Friday, July 31, 2009

Happy 100th!

Having spent the last month looking back to the beginning of the decade (and we're not done yet!), I'm taking us back ten times farther. 'Tis the season for fall-term course preparation, which has prompted me to investigate films from 1909, and though I've only been through seven so far, I've already covered a gamut from incredible work to inert misfires, occasionally from the same director. You all generally like the contemporary stuff and the Oscar champions best, but trust me, for once the reviews are as short as the movies! Surely, you are titillated by titles like Nero, or The Fall of Rome and Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy? (A tip for weekend fun: reprise an old trope and add a second or, title to recent releases: Julia; or, A Woman So Under the Influence She's Almost Beyond the Influence, or Away We Go; or, Boy, I Hope Our Baby Is Cooler Than Our Friends, etc.)

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Mrs. Miniver and Mr. Schindler: Best Pictures 1942 and 1993

NICK: Having watched my conspirators in pleasure show such effort and ingenuity in our last two installments to put our disparate films in dialogue with each other, I get to enjoy a ready-made Oscar juxtaposition of World War II dramas: Mrs. Miniver, the first entrant from this AMPAS-beloved genre to swipe the top prize, and Schindler's List, frequently hailed as a highpoint in the Best Picture heritage. Neither film is a battlefield picture; instead, they each focalize the magnitude of the war through the expanding consciousness of the titular character and the subversion of her or his habits of thought and action. Both were the first movies by their pedigreed, Oscar-friendly auteurs to cop the Best Picture and Best Director trophies after multiple winless nods.

Of course there are also clear markers of dissimilarity between these films and the stories they tell. Mrs. Miniver presents the war only semi-directly as a blend of farewells, alarms, thrift, social disruption, and local casualties; Schindler's List boldly reconstructs and scrutinizes the supremacist and genocidal ethics and terrible, sometimes enforced complicities that both inspired and drew force from the Nazi war machine. Kay Miniver is a radiant paragon of noble citizenship and domestic steadfastness; Oskar Schindler is a rake and a profiteer whose unlikely emergence as an objector and protector arrives with all kinds of vagaries and caveats attached. Mrs. Miniver was not in every respect a picture that Wyler cherished; Schindler's List was self-consciously conceived, produced, and received as the technical, cultural, and moral apotheosis of Spielberg's career, even if some audiences were more skeptical than others of its structural existence as a studio-produced Holocaust diorama in wide commercial release, in venues where the floors are inevitably dotted with trodden Goobers and the popcorn odors waft in from the next-door screenings of Beethoven's 2nd.

In fact, Schindler's List is so patently the mightier text and social artifact that those modest, resilient, upper-middle-class Minivers may have a hard time getting out from under Spielberg's shadow—so let's start with them first. I think it's the case that we've all seen Mrs. Miniver twice. What do you guys think about it, and did your feelings change at all from the first to the second viewing?

MIKE: I don't like Mrs. Miniver. I like Kay Miniver at times, but I don't like very much about the film she's in. It's a serviceable propaganda piece, but it's nothing more than that aside from a series of ugly hats perched on stiff upper lips. I don't completely agree with Wyler's longtime collaborator Lillian Hellman that "it's such a piece of junk, and it's below [him]," because there are a couple good scenes in there that have resonance beyond the film's very utilitarian purpose, but I do agree that it is beneath Wyler.

The two scenes I like most take place in the bedroom (a mostly sexless place, because Walter Pidgeon is in it). First is Garson's cautious, teasing reveal of that terrible hat, the one that looks like a sparrow crashed into a beaver; both Garson and Pidgeon seem at ease around each other, and you can believe that this relationship once generated enough passion to produce three kids. The second, and the best scene in the film, is the aftermath of Dunkirk, when Pidgeon, puffed up with pigeonly pride at his accomplishments, is aghast to discover that his pretty li'l wife had some adventures of her own. Pidgeon is looser than he's ever been in his entire screen career, and Garson shows a sexy playfulness that unfortunately few directors let her use.

NATHANIEL: I cherish both the scenes of which you speak but I'd disagree about this particular bedroom being a sexless place, despite the separate beds. The second time through I kept expecting Pidgeon and Garson to make a fourth baby at any minute. This is not to say that they struck me as in lust with each other but that the "old marrieds" feel rang true. That ease of which you spoke is evident in the silences, the way they touched (loved the spank), the way the actors sometimes don't even look at each other but you can see that they're fully aware of the other's presences. And I especially like those sequences you mentioned because they show this comfortable couple creating drama where none really exists—initially hiding things that they totally plan to share—merely for the flirty diversion it provides. My whole life I've been hearing that Mrs. Miniver is nothing but a propaganda piece but I happen to quite like it.

It's not exactly a great movie, I'll give you that. But as war films go, I like that it's light on its feet and sustains its energy well despite nearly being a one set film. (Was it my imagination or was the editing here much busier—more cuts—than in most early '40s movies?) You really do get the sense of war intruding on otherwise peaceful and happy existences. Most war films tend to err on the side of the dully sober. I admire that this one makes no judgments about the frivolity of flower shows, joy rides, college "phases," and expensive hats but instead posits that people should be able to enjoy these things. Freedom is worth fighting for! Yeah yeah yeah. You hear that all the time in war movies, including this one. Frivolity is worth fighting for, damnit! That's something you don't hear as often.

