Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2011: “Nothing stands still. Or keeps its place.”

I guess I’d better do this before it’s too late. Here’s my Top Ten List for 2011.

As my title suggests, it’s a tentative one. I usually don’t consider my Top Ten list finished (not that it ever is) until I file one for the Skandie Awards in February; so I’ve actually got a couple more months of 2011 left to go, lucky me. I’m not even going to begin to tell you what essential 2011 films I haven’t yet seen. Life’s humiliating enough.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse: You Can’t Go Home Again

Steven Spielberg’s equine bildungsroman has been called old-fashioned, and it is, I suppose, to a point. Because it’s essentially about the very idea of old-fashioned-ness itself. It starts off in a kind of bucolic, poetic reverie in the lush countryside of Devon; the first scenes are admirably wordless, as boy (Jeremy Irvine) meets horse. Then it settles, for a little while at least, into a kind of particularized geniality that has led many to recall John Ford films like The Quiet Man and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Seemingly uncinematic problems -- such as whether a thoroughbred can be made to plow a field, or whether a kind-hearted, drunk farmer with a limp (Peter Mullan) will be able to make rent -- are filmed with a wide-eyed momentousness.

Some will find this hard to take, but that’s what epics do: They make everything bigger and bigger until the whole world seems monumental, and then they force us to choose what’s important. And if War Horse seems old-fashioned at first, that’s because it has to be. It’s about how the old world was torn to shreds by the new -- which is, after all, the ultimate story of World War I.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two Last/First Things on "Margaret"

Actually, I'll probably have more to say later (a pedant's work is never done), but for now, two timely things about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret worth noting:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Bodies, Unrest, and Motion

I’ve been waiting for a proper Tintin movie for pretty much my entire life. The first time I saw a movie on TV (any kind of movie) was a Turkish TV broadcast of Tintin and the Blue Oranges, a live-action Belgian attempt from the 1960s to bring Herge’s comic book characters to life. Even my six-year-old self at the time knew enough to call bullshit on that one. I remember that halfway through the film, the power went out in Ankara and plunged us into darkness, as if willed by my refusal to accept some random dude pretending to be Tintin.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Ghost in the Machine

I’ve watched Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice now and I’m still not sure I understand all of it. The story, at least in its broad strokes, is fairly simple, but structurally it burrows into little pockets that are sometimes hard to untangle. The film moves not like a river but an octopus at the bottom of the sea; you sense the overall form sliding along, but you can’t always follow the individual tentacles. And yet, I can’t tear myself away from it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Mother-dämmerung

The striking opening image of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a birds’ eye view of an army of bodies writhing in a sea of crushed tomatoes (we may wonder if it’s blood at first), lets us know more than we may suspect about the film. This chaos of red, with its stumbling and slithering human forms, is an image out of time and space; we don’t know where we are, or when this is happening, or if it’s even real. It’s probably the “Tomatina” festival in Valencia, and since our lead character Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a travel agent, this is probably an event she’s been to at some point in her mangled life. But still. We know everything about the feel of the thing and nothing about the why, or the how, or the when, or even the who. That seems to be a good way to describe Lynne Ramsay’s cinema in general. This one, however, stands out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Young Adult: Beautiful Monster

As Mavis, the messed-up, sorta-black-hearted former prom queen determined to head back to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota to win her ex-boyfriend back from the clutches of his unassuming wife and newborn daughter, Charlize Theron gets to be both deeply ugly and supernaturally beautiful. She cakes her face with make-up and she looks amazing, but in close-ups we can almost reach out and stroke her cheeks; they seem like they’d be brittle to the touch. It’s a tough balancing act – both emotionally and physically – and Theron pulls it off remarkably well. In some way, it’s the kind of role she was born to play, far more so than her Oscar-winning performance in Monster, where she had to endure hours of prosthetic makeup to try and make herself mundanely ugly. The problem is that she’s in the wrong movie.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Forgotten Films: Our Mother's House (Jack Clayton, 1967)

Years ago, when I was writing (and later editing)’s now-defunct film blog The Screengrab, I introduced a regular feature that proved to be quite popular, focusing on films that were, for one reason or another, forgotten – that is to say, unseen, under-discussed, under-appreciated. Happily, some of the films I featured in the series have since become significantly more appreciated. I did a huge piece on Alex Cox’s Walker in mid-2006, and even Cox himself seemed surprised at the time that there were people out there who remembered his film and considered it a masterpiece; now, the film is available in a lovely Criterion edition, go figure.

