Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I love my new job. Tonight, I got paid to hang out, eat Souvlaki at one of the best diners in the area, then go to the movies with a group of some of the coolest guys I know. After talking things over, we all decided to see Valkyrie.

Pause here, please, to read Robert Davis' brilliant review (easily one of the best pieces of film criticism all year) of Valkyrie:

Valkyrie: The 1,000 Faces of Tom Cruise

I went in with extremely low expectations. So, I was surprised when I found myself enjoying Valkyrie. I can't defend myself. I can't even think of any one positive thing to say about the movie that doesn't sound silly. I can only say that I had a good time "at the movies."

The over the top one man superhero Tom Cruise bit worked for me mostly because Cruise's character fails so totally in his mission. There was also a truly neat twist of tension to the story, knowing all along that the plan would fail, but not knowing how it would or what would happen to these losers.

I just enjoyed being paid to go to the movies.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

3 Films + 1 Advil = Satisfied Mind

On Christmas day, I felt a bit sick. Christmas night, I vomited more than a bit. The upside to feeling sick and not being able to sleep was that I got to enjoy a late night Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon.

December 26th, I got up early, felt yucky, and went back to sleep after having a cup of coffee. At 12:15pm, Abby came in and asked me if I was still planning on taking the girls to see Despereaux. Of course!

The Tale of Despereaux was better than I expected, but not quite as good as I had hoped for. It features beautiful animation and backgrounds and is truly laudable in its portrayal of virtue, but it fails to be fully satisfying due to some hasty plot developments and quick plot resolution. I honestly felt cheated. The world that was created and presented to us was more than rich enough to be inhabited much more fully than was done. Still, Despereaux was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but not substantive enough to want to revisit.

By evening, I was starting to feel much better and was even able to eat some. I started thinking about other movies that I could see. If one film made me feel better, maybe a steady diet of the same would heal me completely. I quickly booked a double feature at the local megaplex, arranged for babysitting from the grandfolk, and took my lovely bride out for a night at the cinema.

First, Gran Torino. By far, my favorite Clint Eastwood film so far. I don't know what Eastwood's personal beliefs are, but here he has made the most honestly pro-Catholic film in recent memory. It beats the proverbial hell out of Gibson's Passion. Not only does it feature the most clearly positive portrayal of a priest this side of Karl Malden's Father Barry, but, also, the character of Walt Kowalski becomes a shining example, appropriate for this Christmas season, of light in the darkness, ultimately called to play out a passion of his own. It is Eastwood's genius (and, of course, to the credit of screenwriter Schenk) to set this light in the heart of a man who uses every racial epithet you can think of (and probably a few you've never thought of), drinks too much, smokes too much, feels too little, and is generally an equal opportunity crank. The film almost feels like a loving pair of middle fingers, one pointed at a world that has forgotten the Good News of reconciliation (and the moral and family obligations that that brings), the other pointed at a Church that may have a hard time digesting a film (and, by extension, a world) with so much surface obscenity.

Next, Slumdog Millionaire. This is the film that finally taught me to hate a certain narrative device. I now firmly declare that I instantly hate any film that uses any sort of flashback device to present the viewer with a frame (or sequence) from earlier in the film to reinforce whatever sequence was just presented onscreen. I am not stupid. Most of the audience is not stupid. Please, Danny Boyle, you can trust us to remember something that you showed us an hour and a half ago. Don't show it to me again. Please, don't. That was my plea. All in vain. Besides that pet peeve, Millionaire was frustrating in its presentation of this boy winning a magic ticket out of a slummy life. I'm sure that there's an interesting movie waiting to be made about a slumdog, maybe even one who becomes a millionaire, but this isn't it. I enjoyed Millionaire enough to see what charms it has, but not enough to be won over by them.

Now, it's Saturday, and I'm plotting a way to see either Doubt or Benjamin Button before this vacation is over.

Finally, Brandon, I've now seen all of Flight of the Red Balloon, and I do think that you need to revisit it. Maybe it is overrated, but that doesn't keep it from being quite good.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jingle Bells

Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Don't Care. We're Waiting for Jesus.

