31 January 2008


It's snowing where I am. A gentle, lovely kind of snowfall that makes it the perfect sort of night to stay indoors with something warm to drink.

Sometimes I wonder if movie executives know how nice it is to stay inside during the winter, and that's why they always lay so much trash at our feet in January and February. Then I remember: they all live in Los Angeles. So this just means that they really hate the audience.

For example: only hatred can possibly explain Strange Wilderness, a fratty-type comedy about fratty behavior on a yeti hunt. As produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison company.

It's probably not fair to lead with that, since the other wide releases merely look flavorless: yet another Asian horror remake, The Eye (with Jessica "The Saddest Woman in the World" Alba), and Over Her Dead Body, which looks exactly like a boring February high concept romantic comedy (Ghost, but funny), and yet somehow stars Paul Rudd, who was in like 12,000 movies last year and all of them were at least okay, so I don't know what to make of this thing.

On the foreign film catch-up circuit, Caramel starts making the rounds.

And hey, another high-concept romcom, although Fool's Gold looks to be at least as much Romancing the Stone-style romantic action-adventure comedy. Wait, let me correct that: Jewel of the Nile-style. Better! Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson reunite after making that movie that I haven't seen. If you care about such things.

There's a new Martin Lawrence starring vehicle, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, and...God, I don't even know what to say. I hate Lawrence less than I hate McConaughey. That's pretty much all I have to say.

The first Israeli Oscar submission, before it got disqualified, The Band's Visit starts on the FFCU circuit, and then there's what may or may not be a really smart movie with a really bad title: In Bruges. I say "may" because the writer/director is Martin McDonagh, a fucking brilliant playwright, who has only directed one film before: "Six Shooter", a short, but an Oscar-winning short. Also, Colin Farrell is involved, and he's not exactly an indicator of guaranteed quality.

With all the romantic movies opening in the past few weekends, there's not much left for Valentine's Day other than a divorce-themed comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Definitely, Maybe. I hope every word I just said made you die a little inside. On the other hand, it stars Abigail Breslin, who at 11 years of age is actually one of the few actors for whom I'd be excited about a project just because she was in it.

A love subplot will doubtlessly figure into the rather nicely-named sequel Step Up 2 The Streets, with choreography by my new favorite step choreographer Hi-Hat, and that will hopefully be enough to make it interesting. But it is more likely that there will be dancing and fake racial tension.

The sort-of counter-programming: a truly inexplicable sci-fi...thing, called Jumper, featuring everyone's favorite wood block, Hayden Christensen. And the now-annual "February kiddie-lit adaptation" is filled by The Spiderwick Chronicles, starring young Freddie Highmore in a dual role. Thus is Mr. Highmore's long road to becoming the next Eddie Murphy begun.

The real counter-programming: after only two and a half years, George A. Romero has already produced a new Dead film: Diary of the Dead, in which zombies invade a zombie student film, and if its not the best film of the month, I'll eat my hat.

The new Michel Gondry film, Be Kind Rewind, has been pushed back to this date, and I'm not going to get too terribly excited just in case. Meanwhile, Heat Vision and Jack.

The rest of the weekend looks too dispiriting in contrast to really even think about it: Vantage Point, a really bland looking assassination thriller; Possession, yet another Sarah Michelle Gellar supernatural thriller film, likely to be bland; Charlie Bartlett, an awfully twee (and therefore bland?)-looking indie comedy.

Last and least, Witless Protection, starring Larry the Cable Guy, and to judge by the trailer, "bland" would be a tenfold improvement.

Rather than the usual February cheap toss-offs, this last weekend of the month seems overloaded with delayed projects from last year, at least one of which was originally to have been an Oscarbait picture - The Other Boleyn Girl, bringing together Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, and I am enough of a male that I am...intrigued.

Otherwise: City of Men, the delayed sequel to City of God; the delayed Christina Ricci fairy-tale Penelope; and Chicago 10, a delayed documentary about the Chicago 10.

And the new "Will Ferrell as sports pro with funny hair" comedy, Semi-Pro, which to be fair has not been delayed, and is precisely what you would expect to see in late February.

30 January 2008


Maybe I'm just desperate for any port in a storm, but I actually enjoyed How She Move, the latest in the usually benighted urban dance genre. This is, after all, the filmmaking tradition that gave the world masterpieces from Breakin' to Step Up, and precious damn little in between that didn't hit about that same level of quality. Now, I'm not going to say something completely silly, like claiming that How She Move is a hidden gem in the January landscape destined to be remembered decades hence, but taken on its own terms, it's a perfectly respectable bit of entertainment, that doesn't really do any more than it needs to in order to succeed; but it does do at least that, which is more than you can say for plenty of movies, and even though the script is just as anonymous as anything, the film does the right things well enough that it's a satisfying, if hardly earth-shattering experience.

By "the right things," I pretty much mean "the dance sequences." I mean, it's a dance movie. As a wise man once said, "Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a roadmap?" Meaning, give your dance movie really good dance scenes, and the rest will follow. And in How She Move, the dance scenes are indeed really good. As choreographed by Hi-Hat (which I expect is likely a professional name), these dances show off the durability and fluidity of the human body while at the same time indulging in stylised sexuality. Of course, all dancing is at least somewhat about both of these things, and stepping is particularly meant to focus on the movement of the lower half of body, so it's not necessarily an act of formal radicalism that we see here, but as far as movies go, stepping has never been treated all that well, typically being glossed-up and broken into simple moves that aren't terribly difficult and therefore not terribly interesting to watch, and which are then sliced to ribbons in the editing room.

So perhaps I'm not actually trying to praise Hi-Hat, but rather the film's director, Ian Iqbal Rashid. As far as I can tell, this kind of project is like nothing else in his career (his first feature was 2004's Touch of Pink, in which a gay Muslim took advice from the ghost of Cary Grant, played by Kyle MacLachlan; a film that I have not seen, because it cannot possibly be awesome enough to live up to that setup), but he takes to it well, filming the dance sequences with a restraint that makes them look - gasp! - like teenagers dancing in an empty garage! And not like buffed actors on a soundstage. It was Fred Astaire who insisted that any proper dance number should consist of the longest possible takes and always frame the dancers at a distance where you could see them from feet to head, and while there are many counter-examples to that rule, it can still be very useful, as Rashid proves by following it about half of the time, always to good effect. In the instances where he doesn't, it's usually to spend time focusing on the dancers' bodies, the way their feet move or the ways that subtleties of expression affect the dance. Beyond this, the film is broken into two modes, polished and gritty, and the distinction between the two is entirely a matter of whether the film is at that moment showing the squalid lives of the characters rehearsing in industrial spaces, or the fleeting moments where they find pride and meaning in dancing for an audience. It's a simple idea executed flawlessly. In fact, Rashid's only misstep is in the very first number of the film, cutting between video of the protagonist as a child and her warm-up routines in the present. It's too self-conscious, especially compared to the rest of the dances.

Besides well-staged dances, How She Move benefits greatly from the exceptionally appealing actress playing the "she" of the title. Rutina Wesley makes her film debut (and as far as I can tell, her professional debut) as Raya, a high school senior with a fairly standard set of movie issues: her older sister died a few years ago of what is strongly implied to be a heroin overdose, leaving Raya with a fear of disappointing her parents, and a more existential fear about the cheap value of life in her neighborhood. Thus she focuses all her energy on getting the money for a private school where she hopes to study medicine. Along the way she is forced to confront the faces from her past and see the value in a culture that she has devoted years of her life to leaving behind. Also, she has to become the only woman in a male step team in order to win $50,000 at the big step show in Detroit, but that part was pretty well obvious right around the time I said "dance genre" in the first paragraph.

There's a whole lot of boilerplate there, but somehow it's boilerplate that works, and I truly do believe that Wesley has the most to do with that. As one would expect, she's a great dancer, along with most of the cast; but she manages to make the ordinarily deadly moments in between dances sparkle with a characterisation that is both prickly and warm, elitist and humble. She is not asked to negotiate and particularly tricky corners - the character is forced through exactly the growing experiences you would predict, in exactly the same order - but she makes Raya interesting and real despite the bland script.

I don't want to oversell the thing. It's not a great movie, but it's close to a great entertainment, all things considered. It's familiar, which might be its single greatest flaw; the other great flaw is that it's much too shallow a look at the culture in which Raya's story unfolds: as near as I can tell, it's set entirely within the Jamaican immigrant community of Toronto, but that's not an easy thing to figure out, and a lot of dots have to be connected by the viewer that oughtn't. And even then, a lot more remains unexplored.

Still, when I sat down to watch a film about step dancing, I would never have expected that my harshest complaints would be about its insufficiently rigorous sociological model.


29 January 2008


I am certain that I saw Untraceable. I have the ticket stub right here, so I know I paid for it, and I can recall a couple of scenes that weren't in the trailer. But the film itself just shot right through my brain without leaving more than a ghost in my memory. And that was hardly 24 hours ago.

