31 January 2006

Initial Oscar Thoughts

This is not who I think will win, but rather who I feel should win in most of the categories, based on the films I've seen and the nominations and whatever other factors come into my head. For the sake of brevity, we'll stick to the bigger categories.

My preference in Bold

Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • Crash
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Munich

  • So I reviewed 3 of these (and have seen all 5), and only one stood out as a great film, so that's the clear choice. I'll quote my own review: "it is a worthy heir to the Best Picture title and a piece of cinema you can ill afford to miss."


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote)
  • Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow)
  • Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line)
  • David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)


  • Poor Joaquin. Any other year and he'd be the front-runner, but he had to get stuck behind Ledger and Hoffman, who easily gave the two best performances of the year. I keep going back and forth. On one hand you've got Hoffman, who completely captured a historical figure so different from him in so many ways that you can hardly believe it's him, but on the other you've got Ledger, who layered his performance with so many small details and nuances and manages to break your heart. I'll probably change my mind 5 or 6 times, but Hoffman. I imagine this race will be very, very close.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
  • Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents)
  • Felicity Huffman (Transamerica)
  • Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice)
  • Charlize Theron (North Country)
  • Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)


  • I've only seen two of these films, and Witherspoon is much better than Knightley. But beyond that, she manages to sing better than June Carter ever did, which for someone with no voice training, is really something.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
  • George Clooney (Syriana)
  • Matt Dillon (Crash)
  • Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain)
  • William Hurt (A History of Violence)


  • Gyllenhaal has an outside chance, but he doesn't deserve it. I'd love to see Giamatti win, but I haven't seen his film. Regardless of what you think of Crash, Matt Dillon is very good. But I think this is Clooney's year. He put on weight, grew a beard, and gave a very good performance. That's what we call the trifecta.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
  • Amy Adams (Junebug)
  • Catherine Keener (Capote)
  • Frances McDormand (North Country)
  • Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener)
  • Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain)


  • Weisz is getting all the awards, but I just don't see it. Nothing about her performance left much of an imprint on me. But Williams has a handful of great scenes, including the best moment of the film as she accidentally sees her husband kissing another man.


Best Achievement in Directing
  • George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck)
  • Paul Haggis (Crash)
  • Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)
  • Bennett Miller (Capote)
  • Steven Spielberg (Munich)


  • Ang Lee should have won this for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and he deserves to win here, too. Honestly, I don't know that there are too many directors working who I would trust to handle this subject matter and story, and few of them would have been able to do it with Lee's sensitivity and still make a great film.


Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
  • Crash
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Match Point
  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Syriana


  • I'd like to see Woody Allen win, but his script isn't good enough and he won't show up anyway. So, I'll throw my support to Noah Baumbach because he hasn't got a chance, but his screenplay is too good to ignore. No other film had more lines and moments randomly pop into my head this year for weeks after I saw it, and it's also mature and heartbreaking sad.


Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote
  • The Constant Gardener
  • A History of Violence
  • Munich


  • The Munich screenplay is quite good, very good, actually, and Capote surprises you with how well it's written, but Brokeback Mountain is clearly the best written film here. It takes a short story and expands it without feeling as if they're just throwing new material in to make it longer. But even aside from that, it is a expertly-crafted script.


Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Batman Begins
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • The New World


  • Never bet against the film done entirely in black and white, but the visuals in The New World are truly beautiful. Even Malick's harshest critics would have to agree the film at least looks fantastic.


Best Achievement in Editing
  • Cinderella Man
  • The Constant Gardener
  • Crash
  • Munich
  • Walk the Line


  • Huh. Well, this is wide-open. Usually the Best Picture winner takes this, but no gay cowboys, so who knows? Munich covers a great deal of ground efficiently and mixes in a lot of archival footage. It isn't all that flashy, but it gets the job done.


Best Achievement in Visual Effects
  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • King Kong
  • War of the Worlds


  • This may be the easiest call in years.


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
  • "In the Deep" (Crash)
  • "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" (Hustle & Flow)
  • "Travelin' Thru" (Transamerica)


  • I so want Hustle & Flow to win this, and I don't even like rap.


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • The Constant Gardener
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Munich
  • Pride & Prejudice


  • A beautifully haunting score that does exactly what a score should do. It enhances and deepens the experience without calling attention to itself.


Best Documentary, Features
  • Darwin's Nightmare
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • March of the Penguins
  • Murderball
  • Street Fight


  • It's really too bad Grizzly Man didn't make the short list. I've only seen this one, so I'm easily biased, but how can a film that turns a bunch of penguins into a convincing love story not win?


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
  • Don't Tell (Italy)
  • Joyeux Noel (France)
  • Paradise Now (Palestine)
  • Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Germany)
  • Tsotsi (South Africa)


  • I haven't seen any of these, but I've got Joyeux Noel in my pre-nominations pool, so I'd like to see it win.


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
  • Howl's Moving Castle
  • The Corpse Bride
  • Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit


  • Wallace and Gromit is the clear front-runner, and since I haven't seen all of them, that's good enough for me. Plus, there's the nostalgia factor.

30 January 2006

current cinema: Capote

capote

starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., and Chris Cooper
written by: Dan Futterman, from the book by Gerald Clarke
directed by: Bennett Miller
R, 98 min, 2005, USA


A small item in the front section of The New York Times draws the attention of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), famed author[1] and social butterfly. Realizing the potential for an interesting article, he phones editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) and is soon on a train for the heartland with his old friend and research assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). It doesn't take Capote long to realize that a single article won't cover the story, and turns his focus to an entire book, eventually titled In Cold Blood[2], but the process becomes too much for him. Or, as he remarks to Lee, "If they win this appeal, I may have a complete nervous breakdown."

Capote, as the title suggests, is all about Truman Capote. Everything that happens runs through the filter of his experience. For example, the afore-mentioned quote comes from the after-party of the premiere for To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic film adaptation of Lee's best-selling novel. Normally, this is a grand occasion for a film to name-drop people like Gregory Peck and other movie stars of the era, but Capote is in dire straights, having spent the greater part of four years waiting for the story of the Kansas murders to conclude so he can write the ending to his book, and is not in the mood to socialize. So we see just enough of the Hollywood glitz to remind us where we are, and instead focus on Capote getting drunk in the corner. This is a man so self-involved and egotistical that a stay of execution of a man he's grown fond of is greeted as if it were bad news, for it interferes with the planned publicity of the book. Never-mind that a man's life has been spared.

One result of this singular focus is that the film never strays from what Capote himself is experiencing. There are no montages of his friends. The details of the crime are not revealed to us until they are revealed to him. The farthest we physically get from him is the other end of his phone conversations[3]. Therefore we cannot help but sympathize with Capote, for his is the only perspective we know. We see him as a heartless bastard with little regard for the well-being of his friends or subjects, but we also come to understand a little bit of why that is. We do not forgive him for what he did, nor do we condone it, but we can see why he does it. And for that, we can view him as something more than a monster.

Of course, this is one of Capote's stated goals of his book, to show the world that Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and his brother still maintained a piece of their humanity, despite their horrific crimes. Truman Capote never questions if the men are truly guilty, for that will not work for his book, but he attempts to explore why they did what they did, what possessed them to brutally murder a family of four. This is complicated by the affinity he feels for Perry Smith, the sense of brotherhood they share. He is torn between kinship and propriety (or his own twisted brand of journalistic integrity). It is one of the many dilemmas that haunt him.

Read anything about Capote and you'll learn that this is a film that revolves around the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hardly an article has been written that does not praise his performance as a tour de force and far and away the best thing in the film. And while Hoffman's performance is utterly fantastic, it does not overshadow the rest of the film in ways you'd expect. For what is often forgotten in the rush to find new adjectives with which to praise Hoffman is the fact that this is an all-around good film, and very nearly a great one. Catherine Keener and Clifton Collins Jr. both turn in exceptional performances, as does the rest of the supporting cast. Bennett Miller's direction is clean, efficient, and unobtrusive. He does not let misguided stylistic choices interfere with the narrative focus that is the character of Truman Capote. There's a scene late in the film where Capote is in an emotional discussion with Smith and rather than move the camera around or vary his shots, Miller is confident enough in his story to put each actor in a close-up and just let them go, cutting back and forth when necessary. To add a flourish would detract from the moment, so he gets out of the way and allows the scene to develop naturally. To show this much constraint and craft this early in a career is the mark of a talented and intelligent director[4]. He has a bright future ahead of him.

