Monday, September 27, 2010

The Cinematheque Reviews:
The Kids Are All Right

I know.  I know.  I am late (again).  Whatever, stop harassing me about it.  Relax and read my review of The Kids Are All Right over at The Cinematheque.  It starts out as an Annette Bening gushfest, but there is some legit critique hidden in there somewhere.  Somewhere.  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Cinematheque Reviews: Heartbreaker

Over at The Cinematheque, one can now read my review of the French romantic comedy Heartbreaker, starring the ubiquitous Romain Duris and that gap-toothed beauty (and Johnny Depp's S.O. -  most would claim she as the lucky one, but IMHO, he is the lucky bastard here) Vanessa Paradis.  Believe it or not, being the bitter, jaded critic that I am (wrongly) known for being, it is a rather favourable review.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Where O Where.....

Thinking ahead to my eventual Best of 2010 list (publishable somewhere around Jan 1st-ish) I wonder what is going to top it.  There have been some great films so far.  Scorsese's Shutter Island and Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me high among them.  There was also Winter's Bone, I Am Love, The American, even Scott Pilgrim could make the cut.  Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (seen back to back at an NYFF press screening) will not be making their respective US theatrical debuts until early 2011, so they won't be making the cut.  All great films indeed, but where is that one film that truly wows.  That one film that puts all others, no matter how good they may well be, to shame (and I am including the aforementioned 2011 releases in that query).  Last year it was QT and his Inglourious Basterds.  The year before it was Synecdoche, New York and the year before that it was There Will Be Blood (and I'm Not There to boot).  This year.....well this year I am still waiting.

Some probable contenders are as follows.  Sofia Coppola's 4th film, Somewhere (the most likely candidate, but still up for debate).  The Coens' remake of True Grit (hmm, possibly, possibly not).  Julie Taymor's The Tempest (at least visually stunning).  Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void (I'll be seeing it next week, who knows?).  Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff (hmmmmm...if it even gets a 2010 release).  Still, with no film on the horizon from any of my favourite auteurs (Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Wong Kar-Wai, Todd Haynes, David Lynch) one must wonder if that No. 1 is ever coming this year.  Am I destined to a year of number two's?  Great, but not the greatest?  Well, here's to surprises.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NYFF 2010: Certified Copy

To one-off Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy as a mere riff (w/ a twist) on either Viaggio in Italia and/or Before Sunset (which I heard several of my fellow critics spout out after the press screening of the film at Walter Reade) is to sell this brilliantly subversive film way way way short.  Granted, one of course can see the similarities to both films - the ever-lurking camera winding through cobbled streets following an awkward couple, the idea of a possibly failing marriage and a certain desperation written on their faces - but what Kiarostami does here is take these same desperate couples (real or imagined as they may be) and places them inside - smack dab in the proverbial middle - of an elaborately manipulative puzzle.  A puzzle that we never find out the solution to, but a puzzle that we do not need a solution to - possibly a puzzle there is no solution to.  In other words, Kiarostami is taking us for another ride - and what a ride it is.
Juliette Binoche, in the press notes, talks about going to visit the director to find out about the film he wanted to make with her.  She explains how she listened to this 45 minute story from Kiarostami about a series of events which happened to him, essentially, the story of Certified Copy.  When it was all over, he asked her if she believed him.  She said yes.  Kiarostami admitted to it all being a lie and Binoche burst out in laughter.  This is just the kind of twisted fairytale we get in Certified Copy.  Much like the elaborate tomfoolery in the Iranian auteur's 1990 film, Close-Up, the story here is a garbled melange of truth and falsity.  

A sort of meta-manipulation (and these are the best kinds - Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck pull off something along those lines in the recently released I'm Still Here, though on a much simpler, and less artistic scale) Certified Copy follows Elle (Binoche, as sublime as ever) and James (Opera singer William Shimmel making his surprisingly in depth acting debut) through a Tuscan village as the play an intricately manicured game of emotional cat and mouse with each other.  Mistaken by a local cafe owner as a married couple, Elle and James (supposedly meeting for the first time) begin to act out the parts they are mistakenly given.  As the game goes further and further, the mind games get sharper and deeper until we no longer know what is real and what is make-believe.  Elle and James perhaps no longer know either.

What exactly is going on here?  Are these just two strangers playing head games with each other?  Are they a real couple, playing games from the very start?  Does any answer really matter?  Is it not all about the game?  It is not the solution (remember, there may not be one) but the puzzle that matters and the way the director and his two actors play around with such a thing.  What they are playing around with is the idea of reality - what is the original, what is a copy, does it even matter which is which (as long as you believe the copy is the original, does it make it any less real?).  Like I said, Kiarostami is messing with our heads again.  It's great to have him back.

Finally making his way back to narrative filmmaking (after a decade experimenting in DV projects of varying degrees of success - one of these, Ten, is actually one of the director's greatest works) Kiarostami could not have asked for a more triumphant manner of return.  Fellow compatriot Glenn Kenny, over at his illustrious blog Some Came Running, said this as he closed out his piece on Certified Copy: "Seeing this and Uncle Boonmee the same afternoon put me, and a bunch of my fellow NYFF press screening attendees, into a cinephilic swoon we'll be luxuriating in for some time."  As one of those fellow NYFF press screening attendees, I must wholeheartedly agree.  And swoon I did.
note: IFC has purchased the US rights to Certified Copy and will release the film via both on demand and in theaters.  The tentative date for such a release (if one is to believe IMDb) is March 2011 (a surefire contender for my Best of 2011 list - how's that for planning ahead!?).  At that time I will post a full review of the film.  Or perhaps I will just copy and paste this same one (after all, a copy is as good as the original, right?). 

NYFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him "pleasure" a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary.  Merely a natural extension of the director's already mythmaking style of filmmaking.  When Von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out "chaos reigns" in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself.  In Uncle Boonmee,, I mean Joe (as he likes to be called) it seems like just a natural thing that happens all the time.  A talking catfish who goes down on a princess?  Sure, why the Hell not.

Seriously though, Uncle Boonmee is a revelatory piece of cinema - especially considering my sordid past with the films of Joe's strange little oeuvre (and I don't mean that as condescendingly as it may sound).  More oft than not I have had rather tepid reactions to the works of Weerasethakul.  Blissfully Yours and Mysterious Object at Noon were interesting experimentations but held no real lasting flavour.  Meanwhile Syndromes and a Century (first seen at this very festival four years back), though praised to the high heavens by just about every self-respecting critic out there, and though quite charming throughout, fell rather flat in this particular critic's esteem.  Only Tropical Malady (first seen at this very festival six years back) made a lasting impression on me (enough of one to make my top 10 that year).  That is, until now, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Fascinating from absolute beginning to absolute end, Uncle Boonmee is the Thai auteur's best film yet (as well as winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes!), with its weaving intricate tales of the strange and unusual within the mundane and ordinary (read: Apichatpong's unnatural natural filmmaking signature) and his ideas of duality and alternate existences.  Basically the story of the titular uncle who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm.  Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee's dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness.  Shortly after that Boonmee's long lost son returns, but in some sort of bigfootian non-human form.  In fact the first appearance of the ominous-seeming monkey ghosts (see picture below) was what sealed the proverbial deal for this critic.  
Meanwhile, after the aforementioned randy catfish, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul's storytelling.  A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong has managed to deepen my love for his work - something that probably should have been done a while ago (perhaps Syndromes and a Century deserves a much needed second look).  Stunningly photographed in such a way as to make the already unnatural naturalness of the film seem even more mystical (Joe, in the after film Q&A, spoke of his intent on an artificiality of scenery) Uncle Boonmee is what one would call haunting - if one wished to use such a cliche'd term as haunting.  But really, it is quite haunting.  Quite haunting indeed.  All that and a talking, seductive catfish.  Why the Hell not.

note: Strand Releasing has purchased US rights to the film and will eventually release it theatrically here in the states.  When that eventuality is, I cannot yet say, but I would guess at an early 2011 time table.  At such time I will post a full review of the film.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Weekly Film Poll #2: The Results

This week, faithful readers, you were asked to name your favourite French New Wave director.  Granted, the outcome was a forgone conclusion (wasn't it?) but you voted anyway - and I thank you for such.
I chose the above picture of Godard and (then) wife Anna Karina to honour both JLG (for winning the contest this week) and Anna on what is the actress/new wave icon's 70th birthday.

The results (based on 22 votes) are as follows:

Jean-Luc Godard - 10 (45%)
Francois Truffaut - 6 (27%)
Jacques Rivette - 3 (13%)
Eric Rohmer - 3 (13%)
Claude Chabrol - 0 (0%)

The saddest part is that poor M. Chabrol did not receive even a single vote.  Granted, he is my personal least favourite of the five, but hey, the poor guy just died, how about at least a pity vote.

The new poll can be viewed in the ledfthand sidebar.  This time, in anticipation of the new Coen Brothers film coming out at year's end (their remake of True Grit) you are asked to choose your favourite Coen Brothers movie.  

Our goal this week is to have at least 50 participants in our little film poll.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Cinematheque Reviews:
I'm Still Here

Serious Andy Kauffmanesque mindfuck or just some good old fashioned skylarking by a couple of childish pranksters?  Either way, the Joaquin Phoenix/Casey Affleck screw you juggernaut, I'm Still Here, is exactly what the post-millennial, Reality TV-watching, celebrity trash-talking, meta-media mass market public deserves.  Either way, my review is up at The Cinematheque.  Read it now.  That's an order.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Happy Birthday Asia Argento

The kind of girl who would kill and devour you after sex, but the kind of girl you would be okay with such..

The Cinematheque Reviews: Get Low

Over at The Cinematheque, if one is so inclined, one can read my review of Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black and Bill Murray.  It's not a perfect film, nor even close, but the performances of Duvall, Spacek and Murray (sorry Mr. Black, you were just so-so) mixed with a cinematographic beauty (first-time director Aaron Schneider is a cinematographer after all) and a few winks to Altman and few nods to the Coens, make for a better-than-expected filmic experience.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

NYFF 2010: Pale Flower

As I have noticed a good many of my critical compatriots do recently, I too must preface this look at the 1964 film Pale Flower, with the (quite sad) admission that I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of the films of Masahiro Shinoda.  Actually I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of most things under the banner of what one might call the Japanese New Wave (a handful of Imamura and Oshima aside, but only a handful).

That being said, my introduction to Shinoda came just yesterday with the press screening of Pale Flower (one of twelve Shinoda films playing in this year's New York Film Festival's Masterworks Series) at Walter Reade, and I must say, I was more than a little impressed.  To answer (and paraphrase a bit) John Lennon's rather absurdist question, yes Shinoda-san, you passed the audition.
Pale Flower is one of those stunning discoveries one makes that, much like Burnett's Killer of Sheep three years ago, only makes one angry that it took this long to finally discover it.  The story of Muraki, a Yakuza killer who returns to his old turf after a stint in prison, to find things pretty much the same as they ever were.  Well, everything except for Saeko, a beautiful young woman who is now a regular at one of the requisite seedy gambling dens run by the local Yakuza boss.  As reckless as she is stunning, Saeko (Mariko Kaga) quickly becomes the pivotal point in the life of Muraki and of course, as always does the femme fatale, his demise (or at least his entrapment back in the same problems as before).

