Saturday, September 18, 2010


Ah, Stroszek. The tale of the colorful outsider Bruno Stroszek, portrayed by the colorful outsider Bruno S. Bruno S. deserves his own story, so I won't go into it now (I've included the link to wiki in case any one is interested). It is worth noting, however, that Werner Herzog wrote the movie specifically for Bruno S. in four days. Very impressive to be able to come up with such a tale of sadness and melancholy alienation in such a short amount of time, let alone composing a film that plays so specifically and well to an actor's characteristics. But that was certainly one of Herzog's strengths, i.e. all of his films with Kinski.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Leviathan filmmaking.

Maybe cinema is the medium through which artists most acutely express their vantage of the world. A conglomerate of skills and mediums exploding with vibrant images, probing narratives, and tightly honed technical prowess, film IS art. To view a film is to act as an detective, noting the subtle, often transparent, techniques used in its creation and in its presentation. A slight alteration in lighting or camera angle can shift the mood or message of an entire scene. A good director or filmmaker, if nothing else, is deliberate. A choice is not a whim for these few. Do you think there is anything in an Orson Wells movie that he did not mandate to be there? Not likely. When Fellini constructs a vast, multi-layered scene with seemingly endless scope, he does so meticulously. Each layer carefully planned and contemplated for a reason. After all, this is how you create a masterpiece.
This task, overbearing scrutiny, is falling to the wayside in the contemporary film industry. So seldom is a film created that represents a filmmaker’s desires and his desires alone. I believe that the formula for success is not having a skilled team of experts each responsible for a piece of the puzzle, but one leviathan manifesting his own mind. This separates the wheat from the chaff. A shit director can skate by because his special effects team is tremendous or she hired good writers only to result in an average movie. A movie that might make some money, might be talked about for about eight minutes and then quickly forgotten. This is fine and provides pockets of entertainment here and there. Lord knows I need the breaks from everyday life. In the end, there are good movies and there are bad movies, they each requires a vision of some kind, but the great movies are those which emerge from the mind of a sole creator. A diabolical mastermind churning up thematic depth and projecting it thirty feet wide and luminous. This is how Antonioni did it. The Cohen Brothers, Di Sica, all of the greats. They made movies that baffle us in their complexity. Too much for more than one mind to handle.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Finally saw Invictus this weekend, and I gotta say that opinion-wise, I’m torn. On the one hand, the acting was fantastic. Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela is probably the best match-up of actor-historical character, and must’ve been the easiest casting call to make. Hell, you don’t have to put makeup on Freeman, and Mandela, a man of quiet dignity that radiates awe is exactly the type of character that Freeman has consistently excelled at playing. Also, Matt Damon was pretty good – his South African accent was declared by a South African acquaintance of mine as perfect. The story is also quite nice, and its refreshing to see a sport other than football, baseball, or basketball depicted in a widely distributed movie, and one that clearly had Oscarian aspirations.

On the other hand…The movie was about the racial bonding that this game enabled. Obviously, this isn't a problem in-itself. The problem was how this theme was depicted and developed - it was done in  such a run-of-the-mill Hollywood way that was boring and sometimes annoying. I can’t even tell you how many times an Afrikaaner, who formerly talked disparagingly about the blacks, looks over a black man or woman with a disarming and knowing smile, as if to say ‘Hey, no worries…I’ve learned better. All that racial shit before…nah....I’ve grown. So, let’s go watch rugby.” RRRR. RRR. I know. The movie’s plot dwelt on that point, and it was important that the audience came out of the movie really realizing just how bad things were before, and how helpful the game really was. But at the same time…I feel that moments such as that are just cheap ways of demonstrating the point, tugging at the heartstrings almost in a wishy-washy, non-confrontational way (not that those adjectives apply, per se to that scene - the scene just gives of that sort of vibe). And yet the happened again and again.

Furthermore, the rugby scenes weren’t especially good. Again, a South African acquaintance, “All the Americans thought there was too much rugby in the movie, all the Africans thought there wasn’t enough.” He also said that the rugby scenes weren’t well done, because they used actors, not rugby players. I don’t know anything about rugby, and to me it did look like they were playing pretty hard. But rugby is a hell of a sport, and I can believe that it gets tougher, rougher, and more violent than depicted. I didn’t think there was too much rugby though. I thought what rugby there was was A) incredibly difficult to understand. The scoreboard was rarely shown, which was obviously a poor move, considering it’s a sport that so few Americans understand. Show us the scoreboard, because any audience will at least understand points.

