My review of Blind Mountain (2007, Li Yang)

 is live on Slant Magazine.  Film currently screening at the Film Forum. My friend Karin especially enjoyed these lines:

Picture a Zhang Yimou pastoral with a pigtailed Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi getting gangbanged by an entire household and you'll see how far Chinese cinema has come in the past decade, for better or worse...

...But such nuances quickly succumb to stark, outrageous depictions of the villagers as zombies groping after Xuemei like a Chinese hillbilly version of Rosemary's Baby...

 

Read the full review

No Country for New Immigrants?

Here's a rough transcript of a conversation I had earlier in the week with my old boss (OB), who's been a kindly maternal figure to me during my New York existence. OB: Kevin, have you seen No Country for Old Men?

Me:  Yes.

OB: I need to talk to you about it. I watched it over the weekend and it really got me thinking.

Me: Yeah, it's pretty disturbing isn't it?

OB: Well the ending really gave me a lot to think about.

Me: Yeah there's no real resolution is there?

OB: Well did you think there was a social message that they were trying to say through the story?

Me: What do you mean?

OB: Well the movie is obviously saying something really dark about what's happened to our country.

Me: Right...

OB: Well I was thinking about the Tommy Lee Jones character and what he says at the end of the movie.  About how he doesn't understand what's happening around him.

Me: So it's like a pervasive evil that's gone out of control, and it's everywhere now...

OB: Well, just the fact that he seems so overwhelmed by the crime that's happening, and that he doesn't even understand why these people were doing these things... Don't you think it's about immigration?

Me: What do you mean?

OB: Well think about it.  The bad guys in the movie are all [hushed tone] Mexicans, and look at how easily people can run back and forth across the border, and look at what happens?  And look at the way they act.  It's just so lawless and chaotic. And this cop can't do anything about it.  It really breaks your heart.

Me: Did you get that from Lou Dobbs or something?

OB: You don't agree with me, do you?  I mean, don't you think the movie puts out a pretty good case for immigration reform?

Me: Well, actually you might have uncovered something that's bothered me about this movie and I hadn't been able to put my finger on.

OB: So you don't like the movie?

Me: I admire it, I respect it.  I mean, it's perfectly crafted and shot.  Every scene is flawless in its own way.  But there's something about it in the middle, and what it has to say about America, that just rubs me the wrong way.  I left it feeling so rotten.  I just don't buy that view of America.

OB: Well I can see what you mean.  But it was very disturbing.  I think it says a lot about what's wrong with this country.

------------------------------------

Like I said above, I think my old boss put her finger on something about this film that for me just stinks.  Though some have labeled the Coens as pure genre stylists with no socio-ideological affiliations,  they strike me as long being neo-conservative in their vision of America (the one exception may be The Big Lebowski with its lampooning of  Gulf War patriotism).  I don't begrudge them their right to espouse their ideology (unwittingly or not).  I think there have been many masterpieces of American right wing cinema (mostly in the crime and horror genre where the cinematic exploitation of audience fear and paranoia can far exceed any speech by Rudy Giuliani in eloquence).   And it may just be another sign of our national schizophrenia that this film may win the best picture Oscar the same year that Obama (an anti-"No Country" candidate if there ever was) gets elected president.

Would you agree that No Country is pretty much right-wing in its view of America?  Any right-wing American masterpieces you can think of?

PS:  Long ago I predicted a There Will Be Blood / "Milkshake" mashup video, and sure enough there's one out - though it's pretty lame.   Would any one venture one for No Country mashed with The White Stripes' "Icky Thump"?

Rounding up the There Will Be Blood haters - and then what shall we do with them?

I still need to read Stephanie Zacharek's pan of TWBB, which I've heard is one of the best out there.  But for now, here's a good critique (with links to others) by Gabe Klinger, which I found via Facebook but is apparently also available on a site called cine-file.info, which gives thoughtful coverage of film events in Chicago (all the more valuable once Jonathan Rosenbaum retires from regular film coverage next month). 

A skeleton film that takes for granted a lot about American history and the American character, P.T. Anderson's story of the rise of an early 20th century oil man favors mystification and a modernistic structure, which allows for plenty of observation but asserts little by the way of a conclusion (except, perhaps, the accuracy of the prediction set forth in its title). THERE WILL BE BLOOD sifts through a hollowed field in which the main protagonist is supposed to register as the embodiment of destructive capitalist greed—he's that, sure, though it's secondary to his medieval capacity to threaten and ultimately shed the blood of others. Leading an otherwise forgettable set of background characters, Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview is as hard to place as Adam Sandler in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE: both characters are outsiders in any historical context and may be better explained through their pathologies. All of Anderson's films have the impulse to make summary statements about cinema and people. Here he knocks about several decades, outlines a novel (by Upton Sinclair) and gives his talented leading actor no boundaries whatsoever in achieving the most out-of-control, grotesque performance of the year. Too much credit is given to filmmakers for naked ambition, and certainly the raves from Manohla Dargis, Scott Foundas and so many others seem hyperbolic. What's ambition without studied form? The influence of Altman and Peckinpah in THERE WILL BE BLOOD's bombastic and inelegant painting of America is decisive and fascinating, if more corrosive than the oil beneath Daniel Plainview's feet. ---

Plenty more to be said, of course. The above is admittedly pretty cryptic.

