Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #3: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

What's the story? That with his Poe films Corman went from a one- to two-week shooting schedule and suddenly felt like an auteur? How true does that have to be for The Masque of the Red Death to hold our attention? Poe certainly inspired Corman to ease up a bit on his mad huckster's pace, to give Vincent Price the opportunity to re-invent himself as the first straight-faced camp actor, to drench the screen in color with House of Usher four years before Mario Bava saw the palette possibilities of Blood and Black Lace.

And mentioning Bava and The Masque of the Red Death in the same breath is fitting: Both Blood and Black Lace and Corman's picture were released in the same year, 1964, at the the cusp of a shift in American movies, a lurid path leading to Bonnie and Clyde and George Romero and the MPAA ratings. And both find enclosed worlds--couture for Bava, Prospero's multi-colored palace for Corman--to indulge their unsavory cravings in relative privacy. Most of all, the two films play at Ten Little Indians-style elimination rounds, relishing each new demise, snickering at the losers--maybe Masque more than Blood and Black Lace, thanks to Price's Prospero, who takes stage center, no mystery here as to whodunit, the culprit bowing and smug.

By the time the Red Death shows up, each bright and ugly room taking its turn, the last of the guests swept out of the way, Masque can moralize all it likes: It's already had its fun, and given us permission to giggle and grimace our way through the most flamboyant Halloween ball this side of Castro Street. Maybe it's that mustache, but Price certainly seems ready to play for whatever team will have him--until it's too late for games as the morality of melodrama catches up with him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #2: Pulse/Kairo (2001)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo/Pulse (2001) sustains the dim glories and subterranean uncertainties of the expressionist/noir vision. The movie is offhand in its exposition, incidentally plotted, like Caligari or Cat People, and demands that the viewer constantly strain to see exactly what is that in the frame's periphery, and why is it so scary? Like so many of its late '70s-early '80s American progenitors, Pulse features young friends in peril, and holds out thwarted hopes of rescue and safety, until the world itself grows indistinct and silent, while everyone recedes into a whispering gloom.

In his indispensable book, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (at least indispensable to me, reading it when I was twelve years old, ready to marry a monster from outer space, if only she'd have me), Carlos Clarens points out that narrative gestures may be perfunctory in the horror film, but one must forgive such lapses with a barely apologetic shrug. After all, as Clarens writes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's approach, "for the night creatures themselves, these films substituted our dread for them." So the last special effect is produced by the viewers, consuming indistinct objects but never completely understanding them, even as they are held in the hands and brought up to the face, as close as one's shadow, and in the deepening gloom indistinguishable from the self. Pulse eventually sees the whole world this way, a place without stories, just the open sea and the fog rolling in.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #1: I Bury the Living (1958)

There is a big man at the center of I Bury the Living: Richard Boone, with his beefy frame and heavy features reminding me of Victor Mature, but without a trace of vanity. Here, he's a small-city department store executive--part of a group that takes turns managing the local cemetery--but this civic quirkiness is nothing: the whole picture's odd, from Boone squeezed into a business suit to the giant map of the cemetery itself, dotted with little pins (white if the owner is alive, black when they die), most of the picture set in the dingy little shed with the map and a dying gray light. No wonder, reluctantly drawn to this duty, that Boone starts to believe that, if he puts a black pin on the plot of someone still alive, they die--and he believes this because they do.

It's a story as contrived as any Twilight Zone contraption; but the director (Albert Band, director, writer, producer of many B movies) forces it to work, laying down thick expressionistic bricks, a solid job that keeps us in that dingy room at the cemetery where the map hangs, large and pulsing, almost alive, the pins gigantic in closeup, spread out on a Salvador Dali plain--while the room itself shrinks, fills with fog and smoke and shadow, as though the 1920s had never left the screen.

And Boone handles himself well, wrestling some real panic out of his bulk, a big man undone by, as he puts it, a strange feeling he has carried with him all his life, that he is reliving things--or making them happen. The resolution is at first more Hardy Boys than Jung, but the sense of a ghost-world lingers, as Boone, his overcoat lost, wanders off, speaking softly: "I think I can find it myself."

I've adapted this from an entry in another of my blogs, The Constant Viewer.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Gleaners and I (2000)

My Sicilian grandmother spent all her adult life as a city-dweller, but she never forgot how to glean. She'd visit us in the New Jersey suburbs, staying at my aunt's house next door. We had an apple tree we never tended, so it produced fruit sporadically--and the apples themselves were puny, eventually dropping to make a sweet-sour mash under the tree by late autumn. But in September she'd wander into the yard, bending over and finding some fruit worthwhile enough--cut off the bad parts, scold away a worm or two. We could shake our heads at her all we'd like, but eventually we'd get little folded-over cookies with sweet apples in the middle--and she could never bake enough of them for her grown grandchildren.

The Gleaners and I is a documentary/personal essay by the New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose impish face is half-glimpsed a few times along the way, a field gnome watching Millet's after-harvest gleaners make their way toward us, past us, and into town, where dumpsters and markets wait. While the film sheds some light on the time-honored practice of picking through the leftovers, it becomes something else: a reflection on the cast-off and the junked, the physical pleasure of finding something good in the muck, the satisfaction of a free meal, and the pride in leaving nothing to waste.

And so gleaning becomes a metaphor, of course--for work, for the generous heart of true justice, for friendship and naturally for art/film itself, presented as collage/montage, the accidentally-on-purpose patterns formed by found objects, the sudden glimpse of oneself filming, at one point Varda's dangling lens cap another performer, a free-jazz dancer--and even her camera is an apt gleaning tool: a small camcorder, easy enough for anyone to use, easy as bending over and finding an apple worth eating and a heart-shaped potato.

Varda narrates with an assured combination of philosophical coolness and open-hearted glee, each profile punctuated by sly humor and genuine delight, her curiosity about the variations on gleaning insatiable--her little bowl haircut sliding across the frame as she watches us gleaning her gleaning the gleaners. Like much of the New Wave, this late entry is as much about movie-making as it is a movie--but Varda is an old pro rejuvenated by the little camera in her hand, and she plays like a talented child: Just watch/listen to her ruminations on her wrinkled hands, and those same hands playing a forced-perspective game with freeway trucks, grabbing them and squeezing as she passes each. The Gleaners and I takes the eco-idea of "sustainability" and makes it an everyday possibility--but one infused with French introspection and solid rural/urban know-how. We can all sustain, she tells us, as long as we learn to bend a little.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen's first film, provides an accurate prediction of their careers as filmmakers. The movie is funny and dark, self-reflexive and compelling--but also sometimes off-putting and unpleasant. And it marks the debut of Frances McDormand, whose firm jaw and wary eyes grow into wisdom by the time she confronts full-blown human venality, Coen-style, in Fargo (1996). But back in the mid-'80s she seemed as poleaxed as anyone, hating her husband--played by Dan Hedaya, an actor who all but begs for our scorn--and drawn to a hapless bartender. Everybody gets simple after a while, given all that blood.

Except for maybe M. Emmet Walsh's private eye, the supposed observer who becomes the prime suspect, showing the bush-league baddies what real corruption looks like. In many ways it's Walsh's picture, grimy and calculating, glib and world-weary--but not as wise as he needs to be. The final sequence is suspenseful and raw, like late Hitchcock, with more than a touch of their buddy Sam Raimi's panicked glee over imminent doom.

