Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The SLIFR quiz, mid-summer back-to-school edition

I haven't posted much over here lately, but the most recent installment of the entertainingly maddening movie quiz at the highly recommended Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is good reason to resurrect this blog from the dead. Here are my answers to the latest collection of personality-revealing brain-melters.

Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home:
I have only a vague idea about the last 10 I watched at home, but I keep a notebook of every movie I see on the big screen, so here's that list. Surprisingly (or not), only one is a new release. The other nine are repertory screenings from the Austin Film Society, whose theater space is awesomely only a few minutes' drive from my home.
Hospital (Frederick Wiseman)
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang)
Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
We Won't Grow Old Together (Maurice Pialat)
Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz)
A Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray)
White of the Eye (Donald Cammell)

Favorite movie feast:
The noodle feast in Tampopo

Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?
I'm a fan of both movies and have been lucky enough to see both on the big screen, but I have to go with Rear Window. Dial M for Murder is really good, but Rear Window is one of the greatest.

Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film:
This changes every day, but right now I'm going to say Elvis doing "That's All Right/Tiger Man" in Elvis: That's the Way It Is

Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature, what would you pair with:
Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922)?
Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957)

Federico Fellini's I vitelloni (1953)?
I haven't seen this one, so I'll have to blindly pick based on a plot description.
Peter Yates' Breaking Away (1979)

Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?
Also haven't seen this one.
Albert Brooks' Lost in America (1985)

Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?
Again, haven't seen this one, even though I'm a big Peckinpah fan.
Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?
Yet another one I haven't seen. Let's go with Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace (1972).

Favorite movie fairy tale:
Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?
I'm not much of a sports fan, and I tend to prefer movies about sports to the actual sporting events, but no movie yet has helped me figure out what people find so enjoyable about football.

The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?
My initial reaction is to pick Wild Strawberries, but I rewatched The Seventh Seal a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed despite its over-familiarity as a cultural reference and subject of parody.

Your favorite Criterion Collection release:
I'm ecstatic to have Cassavetes' Love Streams available on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time in this country thanks to Criterion.

In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?
A tag team match of Pam Grier and Divine vs. Tura Satana and Tony Curtis in his Some Like It Hot drag

Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?
Sadly, I have not yet seen either one.

Your favorite movie snack:
Now, I enjoy a cold glass of beer with a movie, but as a kid, nachos at the drive-in and licorice (smuggled in to avoid paying the inflated concession prices) in the theater

Robert Altman's Quintet -- yes or no?
Yes AND no. It's so incredibly strange that it's worth seeing once, especially if you like Altman, but most of it isn't very good. However, I'm the kind of guy who prefers an interesting failure from a good filmmaker to a reliable film that doesn't take any risks.

Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable:
Such a tough call. The world is too full of experience to narrow it down to one filmmaker or filmmaking team, and I like a lot of filmmakers who work in both documentary and fiction (and the blending of the two, though aren't most films a blending of the two?), but if forced to choose, I'll say the team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky because their films played a big role in getting three unfairly incarcerated kids out of prison.

The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?
Can you imagine putting out both these films in the same year? I think they're both unimpeachable classics, but I have to go with The Conversation. It's my favorite Coppola, probably because I usually prefer the obsessively intimate to the sweepingly epic.

Favorite movie location you've visited in person:
Not very glamorous, but I got a real charge from seeing the Sixth Street Viaduct in Los Angeles, since it appears in pivotal scenes in so many of my childhood favorites.

If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins):
I have no directorial skills, but I think I could have improved any scene in Sam Mendes' unfortunate Revolutionary Road adaptation with the following direction: "Tone it down a few notches. And stop saying each other's names so often. You're in the same room."

The Doors (1991) or JFK (1991)?
Oliver Stone is one of my least favorite directors, so this is a bit like asking me which disease I want to catch. JFK is probably a better movie and has a fascinating supporting cast, but I'll go with The Doors because it's shorter and even more unintentionally funny, and a couple of my friends used this film to play the Drink a Shot Every Time Jim Has a Mystical Vision of a Native American Man game.  

What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)
People look at me in shock or disgust when I tell them I don't care that much about Lawrence of Arabia. Epics in general leave me cold, and so do war movies, though I have a large number of exceptions.

Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet:
Saul Bass poster for The Man with the Golden Arm

Favorite post-1970 one-sheet:
Japanese one-sheet for Suspiria

WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?
I may get my Generation X card revoked for saying this, but I've never seen either film all the way through.

Your candidate for best remake ever made:
I'm partial to John Carpenter's fantastic 1982 remake of The Thing 

Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie:
I have so many great memories of the drive-in theater in my small Nebraska hometown, which stayed open until the mid-1990s. I got my first big-screen taste of future favorites Altman (Popeye), Joe Dante (his segment from Twilight Zone), and Coppola (Peggy Sue Got Married), and got busted sneaking into The Rocketeer. I also remember a freak hailstorm prematurely ending a screening of Lethal Weapon 3. A particular teenage prank one 4th of July weekend sticks in my memory as well. During a screening of the Goldie Hawn/Steve Martin comedy Housesitter, some friends and I parked on the dirt road behind the screen, donned purple wigs, ran in front of the screen while the film was playing, and lit several Roman Candles, watching them go off for a bit before making our getaway. I belatedly apologize for that disruption, former owner, if you ever read this.

