January 20, 2005
Space Is The Place

With the inauguration, the pictures from Saturn's moon, and the false promise of a new Cold War, it's fascinating to see how many films were influenced by some combination of Nixonoid/Reaganite/Thatcherite doomsday politics and the creeping sensation that Earth's best days were long past, or waiting to emerge from nostalgic cocoons. Apart from epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and its literary precursors, the Seventies and Eighties produced a new wave of interstellar paranoia fantasies, and many of them matched the overwraught brilliance of their forbears dating back to the Fifties and the height of McCarthyite "B" cinema.

Two notables in particular: Aaron Lipstadt's Android, starring Klaus Kinski, and Silent Running, featuring Kinski's spiritual brother, Bruce Dern. With stars like these, it's readily apparent that someone will have to go completely mad and do it in such a way that it's studious without being pretentious, and is thus the only redemptive aspect of the films themselves. Nevertheless, both films project their meaning and their main characters represent two worldviews, diametrically opposed in their outlook on life, and the prospects that the future holds.

Apart from their cosmetic similarities, the explicit nihilism present in their stories washes over the viewer: Earth, a scarred planet charred by fallout and defoliated by nuclear winter, coupled with the notion that only one messianic hero can defy history and return Earth to its state of natural grace, or that a devilish mastermind can revive his synthetic army to conquer the world from which they've been banished. These space cowboys represent the hopes and fears of mechanized society vis-a-vis the value of nature and the humanism that accompanies it, or a foreboding, narcissistic pessimism returning to finish its work with Calvinistic determination.

These films, unlike so many presently in theatres in an Oscar season rife with mundane tales of personal redemption, are connected to the overarching political and social context of the time in a way that a million producers and their million dollar babies can't aspire as the triumph of the genre picture plays out in the bloated budgets of boxing pictures and biopics, wholly divorced from present day reality. Hollywood finds itself in a crisis of overpriced, meaningless films, and beset by the robotic auteurs of their own manufacture. What is the future of a meaningful American cinema divorced from the lukewarm pabulum and celebrations of imperial conquest? Can those cherished "small" movies take over and sway audiences with their precious humanism, or will the Huckabee-an menace prevail once and for all with medieval epics and third generation remakes?

J T. Ramsay | 03:58 PM | Comments (0)
January 10, 2005
The Nend Is Ear

So,...is this, like, the first time ever that the Palm d'Or and the People's Choice Award have gone to the same movie?

Josh Timmermann | 07:57 AM | Comments (1)
January 09, 2005
No Hunsecker Left Behind

Of course, for today's concerned citizen there's no limit to the late breaking details, commentary, and analysis available immediately on almost any genuine news event, political revelation, celebrity incident, or media meta-happening imaginable -- the interpretations are infinite and instantaneous. And yet, when searching for a more complete understanding of the forces that shape our world everyday, I find it is sometimes wise to first seek some distance and perspective from the often hysterical echo chamber full of cable news pundits, talk radio shock jocks, and internet bloggers then consider the filmography of Burt Lancaster. For example, anyone seeking to make sense of the Bush administration's latest chicanery could do a lot worse than a screening of the 1957 classic The Sweet Smell of Success.

You can read the details here, but basically, last week it was reported that "seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same." In other words, with taxpayer money, Bush's people were paying Armstrong Williams, a popular conservative pundit for continued positive commentary on particular policy initiatives.

And now, suddenly the quirky, brilliant, jazzy, noirish Sweet Smell of Success comes rushing to mind. What, with its two battling slime ball protagonists, how could it not? Lancaster is J.J. Hunsecker, the most widely read and popular newspaper gossip columnist in New York City; Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a press agent who makes his living by getting his clients mentioned in Hunsecker's columns. Hunsecker works Falco to get his dirt, and on occasion to do his dirty work. Falco meanwhile, needs Hunsecker to print items or: no money. A symbiotic relationship indeed, but Falco's definitely the bitch more often than not. And when the drama begins, Falco's on the outs and in trouble with Hunsecker for having failed to breakup a relationship between Hunsecker's sister and a real cool jazz musician. From there it only gets more complicated, and of course, more wonderful. It's all fog and back alleys, cigarette girls and nightclubs. Add to that some killer dialogue and thrilling one-liners in a screenplay by Ernest Lehman and lefty playwright Clifford Odets, and you've got something that seems, at once, gritty and stylized, corny and insightful.

