The near-end of the decade proves not too late for a series of auspicious firsts: my first festival jurying gig, my first film festival abroad, prompting my first trip to London. These all lead to vibrant in-cinema experiences in addition to the contextual reasons for which they are exciting life-moments for me. It's probably not a coincidence, then, that I feel a bit morose and self-critical about seeing some key late-year releases on official DVD sceeners, which make me feel very prestigious and elite, but I wished almost immediately afterward that I had waited to see what these films would have felt like with an audience. For one, this whole series and the kinds of memories on which it relies would be totally effaced: I remember very clearly how I reacted to The Wrestler and The Class, but I couldn't possibly tell you anything about where or in what mood or in what proximity to other movies I popped them into my DVD player. I hope all the more that the in-cinema experience never goes away, and though I won't deny the exciting kick of an early peek, or the occasional need to see something quickly, or for free, or as a belated catch-up, I'm all the more committed after writing these posts to subsisting on movie tickets, public audiences, enveloping sounds, and big screens.
Jan 27, Kerasotes City North 14, Chicago, IL
I catch a city bus up to where I catch another city bus, riding for a total of about 45 minutes, to a pretty shifty complex, so that I can go see The Golden Compass, which I'd avoided for the better part of two months. Why? It got nominated for the Art Direction Oscar, and I wanted to have an opinion. My commitment papers are probably in the mail.
Apr 25, Landmark Keystone Cinemas, Indianapolis, IN
In Indianapolis as a member of the narrative-feature jury. Because jury decisions for this size of festival are often made partway through the event, so that press releases can go out and extra showings can get scheduled for the winners, I wind up having to see most of the contenders on screener DVDs ahead of time. So my most potent in-cinema experience from the fest is the out-of-competition centerpiece screening of Chris Eigeman's Turn the River, a taut and well-acted character drama that augurs well for what he might do with an even bigger budget and a second opportunity. Certainly the movie implies that Famke Janssen has been under-challenged by almost all of her other roles, though the supporting cast is also very good. Full admission: I had assumed Turn the River earned its slot in the program by having the most recognizable names on the marquee, so it's a particular pleasure to be so taken with the actual film. I learn what it feels like to be on the ground of a new American feature's debut, and though Turn the River didn't get the attention it was due in theaters, it serves notice of the unpredicted potentials lurking in a festival slate.
Jun 16, Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, Chicago, IL
A high point in impromptu double-features, and not only because it's already June and I haven't gotten excited about all that much. Nor should I ignore that the long distribution delays between first reading about these movies and finally seeing them makes it all the more exciting that they both beat the usual rap of postponed releases and all-over-the-map reviews. Savage Grace, for reasons I've described before, is the kind of keyed-up piece of filmmaking, exploring a lurid real-life scenario without really delving into conventional movie psychology, that must have been destined all along for an uneven audience response. But Mike and I both found it pretty formidable, and though he couldn't stick around for The Fall, that one also makes a strong impression with music, sound, and structure. Several passages have trouble summoning an internal momentum commensurate with the colorful reaches of Tarsem's imagination. Both times he's tried, he has put himself at risk of making slightly stuttery, compartmentalized series of tableaus, but I'm more than prepared to keep going with that as an aesthetic, so long as he comes up with spectacles this grand. And the sad but ecstatic finale does ultimately bind the whole movie together as a complex song sung back to a whole history of Hollywood, storytelling, desperation, and stuntsmanship of many kinds, including that of bold imagination.
Jun 28, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
It's funny how almost regardless of one's personal passion for the films, WALLE and The Dark Knight persisted through the year as litmus tests for gauging aesthetic tastes, investments in the Oscars, even national politics. I do remember my viewing experiences of both films pretty vividly. With WALLE, the immediate, in medias res splash of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly! was certainly not what I expected, and it certainly landed me and the whole adult audience right in the movie's flat-paneled, mechanical palm. I was as seduced as anyone by the entire phase of the film where WALLE is alone on the windswept earth, and voluptuously enjoyed the easy but surefire manipulation of the robot running over the cockroach (Oh no!) and the same roach pinging back to life (Isn't this all so adorable!). I had a few problems with Eve: must she have been named Eve, and look like an ovum and an Apple product? Still, I was jubilantly in WALLE's camp up through the infiltration into the spaceship, where the bizarre but recurring Pixar narrative dispersal into chases, fracas, and hullabaloo kind of pushed me out of the movie a bit. For me, WALLE represented the steepest, most sudden decline yet in a Pixar movie from an experience I was treasuring to a film I was more than averagely enthusiastic about. Too bad about the increasingly addled and rather desperately optimistic final acts, although blog friend Colin has written quite compellingly about some inherent problems or compromises in WALLE well before that point. I still went back to see it twice, with basically the same results the second time. I am aching at this point for a Pixar movie that ends even half as well as it starts, which I don't think has happened since The Incredibles, and even that one didn't quite nail the dismount. Still, I can't think of another megapopular corporation, creative or otherwise, that has made such money prodding the American public into such lively but many-sided critiques of capitalist, bureaucratic, and mas-consumerist practices, and it's heartening to see a generation of kids raised with a suspicion of this particular cast of heavies. Even if the young kids at WALLE didn't seem quite as engrossed as I was.
