Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ruminations on Paul Verhoeven and Black Book

Like many people my age my first steps into the world of director Paul Verhoeven was as a pre-teen in the form of RoboCop. My parents, especially my dad, were pretty liberal in what they allowed me to watch after I turned 9 or so. I got to see Beverly Hills Cop when I was 9 -- I think that was the first R rated movie I'd seen in the theater. But compared to RoboCop, which came out two years later, Beverly Hills Cop might as well be Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!. It might have simply been my dad pulling a fast one on my mom, she refused to let me see Aliens when that came out, but there I was 11 or 12 years old watching a guy who just snorted coke of a hooker's tits getting his knee caps blown off.


People often refer to Terminator as a touchstone for the violent action movies of the '80s, citing its ridiculous body count. Well, as many people who may have been shot in Terminator, the opening 15 minutes of RoboCop, with our protagonist getting everything short of defecated upon (Verhoeven makes up for that aplenty in Black Book) is more brutal than all three Terminators combined. Taking a cue from Blade Runner (I think 90% of the movie takes place at night), he created a bleak near future that's overrun with violence (or that may just have to do with it taking place in Detroit), and it's his unflinching camera that still feels a bit shocking even seeing it today. There's no quick jump editing, there's no soft lighting or diva actors, it's all nasty grime and body fluids and you feel just about anything violent can and might happen.

What separated Verhoeven and RoboCop at that time, besides the unflinching violence -- and it’s something he continued to use as a sharp tool, is his use of satire. He would work again with writer Ed Neumeier again with the subversive Starship Troopers which also used darkly funny commercials aimed towards children and absurd news footage to reinforce a view of a future filled with fascism and violence as entertainment. Pretty sly.


RoboCop was followed by Total Recall. In the pantheon of Schwarzenegger movies, it’s pretty good. At the time of its release it was definitely one of those movies where the special effects were enjoyably impressive and the violence and gore was still surprising. All the kids loved the scene with Arnold yanking that tracking beacon out of his nose, using that dead guy as a human shield and pounding the shit out of Sharon Stone. And as far as Philip K. Dick translations go – well, it could’ve been a lot worse. It wasn’t as gritty or bleak as RoboCop, but there was still a certain amount of intelligence and winking cynicism going on behind the big budget sheen.


And that takes us to the one-two punch of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas seem like a natural, winning combination. Both are talented, idiosyncratic Hollywood outsiders who like to subvert the art form and have a healthy predilection for sex and violence. At first their goals seemed simple – a mind twisting neo-noir serial killer movie with a whole lotta sex. Worked like gangbusters and made everyone involved superstars.

Basic Instinct works on many levels – there's the actual mystery that lies at its center and it was 1992 so the t & a and sex stuff was actually something that every teenager didn’t have at the click of a mouse -- not to mention that sex was a good portion of what the movie was about. Basically, it succeeded at delivering cheap thrills while at the same time being an impeccably shot, suspenseful, first rate thriller. It was like a perfect storm of conditions coming together to form a pop culture superfecta. The stars aligned and it spawned years of direct to video and Cinemax soft core fodder.


What made Basic Instinct worked goes right to the point of what made Showgirls a relative failure. The central story to Showgirls couldn’t be any less interesting. Well, I suppose it could, but then I doubt it would qualify as a “movie”. But anyone who bought the wonderfully sleazy Showgirls box-set will tell you that the movie didn’t fail completely. Quentin Tarantino said something to the effect that once Elizabeth Berkley pulls the knife out you realize Verhoeven has made the most gloriously expensive exploitation movie ever. It's trashy, poorly acted nonsense but it's disturbingly watchable and entertaining on the basest of levels.


When one movie suddenly makes you the most powerful writer/director team in Hollywood, you know your next one will probably end that reign just as quickly. No one stays on top for more than a couple years in Hollywood – the happy endings are reserved for the movies. So three years after Basic Instinct, Showgirls really looks like Verhoeven and Eszterhas taking any goodwill they might have garnered and throwing it back in Hollywood’s face while having a nice long laugh. They were never going to make that prestige picture or that demographic friendly PG-13 blockbuster. Instead they were going to spend millions of dollars showing off just how much they could get away with. Say what you will about the finished product but it’s nothing if not exactly the movie Verhoeven set out to make. It's one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made. The only shame is that Verhoeven may never be able to shake off the notoriety that came with the release of this movie.

Paul Verhoeven had been making movies for close to 30 years before he made Showgirls. His 1980 Dutch movie Spetters was his last movie made in the Netherlands (before his return with Black Book) and it cemented his reputation as a generation's spokesperson for sexual liberation and as the guy who made Rutger Hauer an icon and sex symbol. After Showgirls he was now the butt of a joke. He returned to sci-fi with Starship Troopers and while it was largely a successful movie I think it marked the beginning of the end for Verhoeven and Hollywood. That end took the form of Hollow Man. To be fair, I've only seen bits and pieces of Hollow Man (the same goes for his first Hollywood picture Flesh + Blood) but it recently got a "directors cut" so maybe I'll take a look at it one of these days, but the general response what either a luagh or a shrug. It seemed someone had finally stepped in the way of Verhoeven, the end result leaving a lot of fans feeling like this was diluted, neutered Verhoeven.

It was the last we'd see of the man until just this past year. He'd returned to his Dutch roots and came up with a historical, "based-on-true-events" WWII picture called Black Book filled with sexy espionage and plot twists. The general response from critics were positive and seemed to trumpet a bold return to cinema from one of their favorite wild cards. But for some reason I can't generate much more than a mild "ok". Part of me chalks this up to recently seeing Army of Shadows another movie that deals with resistance fighters and daring escapes from the clutches of the Gestapo. I know it's wrong to compare a Verhoeven movie to a Melville movie but adding a strong female center, some healthy doses of nudity and a few gallons of fecal matter to the dutch version of the same story doesn't add up to much.

It's not that it isn't an interesting story (or even the same, really) -- in Black Book we have a Jewish woman in hiding, Rachel, played by Carice van Houten who gives a wonderful performance. In an effort to get herself and her family to safety she ends up witnessing the Gestapo gun down her family and a boat load of other refugees. Through some of her family's connections she ends up with an opportunity to help the resistance and get revenge on the people who killed her family. This leads to her actually infiltrating the Gestapo headquarters and falling for the man in charge. This of course leads to some problems.

The tone is very melodramatic, which could work, the movie is shot beautifully in a way that reminds you of the romantic war movies of the past (just look at the poster), but often times it's overbearing and weighs down the movie. The same can be said for the number of plot twists. In a movie like Basic Instinct, it's fine, it's fun, throw them at me. The mystery part of Black Book only starts to gain momentum in the final third of the movie (and it's not a short movie at about 2 1/2 hours) and by this time I'm ready for the thing to wrap up and instead it's throwing these red herrings at me and I couldn't really care. Part of the problem is that you're waiting for over an hour for people to figure out something that is obvious to the viewer in the first 30 minutes, while the other part is the absurd heights of preposterousness that it goes to. By the end of the movie I'm really wondering if by "based on a true story" means that yes, there was a war, and yes, there was a Dutch underground resistance.

Maybe it's because I'm not used to Verhoeven taking himself this seriously or shedding his satirical edge, maybe it's because I don't know his earlier Dutch film work, but for all the beautiful shots and performances I couldn't get past the cliches and soapiness of the movie. I don't want to be the guy who says I don't like it when a director goes out to do something outside his norm, and that's not really the case here, I think this is perfect material for Verhoeven to excel in and I'm sure it was a personal film for him, but it all falls flat for me.

A Verhoeven picture should not be dull. I believe that is the main point of this dissertation. And until Black Book, that was the rule. For all the naked van Houten, twisteroos, head wounds and cauldrons of poo, the end result is a while lot of nothing new. Verhoeven always excels in new -- producing something you've never seen before -- something that sets trends. While he's supposedly lining up a remake of Topkapi (that will be under the guise of a sequel to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, natch), I'm not exactly thrilled, but I'm in full belief that it will be a return to the fun/inventive Verhoeven. Lord knows the guy can pull off a hot-damn heist picture.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

December's Beer of the Month - Stone Coast's Jamaican Style Stout

Mmmm... stout. Who doesn't love a good stout or a porter on a cold winter night? Sure, certain beer folk will tell you that a porter is just as good on a sweaty summer day and well, I'm not going to tell them to shove it but I'll put it this way. I like to attempt to cook with beer. It's fun. I splashed some Allagash White on my asparagus one evening and haven't looked back since. But would you make a stew with a crisp summer ale? Nah, you'd probably add some stout to that stew. And nothing says winter to me more than getting the dutch oven full of some lovin'. What I'm trying to say is 'tis the season to find a good stout. And Stone Coast's Jamaican Style Stout is just the thing. I mean, this brewery is from Maine -- they should know what to drink in the winter time, no?

