Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art -

You've still got It, Jane. You've never not had It, and Bright Star offers further, subtly risky, occasionally frisky, unabashedly romantic proof. Would that all period dramas had greasy hair and restless kitty cats. Would that every love story recognized that two people can grow respectful of each other's talents, even besotted with them, without necessarily entering into them, or fully adopting them as one's own. Would that every under-tested actor in the world got a role in a Jane Campion movie to demonstrate her mettle, or his. And if anything, would that all the critics who are relishing Bright Star will recognize in retrospect that In the Cut was already working toward these exciting dares in variable focus and semi-subversion of literary tropes, and that The Portrait of a Lady is as strong, rich, and evocatively idiosyncratic as this one is, but times ten.

Here's to the global resuscitation of Jane, even if she never should have needed "resuscitating." I'm still clapping in the front row, just like Holly, Anna, and I did back in the day. Granted, they were in the front row of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and I was in the front row of my living room, but the principle was the same!

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Start the Car, I Know a Whoopee Spot

Where the city's cold, but cinema is hot! With the ticket counters opening and the new website premiering yesterday for the Chicago International Film Festival, we have officially arrived at one of my favorite periods of the year, and certainly the month when I am happiest to be a Chicagoan. Sure, I still dream one day of making it to Toronto, Telluride, or one of the European festivals, but the CIFF is a bonafide cornucopia and deserves much wider recognition than it gets. Then again, part of why its profile remains a little lower than those of some other festivals is that this one isn't a sales market and, despite wonderful Gala Presentations where I've met the likes of Laura Linney in the past, it doesn't host a lot of flashbulby premieres. What CIFF willingly forgoes in global press scoops it gains back tenfold in the privilege it gives to average moviegoers to enjoy the films, afford the tickets, and hobnob much more closely with visiting filmmakers than it's possible to do at a Toronto or a Cannes, with their phalaxes of studio scouts and frenzied, hierarchalized reporters.

This year's special guests will include Career Achievement Award winner Uma Thurman and her most recent director Katherine Dieckmann, Precious helmer and Artistic Achievement Award winner Lee Daniels, the same film's Breakthrough Performance honoree Gabourey Sidibe, plus Willem Dafoe, Lone Scherfig, Martin Landau (proving that the much-hyped but distro-seeking Lovely, Still still exists!), Virginia Madsen and her Emmy-winning mother Elaine, Ben Foster, Oren Moverman, John Woo, and Patrice Chéreau. Cinephiliac celeb-spotters could do a lot worse, and Special Presentations of The Yellow Handkerchief (from the where's-he-been director of My Son, the Fanatic) and of the Tennessee Williams-scripted and Bryce Dallas Howard-starring The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, directed by Safe ensemble member Jodie Markell, are promising guest visits without naming names. (A hint: it's probably not Tennessee Williams.)

Of course, the emphasis remains deservedly on the movies, and I've already bought tickets to a baker's dozen, being as scrupulous as I can to avoid imminent commercial releases, even the one's I'm dying to see. I fully expect to buy plenty more, particularly for movies from Iran, Mexico, Taiwan, the UK, Ireland, Israel, Chile, Syria, Australia, South Korea, France, Switzerland, Italy, the USA, and the Philippines that are unlikely to sell out, even though that Filipino entry, The 'Thank You' Girls (pictured left), is free one night if you show up in drag.

Of course, life always intervenes to dictate that I see slightly less than I intend, and my attendance last year got cut short by my sublime trip to the concurrent London Film Festival. Still, with only two days to enjoy last year's offerings, I filed early, elated reviews of Julia and Ballast, both of which surfaced on my year-end Top Ten list, which is surely the most you can ask of two days at the movies. The year before, I got my first looks at 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Taxi to the Dark Side, Yella, Silent Light, and Flight of the Red Balloon and told you at length everything to love and occasionally not to love about Michael Clayton, Hallam Foe (later released Stateside as Mister Foe), Stuck, Control, the since-unseen Mohsen Makhmalbaf film Scream of the Ants, and the entrancing Argentine dystopian comedy The Aerial/La Antena (pictured left), which scored two citations in my annual awards that year.

I can't say it more clearly: attend this festival, if you're anywhere near the Windy City. Where the Wild Things Are, New York, I Love You, and, God help us, Couples Retreat will all still be waiting for you after the two-week event wraps on October 22. Meanwhile, eye this space for CIFF09 dispatches, starting October 8!

