Thursday, December 31, 2009
1) A Serious Man (Coen)
2) The Limits of Control (Jarmusch)
3) Munyurangabo (Chung)
4) Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)
5) Moon (Jones)
6/7) Still Walking/Summer Hours (Koreeda/Assayas)
8/9) Ponyo/Up (Miyazaki/Docter)
10) Drag Me to Hell (Raimi)
Honorable: Adventureland, Beeswax, The Big Community, Food Inc., The Hurt Locker, Julie & Julia, Public Enemies, Sugar, Timecrimes, Two Lovers, Visioneers, The Yes Men Fix the World
And my favorite non-2009, non-2008 releases that I caught on DVD for the first time this year:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes)
In a Lonely Place (Ray)
La moustache (Carrere)
F For Fake (Welles)
Dawn of the Dead (Romero)
The Plumber (Weir)
Blast of Silence (Baron)
Lancelot du Lac (Bresson)
The Seventh Continent (Haneke)
Dear Wendy (Vinterberg)
It Happened One Night (Capra)
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Unrelated, I just re-watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in at least ten years.
I also watched The Happening. I couldn't help myself. I knew I had to see it eventually. Why not treat myself on Christmas Eve?
And you know what's funny?
Pulp Fiction is generally good.
The Happening is generally bad.
But, they both have something in common. As "pure" auteur pics, they both share the same weakness.
All of the dialogue sounds like it may as well be coming out of the same mouth. There are lots of characters but each one of them speaks strictly on behalf of their creator, not on behalf of themselves.
Tarantino seems to have grown out of this bad habit (though he hasn't shaken it completely). Shyamalan seems to be stuck in a rut. He knows how to frame an effective shot and structure a story appropriately, but his personality gets in the way. If anyone gives him money to make another film (which is doubtful at the moment), I really hope that they require him to shoot someone else's script. He's an extremely competent and talented director with a headful of muddled narratives.
Dialogue and stupid story aside, The Happening is a bold and brilliant failure. It's not a stupid movie in the same class as average stupid movies for the masses. Any film that attempts to make wind and trees and bees disappearing scary and has a lame science teacher hero has already beaten almost all of the fart jokes of the year combined. The Happening is a noble failure.
Christmas day was fun. I had the sniffles through the day, but generally felt fine. The sweetness of the world had arrived. I had only to enjoy it. And I did.
Maybe a bit too much.
The night ended in a haze of Imported Polish potato vodka courtesy of brother Peter.
The next morning, I found that Santa had left me a nasty little day-after-Christmas-cold. I felt crappy, but went to work anyhow. After getting some work done, I spent the last few hours of my shift recuperating on a couch with medicinial TCM before my eyes. While on that blessed couch, I saw my first ever Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes film. Interestingly enough, my first Holmes film was the last one that this marvelous duo would ever make. Evidently, Rathbone wanted to spend the rest of his career being in awful horror pictures instead.
The film was Dressed to Kill and it was an absolute delight, just the sort of thing that my sick and grumpy soul needed to make me feel better. The mystery involved three music boxes worth killing for and a femme fatale to die for. I especially loved the whole tobacco sub-plot and also Watson quacking like a duck to console a traumatized little girl.
Jason, your boy may be too old or too cool for these Holmes movies, but I say give them a try. I plan on eventually watching them all with my girls. While I'm writing to you, specifically, Jason, how many times do I have to beg you to start your own movie blog? 2010 is a good year to start. One sentence per movie watched. That's all I'm asking. It's cheaper and more satisfying than collecting Star Wars merchandise.
Instead of getting better, by Monday the cold had moved down to my chest and I was starting to cough up foul colored gunk. I spent the day reading Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (which would make a great film!)
Tuesday, I called in sick. I caught up on a couple of borrowed films and a third that I regret buying for a few dollars at Hollywood video.
Knife In the Water is good at what it is, but I mostly don't care. I'm a geek and relate to geeks. Whether I like it or not, Synechdoche, New York was made for me. Knife In the Water was not. I can't relate to "manly" men trying to out-man each other. I can't even enjoy watching how stupid this contest is. I have firsthand geek knowledge that this is stupid painful behavior on the part of non-geeks that only ever hurts geeks. I'm rambling and not really discussing the feature. Oh well. There is a knife in the water. At least we get what we're promised.
F For Fake delivers the geek goods. I loved it. Maybe more on it later.
Spielberg's The War of the Worlds is a huge disappointment. It works as a monster/chase movie with little to no science fiction premise to back it up. If that's all I'm getting, I'd rather watch Carpenter's The Thing a few more times. There is some family dynamics here, but it's only the same Spielberg broken family learning to love and live through the cracks. And you know what? It doesn't even work as a monster/chase movie. I think that the only SF element here is that Cruise and Fanning are immortal and invincible, preventing any audience relatability. There are no scares or thrills when you can't suffer even the possibility of a bad end.
That's it. Those are the last six films seen in the calendar year 2009, bringing my watched total to around 200. And I've written about every one of them. It's been fun.
Top ten tomorrow.
See you in 2010.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Counting repeat viewings, but not counting short films, I count 195 as the number of feature films I watched in 2009. 58 of those were seen in a theatre. About 40 films qualify as 2009 releases, more or less depending on how one determines these things.
Despite my Cornell time, I didn't watch significantly more films this year than last year. The number was 185 films in 2008. The big difference was that I saw a lot more films at the cinema this year instead of home on DVD. And the other huge difference is that I spent time writing about each one this year.
My upcoming "best of" 2009 list isn't set in stone. I'm looking forward to catching up on films I missed, either because they never played here (35 Shots of Rum, The Headless Woman, The Sun) or because I was too busy to see them (The Box, Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline). I probably would have made it to those last three or four if Mildred was 14 instead of 7, but I'm definitely not rushing anything. She's growing up too fast already. I'm glad that she loved Ponyo so much, both her and the film brimming with wonder.
There are also current "awards-style" films like Invictus, Up In the Air, and The Road that I'd like to eventually see.
2009 seems like a decent year in film. I need to see two Herzog films before I can know for sure. It might end up being the best year of the decade. I like Herzog documentaries. I adore Herzog narratives. And we got two this year.
I had the special experience of working at Cornell. What made the year great, though, wasn't the quality or the quantity of the films released or seen. The best part of this film year was maintaining this stupid blog and being able to read yours. It's been a lot of fun.
Before my top ten list, here is my top ten UNSEEN films of 2009, ranked according to my burning desire to see each one.
1) My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done
2) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
4) Police, Adjective
5) 24 City
6) Bright Star
7/8) Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are
9) The White Ribbon
10) The Sun
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Ashes of Time Redux (2008)
La moustache (2005)
The New World (2005)
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A Serious Man (2009)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
If some lunatic cinephile demigod appeared to me in a vision and threatened celluloid annihilation if I did not choose ten and only ten films from the last ten years that were the only films that I'd ever be able to watch again from this decade, the above list is what I'd choose.
It might change tomorrow, but it is what I'd choose today.
I'm not arguing that these are the "best" films or the most important ones. These are the films that I've thought about the most and currently mean the most to me. It's a totally subjective list meant to please me and only me.
The list is a strange one, I know, not least because I don't include a single film from the first five years of this decade. What kind of decade consists of only five years? Well, that's how I experienced the decade. I missed out on most of the critical darlings, foreign and arthouse, from those first five years and I just haven't caught up yet. I probably won't ever catch up, but I do have the TSPDT 250 list as a starting guide to what I'm missing. Then again, something like Dear Wendy was almost universally reviled by critics yet just barely missed placing a spot on my list of ten above. Of course, ten is a stupid number, but it's the traditional number and I'm sticking with it.
The films I picked:
Appaloosa is a small masterpiece. I'm convinced. I could name any scene, but the one that pops into my head right now is the shootout in the street. There's no rolling or running, dodging or ducking. Only men standing. Repeatedly firing lead at one another until someone falls down. The editing is fast and tight. We get a shot of someone firing a pistol. We get a shot of a man falling down with a bullet inside of him. Oh, the simple pleasures.
The Coens win by earning two spots on the list. While others play it safe with their moralizing, the Coens run roughshod through Ecclesiastes, leaving us to feel the questions. No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man are two towers of ancient morality not disguised as but perfectly achieved and expressed as a thriller and a domestic drama respectively. The Coens are among those happy few who can have their cake and eat it, too.
Including Burn After Reading, the Coens are on a winning streak at the moment. We still have the Chabon project and True Grit yet to come!
Ashes of Time Redux, The New World, and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon all probably qualify as romantic pictures. I didn't know I was such a softie until I made this list, but I do have a mushy core. Strike that. These are not soft easy films. These are hard films with sharp edges. They will cut you. If they don't hurt and you don't bleed, you probably have no life or love left in you. These three films are each brilliant, each building up love as difficult but precious rather than tearing it down and cheapening it like most films do.
