Friday, October 29, 2010

Further into 1947

I loved having the Chicago Film Festival to break up my days of book writing and revising, and now that it's concluded, I've been running an unofficial festival of my own of the movies of 1947. I tend to do this when I've finished re-screening the Best Picture victors that Nathaniel, Mike, and I will be discussing in our approaching installment of the ...Outside In series, and I'm curious to flesh out my sense of the annual crops from which Oscar anointed his favorite. I've changed my ideas about Gentleman's Agreement in certain ways since the last time I saw it, so I'm not spoiling the conversation we three musketeers will eventually have when I say that, all the same, it's an uninspiring winner. And already I've made thrilling dates with much-loved or at least widely admired classics that I'd never seen (Out of the Past, Kiss of Death, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Best Picture nominee Crossfire), exciting short films from the comically animated to the darkly lyric (Tweetie Pie, Le tempestaire), and less familiar outings from renowned directors (Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, Kazan's Boomerang!). I've also revisited some movies I saw so far back in my TCM-watching and VHS-renting days that they were in many ways new to me, and almost always delightful larks: The Bishop's Wife, The Farmer's Daughter, and especially the delicious if stylistically rudimentary The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, the year's second-biggest commercial blockbuster, starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Temple on lustrous comic form and derived from an Oscar-winning script by Sidney Sheldon.

What I have not done is revisit the two huge auteurist touchstones from 1947, Orson Welles's deeply disorienting Lady from Shanghai and Charlie Chaplin's rather broad and scabrously off-putting Monsieur Verdoux, which sprang from an idea by Welles and many, many people regard as a masterwork. I've screened them both in big-screen restored prints, recently enough to at least trust my basic distaste for both, and though I probably owe it to the geniuses behind each of them to take another stab at some point, I am so not up for it right now.

But what should I be up for? I love reader recommendations in cases like these, either because you've already seen some of the films I'm still anticipating or because something jumps off my pre-selected docket that sounds as tantalizing to you, sight unseen, as it does to me. Major actorly showcases with durable fan bases, like Carol Reed's Odd Man Out with James Mason, or Robert Rossen's Body and Soul with John Garfield? Anthony Mann double-feature Railroaded! and T-Men? Relative obscurities by Ozu (Record of a Tenement Gentleman) and Kurosawa (One Wonderful Sunday), and better-known but seemingly minor work by Sirk (Lured), Leisen (Golden Earrings), and Renoir (The Woman on the Beach - check!)? Black-cast musicals Juke Joint, New Orleans, with its much-touted Billie Holliday cameo, and the enticingly named Boy! What a Girl!? The brooding darkness of Brute Force, Nightmare Alley, or Quai des Orfèvres? Actressy vehicles for Joan Crawford (Daisy Kenyon) and, in a rare leading role, Teresa Wright (Pursued)? Actor-director Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, a longtime pet of film theorists? (His Mexican noir Ride the Pink Horse is an under-heralded gem of the same year.) British cult favorite Brighton Rock, apparently ruined by the Rowan Joffe remake now completing its global festival tour? Box-office bonanzas Forever Amber, Welcome Stranger, Unconquered, Life with Father, and The Egg and I, the latter two with Oscar nods for acting? Notorious MGM boondoggle Desire Me, the Greer Garson vehicle from which George Cukor fought to efface his name? The movie Cukor made that year that he actually liked, as did AMPAS, was the Othello-obsessed thriller A Double Life, probably due for a rewatch. And speaking one last time of the Academy, what about inaugural Academy anointee for Best Foreign Language Film Monsieur Vincent? The Katharine Hepburn twofer of Sea of Grass (another Elia Kazan project) and Song of Love (a dread composer biopic), which even I, as a lifelong devotée, have thus far stayed away from? What other titles am I not clocking at all, though I should?

I probably have room between now and November to absorb three or four more of the above. If you were setting my agenda, what would you pick? Fire away in the comments, and we'll see if we can reach a gentle(wo)man's agreement, or whether we get stuck in a crossfire.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Night of the Hunter

Not only am I apparently over-challenged to join Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series by the posted deadlines, but most of us who participate continually moan about how hard it is to winnow down to just one shot, even though this is the whole point of the exercise. At least with Showgirls I knew right where to go, but I kept sneaking in runners-up for Angels in America and Requiem for a Dream. At least I committed to a favorite in each case.