Favorite non-horror Hammer film:
These Are the Damned, though a case could be made it's at least partially a horror film

Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins):
Probably an obvious choice, but obvious because it's great, Seven Samurai

Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?
No, I'd never end a relationship because of a movie disagreement, but I will quietly judge that person occasionally in my spare time.

Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?
I haven't seen Erin Brockovich, but Traffic is one of my least favorite Soderbergh movies, excepting Benicio Del Toro's scenes.

Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960:
I don't have cable, so I have no real dog in this fight, but the '60s, '70s, and '80s are far enough in the past now that it seems ridiculous to exclude them, as long as pre-1960 films still have plenty of slots on the schedule.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My favorite movies of 2015

I didn't post much over here this year, even though the movies I saw in a theater in 2015 impressed me a lot more than the previous year's crop. It's hard to write about why things are good. It's easier for me to articulate why I don't like something, and as I get older, I find myself less comfortable bashing creative people's work. It's hard to make stuff and put it out in a world saturated with content and apathy and blockbuster-dulled eyeballs. OK. Words are silly. Here are my favorite movies of 2015, with some additional folderol.

My rules
Films vying for contention on my list had to open between January 1 and December 31 of 2015 in Austin, Texas, my city of residence. I had to see them on the big screen. Not on a TV, not on a computer, not on a bed sheet, not in my dreams, not on a fucking phone like some tech-savvy animal. I'm old-fashioned that way. Omissions are not always judgments. I usually say something here about how distribution of true independents and foreign films sucks while generic Hollywood product hogs so much screen space, and how hard it is to easily find the good stuff when you don't live in New York or Paris, but I do that every year so I will skip it here and direct you to many earlier posts where I go on and on about this, usually with a lot of profanity.

My 13 Favorite Films of the Year (in alphabetical order b/c preferential ranking is silly and ages poorly)

Carol (Todd Haynes)
So much of what I love about movies but rarely see in this current century is there in Haynes' adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's pseudonymous 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Haynes takes a forward leap in an already great career by carefully shaving away enough of his postmodern distance to reveal a sincere emotional honesty, but his formal audaciousness remains. This is a film about looks, gestures, surfaces, objects, and the flashes of inner life briefly illuminated by them.

Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
I was surprised at the muted reaction this one received from audiences and critics. I fell in love with Del Toro's Gothic romantic ghost story, its deliberate pace, its deep red colors, its opulent interiors, and its assured, entertaining tone that blended classic ghost mythology, Victorian literature, Poe's House of Usher, and '60s Italian horror movies. Apparently, quality is unfashionable in today's marketplace of loud, shiny, overlong soul-deadeners.

Divers (Paul Thomas Anderson)
This Joanna Newsom video was given the big-screen treatment by several independent chains, and I saw it at the Alamo Drafthouse before Crimson Peak. Filmed in landscape painter (and then some) Kim Keever's studio, the video integrates Newsom into the painting/installation/aquarium/I don't know what to call it but I like it. I don't have much to say about this in inadequate human words, but I was unexpectedly gripped and moved by this simple but gorgeous short film, which manages to be dreamy and impressionistic but also direct and straightforward. I'm even warming up to Newsom's music, which I admire but have a really hard time enjoying.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
A striking debut from Amirpour, a British-born/United States-raised daughter of Iranian parents, who shot this stylish black and white modern vampire western in rural California but set it in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City with all the actors speaking Farsi. It's scary, funny, smart, weird, and beautiful to look at, and there's a fantastic cat in it, too. (This was a great year for movie cats.)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
The 85-year-old Godard, one of the last few French New Wave directors still with us and still making films, gave us a 3D movie like no other, forgoing its usual use as spectacle and gimmick and instead using the technology to illuminate, clarify, distort, layer, split, superimpose, and disorient textures, shapes, text, bodies, objects, and landscapes as he ruminated on the difficulties of making art in the current political, technological, and economic climate (I think). There are also lots of dogs, copious nudity, and a couple fart jokes (maybe the first fart jokes in a Godard movie) if the previous sentence hasn't convinced you. I don't know if there are plans for a 2D DVD or Blu-Ray, but even with identical scenes and running time, that version would be an entirely different experience and movie. That's how much difference the 3D makes here. Think what Hitchcock did with 3D in Dial M for Murder or what Herzog and Scorsese have done with it recently and you're starting to (just barely) scratch part of the surface.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
A difficult but gorgeously composed film that rewards the careful attention you give to it, Horse Money was both a meditative and intense experience for me, even when I was missing part of the context due to my lack of knowledge of Portuguese politics. Most reviews I've read give wildly different interpretations of what is happening. My take is that we are seeing the thoughts of a dying and/or institutionalized man whose memories are sometimes clouded or confused by dementia, with moments of emotional and intellectual clarity. His mental state and the subjects of his memories dictate the visual composition. The man is a poor Cape Verdean immigrant in the Fontainhas neighborhood of Lisbon, and he moves through strangely elongated buildings, subterranean passageways, a largely abandoned hospital, an old job site, a park, an elevator, talking with people from his past and strange figures representing cultural and political events he experienced. Costa's shots call to mind great old paintings or scenes from '40s Val Lewton horror films given an entirely different context.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Anderson pulls off the difficult feat of making a faithful Thomas Pynchon adaptation that is also a faithful Paul Thomas Anderson film, filled with his personal obsessions, California landscapes and interiors, stylistic touches, expressive use of actors, and virtuosic approach to image and sound. I'm a sucker for Anderson's images, and I love the look of every frame of every single one of his films. This one is no exception. Like Todd Haynes' 1950s in Carol, Anderson's 1970 in Inherent Vice doesn't look like the tacky frozen theme park of most Hollywood period pieces. Instead, his setting breathes, is lived-in, feels like a place, is as much a character in the film as the roles the actors play. Those actors look like they belong there, not like they're a bunch of present-day show-bizzers playing dress-up at a costume party. Even its exaggerations and heightened affects come from the comedy and paranoia inherent (get it?) in the material and the characters' internal states, not from period production design gone amok. Great music choices, too: CAN, Neil Young, Minnie Riperton, Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now."

