Monday, December 22, 2008

Great Scenes 008: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (1966)

Treading the line between dramatic and hilarious.

Um, if you haven't seen this film already, then SPOILERS.

Also, why haven't you seen this film already???

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Scenes 007: Raising Arizona (1987)

One of the best cold opens in film history, and certainly the longest. Twelve minutes before the credits roll.

"Well, OK, then."

Don't forget to watch the first minute of this clip to finish it off, Ed.

And if you don't want to keep watching after that, I don't know what to do with you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Great Scenes 006: Catch 22 (1970)

"I guess forever is a long time."

(Yep, that's Art Garfunkle.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Great Scenes 005: Henry Fool (1997)

"It's a small thing, perhaps, all things considered, but I will succeed . . . because it's only thing I have left to do in this world."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Great Scenes 004: Smoke (1995)

"You're going too fast, my friend. "

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Real Cool Hand - Paul Newman RIP

Let's take a moment to consider one of the greatest actors and movie stars who ever lived.

In The Hustler, 1961

In Cool Hand Luke, 1967

In The Sting, 1973

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Great Scenes 003: Living In Oblivion

This is so funny it may just kill you. Peter Dinklage, with the greatest monologue a little person has ever delivered.

Scotland, PA

* * *

There aren't too many actors in the world who could play Macbeth as a short order fast-food chef. Two, maybe three. James LeGros is one of them. He is one of those guys that I will watch in anything. Just good-looking enough to get the occasional leading-man role, the dude is weird right down to his spleen and liver, and he never, never, never fails to infect whatever production he is involved in with a first class case of hambone weirdo sandwich. I first caught his act as the only good thing about Destiny Turns on the Radio, and not long after that he blew my mind as a transcendently dumb superstar slumming in indie-film land in Living In Oblivion. As an actor, he makes unconscionable choices, but he makes them so hard, with such conviction, that you are forced to either go along for the ride or break down completely.

Here he is in Living In Oblivion, basically just being totally awesome.

So when I say that Scotland, PA features one of the few worthy Christopher Walken performances in recent memory, a near-perfect soundtrack, and a show-stealing turn from Maura Tierney (good things all) you have to understand that there is something missing. Where's the beef, LeGros? Where you at, money? Where you at? All right, that's too harsh. LeGros is fine as the aforementioned Macbeth transplant. He's just muted, somehow. There's no perfect gonzo moment from him. My theory is that there is just so much crazy here that it cancelled him out. Look here, this is 'Macbeth' – Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' – set in the fast food world, for Grimace's sake. During the seventies. With lots of Bad Company playing on the radio. And Walken as a vegetarian homicide detective name MacDuff. And Andy Dick and Speed Levitch as fortune-telling hippies . . .

I guess I'm just saying that this is one movie that doesn't need a hambone weirdo sandwich; it's already making its own. But Maura Tierney is good in this, man. She completely obscures her television personality; it's a revealing performance and one of the most pleasant viewing surprises I've had this year. There is a brink between three stars and four. This movie is on it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sense Of History, A

I just realized that this has gone up on YouTube, which is beyond awesome. I think the best thing to do is to just post it without comment, except to say: (1) that you need to watch closely, or you won't notice exactly when the sanity slides right off the plate; and (2) Jim Broadbent is a genius.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Long Goodbye, The

* * * *

I love when a great movie begins; a whole world springs to being out of nothing, a universe forms from pixels on cathode. This is especially true if the film begins without preamble, without title card or even credits.

In the beginning of this particular world, a man (Elliot Gould) spends ten minutes chain-smoking and trying to find the proper food for his orange tabby cat. Whatever he’s got, the cat don’t want. It isn’t until feline finickiness takes him to a grocery in the wee hours to try to find the preferred chow that the man runs into somebody who recognizes him, and a seismic shift occurs.

“Hello Mr. Marlowe,” this person says.

Wait a dad-gum minute, now. Mr. Marlowe? Mr. Marlowe!? The gumshoe, the shamus, the legend? The tough-guy with a conscience, the cool drink of water, the one with all the answers? Phillip Marlowe is getting pushed around by his cat? No, back up further. Phillip Marlowe has a cat? What in the name of Raymond Chandler is happening here? And, and, and, wait a minute, now – what’s Marlowe doing in what is so clearly the seventies? I mean, I’m pretty sure there weren’t a ton of nudist hippie yoga chicks sweating the balcony circa 1938, even in L.A. Certainly there wasn’t disco music.

These questions are no small potatoes, and if they make no sense to you, run to the library. For real, run. Run. Chandler’s seminal noir yarns, eight thin novels and assorted short stories, carved out a lasting chunk of pop culture single-handedly. (All right, give an assist to Dash Hammett, among others, but Chandler refined the myth.) It would not be a stretch to call him the Louis Armstrong of the American crime novel. No Phillip Marlowe? No Bogie in a fedora, then. No Chinatown or Bladerunner, no L.A. Confidential, either. Hey, maybe even no NYPD Blue. You find me a hard-bitten urban character trying to do some good in a tough world, I’ll show you how Marlowe’s his grandpappy.