Of course I exaggerate, but only a little. The problem with Untraceable isn't exactly that it's forgettable, but rather that it's so unbearably typical that it doesn't really seem worth remembering. There's a bit of gaudy fun to be had at the expense of the insufficiently computer-savvy filmmakers, and the curious sight of a routine procedural getting spiced up with some very weak-kneed torture porn, but pretty much everything about the movie is slickly professional, so slick that nothing about it sticks. It is the perfect example of a winter movie: it has no reason to exist but divert you for long enough that you're not going to complain about spending $9 to sit in a big dark room.

Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is an agent with the FBI's cyber crimes division, stationed in Portland. Her life is less than ideal, but not so very awful: living with her mother (Mary Beth Hurt), she works nights, which means she doesn't always see as much of her daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) as she'd like, but she's always there to send Annie off to school, and wakes up in time to have dinner and tuck her in at night. Her job is a fairly easy matter of nabbing credit card fraud artists, swapping witticisms with her younger co-worker Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks) under the laissez-faire eye of Section Chief Richard Brooks (Peter Lewis).

That's your movie, right there: the very best scene in the whole movie comes right at the start, setting up Marsh's working world, as she and Dowd shoot the shit while she rather effortlessly shuts down a scam ring operated by a teenager who has stolen nearly a quarter of a million dollars from other people's credit cards. It's a fun scene (mostly: I could have done without the shot of a 15-year-old getting thrown against a police car), and gives us a good sense of who this character is without smacking us over the head with anything. Lane is a better actress than most of her scripts would suggest, and it's honestly entertaining just to watch her doing the workaday business of an FBI agent; and God knows procedurals have been made about less sexy professions than cybercops.

But no, we have to get a super-duper high-concept plot to stick this poor woman into, and it comes in the form of a website showing a kitten that has starved to death in a rat-trap, called www.killwithme.com (the good folks at Sony Pictures do a decent job of sneaking a not-terribly-bad joke into that promotional site). We in the audience have a better idea of what's going on than Marsh does, for we saw the kitten when it was still vital and fluffy, and we saw - or rather, didn't see - the killer who set up a series of web cameras to view the kitten as it slowly died. Initially this doesn't seem to be anything other than a sicko exploiting the internets, but when, a week later, a human being appears on the site, hooked up to an elaborate device that feeds him anti-coagulants based on how many hits the website receives. The more people who watch, the faster he bleeds to death, and Marsh and her team aren't fast enough to save the victim.

Enter the Portland PD, led by Det. Eric Box (Billy Burke) and the surprising (not so much) reveal that the mysterious proprietor of www.killwithme.com is, after a string of foreign ISPs are cleared away, based right in the cyber crime division's backyard. Coincidence?!? Well, actually, it kind of turns out to be, but lots of dialogue in the middle of the movie suggests that it's not.

You know how a 12-year-old gets when they learn something new, in an encyclopedia or magazine or whatever, and they go crazy learning as much as possible about that thing, and become sort of an armchair expert without ever actually grasping the essence of their newfound obsession? It feels like Untraceable is that, with the screenwriters getting really pumped up about internet hacking and being so excited about all the things they can show off that they learned (or, I should say, newbie co-writers Robert Fyvolent and Mark Brinker; the third writer, Allison Burnett, apparently only punched up the screenplay over their foundation, and based on his past work I assume he largely worked on the personal drama, not the procedural stuff). Except that they get things very, very wrong. As the title of the film indicates, the thing that makes their work so very difficult is that the website is untraceable, which is a fairly dubious thing to base a whole movie on. A website can be made extremely hard to find, but "untraceable," not really. The writers either don't know, or they don't care, and they cover up this giant sucking hole with a lot of jargon that proves how awesomely they researched everything, and during the bravura scene where Dowd and Marsh run through all of the ways that the website could be hidden, it takes a stronger viewer than I to think of something other than Geordi La Forge feeding Captain Picard a line of inscrutable technobabble.

Its massive plothole would be enough to sink the movie, but what makes it actively bad is the little details that sit sourly in the mouth. For one, the kitten that opens the film: you may or may not be a cat person, but you must agree that kittens are an awfully convenient shorthand for everything sweet and innocent in life.* There's no reason to open a movie by starving a kitten to death unless you are a mean person. It's worth reiterating that in some half-assed way, this is evidently a kind of torture film, although the torture on display is really quite lame, and filmed by people who are quite afraid of gore. You get all of the moral discomfort with none of the gorehound delight. Fun times!

But mostly, it's just a bland crime movie that puts too much faith in an overbaked concept. Director Gregory Hoblit has made something out of a career out of that - his last work was the tepid Anthony Hopkins/Ryan Gosling procedural Fracture - and it doesn't take much to see that. The plot holes and nastiness (not to mention a startling potshot against net neutrality) are enough to make it bad, but it was never going to be good: it's a program-filler, in a time when we no longer have theatrical programs, and any film that exists just to distract the audience for a bit less than two hours serves essentially no purpose but to keep actors and craftspeople employed.


28 January 2008


In the 1980s and into the 1990s, one of the most durable genres in the American cinema was the Big Dumb Fun action movie, empty-calorie exercises in elaborate setpieces and corny one-liners. We still have action movies, of course, and they're still Big and Dumb, but very few of them are any Fun. I blame computers, at least a little bit: when every third shot contains a digital hero instead of a flesh-and blood Chuck Norris/Arnold Schwarzenegger/Steven Seagal/et cetera, the result lacks a certain liveliness. Not to mention, computers have done away with the small, fun action scene; if it doesn't involve twelve locations and at least two speeding trains, it's not good enough any more.

Whatever the reason (and it's not just the rise of CGI, I know), action movies just aren't what they used to be. I bring this up on the release of the second film within a year to bring back the Big Dumb Fun action movie: after Live Free or Die Hard brought one old franchise back for a much-belated fourth entry, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo does the same thing to an action trilogy whose last entry was released nearly 20 years ago. Except, for a Big Dumb Fun action movie, Rambo goes rather far out of its way to avoid being much Fun.

Of course, the cinematic adventures of John Rambo were always a bit too serious for their own good: First Blood, much the best of the series (indeed, the only "good" one in the bunch) was less an action film and more a drama about a disturbed Vietnam vet who can't deal with normal life and lashes out with violence at anyone who crosses him; Rambo: First Blood Part II was a self-conscious attempt to give moderates a psychological victory in 'Nam; Rambo III was at least partially a lesson about the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. While I'm thinking of it, I'd like to call attention for the way that none of the four films in the series have been titled the same way. Must be merry hell for the video store clerks.

Anyway, the first three Rambo films were all semi-serious looks at the Problems Facing The World, mixed-in with fantasies about how much better the world would be if the American military could just whup the hell out of our enemies: the Vietnamese, the Russians, leftists. The curious thing about Rambo is that, while it is still a hawkish wank about how the US should poke our nose in everybody's business, it's specifically a call to American intervention in Burma. Burma? That's not, let us say, high on the list of places that Average American Filmgoer thinks about when the dinner table conversation turns to interventionism. So it's not, like the others, a bit of red meat for neocons. It's an attempt to educate the US on the terrible state of a far-away country, and while I applaud the intent, a Big Dumb Fun movie can't be dumb and won't be fun if it's actually meant to work as a political call to action.

As such, it opens with a short montage of news footage (most of it British), documenting the atrocities committed by the Burmese government against the Karen rebels, a Christian community. Later on, the film depicts the savage destruction of a village full of farmers and missionaries, a sequence directed with considerable skill and exactly the correct amount of restraint: we see just enough of every violent act to make it clear what happened (and some of it is the stuff of nightmares - a baby thrown into a bonfire, for instance), but never does the camera linger over the blood and devastation. It's just about the best scene Stallone has ever directed, and a good sequence by any yardstick, visceral and hard to forget.

That "hard to forget" is the problem. Every Rambo film has to negotiate the same turn about one-third of the way through: how to go from a geo-political piece to a "blowing shit up good" piece. In the first sequel, this is achieved by essentially resetting the whole plot; in the second sequel, this is achieved by having the first act make no sense at all, so that the audience has no preconceptions.

In Rambo, the goal is clearly to negotiate that shift by changing the plot around: in Act I, John Rambo, now living in seclusion in the jungles of Thailand, brings a group of prayer-book toting American Christians to Karen territory, in Act II he brings a group of mercenaries to Karen territory to rescue the Americans, in a government camp. But where Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III used the real world as a pretext, Rambo has done such a bang up job of convincing the audience that the situation in Burma is the closest thing to Hell on Earth, it's basically impossible to forget all that and enjoy the copious action that follows. The very brutal violence that opens the film casts a pall over the very movie-fake violence that follows.

