Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rambo redux

By one of those coincidences of scheduling I wound up seeing Rambo right after 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and merged the two in my dreams. I can see Rambo, time-warped to Romania in 1987, taking up arms with the oppressed Otilia, and administering plentiful "retroactive abortions" on the hated Ceausescu regime as Gabita exercises her right to choose with a machete and a thermonuclear Claymore mine that her savior has tucked away for such emergencies. Of course, given that this would have to be a conservative fantasy, Gabita would choose to have her baby, but in a safer, more secure world where Rambo is the bringer of regime change that would not be a problem.

I liked the B-movieish First Blood and its pulpy, exquisitely machine-tooled sequel, against my refined but hardly genteel sensibilities. I'd recovered my senses by the third picture, which dawdled at two hours in length (the others were the length of a fine-cutting razor) and had the bad luck to come out after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan (which, as we would later see, was all Tom Hanks' doing). Fortunately for its star, co-writer and director, Burma (never "Myanmar," fucking A right) is still a hot zone, and fertile ground for his lumpily-shirted antics. The inexpensively produced film is as basic as they come, relying, like a typical Sci-Fi Channel movie, on frequent barrages of questionable digital effects as Rambo busts up the bad guys to rescue naive missionaries. I'd complain about the racial stereotyping except that there are no characters, merely Claymore fodder. (There's an attempt at a hissable villain but he doesn't break through; the absence of a badged and burly Brian Dennehy in the first film or the spit-shined Soviet Steven Berkoff in the second, to get our contempt to the boiling point, is keenly felt.)

Rambo chugs along, in the vein of a Chuck Norris timewaster from 20 years ago. There is no intentional humor but a dollop of the other kind, mostly the dialogue given to the terrorized Julie Benz (more safely harbored here than on Showtime's Dexter) and the final, peactime image, with the 61-year-old Stallone costumed like his homeless, hitchhiking self from 1982. (What works at 35 doesn't befit an AARPer.) Ninety-three minutes I had to spare between more pressing artistic engagements were duly killed, but unfulfilled. A red-meat plot to go along with the blood-drenched heroics might help as Rambo, back in America, enters his sunset years.

The opposite of Juno

I like Juno. I don't mind that it lacks heft and has been nominated for Best Picture (a lot of pictures that have won, even the heaviest dramas, are more self-important than deep). Even if it wins I'm not going to join the growing chorus of haters. It does what it wants to do and succeeds.

But it is a fantasy, with a blinkered view that doesn't get far past its hamburger phones and slanguage. The situation it presents is not so easily laughed off in the real world. Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place in Romania in 1987, but its raw material can be rooted anywhere. Just last week I watched on TCM Love With a Proper Stranger (1963), the Juno of its day. Robert Mulligan's followup to To Kill a Mockingbird declines to show Natalie Wood inconveniently pregnant by musician boyfriend Steve McQueen (no cute "baby bump" sequences here) but has a harrowing scene involving a potential back alley abortion that without saying it speaks volumes about life in a pre-choice America. With an increasing likelihood that this country will one day soon be post-choice, Juno's clinic sequence can't help but be agitating even if you enjoy the picture, and the Romanian film takes on greater urgency. In some ways we are a long way from it, but no so far as to treat choice with nonchalance.

Mungiu, part of the Romanian New Wave that has brought the outstanding Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08: East of Bucharest to our shores, has said in interview that the film is not about abortion. But seeking same is the catalyst for a film that gradually uncovers a society inoperable without the black market and glad-handing of various kinds to grease the wheels. I consider myself a fairly liberal person, and would like to see the unfair and too-frequently error-riddled death penalty abolished in this country. (It's not my business what a woman chooses to do regarding pregancy, and it shouldn't be yours, or society's, either, which is how I reconcile the two positions.) But I admit to relishing the execution of the horrifically eccentric Ceausescus, a Christmas gift to the world two years after the events in this Soviet-era film. The most fascistic of the Communist leaders, theirs was a prime example of the metaphor of a fish rotting from the head down, and we find students Gabita (Laura Vasiliu, pictured at left) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, right) somewhere near the tail end as the film opens.

Gabita wants an abortion, in a society where abortion is illegal and motherhood is morbidly prized. Otilia is helping her obtain one, a circumstance complicated by Gabita's emotional and rational retreat as the unblessed event nears in a local hotel. The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (played with scary evenness by Vlad Ivanov), is irked that the young women have broken his clandestine protocols, not least of which is that the room obtained is in a hotel not on his approved list. But he makes due, particularly when the women agree to his steep price, made and exacted matter-of-factly--sexual favors in return for the deed. All of this plays out in long, tense takes, closely observed by the gifted cinematographer of Lazarescu, Oleg Mutu, who keeps the widescreen frame charged throughout. More, and worse, is to come, as Otilia forces herself to attend a dinner at her prospective fiance's, where the other guests mount their high horses about their status in this supposedly classless society. And there is the disposal of the fetus, shown as graphically and as dispassionately as the actual abortion, to consider.

The likelihood of 4 Months breaking out of the arthouse circuit, which is increasingly indifferent to foreign films, is slim, though I wouldn't wabt to jinx it. (Oscar nominators bypassed it in favor of safer fare.) And that is a shame, for the film is terribly relatable. Neither a position paper nor a draggy dirge, the film is driven by its two leads, who are extraordinary--as good as the twosome who animated The Dreamlife of Angels a decade ago. Watching Otilia wear down, but never give up, is inspiring; I suspect you will think of her often (just as the film asks you to consider if the wounded Gabita, is more duplicitous than it seems, and a product of her state in more ways than one). Rather than heap scorn on Juno, which has its place, the corrective is to spend a couple of hours with 4 Nights, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which strips away the glitter from the fairy tale.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Better to be in Brooklyn

I saw Cloverfield early on MLK day, at an AMC theater in Manhattan that, to my surprise, has $6 first-day shows on weekends and holidays. I was already in town, but if I had known that I would've hauled myself over anyway from here in Boerum Hill. What a deal.

