Tuesday, October 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Favorite Aardman animation:
The Wrong Trousers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 02, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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