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.

Wild Reeds (Andre Techine)

Set in a small French town in 1962, "Wild Reeds"'s cinematic landscape is a minefield of cliches (coming-of-age film, period piece, European art film, love triangle, sexual awakening, political allegory), but the film makes it to the finish with minimal damage. It doesn't defuse its cliches so much as it steps around them. Melodrama is ignored, tragedy is downplayed, the political overtones aren't overbearing, and the film is more interested in the characters' friendships than their shifting sexual allegiances and attractions. The four leads, teenagers attending the same boarding school, are, on paper, a study in opposites not out of place in a generic Hollywood screenwriting class: gay and straight, male and female, Communist and right-wing, Algerian and French, intellectual and average, with (mostly) unrequited lust toward each other. In practice, these aren't defining characteristics of the characters, just aspects of their lives hovering in the background and foreground of their friendships at natural and important moments. What I liked the most about this film was its emphasis on the unlikely friendships that can occur between teenagers in a small town, pushed together by similar temperaments, limited and claustrophobic environments, and not much else.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Elephant (Alan Clarke)

Clarke's final film, specifically about sectarian executions in Northern Ireland in the 1980s but open to any number of interpretations, is forty minutes of people getting shot to death. Eighteen separate execution-style slayings are presented one after the other in rigidly formalist style. There is no story, no plot, no musical score, and no information provided about which side the killers or victims represent. Natural sound is used, and there is no dialogue, with the exception of a scene in which the assassin, coming upon his victim and another man playing soccer, joins in on the soccer game for a few minutes before taking out his pistol and shooting the victim. In this sole example, the dialogue is heard from a distance and indecipherable, excepting when the victim screams, "Shit," and tries to run away. Each scene follows a basic template. The assassin is shown walking to his destination, the victim is encountered and killed, and the assassin walks back to his getaway car. The scenes of walking and the executions are filmed with Steadicam. These scenes of intense physicality and momentum are alternated with fixed-camera, motionless tableaux of several seconds in duration that establish the location (gas station, factory, home, soccer field, warehouse) and show the dead body and its position immediately after the shooting. In exaggerated stylization so perfect for the film's tone that it only heightens the realism, the killings are carried out in isolated, empty landscapes. Factories, warehouses, gas stations, and city streets are empty of anyone but the killer(s) and victim(s). This lack of drama adds to the film's impact and power, creating a wasteland of inevitable, pointless death carried out for no discernible reason by and on anonymous entities. The film's intended political impact may have dulled with the decline in tit-for-tat slayings in Northern Ireland, but its emotional impact, that much stronger for leaving emotion out of the film thereby leaving it up to the audience to provide it, can't be dulled. The film exists outside of time, an eternal nightmare loop with no exit.

Gus Van Sant named his equally excellent film "Elephant" in homage to Clarke's. He also borrowed Clarke's use of extended Steadicam shots of people walking down hallways and corridors.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Nightmare before Christmas (Henry Selick)

Yes, I rented this in May, but it's always checked out at Christmastime, and for some reason or other, I had never seen it before. A lot of people think Tim Burton directed this movie. He didn't, though the full title is "Tim Burton's Nightmare before Christmas." Burton came up with the story idea when he was an animator at Disney, but was turned down when he pitched it to the studio. Years later, Burton had enough clout to get the movie made his way, but he turned over the reins to animator/director Selick, and the script was written by Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson. Burton was a co-producer and supervised the shooting to make sure it turned out the way he wanted it, but he gets too much credit for a film that owes its success to a number of people behind the scenes, although it's still very much a Tim Burton film in sensibility, humor, and appearance and wouldn't have happened without him. The movie is visually spectacular, each frame crammed full of details that will surely reward repeat viewings, bringing to mind such disparate reference points as Tim Burton's live-action films, Jim Henson's Muppets, those stop-motion cartoons of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" the networks used to show at Christmas, German expressionism, and eastern European cartoons from the early days of film. The songs are all good, too.
A couple of minor quibbles: The message of the film seems to be that people should just stick with what they know and not try to move out of their rut or their misguided ambitions will wreak havoc on the world. Is that something kids need to hear? Come on, their ambitions will be destroyed once they're adults, anyway. Why not give them a little false hope when they can use it most. Also, the film's one true villain, Oogie Boogie, sings a blues/jazz/swing song spelling out his vile evilness. This was a great scene, possibly my favorite, and a great song, but I can't help but notice how in most movies involving singing and terrible villains, the villain's musical number is almost always derived from an African-American style. I'm sure it's unintentional, and I can't think of any other specific examples off the top of my head, but it just sort of jumped out at me. Time to go wash the PC off myself.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Zentropa (Lars von Trier)

