Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Johnny Guitar

     Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) is a western full of silly lines, campy acting, overt melodrama, evil villains, and criticisms of McCarthyism and conformity. There's quite a bit of feminism in there, and even some Freudian psychology; Vienna (Joan Crawford), a liberated and strong woman who runs a casino, has invoked the ire of Emma (a very annoying Mercedes McCambridge), who clearly has repressed urges for a character called The Dancing Kid. Instead of acknowledging her desire, she blames the murder of her brother on him and Vienna , and leads the easily manipulated townspeople against them. To make matters a little more complicated, Vienna has just summoned Johnny Guitar up from Albequerque. He was supposed to just play guitar in her bar, but given that he was her lover and a trigger happy gunslinger in his past life, there's not much guitar playing going on.
     Instead, there's a whole lot of conflict, none of it happening below the surface. Emma is angry at Vienna, in love with The Dancing Kid, and also hates him and the rest of his gang. Vienna loves Johnny, but has to struggle with their difficult past, and Vienna also has feelings for the Dancing Kid. The Dancing Kid is jealous of Johnny, and loves Joan. Bart, who's in the Dancing Kid's gang, hates Johnny Guitar for no apparent reason. And the townspeople hate anyone trying to mess with their way of life. The most important stuff gets played out with words as much as with bullets; in Nicholas Ray movies characters really like to talk about their feelings, even if they don't quite know what to say. Johnny and Joan's obsessing over their past love is as exaggerated as James Dean's tormented monologues in Rebel Without A Cause.
     Strange to say then that Johnny Guitar must have been much too subtle for me. Words like iconoclasm and subversion get thrown around a lot with Ray, and while this certainly applies to Rebel, I'm not sure I can say the same for Johnny Guitar. High Noon took on the House Un-American Activities Committee two years earlier, so the political parable here is hardly groundbreaking. And then there's all this talk of how bizarre, even dreamlike (Truffaut called it a "western dream"), this movie is. It may be a little offbeat, but it doesn't stray much from any standard formula; I just saw it as a regular western, but slightly goofier. But most inexplicable is the extreme praise Johnny Guitar has received from Truffaut and Godard. For Godard, "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rosselini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." Orson Welles was understandably surprised when he discovered that he stood alongside Ray as one of only three American directors considered truly great by French critics. While Johnny Guitar may be (slightly) eccentric, all of its camp doesn't exactly scream "visionary."

7.6    It's still interesting entertainment, even if I see it as more of a cultural curiosity than a classic.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Another Year

     Just look at that cute couple right there. Those are Tom and Gerri, a loving British pair who lead a peaceful middle class British life in Mike Leigh's Another Year. Going into the movie, I fully expected them to tend to their organic vegetable patch, and laugh and enjoy themselves while eating with friends and family. Maybe things would become a little more somber as they started to contemplate mortality or regret lost youth. And I was right; Tom and Gerri weather the good and bad of one more year together with humor and good spirit. They marvel over the plump tomatoes that they grow. They see their 30 year old son get a new girlfriend, reminisce with old friends, and face a death in the family (that of Tom's sister in law) mournfully, but with an ease that lets us know that this is nothing new for them.  But perhaps I underestimated Mike Leigh (this is my first time seeing one of his movies). Another Year is not content with being charming, heartfelt, and bittersweet; instead, it aims for devastating.
     The movie's darker side comes in the form of Mary (an excellent Lesley Manville), one of Gerri's coworkers at the hospital (Gerri is a therapist), and, more out of pity than anything else, her friend. Mary is a bit of a hopeless case; she can't find anyone to love in her life, has a tendency to embarrass herself when drunk, and she can't stop talking about the new car she's about to (and eventually does) buy--it's the most exciting thing to happen to her in years. At first Mary is charmingly neurotic, and her troubles fit right in to the tapestry of minor annoyances and problems that fill up movies about middle-class lives. But at some point, Mary's false cheerfulness, incessant self-pitying, and total cluelessness becomes downright annoying, for Tom and Gerri and the rest of their family, but also for me--I felt that she had devolved too much into caricature. However, Leigh takes things much further; in the final scenes he removes everything comic about her until all that is left is despair. Another Year might be a movie about regular people and regular problems, but there's nothing regular (or is there?) about the misery on display.
     Mary is accompanied by an ensemble cast of more hopeless souls. There's Ken, fat and unloved with chronic drinking and smoking problems, Ronnie, the dazed, remote, and very sad brother whose wife has just died, Carl, Ronnie's angry and hateful son, and Immelda Stauntin in a scene/movie stealing role as one of Gerri's depressed patients. And then there are the fortunate ones--Tom, Gerri, & co--who have love and some semblance of purpose to their lives. Here, they're altruistic and often helpful towards the damned, but we have to wonder if they really are as considerate as compassionate as they make themselves out to be. They're more than a little guilty of apathy.
     And now, some praise for Leigh for holding all the threads of this story together so gracefully, for making it elucidating instead of misanthropic and forced. Well, if you know anything about his directing style, "forced" would be the last word to come to mind. Apparently, Leigh's movies stem not so much from scripts, but from the actors' exploration of their characters based on some initial guidelines. The finished product is more of an  expensive improv session than something that was planned ahead of time.   More praise is therefore due for how carefully constructed the movie comes off as. There are four sections to it-- Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter-- and each one builds, opens fresh wounds, and feels complete in itself. And with each changing season, the loneliness and desperation escalate, until we reach the final revelatory scene. At this point, it's a revelation that's almost a forgone conclusion--hopelessness already seems as natural as Gerri's lovely tomatoes or the passage of time.


Sunday, December 26, 2010


     A young newlywed couple, Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), take off on Jean's barge for their their honeymoon. They are accompagnied by two other crew members--a young boy and the jolly old Pere Jules (Michel Simon)-- and about a dozen cats. The wife gets fed up with the cramped space, her husband's jealousy, and a life-style she's not accustomed to, and leaves the boat to explore Paris on her own. Jean gets angry and sails off without her, before realizing how much he misses her. In the end they reunite.
     L'Atalante hasn't earned its place high up in the list of the all time greatest movies through any narrative complexity. There's nothing incredible about the dialogue, and the technical aspects of the film aren't particularly impressive. But Jean Vigo's first and only feature length film (he's also known for the 1933 short Zero de conduit) has survived 80 years and a studio hatchet job that cut it by a third to emerge as an enduring masterpiece. It's a film that defines the "poetic realism" of pre-war French cinema, and one that laid the ground for the creative freedom of the New Wave. Just as Vigo was dying of tuberculosis at 29 (three weeks after the film's premiere), a 14 year old Truffaut was discovering images and emotions as he had never seen them before in L'Atalante.
     Now that I've gotten the mandatory history and plot synopsis out of the way, I'll think I'll take this review down a slightly different path than usual. Rather than attempt an objective analysis of the film, I'll go through some of the impressions I had while watching it. It's not that the movie is "untouchable" in any way, or that there I have any conflicting opinions about it. I just think it might be more useful to abandon any pretensions as an authority on L'Atalante, and admit that I'm more like the young Truffaut. The main difference here, however, is that I already know what reputation the film has--I already know that what I'm watching is supposed to be a masterpiece. And I'd rather not write a review giving the same old reasons why the film is seen as a masterpiece.
     What I really am is a judge; while I watch, I have to decide if the film impresses me, if it still resonates, if I'm entertained by it, and whether it stands the test of time and deserves its reputation. It's also valuable for me to go through what I was thinking at each moment, so that I can find what discoveries are really mine, and record and remember them. After all, at some point, I'll run out of classics that I'll be able to see for the first time.