It's taken me a week to write anything about it, which is not uncommon regarding media events that burn themselves out over two or three days. Let the rest of the blogosphere pick through it first. The film, which runs all of 71 or 72 minutes minus lengthy end credits, pretty much exhausts itself on first viewing, and like so many genre pictures is already a spent force at the boxoffice, having picked the pockets of us early adopters a week ago. (Has a January dumping ground release ever done boffo boxoffice over a longer haul than the first weekend? I can't recall any since the spate of Bette Midler comedies in the mid-80s.)

With reservations, the $6 was well spent. ($11 would have been a stretch.) I like the idea behind the film, the notion of going among the crowds of people fleeing a Godzilla-ish menace. I would probably run toward it, and not with any altruistic aim in mind. A monster loose in the streets would fulfill every B-movie dream I have ever had, consequences be damned.

I wasn't so much keen on the inevitable co-opting of 9/11 imagery that goes along with it; unafraid to kill off its entire cast (like you hadn't heard that already) the movie is far too skittish to have one of its characters come out and actually say, "This is just like 9/11!" The producer-auteur, J.J. Abrams, has said that Cloverfield is a safe way of dealing with fears in our age of anxiety, but clearly his biggest worry is being accused of sensationalism or cynicism. I prefer the close, but more allegorical, use of toppling buildings and generalized panic in the War of the Worlds remake. There's no distance here, except the movie's calculated hedging. (On the other hand, it has no problem sending a bunch of black kids, hitherto unseen in the story and never seen again, into an electronics store to loot it, so some forms of negative imagery are not off limits.)

Speaking of stereotypes, the characters are all twentysomethings for whom the city is a playground, from Central Park to Lower Manhattan. I didn't find them unsympathetic, but, curiously, a number of reviewers have, simply based on the economic status the movie ascribes to (some) of them. With 70 minutes to make its point the movie doesn't spend a lot of time on characterization, but the signifiers of abundance (like the very video camera the film is "made" with) seem to set less-compensated writers with a foot in the "real" Manhattan off. The lives of these stick figures are as much a made-in-California fantasy as what befalls them, and I'm hard-pressed to see why the affluence they have been given (conforming to standard notions of how smart-set New Yorkers live) makes it easier to for us to watch them go off to their doom (mortality, to its credit, is something the movie does spend a little time on. Like The Mist, it's not really a "fun" picture, which has likely impeded its overall prospects). It's a short-hand, designed to tie the locations together, and the class envy it's generating outside the movie is unwarranted and seems a little silly. (The leader of the pack, Rob, is well-played by Michael Stahl-David, who was the one watchable element in an otherwise turgid off Broadway show, The Overwhelming.)

The monster, a bandy-legged whats-it, has an Outer Limits feel to it; the lice creatures that tag along on its hide are like outtakes from King Kong, and while disturbing still wouldn't make anyone run fast enough to get from Spring Street to 58th Street in record time. Most of the budget went into the destruction effects, which are impressively rendered but familiar, from horrors onscreen and off. (The all-important overseas market only wants to see New York, the world's signature city, bashed flat; accept no substitutes.) The Brooklyn Bridge is an ample target but the Manhattan Bridge, with its subway cars, is a more alluring one if you ask me; think of all those straphangers dangling helplessly over the icy water as the structure ruptures. If the filmmakers really wanted to go for it, they should have asked New Yorkers how to make a proper job of the city's pre-I am Legend ruination.

Then again, in the real world, Lower Manhattan is pretty much empty by the twilight time the beastie shows up in the movie; Cloverfield is another film that takes full advantage of its daily desolation to shoot in relative privacy on its empty nighttime streets, notwithstanding the fact that if a monster did rear its ugly head there, there would be no one to see it till the next morning at least. And even with a few bucks at their disposal Rob and his friends are far more likely to live in hipper, cooler Brooklyn than among the stodgy canyons of Wall Street and the older money of Central Park. Cloverfield is a fantasy that wants you to buy into it, and thanks to bravura technical skill it works on its strictly limited terms, but the closer you are to its Ground Zero the more keenly you'll feel its evasions and compromises.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Quantum of Solace...

...even by the standards of Moonraker and Thunderball an unusual title for a Bond picture, but appropriate for the darker path the series is taking. Promising for Nov. 7 release.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

RIP Heath Ledger

I could not have anticipated writing this when I got up this morning to tackle the new crop of Oscar nominees. So superb in Brokeback Mountain, an instantly iconic role that revived his career, followed by a turn as Casanova, an expertly played addict part in Candy, and one of the Dylans in I'm Not There--and the promise of so much more to come, not least of which his turn as The Joker in the Batman sequel. He and his ex, Michelle Williams, and their daughter Matilda lived close by us for a time; I never saw them but they were said to be a nice young family. A week after Brad Renfro's sad passing I am stunned anew at this horrific news. No more words.

Snap decisions

Predicted winners for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, subject to rethinking before the February 24 ceremony. I moved quickly through the list, but if the writers' strike hasn't let up by then it will take you longer to read this than it will to watch the actual event, much like the glitter-free Golden Globes. Let's get this settled, guys; America is counting on a full plate four-hour plate of banter, musical numbers, montages, and speeches thanking God next month.

Best Picture: No Country for Old Men.

Personal favorite: Michael Clayton.

Garbage nomination: None. It's an appealing smorgasbord.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis

Personal favorite: Day-Lewis, but Mortensen was a pleasant surprise.

