Friday, December 29, 2006

The Trim Bin #53 (Joyeux Anniversaire!)

You don't often hear the phrase "Opens December 25 in New York, LA and North Adams." So my top ten for 2006 will be completed in several weeks, after the most talked-about films have made their way to Images or the Spectrum 8. Until then, I thought I'd share my favorite film-related experiences in 2006.

- When asked by coworkers what I did last weekend, I sometimes notice a flicker of concern in their expressions when I explain that I drove three hours to see a scratchy print of a twenty-year-old movie that I could have simply popped into my DVD player in the comfort of my own home. Repertory screenings are an integral part of my love of film; the reasons are partly philosophical, but mostly it's just pure geek joy. There's something about it that just transports me, and I don't quite know how to describe it except to say that it's magic. The most memorable classic screenings this year include Jaws and Ed Wood at Pothole Pictures; Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Terminator 2 and The Lost Boys at Cinemark's Friday Night Rewind; Nosferatu and Rosemary's Baby at the Brattle; 2001 and Jurassic Park at the Mahaiwe; and The Shining at Images.

But more than any one screening, one of the most amazing film experiences in 2006 was my ten-day, eight-film adventure in May with the missus. In a journey that spanned Northampton, Cambridge and Shelburne Falls, we attended screenings of Blue Velvet, Pink Flamingos, The Piano, My Own Private Idaho, Badlands, Days of Heaven, King Kong and Full Metal Jacket. Between the aftermath of my college graduation and our impending marriage, our sensory deprivation-like immersion in a nonstop celluloid orgy not only kept us sane, it also reminded us why we fell for each other in the first place.

- The single most surreal moment of 2006: sitting in the '62 Center, waiting for a panel discussion of female documentarians (part of the Extreme Documentary weekend) to begin and lost in my own thoughts, I absentmindedly look to my right, and see Werner Herzog sitting two seats away and staring back at me. I find myself unable to form anything resembling a coherent thought, so I offer a polite head nod, which Herzog returns. I turn my gaze forward, and spend the next two hours resisting the urge to look to my right.

- This was also a year of some small but important steps towards eliminating that pesky qualifier "aspiring" from "filmmaker." I heart Jonathan Caouette, who was kind enough to accept copies of our work (it almost doesn't matter if he watched it - it was just nice to have the encouragement). As for the extra work, The Departed is one of the best movies of 2006 and The Game Plan is almost certainly going to be one of the worst movies of 2007, but it doesn't matter either way, because I now understand how a movie is made in a way that simply can't be taught in a classroom. And I'm proudest of Chrissie, and of the work yet to come.

- As for the movies released this year: as always, there was a lot of filler and overhyped studio product. But I've seen five new classics this year, and a dozen other memorable gems that I'm sure I'll revisit in the years to come. And as I've said, I've haven't seen everything yet! So it's been a good year, and 2007 promises to be a better one. I'm going to make movies, and I'm going to be a dad. Not bad at all.

Thanks for reading. See you next year.

Films watched this week:

World Trade Center 4
Gremlins 10
Badlands 10
Scrooge (1970) 8
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest 6
The Ice Harvest 8
Dune (1984) 9
12 Monkeys 10
Mulholland Drive 10

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sarge, I just saw Jesus.

The opening moments of World Trade Center, silent images of Manhattan in the moments before dawn, have an understated grace. They suggest a subtler, more meditative film than the one we are about to see. The spell is broken with the title card, over an image of the New York skyline, that informs us of the following: "September 11, 2001." Because, apparently, we are complete fucking dimwits.

It's not that Oliver Stone has made a deliberately cynical movie with World Trade Center; the movie radiates with the obvious good intentions of its cast and crew. But therein lies the problem. Stone has worked hard to make an accessible, apolitical film designed primarily to honor those whose lives were lost on 9/11 and deify the city's cops and rescue workers. And while this is a worthy subject for a film, Stone's singlemindedly inoffensive approach serves to give one of the most significant days in human history as much emotional resonance as any generic disaster movie (Nicolas Cage actually says "RUUUNNN!!!" as the first tower collapses in slow motion). World Trade Center is a noble effort, but it's also a huge missed opportunity.

