Thursday, September 29, 2011

Deborah Kerr: Both the Ideal and the Flesh-and-Blood Woman

The following is my contribution to The Darling Deborah Blogathon at Waitin' On A Sunny Day.

The title of this piece is taken from a quote by film director Michael Powell.  When asked about Miss Kerr, with whom the great auteur was then having an affair with, he said, "I realised that Deborah was both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for."  And this is exactly the type of woman that the lovely Miss Kerr plays in the Powell/Pressburger classic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

In this beautifully structured 1943 British-made film (not only one of Powell/Pressburger's best, but in this critic's not-so-humble opinion, one of the greatest films of all-time) Kerr takes on triple duty as three incarnations of the same ideal beauty, taken form of flesh-and-blood.  We first meet Kerr when the film flashes back to 1902.  She is Edith, an English teacher working in Berlin during the Boer War.  Kerr's Edith, ends up getting caught up in a silly international affair, and in doing so becomes close to two men, an English and a German officer.  The English officer, the (somewhat) titular Colonel (his name is actually Clive Candy, later Clive Wynne-Candy), is played by Roger Livesey, and the German by Anton Walbrook, a regular rep player with Powell/Pressburger (henceforth known by their dual nickname, The Archers).  Now even though she is not the title character, it is Kerr who is the heart and soul (if that doesn't sound too cheesy) of the film.  With obvious desire emanating from both of these men, it is she - and later, seeming personifications of she - that will come to enrapture these men, Livesey's Col. Candy especially, throughout the course of their history.  Edith will go on to marry her German suitor while Candy will head back home to fight another day.  

We then jump to the First World War, and to Candy's meeting a young nurse named Barbara Wynne.  This becomes Kerr's second role in the film.  With an obvious striking resemblance to Edith (of course), Candy realizes what he had lost when he let Edith go back in 1902, and he finds himself immediately in love with the young nurse.  This ideal woman made flesh-and-blood once again, she becomes the shining light in this stubborn foolish man's life - a light that this  lonely character so desperately needs.  The two are married and given the home life Candy has been missing all these war torn years and eventually the film jumps ahead to the modern day world of WWII.  We find that Barbara has died of an undisclosed illness sometime before the start of the war, but this by no means ends Kerr's performance in the motion picture.  The actress now takes on the role of Angela "Johnny" Cannon, a young officer who works as Candy's driver.  Of course Johnny's resemblance to both Edith and Barbara is quite stunning (duh) and once more, though now it is more a fatherly love than anything else, this ideal woman has been made flesh-and-blood.  Kerr, with these three roles, is Powell's answer to that ever-so-elusive ideal woman.  The actress becomes the very personification of true love - and it is no wonder considering the auburn-haired beauty, so full of grace and desire and passion, could easily be mistaken for that very same thing offscreen as well.

Kerr would of course go on to play many more great roles (her most famous probably being From Here to Eternity where she famously rolled around in the surf with Burt Lancaster, and The King and I), including another for The Archers as a nun in Black Narcissus, and receive six Academy Award nominations (never winning though!?) but it is her triple play in Colonel Blimp that I believe the Scottish-born actress was at both her sexiest (though she does fill that part quite nicely in many other films, including as a nun of all things) and her most ideal woman state of mind.  With these three roles, Kerr was able to, through no act of her own, other than being that so-often aforementioned ideal woman made flesh-and-blood, control the lives of the film's male leads.  A brilliant movie indeed (as I said, one of the greatest of all-time) but also a bravura turn from Kerr, only 22 at the time, who manages to personify these three different characters, and make each one a different person, while also giving each  one part of the others.  Powell would eventually end the affair when Kerr made it clear she would rather go to Hollywood than stay in the UK, but thankfully he was able to get these roles out of her while he still could. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NYFF 2011: Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth

There sure do seem to be quite a few films about the end of the world at this year's New York Film Festival.  Whether it be literal (Melancholia, 4:44 Last Day on Earth) or metaphorical (The Turin Horse, and I guess in a way, The Loneliest Planet) the world sure is getting the brunt of it at this year's fest.  

Abel Ferrara's latest (one of the aforementioned literal ones) is the story of the last few hours before the Earth is destroyed by the inevitable collapse of the Ozone Layer (a newscaster in the film even utters the soon-to-be-classic line "Al Gore was right" before signing off forever).  I can honestly say that 4:44 was not what I was expecting.  That declaration is not necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing - and the same can be said of the film itself.  Part experimental improv-like character piece, part religio-political diatribe on ethics and faith, 4:44 is one of those films that I am not sure I liked or not.  Different parts of me want to go in both directions - sometimes simultaneously.  And that can be quite maddening you know.

Shot on video (and not in any redeeming cinematic way), Ferrara's movie is full of inconsistencies and doubts.  Why, if the world is about to end, and everyone knows it, are there cabs and buses and delivery trucks still buzzing about on the streets of New York in all the exterior shots?  Why do we only see a handful of people who are upset by what is going on?  Has everyone made piece with their so-called maker as Ferrara's pseudo Eastern pop spirituality would have us believe?  Perhaps these are just minor things, since in essence the film is about the inter-workings of a couple, an ex-junkie and his just past teenage bride, played by Willem Dafoe and Ferrara's real-life main squeeze, Shanyn Leigh respectively, and they are really the only ones that matter here.  As far as they go, Dafoe hands in a rather good performance overall, (given the room to rant and rave and gnarl and gnash, the actor is in his sacred ground) but there are moments in said performance that are enough to make a person cringe with embarrassment for the actor.  As for costar Leigh, those cringes of embarrassment are more often and more intense. That can't be good, now can it?

I suppose, in the end, there are moments in the film, er, movie, that are interesting, (visually there are a few wow moments actually) but in sum, it is rather a large-sized let down.  Respecting him, but never being that big a fan of Ferrara's work (liked some, disliked some, others are flawed but still interesting) I suppose my disappointment shouldn't be that great (I truly only loved two of the director's works - I will leave you alone to figure out which two) and I suppose it isn't really.  Merely a meh movie, and not really worth the time to be pro or con for or against, nothing else need be said.  Well, except for this - the film, picked up by IFC, will make its US theatrical debut probably sometime in early 2012 - and a full review will be coming at that time.

NYFF 2011: Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse

If one were to come up to a person, and describe a film they have just seen as being typically Bela Tarr-like, such a description would mean very different things to very different people. First of all, one must have knowledge of who the hell Bela Tarr even is in the first place, which I suppose narrows down our focus group pretty damn drastically. But for those few who do know the Hungarian filmmaker, and more importantly, know his films, to describe something as being typically Bela Tarr-like could either mean the film in question is a brilliantly methodical, sparsely actioned, black and white, fascinating work of cinematic art, or it is a pretentiously methodical, sparsely actioned, black and white, tiresome work of cinematic arrogance. Six of one, half a dozen of another I suppose. 

