Showing posts with label Film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Film. Show all posts

Thursday, October 7, 2021


Interestingly, it's been two years since Joker came out, and while I tend to rewatch movies I liked in the theaters when they come to a nearby streaming service, I haven't had the interest or the patience to view Joker again. I would modify my initial praise for the movie being well made to it being "slickly avant-garde," with the experimental aspects of that last phrase reduced to being the name of a style a bright film student can study and mimic at will. There is a discussion of this film having a sequel, which would be disastrous. It was a gutsy move by Warner Brothers to allow this extreme (if overcooked) take on one of DC's major characters; it garnered them good reviews, a billion dollar box office. But what story would there be to build on? Ultimately Joker was a fluke and I suspect there is no demand to visit this cynical and arty take on violence and insanity again. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

JOKER: aggravating brilliance

Image result for joker rotten tomatoes
First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admit. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy, and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti, and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time. 

The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've done is impressive indeed and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. Don't think it's quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, taking the audience along a path of events where our expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents. 

Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker for keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise us. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination, no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, many dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe. 

There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on." This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe. What had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off, and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me, it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...

Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy, a significant influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry, and the violence is pure Guernica.

Sunday, January 20, 2019


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Watched "Murder My Sweet" (1944) on TCM last night, starring Dick Powell and directed with artful craft by Edward Dmytryk. This is an inspired and fairly taut adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", and Powell, who we usually think of as a song-and-dance man, makes for an engaging Philip Marlowe, a cynical private eye, not-so-tough, wisecracking and whiskey drinking, a man who, once hired for a job, goes to the cruel truth at the heart of all the enterprises he finds himself embroiled in. Marlowe is a knight errant, in many ways, bound by a personal code me manages not to compromise in a city that is dark, full of sharp black corners and a population ruled by Bad Faith. Everyone lies to Marlowe, and they lie about everything--in this word, everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden, but coming up against Marlowe the protagonist, with his skewed virtue, hard truths and foul intents are revealed. Beautiful black and white here, a solid, even essential example of the film-noir style. The angles of the camera shots, the hard corners, the mastery of b&w and the various, shaded tones in between the extremes are nothing less than sculptural. Co-stars Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are well-chosen to enact the High Society citizens of dubious intent, but it's actor Mike Mazurki, a recognizable character from the period, who makes an impression as Moose Malloy, a man-mountain of a thug just released from an eight years prison stretch who hires the detective Marlowe to find his one true love, Velma. She was the one thing that touched the soft spot in this dim- monster's heart-of-hearts and, true to what he knows, is willing to break as many legs and backs necessary to find his Velma and get that feeling back. Powell has everything needed for a perfect Marlowe, cynicism, fast wit, a sentimental streak that gets him knocked over the head, and an understated dedication to trusting his evolving sense of situational ethics.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The sublime "The Shape of Water"

Image result for THE SHAPE OF WATER"The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a splendid Beauty and the Beast story, succeeding to be sweet, menacing, hopeful, thrilling, and finally affirming in. Some of us might blanch at the storybook particulars of this movie obviously--it's hard to do anything fresh with his done-and-done again idea, no?--but del Toro is skillful in balancing the needed balance between the sweet and the dour, the joyful and the threatening. Additionally, this is very much an adult film, not for kiddies, as the characters have genuine emotions expressed in authentic language. 

That is, there is no shortage of f-bombs. Also done incredibly well is handling the sexual element that's usually obscured by sentiment and courtly sentiments; del Toro brings this aspect, and the entire premise, into a world we recognize, in this case, the early 60s in Baltimore. Time, place, inference, and the use of nicely chosen incidental details and art design set up the way the tale is conveyed. Most importantly, there is a human connection here, with the theme of loneliness being a primal driving force to seek love or revenge superbly embodied in fully rounded characters. 

Visually, this is your typical del Toro production, with the deep, rich, dark color scheme, seamless editing, controlled and adequate contrast between the more human and banal world of the 60s and the more fantastical, menacing interiors of the more sci-fi sequences. Stand out performances from Michael Shannon, a grand and messed up baddie, and Richard Jenkins, who seems incapable of doing bad work.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Dark Tower

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The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a missed opportunity for the following quality sci/fi fantasy series. Initially, a nine-novel sequence penned by Stephen King has the ingredients for a continuing saga revolving around protecting the titular dark tower that exists between realities and stabilizes the varied facts within its domain. This being based on a potent and endlessly unfolding Stephen King narrative, which is to say that the original series of novels takes side trips and falls into distracting, if entertaining rabbit holes at many turns of the story, has the central element of this problematic phantasmagoria to be children, one child in particular, who has the power to create all things or cure the ailments that threaten everything that lives. Lots of characters, superpowers, magic, betrayal, good versus evil, a gifted child with abilities far beyond those of men and gods; King certainly provides quite a bit for multi-season streaming drama. 

The film, though, is brutally condensed, curt, and abrupt in transition both in scenery and idea. It would be kind to suggest that the movie is breathless in its pacing. One should be admiring the briskness in which a great deal of thematic material from Stephen King's writing they manage to wedge into the 90 minute time but do so, for me, would be dishonest. Where others think breathless, I say, gasping for breath, the singular tone being someone who wants this project done much sooner rather than a way later. For all the explanations that might be given for how slipshod the storytelling is, think of that one kid in high school, yourself perhaps, who tried to ad-lib their way through an assigned oral report they hadn't prepared for. This is precisely what The Dark Tower feels like for its duration.

