Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Leaves of Grass (2009)

To call Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass a "serio-comedy" touches only the surface of a seriously funny movie. It asks Big Questions from diametrically opposed positions--passionate/impulsive and rational/controlled--and accepts the merits of both sides, resulting in what might be a third view--and I won't bore you with my vague conclusions. Instead, let me point out one of the movie's great treats: two Edward Nortons, the actor playing twins--both geniuses, one a philosophy prof, the other a hydroponic pot-growing wizard. Their lives collide following the prof's self-imposed estrangement from his family--including Susan Sarandon doing what she does so well: playing crazy, just enough to keep her distance from the real world while understanding it all too well. His rocky (and that's putting it mildly) road home makes for what can only be described as a screwball tragedy--maybe.

The writer-director behind this bifurcated plan is Tim Blake Nelson, a pitch-perfect character actor--as Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, delivering one of the great lines of the movies: "Them syreens did this to Pete. They loved him up and turned him into a horny toad"; and the enigmatically pleasant Gideon in Minority Report--among other welcome appearances. We even have the treat of his turn as Bolger, the pot-dealing twin's partner, drawing out his Oklahoma accent like a nice fishing-rod he'd like to show you--got it when he was a boy and it's still in good shape. Nelson is a gifted artist, and his direction matches the swerving tone of Leaves of Grass step by reckless step.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

This Is England (2006)

Who remembers the Falklands War? They're small islands off the coast of Argentina; both Argentina and the U.K. claimed them. The Argentinians occupied them in April 1982, and about two months later the conflict was over, with the U.K. maintaining control, more or less.

The victory made Margaret Thatcher popular, but left some scars on both sides. The 2006 movie This Is England offers one boy's story--his father among the few hundred soldiers who died in the conflict, leaving the boy to navigate grief and adolescence while the punks and rude boys made way for the new skinheads who loved being white more than they did the saving sounds of Toots and Maytals and turned every town into a Ghost Town. The movie charts Shaun's sweet and sad, sometimes harrowing attempts to find his father in the New England that the hard 1980s built.

Thomas Turgoose as Shaun is as natural an actor as you could hope for. His early good times with his new, older mates--still playing in the fields, giving Shaun a sense of home, young skins and their pretty girls all the brothers and sisters he needs--are an idyll he certainly deserves, as temporary as it may be.

But an old friend of Shaun's new circle returns from prison, his head still shaved but his mind cleaned out, leaving nothing except the half-understood--but full-blown committed--politics of hatred. And sadly, Shaun finds a home here, too, and the film becomes a near-nightmare. Loss and hate and hard times is too strong a mix for Shaun, and he's left with only himself to decide what he's going to become.

Don't get me wrong: The early sequence is actually heartwarming, propelled by music and, as The Beatles put it, "that magic feeling--nowhere to go." And this makes the shift downward even more jarring: We want Shaun to mend with his friends. But he has a hard road ahead, and This Is England makes him travel far--almost like Francois Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in The 400 Blows, in that both boys are cut loose, and run to the sea. I'll let you decide what Shaun finds there.
Live Clash, "This Is England": "I got my motorcycle jacket / But I'm walking all the time."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mesrine, Part 1: Killer Instinct (2008)

Jean-François Richet—who directed the tight, tough 2005 remake/re-imagining of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13—presents a big two-part film about Jacques Mesrine, a notorious French criminal (think Dillinger crossed with Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas) whose exploits (at least in this first part) span much of the globe, from Algeria in the late 1950s to France to Quebec to Arizona—then back again. Along the way, he robs, tortures, kidnaps, murders, goes to prison, gets out, abuses his wife, loves her (and others), all the while inventing himself as a celebrity/political radical, prison reformer (with automatic weapons), and Gallic Clyde Barrow. Vincent Cassel—always good, particularly in Brotherhood of the Wolf and The Crimson Rivers (in which he manages to be as cool as Jean Reno, and that's saying something)—plays Mesrine without apologies, neither sympathetic nor demonic, his violent temperament constructed without prejudice. We're left to observe Mesrine as-is.