Now the film in question here is more than just Bela Tarr-like, it is actually the Magyar maestro himself. With the director's latest (and if one were to believe the man's own hype, his final film), a work called The Turin Horse (actually co-directed by long time collaborator, film editor Agnes Hranitzky), one can easily see the filmmaker is back in the brilliantly subversive mad genius mode that gave the world Damnation in 1988, Satantango in 1994 and Werckmeister Harmonies in 2000, before faltering a step or two with the good, but certainly not great Man From London in 2007. A mode that has influenced many a modernist filmmaker (or should I say remodernist filmmaker, after the movement indirectly started by the works of Tarr) and made Gus Van Sant go from Good Will Hunting to Gerry and Last Days. If this is the director's final film, it is a shame really, because he has just managed to prove that indeed, he does still got it.

But then, as more than alluded to up front, Mr. Tarr is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. In fact he probably isn't even everyone's cup of anything. The auteur is know for having an oeuvre of long (some could say excruciatingly long in a few cases - especially in one case in particular), very methodical, oft-times meandering along at the breakneck pace of an especially melancholy sloth, works that derive the same type of socio-religious pleasure as Dreyer, Bresson and Tarkovsky all rolled into one great big beautiful three-headed, six-armed, six-eyed apocalyptically-minded cinematic beast from the very bowels of Hades. Hyperbole aside, the basic gist of all that was to state the obvious fact (for those that know the man and his films) that to see a Bela Tarr film is to see either a great great thing or a bad bad thing - but a thing nonetheless.

With a running time of 146 minutes (which, with the exception of the 450 minute long Satantango, is a pretty standard Tarrian running time) there was seat shuffling a-plenty, as well as much sighing and some rather strangely placed chuckles (and yes, there is some humour, but no so much as to elicit the laughter interspersed throughout the almost full cinema) at the noon press screening at Walter Reade. And of course, there were a few walkouts, which is usually kept at a minimum at a press screening, no matter how excruciating one finds the film or films in question. When the film ended (finally ended some may say) there was no applause - just silence, followed by a quick mass exodus once the credits ended and the lights came up. Hell, even Mr. Divisive himself, Lars von Trier received a round of applause after his Melancholia screened here last week.

There were, I am sure, varying degrees of enjoyability for those other members of the intrepid press corps that filled the Walter Reade on Monday - though I would go out on that ole proverbial limb and say the consensus was not an overall thumbs up (please do not sue me for that last comment oh great and powerful Mr. Ebert). I did happen to overhear one critical compatriot say, "I wasn't bored", almost as if one would expect him to be. Bully for him I say, bully for him. I happen to be (as I am sure you have already surmised from that " brilliantly subversive mad genius mode" comment a few paragraphs back) on the side that was not only mesmerized by the film, which incidentally is based on the harsh life of the horse that was the supposed breaking point for Nietzsche’s impending madness (I kid you not), but maybe even, as the kids are saying these days, blown away

When the film will see the inside of a US cinema is still up in the air. With American theatrical rights now owned by Cinema Guild, my best bet would be sometime in the first quarter of 2012. Whatever the case may be, a full review of the film will be forthcoming on or around that eventual release date. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Cool Guy Swagger of the Michael Mann Film

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #20: Michael Mann.

Michael Mann is what one would call a mano y mano kind of director. Whether it be William Peterson's FBI profiler vs. Brian Cox' Hannibal Lektor in Manhunter or Tom Cruise's coolly psychotic killer vs. Jamie Foxx' intrepid cabbie in Collateral or Christian Bale's righteous G-man vs. Johnny Depp's charismatic Dillinger in Public Enemies or the equally iconic De Niro and Pacino going up against each other in Heat or, for that matter, Daniel Day Lewis' Hawkeye or Wil Smith's Muhammad Ali vs. just about everyone in The Last of the Mohicans and Ali respectively. Yes indeed, Mann is certainly (and the pun is very much intended) a man's man kind of director.

The director's filmic output (just ten films in thirty years) is probably the most macho since Peckinpah was drunkenly barking out directorial demands back in the 1960's and 70's, but even crazy old Sam allowed his female characters, on occasion, to become more than mere eye candy or gun moll or weepy wife to their male counterpart. The closest a Mann heroine has come to headlining, let alone being allowed to be heroic (at least heroic in the way Mann's macho men are allowed to be heroic) is Madeleine Stowe's rather thankless role in The Last of the Mohicans. And even she has to sit around and wait for her man to return as he promised he would.

Okay, perhaps some of that is a bit of an exaggeration (Stowe's Cora does more than her part as heroic figure and Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette is tough-as-nails under brutal interrogation in Public Enemies) but there is certainly no denying that the oeuvre of Michael Mann is the manliest of places. But then again, the filmmaker is far from misogynistic in his treatment of women - he, and his films just do not have much of a need for them is all. It is the tough guy personas of James Caan and Russell Crowe and Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx that make Mann's films so appropriately manly.

Then again, Mann's films, as macho man as they want to be, are more than mere hardboiled flapdoodle. They are creature creations of visceral, visual beauty. Filmed with a cool demeanor, both in story and in design, and with a slick eye for the inherent radiance of filmic space and cinematic place, Mann's slick oeuvre is more often than not, on par or close to being on par with the works of compatriots like Scorsese and Fincher.  His film's, even those about misfits (which incidentally is nearly all of them), have that all important (at least in the case of the film's subject matters) cool guy swagger to them.  As cocksure heroes and antiheroes like John Dillinger, Muhammad Ali, Lowell Bergman, Natty Bumppo, Crockett & Tubbs, and even a character such as Hannibal Lektor, strut about in their various cool guy ways, Mann's camera seems to do the very same swagger as they.

The two Mann films that best embody this aesthetic are Collateral and Miami Vice.  To prove that I have always thought this of Mr. Mann, I give you my original reviews of both films.

First, here is my original take on Collateral (originally published Summer 2004):

There is a moment in Collateral late into the film, where Tom Cruise as the silver-haired assassin and Jamie Foxx as his unwitting cab driver escort are driving toward what will become number four in an after hours execution binge of murdered witnesses-for-the-prosecution. The scene shows the tattered taxi and its two opposing occupants being stopped by a street-crossing pair of coyotes. At this point, Director Michael Mann slows down his camera and soundtrack musical number and we watch, along with the characters in the film, these predatory canines leisurely gait their way across the boulevard. It is at this exact moment, contrary to any plotline in the film, that we see Michael Mann do what he does better than almost any other American-Hollywood Filmmaker working today. Michael Mann is a late night urban existentialist with the electric neon eyes of a hyper-active meth-junkie who has just recently embraced the teachings of the Dhammapadda. Mann, who made the stylistic crime drama Heat and the moody Sixty Minutes docu-drama The Insider has brought his visual slickness, a combination of eighties TV cop-pop eye candy Miami Vice and a Travis Bickle-induced homage toward the opening sequence of Scorsese's Taxi Driver to the adaptation of screenwriter Stuart Beattie's slim and (somewhat) shallow screenplay.

