Sunday, August 27, 2006

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1962... Plus a Major Twist

StinkyLulu's monthly feature Supporting Actress Smackdown fully earns its name today, as the usually simpatico participants file notably divergent opinions on almost all of the performances. True, no one waves a flag for Thelma Ritter's sixth winless nomination, for Birdman of Alcatraz, but she's very much the exception that proves the rule. Oscar's own anointee, Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, snags an easy echoing vote from me. Neither StinkyLulu nor Tim nor Nathaniel casts any aspersion on the performance, but sadly, Mrs. Iselin's voracious brainwashing campaign has rolled onward, unfettered, and claimed all of my comrades! Or, while we're grabbing at crass and obvious metaphors, am I simply blind and deaf to Angela Lansbury's brilliance in The Manchurian Candidate? (Her inspired scene work, I appreciate; her irreproachable proficiency, I get; but I see no brilliance, hear no brilliance.) Read all about it here, though your tour isn't complete this month until you've also taken in Canadian Ken's vivid, funny, and beautifully argued impressions of all five performances.

Unfortunately, one turn you won't hear us dissect is Jane Fonda's in the redolent, subversive, and nearly extraordinary 1962 drama Walk on the Wild Side. In only her second or third movie role, Jane Fonda plays Kitty Twist (!), a hot-tempered hot patootie whom Manchurian idol Laurence Harvey meets on the side of a dusty Texas highway. They're both hitching to New Orleans—he in order to reclaim a lover who's gotten away, she in order to hit, gobble, and fucking own the whole town. If Fonda's acting serves any indication, usurping the screen as her own birthright and eminent domain, we should all be placing our bets on Kitty.

In the first of many curves in Wild Side's walk, Kitty gets dumped just as she's poised to seize the picture. She'll re-emerge later, and you can basically guess when and how, but the script throws Kitty a few more twists, and it's hard to say whether she or New Orleans ultimately emerges victorious in their brutal, feline fight. Fonda's insolent sexuality and growling entitlement explode into the same sort of fireball that Angelina Jolie detonated in her early, Gia-era performances. If you only know Fonda as that silly noodle from Barbarella, or as the national landmark from Klute and Julia, or as the latter-day harridan of Monster-in-Law, you owe it to yourself to see how it all began—how her carnality, her intelligence, and her defensive anger were inextricable from each other, bleeding out of her very public persona as Henry Fonda's volatile daughter, yet all in the service of an increasingly complicated character. She's also a whiz with a laugh-line: just look how, when a dumbfounded Harvey stumbles across her in a high-end bordello, he asks her what she's doing there, and she slings out the retort, "I run the candy concession."

From what I can glean, Walk on the Wild Side still labors under a derisive, almost bilious critical reputation, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. For one thing, it's a Supporting Actress Smackdown in itself, rounded out by Anne Baxter, using her smarts and sensitivity to neutralize her odd casting as a Mexican diner matron; and Barbara Stanwyck, alternately imperious and obsequious as a French Quarter madame, abjectly in love with her costliest girl and willing to kill to keep her. The mononomic French actress Capucine is a knockout as Stanwyck's reluctant ward—also, crucially, Harvey's long-lost paramour—but it's the agency, introspection, and dawning bitterness of her performance that anchor the picture. Even Harvey's good, if outclassed by the orbiting women. Elmer Bernstein delivers a tasty score that's an utter contrast to his To Kill a Mockingbird compositions of the same year, and Edward Dmytryk mounts his scenes with ferocity and precision, transcending the "moody" photography and deepening the nonetheless-succulent camp. (Need I remind you: Jane Fonda as a would-be hooker named "Kitty Twist," Barbara Stanwyck as a desperate dyke, and Anne Baxter as a Mexican.) Walk on the Wild Side gets much further with tragic love and futile rescue missions than Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth does, and the fully believable whorehouse is more tangible as a jail than the one in Birdman of Alcatraz. You might quibble with errant peripherals, many of them related to Stanwyck's legless husband (!), but Walk on the Wild Side stands mighty tall among 1962 releases, and Fonda is a miracle worker unto herself. A–

(Images © 1962 MGM/UA, reproduced from the IMDb PhotoGallery; and © 1962 Columbia Pictures)

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Friday, August 25, 2006

We Loved Loved Loved Loved Loved Loved It While It Lasted!

The blogosphere sheds a collective tear today as one of its most perfect objects reaches sublime completion... which is another way of saying, in as many mixed metaphors as possible, that 6 Things won't be delivering any more witty, ironic, piquant, reflective, eclectic, and idiosyncratic sextets, at least not for a while. The final entry strongly implies the curtain call with a list of six great exit lines from the movies; if your antennae didn't already go up, notice that you can't comment on the post, and that you have to click into the archive to see any of the previous entries, even the most recent ones.

Since par3182, the blog's alluringly mysterious and impressively concise writer, has so clearly (and typically) opted for pith over mawkishness, we'll just say that he remains one of the most unique, talented, and refreshing personas whom Blogger ever did host. Without a single graphic or "Special Episode," his site sparked my own creativity, won my admiration, surprised me with each new tour stop, and regularly made me laugh. And he made me more interested than I ever would have been in Paul Licuria, the lovely Laura Linney, and his own friend Jane.

Here's my own karaoke gallery of greatest hits, but if you have your own, feel free to post them in the comments. Don't be a stranger, 6 Things! (And don't forget, everyone: we'll always have Paris, as well as the complete 6 Things archive.)

My Six Favorite 'Six Things,' and Why:
1. six titles i considered, then rejected, for this blog (6.19.05)
- perfectly augurs the peculiar delights to come

2. six 1940s movie acting techniques you don't see much anymore (7.22.05)
- "#6. hat acting" is sublime, "#2. woman tosses head from side to side, too ashamed to make eye contact" is empyrean, but "#1. man grabs woman by upper arms and shakes the truth out of her" is transcendental: my favorite single entry on any list in the whole history of the site. and this entry is a great litmus test: you can tell right now whether or not you "get" 6 Things

3. six things i discovered about the little old lady with whom i shared a park bench yesterday (9.5.05 - clementine's birthday!)
- funny in a smaller, gentler way—almost not really funny—and proof that 6 Things isn't far off from how we sometimes know or meet people or pass the day

4. six colours i'd prefer barney the dinosaur to be (10.2.05)
- i have no good reason for this one; i just love it, even though the same month had some other strong contenders, like "six guidelines for surviving four years at a country all boys boarding school" on 10.8.05, and "six actresses i'd like to be best friends with" on 10.10.05