The best thing I can write about this movie is that I was sorry it was over. When some people read a good book, they speed up, hungry for each page. Me, I slow down. But I was greedy with Mesrine, and didn't pause it to leave the rest for another day. No, I held out to myself the promise of Part 2: Public Enemy No. 1 and finished up Part 1, sorry to see it go. I haven't watched Part 2 yet, but let this review stand for both. This is about as straightforward as gangster pictures come, moving with confidence and speed, like Mesrine himself robbing two banks in one minute.
NOTE: In my haste, I neglected to mention the supporting cast, headed by the always-charismatic Gerard Depardieu, along with two women—Elena Anaya (the abused wife) and Cécile De France (Mesrine's steel-plated Bonnie)—who effortlessly match the pace of their ferocious male co-star.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Fugitive (1953)

Back in 1953, when Little Fugitive was a brand-new movie, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (for almost thirty years writing (often-enlightening) reviews encased in quaint tut-tuts and dry observations) ended his review with "All hail to 'Little Fugitive' and to those who made it. But count it a photographer's triumph with a limited theme." And he was mostly right, especially for us watching today: the triumph is the film's preservation of early-'50s NYC, particularly Coney Island, as the little boy--tricked by his older brother into thinking the little "tad," as Crowther put it, had murdered him--makes his way through a series of mild adventures, his fears forgotten in a world of shooting galleries, pony rides, and merry-go-rounds--after he collects empties and cashes them in. His adventures are slight, but that's the point: The Little Fugitive is one of a handful of movies that lowers the camera to see kidhood without condescension or (too much ) sentiment.

Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin wrote, photographed, directed and produced; the little boy, Joey, is played by a non-actor, Richie Andrusco (as was his brother). And aside from a few NYC stage actors, the rest of the cast plays itself: New York City, that is, and that Island that's as eager to please as Pinocchio's, but without donkeys.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fall (2006)

Tarsem Singh (or simply "Tarsem" over the last few years) has directed only two pictures since 2000--and that first one was The Cell, a movie whose plot matters infinitely less than the terrible beauty of its images and the astounding commitment of Vincent D'Onofrio to the persona he crafts, like some alternate-universe lead in an opera written by H.P. Lovecraft.

With The Fall, Tarsem does not flinch under the threat of his earlier picture, but decides to edge closer to Tim Burton than David Lynch as he explores the most needful thing of all: the yearning for narrative, for life to lose its messy edge and follow a straight line for once. The injured silent-era stuntman and the little girl with the broken arm collaborate on the same story--but to different ends. Of course, the story has its own ideas, and draws everyone in (and here we should turn and give a little bow to Terry Gilliam, who knows more than any of us the value of a ripping yarn-within-a-yarn-within-a-yarn-within ...)--and Tarsem follows the fairytale, building an almost-satiric Wonderland of Extraordinary Gentlemen (including Alexander the Great and Darwin) in a world that Tarsem swears is real--all actual locations, no special effects. If he's telling us the truth, then we really do live in a story, no matter how duplicitous the storyteller/Black Bandit may be, no matter how dangerous the stunts actually are.

This is not a film for everyone. Some might find it too weird, others to obvious. But if you look closely and long, and listen to one more story, you'll be reminded of the real draw of the movies--and of paintings and ballads and bedtime tales: They pretend to be windows we can look out of, but are really special mirrors for seeing ourselves and the important things still living behind us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Restrepo (2010)

NOTE: I posted this without knowing that Restrepo's co-director, Tim Hetherington, had been killed in Libya. My Sicilian grandfather, who was sent to fight in World War I, told me he never killed anyone. "I had no argument with those men," he said, "but they wanted me to shoot. So I shot over the Germans' heads, and everybody was happy." My prayer for Mr. Hetherington and his family and friends is that we should all be so happy. In the meantime, I am sure that everyone who knew him will keep his name in their mouths, "familiar as household words," and "in their flowing cups freshly remembered."

In Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington go to Afghanistan and stick close to, as the Internet Movie Database informs with its usual completeness, "The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team." And watching them dig in, goof around, freak out, sing and cry and stare into space, I found myself caught between the reality that movies insist on and the one I'll never see--and how, as with scenes of active combat, the two of them are so often the same. That is, what I know of combat I know from the movies--but this is not a "movie" (or a TV series, like the excellent Generation Kill); it's a "documentary."

But watching Restrepo is like watching Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead or The Hurt Locker--even Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, as extravagant as those movies are. Restrepo engenders an interesting confusion: Does it look like a fictional film because I've seen so many, or is it Restrepo's actual soldiers who've seen the same films and have learned how to behave? This may simply be the most hair-raising home movie ever made--you know how you get when someone turns on the camera at the family get-together: one is "on," so one "acts"--up, usually.

But I don't think that's necessarily what happens in Restrepo--actually, I think it's the opposite: the movies have clouded our vision of the real horror and boredom of warfare, and Restrepo brings us face to face with our seen-that-even-though-I-haven't-done-that smugness. This is so much The Real Deal that even that expression sounds phony--as phony as a non-combatant's "understanding" that War Is Hell. The triumph of Restrepo is that it ignores us, chooses instead to let itself be itself. We're just along for the ride, so we better stay out of the way when the shit starts to fly.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is an excellent addtion to a strange but compelling sub-genre: Spanish rural/isolated locale Gothic mood-pieces--with children. This goes back at least as far as The Spirit of the Beehive in 1973--although no overt supernatural elements are present in this one, unlike The Orphanage (2007) or del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth (2006). It may be a mini-genre, but its potency hasn't waned--and The Devil's Backbone may be the best of its type.

Like Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone is set during Spain's civil war in the late 1930s. Looming fascism in both films serves as a kind of specter haunting this corner of Europe, its brutal will always ready to exert itself even on children. But the orphanage of The Devil's Backbone withdraws for a time from the larger world and literally goes underground--and under water, to achieve effects that are at once chilling and beautiful. It's a ghost story, but one that rises to affect the political and personal worlds of the orphans, the left-wing Republicans (the side that Bogart fought with in his backstory in Casablanca--the losing side, as Louis noted) who run the orphanage, and the fascist Nationalists whose unexploded bomb in the orphanage's courtyard serves as a threat that cannot be withdrawn.

There's mystery and mysticism, politics and poetry, all of it mixed in without apologies. The Devil's Backbone may not be as aggressive as Pan's Labyrinth, but its subtleties make it the better Gothic, a world of secrets and regrets, with the strange justice ghosts so often require.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ballad of a Soldier/Ballada o soldate (1959)

Alyosha, the young World War II soldier in Ballad of a Soldier, and Shura, the equally young girl, meet as stowaways on a train, the war set aside for a moment. The two of them are impossibly innocent, their faces smooth and childlike, shining softly. The whole movie is like this, a simple and beautiful song. The Russian camera loves to sink down so that it can peer upward at its subjects, almost shyly--the effect, though, is not of a demure glance but a fully orchestrated requiem, the sky filling the background, the Earth curving into the distance.

The size of everything around them--particularly the deprivations of the war, the ragged gaping holes and tired faces, rutted roads, the houses turned inside-out--is matched by their big round eyes, gazing at one another--but the soldier wants to gaze at his mother: Rather than accept a medal for bravery, he had decided to take a short leave to fix her roof. The war follows him, tugging at his sleeve the whole way. It's a sentimental film, but so honest in the effort that you're willing to let it shine like the young lovers glowing like Old Hollywood, Soviet-style.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mafioso (1962)

Sicilian Antonio in Mafioso takes his Northerner wife Marta to meet the family. They sit down and eat and eat and eat. Marta lights a cigarette, and everyone stares--they'd never seen a woman smoke. She explains she likes to have one after a meal, and they all burst into laughter: that was merely the first course. A pile of squid-inked spaghetti comes out, there under the hot sun, and the meal must continue.

Antonio crows his joy at such abbondanza--but for Marta it's just Sicily always giving you more than you really want. And his family treats her coldly, the Sicilian flat look delivered without active malice, just a habit of being. However, they eventually figure out what they want from her--pliability so that they can work out their own schemes--against their own son, no less--so they cozy up and win her over.

