Monday, October 31, 2005

Picked Flick #84: Orlando

1993 marked the first year I penetrated the suburban county line with the explicit purpose of seeing an art movie. I was a sophomore in high school, and with the intrepid Blosser sisters, Susan and Carol, I went to the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7 in Northern Virginia to see first Much Ado About Nothing and then Orlando. We all loved the first movie, drunk as we were on Shakespeare and on our ripe imaginations of Ken and Em as companionate perfection. Remember those days?

I, though, was secretly much more taken with Orlando, a movie I had virtually made up my mind to love anyway. Another anecdote: the first issue of Entertainment Weekly I ever bought and obsessed over was the Summer Movie Preview in 1993, warmly remembered for the moment at which I finished reading about Cliffhanger and Jurassic Park and Sleepless in Seattle and suddenly flipped to a picture of a red-headed androgyne and a withered old man cast as Queen Elizabeth, both of them bedecked in the most outlandishly plush theatrical finery while escorting a pack of grey, almost aqueline hunting dogs down the proverbial garden path. Aside from its sheer beauty, I couldn't believe that this picture was afforded a full half-page, or that the plot explored a literal, magical switching of a person's gender, or that it was written by this "Virginia Woolf" about whom I was just learning. (Albee's pun escaped me entirely; frankly, it kind of still does.) It was hard for me to imagine that Orlando could possibly measure up to the promise of this photostill, so imagine my awe when that shot came and went a mere 10 or 15 minutes into the film. Imagine my elation at actually loving the film, rather than just posing as one who loved it. The minute I reached the end of The Vampire Lestat, which I was then reading, I lept into Woolf's novel, was stunned by how different it was in tone as well as incident, but I loved it just as much, and couldn't stop gazing at Tilda Swinton's arch but somehow sly, Holbein-type portrait on the cover of the Harcourt Brace reprint. We could sum all of this up as a sort of Queen's Throat moment in a wee, proto-queer cinephile's young life, and for all of these reasons, Orlando will always remain a favorite.

There are other reasons, Swinton's gorgeous and utterly impossible face being one. Watching Young Adam last year with a friend, I leaned into his ear and said, "Her face is like a brain." You can literally read her thoughts, in an almost disconcertingly subtle and complete way, and the thoughts are always interesting—sometimes much more so than the movies she's in, though that isn't the case with Orlando. Released as Derek Jarman lay dying, though of course I had no sense of this at the time, Orlando confirmed that both Swinton and costume designer/archangel Sandy Powell would have thriving careers even without their patron and discoverer. I like to think of the frankly wobbly coda of Orlando, when Sally Potter uses rough, handheld Super 8 to render the modern Orlando's return to the field where we first met him/her, as at least in part a gentle elegy for Jarman, who so brilliantly pioneered the interpolation of celluloid and video as a uniquely expressive collage-form for the cinema. I like how many of Orlando's technical ventures pay off, like David Motion's defiantly modern score, as brazenly instrumented as those of Jon Brion but with techno undercurrents and, still yet, some classical melodic lines. I like the use of Russian and Uzbek locations to sub in for, respectively, the dowager Elizabeth's icebound Winter Court and the blistering palace-resort of Lothaire Bluteau's Turkish pasha, and I like wondering how they possibly made this movie for $5 million. I like that cinematographer Alexei Rodionov's mannerist motif of panning back and forth between dialogue speakers, bending if not quite breaking ye olde 180° rule, somehow resonates as clever rather than just as a sterile conceit in this story all about cryptic transitions and spaces between. The later epochs in the narrative get something of a bum's rush after all the visual, musical, and narrative lavishments on the early passages, but Orlando is a hoot, a hit, and a surprisingly boisterous comedy for most of its running time. You'd expect it to smell like scholarly folios, but it doesn't. It's as warm as those morning rays of sun that discover before anyone else does, with no Crying Game anxieties whatsoever, that he isn't a he anymore. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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The Silence of the Polls

As the handful of votes straggled in for the Picked Flicks Poll for #91-100, I inititally suspected nefarious intervention, tossing out all votes that didn't support The Passion of the Christ as a write-in candidate. But then it turned out, no, the vote format t'aint working with so many movies in the mix that not everyone had seen. So I'm going to drop this little mechanism until the countdown is good and done, at which point y'all can tell me about your favorites from the whole list, and what you woulda liked to see up there that wasn't.

Of course, the saddest reason to stop culling votes is that one particularly industrious reader—seriously, not me!—went to all this unsolicited trouble:

AK, you're a hero among men, not to mention among former students! But I'm not going to short-change any of the responses that did flow in, mostly orbiting around two expected targets, but not at first:

Vote 1 is for Cemetery Man, because, in the reader's words, I have watched it more than five times, and parts of it still mystify me. And because the romance between Gnaghi and Valentina's head is so sweet. And because Rupert Everett's performance sums up everything there is to say about 1990s ennui. (And then there's Rupert in that flowing white shirt...)

Vote 2 is for The Breakfast Club, because it shows all of the teen angst and frustration that most of us (I'd gather about 99.9% of us) felt at some point (or most of the time) during our high school years. The use of stereotypes is fabulous, and as the layers of these stereotypes peel away throughout the movie, we figure out that the 5 of them are pretty much the same.

Vote 3, loopily, is for I ♥ Huckabees, because 'Huckabees' could be the key to the entire existence of movies #99, #100, the only other ones I've seen and considered voting. Everything is connected. #92 and #94, I really want to see --the cinema is so infinite. It most definitely is.

Vote 4 is also for I ♥ Huckabees, this time because I heart it too—particularly because of the music. Jon Brion’s score is as playful, irreverent and haunting as his scores in 'Eternal Sunshine' and 'Punch Drunk Love.' It has a comically overly styled feel to it, but it is every bit as complicated, beautiful and absurd as the story. Plus, my sister Leah played on the movie soundtrack. That helps win it a place on my list.

So we almost had a winner, but then Vote 5 came in for The Breakfast Club, because it spoke to and defined an entire generation... For better or for worse.


Two Halloween Tricks

Despite the bad luck associated with Halloween, I thought I'd be in for at least one treat in today's double feature. But, no. Both films have their merits, but in recompense, they expect you to put up with quite a lot—too much, I think.

North Country C
Niki Caro's Whale Rider was an involving tale with an affecting central performance, and it refreshingly abstained from cutesying up its young protagonist or overtly repackaging its regional idiom and cultural values for purposes of export. The big exception to that rule, however, was the over-insistence on sexism as a social axiom. As the immediate debate over Pai's eligibility for cultural leadership slides into a broad-based indictment of male chauvinism, you would never know that Maori culture is one of the most matrilineal and woman-positive in the world, and that most modern Maori women need not imagine that their best chances for self-expression lie in waiting for Grandpa to leave the kitchen so you can take the piss out of him in private.

North Country, Caro's follow-up film, at least admits its class-action interest in gender inequality as a categorical social ill, and in the wintry hinterlands of Minnesota, the charge sticks pretty persuasively—persuasively enough, in fact, that you wonder why Caro won't let social and narrative structures speak for themselves. Instead, she milks far, far too many scenes for a much more obvious and superficial quotient of sexual blamecasting. The film's allegiance to a cause trumps its allegiance to itself at countless turns, and while the human drama crackles in some compelling moments—a public accusation of adultery at a hockey game, a supervisor's meeting where union representative Frances McDormand finagles what she wants, a nightmarish incident involving a portable toilet—much of the rest feels sternly and unconfidently schematic. Richard Jenkins, a bonus in anything, gets a powerful scene at a microphone that can't help remind us how much Caro likes to make her characters cry in front of assemblies. Theron, McDormand, and cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission) do the best work to keep North Country within reasonably textured parameters of human experience, but the movie is scored all wrong, and the thematic trajectory from sexual harassment to sexual assault is so awkwardly structured that it dulls both arguments instead of fortifying the linkage between them. Meanwhile, Caro shoots and edits her coverage shots of the mines like she did the whales in her first film, as a massive and inveterate fact, implying a strangely ambivalent worldview in which some things can (and must!) be fixed, while others simply Are.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit C+
I thought North Country might misstep, and so I purposely planned to see Wallace & Gromit afterward, sure as I was that Aardman Studios had delivered the goods. Unfortunately, this is one party at which I'm the appointed churl, since I got barely a moment's real enjoyment out of Wallace & Gromit, which seemed just as cluttered but also as listless as Aardman's earlier feature-length disappointment, Chicken Run. My respect for the movie is just that—respect—but I was amazed at how soon I was wishing it would end, and I actually had a better time at North Country. As in so many animated features, and perhaps this is becoming a prejudice of my own, the punctilious detail and overfilled images in Wallace & Gromit quickly seemed like ends in themselves, hung around a story with no urgency, even as short-form suspense. I love how expressive Gromit can be, and Lady Tottington gets some memorably daft lines like, "In my view, the killing of fluffy animals is never justified!" But I'm terminally bored by all of Wallace's hodgepodge gizmos and inventions, and—in total contrast to the entrancing shorts, especially The Wrong Trousers—I feel much the same about the two Aardman features: sure, this is what you made, and it must not have been easy, but then why did you bother? Corpse Bride's wittier character designs and stripped-down narrative brought a whimsical quality to that movie that the manic and plotty Were-Rabbit really needs in order to seem like more than the fetish of talented puppet-masters having a grand day in at the studio.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Picked Flick #85: High Art

Here we embark on a quite fortuitous string of five consecutive movies that were all directed by women. Though none of them truly departs the basic perimeters of realist narrative, each is self-consciously shot in such a way that we can't help ruminating on what we see, on how we see, and specifically on how gender—considered alongside a range of other social variables—arrives to the eye and to the mind. Beyond this particular commonality, the tones, topics, and themes of the movies vary so widely, excepting the two films paired at #83, that I didn't realize until now what a compelling repertory program they constitute.

