Monday, August 28, 2006

In Memoriam: City Slickers


Dir: Ron Underwood (Tremors; Mighty Joe Young; The Adventures of Pluto Nash; In the Mix)

Bruno Kirby has passed on. While a verteran character actor, it is undeniable he is best known for two roles in mass appeal comedies, When Harry Met Sally and this film. I was reminded that, while everyone saw City Slickers when it came out, I had not revisted the film for many years. What greeted me was an exceptional "feel good" film, intelligent and heart warming that showcases the abilities of actors like Kirby when given the room to act.

City Slickers was a lot more thoughtful that I remembered, and probably more than I could appreciate on first viewing. The emasculation of the Baby Boomers was a big deal back then, often directed in the "Angry White Man" syndrome portrayed in Falling Down. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung the other way toward the feminization of men in the "Metrosexual" movement. City Slickers bears the mark of a generation, raised in the safe envrions of the 50's, reaching mid-life and finding themselves trapped in family and middle management.

That backdrop provides the motivation for a good old-fashioned underdog story, pretty much a sports film forumla transferred to a Western setting. The script is by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, a favorite team of mine responsible as well for A League of Their Own, Gung Ho, Night Shift, and the supremely funny Spies Like Us. City Slickers is their most accessible script, with an emotional range that brings in all kinds of various audiences. The catch phrase humor and one-liners is backed with emotional dialogue that may lack subtlty but undeniably accomplishes its goal. Underwood's incessant orchestral score, swelling on cue when men reveal their feelings to one another, tells us exactly what to fell and on what lines to feel it.

For a Western, the movie does feel strangely claustrophobic, failing to make full use of the vistas of Southern Colorado. The secondary characters accompanying our protagonists on the trail, the dentists, the ice cream moguls, and the lonely woman, are all completely superfluous, especially the young black dentist who teases that race will be an issue and then safely gets ignored for the rest of the film. A cutting room casuality for that story line, I wager.

The film rests entirely on four actors. Jack Palance took home a "lifetime acheivement" Oscar as Curly, a performance I admit didn't strike me as particularaly special after further review. He plays old and grizzled, which he is so it's no big deal. The writing carries the day there, a satisfyingly complex archetype of traditional masculinty. But a bunch of veteran actors could have done it just as well, believe it or not. Billy Crystal, never one of my favorite actors, has perfect comedic timing but little acting chops in my mind. He gets laughs and keeps scenes moving, but never delivers emotional impact.

The stand outs, both in writing and acting, are Daniel Stern and Kirby as Crystal's friends. Each is called on to fully develop a troubled character and work through real personal crises in the course of the film. Each embodies a particular aspect of the male persona, and the actors understand their roles. Stern has real talent, and Kirby plays out of type, supremely confident but with lots of pent up anger.

The script is very good at getting us to empathize with these characters, and then puts a real challenge in front of them. That sort of rooting interest is the bread and butter of the feel good movie, and I must admit that watching City Slickers made me feel good. It is genuinely funny, heartwarming if manipulative, but also intelligent and well thought out. This is the sort of film you watch with the folks on Thanksgiving, a movie that stands near the top of its genre.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Director- Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

The "Road Movie" is a rather archetypical sort of movie. Motley assorted crew travels on a quest for some Sword or Ring or whatever and eventually through the process come to know that what really matters is not that object, but themselves and the differences and bonds they have shared through their journey and various and sundry misfortunes that befall them on the voyage.

It would be a stretch to say that many of the characters in this movie end up being closer as a result of their shared journey. Many of them still possess the same reflections and angers they possess at the beginning of the movie (many of them are, after all, quite deserved). But they do know themselves better and I think for this movie thats what is important, because the message it delivers interpersonally is so clearly about how to behave better as an individual, not how to force others to behave differently or to criticize them for doing so.

The conceit of the film is simple: Little Olive has managed to get into the finals of the regional Little Miss Sunshine contest, a beauty pageant for young girls. Because of a host of circumstances, the entire family must pile into an old VW touring van and head from New Mexico up to California. The cast of characters are Abigail Breslin as Olive, Greg Kinnear as Richard (a failing self-help guru), Toni Collete as Sheryl, the matriarch holding it all together, Steve Carell as Frank, a suicidal Proust scholar, Paul Dano as Dwayne, the son so smitten with German nihilism he does not speak, and Alan Arkin as Richard's father.

The acting in this film is pitch perfect. Really hilarious and well done stuff. Carell in particular is an absolute revelation. He takes the "aw shucks" sarcasm he used to great effect in The 40 Year Old Virgin and amplifies it with a sharper edge. Alan Arkin is pretty much the most hilarious grandpa of all time, with a totally dirty mind. But he also is the only character who really makes time to care for a develop a relationship with Olive.

Kinnear's self-help quack is not very likeable. He is always telling everyone right and wrong, but not in a fascist way. A good scene is where Richard tries to moralize about Olive ordering ice cream. He implies that eating ice cream will make you fat not by stating it outright but with a condescending syllogistic call and answer with Olive, who pushes her ice cream away afterwards. He is just a jerk and the worst kind, one who claims to have all the answers.

