30 April 2010

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Confession time: I've never seen a Frank Capra film before tonight. Yes, that means I've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, so I totally don't know whether or not George Bailey kills himself or what. But despite not seeing any Capra, I had a strong idea of what Capra was known for: baldfaced moralizing, big lessons. I don't mean that in a bad way -- I know he's loved and respected, but I also know he's famous for moralizing and lessons. What I didn't know before tonight is that he's also fantastic at simple characterizations and complex relationships, and while he does tend (in Mr. Smith at least) to beat you over the head with his point as though you were a dead horse, he also offers a point that's nuanced and complicated. Sure, the good guys are really, really good, and the bad guys are pretty dang awful, but the situation isn't easy and the solution -- well, the actual solution isn't easy. More on that in a moment.

Mr. Smith moves along at a great clip, two nonstop hours of humor and heartwarmingness, and like I say it's got some really fine moments, just tiny things (Smith and his hat; the piggy congressman stuck in the phone booth; Diz and Saunders drunk) that sell you on his people, make you kind of love them. It isn't afraid to be funny every chance it gets, and I think Capra knows that's the sugar that makes his medicine easy to swallow -- but what's more is, he lays out a complicated, interesting, concise world, and that's what (for my money) makes his medicine worth swallowing. Even when Smith is filibustering, totally and unequivocably and 10,000% on the side of Goodness, he is portrayed as cut-off, detached from the citizens he cares so much about. And they from him; they depend on the media to have any idea what's really happening in Washington, and for various reasons throughout the story (often greed-related reasons, but occasionally for more sly motives like sensationalism or good old mocking the suspicious new guy) the media is shown to be scandalous, inaccurate, or downright deceptive. There is the citizenry and there is the government and the bridge between them is a rickety and fallible one, and no solution to that dilemma is offered in the story here.

The "solution" to corruption in the Senate -- the attempted suicide and then berserker-confession of Senator Payne (the brilliant Claude Rains) -- which I admit is well-motivated, still feels rushed, thrown in last-minute, as if they were in a hurry to wrap things up and give Jeff Smith his victory. Still, I don't think Capra really believed that guilty senators held the key to the real life problems he was suggesting, and so not despite but because of his movie's easy, last-minute resolution, he makes the open question of what should be done about the problems he portrays all the more apparent. We can't guilt our dirty politicians into killing themselves or throwing themselves on the mercy of the Senate floor... So what do we do?

It's 70 years later. We still don't have an answer.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) *

I was invited to a midnight screening of this and went with the expectation that the film wouldn't even be good by horror standards -- which more and more I am defining very simply as "legitimately scary" or "legitimately creepy" and ideally both. But I know better than to expect too much of either from a slasher film, at least a non-classic slasher film, so I went into it as research, as I have done to many films lately. My goal was to think about what makes a thing scary or not, which techniques work and which don't. Unfortunately, the only things this movie considers scary are jump-out-at-you shock moments which are always accompanied by a loud, sharp metallic burst on the soundtrack. Remember those rickety old carnival haunted-house rides where you sit in a little metal car and plastic skeletons leap off walls at you? Modern horror films seem to assume that those carnival rides are the ultimate experience of "horror." I didn't learn a single thing about how to scare you that I hadn't already learned elsewhere. Anticipation is fun, but surprise is better if you can truly pull it off. Videotaped stuff can be creepy. When in doubt, lean hard -- and I mean hard -- on the sound designer to beef up your scare factor for you. And if you can't scare 'em, just make 'em jump (it's basically the same thing). So it was a bust, in terms of research. And in terms of being actually scared (sure, I jumped a couple of times, but it was so LOUD how could I not?).

However: I don't want to go into a whole thing here, but I gave a lot of thought to the dramatic structure of this particular movie. Who's your protagonist? What do they want? What is the story's inciting incident? What is the point of no return into act two? What actions do they take to reach their goals and what stands in their way? And so on. I guess one answer to "who is your protagonist?" is, there are several, passing the protag-baton (which is not a sex device from a Woody Allen movie) forward every ten or fifteen minutes -- whenever it's time to die. The story begins when the kids begin to realize they're all having the same dream. What they want is the most basic thing in the world: to survive. What actions do they take? Precious little. All they do is react, over and over. Their occasional actions -- burning themselves to stay awake, shooting up pure adrenaline -- have zero effect on the story, not even affording them five more minutes of sleeplessness. It was pretty ridiculous, and hard to buy this group of bland pretty people as protagonists. They don't do anything.