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Monday, September 21, 2009

QFS: Desperate Living

Chicagoans! Don't forget the screening of John Waters's Desperate Living taking place tonight at the Center on Halsted! Admission is free, but the Queer Film Society, which I told you about before, suggests a donation of $5, and I know you are good for at least that much. You're getting John Waters, a live audience, DVD giveaways, and, doubtless, a whole candy shop of bon mots, in and out of the film. So, come out! (And come out to the movie!)

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Bring It On: Fall and Holiday Season '09

Most of the titles I'd be most excited to see are either still on the fence as to whether they'll even be released this year or they're starting to pick up deeply divisive word of mouth (though this, in itself, is usually catnip to me). I can't say my felt level of enthusiasm for the next three months of moviegoing is all that high, but it's comforting when I sit down with this list to realize how many more temptations still fall on the horizon than I have really been acknowledging. Grab a jacket and a scarf, hold your nose, and hope for the best!

A completely precise, most-to-least-anticipated lineup is too hard, and the previous eight years of airline travel and American government mean that I don't even know what "Code: Red" or "Code: Orange" or whatever even means anymore. So, as is my past custom, these previews of coming attractions (and repulsions) are scaled according to levels of enthusiasm that would actually make sense in the context of my life. As is equally my custom, I'll update with one-line responses as I "check" these titles off my list, and attempt to keep up with shifting release dates and fluctuating buzz.

The Day My Credit Balance is Zero
Bright Star - Shut it, "comeback" mongers; Jane has Brought It every time
   B+ - Occasionally blunt, but mature and irreverent, and very moving
The Headless Woman - Come on, Chicago, come through with a release!
   B - Martel's skills still dazzle, but they slide here into mannerism and vagary
The Sun - I've already waited breathlessly for four years
   B+ - A few wobbles, especially early, but provocative and moving
Where the Wild Things Are - I hope it's every bit as unusual as they say
   B - Snags in shape and momentum, but still an engaging wonder
Antichrist - I might be indignant, but I cannot possibly be bored
   D - But I was! What's duller than shapeless, self-diluting provocation?

The Day I Meet Jessica Lange
35 Shots of Rum - Denis, Godard, Descas, Colin: I love when they hang out!
   B+ - Almost too low-key, but fully controlled; great last shot
Precious - Almost in the top bracket; all my fingers are crossed
   B - An odd, impassioned, erratic, well-acted film with some dubious biases
Nine - I hope it's got more depth than Chicago, but I'm already hooked
   D+ - A staggering inattention to whether the audience has any reason to care
An Education - A scrumptious cast, great preview, and star-is-born potential
   C - Carey charms, but no one, least of all Scherfig, pushes hard enough
A Single Man - Thanks, Harv! Now let's see what Tom, Colin, and Juli can do!
   D+ - A very old boxed wine, embarrassingly masked as a $15 cocktail

Oscar Nomination Day
A Serious Man - I blow hot and cold on the Coens but love the trailer
   C– - An endurance trial; the Coens at their most stiffly obnoxious
The Road - Inevitably a softer beast than the book, but does that matter?
   B - Lighting and music problems, but sturdy and extremely moving
The White Ribbon - The split votes persuaded more than the real raves
   B– - Crisp b&w imagery can't hide the diffuse, overfamiliar ideas

Oscar Day
Whip It - I think this looks like a blast. Plus: Juliette! And Kristen Wiig!
   B+ - Bright, pert, very funny, economically edited, specific to its milieu
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee - Miller's stuff usually sounds better than it is
Up in the Air - Sure seems to be affecting people; bonus point: Vera!
   C– - As evasive and canned as the firing rhetoric in the film
Disgrace - An adult-sounding adaptation of promising material
   D - Club-footed, cruddily photographed stab at a very tricky story

My Birthday
Broken Embraces - I'm not as pro-Pedro as some, but I'm sure it's tasty
   C - Needlessly convoluted; hard to find a new idea here
The Informant! - Hoping for inspired cheekiness, not Schizopolis
   C– - Tediously facetious; less revealing of character than it should be
Crazy Heart - Great cast, but I hope this trumps Tender Mercies
   C - Trumps it a little, but not by much, though Bridges is great
Invictus - Just hoping it's not too, too on-the-nose with its nobility
   C - Eastwood never gets past the surface, maybe because he doesn't try

