Saturday, February 17, 2007

In which I make a half-hearted attempt to sum up the last few months

Currently reading A Family Daughter by Maile Meloy. One of those books that seems so simple to write and is so entertainingly readable that you don't notice the complexity until you start to explain it to someone else. Apparently, the book the protagonist has written is Meloy's first novel, which I haven't read. Now I'm not sure if I should read it or not, as the descriptions of it in this book don't make it sound very promising. (I probably will, as I'm loving this one).

Saw The Messengers by the Pang Bros. Peculiarly conservative ghost story, but entertaining, and with worthy scares (and plenty of soundtrack-go-boo moments). I was particularly creeped out by the legs of the little ghost boy which appear briefly beneath a sheet being shaken onto a bed (this moment is in the trailer, so no need to run out and see it). I like that the farm comes equipped with an Allis-Chalmers--movie tractors are generally John Deeres, as that's as far as Hollywood knowledge of tractors goes, but Allis-Chalmers were some of the best, and have a distinctive look. Curiously, the brand name was "worn off" of the tractor in the movie. Allis-Chalmers has been defunct for 20 years, so it couldn't have been because anyone cared about the rights to the name. Maybe they were just worried that there was a copyright holder out there somewhere who'd attack if the name appeared on screen. I noticed that the brand name of the harvester the dad is using at the end of the movie was front-and-center. Another thing I liked was the way characters heads would disappear off the bottom of the screen. this happened repeatedly and was successfully eerie. Don't know why Dylan McDermott isn't getting more roles. He's kind of a limited actor, but he's very handsome in an interesting way.
Final shot: family tableau, pan up to sky

Been seeing lots of Mizoguchi at the NWFF. My favorite so far has been Sansho Dayu. I'd seen it before many years ago, and hadn't thought much of it, but it had extraordinary power for me now. The sister's sacrifice suddenly made sense to me, and I completely bought the mystical power of the mother's song (was it really just the birds?). I guess I'm just more compassionate in my old age.
Final shot: family tableau, pan across to beach scene (workers oblivious in the foreground).
Less impressed with Utumaro and His Five Women. It's rare that a film about an artist is all that satisfying, and this is no exception. Apparently, the author of the book on which it is based objected to the lack of eroticism in this movie, and sent a nasty letter to Mizoguchi. I actually appreciate a lack of fidelity to literature: Life of Oharu is also far from faithful--descriptions of the book make is sound more like Terry Southern's Candy, instead of the delicate, compassionate story of the movie. Still, Utumaro could have used some juice from somewhere--by the end, I was paying so little attention that I missed a murder.
Final shots: Oharu walks offscreen; Utumaro's paintings rain down for a while.

Also at NWFF, their composer series featured a Bernard Herrman double-bill: Vertigo and On Dangerous Ground.
This must be about the 20th time I've seen Vertigo, and it didn't wreck me like it did the last couple of times. Maybe I'm finally immune to romanticism pushed to psychotic extremes.
Final shot: oh, come on. You know it.
On Dangerous Ground was billed as Herrmann's only film noir, but it wasn't the least bit noir. The first half was a police procedural, and the second half was a man-hunt, and, um, the third half was a sentimental romance. Less noir in mood than Vertigo, that's for sure. Very entertaining though. And with Nita Talbot as a pouty underage thing in a bar, and va-va-voom Cleo Moore as a small-time thug's gal. You know how I know this isn't noir? Sure, Cleo gets roughed up a little, but she survives, and none of the characters have anything to say about her one way or the other. (I've got to see some of Cleo's movies with her hubby Hugo Haas again some day. Pretty much every one of them get a "BOMB" rating from Leonard Maltin, but I remember seeing them on tv in junior high and enjoying them very much, and especially the va-va-voom parts.) Ida Lupino is pretty hot, too, as the blind girl (and co-director).
Final shot: I actually kind of forget, but I think it's an embrace between Robert Ryan and Lupino. Might as well be, anyway.

