Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Going Away.

I'm going off the grid for a while, which means no movies for a while, which means no posts for a while. I'll be back and I'll be sure to keep writing about everything I've seen. I've been faithful so far this year in writing about every single movie (63 so far) that I've seen since January 1st. I'll try to get to the library at least once a month and put up a post about whatever I've seen (probably not much). I figure I can commit to keeping this blog until the end of 2009, even if it becomes more of a chore than a joy. I've had fun. See you soon.

Before I go, I need to mention that I've seen Che, Parts I and II, this past Sunday, and it's quite the picture. I like it a lot. Both parts together. Duh. Um, movies. Yeah.


Look, maybe we could do something else together. Mrs. Robinson, would you like to go to a movie?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Night Shift Differential

It is written in the Buddhist Canon, “The flag is still. The wind is calm. It is the heart of man that is in turmoil.”

My Blueberry Nights is a delightful surprise! It seems like every other film I catch up with from last year convinces me more and more that 2008 was more of a good year for movies than most critics gave it credit for.

There isn’t much to My Blueberry Nights so it's easy to dismiss, but it's saving grace is that it doesn’t try to be much more than what it is, a small-scale trifle about love and loss. I found it to be really endearing, easy to watch, and easy to love, filled with lots of visual pleasures and a nice story, which instead of feeling cliched felt refreshing.

This past Thursday night, on TCM, I caught The Long, Long Trailer, a comedy about a newly married couple deciding to live in a trailer that they’ll pull across the country, first on their honeymoon and then as the husband travels from city to city for his work.

This being a comedy starring Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, you can bet your last dollar that things go from absolutely bad to worse to worst, but all is resolved nicely in the end.

There aren’t too many hilarious moments, but there were a few moments of Desi acting frightened thinking about the trailer brakes that were priceless comedy gold.

Silent Light might have been a lot better if it had been titled Damn Whore! That might have been a movie worth seeing. This one wasn’t.

Poor Johan. Poor Marianne. Poor Esther. Poor me for sitting through this poor film.

A Mexican Mennonite man struggles with whether to stay with his wife and family or run off with his mistress. He’s a faithless husband, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for his misery. We get to see him cry a lot. The entire film revolves around this one decision, but, by the end, no decision is made. The wife dies (of a heart attack, got it?), but is then later resurrected after being kissed by the mistress. Johan will be okay now. What the?

The photography is gorgeous and the setting and people are well realized, but Reygadas’s strange notions of religion and sexuality (sexuality as religion) continue to dominate (strangle) his films, even if this one is tame compared to his previous two features. I haven’t seen the Dreyer film that Reygadas is supposed to be riffing on, so I’m not sure if I’m missing some additional layer here, but the resurrection seems more or less undermined here, robbed of any real effect. I’ll keep reading about the film and Reygadas is still someone I’m watching carefully, but I was left cold by Silent Light.

Cadillac Records was what I’d expect it to be. Not much more, but also no less. Music, drugs, women. Wash, rinse, repeat. There are some good performances (I especially loved the guy playing Howlin' Wolf, Eamonn Walker) and some good music.

Miller’s Crossing is a great film. I’m not sure how or why it’s taken me so long to see, but yesterday was my first time seeing it. The Coens perfectly capture the spiritual heart of noir, all the while turning the genre inside out with a really funny script. Once you begin the slide toward moral compromise, you deal with the consequences. Everyone is corrupt. No one gets out. Our protagonist doesn’t get a Hays Code death to punish him for his sins, but neither does he find any satisfaction or peace. He’s now a man alone with a heavier stain on his soul. One can’t easily imagine what he’ll do from this point on. Maybe he’ll open up a private investigation office.

I hadn’t seen Mean Streets in about ten years. It’s better than I remember it being, which is obviously a sign that I’ve changed, not the movie. What stands out is the use of music, but there are also some “Godardian” visual touches that I wouldn’t have noticed ten years ago. It’s also interesting to me to look at what Scorsese is doing in these early films in relation to the many gangster films that we know he had to have seen. Like Godard, Scorsese was/is a movie man, a cinephile. His movies are just as often influenced by other movies as they are by anything else. One might think that all directors are cinephiles, but I don’t think that it is all that common.

What’s interesting about Scorsese is that his characters are more “gangster” than the gangster pictures. While Godard’s characters are always trying to ape gangster lifestyle tropes that they‘ve learned from the movies, Scorsese’s characters effortlessly breathe the air of crime and family and honor without any pretense at all. There is no affectation besides natural affectation gained on and by the streets. All the while, Mean Streets remains (self-consciously, I think) within the gangster/noir paradigm, even while pushing and expanding its boundaries.