In the Mood For Love and 2046 are both hovering around the boundaries of this list, but I prefer Ashes of Time.
Ashes of Time is a bit of a cheat since the film was first released in 1994. Without having seen the original cut, I have to argue that the Redux is a different film from the original in that any new cut of a film produces an entirely new and different film. The Redux belongs to 2008, not 1994.
A Scanner Darkly really captures the spirit of Phil Dick's work. And Dick's spirit is one of the most important of the last century, with us still today more than ever. I'd love to see Linklater direct a Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said adaptation. It would be unlike anything he's done before, but I think that he's the most qualified to do it. As an aside, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe Kaufman could stop navel-gazing and try an Ubik adaptation as his second directorial project.
La moustache haunts me. I don't know why. Maybe it plays perfectly to my own thoughts and fears about identity and relationships. Maybe I'm just amazed by how it works as a thriller.
Munyurangabo hits every right note. The domestic scenes are the heart of the film, but it's the last twenty minutes or so that will take your breath away. What is amazing is that the film achieves this broad shift in emphasis so organically.
There Will Be Blood. I still haven't watched it on DVD, but I saw it three times at the cinema. There's no question that I would immediately go three more times if it re-opened for a one week run in Binghamton. It and The New World struggle in my mind for the top spot on this list with all of the others swimming around each other below these two titans. I decided not to even try and rank them. So alphabetical.
I'm glad that I don't really have to limit myself to rewatching only ten films. I get to keep my copy of King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters and my shelf of Pixar magic.
These exercises may be mostly meaningless, but they are fun. And there is no denying that we each have our own sub-canons alongside and maybe against the wider critical consensus. I know that there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of films that I would need to see for this to be a "fair" list, but if I wait until I've seen all of these films that I "should" see, then I'll have missed all of the list-making fun. Everyone seems to believe that the decade is over. I need to review and evaluate the decade as I've experienced it because now, not later, is the time to give an account.
So, the ten above. I'm happy with them. I could have opened up the list to 25 or 75, but it was more fun narrowing down to what I feel are absolutely "my essentials."
P.S. Brandon, you'll be happy to know that 2007 leads the pack with four titles!
Friday, December 18, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Full disclosure: I was tired and a bit cranky when I watchd it. Maybe I didn't give it a fair chance, but I don't care.
I was still tired and cranky when this week's student films were screened. That didn't stop me from loving one of them and liking the others.
There were four "intermediate" student films.
You Never Know is a fun time-travel superhero film made in the same loving spirit that my friend Nick directed the Parthe films of our youth. It's not great, but I smiled through most of it.
The Big Community is the film I loved. It is a sweet homage to the Big Sleep and general hard-boiled tropes while simultaneously being a nice family film about intergenerational relationships. I talked with the director afterward. He promised to send me a DVD copy, so hopefully you'll be able to see it, Brandon.
Rethinking Tragedy: Creative Solutions to Conflict in the Caucuses was the only dud. It's too bad because I think that the professor's ideas were interesting and worthy of a better presentation.
Jacob's Birthday features a boy being raped on his 16th birthday. The story seems a bit too deterministic in its plotting, but the direction is confident and the acting is solid enough. And the homosexual angst is obviously heartfelt, adding to the sincerity of the pain envisioned and enacted.
There were also seven animated films, but nothing really special. The music video for Poison is only so-so, but I'll single it out as the best of the bunch because the song is catchy and the tune has popped into my head more than a few times already since Sunday.
The program was a nice way of ending my ushering career. It was a fun experience. I'm going to miss doing the job, but it will be fantastic to not have to leave my family anymore. I really began to regret committing to the entire semester. I had fun, but it really wasn't worth spending so much time away from my family. If only I could quit my regular job and get paid the same to work as full-time usher. Oh well.
I'm all caught up again now with writing. I think I'm going to take a break for a week or so. I'll be back after Christmas with some sort of year-end post.
You need to get that new computer Brandon. It's not quite as fun doing this alone.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Those are Mr. Chow's words to himaelf in 2046. I'm not sure that he even believes them. It's a comfortable lie.
2046 is an excellent sequel/companion to In the Mood for Love. The ideas in it are also clearly in dialogue with both Ashes of Time and My Blueberry Nights, the other two Wong films that I have seen. I am ignorant of any other filmmaker who is currently exploring romantic love at this level of depth and committment in such an adult way. Rohmer comes to mind, but he's at the end of his career now.
Out of Sight is a cute little heist romance that has fun with the notion of love being a matter of timing. Easy to watch and easy to like, the film is pretty perfect at being the trifle that it is.
Junebug is comparable in its ambitions to Still Walking. Junebug fails by comparison as it teetertotters along the borders of melodrama. This would be okay if the characters were fully established, but I feel like they are rather players in a grand directorial joke instead of real human beings.
Both brother characters seem underdeveloped, working as fleshed out stereotypes instead of being their own men. Overall, I feel lukewarm toward the film, but I'm glad for more Southern stories on screen. Also, the one scene where Johnny is trying and failing to tape the meerkats transcends the rest of this film and most other films like this. It's just a beautiful moment of truth. Love is all a matter of timing.
Those are three of the films you let me borrow. I have to wonder if you recognized the common themes when you gave them to me or if it was just a happy accident.
I also watched Two Lovers. It wasn't nearly as awful as I was prepared for it to be. It is actually quite good, among the best American films of this year that I've seen. Which may not be saying much with competition like Transformers 2 and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Like the films you loaned me, Two Lovers is about love and timing. And it mostly succeeds in its modest attempt to tackle such important ideas without trying to provide answers. Just feel the questions.
Some of the writing is poor (only in the sense that shortcuts are taken), but the story is solid and the three main performances are all top-notch. I hope that Pheonix changes his mind about his retirement.
Gray is definitely a director to watch. I'm excited to see what he does in the future and hope to get around to checking out his past films.
I also mostly rewatched Julie and Julia at home with Abby. I say mostly because i walked out a few times to do things and i fell asleep before the end. Like Out of Sight, it is a trifle and it likewise holds its own by being more fun than it has any right to be.
Finally, Munyurangabo is a great film. I highly recommend it. I'm grateful to Film Movement for giving it DVD distribution in the States. I don't know much about Rwanda or the genocide there, but I am familiar with the wickedness of hatred and the futility of unrighteous anger. Munyurangabo made me want to get down on my knees and beg for mercy.
Love is not all a matter of timing.
It is all a matter of continuing sacrifice. It is a matter of dying to self and living for others. I still have a lot to learn.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Wolf Man is no Frankenstein. It is not a great film. It is still a lot of fun and has a stubborn serious streak. Through little fault of his own, our hero becomes a wild killer. He has to deal with mystical events beyond his capacity to understand. As he so clearly puts it, "things you can't touch."
I've also finally delved into the third episode of Breaking Bad. It is definitely a turning point. The first two episodes were joined together in style and substance. This third episode departs in a few ways. The "flashback" that frames the episode does a lot to establish the episode's theme, achieving a didacticism absent from the previous two episodes. If anything, this aspect of the episode is too clear and too meaningful. The episode is still great, but just barely. The season could go up or down from here. Even if it is a bit too clearly stated, this episode shares The Wolf Man's trepidation and guarded respect for things you can't touch. Both explore the "Jekyll" and "Hyde" sides of man. Yes; they explore the soul.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The Yes Men effectively actualize the change they wish to see happen. Only for a moment. But really for a moment.
As harbingers of the change that must occur if we do not first destroy ourselves, the Yes Men defy the present world order to the shame of us all, to the extent that we rationalize our own particpation in its evils.
Back to the ending. It reminded me of nothing more than the grand finale of that very special film, The Muppet Movie. All possibilites, however remote, spread open before us and all of the artifice involved in the making of the movie is washed away in a wave of audacious joy. I don't remember ever crying at the end of The Muppet Movie. I was sniffling back tears at the end of Fix the World.
Speaking of false hope, the Cornell student films were largely a disappointment. To be fair, these were the Intro class films. Next week are a few Intermediate films and some animation.
I won't go over them all since there's little chance that anyone else will ever see them.
The two best films were The Elephant in the Room, a humorous "coming out" tale, and Reel Culture, a documentary about Cornell Cinema. Love at First Site showed promise and Young Blood was too cool for its own good. Both were about fleeting relationships. The rest were mostly disposable, though none were entirely bad. I'll save the program and check IMDB in ten years for the names of all involved.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I've just caught up with the first four episodes of the current V remake. Thank you, Mom, for recording it for me.
Unfortunately, V is, in a bad way, mindcrushing. The best compliment that I can give V is to describe it as completely watchable. I had no problem sitting around for 168 minutes or so even though I started actively disliking it early on in the first episode.
