Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of year roundup

The new year promises to be a busy one for me, and unfortunately there's several films I've seen recently that I won't have time to do justice with a thoughtful review. So... to hell with thoughtfulness! Here's some absurdly incomplete mini-reviews:

Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, USA)
It's all too easy living here in America to turn our heads and ignore the world's misery. But was it possible during WWII? Bogey tried, and might have succeeded had the tragically beautiful Ingrid Bergman not stepped in. We all know that war brings out the worst in humanity; Casablanca reminds us that in some cases, it also brings out the best in us.

Pride & Prejudice (dir. Joe Wright, 2005, UK)
Yes, I watch "normal" film too. This stellar adaptation, though not necessarily critically underrated, sadly failed to step out of the long shadow cast by the wildly popular BBC miniseries version of 10 years prior (starring Colin Firth). It's all the more tragic, as the performances in this film are impeccable, and though I've yet to see much range from Keira Knightley, her proud and outspoken attitude feels perfectly suited for her character, Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen was the greatest social satirist of her day, and this film is one of the few that does her justice.

Ugetsu Monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953, Japan)
Everyone knows the Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, but how many have seen the films of his contemporary Kenzi Mizoguchi? His films didn't receive the international attention that Kurosawa's did, and only recently have western audiences gained access to them. Ugetsu Monogatari is based on an old Japanese morality tale from the 1700's; it depicts the folly of war profiteering, and in a way could be construed as a warning to the peasantry not to try to rise above their station. Ugetsu is aesthetically stunning, with a photographic prowess surpassing Kurosawa's films made around the same time. The story kept me mildly entertained, even if the philosophical thrust found little resonance.

Oldboy (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2003, South Korea)
A twisted tale of revenge that vacillates between psychological thriller and bilious gore. Many find in this film the philosophical antithesis of the conventional good guy / bad guy revenge flick; for me, the entire premise is so outlandish and twisted that I think it's overreaching to attempt to extrapolate any grand statements about life or the human existence. But who cares? It's an engaging story, well-told, cleverly photographed.

Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)
This might be #2 on TSPDT's 1000 greatest films list, but it's not even close on my list. Kim Novak's performance was frighteningly lackluster, and the film itself showed none of the narrative innovation or audacious brilliance of Hitchcock's superior "Rear Window." The only intriguing relationship in the film, that between Jimmy Stewart's character and his friend and one-time lover "Midge", played by Barbara Bel Geddes, seems to have been all but forgotten on the cutting room floor.

Once Upon a Time in the West (dir. Sergio Leone, 1968, Italy)
You might think from reading this blog that I have nothing to do but watch film, but truthfully, I value my time, and if a film doesn't grab me within the first, say, 20 minutes, then I'll find something better to do. Once Upon a Time in the West is just such a film; since I haven't seen it all the way through, I'll withhold judgment, and only say that in terms of my present taste in film, this one isn't for me. Of course, I'm probably in the minority on this; a lot of people regard this the greatest western ever made.

Also, to recap the films I have reviewed in the first two months of my blog:


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Sunday, December 28, 2008


#348 in the TSPDT's list of the 1000 greatest films

I've heard great things about Pier Paolo Pasolini, the iconoclastic Italian film-maker, novelist, and philosopher that repeatedly dazzled the world in the 60s and 70s with his shocking films. He's probably best remembered for his last movie Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom, a decadent depiction of the twilight of Italian fascism. It's still banned in several countries around the world for its unparalleled depictions of sadistic violence and sexuality. Unable to temper my impetuosity, I would normally have skipped all of his preceding films and cut straight to the chase, but until very recently, Salo was out of print, and the rare copy went for upwards of $1,000. My art-film hookup burned a copy of Pasolini's first film, Accattone (The Scrounger) for me for Christmas, and since the holidays have left my wallet so empty that even the new $40 Criterion Salo is still too pricey, I decided to give Accattone a shot.

From the start, it was apparent that Pasolini's reputation was not based on his first film. The title character is a one-whore pimp. He and his friends lead the care-free lifestyle of moochers, lay-abouts, and thieves. In the beginning, one of them bets Accattone that he would drown if he tried to swim back and forth across the river after stuffing himself with food. Accattone either doesn't believe in the old wives tale, or doesn't care. Perhaps he just wants the fame; the entire community turns out for the spectacle.

The film is bereft of graphic violence, nudity, and sex; the tone of the film, did, however, shock me. Accattone is an entirely despicable human being, but Franco Citti plays him with a pouty affability. The women in the story are portrayed as helpless fawns, subservient to their men. In one of the early scenes, some young thieves lament that Accattone had not joined them the preceding night. Laughingly, they recall picking up a hooker, taking her to a field, and pummeling her. Later, some of Accattone's rivals pick up his sole whore, Maddalena, drive her out beyond the city's lights, and wallop her after one of their crew has sex with her. The intercourse is only alluded too, and the violence is filmed in a distanced, detached manner.

I don't think that Pasolini sympathized with the misogynistic, exploitative lifestyles of the characters, just like Kubrick obviously didn't endorse the ultra-violent lifestyles of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange. But unlike A Clockwork Orange, which ends on an extremely cynical note where Alex is ultimately rewarded for his criminal lifestyle, Pasolini's film inhabits a universe with at least some sense of cosmic justice. At the end of the film, the police catch Accattone and his friends stealing several large sausages from a meat truck (a presumably minor offense); Accattone dies in a motorcycle crash while attempting to escape.

I think that in depicting these characters as mildly likable fellows, Pasolini is only attempting to point out their wasted potential. And in the end, there's no joy in Accattone's death; it's a meaningless, chance death. We miss the catharsis that we've all come to expect, raised on Hollywood's unending tale of good's triumph over evil.

Aesthetically, Accattone has all the marks of a low-budget debut. Aside from Franco Citti, the acting is mediocre at best. I felt like Pasolini was not yet comfortable with utilizing space in his film; the pacing feels rushed, and every frame seems filled to the brim with incessantly realistic dialogue - in fact, the entire film could have benefited from some suspension of disbelief.

Despite these foibles, Accattone is still a cohesive work of art; flawed, certainly, but indicative of potential greatness. Pasolini obviously has something to say, and I only hope that as I discover his following films, I'll find a film-making prowess commensurate with his thoughtful themes.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

#34 in the list of the 1000 greatest films of all time

Ordet (directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer) seems to pop up on a lot of people's "greatest films" lists. I'm not exactly sure where I'd first seen it promoted; it may have been Jonathan Rosenbaum's Top 100 or TSPDT's 1000 greatest films. By the time I saw it top Art and Faith's list of 100 most "spiritually significant" films (a list whose definition of "spirituality" is broad enough to encompass the works of David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson), my curiosity was piqued. I added it to my NYPL leopac queue a couple of days ago, picked it up from the 96th St. Branch this morning and watched it this afternoon.

