Best of the Decade Derby resumes, hopefully with more frequency now that I'm settled in Brooklyn - and surrounded as I now am with dozens of cinephile friends and colleagues, I hope to have many of them over to watch and discuss more of the best films of the past 10 years.
Unfortunately, one of my favorite cinephiles and critics is moving out of New York today. Although I've only known Mike D'Angelo personally for about a year, he's meant a lot to me for many years, as he has for many online cinephiles. When I first explored the internet for helpful writings on film, his voice stood out on his website The Man Who Viewed Too Much, long before the blogosphere cluttered the landscape with voices. Once you read him, it's hard to forget his hard-edged style, his knack for an incisive turn of phrase that can raise both a chuckle and an eyebrow, and his more-than-occasional ruthless ass-ripping of a movie, including not a few golden calves cherished by myself or others (I'll never forget how he invoked the "cry of the fishmongers" line in Barton Fink to leave John Sayles' Limbo all but discredited.) Mike became more or less the first to leverage his online writing into a career as a professional critic, with gigs at Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York and Esquire, which made him the envy of not a few young, aspiring critics, myself included. I remember going to a screening of Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep at Film Forum after reading Mike's glowing review, and being annoyed by several young guys in the row behind me talking loudly. They were discussing Mike's review.
Perhaps it was because his voice held so much sway that I eventually felt the need to rail against it, which I did in this post on the Rotten Tomatoes forum (I'm still rather proud of my opening line: "New York City, where models swing their hips and critics sling their quips" - and I find Mike to be the fastest quipslinger in the Western Hemisphere). In this post I accused Mike of being unwilling to meet a movie halfway, which I feel has blinkered him against certain treasures in world or experimental cinema (cf. his review of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures: " Those who get off on movies that serve primarily as sociological legends will have a field day with it. You hardcore Jia fans know what to do.") I also called him "notoriously impatient," an accusation that finds support in his well-known penchant for walking out on films with great frequency (though in fairness, he sees a lot more films than just about anyone - including titles I couldn't be bothered to watch - so for him there are bound to be more worth walking out on). This blog, in fact, was in some ways conceived by an un-D'Angelo philosophy: that with the films in Shooting Down Pictures I'd try to go as deeply and as generously as possible into articulating what's interesting about each film, even at the sake of challenging my initial snap judgments.
A few online cinephiles stopped corresponding with me because of what I said about Mike on Rotten Tomatoes, I guess due to a feeling of loyalty to Mike along with resentment that I had vandalized their own sacred cow. Apparently Mike didn't seem to mind, since he links to this critique on his own website, where he labels me "one of my most discerning critics." I find it somewhat ironic, perhaps even sobering, that I've started writing for Time Out New York, D'Angelo's old platform. Just yesterday I told a filmmaker friend visiting from Japan that I was now writing for Time Out, to which he responded, "Wow, you're going to be like Mike D'Angelo! He's a great writer, even though he wrote a hateful review of my movie!"
I'm only a few reviews into my stint and I've already come to realize how much my writing for this publication invokes that old D'Angelo snappiness. I feel that my writing runs a risk, the same risk that I'd complain about with Mike from time to time: to cut a movie down for an easy punchline rather than get to its center. But ultimately I do love writing in this voice, especially when it reflects a passionate, energetic and infectious concern for these films and for film in general - in other words, Mike's writing at its best.
I made sure to make Mike the first of hopefully many invitees to the Brooklyn Best of the Decade Derby, just days before his departure. We settled on Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a fitting choice in all too many ways. Not only is it one of Mike's very favorite films of the decade, and possibly one of mine as well, but it's about a man who's spending what may be his final hours in New York City. And it's about the bonds between guys who have a longstanding regard for each other, a bit of contentiousness mixed with concern. My screening with Mike had little contentious to it whatsoever, just a lot of great insights from one of the best critics around, which I'd now like to share.
Here's the play by play, with Mike's comments in blue:
0:00 - MD'A: This always struck me as an odd way to start a film - you hear beating sounds and the whimpering of a dog.
KBL: In hindsight it could represent how the studio treated this movie.
MD'A: Yeah the studio all but buried this picture. Even this DVD package is pretty bare bones; it doesn't have much to it. They just didn't know what to do with a movie like this.
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0:01 - KBL: Here's Tony Siragusa - ex-all-star linebacker from the Baltimore Ravens, in what I believe is his only film role
MD'A - I can see why that would be the case. His acting is pretty weak.
KBL: Especially in his last scene when he's pleading for his life. Pretty unconvincing.