The story and the dialogue are both stupid. Not innocently stupid. Actively and dangerously stupid. The action is not at all compelling and usually resolves in silly ways. Elizabeth Mitchell's character is as generic as can be. I mostly liked Mitchell in Lost. She's wasted here. She's not given anything to work with and doesn't rise above the blah material at all. We get as boring a hero as can be. It's not any better for any of the secondary characters.
V both succeeds and fails, not by being good or bad, but by achieving perfect mediocrity.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Sugar is a sweet little film. Alongside Rudo y Cursi, Sugar stands in a tradition of sports movie cliches and gently rises above them. Besides being a great baseball film, Sugar smartly comments on immigration issues in a much more effective way than the heavy-handedness of something like last year's The Visitor.
Ignore all the hype about Blind Side (which, to be fair, I haven't seen so shouldn't be bashing). We already have the best sports movie of the year. Its name is Sugar.
I just finished the first two episodes of Breaking Bad and really love it. The show barely skirts the line of the ridiculous while providing thrills and eliciting heart-churning emotional responses. There's an ultrsound scene in episode 2 that is so perfect, it's among my favorite motion picture moments of the year.
The wall between "cinema" and "television" was already being torn down when talented B directors like Joseph Lewis and "A" talents like Hitchcock were working in early television and international masters like Rossellinni, Rohmer, and Fassbinder started working in the medium (and probably from the first flickering moments in Philo's workshop).
That wall is in ruins now. Most of us so-called "cinephiles" barely make it into a cinema. I've been lucky to see a lot of films projected this year, but the dominant way that I watch "films" is through DVDs, either on my relatively small television or computer. Sometimes I break out the digital projector. I've got it set up nice in my bedroom right now and hope to use it more often now. Every once in a while, I've done the truly horrific and watched something on my Zune (I've yet to watch a full movie on my iPod Touch, but it will happen). All to say that motion pictures are much more than any single format.
I can't speak for the general condition of today's television programming. I assume that the large majority of it still sucks. Breaking Bad does not suck.
Breaking Bad is basically a lively cross between Bill Nye and Hard Case Crime. There's a pulp sensibility permeating the series (at least the first two episodes). The action is compelling and vitually non-stop, from the very first shot of pants flying through the air to the bathtub scene in episode 2. Every moment, even the quiet ones, from intimate breakfast chatter to chemistry class are moments of action that advance the tight plot.
Besides the action, the show is closely related to pulps in its morality. Our "straight-laced" chemist Everyman breaks bad without hesitation and ultimately without regret (so far). There's a hardness to him that is pure noir, alongside the struggling humanity of his situation that makes him not only relatable, but totally sympathetic.
There's a 3-second or so reaction shot during the above-mentioned ultrasound scene that reveals, in a silent face, the quiet desperation at the heart of all the action. Then, quickly, hardness; a cover-up which is as painful for both of the characters involved as it is incrdibly funny dialogue for the audience to enjoy.
As an aside... Brandon, you wrote that Jarmusch reminds you physically of Marvin. During Limits, I kept thinking that Bankole reminded me physically of Jarmusch. Which may be weird, but I thought it was there.
I'm looking forward to the rest of Breaking Bad and also getting around to checking out all of the other critically acclaimed shows of the past decade that I've mostly missed out on.
On a related note, I don't pretend that Lost is great art, but I'm more excited about the upcoming season of Lost than I am about any upcoming art film (except for the new Malick which will be the movie event of 2010). When Lost is doing everything right, it becomes more than goofy entertainment. It's magic.
Friday, November 27, 2009
It plays out at its own defiant pace, interacting with the paintings depicted in it at least as much as the films it references and the "lone gunman" tradition that it stands in. All while tearing apart and remodeling time, space, and imagination.
There is no center and there are no edges.
As far as I understand what plot there is, I think that the film plays out like the cinematic equivalent of Woody Guthrie scribbling "this machine kills fascists" across his guitar, then using that death machine to belt out "take you riding in the car," every note screaming playful liberty.
I liked it a lot.
Brandon, sorry I missed Mr. Fox. Thanks for calling. We didn't have anyone to babysit and I didn't feel like coming out alone since I'd already spent a few nights going off on my own and hanging with friends on the Island. I just felt like staying home with family and getting to sleep early.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
After writing my A Serious Man post, I read all that I could find that has been written about the film. So far, my favorite article is this Salon interview... http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/btm/feature/2009/10/01/coens/index.html
Well, I'm definitely out of my depth with respect to Jewish culture, but the whole story -- the whole movie -- feels to me like a Talmudic parable, a moral fable about what happens to somebody who makes certain choices in his life. Then you've got these other stories nested into it, including a prologue that's in Yiddish and has the feeling of the old Yiddish theater. It uses the old tradition of the dybbuk, a kind of demonic spirit from Jewish folk tradition. I'm sure you don't want to give too much away, but what can you say about the relationship between that story and the main story?
E.C.: Well, it's interesting that you ask about it in connection with your other comment, that the main body of the movie feels like a folk tale or fable. That, I guess, is the ambition -- well, not even the ambition of putting on that beginning story, because there was no clear-cut agenda. It just felt right to us. But I think it felt right for that reason. It felt like a folk tale, so it served implicitly as an introduction, to say, "Here's another folk tale, here's another Jewish story." I guess this is imposing an explanation after the fact, because we don't really think about it in these terms while we're doing it, but, yeah, it's part of the whole Yiddishkeit, part of the whole Jew storytelling thing. Jews are big on stories, you know?
J.C.: Yeah, exactly. At a certain point we were thinking, maybe not explicitly, "What is Jewish storytelling?" This is Jewish storytelling, and this is Jewish storytelling. Are they an echo or a reflection of each other? Can they be? Would that be interesting? "What is a Jewish community?" This is a Jewish community in the shtetl, this is a community in another place. Are they reflections or echoes of each other in some way that's vaguely interesting and feels right, or at least not wrong? Will it be an interesting ambassador for the rest of the movie?
As Ethan was saying, sometimes you impose these things after the fact. But I think there was a little bit of thinking that by doing this we were saying immediately, "This is a story very specifically about Jews." Not a story about the Midwest, which you might have felt for a while if we hadn't done this. We were plunging into the deep end, and saying, "Here you are in a world of Jews, and that's what this movie is going to be about." It's a cliché, but when you see them in the long black coats and the sidelocks, that's putting your face in it. And we thought that was a good thing.
I don't really feel like writing about The Hurt Locker, but a post is past due and I'm otherwise caught up with writing about everything I've been watching. It is an expertly crafted film, but it falls short for me in the way that most war movies do. War is thrilling. Bah humbug. I liked The Hurt Locker. It makes sense to me as a drug movie and it works well at what it is. I just don't care too much about it now.
I took Abby to see A Serious Man tonight. It's still the best film of the year and I stand by my initial reading of the film. I could write a stupid funny story about the terrible circumstances leading up to seeing this film, but I'm too tired.
Brandon, if I can leave the island early enough tomorrow and make it back to Binghamton in time, I'm hoping to catch another double feature at the Cinema Saver, Where the Wild Things Are at 5, then The Box at 6:45, but it depends on how tired I am. I doubt you'd want to come out for it, but the offer is there if I even go through with the plans myself. Also, I'm not sure if I can come out yet to see Fantastic Mr. Fox on Thursday. I've been overindulging on personal nights. I don't really want to come out unless we can find a babysitter and Abby can come, too. Right now, I'm thinking probably not, but who knows, it may change.
I'm generally cranky at the moment, but here's a moment to thank you, Fred, for the "glorious dawn" link. I hadn't seen it. It's simple and genuinely moving. I love it.
Monday, November 23, 2009
I really loved A Serious Man. At the moment, it's my favorite film of 2009. Like the writing on those teeth, it's going to keep me up at night until I realize that I have no proper answers to its challenge.
I saw it earlier tonight in the best of circumstances, at a great little theater with an old friend immediately after enjoying a liter mug of delicious Oktoberfest.
Brandon, I just read your post after getting back home to my parents' house after seeing the movie. Great timing. Now I'm staying up too late responding.
I'm also still struggling with the pre-credits sequence, but I love it. The best that I can make out is that it introduces themes of faith and rationality that are explored throughout and ends leaving the question up to debate. I also think that it immediately sets the film within a folklore and storytelling context. I've argued in the past that I see most Coen Brothers films as fairy tales (cf. Chesterton) or parables (cf. Meyers). I think that it is clearly the case here.
The Book of Job parallels are there, but not as overtly as many early reviewers made it sound. I went in to the film with bare minimum knowledge of it. What I had heard over and over again, though, was the Job comparison. Despite the constant refrain of "I haven't done anything," I don't think that Larry is as passive or as whiny as you make him out to be, but I think that you're on to something. Larry isn't quite a righteous man like Job even though he "hasn't done anything." He is a contented man and happy with his life. He's not sure why others can't see things the way he does.