The film is set in the religiously austere Danish countryside of the mid 1920's. The Borgen family farm has seen better days, and grandfather Borgen's three sons have each incurred his orthodox wrath. Johannes has lost his mind and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. His glazed look and ghost-like figure constantly haunts the film, tying scenes together with his eerily intoned blasphemies. Borgen's oldest son, Mikkel, has rejected faith altogether, while his youngest has set his sites on marrying Peter the tailor's daughter. Peter just happens to be Borgen's arch nemesis; both Borgen and Peter refuse to recognize each others religious sect. Even Mikkel's wife, Inger, has failed old Borgen, having born only daughters.

The film proceeds at a snail's pace; the dialogue, though at times intriguing, pales in comparison to the unflinching spiritual examinations of Dreyer's contemporary Ingmar Bergman. The camera work is slow and steady; there is only one principle closeup in the film, and it comes at the film's climax. The film, based on a play, also embraces the play's aesthetics; the Borgen home set has the three-wall feel of a stage, not unlike a modern-day sitcom. What distinguishes Ordet from filmed plays and sitcoms is the camera's incessant wandering, swiveling, and panning throughout the space. It all adds up to a slow, challenging experience, and it certainly sowed plenty of doubts in my mind that the payoff would be worth the wait. My wife couldn't take it, and left just minutes before the climax.

Spoiler alert: I'm about to discuss the ending. I realize I haven't given this film much of an enticing description so far, but nevertheless, I highly recommend you experience Ordet on your own before reading any further.

The entire film up to the climax is entirely devoid of the miraculous. Their world appears as our world appears: unrelentingly ordinary. Grandfather Borgen's existence is petty at best; his son Anders becomes little more than a pawn in his spiritual war against Peter the tailor. Mikkel and Inger's existence is simple, but happy, and Anders's and Anne's love, despite the Romeo and Juliet overtones, is actually entirely prosaic. Johannes's insanity is tragic, but explainable.

Inger goes into labor in the second half of the film, and for many reasons, we expect the worst. In the middle of it all, Johannes tells Inger's daughter that he will let her mother die so that he can bring her back to life. After Inger died, I kept thinking to myself, "How hokie would it be if Johannes actually raised her from the dead." I hoped that the film would continue its rejection of the miraculous and end on a brutally realistic note, or that any miracle would simply be the miracle of the ordinary.

And so I was surprised that when Inger rose from her open casket, hugged Mikkel, and wept, I wept too. I learned something about myself. It was exactly what I didn't want, and it was shattering! Even I, an unrepentant atheist, desperately crave a world where miracles are possible. Perhaps we all do. I guess that's what gives religion its seductive power.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 version of the "1000 greatest films of all time"

R.I.P. Willy Wonka
R.I.P. Willy Wonka
They Shoot Pictures, Don't They just released their 2008 version of the "1000 greatest films of all time." Let me preface my complaints by stating that I think these guys rock, and I'm glad they do this thankless work. My bitches aren't aimed at them; they're aimed at the critics who helped create these lists.

The 2008 version is at best a mixed bag. There were some welcome departures from the list: I'm a Herzog fan, but I feel no sadness that Signs of Life was knocked from the list. Nor was I saddened by the loss of Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-din; it's the only Kurosawa film I couldn't finish. On the lamentable flip-side, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) was inexplicably axed, as was the Coen Brothers' debut, Blood Simple. Woody Allen's Love and Death vanished, while George Roy Hill's inferior The World According to Garp somehow managed to climb from #998 all the way to #844! The horror!

As far as what remained on the list, there were some disturbing trends. Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin unseated what I consider to be the second greatest film of all time, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, taking its place at #8. Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar and all 4 of Bergman's films in the top 100 continued their downward progression. (Although the fact that Bergman's "Persona" ranks higher than "The Seventh Seal", or that his masterpieces "Scenes from a Marriage" and "The Virgin Spring" both languish in the 750+ bracket makes me question the wisdom of the list altogether.)

Some silver linings: Blade Runner up 9 slots to #46 (!), Taxi Driver up 10 to #28 with Raging Bull holding strong at #18, and several contemporary classics made their debut, including Donnie Darko, Lost in Translation, and Old Boy. Also, M*A*S*H finally made the cut (how this masterpiece was left out in the first place I can't fathom).

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Monday, December 22, 2008

My favorite Christmas movies

Just for fun, I wanted to share with you my favorite Christmas movies. It's a very short list, since 99.99% of all holiday films are unmitigated bantha poodoo.
5. Bad Santa - I never knew a film could be so beautifully wrong.
4. Trading Places - "I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro."
3. Die Hard - Now I have a machine gun. Ho, Ho, Ho.
2. It's a Wonderful Life - there's a reason they play this film every year. It's simply magic.
1. Elf - Ring... Ring... - "Buddy Elf, what's your favorite color?"


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Friday, December 19, 2008

Harry Potter Countdown: Sorcerer's Stone (#4)

OK, now that I've got the crapterpiece "Chamber of Secrets" out of the way, the hard work begins. The remaining Harry Potter films are all not only watchable, but enjoyable. I feel no shame in admitting that I, a perfectly grown-up adult, have seen them all several times.

So by what method shall I rank these four remaining films from worst to best? Since I have no sorting hat, I'll have to rely on my own cinematic sensibilities. Which makes "Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone" the next obvious choice. Chris Columbus, easily the worst director of the series, was thankfully saved in this first outing by the novelty of the story and by Harry's process of discovery. Magic is made real, and it's pure delight as we discover with Harry that there is a hidden world of wands, witches, and wizards just beyond our perception.

Although all of the child actors in this film yield delightful performances, Daniel Radcliffe's acting has that rare gift of authenticity. He plays Harry with an effortlessness that most actors only dream of - a characteristic that has thankfully lasted throughout the series. Emma Watson's performance, though not quite so effortless, successfully captures Hermione's haughty willfulness. As we watch Hermione's character in the later films descend into a stereotypically sexist portrayal of a worried, weepy, indecisive girl, my wife and I often find ourselves wishing that Emma would go back and watch this film again.

So since I have so many great things to say about this film, why is it obviously the 4th best of the series? Firstly, because Chris Columbus developed an overall tone more fitting of an ABC Family original than a J.K. Rowling adaptation. Scenes fall together in only the most obvious ways, and the end effect falls on the cartoonish side of the child-film spectrum (contrast this with the magical world of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films whose ambiguous characters and mystical imagery always unsettle).