This time I'm cheating a little more, because the more deadline-savvy participants have already revealed their choices, and I couldn't help looking at their entries before I skimmed back through the movie. I love the peekaboo lighting trick that director Charles Laughton and legendary d.p. Stanley Cortez pull off with the candle and the window screen, while feisty Lillian Gish is keeping vigil with her shotgun, guarding her new wards from burly, devilish, implacable Robert Mitchum:

Jose likes this shot, too, so even if I would have picked it as my favorite (and I might have), I'll leave it aside for now.

I'm pretty sure my choice would actually have been "Not Quite Still Life, With Frog," one of several storybook tableaux featuring uncanny animal bystanders, during the kids' spooky flight down the river:

I just adore the cryptic, animist flavor of this sequence, which is shimmery and beautiful, but with the lenses pushing the frogs and the bunnies and the spiderwebs so insistently into the foreground that the overall effect is not entirely reassuring. Laughton and Cortez avoid telegraphing in any obvious way that the kids are absconding to a safer haven, or that having (barely) evaded the mad preacher's grasp has necessarily made life easy. To confess fully, however, I partly love the image because without it, and without the whole river-flight sequence, I don't know if Michel Gondry and Björk would have dreamt up her "Human Behaviour" video, and that would have been a great loss to humanity.

I also don't see how Martin Scorsese would have arrived at many of the images he burned into my brain in Cape Fear without Harry Powell to serve as Max Cady's stauncher, more barrel-chested grandpappy, always surreally lurking around the perimeter of the house he is haunting:

And I'm grateful for so many images that other Hit Me With Your Best Shot commentators singled out:

I'm especially fond of the top left image because I find it so breathtaking that Laughton and Cortez can orchestrate such an unbelievably strong, remarkably sustained, concertedly unrealistic look for their movie, and still accommodate so complete a departure from their template as these quick inserts of the (perpetually) drowned Shelley Winters. The light gray palette and minimal chromatic contrast, the diagonal angles, the unsettling motion of the formidably static camera, the flowing undulations of the seaweeds: Shelley hasn't just died, she's sunk to the bottom of a completely different filmic universe. From whose perspective—psychic or imaginative, rather than literal—could this shot possibly derive? I can't imagine the kids having this particular vision of their late Mom, though I'm not sure the rest of the movie exemplifies the kids' vision, either. Of all the times Shelley obligingly drowned on screen, this one's my favorite.

I also love the top-right image because even though the house towers over Mitchum's Harry, a fact that is only accentuated by the low angle of the camera, and even though the domicile all but crowds the human menace out of the frame, the compressed depth of field and the minimal shadowing everywhere except the front door area makes that house look awfully flimsy. Whereas, introducing a man-shaped black hole into the shot, resting with arrogant, Hud-like indolence against that crooked little tree, Harry seems as though he could raze the whole edifice in the time it takes to say "Leaning on the everlasting arms."

A few more favorites, since this is the end of the series' first season, and it's such a visually rich film:

Adore this opening aerial shot. Nothing's even happened yet, and already the kids of the world are sprinting for cover as though this is Cloverfield.

Like a re-write of the final shot of Shane, except this isn't about watching a boy's hero riding off toward the horizon, but watching a boy watch his father be apprehended by police, as though he's witnessing this awful trauma but also experiencing it as a sort of out-of-body experience. Again, the lensing and the bare minimum of shadow make it look as though Billy is standing before a screen painting of his father's arrest rather than implicating him spatially in the scene, though the advance of all those cops is undisguisably harrowing, and the implied sightline is devastatingly direct. Poor kid. His dad already feels so close and yet so far away.

Bless Laughton and Mitchum for allowing Harry some wit, and the film its own occasional, obsidian sense of humor. The actor popping his head down from the top bunk when we aren't necessarily expecting him to be a presence in the scene is even more chuckle-worthy as a graphic impression than it is unsettling as a certain pretext for nefarious behavior. This shot, too, gets a pointed reprise in Scorsese's Cape Fear. (Remember that Mitchum played the original Max Cady, too.)

One of the few close-ups I've ever seen of Mitchum where he almost looks conventionally handsome, and frankly pretty sexy. Screening Out of the Past and Crossfire yesterday, I was thinking of how carnally charismatic Mitchum succeeds in being without quite qualifying as handsome. He's shaped like a keg of ale, with an inverted pyramid or a funnel for a head, his brow much wider in circumference than his jaw, and his facial features stretched in a strange, triangular way like a drawing on a balloon, cinched with a knot at the bottom. It's a great face for movies, but an odd one, and only great because Mitchum makes it work as brilliantly as he does. But in this shot, he's much more straightforwardly attractive, and it makes Shelley Winters's Willa Harper make a little more sense in the way she breathlessly flings herself at him. Which, speaking of... there a more devastating shot of spousal alienation in movies, especially on a wedding night, especially when we're expecting, as Willa obviously is, that Harry will be a force to be reckoned with in bed? Poor gal, even before she winds up in the drink, having handed her kids over to the monster.