My friend Dan Sallitt writes persuasively on why he didn't feel involved in the film: http://www.panix.com/~sallitt/blog/2008/01/i-am-not-convinced-that-p-t-anderson-is.html

Armond White calls it PT Anderson's latest "pretend epic": http://www.nypress.com/21/1/film/ArmondWhite.cfm I don't agree with everything White writes (for example that Plainview can only be seen as a thesis position) but I think he offers some good discussion points.Ed Gonzalez adds another dissenting voice, calling THERE WILL BE BLOOD "film-school-in-a-box", which can be read either as good or bad, I guess: http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=3387

Lastly, although Jonathan Rosenbaum doesn't seem to fully endorse the film, he lists it in the Reader's Critics' Choice section: http://onfilm.chicagoreader.com/movies/critic.html I agree that it should be seen, but the hyperbole (one critic I usually admire wrote that it's the "kind of film that people will be analyzing and admiring for as long as people will continue to do such things") has really peeved me. Scott Foundas, a friend, wrote that Anderson has made one of the great American movies.I might say the same thing about John Gianvito's PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND, which takes a real stake in American history (one might call it a "free adaptation" of Howard Zinn's A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES), presents meaningful, clear images, and demystifies, in an original form, a lot of what THERE WILL BE BLOOD chooses to mystify about American capitalism. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is pure stlye, nothing else. It's a muddled effort, I haven't read a single argument to convince me otherwise.

Here's what I wrote in reply:

Gabe, thanks for pointing out cine-file, whose usefulness as a local source for quality film criticism will be all the more needed as Jonathan steps down from the Reader. I do wish that the site had a search function as I could not find your review there.

Your assessment of the film makes many great points, up until the point that, looking at it from an intertextual standpoint, almost all of the first 2/3 of your comments could apply to, say, Citizen Kane (shallow supporting cast notwithstanding). My point being that much of what constitutes canonical American cinema (Kane, Godfather, Chinatown), is accompanied with an inflated assignation of having something profound to say about American politics or society. Not that they don't, but it's typically on a level of dramatic bombast and mythmaking (or mystifcation, as you put it) than intricate, fact-based observation. To what extent this is something to be criticized depends on what one wants to get out of cinema.

I don't see much Altman (despite the dedication) or Peckinpah in this film at all. More Kubrick (in the cinematic) and Scorsese (in the dramatic) -- and John Huston (whatever it means to be influenced by Huston, perhaps a persnickety antihumanist worldview). Whatever the case, none of these folks were famed for non-aggrandizing historical insights (despite some people's claims to the contrary, at least for Altman and Scorsese) - but then again how many mainstream American directors can you think of that were?

Such is the pathology of American cinema to make and destroy myths that the ending of TWBB seems to serve as a built in parody of the bigger than life cinema that preceded it, if only to build up an even bigger and more garish display of traditional American types.

I'm glad you brought up John's film, which indeed makes a great companion piece to Anderson and whose formal modesty and concentration more than compensate for the other's excesses.

Thoughts from anyone out there?  I'm pondering just what are the nature of the joys to be found in TWBB.  How much of what Gabe & Co.'s complaints can apply to other commonly touted great films?  Are they missing the boat?  Either way, I think that line, "What's ambition without studied form?" is key.

Quick takes on new films seen in the past month

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007, Kent Jones) IMDbscreened December 11, 2007 at the Walter Reade Theater, NYC yes

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn) IMDb screened December 30, 2007 on DVD in South San Francisco, CA Didn't expect it to sneak up on me at the end -- I wonder if they should have told the film in strict chronological order just to get Holbrook's amazing presence in there sooner. yes

Persepolis (2007, Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Parounnaud) IMDb screened December 31, 2007 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, NY I much prefer the graphic novels - they are more evocative and not as ingratiatingly cutesy as I found this movie to be.  Stlll I hope this film opens a lot of doors for greater understanding of Iran - boy do we need it more than ever. yes

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie (2008, Mike Nawrocki) IMDb review in Slant Magazine NO

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul-Thomas Anderson) IMDb second viewing screened January 7, 2008 at BAM YES 

Jour de Fete (1949, Jacques Tati) IMDb screened January 6, 2008 at Walter Reade Theater, NY Saw the color print at the Walter Reade in Lincoln Center with Jonathan Rosenbaum introducing it. Not as highly touted as his later films, but I actually prefer it to M. Hulot's Holiday and Mon Oncle, due to its inside-out knowingness of its characters and the world they inhabit, which allows it to exploit nearly every opportunity for humor and shrewd observation of social values and behavior. I suppose one could make the same argument for all of Tati's great films, and in fact Rosenbaum has made the point that Tati's films work together to make an epic chronology of everyday life in France in the modern era. Indeed, the pathos of this film doesn't fully register unless you watch Mon Oncle or Playtime as a point of contrast - as a time capsule of a lost world it is quite poignant. YES

Still Life / Sanxia Haoren (2006, Jia Zhangke) IMDb second viewing screened January 8, 2008 at Magno Studios, NY Saw at a press screening in 35mm. DVD was much better - HD colors and lines really popped, on film it's dark and muddled. Not as many subtexts blossomed out in the second viewing as I had expected, but it's still a compelling film with some of Jia/Yu Lik Wai's most inspired compositions, with an emerging subtext of masculinity and brotherhood not dealt with so deeply by Jia since his breakthrough Xiao Wu 10 years prior. Han Sanming is terrific in the lead. yes