Truman Capote, we learn in the end credits, died in 1984 from complications from alcoholism, and given what we see here, that certainly seems logical, but a large part of that seems to stem from the methods he used to process information. The film presents Capote as a man who viewed everything in terms of how it affected him personally. So, when things were good they were very good, but when they were bad, they could be catastrophic. And even when something good happened (like a stay of execution), it could be catastrophic. Ergo, alcoholism. But the beauty of Capote is that it refuses to pass judgment on that or any other of the things that made up the larger-than-life Truman Capote. It simply presents them as they were, without hesitation or apology, leaving it up to the audience to decide if Capote was something more than a monster.

***************
[1] He had already written the novels Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Glass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), none of which I've read. He also wrote the screenplay to John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953), which I haven't seen.

[2] I haven't read that either.

[3] And occasionally into the other room. We also see how the bodies are discovered, but this is before we meet our hero.

[4] His only previous directing credit is The Cruise (1998), a 76 minute portrait of Tim "Speed" Levitch, a crazy Manhattan tour guide best known as the guy on the bridge in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001).

28 January 2006

100 films: Ugetsu monogatari

ugetsu
buy from Amazon.com

starring: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Eitarô Ozawa
written by: Yoshikata Yoda, adaptation by Matsutarô Kawaguchi of the stories by Akinari Ueda
directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
NR, 94 min, 1953, Japan


Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and his brother To^bei (Eitarô Ozawa), two lowly potters with their sights set on wealth, risk certain death at the hands of a marauding army to get their largest batch of wares yet to market. Genjurô wishes to be able to provide better for his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and his child, but To^bei has ambitions of becoming a samurai, despite his utter lack of experience. At the marketplace, To^bei, against his wife's pleading, purchases a spear and some armor and sets off to become a great fighter. With Miyagi at home with their son, Genjurô is seduced by Lady Wakasa, a wealthy woman who appreciates his expert craftsmanship. She offers to marry him, and Genjurô, drawn to a world of comfort, accepts.[1]

As one might expect from a man who watched as his older sister was sold as a geisha and his father abused his mother, director Kenji Mizoguchi's films quite often deal with the treatment of women in Japanese culture. Long viewed as second-class citizens, Mizoguchi shone a light on their treatment and exploitation by a society unwilling to change[2]. In Ugetsu monogatari he explores that theme by presenting two husbands who act against their wives wishes for what they perceive to be the greater good. Both of their initial decisions are made with the best of intentions. Genjurô risks his life to salvage his pottery and get it to the market so that he can purchase a few luxuries for his wife. As the film opens he is returning from a successful trip and it's clear from the joy he gets by watching Miyagi try on her new kimono that to be able to adequately provide for his family is a great honor. To him the money isn't nearly as important as the happiness it brings, so he works extra hard on the next batch of pottery with the goal of being able to do more for his family. The army ruins those plans, but he is persistent to the point of blindness that he must not let this opportunity go to waste. Miyagi does what she can to convince him that their safety should take priority, but he refuses to listen. For Genjurô, as the head of the family, knows best. His decisions must not be questioned. To^bei, on the other hand, does not have Genjurô's force of will or his talents, but he has a determination to be a samurai nonetheless. His wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) considers this to be the height of foolishness, and she's right, but To^bei is too much like his brother in this regard. His desire to give his wife a reason to be proud of him may be noble, but its application is foolish.

The real tragedy of Ugetsu monogatari is that these two men, despite their best intentions, destroy the lives of the women they love in the pursuit of greatness. Miyagi is murdered by a band of thieves while Genjurô is off selling his wares and Ohama is raped by soldiers during To^bei's pursuit of the samurai glory and becomes a prostitute who is kept alive simply by the desire to show To^bei the effect of his foolishness, so that he may see what has become of his wife. When they do reunite, after To^bei has improbably achieved his goal[3], he is understandably devastated. For what good are your accomplishments if you cannot share them with the woman you love?

Meanwhile, Genjurô is lured to the house of Lady Wakasa, who considers his pottery to be the work of a master. Such flattery and beauty is often enough to seduce most men, and Genjurô is no exception, forgetting for a time that he has a wife and child waiting for him. But in his pursuit of wealth and comfort, Genjurô fails to realize that Lady Wakasa is nothing more than a ghost, an evil temptress[4] looking for a love she was denied in her lifetime. It is in these days he spends with her that Miyagi is murdered and after realizing that Lady Wakasa is a ghost, he returns home and interacts with the ghost of Miyagi as well. While this does an effective job of reinforcing to Genjurô the error of his ways (as well as giving him a means by which he can apologize for his foolishness), it also serves to illustrate that the punishment for his greed is mental as well as physical. Not only has he lost the woman he loves and everything he truly cares about in the pursuit of temporary pleasure, but he appears to have gone a bit mad in the process.

***************
[1] As you might imagine, that sort of thing isn't viewed as a classy thing to do to the mother of your child.

[2] To be fair, few oppressors see the need to change the status quo. It just doesn't seem to represent their best interests.

[3] He charged and killed a man who had just beheaded a famed general. Not exactly the samurai code of honor, but effective.

[4] Complete with two marks on her forehead that resemble horns. A manifestation of the devil.

25 January 2006

100 films: Les Quatre cents coups

400 blows
buy The Adventures of Antoine Doinel from Amazon.com

starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, and Guy Decomble
written by: François Truffaut, adaptation by Marcel Moussy & Truffaut
directed by: François Truffaut
NR, 99 min, 1959, France


In Les Quatre cents coups[1], the first chapter in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, we meet our hero (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a disobedient 12 year old Parisian. A child of whom his parents seem to care little, he has a penchant for dishonesty that gets him in constant trouble both at home and at school, so he decides to run away, promising to return when he has become a man. After he steals a typewriter, he's sent to military school, where he escapes through a hole in a fence and heads for the sea.

Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series is a landmark of cinema, as it marks a rare instance of an actor originating a character as a child then continuing to play that character in five films[2] over the course of twenty years, but more importantly because it serves as a backbone of the French New Wave. The series as a whole is a fascinating look at how a young man such as Antoine grows up, matures (well, to an extent), and essentially adapts to life. All five chapters are good, but there's no question in my mind that Les Quatre cents coups is the crown jewel. Partly because he is a child and children tend to not see potential complications, this is the most focus we see from Antoine in terms of his goals and desires. He knows simply that he does not like home or school and that he'd rather be elsewhere, whereas in later segments we quite often see Antoine torn between multiple options.

And why shouldn't he? Truffaut essentially tells us as much in the famous final shot[3] of Les Quatre cents coups where Antoine, having successfully run away, reaches the ocean for the first time in his life. He takes a few steps into the surf, then turns back, but he is unsure where to go. He has achieved his goal of running away to the shore and now hasn't a clue what to do next, so he just stands there. At the height of his dilemma, Truffaut freezes the shot and zooms in on that face full of indecision. He is stuck, completely unsure what to do next, and that is the theme Truffaut continues to explore throughout the series.

As this is one of the first films of the French New Wave, he appears to be placing the art form as a whole on that beach with Antoine. The New Wave, many have said, birthed the modern film era, taking it out of the classic period with its tendency to follow formula and essentially breathed new life into it. Truffaut, Godard, and their cohorts showed a complete disregard for the conventions of cinema and made their films by any means necessary. This often included filming in the streets of Paris without permits, employing friends as actors, and working with little to no budget. But, necessity being the mother of invention, they found ways to create techniques and methods and images that would resonate world-wide. It could be argued that there isn't an American film from the last five years that isn't at least indirectly influenced by the New Wave. So Truffaut is asking the film medium what it wants to do. Does it want to go back to the military school and continue making the same films over and over again, or does it keep running into the unknown. The answer, clearly, is the latter.

Les Quatre cents coups is, at least to me, a deceptively simple film. At no singular point does it seem as if you're watching a great film. That is, there isn't that point where a single moment blows you away[4], but the sum total of the film does exactly that. This is Truffaut's first film, finished at the age of 26, and it's easy to see the effect of that innocence on the screen. This is the look of a filmmaker who doesn't yet "know" what he can and cannot do, so he just does what he thinks will be the most effective. And he's pretty much correct every single time. The film, largely based on his own childhood as a rebellious child prone to skip school and go to the cinema, seems to understand children better than most, and it understands Antoine Doinel most of all. But it refuses to fully condone his actions, instead sympathizing with him in a way that makes them understandable, even if they are wrong.

He also bring a bit of whimsy to the film as he shows how the children as a group respond to authority. In a clever scene the children are on a physical education run through the streets of Paris, trailing behind a gym teacher and his incessant whistle-blowing. Truffaut puts the camera on a roof and follows the class as the students peel away from the group and head for freedom until finally there are only two students following him. They are either the least clever of the students or the most obedient or a combination of the two. Regardless, they are tied to the status quo while their classmates are off living their lives in the Parisian streets. Morally, Antoine Doinel and his like may be classically wrong, but they are choosing to do things by their own rules, and when you live by your own rules, it's hard to judge those actions by classical morality.