Matters of a plot point, explanations of thematic conceptions, and revelations of what's been going on are passed off in a hurry through cavalier bits of expository dialogue. The Man in Black, watching the Gunslinger wondrously dispatch minions with his weapons, reveals that legend has it his guns were forged from the same metal that made the mystical sword Excalibur. And that's it, which is annoying since that's an intriguing notion worth expanding on. The skillful expansion isn't the aim here, but rather contraction, and this feels more like a Quick Notes summary than anything else. I was never beyond the feeling that what I was watching was the usual prelude before a new episode of a television drama as to what's occurred earlier in the season in a quick montage. It's a shame since the premise is attractive, and Movies with Iris Alba and Matthew McConaughey should leave you breathless from their performance, not scratching your head wondering why they bothered with this.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"LIVE BY NIGHT" : Affleck is not the auteur he thinks he is

Ben Affleck rebuilt his reputation mostly on the strength of his skills as an able and savvy director, having directed the successful and justifiably praised films “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and ‘Argo”, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. Affleck is a marginally good actor, good when the scripts and casting are on the moneythink of how wonderful John Wayne was in “ Red River” and how awful he was as Genghis Khan in “The Conquerorand his evolution , during his time off camera, into learning the craft of film direction (and the obligations of being a producer) seems to have given a sharp and canny sense of what kind of material he can be credible in as an actor and director. He’s been doing good work in films he hasn’t directed but starred in, such as “Gone Girl”, “The Accountant” and “Batman v Superman”; he has gotten praise from critic and fan both for his sharpened sense of the camera lens. As with Wayne and fellow actor-director Clint Eastwood, Affleck has learned to do fine work within his limited range as an actor.
But the 4th time is the charm, the warning, seen in his new period crime drama “Live by Night”,where we come across him as a petty criminal in 30s era Boston, finding himself caught between a war between the Irish and the Italian gangs that are vying for domination. Long story brutally abbreviated, our hero finds himself working for the Italians as he heads up their Miami rum running operation. What unfolds after that is a string of gangster movie cliches and hackneyed melodramatic plot turns that cannot fool you into thinking that what’s happening between the characters on screenwhether the premise is love, lust, betrayal, revenge or philosophical convictions that become endlessly compromised by real life complicationsis anything more than mere mechanics. The story is a machine running on the fuel of over familiar parts. The script, based on a novel by the estimable Dennis Lehanne, is credited to Affleck alone , and this where the blame for the film’s listless wade through lifeless plot turns must fall; he displays a tin ear for fresh dialogue and is unable, in this effort, to create anticipation, a sense that a viewer does not how any of this will end.
That I was able , many times, what was going to happen ten later in the picture based on the heavy-handed foreshadowing of both image and chatter doesn’t make me smart, only that “Live by Night” has the predictability of a sub-standard television cop-drama.(It may mean, also, that I spend too much time watching movie.)There are several plotlines that attempt to create an eventual ironic consequence that would cast the respectable coat of Tragedy around this production, but such elements and effects work only if the writing hand is subtle and nearly invisible in the laying out of the story elements that will eventually turned one’s assumptions about what’s happening on their head, elements that are seen, noted, and then nearly forgotten about until they emerge again and consequently change the tone and meaning of the story, unexpectedly but credibly. What the movie lacks in cogent transformation it makes up in plot demarcations being hit squarely (and without grace). 
Affleck’s writing and direction hasn’t the patience nor grace to make this work. Glaring as well is Affleck’s casting in the lead role. Affleck is too tall, too squared jawed, too muscular; he looks uncomfortable in the suits he’s put himself; worse, often times he appears about to burst out of them, Hulk style.And again, about Affleck’s acting limits come into play, which is to say that his facial expressions are not subtle nor do they lure you in to read the lines of his face or the shine or lack thereof in the eyes; Affleck seems to have fixed expressions for happy, sad, angry, raging, laughing, crying, mostly robotic and seeming unmotivated by the tragedies, murders and raging extremes happening around him. Much as I've defended Affleck in the past as an actor, this time he seems aware of only where he he is in relation to the camera. 

It’s worth noting that the praise for writing on Affleck’s other efforts as director“Gone Baby Gone”, The Town” and “Argo”were for efforts where there were collaborators in the scripting, in the persons of Chris Terrio, Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig. The implication seems clear, that what the author scribes provided were a sensibilities that could carve Affleck’s contributions to the respective project’s line and and theme into something sharper, less obvious. The dispiriting stream of over used tropes in ‘Live by Night” is such that it blunts the efforts a fine cast , Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper in particular. This is cool professionalism from actors trying to eke out small moments of good craft from a script that gives  them no love.

Monday, May 9, 2016


Captain America : Civil Wars is a repetitive bore. Slow to get moving, and then it becomes a long, creaking fandango that alternates between sketchy conveyed expository dialogue and excessively choreographed fights ruined by a combination of MTV editing and a preponderance of seizure inducing camera work that jittered, jostled and in general neared the visual incoherence of a Transformers movie.And, for Christ sake, Tony Stark get even more Bruce Wayne-ish with newly revealed murdered parents issues. What desperate drag this was.Not that it was badly made, to be sure; CA:CW had the Marvel/House style that makes sure that matters of camera angles , cgi effects, fight scenes and editing are executed and presented in seamless fashion. There is a bland professionalism that has taken over Marvel Studios that are making their films stylistically indistinguishable from one another, less so, say, than the sort of factory-assembled cop shows that dominated 70s television.

 This is a shame, of course, because the Captain America tale on film has had a wonderful  arc on screen prior to the latest offering, beginning with the hero's origins in WW2, expanding splendidly in the first Avengers film, and evincing great potential for political intrigue with their plot borrowings from Three Days of the Condor, with the second CA film, Captain America:Winter Soldier. This more closely resembles a Saturday morning cartoon show in the vein of Animaniacs, where there are dozens of recognizable and more obscure pop culture personas running about in a varied states of frenzy and violent upheaval, only to each take a beat to deliver a quip, a joke, an ironic aside. humor blended with accelerated mayhem is Marvel's signature, but the glut of heroes fighting heroes, each with a polished repartee is too much of what used to be a good thing.

 The film seems like watching the last acts at Comedy Store amateur night, and at other times it comes across as characters auditioning for their own franchises. CA:CW seems only in service to set up the future of the Marvel Universe . Under-considered, alternately plodding and manic, hysterically talkative, jittery and jumbled as an action enterprise, this film is a self-distracting mess.

Monday, April 18, 2016


So much vitriol has been unleashed from critics following the release of Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" that it's not unnatural for those sympathetic to the director's zeal to give us a vision of superheroes in the Age of Anxiety to suspect that the reviews were a result of herd-think. The image of a bunch of high school thugs cracking their knuckles waiting for their selected victim to emerge from the protection of the school halls comes to mind. What they had to say, the critics, sounded more like they wanted to hear themselves in the hating, the collective will to condemn without attempting to dig into what Snyder was doing artistically or in the overlapping storylines. No, I am not one of those who thinks Marvel, DC's rival, bribed critics to give BvS: DOJ  negative reviews. Instead, I think three years of anticipation and bickering and speculation while the film was being made has poisoned the critical well. Herd thinks. That's my view.

 That is to say that I don't think the movie reviewers were on a rival company's payroll in to order to undermine the DC Comics sophomore entry in creating a cinematic version of its comic book line. In the time since this project was announced at the San Diego ComicCon in 2013, naysayers, professional critics and compulsive internet nags alike, appear to have been chomping at the bit to get their negatives in order for that day when BvS: DoJ finally had a public debut. The vitriol, much of it clever in the art of invective, seems too polished, over-rehearsed, like a "gotcha" line from a Presidential debate that makes for a good sound byte but misses the point all the same. That's what I think of the negative reviews, they miss the point. The zeal of containing this film in the buzz-kill fog of horrible word of mouth has made for sharp writing and bad thinking.

Of course, I loved the film quite a bit, flaws and occasional gaps in plot logic altogether. The film, though, is beautifully mounted and is not incoherent at all. Anyone halfway familiar with the essential DC comics this film comes from will have no trouble going along with the vivid visuals and photo-caption philosophizing that move through this, yes, "grim-dark" saga of how the world's two most famous superheroes come to do battle in their first encounters. Without going into an excess of chat-happy detail and equally overheated defense of the film and the director's choices, it just needs to be said that Zack Snyder makes a different kind of comic book movie than what Marvel's glib, chatty, joke-infested action vehicles have; Marvel's is not a bad style, of course, and it has been extremely profitable for them, but it amounts to a House Style, which is to say that it seems as though each film is directed by the same person, each is written by the same team. 

Snyder goes a different direction and, though one needs to admit that his storylines are often muddied film to film, his visual style, from his dark, steely color schemes, his sense of alternating slow motion and rapid motion during action scenes, his ability to fluidly provide with a sweeping series of panorama camera moves that gives us a vision of a world where humankind is challenged by both heroes and defenders who's existence in the midst is terrifying on the face of it, effectively resonates with the dread caused by dark headlines from a world that is anything but serene . The fight sequences are splendid indeed, Ben Affleck may well be the definitive Batman for years to come, and Henry Cavil as Superman creates a subtly complex portrayal of superhero bedeviled by the negative results his attempts to help the mortal world result in.

There are a number of well-argued defenses of Batman v Superman one can Google that defend Snyder's style as applied to these icons, and which argue that BvS is quite a bit of a triumph and a breakthrough in the genre. I would recommend Mark Hughes' calm, thoughtful defense in the online edition of Forbes. The short and the long this set of paragraphs is to make mention that even with flaws, there is verve and flair, grit and brilliance in this movie and that anyone with a love of comic books, in general, owes themselves the gift of seeing a film that will be a game changer for how comic book movies are made; I have confidence that the DC Cinematic Universe is here, a vital and vibrant style of superhero movie that will be an important counterpoint to what Marvel offers.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"THE HATEFUL EIGHT", Tarantino's verbose near-masterpiece

I just viewed Quentin Taratino's latest, "The Hateful Eight" and, for all the excesses and repetitions of favorite gimmicks that seemed, to me, half-hearted and coasting with his last two films ("Inglorious Basterds", "Django Unchained"), his new western is something of a return to form. Not that he's knocked off any of those tricks that made him famous--unnaturally formal dialogue cast in different accents and idioms, a surfeit of action-stopping siloquies, title cards and the "Pulp Fiction" trick of letting the narrative unexpectedly backtrack to reveal elements that were at first withheld. "Hateful Eight", though, sees these elements deployed with a conviction and a sure hand that lures you closer to the prolonged doings of these trapped miscreants even as your wishing the pace would pick up.