L'Atalante opens with a wedding and a first dose of physical comedy as pere Jules knocks a bottle of champagne off the docks and into the river. First thought-- I can't understand what the hell any of these people are saying. I'd like to blame it all on microphones and not my French, but a couple of people around me were laughing at the dialogue throughout the whole movie. Peu n'importe. The movie was made early after the transition from silent to sound, and everything that needs to be known is there in the characters' faces or in their gestures. As for all the hilarious puns I missed, I think these people would find anything funny. The French, after all, do love Jerry Lewis. Actually, I don't even actually know who Jerry Lewis is, I realize then. In fact, I had learned just the other day that Quenting Tarantino is a huge fan of Jerry Lewis.

One of the first scenes on the boat  has Jean and Juliette sprawled out on the deck. He tries to embrace her, but she pushes him away. Interesting way to start I honeymoon. There may or may not have been a cat that climbed on top of her. In fact, cats are everywhere, much to the annoyance of Juliette. They lie on beds and fall out of closets. At one point Jean threatens to throw them in the river, but Pere Jules will have none of it. Other things: the camera work seems quite primitive, and even shaky in spots. The editing is far from precise, although how much of this is deliberate, I don't know. Perhaps Vigo wanted to give an organic feel to the movie. Much of the first half of the movie is fairly uneventful, and the daily life on the boat is a little tedious for everyone involved. It's no wonder that Juliette wants to escape.

     The first great scenes (in my opinion) come in about a third of the way through the film (I think), and both involve Pere Jules. He's an ugly old fellow, and everything he says is at completely unintelligible, but probably insane. A lot of the times he's singing or dancing or getting drunk. His first moment of glory comes when he shows Juliette that he can sew. They both find this amusing, so he decides to pick up a dress and embrace his feminine side. He twirls around with the dress on and sings and both him and Juliette laugh at his crazy antics. It's a scene filled with good humor and manic joy and one that plays like a "dense daydream" (a fitting description of the movie--I forget where I read it).
    In the next one, the relationship between Pere Jules and Juliette gets a little weirder. He shows her around his cabin, pointing out his photographs of nude women and the various knick knacks that he collects. She musses his hair up. He takes off his shirt to show her his tatoos. Waoh! Is there flirtation going on between the young newlywed and the salty old seaman. I'm guessing that Juliette was just trying to find a way to amuse herself--her intentions seem harmless enough--but Jean definitely doesn't think so. He comes in and immediately starts to throw around Pere Jules's precious china, completely trashing the place. But what makes this eruption interesting is that the characters don't make that big a deal about it, which is not to say they're detached and uninterested. The event is portrayed in a very matter of fact way--it just happens. Even loving couples get angry and make mistakes.

Seems that Juliette isn't quite done making mistakes. She and Jean leave the boat to spend some time in a bar, and there, she falls under the influence of a suave magician who whisks her away from her husband for some dirty dancing. As can be predicted, Jean gets angry, and what follows is the movie's one and only fight scene. A pretty funny wild one at that. After this comes most of the actual "plot" of the movie, with Juliette escaping from the barge to go to the city and Jean getting frustrated. I note that the cinematography has become much more interesting, with ship yards and factories forming an industrial background that contrasts with the small scale of the relationship that we're studying.

Up to this point, there hasn't been much that's been immediately impressive or arrestingly cinematic. Of course, L'Atalante isn't that kind of movie, but I do have to find some reason to praise it. Otherwise my review for one of the most influential movies of all time would have to be summed up by "nice enough, but a little boring." Luckily, I get that reason; there are three or four scenes near the end of the film that surprise me. Jean and Juliette's separation doesn't offer much suspense, but it does add quite a bit of emotional and dramatic tension tension.

In the first great scene, Jean's anguish starts to kick in as he reaches the end of the river and stares at the vast expanse of empty sea in head of him. He climbs down on to the beach and runs until the waves touch his feet. And then he turns back, exhausted and scared. A crowd gathers around him, saying, "just another sailor gone mad." And I say, "400 Blows, 400 Blows!" This is exactly the final scene where Antoine runs up to the water (his ends just at the moment when he turns around and stares into the camera). I deserve a cookie. It's a beautiful image. I can see why Truffaut felt the need to pay hommage.

Great scene number two-- underwater photography! Jean's anguish and longing keeps building, and he eventually dives into the river (partly out of hopelessness and partly in reference to an earlier scene where Juliette claimed you could see your lover if you opened your eyes underwater). And when he's under, the camera goes with him, and everything in the scene is suspended and weightless and fluid. It's arrestingly cinematic. I could have done with out the obvious dream-like superimpositions of Juliette, but the scene isn't overplayed. It even ends with comedy; Pere Jules and the boy are looking over the edge of the barge trying to find where they believe Jean to be drowning, but he has already climbed out of the water and is coming up behind them, curious to find out about what's catching their attention. In Vigo's world, sadness and joy coexist.

3rd great scene--mutual masturbation! The longing reaches it's peak; Jean and Juliette are in separate beds in separate cities, and both are despondent. And then they start to touch themselves, imagining that the other person is there with them. Jean cups his own breasts and then we cut to Juliette reaching towards hers. I don't think this scene needs an analysis. One word will do: incroyable!

And then the last scene, with Jean and Juliette together again at last. Do they run towards each other for a passionate embrace? Does the camera close in on their interlocking faces? Does the movie end with one of those heart thingies (you know what I mean)? No to all of the above. Instead, they take a few slow wary steps towards the other. Perhaps there is even a vestige of anger left in each of them. But nothing else besides there love matters as they grab each other and fall, and their two bodies end up crumpled onto the deck (this mirrors that first scene on the boat). In L'Atalante love is imperfect; but if passion is impossible without jealousy, tedium, annoyance at one's significant other, the moments of pure ecstasy make it all worth it. And then, a final aerial shot over the boat, where the characters are trapped and happy, and then over the river that flows on and on.

still have no idea what this was about


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Guest Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is the best film of 2010 made by possibly the worst filmmaker of all time.
Thierry Guetta is a muttonchopped Frenchman living in LA. For years, he’s been obsessively videotaping everyone and everything around him, with enough footage for the next decade of Paranormal Activity movies. When we finally see his collection of tapes it’s like watching one of those shows about animal hoarders with the nut job in a trailer park surrounded by 200 cats. Like any hoarder, he’s either eccentric or crazy (maybe retarded). The root of Thierry’s fixation goes back to age 11 with the death of his mother. Since then, he’s been obsessed with preserving memories. That’s what eventually draws him to street art, where works of graffiti are often sandblasted the next day.
             Thierry starts filming his cousin Space Invader, who installs little pixilated mosaics of the videogame ectoplasms throughout the globe. There are hundreds all over Paris and watching this movie was worth it alone just for the “oh that’s what the fuck those are” revelation.  Anyways, Thierry gets right in the center of a movement, following around cult street artists like Shepard Fairey (aka Obama poster guy) and finally, after years of searching, the holy grail of street artists, Banksy (seen here unleashing English dry wit with his face blacked out and his voice lowered).
The artists learn to love the French weirdo and feel a need to document their work. Plus, he’s supposedly making the official insider-story street art documentary. The movement is gaining steam. Or rather, disparate artists are starting to become a movement.
            Judging from the art scene in Paris, there is a definite resurgence.  Basquiat is getting hyped up with a blockbuster retrospective and a documentary (see my colleague’s review of The Radiant Child). Modern street artists seem to be carrying the torch, even paying homage to Basquiat by tagging his trademark SAMO and three-point crown.  So are Banksy and co. doing anything radically new, as Exit Through the Gift Shop sometimes suggests? Not exactly. People have been doing graffiti for ages (although I don’t think “street artists” like the term). So why is street art just now resurfacing? Well, Thierry might have a lot to do with it. For one, he draws everyone together. What does every street artist have in common? They’re all followed around by a mad French guy. His connecting factor is all the more important since many street artists work anonymously and secretively.