Collateral, shot mainly on high-definition digital video, gives off a certain hue that makes the LA night time appear to be almost glowing with a wet fluorescent look, making you feel as if it's four a.m. and you are half falling asleep sitting at the all-night laundromat, wishing your clothes would hurry up and dry so you can go home and collapse in a tired ball of sleep deprevation atop your unkempt bed. The star of this film is not Tom Cruise and it is not Jamie Foxx and it is not even the neoned Taoist Autuer Mann. It is the spookily-vacant streets of LA that are the stars of Collateral - streets that are given to us by the visual etheralness of Michael Mann's smooth-operater filmmaking technique. Even the close-ups of Foxx and Cruise are set in a deep focus negativity of the larger-than-life neon jungle that surrounds them. The city is always there and Mann has, at least temporarily, become its master - unleashing it in a cold callous smooth ugliness that only adds to its characters moral predicaments.  Mann does the quiet cerebral moments with the artistic flair of a street-lighted Picasso and thus Collateral entices us in with the ghostly urban mood of a philosopher's gaze. Cruise, with his steely determined eyes of indifference is perfectly cast (especially for a Michael Mann film), as the sleek silver-suited gun-for-hire Vincent, set on his assignment to kill five Mob-related witnesses in one night. Granted, through all the glitz and glitter of the shimmering skyscrapers of after hours LA, there is not one single moment of surprise in Collateral, yet in Mann's hands the films luscious looks make it work as only a Michael Mann film can.

And here is my original take on Miami Vice (published in Summer 2006):

Considering the kitsch mentality of the original TV show - that played out as if a weekly hour long fashion show-cum-music video - it comes as somewhat of a surprise that its 2006 namesake is the least frivolous of all the Summer blockbusters. Edgy and intense - two adjectives that were most-likely never used to describe the eighties TV show (although as a naive typical teenager of the day, I probably did consider it just that at the time) - this newer, meaner Miami Vice - which only really holds the slightest of resemblances to its predecessor (a quick audial glimpse of the original theme song hidden behind tracks of a hip hop nightclub remix and the closing credit cover of Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, are pretty much the only connective tissue here, outside of the iconic names Crockett and Tubbs) - goes infinitely deeper and darker than the show ever dared to go.  This, of course, has a lot to do with director Michael Mann - who incidentally was a co-creator of the original show - and his slick directorial style (auteurial style perhaps).

Always one to try to tip mainstream movie-making on its collective ass, Mann plays with the concept of Miami Vice as some sort of genre experiment that only he - the mad macho maestro that he is - can decipher and splay out as a near-perfect lubricious blend of Hollywood glitz and independently minded virility that it is. Full of bull perhaps, but that bull is exactly the kick in the ass that an idea like Miami Vice has needed all along, and Mann is just the kind of visually spectacular bullshitter that can do it - and has done it.  Going in with a less-than full-bodied expectation for the story (the TV show was the epitome of the eighties pretty-but-dumb mindset) I came out with what I am sure was a shocked look of awe upon my face. A total surprise on every level - and isn't that what we want from a motion picture? Isn't that lack of surprise what is so wrong about most Hollywood films these days? I am rather confidant that when the end of the year rolls around I will still be proclaiming Miami Vice one of the best films of 2006. 

No more need be said.  Let us allow the Cool Guy Swagger of the Michael Mann Film to speak for itself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Gus Van Sant's Restless

Yeah, everything you have heard so far is true - Gus Van Sant's new film (a studio assignment for sure) is a cloying, twee teen romance/tragedy that overshadows what are essentially a pair of rather good performances by Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper (yes, the son of Dennis).  The film certainly has its moments, mainly due to these two young actors, and it is quite visually stunning (DP Harris Savides does it again), but yeah, it is quite annoyingly cute, and frustrating and Wes Anderson wannabe-like (or for that matter, Hal Ashby) and is basically a couple of pretty kids sitting around looking and acting pretty (and appropriately quirky), even when one of them is dying - oh so prettily.  To bad really, because these pretty kids are pretty fun to watch - even in amongst the drivel that Van Sant shovels at us.  My review of the film (and I think you can tell which way it's going to go) is now up and running over at The Cinematheque.

The Cinematheque Reviews: Gregg Araki's Kaboom

The film originally debuted at Cannes in 2010, received a proper US release in January 2011, was finally seen by yours truly in April, and is finally getting its own proper review by yours truly here in September - more than sixteen months after its first appearance, and more than five months after I, the aforementioned yours truly, has seen the damn thing.  Well, as they say, better late than never.  Right?   Actually, I suppose you could say, a film this good (and surprisingly so I must admit), is quite well worth the wait.  Okay, I suppose it is not the film itself you had to wait for (the thing is out on DVD/Bluray by now) but my inexplicably tardy review.  I still say, it was worth the wait.  You can be the judge as said tardy review is now up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Miscellania Post #44: A 2 Year Anniversary, A 7½ Year Anniversary, My 100th Japanese Film & Various Upcoming Events and Goodies

I have always been a list making fool.  I can remember lying on the floor of my aunt and uncle's townhouse back in the early 1980's (I was probably about 13 or 14) and filling out this 3-ring binder I had with all the films I had seen in my still quite young life.  Listing them alphabetically, from The African Queen (which is my uncle's favourite film and which I had recently seen for the first time) to Young Frankenstein (I had yet to see Costa-Gavras' Z - another 4 or 5 years away at this point), I would furiously add films to my list as I would see them, giving each a rating from 0 to 4 stars (as was per the usual system at the time).  Eventually, as I got more and more into foreign and classic film (an elective film class in my Junior year of high school would build on the foundation already laid down by my uncle) my lists would become more and more elaborate - and more and more convoluted.  By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I would have notebooks filled with not only lists of films, by year, and in order of rating (which now consisted of an elaborate 0 to 100 scale, of which I would constantly be changing in a futile effort to have everything perfectly calibrated), but also a slew of (in hindsight, very poorly written) film reviews, both hand-written and typed out.  

By then of course, a little thing called the internet had come around (yes kids, there was a time before the world wide web) and I couldn't wait to get my grubby little hands all over it.  Which brings us to March 2004 and a place called Geocities, and it brings us to the online birth of The Cinematheque.  Set up as a place where I could post my reviews (the first one to go live was for Lars von Trier's Dogville) and perhaps even share them with the whole freakin' world, The Cinematheque was at first a very bland looking place (I knew nothing of web design at the time and was only beginning to get a grip on html) that would eventually evolve into a rather attractive (I think so at least) place to read reviews (now much better written than those hand-written early days) and check out my still-thriving obsession with list-making (which include films seen by year, by director, by theater, by country of origin etc. and so forth).  Now here we are seven and a half years later (with a fresh domain after the death of Geocities), and The Cinematheque is still the place where curious onlookers and true believers go to find the film reviews of yours truly.   Granted, I have pieces written at other outlets, but the vast majority can be found at The Cinematheque.   Of course if somebody were willing to pay me to write about film (other than my every-other-month film column gig at a local alt monthly called The Burg - which I enjoy doing but isn't exactly a gig with which to pay the bills).....well, that's another story for another day.

