An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Except when it isn't

"I’ve also had a nice chance to see the inner workings of that Hollywood world, which was interesting and not irrelevant, I think, to someone trying to understand American culture: this big storytelling machine, that employs some of the most talented/beautiful/energetic people in the world, and has complicated financial/corporate constraints, but still manages, sometimes, to make something wonderful and yet, on the other hand, is pretty much totally misrepresenting life on earth, except when it isn’t." — G. Saunders

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A perfect joke

Sheila: You guys think you're so cool, with your inside jokes. We've got inside jokes, too. Hey Susan, remember the green hat?
Susan: No.
Sheila: Damn you, Susan!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Trailer Treasure, Movie Trash (part 1 of a, well, probably 1-part series, but you never know)

Never trust a trailer. "It's all in the editing" is a vaguely annoying movie-talk cliché, but in the case of trailers it's absolutely apt; within those 2.5-minute collages of densely packed images and sounds, a movie can be remixed and repackaged to look and feel like damn near anything. The content of a trailer so often fails to represent the essence of its corresponding film that deciding whether or not to see a given film based on a trailer is just about the most foolhardy mistake a curious filmgoer can make. This works both ways: the arguably more common (and certainly more explicable) instance of an uninspired trailer doing a disservice to a good movie, and the more mysterious and fascinating (and, yes, disappointing) situation of an outstanding trailer raising expectations for what turns out to be a dud. What makes all of this extra-interesting is that trailers are, for all intents and purposes, authorless; that is to say, they're never credited to any particular editors or filmmakers. I don't know how much control a director has over the trailer for his/her film—I suspect not much, if any, in most cases—but since his/her name isn't on the trailer (as, indeed, no one's is), does it even matter?

Ah, heady questions. But what I'd like to share now are just a few trailers that I really loved as trailers, despite reacting in varying degrees of distaste to the films they were commissioned to advertise. Consider this post a defense of the trailer as a standalone art form, capable of great beauty, boldness, visceral and emotional and intellectual thrills, maybe even profundity—independent of its function as a commercial promotion. Another way to look at it: perhaps these disappointing movies all had the raw materials to be great, but something got screwed up along the way, and their trailers serve as the sole surviving evidence of what might have been. Needless to say (yet I'm saying it anyway; funny how it always works like that), judgments are subjective blah blah blah, and you might think these movies are awesome and that I'm being a churl or a contrarian by professing to prefer their trailers. To which all I can say is: I calls 'em like I sees 'em. Only four movies for now, recent ones, because a) the art of trailermaking has changed pretty drastically in the past decade and I think my thesis above (if I even have one) is most applicable to the trailers wrought by those changes; and b) I've simply seen way more trailers of the past several years than of the preceding century of cinema, so I'm gonna go with what I know. Maybe follow-up posts to come if I can think of more good examples of this particular phenomenon, which right now I'm sort of struggling to do, frankly. But it's late.



I Am Love (2010): The inspiration for this post. Thanks to the Siskel Center's European Union film festival, I'd seen this Italian family drama before the trailer was even released, and when I first saw the preview (attached to a print of Please Give, iirc) it put me in a state of self-doubting shock: I'd been lukewarm-at-best on the film, but the trailer was such a dazzling tour-de-force that I momentarily questioned my own judgment. After some reflection and reading, I determined that this was, in fact, a classic case of...see title of post. The film's meticulous imagery and insanely, overemphatically awesome music score are better-suited to the trailer form, where nothing needs to follow logic. Trailers can afford to be sensual feasts that make no sense, because they can hint at levels of meaning that are not, in the cussedly literal movie form, necessarily present. I Am Love and its trailer may be equally empty, but the trailer is capable of convincing us otherwise, and the movie isn't.



Pineapple Express (2008): Granted, the first half of this trailer is a standard introduce-the-characters-and-premise studio comedy preview. But as soon as "Paper Planes" kicks in (at a moment in history just before that song became the cultural equivalent of a dead metaphor), the trailer becomes a free-floating parade of pure cinema, suggesting the lyrical David Gordon Green production this movie should have been, but wasn't, despite Green's auteurial byline. The movie I'd later see was a largely dull mix of limp '80s nostalgia and already-tired Apatovian tropes, but the trailer never ceased to delight me during those middle months of 2008. When Seth Rogen leaps superheroically to attack gun-wielding thug Gary Cole in the film, it's just another banal action beat; when the same image occurs in the trailer, it's something very close to sublime. Or maybe I just really like listening to "Paper Planes."



Synecdoche, New York (2008): Just about everyone whose taste I respect loves this movie, so I know I owe it another viewing. But man, I don't want to put myself through that misery-fest again. Whatever your feelings on the film, you can't deny that the trailer is awfully misleading: it promises a warm, witty, screwy, humanist intellectual comedy in the vein of I Heart Huckabees (complete with earworm Jon Brion tune) or Charlie Kaufman's previous work. And then you sit down to see the movie and find, instead, the most singlemindedly dour and unpleasant American film (I realize these qualifiers make me sound like Rex Reed or some other completely out-of-touch asshole, but the heart hates what it hates) since, I don't know, something from the '70s, when dourness was de rigeur. Look, anyone who knows me knows that I would never dismiss a movie based on "unpleasantness," but something about Synecdoche rubbed me the wrong way, and I think a huge part of that had to do with my love of the trailer's sweetly off-kilter, aphoristic cleverness and suggestion of profound-meets-goofy humor. I know it's not fair to want this movie to be I Heart Huckabees II, but blame the lovely trailer for putting that idea in my head.



The Limits of Control (2009): Like many effective trailers, this one sort of doubles as a great short film on its own. It's got everything: splitscreen effects, quotable dialogue, and Bill Murray. As with I Am Love, the lack of literal sense only makes the trailer more attractive. But the movie's a head-scratcher if ever there was one, and I say that as a fan of pretty much everything else Jim Jarmusch has done. He's certainly allowed a whiff now and then, but it would've hurt less if the trailer hadn't been so damn cool.

Friday, June 25, 2010

From the dept. of amusing quotations

"I laughed my ass off at much of Home Alone the first time I saw it, in 1990, and nothing I can say in the aftermath of its obnoxious cultural iconography, or any perceived moral imperative to hold any Chris Columbus project in contempt, can change that." — Glenn Kenny, from his evenhanded post about Cyrus.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PSYCHO liveblog

Few movies as famous as Hitchcock's Psycho are also as good. It was one of those rare moments of cultural harmony, as with The Beatles' mature albums and The Simpsons' 1990s run, when a ginormous, game-changing masscult phenomenon was also an artistic masterpiece. J. Hoberman gets at some of the context of that phenomenon in this piece from earlier today, which also reprints Andrew Sarris' original 1960 rave review. The occasion? Psycho turns 50 today. Younger than my parents, but older than Barack Obama.

I watched Psycho a million times on VHS as a kid, but it's been many years since I sat down and watched the whole thing—though I've certainly read many words about it in the intervening years. For this liveblog I won't be going for profundity, since, as Kim Morgan noted today, Psycho is pretty much the most over-analyzed film ever made and there's really nothing new to say about it. So this is just for giggles, the fun of re-encountering a childhood favorite that I happen to know will hold up.

00:53: Wait, Janet Leigh actually gets an "and" in the opening credits??? I guess that wasn't yet thriller-code for "certain death" in 1960. Actually, was this the first instance of an "and" for a star in the credits? I'm too lazy to look this up, but it seems plausible.

01:34: Hm, Saul Bass credited as "pictorial consultant," in addition to his credit for the titles sequence. Uh. What exactly are the duties of a pictorial consultant?

02:19: Couldn't have told you this was supposed to be set in Phoenix, AZ. Of course, this was shot on the backlot with Hitchcock's TV crew, so we don't exactly get the sparkling location photography some of his '50s films had. And do we really need to know that it's "FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH"? At "TWO FORTY-THREE P.M."?

06:07: This is probably my first time watching the film in the 1.85 ratio. The shots look pretty tight...maybe too tight. I assume this was shot open matte? Has there been any AR controversy over Psycho like there has over Touch of Evil? Could be I'm just being oversensitive.

07:06: Department of stuff I didn't realize was fucked up when I was a kid: "My mother gave them to me the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I was taking tranquilizers!" This secretary is awesome, though. If time travel were possible I'd expect to see her on the new season of Mad Men.

09:13: The rich, cowboy-behatted real-estate buyer is the real villain of this film. Seriously, Norman and his mother don't say anything as vile as this guy's "buying off unhappiness" bit. Plus, he cheats on his taxes.

12:22: Love the constant cutting to the envelope full of money in this otherwise banal Janet-Leigh-gets-her-shit-together scene. All it needs is a hissing sound effect to be the snake in the garden.

17:14: As great as Bernard Herrmann's score is, I feel like at times it's more distracting than tension-producing. Although that is probably just the perspective of someone who's seen the movie a hundred times.

24:18: This voice-over dialogue-from-the-future in the car: JL's imagination, or Hitch cluing the audience in to info she's not privy to? Pretty neat trick either way; surprising it's never really been used again.