The trouble, of course, is that he's not seeing clearly at all. Seeing, he doesn't see, and hearing, he doesn't hear. You seemed to think that the rabbis gave bad answers and that the Coens take some pot shots at the religion of their youth. I have to disagree. Larry can't see it, but each rabbi does give him a piece of wise counsel.
The scene with the first rabbi is one of my favorites in the whole film. Just look at the parking lot! Really, really hilarious. I also think that his advice is true and useful. I've already written that Larry has vision problems. He can't see what is going on around him. He does need a new perspective. He does need to look at a parking lot with wonder in his eyes. Parking lots and automobiles are freaking amazing. More so, we should be in awe that creatures just like us surround us day by day. Gobs of organs and tissues are held upright in a case of fragile flesh and we're able to vibrate the air to send thoughts to one another by flapping two pieces of meat in the middle of a meat head. We walk around on green pointy blades that bend beneath our feet. We can feel granules of sand on our toes. We have toes! The world is magical, but we can't see it.
The second rabbi gives Larry more advice that Larry doesn't want to hear and thinks is useless. Basically, the rabbi tells Larry that we live in a barely comprehensible story, that we can only understand as it is, through a glass darkly. We live with the questions and life goes on. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD." This isn't comforting to Larry, but, then again, Larry's still suffering from blindness and deafness.
The third rabbi is busy. He's thinking. This also displeases Larry, but it's obvious at this point that Larry doesn't have ears to hear anyhow.
The rabbi does speak to Larry's son and gives him what amounts to the moral of this whole tale. "When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies; what do you do then?" The rabbi's next statement, after his praise of "The Airplane," is an answer to his own rhetorical question... "Be a good boy."
I'm not sure what it means that Jefferson Airplane's lyrics were changed from JOY to HOPE, but it's there. Or did I mishear this? Anyhow, Larry has discovered that the "truth" of his life has been a lie. Not all is stable. At a certain point, he does realize that maybe, just maybe, this testing of everything in his life has made him reevaluate his perspective, but then clearly rejects the idea. What is interesting is that he remains basically good throughout. Finally, though, dealing with the lies and having his hope die, Larry makes the fatal mistake of no longer suffering through the questions. He provides his own answer. He chooses not to "be a good boy" and crosses a line. The moment he does so, the magnificent finale begins. The ending caught me by surprise, but it only took me a couple of minutes into the credits to decide that I love it.
As far as what movie it reminded you of, I'm going to guess Drag Me to Hell.
Lastly, I really liked the nightmare sequences, especially Canada.
I'm hoping to see A Serious Man again tomorrow night. I'll let you know if I do.
I finished writing this at 3am. Hopefully at least some of it is coherent.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Like Departures, I was actually enjoying Julie and Julia through its opening 30 minutes. It was irresistable. I let myself get swept away in its delight. I kept waiting to be disappointed. The difference this time was that I wasn't. Julie and Julia, despite (because of) its conventional Ephron script kept me delightfully engaged from start to finish. I say that it's conventional because it is; all the typical RomCom stuff is there. It just seems more mature than any of its countless siblings and every note of this familiar formula is played just right.
There are moments toward the 3/4 mark where the film drags because the obstacles set up for these women are sure to be overcome, but even these are tolerable because by the 3/4 mark, I was already invested in everything coming out alright. I knew it would and I was eager to see it happen.
Don't dismiss Julie and Julia. It's one of Hollywood's best offerings this year; easily worth a rental when it gets its DVD release. I'm looking forward to seeing it again with Abigail.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Scream, which I also watched recently, holds up as a really smart love letter to the specific form of horror movie that flourished in the late 70s through the 80s. It lovingly deconstructs the slasher film while upholding all of its basic tropes. I've never been a fan of these sorts of horror movies and ultimately don't care about Scream, either, but I do respect Scream for its critical devotion to the tradition it stands in.
Since I've been engaged in educating myself about horror films and know that I like at least some goofy horror... I finally broke down and saw Zombieland at the Cinema Saver.
I went in with low expectations, but I was still disappointed. There's a lot to like and I smiled and chuckled often, but the film lost me during the cameo sequence and never won me back. Up until that point, I bought all of the emotional stuff going on even if it was dumb and shallow. There was still some core realism to the expressed emotions amid the goofiness. Once Brandon Musa (or some other comedian with the initials BM, I forget) shows up, though, and gets casually killed, every last remnant of reality vanishes and the stakes don't matter anymore. If the characters can't care about BM's death, I can't care about anything else that happens for the remainder of the movie. I couldn't even care about attaching a spoilers tag to all of this. Sorry. The ending was a big let-down and about as conventional as possible, but, even so, it was fun to see Woody Harrelson play things so cool as a one man zombie annihilation machine.
What I took away from all three of these films is the knowledge that I still don't quite know how to define "horror." Is it an "I know it when I see it" sort of thing? Am I trying to be too rigid in my genre boundaries because of my quest to understand this thing?
Epidemic didn't feel like horror. It felt like an examination of a creative process in a pre-Kaufman Kaufmanesque style. Heck, Synechdoche, New York is more of a horror film than Epidemic is. Scream works in the slasher sub-genre and is probably the clearest to define of the group. Zombieland has a backdrop of zombie apocalypse, but it's more of a comedic road movie than anything else, sharing more in common with National Lampoon's Family Vacation than Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Brandon, I got your note too late. I ended up going to the Cinema Saver for
the double feature of Zombieland/The Hurt Locker. I'll be writing about The Hurt Locker soon after thinking about it for
a few more days. Also, we're in training together on Thursday. Want to work
out a movie loaning swap?
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Response: Nah, I wouldn't say that it rattles me. It doesn't even really bother me. I actually think that it is really fun when we have disagreements. I enjoy making little friendly jabs as I know you do. I do think that you misunderstood part of my post, but I'm more than willing to take the blame for being unclear.
My post was more me wondering out loud about the things that make us all unique even when we share commonalities. Despite the uneven tone of my post, I think that these differences are a good thing and allow us to see things more clearly, not less.
Quote: I'm not surprised that you hated this film but I am surprised by statements like “I have to grapple with my respect for you as a person and specifically for your opinion regarding movies.” I don’t even know how to respond to something like this except to hope that this was written with heavy sarcasm.
Response: Yikes. Here is one of the limitations of quickly blogging. I do apologize if there was any insult there. I actually meant quite the opposite. I wasn't saying that I have to grapple with whether or not I'm going to continue to respect you and I definitely was not tossing out any moral condemnation. Au contraire!!
To be clear (which I obviously wasn't before), what I meant was: I do respect your opinion. Therefore, based on this respect, I can't dismiss your tastes in regards to something I don't like. I need to "grapple" or wrestle with your way of seeing. I need to be honest and reevaluate whether or not there is/was something wrong or incomplete with my own opinion of a specific film because I know with certainty that I can learn something from you. I'm missing something in the film if I don't learn to see it in the way that you are seeing it. I may still disagree and that's cool, but through disagreement I learn something.
Quote: When we write about film here we are not making an argument for right or wrong but for our personal tastes and I had thought that we were not going to make attacks on each others' character. When you make a statement like the one I quoted above you make it sound like I robbed an old woman rather than simply expressing my love for a film.
Response: Again, yikes! I do hope my clarification makes sense and has made things better. I have nothing but praise and respect for you, my friend. Even if you are wrong about Benjamin Button (insert smiley face here to indicate good will). :)
Friday, November 13, 2009
I finally got around to seeing Benjamin Button this past Saturday night. I went in biased against it (I couldn't help it but at least I was aware of it) and left it feeling underwhelmed. I was hoping to find something there that would make me appreciate the film in some small way, but I couldn't find a thing. The romance at the heart of the film didn't work for me so nothing here really mattered. I hated the Katrina framing device. The aging backwards and all the themes that accompanied it was stupid and worked out implausibly. I liked some of the music and the special aging effects were alright. The film's most obvious reference point is Forest Gump, but I think that it also shares affinities with countless biopics in its failed attempt to tell a sweeping life story in under three hours and make it all MEAN something.
So, why do we disagree? Isn't it as obvious as the elpephant in the room that this picture just isn't so good after all?
It's tempting to think that I'm always right and those that disagree with me are wrong. But, I was given a wife to be witness to how often I'm wrong. I just can't get away with it. Even though she agrees with me about Benjamin Button.
Besides admitting that I can be wrong, I have to grapple with my respect for you as a person and specifically for your opinion regarding movies. We're so often in agreement that the disagreements are striking.
