Wednesday, May 30, 2007

tears of the black tiger (sasanatieng, 2000)

A characteristic moment in a film that does not want for character, a protagonist punches a wall to release his frustration (self-directed denial of yearning for childhood sweetheart), and the wall is colored pastel pink. Now here's the thing: by punching the wall his knuckles are bloodied, but the blood is the color of the wall, not the color of blood.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Friday, May 18, 2007

pan's labyrinth (del toro, 2006)

For a director whose ideas of "keep it in motion" seem modeled on Spielberg's, Del Toro's elaborate tale of fairies and unfairies is a curious reverse of what the critics have said about, for example, War of the Worlds ... Del Toro's a director with a weak serve and strong follow-through. I, for one, prefer Spielberg's gusto and fascinating grotesquerie, but for what it's worth, Mr. Del Toro, thanks for not kid-gloving this down to PG-13.

the shield: "man inside" (d. white, 2006); forest whitaker

After a lackluster first half dozen episodes that seemed to indicate a cast & crew whose interests were elsewhere, Season Five of The Shield begins to pick up interest, and the result is the best episode since the show's producers decided they could afford Glenn Close (or vice verse). Paradoxically, the material is at its most mawkish - Claudette's post-interrogation breakdown is straight out of '30s melodrama, and some of the dialogue is awful - so what attracted me was the remarkably supple deployment of the "typical" Shield camerawork with some really fluid editing. (For the first few episodes of the season, I frequently wanted to cry out that the cutting was "all wrong!" - specifically its narcotic dependence on aimless, drama-less parallel editing.) Here is an example of style transforming lame material into something pretty close to great.

The subsequent episode - "Kavenaugh" - is nearly as strong, and suggested to me that "Man Inside" wasn't a fluke. Forest Whitaker continues to be the show's strangest - possibly the worst, possibly the best - onscreen performer. He is to The Shield what Rod Steiger was to Jubal, both in his character's Iago-ized villainy and in his predilection towards giving just a lotta bit more than a scene needs.

Friday, April 27, 2007

hail mary (godard, 1985)

Many memorable images in Godard's filmography have to do with face-pulling and body-comedy: seeing what our physical form is capable of doing, what it's about, etc. It's a lifelong love affair, between the body and the motion picture, a form of thinking. In Hail Mary, Godard thinks about how babies are made - not in the coital sense, but in the cosmic one - and reaches out to all new moms who wonder just what the hell is happening to their body. Je vous salue, mère.

border radio (anders, voss, and lent, 1987)


annie get your gun (sidney, 1950)

I just can't get over Betty Hutton. This is an incredibly eloquent performance, and it seems to be All Caricature. When she expresses heartbreak, she does it with fifty thousand kilowatts and three thousand pounds of cardboard scenery, and it's heartbreaking.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

autumn tale (rohmer, 1998)

A gorgeous film, whose palette recalls Ozu's Late Autumn. It had me wondering if Rohmer (who's only had two films released here since this one: The Lady and the Duke and Triple Agent) wasn't getting younger as he seemed to approach eighty. The "situations" are alarmingly riddled with "audience friendly" codes - as if we could forget that Rohmer is just about the audience-friendliest director who ever lived - while the "feel" is unquestionably Rohmer. The minds of the characters are reactive; they respond to situations instead of creating them, and the movie is half over before Rohmer introduces the most crucial figure, leaving everyone else stranded. The engine that sustains the film is Rohmer's writing: He's famous for his "talk" but what really makes his characters function the way they do is their ability to listen.

Is this Rohmer's most successful US release? I wouldn't be surprised: it's twice as smart as what we're accustomed to, here, but half as smart as, let's say for example, A Good Marriage, and not nearly as atmospheric (not for lack of trying) as The Green Ray or A Summer's Tale or A Tale of Springtime, just to name a few post-Perceval titles.