And is there a more pitiable irony in movies than the fact that Billy can't help but react to the pitiful spectacle of terrible, terrorizing Harry being taken down like some petty vagrant, as though it's a replay of his Dad's demise—that he instinctively reaches out to his most fiendishly devoted antagonist, even permitting himself the emotional release that he did not allow at the moment of the initial wound?

How dear and how insightful, then, of Lillian Gish's Rachel to help Billy get over his father by allowing him to feel just a little bit like the man of her house, afforded the privilege of sleeping at her feet while the rest of the kids are locked up behind them. Is there a bit of the overzealous warden, though, in the way Rachel "protects" her charges? Is it odd that she sometimes looks more like ranch-hand of the kids than their den-mother caretaker, with her chickens penned inside her little coop, and with her trusty dog, subservient and silent, sleeping at her feet? She's a more than obvious Force of Good, but even Good can look a little strange, especially when you're dreaming. Sort of. Maybe.

(Note that all of these shots will luster even more once the Criterion DVD bows in the U.S. on November 16, in the 1.66:1 aspect that Laughton intended, and which the MGM disc compresses into Academy ratio.)

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, October 23, 2010

October Oscar Nomination Predix

Colin and Helena probably don't need to look quite so apprehensive about the names written on that sheet. I'm guessing theirs are both on it, and Colin's already got a winner's asterisk next to his. But since I'm feeling in a weirdly predictive post-midnight mood, here's the only stab I'm taking at Oscar nomination predictions until January rolls around.

BEST PICTURE 127 Hours, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, Love & Other Drugs, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, The Way Back, Winter's Bone
Alternates: Made in Dagenham, Another Year, The Fighter, True Grit

BEST DIRECTOR Danny Boyle (127 Hours), David Fincher (The Social Network), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), Christopher Nolan (Inception), Peter Weir (The Way Back)
Alternates: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), Edward Zwick (Love & Other Drugs), Ben Affleck (The Town)

BEST ACTRESS Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right), Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
Alternates: Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Sally Hawkins (Made in Dagenham), Lesley Manville (Another Year), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

BEST ACTOR Javier Bardem (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours), Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)
Alternates: Robert Duvall (Get Low), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love & Other Drugs), Paul Giamatti (Barney's Version), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), Lesley Manville (Another Year), Miranda Richardson (Made in Dagenham), Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom), Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)
Alternates: Kristin Scott Thomas (Nowhere Boy), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Kimberly Elise (For Colored Girls), Rebecca Hall (The Town)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Jeremy Renner (The Town), Sam Rockwell (Conviction), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
Alternates: Christian Bale (The Fighter), Colin Farrell (The Way Back), Ed Harris (The Way Back), Dustin Hoffman (Barney's Version)

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spirit Day: In Support of LGBT Youth

I'm not even sure if "Spirit Day" is the official name for today's outpouring of mourning for the five recent and highly publicized suicides by LGBT youth, all of them tormented by homophobic bullying and very public persecution. But somehow, in the lavender ether of the internet, I have gleaned that we are all meant to wear purple today, and tint our cyberimages purple, to let people know that we care. This, I am only too happy to do, but since fiddling with the "Color Balance" feature on a piece of graphics software so old you would laugh if I named it doesn't quite feel like enough, allow me just to add –

I am extremely fortunate to say that I was never bullied, much less violently, for any aspect of how people read my sex, gender, or sexuality, even though I know there were people reading me as gay before I did. Watching some of the testimonies on the "It Gets Better" Page on YouTube only reinforces how lucky I am in this respect. And I was hardly mainstreaming my gender or opting for deep cover during those years, not least because I wouldn't really have known what I was "covering." I effused about actresses as much then as I do now. I walked down the hallways of school belting Whitney like an idiot. I sucked at sports and wrote a lot of (bad) poetry. My groups of friends were almost exclusively female. A 9th-grade English teacher caught me craning my neck during That Scene of the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. You know, while he walks to the window. My 11th-grade English teacher gave me stern, somewhat bemused, but understanding looks whenever she saw me gazing like a fool at the back of the head of the very cute and charming guy who sat in front of me. That same year, in a high-school pageant for which I was voted to participate—catapulted unexpectedly into this popularity contest on a surge of Nerd Voting (nerds unite!), at the controversial expense of some of the jocks who actively campaigned for this annual event—I offered, for my talent portion, a full-on drag routine to Boy George singing "The Crying Game." The castle walls of heterosexuality did not exactly quake in the face of my routine. Sometimes we queers, especially the white, male, middle-class ones, can get a little precious about thinking that every sissy or saucy thing we ever did struck a giant blow for The Cause. Still, I wouldn't say it was the safe option. I wonder if anyone I went to high school with, including me, even knew what a drag show was in 1994, and I am baffled that I went ahead with it, not knowing at all how people would react. I just couldn't think of anything else to perform and thought it would be fun.