The film tells the true story of John McLoughlin (Cage, in one of his bad performances) and William J. Jimeno (Michael Peña), two average cops whose lives became inextricably linked with September 11. The moments leading up to the first collision are effectively tense, if only because we in the audience supply the anticipatory dread. But as McLoughlin and Jimeno join the rescue efforts, World Trade Center becomes flat and formulaic. The actors do not respond to the sight of bodies falling from the towers, or news that the crash was deliberate, with the spontaneous horror palpable that day; they feel like actors playing cops and firemen, reading their lines, afraid to make any risky choices. And that caution is at the heart of the film, which becomes evident as the towers collapse, leaving our protagonists trapped under twenty feet of rubble. This will not be a film that stares into the abyss, but an attempt to inspire and reassure. The last thing we need right now is to be cuddled.

Stone sidesteps potentially subversive moments, such as the subplot involving a batshit insane marine, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who is "called by God" to ground zero (imagine the movie Herzog could make out of this guy), in favor of easy platitudes and greeting card sentiments - apparently, 9/11 happened because they didn't love their wives better (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhal, two of the best actresses working today, are wasted in underwritten "crying wife" roles). I haven't written about United 93 because the task seems so overwhelming, but I'll have to soon - I'll refrain from listing the multiple reasons it's a better movie, but chief among them is the scenes of wives and husbands tearfully calling their spouses for the last time. That film posesses genuine pathos, because it understood the meaning of family in the face of absolute despair. Here, it's just an easy shortcut to audience identification. Weak.

The cinematography and editing are well done, but they serve no purpose other than to placate the middle-American audience the film is so transparently courting. The ending narration suggests that we've forgotten the spirit of patriotism and unity that brought us together on that day. Actually, we've never moved beyond it, and that's the problem. The thirty percent of Americans who still desperately cling onto the belief that our current war is worth fighting cannot let go of five years of American flag bumper stickers, "Whack the Osama" banner ads, and Toby Keith songs. They live for that shit; without it, they'd lose their minds. It's painful to see Stone, historically one of our most audacious cinematic muckrakers, shrug his shoulders and spoon-feed this claptrap to the masses. And worse, by leaving Karnes' jingoistic Rambospeak in the film but refusing to question it, Stone has made a film that could easily read by less media-savvy folk as a call to arms; that's not only bad filmmaking, it's irresponsible. I can't see any reason why he would make this World Trade Center other than his need to stay commercially viable, and that hurts. I'm still of the opinion that there's nothing inappropriate about making films about 9/11 (the subject has already given us one new classic). I just hope that we eventually get a World Trade Center movie that actually has something to say.

Also, I know that Jimeno really saw Jesus with a water bottle. It still looks totally goddamn ridiculous.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Trim Bin #52

This will be a condensed entry, as I find myself too tired and stupid to write complete paragraphs right now (gotta love the holidays). I'll be back next week, and hopefully my brain will have returned as well. In the meantime:

- The teaser for Grindhouse. Boner.

- This one's for the missus: a Woody Allen spectacular. Yes, my wife finds Woody Allen attractive, which does wonders for my self-image. But she also digs Reds-era Warren Beatty, which gives me hope.

- Here's my latest article for the Transcript, a suggestion of what movies to watch this Christmas season; here's a clip from one such timeless Yuletide classic. Have you been naughty or nice this year?

Films watched this week:

Superman Returns 10
Blue Velvet 10
Inland Empire 10
Silent Night Deadly Night 3
Silent Night Deadly Night Part 2 0
Star Trek: The Motion Picture 8
Brazil 10
The Fountain 10
For Your Consideration 6

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You dyin', lady.

Inland Empire is David Lynch's most dreamlike film. Having seen it four days ago at the Brattle, I find that my memories of it are very fuzzy. This is not to say that the film is forgettable - as with all of Lynch's best work, it contains countless moments that burrow their way deep into the mind's eye. Rather, the sequence of narrative events is blurry; as with a dream, time and space are malleable and unpredictable, shifting between continents, decades and stories without warning (and that's to say nothing of the talking rabbits). Lynch, who has long toyed with the breakdown of classical narrative in ways both overt (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) and subtle (The Straight Story), has finally succeeded in shattering the Hollywood model of storytelling into a million pieces, and the result is nothing less than a creative rebirth.