5. six things that might be more uncomfortable to be nailed to than a cross (4.14.06, i.e., easter)
- the pride & prejudice "review" on 4.10.06 is hard to vote against, but the flat-out hereticism as well as the flat-out hilarity of this one is too killer to ignore. plus, each entry is funnier than the last

6. six things i would pack for a weekend on the love boat (5.3.06)
- unimprovable, taking perfect stock of the show, just as his itemized responses to movies and books always do



Command Performance

With out-of-town company to entertain and end-of-summer errands to run, this blog has got little to show for itself today—nothing, for sure, that's remotely on the level of Nathaniel's extraordinary, exhaustive, and entertaining scene-by-scene commentary on Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! I love this movie, too—full review here—but I adored and appreciated Baz's masterplan even better after reading Nathaniel's piece. Which is also funny, and beautifully illustrated. And!, even if you're a Moulin Rouge! skeptic, you should know in advance that while Nathaniel is an out-and-proud disciple, he is not blind but rather quite savvy to the movie's lapses and questionable calls. Rejoice, all who enter here!

Speaking of nineteenth-century France (!), the latest full review on Nick's Flick Picks is my write-up of 1937's Best Picture Oscar winner The Life of Émile Zola. You may have gathered, hither or yon, that Zola is one of the least accomplished films ever to swipe Oscar's top honor. Sadly, you heard right, despite a hammily good performance from Paul Muni as Zola and a straightforwardly good one from Joseph Schildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus. Lament, all who enter here—though the side-benefit is that I only have two more Best Picture winners left to see, before this website can treat you to yet another list!

Speaking of lists, now that Bring It On has launched us into the next bracket of Picked Flicks, here's a preview of coming attractions between #31 and #39:

A word to the wise: no more cheerleading movies.

Enjoy your weekend!

(Images © 2001 20th-Century Fox; © 1937 Warner Bros. Pictures, reproduced from the American Rhetoric website.)

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Picked Flick #40: Bring It On

An infelicitously timed telephone call from my father made me late to the theater for my first screening of Bring It On. I hate to be late, and I'm never ever late to movies. Making matters worse, I made my friend late, too, which means that we didn't even know until the second time we watched Bring It On about the all-cheering character introductions at the film's beginning. In other words, having already gorged ourselves gleefully on the movie's unflagging and ennobling pop energy, the pristine palette, the tartly drawn characters, the strength and economy of the editing, the freshness of the script, the giddy spectacle of the cheerleading routines, the infectious teen spirit of the actors, the robust but delicate tenor between spoof and sincerity, we waited and waited for the DVD release (having caught Bring It On on the very last night of its second-run tour through Ithaca, NY) and discovered to our delight that there was even more movie to enjoy. Bring it on, indeed!

I haven't met anyone who thinks Bring It On is a bad film, though I can only assume such characters exist. Rather, in my experience, Bring It On cleaves its viewership into two camps: those who see a merely adequate but derivative and utterly unspecial movie about cheerleading forchrissakes, and those who see the Grand Illusion of modern high-school comedies. I have found that it is difficult to communicate across the divide between the agnostics and the devotés. It's even a little bit difficult to communicate among the devotés, because for the converted, to be in the presence of Bring It On is to be bathed in total, self-evident pleasure. Explanation falters out of what amounts to unnecessity, but let's try. Let's start with the single frame I have reproduced here, from a mutedly climactic scene where duelling squad captains Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) and Isis (Gabrielle Union) exchange succinct, slightly tense, but generous advice about how to keep their cheerleaders in perfect formation during their respective routines at the national competition. Note that almost every primary color as yet discovered by man is evidenced in this shot, but the overall effect is more engaging than garish. Note that the strong, diagonal, and yet flattering designs for the uniforms of the Rancho Carne Toros and the Compton Clovers toe a precocious line between a silly, unexploitative sauciness and a tough, sporting conviction about the tasks at hand. Note that the framing plays up a symmetry between Torrance and Isis, conveying that these longtime rivals have entered into something like a mutual understanding, even as the sharp contrast between the two backgrounds—blue and white color bars behind Isis, a percolating crowd behind Torrance—continue to set them off from each other. Actually, I emend myself: Torrance is the Prime Meridian of this shot, exactly dividing the two background fields on either side of her, subtly reminding us that the scene isn't so much about a standoff between the mavens as a turning point within Torrance herself, who now meets Isis as a fond equal without relinquishing any of her own competitive zeal. Chicas, you can pause or replay Bring It On liberally and find care, undertones, and tiny formal ironies like these. It isn't Orson Welles, but for crying out loud, when was the last time color, composition, blocking, and design were this precisely calibrated in a teen comedy?

And not just any teen comedy, either, but one with a bevy of diversely likeable characters? Starring a pedigreed teenage actress who bounces right into the kind of role that pedigreed teenage actresses often convince themselves, understandably, that they should avoid? Scribe Jessica Bendinger knows what she's doing, basing things around a somewhat standard-issue plot for movies like this (the rich white girls are stealing the poorer black girls' routines, but the latest white girl Feels Bad About This!), but sticking the expected resolution (the white girl makes guilty, philanthropic amends) into the center of the picture, where it elicits a properly brusque refusal from characters who don't want or need to be condescended to. Bring It On manages to get its PC cupcake and eat it, too: double-standards are memorably laid bare, but a strict, objective meritocracy remains firmly in place. That means, the best bringers still win, and how! The final plume in the movie's hat, or maybe the pom-pom in its hand, is director Peyton Reed, whom nobody seems to have told that teen flicks require impersonal direction, largely to keep the actors in frame and under Seventeen lighting. Instead, Reed shapes the scenes he wants, none of them better than a piquant flirtation at a bathroom sink that doesn't need any dialogue. He even wrings some fresh laughs from one of those boilerplate sequences I hate, the kind of montage in which 19 stereotypes and walking punchlines fail at a task, nearly failing at their own humanity, so that the 20th person looks like a comparative gem. Bring It On isn't a comparative gem. It's just a gem, rallying all the pep that pop movies can muster and sticking with you afterward. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2000 Universal Pictures.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Picked Flick #41: Jackie Brown

Reservoir Dogs wasn't my cuppa, but I can see that it has its virtues. Pulp Fiction glistens and grooves, an almost immaculate pop object, and yet I never seem to reach for it when I'm shuffling through my old favorites. The first Kill Bill boasted a beguiling structure and some whizz-bang craftsmanship, especially in the action scenes, which made it only more surprising and intriguing that Kill Bill, Vol. 2 slowed to such a relative crawl, plumbing for feeling instead of laying on the pizzazz. These movies all hold together beautifully, and yet—when you absolutely, positively got to thrill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes. Jackie Brown is the AK-47 in Tarantino's arsenal, which is all the more surprising because, on the surface, the director seems to have more on his mind than blowing us away.

