Monday, December 12, 2005

I have nine readers, not five readers! Oh, joy!

Don't worry. I'm working on the shit I promised. It's taking awhile. You may see it next month. If not, I got fuckin' sandwiches to eat, bitch.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Intro to the Self-Indulgent Ramble series

I’m going to take a break from writing about individual films and spend some time attempting to understand my own interest in film. The plan is to write several sprawling posts about how and why I became obsessed with movies, formative experiences that may have led to that interest, favorite movies and why I value them, disliked films and why I dislike them, the pros and cons of film criticism, why virtually all mainstream print and television film criticism is awful, why I value certain critics’ work, how other art forms and my interest in them relate to film and my interest in it, why (usually) bio-pics are pieces of excrement, why the gently patronizing and culturally pervasive influence of middlebrow approaches to criticism (such as NPR, The New York Times, etc.) destroys thought and ignores the body and the mind, how my personal biases may cause me to overrate and underrate certain films, why I love reading and writing criticism but hate debating the merits or lack thereof of artistic works verbally, why I write Film-Watching Robot and who I think it’s for, and why I’m such a big pussy who spends hours watching movies every week but has no interest or ambition in making one of my own. Let’s get this rodeo started. First, I’m either going to tackle why I hate bio-pics or moments from my childhood that may have affected my interest in film. I’m not sure which one would make a better start. Maybe all five of my readers have an opinion.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Daryl Hall kicked me and stole my taco while John Oates pointed and laughed

The last couple of weeks' viewing material that wasn't just an escapist retreat from the crushing disappointments of my current financial situation:
I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira) 83 minutes of detail and experience, zero minutes of melodramatic bullshit.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese) Some of the talking-head interview footage is a useless fetishization of nostalgia, but Dylan's own words and the archival footage put the attention where it belongs: the songs, the creative process, the irrelevance of fame, and the humanization of Dylan the man.
The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach) A comedy that's funny. Some flaws, but who wants to see a perfect movie? Not me.
Keane (Lodge Kerrigan) This is already gone from theaters after a ridiculously brief run, but don't worry. You still have three hundred more chances to see "The Legend of Zorro" and the eight million bio-pics that infest theaters every Oscar season. I think biographies of famous people are replacing the disabled and terminally ill as actor's choice of Oscar-bait. You want to learn something about Johnny Cash? Listen to his fucking records. That will tell you all you need to know. God, those movies are cinematic dogturds.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The erotic reawakening of Porkchop Mountain's younger brother Purvis, or how Stella got her lube back

This week, I liked Top Hat (Mark Sandrich) a hell of a lot, but I've got nothing of interest to say about it, so I'll move on.
I don't have much to say about Platform (Jia Zhang Ke), either, mostly because I don't think I fully understood it, either intellectually or emotionally, but I think it's worth seeing so I'll give it a shot. It's about a Maoist theater troupe in a small town in China, living in the anachronistic culture freeze of Maoist Communism c. 1980. Western influences and capitalistic compromises are slowly creeping in, but the town looks like postwar Italy, the kids are just starting to wear bell bottom jeans, and they regularly attend film screenings of what seem to be American and Indian escapist genre movies from the 1930s and 1940s. In what could be a subtitling error but is most likely another example of their cultural isolation, the kids refer to the movie theater as the "television." It's hard for a Western audience, or at least this Western audience member, to get a fix on what decade is being represented. I assumed the film was set in the early 1960s until a song sung one-third into the running time revealed the 1980 setting. The kids in the troupe and their Maoist rhetoric-spouting director/manager seem adrift, treading water in a stagnant culture. Things don't improve when Westernization and capitalism are tentatively added to the mix, the troupe now privatized and transformed into the hilariously titled Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band but still disconnected from their culture. I'm an ugly American bonehead when it comes to foreign politics, so I feel like I'm missing out on a great deal of context, content, and nuance. However, much of the film is also concerned with the evolving relationships between the group members as they move from their teens into their twenties and, obviously, a knowledge of Chinese politics isn't going to help you much there. Additionally, the film is shot in a way I admire, a way in which a lot of my favorite directors work. Point of view is shared between many characters, closeups are eschewed in favor of long and medium shots so we as an audience have more freedom to think instead of being forced to identify with one character in favor of another, and takes are long with a relatively still camera. If all movies were shot this way, it would be a bore, but I respond to this style more than I do any others.
I have some misgivings, but overall, I think The Son's Room (Nanni Moretti) is a really good movie. More conventional and a bit less visually interesting than the other two Moretti films I've seen, it's still the work of a singular artist and far from sentimental, excepting a couple of scenes. Even if it didn't work, I would have admired it for attempting to deal seriously with grief, particularly in the case of the death of a young person, without trying to wring out a bunch of easy tears and wallow in fake depth. I can't remember if it was Hitchcock or Welles who said (I'm paraphrasing here), "It's easy to make an audience cry. Just kill a puppy." A lot of people think a movie is great if their emotions have been exploited (just like a lot of people think a movie is important if it's based on a true story and a lot of people think drama is more artistic than comedy), but I don't agree. Emotions are easy to manipulate. Turn on any junky television drama or trashy soap opera right now, watch it for ten minutes, and feel yourself getting emotionally attached to the characters, even against your better judgment, even while part of you smirks at how stupid it is. It's no great artistic achievement to play an audience's emotions like a xylophone. It's easy. Unless we're autistic or deranged, we are empathetic animals. Our brains put us in other people's shoes constantly, whether we're watching "The OC," the World Series, Monday Night Raw, or a cat stuck in a tree. Needless to say, most movies about grief make us get to know a dying character, string us along for a few hours, then kill the character off while we cry ourselves out of the theater. I mean, while you cry yourself out of the theater. Crybaby. Naturally, there's a lot of meaning and symbolism in the saintly character's death, and a lot of hoohah about the great meaning inherent in each of our impending deaths. This movie is smarter than that. It recognizes that death is arbitrary. Random, unfair, symbolism-free, something that happens to us, not about us. The kid's there, then he's not. What happens to his family after that? This movie is about how a handful of people cope with grief. It's not concerned with showing us a bunch of people crying for two hours, though of course they cry some (however, even when, where, and how these characters cry is largely contrary to crying scenes in most films). (On an oddly related tangent, I've noticed something strange about myself. I almost never get bored watching a movie. I'm endlessly fascinated by moving images, and I could probably enthusiastically watch a three-hour film of a guy staring out the window, but I get ants in my pants during any scene of people crying. I squirm, I look at the clock, I'm bored as hell. I am bored by crying. It is boring to me. Your tears fill me with inertia.) Don't get the wrong idea. This movie is also full of humor and beauty and some nice little digs at religion and psychiatry. A scene in which the family sings along to the radio during a drive made me cringe from its lazy manipulation, but it's a minor quibble, especially when one of my favorite Brian Eno songs is effectively used later. Maybe I'm a softie, but I liked this one a lot.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Bacon double cheeseburger

This week, I'm excited about the Sirk/Fassbinder double feature the Austin Film Society is putting on tomorrow night as part of its 20th anniversary series, especially for the chance to see one of my favorite films, "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," on the big screen. I saw some great stuff last week, too, on the lesser but adequate home video format.
Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin) is an underrated and unjustly forgotten film, though it's only four or five years old. Apparently, most critics didn't like it (except for the French), and it was poorly distributed. It's an odd movie, a little disjointed and awkward, and a few scenes don't work. However, as much as I hate siding with the French (they hate America and stink of cheese while forcing champagne down the barely developed throats of their infant children, don't they?), I have to wonder what kind of film-literate person dismisses this work. "Esther Kahn" is a flawed, fascinating, physical film (sorry for the alliteration--I hate alliteration) that is infinitely more interesting than any darling of the press I can call to mind. I don't know how to rave about an actor's performance without sounding like Peter Travers or a twat, so I'll just say that I could have watched Summer Phoenix's performance for several more days without eating or sleeping. I also think this film smartly handles the problem of convincingly portraying an artistic process by keeping it elusive and mysterious, shunted off to the side and obscured, so that it becomes the film's subject almost by accident. It's dangerous territory, full of deadening and stupid traps, but Desplechin knows how to move in it.
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin) Chaplin's first full-length film paired him with the then-unknown seven-year-old son of vaudeville parents, Jackie Coogan, who most of us know from his later years as TV's Uncle Fester on "The Addams Family." It blew my mind when I found that out. I love Chaplin. Of course, he wants to be loved, and sometimes he's pretty ingratiatingly vulgar about it, but I can handle the sentimentality and the mugging. There's some damn thing I can't put my finger on about his movies, some strange mix of order and chaos, elegance and poverty, comedy and tragedy that is still ahead of its time.
I also want to make a brief Halloween plug for The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon). I've seen it three times, and it still makes me laugh. I think this movie should be taught to film production majors to show them what can be done with a tiny budget. The film is limited to three locations, practically a stage setting, and the camera barely moves, but there are few horror/comedies I like better. The script is witty and fun, the actors have great comic timing, and the zombie gore is completely satisfying. I have a soft spot in my heart for zombie gore. At ninety minutes, there is very little padding. This is a lean, economical, smart B-movie, and the fun the cast and crew are having is present on the screen. I'll take this goofy little zombie movie over whatever overhoopla-ed drivel makes it into the Oscar race this year, which probably will be 14 more goddamn bio-pics. Film biographies are like watching a Vegas impersonator fuck a stack of Cliff's Notes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Whoop whoop

This week I recommend Carl Dreyer's The Parson's Widow and They Caught the Ferry, conveniently on the same DVD. That guy knew where to put a camera.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The weekly plop

