everything good about movies that challenges an audience.

Duvall plays a complicated man of God, whose personal demons lead him to stray from the same flock that he is so good at brining others into. His horrible deeds cause him to flee and undertake a spiritual journey of redemption, to reconnect with the fundamental goodness of religion before it is polluted by human hypocricy and sin. With the threat of worldy justice forever hanging over his minsterial work, he represents the promise of faith as well as the seemingly universal ability of humans to betray the faith of others. The message is beautiful, moving, gripping, and expertly crafted.

Duvall's performance is absolutely mercurial, holding his own among the real life revivalists that he hired to play preachers, and surpassing them in the film's climactic final sermon. June Carter Cash and Miranda Richardson also shine, the latter effecting a magnificent Southern accent to hide her own British roots. An oddly flat note is played by Billy Bob Thornton as a bigot, who unlike his role in The Man Who Wasn't There, needs to bring a bit more energy to this role.

Another slight flaw is the fact that Duvall wrote this movie for himself years before making it, and his age now makes some of the "lady's man" themes a bit of a stretch. But all approach the scenes with gusto, so we may turn a blind eye due to the idiocy of the studios for blocking the script for so long.

But none of this in any way detracts from the power of The Apostle. When you have a story this well written, this insightful, this well acted and shot, and this important to our understanding of ourselves, I can do nothing but praise it.

Truly exceptional film. My absolute highest recommendation, BME.


Harlan County, U.S.A.

1977 Oscar Winner Best Documentary Feature, 1990 Placed on National Film Registry

Dir: Barbara Kopple (American Dream; Wild Man Blues; Woodstock '94)

Some time ago, ten years or more it must have been, this documentary changed my life. I only saw it once, on TCM during 31 Days of Oscar. But it has now been released by Criterion. Upon further review, all of the dynamics that shaped my entire worldview, how I saw art, culture, politics, the human condition, all are still there. It is still one of the best movie experiences I have ever had, still hands down the greatest documentary I have ever seen, still a window into a different universe right in my own backyard.

Harlan County, U.S.A. chronicles a coal mining stike in Eastern Kentucky and the patriots who put their lives on the line for their neighbors and their families. Duke Power Company (still around) and the corrupt United Mine Workers had colluded to keep working conditions, pay, and labor practices 50 years behind most other industries in the country. Kopple was originally making a film about the UMW elections, and she was going to spend only a day at an under the radar strike in Harlan. Instead, she stayed for year among the some truly remarkable people.

The movie strikes me for many reasons. Most of my contemporary experiences with unions were ridiculous ones; baseball players, umpires, airline pilots, etc. While each may have had theoretical issues, they were hardly striking for bread or for sufficient health care when their job gives them lung disease. Even workers like the air traffic controllers, UPS drivers, mass transit workers in Philly and NYC, are striking over things that these folks in Harlan could not even drem existed. Folks in Harlan wanted running water. This movie made me realize what it was all over the place before organized labor. It reoriented my politics on this important issue.

The film also reversed my thinking on mountain folk. And trust me, these people fit to tee every stereotype you have of Kentucky coal miners. Thick accents, living in shacks, no teeth, toting guns, washing babies in iron tubs, the fodder of constant jokes and snickers from suburban people like myself. But unlike almost any other film I have seen, Kopple exposes the qualities in these people that makes them beautiful. Their strength in the face of challenges that I would wilt under, their conviction in family and history of self reliance, their recognition that no one cares for them and they have to look out for themselves. The women in particular dominate the film. The miners are under a court injunction not to picket, but the wives were not. Throughout the film, it is they who are the catalysts for change, they who escalate the tactics in the face of the gun thugs, they who make it possible for the men to risk their lives. Kopple uses almost no narration; these women tell the story for us.

This film was also my first serious exposure to bluegrass and coal mining music. Kopple captures authentic songs from the oral culture of the miners, toothless men and women who chant out the stories of years ago in raspy wails. Think Ralph Stanley's "O Death" here. That song is sung in this film by Hazel Dickinson, then a largely unknown traditional music singer with a voice that will send a chill through you. This movie propelled her to as much stardom as a woman who sings about labor movements a capella could get, I guess. It was Hazel that lead me to explore country roots music, a journey that I continue decades later.

95% of a good documentary is being in the right place at the right time. Kopple has provided a number of unforgettable images, as for some reason both sides in this dispute forget or ignore the presence of her camea. When the thugs show up with guns and clubs, we are there. When the sherriff refuses to do his duty, we get the whole conversation. When miners die in the struggle, we see their brains on the ground. It is moving, powerful, unbelievable, and transcendent.



Tuesday, May 30, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand


Dir: Brett Ratner (for some reason, Hollywood's new IT director who is willing to do the third film in any trilogy)

Paul, I had not read your post until after I Just Saw the film (nice plug). But we see eye to eye on this one. I wonder which is the worse artistic crime, poor execution of noble intent or competent filmmaking with missed potential? I would usually default to the latter, and for me this film only seems to justify those leanings. The value of superhero films (comic books, etc.), at least the good ones, is that they operate from a spectacular premise that provides the intellectual and narrative space to ruminate over more complex ethical and social issues: the Batman films explore the limits of justice and revenge, the Spiderman films examine the nexus of power and responsibility, while the Superman films import Christian narratives to uncover the nature of sacrifice and temptation. The X-Men upholds such a tradition by positing rich social questions about difference and discrimination. In theory, by the time you get into the second and third film of any superhero franchise (having already gone through the requisite conversion story), you can most pointedly engage in broader commentary.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two X-Men films (still, the best superhero franchise are the two Spiderman films), but the premise to the third is unquestionably the best. The X3 story strongly echoes the thought experiment Derrick Bell presents in "The Space Traders," albeit from different perspectives. Bell's story posits a world where aliens offer an unlimited energy supply to (white) Earth (or was it just the US?) in exchange for all of its black citizens. The aliens ensure that they will be treated as equals with a prosperous future, never again facing any form discrimination. X3 presents a similar storyline: a "cure" for mutancy is discovered that allows the mutants to shed their "affliction" and rejoin society without chance of discrimination. The mutant community is divided over proper reaction to this new discovery, and the responses seem to parallel many of the civil rights activists who debate over how to best fight this discrimination: do we take the MLK response of negotiation and peaceful protest or adopt the militant anger of Malcolm X?

Rich storylines that have the potential for novel insight and quality character development, but Ratner elects to dedicate time to fighting and special effects instead. Yes, the story advances in the wake of eye candy (and he directs the film quite ably, hence the apt execution versus missed potential question). But, I cannot but help wanting more, and not in the sense of 2001: A Space Odyssey left me wanting more. The narrative moved quickly, requiring the audience to fill in any motivation. Sure, they made enthymematic sense, but a film that wishes to explore issues more deeply should not dependent on such plot devices. The film clocked in at 1:44, leaving more that enough time to add on atleast 20 minutes of character/narrative development without having the film drag. The American public, I think, can handle longer films; provided they are good, people will still come to see them (all the Matrix films, the recent Star Wars films, obviously LOTRs were well over 2 hours and extremely lucrative).

Bryan Singer let X-Men to do Superman Returns--it better be worth it.

Friday, May 26, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

Director- Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon)

