Thursday, December 15, 2011
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Monday, December 13, 2010
I was just alerted when reading Jonathan Rosenbaum's recent note that Stephen Sondheim's long forgotten made-for-TV musical, Evening Primrose (directed by Paul Bogart and featuring a singing Anthony Perkins), is finally available on DVD, thanks to a newly discovered print. I've had a great desire to see this musical since stumbling across its score when I was 17, and I've always thought its duet, "Take Me to the World," is one of Sondheim's loveliest songs, even if it is also one of his simplest in terms of structure. Despite the fact that Bogart's film premiered in 1966, chalk this one up as one of my must-sees for 2010.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Blogger critic Michael J. Anderson just posted his top picks for 2010, the majority of which I haven't seen yet and probably will not be seeing for a good while, given my current living situation. However, considering that he includes many of my favorite directors (Weerasethakul, Kiarostami, de Oliveira), and considering how often Anderson has acted as a guiding hand in the development of my own taste in film, I have a feeling that my personal "top ten" wouldn't be too far off, provided I had unlimited access to his choices.
Anderson's list is here.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
I’d be more inclined to recommend Anton Corbijn’s moody thriller if it didn’t borrow so heavily from other, greater filmmakers: nineties-era Abbas Kiarostami (in its attention to the spatial environment of villages and long shots of cars driving on deserted roads), Jean-Pierre Melville (in its overall mood and tone, not to mention its sexist depiction of women as exclusively betrayers or whores), and Jim Jarmusch (whose underrated The Limits of Control this film essentially copies in its foreign-based geography, repressed action, and minimalist acting of its lead). To his credit, Corbijn sandwiches these second-rate derivations between a nice anti-Hollywood opening and a fairly satisfying conclusion. I also find Corbijn’s film vastly more preferable than his arty Ian Curtis biopic, Control, even if some of that film’s irritating tendencies to make a religious martyr of its self-loathing protagonist seep into this film via a series of trite conversations on sin and guilt between George Clooney and an elderly Catholic priest played by Paolo Bonacelli (an Italian actor whose past involvements in Caligula and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom likely invest his character with more dark nuances than his performance actually deserves). Corbijn’s film is better when it stops trying to underscore itself with Big Themes and simply concentrates on the ceremonial routines of Clooney’s custom arms maker, where the clickety-clack assemblage of disparate gunnery pieces achieves a kind of aural purity. Such scenes never quite reach the sensual spirituality that Robert Bresson achieved through sound in films like Lancelot du lac, but they are nevertheless the only moments when Corbijn’s film acquires some depth and is not merely a surface-level imitation.
Monday, December 06, 2010
Sunday, December 05, 2010
(Edgar Wright, 2010)
In this spirited adaptation of the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Michael Cera, parodying his now-typecast persona as insecure slacker, plays the title hero—a 22-year-old man-child who plays bass for a really terrible rock band called “Sex Bob-omb,” works as a spokesperson for the Ironic T-Shirt fashion industry, and frequents the local Goodwill and indie record store more out of what seems a civic duty than for actual pleasure. While enjoying the casual emotional abuse of a sweet Chinese high-school student named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong, cast as the only character in the entire film whose company I would reasonably enjoy in real life), Pilgrim finds his life in sudden crisis when he one day falls for the fashionably depressive-moody, multicolored-haired new girl in town (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and must engage in a series of video-game styled battles with the girl’s seven evil ex-boyfriends (the wittiest creation being Brandon Routh as a vegan rockstar whose dietary lifestyle gives him Superman-like powers). As with his send-up of/homage to the buddy-cop genre, Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright sometimes teeters on the fine line between satire and exploitation, but I have no real complaints with a film that is so obviously indebted to the inventive formal playfulness of Frank Tashlin, as particularly demonstrated in the polygonal Universal logo that opens the film and the shapeshifting of its widescreen format to convey Pilgrim’s emotional state. (Suggested alternate title: Will Success Spoil Scott Pilgrim?) Moreover, for once the hipster scene is justly depicted as it really is: as a self-contained fantasy world, where one’s juvenile sense of victimhood elevates others to the level of dueling antagonists, and where the desire to be socially labeled causes everything in sight to be purposelessly categorized with decorative textual graphics. Although Wright’s incorporation of the video-game aesthetic from O’Malley’s comic book is probably intended to be nostalgic and affectionate (as it certainly is), it also exposes the social limitations of its characters’ narcissistic, ho-hum attitudes.
