Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Trim Bin #16


Next week I'll devote this space to my Oscar picks, but this week I'd like to highlight some of the most overlooked work of the year. The films listed in the categories below have one thing in common: none were nominated in their respective categories, and they should have been.

Picture: A History of Violence Cronenberg's best film in almost twenty years is a massive achievement; its reputation will likely grow to classic status over time.
Director: David Cronenberg, A History of Violence I've never seen any sense in dividing the picture and director awards, and as I've said already, it's his best film since The Fly.
Actor: Cillian Murphy, Breakfast on Pluto Neil Jordan's film is good if uneven, but Murphy (also great in Batman Begins and Red Eye) gives a totally believable, heartfelt performance as Kitten, a lonely transvestite prone to daydreaming. The guys from Brokeback Mountain have been frequently hailed as "brave," but this is a truly daring role.
Actress: Q'Orianka Kilcher, The New World Terrence Malick's Pocohontas never betrays her newcomer status; Kilcher is endearing, then heartbreaking.
Supporting Actor: Mickey Rourke, Sin City My favorite perfomance of the year, hands down. Rourke takes a fearsome mug that Frank Miller once described as "Conan in a trenchcoat" and invests Marv with humanity and grace.
Supporting Actress: Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin Better here than in Capote, Keener helps steer a sex comedy into mature waters; the result could have been pretentious, but thanks to her performance and her genuine chemistry with Steve Carrell, the result is perceptive and sweet.
Original Screenplay: Broken Flowers Misunderstood as Jim Jamusch's stab at mainstream success, the story of Don Johnston is instead a subtle meditation on love, aging, and the unknown. It's his most emotional (and funniest) screenplay.
Adapted Screenplay: King Kong Remaining reverent to the 1933 film without veering into stale faithfulness, the same trio that wrote The Lord of the Rings tells a great ape story with even more interesting shades of meaning and wild ambition than the celebrated trilogy (and that's really saying something).

Also:

Cinematography: Jarhead
Art Direction: Batman Begins
Editing: The Squid and the Whale
Score: A History of Violence
Makeup: Land of the Dead
Visual Effects: Revenge of the Sith

Stay tuned for more Oscar fodder. P.S.: Don Knotts, you are missed.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I'm head of the geek patrol.


Breasts make their first appearance about thirty seconds into Hardbodies (a title Patrick Bateman would approve of), and the first sex scene occurs immediately after the opening credits. More than Risky Business or even The Last American Virgin, Hardbodies is the quintessential 80's teen sex comedy. The filmmakers are so blatant in their goal to cram as much leering soft-core porn into eighty minutes that they forget the "comedy" aspect completely and unconsciously steer the narrative into very dark places.

Scotty (Grant Cramer) is a vapid slut who has just been evicted from his apartment. After a few nights of sleeping on the beach, Scotty is hired by Hunter (Gary Wood), Ashley (Sorrels Pickard) and Rounder (Michael Rapport), three middle-aged men who have just moved into a lavish beach house. The men offer to pay Scotty and let him live in the house; in exchange, Scotty shows them the tricks apparently required to pick up - you guessed it - hardbodies. The three men are horrifying for different reasons; Hunter represents Reagan-era oiliness, Rounder is a standard-issue horny fat guy, and Ashley, the scariest of all, is a quiet, pot-smoking doofus in a stetson. Because ladies love stoned cowboys, right?

The first hint of subtextual ugliness occurs early in Hardbodies, when Scotty's girlfriend Kristi (Teal Roberts) opens his refridgerator only to find a rotting mess reminiscent Christian Bale's fridge in The Machninist. Kristi's face registers genuine horror and disgust; Scotty unconvincingly laughs off his filthy life, and then the moment is forgotten, Harrison Bergeron-style. In Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing, a squalid apartment is similarly used to represent a character's messed-up soul; the difference is that here, Scotty's filthiness is held up as a virtue. We learn that Scotty hasn't paid his rent for three months, and yet when he is evicted, he acts as though it's his landlord's fault. Scotty spends most of the film manipulating and deceiving women, yet there is no moment when the filmmakers indicate anything but complete enthusiasm for this horrible beach bum.

