Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained: The Good, the Bad, and the Incomplete

He’s one of our greatest filmmakers, but I’m not entirely convinced that Quentin Tarantino knows how to tell a feature-length story. In some ways, that’s his great advantage – an almost pathological inability to lay out his plots in the standard way.

I should qualify this sentiment, though. Jackie Brown is the closest he’s come, thanks to the fact that he was adapting an Elmore Leonard novel. But Tarantino’s other films are deliciously fragmented: Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds are in effect built around several interlocking short stories; Kill Bill is a season-long TV series in miniature. Death Proof is a kind of mini-franchise of a movie and its sequel; neither is properly structured, but together they’re glorious. (And they were released as part of the grander structural experiment of Grindhouse.) Reservoir Dogs (still my least favorite of his films) feels basically like a one-act play.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Okay, Serious Question....

It was always a bit of a running joke that in the "canonical" Jean-Claude Van Damme films of yore, his Belgian accent had to be painfully explained in some elaborate way. In Lionheart, he was a deserter from the French Foreign Legion. In Maximum Risk, he was a French cop. In Hard Target, he played a Cajun (admittedly, the film did take place in the Bayou). In Double Impact, one of his characters had been raised in a Belgian orphanage in Hong Kong. And so on. I daresay it was one of the incidental pleasures of these films.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ghosts in the American Machine: Amistad and Lincoln

“Sir, this war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness.”
“The what?”
- Amistad

I’ve always had a soft spot for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. I think this puts me in some kind of minority, as that film is often Exhibit A in the Case Against Spielbergian Sanctimony. It certainly has its flaws – John Williams’s score, while lovely, swells a bit too much; Morgan Freeman gets a couple of dreadfully on-the-nose scenes; and “Give…us…free” is probably some sort of low-point for the director. But dear god, there’s so much to love here, too, quite aside from the fact that it’s a gripping, well-told historical-legal epic. Consider: The haunting scenes depicting the terror and bewilderment of the mutinous slaves as their ship comes closer ashore, or the extended flashback to the “Middle Passage” that occurs right at the mid-point of the film and spreads out in all directions like a gaping wound. And it has some of the finest performances Spielberg has ever directed, including Djimon Hounsou’s as the slave leader Cinque. The actor makes clear that the character’s fury is rooted not just in plain old anger or fear but in frustration: Cinque knows what’s going on but, a stranger in a strange land, lacks the language to express himself.

Amistad has been much on my mind lately, because it makes an appropriate companion piece with Lincoln. Not only are both films about slavery, but they’re about the specifically legal and political machinations by which the institution was maintained and then finally dismantled. Together, the two make a uniquely American diptych: They’re about a festering moral crime which needed the wedding of idealism and practicality, along with the efforts of good men, to be righted.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Citadel: Fear and Despair

Citadel might be one of the bleakest horror films I've ever seen, and therein lies its terror. It opens on a very young pregnant couple, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and Joanne (Amy Shiels) moving into what appears to be a pretty uninspiring housing complex on some bleak semi-urban stretch of Ireland. But just as Tommy heads into the elevator to go retrieve more of their stuff from the car, a creepy gaggle of what appear to be children in hoodies attacks Joanne with syringes. She dies in the hospital, but not before delivering the baby. So now poor Tommy, left agoraphobic, paranoid, and almost catatonic by the experience (and let's not forget, he's still basically just a kid), has to raise a baby on his own. In abject poverty.

Of course, it gets worse. The hooded kid-things come back for the baby (and sure enough, we eventually find out they're not kids at all). And Tommy, who also has to deal with the paralyzing psychic scars of his earlier experience, has to find some way to begin to cope -- to hide, or escape, or fight back. But he can't. They can find him wherever he is. Dear god, I'm getting shivers again just thinking about it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Forgotten Films: Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949)

To learn more about the Forgotten Films project, go here.

One doesn’t quite know at first what to make of 1949’s frazzled noir Shockproof. It was directed by Douglas Sirk from a screenplay co-written by Samuel Fuller: Two legendary auteurs, meeting here early in their careers, before the films for which they would later become known (and maybe even for which they’d be a little pigeonholed). No, it doesn’t qualify as the kind of colorful “woman’s picture” Sirk is famous for (Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows), nor does it resemble the zonked-out, surreal crime thrillers and war pictures (Shock Corridor, The Big Red One) Fuller would ride to immortality. Maybe that’s why, until recently, it was so little known. (There was a brief re-release of it a few years ago, and it can now finally be purchased on DVD.)

Compared to the florid, sublime expressiveness of Sirk and Fuller’s later work, Shockproof is a relatively subdued film. But it’s also an object of genuine wonder – in which Fuller’s characteristically uncompromising, extreme plotting is given shape and conviction by Sirk’s sophisticated mise-en-scene. The film begins with a pair of women’s legs, clad in ratty black stockings and shoes, walking among the clean, dapper shoes of a mid-day crowd on Hollywood Blvd. A brunette walks into a hair salon and gets her hair dyed blonde. We quickly learn that we’re watching Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight), a beautiful, recent parolee who has just done time for murder. Her parole officer, the tough-as-nails Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde, embodying a typical Fuller character with a typical Fuller name), tells her, in a classic hard-boiled exchange, that she has to change her ways: ”You gotta change your brand of men.” “Who picks them for me, you?” “You won’t have any problem making friends. Just make sure they’re friends this time.”