Near the three-quarter mark, Magali erupts and threatens to destroy everything around her: as a result, although the film continues and ends happily, the pieces don't fit back together again. There's a disconnect. Everything following her tantrum is a let-down - it's in a different film. Plus there's another component that's completely fascinating, even moving, but left maddeningly unresolved: Gerald's social awkwardness and his attraction to Isabelle. Would that Rohmer had built what could be his last "talk-fest" on different foundations!!

maria full of grace (marston, 2004)

Near the end of the film, Maria (Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) walks past a sign that says "It's what's inside that counts." It's director Joshua Marston's grotesque lack of subtlety that seals the deal: you see, Maria is an expectant mother.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

cyrano de bergerac (rappeaneau, 1990)

Engrossing and amusing despite Rappeaneau's relentlessly prosaic treatment; to my surprise, a number of key moments are quite moving, thanks mostly to the film's even-handedness and a thoroughly engaged cast. A "Masterpiece Theater" piece of work, but in a good way. The film's key asset for English-speaking audiences is its subtitles, rendered by novelist Anthony Burgess.

neapolitan diary (rosi, 1992)

Mostly inept docu-travelogue follow-up to Rosi's Hands Over the City. Alternates between a visit by Rosi and a two-person documentary crew (plus video camera operators) and a series of "talking head" segments featuring Neapolitan academics and authority figures; there are intermittent clips from Rosi's fictional oeuvre (not just Hands but Lucky Luciano and Illustrious Corpses, others). Strangely enough, the "talking head" segments ground the project and keep Rosi focused...elsewhere, Diary is an innocuous mess.

Monday, April 16, 2007

cotton comes to harlem (ossie davis, 1970)

Not an unpleasant picture, unsweetened but uncoordinated. Raymond St. Jacques' face is shaped like an arrow; Godfrey Cambridge's face is shaped like a smirk. Attempts to pander to the white audience are negligible; more often the film does the a key scene, black winos ease their way into a peaceful protest, but when angry whites try to join the same cause and take up the same slogans, they get a pie in the face!

What the film has to say about sexuality and race is enough to fill an essay: the fact that "Gravedigger" Jones / "Coffin" Ed Johnson appear to have even less of a home life than Joe Friday / Frank Smith is just the beginning.

Most of all, the film poses a key question to its viewers: is it black enough for ya?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

hands over the city (rosi, 1963)

The worst scene in the film, undoubtedly, is the one that contemplates the corrupt Edoardo Nottola contemplating his arrival at a moral/political crossroads. Rosi cannot contemplate silently: the music (full of bombast) suggests inner turmoil, the camera wanders restlessly, Steiger moves across spaces as if deep in contemplation. What is the subject of the preceding scene? Nottola is given a Big Choice. And the scene that follows? He makes a Big Decision.

As in The Mattei Affair, Rosi's visual flourishes are scarce but extra-vivid by virtue of their scarcity: council members display their open palms and proclaim that they are clean; a crowd of poor Neapolitans are on the cusp of open rebellion in one scene, pacified and dulled in the next. For the most part, however, one is not certain whether Rosi has succeeded in de-dramatizing an exciting tale of corruption and back-room dealing or failed in dramatizing several volumes of city council minutes.

One of the things that made The Great McGinty exciting was that it fessed up to corruption's attractive qualities and saw no reason to wash its hands. Rosi's true hero is the moralist De Vita, who would spend all his imaginative energy telling us that McGinty is corrupt, a scoundrel, and a crook.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

...and scary movies

Two recent non-horror films I've had the privilege to see - both great, and both scary as hell: Anthony Mann's Border Incident, with its insectile bandits and cutthroats and the nigh-unbearable scene of murder-by-plow. This film is a close cousin of T-MEN for a number of reasons: both films relate the story of undercover agents who spend time apart from each other while pursuing an elusive center to an unnavigable criminal structure. Both films have documentary book-ends and exhibit strong faith in the moral correctness of government law enforcement. Ricardo Montalban is the lead, his softness is not a liability, but a feature of his identity, remarked upon more than once. The cast is made strong by its supporting characters - Howard Da Silva, Arthur Hunnicutt, Sig Ruman, Arnold Moss, and James Mitchell. As for the look of the movie, well, let's just say it's not found dead-center between Mann's claustrophobia-inducing noirs and severe-angled westerns for nothing.