Saturday, December 04, 2010
(Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2009)
Although I don’t recall seeing his name in the credits, the influence of Alan Ball’s feel-bad satire (American Beauty, television’s Six Feet Under) reeks throughout this bio-dramedy about Steven Jay Russell, a real-life con artist who became rather infamous in Texas for his multiple escapes from prison. Co-directed by Glenn Ficara and John Requa, the screenwriting team that penned the much better Bad Santa, this lacks the warmth that Terry Zwigoff knew how to bring to the coarsest of material and winds up being merely coarse in its equal hatred of religious fundamentalism and gay secularism alike (or at least the simplified caricatures of said sub-cultures that this film borrows from Ball’s American Beauty). Jim Carrey, playing the con artist who falls for a shy, sweet-natured inmate (Ewan McGregor, in the rather undeveloped title role), honorably tries to bring some life to the cynical atmosphere with the childish kitsch he learned in the Ace Ventura films. (I liked the playful, and likely improvised, exchange of “good nights” between him and daughter in an early scene.) The underlying problem is that it’s difficult to care about his character, much less empathize with him as much as Ficara and Requa do. It’s despicable enough that the filmmakers expect us to laugh when Carrey’s Russell has a mentally troubled inmate brutally beaten as a sign of affection for Morris, but when he uses one of his more elaborate cons to deceive not only Morris but also the film viewers themselves, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are aligning themselves with their cruel protagonist in a manner that I found condescending. By the end, the best they can offer in defense of Russell’s amoral behavior is the suggestion that his actions pissed off then-governor George W. Bush—a mundane plea for sympathy that is nevertheless guaranteed to flatter fashionable, comfortably middle-class liberals (probably the film’s target audience). Spielberg at least knew how to have fun with the mechanics of conning when he tackled similar material in Catch Me If You Can; Ficara and Requa, unfortunately, are too busy satirizing every scene with their glib worldview to even provide an interesting (much less believable) depiction of its own subject matter. All in all, one of the more unpleasant films I’ve seen in a long time.
Friday, December 03, 2010
Thursday, December 02, 2010
“[T]he custard-pie sequence in The Great Race transcends the psychology of slapstick to qualify as the last spasm of action painting in the Western world.”
“Billy Wilder is too cynical too believe even in his own cynicism.”
“Fuller is an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood. Seen, not heard or synopsized.”
“Perhaps there is not in Zinnemann enough of the redeeming outrageousness of the compulsive entertainer. In cinema, as in all art, only those who risk the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime.”
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
One of my fellow film connoisseurs took unfair advantage of my near-addictive weakness for making lists and suggested that I write about some of my favorite DVD audio commentaries. Having taken the bait, here are my personal top ten, in alphabetical order by film, along with my own brief commentaries. (This is not finished, Joel!)
Julie Jones on Belle de jour. As smart and insightful as it is, I include this commentary mainly for the way the genteel, Southern-speaking voice of film scholar Julie Jones is interspersed over some of Luis Bunuel’s most blatant depictions of his privately erotic (and male-oriented) obsessions. The juxtaposition makes for an extended surreal gag worthy of Bunuel himself.
Francis Ford Coppola on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Heartfelt, affectionate, and sometimes quirky (especially when he’s talking about reading Stoker’s novel to young boys at summer camp or renting a hot air balloon for the cast), Coppola’s commentary for his underappreciated horror epic—my favorite of his films, and certainly a lot more fun than his Godfather saga—reveals a true cinephile as obsessive as Guy Maddin, but thankfully without the Freudian excess.
Zak Penn, Werner Herzog, and various others on Incident at Loch Ness. I’m still not sure how successful Penn’s mockumentary of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and of Herzog fandom in general actually is (perhaps because Penn is too much of a fan himself to properly skewer Herzog’s persona), but his commentary—featuring Penn, Herzog, and a number of others—is a laugh riot, especially when Herzog, disgusted by Penn’s exploitation of his actors, exclaims “Jeff Goldblum is your clown!” and leaves the session within the first fifteen minutes.