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Hey, what do you know? I actually loved a big-budget summer blockbuster that was hugely popular with mass audiences for the first time since ... when? The mid-'90s? This one has lots of CGI and super-quick cutting, two of my big pet peeves when used poorly (and these things are almost always used poorly), but in the hands of 70-year-old George Miller, we always know where we are spatially and we give a shit. And all the car chases are analog, real-world, stunt-person, old-school action filmmaking. Miller made all the previous Mad Max films, so there is a consistency of vision, but even better than that, Miller's Australian apocalyptic desertscape is still weird as shit and still the stuff my childhood dreams are made of. I think the film gets a bit overpraised as a feminist touchstone (the women with speaking parts are almost all supermodel gorgeous, while the men get to be nasty, ugly pieces of work), but it is nice to see a big action epic where men and women work together to kick ass and no one remarks upon it as unusual or makes cutesy comments to assuage the fragile masculinity of the troglodytes in the audience. This is great, visceral, personal action filmmaking without any stupid exposition or bloat.

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)
This is an eccentric choice and one not shared by most critics or audience members, but I stand by it. Manglehorn is not a cohesive film and not everything works in it, but it's full of great moments and has such a unique blend of tones and such a gorgeous look that I couldn't help but love it. And it's really weird. Not fake-indie weird, not affectation-weird. Genuinely weird. A quiet drama about a locksmith from the East Coast but currently living in Texas still pining over an ex and on the outs with his son developing a quiet friendship and possible romance with a bank teller? A weird comedy about an old guy hanging out with a young sketchy massage parlor owner who the old guy used to coach in Little League? A magical realist fable? Yes to all three of those, plus some weird dream sequences that may not be dream sequences, a subplot about a grumpy-faced cat swallowing a key, and a mime. I think you see what I mean here. Let's break this down even further. Al Pacino plays the locksmith/ex-Little League coach. Like a lot of recent Pacino acting turns, it's a mannered performance but in the exact opposite direction of Pacino's usual hamfoolery. He plays everything quiet and withdrawn and sadsack here instead of all the HOO-AHHHs and SHE GOT A GREAT ASSes and SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIENDs. Holly Hunter is the bank teller. Harmony Korine is the massage parlor owner. The grumpy cat is awesome. Green and his usual amazing cinematographer Tim Orr capture an incredible muted greenish/bluish tint to both the natural and artificial light. I feel like most people I could recommend this movie to would hate it, but I love it. I really love it.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Screenwriter Bruce Wagner unsuccessfully shopped his brutal dark-side-of-Hollywood satire around the industry for years before Cronenberg found it, and it took Cronenberg several more years to get it made. I can understand their difficulties. Maps to the Stars is decidedly not a crowdpleaser, with a detached observational coldness, brutal characters, and the nerve to let uncomfortable scenes play out in front of an unflinching camera. It's also very funny (in a decidedly odd way), with actors who know just how to approach the tricky material without turning it into a miserable downer or a cartoon (especially Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore) and one of the great living directors mastering the difficult tone. I'm a little bummed that Cronenberg is in his seventies now. I want him to keep making films forever.

