Lost in the Movies: 2012

The Favorites - Persona (#95)

Again, scheduling conflicts send my Favorites post to a Monday. When the series resumes in January, I will probably return to Wednesday. Meanwhile stay tuned this week. I am going to be very busy with Lost in the Movies. To put it mildly...

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Persona (1966/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #95 on my original list.

What it is • Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is mute, by choice apparently. An actress horrified by the world around her (represented by the image of a burning monk in Vietnam) and oddly fascinated by a photo of her young son, her silence seems an alluring mystery. And it's a mystery that we sense Alma (Bibi Andersson), like us, wants to solve. Alma is normal, chatty (she more than compensates for Elisabeth's lack of conversation), and the actress' nurse, watching over her during a recuperative rest at an isolated seashore. She tells Elisabeth all about her life and, as the quiet but intense Elisabeth - taller, enigmatic, more self-possessed than Alma - slowly starts to take over the nurse's fragile mind we don't get closer to any simple answers. Somehow, though, we do feel we're getting closer to the experience, what philosophers might call the "phenomenon," of Elisabeth's withdrawal from the world. The prolific, intensely personal Ingmar Bergman made many celebrated movies, but Persona is often acclaimed as his masterpiece - the most intense, the most personal, at once an icon of 60s art-house chic and a supremely individual expression. At no point moreso than when the babbling Alma, suffering what seems to be a mental breakdown, lets loose a stream of self-doubt and incoherent anxiety. We suddenly sense - with the shock of an epiphany - that Bergman himself is letting down his guard and telling us what it's like inside his own head.

Why I like it •

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 7 - "A Human Work"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

And now for a breather. Sort of. After a six-episode storyline which thrust Shinji right into battle, began to establish his awkward social environment, and drew the bonds tighter between him and his fellow pilot, blue-haired Rei (even more of an outcast than he) we take a step back. This is an episode that is really, well, an episode: a standalone event which explores characters while giving them a one-off challenge mostly unconnected to the rest of the series - this time the enemy is no Angel, but a manmade robot monotonously stomping through a wasteland while its nuclear pacemaker ticks away. It's up to Shinji and Misato to stop it but even if the stakes seem slightly lower this time, we're nonetheless allowed exposition which will nudge us toward some ominous revelations.

Comedy Countdown - Modern Times (a video essay)

My entry in the Comedy Countdown, a video essay on Modern Times mixing and matching three iconic texts on the famous film, from Otis Ferguson, Roland Barthes, and Graham Greene. Enjoy!

Want to read an essay about Chaplin?

Aloud? In my video essay? Right now??

I am preparing my entry in the Wonders in the Dark comedy countdown, which will appear by early tomorrow morning on that site and mine. It's a video essay in which I interweave clips from Modern Times with selections from great pieces by Roland Barthes, Graham Greene, and Otis Ferguson. Right now, the temp track I'm cutting to is my voice narrating all three authors and frankly I'd rather have a variety of narrators especially to cut back and forth between the authors, putting them into conversation without confusion as to whose saying what (at present, I'm using titles to indicate this but shifting voices would of course be easier).

If you want to take a stab at this last-minute adventure, here's what you can do:

1) The essays are listed below. Select one and leave a comment indicating which you've taken (so that if someone else volunteers, they don't take the same one).

2) Read it into your iPhone or other recording device if you have one, and then send me the voice file. If you keep it under 5-7 minutes, or record it in segments less than 5-7 minutes, you should be able to send it in one email. On the iPhone in particular this is very easy to do. My email is movieman0283@gmail.com .

3) Sit back and let me take care of the rest. Unfortunately I'll be away from email for a few hours (so don't ask me, just go for it!), but when I return I'll take what I've gotten and replace my own temp track with your voice. Presto! A Greek chorus of bloggers impersonating critics of old.

I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer whitewashing, haha. But it'll be fun, I promise...

Fair warning, though, if someone has already sent me a recording of one of these I can't guarantee I will use yours. It only takes five minutes, but only take the leap if you're okay with that possibility.

I will see all of you tomorrow morning with my Modern Times video essay regardless of what happens with this option...