Considered one of the high points of the Japanese New Wave (though still with remnants of Ozu in it) Shinoda, just like his French compatriots, took the notions and ideas of film noir and planted them inside Pale Flower.  Obviously (or at least it should be obvious) influenced by what Godard and Truffaut were doing in the West the years just prior and combined with what his own contemporaries were doing right out his own front door (Oshima, Imamura, Seijun Suzuki), the film is layered in such a way that one must assume it had some sort of rather strong influence on both Martin Scorsese, and later on, Quentin Tarantino.  Of course what filmmakers did not influence Scorsese and QT?
Now at the time, since the French and Japanese New Wave's were coming together pretty much simultaneously, one's influence on the other is just guess work (did these directors even see each other's works during this period?) but one must figure there was some sort of cross-cultural influence here, or at the very least, influences from the same places as each other.  While the French New Wave got off the ground with the determination of a bunch of upstart film critics who wanted to change the world, the Japanese New Wave was born from the studio system (which may explain the influence of Ozu hidden away in Shinoda's camera work at times) and therefore perhaps not as entrenched in film culture as their European counterparts.  Yet, there must have been some influence (that's all I'm sayin').

Enough speculating, the film stands on its own (influence-free) merits and damn well should.  My favourite scene (among many!) is Saeko's insanely giddy impromptu late night car race through the strangely deserted streets of Tokyo with a seeming stranger and the even stranger aftermath.  Cross-cultural influence or not, this is so Godard it ain't funny.  Stark and harrowing, irreverent yet stoical, Shinoda is a surprise well worth the wait - although I am still angry it took this damned long to discover him.  Now I must go out and gobble up all available DVD's of Shinoda's work.  These include the Criterion editions of Samurai Spy (65) and Double Suicide (69); the Masters of Cinema editions of Assassination (64) and Silence (71); as well as Punishment Island/Captive's Island (66) and (of course) Pale Flower.  There are also some Japanese editions, but these are probably sans English subtitles (though the visual beauty of Shinoda makes up for lack of words).

The 48th Annual NYFF

For those of you out there who care about such things (and really, that should be all of you) over the next few weeks I will be posting about the New York Film Festival (or NYFF as it will be called from here on out). Press screenings just got under way and yours truly shall be reporting from some of these screenings.  I will only be able to make it up to a few screenings though (due to financial and practical reasons both - a dilemna  anyone  who writes about cinema but is not making a living at it can surely understand!),but what I do see, you will surely read about right here in these so-called pages.  There will be reports on new films from such auteurs as Abbas Kiarostami, Kelly Reichardt, Mike Leigh, Masahiro Shinoda and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  My first post (hopefully tomorrow or the next day coming) will be on the 1964 Japanese New Wave film Pale Flower, from Masahiro Shinoda (part of NYFF's Masterworks Series).  Until then.....

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weekly Film Poll #1: The Results

THE GREAT AND POWERFUL MOST BEAUTIFUL FRAUD IN THE WORLD CINEMA POLL has concluded its first week.  You were asked (in anticipation of Sofia Coppola's 4th film, Somewhere)  to name your favourite Sofia Coppola film thus far.  Seventeen people voted in the poll (not bad for a first time??) but, and I believe I speak for Mr. Murray as well, more would be better. 
The results were as follows.

Lost in Translation - 8 votes (47%)
Marie Antoinette - 5 votes (29%)
The Virgin Suicides - 4 votes (23%)

Not a real surprise.  My favourite came in second, but....ah well.

The new poll can be found in the lefthand sidebar.  This week, in memory of Claude Chabrol, you get to choose your favourite French New Wave director.  Vote away.....

Monday, September 13, 2010

Show People (King Vidor, 1928)

"With me it was 5 per cent talent and 95 per cent publicity." 
-Marion Davies

If you have ever seen any of Marion Davies comedies, you know the above quote is total balderdash, and most likely, at least partly, quite tongue-in-cheek.  Yet that is the perception many have of Marion Davies.  Well, at least those who even remember the long forgotten actress.   For those few who do remember her, she is known mainly as the paramour of a wealthy mogul who had a film studio created just for her.  But there is more than just that.  Much more.

In one of those stories just dripping with irony, it was infamous newspaper tycoon (and later movie mogul) William Randolph Hearst who gave his young mistress, Marion Davies, her first big break in Hollywood, yet (and here is the irony dripping part of our story) it was his insistence on Davies starring in lavish period dramas (something she was not very good at) instead of the quick-witted comedies the actress was so adept at playing, that led to her eventual decline in popularity and even more eventual fading into obscurity - a mere scandalous footnote in film history.

Famously (or is that infamously?) thought of as the inspiration behind the ill-fated (and quite talentless) Susan Alexander character in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (just as Hearst was the model for the titular good ole Charlie Kane) Davies has indeed had her share of Hollywood Babylon-like tall tales told about her.  Welles, though obviously using Hearst as the model for Kane, has denied Susan Alexander was based on Davies (at least not completely on her) and has been quoted as saying "Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  Though there is the rumour that Hearst's nickname for Davies nether regions was Rosebud - that's neither here nor there I suppose.

Another tale has Davies having an affair with Charlie Chaplin right under Hearst's fat cat nose and being involved in the murder of Thomas Ince aboard Hearst's luxury yacht (a tale that is retold in Peter Bogdanovich's 2002 film The Cat's Meow, featuring Edward Herrmann as Hearst, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, Cary Elwes as Ince and Kirsten Dunst as Davies).  The fact that Ince died on land, a day after leaving the yacht, of heart problems, is still not enough to put this urban legend to rest though.  But enough about Davies supposedly sordid lifestyle (mostly exaggerated of course), let us get on with why we are here.  To reuse part of Mr. Welles' quote from above, we are here to talk about Marion Davies being "one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  Namely, her work in King Vidor's 1928 silent comedy, Show People.