One nagging question though: Shouldn't that "Mrs. Miniver" rose have wilted long before the flower show? You see it in the first scene, already in a vase, and it survives a summer break, a whirlwind courtship and honeymoon and the first months of The Blitz?


MIKE: Neither time nor war nor ugly hats can wilt the Miniver Rose, Nathaniel. Not even Nazis can remove its bloom.

THE BENING Well, I'll tell you, Nathaniel—eggshells and Miracle-Gro!

NICK: You pretty much take her everywhere these days, don't you, Nathaniel? Has she introduced you to Juli yet?

To the matter at hand: I feel like I come down somewhere between the two of you, a snug and lovely place to be. I appreciate Mrs. Miniver's sincere-feeling investment in domestic rituals and in personalizing the homefront. Having been a homefront kid while my dad was gone commanding a unit in a war, I am probably well-disposed to the blend of dogged optimism, worried fright, and the odd layer of "business in usual" that Mrs. Miniver showcases. I think the film is better, though—and this is where I see Wyler's gift—at capturing those frictions in specific images and textured performance choices than in the blocky, overstated ways in which the script aims to tackle this stuff. I mean, the whole flower competition eats an awful lot of time on its way toward a fairly certain outcome, but Wyler and Whitty pull out some comic and even some poignant tension in it as she debates with herself. The movie never convinces, or should I say never pretends, that there's much at stake in dime-a-dozen conflict scenes like Teresa Wright lobbying for her grandmother's victory or Garson and Whitty going to toe-to-toe about the engagement, and even the famous scene of the German pilot skulking into chez Miniver is so baldly telegraphed and unsubtly conceived.

But even in these scenes, and in many others, I do admire the layered characterization: headstrong Wright nervously stroking the upholstery when meeting Vin for the third time, the slightly harrowing way in which Vin's little brother likes to play-act being a dive bomber, Garson relentlessly sewing in her fake but admirable cool inside the air-raid shelter. I admire that Wyler punches up the German-intruder scene by starting it off in such incongruously bright light and wide-open space, and having the superficially intrepid Garson so awkwardly handling the gun by its barrel, upside-down, when she's retrieving it for the police. Like you guys have said, the actors are often really great with spontaneity, ensemble playing, and crisply humanizing detail, which are pleasures in themselves. But then, they sometimes backfire into making me wish the whole movie were firing on more cylinders to really get the most from this team, and they can't always compensate for all the obnoxiously haloed lighting and the pathetic miniature-models in the river patrol scene, or the dialogue teetering from chunky bits of "patriotism" to little dime-novel ejaculations ("Good old, Vin!").

And if Mike hates the hats, I don't like that Greer Garson—to me, one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood's past—has to make her big entrance in a scalloped-doily hat and a dress that has spaghetti stitched to the neckline. But then she heads right into that delicious, charming convo with the guy who feels as guilty about buying cigars as she does about her beaver-sparrow hat. Again! You're always getting the good with the bad in this pic.

"I survived the London Blitz, and all I got was this hideous ensemble."

NATHANIEL: Funny you should say that, for "the good with the bad" is how I'd describe quite a few of Steven Spielberg's hugely beloved pictures. But it's hard to describe the magnificently controlled Schindler's List that way. Unless you're referencing the pink coat but I'd rather not start off with the one blemish. That's not just spaghetti on an otherwise beautiful dress, it's the tomato sauce, too.

MIKE: The red-coated girl was part of what displaced Schindler's List from its position at the top of my top 100 list. (New list forthcoming!) I think it's one of few places where Spielberg underestimated his audience's ability to comprehend the extent of the ghetto liquidation. I know he used it to show Schindler himself finally understanding, but surely this man didn't need such a specific reminder.

The other reasons stem from how even in the middle of its undeniably horrific events, it backpedals at times, as if Spielberg were too wedded to Hollywood tropes to carry through. To start out, I don't think it downplays the extent of the Holocaust to tell about the lucky survivors, so I'm not in the Claude Lanzmann camp that views this film as a misguided attempt to dramatize an event that cannot be dramatized. But there's a line in there somewhere, and Spielberg crosses it in two major scenes. First is the old man whom Goeth chooses to execute, but every German pistol within a stone's throw somehow jams, saving his life and stretching believability too far. Second, and much more egregious, is the scene where the women are led into the shower rooms at Auschwitz but are greeted with water instead of poison gas. This, for me, is unforgivable: if there's a single image that sums up the Holocaust's mechanized, efficient destruction of humanity, it's the gas chamber, and the cheap "gotcha!" when that water comes down is among Spielberg's most cowardly mistakes as a director.

And I'm not sure what I'd think if it turned out to be true. This feels like melodrama, not reality. The film is certainly melodramatic at times, especially the scene on the train tracks where Schindler weeps about how many more people he could have saved, but that scene tears me up every time. I don't mind being manipulated if it's done so well.

