Friday, June 29, 2012

Capsule Reviews: While the City Sleeps, Cracking Up, The Kid, Rock of Ages

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

Fritz Lang's underseen noir blends the yellowest of journalism with King Lear in a prescient, savage view of media feeding a public frenzy. A news empire is offered to three successors, with the new kingdom to be ruled by the one who can beat the cops to solving the identity of a serial killer infamous only from the organization's own salacious coverage. Lang's framing is more stripped down than some other efforts but no less immaculate: the newsroom of transparent but isolating glass and roaring presses speak to the capacity of journalism to reveal and obscure, and how a giant conglomerate can drown out the truth instead of exposing it. As much as the actual string of murders, the tension operates on simple office politics, in which the promise of a raise and a title change to move up the modern social ladder can bring out the basest, most primitive behavior. The characterization of the sexually confused killer is oh-so-standard, but Lang's ability to make high style out of even the most basic movements and mise-en-scène combines with the otherwise fantastic story for a great anti-journo noir. Grade: A-

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980)

In a stroke of peevish irony, Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie), touted even by the director as his return to cinema, is a film of reactionary social retardation. Its three main characters represent a regression from the ideals espoused in Godard's first cinematic period and rigorously critiqued in his video projects. There's Paul (Jacques Dutronc)bay, a burned out video director standing in for Godard, even taking his surname; Paul's ex-girlfriend, Denise (Nathalie Baye) who has retreated into the countryside to find idyll and comfort and give up TV production for small-town journalism; and a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) resurrecting the preferred symbol of capitalism in Godard's films, the ultimate display of the body become labor.

By calling it his "second first film," Godard himself seemed to acknowledge this step backward, casting his work as a look back instead of forward. Yet if both the crisp 35mm texture of the image and some aspects of the "story" (more on those quotation marks later) recall a period the director angrily left behind more than a decade earlier, Every Man for Himself nevertheless shows a considerable maturation and change in the filmmaker's approach and his obsessive themes. Where Godard's '60s films popped with formal revolution and ingenuity, the shots of this film are static like much of his video work. Likewise, the use of freeze-frames and slow motion apply some of the analytical techniques of video back to cinema. But if these attempts to modernize film still constitute a look backward for the director, the mood these techniques capture, of quiet reflection that makes the political human instead of vice-versa, marks a significant new step in Godard's work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Opeth: Blackwater Park/Deliverance/Damnation

I reviewed some reissues of Swedish progressive death metal band Opeth's early 2000s output for Spectrum Culture. I've been an admirer of Opeth for a while, though it's been years since I've listened to these three albums (I prefer the LPs that bookend them), but I still love Opeth's approach to prog rock, favoring atmosphere and mood over mere virtuosity. I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed Damnation this time around, finding it to be more of a gimmick back when I listened as a teenager. It may even be my third favorite Opeth album now after Ghost Reveries and Still Life.

My full piece on these reissues is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

[The following is my June entry for Blind Spots.]

More than one person has referred to William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives as the "best" Best Picture winner. What many failed to mention is that it is also the "most" Best Picture winner. It resembles almost the quintessential essence of the ideal Oscar movie: socially conscious but inoffensive,  heart-wrenching on a surface level, and beautiful without being a true aesthetic marvel. But if the film represents the non plus ultra of Academy-pleasing filmmaking, it is also a demonstration of how great that kind of movie can be. Wyler's direction, aided by the great Gregg Toland, may not be fussy, but its framing offers direct snapshots of character insight that never let the pace lag on this three-hour extravaganza of post-war moralism.