The essays follow after the jump:

The Favorites - Dogville (#96)

For what will probably be the only time, "The Favorites" is appearing on a Monday, since my entry in the Wonders in the Dark comedy countdown appears on Wednesday (the normal "Favorites" day) and requires the day to itself.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Dogville (2003/Denmark/dir. Lars von Trier) appeared at #96 on my original list.

What it is • A very different nightmare on Elm Street. Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) hides out from gangsters in an all-American small town and eventually the townspeople mix support with exploitation, until she is suffering so greatly at their hands that the gangsters arrive as a force of liberation. The entire film unfolds on a massive soundstage, decorated with a few spare, suggestive props and chalk outlines, a sort of theatrical blueprint. This perverse, fascinating gesture both serves - like the work of playwright and director Bertolt Brecht - to highlight the artificiality inherent in the stories we enjoy (as in Celine and Julie before it), yet the spare set also reminds us how little is really needed for us to fall under the spell of these illusions, since by film's end we're entirely enveloped by the nasty little world of Dogville. On its premiere at Cannes, the film was virulently attacked by viewers and critics who found it misogynistic, misanthropic, and even anti-American. Perhaps it is all of those things, but it's also brutally honest - one of those films in which the director subjects the cast and the audience to psychological games and emotional challenges but doesn't let himself off the hook either.

Why I like it •

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 6 - "Rei II"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

The battle is won, but the drama is not yet over. The evil diamond from outer space, that latest Angel which arrived at the end of last episode, has been slaughtered and lies smoking amongst the wreckage of downtown Tokyo-3; no lights illuminate its lifeless shell, for all the electricity in Japan was diverted precisely to defeat it. Yet in order for Shinji's second power-blast to hit its target, Rei's Evangelion (placed on defense in its first active engagement with the enemy) was forced to fend off the Angel's own firepower with a shield that barely protects the Eva's vulnerable pilot. Her role completed, she now allows the weary mecha-warrior to collapse. Shinji races to its side, the gigantic robot he pilots providing physical power to match the skinny teenage boy's emotional intensity. Leaping from the cockpit to yank open the hatch, he sees that Rei is woozy but okay inside and tears fill his eyes.

Island of Lost Pictures

There's a certain discipline, a certain art if you will, in laying out visual tributes and choosing which screen-caps will top a post. Often something must be sacrificed for the visual flow, and so many striking images - along with some fascinatingly random ones -  get cast by the wayside (sort of like making a film, come to think of it). At other times, the post itself is abandoned or deleted, leaving the headers in limbo.

Recently, while browsing my web albums for other purposes, I noticed numerous pictures that had been uploaded but never posted on the blog. Here they are, lined up in reverse order of when they were supposed to be used - still a limited selection (if I put everything up there'd be thousands of castoffs swarming this column). Nonetheless there's quite a lot here (I stopped counting after the first hundred), including stills and screen-caps borrowed from others, but probably a majority (especially of the top half) were my caps.

Oddly enough, given their chronology, these pictures form a kind of alternate-universe historical overview of Lost in the Movies...

The Favorites - Celine and Julie Go Boating (#97)

Before (or after) reading this review, I hope you'll check out my first narrated video essay, which went up late Monday.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974/France/dir. Jacques Rivette) appeared at #97 on my original list.

What it is • What if Alice, rather than following a white rabbit down its hole into Wonderland, followed another Alice? Celine and Julie are in the long tradition of female heroines entering a strange world (think not just Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, but cinematic distaff duos in Mulholland Drive, 3 Women, or Persona) yet the extent to which these two fall into an alternate reality, and the extent to which they are creating it, is never quite clear. An air of mischievous play suffuses the film, as if the actresses - and their director - are making it up as they go along. Julie (Dominique Labourier), the seemingly more sensible Alice of the two, is a librarian who begins to chase and is then followed by Celine (Juliet Berto), our sexy white rabbit, an actress/compulsive liar who muffs Julie's love interest and tells her friends that Julie is her sister. The film's "plot" begins when the two pranksters swallow hard candies which magically transport them inside a strange, seemingly abandoned house where a morose family enacts an ever-repeating melodrama of betrayal, resentment, and grief. It's up to Celine and Julie to rescue a little girl who will be murdered - to reset this fatalistic narrative, to take control over it as they have over their own freewheeling lives. Celine and Julie Go Boating - a hard film to explain, but as much an atmosphere as a story - has been called by David Thomson "the most innovative film since Citizen Kane," and though its innovations are more in the nature of mind games than technical tricks, it really is a trip.