I have to say, at risk of flaunting my good fortune, all those varsity football guys and Prom King types I was suddenly thrust into company with were nothing but nice and jovial and back-slappy during our rehearsals, while I learned to walk in heels and they practiced whatever skits they'd worked up. (The only one I remember concerned sleeping with a girl and drinking a six-pack of beer, and I guarantee my 16-year-old self found his routine at least as alien as he probably found my wig and rhinestone clip-ons.) I add this detail for three reasons. One is that I sometimes want to reach out to the LGBT kids who actually enjoyed high school and say that that's okay, too—just recognize, as I did and do, your incredible good fortune! Another is to say that there are lots of kind people in the world, many of them wearing football jerseys and revering Animal House like a religious scroll. Struggling gay kids should know that it's not only from other LGBT folks that they'll eventually receive friendship and support, no matter what their present antagonists look like. Don't let the bullies or haters currently in your midst mislead you into forming your own sense of entire categories of people who are never to be trusted. Maybe I'm also addressing some other kids, too, with these comments: I know from experience that you can be the captain of the football team or voted Best Looking in the yearbook or be devout in your faith and even be uncomfortable with some of the things in your world without being a jerk, much less a hooligan or an oppressor. There are a million ways to be Homecoming Queen or Big Man on Campus or a hero to your buddies or a member of your church, just like there are a million ways to be gay. Let's everyone try to avoid the small fraction of ways to be any of these things that turn you into a bully or a snob or a bigot or a creep.

Most importantly, though, I'm trying to say this: as much as I marvel at all the LGBT role models and Gay-Straight Alliances and out activists and queer entertainment options and pre-college romantic relationships that exist for today's queer high schoolers—and which I absolutely didn't have, and of which people older than I am had even fewer—my heart sometimes goes out to today's LGBT youth for, ironically, these same reasons. The increased visibility of gays, lesbians, and transgenders, and the chance to identify yourself or identify others at very young ages within those terms, can have a really vicious kickback. I wonder if I would have had a harder time in high school if more of my peers had really been thinking all that much about homosexuality, and whether they were "for" or "against" it, and who in their vicinity might have stuck out as a tempting emblem, or a scapegoat. I'm speaking to my age bracket and older right here: sometimes it's easy for us 100-year-old queens to think today's young-duckling queers have got it made, at least by comparison. We need to remember how hard it is (and I'm reminding myself here, too) to come out and fit in even if you're not surrounded by overt aggression. And we also need to know that with all these new privileges have come lots of new pressures, and some people get swatted by the pressures without enjoying any access at all to the privileges.

I know of one other guy and one girl from my senior class who have come out since I graduated high school in 1995, in a cohort of nearly 400 students. There must be more, but since I don't go to reunions, I don't know. On both occasions I have learned about classmates who have come out (one of them a very good friend, with whom I'm barely now in touch), I have felt a huge wave of surprise, which is crazy. I should be surprised that I only know of two! But for me to be this taken aback, even now, only signals how not on the radar non-straight sexualities were for most of my high-school classmates. That probably caused some suffering for people who felt totally lonely, totally unrecognized, totally lacking in a vocabulary or a context for their own feelings. But at the same time, few people were walking around with a police-lamp looking for a gay kid or a butch or a flamer to antagonize. Whether because of the time or the place or the people, there just wasn't nearly as much of this happening as I gather there was and is in so many other high schools... though I don't mean to imply there was none. Our lesbian gym teacher, who was absent from school the day of a major LGBT Rights rally in nearby Washington, got hit with some gross epithets, sometimes to her face. A handsome guy and National Honor Society member whom I literally never met was transferred out of our school during sophomore year by his parents, because someone had written an article in an underground newspaper calling him a "cocksucker," and, from what I gather, offering highly ornate verbal portraits of him engaged in this felonious pastime.