Now about five and a half years into the history of The Cinematheque, this prolific critic (and film historian!) decided to branch out into the world of the so-called web log, aka, blog.  On September 14, 2009 (my two year anniversary eleven days ago came and went without me even realizing it) I opened up shop right here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World (based on a rather famous Godard quote about what film is, and featuring Godard's former wife and muse, Anna Karina in its banner).  First set up as a companion blog to my main review site (a place to toss off my bloggish ramblings that could never find a home in my reviews), The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World has evolved into my main place of cinematic business.  A place that would bring together all my reviews and other various writings in one hub-happy home.  One can still find my reviews at The Cinematheque (all linked from here of course) as well as my slew of obsessively-written lists, but it now all comes springing out of the pages of The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.  So here we are two years, and 450 posts later (not to mention 85 so-called followers - a number that I hope to get into double digits by the end of the year) and still going (relatively) strong.

So, remember those lists I have spoken of?  Well, one of these obsessions is listing every film I have seen, from every foreign country.  The list, which can be viewed at the rather obviously-titled page, The Cinematheque - Films By Country (and please realize this page is still well under construction, so do ignore the rather gap-toothed look of said page), has every non-American (not to be confused with un-American) film I have ever seen.  At the top of this list, currently with 278 films, is France.  The French are followed by the UK at 237, and then in a very distant third place, Japan at (drumroll please) 100.   Upon watching Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro last night, I finally crossed that triple digit threshold.  Perhaps one hundred Japanese films does not sound like a lot to some people (Donald Richie would laugh me outta town like I was a one-legged samurai) but it is still a quite significant number - especially considering I began 2011 with just 64 Japanese films seen.  Perhaps Italy, at 86, will be the next national cinema to cross to triple digits - unless I suddenly get a hankerin' for the cinema of Kazakhstan (currently at just two films seen).

As for other items of upcoming interest, I will making another trip up to the New York Film Festival tomorrow (Monday) morning to catch screenings of Bela Tarr's possible final film, The Turin Horse and Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth.  Looks at both films will be making their ways into these pages on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Also, by the end of the month, I will be posting links to several reviews (some a bit late, others a bit more in a timely fashion) over at the aforementioned The Cinematheque.  They are, in no particular order, Gregg Araki's Kaboom, Azazel Jacobs' Terri, Gus Van Sant's Restless, Miranda July's The Future, Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, John Michael McDonagh's The Guard and the Straw Dogs remake.  The end of the month will also see the publication of two blogathon pieces.  The first will be a look at the films of Michael Mann for the latest LAMB's In the Director's Chair series and the second will be a piece on Black Narcissus for the Deborah Kerr Blogathon over at Waitin' on A Sunny Day.   The near future will also bring a pair of new 10 Best lists over at Anomalous Material (the first on the performances of Julianne Moore and the second on the genre of train movies) as well as a post (tying in with my two part "The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray" I did for Cinema Viewfinder's Nicholas Ray Blogathon) on the 10 Best Nick Ray films.

Well that's it for this Sunday evening post.  There is of course much more in store for the relatively near future (and the far future too!), including, but not limited to, looks at films such as Electra Glide in Blue, Cairo Station, Deep Red and a battle/comparison between Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs and Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian, as well as some more NYFF fun.  You will also get updates on My Quest to Watch the 1000 Greatest Films (649 and counting) as well as new editions of the award-winning Hollywood Haiku and Criterion Critiques w/ Alex DeLarge (wherein my good friend Alex does guest reviews of the latest Criterion Bluray releases).  All this and a new film poll just around the corner.

Friday, September 23, 2011

NYFF 2011: Wim Wenders' Pina

Pina, Wim Wenders' new dance movie-cum-documentary on choreography legend Pina Bausch, begs the question, has 3D taken over so greatly that now even European art films are getting the extra-dimensional treatment? Actually, unlike in most mainstream Hollywood fare, the technology of 3D actually accentuates Wenders' film and makes Bausch's unique dance numbers visually pop like nobody's business. Much like in fellow German Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it seems as if 3D has found a happy home in these European art films-cum-daring documentaries.

Originally begun in collaboration with Ms. Bausch, and turned into a labour of love of sorts after the avant-garde choreographer's untimely 2009 death, Wenders' film is quite the remarkable looking piece of work indeed. From the Brechtian set designs of Bausch's dance machinations (a roomful of empty chairs, a man-made waterfall, an empty glass house) to the smoothly played beauty of the dancers' agile, almost inhuman like bodies to the strangely alluring oddities that are interspersed throughout the film, Pina, in all its three dimensional grandeur and beautiful musicality, is an awe-inspiring work of both cinematic and choreographed art.

Now of course no image displayed here can capture the 3D look that is captured on screen (and looked upon at the NYFF screening using $100 a pair, state-of-the-art microchipped 3D glasses - and glasses that were not nearly as annoying as the typical kind are to we already bespectacled viewers), nor can it show the inherent beauty of the dance that is made to look so effortless up on the screen, but I will leave you with one anyway. As for a release date, Sundance Selects has selected a December 21st New York opening date, followed by a national rollout in January.  A full review of the film will be forthcoming right around that 12/21 release date. 

NYFF 2011: Lars von Trier's Melancholia

For years now, all those Lars von Trier haters out there have been saying, or at least implying, by all their critical caterwauling, that the audacious auteur would some day destroy the world. Well guess what? The melancholy Dane has done just that in his new, aptly titled work, Melancholia. Take that! In fact, just to stick it a little bit to those LvT haters, as soon as the NYFF press screening was over and I found my way back out to 65th and Broadway, I called the film a Goddamned Masterpiece on Facebook - and I stand by that even on second and third thoughts. Take that too!! 
LvT is certainly what most would call a divisive filmmaker. You either love the guy and his baroque, operatic style (which is highly evident in Melancholia) or you hate him for his arrogance and vulgar pretensions (which also is quite evident in Melancholia) - and to the nth degree in whichever direction you happen to choose. I happen to choose (if there is actually a conscious choice - perhaps, like being gay or straight, one is born a von Trier lover or hater) to be on the love side of that fence (from the director's eleven theatrically released features, only the quite disappointing Manderlay is held in low esteem) and my reasons for picking that particular side probably have quite the overlap with the reasons so many hold for hating the man, and his films, so greatly. Take that as well!

Meanwhile, Melancholia, a film about how an incredibly dysfunctional family copes with love, loss, depression and the literal end of the world, is certainly a force to be reckoned with - even amongst LvT's already demanding oeuvre. The film is split, much like his last film, Antichrist (the nadir of the aforementioned haters existence), into a stunningly shot, and quite cinematic opening and closing, replete with ominously beautiful classical music and utter despair and destruction, bookending an ultra-realistic centerpiece of hand-held cameras and improvised words and actions. Unlike that film though, which many called misogynistic and sadist (and in a way, the film is both things - so much so that a misogyny consultant was amongst the closing credits...and yes, it was a woman), Melancholia has no real controversial aspect to speak of. Yeah, the guy destroys all life as we know it - and in the first two minutes at that - but he doesn't have paramour Charlotte Gainsbourg doing anything with power tools this time. That's something, right?

Actually Melancholia is probably the director's best chance for mainstream accessibility (due more to name stars like Cannes Best Actress Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland, who gives an astonishingly brilliant performance as a rather cocksure jerk, than typical mainstream storytelling, but such a thing did not help Dogville at the box office - and that had Nichole Kidman AND Lauren fucking Bacall!).  The film's accessibility will come to possible fruition when it is released (by Magnolia) to a somewhat unsuspecting US audience on November 11th of this year.  Okay, I'm not a mindless dreamer - I know a box office draw is not about to happen (especially for a film that depicts the destruction of Earth as both existential metaphor and pretentious reality), but at the same time I do not foresee the rabid antagonistic rhetoric from LvT haters that Antichrist's Grand Guignol artifice had elicited upon its release. Again, that's something, right?