Raoul Ruiz's Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, whose terrifying aspects are less direct; the film is a unique puzzler but the ending gave me a pretty decent shake. Ruiz piles on misdirection after misdirection so that when he ultimately suggests a real vector (get OUT!), the effect is cathartic. The cumulative effect of so many living, breathing (twiching!) mannequins was of strangulation.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

spook films 2007

It seems like ever since the American remake of The Ring, there's a new type of horror film, of which type we see a specimen about once a month. I'm not talking about The Hills Have Eyes and The Devil's Rejectsand other s&m fantasies, but those slight things that don't appear to have cost a lot, don't make a lot, and are gone in the blink of an eye...that is, unless you take the time to seek them out and write/talk about them. They're probably mostly awful but some look interesting. I waded through a lot of crap in 2003-2005 and it was all worthwhile when I came across The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which isn't even that great of a movie - mostly because the plot is a laugh - but which was very appealing to me for its craftsmanship and its unexpected layer of empathy (which is grudgingly revealed).

For this reason I feel like I need to log the names of these now-you-see-them,-now-you-don't spook movies (perhaps we can coin a new term: not-quite-straight-to-video) and check them out on DVD. The old-timey auteurist practice of trawling the movie theaters is too costly but the age of home video has provided a short circuit that I find welcome.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

little pancho vanilla (tashlin, 1938)

Tashlin is not the most mad of all the Warner directors (that was Clampett) but his films are frequently the most emotionally grounded, as mad films often are. They may or may not pause for very long to reflect on things like romantic ecstasy, pathos, or terror, but these moments are striking, strangely moving, and have the power to restructure the rest of the surrounding narrative in perspective. Examples include: the pitiful woodland creatures in Porky in the North Woods; declarations of love between Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It; the narrative-arresting musical numbers in the same film; the distraught, suicidal girl in The Disorderly Orderly; the gamut of emotions (from abject terror to indifference to proud showmanship) exhibited by Early Porky Pig in Little Beau Porky and The Case of the Stuttering Pig, among others.

Tashlin will frequently bend or break his film in order to follow a train of thought, an idea (or a herd of ideas), or a simple whim. One of my favorite examples is the ridiculous interruption of Little Pancho Vanilla with a trio of fruit-bearing, diminutive singing ladies who then proceed to swoon over a poster of a Clark Gable look-alike (as only Tashlin could imagine him). Prior to their arrival, Vanilla affects something like pastoral realism - or what passes for it, in Looney-land - in its depiction of a provincial Mejican village; afterwards, every absurdity is acceptable, peaking with a speaking bull's transformation of a disparate crew of matadors into identical billiard balls.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

flags of our fathers (eastwood, 2006)

Eastwood's films are neither weighted nor weightless.

retribution (kiyoshi kurosawa, 2006)

KK's new film prostitutes wholesale chunks of his three strongest features prior to this one: Cure (God Told Me To...Kill!), Pulse (the world is emptying itself out; ghosts are driven to insanity via an insurmountable loneliness), and Charisma (Koji Yakusho becomes the "messiah cop"). I did not mind this very much, because I have always felt that he's had bigger fish to fry than simple shock effects, even in a film like this, where the script seems to have been hastily prepared (he is his own writer) and the direction - while exceptional - doesn't go far in unmuddying the waters. The film is an embarrassment of riches for fans of the director's sense of architecture, boxes, unfinished surfaces and unnervingly "off" angles, sense of displacement.

There is a shot of the ghost creeping towards Yakusho. She creeps and creeps. She is not CGI'd in this shot. The two actors share the frame. There is no gauze over the lens. She creeps toward him like Snidely Whiplash would creep towards somebody. He cowers/she creeps. They resemble rehearsal partners - you expect someone to say "and...scene" at a certain point. I love this shot enormously.

A key moment suggests KK read Thomas Ligotti's 1989 short story "Dream of a Mannikin."

The bones call to mind Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen. I feel that KK pays homage to the "flawed" Sarasate record in that film several times: the sound reels in Seance (where a dead voice seems to have tainted their recordings), the film clips in Cure and Loft (in which an artwork/artifact from circa the 1920s hints at something far older).