Blood Simple is interesting as a self-assured debut for the Coens and McDormand; but more than that it stands on its own as a rough-edged noir that warns us what happens when bored, sloppy double-crossers fall in love.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Son of Rambow (2008)

As much a movie about movie-making as it is a heartfelt assertion of friendship and family, Son of Rambow surprised me with its willingness to be both subversive and sentimental. In the end, it works.

The movie reminds me of Bill Forsythe's '80s films--the man who practically invented the modern British whimsy-movie, populated by assertive and/or bemused eccentrics, such as Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), Comfort and Joy (1984), and Breaking In (1989). Like Forsythe, writer/director Garth Jennings enjoys the periphery, the places and people off to the side, living unconventional lives--at first played out in relative freedom, eventually challenged by the larger world. In Son of Rambow, two outsider boys--one the child of strictly religious parents, the other a dedicated troublemaker (and aspiring film-maker)--are united in the desire to make a Rambo movie. The plot enjoys its characters and relishes its situations with such honest affection that one is drawn into the game, eager to follow the boys as they discover the joys and sorrows of cinema and friendship.

This kind of PG-13 family movie is rare. It doesn't get lost in the cynical urge to walk to the brink of an R rating, to market a product; instead, it trusts its offbeat plot and characters to take us where it wants to go. The result is indeed fine product, but untainted by the missteps of movies concerned only with demographics. Son of Rambow is as irresistible as its movie-within-a-movie; you'll agree with bad-boy auteur Lee: "This has been my best day of all time."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005)

In the dim past of cinema history, a kind of Early Cenozoic when movies did not yet have the capacity for speech, Georges Méliès found "Un petit diable," a little devil--lost now, but I'm sure as startling as any of his astronomers and imps, rocketships and submarines, living playing cards and posters--555 films in seventeen years that asked us not to believe, but to see. His films still can captivate--maybe more so now than then, since their scratched and grainy jump-cut surfaces have taken on a sputtering glow, a surreal non-logic. The last hundred years have accustomed our eyes to the dark, and we see things in his little magic tricks that breathe their own life.

The inheritors of this visual legacy have never forgotten their first glimpse of that dream-cinema. Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel, Dziga Vertov, Joseph Cornell, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Jan Svankmajer, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Guy Maddin, David Lynch--who am I leaving out? Many many more, I'm sure, all of them--including big shots like Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam--children of the first magician, Méliès reborn everywhere you look.

And for the Quay brothers, looking is everything. They have been making alternate-universe animations for more than thirty years; but as strange as their world is, it has become familiar to anyone who's seen certain Kafka-Goth music videos of the '90s, or watched the world unspool in CGI-driven ads, or simply sat through even the tawdriest post-Millennial horror film, infused with Japanese swirls of hair and sudden lurching camera jumps, layered soundtracks indebted as much to the anxiety-dream soundscapes of a Quay brothers short as they are to the wheezing-slaughterhouse tape loops of The Exorcist. Whether we know it or not, we're all surrealists now.

So don't be afraid to be confused, even bored, by the Quay brothers' The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, one of two feature-length films they've made. It combines the fable-logic of another pair of brothers, the Grimms, with the insect-skitters of the Quays' own classic shorts (which you can rent from Netflix). Just be warned that all you can expect to do is look at this movie; "understanding" it is almost a waste of time. Each moment makes sense--inside of itself, if you watch closely enough--but as a whole it doesn't matter. I have inferred a meaning from The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (and what an apt Magic Realist title, sounding like one of Gabriel García Márquez' "tales for children"--"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" comes to mind); but any meaning inferred is as much my fault as the film's. The real effort is to resist meaning, to allow the animations, the floating arias, the tantalizing fade-outs, the mysterious utterances, to be themselves, whatever that is. Learn to watch: This is definitely not interactive cinema, but the triumph of two-dimensional film, all surface--and all mesmerizing.

Behold! Méliès' "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (1898):

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just Around the Corner (1938)



So you* love movies, you've seen a million of 'em--you even respect them, more or less, and accept The Cinema as an art form, perhaps the most important of the past hundred years. In recognition of their stature, you try to watch "classic" films, the kind that make the all-time-greats lists. Consider the latest Sight and Sound/British Film Institute best-of, compiled only once a decade; the most recent is from 2002:

1. Citizen Kane
2. Vertigo
3. La Règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game
4. The Godfather, Parts I & II
5. Tokyo Story
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Battleship Potemkin
7. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (tied with Potemkin)
9. 8½
10. Singin' in the Rain

I'll bet you've seen at least some of them--and good for you: By and large, these movies are not only "important" but "entertaining," at least because they're well-made, with compelling story-lines and performances. So they're not only good for you, they're good.

But does your cinephilia demand you watch a movie from the number one box-office draw of the late 1930s? That would be Shirley Temple--and of course you know her name and are certain you've seen a few of her pictures--but I'll bet what you're remembering are snippets from compilation shows, montage tributes to the Golden Age of Hollywood, little moments captured in amber--tinged with gold, to be be sure, but fading.

Well, here's your chance to cross one more cinematic obligation off your list with Just Around the Corner; but this is more than taking your medicine. This "happy little ditty" stands near the end of Shirley's girlhood--she was all of ten years old when it was released--and knows without a doubt that it's a "Shirley Temple Movie," providing ample opportunity for pluck and luck and song, with generous measures of the kind of sentimentality requisite for one of her vehicles.

Added to the usual heart-string-tugging is a typically Twentieth-Century-Fox take on the Depression, acknowledging it exists but blaming it mostly on a lack of "confidence" in zealous entrepreneurship bankrolled by the right tycoon to save the day. Shirley's architect father is reduced to fancy handyman in the very building he designed (a suitably Deco series of curves and sweeping lines), while his dream project lies waiting for the necessary backer--here provided by an Uncle Sam lookalike whom Shirley befriends, assuming he's the real Uncle Sam, "a tough old bird."

Along the way, we get improbable musical numbers, an encounter with dese-dem-dose versions of Our Gang, a boy-meets-loses-gets-girl secondary plot--and Bert Lahr "singing" in his usual surreal warble. And two more presences, irreplaceable, unforgettable: Franklin Pangborn and Bill Robinson, the two of them lifelong experts at what they need to do: one spluttering, the other gliding effortlessly amid lesser lights--although Shirley gets it, and has her usual fun following him; talk about artists at their height.

I'll confess that my affection for Shirley Temple movies stems from family viewing habits when I was a kid: channel 48 in Philadelphia ran Bowery Boys, Blondie, and Shirley Temple on Sundays, so if you wanted a movie you watched what you could get. My sister loved Shirley, and like most siblings in a one-TV family, I learned to defer. And good for me: I understand Shirley better than I otherwise would've, her hard work looking easy, her place in cinema history never in the High Culture Top Ten, but packin' 'em in their seats when needed; like the song says,
"Just around the corner,
There's a rainbow in the sky,
So let's have another cup of coffee,
And let's have another piece of pie."
Irving Berlin's song was almost cruel in 1932; but in Just Around the Corner, it could look back at the decade and start to shrug it off--just in time for the next weight to carry. But that's another Instant Play Pick: Battleground, anyone?

*This "you" does not include fellow film geeks; we've already watched more movies than we should.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Moon (2009)

If you already know Moon--and enjoy old-timey, puzzle-solving SF--you don't need me to encourage you to watch it. But the movie did kind of slip in and out--so what a treat for those of you who don't know it.

Look at the good stuff: Sam Rockwell in virtually every scene; Kevin Spacey as a maybe-he's-HAL-from-2001 computer/robot--and speaking of Kubrick's milestone, a production design that hearkens to 2001's black-and-white Lego geometry (in a movie filmed at Kubrick's haunt, Shepperton Studios); all in a film directed by David Bowie's son (I wish my middle name were "Zowie").

