Sunday, November 28, 2010


"Why the constant surprise?"

The final volume of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been brought to the screen, in the first of two films. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is one of the least energetic films in the entire series, and that's saying something after the last entry, H.P. AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE.

I'd enjoyed HALF-BLOOD PRINCE well enough, with some reservations. I then read J.K. Rowling's novel, and was just plain floored at how lame the film is in comparison with the book. The filmmakers seem to have gone very far out of their way to sanitize the book, to remove anything that might be too scary (scarcely a chapter of PRINCE goes by without news of a death or serious injury from Voldemort's forces) or, even more apparently frightening, anything that might show Harry displaying any disrespect to grownups at all. Very early in the novel, for instance, Harry has an extremely ugly encounter with Draco Malfoy's mother that basically ends with him shoving his wand in her face and begging her to make his day. Similar scenes with the useless new Minister of Magic, whom Harry (entirely justifiably) tells off in no uncertain terms are nowhere in the film.

Yeah, I know they can't cram everything into the movie. But those little moments are really crucial in showing Harry's increased sense of himself and his increased anger at the world in general, and in showing the general sense of messiness, of good characters who do things that they shouldn't, that characterizes Rowling's books (the ones that I've read, at least.) Add to that the total absence of the kind of energy that keeps the books such a delight to read, and some of which was actually present in the previous entry, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. After reading Rowling's novel, I'm going to have to put the film of HALF-BLOOD PRINCE among the most disappointing films in the series, right next to DEATHLY HALLOWS.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS continues director David Yates’ bizarre ongoing mission to deprive J.K. Rowling’s great mad characters and intricate stories of all the energy, for good and evil, that makes them such a delight to read at their best. Thus, instead of Pissed-Off Harry Potter, we get a merely Melancholy Harry Potter. The villains do a lot of portentous whispering and posing, with only Helena Bonham Carter going for mad scenery-chewing broke. The aim seems to have been to make the films more Capital-S Serious somehow, and the film suffers for it. The color scheme has been toned way down into a RETURN OF THE KING-esque permanent cloudy gray. The big climactic moments like the attack on a certain wedding and the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic fall very flat indeed -- there’s just no spark at all. Characters from the novels appear just long enough to remind one of their existence and emphasize how much has been cut from the story, which also means that name actors who have made great impressions in other installments appear just long enough to get paid and to remind you of better films (the criminal waste of such glories as David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson, and Imelda Staunton’s magnificent Dolores Umbridge is among the film’s worst offenses). The storyline feels both too long (those interminable scenes of Harry & Co. wandering in the greenscreened wilderness) and yet incomplete, somehow, as if even bigger chunks than usual are being left out of what is after all only half of the story, and there are a couple of elements that require some explanation, like that little shard of mirror that Harry keeps consulting periodically -- sorry, but what was that again?

This is all really unforgiveable considering the splitting of the story into two films. If they were just going to cut the storyline to shreds, why not just do it all in one film and get it over with? Well duh. They’ll make a fuck of a lot more money from two films than from just one, of course.

To be fair, there are highlights. A clever moment where assorted characters assume Harry’s identity and appearance offers some good laughs via CGI -- the sudden appearance of Daniel Radcliffe’s features on Emma Watson’s face is the film’s real comic highlight. The animated sequence explaining the film’s title is splendid, and there’s admirable chemistry among the three young leads. Ms. Watson and Mr. Radcliffe do their customary fine work, and it is especially nice to see Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley finally showing some guts after all these years.

So in 8 months we’ll get Part II. I guess I’ll go. There’s one bit in the novel that I had been hoping to get a look at onscreen, between two of my very favorite actresses, a big scene that I know a lot of people have been looking forward to, based on assorted online postings I’ve been seeing. I hope that Yates Etc. will not fuck that scene up the way they’ve fucked up almost the entire first half of the story. My hopes would be much higher if Alfonso Cuaron were in charge.

Monday, October 04, 2010


"I was in the Russian Army, and this medal was worn on the left."

Josef von Sternberg's THE LAST COMMAND, recently released in a very nice DVD from the folks at the Criterion Collection, has a lot to interest a fan of classic movies. The film's star, Emil Jannings, won the first Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in this film (along with another performance in WAY OF ALL FLESH), and any chance to see any film by the brilliant von Sternberg, who is still woefully under-represented on DVD, can't be missed.