Before I get into the two movies I'm recommending to anyone who is exactly like me, I want to talk about a movie I watched last week that I think is a good movie but also a perfect illustration of the kind of art that means little to me personally and a lot to most other people who have some kind of artistic bent, and why I feel more disillusioned when I'm around people who strongly share my interests (they're the fucking worst). In short, I'm constantly uncomfortable, but at least I'm used to it. I grew up in a town of 1,500 people, for christ's sake, and I sure as hell didn't find salvation in the city. (I can't believe how many people have tried to empathize with me by saying, "Hey, I grew up in a small town, too." "Oh, yeah," I say. "How many people in your town?" "40,000," they usually say, or some similar figure. If only I could have been so lucky.) Anyway, the movie is The Virgin Suicides. It's an accomplished film. I think it achieved what it set out to do. Sofia Coppola is a natural filmmaker with an eye for detail and an understanding that film is a visual medium. It's surprising how many filmmakers don't understand that. I'm unable to call this a bad film. It's good. I enjoyed it. It just doesn't mean much to me, aside from an entertaining Friday night. Most art doesn't. It doesn't because most art is symbolic, metaphoric, and/or transcendent. Symbols, metaphors, and transcendence don't make me feel alive. They distract me from life. If I can figure out what the symbols and metaphors mean, there's not much left. The artwork has been used up. It has nothing left to reveal. It's a husk, a pelt. I don't see much difference between that artwork and a crossword puzzle. Once the puzzle is solved, what are you going to do with what's left? Use and dispose. Metaphors and symbols are games. Coppola's film is based on a metaphor, and though it's a subtle and clever metaphor, what can you do with it after you've deciphered it? If I return to films that depend on metaphor and symbol for their existence, it's because of details that aren't part of those metaphors and symbols. The way an actor delivered a line or moved his/her eyebrows. The way a tree looked in the corner of the frame for a few seconds. The way a joke made me laugh or the way a smile made me think about a terrible summer. Art, to me, is about the mysteriousness and frustration and finite brutality and joy of existence and the difficulty of communication and honesty and breathing in and out. It's about dirt, blood, bone, vomit, semen, saliva, skin, teeth, the growl of a stomach, the shift of an eyebrow, the difference between what the face shows and what the mouth says. It's about tonal shifts and fluctuations, about the infinity of experience, about how each person is a minority of one, about how nothing we do can ever be understood. I don't represent red-haired people. I'm not a symbol of western Nebraska, or German, Irish, or Czech-Americans, or white males, or Generation X, or lost youth, or one crazy summer, or the Ghost of Christmas Past. I'm one human being. When art is doing something to me, I don't feel larger than life, or entertained, or intellectually inquisitive, or transcendent. I don't even feel this way when I'm on drugs. I feel alive. My nerve endings are raw. I feel present, I feel mortal, and I feel finite and real. Good art doesn't make me feel like I'm hovering outside of my body, or living solely inside my head. It makes me feel like all I have is the present and I better do something with it besides jerk off to metaphoric crossword puzzles or work dead-end office jobs until I'm dead enough to retire. Here are the two movies this week that weren't dead ends for me:
Junebug (Phil Morrison) We don't live in red or blue states, just gray ones. It's hard to tell anyone, especially family and friends, exactly what the hell you mean, especially if you don't even know.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai) Kar-Wai's movies are like songs. It's hard to tell where one scene ends and another begins. Take out one piece, or add another, and the whole thing falls apart. He's a master of instinct. His movies are felt, not thought out.

Monday, October 03, 2005

I need to update this site

I'm currently bogged down with an increasingly frustrating and hopeless job search (though I haven't regretted quitting the old one) and writing essays for a grad school application, but I do want to pick up a little slack on this site and do some more things with it. I don't think I'll go back to writing about every movie I watch, mostly because I watch too many goddamn movies and some are a lot better than others, but, for the time-starved present and near-future, I'll keep it simple. Every week, I'll mention the movies I watched during the week that meant something to me, that I would watch again, that do more than just pleasantly pass the time. Maybe some weeks I'll have nothing. This week was a particularly good one. I have five. Three on the big screen, two on video.
I got to see Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson) again, this time on the big screen. What a great experience. It's nice to forget about what a fucking mess I've made of the part of my life that makes a living and spend a couple hours seeing a great piece of art the way it was intended. It was a beautiful, sparklingly clear 35mm print, and no one in the audience showed up late, talked during the screening, or forgot to turn their cell phones off. Thanks, thoughtful citizens. (I blame our current, and, unfortunately, probably permanent, cell phone culture for the frightening increase in loudmouthery during live concerts and movies. Shut the fuck up, everybody. You're boring. It can wait. Why did you buy a ticket to this event? Etc. Too much talking and not enough listening. The world's an amazing place when you close your mouth and look at it. I'm not a Luddite. I thank the gods every day for the Internet, file-sharing, computers, cruise control, etc. I just hate cell phones, and I wish they had never been invented. A phone doesn't belong outdoors. I will always believe this. Even if I'm caught in a bear trap with nowhere else to turn. {I'm caught in a bear trap, and I can't walk out, because I love you too much, baby.} Hopefully, everyone gets brain cancer in twenty years. That'll make them shut up.)
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg). This is such a deceptively simple film. I don't even want to talk about this movie, because the reactions it caused in me are such personal ones that I want to keep them to myself. You should have plenty of your own if you watch it with the openness it demands. How does this film do so many contradictory things at once? I need to see this again, in a year or two. Then again, a few years after that.
Yi Yi (Edward Yang). Three hours and not a second is wasted, stretched, padded, labored. A lot of morons have convinced a lot of casual moviegoers that foreign films are pretentious, boring, and high-falutin' just because they're subtitled. A lot of morons on the other side of the spectrum pretend to love foreign films (and world music CDs) as a kind of high-culture affectation, a fetishization of novelty objects and a robotic display of politically correct, multi-culturalist attitudes currently fashionable among people who manage to convince a lot of other people (including their own real selves) that they're smart without having to go through all the bother of independent thought. The casual moviegoers are victims of our country's culturally isolationist entertainment distribution systems and their own ignorance. This can be overcome. The high-culture nitwits are dangerous, however, because they have good intentions. They truly believe they're enlightened, open-minded, artistically savvy, and non-racist. However, all their multicultural horseshit reduces individuals to boring group types. Instead of being a book by James Baldwin-individual, artist, and damn good writer, it's a book by James Baldwin-African American homosexual. Instead of being a book by Henry James-individual, artist, and damn good writer, it's a book by Henry James-dead, white male of European ancestry. Art is bypassed, and worse, ignored, by this affected group-lump of multiculturalism. If any of these people approached the art on its own terms--its style, form, and content-- instead of the important but not all-encompassing sociologic makeup of its creator, maybe something new would happen in their brains each day instead of wasteful atrophy. Whoah, I'm getting way off-topic here. I don't think I've even read anything about "Yi Yi" that takes that approach. I just get tired of all the good films getting wasted on pretentious douchebags, all the ceremony and reverence and self-congratulation and silly symbolic interpretation involved with the "art film" crowd, when real art films should belong to open, intelligent, living, humorous, non-affected people. Art is not a dirty word. It doesn't need to be delivered on a silver tray. It doesn't need to be respected. You can treat it rough, slap the shit out of it, laugh at and with it, live with it, put it in a headlock, give it a handjob. It likes that. Art is alive, comes from life. It's not good if it doesn't. It's not going to church. It's not an intellectual dinner party conversation starter. It's about human beings trying to connect with each other. Drop the self-important bullshit and let it connect. I just wanted to say "Yi Yi" is a great movie. To me, anyway. Maybe not to you, whoever the hell it is I'm writing to. Maybe it won't connect with you. Maybe you have valid reasons for that. I just hope you get a chance to see it. I hate how the guys with the money decided that most Americans are only worthy of shit like "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" without taking the time to ask any of us. Jesus, this paragraph was incoherent.

Oh yeah, I also got a lot out of Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay) and Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

This has nothing to do with movies, but I feel it is time to update this site, or The Experiment