Scotty's best friend Rag (Courtney Gains) has perhaps the most off-putting introduction I've ever seen in a film, swaying stupidly while he puckers a cigarette between his lips like a duck. It's disgusting. Later, Rag jokingly offers to keep a female character company, and she responds that she isn't lonely. Rag adds, "But I am," and a genuine look of emptiness washes over Gains' face. Most of the characters in Hardbodies - the middle-aged men, the "geeks" that prowl the beach, and of course most of the women - are motivated by genuine sadness and desperation. Perhaps this explains why Scotty is being celebrated; his brainlessness leaves him too pure to be sad.

The thorniest sequence occurs when Hunter attempts to rape Candy (Crystal Shaw) on the beach. Scotty interrupts and stops Hunter, making it clear that he's going too far. What disturbs me is that the filmmakers even needed to have their main character articulate the difference between himself and a rapist. Because actually, Scotty's not all that different - he goes on to quietly chastise Candy for flirting with men in the first place. She agrees, which is no surprise as the women in this film wander around vacantly as though they're waiting to be violated. No matter how sleazy the men in this film are, they are only gently chastised by the female characters and described as "sweet" and "funny." The result is a film with a philosophy of male/female relationships that is slightly more insightful than Leisure Suit Larry.

I'd like to point out at this point that Hardbodies grossed about eight million dollars in 1984 (equivalent to fifteen today), enough to generate a sequel two years later. Not a huge hit, but it did have an audience. If it were just about breasts, than I could shrug it off, but there's something unusually mean-spirited about this one - I prefer gentler 80's sex comedies like Revenge of the Nerds. A film like this shouldn't leave you feeling vaguely depressed; to paraphrase Cybill Shepard in Taxi Driver, Hardbodies is about as exciting as saying "Let's fuck."

Friday, February 24, 2006

Top 10: Film Scores


It is a futile thing, I think, to articulate the qualities of music in writing. The best scores seem not written to but born from images; the results are haunting and indelible.

1. Vertigo - Alternately swooning, nightmarish, and melancholy, Bernard Herrmann's score brilliantly evokes the swirling, labyrinthine story of Alfred Hitchcock's most naked film.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird - By the time the opening titles are done, I'm already teary-eyed from Elmer Bernstein's lyrical ode to childhood.
3. Jaws - With two notes, John Williams tapped into our most primal sense of dread. Less talked about are the jauntier themes of the second half, which compliment the film's study of male relationships as pointedly as they announce the shark's presence.
4. Once Upon a Time in the West - Ennio Morricone's most dense, complex, rich score. Not only does it give the film almost unbearable momentum and match Sergio Leone's staggering compositions, it also tells us worlds about an near-wordless character's world-weariness and appetite for revenge.
5. Psycho - The propulsive "thriller" score of the first half gives way to the quick, sparse, piercing shower scene; Hitchcock and Herrmann manage to pioneer a brand new genre in about forty-five seconds.
6. E.T. - Steven Spielberg smartly tweaked the editing of the last reel to better suit John Williams' score, and for good reason; there is no better example of music as the emotional spine of a film. Stirring without ever being clumsily manipulative, the score goes from subtle to comic to heartbreaking to soaringly triumphant.
7. Blue Velvet - The opening theme matches the titular fabric draped across the screen; lush, and subtly strange. Angelo Badalamenti masterfully guides us through the hilarious and disturbing twists and turns of David Lynch's suburban mystery.
8. The Third Man - Overbearing to contemporary ears, Anton Krasker's odd zither score highlights shades of absurdist humor in Carol Reed's Vienna-set mystery.
9. Carrie - Pino Donaggio alternates between airy romance, rubbery porno-synth, Herrmann-inspired stingers, and dreamy, sad melodies. It should be ridiculous, and in a way it is, but it also matches Brian De Palma's menstrual horror film brilliantly.
10. Edward Scissorhands - Delicate as the title character and reassuring as a lullaby, Danny Elfman's score leads us through Tim Burton's fairy-tale suburbia with imagination, humor, and grace.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Play the game (2/22/06)


Last week: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Trim Bin #15


- I correctly identified the above frame-grab (from Dune) and won a copy of Class of 1984 courtesy of Film Freak Central. I've never won anything at random, let alone with a correct guess, so it put a spring in my step. I haven't seen Class of 1984 - possible writing material?