And beyond this, the newness of the story leaves little chance that even a master director could have managed the emotional impact of the later films. We're left with a delightful, fun story, that, like the book, hints of greater things to come.

5. Chamber of Secrets
4. Sorcerer's Stone
3. Goblet of Fire


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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyonce Followup (Top Five music videos of 2008)

In my blog post about Kevin B. Lee's choice of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" as the sixth best music video of 2008, I remarked "If that's #6, I can't wait to see the rest." Now that I've seen the top five, I'm a little perplexed. Check 'em out. Here was my comment about the picks along with Kevin's reply:

# Matthew Kane Parker said 8 hours ago

Interesting picks. I doubt I would have given the crown to “Time to Pretend.” It’s an interesting concept, but damn, couldn’t they have stuck with an idea for more than 2 seconds? And frankly I found nothing of worth in Killer Mike’s presentation, that draws from Malcolm’s crazy pre-Mecca days in the Nation of Islam and that at several points juxtaposes scenes of black oppression followed by scenes of black on white violence with the lyrics “keep the pressure on” blaring out. It’s balls-out opportunistic demagoguery.

# Kevin said 1 hour ago

“It’s an interesting concept, but damn, couldn’t they have stuck with an idea for more than 2 seconds?”
Hmm, I sort of see what you’re getting at. I’m not sure if any of their ideas is worth more than two seconds - but cram it together in 5 minutes and it plays like the trailer for the greatest movie never made.

but yeah, in terms of fully developing a concept, “Wait for the Summer” is probably the most elegantly accomplished. It’s breathtaking how one moment blossoms or decays into another. But “Time to Pretend” is the one that replays in my mind the most, perhaps because it is, as you suggest, underdeveloped. More room for me to fill in the blanks.

“balls-out opportunistic demagoguery.” - that’s what they said about Stone’s JFK. And in a perverse way, one could say the same of the Beyonce video. God Bless America!


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Barry Lyndon (plus Kubrick's films ranked best to worst)

#90 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

I wasn't surprised to find that of Stanley Kubrick's 11 major works, 4 were in the top 100. I was, however, surprised to see "Barry Lyndon" listed among them (#90), coming in ahead of his masterpieces "A Clockwork Orange" (#93), "Paths of Glory" (#181), and "The Shining" (#141). The only Kubrick films ranked higher were "2001: A Space Odyssey" (#4), and "Dr. Strangelove" (#39).

Since I had not yet seen the film, you may rightfully wonder at the cause of my suspicions. Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen were my first exposures to masterful film-making; I owe my love of film to them. Over time, I'd seen all of Kubrick's other works and read books and essays about them, but I'd never been terribly interested by "Barry Lyndon." Victorian epics have been so thoroughly exploited by Hollywood, and so often to such bilious effect, that I'd been turned off by the descriptions of "Barry Lyndon", despite all that I knew and loved about Kubrick.

Now that I've seen it, I feel an odd mix of shame and vindication in my hesitation. Lyndon isn't just another trite Hollywood Jane Austin adaptation or predictable royal character piece. It's a Kubrick film through and through. Its cinematography, pacing, scoring, and performances (not to mention its underlying philosophy) all bear his directorial stamp. Lyndon is masterful storytelling.

And yet the film didn't fully captivate, startle, or mesmerize me as many of his other films did. Don't get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and recommend this film to anyone, no matter your taste. It's 3 hours and 3 minutes long, yet you'll never know it. It's filmed using entirely natural lighting (candles and sunlight); unlike Hollywood's Victorian pieces, Lyndon's cinematography yields a much more authentic and honest air to the decadent fashions and attitudes of the times.

Perhaps my only real complaint is that the film contained too few surprises or tension. Its narration - spoken with a humorous and cynical detachment that only a distinguished British accent can accomplish - foreshadows nearly all the twists and turns that Barry Lyndon's life takes, making much of the action slightly anti-climactic. This intentional approach reinforces the underlying message of the film, best summed up in the written epilogue: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." Personally, I have no problem with a pessimistic philosophy that questions the point of our lives, the meaninglessness of our existence in this indifferent, godless universe. It's only that the film, while refined, is actually quite blunt in this regard.

Now that I've seen all of his major works, I can't help but create my own ranking of his films:

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (From the first frame to the last, this is the most amazing work of art ever made - or at least that I've seen)
2) Paths of Glory (the last scene is the most authentically moving in any film I've ever seen)
3) Dr. Strangelove (I experienced a profound loss of essence ;-)
4) A Clockwork Orange (I viddied well)
5) The Shining (Jack was never better)
6) The Killing (the money blowing away on the tarmac left me as speechless as it did Sterling Hayden)
7) Lolita (a failed masterpiece, but a beautiful and captivating failure. I love it when a film makes me uncomfortable without resorting to cheap tricks)
8) Barry Lyndon
9) Full Metal Jacket (overrated by many, but still unceasingly quotable)
10) Eyes Wide Shut (Nicole .... Kidman.... couldn't... speak.... her ..... lines...... any ......slower.)
11) Spartacus (I found little to like until the very last scene).


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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)

#31 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

I watched this last night with friends over some Chinese take-out; I was a little hesitant to view it in such a casual setting, given its ranking, but it turned out to be the perfect environment for "Sunset Blvd." This isn't a philosophical tome or an experimental masterwork; it's a circular noir, sometimes funny, sometimes overwrought, but always engaging. It's about a struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) who reluctantly becomes the boy-toy of the one-time star of the silent era, Norma Desmond. On a higher level, it's probably the first jab at Hollywood's glossy facade.

Nancy Olson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd.

My favorite moments of the film involved the subplot between Joe and another aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer (played by the beautiful and underrated Nancy Olson). Near the end of the film, Joe begins sneaking away from Norma's mansion/prison to co-write a screenplay with Betty; the two are hopelessly perfect for each other, and their dialogue is some of the most witty and wonderful in all of the golden age of cinema. I found myself wanting more and more of this story and less and less of the primary plot. These scenes are bittersweet; the film begins with a flash-forward to Joe's death, so we know that this romance will never fully blossom. Credit to writer/director Billy Wilder for finding a way to subvert our expectations about their affair's demise.

I don't know that I would place this film so high in my own top 100 list, but I recommend it to anyone looking for a great flick to watch with friends.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best Music Videos of 2008: #6 - Beyonce! Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)

Kevin B. Lee chose Beyonce's "Single Ladies" as the 6th best music video of 2008. If that's #6, I can't wait to see the rest. The video's brilliant! It's simple, stark, and mesmerizing, and the dance (though arguably plagiarized) is one of the first music video dances that I've seen that actually commits to the art of dance. It's not just something happening around some contrived circumstance - it's the centerpiece.