Why I like it •

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 5 - "Rei I"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

For four episodes, Rei Ayanami has been a mystery. This quiet, aloof, almost inhuman little blue-haired girl has hovered in the background, glimpsed alone in the corner of the classroom, concealed beneath layers of bandages as she shivers on a wheeled stretcher, flashing into view as a momentary vision before she's even been met in the flesh. In all these instances, we see her through Shinji's eyes and she provides an interesting contrast to Misato (as she eventually will, even more strongly, to the fiery third pilot, Asuka) - femininity as ethereal enigma vs. alluring energy. Shinji doesn't know who she is, so neither do we. That finally begins to change five episodes in.

The Favorites - Lost in Translation (#98)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Lost in Translation (2003/USA/dir. Sofia Coppola) appeared at #98 on my original list.

What it is • A tone poem of a movie, Lost in Translation contains worlds although little happens onscreen. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson at her most lush) is visiting Tokyo with her filmmaker husband. He's distracted by work, she doesn't know what she wants to do yet with her life, and when he leaves for a few days she finds herself lonely and disoriented in the strange urban landscape and luxurious yet slightly unreal hotel. There she meets Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a morose aging actor in town to shoot a whiskey commercial. They become fast friends, sharing a bemused yet curious perspective, and perhaps they even begin to fall in love. The film, which follows Charlotte and Bob through nocturnal excursions (kitschy karaoke bars, anarchically surreal arcades, mellow pot parties) and daily adventures (a graceful Air-scored excursion to Kyoto, Bob's hilarious cameo on a zany game show), was highly acclaimed and awarded (including an Oscar for writer/director Sofia Coppola's screenplay). But it seems to have as many detractors as it does enthusiasts, detractors who find it pretentious, boring, smug, meandering, and so forth. Well, they're wrong.

Why I like it •

Gimme Yer Links

Submit your strongest work for my annual blog round-up...or else!

It's that time of year again. Since this blog's inception four years ago, I've rounded up a casual, eclectic "best of the blogosphere" after the holidays. Initially this was simply a list of links chosen by me, one from each site on my blogroll. Then I invited submissions, with bloggers choosing their own best work, and I sprinkled a few pictures and video clips amongst the listings. Finally I struck upon the idea pursued ever since, of jazzing up the presentation to make it as pleasing to the eye as to the mind, an enticing invitation to explore these entries further.

You can see past examples here. If you'd like to submit - as I invite all blogging readers to do - either leave a comment below (I'll delete it once I've copied the links you provide) or email me. Blog 12 will appear sometime after Christmas, probably a bit into the new year. See you then!

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 4 - "Hedgehog's Dilemma"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

In both style and thematic depth, this is one of the finest episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Unsurprisingly (this is often the case with exceptional examples) the episode is a bit of an aberration  There's no Angel attack, unlike the last three. The tone is meditative rather than immersive: even while the last two episodes withdrew from the mile-a-minute pace of the premiere, they still piled on information, character development, and story advancement. This time we're allowed to pause, to soak in the environment, along with Shinji who has run from his duty. Although "run" may be too active a word.

The Favorites - La Haine (#99)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. La Haine a/k/a "Hate" (1995/France/dir. Mathieu Kassovitz) appeared at #99 on my original list.

What it is • Three young friends - an Arab, a Jew, and an African (no this isn't a bar joke) are French, yet they are outsiders in their own country. They live on the edge: the edge of Paris (in France, the suburbs - "la banlieu" - are the equivalent of American inner cities), the edge of society, the edge of violence, the edge of their own sanity. Last night there was a massive riot, tonight there will probably be another, and meanwhile today they have a gun, stolen from a cop. Will they use it? The film follows them as they fight, dance, get high, hang out, visit the city, get beaten up by cops, and visit a friend, himself a victim of police brutality. By day's end, they're ready to explode... La Haine itself exploded on the scene in the mid-90s, and a decade later it was more relevant than ever; during the 2005 riots, writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz engaged in a public debate with future President Nicolas Sarkozy over the justification for the rioters' rage.