Not to give too much away, but the plot concerns a bounty hunter , played by Kurt Russell, transporting a condemned prisoner, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, to Red Rock, Wyoming for hanging and to collect a reward. Due to a horrible winter blizzard blasting over the mountain , the private stage coach the Russell character had hired for the transported unexpectedly takes on more passengers stranded along the pass and the coach is forced to stop at a way station until the storm passes, a station already filled with a collection of characters no one would not want to witness in the same room. Tarantino is generous with this loquacious dialogue and the exceptional cast each have their turn introducing who their characters, revealing a back story and a chance to reveal an articulate, if demented, world view and how it came to be formed. This does, of course, slow the film to a pace that is painfully slow, and this verbosity could easily have been pared back a good fifty minutes without sacrificing Tarantino's uncanny knack for giving the various kinds of evil a voice and a rationale, an ethos.

At times the movie becomes work to stay seated for. Still,there is so much that is being done right here, from the camera work and editing,the way scenes are framed, the absolute sizzle of the dialogue when the verbal build up between one character to another builds to secrets that are revealed, and yes, the violence. Tarantino's tales are revenge plays in large part, a genre that he's exploited brilliantly and less well, but he exceeds his best work by the deceptive complexity. There is a multiplicity of duplicitous motives; this is a pit of angry rats justifying their inevitable urge to kill everyone in the room with a the kind of deliciousely gratuitous locution that is foremost among Tarantino's script writing hall marks. Smartly, Tarantino's tone for each of the way station inhabitants, none of the speeches go so far in their waves of expressive finery to suggest sympathy or provide a clue who the film's eventual hero maybe; the impressive accomplishment of the film is that what we have here is a story populated mostly by personas that would normally be treated as villians; as with Shakespeare or canniest of the Revenge Play tragedians, a prime Tarantino makes the guilty among the roster of characters sufficiently complex without romanticizing the life as means for transcendence. He doesn't let you forget that each of these folks are heading for a bad end.

The camera is an untrustworthy narrator, recording what is revealed with regards to motivations, the insanity of well argued dualistic , black and white points of view coming to a head. Agendas are exposed, but they only give clues to secret agendas , undisclosed machinations that themselves camouflage other plots . There are no heroes, everyone has committed sins against everything we consider righteous and just, and everyone shows that are more than they at first seem, unpredictable, capable of anything. And rest assured , there is plenty of the famous Tarantino violence, gruesome, ironic, unsparing. If nothing else, QT's film world is a universe of verbal characters who , despite their ingenuous habits of expression, are not able to talk their way out of the dour fates they've made for themselves. Theirs is a case of talking a great game to justifiy their horrific acts, but the universe seems not hear not a word of the self-serving eloquence . The universe, rather, greets human action with consequences that cannot be negoiated with.This film, not quite a masterpiece, is still a definitive piece in this film maker's oeuvre.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Turn off the lights

(I came across a trove of newspapers, the UCSD Guardian, saved in pdf. format online and discovered this, one of my first attempts to be a film critic.I thought I'd put here for all to view, if only to remind myself that I  sounded quite a bit more precious than I  do know. There are creaks and groans and other odd sounds of aging that give my proclamations a soundtrack of authority.The films were special media screenings for the 1980 San Diego International Film Festival which held forth for a few fondly remembered years at Sherwood Hall of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Yes, I sound a little more pompous than I do know. My voice hadn't cracked yet.-tb)

As one of the few "critics" in town to see the preview screening for the San Diego International Film Festival, scheduled from now until Nov. 3 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, I'm inspired to think that the movies reflect Frank Zappa's description of his music: no commercial potential. This isn't to say that the films are so irredeemably bad that no one, intellectual and lowbrow alike, would sit through them -far from it - but the festival board has gone out of its way to have an international collection of film· makers whose works fall well outside the norm for the movie going public, films that one isn't likely to see at the Guild or Fine Arts, let alone UTC. In any case, this year's movie crop isn't bound to please everyone. For my part, basing my judgment on evidence of the six screenings I attended, [have to give an appreciative grin.