How could you possibly fall for the schmaltz of Button? Why do we look at 25th Hour so differently?
I insist on loving Julien Donkey-Boy and recently became quite enamored of Dear Wendy, another film that it seems every critic loves to hate. Terror In a Texas Town, easily dismissed, is my ideal Western, above any Ford or Hawks. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.
It's a funny thing.
I am really glad that you liked Still Walking. The more I think about it, the more I think it might be the best movie (that I've seen) of 2009 so far. It's only been four days since I've seen it, but I haven't been able to watch a film since. I almost went to see Where the Wild Things Are on Monday afternoon, but I got to the AMC parking lot, then couldn't do it. I haven't even been interested in the DVDs I got from the library. I want Still Walking to rattle around in my head a little longer.
Also, I was a bit dismissive of Beeswax. I shouldn't have been. It's among the best 2009 releases that I've caught so far, easily in a top ten if I was forced to list a 2009 top ten right this moment. Movies like this one should be championed and held above the megaplex offerings and most of the arthouse fare. It still doesn't particularly resonate with me deeply and personally in the same way that something like Moon did, but it has a quiet power. To get in one last dig, Beeswax, in its small way, has all of the fierce veracity that Benjamin Button, in all of its bombastics, lacks.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
"one of the best Westerns I've ever seen"
"best 'costume drama' I've ever seen"
"effective uses of pop music in any film I've ever seen"
I now promise to eliminate the words "I've ever seen" from my vocabulary. If I write these words again, shoot me.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
As long as I'm writing about what I hope to watch, I have to confess that I haven't gotten back to the Boetticher box set like I had hoped. The Tall T is all I've seen so far, but that film is easily one of the best Westerns I've ever seen. I love Scott's character. I hope that I grow up to be half the Man he is.
I started writing a post about Rossellini, Neo-Realism, and The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, but scrapped it because I was unhappy with it. Simply, Taking of Power is the best "costume drama" I've ever seen, steeped in Rosselini's neo-realistic aesthetic. I've been to Versailles (somewhere there is a picture of me relaxing and reading a pulp Western on the palace lawn.). What's fascinating to me Is how fair Rossellini is in his treatment of the king. I have to wonder how the film was received politically when it was released. I wish that I had bought all of these historical films during the last Criterion sale.
The Bugs Bunny/Road-Runner Movie is another formative film from my childhood, like The Muppet Movie, that I recently got a chance to revisit with my own children. My girls have already been (over)exposed to Loony Tunes/Merrie Melodies through the first two Golden Collection DVD sets that we own. The Golden Collections are awesome, but when I was a kid, it wasn't so easy to find these 'toons. The Anthology films like Bugs/Road-Runner were my primary means of exposure. This particular film is really a "best of" collection of Chuck Jones shorts. I've grown to prefer most of Freling's shorts, but there's no arguing about these Jones selections. Great stuff.
I especially love the 19-minute Wile E. Coyote/Road-Runner chase. I still havent seen Hostel, but I'm sure that it has nothing on these 19 minutes. This is the original torture porn.
Broken Flowers is a lovely little movie. I wasn't sure about it given the cast and the story, but I shouldn't have doubted. Jarmusch plays every note just right. We leave aching a bit.
Sometimes I just fall for a movie, completely, even when I know better. Dear Wendy caught me with my guard down and it absolutely charmed me. Thomas Vinterberg delivers the heart which may sometimes be lacking in his friend Lars's own films. Von Trier wrote the script here, but it is Vinterberg who grounds the entire enterprise in real human emotions and gives a real sense of place to staged surroundings. "Pacifists with guns" is as good an externalization as anything to represent the obvious tensions that a dude like myself feels, torn between wanting to be cool like Randolph Scott out in the world, but feeling more comfortable sitting around writing about what goes on in a dark theatre. Anyhow, the Zombies soundtrack ranks among the most effective uses of pop music in any film I've ever seen.
Tonight was a good night at Cornell Cinema.
I really enjoyed For All Mankind, a documentary about the Apollo VIII mission. Fred, I think that you'll love this if you haven't seen it already. It's got a good original score by Eno, but my favorite moments involve the astronauts playing music that they've brought along on cassette. From Buck Owens to Berlioz, I had no idea how important a role music played in getting us to the moon. There are also a few fun nods to 2001 by the astronauts.
I don't know if humans should be messing around in space until we figure out how to get along with ourselves and with our planet down here, but I also get giddy about space travel and conquering the stars. As a Christian and as a Science Fiction fan, I'm certain that this whole crazy universe is a lot more wonderful than we've yet imagined.
Still Walking, the second picture of the night, is all about life on the ground. Unlike its Japanese sibling, Departures, this film earns every strained and painful moment, and also every joyous one. The score is beautiful and supports the images instead of overpowering them.
I'm just not the right guy to write about these family dramas. Brandon, you did a great job with Summer Hours. You need to see Still Walking and give it the proper considered response that it deserves.
Friday, November 6, 2009
I watched The Muppet Movie Monday night with my family as a way of washing clean another disappointing night at Cornell.
Departures starts strong. I started to be charmed by its general likeableness. Here, I thought, was the film I needed to cheer me up.
To my great dismay, the film falls apart after about half an hour and out-hollywoods Hollywood with its sickeningly sweet maudlin sentimentality which is hurled at us in the most manipulative ways. I'd rather puke for an hour.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex struck me as a largely useless hipster presentation. The soundtrack choices are awful. By the time Dylan's Blowing In The Wind is playing over the end credits, I was ready to take some direct political action and either blow up the German studio that made this or blow off my own head for having sat through it. I knew I should have gotten up and left the moment that the words "this is a true story" appeared on the screen. Not even "based on.". Nope. This film IS a true story. What terrible audacity. I wanted to hurl a rotten potato at the screen. Screw you, Complex. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has more truth in any single frame than you could ever hope to achieve.
Dang it, I ended another night at the Cinema angry. At least there's The Muppet Movie.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
I'm working the overnight tonight (as I did last night). I'm tired, but I'm keeping myself awake through Internet surfing.
Besides some theology stuff, two of my best movie finds were the following.
Martin Scorcese lists his Top 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time.
1. The Haunting
2. Isle of the Dead
3. The Uninvited
4. The Entity
5. Dead of Night
6. The Changeling
7. The Shining
8. The Exorcist
9. Night of the Demon
10. The Innocents
And a new Tarkovsky documentary, Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I couldn't tell any of the characters apart. Even the two leads were hard to tell apart, but it didn't really matter until the final moments. I didn't care.
The creatures weren't scary. I'm not sure why except that the girls start acting like action heroes. Honestly, I don't think they'd be able to fight off a pack of wild dogs. I'm not sure how they fend off these evolutionary perfect underground killing machines.
Besides finding fault in the ease of killing these things that should have all of the natural advantages, I was disgusted by the editing. I've been reading about Neo-realism and Bazin's notion of "image facts" so maybe I set myself up to hate this film. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but I can't stand the type of frenetic editing that is showcased here during the fight sequences. There's no room for the truth of an image to impress itself on us. Most Westerns from 60-70 years ago intuitively understood this. We might be able to tell a staged punch, but we always got the idea that two men were really struggling with one another. Now real action is hard to come by. I was left with a feeling of the falsity of it all and was quite conscious of the manipulation trying to be foisted on me. The music went along with this manipulation and I found myself hating the music as well.
Bringing things full circle in this mini-marathon, I have to compare the film to Dawn of the Dead. Dawn takes its time and gives us characters to care about. Also, the make-up may be dated, but we see clearly the horror of the zombies waiting to attack. I obviously need to see more Romero films, but on the strength of this one, I consider him a master. At the very least, he reigns as king of this mini-marathon. Neil Marshall is just an upstart wanna-be.
Here's my final ranking of the five films.
Rated on the Netflix scale 1-hated it to 5-loved it
1) Dawn of the Dead - 5 (fell in love)
2) Videodrome - 4 (reluctantly really liked it)
3) Rosemary's Baby - 3 (liked it)
4) The Thing - 3 (liked it)
5) The Descent - 2 (didn't like it)
Monday, November 2, 2009
- Robert Louis Stevenson, from An Apology For Idlers
Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.
- from Slacker
I start to fear for the world when I think about eternity.
- from Woyzeck
I was delighted to stumble upon Stevenson's Apology not too long after finishing the head-spinning double feature of Woyzeck and Slacker at home on DVD. Stevenson is one of my favorite writers and I was happy to grab a couple of collections of his essays for cheap at the Ithaca Book Sale.
Slacker and Woyzeck are very different films, but share some commonalities.
One is a seemingly loose string of character profiles held together by a vision of dignity for each one. The other is a sad and comical examination of a singular man with a clear conscience.
Both share playful philosophical underpinnings that celebrate the dignity of man opressed by social constructs designed to rob every man of that inherent dignity. Both films are about redeeming time because the days are evil.