The Average 3-Day Weekend
Paranormal Activity - If it's as nail-biting as they say, I'll be elated
   B - Several structural flaws, but it still scared the @#$% out of me
The Messenger - Strong notices; bonus: from Velvet Goldmine co-writer!
   B - Modest but moving; Foster and Harrelson are great
La danse - Wiseman's a legend, and if it's half as good as The Company...
   B+ - Splendid; the To Be and To Have of ruthless artistic training
Avatar - It's just so hard to bet against Cameron, but that teaser smells
   C - Fine, it "moves," but it's wispy and politically off-putting
Me and Orson Welles - Lots of great names attached, plus McKay buzz
   D+ - Dim and diffuse; Linklater never gives it any point

The Average 2-Day Weekend
The Last Station - Sounds worth a look, though I'm not panting
A Woman in Berlin - Still intrigued by Nina Hoss after Yella
   B– - Important story, polished style, but overlong and a bit too opaque
The Bad Lieutenant... - It'll have to be the right kind of nutso
   B– - A bit mangy, but gets more interestingly nutso as it goes
It's Complicated - Despite Meyers' record, I'm really holding out hope
   B - Kinks more than compensated by three luminous star turns
The Lovely Bones - Could be great, but premise and trailer turn me off
Amreeka - The previews and reviews are selling it to me
   C+ - Well acted, some pert details, but the script is much too klutzy
Good Hair - The trailer's a stitch, and I'm interested anyway
   C - Good chuckles and tidbits, but too slapdash and superficial
Bronson - Strong reviews from across the Pond; curious about Hardy
   C+ - Starts out awfully and over-acted but grows oddly absorbing
Fantastic Mr. Fox - Looks like less of a real stretch than I'd hoped
   C+ - It passes the time, but there's just no soul to it

The Average Workday
Big Fan - Confused by what I'm hearing; should I make an effort?
   B– - Homespun and limited, but savvy moments and a killer climax
Coco Before Chanel - Unsure about Tautou, but few female leads this fall
   C - Good work from Tautou and Poelvoorde can't quite elevate the film
Skin - I'd get even more bent out of shape if the UK reviews were better
   C– - Intriguing, but pitifully disjointed and erratically acted
Brothers - Would it have killed 'em to hire a less callow cast?
The Princess and the Frog - I appreciate the gesture... but how's the movie?
   B– - Enough high points to count as a more than honorable try
The Young Victoria - I'm just not sure that Blunt is really working out
   C+ - Actually, she and Friend do very well, but the movie's still gratuitous
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus - Even in good weather, Gilliam can grate
Sherlock Holmes - Many ways to go wrong, but duds and dudes could be fun
   F - A crass vandalizing of the brand, and joylessly incompetent as reimagined

The Average Cold
The Blind Side - Mayyyyyybe, unless it's limo-liberal porn
   D+ - Plennnty of problems, but enough heart to squeak by

The Average Broken Face
(i.e., And I am telling you... I'm not going...)
The Other Man - If someone you love messed up, would you want to watch?
Motherhood - The dread Uma, forever trying her hand at "comedy"
Ninja Assassin - By the V for Vendetta guy? No, thanks. Really.
Couples Retreat - A genre I dislike, saddled with unenticing actors
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel - That title! [shudders]
Saw VI - Five years ago, I thought this looked like a pip. It wasn't. Go away!
Old Dogs - Only if my other option is to drown in a grain silo

Hope Springs Eternal for...
The Tree of Life - Malick + Penn + Lubezki + Desplat. Please open!
A Prophet - Reviews are dreamy, but looks slotted for February
   B+ - Not unfamiliar material, but strongly acted and helmed
Vincere - Apparently has a web-stream release, but big screen?
   D+ - An opulent ordeal, empty, static, and weirdly self-monumentalizing
Lovely, Still - I thought this would be a sure thing, with Best Actress so sparse
   D - TV-ish at best, tacky, show-offy, and ridiculous at worst
Beeswax - Hasn't bowed in Chicago yet, so I'm hopeful
Creation - I applaud the chutzpah of a mainstream film inclined to atheism
The Vintner's Luck - I'm guessing this depends on Toronto buzz?