NICK: Wow! And I so often feel like the carpy one. Admittedly, I agree with a lot of this: the shower scene at Auschwitz and the failed execution of the rabbi are highly dubious and feel like Spielberg devices. Then again, that brutal kick that Goeth gives the old rabbi at the end of that scene registers very strongly. Even stronger to me is the haunting shot of the naked women running into that cavernous shower; the enormity of everything the scene and the film have conjured up to that point is so profound that I don't think the sequence or the film escapes paying tribute to what we all know about the gas chambers. But yes, it's a major stretch, on very thin ethical and narrative ice, and I can see taking major exception. Whereas the girl in the red coat has never really bothered me. Neither of her appearances goes as far into sentimentality as they could have, and seeing her dead—especially in the fairly offhanded way that the moving camera frames her, in the barrow with several others—makes her a somewhat important ballast against the film's decisions elsewhere to focalize so many characters who don't die.

I have my own caveats, but given that this feels like one of the most considerable films ever to win the prize, I get to play the annoying do-gooder who says, Surely we want to foreground the positives. And I know you both hold the movie in very high esteem. I'll start with some of the peaks and strengths that really stood out to me this time. The production design is uncommonly persuasive and detailed, from apartments to camps to cellars to exteriors to cabarets to trains to the extraordinary range of palette, even within the monochrome scale. The mournful Itzhak Perlman theme is as powerful as it always was, but I was almost as struck this time by Spielberg's and Williams' astonishing and risky irony of using hard, dogged piano in the cross-cutting between the establishment of the factory and the assemblage of the ghetto, as though both grow out of the same grinding, mercilessly bureaucratic urge. I saw a much more rounded, bullish, many-sided character coming from Liam Neeson than I had remembered in the past—to include that, rather like the Minivers, he rarely stops believing in the value and defensibility of casual, "frivolous" pleasures, though he's obviously an epicurean and a spendthrift in ways they aren't.

The liquidation of the ghetto is so indelibly shot, edited, mixed, choreographed, and performed that I don't even know what to say about it. While I'm feeling speechless for a moment (it never lasts), rattle off some more high points.

NATHANIEL: You've barely scratched the surface of its many triumphs. I hadn't seen it since December 1993 and the things I most loved about it then were just as impressive: the harrowing liquidation sequence you've mentioned, the harsh beauty of the cinematography surveying all that ugliness, the framing device (which was so moving and earned here but unfortunately regurgitated without inspiration for Saving Private Ryan), and that astonishingly cruel performance by Ralph Fiennes. He seems to have swallowed whole the too-often-abstracted concept of evil. It can't be fully digested—who can ever fully digest the enormity of man's inhumanity to man that the Holocaust represent?—so it seems to have just settled in his lazy gut, completely rotting him from the inside.

The thing that most struck me on this second viewing that I know I didn't appreciate or fully grasp in 1993, before I had any real experience of the corporate world, was how the film is in many ways as much of a business thriller as it is a war drama. And a hugely successful one at that: you're tense with fear at Schindler's political missteps (the kiss at the party), you're gripped by the intricacies of his game plan and game face, and you're caught up in the power struggles. I love that Amon Goeth seems so untouchably powerful at first only to be understood, gradually, as something as banal and impotent as a middle manager. Mostly importantly to this war drama's parallel business thriller is that you're rooting for Schindler to succeed but this makes you so complicit in all of his awful compromises and the dehumanizing deals he's continually making. He grasps the humanity of the "enemy" more than the other men sporting swastikas, but he won't let that get in his way. At least at first. I feel certain that a third viewing would reveal yet more intricacies about the dehumanizing business of war.

NICK: Genius! I love this take on the movie. I totally agree, and it opens so many things to think about. Related to your great point: in this last viewing (my third), I seized on that moment when they've just banged out the list, and Stern can't figure out how Schindler is going to secure all of these "indispensable workers," and he looks at Schindler and suddenly says, "You're not buying them." Kingsley's ambiguous reading of this line is so artful, because you can't tell just then whether he's appalled at the obscenity of purchasing these people, or whether he's thunderstruck at the moral gesture to which this profligate hedonist is actually committing himself. Obviously the movie and even the scene wind up tilting toward (b), but the implications of (a) are never completely removed.

Couldn't help interjecting. Mike, what do you love?

MIKE: Did I mention that it's still in my Top 10? I agree with everything positive you guys have said; it's almost easier to enumerate the few flaws than to get a handle on how amazing this film is. Foremost for me are Ralph Fiennes's performance as Amon Goeth and Janusz Kaminski's impeccable cinematography. Fiennes is the most-ripped-off supporting actor in the history of the category, not because Tommy Lee Jones wasn't great, but because Fiennes gave one of the two or three best supporting performances ever.

And I, too, am in awe of your "business of war" take on the film, Nathaniel. Bravo! It really nails something that I hadn't thought about—Schindler's complicity, for most of the film, with the Nazis, and our complicity with him. But I can't quite accept Goeth as a banal middle manager. There's a fervor there, whether it's mental illness or genuine belief in the cause, that you'd never get at ConHugeCo. He's not just putting in his time.