The ever-anonymous Banksy

Because it’s illegal, street art gains a strong undercurrent of subversion. Exit through the Gift Shop catches the rush of energy that seemingly makes street art better than much of what’s in galleries. I mean, you can’t spend months struggling with your inner demons when the cops are on your tail, and you don’t have time for alcoholism when you have to jump across rooftops.
 Often, street art lives off of arrested development. Take Borf for example, whose graffiti is a tribute to a childhood friend who committed suicide at age 13. Borf’s art is made to capture the spirit of the two teenagers running around the city, throwing bottles for no particular reason. Street art feeds off this regression, which actually deepens it instead of cheapening it. Same old shit indeed.
Adversely, much of street art can seem obvious when it takes itself too seriously. It can have an exaggerated sense of it’s own rebellion— often aimed at consumer culture and authoritative politics. Fairey’s ubiquitous “obey” slogan strikes me as a bit sophomoric. Banksy’s art can also remind you of the kid who grew up with too many Che posters in his room. It’s best when riffing off private jokes and obscure clues that aim to leave the viewer confused rather than riled up. However, seeing Banksy’s acts on video gives them the context they deserve. In one expo he paints a live elephant the color of the room’s wallpaper. When I first heard about the stunt I thought it a bit message-y. However, the real fun came from watching clueless reporters try to explain what exactly was the elephant in the room. War in Iraq? Gap between rich and the poor? Oh shut up already. Banksy’s art is always laughing at our interpretation of it. Especially whatever PETA has to say. Another cunning stunt where Banksy chained a blow up doll of a Guantanamo inmate to a Disney World rollercoaster seemed like a misaimed political message. Sure Disney World represents consumerism and consumerism is American and so is waterboarding but is there any real there there? However, actually seeing it is hilarious. Disney World shuts down the ride, and then whole sections of the park. They interrogate Thierry for four hours, while he erases all his footage before their eyes (in the time being, Banksy goes on Pirates of the Carribean). Disney World more than proves his point.

Banksy's art. haha

By being in such a public space, street art is simultaneously performance art. Exit Through the Gift Shop adds to the art it films where most other art documentaries flatten it. In this way it becomes like Rivers and Tides where all that’s left of the art is the film. Andy Goldsworthy’s icicle statues and beaver dams melt and drift away while space invaders get stolen, and blow up Guantanamo inmates deflate (along with the children’s joy). Luckily Thierry was there to capture the performance. He’s recording a movement. He’s making the official documentary.
Well… er…the problem is, Thierry’s no filmmaker. In fact he’s a hilariously bad one. He sends Banksy an unwatchable 90 minute film of solid rapid cutting and cheap effects—a street art Koyanisquaatsi on cocaine. Bansky in return pulls off a brilliant move and re-edits the 10 000 hours of raw footage to make a movie about Thierry. To get rid of Thierry, Banksy tells him to go make some art himself. Thierry goes a bit overboard. He mortgages his house and his clothing business to set up his own screen-printing studio. There he (rather his staff) makes hilariously derivative art as his new persona, Mr. Brainwash or “MBW”. In one hideous picture, Thierry does a Warhol style Michael Jackson with Marylin Monroe’s hair and lips. Yikes. Another painting is Elvis holding a plastic gun instead of a guitar. Thierry’s analysis is deep: “eet is satire because eenstead of gun there ees Fischer Price!” Banksy disagrees saying “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry …really makes them meaningless.”
 Thierry plans an enormous art show but breaks his foot the week before the opening. The whole thing seems doomed to failure. We see Thierry pre- show, fully enjoying his new artist persona, dishing out pearls of wisdom like “I don't know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a game of chess”. An angry staffer walks up to him and says, “Thierry you need to get back in there. None of the paintings are up on the wall”.
Against all expectations, the show is a total blitzkrieg and Thierry sells $1000000 worth of art in the first week. Banksy, Fairey and other street artists react with everything from sardonic amusement to disgust. They’re laughing at the highbrow art world being duped.  The funny thing is that their judgments of Thierry put them in the position of the new critical elite.
            Message board junkies will insist that Mr. Brainwash is a hoax masterminded by Banksy to show the stupidity of the art world. People want to prove they’re in on the hoax before they get Joachim Pheonixed all over again. Indeed Thierry may be a type of Borat sent out to expose the superficiality of the art world. Now, if that’s true, the movie would be a brilliant work of fiction. It doesn’t real matter how you take the movie. Either way it’s genius.

Terrible. But secretly genius?

            Street art is supposedly just now getting commoditized (hence the title). It’s becoming high art, if only by critical reappraisal. Banksy used to be considered an outsider but his works can now sell for up to half a million. He himself must’ve seen this coming, as he nailed up his own spoof paintings in the British Museum and the Metropolitan. Exit Through the Gift Shop probably overemphasizes the high art/low art boundaries just to prove a point. I can’t really see how the two are that separated since Basquiat started showing in galleries in the 60’s. Maybe people just forgot. For instance, it’s shocking to learn that London still removes Banksy’s graffiti from city walls. That’s self-vandalism if you ask me; those things are worth a lot. It’s probably better for Banksy’s art though—he’ll stay subversive. You can’t have publically endorsed subversive art. It would be the death of him. As he eloquates, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on Rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents, and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t”
Exit Through the Gift Shop really does ask all the right questions about what makes good art. It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Brainwash’s art until you start to think that it might be brilliant. If the art is the artist, then this guy is clearly eccentric enough to carry a truly unique vision. Not to mention that his life lived through a video camera gives him an eye for form and representation. Like the best artists, he channels his obsession. What’s not debatable is that he’s an absolute genius of advertising. He spray paints ads for his show all across LA, gets blurbs from Fairey and Banksy and then spray paints those all across LA:Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature, he’s a phenomenon. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”
- Banksy. Is success its own indicator of merit? Even if Thierry’s art doesn’t deserve success, he certainly does.
Plus some of his art actually works. His repurposing of the Campbell soup can to make a spray paint can is so emblematic of street art that it’s head-slappingly obvious. Yet Thierry was the one to do it. By the end of the movie, there’s no feasible way to deny his brilliance, if only for just being part of the movie.
Exit through the Gift shop is an insider anthology of street art as a whole. It’s the first and undoubtedly definitive glance at the movement. In this way, it feels not only wickedly funny, but also important. What Un Chien Andalou was to surrealism, Exit through the Gift Shop is to Street Art. It’s an MO and probably a catalyst for more to come. But it has another layer—the human story. It succeeds on each layer, and then it inverts the layers and has them comment on each other, and then it comments on itself, and then it comments on us and by the time we get around to comment on it, it’s already commented on us commenting on it so the only thing left to do is comment that you’ve just been mindfucked 5 times over. It’s not just a movie. It’s its own universe, and we should be honored to be allowed to look inside. If life is a game of chess then Exit through the Gift Shop just threw checker pieces on the table. and then lit the table on fire and urinated on it.

