29 March 2006

100 films: Psycho

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starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and Martin Balsam
written by: Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch
directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
NR, 109 min, 1960, USA

NOTE: This review will discuss the film's ending. If you haven't yet seen it, beware.

The film that made a generation wary of the shower[1], Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a landmark of cinema, one of the high-water marks for the man many consider to be one of the greatest directors in history. Janet Leigh stars at Marion Crane, a rather ordinary secretary who one day decides to steal $40,000 from her boss and run off with her unsuspecting boyfriend. After napping on the side of the road, she arouses the suspicion of the local authorities, but nothing comes of it. Nearly in the clear, she stops on a rainy night at the secluded Bates Motel. She rents a room, shares a pleasant enough discussion with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the son of the hotel's owner. Then, she is brutally murdered[2]. Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Crane's boss starts to worry, both about his secretary and his cash, so he sends a Private Eye (Martin Balsam) looking for her.

While a great number of people would like to forget it ever happened, there's no denying that Psycho was remade in 1998 by indie auteur Gus Van Sant. Employing a shot-by-shot approach and starring Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, the re-make is generally considered to be a horrific travesty, but has some value for our purposes[3]. One would assume that a shot-by-shot remake would approximate the quality of the original, at least to some extent. It doesn't. So what does this tell us about film? Well, for one, one could argue that the contributions of actors holds more value than originally assumed. After all, that's the major variable at play. Beyond that, though, it suggests that perhaps film is an art form where genius lies between the shots. That is, if the shots are identical and the script is identical, then what does it do to the auteur theory? Van Sant is no slouch of a director[4], so you have to wonder if his remake indicates that perhaps we're spending too much time analyzing the specifics of a shot, if perhaps there isn't something larger at play that conventional criticism can't put a finger on. It is, at very least, something to ponder.

As for the masterpiece, to fully understand the impact Psycho had when it was originally in theatres, you have to know a little of the backstory. Hitchcock purchased the option to Robert Bloch's little-known novel without telling anyone, then proceeded to buy every available copy he could find. During the production, which was filmed under the fake title Wimpy, he planted casting rumors in the press that he was considering Helen Hays for the non-existent role of Mother, had a chair on set reserved for the character, and went to the trouble of billing Janet Leigh as the film's lead, despite the fact that she dies in the early going. Effectively this created two stunning plot twists with the dual benefit of being completely unexpected both in the context of the film and in the reality of anyone familiar with the various Hollywood machinations of casting. Few expect the lead to die in the first half of the film and fewer still expect the casting rumors to involve a character that is a figment of another character's madness.

Part of what makes Leigh's death scene so powerful is that the film never gives us any indication that it isn't going to be about her theft of the money. It invests a great deal of energy in developing her story, from the opening scene of her in a hotel room with her lover, to the nerve-racking encounters with the police, we are completely behind her as a protagonist. So when Hitchcock kills her, revealing the theft as the ultimate MacGuffin[5], it has the ability to take your breath away, but the way Hitchcock films it--with quick cuts and lots of screaming--creates one of the most harrowing scenes ever put on film. It is such a vivid scene that many audience members swore they saw red blood washing down the drain, when in fact the film is done entirely in black and white.

With the protagonist gone, the audience is left scrambling, open to suggestion and manipulation and all sorts of trickery. So we focus on the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, or what we believe to be his mother. Hitchcock wisely gives us only as much information as is absolutely necessary for us to be convinced of her existence--a shrill voice, a silhouette in a window, a shadowy figure in a dress--but none that might suggest otherwise. Yet the ending survives our suspension of disbelief, partly due to the psychiatrist's explanation but largely thanks to the performance of Anthony Perkins, who is nearly flawless as the boy with the Oedipal complex. He's a friendly enough person, perfectly comfortable with small talk, but note the slight shift in his eyes when someone mentions his mother. He reflects both devotion and a quiet desperation, but more importantly goes from helpful to protective. It should be clear that he's got something to hide, but the devotion to one's mother can be a fierce one, so a son protecting his mother's health isn't all that insane. Only, in this case it is.

To me, one of the most powerful aspects of Psycho is the way the film presents two false realities without undercutting the impact or validity of what's truly going on. So often a twist ending is either telegraphed well in advance by excess foreshadowing or so far-fetched that no reasonable person would ever believe it. But Psycho manages to avoid both pitfalls, striking a perfect balance where it is both shocking and realistic. Factor in Hitchcock's unique ability to ratchet up tension shot by shot and what you've got is a top-notch thriller the likes of which most films can only dream of duplicating, even if they duplicate everything else.

[1] According to IMDB.com, Hitchcock received a letter from a father angry because his daughter, who had already sworn off baths after seeing Les Diaboliques (1955), would no longer take a shower after seeing Psycho. Hitchcock's response? "Send her to the dry cleaners."

[2] It isn't any old film that can have a brutal murder qualify as a standard plot point. But, with Hitchcock, anything is possible.

[3] Full disclosure: I actually saw the remake before I saw the original, back when it was in theatres, on a date (The fact that I took a date to Psycho should tell you something about how the relationship turned out.) I remember thinking Vince Vaughn was actually pretty good in the Anthony Perkins role, but Anne Heche was pretty terrible. I imagine she was cast, in part, for her short blonde hair.

[4] He's best known for Good Will Hunting (1997), but is also responsible for Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Drugstore Cowboy (1989). It's a pretty impressive filmography, for the most part.

[5] Basically a Hitchcockian red herring.