As the film opens, a rather battered and fragile Russian emigre (Jannings) in Hollywood is hired to play the role of a Russian general in what seems to be a war film. See, the director of the film within the film, played by William Powell, has specifically chosen Jannings' photo from a stack of stock actor photos. It gradually becomes clear that Jannings has in fact been a highly decorated general in the Russian army, and that some kind of humiliating payback seems to be in store, as assorted studio flunkies and even Powell himself lay on the rudeness. In an extended flashback, which takes up much of the film, it turns out that Powell had in fact been active in the Russian revolution and was tossed into prison by none other than Jannings himself. Jannings even had, it turns out, the bad taste to appropriate Powell's female partner in political extremism as his mistress, and it goes along from there.

Von Sternberg keeps the energy up at all times, and there's a lot of good fun to be had. The Hollywood studio system gets some good ribbing, and the comparisons between Movie Director and Military Leader are interesting and amusing. Unfortunately, the storyline just one step too far. The way that nobody seems to be affected by the cold of the Russian winter is one thing, I guess I can overlook a particular heroine flinging herself around outdoors in the snow wearing only a sheer silk dress because, well, they just do it so well. The deal breaker comes when the plot indulges in one flagrant flourish too many, a big outlandish tragic event that comes a good 20 minutes before the film returns to Hollywood for the requisite Big Finish, and which can't help but diminish, for me at least the BIG SCENE where Jannings gets one last chance to really go for broke.

Certainly enough of it works to make the film watchable. There's no denying the excellence of the performances, with Jannings negotiating the character's ups and more frequent downs beautifully. Nobody went to pieces the way Jannings did. More than holding his own is the great William Powell, whose hugely expressive eyes were never put to such great use in sound films. There's also the general splendor of the production itself, the beautiful black and white cinematography and really remarkable camera movement. Future viewings might make me consider whether or not von Sternberg was playing some kind of game with his audience, calling attention to the artifice of filmmaking with some of what goes on here.

If there are any future viewings, and I'll admit that I'm not in a big hurry.

Monday, July 26, 2010


"Insert Flap A And Throw Away"

INCEPTION is the latest gloom-a-thon from America's favorite purveyor of bloated bummers, Christopher Nolan, up to now the man most famous for leeching all entertainment value from the Batman franchise in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. As even the doorknobs must know by now, INCEPTION follows a group of dream technicians (or does it?) led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who take the assignment of planting an idea in the head of the heir to a big corporation (or do they?). To do this, they have to enter dream states themselves (or do they?), which has risks, most notably in the form of DiCaprio's late wife Mal, played by the magnificent Marion Cotillard, who seems to have a bit of a grudge against her husband, for reasons which become clear.

Or do they?

INCEPTION, or as I've started to think of it, INFECTION, is yet another in an apparently endless series of puzzle movies that keep getting churned out with appalling regularity, and is in fact the second one this year, after Scorsese's equally tiresome SHUTTER ISLAND. Where SHUTTER ISLAND kept the energy high with a parade of wackadoo plot twists and a manic High-Gothic style culminating in the Big Surprise That Was Neither A Surprise Nor Big, INCEPTION goes for a Chinese box/Russian nesting doll kind of narrative where, all together now, Nothing Is As It Seems. Except, of course, When It Is What It Seems.

And Maybe Even Then..

Unless Of Course...

The whole movie is like that. Look, folks, I have nothing against a good solid mindfuck. But INCEPTION is neither good, nor much of a mindfuck. I think that my mind would have been more readily fucked by this film if, quite simply, I had given a good goddamn about anyone or anything in it. Nolan spends a lot of time describing in chemistry-killing detail the terribly elaborate rules of the dream world(s) the film is going to occupy, and this dialogue, while admirably clear, isn't leavened by any humor or wit or even basic human warmth, which means that fine actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt start to sound like they're reading from tech manuals rather than communicating with other people. The fact is that despite the actors' best efforts, the characters remain resolutely two-dimensional, with Marion Cotillard's Mal being the single memorable exception, and it just became impossible for me to take much interest in the assorted cliff hangers and plot twists and set pieces as a result.