The film itself deals with a tried-and-true SF concept: the isolated human (here, at a mining base on, you guessed it, the Moon) facing a mystery--with only his own wits and a reticent artificial intelligence (and all the Asimovian paradoxes that come with such intelligence) to depend on. It's cool to look at, intriguing, and sometimes funny--which brings us back to Sam Rockwell, about as dependable an actor a filmmaker could hope for. Once Rockwell accepts a gig, he gives it everything, no irony, no easy outs. He reminds me of Nicolas Cage--at least when the latter isn't just bouncing around special effects; and like Cage, Rockwell brings a nuanced, off-center quality--in other words, he makes us believe he hasn't read the script, and isn't sure what even he himself might do next. And if that weren't enough, Spacey once more plays his voice like a musical instrument of subtle range, keeping us guessing even when he tells the truth.

Despite Rockwell's and Spacey's assertive presence, Moon remains a solid SF story, its look and attitude crisp and engaging, its plot (again, aside from some inevitable cheats) both reflective and suspenseful. I'll admit I'm always eager for a solid dose of Golden Age SF; but even if you're not a like-minded geek, Moon will draw you in to its low-gravity center.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

I was four years old at the start of the 1960s, in high school by 1970, so it's no surprise that the movies I saw then remain with me like no others. In the early '60s, pop culture was a generally comforting mix of innocent '50s fluff and the kind of flat-footed irony expressed by Mad magazine's brand of furshlugginer social satire; you could still find bug-eyed monsters in a Saturday matinee and a self-consciously imaginary surf's-up vacation at the drive-in--even though a Cold War nervous condition made the cameraman's hand shake a little. The old pros of Hollywood, led by Bette Davis, could be spotted as crazy ladies cackling in haunted houses à la What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, while the French New Wave was breaking on U.S. shores, encouraging both the nascent indie film culture and Hollywood itself to join the In Crowd.

And just as we rounded the final turn of the decade came 2001, which made a promise about the movies--that they contained their own version of infinity, something that really lasts--a promise that I think Kubrick helped keep, at least a little. But back then, when I was thirteen, it was simply a Happening, cooler than anything I'd ever seen, my first techno-vision, a dream about gadgets. I began to recognize that there'd always be two kinds of movies for me: the ones that build an almost unconscious web of memories, and sudden nuclear events that blasted everything, forcing us to start all over.

I'll admit I still feel cozier with memories than Ground Zero. Both in the movies--usually at the drive-in--and on TV, I'd watch blurry little pictures that seemed to become "shadowy recollections" even as I sat in front of them. Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing falls under this category, a strange, sleepy psycho-thriller with (for me, at least) two quintessential '60s faces: Carol Lynley's and Keir Dullea's, both of them so bland and smooth as children's that even their panic and madness seems like a wistful reflection. The black and white cinematography, the sighing, woodwind-infused soundtrack, the false reassurance of Laurence Olivier as a policeman--and most of all the plot, the Vanishing Person mystery--here, a child that no one even admits exists; all of it floats around in one's head like a recent dream, fading the more you try to remember it.

It is a movie about absence: Bunny is missing, and her mother is the prime suspect--and what she is suspected of is inventing Bunny--and where all this goes I'll let you see. I admit I'm not entirely happy with the ending, when it finally decides to become a thriller; but until the (admittedly, still weird) climax, the real pleasure of Bunny Lake Is Missing is the dark fairy tale situation, Bunny the invisible changeling, with Keir Dullea--let's not forget that he would play 2001's Dave Bowman in just a couple of years--himself looking like a child, his little smile a bit flat, not quite reassuring.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Intermission (2003)

All right: You've long given yourself permission to be sick and tired of serio-comic-tragic movies built of intricately interwoven lives/plots. But before you leave that busy little corner of cinema for good, watch Intermission, an Irish film that draws in Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, Kelly MacDonald, a mustachioed Shirley Henderson, and the always-dependable Colm Meaney*--plus many more--into a kidnap-romance-heist-farce that also manages to be a movie about waiting for one's life to resume--or resolve itself.

Given the strangeness of the characters and the complexities of their relationships and schemes, Intermission could've easily fallen into terminal Irish whimsicality. But between its U2-tinged soundtrack--with a nice turn by Farrell on "I Fought the Law"--and the nastiness of even some of the local children, the movie never gets too cute. Even as a love story--which it mostly is--Intermission knows that love can stink, but also that most of us are ready to give up everything (even love itself, if you know what I mean) to take that leap into another's arms.

The cast helps in this effort enormously, never winking at the camera, always sprinting full-tilt along the whoopsy-daisy plot--of which there's enough for three or four pictures, but Intermission doesn't feel bloated or forced. It just keeps its hands on the wheel, stubbornly refusing advice, taking the corners a bit too fast--but that's where the fun is.

*Almost fifteen years before Juno, Meaney delights in Stephen Frears' The Snapper, in which he plays a clueless Da who has to learn how to be a good father to his pregnant daughter.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961)

In his cheerfully titled 1929 book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud points out the three sources of human suffering: the world itself, with its storms and earthquakes, the dangers of climate and geology; our own bodies, which--despite our best efforts (he tells us we have become a "prosthetic God," capable of artificially repairing bodily damage)--will one day let us down--and along the way give us great grief; and the most significant (and unfortunately "least regulated") source of pain, our relationships with each other. He concludes that "the universe is opposed to the program of the Pleasure Principle"--that is, our urge to be happy is constantly thwarted by the fact that we are alive.

In Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda relieves Cleo of one of those sources of pain: the world itself, which in this film is Paris, stripped of all pain, glowing with early-'60s, black-and-white beauty. Cleo is awaiting the results of a cancer biopsy, and spends her two hours wandering through the city, her realtionships, and her thoughts. Varda makes a meditative film that--because it is a "feminine" meditation--is both frank and wistful, as honest as it is uncertain. In Varda's hands, the French New Wave is almost serene, shaped by the urge to understand oneself and one's place in a painful life.

It's easy to fall in love with Varda's films: If you're a woman, she treats you with understanding and respect; and if you're a man, she allows a glimpse into that secret garden at whose gate we so often fumble, the flowers at our fingertips but untouched without help. And Varda provides more than a hint; it's as though I keep hearing her murmur, "You're getting warmer," as I follow Cleo from 5 to 7 in a dream that's more wish-fulfillment than I could've managed on my own.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) made people uneasy; perhaps it was his determination to make a film about the Holocaust that forced out some laughs--almost unbearable, the choking feeling of laughing and weeping at the same time. It was a movie you did not so much watch as drowned in--a cinematic waterboarding. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas also tries to see that horror from an oblivious child's point of view--but it does not dare to laugh; instead, it allows the Holocaust to unfold slowly before the (German) child's eyes, an intriguing puzzle the boy never quite solves.

Along the way, however, we are given a view of the Final Solution as a family concern, both Nazi and Jewish--and, like Benigni's picture, the decision to make genocide a personal matter takes Schindler's List one step farther, away from mass extinction to the death of individuals--millions, eventually; but in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas they die one at a time, and we are asked to know them first, and to understand what it means to be one person in the midst of the twentieth century's defining moment of shame and loss. Understand that this is a movie about the worst we can do to one another--but it is touched by the hands of parents, whose love and helplessness tell us as much about the concentration camps as we can take while still reassuring ourselves we're just watching a movie.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Breakdown (1997)

Director Jonathan (Terminator 3) Mostow does a pretty fair Hitchcock impression with Breakdown, its plot improbabilities forgivable in light of the tension he creates. And he's lucky to have Kurt Russell as the hapless-hubby good guy--and maybe even more so to have the immortal J.T. Walsh as his villain. Imagine The Vanishing without any psychology, just suspense, in a desert landscape where everybody is either fly-specked-clueless or in on the shenanigans.