Though a loose interpretation of the early career of Gloria Swanson (that ill-fated young starlet who would one day play an almost mirror image of her forgotten self in the great and tragic Billy Wilder noir, Sunset Blvd.) could also have quite possibly been based on Davies herself.  The story of the wonderfully named Peggy Pepper, a young Southern girl (Davies of course) who comes to Hollywood, along with her father (the typical blow hard Southern Colonel type), to become a great star of gorgeous, flowing epics.  Yet, just like Davies, the girl finds herself the star of slapstick comedies (though Davies' comedies were far from slapstick, one gets the coincidental idea) and completely unhappy with what she perceives as a failure on her part to become the dramatic star she had always dreamt of being.  Though in actuality, Davies loved doing comedy (it was only Hearst, in his desire to see Davies at her most glamourous, who pushed her toward the dramatic) Show People can be construed as being similar to Davies own career problems in many ways.

In many ways, this is a feminine take on the classic Hollywood story of Merton of the Movies (eventually made into 3 movies, in 1924, 1932 and finally in 1947).  After being tricked into doing comedy (her screen tests, as they were, though meant to be dramatic, were hilarious enough to be cast in what she thinks is a dramatic motion picture) Peggy Pepper becomes unhappy with her slapstick stardom, even though she finds true love in comic co-star Billy Boone (played with the usual glee by star William Haines, whose own career would plummet only a few later, due mainly to his insistence on living life as an openly homosexual actor - an act that Louis B. Mayer would not stand for) and turns instead toward the dramatic films she so desired to make.  Of course this only made her unhappier as she loses (temporarily of course) Billy during this foray into the "more legitimate" kind of moviemaking. 

Yet through all this unhappiness we find (of course) quite a bit of laughter, and a lot of said laughter is brought on by Davies and her willingness to do anything for a laugh.  A beautiful woman (a sex symbol even!?), Davies was not afraid to contort that gorgeous face into something that would make even Buster Keaton bust a gut.  Show People was the second of three films she would do with King Vidor (The Patsy, a great comic film in its own right, where we get to see Davies impersonate Lillian Gish, Mae Murray and Pola Negri - all of whom she was famous for mimicking at her Hollywood parties - and Not So Dumb were the others) and it was he who seemed to bring out the best in Davies.  One thinks of melodrama when they think of Vidor but it was his gift at directing comedy (a sort of Chaplinesque comedy usually) that made Davies' own gift for comedy come out stronger than it had in other films.  We also get to peek Chaplin in a particularly hilarious cameo in Show People (was the rumour true?) and it is just another nod to Davies' gift that the great comic genius would do her film.

Davies was what one could call a born comedienne (much like Lucille Ball would be called years later - another beauty willing to play it for laughs) and it is a shame her career faded so quickly.  A tragic irony indeed.  To use Mr. Welles quote for my own purposes just one more time, it is a shame that more people do not know of Marion Davies and her being "one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen".  A shame indeed.

Claude Chabrol (1930-2010)

I have never been very good at eulogizing, but since my budding cinephilia wings were given flight by the likes of the French New Wave (way back in my misbegotten youth!) I should give this one a try - so here goes.  

The one that started it all is gone.  Considered the first of the Cahiers du cinema critics to release a feature film and kick off what would come to be known as the Nouvelle Vague (aka, French New Wave) with his 1958 debut Le Beau Serge.  I must admit to never being quite attuned to M. Chabrol as I have to his compatriots Truffaut, Godard and Rivette (Rohmer is in the same boat so to speak), and must also sadly admit to only having seen four of the auteur's films, but what I have seen I have enjoyed and his unique brand of Hitchcockian neo-noir (or should I say Hitchcocko-Hawksian as Bazin said of M. Chabrol and his pals?), many starring the great Isabelle Huppert, will certainly be missed in and around the cinephiliac world.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

This review, in all its gushing glory (I really did not have anything bad to say about this film - an oddity for someone as critical as I), was originally published on 01/28/08 at The Cinematheque and is being reprinted here (with a few slight tweaks) as my contribution to the Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon over at Jeremy Richey's great film blog, Moon in the Gutter.

Beginning with a buzzing disturbance straight out of a Kubrickian nightmare (or is it a Lynchian nightmare?) and ending in a Brechtian feast of gruesome delight that one has to see to believe, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a monster of a movie - more monstrous than anything King Kong could ever dream of serving up. It is some sort of Orson Welles, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Erich von Stroheim monstrosity of a motion picture. A cinematic amalgamation of the whole of film history, with arms and legs and heads and horns of all those auteurs that came before him, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a billion-eyed beast of a movie that goes far beyond anything any of us thought Anderson was ever capable of - or pretty much anyone was capable of. Movie y mano, Anderson venomously concocts a near perfect mixture of madness and mise-en-scene to create a motion picture of undeniable cinematic bravura.