Extending the happy coincidences, we begin with Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, which itself commences in a literal meditation on how women look—a double-entendre that, like "high art" itself, is fully and richly intentional. During the opening credits sequence, dotted with the names of female actors, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, producers and executive producers, and writer-director Cholodenko, Radha Mithcell's Syd pores over a handful of photographic slides at her light-table. The camera is entranced by her searching, intelligent eyes, starkly framed in thick black glasses, rather than by her body or by the objects at which she gazes. Within the same sequence, though, this isolated woman makes her way home through an empty office building and an uninhabited subway station, all shot from the kinds of oblique angles and the dusky, doomy shadows that tend to signal female victimization in all ranges of popular cinema. The movie prowls somewhere in the spectrum between Screen, the journal, and Scream, the girls-in-peril franchise, and that's hardly the last spectrum whose measure High Art will take. Between still photos and the moving image, between gay and straight, ambition and love, addiction and lucidity, there is sometimes a wide and nervy chasm in this movie, and at other moments nothing more than a pause, a comma, a slide over to the next seat on the couch. As the plot unfolds, High Art's debts to All About Eve become clearer, duplicating the essential scenarios of cunning, camaraderie, idol-slaying, and creative power even as it lures into the light the earlier film's lesbian undertows.

Like All About Eve, if nowhere near its depth, the script of High Art is good enough that it would survive even a mediocre cast, but thank God it hasn't got one. Ally Sheedy's watchful, forceful game of brinksmanship with her own reckless tendencies never ceases to fascinate, while Patricia Clarkson turns all the burners on high with her soused, semi-waking, gloriously catty, but intimidatingly naked portrait of Greta, an actress whose image is fading away on her. There's a harsh scene, though not a cruel one, where Greta almost drowns in a bathtub, and the rhymes to both the ubiquitous photos of Greta underwater and the elementary process of emulsifying a negative instantly capture how far past her happiness—how overexposed—Greta has become.

High Art errs, more than once. The film makes feints toward two characters, Lucy's mother and Syd's boyfriend, that barely even congeal, and the climax, for all that it captures an emotional inevitability, still feels wayward and abrupt. These are the kinds of limitations you find in a movie that still exists halfway in the filmmaker's head; it hasn't yet molted its basic layers of structure and concept, hasn't yet cooled and matured into full-fledged drama. But as opposed to other good films with similar liabilities—Darren Aronofsky's Pi, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End, even to an extent Todd Haynes' Far from HeavenHigh Art keeps looping you back into its mysteries. The collective dissolution of the characters, even the dourness of the film's trajectory don't deflate what is enigmatic and interesting about it. When women this fascinating come this close to a camera, no matter what side of it they're standing on, it's always an event. Cholodenko's follow-up, Laurel Canyon, works only sporadically; Cavedweller barely works at all. What's best in those pictures are but paler reflections of the same issues that drive High Art—broadly, what rebellious female artisanship looks like as its embers are dying down. But High Art doesn't snuff itself out. You remember it. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #86: Where Is the Friend's Home?

Ahmed Ahmadpoor, the eight-year-old protagonist of Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home?, sits by sympathetically but helplessly as the schoolboy who sits beside him, Mohamad Reza Nematzadeh, is harshly scolded by their teacher. Mohamad Reza has failed, for a third time, to write out his homework in a notebook, as he has so often been reminded to do. The stakes of his forgetfulness are that he will be expelled from school if he repeats the error a fourth time. So, wouldn't you know, in the shuffling speed with which all students, including my own undergraduates, hasten out of class, and in the unbearable unfairness of early childhood, Mohamad Reza's most well-meaning friend accidentally swipes his neighbor's notebook in place of his own. Realizing his mistake only after returning home, Ahmed is heartbroken at the prospect of his friend's certain punishment, and despite the ornery warnings of his parents and the biddings of his grandfather ("Fetch my cigarettes!") he alights from his own village of Koker into the neighboring warren of Poshteh, looking for a friend whose whereabouts he can only dimly guess.

The sweet-temperedness of Where Is the Friend's Home? is a main reason why the film appeals so profoundly, and why it helped to jumpstart the international zeitgeist of enthusiasm for Iranian cinema. Especially by comparison to the rigid conceptions of Kiarostami's recent work, the film is unabashedly rooted in human sympathy, an affecting but never cloying scenario, and a neorealist filming style to make Bazin cheer from the grave. Kiarostami carefully but unobtrusively manages the frame even while tracking young Ahmed through the sidewinding paths and chutes of Poshteh, so that our own visual sense unites permanent dislocation with the constant unfolding of discovery. (10 is a fine movie, but mere moments into Where Is the Friend's Home?, you'll wish Kiarostami would unbolt the camera from the dashboard already.) The repetition of key shots, paticularly that Zorro-swath of an unpaved incline that reaches to the peak of a tree-topped hill, communicates a kind of hermetic life in and around Koker, even as Ahmed intrepidly tests those boundaries, and even as the same gaggle of gossiping men you find in any decent-sized town the world over reminisce about how much more disciplined they were in childhood, and debate the hot topic of how iron doors are fazing out the old wooden ones. Meanwhile, Kiarostami's simple but supple screenplay weaves in threads of local humor and wisps of dramatic irony—his mother, verging on disbelief of his story, thinks Ahmed simply wishes to avoid his own homework—that only deepen the integrity of the young boy's conviction.

For some reason I always think of Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's Home? as a sort of Iranian 400 Blows, perhaps because both films pay such animated, concerted, and respectful attention to the quotidian but nonetheless deeply felt quandaries of being a young boy. But it's a bad analogy. Ahmed Ahmadpoor evinces none of the incipient sass or broodish alienation of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, and certainly the aesthetics of the two films couldn't be more different. If the Kiarostami film has any European counterpart, it's Bicycle Thieves, except this is a saga of trying to return rather than recover something, and the malleable mind of the young boy in this story has direct access to his own vision of the city, unfiltered by a father's shadow. Furthermore, the rural Iranian landscape is not, as in Bicycle Thieves, riven with the signs of martial devastation. It's just, plainly, a tough place to get by, especially if you're small—one of those lean but precious premises of which movies can always use more. Sparer, less pushy, and more resonant than later Iranian exports like Children of Heaven, Where Is the Friend's Home is a perfect tonic to your worst suspicions of kiddie-centered cinema. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Picked Flick #87: Network

The MGM lion has hardly stopped roaring when Paddy Chayefsky starts, in the chattery, clenched opening of Network—quite well directed by Sidney Lumet, but still Chayefsky's movie through and through. The first character whose acquaintance we make is Peter Finch's Howard Beale, a fantastically depressed anchorman who will hardly go softly into that good night, and who in fact teeters with drunken abandon on the lip of a total breakdown. Apropos Howard, our unknown narrator confides that in 1970, "His wife died and he became a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share." We haven't even hit the opening titles yet when an offhand comment from Howard's friend and producer Max Schumacher gives him the idea that, were he to blow his brains out on air, seated right at this newsdesk, the network would score at least a 50 share. The next night, Howard pledges to do just this: "Since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself." Peter Finch, as Howard, delivers the lines with almost jocular aplomb. No one in the sound booth or at the editing console even notices, at least not right away.