Which is a bit of a shame, because some of that fake violence isn't half bad: certainly better than the hectic and confusing finale of Rambo III, and blessed with the escalating absurdity of a real '80s action picture, particularly in the moment when Rambo explodes what is probably not a nuclear device, but which has the ability to level a couple square miles of forest. Fountains of the red stuff spew with satisfying regularity, and Stallone, though clearly older, has lost none of the skills that made him work in the role to begin with: large muscles and a threatening monotone. It doesn't make the action look as effortless as the fourth Die Hard did - the CGI is obvious - but it's fun enough as a simple guilty pleasure, and perhaps the best straight-up mayhem the series has offered, what with the superior first film lacking much ultraviolence and the first sequel sputtering in between setpieces.

But for all that, it's just too hard to get into it: the beginning of the film sets the wrong tone altogether. It's a guilty pleasure all right, and one that puts extra emphasis on the guilt. Maybe this was the point - maybe Stallone was consciously working to point out the danger of rooting for movie violence in a violent world. But the last act doesn't read that way: it's as rousing as can be, with all the proper moments of death shot and edited to demand cheers and applause.

It was just 13 months ago that Stallone brought another long-dormant franchise out of mothballs, turning in the best film in the series since the first, but the Rambo movies were never as good as the Rocky movies, and Rocky Balboa is an entirely different animal than Rambo, raising questions of aging and the very idea of reviving that which did not need revival. Rambo is just a big dumb action movie, and while it has the right ingredients to be good enough, it sabotages itself too much to click. It's much better than we had any right to expect, but "a great Rambo" movie is still faint praise, and Rambo leaves a taste much more sour than exhilarating.


Yes, I gave the new Rambo film the same rating as the new Woody Allen film. These are the days of miracle and wonder

27 January 2008


The film that made an international success out of Mike Leigh begins with what I genuinely believe to be the most terrifying opening shot I have ever seen. As we hear a woman moaning in either pain or ecstasy, the handheld camera moves down a dark alley, shaking like an there's earthquake, and it stops at the single pool of light, where a man with his back to us has forced a woman against the wall, raping her. Twenty seconds have elapsed in the film.

A few cuts later, and the woman breaks free and screams that she's going to sic her brothers on the man, sending him into a panicked run. We're 40 seconds into the film. As the man runs, the first drumbeats of Andrew Dickson's percussion and string heavy score kick in, adding to what was already an exhausting level of tension. At 70 seconds, the man jumps into a car and drives away in it, over the screams of its rightful owner, who yells for her husband to rouse himself from the couch. At 85 seconds cut to a shot behind the car on the road in the late-night traffic, and the credits start to appear:

A film by Mike Leigh

David Thewlis

Lesley Sharp

Katrin Cartlidge


The rest of the credits play out in a shot from the backseat of the car, focusing on the road with the man in the driver's seat all blurry. The music continues on, driving timpani and tinkling strings playing off each other crazily, keeping us on edge as though the idea of being in car with an auto thief and rapist wasn't already unsettling. 195 seconds into the film, the scene cuts from the inside of the car at night to the outside of the car in the morning light, an edit as shockingly effective as I have ever seen. The car pulls to the side of the road. At 213 seconds the film cuts again, to the man standing in the middle of the intersection, looking around, and we finally get a good look at him: a skinny, dirty man in a long black coat with a ratty beard. In short order, we will learn that his name is Johnny (Thewlis), and he's just driven from Manchester to London to find his ex-girlfriend.

Words are not the right medium to describe the explosive momentum of this opening sequence, which all but left me gasping for breath. First impressions, they say, are lasting impressions; we've gotten one hell of a first impression of Johnny by now, and it was presented in some of the nastiest 3.5 minutes of cinema you will ever see.

Despite this, the particular and uncomfortable genius of Naked is that it isn't a protracted exercise in watching a terrible man being terrible, but that it burrows into Johnny's mind and takes him as a human being in full - we do not sympathise with him, but by the end of the film's 131 minutes, we understand him as well as it is possible to understand a cinematic character, and that is perhaps more frightening than a mere depiction of viciousness. Understanding how this is the case is a matter of understanding Mike Leigh's method, and why he is one of the most reliable narrative filmmakers now working.

Leigh never works with a script: he works with a story sketch, which he mulls over with his actors over an extended rehearsal period - 11 weeks for Naked. The dialogue spoken onscreen is largely the actors' creation, although it is not precisely "improvised," as sometimes is reported; it is the result of those weeks and weeks of rehearsing.

This could be disastrous, except that the director has managed to work with some of the finest (if not always the most celebrated) performers in the British film industry: Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Brenda Blethyn. The process doesn't work because it's a foolproof process, but because it's turned over to acting geniuses. And in Naked, Leigh shepherded David Thewlis (in their third and final collaboration) to give a performance that lays the very best work of those very great performers to shame. His work as Johnny is, to my eyes, the finest acting done by any Brit of his generation, the greatest single performance in a British movie in the two decades since Bob Hoskin's epochal turn in Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa.

In Thewlis's hands, Johnny is many things all at once: he is feverishly misogynistic, but only because he loves women and believes that this love makes him weak, so that he must behave as a monster to redeem his masculinity. He is clearly spiritual and obsessed with eschatology, petrified by what he believes to be humanity's impending destruction, but anxious that it should just happen already, because there's precious little to humanity worth saving. He despises the poverty that he uses as a crutch. He in short a ball of confused self-loathing, perhaps a cliché but one rarely if ever carried off with such combustive force. Though the kernel of this characterisation is Leigh's, it is Thewlis who brings these things into the flesh, as it were. He is unpleasant, easy to hate, maybe even evil; but he is also excessively charming and often hilarious, and it becomes unnervingly easy to see what it is about him that makes women look to him as a lover and protector even after he abuses them physically and mentally, abandons them, scorns them. It's a magnificent portrait of a bastard that one Thewlis that year's Best Actor award at Cannes, and should have propelled him to the frontlines of move stardom, if the world were just.

Given this incredible centerpiece, Leigh works magic to produce what may well be his greatest work, though it's a tough film to love or even respect: it's not so easy to process as Secrets & Lies or Vera Drake, and it's significantly more problematic than either - charges of sexism have dogged the film since the moment of its release, and it's not only easy to see why, it's somewhat hard to deny that those charges are reasonable. But reasonable is not the same as right, and it should be clear that Leigh is not attempting to lionise Johnny, but cast him as the symptom of a broken society.

"Things are awful." This is the overriding lesson of the film, which looks at the underbelly of life in post-conservative England, confronts us with everything bad, and then shows us things that are worse. It leaves no room for comfort in a noble hero, or a morally uplifting conclusion, because in Britain in 1993, or most countries at most times, those things are lies. Instead, he exposes his characters, his society, his audience, and leaves us defenseless. Naked.

Now, more than 1100 words in, is it too late to mention how much of the film is funny, occasionally very funny satire? Yes, I suppose it is. Just watch the damn thing.

26 January 2008


The life of a dedicated Woody Allen apologist has gotten harder lately, and this is, ironically enough, because he finally came out with a really great film not that long ago. Back in 2002, when the recent examples of "good" Allen were Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, it was not so very hard to look somebody in the eye, and lie to them without a moment's hesitation, "Hollywood Ending is a good film." But then in 2005, the director went and revitalised himself with his first masterpiece in better than a decade, Match Point, and now that we've all been reminded of what a good Woody Allen film tastes like, it's not so easy to go back to the easy fib, "Of course it's good, Woody Allen directed it!"

Then again, there's the flipside to overappreciating a film because Woody Allen directed it, and that's underappreciating a film because Woody Allen directed it (I remain steadfast in my belief that if anyone else had been behind Scoop, that film would have found a much more generous reception; but because it wasn't as good as his best work, it was ipso facto a bad film). There is every possibility that what I'm about to launch into is just such a criticism - if X < Crimes and Misdemeanors then X = failure. Consider this my full disclosure.

At any rate, Allen's newest film, Cassandra's Dream, does not strike me as a film that is all that particularly good, and I find myself, in these post-Match Point times, too wearied by the film to give my all and pretend that it's somehow a great misunderstood work. Anyway, I have to save up my energy for Vicky Cristina Barcelona this fall. This despite the fact that there may well be a legitimate defense of Cassandra's Dream; it's just not a very convincing one.

The plot: in London, two lower-class brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) find the deal of a lifetime on a boat that they both want very badly. Without knowing where the money will come from, they snap it up and christen her the Cassandra's Dream. Within a few days, Terry makes and loses a great deal of money gambling, Ian gets caught steals from his restaurateur father's safe to make the down payment on a sure-fire real estate deal in Los Angeles, and both men realise that if they don't find some major cash immediately, they are both royally screwed, and at the least will lose the women they love: Terry's fiancée Kate (Sally Hawkins) and Ian's new paramour, actress Angela Stark (Hayley Atwell, a relative neophyte). Hope comes in the form of their incredibly wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who is willing and eager to bail them out if they'll do him one little favor: he needs a whistleblower killed.

There's a little Match Point here, and whole lot of Love and Death in the protracted discussions on the morality of committing murder, but it's not a flaw that the film looks to Allen's past work for its themes. In fact, the narrative and thematic arcs of Cassandra's Dream are easily its finest elements, notwithstanding the typically Allen cop-out ending. The problem is how those things are executed by a clutch of disturbingly weak performances stumbling over uncharacteristically terrible dialogue. And there is the rub.