Trouble is, Jenny still adores Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), a dapper gambler whose love was what got her in trouble in the first place. Griff warns both Jenny and Harry to stay away from one another. The lovebirds, however, will not be stopped; they begin to meet clandestinely. Meanwhile, Griff tries desperately to reform Jenny, eventually getting her a job taking care of his own blind mother. Sure enough, the straight-arrow parole officer also begins to fall in love with her, making advances she doesn’t quite know how to accept. Teased into domesticity, Jenny feels the lure of the honest life, even as Harry plots with her to continue her inadvertent seduction of Griff.

The complexity of the male-female dynamic in Griff and Jenny’s life is refreshingly unpredictable and pronounced. While Griff presents a tough exterior, as he falls more and more in love with Jenny he becomes a figure not of romance, but of compromised masculinity: In one bizarre scene, he shrieks and grabs her hand during a movie. Acting in bizarre, volatile ways, Griff is no Clark Gable; he’s an increasingly desperate, lovesick man. Jenny reduces him to a surprisingly raw, open state, even as her character remains harder for us to decipher. It’s a welcome meeting of the two filmmakers’ sensibilities: Griff is one of Sirk’s emotionally vulnerable male protagonists, crossed with one of Fuller’s typically extreme personalities.

While the narrative’s broad strokes feature all the moral certitude of 40’s American filmmaking, the film’s particulars can’t help but toy with our allegiances and emotions. Duplicity is rampant on both sides of the law here: To scare Jenny, Griff at one point sends her to a doctor, secretly a psychologist whose job is to judge whether she’s a habitual criminal or not. (Jenny sees through the ruse.) Likewise, even though Harry has all the oily charm of a classic noir snake, it turns out he actually does love Jenny: His office is dominated by a giant portrait of her. This blurring of boundaries reaches its zenith when Jenny’s gradual attraction to Griff and his upstanding life winds up reducing Griff to something of a criminal himself. The last act of the film finds Jenny and Griff on the run from the lawful society to which they had tried desperately to belong.

The byzantine web of manipulation featured in Shockproof sometimes feels like a test-run for the networks of desire Sirk would establish in later films like Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, where one character’s love for another would often spur that object to covet another. The mise-en-scene here feels familiar, too: As Griff and Jenny’s story becomes more desperate, the compositions become increasingly unbalanced and unreal: One of the film’s later scenes is dominated by a giant oilrig, churning away in the background. Indeed, one could say that as Shockproof proceeds, the film’s two auteurs find their concerns coalescing perfectly: Sirk works his favorite theme of an individual collapsing under the stern eye and expectations of the society around them, while Fuller’s script follows an outlaw character trying anxiously to break free of the past (”That heater. It’s all corroded. Once corrosion starts with those things, eh, it’s finished.”) It may not be as expertly calibrated as one of either auteur's later films, but in its own way, Shockproof is unforgettable.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"A Vessel Grim and Daring": Some Thoughts on Spielberg's Lincoln

The more I think about it, the more it seems that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – which I caught at the New York Film Festival some weeks ago -- might actually be some sort of masterpiece. I loved it when I saw it, but it’s also grown in my mind since then. I’ll be writing more about the film after I see it again, but for now I wanted to make some observations that struck me both as I watched it and as I reflected on it afterwards.

Monday, August 20, 2012

To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott

Tony Scott’s shocking suicide yesterday brought an end to not just one of the most influential careers in modern Hollywood, but also one of the strangest and most divisive. It’s interesting to note that, for a guy so often identified with blockbusters, he really had just a handful of genuine hits: Top Gun was huge, Beverly Hills Cop II was huge (mainly because it was a sequel to a box office phenomenon), Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide were huge-ish. Otherwise, films like Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout were generally seen as underperforming and not quite there. And True Romance, now correctly viewed as one of Scott’s best films, was basically a flop. Despite all that, his influence over not just other filmmakers but also male moviegoers of a certain age is undeniable.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Almayer's Folly: Leave It All Behind

Chantal Akerman’s updated adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Almayer’s Folly, which opens at Anthology Film Archives today, starts off with one of the most elegantly controlled and tense sequences I’ve ever seen. We see an open air night club somewhere in Asia. As random people go in and out, a shadowy figure moves into the frame and ominously enters the club. Akerman then follows the man from behind, slowly, as he makes his way towards a stage where a lounge singer, backed up by some awkward, scantily clad female dancers, lip syncs to Dean Martin’s “Sway.” The man watches the performance for an extended moment. Then, he goes onstage and stabs the singer, dragging the body offscreen. The music stops and the dancers all flee. All, that is, except for one -- a tall Eurasian girl with a distant look in her eyes, who continues her clunky dance as the empty silence gathers around her. A voice offscreen whispers, “Nina. Dain is dead.” The girl stops, and moves into close-up. And suddenly begins singing a religious song, in Latin, looking straight into the camera.