Oh Bryan Singer, how do I love you? Let me count the ways. The Usual Suspects. X2. Apt Pupil . Just kidding. Not even Bryan Singer's wife likes Apt Pupil. But his work with the franchise was nothing short of remarkable. When you play with Comic Book Fire, you risk being burned by an annoying overly critical fanbase. You could for example use the first era Cyclops costume instead of the third era costume, angering fans who prefer the X-men's "cartoonish" phase. Or whatever. The point is that the first two X-men movies were pretty doggone decent. I was not much of a fan of the first one, but the second is in my top 5 comic book movies of all time (the rest of the list, in no order, is Batman Begins, Batman (Tim Burton, not Burt Ward), a spot reserved for Dick Tracy, and Spiderman 2. and I lied. Spiderman 2 is the best of the bunch IMHO).
Mr. Singer departed the X-men franchise so that he could revive the Superman one. Kudos for that. From the trailers, it looks fantastic. But in the place of Singer for the third installment of our favorite mutant heroes in walks Brett Ratner. I was not as down on this choice as some on various messageboards for a couple reasons. Firstly, I kind of thought Rush Hour was pretty decent for what it was- a serviceable buddy movie. Secondly, Red Dragon was good- certainly a better Lecter installment than Ridley Scott's overwrought Hannibal.
The series' third installment has a pretty decent premise. A "mutant cure" is being developed, with implications for mutants and humans alike. For some, like Magneto's Brotherhood, the cure threatens the specter of a mutant genocide. For others, like the X-Men, the cure is seen as one of many options that exist in the world for mutants- neither good nor bad, but a choice that can be made. For humans, this cure offers the promise to cure their fear of the "mutant other" for good.
We are introduced to a few new mutants- the Beast (played by Kelsey Grammar) who is blessed with a refined and tactful manner, along with a furry blue animalistic skin. Magneto has new henchmen as well, including a woman who can sense mutant powers and move like The Flash. Jean Grey, who is thought to have died in the last episode, returns in this film. I'm not spoiling anything, it happens really fast into the movie.
The movie builds towards a climactic conflict between humans and the two mutant factions who will fight for control over the young boy who harbors the secret of the mutant cure. In the process Jean Grey is revealed to have gone crazy and evil, and some characters who featured prominently in the last two movies have their roles reduced or eliminated.
There are some pluses. There are a couple spectacular visuals, including one involving a prison convoy and another involving the Golden Gate bridge. But there is nothing as iconic and amazing as the scene in X2 where Magneto escaped from his plastic prison. Still, Ratner can direct an action sequence and you will not find that the story moves slowly. This in part could be because the movie is rather short, a quick 90 minutes or so. Ian McKellen's performance is also excellent. At this point, I would watch a movie called "Ian McKellen acts like a refined badass and talks shit while playing chess with old people in the park". He hams it up with admirable flair.
The minuses are several. Firstly, Mr. Ratner must have sold his character development soul to the devil for a delicious sandwich and an ear for predictable lame dialogue. The worst line is definitely an exchange early on between Wolverine and Cyclops that I'll let you "discover" for yourself. The only saving grace is that when young Bobby (Iceman) is finally able to make love to his girlfriend Rogue (Anna Paquin, who is talented and terminally underused) we are spared a truly horrific Eugene O'Neill reference. The movie also more prominently than past films features Halle Berry's storm character. The Oscar she won for Monsters Ball should probably be taken away for her plain and uninspired performance in this movie. She is really mailing it in.
Overall, if you were ever hardcore into X-Men, this movie will probably anger and dissapoint you. If you are interested in a summer popcorn flick, than this is serviceable. I am probably less hard on this movie than I should be because it was my first summer flick this year, the theater was packed, I had a big thing of popcorn and a giant soda, and the action sequences were well constructed enough that I found myself rooting for the heroes. So much so that I would certainly reccomend this film heartily if they managed to kill the film's writers, who are responsible for the parts of this movie that just don't work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006



Dir: Him (Schindler's List; Jurassic Park; The Color Purple; War of the Worlds)

Let me give my own thoughts on the film, and then address the debate that occured here on I Just Saw.

I found the movie difficult to form a judgment on. Some parts I found very compelling, and others left me flat. It is by no stretch a bad film, but I do think the good parts workmanlike. On first reflection, this is a capable and entertaining film, but not much more.

The excellent parts are the actual cloak-and-dagger assasinations and plotting. As a spy/secret agent film, Munich delivers a sense of realism and successfully conveys the politics of field work, not just the actual killing itself. Many times it reminded me of a mob movie, with various hits going on and different alliances with different families, everyone recognizing the futility and the inevitabiliy of it all. I rather liked the relationship between Avner and his informer Louis, a complicated one that grows over time. The problems on contacts, pesky governments counting receipts, the unpredictability of explosives, the jitters of new operatives, are all welcome remedies from the polished perfection of a James Bond.

Some directorial bits were also rewarding. I was rather impressed with the opening montage about the hostage crisis at the Olympics, and the shifting back and forth between the two sides. Would that the rest of the film had that sort of depth and complexity in its exploration of this issue! More on that below.

But what falls flat in the film are the familial elements that are supposed to create Avner's tension about his job. Am I right, or was the entire development of the love for his family that is supposed to dominate his entire worldview the fact that he had sex with his pregnant wife? One scene, and then its "I can't live without you." Half way through the movie, Avner cries when his toddler says "Dada." Everything else is just inferred. But I expect some reason to be invested in his relationship myself if I am going to care about its disposition. The movie is far more concerned with justice, not with family. I found that whole thread tacked on, unconvincing, and distracting.

What is left is some things that blow up good, an interesting spy film that chooses a different conflict than most others, and not much else. Just like a Bond film, I think the little dart guns are cool, watch in the bushes with our hero until the guards have a cigarette break, and wait for the next action scene.

The debate between Ron and Omri linked above addresses an entriely other level to the film, its overt and ambiguous politics. You should read it before moving on to my reactions below.

While Omri's post is well thought out and makes sense from a certain perspective, its is not applicable to this film. Omri starts with a contradiction in the first two sentences, one that cuts to the heart of his critique. He says that a movie claiming to represent the facts that then gets those facts wrong is propanganda. He then says that Speilberg wanted to (1) spark discussion about violence and (2) contribute to peace with Munich. Where is the fidelity in truth in those two goals?

Omri's post goes on to simultaneously make two arguments. One, that Munich is inaccurate (his first claim above). Two, that Munich equivocates between Israeli and PLO violence. All of the stuff relating to one goes out the window once we recognize this is a narrative and does not claim to accuratley represent the events of the Munich and its aftermath. You can make that charge against Michael Moore (or even Mel Gibson, who was more interested in the facts of the matter than many film makers), but not Speilberg. This is polemic, not documentary.

So we have equivalence. Ron says that Speilberg is deft there, humanizing both sides while resisting the assignation of blame, expect to "the media and, to a lesser degree, American aparthy." Speilberg is ambivalent to violence, recognizing the motives but bemoaning its lack of solvency. I agree; too many scenes feature characters proclaiming that Israel has no other response to terrorism, that anyone would do the same thing in their shoes. No characters question counter terrorism itself, but only pragmatically; it doesn't work, leaders emerge and they have revenge on their minds, but you still have to do it.

Omri thinks this move equivocates. But it is also undeniable. Any neutral observer would have to recognize the escalating revenge factor over time, and the tragic human toll in repsonding through strength on both sides. The dead care not about equivocation; everyone dies the same.

The flaw with Munich's politics is not that it sees both sides the same, but that is has not the will to really tell the Palestinian side. Only in one scene do we get their take, and it is the most superficial one possible. "Everyone wants a home." Even the most casual oberver of the conflict already knows that. Speilberg tells the story from one side, and in so doing provides a warrant for one kind of violence and only implying one for the other. Omri is wrong; this film is pro-Israel, not just neutral. By only humanizing one side, there is no equivocation here, but advocacy.

Now, I don't have a problem with advocacy. I want films on both sides; it is through these stories that we empathize with the parties in the conflict (Paradise Now is very high in my Netflix queue). Of course, I had my problems with how that humanization went down here, but that is a different issue. I am all for a pro-Israel film. But saying that this pro-Israel film is not pro-Israel enough lacks self reflexivity. And I think Ron turns a blind eye to the advocacy here, that he wants Speilberg to have been fair, or found blame in parties outside the two primary antagonists.

The film is pro-Israel. Complicating counter terrorism is not equivocating between it and terrorism.

And it is still only a fair film.


Citizen X


Dir: Chris Gerolmo (The Witness; Mississippi Burning [writer])

Early HBO TV movie about the most notorious serial killer in global history, Andrei Chikalito who mutilated over 50 victims during a six year period in the Soviet Union. The film has the right idea, and a unique slant on this tired genre, but has too many writing flaws to get my recommendation.

The detective work in the film is totally controlled by the stifling Russian bureaucracy and the desire of party leaders to cover up the presence of a murderer in the country. Serial killing is supposedly a "decadent, Western phenomenon," and the allow the killer to continue in the interests of PR. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game; V for Vendetta) is a forensic scientist who leads the investigation. His superior is a woefully miscast (yet still Emmy award winning) Donald Sutherland. His Russian accent, which wasn't good to begin with, comes and goes, and both Michelle and I looked at each other about 5 minutes in and wondered "Is he supposed to be gay?" It actually may be in the backstory of the character (homosexuality is a sidelight in the plot), but if it was then Donald is way overdoing it here, to the point of distraction.

Sutherland is an experienced navigator of the bureaucracy, and most of the film is spent with the subtlty of a trainwreck. When the party boss storms into a room and demands that a suspect (the real killer) be released because "he is a party member in good standing. Do you know how this will look!" we roll our eyes at the bluntness of the confrontation. Even in Red Russia, I have a feeling that winks and nods and private conversations and silent understandings were much more the order of business than matter-of-fact shouting matches and irrational edicts in a room full of people. These things must be done delicately, or at least they should be to make a good film. The audience is forced to do no work whatsoever here, all of the slight moves in the bureaucracy game are spelled out. That makes it silly.