Jul 18, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
I wasn't one of those people who had been keeping myself alive so as to see The Dark Knight, though I did wind up at an opening-day matinée, early enough that I had a seat in the dead-center of a middle row. I had not read a single review and was not expecting such a long film, but much more importantly, I'd had no expectation of being so troubled by the whole experience. I was more upset by The Dark Knight than by any movie I'd seen in a theater since INLAND EMPIRE a year and a half before, and it had nothing to do with the rabid fans or the slightly creepy forms that the posthumous idolatry of Heath Ledger was starting to take. Nolan's ability to make color, framing, lighting, blank faces, and especially urban architecture look unnervingly sinister without most of the obvious tricks really got under my skin with this one, probably because The Dark Knight amplifies these bents within his usual style while also incorporating more sadistic behavior and corporeal blighting than probably all his previous films combined. But worse than that, for me, was the profound charge of the urban mayhem itself: the Joker really did love watching the city burn, and I live in the city that slides so convincingly and pyrotechnically in The Dark Knight into a flaming pit of terrorizing nihilism. I live about five blocks away from where that huge semi-trailer gets upended by the tripwire, and I pass most of the film's key landmarks on LaSalle Street (i.e., the assassination attempt on the mayor) and along the Chicago River close to every day. I have certainly seen many more graphic movies than this, but I'm not going to lie: I was spooked and shaken, and I suddenly didn't like being surrounded by all those people, feeling trapped in my seat. Part of the troubling, rather self-aggrandizing power of The Dark Knight has to do with its potent simulation of the modern city past the brink of outright lawlessness. Though I had lived in Chicago for barely two years by the time I saw this film, I experienced a hectic oscillation between sick, numb shock and panicky fright at seeing Chicago so recognizable, and so aggressively assaulted. Only later, with some distance from the movie, could I reflect on how surprised I was to feel quite that attached to my new home, and so viscerally defensive of it.
Jul 22, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
More local color: our previous neighborhood before moving down here to Batman territory, and still an easy walk away, contains the national flagship store for the "American Girl" products, including an American Girl theater and an American Girl museum. This franchise has shown an odd stamina in my life; I used to teach at Wells College in Aurora, New York, the alma mater and pet cause of Pleasant Rowland, founder of the American Girl megafranchise. These days, part of my daily commute involves wending my way through the phalanxes of daughters, granddaughters, grandmothers, mothers, nieces, cousins, and pig-tailed companions, shuffling slowly along the pavements and clutching their dolls, who often look just like them. It's a Big Thing. But that's not why I saw Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, the corporation's first attempt to breach the cinema market. Anything that gets reviews this good, I'm happy to check out, and given that Hollywood seems utterly recalcitrant about making films of lasting value for young girls, I felt good about supporting this one. The movie wasn't absolutely everything I had hoped. Julia Ormond's exquisite performance aside, I didn't see anything here that wasn't roundly outpaced by Steven Soderbergh's admittedly boy-centered but criminally underseen King of the Hill. The one powerful lesson I did take away from the screening, though, is that a 30-year-old man walking alone into Kit Kittredge, in a relatively packed theater with not a single other male of any age inside, is bound to create a discomfiting stir. Hard, glacial stares abounded. No one, not even the kids, seemed comfortable with my being there. I felt like Jackie Earle Haley. Devilishly, it occurred to me to say very loudly, "I want to see this because I support lesbian directors," which was also true, but I just wanted to witness all those frosty, quick-to-judge Moms having to explain that to their little charges.