Seriously, run to the library.

To those who know and love these books, Robert Altman’s reinterpretation will be jarring, bordering on sacrilegious. Imagine a film version of Sherlock Holmes in which Mickey Rourke plays the sleuth as a robot pimp - or Kid Rock as James Bond, Caveman Lizard Boy. Yeah, it’s something like that, especially since we’re talking about The Long Goodbye, arguably the finest and saddest of Chandler’s novels, the one that most adequately sums up the noble melancholy, the disgust, the uselessness and honor of being the sole man of integrity in a rotting town. Also, it’s a wonderful story masterfully told, the Chandler plot that holds together the best. It is the book that Chandler purists are apt to be most protective of, which is why Altman’s moves here strike so jarring a chord. Marlowe is a quintessential 1930s icon, hard-drinking, heavy smoking, no-bull. The time-warp to the 70s - with Elliot Gould, anti-Bogart, in the lead! - has a gnarly first taste, like gravy on cheesecake.

What is interesting, then, is how groovy the aftertaste is. Altman has made a career of confounding expectation, and here he peels back the legend that is Marlowe to help us see his soul. This film does Marlowe – and Chandler – the great favor of breaking the character out of Bogart’s long shadow. The qualities that make Gould seem such a strange choice – the slight stammer, the quiet nature, the shy grin – all go against the grain of the film icon, not the literary one. Bogie’s go-to-hell insouciance defined the character in The Big Sleep, but he also seems like he could kill you without thinking too hard about it or feeling too bad about it. It served him better as Hammett’s satanic detective Sam Spade, but Bogie's Marlowe is nearly as hard-edged. Chandler once wrote: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself necessarily mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." It is with Altman and Gould that cinema finds that man.

Elliot makes a surprisingly appropriate Marlowe after all. He uses his shyness as a sly shield, disguising a mind as quick and as sharp as a shiv. His tabby cat may dictate terms to him, but that’s the only cat that can. When the police show up at his apartment and try to break his balls, he breaks right back. Marlowe’s pal, Terry Lennox has ditched town, leaving a dead wife behind him. They think Marlowe is in on the game. The deadness of the wife is news to Marlowe, but he did help Lennox escape to Mexico (perhaps to get a prescription for Surinamese coffee, eh? Eh?). The cops are half right, but they get the private eye’s dander up – he doesn’t think Terry is capable of murder, and he wants to know why the fuzz is so set on pinning the rap to him. Gould’s Marlowe may be instinctively withdrawn, but loyalty and his smart-guy retorts land him in the clink. Like the literary Marlowe, he makes his bread by his brains, not his gun and fists. He survives by being the smartest guy in the room – any room, and cool enough to play a wicked bluff. This is one brother who doesn’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind blow, and he knows that Occam didn’t study human nature. In his world, the simple answer is rarely the right one.

When his investigation takes him to the home of beautiful Eileen Wade (Nina Van Pallandt) and her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), a once great writer gone to souse, he quickly susses out the nasty secrets of their marriage, though it is not until the film’s conclusion that we realize he is putting the pieces together far quicker than we. (It should be mentioned that the character of Roger Wade, as essayed by Hayden, is a large, white-bearded, gruff, blustering man’s-man type, and is such a send up of a certain boozy lion of 20th century lit. that he will be referred to by me ever hereafter, in this article and all others, as ‘Bernest Bemmingway’. Hayden makes a great Bernest. He’s sad and hilarious. He’s Bemming-rific.)

The plot, as with all Chandler, is labyrinthine, and of secondary importance. Fans of the book may take interest in the gradual ways in which the film strays from the page, but these changes – even the most shocking final one – do not change the story’s meaning. The whodunit takes a back seat to scene and mood, and examining the rot uncovered is more integral to the tale than is the tale of discovering who it was covered the rot up in the first place. The city seethes with money and breathes out filth, and the last sane man living in it and fighting against it is embraced up in it by a kind of sunny disenchantment. What Altman manages, by displacing the hero in time, is to capture Marlowe’s ethics with a kind of clarity that a classical setting might have lacked. Los Angeles may have graduated to the seventies, but our hero is still a creature of the 30s. When he is invited by Bemmingway to relax, remove his tie, and have a drink, he agrees to the drink, but he won’t remove his tie, not even in the age of butterfly lapels and polyester leisure suits. The contrast highlights this basic truth about Marlowe’s character; that he will never change. His code is his law.

The seventies have turned what was merely corrupt into the insane. Los Angeles is filled now, as ever, with dirty cops and dangerous hoods (one of whom perpetrates one of the more disturbing acts of violence in film history), but now a new breed has descended, love for today types, lotus-eaters whose only care is for their own temporary joys, unencumbered by even the petty scruples and cares of crooks. Untethered by morality, they cannot imagine what harm there can be in a murder in which nobody gets caught. “It's OK with me, girls,” Marlowe mumbles to the perpetually topless ladies who live across the way. He has asked them to keep an eye out for his cat, now AWOL, but they are gone too far into a trance (or perhaps their own navels) to hear him. “It's OK with me.” But it's not OK with Marlowe, of course. And he has lost far more than his cat.