I'm bored. I don't feel like studying for the GRE or reading my book, so I'm going to conduct a two-hour experiment. I have five homemade compilation CDs in the stereo, on shuffle. Between the hours of 1 and 3 a.m., I will update this blog every time a new song starts. I will write the name of the song and what I am doing at that particular moment. This is an experiment in mind-numbing, anal-gazing banality. Won't you join me? Let the pointlessness begin.
12:54 Yo La Tengo - "Pablo and Andrea" I made a gin and tonic. I wonder if the fettucine noodle I dropped in the space between the stove and counter will attract cockroaches.
12:59 Curtis Mayfield - "No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)" I've sipped the gin and tonic twice. Burt Reynolds has aged surprisingly well.
1:04 Lou Reed - "Lady Day" Still sipping the gin and tonic. Some sort of half-man half-bat creature crawled through my window and rubbed my head reassuringly.
1:08 The Dirtbombs - "The Sharpest Claws" I wonder if I've ever been touched inappropriately.
1:10 T. Rex - "Raw Ramp" For christ sakes, it's only been two minutes. Nothing has changed.
1:14 T. Rex - "Cosmic Dancer" Freaky. Two T. Rex songs in a row. What are the odds? What are the fucking odds? I'm not wearing a shirt.
1:19 Salt - "Hung Up" My mind has gone blank.
1:21 Brian Eno - "Needles in the Camel's Eye" I haven't had a shirt on for hours. Hours, baby. I'm gazing upon myself in all my shirtless wonder. It's a beautiful, holy vision.
1:25 Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - "Hearts of Oak" I got nothing.
1:31 David Bowie - "Sound and Vision" On my immediate right, two half-naked men are bearhugging each other. No, it's not what you think, friends. It's the WWF VCR Wrestlemania game. The VCR portion is missing.
1:34 Stephen Malkmus - "Pencil Rot" I'm halfway through the gin and tonic now.
1:39 Iggy Pop - "Some Weird Sin" I just read a post about Iggy Pop and Guns N' Roses five minutes ago on Stars and Garters. Brought back many fond Axl-related memories. That guy liked his short-shorts. My stereo seems to have a preference for disc 2. It's picking disc 2 almost half the time. Come on, give the other discs some.
1:43 Alex Chilton - "My Rival" Thinking about sandwiches.
1:47 Them - "Hey Girl" Thinking about naked ladies. And sandwiches.
1:50 Sly and the Family Stone - "Somebody's Watching You" I just inadvertently discovered that I'm a teenage werewolf.
1:53 The Faces - "Just Another Honky" I will never get over the fact that Rod Stewart once made good music. It's been thirty years, so he's due for a comeback. Right? He'll knock one out of the park again. Won't he? No. He won't.
1:57 The Fiery Furnaces - "Mason City" The condensation on the bottom of my drinking glass just dripped on my crotch.
2:05 The Stooges - "T.V. Eye" My shirtless antics are wearing thin. I feel a slight chill. Must put shirt back on. Unfortunately, my shirt is in the bedroom where my wife is sleeping. Can't put shirt back on. This is what I deserve. My shirtless hubris could not go unpunished forever. The gods have made known their displeasure. I am a failure.
2:10 The Beach Boys - "Darlin'" Discs 4 and 5 are still being criminally ignored. Sometimes I think my stereo is fucking with me.
2:12 Arthur Russell - "Treehouse" Damn this condensation!
2:15 Black Flag - "Nervous Breakdown" Should I make another drink? The answer is always yes.
2:17 Roxy Music - "2 HB" I just urinated.
2:22 Sly and the Family Stone - "Africa Talks To You 'The Asphalt Jungle'" Have you ever had a Hardee's Monster Burger? Fuck, those things were abominations.
2:31 Minutemen - "Spillage" Cheese won the battle of the vices over a second gin and tonic.
2:33 Psalms - "Rolling Stone" Snarf loves Liono.
2:37 Oneida - "Spirits" Snarf loves Liono.
2:42 Mott the Hoople - "Crash Street Kidds" Snarf loves Liono.
2:46 Huey Piano Smith - "Little Liza Jane" Snarf loves Liono.
2:49 The Specials - "Concrete Jungle" Snarf loves Liono.
2:53 David Bowie - "Rebel Rebel" Snarf loves Liono.
2:57 Six Finger Satellite - "Cock Fight" Snarf loves Liono.
3:00 This experiment, as expected, was a resounding failure.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Taking a break

I'm going to take a break from this site for awhile. It's getting to be a chore making myself write about every movie I watch, and I think the writing's getting repetitive. I'm still going to keep the site up, and I'll probably write about a movie if I feel like I have something to say, but I've got a lot of other things I need to do and this site's sucking up too much time.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Terrorist (Santosh Sivan)

This movie was filmed two years before our localized disaster of September 11, 2001, and its global ramifications. Apparently, this is supposed to add poignance. We expect the world's sympathy, and its art, to reflect our own current conditions. The rest of the world was dealing with terrorism-as-fact-of-life long before we had to, and it doesn't make this Indian film any better now that we can relate. It's a decent piece of action entertainment, but it thinks it's a piece of art, and it isn't. It was directed by a famed cinematographer. That's it's first strike, in my book, which is a strong personal preference, I'll readily admit. I care about directors, actors, writers, and editors. I could give a shit about cinematogaphers unless they give a shit about these other four. Beauty is a hindrance to my holy quartet. Beauty is a lie. If you spend your movie figuring out beautiful ways to shoot everything, you're creating some massively expensive wallpaper. The wallpaper is attractive, but it's not a movie. I like a lot of things about this wallpaper. The lead actress is iconic and beautiful, every shot could be framed, some scenes have an urgent sense of suspense. But once the wall has been covered, what else is left? I'm not going to be thinking about anything in this movie tomorrow, and I didn't think about anything in it while it was happening. Because it's about a terrorist cel, people think it's important, but it's just another cliched melodrama, and an Americanized one at that. It's fun, but the director/cinematographer thinks he's making a profound political statement. Maybe he is. Maybe he's illustrating how American business values have corrupted non-American storytelling. Maybe he's just an over-talented hack. Either way, he's made a good movie that's not very good.

I wrote this review in a drink-damaged state. Please forgive run-on sentences and poor sentence construction. This site is a fucking burden. Why did I decide to write about every movie I watch? All art takes a lot of time. This immediate response thing is probably worthless. Goodnight.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski) and Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)

Funny Ha Ha

Me and You and Everyone We Know

It was exciting for me this week to see two new films by two young American filmmakers and to be excited, engaged, upset, and energized by their films. It doesn't seem fair to compare the two, but I'm going to do it because both filmmakers are close to my age, both films are honest about loneliness, and I like these movies. Of the two, I think Funny Ha Ha is the better work, but it's not like they're both throwing the shot put at a track meet. Both films are playing in Austin right now, both will be on video soon, no either/or choice has to be made unless you have one day to live, and in that case, you shouldn't be wasting your time watching a couple of movies anyway. Bujalski's film is a minor masterpiece of unease, inarticulateness, awkward pauses, ellipses, and shifting meanings. Bujalski has mentioned being hugely influenced by John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh (coincidentally, two of my favorites), but he's invented a cinematic language of his own. This film is painfully awkward and true, and my life is better for having seen it. I also loved July's film, though it's a lot more conventional, albeit an indie hipster conventionality. There are more flaws in July's film. A few scenes are generically indie, a few others tip dangerously over into sentimentality, but the majority of this debut feature is human, funny, and curiously uplifting. While Bujalski's dialogue is full of silences, pauses, losses for words, and aversions of meaning, July's characters can't help but blurt out exactly what they mean. In both films, these speech patterns leave the characters frustrated and lonely. July seems more interested in searching for happy endings, but she's equally adept at getting honest performances from her actors. July's film also offers the bonus of one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen. It involves two kids, a computer, and the word "poop." I won't spoil it by revealing anything else.

The Decameron (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

I like this movie. It was made by a serious artist, but it's full of lowest common denominator comedy, involving shit, sexual hijinks, pratfalls, swagger, lots of people with no teeth, and severed heads. It's clear that Pasolini was pretty much tapped out as an artist by this point, but who was expecting this? It's a fucking trainwreck. I couldn't look away. And the ending is surprisingly poignant.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)

I'm not a fan of hyperbole. It's something you need to get out of your system while writing music reviews for the college newspaper (if you're me). If I were an artist being reviewed, I think I would dread a hyperbolic rave more than anything. By saying something is one of the greatest works ever/of the year/of the decade/of the century/of the week, you are as much as shitting on that work you profess to admire so much. Every flaw in that work will be magnified a hundredfold by anyone reading your review. That's why it makes me uncomfortable to write the next sentence. This is one of the greatest films ever made. I mention this because I don't think I can write about this film under the pretense of it being just another film, even just another great film. Additionally, only five people read this website, so I can make with the hyperbole like there's no tomorrow. Why is it so great? I won't be able to scratch the surface of that question. Jean-Luc Godard said Balthazar was "the world in ninety minutes," and he was right. The film begins with the birth of a donkey, Balthazar, and ends with the donkey's death. In between, Balthazar is passed around from owner to owner in a small French village. These owners are connected to each other, as most people are in a small town. Some of these people are cruel to the donkey, others are kind, but all are weak, and their weaknesses determine the course of the donkey's life. This is merely a plot synopsis, and a plot synopsis is getting me nowhere. I can see this while I write. Why is this film so good? How can a film about a donkey be one of the great artworks of our time? Maybe a discussion of Bresson's methods can get me closer to an impossible answer. Bresson had a severe formal aesthetic. Beginning with his third film, he only used non-actors, which he called models. He filmed scenes repeatedly until all emotion and "performance" was drained from the performance. He did not want his non-actors to "act." His "actors" perform actions mechanically, not reactions emotionally. Once Bresson worked with an "actor" once, he refused to work with him/her a second time. A handful of his non-actors became professional actors later, but most faces you see in a Bresson film you won't see again. You will never see a scene from a character's point of view in Bresson's films (including the donkey in Balthazar). His characters exist. They act and actions are performed on them. It is up to us to project our point of view on the action. This technique sounds cold and unemotional, and it is if you experience the films as a passive viewer. Paradoxically, the reactions a Bresson film provokes from an engaged audience are exactly the opposite of his techniques. It took me three of his films before I knew how to respond, but watching a Bresson film now is an almost overwhelmingly emotional experience. His films are holy moments. They have strange powers, and they shut down, cut off, and slow down the distractions and irrelevancies of the unnecessary parts of our existence. For two hours, Paris Hilton doesn't exist, never existed. Balthazar exists. He's a dumb animal. We see people beat him, stroke him, work him, feed him, and we see them do these things to themselves and others. We are not experiencing his reactions, his existence, nor theirs. We are experiencing our own. How many other filmmakers let us do that?

Let me also mention briefly what Bresson does with sound. Pay attention to his uses of natural noise and silence and wonder why so few others have followed his lead. You don't just watch a Bresson film, you hear it, too.