Jul 24, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL
Heaven, I'm in heaven... All of Fred and Ginger's movies were revived all through the summer at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a much-beloved screening space that I'm amazed has not yet made an appearance in these pages. Thinking backward, I guess it's true that the movies I've seen here have rarely been as delectable as the facility itself, or as wondrous as the simple chance to see them: old classics, local and experimental work, penguin-less documentaries, international releases struggling to find a berth anywhere else in the city, and a regular roundelay of mini-festivals, including whole months devoted each year to contemporary Iranian work, African American film, and a European Union Film Festival. Even amid that esteemed company, the Astaire-Rogers series was an absolute high-point of my relationship thus far with the Siskel. For me, the discovery in the series was the deftly choreographed, snazzy, dapper, and wonderfully light on its feet Follow the Fleet. The other discovery in the series: Astaire is a phenomenal dancer, and often fine as an actor, but I can almost never stand his characters, who are always getting Ginger's characters fired, or screwing up their plans or their accommodations, or whining about his own bad luck (re: his off-putting behavior). It hasn't soured me on their partnership, but when I see him walking toward Ginger for the first time in each movie, it's hard not to scream, "Run, girl, run!" But then they start dancing. And then, you know...
Sep 24, Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, Chicago, IL
Trouble the Water is exactly the sort of documentary Chicagoans would normally have to rely on the Siskel to program, but the Landmark came through this time, and it was one of my seminal experiences of the year, from the standpoint of admiring the filmmakers' art and the subjects' profound resilience and resourcefulness, but also because I'm one of those people who was much more deeply distressed by Katrina and its aftermath than I was by 9/11. I was miffed throughout the presidential campaign that year that it remained a Great Unmentionable in so many debates and touring speeches, even though I understand there's little either candidate could have said that wouldn't have been immediately co-opted and distorted by the egregious ways in which Americans and our media talk about race, which are almost as bad as the ways in which we don't talk about race. Poverty and regional prejudicefor example, as in the Northeast's often unconfessed disdain for the South, and vice versaare also key contexts if not always direct subjects of Trouble the Water, and those aren't really discussable subjects in American public life, either. So what made me furious and despondent during the events of late August in 2005, and for weeks, months, and years afterward, and what makes me continually frustrated about the stunted or flat-out refused acknowledgments of the lessons of New Orleans (and I say this having never even been to New Orleans), also made me profoundly admiring of the movie. I felt gratitude and awe, in the face of Trouble the Water's sure-footedness, its frankness, its grasp that the storm and the flood were the catalysts but not the core of what is devastating in this story, and its non-exploitative immersion in the lives of Kimberly and Scott and the other protagonists.
Sep 26, AMC River East 21 and AMC 600 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL
It wasn't until I was walking home from my third film in a luxurious day that I realized how profoundly unusual it was that I had just seen three commercial pictures in different genres, all directed by African-Americans. Granted, I found Miracle at St. Anna embarrassingly diffuse even by the standards of medium-grade Spike Lee, and there's not much to be said for Nights in Rodanthe, but it does matter to me that pictures like Miracle still get made and that directors like Lee and Wolfe still have their pick of material, even if I sometimes balk at their choices. Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys, only my second Perry movie after Meet the Browns, which I disliked, emerged as the champ among this bunch, and not just because the other two were, respectively, disastrously over-fussy and hilariously half-baked. I've probably said it enough already, but whatever its limits and its crude constructions of narrative, Family That Preys is quite moving thanks to its cast. I include Perry himself, who gives a tantalizing glimpse of what a solid, affecting actor he can be when this inveterate over-doer suddenly hears the koan that Less Is More. You've probably already gleaned as much from this series, but I just adore it when a film surmounts the expectations, mine or other people's, of its makers or its genre. This one definitely did.
