Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Single Man


In A Single Man, George (Colin Firth) wakes up in bed, his hand dipped in a puddle of spilled ink. He had just dreamt about his lover's fatal car accident, picturing himself approaching the overturned automobile, snow crunching underfoot, the glassy-eyed Jim laying motionless in the snow. George leans over to kiss the corpse and when he awakens, the kiss has left its mark. Imagining that his finger was tracing a pool of blood rather than ink, Jim absentmindedly brings his hand to his mouth and smears a bit of black ink across his lips. It's a physical manifestation of his grief, an evocative one, but resolutely external. It's indicative of the approach the overall film will take to George's suffering, but unfortunately not in terms of its suggestiveness (it is effective) but rather because its ritualistic, exterior quality.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Invictus


Invictus, Clint Eastwood's tale of post-apartheid South Africa's momentary unity with the success of the national rugby team, could be described many ways: slight, obvious, familiar, underwhelming. Despite running well over two hours, it's not very weighty and even as characters give too much time for exposition the movie can be difficult to follow (and not just for those unfamiliar with rugby or the Afrikaaner accent). It's another entry into that disreputable genre, the feel-good true-life sports film, yet lacking in many of the tropes of that genre - we don't really get to know the team members, the games themselves (except for the last one) fly by in a few quick montages, and the main character is not even an athlete himself. Invictus sometimes gives the impression of a just-add-water "Instant Genre Film" mix in which someone forgot to add the water.

Did I mention that I liked it?

Best of the 21st Century?

 
(updated Nov. 2010)

In January 2010, the film website They Shoot Pictures Don't They? released its top 250 films of the decade 2000 - 2009. This list was composed in a unique fashion: the site surveyed all the year-end top ten lists they could find, factored in some recent all-time best list that included recent movies, and calculated the films with the highest scores as "most acclaimed." Obviously, this method is far from foolproof but it does offer a semi-objective look at which movies were most acclaimed by critics over the past decade.

This was a period when I skipped a lot of new releases in order to explore the classics of the past. I don't regret this, but the list provided an opportunity for me to play catch-up in an interesting way. I was already renting and watching movies on the list which I hadn't seen (and reviewing some of these) so I decided to turn this exercise into a regular series. I would watch any films from the top 100 which I hadn't already seen, and review them.

The series unfolded on the website Wonders in the Dark throughout 2010 (an earlier incarnation had produced a few entries late in 2009, but the new version of the series began with The Hurt Locker in February 2010). It ran through November 2010, when I concluded with a big write-up on #95, Let the Right One In (comparing it to the book and American remake), followed by a short visual tribute to #100, Silent Light.

Below is the TSPDT? list. Any films I have reviewed are linked; the ones in bold are those I reviewed specifically for this series in 2010.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Up in the Air


In one sense, Ryan Bingham is living the golden life. Soaring over the heartland, dipping in and out of fly-over country and hotter tourist spots, indulging in commitment-free trysts with women on the same ever-turning page as he: who could ask for anything more? True, the actual job which pays for this - firing strangers whose bosses are too cowardly to give the boot themselves - is not ideal. And the lifestyle doesn't allow much room for comfort or stability. But a guy like Bingham, who bears a remarkable resemblance to George Clooney, can coast by on his looks and his charm: he tells "clients" that they're Abraham Lincolns and Harry Trumans in the making, that they have to fail badly in order to succeed, and then he quietly hands them their packet and pushes them out the door (and away from the nearest window) while they mull this over. As for the security, the places to warm your feet by the fire at day's end, Bingham professes no interest - indeed, he's built an entire second career as a motivational speaker who advises stressed-out audiences to unload their metaphorical backpack and hit the skyways, real or otherwise.

Yes, it's the logical conclusion of the American Dream: to consume, to move restlessly onward, to live with style all while your feet barely touch the ground. Bingham suggests as much in the film's conclusion, over images of puffy, dusky clouds, his voiceover backed by the muffled sound of an airplane's engine roar, his ambivalent tone not quite mitigating the allure...
"Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and screaming kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wing-tip passing over."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Restoration: Glimpses of the Past - and Future?