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Biopics are almost always garbage, but the American and British film industries keep churning them out in wave after wave of empty, dead, formulaic, visually bland lifelessness. These films get everything wrong about people, about lives, about art, about storytelling, about the movies, about creation, about how we learn who people really are. Generally speaking, I hate them even more than I hate CGI blockbusters because they pretend to be serious explorations of the human condition while sucking up award nominations like greedy cartoon anteaters, but they're middlebrow fraidycat bullshit. Mike Leigh's film about the last several years in the life of the painter J.M.W. Turner is that extraordinarily rare thing, a great film biography of a famous person, but Leigh's never made a bad film, so I was expecting good things. Mr. Turner is full of nuts-and-bolts detail, human complexity, honest interaction, and an earned sense of place. Timothy Spall is great as Turner, but unlike in generic biopics, where every other human is a one-note supporting player meant only to illuminate the shining star, he's not the sole focus. Leigh, who always makes films about the complexities of human interaction, is also deeply interested in the people around Turner and the places he lives and travels, and he gives the final two scenes to two important but very different women in Turner's life.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
Though this Swedish film's title makes it sound like a dreary self-parody of the art film at its worst (it's a reference to a Bruegel painting), this is actually a dryly hilarious comedy about loneliness. The third in Andersson's thematically connected trilogy of comedies about how we live, this one follows a pair of traveling novelty and gag gift salesmen as they mostly unsuccessfully cajole people into buying their junk and then retire to their tiny rented flophouse rooms each night. Interspersed are various scenes in the life of the townspeople. The tone shifts into darker, more serious territory with a disturbing dream sequence two-thirds of the way through. In Andersson's trilogy, each scene is a still-camera painterly tableaux, in wide-shot, with no closeups. The actors all have zombie-like white greasepaint applied to their faces. Movements are deliberate and slow, and the characters rarely smile or joke, yet most of what is said and the situations depicted are very, very funny. It's the damnedest thing, and I probably haven't sold any of you with my description, but Andersson is really getting at some of the essential tragedies of our existence in such a strange and hilarious way.

Yakuza Apocalypse (Takashi Miike)
This one is just sheer nutzoid entertainment at its most delirious from prolific Japanese madman Miike. We start with gangsters, vampires, gangster-vampires, the worst case of earwax in cinema history, martial arts battles, bizarre costumes, forced knitting, and a goblin. Then, a giant furry frog shows up, and things start to get a little weird.

Honorable mentions
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Slightly less honorable mention
While We're Young (Noah Baumbach)

Our Brand Is Crisis (David Gordon Green)
The first David Gordon Green movie I didn't like (yeah, I even liked Your Highness and The Sitter) is a director-for-hire gig for producer-star Sandra Bullock and producing team George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Like most Clooney-Heslov productions, this is a thin-soup self-congratulatory neoliberal message movie with a cornball ending. Bullock is likable, but the other characters around her are thin, and the writing is pretty bad. Green doesn't get much of a chance to put his personal stamp on things, and even his amazing cinematographer Tim Orr seems generically reined in here. The movie is set in Bolivia, but we don't learn a goddamn thing about the country. It simply serves as a backdrop for the swinging-dick contest between a couple American political consultants, played by Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, hired to do their spin doctor thing for a presidential election. There are a handful of funny or intriguing moments, but they don't add up to much.

Favorite film society and revival screenings
Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Suburbia (Penelope Spheeris, 1983)
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (Penelope Spheeris, 1998)
Ticket of No Return (Ulrike Ottinger, 1979)

I don't know where to put this one yet
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Once I get my head together about this one, I may write a post about it, but for now, I'll leave it dangling here. I loved Ennio Morricone's score, I loved the landscape shots, I loved seeing the 70mm print, I loved a lot of the performances, and I was entertained. I like how much was going on in the frame. I'm a sucker for snowy Westerns. I had a good time. I was also disturbed by the laughter of the bro-dudes every time Jennifer Jason Leigh's character was punched in the face, I've grown weary of Tarantino's "nigger"-Tourette's (he seems to be choosing topics for films just so he can say "nigger" every few seconds and feel like a cool white dude for being able to say it), I'm a little tired of his overly self-conscious dialogue and his revenge plots and ultra-violence even as part of me really enjoys all that stuff, I don't think his last three films are as politically astute as Tarantino thinks they are, and I wistfully imagine an alternate career with Jackie Brown as a template (characters that don't have quotes around them, more adaptations, more adult characters, less fanboy revenge fantasies, less time building bloody cathedrals to himself). On the other hand, I think he has a great eye, and I always have a really good time watching his movies, even when they bug me afterwards. I will always go and see what he's doing as long as he keeps making movies, and I'll probably keep enjoying them, with reservations. So, I don't know what I think yet, but I did like it.