Sheryl and Dwayne are in some sense the more controlled character, resigned to the utter insanity that is the family. Sheryl is near a breaking point because she's worked the hardest to keep everything together and it still might not work. Dwayne hates his family like any good cinematic teenager. His refusal to speak because of a certain anti-semitic German philosopher is one of the film's most hilarious aspects.

I want to hold off (mostly) on being a pretentious grad student about this movie. I want to champion it for its simple pleasures. It was hilarious. It made me laugh a lot. The acting was superb. Every single Alan Arkin rant in this movie is worth the price of admission. The movie was also dealing with some seriously heavy material. Suicide, drug addiction and pedophilia are just three of the main topics of this film's conversation. Yet each one of them in some way will be made to be absolutely hilarious.

The only "academic" thought I have right now on the movie is this- like The Catcher in the Rye this is a text which attacks phonies. Like Nietzche it has no tolerance for people whose systems of morality or worldviews have unerringly corrupted their souls. The most intolerable characters in the movie are the ones who attempt to fit everything that occurs into their own little boxes of understanding, whether its Richard's self-help crap fest or an overly uptight registration attendant at the beauty pageant. I hesitate to say any more, because I really do not know my Nietzche, but the fact that dancing plays a strong role in combating the sinister social forces the drive uptight behavior seems to me to be clearly speaking to particular passages I had read once upon a time.

Do go see this movie. It will do you right.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006



Dir: Ingmar Bergman (The Passion of Anna; Autumn Sonata; The Magic Flute; Hour of the Wolf; Persona; Scenes From a Marriage; The Virgin Spring; Cries and Whispers; Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries)

Bergman does a film about war, and Ron wallows in his own shame. How sad it must be for him that the director can make such relevant and interesting films and yet Ron's puny intellect cannot fathom them? I won't repeat the phrase that he recently used in an email to me in reference to Bergman, but take my word that it speaks to Ron's poverty of the soul.

How can Shame be simultaneouly one of the best studies of war I have ever seen and yet not quite up to par with the rest of the man's catalogue? Well, being an unparalelled genius has something to do with it. Max von Sydow stands in for all of us as a civil war at first strips him of his identity and then recasts him in cruelty and hatred. Without a doubt this is the most angry and violent Bergman film I have seen. It is also the most political. But since the subject is the universal experience of war on the human psyche, it is not an anti-Vietnam or anti-fascist film per se. He deftly keeps the political persuasions of the two sides in the conflict in the dark. The common people have no ideological stake in the outcome; they are simply caught between two cruel and indiscriminate armies who both use terror and death to acheive their aims. The ending scenes are indelible, cold and harsh and real and poetic and tragic, using imagery alone to showcase the effect of war on humanity.

As if often the case with him, Bergman uses an interpersonal relationship to highlight larger points. The disintegrating marriage of von Sydow and Liv Ullmann is the result of loss of masculinity. von Sydow cowers and cries at the slightest criticism, is unable to use his hands to fix things or kill animals for food. He breaks down under the weight of the looming conflict. Once the war comes to his house, he finds that parties have taken sexual possession of his wife. At that point, the man is remade, a cold and selfish killer. This is a cycle of violence narrative at its most artistic and compelling, a psychological study like only this genius can articulate.

And yet, for all of these high points, I was not as moved by Shame as many of the man's other works. I think it is a product of the subject matter. I have seen this theme explored many times before; never in this way, mind you, and never with this skill, but the emasculating effects of violence are familiar ground. Bergman's other great works have a novelty to them that combines with his skill (and those of the actors) to create genuinely unique and exciting films. In Shame, Bergman stands with other giants in solidarity around a common Orwellian theme.

This is not a reason to avoid the film, of course. Shame, like all other Bergman films, is essential viewing and an expression of human truth. No self resepcting student of cinema can avoid it. The fact that some on this blog express so much ignorant malice toward the man is a hallmark of how often so-called intellectuals fail to profess anything of importance.




Dir: Jack Woods (only film)

When Criterion talks, I listen.

This release is testament to that company's dedication to cinema. Equinox is essentially a backyard monster movie from a bunch of teenagers. Now, one of the those teenagers was Dennis Muren, who would goi on to be the greatest special effects man of all time. Star Wars, ET, Return of the Jedi, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss, T2, Jurassic Park, Twister, AI, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, War of the Worlds, even Willow!

Let's get everything but the effects out of the way. This film looks like it was filmed by a bunch of teenagers in their back yard (coincidence?). The acting, sets, direction, editing, and writing are all tragic. We are talking Village of the Giants bad, Teenagers from Outer Space Bad. And the plot has something to do with Satan, but Satan is a park ranger who seems hopelessly bad at killing people.

This movie has acheived cult status, and Criterion's homage, because of the monsters. Severalkmonster scenes look as good as anything in a Hercules or Sinbad movie. Now, I'm not saying it looks great, but you do have to marvel at what was possible from amatuers with commercially available technology. The spirit of homemade moviemaking is here, and even amidst the painful aspects of the film there is a sense of wonder at the medium.
Juxtaposed to their other cinematic talents, the special effects here seem mercurial. It is difficult not to be attracted to that kind of model making (who didn't like Clash of the Titans?). In a time of cinematic experimentation, when technology was finally available to let the masses create their own movies (pre-internet youtube), this aspect of film deserves recognition as an examplar of folk art.