The other answer then, is that the protagonist of the story, whose action drives the plot, who makes crucial choices and decisions, is Freddy. He constantly takes actions, makes choices, in fact he creates and populates the world of your dreams as far as I can tell: he is the master storyteller here and he holds all the cards. So what does he want? He wants to punish those who burned him alive by killing their children, sure; and he wants to punish the children who turned him in, yes; but more than either of those things he is forcing these teens down a path, luring them to the preschool they've all (all!) blocked out entirely, into his hidden sex dungeon, showing them recaps of his death and allowing a select few to pool their resources and know his story. He is telling his story. And for a while it seems he is telling his story because the children lied, or were confused, and that Fred Krueger was an innocent man. But no, he wasn't. He wasn't innocent of anything. And so, what's that leave us with? Well, as far as I can tell, the protagonist wants desperately to be given full credit for molestation and/or child pornography, and then he wants to kill the people who he's proven himself a monster to.

So, yeah. I guess I'm confused. Either that, or this is a shitty movie that doesn't make any sense.


I know I'm already running long in this post, but it's my blog and you can't stop me. Anyway, I was talking about the protagonist issue of Nightmare with my friend and professional film critic Eric D. Snider, who actually gets paid for thinking too much about these things (the lucky bastard). Eric pointed out that one of his favorite films, Psycho, is arguably the source of all slasher films, and that Psycho's pointedly unique structure -- a twenty-minute misdirection where we follow a would-be protagonist who turns out to be prey; a bait-and-switch where we don't meet the story's actual protagonist, Mr. Norman Bates, for quite a while -- is exactly what's been hollowed out and aped by all the killer-stalks-victims movies of the last forty years or whatever. Bates of course had a distinct arc and was the ultimate anti-hero protag, and the trick of following a false-protag was deliberate and jarring. When Psycho was made, it wasn't intended to be the blueprint for a whole genre; it was supposed to stand out as unique. Everything it does, it does for a reason, and every "cheat" is to an end. But it's become a formula, and that's why the dramatic structure of the slasher film feels so damn weird. You are given a bunch of semi-protagonists who move the story along in fits and starts but ultimately just end up fodder for more killing, and you are given a mysterious killer whose backstory creates the ultimate framing piece and explanation for all the bland mayhem and hackery. ("Hackery," in this sentence, is a double entendre. I don't want you to miss that.) None of it means anything, and all of it is trying to capture what was magical and frightening about a 1960 thriller film. But each one is just a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, and like xeroxing a xerox, all you end up with is a vague amorphous shape and no detail. It's disappointing, but at least it's interestingly disappointing. Or something.

Seen at Lloyd Center Cinema.

27 April 2010

The Thing

I didn't grow up on "scary movies" or "gory movies" or anything, and I hadn't seen any Carpenter film until I was an adult -- not even Big Trouble in Little China! (Exception: Memoirs of an Invisible Man.) It's not like I was sheltered, exactly. My parents really don't like them and I never really took to them, so it never came up when I was a kid. My point is, I come to this without nostalgia, and The Thing is a pretty excellent film. It's smart. It's freaky. The effects hold up really well (the motion feels fake but the creature designs and models still look fantastic). But it's not very scary. It has moments, sure, but it's no scarier than Terminator or Predator. It's less scary than Alien, which I do consider a horror. The Thing is a horror in that it's a monster movie, but it doesn't instill or sustain any real sense of fear.

On the other hand, it's populated with distinct and realized personalities, and the action is entirely and always character-driven. And people react pretty realistically to the horrific things around them. Plus, it's equal parts Lovecraftian mind-boggling-horror and Dickian layered paranoia, and both parts are handled really intelligently. So it's a no-brainer I like this film. But the way I see it, it's not a horror.

I only bring that up because I'm seeking out scary, and I'm trying to figure out what is and isn't scary in a film. And the reason I don't think The Thing counts is that it's too explicit with its monsterness. It's creepy (a favorite is the famous spider-head), but I think it shows us too much to qualify as scary. I'm thinking of The Host and Cloverfield, but also Poltergeist and even Jaws -- movies with monsters retain the scary until the monster's nature (or form) has been more or less revealed, and then it's just "How do we beat it?" The Thing has some of that, I admit, but it plays out more like a mystery, with clues discovered systematically throughout. It's a procedural. And, like I said, it's smart -- and better than if it played out like a horror -- so none of this is a complaint. It's just what thoughts on the horror genre and my expectations from it I've had while watching a great science fiction movie with a monster.