Ashes of Time Redux is as bewildering as it is beautiful. This is the heavy entrĂ©e to the light dessert of My Blueberry Nights. Both are concerned with the same themes of love and loss. One is playful and small, though still serious. The other is large in all of its grandeur, but pauses to wink at times. Oftentimes, I can forget that I’m watching a DVD, but Ashes of Time repeatedly cried out to me that it needed to be projected large across an enormous screen. I’d pay the Regal $100 right now if I could get a ticket to see Ashes of Time there. It’d be worth every penny. This current restoration (redux) was done not out of vanity or dissatisfaction, but because of unusual circumstances that almost destroyed the master copies of the film. While restoring the film, Wong Kar-Wai could not refuse the opportunity to offer up a new definitive version. David Bordwell knows more than I'll ever know about film. At this point, I need to bow out and point you toward him: Ashes to Ashes (Redux)

Watching the Three Stooges execute a flock of infected sheep is oddly moving. Abe Lincoln is hilarious at all times. While others have argued in the past that Korine mocks and ridicules those he films, I’ve felt since Gummo that Korine is one of the few champions for the different and the marginalized that we have at the present time. Yes, he has played the prankster, but I think the joke is on the men in suits who want to laugh at what they don't understand, not on his characters. It's crazy that Korine started in film so young. We've really been able to watch him mature over the course of his past three films. I'm not going to psychoanalyze him here, but Korine is a misfit among men and his cinema is even still the cinema of misfits. Mister Lonely might be the purest and best (though Julien Donkey-Boy is still my personal favorite) Korine film that we have yet. I can’t help but think that it’s with sincere motive that Korine ends this film with the song “Standing on the Promises.” I started crying the last time that nuns are seen flying in the film. Father Herzog says, “We’re going to the Vatican. This is a legitimate miracle.” Mister Lonely bears witness to the miraculous.

I, too, want to have a drink with the Pope.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Just Because

I'm just killing time in the middle of the night.

My top twenty living, working, American film directors (followed in parenthesis by my favorite film from that director), ranked roughly in the order in which I'd get most excited about a new release:

[the only real rule that I've made for myself is that I'm excluding directors who are not American, even if they've made more than a few American films; guys that I like such as Peter Weir and Michel Gondry - even Herzog might qualify. I'm pretty sure that everyone on this list is American born and raised, even though a couple of them may have gone expatriate.]

20. Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown)
19. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
18. David Gordon Green (Undertow)
17. Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!)
16. Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men)
15. Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited)
14. Ron Howard (Willow)
13. Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy)
12. Brad Bird (Ratatouille)
11. Michael Mann (Collateral)
10. Richard Linklater (The School of Rock)
9. Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead)
8. Stephen Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
7. David Mamet (House of Games)
6. Andrew Stanton (Wall-E)
5. Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
4. Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
3. Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
2. Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai)
1. Terence Malick (The New World)

These are twenty names of twenty people, all of whom I'll follow wherever they want to take me, even if I haven't always liked all of their previous films (for example, in the case of Scorsese, I actively dislike most of his films, but I always respect him and I usually find things that I like buried in the films). I'll most likely be there in the theaters when a new movie directed by one of them comes out. There are a few other names like Ed Harris, Soderbergh, Jonze, Van Sant, Kaufman, Lynch, Reichart, and Fincher who are floating around the edges of this list. I'm sure that I'm forgetting lots of others. There were also a few other names that I thought of of living guys making films (Joe Dante, Frank Oz, Curtis Hanson, a few others) whose output recently has been pretty low and their work has always been hit or miss with me anyhow.

What's interesting to me is that looking at the list, I don't think that my tastes are that far left of center. I like American films. I really do! I'm not hanging out at the video installations or watching avant-garde experiments. When I'm watching American films, I'm watching studio films for the most part and I'm enjoying them. There are lots of great films and filmmakers in America. I only wish they weren't often drowned out by the glut of Mindless Multiplex Movies.

Happy 4am.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Frozen Viewer

I wanted to hate Frozen River. I started mocking it during the first frame. Why did I have this hostility? I'm not sure. I didn't read more than a couple of reactions when it was first being buzzed about and I didn't know much about it except that it was about a down-on-her-luck mom smuggling folks across the border and that it had won the grand jury prize at Sundance.

My feelings were probably based on an inherent distrust of Sundance-style American "indie" films.

But, Frozen River is surprising. It really is thrilling, from the first encounter between Ray and Lila on through to their last smuggling job. It's all believable. The miracle of this film is that even the unbelievable in the center of the film becomes believable.