First off I may as well deal with the film that did the least for me, Radio On, a British and German coproduction directed by Christopher Petit. Petit is the former film critic for the British weekly Time Out and  a film theoretician in good stead who, following the precedent t set by New Wave  icon Godard, Rivette and Traffaut, has decided to put theory into practice and become a film· maker himself. The problem is shameless emulation and a lack of insight into the subject matter. Radio On concern itself with a young London disc jockey on the way to Bristol to uncover the mysterious circumstances behind his brother's death. His subsequent encounters leave him with a feeling of alienated finality, ennui and despair. Filmed rather well in black and white over a terrain of freeways, bleak country road and grey cityscapes, the film fairly reeks of the movies by German director Wim Wenders. It features Wenders· like long takes, ponderously slow exposition shot and muted emotions of characters, who are unable to communicate much at all. Petit, though, seems to have misread Wenders, who in films like Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The American Friend. is usually able to investigate such things as cultural dislocation, the ramifications of the cargo-cult on postwar Europe, how pop culture mythologizes reality and how those verities come to play in the psyches of his characters. Petit's people merely strike a stance of thin·skinned alienation and sulk as the camera soaks in the impressively miserable environs, like a working·class bar, a rural gas station, and all night bakery. 
What does Petit intend to tell us? I suspect his intentions are nothing more than to show us that civilization is unable to give us the things we need. American director Bob Rafelson intended much the same with his Hue Easy Pieces, but succeeded. Rafelson on at least gave us the benefit of character development, an archaic notion to many vanguardists but a ploy that still gave Pieces unity. In essence, Radio 0n is empty and  exists more as a fashion pose than an edition to an art form

Woman Between Dog and Wolf, directed by French director Andre Delvaul is a well wrought film about with the dodgy subject of stoicism at the conceptual center of what it unfolds in narrative. As Belgium is pushed into World War II, a man joins the pro·Nazi nationalist movement and leave to join the conqueror of the Eastern Front. In the interim, his wife (Marie Christine Barrault) is treated with hatred by her neighbors, retreat into the actuary of her house, and tries her best to maintain a home of order and normalcy. A resistance fighter takes refuge in her cellar, culminating in their having an affair, and the resistance fighter's vouching for her against revenge· minded neighbors : Through the resistance fighter's interaction, her husband I pared the death penalty and returns home , and from there he develops an obsession for his former cause, unable to adjust to present-day realities. He continually y tries to justify his past by writing his memoirs. Dclvaux handles this story with a neat, precise hand, especially in his editing. Instead of going the fashionably "arty" route of long takes, the scenes are brief and succinct, establishing their plot particulars and schematic cues rapidly, then fading away gracefully as the screen darkens and then awakes on another local and incident.

The Last of the Blue Devils, directed by American Bruce, Ricker, is a documentary about the Kansas City jazz scene. It's also a case of taking the good along with the bad. The bad in this case is the editing, which is aimless and leaps from one thing to another with little cohesion, most specifically in the way Ricker intercuts vintage footage of Count Basie and Ivory Joe Hunter with more recent film. The good are the performance, inducing superb concert footage of Basie and his band, a jam session between saxophonists Paul Quinchette, Charles McPhearson, a trombone and the blues vocals of Hunter, whose capacity to belt a lyric hadn't diminished a bit as he aged. Generally, a messy but fun movie.

Those familiar with the way Alfred Jarry presented dictators in his King Ubu plays will have fun with Adolph and Marlene, a  film directed by German director Ulli Lommel. The festival program notes say the movie is a bit of "historical speculation" about an alleged liason between Hitler and Marlene Dietrich. The film’s intention is less than the far-fetched speculation one would suspect. It is an exercise in turning the Hitler persona into an excuse for buffoonery, casting him as an ideological Imbecile whose various diatribes, much of it taken from Mein Kempf, collapse under the weight of their illogic. The Hitler character, performed unctuously by Karl Raab, is a man of penultimate pettiness, unable to distinguish between the drive for power and affection, between sentiment and mawkishness, clear thinking and lunatic espousals. The effect is comic, but also underlines the tragedy of power becoming a thing in and of itself, without purpose or goal. In all, Aldoph and Marlene is comic enough to elicit some  self-satisfied snickers, though I could have done without the ending. As Hitler's and Eva Braun's bodies burn during the fall of Berlin, Marlene and her manager Luminski drive by and stop while, unfathomably, a group of Black American GI's stand in the foreground on some steps. Marlene hands Luminiski a small globe small as an egg shell, and he perches it daintily on his fingertips. "Don't you have a bigger globe?" he asks her, eyes heavy. Marlene smiles icily and drives off. . Weird, no? Symbolic, no? The conclusion seemed a trifle arty to me, an intrusion that muddled what until then had been a well·played absurdist comedy, Lommel would have served his purposes better had he eschewed all these metaphors and had played it straight. # Of the six films I viewed, the most problematic was

Elisa, Vida Mia (Elisa My Love) by Spain's Carlos Saura. It is an arid , fragmented. maddeningly slow meditation on love and hate, life and death, reality versus illusion, and maybe a couple of other themetic  duplications I missed along the way. A woman (Geraldine Chaplin) goes to visit a retired man (Fernando Rey) who lives in an isolated house in the far reaches of Spain. From there she encounters various hallucinations about the lives, deaths. and loves of herself and other people, and a general confusion of what is real or imagined. No doubt, as the program notes say, that Saura's intention is not to provide any clean answer to the dilemma. but to “... evince the linking of imagination and memory ," but for me the film is a labored affair, top-heavy with its own importance. Though only 110 minutes long it became an endurance contest.   