We may not know exactly what just happened, but we’re riveted nonetheless. This is what Chantal Akerman does at her best. She takes a moment and slows it down to such a degree that anything seems possible. Some directors like to hold their shots to give the viewer space and time to contemplate and explore. But Akerman’s not an analyst. She’s a hypnotist. She uses shadow, composition, and sound – just listen to this film sometime, with its mesmeric use of water and rustling reeds, its drifting waves of classical music and timeless pop – to pull us into this wild, twilight world.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Theory vs. Practice

[Herzog] left the precipice to scale the higher peak across the valley. I followed him. After we started to climb the perilous spindle, however, Herzog ordered me to go back before I killed myself.

"Werner, this is not the way I'm going to die," I affirmed.

He stared at me knowingly, but Herzog was insistent, so I retreated. Herzog continued on, clinging to the bare cliff, his toes searching for inches of support. I called out to him.

"Herzog, what do you think of the auteur theory of filmmaking?"

"The what?" he replied while hugging the rocky cliff two thousand feet above the ocean.

"The auteur theory -- you know --"

"The auteur theory? I don't know what that is. What is the 'auteur theory'?"

"Forget it!"


"Forget it!"

-- From Alan Greenberg's Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass, which is well worth your book-buying dollars.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

“You Must Become a Terrible Thought”: Nolan, Batman, and Hope

I’ve written quite a bit about Christopher Nolan over the years. (Again, go here read my review of The Dark Knight Rises for the Nashville Scene, or go here for some of the pieces I’ve written about Inception.) A couple of months ago, I wrote something for Vulture about the way that Nolan seems to weave his films around individual ideas, in which I also speculated about the potential themes in The Dark Knight Rises – which, needless to say, I hadn’t seen at the time. Having now seen the new film a couple of times, I’d like to talk a bit more about the ideas – or rather, the one main idea – behind it, and how Nolan presents it.

Some context: I said in that Vulture piece that “each of Nolan’s films is built around a single idea that eventually seizes control of the characters and, eventually, the film itself.” In Memento and The Prestige, for example, that idea seems to be identity. In Inception, it’s regret. In Batman Begins, it’s fear. And in Insomnia and The Dark Knight, it appears to be guilt.

Of course, the problem many writers have with Nolan isn’t so much that his films are devoid of ideas or themes, but that said ideas and themes tend to be blunt and inartfully stated. (For some very smart and very critical writing on Nolan's films, you should check out some of Jim Emerson's work.) Needless to say, I disagree. True, Nolan’s dialogue is often quite matter-of-fact about such things: He has Stanley Kubrick’s precision but lacks Kubrick’s talent for the glancing blow, the subtle gesture. What Nolan does have, though, is a unique ability to make sure that everything in his films – not just dialogue, but performance, music, visual style, editing…everything -- whirrs around these central ideas. It’s a single-mindedness, a totality that, for me at least, can be awe-inspiring to watch.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Medias Res...

"Valedictory from the very start, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is somehow both the saddest and the most cartoonish entry in the director's Batman trilogy — sad in a strange way, and cartoonish in a good way."

Here's my review of the ambitious, riveting, silly, unforgettable, compulsively beautiful Dark Knight Rises. More to come, soon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Forgotten Films: Gone to Earth (aka The Wild Heart) (Michael Powell, 1950)

To learn more about the Forgotten Films project, go here.

The legendary filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka “The Archers,” made Gone to Earth at the height of their popularity – they had just come off iconic films like The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus – but its somewhat catastrophic reception would mark the beginning of their career decline. (Subsequent films, such as Oh, Rosalinda! and Battle of the River Plate, would not duplicate their earlier successes.) It didn’t help, of course, that the film never quite worked out production-wise: The project was a collaboration with the legendary producer David O. Selznick, who would later cut his own version of the film and release it in the US. (More on that later.) Any way you look at it, these troubles are a dispiriting legacy for such a beautiful and heart-wrenching film.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Pact: Scared Stupid

The Pact is kind of a dumb movie, and that may be both its greatest failing and its greatest asset. It certainly doesn’t have the ingenious, everything-clicks-into-place machinery of, say, The Turn of the Screw, nor does it have the pure shock orgy of something like The Descent. Indeed, it’s full of ostensibly risible plot holes and moments that make you actively question what you’re seeing onscreen, and not in a good way. But for the most part the damn thing just plain works. That is to say, it made me scared of my house in a way that no other haunted house movie has in quite some time.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Magic of Belle Isle: Actors, They're Special

They say that when a director dies, he becomes a photographer. So we could say that when an actor dies, he becomes a monument. Such is the case with Morgan Freeman, an excellent performer whose ability to convey nobility of spirit has resulted in his getting typecast as…well, noble spirits. (How strange it feels now to watch his breakthrough performance as a fast-talking pimp in Jerzy Schatzberg’s 1987 movie Street Smart.) The good news is that some actors can come back from the dead. And while Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle doesn’t have Freeman playing a part much different from his usual run of gently-flawed paragons of rectitude, the actor brings more vulnerability to the part than you might expect. The results are effective, even if the film is a cloying mess on so many other levels.