Dillinger è morto (Dillinger is Dead)

A film like this really shows you how limited the contemporary idea of film language is. It's hard to say much about this on first viewing, because it's deliberately hard to pinpoint what it's about -- I could tell you what happens, but not what it means, and the fact that it's 41 years old doesn't help. It's not so much that it's subtle as that it's nonliteral and open to interpretation. In fact, it's banal and surreal at once. In that, it reminds me wonderfully of Buñuel and Beckett. Good company to be in! Definitely Theatre of the Absurd stuff, here.

Something weirdly uber-modern about the world (read: interior design) of the story as well. Posters for FUTURISM, strange glowing purple cube furniture which may be a lamp or a high table of some kind. Colorful patterns on every white wall. Dancing with Super-8, characters in a film interacting with characters in the film in the film. Michel Piccoli reminds me of a thinner Dan Hedaya. These are all disjointed reactions. Do with them what you will.

But like I say: a film like this really makes you realize how bland our linear narrative storytelling can be. It makes me remember my stranger short scripts. It makes me long to go back to Pinter and Beckett and Ionesco and Albee. It makes me remember what was so great in those French New Wave films. There is absolutely no audience for a film like this today, is there? If this were made in 2010, it would sit on a shelf for forty years before being recovered by film historians and granted a new perspective. Interesting, provocative stuff.

26 April 2010


Before I move into brief but SPOILER heavy territory, let me sum this up by saying: Triangle is a clever-as-hell premise that happens to a bunch of flat, uninteresting characters.

The Möbius nature of the story is concise, and as far as I can tell tight -- though the last half should have moved quicker, since we knew every beat by watching it already during the first half. (A very specific note: I wanted so bad for the film to cut to black when Jess says to the mysteriously cold-hearted and helpful cabdriver "Take me to the harbor." Why oh why did we have to watch the next ten minutes of tension-deflating recap?) The references throughout to Aeolus and Sisyphus were nice because, honestly, I didn't expect them to be so spot-on. I actually didn't see the thematic resonance coming, which is clever. But "clever," this movie has by the bucketful. What it lacks, as I mentioned above, is character.

Unfortunately, it's also a pretty blatant retelling of Timecrimes, another hyper-clever flat-character-inhabited story about closed loops and grandfather paradoxes. Where Timecrimes is straight head-scratching and mind-games, Triangle aims for horror, but it's only achieves "tense," never "scary," and even that lasts a mere thirty minutes before giving way back to the head-scratching and mind-games of its forefather. I've got to give some credit to Triangle though, for taking its ideas to their furthest conclusions, and continually one-upping its own premise to the very end. All that's nicely handled, with several reasonably creepy moments/ideas throughout. (The "pile of things leftover from the infinite loop" trope never felt old, and topped out for creep-factor in the deck full of brutalized, dead Sallys.) If only anybody in the movie had reacted to any of the clever mess in believable ways, or if only they could speak like humans speak. For me what kept me from loving an obviously smart script was its cardboard, throwaway characterizations and forced, artificial-sounding dialogue.

Not terrible, though. Just, alas, not very scary. And despite the ratcheted-up ideas and dark imagery, I think I like Timecrimes a little more not despite but because of its simplicity.

Trivia of note: Jess was played by Melissa George, whom I failed to recognize despite playing the real Camilla Rhodes in Mulholland Dr.

17 April 2010

A Night at the Opera

It's really hard to say anything profound about a Marx Brothers film. They don't hold up to scrutiny; they weren't made for that. But they're endless fun. It's amazing how there's basically only one plot, how Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo (who's not in this one, admittedly) play the same roles every time, and yet it never gets tiresome. Harpo's a brilliant clown/mime (and a whiz on a harp), Chico plays a hilarious (Italian) liar/cheat, and Groucho is the charmingest lech and one-line backhander ever. I'll be honest with you, both were funny, but this film is overall a lot stronger and funnier than Horse Feathers.

My plan was actually to put on Hannah and Her Sisters, since after Horse Feathers I was reminded of the scene where the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, but who's counting) reminds Woody Allen that life is worth living. Thing is, the disc wasn't working, so I went back for another Marx Brothers. To remind myself, as it were. I admit it seems like a cheat to just post a long quote in here and call it my blog entry, but how could I ever top this:

And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I'd seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I'm watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn't it so stupid. Look at all the people up there on the screen, they're real funny, and what if the worst is true. What if there is no God and you only go around once and that's it. Well, ya know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after all, who knows, I mean maybe there is something. Nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that's the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.