My only complaint: what about the SNL parody?

The original:

The SNL parody:


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Friday, December 12, 2008


#45 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

This marks the 4th film I've seen by Jean Luc Godard. Many of my friends swear by him, but frankly I'd never understood why. I'd appreciated "Le Petit Soldat." It was filmed in a hand-held documentary style, and the piano score was appropriately minimalist. "Breathless," on the other hand, certainly didn't leave me breathless, and I could barely sit through "La Chinoise."

I picked up "Contempt" several months ago on a friend's suggestion, but it was almost immediately buried by the incessantly growing pile of acquisitions from the New York Public Library. I'd nearly forgotten about it when it unexpectedly floated to the top one evening this week. It was already too late to practice my drums, and my mind was tired from studying. It was in this dubious state that I began "Contempt."

From the opening credits, I knew that I had entered an entirely different world from that which I'd come to expect from Godard. The film begins with a long static shot of a crew filming a tracking shot of a woman slowly walking through what appears to be an abandoned film lot. Our perspective situates us at the end of the track, and while we watch the crew and actress inch towards us, a narrator speaks the opening credits (the credits never appear on the screen in print). It's a deliberate, thoughtful, and layered scene that lets us savor its novelty while contemplating its meta-film ironies.

At the end of the credits, the narrator tells us that Andre Bezin once said that "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires." The scene then shifts to a slow tracking shot of a naked Briggit Bardot laying face down on her bed, bathed in a New Orleans red haze, sequentially asking her lover if he likes her various body parts (from the toes up). At this point, anyone attracted to the female form will hastily attempt to extrapolate the content of the film after juxtaposing the sumptuous view with Bezin's quote.

It wasn't long before I realized that this was not some magical world where all of my dreams came true. The world of "Contempt" is a hopeless and tragic world. This pessimistic philosophy, that contends that deep down we desire suffering and misery, has cropped up in a number of films since this, from Bergman's intimately epic "Scenes from a Marriage" and "Saraband" to the Wachowski brother's pop-culture phenomenon "The Matrix:"

"Contempt's" score consists of one single piece of music, replayed intermittently (and often unexpectedly) throughout the film. It's an unabashedly tragic piece, something you would expect during a sappy scene of a Hollywood romance. Its incessant repetition, however, transforms the unoriginal theme into a meditative mantra. It really drives home the film's philosophical bent.

The considered, deliberate pacing, Tarkovian cinematography, and layered narrative convinced me that behind the camera lay one of film's rare geniuses. I'll say nothing more about the plot; it's simply something you'll have to experience on your own. As for the many more beautifully composed shots in the film, I'll save them for my coming video essay.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still: Critics Roundup

Looks like my prediction was on the mark (though it's not like it takes a rocket scientist to predict that a bloated cgi-driven remake of a thoughtful sci-fi classic will suck). Check out the critics roundup below. I still intend to watch this (sci-fi is my weakness), but I imagine my review will just be another nail in the coffin. You know your film's in trouble when E! Online can't even find something good to say about it.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rounding out the top 100

Although at my pace it will take me a lifetime to watch the 1000 greatest films of all time, I'm actually pretty close to having seen the top 100. There were, however, some glaring omissions, and a couple I have to revisit. Here's some I've already added to my "socialist netflix" queue (i.e., the New York Public Library online service). Feel free your add your own recommendations from the list.


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Best music videos of 2008

Kevin B. Lee, film critic and fellow blogger, is counting down the ten best music videos of 2008. Yours truly helped secure the #10 spot for Scottish art student James Houston and his brilliant (and tragically belated) remix of Radiohead's "Nude":

Also, check out Kevin's reviews and video essays of the 1000 greatest films of all time (as compiled by "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They").

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The countdown to the Half-Blood Prince begins! Over the next few weeks, I'll review the first five movies in the Harry Potter series, from worst to best. First-up: the Chamber of Secrets (hopefully that came as no surprise).

Frankly, this film is garbage. It's easily the worst of the bunch, and Chris Columbus's lazy direction nearly wrecked the whole series. "Chamber" had the potential to take a dark, serious turn; the book's plot is a clever take on the serial-killer progression first laid down in Ridley Scott's "Alien." Columbus didn't even have to be original! A formulaic reproduction of the familiar themes would have been better than this tripe!

But instead of a dark or suspenseful mystery, all we remember are the annoyingly cartoonish characters (Gilderoy Lockhart, Dobby, the eccentric car) and deflated action sequences. I felt like slapping Riddle when he sneers, "You may have blinded the basilisk, but it can still hear you!" Thanks, we couldn't have figured that one out.

5. Chamber of Secrets
4. Sorcerer's Stone
3. Goblet of Fire


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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rebel Without A Cause

#360 in the 1000 greatest films of all time.

Now that I've started to establish some regular readership on my blog, I'm going to recklessly risk losing it all by coming clean with you: there are a few very embarrassing gaps in my film education. Some "essentials" that every responsible film-buff should experience before diving into less charted territory.

In this particular case, I worked my way backwards. Director Nicolas Ray is most famous for "Rebel Without A Cause," yet I first watched and reviewed his lesser known and hard-to-find "Johnny Guitar." Then I suffered through his debut, the archetypal "Love on the Run," after reading about its pioneering cinematography. (Some critics have played up the fact that it was the first film to shoot ground scenes from above on a helicopter. There were seriously about five seconds of helicopter footage in the entire film. I could barely stomach the trite romance that filled up the other 1 hour and 57 minutes.)

My childlike impetuosity is only partly to blame for my incomplete education. The AFI Top 100, Leonard Maltin, and other corporate tools have instilled in me a deep and abiding distrust of any widely touted (and popularly known) film.

"Rebel Without A Cause," however, deserves every last bit of credit it's received. 1950's America may have been a vacuous bore, but this is one of the real gems of cinema. The film opens with a long, unbroken closeup of a drunk James Dean lying on the street, amusing himself with a toy. This static shot lasts for the entirety of the opening credits; in fact, I imagine that the only way the studio would spare such an un-hollywood dead moment from the cutting room floor is if Ray placed the opening credits over it.