25:40: In Vertigo, we got Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco from the perspective of the driver. In Psycho, we get Janet Leigh driving around California highways from the perspective of the road.

28:12: Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

29:52: Ha, Norman being unable to say "bathroom" is a great bit of psychosexual weirdness.

30:47: Norman's actually pretty charming at first, in a dorky way. Who wouldn't take him up on his offer of sandwiches and milk?

42:49: I think the key to Perkins' performance is that he looks more like a weird guy you went to high school with than someone who had any business toplining a Hollywood movie in 1960. And his weird, halting, naturalistic line readings, like "fals...fals...falsity." And how he switches between haunted solemnity and forced levity. Just a great, great, great performance and a really inspired bit of casting.

42:49: Just throwing this out there: Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968) is a great, underseen movie that brilliantly capitalizes on post-Psycho audience expectations of Anthony Perkins. He co-stars with the luscious Tuesday Weld at her Tuesday Weldiest. Netflix that shit, yo.

43:42: That whole sandwich-eating scene is so riveting. I've always loved the dialogue in that scene—not just the (deservedly) famous bits like "a boy's best friend is his mother" and "we all go a little mad sometimes," but Norman's little speeches about taxidermy and mental institutions (which, duh, I now realize he has obviously spent time in). I don't know if this dialogue originates in Robert Bloch's source novel (which I haven't read but am curious about) or Joseph Stefano's screenplay; either way, it's a reminder that Hitch isn't solely responsible for the movie's enduring awesomeness.

44:19: The close-up of Norman's eye and the peephole: surely one of the most beautiful shots Hitchcock ever composed. If you stare at it for a few seconds it starts to look almost abstract. And surely 1.85 is the correct ratio for this shot.

44:19: The fact that Gus Van Sant literalized the peeping scene by having Vince Vaughn visibly jerk off represents everything wrong with the remake—with his remake specifically and with the idea of a Psycho remake. Just...no.

49:55: Supposedly the shower scene has 50 cuts and 77 different camera angles. Those numbers seem impossibly high to me, but the scene plays so beautifully that I'll credit them. The spiraling zoom out from her eyeball to her shock-suspended, sideways face is, I'd posit, the scariest image in the film. It's the picture of cold, hard death. No punches pulled. And I like how Hitch's pan from the bathroom to the big house outside includes a stopover to show the envelope of money again. Like, here's why you're dead, you poor sap.

59:55: Norman cleaning up the crime scene is a solid 10 minutes without a single word—in its own modest way, nearly as impressive a feat of "pure cinema" as the shower scene that precedes it.

Stopping for now due to tiredness and headache. Poor Vera Miles, I'm ignoring her part of the movie just like everyone else does.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Prescience

This isn't film-related, but today I started reading Richard Powers' 1995 novel Galatea 2.2 and found within its first ten pages a strikingly prescient passage about the internet, or as his narrator calls it, "the world web." After several paragraphs waxing on about the web's unprecedented wonders, the narrator explains why the bloom starts to come off the rose:

"But the longer I lurked, the sadder the holiday became. People who used the web turned strange. In public panels, they disguised their sexes, their ages, their names. They logged on to the electronic fray, adopting every violent persona but their own. They whizzed binary files at each other from across the planet, the same planet where impoverished villages looked upon a ball-point pen with wonder. The web began to seem a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more anonymous and hostile pen pals.

"The web was a neighborhood more efficiently lonely than the one it replaced. Its solitude was bigger and faster. When relentless intelligence finally completed its program, when the terminal drop box brought the last barefoot, abused child on line and everyone could at last say anything instantly to everyone else in existence, it seemed to me we'd still have nothing to say to each other and many more ways not to say it."

And that was fifteen years ago!!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nicole Holofcener and Kevin Smith: A Match Made in the '90s

In a funny way, Nicole Holofcener is sort of the distaff doppelganger of Kevin Smith. (Or, if you prefer, Kevin Smith is Holofcener's evil twin.) Hear me out: they both broke into the mid-90s indie scene with lo-fi Sundance hits (Smith's Clerks in '94, Holofcener's Walking and Talking in '96) that prized chatty eloquence over any kind of visual strategy, and they both rode the wave of Sundance buzz to ongoing success as mid-level indie filmmakers with healthy cult followings and critical respect. But to look at where these two oddly parallel directors are situated in 2010 is, as they say, instructive: one of them just made her best movie yet, which opened to glowing reviews, and the other one directed-for-hire an abysmal piece of buddy-cop dreck before getting thrown off an airplane for being grotesquely obese. The box office numbers of Cop Out may mean that Smith is laughing all the way to the lipo clinic, but by any measure of integrity Holofcener has emerged victorious. Good guys (and girls) win.

Film blogger Jordan Hoffman made an important point recently when he reminded us that the Kevin Smith phenomenon was entirely a case of being in the right place at the right time. Hoffman writes: "If [Smith were] just a little younger and made his first flick in the age of video and not film, none of us would have ever heard of him. He's a lucky dude." Arguably the same is true of Holofcener. If she were ten years younger and had made Walking and Talking in the VOD/DVD/Internet era of disappearing indie distributors, it seems unlikely that her film would've made much of a splash outside the festival circuit, the kind of movie that today is picked up by IFC for a Video On Demand release and a brief run in New York before heading to DVD semi-anonymity. But starting out when she did allowed Holofcener to find a comfortable niche in film culture, making small, sharply observed character studies and giving her BFF Catherine Keener one juicy role after another. The latest and greatest of these is the new Please Give, which feels more expansive, cohesive and poignant than anything else she's done—not to mention funnier.

Woody Allen's name is popping up in some reviews, which makes sense given the film's NYC location and focus on the comic possibilities of Rich People's Problems. But there is a complexity of character, empathy of spirit, and subtlety of theme here that never really existed in Woody's world. I was particularly impressed by the contrast between Keener's character, an unhappily wealthy woman who desperately wants to shoehorn some altruism into her life to keep her gnawing guilt at bay, and Rebecca Hall's character (the real heroine of the movie), who is so casually, naturally kind that she throws the other, basically likable characters into relief as the flawed, confused fuckups that they (and we) are. And the cranky grandma is awesome.

At this point, some critics would say, the only thing that Smith and Holofcener's films have in common substantively is that they use the camera more as a tool to record performances than an expressive instrument. But I'm not sure that's actually true anymore. There are some lovely shots in Please Give, like when Hall discovers her grandmother dead and the camera holds the shot long past when most directors would cut, Hall's face registering the shock and then staring blankly at the TV, bracing herself for the sad hours to come. Or the shot in the following scene, when the grandmother's dead body dissolves away, leaving an empty chair as a visual metaphor for loss. Or the penultimate shot of the film, a shallow-focus composition with Keener and husband Oliver Platt (who is so, so wonderful) in the blurry background and their newly elated daughter in the foreground, emphasizing the daughter's shift in mood and personality. So I'm pretty much not buying the line that Holofcener pays no attention to form or visuals. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith tried to break out of his own formally apathetic comfort zone by staging the usual array of chase scenes and shootouts in Cop Out, and I guess I have to give the guy points for effort, but where he tried for dynamism he achieved only headache-inducing clunkiness. The girl you brought to the party, Kev: dance with her. And no, that girl isn't Nicole Holofcener. She's at a much better party.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Tyranny of Calendars: Four movies that would've made my 2009 best-of list had I seen them in time


The fractious nature of indie/foreign film distribution in the U.S. doesn't always agree with the arbitrary corralling of movie lists into yearly groups. It's one thing to place a film under the year of its commercial release rather than of its original premiere, but what happens when, say, the commercial release only reaches New York and L.A. in 2009 and hits other cities (e.g. my Chicago) in 2010? If we believe that the practice of listmaking matters even a little bit, these films can fall through the cracks: not always seen in time for consideration in 2009, and inapplicable for lists at the end of 2010.

My 2009 year-end post was already bloated and unwieldy—a reflection of the year's cinematic richness. (I just couldn't help myself from going big.) But if I'd been able to see these four films—three of which I saw at the Gene Siskel Film Center this year, and the other I just caught up with on DVD—I'd have made room for them somewhere, knocking off other titles in either the list proper or the honorable mentions. Consider them all worthy additions to your Netflix queue.

• Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax is a great leap forward for the father of mumblecore, a dryly comic study in hipster passive-aggression that's riveting and meaningful in ways that upend all expectations about Bujalski and the DIY movement he helped create. Shot on warm 35mm film that makes it look more like the American classics of the '70s than the video-noise of today's digital youth, Beeswax transcends mumblecore by interrogating conversational tactics rather than simply having actors stumble over words for the sake of naturalism; just about every dialogue exchange in the film is fraught with doublespeak, ulterior motives or barely-concealed resentment. The dramatic stakes are still relatively low, but Bujalski finds the tension in the everyday. This is the kind of American independent film event that's genuinely galvanizing, or at least should be. Would have easily made my top ten of '09 if it had come to Chicago in time.

