Archive for March, 2010

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In The Loop by Armando Iannucci

March 29, 2010

I can’t believe I forgot to review this film.  Claude and I were lucky enough to see it at the local theatre that shows artier films and we loved it, but I had trouble understanding the thick Scottish and English accents and slang.  Watching it again with the subtitles on was the trick, and this is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a very long time.

Peter Capaldi plays the acerbic (to put it VERY mildly) PR person for the Prime Minister of England who has to deal with a minor cabinet department who has started to run amok and talk about war, when their job is to oversee agriculture or some such banal governmental business.  Little do they know that the British and American governments are doing their darndest to start a war in the middle east.  Capaldi is joined by a fantastic supporting cast including James Gandolfini, my darling Steve Coogan, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche.

This movie is not for the squeamish where language is concerned, and this movie really requires multiple viewings.  Shot in mockumentary style with jerky camera movements and unclear cuts, this is not a cinematography feast, as other movies I’ve reviewed lately are.  This is a great character study, especially of Capaldi’s character (and Gandolfini), and one with some of the most biting black comedy I’ve ever seen –  my favorite kind.  The great peek into the ins and outs of Washington and London governmental life (and nightlife) is dizzying, harrowing and extremely funny.  This is a movie where you really need to pay attention to the dialogue and get all the characters in place – hence recommended multiple viewings  It’s recent (2009) and it’s a must-see in my book.  I laughed so hard my stomach hurt

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The Man Who Wasn’t There by Joel & Ethan Coen

March 29, 2010

If you’re like Claude and me and have a love for black and white film, then you will probably enjoy The Man Who Wasn’t There, a 2001 film by the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers have quite a filmography, many of which are favorites of mine, and this one ranks pretty high on the list. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a throwback to film noir and femme fatales and movies where the lead character narrates throughout the film. Billy Bob Thornton is haunting on many fronts: his highly-made up appearance, his stone-cold face which never smiles throughout the film, and his slow, deliberate pacing. Thornton plays a barber who finds himself, quite by happenstance, caught up in a scheme with a man (Jon Polito) who wants to bring dry cleaning to the world. He learns that his wife, (played brilliantly by Frances McDormand, a Coen favorite and probably her best role for them) has been having an affair with his sister’s husband (James Gandolfini). So to obtain the money to invest in the dry cleaning business, he sets about blackmailing his wife’s lover, to dastardly ends for all involved.

The Coens have a real knack for shot selection, lighting, and strong character development. I usually go either way (this movie is great for cinematography, that movie is great for acting) but The Man Who Wasn’t There has it all – not unlike another great Coen movie, The Hudsucker Proxy. I believe both these films are lesser known than their blockbusters such as No Country for Old Men and O Brother Where Art Thou?, but nonetheless, well worth a screening. I saw a lot of Barton Fink in this film too, which is my personal favorite Coen Brothers movie. One thing I did not notice – in many Coen Brothers movies, there seems to be a running thread about shoes or feet. This didn’t appear that I could see in The Man Who Wasn’t There – it seems the obsession was about hair and shaving, since, after all, Thornton’s character is a barber. That’s one of the interesting things about Coen Brothers movies – there are these little touches that reappear throughout each film, and make you wonder what they mean. The Coens themselves have gone on record that there is no underlying meaning in any of what we might perceive as symbolism in any of their films, but I think they are being a bit evasive about that.

For black-and-white film lovers, The Man Who Wasn’t There has one of the best ending shots I’ve ever seen in black and white. Coen films are rich with set pieces, set design, lighting tricks and unusual shots, which make for incredibly interesting viewing. They also have marvelous use of contrast of the black and white hues through such clever means as costuming, furniture, lamps, everyday objects. This one, like others mentioned, also has the advantage of stand-out performances by some of the Coen’s oft-used actors – particularly McDormand and Polito (lead in Miller’s Crossing) and brings more talent to the film with the use of Thornton, and the actress who plays Gandolfini’s wife, one of the most stark and haunting faces I’ve ever seen. This is not unusual for Coen films – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance in one of their films, and they rank among my favorites. I’m glad Claude asked me to watch this one, as I had not seen it before, and it gave me a chance to make comparisons to other Coen films.