The historically caprice themes turn the 1950s "Leave it to Beaver" family image on its head. James Dean's character Jim, a hip trouble-magnet, continually berates and even assaults his father for not being a man and wishes that he would punch his mother, just once. Jim's girlfriend Judy (played by the beautiful Natalie Wood) has a strong, sexually confused attachment to her own father and a jealous hatred of her mother; in Judy's opening monologue at the police station she tearfully describes a dramatic confrontation with her father that could have been lifted from a Lifetime incest special. And in one of the inexplicably creepy moments in the film, Jim and Judy play house to an emotionally disturbed classmate. Judy even hums a lullabye to put him to sleep.

The film has a decidedly blasphemous subtext. The junior and senior classes of Jim's new high school take a field trip to a planetarium, where the ancient operator spins an existential yarn about the insignificant birth and death of the planet earth in a cold and indifferent universe. The film's tragic ending only reinforces the generally godless tone of the whole enterprise.

James Dean also deserved his reputation. We'll never know if Dean had the range of a Johnny Depp or the staying power of a Nicholson, but this film alone is enough to prove that he had a singularly magnetic presence in the history of cinema.

Certainly I had problems with the film. The score was maddeningly overwrought, and too many scenes felt like the editors were playing hot potato with the camera angles. But a film's not a masterpiece because it lives up to everyone's personal tastes; it's a masterpiece because it transcends them. An audacious script, Ray's clever direction, and above all Dean's hypnotic performance delivered onto us a minor miracle.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Film-critics: A dying breed?

Roger Ebert just posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog about the death of serious film criticism (and respectable newspaper journalism in general) and the rise of the Celebrity Cult. One of the more disturbing manifestations of this trend: the AP recently restricted all entertainment writers to 500 words or less, whether it's an interview, film review, think piece, etc. There goes "The Sacrifice" :-)

Of course, it's ironic that the man who reduced film reviews to the orientation of his opposable digits is lamenting the death of thoughtful criticism.

Frankly, I couldn't care less what newspapers do. They're the real dying breed, and these desperate actions are their death throws. Serious film criticism, on the other hand, isn't dying. It's just that its venues have changed with the times. And I also couldn't care less about celebrity culture. In this world, there's room for both. Most people just occasionally dabble in media-driven obsessions. But if you want to spend your life neck-deep in all of the celeb-sewage oozing out of Hollywood, I won't stop you.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Day The Earth (Didn't) Stand Still

Do you know what made science-fiction great back in the day? Dialogue, ideas, acting. Not action. (Exhibits for the prosecution: Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Soylent Green). The original 1952 version of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" was characterized by an almost complete lack of action - the earth literally stood still. It asked us to contemplate our own role in the universe (albeit in the hokey way Hollywood demanded for mass consumption).

I can't say I was surprised by this trailer. But you'd think after enduring years of crap-tastic remakes, I'd stop caring. Well I'm close.


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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Sacrifice

#366 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

If you've never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, you're in for a treat. He only made a handful of films over his 30-year career, yet by his second feature he had created an astonishingly developed and wholly unique cinematic style. His signature approach includes extremely long takes, mystical symbolism, and dream-like narrative structures. He had a photographic patience unrivaled in film history, and his meticulous attention to detail resulted in some of the most exquisite and soul-stirring images I've ever seen in my life. Don't believe me? Watch the YouTube video below for just a small taste of what awaits you.

Of all his films, I consider his last, "The Sacrifice," his greatest achievement. It's an ambiguous and unconventional narrative about the onset of what we can only assume is world war three. We watch an artistic petty-bourgeois clan, isolated at their homestead in a remote part of Sweden, unravel during the course of the film; the father, Alexander, makes a pact with both God and a witch to save his family from the "sickening fear." Or at least that's the more traditional interpretation of the film, though I will offer my own.

His Career
Tarkovsky was born in a small village in the western part of the Soviet Union in 1933. His father left the family when he was only four, and he soon moved with his mother to Moscow at the onset of WWII. After an aborted attempt to study Arabic at the Soviet Union's foreign language institute and a year of prospecting in the Siberian wilderness, he applied to the State Institute of Cinematography. Admitted into the film-directing program in 1955 at the beginning of Kruschev's breif "thaw," he was among the first generation of Soviet filmmakers allowed to experience film, art, and literature from around the world. He got a crash course in Bresson, Kurosawa, Bergman, and even the Japanese avante-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara; all of these filmmakers had an obvious impact on his own cinematic language.

Over the next 25 years, he struggled in the grossly bureaucratic Soviet state film industry. His films, despite their international acclaim, were often heavily censored inside the Soviet Union and typically given limited distributions. For example, his 3rd feature film "Solaris" - a genre-bending psychological science fiction tome that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival - received almost no advertising inside the Soviet Union and played at only two theaters in the whole country for a limited time. The state assigned Solaris a "category 3" assessment - a Soviet kiss of death for filmmakers. Only Tarkovsky's international reputation stopped the authorities from completely barring him from working in the film industry.

In the early 80's, he eventually managed to convince the state to allow him to make a film in Italy; once he left the country, he vowed to never return. The authorities barred his wife and child from leaving the Soviet Union and joining him until he was terminally ill in 1986. He made two more films after his escape; one in Italy ("Nostalghia"), and "The Sacrifice," filmed in Sweden.

Living and growing up in an open and democratic society like ours, it's hard to fathom exactly why the Soviet state considered his films so politically subversive. In fact, I can't understand why they considered his films political at all. Certainly, the subtle thread of Christian symbolism and metaphysical themes in his films would have upset some of the more dogmatic ideological blow-hards. But the amount of suffering Tarkovsky endured for his deeply personal and introspective cinematic poems just shows how incapable the Soviet bureaucracy was of understanding any sense of reality, much less art.

Cancer ate away at Tarkovsky's lungs while he made "The Sacrifice." Sadly, he may have inadvertently caused not only his own death, but the death of several of his actors and peers. Between 1976 and 1979, he made a genre-less film called "Stalker." (Some critics, unable to resist classification, have referred to it as a science-fiction film). The set locations included both an abandoned hydro power plant and an old chemical processing plant. Within a few years, several of the actors and production crew died of cancer. Tarkovsky, whose death shortly followed theirs, knew of the rumors floating around attributing their deaths to the toxins they were exposed on the set of "Stalker."

The film
"The Sacrifice" capped off his tortured career, and like nearly all of his films, it's a personal journey. For many people, it charts the spiritual trajectory of the father Alexander (played by Bergman's favorite leading man Erland Josephson). Initially an atheist, he eventually pleads to God for his family's salvation. A neighbor even manages to convince Alexander to have sex with one of his maids, whom he says is a witch who can save them all. After the world returns to normal, Alexander follows through on his promise to God by burning down his house, forsaking his possessions, and refusing to ever speak again.