But here I'm writing about myself and my experiences when I meant to write more directly to you, imaginary lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered reader—or to any imaginary reader, anyone who wants to know what you or someone you know might be feeling as they advance into a sense of sexuality that is awfully hard to know how to manage, at least at first, even without the additional and vicious threats of bullies and hate-mongers. And in that category, I am tempted to include anyone from teachers to parents to community leaders to school administrators to politicians who won't say or do anything about acts of violence or intimidation transpiring in their midst. Sometimes the bullying is internal, and I urge you so strongly against this: the last enemy anyone needs is themselves, not least because they're the hardest enemies to get away from. I am trying to be honest enough to say how strongly I empathize with you and how often I think about you even though I didn't exactly walk in the same shoes as all of you—not even when I was wearing high-heeled pumps and fishnets in front of the whole school and tossing my lollipop into the audience. I've been through plenty, have seen a lot more, and have read and heard about still more than that. I worked for three years as a hotline counselor. I can understand the feelings and the pressures, though if one of you bullied lesbians or transgenders or gay kids were to say to me, "You can't really know without having gone through what I go through," I would respect you enough to say yes, you are right, and ask you to tell me what it's like for you.

The official rallying cry this week has been "It Gets Better!" and I'm of two minds about this. Part of me wants to say, it does and it doesn't. Mostly it does, but it's not always a consistent upswing, and in general it really depends on almost everything that life always depends on. More LGBT visibility, politics, and action means more power and more peers and more love for you, which counts for a lot. But in some cases they unwittingly entail more pressures and more danger. As a certain image of homosexuality (often white, often male, almost always upper- or middle-class) becomes more "normal" anywhere in this country, there's usually some other group, even some populace within the LGBTQ umbrella, who gets stigmatized with new fervor as the bad queers, or the people it's safer to pick on, or to try to silence.

Some queers need hope, some need love, some need power, some need a job, some need medicine, some need basic acknowledgment from fellow queers. Lots of people need all of these things. I read last week that one in three black men who has sex with other men in Washington, DC, is statistically likely to be HIV-positive. If that's the community you're already in or growing into (and I wish we all felt it to be part of our whole community, to at least some broad degree), then that is a really, really tough row to hoe. You might not give a damn about Brokeback Mountain or the right to get married. My purple-tinted Profile Picture, or anyone's, is unlikely to count for anything, especially if you never see them.

I wonder what Tyler Clementi needed to hear after he found out what his roommate had done, found out in what way his privacy had been exposed to the world. I wonder if any of what I'm saying today, or what anyone is saying today, would have assuaged him in what was surely a moment of profound mortification. It's so crucial that we reach out to LGBTQ kids, but I hope we think of ways to reach out pre-emptively, too, to the people who are most at risk of becoming their antagonists and attackers. (Sadly, Rutgers was in the middle of trying to do just that, in the week that Tyler died.)

Then again, the fact that the media now reports these kinds of news, ideas, and terrible tragedies, and that I can openly post a blog entry about it, and I can expect sympathetic readers to take note of them and think about them and maybe even respond—that's huge. Life is tough, and it's tough in different ways—sometimes more difficult ways—if you're transgendered, or bisexual, or gay, or intersexed, or lesbian. But to have a partner, a circle of friends, a circle of co-workers every single one of whom knows I'm not straight, a Web-based network of people I read and admire, and a country that's as far along as it is in respecting its LGBTQ citizens, though not nearly far enough: all of that constitutes a tremendous gift in my life that I didn't know I would have when I was younger. I bitch plenty with my friends, gay and straight alike, about everything I just mentioned, but I've got the friends, and I've got the life. Clearly, a lot of LGBT kids need to hear that, and to know that it's much closer to being within their grasp than they might think. It's a climactic refrain in my and everybody's favorite gay play, Angels in America: "More life."

And there's the catch. There's the reason why, despite my concern that "It Gets Better!" could unwittingly conceal some of what might be tricky or hard about your burgeoning queer adulthood, I nonetheless enthusiastically agree: It does get better. Even if it was never that bad, it still gets better! I am so blessed that I never thought there was anything wrong with me for being bi or gay, and that even settling on one of those terms doesn't even feel important to me now, when I once thought my whole world hung in that very balance. I didn't assume I would be unhappy, but what I didn't know is that being gay (the easiest shorthand) would become one of the very sources of my happiness. Even at my most optimistic, near the end of high school or in college, even as I accepted that I wasn't straight and refused to give myself a hard time about that, I think I instinctively felt it would be a hardship I would manage—a fair burden for a life that frankly hadn't been saddled with all that many, like having a disability so slight that some people wouldn't even notice it, or having a latent health condition that wouldn't flare up if I were responsible about monitoring it. That's probably what I thought, and it's so off the mark of what has actually happened. Being queer is an absolute source of joy to me.