I know we try to stick to the films and avoid what went on outside them (Oscar campaigns, etc.), but with both these films, it struck me how much their internal self-importance translated to their public reception. Judges sentenced hate crime perpetrators to watch Schindler's List, and Spielberg released a teacher's guide to be distributed with free copies of the film to high schools; for Miniver, BBC Radio played the vicar's closing speech to British troops, and Roosevelt and Churchill requested special screenings of the film to increase support for the war effort. It's pretty convenient for this series that we have two films that took on such political importance; what do you guys think about that?

NATHANIEL: Doesn't "internal self-importance" often translate to public reception? Or rather, isn't it always aiming to do so? I guess the difference here—with your well-chosen but, I assume, not isolated examples—is that both films were bulls-eyes in their respective eras.

People don't talk about Mrs. Miniver much anymore but it was a huge success in its time. The IMDb even references this tagline for the film: "Voted the Greatest Movie Ever Made!" Now, I'm not sure who was voting (Greer Garson?) but the picture was beloved and respected. And we all know how quickly Schindler's List started to show up on "greatest movies of all time" lists.

I've often groused about the "Subject Matter = Quality" equation with Oscar (and with critics and audiences to some extent, too). Subject matter never automatically equals quality. Subject matter is just wallpaper. It's how you decorate the rest of the room that counts. So in the cases when artistic ambition lives up to the grandness of certain subjects or themes, which excite people even when the artistry isn't much to rave about, it's easy to see why the public reception borders on ecstasy.

NICK: I know exactly what you're both getting at: it's totally weird that Schindler's List beat The Piano, one of the greatest films of all time, perhaps the greatest, for Oscar's top prize. I couldn't agree more. And without that sense of Schindler's internal self-importance? Never woulda happened. I appreciate the tact you both showed in hinting at this point without wanting to hurt me by spelling it out, but I think transparency is important.

[THE BENING murmurs inaudibly to NICK]

NICK:: So it turns out that it's not that weird, and that a lot of people think Schindler's List is also one of the greatest movies of all time. And apparently – wait – [one more whisper from THE BENING] – apparently miscarriages of justice are pretty frequent in Oscar history, especially recently. Very interesting, Annette.

Given that AMPAS was so swept up in patriotic fervor in 1943 that it was giving plaster statuettes so as not to waste the country's valuable metals, it's even less surprising that internal self-importance + Oscar's frequent Anglophilia pushed Mrs. Miniver over the victory line. If you scatter-plot that year's ten nominees, it makes sense as a consensus pick, sharing the propagandistic fervor of 49th Parallel and Wake Island but with healthy doses of the sentimentality you see in Random Harvest, The Pride of the Yankees, and The Pied Piper (which is sort of Mrs. Miniver starring an old codger instead of Greer Garson). Schindler's win needs no more contextual explaining than you guys have already provided, and there's every reason for Oscar to feel proud about that one. Since you both confessed to your reservations, I'll say that the story does feel weirdly disproportioned to me; Spielberg and Zaillian start wrapping things up just when Schindler has published his list, short-changing our curiosities about how he got away with his factory being a "model of non-production" and how their lives as Schindlerjüden actually looked and felt, to include their relations with him. The movie suddenly races to its own finish line: marital reunion, European cease-fire, big farewell, and we're done! But in and of itself, and especially by comparison to many other Best Picture winners, the selection of Schindler's List comes close to being an absolute good.

As always, readers, we want to know your thoughts: are you more of a Nathaniel or a Mike in response to Mrs. Miniver? If you're a Lillian Hellman, let it all out. What do you think of Schindler's List? Which of its virtues have we still not begun to evoke, and what reservations do you feel compelled to express?

Also don't forget the Best Pictures Tournament that's an ongoing accessory to this series. We last voted five installments ago, which means it's now time to vote on your favorite winner from 1938-1942 and from 1993-1997. The collective favorites and rankings among the three of us are already posted, but you've got 90 days to change our minds!

This Week: Nathaniel's post

Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago; ep.7: It Happened One Night & A Beautiful Mind; ep.8: Mutiny on the Bounty & Gladiator; ep.9: Ziegfeld & American Beauty; ep.10: Zola & Shakespeare; ep.11: You Can't Take It with You & Titanic; ep.12: Gone with the Wind & The English Patient; ep.13: Rebecca & Braveheart; ep.14: How Green Was My Valley & Forrest Gump

Compendium: My ongoing "Best Pictures" Special Section, with reviews, rankings, polls, and links to all of our discussions

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Films of the 00s: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Well, some things never change, and I guess the conversation-killing power of Up at the Villa is one of those things. I didn't pick this as my next post on purpose to attract more comments, but I suspect you all will have more to say. O brothers and sisters and everyone in between, what think thou?:

"The Coens are not always as smart as they pretend to be, even when they admit that they are pretending, and even when they use their own dramatis personae to set an ostentatiously low bar for their own comparative wit and urbanity. Normally, I'd be only too happy to snuggle up to a movie with lines of dialogue like 'She's at the 5 & Dime, buying nickels' or, with great consternation, 'These boys desecrated a fiery cross!' But the Coens are like party acquaintances who keep changing the subject and then staring at you quizzically when you can't follow the thread, or when you stop wanting to follow it, but who then block all your exit routes from their obnoxious conversation. They make it damned hard to pan one of their technically prepossessing, unimpeachably distinctive films without collapsing into standby allegations about their coldness and their cruelty." (keep reading...)