L'amour fou (1969), dir. Jacques Rivette. Not on DVD.

This is an entry in the For the Love of Movies Film Preservation Blog, hosted by Ferdy on Films, etc. and Self-Styled Siren.

A year and a half ago, I proposed a series (meme, if you will) in which bloggers named a dozen "holy grail" films they wanted to see but couldn't. A massive list emerged, cause for both celebration and consternation (why aren't these films available again?). As it turns out, some of the films are available; a few bloggers, at my behest - eager as I was for participation - had bent the rules a bit, including films that were out and about but which they just hadn't seen. Furthermore, I allowed for Region 1 DVDs not on Netflix and certainly for films which had been restored but were only available on other shores (or to those with the means & ability to procure a multi-region player and appropriate discs). Finally - and this is cause for celebration - a very great number of these films actually were released within the past year, rendering the master list somewhat out-of-date.

Originally I planned a very precise post for today, in which I searched that great list with a fine-toothed comb and emerged with a round-up of all the movies still unavailable on DVD, in any country. Then I would display "screen shots" for each film (from VHS tapes or old prints, presumably) and call it a day. Sadly, the task proved too daunting: not only determining which films were and weren't available, but finding images from the films themselves.

I've solved this problem in two ways. First, I'm going to kick off with a marathon of genuine screen-shots from truly unavailable films - the vast majority of which have presumably never been restored. These come from Allan Fish, a devoted cinephile who has been counting down the best films of each decade on Wonders in the Dark. I've gone through his list and re-produced the stills for every film that bore the sorry caption "not on DVD" (ignoring the many that just aren't on Region 1). After that, purity be damned, I explore the rest of the "holy grails".

Which means...I've cheated. Instead of parsing which of that aforementioned list have hit DVD and which haven't, I simply re-visited all the blogs who participated in the Holy Grail meme and took the images they provided - in many cases posters, in others stills or yes, even screen-shots - and displayed them here. The bloggers/blogs are credited after each cache, and there are repeats; some movies appeared on multiple lists (the only time I excluded an overlap was when both blogs used the same image). I've already noted that many of the titles have been restored and/or released - if only in the eighteen months since "The Holy Grail" was formulated. Think of it as a tribute to the work that's been done, as well as a call for more.

By the way, this exercise was not a perfect match for the present theme. Some of the picks were goofy flicks that caught the bloggers' eyes, not necessarily classics that should be lovingly and painstakingly restored. (You'll see what I mean...) By and large, however, these holy grails would be well worth the investment in time and money needed to bring them back into the limelight.

Speaking of which, if you'd like to support that sort of effort, please donate to the National Film Foundation, the beneficiary of this very blog-a-thon. Heck, I myself was able to spare a small amount (won't say how much...) so you've got no excuse:

Donate to the Foundation.

Here then, are the Holy Grails. Some have had their thirst quenched (starting with Tony's first), some have not (see my favorite still, above), some may never...but let's keep hope alive. Titles are not included, unless they appear on the poster. Click on the blog link if you wish to learn more (and to see the titles that didn't come with pictures attached)...

(Warning, not all images are safe for work, nor the family den):

Avatar


Drifting momentarily out of consciousness he wakes up - with a jolt! - in a new body and, with it, a new life. Bursting out of the laboratory constraints and into the open air - for the first time in the whole movie - he weaves drunkenly through the tangles of exotic flora, wobbles on his legs (no longer broken by war, if now blue and elongated) and our own viewpoint swoons and stumbles alongside his. As in a liberating dream, our hero - and we as well - are intoxicated by the new sense of freedom; in three dimensions, in bright color, with a shimmering, unreal sheen, the new reality beckons and overwhelms. We are realizing the promise of virtual reality: not a return to our natural roots but an evocation and improvement of these roots through technology - a new world built to resemble, transcend, and perhaps replace the old.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stromboli

(Though already written before I was aware of the series, I am now submitting this as an entry in the For the Love of Films: Film Preservation Blog-a-Thon of Ferdy on Films & Self-Styled Siren. A full-fledged entry will be appearing on the Dancing Image on Sunday, the last day of the blog-a-thon. Stay tuned.)