Screengrab is long gone; not even its leaf-strewn sarcophagus appears to be cached anymore. So I hope the Nerve folks won’t mind if I reinstate that feature here and, to kick things off, revisit one of the forgotten films I felt most strongly about, Jack Clayton’s masterpiece, Our Mother’s House, since it is among my absolute favorite films of all time and is still very, very hard to find. (Ahem, Criterion…or, really, anybody.) So here goes nothing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Letter for "Margaret"

Do this for me.

There’s a petition to get Fox Searchlight to send out year-end screeners of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (which I wrote about here) to critics and other voting groups. Please sign it.

The film, having had a long and litigious post-production history (it was shot in 2005, went through many different cuts and quite a bit of legal wrangling), was only released briefly in a few cities a couple of months ago. Writer-director Lonergan wasn’t talking -- possibly due to a non-disclosure agreement -- so its box office prospects were limited to begin with. This wasn't a deliberate burial so much as a case of a studio not knowing what to do with a film that had already been orphaned a while ago.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not Made for This World: My Brief Journey with Coriolanus

I was very excited when I first heard that Ralph Fiennes had made a film of Coriolanus. Excited, and a bit perplexed. Some years ago, I briefly considered trying to do something myself with Shakespeare's tragedy – either turn it into an ultra-low-budget film or maybe stage it somewhere. It didn’t result in anything, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how and whether the play could work today. The reason I decided not to do anything with it, though, was a surprising one.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

7 Kids' Movies by Great Directors Who Don't Make Kids' Movies

In honor of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which I’ll probably get to writing about one of these days), and also because I feel guilty about not having posted as much this month, here’s a quick list I thought up: Great kids’ movies made by great directors not known for making kids’ movies.

There are some willful omissions, so here's the obligatory disclaimer: I didn’t include Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam because so many of their films hover somewhere close to the genre, even when they’re being irredeemably adult and dark. I thought about including studio workman Roy Rowland, he of 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T fame, except that he had a lucrative career helming Margaret O’Brien pics so kids’ movies don't seem like they were particularly out of his wheelhouse. I also thought about including Fritz Lang and Moonfleet, but I don't know that Moonfleet is a kids' movie, strictly speaking.

And I know some folks will gripe about my not including Alfonso Cuaron and his Harry Potter entry here, but I first got introduced to Cuaron as the director of 1995’s A Little Princess (which I still think is his best film, believe it or not), so he always seemed to have one foot in this world.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Recent-ish Work: Muppets, Immortals, Kumar, Nick Ray

It’s been a slow month round these parts -- in part because I’ve been working on a couple of longer pieces (one of which, my exploration of the curious similarities between The Four Feathers and The Deer Hunter, I posted here recently), but also because I’ve been a bit busier on the reviewing front. So, here are some links:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Is The Deer Hunter a Remake of The Four Feathers?

Well, is it?

Okay, perhaps that headline’s a bit misleading – I’m not exactly saying that Michael Cimino sat down and chose to remake The Four Feathers when he made The Deer Hunter. Hell, I don't even know if Cimino's seen Zoltan Korda's 1939 masterpiece, now out in a gorgeous new Criterion edition. And God knows there are enough controversies over where Cimino’s film actually came from, or for that matter over whether it’s even any good. And perhaps those who see in The Deer Hunter a kind of fascist imperialistic fantasy (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose famous, eloquent 1979 pan not only trashed Cimino’s movie, but also managed to dismiss Coppola and Scorsese in the same breath, with a half-swipe at Days of Heaven along the way) may not be so surprised to hear that it has some similarities to a film made from a Victorian tale of imperial derring-do.