The film is resolved after Perestroika, where overnight the party loses power and Sutherland is freed up to get the bad buy. This, as well, is blunt and unimaginative. The only good thing is that the investigators can now bring in a psychiatrist, played by the perfect-in-everything-he-does Max von Sydow (who can hold an accent) in a very intersting scene exploring the psyche of the killer, a bid to sympathize him and make him another cog in this failing system. This really a scathing indict of the Soviet system.

Good idea. This movie is certainly praised and won several awards. But I think the script insults the intelligence of the audience, and earns low marks in my mind.



Director- David Cronenburg (Scanners )

I loved A History of Violence. I did not like Crash. I did like this Cronenburg entry, part of "bizarre media and respected director week" here at Casa de PJ. About thirty minutes in, I could not shake the idea that this movie in some ways was meant to perform Marshall McLuhan's famous critique that "the media is the message". And about fourty minutes in, I wanted to kick my own ass for invoking the name of the media theorist whose pretentious rants are the subject of the funniest movie scene of all time. As it turns out, the McLuhan link is not the construction of a beer addled, sleep deprived graduate student, but what Mr. Cronenburg intended all along. Since I got the ghetto DVD from netflix instead of the sweet special edition, I was limited only to the production notes. However, even these sparse aides indicated that the director was attempting to make a point just like McLuhan's.

But first the story- James Woods plays Max Renn, director of a struggling tv station called "Civic", which shows violence and nudity in copious amounts to attract viewers. Max is awakened every morning by a tv video wake up call made specially for him by his assistant, and his everyday behaviors are saturated with media- he appears on talk shows, watches samples of shows for programming, and watches videos with his dates. One day Max has the opportunity to check out some real "promising" video tape- it turns out to be essentially snuff material that he initially thinks is broadcasting out of Southeast Asia. Later, they discover that the footage is broadcasting out of Pittsburgh! (WOOOOO GO BURGH! I'd like to take this opportunity to share a story about how people just scream out the name of a city whenever its mentioned by someone famous. There was a Ben Folds concert at Wake a month or so ago and during the performance of the heartrending song "Brick", about how Mr. Folds and his first girlfriend had to go get an abortion, Mr. Folds sings "went down to Charlotte" and the crowd goes absolutely apeshit nuts. He went there to get AN ABORTION PEOPLE! ITS SAD!. Idiots. Anyway...). Max then takes up with a young woman (played by Deborah Harry, of Blondie fame) with a fetish for rough sex and even rougher visuals, and then goes off to Pittsburgh to find her way to this station which she thinks "is perfect for her".

It is here that the movie takes a turn for the bizarre and creepy. Which is good, because it could it could have turned crappy. Max begins to have hallucinations that involve making love to the television, bizarre encounters with cloaked agents, and whips. There are characters, but their names do not really matter. They simply embody the idea that "we are what we eat" from a media standpoint. I will not rant a bunch about "The Media is the Message" because I frankly don't fully understand it. But as Max's behavior becomes more and more tangled in terms of a failureto understand the difference between reality and hallucination AND as the viewer becomes less able to discern what is really happening, the movie does make a clear point about how a powerful and immersive medium can easily control or dominate the minds and visions of those individuals who watch it. And that those individuals may not just be watching, but being in that medium all at once. The close of the movie is fascinating and shocking, and the entire narrative is filled with shocking sexual images and incredibly grotesque violence. But I believe in this movie they are not catering to prurient interests, but are called for. In order to effectively perform the point that immersion in media dulls our sense this extreme violence must continuously manifest itself so that when we are presented with absurd violence at the end of the movie we too have become desensitized to it. But the fact that the movie plays with what reality is also dulls our sense- if we don't think the violence is real, and we view it only as fantasy, we do not react to it.

This is why the beginning of the movie, when Renn seizes on the violent images on the satellite (the show itself is called Videodrome, which literally means video arena or video space) Max looks at them as entertainment opportunities, but ignores the violent content and relationships depicted. This makes it close to not just McLuhan but also Horkheimer and Adorno- the violent sexual images themselves are made to be the same as other programming because they can brings ratings and advertising dollars. The judgments that Max makes about the shows come not from an ethical perspective that can condemn or even speak to particular behaviors, but operate only in a relative frame with a baseline of ratings. Cronenburg is consistently fascinated in his work about the viewer's relationship to violence, and this movie is not the sly wink of A History of Violence but instead the brutal blow of a sledghammer, whose clang signals the complicity of the viewer in the consumption of not just violent ideas and images, but a medium who makes those ideas real where they may not have been.

I really liked this movie. It creeped me out, despite the fact that it was special effects reliant and as a result somewhat dated. Additionally, 80's movies generally have the absolute worst soundtracks of all time, since whoever invented the synthesizer was constantly blowing everyone in charge of mixing sound for any movie in the 80's. The movie slogs through that, and James Woods' performance is absolutely first rate. He plays scumbags well, and this is a scumbag who we can't help but identify with- and should (oh irony of ironies).

The Devil and Daniel Webster


Dir: William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Life of Emile Zola, and born July 15, a splendid day indeed)

Another film I would have probably passed over if it were not under the Criterion Banner. And again the good folks at CC fail to disappoint. Jabez Stone is a down on his luck New Hampshire farmer. Mounting debts, inclement weather, and bad harvests keep Jabez and the family Stone poor. As his spills his last bag of seed, he foolishly utters that he would give his soul for two cents and then some. Wishing to oblige, Mr. Scratch appears with gold and offers Mr. Stone the expected Faustian bargain. Intoxicated by the wealth that lays before him, Stone gladly accepts the terms of the agreement (first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women). Mr. Scratch promises seven years of good fortune in exchange for his "worthless soul." This fortune is parlayed into plentiful harvests, excessive wealth and a newborn son. However, the temptations mount, both material and corporeal, and Stone is caught up in the glamour of worldly possessions and slowly turns his back on his faith.

Seven years pass, and Stone has alienated his family and friends, and Mr. Scratch comes to collect. But Stone realizes the error of his ways and enlists the help of his son's godfather, Daniel Webster (I'll spare you the backstory, but back then I guess politicians were extremely accessible). What ensues is the often mimicked courtroom battle with the Devil over the ownership of the soul. Daniel Webster's heroic speech to a jury of deceased American traitors (Benedict Arnold is the foreman), appeals to an American ideal where true citizens have already given their soul to the cause of freedom (I was hoping for a less pathos driven argument--even Marge Simpson had a contractually-based legal appeal, but the orator is the good guy, so I'll take that).

The film is an adaptation of a 1937 Stephen Vincent Benet short story, which is one of three stories that mythologize Webster as a Bunyanesque figure who is an ardent defender of the American ideal. And with the film being released in 1941, there are clear rallying cries for American support to stop the spread of tyranny (although, the closing shot troubles a sincere read, as Mr. Scratch, perusing his black book looking for another "victim," points at the camera, imitating the pose of Uncle Sam from the army recruitment posters). The film does not boast any incredible depth beyond an allegorical interpretation. There is a sincere reverence for Webster as the virtuous guard of the Union, destined to promote the community (he does enable the grange to reunite). However, Mr. Scratch does make some pointed attacks on the American ideal, noting that he was there when the Americans killed their first Indian and the first slave ship that sailed from the Congo. This provides the only real indict of Websterian ideals. However, it was the historic Webster, an abolitionist, who pushed the Missouri Compromise, his own Faustian bargain to keep the Union together. And yet, the warnings of materialism shine though; the subsequent arguments Webster makes suggest that the violence levied against others during the founding of America was the product of a polluted ideal, brought down by unfettered greed.

William Huston's Mr. Scratch provides the only real standout performance. Everyone else is passable. But the real winners are the Oscar winning score, by the incomparable Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock's longtime musical author), and the cinematography (a young Robert Wise as editor, btw). Clever lighting, special effects, and spooky instrumentals capture the demonic power of Mr. Scratch, cultivating a disquieting mood for a film that spends most of its time being cheeky.

If you have the chance, see it. But if the queue long, it can wait behind the clearly recognizable classics.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Fists in the Pocket


Dir: Marco Bellocchio (China is Near)

Itailan pychological horror movie just released on Criterion. A sequestered provincial family is all screwed up, full of hate and malice and incest. It's all too much for Alessandro, who turns to killing just for the thrill, to break-up the oppression of his surroundings.