The Best Years of Our Lives opens at a military post on an airstrip that houses soldiers, seamen and pilots waiting in limbo for an open plane seat to take them back home after the end of World War II. As they all wait for the chance to finally go home, rich civilians continue to fly undisturbed, not one inconvenienced for the sake of sending America's heroes back to their loved ones. At last, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an Air Force captain, manages to get his ride back to the Midwestern Boone City along with a sailor named Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). But the jovial, amusing tone of this cramped purgatory and the promise of a return to normalcy dies when Parrish goes to sign his name to get on the plane and reveals two prosthetic hooks where his hands used to be. The medium long shot remains unbroken as both Fred and the man in charge of scheduling instantly shrivel with pity, and the tone of the film, only subtly undermined to this point, instantly changes. Homer and Fred meet the last lead, Army sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) on the plane ride home, and despite their rapport, it's clear that all three are as nervous to go home as excited.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Brave (Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Brave is at once the most visually distinctive project Pixar has yet made and their most derivative work. Slightly dimmed as if filmed by natural light, the Celtic realm of stone and forest achieve a new level of realism for the studio's animation; even by their standards, I can think of no other Pixar film that invites such pure pleasure merely in scanning the frame for all its absurdly fine detail. Yet with this new peak of visual sophistication comes a story that mines Disney princess tales and blends it with the style and thematic content of Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki. But if this setup is less fundamentally "original" than, say, Ratatouille or Up, it nonetheless offers an important opportunity to alter and update a classic form of storytelling. After all, from old elements can come wonderful, new things.

For the first act, at least, Brave demonstrates this in spades. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) instantly establishes herself as an entrancing heroine; the daughter of a king who presides over a group of allied Celtic clans (Billy Connolly), Merida is groomed by her mother, Elinor, (Emma Thompson) to behave like a proper lady but above all cherishes a bow given to her by her father. The precocious child grows up to be an adventurous teenager, strong-willed enough to climb a sheer cliff just because it's there and so skilled in archery that various targets she erects around the castle woods might as well be quivers for how many arrows they hold in their bullseyes. When Elinor announces that the day has finally come for Merida to choose a suitor, the young woman's outrage burns so hotly that the flippant faux-independence of some recent Disney princesses looks even more laughable. When she says she doesn't want to marry right now, she damn well means it, and she goes to unexpectedly drastic lengths to defy her mother's wishes.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Extraterrestrial (Nacho Vigalondo, 2012)

I wish I could better put my finger on what felt amiss about Extraterrestrial. There's nothing really wrong with the movie: it follows its low-key mash-up of not-sci-fi and not-romance to a strangely logical conclusion, and the writing is often deft and funny. But the movie just...lacked something, working on the level it chose but not truly playing with convention like it thinks it does. It's a film stuffed with potential, but not one that rises above merely promising. I've yet to see Vigalondo's much-acclaimed Timecrimes, and I look forward to it even more after seeing this, especially if it proves this above-average but somewhat middling affair is merely a passable sophomore slump.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: Green Lantern

[I received this disc from Warner Bros. as part of their Blu-Ray Elite program.]


Green Lantern feels like the superhero equivalent of post-Twilight takes on fairy tales and monsters. It thinly applies a veneer of "edge" to an iconic, cheesy hero, turning an emblem of fearless resolve into a smarmy, insecure prat whose defensive one-liners and daddy issues make for nothing more than trendy add-ons. The film's hero can make power from will, but a less energetic comic book movie I've yet to find. The whole thing looks as if it came out of a gumball machine, tacky, bright and brittle, capable of being snapped in half with the slightest effort. Ryan Reynolds is horribly miscast as Hal Jordan, communicating none of the character's traditional characteristics and awkwardly trying to deepen the character with daddy issues. None of the other actors does any better, trapped in tossed-off roles so thin they make even the lazy etch of this Green Lantern seem deep. And while plot holes can be an easy way to focus on all the unimportant things in a film, Green Lantern is scripted with shocking half-assedness, always taking the simplest way to the next scene without remotely resolving anything. Nearly every single action Jordan makes is nonsensical, and the weightless CGI only complicates the feeling of drifting aimlessness.


The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is surprisingly murky, casting the slickness of the production in dim light. I felt as if I'd somehow gotten a 3D copy by mistake and my tv miraculously played it anyway. In fairness, though, I can't remember if the film itself looked like this in the theaters: using darker lighting has been an easy way to disguise horrible CGI for nearly two decades at this point, and if there's anything Green Lantern has in spades, it's bad effects. Much better is the booming 5.1 Master Audio track, a boisterous affair so loud I could clearly make out distinct music, sound effects and dialogue on my TV's lowest setting before mute. This audio track is so good it's the only thing on the Blu-Ray worth paying for.