While caught up in the tension, I began to waffle on whether or not the film would keep me or lose me. The centerpiece of the film is a scene in which Ray and Lila are transporting "Pakis" (Pakistanis) instead of Chinese. As usual, the two being smuggled stay in the trunk, but their bag is taken from them and placed in the back seat. Ray doesn't trust what these Middle Easterners will do in her country, so she stops the car midpoint through the smuggling operation and throws their duffel bag out onto the ice. Sure enough, when everyone arrives at the destination, it's discovered that there was a baby in that duffel bag. Ray and Lila need to go back and find the baby.

They do. They find the bag and they find the baby. The baby appears dead. In the car, Ray prompts Lila to hold the baby close and give it warmth, so that at the very least they can return the baby warm. All of this is intercut with scenes of one of Ray's boys almost burning their trailer down. The drama is about as tense as it can get, but it's also about as contrived as it can get. But, then the miraculous happens. The baby starts to gurgle. The baby's alive!!! Then, the house doesn't burn. The audience is relieved of all of its tension. And it feels good, but I also feel cheated. That baby was dead, damn it. Dead means dead. Ray insists that, no, the baby was never dead. It was only cold.

But, we don't believe it. Neither does Lila Littlewolf. She replies, matter of factly, that the baby was indeed dead. It was dead. Dead. Now, it's alive. This is true. This is a gift from the Creator. And it's at this moment that Frozen River became something alive to me, never pausing in its entertainment, but slowing down a moment to present some truth. This moment speaks of a great self-awareness on the part of director Courtney Hunt, risking exposing herself as one who can make us believe that a child is dead and then make us believe that the child is alive the next moment, all the while signaling the happy ending which is to come.

I base all of my goodwill toward this film on a few words of text spoken by the Lila character, most of which I can't even recall now. Still. Watch Frozen River. It's worth it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Doubt and Doubter

Doubt was underwhelming. I hated it within the first twenty minutes, but my opinion softened as I watched some good performances over the course of the film's duration. Unfortunately, my strong negative reaction, including lots of ideas to write about, was also washed away and I found myself left feeling ambivalent at best. I don't have anything to write unless someone really wants to press me on some or another issue. I don't think that the film is nearly as provocative as it thinks it is.

Synechdoche, New York, also starring Hoffman, certainly had more to communicate about certainty and doubt in any small scene than the entirety of Doubt.

It's most disappointing because Shanley is the guy who wrote and directed Joe Versus the Volcano, which was a major movie of my childhood.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The blues they send to meet me won't defeat me

My enthusiasm for New Hollywood (or American New Wave) films starts and ends with Terence Malick, if he can even be considered to be a part of what was happening at the time.

Otherwise, you folks can keep your Bonnie and Clyde and your Network and whatever other overrated piece you can think of. The Graduate? Hate it. M*A*S*H? I'd rather not.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

I've finally seen it now and I can confidently say, yes, it's overrated, but still fairly enjoyable. (Un)Common thieves are romanticized to the point of absurdity and we're not left with much more than the spectacle of it all. Still, any Western is better than no Western. I'm glad I've seen it.

A matter of honor.

In Bruges wins the award of being the first film that I've watched more than once in 2009. Less than three days after watching it for the first time, I bought a copy of the film and watched it a second time. It is that good. The primary reason that I love it so much it the Ralph Fiennes character, Harry. The entire movie revolves around a matter of honor.

Honor is important. The idea that anyone could adhere to any form of moral absolute, either internal and subjective OR transcendent, is foreign to much of contemporary thought. Harry, though, is at all times a happier being than Kaufman's Caden Cotard, even if he is a gross exaggeration. Ray is emotionally tortured because he has come up against a moral absolute (killing children is evil) and must deal with it. Cotard is emotionally tortured because he can't find any moral absolute to bang his head against.

The appeal of gangster movies (and, maybe, the real life gangster lifestyle) may be this: These men have a way of life and a code of honor. The codes lived by may be wrong or right, but they are codes nonetheless. In a gangster universe, we are not left to ourselves. There is wrong and right. There is transcendence.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Negation Delirium

Synecdoche, New York might be the best American film of 2008.

So, why can I name a dozen American films from 2008 that I like more than it?

List-making is just something that comes natural to geeks. I make lists. Therefore, I geek. In relation to film, when I make up a list of "best films of the year," what I always, always mean is: these are MY favorite films of the year. These are the films that meant the most to ME. I am NOT trying to objectively identify what may be the most important film of the year. I don't even know if I could do that. If I could and if I were doing that, I might look to Synecdoche, New York as the best (American) picture of 2008.