I've been thinking about three things Bresson said about this film:
1) It was inspired by a passage from Dostoevsky's The Idiot in which Myshkin talks about how happy he was when he heard a donkey bray in a foreign marketplace. Bresson filmed two Dostoevsky adaptations, so the influence is no secret, but this quote got me thinking about how Bresson is probably the closest cousin to Dostoevsky of any artist I've encountered in any medium. Maybe I'll say more on this later. I don't have much to go on for proof other than the similar effect their work has on me.
2) Bresson said the donkey was his version of Chaplin's Little Tramp character. This seems odd, initially, considering how far from comedy Balthazar is, but it makes a weird kind of sense. Again, I have no proof other than my gut feeling.
3) Balthazar is full of extremely unsympathetic characters, but the audience is never pushed into hatred, contempt, or scorn for anyone. Bresson said, in response to a question about the ugliness of the characters, that it should be as possible to love humanity at its worst as much as we love it at its best. That's a powerful thing for Bresson to say, considering that he spent a year in a Nazi prison camp for being a part of the French Resistance. Maybe this attitude is merely an extension of his devout Catholicism, but I find this statement, and the film, a maddening and beautiful way of looking at what we do and how and possibly why we do it.

I'll finish up with more Godard. I've been thinking about this movie almost constantly since watching it on Saturday, and I drew a conclusion that the character of Marie was also a donkey. Of course, I don't mean this literally. I'm talking about how the actions performed on and by Marie, and the use of her by others, parallel Balthazar's existence. I was going to develop this further, until I found out that Godard had said the exact same thing. I was a little pissed that he'd stolen my thunder, albeit several years before my birth, though the fact that we drew the same conclusion made me happy. Godard usually makes me feel stupid, so it was a nice little surprise when he made me feel smart. Godard later married Anne Wiazemsky, the woman who played Marie, but they divorced in the late seventies. Maybe Godard fell in love with a donkey, and got a woman instead.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)

This was my first look at silent comedian and fellow Nebraskan Harold Lloyd. He's the (distant) third big name in silent comedy after Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, which is probably good for Lloyd. Being less admired, he gets to avoid the stupid "Keaton or Chaplin" debate. That debate is infected with businessman's syndrome and has nothing to do with personal preference or aesthetic value. Instead, it squashes two distinctive artists into one generic product: Silent Comedian. They're not microwaves or socket wrenches. Why should we have to choose one over the other? Keaton is as different from Chaplin as Chaplin is from Keaton and Keaton is from Lloyd and Lloyd is from Chaplin and a radish is from a doorknob. I'm glad there is room in this world for all of the above. I like Lloyd, if I can judge him from this film and An Eastern Westerner, a short that was also on the copy of the video I watched. He's not the artist Keaton or Chaplin is. Instead, his greatness comes from the sense that performing is not natural for him and he's working his ass off. I don't mean to suggest his comedy is labored or overcooked. Instead, it seems fresh, spontaneous, ingenious, with Lloyd as a hardworking guy having to adapt quickly to ridiculous situations.

P.S. When did pratfalls stop being funny? Watching someone fall down in a classic comedy is hilarious. Watching someone fall down in a modern comedy is nauseating. Maybe the problem is not that pratfalls are no longer funny, but that funny comedians no longer do pratfalls. Yes. This makes more sense to me. Bad comedians have monopolized modern pratfalls. I'm going to call this phenomenon the Martin Lawrence Effect.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Face/Off (John Woo)

This movie, unlike the other American John Woo films I've seen, looks a lot like his Hong Kong stuff. It's ridiculous, sentimental, overblown, exciting, fun. Fired bullets are filmed in loving slow motion like weird fetish objects. The villain and the hero are inextricably linked through some odd bond (in this case, swapping faces). The action set-pieces are a frenzied, vulgar, maximalist orgy, especially the finale. In Face/Off's final battle, a boat crashes through another boat. The boats don't crash into each other. One boat crashes through the other boat. Splits that mother in two. Oh yeah. I've read some criticisms of this film (mostly of the fanboy variety on imdb messageboards), and the consensus seems to be that this is a good action movie, but the viewer must set aside the utter ridiculousness of John Travolta's cop undergoing a covert surgical facial swap with Nicolas Cage's comatose super-villain in order to trick his brother into revealing the whereabouts of a bomb. Critics of the film apparently feel this ridiculousness damages the otherwise plausible universe of the modern action film. These people are idiots. The modern action film is always implausible and ridiculous. Taking this ridiculousness to ridiculariffic extremes can only improve the modern action film. The plot is insanely stupid, and I wholeheartedly endorse the sublimity of this stupidity. It allows Cage and Travolta to ham it up, to have fun, to play themselves, their characters, each other's characters, and each other. A lot more fun than watching Schwarzenegger smash a few things up, kill some Arabs, hang from a helicopter, and spout a few monosyllabic catchphrases. (In addition, Cage and Travolta will probably not become terrible governors.) That said, I have two major reservations. 1. Joan Allen plays Travolta's long-suffering wife (she's played more long-suffering wives than any woman in acting history).. He's always got his mind on his work, never on romance, blah blah blah. This subplot is in roughly 74 percent of mainstream action movies and police thrillers released in the last fifty years. The movie grinds to a halt whenever these scenes occur. They could have shitcanned this entire subplot and, though it would have required a few re-shufflings of plot and character motivation, it would have made the movie better and shorter. 2. Occasionally, Woo douses the film in a coat of pretentious, high-art sheen that is humorless and embarrassing. The most egregious violations include a child listening to his headphones during a climactic gunfight while he's lit with a spotlight from above, soundtrack dropping out except for the ironic counterpoint of the innocuous little children's song as he gazes with puppy dog eyes at the carnage escalating around him, and a scene in a church that could have been titled "A Shitload of White Doves + A Crucifix = Symbolic Truth." Also, Margaret Cho is in this movie for no discernible reason. I can overlook these flaws, however, because I get to see a boat crashing through a boat. I love that.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Seventh Heaven (Benoit Jacquot)

What happened? This is a rough draft dreamed onto celluloid. It's an intriguing premise (woman is a sexually unresponsive kleptomaniac, gets mysterious therapy and is cured, husband starts losing it because his wife's no longer messed up), the leads are excellent, but the movie does nothing after setting it all up. Eighty minutes after it begins, it ends. What happens in between is curiously flat and uninvolving.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks)

Two Howard Hawks movies in less than seven days. The good lord must be smiling down upon me. This is, as far as I know, Hawks' only musical, and it's his most female-centric film. Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe are the focus, the men are mostly wimps, ogling oldsters, and ineffectual bumblers. Most traditional films would pit the women against each other in competition for men, but in Hawks' world, Monroe and Russell are allies whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Monroe plays a gold-digging airhead; Russell is smarter and more contemptuous of money. That's only a launching pad for a series of gags and musical numbers that satirize our business-obsessed culture and the ways men objectify women, while revealing subtler, deeper shades in Russell and Monroe's characters that modify our opinions of them. Neither Monroe nor Russell are great dancers, and their singing voices are merely pleasant, but these weaknesses only add to the greatness of the musical numbers, giving them an awkward charm and an unpolished naturalness.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Scream (Wes Craven)

I put off seeing this movie for a long time. I could have kept putting it off. It's trash. Offensive trash. This is a film with utter contempt for its characters, its makers, its genre, and its audience. It's probably the most cynical film I've ever seen. It pretends to wink at you, to let you into its exclusive club of smarty-pants deconstructivism and self-reflexivity, while instead explicitly laying out the theme that life is just a movie, a movie is just a movie, a movie is not important, and neither is your life. You are a cash machine and a moron. Allow us, the makers of Scream, to make a withdrawal. We don't care about you, we don't care about our movie, and we don't care about anything. We will pretend to provide a self-aware postmodern take on the horror genre and be praised by mainstream critics for our wit and cleverness when what we actually provide is a guided tour into the emptiness of our hearts and minds. This film is disgustingly cavalier about the value of human life. That might sound funny coming from someone who loves horror movies as much as I do, especially someone who loves exploding heads and gushing geysers of blood (yep, me again). Pretty cavalier, right? The difference is that when the average horror director rips someone's guts out or decapitates someone else, the desired effect is to bring pleasure to an audience of real, live human beings. In director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson's world, however, the audience is told life is just a movie (this line of dialogue is repeated several times throughout the film), the characters' behavior comes entirely from other movies, and we're instructed how to respond to these scenes as audience members by the exruciatingly overbearing dialogue (more life-as-movie, behavior-learned-from-movie ironic detachments). We're not allowed responses of our own, just told repeatedly how clever we are and how superior we are to what we're watching while at the same time what inconsequential, pop-culture obsessed, lives we lead. Williamson and Craven's message seems clear to me: Your life is defined by what you consume, not by what you experience, and we are going to take advantage of that to get a piece of your money. To them, I say: Go fuck yourself. Your movie is inhuman, and I'm not interested.