Russell trusts Walsh with his wife (Kathlenn Quinlan, another welcome face)--and thanks for small errors: Russell's search for the missing Quinlan, and the weirdo motives for her disappearance, make for a final act that strains credulity--but again, those B-actors (and I mean that as a compliment) know what to do with extreme material: let it be and ride--which Kurt, who's always looked like a surfer, is particularly good at (he's the only reason to watch Grindhouse), and he and his co-stars stick with the plot and deliver a popcorn-good time.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Umberto D. (1952)

My grandfather was a quiet man, a tidy little fellow who sat on his front porch on Mifflin St. in South Philadelphia, his vest and shirt buttoned to the top, his chin pointing the way with certainty--and everyone on his block knew they could trust him. And while Grandpop saw through most people, he maintained his own Sicilian counsel; you might guess his approval or displeasure by a shift in the temperature of his look, but that was about all--and often just about enough. While he lived, he worked; and while he knew what was wrong with the world, he let it alone as much as he could.

The little old man in Umberto D. wanders around in my head together with my grandfather, little men passed by, but trying to keep their shirts buttoned--except Umberto is losing everything--home and dignity both torn up beneath his very feet. All he has is Fike, his little dog--"a mutt with intelligent eyes," as he puts it, the two of them children--even younger, it seems, than the pregnant girl he befriends, and whose little round face is often wet with tears. It is a sad world they live in, with a slow approach to the big finish--Umberto deciding to End It All, having kept his own counsel for so long only Fike knows.

The director, Vittorio de Sica, was very good at balancing a commitment to observe life unadorned and a desire to sympathize with those who led the lives he asked us to watch. This balancing act lies at the heart of the Italian neorealists, who wanted so badly to record life--but after all, they themselves lived in Italy, and so could never entirely stop hearing an opera playing softly but insistently in the background, encouraging them to find grandeur in the everyday. Umberto D. so easily reminded me of my grandfather not only because of the little man and the Italian words, but because of de Sica's understanding that we all hear that music rising in our lives, making them more than points on a line, but notes on a staff.

This post is adapted from an entry of The Constant Viewer. (Maybe more xeroxed than "adapted.")

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mon oncle (1958)

Father's Day is over, and I was having too much fun to write--so I guess it makes sense that for a (post-)Father's Day Pick of the Moment I should choose a film that sidesteps fathers in favor of an uncle. Jacques Tati's Mon oncle features every child's dream relative: an indulgent uncle who remembers what it means to be a child--if only because in many ways he remains one. In three pictures, Tati molds his own version of Chaplin's Little Tramp: M. Hulot, tall and quiet, a solemn stork in a trench coat who seems always to be leaning in a slight breeze, his hat still firm but his pipe a bit off-center in his mouth, while his umbrella stays tucked under his arm, safe from stray winds. He lives in a corner of Paris that may exist only in his mind, where the year is inexact and beautifully pale and streaked, an old photograph one can live in.

Hulot's Paris fits him, this silent-movie character otherwise stuck in The Paris of Tomorrow, screeching gadgets in a house as bright and flat and cold as poured concrete and plastic. His sister and husband see life from the comfort of an Eames chair--except without the comfort. And Hulot flees from this as quickly as he can, taking with him his young nephew, who can't wait to climb over the low crumbling wall with his oncle to get to the Old Paris, where scruffy bushes and ramshackle houses sit in soft dust, while the noisy neighbors argue without rancor.

There's a nice bit at chez Hulot: He swings open his window, hears a bird burst into song; he swings the window in and hears the twitter abruptly end; opens it again, hears the song--and notices that his open window reflects the sun onto a bird in a cage. He leaves it open so that the overjoyed little fellow can make his noise. It seems an image of Hulot himself, in a small world getting smaller--a cage he does not notice, except when he travels to his well-to-do suburbanite relatives and sees with some concern that they, too, are trapped, by their own excess.

But Hulot still has a little time left, a small corner where he can jaunt along, part owl, part stork--a bird himself. Tati has lovingly crafted a fantasy-memory, a Paris any child (or I) could live in right now, as long as it holds the real world at bay, umbrella raised like a sword, pipe jutting in half-smiling defiance.

By the way, the other full-length Hulot films are M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and his masterpiece, Playtime (1967)--both also available on Instant Play. And the French animator, Sylvain Chomet, who directed 2003's The Triplets of Belleville (not on Instant Play, but available through Netflix), this year is releasing The Illusionist, based on an unproduced Tati script. It is gaining attention because of its autobiographical nature--but whether or not you know the inside story, it's sure to be another welcome addition to both Chomet's and Tati's bodies of work.

(NOTE: This post is adapted from a diary entry in The Constant Viewer. Just keepin' me honest.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Odd Man Out (1947)

Carol Reed's Odd Man Out is the first in a trifecta followed by The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949) (the last is also available on Instant Play). But the closest comparison I can make to Odd Man Out is John Ford's The Informer (1935) (not on Instant Play, but worth putting on your Queue)--although the Ford picture has an inverse plot: While Ford's Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen in a justly deserved Oscar-winning performance; Ford also won for Best Director) is forced to play Judas as he wanders drunkenly through his own Nighttown, all fog and sold souls, Reed's film follows an IRA-styled nationalist (James Mason) who wanders what must be Belfast after being shot during a robbery. However, even though Mason's Johnny McQueen is a staunch martyr, he too falls into the same surreal mist as McLaglen's, slowly dying in a city that also eventually turns its face from him.

Another strange echo of Odd Man Out can be heard in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), with Johnny Depp's wounded accountant, Bill Blake, making his way through a different wilderness, absurd and indistinct in its meaning. Reed's picture, though, works not so much as existential philosophy ("not that there's anything wrong with that") as it does a eulogy for Johnny McQueen's efforts to remain a code hero--the man of his word surrounded by liars. It's a weird noir--although that seems a bit redundant: all noirs are weird. Still, Odd Man Out wants to open not only Johnny McQueen's soul but Northern Ireland's wounds, viewed as stigmata, signs of loss and promise. I'll leave it up to you to decide if we're left more with loss or promise--but don't expect a neat answer from Reed; as in his following two pictures, Odd Man Out observes closely, but in the end keeps its own counsel.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hollywoodland (2006)

Hollywoodland insists we remember the original wording on that big sign we all know, thirteen poison letters that, as Kennth Anger mythologizes in Hollywood Babylon, had to be shortened because frail things like Peg Entwistle had jinxed the sign by using it to commit suicide. (On a side note, Entwistle died shortly after making a film entitled Thirteen Women.)

This lingering aura of violent loss surrounds Hollywoodland, as it seeks answers to fatal questions about faded fame and un-kept promises. George Reeves, who played Superman on TV in the 1950s, dies from a gunshot wound, and an obscuring mist quickly settles in, despite the best efforts of Adrian Brody's sad private eye, Louis Simo, who is suffering his own losses as a divorced father. The film shifts between Simo's efforts to discover whether Reeves had been murdered and Reeves' own life as an aspiring actor and unhappily famous TV star. While the Reeves scenes have more punch to them, Simo's slow walk down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams serves as a telling counterpoint. We are not surprised that his investigation, like Reeves' life, seems to go nowhere.