The film presents itself as a "long-lost radio play," and is apparently being viewed by a weeping Polish prostitute; it begins as a sitcom starring the aforementioned rabbits before eventually settling into the story of Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), an actress whose fame has slightly dimmed. Nikki is visited by a new neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) who talks like Bela Lugosi and surely comes from the same place ("hard to see from the road") as The Man From Another Place, the Lady in the Radiator, the Mystery Man and all of the other messengers from other realities that populate Lynch's world. The neighbor tells Nikki two versions of a fable that seem to foreshadow the film's story (though they explain nothing); suddenly, it is the next day, and Nikki has been cast in a Southern melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows. In a scene reminiscent of The Shining (allusions to Kubrick's film are all over the place), director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons) warns his leads that the film is supposedly cursed; an earlier version of the film, made in Poland, was left unfinished when its two stars were brutally murdered. Nikki flirts with the idea of an extramarital romance with her costar, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) which, they are warned, will indirectly threaten the fabric of their reality. Before long, the film makes an almost imperceptable shift into the uncanny, casting Nikki adrift on a fragmented journey through various realities, cinematic and otherwise. If Mulholland Drive concluded with a trip down the rabbit hole, Inland Empire is a freefall; it makes the previous film look downright accessible.

Lynch filmed Inland Empire on standard-definition digital video, which both allowed for an atypical shooting process (the film was assembled one scene at a time over the course of several years) and opened the director up to a new realm of visual possibilities. At first it seems that Lynch's painterly compositions are rendered inert by DV's static nature. But as the film progresses, it takes on a disjointed beauty; the fragmented images contribute to the hallucinatory atmosphere, and they also liberate Lynch to do his most experimental work since Eraserhead. While Inland Empire is filled with nods to Lynch's earlier films, it feels less self-referential than reflective, placing his recurrent themes and images in a startling new context. In many ways, Inland Empire brings closure to the cycle of psychic violence at the center of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive while also announcing the start of a new chapter in Lynch's ongoing narrative. It's a reflection on the very act of storytelling embodied by an actress whose ability to live others' lives is the source of both her nightmares and her strength. And so Inland Empire's success is largely thanks to Dern, who disappears completely into the role. Her fearlessness, and the thrill of a new medium, have an invigorating effect on Lynch; when a languid gang of prostitutes suddenly launches into a full-blown musical number set to "The Locomotion," it's a perfectly bizarre moment that crystallizes the film's themes as profoundly as Dean Stockwell's lip-synch in Blue Velvet and the Club Silencio sequence in Mulholland Drive. There's genuine audacity on display here, and while Inland Empire at points requires phenomenal patience, it's worth it to see Lynch push the boundaries of cinema and his own imagination into uncharted territory.

There's so much that remains to be discovered about Inland Empire; Lynch makes films that demand to be revisited and reexamined, and this is no exception. In a few years, when we've finally begun to absorb the meaning of this long-lost radio play, the real discussion can begin. I can't claim to understand all of Inland Empire, but the great thing about Lynch is that understanding seems beside the point; he wants us to experience his films. And Inland Empire is an astounding experience; it's the kind of film you can get lost in, wandering through its many rooms and disappearing into its ever-present shadows. You will either love Inland Empire or hate it. You won't forget it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Trim Bin #51

- Hearing about the death of Peter Boyle, my mind immediately jumped to two scenes. The first is Boyle as the cabbie guru Wizard waxing philosophical to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (a scene largely improvised by Boyle). The second is the "Puttin On the Ritz" scene in Young Frankenstein; the monster's indecipherable yelps are one of the film's highlights. It's hard to imagine anyone but Boyle playing either role so memorably, and for that he will be missed.

- I'm planning on beginning the next gauntlet (suggestions for a new name are welcome) starting on January 1st. This time, we'll be determining which film is the worst of all time. Feel free to leave a comment here with your bottom ten anytime between now and January; I look forward to judging the worst of the worst.

- The awards season has begun, with most major critics' groups having announced their choices (you can find a handy guide to the NY, Boston, LA and Washington picks here). The biggest winners this year appear to be Letters From Iwo Jima, United 93, The Departed and The Queen. Two of those films are among my favorites this year, and Letters could join that list (I'm indifferent to The Queen despite Helen Mirren's pitch-perfect performance). All in all, not a bad year for the critics, as it was probably too much to hope for a sudden surge of enthusiasm for The Fountain. I'm neither qualified nor interested in doing much awards speculation, so this is probably it until the Oscar nominations. I just figured I'd mention that yes, I do think about these things.

- More on The Departed: this piece from Film Comment (page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4) is the strongest written on the film so far, and offers some provocative ideas about the film (I took Queenan at face value, but perhaps he is shadier than he seems).

