Sunday, June 19, 2011

La Dolce Vita

Reposted from Alt Screen

LA DOLCE VITA (literally, "the sweet life"; figuratively, less so) unfolds as a series of capsular stories. Nearly all of these vignettes conclude with tragedies of varying magnitudes. Possibly the most startling dénouement comes from the story of the intellectual Steiner, protagonist Marcello Rubini’s long estranged mentor in the literary arts. The two reunite amidst the pews of a church that Steiner frequents, although he’s not attended for religious reasons, but to gain access to the priest’s literary collection and the massive pipe organ. Pumping the instrument’s keys, jesting with a few strains of jazz until reprimanded by the padre, Steiner radiates a mix of confidence and tranquility, while Marcello skulks in the background, slinking into the shadows of the church’s corners, as though trying to shield himself from Steiner’s astute eye.

The reason for Marcello’s attempt to lay low? Shame. Marcello’s behavior, as a gossip columnist, has revealed him to be the type of person not easily cowed into ignominy. Confronted in a nightclub over a recent article in which he revealed an elegant, modestly bejeweled noble as an adulteress, he merely dons dark sunglasses, and shrugs. “I have to inform the public,” he says, “it’s my job. After all, it’s just a little publicity.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

No Time

In the NY Review of Books, Zadie Smith reviews a tempting film by Christian Marclay, The Clock:
In my notebook I tried to state the obvious, to get it clear in my own mind. The Clock is a twenty-four-hour movie that tells the time. This is achieved by editing together clips of movies in which clocks appear. But The Clock is so monumental in intention and design that even the simplest things you can say about it need qualification.
 The movie sounds...well, amazing. A revelatory experience, perhaps, the impels you to think. After all, there is no plot whatsoever, and I imagine each image is relatively easy to digest. So, as you watch it, you begin to think. You think about how movies portray time, about how when certain things happen, in short, you focus on details that are thought out by filmmakers but generally not noticed by film viewers.

Buried in the piece is this little conclusion, that I like:
Principles dear to Denzel—tension, climax, resolution—are immanent in all the American clips, while their absence is obvious in the merest snatch of French art house. A parsing of the common enough phrase “I don’t like foreign movies” might be “I don’t want to sit in a cinema and feel time pass.”
I think there's some truth to that, although the aversion to 'feeling time pass' isn't a reaction that one has only while watching foreign movies. But long unbroken shots tend to make people uncomfortable, especially when the camera moves very slowly. People want something to happen, and they get impatient when the camera doesn't cut. Even a film like Weekend, with it's famous traffic jam choked with carnage, tests people. It's disconcerting for a movie to move so slowly, perhaps, and our ADD sensors are finely opposed to that sort of deliberate pacing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Get Low (2009)

'Get Low' finds Robert Duvall playing an aging hermit by the name of Felix Bush who's lived in near seclusion on 300 some-odd acres for forty or so years. His main preoccupation, we're to infer, is caring for his mule and lands, punctuated every now and again with chasing off the errant youngsters that come to throw rocks through his windows. The tale is set in the early 20th century, perhaps, but it's conceivable that it might be set in some ideal, fictionalized version of Americana, in which everything is polished wood and old-timey.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009)

The true story of Mark Yavorsky, who stabbed his mother with a sabre while under the influence of Aeschylus is a strange one. It’s also bait for Werner Herzog, who obviously has a penchant for stories of the lone individual – and so much the better if that individual happens to be unstable (see also: almost every Herzog film). In ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?’ Herzog has kept the matricidal component of Yavorsky's story, while substituting his own background and resolution. What results is a chilling, deliberately paced film about madness, and about being blind to that madness.