One of the lasting pleasures of Hollywoodland is the cast. As always, Brody is a perfect nervous schlub, a guy who splutters and stumbles, pitching forward into the plot like a silent film comedian; imagine Buster Keaton in a film noir. As studio head Eddie Mannix, Bob Hoskins' American accent once more satisfies, and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix--cheating on Eddie with Reeves--is given the fullest opportunity yet to channel her inner Gloria Grahame. And the film's first-time director, Allen Coulter, had previously helmed a dozen Sopranos episodes, so he was ready for a tale of duplicity and brutal anxiety.

But special notice must be made of Ben Affleck's George Reeves. I'm not sure why we're supposed to laugh at Affleck--all right, some will sneer, "Gigli," but a deeper resentment seems at work here. The "Bennifer" crap is a manufactured response to an imagined affront--or maybe a real one: Sometimes I suspect that one night Affleck simply flipped off the wrong paparazzo. The good news is that, after three years of this nonsense, he gathers all the sheepish grins and burning resentments, puzzled grins and you-got-me shrugs, and carefully portions them out in his portrayal of George Reeves, sliced up and served as a turkey sandwich at Musso and Frank's, just another story to tell while waiting for the bill. I don't know if Hollywoodland is the best movie about that town, but it may be the saddest.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Anytown, U.S.A. (2005)

This documentary about a mayoral election in Bogota (rhymes with "Vigoda"), New Jersey--a town a local police officer describes as a cross between Norman Rockwell and the Bronx--begins with Tip O'Neil's famous pronouncement, "All politics are local." Director Kristian Fraga revitalizes the old bromide by immersing you so deeply into Bogota's teapot-tempest that by the end you'll want to move there just to register to vote.

While the issues seem small and the arguments personal--and they certainly are, sometimes embarrassingly so (extending to two of the candidates’ legal blindness--and it’s not your fault if you notice the irony)--Fraga maintains a wry sense of proportion that neither enshrines nor trivializes the contest; in fact, the film watches the campaigns very carefully, allowing us to draw comparisons to not only our own local elections but the Big Show of national politics.

And Anytown U.S.A. never forgets Tip O'Neil's observation: Throughout the course of the film we are privy to every petty squabble and knock-down-drag-out, and attention is paid to all the candidates, so that our allegiances swing from one to the next as their personalities and aspirations impose themselves on us. By the end, we have a clearer understanding of the kinds of decisions we make when we vote, the almost-whims that can swing us from one candidate to the other--and the deep-seated loyalties that can blind us to the "truth"--and those quotation marks, this documentary teaches us, must never be forgotten, as we involve ourselves in a (democratic) process that is not only local but always personal.

By turns satiric and sentimental, ironic and intimate, Anytown, U.S.A. neither takes itself too seriously nor condescends to its subject. Add it to the short list--including Primary (1960) and The War Room --of great film records of the fickle heart of democracy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

High and Low (1963)

A movie like Akira Kurosawa's High and Low makes me yearn for a pre-home-video world, where you'd go out and see a movie like this with friends, then sit around all night talking about it. Still, in those days one had to depend on the luck of geography and circumstance to make that happen--and besides, this is a site devoted to instant access, immediate opportunity.

So get some friends together to watch High and Low--the more (post-viewing) talkative, the better.

In some ways, High and Low is Kurosawa's most "Shakespearean" film--even though he himself directed versions of Shakespeare plays: Macbeth in Throne of Blood, King Lear in Ran. But with High and Low (based on a crime novel by Ed McBain), Kurosawa follows the Shakespearean urge to explore the fullest range possible of human relationships within a single narrative. Kurosawa's film gladly accepts the burden of a dual plot and a host of characters to achieve this goal, and the result is a complex interweaving of the personal and the public, the idiosyncratic and the civic. Part exploration of class, part exposé of business, part police procedural, part family drama, part test of friendship--one could go on; suffice it to say that High and Low's title should tip you off that Kurosawa is shooting wide.

And speaking of shooting, this is also a gorgeous picture to look at, its black-and-white world belying the complexities of its characters' motives and trajectories. While Kurosawa shines in his "epics"--swords and flames, alarums and excursions for everyone--he also made a number of pictures that adapt the epic to living rooms and boardrooms, offices and back yards. With Ikiru--which I'll get to one of these days on this site--High and Low exemplifies Kurosawa's ability to see the struggle for heroism as everyone's challenge.

And by the way, make sure to watch this while the watchin's good: it seems that Mike Nichols is remaking it, with a David Mamet screenplay, so it may be pretty good--but I think you should first have Kurosawa in your head.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Before Zazie dans le métro, before Lacombe, Lucien--and way before Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, Louis Malle directed a hardboiled existential thriller, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, that manages to be exciting and loaded with ennui at the same time.

An executive loves his boss's wife, kills the boss, tries to beat a hasty retreat--but is stuck in the elevator. Down at street level, a French James Dean and his girlfriend steal the murderer's car and get into their own trouble--for which the murderer is blamed. All the while, the luminescent Jeanne Moreau, like some beautiful deep-sea creature, drifts through Paris at night, her inner monologue of love and despair counter-pointing the panic and casual brutality of the main plot.

Or is there a main plot? The above speaks only to the bare skeleton of this layered picture. Consider the background of the killer: ex-Legionnaire, paratrooper in Indochina and Algiers, a real cold-blooded customer for the dirty work of a confused empire. And the joy-riding punk and his girlfriend, at once amoral and touching. And of course Moreau herself, commanding the picture just by wandering around, the archetype of the French lover who knows that love and death make their own dark tryst.

Malle handles all of this not without a little misstep--or maybe sidestep--here and there, but the plot(s) is/are so strange and claustrophobic, the mistakes so fatal, the acting so cool and loose--or cool and tightly wound, depending on what's up in their what-next world--that all is forgiven, and Malle leaves us with a movie that stays in one's mind like all the great images of the French New Wave: washed in rain, alternating between hope, acceptance and despair, and intercut with dark and light like those faces in Ezra Pound's station of the Metro, "Petals on a wet, black bough."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Matinee (1993)

There's a certain kind of cinema that's all about anticipation. The movie itself (usually with the word "attack" or "terror" or "wild" in the title) is less than memorable--unless you saw it when you were under, say, 14 years old or so; the build-up was everything. The Coming Attraction, the poster, the schoolyard speculations and rumors--all these gave you more than your money's worth. At the heart of the movies is the joy of imagining what you will see, then re-imagining what you have.

Joe Dante understands this just about as much as anybody. Since Piranha back in 1978, most of his horror films have been in large part homages to/parodies of the genre, filled with references to classic B pictures, the sendups always affectionate. In 1993, he finally received the chance to bring this tendency to the forefront with Matinee, courtesy of a William Castle/Roger Corman/Samuel Z. Arkoff-style director/producer, Lawrence Woolsey, who finds himself debuting his latest feature, Mant ("Half man, half ant, all terror!"), during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Nuclear annihilation was never so much fun, not even in Dr. Strangelove.

Everyone who loves this movie remembers the salient features:

1. Woolsey's picture, the above-mentioned Mant, scenes from which Dante presents in loving, laughable detail.

2. John Goodman as Woolsey, in a performance that I still hear echoes of in everything fine he's since done.

3. Cathy Moriarty as his jaded but patient companion. If she'd handled Jake LaMotta this way in Raging Bull, he wouldn't have dared to lay a finger on her.