If Match Point could be called Allen's opera, Cassandra's Dream is unambiguously his Greek tragedy, "unambiguously" here referring not just to its laden title, but also to a handful of conversations about the nature and the appeal of Greek plays. At the same time, Match Point used its operatic nature as a means to justify what otherwise might have seemed like flaws: histrionic characters, florid dialogue and a whopper of a contrived third act. Cassandra's Dream doesn't get a similar out; the characters aren't stylised in the fashion of Greek figures, they're just poorly rendered. There are a few reasons for this, all sort of interconnected but essentially separate: first, the script feels unnervingly like a first draft. Many scenes (especially in the first third) simply repeat information found in other scenes, and others are obviously present just so that some gobbet of exposition or foreshadowing can be dropped on the audience. As for the lines given to the actors...it's a known fact of Allen's cinema that he tends to write about privileged artistic classes. Cassandra's Dream is focused squarely on poor Londoners, and the twin problems of unfamiliarity with the class and unfamiliarity with the country render the characters adrift, sounding precisely like a well-to-do New Yorker might want poor Londoners to sound. It's not the worst dialogue of his career, but it might be the blandest - trapped between the desire for regional naturalism and characteristically literate Allenspeak, it achieves neither.

The other significant problem is the actors; a tremendous shame, given the talent involved. The women, Hawkins and Atwell, simply fall by the wayside, a victim of the director's occasional gynophobia. The men are the real trainwrecks: Farrell has a notable inability to manage his way around the neurotic paranoia that hits Terry late in the film, whereas McGregor never seems to actually fall in love with Atwell, and given that his character's arc is entirely based on that affair, this is a significant problem. They are not remotely credible as brothers, and neither man comes within swiping distance of a decent accent, although oddly enough their accents never drop out at the same time. I am sad to say that the very worst performance, however, is clearly Tom Wilkinson's: Uncle Howard is in just a few scenes, the sort of role where you'd like to say that an actor as reliable as Wilkinson steals the show in his brief appearance. He kind of does, but only by being a distracting liability: first he seems like he's overdosed on lithium, then he makes up for it by playing the role like a plainclothes clown. The actor has been in too many films for me to be comfortable calling this his worst performance, but I'm even less comfortable thinking that it isn't.

There's this thing, though: Cassandra's Dream is actually really funny. More "funny oh God" than "funny ha ha," but I laughed rather often, certainly more than I did during A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy or Celebrity. I was far from alone in the theater. So the question arises: is Cassandra's Dream a deliberate comedy? Nothing about its texture feels that way, and it would be unlike Woody Allen to make a film this cagey about his humor. He's been a satirist, and his humor has always been exceptionally dry, but this kind of subtle anti-humor has never been in his bag of tricks. Then the next question arises: if the film fails totally on the level Allen made it, but succeeds as an accidental parody of Allenesque pretension and profundity, is it a good film? Yes, I know, intentional fallacy, but if Allen wanted to make a straight-up Sophoclean tragedy, and I have to assume he did, I'm going to hold it against the final product.

Meanwhile, the look of the film is quintessentially Allen: long takes that seem to exist largely to avoid multiple set-ups, vaguely theatrical framing, plenty of zooms and forward dolly shots. He's not the world's most imaginative director, let's be honest, and given his notorious lack of interaction with his actors, I sometimes wonder what he actually does on set. I will mention that his second collaboration with Vilmos Zsigmond proves to be one of the rare Allen films where the cinematography actually possesses value - few directors have been better at neutering some of the world's finest cinematographers, particularly Sven Nykvist. I should also probably mention that the score by Philip Glass is, if I am not mistaken, the first time that music was written for a Woody Allen film. It's a good fit: both the composer and the filmmaker have long since retreated from the invention of their earlier careers to simply repeat their familiar styles in increasingly stale ways.

So anyway, I liked the movie, but I'm not sure if I liked it the right way, and I'm not sure if anyone else would like it. It's just not worth the time, I'm afraid: the themes are interesting enough, but expressed better elsewhere, even in the director's canon, and it seems pretty safe to say that this one is for Woody Allen partisans only; if you're not already a fan, this isn't going to be the film that changes your mind. It appears that Allen's celebrated British revival period has petered out.



As I put it walking out of the theater: "It combines my two favorite things - animation and French cinema. How can I not love it?"

Thus is Persepolis, adapted from children's book author/illustrator Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir, a book that is not, perhaps, my third favorite thing, but certainly something that I like quite a lot. It's without much surprise but no small amount of relief that I find it has not just survived the transition, but has become something significantly different, as blissfully engaged with its own movie-ness as the book was with its comic-ness. Given that Satrapi herself co-wrote and co-directed the film with comic-book artist Vincent Paronnaud, it's not hard to see why: she's already made Persepolis the book once, why should she bother making it again? As sometimes happens, an artist at the peak of one medium has a unique insight into what makes a different medium tick.

Yet in Satrapi and Paronnaud's hands, cinema isn't entirely separate from the graphic novel. Of course, they're not inherently all that different to begin with: both use images to tell a story, augmented by words but not ultimately dependent on them, and both consist of a series of images presented in a specific order (and in Satrapi's book, the parallel is even clearer: unlike some of the more expansive artists in the field, never uses non-rectangular frames). One of the particular triumphs of the film Persepolis is that it uses these similarities to point out the essential differences between the two. But I am getting at least a bit ahead of myself.

The story is mostly incredible for how utterly un-incredible it is; one of the keys to Satrapi's memoirs, whether drawn or filmed, is that she doesn't regard herself as particularly special - one of many little girls growing up in a mostly secular Iran before the 1979 revolution, one of many children sent to Europe to escape the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism, one of countless immigrants whose experience in the West was one of frustration and miscommunication. Based as it is in a series of extremely specific incidents, Satrapi's life story still feels more representative than particular.

Of course, documenting the experience of one woman's life growing up is only part of Persepolis, and perhaps not even an important part. As the author said in her 2002 introduction to the first volume of the graphic novel:
"...this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth...I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoing of a few extremists. I also don't want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten."
And so, Persepolis, in any medium, is first a story in praise of a misunderstood country, a story that is most especially important in these days of increased Western (i.e. American) sabre-rattling.

To its credit, the film never goes for the simple and arthouse-friendly tack of "goddamn Americans, butting their noses in and tossing arms this way and that and making things worse." Indeed, except for a brief scene recapping the British influence in establishing the Shah between WWII and the 1950s. Finger-pointing is less important than documenting the state of life in the country, and Satrapi does this with great humanism and warm humor.

The differences between the film and the book, in a narrative sense, are mostly those of tone and perspective. The events are largely identical, but the film is a quite a bit more openly funny, and a great deal less angry. Frequently, this is the result of Satrapi redefining what these events mean to her; a conspicuous example is the matter of her first major heartbreak, which the book viewed more in terms of her ex's monstrous selfishness, while the movie is more concerned with how the author convinced herself of his monstrousness. But as much as anything, the shift in tone is the result of compressing for space; where the book could linger for pages on the Satrapis' Jewish neighbors and the errant Iraqi bomb that leveled their home, for example, the film contents itself with one shot of a hand crawling out of the rubble. At times, this compression leaves holes in the film (the casual viewer can be forgiven for wondering why God and Marx appear together in a dream sequence, or why they look so weirdly similar), but generally it leaves the film lean and propulsive.

Then again, the book is close enough to the film that the latter repeats one of the former's main flaws: the telling of Satrapi's teenage sojourn in Vienna is a bit clunky compared to the sequences detailing her life in Iran, while this interlude gives the film an undesirable repetitive structure that the book avoided by dividing the story into two volumes just after her first departure. I can't help but feel that it's a bit wrong of me to blame an author for living a life that doesn't seamlessly fit into a narrative structure.

Of course, in an animated film more than any other, the story is only half of the battle: the imagery is as important if not more so. Here, the film Persepolis shines, distinctly outstripping its source. The comic, make no mistake, was a visual marvel, but it was not particular adventuresome: Satrapi's clean black-and-white drawings are immensely appealing but the formal rigidity of her work is part of the point. Whereas the film feels like nothing else I've ever seen, not in a feature length project, at least. For this we can blame the children's movie ghetto that animation lay dormant in until about two decades ago - no matter how elegant a Disney film might look, it was still derided as a cartoon. Formal experimentation was left for avant-garde directors whose work could not support anything heftier than a short film.

Persepolis doesn't meet even the most generous definition of "avant-garde," but it does play with the medium in ways that I personally haven't seen often, if ever. It's particularly apparent how the film honors its roots in the comic: unlike most traditional animation, which seeks to mimic the classical Hollywood style of depth and action around the "camera," Persepolis hardly ever suggest a world beyond the frame. Indeed, it often doesn't even suggest a world up to the frame - many scenes are surround by a fuzzy black iris effect. The overall feeling is that we're watching a series of flat tableaux, a sense aided considerably by the contrast between background and characters. Typically - not always - the backgrounds are drawn with a great deal of texture and greys, while the characters are invariably shiny cel figures with smooth lines and solid blocks of monochromatic blacks and whites. More than in most animated films, the characters are clearly apart from the backgrounds.