- Things are sluggish around here; the trip to Boston was a blast, but there are a dearth of good or even subtextually interesting new movies out. Consider the number-one movies in America during the last five weeks: Eight Below, The Pink Panther, When a Stranger Calls, Big Momma's House 2, and Underworld: Evolution. There's always the hope that the winter/spring doldrums will contain a surprisingly great film - The Silence of the Lambs, released in February 1991, is the best example. But more often, this is the time when we collectively bend over for a cinematic paddling before exclaiming "Thank you sir, may I have another?"

- I've had a few discussions with people lately about trying to choose a great director's worst movie, the true sign of a great filmmaker being that his/her worst film will be at least interesting and possibly better than most directors' best work. Which brings me to the next logical question: what are the best movies by terrible directors? I'll throw one out for starters: if I absolutely had to choose, I'd say that Michael Bay's best movie is The Rock.

- Writing (or pre-writing, really) is going well; dots are being connected, images are emerging. This is in many ways the most frustrating time for me, because all I want to do is share my enthusiasm at the possibilities of a blank slate (or screen) with everyone around me. But summarizing the feeling of a movie that doesn't exist yet is a poor substitute for the real thing. Any perceived tension is probably the result of this conflict. It's time to get to work.

Yessir, could be a pip.



Saturday, February 18, 2006

Top 10: Robots and Cyborgs


1. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Blade Runner
2. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), A.I.
3. Ash (Ian Holm), Alien
4. Edward (Johnny Depp), Edward Scissorhands
5. T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), The Terminator
6. R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), Star Wars et. al.
7. Gort (Lock Martin), The Day the Earth Stood Still
8. T-1000 (Robert Patrick), Terminator 2
9. Robbie the Robot (Himself), Forbidden Planet
10. Johnny Five (Tim Blaney), Short Circuit 1&2

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Blood - your beautiful blood!


Viewing Nosferatu in the darkened cave of the Brattle, I was reminded of Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare. The goblin-like figure, who has taken and destroyed the beautiful woman, inspires both pity and repulsion. Yet the title also suggests that the monster is the woman's own creation; beauty and beast are inextricably linked in the nightmare cycle. Count Orlok (Max Schreck) inspires the same mixed emotions. A professor of semantics from BU argued after the film that Schrek's evil stems from his only possessing love of self, rather than love of God or of the world. Yet who amongst us has never acted out of self-gratification with unfortunate results?

The plot, well-known from countless versions of Stoker's Dracula but first filmed here, follows Hutter (Gustav von Wagenheim), a broker who travels to Orlok's castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Orlok intends to buy a home in Bremen, but when he sees a picture of Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schroder), he is overcome with desire. Orlok imprisons Hutter and travels aboard a ship to Germany, bringing a strange plague with him. As with most silent films, the plot is by necessity secondary to the images themselves, which achieve a singularly otherwordly atmosphere; Murnau's film feels like a waking nightmare.

The filmmaking on display here is remarkable, particularly for its time; when most films were static and uncomplicated, Murnau's film is filled with odd uncomfortable angles, and the camera is often in fluid motion. This is a horror film from before such genre distinctions were cemented, and its influence on countless filmmakers to come is evident in almost every frame. The interplay of shadow and light alone make for a definitive study of the genre. But if the main virtue of Murnau's film were its importance, than it would be a chore to watch. Instead, it remains a haunting, grandly entertaining "Boo!" movie.

The key is Max Schreck. A bit player before Murnau discovered him, Schreck is frighteningly believable as Orlok (of course, Shadow of the Vampire brilliantly played off of his verisimilitude). This is partly due to the crude but effective makeup job - the protruding canines, clawed hands and skeletal frame which Herzog and Kinski smartly chose to recreate in their remake. But Schreck also inhabits the vampire with a soulfulness that is both otherworldly and human. When he consumes a victim, there is little aggression in his manner; he almost appears to be nursing. There's a weird innocence to his crooked smile as he emerges from a coffin; his creeping walk is made more unnerving by the vacant look in his eyes. In The Nightmare, where the creature's fearsome appearance is offset by his diminutive size; similarly, Orlok is both monster and child, and it would be possible to say he deires Ellen as a lover, mother, food, or all of the above.