Network wastes no time barreling right into its scabrous satire of an abscessed national media, of middle-age panic and youthful zealotry, of sensational diversions that conceal the corporate racket, of how a graduated mid-life apoplexy, perhaps outright insanity, nonetheless passes for messianic enlightenment in a world that's this far gone. Network remains prescient, urgent, hilarious, and relevant today, almost 30 years after its debut, and it's of course profoundly sad that this is the case. It's easy to lament the fact that post-Y2K television has promulgated so many programs that would have slid quite nicely into the deranged rubric of The Howard Beale Show. Bill O'Reilly is scantily less crazy than Howard Beale, speaking only of his contempt for corroborated fact and his perpetual state of spoiled-child ire, not about his politics. The endless procession of Survivors and Idols and Models and Millionaires are even more vapid than Sybil the Soothsayer, the rumored but never-heard Vox Populi, and other Guignol series and spinoffs that Chayefsky devises for his fictional UBS. More harrowing is the fact that Network actually strikes much closer to the angry red iron of what's really going wrong—the transnational corporations duping their own senior staffs and worshipping the dollar in a quite literal way—than do the endless contemporary editorials about the atrophied content of today's TV. Content is just a symptom. As Faye Dunaway's brazenly cloven-hoofed Diana Christensen yells at a Marxist, terrorist-affiliated demagogue-for-hire, "I don't give a damn about the political content of the show!" So little damns are given in this movie, I feel sure I'd have spotted one, had the occasion ever arisen.

What Network does give a damn about is the entire plane of mid-1970s wrongdoing and woe, one that explains and forever exceeds the ideological malfeasance we're seeing in the network offices and on their screens. Depression, recession, civil wars, White House corruption, balkanized liberal dissent, skyrocketing oil prices, racial ghettoization, white-collar auction blocks, conveniently blurred lines between bureaucratic divisions like "News" and "Programming." In synthesizing these trends, if only by angrily, commodiously tatting them together in furious unison, the movie far exceeds the kind of simple "Will TV tell the truth or won't it?" provenance of a sleeker, shallower film like this fall's Good Night, and Good Luck. Meanwhile, Owen Roizman's camerawork, careening into Weimar-era, M-style canted angles in the establishing shots on the network offices—and again during the immortal, mid-film "Mad as Hell" interlude—draws its own implicit analogies about where the country is heading.

Having said all that, Network is not a perfect movie, and is in fact consistently overrated. Chayefsky's fascination with his own highbrow vocabulary declaws as many scenes as it assists. The film's worst judgment has always to do with the William Holden's Max, whose banal and moony marital transgressions never feel like more than an excuse to give Dunaway something else to act besides her possession by the Nielsen demons. The root network of Holden's scenes mostly subsist of the chauvinist and youth-phobic moral favor Chayefsky quite arbitrarily cedes to him over Dunaway, and also the script's quavering unwillingness to recognize that Howard is actually right about individual lives and personal qualms being utterly, almost comically irrelevant to the kind of world Network so sagely describes. At some point in my viewing history, Network has passed from a movie I admired without liking to a movie I enjoy tremendously without quite admiring it so much as I used to. Over-the-top, out and proud, even when it could stand to hold back or trim down a little, Network does what Dunaway tells us Sybil the Soothsayer does: the film oraculates. Still, the fierceness with which it both demands and holds our attention, all these decades later, makes it always worth another re-run. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #88: Hands on a Hardbody

Longview, Texas, due north of Houston and due east of Dallas, is the home of the original "Hands on a Hardbody" contest, a deceptively grueling annual rite where randomly selected entrants attempt to win a brand new Nissan Hardbody pickup by outlasting all comers in the ability to stay awake with at least one hand on the truck at all times. No sleeping. No breaks, except a group siesta for five minutes every hour and 15 minutes every six hours. No leaning on the truck to support your weight. No squatting. For the final three contestants, a drug test. Benny Perkins, who won the contest in 1992 after palming the pickup for 87 hours, resented the way that the contest became a local tourist attraction, with people forgetting that "we're suffering, we're hurting." The runner-up from the previous year describes the ordeal as "the best experience of my life," to which the woman who beat him instantly echoes, "Oh, yeah!" A medical professional whom this cheap, simple, do-it-yourself documentary bills only as "Dr. Jereb, Psychologist," describes the 3-4 day Hardbody tournament as "A mystical experience...that transcends this truck that we're all holding onto, transcends our lives." The visual impression of yellow-shirted buzzards caressing their blue metal carrion recedes beneath the gobsmacking emotion that the men and women of the contest have already poured into and onto this apparently protean vehicle.

Even more than the justly famous Spellbound, Hands on a Hardbody poses a ritual competition as a ready-made cross section of American personae, ethics, and needs. Among the rivals in the 1994 contest, which this film records, Greg has entered in a plaintive attempt to recapture the kind of discipline he feels he's lost since his Marine Corps days; middle-aged Russell has put 250,000 miles on his old truck and can't easily afford to replace it; Kelly, should she win, might parlay the truck's resale value into tuition money or orthodontia; Janis Curtis, who has no front teeth whatsoever, thinks this trial will be a good way to prove to herself that she can finish anything she has the will to begin; returning champ Benny, stunned by the serendipity of being chosen twice as a finalist, clearly relishes the aura of the conquering hero; Norma Valverde, a dead ringer for Lupe Ontiveros, confides that "my husband and I have been praying for a truck, and this is what I believe God wants us to do." The Valverdes sold their own truck the day they learned of Norma's invitation to join the contest, and her congregation of 500 neighbors are conducting group prayers on her behalf, with some smaller, singing circles on-site at the contest. Hovering over all of these pathos-laden backstories is the fact that, unlike the spelling bee, the Hardbody contest doesn't become more or less winnable in any evident way as a result of these personal histories. Almost embarrassingly intimate confessions run up against brute physical endurance. A concentric ring of longtime contest-watchers espouse their guesses and critiques—Kelly is taking "smart breaks" eating bananas and fish, while Russell, stupidly outfitted in heavy boots, "has got the attitude, but he's ill-advised." Norma, listening to gospel hymns and recorded sermons on her Walkman, regularly bursts into wild, joyous peals of laughter, which she credits to the Holy Ghost. Antagonisms form. Judges are called into question. In the 48th hour of the contest, 10 of the 23 aspirants are still standing there, bleary, their personalities gradually evacuated, still with their hands slapped on the chassis. They still have a long way to go.

So, fearless renter, presuming you can find this elusive movie—the non-dubbed copies on eBay have run as much as $85—what kind of experience would you like this film to be? Slice-of-life travelogue with sharp regional accents? Genuinely surprising suspense thriller with truly unexpected developments—which, we realize in hindsight, have been carefully insulated by the editing and the character introductions? Cooked-to-order parable of slavish capitalist commodity-worship, tempered by compassionate appeals to each entrant's reason for perpetuating the system? Or how about a rollicking human comedy, soundtracked by Norma's contagious laughter, or country-boy Ronald's improbable fear of thunder, or the contest supervisor's Southern-fried defenses of an impugned judge: "These people are giving their time, and sure, they didn't graduate from the Academy of Hardbody Hands of America, or what have you!" Watch Angie, Texan blossom, carefully using one hand to apply the makeup products she has spread out across her Jackie Collins hardcover. Hear the delirious tales of petting invisible dogs, obeying mysterious voices. Puzzle at why Matthew McConaughey and Benicio Del Toro are both thanked in the credits. "You basically learn the values of humanity, because you see other people fighting, struggling, who want the same thing you want," opines sage-philosopher Benny, who in a less grandiose moment contends, "It's a human drama thing." (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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New Lows in Junk E-Mail

I'm sorry, but would you please look at this, which just arrived in my Inbox, from the generically familiar all-consonant address, and with absolutely no text in the message?

Forget for a moment that, no matter how carefully you have PhotoShopped, it's hard to sell Viagra in the absence of any link, address, or contact info where one might obtain Viagra. Forget for a moment the insane national fixation on Viagra. (My partner recently went to a doctor's office where the traditional roll of paper covering the examining table was a giant Viagra ad.) Here is my semiotic understanding of this image:

1) Are you a one-armed man looking for sex? Are you all hot to trot after killing Richard Kimble's wife? If so, you've come <tee hee> to the right place!

2) Try flexing your arm, which might be enough to attract horny lolitaz, as described in my previous junk-message. Note that the scrupulous one-armed flexer can cast a faint shadow that looks remarkably like an open-mouthed moray eel. One or the other of these stunts should surely attract some distaff attention. No? Okay, we're going to need to pop some Viagra. Do your best opening the prescription bottle with your single hand.

3) Get ready for some of that alien, unimagined, Cronenberg-type sex you've always wondered about. You have two options. In one, while you wrap your arm around the stiletto-heeled woman, she will seductively knee you in the groin. It can only help that she, too, has but one arm, in the distressingly withered style of Swamp Thing, Thomas Hardy, or similar.