I've presented what appears to be a logical, orderly plot; the film, however, is another story. It's a mix of both narrative and experimental structures and techniques, and as such, is beautifully ambiguous.

This film represents not a spiritual journey, but a skeptical examination of our own purpose. Tarkovsky had plenty of reason to question everything: his artistic repression, his separation from his family, his inadvertent culpability in his own death and the death of his friends. I don't consider this film (nor any of his others) either an embrace or a rejection of religion. Tarkovsky, the man, was spiritual, but his films never take any open stance on any man-made institutions or contemporary phenomena. They orbit a much deeper, metaphysical level. They represent Tarkovsky's unresolved ideas about the world, his questions, contradictions. In a sense, his films are philosophical, not religious.

Alexander doesn't save the world as the typical interpretation suggests; instead, he descends into madness. This would explain his black-out near the beginning of the film, the dream like nature of nearly all of the sequences after his collapse, the surreal final TV broadcast, the maid's surprise at the father's sexual entreaties, her ignorance of the war. It also contextualizes the young son's first words, which also happen to be the last words in the film (he's unable to speak for most of the film because he's recovering from a surgery): "In the beginning was the word... why was that, papa?"

Burning down the house, leaving his family, becoming a mute - this isn't a noble sacrifice. It's his own loss of sanity, his inability to cope. (BTW - check out the documentary "Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky" for the fascinating backstory about how Tarkovsky's crew was forced to rebuild and reburn the house. For the first take, Tarkovsky refused Sven Nykvist's pleas to have two cameras shoot the house burning just in case one jammed. The camera, of course, jammed).

His Legacy
Tarkovsky created an indelible new language for film, or "time-sculpting," as he referred to it. It has found its way into the styles of filmmakers as diverse as Micheal Snow and Stephen Soderbergh - even if his own films haven't found their way into the homes of most cinematic consumers.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Half Blood Prince

Just in case you somehow missed this: 

It's not coming out till July '09!!! That's a delay of 8 months!!! WTF? 


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The short version: it sucks (no pun intended).

The long version: If you're a fan of the books, this film will betray you. If you're a fan of the vampire mystique, this film will disappoint you. If you're a fan of TruBlood, this film will sicken you. Save your $12.

Note: This reviewer, too cowardly to risk his immortal soul, declined an invitation to actually watch this film and has instead relied on his wife, who selflessly sacrificed herself so that we may all be saved from this unholy abomination.


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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Johnny Guitar

#281 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

Director Nicolas Ray made “Johnny Guitar” at a time when America was least willing to accept it. 1954 marked a high point in the cold war and a low point in artistic and cultural output. Hollywood churned out dancing Fred Astaire’s and swaggering John Wayne’s. A surreal, existentialist drama set in the old west with feminist and anti-McCarthy subtexts didn’t stand a chance in this vapid wasteland.

That’s not to say Johnny Guitar is a political film. On the surface, it’s a dramatic narrative about a town divided between two warring women: Emma Small (played by Mercedes McCambridge), a local cattle baron representing the establishment, and Vienna (played by Joan Crawford), an entrepreneur who builds a casino outside of town and waits for the coming railroad. Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, travels from afar to play the guitar in Vienna’s casino. And lastly, the Dancing Kid (Vienna’s occasional flame, suspected bandit, and object of Emma’s desire) directly and indirectly propels the narrative forward.

Despite the old-west setting, it’s not exactly a western. If the revisionist storyline wasn’t enough to turn fickle audiences off, Ray’s slow pacing, surreal settings, and innovative use of color surely doomed this film to commercial failure. It opens with a descent into hell: a lone cowboy, with only a guitar strapped to his back, steers his horse down a mountain past unexplained explosions and a deadly stage-coach robbery, finally arriving in the desolate valley below in the middle of a sand-storm. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, he comes across a grand casino, whose cave-like interiors are empty of humans except for black-clad dealers, and silent save a slowly spinning roulette wheel.

Ray constantly toys with our expectations, most effectively through his strong use (and misuse) of color. He introduces the eventual heroes of the story in dark, austere costumes while painting Emma’s gang with a bright pageantry. By the end of the story, the roles reverse; Vienna shines in an angelic white dress, while Emma’s lynch mob menaces in black funeral attire. Throughout the entire film, Ray deliberately suppresses the color blue, further destabilizing the already volatile milieu.

Ray also builds tension through a roundabout narrative arc; in some cases, we never discover exactly what drives these characters to such extremes. Johnny’s devotion and Vienna’s obsession are eventually explained, while Emma’s hysterical blood lust and the Dancing Kid’s self-destructive actions leave us guessing.

The lynch-mob justice and guilt-by-association interrogations (“Just say she’s one of them!”) certainly paralleled the very real McCarthy-led witchhunts of the times. Add to that the obvious feminist subtext and it’s not hard to imagine why American audiences laughed the film into oblivion.

Of course, Ray could only go so far. He worked within the studio system, and ultimately depended on their continued funding for his career. If Nicolas Ray could make this film today, I have no doubt we’d find a thoroughly artistic and startling experience. He would have discarded some of the occasionally hackneyed dialogue from the script as well as the more cartoonish leitmotifs in the score. One for contrast, he probably would have enhanced the few violent points in the film to more effectively release all of the smoldering tension. Also, the simmering sexual undercurrents might have risen to the surface in a less inhibited fashion.

But as much as I’d like to see that version of the film, I’m still just thankful I got to experience this one.

DISCLAIMER: this reviewer takes no responsibility for the frustration you will experience in your attempts to actually find a copy of this film.

CREDIT: Special thanks to my awesome friend and movie buff Ashley H. for burning me an already bootlegged copy of this film!


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Madagascar 2

This isn’t exactly what I call “film.” It’s more in the orbit of “guilty pleasure.” I’ve seen the first “Madagascar” many more times than I care to admit. My wife and I love it so much, we even forced my grandparents to watch it. Their polite smiles and bewildered expressions were priceless.

I have a deep-seated fear of sequels. 2010, Shrek 2, Matrix 2, Ghostbuster 2, Aliens, Die Hard 2….. It’s an undeniable pattern. Sequels are Hollywood’s systematic prostitution of all that we hold dear and sacred. And we’re all masochists. Not to sound overly dramatic or anything.

So what about Madagascar 2? It ain’t Judas, and it ain’t the second coming. It had enough sparks of originality, irreverence, and pop-culture jabs to make me occasionally laugh my ass off. It’s Alex, Marty, Gloria, Melman. It’s insane penguins and cultured monkeys, with a sexually ambiguous lemur thrown in for good measure. It’s a love-slap in The Lion King’s face.