I've done more '00 viewing in the mornings before work than I'm letting on in the sidebar. Possible future topics of conversation: hijacked buses, split screens, Iranian smugglers, Staten Island, Pikey boxers, African feminism, dead whales at midnight, gays of the past, and gays out West. What sounds good?

Earlier in this series: Up at the Villa, Bamboozled (with Tim), Mission to Mars, The Beach (with Tim), Dôlè, La Captive, American Psycho, and Wonder Boys

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Films of the 00s: Up at the Villa

Having favorably invoked it amidst my rather vehement slagging of Chéri, I thought this might be an opportune moment to check back on things Up at the Villa, and to see whether Kristin, Sean, Anne, Jeremy, Derek, and those nutty Haases were indeed as deserving of my counter-consensus affection as I remembered. The answer is a newly qualified yes:

"I still agree with the spirit and drift of this review, even if a second viewing and nine years' accumulated experiences makes me a tad less sanguine about the filmmaking and a bit blanched about a few of my earlier overstatements. My frequent recourse to the language of 'satire' and phrases like 'whale of a good time' are likely to oversell the verve and implied joie de vivre.... And yet, in its wittiest moments, the film deliciously restores me to my initial plane of enthusiasm, no less so for operating more subtly than I communicate in this write-up." (keep reading...)

As you'll gather from this excerpt, I've eschewed a full reappraisal in favor of a codicil added to original write-up. Since almost no one ever talks about the movie, and even fewer seem to give it a fair shake, I hope you'll consider both the original piece and the amendments as encouragements to rent. Who doesn't want to go to Italy with Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, and a pair of smart, subtly cheeky auteurs?

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Films of the 00s: Bamboozled

Delivered with admiration in this centennial year of the NAACP!

"Four score and seven years ago... they was kickin' our black asses!" So begins one of Honeycutt's embarrassing but inspired comic riffs as the host of Man-Tan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, the ghastly revue at the center of Bamboozled's estimable storm. I wish that my returning buddy Tim and I had found room to pay more tribute to how funny Bamboozled can be when it wants to be, how the Man-Tan show actually operates, and what tertiary figures like Honeycutt or his near-doppelganger, the protagonist's wreck of a father, bring to the proceedings. But there's only so long that we can bend your ear, and almost everything in the dizzying, maddening, electrifying Bamboozled invites heaps of conflicted commentary. I tried my best in my initial review, written nine years ago in graduate school, but I got more out of my new confab with Tim. We start with our memories of seeing the film for the first time:

TR: "Bamboozled...was one of the first films I reviewed for the Telegraph where I really wanted a lot more space. It was released in the UK in April 2001, a few months after I started the job, and I remember coming out of the screening buzzing, and with my thoughts pulling in all sorts of different directions. Because the movie already had the whiff of commercial pariah about it, this wasn't to be a lead review, and I knew I had a tough job on my hands communicating how this fascinating mess was actually to be recommended in fewer than 300 words: the flaws were manifest, the underlying intelligence, scalding and confrontational as it is, needed some careful argument to disinter...."

ND: "As far as I'm concerned, in the year 2000, I saw Bamboozled in a racially segregated, semi-concealed theater, and it only showed once per night, and I was the only patron there. Hence my sharp and bitter sense, during that first screening, that Lee was shooting grenades at vicious, longstanding American problems that powerfully persist, albeit under different guises...."

From there, we have plenty to say about the film's ceaseless self-divisions, the wavering targets and cogencies of its satire, the parts that work best, the parts that don't work at all, what do with the ending, and what is finally most important to emphasize about such a confoundingly sloppy-smart film. Again, there are entire shelves, whole aisles of cans of worms that we couldn't open. But the conversation isn't over yet! - as always, we hope you'll enjoy the whole piece and share your thoughts in the Comments field.

(By the way, as any Chicagoan who keeps track of how AMC plays the downtown 600 Michigan Ave complex against the nearby and much more deluxe Rivers East multiplex can tell you, the practices of quietly segregated booking are not gone, and not absent even in major cities. Look, too, at this article, linked yesterday by Nathaniel, about current distribution problems facing the Sophie Okonedo vehicle Skin in the UK and certainly, though the article doesn't reach this far, in the US.)

Earlier in this series: Mission to Mars, The Beach (with Tim), Dôlè, La Captive, American Psycho, and Wonder Boys

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tedious Liaisons

I haven't been a Stephen Frears fan for a while, but this is getting ridiculous. His reputation as an "actor's director" notwithstanding, he has three principal thesps to work with this time around, and he freezes one of them into a totally unilluminating, hedonistic pout (Friend), allows one of them to trundle around playing almost every moment to an unseemly hilt (Bates), and proves just as unable this time as last time to lead his star (Pfeiffer) into a persuasive connection to the woman she's playing or the period she inhabits. I didn't expect great things from Chéri, but I didn't expect such deeply annoying superficiality, and such total avoidance of the emotional matters at hand. Full review here.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Films of the 00s: Mission to Mars

Most people hated it. Its supporters not only lionized it, they openly disdained the people who hated it, including their own colleagues. Had I followed these kinds of turf wars more closely in 2000, I would have made a point of seeing Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars and having something to say for myself. Certainly post-Black Dahlia, a fascinatingly mixed bag that prompted one of my favorites of my own reviews, I'm intent on catching all De Palma movies when they open, and on exploring more of his back catalog. So, to that end, better late than never:

"Call me craven, but I feel sure that Mission to Mars isn't nearly as bad or nearly as accomplished as its detractors or champions espoused amid their memorable slugfest. Say this for the movie: almost every memorable bit plays to the film's advantage, and certainly to De Palma's, even if the general fabric from which they emerge is more than a little frayed.

The opening sequence blends technical virtuosity with a kind of warm and personal storytelling modesty that's rare for De Palma: Stephen H. Burum's graceful, almost zero-gravity camera executes a miraculous sequence shot that evokes the breezy domesticity of a backyard barbeque, while staying just shy of being too smug or showy about its own formal accomplishment. No slam intended on Boogie Nights, but I'm more impressed when a sustained shot like this culminates in a textured evocation of an almost quotidian event than when filmmakers drop one in for obvious razzle-dazzle...."
(keep reading...)

After this film and The Beach back-to-back, I'll follow up shortly with something more esoteric for all you high-art types, though Armond White, Charles Taylor, and Pauline Kael (as if the first and second didn't already imply the third) would stress to us that Mission to Mars is high art. Meanwhile, my partner in crime Tim Robey will join me for another conversation about a film that I suspect we both admire at about the same level, but it's such a bold, fractious, complicated case that no two opinions are likely to be quite the same.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Films of the 00s: The Beach

As if sitting at my laptop writing, reading, and taking notes weren't social enough—on really exciting days, I swivel in the same chair to face the TV and DVD player—I decided to bring another voice into some of these retrospective reviews of Films of the 00s. And who better to invite than my favorite print critic, Tim Robey of Mainly Movies and the Daily Telegraph. Reading Tim's reviews or, better, chatting with him after a movie always clarifies my thinking about it. Since this series purposefully orbits around movies that I'm internally split about, either because I'm just now seeing them or because I have lingering uncertainties dating back to their initial release, I'm especially eager to talk some of them out and so, so excited that he's volunteered to dish.

Given his day job, which he conveniently started right at the top of the decade, Tim sees many more movies than even I do. Thus, finding movies that neither of us has already seen has proved a challenge, especially with the added hurdle of looking for offbeat titles that are easily available on both sides of the Big Pond. But speaking of pond-hopping, Tim was eager for a second trip back to The Beach, a post-Titanic, post-"P***y Posse" vanity/comeback vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, and probably Danny Boyle's most aggressive bid for a studio-funded mainstream Hollywood hit. Despite the marquee presence of Tilda Swinton, I had somehow never seen it. Here are some excerpts of our review:

ND: "Maybe since Boyle had so recently been so adept at making the drug-trips in Trainspotting so truly frightening and off-putting but simultaneously kicky and engaging, I was hoping he'd find a way to hyperrealize the sensual pull, the literal dangers, and the ethical quandaries of this scenario a little more. At the very least, don't you think it's a mistake of the script to partition the survey of life among the commune so fully away from the dangerous, glancing engagements with the gun-toting, pot-planting Thai mercenaries? For Richard and the Frenchies to commit so fully to beachy 'happiness' while knowing it involves regular, entrenched exposure to violence and brute corruption would be more interesting than compartmentalizing those looming threats only toward the beginning and end of the movie. Though the risk of racist iconography would have shot pretty high, this approach to structure might have furnished an effective decoy by which the corruption inside the compound would have emerged more surreptitiously, and as a more interesting test of the audience..."

TR: "By the time Richard is running around in the jungle like Martin Sheen meets Rambo, Boyle has inelegantly retreated into his default final-act mode of Trippy Psycho Overkill—cf. Eccleston in Shallow Grave, Renton vs. Begbie in Trainspotting, Murphy's bloody woodland spree in 28 Days Later, the Sun-God killer/whatever in Sunshine. It's not enough. I like the hints of Richard's moral alienation right at the start, particularly the way he closes the door behind him while regarding Daffy's corpse (though that's another good scene half-ruined by "this-was-some-crazy-shit!" voiceover). But this idea isn't followed through properly in the paradise sequences, and Leo, who is very uneven, can't do much to make Richard's bandanna psychosis actually work as a dramatic device. Still, I do appreciate the way his lie about copying the map comes back to haunt him—the way reducing it to a half-lie ("I only showed it to them!") actually makes the situation worse, the way Tilda turns on him, the dumb obliviousness of the new visitors, which sends a chill...."