Taking Upton Sinclair's Oil! (or at least the first few chapters and epilogue) and transposing it into a postmodern Citizen Kane, Anderson has perfected the very art of auteur filmmaking. Taking what he did with the essence of Scorsese in Boogie Nights and the spirit of Altman in Magnolia, Anderson has multiplied it a million fold with the biblical monster movie There Will Be Blood, and going beyond mere imitation or homage like De Palma or Tarantino, he has entered a magical realm of honest loving cinematic genuflection the likes of which we have not seen from an American director, with the lone blazing exception of David Lynch and his Mulholland Dr., since the days of the director driven cinema of the 1970's American New Wave. This is a bold new American cinema being born, Phoenix-like, from the bloody ashes of all that came and went before. As iconically American as Kane or Chinatown or Taxi Driver or Greed - and just as caustic - this motion picture is something truly incredible. This is something that cannot be missed. This is something superhuman, something supercinematic. To sound quite genuflectory myself - and I cannot help but do so (sounding more like a studio adman or perhaps Anderson's own press agent than the hard-nosed film critic I claim to be) - this is not only the best film of 2007, this may very well be, no make that this is one of the greatest films ever made. Ever.

As far as the story goes, it is a tale of old testament fire and brimstone - literally and figuratively. As pertinent today as it was when Sinclair wrote it in 1927, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a staggering monster movie pitting God vs. Greed, and in the end, as is always the case, Greed wins. This is the story of the deceptively named Daniel Plainview, who we first meet in the dark numbing silence of a makeshift silver mine, then crawling on his back, shattered leg in tow, across miles of rocky terrain just to make his claim and finally as the explosively charged self-proclaimed oil man offering up his services to the throngs of genuflecting would be oil barons, all the time growing richer and richer upon the backs of these naive cash cattle with each successive bursting oil well exploding from the dry dusty ground as if trying to escape the very Devil himself, only to find an even worst beast above the surface. 

Although blatantly modeled after Charles Foster Kane, from humble beginnings to self-exiled madness, Daniel Plainview, without the crutch of any sort of rosebud-esque sentimentality, is 100% pure monster, from top to bottom, from beginning to end. At one point, in a cinematic moment of Hellish Nirvana, as one of Daniel's wells explodes into an inferno straight out of revelations (his water is oil and it runs with the blood of all those around him) and his adoptive son, who is nothing more than a cherub-faced pawn, is nearly killed and left for deaf, we see Daniel silhouetted against the raging fire, covered in a skein of bloody oil, lording over his "creation" as if he truly were the King of Hellfire. As one watches this scene unfold, one surely begins to realize that perhaps this man, this Daniel Plainview is indeed the very Devil himself.

Played with a ferocity that surpasses even Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher, Daniel Day-Lewis is an ever-simmering, constantly bubbling, potentially explosive demon of a human being as Daniel Plainview - Moloch devouring all that lies before him. Channeling John Huston's Noah Cross with each and every deep long breath and every hulking purposeful step (as I said before, his water is oil and it turns to blood in his own private 'Chinatown') Daniel Day-Lewis proves once again that he is the most intensely superhuman actor working today - and probably the most powerful since the early days of Brando. Full of spleen for the whole of humanity, Day-Lewis/Plainview (for the method actor and the demonic character become one entity throughout), with each demonstratively bold step, keeps his evil mostly in check, with only brief shocks of madness, until his full out direptitious mega explosion come the undeniably full-throttled bestial finale that will take everyone completely and utterly off guard with its absurd madness. In short, Day-Lewis/Plainview will drink your milkshake. He'll drink it up! (trust me, once you have seen this film, that reference will make sense to you, albeit in the most senseless way).

Meanwhile, playing the antithesis to Daniel's fire demon is Paul Dano as the meek-willed young evangelist Eli, who wants his upstart church to be able to cash in on Daniel's oil boom. Stomped at as if a tiny bug by the giant shoes of Daniel, never able to defend himself against this goliath, Eli seems to be the very embodiment of sanctimony itself, but do not let that fool you, as with a glint in his eye, Eli is also the embodiment of the church, a church that wants its lion's share of the gold (or oil in this case) making it (the Church, organized religion, supposed Christian values) play out as just as evil as Daniel and his insatiable thirst for power and money. Using each other for their own cause, trying to prove which is master, God or Greed, Daniel and Eli are the crux of a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, God and Man. A war which has been raging since before time began and will be burning throughout eternity - long after Daniel's oil wells dry up and long after Eli's congregation dies off. The only question remaining is, which side is good and which side is evil - or is there even a difference? 

And then there is the ending. Analyzed and theorized to death, Anderson's final twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood is so reelingly absurd, so dangerously deranged, so batshitcrazy that we may think we are imagining what we are seeing. That somewhere during the buzzing madness that underlies the entire film, we were seduced, hypnotized, poisoned or drugged and what we now are watching is some sort of fever-induced nightmare born of the mad blood that is Anderson's movie. We must be thinking to ourselves that this is not real, that Anderson would not end his film in such a preposterous manner. Yet it is just this ending, this Grand Guignol monster ripped from the death grip of Luis Bu├▒uel, that turns this already brilliant thesis on religion, humanity (and cinema) into a work of mad art that will never be forgotten in the annals of film history. Just as Anderson has stripped bare such films as Citizen Kane, 2001, The Shining, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, Birth of a Nation, Greed, Chinatown, Taxi Driver McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Citizen Kane (yes I said Citizen Kane twice!), fifty, a hundred years from now, filmmakers not even born yet, not even thought of yet, will strip bare the bloody bones of Anderson's film and in turn will create a new American cinema of their very own - and the phoenix shall be reborn - again.

In sum, while many of Anderson's critics have called him and his film pretentious (probably the most oft-mentioned criticism about Anderson throughout his still young career) one must take that as cop out criticism by those who know not how to take this brave film. Beneath the mantle of a different kind of filmmaker - a lesser filmmaker if you will - pretension can easily take down even the best of intentions, but in the hands of certain auteurs - Welles and Kubrick come to mind immediately - pretension, or more aptly that which one perceives as pretension, can be the very backbone of a great film. In the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson (the heir apparent to Welles and Kubrick perhaps?) it is spun as if gold from the guts and groin of Rumpelstiltskin. To paraphrase Truffaut when writing about Johnny Guitar back in his Cahiers days, if one does not like Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood then they should never go to the movies again, for they know nothing of cinema. 