Woody Allen has summed up for me something profound about why the Marx Brothers are still fucking amazing, 75 years later. There's no way I was going to put it better.

Horse Feathers

The movie that inspired a Portland band, a Woody Allen film and a spy movie or whatever. The Marx Brothers are a fascinating team. I don't know who to compare the tone and style to... maybe Monty Python? They just throw every idea into a story, every gag they can think of. Some of them work like gangbusters, others are barely worth the groan they induce. But overall the effect is amazing: so much energy, so many funnies. It was a true comedy, though: brilliant, nonstop hilarity in act one; mixed bits of humor and plot in act two; and a third act that's kind of all over the place.

It's not exactly deep, but there's something artful about it nonetheless. I can't say exactly what I mean by that, but I mean something. For my money, Duck Soup and Animal Crackers are stronger efforts, but you can't not love a Marx Brothers film.

15 April 2010

The Ghost Writer *

Look, I'm not a film critic. I'm not even a film scholar. I'm just a barely literate film fan, so I'm not obliged to look at a film from any specific or objective perspective (nobody is; but there is a misconception that critics and scholars are supposed to when "reviewing" something). The point is, I'm going to straight-up compare The Ghost Writer to Shutter Island, and there's nothing you can do about it.

I don't mean to make a thing of it. The two aren't in any kind of direct competition here. I only bring it up because both films seem to stand on the shoulders of a certain Mr. Hitchcock. Both have staged, rushed characterizations. Both rely on exposition and play fast and loose with motivation, focusing instead on action and image. Both are puzzle films, mysteries, psychological thrillers. Both are brilliantly shot and beautifully moody. Both had that air of filmmaking giants dabbling in pulp and homage. But only one was fun, engaging, made me laugh a couple of times, and still had surprises and twists worth waiting for. Only one felt like it had new things to say on old subjects (that may be harsh, but that's how it felt on a single viewing each). Only one of the two films worked as a movie, for this guy. And I'm sorry, Marty, but I'm giving the tiara to Roman here.

The characters are silly, through and through, but in that "right" way to be silly for the movie it is. Since I'm comparing, I can't call The Ghost Writer a labor of love without acknowledging Scorsese's as the same. Both these guys love the pulpy thriller genre, clearly. And thank you, guys, because so do I. But scenes in Polanski's -- well, you can't watch this film without the shadow of his years in exile and impending arrest hanging over it, and in the dim light of that shadow (er, that metaphor collapsed; sorry) you can really see the personal touches, the paranoia and desperation and frustration that has fed a man living the way PM Adam Lang has. It makes the story feel like it needs to be told, it makes the story (like most or all Polanski's stories) feel like a window into something. Maybe that's there in Scorsese's, but I didn't see it. For me Shutter Island was opaque and clunky. The Ghost Writer, by comparison, is breezy and graceful.

One more thing. There is something about this movie that I found unbearable, and that's the blatant foul-language scrubbing. It's the worst ADR'd "fuck" removals I've seen on the big screen. You could watch the lips say "fuck" all the time, but the voices say "shit" and "sod" and "asshole" and "balls." And they cut in so clumsily, often missing the "F"s -- three times I swear a character cursed by saying "fffit." It was awful, awful, awful, and I felt like I was watching the edited-for-television version. (For the record, I counted two "fucks" left in there, one a great big one and one a toss-off, maybe-not-worth-overdubbing one.) Was getting a PG-13 rating over language worth it for this film? Is a semi-political semi-psychological thriller about a writer and a Tony Blair stand-in the kind of thing fifteen year-olds are desperate to see? It almost ruined the film for me.

Anyway, other than that, I approve.

Seen at the Fox Tower.

14 April 2010

The Others

Only two years after The Sixth Sense comes another movie with a big famous twist ending, an ending so similar it's almost impossible not to compare the two films -- especially when you watch them only a couple of days apart. The reason The Sixth Sense works, ultimately, isn't because its twist is clever. In fact, the handling of the twist in The Others is cleverer, for what it's worth. No, the reason The Sixth Sense works is because I care about the characters and the story being told. I like Cole and Dr. Crowe and Cole's mom. They are nice people who've suffered, and I want them all to find the things they're looking for. I never feel that way about Grace, Anne or Nicholas in The Others. I never even come close.