(i.e., I meant to go but played myself)
Import/Export - Missed out, despite my love for Lachman
Afterschool - One-night showing sold out before I could get to it
Still Walking - I should've cared more, but it just sounded so tepid
The Box - Can Richard Kelly woo me back after Southland?
The Damned United - Rooting for Sheen after Queen, less post-Frost
Zombieland - Zombie-comedy is getting weirdly rote; neat cast, though
Cloud 9 - Could be a genuine boundary-pusher; lots of strong notices
The Burning Plain - Charlize and Kim entice, but Jennifer's got the buzz
Amelia - Potential for a good story, but the trailer's so kitschy
The Fourth Kind - Wouldn't give it a thought, except the trailer's nifty
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - Who knew? Reviews are bubbly
What's the Matter with Kansas? - I've now missed the book and the film

The Boneyard
(i.e., My eagerness has died on the vine)
2012 - So plausible at some core level, it's unseemly as entertainment
9 - I needed convincing, and the reviews didn't achieve that
The Baader Meinhof Complex - I'd hoped for edge, but no one's implying any
The Boys Are Back - Best of luck to Clive, but the trailer oozed
Capitalism: A Love Story - I'm worried he's jumped the shark
Did You Hear about the Morgans? - Review-dependent; Parker's a liability
Disney's A Christmas Carol - I'm guessing sub-Lemony, which isn't good
Il Divo - Not a huge fan of florid Italian drama, but I'll try it
Endgame - Not Beckett, sadly, but is there room for a buzzy performance?
Everybody's Fine - I can be sweet-talked, if De Niro's really "back"
Fame - I don't much care, but several friends might; I like Naughton
I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell - For fortuitous personal reasons
The Invention of Lying - My only hook was Garner, and she wasn't enough
Jennifer's Body - Sounds like a missed opportunity, if even that
Katyn - Embarrassed to say, it will be my first Wajda
Law Abiding Citizen - Any film with Viola as mayor works for me
Love Happens - I never was eager, considering the titular allusion
The Men Who Stare at Goats - Promise me it's not just A-list smuggery
My One and Only - Renée buzz only lasted 5 secs! Safe to avoid! YAY!
New York, I Love You - Expecting good bits amid a lot of floss
Pandorum - It all rests on the reviews; I'm not hopeful
Paris - Sounds iffy, but Duris and Binoche have sure been on a roll
Pirate Radio/The Boat that Rocked - New title, same lukewarm reviews
Planet 51 - I'm almost sure to skip it, unless someone really goes to bat
Red Cliff - Loved Face/Off, but often bristle at Chinese action epics
The Stepfather - The original's a cult classic, and the trailer is a snooze
The Stoning of Soraya M. - Intriguing, but sounds like rhetoric > substance
Surrogates - Hate to miss a Mostow pic, but this looks so desperate
Trucker - I actually showed up and couldn't make myself stay
The Twilight Saga: New Moon - I haven't so far; why start now?
Women in Trouble - What is this? Is it for real? A real part for Gugino?

Meanwhile, Titles to Catch on DVD
12 - Some Foreign Film nominees really stink, but I'm hopeful
Adventureland - I wasn't prepared for such strong reports from friends
   B - Sober and comical and nostalgic and tough: quite a combo!
American Violet - I was especially sorry to miss this in theaters
   D+ - Depressingly soft-headed and hypocritical; mishandled cast
Anvil! The Story of Anvil - I've only heard affectionate responses
   A– - Could this be the deftest, most rounded film I've seen this fall?
The Beaches of Agnès - Hafta admit, it looked too "cutesy" for me
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) - I'm in it for Kuras but heard few raves
Everlasting Moments - Another film I especially regret missing
   B - A poem in light, good perfs, a bit too self-consciously quaint
Funny People - I only heard bad reviews until too late
   B - A funny, usefully stilted film about Hollywood hating itself
Goodbye, Solo - Is Bahrani the Real Deal people say he is?
   B - Buoyed by its strong sense of place and a gracefully handled finale
Grey Gardens - Sure, it's TV, but I need to have an opinion
   B– - Unexpectedly moving; a welcome antidote to the doc's coldness
The International - Color me shocked, but I keep hearing raves
   C - Bits of flash and punch, but just as often flat-footed
Lake Tahoe - Duck Season was good enough to sell me on the follow-up
   B– - Unabashedly slim, but some nicely wry, succinct observations
Lemon Tree - Hiam Abbass draws raves every time she shows up
   B– - Despite overt bias, conjures estimable feeling and tension
Leonera/Lion's Den - I had no idea this had finally opened
Life Is Hot in Cracktown - High hopes for Kerry Washington
   D+ - A few moments pop, but it's all risibly pedestrian
Medicine for Melancholy - The second coming of love jones?
   B - Tougher and more tender than its slimmish first impression
Orphan - Is this just Joshua again, with anti-Semitic overtones?
   C+ - More sadistic, more cheats, but admirably weird, and Vera's great
Séraphine - I meant to catch this; now the LAFCA is rubbing it in
Spread - Missed in theaters, but like Mackenzie, love Heche
   D+ - Vacuous, show-offy, and erratic, but yay for Heche and that toad
Three Monkeys - Intriguing, though Ceylan and I haven't sparked before
   C+ - Clicks for a while, but awfully overbearing by the end
Tokyo Sonata - Strong buzz in the winter, but it passed me by
Treeless Mountain - A nice change from all the Korean genre stuff
   B - Beautifully lit and empathetic with the kids' POV, if a bit soft
Valentino: The Last Emperor - This sleeper hit is getting me curious
   B– - Glorious clothes, vivid subject, but gauzy and a bit gross
World's Greatest Dad - Goatdog swears by this one, so I'm suddenly curious
   C+ - Thrilling, scabrous fun... till the main plot kicks in