Altman’s camera is a second Marlowe, savvy and cool, but not impartial. Long shots and deep composition often tell us more than just thing, and its gaze hold for unflinching minutes at a time. It isn’t fancy, and it isn’t afraid to see a man walking into the crashing waves.

Goodbye’s final shot is an instructive tribute to The Third Man, but Marlowe is no sad chump like Holly Martins. He may not have gotten the girl, but he doesn’t want her, knowing the compromises she has made. He may have dug into the heart of darkness, but his illusions aren’t shattered by the betrayal he finds. He never had illusions in the first place.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Great Scenes 002: Selections From Waking Life

Here's a brilliant movie that inspires me and challenges me every time I watch it. On top of that, it seems to invent a new form for movies themselves (rotoscoping has been around forever, but it's never approached high art in this way). Observe the details tucked into the corners. Observe the way the potential of animation is explored and stretched. Observe how the style of the animation shifts to match the subjects.

On priorities:

On the possibilities of human growth:

On being present in the moment:

On perhaps one of the big questions:

And, of course, on how most people who write novels are total pseudo dill-holes.

Just the tip of the iceberg. Go, watch, enjoy.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Spider House Rules

I don't usually get too excited about summertime movies. All spectacle, no substance. However, every so often I make an exception.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty excited to see this.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Great Scenes 001: Pulp Fiction

For your consideration, one minute and forty-eight seconds that defines and expands an already fine and entertaining film, which makes it more, which makes it great. Here is the moment that tells us that, for all the cool dialogue, stylized violence and mayhem, and disjointed timelines, Quentin Tarantino has something on his mind.

This monologue is the heart and soul of the movie. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson, never better) and Vincent (John Travolta, never better) have just survived a point-blank encounter with a loaded Magnum, and a very close legal call involving a dead body. Jules thinks it's a miracle that they are even eating breakfast; he's quitting the life. Vincent thinks its just one of those things that happen, and that Jules is a fool and a bum. But we've already seen Vincent go down in a hail of bullets. It's going to happen in a week or so. Jules won't be there; he's taken off already.

What do you do with a second chance? What do you do with a third? The man who kills Vincent is a boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis, never better), who is given a second chance by saving Vincent's boss Marcellus (Ving Rames, never beter), who happens to be the man who is trying to kill him. Tonight, after leaving this diner scene, Vincent will have another miraculous close call, this one involving a syringe of adrenoline and his boss' ODing wife (Uma Thurman, better in Kill Bill). We've already seen that unfold too.

Other film-makers who ape Tarnantino's style miss that, for all his genre conventions, he makes his movies about something. The fractured timeline isn't there as a trick, it's not just to make it 'cool'. It exists to show you information you need to understand why this scene is the climax of the movie.

If you watch close you can see it; Pulp Fiction is a movie about a religious conversion. It is a man coming face to face with who he is, and realizing that nothing can ever be the same again.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

American Movie

* * * *

Mark Borchardt sure does want to make movies. He wants to make them more than you do, I promise.

You know him. He's you when you were a kid; its just that he's thirty. He's who you were before you hung up the pipe-dream and got a job. He believes that he is one of the special people, the ones who are destined to make their (pun kind-of intended) mark. He wants to be something, do something, and he's not going to let little things get in his way, like crippling debt, or a total lack of resources, or the fact that his own family members don't believe in him (his brother suggests that perhaps he is suited best for factory work) or a purported paucity of talent. Not even living in Milwaukee, hardly a film Mecca, dissuades him from his lone track.

Documentation Chris Smith tracks this real-life Quixote's relentless tilt at cinematic windmills. Details trickle in from voice-over and head-shot interviews with Mark's friends and family and from grainy clips of the horror shorts Borchardt has been shooting since he was twelve. (Examples include I Blow Up, which is about exactly what it sounds like it is about, and The More the Scarier, parts I-III). Mostly the details come, fast and furious, from Borchardt himself, whose unique brand of hyper-patter manages to be simultaneously eloquent and ludicrous. Squinting from behind coke-bottle glasses about the size of a Buick's windshield, spider thin, sporting a metalhead mullet and the facial hair of a fourteen-year old, Mark couldn't be further from the Hollywood standard, and that's the way he wants it. The films he has responded to are fellow shoestrings - like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - which eschewed gloss for grainy, you-are-there verisimilitude. He wants to make a film that captures his reality, 'rust and decay.' He wants to make Northwestern, in other words, the story of his life. He's been working on it for ten years.

He also wants to break free of his life. He is sick of the lower-middle-class land of cheap beer from cans, dingy houses lined up like prisoners all striped in dirty white aluminum, hassles from the bills and the bill collectors and the IRS and the credit card people and the rotten jobs that are good enough for everybody else. Mark rejects this fate emphatically; he wants more, he wants out of the very reality that he wants so badly to capture on film - a kind of Oedipal complex of the American financial caste system. It is to Smith's credit that he leaves this primary irony in the subtext.