Why I like it •


Think of it like those old early thirties posters, advertising the vocal debut of some silent film star: "Lincoln Talks!" We've heard him speak before, of course. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was one of the earliest notable talkies - and one of the last films of D.W. Griffith (the Spielberg of his day, though he didn't bode so well in the long term). This was followed by dozens of Lincoln biopics, some trying as Griffith did to capture the whole sweep, others wisely focusing - as this Lincoln does - on a particular aspect or era in Lincoln's life (the best of these being John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, an almost entirely fictional depiction of the gangly lawyer for Illinois which manages to keenly evoke Lincoln's ability to be both convincingly honest and morally ambiguous).

Yet even after all of these movies, when we see Lincoln's historical visage we imagine a voice sturdy and worn, certainly not booming and bellowing like an overblown orater yet conveying depth and solidity between the folksy self-deprecation. Thus it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Daniel Day-Lewis' thin, reedy delivery, almost too flimsy to command attention yet apparently very accurate to the real Lincoln's tones. The voice is also very reflective of the film itself, packaging a grand figure modestly and in a sense underwhelmingly, so that we're almost sitting forward in our seats, straining to catch a sense of the taciturn magnitude dancing behind the images like the fleeting shadows and pools of light in Janusz Kaminski's photography or the brief moments of warfare and desolation dappled between interior intrigues and extended dialogues.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 3 - "A Transfer"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

"A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told — in the English phrase — to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself." - Arthur Schopenhauer

The Favorites - La Vieja Memoria (#100)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. La Vieja Memoria a/k/a "The Old Memory" (1979/Spain/dir. Jaime Camino) appeared at #100 on my original list.

What it is • As this film opens, it's been forty years since the Spanish Civil War, the same period that Moses and his followers wandered in the wilderness, cursing and cursed by God. Forty years since the Spanish Republic collapsed, forty years since Generalissimo Francisco Franco took over, forty years since the non-fascist world watched anxiously - and mostly neutrally - while an ally of Nazi Germany destroyed a vital workers' movement (with the help of backstabbing Stalinists). Now it is 1979, Franco has died and a more timid republic has finally been restored; filmmaker Jaime Camino takes his camera to the people who were involved in that titanic struggle, interviewing them as they struggle to cut through the mists and myths of those four decades. Onscreen, fascists, communists, anarchists, and republicans recall executions, battles, atrocities, revolutions, and political brawls from various points of view. We see some pictures but mostly this film consists of talking heads - yet it's riveting, because the stories they tell remain vital and disturbing.

Why I like it •

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg is the consummate director of physicality, and the worlds he explores are resolutely exterior (often gruesomely so). Therefore it's rather ironic, and illuminating, to see him tackle psychology not only as approach, but as subject matter of A Dangerous Method. Making the pyschological physical, Cronenberg highlights the instances in which mental and emotional torments render themselves in jerks and spasms - or perhaps more subtly, in grimaces, kisses, or fleeting glances. We meet Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the first analytical subject and future lover of pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), in the throes of a hysterical state. There she is jutting out her chin, tangling her arms in a kind of serpentine dance of nervous sensuality, almost visibly choking her words out in a charmingly choppy Russian accent (for some reason - actually for a very particular reason, I suspect - the German-speaking Freud and Jung talk in crisp British tones).

Both Sabina's behavior and voice define her as foreign, strange; in his appreciation of the film Glenn Kenny called her the film's "id" in contrast, presumably, to Jung's ambivalent ego and the hyper-rational superego of Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who forms a kind of psychoanalytic triangle with Jung and Spielrien (Jung's case study of Spielrien brings the two great men together, while the revelation of Jung's affair with Spielrein pulls the two men apart). Spielrien both catalyzes and destabilizes, much like her own theory of sex and death as described in the movie. Her form of subversion, however, is something Cronenberg is eminently comfortable with. Contrast this with Jung, whose mysticism is kept offscreen, suggested in dialogue but never seen. Jung himself would have appreciated the irony; his first breakthroughs as a practitioner came when he made the empathetic leap into the psychotic world of patients, not merely reading outer symptoms but diving into their inner lives. This being the case, Cronenberg's rich yet reticent approach to the material is quite revealing - of himself as much as of Freud or Jung.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 2 - "The Beast"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

We begin exactly where we left off last time: with 14-year-old Shinji, untested in combat, manning a giant robot in the streets of Tokyo-3, ready to battle a chilling Angel (from outer space?). How will he defeat it, as we know he must for the show to continue? His initial forays are unpromising: one small step results not in a giant leap forward for mankind but an embarrassing collapse as the Eva trips over itself, faceplanting like a gigantic klutzy teenager. Then the Angel makes quick work of the Eva while the NERV controllers look on in horror from their underground bunker. After thrusting a sharp poker through the palm of its hand into the Eva's skull like a medieval log-ram battering a castle door, the Angel tosses the Eva aside, letting the giant purple machine slump against a skyscraper, where some kind of cyborg-blood spurts from either end of its head. The commanders shout, Shinji screams and then...nothing. Silence. White. An empty hospital room.

These are a Few of My Favorite Films

Every week,I will explore a new title on my "100 of My Favorite Films" list, starting at #100 and working my way up.

These are the films I love. Some of the films I love, anyway. Qualifications abound: this list was true as of December 31, 2011 and immediately out-of-date thereafter (nonetheless, I ain't starting from scratch so whim of 12/31/11 it is); these are not necessarily the films I consider "greatest of all time" - the criterion is more subjective, more personal than that; at the same time, these are sustained favorites, not guilty pleasures or movies I want to see on a whim but movies that over the months and years stick with me, that remain perpetual touchstones for my cinematic sensibility. These are kind of a hybrid great/favorite, and the ranking is - let's admit it - really, really arbitrary. I just went with my gut while shuffling titles around, and I preserved the numerical format only for kicks, to make the series more fun as a "countdown." Don't take the numbers any more seriously than that.

All kinds of movies are featured: all genres, shorts as well as features, animated and live-action, old and new (though my natural inclination is towards the past; only six films from the twenty-first century made the cut). There are very obscure titles and films that are probably among the ten or so most popular of all time. Documentaries, experimental films, blockbusters, silents, even music videos; I have broad taste and this list will reflect that.

Finally, since I'm working off a list already published, there won't be an element of suspense. I even plan on announcing the next film at the end of each review. If you really want to cultivate suspense for yourself, don't scroll below the "What do you think?" question. But I don't see suspense as the point, so much as explanation.

And this is where the series excites me most...

I'm making a movie - and I need your help!

But don't worry, the help I need isn't financial (not this time anyway!). The short film is called Class of 2002, and it details the lives of five characters whom the narrator remembers, friends and acquaintances whose lives intersected with his before and after his high school graduation ten years earlier.

The film will be composed largely of snapshots (real snapshots, as they will show the characters growing up, not something that can usually be faked) and narration. Being pre- and post-production based, I obviously don't need much money. On the other hand, finding pre-existing photos which will match (or at least not contradict) the characters I've created is a challenge. And that's where all of you come in.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 1 - "Angel Attack"

This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.

Neon Genesis Evangelion begins quietly enough. I was going to say "slowly" but it's only slow in comparison to the rest of the episode; cuts come quick, maybe one every couple seconds, and we've barely oriented ourselves to our surroundings before the action begins (a brief title tells us we're in 2015). Yet in that initial moment, the city streets are empty except for Shinji Ikari, 14-year-old boy waiting alone with only a picture of some busty brunette babe to keep him company (he stares at it quizzically). Nearby, dozens of UN tanks perch along a winding coastal highway, their guns trained on the sea, but there are no shells exploding or frantic commands circulating via radio. There is a mood of grim, silent anticipation. One image, intriguing but difficult to make out, seems to show a quasi-animal, quasi-machine creature humming through shallow waters, toward the shore. The only sound we hear is the cawing of a bird; onscreen we see a seagull perched on the long gun of one tank, and this neat, spare composition has an air of Ozu about it (specifically the opening of Floating Weeds). And then it begins.