Friday, September 11, 2009

I Can't Do Friday All By Myself... I decided to ease into it with Tyler Perry and his bumptious, earnest, patchy, draggy, and sort of wonderful I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which admittedly makes all kinds of disappointing choices in editing, story structure, match cutting, and character profiling. (We get it - he's perfect, and he's terrible!) There's nothing in the movie to resemble the pleasingly graceful camera movements in last fall's sudsy but delicious Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys, or the impressively pared-down directness of Perry's own performance in that joint, or the consummate candor and luminosity of Alfre Woodard's performance, especially in close-up.

But I'll tell you, I Can Do Bad... still makes for a great kickoff to the weekend. Every critic has got at least a couple of genres that they are willing to indulge, and if you're going to throw this much sisterly charisma and bracing music on the screen, I am going to enjoy myself, even more than during the belly laughs Madea sometimes gets from me when she's threatening to shank some kids. I was hoping that the opening, big-'fro run-through of Aretha's "Rock Steady" really was sung by Taraji P. Henson, who works that multi-threat, Toni Collette-style, funny and crafty and oversized and sympathetic groove in movie after movie (though I think she got Oscar-nommed for one of her weakest performances). Turns out that's steadfast R&B/gospel trouper Cheryl Pepsii Riley doing the actress's vocals, but Henson still lip-synchs the smack out of 'em, and it's a great opening for a movie that gives her plenty of chances to delight in small ways, even if it never goes for broke by really cutting her loose, comically, musically, or emotionally.

Henson was a big enticement behind my purchase of this ticket (she was great in a second-tier role in Family that Preys), but you usually have to pay more than $6 to get two full-length stage recitals apiece from the legendary Gladys Knight and the legend-to-be Mary J. Blige. Knight, in her modest, controlled, but forceful way, tears up a sort of secular spiritual bit called "The Need to Be," and though I wasn't taken with the title number that gets somewhat obligatorily foisted on Blige, watching this woman sing is as electrifying as listening to her. Her whole body becomes this wild muscle, flexing 101% conviction in every phrase of every song. Her sign-off rendition of her own hit "Good Woman Down" is so thumping and kinetic (the stylish turquoise dress doesn't hurt), that she almost literally blows Henson off the stage and makes you wonder if she hasn't earned the lead role in the next Perry production. In future years, we'll be as happy to have Blige recorded on film, doing her magical thing, as we are having Lena Horne and Billie Holliday tucked away into sublime corners of their occasionally lackluster vehicles.

I Can Do Bad All by Myself is, finally, a middling movie, but Perry's protracted attention to these and other musical performances varies the rhythm and dials up the emotional intensity of the film to its incontestable peaks. I stopped even minding about the gratuitous and klutzy flashbacks, which raise questions like, who brings a bag of groceries to work? Meanwhile, the other lead story that ought to grow out of this frustratingly uneven but easily enjoyable soap is the commanding performance by Hope Olaide Wilson as a 16-year-old with a barbed-wire attitude and a tough row to hoe. You can sometimes see Wilson wishing that Perry and her other co-stars would rein things in a little and treat the material as frankly as she's doing, but she isn't being a drama queen. It's a forceful and honest performance, sailing over the hurdle of how to hold our attention and our empathy despite being so sour for almost the full 113-minute running time. Complexions aside, she's a dead ringer for Anna Paquin, and I hope she gets the same kind of professional nurturing and career opportunities.