Jackie Brown starts hitting pitch-perfect notes in the opening credits, and it literally never stops. Pam Grier, dolled up for her job as a stewardess for Cabo Air, glides into the right edge of the frame, while Bobby Womack's creamily desperate anthem "Across 110th Street" sets a pristine, hummable stage for both the character and the movie. It's such a simple gesture, capturing Jackie so quickly at her coolest, then gradually hastening her toward the airport gate as she realizes she's running out of time. The whole movie will plot this same course, not just because Jackie stays all but invisible for the next half-hour (and therefore has to hustle a little to reclaim her own film), but because Tarantino's direction and his script are so exquisitely keyed in to Jackie's pragmatism and her panic: "I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain't worth a damn... If I lose my job, I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with." Jackie's basic, wholly adequate motivation for lawlessness is that from where she's standing, she can see the dying of the light. When she drags herself out of jail, she worries about how bad she looks. When she sits down with her obviously smitten bail bondsman, the first thing they discuss is how to quit smoking without gaining weight. Pam Grier is so pert, charismatic, and funny in the role that there isn't anything cloying about Jackie's anxieties, just as there is nothing overly precious about the film's presentation of them—even when Tarantino lays down a vocal track of a much younger Grier singing "Long Time Woman" as a funky and succinct counterpoint to this older, soberer, but still very funky version of herself. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jackie Brown is how unfoolish and—a very un-Tarantino word—how wise this film looks and sounds while espousing a then-34-year-old, nonblack, male filmmaker's vision of Jackie's predicament. Though the colors and songs are all Tarantino-brite, the framings are contemplative and often very simple, even amidst key episodes in the criss-crossy plot; as the narrative accelerates and the vise of possible failure closes around Jackie and her weathered but plucky accomplice Max Cherry (an invaluable Robert Forster), the film never deviates from its carefully restrained pace and rhythms. Almost every sequence is designed such that seemingly simple actions communicate several things at once: Jackie trying on a new suit, Bridget Fonda refusing to answer a phone, Robert De Niro looking for his car in a parking lot, Lisa Gay Hamilton making nervous contact with Jackie in a food court. Every one of them is crucial to Jackie Brown's plot, but they've all been filmed with the frisky, on-the-fly texture of grace notes and improvs. The film has an exacting, exquisitely calibrated structure, loping forward and then looping backward, but the steady hand and living, breathing humanity behind every moment lend Jackie Brown a warm, plausible, and deeply enjoyable spontaneity.

Tarantino and Grier have "got" Jackie the way Mankiewicz and Bette Davis "got" Margo Channing, within a comparably ambitious script and a similar marshaling of the actress' own backstory and persona into the service of the character. Too, if Jackie is Margo, Samuel L. Jackson is the Addison DeWitt of ghetto crime. His charisma, irony, and verbal dexterity are such that the audience instantly falls for him, but then our breath really catches as the actor and the film lay bare the discomfiting essence of the character. Ordell Robbie is, obviously, an even tougher, more vicious piece of work than Addison, but he still profits mightily from Tarantino's knack for spinning wily fun out of a fundamental, uncompromised melancholy—since Ordell, no less than Jackie or Max, lives and acts from a critical juncture between his youth and his legacy. Almost any one-line sample of Jackson's dialogue and delivery is a devilish, delicious, highly profane movie unto itself: "My ass might be dumb, but I ain't no dumb ass" or "You think I'm gonna let a little cheese-eating nigga like this fuck that up?" or "Shit, Jackie, you come in this place on a Saturday night, I bet you need nigga repellent to keep motherfuckers off your ass!" Jackie's response to this last is a very modest "I do okay," but for Jackie, as for the film, that's a monumental understatement. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1997 Miramax Films/Mighty Mighty Afrodite Productions.

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Best Actress Update: 5 More Down, 80 to Go

Greer Garson in Sunrise at Campobello (1960) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8)
Cast here as a youngish Eleanor Roosevelt, Garson starts her performance on some bizarre and off-putting notes, quite literally: her version of Eleanor's fluty, fruity Old New York accent may well be expert mimicry, but like Jennifer Jason Leigh's take on Dorothy Parker, it's too mannered and outlandish to work as drama. It doesn't help that the script wheedles her for a Big Crying Scene (though Garson's unflamboyant build-up almost makes it work) or that it can't quite decide whether to canonize Eleanor or domesticate her (if you'll believe it, Eleanor sits for the climactic scene while FDR stands). The translucent likeability that anchors Garson's best work can't shine through in this fusty project, but she's still the most watchable actor on-screen, and she mines some persuasively intimate and character-revealing moments, as when she settles down silently in a chair and exchanges a silent, articulate smile with her newly afflicted husband.

Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945) ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce)
For an actress with such an appealing veneer, plus an impressive quintet of Oscar nods, Jones sure doesn't come across very well in most of her anointed performances. Her vulgarity as a half-Mexican vixen in Duel in the Sun is at least more tactlessly fascinating than her obedient restraint as a lovelorn half-Chinese doctor in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but this matching set of ethnic caricatures is still pretty embarrassing. Then there's Love Letters, where she plays a 100%-English amnesiac who falls in love with Joseph Cotten, not realizing that she's been in love with him before, but only via a wartime exchange of love letters that he ghost-wrote on behalf of a lousy comrade. The script, by Ayn Rand of all people, is both ridiculous and interesting for all its convolutions. Sadly, aside from Dieterle's timid direction, Jones is the worst thing in it, going unnervingly wild-eyed to communicate both her lapses in memory and her romantic passions, and skating by on some very thin, cosmetic approaches to a potentially layered character.

Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style (1964) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins)
The film and the performance get off to a worrisome start: as former hooker Loren wanes on her deathbed, her heart of gold at last giving out, aging playboy and longtime client Marcello Mastroianni ponders all the times he promised his love but ignored her pleas for marriage and respectability. Loren is timelessly fetching as she strides down a Neapolitan street in the film's most famous shot; still, it's all a little tawdry and clichéd, like Malèna played for casual laughs. Everything brightens considerably, though, when Loren "miraculously" revives, revealing her own duplicitous agendas, and she elevates the movie's second half into a tasty, energetic, and admirably humane comedy. She's sexy, clever, and funny, as three-dimensional in her personality as in her formidable physique. Loren won an Oscar three years previously for the sturm and drang of De Sica's Two Women, but here she shows more art and more charm—call her Irene Dunne Italian Style.

Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(Lost to Sally Field in Norma Rae)
Like Garson in Campobello, Mason is largely constrained by her vehicle, which casts her as the more interesting half of a romantic couple, only to relegate her into fawning subservience. Yes, Neil Simon writes her a big, cathartic monologue where she shakes the rafters with her proclamations of self-worth, but Mason is actually much better at humanizing the endless one-liners, allowing us to hear a plausible character instead of the steady, recycled voice of the self-regarding playwright. Even at that, she cut deeper and found more variations in Only When I Laugh, and she was funnier in the better-defined situations of The Goodbye Girl. This is a Glenda Jackson-in-A Touch of Class nomination, applauding Mason for a deft, considered presence in a rom-com part that a lesser actress might have phoned in. At least she didn't win like Jackson did; in fact, if 1979 had generated more solid contenders, I doubt she'd have qualified at all.

Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
To respond to the two most common talking-points around this Oscared performance: yes, I think Anna Held is a crucial enough role with enough screen time to count as a leading performance, but no, I don't think that her famous, last-act telephone call to the Great Ziegfeld himself—congratulating him on his second marriage while bursting into tears of regret—is really all that special. Throughout, Rainer ratchets up the antic stage business and vocal affectations, landing somewhere between overripe comedy and overly emphatic imitation of the real Anna Held (who, to be fair, apparently did cut a fluttery, slightly outlandish figure). Ultimately, Rainer's approach kept me on the surface of the character instead of drawing me into her thoughts and feelings; the exception that proved the rule was her calmest scene, an encounter with Ziegfeld's lovely, young, and boozy new mistress, where Rainer underplays her moment of realization, her sorrow, her jealousy, and her frank pity for the latest fling who thinks she's a keeper.

The Pick of This Litter: An easy win for Sophia Loren, not just because her work is so vivacious and well-rounded (brava, signora!), but because Garson, Jones, and Mason have all been manifestly better in other nominated performances than they are in these. The big disappointment for me is Rainer, by whom I'd expected to be wowed. Normally, you don't come out of nowhere, defy your third billing, and defeat Carole Lombard and newly widowed MGM queen Norma Shearer if you don't have some serious chops. Maybe it's just a taste thing. I did, at least, like her better in The Good Earth (but she shouldn't have won for that, either).

(Images © 1960 Warner Bros. Pictures, reproduced from; © 1964 Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, reproduced from this Italian blog; and © 1936 MGM, reproduced from the Ravin' Maven.)

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Do Me a Quick Favor—

—and click over to StinkyLulu's poll to determine which year of Best Supporting Actress we'll be reviewing in September. Pretty please, vote for 1936. I've wanted to see Anthony Adverse, The Gorgeous Hussy, and especially Dodsworth for a long, long time, and this would be an ideal excuse. Plus, I have fond memories of both My Man Godfrey and These Three and would happily revisit both of them. Obviously, if you have your own strong preference in this poll, follow your own muse... but if you really don't care and/or you can spare three seconds of your time, I'd love to have this ballet-box stuffed.

The Management

(Image © 1936 MGM)

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Wanna Be a Part of It

Just in time for my departure from the East Coast, the New York Film Festival announces an especially succulent program for 2006. Fair enough, the write-ups of David Lynch's Inland Empire and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century seem to borrow an awful lot from earlier films by the same directors, but surely both men deserve our immense trust. I'm very curious about the Malian Bamako, which Amy Taubin adored at Cannes; the much-heralded Korean horror film The Host; and, perhaps most of all, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, co-directed by Zacharias Kunuk, the Inuit director who debuted so fabulously with the breathtaking Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner).

In a peculiar twist, I've become really intrigued by the latest films from directors whose previous efforts I only sorta appreciated, like Todd Field's In the Bedroom follow-up Little Children, described by NYFF staff as "loosely adapted" from Tom Perrotta's novel; Sofia Coppola's coltish and stylistically irreverent Marie Antoinette; and Climates, by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose big Cannes hit Distant was strikingly shot but, for me, a little too calculated and... well, distant. By contrast, as much as I've enjoyed or at least admired Pedro Almodóvar's recent career run, I can't muster up any real excitement about the squishy-sounding Volver, no matter how many actresses appear in it. (Note: A longer discussion of Almodóvar is evolving in the Comments section—by all means, please join in!)

Volver, plus all the American titles—except, as far as I can tell, the Lynch—will make their way to the popular commercial market this fall. As for the Kunuk, who knows, and as for Ceylan, Apichatpong, and Sissako, they're lucky when they get any U.S. distribution for their films, period. That means it's up to our lucky New Yorkers to see everything and report back. You know who you are!


Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Fifties: A Midterm Progress Report

The Oscars. The Emmys. The Tonys. The Obies. The Césars. The Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards. Employee of the Month. National Junior Honor Society. And now: The Fifties.

With the awards-baity fall movie season about to bow, 'tis the season for assessing the goods that have been on offer thus far in the year. Most prognosticators agree that United 93, World Trade Center, The Devil Wears Prada (care of Meryl Streep), and Half Nelson (care of Ryan Gosling) are the only January-August releases likely to have any impact on the top categories of next year's Oscars. Of course, we've already seen plenty of potential action in places like Animated Feature, Documentary Feature (especially with An Inconvenient Truth and Why We Fight), and Visual Effects. Maybe a screenplay nod for Little Miss Sunshine, too, but that's about it.

Still—and you had to know this was coming—I'm less interested in psyching out the Academy than in looking back at my own favorites from the winter, spring, and summer seasons of 2006. I'm not the first to hop this train, but now that I've officially seen 50 of this year's stateside releases, it seems like an opportune moment for a progress report. Plus, since no awards slate, real or imaginary, is complete without a Mrs. Harris controversy, you'll just have to accept the fact that I'm considering that film, which was intended for theatrical distribution but somehow got sold last fall to HBO, as a 2006 release. Grin and bear it. Be happy for Annette.

And with that—we're off!

Best Picture
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Drawing Restraint 9
Inside Man
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Runners-Up: L'Enfant, The Descent, Three Times
I'm still waiting for a real gobsmacker to roll down the pike. For now, Olivier Assayas' patient, subdued, but visually specific melodrama about a recovering drug addict ambivalently re-fitting herself for motherhood stands handily above the rest of the pack.