But the two films benefit from the comparison; for it’s clear that The Four Feathers is a lot more reflective and complicated than its reputation suggests, and that The Deer Hunter is about a lot more than just Vietnam. Personally, I find it hard to think of one film without the other nowadays; and the striking echoes between them reveal important, sometimes subtle, thematic concerns.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Eulogy for Lutfi Akad (1916-2011)

Kizilirmak Karakoyun

The Turkish director Omer Lutfi Akad has passed away. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I could have sworn that I had heard reports of his death a few years ago. But I guess things like that happen when you get to be 95. Nevertheless, he now rests in peace, and a few words should be said here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

8 People Who Should Have Become Directors

Film buffs love to talk about people who didn’t direct enough (top of the list: Charles Laughton and Jean Vigo, of course) or people who should never have directed (I’m not naming names, but take your pick, and make sure your pick includes Eric Schaeffer).

But rarely do we talk about people who should have directed and never did. And yet every once in a while I’ll come across someone who was so instrumental to the success of other filmmakers and clearly so brilliant, that I’ll think, “Why on Earth didn’t this guy/gal ever direct a film themselves?”

Sometimes the answer is simple: They never wanted to. Sometimes, you’ll find that they did get to direct one film along the way: For example the legendary stunt director Vic Armstrong did in fact make one forgotten Dolph Lundgren movie; Eric Schwab, a longtime Second Unit Director for Brian De Palma and the one person who comes away from The Devil’s Candy with his reputation intact, did get to make one totally forgotten crime thriller; Tonino Guerra, the great Italian screenwriter for Antonioni, Rosi, and the Tavianis, did direct a documentary, in collaboration with Andrei Tarkovsky (!).

For those reasons, I’ve kept those folks and a few others off this list. And really, it’s meant to be a discussion-starter more than anything else. So here are my choices for 8 people – critics, motion picture professionals, etc. – who should have become directors at one point or another.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: An Injury to One, finally on DVD

An injury to one is an injury to all.

This week sees the long-overdue DVD release of one of my favorite films of the last decade. Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One is, technically speaking, a documentary, but I almost never think of it that way. It’s also been called an essay film, and agitprop, and countless other things. What it really is, I think, is a ghost story.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Let the Mystery Be? On Leo, Alan Turing, and The Mind-Matter Thing

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life will remain completely unanswered.”
Just a quick, personal note (which I’d meant to post before) about this whole business with Leonardo DiCaprio supposedly playing Alan Turing in a forthcoming biopic called The Imitation Game. Could be an interesting project. Or it could not. (How’s that for wishy-washy?) The potential involvement of Ron Howard suggests that he may be desperate for more Oscar glory a la A Beautiful Mind; or maybe he’s just doing penance for the insane liberties A Beautiful Mind took with its depiction of John Nash’s personal life – because no way in hell are these guys gonna be able to whitewash Turing’s.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We Live in Public: Brief Thoughts on "Margaret"

I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret last Thursday (along with a small group of other film writer pals), its final show in New York City. I went in with a mixture of heightened anticipation, thanks to the endorsements of many other writers of good taste, and some trepidation, thanks to its complicated post-production story. Once the film unspooled, however, I was elated to discover, as did so many others (but not enough of them, alas) that it’s a marvelous movie – in particular, a great New York movie. And frankly it deserved better from this city.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Growing The Tree of Life: Editing Malick's Odyssey

Earlier this Spring I wrote an article for Cinema Editor magazine, the official publication of American Cinema Editors (ACE), in which I interviewed some of the individuals involved in the editing of The Tree of Life, which just hit DVD and Blu-Ray this week. (Some of the research for this also overlapped with my piece on Q and The Tree of Life for New York Magazine in May.) Cinema Editor has now graciously allowed me to publish the piece on this blog. (But you should consider subscribing; it's a quarterly publication, and there's lots of great stuff in there.) This version includes some material not in the original piece.

The article was written long before I actually saw the film, so it has to dance around certain elements, as did the editors themselves. (God knows, I would have had so many more questions had I been able to see and give specifics about the film before I spoke to the editors.) But it was still a fascinating experience doing it. Enjoy. And watch this space for some more Tree of Life thoughts later this week.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fuel for the Fire: Some Brief Thoughts on "Incendiary"

A recommendation: If you’re in New York and looking to be engaged and infuriated by a movie this week, consider heading to the IFC Center and seeing Incendiary, a ridiculously timely documentary about the 2004 Texas execution of Cameron Todd Willingham -- a questionable case which has recently bubbled back up into the spotlight thanks to the (now thankfully faltering) Presidential run of Texas Governor Rick Perry. This isn’t an irate, strident movie, however; rather, Joe Bailey, Jr. and Steve Mims offer up a mostly sober, analytical work that quietly plants little time bombs in your brain. It’s the kind of film that gains power by pretending to pull its punches.

Friday, October 7, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which is surely some sort of masterpiece*, will play the New York Film Festival tomorrow (its first and only screening at the fest) and it will open theatrically later in Winter (early January, I believe), courtesy of the fine folks at The Cinema Guild. I have a lot to say about Anatolia, but can only say so much right now. Before I get to my brief assessment of the film (after the jump), allow me to recommend my friend Ali Arikan's lovely, hilarious, and highly personal take on it, here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

8 Directors Who Played Villains in Other Directors' Films

With the rather startling news that Werner Herzog will be playing the villain in the next Tom Cruise flick, I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the other times that a great director has been enlisted to play a villain in another director’s movie, with often awesome results. There are a surprising number of them, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but here’s a quick rundown of some that came to mind…

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Salo and Me: (Not) A Love Story

The other day a Criterion Blu-ray of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Daysof Sodom arrived in the mail. I was excited to receive it, even though I have no idea when I’ll watch it again. I’ve already seen it several times, and according to some, that may well be a couple of times too many. Since Salo – twisted, disgusting, horrific, soul-destroying Salo -- is supposed to be all about its own unwatchability. (Here’s a brief Slate piece all about whether one should really even bother to visit it once.) I mean, what do you do with a movie that supposedly dares you to watch it?

However, I don’t actually find Salo unwatchable. And maybe, if I share my own personal Salo story, I can explain why.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; Or How Everything Becomes Junk, Before It Becomes Nothing At All

Like everyone else I’m finding the whole Netflix/Qwikster kerfuffle kind of hilarious. I don't have much to say about the business angle of it, though I'm inclined to agree with Roger Ebert that ultimately what Netflix is doing in terms of focusing more on streaming is probably pretty smart. One aspect of the situation, however, captivates me in a different way. It has less to do with the specifics of Netflix’s conundrum (which I need not summarize here) and more with, well, something a bit harder to express. It's times like this that I wish I had a little more time and a lot more brain, but nevertheless, I’ll try.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Seriously, This New Jaws Book is Pretty Great

Many serious film types have an allergy to coffee table books about movies. Maybe it’s the price (if you bought too many of these things, you probably wouldn’t have any money to spend on seeing actual movies). Or maybe it has something to do with a perceived superficiality – why spend time with large, glossy pictures when you can pore over a dusty, dense bit of theory or a thick biography.  Of course, there are exceptions: Taschen’s Stanley Kubrick books are a perfect example of big, expensive art books that are nevertheless seen as essential reading as well.