This could be distancing; it isn't By framing the story as the recollection of an adult Marjane waiting in an airport (something not done in the novel), the flat tableaux are made less Brechtia and more psychological; they are a subjective representation of how an illustrator moves through her memories. The effect is not quite like any other film I can call to mind: it is too fluid to call it simply a moving comic book, but its style is so particular that it's hardly a traditional animated movie. Better to call it an exceptionally satisfying adaptation of a great story that clicks on ever level, visual and narrative, with a sort of inventiveness that seems intoxicated by the liberating possibilities of cinema.


24 January 2008


I know there's nothing less attractive than a "here's why I'm not posting" post, but...

I sit here on the coldest night of the winter with a half-written review, and I think to myself, it is time to curl up in a blanket and drift to sleep. I know none of you will hold it against me if I take a rare second day off of writing; tomorrow I will have a review of Persepolis, and Saturday, Cassandra's Dream.

Good night, everyone.

22 January 2008


Whatever else is true of Cloverfield, I must give J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves credit for making one of the few films to use 9/11 imagery in an effective and appropriate way. It is entirely possible that the last time I saw a film that played a similar card without coming across as exploitive or crude was also a genre film, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds back in 2005. I am not certain what this means. Possibly only that I like sci-fi thrillers more than sociodramas.

I'd rather say that it's because horror movies, when they're working properly, are one of society's finest outlets for all those things that terrify us, filtered through a haze of Entertainment that lets us confront those fears on our own terms. This is 101 level theorising, I know. But just as Godzilla, Cloverfield's obvious ancestor, gave room for the Japanese to confront the spectre of nuclear devastation, so does this film play on the modern version of an irradiated Hiroshima, letting us ponder the devastation of New York from a safe distance that permits a level of reflection which a film like World Trade Center couldn't have achieved even if it wasn't terrible.

Or maybe Cloverfield is just using 9/11 as a means of getting the audience anxious and thereby plopping asses into theater seats. It's honestly not that easy to tell. On the one hand, the film isn't nearly so pornographic as it might have been, spending most of its time in an intimate frame and broadening its scope to appreciate the devastation of a city only rarely. On the other hand, the film is somewhat clumsy in execution, and a lot of it is staged something like a video game, or a theme park ride. Ultimately, I think the biggest flaw is that it's just not effective enough as a horror film for everything else to work as it should.

Really, though, the interesting part of the film isn't what it says about 9/11, but the mode in which it speaks (though I don't believe the two things can be separated). As pretty much everybody knows by now, Cloverfield was shot entirely on prosumer HD cameras from the perspectives of the characters. It's a home movie, in other words, and rather amazingly the first film in nine years to take the seemingly obvious step of copying The Blair Witch Project. And just like that movie, the finished product is something of a mixed bag.

Like so many horror movies, disaster movies, and Ingmar Bergman films, Cloverfield follows the simple arc of "Act One - things are good; Act Two - things get bad; Act Three - things get worse" (though as I think about it, I do believe that Cloverfield has a four-act structure). The plot begins at a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael-Stahl David), bound for Japan. His brother Jason (Mike Vogel) is given the job of filming testimonials from all the guests, but he quickly tosses that duty to Rob's best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who uses the opportunity to harass his longtime crush Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). After a row threatens to end the party, an explosion in downtown Manhattan ends it for real, and Hud, Rob, Marlena, Jason and his fiancée Lily (Jessica Lucas) try to find some way out of the city as a great big something causes all sorts of horrible devastation.

Now, although the filmmakers don't go so far as to launch an ad campaign suggesting that the actors were all killed by a ghost witch, within the film's diegesis, we're meant to take this very seriously. Starting at the first frame, the film itself argues for its realism (the opening scene, as it were, is a series of institutional title cards explaining that this video card was retrieved from the former Central Park). For a while, it even achieves this realism: the first moments of video show Rob and his friend Beth (Odette Yustman) the morning after a one-night hookup, behaving exactly like a tired young woman and her young male friend who is cute but kind of a dick. All the behavior on display at the party is perfectly recognisable, although the characters I recognised were generally the sorts of people I go out of my way to avoid, which tended to lessen the impact of their deaths. The camera, manned by a couple of fumbling guys with some booze in them, skips around believably, and the occasional cuts to the video underneath - Rob and Beth at Coney Island - feel real of themselves, and they even serve a significant meta-narrative purpose, establishing the fluidity and accidental artistry of amateur video that makes Cloverfield conceptually possible.

Once the big bad comes down, though, this all seems a little less believable and forced. It was easy to see why the young idiots in Blair Witch held on to their cameras; they were film students, and if anyone would chase death down with a camera in hand, it's a film student. Cloverfield comes up with a plausible excuse for keeping the camera with the characters: Hud argues that it's going to be important that there be some ground-level video evidence of what's happening (given that we're watching his evidence, he seems to be correct). But that doesn't explain why the cameraman, frequently shown to be out of shape, would hold the camera to his eye as he runs, or jumps from building to building. When confronted with the choice between what would plausibly be found on camera and what the audience would like to see, the filmmakers consistently go for the latter.

Then, there are the moments of raw Idiot Movie characterisation. The most obvious is the event that permits the second half of the film to occur: three people all agree that a young woman is probably dead, that it would be suicide to look for her, and then they go looking without any further discussion. There are smaller moments scattered throughout

What annoyed me the most, however, was the continuing interjection of footage from the movie under the movie, Rob and Beth's Coney Island video. It ceases after a while to be arbitrary, but instead becomes more and more clever as it comments on the content of the A-plot. Yet it was the arbitrary nature of the footage that made it interesting in the first place! As it becomes more appropriate, it ceases to be about the random, messy nature of video and becomes just run-of-the-mill chorus.

The first of these complaints can be answered with an appeal to YouTube culture: young people are so accustomed to understanding the world through a camera lens that it becomes the only sensible way to process a great crisis (after all, how did most of us perceive the original 9/11?). Certainly the ad campaign suggests that such a reading might be deliberate, given its knowing manipulation of the internet and viral videos. J.J. Abrams knows better than just about anyone how to use new media as a narrative tool and a marketing technique, and it would make sense that he'd make a film about how his target audience thinks of everything in terms of video clips. But making this argument is meeting the film itself much more than halfway. Of course, using extra-narrative knowledge to resolve narratives is another Abrams trick, and one that pisses me off fiercely.

In other words, Cloverfield might be a clever new-media commentary, but it's an awfully circumspect one. Too much of what could make the movie great is outside of the movie. So why the Left-Aligned Poster of Recommendation? Because this very same clumsy handling of meta-narrative makes the film incredibly interesting, and especially in January, interesting movies are always better than good ones.



The nominations!

First, I did a frosty 32/40 on my predictions for the big categories and a mostly unhumiliating 63/99 overall.

Some pithiness:

-We now know that being nominated for Best Director does not mean your directing was particularly meaningful. Jason Reitman? Seriously?

-Things that I am very pleased but only a little surprised by: Laura Linney for Best Actress, The Bourne Ultimatum for Best Editing, Away from Her for Adapted Screenplay, No Country and There Will Be Blood leading the nominations at eight each.

-Things that I am pleased AND surprised by: Ratatouille in both sound categories, Into the Wild being nearly shut-out,, Tommy Lee Jones for Best Actor, Across the Universe as an Oscar nominee.

-Things that I am not pleased by: Gilroy and Reitman in Best Director, Norbit as an Oscar nominee (the only one I haven't seen outside of the docs, shorts and foreign films), Cate Blanchett for Best Actress.

-Things that just weird me out fiercely: Surf's Up for Best Animated Feature, Enchanted with three nominated songs (I didn't even know it had three songs), making it apparently the musical equal to Beauty and the Beast.

-Numbers: No Country & TWBB with 8
Atonement and Michael Clayton with 7
Ratatouille with 5
Juno and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with 4

My quick predictions: No Country for Picture, Screenplay, Director, Supporting Actor; Daniel Day-Lewis for Actor; Julie Christie for Actress; Cate Blanchett for Supporting Actress; Juno for Original Screenplay.

21 January 2008

B-FEST 2008

Dedicated to RS. Missed you, kid.

2008 peaked early for me. A week early, to be precise.

You see, year in and year out, the absolute highlight of the calendar for me is always B-Fest, the 24-hour marathon of bad sci-fi movies, bad action movies, bad comedies, and sometimes social dramas which are, by custom, bad.

Usually, B-Fest is on the last full weekend in January, but it happened on the 18th and 19th this year. Which I'm both okay with and sad about: okay because I didn't have to wait as long, and sad because I will have to wait longer next year.