In the other, perhaps more aggressively courted by our clever illustrators, the woman stands in perfect soldiery lockstep while your penis, suddenly grown to massive, tree-trunk proportions due to magic dose of Viagra, impales this poor creature on its utterly unpleasurable girth. Please try not to worry about the tiny but perceptible genital wart on its underside. Also, please try not to provoke or else crush the wee egret waiting at your feet.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Picked Flick #89: Psycho

Seriously. That Psycho. I remind the reader that this list prioritizes pleasure and personal association over "pure" aesthetic credentials, though even on that grounds, Gus Van Sant's floridly punctilious remake of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movie has nothing to be embarrassed about. The whole exercise, a quite brilliant gambit, speaks as no other movie I can think of to the paradox of how exactitude and imitation invariably call attention to deviance and asymmetry. That's a Hitchcockian idea in itself—a sort of formal apotheosis of what Jimmy Stewart's character learns in Vertigo—but it also places the movie expertly into a landscape of queer camp and performativity that includes Andy Warhol's star portraits and soup cans, Judith Butler's queer explications of gender as ideological theater, the entire history of drag, and queer cinema's own abiding interest in the citation and subversive reinhabiting of classic texts. The same questions that Velvet Goldmine poses to Citizen Kane, that All About My Mother and another upcoming Picked Flick pose to All About Eve, that Derek Jarman posed to Shakespeare and Marlowe, and that Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho posed to the Henry plays are succinctly crystallized in this pop-art diorama of Psycho's once revolutionary and now ubiquitous twists and turns.

With the possible exception of Last Days, this is also my favorite Van Sant movie, capitalizing on his own frigid detachment and his hyperinvestment in self-conscious form. It's a fond time capsule of American movies circa 1998, when Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Anne Heche, William H. Macy, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Forster, and Philip Baker Hall were either hot new names or recently, happily returned to our attentions. In Christopher Doyle's fluorescent, go-for-broke lighting and Beatrix Aruña Pasztor's equally daring costume choices, it's one of the best and least expected transplants of Hong Kong style into a credible American idiom. Heche, shopping for used cars in a green/orange print dress, color-matched sunglasses, a tangerine parasol, and a punky platinum dye-job, is not far from, say, Carina Lau's killer look in Days of Being Wild—and this is but one of the multiple, unimprovable accents in and around her stunningly inspired riff on Marion Crane. With one of the hardest acting tasks—Vaughn's adequate but thankless work is in its own league as far as that goes—Heche is best in show by a highway mile, reminding us of how much she deserves to have a career like Cate Blanchett's got. Moore, oddly uncomfortable in her shoes (is she having one of her "funny feet" problems?), is still a sharp and merciful switch-in for Vera Miles. Mortensen, Heche, and Van Sant conspire to make the adulterous foundation of the story all the more tawdry and plausibly scofflaw, and Danny Elfman has a superb time sharpening the blades on what might be the cinema's most durable, age-proof score. Inserts of rolling clouds and lounging nudes are just stupid, frankly, but the real secret is that Van Sant's Psycho is its own movie, through and through. Sure it lives inside a formidable shadow, but it casts one of its own, too: eccentric, intellectual, invigorating. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #90: I'm the One That I Want

Her name is MARGARET, and she is here to WASH your vagina! Well, actually, she isn't; "Gwen" has got that covered. But Margaret Cho is here to fire off completely unexpected lines like that, to bellow them out, to belly-laugh them, to naughtily gift-wrap them, to reprise them in different voices, to make sure you never forget them. Same with, "I wasn't like any Korean role-model that they"—read: anyone—"had ever seen. I mean, I didn't play violin. I didn't fuck Woody Allen." Or, "Fag hags are the backbone of the gay community! We led you through the Underground Railroad! We went to the prom with you!" Or her priceless answering-machine messages from her mother, or her in-store conversations with same ("Oh, Mommy wasn't ready for that!!"). One of my absolute favorite bits is her gendered comparison between last-call behavior at bars. I'm paraphrasing (why don't I own this movie??), but basically it goes, "When you go out with your girlfriends, and one of them meets somebody, women are all, 'Oh my GOD, I feel so BAD, I can't leave with YOU, I'm here with my FRIEND!' Gay men, however, will LEAVE YOU. They're like, 'You can take a bus! You can take a cab! You a big girl, you go, girl! No, I said YOU. GO.' At last call, the only people in a gay bar are women."

Another of the funniest bits, though heartbreaking in context, is "I - was so - hungry! I was starving!!" Margaret lets fly with that curveball at the point in her live, one-woman show when she has stopped (well, mostly stopped) explicitly catering to her hometown and way-gay San Francisco audience and is chronicling her own short, unhappy life as a corporate-fabricated Asian-American poster child in the mid-1990s. Cast in an "Asian family" sitcom whose cast of characters were all, to anyone paying attention, of completely different Asian ethnicities. Coercively shadowed by an "Asian advisor" who would dog her around the set and teach her to be "more" Asian. ("Here, use these chopsticks!" Cho ventriloquizes in wicked but pained memory, "and then, you can put them in your hair!") All the while, Cho was fighting dietary dictates from the network and the eating disorders they inevitably provoked, as well as various addictions, sexual recklessness and eventual victimization, crushed expectations, vicious "fanmail," industry racism, and everything else under the Angelino sun. As she tells the story, with no matter how much foul-mouthed and knee-slapping wit, you can see that she's beating back every ghost in the book. Maybe this time, she'll win.

I'm the One That I Want, richer, more personal, and a good deal funnier than Cho's follow-up concert docs, is like "Rose's Turn" sung out by Richard Pryor. Except, you know, "more Asian." The structural arrangement of her show, testifying to her struggles against sexist and racist G-forces by playfully stoking her largely white male audience's presumed familiarity with homophobia, comprises a thesis in itself about the dialogic possibilities between different cadres of American outcasts. Cho raises all kinds of questions in her routine, and consciously or not, the routine raises questions of its own. What is it, after all, about gay male fandom and train-wrecked female celebrities? What are the stakes of such brazen self-stereotyping as Cho's personally patented pidgin-Korean? And what do you do with a comic who's willing and able to say, "I went through this whole thing—am I gay? Am I straight? And then I realized—I'm just slutty. Where's my parade??" My answer so far: you watch her movie. A lot. And you think a lot about what you're watching, and why. And you laugh so much you almost vomit. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Picked Flicks: Polls, Alternates, and a Parallel Universe

With that out of my system.... except, wait, I forgot to add: when did national affairs start being run by people named, on Team A, Scooter Libby, and on Team B, Sheldon Snook? Have they officially replaced "Oh say, can you see" with Oh, Say Can You Say? Because it is getting pretty Seussical up in this joint.


Having already announced the opening decalogue of the Picked Flicks, it's time for my first-ever Poll! What you're doing is voting for your favorite film among those listed between #91-#100...and for gosh sakes, don't be skeered to include a sentence or two about why you love it. I sure didn't balk at talking your ear off about why I loved all of them! And I'd love to know who's reading these entries and which of the films excite you. The e-mail addy for this poll is You can submit your answer and your reasons any time between now and midnight on Sunday, and I'll post the winner shortly afterward, along with your passionate prose. (So don't post your response in my Comments—that would be like leaving the gifts unwrapped under the tree.) Remember, you are choosing amongst #91 Hyenas, #92 Alice Adams, #93 I ♥ Huckabees, #94 Cemetery Man, #95 Possessed, #96 Masked and Anonymous, #97 George Washington, #98 Brother's Keeper, #99a The Breakfast Club, #99b Pretty in Pink, and #100 The Piano Teacher.

Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun (hey, it's fun for me!) to give a quick decade-by-decade rundown of the films that almost made the list but didn't quite, all of which you should absolutely rent, and all of which were anguishing to leave off:

1910s The Immigrant (1917), dir. Charlie Chaplin

1920s The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), dir. Arnold Fanck & G.W. Pabst
1920s The Wind (1928), dir. Victor Sjöström

1930s Freaks (1932), dir. Tod Browning
1930s Honor Among Lovers (1931), dir. Dorothy Arzner
1930s The Thin Man (1934), dir. W.S. Van Dyke – swiped from my Top 100

1940s Rebecca (1940), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

1950s The Night of the Hunter (1955), dir. Charles Laughton
1950s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), dir. Douglas Sirk
1950s Written on the Wind (1956), dir. Douglas Sirk – blown off the Top 100

1960s Last Summer (1969), dir. Frank Perry
1960s Reptilicus (1962), dir. Sidney Pink
1960s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), dir. Robert Aldrich

1970s The Devils (1971), dir. Ken Russell
1970s The Exorcist (1973), dir. William Friedkin
1970s Gates of Heaven (1978), dir. Errol Morris
1990s Jaws (1975), dir. Steven Spielberg – sunk from the Top 100
1970s Pink Flamingos (1972), dir. John Waters

1980s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1984), dir. Jack Hofsiss
1980s The Elephant Man (1980), dir. David Lynch
1980s L'Homme blessé (1985), dir. Patrice Chéreau

1990s Alien³ (1992), dir. David Fincher
1990s Bound (1996), dirs. the Wachowski Brothers
1990s Face/Off (1997), dir. John Woo
1990s Gummo (1997), dir. Harmony Korine
1990s L.A. Confidential (1997), dir. Curtis Hanson - fired off the Top 100
1990s Six Degrees of Separation (1993), dir. Fred Schepisi
1990s Threesome (1994), dir. Andrew Fleming
1990s What's Love Got To Do With It (1993), dir. Brian Gibson

2000s Donnie Darko (2001), dir. Richard Kelly
2000s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), dir. John Cameron Mitchell
2000s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), dir. Peter Jackson
2000s Love & Diane (2002), dir. Jennifer Dworkin
2000s Searching for Debra Winger (2002), dir. Rosanna Arquette
2000s The Yards (2000), dir. James Gray

So, let's see: that's 35 more titles that almost almost made it, plus the Top 100 I actually wound up with, which includes 15 "tie" entries. Adds up nicely to 150 rental suggestions, a sort of buy-2-get-1-free deal as these Top 100 countdowns go!