Dante gets just about everything right, from the achingly bad "family musical" the mother would rather the young protagonist see than all that horror stuff, to the joyful chaos of a Saturday matinee. I have mixed feelings about the finale--although, to tell you the truth, the details are a bit fuzzy: I haven't seen this picture in a while, since its availability has been woefully spotty. But it remains in my memory as a re-imagined masterpiece--so much so that I know another viewing will not entirely diminish its charms.

I'm keeping it safe in my Instant Play Queue for this weekend--and you should, too. It's not available through Netflix on disk, but it's ready and willing to watch now, as real as the gimmicks Woolsey uses to keep 'em in--and jumping out of--their seats.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Trucker (2008)

I'd like to begin this Pick of the Moment for Trucker by quoting Roger Ebert, at whose Ebertfest I first saw this film:
"There's one of those perfect moments in Trucker when I'm thinking, This is the moment to end! Now! Fade to black! And the movie ends. It is the last of many absolutely right decisions by the first-time writer-director James Mottern, who began by casting two actors who bring his story to strong emotional life. Both of them show they're gifted and intelligent artists who only needed, as so many do in these discouraging times, a chance to reveal their deep talents."
When I read that first paragraph, I knew I was going to see something special. What Roger (and I'm sorry for the namedropping, but between his blogging and tweeting and clubhouse-ing, he encourages that kind of thing) was promising was a perfect movie--and that does not necessarily mean one for the ages, Top Ten topper, King of the Canon; no, simply one that knows what it wants to do, and makes "absolutely right decisions" to do it.

Trucker is that kind of perfect movie. The actors Roger refers to are Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Gone Baby Gone, Eagle Eye) and then-twelve-year-old Jimmy Bennett (young Kirk last year, one of the sons in Evan Almighty); and they never misstep, never go for the easy flourish that would make their characters more recognizable as types--and so less interesting as characters going somewhere. Monaghan is the titular trucker, Diane, who has no time--and less emotional energy--for her son, who lives with his father and knows exactly what she is: as he puts it, a bitch. But her husband (Benjamin Bratt, pitch-perfect, from the soft accent he rolls around--like a sad Woody Harrelson--to his sickbed posture--not strong, but still smiling a little for his son's sake) has cancer, and she's forced to take in her son.

You can predict where this is going, but plot surprises do not matter here. Instead, Trucker wants to bring life to a familiar plot, and the actors take control of this urge and never overreach. I was especially happy to see Nathan Fillion (fellow nerds don't need to be reminded he was the charming Capt. Reynolds on the coolest SF TV show just about ever, dude, Firefly) as Runner, Diane's almost-boyfriend. Casting the low-key, self-effacing--but also pretty-boy charming--Fillion is yet another perfect decision by Mottern: We want Diane to choose Runner, but he's married, and there's enough hesitation on both sides to make for another movie. But Trucker is more than a character study, because Mottern wants his plot to matter--and he wants us to care about what's happening--and so character, performance, plot and direction need to work together. Mottern pulls this off, and effortlessly. I haven't seen such a satisfying film in a long time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ugetsu [monogatari] (1953)

Ugetsu is Kenji Mizoguchi's retelling of Akinari Ueda's "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain"--a title both stilted and beautiful, like the film's Lady Wakasa, lovely as only an Asian ghost can be, hiding in the woods like a fawn, but still the doom of anyone who gets too close.

Two simple but ambitious men--one a potter who pursues wealth, the other a would-be samurai who seeks glory--endanger their families for the sake of their desires, while ghosts possess and spirits soothe, until ambition is humbled beneath the Buddha’s yearning for a middle path of compassion amidst suffering.

The men in Ugetsu who seek fortune and glory are indeed successful, but of course at a bitter price, paid in a dreamlike marketplace, where Genjuro's babble of commerce is hushed by a beautiful, gliding ghost; and on the battlefield, where the clatter of warfare delivers a general's head to an accidental samurai, Tobei. Their gains and losses, captured by a mist-shrouded camera, provide an illustration of the calm insistence that one must enter another's suffering to end one's own--as well as the other's.

Mizoguchi devotes the middle portion of his film to Genjuro's possession by Lady Wakasa. She is many things, not the least of which is respite from the storms of ambition--as well as its prize: a beautiful, Geisha-like patroness who murmurs love over both Genjuro and his blue-tinged pottery. It is an essay on beauty, love, and delusion. And then Mizoguchi draws us down to the core, as he lingers on the child in the story, Genichi, and the women who suffer, Miyagi and Ohama, whose fates are mirrored by the tale of Lady Wakasa, abandoned as her noble house fell, lost like Miyagi and fallen like Ohama. The challenge is for all of them to accept their true need--to show compassion and thus to love and be loved.

In the West, we had to invent something called "Magic Realism" to introduce the natural and the supernatural to each other so that they could get along and build stories together. Ugetsu reminds us that others have long made room for both, ghosts and potters comfortable with each other, at least for the sake of the story.


NOTE: As I've done before, this is adapted from something I wrote for The Constant Viewer. Just keeping me honest.

Eraserhead (1976)/Carnival of Souls (1962)

It's difficult to write about Eraserhead or Carnival of Souls, particularly out here on the interwebs, because every midnight-movie geek on the planet has been there--and yes, done that. But not only did I want to point out that these movies are now on Instant Play, but I think they work well as a double bill.

Although David Lynch certainly went places--as strange as they may be--since his "student film," Eraserhead, while Herk Harvey, the director of Carnival of Souls, returned to educational films (It's fitting that Harvey's next credit after Carnival of Souls is Pork: The Meal with a Squeal; sounds like a Lynch short), each of them followed his vision all the way, and produced, as the tagline for Eraserhead puts it, "dreams of dark and troubling things."

And what are these dreams? Both pictures confront mortality, our resistance to having to grow up only to die. I must confess, the older I get, the scarier Eraserhead seems, a horror-film metaphor for meet-the-parents anxiety, as well as the uncertainties of one's own parenthood, the loss of youth and the regrets of missed opportunity, the yearning for both a return to innocence and an immersion in experience--and in the end the suspicion that none of this is within our control--like that most frightening of clichés: "Trapped in a world they never made!" Lynch hand-crafts an alternate universe, expressionistic and nauseating in its Freudian observation of instinctual urges beaten down by by neurotic hesitation/guilt, an aural-visual "happening" that denies all 1960s promises of freedom and rubs our noses in '70s malaise.

Now there's a ringing endorsement. Enjoy Your Feature Presentation!

But don't get me wrong: While Eraserhead may be a movie you will want to see only once, it has its own "dark and troubling" beauty; after all, Lynch and his cohorts spent more than four years building it, moment by moment, and it shows. The miniatures, the practical/special effects, the sets, the lighting--and above all the rich black and white cinematography: all these things combine simply to serve the film. There is nothing that doesn't belong here, no decorative elements, no lookit-me fireworks.

And in the end, Eraserhead may just be serving a Higher Purpose after all--this is when you may roll your eyes; but despite all its gory goo, its permeating sense of dread, the picture moves toward reconciliation with its horrors, even a kind of apotheosis--OK, I will not go so far as to assert it's an elevating experience--oh, why not: For me it is, as "surly bonds" are broken and Henry finds himself in--here it comes--Heaven. There is an irony here, of course (as the Woman in the Radiator sings, "In Heaven everything is fine"), but in the end I think the movie respects Henry's desires, and wishes it could help him. It's usually at a point like this that I bring up Pinocchio, as important in its own way as Citizen Kane in its examination of the desire to "become" something. There is a real Blue Fairy mood in the final scenes of Eraserhead, one that the movies, especially American ones, find hard to resist. It's possible that Henry becomes a real boy--which removes him from the muck-n-mire the rest of us share.