The movie is only of interest to devoted monster movie buffs, Criterion completists, or those interested in the history of special effects. It is not worth your time, expect to say that you have seen it, and maybe to reconnect with the mass appeal of the medium.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster


Dirs: Joe Berlinger (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) & Bruce Sinofksy

It is absolutely impossible for me to be objective about this rockumentary. Metallica stands in for so much bad taste and misplaced teen anger in my mind. It is complete prejudice and subjective attitude, I grant. No doubt this band is/was very good at capturing the type of adolescent experience that millions of disaffected white lower and middle class folks thought was very authentic at the time. 'Man, the world is so phony" Holden Caulfield angst translated into dark imagery and songs about being pissed off played very loud through unison guitar/bass/drum riffs just never did it for me. My depressing music is rural, acoustic, agrarian, full of resignation not rage. No doubt they say the same things about my "'profound" music.

Getting that off of my chest allows me to approach this film on its own terms. And it turns out that we get the world's biggest episode of reality television, a VH1 show that features unrivaled access, pop psychology, and a pretty interesting story of the dissintegration of multi-millionare prima donnas who find their power slipping away. Metallica is facing the prospect of a "comeback," the transition from most popular band to an MTV Icon where the industry fetes what once was. But the band is still working, even if it is fraying apart in terms of membership and psyche. The best parts of the film are the extended examinations of the creative process, the nuts and bolts of writing songs while still protecting your own turf and ego within a group of overpraised and undertalented pop musicians.

Unable to get along with each other, the record label hires a "performance coach," essentially a babysitter who makes the band members avoid killing each other. I traced the root of the problem to the fact that the band never had any real talent, and now trying to reproduce their marketability is proving increasingly difficult as taste passes them by. When the lead singer checks himself into rehab, the film becomes about the struggle to maintain themselves personally in the face of both fame and failure while cutting their new album.

Like the B celebrity shows that litter the airwaves today, Some Kind of Monster succeedes from its ability to access the irony of the viewer. I guess there are die-hard Metallica fans out there that will consider this a groundbreaking examination of some musical geniuses, but I found myself smiling throughout at the seriousness of the band, the emotional stakes involved in creating angry but still slight pop music, and the machinations that were required to get this album made.

Sure, I enjoyed myself. It was worth watching, and certainly moved me to consider things that I would not have otherwise. That those things were not the filmmakers intent is inconsequential; the author is dead and I will take read films however I wish.


Friday, August 18, 2006



Dir: Duncan Tucker (first feature film)

There is so, so much right with this movie. Sometimes, people with money also have talent and vision. So when William Macy executive produces an off beat, heartfelt and clearly inspired script for his wife to take on one dynamite role, you get artistic filmmaking as it is supposed to work. The machine did not spit this one out. A gem.

Transamerica reminds one of Alexander Payne, an About Schmidt take on gender identity. Felicity Huffman is a preoperative transsexual, a man who learns on the eve of her surgery that she had fathered a son years ago. The pronoun dissonance in that last sentence may stand in as the theme of the whole film. It is carefully thought out, nuanced and insightful. So nuanced, in fact, that what could easily have been a slam dunk and boring rejection of intolerance becomes a very complicated exploration of the panoply of difficult issues surrounding sexual identity and practice. Our lead is a bad person, really, stifled by years of self denial and societal contempt. Her son is himself a product of a confused and destructive sexual milieu. The various people encountered on the road themselves hold believable attitudes that challenge the audience's own understanding of tolerance and liberation. Each character is full portrait, an exciting amalgamation of intent and action.

Kevin Zegers pays the wayward son as it should be, with juvenile pain and teenage resistance. Never properly weaned, this man-child can both be worldly and hopelessly childish, a fascinating performance in a brilliant characterization. But of course the story is Huffman. Her performance shifts from the feminine pantomime of a man struggling to become something else to occasional relapses into heady masculinity when stress overwhelms her ability to concentrate on passing. The performance is spot on throughout, a revelation of what talent and freedom can accomplish together.

The story is surprisingly humorous and offbeat. The subject could easily have become maudlin or soapy, but the dry humor and cynicism about the world relax the tensions of the audience and invites them in. Even the confrontations with the unfeeling or bigoted or selfish are wry, eliciting shoulder shrugs and shaken heads more than anger. It is a perfect creative move, exploding the pallete of feelings that the film conveys.

Like the last movie I viewed, there is a sense of contrivance to the narrative. I would have liked some more attention to character motivation for their actions. But character motivation for their feelings is a home run, so this is only the smallest piece of criticism.

Even the soundtrack is great. Some grass, some gospel, even Old Crow Medicine Show. Tucker is listening to the same CDs I am. And finally a film has the correct take on hippies.

Transamerica surpasses the hype. You should see it for Huffman, but I think you will find that the entire film is inspired, a complete package that I am so thankful was able to find the light and blossom. Outstanding film.