The film is direct and to the point; rather than build to a dénouement, it starts with one. Within the first ten minutes, we know that Brad (Herzog has changed Mark’s name to Brad McCullum) has killed his mother and is holed up in a house across the street from the crime, surrounded by the police. We also know that this remarkable event is the central event of the movie; the mysteries lie in how this came about, and how it will end.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

Kleptomania, a compulsion to steal without any motive or thought for what one is stealing. We consider it a disorder, a condition in which the self has no control and acts reactively, thoughtlessly, and at times, foolishly. But how different is this from the vast majority of our everyday existence, in which we react to stimuli, mainly without deep thought or reflection? Sure, we may ponder difficult questions and put a significant amount of time and mental effort into solving problems, but most of what we do is ‘off the cuff’ and mindless.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Speed Clips

'No York City' by Rick Liss is a sped up stroll through NYC of the '80s. There are many things of note in the flick, which seems to represent the coke binges of the time as much as it does the fast-paced nature of 'the city that never sleeps' - the Twin Towers, the Lower East Side as burnt out shells and hulks of empty buildings, mimes in Central Park, street fairs and vendors...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

F*ckin' Fascists

 How do seemingly good people fall prey to the seduction of evil movements? Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini try to address this question with two differing accounts of the rise of fascism in Italy prior to the Second World War. In both accounts, fascism is an intoxicant, capturing the minds and souls of Italians by appealing to their base instincts and susceptibilities. In Bertolucci's account, fascism appeals to perversion and power lust, and emerges in a horrid expression of anger and ressentiment. Fellini paints a different picture, though; one of misguided Italians, intoxicated by the symbols at play into drunkenness akin to religious zeal. It manifests through a people who are childish and immature, unable to see the ramifications of the movement that they’ve fallen capture to.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What We're Watching: The City Concealed

The City Concealed: High Bridge from on Vimeo.

From Thirteen, an excellent on-going video series exploring the hidden crevasses, structures, history, and parks of New York City. My personal favorite so far is the video of the High Bridge, which spans the Harlem River at 173rd street (from the Manhattan side). It's the oldest surviving bridge in NYC, opening in 1848. If you've driven onto the FDR from the GWB, you've gone under it, and probably wondered what the enormous, unused structure was - made all the more curious by its combination of masonry and steel (awesome picture of the bridge as it originally looked here). Luckily, it will shortly be undergoing similar treatment as the High Line and the newly opened Walkway Over the Hudson, and will open as a pedestrian bridge in a magnificent example of urban reuse.

An introduction to the series is here, and the main page is here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter's Bone (2010)

Wherein lies the appeal of tales of quests? Perhaps it is that a part of the human condition is an innate ‘striving-for,’ and for the vast majority of us the subject of our ‘striving-for’ is unknown (This is a point to be expanded on elsewhere). A quest has a distinct goal, and would furnish us with a subject to ‘strive-for,’ while the well-told tale of a quest might provide us with a vicarious outlet for our own unfulfilled and directionless ‘striving-for.’ It is this vicarious participation that accounts for our tendency to become sympathetic to the character who sets out on a quest, a sympathy that can allow us to ignore or downplay certain unpleasant characteristics that a protagonist may display. Of course, if a character displays noble or admirable traits, we may become even more deeply invested in the character’s fate or success, even if the character belongs to a culture that is foreign to us, and is the sort of character that we wouldn’t be able to come to know in the course of our lives.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), of 'Winter’s Bone', is the sort of character that many of us would be unfamiliar with. She lives in the Ozarks and belongs to a community that is insular to the extreme. Her mother is an invalid of some sort while her father is a meth cook who’s MIA, which leaves the 17-year old Ree as the sole caretaker of her much younger brother and sister. Their father, unscrupulous as all hell, has skipped out on his bail, which shouldn’t affect Ree and her siblings except for the fact that he posted their house and surrounding lot for bond; unless he is found, the house will be forfeited to the bondsman, and the family turned out. Ree, a modern day Stoic whose mask barely slips throughout the entire film, accepts her burden with barely a blink. “I’ll find him,” she tells the sheriff who's informed her of her father’s truancy, and although the movie’s barely begun, we know that she will.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Machete (2010)

Way back in September, I proclaimed ‘Machete’ to be a 'must see’ movie – or at least one that I was going to make it a point to see. I didn’t make it a point to see it in theaters, but I did catch it belatedly on DVD, a mere five months later.