0:02 - MD'A: Here's an example of something Spike Lee loves to do with shooting a scene - he cuts in the middle of a shot - not a jump cut, but shooting a scene from multiple angles and cutting between those angles. And he also loves to do this instant repeat of a shot, especially when people are meeting each other and shaking hands or embracing in a significant way.
KBL: I think that's something he got from Godard, but he's definitely made it into his own signature, just in the way he deploys it in his films.
MD'A: And there's also his infamous use of tracking shots directly facing an actor while the background is moving behind him - which this film has the best example of; we'll get to that later.
0:04 - MD'A: I just can't get over this opening credit sequence. When I first saw it, I didn't realize what it was that I was looking at. But then when it pulls back to a wide shot, and I realized what I was looking at, it floored me, and i think I was in tears when i first saw it. I don't think I've ever actually seen the WTC tribute in light in person.
At the time no one was acknowledging that this thing had happened, outside documentaries. As far as I know this is the first non-documentary to acknowledge 9-11, which is especially poignant as other films set in New York were busy erasing references to the World Trade Center. KBL: It definitely raises the stakes as far as what this film is going to deliver for the audience. Now you have the emotional weight of 9/11 to live up to.
MD'A: But it's not a film about 9/11. It's an adaptation of a book written before 9/11. And it's kind of grafted onto this event that happened. In the interviews i read, Spike said he said he couldn't shoot a movie in New York and pretend this didn't happen. Which is a pretty gutsy choice, as far as how he has to incorporate the event into the fabric of the film without it seeming phony.
0:08 - MD'A: It wasn't till later that i realized that this homeless bum appears later in the movie, in flashback - he's the business man who we see buying drugs from Ed Norton in the playground, and it's apparent that he's just gotten started. He's not nearly as messed up then as he looks now.
0:09 - MD'A: This whole sequence is beautifully shot - from here to when he gets to the school. We don't quite realize what Ed Norton is doing, but it's that he's leaving for prison. So he's looking around his neighborhood one more time.
KBL: It's remarkable how beneath the surface so much of this is, as well as how much he's laying out these little nuggets for the audience to notice later on, like the junkie you pointed out earlier, or the beaten up dog at the beginning, which corresponds to Norton getting beaten up at the end. And you really have to pay attention to the details of the film to appreciate its architecture.
0:11- MD'A: Spike does things with the camera that no one else does. Like this shot, with the camera tracking forward, and then it moves in from behind.
0:12 - KBL: Phillip Seymour Hoffman before he became a showboating oscarmonger.
MD'A - This was about the time that i felt he was getting overexposed but i think he's great in this film.
KBL - He's muted and introspective, though even so it's highly mannered. It's a sign of bad tendencies that festered and swelled as his career continued.
0:16 - KBL (looking at Anna Paquin): Too bad Sasha Grey wasn't around when this film was being cast
MD'A: Not sure she'd be right for the role. This character played by Paquin comes on so strong, and Grey is so closed off in The Girlfriend Experience.
KBL: Without going into particulars, let's just say that she's more forthcoming in her other performances.
KBL: Spike Lee's Wall Street. I'm not sure how convincing this sequence is on its own, but what I like about it is how it takes us to a completely different social circle than the ones we've seen so far, carried over by a tenuous transition, Philip Seymour Hoffmann calling Barry Pepper. There's a unique narrative conflict brought about just by the structure of this movie, that the audience is put in a position of having to reconcile these three worlds that they've been presented. For all the hating on D.W. Griffith, I think Spike Lee learned a few things from the old honky. And like Intolerance, this movie is about how the world is so much bigger than any one person, how we it's impossible for us to fully account for the mistakes or the sins of others, and what we do in the face of this knowledge.
23 min - MD'A: How far are we into this, and we still don't really know what this movie is about? And how far will we go before we really have a sense of what this movie is really about? As a viewer I find this kind of thing exciting, up to a point, the longer a film goes without me knowing what the film is about, because once i have a fix on something I risk losing interest.
0:26 - MD'A: This bath sequence - I've seen this film so many times that it's second natue but when I first saw this scene I didn't know whether this was a flashback or a continuation of Norton and Rosario Dawson sitting on the couch.
You have to pick up cues from the contrast in tone between the two scenes. The couch scene was cold in washed-out daylight, this one is warm and intimate by candlelight. You have to infer that these moments are separated by a huge stretch of time, but even then you can't assume that this is a flashback, until you see what happens next. Lee's being pretty aggressive with messing up the linearity of the narrative.