And speaking of careers, I've already been peppier and more productive this afternoon by having started my Friday with a party instead of ending it with one. Thanks, Tyler, and thank you, ladies! Praise God for long but flexible hours, and TGIF, everybody.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Announcing the Queer Film Society

I am delighted to help spread the word about Chicago's new Queer Film Society, an organization founded earlier this year by Richard Knight of the Windy City Times and Knight at the Movies. Richard and fellow members Hank Sartin of Time Out Chicago, Gregg Shapiro of Chicago Free Press, and Jonathan Lewis and Charlie Shoquist of Gay Chicago felt that local film culture and its audiences would appreciate and benefit from an ongoing network of conversations, screenings, and events that placed queer-targeted releases and queer-appropriated classics in a privileged spotlight, opening up the depth, the history, and the merriment of sexuality and LGBT livelihood as they overlap with cinema. In fact, though the organization is starting and based in Chicago, it has its heart set on bigger, more widely inclusive goals. From the website:

Recognizing the diversity of identities and perspectives that comprise its membership, QFS is committed to showcasing vital films from equally vital, and sometimes widely varied, vantage points. From mainstream to underground and from artist to audience, a distinct and communal sensibility informs the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) cinema experience.

The QFS website endeavors to be a global gathering spot for the reviews and film writing of its membership and other LGBT film critics, historians, artists, and scholars.

The Chicago chapter of the QFS, home base of the Society, endeavors to create a variety of entertaining and educational cinema experiences for both QFS members and Friends of the QFS and hopes, through such events, to inspire the creation of QFS chapters in other cities.

If you live in Chicago, you can already be enjoying these hosted screenings at our beloved Center on Halsted, a QFS co-sponsor: next up are Barbarella on Monday night, and John Waters' Desperate Living the following Monday, the 21st. (I'm already geared up for that one!) QFS will also sponsor events this year at both the Chicago International Film Festival in October and the LGBT Reeling Film Festival in November.

I have recently joined as a sixth member, so watch this space, including the newly dedicated plot on my sidebar, for continued updates about QFS activities. But even more immediately, here are four things you can do to support the Society as it gets on its feet:

• Show your support and add yourself to the mailing list by signing up here as a Friend of the Society, which makes you eligible for several free advance-screenings of queer-targeted movies that are already being orchestrated through the rest of the fall, including the one I saw last night of the Vogue/Anna Wintour documentary The September Issue. Even if you do not live locally but plan to check out the site, or if you wonder about opening your own branch, or if you simply think it's a good thing for QFS to exist and proliferate, become a Friend! It is crucial to developing the organization, persuading distributors, securing venues, and building up $$$.

Attend our events, and tell or bring your friends. Early shows of community support are especially vital, while we're attracting sponsorships and negotiating with studios for exclusive screenings, which have already started to happen.

• If your background and interests suggest that you might be a good fit to join QFS as a full member, or to introduce or respond at a screening, or to host an event in a venue where you have some sway, or to write up QFS in a public forum where you have a voice, etc., etc., please be in touch, either with me or with the current officers on the website. Given the age-old trends of gendered and racial chauvinism in film criticism, we are especially interested in diversifying our membership and hearing from queer film critics, writers, teachers, and professionals who can help remind our audiences that Queer ≠ Gay + White + Male.

• Don't freak out that I mentioned $$$. I don't have a lot of it, either, especially with how depleted people are these days and how many emergencies and justice campaigns are in need of our support. But you'd be surprised how little can be a big help to a non-profit arts initiative like this. What you'd spend on a movie ticket and a pail of Goobers would be a much appreciated boon to QFS. Again, if you're feeling generous (and I hope you are!), be in touch with me or with the current officers.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Damn Basterds Won't Let Me Be...

...and though I have a lot else to get done this weekend and can't afford the time to write or deliver a finished screed, I am finding myself too upset but also too gripped by my response to this movie, and by several other people's responses to this movie, that I can't not write about it. Plus, I figure: what the hey. Tarantino loves chapters. And he's hardly one to balk at breaking his own mammoth pieces into smaller chunks (if only because higher powers force his hand), and hoping nonetheless that people will keep checking in. So, that's how it's going to be.