- Finally, in honor of the new David Lynch/Laura Dern collaboration Inland Empire (I'm seeing it at the Brattle this weekend, and I can't wait), here's a scene featuring Dern's brilliant work as Lula in Wild at Heart. "Holy shit, it's night of the living fuckin' dead!"

Alien 10
The Queen
The Royal Tenenbaums
Casino Royale
Casualties of War

Monday, December 11, 2006

I'm deaf, not blind!

Every frame of Babel announces Alejandro González Iñárritu as a filmmaker with the noblest of intentions. Iñárritu's previous features, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, each told interlocking stories linked by a single incident. In Babel, that incident is a gunshot, and the stories connected here are played out on a global canvas. Iñárritu's film is concerned with such weighty subjects as terrorism, globalization, illegal immigration, and social alienation. So why does it say so little?

The gunshot is fired by Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), a Moroccan boy testing his father's new rifle; through a contrivance that is only plausible if one accepts that Yussef is an idiot, he critically wounds Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American woman grieving the loss of her infant son while on a Middle Eastern holiday with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). Back in the U.S., their Mexican housekeeper and nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza) is left to watch their older son and daughter; her decision to bring the kids to her son's wedding in Mexico turns out badly. And connected more tenuously is the story of Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf Japanese teen who resists any emotional connection with her father (Kôji Yakusho) and is plagued by sexual insecurity that compels her towards risky behavior. As with 21 Grams, the film cuts between different narratives, often fracturing continuity; unlike that earlier and better film, Babel's juxtaposition of different stories feels arbitrary, the characters connected by little except their geographic diversity. For all its scope, Babel's ideas feel obvious and superficial - for all the mentions of terrorism, it has nothing to say on the subject, and its take on the geopolitical climate is about as nuanced and insightful as the song "We Are The World." The film's self-consciously bleak tone labors to imply important statements that just aren't there; unfortunately, this is the very definition of pretentious.

Surprisingly, Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who have never failed to create well-crafted, believable characters, stumble badly here. Babel's multiethnic cast is reduced to a series of underwritten cliches - Gael Garcia Bernal is wasted as a hot-tempered Latino - and, worse, most of the characters are totally unsympathetic. We learn little about the Moroccan farmer and his family, his sons depicted only as foolish and creepy (Yussef masturbates to thoughts of his own sister). And the nanny's actions are so irresponsible and implausible that we end up rooting for Border Patrol - odd, considering that the writer and director are Mexican! Only Pitt and Blanchett are given the opportunity to create relatable, fleshed-out characters (though even their characters are crudely robbed of any real narrative resulution). They do fine work together (a scene where they finally address their loss works better than it has any right to), but the unsettling (hopefully unintentional) subtext is that only the pretty white people can overcome adversity and emerge unscathed. While Babel ostensibly pleads for peace, love and understanding, with a little tweaking in the editing room it could just as easily be positioned as a stirring tale of the white man's burden.

But the worst part of Babel is the Japan segment, which strains all credibility in the service of a ridiculous plotline with ugly racial and sexual undertones. I am willing to accept that Chieko would probably have issues with self-image that would lead to promiscuous and destructive behavior. I am not willing to accept that, in the course of one day, a seemingly intelligent and assertive 17-year-old girl would blatanty proposition four different men (including a dentist and a police detective) in one day. Kikuchi deserves a great deal of credit for her fearlessness, but it feels exploitative - Chieko, pantyless under her school uniform, plays into the prurient, vaguely racist Japanese schoolgirl fetish (plus, she's submissive and a virgin). Iñárritu asks Kikuchi to bare all both physically and emotionally, but he demonstrates no real desire to explore the motivation behind Chieko's actions in any detail. The filmmaker feels entitled to teach us, to urge us to understand each other, yet he doesn't even understand his own character; the whole thing feels unbearably hypocritical. The film closes with Iñárritu's dedication to his children, who he describes as his sole source of hope. Unfortunately, that hope is nowhere to be found in Babel; for all its ambition, it is ultimately hollow.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Kindergarten Auteur

The following are my answers to Professor Dave Jennings' Milton-Free, Universe-Expanding Holiday Midterm, from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. These are always a blast, and I encourage you to head over to SLIFR and share your own answers.

]1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?
Casino Royale, because I love the idea of Daniel Craig as Bond. The film had some problems, but Craig did not disappoint.