To these I think I can add another one. Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard, written by Matt Taylor and with a foreword by Steven Spielberg himself, is a dense, beautiful (and relatively inexpensive) volume full of anecdotes, interviews, photos, illustrations, and contemporaneous articles about the 1974 shoot of Spielberg’s blockbuster on the island. Of course, the culture at large has an image of Martha’s Vineyard as some kind of haven for wealthy elite types (witness the media silliness over Obama’s recent visit there) but its actual residents appear to be anything but. And Jaws is a film whose shoot was deeply intertwined with the community at large: town residents actually played parts in the film, and the film itself is steeped in a unique kind of atmosphere that no studio set would ever have been able to match.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Make Me Ugly: 25th Hour and 9/11

There's been a lot of discussion recently about films and other art works related to 9/11. Allow me to put in a word here for what I consider to be not just the best film about 9/11, but the best film of its respective decade, period: Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. A film that, despite its measly box office and rapid fade from theaters, still keeps popping up in the cultural conversation, with many defenders as well as quite a number of haters. This isn't really meant to be a defense of the film (many more eloquent than I have made the case for it) but I do want to address one aspect of it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do You Know What It Means to Lose Ettore Scola?

First things first: No, he’s not dead. Rather, the great Italian writer-director Ettore Scola, who gave us We All Loved Each Other So Much, Le Bal, La Terrazza, La Nuit de Varennes, The Family, Brutti, sporchi e cattivi (aka Down and Dirty)Passione d’Amore, and the little-seen but wonderfully-titled -- and just plain wonderful -- Will Our Heroes Be Able to Find Their Friend Who Has Mysteriously Disappeared in Africa?, just announced his retirement, at the age of 80. (He’s 80?? But then, that would make me….rgahaaaaggh…) 

I felt a little chill up my spine upon reading the announcement, because, I shit you not, I had just the previous night finally caught up with his long-hard-to-find 1964 directorial debut, the portmanteau comedy Let’s Talk About Women, and halfway through watching it I had the strange premonition that I was going to wake up to the news that Scola (about whom I had not thought for some time, admittedly) had died. Instead I woke up to the news that he’s finally retired, citing “production and distribution requirements [he] can no longer identify with.” ("I didn't want to become one of those old ladies who wear high heels and lipstick just to keep youthful company,” as he put it.) I guess that’s not as bad. But still. Waaah.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Greatest Opening Credits Sequence of All Time

For some reason there's been a lot of buzz recently about title sequences. Of course there's always the estimable site The Art of the Title Sequence, which regularly posts and analyzes opening credits from films. But in the last few weeks, sites like The Fox is Black and The Atlantic highlighted Jurjen Versteeg's cool new short A History of the Title Sequence. Back in February did a whole thing about The 50 Greatest Title Sequences of All Time. And for some reason a bunch of my Facebook friends sent around a bunch of credits clips last week. Long story short: This is a great excuse to post what I think is my favorite opening credits sequence of all time, for the amazingly bizarre Italian omnibus film Le Streghe (The Witches). Video after the jump.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shall We Gather at the River: How "Christian" is The Tree of Life?

A couple of months ago I attended a panel discussion in New York on The Tree of Life and spirituality. It was an interesting group of speakers, even though it sounded a bit like the first line of a joke – there was a minister, a Buddhist, a humanist, an atheist, and a film producer. Fox Searchlight has graciously made some clips of various speakers available from this panel and from a similar one held in L.A. around this same time. I’ve included some clips, as well as my own thoughts, below.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Outlaw Josey Wales: Mending a Patchwork Nation

I always find it hard to remember how The Outlaw Josey Wales ends. I keep forgetting there’s a big shootout at the end – when Josey’s longtime pursuers, a group of former Unionist militiamen led by Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney), lay siege to the ramshackle ranch house where he and his surrogate family of rootless Indians and failed pioneers have settled. I’ve seen the film something like six times – I’ve even read the script – and I pretty much never remember this ending.