What does one do when all the smart people are on one side of the critical debate and you find yourself alone? I assumed I would love the film. I eagerly anticipated a breakthrough for Italian cinema and the horror genre writ large. I even watched Bertolucci's fawning (and self aggrandizing) remembrance of the film afterwards to try and learn what made the movie great.
But I was bored. I watched the film in half hour chunks because my mind kept wandering to things like doing the dishes. Was I in a bad mood? Did I pick the wrong film to watch sober? Did I pick the wrong week to quit sniffing glue?

I think what others are going for here is that Fists in the Pocket explores the depravity with which the traditional subjects of a horror film live their everyday lives, how their debilitations function when they aren't wearing a leather smock covered in blood. It brings to us the everydayness of the conditions that might lead to the actions of a psychopath.

But it just never connected with me. I need to care about the characters or their victims, even if I am rooting for their ultimate failure. A bad horror movie substitutes character development for gore; but this movie forgoes both! Part of the problem may be the loose editing and stylized storytelling that featured minimal dialogue and lots of gaps in the narrative. The episodic nature of the writing left me wondering why I was supposed to care about anything this family did. Here, backstory or some descent into this condition would have been welcome.

I am more than willing to admit that I must be wrong. Too many smart people like this movie for me to be the only voice of reason. I often call out others for refusing to admit the shortcomings in their own taste, that proudly proclaiming "I hate classical music" or "I was bored with Lawrence of Arabia" is not a spirited stance against pretention but is instead flaunting ignorance. Not that such beliefs make you a bad person; it just means your have a blindspot. I try to be relfexive in my own prejudices and points of undercultivation.

It must have been the fact that I was sober. Six months from now, me and bottle of Maker's have a date with Fists in the Pocket.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

1976 Oscar Winner for Director, Writing (adapted), Actor, Actress and Picture

Dir: Milos Forman (Hair; Ragtime; Amadeus; The People vs. Larry Flynt; Man on the Moon)

Another film for which it had been years since my last viewing. #20 on the AFI top 100 list and absolutely worthy of that distinction. This film is brilliant in so many ways, a fascinating and exciting and insightful and fun and scary story that works both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Nicholson is truly astounding as McMurphy, simultaneously full of joy and anger, calculated shrewdness and uncontrollable emotion, ready to explode and yet always charming. That isn't just writing (although his character is expertly written as well); Nicholson makes this man come alive on the screen in one of the best performances I have ever seen. The opposite is the case for Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched, a performance that demands monlithic distance and limited expression; yet it is through the role she plays in the script that the brilliance of the character comes through. Fletcher understands the script, Nicholson understands his characters, and each hit exactly the right chords in their performances.

Forman has done wonders as well. Never has such tension and chaos been created by a bunch of people, half of whom never speak, in a room. The escalating cacophony of sounds and actions are all prefectly layered, no doubt carefully rehearsed in order to seem organic. These are not just random interjections when the arguments break out, they are (if I may be permitted to gush) a symphony of sounds all designed to make the audience feel Ratched's lack of control and McMurphy's anarchist joy in subverting control at the same time.

While born from the height of the counter culture, the story has lost none of its punch. Its defense of freedom and living remains powerful and important. Even the literal critiques of the mental health industry remain salient in a world where pharamceuticals threaten to take the stifling conformity of the institution and place it into our medicine cabinets. But the critique is not naive, we recognize in Cuckoo's Nest that these men have real problems, and the solution is not as simple as "get out there and enjoy life." But then as now, our psyches place us at the mercy of those who seek to control us through rules or through temptation.

I think this is one of the finest films I have ever seen. It is a moving experience on many levels. If you have let it lie fallow as long as I did, I urge you to reconnect with it soon.


United 93


Dir: Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremecy)

I do not understand the argument "it is too soon." What does that mean? Does it suggest a Freudian desire to repress tragedy as the only way to function socially? Does it imply that a film is not the appropriate medium for a memorialization of such a tragedy? Does such a commercial medium intrinsically invite cynicism and insincerity, automatically tainting the meaning of the tragic event? I find the public conversation on this film fasciniating. We are in the process of a rhetorical struggle to generate an ethical perspective on how to handle the most tragic event in recent US history. For me, if all the families of the United 93 passengers support the film, then I have no problem with the production and release of the film "so soon", regardless of what the farmers in Nebraska have to say.

I can only imagine how Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" will be accecpted by an already queasy public. Stone is a political lightning rod with a history of employing the conspiratorial angle to drive the narrative (he also has a history of directing uneven films, which to me might be the greater insult--I am okay with a conspiracy read on 9-11, but any 9-11 film better be a damn good film. And when your previous movie is "Alexander," you better be on your game). He promises that this will not be the case--so, in Stone we trust.

Greengrass, however, takes the proper track. He is an Englishman, a solid filmmaker but, at present, remains rather anonymous. He uses unknowns to play the passengers and terrorists. Nothing on or off screen distracts from the gravity of the event. In fact, most of the airtraffic controllers are the real people; I can only assume that acting in the film was quite therapeutic. There is no character development, in the traditional narrative sense. The camera, in unfettered documentary style, just captures the mundane but all too human small talk that passengers and filght crews exchange on any early morning flight. The innocence of America is subtle but apparent. During those morning hours when the country rose from its secure slumber, we were comfortable in our city upon the hill to speak sincerely with our single serving friends about the troubles of remodeling the kitchen or planting geraniums. But, knowing what happens makes such banter uncomfortable.

On very few occasions are names exchanged. Despite the lack of expository introductions, the people in the film are immediately identifiable (I think there is a rich conversation about how the lack of naming the characters in favor of just the face makes the emotional gravity of the film more effective). However, in the closing credit crawl, everyone is honored with their full name, as to be expected. Greengrass only moves between the various airtraffic control towers and United 93. Jerky camera movement coupled with the frenetic pace of the actual events generates a great deal of discomfort and nausea. He resists any temptation to show a scene or group of individuals not directly involved in the events, providing us with just "information" about the series of events. I am glad he avoids anything overtly political (there are some parallels between how the terrorists and passengers exercise their faith in the face of death) . Although it is there, especially in the frenetic exchanges between the civilian and military air towers. The military, all the way up to the President, are cast, ever so subtly, as beaurucratic and slow. Anything beyond that, in my view, is an irresponsible criticism.

The film only asks us to remember and appreciate the sacrifice. It brought me back to that moment: hearing for the first time about some plane crash at the World Trade Center from Howard Stern right after dropping off Alessandra at school, returning home only to see the second plane hit the second tower, waiting for Alessandra to come home (especially when the news reported that a fourth plane was missing over Western Pennsylvania), calling Marcus to turn on the TV and come by, and then spending the rest of the day with loved ones absorbing the tragedy till the small hours of the night.

I often wonder if this were to happen in a different country (the actual hijacking and using of planes to destroy highly populated and highly symbolic areas), and the people in the last plane knew what was unfolding, would they have reacted the same way as the United 93 passengers. Obviously, such a thought experiment could never be tested, but my gut instinct would be to say no. I do not wish to sound jingoistic, but the American cultural psyche is one of extremes (witness the cowboy attitude that informs our foreign and social policies). So this cavalier sense of duty seems so uniquely American. I firmly believe that no American plane will ever again be successfully hijacked.

I know there are conspiracy theories that suggest United 93 was shot down by American fighters, but we do know that there were attempts to retake the plane. I am one who usually favors the truth, but I prefer the narrative of heroism and bravery where regular Americans stood up for her people in the face of eminent doom. I guess that is the inescapable American in me.

Exploitive? No, and the families agree with me (in fact, after the Tribeca screening, a mother of one the victims approached an actor who played the lead terrorist and thanked-and hugged-him for his bravery in playing such a role. I agree.) Uncomfortable? Most certainly. Important cultural document worth seeing? Definitely.

The Da Vinci Code


Dir: Ron Howard (many films better than this)

Jesus died for this!? I used to operate under the cinematic maxim that Ron Howard has never made a bad film. Even Splash had redeemable qualities. While none of his films are masterpieces, you could always count on an enjoyable story with some solid acting and compelling, if not cliched, cinematography. Like Marcus dropping irrational prejudices, that maxim is no more. Marcus, you have been waiting for me to rail on a film. Well, here it comes.