Ellen gives herself to the monster, and the audience at the Brattle had differing interpretations of her motives. Some saw it as a pure act of self-sacrifice, coaxing Orlok into sunlight to spare the village from the plague. Others saw it in more erotic terms, and Murnau certainly gives us visual clues earlier to support this claim. But whether or not Ellen wishes to be seduced, Orlok does not assume the role of seducer that other actors, from Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman, would in the Dracula role. Note how little Orlok struggles against his eventual fate; one could chalk this up to awkward staging, but I prefer to think that his relative indifference to his own survival is exactly the point. It can't be much fun going through life doomed to consume everything you find beautiful; watching Nosferatu, I found myself wondering about the ways in which we doom ourselves to the same fate.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Play the game (2/15/06)


Last week: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Monday, February 13, 2006

I'd rather be lucky than good.


Everything that does and doesn't work in Match Point can be traced back to the opening shot of a tennis ball floating back and forth over a net. It's a great, stylish moment that reminds us that Woody Allen, best known for his dialogue, can also be a nimble visual storyteller - think of the opening of Manhattan, or the entirety of the underrated Shadows and Fog. Yet the image also represents luck, as Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) informs us in voiceover. We could have guessed as much ourselves, but Allen gets his point - that life is all about luck - across in the first few moments, and proceeds to hammer it home for the next two hours. It's like a five-point essay; he tells us what he's going to tell us, tells us, and then tells us that he's told us.

Chris is a tennis pro ready to throw in the towel, and we meet him at an exclusive country club, where he teaches wealthy clients. We soon enter Patricia Highsmith country, as Chris befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and becomes close with Tom's wealthy family, eventually marrying Tom's sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and going to work for their father, Alec (Brian Cox). This is complicated, naturally, by Chris' attraction to Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), Tom's fiancee. The two engage in a series of trysts (eew - baby oil!), deception and intrigue occur, and thematically appropriate operas are attended. All of this is familiar territory, of course. The question is, does Allen - who has tackled infidelity on numerous occasions, though usually for laughs - make this variation on a familiar theme worthwhile? Yes and no.

Allen lets his plot unfold gradually, so that when a central character makes a potentially unbelievable leap in the second hour, we can believe it (although said leap is overly telegraphed with an earlier nod to Crime and Punishment - whether Allen meant to reward or spoil the fun for a sizable chunk of the audience, I cannot say). As with Highsmith, Match Point creates tension in the experience of a newcomer's introduction to status and priveledge, which the newcomer must them go to drastic lengths to protect. The performers - including Penelope Wilton, biting and daffy as matriarch Eleanor - hit the right notes all around. But this is particularly true with Scarlett Johansson; her Nola would be easy to mistake for a conventional femme fatale if not for the details - the way she holds a cigarette, her gaze's betrayal of her words - that make her a sad, haunting character. Johansson's performance reveals Nola's bitter recognition that she and Chris are both visitors in a world they are not fit to inhabit. Consider, in the end, whether Chris has gained anything, on even a shallow level, that he is not doomed to lose.

However, as I've said, these issues are apparently secondary to Allen, who presses on with his monotonous theory of luck. Here is where the film goes awry, as very little of the story has anything to do with luck. Chris is not a passive recipient of good or bad fortune; almost from the beginning, he is the prime mover of the plot's machinations, and instigates every major plot development. Is it really luck if you do it on purpose? I know that sounds obvious, yet Allen presses on with a more simplistic version of a worldview he has depicted before, most successfully with Crimes and Misdemeanors. In that film, the Martin Landau character argues that we are all alone in the universe, and this leaves us capable of anything; the Rhys-Meyers character here represents the same notion, but in a less compelling manner. It's a frigid, misanthropic concept, played incoherently here, resulting in a film that works nicely as a potboiler (I loved Rhys-Meyers' fumbling scene in the police station) but poorly as an argument. There is a slight hint in the final scene that Allen understands the central contradiction, but it isn't defined enough to be clear whether that is indeed the case or if I'm just hoping it is.