Basically, the movie was all I could have hoped for. My expectations were for a surfeit of red corn syrup, large blades, and rock and roll - and 'Machete' did not disappoint.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Baby Doll (1956)

Eli Wallach received a well-deserved 'Lifetime Achievement' Oscar this year for his prodigious career. He's probably best known for playing Tuco, the 'ugly,' of 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.' But in his first role, he won a BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer in a curious, genre-defying movie directed by Elia Kazan: 'Baby Doll.'

'Baby Doll' came about via a collaboration between Kazan and Tennessee Williams, and was adapted from one of Williams' one-act plays, '27 Wagons Full of Cotton.' The plot is simple. Archie Lee Meighan, played by Karl Malden, is a typical Southern cotton-ginner - what do I mean by 'typical'? His middle name is Lee - that should give some indication of his pedigree. Archie Lee is a middle-aged Southern man in the 1950's - bigoted, close-minded, and of the opinion that what the man says and does is right. He's in an arranged marriage with the virgin blonde beaut Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), who's promised (by her father, who speaks for her on his dying bed) to relinquish this one card she has over Archie Lee on her 20th birthday, which happens to be in two days. Until then, Baby Doll sleeps in a crib, the one relict piece of furniture in their decrepit antebellum mansion, and Archie Lee spies on her through holes in the plaster.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Will this offend someone? Probably.

Via Al Jazeera, a new Turkish action movie, 'Valley of the Wolves: Palestine' that is almost guaranteed to offend, not the least since it's about a Turkish Commando that must shoot his way out of Israel as part of a mission of vengeance, in retaliation for the Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla. But, wow - talk about an audacious plot.

Monday, January 31, 2011

"We want you to take from us"

The 99% has a great interview with Francis Ford Coppola, where he talks about a number of things, including some advice on how to develop one's own style:
I once found a little excerpt from Balzac. He speaks about a young writer who stole some of his prose. The thing that almost made me weep,  he said, “I was so happy when this young person took from me.” Because that’s what we want. We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.

There's also a great anecdote about the making of 'The Godfather':
I said, “I want you to come and be hungry.” And they came to a restaurant that I had arranged, the back room of the restaurant, just a table that looked like a home. Marlon, I had sit at the head of the table, and to his right I put Al Pacino, and to his left I put Jimmy Caan. I put Bobby Duvall, and I put Johnny Cazale, and I had my sister Talia, who played Connie, serve the food.

They had a dinner improvisation together, and after awhile everyone is relating to Marlon as the father, and Jimmy Caan is trying to impress him with jokes, and Al Pacino is trying to impress him by being intense and quiet, and my sister was so frightened – she was serving the food. And after that dinner they were the characters.

The full interview can be found here.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


'Howl' is a poem that lives and breathes. Its fire is lit with internal combustion, which drives forth a powerful and real emotion that is both reflective and familiar. When I began watching the movie 'Howl', I had high hopes, albeit tempered with the trepidation that usually accompanies a cinematic version of something you enjoy in written form - even more so when the writing is a poem. I could hear the screams beforehand: “The book was better!” I generally hate when people say that because it is so universally true it doesn’t need to be said... and you sound like a jerk.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

German Expressionism, Greek Tragedy, and KMT China: 'Song at Midnight'

'The Phantom of the Opera' is one of the works that so pervades the artistic consciousness that you deem it unnecessary to view, for you've been so bombarded with it and talk of it, and cinematic references to it that you feel familiarized with the material, despite having never read the original book, seen a play version, or watched a filmed version. This arrogance of assumed knowledge is generally wrong.

It was with the aforementioned hubris that I decided to watch the cultural mash-up of another age, 'Song at Midnight' (also know as 'Midnight Song,' and first known as 'Ye ban ge sheng,' its original Chinese name whose Pinyin transcription I've probably just mangled, the literal translation of which is 'Voice at Midnight'). The film is a grainy, Chinese version of 'Phantom of the Opera' that meshes the original French story, German Expressionism, and Greek tragedy, as well as some (what was then) contemporary politics.