Lots more where that came from. And how about you: do you remember the film? Did you read the book? Do you have Leo's back a bit more than we do? If this were 1998, I'd be a dead man by now. Can you settle this whole did-they-or-didn't-they dispute? Chime in with a comment.

Earlier in this series: Wonder Boys, American Psycho, La Captive, and Dôlè

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Films of the 00s: Dôlè

Judging from the comments (what comments?), this retrospective series about buried gems and split decisions from the last ten years is more fun for me to write than for you to read, but what can I tell you. I like it, and I'm learning a lot, as I certainly did in my first encounter with Dôlè, a Gabonese film from 2000 that had been pitched to me in the past, somewhat maladroitly it turns out, as a West African Boyz N the Hood. That's tall praise and there's a nugget of merit behind it even if I don't think the comparison really holds. Still, while Dôlè isn't a slam-dunk, it's an engaging and a visually accomplished 79 minutes, which certainly eclipses lots of better-marketed movies that have some comparable inspirations at heart. To wit:

"A Slumdog Millionaire nearly ten years avant la Boyle, this shortish Gabonese feature has the good sense to avoid either the chirpy fructification of poverty as entertainment or the sensationalizing of grisly violence as an entrée into the life of some dream-deferred youths. School kid Mougler (David Nguema Nkoghe) wants to get in on the hip-hop game with his pals, especially lead emcee Baby Lee (Emile Mepango Matala), who sports a Fugees T-shirt while he rehearses the French-language lyrics of his favorite artists and chastises his buddies for mucking up their parts. It would be easier to hold the rhythm and master the words if these kids had a radio, which they still refer to as a 'ghetto blaster,' a few years after you stopped hearing that term quite so much in the American streets. Despite the likelihood that huge swaths of Dôlè's audience won't ever have seen a Gabonese film, or perhaps any West African film or any images of Gabon or Libreville at all, writer-director Imunga Ivanga isn't interested in the kind of social cross-section that would contextualize where and how and in relation to whom these kids live, to include whether they have their own 'ghetto' to blast. It doesn't quite look it, but unlike Boyle, Ivanga associates the frustration of have-nots with a series of sharply coded rules, fantasies, and assumptions, not with grabby emblems of abjection or televised deliverance..." (keep reading...)

Like a lot of African films, especially those without the auteurist pull of a Sembene or a Mambéty imprimatur, Dôlè is distributed in rentable, projectable, and purchasable formats by California Newsreel, which deserves all the thanks and the dollars it can get. Encourage your local or university library to buy it and then check it out.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Films of the 00s: La Captive

I always enjoy when filmmakers betray their fascination with work by their peers, even when the lines of influence are as evident as they are from Kubrick to Akerman. It's a kick on a DVD supplement to hear this under-appreciated Belgian master compare her film La Captive, loosely adapted from Proustian example, to the widely rejected Eyes Wide Shut, and not principally because both movies rework early 20th-century literary conceits into the social and sexual idioms of nearly 100 years later. This La Captive certainly does, with just as much affinity for ironic anachronism as Kubrick betrays, and with a similar, powerful emphasis on the ways in which even shallow, diminished men control women, imagining they have absorbed them and known them fully. As in Eyes, which Akerman deliciously misremembers as a Richard Gere vehicle, the male lead in La Captive understands more and more that he has precious little hold on what the woman in his life thinks or does or feels, and if Akerman's film is a good bit slower and less baroquely daring than Kubrick's, fans of his film (and I know that a few haunt this site) may well be intrigued by hers. As added incentive, here's the start of my new review:

"Chantal Akerman's elegant and admirably committed updating of Proust disentangles the notion of the controlling, possessive lover from the commercially overworked figures of either the brutish Svengali, throwing his weight around along with his fists, or the imperious hedonist of either gender, wielding a charismatic erotic arrogance that pitifully abjects the lover who just can't seem to say no or cry foul. By contrast to these enduring types, the sexual captor in Akerman's movie is a pale, ageless, rabbit-eyed, neurasthenic male of the Ian Bostridge stripe, whose physical frailty ironically contrasts but hardly neutralizes the vigor of his proprietary impulses. His name is Simon Levy (Stanislas Merhar), and though he's too restless, mobile, attentive, and jealous to be a simp, he often makes comments despite his cream-complexioned youth that call to mind those aging, terminally incommoded women who nonetheless rule their respects roosts with barely contested authority in any number of 19th-century English novels. Bathing before a pane of frosted and beveled glass, on the other side of which his coveted lover Ariane (Sylvie Testud) also languishes in a tub, Simon rhapsodizes in his peculiar, semi-detached way about the visual, textural, and aromatic wonders of Ariane's body, her skin, her vagina—while nonetheless imploring her to give herself a good scrub. 'If it weren't for my allergy and all the pollen you bring in,' he says, 'I almost wish you'd never wash,' a line that would work as either a wry or a broad comic indictment of brattish, whey-livered romantics who guard, relish, but find themselves intimidated by the robust materiality of the women they idolize and thereby objectify..."