• Ursula Meier's Home is a strange and wonderful French film that didn't receive much critical attention upon its NY/LA micro-release late last year; it was only on my radar because Mike D'Angelo and his weird Jim Jones cult of cinephiles voted it one of the top 20 films of 2009. I appreciated Meier's fresh take on the family drama: instead of charting a dysfunctional clan's conflicts and eventual unity, Meier begins with an unusually close-knit, content family and gradually bulldozes their happiness via the reopening of the long-dormant highway across from the family's secluded house. The weirdness mounts organically so that by the time drastic measures are taken for the sake of the family's protection (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers)—measures that would feel like bullshit in a lesser film—I was entirely credulous. Tough to describe this one, honestly, so maybe just take my word that it's a beauty.

• Noah Buschel's The Missing Person is a fascinating attempt to update the tradition of the 1970s anti-detective movie (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, Arthur Penn's Night Moves) for post-9/11 America. Its greatest asset is the explosively brilliant character actor Michael Shannon, who won my loyalty forever with his work in William Friedkin's Bug and Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories and takes on more interesting roles every year. Shannon's skill at suggesting his characters' internal lives makes him perfect for the role of a lost, world-weary private detective, drifting numbly through life; it turns out his condition is rooted in personal tragedy, one that comes to the fore when the tail job he's hired for turns out to have 9/11-related resonance. The plotting is a long way from elegant, but no good detective story is ever about its plot anyway. Buschel nails the elegiac tone and the Long Goodbye-esque incongruity of putting an old-school PI in the modern world. Although the title refers to a literal missing person (again, think 9/11), it's also clearly referring to the detective, and watching the film I fondly recalled the classic tagline of Night Moves: "Maybe he would find the girl. Maybe he would find himself."

• Scott Teems' That Evening Sun, a hit at SXSW '09, is probably the least accomplished film of this quartet, if only for its incoherent third act. But for a while, at least, it's an outstanding character study and showcase for Hal Halbrook as a get-off-my-lawn oldster without, um, a lawn: he escapes from the old folks' home only to find that his longtime farm property has been rented out by his son to a family of no-goodniks. First-time director Teems loads up the film with regional flavor (it's set in Tennessee) and grants humanity and perspective to all the characters, even the ones trying to screw over poor old Hal. Movies about (and starring) octogenarians are so rare that I'm inclined to celebrate this one's virtues and overlook its flaws, which are mostly relegated to the unsatisfying ending anyway. In an added bit of sad real-life resonance, Holbrook's dead wife in the film is played in flashbacks by his recently-deceased actual wife, Dixie Carter.

Note: I'd originally planned to write this post after seeing the French animated film A Town Called Panic, which I regrettably missed in its February run at the Music Box. But I can't find any information about a future R1 DVD release, so I have no idea when I'll be able to see it. But I'm taking an "innocent until proven guilty" approach and, for now, assuming that it belongs on this list of 2009's bastard children.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #8: Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)


Here's a true story about how dumb I can be. Back in college, in an intro American lit class, I was assigned Robert Stone's 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. If that seems like kind of a quirky selection for a 100-level survey course, it was; the professor only included it on the syllabus because Stone happened to be the visiting writer-in-residence on campus that semester, a fact that failed to impress me because I was a total greenhorn when it came to literature and I'd never even heard of Robert Stone. Lazy bastard that I am, I read something like 50 pages of the book before deciding I'd done enough homework that week and casting it aside. So naturally I skipped class on the day our knowledge of the book was to be tested—the day the professor had arranged for Robert Stone himself to visit our class and discuss his novel with us. I remember feeling a modicum of guilt for willfully missing out on this opportunity, but I shruggingly rationalized it because a) I wasn't prepared and b) a week ago I hadn't even known who the hell this guy was.

Cut to 2010 and the egg on my face is fresher than ever. I'm now more familiar with Stone's literary reputation, although I still haven't read anything by him, and I just watched Karel Reisz's spectacularly good film adaptation of Dog Soldiers, retitled Who'll Stop the Rain in a nod to the CCR song prominently featured on its soundtrack. I'm so fascinated by this movie that not only do I want to finally read Dog Soldiers, I want to go back in time and coerce myself into attending class on the day Robert Stone was there to field our questions.

This is on one level a pulpy adventure film, with a tough-guy hero and a girl trying to outrun thugs who are after their MacGuffin heroin stash. But it's also one of those films about the point at which the beautiful dream of the late '60s curdled into the nightmare of the early '70s, and a study of how the Vietnam War drained the humanity out of, apparently, everyone in America—or at least everyone in this movie, in which even the heroes are criminals or drug addicts. In a performance that earned him comparisons to early Brando by the critics of the day, Nick Nolte plays a soldier, getting ready to ship out of 'Nam, whose war-correspondent buddy (Michael Moriarty, striking the right note of dehumanized creepiness) convinces him to smuggle some heroin (or "scag" as everyone keeps referring to it) into California. Everything goes wrong and Nolte ends up on the run with Moriarty's wife (Tuesday Weld, one of my all-time favorites for her performances in sixties films Lord Love a Duck and Pretty Poison, both in my personal hall-of-fame canon). The movie delivers the goods both viscerally and intellectually, driven by Nolte's perfect underplaying of a character capable of both brutal violence and cockeyed philosophical thought.

You can sort of sense where the movie doesn't catch up to the novel. The Moriarty and Weld characters never come entirely into focus. There's not really sufficient preamble to establish precisely why these basically decent guys have entered the drug underworld; we know it's because the war fucked them up, but Reisz and Stone err a bit too much on the side of vagueness with respect to their motivations. I usually don't like to read the book after seeing the movie, but in this case I have a hunch it will be a great supplementary experience rather than a redundancy. And it'll make up for a youthful indiscretion.

Even though only the first 10 minutes take place in Vietnam, this is a much better Vietnam-related movie than the same year's disgustingly overrated The Deer Hunter.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #7: The Landlord (1970)


A confused, angry, wacky, heartbreaking film for confusing, angry, wacky, heartbroken times, Hal Ashby's directorial debut is one of the most complex, original and intellectually searching movies about race in America—not to mention unquestionably the funniest. If it's finally too diffuse and messy to constitute a coherent sociological statement, well, who wants that from art anyway? Screenwriter Bill Gunn even gets in a jab at the comparative shallowness of Hollywood's previous forays into racial drama: the protagonist's racist mother, cautioning him against getting too involved with black people, says, "Remember when I took you to see Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? Well, you know, they're not all like that." The picture inhabits the same Bermuda triangle of race, class and real estate in '70s Brooklyn as Jonathan Lethem's novel The Fortress of Solitude, 'cept this is a primary document, and an utterly fascinating one.

Beau Bridges plays a rich kid who rebels against his blueblood family by buying an apartment building in the black ghetto, then located in now-gentrified Park Slope. Well, it doesn't necessarily start as rebellion, and it doesn't end that way, either. At first he just has asshole ideas about evicting all the black tenants and using the building for...whatever. It's not clear that he even has a plan; he's just a self-absorbed, pampered dumbass. But as he involves himself more and more in the lives of the black folks—including two separate romantic liasions—he finds a liberal outrage he'd never had, even as most of the people in the black community continue to resent or despise him. But he's too busy with personal entanglements to bother with political ones, and he gets a lot of growing up done via his exposure to that black community. In his adrift coming-of-age, the movie often resembles an interracial take on The Graduate.

The first half of the movie is a daring, freewheeling screwball comedy—complete with Godardian asides, jazzy nonlinear editing, jokey insert-cuts and scenes of dinner-table family humiliation—while the second enters considerably more somber, compassionate territory. I have to wonder if Salon's Andrew O'Hehir fell asleep halfway through the film when he called it "something like a Marx Brothers movie charged up on LSD and left-wing politics." It's tough to think of any movie that treats the commingling of white and black, not just sexual but plain old interpersonal, with this kind of casual, immediate honesty. It turns into something quite moving, its beauty aided greatly by that genius cinematographer Gordon Willis, who finds lovely visual symmetry in the earthtones of the Brooklyn neighborhood locations and the people inhabiting 'em.

Something else unique about this thing: it presents a wide array of interesting, multi-faceted black characters in a movie that isn't expressly for black audiences or made by a black director, or considered a "black" film. Sad to say that's still an extreme rarity in movies today.

Despite its status as a perfect example of what made early dispatches from the New Hollywood so special, The Landlord has never been released on DVD. I recorded it off TCM and enjoyed a not-bad print, though of course I'd jump at the chance to see it projected on film someday. I understand, however, that MGM is about to make it available via that newfangled DVD-on-demand service, in which studios will burn you custom DVD-Rs of films they figure aren't gonna be profitable enough released the standard way. Order here! It's worth it.