Antonio, however, is not excused from the table, and has to take extra helpings, until he himself is dressed and trussed and arranged on the platter for the old men who stare him down by muttering, "honor"--but he has no choice, and thus no honor. Mafioso works surprisingly well as a prelude to the ethics of The Godfather, in which the world beyond Sicily is alien, even the rest of Italy, and the illusion of family masks inherited grudges and dogged greed. Antonio's time away had appeared to him something he'd really made, something he could live in--but on his return he finds that he hasn't made anything, that it had been some silly dress-up game, that Sicily was always the only real thing in his life.

And all he can do is obey and be dismayed, the life he'd prepared as a successful businessman in the comfortable boot of Italy now dry chalk in his throat. You can see it on his face once more at the end, as he takes another walk through his factory, everything still purposefully clamoring, his co-workers still admiring him--never guessing that a miserable, dead criminal smiles at them, holds a clipboard to his chest and disappears into his Milanese disguise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Isolation (2005)

How to describe Isolation? Imagine if Ridley Scott were all set to direct Alien--then the budget went south. So he re-sets the film on a small farm in the middle of Irish nowhere, and substitutes H. R. Giger's mad-love shape-shifter with, um, cows. Sort of.

The result is yet another British Isles horror surprise. From 28 Days Later (2002) to Dog Soldiers (2002), from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to The Descent (2006), from The Disappeared (2008) to The Reeds, (2009) (and sorry, but only The Disappeared is on Instant Play right now--although all these titles are available from Netflix), it seems the Brits are back, with a vengeance--and a monster or two, and some hauntings and flesh-eaters, and ...

Isolation's director, Billy O'Brien, makes a picture you can hold in one hand--if you're crazy enough to open your palm. In some ways it's the real surprise in the bunch, if only because it's so simple--as was Alien, even John Carpenter's The Thing (which Isolation also resembles), if you look past their budgets--and with horror, sometimes simple is best. O'Brien gives us a few characters, a villain and a surprise or two, sets it on a farm where no help is forthcoming, then lets this nasty little contraption give you the willies, the creeps, the jumpin jives.

As long as you give in to its premise--gene modification (the post-millennial response to '50s radiation-mutation) gone terribly wrong--Isolation provides a good Dark Ride--dark as the inside of an old barn at midnight, sloppier than a mid-Autumn farmyard. It's a triumph of hand-made, animatronic ick that understands that horror's playground lies between the viewer's need to know and the desire to look away.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ponyo (2008)

It comes as no surprise that the man who started Pixar, John Lasseter, loves the films of Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes called the Disney of Japan--but unlike Pixar and Disney, Miyazaki's medium has always been cel animation, as meticulous as Pinocchio (1940), with an eye for the rhythms of nature--rain, flowing water, wind on a grassy field--and a willingness to work in bright pastels--especially in Ponyo (2008), the most accessible of his films for smaller children. As with most of his other films, Miyazaki invents a mythology for Ponyo, one related to a love for nature, but also--as in the sometimes deadly serious Princess Mononoke (1997) (his only PG-13-rated film)--recognizing humanity's place in nature, as problematic as it can be.

In Ponyo he imagines a kind of Father Nature of the sea, Fujimoto,* who disdains humanity and seeks only to fill the seas with as much life as he can draw from his alchemical vials. But he loses one of his (many many) goldfish "daughters," Ponyo, who makes it to land and becomes more or less human. I will not divulge too much plot; suffice it to say that, although elements of Ponyo might feel like Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid--or the aforementioned Pinocchio--let alone any number of his other films, as always Miyazaki produces something original, with enough beauty and rushing action--and half-whimsical, half-hallucinatory sequences (the flooded town and boat trip makes for yet another of his unforgettable waking dreams)--to keep children's attention--a tricky feat these days.