And I can't say that the device of the dream stuff really adds much to the movie, except about $170 million in CGI costs and the tedious level of Is It Real ambiguity that seems more designed to keep message boards and study halls buzzing for the rest of the summer than anything else. This film could have been made without the dream stuff, and we'd have had a tight corporate espionage thriller instead of the bloated episode of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE tarted up with fancy CGI that we're stuck with. Basically, the dream stuff doesn't really add as much to the film as it really should, except to complicate the story and the storytelling needlessly.

And the dreams on display are rather tiresome affairs. It is established with typical clarity that the dreams the team enters have all been carefully arranged for maximum reality, so there's no danger of sudden eruptions of sexual energy (never ever an issue in a Nolan film anyway) or sudden bits of strange unexplained subconscious dream stuff, which pretty much cuts the balls off the whole dream thing from the getgo, as far as I'm concerned. Why bother setting most or even all of a movie inside dreams if things aren't going to go fucking berserk once in a while?

Well, whatever Nolan wants, Nolan gets, as controlled and ultimately boring as it is. And you know, I think I'd even have been willing to go with the flow, or at least found the film less of an ordeal, if the film wasn't sunk by Christopher Nolan's suffocating seriousness, the solemnity bordering on pretentiousness that sends his work time and again, as in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, straight to the bottom of the ocean. Make no mistake: INCEPTION is a Serious Film here, one that deals with Big Ideas about Reality and Dreams and the Unconscious and Levels of Dreams and stuff like that. All of this is brought to the screen via plodding lifeless storytelling and by Serious Points that never for a moment convince except when they involve Marion Cotillard. Far greater and far more entertaining movies have played with these same themes without collapsing under their own tedious weight. See Gilliam's BRAZIL or TWELVE MONKEYS for films that, whatever their own problems, are made with wit and energy and most importantly a sense of LIFE that Christopher Nolan, for all of his technical brilliance, shows no interest in whatsoever. Nolan's films are D.O.A., and INCEPTION is the deadest of them all.

Friday, July 02, 2010


"One is starved for Technicolor up there!"

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic wartime fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH centers on a romance between a British fighter pilot (David Niven) and a young American WAC (Kim Hunter) stationed in England. The pair have bonded over the radio one night, when the pilot's badly damaged plane gets lost in a fog and he has to bail out, and she is the last voice he hears over his radio headset. His survival after bailing out minus parachute is, it turns out accidental. The heavenly spirit sent to collect him (Marius Goring) also got lost in the fog, causing all kinds of problems with the Celestial Bureaucracy, when the pilot declines to correct the error by dying, especially now that he has found love.

I don't want to give away too much, as a good deal of the fun of the movie is watching the story unfold. Make no mistake, there's a lot to like and admire about the movie, especially the really fine performances and the really delicious use of Technicolor. God this film is gorgeous to look at. Your TV isn't used to showing you pictures like this. The greens are greener, and those reds are really red: you've never seen fire like you see it in this film. The pictures just jump off the screen.

There's also certain playfulness to the film that is really engaging. The story may not feel entirely fresh to 21st Century audiences, but there are lots of neat little details to keep the attention engaged. At one point in the film time stops short, and a table tennis game is halted with the ball hanging in space.

I'll admit though that I can't quite make up my mind about the film. I have to say that I find the love relationship to be rather unconvincing, there doesn't really seem to be a lot of chemistry there between David Niven and Kim Hunter. And the overt propaganda elements of the film get frankly tiresome. A big scene toward the end about British/American relations (you'll know what I mean when you see it) just brings the film to a screeching halt, and the love conquers all ending (not a spoiler, trust me, there's never any doubt where the story is heading) feels kind of tacked on, somehow. I'm not sure I believe it. Bureaucracies, celestial or otherwise, aren't known for being accommodating. This is either a serious flaw or a niggling complaint, as you please. I'm feeling kind of churlish bringing it up. I guess I'm saying that the film bites off more than it can really chew: the filmmakers expect a charming romantic wartime fantasy about the Power Of Love to carry more metaphoric and thematic propaganda weight than it can really bear. It doesn't really detract from the movie, I guess, but it doesn't exactly help either.


"Very much. Not so much."