Lake of Fire (2006, Tony Kaye) IMDb screened January 10, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken, NJ gutsy film - in my mind it subtly sides towards pro-choice (they seem to get the last word at every chapter in the story),but it shows more sides to the debate than any film I can think of. The last half hour is incredibly powerful, when we move past the rhetorical tug of war and get to spend time with a woman as she undergoes the procedure - and we see just how morally and emotionally conflicted an experience it is -- and the sheer humanity of these scenes transcends political or rhetorical posturing. yes

No End in Sight (2007, Charles Ferguson) IMDb screened January 10, 2008 on DVD in Weehawken, NJ my only grievance is the absence of the key top-level players (no fault of the filmmakers, they tried I assume) and their account of what they were thinking (or not thinking) leaves a big frustrating chasm of accountability in this blistering narrative. yes

Ne touchez pas la hache / The Duchess of L'Anglaise (2007, Jacques Rivette) IMDb screened January 14, 2008 at Magno Studio in New York, NY last half hour is really great, but there's a lot of stuffy costumed hemming and hawing that, while attentive to the gamesmanlike customs of the era it depicts, isn't depicted with the singularity one would expect from a name like Rivette. mixed

Blogging Phantoms of the Opera Jawa NYT Review Controversy

I'm very pleased that Opera Jawa, one of my favorite films of 2006, is getting its New York debut at the MOMA Global Lens series. Quite unexpectedly, a controversy has erupted around this film, provoked by Chicago Reader's soon-to-be-retiring Jonathan Rosenbaum over a seemingly throwaway brief review of the film by Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times. Rosenbaum's Reader Blog entry accuses Catsoulis' review of being an "ugly, xenophobic" throwback to what he considers the prevailing disposition of the Times in "when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost." (He does pay compliment to today's Times film review staff as being "better than it's ever been before," thanks to "the lively prose of Manohla Dargis, the literary intelligence (if not the film background) of A.O. Scott, and the critical and scholarly chops of Dave Kehr.") A pretty heated discussion ensued in the comments section of the blog, which featured a range of contentions about, the quality of the piece, its perceived impact (and that of Times reviews in general) on the film's potential audience, and the perils of newspaper film reviewing in general. I just want to point out some key contentions, and I'd be curious to hear what others think:

- Do you agree with Rosenbaum's description of Catsoulis' review as "xenophobic" and insulting to Indonesians?

- (pursuant to comments by m(ike) d'a(ngelo), harry tuttle, vadim (rizov) et al: is it possible to do justice to a challenging avant garde film in a review of under 200 words? (if you think so, feel free to post your own favorite instances that you've encountered

- To what extent is plot or contextual information essential when faced with a brief capsule review?

- re: Matt Zoller Seitz' second comment in response to (Chris) wells. Which do you think is more likely to arouse a viewer's interest in Opera Jawa: that it was one of the films produced for the New Crowned Hope series of third world films produced by Peter Sellars for the 250th birthday of Mozart; or that lead actor Eko Supriyanto was a dancer on Madonna's Drowned World Tour?

Answer all four correctly and you may receive a DVD screener of Opera Jawa mailed to you (just don't ask where you'll get it from).

erratum:

I think the blog commenter named "Mizoguchi" is Dave Kehr, who I believe was shaking his head vigorously while Jonathan was nodding his even more vigorously when I asked them what they thought of the film after they had both seen it in Venice. "Mizoguchi" calls the film "a rather heavy-handed excercise in European avant-garde theater... I found the overlay of European Po-Mo on the traditional material actually rather offensive -- just another bit of cultural imperialism, this time extended from the left." But this has me wondering to what degree these remarks could apply to all third world filmmakers who have been schooled and influenced by the left-wing European art establishment, from Brazil's Glauber Rocha to Mozambique's Abdherrahmane Sissako and all post-colonial parts in between. I find that "cultural imperialism" knock rather unfair, or at least in need of serious unpacking.

Collective Bloodletting this Saturday @ BAM

Filmbrain posted it on his blog so I might as well post it on mine. 5:40 screening of the best American film of 2007, There Will Be Blood at BAM. We're organizing a posse to see it and hang out afterwards at a nearby establishment in a collective attempt to make sense of what we just saw (especially the ending, which I'm still grappling with).

If you're interested in joining us, buy your tickets here and shoot me a line.

Top tens among friends

Last week in San Francisco my fellow Golden State Warriors fans Jonathan Marlow (formerly of GreenCine) and Hannah Eaves (Link TV) were swapping top ten lists. When I came back I tapped Cindi for hers. So here you are with four lists (the first two can also be found on the SF360 site): Hannah Eaves

1. "Hotel Chevalier" 2. "No Country for Old Men" 3. Zellner Bros vs Duplass Bros Smackdown Program (at SXSW) 4. "You, the Living" 5. "Hannah Takes the Stairs" 6. "Radiant City" 7. "Persepolis" 8. "My Winnipeg" 9. "Manufactured Landscapes" 10. "Sicko"

Jonathan Marlow

The pesky criteria: Must've screened theatrically somewhere in the U.S. for the first time during 2007. This eliminates the honorable (and long overdue) resurrection of "Killer of Sheep" (Milestone deserves their own separate recognition for this significant achievement and the "I Am Cuba" set). Must be fiction, although some documentaries are clearly their own form of fiction. Documentaries deserve their own list, I wager. It also goes without saying that I would have to actually see the film, which rules out a few -- "There Will Be Blood" or "Youth Without Youth," for instance, might've made the list if I'd seen them. Then again, maybe they wouldn't.

Any list, of course, is a perennial victim of the list-maker's own peculiar tastes. I have no great fondness for coming-of-age stories or bio-pics, which strikes "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Control" (both otherwise largely exceptional movies, although the former could stand to be about 45 minutes shorter). Much as I liked nearly every aspect of "Juno" (the script and performances, primarily), it still feels a bit too lightweight for the list. If I'd limited it to "films made in North America," it'd certainly appear.

With these caveats and without further delay, a list (which breaks its primary rule with the first and second slots):

1. "You, the Living" Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson's long-awaited follow-up to "Songs from the Second Floor." The fact that "Du levande" still lacks a U.S. distributor is merely another indication of the pathetic state of film distribution these days.

2. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" The latest highlight from Romania is an abortion drama in the shape of a suspense film from first-time director Cristian Mungiu. On paper, it shouldn't work. On the screen, it's nearly two hours of satisfactory dread.

3. "No Country for Old Men" Everyone says it's the best movie from the brothers Coen in years. I won't disagree with them (and I'd encourage those same folks to see their Cannes-commissioned "World Cinema" short from "Chacun son cinema," a "companion piece" of a sort). Let's hope that John Hillcoat does right by "The Road."

4. "Brand Upon the Brain!" With its road-show live performances, arguably the "movie event" of the year. Arguably the only "movie event" this year, though. Nonetheless, a delirious fantasy of familial discontent.

5. "Silent Light" For the opening and closing sequences alone it would definitely appear somewhere among these ten. For everything that comes between those two moments, it falls in the middle of the list.

6. "Syndromes and a Century" Of the several admirable New Crowned Hope films, this one appeared on my list of 20 features lacking distribution last year. "Sang sattawat," essentially two-films-in-one, finally made its way to a few theatres in 2007 and deserves mentioning again here. Best short film of 2008? Weerasethakul's "The Anthem."

7. "Zodiac" A mature work of remarkable restraint from a director not generally known for such qualities. The title would have you believe that it dwells on the identity of the killer but, much more interestingly, the film finds its narrative center in the finer details of obsession.

8. "Exiled" For anyone thinking that they don't make Hong Kong movies like they used to, Fong juk proves that certain directors -- Johnny To, in particular -- still have what it takes to rivet an audience. Of course, there are also missteps like "Triangle"...

9. "Atonement" I suspect that the magnificent moments of this story originate in the book which, admittedly, I have not read. In other words, I fear that I'm reacting more to the structure of the novel and less to the accomplishments of the film. Even still, it earns a place here. To see where these same themes can go dreadfully wrong, observe Silk (also with Ms. Knightley).

10. "Private Fears in Public Places" Ayckbourn and Resnais, together again! I have a weakness for both and, while this isn't my favourite of their collaborations, it is still pretty damn charming in almost every way.

There you have it. How about fifteen more from the documentary side of the aisle?

1. "My Winnipeg" 2. "Forever" 3. "Radiant City" 4. "King Corn" 5. "Frank & Cindy" 6. "Manufactured Landscapes" 7. "Helvetica" 8. "Joy Division" 9. "The King of Kong" 10. "Maurice Pialat: Love Exists" 11. "About a Son" 12. "Protagonist" 13. "My Enemy's Enemy" 14. "In the Shadow of the Moon" 15. "Encounters at the End of the World"

(and, since I've already praised it in the past, an honorable mention for "Darkon" -- it received a well-deserved theatrical release earlier this year -- while a few others, such as "Into Great Silence" and "Black Sun," would otherwise hit this list if I hadn't seen them the previous year...)

 

Cindi (Cindi informed me that her list is not yet finished, so I've unpublished it until further notice)

Kevin (Like Cindi's list, my list includes anything newly released or unreleased that I saw for the first time in '07)

I was juggling several criteria trying to compare dozens of films with each other, before I settled upon a very simple rule of thumb: which ten films did I most wish I had made myself?

1. "Killer of Sheep" - who cares about whether it's really eligible - this is one of my all time favorite films. 2. "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days" 3. "There Will Be Blood" 4. "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind" 5. "Colossal Youth" 6. "Eat, For This Is My Body" 7. "Quiet City" 8. "Ratatouille" 9. "Knocked Up" (I offer this rather sheepishly, as there were some more sensitive and even films about sexual relationships, especially two by women - "The Last Mistress" and "Lady Chatterley" - but I would give a lot to make people laugh like this film did. 10. a three-way tie between "Flight of the Red Balloon," "Still Life" and "Useless"

 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

screened Saturday December 22, 2007 at Century 20 Theaters Daly City, CA IMDb My brother is a whore for anything A.O. Scott is crazy about, and since Scott called this film "almost a masterpiece," we had to check it out for ourselves. It's the most affecting film I've seen from Burton since my 15-year-old's experience of Batman; it's quite thrilling to witness just how much throat-slashing mayhem the film gets away with while remaining completely watchable, dare I say entertaining. In the 2007 homicidal maniac movie adaptation sweepstakes I'd put this somewhere in the continuum between There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men; it is not as audaciously unconventional as the former, but more emotionally arresting than the latter, while sharing the latter's characteristic of seeming more like a cosmetically cinematic execution of a strong source text. Great performances abound, with Johnny Depp exhibiting a stony relish in his all-consuming murderousness, and Helena Bonham Carter providing the sad-eyed, twisted soul of this bleak and bloody yet rapturously realized world.

yes/YES

Recent films

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)screened December 4 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb I found some of the elements in this film distracting: the Ken Burnsy voiceover (was this meant to be ironic or subversive in any way?), the gaussian blurring of shots, the indebtedness to Days of Heaven in mood and image.   But on the whole this is a thoroughly respectable effort, and it's unusually leisured pacing is something to be savored rather than derided. yes

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass) screened December 5 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb Montage as hucksterism.  If I get my hands on the DVD again, I'd love to do a video essay with some of the action scenes slowed down to a crawl just to pin down the editing sleight-of-hand tricks pulled off here.  You never really *see* anything in this movie, which I guess is kind of accomplished in a cinematic equivalent of negative capability, but it's also kind of cheating.  (Of course bear in mind that these complaints are coming from the same guy who found the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon downright pornographic in their wide angle explicitness.) All the same, very entertaining and smart-sounding. yes

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, Sidney Lumet) screened December 6 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb I think I'm in the minority, but I thought Ethan Hawke gave a better, tougher performance than Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman's performance tends towards a kind of schtick that has emerged with his acting over the years  - the purse-lipped hesitations and knowing leers.  Hawke looks out of control in this film but that deer-in-the-headlights look alternates with other moments of pain, rage, misplaced trust and a certain innocence borne of ignorance.  He's the soul of the film in a film that has more genuine soul than No Country for Old Men.  The plot sounds like something the Coens would have optioned (except perhaps minus the gimmicky backward storytelling), and they probably would have made something more precise and visually captivating.  But the lack of those very elements in this film are what allow the raw pain at the heart of this tragic mess of a family to come forward. yes

Eastern Promises (2007, David Cronenberg) screened December 7 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb Watching this film it occurred to me how many of Cronenberg's movies have a prosaic, TV-movie look to them.  Something square about the compositions and framing, the uninspired, blocky handling of dialogue scenes.  All of this was okay in A History of Violence because it reinforced a feeling of the prosaic being gradually set into upheaval -- the hyper-kinetic action sequences in that film operated the same way.  And now what was innovative and subversive has become conventional - the intense fighting in the film is just a more potent version of standard Hollywood brawling.  It's a good yarn being told, and the subject matter is fascinating.  I wish I liked the work of screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) more because I am very interested in the multi-ethnic working class London milieu he examines.  But he betrays the perspective of an outsider and a genre writer, whose investment in these people and their predicaments extends as far as conceiving potent classic movie thrills. yes-mixed

Juno (2007, Ivan Reitman) screened December 9 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ IMDb As soon as I saw that burger phone I knew I was in trouble.  Thinking equitably, I could deem this a welcome response to two of the many teen male coming-of-age stories: Rushmore and Knocked Up.  But it just tries too hard to be quirky.  Jennifer Garner's scary career woman mama wannabe becomes remarkably poignant by the last act, making you wish the film had dome more do delve into the unlikely rapport between her and the title character than waste time with the younger, cuddlier version of Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World (amiably played by Jason Bateman).  God help me if I hear another Moldy Peaches song. mixed

Notes from There Will Be Blood New York premiere

screened Monday December 10 2007 at the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC IMDb So I sweet-talked my way into the screening (I won't say how exactly) and once I got my pass, I made a bee-line for the bathroom, queuing up for the urinal behind  a guy in a snazzy orange plaid suit.  He turns around and whoaaa!

That's  Emily Watson's profile on the right.

So I take my place in the seat listed on my ticket, amidst some young suits and suitesses who give me the eye.  One of them insists I'm in the wrong seat.  I insist I'm not.  He looks at my ticket, then looks at me and asks, "Are you a friend of Paul?"  Oh, what if I had said yes...

After I was kindly escorted out of the friends of the director area into an equally good spot, I settled in and was treated to what may very well be the best American film of the year.   I've been kind of reserved in my praise of the film in conversations with people who've seen it, if only because others I've talked to have been effulgent in their praise.  Without spoiling it for people who haven't yet seen it, I'll just mention that my main quibble for the film is with Paul Dano's character.  It's not that he gives a bad performance per se - Dano was the best thing about Little Miss Sunshine and here he does everything he knows best according to how I assume the character was developed by him and PT Anderson.  I just find that character conception lacking, not the least because the finale is set up to be such a mega-movie confrontation that it demands so much more of an equal to Daniel Day-Lewis' monstrous creation than what we see.    So basically Dano's character befalls the same fate as DiCaprio's puny protagonist in Gangs of New York.  Ironically, I think DiCaprio as he stands today - older, more fearsomely mature in his ineffable charisma, would have been the perfect counterbalance to Day-Lewis' Plainview.  Imagining Leo in the last scene, reduced to eating humble pie and a bowling pin, works a lot better for me than a Dano.

That aside, the film is pretty much perfect.  And in the time I've had to mull over the screning in the past week, my qualms aren't enough of a stain on the overall film to detract it from a rating of

YES

I've made a lot of comparisons in my head between this film and No Country for Old Men in the past week.  To cut to the quick, I'll just say that my misgivings about No Country amounting to an impeccably executed genre exercise were pretty much cemented after seeing There Will Be Blood.  As impressively detail-oriented as the Coens were, Anderson's film is equally  immersed in its world, hammering out every detail as intensely as the recurring image of Day-Lewis hammering away at the world with pickaxes, shovels, gun barrels and bowling pins.  But what takes Anderson's film a league beyond in my book is the energy behind it.  I applaud the Coens for being more restrained in their absurdist scenarios with this last film, but looking at how There Will Be Blood moves through one amazing scene after another while barely calling attention to its own consummate craft, the studiedness of the Coens' set pieces feel precious in comparison.