And if you want to read a legitimately wonderful review of The Landlord please check out Steven Boone's piece, written for The House Next Door at the time of of a 2007 revival at Film Forum. Here's the money quote: "Thirty-seven years on, The Landlord is still shocking, but not because it's salacious or cynical. The film is shocking because of how tenderly and patiently Ashby attends to certain transgressive moments while asserting that in a sane, just world, they wouldn't be taboo at all." I also love Boone's observation that in one scene, the red light Willis bathes a white and black character in effectively renders them the same color. Good stuff in the comments section, too, as Matt Zoller Seitz jumps in several times. Seitz calls it "Ashby's most adventurous movie, photographically and in terms of editing, performance and variety of tone." From what I've seen of Ashby that is absolutely true. Seitz also claims, as a lead-in to discussing Ashby's radical stylistic choices in The Landlord, that "it might be one of the most influential American films that almost nobody but filmmakers and film buffs has seen." You know what? That's my favorite kind.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #5 and #6: The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Goodbye Girl (1977) [Neil Simon double feature]



Oy, why did I do this to myself? Neil Simon is annoying. I'd recorded both these movies off TCM during their February "31 Days of Oscar" thing—George Burns won for Sunshine Boys, Richard Dreyfuss for Goodbye Girl—so I must have had my reasons for wanting to watch them. Neither one is awful, and I even kinda liked The Sunshine Boys, but if you're talking about the Hollywood revolution of the '70s Neil Simon is one name that will never cross your lips. I think the perfect counterexample of why I'm not a Neil Simon fan is Elaine May's brilliant 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid. Now, Neil Simon is credited with the script for that film, but by all accounts May favored improvisation and ran roughshod over Simon's words to suit her own looser, funnier, far more interesting purposes. But most Neil Simon movies are like sealed ziplock bags; directors (in the case of these two pictures, Herbert Ross) treated his scripts with the utmost reverence, leaving no room for life outside of Simon's contrived, stagey banter. You might get a few chuckles out of his quippy dialogue, but good luck giving a shit about his characters 15 seconds after the movie ends—and, if you're like me, you're going to do more eye-rolling than laughing anyway.

Having said all that, The Sunshine Boys is actually pretty cute, and certainly the more enjoyable of the two films. It's Walter Matthau and George Burns as an old vaudeville comedy duo, now doddering old men who hate each other's guts, reuniting for one last show. The strange thing here is that Matthau wasn't doddering yet in 1975 and Burns was. Matthau was 55 playing 20 years older, sort of ironic given his late-career success playing grumpy old men when it was actually age-appropriate, while Burns was already 80—dude was born in the 19th century—and about to be launched into what must have been unprecedented stardom as a nonagenarian. Burns' Oscar was bestowed for purely sentimental reasons, I guess, because his accomplishment here doesn't really extend beyond remembering his lines while being an adorable little old venerated showbiz legend. But Matthau's transformation is remarkable. You truly believe that he is the contemporary of this man 25 years his senior. Certainly no thanks are in order to the amateur-grade makeup; this is all Matthau. Unfortunately it's kind of a two-faced performance, because he has a tendency to go waaaay over the top that I guess Ross didn't feel like reining in. Unusual for Matthau, and pretty annoying, but I still got a kick out of him.

Of course, you also have to deal with what feels like endless screen time for Richard Benjamin playing the world's most boring straight man, Matthau's nephew and agent. And when Simon tries to inject some sentimentality into this uncle-nephew relationship late in the movie...uggghh. No thanks. I also thought it was a mistake to show so much of the sketch rehearsal, because this supposedly classic vaudeville scene was in fact incredibly lame. I was reminded of Aaron Sorkin's pathetic attempts at writing sketch comedy for Studio 60. There is lots of fun stuff here though, like when Matthau tries to explain to his nephew which words are funny and which aren't. "Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny." I wonder if this was the inspiration for Krusty the Clown talking about the word "mukluk." (See also this article.) Simon's quippy style is well-suited to a story of old vaudevillians, and their bickering is amusing most of the time.

I was less amused by The Goodbye Girl. These characters are just so irritating. I don't mean they're unsympathetic or alienating as written, I mean they're unintentionally grating. Marsha Mason with her whining, Dreyfuss with his dumb quirks. I love Dreyfuss, but his Oscar this year should have been for Close Encounters. Alert: this movie also contains a precocious child character. I did enjoy seeing that weird Andre the Giant-lookin', gigantism-afflicted character actor Paul Benedict pop up as a theater director, especially since one of his best-known-to-me roles is the would-be titular character in Waiting for Guffman. But man, the trajectory of the romance is evident from the moment Dreyfuss shows up at Mason's door, and I did not relish the details of its playing out. Boo.

This was sort of a bracing experiment, in a way, moving from a genuinely radical comedy like Hi, Mom! to something so calm and conventional as a Neil Simon double feature. Everything has its place...but I think my allegiances are obvious, then as now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #4: Hi, Mom! (1970)


Wha...I...uh...

I don't know where to begin. This movie destroyed me. It is utterly brilliant and insane and a certain addition to my constantly shifting mental list of all-time favorites.

First of all, anyone who still thinks Brian De Palma is just a Hitchcock ripoff-artist with fancy camera moves needs to see this and have their tidy little false narrative shattered to pieces. Hi, Mom!—part of BDP's early output of late-'60s/early-'70s gonzo-comedies that I once read somewhere referred to as his "Godard period"—is completely unlike the director's famous thrillers. It bears several of De Palma's signature thematic obsessions, but examines them within the context of wackily satirical, countercultural irreverence. And just when you think you've got the movie's bizarro tone nailed down, De Palma drops you into a new situation that culminates in one of the most harrowing and vivid scenes the man ever filmed, before tying it all together in mind-blowing fashion.

The film stars a pre-stardom Robert De Niro as the same character from De Palma's previous film Greetings (which I haven't seen but now desperately want to), an aspiring filmmaker/pornographer named Jon Rubin with a fetish for voyeurism he hopes to translate to cinematic success via a new form of "peep art." In checking over contemporary reviews I see that many people have noted an eerie prescience in this character's similarity to Travis Bickle, and I would have to agree, although Rubin's particular form of sociopathy manifests itself such that De Niro gets to play creepily funny rather than creepily tragic. The movie's first scene is Rubin's hilarious encounter with a porno producer who says things like, "Look at that cleavage! You're not gonna find that in a Fellini film!" and warns Rubin never to enter the men's room at a XXX theater. Rubin's peep-art ambitions fail, hilariously, but he ends up forging a fraudulent romance with one of the subjects of his peeping, based on a series of outrageous prevarications. She thinks he's an insurance salesman up to the very end.

I may be making it sound like a farcical sex comedy, but that's only a tiny fraction of what the film is. I don't want to get into endless plot summary here, but let's just say that Hi, Mom! turns out really to be two films in one, and the other one involves a radical theater troupe of black-power activists documented in black-and-white verité-style for an ostensible TV documentary. When the troupe stages their performance art it's one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever seen on film—more disturbing, to me, than anything in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, to name one film whose shock value I think has been overstated. And it's all the more unsettling for the sick joke with which De Palma buttons up the scene.

Oh, I don't know. De Palma auteurists can and have written about how the themes of voyeurism and meta-textual awareness in Hi, Mom! fit into his larger career; check out this piece at Reverse Shot, whose author agrees with me about the devastating power of the "Be Black Baby" sequence, calling it "the best moment of De Palma's career, and perhaps the key to it, as well." All I know is that the movie's wild mix of tones and uniquely skewed take on sixties counterculture did a number on me. I'm a long ways from being a Brian De Palma completist—I'd kill for a retrospective to hit Chicago, because if anyone's work demands to be seen on film, it's De Palma's—but this movie's iconoclastic gamesmanship has burrowed into my brain more than anything I've seen by him to date. Stay tuned for my "Lost in the '00s" feature, when I cast my lot in with the defenders of De Palma's underrated Mission to Mars!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #3: The New Centurions (1972)


Sucks to be a cop, man.

That's the not-terribly-nuanced thesis statement of this aggressively pessimistic police drama, an adaptation of the first novel by L.A. cop-turned-author Joseph Waumbaugh. Or at least by its last half-hour or so.

One of the first things I observed when I started exploring this period of American cinema was how pessimism and cynicism were so fashionable, almost the status quo. Even otherwise innocuous or generic movies seemed to take narrative turns that support a stiflingly bleak view of human nature and society. In its home stretch, The New Centurions takes several such turns that I just didn't buy. A key character commits suicide for no discernible reason other than sentence one of this blog post, which I felt was horribly misguided; suicide is a trump card that dramatists should basically never, ever pull unless it's abso-fucking-lutely the necessary and best choice for the character. After that, the other main character's life goes into a similarly unconvincing tailspin and the movie becomes a lot less interesting to me.