25 March 2006

current cinema: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta
this review also appears in The Wissahickon

starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, and John Hurt
written by: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski, based on characters created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
directed by: James McTeigue
R, 132 min, 2006, USA

Opening with a plea to "Remember, remember, the 5th of November[1]" and, for the uninformed, a short history lesson, V for Vendetta is a stylistic endorsement of the communist methods of revolution that in the hands of more capable filmmakers could have been a profound film. But, under the helm of the creative team behind The Matrix Trilogy, it is merely an entertaining diversion.

Cut to November 5th, 2020, and the former United States is in civil war, Britain appears to be under some sort of quarantine, and an ethnic cleansing mentality has taken over the British government. Undesirables (such as dissidents and homosexuals) have been removed from society, succumbing to late-night raids by men carrying black hoods. But from this culture of fear arises a masked phoenix known simply as V. He rescues Evey (Natalie Portman) from the clutches of Britain's finest, makes his Zorro-esque mark on a poster, spouts off a stream of self-indulgent alliteration, and proceeds to blow up the Old Bailey building[2] with the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Minus the speech, it's a pretty cool way to introduce a character.

V's mission, as explained in a speech via an emergency broadcasting system, is to wake a sleeping populace with the promise of a revolution, conjuring the spirit of the late Guy Fawkes, the man who attempted to blow up Parliament during a joint session[3]. In one year's time, V promises Britain the grandest Bonfire Night since the first, asking only that his fellow citizens join in his revolution. Naturally, those in charge don't take too kindly to the threat, charging Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) with the task of ensuring Parliament's safety and V's capture. And with that, the game is on.

The man behind the mask is none other than Hugo Weaving, no stranger to the Wachowski Brothers after playing the evil Agent Smith in all three of the Matrix movies. The film's grand irony (or at very least easiest joke) is that Weaving manages to convey more emotion, even while wearing the mask, than Keanu Reeves ever did in The Matrix. His performance is one of the film's high points. Natalie Portman is excellent is stretches, and is to be commended for having her head shaved, but she seems unsure of her accent and has trouble maintaining it for the film's duration. The script wishes us to believe that Evey, who for a time is held against her will, develops an affection for V, sort of a beauty and the beast romance, but neither the actors or the film invest any real energy in developing it, so it falls flat. It just happens, and we are asked to accept it as plausible.

It's a symptom of the film's larger problem. What director James McTeigue lacks is a fundamental understanding of how to build a story's quieter moments. He's quite good, for the most part, at large sequences full of bombast and pyrotechnics, but he never lays the proper groundwork, so when the explosion is over, all that's left is meaningless rubble. To fill those gaps, he employs a litany of cliché's, from Stephen Rea's tired cop to the vigilante getting his revenge to the constant shots of V emerging from a fiery furnace like a mixture of Keyser Soze and a superhero. For example, there's a scene late in the film when Evey walks out into the rain and raises her arms, mimicking the pose V took when coming out of the fire. This, of course, is meant to symbolize that Evey and V are now of a like mind (or thereabouts). It's an obvious technique that's been around for as long as film has existed. McTeigue has been showing us this clip of V's emergence at various points along the way, but he shows it to us again, in a match cut, as if to remind us of the symbolism. Then he does it again, for the one audience member who might not have picked up on it. And somewhere in there is a point of view shot of the rain that's as inexplicable a shot as you're likely to see. For the life of me I can't figure out if it's worse that McTeigue felt the need to pound the symbolism into our heads, or that the shot of Evey references an earlier shot that's largely lifted from a superior film and was, even then, a cliche. Either way, it's not a good sequence.

Of course, you could make the argument that he's just working from the script by the Wachowski Brothers, which specializes in beating symbolism into your head until you've no choice but to recognize it. The British government leaders, led by Adam Sutler (John Hurt), are as thinly-veiled a depiction of the Bush Administration as you'll ever see. Essentially taking Bush tactics and phrasing extrapolated into an Orwellian tyranny, the screenplay vilifies them in a way most obvious, and for an added touch, combines them with commonly recognized Nazi propaganda so that even the most ardent Republican might have trouble justifying Bush's Presidency. It accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 (2004) feel subtle. Even so, it fails to understand V's methodology, confusing Marxist revolutionary dogma with the ideal that an individual can enact change, given the proper amount of determination and firepower. The premise contains a great deal of potential, but is squandered at every turn.

V for Vendetta is a film built largely on cliché's and heavy-handed allusions to previous works. However, as the Wachowski Brothers and other cinematic imitators have shown in the past, if you use enough of them, either a couple will slip through and feel original or the sum total will pass as stylistic. But in the end, it all feels like the stories by writers who haven't yet found their voice, so they mimic what they've read last. A lucky few find success with this method, but the vast majority must mature and evolve until they find their own voice. Sure, V for Vendetta is an entertaining way to spend two hours, but it's also a seriously flawed movie made by people unsure of their message and unable to trust their audience to find it without a detailed road map. There's a hint of the blind leading the blind and the sinking sensation that this ship, while a lot of fun, won't hold water for long.

[1] An astute reader will remember that on the 5th of November Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize (1930), the first Monopoly game was sold (1935), we first learned of a genetic study showing that Thomas Jefferson impregnated one of his slaves (1998), and, interestingly enough, The Matrix Revolutions (2003) was released in theatres worldwide.

[2] The Old Bailey Building is a criminal court that deals primarily with Britain's major criminal cases. Hence, it is a symbolic target for V and not to be confused with the Bailey Building & Loan as depicted in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

[3] Known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It is said that Fawkes was "the only man to ever enter Parliament with honest intentions."

23 March 2006


I feel the need for a new template, but I haven't a clue what that should be. So, anyone with any ideas, let me know.