**************
[1] Translated in English as The 400 Blows.

[2] They are: Les Quatre cents coups (1959), L'Amour à vingt ans (1962), of which only the segment Antoine et Colette applies, Baisers volés (1968), Domicile conjugal (1970), and L'Amour en fuite (1979). You can buy the entire set as a Criterion box set.

[3] This shot has been copied numerous times over the last fifty years. Hell, even I stole it without remorse for L'Attente, the short film I just finished.

[4] Except, of course, for the final shot.

24 January 2006

100 films: Pyaasa

pyaasa

starring: Mala Sinha, Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, and Johnny Walker
written by: Abrar Alvi
directed by: Guru Dutt
NR, 146 min, 1957, India


Vijay (Guru Dutt), a struggling poet nursing a broken heart, is devastated to learn that his brothers have sold his poems to a local merchant for scrap paper. They are purchased by Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who sees in the poems what no one else sees--the work of a true visionary. She loves him, but Vijay is still forlorn over Meena (Mala Sinha), his past love and muse. In a fit of despair, he attempts suicide, only to be thwarted by the homeless man he'd loaned his jacket. The homeless man is killed, mistaken for Vijay, and Gulabo convinces a publisher to publish his poems posthumously. They become a sensation and when Vijay comes out of his coma, he discovers that his friends have multiplied and that few can be trusted.

If there was ever a film that could benefit from the deluxe treatment of the Criterion Collection, it is Pyaasa. The only existing DVD version is currently out of print, and for good reason, as it is about as low quality a DVD as you'll ever find. The print is murky, muddled, scratched, and missing several frames. The subtitles are haphazard at best, rife with spelling errors, incorrect verb tenses, and other assorted errors. But the most egregious crime against the DVD is the failure to subtitle the musical numbers or poetry, which in a musical about a poet is a significant portion of the film. So unless you speak Hindi there are long stretches where you have little idea what's going on in a film where the musical numbers appear to be providing a great deal of narrative information. You can actually leave the room during the music and not be any less confused than had you stayed. Of course, then you might miss some nice sequences with some beautiful music.

Add to the confusion that director Guru Dutt has constructed the film in a somewhat non-linear manner, using fantasy sequences and flashbacks to further develop the story. At least that's what it looked like he was doing. So, yes, watching Pyaasa requires a great deal more effort than your standard film, but the end result is well worth it. Despite what appear to be some budgetary constraints, Dutt's direction is surprising accomplished. Along with his cinematographer V.K. Murthy, he shows an expert use of shadows and light on par with any of the legendary Hollywood craftsmen. This is a director who, if he had been an American, may have been held in the same esteem the upper echelon of filmmakers. Sadly, he is all but forgotten.

However, most people who have seen Pyaasa would have trouble forgetting the scene where Vijay reveals on the anniversary of his death that he is indeed alive. He quietly walks into the crowded auditorium where they are celebrating his work and begins to quietly sing some of his poetry[1]. Using a backlight and the frame of a doorway, Dutt films himself as a classic Messianic figure come to enlighten his disciples[2], as his voice grows louder, the publisher of his poetry (who stands to make a lot more if Vijay is dead), sends security to silence him, but Vijay fights against them, singing all the while. The crowd is stunned and Gulabo is in tears as Vijay with one song both crushes and enforces the myth he has become. Virtually none of this is subtitled, but the effect is so powerful, that I cannot imagine the scene being any more riveting if we knew what he was saying. In fact, for those few moments, I was almost glad the subtitles weren't there.

Furthering his Messianic imagery, Vijay comes to realize who his real friends truly are and in a shocking turn, declares that he is not the Vijay they have come to celebrate, for that man is dead. Pandemonium ensues and Vijay manages to escape. He finds Gulabo and they walk away from wealth and fame and prestige, looking for a place where they won't have to go any farther. It is a poignant finish to what is a surprisingly good film, provided you can figure out what's going on.

**************
[1] It could also be new poetry he's made up on the spot. I really have no way of knowing.

[2] Even though this is a Hindu film, there's no mistaking the intention of the shot. This begs the question: does a Hindi audience understand what that shot means?

23 January 2006

current cinema: The New World

The new world

starring: Q'Orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, and Christopher Plummer
written and directed by: Terrence Malick
PG-13, 150 min, 2005, USA


Terrence Malick's latest offering, The New World, is more poetry than prose, more lyrical than logical, and more beautiful than most films dare dream. Set in Jamestown, Virginia[1] as the first boat of settlers comes ashore, Malick follows the initial encounters with the Naturals as they barter, negotiate, and attempt to live in some form of harmony. But these are two fundamentally different cultures who cannot even communicate effectively, so the peace is soon broken. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is captured and about to be killed when Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) convinces her father to spare his life. Smith lives among them for a time, quickly falling in love with the Indian princess, and is allowed to return to his people with the understanding that they will leave for the far-away lands at the onset of spring. They don't.

For a film buff such as myself, a Terrence Malick release is an event unto itself. In a 35-year career, he has made a grand total of five films[2], qualifying him as the cinematic equivalent of J.D. Salinger. He taught in France for fifteen years after Badlands and made the demand in his The Thin Red Line contract that no current photos of him could be shown. Beyond question, he is not a typical director. And while he may not be the most prolific artist around, he more than makes up for it in the quality of his product, as his film are universally beautiful, challenging works of art that aim for immortality at the expense of box-office success. They may be difficult to digest, but they are impossible to disregard.

In The New World he uses the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki to build a narrative much like a documentary filmmaker would for a project about indigenous cultures in Africa. Employing the language of the nature documentary, he forgoes dialogue for long stretches, allowing the images to draw the audience into the story. Portions of the dialogue he does use is the native tongue of the Naturals, and he only subtitles it when absolutely necessary. It is such an effective choice that when Smith returns to Jamestown, the ensuing clamor of voices is as aggravating to the audience as it must have been to him.

While living with the Naturals, Smith falls in love with Pocahontas in sequences that are at the same time wildly erotic and wholesomely chaste. They bring to mind the repressed love scenes of British period dramas, where a simple touch is enough make someone melt. Whether this is a necessity stemming from Kilcher's age[3] or an actual choice is unknown, but it is effective nonetheless. In an entirely different way, he also falls in love with their way of life, marveling in his journal entries that they have no word for jealousy or hate or deceit. But maybe that's because he hasn't a clue what they're saying. For while the Naturals are more civil than the settlers, Smith projects on them a certain utopian quality that isn't entirely accurate. We know they have such words, because they are subtitled in a discussion over whether or not they should let Smith live. The Naturals aren't without their faults, but Smith fails to see them, and in the end his guilt over how his people have invaded this virgin land does more damage than he would have imagined. It's difficult to make a responsible film about this time in history without making the settlers look like absolute bastards, but Malick manages to bring in a surprising amount of balance by showing the settlers as pathetic and the Naturals as capable of the same sins as the ones that were committed against them. Still there's no question that they are ultimately the victims. But no one comes across worse than the well-meaning British woman who civilizes Pocahontas by dressing her as a proper lady.

Although it does provide Kilcher more opportunities to display her acting abilities, as she fully captures the hesitancy of someone just learning to walk in heels for the first time and otherwise adapting to an entirely new world. Just as the settlers must learn to live in a foreign land, Pocahontas must learn to live among them[4], giving the title a dual meaning. Kilcher's performance sparkles throughout in a difficult lead role, as she must play a woman dealing with a world in a constant state of flux[5]. Actually, there isn't a sub-par performance in the entire film. The only real flaw in the use of the character's journal entries as voice over narration, which gets to be a bit excessive at points, but not terribly so.

Obviously, this is not a film for everyone. Malick's direction, while self-assured, can leave the average audience member a bit cold. To me the reason is simple: Malick refuses to spoon-feed his audience, trusting that they understand the medium well enough to follow along. At no time does it feel as if he isn't completely in control of the proceedings and I cannot remember a single wasted shot in the film, but that may be because any shot which does not advance the story is at very least a beautiful one. And if you can allow yourself to be caught up in the splendor and wonder of The New World, you may not want it to end. I didn't.

***********
[1] Also filmed in Virginia. How they found such a good location is beyond me.

[2] They are: Lanton Mills (1969), Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and this one.

[3] She was born in 1990, which makes her 15 or 16, depending on when you read this.

[4] Her father exiles her for starting the Thanksgiving tradition.

[5] She falls in love with Smith but marries Christian Bale's character, which just goes to show: Colin Farrell may be a good time, but when you're ready to settle down, Christian Bale's your man.