Despite seeing many of his films, I've never really responded to Rossellini the way many cinephiles do. His holy simplicity has occasionally struck me as, well, just plain simple. Flowers of St. Francis (a blind buy on my part, and a satisfying one) is charming and Voyage in Italy compelling - though I wonder if Antonioni didn't eventually pick up Rossellini's ball and run further with it a few years later. Europa 51 I found embarrassing and remain rather mystified as to how its obviousness is supposed to be transcendent. Open City and Germany Year Zero are effective and absorbing but they're films I respected without being enthralled by. Neither one seemed to capture the lingering, simple, pure power of Bicycle Thieves (though both are overripe for revisiting, especially in the wake of the recent Criterion releases). Paisan was compelling in the abstract but I found its actuality too messy. Unlike Rossellini's acolytes (one recalls the zealous cineaste in Before the Revolution who admonishes the protagonist, "Remember, Rossellini is a god!") I was always unable to take the raggedness of his work in stride, to embrace it as not just a necessary evil but somehow fundamental to the work's appeal.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The posters of Martin Scorsese


Inspired by my recent post on The Dancing Image, I'm going to initiate a feature here which looks over a director's career by combing over the posters for his films. I think this will be fun because it not only gives us a sense of the filmmaker's development but of the transformation of pop cultural aesthetics over time. We'll start with Martin Scorsese:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Danses macabres


"Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds."

-extract from text for Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

They Once Were Coming Attractions... (memories of my movie past, 1988 - 1998)


Posters from the early years

For many years the only movies I saw in theaters were Disney re-releases. They tend to blur together; sometimes it's difficult to determine which films I saw on a big screen and which I caught in the early years of home video. I do know I saw Peter Pan in theaters because I remember afterward my mother pointed up at the sky and tried to convince me that a pirate ship was floating overhead. Even at five, I was a little too old for that trick.

The first new movie I caught on the big screen was The Land Before Time. I was in my final year of preschool, obsessed with dinosaurs, so the cartoon's release couldn't have been more serendipitous. I saw it twice, initiating a habit of seeing films I liked over and over again. Another habit was born at the Land Before Time screening - when I went with my dad, we saw a preview for Twins, the uber-80s Arnold Schwarzenegger-Danny De Vito buddy comedy. I laughed at all the pratfalls and asked my dad to take me. For some reason he did (only years later, renting the movie in college, did I discover all the sexual innuendo I'd missed in preschool; by the way, did anyone else know that's Heather Graham playing the infants' mother?). From then on, the previews became one of my favorite parts of the movie experience, a gateway into the next movie I would see.

Likewise the posters. Our primary movie theater, which closed its doors just last year, had a hallway devoted to the coming attractions. Walking down it, one would see the first teaser one-sheets for movies which might be months - in some cases, even a year - away. Which brings up the purpose of this post, beyond my own recollections. I've tracked down the posters for most of the movies I saw during those formative years (from 5 to 15) and lined them up in chronological order; it was remarkably easy to find them, and embarrassingly easy for me to remember which films I'd seen on the big screen.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Overriding Importance and Value of Professional Film Criticism


With that title, Sam Juliano kicks off a passionate defense of critical tradition as well as a trenchant and at times contentious debate about the merits of amateur criticism vs. professional criticism. There couldn't be a more pertinent topic to tackle within the blogosphere, and I hope you all check out both the post and the discussion. I'm sure it will continue in days to come so don't feel discouraged if you come to this a few days late. My own thoughts are shared in the thread.

Is Indie Dead?

Recognize the cover? It is, of course, a riff on the famous "Is God Dead?" TIME Magazine cover of the mid-60s. It perfectly fits its subject in a number of ways: the entrenched, self-conscious irony of "indie"; the essential triviliaty of same (from asking about God to asking about indie in forty years); and perhaps even a nascent self-loathing (ever notice how the most vociferous critics of hipsterdom have themselves a wide streak of hipsterism?). The article itself is compelling; you can read it here. It's timely, at least for me, because I was going to post a similar inquiry on the Examiner a while back, where I myself had been designated "Indie Movie Examiner."