100 films: A Hard Day's Night

a hard day's night
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starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr
written by: Alun Owen
directed by: Richard Lester
NR, 87 min, 1964, UK

A faux documentary of a typical day in the life of one of Britain's biggest bands, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night captures Beetle-Mania in full force as our heroes prepare for a television appearance. With Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), a "very clean"[1] old mixer, causing trouble along the way, they escape hordes of screaming girls, visit a nightclub, and bust Ringo out of jail, while occasionally taking time to perform one of their new songs, of course. It is, from beginning to end, a delightful lark.

Our intrepid heroes play themselves (or at very least versions of themselves as presented by screenwriter Alun Owen) as four boys who want nothing more than to enjoy life. While everyone else around them is focused on the task at hand, the Fab Four are more interested in hitting on girls, playing cards on a train, and goofing off in a field when they're supposed to be preparing for the show. They seem unconcerned with mundane tasks like answering fan mail or rehearsing and show little regard for how they're perceived by the world at large. There's a memorable scene where George Harrison, having been mistaken for a member of a focus group, willingly sits down and gives his opinion on some shirts and the model for some fashion line. He doesn't bother to tell them who he is and they fail to notice. It's one of the film's delightful quirks that they are either mobbed by screaming fans or go completely unnoticed. But these people in the fashion industry never realize they are talking to one of the most famous people in the entire country, and since his opinion doesn't mesh with their market research, they dismiss it out of hand as the work of a troublemaker.

What's perhaps most remarkable about A Hard Day's Night is just how comfortable the Beatles are in front of a camera. With the influx of MTV and VH1 and the like, we tend to forget that in 1964, it was a rare thing for a musician to be on TV and rarer still for them to appear in any capacity other than a performance. So for all four of them to come off so well in an actual film where they are required to act is no small feat. But even beyond that, they are not just passable, they're actually good. Better, in fact, than some real actors[2]. The film takes time to give each of them a storyline with which to work, from Paul's interactions with his grandfather to George's focus group to Ringo's diversion to live life and subsequent arrest, but the best of the lot is John Lennon, who has an ongoing feud with the band's manager, Norm (Norman Rossington). It is a simple feud. Norm wants the band to stay put, be well-behaved, and generally act as mature model citizens. John, being a born troublemaker, attempts to make this as difficult as possible. He misbehaves at every opportunity, and while it certainly is a childish way to be, it has the dual effect of humanizing him. As the band's de facto leader (and eventual martyr), there was always a mystique around Lennon, but the film contrasts that by showing him as nothing more than a big kid. Particularly in a scene where he's taking a bath and, as little kids are prone to do, is focused more on playing with his toy ship than anything else. It's easy to see why half the world was in love with him.

It would have been simple for director Richard Lester to just follow the Beatles around with a camera, and with the state of Beatle-Mania in full effect, he probably would have been guaranteed a hit. But it's obvious from the beginning that Lester put a lot of care into making the best film he possibly could. Lester strives to not only capture the essence (such as it is) of the Fab Four and Beatle-Mania, but also of the culture as a whole. He constantly creates scenarios where his protagonists are cast opposite the straight members of society, and at every instance they find some way belittle it, or at very least have a good time. They are unwilling to conform, and as an audience we love all the more for it. Also worth noting is that in a film like this, done largely as a documentary, you'd expect it to be noticeably flawed, for there to be stretches where the film lags and generally starts to lose momentum. It's a problem so inherent in this type of film, but somehow A Hard Day's Night avoids that pitfall. Partly because of the raw charisma of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but mostly because from top to bottom this is an expertly-made film. Without question it is the standard-bearer of the genre. But beyond that, I cannot imagine someone with any amount of appreciation for the Beatles or their music who would not thoroughly enjoy this film.

[1] Brambell is not, as you might have guessed, Paul McCartney's real grandfather. He is an actor famous in the UK for playing a "dirty old man" in the TV series Steptoe and Son (1962), which was later turned into Sanford and Son (1972) when it journeyed across the pond to the colonies.

[2] The British Academy seemed to think so too, nominated them for a BAFTA as Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. They lost to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins (1964), but there's no shame in that. The film was also nominated for two Oscars in Best Original Screenplay and Best Music Adaptation or Treatment. They didn't win those either.

19 March 2006

100 films: Lawrence of Arabia


starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and Claude Rains
written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on the writings of T.E. Lawrence
directed by: David Lean
NR, 216 min, 1962, UK

Widely hailed as a triumph of the cinema and occasionally listed in dictionaries as the definition of an epic[1], Lawrence of Arabia is the type of grand, large-scale filmmaking few attempt and even fewer accomplish. Peter O'Toole, in his film debut, stars as T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer who has just died in a motorcycle accident and has been enshrined in one of those hallowed places the British seem to like so much[2]. The film operates largely as a biopic of Lawrence's life, focusing primarily on his time in the Arabian desert leading sparse bands of Arabs in guerrilla warfare against the hated Turkish army. To do so he must gain the trust of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and his loyal military leader Serif Ali (Omar Sharif), in addition to Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a sort of hired gun paid by the Turks. He quickly becomes their de facto leader after engineering a suicidal mission across the desert, but success goes to his head. He develops a Messiah complex and his quirks and eccentricities, while amusing at first, start to become worrisome.

As anyone who's even heard of Lawrence of Arabia will tell you, the film exists as an example of the power of cinematography in telling a story. Freddie Young won one of the film's 7 Academy Awards[3] for his work, which is nothing short of beautiful, and even more impressive when you consider the logistical difficulties of working in a desert where the sand is omnipresent, constantly inserting itself in cameras and film bags and a variety of places one can only imagine. There is, for the most part, a refreshing lack of matte drawings and other such tricks. Instead, the cinematography shows the desert for what it is: a harsh, unending wilderness, barren and cruel. Director David Lean takes care to, whenever possible, remind us just how small his characters really are in comparison, employing shots where a great man is merely a speck in the distance. Many have pointed out that the film often feels like it was composed with the care of a painting. Lawerence of Arabia was one of the last films shot entirely on 70 mm film stock[4], consequently, it is a film that is best viewed in a theatre, where the images can overwhelm you, rather than on a DVD player in your living room. Unfortunately, I must resort to the latter. This, I suspect, may have had a negative impact on my viewing experience.

At no time did Lawrence of Arabia take my breath away, instead coming across as a polite examination of a flawed man. The images, from which I expected greatness, felt surprisingly ordinary at times. The sound mixing, while quite good in the desert, borders on awful during the interior scenes in the film's first third. Whether this is a result of the transfer to DVD or not is a question that I cannot answer, and therefore an issue I cannot discount[5]. Particularly bothersome is a scene after the attack on Aqaba. Lawrence and Sherif ride their camels to the ocean, a symbolic moment after the long, impossible journey through the desert, and Sherif tosses some flowers into the surf. Lawrence scoops them up and Lean cuts to a medium shot of Lawrence very clearly standing in front of a poorly executed rear projection of the ocean. Sherif, in his matching shot, is doing the same. After all these beautiful, gimmick free shots in the desert, the rear projection looks positively awful. Awful enough to take me out of the film for a couple of minutes. Honestly, I don't know if it ever completely got me back. This begs the question, is it fair to judge an entire film based on a single sequence? In my opinion, if it's something that is so out of place that you still remember it the next day, then the filmmakers have not done their job.

Lawrence of Arabia is, chiefly, a biopic, so we would be remiss to not discuss the person of T.E. Lawrence and his portrayal in the film. Structured around the personal writings of Lawrence, which he self-published for 120 of his close friends, it is an examination of one man's downward spiral into a type of madness, all the while gaining fame and prestige. Peter O'Toole portrays him as an eccentric sort, intelligent and quirky and noble and a little bit effeminate[6]. O'Toole's role is not an easy one, as he must play a character who must experience a substantial number of the extremes in the human experience. This is a man who was a British Officer lauded for his exploits, but also a man who nearly died in the desert, was beaten by Turks, nearly went mad, and developed a repulsive affection for killing. O'Toole is exceptional in playing each of these emotions, but at times he seems to be unsure where he is in the film's timeline, that is the character does not build and develop as effectively as he could[7]. It should also be noted that the film gives me the feeling that Lawrence, in his writings, isn't being completely honest with us (or himself, perhaps). Something about the progression of the character just doesn't fit. One minute he's in the desert, ready to take over the world, and the next he's begging for a desk job where he can do paperwork the rest of his life. Then, just as abruptly, he's back in control. Clearly there's something wrong with him psychologically, but the film never makes an effort to discover what that is. It is content to present us with a Lawrence that is simply flawed for no discernible reason. Whether it is that Lawrence himself lacks the ability (or the stomach) to fully explore the depths of who he is, or the film is too respectful of him to make such assumptions, or something else altogether remains to be seen. But the result is a character who the audience never sees as three-dimensional with motives and honest emotions. What we see is a cross between the man in the newspaper and the real thing, as played by a Shakespearian actor who sometimes looks as if he's just come out of his trailer.

All of this makes Lawrence of Arabia sound like rubbish, like some overrated piece of cinema that hasn't aged well for the new millennium. It isn't. There are a hundred reasons to love Lawrence of Arabia, from the cinematography to the score to the script to the direction to the performances of Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn. And there are just as many reviews out there that will tell you as much, but I can only speak from my experience of how the film played when I watched it on DVD in my apartment late on a Wednesday night. When all was said and done, it was a film that I respected more than I liked. I never felt I was watching great cinema unfurl on screen as much as an expertly-made epic with little emotional investment on my part. It reminded me of the collected works of Anthony Minghella[8], a director who's films always feel just a little too long and a little too clean. They don't feel alive, and neither does this. It misses greatness by the smallest of margins.

[1] I have no idea if that's true, but it could be.

[2] The film doesn't tell us where that is, as it apparently isn't all that important, and I'm too lazy to figure it out for myself. It could be a British Military Hall of Fame, if they have such a thing.

[3] The other 6 were: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter O'Toole), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Omar Sharif), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

[4] It was the intention of Terrence Malick to do the same for The New World (2005), but financial considerations made that impossible.

[5] To elaborate: certain scenes of dialogue were lost and had to be later re-recorded by O'Toole, et al., for the film's theatrical re-release. This could explain the early scenes that sounded as if they were mixed by a freshman film major. However, the problem seemed larger than some basic ADR, so I must assume the problem existed all along, at least in some form. It isn't a major problem, but one worth noting.

[6] There is considerable speculation that Lawrence was gay. Obviously a big-budget movie in 1962 wasn't going to go there.

[7] Still, O'Toole got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the role, the first of seven, all for leading roles. He has, however, yet to win. The other six were: Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and my personal favorite, My Favorite Year (1982).

[8] He of The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Cold Mountain (2003).

15 March 2006

writer's block (an essay)

There's this coffee shop a couple of blocks from my apartment where I often go on afternoons to write, but mostly I just stare at a blank sheet of paper and fiddle with my iPod. I very rarely get anything done, other than casually observing humanity and increasing my dependency on caffeine. Today's newspaper claims that my city has the largest per-capita coffee consumption in the country, so my addiction is at least fitting, assuming the newspaper is to be believed.