I remember watching this movie when I was nineteen or twenty and being mesmerized by it. Now, it looks like the final leg of a journey toward a highly attractive dead end. Von Trier's post-"Zentropa" films are much more important to me now, and I include him as one of my favorite directors, but his early films almost seem to me beautiful but hollow exercises in style. I say almost because von Trier ended up somewhere so productive that I can't entirely dismiss his early efforts. He wouldn't have been able to get to "Breaking the Waves," "The Kingdom," and "The Idiots" without them. Whatever their limitations, his early films are certainly ingenious and visually compelling. "Zentropa" does exciting things with black & white and color and back projection, it's both suspenseful and hypnotic, and, a treat for Fassbinder fans, provides substantial roles for Barbara Sukowa and Udo Kier.

In yet another example of distributors and studios treating Americans like idiots, "Zentropa's" actual title is "Europa," but the American distributors thought we'd confuse it with another foreign film playing that same year, "Europa, Europa." The title was left unchanged in every other country in the world.

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

A greatly entertaining Technicolor spectacle from the excellent British writing/directing team of Powell and Pressburger, this story of a dance troupe and its vaguely sinister leader, Boris Lermontov, bringing an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's harsh fairy tale to the stage is a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours, even if it lacks some of the depth of the other two Powell films I've seen ("The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Peeping Tom"). Technicolor was so rich and vibrant, it's a shame no one uses it anymore, and this film is a perfect example of its charms, especially in the surreal and frightening twenty-minute ballet sequence at the film's center. That's one of the two main reasons to see the film. The other is Anton Walbrook's performance as Lermontov. Most reviews paint Walbrook into the puppetmaster/shaman/Mephistopheles role, but I don't think that does justice to the complexity of his character, a man who is morally, sexually, and socially ambiguous and who seems to be a mystery even to himself. He's a three-dimensional character in a two-dimensional world and gives the film much of the greatness it otherwise narrowly misses.

L'Enfer (Claude Chabrol)

This was supposed to be an Henri-Georges Clouzot film, back in 1964. Clouzot, the director of "Diaboliques" and "The Wages of Fear," suffered a massive heart attack four days into shooting, and the film was abandoned. Though Clouzot lived another 13 years, he only made two more films and never felt healthy enough to finish this one. Claude Chabrol bought the screenplay from Clouzot's widow in the early nineties, and made this effective, exciting thriller that seems to inhabit Clouzot's claustrophobic, doomed world. Francois Cluzet plays the owner of a resort/hotel who slowly goes mad when he becomes convinced that his impossibly beautiful wife is having sex with almost every guy in town. Of course, she isn't, but there's still something suspicious about her, especially when she stays with him even after he's gone violently insane. Cluzet usually plays nice guys and has a naive, sympathetic face, but he's surprisingly effective as a dangerous psychotic. Emmanuelle Beart is equally effective as his wife, a woman who may be as crazy as her husband, in a quieter, subtler way. It's easy to overlook the fact that Beart, one of the most beautiful women in the world, is also a great actress, and she gives this character complex, disturbing life. The film begins purposefully generically, a slave to its plot and visually indistinct, but grows more vibrant and loose as Cluzet's mind unravels, finally exploding in a series of hallucinatory, tangled threads.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Palindromes (Todd Solondz)