P.S. Oh, and the Academy should be disbanded. Reese Witherspoon takes a southern drawl and magazine covers with babies and fancy gowns on the red carpet and robs a true work of art from recognition. Shame.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Descent


Dir: Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers)

I actually dragged myself to a theater.

Nothing wrong with some horror movie action. Lionsgate has been pretty good about their releases in recent years, with the very watchable Saw and the truly brilliant Hostel. This is a low budget British film that is earning lots of well deserved praise. Horror is about concept and editing, and The Descent delivers on both.

Six women go spelunking. Inside, there are some nasty things. That's your plot.

Most noteworthy about the film is the inspired decision to cast all women, none of whom is sexualized. This is the anti-Hostel (that was sarcasm above), where the women are completely capable, independent, and kick ass. In these films, one expects women to either be naked and in distress or naked and evil, but always sexualized. But not even a veneer of that exists in The Descent. It is so refreshing, might I suggest even revolutionary to see such casting and writing? The marketing folks must have had some issues with it, and lots of 14 year old boys are going to be mad. Therefore, the film should be supported for its casting alone.

The suspense is there too. The nasty things take their time showing up, and the most tense moments involve completely plausible dangers of caving in the film's second act. Like Jaws, the events seem real in the early going. Horror films rarely overtly play upon universal fears, opting for phantasm. But claustrophobia and fear of the dark will hit anybody. The Descent's best moments are when it explores those themes.

The menace below ground is effective too. Like 28 Days Later, make-up is minimal, but mood, camera, lighting and editing do the trick. The effect is lost over time, as the movie moves into a Aliens-like killing spree. But even if that bit is less terrorizing, it is still pretty fun to watch, almost like the movie is letting us off the hook from the really suspensful moments earlier and settling into familar territory.

The script can certainly be critiqued for contrivances and lack of attention to character motivation. It is much better than 28 Days Later, where such issues overwhelmed the dramatic effect of the horror and made the film laughably bad, but such things are not the strength of the filmmakers. So I won't give The Descent an Oscar. But as a fan of the low budget horror genre, here is a smart and sound entry that captures the essence of what scares us. For those with an interest, there are lots and lots of worse films playing right now.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

V for Vendetta


Dir: James McTeigue (first film)

Paul loved V for Vendetta, emerging with a revolutionary fervor that I have yet to see translated into any newsworthy subversive acts (but I will remain patient). I did not like it near that much, placing it within the pantheon of technically competent but intellectually shallow action movies of recent years. Think The Matrix Revolutions here.

Certainly the film is trying to make the right points. I don't know if the presentist touches were in the source material, such as references to the Koran and a focus on sexual preference. But even if they were, if you get your story from a comic book, am I wrong to say that your argument is comical? Despite its attempts to speak to today, the regime in Britain is way more oppressive than Stalinist Soviet Union ever was. This is Orwell with the volume turned up. By making the dictatorship so odious (roving gangs of raping policemen, complete oppression of the entire panoply of private behavior) the defense of violence against the state becomes a no-brainer. Of course blowing up the justice building is OK! And V isn't even targeting civilians, but political targets such as the statist media. We find ourselves supporting the terrorist because he isn't a terrorist, he is a freedom fighter by any objective definition.

I suppose there is some future world where a freedom loving people surrender completley to a central government in the face of foreign threats and domestic epidemics. But the calculus of appropriate responses to such a regime would be entirely different at that point from the present day. I think the filmmakers were attempting to challenge our unreflexive rejection of any terrorism, but they constructed the narrative so sympathetically as to be unreflexive the other way.

For a much more interesting take on this subject matter, I would direct you to the essential Paradise Now (see also here) or even the acceptable Munich (see also here).

As for the non-political elements of the film, V for Vendetta is behind the 8-Ball already by casting the unfortunate starlet Natalie Portman, the least talented big time actress since Daryl Hannah. There were no Brits who could pull this off, or even any foreigners with passable British accents? If we have to cast a pretty young woman with a bad accent, could it at least have been one with some basic acting skills? She lucked into a big role at 18 in The Phantom Menace, and now we are stuck with her.

The supporting cast is generally very good, including John Hurt and the always welcome comedic genius Stephen Fry. Stephen Rea essentially reprises his role from Citizen X (literally, its the same damn role) but he is good in it both times. The art direction, set design, costuming etc. are all excellent, invoking an engaging mood and an attention to detail that will reward multiple viewings.

The movie is almost worth watching for one scene, the back story of V's turn to struggle through the persecution of a lesbian couple. That was a powerful and moving indict of intolerance. And why could not Natasha Wightman have done the Portman role? The former uses two minutes to outshine the entire performance of the latter.

I won't recommend the film for its message; it is just too facile to be interesting. As an action movie, there are some nice touches, some decent performances, and I can't say I had a bad time watching it. But I was hoping for more.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Donkey Skin


Dir: Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

Looking for a movie with a light hearted take on incest? How about one with a donkey who craps money? Then this one is for you!

The team that brought the blissful Umbrellas of Cherbourg offers a campy fairy tale, full of enough surrealism and kitch to keep one interested. Catherine Deneuve is a Princess whom her lusty father yearns to marry. Her Fairy Godmother hurries her away to live in hiding as a peasant donning, I am not kidding, the skin of a donkey. The skin is a like a cape with a giant donkey head for a hood. Oh, and her boss spits frogs. More than occasionally crossing over into Sid and Marty Croft trippyness, the film is certainly a product of the 70's.