Look, I'm pretty forgiving about characters, and I know that once it's all revealed there's a "good reason" for it, but it doesn't change for a second that these are all unbearable, ice-cold, emotional-uncanny-valley half-persons from the very beginning, nasty to the servants and nasty to each other, and that sours the journey for me. Every moment spent with Nicole Kidman was an exercise in endurance and patience. The only actress with personality was child actress Alakina Mann, but she was more precocious than likable. I get why you give me these mysteriously dead-eyed people, but I don't get why you might think I'd enjoy them.

Here's my SPOILER to a nine-year-old film: I quite like the idea of watching ghosts who don't understand that they're doing the haunting, but everything about the reveal and the long monotonous series of clues we go through to get there killed the fun of it for me. Knowing there was a puzzle to solve makes it easy to see the end. I don't think that's to the film's fault, per se. (Husband Charles shows up around an hour in; if by that point you're still in the dark, well, it's not because the filmmakers were keeping you there.) But you've failed me -- the audience -- when it feels like a task to trudge through your story. The bottom line is, this movie didn't work for me. For my money, The Others was neither creepy or scary. It was tedious. I haven't checked the clock this many times in one movie in a long time.

13 April 2010

Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games)

On the one hand: this was a good film to watch for "research," as I try to think about adult storylines through children's eyes. Especially their strange obsession with death and ritual as a way of exploring the meaning behind things by extracting that meaning. A bit deconstructionist, maybe; simulacra and simulation, all that. Also, and on a more basic, less pedantic level: pretty amazing performances from those two kids. Twenty-two years later the little girl, Brigitte Fossey, would star in Altman's Quintet, something I've been considering watching as research for the other project. These two kids really sold complex emotional scenes that adult actors would have trouble with. Goes to show what a good director can do with the right cast. Gives me hope for (wince) working with children myself.

On the other hand: I'm too much a film geek not to immediately recognize this as a film bridging European realism into French New Wave. (I got that without any pointers, and then looked it up to see that scholars back up this claim. My film teachers would be so proud.) The story has that great subversive social attitude of Renoir's wonderful films (I'm thinking The Grand Illusion, The Human Beast and of course The Rules of the Game) but it's also a deliberate tone-shifter (every time it ought to be sad, it's actually quite funny), with obvious music cues and many scenes not about anything in particular. It's letting style carry it, just a little, and it feels just a little bit punk about the whole thing.

12 April 2010

Bigger Than Life

This movie feels like a bit of an artifact of its time to me, though I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing. By today's more savvy standards, the addiction and psychosis of James Mason's Ed Avery is on par with the psychoanalysis in Hitchcock's Spellbound: it clearly takes wild artistic license with something that at the time was newly realized and not often discussed. Ignoring all of that, the transformation from nice, bow-tie schoolteacher Ed into what the Criterion case charming calls "a psychotic and ultimately violent household despot" is smartly handled if over-the-top, and to consider a movie like this exaggerating society's moral and political ideals and lambasting the suburban nuclear family in the middle of the 1950s, well, that's a bold move, Mr. Ray. Hats off to you. (For the famously bisexual director of Rebel Without a Cause to make this film, it seems like the perfect fit.)

How the movie is directly about the lies of American life, both then and in a way, still now -- it makes me think about my suburban-horror film in a different way. I don't know what to do with that yet, but the seed's been planted. Are we lying to ourselves about the ideas of family and love and class (especially in suburbia) any less now? I'm not sure. Something I have to think about, and what I want to do about that.

Un prophète (A Prophet) *

When did all the best crime movies start coming out of Europe? It seems like a genre built for America, with its history of noir and gangsters, but our output has been pretty watered down lately, seems like. The Departed is an okay Hollywood drama, but doesn't have the kick of Goodfellas or The Godfather. Collateral was good, but Public Enemies wasn't. Seems like we're caught up in overexamining character here, letting go of classic rise-and-fall or dethroning-a-king style stories like Gomorrah (still to be watched) and A Prophet. Here characterization happens incidentally, and often obscurely. To quote Ebert, "Many movies and actors are too ready to inform us what everyone is thinking, and why. It's more absorbing for us to read significance from mystery. An actor who reveals nothing, like Alain Delon in Melville's Le Samourai, is fascinating."