21 January 2006

current cinema: Match Point

match point
this review may also appear in the Wissahickon

starring: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew Goode, and Emily Mortimer
written and directed by: Woody Allen
R, 124 min, 2005, UK


It must be difficult to be a new Woody Allen film, always being compared to your predecessors and being picked apart by people looking for some second coming of a neurotic messiah. It's an awfully hard hill to climb if people's first thought isn't whether or not the film is any good, but it is a return to form or recaptures that earlier magic or otherwise fits into people's perceptions of what a Woody Allen film must be. Rationally speaking, this is a completely illogical way to view a film, yet we all do it to some degree. Part of me wonders if someone unfamiliar with Allen's repertoire stands a better chance of enjoying his newest outputs or if the films would do better were they released under a different name.

Unfortunately, that's something that we'll have to leave to speculation as we focus on Allen's latest creation: Match Point. As I'm sure you've heard, this film, made entirely in London, is a rare foray out of New York City for Allen and a little jarring in that it is not a comedy, nor is there an actor playing the Woody Allen character[1]. The locale is primarily a budget concern, as there's nothing in the storyline or script that points to a decidedly British worldview or sensibility. This entire film could have easily been done in New York, and I suspect that was the original plan. But when the BBC says they've got the money you need to make the film, you cross the pond and tweak the script on the plane, if you have to.

So perhaps a British adjustment explains the first half hour of the film, which is nothing if it isn't forced. The acting in this opening is uniformly bad, the pace slightly off the mark, and the writing as bad as anything Allen's ever done. The whole thing comes as a shock, really, almost to the point where I started to wonder if perhaps it was all intentional, if it was a set-up for the rest of the film. If it was, I didn't notice it. To expound on the writing: the first half hour is mostly done with exposition, which is almost never a good idea for any writer. He spends far too much time establishing everything and outlining relationships and motives, which ends up being important information later on, but there are better ways to do it. The writing contributes directly to the poor acting, to the pace, and to the film's trouble gaining any early momentum. Even though the information presented is vital, at what cost to the film is the method of presentation?

Well, there are two answers to that question. At the half-hour mark, it looks like a pretty deadly blow. I'm beginning to wonder how this film was a sensation at Cannes and picked up any Golden Globe nominations at all. But in the end, the beginning doesn't seem all that important, as the film rights itself quickly as Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) beds Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer) and then Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), who just happens to be engaged to Chloe's brother. Chris marries Chloe, gets a good job from her generous and rich father (Brian Cox), and continues an illicit affair with Rice. This sort of infidelity is usually the grounds for captivating cinema and Match Point proves to be no exception. While Chloe and Chris try continually to get pregnant, Chris manages to get Nola pregnant, and she sees this as an opportunity to have some leverage in her quest to get Chris to divorce Chloe. This is Woody Allen doing his best Fyodor Dostoevsky impression[2], complete with all the inner turmoil inherent in Dostoevsky's work.

That inner turmoil is the sort of thing that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does very well. As the film ratchets up the tension, he begins to shine, but it is in the quieter moments that he struggles. His character is written to be ill at ease with his surroundings (the classic fish out of water), but he does not have the look of an actor at ease with his character, which is a fine distinction, but an important one. Emily Mortimer is excellent throughout, but Scarlett Johansson is sporadic. Great for long stretches, but then awful for moments, she seems to be relying on her powers of seduction to carry her through certain scenes. Ironically, it is those scenes where she doesn't have to seduce anyone that she is at her best, for there she must act. Otherwise she seems to be coasting along on her looks[3].

Match Point deals a lot in the business of luck, using the example in the opening shot of a tennis ball that strikes the top of the net and is free to fall in either direction, and the film seems at times to be harping on that theme. Without revealing any important plot points, let me just say this: consider that the film may be intentionally harping on the theme (in conjunction with the opening shot) as a sort of Hitchcockian McGuffin, then consider the role luck plays in the film's last half. In this regard I think Allen knows exactly what he's doing with the repeated mentions of luck. Some have suggested it is heavy-handed[4]. I respectfully disagree. To me, it is sly.

Some have said that this is a film that begins too soon, and that seems about right. Take about ten or fifteen minutes out of the beginning and we might have the film people have been talking about. That is, we might have Woody Allen's best film in ten years. As it stands, this is a very good film with moments of pure suspense on par with anything else from the class of 2005, but as seems to be the norm for all films these days, there are a great number of flaws. Not enough to ruin the film, but clearly enough to bring it out of the stratosphere of the year's elite. This is an enjoyable film, provided you aren't expecting Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), or any of the other brilliant films of Woody Allen. Try, if you see it, to let the film stand on its own two feet.

**************
[1] Like Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda (2004), who played it with a limp.

[2] And for those who don't immediately recognize it, he throws a couple of paperbacks into the film, along with a comment here or there.

[3] It's kind of hard to blame her, really, but this doesn't strike me as a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. She just hits too many wrong notes (or shots, to work in a tennis reference).

[4] I definitely can see where people might think that.

20 January 2006

100 films: Some Like It Hot

some
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starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown
written by: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, from the story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan
directed by: Billy Wilder
NR, 120 min, 1959, USA


Two broke musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), accidentally witness the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre and in a desperate attempt to hide from the mob go undercover in an all-girl band en route to Florida. One of the band members is Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a dim-witted blonde looking to marry a millionaire. Being an unsavory type, Joe uses information given in confidence to cast himself as Sugar's ideal man. Meanwhile, Jerry's drag act is going well enough that he's drawn the affection of an actual millionaire (Joe E. Brown). The flawless plan hits a rough patch when the mobsters arrive for a Friends of Italian Opera convention and discover the ruse.

There's a theory in Hollywood that the productions where everyone is ready to kill each other often make the best movies, that having a good time doesn't equal success. Or as Matt Damon once put it on Letterman, if having fun made a good movie, Canonball Run would be the greatest film of all-time. It isn't, though, which is a bit of a shame. The theory, oddly enough, holds true for comedies as well as dramas, even though you'd think that comedic timing would be enhanced by camaraderie. Not always. It is enhanced by talent, and while Some Like It Hot didn't have the most pleasant set to visit, it did have talent in spades[1].

As the stories go, Marilyn Monroe brought a lot of difficulty to the set with her. She was constantly forgetting lines, showing up late, and Tony Curtis compared kissing her to "kissing Hitler"[2]. Yet she had that rare ability to seduce anyone and anything, and that translated so well on screen you can forgive her many quirks and headaches. I imagine that Monroe could have made a gay man straight and had she been a lesbian, a straight woman gay. There aren't many actors alive with that sort of inherent sexuality and the ability to make everything seem so fresh an innocent, from the dialogue to the scenario to the performance itself. A great number of actors become bored or repetitive after so many takes, but Monroe makes it all feel as if she's making it up on the spot, even if you can clearly see her reading the cue cards.

But that's nothing compared to the turns by her male counterparts. Tony Curtis, often shorted in Some Like It Hot discussions because part of his Josephine dialogue was dubbed[3], gives a tricky performance as he has to essentially play three different characters: Joe, the conniving musician willing to bet two overcoats on a dog named Greased Lightning, Josephine, the girl saxophone player who went to conservatory, and Junior, the imaginary heir to Shell Oil who is unable to ever love again. There are even sequences where he has to play all three[4]. The best (or at least my favorite) is Junior, the oil magnate who's done what any red-blooded male who'd been in drag on the run from the mob and befriended Marilyn Monroe would do: namely, use the information given him by Monroe as to the type of man she's looking for as a shortcut to seduce her. And he uses a Cary Grant impression to disguise his voice, which is a very clever touch.

In a career full of classic performances, this is one of Jack Lemmon's best. As Daphne he's forced to hide his horn-dog tendencies when he's trust into a sleeping car full of beautiful women. He keeps repeating to himself, "I'm a girl, I'm a girl, I'm a girl" as a means of staving of his latent desires. When he attracts a real millionaire, he can't seem to shake him no matter what, then is forced to go on a date with him when Joe needs to borrow the man's yacht. The millionaire proposes and when asked by Joe why a guy would want to marry a guy, Jerry replies, "Security." It's difficult to put into words exactly what's so great about his performance. Suffice to say that in a film often mentioned as the funniest of all-time, he's easily the funniest one.

Of course, this comedic crown jewel would not be possible without the unique genius of Billy Wilder. Wilder, who's work includes such classics as Irma la Douce (1963), The Apartment (1960), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Double Idemnity (1944), did comedy better than anyone and drama better than most. He very nearly directed Schindler's List (1993) and at one point held a record for Oscar nominations[5]. What is very often overlooked in Some Like It Hot is just how well it is directed. This is a film that borders on the absurd and could very easily veer into utter insanity, but Wilder is able to keep the entire thing grounded, and somehow realistic. And when you consider the premise of the film, that's quite the accomplishment.