The point here is to capture to wonder of a children's story and take it seriously. I think the film is pretty good at doing that. The Cinderella elements to the narrative are always welcome, and the movie clearly has so much fun with the subject matter that you are willing to go along with it. I can't say any of the acting is particularly good, or that the film is well written. Its musical numbers pale in comparison to the sensitive Cherbourg.

The standout elements of the film are set design and costuming. All of the clothing is over the top, especially a series of dresses that are commissioned to resemble celestial bodies. The sets look a lot like Barbarella, with purposefully tacky and fake elements taking center stage. The King has what looks like an amateurly stuffed giant white house cat, there is a plastic stag, Christmas lights are everywhere. This isn't the product of a low budget, but a deliberate allempt to add artificiality to the scenes, since of course the fairy tale is a fantastical genre. One intrusion of modern technology is unexpected, and reinforces the theme.

Not really my cup of tea, but an interesting evening for those with a particular interest in fairy tales, Catherine Deneuve, or the the experimental side of the New Wave.


The Passion of Anna


Dir: Ingmar Bergman (Autumn Sonata; The Magic Flute; Hour of the Wolf; Persona; Scenes from a Marriage; The Virgin Spring; Cries and Whispers; Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries)

Once again, as always, genius. Bergman continues his exploration of human misery and the deconstruction of the medium in this intense, distrubing, blindingly good character study. The usual stable of actors is here, Ullmann, Andersson and Josephson all brilliant. And Max von Sydow again is completely mesmorizing.

He plays a middle aged hermit who encouters three others living on the same island. He strikes up a friendship with the man, has an affair with his wife, and a long-term relationship with their friend. Each contact, in its own way, breaks down von Sydow, stripping him of the wall of isolation that had kept his animal nature hidden away. He becomes increasingly emotional, violent, and eventually he completely disintegrates.

The thematic nature of the story is, as per usual, intensely honest and brutal. Bibi Andersson shines here as the insomniac wife, a creature unable to function without male affection and desperate for release from her lonlieness. Josephson is cynical and clinical, a collector of photographs that catalogue human emotions and placed in idiosyncratically numbered boxes in a fascinating metaphor from Bergman. Ullmann here is less interesting that normal, perhaps a by-product of the fact that her real life love affair with Bergman was ending at this time. Her character is a wicked hyprocrite, calling for honesty and yet literally evil in her deception.

These basic Bergman themes are reinforced by a quite distrubing focus on animal cruelty in the script. It is a difficult metaphor to explore as the audience, myself included, is so revulsed by the idea that it is hard to analyze. But Bergman holds nothing back, never showing the actual act but being entirely frank about the aftermath of indiscriminate torture and mutilation of God's creatures.

As in the films Persona and Hour of the Wolf, the medium itself is subject to experimentation and critique. His most radical move yet is in this film, where at four points in the narrative Bergman cuts to the actors being interviewed about their characters, exposing their own reflections about how to play the roles. I think it is a bold move, but this time fails because I am not sure the actors give any insight that an attentive viewer did not already know. The device, with more attention given to what is said during these cuts (they were improvised, apparently) could be very interesting. But as they stand now they seem more redundant non-sequitors than statements about acting.

But the closing scene makes up for all that. I can't help but reveal the ending in order to discuss it. von Sydow has finally reached the end of his rope. In a long shot, we seem him pacing back and forth. The camera begins to slowly zoom, to the point where the images becomes so blurred as to make man and scenery indistinguishable. Zooming further, the scene itself dissolves as the camera technology prevents seeing the man anymore; the frame is just pixels of color, which of course is all it was to begin with. It is a truly brilliant use of Bergman's experimental mindset to make a point in the story. To know the last line, itself another masterpiece, watch the film.

The 60's for Bergman, and I have now scene most of the films, must rank as the most sustained period of genius from any artist of the century. I am giddy every time another of his films comes from the BCE, and am likely to watch them all again once I have exhausted the DVD catalogue.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Talladega Nights

Director- Adam McKay (Anchorman)

Let me begin by saying I am not a huge Will Ferrell fan. While some of this SNL stuff was good, a lot of it grated on me, and I could not help but think that sometimes people laughed just because he was being very loud and aggressively obnoxious. This criticism I felt very strongly about Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a film of which most of my peers sat in guffawing awe. That movie ad its moments, but overall I thought was rather dispensable and extremely forgettable.

On the other hand, I am a pretty big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. Da Ali G Show is one of my favorites, and the guy has a good sensibility about his humor, especially some of his more politically charged stuff. That's why this movie was so surprising to me- I really liked Will Ferrell in it and mostly thought Cohen's character was less entertaining.