Monday, July 2, 2012

8 Great Reluctant Patriots on Film

The movies -- at least the good ones -- aren't usually able to do outright, rah-rah patriotism all too well. Maybe it's the fact that movies require conflict, or that they need to have characters who grow, but rarely do great film heroes start off as eager beavers looking to sign up for a cause. Thus we come to the archetype of the reluctant patriot: The guy who really doesn't want to fight on either side, who's just looking out for Number One, and yet finds himself having to fight -- or at least to pick sides -- just the same. And this, it turns out, is a type American cinema, particularly Hollywood, does really well. In honor of Independence Day, here are eight of cinema's most notable reluctant patriots.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Dutiful

The Amazing Spider-Man makes for a nice comic fantasy -- which is both a pleasant surprise, since it could have been so much worse, and a bit of a let-down, since the memory of Sam Raimi’s films stands fresh as an example of just how compelling this story can really be. But Sony apparently had some valid business reasons for “rebooting” this franchise so soon after the last trilogy. (Having typed that sentence, I will now take a shower.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

This is Not a Prometheus Thinkpiece

I’m enjoying reading all these Prometheus thinkpieces. (Indiewire collected some of the more notable ones here.) In a way, I’m getting more out of those pieces than I did out of Prometheus itself. Not to say I didn't like the film -- I did. But going in I was told to expect a Big Idea movie, that if I went in anticipating an Alien flick I might be let down – the way that had I gone into Blade Runner expecting a kick-ass Harrison Ford sci-fi movie, say, I might have been similarly disappointed 30 years ago. That the last thing I should expect from Prometheus was Alien 5. Except that what Prometheus presented me with was exactly that. And not in a bad way.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Men on the Bridge: An Interview with Asli Ozge

I first met Asli Ozge when we both showed our debut features at the Istanbul Film Festival in 2003. Since then Ozge has become one of Turkish cinema’s brightest young stars. Her award-winning film Koprudekiler (Men on the Bridge) is currently playing MoMA, after an intensely successful run on the international festival circuit and distribution around the world. It’s a remarkable hybrid of documentary and narrative, following the lives of several men who work on a bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul. We seem them both in their work and in their private lives – creating an intoxicatingly intimate atmosphere that nevertheless has broader resonances. Because, ultimately, we’re watching not just three men’s lives on one bridge, but an entire nation’s in-between existence -- one perched between East and West. Ozge was in town recently, and I sat down with her to discuss her new film, her unique method of working, and the Turkish film landscape in general.

Friday, June 22, 2012

When the Vampire Hunter Becomes the Vampire Hunted

From "Young Mr. Lincoln"

There is apparently a bit of a mini-debate going on about whether it's morally appropriate to make a movie in which Abraham Lincoln is cast as a remorseless hunter of the undead and in which the vampires aren't just vampires but very specifically Southern slave-trading vampires. Anyway, I didn't get into all that in my mixed-review of the film for Vulture, in part because I don't really have a moral compass, or for that matter even a moral sundial.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Plenty of better, smarter writers than I will have enough to say about the legacy of the now-late Andrew Sarris. (Here are Andrew O’Hehir at Salon and David Edelstein at Vulture, and David Poland at Movie City News. And Peter Labuza over at his blog, with a lovely anecdote. Oh, and the Times obit is pretty good, too.) For my part, I can note that, for all the times I’ve (literally) thrown The American Cinema across the room in frustration, I‘ve always picked it back up to check and see what Sarris had to say about the next filmmaker. (“John Sturges as ‘Strained Seriousness’? Screw this guy! Okay, what does he have to say about Robert Mulligan?”) Others have noted his erudition and generosity as a writer, as well as his willingness to change his mind. O’Hehir’s piece mentions Sarris’s famous change of heart on 2001: A Space Odyssey.*

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Woman in the Fifth: Literary Uncertainty

Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth is the kind of movie whose flaws might actually be an offshoot of its director’s talent. Pawlikowski tends to make touching mood pieces about loss and regret, but this film sets itself up as something of a thriller. Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a writer who is visiting Paris to be with his family. But he’s very quickly turned away by his wife, who does not want him anywhere near her or their daughter. (“Can we just talk like normal people?” he asks his wife. “You’re not normal,” she says and calls the cops.) There are some indications that he’s been in a hospital, or a prison. Robbed of his suitcase and money, Tom finagles himself into a room in a seedy bar-hotel. In exchange, he takes a somewhat thankless, no-questions-asked job where he has to sit behind a desk in a nondescript building and let in various shady looking characters who utter a cryptic password.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Extraterrestrial: Keep Watching the Lies

Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial is itself something of a foreign object from space: An ostensible sci-fi movie about an alien invasion that turns out to be, instead, a romantic comedy. Except that such a description does it no real justice. The sci-fi element is so incidental that even to mention it might set up unmet expectations. Vigalondo seems to specialize in this sort of bait and switch, though, as evidenced by his masterful previous film, Timecrimes. (For a fun chat with him, read my pal Simon Abrams’s interview here.) And Extraterrestrial, while very funny, is ultimately about a subject so deeply serious – the human capacity for love and deceit – that to call it a comedy doesn’t really feel right. It’s somewhere between a bedroom farce and a Biblical epic, with lies as its currency. Do I have your attention yet?