The plot: Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a notable Professor of Symbolism (or some other made up discipline) at Harvard University. He is delivering a lecture in Paris; afterwards, he is supposed to meet a curator at the Louvre. But alas, said curator is murdered, but he leaves numerous symbolic codes for Langdon. But the French cop on the scene is hell bent on pinning the crime of Langdon. Ok, let me get this straight: a world famous Harvard professor is being framed for the horrific murder of a guy he never met and the lead French investigator could not careless about the forensic evidence and motive...and remember this happens during the same time Langdon is delivering a lecture and conducting a book signing (Yes, I know Harvard professors are hard workers, and they get a lot accomplished in limited time). What follows is a series of non-sequitor chase scenes, unsubstantiated motives, placid character developments (anytime character develop rests solely on hackneyed flashbacks, you know the screenwriter is cashing it in), and uninspired acting. I hear the film is quite faithful to the book, so I blame Dan Brown, the man responsible for the collective dumbing down of society (at least Oprah assigns her readers quality literature).

I am often reluctant to dismiss populist art prima facia as superficial tripe. But I can only imagine Brown's faithful readers mistake the book's compelling religious conspiracy as insightful erudition. Indeed, the premise has merit. Jesus had a child with Mary Magdaline, but that secret was repressed by the Church to maintain the "faith" and the resultant power structure. I can see the attraction of a historic conspiracy that attempt to thwart any information that could undermine existing scripture and the accepted story of Jesus Christ. The premise is quite plausible; the Catholic Church has done some horrific acts in the name of Jesus (the film explains that the historic oppression of women in Christianity is the product of suppressing the Jesus/Mary marriage). But the film (perhaps the book is more thorough) does little with this premise beyond the intial exposition (and oh my Lord, is there a lot of exposition). Instead, Howard chooses to focus on the most artificial murder-mystery-cum-grand-conspriracy "thriller" in recent film history. Even the editing and cinematic tricks were lazy and derivative (recycled Beautiful Mind filming techniques). Yes, the antagonists have a secret to maintain, but beyond that, no character motivation is ever established. The plot rests on characters getting crossed, then double-crossed, then triple-crossed, which only results in the film collasping under its own indulgence. I have crapped more cohesive plots than this.

Howard often follows the Spielberg School of Filmmaking; have a plot dripping with pathos that we are forced to love the protagonists. But I guess Howard has now settled on a sacchrine-free cinematic diet. I failed to care about anyone, even the decsendent of Jesus Christ! (don't worry, I am not spoiling any plot--either you have read the book or you will have had figured out the entire plot within the first fifteen minutes of the film). I don't know what is the greater waste: the squandering of excellent talent on both sides of the camera or the money and hours spent watching the film (or the book for that matter). In the end, everyone loses.

I even have a problem with the title, in no way does it have anything to do with Da Vinci or a Code. I am not even certain "the" is anyway descriptive, except perhaps, this is "the" film you should not see this summer.

I wanted to like the movie, I really did. Howard, Hanks, Goldsmith, Reno, Molina, Tatou. Great talent. But the weight of expectations may have been too much, but it bothers me that the expectations were set by a stupid story based on an inspired premise (the only parts that Brown borrowed). Although I am not a religious man, I prefer the Greatest Story Ever Told. At least it makes sense.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Forrest Gump

1995 Oscar Winner Best Director, Actor, Effects, Writing (adapted) and Picture

Dir: Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone; Back to the Future; Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Cast Away; The Polar Express)

When two different people, without even consulting with each other, both say within the span of a week "I really should watch that movie again," then that's enough for me to do so. I had not seen Gump in many years, but the one time I did see it I remembered liking it more than my cynical predisposition would have predicted. On further review, maybe cynicism has something to it.

Forrest Gump is certainly a film to be reckoned with, with much to like about it. Hanks' performance is so unique that it still colors popular culture, the catch phrases as much about his delivery as their syntactical zing. On an off year in terms of Best Actor nominees, he is the proper choice. Sally Field is also fine in a supporting role as the bedrock mother. Robin Wright is not as good as her chraracter is written, and I think Gary Sinise overplays his role as the army lieutenant who must adjust to life as an amputee.

The effects mesmerized me when I saw them, but like all special effects this side of Star Wars they have not aged well. The tech is just too fast for these sorts of techiques to stand the test of time. Star Wars is the one exception because it essentially exhausted one technology, forcing the development of an entirely new medium. Gump talking to LBJ? We can do that sort of thing on our home computers ten year later (slight over statement, but I exaggerate to make a point).

And therein lies the flaw with the film. It puts a lock of stock in the novelty of this historical interpollation. But once we know where that is going, and fail to "oooh" and "aaah" at it, I found that it dragged the movie down. Often, I found myself marking time until Zemeckis returned to the backbone of the story, the narrative that so impressed me at first viewing.

The love story remains the brilliant element, itself worthy of consideration for best picture, although I think Paul would agree with me that the real winner should have been Ed Wood, and the rest of you would go for Pulp Fiction. The self dectructive tendencies of Robin Wright mirror the excesses of the time period under examination and erect a barrier to love and contentment. Gump is the embodiement of acceptance and humility, Jenny the personification of restless longing and recklessness. The script is correct in denying them any long term cohabitation, their only hope being a synthesis into something new. The story is unflinching and almost manipulative in building sentiment through our recognition of these two approaches to life. I found it then very moving then, and did once again. The history stuff is all secondary, something to smile at while we experience the love story.

One could make a political critique of the film, that it demonzies the counterculture and lionizes traditional families and simple, traditional southern ways. But to do so would be too simple itself. Gump is an archetype, a metaphor for one of the extremes of life. He is not a role model, as the magical nature of his life quickly confirms. This is a mythical tale, one of resolving dualities. If we have no place for such stories within our ideological apparatus, then our politics have negated one of the most important and hermeneutic narrative devices we have.

I applaud Forrest Gump for its story. I mourn the loss of the impact of its direction. Everyone should see it once, and then they may move on.



Director- David Cronenburg (The Fly)

This riveting tale of racial bias and the way it touches a series of lives in Los Angeles relationally viewed through the prism of a single traffic accident is the winner of Best Picture in...............oh wait no. This is another movie entirely.

Have you ever said to yourself "Most of the fetishes on display really aren't insane enough. C'mon, show me a REAL fetish!!" then this is the movie for you. Cronenburg has adapted a short novel about people who derive intense sexual pleasure from car crashes and turned it into this film. The movie is really intriguing and unique for a while, then kind of gets old as the same radical gestures in the beginning of the movie (people get off on WRECKS) are repeated ad nauseum. Car wreck leads to car sex, sure. Car wreck leads to screwing a scar in someone's leg, what the hell!?

This movie I think is attempting to make a larger point about consumption or something but the movie pretty much made it relatively quickly. The debate though can be about WHAT exactly its criticizing. Is it just an open acknowledgment about how cars function as objects of sex in society? The typical example is the Ferrari purchaser who is compensating for a tiny penis or some other shortcoming. Car wrecks into sex could enact an inversion of this typical bind- that we destroy our cars (precious status symbols) to achieve sexual satisfaction. Perhaps the point is that we can not have good sex until we stop worrying about factors that are external to sex (consumptive societal ones about status etc). But the movie does perform a group of people getting off to an external stimulus so some of this fetishism is probably inevitable. I found myself after this movie desperate for Secretary, another James Spader movie about fetishes that frankly held my interest and intrigued me a lot more.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A History of Violence

Director- David Cronenburg (Dead Ringers)

The best movie of 2005 in my mind. Already reviewed twice on this blog, but I thought I'd mention again just how good it is. The movie is exceptionally simple in terms of plot and character, and yet says so much more than movies which harbor incredibly complex plots and meandering storylines. Having recently seen Blue Velvet (review forthcoming) I couldn't agree more with Ron's initial assessment that this film is about the libidinal economy of violence that society thrives on.

Elevator to the Gallows


Dir: Louis Malle (A Very Private Affair; My Dinner With Andre; Au revoir, les enfants; Vanya on 42nd Street)

Guess what? A French film noir! Recently issued by Criterion, this is one of Malle's first films, minimalist and very good.

Julien (Maurice Ronet) is having an affair with the boss' wife (Jeanne Reneau). After killing the boss (first five minutes of movie, no spoiler really) he is trapped in an elevator. Meanwhile, a young couple steals his car and gets into trouble. Malle explores the nuances of guilt and evil, with two separate yet intersecting stories of lawbreaking and death illuminating the grey areas of the law and morality. The story is very carefully constructed, with only a few moments where characters take actions that only serve to drive the plot. I won't say it is completely believe all up and down the line, but the film's message is strong enough that I forgive a few coincidences to get that out.

The two male leads, Ronet and Georges Poujouly, are both very solid as silent but troubled figures, going about their business with complete focus. Each of the women also have their moments to lead, picking up the pieces in their own way after their men find themselves is trouble.

The score is very noteworthy, done by Miles Davis. The jazz combo is really a great touch, with that cool stacatto trumpet punching up the dramatic moments. It is very Left Bank bistro, and definitely elevates the film.