Such information is encouraging, although not at all helpful, as I slog through yet another rewrite of a screenplay titled "coffee stains". But if I'm honest with myself, "slog" is too kind a description of the current state of my progress. "Stall" is much more accurate, even if it doesn't work in the context of the sentence. I haven't written a single line of dialogue in four months.

And it's not just the screenplay. It's also the TV series I promised to develop, the play due sometime next year that I haven't started, a couple of essays I promised to write, and not to mention the backlog of ideas cluttering my brain.

The only thing I can seem to write anymore are movie reviews that are well-received, but I can't shake the feeling they aren't all that they can be. And still they take me a couple of days to write, where before they used to take an hour, maybe two.

It could be that I'm a perfectionist.

When I finally accept that nothing's going to get done at the coffee shop, I walk home where there's a myriad of distractions, be it my roommates or the internet or television or the impending knowledge that if I want to be able to pay my rent, I should probably play a couple hundred hands of poker without running afoul of luck. Lately that's been nigh unto impossible.

So it goes.

What I need to do is get away for a couple of weeks, spend some time cut off from the internet and phone calls and this increasingly frustrating circle of friends, and just write or, failing that, do absolutely nothing at all.

If only I could afford it. Damn this debt. For some reason the whole scenario makes me want to get drunk and listen to Johnny Cash. Not the wisest course of action, but an effective one nonetheless.

Part of me--the irrational part--says I should just do it, financial considerations be damned. Or that I should get my heart broken--a sure-fire tonic for writer's block, and maybe I will. It wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. Long-term it may even be beneficial. I imagine that part of the problem is simply that I'm burned out and stuck in a routine.

By some stroke of cosmic fate, my iPod has just shuffled itself to Radiohead's song "How to Disappear Completely". It's not a bad idea.

The more I think about it, the more I like it.

--Pittsburgh, 2006.

13 March 2006

current cinema: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

three burials of melquiades estrada

starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, and January Jones
written by: Guillermo Arriaga
directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
R, 121 min, 2005, USA

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the directorial debut of Academy Award winning[1] actor Tommy Lee Jones, is a meditative study of one man's tireless devotion to his best friend and the personal hell one can trigger through the careless use of firearms. In addition to directing, Jones stars as Pete Perkins, a ranch hand of simple means who makes a promise to his dear friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) that should he die in the United States, Pete will ensure that Melquiades is taken across the border and laid to rest in his hometown, where he can be with his wife and children. So when Melquiades is accidentally shot by distracted Border Patrol guard Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to intercede on behalf of a "wetback", Pete takes matters into his own hands--kidnapping Norton and forcing him to dig up Melquiades and escort him back to Mexico.[2]

Plot-wise, that pretty much it. On the surface, it sounds like a simple enough premise: bury Melquiades Estrada, dig him up again, and take him across the border. And in a lot of ways it is, until the script by Guillermo Arriaga[3] starts layering in subplots and flashbacks and false starts that come together to give the story a surprising amount of depth. The story originates in the sort of small Texas town where everyone eats breakfast at the same diner and the lone waitress has alternating affairs with several regulars, even though she's married to the cook. This sort of extracurricular activity is kept secret from absolutely no one. So in a town like this, where everyone knows everyone's business and there's a lot of personal baggage attached to everything, it feels natural when Arriaga sets up potential conflicts only to abandon them later on in the film. It's as if the film presents a situation that could branch off in several directions, but with a character like Pete at the helm, there are no options, no maybes, nothing but an all-consuming need to fulfill a promise to a friend. It's exactly the sort of stubborn devotion we expect from our cowboys.

With the exception of the flashbacks, what Tommy Lee Jones gives us in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a classic Western, a natural progression of the genre perfected by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood, with a healthy dose of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Jones films in long, assured takes that often consist of little more than beautiful scenery, eschewing visual tricks. As is often the case with actors who segue into directing, the film is designed to focus on the performances that serve as the film's ballast.

Jones, in particular, is quite good in the lead role. Personally, I had begun to give up on him, considering his lackluster filmography as of late[4], but his performance here restores the gruff exterior we all love. On top of that, though, this is a man battling different emotions as he grieves the loss of his friend. There's a scene in the police station where he appears to be on the verge of tears, and he's consistently mad enough over his death where you half-expect he might kill the next person to get in his way. There's a lot bubbling under the surface. Barry Pepper, his companion for the trek to Mexico, is in the unfortunate position of being the recipient of Pete's unique form of desert justice. Not only must he stay in close proximity to a increasingly rank Melquiades Estrada for the duration of the trip, but he must do it in Melquiades' clothes, handcuffed and barefoot. The tragedy of the whole scenario is that the shooting was an accident, as Pepper thought Melquiades was firing at him as he perused an adult magazine while on patrol. So not only must Pepper deal with a nightmarish traveling party, but also the guilt of having killed an innocent man and a marriage that, by all appearances, seems to be on the rocks. Pepper is great in the role.

When all is said and done, what The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada gives us is another homage to the power of a love between two cowboys (or ranch hands). It would be simple for Pete to ignore the request of Melquiades, especially when it became increasingly clear that he was going to have to break the law to do it, but that sort of friendship, that sort of love between two men is a hard bond to break. The Western genre has always been filled with that sort of unending devotion. It matters little if it's John Wayne tracking the indians that captures his niece or Clint Eastwood avenging Morgan Freeman or a love affair that lasts decades. What matters is that level of commitment that drives them to do what few sane men would consider, and to do it with a stoic knowledge that this is the way it must be. There are no other options for men like Pete Perkins. Melquiades Estrada must be returned to his home, consequences be damned. It really is beautiful.