9.4 (although maybe it’s awful and I’ve just been duped)

Julian Bass-Krueger

Me: I would have commented on your comment, but since there's all ready quite a bit of commenting going on, I just added some pictures.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Four Lions


    Director Chris Morris takes aim at political correctness in this hilarious comedy about British jihadi terrorists. True, suicide bombings, aren't usually were we look to find laughs, but then again, why not? As Voltaire once said "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it." To my knowledge, one serious movie has been made about suicide bombers (Paradise Now, 2005), but there is so much that is illogical and ridiculous in Islamic extremism that turning it all into a farce is just as valid an approach.
     Morris lets us take pleasure in watching the antics of the four lions (there are actually five) by making his characters totally incompetent. Well, the leader of the gang, Omar, still has some smarts to him, and even if he's a little unhinged, he is more misguided then evil. The rest range from stupid (Waj can't even make it through the children's book The Cat who went to Mecca) to downright crazy (Barry, the only white member of the group, wants to bomb a mosque in order to "radicalize the moderates.") The movie starts with Waj and Omar heading to a training camp in Afghanistan. When they fail there, they go back to Britain to plan an attack on the London marathon. There's not much guilt in watching this band of misfits mess up again and again; many of the gags are pure slapstick, and the delightful idiocy on display is something that's universal--in comedy and in life. What works for stoners, medieval knights, and frat boys works just as well for terrorists.
    This is not to say that Four Lions goes down too easily. Deaths are played for laughs, and Morris tests the limits of black humor in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable. Should you laugh as policemen wrongly shoot innocent civilians? Probably not, but if you see how this scene plays out in the movie you might not be able to help yourself. And how are we really supposed to feel about these hapless jihadists who, nevertheless, aren't as harmless as we would like? The film is pretty ambiguous about this question given that it humanizes its subjects while ridiculing them. In one scene Omar tells his son the story of Disney's Lion King, only he's using Simba as a metaphor for himself so that he can describe his duties and mistakes as a terrorist. This scene and others involving Omar's wife are cliché enough to be satirical of middle class drama, but somehow, they're too real and touching to be reduced to that. Morris is interested in how these characters are "British people who have been here quite a long time and who make curry and are part of the landscape." They lead the same dull lives as everyone else, and are just as dependent on western-style capitalism.
     But let's not get carried away with misplaced compassion here. One reason western societies have so much trouble understanding terrorism is that they are unable to differentiate between the extremists and everyone else. Just take the uproar over the "ground zero mosque" as an example. Four Lions, however, makes the distinction between peaceful muslims who are actually able to cite the Koran and the few anomalies who know only their own hate. And the movie becomes overtly political when it shows the police targeting the former instead of the latter.
    I think it could have a broader political goal as well. It may seem odd to make terrorists even a little sympathetic, but in making them idiotic it strips any fear they might inspire. And I won't exactly be the first person to say that it's this fear that's ultimately controls us. So Four Lions is like laughing in a horror movie to ease the tension. Once you see how ridiculous what you're looking at really is, it's hard not to find it funny.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: The Tourist

     It's a classic Hollywood success story. Foreign director's first movie becomes a critical success and wins Oscar. Foreign director goes to America, gets a huge budget and makes... a film that's almost universally panned, with Peter Travers going so far as to say that it "deserves burial at the bottom of the 2010 dung heap." Critics have been as merciless with the second movie from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck as they had been adulatory with his 2006 The Lives of Others. So I went to the theater yesterday not because I expected to enjoy myself, but because I had to find out how a promising director, two Oscar winning screenwriters, and two of Hollywood's biggest stars could come together to make such an alleged sheiße. Could The Tourist really be that bad?
     Well, one thing's for sure--it's not very good. The plot, which is based off of the French movie Anthony Zimmer, comes off as even more preposterous here. Elise (Angelina Jolie) is followed by British agents and gangsters as she tries to find her lover, Alexander Pearce, who just embezzled 2 billion dollars and got 20 million dollars worth of facial reconstruction surgery. To get them off his trail, he tells her to choose at random and seduce a man of his height and build, which turns out to be Frank (Johnny Depp), an inept Wisconsin math teacher on his way to Venice for vacation. Under ideal circumstances, this quid pro quo would have lead to a perfect blend of comedy, action, and romance. Under less than ideal circumstances, it could have at least given us something amusing and forgettable. It  doesn't. The two action sequences are just as clumsy as Depp's character, the chemistry is off, and the audience found more to laugh at in the trailers and advertisements than in the film itself. Von Donnersmarck claimed that he was trying to capture the elegance of Hitchcock thrillers like To Catch a Thief, but all the luxury, pretty costumes, and lush scenery give an impression of emptiness instead of glamour.
      Much of the problem lies in the script, which is surprisingly insubstantial. I'm not talking about lack of meaning or "substance" here, I'm talking about a lack of words. There's very little in there to flesh any of the characters out or to add life to their conversations. Sometimes there's barely enough to fill the movie's silences, so Frank ends up saying inane things like, "well, this is a really nice hotel."
     A lot of the rest of the blame can go to Donnersmarck, but it's not just about a smaller director proving himself to be incapable when he's given too much responsibility. It's not even really about him dumbing himself down to pander to a larger audience. The reason The Tourist never fully works is that Donnersmarck is too serious to add any levity. Well, he may try, but it's never credible. The whole movie is about escape, and Frank and Elise want nothing more than to break free from their obligations and from who they are, but instead of enjoying themselves, they just seem lonely. Lost in Translation lonely. In fact, these are some of the saddest characters I've seen in any movie this year. Intended or not, that's Donnersmarck's instinct contradicting the message of his movie (and perhaps its raison d'être). It would surprise me if this guy put much faith at all into escapism.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Black Narcissus

Here's a Michael Powell quote on his film Black Narcissus, which he made in collaboration with Emerich Pressburger:

"It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame fro beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts."

     Indeed, there is a surprising amount of eroticism here for a 1947 movie about nuns. Even more surprising is how the eroticism breaks through in Deborah Kerr's performance as Sister Clodogh. She's the newly appointed head nun, and her position of authority has rendered her stern, humorless, and intent on keeping bad impulses in check. But Clodogh, who has just been given the unenviable task of establishing a school and medical dispensary high up in the Himalayas, is firm and cold out of necessity. The palace (which formerly housed the local prince's harem) that the nuns have converted into their convent is their own version of the Overlook Hotel, but instead of being surrounded by ghosts, they're haunted by their exotic surroundings. Something about the altitude, the solitude and the natural beauty (never have painted studio sets and technicolor looked this good) keeps making them lose sight of the inhibitions that have controlled them for so long.
     Eventually, sister Clodogh starts to have a hard time maintaining her impenetrable facade and we begin to see her as vulnerable; she has her own doubts, fears, and desires. And none of this is made any easier by the presence of the mischievous and carefree Mr. Dean, an Englishman who parades around shirtless and in short shorts, and who the nuns need around because he can fix their plumbing and knows the locals. But if there is love between the two, Clodogh is too smart to make it explicit. Here, the passion remains well below the surface.
    However, there is that eruption that Powell mentions. This comes from Sister Ruth's character, who's played by Kathleen Byron with snarling intensity--and I don't mean that in a good way. When Sister Ruth confronts Sister Clodoh, Black Narcissus gets caught up in its own hysteria and becomes a different movie, a cross between Hitchcock and German Expressionism, with Ruth looking about as seductive as Nosferatu. A shame, because the eroticism was much more effective when it was sublimated.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Tin Drum (1979)