Garbage nomination: I wouldn't tell him to his face, but Tommy Lee Jones sleepwalks through the Valley. Better his more alert supporting turn in No Country.

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (pictured)

Personal favorite: Hal Holbrook

Garbage nomination: None. A flavorful slate, highlighted by Holbrook, but Bardem has the momentum.

Best Actress: A tough one. Today: Marion Cotillard. Tomorrow: Ellen Page, riding high on Juno. Thursday: the delicate Julie Christie. (No chance for Linney but I'm happy that The Savages got some traction.)

Personal favorite: All things considered, Page.

Garbage nomination: Blanchett. I enjoyed the hokey film but once was enough for HRH in the superior predecessor.

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan.

Personal favorite: Ryan

Garbage-ish nomination: Much as I hate to consign Ruby Dee to the rubbish bin I can't abide seeing American Gangster anywhere near the rest of a more deserving crop. The song, not the singer, but she and Holbrook are a couple of old school charmers.

Best Director(s): The Coen Brothers.

Personal favorite: I'll stick with the Coens.

Garbage nomination: None. I'm not that broken up that Tim Burton didn't nab a slot (that he revived his flagging career is reward enough), though Juno really is a matter of writerly tone.

Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody.

Personal favorite: Tony Gilroy.

Garbage nomination: Lars and the Real Girl is a questionable choice, more an actor's showcase.

Adapted Screenplay: Christopher Hampton

Personal favorite: Hampton

Garbage nomination: None. A strong field.

Animated Feature: Persepolis. Worthy, good for you.

Personal favorite: Ratatouille.

Garbage nomination: I haven't seen Surf's Up, but which of these doesn't belong?

Best Foreign Language Film: Beaufort. Not that I've seen it. Voters may be an Israel frame of mind this year,

Personal favorite: Nil.

Garbage nomination: Given the quality of the films shut out, these had better be damned good. The year's Garbage category, as it often is.

Best Art Direction: Atonement.

Personal favorite: Sweeney Todd.

Garbage nomination. The dim and underdesigned American Gangster. The Golden Compass earned its shot.

Best Cinematography: The Assassination of...blah blah blah. With two nominations it should be Deakins' to lose.

Personal favorite: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Garbage nomination. None. Let there be light.

Documentary Feature: No End in Sight.

Personal favorite: No End in Sight.

Garbage nomination: None, but a little war-heavy. There are other subjects.

Documentary Short: I'm guessing Sari's Mother, developed from last year's excellent Iraq in Fragments.

Animated Short and Live Action Short: No opinion. I'll guess once I have some idea what they are.

Best Visual Effects: Transformers. It is what it is.

Personal favorite: The Golden Compass.

Garbage nomination: Nothing new in Pirates III.

Best Costume Design: Sweeney Todd.

Personal favorite: Sweeney Todd.

Garbage nomination: None.

Best Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. I'd say two out of three, maybe a sweep, for Bourne Ultimatum, though I found the film editing too sensational.

Best Original Score: Only Atonement stands out for me. An eh category.

Best Original Song: "Falling Slowly," from Once.

Personal favorite: "Falling Slowly."

Garbage nominations: One of the Enchanted songs ("Happy Working Song," I think) was quite enough as Disney hogs the nominations as usual.

Best Makeup: La Vie en Rose.

Personal favorite: La Vie en Rose.

Garbage nomination: Norbit, I know, but it's the great Rick Baker so it flies. Pirates, move on.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Film 2007: Best

I don't really believe in Top 10 lists. They're fun to read and pore over but completely arbitrary. Why 10? Why not 5, 4, or 12? It's a nice round number, to be sure, but one that can't contain the Top 22 films I saw last year. (Why not 22?)

Bowing to convention, I will concoct one at the end of this post, but take it with a grain of salt (as I'm sure most critics, caught in the year-end bind, do). If you care passionately about a given medium, it's impossible to weight these things, and as pointless (and as thoughtless) as considering which of your 10 children you love the most.

The real deal is the alphabetical ranking below. Was 2007 one of the best film years ever, as a number of commentators have opined? Ask me in 2017; these matters take years to sort out, and what looked good last year may age poorly. But there were a number of pleasing films out there, all worth consideration, and a strong slate of American movies. (And some good film books, notably Foster Hirsch's Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King and August Ragone's Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. The best was Tim Lucas' mighty, 32-years-in-the-making Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, which I'll review in the Spring issue of Cineaste.)


Amazing Grace. The best of the year's Masterpiece Theater-type films, and I mean that with great affection. Get great British actors, put them in powdered wigs, surround them with a historical issue of paramount importance (here, the abolition of slavery) and as long as you don't mess up I'm there. (Bonus for having Albert Finney's only genuine performance last year.) Steven Knight's script has an inconvenient flashback structure but with this and Eastern Promises under his belt he's 2-2 with me. A deserved sleeper hit with older, smarter audiences.

Black Book. Paul Verhoeven's whiz-bang epic of espionage and betrayal, the fleetest-footed film of last year.

Bug. William Friedkin's original films are pretty terrible anymore. Not so this confident and skillfully handled adaptation of Tracy Letts' play, with Ashley Judd go-for-broke in the lead.

Eastern Promises. The year's most hair-raising fight scene, plus a nuanced tour into an unfamiliar subculture, led by Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen.

Gone Baby Gone. An assured and troubling moral mystery.

Great World of Sound. A wrenching independent film about the disharmony underlying the music business and the elusive Great American Dream that came and went last fall, but one that lingers.

The Host. A human-scaled monster movie.

In the Shadow of the Moon. In troubled times it took British documentarians to excavate what's good in the can-do American spirit.

Into the Wild. Not the book, but a distillation that strikes a different, still rewarding, tone.