In a lot of ways, Some Like It Hot serves as a template for what has become known as the Charlie Kaufman comedy. There are about a thousand things happening in this film, and few of them make any sense whatsoever when viewed apart from the film, yet they all work within the film's context. And they work beautifully at that. This is a rare commodity in film: a landmark, influential film that feels just as fresh today as it did forty years ago. It hasn't aged a bit. In fact, were this to have been released in 2005 rather than 1959, it probably wouldn't suffer a bit in popularity. And it probably would have still gotten six Oscar nominations, although something tells me it may have ended up with more. There's no question this is a classic, but it's also a cinematic delight for the ages. There are few films in history that I can recommend with confidence to nearly everyone. This is one of them.

****************
[1] And dresses.

[2] Which gives us Roger Ebert's great tag line: "You remember what Curtis said but when you watch that scene, all you can think is that Hitler must have been a terrific kisser."

[3] He had trouble maintaining that voice for long periods.

[4] Plus he had to be seduced by Monroe, that lucky bastard.

[5] He may still be tied with Woody Allen in nominations for writing and directing, but I suspect even if he is, he may not be for long.

17 January 2006

The Top 10 Films of 2005

Naturally, I don't see everything (especially Match Point, which hasn't come to Pittsburgh), but I try.

1. Saraband

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starring: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, and Julia Dufvenius
written and directed by: Ingmar Bergman
R, 120 min, Sweden


Ingmar Bergman, that grand lion of the cinema, takes the art form he helped mold to the limits of his lifetime in this sequel to 1973's Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage). Filming in digital video, Bergman follows Marianne (Liv Ullmann) as she visits her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson). It is the sort of haunting, captivating work we expect from Bergman but rarely get from anyone else. He has said this is his final work and if it is, this is a master filmmaker going out on top. Instead of fading away, he leaves with a roar. A fitting, if not perfect, final chapter to an amazing body of work.

2. Yes

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starring: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill, and Shirley Henderson
written and directed by: Sally Potter
R, 100 min, UK/USA


Featuring dialogue written entirely in iambic pentameter and a virtuoso performance by Joan Allen, Sally Potter's Yes is a haunting, mesmerizing, and infinitely fascinating love story. With echoes of both Shakespeare and Eminem, this is the type of bold filmmaking we so rarely see. Potter takes chances at nearly every opportunity, and while they don't all work, they are all interesting, if not inspired. She seems to have no fear of failure, allowing her work the freedom to blossom with a strange beauty. It is by no means perfect, but makes a case for greatness, which is really all you can ask for.

3. Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain

starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway
written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, from the short story by E. Annie Proulx
directed by: Ang Lee
R, 134 min, 2005, USA


In a rare turn of events, the Oscar front-runner is actually one of the best films of the year. Few directors understand the emotions inherent in an epic about two cowboys in love nearly as well as Ang Lee, who subverts a wholly macho genre into something beautiful and delicate. There's always been a sliver of a homosexuality in the westerns, or at very least an odd sort of kinship, and here it's brought to the forefront in a mature examination of its effects on the men and their immediate families. Heath Ledger's performance may be the surprise of the year. A great film and a worthy addition to the Best Picture family.

Read my original review

4. Munich

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starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Geoffrey Rush
written by: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, from the book by George Jonas
directed by: Steven Spielberg
R, 164 min, 2005, USA


Steven Spielberg's Munich is a risque film that dares question the motives of a nation exacting revenge for a terrorist attack, strives to show the humanity of allegedly evil men, and ultimately makes a compelling argument for peace. That alone would make it a film worth seeing, but even apart from all the political undertones Munich succeeds splendidly as a pure thriller. Eric Bana gives his best performance since Chopper (2000) and Janusz Kaminski provides some beautiful images in what should eventually be regarded as one of Spielberg's best films.

Read my original review

5. Good Night, And Good Luck

newyorkfilmfestival

starring: David Strathairn, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and George Clooney
written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov
directed by George Clooney
PG, 93 min, USA


George Clooney's homage to the glory days of network news serves as a timely reminder that journalistic integrity once meant refusing to serve as a glorified public relations department and standing up to the government despite the risks. The crisp black and white images convey that necessarily vintage feel and Clooney, to the surprise of many, further displays his talents behind the camera. If he weren't such a fine movie star he'd be a great director, as he has an innate feel for the medium. David Strathairn leads an impressive cast in this finely tuned drama about television's inner workings.

6. The Squid and the Whale

squidandwhale_7

starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline
written and directed by: Noah Baumbach
R, 80 min, USA


When watching The Squid and the Whale I'm a bit torn between being thrilled to get this performance out of Jeff Daniels or annoyed that he's been holding out on us for all these years. As for the film, imagine, if you will, that Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach were in the same screenwriting class and were given the assignment of writing about dysfunctional families headed by insecure patriarchs. Anderson writes The Royal Tennenbaums and Baumbach writes this. They are so grounded in the same ethos and literary universe that you fully expect to see Richie Tennenbaum playing tennis on the adjoining court.

Read my original review

7. Syriana

syriana45

starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Alexander Siddig
written by: Stephen Gaghan, from the book by Robert Baer
R, 126 min, USA


Call it, if you will, Traffic 2: the Hunt for Oil, but that doesn't hide the fact that no film this year is as effective in feeling as real and immediate as Syriana. Stephen Gaghan blurs the line between reality and fiction to the point where you really start to wonder if he's managed somehow to insert Matt Damon and George Clooney into the evening news and is film some odd riff on the documentary form. Clooney has never been better as a CIA operative suddenly cast adrift in a film that asks vital questions about both our dependence on oil and the steps we so willingly take to obtain it.

Read my original review

8. Crash

crash

starring: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, and Ryan Phillippe
written by: Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
directed by: Paul Haggis
R, 113 min, USA


Crash is the type of film that shows no fear of being politically correct by making a point to examine as many aspects of our racial diversity as it possibly can. If America is truly a melting pot, then just how well are we mixing? How well are we all getting along? If Paul Haggis is to be believed, not well. Haggis probes the fears that inform our interactions with those outside our comfort zones, both the accurate and the offensive ones, and the inevitable results when we collide. This is a film that aims to make the world a slightly better place, and because of that it has a tendency to veer off course, but that does not diminish the message and ambitions of a courageous bit of cinema.

9. A History of Violence

vio1

starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt
written by: Josh Olson, from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
directed by: David Cronenberg
R, 96 min, USA


With themes that echo Unforgiven, David Cronenberg's film about a man looking to hide from a past that won't leave him alone is an engaging character study of the fundamental principles of human nature. Try as he might, our hero can never fully become the family man who owns a diner in a small town, for the killer instincts that served him so well in his past life will never allow it. Cronenberg and Mortensen slowly reveal facets of his nature, much to the horror of his family. When he can hold it back no longer, he erupts in an impressive display of cunning and brutality. But no matter how hard he tries, his life can never be the same.

10. Me and You and Everyone We Know

meandyou1

starring: Miranda July, John Hawkes, Miles Thompson, and Tracy Wright
written and directed by: Miranda July
R, 91 min, USA


The type of small, personal indie film that can tend to drive people crazy, Me and You and Everyone We Know manages to avoid that fate with a delicate blend of quirkiness and thoughtfulness. It is a balancing act to be sure, but first time director Miranda July does it admirably by making the perverse innocent and extracting a quiet joy from the mundane. The film works a lot in metaphor, be it a street or sexual fetishes or a burning hand, and because of this there are parts that seem ill-advised, but when viewed in the larger context, they tend to take on a new dimension. Rarely has a sense of whimsy been so weird and at the same time delightful.

Jury Prize: Lost

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When initially compiling this list, it was starting to look as if 2005 was a poor year for cinema, with no clear-cut choice for the top spot, let alone the other nine. But the year finished strong, as it usually does, and I found more good films than I had spots for. I usually reserve the top spot for a film that really hit me hard, so for a long time a TV show held that spot on my list. It seems odd, but really it isn't if you think about it. Some of the greatest achievements in cinema have been originally developed for TV (Dekalog and Scener ur ett äktenskap, to name a few), so why do we automatically disregard American television when discussing the year's best? It's the same basic medium, and if you watch it on DVD without commercials you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference sometimes. Lost, in my opinion, is easily the most engaging, thrilling, and addictive thing to come along in several years and has the potential to become the best series in television history (provided the writers don't get lost inside their own story and lose focus). The key word there (and reason I moved it off the list) is "potential". Ultimately I couldn't justify leaving a deserving work off the list in favor of a film that isn't over. The first chapter may be brilliant, but there's no saying if it'll maintain that level. So, until the story concludes, I can't bring myself to list it as the year's best, but it still is the one thing I plan my entire week around, and for a guy who doesn't watch TV, that's saying something.