Other observations:
1. The much-ballyhooed self-referential script is a plodding, pointless gimmick. Horror movies are already self-referential, and they have been since at least Bela Lugosi's 1931 performance in Dracula, probably earlier. To use a more recent example, John Carpenter's 1978 Halloween, which is referenced in Scream a gazillion times, is full of movie in-jokes and references that are far more clever than anything in Wes Craven's mega-turd, and they're used without belaboring the point.
2. The killer's outfit is astonishingly non-frightening. The mask is based on Munch's "The Scream," another pointless reference and example of the film's turning art into product, while the rest of the costume looks like Skeletor at a drag ball.
3. Matthew Lillard sucks. His obnoxiousness and his noxiousness are substantial. He makes Chris Kattan look like Harry Dean Motherfucking Stanton.
4. This movie made a shitload of money and spawned two sequels, which also made a shitload of money. Maybe the Craven/Williamson two-headed jerk's cynicism was justified. Sometimes it's hard to be a humanist.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

Few directors' movies give me as much pleasure as Howard Hawks'. I've seen a lot of his work, and I've loved everything I've seen. Now recognized as a great director, in his prime he was pegged as merely a reliable entertainer, probably because most of his movies were either comedies, action/adventures, or westerns. A bogus stereotype prevailed at the time, and still infects a lot of critics' and audiences' perceptions today. Namely, a film isn't an important work of art unless it's about something Important (i.e., racism is bad, terminal disease is sad, biographies of famous people's lives give us something to strive for, war is hell, symbolism is where it's at, etc.). Hawks was so much deeper than that. His films are concerned with varieties of human experience and behavior, eschewing closeups and identification with a single character. In a Hawks film, we watch a group of people interact, the camera taking in all the principals at once so the audience can see the characters react to each other without giving us a push in one direction or another. We choose our own reactions, our own points of view, based on our own experiences. Hawks is interested in tonal shifts in speech patterns and facial expressions, in the temporalities and fluctuations of life, in the dynamics between groups of men and between men and women. He's interested in how people act when they have to interact with other people, something most Hollywood films ignore. Sure, Hollywood movies are full of actors and extras, but most of them focus on one character's point of view at the expense of all others, with every camera movement guiding the audience toward a fixed understanding decided in advance by the filmmaker. In His Girl Friday, our sympathies toward and feelings about Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are never fixed. We like them (Hawks has affection for all his characters), but our responses to their behavior bounce around like pinballs. Meanings shift and shift again mid-sentence, dialogue overlaps dialogue, rhythms of speech speed up and slow down. Hawks is pulling the rug out from under our preconceived notions of how we watch movies every step of the way, and doing it in the guise of a romantic, screwball comedy. It's just another great movie from a guy who made dozens of them.

Faust (F.W. Murnau)

Emil Jannings plays Mephisto in Murnau's version of Faust, but he probably should have played the title character. He made his own pact with the devil a few years later. When Hitler came to power, Jannings chose to stay in Germany and act in Nazi propaganda films. Murnau was dead in a car accident by the time of Jannings' disgrace, but their last German collaboration is interesting, considering their respective fates (Murnau moved to the United States after this film's release) and the fate of Germany shortly thereafter. It's like a whole country made a deal with the devil, and Murnau's pre-Hitler silents, Faust and Nosferatu, seem like early, cautionary warnings of a fascistic, creeping menace infecting our better judgment and our hearts. I love the early German silent films, and the German New Wave of the late sixties and seventies, but I often wonder how many people I'm seeing onscreen either embraced the Third Reich or were raised by parents who did. German director Werner Herzog (whose mother fled the Nazis and settled in rural Bavaria and whose remake of Nosferatu is partially about what happened to Germany) put it another way when describing the explosion of creative talent in sixties and seventies German film: "We're a group of people with no fathers, only grandfathers." Murnau was one of the grandfathers he cited, a poetic visionary who was as comfortable pushing the boundaries of visual effects as he was exploring the shifting emotional routes of the human face. His movies are full of both human fantasy and experience, and he's still among only a handful of directors comfortable with both.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

My Sex Life, or How I Got into an Argument (Arnaud Desplechin)

This film, which only engaged me in fits and starts in terms of its writing and editing but had my complete attention in terms of its actors' phenomenal performances, got me thinking about something. I have a need to devour my interests. I want to see every movie, read every book, listen to every piece of music, and eat every meal that even vaguely intrigues me. I also want to spend lots of time with friends and family, and look at/watch a lot of paintings, photos, concerts, sculptures, prints, dancers, street musicians, people who can do a lot of high kicks, anybody doing anything weird in public, and maybe the occasional basketball game, boxing match, or professional wrestling exhibition. This need to devour as much art and life as is humanly possible clashes with the relative brevity of one human lifespan, the interruptions of living by a 9 to 5 job, going to the bank, buying toilet paper, etc., my own lack of ambition, and the demands that really ambitious art makes upon its viewer, in this case, me. This is an ambitious film and, though the acting touched me deeply, the film as a whole left me disengaged. This is an odd dichotomy, and for that reason alone, the film probably deserves another look. If I watched it again, I'm sure I would find more answers and more questions, and my relationship to the work would deepen. The problem is, it's three hours long and there's so much more left to see and do. If a film that left me lukewarm deserves further investigation, and I think it does, what of the work I think is brilliant? Maybe my life would be better spent if I picked 100 works of art spread across different media that had blown my mind the most and really get to know them in the depth they deserve. Wouldn't this be a more valuable way to spend my time? Maybe so. But can't I do both? I think I'll try. I'm rambling now. I guess my point is that life is too short, there's too much art (which is a wonderful problem and something to be thankful for), and this movie is worth seeing if you're interested in film. If you miss it, your life won't be damaged in any way, but, please, don't miss it because you're eating Pringles and watching "The Princes of Malibu." Have a good reason for missing it. Fill your life with meaningful things. I don't care what they are. I don't care if you like movies. Just like something enough to tear the ass out of it with your teeth. That's living. Don't let the bastards get you down. Life isn't so bad. Sorry this turned into a pep talk. Don't blame me, I voted for you. My other car is also a car.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett)

This is one of the classic films noir, but it's not filmed like one. The plot is quintessential noir: a drifter cruises into town, gets a job cooking in a diner, falls in love with the boss' much younger wife, they plot to bump the old man off, things go wrong. Stylistically, however, the movie is minimal, spare, economical. Unlike most noir, there is no German Expressionist influence, no interplay of shadows and light, no stylized camera angles. Tay Garnett directs like an anonymous hack and gets a better movie than if he'd stamped a director's personality all over it. He seems to simply point his camera at the action and let it happen, as objectively as possible, avoiding genre cliches. He does move the camera a lot, however, but the movements are natural, unobtrusive, subtle. Only the occasional awkward closeup interferes with the tone. It's a nice little movie. Not that important, ultimately, but fun is fun, and fun is a lot.

Also, Lana Turner was smokin' hot.

The Milky Way (Luis Bunuel)

Bunuel's little seen Milky Way is the red-headed stepchild of his late-period filmography, an interesting failure blemishing his otherwise astounding series of masterpieces from the 1960s and 1970s. I have red hair and, as of last March, am now someone's stepson, so I feel some affinity with the film. I was also raised Catholic and lost my faith, like Bunuel, and, again, like Bunuel, I feel contradictory impulses to both admire and shoot poisoned darts at the religion. This film never really comes together in any satisfying way, but it's worth seeing if you're a Bunuel fan, a Catholic (lapsed or otherwise), or both. It's a satire about Catholic dogma and heresy with an episodic, anecdotal narrative structure in which two characters make a pilgrimage on foot from France to Spain to bilk some money out of the tourists flocking to see a saint's body on display in a cathedral. Along the way, they move in and out of different time periods and spatial realities and meet many well-known Christian heretics. The action frequently leaves the two main characters for minutes at a time before rejoining them. This structure is interesting, but never seems to gel into a cohesive whole. (Bunuel would use a similar structure much more successfully in The Phantom of Liberty.) The problem is that Bunuel's script is as dogmatic as his target, and he'd already covered this ground more successfully in earlier films like Viridiana and Nazarin. Bearing some similiarity to later Godard (though completely different in terms of editing and structure), the film is dense and theoretical, more of a philosophical argument than a cinematic exploration, but funny in places and always watchable.

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)

Twenty minutes into Gregg Araki's new movie, and I'm thinking he might have made himself a masterpiece. Then the extended flashback sequence ends, and the film dies a slow, conventional death. The problems are many: Michelle Trachtenberg suffers from either A) terrible acting or B) a poorly written character (answer: C), indie-film cliches crowd out the good stuff (ex: the male prostitute character's one last trick goes bad, also known as the Miramax version of the cop getting shot one day before retirement), and the story loses momentum halfway through and all we're left with is inevitability and a "revelatory" ending that reveals nothing we hadn't already figured out. It's easy to be tricked into thinking the movie's any good while watching it, mostly from the early scenes' powerful confidence and the strength of the non-Trachtenberg performances (especially Elisabeth Shue and Brady Corbet), but it eventually leads to so what. Araki is being praised by almost every mainstream American critic for maturing, but I'll take the ridiculous-to-sublime momentum of his Nowhere over the sublime-to-mundane Mysterious Skin any day of the week, even Monday. A mature Araki actually includes scenes like this in his new movie (dialogue half-remembered and paraphrased, I'll do my best):

(Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Trachtenberg, having a heart-to-heart about his male prostitution next to the speakers at an empty drive-in movie theater.)
MT: I wish we were watching a movie about our lives on this screen. It would show everything that happened to us and end with us right here, staring at the screen.
JG-L (disinterested): Unh.
MT (cradling the speaker next to her, then holding it up to her ear): Listen, you can hear the voice of God.
JG-L (holding the speaker next to him up to his ear): Yeah, I can hear it.
(Cue stylized planetarium-style stars descending and spinning around them.)

If you haven't choked on your own vomit after reading this, you may like this film.

The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)

I love Sturges, for the simple fact that he made comedies which are funny. That's what comedies are supposed to be, but the vast majority are groaning anthologies of deadness. This comedy, about what happens when business values infect human relationships, will kill despair for a couple of hours. The dialogue is a ping-pong match between the practical and the visionary (though the players often switch sides), the Ale and Quail Club is a prescient depiction of unchecked wealth, and the quotable lines are plentiful.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli)

I think I like this movie more in retrospect than I did while watching it. After seeing Minnelli's great The Band Wagon a few weeks ago, Meet Me in St. Louis was a disappointment. It seemed syrupy, inconsequential, even dull in places. There was a cutesy little kid who ballhogged too many scenes. It also seemed to lack any male energy, i.e. it was too girly for me. I don't say that often. I'm not a believer in phrases like "chick flick" or "guy movie." If a movie's good, it's worth seeing. I don't see movies because of their plot or story, so I don't care if they're focused on male or female characters or are examples of predominantly male or female genres. If a movie can be conveniently tagged a "chick flick" or a "guy movie," that movie is probably garbage with no respect for its audience. I don't see a whole lot of difference between "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "XXX: State of the Union," and I don't want to find out if there is. At any rate, Meet Me in St. Louis seemed like it was consciously excluding anything that could pique a male interest. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. Still, a lot of male critics and filmmakers I admire love this movie, so maybe I'm just missing something. Thinking about it in my head, though, I find a lot of things to like. I like the way Minnelli has his actors move in, out, and through the frame, I like the colors he uses, I like the lived-in atmosphere of the family home, I like the candle-dimming scene, I like the Halloween scene, and I even like a couple of the songs.