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Colossus of New York: Fathers and Sons

Sometime when I was 9 or 10, I developed a brief obsession with Eugene Lourie’s The Colossus of New York. That may not sound so odd now, but it was quite odd at the time; I wasn’t particularly into schlocky sci-fi movies as a kid (though I did once watch Revenge of the Creature so I could catch a glimpse of young Clint Eastwood). For some reason, I’d seen a magazine article (possibly in Starlog) that featured a still from Colossus, and the image stuck with me. Soon enough, the film showed up on TV. I recorded it and basically couldn’t stop watching it for a few weeks. And then, I did stop. And I didn’t really think about the movie again* until recently, when a new, very nice-looking Blu-Ray of it arrived from Olive Films.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

How They Move

From John Wayne's America, by Garry Wills:

"How an actor moves is obviously important in what are, after all, motion pictures -- but surprisingly little criticism has focused on this essential aspect of performance. Virginia Wright Wexman applied "kinesics" to Humphrey Bogart's body language -- more languorous as a Chandler hero, more nervous as a Hammett one. And perceptive critics have noticed the grace of particular performers. Graham Greene said that Cagney danced his gangster parts "on his light hoofer's feet, with his quick nervous hands." David Thomson saw signs of Burt Lancaster's acrobatic training in the way he moved. Alan Ladd liked to run in little cat-crouches, turning his low stature into a slithery form of energy. Henry Fonda had a stiff storklike walk that set him against the flow of things around him -- a sign of integrity in Young Mr. Lincoln or The Grapes of Wrath, of martinet irresponsiveness in Fort Apache, of detached inhumanity in Once Upon a Time in the West. What gives the dance in Ford's My Darling Clementine its impact is the way the rigid Fonda becomes more flexible. Cary Grant was trained as an acrobat, like Lancaster, and he can do more with less motion than any other screen actor. This is because of the way he angles his head away from what he is doing, as if it were a detached thing carried at a careful remove from what his limbs and torso are up to. (Buster Keaton has the same knack in his knockabout comedies.)"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Save the Last "Waltz" for Me: Hitchcock's Much-Dismissed Musical

This is my somewhat belated contribution to the Film Preservation Blogathon, which ends today. It’s all for a good cause, too. Please go here to donate to help the National Film Preservation Foundation’s attempts to run a now-rediscovered fragment of Graham Cutts and Alfred Hitchcock’s long-lost The White Shadow.

Alfred Hitchcock had little love for 1934’s Waltzes from Vienna. He called the period immediately after making it “the lowest ebb of my career,” and in later years playfully admonished those who even bothered to see the musical comedy-romance-cum-faux-biopic. Actually, can we even call it a musical? True, it’s a fictionalized tale about Johann Strauss’s efforts to compose “The Blue Danube,” and it’s swirling with music and musicians. But nobody breaks out into song in it, and there isn’t even much dancing. We can’t call it a historical film, either (a la, say, Amadeus), because it’s a fanciful re-imagining of Strauss’s efforts and makes no pretensions towards verisimilitude. It’s one giant tease: A historical musical that can’t manage to fit either genre.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

“Blessed Are the Young Who See What Isn’t There”: On the Final Moments of 1900

Bernardo Bertolucci’s mesmerizing, towering 1900 is hitting Blu-Ray thanks to Olive Films, and I haven’t been this excited about a release in quite some time. When I saw it again at MoMA last year, I was quite shaken for some days afterwards. There’s something about 1900 that puts every other movie to shame – in its size, scope, and sweep, obviously, but also in the fact that you can’t just shrug your shoulders at it. It provokes an emotionally violent response, regardless of whether you love it or hate it. You might even do both. At 317 minutes, there’s a lot of movie in there.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Tribeca Review: Wagner's Dream

With the explosion in documentaries over the past decade or so, we’ve also witnessed a rise in what in my less generous moments I like to call the “promotional doc.” You often see it in music documentaries –  movies about, essentially, how awesome or unique a band is. The kind of thing that would probably work best as a DVD extra, where you wonder if part of the impetus behind making the film wasn’t because it told an amazing story but because it offered the chance to piggyback on the popularity of the chosen subject. This is not always necessarily a bad thing – some of these movies are pretty enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of the musician or photographer or politician or whatever it is that they’re glorifying. But then every once in a while you get something like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which was supposed to be a promotional film for Metallica and turned into an epic about an entire band’s collective neurosis, and you suddenly realize what it looks like when a documentary really uses the full power of its medium.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Titanic: The Chaos Dark and Rude

I saw Titanic so many times in the theater when it first came out that I was practically made an honorary thirteen-year-old girl. (I know I’ve made that joke before, but it’s a good one, so whatever.) I think I caught it nine or ten times during its theatrical run. This wasn’t easy, because, for all the film’s acclaim and success, in my circles (and by “circles,” I mean basically, “my then-girlfriend’s friends”), it wasn’t regarded very highly. In fact, I seem to recall a couple of lengthy dinners where I was mocked mercilessly for my love of the film.

I never quite managed to explain why I loved Titanic so much. I mean, sure, it’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s tragic, I cried, etc. But when I tried to make an actual case for the movie, more often than not I found myself explaining why I didn’t hate it, or at least didn’t hate certain things about it. For example, the dialogue between Jack and Rose never bothered me, simply because I accepted them as kids. (If Rose is 101 years old during the present-day scenes, and if the present day is indeed 1997, then she’d have been 16 years old in 1912.) The big, blustery emotions of the film didn’t bother me either; despite all his proficiency with technology and special effects, Cameron has always had a way with melodrama that marks him as an old-fashioned director at heart. Dana Stevens is right when she notes that, having originated during a suicide attempt, “far from being a moony-eyed gazefest out of a Nicolas Sparks novel, Rose and Jack’s love is presented as a matter of life and death from the start.”