Roman Polanski on The Ninth Gate. Despite the lackluster critical reception it received when released in 1999, The Ninth Gate has always been one of my personal favorites by Polanski, and his commentary—a rare treat, given his admitted reluctance to revisit his work—helps to explain why. Polanski’s self-analysis highlights the meticulous (and conservatively classical) craftsmanship he brings to material that lesser directors would treat as just another money-making genre exercise. He also instructively suggests that this subtly humorous film, sometimes critically dismissed for being not as scary as Rosemary’s Baby, is probably closer in spirit to the similarly underrated The Fearless Vampire Killers.
John Fawell on Rear Window. Expectations are pretty high for the man who wrote the book Rear Window: The Well-Made Film, and although I’m still not convinced that this is Hitchcock’s most “well-made” feature (that would be Vertigo), John Fawell’s commentary is fairly outstanding and exhaustively researched. Fawell analyzes just about everything, and I mean everything, from the family outside Stewart’s window who often escapes his gaze (revealing, Fawell explains, Stewart’s aversion to starting a family of his own) to the symbolic significance of the various photographs in his room. Avoiding platitudes, Fawell keeps the majority of his observations centered around his simple, yet endlessly provocative, thesis: that Rear Window is ultimately a movie about movie-watching itself.
Jeffrey Angles on Sansho the Bailiff. I usually prefer Tony Rayns as my guide when exploring Asian territory in Criterion land, but Japanese-literature professor Jeffrey Angles is probably the appropriate choice for my favorite film by Mizoguchi Kenji. What Angles lacks in Rayns’s cinematic eclecticity he makes up for in national specificity, contextualizing the film within a steady grasp of Japanese history, geography, literature, politics, and language. Listening to Angles’s insightful commentary is a reminder of how limited English subtitles are in fully conveying the various cultural nuances of films outside one’s native country.
Peter Bogdanovich on Targets. For me Bogdanovich has always been one of most aesthetically pleasing of film commentators—even when what he says is not particularly interesting or remarkable, his relaxed, old-geezer-in-a-rocking-chair manner is always agreeable to the ear and the perfect cure for insomnia. However, Bogdanovich’s commentary for his striking first feature—still one of the scariest movies ever made—is exceptional for the numerous insights it provides into the film’s conception and production, much of which is more fascinating than the film itself and serves as a final testament to the creative energy that can be sparked by studio-mandated restrictions. Particularly enlightening is Bogdanvich’s acknowledgement that Samuel Fuller had a hand in the script and, I strongly suspect, in the direction as well.
Adrian Martin on 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. You have to give Australian film critic Adrian Martin credit for simply agreeing to tackle one of Godard’s first forays into essay filmmaking that, in its encyclopedic and referential nature, is already a kind of commentary in itself. However, Martin does a capable job at juggling everything Godard’s film throws at him and, in the justly famous coffee cup scene, even helps to situate the French director as more than a mere political agitator but rather as a filmmaker whose unorthodox techniques oftentimes reach for the spiritually transcendent.
Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell on Used Cars. A fun and nostalgic group commentary for Zemeckis’s horrifically hilarious (and still only R-rated) second feature that serves as a welcome reminder of the kind of anarchic and slightly avant-garde sensibility Zemeckis once was capable of before Forrest Gump signaled a decision to move away from this so-called “kid’s” stuff. If all the uproarious laughter and fond memories shared here says anything, Used Cars was clearly a blast to make—one only hopes that, after joining his old buddies for this infectiously affectionate get-together, Zemeckis has thought about someday directing another savagely satirical send-up of Americana (perhaps this time in performance capture technique?).
Edward Yang and Tony Rayns on Yi Yi. I’ve always been impressed by the sheer breadth of Tony Rayns’s cinematic knowledge (he’s just as at home talking about Dreyer’s Vampyr as he is Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), but what makes his co-commentary with Taiwanese director Edward Yang something special—aside from the fact that Yang just recently died about four years ago—is the manner in which Rayns modestly downplays his obvious credentials as one of leading critics of Asian cinema for the sake of paying respect to the master. When Rayns, for example, asks Yang if the bright colors in the film’s opening wedding sequence are meant to be satirical and Yang replies that this is actually how Chinese weddings are decorated, it’s testimony to Rayns’s gentlemanlike demeanor (not to mention his self-confidence as a critic) that he doesn’t respond defensively at all to Yang’s correction. This and many other cases provide an exemplary model of how to be a film critic without losing one’s humility.