To be sure, you're not going to get very far by drawing direct parallels. Though it would be fun and interesting: "So let's say Bush is Falco, Williams is Hunsecker, the No Child Left Behind Act is Hunsecker's sister, and the American taxpayer is Falco's ugly but loyal secretary Sally..." Instead, think about the interplay of the film's two characters, the bargaining that underpins their relationship and the different ways in which they use other peoples' reputations, true and untrue, as currency in their own demented personal exchanges. Don't think too hard, though, it's an entertaining fast-moving film that's more wry than grave. Just watch the film because it's damn good and today, more compelling than ever. Besides, it beats watching the news, any day.

Rob Lott | 11:18 PM | Comments (0)
January 04, 2005
Some Brief Thoughts on Some Movies I've Seen Recently...

The Aviator My two favorite Scorsese films from the second half of his career are Kundun and My Voyage to Italy. The former is largely an anomaly within the oeuvre of a textbook auteur (Even The Age of Innocence was technically a New York Movie! At least Last Temptation had Harvey Keitel!); the latter is a breathless Bazinian paean to Italian cinema. The Aviator, while not as great as either of those films, represents both a refreshing change of pace and a prime opportunity to have some fun with Old Hollywood, Scorsese's other major source of filmic inspiration. It's certainly his most dazzling-looking film since New York, New York, another personal favorite, and the director-subject empathy seems deeply felt. Plus, it's never remotely boring any time that Cate Blanchett's on screen here. She's a hoot!

Ocean's Twelve 'Better than the first one' doesn't even begin to do this justice. Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven was a more or less by-the-numbers heist movie livened up by some nice stylistic flourishes; better than the classic-by-default original without hardly trying but not even in the same universe as, say, Kubrick's The Killing. Ocean's Twelve is not only a sequel that's vastly, almost incomparably superior to its predecessor, but something even rarer than that: It's an event movie that actually feels like an event! The heist(s) here are strictly MacGuffin material; Ocean's Twelve is ultimately about nothing so much as itself--and it's terrific! Here is a movie loaded with A-list celebrities that simultaneously playfully satirizes and shamelessly revels in the very idea of a bunch of movie stars (to borrow a line from Eddie Izzard, who turns in a great cameo) just hanging out and being groovy in gorgeous, endlessly photogenic European cities. This is E!: The Movie, but made by a filmmaker good enough (when he feels like it) to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Wes Anderson's quirkily pop-friendly mise-en-scene is as instantly recognizable as that of any director making movies today. The only problem with this is, it gets very predictable very quickly. The Life Aquatic feels like lame self-parody. It's, by a long shot, his least funny effort to date, and, worse yet, (despite the Jacques Cousteau tribute in the closing credits) it's his first film that registers less as a loving homage than as a broad spoof. It has its moments, to be sure, and I have to admit the Sigur Ros song caught me off-guard and was quite beautifully used, but, on the whole,...eh.

Finding Neverland A movie made for nobody. (Well, except maybe the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) It's certainly not going to cross-over with the kids, I can tell you that much. They want Spongebob Squarepants and The OC--not some sanctimonious pap about the magic of imagination rah rah. The film earns that PG rating, too, awkwardly dodging decidedly less whimsical adult matters. The most curious thing about this is that it was apparently made by the same guy who did Monster's Ball. (Right--the one with that Halle Berry sex scene you downloaded.) Try and wrap your head around that one! Oh yeah--the Willy Wonka trailer was pretty fantastic!

The Door in the Floor If you've ever had the strange desire to sit through a lethargic filmization of a John Irving novel that features a lifetime supply of Jeff Bridges's ass (surprisingly, not as aesthetically pleasing as Charlize Theron's), then by all means, rent this.

Josh Timmermann | 12:53 PM | Comments (3)
December 01, 2004
Before Sunset

If I were to choose a single film this year that stands above all others I would, without hesitation, select Richard Linklaterís Before Sunset. No more a sequel to Before Sunrise than Stolen Kisses serves as a sequel to The 400 Blows; Before Sunset is a breathtaking achievement that can be analyzed independently from its predecessor.

As challenging as My Dinner with Andre, as romantically restrained as My Night at Maudís and as brilliantly shot as Le Boucher, Before Sunset doesnít merely borrow elements from these films, it stands beside them. Thatís quite a compliment considering many contemporary films arenít aware of a film history that extends beyond the American 1970s.