Charlie Kaufman is one of our finest screenwriters (even if I do continue to actively dislike him). Here, in his debut as director, he proves himself as an eminently capable director with a promising future. I'm impressed. I'll say it now - from this point on, I will be at the theater, opening weekend, for each new Kaufman picture.

Synecdoche is Kaufman's best screenplay so far. It also feels like it is his most personal. There is a tighter focus (maybe also due to Kaufman being the director) in its examination of the same idea at the heart of each Kaufman script - How can we live with one another when all I can know is ME, and even that not so well?

Kaufman is one of our purest functioning nihilists. He recognizes, like Cotard, that he is already dead. Fuck everybody. Amen.

The only comfort that Kaufman ever gives his characters is the fleeting touch of another human being, but Kaufman is honest enough to be clear that these touches are impure and imperfect. More often than not, they provide as much pain as they do comfort.

It almost seems vogue at the current time to label a filmmaker as a "nihilist." Most of these filmmakers labeled as such by various critics couldn't be further from what this label means and implies. I think, in particular, of the Coen brothers, who often face this charge. It's hard for me to think of American moviemakers more humanistic and moralistic than these brothers. To hear them described as nihilists, to me, is laughable. I haven't watched enough Haneke yet to be sure, but I don't think that he belongs here either.

Kaufman, though, knows nihilism. He is completely consistent in his worldview and I love him for it. But, I can't follow him. And I hope that he achieves redemption. Because that is what is lacking from all of his scripts.


Kaufman is a man already dead. In my weaker moments (almost always), so am I. That is why I need redemption in art as in life. Gran Torino, for instance (a much weaker script, but just as personal a film), may not be half the movie that Synecdoche, New York is, but it at least affirms waking up to some sort of life. All that Kaufman knows is the walking dead. I'm familiar enough with these zombies (my people) to count myself as one of the many, but I can't stop here. I need sacrifice and resurrection. I need new life. Otherwise, all is lost.

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.

Higher than our heads. Amen.

Robin Hood

I'm a huge fan of the Curtiz (from what I can remember, it's not pure Curtiz, but really a studio clusterf*ck, as was usual for the period) Robin Hood. It's about as good as it gets. Every Robin Hood on film since has failed when compared to it.

Still, I'm excited. I'm late to the party, but I just now found out that there will soon be a new Robin Hood feature film. Directed by Ridley Scott. I'm not a fan of Ridley Scott. Still, I'm excited. Bring the Robin Hood.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In Bruges

is fucking brilliant.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wolphin #1

I've been interested in Wolphin for a while now, but haven't been brave enough to risk the money on it. I recently got Issue #1 through Netflix. My quick thoughts are that there's nothing too special on this disc. The Big Empty was surprising, but failed in the end. The Al Gore documentary got me liking Gore as a person and The Soldier's Pay excerpt brought up some interesting ethical issues that don't receive mainstream press. Everything else is pretty mediocre, but Brian Dewan's Grimm's Tales 2: Death of the Hen stood out as something unique and worth revisiting. I'm likely to give other Wolphin discs a try, but the unknown quality of each issue is enough to keep me from subscribing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bullfrogs and Butterflies

Brandon, you were brave enough to declare Coraline the best film of 2009 so far. I'll follow your lead and boldly shout that Adventureland is the first 2009 film I've seen so far this year that deserves that title.

Adventureland is (so far) the best film of 2009 (that I've seen).

List of qualifying 2009 releases that I've seen competing with Adventureland:
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Madea Goes to Jail
Monsters vs. Aliens

Even if I'd hated Adventureland, it probably still would have beaten out those 4 titles. I didn't hate it. Quite the opposite.

I think that I join most of the pro critics that liked this film when I admit that I relate to the literate dork hero of James Brennan. Maybe even a little bit more to the full-time literate loser, Joel. What does Russian literature prepare someone for besides a lifetime in an English department or life in a games booth at Adventureland?

We are doing the work of pathetic lazy morons.

I laughed out loud often. Rock Me Amadeus made me laugh each time I heard it, except for the last time, which I thought was a serious misstep in the movie. Lisa P is actually a fairly well developed character up until that point, but she's thrown away in a cheap laugh moment. Another recurring joke involving groin violence could have gotten old, but it felt fresh each time.

The ending, SPOILER, is predictable - yes, sex is a consummation.

Interestingly, the two most shallow awful characters in the film are clearly labeled as Catholic girls. It's a strange occurrence. Obviously, this is something important to Mottola, either consciously or unconsciously, but I won't make too much of it.

Here's to hoping that Adventureland is a signal that it's time for 2009 at the movies to start in earnest. Nothing but the good stuff from now 'til year end.