This year's fest was extremely good; not maybe so mindblowing as last year, nor as epic as my first year, 2002 (when Hieronymous Merkin was sprung upon an unsuspecting crowd of merrymakers). Notoriously, there was no throughline - the gag that crops in the first couple of films and is still getting beaten to death by the end of the fest (my favorite remains "_____ of the spiders!" from 2003 and Kingdom of the Spiders). But the audience kept its energy longer than I think I've ever seen. And that, after all, is what it's all about.

Friday, 18 January, 6:05
First, a curiosity: the goofy trailer for James Toback's 2000 picture Black and White. Not so very much bad, but decidedly shrill, and seeing names like Method Man and Raekwon warmed my nostalgia-addled heart.

Then it began! And with a bang, in the form of the star-studded English language Italian Jaws rip-off Tentacles. This is the perfect opening film, moreso even than last-year's inspiring The Brain That Wouldn't Die: that old-fashioned Italian schlockiness is easy to make fun of, it's in color so the kids won't get bored, and Shelly Winters is in it, so there was no end to the fat jokes, many of which suggested that the titular tentacles were in fat hiding in her ample bosom.

The plot of the film can hardly be recounted; there is a giant octopus that eats people with radios, and sometimes people without radios, and it's all the fault of an Ee-vil Capitalist, except it isn't, and there are orcas, though unfortunately it preceded Orca, so we can't call it a double rip-off. Frankly, the audience energy during the first film is typically high enough that you can never make heads or tails of the plot anyway - not when Shelly Winters has children young enough to be her great-grandkids calling her "mom" and a giant straw hat.

In short, any film that can get a roomful of people cheering at a toddler's death within three minutes of the opening credits is a masterpiece in my book.

7:50 PM
Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula is often called, erroneously, a good film, whereas it is a marvelous opening ten minutes stuck in front of one of the most static, anti-dramatic films to come out of the early sound era (think about that), featuring an extremely charismatic but absolutely awful actor at the peak of his charisma and his awfulness. The five-years-later sequel Dracula's Daughter gets a few things right, starting with a director who is able and willing to move the camera around, and a plot that's at least a few notches better than the original, but it, unfortunately, also sucks, if not quite in the same ways.

The Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who may or may not be Dracula's biological or metaphorical daughter, enlists the help of one of those new-fangled psychiatrists to help her find peace. Meanwhile, Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, the only returning cast member) tries to convince the police that vampires exist. Meanwhile, approximately thirty years pass in the two or three seconds dividing the end of the first film from the beginning of this one.

A whole lot of nothing happens, unlike the first film, in which a whole lot of something happens off-screen, and only a shockingly forthright lesbian scene keeps the film from total pointlessness. There's no central performance as commanding and weird as Bela Lugosi's, nor any shots as creepy as Renfield grinning from the hold of a ghost ship. It's about as bland as any '30s horror film I've ever seen, which is a crying shame - if they're going to have films of this vintage (and dear God, I'd like them to keep at it), it might be better that they go for actually good ones, or at least balls-out crazy ones. Dracula's Daughter is boring, and came too early in the schedule.

9:00 PM
The shorts this year were unusually awful, starting with an essentially unwatchable Germaine Greer vehicle whose title I still haven't caught, that last appeared in 2006. I fled to go to the bathroom, and returned for a short in which zoo animals are anthropomorphically personified as twittery music plays. I failed to notice this film's title, as well.

9:15 PM
My private B-Fest highlight: Dino De Laurentiis and Roger Vadim's counterculture science fiction sex romp Jane Fonda vehicle Barbarella, which I have somehow never seen. Inconceivable! This film was something like a masterpiece (LIKE a masterpiece, I said), so very self-knowing in its badness and it idiotic sexiness. I'd forgotten how much fun Fonda could be when she played for zaniness (as opposed to playing for zaniness in a rape dramedy).

Basically, I think this is one of the most fantastically '60s films I've ever seen, even though it has the feel of something made by committee. I don't think I can go on anymore in a short little space like this; but I have it in my head to someday review this and De Laurentiis's equally memorable production of Flash Gordon as a double feature, once I've gotten this damn "52 masterpieces of art" project out of the way.

11:00 PM
Ohmigod, I lost at the raffle again! Then some shorts followed: a completely typical silent melodrama that appeared I guess because they could get ahold of it (not that bad, not that good, not that anything), and the now-annual appearance of Sarah Kuhn's terribly meandering gender theory piece "Rap." Oh well, it's better than "Gavotte".

11:45 PM
"The Wizard of Speed and Time". As always, the heart and soul of B-Fest. Download the very large file here.

Saturday, 19 January, 12:00 AM
Plan 9 from Outer Space. As always, the spleen and kidneys of B-Fest. RATTAN!

1:30 AM
They found a real hell of a movie for the blaxploitation slot this year: Black Samson, wherein a ghetto bar-owner named Samson (Rockne Tarkington, which sounds like the name of a villain from a melodrama and not a grindhouse actor), who has a FUCKING LION IN HIS BAR and a GIANT STICK THAT HE USES TO LAY THE WRATH OF GOD DOWN ON A MOTHERFUCKER, refuses to sell out to the White Man.

Besides giving the Fest one of its finest semi-recurring riffs ("Justice Stick!"), this film had an amazing ending: Samson gets all of the black people in the ghetto to climb up on the rooftops and THROW THINGS ON THE WHITE VILLAINS including a MOTHERFUCKING REFRIGERATOR. I have never cheered so throatily or happily at the incredibly violent death of white people.

Downside: the lion never ate - or even menaced! - anyone.

3:00 AM
Another damn silent melodrama that wasn't particular bad or interesting, but at least I got the title: "The Rocky Road". I just learned right now that it was directed by D.W. Griffith in 1910. Okay, adding in its age, it gets a smidgen more interesting.

3:15 AM
Hoo, mama. Then came Zardoz.

Bad movies have no ideas, and crappy execution, and a general lack of ambition before and behind the camera. Zardoz isn't a bad movie.

Zardoz is, rather, a travesty - a film made by people who, I am certain, were deeply convinced of the nobility of their scenario, an urgent feeling that it Meant Things, and about three times the drugs needed to turn that urge into a film where...well.

Imagine that it is some 400 years in the future. Mankind has divided itself into the barbaric Brutals and the elitist Eternals, the latter of whom have been alive and thinking so long that they're bored out of their wits, and only crave death. Imagine further that they have created a giant stone head called Zardoz to fly over the land and dispense weaponry and food for the Brutals and their Exterminators, mostly as a means of amusment. Imagine that Sean Connery is the Exterminator who sneaks on board Zardoz and finds his way to the Eternal village where he teaches the sexless immortals what a good ol' shagging looks like.

You have not imagined Zardoz, for I did not mention that Connery is earing naught but ammunition across his chest and a red diaper.

Written and irected by John Boorman, a man of noted variability in the quality of his output, and shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (that one), simply oozes ideas that aren't one-tenth as clever as the filmmakers thought, full of ponderous and profound shots, grimly unerotic sex, and generally so much joyless pretension that I - I, who thanks people for calling me pretentious - found it so far up its own ass that I didn't even see much to laugh at. I was in the minority. Maybe I need to see it again. Perish the thought.

On the other hand, Connery did wear a frilly wedding dress in one scene. That's something.

5:00 AM
My stamina wasn't enough to keep me up for all of veteran schlockmeister Burt I. Gordon's The Magic Sword, though the forty minutes I saw were memorably gaudy (oh Gordon! You do love puppetry!). The big problem: the film was a 1.37:1 image stretched to 1.85:1, and the print had gone so far to magenta that I half wonder if it was a three-strip film missing two strips. The least pleasant experience of the Fest for that presentation.

6:30 AM
Griffith, Boorman, now George Cukor; it's a regular master class at B-Fest '08. If I were to tell you what The Blue Bird was about, you'd say I dreamt it, so here are the vital details: a remake of a Shirley Temple vehicle, this 1976 US-Soviet co-production follows two children and their friendly anthropomorphic personifications of inanimate objects and concepts like Sugar, Milk, Fire, Luxury (Ava Gardner, getting all nudge-nudge-wink-wink with a ten-year-old boy) and Light (Liz Taylor) vs. Dark (Jane Fonda; Barbarella jokes were made). Bonus moment we all went "eww!": a fifty-year-old man playing the Dog tells that same poor ten-year-old boy "I must kiss you now that you've punished me."

8:15 AM
A nifty little anti-drug PSA, "Marijuana" from 1968 stars an apparently-stoned Sonny Bono, who informs us of all the bad things that drugs can do to you, telling perhaps not one true fact about drugs in the process. The amazing performance by some random dude as the heroin junkie with eyes like a German Expressionist monster was worth the price of admission.

More shorts: "Comics and Kids," in which a whispery narrator tells a group of boys to "kill, kill, kill." My synopsis for my seatmate: "Reading comics makes you a complete asshole." Followed-up by a reprise of the evergreen "Wizard of Speed and Time".