B) Slow motion. The last play of the game, the great one, the monumental and historical game, was played in slow motion. And it slo-moed for quite a while. Ten minutes, it seemed. I have to say that at one point in my brief life, slow motion in sports movies worked for me. It built the dramatic tension, emphasized how hard the game was, etc. Now, I’m done. It’s another cheap trick that has lost much luster. I can’t take it seriously. I hear slow motion grunts, I see everything slow motion…I get bored. Honestly, what should have been a climactic scene failed to move me and truthfully bored me. Perhaps they could have used the slo-mo sparingly, and that would have worked. But they blocked out everything at quarter speed, or whatever slow down they did. And then, of course, because of all the slow motion power, they win (well, not really. But its very easy to say that, considering they weren't winning until the play-speed was slowed down drastically. So maybe they had more time to push? I don't know. Never played slow motion rugby). Anyway I can’t begrudge the movie that they won – it’s a true story, and they did win (that’s just a gripe of mine about sports movies – teams always win. Except for Friday Night Lights, which also used a bunch of slo-mo. But that seemed to work there, I think, because it flowed seamlessly with the soundtrack provided by Explosions in the Sky, that drony, electronic violin sounding stuff. And I know that teams need to win in sports movies, because otherwise, who cares. Just a gripe.)

Another annoying thing about Invictus. When Freeman, as Mandela descends via helicopter to wish the team good luck, some song that is remarkably corny comes on. My god. They couldn’t have chosen a worse song. Something about overcoming odds, or ignoring black and white…I don’t know. Awful. I was embarrassed for the movie. Samantha, who watched the movie with me, stated, “Someone really wanted to get that song in this movie.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. If anyone has seen Prince Caspian, and recalls the song that plays right before the credits…well, it was like that. Perhaps a producer thought this song could be the next Celine Dion Titanic song. Well, producer, you were wrong. It was a crap choice.

This review makes it seem as though I really didn’t like the movie. Not at all. The reason I’m laying out these complaints is because it was a good movie that could have been really, really great, if not for these simple mistakes that stand out so loudly. At times, the movie just was too…Hollywoody? Let me explain one more instance. The two bodyguards, white guy and black guy are watching the game (these are the more ‘second in command’ bodyguards. Also, what follows has nothing to do with whether they are black or white- this is just the easiest way to differentiate the  two). First, the white guy, who is a huge rugby fan explains to the black guy that the game is going to OT. The black guy says, in predictable Hollywood fashion, “I can’t look” or something of that ilk. Yeah, yeah, a little humor. But that is the humorless humor, the obligatory Hollywood humor that exists to draw chuckles, because it inevitably does, to break tension, to, to, to accomplish nothing as regards the plot, to contribute nothing significant to the history of humor, and for god’s sake its been done so many times before. And then, the worst!! This pair of bodyguards, as everyone is cheering, the team won, awesome, turn to each other, happy, about to hug, and then back off. The “Bros gone almost too far because they got caught up in the moment” moment. Seriously!? I hate that. It was funny the first time it was done. Then, it turned into a capital offense to cinema. Come on, really?

There are many other instances I could relate (the odd asides of story line, like with the little black boy who listens to the white cops’ radio, the twice done trick of "where you think something bad is going to happen, and then poof! its benign!" [newspaper delivery truck, airplane with “Go Bokkes” written on the bottom], the corny [again with the corny, I’m sorry] scene in the jail cell where Damon pictures Freeman reading the poem [that scene could have been much more powerful] and lastly, when Damon tells Freeman “Thank you Mr. President, for what you’ve done for the country,” right after Freeman tells Damon the same thing. That line was the worst acting of the movie and seemed so forced – Damon didn’t say it so much as push it out of his mouth in a wave of aural reluctance).

That little bit above typifies my reaction to Invictus. It was a good movie. But there were just so many of these scenes that I couldn’t focus on the main story of the film – the empowering figure of Nelson Mandela who strove to unite a country that didn’t want to unite, and managed to do it using a powerful symbol of the previously repressive Afrikaaner majority and by using Jesusesque (maybe Gandhish) forgiveness.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Le Million

I just watched an interesting movie from 1931, René Clair's Le Million. I'd have to classify it as a slapdash French comedy that is in the same vein as Looney Tunes, albeit with an operatic twist (it's demi-musical, where sometimes the plot is advance through speech, sometimes through song). 

The plot is simple. A down on his luck Bohemian artiste, who juggles two women and a roommate/friend who is apt to stab him in the back to perform self-interested acts of loyal friendship, is in severe debt to his grocer, butcher, landlord, etc., who have had enough of his constant skirting his bills. Just as the hammer is about to fall, the young artiste finds that he's won the lottery. Unfortunately, one of the two women who happens to be his fiancee has given away his jacket to a burglar on the run from the police. The jacket, of course, has the ticket in the pocket, and our young artiste sets out to reclaim his ticket. Hilarity, song, and French ensues. 