As American Movie opens, Borschardt is making his latest run at Northwestern, which quickly runs aground, then morphs into more realistic effort - to complete another unfinished project - Coven, a 30-min. horror film about an AA group gone sour.

Every Don needs a Sancho Panza, and Borchardt has his - Mike Schank, an serious acid casualty who has a passing knowledge of twelve-step programs. Completely straight now, he has plenty of stories about how he almost died from various drugs - he suggests at one point that he could go on recounting them all night. He also is as glazed over as a honey ham, and will giggle in a very unsettling way when he's nervous, which is most of the time we see him - the camera clearly makes him uncomfortable. Addiction's thread wends throughout American Movie, which is fitting. It is a dominant theme in the lives of these people, from Schank's current compulsion for scratch-off lottery tickets to Mark's own (suggested) alcoholism to Mark's Uncle Bill's obsessive need to count his quarters. Overriding all these is a greater addiction, which is Mark's obsession with filmmaking. For him, quitting would be like dying. No twelve step program will shake it. No matter how hard the process gets for him, he will never stop. It's not what he does, it's what he is.

It would be difficult to imagine how the process could be more difficult. Most of the laughs (and this is a deeply funny movie, so maybe you should just ignore all this highfalooting jibber-jabber and just watch it) come from pain both mental and physical. Mark is intensely aware that his life has not progressed according to script, but his ambition will not allow him to turn off the old grandiloquence. At one point he stands alone before a location and makes a matter-of-fact remark that he will have to hire a crew member for the specific purpose of warding off the multitudes who will doubtless gather to watch the shooting. Not long after this, we see the third and final crew meeting: Mark and a lone unnamed other sit in silence, and the table they crouch beside seems all the larger for its emptiness.

At times our hero just seems doomed. Later still we see Mark and Mike standing in front of the remains of another location - it burned to the ground the day before they were to shoot. "You know what," Mark announces, thoroughly discouraged, "At some point you've got to ask yourself: Is this what you wanna do with your life? Drink peach schnapps and try to call Morocco all night?"

At one point, a shot of a man's head being bashed through a cabinet door is attempted – through the extremely high-tech process of taking the actor's head and trying - repeatedly - to bash it through a cabinet door. The attempt, painful, unsuccessful, and heroic in a way, could stand as an apt enough metaphor for Borchardt's life.

Much criticism has been directed at the film and at Smith - the primary accusation being that the laughs come at the expense of their subjects, and that the filmmakers are looking down on these pathetic specimens with scorn, but it seems from my vantage that this criticism says as much about the critic - if not more - than it does about the film, insomuch as it takes as a supposition that these people are, in fact, pathetic. It seems that these accusations mask other, subtler prejudices. Perhaps Smith could have played it safer by documenting the travails of a success, or at least somebody who looks slick enough to get some phone numbers at the Toronto Film Festival.

Make no mistake - Borchardt is a flawed individual, and the camera shows this unsparingly. He drinks too much, he is behind on child support, he can be a martinet, he talks too much, he is quite often full of shite. (Good thing there are no legit film directors with similar qualities, huh?) But the reason we see all this is the amazing access that Borchardt gives to Smith, and Smith's ability to sculpt that footage to show us real human relationships huddling in the glow.

Sure, Borchardt schemes to pry money from his miserly uncle Bill, sweet talking him with head shots of pretty girls who 'want to be in your movie, Bill.' But just when we think we have the parasitic relationship figured, Smith's camera goes deeper. In a scene of startling intimacy, we see Mark bathing his uncle, then washing his clothes, and it becomes clear that Mark is all that stands between his uncle and assisted living. He is the old guy's best friend.

Sure, Mark's best friend is a giggling ex-acidhead scratch-off junkie, but before we can get our condescending grins completely dusted off, Mike Schank reveals his true nature, and we know that we should all be so lucky. It is clear that you could have no amigo more loyal, no compeer so true-blue. "I didn't even want to get up in the morning," Borchardt says at one point. "I'm thankful that Mike Schank came and put a smile on my face." "Mark makes movies," shrugs Schank, "so I guess I make movies, too."

Sure, Mark seems talent-poor, doomed to failure, but suddenly principal shooting is done. As Borchardt moves to the editing room, we think: wait a minute, this guy seems to know a thing or two. As the local premiere draws nigh, we wince for the grand embarrassment, the capper, the finishing move. The film will be a disaster, we are sure. After all, this guy looks funny, he talks funny, his friends . . . well, look at them. But by the end we have seen the portrait of an artist as a flawed man, and a documentary that shows the real sacrifice that comes along with commitment , the price of an attempt at greatness.