My favorites stand in this order: Barton Fink; The Big Lebowski; Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy now tied with The Man Who Wasn’t There;; Raising Arizona; O Brother Where Art Thou? I have not seen the entire catalogue of their films…yet….but I’m sure I will. What are your favorites?

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Why 2001: A Space Odyssey Remains My All-Time Favorite

March 28, 2010

When I was in college many MANY moons ago, I majored in broadcasting and wanted to go into cinematography.  The visual image was (and to a large extent remains) much more important to me than the character study brought about by the actors.  Shot selection, set design, lighting, all those technical details were what caught my attention in film.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I remember my sister and grandmother telling of seeing it in the theatre and putting on sunglasses and laughing at it.

I have seen 2001 many, many times.  The most memorable was on our tv in HD.  So many people I’ve talked to about this movie are unaffected by it because they don’t “get it.”  It’s not a  movie to be understood at the plot level.  It’s a movie to be savored for the sheer majesty of its visuals.  The makeup in the “Dawn of Man” sequence is by far the best human-to-animal makeup ever committed to celluloid.  Why they could not reproduce this later in Planet of the Apes is beyond me.  As I first viewed this film in adolescence, I was not sure that these were not real, trained animals.

There’s been many an article written about the technological and astronomical (space) elements of 2001 that have since come true, which is another fascinating element of this film.  The shots in space, although not technically completely correct, are very close to what we are accustomed to seeing from actual camera shots in space today.  This is a film that, visually and technically, holds up very well today, with the exception of some of the costuming, particularly in the scene where the “stewardess” walks the 180 degrees to come put Dr. Heywood Floyd’s pen back in his pocket.

Then, with several re-watchings, one begins to get the sense that the plotline involving the HAL 9000 computer (over-parodied in my opinion) is actually a horror story in its most sterile and austere sense.  One of my favorite shots in the film is the sequence where Dave is unplugging the memory from HAL, as HAL begs him not to, and sings “Daisy” in an increasingly lowering voice.

The ending doesn’t make much sense to me, but just look at the set and the set design in the room with Dave as an old man.  Again, stunning, a feast for the eyes.  Not to mention the beautiful Strauss in the soundtrack.

I have yet to find someone I personally know who agrees, but 2001: A Space Odyssey remains my favorite movie of all time.

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Bigger Than Life by Nicholas Ray and James Mason

March 26, 2010

Ever since I met Claude, I’ve been hearing about Bigger than Life, directed by Nicholas Ray, the same man who directed Rebel Without a Cause.   Strangely enough, Claude, and his friend Steve, always describe this movie as very comedic, when it was intended clearly to be a serious film about a serious matter.  Well, finally, after nearly four years, the good folks at Criterion Collection decided to put Bigger than Life out on DVD with tons of extras.  Claude nearly eja…fainted when he heard the news, and to come off what he terms “double secret probation”, I ordered it and had it delivered on the same day as it was released.  Again, Claude nearly eja…fainted.  So we watched it.  Like the Zapruder film.  And ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that this is an incredible film.  It has its black comedy in spades, no doubt, but this is clearly a horror movie as well.  Having been around people that turned into Mr. Hyde and I could not reach them, this movie gave me the dual effect of laughter and shivers and sick feelings in my stomach at the same time.  Nicholas Ray is brilliant in his shot selection – we stopped the DVD several times to look, zoom in, and it’s visually gorgeous in its use of lighting and high shots over the staircase.  James Mason, always brilliant, has never been better.  And Mason’s wife in the film, played by Barbara Rush, who was not well-known to me, gave a compelling performance as well.  And get this – (don’t tell Claude I told you) – it has a happy ending.  Which is rare for movies that we watch.