Which is a shame, because for a while there in the early going, it's pretty great. One of the fascinating things about this era is that movie clichés as we know them didn't really exist yet. Sure, there were clichés and tropes of Hollywood v1.0, but when those were discarded in the late sixties following the collapse of the Hays Code and the sea change in American culture, the slate was suddenly blank. New forms and ideas would eventually ossify into cliché, but for a brief, thrilling period everything was up for grabs. So here, you have a situation—innocent rookie cop (Stacy Keach) shown the ropes by cynical, near-retirement older cop (George C. Scott, wonderful even in an underwritten role)—that sounds clichéd now, but plays fresh in the film. In fact, what the early scenes feel like—as directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, one of those guys who was around in the old days but adapted well to the New H.—is an episode of Law & Order as directed by Robert Altman. There is that sense of free-floating possibility that I associate with Altman. Fleischer avoids a strict narrative, opting for a collage of seedy Los Angeles ghetto activity: a hooker roust (Scott just gets them drunk, drives them around and deposits them back on the street), an intense domestic disturbance, dealings with various shady crooks and lowlifes. Fleischer decorates these scenes with plenty of location ambiance, and the funky Quincy Jones score helps make everything feel very '70s and cool.

The movie spends a lot of time showing how policework destroys a cop's personal life. Nowadays, this is about as banal and clichéd an observation as you can make about cops. There's nothing wrong, exactly, with how the scenes of Stacy Keach's troubled home life are handled, and I liked Jane Alexander's performance as the wife, but they feel boilerplate compared to the gritty, funky rhythms of the cops' late-night rounds. Then the aforementioned suicide happens, and the Altman-esque sense of possibility is replaced by a banal fatalism. Still, if you have any sort of fondness for crime fiction and/or the '70s, it's impossible not to be delighted by at least some parts of this film.

Postscript: What the fuck is going on in that poster? Just look at it. It is hilariously awful. "Hey, this movie is based on a book, so let's put a GIANT BOOK on the poster and have characters from the movie climbing—stairs? a ladder?—into the pages of the book," or something. What.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #2: Hester Street (1975)


Less to say about this one, as it's perhaps more interesting for its novelty value than anything else. What makes it an oddity? For one thing, it was an independently produced, self-distributed film in an era when the word "indie" didn't yet exist and non-studio films were made mostly for the grindhouse. It's a near-plotless film in black-and-white, about a group of Jewish immigrants in 1890s New York, and here's the kicker: writer-director Joan Micklin Silver's commitment to authenticity was so strong that half the movie's dialogue is in fucking Yiddish.

I couldn't believe it either. One of the basic items of disbelief-suspension in American movies is that when characters from non-English-speaking countries talk to each other, they're probably going to speak English, because the movie is for English-speaking audiences who don't want to read subtitles. Not so here. I wonder—did the actors actually learn the dead language, or just train to read their lines phonetically? The only known quantity in the cast is Carol Kane, whose wonderfully subtle performance is several worlds away from her familiar flighty comic schtick. (She was nominated for an Oscar for the role, which is kind of cool.) Her character is an old-worlder just off the boat who's having trouble adjusting to life in America, while her husband, who's already been in New York for a while working at a sweatshop, already considers himself a proud Yankee. That's the only real conflict in this loose, episodic film, which verges on tedium at times but is ultimately rescued by charm and authenticity.

This is surely the only movie ever made to climax in an elaborate Jewish divorce ritual—and still somehow end on a happy, upbeat note. Silver's blithe disregard for audience-coddling makes this a notable film, albeit not the most engaging the decade had to offer. It's no classic, but it's an odd little gem that's both of its time and unique. Oh, and Ray Romano's mom from Everybody Loves Raymond is in it. Jeez, was she ever young? Alas I don't think she speaks Yiddish in the movie. But pretty much everyone else does.

Lost in the '70s, #1: Play Misty for Me (1971)


Usually when I pop onto this blog to electronically scribble some semi-coherent ramblings about movies, it's contemporary fare that inspires me—gushing over Greenberg, for instance, or defending Shutter Island from the wrath of A.O. Scott. I'm more of a "purist" these days: less interested in home video, all about the 35mm theatrical experience. But lately I've been feeling the urge to dive back into the era of cinema that I started exploring on DVD in earnest a few years ago: the wild and woolly 1970s. Although every decade since the medium's inception has much to offer, there is something enduringly exotic and exciting about the '70s, and not just for the well-worn mythology concerning the period—the creative freedom given to young film-school auteurs by major studios, the rise and fall of the New Hollywood, all that obvious stuff—but for reasons less easily defined than that, more mysterious and elusive.

In the spirit of investigating that weird X-factor that makes '70s films so special, I'm launching a new feature here at Strictly From Hunger, the not-too-creative title of which you can find in the subject line of this post. Wonder if I'll stick with it...

In his outstanding video essay analyzing a scene from George Lucas's THX 1138, critic Steven Boone suggests that what primarily sets apart the Hollywood of the '70s from the Hollywood of today is the former decade's allegiance to a basic formal competence that seems lost now. He writes: "Post-1970s, post-MTV, post-AVID, post-Internet, post-DVD, this is what mainstream American cinema has lost. Studios throw money at the problem, when, as this sequence illustrates, the solution starts with filmmakers who understand the subtleties of true film craft...and the power of its simplest tools."

One filmmaker who's been wielding those tools pretty effectively for 40 years is Clint Eastwood, and what's really impressive is that he evinced an understanding of "true film craft" right out of the box: the terrific thriller Play Misty for Me was his directorial debut. Working with a low budget of under a million bucks—even adjusting for inflation, there are no studio pictures today made for that cheap—Eastwood makes every shot count. It's a simple film, with not much on its mind beyond delivering a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller, but beautifully effective in the way Eastwood and his collaborators employ the basic tools that Boone's essay elegizes.

An example: because Eastwood keeps the camera relatively static in most scenes, you know it means something when the camera does move. When the first scene of violence comes, Eastwood films it with a quick series of spazzy POV closeups and odd angles. The effect is jarring because the preceding scenes were shot straightforwardly, and the violence has real meaning and impact as a result. You don't just nod to yourself and think "violence is happening now," as so often happens in modern action sequences; you feel it. It hits you. All filmmaking is violence, but good filmmaking is a sucker-punch to the gut; bad filmmaking is a sloppy drive-by shooting that misses its target and wipes out innocent bystanders.

Today Eastwood has been anointed a "classicist" for his adherence to this approach, although he rarely gets in as many good sucker-punches as he did in Misty. But one of the interesting aspects of this picture is how loose and playful it is compared to most of Eastwood's later work, which, at its worst—like the airless mediocrity Invictus—is too rigid to leave much of a mark. By loose and playful I mean that Eastwood lets himself indulge in the occasional whim; after a startlingly non-linear cut that took two characters from one scene to another in the middle of a line of dialogue, I actually said out loud to myself, "Eastwood would never do that now!" So too with the lovely but narratively extraneous love-montage set to a Roberta Flack song, or the weird detour into fiction-meets-documentary footage of an actual jazz festival the cast and crew invaded for a scene that, Eastwood revealed in a DVD interview, he threw in for the express purpose of burying a piece of narrative info to ensure that audiences would be surprised by an impending twist. In one scene he even blurs the line between dream and reality in a nearly De Palma-esque fashion. That kind of directorial frippery is the opposite of what we expect from Eastwood, but he can get away with it because, to paraphrase John McCain, the fundamentals of his technique are so strong. And it gives the film an added dimension of intrigue that feels very '70s to me.

If I have a problem with the movie it's Eastwood's performance, which isn't nearly as sophisticated as his direction. Clint wasn't yet comfortable playing verbally active human beings rather than stoic, abstract icons of violent machismo. For me, the dude wouldn't fully ripen as an actor until he was old enough to recast those icons in a revisionist light; in other words, I think his first really interesting performance was as William Munny in Unforgiven—still his masterpiece and quite possibly the best film of the '90s. In Misty he doesn't quite seem to know what to do with himself playing a realistic, peaceful man. Blessedly his co-star is the amazing Jessica Walter, known to discerning fans of the modern sitcom as Lucille Bluth, who is terrifyingly convincing every step of the way as Clint's one-night-stand turned psycho stalker turned attempted-murderer. This woman belts out some primal screams of passionate violence that will curdle the blood and bump the goose. You'll never look at Arrested Development quite the same way.

I haven't said much about the plot because it isn't particularly interesting, except in that it more or less invents the template for sexually charged thrillers like Fatal Attraction and its many sleazy imitations. But don't hold that against it. I don't think there are any weird gender politics going on here; the Jessica Walter character is less a sexual predator than the kind of socially retarded nuisance we've all known, regardless of gender, who manages to involve us in their life against our wishes. Fair enough, I say. Oh, and while it really isn't a horror movie at all, the poster's tagline features a fun, horrorific riff on a Flannery O'Connor story title: "The scream you hear may be your own!"