Oct 17, AMC 600 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL
I don't remember exactly when all the chips of good fortune fell into place to get me to London last fall, or when I knew beyond a doubt that I was going, or when I realized that it would mean missing all but the opening days of the Chicago Film Festival. Global travel, of which I had had none in almost ten years, was one of the few reasons I could think of for missing so much of the CIFF, and I surely wasn't complaining. Making it even easier not to complain, the two screenings I was able to catch were both total home-runs; as it turned out, they both handily eclipsed any of the actual movies I saw later in the month in Leicester Square. I don't know much I could possibly add about my passion for Julia, especially since I'll need to save up some vocab for my Best of 2009 projects. It's been certain for almost 14 months now to feature prominently in those lists, but I'm thrilled that the movie has lost none of its charge. Even the jarring impression of Tilda lurching so blowzily around a dance club, all purple and sozzle and sequin and jade, has remained just as bracing now, on umpteenth replay, as it was the first time I saw it. That means she's not just pulverizing her usual typecasting (and, apparently, her prior preconceptions about her own acting), but that she's truly and durably extraordinary in the part. And the movie gives as good as it gets, to her and to us. I'm so thrilled to have seen this with a sold-out audience. When else would that ever happen except at a festival? I would have been just as happy to see it in its eventual release at Facets, madly and self-righteously speculating about how much people miss by not seeking out movies like this. Instead, I got to experience first-hand all the gasping, tension, and shocked laughter, which confirmed for me not just the electric grip of Julia but the fact that there really is a large audience for "small" movies, if only we can figure out how to bring them together more often.
Oct 18, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
Same thought I had at the otherwise extremely different Ballast, which I reviewed here. I'm so glad it has finally arrived on DVD, care of Kino, because I've been itching to have a second experience of this one. Still, that first viewing, with writer-director Lance Hammer and broadly grinning Tarra Riggs in attendance, was a lovely moment of being so moved by a new and modestly scaled piece of work and then getting to say so to the people who made it happen. I sure have my eye on those two. Riggs had a throwaway role as a hairdresser in this year's mini-release American Violet, and though she's very charismatic in her all-but-momentary appearances, with something like 20th billing, you would never know there's a strong, graceful, powerhouse thesp hiding inside that part.
Oct 21, Cineplex Odeon West End, London, UK
London! Hurrah! I arrive at Heathrow and bump almost immediately into Mike Leigh. Clearly a sign from the gods of cinema. We exchange a bemused look, slightly crustier on his side than mine, about the driver holding Leigh's name on a posterboard, who clearly has no idea who he's looking for and is gazing right past him. Get with it, liveryman, this is Mike Leigh. Tim picks me up, takes me to his apartment, gives me my first partial walking tour of the city, during which I try not to look too overwhelmed or too exhausted. We wind up at our first screening, for James Gray's Two Lovers, and though he is more taken than I was, we're so gratified to get to experience the new Gray film together, since The Yards and We Own the Night had been objects of such avid discourse and critical sympathy between us. Two Lovers is followed immediately at the festival by some howlers and then a string of sturdy achievements, but did I mention that I'm in London??
Oct 28, The Screen on Baker Street, London, UK
Perhaps you know the story about how Gomorrah revealed to me that ducking out of a film for an emergency bathroom break is not only something I hate to do, but something that God is more than prepared to punish me for. You better believe I haven't done it again since.
Oct 30, British Film Institute, London, UK
Tim would almost certainly opine, and many would agree with him, that the high-water mark of our filmgoing that festival were the consecutive screenings of Johnny Mad Dog and Wendy and Lucy that we took in at the Ritzy in Brixton. Perfectly sound reasoning, but of course the soft spot in my heart is for Eastman Kodak's restoration, swiped from the maw of total oblivion, of Edmund Goulding's The Trespasser. After Mike Leigh and the doomed pee-break, this is the third and most prodigious proof of divine intervention into my English sojourn. How does it happen that during the two weeks I happen to be across the Atlantic, the BFI hosts the first-ever British screening of this early-era Best Actress nominee, long thought lost to the ravages of depleted celluloid? How did that happen? Swanson is inimitably Swanson through this absurd sudser, which I wish I'd written up at the time. Now I remember it mostly as the vehicle in which she shouts "Beasts! Beasts! Beasts!!" at a horde of paparazzi who have invaded her house. Who hasn't wanted to shout this at someone in their lives? I could not have been more delighted, nor could Tim have been more gently indulgent. As an added bonus, a dear soul called Guy Lodge crosses a hall to introduce himself to me on my way to go see this movie. Someday, Guy, we'll get to see a movie together... and though you'll have divined from previous entries, based on past experience with so many blog buddies, that it's almost certain to be a dreadful film, I'm still looking forward to it!