A Christmas Tale really surprised me. I hate dramas about rich dysfunctional families. But, I found myself smiling throughout this one. It's funny that the artifice involved in the narrative structure (breaking the fourth wall, an irising lens, titles) heightened my connection to the story and its characters, so much more so than the supposed "verite" of such a false film like Rachel Getting Married.

Two children are gathered around a creche, late Christmas Eve, in their grandparents' house, wondering when the baby Jesus will arrive. "Jesus never existed," says their father. "We don't care. We're waiting for Jesus," is the final answer given by the boys. And so, I maintain, the theme of A Christmas Tale asserts itself boldly from the lips of these boys.

I loved almost all of this film, and that's probably why the part that disappointed me the most was such a bitter disappointment. All of the characters are presented plainly, faults at the fore, unjudged. The script and direction keep us sympathetic, never disgusted. But, one character, Sylvia transcends the pain of those around her, discovers old secrets, and makes decisions that are shown to heal those connected to her. I hated this. Without any spoilers, I can only say that her decisions are clearly affirmed by the director through a rather intentionally obvious linking of her story to the story of Pocahontas in Malick's The New World. I know what connection Desplechin is trying to make, but I don't think it works. Slyvia's "sacrifice" is not the sacrifice of Pocahontas (though I admit some parallels). To be fair, though, this is only one subplot and does not detract too much from the rest.

All in all, a fine film. I'm glad that I broke down and went to see it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Bela Tarr's Damnation

Hungarian film noir.

Yes, it's about damnation, carrying hell about day to day.

"And all stories end badly, because they are always stories of disintegration. The heroes always disintegrate and they disintegrate in the same way. Because if they didn't disintegrate, it would be resurrection not disintegration. And I'm talking about disintegration. Eternal and irrevocable disintegration by the way."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Function of the Photoplay

"But the richest source of the unique satisfaction in the photoplay is probably that esthetic feeling which is significant for the new art and which we have understood from its psychological conditions. The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. No wonder that temples for the new goddess are built in every little hamlet."
-Hugo M√ľnsterberg

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ne le Dis a Personne

About as satisfying as a movie experience can be. Tell No One is an old school movie mystery, the kind in which all of the plot threads are tightly wound together and each little piece receives a satisfactory resolution.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The France, Our Lady.

I don't even know how to think about La France, let alone what.

In a lot of ways, I felt that this was an anti-Cold Mountain (though never deliberately so). The two plots, in many ways, parallel each other, and they are both structured around music, but they are both handled in such different manners. Where Cold Mountain spares us no Hollywood flourishes, La France is content with flat, bare statements, willfully unadorned. La France goes out of its way in a few places to avoid narrative engagement with the audience. And the ending, instead of filled with passionate reconciliation, ends with a slow, almost sad sexual release.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Burn After Reading

Concentrated Burn

I was angry and annoyed, but I liked it. Only because Ted is the beating heart, the moral center, of this deranged tale. In a world full of monsters, Ted's only transgression was a brief lapse in judgment, an act of sin, out of love. The abrupt end of his story thread is absolutely fitting, establishing the moral amidst the farce. Chesterton (in his essay Fairy Tales) best described the Coens' dedication to a core fairy tale idea: "the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto."

Monday, September 1, 2008


Translated Jean Renoir, from Cahiers du Cinema, March 1952...

When one is making a path through a jungle it is a good idea to beat the bushes ahead with a stick and uncover the dangers that lie ahead. Sometime the stick breaks in your hands. Sometimes it doesn’t break, and the force of its resistance numbs your arm. This is the kind of thing I have been doing these last few years.

I didn’t want to stay put. But my compass was out of order. I couldn’t find my direction. I am very proud of this.

It means that I haven’t lost contact with the actual world, with this strange, unstable world of the mid-twentieth century.