A simple story, lots of tension and opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the film. Malle takes his time, keeps it simple, and creates a very solid if not transcendent film. I certainly recommend it, especially for lovers of the genre, even if it falls a touch short of the very best French noirs.


This Gun for Hire


Dir: Frank Tuttle (Island of Lost Women; College Holiday; Hell on Frisco Bay)

Another of the film noirs cited as an inspiration for Melville's Le Samourai (see also Odds Against Tomorrow). It is also perennial heavy Alan Ladd's film debut. Veronica Lake is a nightclub singer/magician (she is good at neither, but has passable slight of hand skills) who is spying on a chemical company executive who is suspected of selling nerve agents to the Japanese. Ladd is a hired killer who has been double crossed by said executive. Lake has a boyfriend who is a cop who is chasing Ladd and the executive, who doesn't know the connection between the two men or his singer/magician girlfriend and either of the men. Ladd and Lake meet on a train and both end up hostages of the executive. Other than that, everything makes sense.

Actually, it's not that complicated. The Graham Green novel, I wager, took a pretty big beating in being adapted to 1:20 for the screen. The novel was published in 1936, so the whole Japanese war thing is not his fault. This is certainly more philosophical than most bad noir films, with our hitman opening up about his abusive family and considering solitude versus duty. In the end, Ladd sacrifices himself for country and the single minded pursuit of the revenge he has been chasing all his life. The novel might be worth a look, but the film is medicore at best.

It was personally interesting to see the influence Ladd's character had on the stoic killer of Le Samourai. The idea of the solitary nihilistic hitman living in the shadows is a compelling one, and Ladd certainly provides every interesting element of This Gun for Hire. To see that subject handled so much better by Melville shows both what a good film maker can do with commonplace material and the instinct the New Wave had for boiling down American genres to their essetial elements.

This film is forgettable. For serious students of film noir only (which I am, so there you go).


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


Dir: Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle; Sweet Bird of Youth; Lord Jim; In Cold Blood; $)

I actually think this film rivals A Streetcar Named Desire in terms of best Tennessee Williams screen adaptation. I know, provocative claim, but Streetcar's uncontained passion and power is matched in this film by quiet tension and subtle interpersonal dynamics. Hot Tin Roof is like a early 20th century novel, a play of manners and carefully constructed roles that explores the consequences of refusing to play by the rules.

If I may be a pig (and trite) for a moment, Elizabeth Taylor would not be in the predicament she is in would that I were her husband. My pick for most beautiful woman on film, Taylor is at her own most sultry in this offering. Newman as well (to be an equal opportunity objectifier) is gorgeous and troubled, the best kind of gorgeous. Their performances are justly famous and compelling.

But I would like to sing the praises of Burl Ives. Big Daddy is such a great character, and Ives so perfectly matched to it, that the film pulls off my favorite narrative trick; it makes me feel sympathy for a very bad person. If I understand why the person acts the way they do, then it is much easier to empathize with them, but certainly not forgive them. Big Daddy is a king, and Ives is not afraid of filling the screen, dominating every scene he is in. It is a great performance.

Themes of truth and falsity dominate the film. It is a pity that the writers could not have been more honest about Brick's character, in an unfortunate ironic element to the film. A more dramatic revelation of the relationship between Brick and Skipper would have been welcome, especially since the details we do get come out in the heat of passion and argument, when entendre and self censorship are hardly likely. The film's redemptive elements would also have made more honesty politically worthwhile.

Obviously, it's an essential film. One cannot understand the Taylor mystique without seeing it. Lots of genius comes together in this film. My highest recommendation.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006



Dir: Ingmar Bergman (Scenes From a Marriage ; The Virgin Spring ; Cries and Whispers ; Fanny and Alexander ; Wild Strawberries )

This man's genius knows no ends.

Bergman at his most abtract and stylized. Parts of this film remind me of the kinds of movies one finds when turning a corner in an art museum and entering a dark room, with silent images flashing out and defying interpretation. At other times, we have a densly written but astonishingly perceptive study of existential angst. Short, compact, and riddled with gut wrenching scenes and images, Persona is another unique and brilliant film from the man who is now officially the BDE.

An actress (Liv Ullmann, as always the breathtaking Ullmann) freezes once on stage, overwhelmed by a life of playing roles and losing her own identity. She decides never to talk again, because all speech is lies and she searches for truth. On a remote island, she is cared for by a young nurse (Bibi Andersson), who bares his soul to the muted actress. Over time, the weight of Ullmann's project overtakes Andersson, and the two enter into an enigmatic relationship. This transformation is perplexing, challenging and fascinating, defying easy exaplanation in a venue such as this.

Bergman is the greatest male writer for females I have ever seen, and this movie explores feminine identity and sexuality is a gripping manner. He shoots the movie almost entirely in tight close-up, the physhical similarities between the two serving as a master metaphor for their mutual development as characters.

Bergman is many years ahead of his time in the recognition of the constructed nature of cinema itself. I am right now calling Fight Club out as a rip-off of Persona, at least in some technical elements. Bergman even splices a penis into the film and has the film tear apart and burn in the middle. The opening montage of Persona is brilliant and enigmatic, something more symbolic than I have ever seen begin a film meant for a mass audience. Bergman is unafraid to follow his vision and has complete control over his films, and creates a mood that primes us to explore the surreal elements of his script to follow.

The film is also more political than many of his others. He features an extended clip from the famous Vietnam protest where the monk lights himself on fire. I have never seen so long a piece of footage from that suicide, and by using it Bergman has made us identity with the disgust that Ulmann feels against the world more so than pages of dialogue could.

This movie, like so many of his, is a gigantic work of truth. Written in two weeks while Bergman was in hopsital with a psychosomatic illness, it is almost criminal how he is so consistent in his greatness. A definition of genius is when one makes the difficult look easy. Bergman is a true genius.


The Sweet Hereafter


Dir: Atom Egoyan (Exotica; Felicia's Journey)

Not much to add apart from my previous review of this wonderful movie. This time, I paid particular attention to a rather subtle yet powerful exploration of the ethical status of tort law. It is easy to sweep that into the incredible interpersonal stories being told, but is worthy of examination in its own right.

So sensitive. Really one of my favorites of all time.


Monday, May 15, 2006

In the Cut


Dir: Jane Campion (The Piano; The Portrait of a Lady)

Campion tries to elevate the soft core genre, and certainly lifts it up out of the usual muck where it resides. Not sure she quite reaches the pedestal of an intelligent erotic thriller, but this is no Sliver either (or Basic Instinct 2 for that matter, or any Sharon Stone crap).

Meg Ryan plays a middle aged teacher, in whose garden a severed head is found. She starts an affair with the detective on the case, played by Mark Ruffalo. Along the way, we begin to question whether Ruffalo himself is the killer. This adds an element of danger to their largely sexual relationship, hence the Basic Instinct parallels in my mind. Unlike The Pledge, I found the ambiguous identity of the killer created some tension, even if (ahem) I guessed the ending pretty early.

The sex is rather graphic. One on hand, I give Campion the benefit of the doubt that she found it important to the story (and it does help create a certain atmosphere). But then the cynic in me recognizes that the decision to show a certain body part being manipulated in a certain way, something that we almost never see in a film, for a few seconds could be the difference between a movie no one watches and one with "buzz" (or "humm" maybe). It was co-produced by a French company, so there you go.

Campion's politics were all over the place in The Piano, but here they work under the surface. The sexually self assured women in the film (including a fine performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh), can simultaneously recognize the self destructive side of their personal means of expression and avoid any negativity toward sex per se. This thriller is more learned than most. There is also some interesting camera work playing around with focus lends an ennui to the lives of the characters.

The middle of the movie drags a bit. I found it a bit too predictable in its unpredicatability. But this film is among the better movies of its kind I have seen in recent years. The subject matter is derivative, but Campion makes it interesting at times. Decent, bordering on pretty good. I wouldn't go out of my way to see it, though.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

Home Alone


Dir: Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting; Mrs. Doubtfire; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Rent)

One of the highest grossing film of all time that I had yet to see, Home Alone is a return to my eradication of irrational prejudices. I of course knew the iconic images such as paint cans on strings and open mouthed-cheek holding screams. I did not expect much from this movie beyond contextualizing those fragments of knowledge. But the film was a pleasant surprise, and a very solid contribution to the family movie genre.