Oct 31, Cineplex Odeon Leicester Square, London, UK
Dog me, argue with me, fire your slings and arrows, say all kinds of unconscionably profane things about how wrong I regularly am on this site. I've heard worse. Just don't tell me I was part of a "backlash" against Slumdog Millionaire, which I saw a full month out from its U.S. debut. Tim and I had gotten some wires crossed and missed each other at the start of the show, so I ducked in without him. I wasn't even sure he was anywhere in the house, but I was worrying in my upper-balcony seat (it's that kind of cinema), what if he is loving this thing? How will we speak about this? The other critics at the press screening, who surprisingly numbered somewhere in the hundreds, appeared in general to be lapping it up. Total hometown leniency for the British Movie That Could, I'm guessing. As you already know, I was despising it pretty much through and through, from the utterly implausible and logically torqued premise to the grotesquely danced and haplessly edited "Bollywood" finale. I hop downstairs and locate Mr. Robey. We walk for a few minutes in silence, and at last he says, "Wasn't that just... horrid?" Bless.
Nov 2, The Barbican, London, UK
My last screening in England before returning home, and not only am I thrilled to see it in its home country, it's the kind of gobsmacker that the actual festival never quite yieldedthough my mood was so good through the whole trip, it had hardly bothered me. The movie was Hunger, and even if Tim hadn't already raved about it, I would have been compelled by the staggering, minimalist posters that had been limning the Tube stations the whole two weeks I'd been in town. One would be forgiven for confusing these ads with sheets of brown butcher-paper. You had to pay attention to see "Hunger" in blocked white font in a bottom corner. Austere, to say the least, but viewers of the film will find the spare but oddly beautiful aesthetic hard to second-guess. I admit I'm delighted to fly back home with a new near-masterwork tucked away in my brain. I land in the U.S., and less than 24 hours later, we've elected a grand new president. Everything is right and wonderful. Every single thing is fantastic.
Nov 10, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
One last trip before the year is out, this one to Synecdoche, New York, a destination that few people will want to entertain. I had actually meant to see it in London, but so many regular ticket-buyers had paid to see it that our press badges proved useless. No room at the inn, and in retrospect, thank goodness. Who would want to squeeze this in between four hours of Che and 90 minutes of Gloria Swanson? (And Guy, I would have missed you. That's divine intervention #4!) I frankly wasn't inspired by the stills I'd been seeing or the précis I'd been reading, so as the first reel unspooled back on my home turf, and the grey, constipated miseries of Caden Cotard started accreting, I couldn't have been more surprised at how strongly the movie was hailing me into this strange, drab, lugubrious, but peripherally magical world. It's awfully hard to argue with anyone who finds Synecdoche entirely too dour, and much too repetitive of Kaufman's prior conceits and Hoffman's seemingly endless train of sad-sacks. But there's a smallish camp of us who can hardly bear the weight of Caden's sadness, or the heaviness of his protean but impossible stage-show (which is also his life), or the dolor of all his lovers and friends, or the grim possibility that Caden might not even exist, except as the furrowed and flailing alter ego of somebody else, harboring equal reserves of disappointment and grief. When I say, we can hardly bear the weight, that's an unexpectedly good thing. I marvel at what a potent emotional experience Synecdoche, New York is for me, and though I fully sympathize with other viewers who yearn for a more supple directorial style, I realize how tremendously in awe I am of a picture that can conjure such a crashing wave of affect despite looking and feeling, from shot to shot and scene to scene, so careworn and undistinguished. That's not to impugn the exemplary craft of Mark Friedberg's sets, or any of the other off-center, frayed-looking, or self-effacing proofs of savvy craftsmanship. Synecdoche is unquestionably elaborate, but it's almost impossible to extract any single image that doesn't look embarrassingly prosaic. To me it's a kind of sad miracle: the magic of this film, unrelieved and overcast though that magic is, comes not from the images, the cuts, the exacting and intricate script, or the precise performances, but from the heaving, groaning, pining spaces in between all of those things.
Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2008 (Chronological):
A Star Is Born ('37), The Lost Moment, Petulia, 7 Women, Imitation of Life ('34), The Champ ('31), Smart Money, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Miracle Woman, Little Women ('33), Once Upon a Time in the West, The Thomas Crown Affair ('68), Mandabi, Unrelated, Secret Ceremony, Arise, My Love, The Misfits, The Hurricane ('37), The Wrestler, Chicago 10, and The Class
Now, with any luck, I still have screenings and rentals worthy of this series awaiting me in the next three weeks... so stay tuned till the very end of the year, when it makes the most sense to be Remembering 2009.
Labels: End of 00s