In a 2008 blog post, Matt Singer wonders why Eastwood's name never seems to come up in discussions of '70s New Hollywood vanguards: "His exclusion probably has more to do with his personality than his work: unlike so many of the New Hollywood directors, Eastwood wasn't prone to wild flights of druggy inspiration and always brought his productions in on time and on budget. The fact that Eastwood was a huge movie star, and thus seen as an actor first and a director second, certainly hurt his perception as a "young artist." His politics...no doubt distanced him as well. It's worked out in the end; while so many New Hollywood directors crashed and burned along with the linings of their nasal cavities, Eastwood's matured into a director the equal or superior of those who hogged all the early acclaim." This latter assertion is debatable, I suppose, but the simple-yet-quirky excellence of his debut film really isn't.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Everything's Gone Greenberg

It's kind of a shame that so much of the filmosphere-media-hivemind's focus on matters Greenberg has been related to the paranoid blatherings of professional lunatic Armond White. There's an actual movie behind all that bullshit—and, in my opinion, it's a great one, the movie to beat in 2010.

Moreso than any other current American filmmaker, Noah Baumbach inspires polarizing reactions. Either you're deeply wowed by his dark character studies of toxic intellectual narcissists or you think he's a bratty huckster with Oedipal issues. I'm always amazed by the quickness with which Baumbach haters seem to dismiss the very notion of spending quality time in the company of unpleasant or unsympathetic characters. I like Atticus Finch as much as the next guy, but if he were the subject of every film I'd get bored with the medium in a hurry. Let's face it: life is filled with all manner of assholes, and if a filmmaker is brave enough to explore the hearts and minds of some of those assholes, why should he be shunned for failing to coo us into calm slumber with warm platitudes? The common label of "misanthrope"—applied even by some of Baumbach's supporters—is, I think, a misnomer. Baumbach—or rather the Baumbach of his last three features, after he graduated from those early Whit-Stillman-meets-Woody-Allen comedies of manners—is intensely interested in lives that go off the rails, in the alienating and alienated, in people who have been bitterly disappointed by life, and in the sorrowful victims of their casual abuse. Misanthrope nothing—if anything, Baumbach is a prickly sort of humanist. What true misanthrope would care enough to put these vituperative fuck-ups under the microscope in the first place?

Shedding the dysfunctional-family milieu of The Squid and the Whale (still probably his greatest accomplishment, if only for the exquisite tension of finding out whether or not the Jeff Daniels character's asshole tendencies will be passed down to his son) and the somewhat more problematic Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach has delivered his most darkly hilarious and subtly heartbreaking film to date. His biggest gamble, I suppose, was casting Ben Stiller in the lead, as an underemployed 40-year-old fresh off a nervous breakdown and subsequent stint in a mental institution. (One of the triumphs of Baumbach's screenplay is the casual, gradual way it doles out this info about Greenberg's recent past. It's neither a facile entry point into his character nor some big bad dark secret that changes everything. It's just some stuff about him that's true. In a more general way, Baumbach's facility with smart, careful exposition is pretty amazing here.) But it's a casting gamble that paid off in a huge way. I'm always interested in instances of comedians donning the tragedian's mask, and Stiller's performance as Greenberg is one of the best of those I've ever seen. (It's everything Adam Sandler's turn in Funny People should have been but wasn't.) Stiller shows not a sliver of vanity. He's unafraid of going to dark places and baring his soul, but the great thing is that he can have his cake and eat it too, because he's funny at the same time. Indeed, this is the funniest of Baumbach's three dramas by a long shot. Who could avoid cracking up at Stiller's flustered reaction to a little kid picking up the phone? (It won't make sense out of context, but his reading of the line "Is this a child?" after several moments of confusion made me lose my shit, as did his delivery of a simple "BYE!" after another character told a shaggy-dog story that pissed him off so much he stormed out of the house.)

As revelatory as Stiller is, he's matched every step of the way by the she's-got-something-but-I-can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it quality of Greta Gerwig, the breakout mumblecore starlet who A.O. Scott recently vaunted as possibly "the definitive screen actress of her generation." It remains to be seen whether Gerwig's disarming naturalism will translate to an ongoing career in bigger-budget indies—I can definitely see her taking the Michelle Williams route, though it's equally plausible that she'll go back to the DIY scene that created her—but she adapts her own odd style of anti-acting to a somewhat more mainstream setting quite well as Florence, Greenberg's younger sorta-paramour who's drawn to some inner kernel of goodness in the man that others can't see. The relationship between Greenberg and Florence doesn't follow any formula. It's a weird coupling based on an icky cocktail of self-loathing, inertia, curiosity and vain hopes of cracking the shell, and Baumbach lets it play out at its own rhythm. It's also, in its strange way, the most moving screen romance I've seen since Punch-Drunk Love, which is sort of its fractured-fairytale flipside. And if the movie seems a little light on Gerwig screen time in proportion to her off-the-charts charisma, well, look at the title.

And there are the pleasures of Baumbach's language. No one writes sharper dialogue. It's the kind of movie that makes you wish you had a notepad handy to jot down all the juicy zingers. I didn't, but here's one from memory, Greenberg on L.A. parenting culture: "All the men dress like children, and all the children dress like superheroes." Cinematically, Baumbach and master cinematographer Harris Savides—whose work with Baumbach is wildly different from his work with David Fincher, which is wildly different from his work with Gus Van Sant, and so on—work on a widescreen canvas that that showcases the expansiveness of L.A. while continually placing Stiller on the margins of the frame, reflecting his semi-willful alienation. It's a literary film in some ways, but unlike so many actual lit adaptations it doesn't suffer from lack of psyche-probing prose, because Baumbach's characters are designed for the screen rather than the page.

Although the Atticus Finch crowd likely won't feel this way, I was surprised by how much I ended up liking Roger Greenberg. For all his selfishness and oblivious cruelty, there's a yearning and a sadness at his core that goes beyond humanizing a dickhead and into the realm of deep pathos. He is not the raging monster of Nicole Kidman's Margot—I love the critic Steven Boone's suggestion that Margot works best as a horror flick with Kidman as the bogeyman—but a lonely, wounded man whose delusions and off-putting mannerisms were borne of self-protection. Two scenes—a crushingly revealing coffee with an ex-girlfriend and a rambling drunk-dial voicemail to Florence—drive this point home with subtle clarity. By way of closing, let me point out that Roger Greenberg is about the age that Jesse Eisenberg's character in The Squid and the Whale would be now. Is Baumbach drawing a cross-film continuum of "hurt people hurt[ing] people"? Let's just say it's not hard to imagine Greenberg—a failed musician—trying to pass off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as an original composition at a high school talent show.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some quick mythbusting

Boy, am I tired of the "no one saw The Hurt Locker" meme. I know it's the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner ever, which obviously makes it awesome that it beat the box-office juggernaut Avatar. I understand the David vs. Goliath angle that the media has taken, and I don't have a problem with it.

But every time I hear some variation on the "no one saw The Hurt Locker" line from some media outlet, all I can think of is, just because you didn't see it doesn't mean no one did.

I hate looking at box-office numbers, but let's take a look, shall we?

First, please understand that The Hurt Locker is what you call an independent film, which means it was MADE OUTSIDE OF THE STUDIO SYSTEM. At the most basic level, that is what "independent film" means. It was made for $11 million, which isn't cheap by normal human standards but obviously is considered "low-budget" by the standard of Hollywood studio productions. Given that the movie was independently produced and financed, and released by smallish indie studio Summit Entertainment, IT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAVE A SUPER-DUPER WIDE RELEASE. Look, I feel for the Oscar telecast viewers in South Dakota or wherever who were scratching their heads at why they hadn't heard of this year's Best Picture winner. But media folks, you should know better.

OK, now let's crunch the numbers. According to Box Office Mojo, The Hurt Locker has made about $14.7 million domestically, and $21.3 million worldwide, which is, as far as I can tell, really fucking good for an indie in the current climate. By comparison, the similarly mid-level indie A Single Man, which had a budget hovering in the same ballpark ($7 million), made something like half of Hurt Locker's domestic gross with about $8.5 million. Or to really get some perspective, the beloved-by-me indie Humpday, which was a micro-budget affair, made only about 400 grand.

The Wikipedia article on The Hurt Locker is instructive as to how successful the film was: "It held the highest per-screen-average of any movie playing theatrically in the United States for the first two weeks of its release, gradually moving into the top 20 chart with much wider-released, bigger budget studio films."

The Hurt Locker was a smashing success. It's dumb to pretend that it was some out-of-nowhere obscurity that toppled Avatar despite being seen by no one.

The prevalence of that ignorant attitude is just one reason why this victory for independent film is such a necessary and welcome one.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

R.I.P. Barry Hannah


"I looked over the despondency of the home crowd. Fools! Fools! I thought. Love it! Love the loss as well as the gain. Go home and dig it. Nobody was killed. We saw victory and defeat, and they were both wonderful."

--Barry Hannah, 1942 - 2010. You have to read this guy's stuff. Go track down Airships or Ray as soon as you can. If you've ever trusted me on anything.

Here is the AP story on Hannah's death.

(Photo of Hannah via Jack Pendarvis.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

On feeling dumb, vis a vis "The Ghost Writer"

I'm always bad at political thrillers. Even though I'm fascinated by the genre's conspiratorial whispering and paranoiac behavior, the twists and plot developments in these movies are such that I'm left in the dark almost every time. This is particularly true of the vaunted conspiracy-thrillers of the '70s, when directors like Alan J. Pakula were less interested in narrative coherence than in conjuring a zeitgeist-y mood of sociopolitical dread and mistrust.