Chapter 1: Whipped Cream
Chapter 2: Perspective

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

How Low Can I Go?

Lower, possibly, if the sadistic odiousness and smug, heartless flippancy of the whole thing, plus the patent failures of several long and dumbly blocked scenes, and of whole plotlines and entire performances, make me unable to care that Waltz is terrific, that the strüdel scene works, that some of the camera movements in the opening sequence are as arresting as the cackling smoke-face at the end, and that there is a kind of Bonnie and Clyde bravura to the climax of the basement scene. But even in that scene, conviction and verve duke it out with grandiosity and rot and Just, Shut, Up, so much so that I can't tell what finally wins. Much to admire, arguments to be made, lots of smart people who've taken a lot from this movie. But it's a hard, terrorizing, and willfully dumb object, frequently earning as blunt an adjective as "stupid," and the last half-hour could barely stop begging me to despise it. I have begun to comply, though I'm trying, sort of, to resist.

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Friday, September 04, 2009

The Fifties: A 2009 Progress Report

You loved them in 2006, you loved them in 2007, you loved them in 2008, and suddenly, here we are again. Two films earlier than I thought we'd be, however. When I saw, and loved, Roy Andersson's mordantly hysterical and brilliantly staged You, the Living tonight with Goatdog, I figured that after this splendid experience, I would make a point of catching the inevitably discussion-worthy Inglourious Basterds, and the completely untitillating but compulsory Taking Woodstock, and then I'd be good 'n' ready to take this annual stroll through the best of what I've seen so far—which, if you're joining for the first time, is published every year after I've caught my 50th U.S. commercial release. But then, I noticed that two films I saw at last April's Nashville Film Festival, Giancarlo Esposito's disappointingly clunky directing debut Gospel Hill and Ondi Timoner's intriguingly "edgy" but finally off-putting documentary We Live in Public, had suddenly opened in New York City. So we've got our customary tally of 50, without a basterd or a hippie in sight.

I admit that I'm not that sad to be skipping forward: I will enjoy playing my exact responses to Basterds and Woodstock a little closer to the vest once I've actually seen them, so that my thoughts are fresher at year's end... and my reason for selecting and archiving "The Fifties" every year is to underscore some great filmmaking from the months of the year that are mercifully light on huge headline-grabbers and awards-PR campaigns, though this also means that many of my anointees are likely to be crowded out of the spotlight, even my own spotlight, once "Best Of" lists and ballots actually do start circulating in January December the morning after Veteran's Day.

Can we all repeat in unison? It is a lazy, Hollywood-centric, studio-driven myth that all the good movies open in the fall and at the holidays. If you're tempted to believe this—and you hold a job and inhabit a city that affords you wider options—you aren't making enough time for the foreign films, past festival winners, and documentaries that are distributed herky-jerky all over the calendar, and you might not be giving due credit to what you have seen and enjoyed in the winter, spring, and summer, while somehow locking into the presumption that everything good is still to come. When I personally look at the fall, I don't get the sense of a huge mountain of treats in the offing, so all the more reason to celebrate what we've got so far... and if you missed 'em, look for 'em! And if I pass on what you thought were some shoo-ins, I'm not trying to be a jerk. I just don't get the fuss.

(P.S. I love my commenters! Even more than usual, the ideas and suggestions in every part of this post have been tested for the better and made more interesting by the contributions of the commenters. Make sure to read them!)

(P.P.S. For a U.K. take on the best of the year up till now, taking a different slate of releases and dates into account, check out Tim's new list.)

The Hurt Locker - The studio serves gourmet, and you chow down on Spam? Buy a ticket!
Julia - Erick Zonca takes huge risks in writing and direction, with stunning payoffs
The Limits of Control - An uneven auteur yields rich, weird, fascinating minimalism
Lorna's Silence - A taut, nuanced story rendered with typical Dardenne eloquence
You, the Living - Like an uproarious trompe-l'oeil exhibit in a Nordic purgatory
(Count the B+'s, and you can see that my Top 10 would so far be filled out with the sprawling but austere Gomorrah, the ingeniously acted and scripted In the Loop, the boldly heightened Sin Nombre, the ruefully elegant Summer Hours, and the vibrantly schizoid Thirst. Though if Prodigal Sons eventually scores a theatrical release, it will enter near the top. What's going on with this movie?)