On my second day of vacation (first day was spent at the New Jersey DMV, sampling Latino delicacies in Union City, and then making the 3,000 mile commute to SF) I finally got a moment to read the point/counterpoint between reviews on the film by Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager on Slant.  Nick seems to be a step ahead of me in having no reservations lauding the film despite finding the same weaknesses in the Paul Dano character as I've mentioned above.  Ed's review is one of the few takedowns of the film published so far, and while his litany of grievances is as rangy as a PT Anderson film, his distrust over the film's ambiguous characterizations, character motivations, lack of humanism and substance beyond its ecstatic style are deserve consideration.  But if all of this were true, then what's No Country for Old Men doing on his top ten list?

Quiet City (2007, Aaron Katz)

screened on DVD on laptop on flight to San Francisco, December 18 2007 IMDb This is the real deal.  Honest moments, poignantly and convincingly awkward behavior, and plenty of room to breathe in the world presented to us with modesty and confidence.  Erin Fisher's lovely face runs the gamut of puzzled post-adolescent bewilderment - she gives Amy Adams a run for her money.  This film may seem a lot more minimalistic than, say Once, and without the benefit of emo song numbers and cute kid - but notice how much subtext there is in the relationships - subtext not established by expository dialogue or even scenario, but by body language.  That's top notch direction at work.  I'm looking forward to seeing Dance Party USA.

yes/YES

while i'm waiting for cindi to make her next move on scrabulous...

Andrew Tracy nails No Country For Old Men (Javier Bardem's hair is turned up to 11 - ha!) Brandon Soderberg, the only hip-hop blogger I read, on Killer of Sheep ("Burnett is also a killer of sheep, destroying the audience’s sheep-like gravitation towards simple answers and interpretations in regards to black movie-making.")

Dana Stevens detects the stench of consumer feminism in Enchanted

A Thanksgiving Weekend of '07 Films

This weekend, other than spending some quality time with gf, her family and my beloved , turkey-loving dog, and spending an unhealthy amount of time discovering the bottomless diversions of Facebook, I managed to watch four new films. I rate them all about the same - each are solid and recommendable, though none would make my top 10 for the year - but between the four of them there's a world of emotional responses covered. Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)

screened Thursday, November 22, 2007 in Exton PA IMDb

I liked this somewhat more than The Squid and the Whale. Editing is still too choppy and rushed at times for my tastes, the embarrassments and family dysfunction heaped upon with excessive preponderance, and yet it comes together. It's much better paced than its predecessor and as such it helps the dystopia-on-the-Hamptons congeal into a credible-if-hyperbolized world through which flow constant streams of neurotic lava. Performances are first rate - Nicole Kidman ably takes the mantle of bitch-goddess like a 21st century contemporization of Davis/Crawford, and a game Jennifer Jason Leigh her hapless foil. Not to everyone's tastes, it may seem to some that Baumbach still has an ax to grind against his family let alone humanity as a whole - but somehow I don't disbelieve that such people as these exist. In fact with each year I live it becomes easier to see it. yes

Enchanted (2007, Kevin Lima)

screened Friday, November 23, 2007 at the Regal Cinemas Downington IMDb

Came into this one hearing both raves (i.e. Todd McCarthy for Variety) and razzes (Robert Wilonsky at the Village Voice).  Easily the most entertaining film of the weekend, it's a lot of fun for the most part, with revisionist fairy tale twists more clever and less slight than in Shrek (the "Happy Working Song" number with cockroaches, pigeons and rats doing cleanup work a la Snow White on a posh Upper West Side apartment is the highlight for me).  As far as substance, the film takes as many of its cues from Pretty Woman (girl with heart of gold redeems callous knight in business suit) as any of the old cartoons.  And as with Julia Roberts' winsome hooker, if it weren't for Amy Adams I suspect the proceedings would be unbearable; it's her unironic relish as the irrepressible storybook heroine that carries the proceedings.   The film's last act doesn't quite hold up to what precedes it; Adams' arrival at a costume ball in an elegant modern dress doesn't have quite the stunning effect it aims for; and the expectedly climactic showdown between Adams and evil stepmother Susan Sarandon (who doesn't get nearly enough screentime) is uninspired; as a result the film as a whole doesn't linger much afterwards. yes

Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelley)

screened Saturday, November 24, 2007 on DVD in Astoria, NY IMDb

I was chiefly interested in this film after reading a couple of accounts that this was the feminine corrective to Knocked Up - so it surprised me that this film gives even less consideration towards abortion as a viable option for unwanted pregnancy (and I don't buy that the film's Southern milieu has anything to do with it, since the characters seem pretty removed from any Bible Belt pro-life influence).  That aside, the film is a winning portrait of a woman's coming into her own, endowed with Shelley's direction, not dissimilar from her old mentor Hal Hartley in its boxy dialogues (Nathan Fillion seems to be Martin Donovan reincarnate), though with a touch more warmth emanating from the fine ensemble, offsetting the cold diffidence of Kerri Russell channeling Kelly McGillis of yesteryear. yes No Country for Old Men (2007, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)