The most striking aspect of the film is its sense of ontological realism. Usually when a film maker attempts to document real time it comes off as a sort of gimmick (Time Code, Nick of Time). However, Linklater explores reality in a way that would make Bazin proud. In his essay on the Evolution of the Language of Cinema Bazin states that ďthe camera cannot see everything at once but it makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see.Ē With Before Sunset I feel confident that every moment Jesse and Celine spend together the camera has thoroughly documented. We capture every second of their life in those 80 minutes, and while we never see any other aspect of Paris beyond their own subjectivity, we see every moment of their personal reality.

In a certain sense, Before Sunset represents Bazinís neorealist notion of endlessness. The ending suggests the sort of continuation of the everyday demonstrated by such directors as Rossellini and De Sica. If its themes of lost love are a bit grander than most neorealist endeavors, that is excusable since its foundation rests upon something as mundane as a conversation between two everyday people.

In fact, by allowing both Delpy and Hawke to write their own dialogue, Linklater has reduced his Hollywood stars to the status of nonprofessional actors simply playing themselves. There is no heightened sense of characterization because these are the people they are, not the people they play.

Before Sunsetís greatest success, though, is the way it incorporates disparate topics into a cohesive narrative. With conversation, there isnít usually a specific focus, so by having his film revolve around a conversation, Linklater allows his actors to discuss a wide range of issues from broad social topics such as the current political state of the world, to their own personal issues and relationships.

In effect, its tangential concerns surpass the brilliance of those most salient features in some of the most respected films of the year: its politics are more honest than Fahrenheit 9/11, its love story more fully realized than Eternal Sunshine, its ending far more effective than Sideways, and it dialogue more skillfully written than Kill Bill.

And yet, itís also the most humble film of the year, never attempting to add any more to its image than what is present. Its reliance on subtlety and restraint may frustrate some viewers, but if given a chance I believe anyone can find something to latch onto in its self-contained universe.

Dave Micevic | 06:12 PM | Comments (7)
November 30, 2004

Alexander Payne's Sideways is instantly reminiscent of his About Schmidt and to a lesser extent Election. The film's protagonist, Miles feels largely like a cross between Jack Nicholson's character in the former and Matthew Broderick's in the latter. This isn't necessarily all that great of a thing, though, since Sideways ultimately isn't as good as either earlier Payne film. It's not as sharply funny as Election (or, for that matter, Citizen Ruth) nor is it as poignant and heartfelt as About Schmidt.

Paul Giamatti has probably never been more all-around affective than he is here, but, c'mon, he still doesn't hold a candle to Nicholson working at the top of his game (as he definitely was in About Schmidt). Thomas Haden Church is very good, too, and the clear contrast between Miles and Jack illustrates (if a bit too obviously, at times) the two archetypcal extremes of forty-something men that they represent. Both are immature but in entirely opposite ways. Miles is clinically depressed. He sees his life as a big failure that's probably only going to get worse as the years of disappointment and regret set in. He steals cash from his mom. Jack, on the other hand, is the more typical Peter Pan-type. He refers to sex as "partying." He doesn't consider the consequences of his actions. He's dead-set on getting pussy the week before his wedding--and will almost certainly continue to fool around on his wife once they're married.

Continue reading "Sideways"
Josh Timmermann | 03:42 PM | Comments (3)
November 23, 2004
Chronicles of Rubbish

I should be more careful when browsing the new release shelf. I think I've seen every fucking movie on that wall by now. Last night I was left to decide between Cinderella Story with the lovable Hilary Duff, or the Chronicles of Riddick with the equally lovable Vin Diesel.

Excercising my apparent masculinity, I went with Riddick, hoping at least for a semi-decent action movie. What I got was the most incoherent mess I've seen all year. I realize now why I passed this movie up when it came to theaters this summer.

For the first half hour I was actually paying attention, but soon the film became so muddled and dismal that I no longer could focus on anything but the ridiculous camera work (haven't we learned anything about improper use of canted frames from Battlefield Earth?). I ask very little of a science fiction film; I ask even less of an action film. Define a clear villian, establish a main goal for the hero, arrive at said destination with little deviation and make the damn action scenes intelligible. Granted that formula doesn't make an exceptional film, but at least it would make a coherent one.

Watching Riddick I was left with only questions that I didn't particularly care to answer. What the fuck is the Underverse and why must the Necromangers destroy anyone who won't join them in their pilgramage there? On a planet in which its sun revolves so closely that it scorches the planet's surface would a person really be capable of sheltering themself behind a large rock? And would a person have the physical urge to scratch one's own crotch while in deep space hibernation if all brain activity has shut down?

If anyone has seen this that can shed some light on this debacle please assist me (especially with the inexplicable end scene which I won't reveal here for the sake of those adventurous enough to see this). But I think it's safe to say I will be renting Cinderella Story next time around- it couldn't be any worse.