We see Borchardt huddled in the glow - sitting on the floor before the tube like a five-year-old, watching Northwestern footage shot a decade before and wondering where the years have gone. He won't forget his childhood dreams - they're always before him.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Barry Lyndon

* * * *

What can you say about Redmond Barry that hasn’t already been said by Sean Hannity or Larry Flynt? A lot, probably. Stanley Kubric’s formalistic foray into the powdered-wig-and-tights drama meanders along, pleasant and slow and stately. Stan isn’t interested in the wigs, though. Stan likes to look at the steel behind the velvet, the tongue sharp as a sword or blunt as cannon shot, the crushing power of money and privilege, the stabbing strength of man’s inhumanity to man. You know, the usual. The thing that stands out is how ironically pretty Kubric makes everything – every shot has the palette and composition of a renaissance painting.

The story itself is more problematic. We follow the life of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, fights in a duel, gets robbed, joins the army, winds up in another army, finds himself in Prussia, and becomes a gambling aide and enforcer to a one-eyed diplomat and card sharp. And then the plot starts. This is storytelling in the grand old episodic tradition of classical novels (of which Barry Lyndon is one), when authors were paid by the word and ate pigeons raw, without ketchup. Yessir, no introspective navel gazing here - in those days fictional characters went places and did things, a lot.

The pacing is funereal for such a nimble film, and the measured tempo of the ever-present music serves both to underscore that pacing and as the film’s slyest joke on so-called ‘civilization’ – even war is a polite and stately event, even murder has its protocol. A grotesque crime committed in secret is more excusable than the less ugly outburst made in public.

Not all of these episodes hold together cohesively, but the audience can take these scenes and cobble together an effective portrait of Barry as an opportunist and social climber made absolutely unscrupulous in his desire for more and more wealth and rank and privilege (it is not an accident that this story takes its name not from Barry’s given name but the one he assumes through his striving). As we follow Barry from callow youth (in early scenes he comes across like a human golden retriever, but this is Ryan O’Neal, so perhaps I am being redundant) to full blown schemer and golden-haired money-hog, Kubric contrasts his subject to the nobility he so fervently wishes to join.

Kubric’s point is clear – as useless a human being as Redmond Barry may be, these blue-bloods are even worse. At two key scenes – both duels – Barry proves he is the braver and more honorable man, and after each he finds his prospects are diminished in spite of this. Greed is the soul of the human element, Kubric seems to be saying, and ‘civilization’ is no more than the wall that the ‘haves’ built to keep out the ‘have-nots’.

But this is hardly a new lesson, nor is it ultimately a productive one, especially since our sympathies have nowhere to light except, finally, on Redmond, who is sympathetic almost by default. Perhaps humankind has a depressing capacity for duplicity, greed, and arrogance, but one would do well when making this point to allow the audience some better shelter. When Ryan O’Neal represents the best humanity has to offer, we’ve come to a dark place indeed.

Those painterly compositions are masterful, though. They, along with the score, slow and haunting, are what you’ll take away. That and a serious butt-kicking that Barry lays down somewhere past hour two.

Also, for what it's worth, Barry Lyndon has probably the greatest duel scene ever. Check it out [Big Time Spoilers].

ETA: Yeah, I know, this is written much more like a three star review than a four, but this movie just keeps resonating. It's grown in my mind since the initial viewing, hence all the stars up there.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

400 Blows, The

The 400 Blows is a hummingbird film, tiny and feather-light, capable of beating its wings a thousand times a minute, gravity-defying. Nectar its only food, its bright feathers shimmer metallic in the sun. It is also an owl film, solemn, unblinking and brooding, hooting stern nocturnal inquisitives, fully capable of 360° swivels of its ruffled head. It isn’t until you are done with it, lulled by its charmed insignificance, that rough significance clasps you in its claws

But never mind that. Here we trod a path well-trod, pondering Truffaut’s first masterpiece, one of the opening salvos of the French New-Wave. It’s in the canon. The film-school thesii which have been written upon it are legion – they have been shot down by sneering professors like buffalo from railroad cars – so rather than try to take it apart and see what the organs look like, mayhap it would be wise for me to simply admit that when it comes to Truffaut in particular, and the French New-Wave in general, I could not be more gravid with ignorance. This is my initiation into that particular movement in film history. Clearly, I'm lacking. Get me a striped shirt and a beret, pronto – and coffee, black. Pronto, garcon, pronto! Show some hustle.

Anyway, going in, I had no idea what to expect. Boxing movie? Puppet-porn? Black-and-white still-shots commenting on the commentary of commentators, mad dadaists deconstructing deconstruction itself until even Derrida yells ‘uncle’? Beats me, brother. I just planned to sit on the bean-bag chair and take it all in.

This, it turns out, is the story of a childhood, which is to say that it is a comedy about inhumanity. The childhood in question belongs to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a good kid in a bad place. It is the adults in his life who have made the place bad, and it is they who pervert their own estimation of him, making him out to be a bad kid in a good place. His mother (Claire Maurier) couldn care less about either him or his father (Albert Rémy), whose own deep disinterest in the boy can, at first, be mistaken for kindness. His teacher employs rigid mental contortions, the better to see all the boys, and Antoine in particular, in the worst light possible. Our lad is a scamp, sure, but these adults never give him a shot. They throw the boy into mud and then damn him for the footprints he tracks onto their carpet.