A full review of Lars von Trier's Melancholia will be coming a few days prior to its 11/11 release date.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Moneyball

I love baseball.  I love all aspects of the game.  One of my favourite things about baseball, and the defining factor of why it is so much greater than any other sport (at least in my own mind), is the idea of the stat.  With a statistic for anything and everything, the science of sabermetrics has always fascinated me.  So I suppose with my love for the game combined with my (sort of) obsession with the statistical side of the sport, it was probably a forgone conclusion that I would find Moneyball as fascinating as I did.  An easy eventual member of my annual top ten list (tentatively it sits at the number two spot at this point, though my seeing LvT's Melancholia in just over twelve hours from now could drop it to number three) Moneyball, which also stars one of my favourite (underrated) actors, Brad Pitt, and is written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (natch!) is a quite superb film that sort of came out of (yeah, I'm going to say it) left field.  My review of the film (an existential baseball movie!?) is now up and running over at The Cinematheque.  Play ball (yeah, I said that too).

The Cinematheque Reviews: Drive

Apparently Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is shaping up to be one of those divisive hate-it-or-love-it kind of films.  With just as many adoring fans as loud-mouthed haters (can you tell which side of this fence I hang out on?), Drive is definitely one of those films.  Granted, it's not in that love/hate camp that comes around every time Malick or von Trier release a new film, but it does seem to elicit more than the norm in critical back-and-forths.  And speaking of such, my review for said film (replete with my adoring take on the matter) is now up and running over at The Cinematheque.  Go there to read some more on the subject.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Best High School Movies

After a short hiatus due to impending flood waters and other various natural (and unnatural) disasters, I now return with what is my twelfth weekly 10 best feature for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular weekly gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects (and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor - yes I am a list nerd).  This week's feature, in keeping with the time of the season, is on the popular high school movie.  There have been a slew of these over the decades but I was still able to narrow it down to just ten (well, with a pair of 'Special Mentions' to take it to twelve).  Anyone who knows me should be able to figure out what my number one is, but even those people should still check out the list over at Anomalous Material.

Read my feature article, "10 Best High School Movies" at Anomalous Material.

Below is Philip F. "Duckie" Dale, aka Jon Cryer, wondering why the fuck Pretty in Pink was not included on the list.   I suppose this is a good enough question, but sometimes one just needs to make cuts - and poor Duckie (who will always remain the Duck Man) just happened to be one of those unlucky sonofabitches to find himself on that dreaded cutting room floor.  C'est la vie.

Monday, September 19, 2011

In Giddy Anticipation of von Trier's Melancholia (and the NYFF)

Well here we are again at that special time of year.  No, not football season, and not back to school time either.  Something greater than both of those things (if you consider either of those things to be great that is).  As the temperature drops and those proverbial dog days of Summer quickly (and finally dammit!) fade away, we are given not only the new season (and a grand old season it is too) but also the greatly-anticipated New York Film Festival.  Press screenings begin this week, and though I will sadly not make all of them (or even close to all of them) I will be traveling to a few days of said screenings, and Lars von Trier's infamous Cannes winner (Best Actress for Kirsten Dunst) Melancholia will be first and foremost on that list.

Seeing the von Trier film on Thursday at 10 am (after a four hour train ride leaving Harrisburg at 5 am - ugh, I hate mornings) at Walter Reade, it will be my third such catching of von Trier at the NYFF.  The first was back in 2005 when me and the missus traveled to the city to catch Manderlay (this was before I held a press pass).  After a trip to New York filled with my near non-stop anticipation of the film, combined with my incessant talk of how much I had adored Dogville (a film which my wife had yet to see at this point in the story), my better half was thinking to herself "what the Hell does he see in this von Trier guy anyway!?"  Granted, she had seen (and loved) Dancer in the Dark, but her rather lackluster response to Manderlay (a film that still stands as the only disappointment this critic can find in LvT's quite divisive oeuvre) was enough to make her ask me why I was so excited to see this 'film'.  Since the film could not live up to my expectations, I of course had no respectable answer for her and kept my mouth unusually shut.

My second encounter with the audacious Dane was in 2009 when the festival screened Antichrist.  This time I was a full-fledged member of the press and therefore watched the film with my fellow critics (most of whom I knew from afar but would never approach out of fear of seeming a cinematic rube in comparison) at Walter Reade.  A screening that was followed by a von Trier Q&A via Skype on the big screen.  I quite liked the film - one could even make a claim for my loving it - and it would eventually (after its late October release) make my Top 10 list for the year (number two behind only QT's Inglourious Basterds).  Not so incidentally, my lovely wife ended up walking out when I screened it for her a few months later.  Still only Dancer in the Dark and (now that she has finally seen it) Dogville will she admit a fondness for - otherwise LvT is about as persona non grata in her personal opinion as the director is at Cannes after his quite irreverent remarks back in May.

Now we cut to Sept. 22nd, 2011 and the screening of the man's Melancholia.  To say I am excited is to say the least - the very least.  Looking to be the director's most accessible film yet (with the help of Dunst and Sutherland, the film is a bit more mainstreamy than typical LvT), Melancholia, which will get a proper US release on Nov. 11th.  Now I don't really see any Oscar nominations in its future (its closer to mainstream acceptance than anything else the man has done, but let's face it, even sight still unseen, this is a Lars von Trier film still) but a semi-wide release is not out of the picture.  I am not going to get into any of the tabloid talk of Lvt and his Cannes remarks (other than to say, though seemingly offensive, they were probably not meant as anything other than a rambling joke getting out of control) but these unfortunate remarks could keep his film from even getting that aforementioned semi-wide release.  Nevertheless, I will be seeing it in a few days, and that is all I care about right now.

I suppose there are some other films playing at this year's festival, and I suppose even this von Trier head should make mention of them.  There are a slew I will unfortunately not get to see (ah, to be a New Yorker) and these include Steve McQueen's Shame, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye First Love, Michael Hazanavicius' silent film The Artist and the Brothers Dardenne with The Kid With the Bike.  But enough of the negative (I will eventually see all of these films) let's accentuate the positive, shall we.  I will be catching Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, as well as Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse and Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth.  Sadly three trips are the best this wayward traveler can do this year, but I will try to make them count as I will catch non-NYFF films now playing in NYC after the festival screenings and before my train ride home.