Lucasfilm Lost

Which is the bigger movie news? That a Star Wars: Episode VII is in the works? Or that the Disney corporation will be making it, having bought out Lucasfilm on Tuesday? Let's begin with that first story. What will Episode VII cover? Conceived as Anakin Skywalker's rise, fall from grace, and eventual redemption, where could the Star Wars narrative possibly go once the fallen Jedi's corpse goes up in flames on the forest moon on Endor? I've long thought that the most compelling angle would be to show the Rebel Alliance, having finally and impossibly brought down the Evil Empire, becoming something of an Empire itself. Perhaps a new resistance could emerge, radical, indignant, making the former Rebels question who they have really become. Certainly such a storyline would have historical precedent - how many revolutions have turned into regimes resisting the next revolution? But it would also neatly reflect the Star Wars saga itself, by which I mean not the movies onscreen but the grand ascension of a unique, original myth into industry gamechanger, pop cultural icon...and big, billion-dollar business.

Gray's Anatomy and And Everything is Going Fine

The stage is empty but for the chair and small table. The table is empty except for the glass of water and small notebook. And the chair is empty until a man shuffles onstage, a nervous late thirtysomething still youngish but verging on middle age, or a slightly older man in a tweed coat flush with first-time success, or a graying family man playing corny 90s songs on a boom box (remember those?), or an old man sad and wincing with pain, hobbling on crutches after a devastating accident, but still - for the moment - driven and curious. And as soon as these men speak they fill not only the space onstage but our imaginations - with stories, jokes, memories, maybe the occasional tall tale; worries, regrets, hopes, musings, dreams, nightmares, questions that sometimes can't be answered but must be posed anyway.

Precocious Pastiche: Recycled Culture in 80s Kids Cartoons - and Beyond

About a month ago, as several friends got drunk and prepared food for a party later that evening, the TV droned somewhere in the distance. At some point in the afternoon, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein appeared onscreen, and no one bothered to shut it off. For an hour or two the hypnotically grating high-pitched rodents serenaded us with their screams and weirdly precise vocal delivery; I caught very little of the movie as I wandered in and out of the room but what I saw (and heard) fascinated me. How bizarre that from a dark and stormy night early in 19th century Geneva, as a group of Romantic poets and intellectuals told ghost stories to keep themselves amused, we wind up with a colorful cartoon of squeaky-voiced, commercially-driven anthropomorphized animals chased around by a creature so familiar to us that it's naturally assumed even the toddlers watching will already know his name.

The Dark Crystal

The cinema, especially the fantasy cinema, dazzles us because of its reality. However artificial the construction - from in-camera trickery to indoor sets to old-school cel animation (convincing us that individual drawings represent perpetual motion) - movies are charged with a sense of the miraculous. Movies are ideas and imagination made particular and set in motion. This is the magic linking cartoons to special effects films to intimate dramas to documentaries and home movies - it is the sensation of delight which confronts us in a dark theater or an empty living room, stretching from the first black-and-white train arriving in a station to the hypercharged car chases over the course of a century, from Melies' charmingly crude moonshot to the zipping spaceships of a later generation.

Few films capture the wonder of the inanimate made animate as exuberantly as Jim Henson's lush and gruesome The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz, co-written with David Odell, and designed by Brian Froud). It extends a delight conveyed in stop-motion animation, our knowledge that what we are seeing has been meticulously prepared fused with our instinctive belief that the fluid movement is real. Called (accurately or not) the first live-action film without a single human onscreen, the puppetry of The Dark Crystal takes carefully constructed creatures and sets them not just in the illusion of movement, but in actual movement. The results are astonishing and exhilarating.