Michael Clayton. A pallid fall for Hollywood uplifted by this crackerjack legal thriller, back in release.

A Mighty Heart. The best of the 9/11 aftermath-themed films, with Angelina Jolie properly fitted in a semi-documentary framework.

The Namesake. This kind of cross-generational family saga is difficult to pull off, but Mira Nair did it, splendidly.

No Country for Old Men. Macabre, nerve-jangling material that plays into the Coen Brothers' strengths as filmmakers.

No End in Sight. The Iraq mess under a documentary microscope, pitilessly examined.

Once. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for our time.

Ratatouille. I find Pixar's much-loved oeuvre frankly uneven, but its foodie rats (and corruscating critic) went down a treat.

Starting Out in the Evening. A "certain regard" picture that made it over the wall courtesy of Frank Langella's indelible performance.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. An ideal Tim Burton picture, if not altogether an ideal version of the Sondheim show. Still a forceful rendering.

There Will Be Blood. A mighty central performance, great widescreen composition, oil and snake oil, and...I'm not sure. There's enough else to get it here but I'm still processing it. Based on visual and aural cues is it the "Dawn of Man" sequence from 2001 repurposed for the early 20th century? Big, bold, curious, and elusive.

Triad Election. The conclusion of Johnnie To's cold-blooded Hong Kong gangland saga, which itself debuted last year in the U.S. It drinks American Gangster's milkshake.

28 Weeks Later. A sequel surprise, from the horrifying (and heartbreaking) beginning to the endgame. Low expectations savagely surpassed.

Zodiac (pictured). Densely, richly procedural; obsession as affliction, and as catching and disturbing as a communicable illness.

So, then, if I must...Top 10 I can live with...

10) In the Shadow of the Moon
9) Once
8) There Will Be Blood
7) Gone Baby Gone
6) No Country for Old Men
5) No End in Sight
4) Michael Clayton
3) Black Book
2) Ratatouille
1) Zodiac

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Film 2007: Worst

Call it the curse of Don Murphy. The producer of the rock-bottom-worst film I saw last year, Shoot 'Em Up, went after me on an online forum after I had posted my displeasure. So here I have my revenge...except that Google AdSense has plopped an ad for the DVD atop my blog, and I can't dislodge it. Caveat emptor, folks, and be careful what you click for. (On the other hand, if you've laid a cinematic egg, you probably want a pit dog like Murphy in your corner, snarling at the blogosphere.)

What we have here are the usual suspects--flatulent sequels, putrid prequels, rancid remakes, indie crap. And a few unwelcome surprises. I know better than to patronize flicks that pair Jason Lee with CGI critters, but would not have thought that the talented triptych of Ridley Scott, Denzel Washington, and Russell Crowe would cause such agita.

In alphabetical order:

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. About as rudimentary as cinema can be.

American Gangster. Phonied-up history, fakey Seventies ambiance, 157 agonizingly tedious minutes. Further proof that "American" in the title, dripping easy irony, rarely bodes well.

The Brave One. A misguided vigilante picture, it shoots but does not score.

The Bucket List. Death without pain, sentimental hokum without relief.

Dedication. An unromantic romantic comedy. An idea whose time has not come.

Fay Grim. As grim as Hal Hartley's career prospects.

Finishing the Game. Game over: A miserable in-joke comedy.

Ghost Rider. For audiences that find comic books too demanding to read.

Hannibal Rising. Lecter plummeting.

The Hitcher. A remake of a picture no one but a few buffs saw. Fewer still saw this inferior teen-pic retread.

Hostel: Part II (pictured). Not torture porn. Just torture.

In the Valley of Elah. Of all the consequences of the Iraq War, the worst may be well-intentioned but hopelessly flat-footed movies about it, with crummy titles (Rendition? Lions for Lambs?). Exhibit A in a failed campaign for hearts and minds.

The Invasion. Fourth go-round for the body snatchers, who get you when you sleep. Audiences who bothered were out cold in minutes, but they were so few in number the effect has gone undetected by the general populace.

The Kingdom. A bore on terror.

Live Free or Die Hard. My choice is to live free, minus franchises run into the ground.

Lonely Hearts. The Honeymoon Killers, from the POV of the detectives. As compelling as Jaws from the POV of a nearby barnacle.

Lust, Caution. Not enough fuck for the buck.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. 0-3 for me. A seasick series.

Shoot 'Em Up. DOA.

Smokin' Aces. The filmmakers were smokin' something with their late-arriving Tarantino knockoff.

Spider-Man 3. Stuck in a web, and the most disappointing of the year's sequels. The last one, with the same creative team, got everything right; this one, everything wrong. What happened?

Sunshine. A promising opening completely eclipsed by the silliest sci-fi cliches.

Youth Without Youth. Southland Tales and I'm Not There didn't really speak to me, but the filmmakers left them open for discussion. This was a closed book, at once precocious and senile.

Bad is bad, so I feel no particular urgency to quantify my exasperation in the form of a Flop Ten list. But for those who prefer that sort of thing, here goes:

10) Spider-Man 3
9) Sunshine
8) The Kingdom
7) Dedication
6) Finishing the Game
5) In the Valley of Elah
4) The Brave One
3) Lust, Caution
2) American Gangster
1) Shoot 'Em Up

Fear not. The best is yet to come...

Film 2007: Underrated

These are "certain regard"-type pictures that failed to get a fair shake with reviewers. You may find them less defensible. But somehow they stayed with me. And it's my blog and I'll tout them if I want to.

Beowulf. More pensive than the holiday popcorn crowd was expecting, even if the 3D presentation rocked. I appreciated the deeper thinking, appropriate for the ur-epic of all time, even as it went against the grain of simpler sword and sorcery-level expectations.