I realize that this piece reads rather negatively for a film I did enjoy, particularly for Johansson's performance (and gams). Partly this is a baffled response to the critical consensus of Match Point as a bold departure for Allen; it all seemed rather familiar to me. Yes, it's set in England and there's no Woody-esque character, but aren't these changes rather superficial? Of his recent films, I greatly prefer Anything Else, which was panned for being too familiar; this is my way of expressing my confusion out of being out of step with collective opinion. To echo that opening shot, I feel like I've landed on one side of the fence while everyone else has landed on the other.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Trim Bin #14


- I can learn a lot from a well-written review arguing an opinion contrary to my own. Walter Chaw's two-star review of Munich was possibly the most insightful take on personal choice for the best film of 2005. However, I really must point you towards Cinemasalon blogger Steve Satullo's take on Spielberg's film, which I found to be, er, lacking (for starters, his is the first review I've read to draw a comparison to Ocean's Eleven). Satullo is a fellow Images Focus contributor, so I've tried to save my venom out of tact; I recommend you browse his, um, distinctive reviews and discover the Satullo experience for yourself (note that comments are disabled; like Brian O'Blivion, he prefers monologue).

- Another reason to love Spike Jonze: he helmed this nifty Gap commercial.

- Talladega Nights: I'm there.

- Yesterday I went with Jess, Jack, Max and Carol to screenings of Nosferatu and Rosemary's Baby at the Brattle. As part of something called the Faith and Film Festival, the films were followed by guest lecturers from BU and moderated audience discussion. The first one was thought-provoking and brought out a lot of the subtext of the film; the second, not so much. Still, it's good that the Brattle has secured its future through this year, and hopefully they'll meet their goals to stay open permanently; such film havens are vital. Greg mentioned in his blog and here that Video Stop, a charming little store in Bennington, will be gone within a few weeks, and it's a palpable loss. Film is at its best a communal experience, and while this internet business seems to have a future, we can only hope that there will always be places for us cinephiles to dwell.

- Okay, it's impolite but I can't resist - I have to leave you with my favorite Satulloism. From his review of The Upside of Anger:

"My mentor in film study, Professor Charles Samuels of Williams College, used to be notorious for walking out of movies in the first five or ten minutes. He was determined to see everything worth seeing, but not to waste a minute on trash. I, however, determined not to cut the performance short on anything I went into with some presupposition of quality. So if I decide to watch something, I usually watch it to the end. My god, I even made it to the end of Lethal Weapon, though it made me feel unclean to do so (but I had the sense to go nowhere near LW2 or 3 or 4.) "

Doesn't that just scream "monocle"? I'm just saying...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Top 10: Twu Wuv


Whether you plan to spend Tuesday on some gay romp with a luvah or getting drunk and crying over your Cocoa Puffs, here are some perfect films for Valentine's Day.

1. Harold and Maude - Hands-down the greatest cinematic romance. Bud Cort's death-obsessed teen meets Ruth Gordon's lively septugenarian at a funeral (they're both aficionados), and they engage in a brief, bittersweet affair. If you haven't seen this yet, you really need to - it's one of the important ones.
2. Punch-Drunk Love - The film that will make you fall in love with Adam Sandler (?!). P.T. Anderson works here with his favorite type of characters - emotionally wounded souls looking for love and acceptance - but departs from his usual operatic heaviness, creating a delicate, swooning love story set brilliantly to Shelley Duvall's rendition of "He Needs Me."
3. Sid and Nancy - Everyone's favorite idiot junkies in love. Brutal, darkly funny, and ultimately heartbreaking, Alex Cox's punk rock romance makes you ache for two extremely off-putting people, and that's the film's miracle.
4. Wild at Heart - The rowdy, violent story of Sailor and Lula is told with David Lynch's trademark surrealist panache. Dark and lush in equal measure, with searing images of fire and overwhelming color, this is one of the sexiest movies ever.
5. Say Anything - Cusack with boombox. Gabriel sing. Yes.
6. True Romance - Because if you're not willing to blast your way out of a coke-deal-turned-firefight with your guy or gal by your side, than you're not really in love.
7. Moulin Rouge - Unabashedly cheesy, over-the-top and in-your-face, yet I'll be damned if I don't love every minute of it. Yes, it's more MTV than Michael Powell, but if you let it in, your inner cornball will thank you.
8. In the Mood For Love - The anti-Moulin Rouge. Every subtle moment in Wong Kar-wai's best film is underplayed to devastating effect. There is more chemistry in a quiet moment between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung than in your average full-blown sex scene.
9. The Terminator - Alright, don't laugh. At the heart of this movie is the story of a guy who travels through time, risking everything, motivated by love for a woman he's never even met. It's Somewhere in Time, only much, much better. I like Titanic alright, but this is easily James Cameron's most romantic movie.
10. The Purple Rose of Cairo - Although I've vowed never to revise, I must confess that it was a criminal oversight to leave this off my 1985 list. One of Woody Allen's best movies, the story of a Depression-era dreamer (Mia Farrow) romanced by a dashing adventurer (Jeff Daniels) who literally steps off of a movie screen to be with her. Funny and sad, it reminds us why our hearts connect to characters on a flickering screen; we acknowledge cinematic love to be true, and beautiful, and all too fleeting.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cannibal.