Finally, before you all lose total patience with this entry, this obsession, this blog, this person, I really have to encourage you to pore over Tim R's own Top 100 list, unfolding simultaneously with this one over at his enormously addictive blog. His pictures are prettier than mine, his tastes are incredibly provocative, he's lighting a fire under my butt to see things I've missed like The Iron Giant and The Draughtsman's Contract and the original Gaslight—and, bless his heart, The Piano clocked in at #89.

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Picked Flick #91: Hyenas

African cinema has always ranked down in the absolute dredges on the list of American appetites, somewhere in the vicinity of Brussels sprouts, socialism, and the learning of foreign languages. Not that I imagine that these films are lighting big fires on the European or Asian markets, either. Even last year's critical phenomenon Moolaadé, directed by the renowned Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène and centered around the outrageous and topical problem of female circumcision, couldn't penetrate the competition lineup at Cannes, which ceded valuable space to such cubic zirconia as The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and the Coen Brothers' D.O.A. remake of The Ladykillers. Almost 18 months later, its American DVD release is nowhere in sight. Maybe the issues so often addressed in African cinema—economic plights, political breakdowns, male bragging rights, women's subjugation, paralysis in "tradition," perils of "progress"—are just too discomfiting to observe from the outside, perhaps because none of us can pretend that we are truly outside the complex circuits of both complicity and victimhood. Maybe it's the tonal sophistication, so easily dismissable as tonal simplicity, that disconcerts: from what I hear, and again, I'd like to find out for myself, Moolaadé is, like so much politically charged cinema from West Africa, is really rather droll. Still, what accounts for all the cool kids rushing to, say, the spare but so often precocious Iranian cinema of the late '90s, when you still can't dragoon a halfway decent audience to an African anything? </Rant>

Djibril Diop Mambéty's funny, harrowing, colorful, and terrifically astute Hyenas is an emblematic case of a masterpiece—and a good time at the movies, to boot—that these cultural trends wholly short-change. Heroically, it did participate in the Cannes competition lineup in 1992 and in that year's New York Film Festival, it was micro-mini released in commercial venues that fall, and it's available for rent on DVD or VHS. So, hop on it, and observe how piquantly Mambéty adapts Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, one of the twentieth century's great plays, and infuses the material with exciting, entertaining, and shrewd new meanings within the West African context. The plot concerns how Linguère Ramatou, an acerbic, broken-bodied, and vengeful old woman, returns to her small-town hamlet after decades of amassing a shadowy fortune. She now indulges the citizens with improbable luxuries and other, decadent incentives so long as they agree to execute the town's most popular citizen—in this version, an avuncular barkeep and shopowner named Draman Drameh, who long ago denied having fathered the illegitimate child that occasioned Linguère's banishment in the first place. The bankrupt village, whose town hall is impounded in a very early sequence, has a peculiarly African (but also not peculiarly African) susceptibility to superficial remedies and cults of personality, and they are sure that the woman's promised fortune shall be their redemption, even as they profess outrage at the demand for Draman Drameh's head... and even as Linguère and Draman volley back and forth between nostalgic recollections of their ancient affair and bitter disputes over her grudge and its consequences.

So, yes, we have here another plotline that seems inhospitable to the kind of witty, almost tongue-in-cheek tone that governs several scenes, even as the lurid heart of Linguère's scheme and the tragic cooptability of the town of Colobane are never far from our minds. "These people have no ideals," Draman murmurs with contempt about his neighbors, having been picked, of all people, to escort Linguère on her homecoming tour. "They will soon enough," she responds, ominously but humorously foreshadowing the blackmail plot she's yet to reveal. The mayor of Colobane, his lectern festooned with a French flag, regales his subjects with proud, ringing endorsements of both the town and its suddenly favorite daughter; she icily thanks them all for their "unselfish joy" in so receiving her. Draman's wry and thoroughly disillusioned wife hunkers behind the bar, uncertain of which side of this spat she properly belongs on. The theatrical blocking of actors testifies to the stage roots of the material, even as the flat vocal affect applies an African trademark, and the emotionally rich closeups, smart framings, and eye-flattering colors refit the story seamlessly as cinema. The trickling build-up of imported and largely useless commodities is a good joke with a terrible and rather aggressively flaunted secret; this is a universe, our universe, where the farming of brand-name clothes, the provision of Pepsi (where once there was only Coke!), can we twisted both to sanction and disguise the deepest crimes. Hyenas, in a way, is like a Gold Coast forebear to Dogville, a homology you hear even in their titles, but where Von Trier's tract is bullyish with its theses and ostentatious in its formal conceits, Hyenas crouches in laughter and quiet, marshaling its armies at every increment of the tonal spectrum before suckering you, as real life often does, with the absurdity, the dailiness, the familiar face of tragedy. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Picked Flick #92: Alice Adams

Among Katharine Hepburn's most famous and auspicious screen collaborators—including, in my own order of preference, George Cukor, Cary Grant, and Spencer Tracy—director George Stevens is the least fêted member, but his achievements with Hepburn should not be undervalued. Once an established star, she never looked more radiant than she did in 1942's Woman of the Year, where Stevens' generous showcasing of her look and her performance beautifully counteracts the script's rather mean imbalance against her. (Well, maybe until that cooking scene, anyway.) Earlier than that, Stevens gamely ushered her through a spritely and underseen J.M. Barrie adaptation called Quality Street (1937), where Hepburn's comic dual-performance paves the way as none of her previous roles had done for the screwball delights of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the aristocratic wit of Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940). But moving back still earlier, it's not clear that any of Hepburn's once and future heights would have been reached without the pretext of her first truly great performance in Alice Adams, which finds her amidst a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime metamorphosis from the queer, coltish ingénue of 1933 (Little Women, Morning Glory, Christopher Strong) into the rounded sophistication of her later work, somehow softer and more confident all at the same time. Alice Adams is the moment where Hepburn becomes a star, and also the moment where she becomes truly lovable.

Adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington—the writer, too, of The Magnificent AmbersonsAlice Adams tells the story of a lower-middle-class girl, not far past her schooling years, who positively quivers with longing to join the coterie of her more fashionable peers and to find the kind of domestic bliss that presumably once united her parents (the excellent Fred Stone and Ann Shoemaker), whose tacit bond of affection is now sorely tested by illness, monetary need, and other trials of late middle-age. Alice Adams is the kind of girl who would adore Pride and Prejudice, even though in real life she might well have settled for Mr. Collins. One of the major ambitions of the screenplay and, I'm guessing, the novel is to keep Alice so dotingly loyal to her family even as she dreams of something bigger or other than what they have, which often compels a shame of her circumstances and a coy dishonesty about who she is and who they are. That the emblematically patrician Hepburn is so convincing within both this cast and this caste is a complete revelation, even more so in hindsight than it must have been in 1935, but her empathetic connection to this girl's gossamer aspirations couldn't be clearer. Her body and voice are much more relaxed than we're used to seeing and hearing them, and even though she takes center stage in a way she wouldn't truly do again until David Lean's Summertime in 1955, she holds the movie, as she does the character, with graceful, unpugnacious care, as though cupping her hand around the spores of a dandelion, keeping them from blowing away.

Stevens, so intuitive and judicious in realizing his best films, cuts to Hepburn at unexpected moments, lingering on her face longer than other directors would—possibly because, as in Woman of the Year, he's found the right angles and lighting concepts to make Hepburn's proudly intellectual face stay remarkably open and emotive. But more than that, his gift falls in knowing when to cut to Alice, when to understand the debates and dramatic actions surrounding her as essentially her story, rather than that of the bumptious family unit or the town at large. The two centerpiece sequences of the movie, when the guileless and ill-dressed but optimistic Alice takes her Cagneyish brother Walter to a local-society ball, and later when suitor Fred MacMurray arrives chez Adams for an uncomfortably hot and subtly humiliating evening of dinner and conversation, rank among the greatest passages of narrative filmmaking in the American cinema of that decade. The style is elegant and holistic, even as it magically embraces such different elements—MacMurray's somewhat lumpen appeal, the adroit conveyance of stifling temperature, the wholly unexpected elegance of Walter's dancing, a tart cameo from Hattie McDaniel, a romantic proclivity for fades and dissolves on Alice when her spirits flag, and the almost neo-realist shot where she kicks her wilting, homemade bouquet of hand-picked violets under a chair. There is also, of course, the justly famous and encapsulating shot of Hepburn weeping in her bedroom after the ball, filmed through the rivulets of rain running down her window. Moment by moment by moment, Alice Adams reverberates with humble but sure-handed technique and a credible reverence for modesty as a virtue. The last line of the movie is "Gee whiz!", and as dramatically precipitous as it is—the one major miscalculation in the script, I think—the sentiment is fully shared by the audience. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #93: I ♥ Huckabees

You got all that, right?