No, to get at why I love Titanic so much, I may need to flash back a little further.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Simplicity and Irony": Nanni Moretti on Popes, Politicians, and Cannes

When the Italian actor-director Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, some critics were perplexed. Moretti, an outspoken leftist and a longtime atheist, had skewered religious piety in The Mass is Ended (1985) and had not long ago made some waves with his incendiary satire of Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman (2006). But We Have a Pope was a seemingly gentler film – a comic drama of a newly elected Pope (Michel Piccoli) who, suffering an existential crisis, flees the Vatican and wanders among the people of Rome, visiting with a psychotherapist and reliving his youthful dreams of becoming an actor. And yet it contained a subtler, more humanist critique of the Papacy, underlining the tension between the power of the office and the messy, all-too-human thoughts and needs of the people who inhabit it. But this sort of humanism has always been the hallmark of Moretti , an iconic figure in Italy and Europe who isn’t particularly well known in the U.S. (Although his 1993 film Caro Diario [Dear Diary], was a small arthouse hit.) I sat down with him during a recent visit to New York, to talk about his new film, crossing Silvio Berlusconi, making political movies, and much more.

Friday, April 6, 2012

American Reunion: Teachable Moments Done Dirt Cheap

Whenever I think of the American Pie movies, I also think of the Scream movies. Both were hip '90s-era celebrations of beloved disposable '80s genres that wore their stupidity as a badge of honor. But as these franchises have gone deep into sequel territory, they’ve been scrubbed clean of what made them interesting in the first place: The self-aware, devil-may-care quality of the knowing throwback has been replaced by the workaday number-painting of the dutiful knockoff. Witness American Reunion, the fourth installment in the Pie series -- if you count the, erm, canonical theatrical releases and not the four straight-to-video spinoffs like American Pie Presents: Band Camp. The new film gathers up enough energy to pull together a couple of funny (if rote) setpieces but falls apart amid a mess of all-too-earnest clichés about our beloved horndog characters learning to deal with life’s disappointments.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To Thine Own Self Be Truthy: On Facts and Fakes

This issue of truth keeps coming up. I haven’t read John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book The Lifespan of a Fact, a contentious back-and-forth between journalist D’Agata and fact-checker Fingal over the many liberties the former supposedly took with certain details in an article about the suicide of a Las Vegas teen. Nor have I seen Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which apparently made up some facts in its zealous activism over Apple’s use and abuse of Chinese labor. So I can’t say too much about either of these works, but they have both inspired a lot of diverse, thoughtful pieces about our often complex relationship with the facts (although one did so inadvertently) and for that we should be grateful.

Among the pieces: In Slate, my former editor Dan Kois rather elegantly laid out the ongoing debate between “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and found himself caught in the middle. Over at Salon, Laura Miller astutely stuck up for fact-checkers. Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Colin Dickey defended D’Agata’s chosen genre, the essay form, even though he didn’t quite defend D’Agata himself (who appears to be a somewhat flawed advocate for the role of essayist-artist). Others have chimed in with more personal contributions: the critic Glenn Kenny recalled the time he had to work with David Foster Wallace on a piece about the AVN awards for Premiere; elsewhere, my friend and colleague Alizah Salario recalled trying to teach Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, along with its truthy complications, to high schoolers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Narration, Voiceover, and the Shape of the World

“I felt that people that frown on voiceover, it’s just a stupid thing. You think of the pictures that had voiceover, and they’re the best pictures ever. I mean, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jules and Jim. Jules and Jim is 90 percent voiceover. And The Wild Child. And even commercial films. Billy Jack had voiceover. Clockwork Orange. So that, “Show it, don’t tell it,” I think is a stupid reaction. You can be inventive in an independent picture with voiceover, and it’s one thing you can do that, in a large studio picture… they aren’t likely to do. And voiceover also helps you to cover an enormous amount of long as you don’t use it the wrong way, and that is to cheat on exposition. And you can even use it that way and it’s just fine. You know, I really do believe that as long as a picture has the breath of life in it that it’s not going to matter what kind of mistakes you make, including the expository use of voiceover.” – Terrence Malick, 1976

Do we still treat narration and voiceover like proper filmmaking technique’s bastard step-child? People have been mouthing the “show, don’t tell” platitude for decades now. And it’s understandable: The desire to “tell” is often great, and it’s not a bad idea to combat convenience and temptation. But still. Forget the films Malick cites in the above 1976 quote and think of the ones we’d cite now, many moons later. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Malick’s own Badlands and Days of Heaven, Full Metal Jacket. Or avoid the film-snob brigade altogether and make your way down to Risky Business and/or Avatar, if you prefer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Earworm Cinema: A Theory

Do you know what an “earworm” is? It’s the name for those songs that get stuck in your head. Like when you walk through your day with “Walk like an Egyptian” or something echoing incessantly inside your mind, and you wonder how it happened, since you don’t even like that song.