[1] Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive (1993), also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for JFK (1991). He also won Best Actor at Cannes for this film.

[2] An attentive reader with basic math skills will recognize this as only two burials of Melquiades Estrada. There is a brief period just after the shooting where Melquiades is hastily buried due to broken refrigeration in the morgue. Hence, the title.

[3] Best known as the guy who wrote the Alejandro González Iñárritu films 21 Grams (2003) and Amores perros (2000).

[4] Think Man of the House (2005), that awful looking abomination about the FBI agent looking after cheerleaders.

10 March 2006

100 films: Tokyo monogatari

tokyo story
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starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, and Haruko Sugimura
written by: Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
NR, 136 min, 1953, Japan

An elderly couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) travels to Tokyo to spend time with the children they haven't seen in years. They children, while happy to see them, are unable (or unwilling) to clear enough time in their schedules to accommodate the visit, passing their parents around like bothersome orphans or leaving them to fend for themselves in Tokyo. Eventually, they tire of Tokyo and head home early, only to have the mother fall deathly ill upon their return. So the children must travel from Tokyo to be with their dying mother, inconvenience be damned, despite her explicit request that they not trouble themselves because of her. They do not, for even a minute, consider honoring that request. To do so would be the ultimate insult to the woman who gave you life, but still she makes the request. Mothers are funny that way.

At first glance, Tokyo monogatari comes across as somewhat boring, filling long spaces with little to no conflict or action or activity. In short, nothing happens for significant periods of time, which can tend to cause problems for less than attentive audience members. The story itself doesn't exactly lend itself to the sort of things that grab your attention and Yasujiro Ozu is unwilling to needlessly ramp up the action with cheap ploys like gunshots, chase scenes, or camera movement--any camera movement. If there's a shot in the film that isn't done by a locked camera on a tripod[1], I missed it. To say this is a film that doesn't mesh with the MTV visual style is the understatement of the year. And thank goodness for that.

Ozu, being a master filmmaker in the classical sense, spends his time composing shots that speak volumes, rather than forcing the action with camera movement or edits designed to tell the audience what they should think. Few directors have the courage necessary to attempt such a passive style, usually out of fear of losing an audience, but the ones who can pull it off are universally regarded as the masters of the medium. Such is the case with Ozu, who fills his shots with such a multitude of details and information that to cut away would rob us of the simple pleasure of allowing the story to envelop us slowly, drawing us in with a quiet confidence that this is something so good, so important, that to draw attention to it would cheapen it somehow. In a way, it feels closer to the truth.

The theme Ozu explores, that of the splintering of the fundamental Japanese family, is at the same time uniquely Asian and universal. The level of respect afforded to the elders in Asian cultures is well-known, so for these parents to travel such distances only to be ignored by their children is a bit startling. There's a small moment where we learn they have yet to even meet their school-age grandchild, which would indicate a certain amount of time has passed since the family has been together, yet the parents are left alone in the house for hours on end, quietly passing the time. Later, the children decide it would be in everyone's best interest to send the parents to a nearby spa for several days, completely ignoring the fact that no parent travels great distances to visit their children with the secret ambition to go to a spa instead. The children are indeed selfish, as children usually are, but are made to look even worse by Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of one of the children. This is a woman who isn't a blood relative, yet has been faithfully mourning for years, partly out of fear of disappointing her in-laws. It is Noriko who spends the most time with them, providing them with her time and hospitality. It says a lot when the most faithful members of a family are the ones who've entered by choice. The rest of them are too caught up in their own lives to pay their parents much heed.

Therefore, they are caught completely off-guard by the failing health of their mother, even though it has been clear to the audience all along. Thanks in large part to their selfishness, they cost themselves a valuable opportunity to spend some last moments with her, as she is in a coma by the time they arrive. She passes before they have a chance to say goodbye, and that's something they'll have to live with for the rest of their lives. It is a moving and heartbreaking finale, and one that I expect gains resonance the older you are when you watch it. Even so, it's a powerful reminder that loved ones can go at any time. You never know which moment will be the last one. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll give my parents a call...

[1] This means that no only does Ozu not employ a crane or a steadicam or a dolly, but he also does not use basic techniques like panning or tilting the camera.

07 March 2006

final thoughts on the Oscars

I know you're all chomping at the bit for the next segment in the 100 films series (which is past the half-way point, by the way), but first some final thoughts on the Oscars

As some of you noticed, yours truly did quite well in the Oscar prediction game, correctly naming 20 of the 24 categories (21 out of 25 if you count the honorary award to Robert Altman, but that doesn't really count). It was good enough to win me money in my Oscar pool, but more importantly is better than the predictions of 84 of the 85 Oscar "experts" in the entire country, according to this webpage. And I've never heard of the guy who got more than me, so for all I know he's the guy who counts the ballots. If you were crafty enough to use my predictions to win any cash, feel free to send me a cut.

One of the four I got wrong was Best Picture, even though I should have known better than to bet against my Best Picture theory: most of the time, the worst of the 5 nominees will win. I tend to view this as an indication of the widespread mediocrity in Hollywood, or it could just be that no one agrees with my opinion. Both, I suppose, are equally likely. According to me, the nominees ranked as follows:

1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Capote
3. Munich
4. Good Night, and Good Luck
5. Crash

There's a small gap, in my opinion, between Brokeback Mountain and the rest of the field, another small gap between Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck, and a sizeable one between Crash and the rest of the field.