Monday, July 25, 2011

8 Observations Upon Re-watching The Lord of the Rings

-- It now seems odd to refer to these as three films. Of course, most Tolkien fans I know don't refer to The Lord of the Rings as three books, but since I'm not a Tolkien fan (I liked The Hobbit but threw LOTR across the room about mid-way through. Literally. Threw it) that argument never did much for me. It is all one movie – written and shot at the same time – and when viewed as such, some surprising things (at least, surprising to me) begin to emerge:

For example, the positively insane amount of time the first installment spends at the Shire always felt a little strange to me – let’s get to the Cave Troll already! – but that balance is righted when viewed across the whole. Indeed, all that Shire business early on is absolutely justified by the longings characters express in the subsequent films for their simpler way of life.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: Psychohydrography

We’re supposed to think of experimental films as being extremely complex, or challenging, or difficult, and not at all for the faint of heart. And surely it’s a sign of my own ignorance that I’ve usually chosen to appreciate them more for their surface virtues: Dog Star Man is, for me, a beautiful fantasy of light and color and texture; I begin to lose the thread when I try to wrap my feeble mind around the mythological ruminations Brakhage imposed on it. On some level, experimental films are the easiest films to watch: No pesky plots to follow, no character motivations to untangle, no deep themes to explore after they’ve been dutifully teased by well-placed metaphors.

Every once in a while, though, something does get to me. And Peter Bo Rappmund’s Psychohydrography, which opens at Anthology Film Archives this week, definitely put me somewhere unfamiliar. It is one of the most staggeringly beautiful things I’ve seen this year, and it left me with an odd sense of elated desolation. (And might I add that it's kind of a shame that it has one of those fashionably cumbersome experimental film titles that does no justice whatsoever to its poetic power.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How The Thin Blue Line Changed My Life

With the recent death of Randall Dale Adams and the release of Errol Morris’s new film Tabloid (which is amazing, btw), I was reminded of the first time I saw The Thin Blue Line, which proved to be a major teachable moment for me.

I was 15 when The Thin Blue Line came out in 1988. It was playing at the Outer Circle theater in Washington, D.C., a small and rather uncomfortable (but still absolutely awesome) two-screen arthouse that not only closed years ago but has since been demolished. The Outer Circle happened to be not too far off my bus and subway route from school, so I was in the habit of going to see movies there before heading home at the end of the day.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Horror (Now Updated!)

[See below for Jason Zinoman's response]

Jason Zinoman had an interesting four-part series on Slate last week entitled “How to Fix Horror.” He’s the author of a new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror – I haven’t read it, but the guy seems to know his stuff, and I'll probably get his book as a present for my wife, who's the horror-fiend in the family. Not being a particularly huge horror fan myself, I haven’t pondered much the notion that it might be broken as a genre. But here’s how Zinoman sees it:
Today the genre is bigger, more diverse, and more lucrative than it was back [during the ‘60s and ‘70s], but its films rarely shock or inspire as they once did. There are many good new scary movies, but few great ones.
Zinoman’s proposed “fixes” certainly got me thinking, but a couple of them also confused me. I think it’s fair to say that he generally seems to favor a particular kind of no-nonsense horror movie. (His first piece of advice is: “Stop trying to be so damn respectable!” The second: “Kill the back story.” The third: “Don’t be afraid of remakes.” The fourth: “Gore is good.”)  He believes that the genre has been “infected” by “a creeping – and not-at-all creepy – pretentiousness.” And he feels that horror is “more at home being impolite and gross and borderline unethical.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Apocalypse: A Brief Melancholia Story

It gets worse.

Since it’s a slow week, I thought I’d share this brief experience I had a little while ago during a screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a movie which I will hopefully write more about as it nears its release date. The film itself is really good -- perhaps even a masterpiece -- but also quite upsetting, for a variety of reasons which I won’t get into but you can probably guess, given its ostensible plot.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

12 Films That Made Me Love America

I became a U.S. citizen a couple of years ago. Don’t ask me why it took so long. I had a Green Card for something like 25 years, and I always knew I’d eventually become a real citizen. Along the way certain films would reinforce that desire. I’m not talking about the kind of macho fantasies that pass for “patriotic” movies. I’m talking about films that convey America’s many complexities, while still somehow managing to reaffirm my love for it. Indeed, many of these films might be deemed “un-patriotic” by some people. To those people I say, “Phffft.” Here are 12 films that made me want to become an American, in no particular order.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In Defense of Michael Bay (Sort Of)

I’ll try to keep this short: I like Michael Bay. I do. Really. I think.