I know, I know, this movie came out, like, five minutes ago, but I ♥ Huckabees was the only movie of 2004 that I paid to see three times in a theater, and every time, I laughed like I was screaming. Every time, the triple-threat of Wahlberg, Hoffman, and Law proved that they deserved an Oscar category all their own for Flawless Comic Support Without Scenery-Hogging. Every time, the movie's sharp harpoons into the absurd fractiousness of the American "liberal" left hit all of their marks, even as the movie tipped all the sacred cows of big business, "Christian" hypocrisy, and star-studded realpolitik with equal aplomb. The movie is crazily deep with subtle touches, golden scenes, and brilliant sidebar performances. That dinner scene with Jean Smart and Richard Jenkins? The priceless walk-on from Talia Shire? Lily Tomlin, her desk strewn with notebooks titled "Coincidences" and "Galaxies" and "Fathers," refocusing her eyes every few seconds? Jon Brion's miraculous score, with the drunken calliope and the galloping rhythm? I ♥ed the whole thing, and I'm not seeing the love dissipating any time soon. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Monday, October 24, 2005

R.I.P. Rosa Parks

First August Wilson and now Rosa Parks, all in one month? No one can say that this 92-year-old hero didn't live a full life—an indispensable life, that is, indispensable to the entire history of her country. Rosa Parks was a legend whether or not Oprah ever invited her to lunch. (That's for you, Summer.) The world will miss her, especially since I wonder if there's a single public figure on the current U.S. stage who is worth the salt on one peanut in Rosa Parks' kitchen.

I knew I'd be sad when this day came, but why is it making me so angry? Why are we saying goodbye to so many of our best?

Hopefully, TV stations will program Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks into their schedules post-haste. A wonderful, Oscar-nominated short documentary from 2002, the film features two devices that should never work under any circumstances—a large, rotating cast of child narrators, and reenactments of famous episodes from Parks' life using lookalike actors on stock footage—but the whole thing is polished, informative, and unsentimental in recalling Rosa Parks' leadership as a civil rights worker, the Montgomery Bus Boycott she so famously ignited, and other legacies of protest and justice-crusading that she joined, inspired, and stood in solidarity with. By all means, convince your local library to buy a VHS copy if they don't own it already. It couldn't be a better tribute to Ms. Parks. (Hartford locals are luckier, since Real Art Ways was already planning to exhibit the film for school children later this fall; I feel sure they'll find room for a regular showing now, too.)

I met Rosa Parks once, in the summer of 1995, and wasn't she a spitfire in a wheelchair. Speaking to a clutch of four or five American students, all of us freshly graduated from high school, she said, "If you ever hear anybody say that I just happened to be on that bus that day, or I was tired and didn't want to get up, or that I was in the white section, or that I was this little lady at the right place at the right time, it is your job to set them straight!" Rosa Parks knew what she was doing. Rosa Parks had been working for the NAACP and for other, local civil-rights groups for quite some time. Rosa Parks was in the "Colored" section of that bus, and balked at the bus driver's demands that she give up her seat to a white person. Rosa Parks had mettle. She had RIGHT on her side. She had actual courage, not that kind people talk about in speeches, the real kind, she HAD THAT.

One more thing that makes it less sad that Rosa Parks is gone: no one is ever, ever going to forget this woman.


Picked Flick #94: Cemetery Man

Talk about starting out ahead: tell me again why all movies don't begin with Rupert Everett, dripping wet with a towel around his waist, shooting a zombie in the head at point-blank range? Cemetery Man, known to its hometown Italian fans as Dellamorte Dellamore, thusly gets off on the right foot indeed, though it's a stop 'n' go affair ever after. Of all the movies on this list, I think it's the hardest for me to get a bead on, and the one that I'm the most surprised to feel such affection for. It also might be the hardest one to write about, as is further attested by my lame review, written in the preemie infancy of this website.

Maybe I love Cemetery Man because it's one of the few cult films in existence whose cult I blithely stumbled into, without even knowing it existed. Somehow, people everywhere seem to have seen this movie, which I caught on late-night Cinemax, O whorish bride of cable TV, one time when I was house-sitting. Everything that happens early in Cemetery Man happens again at least a dozen more times. Zombies, for the entertainment gods are good, can't stop rising out of the ground, seven days after their initial burial. Rupert, for every other kind of god is good, can't stop taking showers. That killer musical score, all sawing cellos and violins and deep-thrumming basses, never wears out its considerable welcome. The indecently buxom Italian sexpot who turns Rupert's eye, played by an actress called Anna Falchi, keeps dying and resurrecting herself, eventually returning in the guises of wholly different women, all with the same smutty expression. The mayor's daughter gets her head lopped off in a road accident, but when it comes back to life on its own, Rupert's porcine assistant has the politesse to perch it in the skeleton of a burned-out TV. Haven't you ever wanted to look out from the boob-tube instead of in? And did I mention this is played for laughs?

Well, laughs of a sort. Cemetery Man is like Shaun of the Dead as rewritten by Eugène Ionesco. Promiscuously genre-hopping among horror, comedy, Italian national satire, and highfalutin existentialism, Cemetery Man has the surface qualities of a spoof—including its absurdly matter-of-fact nods to Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Psycho—but none of its comfy core. Its bones are not really funny bones. There's something perversely poignant about its hero's unholy predicament: in trying to flee his thankless job as watchdog, caretaker, and tireless re-exterminator at the local graveyard, he drives out of town until he almost tips over the literal edge of the world... which means that all those zombies aren't a sign of The End at all, but are rather the tottering embodiments of a bloodless status quo. You can laugh or weep, or, like Callum Keith Rennie in Last Night, you can just get horny. Cemetery Man encourages all three, with a mad brio and a frank lack of interest in playing by any rules. I'm still not certain that the picture really works. Recent re-viewings have been distressingly joyless, but isn't that very trajectory from hilarity to nausea the plot and theme of this sucker to begin with? I think I'm gonna be sick, or maybe this is what enlightenment feels like. Either way, I'm sure I'll watch it again. Like the most indefatigable zombie in the cool, cool crust of the Earth, I just can't stop trying again. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Picked Flick #95: Possessed

This slot could have gone to The Bad Seed, with its delectable camp excesses and deliciously maladroit psychologizing, or to Mildred Pierce, which devotes considerable technical talent and a terrific Crawford performance to an impressively absurd premise. But, in the interest of economy as well as honesty, why not go with Possessed, the film that synthesized all of those films' bad-good qualities and added some more of its own to boot? Crawford, a recent Oscar winner for Mildred, scored a second nomination here as Louise Graham, who shuffles unsteadily into the early sequences, mumbling about someone called "David" on the sidewalks of LA before suddenly collapsing into a coma. Worse, her scrubbed and denuded face looks like ten miles of hard road in Hell. It's kind of amazing that Crawford of all people agreed to look this bad, though it's no less amazing that she agreed to say things like, "'I love you' is such an inadequate way of saying 'I love you.' It doesn't quite describe how much it hurts sometimes. Sometimes I get the sniffles and then my nose gets runny because I'm happy because I'm in love." Hard to explain, too, what Van Heflin and Raymond Massey are doing lumbering around with their impossible characters, though Heflin at least has a good time getting soused and shrinking uncomfortably from Crawford's fierce but addled affections—or is it from her fierce but addled performance, which itself is some kind of apex in the eternal almanac of Bad-Good?

There is much that is fascinating about Possessed, including the way it refuses to be written off as a crappy movie, even when the plot takes its serial nose-dives into purple implausibility, even when Franz Waxman indulges the most apoplectic arpeggios and electric-organ decrescendoes in the certifiably insane score. However ancient its notions of science—the title comes from Dr. Harvey Willard's expert opinion that Louise's schizoid persecution complex is one of many mental-health states that amounts to being "possessed by devils"—there's a feral, almost involuntary conviction to the film's interest in psychic unease that you don't really find in The Snake Pit or The Three Faces of Eve or other, comparable voyages into the classical Hollywood booby-hatch. The form of the film convulses amidst its own insensible agonies, alternating amongst elegant lakeside establishing shots, harshly expressionist chiaroscuro effects, uneasy dissolves, and at least one handheld tracking shot from the point of view of a dead woman who may or may not be haunting Louise (who, in turn, may or may not have killed this woman). It's easy to cackle and shrug at Warner Bros. potboilers like this, and Possessed repeatedly earns the cackliest cackle you can manage: it's that crazy, and that much fun. But it also feels symptomatic of...something, and harshly sincere: the sour force of spurned passion and the suffocating pressure of obsessive lovers who won't go away have rarely been given such free rein. The violence they exact on the movie's formal discipline is a major part of why you remember the picture.