Slacker, in particular, is an expression of the merits of idleness, so called. Woyzeck goes far to show the comic dangers of enslaving oneself to anything.
It's important to note that neither Stevenson nor Linklater are celebrating slothfulness, but instead advocating for a very specific creative activity that is profitable apart from societal recognition as work. Herzog gives us a complimentary portrait of a man working to absurd ends. My long "chore" post attempted to occupy this same territory, but my thoughts are barely coherent compared to the pure offerings of these three great works of reflective art.
Friday, October 30, 2009
I still love ushering. I wish I hadn't volunteered through the rest of the Fall. It's becoming a chore. I've only seen one extraordinary film (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) amongst a host of films ranging from miserable to bad to alright to rarely good. I have low expectations even for the critically acclaimed International pictures still to come.
Maybe I'm a grouch. Strike that. I know I'm a grouch. But why would I subject myself to wading through so much muck? Because when I find the few diamonds, I forget about the dirt that I've accumulated and just bask in the radiance of such a rewardingly beautiful jewel. Then, the memory of finding that jewel sends me crawling around in the dust again desparately searching for others.
The worst part of this past Sunday was sitting through 3 Monkeys again. It is not a bad film. It is a miserable one. For the first time ever in my history of filmgoing, I mostly ignored the film and played games on my iPod. Pathetic.
Next came Beeswax. Small and modest; it is well made and held my interest. I guess that's enough to pass the time, but I don't think it will stick with me. I'm waiting for Mumblecore Noir.
So here's as good a place as any to post some things I wrote months ago, but never finished. Still unpolished, but I may as well toss it out here.
Mostly bullshit, but bullshit I mostly believe.
I still miss CR5 Movie Club. These blogs have been great, but they miss the one key element that made the club both fun and frustrating. Though I may complain sometimes, I think that it's healthy and good to be forced to watch a movie that I didn't pick to watch. It's a chore, sure, but it stretches me and I'm grateful for it. Even the ones I don't like, maybe especially the ones I don't like, force me to react and clarify my tastes and examine my prejudices, allowing for a constant healthy reevaluation.
As noted above, wading through the muck of any art is indeed a chore (Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crud). But, I think that it is precisely when we feel that it's a chore and we're ready to give up on our passions that it's most necessary to press on. The gems, the moments of Transcendance, may be few, but we have experienced them and we know that it is exactly these glimpses at Truth that we chase. We may tire, but there is no stopping.
Besides wading through the crap, there's the chore of watching great films.
Sometimes specific titles can loom on the horizon, becoming as dreaded as they are anticipated. Almost always, though, once that mental hurdle is crossed, I find myself absorbed in what I had previously put off seeing for months or years. Sometimes, every so often, watching the film does turn out to be a painful chore.
Besides that feeling of apprehension and uncertainty, there is another feeling, of being overwhelmed by my own ignorance. There is so much that I don't know and only so very little that I do. There is so much that I haven't seen.
I watched a lot of Godard last year, but I still haven't seen a small fraction of his total films. I remain completely ignorant of other New Wave masters like Rivette or Chabrol or even most of Truffaut's work.
And that's just a small group of filmmakers and films. Name any movement or period and I'm sure that I remain mostly ignorant, having only a cursory knowledge. I just don't have the time to watch even the best of the past while keeping up with the new. To a certain extent, I don't even try anymore. My viewing habits are scattershot and so has been my approach of familiarizing myself with film history.
I love learning and watching great films, but it easily becomes a chore and oftentimes it is not pleasant. Often the "classics" are just that; classic. Just as often, what is watched is tolerable to good, but seldom great.
There is this driving feeling that I need to see more and learn more. It is an impossible task. At least, there is no end point.
This adopted task starts to feel like a chore and like work because it IS work to learn and "keep up.". It is not always fun or enjoyable. Nevertheless, the drive to keep watching and keep learning continues.
I can distance myself for a while, but eventually I feel guilty that the chores aren't getting done. I need to watch whatever it is I was putting off this time.
As an aside, the danger of thinking too much about film is that the real chores, like putting up the railing in the basement, remain undone. Sorry Abby. I can talk about movie watching being a chore, but I effortlessly think of the worst films while I completely forget about the existence of screwdrivers and hammers.
Still, it is helpful to think of watching movies as work or maybe even as a calling or a vocation. That may sound pretentious and like a stupid justification for sitting on the couch with a movie on again, but I think there is a truth to it. It's obviously true that nerds like you and I care about movies in ways that most people do not. When I'm watching a film, I'm generally not resting. I'm working. It's the most satisfying, rewarding work that I know of. The pay sucks.
Only a small handful of people get paid anything to watch movies and there's always the responsibility of writing or teaching to accompany the watching. I'm okay at the work of watching movies. These men and women who get paid for watching movies can see things that I still have trouble seeing. That's one reason I'll never be paid for doing this work. There's a lot of competition in the field and there's a large number of people who are much, much better at the work than I am. I may be able to match or better the hack writers that are syndicated by the Associated Press. I don't even pretend to be in the same league as someone like Rosenbaum or Hoberman.
I'll never have a full-time job watching movies, but I don't doubt the value of such a job. It's important work and I'm more than grateful for the Eberts and the Bordwells, for all of those who have gently taught us to see better.
So, mine is amateur, enthusiast, hobbyist work. I'm just smart enough to know how foolish and lacking in knowledge that I am.
It sounds overly dramatic, but we may as well die first before we stop caring about moving pictures. We are captive to the beautiful truth that we have encountered and it compels us. Of course, movies aren't the only or even primary residence of Truth, but cinema is (arguably) the most powerful and important artistic medium of our time.
Our labors may mean nothing to those around us and we may have our own serious doubts, but we know what goodness we have experienced and, when we're being honest with ourselves, we know that we can't stay away from cinema for long. It has worked its way into our blood. The best that it offers heals and renews us. We know that we'd suffer any chore for just one more revelation.
In contrast to those of us who work at movies, the majority of people are passive spectators, the folks who can turn on the TV at the end of the day and "veg" in front of it. I've participated in this sort of behavior before, but I'm not one of these people. I'm not one of them, but I think that I understand the principle behind this sort of laziness.
When working at watching movies becomes a chore, I'll either stay away from movies for a while or, more likely, I'll put on something safe and familiar, something I've seen 100 times like Empire Strikes Back.
The folks who watch TV shows and bad RomComs and the same Hollywood junk dozens of times on HBO or whatever other crap are usually watching the same structures and similar plots over and over again. There is variation, but the comfort of the familiar is the true object that keeps viewers returning. It is for love of comfortableness and a definite laziness that most people do not work at watching film.
This is okay at times, but a steady diet of easy, comfortable video input won't just lead to relaxation. It leads to lazy thinking.
Most people do work hard and have a right to be lazy in their leisure. What bugs me is when this general attitude leads to those same people disparaging those who do work at watching and wish to spend their leisure time in more rewarding, challenging ways, by continuing to work.
Most people think of watching films as a dumb, lazy thing to do because they've only ever watched films in a dumb and lazy manner.
You can tell that I neglect physical exercise by looking at my belly. It's harder to tell that these people are mentally out of shape, but often a simple conversation will suffice as proof. I'm no mental heavyweight, but at least I'm still working out. (Now I need to get outside and move around more!)
Empire Strikes Back is easy to watch and, just as important, comforting. It's not a stupid film, but my familiarity and nostalgia make it a film for me to be lazy around.
Getting around to those Bela Tarr films I've been putting off? That's heavy lifting. That work, that exercise, may ultimately be rewarding, but that doesn't change the fact that, like any chore, it is damned unpleasant to think about and start doing.
Plenty of work still needs to be done. There's also plenty of fun still to be had.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Whale's Frankenstein is a beautiful film. Every shot is marvelously composed and the camera lingers on images longer than any contemporary horror film would dare.
The opening two minutes alone (I mean after the fun intro/warning) are better than almost everything else I've seen all year. I've seen a lot of movies this year. Only a small handful have been this good.
A single pan across a crowd of mourners in a cemetary ending at a fence line. A slick cut to the faces of two men hiding and watching from behind the fence, followed by another cut back to the fence line, then a perfect pan back across the mourners, ending with the image of a solitary figure left behind to fill in the grave. Truly perfect.
The cinematographer was Arthur Edeson. I checked out his IMDB page and found that this wasn't his only impressive film. I'm not sure who deserves the final credit, but the photography is to be praised.
I don't even need to mention that the art design is magical.
And that the story has some key element that allows it to rise above; a moral calling.
Brandon, you wrote:
"I don’t want to come off as someone who doesn’t enjoy a stupid horror feature. I’m not above them and I don’t pretend to believe that every film should aspire to some higher moral calling."