screened Sunday, November 25 2007 at the City Cinemas 1,2,3 in New York, NY IMDb

"This may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it left me feeling rotten."  This is what Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Fargo, and while I don't agree with him on that film, I'm apt to  say as much about this comeback effort from the Coens.   I wouldn't rate this film as low as he does, and I find his theory that American audiences embrace psycho killer characters during times of war more provocative than persuasive (personally I think these movies have a perennial appeal, like it or not).   All the same I share his concern that this film is as morally empty as it is exquisitely crafted.  Viewers can make their own mind up as to whether the impeccable detail realized by the makers - visual, aural, dramatic - serves in its own way (not unlike Cormac McCarthy's prose) as a redemption via aesthetics to the horrors they recount.  Geoffrey O'Brien's article in Film Comment is as good an argument for this as any I've read so far.  I had a good conversation with Ed Gonzalez before Thanksgiving (as of now it's on his top ten list) where he was casting doubts on the many  ideological readings that have already sprung up on the internet, whereas he thinks it's a masterpiece of style and genre execution (no pun intended).  I agree with him that the Coens probably don't intend any more deep reading into this film as they have with any of their previous works (I think Raising Arizona is as deliberately symbolic as you'll get with them); at the same time, I'm uncomfortable to chalk this up as a exemplary genre piece, as it's clearly taking delight in burning some crime genre mainstays to the ground.  For one thing it seems like a rebuttal to the justice wins out, salt of the earth prevail sentiments that concluded Fargo.  But in relinquishing those old comforts, the Coens leave nothing left but stylized death and bleakness.  For god's sake, even Salo had a happier ending. Fascinated with scenario and surface and nihilistic to the core, there's something about this film that's as rotten as the trail of corpses it leaves behind. yes

New films I've seen in the past month (not counting NYFF)

comments welcome, as a way of helping me elaborate on these one word verdicts...  Zodiac (2007, David Fincher) IMDb yes (I'm going to try to offer some substantive observations in an upcoming video essay)

Blades of Glory (2007, Josh Gordon and Will Speck) IMDb yes (strong first half, then it kind of coasts to the end)

Fong juk / Exiled (2006, Johnnie To) IMDb yes (cinematographically impeccable, though the overt references to Leone / Peckinpah / Woo got in the way for me)

Transformers (2007, Michael Bay) IMDb mixed (I want to reflect on this odd film further in a separate post, and posit a hopefully not-too-absurd premise that this film shares certain affinities with the Todd Haynes Bob Dylan movie.)

Catching up on my activies of the past week, incl. NYFF reports

from opening night party at Tavern on the Green, inside the hall of mirrors:

Celebrity sightings included Angelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman (grimacing through photos with an injured foot), Willem Dafoe palling with Abel Ferrara, Armond White walking arm in arm with Sylvia Miles, David Byrne in a cowboy getup, etc etc.

Had a wonderful talk with Filmbrain at the afterparty (though he might have been too drunk to remember...)

The following morning Cindi and I had brunch with Kristin Thompson, film scholar, co-author of the ubiquitous film school tome Film Art: An Introduction, and David Bordwell's better half.  She was in town doing publicity for her new book The Frodo Franchise and had a wealth of information to share about her research on the art and business of LOTR.

Incidentally, Bordwell has a rich report on the Asian films that played at Vancouver recently, including an observant review of Jia Zhangke's Useless.  A reminder that I need to sharpen my formalist observations of motifs and color schemes and go beyond glossy impressions...

I'll get a couple more chances to work on that with my remaining New York Film Festival reviews, which I hope to finish tomorrow, my third day here in Pordenone Italy for the annual silent cinema festival.  More on that as I spend more time here (and less on the computer). In the meantime here is my ranking of the 13 films I saw that played at this year's NYFF, with links to reviews where available: 

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christi Mingiu)

Useless (Jia Zhang-ke)

The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)

Redacted (Brian De Palma)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)

The Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov)

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)

The Man from London (Bela Tarr) - this has grown in appreciation with time

Go-Go Tales (Abel Ferrara) - this has lessened in appreciation with time

I've also written about:

Mambo Girl and The Wild, Wild Rose from the Cathay Studios retrospective

New films by Peter Hutton and Robert Beavers from the Views from the Avant Garde Program - The Beavers film has made more of a lasting impression.  Kudos to Nathan Lee for giving special attention to both of these films in his Village Voice writeup.

Toronto / New York Film Festival reviews on House Next Door and Slant

Press screenings have started in New York - great to see people like Ed Gonzalez, Keith Uhlich, Filmbrain, Vadim Rizov and S.T. von Airsdale from The Reeler, Sam Adams, Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, Steve Erickson, Jared Rapfogel, and who knows who else I don't recognize all in one screening room! This year I'm writing reviews for both Slant Magazine and The House Next Door.  As much time as it has taken this past weekend, I'm really enjoying writing them.  I already have five reviews up, including three of the films I saw at TIFF:

Slant:

The Man from London (Bela Tarr)

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)

Useless (Jia Zhang-ke)

The House Next Door (also being cross-linked to Zoom In Online:

New films by Peter Hutton and Robert Beavers from the Views from the Avant Garde Program

Go-Go Tales (Abel Ferrara)

Tomorrow evening -- The Flight of the Red Balloon!