On the other hand, L 'lmportant C'est D'aimer (The Important Thing is to Love) a French, Italian and German release directed by Andrzej Zulawski, is great, a love story that goes beyond the tawdry wrappings of the genre and deals with love in connection with guilt. indebtedness. and commitment. Romy Schneider, an actress lately reduced to making porno films, meets up with Fabio Tassi. a cynical photographer. who at first is interested only in exploiting her. But he falls for her and tries to help her by financing a revival of Richard Ill. To do so Tassi goes into debt to a lecherous uncle, thuggish pornographer for whom Tassi unwillingly works. The potential affair between Tassi and Schneider doesn't occur because she is married to an impotent husband (J acques Dutronc). w ho pulled her. from dru g addiction and prostitution, and to whom she eels an incalculable, unpayable  debt. What is set up is a complex arrangement of relationships in which characters are bound to one another through debts and commitments to intangible virtues. Tassi is indebted to his gangster uncle who feels he's owed the loyalty of a son to a father. Schneider is attached to her husband, who feels guilty about not being able to perform sexually. More than that, the film is about set of values, a search to have love and sex mean something in a culture that uses it as a commodity, as barter at the lowest level of human exchange. The film is taut as a guide wire as the emotional tension, with the violence being the explosions of frustrated, emotionally· constrained characters who can't seem to break out of their respective cells.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Best of Enemies

Image result for gore vidal william buckleyOne of the great, yes great things about watching television in the Sixties was the chance to view the spectacle of our finest writers verbally slugging it out on talk shows, smart and savvy men in matters of politics, literature and art who, confronting another who is just as smart and with equal measures of self regard, act like petulant children who are an hour beyond their scheduled bedtime. It was an area where our perceptions of what was occurring in the world beyond our livings rooms and kitchens were framed by a host of local newspapers, the New York Times being the only one we might consider a "national" publication, and three major television networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. There were other outlets for contrary opinions, literary journals, alternative political magazines and a wide spread of local newspapers, but in a pre-internet age, there were few platforms in which ambitious intellectuals had to command the spotlight and keep it on them; the personalities themselves had to be large.  

 It was a different kind of fireworks,, with the considerable brain power in the TV studio surging for the sake of spite, payback, revenge against slights and dismissals, real or imagined. The new documentary "Best of Enemies" is a close look at one of the centrally extended spats of the period,a fascinating backward glimpse at a heated, passionate feud between William F. Buckley, conservative gadfly writer and editor of the National Review, and novelist-essayist Gore Vidal, a formidable wit and left-leaning contrarian. Both writers, representing the political right and left, were hired by a ratings-starved ABC News for a series of ten debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and the film, augmenting little scene footage from the testy debates with remarks from Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, historian Todd Gitlin, is a character study of two men who, although representing and, to an extent, conflicting embodying worldviews, shared more than either was ever likely to admit. Buckley and Vidal detested one another, as the film gives a swift but vivid account of their past encounters and impressions of one another; Buckley considered Vidal a harbinger of an amoral, godless, chaotic world that threatened the foundations of civilization, with Vidal in turn regarding Buckley as a pampered apologist for and defender of rich elites who used any means they required to increase their wealth and power. That both men had manners, speech patterns and patrician affectations that would suggest the two of them should have shared more common ground is the larger irony. 

But at heart was the concern as to who should lead America. Gitlin says at one point that Buckley that didn't believe in democracy but should be ruled by the Elite ruling class. However aristocratic he might have seemed, Vidal spoke in favor of direct democratic processes, empowering the disenfranchised with a more political will, and for riding the political system of the undue influence of corporations. It was a mess if nothing else, but it was, so the cliche has it, "good television". This was not a debate, it was blood sport. At stake, both would perversely agree on, was the fate of the United States, Buckley viewing as descending into chaos should the left achieve their agenda of equal rights and non interventionist foreign policies, and Vidal with the idea that the American Empire, much like the Roman Empire and other empires before it, would collapse from overextension . The debates were lively, energetic, two men bent not on discussing party policies on social issues but rather determined to expose the other as a fraud, charlatan, a great social menace. Anyone familiar with the debates, meaning anyone around my age of 60 something, knows what this builds up to, Vidal in the 9th debate goading Buckley by calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley, his calm destroyed and looking at Vidal with unmistakable contempt, says the fateful rejoinder, calling him "queer" and that he would sock him "in the god damned face" if Vidal made the Nazi comparison again. It was judged by media writers at the time that Vidal had won the debates by the simple measure of keeping his cool. 

In the aftermath, both writers wrote their feelings about the exchanges in successive issues of Esquire, first Buckley and then Vidal, the result of which was a libel suit against Vidal when he implied, with the forceful insinuation that Buckley was a closeted gay man. In all , the film ends on a melancholy note, suggesting that neither write quite recovered from the confrontations. In later footage of both of them, they are shown as tired, wizened, melancholic, looking at the world that would follow their respective measures of advice closely or faithfully enough. It is fitting, perhaps, as we see here two of the smartest American writers at the time giving it their all in an effort to change the country and make it better according to their radical prescriptions, on to see the long view at last that what made them anxious in their youth still exists and that they haven't the energy to enter the fray .