I thought when I was really young, that if I were gay, as I secretly secretly secretly suspected I might be, I would still be okay, but I might not ever meet another person like me. Do kids today, after Ellen and Will & Grace and Glee, still worry about that? Not only do I know more LGBTQ people than I can count, I find them to be, on the average, remarkably generous people, open-minded about all kinds of things. "We" are not any one way—I'm talking about a huge swath of people here, thank goodness—but on the whole, the kind of thoughtfulness, humor, compassion, self-reflection, and principled living I see among my LGBT friends and acquaintances sets a hugely high standard that I love aspiring to. Coming to grips with yourself is tough, especially if you're simultaneously dealing with hostility from the outside or the inside or both. However, it's also a way to find out who you are, and to grow up into an adult with a clear, sturdy self-identity. Like anything that's tough at the start, it eventually makes you stronger. Like anything you have to put some work into, the fruits of your labor get repaid twofold, at least.

If you're young and stigmatized, bullied, suspected, jeered, unprotected, or unloved, you probably feel a huge, huge weight on your shoulders, your back, your heart. It can feel like no one will ever take it off of you. And then you meet huge groups of people, and you really, finally, fully meet yourself, and with all of those people putting their two hands under the weight, it gets lightened, maybe even lifted off entirely. Sometimes this can even feel bizarrely easy, if only compared to what you might have expected. Though I spend a lot less time at the gym than some of The Gays (read: no time at all), I do understand the principle: working against a weight endows you with muscle. You have to break that muscle down in order to build it back up, stronger and tougher and more resilient than before. It gets bigger. It gets more flexible. It can more easily lend its power and support to someone else. It gets better.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Centerpiece Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is not the Centerpiece Selection for this year's Chicago International Film Festival. That one involves James Franco cutting his own arm off, and it's starting any minute now, playing to an audience that doesn't include me. I'll wait to experience Danny Boyle's amped-up colors and attention-deficient edits when everyone else does. But I'm calling this full review of Black Swan my own "Centerpiece" for this year's CIFF because it was by far the quickest title to sell out (implying feverish anticipation, and hopefully an interested audience for this piece!), because sorting through what "grabbed" me in my seat and what rankled me in my mind took some doing, and because I'm not sure I'll manage another essay of equal length before the festival wraps up in about a week.

Short version, for those of you avoiding "spoilers" by staying away from long reviews: Black Swan is easy and in many ways gratifying to enjoy in a pulse-quickening way. But in most respects, it plays to me like a real retreat in layering, empathy, and ambition, compared to Aronofsky's two most recent films. The sound design feels over-worked and the performances under-conditioned, particularly in the key area of dance. Some viewers won't mind and may even relish Aronofsky sleek extrapolation of Swan Lake's stark white/black oppositions and fascination with doubling; others will think he could have brought a much more nuanced structure to this haunted house without violating the obvious register of sinister fairy tale. I think it's a good film (remember, for me, B– really is slightly above average), but I feel disappointed all the same.

That's all I'll say about that if you want to hold out till you've formed your own opinion, in or around early December. But if you've already seen the movie, or you just can't wait to read another take, here you go.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 11, 2010

Monday Reviews: The Housemaid

Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid comes teasingly close to adequate pulp, but by around the halfway point, I lost my patience with it. It's not a bad movie so much as an overweening and frankly annoying one, which is not a critical vocabulary I really like to privilege, but there you are. I'm a little worried that this sense of annoyance hangs too heavily over the full review I'm now posting, possibly because I started the review a week ago, the day I saw The Housemaid, and am finishing it now as a way to tie off a loose end, not because it's anywhere close to the group of movies I'm feeling most eager to write about at present. Especially having just seen so many doozies. So, I'll try to get to more of those this week.

Meanwhile, if you saw more in Im Sang-soo's stylistically showy sudser than I did—a worthier, high-gloss retread of inherited material than Egoyan's Chloe was, but tacky and desperate enough, by the end, to call the comparison to mind—I hope you'll let me know in the comments.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Best Pictures: The Best Years of Our Lives and Driving Miss Daisy

No time to write a snappy post, not when I've got a highly divisive movie about a belligerent, misogynist multiple amputee to head off to, and then thoughts to share with strangers, in a bowling alley, with a bar, about "Sex on Screen." As I annually repeat, it's so lovely of Chicago to throw me this festival as a birthday present every year, but this really is a new way to party.