Welcome back, Kotters
Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani)
I was a fan of directors Ramin Bahrani and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck for their subtle, unusual character-based dramas, but then they made movies I hated that lacked everything they did best. Bahrani's At Any Price was a sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie and overwrought melodrama that seemed like the real Bahrani had switched bodies with some other director Freaky Friday-style, while Boden & Fleck's It's Kind of a Funny Story was a fairly inert, sentimental, and corny adaptation of a young adult novel with a smugly entitled main character. The good news is they both made good movies this year. While not back to full strength yet, I like where they're headed. Bahrani made another sledgehammer-to-the-face message movie, which really makes me wonder what happened to the subtle guy from his first three films, but this time it worked. 99 Homes was a compelling thriller about the bankers who got rich off foreclosures during the peak of the financial crisis, with some big but excellent work from Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, and Andrew Garfield. It was still a bit too over the top to make my favorites list, but I was on board, man. Maybe against my better judgment, but I dug it. Boden & Fleck made a '70s-style road movie about gamblers called Mississippi Grind, and while it was a little too derivative of the great '70s movies to make my list, it was also pretty damn solid. Ben Mendelsohn is one of the best character actors in the biz (I even watched five episodes of that terrible Netflix show Bloodline because of him), and he delivers the goods here. So, surprisingly, does Ryan Reynolds. Nice James Toback cameo. Welcome back, Bahrani, Boden, and Fleck.

Favorite streaming-only films
Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Making a Murderer (Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi) (mini-series)

Favorite music videos
Kurt Vile - "Pretty Pimpin" (Daniel Henry)
Joanna Newsom - "Sapokanikan" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Rihanna - "Bitch Better Have My Money" (Rihanna & Megaforce)

Screenings I had to miss because of work, etc., that I'm still bummed about
Le pont du nord (Jacques Rivette)
Der riese (Michael Klier)
Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

It's been a long time since I wrote a post, a long lonely, lonely, lonely time, or my answers to the SLIFR quiz

I've really been neglecting this blog in 2015. My love for film is as strong as ever, but I haven't felt much desire to write about movies this year. I don't know why, though I suspect part of it is a sense of sadness at the massive cultural push to place television where film used to be and the lack of space in the marketplace for anything that's not a Hollywood blockbuster. In many ways, I'm a man out of time.
Enough of that depressing business. Here's a bit of fun from the always enjoyable film blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Writer Dennis Cozzalio presents a film quiz a handful of times a year, and I usually post my answers in the comments section of his blog. This time, I've decided to put my answers here as a way to wake this blog from its current cryogenic hibernation.

1) Favorite moment from a Coen Brothers movie:
The Big Lebowski, beginning to end. It might just be skilled sleight of hand on the Coens' part, but this movie feels so much looser, freer, and more relaxed than the rest of their filmography.

2) Scratching The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Hudsucker Proxy from consideration, what would you now rate as your least favorite Coen Brothers movie?
Even their weakest films have moments that grab me (and I'm a bigger Hudsucker Proxy fan than this question allows), but I haven't had the desire to revisit O Brother, Where Art Thou? since seeing it in the theater. It looked a little too postcard beautiful, the jokes landed too hard, and the characters seemed thinner than in most Coen movies. My opinion about all these things could change on a second viewing, though.

3) Name the most underrated blockbuster of all time.
Gremlins was a huge hit in 1984 and doesn't seem to get mentioned often enough in 2015. Joe Dante is the man

4) Ida Lupino or Sylvia Sidney?
I love Ida Lupino in The Man I Love and The Big Knife, but Sylvia Sidney gets the slight nod for her performances in Fritz Lang's Fury and You and Me, Larry Cohen's wonderfully insane God Told Me To, and Beetlejuice.

5) Edward Scissorhands - yes or no?
A big yes.

6) The movie you think most bastardizes, misinterprets, or does a disservice to the history or historical event it tries to represent.
I thought about a couple of my biggest pet peeves, formulaic biopics and movies about "the 60s," and then I remembered The Birth of a Nation. Griffith was a pioneer who made many great movies, but this film is a huge stain on him, on Hollywood, and on a country that's still massively screwed up about race.

7) Favorite Aardman animation:
The Wrong Trousers

8) Second favorite Olivier Assayas movie:
A New Life or Carlos or maybe Demonlover. I can't decide. Picking my favorite was easier (Irma Vep). Let's go with Carlos.

9) Neville Brand or Mike Mazurki?
Mike Mazurki was in Some Like it Hot, Donovan's Reef, and Alligator and was also a professional wrestler, so I'm going with him.

10) Name the movie you would cite to a nonbeliever as the best evidence toward convincing them of the potential greatness of a favorite genre.
A quadruple feature of Ford's Wagon Master, Hawks' Rio Bravo, King's The Gunfighter, and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch for anyone claiming to hate westerns. If it could only be one, then Rio Bravo.

11) Name any director and one aspect of his/her style or career, for good or bad, that sets her/him apart from any other director. 
Jean-Luc Godard's stylistic and formal choices and his integration of image, sound, music, and the use of letters and words as part of the image in an almost shaken jigsaw puzzle fragmentation (but way more elegant and composed than that description makes it sound) instantly let you know it's his movie and no one else's. Plenty of people can't stand his films, and I'm not always open to the experience, but I feel mostly favorable toward his body of work.

12) Best car chase:
I'm a big fan of the wrong way on the freeway chase in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA. If we opened this up to television, many Rockford Files episodes would be contenders.