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.
Robert Richardson, whose work with Scorsese, Stone and Tarantino demonstrates audacious use of light and color and a pitch-perfect sense of composition. His work on Natural Born Killers is particularly impressive, juggling 35mm, 16mm, super 8 and video to create a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory experience.

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?
Baker. It's all about the baby oil.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…) The reveal at the end of Brazil.

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.
Boogie Nights.

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.
M, one of the most genuinely unsettling movies ever made.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie. When I first saw Blue Velvet at 13, I immediately identified with Jeffrey Beaumont (though it took a long time to admit as much to myself).

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?
I need to see more Bunuel.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.
Fred Williamson as Spearchucker (!) in M*A*S*H*.

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.
If ever a movie could be described as having a good soul, it's Harold and Maude.

12) Name the first double feature you’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.
Ah, a question I've pondered for years...Alien and E.T.

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?
My first instinct is Cinevistaramascope, but that's probably too cumbersome for newspaper listings. So let's call it The Vista.

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?
Gould and his cat.

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.
Mary Poppins.

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.
The barely audible helicopters that open Apocalypse Now.

17) Pink Flamingoes-- yes or no? I love me some dogshit.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score. Vertigo.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?
I'm going to avoid nostalgia, commodified or otherwise, and go with Naomi Watts.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it? No. It's all about the quality of the argument.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner. Best cameo (this year: Pamela Anderson in Borat).

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie. Robocop, case closed.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form? Captivate one’s senses.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney? Albert Finney. His Scrooge is the only one I can stomach, let alone revisit annually.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature. I love the late 70’s/early 80’s tri-color Avco Embassy logo that appears before movies like The Fog and The Howling.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally. In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any “spoilers” in your answer.) Can’t argue with Psycho.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie. Jules and Jim.

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes? Danes by default, but they’re both sort of generic.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter. Watching Martin Scorsese direct for an afternoon taught me more than four years of film studies courses.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed? When I first saw Jaws at the age of five and noticed that the director also made E.T. (my then-favorite movie). On some five-year-old level, I began to understand that a director can tell wildly different stories that are still recognizably directed by the same person. Call it my kindergarten introduction to auteur theory.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Trim Bin #50

- I hate hipsters.

Last night, Jess and I went to a screening of Jurassic Park at the Mahaiwe; it was a blast, reminding me of how, at the age of nine, my anticipation of the film bordered on religious hysteria and, once I'd seen the film, I could talk about nothing except velociraptors and computer animation (the future!). So it was a real sock in the gut when, exiting the theatre, I overheard a gaggle of scruffy-bearded, sneering, clove-smoking punks laughing and patting themselves on the back for having successfully murdered their inner children long ago ("I'd forgotten how cheesy that movie is." "The effects were so fake." "I remember it being scarier.").

Hipsters totally suck. They were into emo in high school, and they've evolved into something just as pretentious but less emotionally honest. They're completely parasitic - they have no reason to exist outside of declaring superiority to the culture surrounding them, like dogs marking their territory. I mostly disagree with notorious contrarian Armond White's generalizations about what is hip and what is square, but now I can say that I at least sympathize with the force of his conviction. These people are going to be the new yuppies someday (neo-neocons?). They're bastards. They can't even appreciate a good t-rex attack.

- The Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon, run by Andy Horbal at No More Marriages!, yielded more than forty insightful entries on the subject (including a funny piece about the aforementioned Mr. White).

- Poltergeist remake: totally unnecessary, sacrelige, Hollywood's out of ideas, etc.

- The Lovely Bones comepletely surpasses the expectations of an "Oprah's Book Club" selection. It's a minor masterpiece, narrated by a dead 14-year-old girl as she watches the aftermath of her murder from heaven. The characters are exceptionally well-crafted, and the narrative moves swiftly between a tense police procedural, a deadpan take on the afterlife, and the ongoing lives of the dead girl's family as they attempt to mend their broken lives. I must say, I'd much rather see Peter Jackson do this than The Hobbit; he's been there, and The Lovely Bones could be a bold return to the strong character-driven work that Heavenly Creatures (still his best film) showed he can excel at. Casting suggestion: Dakota Fanning as Susie Salmon, the ghostly narrator. As an added bonus, this will surely keep the hipster demographic away.

I understand completely, Armond.

- Hot Fuzz!

Rebecca 9
Zabriskie Point
The Fountain
The Pink Panther
(1963) 8
She's Having a Baby
In the Mouth of Madness
Jurassic Park
The Devil's Advocate