The centerpiece of the disc is one of Warner's Maximum Movie Mode video commentaries, driven by Geoff Johns, the DC writer who spearheaded Green Lantern's popular revival in the comic book realm. Stuffed with additional featurettes that can be optionally played during the course of the commentary, this Maximum Movie Mode is most notable for the portrait it paints of a lot of people with an admiration, maybe even love of the comics but no ability to see how rapidly they were drifting away from the crux of those books. It's also filled with absurd moments of false modesty such as Reynolds saying of the pressure he felt during the scene where he says the Lantern Corps oath for the first time, "People know this oath inside and out." It's four lines, long, Ryan. That's one-third more time-consuming than learning a haiku. The most depressing aspect of this MMM, though, is how many behind the scenes images are merely half-developed CGI. Reynolds gets in an unintended dig when he says of a bunker set that he finally got an idea of the film's scale because there was something tangible to look at. The rest of the extras are the usual filler, with some deleted scenes, background info on the comics and even a digital comic of the new Justice League series. My favorite of these lesser extras is the unfortunately titled "Ryan Reynolds Becomes Green Lantern," if only because the actor was forced to change not an ounce of his usual approach to play this part.

Bottom Line

This is a bad film, and the slightly extended cut Warners includes on this disc has nothing to offset or even slightly help the glaring issues and sloppy execution. Even the video transfer betrays a lack of care and consideration, whether on the part of the filmmakers themselves or the disc production. The extras are solid, but they only offer a sustained spin campaign for the film somehow honoring a subject it treats with flippancy. Avoid

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher, 2012)

I have a love-hate relationship with realist cinema, a love for the movies that genuinely capture a naturalistic tone while also evoking something, and general antipathy for anything that sets realism as the ultimate achievement for cinema, ignoring the boundless possibilities of the art for something so banal. Corpo Celeste, Alice Rohrwacher's Rosetta-esque first feature, gets somewhat caught in between these two extremes, though it leans far more toward the former pole than the latter. Aided by a phenomenal performance by its child lead and some clever but not over-aggressive views of religion as a limiting social function, Corpo Celeste is a promising debut and a fine film its own right.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Vampyres

My latest piece at Spectrum Culture is a comparison between F.W. Murnau's seminal Nosferatu and Werner Herzog's 1979 remake starring his greatest on-screen collaborator, Klaus Kinski. Murnau's film is justifiably one of the hallmarks of silent cinema, a masterpiece of editing and framing in which the mere setup and execution of a shot can be as thrilling as the actual monster. But I also confess to preferring Herzog's more laid-back, spiritual take on the same material, replicating much of the original but stretching everything until it emerges vastly different in tone.

My full comparison is up now at Spectrum Culture.

In a Year of 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

[This is an post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]

Made in the aftermath of his lover Armin Meier's suicide, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons is perhaps the director's most personal, devastating work. It begins with a massive block of introductory text in garish hot pink, explaining how every seventh year is a Moon Year, during which time those with greater emotional sensitivity tend to suffer worse from depression. A similar effect has been observed for years with 13 new moons. When such a year coincides with a Moon Year, the text says, "inescapable personal tragedies may occur." This happened six times in the 20th century, one of them being 1978, the year of Meier's suicide and the year in which this film is set.

As this text rolls, Fassbinder establishes the action in a Frankfurt park in the dim morning light just before sunrise. What appears to be two men meet in the shadows and begin petting each other, until one pulls away roughly and begins angrily speaking as no subtitles appear to explain his frustrations. Suddenly, a group of men appear and bring subtitles with them; the angry man tells the newcomers that the other man claims to be a woman, and everyone then falls upon this member of the initial pair with a vicious beating. As an introduction to Elvira, née Erwin (Volker Spengler), Fassbinder couldn't be much more bleak.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)

[This is a post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]

