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.

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