Death at a Funeral. The adult comedy of the year. Stuffy Brits and unstrung Yanks bring the funny as they haven't since A Fish Called Wanda.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age. I adore these kinds of pictures, and even if this one didn't live up to its predecessor there was enough to enjoy as Cate Blanchett fearlessly flouted camp in the lead.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (pictured). A comic book adaptation that, like its predecessor, was crucified for daring to be fun, rather than morose and heavy with dubious insight into the human condition as experienced under a cape and cowl. Galactus was a dud but the Silver Surfer ruled, and the cheerfully ridiculous sight gags are amusing. Sue me.

The Golden Compass. Thanks to U.S. audience indifference, we'll never see ow it all worked out. Still, I liked all the eye and mind candy along the way; it's a more soulful picture than its pious detractors will admit.

The Hoax. Seventies style and content was as much a drag on films in 2007 as an enhancement, but this buoyant bio-portrait of the fraudulent Clifford Irving (Richard Gere as his most rapscallionish) should have risen past the fray. Check it out.

Lake of Fire. Tony Kaye's lengthy abortion documentary is less than the sum of its parts, but the parts merit attention. And they got very little, as critics tiptoed away from it. I was one of them, figuring someone else would do the heavy lifting through its decade-long examination of the subject. No one came forward. Perhaps the right to choose what to consider is best left to the individual viewer to ponder?

The Mist. What was going on in the heads of their distributors to think that audiences would go for this malicious horror picture, one that suggests there is nothing underpinning civilization once politics and religion are stripped away, and Beowulf at Thanksgiving? Holly jolly they're not.

Mr. Brooks. I threw on the DVD as accompaniment for another task, and two hours later hadn't even gotten started. I'm so over serial killers and hit men as movie antiheroes but this one drew me, thanks to the inspired teamwork of Kevin Costner and William Hurt as two heads of the same sinister coin. And the oft-challenged Dane Cook and Demi Moore hold their own, too, in a taut and amusing suspense picture.

Music and Lyrics. A theatrical release that debuts on cable in the same calendar year is usually tone-deaf. This one isn't, mainly because Hugh Grant, who directors keep finding uses for, is note-perfect as a Wham!-ish 80s pop star finding renewed purpose against his own inclinations in the 00s. Spot-on casting that uplifts agreeable fluff for a cozy night in.

Resurrecting the Champ. I KO'ed the film, but can't knock writer-director Rod Lurie, who found this blog via Cineaste and sent me some encouraging words though I took him to the mat in print. I hereby return that gracious gesture, and can endorse Josh Hartnett's surprisingly warm performance as a fraying family man and journalist in the film.

Shrek the Third. How much love does this boxoffice champion need? Aren't these spoofy, wink-wink kind of family pictures tired? Yes, they are...but what can I say, I laughed all the way through this, much more than I did though the second picture, which more rightly merited the brickbats this one got. Banishing Jennifer Saunders was a good start. It must have something to do with being a cat owner; Antonio Banderas simply slays me as the gallant Puss 'n' Boots, and if he gets his own movie I'm there on opening day.

Wristcutters: A Love Story. Ripe for DVD discovery, a droll indie fantasy about suicide that deserves an abundant second life.

Year of the Dog. Molly Shannon's breakthrough...or, more accurately, breakdown...performance as an animal lover in emotional freefall was a nicely sustained high-wire act from a performer with more strings in her bow than I may have realized. Some nice character bits, too, from John C. Reilly, Laura Dern, and Peter Sarsgaard in a movie less easy to embrace than man's best friend.

Film 2007: Overrated

Don't get me wrong: There was nothing terrible about these films, except that they were hyped beyond their actual achievement, and let me down as surely as air from car tires that have sprung a leak. Exercise critical caution and scale back expectations accordingly when encountering them.

In alphabetical order:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I'm glad this went out uncut but I'd like to see a 100-minute version; the cutting might force an actual theme to emerge from all that gauzy period recreation.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Rambunctious as all get out for a while, then a slide into contrivance and silliness with an unhinged Albert Finney that mitigates the hosannas.

Black Snake Moan. Extravagant claims were made for this in Esquire, not unlike its championing of the cult flop Two Lane Blacktop in 1971. The heavy-breathing grindhouse aesthetic (barely) masks a race-conscious gloss on Pygmalion, an old-school chestnut if there ever was one.

The Bourne Ultimatum. I gor the DVD for Christmas, and like it just fine. But the need to crystallize the action into relentless packets of activity wore on the human factor of the piece; a key emotional component is missing, and the ending (Albert Finney again) was a letdown. I enjoy the messier first installment best.

Control. Two long hours on suicide watch with Ian Curtis. And I felt every minute.

The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson in a creative cul-de-sac. So cute, so precisely calibrated, so instantly forgettable. Suggestion: Think outside the box and adapt something next.

Disturbia. A modest mystery, a star turn. And an endorsement for increased surveillance straight from Big Brother. What concept of privacy do kids today have? What are the adults who made this film marketing to them?

Grindhouse. This very nearly went into the dumper. The enjoyable faux trailers, outshining the dreadful Robert Rodriguez segment, and the Quentin Tarantino portion once it revs up provided a stay of execution. I can't imagine slogging through the longer-version DVDs of the separate films again, nor for that matter the whole enchilada once it becomes available, but for sheer ambiance that is the way to experience it. Its chief utility is as a way into the films it is imitating/venerating, so I guess it has an actual cinephiliac purpose.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Blessedly shorter than its brethren, but no more memorable. The ecstatic reviews these deadening pictures muster in certain quarters flummox me. I'm just not wild about Harry, and feel the same way about him as his Muggles family (pictured) does. Two more to go.