With that already brazen statement, allow me to make an even bolder, brasher one now. I shall take a word that is tossed about so willy-nilly by studio admen all across the Hollywood hills and mainstream movie critics hoping to see their name in lights (aka as poster blurbs) that it has nearly lost all meaning, all sincerity, and I shall place this word where it should have been all along, upon the most revered pedestal of honour, only to be used in the most extreme cases of canonization. Taking this word - a word I have not used in describing a new film since Lars von Trier's Dogville four years ago, and Lynch's Mulholland Dr. two years before that (and capitalizing it for added impact) - I proudly proclaim at the very top of my lungs and from the very acme of cinematic worship, and with no shame at all in my voice, that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a Masterpiece!!  Nothing else need be said.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films of All-Time

Have you heard of the website, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?  Well if not, get over there right now (well, when you finish reading this) and check it out.  Site founder and curator, Bill Georgaris, has created a master list of the 1000 Greatest Films of All-Time.  He has taken lists from all over (AFI, Sight & Sound, BFI, The Cinematheque's Top 10 Project, a slew of critics and directors lists, et cetera, et cetera and so on) and compiled a composite list (through great mathematical heartache I am sure) of those aforementioned 1000 Greatest Films of All-Time.

My interest in this (besides my obsessive thirst for list-making!) is my desire to see all 1000 of these suckers.  When the list was first compiled I checked off what I had already seen and began from there.  Bill updates the list every two years so at times there may be some minor adjustments, but right now I am at #575.  Just 425 more to go.  I know, I know, pretty lame figure for a cinephile such as I, but hey, give me a break, I'm working on it.  

At first I was just listing (there's that damned obsessive thirst again!) each one I saw, counting down to eventual number one thousand, but as of late, I have taken to writing up critiques of each one.  

My critiques can be found on this blog for the following films:

Of course, as always, I procrastinate and therefore there are a bunch of films I (finally) saw for the first time that I have yet to write on.  Films such as Pink Flamingos; Man of the West and The Man From Laramie (in a double feature at Film Forum the day after my birthday); The Good, the Bad & the Ugly; Blood Simple; Bigger Than Life and Black Narcissus.  Over the next few weeks I will be catching up on these critiques (in between my duties as film reviewer for new releases and writing pieces on various other films - those not in that quite subjective 1000 Greatest Films list! - as well as joining in on every Blogathon I can get my grubby little keyboard on) right here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.

Many of the films on the list are rather obscure and will take a bit of effort.  A few are near-impossible, but the quest goes on.  At least I was able to find a copy (albeit a pretty crappy one) of Louis Feuillade's Tih Minh.  Now to find the near seven hours to sit down and watch it!?  I suppose what I am saying is I have faith that my quest will be fulfilled someday - possibly within the next two years (how's that for confidence!?).

To see the evolution of my quest, check out my "Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films" page.  And remember to check back here as I catch up on the old as well as adding critiques for the next 425 movies on the list.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Cinematheque Reviews: Machete

Over at The Cinematheque, one will find a new film review.  This particular review is on Robert Rodriguez's Machete.  I may have called the film a Giddy Grindhouse Grand Guignol of a movie, but you are going to have to go over there and read it to make sure.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)

This review was originally published on 10/05/05 at The Cinematheque and is being reprinted here (with a few alterations) as my contribution to the David Cronenberg Blogathon over at Tony Dayoub's wonderful film blog, Cinema Viewfinder.

Canada's very own Auteur of vexatiousness, David Cronenberg, the man who spewed forth some of the most deliriously disturbing cinema of the past two decades, takes now, as his most recent study of penetration (this word can be used both figuratively and literally in describing certain scenes in this film), the philosophical conundrum of violence in America. More accurately, Cronenberg wants us to think about how we see violence, how violence makes us feel and the ways in which we, as both individuals and as a society, have become so desensitized toward said violence that it is as if we no longer even notice it, let alone are appalled by it as we should be. 

What Cronenberg has actually managed to do, as he did in the sublime Crash, is create both a reflexive and antagonistic film, that can be watched simultaneously as a neo-western, transposed to small-town middle America, and as an indelicately funny social attack on mores in America. What Cronenberg has really accomplished, after all is said and done though, has been to create the best damned English-language film of the year so far.   Replete with a seething undercurrent of potential violence (the name does say it all, after all) that seems to boil just under the surface of every single scene, no matter how benign they may otherwise seem, Cronenberg may very well have created the best damned film in his deep, and quite diversely perverse oeuvre.  

After a viciously malaisical prologue, Cronenberg's meditation on violence begins in the sleepy little hamlet of Millbrook Indiana, where the stunning and seemingly homespun husband and wife team of Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello appear to live the "American Values" idyllic life with their equally beautiful children, Jack and Sara. Firmly establishing, from almost the beginning, both the love and lust between these two people - including a sexual encounter that plays more honestly than any other I have seen in a long long time - it becomes all that more harrowing as we watch them fall apart from each other, and are swallowed up by the titular omen foreshadowing every moment of this film.

Full of Hitchcockian layers, whence the characters may not even know what is going on - even, sometimes, inside their own heads. Mortensen goes miles past his saturated LOTR days and opts for a much more adult-oriented role (as opposed to the rather mentally stunted fanboy-esque following that his King of the Rings garnered him). He is surprisingly nuanced as the everyman turned wrong man (just one of many Hitchcock allusions), possibly turned cold-blooded killer, or maybe even something all together different - a plot point question that can only be answered by seeing this film (there be no spoilers here!). Maria Bello, as Mortensen's wife, is at both her sexiest and emotionally-charged best, playing the damaged wife with such ferocity and teeth - not to mention about as much primal sex appeal as one woman can physically contain. 