Ehh, what's up, doc

Still Life broke my heart. Up the Yangtze bored me. I really had to struggle to care. Maybe it's because I'm a cold callous heartless individual when it comes to caring about "real" people. Maybe. I'm not feeling up to examining any "whys" right now.

Man on Wire is mildly entertaining, but felt too long with a lot of stuffing and not all that much to chew on.

I'm a grouch and I guess I don't like documentaries.

I thought the latest episode of Warriors was pretty freaking awesome.

Son of Rambow is better than Be Kind Rewind at promoting a DIY film-making culture. Both movies share some of the same magic, but I think that Rambow does a better job of showing how bad(ly good) home movies often are. I smiled a lot, which is the best compliment I can give the film.

Chances are good that almost every single person that stumbles upon this post will have seen at least one Peter Weir film. Master and Commander. The Truman Show. Fearless. Green Card. Dead Poets Society. The Mosquito Coast. Witness. He's been a big name talent in the U.S. for at least 20 years now and has always been one of my favorite "auteurs", from way back before I could tell you what that word means.

Up until this past week, the only Australian (pre-Hollywood) film of his that I had seen was Picnic at Hanging Rock. Only Picnic and one other early film have received the Criterion treatment, but all are worthy, especially the one I just finished watching.

The Plumber is a perfect horror film. A very well-to-do intellectual woman, wife of a researcher/professor, has become a housewife while finishing her own anthropological studies. While her husband is away at work, a man comes to their apartment, claiming to be the university's plumber, there to check the pipes in their university apartment. Horror ensues. The psychological tension explored here provides a backdrop for discussing issues of culture, class, interpersonal relationships, and human vulnerability. I've never seen a bad Weir film. The Plumber is one of his best.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rawhide is great. Jack Elam is perfect.

Rawhide is a fairly simple story of a way station captured by escaped convicts hoping to rob the next stagecoach that comes through carrying cash. What really marks the film as a notch above the rest are the great performances by everyone involved, but especially by Elam, the "only real villain in the film," as Abigail pointed out during the first two scenes that he shows up. I know I'm biased toward liking Westerns like this, but I really have to admit that watching Rawhide was one of the most fun experiences I've had watching movies so far this year. No apologies. It's just a good "old-time" Western story. Call it a soap opera for men if you must, but there's not much soap around for miles and the only singing is of the folksy variety, plus there's enough gun slinging and firing to quiet the critics. I'm thinking of taking a stagecoach West.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Top Ten 2008 (updated)

It's been three months since I first made my 2008 list. I suppose that I plan on updating every three months as I continue to catch up on 2008 releases. I still think that 2008 was a pretty good year and that the best (meaning, of course, my favorites) of 2008 hold up really well against the best of any other year. 2008 was my favorite year of the past decade, but I'm sure that that mostly reflects the fact that it's the first year that I've been serious about movies since before I was married (I suppose here is the appropriate place to laud Abby for her patience and virtue, for allowing me to run off and be alone in the dark and also for sitting through lots of DVDs with me, some worthy, some not so much so. She's a beautiful bride, a marvelous mother, AND she lets me indulge in my selfish hobbies). The previous years suffer in comparison, I think, because I wasn't as aware of what was happening in cinema internationally. I'm sure that there were great films, but I mostly missed them. Foreign films obviously aren't automatically better and most are just as bad as the majority of American films (90% of everything is crud), but being aware of a WORLD of options can only present a movie lover with more of the best from all over instead of being limited to what U.S. production and distribution allows.

This list could change tomorrow, but here's the new list that I made up last night. The order of things isn't too concrete, but this is the order that I came up with nevertheless. As of right now.

1. Still Life
2. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
3. Wall-E
4. A Christmas Tale
5. Gran Torino
6. La France
7. Appaloosa
8. The Flight of the Red Balloon
9. Funny Games
10. Encounters at the End of the World

And, because I've seen enough movies now to keep on listing without resorting to some movies that were only so-so, here's 11-20, all of which I find worthy, though I may have had some minor reservations about each of them. Again, the order is fluid.

11. Iron Man
12. Happy-Go-Lucky
13. The Fall
14. Tell No One
15. Shotgun Stories
16. Redbelt
17. Burn After Reading
18. Hellboy II
19. Wendy and Lucy
20. Cassandra's Dream

So far, I've seen only roughly 30% of the 100 films featured on the iW Critics Poll '08. I've seen 50% of the top 20 on the list. I suppose I've got at least around 70 more films to see before I can offer up a definitive top ten.

Eventually, too, I'm going to re-watch The Dark Knight and see if I can't stop hating it.