That's the first time I've used that full title myself, and there's a reason for it. I just don't like that word. Jim Jarmusch famously said, paraphrasing Goebbels (by way of Godard, most likely): "When I hear the word 'independent', I reach for my revolver." (correction, two years later: actually he said "I reach for my revolver when I hear the word 'quirky'." Oops.) I don't have too much of a problem with the word "independent" - politically in particular I think it has a strong, potent ring to it. While it's accrued some negative connotations in the film world - smallness, marginalization, unpalatability to wider audiences - it still strikes me as an appropriate term for films made outside the box, whether that box is financial or conceptual. But "indie" is another matter. Its twee, quirky shortening smacks of a marketing moniker, and the very fact that it shrinks the term "independent" only highlights those inherent drawbacks of the term I mentioned above (except perhaps for the unpalatability, as "indie" has proved quite popular in recent years).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Just as Howard Zinn, the famed Boston University professor and historian who wrote The People's History of the United States, felt it was impossible to be "neutral" and undesirable to be "objective" about human history, so it's been near-impossible for anyone to be neutral about Zinn himself. The Left adored him; the Right loathed him. The historical community seemed split between those who felt he added a stirring chorus of voices to the historical choir (helping to popularize history amongst a general readership in the process) and those who rankled at his methods and tone, feeling that he was not playing by the proper rules of the game. When Zinn passed away a few weeks ago, of course, the emphasis was on the positive and the same is true of this documentary which was released around 2003, a time when Zinn's call for dissidence seemed more relevant than ever.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tony de Peltrie

I saw this cartoon when I was a little kid. It terrified me - I think it gave me nightmares. Reminded by Max's icon of Tony the Piano Man, I sought it out on You Tube this morning. Still scary.

Apparently this was considered the first successful reproduction of a human form in CGI. It's certainly among the creepiest and, now that I'm a bit older and can take it (I hope), the coolest...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bed and Sofa

Husband and wife are lying in bed, early in the Moscow morning. Kolia (Nikolai Batalov), the husband, is up first, groggy but awakened by the couple's energetic pet cat, who's leapt onto the bed. Mischievously, he grabs ahold of the kitty and shoves it in his sleeping wife's face. Liuda (Lyudmila Semyonova) reacts as any interrupted sleeper would, batting it away and jerking up from her comfortable recline. Rubbing her eyes, smoothing down her bobbed hair and bangs, she glances at the grinning man-boy in bed next to her with a mixture of amusement and irritation. He laughs, but he's playing with fire by provoking her so. Before the day's over, he'll have introduced a creature much more threatening into the marital bed, even if old Red Army buddy Volodia (Vladimir Fogel), visiting from out of town, is initially relegated to the sofa.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Popular, eventually

Frank Morgan, today remembered best (and by most people, only) as the foolish but lovable wizard of Oz, died in 1949. One prominent obituary, in listing the actor's credits, declined to even mention that particular role. After all, the film - only marginally attended and mildly received on its initial release ten years earlier (I don't think it even recouped its production costs) - had been largely forgotten.

Television changed that dramatically in the 1950s - as it would later transform a long-overlooked late Capra gem into the linchpin of its filmmaker's (and perhaps even its star's) lasting legacy. Both The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life owed their newfound popularity and eventual ubiquity to the medium that was ostensibly a threat to the cinema. I'm not sure TV is capable of such a transformation today, there's too many channels, attention is too divided, and if people want to watch a movie they're more likely to rent the DVD anyway than to tune in for a special showing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Captured screens

These screen-grabs have been on my computer for a while now - many were intended to crown blog posts that never materialized. Others were going to be entered in the "Guess the Pic" challenge on Wonders in the Dark, before that contest died a long, painful death at the hands of Philip Johnston. One was supposed to be a DVD menu for a disc that never got burned, and at least one was taken just because it looked good. So here they are, apropos of nothing. Click on the pictures if you want to see 'em full-size: