Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Milk (Gus Van Sant)

A couple of years ago I stumbled across Rob Epstein's 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk while browsing DVD titles at the 96th St. New York Public Library. I had only the vaguest recollection that Harvey had something to do with gay rights, but I checked it out anyways (the "Best Documentary Academy Award" bump may have influenced my decision).

The Times of Harvey Milk charted Harvey's path from a small business owner on the Castro to San Francisco city supervisor (and, of course, the first openly-gay elected official). It examined his unlikely relationship with local Teamsters forged during the Coors beer boycott, his modest achievements as city supervisor, and his efforts against California's infamous anti-gay "Prop 6." It also illustrated his relationship with supervisor Dan White, his assassination, and the aftermath. With honesty and frankness, Times transcended the nauseatingly formulaic "voice-of-god" documentaries of its time to weave an engrossing yarn that never exaggerated Harvey's modest (if historic) achievements for cheap dramatics. The truth, as far as Epstein was concerned, was remarkable enough.

Apparently Van Sant disagrees. His 2008 feature film Milk transforms Harvey Milk into a MLK-esque mass leader, constantly battling establishment straights and gays alike in a cheaply poetic (and embellished) tearjerker. Not only is this one of Van Sant's most straightforward films from a narrative point of view, it's also his most cinematically conventional in a decade. Though lamentably littered with an array of undeveloped supporting characters, Penn's spot-on characterization of Harvey at least helps us forget the mediocrity of his peers (I'm looking at you, James Franco).

I was most annoyed by Van Sant's "opera" gimmick. After introducing Milk's love for opera early on, Gus finds ways throughout the film to randomly remind us of this seemingly innocuous character trait. I kept wondering at these occasional distractions. They rarely integrated with the story and were too undeveloped to actually add any depth to Harvey. Was this simply a casualty of the cutting room? Or was Van Sant just padding the film?

We discover the answer (and Van Sant's penchant for poor poetry) in the film's finale: Milk's assassination. As Milk teeters on his knees after embracing several bullets, we see his final glimpse of this world reflected in the office window: the opera house, conveniently placed across the street.

Milk kept my attention, but gimmicks like this make me wonder what the hell has gotten into the Academy. Decent film? Sure. Best picture worthy? Give me a break.


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Friday, January 23, 2009

13 Oscars noms for Button?

Wow... that's a shocker. Thirteen Oscar nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Academy has reached a new low in its quest to appease the Studio titans.

How do I detest Button? Let me count the ways. How do you take a fascinating (if awkward) premise about a man who ages backward from birth, fraught with metaphysical implications and time-bending potentialities, and turn it into the dullest and most decidedly un-curious tale Hollywood has ever blown $150 million on?

You start by turning Brad Pitt's character into a slackjawed simp incapable of contemplation, only allowing him to speak in terse, one sentence obsequities - and only then in response to the most prosaic observations of the other characters. Then you take Cate Blanchett, cast her as Pitt's lifelong love interest, package her in the most formulaic "talent tragically cut short" role, and edit her screentime into something too annoying to be engaging, too constricting to be developmental.

Then, as if you haven't already created an overly dramatic story arc, you frame the entire narrative in a flash-back voice over, read outloud by Cate's daughter on Cate's deathbed. And just to squeeze in some extra tension, you puts Cate's deathbed in a New Orleans hospital in the last hours before Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. Will she die before her daughter finishes the story? Will Cate, her daughter, and the diary be swept away in the hurricane? Do we care?

Hats off to the Academy. Really guys, great work.


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Monday, January 19, 2009

It's a Hoax: Joaquin Pheonix retires from acting and becomes a rapper

Tell me if you disagree, but this has to be a hoax, right? Joaquin Pheonix "retires" from acting.... so that he can become a rapper. And his brother-in-law celeb, Casey Affleck, is directing a documentary about his transition.

Consider the evidence:

#1) He gives a scoop to E! Entertainment of all places that he's retiring from the acting world and pursuing a career in music.

#2) In a follow-up interview, he affirms (in a less-than-sober manner) that he has indeed retired from acting, that there's more to his "artism" than film, and that it's, like, greener pastures.