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

I don't have much to say about this one. Kurosawa successfully incorporates elements of the western and the comedy into the samurai genre. I like the film's singularity of purpose and how the camera's movements are always at right angles. The cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, also worked with Ozu and Mizoguchi, and the images seem more visceral than other Kurosawa films of the period, even Rashomon, which Miyagawa also shot. This is an escapist, entertainment picture, but in the best way. I was able to escape a hangover and was consistently entertained for the entire running time. Eleven thumbs up.

The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara's first full-length film (not counting the porno movie he made before it, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy) was marketed as a slasher flick, but it's really about urban paranoia, punk rock, and 1970s New York City sleaze. Ferrara plays the lead. He's not much of an actor, but you don't need to be much of an actor to kill bums with an electric drill. Thank god he used Christopher Walken, Vincent Gallo, and Harvey Keitel in later films. He's a painter who slowly goes nuts because he can't pay his bills, a punk band moved into the apartment below and they practice all night, and his relationship with his girlfriend is deteriorating. He has no choice but to run out into the street and eliminate a chunk of NYC's homeless wino population with an electric drill powered by a Porto-Pak (cordless drills being unavailable at the time). It's pretty silly, and Ferrara made a lot of much better (and worse) films afterwards, but he was already a confident director technically and some of the scenes have a weird power. The DVD also includes the trailer for his porn film (complete with loads, pun intended, of hardcore action) and three early short films. The shorts vary wildly in quality. Nicky's Film is art-wank, film-school bullshit. The Hold Up is technically shoddy, but more personal and representative of Ferrara's later work. The real gem, though, is Could This Be Love, which I would include as one of his best films. Ferrara is able to reveal a lot about his cast in just thirty minutes, and he shows real and unexpected tenderness for two of the unlikeliest characters, while unveiling bitter and surprising cruelties in two others.

God's Comedy (Joao Cesar Monteiro)

I value this film highly. It's got a lot of what I respond to most: an objective camera, extreme long takes that let actions unfold in real time, a skewed sense of humor, seriousness without pretension, painterly shot compositions, vulgarity, curiosity, compassion, pessimism, hope, reactions to failure, an interest in what people do at work. It's about a master ice cream maker and aging pervert and his attempts to seduce the teenage girls who work in and visit his ice cream shop. It's also about everything else.

Thieves (Andre Techine)

I've seen four Techine films and been slowly won over, my enthusiasms gradually increasing. Did the films get better, or did I just learn how to watch them? I'm hoping it's the former, because I have no desire to revisit the first Techine film I saw (Rendez-vous). I thought it was a piece of junk. Then came Scene of the Crime, flawed as hell but worth seeing, and Wild Reeds, consistently good. Now I've seen Thieves, and it's almost great. What's going on here? Thieves excites me the most because it has the structure of a novel while remaining a film. The story begins in the middle, then moves backward and forward, showing the same event several times from multiple perspectives, which has the effect of shattering our assumptions about the characters' relationships to each other when more is revealed and deepening our responses to these characters in the scenes leading up to and beyond the events in the film's opening instead of just waiting for the plot to unfold. Point of view and narration are passed like a baton from scene to scene, much like those novels in which each chapter is narrated by a different character. I find this approach more challenging and rewarding than the mainstream Hollywood model of empathizing with one character while he/she takes on the world.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Land of the Dead (George A. Romero)

Anyone looking to find out what life is like in the United States could do a lot worse than check out George Romero's zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead). These films, besides being great horror movies and hilarious satires, are populist, common-sense histories of America's cultural and political failures. Pessimistic though never cynical, Romero's zombie movies have a lot to say about racism, classism, consumerism, militarism, multiculturalism, and human nature without preaching or losing sight of the pleasure a good horror movie can provide. Now comes the fourth installment twenty years later, and it's pretty damn good. Land of the Dead delivers mightily on the zombie gore, and throws political isolationism and "terrorism"-as-buzzword into the satirical mix. It also amps up the class issues: Dennis Hopper plays the owner of a high-rise complex called Fiddler's Green that includes all the amenities of the world outside minus the zombie invasion (it's protected by high-powered electric fences and armed guards); Fiddler's Green is full of rich whites, while poor whites and minorities live in a sort of shanty town nearby; the zombies slowly get smarter, relearn how to use the tools and weapons of their pre-undead lives, and organize a revolution. It's an ambitious film and largely successful, but it's damaged by the short running time of 93 minutes. The previous three living dead films were longer, more developed. There are ideas in Land of the Dead to fill out three more movies, but its truncated length sometimes frustrates. Characters' relationships to each other are set in motion but not fleshed out, and Fiddler's Green is an intriguing setting that is not explored in as much detail as I would have liked. At any rate, it's great to have Romero's zombies back again, and the film's strengths far outnumber its weaknesses.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

East of Eden (Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan was practically canonized when he died a few years ago, though it was only a few years before that when his Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars set off a fireworks display of controversy because Kazan had ratted out his peers during the McCarthy witchhunts in the 1950s. I thought both reactions were a little stupid. Kazan was respectably unapologetic about his hatred of Communism and his earlier, naive flirtation with it, but anti-Communist idealism usually doesn't involve fucking your friends for the benefit of a dangerous liar's electability. Kazan was a cowardly creep who saved his own ass at the expense of his friends, and his "undisputed" classic, On the Waterfront, was not only a rationalization for his naming of names, but also a celebration of his "heroism." If it had been a good film, I wouldn't have cared as much about its political ideology, but On the Waterfront is one of the most overrated "classic" films in the canon. It's the most egregious example of Kazan's heavy-handedness, especially in Karl Malden's character and performance. Kazan doesn't hint about his messages or themes, he crushes your fucking skull with them. Why was it stupid to boo him at the Oscars, then? Well, Kazan may have helped to ruin several of his peers' lives and stomped on the audience with "respectable liberal" (conservative) (what's the fucking difference) boots, but he got some of the most important performances in film history out of his actors and had deeper respect for the settings of his films than most mainstream directors before or since. Kazan's films have a palpable sense of place, and a deep respect for the atmosphere, spirit, whatever you want to call it, of the location used. He cares about the places he films, and it shows up onscreen. He also gets some amazing performances out of his leads. Brando in On the Waterfront murders the rest of the film. His scene with Eva Marie Saint in the park, pulling on a glove, is a deep wound from which the film can't recover. How can this challenge to feel something new survive such an artificial apologia of cowardly betrayal? East of Eden kicks Waterfront's ass. Most of the film's heavy-handedness comes from Steinbeck's novel's Biblical allegory. The film makes you forget it is a Biblical allegory from the strength of its setting and the nutzoid beautiful performance of James Dean, in the first of his three starring roles before his early death (and the only one released while he was still living). This is the most secular Biblical fable I've seen. Forget that allegory. This film is earth. You can smell it. You can feel it. It's human. I got excited early in the movie when Timothy Carey has a few scenes with Dean. Both of these guys act so honestly, they can trick you into thinking they're lousy actors. People get embarrassed by these performances and laugh sometimes, thinking the actors are hammy or bad. But the audience is embarrassed because it's being forced to feel something. We're forced to confront how much of what we see in the movies, what we read in books, what we listen to in music, what we say to our wives/husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends/kids/parents/siblings/friends/coworkers is just bad acting. We lie too much, mostly without knowing it, and it hurts us when we realize it. That's why we laugh at the "bad acting" we think we're seeing. Kazan blew it, though. He was pissed at Carey and dubbed his strange, deep, mumbly voice with another actor's. Carey still tapdances on Kazan's face, voice or no voice. God, this movie is good. It's so flawed, but so good. It makes me feel like I saw something. I didn't just waste a couple of hours ducking my own existence, wasting my time. I saw something. What a fucking waste that James Dean had to drive like an asshole.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)

Miyazaki's films obliterate the conventions of children's animation by their refusal to supply heroes and villains and their reluctance to follow a heavily plotted narrative. Howl's Moving Castle may be the most confusing, tangential, and illogical of the Miyazaki films I've seen, but that illogic has a weird cohesion that takes us along if we let it. Some critics have complained that children won't be able to follow this movie, but I think some adults have a harder time accepting fractured narratives and ambiguous characters than children. Why criticize someone for not treating kids like idiots? Instead, he's given children and adults a beautiful, detailed, visually expressive fantasy about a giant, magic castle that walks, a fire demon forced into indentured servitude, an ennui-filled wizard, and a young girl turned into an elderly woman by the massively overweight Witch of the Waste, who is carried around in a coach by oily, amorphous blobs wearing frightening masks. All these characters are flawed, complex beings and so is the movie.

I've been tagged

I've been tagged by Mary P Pants so here goes:

1. Total number of films I own on DVD: 101 (this also includes TV series and my wife's DVDs)
2. The last film I bought: I bought two at once at Walgreen's. They have $2 DVDs that are probably of inferior quality. Anyway, I bought One-Eyed Jacks and a Charlie Chaplin compilation that has The Kid and a couple of short films on it.
3. The last film I watched in a theater: Land of the Dead
On DVD: Mission: Impossible
4. Five films I never get tired of watching (not necessarily my favorites, most of my favorites I can only watch once every couple of years because the experience is so intense for me):
a. Minnie and Moskowitz
b. Dawn of the Dead
c. Mikey and Nicky
d. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
e. Gummo
5. Tag five people: I don't know who to tag, so I'm just going to tag anybody who reads this and has a website.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma)

This is a big, dumb action movie with an incoherent plot, but, with De Palma directing, it looks better than it should. Tom Cruise grins a lot and is pretty weak as an action hero, though the rest of the cast is more effective. A lot of stuff blows up real good, the plot twist at the beginning is clever, and the action scenes are well-done, especially the final chase scene on the train, but it amounts to nothing and I'd already forgotten it a few minutes after it ended.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli)

I used to hate musicals, though I don't remember ever watching any except for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The Wizard of Oz is a musical, too, but it's so many other things that I never thought of it as a musical.) So my opinion of an entire genre of film was based on one movie, huge cult notwithstanding, that pretty much sucks. I was under the impression that perfectly fine narrative films were being unfairly disrupted by a lot of artificial singing and dancing. When I started watching musicals about five years ago, I was surprised to find out that those "artificial" interruptions of song and dance were, in the best musicals, pure and honest emotional expressions bursting out of the truly artificial constraints of the rest of the narrative, lived experiences clawing their way out of fake emotions. The best musical numbers in The Band Wagon are great pieces of art that show up the falsities of the otherwise entertaining non-musical sequences. I don't know much about dancing, but I do know that when Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance in this film, the audience is seeing joy, attraction, and melancholy, not Hollywood approximations of the same. If I were stuck in a cell or on a deserted island for a number of years, but was somehow able to see Astaire and Leroy Daniels dancing in the "A Shine on your Shoes" number every day for the duration of my confinement, I could get through it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam)

Fittingly, for a movie about a notorious embellisher, I remembered a scene from this movie that didn't actually exist. I kept watching it, waiting for the scene that has become my favorite since seeing it for the first time as a child, before realizing, halfway through, that I had combined elements from two other scenes and placed them in a landscape invented by myself. Oh, well. If memory is that untrustworthy, why not embellish the hell out of it? At any rate, Munchausen is still funny, imaginative, and entertaining, though a little uneven. Sometimes the huge budget and fairly conventional plot plod along dully or unfairly speed things up when they need to take their time, but mostly, this film looks like a child's fever dream and, in places, seems like Gilliam's most tender, personal film. Even Robin Williams isn't that annoying. And Sting's in it for five seconds, which is the closest he's ever come to (intentional) humor in his life.

Perfect Love (Catherine Breillat)

This is the second Breillat film I've seen (the other with an equally dispassionately sarcastic title, Romance--although maybe Breillat does take these titles literally, which is even more troubling), and while I think she's a visually skilled filmmaker and the two films are successful in that Breillat's vision seems intact, I don't take much pleasure in her work. Maybe I'm misreading her films, but I think Breillat takes a dismal view of long-term sexual and romantic relationships, seeing them as repetitive, sadistic routines. I find her characters either obnoxious jerks or mega-bores, and her clinical, graphic sex scenes are simultaneously a salesman's attempt to court controversy and a distanced, academic remove from real transgression. Her films proceed like academic theses, not lived experiences. By Perfect Love's end, all we're left with is a character we dislike robotically stabbing another we don't care about, filmed as yet another dispassionate penetration.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

Welles' second film will probably never be seen the way it was intended. The studio, unhappy with Welles' final edit, had the film re-edited without his permission while he was filming a documentary in South America, trimming it from 131 minutes to 88. To add insult to butchery, they replaced the original ending with a horribly saccharine new one that Welles never even shot. The excised footage was later destroyed by the studio, though rumors (originating from Welles himself) exist that he left an intact print behind in Brazil. Hopefully, someone will find that print someday, but I'm not holding my breath. The film, as it exists, is a compromised one, a partial glimpse of Welles' vision. Amazingly, it's a great film, anyway, and I prefer it to Citizen Kane, except for the terrible final scene, because it's a subtler and more personal movie. A mournful look at the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution to middle America, Ambersons begins as a comedy and slowly morphs into a bleak tragedy. The acting is superb, the tone is remarkably consistent for a film that's been chopped up by a studio, the overlapping dialogue had a thirty-year jump on Robert Altman, and the long, elegant, unbroken takes through the Ambersons' mansion during the ballroom scene make up one of the greatest moments in film history.

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

I'm still not sure what I think of Kubrick, except that he's overrated by his admirers and underrated by his detractors. Whatever my mixed feelings, I admire a handful of his films greatly, especially the pair of films from the mid-1950's co-scripted by Jim Thompson, The Killing and Paths of Glory. My problem with Kubrick is that his films seem so over-thought and over-prepared. He's a perfectionist, and I'm not interested in perfection. Though ominously talented, Kubrick seems resistant to the accidents, changes of mind, and spontaneities the greatest artists are open to while they work. Still, his films look like no one else's and they (mostly) work. His duo of Thompson-scripted films excites me the most because they are filled with a lean, hungry urgency missing from his other work. Both films clock in at a fat-free ninety minutes and the camera glides through their claustrophobic spaces at an elegant, paranoid clip. Kubrick's perfectionism is tempered by both Thompson's jittery, direct prose and a couple of great performances from Timothy Carey. Kirk Douglas is wonderful in Paths of Glory, but compared to Carey, he seems held back by conventional methods of Hollywood acting. Carey, meanwhile, is a wild animal, a wounded beast who goes after his role like a defective lawnmower attacking a patch of weeds. He can't be contained in Kubrick's perfecto-frame, and almost functions as an auto-critique of the director's methods. He's the main reason to see the film, but there are a lot of lesser reasons as well, including the surprising and mysterious final moments and the unconventionally disturbing way Kubrick films trench warfare.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Flower of My Secret (Pedro Almodovar)

Almodovar's movies, to me, are either silly, forgettable pieces of fluff (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) or deeper, character-driven human comedies (All About My Mother). Fortunately, most of the fluff was early in his career, and he's deepened as an artist as he's aged. Sometimes maturation kills what's good in the artist, making him or her respectable (probably the worst thing an artist can be), but growing up has been good for Almodovar. He writes characters now instead of caricatures, and his films have a loose, free-wheeling ease that leave plenty of room for digressions and detours. The Flower of My Secret, the first break from his earlier style, retains the spirit of the sillier work, but is a lot more substantive. I guess it's a transitional film, but I think I like it more than any of his others.

Monday, June 13, 2005

La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol)

One of Chabrol's finest films, La Ceremonie is a delicate and frightening examination of class and its effect on the choices we're given. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Sophie, the maid of the wealthy Lelievre family. The Lelievres, far from the stereotypical bourgeois jerks we'd expect from lesser filmmakers, are mostly sympathetic, though occasionally insensitive and complacent. Sophie is illiterate, though she hides this from her employers and is in constant fear of being discovered. Sophie is strangely detached, partly from her illiteracy, partly from reasons we're given hints about but never told. She seems mesmerized by her television set, and often answers questions with "I don't know," even if she does. Sophie becomes friends with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a child-like postal worker whose misdirected rage singles out the Lelievres as a symbol of both political and personal oppression. Chabrol is sympathetic to and critical of all his characters, and the film unfolds both mysteriously and logically. Every character has a reason for what he or she does, and Chabrol asks us to accept these reasons, even when we're being pulled in several directions at once. Motivations are another matter. The film is full of ambiguities, hints, and obfuscations that will reward repeat viewing, especially the disturbing final scene. This is a film meant to be experienced, not an economic lesson to be learned.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano)

This is only the third Kitano film I've seen, but it's enough to make me a huge fan. His films begin with conventional genre cliches and go all kinds of strange, wonderful places from there. Everything about Kitano's films -- their humor, violence, sense of timing, pacing, structure, form, use of music and color, camera placement -- are like nothing else I've seen. Occasionally, something will remind me of Kurosawa, Tati, or Chaplin, but mostly my jaw is open, either in confusion, awe, anticipation, or laughter. I love these films. What other gangster movie would spend half its running time diverted from the action to show several of the gangsters hiding out on a beach, playing practical jokes on each other, or move the camera away from a climactic gunfight to show how the gunfire's light and shadow look from the outside window? Kitano takes his stories to places that interest him, even if they wander further and further away from the plot, and why the hell not? Why don't more filmmakers do that? Sonatine is refreshing in ways so many other films aren't, in ways I haven't even mentioned. As funny and oddball as it is, it also despairs at what can happen to a man who lives a violent life.