Dave Micevic | 02:31 PM | Comments (0)
October 30, 2004

Saw this one this past week and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I don't think it would make my year-end list, by any means, but I thought if you are in the right mood that it was a fun little film that you can take away some questions from. The end result, that Albert forges his own reality of the whole thing that doesn't coincide with either of the two existential therapists, I think is probably the most important point of the whole movie. My most important point of the movie was that it was fun and that I got to hear Marky Mark say "Word!" for the first time in way too long.

One more thing: as an art history major, I was interested to hear that Dustin Hoffman's character has a favorite artist: Magritte. It makes sense, of course. So, who then Caterine Vauban? Most likely Bacon, right?

Todd Burns | 08:11 PM | Comments (2)
October 26, 2004
Top 10 Movies (so far)

*Goodbye, Dragon Inn
*Crimson Gold
*Kill Bill, Vol. 2
*Fahrenheit 9/11
*Control Room
*Sex Is Comedy
*The Saddest Music in the World

What's yours?

Josh Timmermann | 11:42 AM | Comments (4)
October 24, 2004
Who Makes The Nazis?

Alan Clarke sought to suss out the grim underpinnings and corruption within Britain's national institutions (namely juvenile corrections and primary schools) to display the bankruptcy not only of the Thatcher regime's detached, nostalgic politics, but also of the common sense understanding of how society coheres. While films like Derek Jarman's Jubilee captured the dawn of the Thatcher era and the ushering in of a new conservatism in the moment, it was never intended for broad audiences. As a TV director, Clarke aimed his sights on the Republic, and suffered the consequences.

Having been banned from airing Scum at the height of the punk hysteria, pro and contra, Clarke released a less provocative version into theatres three years later. However, not being satisfied, Clarke continued to air Britain's dirty, neo-nationalist laundry publicly, producing Made in Britain (with Tim Roth in his first starring role as a neo-nazi matriculating through social services). Although Made in Britain sometimes flounders in the mawkish moral swamp that became the de facto mode of liberal discourse on social issues, the film nevertheless demonstrates the persistent hopelessness among those victimized by an underperforming economy, seeking to exercise power in what little way they can, elements often combining as fascism's raw materials.

Alan Clarke's later films, The Firm (about English soccer hooligans banding together) and Elephant (later remade by Gus Van Sant), continue in this vein, revealing to those in denial that the values upheld by Britain's "Greatest Generation" were violated daily by their defenders, and perpetrated against their children, all in the national interest. The lurid portraiture depicted in these films undoes the mythology present in the "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S., while both governments remained in denial of their most pressing social issues throughout the 1980's as a dictate of policy.

J T. Ramsay | 11:00 AM | Comments (0)
October 12, 2004
In the Greek alphabet, it means "He is alive."

Although many cineastes point to Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 or Michael Radford's faithful adaptation of 1984 as dystopian favorites, there are numerous, criminally overlooked political films and documentaries. Today The Criterion Collection released The Battle of Algiers, a deeply influential film dramatizing the struggle of native Algerians against the French colonial occupation. It was originally released in 1966, and the film made evident to many viewers France's hypocrisy, embodied in Col. Mathieu, as their government imposed colonial rule abroad after having been liberated from the Nazis less than a quarter century before. In the ensuing years, France underwent substantial internal conflict, more far-reaching than America's political upheavals, as their global empire collapsed, ultimately calling into question the legitimacy of the State.

Z, directed by Costa-Gavras and released in 1969, depicts French leadership as hopelessly corrupt and murderously autocratic, determined to quash any domestic insurrection through duplicity and state terror. The film pivots on the cover-up of an assassination, and the viewer follows the story through several lenses, ultimately filtered by an independent inquest. The upshot is at once illuminating and by turns, horrifying.

In a season littered with propagandistic documentaries and half-baked political dramas, consider checking out Z as well as such films as Wexler's Medium Cool, Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, and if you can track it down, Chris Marker's astounding documentary The Grin Without a Cat.

J T. Ramsay | 04:10 PM | Comments (3)
October 10, 2004
Friday Night Lights

Went to see this movie the other night, based on reading the book for the first time recently and the fact that Explosions in the Sky scored much of the film (along with one song from Refused!?), and I was pleasantly surprised with it.

The film did a very nice job of bringing in a lot of the sociological issues that the book focused on (racism, the dead-end economic situation of Odessa at the time (1988) and submerged sexism), without delving deeply enough into them that it bogged down the film. I think it actually did a really good job of touching on them and then moving away, letting the audience think about them if they wanted or to ignore them if they were merely interested in watching the NFL Films-caliber footage from the games.