0:27 -MD'A: This is the first time I ever heard that "sheeeeeiiiit" actor apply his trademark. The guy who plays Clay Davis in The Wire.
0:28 - KBL: This is great, how it moves from Norton looking at Rosario Dawson in the flashback to his hand on the couch. It went into the flashback with that moment, with his hand on the couch, where she had just been sitting, and it seemed that he was placing his hand where she was just sitting, just to capture that moment of her presence before she leaves her life possibly forever. But after this flashback we realize that he's remembering the moment the feds busted in and found his stash in the couch, and his doubts about her as the informant. But what's great is that these two contrasting interpretations can both be right - they are the two sides of his feelings for her, and they're battling in his mind and his memories.
0:34 -KBL: Brian Cox - he had such a great run at this time - starting with LIE, then Adaptation, 25th Hour. But like most great character actors, your ship comes in for a few years, then it goes away. Haven't seen him much lately.
0:36 - MD'A: Never really noticed this before - the bulk of the film is loose and naturalistic, but it has these parts that take you out of naturalism into this super crazy stylized set pieces. This "fuck you" sequence and the fantasy sequence at the end, as well as the club sequence, which is extremely stylized. It's almost the same as how an action movie is structured, with these moments that take you into another space, where everything has been leading to and it all kind of pays off.
KBL: This diatribe against just about every social subset of New York, it's so caricatured and crude, to the point of being grating. But the thing is that these kinds of crude, superficial ways of looking at people are what's inside people's heads, whether we like to acknowledge it or not. So much about this film is about how we judge others, and how that judgment reflects back on us.
MD'A: No other person could get away with this. Partly because Spike already did it in Do the Right Thing, so he had already set a precedent. But this monologue is also taken from the source novel by David Benioff. Though I wouldn't be surprised if Benioff took inspiration for it from Do the Right Thing!
Also, this sequence wouldn't work for me if it weren't for the very last sequence, when these caricatures all come back to say goodbye to him. Which is just so incredibly moving, i get choked up just thinking about it.
KBL: It also does a remarkable job of tying together all the pieces of the plot that have been placed on the table up to this point. Like you said, it's a payoff moment, both emotionally and expositionally.
MD'A: it also the first time the movie mentions that he's going away for 7 years, you get a full sense of the stakes involved now.
KBL: Wow, so that means that this year, 2009, is the year that Norton would be getting released from prison. You have to wonder what that movie would look like. And also Barry Pepper's character, in light of all that has gone down in the finance world. Where is he at now?
0:42- MD'A: And then it goes boom right into the film that you have just been watching. It's as if it never happened.
KBL: Which is what he does at the very end as well.
0:43 - MD'A: This is such a dad thing to say - "Oh don't take the bus to jail, i'll drive you there. It'll take half as long." Like yeah, gee I can't wait to get there, Pop!
0:44- MD'A: This is a controversial scene because of where it's shot. This is where some people think he goes too far because he uses a location so close to Ground Zero, and we even see Ground Zero right outside the window of this apartment. But it makes perfect sense that this is where Barry Pepper's character would be working, since he works on Wall St.
0:46 - MD'A: What strikes me here is that these two characters played by Pepper and Hoffman, they would never be friends if they had met now.
KBL: So that touches on the significance of your past and how much of that matters to your present life. What really is keeping these guys together, especially since one of them is being put away and no one has a reason for being friends with him?
0:47 - So much of this film is about judging other people, and the way Lee deals with it can be both crude and blatant but also formally sophisticated (how the shit Pepper says about Norton in this scene plays counterpoint to his dialogue with Norton, when he makes out to be a big brother to him).
0:48 - MD'A: There's too much score in this scene. It's one of my few beefs with the film, that in this particular scene you could have had no score and it would have been just as effective.
0:50 - MD'A: I love how Lee takes us from a fade to black into this weird flashback scene in all white. This entire film is an amazingly structured series of color and tonal contrasts.
0:52 - MD'A: Funny way to get the exposition across in this interrogation scene. Let's have the cops mock the exposition to Norton, like it's some bad crime movie they've seen too many times!
0:55 - KBL: "I'm in the 99th percentile of desirable men." This scene with Barry Pepper is prescient because it shows the mentality of the financial analyst - that they can apply whatever supposedly objective measures they want to justify their evaluations - of companies, of debts, of their own sexual prospects, of themselves.