Speaking of muck: Enter Carnival of Souls, another Gothic parable, set in a bleak, salt-flat middle of nowhere. But what matters most is the almost entirely internalized geography it spreads before us, the shadowland of its protagonist's mind. Mary Henry goes for a joyride that ends badly--and from the moment of her coolly observed emergence from the water into which the car had plunged, as she steps along a little spit of sand, Mary slips away, closer to the pallid face and pale invitation of the Other Side. She refuses to die, to admit she’s not so much being pursued by ghosts as reclaimed by them. A church organist without faith, she fades (as do the sounds and human contact of the world around her), fluttering like a small bird held in soft, cold hands.

At the center of the movie is Mary's dance with/of the dead, which has a surprising resonance--an almost cruelly impartial observation of a nightmare, with its matter-of-fact slow decline, its relentless delivery of Mary into the hands of those pale revelers. It begins with the simple fact of universal mortality, and refuses to provide any reprieve.

And, like Eraserhead, it is beautifully directed, its sound editing, lighting and camera placement perfect. It looks exactly the way it needs to, and manages to overcome its budgetary weaknesses simply by staring at its subject without blinking. As the dead rise from the black water, or dance in delirious speed--and as Mary flees under the dark skies and shadowed streets, as the camera looks over, down and up, always holding just long enough to see, but not to break the mood, Carnival of Souls joins Eraserhead on the short list of films that move like dreams. Its very detachment becomes an invitation to the danse macabre, and its meager resources force us into the narrow passage Harvey demands we follow, back to the car wreck, the spit of sand, and the thing we've known all along, but had to be told--because we want it so little: that Mary needs to go the way of all flesh. It is a movie that, like Thomas Gray's poetry, tells me to see the world as a graveyard, and ultimately is not so much cruel as clear in that vision; in the end, almost with kindness, it "leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

While these may not be the happiest of movies, their complementary look and mood invite not only comparison but double-billing. So be brave, hold someone's hand, and walk through--as they say on Futurama--The Scary Door.


NOTE: The section on Carnival of Souls is adapted--all right, copied--from a piece I wrote for my other blog, The Constant Viewer. If you must steal, steal from yourself. You will have a tendency not to press charges.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tender Mercies (1983)

Even as a little filigree along the frame of a movie, Robert Duvall satisfies. When he shows up as Karl's father in Sling Blade I immediately settled in, certain he was going to do something worth remembering--and it was, the mumbling, cornered vermin he evoked as expertly crafted as his crotch-grabbing, napalm-smelling Col. Kilgore (the name alone like some minor villain out of Dickens), his few minutes on screen still as quotable as Here's-looking-at-you-kid.

In a starring role he can be almost overwhelming. Even in something as "easy" as Secondhand Lions--the ease coming not only from the sentimental script but his costars--given enough space, Duvall takes over--no, that's not right; he's too generous to dominate. OK, he rises to the occasion, all the way to the brim. The scene at the bar with the punks in Secondhand Lions is ready-made--Eastwood would've had fun with it--but Duvall brings an extra touch of weariness to the moment, his paunch sticking out as he once more faces a foolish world. Showy, but irresistible.

You are now duly warned: A Duvall leading role can take a lot out of you. It appears he knows this in Tender Mercies, so instead goes for our weak flank: We do not get what we expect. His washed-up C&W performer, Mac Sledge, is almost not even there. He slips in the back door--like the Very Old Man with Enormous Wings in Gabriel García Márquez's "Tale for Children"; but he does not arrive to irritate and confound. Sledge wants merely to disappear with some dignity, but this decidedly quiet movie won't let him fade away. Instead, he is given the opportunity to take a few small, monumental steps back toward others. Tess Harper as Rosa Lee (and Ellen Barkin in the role that made me love her forever) joins Duvall in this world waiting to begin; the ending, which seems so inconsequential, becomes for me one of the most moving final sequences in film, a dry Texas coda that makes a small but essential promise to Mac and his family.

I suppose when it comes to memorable Duvall performances nothing can match Sonny in The Apostle (1997). But that was Duvall's picture all the way--as star, director and writer--and he gave it everything he always wanted to give us. In Tender Mercies, he serves Bruce Beresford and Horton Foote--but Beresford knows what to do with Duvall and Harper: While we lose Sonny's terrier yelps and help-me-Jesus stares, Tender Mercies gives us Whispering Bobby, his head down, ready to keep taking it if he has to, but hoping for a little something more.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Crimson Rivers/Les rivière pourpres (2000)

I recall Tom Hanks on a talk show plugging The Da Vinci Code and being appropriately geeky over the fact that he not only got to see the Mona Lisa after hours, but that Jean Reno was with him.

Is Reno the coolest man in movies? Faithful Reno-philes will simply murmur Ronin, and close the case. But how often can you watch Ronin? (Don't tell me; my own number is embarrassingly high.) So, if you want all-Reno, all the time, turn to The Crimson Rivers, a twisty-curvy mondo-weirdo thriller that sends Reno--and aint-he-also-cool Vincent Cassel--clambering around the French Alps in search of a--well, I won't spoil it for you, even though the movie itself does some of that for us: Its plot is a bit untidy, its ending a little off-center.

But who cares? Reno and Cassel are fun to watch, the Alps look great--and the murders are satisfyingly Se7en-ish. Besides, do you really want to get your Reno-fix by watching Godzilla again? (All right, a cheap shot: I actually like that one, especially when Reno spits out the "French" roast coffee.)

This Sporting Life (1963)

David Storey adapts his angry-young-man novel This Sporting Life, with Richard Harris as Frank Machin, the rugby Raging Bull whose only desire is to satisfy himself--but he doesn't know what he wants, so he simply digs in (always at his sport, like De Niro's Jake LaMotta) and crushes anything in his way--including his almost-love, played by Rachel Roberts (so good a few years earlier opposite Albert Finney in another angry-young-man drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)--and Roberts, like Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, is well-suited to keeping up with her growling, all-but-remorseless costar.

The film has grittiness to spare--the rugby scenes are muddy and brutal, as though the viewer were in the pileup--and the requisite sense of mute anguish (and not-so-mute: What would a Richard Harris movie be without sudden outbursts?) provides a long hard look at the heart of tragedy: Choice is a limited resource--every choice means one less--until only one remains, and that one is doom. Here, it's the rugby field, where Machin pushes like Sisyphus against his rock, getting nowhere.

I'm struck by how often I'm attracted by movies that remind me of King Kong, the "great ape" (Machin is called this at one point) that swipes at every obstacle, rages against what it hopes is the Other but that ends up being the Self. And as awful as such monsters are, they break my heart, like Jake LaMotta in his jail cell, insisting against all evidence to the contrary that he's not that bad.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Disclaimer: I'm a fool for the Coen brothers, so this isn't a "review"--I mean, I like The Hudsucker Proxy.

The Man Who Wasn't There is one of the Coen brothers' period pieces--like almost half their films--and they work hard to reproduce the essence of film noir: claustrophobic immobility in the face of a random disaster that is spurred by one reckless act. (I think that covers it.) In fact, the mood hones so closely to the quiet desperation of noir, and the details of its late-'40s milieu are so closely observed that, like The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn't There threatens to become parody. But, like their more recent A Serious Man, an air of detachment rescues the film from self-conscious homage/pastiche.