That's all I can think of now. I've already forgotten most of what I've done.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

In which I post a list with very little explanation

These would be my favorite films of the year. I saw 274 Seattle (or Vancouver) premieres this year, and uncounted older films. This is the cream of the new (to Seattle) crop. Films that didn't have a theatrical run are followed by the acronym for the festival I saw them at: the Seattle or Vancouver film festival, or the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. If it was seen at an independent movie house, the name or acronym for the place also follows the country listing. No, I don't know why I do that.
1. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr : Hungary ; NWFF)
2. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu : Romania)
3. Caché (Michael Haneke : France)
4. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville : France)
5. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien : Taiwan ; NWFF)
6. L'Intrus (Claire Denis : France ; NWFF)
7. Still Life (Jia Zhangke : China ; VIFF)
8. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón : UK)
9. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry : France)
10. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski : USA ; NWFF)
11. The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis : UK ; SIFF)
12. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt : USA ; SIFF)
13. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul : Thailand ; VIFF)
14. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater : USA)
15. Tertium non Datur (Lucian Pintilie : Romania ; SIFF)
---no one is talking about this film, but I think it's extraordinary. Not quite an hour long, one set, and you actually get to see the movie twice as it's rewound under the closing credits, as if to disprove the title. Very nasty, very funny.
16. L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne : Belgium)
17. Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic : France ; NWFF)
18. The French Guy (Anne Marie Fleming : Canada ; Northwest Sightings)
---another one I've heard not a peep about. One of the darkest comedies ever, from a director who has made greatest short films of recent years. If it weren't for Mr. Lazarescu, it would also be the best medical satire of the year.
19. Iraq in Fragments (James Longley : USA)
20. Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-Soo : Korea ; NWFF)
21. The Weeping Meadow (Theo Angelopoulos : Greece ; NWFF)
22. Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina : Paraguay ; VIFF)
---No buzz on this, either, although it's still on the festival circuit, so that could be remedied soon. Comparisons to Beckett are probably appropriate, as there's nothing but waiting here, most of it in static long shots. The rare close-ups have significant power. Again, it's barely an hour long, and it's absolutely controlled.
23. The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis : UK ; SIFF)
24. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa : Portugal ; VIFF)
25. Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas : Mexico ; Grand Illusion)
26. La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère : France ; The Big Picture)
27. Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke : Mexico ; Varsity calendar)
28. My Dad is 100 Years Old (Guy Maddin : Canada ; SIFF)
29. Darwin's Nightmare (Hubert Sauper : Austria[?] ; NWFF)
30. Histoire(s) du Cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard : France ; NWFF)
31. Longing (Valeska Grisebach : Germany ; VIFF)
32. A Perfect Day (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joriege : Lebanon ; SIFF)
---A brilliant, and totally ignored, film. No buzz at all at the Seattle festival (those that saw it generally greeted it with a shrug), and at that time it wasn't even listed on the imdb. I thought the narcoleptic hero, which sounds on paper far too symbolically telegraphed, was completely engaging. It also contained one of the most unusual acts of romantic obsession I've ever seen.
33. Ghosts (Christian Petzold : Germany ; SLGFF)
---Powerful minimalist drama, which played in the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (not noted for its rigorous selection criteria--not their fault, but generally any foreign gay-themed drama of any note has already been snapped up by SIFF) where it was met with sighs of displeasure. I think it was generally felt that it was a downer, and it is unusually bleak, but it ends at the perfect moment, and had greater staying power than anything they've shown within memory.
34. The Departed (Martin Scorsese : USA)
35. Honor de Cavalleria (Albert Serra : Spain ; VIFF)
36. Inside Man (Spike Lee : USA)
37. The Hidden Blade (Yoji Yamada : Japan ; Varsity calendar)
38. Cavite (Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon : The Philippines ; Varsity calendar)
39. My Country, My Country (Laura Poitras : USA ; Varsity calendar)
40. Tachigui : the Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Mamoru Oshii : Japan ; VIFF)
41. The Host (Bong Joon-Ho : Korea ; VIFF)
42. The Queen (Stephen Frears : UK)
43. The Descent (Neil Marshall : UK)
44. The Page Turner (Denis Dercourt : France ; VIFF)
45. Lemming (Dominik Moll : France ; Varsity calendar)
46. The Proposition (John Hillcoat : Australia)
47. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park : Korea)
48. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry : USA)
49. Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso : Argentina ; VIFF)
50. Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer : Czech Republic ; NWFF)
51. Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov : Russia)
52. Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff : USA)
53. Mongolian Ping Pong (Hao Ning : China ; Varsity calendar)
54. United 93 (Paul Greengrass : USA)
55. The New World (Terrence Malick : USA)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