Film is more successful as a visual medium than as a literary one. While plotting and story structure are of course important, a great film's strength will most frequently lie in its images. Peter Greenaway's films are perfect examples of this. Like Lynch and Kurosawa, Greenaway is a painter, and this is evident in every exquisitely rendered frame of his best films. In the case of The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, his best film, Greenaway even changes the color of his female lead's costume to match each room she passes through - green for the kitchen, white for the loo, red for the dining hall. The fine-tuned opulence of the mise-en-scene not only serves as a striking juxtaposition to the cruelty and sadism on display, it is also where the heart of Greenaway's angriest film lies.

Albert Spica is a loudmouthed, vulgar, racist, boorish gangster who verbally and physically abuses everyone around him, particularly his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), on a regular basis. The majority of the film takes place at a restaurant that Albert has forcefully taken over, to the chagrin of the long-suffering cook and rightful owner, Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer). One night, Georgina locks eyes with Michael (Alan Howard), a diner in the restaurant who sits alone every night, reading. Before long, Georgina and Michael have engaged in a passionate affair, meeting every night in the restrooms and pantries of the restaurant as Albert carries on obliviously (as Georgina notes, "It's better if it's right under his nose"). Eventually, the game is up, and the second half of the film is concerned with Albert's revenge and eventual comeuppance. The plot is relatively simple - the above summary could just as easily describe your average pulp novel. What sets The Cook... apart is its extraordinary method of storytelling, at once artificial and visceral, cerebral and emotional, beautiful and revolting.

Gambon is nothing short of brilliant in the role, delivering Albert's long, asinine diatribes about food, culture and sex with gusto. Albert is one of the most hateful villains ever created, both loathsome and pitiful. The most popular explanation of The Cook... is that this big-talking, petty crook is a stand-in for the Thatcher administration, the cook for the working class, Georgina for Britannia, and Michael as the ineffectual left. While this reading is a little too on-the-nose for me, it does point towards the palpable anger in Greenaway's film. The characters' outrage towards Albert seems muted; this is a man who pummels and humiliates his wife every night, who has left Georgina unable to bear children, and who controls everyone around him not through reason or even charm but by sheer bullying. And yet the other leads carry on as though this were to be expected ("Your husband is quite a character," Michael observes, and Georgina chuckles). They know he's stupid and evil, but they accept his presence matter-of-factly, just as we shrug our shoulders at the liars and crooks who assume control of our world. What are you gonna do?

Yet if this were merely a cerebral exercise, it would not work. Mirren is phenomenal here; in her eyes we can see a woman who gave up a long time ago, yet whose passion is reignited by an unassuming bookworm. The way Georgina holds one of Michael's books in her hands, delicately and reverentially, is heartbreaking. The sex scenes are explicit, but not exactly arousing; they are motivated by an essential need to feel, to live. The sex is mirrored in how the characters eat. Georgina is careful, noting the difference between one of Richard's works in progress before and after an extra pinch of sugar. Albert rarely stops talking long enough to eat; we see him play with his food more than enjoy it (Georgina mentions that he's not much interested in sex either). Albert remarks that "It's all shit in the end," and yet it's not to Greenaway - he lights a pepper as sensually as Mirren and Howard's nude bodies, finding a vitality and a meaning in these most essential human acts. In the end, the Richard, Georgina and Michael are victorious over Albert in that they're at least alive; he's decaying inside, just like the rotting trucks of cheap meat he deposits outside the restaurant and promptly forgets.