The problem with Crash (which I liked, but not enough to think it deserves a Best Picture nomination) is twofold 1) It is a rather derivative version of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), only with racial conficts instead of family ones. It has the feel of a film made in response or tribute to a great one, and films like that usually end up as second-class citizens[1]. So Crash comes off as a film that's stealing from Magnolia, right down to the closing song that's eerily reminsicent of Aimee Mann's "Save Me". 2) Paul Haggis is not a mature enough filmmaker to have yet found his artistic voice. He's clearly still riding with training wheels. This makes his film come off as simplistic at points, and lends itself to a situation where his film gets worse with repeated viewings. Great films do not suffer from these problems. In terms of pure quality, Crash is somewhere along the lines of Anderson's Hard Eight, good but flawed.

So how is it that Crash is able to leap-frog the field and win? Well, there's probably a couple of reasons. More than the middle three films, Crash struck an emotional chord that hid it's flaws. In a large voting group like the Academy, this is a notable factor. Also not to be discounted is the fact that a large number of actors were in the film, and likely voted for their own film, as you'd expect them to. But the largest factor is the homophobia one. It seems to be common knowledge in Hollywood these days that most of the "old guard" was unwilling to even watch Brokeback Mountain, let alone vote for it. Obviously, this is unfortunate, and smacks of all kinds of irresponsibility and hypocrisy on their part, as no one is willing to actually admit the subject matter was too much for them[2]. Some have likened it to the dillema of voting for a black President. Everyone thinks it's a great idea, but when you get them in the voting booth, it's a different story.

This has all led to a great deal of unfortunate bickering between the two sides, with the Crash side claiming that it is the superior film, and the Brokeback Mountain side claiming Crash won because of homophobia. The answer, I think, is somewhere in the middle. Few intelligent people who saw all five films would even dare argue that Crash is on par with the rest of the nominees[3], let alone a supperior film. Most recognize that it was lucky to get nominated. This may explain the anger of the Brokeback Mountain supporters. Had it lost to Capote or Munich, the response would have probably been different. It doesn't take a film historian to realize that time will not be kind to Crash, especially now that it has this stigma of being the film that didn't deserve Best Picture[4], while the other four nominees will probably age quite well. I suspect Brokeback Mountain will be viewed as a classic and Munich may age better than the rest, once our society can get a little bit farther from the politics involved.

Time will heal all wounds, though. As you may remember, until recently, it was pretty hard out there for a pimp.

[1] Unless you go the Tarrantino route and steal from movies hardly anyone has seen.

[2] It also seems unfair, since I had to sit through the utterly terrible Chicago (2003).

[3] Rogert Ebert is the notable exception, but sometimes he tends to lose his bearings.

[4] Think Shakespeare in Love (1998)

05 March 2006


For the record, who will win tonight, according to me:

Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain
Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Supporting Actor: George Clooney, Syriana
Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Original Screenplay: Crash
Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain
Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Animated Feature: Wallace and Grommit
Foreign Film: Tsotsi
Cinematography: Brokeback Mountain
Art Direction: Memoirs of a Geisha
Visual Effects: King Kong
Costume: Memoirs of a Geisha
Makeup: The Chronicles of Narnia
Editing: Crash
Score: Brokeback Mountain
Sound: Walk the Line
Song: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp", Hustle & Flow
Sound Editing: King Kong
Documentary Short: God Sleeps in Rwanda
Documentary Feature: March of the Penguins
Animated Short: The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation
Live Action Short: Six Shooter

03 March 2006

current cinema: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

confederate states of america

starring: Larry Peterson, Evamarii Johnson, Rupert Pate, and documentary subjects
written and directed by: Kevin Willmott
NR, 89 min, 2006, USA

Alternate histories seem to be in vogue these days, so as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement, an alternate history of the Confederate South serves as a logical union. That is, a "what if" film describing the last century and a half after the Confederate victory in the "War of Northern Aggression"[1] is a perfectly natural, if not inevitable, project. Ergo, we have Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a fictional film presented by Spike Lee that masquerades as a British documentary exploring the history of the Confederate States of America through interviews and archival footage, complete with commercial breaks as the documentary is aired by channel 6 in San Francisco.

This bizarro universe begins with the British and French joining the South in an overwhelming victory at Gettysburg that leads to Confederate forces taking over Washington, sending President Lincoln into hiding, where he employs Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad for Canada. But before he can get there he's captured, in blackface, by the military. Thus, "Dishonest" Abe was convicted of war crimes, eventually pardoned by Jefferson Davis, and exiled to Canada, where he was largely forgotten by history. This, American History scholars will tell you, is not all that outrageous of a scenario, as British and French forces had considered coming to the South's aid, which may have changed history.

Over the course of the film, Willmott crafts his alternate history by primarily tweaking the existing history. So, instead of fighting the Nazi's in World War II, we have a kinship with Adolf Hitler, who's Aryan race is no longer seen as a major threat. Therefore, the Cold War is not in Europe with the Communists, but against Canada and their support of abolitionists. JFK is still assassinated, but for his desire to carry on the work of Lincoln and not for whatever reasons Oliver Stone may conjure. Willmott wisely declines to take any major leaps into the great unknown of pure fantasy, instead grounding his story in a reality we can recognize, even employing phrasing used by Clinton for effect. His history is only a few degrees different from our own, and I suppose that's the point: to show us just how close we came to this reality, but effectively that's also the film's primary failure. At no time does Willmott ever attempt to correlate his history with our own, and in doing so he lets us off the hook. Few intelligent people actually support the institution of slavery, so showing us it's modern day incarnation does little more than remind us how thankful we are that our forefathers got rid of it.