Having seen this film at various times over the years, I just don't understand the wild praise the film continues to get. BLIMP, made in 1943, is the story of uber-Brit soldier Clive Candy (the great Roger Livesey) and his adventures in the years between 1902 and 1943. His assorted romantic relationships are gone into, and his deep friendship with the German officer Theodor von Kretchmar-Schuldorff (the great Anton Walbrook) is really the core of the film. There's a lot about German British relations in the film, understandably, and some rather solid home truths are spoken on both sides, pro-British and anti-British as well as pro-German and anti-German. Apparently Winston Churchill tried to have the film stopped because of the positive depiction of a German officer.

COL. BLIMP is clearly aiming at being about England and the English the way that MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is about America and Americans. There's no doubt in my mind as to which is the superior film (MR. SMITH wins by many many light years) but it could just be one of those weird nationalistic things: maybe I'm just too American to understand COL. BLIMP. And that's a shame, because I don't think that's what they had in mind. COL. BLIMP is not an easy film, by any means, there are a lot of complicated ideas floating around in it, most especially and currently relevantly about the proper way to deal with a war: how does a country that prides itself on fair play and a particular brand of decency deal with the very real threat of an enemy that just keeps refusing to co-operate? How dirty can a nation fight without compromising itself? The film never really gets around to answering these questions, as far as I can tell.

There's an uncharacteristic technical clumsiness to the film, which I really find unbelievable in a Powell/Pressburger production. At least two transitional moments in the film are handled what was probably intended to be an interesting and cinematic manner, and you can see what they're wanting to do, but it doesn't come off at all well. The most disturbing is the first flashback transition from from 1943 to 1902 (there's a framing device whereby the film opens in 1943 and goes back to 1902 to start Clive's story at the beginning). I won't bother describing it, but you'll know what I mean when you see it. It is the clumsiest bit of bad filmmaking a fine director ever put into a film, and I just can't believe they left it in -- surely they could have done another take or two or nine.

I'd be ready to forgive it a lot more if I didn't consistently find myself thinking that the film could be a lot tighter, that 20 minutes were being taken to establish what really could have been set up in less than 5. An extended sequence set during WWI just goes on and on, and even winds up with one of the lamest cliches ever put on film: two characters notice that the guns have stopped on Armistice Day, and the sudden silence is actually augmented with birdsong and the clouds actually lift a bit allowing some sunshine. No, really, that's what happens. Maybe I need to do some more reading on the film. Maybe I'm just missing something.

There are good things, in the film, of course. Roger Livesey's performance as Clive is most impressive, and Deborah Kerr, in her film debut, is admirable in her three roles. But the film comes most incredibly alive whenever the great Anton Walbrook graces the screen. There's none of the mad intensity of his work in THE RED SHOES or THE QUEEN OF SPADES in BLIMP; he's very quiet and restrained, for the most part, particularly in an extended single-shot monologue that is simply the most moving scene in Powell/Pressburger's filmography. If I continue to see the film time after time, banging my head against the wall trying to get a handle on it rather than dismissing it as a failure, it is because of Walbrook. I'd watch and listen to him read the goddamn phone book.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


"I have recently seen the silliest film."

As you probably know, this new version adds about a half hour of new footage, in very scratched form, to the restoration released into theatres and on DVD a few years back. Sometimes this means that a few frames have been put back (so that a character is allowed to complete a motion interrupted by an intertitle, you'll see what I mean) and sometimes it means whole new scenes have been restored. For example, there's a scene where a group of children are being evacuated from the flooded undergroud worker's quarters. This scene is now extended with a very effective suspense device (I won't spoil it, but you'll know what I mean).

The one really essential addition, for me, is the restored sequence of Freder's fever dream, involving a mad sermon from a monk (an encounter with said monk is one of the scenes that is apparently lost for good) and visions of the whore of Babylon, intercut with the Robot Maria's naughty dancing in front of some amusingly aroused guys in tuxedos.

Another restored sequence involving a pair of minor characters adds nothing except some plot exposition. I had some hopes for this section, as one of the characters is played by a favorite of mine, an actor named Fritz Rasp who can always be counted on to be interesting.