in which the whole thing collapses

Went to the SAM film series to see How to Steal a Million, an utterly harmless caper film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. Lovely set design by Alexander Trauner.
final shot: the protagonists drive offscreen, accompanied by a crane shot.
Spent five days babysitting my Fake Niece and Fake Nephew. Among our entertainments were a Three Stooges program at the Grand Illusion: three in a row are about enough for me, and 8 was too many for my Fake Niece, but there was enough hilarity to make it worthwhile. One other kid there, and she and her dad left midway through the 2nd short: they were expecting Shemp, maybe? (Who was actually featured several shorts later, to the puzzlement of my Fake Relatives.) Otherwise, the audience, as usual, consisted of several single men sitting by themselves, and apparently content to let us do all the laffing. The kids did not show an increased tendency to poke one another in the eyes afterwards.
Also went to NWFF to see Bazi (translated as "The Play" although I think simply "Play" would be more accurate). The Fake Nephew was enthralled; the Fake Niece was slightly more concerned with her lack of popcorn. We sat way in the back so that I could read the subtitles to the Fake Niece, but a man sat one row in front of us and was treated to my interpretive performance. There was an astonishing shot of a game of catch played over a wall, shot from directly above. My Fake Nephew let out a gasp, as he is really into point-of-view. Great performance from an enchanting little girl.
Final shot: close-up of protagonist.
We also indulged in many episodes of wartime Looney Tunes (a budget DVD that also contains a Tex Avery Hollywood star parody, for which I had to explain virtually every gag--who knew Garbo was famous for having big feet?), Season 2 of Gilligan's Island, and some absolutely dreadful King Features' Popeye cartoons, which I finally allowed to be played only when I was making dinner or taking a bath--I'd brought them some Max Fleischer Popeyes some months back, which were a huge hit, and their mother bought them a 3-disc set of these things, thinking they were All the Same.
Also saw Lemming at the Varsity...and here I left off writing on the 9th of August, and can no longer remember what I was going to say. I liked Lemming. Wish I remembered what I was going to say about it....This is exactly why I'm supposed to be doing this thing, so I don't let these movies vanish in the recesses of my brain. And the final shot thing--it's like the punch line of a joke. If I have that, then I can work backward and recreate the whole thing (or reimagine it better); without it, the whole thing disappears. I'll try to get this going again soon.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

in which I read about a dictionary

Saw an advance screening of The Descent last night. Very efficient. No CGI. Went with The Consultant, who was also a fan of the director's previous movie, Dog Soldiers. I'm not so much, because when you put boys in uniform, I can't really tell them apart, especially as this director doesn't invest a whole lot in characterization. With the All Girl cast of The Descent, I could at least tell who was getting eaten at any given time, but I couldn't tell you much about any of them. But the movie has a palpable sense of panic to it, and, little as you know about most of the character's lives, you know a great deal about how they are feeling from moment to moment. The tenuousness nature of trust is examined from every angle. Great, inevitable penultimate scene. Scary monsters, treated as dangerous animals and not as supernatural killing machines--the movie even takes a moment to show them as capable of feeling emotional pain. The movie creates rules for them, and then sticks with those rules. It's in the Straw Dogs genre: the protagonist finds untapped depths of savagery within herself, and comes to embrace her animal nature, only to get a comeuppance at dawn. The set-up is great, and entirely unexpected. The ending is effective, and not as cliched as it seems at first glance: she's actually replaced one set of ghosts with another. So far, this guy's two movies are much more impressive than Peter Jackson's early films (although I wish he had more of a sense of humor)--I hope he goes on to great things, and continues to lay off (as Jackson didn't) the CGI.
Final shot: close-up of eyes.

Read Defining the World : the Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, by Henry Hitchings. Very entertaining. It's curious that Hitchings is impressed with how Johnson, in his Lives of the English Poets, insists on not reading biographical elements into his analysis of the poetry, keeping the poems and the lives strictly separate; Hitchings' whole method is to read biographical elements into the Dictionary! It's a successful strategy and he does it convincingly, almost creating a narrative out of a non-narrative work. It's full of anecdotes about Johnson and about language, both fascinating to me. Favorite quotes (only tangenitally related to the Dictionary, but clearly too tempting for Hitchings not to include): when faced with a fancy violin solo, Johnson says, "Difficult, do you call it? I wish it were impossible." And, about my least favorite vegetable: "A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing."