Briefly, the story is of a schoolteacher (Mason) who develops a serious cardiovascular problem and is put on cortisone.  He soon descends from kind schoolteacher, husband and father into strict, maniacal nutjob.  Our favorite scene involves him reading from the Bible to his wife, specifically the story of Abraham and Issac.  This occurs after he is angered by his son for some extremely minor infraction.  Mason also carries some sort of dagger – I wasn’t sure if it was a knife or a letter opener – as he reads.  He stops the story when Abraham puts Issac on the altar and raises the knife.  His wife pleads with him, knowing that he’s contemplating harming his son, that God intervened and Issac was spared.  Mason roars to her, “GOD WAS WRONG!”  Claude is on the floor laughing.  (atheist, you know)  It is a masterful scene and Mason’s face and Rush’s horror are so compelling that you can’t possibly look away.  We had to rewind it (as you can imagine) several hundred times.

It lives up to all the hype that Claude and Steve gave it.  I’d watch it again and again.  Hopefully it will be on Netflix or some rentable source soon, because if you have seen Rebel and liked it, this is a must-see by the same director, and easily one of the great James Mason’s finest performances as both actor and producer.  Most highly recommended, six out of five stars.  Actually, this one goes to eleven.

Oh, yeah, and I love you, Claude.

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Criterion Paranormal Intervention

March 19, 2010

Claude and I have noticed that there is a plethora of paranormal shows on (formerly) respected channels such as A&E, Discovery, History, etc.  Paranormal State, Paranormal Cops, Ancient Paranormal, Paranormal Intervention. That’s my favorite one because the title suggests that it would combine paranormal with another favorite of ours, A&E’s Intervention.  But it doesn’t.  I digress again. (I do that a lot.)  Intervention is, of course, about addiction and the intervention process.  They have three interventioners that they round-robin, and they all have the same pat phrases.  Our favorite is “There’s just a heck of a lot of love in this room,” which is the opening line for one particular interventioner.

Well, I’ve been thinking lately about calling Intervention.  Claude has a little bit of a “problem”.  He is addicted to Criterion Collection DVDs.  For those that don’t know, Criterion is a company dedicated to taking the finest in film and DVD extras and putting out extraordinary DVDs of the finest movies ever made.  Unfortunately, they are also now trying to skew to a younger crowd and have started putting out titles such as “The Aquatic Life of Steve Zizzou” and “Dazed and Confused” and “The Rock” and “Armageddon.”  Yeah.  Thanks, Criterion.  Anyway, Claude’s goal is to own every Criterion ever released.  The current count in the catalog is well over 500, and we have about 100.

Every weekend, we have to make a trek to the local used book/movie store to “hunt down Criterions” like some wildebeest.  I usually sit in the car, sometimes for an hour or more, while the hunter seeks the hunted.  Claude has this unusual behavioral change when he is around books or DVDs in a store – he becomes very excitable, sometimes his forehead shows beads of sweat, and he runs from aisle to aisle like a silver ball in a pinball machine.  I often worry.

So how does one break this Criterion addiction, especially since Claude, who is a graduate student, is secretly competing with a very bright young undergrad who has about 350 Criterions.  He’s even taken to buying these off his friend, like a dime bag, surreptitiously, after class, and sneaking the Criterions into the house in his bookbag.  Funny, his eyes are usually red, too, when he does that.

I can see the scene playing out in my mind from Claude’s Criterion intervention:  We’ve all gathered at some non-descript hotel – myself, Claude’s parents who have never watched a movie more high-brow than what you find on the Sci-Fi (or Sy-Fy) channel; his smug undergrad friend who, of course, doesn’t want to be bested, and our favorite local band, just for support and possibly a tune or two.  His parents are crying.  “Claude, why can’t you just be content to watch Mansquito? Or even Black Hole?  You know Judd Nelson plays an ASTROPHYSICIST (now there’s a bit of casting) and he SAVES Minneapolis!” wails his mother, clutching a handkerchief and her rosary beads.  “Yeah, don’t you remember 2012?  All those EXPLOSIONS!  It was so GREAT! And all you want to watch is this black-and-white crap that no one can understand!” booms his father.

Interventionist:  “There’s a heck of a lot of Criterions in this room….”

Letter reading begins.