I've got some mixed feelings about the whole thing. METROPOLIS comes from the period where Fritz Lang had not grasped the idea of the concept of the possibility of less being more. METROPOLIS certainly feels tighter than WOMAN IN THE MOON and SPIES, which just go all over the place, and METROPOLIS has a grand merry energy bordering on delirium that just can't be denied. Everything's a little too big, a little too much, and is often a lot too big, and a lot too much. This isn't always bad, but it isn't always good. The final battle between Freder and the mad scientist Rotwang, on the roof of a cathedral no less, can feel like one mad flourish too many, if I’m in the wrong mood. Mercifully, I was in the right mood both times I saw this restoration.

One thing that really stuck out this time is the exceedingly high quality of the acting, a pretty consistent factor in Lang’s films, and METROPOLIS has no shortage of interesting performances. I’ve always been a fan of Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s work, and his demented mad scientist Rotwang is a joy to behold, going from grand scenery chewing to restrained underplaying and back in the blink of an eye. The actor playing Freder has never been a favorite of mine: he always seems to be working too hard at embodying positive youthfullness: the eyes too bright, the smile too wide kind of thing, but he gets a couple of interesting moments where he’s allowed to just think onscreen, with assorted ideas and emotions crossing his face. And the great Brigitte Helm, as the film's two Marias, plays the virginal Pure Maria very nicely, never going overboard with the piety, but she really goes for broke as the Robot Maria, flinging herself into wickedness with an abandon that is always entertaining to watch. I do think Robot Maria's Extreme Wickedness goes a bit too far, though, especially when she's supposed to be preaching to a bunch of workers who've only seen the original Pure Maria, and nobody really seems to notice the difference between the two. It's like nobody noticing that Shirley Temple has been replaced with Lady Gaga.

Worth seeing? Definitely. It was worth it to see the film properly projected on a bigger than my TV-sized screen. I haven’t mentioned the brilliance of the design, the high quality of the production, and all that, as I’d imagine that most of the folks who bother to check this page out are already well aware of them. If it has been a while since you’ve seen METROPOLIS, then hell yeah, get your ass to the movie theatre or get the damn DVD.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


"I thought God gave us moral order."

Scorsese's latest has all the trappings of a big old genre blowout. All the trappings are there -- a missing person investigation set on an insane asylum on a more than usually isolated island, a terrible storm that cuts off all communications with the mainland, asylum staff with an agenda, asylum inmates with an agenda, and an investigating officer who seems to be having a hard time keeping his wits about him. Just the ticket for a great edge of your seat wackadoo thriller joyride. Woo hoo!

Alas, Martin Scorsese doesn't know from "woo hoo!" SHUTTER ISLAND is the latest and possibly the weakest (but probably not the last) of the BIG SURPRISE films, like THE SIXTH SENSE, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, MEMENTO, etc. I'm not bragging when I say that I saw it coming before the movie even started, simply by thinking about the fact that there is in fact a big surprise. I remember thinking, "Oh, man, it can't be THAT, can it?" And when it came to the Big Reveal, I started to think that there had to be more to it, right, there just had to be, Scorsese couldn't be settling for that tired old gimmick, really, could he, that couldn't be it?

And goddamn it to hell, it was.

Folks, M. Night Shyamalan himself would have passed on this script for being just too too too fucking obvious. And Scorsese himself doesn't help matters. Never the subtlest of directors, he just goes full-throttle here -- every scene is heavily underlined for maximum importance, and vast stretches of dialogue seem to be marked with an asterisk somehow: Ben Kingsley virtually holds up a sign saying IMPORTANT CLUE every time he speaks. It would work as a sort of affectionate parody of high gothic whodunit stuff, but Scorsese never seems to be in on the joke.

There's just nothing animating the movie, no fun, no idea that Scorsese was having us all on, a la Hitchcock's assertion that PSYCHO was a "fun picture." There's nothing in SHUTTER ISLAND to even approach that glorious little moment in PSYCHO, for example, where Anthony Perkins says, "My mother.. what's the phrase? She's not herself today." There's just no room for that kind of thing in Scorsese's solemn and increasingly joyless universe.