Also finished a volume of Kitchen Sink Press' Li'l Abner series. I wish I had 'em all, but I've only got random volumes of the 27 or so that they got around to publishing. This volume detailed Abner's exploits as a radio Superman, and various near escapes from various femme fatales. As usual. I love this stuff.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

in which I can't stop complaining about Tim Roth

Saw Mongolian Ping Pong at the Varsity. Two other people in the audience. (In yesterday's catching-up post, I neglected to mention that there were only three other people at the Wassup Rockers screening, all women, which is very rare; and only four other people at the Shipwrecked screening, all men, which is not rare.) This was a much better film than I'd anticipated, as too many reviewers had felt the need to compare it with The Gods Must Be Crazy, so I'd expected a slightly condescending tone. Instead, it's respectful and stunningly beautiful. It has a languid pace, with many scenes in long shot with figures lost in a landscape, or multiple actions occuring across the screen. Many scenes are sharply truncated, with the expected resolution of the scene being recounted in the following scene--a wonderful way to keep a viewer focused. I love the three younger boys who periodically appear, carefully watching the three older boys (in admiration? with disdain? They don't give up their secrets). I loved the carnival scene where the boys attack the master of the Game of Chance for not allowing them to claim their prize, and the futile attempt to have him arrested. And there's a single shot of the central character and his grandmother, in a vivid red jacket, walking back to their yurt as a storm approaches--one of the greatest compositions I've seen all year. I'm very sad no one is going to this movie, because I can't think of anyone who wouldn't love it.
Final shot: close-up, epiphany, and an especially impressive one.

At home I watched the documentary Alan Clarke, Director, included in the DVD box set. Brief, and it whet my appetite for more of his work. I'd forgotten that Rita, Sue, and Bob, Too was his. That was great, as I remember. I'm afraid that all the stuff they could reasonably expect Americans to buy is in this box, which is too bad, as I'd love to see Penda's Fen, Psy-Warriors, Contact, Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, his theatrical adaptations Danton's Death and Baal (starring Bowie--I hadn't known that was Clarke's! I have the soundtrack), and most especially Christine, which I think is the only thing he wrote himself. The latter sounds like it could be as great as Elephant--it's just about the simple drudgery of a junkie's life, without the downward spiral motif so common to these things, particularly made-for-tv work. This documentary had far too little about how he worked--it spent more time on recounting scenes from the movies, and providing testimonials. Maybe there's more on the commentary tracks, but I don't feel like listening to them. Lots of people talking about how great Tim Roth is in Made in Britain. I just don't buy it. I don't see the intelligence in this skinhead they all keep talking about; or, I do see intelligence, but I see the intelligence of a bright young actor playing the role of his short, sheltered lifetime. It has none of the complexity of Ray Winstone in the two Scums or dear Gary in The Firm. Or even the much dimmer Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper. It's simply acting school stuff, and it sounds like Clarke is largely to blame--I think he was more focused on experimenting with the Steadicam than keeping the boy on track. That said, anyone who finds the young, bare-chested Tim Roth extremely hot will probably not understand what my problem is.

Monday, July 31, 2006

in which I try to catch up

Last Tuesday I saw Wassup Rockers, very good, exhilarating skateboard sequences, kind of the punk rock version of the "China Girl" sequence in Mauvais Sang.
Final shot: close-up--epiphany.
Wednesday saw Os Mutantes at The Moore. Amazing performance, despite the absence of Rita Lee. People didn't get on their feet until late in the show--I could hardly keep still, but as no one else was up and dancing, I, typically Seattle, stayed seated as well. Sergio looks like Mike Meyers playing Billy Zoom. They did everything I wanted to hear. I was surprised to hear an English language version of Virginia, but apparently they recorded a whole album in English (which I've never heard). Sir Richard Bishop opened--at first, I found him merely pleasant, albeit proficient, but he took his final piece into raga territory and it just tore my head open. I was accompanied by The Prettiest Critic--I found it difficult to tell if she was enjoying herself or not--I was probably bouncing around in my seat enough for the both of us. My schpilkas perhaps is rather annoying.
Thursday, two more Luc Moullet films: Shipwrecked on Route D17 which was the least interesting and most recent of his films, despite an intriguing premise. Final shot: tableau--embrace--then pan up to sky. Followed by A Comedy of Work, easily the best of the films. About an employment officer who actually gets jobs for her clients who meets an unemployed man who is happy to stay that way. Incredible absurdist sight gags, and refreshingly cynical about the value of work to an individuals character. Final shot: protagonist walks off screen.
Friday: ReAct Theater's production of Six Degrees of Separation at Richard Hugo House. An old friend was in the cast, and I'm afraid I didn't stick around to congratulate her, as the production was pretty amateurish. It didn't seem like any of the actors had ever encountered a wealthy person before. Guare is incredibly hard to perform (I've failed at it before), and occasionally they managed to hit a few of the moments quite effectively, but there were way too many dead patches.
Sunday: at the NWFF to see Kaleidoscope Eyes : Songs for Busby Berkeley in which composer Chris Jeffries writes new songs to accompany musical (and other) numbers from Busby Berkeley's films. Jeffries is a occasionally brilliant songwriter--certainly his songwriting skills are better than those of the authors of most recent big-deal musicals, if only about on par with a better-than-average hip-hop artist--but a lot of this verged on Mystery Science Theatre territory and ended up pissing me off. Most egregiously was a song mocking the sexist nature of the big Dames number--it's not like these aspects aren't apparent to anyone viewing it, but the lyrics of this number caused the audience, which I think included the entire congregation of Seattle Unity Church, to start hooting derisively at what is one of the most gorgeous examples of Hollywood surrealism ever put on film. The thing is, I don't think Jeffries even feels that contempt, but found himself taking the easy road, the road that allows an audience to congratulate themselves for being progressive, probably under pressure from a deadline. But there were a number of songs that had wit and grace and ability to imagine contemporary concerns in a vintage style, rather like Stephen Merritt at his best. The last couple of numbers were perfect: working with the images, but offering an alternative story that celebrated Berkeley's brilliance, and a lovely song to go with the final sequence from Jumbo that made clear Jeffries respect for classic Hollywood cinema. The vocal performances were lovely, and I particularly liked the guy who sang in the manner of Dick Powell.
Finally: I watched Alan Clarke's Made in Britain on DVD. Although extremely well-paced, this again had a Socially Conscious Message aspect to it that kept it from ever catching fire. Surprisingly, I thought Tim Roth was kind of awful! It was his first screen job, and like so many young actors I've seen over the years, firsthand, he took so much relish in playing a bad, bad boy, that you can see his acting wheels turning--"watch me now, I'm going to really scare you!" I'm glad that this was not my first exposure to Roth--it would have taken years for me to take him seriously after watching this mannered mess of a stunt performance. I'd like to see more of Alan Clarke's work--he's clearly a great director, but he's at the mercy of his writers, and it would take a truly visionary director to move these films out of the realm of the trite. Of the five films in this box, Elephant is the only masterpiece. Final shot: freeze frame, close-up.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