Roman Polanski's impressive new political thriller, The Ghost Writer (no relation to either the Philip Roth novel or the '90s Nickelodeon TV series), is enjoying critical comparisons to Hitchcock, which makes a certain amount of sense, but I think Pakula's may be the more pertinent name to drop. Watching The Ghost Writer, I was reminded of my frustrated attempts to parse confounding Pakula efforts like The Parallax View and Klute. These movies, and others of their '70s-paranoia ilk, enjoy an unusually healthy reputation among cinephiles, and not without reason—they're uncompromising works that speak volumes about their times, both socially and cinematically. But they also don't make much of an effort to satisfy the viewer's narrative appetites, or to resolve themselves in ways that, you know, make sense.

Really, The Ghost Writer isn't nearly as challenging as something like The Parallax View or even the tongue-in-cheeky Winter Kills. (Here it's worth noting that one of the key entries in the '70s paranoia movement, and one of its most accessible and enduring films, is of course Polanski's own Chinatown.) In fact, it's comparatively straightforward, although Polanski's approach to the story is quite leisurely—not at all "tight" or "taut," not even really a "thriller" in any practical sense. But here's what I wanted to talk about: during portions of the movie, and especially in the last act after a game-changing plot event that I won't spoil, I was so confused about what was going on in the story as to feel stupid. When the final twists came, I got what they were, but I couldn't grasp their implications, or the chain of events that led to them. I think I've maybe reasoned out some plausible explanation to myself now, but I dunno.

What's the proper reaction when you fail at basic plot comprehension of a convoluted movie? Is it your fault for being thick, or the movie's fault for not revealing itself more carefully? Is it possible to engage with the film on any higher critical-thinking level if you're not entirely certain what the devil happened in it? Of course the answer to the latter question is yes, but it's hard to surmount those feelings of, "Ugh, why am I being so dumb here." I've never been one of those people with a strong inner compass for the contours of stories—I'm never the guy who guesses the twist in advance, for instance. And at any given plot-driven movie, there are typically a few particulars that I don't worry about when they go over my head; I focus on the big picture—and, of course, on elements more important than mere plot. Even people like my parents are way better than me at the whos, whats, wheres, and whys of story consumption. I don't really have a problem with this, but it can be seriously frustrating when I don't get closure on an involving movie like The Ghost Writer.

Good movie, though. It's definitely improving with thought. You should see it. There's an incredible monologue involving a metaphor about airport lines that reminded me of Noah Cross bellowing, "The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!" The final shot is amazing. And, without giving it away, there's one respect in which the film calls to mind the greatest political thriller ever made, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Not that it's in the same league, of course. And by the design of the story, Polanski never really allows a certain character to reenact a certain Manchurian Candidate scene that I would have loved to see. But perhaps I've said too much.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

ME VS. A.O. SCOTT: RUMBLE ON SHUTTER ISLAND

I generally like A.O. Scott. He's a clever writer who understands and respects cinema. (Look up the opening sentences of his Pearl Harbor review for one of the all-time great burns in film criticism.) But sometimes his cleverness goes too far in the wrong direction. Scott's merciless takedown of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a movie I'm pretty much in love with just hours after seeing it, is one such instance. Frankly, I'm calling bullshit. You hear that, Tony? (Yeah, that's right, I know your friends call you Tony. "A.O," like keeping your name a secret makes you so fucking cool.)

Let's look at the first paragraph. I think it establishes that Tony and I are just not on the same page with this film. He complains about the "frantic" and "demented" "amplification" of "every detail and incident in the movie." For him, I guess this is a bad thing. Huh. You know, me, I sort of think that a psychodramatic horror-thriller steeped in noir and Hitchcock that's set at a freakin' asylum for the criminally insane...I sort of think a movie like that calls for a little amplification. Of the frantic and demented variety, even. This would not be the right film for Scorsese to practice the restraint and subtlety of, say, his adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Even our Tony concedes that the histrionic style is "not always unenjoyable," which I think is his absurdly fussbudgety way of admitting that he had a good time. But, whatever, what this opening graph comes down to is that this movie just isn't in Scott's wheelhouse. It is so centrally located in the exact sweet-spot of my own wheelhouse that I can only imagine how drab Tony's wheelhouse is. But enough talk of wheelhouses.

The next paragraph finds Scott paying lip service to Scorsese's directorial acumen. He observes that Marty uses his "considerable formal dexterity" to "conjure a tingly atmosphere of uncertainty and dread." Yes—I think this much is undeniable, so I'm glad Scott didn't try to deny it.

After getting that obligatory praise out of the way, Scott sets his sights on a rather puzzling target: the Boston accents of Leo DiCaprio and other cast members. He picks on these "dialect-coached Boston inflections" that "spread through the movie like a contagious disease." Um, okay. Tony, what the hell do you have against Boston? Is this some weird New Yorker thing? Why are you spending precious review space on this topic?

In a paragraph introducing some supporting players, Tony makes the flat-out dumb assertion that protagonist Teddy's death-camp liberation flashbacks are "gratuitous." Really? Expertly deployed visual depictions of a character's psychological demons and life-defining backstory don't strike you as, I don't know, at least potentially important?

From there Scott launches into a vague yet comprehensive list of the movie's narrative components, which he seems to regard, condescendingly, as silly. "All these riddles send out tendrils of implication that end up strangling the movie," he says. "Mr. Scorsese’s camera sense effectively fills every scene with creepiness, but sustained, gripping suspense seems beyond his grasp." Wait, really? You didn't find this shit gripping? What the hell, man! I guess this is hopelessly subjective territory here, but I can't even remember the last time I was so purely, undistractedly enthralled by a movie. My enthrallment had everything to do with Scorsese's "camera sense," in concert with what I think is a damned well-constructed story by acclaimed thriller novelist Dennis Lehane (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, quite well I thought). If Tony didn't find the movie to be long-term suspenseful, I think that owes more to his own unwillingness to accept Scorsese's heightened, melodramatic approach than to any failure on the director's part.

Now here's where the review gets really annoying: it's time for A.O. Scott to prove how clever he is. He's so clever that, get this, he figured out the twist ahead of time! And because he's such a smart fella, the movie must pay the price of being deemed "a strained and pointless contrivance." Imagine you're Professor McBrainiac A.O. Scott, you're sitting through Shutter Island and it's halfway done or so, and you guess the twist. Now, you could spend the rest of that time examining Scorsese's stylistic stratagems and their thematic resonance. Or you could "study the threads on the rug [Scorsese] is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you." A clever line. But I thought those threads on the rug were kind of, I don't know, interesting and beautiful. And the claim of "pointlessness" says to me that Scott wasn't studying that rug closely at all. Because really there are all kinds of larger resonances here, on a societal level (the state of the mental-health profession in the '50s, creepy postwar paranoia), a personal level (post-traumatic stress, guilt so powerful you have to step into elaborate fantasies to escape it), and a meta-cinematic level (all the Val Lewton, noir, Hitch, and dozens of other genre influences that Marty has spent a lifetime internalizing). There's stuff here, but Scott doesn't want to acknowledge it because...

...It turns out he's got a big ol' agenda to push: A.O. Scott isn't down with the critical adoration of Scorsese. He says that certain people will ignore the silliness of this movie "out of loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt." This agenda was confirmed on Twitter, where Scott posted that his review was sure to offend all the "Martisans" out there. (Again, very clever coinage, but stupid idea.) No one argues that Marty's been making perfect movies lately, or that he's batting a thousand in his filmography. But to attack Scorsese as overrated (as Scott implicitly does here) is basically like attacking Hitchcock as overrated: it smacks of wanton contrarianism and is hard to take seriously. Scott writes that Scorsese was "unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern." I think it's pretty clear that he cares about the DiCaprio character, about his tragic trajectory of violence and shame, and that the "local formal concerns" add up to a crushingly, damningly powerful ending, a "perfect note of empathetic despair" (to quote Glenn Kenny), pairing a final line and a final shot that collectively propel the film beyond simple narrative gamesmanship. But then, I didn't figure out the twist ahead of time, so I guess I'll never be as brilliant as A.O. Scott.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why I'm not okay with THE ROOM.

I haven't seen Tommy Wiseau's The Room, the neo-Ed Wood cult phenomenon that's cornered the market on so-bad-it's-good movie appreciation in the early 21st century. And as of now, I have no plans to see it.

It's not that I'm above it all. I've engaged in my share of laughing at crappy art over the years. Last year, I went with some friends to a midnight screening of Troll 2, another popular title in the so-bad-it's-good genre (there's even a monument to its amusing awfulness in the form of a documentary called Best Worst Movie, whose makers were on hand to shoot footage at the screening I went to). I was reticent at first, but ended up having a pretty good time. It was liberating to partake in the shared experience of loud, collective snarking—not that every drunk dude in the audience with a propensity for derisive quipping was funny, but the fact that we were all breaking down the doors of the holy temple of cinema that is the Music Box Theatre and trashing it with this weirdly watchable gem of junk-culture crap made for a fun evening. For one night, the venerated rituals of polite moviegoing went out the window, and we masochists were free to let loose our inner Tom Servos.