At the same time, Ponyo once more explores a recurring motif in Miyazaki: the search for the parent, the child who waits for his or her family to return--but in the meantime also leaves, often on a quest to find a companion beyond the parents. Ponyo becomes a love story, and is told with such exuberant innocence (if that's possible) that all the other loves--the magician/scientist for the teeming life of the sea, the husband for the wife, the mother for the child, the child for the little old ladies in the nursing home (and their love for him)--weave together, all because Ponyo saw her chance and headed for land.

Generally, if one has never seen a Miyazaki film, the best advice is to begin with My Neighbor Totoro (1980) or the startling Spritied Away (2001)--my favorite; but Ponyo (aside from being only one of two Miyazaki titles on Instant Play) works well, again especially for the wee ones, as a glimpse into a world that shines somewhere adjacent to the one we know.

*Voiced in the English version by Liam Neeson; most of Miyazaki's English-dubbed films feature familiar voices--here the cast includes Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Bodyguard (1980)

Please don't make me use the word "'tween" as I recommend My Bodyguard; just believe me when I promise this movie looks at that period between childhood and adolescence without irony, without condescension--instead, almost as a fable, in which Goliath befriends David.

We may have heard this odd-couple/underdog story too often, here in 2011--but My Bodyguard set the modern standard thirty years ago, especially with its excellent cast, beginning with Chris Makepeace (ironic, yes?), who as the set-upon new kid is suitably average--in a good way, the level-headed one who is surprised and confused by the bullying. But the real standouts are the supporting players: Matt Dillon, still in mini-Brando mode (and again, I mean that as a compliment: early on, Dillon was working on a kind of lanky mulishness, half-amused by the world, half-suspicious of it), is the bully. A surprise, because the real hulk in the picture is played by Adam (no relation to the brothers) Baldwin, who in seven years would steal brutal scenes in Full Metal Jacket (also on Instant Play) before moving on to the role he was born to play, Jayne Cobb in the immortal TV series Firefly. (And this, too, is on Instant Play, you lucky person--Can you hear the Josh Whedon geeks genuflect?) But I can still recall watching Baldwin back in 1980 finding a friend and shedding his sorrow--and I was certain he would do remarkable things. Of course, as it often does with the talented, Hollywood fumbled Baldwin for too long. Still, here he is, just a big kid but managing to evoke Lennie from Of Mice and Men, at least in his mute misunderstanding of his place in life.

My Bodyguard lacks some of the snap of other coming-of-age movies such as American Graffiti or A Bronx Tale, but it still provides just enough uplift to make you happy to have survived your 'tweens--darn; almost made it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sweet Land (2005)

In the rural Minnesota of Sweet Land, post-Word-War-I anti-German sentiment ostracizes mail-order bride Inge (Elizabeth Reaser). She cannot even attend, let alone get married in, her husband-to-be's church. Structured as a family memory, the film looks through Inge’s eyes at those who reject her, while managing to ask us in the present to reconsider our own attitudes--in which, for instance, “official language” acquisition becomes more important than the quality of the newcomer's character. And of course the irony is that these are Norwegian farmers--Torviks and Frandsens and Thorwalds--their own voices soft with fading accents, and isolated as only Upper Midwest farmers can be.

But Sweet Land operates only peripherally as social commentary. The film remains a personal story of all-but-despair, resolution, and the blind persistence of love. The performances are affecting--Reaser is a shining light, her fiancé is played by Tim Guinee (who reminds of Nathan Fillion--take note, ladies and others who find him dreamy) with an Old Hollywood boyish charm suitable for suitors, Alan Cummings grins and squints affectingly as the best friend--and John Heard's Reverend is especially compelling: He scowls at Inge's foreignness, denies her any opportunity for respectability--but does so without movie-villain hardness. Instead, he is almost kind, as though he's simply waiting for her to repent for a sin she didn't commit, and be welcomed in her humility.