Speaking of sex - that too, along with our perspective of gratuitous violence on the screen, is at the heart of Cronenberg's film. We see the juxtaposing of a bookended pair of sexual encounters by this (to say the least) strained couple. The first, a loving, honest rendezvous.  This attempt to capture their lost youth, complete with cheerleader outfit (I did mention how sexy Bello is here, right?) is followed - post violent explosion - by a brutal, near-rape attack on the stairs of their once quiet little home. It is these black and white, cracked-mirror image scenes that sum up the emotional percussion of these two characters.  The urgency of sex as possible violent release (or is that violence as possible sexual release?) penetrates Cronenberg's film as viciously as anything else in there.

Perhaps not quite as dream-induced as some of his more esoteric works (eXistenZ, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch or, to a lesser extent, The Fly), it is the blurring of what is real, what is not real and what may or may not be real, that has shown up in both Spider and in this film. It is the maturation of Cronenberg as a Filmmaker that pulls it all together, and it is this notion of unreality - or perhaps even surreality - that holds sway over these characters heads like some sort of Damoclean sword - here strung up by the likes of David Cronenberg, in his finest hour. 

There's A New Film Poll In Town

I am beginning a new weekly "thing" here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  It will be my weekly Film Poll, henceforth to be called "THE GREAT AND POWERFUL MOST BEAUTIFUL FRAUD IN THE WORLD CINEMA POLL".  You can go over to the sidebar (right to the left of here!) and check out the first poll - a poll in anticipation of Sofia Coppola's upcoming film.  Come back every Tuesday to see the new poll (and the results of the old poll).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I'm #5!! I'm #5!! I'm #5!!

As regular readers of this blog know, I recently joined the ranks of the LAMB (aka, Large Association of Movie Blogs).  Proud member #678 for those of you keeping score at home.  Well, each month the LAMB posts a leaderboard, representing the Top 20 LAMB sites of the month (the ones with the most traffic between themselves and the LAMB site).  Well, lo and behold, yrs truly (aka, The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World) made the cut for August - with a bullet.  Making, what I believe to be a relatively strong debut, in the number five spot, I was majorly surprised when I saw the newly posted leaderboard.  I am sure some of this has to do with me being a new kid on the block, and therefore peek-worthy (just to see what I'm all about) but hopefully many of those peekers will come back.  Perhaps number one is in my future.  Perhaps obscurity after a surprisingly rousing start.  Who knows. 

Not to be the egotist I often sound like, I would like to congratulate Alex Kittle over at Film Forager  for her first place finish.  Her site is definitely deserving of the honour. 

City Cinema: September 2010

Here is the link to my September 2010 City Cinema column for the Harrisburg PA alt-monthly The Burg.  I blather on about Winter's Bone and JLG's Breathless restoration, so I am sure you will want to read it.  Plus it's another excuse to post another great poster image from that fabulous French film of yesteryear.
The above link is to the column as it appears on my website, The Cinematheque, but the actual column can be read in the hard copy edition itself (yeah, they still make those) for all those local fans, or at The Burg's website (in PDF form) for those far far away.

366 Weird Movies Guest Review:

Here is a link to my second "Guest Review" over at 366 Weird Movies.  It is for Giorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, an odd little Greek film about a man and woman who keep their (now adult) children in a sort of experimental house arrest, never allowing them access to the outside world and warping their minds with twisted versions of the truth.

BTW, an ever-so-slightly different version of this very same review can be seen at The Cinematheque.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sofia Coppola: Daughter of the Revolution

There must have been a time - probably somewhere between the release of Francis Ford Coppola's abysmal career low point of Jack in 1996 and daughter Sofia's disturbingly delightful directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides at Cannes in 1999 - when the power of the father transferred to that of the daughter.  A changing of the cinematic guard so to speak.  Somewhere after the father seemingly lost what had made him one of the most important filmmakers of the 1970's, and the daughter had made a minuscule (and quite lackluster) splash as an actress, the two seemed to find themselves in some sort of twisted version of Freaky Friday.  

While the father had sank to the depths of cutsie-pie Robin Williams dramedy (though Dracula had its merits, this did come after a slowly declining slew of lesser and lesser and lesser films) the daughter gained a reputation (over just three films) of cool, acerbic cinema that was both stunning to look at and deeply resonating in characterization.  This daughter of the movie brat cinematic revolution of the seventies had come into her own.  Out of the shadow of daddy (who incidentally seems to be back on his own right track as of late) and into the limelight of flashy, pop culture auteurism (not to mention an Academy Award!).  But this is an essay about the daughter, so let's leave the genealogy behind and move on to that aforementioned flashy, pop culture auteurism of said Ms. Coppola.

First to come was the daring debut The Virgin Suicides (adapted from, they say, one of Ms. Coppola's favourite novels) about a group of mysterious sisters, all told through the remembering eyes of a group of boys (men now) who became obsessed with them.  The film is a gorgeous work, though from an obvious younger and inexperienced filmmaker.  Gorgeous nonetheless.  With an obvious nod to Picnic at Hanging Rock (both in visual style and overall mood) Coppola proved right out of the gate that she was more than just daddy's girl.  One could easily see that she had the ability to fly much higher than mere nepotism could ever take her.  The film had the tagline of "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" and nothing could describe the oeuvre of Sofia Coppola better than those five words.