Yes, I hated Transformers 2 (or whatever the hell it was called) – as did most sane people, since it was awful. (It now seems clear that Bay himself didn’t care for it much either.) And yes, I hated The Island. And yes, I hated Pearl Harbor. And I mean really, really hated them. So what is it about Bay that keeps me coming back? I'm not sure. He’s made one great movie (The Rock) and he seems capable of making another one, too, one of these days. I haven’t seen the new Transformers movie yet. I did mostly like the first one.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Return of the Ugly King: Yilmaz Guney

A friend alerts me to the fact that there is a Yilmaz Guney film series making its way through North America (with its very own blog!). Eight films, all-new 35mm prints, English subtitles, the works. They’ve apparently already screened at the Harvard Film Archive. Next up is the Cleveland Cinematheque. And then a journey through Canada. Looks like they’ll finish up at Lincoln Center in May of next year. (You can actually download the full schedule of venues and films here.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: General Orders No. 9

A couple of years ago, while covering Sundance, I got an email from a friend, an industry professional and festival regular, who implored me to see an obscure film called General Orders No. 9 that was playing at Slamdance. He said it was the best movie he’d seen at Park City in all the (many) years he’d been coming there. It had one final screening on my last day in town, so after I checked out of my hotel I dutifully trudged over to Main Street. I’d gotten maybe an hour of sleep the night before (thanks to midnight screenings and writing deadlines) so I wasn’t in the best of moods when I settled in for what turned out to be a difficult, dense experimental documentary-cum-essay film. And yet this bewildering fantasia -- of almost abstracted still lives, transcendent landscapes, and incantatory narration -- enthralled me. When its director Robert Persons – a quiet, 40-something-ish fellow who’d never made a film before in his life and looked pretty uncomfortable – took the stage, my hand immediately went up for the first question: “Who the hell are you?” I asked. He wouldn’t answer me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two (More) Tree of Life Things

Believe it or not, this blog was never meant to be All Tree of Life, All the Time, but bear along with me for a little while. I'm actually working on a new, longer piece on the film, expanding and building on some of the observations in my original review. In the meantime, here are two things that may be of interest:

Monday, June 20, 2011

When Smart Writers Say Not-So-Smart Things

I know for a fact that Sam Wasson is an excellent journalist (his terrific book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. made me appreciate the importance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a film I actually kind of hate), and he may even be a nice guy, for all I know. But he is now also the author of one of the most misguided pieces I’ve read in quite some time: this article in LA Weekly about Terrence Malick entitled “The Too Quiet American.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

All That Will Be Left Is Us: Revisiting A.I.

I cannot overstate my complicated emotions when I first saw A.I. Artificial Intelligence back in 2001. Here was a film that I’d anticipated for nearly a decade: First when it was to be directed by Stanley Kubrick; then during that somewhat confusing period when Kubrick was making Eyes Wide Shut, with A.I. supposedly to follow, either directed by him or produced by him with someone else directing; and finally, of course, that sad time after Kubrick’s passing, when the prospect of Steven Spielberg directing the film tore up many a Kubrick fan.

Monday, June 13, 2011

“Well Gentlemen, I Think This Calls for Champagne All Round.”

Everybody should read this tribute by Christopher Hitchens to the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor, an adventurer, “scholar-warrior,” and travel writer who was one of the heroes of an amazing feat of WWII derring-do on the island of Crete in 1944 – an event immortalized in Ill Met by Moonlight, a terrific (and terrifically underseen, sadly) Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film. Dirk Bogarde played him, lucky sod.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And While We’re at It: What if the Movie’s Good, but the *Music* Stinks?