Meanwhile, my present back to you, in cahoots with Nathaniel and that recently reactivated review-writing supermachine Mike, aka Goatdog, is our latest installment of the popular Best Pictures from the Outside In series. We love having these conversations, and we especially love that the comments are always so engaging and detailed and rich and on-point. Jump on in! Especially because the Wyler, at least, is one of the greatest movies Oscar ever rewarded. And 1 out of 2 ain't bad. Pretend it's baseball.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, October 08, 2010

CIFF Reviews: Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya; also, Sasha

Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman's frisky, earnest, hilarious, eye-rolling, and eye-opening documentary Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya only plays the 46th Chicago International Film Festival tonight and tomorrow, and I think it deserves a strong audience, though no one under 18 will be admitted. Given my imagined readership for this blog, I doubt this poses a problem to any of you. My full review is here. I was less taken with the German-Montenegrin coming-out drama Sasha, but as I say in my review of that one, the clearly extant audience for pathos-inflected, light-comic gay movies will very likely enjoy it. I wanted more formal and storytelling ambition and fewer narrative strands tied up so neatly, but many moviegoers have exactly the opposite tastes. Chacun à son CIFF. Sasha's two play dates are Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, if you aren't following my Twitter page, I just want to underscore how much I loved the French, girl-centered, coming-of-age drama Love Like Poison, which made use of that haunting Belgian-choir cover of "Creep" before the Social Network trailer did, and which also got a strong, early notice from Bill Stamets in the Chicago Sun-Times. Tickets to that one should be no problem to buy, unlike the situation with the delectable Certified Copy and the mystifying but must-see Uncle Boonmee, which are already sold out on all dates. Among the less high-profile movies, it's definitely my pick of the festival so far.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Requiem for a Dream

I've had to leave myself out of Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series lately, but amidst a regular surge of gratitude that Nathaniel is in the world (and on the web), and amidst an equally regular moment of feeling stuck on a transition in what I'm writing, and amidst a curiosity to sit through fast-forward through Requiem for a Dream in advance of seeing Black Swan next week, I'm darting in to name some of my favorite images in Aronofsky's widely worshiped second movie. (Nathaniel's Requiem entry, including links to other bloggers' contributions, is here.)

Favorite Shot, Just for What It Is:

The monochromatic spectrum of this very early shot is closer than the ostentatious Requiem almost ever gets to the comparatively modest templates of Pi, though the salmon-violet hue helps to make it softer than anything I remember from Pi. Yes, I just used the word "soft" in relation to this film, however qualifiedly so! Some of Requiem's big set-pieces do move me, or at least "get" me, and a lot of others just feel irretrievably show-offy for a director thinking too overtly about bold presentation, in a way that treads too far into dehumanizing the characters. By contrast, this shot, which is lovely but also a little dingy, and captures the characters doing something totally pathetic but poetically incongruous with where they are, suggests a more direct, ground-level, parallel-universe version of Requiem for a Dream that I enjoy imagining. I feel sorry for these guys, I have a good and frankly judgmental guess about what they're up to, and I find myself thinking about addiction from an unexpected angle, tinged with absurdity and a certain understatement (maybe not total understatement) instead of just pummeling relentlessness. You still see how much Aronofsky loves his symmetrical compositions, especially when there's a circle he wants to nail into the middle of the frame. But I like the tension between the buggy, diagonal angle, the lopsided weight of the landscape from left to right, and the blown-out sun presiding so bleakly and centrally over the stupid, sad errand of this burned-out son.

Favorite Shot, Very Close Runner-Up:

Often Requiem seems unduly repetitive and heavy-handed in saying, "Do you understand that [whatever], too, is a form of addiction?" But I like the looser, funnier, nonetheless sad way in which Sara Goldfarb is obviously addicted to her son Harry. She leaps at him with the incessant, incorrigible abandon of a compulsive gobbler, but it's a merrier kind of addiction than we see elsewhere in the film. She makes me laugh, with her line readings and her herky-jerky movements, even though there are dark shades underneath both, and I do find Ellen a little intense in this performance. But if you freeze the frame, look how scarily she's swooping in on him, coming to get him, the way her refrigerator will later try to gobble her. In fact, she's white and orange, just like the carnivorous fridge. But how can you not also feel sorry for Sara? Observe how, the closer you get to her side of the frame, the whole world dissolves into empty nothing.

A Shot I Love, But Mostly Down to Foley and Editing:

Again, the movie plugs some humor into its day-to-day grind, before we hit the all-out wall of despair that we surmise is coming. Has the annoying betrayal of a responsible, scaled-down meal that fails utterly to fill you up ever been hit home so simply? This resembles a Jane Campion shot, and you might know what that means to me.