The fact that she refuses false humility--and chooses instead honest pride--is the film's heart, as beautiful as the sweeping fields and sky the movie is in love with, Nature spread over this (at first) melancholy story and trying Her best to provide moments of sun and shade as needed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Carlito's Way (1993)

Depending on whom you talk to, Brian DePalma's Carlito's Way is either an old favorite or an obscurity. Unlike star Al Pacino's other crime films, this one is often overlooked--at the least, it seems to have dropped out of basic cable rotation. But in some ways it's one of DePalma's best movies--and definitely among its stars' (Pacino and Sean Penn) best performances. Penn especially has a ball immersing himself in his red-afro'd '70s coked-up mob lawyer. And Pacino drops the surreal Latin accent of DePalma's Scarface and wears his jet-black hair and beard as easily as the soft but precise and almost melancholy cadences of his Puerto Rican ex-con/neighborhood legend. Its Godfather III-ish plot--a crime world "pulls him back in"--provides many opportunities for Pacino to add layers to his character--and allows the movie to move into Penn's world, where he walks the highwire without a net, clutching Carlito's sleeve the whole time.

Along the way, DePalma allows himself some directorial flourishes, but he is surprisingly restrained: For better or worse, this picture eschews the controlled hysteria of his earlier thrillers--or later ones such as Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002)--most of them a lot of fun; but what makes Carlito's Way memorable is the actors', not the director's, flourishes. And the mood of the picture tones things down: Carlito's "way" is old school--and, to the ferocious young guns he has to deal with, old hat. His neighborhood is gone, and every favor received feels like a threat, while every favor given, as Carlito puts it, "gonna kill you faster than a bullet."

Don't get me wrong; this is not a "quiet" picture, not with this bunch. It can be garish and brutal, fast and funny (Carlito in the courtroom is a hoot--and Penn just doesn't stop being a hilarious, dangerous nebbish)--and the rest of the cast pitches in as well: Wait for Viggo Mortensen as a wheelchair-bound, miserable rat, not to mention John Leguizamo's balls-out up-n-comer, Benny Blanco, while Luis Guzman, as usual, is solid as a stocky rock. All in all, despite its two-plus hours, Carlito's Way keeps moving, almost episodic (like the more frenetic Scarface), but nonetheless pushed forward by Carlito's efforts to step back from his own life and live.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Return to Me (2000)

Having lived in the Midwest for going on twenty-five of my fifty-plus years, I think I'm entitled to have a crush on Bonnie Hunt. She's bright and unassuming, almost bland--but underneath there's often (harmless) mischief at work. Her appearances on David Letterman's show capture this perfectly, two Midwesterners sharing a more or less private joke on the rest of the country: that, for all their goofiness, they too have figured out a few things--while all-but-flirting, happy to see a familiar face--in her case, the classic Chicago neighborhood kid, the perky blond who's not a dope or pest, the pal you still want to date.

I've glanced at her as a talk show host and performer, but it's her one effort as a theatrical film director that really shines. Return to Me does not ask us to do more than enjoy assured performances and melt a little into a mild conceit: that a man (David Duchovny) can find himself inexplicably falling in love with a woman (Minnie Driver) because, you see, she received the transplanted heart of the man's dead wife; it calls to him, and he follows. Can you picture this in black and white, sometime in the early 1940s, with maybe Myrna Loy and William Powell taking a break from the Thin Man? You might be more likely to forgive its contrivances; but Hunt's movie gives you all the opportunities you need to time-travel without guilt, its tone honest in the wish that such dreams can come true, without fanfare or smirking.

She is helped immeasurably by the performances. Minnie Driver is confident, as always, in her ability to be just as sweet as she needs to be--and also to pull back when necessary. And David Duchovny makes me mourn the movie career he should have had over the past decade, his blandness waiting to show some cracks and let him yearn a little, let him raise those pretty eyes to almost fill with tears. Again, I can feel Hunt's personality slip in: quietly sentimental and eager to make someone happy.