Pitch black (or brown). Can't see any light through the glass but there's a bit of red around the edges. Sticky light brown head that leaves the proper rings around your glass as you imbibe. A little bit of a Heath bar aroma and taste. A bit more pronounced when you drink it than the smell would lead you to believe. Very tasty with a kiss of the hops - more than your average stout. It's a subtle beer, especially since its ABV is 7.4% and you can't tell at all. It's not a creamy stout like a Guinness -- it's thinner, velvety, and a bit lighter than the kind of stout you might be used to. In fact this is the perfect kind of stout for the summer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Paris Je T'aime

Every once and a while at RFC, we do a little housecleaning. You know, sweep up the floor, dust off the processors (I think that's what powers this deal), and remove the cigarette and coffee stains from the monitor. We (or at least I) also tend to find reviews of movies that we saw, liked, intended to review, and just plain forgot about. Like today's review, Paris Je T'aime (that's "Paris, I Love You" for the isolationist, homophobic, culturally starved French-bashing idiots), which was written last summer when the movie was in theaters. So, without further introduction, here is, ash marks and all, some thoughts on a movie I liked a few months ago:


Paris Je T'aime (2006 in France, 2007 in the Good 'ole United States)
Viewed from: The Balcony, but now available on DVD

Dirs: As you will see, quite a few

Sometimes a contrived and hokey idea works out. In the case of Paris Je T'aime, a collection of short films about the world's most romantic city directed by some of the world's best directors, the result: c'est magnifique! (ok, last corny use of French).

The contrived idea is that each story takes place in a separate arrondissement of Paris, showing that the Paris love story does not necessarily = Amelie or Chocolat. So while we do get at least one story of a young, attractive couple in Monmartre, Paris also shows us the less known aspects of Parisian coupling: A vampiress and her victim, two mimes who meet in prison, a stabbed street musician and the paramedic he loves, a washed out actress and drug dealer; a grieving mother comforted by a cowboy, a...well, you get the point. (I've intentionally limited the mention of actors, directors and writers because things just would get too confusing - for a complete list, click here.)

While it was the A-list directors that interested me in the movie (the Coens, Cuarón, Gus Van Sant), their efforts tended to be more workmanlike and obvious than the lesser known directors. Steve Buscemi is great in the Coens short on the dangers of a wandering eye on the Paris metro, but Cuaron and van Sant end up making little more what would be short clips from their own movies, with Cuaron's especially annoying indulgence of a pointless continuous shot the most boring part of the film.

But there are more revelations here than disappointments, including Oliver Schmitz's brilliant story from the 14th about the unrequited (and unacknowledged) love of an African street musician for a local woman. The woman arrives on the scene coincidentally as a paramedic after the man has been stabbed for his guitar, and his love for her is told through a series of quick flashbacks. By the end, it is clear that the woman knows as well about the dying man's love, though our only clue is the shaking tray of coffee she holds in the last shot as the man dies.

Immigration and immigrants are, not surprisingly, a large part of the movie, though the treatments range from nuanced (a story about a local boy and a Muslim girl meeting by the Seine) to obvious (a beautiful but now tragically type-cast Catalina Sandino Moreno leaving her baby to clean rich people's houses).

However, as anyone who has traveled to France knows, there is a worse experience in France than to be an immigrant: to be a tourist. It would be too simple to generalize all of these films, but the one consistent theme does seem to be alienation, or at the least, a feeling of being out of place, whether as a salesman in Chinatown (a brilliant and odd short by Christopher Doyle) or American Steve Buschemi waiting for the Metro. In short, being a tourist in Paris sucks, yet everyone does it. Why?

The best answer may come from the final short of the movie, Alexander Payne's spot-on story of a red-stater's trip to Paris and her attempts to get beyond the tourist traps and the long lines. Narrated in a butchered French with an accent so Americanized even I could understand it, Margo Martindale travels by herself from Denver in search of adventure and freedom, but finds only condescending Frenchman and crushing loneliness.

While Martindale is clearly a representation of the fat and naive American tourist (she reports seeing the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon Bolivar), her innocence and openness also remind me of what makes Paris so great; how much possibility the city contains. Martindale may never be cool enough to make it in Saint Germain, but she still has something to offer the city, her sincerity. While Paris may have been built by a jaded working class and an elite jet-set, without the wide-eyed tourists and immigrants, it loses much of its purpose; Paris needs the stupid Americans as much as the stupid Americans need Paris. The quirky love stories and the unforgettable moments from Paris Je T'aime (and Paris itself) are not just the gift of a city to the rest of us, but the product of rural optimism and urban sophistication. Put simply, if everyone were as urbane as Parisians, Paris would lose much of its charm. The outcasts and oddballs depicted in Paris, then, are not simply the fringes of the cultural capital of the world, but it's heart.



Friday, November 30, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Viewed: From the Balcony

Good news everyone. I was pretty doubtful about The Simpsons Movie and came away pleasantly surprised. My hopes for Bender's Big Score were through the roof. So in my over-eager self-generating hype machine of a head this was already better than any Futurama movie could be. So it was with this in mind that I clutched my free pass and walked into the Kendall Landmark theater for a screening last Tuesday night. People in the theater were asking -- if this just came out on DVD today -- why would they bother making a print to show in theaters? They didn't, my fellow geek, they sadly did not. But they did digitaly project the dvd to a rapturous audience who cheered, awed and thoroughly enjoyed the movie -- myself included.

I'm not sure if they've ever shown a digitally projected movie at the Kendall before. I'm leaning towards no, because if it were any other situation people would be asking for a refund. It wasn't horrible, but the disservice it was causing the animation was distracting at times. We're talking about blocky pixels dancing on the screens. But with the voice actors Futurama has going for it I could be watching an 8-bit interpretation of the show and they'd still get huge laughs out of me.

And there were many of these. Every nervous laugh free moment was followed by a dozen hilarious bits that would put my worries to rest. The plot has to do with a band of aliens who manage to bankrupt the Earth through its people's weakness for email scams. Their first victims are the Planet Express crew with Farnsworth being scammed out of the company and Bender downloading a virus making him do whatever the aliens wish. Once the aliens literally sniff out a binary code for time travel tattooed on Fry's ass, the plan involves Bender looting the world of it's prized treasures and things getting "much more complicated" as the movie has its fun trying to avoid the paradoxes inherent in any movie that tries to deal with time travel. The first time the binary code is spoken aloud it is sent to Earth by the "God entity" Bender ran into when floating in space in the "Godfellas" episode. In fact just about every single character ever introduced in an episode of Futurama makes an appearance in this movie, which is pretty impressive and a fun tip of the hat to the fans.

One of the many great things about Futurama is the witty yet fundamentally sound way it deals with its science fiction aspects. Avid watchers will have no problem accepting the fact that it's co-creator studied theoretical computer science at Berkeley. So watching them make one of the more complicated time travel plots in movie history, you can sense the fun the writers had in creating and wrapping up all the loose ends. The Heroes writers could learn a thing or two from this movie -- better yet, they could simply apply some common sense to their show.

While there are many classic jokes in the movie, there's a fair amount of heart in here as well. This may or may not be good news to some of the fans. One of the better things Futurama did was lose The Simpsons tendency towards touchy feeliness and happy endings. And yet fans will know that the episode about Fry getting his dog back ended with one of the saddest moments in cartoon history. (Yes, Fry's dog is in the movie as well.) But of course the heart I speak of lies in the Fry - Leela relationship and I have to admit as much as I got a little antsy about their story when watching it, it ultimately worked for me. Leela falls for a museum curator named Lars, and they even make it to a wedding, which causes Fry much jealousy and leads up to one of my favorite bits when Fry hatches a devious plan to prevent their wedding by switching the pen they'll use to sign their certificate with one that has no ink. Can't fail!