I'll come across as that guy. Because I am that guy. We may truly disagree on this, but I don't think so. I think that despite your protesting, you're that guy, too. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I'll also insist that you are above both genuinely stupid movies AND the people who like them.
I can't enjoy a stupid horror feature.
I do believe that every film should aspire to some higher moral calling.
Unlike Tarkovsky (God bless his soul), I don't think that a moral sensibility has to exclude "mere" entertainment or silly fun.
For example, I can enjoy Raimi's exaggerated slapstick physicality as a celebration of the body's general absurdity while simultaneously benefiting from the strict moral code that the heroine fails to recognize, let alone follow. We're all implicated in her petty sin of unkindness. The lesson may be give a gypsy whatever she wants, especially when she begs. It is that simple, but it's not. From first to last, our heroine is unrepentant and self-centered and we identify with her. Eh, I won't write anymore until I get the chance to re-view the film on DVD.
Anyhow, Frankenstein. I'm so glad that films like this still exist and haven't been lost and forgotten. I may have been late to join the crowd, but I'm here now and I'll join in the adoration. Here is a beautiful film.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
I just had my first experience, with my iPod, accidentally deleting the words that I spent twenty minutes typing. Oh well.
Jason Poole, have you watched any more Westerns? Get away from Facebook and start writing about what you're watching. I need your authoritative word on Zombie Strippers From Hell.
Brandon, thanks for the long horror movie lists. I intend to extend my horror marathon past its initial five film run and get to all of those movies that you listed. There are also other lists from the original thread that started all this that I intend to get to. I'm going to share your lists there. http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/429921
I'm definitely going to follow your Abbot and Costello advice. I've been having a great time watching Melies' films with the girls. My girls (especially Annie) love the French Magician. They also enjoyed watching The Kid a couple of weeks ago. We've been talking about watching the Dwan/Fairbanks silent Robin Hood for a while. Usually a couple of quick Loony Tunes/Merrie Melodies or an episode of Fraggle Rock beats out all competition.
It's funny to remember now that when I started this blog, I was planning on checking out all of the Terrence Fisher Hammer horror. My first post here last year was about his first film.
Fred, I don't know if you ever still read any of this, but I've been meaning to let you know that I've been thinking about different ways to adapt A Choice of Gods as a radio play. It's still one of the best books I've read all year. I'm hoping to re-read it before the year is over.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Last Sunday I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Movie. Seriously, Brandon, you raised my expectations through the roof. This movie only provided bargain basement thrills.
The main mystery of who the Half-Blood Prince is isn't all that interesting and is anti-climactically resolved in an off-hand moment, a perfect symbol for all of the numerous sub-plots that are picked up and discarded with weak or no resolutions all throughout the film. There is good camera work and some effective cgi. There are even a few (barely) earned comic moments. The drama fell flat for me and there was no good action. The water zombie sequence is the best action moment of the film and even it feels pointless in relation to the rest of the film. I left the cinema with my opinion of the Harry Potter franchise relatively unchanged. The Chosen One? Nope. Just another self-important wanker with a robe and a wand.
Guest reviewed by...
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I've decided to start a new post "category" that is distinct from my stated purpose of writing about each film that I see. Basically, these "conversations" posts will be my new way of reacting to what Brandon has posted and any other comments here or elsewhere or just whatever. Like, have you heard that Tree of Life is definitely being pushed back and won't be my Christmas present this year?
Matt, I know you're there. Start writing about the movies you're watching. You'll feel better.
Brandon, I hope that Antichrist had some redeeming value. I'm only half sorry that I couldn't make it tonight. I'm having plenty of fun working the C St. Apts. where the place has been put quarantined and three persons here have bad flu symptoms. I alreay have 11 hours overtime for the week so I was going to see if I could leave early and come over, but I'm stuck here. I was already waffling on whether or not I cared to see the film anyway. Between the Film Comment article and Jim Emerson's post about it, I'd convinced myself that it's not worth seeing, but, of course, I'm still curious, mostly because I want to be hip to the current storm around the film and throw out my own worthless opinion.
I respect Cronenberg. I need to rewatch The Fly. I saw it when I was young, but it didn't scar me, so maybe I saw a "modified for TV" cut.
I don't think that I could make a list of favorite horror films. I found Dawn of the Dead oddly moving earlier this year, but I can't think of any others off the top of my head that I'd put anywhere near personal "essentials" territory.
It was good to read your Where the Wild Things Are review. I'm really not sure whether I'll take my girls to see it or not. i may see it first, then probably send Abby with the two oldest. The second oldest, Annie, is a monster fanatic. What do you think about the appropriateness for 7 and 5 year olds?
About Gibson's Passion, I have to confess that I have never been a big fan. I do think it works for what it is, though, and I'll defend it against its most vocal critics. Gibson is indeed an auteur, exploring ideas of masculinity and violence. I even think that beyond the themes, he also has a narrative/visual style of his own. He's always interesting and I'll check out his films each time he makes one.
I'm planning on watching/re-watching all of Tarantino's films over the next few months. I'm eager to see what I think of Pulp Fiction after the distance of over ten years.
I skipped Lost In Translation when it came out and don't feel much of a need to see it, but I could be convinced. The Virgin Suicides was a huge disappointment to me, especially since I loved the Air soundtrack and listened to it a lot before the film was released. Ms. Coppolla fell off my radar and Lost In Translation just looked too precious.
28 Days Later, on the other hand, was the delightful second half of a double feature (after Open Range) at the Buffalo Drive-In. That was a great night out at the movies.
I'm quarantined myself so I don't think I'm allowed up at the Pond, but I'll be bringing movies to you soon. I'm looking forward to you seeing Stalker.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Videodrome deserves the best compliment that I can give to a horror film... It gave me nightmares. Seriously. I was exhauasted and scared the next morning.
I watched Videodrome in two sittings - about 40 minutes the first night and the rest of the film the next night. After the first night, I was making fun of the film and ready to give up on it. After the second night, the power of Videodrome overwhelmed me. The hallucinations started that night in my sleep.
Long live the new flesh.
That said, I'm stll not fully behind Videodrome. I'm hesitant to embrace any film that uses extremes to critique human lusts for extremes. Maybe I'm misreading the film and there is no critique. In that case the film is even more audacious than I'm giving it credit for, but I can support it even less. I'm not sure at the end of Videodrome whether television is a gateway to slavery and death or liberation and new life.
I'm completely unsure of how to feel about Videodrome and I think that's a good thing. I do know that Cronenberg is one of the few true science fiction auteurs that the cinema has produced so far. Other directors have made better science fiction films, but none think in pure science fiction terms like Cronenberg does.
Rosemary's Baby's primary importance is that it gave John Cassavetes a paycheck that he could use to finance his own films. There's nothing wrong with Rosemary's Baby as a horror film. It succeeds in hitting the right notes of dread and anxiety while playing on deep fears of betrayal and feelings of insecurity. It's fine and Farrow carries the film with grace. I just don't care. There's enough going on for a single cheap thrill, but there's nothing here I'd care to return to.
I don't really care to return to either film, but I know that Videodrome will haunt me and I may get a future chuckle or two thinking about Mama Rosemary.
Friday, October 16, 2009
because The Narrow Margin was on. Margin has everything a thrilling
movie should have: girls, guns, tough guys; a tight script and some
fat man comic relief. It may be my favorite train movie, even over
The Lady Vanishes.
I forgot how great the opening shots and first few scenes are. If
you're not hooked after ten minutes, get up and check your pulse. You
might be dead.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I’m going to put up the Stalker essay soon, but it’s full of spoilers, so you need to see the film before you read it. I’ll bring it in for you some time this week.
On to some of what I’ve been watching…
Star Trek: Generations is from the same year as Wong’s Ashes of Time. Ashes of Time might be a masterpiece. Star Trek: Generations is dumb fun. It is a foolish fanboy’s dream come true. Sometimes a geek needs to geek out.
We get Kirk and Picard in the same frame.
And it’s not a camera trick.
The scenes with both Kirk and Picard are a lot of fun, but also jarring. Here, juxtaposed with one another, are the two living embodiments of the vast difference in style and attitude of The Original Series and The Next Generation. Fans of both series should be happy, but I think that plenty of fans of both were probably disappointed. It made me happy.
Data’s “Oh Shit!” exclamation is priceless, the culmination of the entire series, and the payoff for every fan that slogged his or her way through all 8 seasons of TNG.
The story of Generations is only so-so, but I do appreciate the slower pace of the film compared to this year’s hyperactive Star Trek reboot. To risk sounding like the fans in the Onion news report, it’s just nice to watch action unfold clearly instead of being bombarded by frenetic editing.