       According to Volker Schöndorff, when he and screenwriter Jean Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) first brought their screenplay of The Tin Drum to Günter Grass, the author praised it, but told them it was "too Cartesian, too rational." Too him, the story had to be disrupted by irrational elements, lest people started to think that History actually developed in a rational way. Well, it seems that Grass got his wish, as there is plenty that is irrational and even whimsical in The Tin Drum just as there's plenty that's shocking and discomfiting.
     Then again, what else can you expect from a WWII movie about a child/dwarf who obsessively pounds on a toy drum and has the power to break glass with his high pitched screams. After getting disgusted with the adult world at the age of three the precocious Oskar (David Bennent) throws himself down the cellar stairs in order to stop himself from growing. What follows is a story that's part coming of age, part magical realism, and part commentary on German society and Nazism. Some of the coming of age bit helped to get the movie banned in Oklahoma, where the police actually intimidated video stores into giving away people's addresses so they could enter their homes and confiscate their tapes! It shows Oskar--a 16 year old who looks like and behaves he's 5 (the actor was an 11 year old with a growth problem)-- trying to perform oral sex on a teenage girl (the actress was 24). There's quite a bit of sensuality in the movie; Oskar's mother, Maria (Katarina Thalbach) is involved in a love triangle with her husband, Alfred, and her cousin, Jan Bronski. And later Oskar falls in love with a fellow dwarf, Roswitha, and the two go around with a troop of dwarves performing for German officers.
      It's a difficult movie to figure out. This is partly because there's so much happening with the characters that the actual war can seem like an afterthought until the climax, and partly because neither Grass nor Schlöndorff have any interest in platitudes. Oskar seems to be a bit of an ambiguous character; he longs for innocence, returning again and again to buy his tin drums from the Jewish toy store owner, but he also succumbs to temptation when he starts performing and helping out the war effort. At times he wants to emulate the military precision of other marching drummers, but there is one scene where he interrupts a Nazi rally with his own complex rythms and turns the whole thing from a solemn autocratic affair into joyous chaos. And then there's Alfred, who replaces the portrait of Beethoven over the piano with one of Hitler only to tear that down in anguish and anger at having been misled when he knows the end is near. If The Tin Drum is different from any war movie I've seen, it's because it's the only one I've seen told from the perspective of German, non-Jewish, citizens. Let's not forget that Grass was actually in the Waffen-SS when he was 17. It's fitting that his version of the war would involve dwarves, toys, eels fished out of a rotting horse's head, shootings, and soliloquies about potatoes from Nazi youth leaders ("look, if you please, at this extraordinary potato...this swelling, luxuriant flesh, forever conceiving new shapes...and yet so chaste. I love a potato, because it speaks to me.") In short, it's not something that it's possible to fully understand.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Fireworks

These Japanese movies are getting sentimental on me! First Battle Royale, and now Fireworks (1997), which I had previously known only as an acclaimed Yakuza movie from Takashi Kitano. But here, instead of just showing impassive gangsters killing each other like they did in Outrage, Takeshi Kitano gives us a sweet little movie about a retired cop named Nishi (Takashi Kitano) trying to make his dying wife happy. Well, he also impassively shoots Yakuzas and sticks chopsticks in their eyes (this must be Kitano's trademark).
    In some ways, Fireworks is a near perfect mix of calmness and violence. There's a scene where Nishi beats up a man who mocks his wife for trying to water dead flowers. In the next shot, the wife is fishing while the cop sits next to her in total silence, neither of them talking but both of them recognizing each other's love. It's a bittersweet moment; funny and sad at the same time.
     It's too bad that the stillness and poetry in the movie's best scenes can turn into cheesiness in its worst. Much of this comes from the music, which reminds me of the stuff John Woo uses to ruin his own gangster flics. There's also the story of the cop's retired friend who is trying to become a painter. He looks at flowers for long periods of time and then paints works that straddle the line between the terrible and the ingenious. It's not a bad idea, but Kitano could probably serve his film better if he didn't devote so much time to what are actually his own paintings.
     When I reviewed Outrage last week, I guessed that I'd find stronger and tighter stuff if I went back in Kitano's catalogue. Well, Fireworks's loose narrative actually works pretty well, and Takeshi gives his film room to breathe, but it's still a movie that works better in small moments than it does as a whole. Then again, these small moments do start to accumulate, and in the end, the whole film is nearly as tender and poignant as those scenes of Nishi and his wife sitting solemnly together, knowing everything without having to say a word.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Battle Royale

      Forty hormonal Japanese teenagers on an island with three days to kill each other. The last one standing wins the "Battle Royale" that has been organised by the Japanese government to punish the unruly and ungrateful Japanese youth, and he or she gets to return home safely. If more than one survive, they will all be killed using the explodeable collars that are attached to them. These collars, which can't be removed, also track the heart rate and location of the students, and have microphones so that the adults managing the game can prevent any possible deviance.
     Such is the premise of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale; it's Lord of the Flies, but with unhealthy amounts of death and melodrama piled on. Each time one of the students gets blown up, stabbed, hanged, or shot with arrows and bullets, there's a friend or lover there to hold them and listen to their dying words. Strauss, Verdi, and Bach are there to make sure we understand how important this all is.   Sometimes it's blatantly sentimental, and sometimes there's so much sentimentality that it starts to seem inspired.
     There are other things here that make Battle Royale an interesting film. Much of the violence is striking, and the innocence in the interactions between students can be touching. In fact, because Fukasaku cares so much about his characters and the love and friendships they form, the whole movie feels innocent. Even the obsession with brutality has a moral justification; Fukusaku wanted to show what he felt when his friends kept disappearing in WWII and also wanted to satirize the cutthroat Japanese educational system and job market.
     The other target in the movie is the adult world. Fukusaku shows the adults as incapable of comprehending what the adolescents are going through and incapable of surviving in the world they created. One of the boys keeps having flashbacks to his father's suicide--he's hanging half-naked at the end of a rope, and a piece of toilet paper at his feet has the word "courage" scrawled on it. The main villain of the movie, played by Takeshi Kitano, is the school-teacher who organizes and runs "BR." But he's hardly a villain in the traditional sense, since he spends most of his time looking forlorn and munching on biscuits; he's simply a man who's lost confidence in himself. Even if they'll mostly end up killing each other, the kids are the only ones with any hope of surviving.


Sunday, December 5, 2010



     Essentially an expanded version of the fake trailer that Richard Rodriguez attached to Grindhouse in 2007, Machete is designed for people who want their gory action delivered with the least amount of seriousness possible. Our hero, Machete (a scarred and uglified Danny Trejo) is a Mexican Federale turned day laborer who is hired to assassinate the vehemently anti-immigration Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Turns out Machete was set up, used to boost the senator's approval ratings and increase anti-illegal sentiment in the electorate. He becomes a man on the run from the powers that be, stopping only to exercise his considerable sexual prowess on Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba before leading an uprising of disgruntled Mexicans against racist American vigilantes. As far as crazy violence, there's the scene where Machete uses a man's intestines to swing out of a window. As far as nudity, there's a topless scene with Lindsay Lohan's character and her mother explore the wonderful world of incest. But this is before Lohan finds Jesus and turns into a nun with a gun.
     We're lucky that Rodriguez is so focused on showing things that are absurdly hilarious because Machete could have easily become a tired recreation of 70s exploitation clichés. But Rodriguez cares more about comedy than about making his film look cool. When Machete brings out a weed-wacker to wreak havoc on his enemies, the result is not so much a bloodbath as some good natured slapstick humor. And instead of delivering some sort of badass catchphrase, Trejo deadpans the line, "Machete don't text" with great authority. Fellow exploitation junkie Quentin Tarantino may be cinematic jokester, but he's always making a real movie and always trying for his audiences admiration. Not so for Rodriguez, who doesn't seem to try all that hard, and who blurs the line between cinema and self-parody. Laughs are his main priority.
     Self-conscious ridiculousness, however, isn't the only thing that makes Machete worthwhile. Because of it's political message, Machete is further proof that the movies on the margins of the film world can be some of the most incisive. From Freaks, to Dawn of the Dead, to Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, movies that are violent, trashy, or fall into the "exploitation" category have long been the most critical about American culture and society. Here, Rodriguez actually seems pretty sincere about exposing America's irrational hatred of illegals. At the border, a pregnant woman is shot by the vigilantes so that her anchor baby (as Sarah Palin would say) won't become an American citizen. "Welcome to America," they tell her husband. There's exaggeration of course, but once a movie sends subtlety out the window (swinging on 60 ft. of intestines), the audaciousness of a claim doesn't really matter any more. This is why the sociologists in Cannibal Holocaust could say "I wonder who the real cannibals are"and why Jessicca Alba, in Machete, can say "we didn't cross the border. The border crossed us." Behind the hyperbole, there's some very real frustration.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: The Leopard