Paul Giamatti Joints

Neil Drumming coins a new phrase: the Paul Giamatti joint (PGJ, or, a variant, the Paul Giamatti Movie - PGM).
This is key: PGMs almost always feature a protagonist who commits acts so reprehensible that, were these acts to be committed by someone less gruff-but-lovable, say, Ewan McGregor, or Christian Bale, or your next-door neighbor, you'd want to scold him, sue him, or kick him in the balls. Think back to Giamatti stealing money from his own mother in Sideways. That bastard! That poor bastard! See? Somehow you feel sorry for him.

Whether he be sad sack, underdog, or everyman, both the greatest signifier and strength of the Paul Giamatti Movie has got to be the flawed, sympathetic hero. He doesn't want to take over the world. He just wants his due. And even though he often goes about it the wrong way, it's easy to root for that guy because, well, so do we.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Golden Coach (1953)

If the theme of 'The Golden Coach' (Le Carrosse d'or) could be summed up in one phrase, it would be that uttered by Anna Magnani as she reflects on her life and situation: "Where is truth? Where does the theatre end and life begin?" This is the question that Jean Renoir wished to explore when he directed 'The Golden Coach,' a sumptuous film loosely based on Le Carrosse du Saint Sacrement, a comedic play by Prosper Mérimée. The movie is ostensibly about the love triangle that forms around Camilla (Magnani), the star actress of a comedia dell'arte troupe in a small Peruvian town in the early 19th century. But at its core, it's a method for Renoir to examine the relationship between acting and real life, about performances that we give both on and off the stage.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

True Grit (2010)

"I will not use any contractions while I set out upon the errand that you have suffered upon me."

So says Jeff Bridges as 'Rooster' Cogburn in 'True Grit.' Well, not exactly. But he could have, in a movie whose verbal mise en scene is as significant, and more entertaining and captivating than the visual scene. Truly, one of the highlights of the movie is hearing these grizzled, filthy Westerners speak with a voice that sounds like its slipping out from behind a wad of chaw, yet all the while using a language and diction that's as sophisticated, obscure, and contrived as it is self-reflective and descriptive. This is not cowboy dialect. These characters are remarkably expressive and verbose, sometimes to the point of excess. Instead of John Wayne's drawling, "Well he-yar's whatchur gonna do," we have Josh Brolin (playing Tom Chaney) musing, "I do not know what I shall do now," or something along those lines.

Language has played a major role in the Coen brothers' oeuvre - think about the fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill in 'O! Brother,' The Dudes' whines and 'Mans,' or Amy Archer in the 'Hudsucker Proxy' as she rattles of words with typewriter efficiency cadence. 'True Grit,' then, and it's unconventional yet appealing linguistics was an easy choice for them to produce. Largely, they've left the story as it is. It's easy, though, to appreciate their initial attraction to the tale and their desire to transcribe it to the screen unmolested (questionable morals, a story of revenge and redemption, etc) as well as note their own peculiar touch. True, 'True Grit' is a straightforward a tale as the Coen's have ever told. But their quirks, humor, and cold-blooded realism shine through, which allows them to present a unique sort of Western.  The result isn't a Western of black and white morality, like the kind that John Wayne's frequently associated with, where Injuns were always bad, cowboys were always right, and the main character was heroic with good intentions and got the girl - a Hollywood style of Western that has violence, but de-emphasizes it. It's not a Spaghetti Western either, a 'Man with No Name' sort of production, where the morals and motivations of the characters are ambiguous and generally self-serving and violence is rampant, and meted out randomly.

Friday, January 7, 2011

NASA, Arbiter of the Possible

NASA is sick of having to reassure people that the plot of the most recent Sci-Fi apocalyptic can't happen. Being an agency of action, they've taken two essential steps. First, they set up a 'Refute 2012' website (link).