I will post pieces on each of these films as I see them, followed by full reviews as each one is eventually released in theaters.  As for now, I'll get back to my giddy (rather school girl crush) anticipation of LvT's Melancholia (gee I hope there is another Skype Q&A).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Cinephile's (Guiltless) Guilty Pleasures

The whole idea of a guilty pleasure movie has always both fascinated and humoured me.  First of all, I don't understand the whole concept.  As definition of the term, one must have guilt toward something they enjoy, and that seems a bit silly if you ask me (not that you did).  Yes, there are definitely movies that I like - that I thoroughly enjoy even - that are thought of, by major consensus, to be films of lesser value - bad films even.  Quite bad indeed.  This is the way of the guilty pleasure.  The only problem is that I feel no guilt - not even the twingiest of twinges - about liking any of these movies.  I like something, I like it - no matter what others may say - and therefore, no guilt dammit.  Now for the purpose of such an act as naming one's so-called guilty pleasures (which is, after all, why we are all gathered here right now) I suppose I can fib a little and pretend I have guilt from my cinematic likes and desires.  Who is it going to hurt anyway.

Now I also must mention about now why I am even doing this in the first place.  You see, the fine folks over at the Classic Movie Blog Association are hosting a Guilty Pleasures Blogathon from September 18th to the 20th.  Now apparently one must be a member of this fine organization in order to participate (and there are many great classic movie blogs entering the bloggy fray) but alas, I am not a member.  I figure my output on The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World is about 60/40 in favour of classic and/or older cinema (many reviews of new films dot much of the landscape around these parts) but not quite enough to be considered for membership in the aforementioned organization (not that I have ever actually applied for membership).  So, since I am not a member I cannot actually participate in any official capacity - but as far as unofficially, well...

So without further ado, and in no particular order, this cinephile gives to you his (Guiltless) Guilty Pleasures.

Land of the Pharaohs 
I first learned of Howard Hawks' ancient world epic when reading through a list of Martin Scorsese's so-called guilty pleasures (pleasures he too finds no guilt from).  Granted, I knew of its existence long before reading the great director's list, but I never knew much more than it being one of the supposed cheesy lowlights of the career of one of the finest of all directors.  Upon watching the film (on the big screen) I instantly fell in love with its gaudy cheesiness and audacious kitschy charm.  Fun and romping with sheer giddy snakes & funerals CinemaScopic good times (even in an often somber, dangerous story, which incidentally was co-written by Hawks' novelist pal William Faulkner) this film, which stars Jack Hawkins, Dewey Martin and a young, and quite nubile Joan Collins as the ultimate gold digger, is certainly not a thing that should instill guilt into anyone who happens to enjoy it.  Yeah, maybe it's not the pinnacle of Hawksian cinema, but it is far from his worst, and a pretty damn good film if you ask me, which you are not.  You can read more of my ramblings on this film by checking out "The Strange Greatness of Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs."

Flash Gordon
I suppose this 1980 cult movie is on a lot of these so-called guilty pleasures lists.  Granted, one must assume that the film was made to be intentionally campy (there is no way in Hell it was not!) and therefore is meant to be 'bad' and should not really be considered what one calls a guilty pleasure (it's supposed to be corny and kitschy dammit!).  Still though, between the obviously poorly done special effects (even for the time period) and the even more poorly done script (they have laser keys that can unlock doors and the ability to telepathically speak to each other but they still have walkie-talkies with cords and manually adjusted antenna for their time bombs!?) and the oft-times terrible acting (Max Von Sydow's Ming the Merciless and Timothy Dalton's pre-Bond forest prince excepted) any love for this film will probably be met with more than a bit of scorn.  Hot slutty princesses, bravado-wielding Hawkmen and a soundtrack by Queen make it better than it probably should be though.

Yes, this Elaine May film featuring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a Hope/Crosby duo of bungling lounge singers who become equally bumbling wouldbe cold war soldiers is a bad bad movie.  The two usually much better actors seem uncomfortable and out of sync in their roles, but still I cannot help but enjoy this quippy little bomb of a motion picture.  Sometimes I think that someday, perhaps twenty or thirty years from now, Ishtar, much like the once greatly-maligned now mostly heralded Heaven's Gate, will be re-evaluated and finally thought of as a true classic of latter-day cinema.  Praised as some sort of subversive cult classic comedy.  Okay, perhaps not.

Myra Breckinridge
I am not sure what most makes this 1970 cult film so disturbingly derailing.  Is it the scantily-clad (as per usual in her younger fur bikini days) Raquel Welch and the infamous 'pegging' scene?  Is it Rex Reed's transgendering pomposity?  Perhaps it is an obviously over-the-hill Mae West, mostly blind and dressed in a skin tight fringed dress and long blonde wig, 'belting' out Hard to Handle while being manhandled by a bevy of burly bare-chested male dancers?  Probably all three actually.  A film that is infamous in its hated status (Time magazine called the film "as funny as a child molester") it still thrills the hell out of this critic.  Not that I feel guilty because of it though.  You can read more of my ramblings on this film by checking out "The Wonderful, Horrible Fun of Myra Breckinridge, in 847 Words or Less."

The Silver Chalice
Another film that I have 'borrowed' from the aforementioned list of Mr. Scorsese's, this 1954 Victor Saville-directed widescreen tale of a young Roman artist (Paul Newman in his screen debut) who comes to Jerusalem and learns about love and Jesus and all that jazz (oh yeah, and to sculpt a vessel to hold the Holy Grail), is a film that has been mocked not only by critics upon its release (laughed at as Paul Newman and the Holy Grail by some) but by its brand new star as well (later in his career Newman would denounce the film and would throw parties where he and his friends would watch the movie as if they were on MST3K).  With the campiest of performances from villainous Jack Palance (even by Jack Palance standards for Christ's sake!) just adding to the overall silliness of the film, there is no doubt this is what one would describe as a guilty pleasure movie (though still no actual guilt over here).  The one thing the film does have going for it, among the critical sewing circles of the cinematic world, is the design of the whole damn thing.  Sets that look like abstract museum pieces give the whole film an almost Art Deco meets German Expressionism feel.  Apparently this unique look is the reason Scorsese hired Boris Leven to design New York, New York.  Now who's feeling guilty!?  You can read more of my ramblings on this film by checking out "The Silver Chalice or: Paul Newman & the Holy Grail."

Valley of the Dolls
One would expect the Russ Meyer-directed, Roger Ebert-penned schlock sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to be on a list like this (too obvious), but for me, the 1967 pill-poppin' original (just as salacious but without the purposefully over-the-top exploitations) was a much better film, even though it was just as equally maligned (though for differing reasons).  Hell, I liked the book too (there, I freely admit it!) and that can be considered a literary guilty pleasure all on its own.  I have always been a sucker for films that show the inner workings of Hollywood and this one is no different - even if these particular inner workings are more than a bit melodramatic.  Oh yeah, did I mention how much I love melodramas?  Well I do, so there!

St. Elmo's Fire
Yeah yeah, I know, but I just can't help myself.  No matter how many times I watch this 1985 Brat Pack dud, I can't help but well up with tears.  It is stupid I know, but it still happens.  I suppose due to the film getting released just as I was graduating high school and beginning to lose friends to college or just life in general (I never was very good at keeping in touch with past friends who move away) and setting off those emotions of loss with its storyline, it becomes a surprising tearjerker of a film.  I actually bawled my eyes out when I first saw this film in the theater - when those emotions were just hitting me in real life.  Corny I know.  Heck, even when it plays on the radio (which granted is not all that often these days) the Jon Parr title track will do this to me as well.  Still no guilt though.