There are a couple songs that are pretty much hit (the Chanukah Zombie) and miss (whatever that first song was about) -- is it an obligation for a cartoon movie to have songs? And there isn't nearly enough Zap; the whole crowd cheered when he came on, I'm guessing they're saving him for later. Overall though, the movie works as a welcome return of one of the best cartoons of the past decade. No one believed me when I told them in 2000 that Futurama was officially better than The Simpsons in terms of the episodes that were being produced at that time. That became more obvious as the years continued. With both shows putting out a movie this year -- it's a little difficult to compare. Futurama has three more of these coming out next year (this movie ends on a big cliffhanger) while The Simpsons Movie had gobs more money and works as a self-contained story. I'm not going to compare. They were both enjoyable. I like Bender's Big Score because believe it or not, Futurama speaks to me more personally these days. I enjoy the main characters more -- they haven't lost their luster as much as the Simpson's have by relentlessly ploughing on with shoddy episodes that degrade, even betray, what came before it. Believe it or not Futurama has stayed true to a pretty tricky continuity -- their absence over the past few years is dealt with first thing in the movie and gives us one of the funnier continuing jokes: television executives are killed, ground up into a fine pink powder and sold to consumers as a miracle cure-all.

It's not essential viewing but I think it ranks up there with the better episodes. But even my date for the show said she'll be watching it again when it plays on tv and she's more of a casual fan. Which reminds me, there's some great stuff in here for fans of Nibbler and the Nibblonians. I might buy the dvd since it has a full episode of Everyone Loves Hypnotoad (would there be a better thing to put on as a visual for your next party?) and to get the better digital sound and widescreen visuals that were ironically lacking in the theater experience. I swear, this youtube is crisper than the over-projected projection we were treated to...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Into the Wild

Dir. Sean Penn

Viewed: From the Balcony

I don't think Sean Penn's directorial (or acting) skills have ever been in question. Even since The Indian Runner his skills have only improved and that trend continues with his adaptation of Into the Wild. Say what you will about actors aspiring to be directors, performances are routinely great in films under these circumstances and occasionally by actors that you didn't know had it in them (see Gone Baby Gone). Sean Penn has made several films that spotlight actors telling a story that basically weaves around their performances. Here Penn gives relatively unknown Emile Hirsch center stage as Christopher McCandless, and the young man is game to run with everything Penn throws his way. I'm going to guess that most people know the story but here's the short of it -- son of privilege throws his family backing away to start from scratch and make his way to live off the land in the wilderness of Alaska only to have his own life claimed by the harsh realities of this existence.

I almost always like William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden in whatever movie they are in. Here they play the parents, and they're given the first scene of the film, a powerful scene with the mother waking up to the cries of her child, which haunts the rest of the film since they're mostly derided by the main character for the rest of of the running time. One of the most prominent themes in the film is the Chris' coming to terms with his feelings toward his parents. One of the ironies of the film is that once Chris is ready to forgive his parents for their lies and essence of fake, it's too late -- he's reached the point of no return. But his does happens after he's met the surrogate father he's always wanted in Hal Holbrook who's simply brilliant and beautifully touching in this movie which definitely needed a good dose of his character's humanity and perspective.

As interesting as Christopher's journey is, you don't get into him very deeply or necessarily relate to him very often in the movie. The closest you get is when you're looking at him through another character's eyes -- this happens with Holbrook, when he's with the vagabond couple he runs into a couple times on his journey played by Kathrine Keener and Brian Dierker (who's a bit of a revelation, this supposedly being his first film according to IMDb) and when he's working on Vince Vaughn's contracting crew. It's in these moments that you're most comfortable to just hang out with the film, in other scene's, especially the odd detour to Skid Row, you feel the film losing it's momentum. This is helped by a nice devise Penn uses wisely -- we find Christopher's iconic "magic Bus" early on in the film, and whenever we make some leaps in time it's usually prefaced by, for example, "one month before magic bus". It's a good tool to keep you into a movie that runs a bit long by 15 or 20 minutes.

The ending and what leads up to it is fitfully touching though. Even though I knew what was coming it still packed a wallop. And the last shot of the film is one for the ages. I think Into the Wild will end up on the best of list since I saw this one about two months ago and it still feels fresh in my mind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Encounters at the End of the World

Dir. Werner Herzog

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sean starts us up the hill:

Herzog explained to his producers before embarking on a journey to Antarctica that they should not expect any footage of cute, fluffy penguins when he gets back. While there is a particular devastatingly funny scene involving a Herzogian penguin which I'll get too later -- Encounters is a look at the people who end up in Antarctica, the people who decide that this place at the bottom of world is where they want to spend at least a part of their life. It is in these scenes, talking with the employees of Antarctica, if you will, where the movie shines. In other scenes there is more of a sense of unfocused wandering, filling up time while searching for meaning, that can take the movie off its tracks. These few scenes do not take away from what is easily Herzog's funniest film and a unique view into a culture of people most wouldn't bother investigating.

After a lofty introduction regarding the questions Herzog has in his mind before embarking -- most memorably, why monkeys haven't evolved enough to use other animals to serve their purposes -- why doesn't a monkey hop on a donkey and ride into the sunset? Whether or not Herzog even comes close to touching on an answer to this question is up for debate, but shortly after arriving at a military base in Antarctica I think he successfully sets the theme for the rest of the movie. He quickly finds a man who he credits as Bulldozer Operator / Philosopher and when describing his thoughts on how he ended up moving dirt at the bottom of the world he quotes Whitman and looks at it as an almost obvious path for people who can't find footing in their native societies. Another interviewee describes the group of people down there as what falls to the bottom when you give the planet a shake.

These interviews are all priceless and benefit greatly from Herzog's legendary refusal to any sort of pre-production. When he indulges in the science, the underwater photography that inspired his trip and the scientists studying the native life on the continent, I felt like these subjects could be and probably already have been better dealt with by other nature documentaries. Herzog shines in studying the individual, the motivations behind a singular vision and this is why that "insane" penguin was so beautiful. It was like the thing knew Herzog had turned his camera onto him and so he decided to split from his pack and head for the mountains. How perfect was that? It summed up the essence of a Herzog protagonist perfectly and it was downright hilarious.

That's not to say some of that science and nature footage was completely wasted, those underwater images are amazing and the songs of the seals is a wonder to behold. But the time spent with the volcanologists, which seemed like a lot, didn't add up to much except for that spectacular climb through the steam tunnel -- which as wonderful as that two minutes might have been didn't justify the aimlessness of the rest of the time we spent with them.

Overall this is a great success for Herzog who even admitted to being a bit frightened by the prospect of failure when he embarked on this project. One of the great things about having Herzog do a project like you know that for as many glorious shots of gorgeous sunsets and striking landscapes you're also going to see the grime of the military base, the big patches of seal shit that you never see on National Geographic expeditions and you'll have an abundance of perfectly captured absurdities like people placing buckets with goofy faces painted on them to recreate being caught in a white-out. In fact I felt Errol Morris made a whole lot of sense when he'd asked Herzog after the film if it wasn't so much "Ecstatic Absurdity" he was after more than "Ecstatic Truth". Even Herzog smiled and felt there might be something to that.

=======================================

Padraic:

I agree that the individual interviews were the highlight of the film, and that Herzog has definitely learned from Morris the value of "lingering" with the camera. But while most people I talked to seemed to think that Herzog was making a point about the weirdness of Antartica and the people that come there, I think that misses the point. In Herzog, everyone is weird.

The world we live in is weird, the people that try to explain it are weird, and the way in which we try to make sense of all this weirdness (science) may be the weirdest thing of all. How else to account for the single-celled creatures who may be considered intelligent, or the dedication to terrorizing seals, or laughing at penguins who are walking to their certain death?

All the time while we laugh at the stupid animals or the stupid people, Herzog is having the biggest laugh on us. How? Well, consider the themes of the movie: homo sapiens are not unique with regard to intelligence; the desolation of Antartica is both a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future; our time on this planet is limited; and, finally, that the world may be better off without us. And this is the man's "funniest movie"!

While the prime of Herzog's career consists of stories of people trying to exceed their boundaries (Fitzcaraldo, Aguire, The White Diamond) or survive where they don't belong (Grizzly Man, Strozsek, Cobre Verde), I think Herzog may be taking a more pessimistic, and possibly misanthropic, turn. Between Encounters and the limited-release The Wild Blue Yonder, Herzog seems to be less in awe at the lengths to which men (its always men) will try to transcend their limitations, and more derisive.

I think a lot of the people at the Wasserman Cinematheque at Brandeis may have come away from this screening thinking they saw a funny and interesting film about nature. They may even have told their friends about the silly penguin and the bucket-heads. What I'm guessing is that over cocktails and hors d'ouerves, they declined to explain the absurdity of even trying to exist in a world as meaningless as the one Herzog describes. That wouldn't make for good conversation.