9:00 AM
The Mummy's Hand. God almighty, do I hate the Universal mummy movies. This one is particularly heinous, due to one of the most odious Odious Comic Relief characters ever. I had a stomachache and was mostly lying down and listening; the audience seemed to be pretty quiet on this one.

(My notes say we had breakfast here. I do recall being massively ahead of schedule all day).

10:15 AM
A curio: The Undying Monster, a straightforward murder mystery in which the killer is a werewolf. Slow as molasses, and the hour flew by like 180 minutes. The audience turned on this one something fierce, and I can't say I blame them.

11:15 AM
"A place, where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu

And now, open your eyes and see
What we have made is real
We are in Xanadu.

A million lights are dancing
And there you are
A shooting star
An everlasting world
And you're here with me

YES! The disco musical came roaring back with the year's objective best 105 minutes, Robert Greenwald's legendary boondoggle Xanadu. I've seen it too many times to have the same sense of awe that I did in watching Barbarella, but the audience devoured this one whole. It came at a perfect time - the sleepers had re-awakened, and the die-hards like me who don't sleep were getting their second wind.

What is there to say about this movie? It is essential viewing.

The two best moments of the whole fest occurred in the same scene, in which Michael Beck followed Olivia Newton-John to the neon-tinged Olympus: first, as he argues with Zeus, Olivia pouts, "Doesn't it matter to anyone how I feel?" and the whole entire audience screamed "NO!" as one. Moments later, as she sings her "now I know that love is better than immortality" song, a few people busted out lighters (I had purchased one for this very purpose the day before), and within 30 seconds, everyone in the theater with a cellphone had whipped it out and held it above their heads in a pale blue glow. Communal moviegoing doesn't get any better than that.

1:15 PM
After being ahead of schedule all day, they of course went over on Xanadu and of course didn't extend the lunch break, so I missed about five minutes of The Creature Walks Among Us, third entry in the Gill Man trilogy. I love Creature from the Black Lagoon, despise Revenge of the Creature, and found this third entry, which I'd never seen before, a bit pokey but nowhere near as dull as the middle film, which makes that mid-90s aquarium screensaver look narratively dynamic. Obviously, with food in our bellies and Olivia in our hearts, the audience was cool on this one.

2:45 PM
The last short: "Dante's Inferno", a little black-and-white number that was all production design, no plot. I don't believe a single person in the audience actually paid attention for more than about 90 seconds.

3:00 PM
Replacing Empire of the Ants in the schedule, and doing a damn fine job, was Chuck Norris's 1983 Lone Wolf McQuade, easily the best Norris film I have ever seen. Why? Because it is about only one thing: Norris being Norris. I.e. a fight every ten seconds or so, no plot worth mentioning, and lots of incredibly ludicrous gunfighting that doesn't even mus Our Chuck's shirt. Very little liberal-bashing, easily-ignored racism. I got my two favorite jokes off during this one - bear in mind I'd been awake for some 34 hours:

My friend MK (as Norris kisses a woman): "She better be careful, Chuck Norris can get a girl pregnant with just one kiss."
Me (as he kisses her again): "Yeah, but then the second one gives her an abortion."

MK (as Norris ignores due process): "I think he's not very liberal."
Me: "He hearts Huckabee."

It ends as it ends with Godzilla: here, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Screened in perhaps its only extant 35mm print (not a DVD in sight all year, saints be praised). This is to me one of the truly great Bad Godzilla movies, but I was starting to fade out by now; I am aware that I enjoyed it (as always), but I don't really recall what happened.

And thus it ended. Brilliant as always, one of the best I've ever been to, accolades-upon-accolades. Only 368 more days 'til the next one!


The Oscars! I don't know what to say, really: I'm still, two years later, grousing that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, and yet I'm here anyway, part of that whole scene. The best I could do was wait until just a couple days before the announcements are made. Because you know what? Just because they reward the easy and mediocre over the daring and wonderful doesn't mean I don't love them to pieces.

But I am going to keep my commentary to a minimum. Look around the Oscar blogs; the race seems curiously pre-ordained this year.

(FYI: I got 31/40 on the Big Eight last year).

Best Picture
Into the Wild
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
(Dark horse: Atonement)

Like everyone, I base my guesses off of the craft guilds, and they say to me: No Country is a mortal lock, and Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood are awfully safe looking. Juno has the all-important Roger Ebert's #1 precursor as well as a whole lot of goodwill. Leaving my not-very-controversial pick of Into the Wild, an awful film that for some reason the actors guild went apeshit for, and they're the biggest voting bloc.

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Sean Penn, Into the Wild
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Joe Wright, Atonement
(Dark horse: Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

DGA sez: Anderson, the Coens, Penn, Schnabel and Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton. They never line up 5-for-5, and the obvious choice to cut is the sturdy but non-flashy work Gilroy did in his lawyer procedural. So who to replace him with? A long-unsung vet (Burton, Sidney Lumet), or an upstart (Wright)? I'm assuming that lingering affection for Atonement's epicness - and a fear of making things too nihilistic - will work out well for Wright.

The non-short film categories after the jump.

Best Actor
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
(Dark horse: Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening)

This is what I like to call "received wisdom." Everyone on the internets is saying some combination of these five + Ryan Gosling, who I think is too young for a second nomination in two years. Langella is there as my "dude i m so teh brave" half-pick.

Best Actress
Julie Christie, Away from Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno
(Dark horse: Keira Knightley, Atonement)

Same thing about received wisdom, except for my excision of Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which is apparently still getting buzz despite the fact that everybody hated it. I think that's enough to keep her out; Linney over Knightley is both for the actresses' histories and screentime.

Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
(Dark horse: Max von Sydow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

For such a sprawling category, this is incredibly well locked-up. Von Sydow has no chance; my format required a dark horse, and he is ultimately the sixth most likely, for all the good it does him. Too bad Affleck couldn't campaign in his actual category of Lead Actor.

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Catherine Keener, Into the Wild
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
(Dark horse: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement)

If Atonement love happens, Ronan over Dee. The other four are pretty much safe.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Charlie Wilson's War, by Aaron Sorkin
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Ronald Harwood
Into the Wild, by Sean Penn
No Country for Old Men, by Joel & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood, by Paul Thomas Anderson
(Dark horse: Atonement, by Christopher Hampton)

The WGA - who has more interesting things going on right now than Oscar precursing - and for the record, I have supported the strike with my whole body and soul ever since it began, but it seemed presumptuous to make a big deal of it - has Zodiac in for Charlie Wilson's War. Which I'd prefer, but they're never 5/5, so let's assume, without much cause, that Sorkin's star power will outweigh Atonement literacy.

Best Original Screenplay
Juno, by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl, by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton, by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille, by Brad Bird
The Savages, by Tamara Jenkins
(Dark horse: Knocked Up, by Judd Apatow)

Animation isn't eligible under WGA rules, and Ratatouille is getting in, end of story. Knocked Up is the least Oscar-friendly of the Guild's set of five, especially with Juno taking up the "indie/quirky" AND the "unwanted pregnancy" slots.

Best Foreign Language Film
The Counterfeiters (Austria)
Days of Darkness (Canada)
Katyn (Poland)
The Unknown (Italy)
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (Brazil)

The 9 film shortlist messed me up bad: I had Persepolis, The Orphanage and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in my top 5. The logic goes: Austria's film is about WWII; Brazil's is warm and fuzzy; Canada's and Poland's are by the most famous directors (Denys Arcand and Andrzej Wajda), and Italy's, alone among the nine, is supposed to be actually good.

Best Animated Feature
The Simpsons Movie

As usual, the easiest category to predict. I mean, what, Beowulf or something?

Best Documentary Feature
Autism: The Musical
Lake of Fire
No End in Sight


Best Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Roger Deakins)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Janusz Kaminski)
Into the Wild (Eric Gautier)
No Country for Old Men (Roger Deakins)
There Will Be Blood (Robert Elswit)
(Dark horse: Atonement, Seamus McGarvey)

I actually think the weakest film here is also the best: Deakins for No Country (if they resist giving him two nominations, it's the less conventionally pretty of the two). The ASC - which is usually 4/5 - forgot to include that Oscar-favored "pretty landscapes" movie (the Westerns, this year, don't count), and if you haven't noticed yet, I don't think the Academy will like Atonement very much.

Best Editing
Into the Wild (Jay Cassidy)
Michael Clayton (John Gilroy)
No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Chris Lebenzon)
There Will Be Blood (Dylan Tichenor)

4/5 with Best Picture, + a musical. There's no telling with this category, which typically has the least to do with its nominal craft.

Best Art Direction
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
There Will Be Blood

I think this is pretty much as safe as houses, this list. Makes me wonder what exciting surprise I forgot.

Best Costume Design
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
There Will Be Blood


Best Makeup
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
La Vie en Rose

From the shortlist, I can't conceive of what else might get in. Norbit is not getting an Oscar nomination, and that's that.