Best Director
Olivier Assayas, Clean
Michel Gondry, Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Spike Lee, Inside Man
Neil Marshall, The Descent
Michael Winterbottom, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Runners-Up: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, L'Enfant; João Pedro Rodrigues, Two Drifters
Again, Clean is so carefully and unpretentiously observant, gathering force as it continues without any histrionics, that I can't vote against Assayas. Still, Spike Lee makes a strong bid here, letting loose with an energetic, suspenseful, but deftly comic approach to a sturdy screenplay that needn't have been as witty and memorable as Lee made it. He expands his repertoire considerably, as well as his commercial prospects, but also makes Inside Man tonally and formally consistent within his body of work.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, Mrs. Harris
Maggie Cheung, Clean
Ana Cristina De Oliveira, Two Drifters
Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page
Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee

Runners-Up: None
Mol is the whole show in Bettie Page, fabricating personality, depth, and variation despite a weirdly tentative and direction-less script. Still, Cheung takes the cake with her deft underplaying, the way she listens to fellow actors and visibly reflects on what is happening rather than recycling clichés of zoned-out addiction or listless, weary recovery. Plus, she isn't unaccountably dull, like Cate Blanchett is in Little Fish.

Best Actor
Chang Chen, Three Times
Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Jérémie Renier, L'Enfant
Denzel Washington, Inside Man
Ray Winstone, The Proposition

Runners-Up: None
The ever-reliable Chang is something of a space-filler here. Renier, Washington, and Winstone rise more than admirably to their occasions, each of them responsible for some truly special moments in their films. Edward Norton (Down in the Valley) and Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking) won admiring reviews, but I found them both too smug by half, too transparent in assembling their performances. I'm clapping most loudly for Coogan, who plays "himself" as an even pettier, funnier, more feather-fluffing hedonist than he did in Coffee and Cigarettes, but I'll still be surprised (and dismayed) if any of these fellas winds up on my year-end list.

Best Supporting Actress
Seema Biswas, Water
Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada
Charlotte Rampling, Lemming
Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion
Emily Watson, The Proposition

Runners-Up: Jeanne Balibar, Clean; Joan Cusack, Friends with Money; Edie Falco, Freedomland; Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Amidst the shimmering decorousness and obvious scripting in Water, Seema Biswas plays the single persuasive human, and she's fascinating. I'm not sure the movie means to be about her by the end, but she's so conflicted and captivating that she carries the whole film everywhere she moves. All of that being said, I'd be nearly as happy recognizing the other terrific nominees. Your whole heart goes out to Watson in The Proposition, even when she's technically on the side of wrong. Rampling is as deeply unnerving in Lemming as Emily Blunt is enchanting in her third-tier role in Prada. As for Streep, she's very funny in Prada, but the whole movie's being handed to her without quite challenging her, and she has a few more facets and less predictable timing in Prairie.

Best Supporting Actor
Rob Brydon, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Woody Harrelson, A Prairie Home Companion
David Morse, Down in the Valley
Nick Nolte, Clean
Jérémie Segard, L'Enfant

Runners-Up: Jim Broadbent, Art School Confidential; Rory Culkin, Down in the Valley; Robert Downey, Jr., A Scanner Darkly; Jason Isaacs, Friends with Money; Clive Owen, Inside Man
Brydon is a hoot, and also very touching; Harrelson catches the light in his jaunty routines with John C. Reilly; David Morse keeps a stellar balance of the autocratic and the affectionate as Evan Rachel Wood's father in Down in the Valley, worried into bullishness. Still, Nolte's restraint and honest sentimentality as a grieving father in Clean, befriending his unreliable daughter-in-law against the wishes of his dying wife, make the very, very most of a trickily written role.

Clean, Olivier Assayas
Inside Man, Russell Gewirtz
Mrs. Harris, Phyllis Nagy
A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Runner-Up: Lemming, Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand
The writing has been the most consistently inconsistent element in most of the good movies I've seen this year; there haven't even been enough strong showings to warrant separate races for Original and Adaptation. If Clean and Inside Man weren't so well directed, the scripts might not seem very special. By contrast, Mrs. Harris and A Scanner Darkly are more arresting as pieces of writing than the interesting but not particularly urgent films manage to let on. Tristram Shandy is the cleverest by far, both at rhyming so well with the source novel's entropic ribaldry and at finding jokes as well as honest emotion inside so many corners of the filmmaking process.

Best Cinematography
Clean, Eric Gautier
The Descent, Sam McCurdy
L'Enfant, Alain Marcoen
The Road to Guantánamo, Marcel Zyskind
Three Times, Mark Ping-bin Lee

Runners-Up: Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Ellen Kuras; The Hills Have Eyes, Maxime Alexandre; Poseidon, John Seale
All five of these films make superb choices about what to shoot, and though only Three Times is self-consciously beautiful, they all furnish their viewers with intensely hypnotic visual experiences. L'Enfant narrowly surpasses Clean in its precise choreography of camera movements, and in the subtle, seemingly on-the-fly framings that nonetheless impart to the proceedings, as does Gautier's work in Clean, an almost novelistic wealth of detail.

Best Film Editing
Clean, Luc Barnier
Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Jeff Buchanan, Sarah Flack, and Jamie Kirkpatrick
Inside Man, Barry Alexander Brown
Police Beat, Joe Shapiro and Mark Winitsky
United 93, Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, and Christopher Rouse

Runners-Up: Brick, Rian Johnson; The Descent, Jon Harris; Mission: Impossible III, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Peter Christelis
A race that would hold up just as well at year's end, though only United 93 stands any chance at being so recognized. Among distinguished company, Dave Chappelle's Block Party not only finds the buried jewels in what I expect were mounds of footage, but each embedded performance has a distinctive shape and cadence, and the whole film follows a lovely arc from straightforward concert doc to a more resonant urban collage.

Best Art Direction
Art School Confidential, Howard Cummings
The Descent, Simon Bowles
Monster House, Ed Verreaux
Poseidon, William Sandell
Three Times, Huang Wen-ying

Runners-Up: Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew D. Ryle and Matthew Barney; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, John Paul Kelly
It started the summer as the bête noire among blockbusters, but I found Poseidon to be a craftily made and mounted picture, nowhere more so than in its pristine design by Sandell, who knows his way around watery wreckage (see The Perfect Storm and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). The ornate gorgeousness of Three Times also begs to be considered, but in the end, the deliciously macabre Monster House is my favorite, getting everything right from the omnivorous house of the title to the three appealingly drawn protagonists to the laugh-out-loud graphics of an arcade game called "Thou Art Dead."