Very few people, today, can truthfully say they know where they are going. Be they individuals, groups, or nations, chance alone is guiding them. Those that seem to advance toward a goal are guided by instinct, not by reason.

-found at Films in Review

[HT: Girish]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Four Sided Triangle

What wouldn't you do to have your very own Barbara Payton? I suppose that that's the premise to the oddball Four Sided Triangle, an early Terence Fisher picture.

The plot in one sentence: Bill is so heartbroken that his childhood friend Lena is marrying his childhood friend Robin that he uses all of the powers of his mad scientific genius to produce an exact living replica of Lena for his own purposes of lunatic love.

If the plot sounds loony, that's because it is thoroughly so. Bill, Robin, and Lena are best friends from a young age. Lena goes off and does her pouty woman thing as a young adult while Bill and Robin go off to college and become scientific masterminds. After college, they move back in with Bill's (adopted) father, Doctor Harvey, and they create a marvelous Cornucopia Machine (though they are content to refer to it as a "reproducer") which can make a perfect copy of anything in the world (excluding, momentarily, living creatures). The science is wonky here, but when has that ever mattered?

The idea is a fascinating one and has been explored interestingly in other SF works, but is left unexplored here. The machine (and all of its socio-political and ethical implications) is a mere plot device, existing so that Bill (and the watching world) can experience a second Lena.

Which brings us to the next plot point. Throughout these early scenes of the boys working together on the machine, it is appropriate (if not a bit too obvious) that every time that Lena appears in a shot, she appears either with the Doctor (Bill's surrogate father) or IN BETWEEN the two male friends. Soon enough, Bill's love for Lena is revealed to the audience right before Robin and Lena's engagement is announced. The triangle has been broken and so has Bill's heart.

It's not long before Bill tweaks the machine to be able to make copies of living matter. Lena is home on vacation without Robin (conveniently - Robin is in the city, introducing the machine to government officials) and Bill explains the situation to her. Instead of being horribly freaked out by all of this, Lena, ever submissive, submits to Bill's mad desire and allows herself to be duplicated. If she can't leave Robin to please Bill, she's at least willing for her clone to do so.

What follows shouldn't be much of a surprise to any intelligent viewer. The copy of Lena is too perfect. Not only are all of her physical features exact, but her memories as well have been preserved intact. It's obvious, then, that Lena II (called Helen) is no happier with Bill than Lena I was. The rest of the film plays out well for what it is, but only if one is able to accept the idea that all of these intelligent people could have overlooked this potential serious complication in the "duplication" process.

Anyhow, Helen pretends for a while. Bill is happy for a while.

Then, things get bad. The ending is bittersweet and involves its own mild surprises, all of which I'll leave to the viewer adventurous enough to give Four Sided Triangle a try.

The film is fairly well-crafted for an early 50s "sci-fi" flick. Besides the wonky science and lack of following through on ideas, the film's major weakness is probably its narrative structure. The Doctor character breaks the "fourth wall" early on and establishes himself as the narrator. This allows for some convenient exposition and an ability to artificially move the plot along. It all works, but it also points toward the laziness of Fisher's writing here.

The lab scenes, however, that show the workings of the machine are very effective, suspenseful and mysterious, despite, or maybe because of,their naivety and their speculative charm. My favorite frame of the film appears at the top of this post. All of Bill's sad longing is evident here as he watches the creation of his intended bride, the duplicate Lena. The acting is wooden at times, but always believable as far as I'm concerned (except maybe the character of Robin, who I can't imagine was meant to be such a bore) and this scene is key. Lena isn't much of a woman. She's simple and kind, faithful in a way, but really just a not-so-bright pretty face. Perhaps the primary question raised by the film is what did Bill love her for. Was it her character? Was it her beauty? I think it may have been, simply, her familiarity.

Four Sided Triangle
raises questions and dilemmas that it isn't up to the task of answering, but it has an undeniable charm.

I'd love to see a sequel, set 30 years in the future, in which the British government uses the "reproducer" to create an army of Margaret Thatchers intent on world domination.