Roy Andersson, You, the Living
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Lorna's Silence
Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control
Erick Zonca, Julia
(No cutesy exceptions: the five best films derive from the five most singular, mature, and risk-taking exercises in direction. For more on "cutesy," see the Comments.)

Amy Adams, Sunshine Cleaning - Connects with multiple sides, peppy and grim, of her character
Arta Dobroshi, Lorna's Silence - An admirable feat of "being, not acting" acting
Mimi Kennedy, In the Loop - One of the deftest and smartest of multiple, delicious leads
Kim Ok-vin, Thirst - Works overtime to make Thirst hang together; does so with fire and cool
Tilda Swinton, Julia - If anyone touches her in '09, I'll be floored
(Fête Meryl all you want, and yep, she's fun; but I didn't really buy this as more than a broad, loving romp in a simple role. This category changed after the first comment; see below.)

Peter Capaldi, In the Loop - Showy lines, yes, but he grounds them in a sharp, shifting character
Russell Crowe, State of Play - That rarest of breeds, a plausible Hollywood journalist
Robert Downey, Jr., The Soloist - Blends his rascally tics into a lively, believable portrait of emotional aloofness
Mark Duplass, Humpday - Sells a moribund premise with his razor precision on each line and look
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker - A fully integrated, deep, arrogant, no-fat picture of a 21st-century antihero
(How surprising that there are twice as many strong candidates, including almost-as-good costars Anthony Mackie in Locker, Jamie Foxx in Soloist, and Tom Hollander and Chris Addison in Loop, plus spry Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man, beleaguered Sharlto Copley in District 9, and haunted Ciro Patrone in Gomorrah)

The Hurt Locker - "Gets" every aesthetic and POV that every other Iraq movie tried for, and gets them all
Julia - A restless symphony of unease and frightening, blood-pumping, reckless catharsis
The Limits of Control - Intense seductions of color, geometry, and depth, with witty allusions
Sin Nombre - A rich chromatic experience that never abandons the characters or their worldview
Thirst - A plethora of tricks, color schemes, rapid movements, and ostentatious frames, in a good way

Drag Me to Hell - With minor caveats, a flawless hold on pace and tone
The Hurt Locker - Exquisite action and suspense, with character notes and a refusal of clichéd cutaways
Julia - Careful balance of dreadful accumulation and right-off-the-bat lunacy; engrossing
The Limits of Control - It's all in the title: dilates scenes to just the right extreme, whether of dry absurdism, or real menace, or environmental immersion
Lorna's Silence - Balances an unusually plotty, talking-pointish script with needful intervals of social atmosphere and long, well-calibrated takes

Gomorrah - A wealth of details, with just enough connecting threads
In the Loop - Ingenious construction outshines even memorable invective
Lorna's Silence - Judicious pacing of revelations, plausible pile-up of conflicts
The Soloist - Refuses the tempting studio clean-up on several messy points
Summer Hours - Ideal, miniaturist moments with artfully ambiguous gaps

Anna Chlumsky, In the Loop - An unlikely but certain bid for smart roles by a onetime child star; tastily comic yet totally true
Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies - Makes everything one could out of a stunted part and plotline
Alycia Delmore, Humpday - A tart, likable read on the girlfriend everyone over- and under-estimates
Gina McKee, In the Loop - Devoted but disdainful; enjoys the wreck everyone makes when they drop her
Naturi Naughton, Notorious - A fierce, fully committed take on L'il Kim, pulling a great "f*** you" diva moment hurling "Get Money" at B.I.G.

Jason Clarke, Public Enemies - Self-assured reticence and charisma, as Dillinger's most trusted pal
Steve Coogan, In the Loop - Works perfect, angry, funny, righteous magic at the sidelines
Fabrizio Rongione, Lorna's Silence - Implies an entrancing spin-off beyond this movie, and downplays the "villain" notes
Saul Rubinek, Julia - Hard to imagine a surer spin on the infatuated but exasperated enabler
Stanley Tucci, Julie & Julia - Warm and generous, but also knows how even the most loving, candid couples subtly maneuver with each other

Sugar and Revanche

The Brothers Bloom, Moon, Of Time and the City, Ponyo, Star Trek, and Up

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