The Thatcher analogy breaks down for me in characterizing Michael as ineffectual; he's as much a victim of circumstance as Georgina. Three of the four leads are aesthetes, and stand in for Greenaway in various ways; this is particularly true with Michael, whose eventual fate is the result of Greenaway's frustration at - well, not quite ineffectualism, but rather impotence. Art may change people's hearts, but it does not sway governmental policy - it does not change the world, even if it should and we all hope that someday it will. So the grand guignol ending is as much Georgina's gift to Michael as it is her revenge on Albert. The theif's heart cannot be changed; surrounded as he is by fine cuisine and the awesome classical beauty of Hals' "The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem," he still carries on with his barbarism. If Michael (and Greenaway) cannot change Albert, he can at least serve as a means to make the theif puke. It's true that Albert's comeuppance doesn't go as far as our vengeful sides would like; Georgina's control is as important as the act itself. It is enough to humiliate Albert and then be done with him. Greenaway has revealed our modern monsters for what they are; laughable creatures. It's a great, vicious "Fuck you" to the theives of the world.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Trim Bin #13


- This Saturday, the Brattle is showing Nosferatu, Rosemary's Baby, and A Clockwork Orange. I'll be there; you should be too.

- How on earth did I miss this?

- I'm early in the process of writing a new screenplay. It's still in that exciting/scary stage where everything is possible and all the work has yet to be done. I'm waiting on the names; it's when I get the names that the writing begins. How do you begin?

- February's Focus was just released, and comparing my "2005/All Time top 5" with others', it has come to my attention yet again that I am phenomenally square. Also a recluse, apparently.

- Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes, died this week at the age of 80.

"Why do you want to dance?"
"Why do you want to live?"
"Well, I don't know exactly why, but I must."
"That's my answer too."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Top 10: Robert Altman


One of the more disheartening sights in Academy Awards history occured when Ron Howard won Best Director for A Beautiful Mind and the telecast cut to David Lynch and Robert Altman in the audience muttering to one another and laughing. The Oscars will give an honorary award to Altman this year, perhaps realizing that the 80-year-old director might die soon (Lynch, still in his fifties, will have to wait a while). But Altman's career has transcended awards; he's one of the rare directors who has drastically altered cinema as we know it. Here are his ten best films, sure to be represented in brief clips during the telecast. Let's hope he shows up stoned.

1. Nashville - An American masterpiece - this multi-character, sprawling musical epic follows a country music festival in the titular city. Hilarious, insightful, and ultimately devastating.
2. Popeye - Audiences were put off by this dense, chaotic attempt to recreate the early E.C. Segar version of the sailor man. One of the first comic adaptations to really get it.
3. McCabe and Mrs. Miller - Perhaps my favorite western. Features great performances by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, breathtaking cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and a haunting Leonard Cohen score.
4. 3 Women - I've written a capsule review for this one in Samurai Dreams, but it's an impossible film to contain in words. One of the most elusive, rewarding films ever, in a class with Persona and Mulholland Drive, with outstanding performances by Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
5. Short Cuts - A criminally underrated movie; everyone should see it. This collection of interconnected stories by Raymond Carver works on many different levels, veering between comedy and tragedy, and every moment rings true.
6. Images - In the same vein as 3 Women, with Suzannah York as a woman lost between dreams and reality. Haunting and visually striking, with an unforgettable score by John Williams and Stomu Yamashta.
7. The Long Goodbye - Does to the detective story what McCabe did for the western, casting Elliot Gould as a laid-back Phillip Marlowe. It's The Big Lebowski twenty-five years before The Big Lebowski. Damn cat.
8. Gosford Park - The one that lost to A Beautiful Mind. A British murder mystery where the mystery is almost beside the point. Challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
9. The Player - A caustic adaptation of Michael Tolkin's novel about a studio exec (Tim Robbins) who gets away with murder. A bitter pill to swallow; features Julia Roberts' best performance.
10. Brewster McCloud - Much better than M*A*S*H* (released the same year to bigger success), this downright crazy fairy tale features Bud Cort as a young serial killer who lives inside the Astrodome, building wings so that he might fly. A modern Icarus tale - strange, hilarious, and enchanting.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

You're talkin' about some damn shark's mutha!