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Sean:

While I know you've never met an overarching statement you didn't like, I think you forget to mention that Herzog is pretty weird too. And what are everyday people going to look like through the lens of a weirdo? I of course wouldn't have it any other way, but let's not make it seem like Herzog is looking at the world through clear, non-judgmental eyes without a skewed perspective and a deft hand at the editing table. In Herzog's world, everyone is weird -- do we live in Herzog's world, or does he live in ours? I believe it is the latter -- which is why his reports back from the battlefield are so great, he plays the part in us that is curious about the most minute, sees the absurdity in the things we take for granted and ends up championing (even if he doesn't mean to sometimes) the extreme visionaries.

You should change that "or" in describing Herzog's movies to an "and" because I think all those movies you mention fit fine in the other category as well -- this film fits into both as well. To say that recently Herzog as gotten more into doomsday mode is something that simply reflects the change in the environment, as it were. I'm sure in the upcoming years we'll be getting a whole lot of "end is near" entertainment like we already are on the Discovery, History and Learning channels on tv. The first of which I believe was ostensibly the producer of this project.

The only thing I think we'll disagree upon is the "meaningless" tag you want to put on his description of this world. You'd already stated that this world serves as a great window into our past and our future -- so I think right there you have you answer as to why people would be willing to try and survive here, for the same reason Herzog came, because even the most remote place on the planet has plenty to say. He was clearly disappointed when the weather for his trip was unexpectedly non-hostile and relatively pleasant, which was something that brought a laugh from the audience. Of course Herzog had preconceptions that he was hoping to get reinforced on this trip and I think he got something he didn't expect, a fairly boring, functioning society of misfits. Who knows how many hours of footage were shot and what ended up on the cutting room floor to make this project an interesting Herzog movie (would he have left out the penguin and the non-responsive penguin researcher if he'd had other material?).

Whether you take Herzog's musings as gospel or simply take Encounters at the End of the World as an interesting series of encounters with the people (and other living things) who live at the end of the world is obviously something that will vary from person to person. I'm sure if you're own world view is that of utter meaninglessness than you can read into film this as another of Herzog's wonderful reassurances to you through your day, other people may see it otherwise. But everyone will come away with a better understanding of Antarctica (something that Anne Curry's recent trips utterly and miserably fail at) having witnessed a wonderful deconstruction of that continent's inherent mystery and a look into what it does give us -- "a reminder of our inglorious past and a vision of our post-industrial future", unique views into our planet's highs and lows and the people who call it home.

A couple of tubes -- Paddy you may want to close your ears at around 4:45 of the first tube -- the second one follows up on Henry's last question from the first.




Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Director: Andrew Dominik

Viewed: From The Balcony

Oh what could have been.

Between the beautifully written script, the superb acting by both major and minor stars, the washed-out cinematography, and one of the saddest and most curious stories to come out of the great myth that was the American West, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been a classic; certainly the best movie of 2007, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Could have been.

Let's begin with the positives of a script (adapted by Dominik from the novel by Ron Hansen) that takes one of the biggest bad-asses in history and turns him into a confused, paranoid, and lonely madman. Those who go to the theater looking for shootouts and daring robberies will be sorely disappointed as the only holdup occurs in the beginning of the film, with Jesse and brother Frank leading a group of local misfits on a somewhat botched train robbery. Among this group, the titular Coward surprisingly turns out to be Jesse's most trusted companion and close friend, and the first 90 minutes is a wonderful (if somewhat slow) dance between Ford's admiration for James (at 19, he still reads the sensationalized stories about the James Boys) and James's skepticism and, eventual, baffling trust of Ford.

Since the title of the movie is a spoiler in itself, I don't mind saying that yes, at some point, Ford will betray James by shooting him in the back, but it is how this comes about that is the real surprise. Without going too far into it, it is clear that Jesse wanted to die, especially at the hands of one of his idolaters. Like Judas, Ford has to serve his master, even if it means killing him.

The assassination takes place at around the two-hour mark and at this point, the viewer is probably justified in thinking that the movie is over. Nope. Following the assassination the movie adds a half-hour coda that is among the most beautiful and sad 30 minutes in recent movie history, following Ford's eventual path, from his dramatic recreations of the murder itself (over 800 times!) and his eventual ridicule by society, to his own tragic and violent end. Ford had achieved the fame he always sought (we are told he was recognized by more people than President Grover Cleveland), but he sacrificed much of himself to do it.

Ford is played to perfection by Casey Affleck, in a role that draws often (but judiciously) on Affleck's reticence, crackling voice, and forlorn eyes. While Brad Pitt's James has the alert eyes that size-up the world in an instant, Affleck seems to be staring into an alternate reality, someplace beyond death. There is one scene where Ford is surrendering to the local sheriff and emerges with his hands up, looking like a ghost. He is unbelievably creepy (Frank notices this from the start) and spectral, and yet, sympathetic and approachable. It is a performance that will stay in your mind for a very long time.

Aside from Pitt, who is fine as James but distracting, the supporting crew if fantastic, featuring great turns by actors I knew (Sam Shepard as Frank James, Sam Rockwell as Ford's brother Charlie) and those who I had never heard of (Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt (looking sort of like Affleck in 30 years), and Paul Schneider as intermittent members of the gang). Mary-Louise Parker also appears as James's wife Zee, but it is a useless part, and you know Parker was only added to provide the inevitable scream.

So Sean, you may be asking why all of this does not combine to make a great movie. The problem as I see it was the director's decision to tell the story chronologically, which leaves the best part of the story - Ford's life after the assassination - until the end. I would have suggested that the movie start with the fallen Ford and his dramatic recreations and move through the back-story using flashbacks. So much of what happens during the long second act would have worked better if you had known where it was heading. Probably the three greatest scenes of the movie appear in the final half-hour and the movie just feels like it opens up after all of the claustrophobia of following Ford and James around. Additionally, while the supporting cast is great, there is far too much time spent on an incidental plot point involving James's cousin Wood Hite (Renner) and Dick Liddle (Schneider) in Kentucky. While it was fun to watch Wood and Dick (hee hee) bicker over a woman, the digression takes away momentum from the James/Ford story.

It is possible that I may see this movie again, and realize that it really is a classic, even if flawed. Just in preparation for the review, I've gone over the movie more than just about anyone I can remember. Part of the reason is the ambiguity of the film - I still don't really know what to think of James or Ford other than pure, heart-wrenching sadness - but it may be that the ending works well the way it is, and that a great final half hour can transform a merely very good previous two hours. However this movie does in the awards season, it will be remembered for some time, not only for Affleck's breakout performance and for the visual beauty of Dominik's camera, but for the completely original approach Dominik and Hansen take towards the dual tragedies of Jesse James and Robert Ford. Though James was, as one of his cronies says, "the only American other than Mark Twain known in Europe," it is clear that Ford's life as subject was equal to (or surpassing) the tragedy of James's life. The narrator of the story tells us in the opening shot that James had eyes that looked "as if he found creation more than he could accept" and it appears Ford had the same view of life. For both, the world was both more than they could handle and less than they could accept. It is to the credit of Dominik, Hansen, Affleck and (yes, even) Pitt that they created a world in which these two characters could have existed, even if it only lasts for 150 minutes in a dark theater.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Edmond

Dir. Stuart Gordon

Viewed: From the Couch

Sean looks forward to Stuck:

Another happy day in Mamet Land, filled with joyous machismo, racism, misogyny and humiliation. Who would want it any other way? Not I, and certainly not Edmond (played by Mamet regular William H. Macy in certainly his best performance since The Shoveler, or at least outside of a PTA movie), a lost soul who longs for something else besides his empty existence as husband and successful 9-5er. Spurred on by a tarot card reader, who tells him he is not where he belongs, and a deliciously despicable Joe Mantenga, who reinforces some racism in him and tells him he needs to get laid, Edmond ventures out into the after hours of NYC and begins his path to, um, self-discovery?

And so Edmond travels from strip club to brothel looking for a reasonable price for some lovin'; these early scenes show us a very naive Edmond and offer the only real comic relief in a movie that quickly spirals into blood and rage. Edmond's path can be easily looked at as the life of a bad seed from childhood, where Joe Mantanga's father-figure type sends him out into the world looking for the wrong things, to maturity when Edmond does get the sex he's after and reaches the point of no return. I hesitate to give much more of the plot away, it is this point of no return halfway through the movie and the unexpected twists that follow which make for gratifying viewing.

While this work is certainly not Mamet's best, it does feel like the earlier work of a man who's still finding the strength of his voice, in the hands of horror auteur Stuart Gordon, it is a work that resonates even when you're not sure if you're even enjoying the ride and sticks with you after it's done, which is due in large part to an unexpectedly poignant third act. While the original play was written in the 80's, and some of it's themes can come off a slightly dated, it's not much of stretch to see this story taking place at any time, in any big city.