A Shot I Love, for Extra-Curricular Reasons:

The first of two times I saw Requiem in a theater, I remember watching this overhead, 360° spiraling zoom-out on Marlon Wayans having a passionate f*** with his girlfriend, and thinking how seldom American movies allow black characters to experience sexual pleasure so candidly, and even more than that, how seldom an African-American man and an African-American woman seem to be having a great, frank time together in bed. It's an absurd aporia in American movies. For all the sex we see on screen, it's just bizarre how unusual this feels. I hope it's not prurient to say that it made me like the movie more... even though the movie's aloofness from Tyrone relative to the other characters certainly makes me like it less.

Favorite Moment in the Movie, By Far, But Not Just Because of the Shot:

In a high voice that almost cracks at the pause, and again at the italicized word, but is still trying to file as direct a plea as possible: "Harry... Can you come today?" A quiet, heartbreaking climax for the film's best performance, from an actress who has never again been used as well, although I can't figure out why this is. She gets cast so unimaginatively, and pushed to recycle the least interesting beats in previous performances, when she's surely up for more. Anyway: I hear this line of dialogue in my head remarkably often, I love the way the sleeve has inched up over half her hand, and I'm glad the shot captures Marion's brokenness but still allows her to be beautiful. You really, really wish Harry could come today.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 04, 2010

Monday Reviews: Leap Year

Finally, a full review cranked out for one of the films I've been screening in the weeks leading up to the official launch, this coming Friday, of the 46th Chicago International Film Festival. The movie I picked is the first one I screened, and one that is bound to enter discussion at the "Sex on Screen" panel that CIFF has invited me to join on Saturday: it's Michael Rowe's Leap Year, a prizewinner for Best First Film at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. More than one colleague has described Leap Year to me as a kind of shabby shocker, almost obnoxiously lacking anything to say and putting its female lead in needlessly compromising positions. I can't defend the fully from having fewer ideas at its core than it seems like it ought to, but I think the direction is refreshingly unhysterical given the premise and trajectory, and I was altogether impressed. Full review here, and thanks for waiting well past the usual midnight posting hour!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, October 01, 2010

In Which Nick Savors a Lovely Moment

Today's Chicago Film Festival press screenings of Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy and Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats (wonderful and good, respectively) marked only the second time in four years that I have swung an invitation to the venue where the critics for the major Chicago media outlets screen the bulk of the films they review. I like seeing movies with an audience, but I'm not so jaded as not to enjoy this rare incursion into the sanctum of the paid professionals. And who among us wouldn't feel a surge of joy at hearing a voice from the hallway saying to some invisible interlocutor, "Chaz and Roger are on their way up"?

Congenitally early, especially for what I had gathered was upper-tier Kiarostami and top-drawer Binoche, I was in my aisle seat, third row from the back, virtually from the moment they opened the screening room. I didn't realize that, once the Eberts had arrived, Roger had placed himself two rows behind me and that, since I'm rather tall, my head might be blocking part of his view. About five minutes into the movie, as William Shimell's "James Miller" got going with his self-satisfied press conference, my peripheral vision caught someone signaling me from just behind my shoulder and to my left: Roger, standing in the aisle. For reasons we all know, he was signaling with hands and gaze rather than words, and the predictable upshot had a lovely extra accent: he wanted me to scooch just a bit out of his eyeline, but not so far that I would block his wife's. "James Miller" needs some tutelage during Certified Copy about how to make a partner feel appreciated, but Roger Ebert obviously doesn't. I migrated one seat, but not two, and looked back to make sure I had understood what he wanted. He looked wholly grateful, but of course he couldn't speak that aloud, either.

So – he gave me a thumbs up. Imagine!

Unlike most of the critics who attended Certified Copy, he stayed for Heartbeats, which started a half-hour later. I noticed he was grabbing some shut-eye between the two movies, and I didn't want to bother him anyway, so I quickly scribbled a note, folded it, and wrote his name across the top, so I could leave it on the seat next to him. But when I re-entered the room to subtly deposit my letter, he was fully awake again and made instant and friendly eye-contact, so I handed him the note in person. So lovely to have an impromptu chance to speak from your heart to someone whom you admire but never expect to thank directly. My note, in certified copy:

Dear Roger,

I teach film studies and occasionally film reviewing in the English Department at Northwestern. You mean so much to so many of my students.

Thanks, in perpetuity, for everything you do, from them and from me. To get a thumbs-up from you—if only for scooting over a seat!—is such a special treat.

With such debts and affection,
Nick Davis

Labels: , ,