Best Costume Design
The Devil Wears Prada, Patricia Field
Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney
Friends with Money, Michael Wilkinson
Little Miss Sunshine, Nancy Steiner
The Notorious Bettie Page, John A. Dunn

Runners-Up: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Penny Rose; A Prairie Home Companion, Catherine Marie Thomas; The Proposition, Margot Wilson
I'm tempted to place the star next to Prada's colorful and off-the-wall ensembles, which parody couture without being contemptuous of it, or else next to the aptly chosen daywear of Friends with Money, so attuned to how the abashedly rich keep dressing down as normal folks, while Jennifer Aniston's Olivia keeps popping up in duds that her gal-pals have probably bought for her. Still, there's no getting around the rococo parade outfits, the scrumptious textures, and the wild, weird meditations on Japanese culture that Matthew Barney built into his almost sculptural clothes for Drawing Restraint 9.

Best Sound
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Inside Man
Miami Vice
Mission: Impossible III
United 93

Runners-Up: Clean; The Hills Have Eyes; A Prairie Home Companion; Tsotsi
Miami Vice may get an awful lot of things wrong, but the sound design isn't one of them. Note the expertly chosen and smartly incorporated songs, a score by John Murphy that detours away from the more obvious residues of the TV show, and some truly horrifying foley work for the shoot-outs and trailer-park explosions. The overlaid dialogue and sound elements of United 93 are nearly as crucial to the effectiveness of that film, and Block Party is one of the better-sounding concert docs, without losing its necessarily ragged edge. Already a sterling field, then... hopefully with still more glories to come between now and New Year's Eve!

Meanwhile, my Dishonor Roll of 2006 so far would run like this:
Worst Picture: Ask the Dust
Worst Director: Michael Caton-Jones, Basic Instinct 2
Worst Actress: Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta
Worst Actor: Kevin Kline, A Prairie Home Companion
Worst Supporting Actress: Idina Menzel, Ask the Dust
Worst Supporting Actor: Simon Baker, The Devil Wears Prada
Worst Screenplay: Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan
Worst Cinematography: Thank You for Smoking, James Whitaker
Worst Film Editing: Why We Fight, Nancy Kennedy

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Happy 46th, Sean —

Enjoy your day. Blow out all your candles. Here's to 46 more years of genius... speaking of which, I'll look forward to seeing you and Jude and Kate and Patricia next month! Should be quite a party.

(Image © 2004, reproduced from Sean's IMDb Photo Gallery)


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mann Down

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a magazine ad for Ray-Ban sunglasses, featuring Tyrese and Josh Wald! (Mmmmm... Josh Wald...)

No, it's the poster for Michael Mann's Miami Vice, which is as inert and personality-flattening as the photo suggests, but not in any typical way. There isn't anything average about Miami Vice except its ultimate mediocrity: otherwise, this movie can't make up its mind whether it wants to be an action thriller, a film-school project, or a deconstructionist essay. That's the kind of summer carnival ride you don't see every day, certainly not in scrunchy, frizzy DV. Farrell and Foxx, both of whom look like they thought they'd signed up for something else, quickly fall by the wayside as Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe put their own muscles and cutting-edge aspirations front and center. Bully for them, manifestly talented as they are, but I wasn't convinced that any of Miami Vice really worked after the first five minutes. You can read my full review here. And then you can switch back to Josh.

(Image © 2006 Universal Pictures)


Monday, August 14, 2006

The Horror... The Horror!

It's not every day that I revisit a movie I disliked as strongly as I did The Hills Have Eyes, but I found three indications that a second screening might be worthwhile: my favorite print critic gave it a favorable and interesting review, and our debates about it haven't ended yet; I felt like I was in bad faith slamming it as a sidebar in my reviews of both The Descent and Lady in the Water without properly articulating my case; and, as I've now tried to explain in my full review, Hills makes too strong an impression both visually and sonically to be dismissed out of hand like typical garbage. I may dislike the film, as in fact I did on second try, but I do think it's a potent provocation and one of the few 2006 releases deserving of extended debate. Pipe in below with your take: between Tim and me, you're bound to find at least one quick ally.

Meanwhile, for someone who loves actresses, I saw precious few of them in my screenings of the past week: the spectacular but remarkably verveless Ben-Hur; the curious jailhouse drama Birdman of Alcatraz; Billy Wilder's ambitious but unpersuasive prison-camp story Stalag 17; and the exciting seaboard adventure Mutiny on the Bounty, which I had the terrific fortune to catch in 35mm projection at the LaSalle Bank Cinema in Chicago, an exhilarating revival house managed and operated by my new/old friend Goatdog and loyally attended by some of the most true-blue movie fanatics I've ever met. Anyway, barely a handful of women in all four movies combined, at least if you discount the Russian female POWs in Stalag 17; I didn't realize that the Third Reich paraded captive women in such glamorous single-file arrangements.

(Image © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures, reproduced from the Hills Have Eyes page at

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Also Hot Off the Press...

So far, at least on my watch, the British horror import The Descent is the best mainstream release of the summer. If you scare easily, or even semi-easily, and you wish to avoid those sensations, I suppose you should stay away... but I really want to encourage people to take the plunge! Read my full review here. Also: The Night Listener is much less effective than The Descent, but just when you're ready to brush it off, it maintains a subtle claim on your emotions.

(Image © 2005, 2006 Celador Films/Pathé Distribution)


Savoring a Sure Thing

As I keep marching forward through Oscar nominees of the past, I am occasionally regretting that I splurged so early on so much good stuff and left a steaming pile of Greatest Show on Earths and Great Santinis to contend with in my future. "Great," needless to say, is a false promise in both instances. I'm also wading through a lot of interesting mediocrities like Birdman of Alcatraz and—here we go again!—The Great Ziegfeld, for which I've written short reviews.