I think the filmmakers had a lot of things that they really had to bring into this film considering the breadth of the book and they probably did the best job that they could, while maintaining the thrills of what a typical audience is looking for in a football film.

Definitely recommended, if you're at all into sports movies.

Todd Burns | 05:33 PM | Comments (3)
October 05, 2004

I got the chance to see Dig! the other night and it was a pretty good film. For those of you not familiar, it's the story of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre over the past seven (?) years and the two very different paths that the group's have followed.

The Dandy's have been a relative success, while never making it big in America they've sold a ton of albums overseas. The Massacre, on the other hand, because of their leader Anton Newcombe have never been able to put it together for an extended period of time. Everytime that they seem destined for what could be construed as a bit of mainstream success, Newcombe or someone else goes and shoots the band in the foot.

What I found perhaps most interesting about the film, though, was the fact that one of the "failures" of the Massacre wasn't their fault at all. Instead, when the band's van is pulled over in Georgia and Newcombe readily consents to having the car checked by cops, he isn't aware that the filmmaker has drugs in the car. This tidbit of information was kept out of the final cut for some odd reason, but seems to be a pretty serious and useful piece of information for the viewer, as the film seems to hinge on this and a few other incidents as evidence that the band self-destructs at every opportunity.

Todd Burns | 10:11 AM | Comments (0)
September 09, 2004
Almodovar in the Times Magazine

I just wanted to give everyone the heads up about the article in the most recent NY Times Magazine about Pedro Almodovar. Talk to Her cracks my top ten all time in films, and I would be overwhelmed if someone could give me a cogent argument as to why it shouldn't be viewed as one of the best films of the last 10 years (let alone all time). He is a god outside the states, especially in Europe, so check out a little back story and examine his personality profile.

I recently saw All About My Mother, which I found very good but slightly dissapointing, only because Talk to Her was THAT great. If All About My Mother is not his best effort, that's one director you need to know.

Kevin Worrall | 01:04 AM | Comments (4)
September 03, 2004
On the road to Dushanbe...

There was something strange and illuminating about watching the classic-because-it's-crappy 1985 comedy Spies Like Us immediately before watching the President's acceptance speech last night. True, the former made me immensely happy, and the latter made me sick. But without getting too, too wrapped up in the politics of it all, I think it's fair to note how dramatically our world has changed in just two decades.

Then: cold war.
Now: war on terror.

Then: Communists.
Now: Islamic Fundamentalists.

Then: Chevy Chase, funny.
Now: Chevy Chase, catastrophically unfunny.

Rob Lott | 05:10 PM | Comments (2)
August 30, 2004
The Motorcycle Diaries

I'd been looking forward to this film for a lot of reasons; the original text, the actors and to see how they would handle a character like Che.

I don't know much about films further than what I like and what I don't, but this was probably one of the best I have ever seen. I hate to use the word inspirational, but i can't think of a better word to use. A road movie with a purpose.

Scott McKeating | 12:17 PM | Comments (1)
August 18, 2004
Werckmeister Harmonies

I finally caught up to Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, after a while ago having at last seen Tarr's earlier masterpiece, Satantango. Werckmeister Harmoniesabsolutely solidifies what I had strongly suspected after Satantango: That Tarr is one of contemporary cinema's greatest filmmakers, deserving of mention alongside Kiarostami, Hou, Wong, Tsai, and von Trier.

Atmospherically, Tarr's work is extraordinarily absorbing, hypnotic even. The starkly beautiful black and white cinematography and repeatedly employed melancholic musical theme really lend his films a uniquely, unpretentiously artful sort of gravitas absent from 99& of current movies. Like Kiarostami's work, both Tarr films that I've seen seem to exist entirely outside the cinematic universe occupied by the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

Werckmeister Harmonies offers, in contrast with Satantango, a more condensed, but no less stunning, example of Tarr's aesthetic. Both, however, straddle the line ambiguously between post-realist observations of what Jonathan Romney described as "inhospitable suburbs of Hell" and bleak, grimly comic political allegories. More than even Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies works within a quasi-mythical dimension, meditating simultaneously on the horrors of the past (namely, ethnic cleansing and, specifically, the Holocaust) and the vaguely looming apocalypse. The present, in Tarr, is all brooding portension, just waiting to explode violently, as it does in Werckmeister's harrowing climax.

Josh Timmermann | 11:50 PM | Comments (3)