Her next project helped prove that she was no mere one-trick pony either.  Lost in Translation was a step toward a more mature filmmaking.  This time Coppola wrote the story itself (instead of adapting someone else) and again she gave herself to the storytelling.  Again the idea of "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" came into it.  Starring Scarlett Johansson as a melancholy young woman visiting Japan and Bill Murray as the lonely movie star that falls for her (though perhaps not in the typical way) Coppola tackles deep emotions beneath a seeming surface of malaise.  Making everything look so empty while filling her proverbial glass to runneth-over status.  It is this cinematic trick that keeps Coppola so fresh - and so unpredictable in what will come next.  We know it will involve that aforementioned "Love Sex Passion Fear Obsession" but that is about all we know.

After becoming only the third woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, as well as taking home the award for Best Original Screenplay, Coppola quietly went onto her next project.  A project that would leave the first two in the dust.  The film (of course) was Marie Antoinette, and this critic for one was blown away (I believe I called it the best film of 2006).  Right now I do not have the proper words, but allow me to use words from a few years back to clarify my thoughts on such a film.  Below is my original review of Marie Antoinette after first seeing it at the 2006 NYFF.


What does one get when one combines postmodern pop sensibility, French Nouvelle Vague philosophies and eighties new wave music and pour it all into an 18th century period piece already stuffed fat and full with ravishing costumes, luscious set pieces and sexually decadent behaviour? One gets Sofia Coppola's best film yet! 

Opening with a wink and a nod, and full of candy-coloured confections of awkward yet graceful charm and wry wit, Marie Antoinette perhaps is not as surfacely deep as her two earlier films, but it does share with her predecessors a claustrophobic sense of entrapment and unheeded privilege. Like Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte in Lost in Translation, afraid to venture pass the lobby of her plush Park Hyatt Tokyo, and Kirsten Dunst herself as Lux Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, a languorous kitten trapped by society inside her own imagined world, Marie, just fourteen when sent to marry the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, is like a lost little bird trapped inside the gilded cage that is Versailles. These girls, squelched by the strangulation of privilege, are what Coppola does best - for obvious autobiographical reasons - and she does it with her most grandiose hand yet in Marie Antoinette. Do not let yourself be fooled, for this is not your mother's historical biopic - it is frivolity underscored with seriousness.  Instead of faking the mannerisms of a staunchy haughty period piece - so overblown by many a great director in the past - Coppola sends Dunst out with the voice of a mall queen with daddy's credit card in her Prada bag - princess of the all-nite rave. Many critics have said Coppola and Dunst portray the teen queen as an 18th century Paris Hilton - and this is probably true on many fronts - but they also show that being Paris Hilton (or any other rich bitch prima donna) may not be all that great a thing to be after all - you just might lose your head over it.  Full of music two hundred years out of time, this pomo set piece plays out as if The Cure or New Order are perfectly in sync with an 18th century masqued ball or a royal coronation. One number in particular, Bow Wow Wow's I Want Candy booms across the soundtrack as Marie and her ladies-in-waiting go on a shopping spree full of decadent wardrobes, delicious shoes (including a pair of purple Converse snuck in for flair) and resplendently ridiculous hairstyles - never once seeming out of place. The modern music and period setting may be rather similar in vein to the films of Baz Luhrmann, but Coppola manages to weave her way past the overly trite style of a film like Moulin Rouge and belts out a film not only full of magniloquence and pretty party pieces, but also of a subtly meaty political underpinning beneath the pink frosted exterior that is this pop star Versailles. 

Peripherally responsible for the starvation of France which in turn led to the French Revolution which in turn led to the beheading of both Antoinette and Louis XVI, Coppola's queen is played more for sympathy than sneer (which assuredly led to the few boo's it received from the Cannes balconies). Showing instead, Marie Antoinette as an apathetic, hautier character, who more likely than not, ever even came into contact with the "people of France" let alone was in any capable state to rule them. The scapegoat of history - her crime being perhaps more an innocent indifference than a calculated reign of terror - Marie Antoinette was more the giggling schoolgirl of privilege than anything else. Not that this is any excuse for what the French citizenry endured during those days before the revolution (remember when George Bush the Father could not even fathom a guess on how much a quart of milk cost?), but it is most likely the most accurate way to look at this child queen. 

Even the surely apocryphal "let them eat cake" quote (the comment that launched a thousand guillotines) is played at by Coppola as if it were a snide little remark to be manipulated and teased - and Dunst's Marie, a pretty powdered present from Austria to France is commented on as "a piece of cake" early on in the film. All this leading to a pop film that seems at first glance nothing more than confectionery sugar and pink and blue sprinkles, but on deeper reflection can be seen as a politically charged dress-up film of revolutionary standards. A film that is set between 1765 and 1793 with music from 1980 through 1985 and is postmodern enough to have the heart of the cinematic future beating beneath its ostentatious chest. 

Finally, in the end, although we all know the outcome (and if you do not then read a book once and a while) we still feel a kind of sadness at this fall of Eden - a child's Eden at that. 


Granted, there have been harsh criticisms tossed at Ms. Coppola.  Calling her films shallow and trite - pretentious even.  Some of this may be true to one extent or another (as with many of the greats, her father had the pretentious label slapped onto him more than a few times), but it is within this apparent shallowness or pretension where Coppola's films work - and then some.  She, like many an auteur before her, is creating cinema, not for the mere sake of entertainment (though it certainly is that as well!) but for the sake of cinema itself.  

Perhaps the gifts she got from her legendary father were not mere speculative transference but a God-given ability to make movies the way movies should be made.  Of course by God I mean Cinema (with a capital C) and all of its omnipotent powers-that-be.  Here's hoping she doesn't ever trudge into the temporary swamp of inadequacies of the father later in life, because for now, she just keeps getting better and better and better with each picture.