The title in the original French (Les Quatre Cents Coups) is a French idiom for “raising hell” (or so the internet tells me). What’s surprising, or perhaps telling, then, is how little hell gets raised. Antoine’s disobediences – cutting class, running away from home, petty theft – are pretty tame, a reaction against the conditions in which he is raised, not a condition of his moral decay. He pays the penalty for crimes committed by the whole classroom. A supposed instance of plagiarism stems from his love of Balzac, not from laziness. He gets in the most trouble not for theft of an object, but in a foolhardy attempt to return it. He makes poor decisions. He has bad luck. He is a fourteen-year old boy, in other words.

None of this is as fraught as it seems while you watch it. The arc is not immediately evident; this seems like a casual series of events, not a cause-and-effect storyline. The film has plenty of humor, most of which stems from our recognition of the hypocrisy of the adult world and our identification with the rebellion of the youthful sphere, particularly in a passage with a gym instructor and his rapidly diminishing line of students. Léaud gives an amazing performance, one of the most natural by a child actor that I’ve seen (up there with Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun and Haley J. Osment in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and, of course, the immortal body of work left for us by the late, great Macauley) , and Truffaut’s camera is happy to simply watch it, loping along with Antoine as he runs down a country road, or peeking down an alley while he drinks stolen milk. When, near the end of the film. Antoine’s mother gives us a piece of crucial information, one that makes us reassess most of the main relationships, it comes as an off-hand aside. Truffaut rewards attention spans with generous detail of character.

Yet at times he seems to be cheating with his horrid, horrid, all-too-horrid adults. My shady sources inform me that Antoine’s life roughly parallels that of a young Truffaut, and the film has a teenager’s ruffled sense of personal outrage, an bruised adolescent cataloging all the wrongs done, real and imagined. But the final images, including the celebrated closing shot, will haunt you – they force confrontation with our own misgivings regarding our hero’s final fate.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Greatness of The Coen Brothers

There aren't many directors with the stable of great movies and great moments as Joel and Ethan Cohen. The depth and range of their ability and their tone is astonishing; they can shift from broad comedy to horror effortlessly and sometimes within the same movie. Whatever you may think of No Country For Old Men (and I thought it was pretty good, though I'm not sure their stab at profundity worked at the end), for which they just picked up the big Oscars, you've got to say that the recognition was overdue.

I dare you to watch the clip and not want to watch every one of their movies. It's a murderer's row of classics, and even the failures are interesting failures.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008


* * *

The dancing chicken. I'm truly unsure what exactly to make of that dancing chicken. It just kicks up its heels and shakes its groove-thing for a quarter. Acclaimed German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) moves his cameras and mikes from Europe to Wisconsin, and the result is something strange for U.S. eyes – a near-cinema verite that looks at America with decidedly continental eyes. This is a German film that happens to take place largely in Wisconsin – and it is Wisconsin you're seeing; you're just seeing it from a different perspective. The perspective is that of the outsider, the foreigner, the one who speaks no English. Somehow, through Herzog's lens, what is familiar takes on an alien tincture, and the heartland glows just as oddly (if somewhat more kindly) as it does in David Lynch's corn-fed fever dreams.

Stroszek does not follow any kind of traditional character arc. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), a just-released convict of limited means and a dogged romanticism, joins up with Eva (Eva Mattes), a pragmatic hooker who has just been given the boot by her abusive pimps. Along for the ride is his elderly neighbor, an amateur scientist and talented pianist. Finding life in Berlin unsatisfactory, these three disparate desperates pack up and head to the land of cheese, where they have heard there are opportunities, jobs. But Bruno has more in the way of empathy than he has in the way of brains, and his hard lessons in misplaced trust and the importance of paying bills are learned slowly, not in the manner of a series of plot events, but rather at the languid pace of real life; and, as it unfolds, it shapes itself not into tragedy, but rather into deep sadness. Bruno's tale is not one of learning or of self-discovery; rather, it is the story of a man whose failure seems fated, no matter the geography.

I'm playing pretty free-and-loose with divulging the details of what happens, but that's because this movie is spoil-proof. There are few films in which I've been less sure of what's coming next. The film's pace and naturalism – the characters are mainly played by non-actors, and Bruno S. is in many ways playing himself – do allow for some lags and gaps in pacing, but also make way for beautiful and surprising moments. Bruno plays a song of love to his new lady on his accordion. A robbery so botched that it becomes the film's biggest joke. A group goes hunting over a frozen pond with a metal detector for a murdered body. That final line of dialogue, spoken in English, so matter-of-fact that you have to rewind to be sure you heard the guy right.