The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn

What is it about 80s fantasies, particularly animated fantasies, that fascinates me well into 21st-century adulthood? There's an aspect of nostalgia to be sure. I was born in 1983 and these movies reflect not just the era that shaped my early consciousnesses but also a form the world must take for everyone at that age: at three or four years old, reality itself seems mysterious, fantastical, dark - all that will later become familiar glows with the dangerous allure of magic. If this is nostalgia, it's an edgier, more unsettling nostalgia than is sold to us on TV commercials, a nostalgia rooted in the recognition that childhood is not merely a time of carefree happiness, but also of deep-rooted fear and disoriented confusion. At any rate, I didn't see The Secret of NIMH or The Last Unicorn, two offbeat animated films from 1982, until about a month ago - so any nostalgic chord they struck was generalized and indirect.

Le Havre and La Vie de Boheme

After watching La Vie de Boheme (1992) I thought of Aki Kaurismaki as a postmodern director, and I don't typically think of postmodernists as crafting earnest message movies. Yet that's essentially the mission of Le Havre (2011): to tell a simple story expressing concern for the plight of illegal immigrants in France. Marcel Marx (Andre Williams), a cranky old bohemian, takes in a young African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and gruffly arranges his escape from France, with the professional but not inhuman investigator Manet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) on their heels. This entertaining and humanist narrative hopes not only to tell a story, but also to activate the viewer's sympathy in a way that an abstract pamphlet could not. To call as quiet, artful, and minor-key a film as Le Havre "propaganda" would seem heavy-handed, but the film wears its values on its sleeve by making the political explicitly personal. Given my casual impression of Kaurismaki, a hipster before the term was unfashionable, this direction surprised me.

Blood Diamond and Lord of War

Commonly observed and commonly occurring, the cinematic tendency to depict black Africa through white eyes persists into the twenty-first century. Lord of War (2005) explicitly embodies the discrepancy between First World power and Third World experience, while Blood Diamond (2006) attempts to balance between three perspectives - the exploited, the middle ground exploiter/exploited, and the outside observer trying to help the exploited without having quite so much at stake.

The Amazing Grace and Amazing Grace

Taken together, these two 2006 films - with almost the exact same title and similarly themed stories - make an illuminating double feature. Amazing Grace is a big-budget historical drama, directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Apted. Crackling with atmosphere and lively performance, this biopic follows William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British MP who finally convinces Parliament to abolish the slave trade following a 15-year crusade. One of his inspirations is the ex-slave trader-turned-penitential pastor John Newton (Albert Finney), composer of the famous verse "Amazing Grace" which captured both his shame and his religious conversion.

The Amazing Grace is Nigeria's first film shot on 35mm and despite some scenic photography and quality performances, it's generally as unpolished as Amazing Grace is slick. The Nigerian film focuses on an earlier period in the life of John Newton (Nick Moran), as he captains a slave ship to West Africa, suffers a crisis of conscience, and falls in love (Pocahontas-style) with native Ansa (Mbong Ogungide). The narrative is heavily fictionalized, and one of its more absurd conceits is that Newton lifted the melody for "Amazing Grace" from a tribal song, when in fact the melody was imposed on Newton's verse in 1835, long after he died; it was derived from a very un-African tune called "New Britain."

"Halliwell's Hundred" and Hellzapoppin

Leslie Halliwell was an inveterate curmudgeon, but he certainly had a sense of humor. A great many - perhaps a majority - of the entries in his 1981 collection "Halliwell's Hundred" are comedies. The British programmer and film critic, who was quite pointed in his dismissal of virtually everything that followed the 1950s, cherished memories of afternoons spent in the local cinemas or at student theaters or even in a cozy den at home (or, for that matter, a barely-sheltering hotel room, surrounded by a hostile American city just out his window). In these spots he would reel in the dreamlike atmosphere and lighter-than-air concoctions of Hollywood or British classics.