There’s a lot of science and speculation around earworms and how they work, but one theory has it that they’re a form of cognitive itch: Basically, your memory of the song is imperfect -- it’s missing something -- and the brain, without any real prompting from you (or “you,” since your brain effectively is you) plays the song over and over in your head to get it right. This, btw, is also one of the reasons why earworms are usually songs you don’t like all that much – your brain would presumably have a better memory of a personal favorite. (It’s also the reason why one recommended way of getting rid of an earworm is just to try and play or sing the entire song from beginning to end. So next time you see me trying to remember the lyrics to “All That She Wants,” you’ll know why.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

She Rode a Horse

They're not gonna make it.

Titanic is coming back, and I’ll probably have something to say about it when it does. It’s one of my favorite films and I don’t really care who knows it, or for that matter what they think of it. But right now, though, the thought of Titanic is inextricably intertwined with one of my most memorable and hilarious moviegoing experiences.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On Lucy Liu, Sherlock Holmes, and My First Day at My First Sundance

Last week saw the announcement that Lucy Liu had been cast as Dr. Watson in a new American Sherlock Holmes TV show titled Elementary. Yes, this is odd news, in many ways, but I found myself sort of wistful upon hearing it. I shall now spend entirely too much space explaining why.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

7 Times Oscar Got It Right

Yes, I know I’m not supposed to care about the Oscars, but, well, I do, and if you’re reading this, chances are you do, too, maybe just a little bit. Anyway, I’ve done a couple of Oscar things the past week for Vulture – I contributed to this piece prognosticating the winners and suggesting witty things to say when they're announced, and I also wrote this piece about some of the best performances in the worst Oscar bait films over the years But I also wanted to write this list here. We spend so much time grousing about the worst Best Picture winners and whatnot, that sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of those occasions when Oscar actually gets it right. So, here are the Best Picture winners from the past forty years that I actually agree with, in chronological order. And by “agree with,” I mean, “Yes, that movie actually was -- or was at least close to being -- the best motion picture release of that given year." You will certainly disagree with a couple of these choices. Know that I would probably disagree with a couple of yours. Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

SEE THIS MOVIE: Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) Now Available on DVD

Thanks to Glenn Kenny for alerting me (and the rest of the world) to the fact that one of Anthony Mann’s most neglected masterpieces, Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, is now available in a nice new burn-on-demand DVD from Columbia Classics, which you can order through the fine folks at the Warner Archive. This is joyous news – the film has wallowed in some strange obscurity for years, not just because it was public domain (and hence available in a lot of crappy, fly-by-night editions but no good ones) but also because it’s a bit of an unclassifiable oddity.

Mann would, of course, eventually gain notoriety for his corrosive, psychological Westerns (The Man from Laramie, Man of the West, The Naked Spur, etc.) and darkly operatic historical epics (El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire), but his early career took off thanks to a series of low-budget film noirs, many of them made with the great cinematographer John Alton. Reign of Terror was one of these, but it’s not just a noir; it’s also a period piece. It’s a stylized adventure set amid the chaos of the French Revolution as well as an over-the-top gangster movie where the chief baddie is Maximilian Robespierre, and where the plot is basically a hard-boiled re-imagining of his downfall.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: A Music Apart from Men

Let’s get one thing very clear: Amadeus is not history. Nor, for the most part, does it pretend to be. Milos Forman’s film, for all its acclaim, has attracted its share of scorn over the years, often from those who find it to be an inadequate portrait of the real-life entity known as Mozart (to say nothing of the real-life entity known as Salieri, an accomplished composer who in his later years actually taught some of the greatest musical minds of all time). Liberties taken with the historical/biographical record are nothing new – especially for a film based not on fact but on a stage play, which itself was based on another play which became an opera. But there is one aspect of Amadeus’s poetic license that’s worth dwelling on, because it reveals something very profound about the film’s intentions – and, just perhaps, brings us around to (gasp) a better understanding of Mozart himself.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: A Miracle! Amadeus, Critics, and Rock Stars

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from TV producer and erstwhile critic Zach Ralston.

By Zach Ralston

“I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.” – W.A. Mozart

 What do you remember about Antonio Salieri? Chances are, it's not his music – it's his words. And that goes not only for the real Salieri, but for the Salieri character in Milos Forman's magnificent 1984 film Amadeus (titled, of course, after Mozart's middle name, not its protagonist Salieri).

In the opening scene, when Salieri begins what is essentially a 24-hour confession to Father Vogler, “the patron saint of mediocrities” (as he later deems himself) plays a couple of his tunes for the priest, who doesn't recognize them. The third tune he plays is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart. That, Vogler recognizes*, and so do we. Instantly the audience sympathizes with both characters – the priest, for being as familiar with music as we are (no more, no less); and Salieri, for the sadness of having no popular tunes.

But what we do end up remembering from Salieri is how he speaks – and particularly how he describes Mozart's music. Thanks to Peter Shaffer's sensational dialogue (he adapted his own play for Forman's film), we get succinct, fantastic analysis of Mozart's great genius. Salieri describes one concerto as starting off by sounding like “a rusty squeezebox” before an oboe soars high above it all, only to be taken over by a clarinet rescuing the fluttering notes. It's powerful imagery, and underscores Salieri's hidden genius – a music critic.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon: Antonio Salieri's Totally Awesome Eighties Flashback Weekend

This entry in the Amadeus blogathon comes from filmmaker Matthew Wilder.