Dear Claude,

Your Criterion addiction has affected me negatively in the following ways.  First of all, I never have any money anymore.  You watch every Criterion you get like the Zapruder film, and all the extras and all the commentary tracks, which leaves like zero time for me, personal hygiene, help with a chore or two, or reading my Facebook posts, and most importantly of all, it keeps you from looking at my ICanHazCheezburger cat pictures which I hold so dear.  You need to know if you do not accept this gift of help today, there will be consequences.  I will stick objects such as silverware and half-chewed gum in the DVD player.  I will erase all the stuff you’ve had taped for 2 years on the DVR.  I will no longer accept your emails that say things like “Watched Empire of Passion, an Oshima film that forms an informal diptych w/ In the Realm of the Senses, which you bought for me here awhile back. Very different in execution but equally fascinating.”  Mainly because I can’t understand what you’re saying, so I’m just sayin’.  What is a diptych anyway?  (Claude’s mother wails in agony).

At this juncture, Claude runs out of the hotel room and away from the intervention in angry protest.  He has to smoke a cigarette (he doesn’t smoke).  He’s not getting on that plane to whatever rehab center Intervention has in mind.  90 days, no Criterion, no way.  Claude runs outside the hotel and begins rolling around in the grassy area, wailing.  I try desperately to console him by pulling out a copy of Criterion’s Lola Montes and rubbing it on his face, soothingly.  It doesn’t work.  “It HAS to be a BUNUEL!” he shouts at me, angrily.  I stop to think what films of Bunuel’s might be on Criterion…honestly, I don’t know.  I would think Discreet Charm would be on Criterion…just not sure.  I struggle with how to placate Claude sans Bunuel.  People are stopping in the parking lot to stare at this spectacle.  “Will Bergman do?” I ask in my sweetest, meekest voice.  “BERGMAN??? NO!!!  Wait…YES!!”  His choking sobs start to subside as I give him Smiles of a Summer Night. The interventionist approaches.  “I think you’re on the wrong A&E show,” he says.  We look at him, puzzled.  “Have you ever heard of a little show called ‘Hoarders’?  It comes on right after I do, on Monday nights.  Ten o’clock.”

We nod our heads as if we’ve just received the key to Enlightenment by the Buddha himself, just to get the interventionist off our backs and keep us off A&E, which used to be “arts” and “entertainment”.  We won’t be watching Hoarders.  We’ll be watching Criterion.

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Reviewing Rocaterrania

March 19, 2010

Our geographic area is chock-full of filmmakers – some extraordinarily talented, some who are up-and-coming.  Claude and I were lucky to see a film by one of the filmmakers in the first class last evening.  The film was called Rocaterrania, by Brett Ingram.  I had read briefly about it in our local arts magazine, but didn’t know much about the subject matter.  It profiles Renaldo Kuhler, the former science illustrator for the North Carolina Museum of Natural History.  Brett filmed Mr. Kuhler over a period of ten years to make this film.  To say that Mr. Kuhler is wildly eccentric is quite the understatement, but to say that he is artistically gifted is even more of an understatement.

Kuhler’s father, Otto Kuhler, was a famous train designer during the time when trains were competing against airlines for customers, and train companies wanted a more streamlined, modern look.  In the elder Kuhler’s design, a great deal of Art Deco influence shows through.  Renaldo Kuhler revealed that his father was away from home for long periods of time, and when he was at home, had great disdain for his son.  He never mentions that his father sat down with him and taught him his artistic techniques, so I deduced that clearly genetics were at play.

To escape what Kuhler perceived as a very negative young life (his mother was mean, kids teased him incessantly), he invented an entirely new country, in his mind, called Rocaterrania.  Everything I will tell you about Rocaterrania exists solely in Kuhler’s own mind and in his staggering body of artwork.  Rocaterrania is said to be located on the New York/Canadian border, a separate country from the United States, and Rocaterrania bears strong similarities to Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution.  Kuhler has drawn citizen after citizen of this country; developed a language, an alphabet and a font, (which was used in the title sequence of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man); developed a history, a governmental structure, and has developed and depicted all of this through his artwork.  His art ranges from landscapes to incredibly ornate architecture to his most prolific subject, people and costuming.  Even though the film clocks in at just under 80 minutes, the sheer volume of art, letters, alphabet, history, all written, drawn and painted by Kuhler is mind-boggling.  I felt as though he must have a form of graphomania, a condition I have never seen except in Crumb, where underground comic artist Robert Crumb’s brother Charles displays this in a tragic downward spiral.