Solemn and joyless can have their appeal, of course. What finally makes SHUTTER ISLAND such an ordeal is the extreme heavy handedness with which Scorsese works overtime to add some perceived SERIOUSNESS to the rather silly contraption of a story. Flashbacks of the liberation of Dachau, no less, are liberally sprinkled throughout the film. There's some nattering about violence being part of the human condition, and a mention of God supplying a moral order. All it really ends up doing is highlighting the real silliness of the goings-on, and not in a good way.

OK, so there are good points. A flashback to Dachau contains a memorable scene about the horrors of war that seems to act as a rebuke to the grinning gleeful savagery of Tarantino's BASTERDS. The film is gorgeously mounted, the cinematography etc. are all perfection. The acting is mostly beyond reproach, with Michelle Williams and Mark Ruffalo turning in particularly fine work. Leonardo DiCaprio does his very best, but I have to say that I found his eternal golden youthfulness to be a major drawback in believing that he is supposed to have witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. I'm hoping someone somewhere will explain the cameo from the great Elias Koteas, who appears all too briefly wearing what looks like Robert De Niro's Frankenstein Monster makeup. Is that Scorsese's idea of an inside joke or something?

It has to be said that SHUTTER ISLAND boasts the single coolest contemporary classical soundtrack since Kubrick's THE SHINING, from which Scorsese lifts at least one memorable cue. The soundtrack album is essential owning. If only the movie itself were even remotely essential viewing.

Monday, February 01, 2010


Fashion mogul Tom Ford, in his film directing debut, turns Christopher Isherwood's sharp little "day in the life" novel into a "last day in the life" film. Isherwood's George goes about his day, a day like any other, filled with the thousand little indignities and annoyances that flesh is heir to. Annoying children from next door, condescending neighbors, (mostly) uncomprehending students in his literature class, etc. George's Englishness and his homosexuality give him an outsider's view on life in Los Angeles, and Isherwood acts as an invisible nameless narrator, supplying some good observation about George and his milieu. Isherwood's George isn't having the best day; he seems to be aware that he's just going through the motions, almost on auto-pilot, and it seems to have something to do with his recently deceased partner of 16 years, Jim.

In short, there isn't much plot in Isherwood's novel, and Ford can't be blamed for making George's seeming depression over the loss of his partner the focus of his film. Ford's George (played by Colin Firth, doing the best he can) is more than just bummed, he's actually preparing to kill himself. He leaves out the clothes he wants to be buried in, he prepares a series of Last Notes to assorted people, buys ammunition for the gun he keeps in his desk, and is shown throughout the day getting ready to check out once and for all.

Okay, well and good, not necessarily a bad notion in and of itself. The problem is Ford's need to make each scene, each shot, each bloody frame even, into a big display of every known cinematic technique, ranging from simple things like slow motion to the more advanced gimmick of manipulating the color saturation in the image to convey George's emotional state. One of the most tasteless moments in the film occurs in a bar when George is approached by a young man, cuing the color to go from muted but natural tones (George is Sad) to bright vibrant full color (George is Horny). It comes off less as an instance of an interesting use of color than as an instance of Directorial Authority Run Amuck. Clearly, this film is an expression of STYLE over anything as mundane as mere Life. Ford can't bear to show any disorder in the world he brings to the screen, every image is faultlessly composed and immaculately lit, hermetically created for maximum glossy photo-spread effect. Even a display of plastic pencil sharpeners in college bookstore is carefully arranged, with the little plastic items arrayed in precise color-specific rows. A scene of George unable to pull the trigger of the gun he has in his mouth, evidently out of concern for the damage he'll do to his surroundings, at first comes off as just a spectcularly ill-advised bit of black comedy, but unexpectely winds up being emblematic of the entire film. Suicide is one thing, but mess will simply not be tolerated.