Once (2006, John Carney)

screened Thursday September 21 2007 at the Landmark Sunshine, New York City IMDb

With apologies to Bujalski, Swanberg and especially Filmbrain (I'm going to watch LOL ASAP, ISOMMG), I sheepishly admit that I haven't seen any of the mumblecore movies as of yet (I was really swamped when they came to IFC not long ago).  But Once strikes me as having pretty much all of the essential qualities of an exemplary mumblecore movie: an acting style that mixes awkward attempts at connection with disarming moments of unexpected camaraderie; grainy handheld video that alternates between being unattractively amateurish and bracingly direct in capturing moments of real-time splendor; and an overall ethos of unabashed emoting, in this instance a sincere yearning to resolve the equally seductive emotions of heartbreak and optimism.  The highpoints for me are the first number performed by the two leads (Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, both wonderful) and the extended rehearsal sequence; they both have an authenticity to them that transcends the rather stereotypical storyline framed around them, thanks to the fly-in-the-wall camerawork and some resourceful editing.  The performances are as winning as they are unpolished.  Personally I think you have to be really good to pull off something that seems as simple as this.

yes

My Brother's Wedding (1983, Charles Burnett)

screened Saturday September 15 2007 at the IFC Center, New York IMDb From my friend Will: "I saw My Brother's Wedding on Friday at IFC and Charles Burnett was there to introduce it. What an incredibly humble, funny, gentle, smart guy. The movie was interesting and funny, though (and he mentioned this in his comments) the use of nonprofessional actors was not as seamless as in Killer of Sheep... he basically said that it takes a lot of time to work with them, since they don't bring their own plan to the table, like professional actors. There was this weird artificial feeling, like people were reading their lines, that was a little distracting, even if it was there on purpose."

My reply "Funny, Cindi and I saw My Brother's Wedding last Saturday and we had a nice chat with Charles Burnett afterwards. At this point I have no reservations with calling Killer of Sheep my favorite American film of all time, so it was a real privilege and honor to meet him, and you're right, he is such a soft-spoken and thoughtful man. In my interactions in the filmmaking community I've been inclined to believe that such gentle personalities can't make it in such an aggressive, competitive environment, so his success (artistic at least) is really a cause for celebration and source of inspiration. He and his editor were talking about their new film which was shot in Africa (Namibia I think is the title) and is just now making the festival rounds.

Regarding the acting, I'm inclined to deem it a product of the limited resources he had, not just in terms of the non-actors he had to work with but also limited time. He shot Killer of Sheep over a year's worth of weekends so he probably had a more relaxed pace with which to rehearse and get satisfactory takes. From what it sounds like, he was under pressure to get the film done within a deadline set by his German financiers, which eventually led to a 120 minute rough cut that became the final version for its short-lived inital release. Only through the recent funding of Milestone was he finally able to edit the film down from an HD master transfer of the original rough cut. (I wonder if he would have liked to have reclaimed some of the negative footage that didn't make the rough cut).

But back to the acting - if one wants to describe it favorably, one could say there's an almost cubist quality to the performances, like these figures seem to stand a little bit in contradistinction from their environs and the forced manner in which they enunciate their lines serves to underscore their innate qualities as individuals. You get this kind of affectation in filmmakers like Bresson and Straub/Huillet (not sure if Burnett studied them in film school). There was some of this affect to the performances in Killer of Sheep as well, though perhaps it was less conspicuous because Killer of Sheep is unusual in so many other respects that the acting just seems like one of several stylistic iconoclasms. It's apparent to me that with My Brother's Wedding he's starting to inch towards a more conventional/commercial-friendly film language, a trend which becomes more obvious when you see his later films. In this light, Killer of Sheep really stands out as an unfiltered work of genius."

yes (#6 for 1983 between Trading Places and A Nos Amours)

Ten from Toronto from top to bottom

I'll try to write more about these titles in some format somewhere... in the meantime... 1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Christian Mingu) - believe the hype. Best written, best acted, best directed film I saw at TIFF.

2. Useless (Jia Zhangke) - of his films so far this is perhaps the lightest on its feet, but by no means lightweight -- a fascinating, shape-shifting look at the clothing industry in China that overturns your expectations every half hour. 3. Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito) - a conceptually simple and unexpectedly moving meditation on 400 years of of social progress in America (and by proxy, the world), visualized chiefly with shots of the gravesites of nearly 100 martyrs and activists across the country.

4. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong) Cindi and I talked about this film more than any of the others. I have plenty of misgivings about the bad behavior-riven second half but the first half is a near flawless set-up. The acting is superb.

5. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin) one of Maddin's more laudable efforts, containing some of the most inspired false memories of any personal documentary.

6. Eat For This is My Body (Michelange Quay) shockingly audacious visionary trip through a post-colonial Haiti of the mind.

7. The Princess of Nebraska (Wayne Wang and Richard Wong) - Wang's attempt to understand contemporary Chinese America has a youthful infusion of energy thanks to Wong's often inventive cinematography.

8. Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase) - Wonderfully observant first half gives way to less inspired and plot-driven second half. Acting is really great though.

9. The Man from London (Bela Tarr) - Tarr's long takes are luxuriously sinuous as always, but film feels insubstantial given its genre trappings and lack of layers.

10. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang) - good intentions, mediocre execution.

Last year Toronto was a revelatory funhouse; this year it was a welcome relief from the pressures of my current life and a much stronger signal that I need to steer my life to allow for more exposure to such environments. I really need to be involved in the world of professional cinephilia on a deeper level than I am now. In any event it was great to see many friends and acquaintances again -- I was especially glad to meet for the first time: my longtime festivals editor Michelle Carey of Senses of Cinema, Adam Nayman of Eye Weekly, Girish Shambu of his much-feted namesake blog, Sean Axemaker of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and others I'm probably forgetting...