Well, that and the ecstatic wrongness of Crawford's pleas that the alcoholic musician-engineer-mathematician played by Heflin (!!) stop dodging her with his lovingly traced parabolas and his attempts to interest her in the complex calculus of steel girders. "Why don't you love me like that?" she barks. "I'm much nicer than the girder, and a lot more interesting." Joan, never a truer word was said. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #96: Masked and Anonymous

Everybody and his brother seems to have a Bob Dylan project in the works these days, yet nonetheless, rarely do you hear a kind word (or, indeed, any word at all) about this freewheeling, epigrammatic, and carnivalesque project that Dylan himself brought to the screen a couple of years ago. Since I have reviewed Masked and Anonymous in full, readers already have a stronger sense than usual of what I like so much about the movie. And this is probably just as good a time as any to acknowledge that, especially by comparison to my Top 100, this list of Picked Flicks skews heavily contemporary—an honest reflection of where my enthusiasms lie these days, even if it turns out that the ardor cools in the next couple of years. I'm as fickle as they come, I suppose, but then, so is Masked and Anonymous, which only fully commits to a small handful of its characters (Dylan's, Bridges', Goodman's, Lange's, and maybe Luke Wilson's) while mostly preferring to pinwheel among first impressions, quick interludes, musical bridges, and defiantly self-contained episodes that obscure as many of Dylan's creative intentions as they reveal.

It's no wonder that Masked and Anonymous—whose title proudly proclaims its refusal to be known—isn't everyone's cup of tea. For what it's worth, I personally can't get enough of the way it plays such a mean game of three-card monte with our expectations and even our recognition of what we're watching: is Dylan "playing himself" or playing some alternative jam-meditation on the theme of himself? Is it okay to take seriously the movie's ramshackle vision of a tumbledown, Third World America, even as the major characters appear to joke and smirk about it? What do we make of the way that the screenplay's wry, aphoristic dialogue and allegorical figures hail straight from the lexicon of Dylan's own songwriting, and yet, minus the reassurances of melody and reputation, these same aesthetics feel even more inscrutable than usual? And does that make it easy not to respond to the roustabout humor that is all over Masked and Anonymous, fighting a worthy duel with the heartbroken sadness and the confessions of failure that infuse so many of its scenes? Are the actors in the movie simply flailing about without a flight manual, or is the free-verse, improvisatory style of these performances—beyond the immediate pleasures in turns as witty as Lange's or as crafty as Bridges'—germane to the message the movie is trying to convey? And what is that message, or is there no message? On the largest scale, I'd stick my neck out to say that Masked and Anonymous is a bright but scathing future-vision of the United States after only a few more years of the entertainment industry's profit-mongering and empty self-congratulations, not to mention of the impotence of modern liberalism and the factionalizing effects of a hubristic, hawkish, but increasingly shaky government. (In its tacit way, it's also one of the few American movies to presage a future of the country where Latino and Hispanic cultures come to permeate all levels of society, culture, and public provenance.) On the narrowest level, Dylan offers a kind of perversely private apologia for his own lapses as an artist and a man—which, the film seems well aware, is not fundamentally distinct from the other narcissistic enterprises that are suffocating the power of art even as, in many cases, they provide its steadiest fuel. No coward from paradox, this film.

On every scale, I admit that Masked and Anonymous keeps me perpetually grasping at straws, and perpetually eager to keep on grasping. Abstruse as it can get, the movie is also hugely entertaining, engagingly shot, and, at least in its early and middle stretches, very cleverly edited. The music can't be beat. And I'd sure rather take this kind of dense, cryptic, and wholly personal missive from one of our most challenging popular artists than the kinds of anodyne and awkward biographies that any outside-observer in the book can throw together. Here in late 2005, I'm still perplexed about what I'm supposed to make of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, J.M. Barrie, Che Guevara, Alfred Kinsey, John Kerry, and Ramón Sampedro. Even Mario Van Peebles' Baadassss!, which by all rights should have felt as radical and self-determined as this film does, has precious little of its idiosyncratic spark. If Masked and Anonymous has any close parallels among recent biographical pictures, it's probably Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, except that Dylan's back pages of shock, self-performance, and secret complicities have more complex harmonies than Caouette's, and they are also more persuasively our own. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Picked Flick #97: George Washington

David Gordon Green's George Washington, a rather awkward synthesis of stratified social realism and the lyrical sublime, is a movie I cherish even as it frustrates me profoundly. Its erratic slides between plausibility and affectation, between gentle rumination and self-indulgence, between some things borrowed and some things new, are somehow unified by a stylistic tranquility that often misserves the movie—though it also occasions some magnificent and touching sequences, and moreover, it's a powerful enticement to repeated viewings. On none of the four occasions when I have seen George Washington has it quite congealed into the movie that I wish it were, nor, more importantly, into the movie that its own most coherent passages suggest it wants to be. But then, who knows what George Washington wants to be? Its diverse allegiances and its unformed, almost fetal quality of fragile metamorphosis wouldn't feel the same if the movie felt more consistent, more bounded. What is special about the movie is its fluctuating ratio of breakthroughs and breakdowns. It's like a stumbling, amateur athlete who compels the sort of loyalty and encouragement that champions, veterans, and perfectionists can't attain, and whose flashes of brilliance are more precious for what they imply than for what they actually unite to produce.

Perhaps the film's supreme accomplishment is one of its simplest: the faith and good sense that have directed Green and his collaborators to film characters, scenes, relationships, and locations that simply never arise in American films, even, for the most part, movies as off the beaten path as this one. The commencing scene, in which the emotionally precocious 12-year-old Nasia breaks up with her 13-year-old, bespectacled boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) is both jarring and heartwarming in its lack of irony. Beyond the fact that George Washington affords such generous time and space to pre-teen emotions, and beyond the extreme rarity of seeing African-American characters of any age depicted so warmly and lit so well in an American movie, the film really hits its stride when the young characters start criss-crossing with their elders, when the white kids and black kids reveal cliques and alliances that are just as mundane to them as they are surprising within our gentrified and color-lined national cinema. The only attributes that George Washington's characters share in common are the rural, weedy county they inhabit and their unenviable class position, which seems to account for why workplaces and domestic spaces blur into each other so imperceptibly, and why everyone seems to know each other so well (kids and adults, even relative strangers, all address each other easily by first name).

If it weren't so melancholy in tone and incident—the latter is Green's real stumbling block as a writer—George Washington would feel like a sort of Fanfare for the Common Kid, utterly non-judgmental in its embrace of unremarkable youngsters and shrewd in the way it highlights their various drab environments as, at least in their minds, emotionally specific spaces. So what if George Richardson, the central character, still ends the movie as a sort of symbol without a referent, and if the kids' conspiratorial, paralyzed response to an accidental death is less confidently handled than the same plotline is in Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. George Washington never quite achieves what Nasia, its narrator, promises—the prospect of seeing all the way into the characters' hearts and skeletons. Still, very much to its credit, the film's idiosyncratic surface already feels more revealing than the excavated cores of many other films, and it does train its audiences to see new people, to watch and listen in a new way. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Picked Flick #98: Brother's Keeper

Counting upwards on the list, my next three entries are all American independent movies, each of them restoring some meaning and marrow to the idea of truly independent film; whatever their evident compromises or flaws, they all encourage my belief that unexpected stories can still be told about improbable people in untested and illuminating ways. The first of these films, Brother's Keeper, was made by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who later found greater fame for their two Paradise Lost movies (1996 and 2000). Those films chronicled how three Arkansan teenagers were accused of diabolical murder and were subsequently run through a scattershot judicial system that has all three imprisoned to this day. I prefer Brother's Keeper, however, for telling the less didactically driven and altogether more peculiar tale of the Ward brothers of Munnsville, NY, ranging in age from 59 to 70, all of them reclusive to the point of ghostliness, barely literate if at all, and subject to a real whopper of a media circus when the second-oldest brother dies in his sleep. When the coroner determines that he seems to have been suffocated, big questions arise. When "youngest" brother Delbert signs a confession of murder, despite outside claims that he couldn't possibly understand what he was signing, the plot thickens. When semen is found in the stomach of the deceased, things really fly off the handle.