They Were Expendable, A Canterbury Tale, & Hail the Conquering Hero

Watching three films from 1944-45 back to back to back I was struck by World War II cinema's variety of flavors. Hail the Conquering Hero, an all-American Preston Sturges comedy, takes place far from the battlefield, on the homefront where all eyes are on a war which remains somehow elusive, even imaginary. They Were Expendable, on the other hand, is mired in the muck of war; it's one of John Ford's most Hawksian films, the male camaraderie (even featuring a "one of the guys" tough gal, played by Donna Reed) mostly untouched by sentimentality or mythologizing. Meanwhile, Powell and Pressburger, that eccentrically flamboyant yet surprisingly un-escapist duo, negotiate between these two spheres. A Canterbury Tale is set on a "home front" which is also at times a battlefield, a British countryside fundamentally transformed by modern warfare, with its troop transports, blackouts, and women at work. Together, the three films convey a fascinating triptych view of how movies presented the war while it was still unfolding.

Sullivan's Travels

This review was an inadvertent entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club, and was reviewed by "Squish" for the site which started this club.

There's an intriguing irony to the story with which Sullivan's Travels delivers its anti-message message. First, that story: Sullivan's Travels follows John L. Sullivan (no, not that one - this one's a director played by Joel McCrea), who wants to shoot O Brother, Where Art Thou (no not that o- never mind), a serious drama focused on war, fascism, and the Great Depression. He wants to capture the times, speak to the masses, deliver a message - but yes, he placates the worried moguls who try to deter him, "with a little sex."

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

In the film The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) stumble across a dying dog. The two middle-schoolers are stoned, returning from a visit to the drug dealer, from whom they've also purchased some animal tranquilizer, part of an elaborate plot to steal a cougar from a wildlife center. They hope to set it loose at their parochial school, an idea that seems as outlandishly cartoonish as anything in the comic books they illustrate in their spare time.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Perhaps even more fascinating than the way our world changes is how the eyes that perceive it change too. Take, for example, the teen movie. It's been exactly thirty years since Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit multiplexes. Culturally a lot has changed, even to the point of coming full circle: the 80s fashion sense (brand new but fully blown in '82) went way out-of-fashion and then rather remarkably came back, albeit cloaked in irony and nostalgia. Meanwhile, those pixelated arcade games in the Sherman Oaks Galleria (itself a fallen victim of history's merciless march) have morphed into slick computer graphics that are close to convincingly emulating the very flesh-and-blood of the bored high-schoolers who play them. Meanwhile, those original teenagers, of course, are now well into middle age with kids the same age as they were in this movie.


Rosetta is about 30 now.

When the Dardenne brothers released their second feature in 1999, their title character (Emilie Dequenne) was a teenager saddled with more responsibility and less comprehension than many of her peers - at once an adult (more so than her own mother) and a child, prone to temper tantrums and exasperated confusion as she's asked to play by rules she doesn't even understand. In the end, it appears Rosetta may not even make it to 30, and the raw immediacy of the Dardennes' style and pace (both the character and the viewpoint - trying to keep up - never stop moving, as if they're playing a sort of neorealist video game) make such questions seem irrelevant while you're watching.

October (and beyond)

From now on, I will post steadily - usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday - so you can expect a consistent output from this blog. I'm not talking short-term, I'm talking long-term, at least a year if not more. I'm already building up a substantial backlog.

This begins in the coming month with three reviews a week. After writing these pieces, I accidentally discovered that they neatly fell into four groups, and so each week has a theme: teenage struggles, forties films, movies about Africa, and fantasy entertainment from the eighties. A discussion of two idiosyncratic Spalding Gray works, which (appropriately enough) didn't fit in with any of the themed weeks, will wind things up, along with (maybe, maybe not) a horror film for Halloween. All of these reviews will be relatively short and focused - a new approach I want to take in my written work. But that's just the beginning.

Movies I watched in 2012

Capsule reviews of 15 films viewed since January 2012

(This post originally went up on Monday morning, but was quickly bumped. I fear it's been overlooked since, so I'm re-posting it now; I'd really like to hear back from readers on what they thought of these particular films; also I'd like to highlight "Who's Killing Cinema - and Who Cares", my response to the fascinating David Denby article; it went up middle of Saturday night because I couldn't wait, but deserves a bump now too...)

Histoire(s) du Cinema • The Long Day Closes • Madchen in Uniform • Me and My Gal  Melancholia • North Shore • Road to Morocco  Savages • Shoah • The Story of Film • Super 8   Tangled  Tanner '88 • Ways of Seeing • The Wind in the Willows

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