It certainly helps matters that there's wall to wall good performances here. There's a reason Macy and Mantegna show up in every other Mamet scripted movie, his words never sound clearer than coming from these guys. Of course, as a testament to his skills, all the other actors come to work with their A game. It's a blast to see Gordon regulars Jeffrey Combs and George Wendt trading lines with Macy -- Combs is especially effective as an unsympathetic, put-upon flop-house hotel desk clerk. Mena Suvari, Julia Stiles and Bokeem Woodbine are all effective as well. Why Woodbine hasn't been able to break out of B movie status is beyond me. Even when stuck in a futuristic vampire cop movie, he shines. In Edmond, Woodbine shares with Macy the oddly tender final scene of the movie and tries to works out the meaning of it all: do we always get what we deserve? And are we all just one wrong step away from this fate that is beyond our control?

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Padraic:

Uh, yeah, Mamet's metaphysics need work.

The movie worked for about forty-five minutes, but that "poignant" third act was for me a ponderous mess, with banalities ("we are shaped by our destinies") mixed with high-school dope-head philosophy ("what if we're the real animals"?) spouted by Edmund Burke (and no, I can't tell you why he is named after the famous Irish conservative critic of the French Revolution) and friends.

Mamet clearly wants to say something about the loss of male authority and power (Mantegna's early speech pretty much sums it up), but he also thinks everyone is controlled by a larger destiny? And is the emasculation felt by all of the straight white men historically contingent, a loss of power in a post-industrial world where all you do is wear a tie and long after young pussy, or is it timeless, as the end seems to suggest? I honestly don't think Mamet has much of interest to say on either subject; his strength is in giving voice to angry white men, not explaining it.

As Edmund works his way through his existential dilemma with the help of a rapist and platitudinous priest, I was longing for the quick pacing (helped by the eclectic original score of Bobby Johnston) and oddball characters that come from all angles in the first half of the movie; however, when Edmund's adventurous evening takes a turn for the worse, so does the movie.

The cast is great, but mostly wasted. I love to see Debi Mazur as much as anyone, but what is the point of casting her as a brothel receptionist, other than to get a few film aficionados to say "hey, there's Debi Mazur - she sure is great"? Fat Ton- er, Joe Mantagna, on the other hand, is perfectly suited to his role, and while I would take the whole Glenngarry crew over Mantagna and Macy, they are fantastic in their monologues. Suvari and Stiles? Eh, whatever.

I imagine how much you enjoy Mamet depends a great deal on how interested you are in his themes. I've never had much interest in the castrated male genre, whether it's existential (Mamet) or visceral (Chuck Palahniuk/Neil LaBute), and tend to find the most interesting questions apply to everyone, not just white men. I think these writers are correct to point to some of the dangers inherent in the rapid loss of power for SWMs, but I'm not too concerned about a coming wave a psycho killers or Edward Norton-led terrorist cells. In the 80s it may have seemed we were heading for a generation of angry young men, but these things have a way of working themselves out; instead of a bunch of Edmunds and American Psychos, all we got were metrosexuals.


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Sean isn't very jazzed about Redbelt:

Some might say metrosexuals are the worst threat of all, Paddy. Hey, I'm just glad you're thinking of other viewers. But I guess making someone think about racism, white man's role in urban society and one man finding his place in it is too pithy a subject? A movie has to be about the role the entire male gender plays in the world to be of interest to Padraic? And since when do you need answers given to you in a movie? Aren't the best movies left up to the viewer to decide? Isn't most art created to raise questions, not give answers or in this instance need Mamet to explain why masculinity is his favorite subject? Would you ask David Lynch to explain in his films why he loves his themes so much? Don't a lot of writers and other artists continue to use the same themes because the search is never over? Aren't you being a bit harsh on this movie, Paddy?

Here's a few other questions: Is our generation of urban white males going to be the last to feel the real effects of the masculinity of the 50's and 60's? Is Mamet's oeuvre going to continue to be dated the further we move forward? Or are his movies going to seem more important for being a document of the times, a window? And wasn't that smile at the end killer?

And so here comes the classic Sean, Ah whatever. I've been given a good dose of the impending holiday doldrums. Every day Thanksgiving inches closer the more lethargic and given to ennui I become. Oh, and the title of the movie is Edmond -- not Edmund -- you're correct, we're not dealing with an Irish conservative critic of the French Revolution. I'm sure he wouldn't burden us with dialog about being animals shaped by our own destiny -- dialog I don't mind hearing when it's delivered by David Mamet (even in a lesser work like this one) via W. H. Macy. And I think it's a testament to the material that actors like Debi Mazur will jump at the chance to have the smallest of parts in this movie.

Spoilers below in both of these tubes by the way -- especially the second one which is a homemade version of the pivotal scene (and a none to shabby one at that).




Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The November Beer of the Month

Lagunitas Absolutely Free 22oz (Kill Ugly Radio)

A beer made to honor Absolutely Free.

Pours easy. Beery orange color with a nice inch of white on top which dissipates soon enough. Smell and taste some honey, also a bit flowery. Easy drinking without too much carbonation -- just enough. A little bit tangy but it doesn't linger too long. Almost crisp. Basically a good pale ale. Damn fine beverage.

I like Lagunitas Brewing Company. They hardly ever disappoint. And this yearly thing they're doing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Zappa albums with beer has been pretty successful from a beer drinker's perspective -- last year's Freak Out! was hella good too (to use a Petaluma term [that they probably don't use anymore]) and the use of the album cover as the bottle label really makes it stand out next to the other beers in the store. I don't have too much interest in Zappa music, he's always been one of those guys where I've had more interest in the artist than in the art, but this beer is another winner. In fact, more than anything or anyone else in the past, Lagunitas has successfully gotten me curious to check these albums out. Not sure if I will (albums that use schizophrenic as a term to describe them are hardly ever my thing), but hey, that's the sign of a good beer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Southland Tales

Dir. - Richard Kelly

Viewed: From the Balcony

It's been 5 long years since Donnie Darko -- and aside from a Tony Scott-ed script for Domino it's been a quiet 5 years for Richard Kelly. It reminds me a little bit of the time between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction -- other people started buying up Quentin Tarantino scripts and like Natural Born Killers is to Oliver Stone, I don't think you can call Domino a Richard Kelly movie. Anyway, Southland Tales, Kelly's second feature-length movie, is nothing like Pulp Fiction. Actually Southland Tales is nothing like anything. I honestly am going to be struggling trying to write about this one (I just watched it a couple days ago -- I've tried to let it sink in but I think any honest evaluation of this movie is going to take multiple viewings -- for better or worse) as there are no easy comparisons and yet the movie deserves more conversation than it's likely to get.

The movie starts off with an effective home movie type sequence in Abaline, Texas where we watch a neighborhood run into the streets to witness a nuclear bomb go off nearby. Justin Timberlake's narration walks us through one of many computer animated sequences that feed us data and try to catch us up to speed on the state of the union following the attack. Basically, the country is spending lots of money trying to come up with alternative energy sources and there's a whole lot of politicking going on as we're in campaign season leading up to the '08 election. The narration is heavy with doomsday tones and Revelations quotes. There isn't much doubt that what we're watching is how the end of the world occurs -- "...not with a whimper, but with a bang." (Up for election is the Eliot/Frost ticket.) After the intro we're dropped right into the thick of it. (*deep breath*) An amnesiac action star with political ties is trying to unravel a conspiracy that involves militant political activists, a porn star that can see the future, two Seann William Scott's, a big brother type operation with more than a few dwarfs helping to pull the strings of the media and the government... and wouldn't you know it, it all has a lot to do with the colliding of parallel universes. A word to the wise, you may want to leave the booze and dope alone before entering this world.

The major criticisms of the film are inevitably going to come from the over-ambitious nature of the film. It tackles politics, corporations, media, the war in Iraq, celebrity obsession, all while putting together one of the more insane conspiracy plots ever put to film. In some ways it did remind me of Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions -- a movie I think more people dislike due to the handling of its source material than for it's merits as a bat-shit crazy, shoot for the moon, fun movie. While Southland Tales doesn't have a mesmerizing eye of the hurricane like an unhinged Nick Nolte to latch onto, it's never boring, has endless energy and if you can give yourself over to it's anarchic spirit you'll be entertained and impressed by Kelly's ballsy experimentation.