Todd Solondz has repeatedly stated in interviews that he doesn't know who his audience is. This is a fitting response considering that his audience (of which I consider myself part) has to constantly ask itself why it's responding to Solondz's films, and if it's responding for the right reasons. Accused of being a misanthrope and of taking cheap shots at his characters, Solondz, in my opinion, is instead the strangest humanist the cinema has produced, provoking his largely well-educated, liberal audience into confronting their own prejudices, self-hatreds, and privileges and forcing them to confront the fact that they may just be full of shit, full of hatred for the same people they profess to care about, and full of an inability to accept the messiness of life. Sometimes Solondz does take cheap shots at his characters, but I'm just beginning to grasp the implications of these cheap shots five films into his career and how they cumulatively conspire to damn the audience and filmmaker for laughing at other peoples' misfortunes. Solondz's entire career is not only a critique of his audience (whoever that may be), but also an auto-critique and a strained attempt to connect with, accept, and love other people. Solondz's films exist in a weird universe of their own, a universe where one minute you're laughing at someone who is down, the next asking yourself why you're laughing, the next feeling deeply for that person, the next laughing again, the next hating yourself, the next coming to some realization of your own limitations and weaknesses, and hopefully, coming out of that experience a little more enlightened. Solondz, like all great artists, has the ability to make us better people. Still, his work is so open to reductive readings, like the creep in the theater Saturday who laughed heartily when a girl was shot in the head, that it presents problems. If you're an asshole going into a Solondz film, you will be even more of an asshole leaving it. But, so what? All worthwile leaps forward are problematic and messy, and "Palindromes" is a great leap forward for Solondz, both artistically and technically. Structurally, Solondz has consistently challenged himself with each film, barring his first feature, "Fear, Anxiety & Depression," a naive Woody Allen rip-off with a couple decent jokes that Solondz has since disowned. "Welcome to the Dollhouse," for all its strengths, was a static, three-act structure that owed most of its success to the acting and writing. Each subsequent film has been an advance structurally, and it's only fitting that "Palindromes" opens with the funeral of his most popular character. "Happiness" was a nauseous, hilarious epic of unease, with a large ensemble cast and a fluid point of view. "Storytelling," for all its flaws, was an exciting attempt to present two separate, thematically related films, one short, one longer, as one distinct feature and had a lot to say about the ethical problems inherent in the creative process. "Palindromes" ups the ante by having several different actors of varying ages, races, body types, and genders playing the lead character. This technique has been dissected in various reviews for its symbolic importance, but I don't give a shit about symbolism. I think it's just a successful attempt to play with the possibilities of film, a visual medium that is still full of exciting, largely unused possibilities. And, though this film opens with twenty of the most self-loathing minutes in all of film, Solondz takes it in surprisingly troubling, wonderful directions that turn it into the most compassionate work in his filmography. A major breakthrough, and hopefully, an important film for the canon. If not, it will still be an important film in my life.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Firm (Alan Clarke)

Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, this "Firm" is a dark, dark comedy about a group of middle class soccer hooligans, led by Gary Oldman's real estate agent. The men don't seem to care about soccer much at all, despite surface appearances, using their fandom solely as a means to beat the shit out of each other. In one unforgettable scene, Oldman locks himself in his childhood bedroom (all wall space covered with soccer photos) at his parents' home and pulls a suitcase full of weapons out of the closet. He spends the next few minutes bashing a pillow with a lead pipe in a hooligan's equivalent of athletic training. Alternately hilarious and frightening, sometimes within the same scene, the film is remarkably consistent in tone and somehow manages to be both wildly exaggerated and convincingly realistic. Clarke's film never tips over into either cartoon stylization or rote British kitchen-sink realism, instead finding a weird rhythm all its own.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi)