And then there's Carroll O'Connor (in his last film appearance) and Robert Loggia and David Alan Grier--and Bonnie herself--playing Dads and buddies, a TV family she would work with over the next decade. And maybe that's it: the benefit of the TV-movie vibe, which at its best (from Marty to Brian's Song to Something the Lord Made) gives us economy, sure-footed-ness, and general plot satisfaction. Return to Me is certainly satisfying, a nice evening with friendly, gently feisty Chicagoans who know true love when they see it, eventually.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Like Killing Flies (2004)

While not the original "Soup Nazi" of Seinfeld fame,* Greenwich Village restaurateur Kenny Shopsin, the subject of Matt Mahurin's 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies (the film is better than the title), has been known to eject patrons for arriving in a party of more than four or ordering just coffee. And he shouts a lot--a lot--and scowls and growls. But more than that, he has cultivated a monumentally kvetching persona, a man who has a complaint for every human weakness, real or imagined--and best of all, an ingenious analogy for every occasion. (His comparison of fusion cooking to, shall we say "adventurous," sexual activity is hilarious--and all but certain to ruin your appetite--depending on your appetites, that is).

In the same cramped and cluttered location for over thirty years, Shopsin's offers what seems to be an endlessly inventive amalgam of foods, featuring Dali-esque selections of soups and pancakes. The Shopsin's website provides (aside from links to outré products such as a "Chinese cleavage clamp"--I will say no more) a PDF of its menu--which seems to change with Kenny's mood swings, of which there are many. It's as crowded as his old restaurant (the film documents the change of location after they lose their lease) and features such offerings as duck breast potato curry, pecan chicken wild rice cream enchiladas, ricotta and carmelized banana pancakes, and sandwiches such as the "Jewboy" (BBQ pulled brisket, grilled onions, swiss cheese)--and of course the "Jihadboy" (beef, pomegranate, olive, feta, pistachio, tahini)--and over fifty soups, literally hundreds of offerings.

But this is half the feature, as they say. The real star is Kenny himself, as ready to pontificate as cook, delivering a stream of profane wisdom that he has obviously crafted over the decades, like Louis Armstrong in his prime, into what can only be called an orchestrated improvisation. And despite his nonstop tirades, in the end he emerges as a lover of not only the sound of Kenny Shopsin's voice but of every hungry fool who's ever crossed his path. When he finally gets around to his general view of humanity, he manages to make you feel good that "everybody's a piece of sh-t"--because in Kenny's eyes it's a blessing, an opportunity to admit fault (oh, the cold comfort of this Jewish comfort food) and to feel good about the little good one can do, despite such a scatological shortcoming.

The noise and grime and jangled claustrophobia of Shopsin's is perfectly captured by the visual style of I Like Killing Flies; Mahurin tosses his low-end video camera around the place, cutting and freeze-framing like a caffeinated Scorsese, getting us close--almost too close--to the delicious, vertigo-inducing world Kenny and his family have wrought. At least with Kenny as God, you know you won't go hungry--as long as you're a party of four or less.

*That would be Al Yeganeh, according to Wikipedia.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Big Night (1996)

Movies about food work best when the food is not a metaphor, but is actually food. Does this make Julie and Julia a better film than Chocolat? Sort of--if only because the former makes you want to cook, while the latter makes you want to--well, I'm not sure. Feed dainties to Johnny Depp? Assert independence from petty provincialism? OK; but a movie about food should be a movie about food--and Big Night is certainly that, as it observes food so closely it approaches the fascination of Food Network in its unflagging insistence that one should not simply watch, but do. Cook, that is.

And Big Night goes one delicious step farther: It explore the relationship between food and family, the ways in which food can reflect the harmonies and breakups, the deep-rooted affections and deep-seated resentments of family life. But it never makes food a metaphor; instead, food remains the catalyst, the vehicle for the brothers' love and grudges, their misguided dreams and opportunities. And the relationships extend to their friends and customers, their rivals and hoped-for lovers who crowd in on this "big night" when all their hopes ride on the perfect Italian mega-meal.

And, like the Timpano itself, that big drum of southern Italian ecstasy,* the movie adds one more layer: the setting, Atlantic City in the '50s, when everyone ended up on the boardwalk, both blue and white collars taking a look at the Atlantic Ocean, the way it held out its hand to show you the piers and restaurants waiting. More could have been made of that milieu, but the hints of this world outside the restaurant--captured by the elusive non-presence of Louis Prima and His Orchestra--are enough.