The Fearless Vampire Killers
Exploitation cinema at its creepy Polanski best, this 1967 cult classic (of sorts) starring the impish director and his beautiful (and ultimately tragic) soon-to-be wife Sharon Tate, is a moody piece of audacious bravura  cinema disguising itself as a classic horror movie.  With the subtitle (hated by Polanski when the studio forced it upon him for US release) or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, this kinda groovy, kinda snarky, kinda kitschy thingamajig is a fun ride indeed.  You can read more of my ramblings on this film by checking out "Welcome to Mr. Roman Polanski's Giddily Demented World of Sex and Fangs: The Fearless Vampire Killers."

The Savage Innocents
With its casting of Mexican everyman Anthony Quinn as Inuk the Eskimo, as well as the casting of Japanese-Americans as his fellow tribesmen, not to mention (though I am mentioning it right now)  its rather ignorant take on how these people must speak (like Tarzan in parkas), this 1960 Nicholas Ray film was (and still is) barked upon as an overtly racist movie (though no more or less racist than most Hollywood films of this period).  Is it racist?  Yeah, probably, but then so is the blackface song and dance numbers by such varied classic Hollywood performers as Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Al Jolsen and Judy Garland.  It was a placement of its time and therefore seems even more racist by today's standards.  Nevertheless, this film (Ray's third from final fully realized picture) is a blast to watch, and Quinn's performance (a performance that inspired Bob Dylan to write Quinn the Eskimo) is, though racist-seeming, one of the actor's most gleefully innocent.

White Christmas
Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I love Christmas with all my heart.  Beginning to play Christmas music in the beginning of October (Oct. 1st thru Jan 1st is the proper holiday season and I stand fully by that!!) and pretty much whistling a happy holiday tune all season long (I love the crowds that gather at the stores around Christmas time - call me crazy) it should come as no surprise how much I adore Irving Berlin's White Christmas.  Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, this garish and gay Technicolor musical extravaganza (a reworked retake of 1942's Holiday Inn) may be looked down upon by those who expect their musicals to be of the quality of Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris or Meet Me in St. Louis (my own three favourites of the genre) and may seem extra cheesy to those who look upon Christmas the same way many of today's jaded Scrooge's do, but I am here to tell you that there is nothing better at Christmas time (and there are a lot of great things indeed) than watching White Christmas up on the big screen - a tradition that my wife and I do each and every year.  No guilt at all baby.

Well that's about it for my (Guiltless) Guilty Pleasures.  I could have added more films (starting with but not ending with the loverly cornbally Andy Hardy series or any number of the slew of B-Noir from the 1940's) but I thought I would stop here.  Hopefully the fine folks over at the aforementioned Classic Movie Blog Association don't mind me piggy-backing on their blogathony turf.  And still, no guilt.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Contagion (+ A Soderbergh Top 10)

For ramshackle Hawksian auteur Steven Soderbergh's 22nd film (23rd if you were to count Che as two films, but who would do that?) the director has created a rather scintillating look at an epic viral pandemic that threatens to devour the whole damn world.  Contagion is the kind of film that gets people thinking about such seemingly innocuous things as touching one's face and reaching into a bowl of pretzels at a bar.  Scary stuff indeed, but not scary like horror movie scary, but scary in a way way existential way - which is better in this guy's book.  My review of said scary existential film is currently up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Read my review of Contagion at The Cinematheque.

Since we are here, and I do love me a good list, here are my choices for the 10 best Steven Soderbergh films.  I must preface this list with the sad, but soon to be remedied, fact that this critic has never seen King of the Hill, Full Frontal, The Good German nor Schizopolis.  With that said, here are my ten favourite Soderberghs.

1. Che
2. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
3. The Informant!
4. The Girlfriend Experience
5. Traffic
6. The Limey
7. Contagion
8. Bubble
9. Solaris
10. Kafka

The Cinematheque Reviews: The Debt

John Madden may be one of the blandest directors out there (not necessarily bad, just mediocre) but with the help of Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen and (of course) Helen Mirren, his latest, The Debt, ain't half bad.  Seriously this is really the best I can do in bubbling up any true excitement for this film, so it will, as they say, have to do.  Nonetheless, excitement of not, my review of said film is now up and running over at The Cinematheque.  Enjoy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Criterion Critiques w/ Alex DeLarge

What follows is part of a regular series of reviews on the always wonderful, and quite indispensable Criterion Collection, written by our special guest reviewer Alex DeLarge of the Korova Theatre.

LIFE DURING WARTIME (Todd Solondz, 2010)
Released on Criterion Blu-ray 7/26/2011, Spine # 574 

He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34: 6-7)

Todd Solondz’s cinematic allegory is as depraved as the archaic Torah, anchored in the cold hard fear of modernity’s unholy scripture to reveal people lost in contradiction and religiosity.

A tale of three sisters who live in the worst of times, echoes of war like a hard rain thrumming upon a collective consciousness, drowning in a thick morass of denial and guilt. The film focuses it’s penetrating gaze upon Trish, whose husband is serving State Time for child rape (though she has told her two youngest children he’s dead); her sister Joy who is mired in an abusive relationship and carries the dead weight of the past on her back like an addiction; and the witch-like Helen who has transformed her family’s pathos into a successful career. Ironically Helen is the mot independent character in the story, both from her sisters and their melodrama, yet she is the most superficial and neurotic, awash in the depths of Lethe. But Joy and her Moaning Myrtle persona becomes tiresome and rather annoying, her helium voice penetrating the talky narrative like shrapnel through the audience’s eardrums. And Helen is too static and unbelievably needy to reflect upon, a woman who speaks of her sexual gratification to her 12 year old child. I suppose it’s meant to be shocking but it reveals no insight or desire into her skewed expectations. Helen remains a squeaky door (hiding skeletons, of course) that is more interesting left closed.

Solondz distances the viewer with formal dialogue and clockwork conversations, capturing melodrama dominated by talking heads. He develops a boorish pace as dialogue is vomited between annoying characters, flickering between close-ups and reaction shots to the “subversive” content. Solondz reduces a very interesting story into a process that is as exciting as watching amoebas reproduce, always keeping the audience distant from any revelation or self-discovery. These are people who do not exist, avatars created to spout inane (though sometimes funny) dialogue with robotic routine. Solondz doesn’t offer any closure to their artificial wounds and that’s fine, actually preferable, but the characters are so disingenuous that they fail to breath and live as human beings. Stuck between forgiveness and forgetfulness, they are too blind to see the third option. A very human fault lost in the hardwired script.

Final Grade: (C-)

About Alex: "To state things plainly is the function of journalism; Alex writes fugitive reviews, allusive, symbolic, full of imagery and allegory, and by leaving things out, he allows the reader the privilege of creating along with him." Alex can be found hidden deep within the dark confines of his home theatre watching films, organizing his blu-ray and dvd collection and updating his blogs. Please visit the Korova Theatre and Hammer & Thongs to see what’s on his mind.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Portrayal of Movie Projectionists

The following is my humble contribution to the Juxtapostion Blogathon over at Pussy Goes Grrr.   And please take heed as there is bound to be a spoiler or two hidden away somewhere in the following post.  Ye hath been warned.