Best Score
Atonement (Dario Marianelli)
The Kite Runner (Alberto Iglesias)
Lust, Caution (Alexandre Desplat)
Ratatouille (Michael Giacchino)
There Will Be Blood (Jonny Greenwood)

Crapshoot, although I think Marianelli and Greenwood are a lot safer than the others. Desplat is close to a superstar in this category, Iglesias did the sort of work that typically gets noticed, and Giacchino had the best work of the year, in my unhumble opinion.

Best Song
From American Gangster, "Do You Feel Me"
From Enchanted, "That's How You Know"
From Hairspray, "Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)"
From Into the Wild, "Guaranteed"
From Once, "Falling Slowly"

The last two are the locks. "That's How You Know" and "Come So Far" benefit from being featured in a major way in their films' plots, and I frankly picked the American Gangster song because other people were picking it.

Best Sound Mixing
Into the Wild
No Country for Old Men
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The sound-mixing guild (yes, there is one) decreed all but Sweeney Todd, giving its slot to The Bourne Ultimatum. I would personally have never expected 300 or Into the Wild, but I'll punt on this issue & defer to their guildiness. Meanwhile, I can't imagine a musical failing to get in, and while Hairspray had, I think, better mixing than Sweeney Todd, it has gotten a colder shoulder throughout awards season.

Best Sound Effects Editing
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Spider-Man 3

Since even the sound editors don't seem to know what this category means, here are the rules that have cropped up:

-Loud films
-Space films

There were no space films, but Transformers was certainly sci-fi, and very loud too (it's eventually going to win, whatever else is nominated). I'm going to be dull as I can be and predict a chunk of sword-clanging movies, and wrap up with Spider-Man 3, because it is 2007's top-grossing film, and it's not getting in anywhere else.

Best Visual Effects
I Am Legend
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Most people are discounting the possibility of I Am Legend getting in, I think because the infected looked awful; but forget not, the ruins of New York were nearly perfect, and they appeared a lot more often. Spider-Man 3 missing out on the shortlist weirded things something awful.

When, oh when, is this category going to retire?

20 January 2008


I am here to inform these modern times of the grammatical era's end and the beginning of flamboyance especially in cinema.
-Joseph Balsamo (Daniel Pommereulle)

Fin de conte
Fin de cinema

-Closing title card
It feels more than a little bit facile to write about Week End, which like all of Jean-Luc Godard's films is saturated in its own meta-narrative movieness. As the man himself once said, the best way to criticise a movie is to make another movie, and I've never felt that as keenly as I do right now. Unfortunately, making Weekend Review isn't an option for me at this moment.

There are two competing schools of thought: one is that Godard's nascent Marxism overwhelms and essentially ruins Week End, the other is that Godard's nascent Marxism drives the aesthetic innovation in Week End and makes it a masterpiece. I agree. That's an overdetermined and precious gag, but it's hard to say anything that isn't overdetermined and precious about Week End, a film that reads itself, tells the viewer what that reading should be, and at the same time (also, beforehand) tells the viewer that this reading is inaccurate and should be ignored, here is the real reading. Oh, and you should ignore that one as well.

At any rate, the film is Marxist, in the same way that it is in color: less as a matter of theme and more an element of its construction. Godard understood something that other filmmakers have understood, but far too few: a film that promotes revolution should be formally an act of revolution. It should not speak according to the rules governing cinema and should invent rules for itself. The director is not always successful: Week End often simply plays by the rules that he had been developing throughout his early career. If "rules" is the right word. Still, its aesthetic radicalism is hard to deny. I have seen only one of the 50+ films, fragments and shorts that Godard has made in the four decades since Week End, and I cannot say if he kept referring to this radicalism in all that time, particularly in his run of Marxist films in the '70s, but I suppose that audiences in 1967 hadn't seen any of Godard's post-1967 films either, so I won't judge myself too harshly on this point.

What happens in the film, more or less, is that a married Parisian couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) who have been secretly plotting to kill each other, travel to her parents' house (they've been trying to kill the parents, too). They have a terrible fight with the neighbor, hit a traffic jam, crash their car, hitchhike across the countryside, fall in with Maoist hippies, and witness the destruction of bourgeois society in fire, tangled metal, sex and cannibalism. This is both the point and not the point at all, although how much it is the point changes from scene to scene and line to line.

I don't think Godard of all people would condemn film as a bourgeois art form (note to self: be sure to put strike-out tags on "don't"), but it's curious how his attempt to prove that capitalism is a fake husk parallels the ways that he shows how cinema is a fake art form. The most obvious is the quintessentially Godardian use of title cards, which comment on the action in the film, explain it, and above all contradict it. I'm not certain whether we're supposed to regard the film or the card as the truth in a matter like this: early in the film (minute 13.5 to minute 22.25, approximately), there is an extremely famous tracking shot down a line of cars, each representing a vignette that may or may not have resonance later in the film, honking as they're stopped in a jam. The two leads drive down the opposite lane to get through the cluster, and the camera more or less follows them, sometimes swinging forward or backward to linger on a specific vignette, or maybe just for the sake of moving the camera. It's hard to tell on one viewing. Anyway, there are a couple times when the shot is interrupted by a card: before it starts we are told it's Saturday at 11:00 AM, the next card humps to 1:30 and third jumps to 2:10. However, the action before and after the cards is unmistakably continuous. We're trained as viewers to respect the card above all things as a third-person omniscient narrator, so the choice must be made: who is telling the truth? The diegesis or the the meta-narrative? And it was sometime in the middle of all this that I remembered that there's no reason to believe that the shot was taken at 11:00 AM or on a Saturday, and it wasn't a real traffic jam.

For Godard, pointing out his film's artifice as a means of reminding us that all films are constructs was just a normal day at the office. I'm not sure if it was before or after Week End that the director famously said "Cinema is truth 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie," (which is usually only half quoted, and it's not the important half) but that sensibility is the cornerstone of his style. That being the case, Week End is still a very special case because of how aggressively it pursues that line of thought, not adapting the playful tone of Band of Outsiders or Pierrot le fou, though it is in nearly every moment a funny film, but confronting the audience like a belligerent drunk. Most famously, the moral bankrupt leading man, Roland, snarls at his wife late in the movie, "What a rotten movie: all we meet are crazy people," and make no mistake, that "rotten movie" is Week End, which he has good reason to want out of. One of the film's other famous moments occurs right at the beginning: a pornographically explicit conversation about a threesome is drowned out - almost - by the insistent violin score. I'm actually going to interrupt myself: the violin score is interesting: as acted and shot, this scene is incredibly bland. Like most of Week End, it takes place in one extended take, and Godard and Raoul Coutard (the director of photography) jazz it up by zooming in and out slowly and at irregular intervals. The only thing that makes it dramatic at all is that music, which tell us "this is emotionally intense!" against all evidence and even as it overwhelms the dialogue, is our only real cue that the dialogue is worth listening to.

Before I interrupted myself, I was going to say: the music makes the explicit anecdote almost but not quite impossible to hear, but the audience for a movie being presumably interested in all that sex and violence (Godard in Week End even more than elsewhere seems to subscribe to the aesthetic that Buñuel would perfect of giving us the stuff of trashy exploitation, but presenting it in a corrupted way that makes it neither trashy nor exploitative, and thereby undercutting what he saw as the motivation for going to see movies as entertainment), the audience will try its hardest to listen to the salacious details of the story, no matter how hard it is to do that. The effect is somewhat ruined watching the film in subtitles, which make the bawdy parts no harder nor easier to get to than the rest of the film, but my French isn't nearly good enough to have turned them off, and I would have missed out on the smut. But that's my guess: the audience has to work to hear the story, and is aware that it is hard work, and therefore that it is a construct and not actual voyeurism.

My God, am I really at 1267 words? Now 1276? Perhaps I should think about winding this up. All that meta-constructive stuff, which is again merely the bread and butter of Godard's cinema, is in service to the destruction in the most violent ways of the "normal," or the capitalistic middle class. I used to be a Marxist but I'm just a fellow traveler now, so I'm not going to judge the value of his political expulsions (I will say that Mao was a really fucking bad person, even in 1967), although I think it bears repeating that politics & aesthetic are inextricably linked in Week End. Godard's film is meant to be uncomfortable and upsetting, not necessarily because Godard wants to whip the audience into a revolutionary fervor (though I'm sure he wouldn't have minded), but at the most basic level because anger is the only sensible response to a world where at any moment, most people aren't happy.

Now I've gone and begun talking in platitudes. Or maybe I have been all along and just noticed it. The basic truth is that Week End is too visceral for me to pin down in words. Maybe I should have watched it a couple more times. If I don't see what Godard was getting at, I saw what he wanted me to think he was getting at, which is just as good. It's hard to miss the point of the film while watching it, anyway, and that makes my work here redundant.

I hope you, dear reader, haven't been too annoyed by the self-reference here. I just thought that the most honest way to review Week End was by talking about how I was reviewing Week End.

Then, by calling attention to it.