#3) In a clearly stoned-out-his-gord performance, he hops up and down like a child, points the mic at the audience inviting them to shout the lyrics to a song he's rapping for the first time, and in the end, falls on his ass walking off the stage:

My theory: he and Casey decided to create a documentary hoax, seeing how many sheep would willingly buy into the idea that he's fallen off the wagon and become a rapper. What's even more interesting: how could all of those simps in the club actually believe that they're listening to good music (when he's clearly intentionally trying to be the worst rapper in the world).


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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another Roundup

It's that time again. Another slew of films that I haven't the time to give proper reviews, but still deserve recognition (or in some cases, warning).

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, USA, #32 TSPDT)

It's good... but not great. I have no reason not to like this film; it's taut, efficiently elliptical, surprising, and best of all, stabby :-) I certainly don't regret watching it, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high. C'est la vie.

La Dolce Vita (dir. Federico Fellini, 1953, Italy, #26 TSPDT)

Far from being a Fellini evangelist, I still find myself forced to highly recommend La Dolce Vita, the film that gave the world the term "paparazzi." It may have been one of the first widely viewed pictures to break from the traditional narrative form. It's essentially a series of unrelated episodes from the main character's life in Rome, which basically chart the struggle between his dreams as a writer and the temptations of "the sweet life." The vignette with the Madonna sighting permanently etched itself into my memory.

The Brother's Grimm (dir. Terry Gilliam, 2005, USA)

It's hard to believe that this was made by the same person that gave us Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Grimm is so scattered and grotesquely edited that it's unwatchable.

The Apartment (dir. Billy Wilder, 1960, USA, #55 TSPDT)

Mildly entertaining, predictably crowd-pleasing, I had a hard time understanding why this inconsequential romance ranked so highly on TSPDT's list. For me, Jack Lemmon's hilarious performance didn't make up for the film's otherwise mediocrity.

Vampyr (dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1931, France/Germany, #183 TSPDT)

Although the plot is nothing to write home about it, the film's amazing special effects and Dreyer's pioneering cinematography (at times, more daring than the spatial invasions of Ordet) made the small time investiture more than worthwhile.

Belle De Jour (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1967, France, #140 TSPDT)

What I found most enticing about this erotica - about a rich young housewife who lives out her sado-masochistic fantasies by taking up an afternoon residency at a local brothel - was how decidedly unerotic it was.

Badlands (dir. Terrence Malick, 1974, USA, #140 TSPDT)

Terrence Mallick's directorial debut is perfectly pitched, from beginning to end, in one of the most bizarre dream-like killing sprees ever committed to film. A young Martin Sheen and a (very) young Sissy Spacek effortlessly match each other's disturbingly likable insanity. We also hear Mallick's signature approach to voice-over narration in its infancy.

The 400 Blows (dir. Francis Truffaut , 1959, France, #44 TSPDT)

As we watch the harsh realities of Truffaut's early life unfold on the screen, it's easy to see why he made a great writer/filmmaker. His childhood alone gave him enough raw material for several lifetimes of creation. I also realized that Woody Allen parodied this film's soundtrack in the childhood flashback's of his first film, Take the Money and Run.

The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982, USA)

When I was young, my grandpa loved to take me to the local video store and let me pick out all of the films that my mother would never allow. We typically browsed the horror titles, and at a very early age, I was exposed to some of the most awesomely idiotic horror films ever made (Motel Hell and Rawhead Rex were some of the more memorable). Interspersed between those films were some occasional gems, and at some point we landed on John Carpenter's The Thing. About a remote Antarctic station's encounter with an alien, it's a rarity in sci-fi: a film that caters both to my love of science fiction and my desire for masterful filmmaking. Upon revisiting it over the winter break, I realized why the film's final shot had stayed with me all of these years. Oh, and Kurt Russell still kicks ass.


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Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)

Independent Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke's fifth film - and his second that's passed the Chinese censors - contrasts a poetic, lyrical technique with the harsh realities of everyday life in China. Committed to showing "Chinese reality without distortion," Jia casts a despondent look at the corruption of everyday life through two parallel stories centered around the Three Gorges Dam.

The coal miner Han Sanming grew up in Fengjie, a 2000 year old town destined for submersion. He returns to his hometown to look for his wife and daughter, who left him 16 years ago, only to find that his street he grew up on is already lost beneath the rising waters. At the same time, Shen Hong searches for her husband, who left for Fengjie two years prior for lucrative contractor work, and has only spoken to her briefly over the phone since.

The beauty of Still Life stems from its ability to engage us on several levels simultaneously. For starters, it's a rigorously spare examination of the less-than-glitzy realities of Chinese life. We witness a culture filled with corruption, a startling acceptance of the amoral vicissitudes requisite for survival. Jia's actors communicate this with an emotional detachment worthy of Bresson, while Yu Lik-wai's camera work pans across his canvases with a lush mix of Tarkovian patience and Coutardian saturation (all unbelievably shot with digital video).

Instead of functionally narrative intertitles, Jia's punctuates scenes with banal and seemingly random commodities pulled from their surroundings. Combined with the camera's lack of commitment to its subjects and two very unexpected mystical non-sequitur, we're left to contemplate Jia's overall message. Is this a poetic attempt to communicate the vagaries and insignificance of his character's lives in the midst of an overpopulated nation, a vanishing culture, and an uncaring and omnipresent bureaucracy? Or is this simply a way for Jia to transmit a less-than-accepted message to the world in a way that censors might not catch? Or perhaps it's both - or neither.

Either way, from Still Life's opening shot, I was transfixed by the film's stark beauty and patient pacing. It won the Golden Lion upon its premiere at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, and its theatrical release in the US in 2008 has seen it top several critics' "best-of-08" lists. Although its art-film flavor is likely unpalatable for mass consumption, I have no doubt that it will influence serious film-makers for years to come.


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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Assault on Precinct 13

#727 TSPDT

No one will ever make a film as ridiculously bad-ass as John Carpenter's 1976 film, Assault on Precinct 13. I had my doubts. First, my schlock-obsessed friend Sam D. raved about it, then a trailer I saw embedded in a review over at Shooting Down Pictures had me ROFL. But after watching it, I have to admit, this is seriously, hands-down, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, a 110% kick-you-in-the-nuts masterpiece.

Where do I begin? Lets start with the score. John Carpenter (who you most likely know as the director of Halloween) broke out his synthesizer and drum machine, simultaneously tapped into the titanium power of a Led Zeppelin rock ballad and the straightforward, fuck-it simplicity of The Clash, and wound up influencing an entire generation of hip-hoppers, rappers, and bad 80's pop and fusion. (Hint: try singing the chorus of Falco's 1985 crapterpiece Rock Me Amadeus over the film's opening theme).

The plot slowly builds to an explosive trifecta. The LAPD assigns Ethan Bishop, newly promoted California Highway Patrol lieutenant, to run the nearly abandoned Precinct 13 station (perched in the middle of an urban wasteland) on the last night of its existence. A prisoner transport bus passing through the area reluctantly makes an unexpected layover at the station when one of the prisoners becomes ill. And a suicidal and fantastically interracial gang, after polishing off an ice-cream man and a little girl, chase the girl's father straight to the station.

Made on a dime, Carpenter works up to this critical mass with a series of suspenseful (and conveniently cost-effective) shots of moving vehicles. Alternating between the gang's menacing drive byes, Ethan's perplexedly long stroll to Precinct 13 (he spends a good 8 hours driving through LA before arriving at the station), and several scenes of cop/prisoner repartee on the transport bus.

Once these threads converge on the abandoned station, we witness one of the most satisfying orgasms of violence ever committed to film. Add to that the unexpected (and unforced) buddy motif that develops between the black Lieutenant Ethan and the white, convicted murderer Napoleon, and you've got a 110% kick-you-in-the-nuts masterpiece. Watch this. Immediately.

Check out the trailer:


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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fair-Use and Copyright Law: The Curious Case of Kevin B. Lee

Kevin B. Lee, film critic and fellow blogger, has over the past few years created several stellar video essays about select films he's reviewed in his quest to see all of the 1000 greatest films of all time (as annually compiled by They Shoot Pictures, Don't They). These insightful creations juxtapose both his own criticism and that of his guest contributors with clips from the films in question.

If that doesn't constitute Fair Use under current copyright law, then I don't know what does. Of course, that didn't stop Google/YouTube from permanently disabling his account this week, instantly deleting over 300 minutes of content with only the briefest of warnings.