Knocked Up. It's hard to imagine that a comedy about pregnancy, a movie subject since about D.W. Griffith, was hailed as some sort of breakthrough. Laughs and stifled yawns in equal measure for a patience-stretching 132 minutes.

La Vie en Rose. A great portrait in search of a coherent frame. An uneasy biopic botch but for the spectacular Marion Cotillard.

The Orphanage. I've seen Pan's Labyrinth, and, you, sir, are no Pan's Labyrinth. Not a bad ghost story but more a matter of coattail riding than anything substantive on its own.

Film 2007: Un Certain Regard

I like that the Cannes Film Festival has a slot for films and filmmakers it has a fondness for, and I do the same with my yearly compilation. In some way it's the most intriguing...Why these films? Why didn't they go all the way to the top? Generally speaking, these are movies that pleased me because of a key performance or two, or good writing and direction, or memorable scenes, that didn't quite have the heft or gravity to put them on the "big board", as they say in Glengarry Glen Ross. And that's fine: They're eminently watchable, Between Productions-endorsed when they turn up on cable or DVD, and helped me get through those sour patches in my annual filmgoing.

In alphabetical order:

Across the Universe
After the Wedding
Away From Her
Broken English
Crazy Love
Deep Water
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Lars and the Real Girl
The Last Winter
Live-In Maid
The Lives of Others
Manufactured Landscapes
Margot at the Wedding
Poison Friends
Private Fears in Public Places
The Rape of Europa
Sacco and Vanzetti
The Savages
ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway
The Simpsons Movie
Tears of the Black Tiger
This is England
2 Days in Paris
The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Film 2007: Bare facts on the great unseen

As a reply to friends who think I "see everything," I'll start with this list, of noteworthy 2007 theatrical releases I didn't see in the old year. Some of them got great reviews, some of them wound up on Top 10 lists, some of them perhaps inexplicably (am I hallucinating, or did not Vacancy, a suspense picture with the perennially underachieving Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, get some love online and/or from Film Comment?) So, like, what happened? Why did you see the Fantastic Four sequel (more to come on that) or some other Hollywood slushpile while frittering away the opportunity to view the ordained-as-canonical Thai masterpiece Syndromes and a Century? Why so many French films unviewed? Do you have something against them, and Don Cheadle pictures, too? Too damn lazy to read subtitles? No Wayward Cloud on your horizon--and you call yourself a critic? And they let you come to Cineaste meetings?

The simplest answer is, "life"--there are only so many hours in a day to devote to this or that medium (and theater is definitely soaking up more of those slots) and if my path on a given week doesn't take me to this or that Manhattan screening room or theater to see this or that movie, well, so be it. It's not a cavalier attitude, just a nod to reality: Independent movies, in particular, move through the system like Drano through pipes, and if you can't get there in two or three weeks at the maximum you're obliged to wait for Netflix, cable, or pay-per-view (where a number of these films, happily, take up residence for months, even before they open commercially, in a recent wrinkle in distribution).

I resolve to do better this year (but I say that every year). In the meantime, you should applaud my candor and openness on this matter, and feel free to nudge ones you may have liked up my queue. I'll do my best to avoid naked romps in the fields in 2008 and chain myself to the Angelika, Landmark, and IFC theaters.

In alphabetical order:

Avenue Montaigne
The Boss of It All
Brand Upon the Brain!
Day Night Day Night
God Grew Tired of Us
Into Great Silence
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten
Lady Chatterley (pictured)
The Page Turner
Paris je t'aime
Reign Over Me
The Situation
Stephanie Daley
Syndromes and a Century
Talk to Me
Ten Canoes
Terror's Advocate
The Wayward Cloud

Regarding Cineaste: They put me, the staff lowbrow, near the door, and close it behind me when the conversation veers from horror to Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Presenting...Listomania 07

Not to be confused with the Roger Daltrey-Ken Russell biopic-of-sorts from 1975 (pictured, and where has that been hiding since the laserdisc era?), but here's the warmup to my wrapup of 2007, beginning with film and moving on to DVD and theater. I'm not sure when it'll finish, but the newly restored and freshly synchronized clock tower at the Williamsburgh Bank Building across the avenue from us here in Brooklyn tells me that time's a-wasting, what with Oscar soon to codify its nominees from 2007 and the Sundance Film Festival bringing forth the new crop, newly minted DVDs appearing weekly, and the 2007-2008 theater season half over already. So let's hop to it, shall we?

Luna on FMC

After the Skidoo fiasco I'm reluctant to recommend anything airing on cable sight unseen, but I can give thumbs-up to another directorial disaster, Bernardo Bertolucci's Luna (1979), which the Fox Movie Channel is showing this month. I recorded the Thursday night telecast and can report that it's gorgeous; Vittorio Storaro's cinematography, properly matted to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, aptly shines like the very phases of the moon. FMC rebroadcasts it again on Jan. 23 at 2am EST, so get your recorder ready. There's no telling when it will come again in any format, unless Fox is planning a 30th anniversary DVD for next year.

For some reason I doubt it. (The photo comes from a bootleg DVD; there are far nicer pictures, representative of the FMC broadcast, as part of an R2 version review at the excellent DVD Beaver site.) Dealing as it does with Oedipal tensions and mother-son incest, enacted by Jill Clayburgh and 16-year-old Matthew Barry (now a casting director and sometime actor, most recently in last year's Alpha Dog), the movie was dicey at the tail-end of the swinging Seventies (which that same year brought us the similarly Roman excesses of Caligula) and all but unimaginable today, with a minor in Barry's role. I didn't know what to make of the film when it popped up on Cinemax a year or so after its dire reception at the New York Film Festival. As an arty piece with opera performances and icky incest as the primary sexual attraction it certainly wasn't a turn-on, like, say, 1981's downmarket Private Lessons or 1983's The Last American Virgin, where boys my age got it on with the ladies (quite explicitly in the former, which by today's prim standards flirts with kiddy porn). But under all the pretension it seemed to be saying something about the primacy of the ties that bind, as Clayburgh (game, brave, but miscast, and too slender, as an opera diva) resorted to highly unconventional methods to wean her wayward son, adrift since the death of his presumed father (Fred Gwynne, free of Munsters makeup, at his most dapper), off heroin during an Italian tour.