The Eighties were a rough time to come of age as a movie lover. Almost all the good stuff snuck in through the back door. Brazil, Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, The King of Comedy, Southern Comfort, King Lear, Do the Right Thing; the only great moviemaker in that era pulling up to a VIP parking space and whistling while he worked was Steven Spielberg. It bums me out now when today’s retro-minded hipsters go to a revival joint and Get That Eighties Feeling, putting on their rainbow-colored wrist-sweat-bands and covering their torsos in fake Rubik’s Cubes, watching crapola like Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Just One of the Guys and Lost Boys and Goonies and Satisfaction and—well, all the shit people at the time were cringing through to get to the good stuff. That’s what’s now called “the Eighties.”

One movie that bridged the gap between the high-minded and the genuinely popular was Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Smart teenagers of the time dug it. The gibes against it were obvious. First and foremost, it was “middlebrow”—an adjective John Simon, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann and La Pauline could all agree upon. Based on a play by Peter Shaffer (or wait—was it Anthony?), Amadeus focused on what everyone concurred was a pretty banal theme: the war between cagy, politic, shucking-and-jiving mediocrity, and God-given genius. And yes, depicting mediocrity as hand-wringing, evilly cackling Salieri (a hall-of-fame F. Murray Abraham) and giggly, pottymouthed, infantile Mozart (one-hit-wondrous Thomas Hulce) was cartoonish, simple-minded. And then there was the matter of Milos Forman’s style: the periwigs, the beautymarked boobies, the Barry Lyndonian candelabra, the firehose of Metro Goldwyn Mayeresque excess that the Czech expat spritzed across the stage—er, screen.

Amadeus Blogathon: A Brief Introduction

So, a couple of months ago a few friends and I got into a discussion about Milos Forman’s Amadeus. It seemed to us to be one of the great “Oscar” movies – a grand, award-winning entertainment that was also a genuine work of art. But it was clear that not everyone felt this way. Indeed, Amadeus often pops up on some folks’ lists of the less-deserving Best Picture winners, and it had many detractors at the time of its release as well, particularly among highbrow critics. (We’ll be getting into this a bit with a couple of our pieces.)

So, why not do an Amadeus blogathon, we asked ourselves? To discuss the film in its many aspects – some obvious (say, F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar-winning performance, which, sorry, only a profound cynic could fail to admire) and some not so obvious (you’ll see). That’s when this mildly cracked idea was born.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Forgotten Films: 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)

(For an explanation of the Forgotten Films project, go here.)

You’d think that John Ford’s final narrative film would have greater visibility -- especially since a number of influential film writers consider it to be one of the director’s finest. But it’s very hard to see, with no DVD of it available. (TCM does show it from time to time, and there was a widescreen laserdisc from MGM available back in the 90s.) It was a financial disaster upon its release, relegated to the bottom half of a double bill with The Money Trap -- this despite the fact that many influential critics and filmmakers of the 1960s were at that moment naming  Ford as one of their greatest influences. Why, then, the widespread indifference to 7 Women? Perhaps because it seems, on its surface, such a departure from the prototypical Ford film.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Were So Many Sundance Movies about Break-Ups This Year?

An Over-Simplification of Her Beauty

In recent years, it seems that no Sundance is complete without at least one break-out film about break-ups. Whether it arrives via something intense and dramatic like Blue Valentine or lighthearted and wistful like (500) Days of Summer, romantic angst has seemingly become the festival’s bread and butter. And while this year’s festival didn’t appear to generate a true stand-out in the vein of those earlier films (though you never know – 500 Days didn’t initially feel like it was going to be the hit it later became), it wasn’t for lack of trying. Indeed, break-ups, in all their varied forms, were ubiquitous onscreen at this year’s Sundance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sundance Review: Room 237

Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 might be the best film I’ve seen at Sundance this year. It’s certainly the film to which I had the most personal response.  My Kubrick obsession is fairly well-documented, and in my early 20s the thoughts swirling in my head weren’t unlike the ones expressed in the film. I wasn't much of a conspiracy theorist, to be fair, but I spent a lot of time – a lot of time, too much time, time that probably should have been better spent having a life – arguing about this sort of stuff.

Sundance Review: The Comedy

Remember how in Ghostbusters II our heroes had to battle paranormal slime that had been formed out of all the negative energy in New York City oozing down into the sewers? Well, The Comedy is sort of like that slime -- it's the negative runoff of all those Judd Apatow comedies we’ve been watching. If you’ve ever wondered whether stuff like Knocked Up had a certain nasty, cruel, sad subtext – now it's become the text. In fact, maybe those are the comedies the title refers to, since the film itself is not meant to be funny in any way.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sundance Review: Detropia

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s Detropia probably isn’t the definitive documentary about the collapse of Detroit. It doesn’t provide the kind of historical detail and social context that you might need if you wanted to understand the issues behind the Motor City’s economic decline. No, Detropia is as much a ghost story as it is a documentary. It’s an impressionistic journey through the gray soul of a major American metropolis that is slipping – nay, has slipped – into nothingness, lonely but not quite empty.