I submit Just Pals as evidence that John Ford perfectly understood visual storytelling as early as 1920. Ford is one of the few silent directors to make the leap to sound film successfully and have a long career. It’s obvious that his films are richer for his experience with silents. Just Pals is, 90 years later, about as good a film as I can find to demonstrate to others why I’m enthralled by movies. To paraphrase Jonathan’s comments about Stalker on BGG, if you don’t like Just Pals, I’m not even sure we can begin to have a conversation.
Chaplin’s The Kid is six reels of cinematic joy. No doubt. There are specific thrills of pantomime that we’ve mostly lost over the last half century. We are fortunate that many of the best silent films remain. In The Kid, I think that it’s true what’s been said, that it’s the only film in which Chaplin has a co-star. Little Jackie Coogan does his best to out-act the Tramp every chance he can get.
I got paid to see District 9, which is always a good deal, but I left a bit disappointed. I’d heard all of the positive buzz about the film, but I was still expecting to dislike it because of the pseudo-doc gimmick. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but, like I said, I ended up not caring in the end. After I did get sucked in and start enjoying it all, I was eventually let down by the film’s devolution into bad action movie moments (“I’ll never leave you, buddy”) combined with instances of over-the-top gore and an incredibly excessive dropping of f-bombs. These elements aren’t bad in themselves, but their use seemed jarring here and at odds with the established offbeat tone. It’s too bad because this film could have been developed well with older children and a thoughtful family audience in mind.
District 9 may have been the best big dumb summer blockbuster to come along this year. It has its fun moments, but it needs to be stressed that the film remains big and dumb. We shouldn’t praise a film for simply not being as dumb as Transformers 2.
Blast of Silence is bold and fearless. Stop reading this, forget everything else, track down a copy, and watch it now. I mean it.
Screw it. You didn’t do it. You kept on reading this. If you’re still reading, I’ll go ahead and dare you not to fall in love with the film based on the opening shot/sounds/voiceover narration alone. The next 76 minutes only pile on more to admire. There’s not a single misstep.
Overlooked and unappreciated in its own time, I’m glad of its recent rediscovery and Criterion release. I’m no noir expert, but Blast of Silence seems to be the culmination and summation of every ‘noir’ impulse that came before it. Blast of Silence is the end of noir.
If our culture were a fair and just one, this film would be shown 24 hours a day, every day, for the weeks leading up to Christmas, while A Christmas Story is condemned to obscurity.
Touchez pas au Grisbi is a good gangster film. I know that I prefer a certain type of gangster film over others. For example, I like The Roaring Twenties over Scarface. I love In Bruges and mostly dismiss Goodfellas. Grisbi is a good example of what it is that I prefer. I prefer gangster films that explore codes of honor apart from the common law. Many modern gangster films do well to stress that there is no honor among thieves and that the lifestyle is primarily selfish because these men don’t believe in anything, but I tire of watching men who don’t believe in anything other than self-advancement. I don’t need to watch bad men doing bad things, but watching bad men trying to do good things gets me every time. I enjoyed Grisbi because it’s about friendship and sacrifice, about things worth valuing in any context, especially if they’re harder to express once a certain lifestyle has been chosen.
There are plentiful horrors to be found in Horrors of Spider Island, but if I began to trash the dubbing, the acting, the editing, or the cinematography, I couldn’t begin to explain how enjoyable all of these bad elements are. There’s some kind of shocking thrill to be experienced by a movie that insists on being this bad.
Spider Island is basically an exploitation picture. If it had been made ten years later, everyone in the film would have been naked. I watched the film as part of the giant “sci-fi” boxed set that my mother bought for me last Christmas, but there is no good science fiction premise here at all. Films like this are the reason that MST3K exists (and I’ve read that there’s a great episode featuring this film).
Tarantino is a geek savant. In an interview on the Reservoir Dogs DVD, Tarantino acknowledges that if there is such a thing as gifts from a god, then God has given him the gift of having great dialogue come easily to him. I can only agree. Reservoir Dogs is still pretty audacious, but it lacks something. I’m not sure what. It feels disposable in the same way that the pulp crime novels that it’s modeled after feel disposable to me. I always enjoy them while reading/viewing, but don’t feel the need to return repeatedly.
I get the feeling that it’s unpopular to compare Tarantino to Godard, but the two are identical in at least one regard. Both men make films as acts of film criticism.
Toy Story 1 and 2 are great in 3D. This double feature is/was the movie event of the year and anyone who missed out, well, they missed out.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan is about what I expected it to be. I don’t really care about Allen’s sexual hang-ups, but I admire his emphasis on the importance of place.
Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac is that rare piece of art that treats adultery as the evil that it is while recognizing the honest emotions involved. [“He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life.” --proverbs 7:23]. It is well that some filmmakers are wise enough to turn to truer sources of information than their own hearts. The Arthur legends are deep wells to draw from. Lancelot du Lac is seated in counsel with Lady Wisdom while Allen’s Manhattan is the ravings and wild tumblings of a misguided fool trying to find his own way.
Coming soon, a belated Videodrome post and some thoughts on Boetticher Westerns.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
that I've let great kids films become naptime, but a man needs to sleep.
I read your post quickly so I might have missed it. Did you really
just write about Cold Mountain without mentioning the music? There's
really no other reason to see the film. In fact, I recommend just
buying the soundtrack and avoiding the film.
I love my new my iPod touch.
future posts to be sent from this device.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is even better than I remembered.
Watching Socrates so obviously enjoying being the sidekick of Billy
the Kid just registers as improbably true. Maybe I'm biased from just
having finished some Plato and currently reading the Golden Sayings of
Epictetus and dabbling a lot in Proverbs. Bill and Ted do seem to be
holy fools. Be excellent to one another indeed. Abby thinks that the
Joan of Arc bits here may have "planted the seeds of my devotion," but
the scenes of her leading a gym class seemed amongst the most phony.
There is plenty of phoniness here and imaginative license is let loose
on history, but the laughs usually work so it's forgivable. Party on.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Before Moon, though, we shared a meal at Viva Taqueria with my pastor and his wife. After a good meal, I hurried off to Cornell while the three of them bought goodies before joining me at the Cinema for a screening of Renoir’s beautiful The River.
I don’t know what I was expecting from The River, but what I saw surprised me in its exploration of domestic drama, teetering on the edge of cliché, but kept fresh through the unusual setting and Renoir’s commitment to honest emotions. I haven’t seen a lot of films like this one. It reminded me most of Meet Me in St. Louis in its depiction of conflicted young women. Renoir and Minnelli probably aren’t names seen together often, but I think that the two films would make a great double feature.
My only regret is that my pastor and his wife left after The River, so they didn’t get to see Moon and we didn’t get to have any post-movie discussion. Which is too bad, because I treasure his opinion. Several months ago, he borrowed a couple of Tarkovsky films from me. Not content to tread on the surface, he dug deep and watched Stalker three times in less than three weeks. He wrote about the film in an email to me. Maybe I’ll post his comments here soon.
On the 27th, I had the uncomfortable pleasure of seeing Food Inc. Despite its message of empowerment in personal food decisions, it’s easy to feel helpless. The scariest moments in the film were probably the parts about the patented seeds and the image of fish being fed corn. I’d been making changes to my diet in the month before Food Inc, but seeing it helped strengthen my resolve.
The Windmill Movie is a strange sort of real-life Synechdoche, New York. It’s an interesting experiment and I sympathize with its depiction of an impulse to create joined with a realization that one doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say and doesn’t know how to properly express the absence of an idea. I do think that the movie fails because it’s just not a full-rounded portrait of the man it’s depicting and it doesn’t quite work in any other sense. There is plenty of exploration of the artistic process of selecting moments for incorporation into a finished film, but detailing creative quandaries does not a movie make.
Then, this past Sunday, I had the utter joy of seeing Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
I need to have my testosterone levels checked out. I found myself tearing up several times, sniffling and drawing attention to my soft, romantic side. Not only was I fixated on the lovely presence of Ava Gardner; I was equally bewitched by the commanding presence of James Mason. The only time that I think that the movie falters is when one of the two of these giants isn’t found in the frame.
[note to self: delete the above comments before transferring any of the above to the blog. I must preserve my strong masculine image]
Soul Power is at its most interesting in its interviews and its behind-the-scenes footage. I could listen to Ali argue for black power all afternoon. The music on the plane is a lot more interesting and soulful than any of the music on the stage later on in the film (with the exception of the untouchable Bill Withers). I almost walked out of the film during the concert footage. Probably the only thing holding me back was the fear of being called a racist for not finding any of it interesting. Seriously, though, I’m just not a big fan of concert films and, while I find soul music interesting and sometimes inspiring, I didn‘t find much interesting or inspiring in the performances of most of the artists documented here on film.
The upcoming Fall schedule looks promising. Ushering remains my dream job.