Todd Haynes' formal experimentation has always extended to the format of narrative structure itself. His lo-fi debut short, Superstar, handles its extended gag of using dolls and miniature objects to tell the Carpenters' story so intricately that it transcends gimmickry into daring. His most recent feature, 2007's I'm Not There, infamously drew on an entire cast for a single role, filming each side of Bob Dylan's insoluble personality with a different actor and aesthetic true to that musical and social "character." Poison, Haynes' feature debut, is no different, a triptych of radically different film and narrative styles that parody their respective genres of filmmaking as much as they collectively eviscerate their unifying theme. That linking idea is the way in which homosexuality is perceived by society at large. In all three interconnected narratives, gay characters exhibit lust, madness and disease, all of them paraded around in grotesques that eventually fold back in on themselves.

The film even opens with an act of self-loathing violence, a black-and-white, handheld POV take retreating from cops pounding on the door and hiding in a crime scene before fleeing out a window when police and family burst in and scream at what they see. The point of view is that of 7-year-old Richie, who killed his father, and his subsequent segment, "Hero" attempts to sketch a portrait of the fugitive tyke in absentia. The opening credits for the film proper roll over what appears to be a dramatic recreation of the boy's possible motive, another POV shot, this time in saturated color, of a hand gliding over a room filled with psychological shorthands, a host of symbols that could give an instant but oversimplified explanation for the child's stunning act. But Haynes then subverts even this satirical bit of pop psychology, the hand roaming this room of trinkets suddenly struck by another when it pauses for even a second on some feminine objects. The camera wheels around to reveal two caricatures of conservative, abusive parents berating the child in a din of overlapping shouts that are nevertheless clearly homophobic.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

[Warning: contains spoilers]

The mythological and philosophical ideas co-writer Damon Lindelof shoehorns into Prometheus are intriguing ones, at least in theory. It also helps if you have never read the work of H.P. Lovecraft, seen Mission to Mars or understood 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prometheus is the cynical variant of the latter two works and a diluted take on the extreme nihilism of the former. In the bleakness of Prometheus' suppositions about humanity's origins is also a crushing limitation set by Lindelof's deficiencies of imagination. This film suggests a despairingly predestined meaning of human life, but also a grand plan more or less identical—in concept and messy, insane execution—as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that hangs over the Alien franchise and, in pre-merger iteration, this prequel as a spectre of the all-too-human military industrial complex.

This could have been fodder for savage cosmic comedy, one that actually could play off the Promethean myth referenced, obviously, by the title. Prometheus' great crime was in giving man the power of a god, in giving mortals the chance at equaling, and perhaps bettering, immortals. The great thing about Greek mythology is how repulsive the gods are. They are belligerent, venal, venereal, and vain to the point of incest—for who else is worthy of a supreme being than something with that being's bloodline? They are deities unworthy of worship other than as a means of staving off death in their thoughtless rampages. If Lindelof ever went any deeper into his mythological fetish than merely connecting a web of references in dense but ultimately facile subtext, he might have truly reflected the nature of the gods Prometheus rebelled against and made something wonderfully deconstructive. That would require a willingness to treat the material with any kind of earnestness or thought, however, and Prometheus is instead one of the most tediously ponderous blockbusters in years even as it also routinely fails to invest its ideas with any severity.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Paul Williams Still Alive (Stephen Kessler, 2012)

I love Paul Williams. I love his songwriting, and I adore him as a record producer/Antichrist in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise. But I loathed Paul Williams Still Alive, a documentary about the musician climbing his way back after years spent in the druggy wilderness and subsequently push for sobriety. This can be attributed to one Stephen Kessler, a never-quite-was director who openly seeks to make this film his own comeback and therefore makes himself the true subject of the documentary. His narcissistic rudeness is overpowering, and his "I'm the real story!" antics make those of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore look like Steve James' professionalism. One of the worst movies I've seen this year.