The gyrations of the story to make it plausible that a boy would be left Home Alone are good enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief. And a big reason why I liked the film was the wonderful performance from Catherine O'Hara as the capable but frazzled woman whose motherly instincts lead her on a frantic trip home to resuce her child. All of the child actors save Culkin are pretty awful, but they are simply stock characters to set up plot points later on. I was pleased with how little to story line of the buglars dominated the film. Touches like the mysterious old man next door, the extended first act about getting this large family to the aiport in the first place, and the challenges for Culkin in just being alone move the film beyond sillyness and make the story interesting. Culkin himself desreved his reputation after the film, taking direction well to combine both adult dialogue and critical thinking with some very innocent moments of 8 year old wonder and fear.

When the cartoonishness of the the third act comes in, it is focused enough to be funny without being obtrusive. Pesci and Stern are really just icing on the cake, comic relief that presents a challenge for Culkin to overcome rather than the story itself. The violence is clever, and suprisingly real for a children's movie, and well directed.

But Home Alone is really a sweet family movie, where once again everyone discovers the true meaning of Christmas. So many children's movies are just live-action cartoons, with the same sort of characters development that energizes the admonishment "cartoon-ish." But this film uses fun to accent a pretty decent story. I would watch it again some Christmas Eve, sure.

Irrational prejduce? Melted away with warm love.


The Pledge


Dir: Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard; The Indian Runner)

Well intentioned but ultimately failed entry into the psychological crime drama genre. A retired policeman can't shake the feeling that they got the wrong guy on his last case, a brutal murder of a little girl. His search soon grows into an obsession, and threatens to draw his family into danger.

Penn foreshadows where this is going in the opening scene of the film, where a slovenly Jack Nicholson sits before an abandoned gas station muttering to himself random fragments of gibberish. The journey to that point is a bit like "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." But there, the march was inexorable to the end, a dead-on rendering of the psychological effects of greed and mistrust. Here, the story is much more ambiguous; Nicholson appears to be correct in his theory, and yet he takes actions in pursuit of his obsession that place himself and his family is all sorts of jeopardy. Is he keen? Is he crazy? Is it both?

This uncertainty might have been the point, but it is also a problem for the viewer. At times The Pledge feels purposefully ambiguous, like we are supposed to question Nicholson's judgement from the get-go. Or that could be a product of flaws in the narrative that prevent us from really getting to understand the characters. I feel that a flawed attempt at the former left us in the world of the latter. And getting inside the minds of the characters is the sole point of a film like this that explores the inner psyche.

There is, though, lots to like about the film as well. Jack is, of course, very good, although his physical attractiveness pushes the bounds of reality in the story. Penn knows his way around a camera, and the visual images of the film are its best feature. He uses a few tricks that add seasoning but refuse to dominate the direction in a gimmicky way. Benicio del Toro makes a bizarre cameo as the first suspect, surreal almost in his portrayal of a crazy Indian.

The level of talent here commands attention, and I wonder if Penn decides to keep directing that we might look back on this and see the promise of his future. But even good acting and direction cannot overcome a script that fails to connect, and I for one must admit that this movie failed to connect with me.

I give it a B.


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ed Wood

Directed by Tim Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice)

What a great and underdiscussed film. Burton is known for a lot of movies, but this one is rarely discussed when his name is mentioned. He manages to pull off a rare trifecta- choosing to do a movie in black and white in our modern era, pulling the greatest performance from an actor's career late in their life, and taking a hilariously incompetent figure and making him not the subject of ridicule, but instead humor and sympathy.

Wood, voted history's worst director, could easily be a character for attack and ridicule. This movie could have easily been a mean spirited attack on a sad man whose career was a joke. But instead Wood is made by Burton into a sweet, sympathetic figure. His proud cross-dressing is not a matter for societal sanction, but just another part of Ed Wood's quirky personality- probably, we are led to believe, coming from the same place that his will to make films like Bride of the Atom comes from.

But if Wood's hilarious clownish movies are the comedic heights of the movie, its dramatic elements are also worth mentioning. Martin Landau delivers an absolutely spellbinding performance as Bela Lugosi. Lugosi's friendship with Wood came near the end of the respected old actor's career, and he appeared in several of Wood's shoddy horror films. Some of the scenes with Lugosi in Wood's movies are the hardest to watch. Lugosi is trying to channel, just for a second, the fame and fear he received and inspired during the height of his horror career. These schlock pictures are a sad, sad place for one of horror's greats to rest. But this is a movie about how filmmaking is exploitative. Lugosi knows the movies suck but needs the cash to supplement his drug habit. Wood loves Bela, and still honors him as an iconic actor, but this does not stop him from placing Lugosi in humiliating situations in his movies.

The female roles in the movie act in some ways as a chorus debating the merits of the film, and of Wood's moviemaking. Sarah Jessica Parker's character is his long time girlfriend, Dolores. She at first tolerates Ed's poor films while acting in them. She even puts up with his crossdressing. But when Ed finishes Bride of the Monster she leaves him, screaming hysterically at everyone involved in the film that they are living pitiful lives and are amounting to nothing. This truth does not really bother Ed's second love interest in the movie, Kathy (played by Patricia Arquette). She knows Ed has a screw loose but hangs out with him anyway, kind of like the people who enjoy this film, and the viewers who still rent Plan 9 From Outer Space.

I really enjoy this movie. Two scenes stand out to me. One is the introduction of Martin Landau's Lugosi to the film. He is at the time shopping for a coffin. The heavy handed symbolism is not lost on an audience straining to see why Burton wanted to make a movie about Ed Wood. My second favorite scene is one where Tor Johnson, a swedish wrestler (played by George Steele) bumps into the side of a door walking on the set. This ruins the shot. Observers point this out to Ed. He stops, ruminates, and then says that it adds to the reality of the picture because Tor's character, Lobo, "would probably struggle with that problem everyday". A hilarious and touching picture. Innovative directors like Burton should always pursue projects like these with as much vigor as they tackle the Sleepy Hollows of the world.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Snakes on a Blog Animations & Beans on a Plane?

As Snakes on a Plane approaches, SOAP fever reaches pitched heights. It's worth checking out some of the finest animation I've seen on the internet on a long time.

Someone also was clearly inspired by SOAP at Pittsburgh's recent Art All Night show:

Friday, May 05, 2006



Dirs: Henry Alex Rubin (Who is Henry Jaglom?) & Dana Adam Shapiro

Oscar nominated documentary about the Para-Olympic level quadriplegic wheelchair rubgy rivarly between the United States and Canada. The fact that the participants aren't definitionally quadriplegics, or that they are total jerks, does not diminish from what was a pretty interesting film.

Essentially, the film explores the question of what happens when jocks lose the use of their legs. The two main characters, Joe Soares and Mark Zupan, are competitors in this sport that is a cross between football and BattleBots. The retrofitted wheelchairs serve as bumper cars, with ramming and tipping the man with the ball the equivalent of tackling. Soares was once the top American competitor, but became the coach of the Canadian team after being cut due to age. Zupan is an X-games inspired star for the younger American squad.

And both are the kind of guys who beat up nerds in high school. Soares bemoans his son's straight A's and indifference to sports. Zupan lost his mobility after passing out in the back of his buddy's pick-up truck that was crashed coming home from a drunken high school party. Zupan is even a bully to the other members of his team. Normally, these folks would be completely unintersting fodder for a film.

But their response to their disabilities is a different matter. Whatever chip on their shoulder leads them to treat other poorly gives them an aggressive spirit that allows for a peculiar adaptation to their injuries. They are the captains of the football team, with the same swagger and brashness and faults. That quality makes them incredible atheletes. Soares in particular is intriguing as he comes to grips with the impact his hyper competiveness has on his family following a heart attack. Zupan has a journey to make as well, but like many elements in the movie that story seems over scripted to me at times.

The movie challenges assumptions about disability, as you would expect it to. The side characters are universally compelling, either other members of the team or the recently paralyzed motocross enthusiast for whom losing his legs is a harder blow than it might be for someone sedintary like myself. I never found the film too voyeuristic, with enough examination of the day-to-day struggles of the characters to be interesting without taking pity on the subjects.

As with every sports documentary I have ever seen, there isn't enough about the sport itself. A montage (montage) serves to give us a taste of a sport that I would certainly pay some money to see in person.

The film certaintly made me think. These personalities are exactly the ones who might suffer most from paralysis. One event in youth, or some random childhood disease, has closed off avenues for their aggression and competitiveness. Murderball (as the sport was once called) is a solution to that problem, allowing these men the perfect context for a return to normalcy. The film is worth your time.