16 January 2006

current cinema: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain
this review may also appear in the Wissahickon

starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway
written by: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, from the short story by E. Annie Proulx
directed by: Ang Lee
R, 134 min, 2005, USA


That Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, an epic mixture of a western and a love story, is the prohibitive favorite for a Best Picture Oscar says a great deal about how far we have come as a society from the days when Rock Hudson kept his sexuality a secret out of fear that to do otherwise would ruin both his career and his life. That it is jokingly referred to as "the Gay Cowboy Movie" in major publications[1] says a great deal about just how far we have to go.

Before we go any farther, it would probably help to declare the background I bring into the film. I have never, not in high school or college or now, ever been employed as a cowboy or ranch hand of any kind. It's a symptom of growing up in New England, with it's noticeable lack of wide-open spaces, that's kept me from spending any meaningful time on a horse or roping livestock. Had my childhood been a little different, perhaps I would have spent some time on the open plains, but alas I have not. I have, however, seen my fair share of westerns, so I get the general idea.

To be sure, this is clearly the big controversial film of the year, as homosexual love stories in mainstream cinema are rare enough, but for it to be so "graphic" and to star two masculine movie stars in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, ensures it will be brought to the forefront of the public attention. For the average straight male, this should be a bit of a difficult ride, if the hype is to be believed. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the sex scenes between Ledger and Gyllenhaal aren't nearly as revealing as the scenes between them and their respective wives. It is perhaps Ang Lee's sly joke that shortly after the first gay love scene (containing mostly darkness, struggling, and heavy breathing) he gives us a good look at a sheep[2] that's been ravaged by a wolf. It's as if he's asking us to consider which image is more difficult to take in. If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is probably the dead sheep. It is safe to say that the number of people who would find the images in Brokeback Mountain difficult to digest is far fewer than the number who would have problems with the subject matter itself.[3]

More important than any trumped-up controversy is the film itself, which is nothing if it is not captivating. With stunning landscapes photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, a haunting, evocative score by Gustavo Santaolalla, and Ang Lee's gentle touch, this is a truly beautiful film. Coming from a Chinese background, Ang Lee understands the type of personal repression that's so inherent to this story. A great deal in this world is unspoken, yet understood. Ledger and Gyllenhaal's characters are under this assumption that they alone carry this burden, but many of the people close to them either know, or at least seem to know, and with that knowledge comes a great range of emotions from anger to sympathy. At times you wish they had the courage to confide in those closest to them, that perhaps they would be able to find some redemption or comfort, but the potentially negative consequences weigh too heavily on their minds. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) has a vivid memory from his childhood of a gay man was brutally murdered, so any risk of that, no matter how small, is a risk he is unprepared to take. If there is any small bit of comfort for Ennis, it is that time may provide him relief. Perhaps not in Wyoming just yet, but in time.

Much has been made of the performances in Brokeback Mountain, and they are universally good, but the turn by Heath Ledger is stunning. This is a mortal lock for an Oscar nomination in any year, regardless of content or politics. He steals the entire movie as he absolutely disappears inside his character. There's a tendency to assume he's just channeling Clint Eastwood, but he brings so many more layers to the performance. Every so often an established actor comes from nowhere to shock us with actual acting ability above and beyond anything they seemed capable of. Anyone who tells you they thought Heath Ledger had this in him is a damn liar. Jake Gyllenhaal, for his part, is sort of a microcosm of his entire career--good in one scene, average in the next, and a bit all over the map. His Jack Twist is the ying to Ennis' yang, but he seems to be spending too much energy showing us how good he can be instead of just being good. If the film has a weak link, he may be it.

Long story short, this is a great film, a heartbreaking subversion of the western by one of the world's greatest working directors. While some may assume that Hollywood's liberal bias is pushing the film forward this award season, it is a worthy heir to the Best Picture title and a piece of cinema you can ill afford to miss. It may be ten minutes too long and one of the lead characters may be simply good as opposed to great, but that's no reason to avoid seeing it. And neither is the subject matter, unless of course you hate seeing the entrails of sheep. If that's the case, just cover your eyes and it'll be over before you know it.

*******************
[1] Including Film Threat, Time, and several others.

[2] If you're aware of my running joke about intercourse with sheep, please get it out of your system. Feel better?

[3] If you can watch the average R-rated film without blinking at content, then you can watch this. If not, may I suggest therapy?

15 January 2006

100 films: On the Waterfront

on the waterfront
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starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Eva Marie Saint
written by: Budd Schulberg, from the articles by Malcolm Johnson
directed by: Elia Kazan
NR, 108 min, 1954, USA


Elia Kazan's defense of his decision to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee[1] and "name names", On the Waterfront is a deeply personal film about finding your priorities and convictions and having the courage to stand up for them. It is a heartfelt, moving piece of art, a gem of the cinema that contains one of the all-time great performances. It is at the same time misguided, despicable and utterly classless. Such is the duality of art.

Some backstory: Kazan (as well as Shulberg, who wrote the script) briefly flirted with communism back when everyone flirted with communism, came to believe it to be an evil that needed to be defeated, testified to the committee as to his involvement and the involvement of people he worked with, and made this film to justify that decision. His testimony helped blacklist fellow filmmakers who had done little more than attend protest rallies and meetings, effectively ruining careers and lives. This action so disgusted the film community that he felt it necessary to defend his actions, and even managed to convince Brando (who was "sickened" by Kazan's testimony) to star in the film[2]. Kazan went on to win Best Director[3], one of the film's 8 Oscars.

Since Kazan made no secret of his motives, it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, to ignore them when examining the film. Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a former prize fighter who helps mob leader Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) have his friend killed in order to prevent his testimony. With the help of a priest (Karl Malden) and his friend's sister (Eva Marie Saint), he comes to see the corruption and finally decides to testify himself after his own brother is killed. He successfully helps destroy Friendly and the union is able to get their rights back. Essentially, his testimony helps destroy evil men that are controlling lives, keeping people silent, and running the waterfront apart from any sort of lawfulness. By all accounts these are evil men. They do no work, give cushy jobs to their friends, and have no problem killing people who step out of line. They are not working class. And Terry's testimony helps destroy them. It is an effective metaphor, albeit a fundamentally flawed one. Kazan, in his testimony, did not bring down the Johnny Friendly, but rather the innocent working men who attended the labor meeting in the basement of the church. But these are innocent men hopeful for a better way of life, not corrupt union leaders. Kazan's film, meant to be his defense, is in many ways his prosecution. Of course Terry does the right thing in the end, but that is not what Kazan did. It's ironic that one of the goals of the socialist movement was to eliminate the poor working conditions in places like the waterfront, where men aren't guaranteed a day's wages and safety is not a concern. Terry Malloy does more for the socialist movement in On the Waterfront than Kazan's testimony could ever undo.

Political theory aside, there is no denying that the testimony of men like Kazan ruined the lives of innocent, hard-working men like the longshoremen of On the Waterfront and for that there is no suitable defense.[4]

As for the film itself, it is a fantastic piece of pure cinema. Brando's performance is perhaps the most influential in film history, and not just for the famous "I coulda been a contender." scene. The brilliance of the scene comes in the little things, the way he gently pushes away Charlie's gun or handles Edie's glove. He has that famous Brando intensity and brutality, but at the same time is sensitive enough to break into tears when his pigeons are killed. It is a complicated, layered performance, but it is also the type of performance that broke a lot of the "rules" of film acting. You can see it in nearly every scene he's in. He's truly a revelation.

I've probably seen On the Waterfront five or six times, but only once knowing all the backstory. For a long time it has been a film I've admired for its greatness (and Kazan for his direction, which is nothing short of amazing) and have always considered to be in that upper echelon of cinema along with Citizen Kane (1941), Cassablanca (1942), Dekalog (1989), and The Godfather (1972, 74). At the same time, my personal distaste for the McCarthy hearings and those that participated is as strong as it is for any sequence of events in American history. It is, let's say, a difficult thing to reconcile and makes this review a difficult one to write[5]. But we do what we must. Can it be possible to both love and hate the same film? Honestly, I don't yet know.

***************
[1] That would be, in case you were wondering, the McCarthy Era.

[2] The role was originally given to a young Frank Sinatra, who subsequently sued.

[3] There's really no way to tell if the Academy was willing to look past Kazan's motives or if they were still scared to McCarthy's wrath. When Kazan was awarded an Honorary Oscar several years ago, a large portion of the audience refused to stand and applaud, in protest of his testimony.

[4] Full disclosure: if you haven't figured it out already, I have a great deal of distaste for those who "named names". One of my heroes is Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, and were I working in Hollywood during the 1950's, I would likely have been one of the names on Kazan's list and I would have had no intention of helping the Russians take over.