My full review is at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

Incorporating many elements of Wes Anderson's previous films, Moonrise Kingdom might be seen, even approvingly, as the director going through the motions. It has the childhood focus of Rushmore, the dollhouse intricacy of The Royal Tenenbaums, the paradoxical criminal innocence of Bottle Rocket, the outdoor adventurousness of The Darjeeling Limited, even the documentarian angle of The Life Aquatic. To be sure, Anderson's latest instantly betrays its maker, the camera tracking and panning through an ornate, rigidly compartmentalized island home and its aloof, eerily formal child inhabitants. Set on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, this house and its surrounding locale suggest one of the director's most arch removes from the world around him, a self-contained universe of stunted genius and vague but overwhelming regret.

But these same shots also display a rough quality not even evident in the director's first film. Shot on 16mm, Moonrise Kingdom's thick grain serves two main purposes. First, it aesthetically matches the film's retro 1965 setting, casting Anderson's usual world of bright, sunny yellows in dimmer, fossilizing amber and making the buildings, which look like a model village from a contemporary train set built 1:1 scale, seem lived in and worn. Second, it adds a primal, visceral edge wholly foreign to Anderson's canon, a reflection of the emotional immediacy he attains with the movie's tale of young love in open opposition to the calcified bitterness that defines so many of Anderson's frustrated, self-imprisoning characters.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Other Men's Women, The Lovers on the Bridge, The Lady Eve, The Purchase Price

Other Men's Women (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Mary Astor herself called this picture a piece of cheese, but cheddar can be mighty sharp. Astor plays one of the men's women, the wife of a chirpy railroad engineer (Regis Toomey) who becomes entangled with his co-worker Bill (Grant Withers), a fall-down drunk who cleans up nicely. With only 69 minutes, Wellman doesn't have time to mess around, meaning Bill and Lily have to fall for each other with such passion they risk everything before most people can even ask what the other does for a living. Wellman's sturdy direction stands back to let the actors work, which isn't the best strategy given how unsalvageable some of the dialogue is but works best when the two men confront each other while working the same engine, the camera calmly letting the tension mount then somehow pulling back even more within the cramped space to capture their fierce, farcical fisticuffs. Things only get more darkly absurd from there, but then part of the charm of a good Pre-Code is the flamboyant yet gritty way things invariably go to hell. In the meantime, have extra fun with James Cagney literally dancing away with the show in a bit part and Joan Blondell as a diner waitress who is, except for Bill, strictly A.P.O.: ain't puttin' out. Grade: B+

Saturday, June 9, 2012

50 Book Pledge #13: Alan Greenberg—Every Night the Trees Disappear

A Werner Herzog film shoot is an invariably absurd, harrowing thing, and few matched the intensity and insanity of the production of Heart of Glass. At least, that's the impression I got from Every Night the Trees Disappear, a revised edition of the making-of book written by Alan Greenberg, one of Herzog's early admirers, friends, and witnesses. Greenberg packs his diary with stories of Herzog philosophizing madly, controlling his actors through hypnosis and fear, and treating a pile of dead flies with more reverence and respect than human life. It's a mad tale, but also one that reveals a great deal about how Herzog works, and how he thinks.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Capsule Reviews: The River (1951), Caught, Bottle Rocket, Murder By Contract

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

Claude Renoir's literally painted-on Technicolor cinematography is a movie miracle, bringing out all the nostalgic fondness of Rumer Godden's florid remembrances and aiding his uncle's direction immeasurably. But Uncle Jean's gift for capturing the spirit of his characters almost works against him here, propping up the uncomfortable imperial paternalism of Godden's white characters. First love is a universal tale, but then so, unfortunately, are white industrialists relying on ethnic labor. As uncomfortable as the whole thing made me, there is still a refreshing lack of melodrama to the love quadrangle, and Renoir's addition of a mixed-race girl and her attendant alien suggests a deeper appreciation for racial politics than Godden displays. But still. "It's one of the least mysterious countries there are," Renoir says in the accompanying introduction. "For a frenchman, India is very easy to understand. People there have just about the same reactions as we do." How would he know? Grade: B

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

[Note: I received this disc from Warner Bros. as part of their Blu-Ray Elite program.]