0:57 - KBL: Again, people passing crude judgments - I get that it's about the prejudices that people harbor and how it finally seeps out. But sometimes it gets to be a bit much, like in a scene like this - the most they can seem to relate to each other is in this thick social stereotypes - it's not that different from MTV's the real world.
0:59 - MD'A: Again i love this way you don't really see this guy Simon the junkie clearly.
1:03 - KBL: I kind of wonder looking at Rosario Dawson here - could she have had Angelina Jolie's career? She looks just like her in this shot. She's easily as attractive, and possibly as talented - we may never know because there just aren't that many roles written for women of color.
1:05 - KBL - Bar scene. See that look the bartender lady gave when Rosario Dawson walked in? Again, always this theme of judging and competition.
1:08 - MD'A: I love how this scene gives that bartender a little moment to get humanized further, even though we don't see her again. The way she gets to express dismay and insecurity that these guys seem hesitant to come to her birthday party. I hate it when films get called generous in their treatment of their characters, but i think it really fits this film.
1:11 - MD'A: And now we're at the point where I think the movie finally makes it evident what Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is doing in this movie, because he is at the early part of the character arc shared by these three guys. He is at the point in his life where he's about to violate some kind of moral boundary. Ed Norton is already at the end of it.
KBL: And you can say that Barry Pepper is in the middle of it, playing fast and loose in the financial world, not even fully aware of the economic and even moral consequences of his actions - and we now have real life to make us aware of that.
1:12 - KBL: It's ironic that this super hip 17 year old dj who's being touted as being the hot new thing, that he's playing stuff from the early 90s. I don't know if this is Spike Lee's idea of a joke.
1:13 - KBL: "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends." I would have bought a bottle for Mike, but he doesn't drink.
1:14 - MD'A: Here we have Norton egging Hoffman on about his possible dalliance with an underage student. This is a reversal of when Monty was about to start dealing as a kid, and no one was dissuading him. Now Hoffman is on the brink and no one is dissuading him.
1:15 - KBL: Here's where I rant about Hoffman's acting, because all the things I find annoying about him are in this scene. His slack jawed look, his bewildered eyes, the blinking, the sheepish downcast expressions. It was cool 10 years ago, but you simply cannot do this your entire career, because it becomes a schtick and you end up as petrified in it as Al Pacino's acting.
1:18 - MD'A: the "funny you should say that" bit - it's pleasurably digressive, it's worthy for its own sake, but it's the kind of thing that studios would have no patience for.
1:24 - MD'A: This is the first time in the film that he uses his trademark dolly shot reverse point of view, and it's great in expressing Anna Paquin's floating mental state, high on ecstasy.
KBL: And it's a bookend to the shot that ends this scene of Hoffman on the floating dolly, where he's in the exact opposite mental state.
1:26 - KBL: All that Hoffman low-key neurotic hamming actually amounts to the perfect buildup for what he says here. "I give a shit!!!"
MD'A: What's interesting is that at this point we can't tell if Anna Paquin's character is saying this stuff because she really wants the good grade in class, or if she's just fucking with him for the hell of it. Either way, she's clearly taken over the dynamic.
1:28 - MD'A: This is one of my favorite shots right here - this is so beautifully choreographed. He follows Anna Paquin up the stairs, then follows this random woman back down the stairs, where we find Philip Seymour Hoffman standing. And then we follow him going up. And then once he's inside the restroom with Anna Paquin, you can bearely hear the music in this scene.
KBL: The look in her eye is amazing - she's flabbergasted.
MD'A: Yeah, that he actually fucking did it.
1:30 - MD'A: And then we're back out and the music is now full blast - and this expression on Hoffman's face with that people mover shot. When I first saw this I was excited for Spike Lee because you've been trying to make this shot work for 15 years and Spike, you finally pulled it off!
1:33 - KBL: What a hypocrite - Barry Pepper's holier than thou speech to Rosario Dawson.
MD'A: The thing is that there's a lot of anger in him at the whole situation, a lot of guilt that he bears on himself. And the dialogue starts with him blaming himself and blaming himself, and then finally he can't take it anymore, and he has to direct it all at her.
1:34: MD'A: "Who do you trying to be, R. Kelly?" Mysteriously, surprisingly undated!
1:36 -MD'A: This is the only scene that feels like it should be in a different film, this scene in the den with the Russian mafia.
1:38 - KBL: I don't like these angles at all - they belong in a horror movie, esp. with the jack o lantern lighting.
1:45 - KBL: What's sad between Norton and Dawson's character is that she wants to have this crucial talk with him, but they never quite have it. He keeps kind of ignoring her. And to me that says the relationship is doomed.