A good amount of this fun comes from Kelly's casting choices. Every actor in this film comes with a certain amount of iconic baggage. You have The Rock playing the amnesiac action star; Sarah Michelle Gellar as the prophetic porn star/screenwriter; Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette and Wallace Shawn as the shady conspirators; Justin Timberlake is our narrator and wounded veteran; Nora Dunn, Cheri Oteri, Jon Lovitz and Amy Poehler all play a part in the "Neo-Marxists" angle, who have a hand in precipitating the apocalypse (similar to that 12 Monkeys group); and Highlander Christopher Lambert himself sells heavy artillery from his ice cream truck. Any of these casting scenarios might uncomfortably stick out in your average movie -- but it's all strangely symbiotic here.

You reach a point early on where you feel like anything can happen at any moment in this movie -- so it's not really strange at all when a dyed-blond Jon Lovitz shows up playing a homicidal cop -- convincingly, I might add. Brilliant, you think, what will come next to top that? Many, many things. Two SUVs going at it doggy-style is the first thing that comes to mind (and I'll have you know a muffler turning into a vagina is not something that leaves the brain easily)... a flashback to military barracks in Iraq turns out to be a Dennis Potter type song and dance number... and those may mot even be the strangest bits in this film.

Southland Tales is certainly not for everyone. Even if you enjoyed Donnie Darko, this might simply be too inaccessible. There's certainly some common threads to be found -- the science fiction elements are handled very similarly and the ending of Southland definitely resonated with me in a way that echoed Darko. Both films are rather dark at their core -- people hurtling uncontrollably towards their destiny. In this case it's the end of world -- or at least the end of Western Civilization, as Kelly puts it. If you look at it with that perspective, that you're simply watching this array of characters and situations as they rush to fulfill their destinies to meet this end, it frees you up to simply enjoy the filmmaking that's at hand here. And there's plenty to be impressed with. Scenes so elaborate and on such a grand scale that a relatively young filmmaker like Kelly shouldn't be able to pull them off. Elaborate and grand pretty much describes the plot as well, and while that isn't quite nailed on the head, the ambition is easy to appreciate. I saw the film with Special Fellow at the Harvard Film Archive (it made up for being shut out of that Funny Games advanced screening) and upon leaving he summed it up with something like, "I don't know what the hell just happened, but it was fucking awesome." He later called it the next Brazil.

This movie is going to divide audiences pretty much down the middle -- I don't think it's going to succeed in theaters but I believe it will have a long and prosperous life on home video; much like Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Donnie Darko, it's something that will reward repeat viewings by allowing the details to be savored (that NY Times link above offers you a glimpse into the amount of literary and film references that are scattered throughout). I'll definitely be catching it again when it gets its proper release and the first thing I thought about when I left the theater was I need to pick up the rest of those comic books that Kelly released before the movie. I'd read the first one almost a year ago and that didn't help too much going into the movie but I'm more than interested in expanding this world.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Dir. Wes Anderson

Viewed: In the Balcony

Sean likes broad horizons:

Three brothers learn to let go of their baggage after a journey through India in Wes Anderson's latest movie. While I cannot say this wasn't another enjoyable story told with some amazing camera work, I will stick by my guns and say I'd still like to see him stretch his storytelling muscle sometime in the near future. While Anderson seems content to focus on the lives of eccentric well-to-do family members coming to terms with each other -- learning to love or be loved -- he continues to impress with his OCD inspired sets, costumes and tracking shots.

There's nothing inherently wrong by defining your characters by what they wear, what they drink, what music they listen to. It's a shorthand that can work well as metaphor and speak to a deeper meaning, which is how Anderson uses it. At the same time, it would be nice to see a character (or a room) that seemed organic. Here we have three suit wearing brothers: Francis, wrapped in bandages (Owen Wilson); Peter, wears father's prescription sunglasses (Adrien Brody); Jack, funny mustache and a convenient iPod stereo good for seducing stewardesses or soundtracking a campfire scene.

The first half of the movie suffers most from Anderson's fetishes as we try to get to know the brothers as they reveal all their quirks, bicker and get themselves in trouble with the staff of the Darjeeling Limited -- the train that's taking them through India on a trip that's being obsessively scheduled and detailed by Francis (where'd they get that idea from?) as a means to a way to bring the brothers closer. It in these scene's on the train where the trio comes off as more self-absorbed and posturing than interesting and when the scenes of thoughtfulness are too quickly followed by slapstick or a mace fight. Like in The Royal Tenenbaums when someone thought, hey, wouldn't it be funny if when Danny Glover is opening his heart to Angelica Houston he falls in a hole? But there are more than a few very funny scenes in the first half that keep you happily going along.

I believe the line, "Hey, look at those assholes" is when the movie shifts gears and begins to honestly make gains to achieve what it set out for. It is in no way a smooth transition, though. The movie goes from 2nd to 5th gear without so much as a warning. Without giving too much away this scene also has the disadvantage of being the only badly shot scene in the whole movie as well -- but when all your characters are in the middle of a river I'm sure it ain't easy. From here on out we finally do start breaking the surface of these characters, which Anderson of course tells us by shedding the characters artifice. In the most powerful scene (possibly more so due to the events in Wilson's life) the three brothers are looking in the mirror; Peter is brushing his teeth, Jack is trimming his mustache and Francis unwraps his bandages much to Peter and Jack's shock. This scene is played without music, and this choice and his perfect use of a flashback scene to their father's funeral a year prior, show that Anderson's skills are taking some steps forward with this film. But the heavy reliance on old tricks -- can we put a one movie moratorium on cue the slow-mo, cue the Kinks? -- leads me to believe that Anderson is spinning the wheels a little bit.

Again, this is meant to be a positive review. There's other things I did and didn't like about the movie, but I came away enjoying it. Most good directors have their abundant fetishes. It's how tolerant you are as a viewer that allows you to accept or embrace them. Tarantino has a million of them -- you can't watch one of his movies any more without forcing you to spending a good five minutes of the movie staring at the bare feet of his leading ladies; I love the guy's movies. Woody Allen, until I think 1999, didn't make a movie that didn't have a neurotic New York Jewish guy or girl in it -- and having the story revolve around the protagonist longing after a woman half his age is a good portion of his filmography. But both these people in their first five or so movies made it abundantly clear that they were willing to play in whatever genre you threw at them, tweak that genre to do their biding, not let it change their style but let their style re-define the genre. And that's what great directors do, they grow. They reach and maybe they fall flat on their faces, but they can say they tried. Anderson is a very young director and I don't think he feels any rush to test himself (though the chilly reception Life Aquatic got may have scared him off a bit). I think he may just need to find that perfect writing partner that even the best of them need. The fact that he's directing an animated adaptation of a Roald Dahl book has me thinking he's interested in broadening his horizons.

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Padraic:

Interesting, I loved the first half of the movie. It was probably the funniest Anderson since Rushmore, and the chemistry between the three leads was fantastic; despite not looking a bit like one another, it is instantly believable that they have shared a lifetime of guilt, aggravation, and bitterness as brothers. From Francis's first arrival with three whiskeys, to all three brothers having stopped by the pharmacy prior to the train's departure, to Peter's refusal to acknowledge the power of Jack's story, the comedy is deeply rooted in a lifetime of sadness and frustration.

I think this kind of thing is basically ignored about Anderson, that as inorganic as his sets and characters might be, he instantly makes the interior of his world believable. In Life Aquatic, I believe that Owen Wilson is Bill Murray's lost son, or in Rushmore, I believe that a kid could put together an entire play that brings the entire community together. And it's basically because this appears so effortless that I think he doesn't get full credit. Maybe its me, but I feel less like I'm watching a film then when I'm watching Anderson than with some hand-held grimy camera work. For example, the cinematography in a movie like Children of Men doesn't create a sense of realism, but instead dissonance. Try as you might, you are always aware of the screen, and attempt to create a naturalism or realism end up as more alienating than something like Anderson's overdetermined sets. All the "tricks" of Anderson - the slo-mo, the colors, the music - bring me into his world rather than make it seem unreal.

I will admit that a great deal of my enjoyment from this movie was because Anderson stayed in the same territory, basically bringing back Dignon in all his tragic romanticism and frustration. He is probably my favorite character of all time, and I didn't mind seeing him again. What Dignon and Francis (and really, Wilson himself) signify is the great deal of pain behind Anderson's version of comedy. It can be argued that this sort of "woe-is-me" whining from a disaffected child of privilege is not real pain, or that we should want to hear about people with real, and not existential, struggles. But the absence of fathers and mothers is a painful thing (I suppose) in that demographic and the results (suicide) are every bit as real.