Next, they decided to release a list of the most absurd science fiction movies that can never happen:
1. 2012 (2009)
2. The Core (2003)
3. Armageddon (1998)
4. Volcano (1997)
5. Chain Reaction (1996)
6. The 6th Day (2000)
7. What The #$*! Do We Know? (2004)
 But, being a nonpartisan government agency, NASA had to address the other side of the spectrum. So they released a list of the most plausible sci-fi movies:

1. Gattaca (1997)
2. Contact (1997)
3. Metropolis (1927)
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
5. Woman In The Moon (1929)
6. The Thing From Another World (1951)
7. Jurassic Park (1993)
So, we may be reassured that whatever went down in '2012' won't, the center of the earth won't need adjustment, Bruce Willis won't be required to nuke asteroids (bummer), a volcano won't erupt from the La Brea tar pits, Arnold Schwarzenegger won't have to confront his clone and decide who's real, and that kid in 'What the #$*! Do We Know" won't be able to be in plenty of different places at once on a basketball court (sorry, I've never seen 'Chain Reaction').

But we should be afraid, too. The list of the plausible movies should fill us with dread, for they do not contain scenes of benevolence. 'Jurassic Park'? Dinosaurs eating people - bad. The robot from 'The Day the Earth Stood Still?' Bad, but at least we know the phrase that shuts him down (Klaatu barada nikto). And 'Metropolis' - a dystopian future with half the population living underground and society run by megalomaniacal industrial overlords?

Eh. Now that I think about it, it doesn't sound too far-off from what we've got now.

Full list - A.V. Club

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


The Voyeur is an interesting individual and an exhibit of a part of each of us that we choose not to share. One of the most interesting parts of living in a modern, global society is that our individual members are often more interesting than their appearance lets on. The mundane is the most rich. We all know this but we choose not to explore further into other lives than our own for mores prevent such behavior. Or possibly it is only those who lack a threshold level of self-importance or narcissistic value that look beyond themselves and into the lives of others. We’re all curious in some way, right?
Complications arise when the plane is broken between observation and meddling . After following someone all day, wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what their home looks like? or smells like? What if you started picking people you thought might have interesting or expensive things in their home?
Christopher Nolan’s first feature length film, Following, explores this small nuance of humanity. A film he both wrote and directed, there are elements of his later Memento throughout this film noir tale of exploitation. The relatively simple, albeit interesting, premise twists when the Voyeur follows a man who breaks into houses for a living. Predictably, he then crosses over from the benign to the home invader. The thief explains his philosophy in eloquent and simple terms that make sense and almost even convince the viewer that its not such a big deal. He explains the magnificence of the little mementos found stuffed in an old box. We all have them. Call them “junk drawers,” keep them in boxes in a closet or what have you. The little things that have memories attached to them but are not important or significant enough to display visibly in the home, yet they are too crucial to toss away. These, he explains, are the meat of the home. The rare and exquisite articles that make up a life. The Thief doesn’t steal these things but rather likes to cast them across the floor as to remind the owner of them and their memories. Shake em’ up.
I think the Thief is doing these people a favor (aside from the stuff he actually does steal). We could all use a reminder of who we were and we could all use the chance to reevaluate which memories we want to keep storing away.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Online Festival Watch

From the NYTimes:
Cineastes won’t have to leave their computers to see the work of emerging French filmmakers. UniFrance, a government-sponsored association of French Film industry professionals, in partnership with AlloCiné, an online Paris film directory, have organized a new online event called My French Film Festival and are offering it around the world for two weeks starting Jan. 14. Featuring 10 full-length films and 10 shorts, all recently released in France by emerging directors, the festival will make them available individually or as a group. Visitors can go to to stream a feature film for $2.60; a short for $1.30 or the entire slate for $18.40. The festival will be judged and voted on by the public, bloggers and critics, with the winner receiving a noncash award to be announced at the end of the festival, on Jan. 29.

I'll check it out, report back to ya.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Wicker Man (1973)

An amphibious plane flies above umber fens and grassy tidal marshes while an upbeat dirge plays. The landscape is beautiful, haunting and lonely; moors and cliffs tumble down into the sea but they are flat and barren - only grass rises to meet the eye. This is Summerisle, a remote Hebridean Isle off the northwest coast of Scotland, and the pilot is Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) who's been sent to the isle to investigate the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, a young girl.