13) Favorite moment directed by Robert Aldrich: 
Maybe too obvious, but Cloris Leachman running down a highway, barefoot, in the middle of the night, then getting picked up by Ralph Meeker, who drives them right into the backwards credits in the opening to Kiss Me Deadly. Awesome.

14) The last movie you saw in a theater? On home video?
Theater: Mississippi Grind 
Home video: Sexy Beast 

15) Jane Greer or Joan Bennett?
As much as I love Jane Greer in Out of the Past, I have to pick Joan Bennett because she's been in more films that mean more to me and I find her pretty hypnotic.

16) Second favorite Paul Verhoeven movie:
Total Recall, just barely beating out Showgirls (Robocop is my favorite)

17) Your nominee for best/most important political or social documentary you've seen:
I realize a 10-1/2 hour documentary about the Holocaust and its aftermath told through the lives of both survivors and perpetrators is a hard sell, but Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is the greatest political, social, and historical documentary I've seen, and I hope everyone makes time for it at some point in their lives.

18) Favorite movie twins:
My sister just gave birth to twins, so I may be setting myself up for trouble here, but it's Jeremy Irons as the Mantle brothers in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, with honorable mentions for the twins in The Shining.

19) Best movie or movie moment about or involving radio:
I love Adrienne Barbeau's DJ and her radio station in a lighthouse in John Carpenter's The Fog. Honorable mention to the radio station in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

20) Eugene Pallette or William Demarest?
Few things make me happier than noticing Eugene Pallette's name in the opening credits of an old movie. A lovable crank with a froggy voice and a knack for straight-facedly delivering oddly hilarious one-liners? I'm a fan for life.

21) Favorite moment directed by Ken Russell:
The first six seconds of the following clip from The Lair of the White Worm:

22) All-time best movie cat:
I know the movie is only a year or two old, but I think the cat in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is pretty close to the top. This has been a great year or three for movie cats (Manglehorn, Results, Mississippi Grind, Inside Llewyn Davis, Computer Chess). Also, shout-outs to Elliot Gould's cat in The Long Goodbye, Sigourney Weaver's cat in Alien, all the cats in Agnes Varda's movies, and the cat in G.A. Smith's 1901 comedic short The Sick Kitten. If you can't already tell, I like cats, and I think they're the most cinematic of all the animals.

23) Your nominee for best movie about teaching and learning, followed by the worst:
I'm serious when I say Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the relationship between Mr. Hand and Spicoli are my favorite teaching moments in film, though Laurent Cantet's The Class is probably the most accurate. Worst: any of the magical inspirational teacher/coach/principal movies, with Dead Poets Society as the figurehead.

24) Name an actor /actress currently associated primarily with TV who you'd like to see on the big screen.
I'm always so far behind on TV shows that when I see an actor I like, he or she is usually already working in film. I'd like to see Edie Falco and everyone from Deadwood on the big screen more often, though.

25) Stanley Baker or David Farrar?
I haven't seen either actor in much of anything, so I pass.

26) Critic Manny Farber once said of Frank Capra that he was "an old-time movie craftsman, the master of every trick in the bag, and in many ways he is more at home with the medium than any other Hollywood director, but all the details give the impression of a contrived effect." What is the Capra movie that best proves or disproves Farber's assertion? And who else in Hollywood history might just as easily fit his description?
The Bitter Tea of General Yen showed range and a dark, strange side he usually hid, while It's a Wonderful Life and It Happened One Night feel pretty genuine to me. All three films feel honest in their emotion and expressiveness. I don't think Capra is the cornpone sentimentalist he was accused of being. I think Farber's description fits Steven Spielberg more than it does Capra.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 2)

Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the second of a few batches.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Everything I said about Meyer's Up! in the last post applies here, too, except the budget is a lot higher, there's not as much sex (though this is a bit like saying there's not as much tin foil in the world's biggest ball of tin foil because you took off five or six pieces of tin foil), there's a lot more rock and pop music, the satirical target is Hollywood instead of rednecks and Nazis, the tone is darker and more perverse yet it feels more accessible to a general audience, and the montage editing is even zippier and more reminiscent of comic books and classic cartoons. Roger Ebert's screenplay is so funny, so weird (sample line of dialogue: "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"), and so innately attuned to the midnight-movie/cult/exploitation mindset that it's odd how much of a blind spot he had for those kinds of films as a critic, regularly panning some of the best and most notable psychotronic-oddball-freakout-cult-weirdo-drive-in-B-movie movies.

Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
We lost Alain Resnais last year, which is sad not only because he's emblematic of an artistic generation that is slowly but steadily leaving this astral plane, but also because he was still making great movies. However, the death of an old man is not a tragedy, to paraphrase another deceased old man, and Resnais left an astounding body of work, of which this restored 1968 film is a solid example. Je t'aime, je t'aime is a melancholy piece of science fiction about the tense but symbiotic relationship between memory and narrative, and how we move around the fragments of our memories to create the stories of our lives.