[5] Therefore this may not be my greatest effort. So it goes.

11 January 2006

100 films: Yojimbo

yojimbo
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starring: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yôko Tsukasa, and Isuzu Yamada
written by: Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
directed by: Akira Kurosawa
NR, 110 min, 1961, Japan


A lone Samurai (Toshirô Mifune) wanders into a small town caught between two warring gangsters. Against the advice of his innkeeper friend, he opts to sell his services to the highest bidder, all the while working toward his ulterior motive destroying both factions (and being well-paid to do so). He plays both sides expertly, taking money from one then giving it back just as the battle is about to begin. But when a competing samurai appears with a pistol, the power dynamic changes drastically and he is forced into a dangerous game of survival.

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is essentially a high-stakes game of chess--an elaborate battle of wills at a time of great upheaval, where the old world is slowly giving way to the new. Mifune's nameless[1] Samurai represents the old way, a world where a Samurai, once hired, is loyal to the death and a grand sense of honor rules all proceedings. When he decides to stay, he sagely notes that he can make a lot of money in this battle, as the side that pays him the most will buy his loyalty. But then, after overhearing the gang leader's plan to kill him once the battle is over (thus saving a significant amount of money), he does what no one expects from a Samurai: he returns the money and walks away from the battle. The men, of course, are stunned, and the opposing side delirious with joy, for now they have a chance[2]. In a great sequence he calmly walks to the middle of the battleground, declares that he has no affiliation in this fight, and climbs to the top of a tower to watch the battle he has engineered. And were this a much shorter film, his job would have been complete. Thankfully, it isn't.[3]

The two sides declare a truce, much to our hero's dismay, so he must again engineer a battle, this time killing men and assigning the blame elsewhere. Only, he isn't so lucky. Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, has returned to town. He sees right through the Samurai's motives. Being from the new order of things himself he doesn't automatically assume a Samurai's loyalty, as the others do. He doesn't cling to an unfailing sense of honor. And he carries a gun, which makes him the most feared man in town. Unosuke unmasks the Samurai's deception and has his father's men beat him mercilessly for information about the people he's helped in the process. Ironically, most of the Samurai's selfish actions go undetected, but the rare time he does a purely good deed is the time he gets in the most trouble. Consider it Kurosawa's odd view on karma.

Yojimbo also works as Kurosawa's odd take on the classic western. The town is structured like the classic western border town, with the one road down the middle, and a constant breeze whipping up dust in the street. The Samurai spends much of his free time in the town's saloon, drinking sake and waiting for people to come to him. It's clearly an homage to the John Ford westerns, from the disposition of the hero, to the action, to the composition of shots. Kurosawa turns what could have been a cheap gimmick into a beautiful melding of East and West. Strangely enough, when Sergio Leone remade this in 1964 as Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) it signaled the re-invention of the genre. So to breathe life into this most American of genres, it took a Japanese director's homage being re-made by an Italian in a film featuring the star of Rawhide. It isn't exactly the way you'd expect it to happen, but an effective way nonetheless.

It doesn't take much to see Clint Eastwood in Toshirô Mifune's Samurai[4], a man of few words and strong, decisive actions. He lets his silence speak volumes, particularly in an early scene where he's first offering his services. The gangster offers a ridiculously low sum and the Samurai starts to get up. The number slowly moves higher until he says "Not even close", at which point the offer starts climbing dramatically. He doesn't speak again until he hears a number that he likes. This is a style of acting on which Eastwood has based an entire persona, and it's a persona that fits him perfectly, but it's a style that Toshirô Mifune created. Clint merely perfected it.

It has been said that Yojimbo is a film that could exist without the subtitles and still function effectively, and that's not far off the mark. To be sure it is a great film, but it is also one of those rare films that combines seemingly disparate cinematic elements in ways few would have imagined with results that make it seem as if they've always belonged together. To watch Yojimbo is to watch one master honoring another. This is a great film in every way imaginable.

*****************
[1] For all practical purposes.

[2] You see, in a quick demonstration he's already killed three men at once, so no one really wants to do battle with him.

[3] As much as I dislike violence (and the extension of the film leads to plenty of it), I like great cinema more. So if a few more people have to die so I can watch more Kurosawa, so be it.

[4] He was the original "Man With No Name".

being d pressed

There's a bit of d press stuff happening over the next month or so, starting with L'Attente being shown before a play that starts on like Thursday in Pittsburgh. I'll update that stuff on the appropriate blog, but since more people read this one, I thought I'd give people a quick heads up that the other one's being updated.

the 100 films will return very, very soon. plus, i've been sorting through some of the year's acclaimed films to compile a top 10 list, which should be posted soon.

07 January 2006

L'Attente

the rough cut of L'Attente is done, and i'd post a link so people could watch it and tell me if they like it, but i'm having trouble uploading it to the internets, so i'm just gonna get some sleep instead.

french film2

04 January 2006

100 films: Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo

GoodBlondie2
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starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, and Rada Rassimov
written by: Agenore Incrocci & Furio Scarpelli & Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone, from the story by Vincenzoni & Leone
directed by: Sergio Leone
NR, 161 min, 1966, Italy/Spain


Three gunmen--the good (Clint Eastwood), the bad (Lee Van Cleef), and the ugly (Eli Wallach)--are in search of a fortune in Civil War gold buried in a cemetery. Problem is that none of them knows the exact location of the gold, the details being spread out among them, so they are required to either work together or come up with some way to find it alone. There's a sort of agreement to share the money equally, but none of them are exactly gentlemen. This isn't a great deal of plot to fill a three hour film, but when you're Sergio Leone, you don't need a great deal of plot.

Leone's Fistfull of Dollars trilogy, of which Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo is the final chapter[1], was one of the watershed events in the western genre, serving as the bridge between John Ford and, well, Clint Eastwood[2]. Whereas Ford worked with a sense of economy, employing large landscapes and minimal cuts, Leone has no such inclinations. He does nothing half-way, instead embracing excess where his predecessors might eschew it. This makes his choice of a lead actor a rather odd one. Eastwood was on the verge of being cast aside by Hollywood when he was cast as The Man With No Name. In that day actors did not segue easily from television to film and Eastwood, after starring in Rawhide[3], was having trouble finding film work and Leone was having trouble finding movie stars, so they sort of ended up together. It was an odd, although successful, marriage of a director who didn't have time for small measures with an actor who might spend an entire film doing nothing but squinting, if you gave him a chance[4]. Rather than being awkward, Clint serves as the film's ballast, the thing that keeps Leone from flying off into insanity. There's a similar effect in Eastwood's dealings with Eli Wallach, a man of many words prone to bold statements and large threats. Eastwood watches as Wallach goes through his antics, then quietly controls the situation.

Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review, observes that in Leone's world if something is not in the frame, then it is not visible to the characters who are. So if Tuco is digging for gold in a grave he does not see Eastwood approach, nor do he and Eastwood see Angel Eyes approach, even though it would be nearly impossible for them not to. Because to Leone the impossible is not nearly as important as the cinematic or, in some cases, the cool. A normal director would spend a long amount of time trying to justify, in one way or another, how Angel Eyes could have gotten that close, but to Leone that amount of plausibility is not nearly as important as the dramatic effect achieved when his characters are caught off guard. The shot works as a singular shot, so why bother to explain away it's impact? As with many uses of cinematic style, this stems from necessity. In his early films Leone didn't have the budget to worry about continuity, so he adapted a style that allowed him to throw caution to the wind and find ways to make the suspension of disbelief work for him.

Likewise, part of the reason for Ennio Morricone haunting score comes from the difficulties of shooting dialogue given the financial restraints the project was under. Large portions of the existing dialogue was dubbed, but it's even more effective to show long silent stretches filled with music. So, the more effective the score (and it's a great bit of music, evocatively modeled after a howling coyote), the less Leone has to dub, and the more effective the film is as a whole.

One of the marks of a great director is when he makes a film that few others could have made. There's no doubt in my mind that Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo is one of those films. Take, for example, the standoff in the cemetery. Few would have had the courage to extend that scene as long as he did, or to spend so much time building the suspense by inter-cutting between the various closeups, and fewer still would have made it work, but Leone turns it into perhaps the best scene in a film full of great ones. Leone may not be a great film craftsman and Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo may be cooler than it is good, but that's essential to what makes it great. Were it not so raw, it would not feel so alive and would have faded quickly into obscurity. With it we likely would have lost the legacy of Clint Eastwood and perhaps the Western as well. And for that we owe Sergio Leone more than we can imagine.

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[1] I guess it's only fair to admit that I haven't seen the other two films, Per un pugno di dollari (1964) and Per qualche dollaro in più (1965). I did, however, buy them for my brother for Christmas in 2004 and fully intend to see them when I get some free time, but part of the curse of the 100 films project is that if a film is a sequel, I don't have the time to always watch what comes before it.