What stuck with me most from this was the constant use of visual metaphor to deepen an already rich story. From images on César's television to planes flying overhead to the (English) lyrics of soundtrack songs, everything was a way of expressing different layers of what the characters were thinking, or where they were in their journeys. A Prophet is one part The Godfather, one part Hammett's Red Harvest (see: Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, Miller's Crossing, Last Man Standing), one part treatise on Arabs in France, and a dash of call for prison system reform. But it's also an exciting story that doesn't pull its punches. It's mean and exciting and layered.

Seen at the Fox Tower.

11 April 2010

The Sixth Sense

Scary things are simple things. Two of the most common ways to be scary are when something's just a little bit off and you can't quite tell how (uncanny valley) or when you know something's going to happen and you have to wait to find out what (anticipation). The Sixth Sense plays heavily in both sandboxes. I was watching this, and I'd said to myself, it's a good movie but it's not actually all that scary. Then I paused it to go get some tea, and as I crossed the completely unlit living room threshold, I could feel dead bodies lurking in there, stumbling, unaware they were dead, and I got chills. Anticipating made me tense, and imagining a living dead body, that uncanny-valleyed me. In other words, the movie was obviously working.

A note about the film itself, this is a pretty great movie -- a puzzle worth enjoying both before and after you've solved it -- but it's got some of the lamest, blandest, expositiontastic dialogue outside of a Star Wars prequel. In this case it's entirely saved by some across-the-board great performances. And can I just say that Bruce Willis is one of my favorite leading-man actors? The guy is diverse, and he picks the strangest projects and really commits to whatever premise he's playing, and can do hard-nosed action, screwball comedy, and subtle drama with no difficulty. A lot of (if not all) leading men try this, and we allow them to because they've got onscreen charisma and a pretty face, but very few can so easily inhabit the variety of types that Bruce Willis. Go Bruce.

10 April 2010


It's Steven Spielberg's companion piece to E.T. (which I plan to watch soon as well), but it plays out a lot like Jaws. I can't help but point out, the special effects here remind me more than anything of Ghostbusters (which came two years later), and the funnest parts are the parts with the least prosthetics, when it's just flashing lights, intrusive soundtrack, and dramatic acting. Though the big monster things and the Cronenberg-lite doorway stuff all look pretty good, too.

The Spielberg flavor of monster movie tends to involve a slow build followed by a big confrontation followed by a bigger, almost outlandish confrontation, followed by a quick (and in this case, charming) denouement. (I know it's a Tobe Hooper film, but it's really a Spielberg one.) Actually, it's interesting because the characters don't feel one-dimensional or anything, but they do lack the usual flaws and personal weaknesses that drive most narrative. Here they are loving, patient parents; they aren't too busy, they aren't selfish, they aren't negligent or short-tempered. Steven even balks when he has to say the words "I'll spank you" to his daughter. These are the nicest people in the world who just happened to get the shittiest deal in real estate history. Steven was complicit in the crimes that made the story happen, but unknowingly, and is clearly remorseful for his part and reproachful toward his boss about the whole thing. So here we have a story of a largely flawless, morally problem-free family against a mean-old demon and a haunted house. (When I put it like that, you'd think Clint Eastwood directed it.) It's just not a story about the people, I guess.

These posts have gotten even more unfocused than ever. I'll see what I can do about that.

09 April 2010

The Conversation

Some films are the equivalent of comfort food, and this is one. (Full disclosure: I needed to put something on while I did laundry and filed my taxes. This was my choice.) This film is a smart procedural. It reminds me of Primer, in that it is about technical-minded people, and Coppola (like Carruth would twenty years later) really respects his audience. He knows you'll figure it out, and he knows that if the story is driven by a complicated, well-realized character you'll follow him into the mystery. Sure, it's a movie about surveillance and technology and mistrust and interpretation, but more than that it's about the man, Harry Caul. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Harry is the perfect noir detective: a cynical man with an unwavering personal moral code, beaten down but full of fight, unable to connect with the people he loves but driven to save and protect them, flying wildly into chaos seeking salvation the way a missile seeks heat. (Okay I admit, I went a little off-the-rails with my mixed metaphors at the end there -- and there too.)

Movies aren't this smart very often, so you've got to savor it when you can. There's a strange matter-of-factness to the way the story builds and plays out that I find a little emotionally off-putting and at the same intriguing, intellectually inviting. It's the perfect way to tell this story. And the final, psychic breakdown of such a layered character, as seen in this amazing scene, is one of my favorites of all time.