There's more. It isn't enough for George to strike up an impromptu chat with one of his neighbor's children, whom he has unexpectedly met at the bank. The little girl has to have a stylish entrance, glimpsed in the reflection of an impossibly over-polished floor, followed by a slow shot travelling up her body from bottom to top, with music clearly inspired by Bernard Herrmann's score to VERTIGO on the soundtrack, yet. The entire movie is nothing but this kind of flourish, over and over and over, little nudges from Ford so we can applaud how "cinematic" his film is. The nudges start to bruise, before long, and the urge to nudge back can't be denied. The film feels completely unnatural and mechanical, so composed and created and finally phony that AVATAR comes off as a gay lark tossed off as an afternoon's merry diversion in comparison. It is difficult to give a damn about anyone in the film when they're just a bunch of carefully pretty immaculately groomed and dressed (and undressed) puppets. That this is true of even George's relationship with the late Jim (played by the pretty but useless Matthew Goode, who last annoyed as Ozymandias in WATCHMEN) is a particularly grave failing. The flashbacks we get of George and Jim together (reading in cozy domesticity, or sitting in carefully composed and overly styled B/W Bruce Weber-esque splendor on a picturesque outcropping of rock) are pretty standard romance novel stuff. There's no accounting for soul mates, I guess, but I think I'd have preferred not seeing Jim at all to the overly posed scenes we get here, which seem to have been cribbed out of an upscale gay magazine all-male resort ad.

It all just thuds and plods along, with a ponderous funereal air that really gets oppressive. The film hasn't gotten the complaints that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN got, that it offers too negative a view of Homosexuality As Misery, but I doubt that A SINGLE MAN will get enough popular attention to warrant many complaints. I'm tempted to dismiss the film as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT for the Project Runway crowd. I have to admit that I was glad to see an actor of Colin Firth's abilities being allowed to carry a film, one at least nominally intended for grown ups. To be fair, Firth's scene where he gets the Awful Phone Call about Jim's passing is most impressive, by far the most memorable thing in the film. But even Firth's performance falls into the black hole of Ford's style, as closeup after closeup of George displaying Subtle Emotions become as cloying as the film they had, up until then, been the best part of.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


My list of the ten best of the decade. I've been messing with this for a while. It is what it is. I'm sure I'll think of others immediately after I post this. And shouldn't BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN be in the top ten? Anyway---

A big juicy movie that never falters and never bores and miraculously doesn't fall apart, and only grows with repeat viewings. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of his life, a breathtaking descent into inhumanity and madness, painstakingly brought to the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson, in one of the biggest surprises of the decade.

All three as one film. My list, my rules. The thrilling epic that effectively put Lucas and Spielberg and Cameron in their place, and proving (as if it needed to be proven) that fantasy films needn't insult the intelligence.

Tim Burton singlehandedly shows the entire world how a musical should be made: carefully and with attention to the story and characters rather than cuisinart editing. Burton's heartbreaking bloody masterpiece demonstrates once and for all his consummate skill with actors as well as his brilliance behind the camera. His assured handling of the musical numbers "My Friends" and "Not While I'm Around" can stand with any of the greatest works in musical film, or in any genre period.

Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James' novel put the dys in dystopia, and vaulted him straight into Essential Filmmaker status. A thrilling picture of a world where no children are being born, and the hideous and all too familiar societal collapse.

Raul Ruiz' devastating trip through Proust. It never descends into Famous Classics Illustrated re-creation, but wanders through the entirety of the seven novel sequence, picking up scenes here and there and managing to bring it all together into something beautiful and rare. It deserves to be better known than it is.

From the Shamefully Overlooked file, Curtis Hanson's splendid comedy about a genially stoned novelist having the worst weekend of his life. Michael Douglas delivers his career best performance, with great support from Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand and Robert Downey Jr. Lovely.

FINDING NEMO and UP may have been more successful, but THE INCREDIBLES is the Pixar movie that made my decade, the one I keep watching with undiluted pleasure. Superheroes forced to live undercover in suburbia, dealing with a sinister threat. Great mad joyful fun, pure ecstatic delight in every shot.

Pocahontas and John Smith, via Terence Malick. Among the most profound timewarps in movie history -- you are there in colonial Jamestown. Malick isn't for everyone, the slow pace and whispered voice-overs can be a drag, but I'd advise anyone with eyes to see this one. First rate performances from Christian Bale and Colin Farrell, and from the radiant Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas.

The life of American comic book author Harvey Pekar, as embodied by Paul Giamatti. Documenting the thousand natural annoyances that Americans are heir to (standing behing old Jewish ladies in the supermarket checkout line, for example) a hardened cynic eventually realizes that life might not be so bad after all. Funny and moving and affirming, in the best way.

Hoo boy. The film that made me convinced that hooded killers were hiding under my bed. David Fincher's examination of the hunt for the Zodiac killer in 1970s San Francisco. Obsession has never seemed so obsessive.