So, okay then, why don't I want to recreate that experience with The Room, which is held in equal esteem by smart critics and undiscerning cultists?

Coupla reasons. For one thing, The Room is inseparable from its creator, the mesmerizingly unself-aware anti-auteur Tommy Wiseau. A cursory glance at any interview/appearance by Wiseau—try this one, which I had the dubious honor of transcribing in my stint as A.V. Club intern—reveals that, to put it simply, there's something wrong with him. The people responsible for inflicting Troll 2 on the world are nowhere to be seen, but Wiseau is front and center in every aspect of Room-mania: he attends as many screenings as he can, gives interviews, and even appeared as one of the tragicomic sideshow attractions on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job. As far as this poor sap is concerned, the audiences who flock to midnight shows of The Room are there because they find its drama so emotionally compelling. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the exploitation of Wiseau, who clearly has mental health problems of one kind or another. Somehow this guy got a movie made. If you want to gather 'round and laugh at its ineptitude, go for it—I'm sure it's just as epically terrible as everyone says. But in what cruel universe is it considered acceptable, much less a fun night out, to mock borderline-retarded people to their face? Even if you disagree with my premise that Wiseau suffers from some sort of mental malady, surely you wouldn't dispute that creating a cult of personality around someone only to ridicule him to his face is just plain mean. I mean, this guy is getting on airplanes, traveling all over the country for screenings—he thinks people love his movie. He think it's a hit, that he's made it big! Don't you have something better to do?

Which brings me to the other reason why the ever-increasing popularity of The Room frustrates me. This past weekend, the film played to multiple sold-out crowds at the aforementioned Music Box, a beautiful old movie palace that dates back to the silent era. It currently serves as Chicago's major arthouse theater. According to their website, the theater seats 800 people, which means that capacity sell-outs are rare; after all, arthouse fare like Andrea Arnold's lovely Fish Tank (currently drawing low-attendance crowds at the Music Box) isn't known for putting asses in seats. But here's my beef: if you're gonna make it out to the Music Box for the schadenfreude festival that is Tommy Wiseau's traveling freakshow, why not maybe come back next weekend to see A REAL FUCKING MOVIE? It's a revolting injustice that a cult turkey like The Room can sell out a theater like the Music Box while films of actual, non-ironic value struggle every week to find even a meager audience. Is our film culture so diseased that an arthouse theater only draws the attention of its city's populace when it's overtaken by mean-spirited camp-lovers? Apparently, the answer is yes.

So go ahead and keep tormenting a damaged filmmaker while devaluing the meaning of arthouse theaters. I'll be giving my money and time to some movies that deserve it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unlikely trios, #1


John Belushi, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Lloyd; Goin' South, 1978.

Unlikely pairs, #1


Christopher Lloyd and Jack Nicholson, Goin' South, 1978.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking ahead: 15 anticipated films of 2010

FUCK YOU, 2009! You are in THE PAST! Here are some movies I'm excited about that are theoretically coming our way in the new year, a.k.a. THE FUTURE, in alphabetical order:

The Adjustment Bureau


Writer-director George Nolfi is an unknown quantity, but a Philip K. Dick adaptation starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt? That seems like something to get excited about. I know PKD's work has fed a bunch of lousy films, but I've got a hunch about this one. Damon's choice of roles has been pretty much unerring in the past decade (leading IFC to declare him "The Actor of the '00s"), so I trust that this will have at least some merit. No release date yet, but Universal's got the rights and we can probably expect it in the fall or holiday season.

The American


Droolworthy: a collaboration between Anton Corbijn (the Dutch filmmaker who directed a number of visually striking music videos as well as that Ian Curtis biopic that I never saw) and George Clooney (he's "The American," all right). IMDb's one-line plot summary: "An assassin hides out in Italy for one last assignment." Works for me! Drops in early September, with Focus Features distributing.

Black Swan


Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler (which is feeling more and more like one of the key films of the decade that just ended) is set in the world of New York City ballet and stars Natalie Portman “as a veteran ballerina who finds herself locked in a competitive situation with a rival dancer, with the stakes and twists increasing as the dancers approach a big performance. But it’s unclear whether the rival is a supernatural apparition or if the protagonist is simply having delusions." So, it's some kind of psychological thriller that may or may not have a lesbian sex scene between Portman and Mila Kunis (who plays the rival). Works for me. Fox Searchlight will reportedly be distributing but no release date has been set.

Dogtooth


I know very little about this Greek drama except that it racked up huge raves at Cannes and Toronto last year from discerning critics such as Karina Longworth, Mike D'Angelo, and Scott Tobias. When people stand up and applaud a film with no advance buzz by an unknown director, you can bet something extremely interesting is up. Kino's acquisition of the film will hopefully allow us to see what that something is in 2010.

Greenberg


Noah Baumbach is one of the only American filmmakers with the perceptive eye and nuanced insight into human behavior of a great novelist. I fully expect him to apply these talents to Greenberg, which stars Ben Stiller as a guy dealing with his mid-life crisis by "trying to do nothing for a while." His (much younger) love interest is played by beguiling, oft-nude mumblecore ingenue Greta Gerwig. The trailer looks promising, and Baumbach has never led me astray before. Comes out in March via Focus Features.

I Am Love


Fresh off her triumph in Julia, Tilda Swinton appears in this Italian melodrama; when it premiered at Toronto last year, reviews pegged it as a visual stunner worthy of Sirk and Hitchcock. Magnolia Pictures has picked it up for U.S. release some time this year.

Inception


Even though I had major reservations about The Dark Knight, I can't deny that the enigmatic trailer for Christopher Nolan's upcoming film is brain-ticklingly exciting. Nolan is currently in the rare and enviable position of being a brainiac intellectual filmmaker with a free pass to do whatever the hell he wants in Hollywood, thanks to the massive success of his previous film; here's hoping he takes advantage of it. With a tagline describing it as a sci-fi thriller "set within the architecture of the mind," there's a good chance this film will be closer in tone to Nolan's brilliantly clever Memento than to the overstuffed, quick-cut bombast of The Dark Knight. We'll find out when Warner Brothers releases it in mid-July.

Never Let Me Go


I'm worried about this one. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels, like, ever, and even if Mark Romanek gets it right, I feel like he can never really get it right, you know? But I can't wait to see what he comes up with. Fox Searchlight will be releasing it, probably some time during awards season.

Paul


This year, beloved British goofball-geeks Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have separated from longtime collaborator Edgar Wright (more on him later) and hooked up with American director Greg Mottola, whose lovely coming-of-age film Adventureland was one of my favorites of 2009. This sci-fi comedy, which Pegg and Frost wrote as well as star in, is some kind of road movie about two nerds traveling cross-country with an alien. And the alien is voiced by Seth Rogen. Again, works for me. I can't find any info about possible release dates, but Universal is distributing; a summertime release would make sense.

A Prophet


One of the big critical hits of last year's festival circuit; supposedly an epic, tough-as-fuck crime drama set in a French prison. Definitely in my wheelhouse. Some reviews have compared it favorably to The Godfather, and I won't have to wait too long to see it: Sony Classics is distributing in late February.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


Bryan Lee O'Malley's cult comic book series, a giddy bubblegum-slacker adventure comedy, couldn't ask for a better cinematic translator than Edgar Wright. The comics are all very goofy and irreverent and perfectly suited to the man behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I'm not thrilled about the Michael Cera factor (why hasn't Darwinism allowed Jesse Eisenberg to destroy him yet?), but this should be great fun nonetheless. Comin' atcha in August via Universal.

Shutter Island


We all know the deal: Martin Scorsese made an awesome-looking horror movie, it was supposed to come out in October '09, Universal shelved it because it wasn't prestige-y enough to compete in awards season, now we're getting it in February—which would normally be dumping-ground season, something of an insult to Marty. If this doesn't make my top ten at year's end, I'll shave my eyebrows off.

Somewhere


Sofia Coppola returns. Stars Stephen Dorff for some reason. A Hollywood story that's reportedly influenced by Sofia's experience growing up with Francis as her pops. I don't love Sofia's films but I find myself very interested in what she's cooked up here. Hey, if it's even half as sensuously satisfying as daddy's Tetro, I'm on board. Focus Features has the rights but there's no release date yet.

Toy Story 3


I don't believe this requires any contextual information. Comes out in June. Thank god Don Rickles lived long enough to participate in this.

The Tree of Life


My heart was broken when Terrence Malick's long-gestating fifth film didn't come out in 2009 as originally planned. I may not survive to see 2011 if I am denied again. Newish distrib company Apparition supposedly has the rights. This movie may or may not contain dinosaurs.