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My favorite films of 2014

Now is the time of year when we are glutted with lists extolling the best and worst happenstances of the year gone by and there is, after one or two lists of verbal fireworks in the form of inapt metaphors, inept similes, and indiscreet opinions about the personal lives of actors, directors and writers one has never met, it all becomes a persistent noise in the background, like the sprinkler system the spurts on through the day and into the night at the house next door. All the opinions about best and worst movies, spoken at a pitch that nears hysteria and utter, complete, incalculable irrational .
Pretty much everyone has a the same views on the same films, and the best any of us can do is play around with the wording, scramble the choices as to what column they fall into, yay or nay, perhaps do something "daring" by including what we, who collectively regard ourselves individuals with refined tastes and idiosyncratic smarts, select an obscure movie that very few of one's tent-pole addicted brethren would have recognized. In that last instance, a fine argued case for a movie no one you know personally has seen leaves with the duty to over explain the films context , style , and of breaking the news that there are people in capes, no super powers, no destruction of a major American city.
Trust me, I have tried that ploy, I have tried to enlighten the masses with my peculiar selections for the latest and greatest films to be made and released in the 365 days now behind us. It's a grim lesson. Well, not grim, just depressing in a minor key: no knew what I was talking about, nor cared. But the joy of these lists is that it is a grand excuse to hear yourself write , construct absurdly long sentences and make like a dime store Mencken and toss a bit of snark to the rubes and rubettes who are just passing by the soda fountain.
In any case, my best films of 2014:
1.NIGHTCRAWLER: I've already sung praises and lavished ham-fisted metaphors enough on this film, but it bears repeating that Nightcrawler is one of those debut films from a newly minted director, in this case seasoned screenwriter Dan Gilroy, where everything a solid,tense, noirish thriller ought to do. Gilroy has assembled a crackerjack cast and proceeds with a tale of a marginal character , a petty thief with disturbingly skewed frame of mind, who stumbles onto the world of "nightcrawlers", the freelance videographers who respond to police calls and film the worst of what happens in a city like Los Angeles after dark; murders, car crashes, fires, assorted human tragedy.
The film resembles, in theme, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Taxi Driver, but this film is wholly his own and Gilroy establishes his own personality on this thriller. Los Angeles is seen mostly at night, a tarnished jewel glistening in the distance as we view it from the dank, shadowy vantages of service alleys, side streets rolling down dry, cottage dotted hills, the rooftops of slum neighborhoods. The camera placements and the editing are sublime; Michael Mann, himself a master of interpreting L.A. after dark, would find much to admire in this vision. Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, the titular nightcrawler, has a field day with his twitchy character who speaks and reacts in phrases and ways that make you think of someone who hasn't a center of being but is rather playing a role for the moment that will be sustained until it stops working, a moment after which anything can happen. Nightcrawler kept me rapt. A fine thriller, wonderfully done, splendidly acted.
2.BIRDMAN: This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd. That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise. The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.
3.GONE GIRL: "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.
Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clichéd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been established. This is a movie that lots of surprises and one in which you have to admit that didn't see coming.

Finding Vivian Maier

4.FINDING FOR VIVIAN MAIER: I saw this film and was thoroughly engrossed. Vivian Maier is such an enigma that she may well inspire continued speculation as to her personality and motivations as her renown grows.She was a housekeeper by trade, someone born in the United States yet feined a foreign accent and fictionalized her background, a woman without an observable social life of her own, an intensely private person who worked for several employers for several years a piece but about whom they couldn't recollect much at all. She was, though, a superbly gifted photographer who had a camera always at the ready where ever she went, taking a picture with an old, conspicuous camera when ever an image, a face, a spontaneous arrangement of objects presented themselves to her. She was a master of the art, as the film reveals in a generous representation of her photography.
The mystery of Vivian Maier unfolds with the discovery of literally thousands of undeveloped rolls of her photos at an estate sale; the purchaser of the photos processes some rolls and is flabbergasted as to the high quality of the work. Who took these photos? Why are so many rolls left undeveloped and nearly lost forever? Who is Vivian Maier and what compelled to live a life as a house servant when she had talent that equaled, on her own terms, the best work of photographers of great fame and praise.
This is a fascinating film, a discovery and appreciation of previously unknown master of photography, but also a mystery story. More is revealed about Maier, but the more we learn about her, the more questions we are inspired to ask. Her black and white photography are simply stunning and really do, as the experts in the film insist, match up with the best photographers of the period. It's an engrossing documentary on a fascinating subject.
5.GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:Wes Anderson's deadpan absurdity works again. If you're an Anderson, you get the humor and the genre mashups the director brings to the screen: there is something quaint , lovely but a bit frayed into the worlds he to let his imagination move into for a period, while we're laughing at the off- kilter rhythms of the laugh lines and admiring his remarkable sense of art design, there's a sinister world lurking underneath the universe of his whimsical creations.