Saturday, January 02, 2010


"If you talk about a film, you ruin it."

Ever the glutton for punishment, I saw Rob Marshall's film version of the musical NINE, itself a musical version of Fellini's 8 1/2. Full disclosure, not a surprise to anyone: I think Rob Marshall is probably the worst director alive. He has only two living rivals: Joel Schumacher and Zack Snyder, and one recently deceased: the unspeakable Anthony Minghella, who continues his vile influence from beyond the grave as the screenwriter of this film, a rare collaboration of two of the least talented film artists. The results are predictable. NINE is a disaster, plain and simple, except when the glorious Marion Cotillard appears onscreen, gracing the screen and the audience with her magical presence. If you can see this film without falling madly in love with her, you should have your head/heart examined.

The film/musical centers on Guido, a famed filmmaker who is having a creative/personal crisis, or something like that. There are all these women in his life played by assorted movie stars. The story just lurches along with none of the grace or speed of the Fellini film, or the merry energy of the original Broadway production of the musical. Marshall & Co. seem to realize that they can't just remake Fellini (even though they include big chunks of dialogue almost verbatim from Fellini's masterwork, without credit), and they seem to not be interested in just doing the musical as written, either, so they go with a grab bag of elements from 8 1/2, LA DOLCE VITA, and even borrows elements from Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES (a running gag about how everyone loves Guido's earlier successful films) and the inevitable Bob Fosse, as Guido's studio-bound fantasies seem to be lifted right out of ALL THAT JAZZ.

It has come to this. Marshall doesn't just emulate Fellini. He emulates Fellini emulators. Marshall even lifts bits out of Tommy Tune's original Broadway staging of the musical, and one has to wonder exactly how much in royalties the Fosse estate is getting for the ongoing use of those bentwood chairs that Marshall just can't seem to function without. Saraghina's big number, "Be Italian," is staged with Tommy Tune's tambourines and the bentwood chairs from the "Lieber Herr" number from Fosse's film of CABARET, taking sheer plagiarism to heights undreamed of by Brian De Palma.

To be fair, part of the blame has to go to Daniel Day-Lewis, who is quite simply miscast as Guido. Not an actor known for displaying joy or even anything as base as mere fun, Day-Lewis lays on the earnest self-loathing with a trowel without any of the mitigating charm that would make his character interesting or even bearable. His opening song is hideously ill-performed and directed with typically Marshallian stupidity, the opportunity for Day-Lewis to display any warmth in the amusing "duet with myself" is missed as Guido performs the song while climbing through some piping for reasons that pass understanding. And Day-Lewis' big breakdown is skillfully performed, but it has no impact because there's been no sympathy built up for his plight. It seems to take Guido a long time to realize what has been eminently clear to even the dimmest sentient audience member: the guy's an asshole. And the interminable epilogue (2 years later, for God's sake) ends with a whimper not a bang.

There are some surprises to be had here, though. Marshall's usual Rusty Cuisinart Editing style is put on hold for a couple of songs, during which we actually get to see the performers sing. Marion Cotillard's performance of "My Husband Makes Movies" is done with a minimum of wackadoo editing; her pain comes shining through that gorgeous face and teary eyes in what is easily the film's highpoint.

What surprised me most about the film is the way that almost all fun has been leeched from the story, the characters, the songs, and the very fabric of filmmaking itself. NINE is a big fat downer of a movie, based upon one of the most joyful works of art ever created. I have to say that I detect the narcotizing influence of the late and unlamented Anthony Minghella (who shares screenplay credit with Michael Tolkin) in this particular tonal shift. Instead of Felini's joyful energy, which animates even 8 1/2's darkest moments, we get a sort of mournful malaise more in keeping with THE ENGLISH PATIENT or COLD MOUNTAIN than the glories of Fellini.

This is really unforgiveable in a film with delusions of being Fellini-esque. As painful as Marshall's monstrous CHICAGO is, it at least has energy -- the mad plot, the great score, even the outrageously caffeinated weed-wacker editing kept my interest as I watched the film through my fingers. NINE seems to be after a more serious "grown-up" vibe, but Marshall & Co., with their all-too-typical stupidity, miss one of the Maestro's most endearing traits: joy.