08 April 2010

Io non ho paura (I'm Not Scared)

Sometimes, you have a story so good it feels like cheating, like there is no way the movie could fail. We all want to write that story. I want to write that story. I'm Not Scared is kind of that story. Set in a place so surreal it feels realistic, and no doubt is -- not even a village; four or five hovels crowded together, surrounded by endless rolling seas of wheat, a couple of old cathedral ruins and somewhere, a single shop. The perspective of the story, like Let The Right One In, is exclusively Michele's, the 10-year-old, and so as he explores the dark world around him, we only understand things at the rate and in the ways that he does. He grows up because he has to, and he faces his frightening world head-on. He is brave, and willing to do what he knows is right, that makes him a man. In that figurative, coming-of-age sense.

Anyway, the conceit of this story and the way information is delivered is sharp and brilliant, and it's a premise so strong with a tone so right that it couldn't fail. And it doesn't.

And it's absolutely a perfect match for one of the two story ideas I'm courting.

05 April 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow

Boy, everybody wasn't kidding about this movie. According to Wikipedia, Errol Morris called it "the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly." While I love that quote, I wouldn't call it depressing exactly. I'd call it sad -- like truly, genuinely, feel-it-in-your-gut sad. Not tear-jerking, not weepy melodrama or sentimental; watching this movie I feel actual sadness. It's bleak and it's hopeless. Five good-for-nothing self-centered urbanites, two well-meaning but useless old people, and a no-win scenario that seems never to end. I have very little to say about this film. It's a 1937 melodrama, but it's really watchable (to be fair, Casablanca is a 1942 melodrama, and that's really really watchable). It's charming and inviting -- an odd thing to say about a movie so despairing and uncomfortable, but there you have it.

This film made me feel so sad about getting old, even about the age-old fantasy of getting old with someone, and yet I'm so glad I watched it. It's really beautiful, and the emotions this film brings out in me feel much more genuine and full than I'm used to from Hollywood, then or now. I'm really amazed. This is absolutely a great film.

One more piece of Wikipedia-borne trivia: McCarey believed that this was his finest film. When he accepted his Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, he said "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture."

04 April 2010

Independence Day

Okay, so yes, it's got the really ridiculous virus-that-stops-the-aliens thing. Yes, that's terrible. But really, why nobody makes a stink about the jet fighters flying around like they're X-wings, armed with exactly four missiles each, somehow capable of holding off swarms of weird little antigrav alien pods... well, I'm just not sure the virus thing is the biggest hole in this plot. But come on. Nobody watches Independence Day for its stellar plot. They watch it because it's a slow, steady, reasonably tense build up of an alien invasion followed by the simplistic jingoism of America Kicking Some Alien Motherfuckin Ass. Am I right? Who's with me? U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Personally, I was watching it for its act-one set up, for how it introduced characters and subplots and then how it managed to bring them together. ID4 is pretty famous for its cardboard characters, over-dramatic conflicts, and its weirdly comedic death scenes. But watching act one in particular, I'll grant you this: each ridiculous cartoony scene is about delivering one more piece of the puzzle, slowly building an intriguing picture out of details. The script breaks the exposition into a series of disparate character vignettes, letting us discover each tidbit as whoever wherever also discovers it. This tends to short-change you on character development, alas, but it does prove a well-paced exposition-delivery system. Gradually we learn about an alien force so awesome and mind-blowing... I mean, the mother ship is one-third the size of our Moon! Each invasion ship is fifteen miles wide! (Good thing a single nuke can bring down everything: whatever those ships are made of, it's weirdly flammable.)

It's hard not to talk in ironic exclamation points about the film, but I can't deny it's really watchable. I prefer The Day After Tomorrow myself, which I intend to also rewatch soon for the same "research." And I'm always defending Bill Pullman as a kick-ass President. Well, Pat, you'll be pleased to read this, if you ever do: I rescind that statement. The truth is, he's a pretty weak President after all, a muddled character that never really gets interesting. To be fair to Mr. Pullman (whom I still love disproportionately), that's true of every character in this. See above. Not famous for its amazing script. Famous for being kinda fun.

But speaking of Bill Pullman: watching him and Robert Loggia in a movie together makes me crave Lost Highway. I'll have to watch that again soon, too.

03 April 2010

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Oh my god, what could I possibly say? If you want to know the truth, this might be my favorite movie of all time. It's funny, it's scary, it's poignant, it's character driven, it's absurdist, the script is tight as hell, original, and thematically rich. There isn't a single scene about sex in the entire film, and yet there isn't a single scene that isn't about sex in the entire film. It's quotable, it moves at such a rapid clip and it's so engaging it makes it hard to slow down and be objective or critical. (But of course it holds up if you are able to.) It's George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and the inimitable Peter Sellers x3. It's everything I want in a movie.