Matt Zoeller Seitz wrote and posted an excellent essay on this travesty over at his film blog "The House Next Door." Since it's unlikely that the corporate media will pick up on this story, I encourage anyone capable of either reposting this essay or blogging their own thoughts on this injustice to immediately do so. For what it's worth, here are some of my brief thoughts on the matter:

This is a symptom of the monopolization of the web. The micro-history of the internet has lately seemed to transition from a proliferation of content sharing tools to a corporate monopolization of those tools.

However, unlike Seitz, I have no problem with the free distribution of art - whether it's literature, film, photography, painting. One of the noblest achievements of modern civilization was the public library - i.e., the socialization and free distribution of knowledge and art. Because the truth is, artists don't create to profit. We create to share and communicate aspects of our being that would otherwise remain hidden. Sharing art isn't the crime - the crime was commodifying art in the first place, and the digitization of all of these mediums eliminates any remaining rational obstacles to the flowering and sharing of human creativity. The only remaining obstacle is capitalism, which irrationally refuses to imagine a society that nurtures art for the sake of humankind, not for the sake of the corporate exec's pocket books.


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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3rd best)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the 4th film of the series, and the 3rd best by my count) straddles the halfway mark between the mediocre family pandering of the franchise's first two efforts and the emotional and cinematic achievements of the 3rd and 5th films. Goblet functions best as an action flick; in fact, had the film simply stuck to this premise, instead of attempting to tie the TriWizard tasks together with some of the series' most stupendously horrendous melodrama (OMG, prom), it might have earned a higher ranking.

I think we can all recognize the daunting challenge of adapting Rowling's Goblet for the screen. One of the longest books of the series, it's filled with enough themes and subplots for a 10 episode miniseries. Something had to give, and for better or worse, they dropped S.P.E.W., Rita Skeeter's animagus mischief, and Ron's awareness and shame of his family's poverty. My friend Adam has argued to me that this eliminates the central theme of the book: injustice. I agree it's a theme, but considering Rowling's use of Hermione's liberal overzealousness as comic relief, and the less-than-prominent attention paid to Ron's plight of poverty (just one among many), I'd argue that if something had to give, these were some of the least essential. Besides, what masochist craves Dobby's reprise?

The only authentically engrossing moments of the film occur during Voldemort's resurrection. Diggery's death and his father's painful cries tap into some of the book's emotions, while Voldemort's rebirth and the aftermath with his remaining Death Eaters are at the very least spooky.

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


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Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)

#437 TSPDT

You might say that I have a love/hate relationship with the French auteur Robert Bresson. Another way to put it: I think I like his films in spite of him. Bresson, initially a painter, broke into the film industry with his 1950 feature-length narrative A Diary of a Country Priest. Over the years, he developed an ascetic approach to film that stripped all emotionality from both the performances and the images. I've noted an obvious, linear progression of his peculiar artistic style through four of his films: Pickpocket (1959), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1966), and most recently, Lancelot du Lac (1974).

Lancelot, the topic of this review, concerns the aftermath of King Arthur's failed quest for the Holy Grail. Many of the knights of the round table died during the quest, all too often at each other's hands. The young queen Guinevere believes that they failed because their intentions were ignoble. They sought the grail for personal glory, she says; they desired to control God. Lancelot, however, believes their doom stemmed from the ongoing affair between himself and the queen. The jealousies, hatreds, and power struggles between the knights that occupy the remainder of the film in one way or another revolve around this forbidden love.

I was instantly drawn to the opening sequence of the film; indeed, it's quickly become perhaps my favorite in all of cinema. Lancelot du Lac begins with a sword fight between two knights; the camera, careful to exclude the knight's heads from the composition, follows their swords as they clash. Then, in a dispirited and almost casual motion, we see the sword of one of the knights decapitate his opponent. Blood streams from the loser's neck water-hose style. Several similar scenes follow, punctuated by fully-armored, faceless knights galloping through the woods on their horses. It was immediately obvious to me how indebted Monty Python and the Holy Grail was to this film.

Bresson's treatment of violence stands in complete antithesis to any of our modern expectations of a heightened violent realism (which we can trace back to Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan). The actors in Lancelot deliver their lines as if they were reading them for the first time from a script: without emotion, without timing. Bresson highlights this unconventional method with his own unique photographic sensibilities. His compositions either fully encapsulate the actor in the most simplistic and straightforward closeup, or he removes their faces from the frame entirely, finding a unique way to communicate the action of the scene: we might watch the hooves of their horses clopping along the path, or focus in on a hand gripping a lance. Don't expect any breathtaking sweeps of scenery or haunting long-takes that burn their way into our subconscious.