I remembered the film being racier than it is. The mother-son masturbation scene is as desperate, and as painful, as it sounds. Better, if you're looking for a kinky late-night thrill, is an earlier scene between Barry's character and a girl he flirts with, juxtaposed with scenes from the dubbed-in-Italian Marilyn Monroe film they're watching at a revival showing (it reminded me of the unrated, "adults-only" scenes from Bertolucci's The Dreamers; Luna got an R). I guess I've hit middle age, as I was more impressed this time with Storaro's vivid imagery (Brooklyn Heights, in the opening brownstone scenes with the East River peeking out from the windows, is as ravishing in its own way as the Rome and Parma scenes where much of the film transpires) and the choreography of individual sequences, set to Verdi, Ennio Morricone's original score, and even "Night Fever" by the Bee Gees (is this a rights issue barring the film from legitimate U.S. DVD release? I assume the Monroe clip originated with Fox, Luna's distributor here.) The murky storyline and the uncertain central performances aside (much as I like Clayburgh, why did she, or anyone, feel this quintessentially American actress should stretch into European art cinema?), there are reasons to see Luna (Italian cinema favorites like Alida Valli, Renato Salvatori, Veronica Lazar, and even Roberto Benigni turn up) and FMC's print makes its finer qualities easier to appreciate.

January 23, incidentally, also sees a TCM telecast of a rare-ish noir, 1956's Nightfall, at 11:15am EST. Nothing sticky about this one but a strong credit for director Jacques Tourneur, and Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft in the leads.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Woody Allen online in Cineaste

Cineaste Editor Cynthia Lucia landed a good interview with Woody Allen regarding his new film, Cassandra's Dream, which opens today. Rather than wait for the Spring issue we decided to strike while the iron is hot and post it directly to our website, which you can browse at your leisure once you've read Allen on Patricia Highsmith, Alfred Hitchcock, Philip Glass, his "lazy" filmmaking style, and his influence on one aspiring New Yorker.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

R.I.P. Brad Renfro

Onscreen, the 25-year-old actor held his own against the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, and Ian McKellen, but off, fighting tabloid-ready addictions, was a different story. It was dismaying to read of his personal problems, which clouded a once-promising career. Though he continued to find work I didn't see him much after 2001's Bully and Ghost World, two of his best credits. A career, and a life, cut sadly short.

I figured Ian McKellen, one of the best celebrity bloggers, would share a thought or two about his one-time co-starm and indeed he has. A gracious tribute.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Too much Juno?

There's a lot to like about Juno, which I caught up with yesterday. The perhaps too-much-publicized screenwriter, Diablo Cody, has a genuine voice, which should be separated from the white noise generated from the blogosphere. Director Jason Reitman wisely lets her have her say, while concentrating on the performers; I didn't think the armor-plated Jennifer Garner would ever affect me, but affect me she did, and Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, and best friend Olivia Thirlby give nuanced performances in what could have been an overly broad and obvious framework. Michael Cera is on the up and up and Ellen Page is a delight in the title role. The talent was there to do go deeper into what is a wrenching situation but the movie picked what it wanted to do, zeroed in on how to do it, and nailed it in 91 minutes. (The songtrack got on my nerves after about the fifth tune, but that may be middle age coming to rest in my eardrums.)

I hope its across-the-board grassroots success, the biggest in distributor Fox Searchlight's history, gets people to rent Reitman's more acidic Thank You for Smoking and seek out Page's stunning turn in Hard Candy, both from 2006. Here in Brooklyn, however, it may be too much of a good thing. The film is playing at the three theaters within walking distance from me, the BAM Rose Cinemas, the Cobble Hill Cinemas, and the UA Court Street multiplex. I've lived here since 2005 and that trifecta has never happened before; what's odd is that the latter two are just a few blocks from one another, and while they may be complementing one another it's hard to see how they're not cannibalizing each other, too.

The bigger problem is that having it at three nearby screens squeezes out other worthwhile pictures; I have to see Charlie Wilson's War, down to two daily shows, before it expires at Court Street, and the Golden Globe-winning Atonement isn't getting a fair shake on one screen at Cobble Hill. Juno herself would not approve of such Starbucksing, so, dude, leave some turf for the other guys to nurture.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Preminger on HDNet Movies tonight

HDNet Movies is bowing hi-def transfers of Anatomy of a Murder and In Harm's Way tonight, the first and last of Preminger's "institutional" epics, as everything comes up Otto for the new year. Not a barn-burner of a post after ten days away (some of them deep in Huckabee country, which has a Baptist church for every resident), but you go with what you got.

I did see Preminger's Saint Joan at Film Forum last week. The image was variable, the sound buzzy and distracting, and the film so-so, almost a storybook version of the tale for literate adults (Graham Greene compressed George Bernard Shaw's play, a lifelong favorite of the director). The uncertain but compelling Jean Seberg would find her feet in Preminger's followup, Bonjour Tristesse, unveiled in a spectacular print right afterwards. Joan's highlight was Richard Widmark in an almost Jerry Lewis-like portrayal of the weakling Dauphin, an out-there performance he regarded as a near career-killer, one that pretty much chased him back into rancher and bureaucratic roles (I recall only one other comic part, the feeble Doris Day picture The Tunnel of Love). Too bad; I like Widmark, but with his perpetual sourpuss he always acted like he was nursing a peptic ulcer, and his lightening up made for interesting viewing.