Brother's Keeper is not a perfect documentary by any means. Berlinger and Sinofsky, as in Paradise Lost, are perhaps artificial in streamlining their complex scenario into gothic-thriller dimensions, after which they follow the reverse instinct of playing all too obviously into the side of the case they prefer. Nonetheless, Brother's Keeper is a pretty extraordinary document, not least because the surviving Ward brothers are such craggy, enigmatic, and fascinating subjects for the cameramen, who at least have the grace not to leer at them outright. Shuffling about at the pace of Galapagos turtles, and marked by the same habit of palpably retreating into their private shells, the Wards do not quite seem to fit the visions of the prosecution, but nor do they seem well-suited to the "local hero" status they acquire from a roused local populace who smell a legal feeding frenzy and are determined to safeguard this trio of virtual hermits. An extremely strange social dynamic emerges, one that confers poetic justification on the name "Ward," though the film's intimate tracing of their existence cannot disguise the fact that nobody, filmmakers included, seems to know quite what to make of them. Too, the possibility subsists throughout that the Wards know more than they ever tell, and despite sensationalist undertows, the film never succumbs to romanticizing their silence. While watching other documentaries, not to mention while living as their regional neighbors in upstate New York, I have often thought of the Wards and their appalling poverty, their almost total privacy, and afterward their vulnerability to legal and finally artistic forms of surveillance which they must never have envisioned. Formally steadier than Capturing the Friedmans and less grandiose in the scope of what it imagines, Brother's Keeper won a slew of prizes from critics' groups when it was released, but it deserves a bigger following. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Friday, October 21, 2005


Here in late October, the temperatures are dropping but the movies are hopping...

Capote B+
Yes, it takes a while to get used to Philip Seymour Hoffman's rococo affectations as the epochally affected Truman Capote, just as it takes a while to clear the dust off the Period Biography genre and clear the hurdle of solemn reenactment. But Capote, more than almost any movie I've seen this year, improves as it unfolds, revealing its interrogative agenda just as guardedly but expertly as Capote reveals his own. Dan Futterman's confident and literate screenplay poses the question of how much was lost and how much gained when In Cold Blood was born. The film is interested in Capote's own ambiguous motives and the gathering storm of ethical and psychic burdens he confronted as he wrote. While ever retaining this stern and lucid point of focus, the script's shrewdest means of chronicling Capote's loss of control is to slowly cede the movie to other characters and performers: to Catherine Keener, whose wariness and disappointment as Harper Lee only grow more palpable as he recedes from the kind of dignity she immortalized on the page; to the impeccable Bob Balaban as New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose chillingly amoral support of In Cold Blood and its author is likewise sorely tested; and to Clifton Collins Jr., whose poignant neediness as Perry Smith is the engine for both his sadistic physical violence and his intricate, almost telepathic undoing of Capote's inner tranquility.

If Hoffman's performance, capable as it is, ultimately struck me as the least rewarding in the movie—excepting Bruce Greenwood's vain effort with the underwritten part of Capote's lover, Jack Dunphy—I don't think it's a discredit to the actor so much as to the man. Capote's inordinate self-consciousness and all of his ornate barriers against candor and two-way communication almost doom him to being implausible and unsatisfying as a dramatic presence. Still, the story of murder he both recorded and perpetuated in the form of In Cold Blood is so rich in Faustian compromise and social import that, especially in the hands of such proficient filmmakers, it achieves the herculean feat of upstaging the title character. The deep blacks and cold, breathy whites of the cinematography, mediated by a sallow palette of yellows and grays, had me thinking frequently of The Pianist, another true-life tale of a hollowed-out man whose claim to fame is a life that, whatever the rewards of celebrity and improbable survival, no one could ever want to live. In Capote's case, of course, his mercenary narcissism and his lapses into ethical flippancy are a self-imposed sort of crucible, even as the film rightly and brightly attests to his resilience as a person and to the beauty, rigor, and lasting value of what he wrote. A moral parable of enviable layers, Capote truly gets under your skin.

The Squid and the Whale A–
Here's a movie that's so very good that it clarifies what's wrong in other movies of its kind, even as it gloriously pursues its own eccentric, unpredictable, and sublimely successful agenda. From one vantage, The Squid and the Whale replays last year's The Door in the Floor with three enormous improvements: the movie's funny bone is given much freer rein, the female lead is allowed to be as interesting and fully dimensional as her titanically self-absorbed spouse, and the adolescent epiphany actually happens within the family unit, broken as it is, rather than relying on the dramatically dubious mechanism of the son-for-hire. Meanwhile, regarding these films' primary point of intersection, Jeff Daniels is an even more falsely avuncular and mundanely monstrous father-mentor than Jeff Bridges was, silly though it may be to split hairs among such fine achievements. Telegraphing his moods, impulses, and simmering instincts in a robustly physical performance, Daniels is just as articulate in his line-readings and his seriocomic timing, while Laura Linney excels herself as the flawed but increasingly self-righteous Georgia Brown surrogate, and Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are aces as the estranged couple's duo of wavering sons.

Written and directed with a stunningly secure hand by Noah Baumbach, and edited with a split-second precision that puts even Junebug to shame—one of the year's most gratifying belly-laughs comes from a perfectly judged cut to a scene from Blue VelvetThe Squid and the Whale is taut and rhythmically sound where the films of its lead producer, Wes Anderson, tend to go slack and hermetic. Compare a climactic sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums, where a wedding we barely care about is almost arbitrarily interrupted by a car-accident and a streetside brouhaha that, in narrative terms, we do not quite believe, with a similarly structured episode in Squid where Jeff Daniels collapses in the street in front of his old Brooklyn brownstone, barely avoiding getting hit by a car and finally aware that the family he ignored for too long is never going to reabsorb him. Little works in the Tenenbaums sequence, even as residual good will from the film's earlier, richer passages tide us over, but The Squid and the Whale never lets up for a second of its 81 minutes, eliciting giggles and anger and questions and surprise as it wends its way toward a finale that feels much less conventional than it probably deserves to. There's too much music in the soundtrack, and Anna Paquin gets stuck again as the brazen object of age-inappropriate fascination, but these are minor errors in a beautifully calibrated picture, full of recognizable people leading remarkably illuminating lives.


Picked Flicks #99: The Breakfast Club & Pretty in Pink

Restoring a little balance of power to the universe, and knocking me right off of The Piano Teacher's high-art pedestal, here are the two films from the John Hughes factory that double-double my refreshment every time I pull them off the shelf. I find it impossible to choose between The Breakfast Club, which Hughes directed from his own script, and Pretty in Pink, helmed by the otherwise dubious Howard Deutch. I saw The Breakfast Club when you're really supposed to, i.e., when you are roughly the same age or, better, just barely younger than the characters in the movie—from which vantage Hughes' empathetic grasp of high-school anhedonia is all the more rewarding and exciting, and also nicely tempered by a fair grasp of each character's naïveté and inadequacy. Gorgeously, and infectiously, the movie finds all of its adolescent leads in a gently embellished free-zone between the mess that real people are in high school and the stabler, frankly nicer people that Andy and Claire and Bender and the rest will palpably become later in their lives, given just a little bit of breathing-room to grow up and get over themselves. That said, I sure hope that Ally Sheedy's Allison, by far my favorite character, will forever continue to make her dandruff-derived objets and her all-carbs all-the-time sandwiches. Also priceless: Anthony Michael Hall's shambling diffidence, so hard-fought but so hilariously ill-concealed, and Judd Nelson's marvleous line reading of the single word "Claire," turning the name into some sort of insolent question.

The Breakfast Club is snappily written, crisply defined, and cleverly art-directed, and in terms of pacing, it couldn't work better. Even the precipitous couplings at the end, some of them real head-scratchers, actually help the movie: we don't leave with any false sense that anything has been fixed or made permanent, and the excitement of making right and wrong choices at the same time is preserved. Pretty in Pink, a much more sober film however poppy it also is, gets a similar boost from what seem like errors. Andie's romantic trajectory just isn't what we expect, and the widely circulated reports of last-minute script changes augment the climactic sense of compromise. But Andie's compromises were always what was most interesting about her, right alongside her winning and utterly believable rapport with her kindly burned-out dad and the limpid, hugely gratifying accessibility of Molly Ringwald across her whole performance. Pretty in Pink starts and ends in imperfection—nicely if unintentionally underlined by the fact that Andie's "do it yourself" prom dress, which occasions her happy ending, is actually, let's be real, quite unflattering. The movie is poignant even when it's funny, funny even when it's angry ("WHAT about PROM, BLANE??!"), and enormously embraceable. It lacks, mercifully, any Long Duck Dong instance of mean and boring stereotype, and in the hands of D.P. Tak Fujimoto—later a godsend to The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense—the movie doesn't look bad, either. The Psychedelic Furs sound almost as techno-thrilling on the Pink soundtrack as the Simple Minds do on The Breakfast Club's. So riddle me this: why can't these movies get any respect? (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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