25th Hour (Spike Lee)

Spike Lee's career, to me, has largely been a frustrating mess. He's made one great movie, Do the Right Thing, and a bunch of uneven, wobbly monsters full of nice touches and horrible mistakes fighting each other for air. Lee's weaknesses are particularly insidious in that they can trample on his strengths, damaging promising films like Jungle Fever and He Got Game. Leaving out the handful of his films I haven't seen (it's possible there's a gem in there somewhere), I'm going to say that 25th Hour is Lee's best film since Do the Right Thing and his most consistent since the otherwise blandly conventional Malcolm X. Lee still ruins a few scenes by stomping all the life out of them and shoving their Importance down our throats, Oliver Stone-style, (particularly the post-nightclub bathroom scene following Philip Seymour Hoffman down the stairs, which lets the air out of the highly effective scene preceding it and refuses to let the audience come up with a reaction of its own), but this is largely a surprisingly subtle and graceful, character- and mood-driven film. The characters seem to follow their own rhythms instead of a plot, and the slightly fractured narrative, layered with flashbacks, a stylized rant (which may or may not work, I can't make up my mind), and a fantasy sequence, flows like a piece of music. A pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)

Ozu's films are demanding and complex examinations of family. His camera is still and removed, eschewing closeups and subjective camera angles, emulating the human eye and its surface limitations, refusing to provide clues or answers for its characters' behaviors. We have to rely on what we see, even though what we see may be limited, obscured, misinterpreted, or wrong. Do the faces of these people on the screen reveal what they're actually thinking? Do ours? Late Spring's story of a widowed professor pressuring his youngest daughter and caretaker, a single woman in her mid-twenties, into marriage, though he doesn't want her to leave and she doesn't want to go, is a deeply mysterious, troubling, tragic, and optimistic film that will hopefully resonate with anyone feeling a push/pull relationship with his or her own family. I wish all the people who spend hours trying to figure out every nuance of The Usual Suspects or Memento would spend their time thinking about Ozu instead. His mysteries aren't about fitting together puzzle pieces or dressing up conventional, pointless entertainments by withholding information or reversing plot expectations. Instead, they are the mysteries of our own behavior, mysteries worth examining not because they can be solved, but because the tiny insights we can partially glean may actually affect our lives instead of diverting us from lived experience for a couple of hours.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)

I've seen a lot of John Carpenter's seventies and eighties films, but, until seeing this movie last Friday, I hadn't seen anything he's done since "They Live." What I like about his movies is his strong sense of place and atmosphere and his obvious debts to his favorite director (and one of mine), Howard Hawks. "In the Mouth of Madness" has none of these attributes. It's a real mixed bag that sees Carpenter the director wrestling a decent horror movie out of Michael de Luca's reeking turd of a script. De Luca starts out with a neat little idea, but seems to think the self-referential postmodernism of his story is clever enough to supersede developed characters and dialogue that does more than just move the plot forward, but what do you expect from someone who's a movie executive? De Luca is a textbook example of a businessman with artistic pretensions. Luckily, he got Carpenter to direct and Sam Neill to play the lead. Carpenter misfires during the opening scenes by amping up the stylistic surrealities from the get-go instead of letting them build, though de Luca's terrible dialogue during the first twenty minutes would have hurt the film no matter how Carpenter set the scene. Carpenter's always been better at evoking the routines and mundanities of everyday life and seems awkward messing with trick camera angles, stylized sets, and exaggerated, frenetic acting. Once the plot is set in motion, however, the film improves greatly. It's still not exactly great art, but the horror scenes are creepy, exciting, and fun, and Sam Neill is very funny as a foul-mouthed insurance investigator. I like an actor who can swear with exuberance, and Neill doesn't disappoint in this regard.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman)

This is a likeable, entertaining piece of inconsequential fluff that's pleasantly digestible and quickly forgotten, but it has a few things going for it. Rosanna Arquette is an actress I like watching, Steven Wright is funny, the movie is light on its feet, and it has an understated visual splendor that finds odd little details and interesting human faces in the background of every scene. Madonna isn't terrible in it, which makes this her best performance, and it's nice to see her back when she was fun, still had a little baby fat, and knew how to write great pop songs. God, she's boring now. It's also fun to play Spot the New York Hipster Cameos. You could make a fine drinking game out of it, if by fine you mean clinically dead. By the film's halfway point, I'd already spotted Richard Hell, Arto Lindsay, John Lurie, Richard Edson, Rockets Redglare, Giancarlo Esposito, Ann Magnuson, and John Turturro. Were Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi out of town that month? I think they were.

The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)

I saw this film weeks ago. I've been either out of town or not in the mood to write, so my recollection is not so good. What I do remember is that nearly every member of Bergman's acting troupe, with the exception of Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullman (the latter having not entered his orbit yet), appears in this film. Why so many of his favorite actors in one film, I wonder? Is there any significance to it? Maybe they act as a safety net for Bergman because "The Magician" seems to me such a structurally unique departure from his usual methods. It's unmistakably a Bergman film, but, tonally, it sits somewhere else. Unlike the consistently severe chamber dramas that make up the majority of his body of work (which I admire greatly in non-consecutive doses), "The Magician" is slippery and confounding, full of jarring changes in tone and character allegiance. Crucially, the audience is never goaded into sympathy or antagonism for any character but is set adrift, forced to choose allegiances on its own and constantly asked to question those choices. Too complicated to be reduced to the Magic/Art/Religion vs. Science allegory that frames the story, "The Magician" veers wildly and sloppily from drama to comedy to horror to self-parody the way our own lives do, though the film is more fable than reality.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky)

1988: You come over to my parents' house, walk down the basement stairs, knock on my door. I can't hear you because I'm either listening to "Appetite for Destruction" or Metallica's "And Justice For All." You come in. I'm playing either air guitar or air drums. You tell me you have a documentary about Metallica you'd like to show me. "Awesome," I say. "Metallica!"
2005: You come over to my apartment. I'm cooking dinner and drinking a beer. You tell me you have a documentary about Metallica you'd like to show me, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. "Awesome," I say. "Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky!"

I still pull out "And Justice For All" and give it a listen every year or two, but I have zero interest in the music Metallica has made since then. I wanted to see this documentary mostly because it was directed by a filmmaking team responsible for two of my favorite documentaries ("Paradise Lost" and "Brother's Keeper"). Still, I was unprepared for the masterpiece of unintentional hilarity I witnessed. This is a band made up of three guys who desperately, achingly despise each other and the massive, sluggish beast their band has become, but are too complacent, stupid, bloated, or terrified to break up. They can't even communicate with each other, so they hire a $40,000-dollar-a-month therapist, Phil Towle, to mediate and bring them together, though Towle himself grows clingingly attached to the band in a supremely dysfunctional relationship of his own, and his dubious methods include telling the band members to cherish their time together and sticking Post-It notes all over the studio reading, "The Zone: Admission is Believing!" The band members' relationships with each other are an unhealthy, neurotic mess. Kirk Hammett is a dumb but sweet nice guy who is trampled on by Lars Ulrich's and James Hetfield's colossal egos and his own passive nature. Ulrich is a pompous, preening buffoon who I couldn't be in a band with for 20 seconds, let alone 20 years. He mutters a lot of sub-freshman pseudo-intellectual philosophy/bullshit, sells his massive modern art collection at auction for millions while getting drunk on champagne and expects us to feel sorry for him because he no longer has the paintings in his multi-million dollar home, and disagrees with every major band decision just to be a dick and drag out the misery indefinitely. Hetfield comes across as the smartest one in the bunch and is actually pretty likeable, but he controls the band, too, with his titanically powerful passive aggression. Also, he's a terrible lyricist. Other things I enjoyed: Ulrich's Danish hippie father, the visual equivalent of Gandalf sauteed in a dirty pan and scraped out with a spatula after sticking to the pan, listens to a batch of songs from early in the recording process and tells his son the new stuff sucks and sounds like "some guy yelling in an echo chamber." Ulrich and Hammett see Echobrain, ex-bassist Jason Newsted's new band, and go backstage after the show to talk to Newsted, but he's already left. Ulrich and Hammett chat briefly and nervously with the other members of Echobrain, then hang around the empty club, paralyzed by their own embarrassment. It's obvious to compare this to Spinal Tap, but it truly is an unintentional remake.

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg)

This is one of the most delightfully vulgar films I've ever seen. It's almost unbelievable that it was released in 1934, since it is filled with nudity, torture, deviant behavior, promiscuity, open sexual humor, S & M, double entendres, and oral fixations. It is an orgy of set design, full of twisted gargoyles, giant metal doors, lavish capes and coats, staircases that go on forever, and beds that swallow up entire rooms. It is German expressionism blown up a hundred times, masturbated on, then dragged to its death. It is slapstick comedy urinating on historical period recreation, with Sam Jaffe playing the most creepily repellent heir to the throne who ever lived. Mostly, it is Marlene Dietrich as a sexually ravenous dominatrix ice queen, lengthy voyeuristic closeups lingering obsessively on her cold but beautiful face. Did I mention you should see this? You should.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma)

This is a ridiculous film. Al Pacino and Viggo Mortensen play Puerto Ricans (though Pacino's Italian accent and bizarre voice-modulation fluctuations pop in and out at random), Penelope Ann Miller (who's got one of the most good-girl faces in history) plays a stripper, and Sean Penn plays a curly-wigged, coke-snorting, nebbishy movie-Jew. The supporting cast, much of them actual Latinos and Italians playing Latinos and Italians, seem to have been given this direction: "Okay, Stepin Fetchit it another 10%. That's good. Now, Bumblebee Man from the Simpsons. Alright, that's-a spicy-a meatball-a." Pacino wants to go straight, and is just working at his sleazy lawyer's crime-infested nightclub until he can save 75 grand and realize his dream as a car rental franchise co-owner in the Bahamas. (What the fuck?) In the meantime, he keeps his money in the vault in the club, even though the old owner (who still works there) has an outrageous gambling problem. In the meantime, he beats the shit out of hot-headed gangster Benny Blanco from the Bronx (a pencil-thin-mustachioed John Leguizamo), but lets him go, because hot-headed gangsters who have just been humiliated couldn't possibly get revenge. Could they? I, Carlito, have just closed the book on Benny Blanco from the Bronx. Case closed. I don't know much, but I do know he definitely will not shoot me at the end of the film, even though he most certainly could if he wanted to, because I kicked him down the stairs, called him names, but did not kill him. Only two more days, and I will have my car rental franchise. Or at least my half of the car rental franchise. I rent cars. If I know my movie history, I will get out of this one a-okay.
Having said all that, I had a smile on my face the whole time. The movie is exciting and stylish, and Pacino and Penn both have a lot of fun with their over-the-top roles. It's the kind of movie that has more to do with other movies than with life, but it's also the kind of movie that, when I first saw it in high school, made me like movies.

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