But while the film may fail as a social commentary, it is a resounding success as a comedy as it spoofs history, segregation, Hollywood films, and the entire "Ken Burns technique". From the choice to concentrate all the Jews on Long Island, to the Confederate decision to invade South America, Willmont goes for a maximum comedic effect. It is easily the funniest thing I've seen so far this year. The problem is that in playing the comedy card, he loses focus of his historical timeline, littering the film with errors that a more experienced filmmaker would have avoided.[2] Generally speaking, though, the archival footage works, and the historical timeline is a reasonable approximation of what could have happened. It is clearly funnier than it is insightful, and if I seem to harp on that point, it may be that I expected more than the film was attempting to provide. All in all, it provides a highly entertaining 84 minutes, and you can't really ask for much more than that.

[1] Just to be clear, we're talking about the Civil War, which the North won. This should be obvious, but American History isn't everyone's favorite subject.

[2] There is, for example, "rare film footage" of an interview Lincoln did during his exile, in 1905. This would make Lincoln an astounding 96 years old and the ability to record sound along with film very rare.

02 March 2006

100 films: The Purple Rose of Cairo

purple rose of cairo
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starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, and Irving Metzman
written and directed by: Woody Allen
PG, 84 min, 1985, USA

Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a waitress in a bad marriage, finds an escape from her dreary life at the movies. Under the flickering lights, she gets lost in the stories, in the back stories, and in the lives of the actors themselves. But her affections do not go unnoticed, as one day Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels)--archeologist, adventurer extroardinare, and fictional character--stops the film, walks down into the audience, and whisks Cecilia away. Cecilia is delighted, but the rest of the film's cast is flabbergasted, unsure as to what they should do without Baxter who, while a minor character, is the one the plots turns on. The film stops as the characters sit around waiting for Baxter to come back, passing the time by playing cards and interacting with the remaining audiences members, who run the gamut from fascinated to livid. Meanwhile, Baxter is adjusting to the real world, Cecilia reconciles herself to being in love with a fictional character, and Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), the actor who brought Baxter to life, flies in from Hollywood to ensure his creation doesn't ruin his career.

There's something beautifully bittersweet about The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of Woody Allen's forgotten gems. Mia Farrow's Cecilia is as empathetic a character as you're likely to find, too distracted by her Hollywood obsession to always concentrate at her job, occasionally beaten by her unemployed husband (Danny Aiello), and not too proud to cry as spends her evenings at the movies. So when Baxter notices her in the audience, even remembering how many times she's seen the movie, and comes down off the screen, it becomes one of those fairytale moments that you only see, well, in the movies. But it's the type of moment that can bring a smile to even the hardest soul partly because it's so unexpected, but mostly because of who Cecilia is. This is a dreamer who wouldn't even consider hurting a soul[1], and the world uses that delicacy, that naive sense of trust, against her. So to see something good happen that's beyond even her wildest dreams is a delight.

It doesn't take a genius of a director to figure this out, but Woody Allen does it in ways that most wouldn't. Things like not making Cecilia an aspiring actress who wants to be a movie star, but instead someone who's just in love with the Hollywood ideals of that time[2]. She has no delusions of grandeur, no ulterior motives, no aspirations to speak of. Her love of Hollywood is as pure as it can possibly be and Farrow plays it with a wide-eyed wonder. Allen also has the presence of mind to make Baxter nearly as innocent as Cecilia, trying to pay with fake money, confusing the screenwriters with God, and wondering why there isn't a fade out when he goes to kiss her. They make quite a pair as they fall in love both with each other and the ideals they've projected onto the other person (or fictional character, as the case may be).

And while Farrow's great in this role, she's no match for Jeff Daniels dual performance of Baxter and Gil Shepherd, the actor who created him. As good as he is here[3], it's almost stunning to consider that is essentially took twenty years before he again had a role this good.[4] Daniels plays Baxter as a supporting character in a 1930's movie in that slightly over-stated, happy to be in a movie way that's common in the time period. But the beauty of it is that he plays the character the same way even after he's come down off the screen. He may be free from the constraints of the plot, but he cannot change who he is. He cannot fully become real, he cannot avoid doing and saying the type of things his character might say. Shepherd, of course, has no constraints. His concern is primarily with the state of his career, so he spends his time alternately worrying that Baxter may become a felon and defending the importance of Baxter to the film, no matter how minor the character may be. But in one of Woody Allen's interesting twists, he has Shepherd fall in love with Cecilia. It's a nice little comment on the nature of love, that who we fall in love with is something that's decided at the core of who we are. Because that's what Baxter and Shepherd share and both are smitten with her. Eventually, Cecilia must make a choice, and Shepherd points out to her that he has the advantage of being real. But to someone like Cecilia, does he? His lifestyle makes about as much sense to her as traipsing around the film with Baxter, so in essence she must choose between three levels of reality: Baxter, Shepherd, and her louse of a husband.

The Purple Rose of Cairo may not be the genre-defining masterpieces that are Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979), but it is as expertly-crafted a film as you'll find. Every shot, every subtle joke, every note feels perfectly placed. The film has no grand ambitions, yet it is made so simply and perfectly that it achieves them anyway. Along the way, Allen takes time to comment on the relationship between films and their audiences, as the characters start insulting audience members who are sitting there merely to observe how the characters spend their time waiting for Baxter's return. Or, as one woman complains to the manager, "I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what's life all about anyway?" So short-sighted, but yet so true.

[1] Even after Baxter professes his love for her, she's still faithful to her louse of a husband.

[2] Being the Great Depression.

[3] Nominated for a Golden Globe, even.

[4] That would be The Squid and the Whale (2005). There are others, I know, but none that vaulted Daniels into this level of critical acclaim.