This movie was pretty funny. I reccommend it. Ferrell's antics really add to the movie, and I think the film has a lot more fun poking fun at its characters while allowing them to be at least slighlty dynamic. Even though Cohen's gay racer is less a winner, he still has some inspired moments. And the film works as a satire of both backwardness and corporate sponorship. Unlike a trailer, I do not want to give away some of the movie's funnier moments. But the story is simple: Ferrell plays racer Ricky Bobby, who was born to drive and quickly ascends to dominance in NASCAR. His life is perfect with his best friend Cal and his family, until Cohen's race car driver comes to wreck his life by racing out of his mind.

Most of these "dumb comedies" for me are like elections- they are an expectations game. You can not go to an Adam Sandler classic like Happy Gilmore expecting to see a great film. But if you come in with the right frame of mind, you may find yourself entertained. This film did not just entertain me- it was actually pretty doggone good.



Dir: Luis Bunuel (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie; That Obscure Object of Desire)

Satire about the complicated nature of charity and devotion, Bunuel's movie is frank about our outward desire to be good but our inner natures that drive us to sin.

A young woman on the verge of her solemn vows leaves the monestary to visit her uncle. The lonely and lecherous man, in his lonliness, propositions and attempts to rape her. After the uncle's suicide, she devotes herself to helping the poor, inviting them to live with her. Meanwhile, the Uncle's son takes possession of the house and pursues our heroine. Along the way, the devotion of young Viridiana is tempted by the presence of the charming man and the unruliness of her chosen flock.

None of these characters are purely good or evil. Viridiana is well intentioned but hopelessly naive. The Uncle is a predator but motivated from a deep and sympathetic melancholy. The son is a lothario but is wise. The beggars that are brought into the house are appreciative but unable to resist their inner shiftlessness and hedonism. They all mean well (in their own way) but all cause problems through their actions.

The movie is generally obtuse and metaphorical, inviting multiple meanings. Scenes dominate as opposed to lines of narrative. The best scene is near the end, when the beggars are left alone in the oppulent house and host their own dinner party. Free from imposed morality or authority, they comport themselves as they wish and have a party that I would have loved to attend. The enigmatic ending as well is tought provoking, almost shocking even by contemporary standards as to how Bunuel resolves the moral morass that Viridiana finds herself in.

The film is subversive in a way that most are afraid to be, a work of art that carries a potent political message. I wasn't blown away, but then these sorts of films tend not to do that for me. Characters here make points, they don't tell stories. It is an important film, a great film, but not a moving film.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006


2005 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Gavin Hood (A Reasonable Man)

South African adaptation of Athol Fugard's novel about the redemption of a street thug in the Johannesburg slums. My expectations were very high for this film, and I think that contributed to a small sense of let down. The film has a lot going for it, but still left me unclear as to the extraordinary motivations of the characters. This story is the journey of one young man, his social awakening and development of dignity and compassion. While the sequence of events are compelling, the internal narration that no doubt drove the source material is here left absent, leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. The cast is not quite up to the task of communicating that information.

A young man jacks a car and shoots the owner, only to find out later that there is an infant in the back seat. His uncertainty over what to do, and the transformation that comes with the realization of the consequences of his actions, provide the substance of the film. At first, Tsotsi came off like a lot of films influenced by exported American gansta' culture mixed with Tarantino-cool, a celebration of thug life and the reality of violence on the streets and in the underworld. But instead of glamorizing such actions, the film takes a hopeful turn, one fitting a nation dealing with the crushing legacy of racism and epidemics of crime and disease. AIDS gets several subtle references, as any film from the world's most infected nation no doubt must.

Hood gives several beautiful shots, almost gratuitously using sunsets and long shots to add beuaty to the slum. His interior work is also noteworthy, especially several scenes where light streams into the protagonist's shack and illuminate the people inside angelically. The score too is really strong, African hip-hop mixing with orchestral pieces to complement to context in which these thugs live.

My critique of Tsotsi is that it never quite crossed the finish line, never really opened a window into the soul of its lead. But the rest of the film is solid. See especially the special feature of alternate endings that demonstrates both the care the filmmakers gave to the narrative and their ability to make the correct decision. Worth your time, especially to support cinema from this part of the world.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Citizen Kane


Dir: Orson Welles

Boring story about a newspaper man. In fact, so much of this film is amateurish that I can't understand how it has topped all those lists. My friends and I thought we should watch one of those films people are always talking about, and since Aeon Flux was out at the video store, we got this thing.

First off, the thing is shot weird. I mean, half the time you can't even see the actor's faces! There's all these odd angles; in one scene, Kane and this other guy are talking to each other and they are literally standing on top of the camera. It's like we are supposed to be these tiny little mice at the feet of giants. But we're not mice!

I talked about those faces. Really, Orson doesn't know much about lighting. Shadows were all over the place. He should move that stuff away from the lights. People walked in and out of shadow with no warning. It was really confusing.

The acting is pretty bad too. They did this thing were they kept shifting the time the story takes place, so they had to do all these make-up changes. Lots of the time I couldn't tell who was what! And none of them were stars. I mean, I know some of the big stars from back then: Cary Grant, Doris Day, Mickey Rooney. How come they couldn't get some star power. At least I knew Orson Welles from the Muppet Movie.