It's also the primary model, in a weird way, for the script I'm working on, and for that very reason I've put off watching it until I could really focus. There's a tone here, where things are happening and they're exciting and ostensibly scary and at the same time, the least realistic story ever told, with impossible characters with impossible names believing impossible things, and saying and doing impossible things. The arguments between President Muffley and General Turgidson are priceless; the stoic speeches General Ripper gives to poor Group Captain Mandrake are just amazing. In both cases, Peter Sellers plays the straight-man (never say the man couldn't do drama) and he's what sells the situations. Reacting deadpan and earnestly in the face of escalating absurdity is exactly what I love here and exactly what I ambitiously hope to capture. Indiana Jones and John McClane and Martin Riggs can keep their head down and run guns-blazing into impossibly dangerous situations and we root them on for it. Well, Mandrake and Muffley are heroes of a different genre, the pitch-black comedy, staring down a different kind of dragon and facing it with just as much aplomb. And I haven't even mentioned the title character, because strangely I feel there's no need to mention him. That man, he speaks for himself.

Oh, Dr. Strangelove, I do love you.

Bonnie and Clyde

Had the privilege of watching this with a certain critic friend for his column, and though I'd seen it a couple times before, this time I felt like I was getting it more. The characters are rich and dynamic, and over time not just do they evolve but so does the core relationship between our title two. I want to begin a sentence with, "This film is really about..." but it's such a rich film, that sentence could end any number of ways. You could say it's really a film about family. Or it's really a film about class distinctions and mistrusting both the authority and the media. Or a film about film, like how Hollywood depicted sex and violence at the time or how the French New Wave was changing everything. Or any number of things.

But for my money, tonight at least, it was really a film about the meaning and development of genuine love (as literalized by, of all things, Warren Beatty's ability to perform the sex act). And it made me wish I hadn't just shelved a certain script, because it's the perfect piece of research for it.

On a personal note, my thoughts tonight are even more scattered than usual, as roughly halfway through trying to make semi-cohesive thoughts I got to stop and have a mopping-hardwood adventure chasing down all the cat-shit paw-prints trailing around my bedroom. It feels sort of like my thoughts were cut short tonight; that's why.

01 April 2010

The African Queen

I think this might be a movie whose reputation preceded it a little too well. Bogart's only Oscar, National Registry, color film shot on location (with clunky Technicolor cameras! in Africa! in 1951!) by the great John Huston, famous romance between Bogey and Hepburn, famously rough shooting conditions, not to mention the movie's longstanding unavailability on DVD (it recently came out both on DVD and BRD, which is how I saw it) -- I think it all added up to more hype than the poor movie could live up to. It definitely wasn't bad, at all, but I don't think this would make my list of Top Ten Bogart films. The decision to act is far too hasty, the descent into love too smooth and bump-free (c.f. the rocky romance between the gruff sailor and the prissy journalist in Lifeboat... very rare I give points to Hitchcock over Huston for characterization!). Plus, the stakes seemed inverted. The river, the leeches, the gin, the rapids, the engine, the rain: these all seemed legitimate and threatening, but they were tangents, side quests, nuisances along the path to victory. The actual confrontations with the Germans, both at Shona and against the Louisa, these feel too calculated, too easy, honestly a little bit ridiculous. And I've already said, there really was no hesitation on the parts of Rosie and Charlie, no regret or missteps. Once they kissed awkwardly they were as good as married -- in that 1951 movie way where "married" equals "completely frictionless and essentially one soul with two bodies and a lot of pet names."

Huston made the world real, though, and Bogart did his damnedest-best to inhabit a very complex but un-Bogart character, which is always a pleasure to watch. Seeing him play dumb, gassy, and meek is kind of fun, and they really made use of his awkward teeth and slightly goofball grin. Still, Treasure of the Sierra Madre has Bogart playing the other end of the spectrum of un-Bogart-esque, wherein he is cruel, charmless, and creepy, and that's also John Huston and that I believed more than this. Maybe because it lacked the hamstrung romance. Huston seems better at manly adventures and urban male psyche stories than he does at believable love stories. Or at least the stuff I've seen. Anyway, I've rambled, and criticized a classic harshly, but it was good and I'm glad I've seen it. It just got stuck in the massive shadow of its own legend, and frankly I've seen all these players do better, is all.