     I'm always a little taken aback when a movie asks me to accept the vision of the über rich as I would my own. For some reason I see no problem in considering the suffering of the poor as representative of some kind of universal truth, but wealth has been associated with decadence so often in movies, that it's a little surprising when the wealthy actually have something to say. We may sympathize or envy the rich, but we almost always feel that they deserve the fate of Marie Antoinette.
    In The Leopard, wealth and nobility are at once the subjects of the story, and elements that become so natural that they cease to matter at all. The narrative focuses on Prince Don Fabricio of Salina (played by an extraordinary Burt Lancaster) and his extended family as they weather the Italian Risorgimento (Italian unification in the 1860s), which turns out not to be such a big deal; the Prince cedes some power to some bumbling local officials under the rule of a constitutional monarchy and keeps most of his wealth. But in a way it is a big deal. One era is coming to an end, and a time when nobility won't mean anything at all is being ushered in.
     Visconti is pretty ambiguous about what this implies. He was an immensely rich aristocrat who was also a Marxist, so he is far above populism even if he knows the importance of equality. In The Leopard, there's nostalgia concerning the grace and elegance of the nobles, and the Prince, instead of being haughty, is kind and fair. We should therefore take him at his word when he delivers his speech on the changing social hierarchy: "We were the leopards, the lions, those who will take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us--leopards, lions, jackals and sheep--will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth."
      But the political and social change that are integral to the setting are only a small part of the change that is so important in The Leopard. It's a film about people and countries growing old, about things refusing to stay the way we want them too. The Prince's nefew, the young and beautiful Tancredi (Alain Delon) is deeply in love with, and eventually engaged to, the young and beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinal, Italy's Megan Fox). In one of the film's most moving scenes Angelica invites the Prince to dance a waltz with her and he is overcome with emotion as he once again assumes the role of a young man filled with desire and vitality. Affection for his own wife is long gone; for him, love is "fire and flames for a year, ashes for thirty."
     The waltz is part of a forty-five minute party/ballroom sequence that is one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema. People gossip, talk politics, dance, wear exquisite costumes and eat and drink in copious quantities. Everyone enjoys themselves, except for those who don't. The young Concetta, who was rejected by Tancredi but is still in love with him, is tired of all the excitement and opulence, and has no intention of dancing. The Prince is even more tired; he doesn't eat because he isn't hungry, finds little use in discussion with others, and he eventually slinks off into the library to contemplate his own mortality. Near the end of the ball, he peers into a room only to find that every available space in it is filled with used chamber pots. After all the people have come and gone, the only thing to remember them by will be the waste they left in their wake.
      These final scenes are so impressive because there's a very intimate sadness amidst all the visual splendor. And by the end, I felt a little like the Prince--exhausted and a little wary of the constant change in my own world. Of course, the 3 hour 25 minute run-time could have helped with the exhausted bit, but The Leopard is too superbly crafted to ever be boring. In this, I'd compare it to The Godfather and Fanny and Alexander, which is fitful since both are similarly ambitious in their scope and since The Leopard's influence can be seen very clearly in the two of them (so much so that I can't even get into it here). And as further proof of it's effect on filmmakers, there's Scorsese's claim, "it's a film I live by." Scorsese, who helped fund the restoration that I had the privilege of seeing, has good reason to say this. Everything that comes after The Leopard is a jackal or a sheep in comparison.*


*Just needed a snappy line to end this. But there's some truth in it nonetheless; very little else is as distinguished or refined.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Triple Whammy: Harry Potter, Outrage, and Scott Pilgrim

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I      

     For all I know, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I could be the best and most faithful film of the series, or the least satisfying, most boring, and darkest. I only really remember the last movie that came out (Half Blood Prince), and it's been ages since I read the books, so I'm hardly the best person to judge. Harry Potter fans and moviegoers all have their own opinions anyways, and I've never been able to figure them out. Some people love the movies, some hate them, some hate the David Yates ones, some hate the Chris Columbus ones. Some people wish the movies would stand on their own and others demand that every last detail of J.K Rowling's literary masterpiece remain intact. Since the books are so popular (400 million copies sold), it's no wonder that many have a certain vision of the Harry Potter universe, and feel that it can only be cheapened by adaptation.
     My opinion: the film series has a consistent standard of quality that puts it far above the average big budget spectacle. If Deathly Hallows is a little less successful then some of the other ones, it's due to the story that it has to tell. Splitting the final book into two movies might have been a smart move financial and a necessary one to preserve faithfulness, but it was inevitable that the first of the two would would come out more as a collection of scenes than as a full story in its own right. Plus the book dragged in the middle; Harry and Hermione's journey was characterized by monotony instead of excitement. So yes, it's less satisfying than The Half-Blood Prince (which I found surprising good).
     Now does the movie make any missteps that could have been avoided? Yes to that as well. Some poor acting in parts, some unnecessarily sappy scenes (Harry and Hermione dancing, Dobby's death [oops spoiler]), some overwrought dialogue. But let's not get too nit-picky. The cinematography is excellent and a lot of thought and care were put into delivering a solid addition to the franchise.


Outrage (or Autoreiji in original Japanese)

     A totally awesome and quasi-incoherent Japanese gangster movie from Takeshi Kitano. It's very difficult to tell which Yakuza is making deals with which other Yakuza. And when that Yakuza goes and kills the other Yakuza to get vengeance for the other other Yakuza who was himself seeking vengeance for the wrongs inflicted on him by the get the point. And it's not just about keeping the characters straight; Outrage often feels choppy and poorly planned, and there's not much pushing the story forward or tying it together. Comic relief scenes with a hapless African diplomat feel out of place.
     But this does not mean the Outrage's only redemption is in stylized violence. This Kitano dude is an expert in cruelty, but if the scene where one Yakuza shoves chopsticks in a drug dealers ear is reminiscent of Pesci having fun with a pencil in Casino, the outcome of Outrage is much more bleak than anything from Scorsese or Coppola. Scorsese shows the fun stuff and then lets his characters break down or get out of gangster life, but in Kitano's world violence begets violence begets more violence. Once one mob boss dies, there's always someone to take his place.
     Kitano doesn't judge or moralize, but he observes very carefully. The lower level Yakuza reveal themselves as irrational children, impulsively seeking conflict and violence. The bosses have their sense of pride, but they are just as fickle. And when the blood starts flying, what we see is painful enough to leave us shaken.
     It's a shame the script wasn't better. I think with a couple of revisions, we could have had a real masterpiece. Kitano has an excellent command of cinematography, mise en scene, and tone and pacing within a scene. His images carry a weight that suggests something far greater than what we actually receive. For the record, Takashi Kitano is no lightweight. Outrage is apparently one of his lesser works, and other gangster movies (such as Sonatine and Fireworks) and non gangster movies (such as Kikujiru and Dolls) have received much critical acclaim. And he also has a number of devoted fans who believe he can do no wrong.