The movie is quite enjoyable. Its not hysterical, by any means, but there are certainly some funny parts. By far the funniest scene is in the police station. The artiste struggles to explain his true identity to an older policeman who clearly has heard this story before. To emphasize this point is an older gentleman who consistently interrupts the gendarme and the artiste to ask, very politely, if he may now go. He is reprimanded time and time again and told that he may not, and must go back and sit on the bench. In the background, if you continue to watch him, he continually puts on his hat, while a gendarme next to him removes it and places it on his lap. Undeterred, he picks it up, and innocently places it on his head as though nothing has happened. This sort of repetitious, innocently confused humor can be seen in The Life of Brian. Brian gives away a gourd to a scruffy bum who keeps interjecting himself into Brian's frantic conversation to haggle over the price, despite the fact that Brian has given it to him (see video). 

As I mentioned before, the movie is reminiscent of the best parts of Looney Tunes, which I clearly am conditioned too, because as I was watching Le Million, I kept expecting Bugs Bunny style things to occur. For instance, people are chasing each other (this happens constantly in the movie). They run by a fire hose. Conditioned to the 'Tunes as I am, I expect one of the characters to grab the hose, spray the other, and then run away. This does not happen. However, true to its comedic slapstick type form, other tropes do occur - slapping someone instead of explaining yourself, then turning tail and running, police who clamp down on the nearest person a la Venus flytraps, regardless of who they are. 

All in all, the movie was quite pleasant, blending a stage musical with a filmed one. Things go wrong, sometimes quite wrong for various characters, but you never feel a sense of dread or unhappiness. Certainly an interesting example of comedy in the '30s (although it doesn't hold a candle to Chaplin or the Marx bros.).

Not Cool, Man

Yet another threat to old film: mold. A venerable British film archive, the North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University  is being infected with the mold, which eats the gelatin that coats that film, rendering it permanently useless. The full article can be found here.

Its a real shame. Time and time again we are reminded of the frailty of this medium that we use to immortalize ourselves. Film of course, isn't completely immortal. Think of the incredibly flammable nitrate film bases (for a cinematic moment, recall Cinema Paradiso, when the projector catches fire - not an uncommon occurrence in those days). Luckily we've moved beyond that to mediums that are much more stable, and we have vast digital storage facilities. So we don't have to worry about our  contemporary movies disappearing completely (although maybe some should...{cough..Juwanna Man}), just older film stocks. People are, however, going to great lengths to preserve them, as well they should.

Notably, to me at least, many of the films in the British archives are recordings of daily life - newsreels, home videos, etc., not features. Admittedly, the loss of feature films is a great loss indeed. But these unplanned shots offer us a true look into what life was really like back then - unscripted and messy, aka real. These shots are truly priceless.

Two bits of good news from the article, or at least tepid news  - the mold has so far only affected about 100  out of 20,000 films, and the archives are constructing deep freeze with low humidity to prevent the mold from spreading.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Two 'must see' movies...or at least two that I'm going to make it a point to see

 Movie #1: Machete

Seriously,  this flick is going to be awesome. Highbrow? No. But gory glory? Yes. What else would we want from this faux trailer-turned-feature? By the way, if you read the NYTimes preview of it, which is a glowing a pre-review as you could ever want, look for Stephen Holden's awesome, oh-so-allusional description of Danny Trejo's head as reminiscent of a buffalo nickel. 

Movie #2:  A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop

Apparently Zhang Yimou (director of Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) has remade the Coen Brother's debut movie, Blood Simple. A.O. Scott, the Times' chief movie critic par excellence (who displays a remarkable sense of judgment and objectivity. I applaud and admire the way that he is able to review movies that are so obviously terrible or that belong to categories not traditionally known for producing the most haute or well thought out films in the same manner that he'd review a Truffaut or Godard. See, por ejemplo, his most recent review of Going the Distance, which he actually concedes just isn't half bad at all) has set for us a challenge: "Let us leave, at least for now, the pleasures of side-by-side comparison to budding cineastes, who will learn a lot from studying the decisive difference that specific technical choices — having to do with editing, shot selection and sound design — can make with respect to the mood and meaning of a single story." (Here's a link to the Scott article).

So, with that in mind, I intend to take up his challenge and claim the prestigious title (yeah...prestigious) of 'budding cineaste.' Stay tuned for the review. Either way, the Coen's are just fantastic, really, really brilliant directors, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the Zhang Yimou movies mentioned above. I'm certain these movies will deliver, and I look forward to sharing my views on them with you.