And the story. Ugh! Bo-ringgggg. Nothing happens. Welles is so trying to be like Tarantino with that flashback/forward thing. But the whole movie is just people talking. And they all kept looking for the Rosebud thing, I was like "Who cares! Let's get to some action!" It was just all this preachy exploration of this guy's life. Boo-hoo! With all that money, you think he would have some sweet cars at least. Man, this was no Tokyo Drift.

I kind of dug the guy's creepy house. I would so have some raging keggers there, man! And he should have had a hotter wife. She was always whining and spoiled, with that squeaky voice. It made no sense to me at all why this rich guy would hang out with her. You think they would have explained that. It's like the movie made no sense at all. At least I didn't get it.

Look, avoid Citizen Kane. It is by no means the greatest technical marvel in cinema history. No way is it still visionary after all these years. And no way is it a lasting document of what can happen when you give a genius creative control. Nuh-uh. I'm totally renting Fantastic Four tonight.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

On the Waterfront

Director- Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire)

What a tour de force. Even if this film served as Elia Kazan's ego function for his naming names in the Communism witch hunts of the 1950's, this is proof that art from the self can make a powerful statement to society at large. Plenty of film projects have been starkly personal in nature and yet moving and powerful- Schindler's List held special meaning for Steven Spielberg as a Jew, The Passion of the Christ had special meaning for Mel Gibson (who, as it turns out, may not get along with Mr. Spielberg), and for John Travolta Battlefield Earth was a powerful representation of his committment to Scientology that turned society towards the teaching of L. Ron Hubbard. Well, ok, sometimes these personal movies don't always have the power to move mountains. Marcus' old review is here.

The story is classic right versus corruption. Marlon Brando plays a former prizefighter named Terry Malloy who is working and living down at the docks with his brother, Charley, who's the right hand man for the local mobster controlling the unions. The film opens with a murder, a fellow named Joey "fell off a building", but the neighborhood knows its because he was willing to talk about the mob's control of the docks. The local priest, played ably by Karl Malden, is convinced to begin to involve himself in the fight against corruption by Joey's sister, played by Eva Marie Saint.

Terry initially gets involved with the investigation as a stoolie, but his involvement with Joey's sister and the rising body count becomes more complex and creates a crisis of conscience in Terry. There is a wonderful scene at the bar between Brando and Saint that perfectly encapsulates Terry's struggle and transformation with the idea of conscience in the face of corruption, however near his heart and bloodline that corruption may be.

The writing in this movie is near perfect. Great lines include "He doesn't need an ambulance, he needs a priest" and other various one liners poorly imitated by Law and Order. While my familiarity with corruption on the docks in old New York was limited, I was able to understand very clearly the story more than 50 years after the movie was made.

But it is the acting which separates this movie from almost any other I have ever seen. Malden, solid as always. Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger fantastic as mafia heavies. Eva Marie Saint makes you believe that she could change Tommy's mind and create his conscience. But it is Brando's performance that is pure bravura, so brilliant. The famous speech in the backseat of the car is a moment I watched a second time immediately after the movie, so powerful. And in that speech it is not the writing which elevates it, but the pure and total immersion of Brando in the role that makes you believe and feel for his failed career as a boxer, that helps you to know that Terry has discovered who his friends are and who his enemies are. Whatever Stanislavskian memory that Marlon Brando channeled to create his eyes in that speech must have been mighty powerful. This is still not BME, but perhaps here Brando is BAE.

Anatomy of a Murder


Dir: Otto Preminger (The Man With the Golden Arm; Exodus; Porgy and Bess)

I rewatched what is probably my favorite court room drama after a recent vacation to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the setting for this fantastic film. A soldier is accused of murder after he shoots a man who allegedly raped his wife. Country lawyer Jimmy Stewart is enlisted in defense, and George C. Scott is brought up from the big city to prosecute.

What we get is a fascinatingly detailed trial, still frank in its treatment of sexualized aggression even after all these years. Put in the context of the late 50's, the film is positively scandalous. It challenges the viewer to reconsider the ethical responses to that sort of violation, but puts the events in a grey zone that rewards careful attention to the nuance of the performances. The court room scene is well over an hour, but never drags or gets redundant. It is brilliantly writtent.

But the acting is even better. Stewart and Scott taker their time before clashing, like two rams stalking each other before butting heads. Their contrasting styles play well off of each other, and fit the unique talents of each man. When Scott is finally unleashed, it is something to behold; chilling, almost evil, but amazing lawyering. Lee Remick is also great as the victim, a femme fatale to rank among the best.

The secondary stories running through, Stewart's stewed partner, the mysterious manager of the deceased, are all welcome complements to the intensity of the court case. Lord, even Duke Ellington writes the score. So many good elements to this movie.

On this viewing, I could appreciate the remarks of the judge about the different, laid back ways of the UP. It was a great, great trip, by the way, beautiful and relaxed at the same time. That is transferred into Stewart's character, and goes a long way to cementing the unique feel of this film.

I never get tired of this movie. Anatomy of a Murder is the cream of the crop for legal films, a riveting experience.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In Memoriam: Sayonara


Dir: Joshua Logan (Mister Roberts; South Pacific; Camelot; Paint Your Wagon)

Red Buttons is dead. I know his comedy from television. But this film netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Buttons proves that having comedic talents often translates into dramatic ones. His performance is really strong, very natural and confident. His role calls for both joviality and deep commitment to principle, and Buttons surprises in both. An excellent performance from a great talent.