in which I do the same thing I did yesterday

Back to NWFF to see two more Luc Moullet films. First, A Girl is a Gun, or, An Adventure of Billy the Kid. This was in the madcap vein of Smugglers, although I liked it somewhat less. Still shot without sync sound, but in living color, it depicts the eternal struggle between man and woman. It stars Jean-Pierre Léaud at his most beautiful--of course he ends up being scalped: who wouldn't want that hair? He's such a mugger, too; the scene of his palm being cut in an "Indian" wedding ceremony features Jean-Pierre making an hilarious "yeeowch" face. And I loved the scene of him trying to strangle himself with the noose he's just been saved from. As in both of yesterday's movies, there's a lovely woman rolling around in mud (this time with Jean-Pierre--both of yesterday's featured girl-on-girl action). It climaxes in a variation on the final scene from Duel in the Sun, except with a happy(ish) ending. Only three people in the audience, one of whom left a half hour into the movie.
Final shot: repetition of opening shot, tableau.
This was followed by Anatomy of a Relationship, preceded by the 12-minute short film, Attempts at an Opening. Attempts depicts Luc's attempts at opening a Coke bottle. It was amusing, but after about three minutes, I felt like, "Oh, for fuck's sake, just give it here and let me do it." It felt more like one of those movies I'd have rather heard him talk about making, than to actually see. Anatomy was amazing, though. (It's funny--so far the films that NWFF scheduled for the reviewers to see have not been as exciting as the ones they didn't schedule. Billy the Kid was a little more polished than Smugglers, but it also had dead patches that Smugglers never had.) Anatomy is really a Caveh Zehedi film, made before Caveh was out of diapers. An hilarious and lacerating portrait of what went wrong in his relationship, he's pretty unsparing of himself (playing himself). The movie is co-directed by the woman in question, although she doesn't play herself in the relationship, but does show up as co-director at the end. I guess I always bought the story that French men know exactly how to please a woman, but Luc makes it clear that the French are every bit as clueless as men anywhere. Although he does open the possibility that perhaps it's just him, that perhaps no man has had this problem before now. As a magical thinker myself, I completely identify with his Religious Christian Atheism: when he has a sudden windfall of money, he launches into an excruciatingly funny rationalization of how it must be a divine blessing, but since there is no God, he must have suddenly come into existence for just that moment, performed the miracle of giving Luc $14,000, and then died--this is all delivered in the utmost sincerity, as if he's given it a great deal of thought (which I'm sure he did) and understood that this is the most plausible explanation.
Final shot: tableau, two protagonists.