1:47 - MD'A: This climactic fight scene. I had some really heated arguments with people on the net about what this fight means. Monty asks to get beaten up, supposedly so no one will want to molest him with his pretty boy looks once he's in jail. That's what he says, but I think what the scene is really about is what's the right kind of justice for Monty. He knows what he's done is awful and that he traded in people's misery. He knows that he needs to be punished but he doesn't want to be punished by the state. He wants to be punished by his friends, the friends who should have punished him long ago, when in actuality, no one told him to stop when he should have. So he's asking to be punished by someone who he respects, which is Barry Pepper's character. And he knows that Barry Pepper has been wanting to kick his ass for some time, and he's just laying out all the shit that's between them - including Pepper's attraction to Rosario Dawson - so this is really cleaning out the stable between the two of them.
KBL: Because that may be what it takes for them to purify the bond between them, so that they can get through this long jail term and still come out with a friendship intact. It's a trauma that they have to go through together to give meaning to their relationship, which really has been dead for a long time.
MD'A: And meanwhile Zach Campbell on the net was talking about this character's fear of anal rape and how it was endemic of Spike Lee's homosexual panic. I'm sorry, I don't think that's what this is about.
KBL: I wonder, looking back, if the reason Barry Pepper treats Dawson so badly in their last scene together is so that he's deliberately sabotaging his chance of scoring with her once Norton is in jail. Maybe that's a stretch, but it fits the kind of twisted, almost subconscious logic of friendship in this film.
1:51 - MD'A: Here Lee and Terrence Blanchard do the opposite from that ground zero scene. He takes the soundtrack out instead of blaring a lot of dramatic music into it. It's what he should have done before. Here it's just amazingly effective, this wash of silence.
1:53 - KBL: Finally, Norton and Dawson get a chance to talk, but it happens too quickly and too late. It really leaves things hanging between them. And then the way he dumps the ice that she gave him - that to me tells me that he's renouncing her, he wants her to move on. He's sabotaging his chances with her as much as Barry Pepper was.
1:55 - MD'A: Here all the people from the "fuck you" montage show up, but they're all smiling and happy.
KBL: It's like the movie is asking, when you're likely to never see someone or some place again, how do you want to remember all these people?
MD'A: You start to feel sentimental to all the things you despise, even stupid shit. When I first moved to New York, I worked for 2 years in a dorky video store. and i hated it, it was a shitty job, the only thing i got was free movies. But the last day i remember getting nostalgic about it, and I visited every corner of that store. I was already missing it.
And he has no idea when he's coming back to this city. You could argue that that's why he chooses to go to jail and doesn't escape like his dad suggests, cuz it gives him the option to go back home. I wonder if this movie just didn't make an impression widely because it's so specifically about New York and what it means to live here.
1:57 - MD'A: You wonder when did this sequence switch from real to fantasy - you have no idea.
2:01 - MD'A: This sequence is "The Last Temptation of Christ" compressed into 10 minutes.
THE FINAL SEQUENCE: DO NOT WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE ENTIRE MOVIE
2:04 - KBL: This is perfect - an absolute Nowheresville- how do you location scout a place like this?
KBL: Brian Cox is pulling miracles out of this monologue. "We'll taste the barley. Let it linger." How you say a line like that and make it poetic instead of cheesy - if that doesn't define a great actor I don't know what does.
2:05 - MD'A: I can't think of another film that has such an extended speculative happy ending.
KBL: Well there's Murau's The Last Laugh, which was foisted upon Murnau by the studios who demanded a happy ending, so he gave them a happy ending that's practically stuffed down the audience's throats, it's beyond belief. This is kind of like that, but it's less meta than meditative. It's less about what it means to have a happy ending in a movie than what it means to make a life-changing decision.
2:06 - MD'A: This is such a great way to reintroduce Rosario Dawson. And instead of the Spike Lee patented double shot embrace, you get three shots - the more time there's more emotion! Too bad there's some unfortunate age make-up at the end of this montage.
2:07 - MD'A: There are people who are confused by the ending because they don't know the New York geography. They don't know if they took that turn or just kept driving to the jail, because they don't get that the sign that the car just passed is for the George Washington Bridge, which is the where the dad had wanted to turn off for their planned exile.
KBL: So is this your favorite New York movie?
MD'A: Well it's definitely up there. When they asked me to select a New York movie for the New York Film Critics Circle series a few years back, I picked Dog Day Afternoon. That's my favorite, but this would be up there.