I knew I was going to enjoy this movie when, minutes into it, a man shouts, "Hey, he took that dude's pizzas!" I thought the first "Spider-Man" movie was fun and visually interesting, but kind of forgettable. This one is really, really good. I've pretty much stopped watching any big Hollywood movies, though not for any aesthetic reasons. I don't watch them anymore because they're loud, stupid, badly edited, and, worst of all, boring. The average Hollywood blockbuster has become dull. Hollywood movies aren't entertaining anymore. They aren't fun, they aren't playful, they're just slapped-together approximations of entertainment and fun, drained of energy and excitement by focus groups, test screenings, huge star salaries, and dated attempts to guess what people want to see. This movie is full of fun, entertainment, and play. "Spider-Man 2" reminds me of eighties movies (the last decade Hollywood movies were fun) like "Back to the Future" and "Gremlins" that were inventive, expertly paced, interested in their characters, and pleasurable, movies that seemed like the filmmakers were having a good time, too. Sam Raimi puts a guy like George Lucas to shame. Lucas, not content to rest on his laurels, is instead shitting on us with them and then selling us toys. He's spent too many years on his northern California ranch, playing with his light saber and counting his wads of cash, while Sam Raimi's been making exciting, entertaining, and fun, actual fun, films in the Hollywood mainstream for the same audience Lucas has forgotten about. Plus, I like how the movie is about a superhero who doesn't want to be a superhero fighting a villain who doesn't want to be a villain.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Pixote (Hector Babenco)

I've noticed a recurring pattern in a lot of movies I admire greatly, namely a cast made up of both professional and nonprofessional actors. There's a beautiful, ragged tension visible onscreen when someone with no acting experience mixes it up with a pro, a tension absent from slick, professional product like, say, a recent Woody Allen movie. In "Pixote," a movie about homeless children in Brazil, the adults are played by professional actors and the children are played by amateurs, many of them also homeless. I'll take these kids' sole performance in this film over the entire careers of most current Hollywood actors. Maybe most of the children are playing a variation of their own lives, but a connection to the material does not guarantee a good performance. These kids can act. They can act with their eyes, their hands, their eyebrows, their entire bodies. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore should watch this movie and then blow their brains out. It's a tough film, starting with no hope and working down deeper into hell from there, but it's a rich film, too, full of exposed-nerve performances and a story that starts in familiar territory before veering off into a cinematic world of its own.

In some ways, the film was a self-fulfilling prophecy for its star, Fernando Ramos Da Silva, a tiny kid with huge eyes that nail themselves into your subconscious. Da Silva wasn't homeless, but he was illiterate and living in a slum when he was cast as Pixote. Eleven years old at the time, he looked even younger. Riding a wave of fame after the film's success in Brazil, he joined the cast of a soap opera. Still illiterate, he was fired after being unable to memorize his scripts. He drifted into drugs and crime and was murdered by the police in 1987. Nick Cave dedicated the album "Tender Prey" to him.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Joan the Maid (Jacques Rivette)

Joan of Arc films have become their own genre, like the gangster movie or the western, and like those other well-worn genres, they're pretty bloodless when approached in a conventional way. I'm not particularly interested in Joan of Arc, mostly because my Catholic upbringing, high school history classes, and interest in movies have caused an overfamiliarity with her life story, and Rivette's two-part film is the fourth adaptation of Joan's life I've seen. Rivette's approach to this familiar story is as unconventional as the rest of his work. While most Joan of Arc movies concentrate on Joan's supposed visitations from God and her trial and capture, this movie ignores the former and reduces the latter to less than one-fourth of the film's four-hour running time. The first half, "The Battles" (the title refers to psychological as well as military conflicts), begins with Joan already on her way to win over the dauphin and French Catholic officials and ends with her leading the French into battle. The second half, "The Prisons," begins with her unsuccessful attempts to take Paris and her subsequent capture, and ends where it always ends. Rivette is clearly sympathetic to Joan, but skeptical of her religious claims. He's much more interested in presenting Joan as a victim of politics who is used by those around her for political gain and gotten rid of when she can no longer be of use, and in presenting both the British and French church hierarchy as ruthless politicians. Rivette's Joan is refreshingly un-saintlike, and more a tired, working-class woman thrown into a bizarre situation. The battle scenes portray Joan's army as an ill-prepared and naive group of confused but determined soldiers with poorly behaved horses who succeed through persistence and the unwavering belief that God is on their side. The men even joke early on about the sexual tension inherent in having Joan along for the ride, sleeping beside them in the field. These humanizing elements give this historical film a forward momentum missing from a lot of stuffy, reverent, bloodless, "arty" period pieces, and the four-hour running time seems much shorter than a lot of two-hour Merchant-Ivory Aging British Thespianathons.

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