Life Itself (Steve James)
Speaking of Ebert, this documentary about his life from the talented Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a little too uncritically fond of its subject and uses an effective but fairly conventional mixture of fly-on-the-wall and talking-heads interview footage, but otherwise is a funny, entertaining, and moving portrait of a guy who was a lot of things: a small-town Illinois son of working class liberal Catholics, a Chicago newspaperman, a movie lover, a critic, a popular TV personality, an arrogant clown, a recovering alcoholic, a husband, a screenwriter for Russ Meyer, a cancer survivor, and a sick man nearing the end of his life. Ebert let James film him in personal, unflattering, and difficult circumstances, and this film's greatest value is in its honest and compassionate look at subjects people in this country love to avoid: illness, aging, and dying.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
I really loved this movie, despite some nitpicky quibbles with the occasional line of dialogue, but I feel like I don't have anything to say about it at the moment, now that it's nominated for a bunch of Oscars and won some Golden Globes and was at or near the top of a ton of best-of-2014 lists. I hope the film's virtues don't get lost in a sea of hype and overpraise and the inevitable backlash, and I'm sympathetic to a few detractors who put forth the idea that a film focusing on the sister or the mother instead of the son would have been more worthwhile. (I want all three of those movies to exist, if I could have my way.) At the risk of adding my enthusiasm and praise to an already giant and ever-growing pile, I'm really impressed and touched by what Linklater's done here. There's a lot of beauty and sadness and warmth in seeing these characters and the actors who play them age 12 years onscreen. I like how Linklater focuses, mostly, on the small moments that actually define and shape our lives, instead of the big events that mostly don't. Even though it's his longest film, it feels like one of his most focused, pared to its essentials. Films nominated for the big awards, even the really good ones, always get more attention than they deserve, but I'm glad this one's chiseled through. It's actually about people and living and the passage of time, and not the usual Oscar staples like American exceptionalism, self-congratulatory celebrity backslapping, insincere and mawkish inspirational uplift, middlebrow art-as-display-case, the Cliff's Notes lives of notable famous people (aka the parade of indistinguishable biopics), the noble terminally ill/disabled/no-makeup/prosthetic-nosed tragic hero who overcomes obstacles, bloodless literary adaptations, etc.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 1)

Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the first of a few batches.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Psychotropic atmospheric feminist science fiction horror art film about how women are seen, not seen, evaluated, used, objectified, idealized, hated, and feared, from an alien's perspective. Maybe my favorite movie of last year. Great score by Mica Levi. Has the feel of one of those mindblowing '70s cult obscurities that falls apart in the final third, exhausted by its own strange energy, only this one doesn't fall apart in the final third.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Very funny, and romantic, self-critique of the aging hipster as cultural, and literal, vampire with expressive use of Detroit locations. Maybe a little slight, but maybe not. Great music. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston were born to play vampires. Don't lump them together, though. They're two very different characters, despite sharing the fangs.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Wish she hadn't appropriated the title of a great Arthur Penn movie, but this is another fascinating anti-crowdpleaser from Reichardt. Her work is hard to write about. She gives us characters and situations that, though underrepresented in American film (especially in this past decade), tap into something essentially American, but her approach to narrative makes this familiarity deeply strange. Her visual composition is subtle but lingering. I loved the first half of this film and struggled with the second half, but it's that second half that keeps coming back to me at odd moments.

Up! (Russ Meyer)
Soft-core sex, impossibly buxom women, dumb jokes, goofball visual gags, redneck violence, hilariously strange dialogue, and a twisted, delirious comic-book eye for shot composition and montage. This is real art, in my book. Cram the middlebrow rubes' condescension with walnuts. I'll take any Russ Meyer movie over almost any Oscar winner almost all the time.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Nutso bit of ultra-violence on a train with an unsubtly mallet-heavy but appreciated message about the disparity of class in our rich-make-poor-devour-themselves-while-rich-accumulate-everything society we made happen. I like the structure of moving from one train car to the next without knowing what will be waiting there, the international cast, and the intensely weird approach to the fight scenes and gore. Some heavy-handed speechifying, but a lot to enjoy otherwise. The CGI doesn't even make me puke. Joon-ho's first English-language film has some studio gloss and uninspired dialogue, but his weirdness and unconventional gift of breathing fresh life into familiar genres remains.