I hope you'll keep reading and at least consider renting!

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Films of the 00s: American Psycho

This post was not intended as a flip rejoinder to Independence Day, though when I realized it had that potential implication, I can't say I rushed to defuse it. Make of this what you will!

I was initially mixed about Mary Harron's American Psycho, but it's a hard movie to forget or to shrug off. Ten years later, that much further into Harron's unusual career and well past Bale's arrival as a major star (though who knows if he'll stay that way, given his recent string of vehicles and performances), I am still mixed on Psycho in a way that's hard to parse. What's forceful and confident and strong in the movie is clenched so tightly to what's clichéd and imprecise and chaotic in it—at some moments more than others, but especially towards the end. Still, I'm more inclined now than I apparently was in 2000 to accentuate the positive in this strange and striking movie. Here's how my new review starts...

"As early as Little Women and The Portrait of a Lady, maybe even earlier, Christian Bale's face has always been a kind of parodistic exemplar of the word 'chiseled.' As Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bale famously mapped that adjective onto his whole body. If his sharp brow, ever-enviable cheekbones, and suddenly statuary muscles seem preternaturally planed and hewn, via a regimen of exercise and cosmetics to which an early sequence memorably introduces us, there is also an aspect of the severe, maybe even the fascistic about this Wall Street pirate's pursuit of his inner and outer Superman. Chiseling isn't just a metaphorical or an autoerotic activity for Patrick, who also likes to slice and carve people up, although the Guignol assaults and starkly photographed red-on-white bloodbaths in Mary Harron's movie were never its most interesting element..."

What is its most interesting element, at least according to me? I'll tell you if you keep reading...

But by the way, does anyone remember that Lions Gate promotional stunt where you could sign up to receive daily e-mails from "Patrick Bateman" leading up to the film's commercial release? File that under creepy oddities in the annals of film advertising...

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Films of the 00s: Wonder Boys

At noon today, July 2, we will officially hit the midpoint of 2009. As is true for a lot of you, I'm sure, there are contexts in my professional and personal life in which I can barely handle the fact that half of the calendar year has already passed. The prospect of So Much To Get Done, shot through with the horror of Where Does All The Time Go?, can be quite debilitating, so I choose to redirect that energy into a sort of New Year's Eve-ish posture of wistful serenity: Remember This? How About That? Look At Everything We've Done.

Getting closer not just to the end of the year but to the end of a decade—I know, I know, not in mathematical point of fact, but by cultural consensus—means that the retrospective mood is setting in strong and early, and it's here to stay for at least six more months. I've been thinking about all the movies I've seen that came out since all of our computerized infrastructures didn't crash at Y2K. Though I often feel compelled to revisit durable favorites, my stronger desires of late have been to catch films that sailed past me in their commercial runs, or to take a second or third spin with titles from the 00s that I worry I might have under- or over-rated, or cases where I flatly can't predict how I'll feel about a given film now that more years have passed. So, unlike that "Plays of the 00s" series that's unfolding on my miniature theater blog, which revolves around annual prize-winners and word-of-mouth hits, my "Films of the 00s" series, inaugurated as 2009 has officially begun winding down instead of up, has broader and weirder goals: taking stock of films I missed, films where I didn't match the critical consensus, films that I felt mixed about at the time and still do, films I've caught myself flashing back to when I never thought I would, films that were personal pets at the time but that I haven't thought about a lick since, films that in one way or another say, "Give me one more chance!" Stay tuned through the rest of the year.... among other things, this project oughta help me craft some Best of the Decade lists that I can really strongly get behind.

To kick things off, I took a third spin with Wonder Boys, a film I loved enough in 2000 to see it twice, even though Paramount had a hell of a time selling even one ticket to almost anyone except delighted critics and devoted cinephiles. They even released it twice, to no commercial avail. I was an ardent fan at the time. Suddenly, in 2009, I find that I'm... just a fan. The problem, it turns out, is its star performance, one of the very elements that drew the most hosannas at the time, including from me. From my new review:

"What Wonder Boys has in spades, beyond the heroic self-confidence to make a dramedy with so many non-cartoonish adult and semi-adult characters (and academics at that!), is a terrific sense of economy: you don't, for example, need to see much of the Grady/Sara relationship to glean a strong sense of its moods and backstories, just like you don't need more than one vertiginously high-angled shot of a wet slice of pizza, drooping over a porch railing in the rainy dawn, to 'get' everything about the previous night's wild party. But Douglas's self-regarding persona and, I dare add, the story's and the script's own notions of Grady seem much less contiguous than I remembered them being with that air of crystallized understatement. The movie pushes him at us, almost as much as that infamously awful poster did...."

Read the rest here, and enjoy the series as it progresses, doubtless in fits and starts (doesn't everything around here?). I won't always have quite this much to say, or quite this much time to say it in, but hopefully I'll take occasions to jot at least something about films like Wonder Boys that I barely spoke about at the time, despite having lots of thoughts about them.

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