It's hard to say why I've liked almost all the Bresson films I've seen (Pickpocket being the exception). For me, great film thoroughly envelops me in a world that I'm compelled to follow, either through dialog, performances, cinematography, narrative - or better yet, through all four. But in each of these areas, Bresson seems to intentionally subvert my perfectly reasonable expectations. By all accounts, I should hate his films. By all accounts, I should have turned them off in the first 10 minutes. Yet they're unique, and Bresson's commitment of vision has kept me searching, searching. Maybe I'm just a sucker.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Bergman's "Trilogy of Faith"

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - viewed spring 2006

Winter Light (1962) - #479 TSPDT, viewed Jan 3, 2009

The Silence (1963) - #459 TSPDT, viewed Jan 4, 2009

Ingmar Bergman's so-called "Trilogy of Faith", a cinematic powerhouse, deserves viewing by anyone who loves film - art-house or otherwise. They're short chamber pieces with small casts; their plots unfold over the course of a day or two. They're visually arresting (photographed by legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist) and emotionally and intellectually engaging. They question our existence, our beliefs, our aspirations, our anxieties. They challenge our faith (and, paradoxically, our lack thereof) and beg us to examine aspects of our being that we'd probably rather forget. And they accomplish all of this without fanfare or pretension. These films are stripped down, economical.

Yes, obviously I love Bergman. But it's an appreciative love that allows for criticism. For me, each of these films trounce their predecessor.

Through a Glass Darkly
, the first in the series, mercilessly drops us into the weekend gathering of a broken bourgeois family, consisting of a father, his son and daughter, and his daughter's husband. The daughter Karin suffers from schizophrenia, and was just released from an asylum, while her father David, a second-rate novelist in denial, has just returned from a long trip abroad. Minus, the son, desperately seeks his father's affection while harboring less than proper feelings for his beautiful and deranged sister, and Martin, Karin's husband, is unable to cope with his wife's illness.

Although infinitely watchable (and in the end, shocking, at least in its suggestions), I consider this the least effective of the three simply for the plethora of fractured relationships laid bare for our examination. Bergman, wise enough to resist the temptation for moral lecturing, instead attempts to examine a specific philosophical dilemma in each of these films. By his words, Darkly "conquers certainty." Frankly, Religulous conquers certainty. Darkly conquers (unintentionally) our hope, and I believe the source of this incongruity lies in the films scattered focus.

Part II of the trilogy, Winter Light, considers the plight of Tomas, a country priest. He's asked by a woman in his congregation, Karin (no, not the same from Darkly) if he will speak to her husband, Jonas, who's suffering from an existential crisis apparently brought on by rumors that Mao's China has acquired "the bomb." He agrees, but faced with a dwindling congregation and a loveless, secret affair with the atheistic and obsessed Marta (engrossingly portrayed by Ingrid Thulin), he finds that he has only doubt and self-loathing to heap upon the already suicidal Jonas.

The film's a masterpiece of quiet desperation. The opening sequence of the service in the nearly empty chapel subtly communicates the indifference, boredom, and mind-numbing ritualism that any of us who've ever been to church have had to endure. Even more fascinating is the powerful verbal battle between Tomas and Marta that takes place during the film's second act; the emotionally dizzying turns from hatred to love, defiance to subservience, foreshadow Bergman's verbal epic of the following decade, Scenes from a Marriage. For me, the only flaw sprang from the implausibility of both the source and resolution of Jonas's dilemma.

Part III, The Silence, abandons any remaining inhibitions from the first two films and dives headlong into the heart of the matter: sex and death. Because when it boils down to it, modern-day Christianity, for all its self-righteous spirituality and hypocritical proclamations, is actually about nothing more than our fear and fascination with the two most defining human experiences: sex and death. The Silence - a film about two sisters and a son who disembark their train early in a foreign land on the brink of war - is complete with nudity, masturbation, fornication, lesbianism, incest, asphyxiation, and midgets. I promise you won't soon forget it.

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