This film is not anti-American, though the concept of the 'American Dream' is exposed for the fool's gold it is. But that's been done into the ground, and anyway Herzog is after something more - and more subtle - than that. In any event, America actually comes out well when compared to Germany. The life in Berlin is shown to be harsher than the life in Wisconsin (the people in the U.S., at least, are less vicious), and Bruno's failure is in great part his own fault. He believes in love that isn't there, he makes no attempt to learn the rules or language of his new society, he seems incapable of tending for his needs. Perhaps Stroszek is about the failure of all civilizations to find a place for the people who live on the margin. Or perhaps, even, about how society as a matter of course must form margins and people to live in them (I think it is no accident that a Native American is a presence in the Wisconsin scenes) Perhaps Herzog wishes to compare the Dream of wealth with the Dream of love, and the disappointments that can arise with both. And still, that crazy chicken dances through it, a thematic thread, a creature willing to make a robot out of itself for two bits.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gangs Of New York

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This is about as flawed as a film can be and still work; nevertheless, there are great big hunks of brilliance caught in its teeth. Gangs of New York earns its marks from the sheer force of director Martin Scorsese's vision, a fully realized 19th century New York, and by way of a stunning performance from Daniel Day Lewis as glass-eye tapping, 'Nativist' gang lord Bill "the Bucher" Cutting (think Robert De Niro after a heroic dose of hallucinogens). The city and the butcher are both supreme cinematic achievements, both constructed of such intense and bizarre strokes of inspiration that they would be laughable were they not essayed to the screen with intelligence and confidence. As it is, both director and actor wave their freak flags with authority and menace, the very strangeness of their choices lending them unassailable believability. They are simply too utterly themselves to be false.

But the story. Ah, if only . . .

If the story wasn't pure amateur hour, this could actually have been the career-definer that everybody was (perhaps unrealistically) expecting from Scorsese. But instead of using the city as a setting for the kind of the character-driven study that marks most of Scorsese's most revered work (Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, for example), Gangs shoehorns all of its strengths into a tired revenge fantasy quest cum romance plot recycled from much lazier films than this one.

Here's the rhubarb: Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio in a sad little goatee and mullet) is out to revenge himself on Bill The Butcher, because Bill killed Amsterdam's father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In a thrilling opening sequence, the jingoist Nativists, led by Bill, face off against Vallon's Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang, for control of the Five Points neighborhood. When the battle is done, the Rabbits are crushed, Priest is dead, and Bill is the undisputed lord of the neighborhood. The battle (preamble included) is one of the most indelible moments in film this year, an extraordinary combination of beauty and violence, and as the camera moves back into God's-eye view, the snow goes from white to pink. We see New York of 150 years ago spread out before us, and it is like looking at pictures of your parents as teenagers - simultaneously familiar and alien. The film spends the rest of its running time trying to once again capture this transcendence and energy, this sense of the ongoing "wow!"

Whenever it comes close, however, we find ourselves pulled back into Amsterdam's mission for retribution. Making this film about Amsterdam is like going to Disney World for the lines. We know that by the end we will have a showdown, and this knowledge completely undercuts any possible suspense. Frankly, I couldn't have cared less whether Amsterdam failed or succeeded or dropped out of the picture entirely. I certainly didn't care if he ended up with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz, in a pointless and thankless role). DiCaprio is typically a fine actor, but he is given nothing much in the way of character, and therefore is mercilessly blown off the screen by Day Lewis - the idea that Amsterdam would be a match for Bill in a fight is just laughable. I suspect the reason that Scorsese renders Amsterdam as nothing but a cipher is because he himself has no interest in the story that the character represents - perhaps a plot with more recognizable Hollywood elements was necessary to secure Hollywood money for such an ambitious effort. According to interviews I've read, it was historical fact that attracted the director to the material in the first place (the Butcher was a historical figure, and his namesake in Gangs is a composite of several actual gang leaders).

Despite my annoyances, I was never bored. There is much that is fascinating on the periphery, such as an astounding harbor shot, which tracks from Irish getting off the boat to the conscription checkpoints where they are signed up, to the Army boat where they are shipped off to fight in the Civil War, and finally to a boat back from the front, unloading row upon row of coffins. In one take, the assembly line of war is contained, and a later image will conflate the history of the country with the history of New York. It is an off-hand rebuke to Bill's anti-immigrant sentiments, and a reminder of the blood that was mixed into the national foundation, as is the pointed sign advertising Bill's gang of third generation residents as "Native Americans" - words that hold a different meaning in this time than they did in that.

Given that Bill is obviously the character the director is actually interested in, I would have liked to see a Gangs of New York devoted to him; his rise to power, the depth of his xenophobia, his odd but unshakeable moral code, I would have liked a further clarifying of the surviving Rabbits, the process by which they compromised their ideals (their corruption is simply assumed here), his politician's compartmentalization that allows him to associate with the very Irish he is sworn to destroy. I would like to understand the meaning behind his cryptic final words.

Instead we have a plot point as a hero, and a visionary misfire. Eventually, the periphery breaks the seams, as the Conscription Riots welter through the town, but by then we have spent too much time watching the wrong people, and the result is mainly confusion. Gangs of New York is still a contender, but it coulda been an all-time champ. I want to give five stars to the half of it that an enduring classic; the rest of it deserves a Bronx Cheer. I'll put the final verdict somewhere between.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Red Shoes, The

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Here's what you ought to know about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger:

1) They collaborated to make the film Black Narcissus, which of all the films out there not starring Richard Roundtree is the one that most ought to have starred Richard Roundtree. Come on people, now. Get with me on this. Yeah, I know it’s about nuns in the Himalayas. But it’s called Black Narcissus, for Pete’s sake. Put Rich in it. Call George Lucas and splice him in there. Get Isaac Hayes to do a soundtrack.