And of course, one more layer, the cast. Shouldn't Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub make more movies together, and shouldn't Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, and Minnie Driver step into those other movies to offer more promises and veiled threats? The brothers in particular are so carefully shaped, so perfect together--even in conflict--that one almost could imagine this movie without a restaurant, without eating. Almost.

*And here is the recipe for Big Night's signature dish, straight from Stanley Tucci's family kitchen: Mangia!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

I'm glad Woody Allen is still making movies, but I join those who hold a special fondness for his work in the 1980s, which seemed to come from a much older director, someone looking back at a long life. There is a gentle sense of loss, even a nostalgia, in many of them. From Stardust Memories (1980) and Zelig (1983) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) (my favorite Woody Allen picture, if I were forced to commit), to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987), Allen mourned with quiet affection lost eras, folly without consequence, the desire to reinvent ourselves. He was kinder than the hard times the movies were made in--and maybe that was the point: After two terms of Reagan, in which anything failed to trickle down, at least we could still go to the movies.

But at the end of the decade he picks up some dirt and spits in his hand and rubs the paste in our eyes to make us see. Crimes and Misdemeanors examines the loss of not only guilt but also meaning, and shrugs at our efforts even to document the collapse. Following various characters' trajectories, Allen gives himself something close to the Russian novels that seem to run beneath the surface of his less-comic movies, at once expansive and claustrophobic, as more and more lives slip into the same small cellar to confront each other in the dark.

His documentarian, Cliff Stern (a name that puts me in mind of Sisyphus), tries to preserve a beloved philosopher's work--while enduring a better-paying gig: profiling Lester, played with such self-satisfied smugness by Alan Alda that everything smug and self-satisfied the actor had ever done is finally both exposed and forgiven. Allen gives Stern a suitably jaundiced eye for the kind of amused disgust he can write so well--but the jokes are on him, bitterly: His documentary subject, Prof. Louis Levy, his only ray of hope, commits suicide--while Sam Waterston's gentle Ben goes blind. And then the final blow: Martin Landau's beloved ophthalmologist, Judah, has his mistress (Angelica Huston frazzled and doomed) killed by the inimitable Jerry Orbach, his bad suits matched only by his hooded vulture eyes.

The worst slip away unnoticed, the good are discarded, the indifferent let alone. Allen leaves the '80s without a shred of dignity, almost bored with itself and way beyond good and evil. It's interesting to note that his follow-up picture is Alice, a sweet assertion starring Mia Farrow--the two of them soon to sink into the hole themselves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

I often hesitate before recommending a Werner Herzog film, if only because he is so assertive about going his own way. He doesn't make films to please you, but himself--which I always admire; but you have to be willing to hop on board--often while the train's moving, jump in the boxcar, pray you don't stumble--and hang on tight.

But I can never resist him--even when at first blush I hesitate, as with The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I'm reminded of my initial uncertainty about the Coens' remake of True Grit: Is this trip really necessary? Then I saw the trailer--I was so skeptical I broke one of my rules: Never watch the trailer if you admire the director; save all the fun for the movie itself. But I checked it out, and had to admit that remakes can be worthwhile after all.

But Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is only peripherally similar to Abel Ferrara's film, in which he and Harvey Keitel get medieval on our asses for an hour and a half--certain our souls need a good roto-rootering--and grimly go about their work. Yes, Herzog's movie is scary and weird--but in a giddy sort of way, veering from one piece of puzzling evidence to another, a cop movie turned into a bizarre pinata, with everyone taking a wild swing at it.

I'll leave the plot to you. For me, the real feature--aside from Herzog's trademark insanity--is Nicolas Cage, standing up and reminding us how crazy-good he is, past all expectations otherwise lowered by his comic-book/action-hero poses, still willing to invite us to his happening, freaking us all out. Have fun, kiddies.

Companion piece: a second Herzog cop movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, in which Michael Shannon takes his turn at bat, and smacks the ump a good one, then runs the bases backwards, and moons the Commissioner, and tears off all his clothes, and so on. Cage has a not-so-evil twin.