TCM's Skidoo airing, that looked ripped from a decaying VHS source, was a distinct disappointment, with terrible pan/scan of the anamorphic image and hollow audio. Bad doggie, Robert Osborne. But watching it as a kind of ur-Sopranos, with Jackie Gleason's game performance as another menopausal gangster named Tony, made some sense of it all. And the opening meta-appearance of In Harm's Way, as Gleason and Carol Channing squabble over the TV remote control, and Harry Nilsson's sung end credits buttoned it up nicely.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Preminger at Film Forum

If I weren't going to be in the Mid South with my relations I'd likely be at New York's Film Forum, attending its most-welcome retrospective devoted to producer-director Otto Preminger. Inspired by Foster Hirsch's excellent new biography Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would be King (a better subtitle for a John Huston book, but we'll let that pass), I'm showing the first of his "institutional" epics, 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, as my movie group selection in early February. It's part of this festival, along with personal favorites like Laura, Daisy Kenyon, Angel Face (pictured are Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons), The Man with the Golden Arm (with Eleanor Parker's difficult-to-shake performance as Frank Sinatra's needy wife), and the last of his big ones, 1965's In Harm's Way, a movie I may be sort of alone in admiring (I take it that co-stars Patricia Neal, still kickin' it at 81, and whatever-happened-to Jill Haworth, who are scheduled to attend the screening, like it, too).

I'd personally like to see a festival of his difficult-to-view flops dating from 1967 on, but the focus is celebratory, and it's necessary to rehabilitate Preminger from his overemphasized, good-for-publicity image as a Teutonic tyrant. More audience probably recognize him for his string of Nazi film roles (culminating in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, playing a part, not in the stage version, that Wilder invented for his sometime-friend and fellow Vienna emigre) and as TV's Mr. Freeze on Batman than as the creator of some of the most intelligent, groundbreaking films produced in this country, always on time and under budget (a miracle on a shoot as difficult as Exodus, in Israel, a nascent country with no production infrastructure whatsoever). 1962's Advise and Consent should be required viewing in an election year. "Otto, you have a knack for turning the worst-written bestsellers of their year into films," said Gore Vidal as he labored (without credit) on 1963's The Cardinal, but his real knack was for distilling and reshaping them into effective cinema.

As it happens, the retrospective is complemented by the first-ever Turner Classics Movies airing of his bizarre youth-culture time capsule Skidoo (1968), on Jan. 5 at 2am. Set your recording devices for stun on Jan. 4, for what is said to be a letterboxed presentation. I saw it at Film Forum ten years ago and I saw it at Film Forum ten years ago and have not forgotten Jackie Gleason shouting "I must be trippin'!", Carol Channing in a see-through bra that shocked her acolytes at the screening into stunned silence, and Austin Pendleton (his first film) sharing a joint with Groucho Marx (his last film, as "God"). Frankie Avalon is in it, and, OK, trading in on that pop culture notoriety, it's the only movie directed by Mr. Freeze to co-feature The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith, a frequent Preminger actor).

Hirsch, who writes off 1970's Liza Minnelli picture Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, as his only irredeemable stinker, finds some positives amidst the many negatives, so it does have scholarly appeal. Provided you can make it through the rest, Harry Nilsson's sung-through end credits, introduced by Preminger ("Before you 'Skidoo' out of the theater...") are to die. Preminger prepared for the shoot by dropping acid with Dr. Timothy Leary, who cameos. What else can I say to get you to watch? Other than that I met Pendleton, who has dined out on the film for 40 years.

But if you indulge, be sure to binge-and-purge it with a screening of Murder later on the 5th. Schedule permitting, I hope to see his Saint Joan, with its casting of Jean Seberg following a nationwide contest (anticipating reality TV by several decades; American Icon, perhaps?), and a double feature of his underscreened Fox films The Fan (which Hirsch calls his most underrated credit) and the salacious Technicolor blowout Forever Amber.

And a hope for 2009: A legitimate, approved 50th anniversary re-release of his long-unseen and I suspect unfairly maligned Porgy and Bess. It pops up at samizdat screenings (most recently in September at New York's Ziegfeld, which I regrettably missed) but really needs a full restoration. The Goldwyn and Gershwin estates need to bury their hatchets and make this happen.

(The full Film Forum schedule has the roster of guest appearances (Keir Dullea at Bunny Lake is Missing, a film he hated making due to Preminger's attitude, is the keeper) plus links to some of Saul Bass' great credits sequences for the movies, which get them off to a good start (or, in the case of In Harm's Way, end) no matter what followed.)

Popdose pops up

My good buddy Jon Cummings, who accompanied me to a viewing of The Savages (three more end-of-year releases to go, not counting the Aliens vs. Predator rematch) on New Year's Day, is scheduled to begin blogging today for the new Popdose site, described as "a pop culture blog suffering through the worst and best of movies, music, food and books so you don't have to." (Hey, guys, it beats breaking rocks for a living, as I can attest.)

I'll leave you in their capable hands as we recover from Christmas (I spent two hours yesterday sweeping and vacuuming the remnants of the discarded tree from our place; o, tanenbaum, my ass) and spend a few days with my in-laws in Huckabee Country for either the (next-to) last holiday celebration of 2007 or the first of 2008. Some Republican there clearly has a sense of humor about its prior headliner, as the photo shows. It's an interesting place for Green Acres-type New Yorkers like myself to hang out, and trips to the Clinton Library and Hot Springs are promised (the Central High museum was fascinating the last time out.) Let the Top 10 lists commence upon my return.