2) They are beloved by serious film critics and filmmakers, and have influenced the influential - crowd-pleasers like Spielberg, craftsmen like Scorsese. Their contribution to world cinema is writ large.

3) They are responsible for The Red Shoes, a postmodern take on the Hans Christian Anderson fable, a study of the demands of art on the artist, the glory of excellence, and the best cinematic study of theatrical performance I’ve ever seen. This movie is a gem, a stunner. Go find it.

The Red Shoes stresses a heightened reality throughout, reflecting the heightened reality of the live theater, of ballet, of opera. The Technicolor is glorious, a little too glorious to be real – each hue glows as though lit from within. We open without preamble on an audience entering a theater on the opening night of a new ballet. Characters are introduced to us helter-skelter, we are given no clue as to which who might be important and who might be peripheral. We are expected to take what we see and adapt, an apt description of the treatment two young artists will be given when they join the ballet the next morning. They will be invited, but they will not be welcomed until they engrave their own invitation, by proving their worth.

Six young people gather together in the balcony, excited to see the show. Two of them do not know the other four. Soon some of them will soon leave, angrily, but of the six we will only see one in later scenes. A young woman and her aunt watch from the balcony. There is a tension here, an expectation. An impresario (Anton Walbrook) watches from his box. His name is Boris Lermontov, and we eventually discover that he is the director of the company. Cruel and charming, he has stifled his humanity for the sake of his art, and is proud of doing so. He expects nothing less from his troupe. Art is not entertainment for him, it is a jealous religion, which consumes such petty things as joy and love. His company is his family, and he rules it impassively and absolutely. Now, these two new members are about to arrive: a dancer and a composer. Both are talented and passionate, and will eventually collaborate on a new ballet, based on the Anderson story "The Red Shoes".

Anderson’s story is of a woman wears magical red shoes that allow her to dance all night. But the woman tires; the shoes do not. They demand to dance, and in the end they dance her to death. Powell and Pressburger’s story is of dance as an art demanding life. Dance is the filmmaker’s stand-in for art with a capital “A”. As the three principals – composer, dancer and Lermontov the artistic svengali – draw closer together and clash, so too does Art and emotion, and in this conflict the turmoil of the ballet is mirrored. The film The Red Shoes, then, is simultaneously a story about the creation of a ballet called The Red Shoes and a modernized retelling of HC Anderson story The Red Shoes from which the ballet is based, while also serving as a thematic actualization of both. Trippy stuff for 1948, compadre.

The ultimate triumph of The Red Shoes, the film, is its depiction of The Red Shoes, the ballet, which is shown in its entirety, gradually moving from the realm of the possible to a gorgeous and eerie impressionistic dreamscape – a fantastical space filled with fantastical creatures, less a dance than a purely cinematic confection, the film a distilled essence of those emotions dance (and, by corollary, all of Art) can evoke. Dance has been the stand-in for all art, but this dance could only exist in the art form of cinema – the boudaries of Art have been pushed down, and the true possibility of film begins to bloom. The result is breathtaking; there is one shot of a human mass become a flower that is one of the most indelible images I have seen on screen. Much of the credit for this goes to the cinematographer and the art director, and to Powell himself. Equal credit should be given the dancers, led by Moria Shearer in a fantastic performance. Some actors can dance. This, to me, seems a dancer who can act.

Anton Walbrook is amazing as Boris, at turns imperious and condescending, then polite and refined, at times encouraging, at times brutal, but always driven with his one monstrous love, which is the dance. For Boris, there are no part-time artists; amateurs to him are more than disgusting, they are profane. He sees himself as a kind of high priest, who assays the talent and casts out any who bring less than full commitment to his God. Those who make room for love, for a life of their own, have not understood. Art is demanding as those murderous red shoes, a pure fire that consumes everything, and leaves truth and beauty behind in its char. Why try to bring less than all?

The most subversive element of The Red Shoes is that, while our sympathies are with the young couple, the film itself seems to agree with Boris. Boris is never painted as a villain, even as his entrenched views tear his company apart and move the narrative closer to the edge of tragedy. Could he have prevented conflict by choking back? Yes, but at the expense of the dance. Art is always; love is fleeting. “Some day,” says the young composer, “I will be able to tell my grandchildren I was in love with the great dancer.” He is not worthy; he already sees the end. Their interlude will be as transient as the night, but the beauty they create on stage will not fade. Boris’ greatness is that he realizes this. His tragic failure is that he arrogantly equates loyalty to art with loyalty to himself.

And now, just for sheer weirdness, and because YouTube disallows embedding of all the actual clips available from the movie, here's something somebody put together with this film and a Joy Division song.

Bad craziness.