John Wick

6.JOHN WICK: A terse and true addition to the "payback's a bitch" genre, Kennau Reeves as the titular character, a hit man who has retired from his trade and is in a state of grieving over his dead wife until he is, well, fucked with by the son of the State side Russian mob. We know what happens next, with John Wick digging up the tools of his trade, the idea being like that of "Shane" where the former gun fighter takes his guns out of the saddle bag, and prepares a one man assault against a massive crime organization. It's been done to death, seemingly , premise that is the mark of a straight to video Steven Segal film, but co-directors Chad Stahlski and David Leitch keep this film tightly reined in, efficiently introducing a couple of new ideas here and there, but mostly sticking close to the idea that makes the genre so compelling, that the bad guys, despite their advantage in numbers and fire power, are going to pay for the sins they've committed with their lives. To cut to to the chase, this film works because it's a stylish and unapologetic shoot-em-up; the close quarters gun fights here are enthralling and show a strong influence of Hong Kong martial arts films. As with the exquisite movements in the combat scenes in the Christopher Bale science fiction thriller "Equilibrium", we have a fine illusion here that gun play can , like sword play , be artful, suggestive of dance. It's nonsense , of course, but there is something to be admired with the aesthetic the film makers brought to this violent enterprise and how well they pulled it off. Reeves, rest assured, has his Disney robot mannerisms put to good use here.
7.CAPTAIN AMERICA:WINTER SOLDIER: I am just a bit tired of the Mavel Universe, but Captain America continues to be a fun project. In this case, the bastards at Hydra turn out to be everywhere and the Captain finds himself neck deep in the dark world of conspiracy and secret agendas. This is one property I hope Marvel doesn't lard up with too much noise from the rest of the MCU. The Captain needs movies that can stand apart from the confusion that is already ruining what was once a font of good fun.
8.LIVE, DIE, REPEAT (EDGE OF TOMORROW): Really, this movie should have been a hit, an inspired take on the eternal-recurrence theme of "Groundhog's Day" ; instead dealing with a romantic comedy as the motivation for the activity to follow, we have an alien invasion and the fate of the Earth dependent on the exits and re-entrances on one precise and critical moment in time. Bad title, terrible re-titling, poor marketing, all of which is a shame considering that was the best science fiction movie of the year and was artfully efficient in all departments: taut, well acted, sweetly edited, all elements, from exposition to special effects, in line with enhancing the excitement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, is akin to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in its close observance of titular characters of no observable depth of integrated personality who improvise their world views and philosophies on the fly. The shred goal of the men in both of these films is that they are at the frayed ends of the society they live, seeking either to have it fit and serve their erstwhile agendas or disrupt, disturb and injure in some fashion that comes with a warning. In Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro plays a sociopath who transfers his feelings of impotence and inadequacies onto the oppressive demands of the consumer culture; driving a cab through New York at night, he roams among the hookers, pimps, drug dealers who he finds disgusting and nurses an attraction-repulsion with those he perceives as rich and powerful, a class he wishes to both be a part of and wishes to destroy as well. Feeling that he's been dealt the rawest hand possible by powers on high, he vaguely plots to make something happen, something that would both change the way things are and define him as someone to be noticed and respected. During Taxi Driver, effectively maneuvered by director Scorsese, Travis Bickle, DeNiro's emotionally unassimilated character, morphs from a sad and comic figure to someone who becomes menacing; the feeling that something will eventually, sooner than later, go wrong with this scenario is unavoidable.

Nightcrawler is another cool, restrained, artful study of a marginal personality attempting with their self-invented methods to define himself in a world that knows him not. Jake Gyllenhaal is a petty thief named Louis Bloom who hustles his way into the world of being a freelance news videographer, the sort of dude who waits in his car, listens to a police scanner awaiting the announcement of a bloody auto accident, a robbery, a murder, plane crash and then responds so that he can film it and sell the morbid footage to a local news channel. Gyllenhaal has, like DeNiro, a sort of charisma that he oozes and applies effectively in the role, a wide smile, wide, attentive eyes and a patter borrowed from self-help books and online encyclopedias. This a beautifully shot movie, a grand picture of Los Angeles after dark, with sharply drawn contrasts; the color scheme is gorgeously dark and makes the city's nocturnal side, shot from hill tops, side streets, alley ways and four ways stops, glisten even still like a display of expensive diamonds. Gyllenhaal's character is, to be sure, a sociopath, someone of no real concerns for the world apart from his ability to negotiate a better position for himself; as the character rises in his new profession of filming the bloodiest events after hours, we witness him manipulate, twist, apply his creepily persuasive talk to gain his way. He displays a mastery of his character that is unnerving to see unfold, where in different situations we see him learning how to coax responses he prefers to come from people, going from botched negotiations when trying to get a price he wants for stolen metal material, to getting low balled on a price when he sells his bike to a pawnbroker.

He learns from his mistakes by obsessively analyzing the words he chose in those situations and scours the internet courses to study research about human behavior and taking business classes where he appears most impressed by the lessons that instruct him in strong, goal oriented business language. His life becomes dedicated to a business plan that he has adopted as a philosophy and perhaps a substitute for a moral compass; when confronted with objections, protests, and criticisms of his rationale and activities and results of plans that hadn't gone well, Gyllenhaal responds with a firm, calm response that is denial couched in the rhetoric of mass market motivational books.The effects are frequently comic, as the character baffles and bamboozles others, but there is a sense of the thing culminating in an oncoming catastrophe. Gilroy, directing his script, has the right touch for establishing the growing sense of unease; even as the story accelerates and the danger becomes more intensely presented, the film is steady in the pacing; there is the sense that you're watching an accident about to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it. A large part of the horror is when we realize that we are watching a man who is without compunction, remorse, or any sense of moral right or wrong. He is a monster, a real monster, with no agenda apart from achieving his ends. This is a fine motion picture, wonderfully filmed, acted, edited. One looks forward to more movies from Dan Gilroy.