I think you can make the argument that there are more important things to worry about. What I do not think you can argue with is that if you approach the movie without preconceptions of what Anderson should be doing, and look at what he is doing, it is beautiful and funny stuff.

I do agree that the storytelling in the second half of the film marks an improvement in Anderson's narrative skills, incorporating a great (and well eluded to) flashback, as well as a poignant reference to the short film Hotel Chevalier which precedes the film. While I agree that transition was sharp between hilarious hi-jinks and serious tragedy, I do not find much wrong with this. It is in film, and not life, where comedy or lightness gradually is transformed into tragedy. In the real world, the horrible or disruptive things usually do occur abruptly. Hollywood and best-selling novels try to sell a world of foreshadowing and gradual transition through a narrative arc, but it's bullshit and had nothing to do with how we experience the world. I could sense in Darjeeling Limited an uneasiness in the crowd as several scenes seemed to be endings. But like in almost all of his films, Anderson incorporates a number of false or possible endings before finally ending the whole thing. In this, he would surely fail an introductory film class.

Basically, Darjeeling Limited will be another data point for both sides of the Anderson debate. From what I can tell, his movies are not blockbusters and he does not get much credit from critics, so it seems odd that there is an Anderson backlash afoot. This is a filmmaker who is 5 for 5 in making movies that almost everyone I know has seen and can discuss in detail. That is pretty good.


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Sean tucks another one into bed:

So you have no criticism for this movie whatsoever? It was perfect? Well, like I said, how tolerant you are of Anderson's fetishes goes a long way to how much you'll enjoy the movie. But also, it will be the deciding factor into how willing you'll be as a viewer to dig underneath the artifice to find the soul in Anderson's movies. While one person might find comfort in Anderson's continual use of the same techniques, the same themes, the same actors to deliver basically the same character, other people might find these things as limitations. I'm not saying I necessarily do, but I can understand that train of thought. I mean, people our age have been dressing up like Anderson characters for Halloween ever since Tenenbaums -- I think this is the type of stuff that causes a popular culture backlash. It can all get a little to precious and cutesy for the hardened cynics of our generation.

I must say though, I'm hardly ever more aware that I'm watching a movie than in Anderson-land. To me, this is not a bad thing. I enjoy scenes like the tracking shot through the different compartments of the train with all the characters together. I don't think Anderson has much use for realism -- Children of Men, a science fiction film, felt much more grounded in reality than Darjeeling. But anyway, I don't really find much use in comparing Children of Men to Darjeeling, (Is it just because both directors use elaborate tracking shots?) Most people who like Anderson (count me in) enjoy his movies because they exist in another world and because he has a unique, off-beat voice. I don't think anyone is out there trying to change his voice when we say we wouldn't mind seeing a movie that at least plays with some different themes. Or even if he wants to use the same themes, how about changing up the dynamic?

I'll keep watching his movies and most likely enjoying them all like I did with Darjeeling and the movies that preceded; but I think some people, perhaps wrongly, thought he might have grander ambitions. You're right -- who are we to say? We shouldn't judge him if he wants to stick with stories about estranged relatives. Like you said, his ability to quickly create meaningful relationships between his characters is clearly one of his best assets and is perfectly suited for this type of thing. When Angelica Houston says something to the effect of, let's not talk and just express ourselves in silence, well that could be the Anderson mantra since he does such things so well. But you know what, it would be great to see these skills he has perfected in a way we haven't already seen 5 times. I don't think it's wrong to want a director you admire to do something besides a satisfying retread of the same material he's more than proven he can handle many times over -- no matter how satisfying it may be.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir. - Sidney Lumet

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sean flies solo and keeps it short:

Sidney Lumet's an interesting director. Like Stephen Frears or Peter Weir his movies don't exactly have a signature to them besides good performances and well crafted scenes. You may be watching a Lumet movie and not even know it -- hell, looking back at his work there's a few in there that I'd forgotten were his. Basically, actors get praise for their work in his films more often than I think Lumet does. Network, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict and, one of my favorites, Running on Empty -- these are highly regarded movies remembered more for their performances or scripts than they are for the direction. Before the Devil Knows Your Dead isn't going to change that, but it will probably bring back some deserved attention to this craftsman who's been floundering a bit for the past, oh, two decades or so (and I happened to like Q&A).

BTDKYD is a great script delivered with wonderful performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, among others. But of course a great script and perfectly balanced performances don't come together on their own. In telling the story of two brothers who for their own separate reasons decide to rob their parents' "mom and pop" jewelry store, Lumet creates a perfect feeling of unremorseful disintegration. After a hilariously uncomfortable openeing shot involving a naked, sweaty Hoffman, we're thrown right into the botched heist. Like a Shakespeare tragedy, the downfall and destruction of an entire family hinges on bad, dumb luck. From this scene forward the movie stays a step ahead, giving us the characters motivations along the way by hopping back and forth between Hawke's sad-sack divorced dad, Hoffman's dead-end marriage to trophy-wife and oft topless Marisa Tomei (this may be Costanza's new favorite film), and the patriarch -- the brooding Albert Finney. The non-linear technique is well-used here and pulled off rather flawlessly by Lumet.

It's a treat watching Hawke, Hoffman, Finney and Tomei create these characters that can be at once reprehensible but never completely unsympathetic -- though Hoffman arguably takes the hardest fall and towards the end of the movie looses any of that possible sympathy in a series of unpredictable scenes that leads the movie to it's abrupt ending. If there's any criticism I can give this movie it is the way it wraps itself up. I of course can't give too much away but the movie really picks up steam as Hoffman spirals out of control only to sputter in its last couple of moments at the sake of leaving more than a couple of strings dangling in the wind. But 5 minutes doesn't ruin an otherwise flawless movie.

Lumet talks about why he's decided to switch to video:

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Errol Morris and Werner Herzog: A Conversation

Cultural life in Waltham Massachusetts is not quite what you find in Paris, New York, or even Boston, so it was a major event last Tuesday when Werner Herzog and Erroll Morris came to the Brandeis campus to have an informal discussion for 90 minutes in front of a packed auditorium.

The event, sponsored by the Film Studies program, was due to the tireless efforts of the wonderful and amazing Film Studies chair Alice Kelikian, who has brought her friend Morris to campus several times.

The initial plan was to have a question and answer period, but an hour into the first "answer" to Professor Kelikian's first question, it became pretty clear that it would be better to have these two just talk to each other and riff on various subjects, including the state of Hollywood (bad), the distinction between documentaries and feature films (very little), and the origins of the twenty minute short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

Since the shoe incident has become something of a legend, I'll report that according to both, Herzog's famous declaration - he said he would eat his shoe if Morris could make his Gates of Heaven, his first film about pet cemeteries - was not an indication of Herzog's skepticism, but an only an added incentive to the younger filmmaker. However, Morris said he believed that Herzog knew he would get Gates of Heaven made, and just wanted an excuse to eat his shoe.

This may not sound as fanciful as it sounds, as Herzog was quite philosophical in what it means to eat a shoe. "I find it to be an entirely manly act," Herzog said. "I could not imagine a woman doing it. To me, to eat a shoe is a way of showing how I am not a woman."

This quote, which closed the discussion with a roar of laughter, was just one highlight from the show. It's pretty amazing that two people could basically just talk for an hour and a half and completely capture the crowd (save for a few undergrads who had been dragooned into the show and sent texts or played video games during the talk). What really came across was the deep affinity that each had for the others' work, odd considering the different paths the directors have taken. Herzog, of course, has always churned out features and documentaries at a frantic pace, always looking for the next challenge, and the next crazy adventurer. Morris, however, tends to make smaller and more personal films, which lack the fluidity and openness of Herzog. I wouldn't say Morris is exactly stylized, but it's much easier I think to point to a "Morris" cut or shot than a "Herzog" cut.

Where the directors agree, however, is that the state of cinema is currently polarized, with big-budget, formulaic Hollywood on one end, and pretentious, navel-gazing avant-garde on the other. Between these two, Morris said, there is "a huge middle ground" where he believes great films can be made. It's hard to argue with him, as the kind of work Morris and Herzog do is notable in that it seems so much unlike anything else.

Herzog has spent most of his energy on rejecting the avant-garde, specifically Cinema Verité, a subject he has mined before. In his search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," he searches for the odd, the different and the insane. As Morris said of Herzog's most famous collaborator, "Klaus Kinski was not an actor in any sense; he was a genuine crazy person in front of a camera."