As so often, the Coens are very lucky/smart in their casting. Billy Bob Thornton's granite-faced barber strikes just the right note of ambiguity: he is a victim but also a perpetrator, wronged but also perilously wrong. Not since Sling Blade--OK, maybe Friday Night Lights--has Thornton delivered such a controlled performance. (And kudos to the Brothers for recognizing the Boris Karloff who hides behind Thornton's face, the sad monster you both pity and scorn.) As for the rest of the cast: I'll let you discover the pleasures of their performances, everyone infected with Coen-commitment, as though they'd been rehearsing for these roles for a long time.

Yes, it's an unhappy movie moving haltingly about in a dim and uncertain space--the flying saucer scene remains one of the Coens' great elusive (allusive?) moments. But, if you want to see what may be the best adaptation of an imaginary James M. Cain novel, The Man Who Wasn't There should be--there, that is, in your Instant Play Queue.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, and Asta (the Wonder Dog from the Thin Man series--plus Bringing Up Baby): The cast alone makes this worth watching--and they're all young and fresh-faced--even mopey Bellamy, only in the picture (as he is so often) to help the plot go from boy-loses to boy-gets-girl.

Grant will fast-talk and caper like this in other pictures, most notably with Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell; but in The Awful Truth he's up against Irene Dunne--and he'd better not be fooled by the good breeding and calm demeanor. Dunne's Lucy Warriner knows how to counter-punch, and the two of them play out this thwarted-divorce version of a screwball comedy with nimble, even athletic moves. The bit with the hat and the dog, and Dunne's pretending to be Grant's sister, and the business with the door in the cabin at the end--little of it makes sense, but all of it works, one snappy moment after another.

Watching these late-'30s-early-'40s comedies, I forgive myself--and them--if the plots and characters run together in my mind. I think they're meant to, if only because the term "formulaic comedy" is a little redundant: Half the pleasure of comedy is repetition, the familiar pattern realized--and, in the best of them, re-imagined--while the performers heroically run themselves ragged in the attempt to keep things fresh. Nothing is more fun than watching great comic actors like Dunne/Grant/Bellamy trying to out-think their own material, and that's all we need to know about The Awful Truth.


(See The Awful Truth at Netflix HERE.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Not One Less (1999)

Yimou Zhang, the director of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers, turns from cold opulence and bamboo wire-fu spectacle to make this teacher’s favorite movie about teaching, Not One Less (1999). A small rural school keeps losing students to work opportunities and sports recruiters. Teacher Gao is leaving for a time, and he instructs his thirteen-year-old substitute not to lose any more—not one less.

Of course, that is exactly what happens, and young Wei must travel to the city to fetch her wayward charge. Raising the money to do so provides her students with a living arithmetic problem—how many bricks does the class have to move to buy a bus ticket?—and a chance to literally broadcast their concerns to urban China.

While the film’s semi-documentary feel and use of amateurs lend charm, the ending—which directly addresses the audience via title cards that document the plight of rural education in China—has struck some as heavy-handed. But by the time we get to this PSA, Zhang has earned our attention: the Bicycle Thieves-like wandering in the city, searching for the lost child, is as touching as the growing solidarity of Wei’s class. She becomes a teacher, they become students. It’s as simple as the performances, and as profound as any of life’s milestones. I particularly appreciated the movie’s willingness to expose Mei’s weaknesses—and its brave assertion that our hearts should not be embarrassed to feel the rush of pity and hope.


Find Not One Less at Netflix here.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

It's interesting to note that more than one film combines the Spanish Civil War with the secret life of children--as though the War itself were a child's game, played in the woods without parents to oversee, interfere, or protect; someone could get hurt. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) comes easily to mind, but so does another Guillermo del Toro picture, The Devil's Backbone (2001).

I don't know enough about Spanish cinema to explore this too far--but The Spirit of the Beehive seems far enough. At its core is the experience of movie going--the child's experience of seeing James Whale's Frankenstein--and if you're lucky you recall how mysterious the movies could be in your partial understanding, how dim but lasting in your memory. The film itself is beautiful to look at--or at least beautifully atmospheric--in the service of the attempt to film experience as memory. At times it reminded me of René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952), about France and World War II, as seen from down there among the table legs, the orphan and her temporary brother assembling the pet cemetery in the barn.

The Spirit of the Beehive has its barn as well; this one, though, seems something else than a memorial. Maybe a doorway of sorts--perhaps to adulthood, but certainly one of many portals leading to a miniature Gothic, an expanding place of secrets. As G. M. Hopkins says to the little girl, Margaret, in his poem "Spring and Fall," "What heart heard of, ghost guessed." Holy Ghost for him, I think; but in The Spirit of the Beehive, I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Inland Empire (2006)

In the conclusion of his Message on his website, The David Lynch Foundation, David tells us,
Thank you very much for your interest. And please remember that Consciousness-Based education is not a luxury. For our children who are growing up in a stressful, often frightening, crisis-ridden world, it is a necessity.
Of course, Lynch is intimately familiar with this world: He filmed much of its salient features in Inland Empire, with Laura Dern as his Lewis & Clark/Klaus Kinski, the two of them stepping into the deep woods with a small light, so that the image is grainy and smeared, fraught with anxiety and imminent horror.

Inland Empire is another Lynch film that shows you what happens when you don't meditate--or maybe when you do, "diving within"--too far, breaking on through to the other side, turning so quickly as you stand before the mirror that you see the back of your head--and there is a wound there, an opening you'd never noticed, and nothing seeps out--oh no, you seep in.

I have nothing definite to say about this film; some will assure you it has a plot, it reveals a pattern, it makes sense, if you squint just so. I can't go that far. But I will say it works for me as a perfect Instant Play movie, each scene searchable, so that they stand alone as small experiments in tonal narrative and sonic atmosphere, not so much a movie as an exhibition, a long look inside. I had to take it off my Queue; it kept calling to me, like The Fly, in a high-pitched voice filled with terror and entreaty, drawing me--the opposite of silencio, so important in Mulholland Dr., here abandoned. At the end, everyone gets together to dance and sing, Nina Simone hysteria yelping undulations up to God--Who comes into the room in flashes, illuminating Laura's smiling face.

Monday, March 29, 2010

For All Mankind (1989)

John F. Kennedy certainly understood Frederick Jackson Turner, whose "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" famously concludes,
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance ... and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted ... . The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom ... . Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. and ... the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. ... And now, ... the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
Kennedy, however, wanted no part of a closed frontier, at his inauguration announcing, "We stand on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space ..." A little later in the decade Capt. Kirk called it the "final" one--"a new sea," as Kennedy put it--words Al Reinart uses to open and close his impressionistic documentary of the Apollo missions--"because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all mankind."

For All Mankind knows that space is not only a frontier but, as the re-release posters for 2001 announced, "the ultimate trip": Renart's film looks on silently as some of the most amazing things occur, and listens carefully to every sappy/sentimental/transcendent word the Apollo astronauts had to say. The images are at once familiar and re-imagined--as a shared experience, a "restless, nervous energy" that is much of what Turner had to say, and more: humbled in the face of silent travel at 25,000 miles an hour, the Moon in the little window looking back in, the sight of the lunar lander as the astronauts rover back, the knowledge that the Earth is "this thing out here ... that's alive."

Reinart splices together the various missions, leaving us with an idea--or at least a feeling--but not history, exactly. Or maybe the distilled moonshine of history, crystal clear in a mason jar, a warm kick under cold stars.