Every now and then, though, it restores my faith to return to a known goodie from Oscar's past that I haven't seen in a long while, and which I'm now bound to appreciate with a different critical eye. A perfect case in point is Silkwood, Mike Nichols' superb and humane dramatization of the life of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear-plant employee who died in a very cryptic auto-crash, just as she was preparing to expose her company's most lethal and reckless abuses against their workers. I've written a long review of the film which I hope you'll read and enjoy, but let me add what an awe-inducing treat it is to see Meryl Streep working at her level best with a top-drawer script and director. Sure she was the best thing in A Prairie Home Companion and among the best in The Devil Wears Prada, but her genius in those movies lay in her savvy, lively approaches to the parts, neither of which permitted a truly satiating characterization. Also, she was so conspicuously better than most of what surrounded her in both films that she was almost an unwitting liability, calling a sizable bluff of two enjoyable larks that could have been much, much better. Still, Silkwood, the first of her many and fruitful collaborations with Mike Nichols—my loving tribute to their subsequent Postcards from the Edge is here—requires no caveats for anyone involved, before or behind the camera. It's a better, fuller, more ambitious movie than it needed to be, and a great palliative, albeit a depressing one, in a summer full of films that are several shades slimmer than they promised to be.

(Image © 1983 ABC Films, reproduced from the Internet Movie Poster Awards site.)

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Picked Flick #42: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Do titles get any better than Kiss of the Spider Woman? When I first heard about the movie, reading over the lists of Oscar nominees in the local TV Guide—it was the last year before I actually watched the telecast—I couldn't imagine why anyone wouldn't vote for it, or how a movie with that title could be anything but hypnotic, dangerous, creative. When a poster appeared under a "Coming Soon" placard at the single-screen theater of the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, I marveled at the exotic graphic design, the enticing indigoes and aquas of the central image, the diagonal affectations of the fonts. When I learned at the beginning of high school, amid the faintest inner whispers about my sexual dispositions, that the story concerned a gay man and a political radical sharing a prison cell in South America, and that the Spider Woman was one of several fantastic movieland figures that the window-dresser described as vicarious pleasures for the Marxist, I knew I had to find the movie. I didn't know what either a window-dresser or a political radical was. Even as I gobbled the movie three or four times during my five-day rental allotment from Mr. Video in Hanau, Germany, I never quite absorbed Valentin's role or perspective. Even as I read the superlative novel, and then performed Molina's opening monologue in theater classes and local drama competitions, my hold on the story was only half-formed, tipped voluptuously in favor of one of its protagonists. Only in college, during my almost annual returns to this story I thought I knew so well, did I start to comprehend not only that a whole second movie awaited my discovery, rooted in forms of protest and discrimation that I had only begun to grasp, but that my early adoration of the film, which hung (I thought) with such sophistication on the shoulders of a young teenager, floated atop a complex network of projections, evasions, narcissisms, misreadings, and a rather blithe giving over of myself into the most comfortable aspects of fantasy.

And so Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film in which I had recognized glimmers of myself with such early and total astonishment, stunned me just as much by calling out my naïvetés and myopias—not from some new or rejected frontier of knowledge, where I was used to being shocked or upbraided by life, but from an already treasured and intimate object. It's no mystery to me how Babenco's film sets this sort of trap, at least for a certain kind of viewer. Where the early sequences are lusciously cinephiliac, with their mocking but affectionate recreations of dubious melodramas, and their willowy transitions from that universe of screen memory to the clammy, witty, and exciting reality of the jail cell, the later sequences assert their politics more forthrightly, with the hard lighting, strained faces, and tightened editing of other Latin American political dramas, like Luis Puenzo's The Official Story or Babenco's own magnificent Pixote. Fans who take Molina's epicurean escapism at nearly face value, as I did, are likely to feel like the second hour sells them out. The seductions of John Neschling's music or Patricio Bisso's versatile costuming don't evaporate as the film reaches its grave climax, but they shape-shift in a way that requires a full immersion in every side of what Babenco, working from Puig's ingenious template, has constructed up to that point. Almost by definition, the movie divides its sympathetic audience of marginalized liberals, forcing them to recombine by movie's end in a richer, more expansive spirit of solidarity: quite literally, and purposefully, less fabulous than the earlier chapters. It's a hugely ambitious journey that the movie takes, with impressive if erratic artistry. Nothing in the movie, not the acting or the editing or the camerawork or the story structure, is immune to miscalculation here or there, but Kiss also achieves substantial, flavorful successes in each of these areas. Best of all, because it is subtle and intelligent in raising questions about storytelling, spectatorship, sympathy, borderzones, clichés, stereotypes, and sexual politics—terrains where a great many movies start bonking you over the head, or else just flee in all the wrong directions—Kiss of the Spider Woman consistently surpasses its own flaws, challenges your own sureties, turning them all into productive questions rather than simple blemishes.

Kiss of the Spider Woman debuted the same year as The Purple Rose of Cairo, just a few rungs down on this list. Both movies understand and reward the unique devotions and pleasures of the passionate moviegoer, even as they dissect such devotion with an often uncomfortable accuracy. I learned even more from Kiss, and I feel even closer to it, because its range of themes and arguments is a little broader, and it humbled me from ever assuming that I've got any movie fully pinned down, no matter how much I love it or how many times I've seen it. Several of the film's pleasures are "simple": Sonia Braga is exceptional, Hurt and Julia have terrific moments, the screenplay's twists are truly surprising, and the whole movie looks and sounds great (especially for its low budget). It's a medicine wrapped in a morality lesson baked into a succulent dessert. When the damned thing ever finally arrives on DVD, we'll all have cause to celebrate. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1985 HB Filmes/Island Alive.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Small World After All

Having heard from a little birdie that ModFab and Nathaniel were able to join forces last week for a Manhattan screening of Little Miss Sunshine, StinkyLulu and I decided that fair was fair, and we staged our own Second City secret rendezvous at a morning matinée of the same movie. Reader, it tickles me to report that Stinky is just as warm, witty, and movie-geeked in person as he is on the blog, and I was reminded all over again that making http://friends and then befriending them all over again in person is one of the most delicious pleasures of web life...even when you realize, "I could name this man's five favorite actresses in ranked order, but I'm not exactly positive where he lives."