There is an insurmountable implausibility at the heart of the Jaws sequels. One must accept that either the Brody family is plagued incessantly by sharks, or that each shark is a reincarnation of the original shark, back for vengeance. Spielberg's original film is a masterpiece, an iconic and technically perfect "Boo!" movie. But each successive sequel is like a copy of a copy, degrading in quality with each reiteration.

Jaws 2 (1978) - A repeat of the first film, minus the stellar final act aboard the Orca with Quint (dead), Hooper (according to the screenplay, on an Arctic expedition), and Brody (one of the few returning characters). The shark reappears when two scuba divers stir the undersea wreck of the Orca, as though they were unearthing some ancient burial ground (or the shark has just been hanging out around the boat, doing nothing much). After a waterskier is eaten, Brody tries to warn the mayor (again), but the mayor ignores his warnings (again). But after Brody's kids (having aged six or seven years each since the first film) are stranded with some other interchangable teens on the water, being picked off by the shark, he commandeers a police boat to rescue them (this time it's personal). Director Jeannot Szwarc gets the words but not the music, repeating scenes and even shots from the first film to lesser effect. The end result is a film motivated by nothing but box office - competent but sluggish.

Jaws 3-D (1983) - Capitalizing on the early-80's 3-D craze, director Joe Alves (production designer on the first Jaws) sets his film at Sea World, where the older Brody son (much older and more Dennis Quaid) works. Whereas the previous Jaws sequel abandoned the pacing and tension of the first film, this one abandons even simple concepts like continuity (the shark changes sizes as much as the original Kong) and characterization - Quaid and the other characters are merely human-like stand-ins waiting to be fish food. It's not even really entertaining on a schlocky level; there's a great deal of smarmy innuendo and a painful running joke about Quaid's inability to distinguish between a fish and a mammal. That Richard Matheson is credited as a co-writer of the screenplay is baffling; perhaps he wrote his draft while on an overnight drunk. Notable for the presence of then-recent Academy Award winner Louis Gosset Jr. as Sea World manager Calvin Bouchard, who sports a vaguely Cajun accent and appears to be in a different movie, rarely appearing in the same frame as the leads and spending most of his performance yelling into a microphone in an underdressed control room set (This time it's personal). I used to have some Jaws 3-D trading cards. They were in 3-D, and they were way sweeter than anything on display here.

Jaws the Revenge (1987) - Shit. From its grammatically awkward title to its incomprehensible climax, this film is so bad it's practically Dadaist. Brody is dead, and the younger Brody son, new chief of Amity, is killed off by the shark in the opening moments. Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary, sole returning cast member), warns her older, marine biologist son (Lance Guest - they're like the Griswold kids at this point) not to go back in the water, blaming the shark (or sharks? many sharks, one shark?) for both deaths.

Son: Mom, dad died of a heart attack.
Mom: He died from fear!

Ellen returns with her son, his wife, and their demon spawn to the Bahamas, where she falls for Michael Caine (Michael Caine). As we all know, fear and love are the two most powerful emotions, and so she is able to briefly forget that she is haunted by a vengeful, godlike great white, who has followed the family to the Bahamas. In the last twenty minutes, two different characters are trapped in the shark's mouth only to be found alive later, and Ellen kills the fish once and for all (THIS! TIME! IT'S! PERSONAL!) by ramming into it with a ship (Neptune's Folly, the single most foppish boat name ever). The shark explodes for some reason, and the filmmakers actually re-use shots of the exploding shark from the first Jaws. Really, what a complete slap in the face to audiences and the art of film in general. Director Joseph Sargent shows such total contempt for movies that it's worth seeing as a definitive work of anti-art alone. What was once singular has now degraded by recognition.

When people say they hate sequels, overlooking films like The Godfather Part II and Aliens, they are thinking of sequels like the Jaws series, which begins as one of the purest declarations of love for cinema, descends into ennui, and by the end hates you and itself.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Play the game (2/1/06)


Last week: Short Cuts