The story lacks the focus and uniform trajectory of its predecessor. You'll drift in and out. You’ll wonder exactly why it was necessary to bring back the castrating granny.

If you’ve got twelve dollars to waste, you could do much worse.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008


#250 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

If Ridley Scott made “Alien” today, no one would notice. You'd find it in Wal-Mart at the bottom of the the straight-to-DVD bargain-bin with all the other Bantha Poodoo. But that’s the problem with being an archetype. Your novel contribution is sullied by all of the cheap imitations that follow.

Even disregarding all of its serial-killer bastard children, I’m forced to wonder why this film was ever archetypal in the first place. Sure, the film is enjoyable. The special effects – especially the alien ship scenes – have that loving touch missing from so many CGI-driven features today. The 2001-esque tracking shots of the spacecraft's interiors, the hopelessly dated computers, and the made up programming languages all made me warm and fuzzy inside. When the cute little blood-drenched alien baby pops out of Kane all hiss and spit, jumps off the operating table and scurries across the floor, my wife and I nearly died of laughter.

The film offers very little in the way of character development, which is probably a blessing, considering the one-dimensional characters painfully drawn in its sequels. (“Game over, man!”) The terse dialogue and elliptical narrative also fits in perfectly with the screenplay’s efficient pacing. I loved watching android Ash descend into fanatical and homicidal obsession.

And we can overlook some of the more problematic plot points. I’m thinking specifically of Ridley staring at the screens of binary 1’s and 0’s and magically deciphering the code “stay away” (is it really any more ridiculous than Cypher watching the scrolling Matrix screens and seeing “blonde, brunette, redhead?”). Then there’s the absurdity of the recon crew parading through the sinister alien ship like starry-eyed, slack-jawed yokels without even having radio contact with their home crew.

In the end, the alien’s serial destruction of the crew is the only original contribution this film made to the medium (which, as my B-movie obsessed friend Sam Deldago pointed out to me, comes full circle in “Jason X: Jason in Space!”). And here’s what I can’t understand: even in this, the first film to really formalize this now well-worn formula, who seriously couldn’t see where it was heading? At most, this is a one-trick pony. Why God why has Hollywood raped this film over and over again?

Maybe you can help me understand. All I can say is: Watch it. Enjoy. Laugh. And Lament.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

For the first fourteen minutes and twenty seconds of "There Will Be Blood," Daniel Plainview doesn’t say a single word. And yet I've rarely been more fascinated with a character. Without a single line of dialogue, actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson invoke an intimately powerful connection with the protagonist that is as disturbing and mysterious as our own subconscious. Anderson’s thrown convention out the window – even his own. Gone is the engrossing dialogue that characterized his works like “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” or the hilarious non sequitur of “Punch Drunk Love.”

If a filmmaker wants to transport you into another time, he has several tricks up his sleeve. Hollywood has created all kinds of ready-made formulas. Think of the grand costumes of “Gone With the Wind,” the hokey pageantry of an old-west shoot-em-up like “Rio Grande,” or even the colorful colloquialisms of “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Yet somewhere in our DNA lives the memory of that past, the hardships, the putrid fears, the primal hatreds that we’ve carried down through the years – a shared memory that transcends all of Hollywood’s tired clichés. And I’ve never actually believed that until I heard Daniel Day Lewis’s opening lines of the film, “Ladies and gentleman, if I say I’m an oil man, you’ll agree.” Certainly after fourteen minutes and 20 seconds, any spoken word at all is bound to have a dramatic effect. Yet there's more to this than tension and release. There isn’t anything I can point to in the dialogue or the delivery to explain it. It’s just an ineffable authenticity in Daniel Day Lewis's acting that I’ve only felt a few times in all of my life.

One of Anderson’s most artistic contributions comes with his use of music. The score is probably a director’s greatest temptation. Overwrought music is often the last-ditch tool used to smooth over an awkward scene, a poor performance, or even an entire cinematic failure. (Not convinced? Revisit the Mendes/Hanks fiasco “Road to Perdition”).

Johnny Greenwood’s mostly original score finds a new orchestral language for communicating tension. His Ligeti-inspired strings tonally converging and diverging, an irritatingly insistent percussion cadence worthy of Stravinsky himself – these tell us as much about Plainview as does anything else. Which isn’t to say it tells us much. Unlike a Wagner opera, the orchestra fills out not so much the emotional depth as much as psychological impenetrability. What else would you expect from Radiohead’s lead guitarist?

It’s odd to use the words “intimate” to describe a film characterized by terse dialogue, detached cinematography, and unexplainable action. Yet that's what this film is. It’s an intimate look into the unknown. Filmmakers, like the rest of us, presume to know too much, to communicate too much. We’re too afraid to explore the unknown in ourselves and others, and to leave space in our thoughts. The beauty of “There Will Be Blood” is that it gives in, admits its ignorance, and sails across our subconscious, across humanity’s ambiguities.

This was no easy feat. To do so, Anderson had to somehow transform Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” from a polemical pro-socialist labor novel into a largely non-political (and bewildering) examination of the soul. Along the way, he discarded large portions of the book, while cleverly salvaging others, including a frightening and cinematically fresh look into the sinister backwoods world of turn-of-the-century evangelical Christianity. The novelty of this representation is due in large part to the preacher played by actor Paul Dano. His snake like contortions, abusive, slobbery healings add a new spin to this well-worn narrative feature. It’s certainly on par with his memorable performance as a Nietzschian teen in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The film is not a masterpiece. Its final act veers dangerously close to classical Greek territory with a conventionally dramatic father/son confrontation. In fact, most of this act feels out of place; Plainview’s opulent demise into decadence and alcoholic seclusion seems more fitting of a popcorn drama. Thankfully, the final scene saves the entire production. I won’t spoil it for you, I just have four words: “I drink your milkshake.”

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Nation I'm Proud Of

OK - this isn't about film, but I needed to write this.

As my wife and I landed at New York's JFK airport last night, our gay flight attendant came over the intercom and informed us that "Obama is the next president of the United States." Our plane erupted in applause. It was a beautiful moment, and something I'll never forget.

Of course, I had expected this victory. I knew that it wouldn't be a total landslide, that it could get close. I had mentally prepared for the last-ditch shenanigans from the McCain campaign. But I never really believed McCain could pull out a win. My wife and I had discussed our exit strategy should the unthinkable happen (we had landed on Vancouver), but always in a half-joking manner.