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

     This film could be put in the same category as Kick-Ass, another stylized, action packed movie that appealed mostly to a niche group. In both cases the films were heartily embraced by their limited audience and rejected by the general populace. But despite the similarities, I refuse to lump them together (and after this sentence I will refuse to even compare the two) if only for the fact that I did not at all like      Kick-Ass whereas I very much liked Scott Pilgrim.
     Does this has something to do with me being part of the group it was intended for? Kick Ass (sorry, lied about ending the comparisons) targeted mainly comic book nerds and video game nerds. Scott Pilgrim goes for the comic book nerds (it's based on a comic book), then the video game nerds, and then...the hipsters?! I guess the participation of Beck, Jason Schwartzman, and Broken Social Scene should have given it away, but I didn't realized the full extent to which I was duped into liking the movie until I visited its' IMDB board, where every other post was there to remind me of "hipsters" and their sheep-like willingness to obey the universal standards of hipster cool. I felt like Dave Chapelle when he discovered he was "pre-genetically disposed to liking fried chicken." And me who had so wrongly thought that Scott Pilgrim was a good movie because of its heart, humor, and exuberance.
     I think I should put the sarcasm aside for now (knowing that it's the number one tool of hipsters). The point I'm trying to get at is that Scott Pilgrim is a movie told with so much joy that it should appeal even to people who don't identify with Michael Cera awkwardness.
     It tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (age 22), who has fallen madly in love (or lesbians) with the blasé Ramona, a new Yorker who has just moved to Toronto to escape her past, namely her seven exes who jealously try to destroy all her new relationships. Pilgrim soon finds himself forced to fight all of these evil exes using violence, love, self-respect, and his awesome bass skills (alone in solo bass battles or with his band, "Sex Bob-omb"). He also has his own past to escape from; he's still recovering from a breakup with the sultry Envy Adams, and he's doing his best to cope with the aftermath of a breakup with Knives Chau, a 17 year old, slightly crazy Chinese-Canadian girl who is still madly in love with him.
     This kind of story has to be handled a certain way to avoid becoming cloying, and British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) does a great job with this difficult task. The film is enormously energetic, with hilarious lines, absurd situations, in-jokes, and video-game-like fight sequences hitting the screen in rapid succession. The precise and inventive editing is in a league of its own and turns the movie into an immensely pleasurable experience. There's a little too much action packed into the last third of Scott Pilgrim, but not much else to find fault with.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Prick Up your Ears

     Or your rears. Pretty funny innit? It's a title that doesn't really have anything to do with the movie itself, but it still manages to describe it quite well; Prick up your Ears is full of cheeky British humor and has enough pricks going up rears to make Gus Van Sant blush.
     The movie opens with the discovery of playright Joe Orton's body in his London flat. It then uses interviews between writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) and Orton's secretary (a very sharp Vannessa Redgrave) to frame the story of Orton's rise to fame and his difficult relationship with boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell. We have to wait until later in the movie to uncover what actually happened to Orton, but none of this will be new territory for who knows the actual story of Orton's death in 1967 (told in the book version of Prick up your Ears by John Lahr.)
     It's good then that the story is not built on suspense, but on wit, strong performances, and comedy so black that it becomes tragedy. The interplay between Orton and Halliwell is key; their's is an imbalanced relationship, but even if Orton leaves Halliwell emotionally devastated, they are too close after 16 years together to separate. Gary Oldman is excellent as the charismatic Orton. He's highly intelligent, but behind all his affable cleverness, he's calculating and even malicious. And Alfred Molina is even better as the vulnerable Halliwell, who taught the young Orton everything he knew about art and literature, but now has to live in the shadow of his fame.
    Behind the cameras, we have the always reliable Stephen Frears, a true master of the british comedy and a master of the adaptation. Frears claims he's not an auteur--and this is true by definition--but he sure chooses good scripts; here the praise goes to screenwriter Alan Bennet. What makes the humor in movies like Ears special is that nothing is just played for laughs, but everything from a funeral to a fake wig can become hilarious. Also, the timeless British tradition of the "wank" is given the significance that it deserves.
    All in all, a very smart movie. I'm not sure if it makes us think better of Joe Orton, who rallied against a prude and restrictive British society that he felt was rotten on the inside, but who might have benefited from some restraint. Joe certainly lived the life he wanted to, but nothing is more telling about his fate then the speech he gave as he accepted the best play of the year award from the Evening Standard; "My plays are about getting away with it, and the ones who get away with it are the guilty ones [...] I've gotten away with it so far. And I'm going to go on." Clearly, he didn't get away with it after a certain point.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Germany, Year Zero

     Roberto Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero (1948) opens and ends with shots of a devastated post WWII Berlin, its buildings reduced to empty shells and rubble. Its inhabitants, we soon find out, aren't doing much better. We follow the Kohler family as they struggle to support themselves; the father is dying, the daughter does what she can to help him out, the elder son won't leave the house for fear of being imprisoned for his role in the war, and the younger son (Edmund, age 12) gets involved in all sorts of nefarious activities as he runs loose through the streets. What we have here is the textbook definition of neorealism--the realistic (and depressing) setting, the abandonment of artifice, and the focus on the struggles of the poor. For a bit of context, Rossellini's Open City (1945) was one of the defining works of the movement (the first neorealist film might be Visconti's 1943 Ossessione) and it started Rossellini's post-war neorealist trilogy for which Year Zero was the conclusion.
     Does this description make neorealism seem limited and predictable? Wouldn't endless repetition of lower class suffering would come off as pedagogical instead of inspired at some point? Well, yes and no. It's true that the neorealist movement was limited. It's considered to have ended after De Sica's Umberto D. in 1952 because there wasn't much else to say after such a beautiful and desolate movie. And the French New Wave produced a greater variety and breadth of work in a shorter time period. But even if there aren't that many neorealist movies, the few I've seen so far are masterpieces, and Germany Year Zero is no exception.
     Perhaps the movement's greatest triumph is its ability to portray characters instead of symbols. De Sica may have been out to make a point, but bicycle thieves and poor old men are not just bicycle thieves and poor old men. Rossellini may not have quite as much compassion for his characters--and Edmund's evil acts are at times representative of the rise of fascism-- but there is much more here than allegory. Rossellini is sympathetic with the plight of the Germans, even with the older son, Karl-Heinz, who fought the allies until the bitter end, and we get a true sense of what makes the family members act the way they do. The sister, Eva, for example, behaves the way any young girl would, going to bars with her friends and flirting with men. Only, when she's offered a cigarette, she casually tucks it in her bag to sell later on.
     Germany, Year Zero is also surprisingly dark. Edmund, who is only trying to make money for his family, soon falls under the influence of his old school teacher, a pedophile who harbors an old Nazi officer and who uses children to sell recordings of Hitler's speeches and other Nazi memorabilia on the black market. Said school teacher caresses and kisses the oblivious Edmund and is creepy enough to rival Peter Lorre in M. Eventually, Edmund gets caught up in activities even worse than his rackets and street gangs, and this is when we really see that hopelessness can have profound moral consequences. All right, maybe a little heavy handed at times, but still very good. 8.4
     So that was the first thing I've seen by Rossellini. There's a movie theater here that has a neorealism festival going on, so I hope to see a few more (as well as some Visconti). And now, because I feel like it, I am going to make a list of my favorite Italian movies (though not necessarily the greatest). I feel like I've been overlooking Italian cinema lately, now that most of what I see is French.

1. The Conformist- Bernardo Bertolucci
2. 8 1/2- Federico Fellini
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- Sergio Leone
4. Nights of Cabiria- Federico Fellini
5. Amarcord- Federico Fellini
6. Last Tango in Paris- Bernardo Bertolucci
7. The Battle of Algiers- Gillo Pontecorvo
8.Bicycle Thieves- Vittorio De Sica
9. Umberto D.- De Sica
10. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom- Pier Paolo Passolini
11. Blow Up- Michelangelo Antonioni
12. L'Avventura- Antonioni
13. L'Eclisse- Antonioni
14. A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More- Leone
15. La Dolce Vita- Fellini (I was too young. What I remember seems very good, but I would be dishonest if I put it higher)
16. La Strada- Fellini
17. Once Upon a time in the West- Leone
18. Germany, Year Zero- Roberto Rossellini
19. Cannibal Holocaust- Ruggero Deodato
20. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso- Guiseppe Tornatore

Honorable Mention:
Life is Beautiful
Profondo Rosso

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Ovsyanki

Called Le dernier voyage de Tanya in France and Silent Souls in America.