[2] There's also Kevin Costner, but honestly.

[3] And a memorable guest spot on Maverick, which can be found on the Unforgiven DVD.

[4] I've always thought it would be interesting to see a short film where Clint Eastwood had a conversation with Robert DeNiro. You could take bets on the number of total words spoken.

02 January 2006

current cinema: Munich

eric_bana9

starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Geoffrey Rush
written by: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, from the book by George Jonas
directed by: Steven Spielberg
R, 164 min, 2005, USA


At the 1972 Olympics, the world's grandest statement of peace, eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and killed as Peter Jennings reports live. The world watches in rapt attention, rooting for either death or salvation with a fervor beyond that which any event could muster. Once the word comes that they are indeed dead, Israel moves quickly, assembling a team of assassins led by Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard of the Prime Minister. Their task is to as publicly as possible eliminate eleven Palestinians who helped organize the massacre, so that the world may know that the killing of Jews will no longer be tolerated, that Israel's vengeance will be swift and severe. The inexperienced team is well-funded, but they do not officially exist. As they work through the list, they become better assassins, but in many ways they also become worse patriots, beginning to question their country's motives and developing the paranoia of the hunters becoming the hunted.

It is this evolution of the assassins that serves as the film's true narrative core. Bana and his team begin as idealists, men who have signed up for this mission because they could not imagine living with themselves had they not. They are willing to throw themselves headlong into certain death, if need be, out of a pure sense of loyalty and duty. By design none of them are trained for this sort of thing[1]. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the bomb maker who's bombs tend to malfunction, is a simple toy maker who has some training in dismantling bombs, but none in building them. They start to get better at it, though, and with that experience comes the knowledge that not everything is as it seems. They begin to recognize hidden agendas and affiliations the way a spy would, which leads them to begin asking questions. But beyond that the team (Avner especially) begins to be both tormented by the repercussions of what they're doing and as members of the team start dying, a growing paranoia that they may be next. Even a man throwing a cigarette out the window of a moving car is enough alert Avner's sense of panic. Bana's performance here is better than anything he's done since Chopper (2000) and merits serious consideration in the Oscar race. He is given the herculean task of being the film's conscience and acquits himself brilliantly.

To say Munich is an important film is to state the obvious, as parallels to the War on Terror exist in its very DNA. Spielberg frames his tale as a vintage 70's thriller, and with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski crafts a taut, engrossing thriller. It is flawed where it needs to be flawed, seamless where it needs to be seamless, and save for the somewhat unfortunate sex scene[2] at the end there may not be a wasted shot in the entire film. By any standard, this is a very good film, and by some standards it is a great one.

It would be easy for Spielberg, the world's most famous Jewish filmmaker, to approach a film about the 1972 Olympics from an entirely pro-Israel standpoint, to anoint the group as an extension of God's righteous wrath, both terrible and just. But he doesn't. At multiple turns he questions Israel's motives, their evidence, even their fundamental choice of revenge. He allows the targets every opportunity to establish their humanity, and it is the humanity that plants the seeds of doubt in Avner's mind. It isn't hard to look at a photo of someone who's been called a terrorist and shoot them from a distance, like in a video game, but watch that same man kindly lecture outside a bookstore or make small talk with him on a hotel balcony and he becomes a real person, not just a target. Even the most brazen killer may hesitate before killing someone with whom he's shared a moment, no matter how small. As things progress and he gets sucked deeper into this world, Avner begins to realize that while his allegiance still lies with his home, that home is no longer a plot of land in the Middle East that's been designated as Israel, but with his family, where he can live in peace with his wife and child.

There's an old saying that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind", for it creates an entire cycle of violence that has no logical end. Did the Israeli government really think killing eleven of the terrorists would be it, that Palestine would say fair is fair and ask for a truce? Perhaps. But in that assumption they fail to see that the Munich Massacre was no doubt a response to something else, like the way Israel has treated the Palestinians in the years since being awarded their own country. To them, Munich evens the score for a previous transgression, so any response from Israel is a fresh assault on their people. Is that the healthiest worldview for Palestine to adopt? Perhaps not. But what's so refreshing about Munich is that Spielberg doesn't spend time taking sides with a country. Instead, he takes the side of peace, because when peace wins, everyone wins, and men like Avner can sleep at night.

*****************
[1] The idea being that this will help them fly under the radar easily.

[2] I won't get into it here, since everyone else seems to be spending so much time talking about it, but it was a bit tasteless, although somewhat effective. I understand what he was trying to convey, but he lost me on the slow-motion shot of him soaking wet.

01 January 2006

100 films: Baby Face

8
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starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook, and Theresa Harris
written by: Gene Markey & Kathryn Scola, from the story by Darryl F. Zanuck
directed by: Alfred E. Green
NR, 76 min, 1933, USA


Hardened by growing up in a speakeasy, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) leaves her blue-collar town for New York determined to get ahead by any means necessary. Thanks to some sage advice from a local cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) she has taken to heart the teachings of Nietzsche and has decided to literally sleep her way to the top, floor by floor. In the end, she's gone through seven men, ruined lives, and lost what little bit of compassion and humanity she may have had left. But, she's married to the president of a bank and has a suitcase with over a half a million dollars in it. Money may not buy happiness, but it can't hurt to try.

When presented to the censors in 1933, the original version of Baby Face was deemed "too racy" for audiences and subsequently banned from theatres. An edited version was then approved and played to some success. In 2004 the Library of Congress found an original dupe-negative of the unedited version, restored it, and it premiered in New York in January of 2005. Currently it is circulating the country, playing in the type of theatres that show old movies[1]. After the film, the print goes on to show some of the changes made to appease the censors, so that we may compare for ourselves. The major changes involve not the deletion of content[2] but the changing of the film's perceived "message" of endorsing promiscuous activity as a means of getting ahead. Our protagonist is inspired by the cobbler's charge to use men to get the things she wants, that is to use her sexuality as a weapon by which to level the playing field. This is a dynamic she's used to, as her father has essentially been pimping her out to politicians for years, but the cobbler's use of Nietzsche shows her that she can translate a situation where she was a victim to one where she is in control. Having spent as much time as she has around men, she knows how to manipulate their sexual desires, but she's never used that to her advantage. The censors, though, weren't thrilled with that message[3] so the cobbler's message was changed to state that while she could sleep her way to the top, there is a right way and a wrong way to get what you want, and that she must choose for herself. Later, when he sends her a book in New York, the message inside is changed from one of disregarding sentiment and emotion to a scolding about how she's going down the wrong path.

In the end, the changes actually do more damage to the impact of the film's message than the film's approach to morality would do to the audience. Even in the original version she sees the error of her ways and falls in love, despite what Nietzsche may tell her to do. It is a somewhat emotional decision she comes to and a meaningful one since she must abandon her entire code of ethics in order to do it. That sort of thing requires a certain type of bravery. However, if the basis of her belief structure is ambiguous, then the final decision is not an act of bravery, but rather the simple act of finally making a decision. She has not said "I reject all I have been taught", but rather "I've tried a little of this path and I think I shall go with the other one in the end." There's nothing profound and life-changing about it at all. The simple fact is that the censorship severely undermines the film's impact[4].

As for the film itself, it is essentially a story of early feminism taken to the extreme. In an age before sexual harassment charges, Stanwyck's approach to the job market is an aggressive, if not hostile, one. Her approach isn't to simply catch the eye of the next person up the corporate ladder, but to ruin the men she leaves in her wake by arranging to be caught in their arms at the most inopportune times. Naturally, this sort of thing leads to desperate and jealous men prone to do desperate things like killing a rival and then turning the gun on themselves. This happens right in front of Stanwyck, who views it as something she's been expecting. She doesn't even flinch as the shots are fired, then calmly calls the police. Nothing fazes this woman, and Stanwyck plays her as a woman who's seen the whole world and is always at least one step ahead of everyone around her. She oozes the seductive allure of a good girl with a wild side. It's no surprise she gets every man she wants, no matter how principled. Men in her world are just things to be manipulated, no different from the steelworkers in her father's speakeasy. They may have all the money, but she has all the power, and with power the rest comes naturally.

******************
[1] I saw it at the Regent's Square Theater in Pittsburgh as part of a series titled, "Naughty Gems: Films of the Pre-Code Era". This is the first film in the series, which also includes The Scarlet Empress (1934), Murder at the Vanities (1933), Torch Singer (1933), and Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

[2] Although they may have done that as well.

[3] Probably because they didn't want women getting any ideas.

[4] The ensuing studio bickering was part of the reason Darryl Zanuck quit Warners Brothers and formed Twentieth Century Pictures.
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