The first time I laid my hands upon a movie projector (other than my parents eponymous super 8 projector as a kid back in the seventies) was the Summer of 1990.  I was a few weeks shy of birthday number 23, and had just started a job at a local theater called the Eric Twin (company long out of business now and building demolished to make way for a PetSmart).  At first I worked the concession stand but shortly I was being trained on how to run the cinema's projectors (for those in the know, we still had to change over reels in those days).  Cut to nearly twenty years later (actually about 19 and a few months) and yours truly, along with his lovely wife, is running Harrisburg's very own Midtown Cinema (c'mon, I am not just a film critic after all) - and once again, I have my hands on a movie projector (three to be exact in what is the area's one and only arthouse cinema).  Anyway, as I obviously have a certain affinity for the profession of movie projectionist, it got me to thinking on how the projectionist is portrayed on film.  Granted, it was a stretch to find such a profession portrayed on film, but find them I did.  Let's look at these noble knights of the darkened cinema, shall we?

First up, chronologically speaking, is Buster Keaton in the 1924 silent classic, Sherlock Jr..  He would play the offshoot of a cameraman four years later (in the appropriately titled The Cameraman), but here he was the projectionist.  Playing a typically hapless Keaton character, the silent clown and comic genius is an unnamed movie projectionist (a precursor to Eastwood's Man-with-no-Name perhaps) who dreams of being a famous detective a la Sherlock Holmes.  Keaton's projectionist, a poor schlep with the proverbial heart of gold but also with a conniving streak, dreams not only of a detecting prowess (as well as the inevitable pretty girl) but also of being part of the films that he is showing.  Falling asleep and dreaming himself into the movies, Keaton's projectionist certainly has the love of movies (and Keaton the director an innate ability to create some of the best gags in silent film history) even if his ability to work without falling asleep (something a projectionist in those days could never do since he or she had to change reels manually) leaves a bit to be desired.

Next up we have Salvatore in the 1988 Italian romantic nostalgia piece Cinema Paradiso.  Played by Philippe Noiret, Alfredo is the projectionist at the title cinema in Giancaldo, Sicily (a small village similar to director Giuseppe Tornatore's own hometown) who begrudgingly at first, becomes a father figure to a young boy named Salvatore, or Toto as he is called, and helps the boy learn the ways of life.  After a fire at the cinema (oh that darned flammable old nitrate film stock!), Alfredo is blinded, and once the cinema is rebuilt, Toto takes the old man's place as projectionist.  A heartwarming, but far from trite (as heartwarming often plays out in motion pictures) film, Cinema Paradiso is a film that only a true lover of cinema, a cinephile if you will, could make.  Its success helped put the Italian cinema industry back on the map.  The best scene, of course, comes at the end.  After years of being made to cut kissing and other sexually provocative scenes out of the films that played at the Paradiso (oh those darned small village priests!), a grown Salvatore, now a famous film director himself, is shown a reel of all these spliced kissing scenes.  As the projectionist starts the reel, all those old thoughts of his childhood and of Alfredo come flooding back to him.  Not to sound too sentimentalist of me, but this may well be one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen on film.

Another interesting look at movie projectionists on film is found in a movie that is not actually about a movie projectionist, but just seen as a small subplot of a much larger and much more convoluted plot line.  The film is Fight Club and the projectionist is Tyler Durden.  Played by Brad Pitt (one of the actor's best roles), the somewhat batshitcrazy Durden, when he isn't out making fat soap or forming secret underground fight clubs (we are not supposed to talk about this though), works as a movie projectionist.  Durden's favourite projection habit (other than breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience about those cigarette burns in the corners of the frames) is splicing frames of pornographic images into family films.  Fleshy, bulging subliminal images bounce across the screen as children cry and parents look around anxiously, never quite sure of what they just saw.  Before the age of digital projection (a thing that will sadly bring the age of film to an end in a few years) this was a rather popular prank pulled by many an animator - including those oh so wholesome guys over at Disney Studios.  Now as a projectionist I have never done such a thing (or at the very least I refuse to admit it in such a public forum) but I will fully admit to having licked both Blue Velvet and Godard's Breathless before projecting them.  Yeah, you read that right - I licked 'em and I'm proud of it.

Now there have been other movie projectionists that are more implied than actually seen, such as the projectionists in Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Blvd. and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.  We also get to see Stooge Shemp Howard as a somewhat crazed projectionist in the little known but highly entertaining H.C. Potter film, Hellzapoppin'.  Other projectionist appearances can be seen in the Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive, the Taiwanese film Goodbye Dragon Inn, as well as in such a diverse array of films like The Muppet Movie, The Blob, Night of the Comet, Kings of the Road, Gremlins, The Tingler, The Last Action Hero, The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic and Phantom of Paradise.  Of course then there is the 1971 film The Projectionist.  A sort of retake on the aforementioned Keaton film, with Chuck McCann as the projectionist who dreams of his life as the superheroes he sees portrayed on screen.  The most interesting of these other projectionist is the one portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's feature debut, Targets.  The story of a sniper who is offing people at random, the showcase finale of the film takes place at a drive-in theater.  Bogdanovich cast real life drive-in projectionist Byron Betz as the film's projectionist.  To not spoil things too much, let's just say things do not end well for the screen version of poor Mr. Betz.

But after all these other great movie projectionists, the one that tops my list is Shosanna Dreyfus, as played by Melanie Laurent in Quentin Tarantino's audacious masterpiece Inglourious Basterds.  Now anyone knowing me and my obsession with everything Tarantino should not be too surprised at Shosanna being my favourite.  When I first saw QT's latest (and dare I say, greatest) in the theater (the first of three times that week!) I instantly fell in love with the character of Shosanna Dreyfus. - but then who wouldn't.  A Jewish survivor hiding out from the Nazi's right under their very noses, Shosanna, going by the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux, runs a cinema in Occupied Paris and takes it upon herself (and her lover and co-projectionist Marcel Ido) to help put an end to World War II by setting her cinema ablaze (oh those darn flammable nitrate prints again!) with Hitler, Goebbels and many other high ranking Nazis (including Oscar winning German actor and Nazi sympathizer Emil Jannings) trapped inside.  This penultimate set piece (including, *Spoiler Alert, Duh*, Shosanna's death) is the highlight of an already filled to the brim motion picture event as only Quentin Tarantino can make.

Well that's about it for movie projectionists on film.  Even as the digital age of cinema is quickly creeping up on us (most major studios will go 100% digital by the first quarter of 2013) and the era of movie projectionists as we know it will forever be dead (except of course in the revival houses of America), the noble profession of projectionist will still be able to be seen up there on the big screen.  The format may change (I don't want to get all maudlin and start decrying the death of cinema, for that will not happen) but the projectionist, hidden away in the dark (perhaps even licking a print or two), will always be there somewhere, either in the aforementioned films or in new ones yet to be made.  Now before I start crying for the inevitable loss of such a great institution as the movie projectionist, I must go and get the cinema ready to open for another great day of moviewatching.  In other words, this film critic and historian must now go and be a projectionist for a few more hours.  Take care, and always remember there is someone there in the dark making your cinematic fantasies come true.