It may also be said of Herzog that he is a genuine crazy person behind the camera. One story, which lasted a good 30 minutes, concerned a trip Herzog took from Alaska to Plainfiled, Wisconsin to investigate the case of Ed Gein, the serial killer who used the skin of his victims to make furniture and was the basis for the novel Psycho and the Hitchcock film. Morris, who was already in Wisconsin, had discovered that Gein had dug up the graves of ten people in a circle around his mother's grave. Psychiatrists had said he could not have dug up his own mother's grave because of the trauma, but Herzog and Morris were not so sure.

The plan, at least in Herzog's head, was to meet up in the cemetery with shovels and see if Gein had made tunnels from the adjoining graves into his mother's. On the appointed night after Herzog arrived, Morris chickened out, assuming that Herzog could not have been serious. In the end, Morris interviewed Gein but never completed a film or book. Herzog, however, "stole" the Plainfield location for his movie Stroszek (incidentally, the movie Ian Curtis watched just before his suicide).

Morris explained his hesitancy, saying that "it would have been my family's worst nightmare, to see me lead off in handcuffs with a German."

Herzog agreed, explaining that Plainsfield was was a town where "people are not hesitant to open fire."

Sometime after that, Morris told a sick, but funny, joke about Gein's furniture covers. It was a great afternoon.

Fun stuff with Herzog here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The White Noise

(A Couple of Forgotten Things About the New TV)

I forgot to mention a couple of shows that eat up some good quality time during the week.

Pushing Daisies

The combination of Barry Sonnenfeld and Bryan Fuller is a pretty safe bet. Both guys have been behind some of the better short-lived tv shows over the past decade or so -- Fuller with the amazing "The Amazing Screw-On Head" pilot, the wonderful (sorry) "Wonderfalls" and the, uh, very likable "Dead Like Me" (excellent first season, so-so second after he split ways with the show); Sonnenfeld with the live action "The Tick" (a lot better than you'd think) and the too batshit crazy for 1998 tv "Maximum Bob", not to mention his work with the Coen Brothers. "Pushing Daisies", like all the other shows I mentioned is firmly rooted in it's own world. A world where morgues are painted candy striped, pie shops can be built in the shape of a pie, cars can run on dandelions and a guy can bring back the dead with mere physical contact. Lee Pace, our protagonist with the Lazarus touch, wouldn't be my first choice for a lead in tv or movies (I always thought he was a bit bland in Wonderfalls), but his weird aw-shucks charminess works in this environment. The larger story in these first few episodes is his desire to keep the childhood sweetheart that he brought back to life happy despite the fact that he knows someone else had to die for her to stay alive. Pace handles the cheerfulness and the wears the guilt well when it's forced upon him. The co-stars are all well cast in their roles too -- I don't know if I'd like this show nearly as much without Chi McBride.

How I Met Your Mother

I've said it before, I don't believe in "guilty pleasures". If I enjoy something then it probably has some merit, some redeeming value somewhere -- therefore I don't feel there should be any guilt involved. I have enough guilt stemming from other aspects in my life, that feeling need not seep into my entertainment. Anyway, HIMYM is one of the last good muti-camera sitcoms out there (shot on a stage, audience laughter sprinkled throughout). When it first appeared it was declared nothing more than something to fill in the vacancy left in some folks hearts when "Friends" went off the air. Oh, but this is a much much better show than "Friends" ever was and has enough contagious chemistry between the actors to rival even that show. Now in its 3rd season HIMYM is still one of the more reliable and better written comedies on free tv. While the writers this season still haven't figured out what exactly to do with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) besides having him be the sleazy quotable catch phrase machine, but over the past two years they've created an impressive continuity that is rewarding and packs the shows with in-jokes and gives each season an actual story arc. I suppose I'd watch anything that had both Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel in it (which was the excuse at the beginning) but even the main guy (Josh Radnor), who I used to hate for getting in the way of the other actors, is ok in my book these days.

The Sarah Silverman Show

This is another show, like "30 Rock", that is suffering from the greatness of its first season. It has still sprinkled in some jaw dropping laughs here and there throughout the first few episodes this season but some of that magic is missing. Where an episode would suddenly break off from it's own world for a couple minutes to indulge in an animated song about a cough syrup high, turn an accidental poop into a bad music video, or break into a heavily stylized kung-fu fight with a homeless Zach Galifianakis. The abortion episode a couple weeks ago was pretty great now that I think about it. And, of course, the only reason I have these minor disappointments say these things because you have to compare it to the previous episodes.

30 Rock

Speaking of "30 Rock", I still don't know what's going on here. These haven't been bad episodes, but the show's definitely lost it's way a bit. I think a lot of people are ready for the whole "fat Jenna" story to go away. Did anyone think this was going be a multiple episode story line? How many more jokes do they think they can squeeze out of this -- it's gotten downright painful. I have this theory that NBC swooped in during the off season and said, "Our data shows that people only want to see five characters during an episode (also we don't want to pay all these other bit actors so much) so keep Pete, Frank, Toofer -- you know, Liz's humorous relationship with her writers -- let's axe that whole angle." Whatever the reason, this season's wobbling along when it should be taking it's Best Comedy Emmy and rocking socks off to pick up some viewers. I wouldn't blame someone right now if they tuned in to see what the fuss was about and say, meh.

The World Series: A Season in Heaven

Or, being Padraic's attempt to care about baseball after the Phillies' ignominious exit.

Over the past two days, there have been numerous attempts by the nation's sportswriters to "break down" the World Series, some better than others. You will see statistical analysis in places like Baseball Prospectus or The Hardball Times, or sportswriters debating the value of momentum for the Rockies, who come in having won 21 of 22 games, including a 3-game sweep of RFC's co-favorite team. However, no matter the angle, all of these stories share a fundamental (not a pun yet, but soon to be) misconception about how and why baseball games are won; they all believe the players will determine the outcome. But like the Trojans and Achaeans of old, whose fortunes rested on the whims of Ares, Hera, and Zeus, the Red Sox and Rockies players can only hope to win the favor of God(s), and no matter the effort put forth on the field, the results will be determined from above.

Sound silly? Not if you are Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, who in 2006 claimed that God favored the Rockies:

"You look at things that have happened to us this year," O'Dowd says. "You look at some of the moves we made and didn't make. You look at some of the games we're winning. Those aren't just a coincidence. God has definitely had a hand in this."

This quote comes from a USA Today article that explained the Rockies' preference for high character players. While denying that they only recruit Christians, the team brass (the manager, general manager and owner are all born-again Christians) also said that they believed their faith helped in creating the kind of character the Rockies look for.

So, clearly the Rockies win, right? Ah, but some might say that God has already declared his favorite team, and that the 2004 Red Sox championship was orchestrated by God. Everyone who saw the post-game conference after Game 4 surely remembers Curt Schilling thanking God for the win. So it's the Sox, right?

At this point, I could end the piece with more sarcasm, but while the Schilling and O'Dowd quotes may sound similar, they are actually quite different. I think most people find it silly when athletes have the hubris to believe God is involved in things like their hitting the cut-off man, or avoiding the weak-side rush, or caroming in some crazy three-quarter court shot, and this is exactly what O'Dowd is saying. He believes that his faith in the Christian God not only makes him stronger, but that God himself is intervening in the outcomes in the form of what we would normally call "coincidences," or luck.

Unfortunately, O'Dowd's version of thanking the good lord or Jesus tends to be all that we think of when athletes mix religion and sports. However, Schilling's response was much different in tone, if not language. I cannot find the transcript from his press conference, but I distinctly remember him thanking God not for winning, or for adding extra bite to his splitter, but for the strength to allow him to pitch. In Schilling's world, God doesn't intervene in the games, but He does provide Schilling with strength to allow him to dedicate himself to the very difficult task of retiring major league hitters. And it's not even that God just sort of imbues Curt with strength Apollo-style, but that Curt's unwavering faith in God is what gives him strength. In O'Dowds world, if God didn't exist, his team would lose his edge, but for Schilling, it's the faith that is more important than the actual ontological status of God.

I would like to think that most athletes and GMs mean what Schilling means when he "thanks God," but I doubt it. The egos have been stroked long enough, that having God as your own personal 12th man seems as much a right as free meals at restaurants, discounts on cars, or private booths at the local Gentleman's Club. So, if there is a God (a big if to be sure), I sure as heck hope He is Schilling's God who basically stays out of the way of baseball, and not the Greco-Roman God that meddles with everything and allows Matt Holiday to be called safe without touching home plate. No less than the state and temper of our supreme deity may be on the line over the next ten days; try beating that Super Bowl.

And I guess since this is a "preview," I should give a prediction: Hands-off God over intrusive purple- and Coors-loving God in 6.