Friday, January 02, 2015


I failed in my goal of writing about every movie I saw in a theater in 2014, but what can you do? I'm currently in the process of shrinking down my social media usage to spend more time in the analog world of reading books, listening to records, avoiding pointless online political arguments with relatives, allowing more space for solitude and thought instead of constant opinion-generation and content-absorption, and decreasing time spent on my phone and the Internet. My work schedule is about to get temporarily crazy for the next five months, and when things settle down again in late May, I want to spend more time working on my non-blog writing. I'm still going to keep my blogs going, but the posts will continue to be infrequent for the next several months.
But in the spirit of online content generation and unsolicited opinion-sharing, here is my annual list of my ten favorite movies of the year, the runners-up, and my favorite revival, reissue, and film society screenings. To be eligible, the movies had to be released in the city of Austin between January 1 and December 31 of 2014, and I had to get off my couch and see them on the big screen. As always, my choices are based on my personal and idiosyncratic taste, and limited by the insanity and shortsightedness of capitalist distribution of art, the whims of the marketplace, my schedule and motivation, and the fact that I don't live in New York, Paris, or Los Angeles. Many 2014 films I have a great interest in seeing, including the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, the Dardennes, and David Cronenberg, won't play here until 2015, and many foreign films and independents won't play here at all or may only get a few film society screenings if they're lucky. I have no idea if I'll ever get to see the new Godard or Tsai Ming-Liang on the big screen, for example. Decent distribution for films that aren't blockbuster garbage or sanctimonious Oscar-grubbing has grown increasingly scarce in the last half-decade and is only getting worse. In that spirit of optimism, here are the movies that grabbed my eyeballs, ears, and imagination this year. Omissions are not necessarily judgments.

Top 10, in a somewhat preferential but also arbitrary and ridiculous order
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
2. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
3. Joe (David Gordon Green)
4. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
8. Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
10.  Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry)

Movies I liked, just not as much as the above, but maybe that could change given some time (and to be honest, I had some issues with at least half the movies in my top 10, it was a weird year, etc.)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)

Reissues, revivals, and film society screenings (just a side note here that Austin Film Society has been kicking so much ass since moving into their own space, and I missed a bunch of screenings I wanted to attend, including the Jerry Lewis series and a bunch of one-night-only things):
1. Alamo Drafthouse complete David Lynch retrospective (I couldn't make it to all the screenings because life gives you too many obligations and choices, but I saw Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story on the big screen for the first time and Inland Empire for the second)
2. Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
4. Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks)
5. Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
6. The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
7. Othello (Orson Welles)

Too much death 2014 edition (I'm using TCM's In Memoriam video to jog my memory)
R.I.P. Eli Wallach, Richard Attenborough (the actor, not the director -- yes I know they're the same guy, but I love his acting and don't care for his filmmaking, except Magic, that's a weird movie, eh?), Gordon Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Nichols, George Sluizer, James Rebhorn, Bob Hoskins, Paul Mazursky (I had mixed feelings about him as a director, but I liked his acting -- should I start calling this the Attenborough-Mazursky Effect?), Elaine Stritch, Alain Resnais, Gottfried John, H.R. Giger, Lauren Bacall, Juanita Moore, Ken Takakura, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (particularly for the Real Geezers web series he costarred in with Marcia Nasatir), James Garner, Karlheinz Bohm, Donatas Banionis, Dick Smith, Harold Ramis, Robin Williams, and Ruby Dee. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols 1931-2014

As the wave of tributes to Mike Nichols rolled in on my Facebook feed and the movie blogs I read, I was glad to see several mentions of his early days as one-half of the pioneering improvisational standup comic duo Nichols & May with the great and still massively underrated (and very much alive) Elaine May and a little embarrassed at how much less his movies meant to me than to many of my friends and favorite film writers. It's not my intention to do a hatchet job on a recently deceased man, and anyone whose filmography contained as many good movies as Nichols' does will be missed. I liked a lot of what he did. I didn't love it, though, because I didn't see a strong visual personality that carried over from film to film, but I did see a certain indefinable hesitancy to reveal himself. I never quite knew who he was, even after watching most of his stuff, which was often very good but also safer, more conventional, and more tied to current social trends than the work of his old comic partner Elaine May. (I should also point out that he had a great reputation as a theater director, which is out of my wheelhouse, and was possibly more involved in the stage than he was in filmmaking.) Still, he was very good with actors, sought out interesting material, and collaborated with great screenwriters, and I can easily recommend the following films and cable television productions: 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Catch-22 (1970) (a messy, ambitious, trainwreck, honorable failure, which are some of my favorite movie-watching experiences)
Carnal Knowledge (1971) (pretty much the blueprint for In the Company of Men, with a Jules Feiffer screenplay and memorable performances from Ann-Margaret, Art Garfunkel, Jack Nicholson, and Carol Kane)
Silkwood (1983)
Wolf (1994) (another honorable and interesting failure)
Wit (2001)
Angels in America (2003) (maybe my favorite thing he's done outside of Nichols & May)

I can't recommend Primary Colors despite its Elaine May screenplay or The Day of the Dolphin despite its complete insanity (talking dolphins cared for by George C. Scott are kidnapped by terrorists to blow up the president on his vacation boat -- yes, you read that right -- OK, maybe you should rent that one), and I haven't seen the other ones.

P.S. Please see all four of Elaine May's films. Two of them are masterpieces, and the other two are almost as good. Fuck the Ishtar haters, most of whom haven't even seen the damn thing. One expensive flop killed her movie career, while Nichols was able to direct 21 films even though he had a handful of expensive flops. Hollywood is still a sexist hellhole.

Here's a good overview of Nichols & May with clips.

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