Any movie that opens with an artistic abstraction of a body falling to signify someone jumping from one of the Twin Towers can't hope for greatness, but the shamelessness of Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is breathtaking in its outrage. In fairness, it was always going to be this way. An adaptation of the hideous book by Jonathan Safran Foer, the worst, most self-satisfied writer in America today, EL&IC does not so much process the horror of September 11 and its bewildering aftermath through the eyes of a possibly autistic 9-year-old as use this blank protagonist to skirt any sincere approach to the tragedy.

Oskar (Thomas Horn, discovered being robotic and eerily smart on Jeopardy's Kids Week) roams around New York seeking some sense of closure for his father's (Tom Hanks) death in the terrorist attack, especially concerned with finding what his father's mysterious key unlocks. The lad, afraid of subways, runs around the city with a tambourine so that we have something to irritate us when the soundtrack isn't dominated by Horn's monotoned complaints about things that make him nervous. Unable to process emotion, he intrudes upon the turbulent lives of adults dealing with their own issues and presses them to answer his questions. For a movie supposedly about coping with 9/11, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close depicts a disgusting inability to deal with the realities of life and the manner in which banal sorrows do not cease with the occurrence of large-scale travesties.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Green Ray (Éric Rohmer, 1986)

It's summer in Paris. Delphine (Marie Rivière), recently broken up with her boyfriend, is two weeks away from an extended vacation. Suddenly, the phone rings in her office. It's the girlfriend coming on vacation with her, calling to cancel. Delphine doesn't yell, but her tone betrays something beyond irritation. Her co-workers, though, take no heed, and they continue to work inches away from her, not even focused in that purposeful way people are when trying their damnedest not to be caught listening in to an uncomfortable phone call. This is obviously such a minor deal that it's not worth their time.

The rest of the film follows outward from this inconvenience, which is complicated by Delphine's inability to find adequate alternate plans for her summer. With Paris half-empty as everyone takes their vacations, Delphine worries about spending her vacation alone. But friends and family immediately invite her to come along to various vacations in the countryside and abroad. One even discusses an upcoming camping trip that makes her sound like the people Laura lambasted in Claire's Knee, playing on the kindness of landowners by taking over the place for their campouts. With every invitation, however, Delphine begins to invent excuses not to go and continues to say that she'd be all alone, even if she went with a big group. Things are clearly not what they seem, and the alternating desire for and rejection of companionship defines the wandering internal conflict of The Green Ray.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Léa Pool, 2012)

Forgot to link to this last week as I was caught up in my Top 100. Pink Ribbons Inc., a repetitive Big Issue documentary, nevertheless does a service in challenging lazy, self-satisfied attitudes toward the disturbingly commercialized breast cancer movement and how moneyed interests have steadily taken over a good cause. Pool's interviews cover her bases in not criticizing the pink-clad people on the street who think they're making a difference even as analysts not so subtly suggest these people are deluded. What elevates the film is that, unlike most social issue documentaries, it doesn't preach to the choir, instead taking issue with a universally assumed good and reveals just how bad it can really be.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Blu-Ray Review: Casablanca 70th Anniversary Edition

[Note: I've been accepted into Warner Bros' new Blu-Ray Elite program, wherein they send discs to various film bloggers for review. I will mark any review for a disc I've received as having come from this program (and Warner Bros) for the sake of full disclosure. This will not affect my critical opinion of the movies nor their technical specifications.]


Casablanca is one of the great sacred cows of cinema, a troubled production that famously rose out of the mire of its collision of writing input and incessant revision to become, as others tell it, the best-written film of all time. It's easy to see why people love it: its swirling, sad romance plays on the awesome talent of some of Hollywood's best actors. Its script, so argued-over and incessantly altered, emerges an almost elemental tale of desperate, futile love. Its setting is also a delight, revolving around a hideout dive that serves as a ménagerie of types waiting for their turn to escape the Nazis, idly gambling for the money to buy their freedom. It's a place where the owner of the second-largest bank in Amsterdam learns that the owner of the first-largest is serving there as a pastry chef.