As for Little Miss Sunshine, it's the kind of modest, yukky, well-acted, road-traveling American indie that elevates itself by insisting on character notes where a lesser movie would settle for punchlines...but then deflates a little whenever it makes the opposite choice. One scene begins with an unexpected death that was played impressively straight, brilliantly concentrating all of its slapstick impulses into the single exclamation "Linda!" But then, before you know it, a corpse is being tipped out a hospital window in a desperately farcical set-piece almost as unwelcome as the comatose kidnapping in Just Like Heaven. The whole movie is a sine wave—up, down, up, down—and if its peppy finish offers a winning tribute to the worn-down and halfway absurd American family, it's also the most visually slack passage in the movie, with the least convincing background players. Thank goodness all the main actors stay on their toes, and they keep us there, too. Fans of Toni Collette, so reliably inventive with all her little bits of business, will delight in the knowledge that despite being saddled much too often with the disapproving line "Richard!", she squeezes some cigarette acting, luggage acting, Sprite acting, pencil acting, and popsicle acting into the first fifteen minutes alone. She's still, in a swerve no one saw coming in Muriel's Wedding or Emma or Velvet Goldmine, one of the most convincing moms in the movies. Finally, a few extra props to costume designer Nancy Steiner, who knows exactly what each of the Hoovers would wear, and why, and in exactly what aisle of Target they found it. B–

P.S. Considering how StinkyLulu hails from the same state as the Hoover clan, and realizing that I've now met all of the ModFab 6 except for that dismayingly distant Antipodean, par3182, I led myself inexorably to these thoughts: six ModFab apprentices, six Hoovers. Two gals, four fellas in each, plus an Australian. Is Little Miss Sunshine secretly the Rosetta Stone of our dormant but fabulous sextet of culture wags? Is that why this movie keeps magically drawing us together? Dr. S and Melissa, is there any chance of you catching this flick in tandem? And, in the now obvious set of analogies, who is who? A hint: clearly ModFab himself is the Little Miss Sunshine of the title, the unseen beauty whom the rest of us find ourselves chasing, even hoping to be. After that, it gets harder, especially since any. one. of. us. could be the "Superfreak"—though I personally have a hunch that she lives in Ohio.

Image © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Picked Flick #43: The Corporation

As delightful and hopeful as it has been to observe the popular renaissance of nonfiction film within the mainstream market during these last five years, I've been worried by the trends of self-righteously simplified rhetoric and of over-reliance on arbitrary stock footage (e.g., random bombs while we hear about the Cold War, random Arabs while we hear about Bush family interests in Saudi Arabia). I keep my fingers crossed that more documentarians will show the stamina to live alongside and observe their subjects in real time, as in the superb Love & Diane, instead of building retroactive jigsaws from available archive materials; and that more filmmakers will trust that your subject doesn't need to be explicitly political in order to yield major intimations about social structures and hierarchies, like Spellbound did; or, best of all, that historically and politically premised documentaries will harvest meaty, substantial connections between past and present circumstances, without always prescribing the responses of their audience.

This kind of haughty, anti-intellectual approach is most thrillingly avoided in the tantalizing and fact-soaked film The Corporation, an emblem of leftist cinema at its most honest and effective. Indeed, The Corporation does a magisterial job of raising all sorts of urgent alarms about the traumatic effects of modern capitalism, without privileging reductive cant over concise, illustrated argumentation, and without preaching only to the pre-converted. The premise of the film's opening sequences is sublimely simple, but unexpectedly imposing: that is, to define what a corporation is, exactly—one professor at the Harvard Business School abashedly realizes that nobody has ever quite put this query to him before—and then to sketch the conceptual contours and legal entitlements that don't just allow but require corporations to maximize profits without any ethical qualms or qualifications. From here, the movie hurtles into its second conceit, aligning the hard-wired behaviors of corporations with the basic symptoms of diagnosed psychopaths, and then through a roulette wheel of eloquent case histories. Many of these, like the extended pièce de résistance about how FoxNews quashed their own story about America's contaminated milk supply, achieve the expected goal of arraigning white-collar pirates and amoral dollar-chasers, but the detail and power in the arguments are more supple and lifelike than one usually finds in films of this type. Plus, the pirates often furnish their own swords on which to fall. Wall Street trader Carlton Brown admits that he and every other trader he knows spent September 11, 2001, gleefully selling gold to the highest bidders and relishing the market's good fortune, quite literally. Lucy Hughes, a chirpy vice-president from Initiative Media, tips her hand about how she abets toy manufacturers and other clients to brainwash children into demanding their products. "Is it ethical? I don't know," Lucy admits, but it's the job she has to do, and she does it well. Chris Komisarjevsky, a corporate spin doctor whom some Orwellian neologist has rechristened a "perception manager," describes his job as though the corporations themselves—rather than, say, impoverished laborers or lampooned environmentalists or snookered consumers or corraled protesters or, in one especially vile anecdote, Bolivian citizens who were taxed by Bechtel for the privilege of drinking their own river and rain water—were the victims of an enormously sentimentalized marginality. "I help corporations have a voice," Komisarjevsky testifies, "and I help corporations share their point of view about how they feel about things." Though we almost never hear the interviewers' prompts, it takes a seasoned and careful approach to draw out motivations and rationalizations from such a broad spectrum of CEOs, activists, traders, historians, professors, consultants, and spies. Furthermore, these accounts always refine our sense of how capitalism operates, from its skyscraper summits through its middle management to its immiserated workers: the full canvas of the movie is richer and more important than the local shocks, cheers, or hisses occasioned by any given detail.

Even more to the filmmakers' credit, they film all of their interview subjects before the same black background, in the same light, so that we must actually listen and ruminate on our own behalves in order to assess the value of each person's perspective. If we have trouble discerning whether Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, ex-CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, is an unexpected voice of reason or a miscreant in heavy denial, or whether Roy Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet, is an epiphanic convert to geo-friendly policy or a canny soothsayer bending to the shape of a new market, the film offers no editorialized clues to sway us one way or the other. Some of the factual assertions are sobering and intractable, and you walk away edified, as from an especially potent lecture: who among us realized that, in practice, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution didn't so much enfranchise former slaves, as per its stated intention, as it enfranchised corporations with newfound permission to own property, engulf other businesses, perpetuate themselves indefinitely, and assert the same rights as living citizens? Other material in The Corporation is energizing and practical, like the rising success rates of anti-corporate agricultural crusades in India, and the concatenation of websites and NGO referrals that conclude the movie. The movie's moral barometer is sensitive, and its funny bone is lively. Sure, some of the stock footage feels like empty accompaniment to voice-over accounts, but the film's overall graphic conception is smart and elucidating: one particular motif, resembling a maze or spreadsheet of problematic corporate practices, is a terse, purposefully overstuffed reminder of how effulgent and multifaceted the problems of corporate capitalism really are. The Corporation knowingly bites off more than it can chew, but it still chews on more than most films even bite off, and it is persuasively grounded in our world's complex reality, without drying up into a husk of scholastic finger-wagging. It's the Lord of the Rings of modern documentaries: epic, vivid, wise, well-paced, expansive. It's the kind of movie that makes you want to do more with your life. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2003, 2004 Big Picture Media Corporation/Zeitgeist Films.

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