Sayonara is a race tale, the sort of once controversial story of interracial love that would have been the stuff of newspaper headlines back in the day. Now, it still works but as a tale of international mistrust in the aftermath of a war. It is 1951, and American servicemen stationed in Japan are falling in love with local women. The Army and the homefront, still burning with the fire of racism and resentment, put bureaucratic and social sanctions on these marriages.

Marlon Brando plays an ace fighter pilot and General's son, expected to marry into another military family. But he too succumbs to the native charms of the exotic women. Brando's acting ability is on full display, but I do admit that his Southern rubeness is over done in my mind. He plays the character the way it was written, that "Aw, shucks, I don't nothin' 'bout dat. Us country boys . . ." ignorance explaining the character's early opposition to Buttons' marriage, but overdone when applied to everything else. Still, Brando offers so many little things to delight; the way he sits down in front of his potential mother-in-law, the embodiment of cockiness when he pursues women, the angle of his eyes when coming to some realization. His job in the dramatic climax is testament to his talents.

An Oscar also went to Miyoshi Umeki as Buttons' wife, in what must have been a politically motivated vote. She is fine, but has few lines and does little but stand next to Red. But by giving the couple Oscars, the Academy signaled their approval of the subject matter. The award should have gone to Miiko Taka, as Brando's love interest, if to anyone in this film.

The film suffers from a momumental performative contradiciton, though, by casting Ricardo Montalban as the Japanese Kabuki star. It is offensive and inexcusable, then as now, for reasons that should speak for themselves in the context of Sayonara's message of racial tolerance. Studio interference at its worst, I wager.

My favorite parts of the film were the extended scenes of Japanese theater. Lots of cultural detail infuses the story. Logan's work with musicals serves him well in the production numbers.

The film is fine, dated, but no doubt important in its time. See it because one should always see Brando in his prime and because actors like Buttons can find spaces to shine even in the shadow of an actor like Brando.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006



Dir: F.W. Murnau (Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde; The Haunter Castle; Faust)

Celebrated silent adaption of the Dracula story, Nosferatu suffers in my mind from my own inability to really get behind silent movies. I fell bad about it, I know it is a product of my limits as a moviewatcher, but I don't find them enjoyable. Nosferatu is right up there with the best I have seen, though. It has enough interesting imagery to strike the viewer, and my familiarity with the story allows me to slog through the silly non-Vampire moments. But as a whole, this and all other silent films is just too distant, too ancient for me to connect with. It is like seeing some ancient relic in a museum; you appreciate the craft, you recognize how novel it was, but it is clearly a product of another, by-gone era.

Those visuals do indeed hit the spot. Max Schreck, or his make-up at least, is so creepy that one wonders why nine years later they made Bela Lugosi bat like. The rat motif is more effective, and I think more resonant with the disgusting qualities of the Count. Monsters tap into our base fears, and I think that plague carrying vermin may be a deeper mine to excavate. His minion, Knock, is also fun, sort of a demonic Tweedle-Dum.

Everything not involved with the supernatural, though, maybe is good but beyond my ability to critique fairly. Nosferatu is not a brilliant movie, but does contain brilliant images, shots, moods, and impressions.

The score, redone by some weird new-age virbraphone orchestra, is unlistenable. We turned it off and put the Requiem by Brahms on instead. That is one of the good things about silent films; you can talk over them, or put on Duran Duran or whatever, and not mar the aesthetic experience. Talking through it might actually help you finish it.

This isn't an irrational prejudice. It is a flaw of taste. I know it is my own fault. But I don't think I can recommend Nosferatu.




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

The iconic thriller that absolutely deserves its reputation. The Senor has famously defined a genre. But what makes Jaws a brilliant film is not just its action, its careful attention to camera and editing and music to create tension, but its character development that provides interest in between the thrilling parts. The movie entertains in several ways, a triumph for a young genius of popular film making.

If Jaws threatens to tear apart anywhere, it is in its plot and the somewhat absurd notion that an entire town wouldn't care about a potential shark massacre on their own families in the interests of the local economy. Too many overwrought speeches would have made this an after school special, but the script gives just enough of that so we get the point but it does not detract. A well acted movie will help along those lines as well. Robert Shaw is a caricature as the salty sea campaign, but Dreyfuss and Scheider are both remarkable as the anti-shark crusaders. Their talents make the down scenes worth watching on their own. My favorite moment is when the three swap drunken stories, but Scheider keeps secret his own gunshot wound in the face of the rising misery count between the two sea lovers. Even in a populist movie, Speilberg will make his audience think along.

But of course the true star is the shark. Convincing puppetry and brilliant direction to gradually show more of the beast over the course of the film makes this the most realistic movie monster of all time. A giant rubber shark in the opening scene would have drawn laughs, but we are primed to believe in it over the film, so that when it does show we go along with it. The script takes great care to give enough science that we can believe this actually could happen (even if it couldn't).

I am sure everyone in the country has seen this. It is part of our collective culture and one of the great films of the last century.