That previous post about great scores to bad movies made me realize that a perhaps harder list to compile would be one of good movies with lousy scores. Indeed, it’s difficult to do a list like this without taking into account changing musical tastes – most of the examples I thought of were from the ‘80s, for example. And I’m sure that in a less generous mood I could probably find fault with all sorts of classical Hollywood soundtracks that now sound a bit too bombastic or whatever. But in creating this list of six examples, I’ve tried to avoid retroactive anachronisms – those Harold Faltermeyer scores to Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch may sound a bit dinky now, but they seemed pretty awesome back then. Rather, a number of these scores seemed out of place or misguided right out of the starting gate.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

When the Music’s Great, But the Movie Stinks

I still argue about movies and directors with my father, but there was a time when we really used to argue. Back then, one of his chief debating tactics was to tell me that I only really liked certain films because I liked the music. (Spaghetti Westerns, I seem to recall, were the chief targets of this accusation, which was kind of ironic since he’d been the one to turn me on to Spaghetti Westerns in the first place, by giving me an LP of Morricone’s scores for the first two Dollars films, and then watching A Fistful of Dollars with me when I was, what, nine?)

He had a point, sort of: I do tend to be partial to a movie with a great score. I’ve never felt guilty about this, because I’ve always felt that the music in a film is as much a part of it as, say, the performances, or the dialogue, or the imagery. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why a great performance can be said to dramatically enhance an otherwise mediocre film but a great score can’t. Is it just because you can buy a soundtrack album and thus “separate” the music from the film, in a way you can’t with a performance?

But I digress. Like everyone else, I do have my limits. There are some amazing soundtracks – scores I listen to over and over again, almost obsessively – that nevertheless belong to some genuinely dreadful films. Here, in ascending order, are the seven that come most prominently to my mind. I’d be curious to hear other readers’, uh, “favorites.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two Final Thoughts on Aspect Ratios, Golden and Otherwise...

The recent kerfuffle over the Barry Lyndon aspect ratio (my blog post is here but the real action wound up occurring over in the comments thread to Glenn Kenny’s post at Some Came Running) got me thinking about two things.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fear Factor

I reviewed The Hangover Part II for the Nashville Scene this week, and I mostly liked it. Mostly. Thing is, I actually loved the first film, even though plenty of fellow film buffs see in it the rough outlines of the Face of Evil or whatever. I’m not sure if Adam Sternbergh is one of those folks, but I certainly don’t get the sense he likes it much, based on his riff for the Times entitles “The Hangover and the Age of the Jokeless Comedy,” in which he argues that Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow have basically created a new genre of comedy in which there are no jokes (a “joke-genocide,” he deems it). He elaborates:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oh, I Guess I Might as Well Say Something About This...

 I was starting to feel a little left out of the current mini-debate going on over the upcoming (and, might I add, welcome) Blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon, which has long been my favorite Kubrick film. It's a little complicated to explain, but it mostly concerns the issue of whether Kubrick always intended for the film to be shown in a 1.66 or a 1.78 ratio. Jeff Wells fired the opening salvo. Glenn Kenny of the estimable Some Came Running replied. Then there was some further confusion. And now, it appears that Glenn has settled the matter by talking with Leon Vitali, who played Lord Bullingdon in the film and then went on to become Kubrick's assistant on subsequent films. Vitali said in an interview with Glenn:


As The Tree of Life’s release approaches, two pretty mundane thoughts keep nagging at me. Well, not “nagging,” exactly. More like random observations that I feel I must share:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

And In This Corner, A Heap Of Broken Images...

I haven’t seen the new Pirates of the Caribbean film, but my friend Ali Arikan’s review/refusal-to-review of it, colorfully entitled “A Fountain of Maggots,” is more than just one of the funniest pieces of film writing I’ve read this year, it’s actually a genuinely touching cri de coeur that rebels against a very specific kind of modern-day event movie. Here’s a sample quote:
One of the worst films of all time, On Stranger Tides has absolutely and utterly no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I wanted to say it's like watching an enema, but even that's a good thing: you get rid of the filth…It's as if you were cloned, and the clones shared the same consciousness, and then were turned into the human centipede, but instead of three, this centipede is endless. It's not so much pain, though there's that, too, but, instead, nausea.