A Raisin in the Sun


Dir: Daniel Petrie (Sybil; Six Pack)

Obviously one of the best adaptations of a play to the screen. A Raisin in the Sun is a pioneering and essential document of the black American experience, a challenging and sophisticated examination of the modern challenges to the civil rights movement, and an example of perhaps the finest ensemble acting ever filmed. Every single element of the film is laudatory.

Sidney Poitier is Walter, an ambitious man living with his wife, son, sister and mother is a cramped New York tenemant. He has a business scheme and yearns for the life insurance money from his recently widowed mother. The utter desperation of all involved and the subtle power dynamics between the members of the family, all of whom see the money as their salvation in one way or another, create a uniform tension throughout.

Poitier borders on over acting with his wild Walter, shifting moods on a dime and emitting so much pent up anger and frustration that you are sure he is going to burst through a wall. As it is, Poitier finds just the right level of uncontrolled rage, a performance fascinating and uncomfortable to watch. His sister, college educated and experimenting with different reclamations of identity, is brilliantly played as well by Diana Sands, full of wide eyed optimism but also harsh judgment of those who are not as "enlightened" as she. Ruby Dee is the wife, Ruth, who has lost her emasculated husband and despairs over the legacy for her children, quiet and full of total depression.

But the star of the show, the truly illuminating performance, is Claudia McNeil as the family's matriarch. Her character is compelling, crushed by the first stuggles for justice after the end of slavery, yet desperate for her children to live a better life. She straddles the complacency of accomplishment with the recognition that her children have their own struggles to fight. Conservative, religious, and so strong, she embodies the passing of the torch for civil rights leadership to a new generation, for whom a claustrophobic apartment and the freedom to work yourself to death for a little money is not enough. The next step, the step that her children must take, is to develop their personhood. Mama's slow recognition of this, and her development as a character, is miraculous.

The film has so much to say about racism, presenting a more nuanced and politically savvy practice of exclusion and hatred, one that arrives at the door with a smile. The decision the family must make is very difficult, realistic, and thought provoking. All of the characters embody different directions for the future of civil rights, and all come together at the end for a persuasive picture of what we should do next. It is political theater at its best; it is correct and respects the audience enough to avoid preaching.

This film and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" work together as the most important dramatic films dealing with civil right in the 60's. The latter welcomes in a softly racist audience to critique their prejudices. "A Raisin in the Sun" grabs that audience by the throat and forces it to experience life at the bottom of society, to feel their anguish. It is a brilliant play, and a brilliant film.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006



Dir: Eli Roth (Cabin Fever)

Another in a recent series of horror movies that focus on the deep seated cruelty of humans as opposed to unthinking monsters or axe-wielding maniacs. The terror is supposed to come from the dramatization of what people are capable of doing to each other through psychological torment or physical torture. I have no problem with this approach, nor with the graphic presentation of the evisceration of the human body in the interests of dramatic effect. But I do have a problem with dumb movies, and Hostel is square in the latter camp.

In hindsight, "Saw" grows in my esteem as an effective approach to this genre. There, ordinary people are thrust into dilemmas of masochism where they must choose between death or some unspeakable deed. The voyeuristic elements of that film reflect our own fascination at seeing the human psyche pushed to the limits of the survival instinct. That movie had genuine tension as we put ourselves in the place of the victims.

"Hostel" retains the torture, but evacuates any of the thought provoking elements. Three young men travel Europe looking for weed and women. The film's first act is one of the most ridiculous realizations of the adolescent male fantasy I have seen on film. Every woman is promiscuous, gorgeous, and stupid. Public sex, random sex, drunken sex, crazy hump-a-stranger-in-the-bathroom-while-I-send-a-picture-to-my-buddy's-cell-phone sex. In Amsterdam, our heores hear that there is an even freakier hostel in Slovakia. So off they go, where indeed the women are quick and ready. I often wonder whether these young actresses are proud of their roles. "Look mom, I am in the movies! I'm the third naked girl in the back of the sauna!"

Somewhere along the way, the boys end up as hostages in a torture camp, where men pay for the experience of killing people. There's an escape, blah blah blah. The story is not important. This movie is about breasts and gore. 14 year old boys everywhere have hit the motherlode.

The gore is not nearly as scary as "Saw" because it lacks a psychological angle. And of course this giant torture complex, that apparently employs hundreds of people, advertises and attracts clients from across the globe, defies all believeability. One scene in the film attempts to reckon with the issues raised by a giant pay-per-torture complex, a monologue by one of the clients. He proclaims that chasing pussy (his words, not mine) has gotten stale, doesn't give the thrill of conquest like it used to. So, he thought slowly torturing a Japanese girl would fill the void. It is possible that the film was trying to critique its own audience, connecting using women sexually with violence itself. That might indict the whole first act and show how the mysoginy of the young men led to the culture that objectifies the body. Or it is far more likely that Mr. Roth had no idea what he was writing. Let's just say that I was rooting for the torturers, and this monlogue did a good job of explaining why I was.

"Hostel" represents demographic targeting at its most ruthless. This adolescent Utopia of flesh, in both of its meanings, is offensive for its sexual politics, not its gore. And its gore is not near cool enough to compensate for that.



2002, directed by Jeffery Blitz

Long time reader, first time poster. I just saw this documentary film yesterday, and today, feel the need to tell others about it. Spellbound follows the stories of eight participants in the 1999 Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee:

Angela is the daughter of immigrant ranchers from a small town in Texas. Her family’s trip to Washington for the spelling bee is enough for her father, who speaks little English, to die happy and feel like everything was worth it.

Ted is a lonely boy from the Midwest who has trouble making friends because he’s smart and lives on a farm with peacocks.

Nupur is a hard-working student from Florida, who plays the violin.

Neil is the brother of a former 5th place winner of the national bee; his parents have hired a personal spelling bee coach and numerous foreign language tutors to help him learn the languages of origin. His grandfather has paid over a thousand people to pray for him in India.

April is a shy, pessimistic girl from Pennsylvania with goofy but lovable parents. She studies for the spelling bee seven to eight hours a day in the summertime.

Emily is girl from New England who rides horses and sings choir. She is one of the few returning to the national spelling bee competition.

Ashley is a girl from DC who sees the bee as another obstacle to overcome in her troubled life.

Harry is a very energetic, young boy whose motor-mouth skills are indeed a sight to behold.

And so the filmmaker follows this bunch around, from the regional spelling bee competitions through the national one, interviewing their parents, friends, and teachers about what makes them great. The participants, sometimes considered geeky on a normal day, are transformed into local heroes in their towns. At one point, a local Hooters puts up a sign congratulating Nupur, although congratulations is misspelled.

It is difficult to express what about this documentary is so gripping. Some of the preparation rituals before the national bee will blow your mind. A requisite amount of national spelling bee history and Americana is thrown into the mix, without being too distracting from the human interest stories at hand. We get to peek into the stressful world of the actual competition at the end of the film. As those debate-types out there probably know, the success of covering the spelling bee on ESPN was the inspiration for CSTV to do their debate documentary about the NDT. Spelling bee competitions are a strange sub-culture, made even stranger by stressed out parents, and I suspect there is an affinity between spelling competitions and the academic debate world. I was alternately smiling and crying throughout the film—it pulls on all of the right heart strings for me. In the end, one of the eight participants that Blitz focuses on does indeed win the whole competition. I won’t spoil it though…you’ll be happy to see for yourself.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Cold Blood


Dir: Richard Brooks (The Killers; Key Largo; Blackboard Jungle; Sweet Bird of Youth; Lord Jim; $)

Seemed like a good time to watch this, having just seen Capote. Paul enjoys the way Brooks transposes the emotional power of the book to the film. And he notes what I find especially well done in the film, the generation of sympathy for the killers.

The utter randomness of the killings at the center of this story, the accidental nature by which this family was chosen, is expertly portrayed by Brooks. The edits between the characters, all peforming similar functions in order to preview the upcoming convergence of fate, is quite striking. So too are the dramatic shifts in tone between the stable Kansas farm house and the nomadic wanderings of the killer Both ends of this story are very different, and yet yoked together by events to come.

Blake is fine as Perry Smith, but Scott Wilson's slick Richard Hickock steals the show. That character is largely on the sidelines in Capote, but here is an equal partner facilitating the more subdued but more dangerous Smith. The two play very well off each other.

The film may get a tad gimmicky with Smith's father, but the effect of rain drops falling down the window at the end of the film is one of the more beautiful camera tricks I have seen. Many striking visuals infuse the work, such as the gallows at the end, the isolated farm house, the use of light in the night driving scenes. The visual text rises up to meet the depth of the script.

Among the most honest examinations of the death penalty and modern crime ever made. Essential viewing for all students of film, and now an even richer text given the equally strong Capote.