The film opens with Kuhler showing the viewer a tiny female shrew’s skull, which he must draw for the Museum.  He looks through a microscope and draws, with exact precision.  Kuhler relates that the NC Museum of Natural History hired him without an interview based solely on his artwork.

Rocaterrania is available through Brett Ingram’s website, www.brettingram.org, and is truly a feast for the senses.  Anyone who thinks themselves an artist should definitely procure a copy post haste.  You will not believe your eyes.  I would say Rocaterrania is one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Absolutely recommended and will become an oft-watched fixture on our DVD shelf.

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Endings and The White Ribbon

March 18, 2010

Claude, my film snob husband, taught me to dislike happy endings.  He taught me to enjoy ambiguous endings and downer endings.  Prior to Claude, I didn’t fully understand how satisfying a hazy or horrifying or unexpected ending to a film could be.  Several movies I’ve seen recently have some pretty interesting and bewildering endings.  Barton Fink by the Coen Brothers; The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman.  The first and last mentioned have highly comedic, laugh-out-loud moments throughout the majority of the film, only to kind of sucker-punch you in the end.  The White Ribbon’s ending is very murky, leaving you wanting more, but more would ruin it.  I think many great filmmakers know when enough is enough, and what they do with films like these is make you think about them long afterward.  With a happy, neatly tied up ending, with “closure” to a film like those mentioned above, I think one tends to forget about it later – it doesn’t haunt you.  A movie is only effective to me if it haunts me in some way; if I revisit it again and again either in my mind or by watching it.  Like the ghost of Cathy on the moors in Wuthering Heights, it comes back beckoning for you time and again, and like Heathcliff, I want to run after the spectre of these films.

I want to write about The White Ribbon for several reasons:  a) it’s Haneke, who is getting a bad rap these days for his endings; b) it’s currently in theatres; c) it was nominated for best foreign film by the Academy Awards, and picked up the Golden Globe for best foreign film.  This is a stunningly gorgeous movie, and it is creepy at the same time.  Set in a village in pre-World War I Germany, shot in dazzling black-and-white, The White Ribbon tells the tale of strange and unexplainable occurrences that happen to a number of villagers.  Several families and familial units intertwine:  the excessively stern pastor with his brood of children, whom he berates and beats viciously; the village doctor, his small son and pre-teen daughter and his mistress who looks after the children (the doctor’s wife has died); the poor working family who seems to receive a good deal of blame for these “incidents”.  I must say that the performances garnered from the children of this film are what struck me so, and the children are the main centerpiece of the film.  A particular scene where the doctor’s young son (who cannot be more than five years old) is talking with his older sister about death and dying simply froze me, for I wondered if the child was not only acting, but also understanding the concepts of death and dying for the first time in his young life.  His eyes are so wide and innocent in this scene, and he is so angelic.  Yet he is asking questions quietly and with a visible mixture of terror and sadness on his cherub face about who dies, why and when and how – it’s an incredibly powerful moment that will haunt me for a long time.

Michael Haneke, director, writer and producer of The White Ribbon, has received a lot of negative criticism for “disliking his characters”.  In the two of his films that I have seen, and in discussing this with Claude, who, of course, has seen them all, I can’t see that.  I think his characters are fleshed out very well, and especially in the case of The White Ribbon, Haneke extorts pathos, fear, grief, joy, and disdain – an entire range of emotions.  Coupled with eye-popping cinematography in high-contrast black and white, I’m not sure you can get much better in my very uneducated opinion.  I hope more people will see it and be moved and haunted as I was by The White Ribbon.  Highly recommended.