It wasn't till the cab ride home, though, when we kept asking the cabbie to turn up Obama's victory speech, that our victory really sunk in. And it really is our victory - a victory for every single last American. It's a victory for all us white kids who grew up with racist families in all-white hick-towns yet managed to use our brains and listen to our hearts long enough to see through the ignorance. It's a victory for anyone who had long ago lost hope in our nation and our ideals, who had receded into cynicism and despair. It's a victory for my Arkansas family, whom I love and miss dearly, who can no longer hypocritically praise Jesus while harboring prejudice. And most of all, it's a victory for our children. The first generation of Americans who will live in a country that has finally realized its dream that "All men are created equal."

I am so proud of our nation. And I am not ashamed to admit it - for the first time in my life, I am honestly, sincerely, profoundly proud of our nation.


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Monday, November 3, 2008

Welcome to moveease

This is the world's window into my thoughts on film. Join me each week as I review, analyze, or lampoon a film. It might be a new film; it might be ancient. But if I'm reviewing it, then there's a reason you should see it.

For this first week, I've posted my reviews of two recent documentaries: Werner Herzog's Antarctic examination "Encounters At the End of World", and Bill Maher's indictment of all things religion, "Religulous." Documentary has in the last few years moved from a stale, academic genre with a narrow following to a format with mass appeal. These two films are no exception - the masses will find them appealing, even if they do find themselves ridiculed in them.

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An unpleasant array of emotions washed over me as I watched “Religulous,” Bill Maher's anti-religionist documentary: shock, shame, horror, denial. Do these religious fundamentalists really still exist? Could such unabashed ignorance and stupidity still grip so much of mankind in a world constantly revolutionized by science and reason? I'm a “non-believer” and a casual follower of various anti-religionist crusades, so I didn't expect to learn much from the film. Growing up in the Texas Bible Belt, my brother and I had suffered through our fair share of church brainwashing summer camps, Sunday morning Bible studies, Wednesday afternoon church youth groups, abstinence-only sex education, etc. I knew all about the ignorance, the self-delusion, the fundamentalist hatred. So why was I so shocked by the film?

There's nothing really new about the film's concept. The genre is rife with documentaries about the unending parade of religious incongruities. These films are typically serious, well-reasoned (if not always well executed), and politically correct. “Religulous,” on the other hand, is beautifully offensive. The title sums up the approach; it's a portmanteau of the words “religion” and “ridiculous.” And, unlike its peers, this film is personality driven. It is as much about Bill Maher and his own comic take on the problem as it is about religion. If you're not a fan of his standup or his HBO show, you'll probably dislike the film. Director Larry Charles (of Seinfeld and Borat fame) also serves up some wickedly comic editing, including some very creative cuts from Hollywood's biblical lexicon.

“Religulous” progresses as a series of confrontations and interviews with various religious followers and figures. Maher first visits the “Trucker Church” - a roadside trailer-cum-chapel. We witness as the truckers attempt to fend off Maher's simple and straightforward questions with a mix of pseudo-scientific “proofs,” outright denials, and blank stares. You might be willing to forgive their ignorance; we don't necessarily expect truckers to be the most educated group of Americans. You might even pity them.

Maher's next victim is, however, entirely unforgivable: Bill Pryor, the junior Democratic US Senator from Arkansas. With the exception of President Bush, I have never witnessed such a shocking display of idiocy and backwardness in someone holding such a high office. This self-proclaimed creationist spews out a list of religious absurdities, intersperses them with a string of Bushisms, and caps it all off with the Freudian retort: “Well, you don't have to take an IQ test to be in the Senate.” His face slowly turns from a smile to an expression of fear as he realizes he just called himself an idiot on camera. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.

Maher is an equal opportunity ridiculer. In addition to Christianity, he takes aim at Judaism and Islam with gusto. For me, particularly intriguing was his examination of Islam, where he challenges the popular left-wing assertion that Islam itself is a peaceful religion, while the extremist offshoots responsible for so much terror and death in the world are actually just unrelated perversions. He examines both the history of Islam over the past two millennia, and also considers some of the more contemporary Islamic horror shows we've seen on the evening news. We watch as a powerful imam in Jerusalem denies that the Koran contains any lines condoning killing or violence, while at the same time stating that the 8th century imperialism, subjugation, and oppression of most of Europe by the Arabs wasn't “warfare,” but simply “spreading Islam.”

After the film, I imbibed some “devil's water” with my blasphemous wife and friends while we ruminated philosophically over the film. Surely, it only includes the most extreme examples in the religious world; most people couldn't really believe all of that nonsense, could they? But why not? Our societies are idiotic enough to create weapons that can obliterate the entire world. Why wouldn't we expect them to simultaneously deny belief in the very same scientific method that makes their “end times” possible? It turns out that in a list of the top 38 industrialized democracies in the world, the US ranks 37th when it comes to the percentage of the population that accepts the tenets of evolution. The only country ranked lower was Turkey, a nation infamous for Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance. I dug a little deeper and found that not even 50% of Americans could give even the most minimal definition of DNA.

Of course, to be fair, we can't necessarily conclude that atheistic societies will fair much better in creating a harmonious, tolerant world. The horrors unleashed on human kind by the first atheistic society – the Soviet Union – should give pause to anyone contemplating the end of religion. And then there is China's campaigns of terror against the Buddhist temples during the Cultural Revolution, or their more recent suppression of Christian house churches, complete with mass jailings and bulldozers. Yet perhaps these atheistic societies were actually consumed by their own type of religion – in their case, the religious-like belief in the inevitability and infallibility of their dialectical “science.” This belief made it possible for so many to either justify or deny the gulags, political terror, oppression, human rights abuses, etc. Is this ideology really all that different from the absurdity of the world's religions? Perhaps; we at least have to wonder why Marxist communists have become increasingly anachronistic while religious fundamentalism is stronger than ever.

In the end, maybe it's not religion, but the inherent drive towards dogmatism that represents such a danger to the world. As Maher states, he isn't selling certitude, but doubt. I'm reminded of the writings of Milovan Djilas, the one-time vice president of communist Yugoslavia who was thrown from power after daring to contradict the official Marxist tenets. After enduring torture and repeated jailings for his blasphemies, the government made every attempt to erase him from Yugoslavia's thoughts and memories. But Djilas's writings survived. In “The Unperfect Society,” he states that ideas themselves, or “the idea as idea, the idea in embryo,” while vital and necessary for the development of humanity, are the seeds of power and tyranny; that “one ideal dies that another may be born, manifestly 'finer' and more 'ultimate,' and this is the human lot, for good or ill.” God help us.

Still, the question lingers: why did this film actually shock me? I think that, over time, I have forgotten what it was like to live in a sea of stupidity; it was my own blissful ignorance that this film has shattered.

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