     You have to hand it to asian cinema. Nothing coming from America or Europe deals with the metaphysical and spiritual in the same way as the movies I've seen this year from Thailand, Korea, Japan, or Russia (I'm counting it as part of Asia). Well, A Serious Man, for example, was a pretty serious reflection on God and existence, but there's something unique in the feel of asian movies. They're often very calm and leisurely paced, and they have a sense of simplicity to them. Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul said this about making the Palme D'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who can Recall his Past Lives: "I wanted to strike a balance between the abstraction of death and a form of simplicity and naiveté, a childlike approach to cinema." The same ideas can be seen in Chang-dong Lee's excellent Poetry (another Cannes favorite) and to some extent in Ovsyanki, which played well at the Venice Film Festival.
     This is not to say that Ovsyanki isn't thematically complex. It tells the story of paper factory owner Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) who enlists his friend Aist (Igor Sergeev) to help him with the funeral rituals for his deceased wife, Tanya. These include tying ribbons to her pubic hair, burning her on a pyre after dousing her with liquor, and "smoking," a tradition that involves Miron confiding (mostly sexual) details about Tanya with Aist. There are flashbacks to sexual encounters between Miron and Tanya and flashbacks to Aist's childhood and his relations with his father, a drunk amateur poet who seems like he came out of a Dostoevsky novel. Actually, it's all adapted from  Aist Sergeyev's novel Buntings, and it keeps a lot of voiceover as Aist talks about memory, death, love, water, and the slow disappearance of the customs of the Merya people. The part in the film's narration where Aist talks about "writing this book" (when what we are watching is obviously not a book) proves that it doesn't stray very far from its source material.
     And now I have to explain what the hell I meant with "simplicity."It has something to do with how in touch with the natural world Ovsyanki is; we keep returning to long shots of flowing water or of Aist's caged buntings (small birds). The desolate Russian landscape, with its gray forests and crumbling factories, is an integral part of Aist and Miron's existence. The world is also a bigger and more mysterious place in movies like Ovsyanki and Boonmee than in eastern cinema. And in the end, it all comes down to love and death. Love as in the scene where Miron bathes Tanya with a bottle of Vodka and then tenderly dries her off as she stands shivering in the cold air. Death as in Tanya's ashes being carried away by the Neya river.

Ovsyanki is very much like something by Tarkovsky; he too was very focused on nature and his films like Mirror, Andrei Rubliov, and Solaris are all spiritual meditations. Tarkovsky was also greatly influenced by Japanese cinema and especially Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatory and Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes. And that brings my argument full circle; Russian cinema is just wordier "Asian" cinema. Other great things about Ovsyanki include the mournful music and the cinematography, which won an award at Venice.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: Unstoppable

      Tony Scott puts his hyperactive directing style to good use in his third film in four years starring Denzel Washington. It's also his second in two years to star a train. Who would have thought that a giant machine that travels at varying speeds on a fixed path could be interesting?
     Well, Scott apparently does, but he still has to do a lot to make this story about an unmanned, explosive filled train palatable. For one, there's that typical Tony Scott flair; few shots last more than five seconds, and in the ones that do, the camera finds enough time to spin 360 degrees around characters, trains or helicopters. Scott rarely finds time to linger on anything; the characters are given some cursory back stories--just enough to build them up, without boring us with details. Even the action flies right by, one expensive stunt making room for another before we even have time to think about what happened. To add some depth, there's (minor) conflict between rookies and old timers, working class heroes and corporate big shots. The movie is made to feel timely; Denzel's character has just been laid off, and worn down Pennsylvania towns form the setting.
     All of this is good because the movie is as entertaining a movie about a runaway train as I can imagine, and it's more entertaining than many other movies that aren't about runaway trains. The movie may be entirely forgettable, but at least it isn't weighed down by self importance or too much emotion. Unstoppable can be enjoyed for its frenetic energy alone.


Review: The Bad Lieutenant

     It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese named The Bad Lieutenant as one of his favorite films of the 90s. It plays like a hybrid of Taxi Driver--in that it's a gritty New York City drama that focuses our attention on one man's madness--and Mean Streets--in that it deals with redemption, sacrifice, religion, and Harvey Keitel. Abel Ferrara has the same natural ability to capture the life the New York streets and the will to deliver scenes of extreme violence that make no apologies in their attempt to be iconic. According to Ferrara, "there's gotta be an event that you're gonna turn the camera on for".
     The main thing that makes Abel Ferrara stand out is that he's a lot more depraved than Scorsese (for evidence of his disregard for limits or taste look no further than his first feature length film, the porno 9 Tales of a Wet Pussy). His subject matter may be no darker than that of Taxi Driver, but the final product feels even more dangerous. So for a movie about forgiveness, the first person you'll have to forgive is the director himself. His main offense is sexualizing and stylizing the rape of a nun. In a film that's all about realism, there was something about the close-ups and inserted shots of Jesus on the cross (all set to a hip-hop version of Kashmir) that felt out of place. I'm betting Ferrara was excited by his own transgression.
     The movie's most memorable scene is even more disgusting, but here the purpose is to show just how sick Harvey Keitel's bad lieutenant is. The lieutenant stops two underaged girls for a broken tail light and threatens to get in touch with their father. He then offers an enticing proposal, "I do something for you. You do something for me." That something ends up being that the girls have to pretend to perform fellatio while Keitel masturbates and mutters obscenities;  "You ever sucked guy's cock. Show me your mouth when you suck a guy's cock. Cummon, show me your mouth." The screenwriter Zoe Lünd originally just put in "humiliating sex scenes" that last until dawn, but Ferrara goes further while showing less; he's a true original when it comes to perversity.
      All of this wouldn't be so scary if Harvey's lieutenant character didn't feel so real. Keitel is astounding in what must be one of the most intense screen performances of all time. Perhaps the most striking thing about the character is that it's almost impossible to find anything recognizable in him. He operates in his own moral sphere, in a continual drugged up haze, and for most of the movie, empathizing with him is out of the question. There seems to be nothing but hatred and brutality behind his cold glare. The lieutenant is laid bare before us (in one instance, literally; apparently it was Harvey's idea to get naked and wave his arms about) but all we see is ugliness.
     That is, until the lieutenant asks for forgiveness. After getting deep into debt over bets on the world series and doing little else but smoke crack, sniff cocaine and inject heroin, our hero goes to the nun who was raped to offer an opportunity to avenge herself (his previous opinion was something like, "women are raped every day, why should we care just because they're wearing penguin suits"). There, he learns that she has already forgiven her attackers and has asked for god's help so that she can love them. The lieutenant is at first deeply confused, and then he cries, screams, and pleads with Jesus in a genuine attempt to become something other than what he is.
     And here we are, asked to forgive the unforgivable. I've never seen such an unlikeable character used this way in a movie; the audience is challenged, plunged into territory that's morally ambiguous. And Keitel's character becomes a strange sort of icon; he represents humanity at it's lowest, but he still tries to do the right thing. In the end we see that his sacrifice is real and we understand his pain. And bravo to Abel Ferrara; that fact that the film itself feels complicit and reprehensible only helps to takes us further into the bad lieutenant's world.