There truly isn't anything out of place in the movie. Curtiz's classical style is tasteful and restrained, beautiful and non-insistent. The dialogue, finely honed to precision sharpness, is funny and agonizing in equal measure. The actors, a delicious hodgepodge of international backgrounds, play off each other beautifully. The whole package is solid, solid in a way it has no right to be, and it's a testament to Curtiz's skill that he could corral a host of writers and a cast culled from all-around to make such a unified whole.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Claire's Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970)

Néstor Almendros' natural-lit cinematography casts the Lake Annecy setting of Claire's Knee in summer tones, warm but not too hot, offset by a breeze that practically infuses the frame. The crystal clear water (rigorously maintained by environmental protections), near the base of the Alps that separate this region from Switzerland, has a breathtaking beauty that Almendros presents as the ultimate escape. Yet the great cinematographer also adds a slight but nagging sense of discomfort to this perpetual sunbath, making the cozy warmth of the frame as stifling and dulling as it is revitalizing. Later in the film, the one character mature enough to see outside the sick interweaving of lust and self-justification that occurs on the banks of the lake has the insight to call the place "smothering."

Jerôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), a diplomat engaged to be married, takes an extended vacation in this area to celebrate his last days of bachelorhood. While boating on the lake, he spots Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an old friend and possibly flame who lives nearby. Catching up, Aurora remarks her surprise that this womanizer would settle down, but Jerôme maintains he's changed. "I don't look at the ladies anymore," he promises, though like the one-woman moralizing of Jean-Louis Trintignant's protagonist in My Night at Maud's, this proclamation has an air of desperation to it, a verbal talisman being waved about to ward off evil temptation. But Aurora, a novelist whose latest, unfinished story involves a fantastical scenario she invented for a Jerôme-like character, needs to him to stray in order to figure out how to finish her story.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976)

In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie's alien offers a sadly poignant insight into the limitations of television, the manner in which he and his family learned of Earth. They saw the look and stylized behavior on TV, but as "Thomas Jerome Newton" gets caught up in emotions and interactions he does not understand, he laments to one person that TV leaves so much uncaptured, so much unexplained. Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville's France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants, a 12-part miniseries made for French television, attempts to rectify this shortcoming. They use typical TV techniques and formats—shooting interviews like any other TV news crew, returning to the studio for commentary—but they do so in such a way as to critique those conventions and dissect the false social image TV itself helps to create and perpetuate.

Godard and Miéville divide the 12 episodes, or "movements," into dialectical pairings. Therefore, the first episode, subtitled "Dark/Chemistry," matches up with the second, "Light/Physics." Later, "Violence/Grammar" contrasts with "Disorder/Calculation." The format for each episode is the same: it opens on some aspect of French social life that corresponds (however loosely) with the subject of each , whether it's a commute to work or the labor itself, with a narration caught somewhere between Marxist rhetoric and a bedtime story. Then, there's a section titled "Verité," in which an off-screen Godard poses questions to one of two child subjects, Camille and Arnaud, in an unbroken take lasting the majority of the 25-minute runtime. Finally, a "Télevision" segment goes back to a TV studio as actors standing in for Godard (Albert Dray) and Miéville (Betty Berr) debate what was said in the interview before throwing to a "Histoire" (both story and history) only tangentially related to what has preceded it. Compared to the radical video experimentations that preceded it, this is pleasantly relaxed, downright accessible by Godard's post-Week End standards. Even the montages are easily followable!

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Top 100 Films (81-100)

[The following is the final entry in my top 100 films list. Check out picks 1-20, 21-40, 41-60 and 61-80.]

81. Sherlock Jr. (1924/USA/Buster Keaton)

Keaton was no stranger to self-reflexivity (recall the censoring hand over the lens in One Week), but this literal cinematic dream is the first great film about film. Every Keaton film has its "How did he do that?" moment, but Sherlock Jr. has one a sequence. Keaton's perfect blocking in the scene where he interacts with the screen, the trick of him diving through a man's "torso," his wild motorcycle ride: I still jump when the last section of that bridge collapses as he drives smoothly on. As a technical achievement, it's rarely been surpassed. As a laugh-getter, it never has.