Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Triumph of Wes Anderson, or Sympathy for John McCain

Slate's got a nice little slideshow up about the rise and fall of Wes Anderson: his fantastic debut, his two masterpieces, his two lesser but still wonderful films, and then (the primary subject) the ubiquity of his imitators. You can check out the slideshow yourself here:

On the way, though, something wonderful happened, for me at least. One of the slideshow videos is a set of faux John McCain ads made in the style of three directors Woo, K. Smith, and Anderson. You can check out the Anderson clip at minute 2:21 of the video - and I do highly recommend it.

Something weird happened to me while watching the Anderson parody: I came to feel enormous empathy for John McCain. Here's what Slate has to say "Tweaking the surface pleasures of Anderson's work, the ad unwittingly (or, who knows, maybe intentionally) highlights the director's drift toward a cinema of extravagant artifice and the diminishing returns it offers."

First, I think the "extravagant artifice" of "diminishing returns" was certainly intentional - this video clearly takes some shots at Wes Anderson surface-obsessed quirkmaster. But I had a completely different reaction. Watching a John McCain semi-lookalike glumly acknowledge that he has no chance in the matter, then gamely stroll through a classic Anderson sequence, complete with pitch perfect Bowie and track suits, gave me the first twinge of sympathy I've had for McCain in years. This was a man who had real principles, who abandoned them to try to win an unwinnable election against the most gifted politician in half a century, and went to his inevitable defeat. For abandoning those principles and engaging in pathetic pandering I hated him. But when this actor deadpans that he probably won't win, then walks off to his failure, I finally felt sympathy for the man.

And that, as far as I'm concerned, is the bottom line with Wes Anderson's style: it works. Say what you want about The Darjeeling Limited and the Life Aquatic, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and the American Express ad (and granted, none of them reach the peaks of Rushmore or Tenenbaums), all of them have something going for them. That's because Anderson's style - the quirk, the colors, the props, the perfectly integrated pop music, and the heartfelt but off-kilter emotions - just plain works. In fact, it works so well that an obvious parody backfired to the point that I felt real sympathy for a man I've intensely disliked for years now.

Of course, the incongruity of the actual "I'm John McCain and I approve this message" bit snaps me out of it to a certain extent. It serves as a reminder that the Anderson aesthetic - the distillation of real emotional pain into whimsical scenes that retain emotional heft - is deeply in contrast to the look and sound of a real political campaign. Which, I think, just makes my point stronger: cutting through all that bullshit and making McCain a truly sympathetic figure is a seriously tough task. Faux-Anderson, though, was up to the job.

Just for fun: A Mike Gravel Campaign Ad

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Are You Not Entertained?

Every good cinephile remembers the 2001 Academy Awards as a disaster. Chameleonic actor Russell Crowe won the best actor award for monosyllabic he-man Maximus, a blatant makeup award for his failure to win in 1999's The Insider. The daring, provocative film Traffic, made by genius auteur Steven Soderbergh, failed to win best picture, as Crowe's Gladiator took that honor as well en route to winning the night.

The only problem with all this is that it's wrong. Soderbegh sucks, and Traffic is probably his worst film. And Gladiator, well, Gladiator is epic filmmaking done right. Please, head on over to Film for the Soul for the latest entry in Counting Down the Zeroes, that website's extensive look at 00s cinema. You'll find me singing Gladiator's praises:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Film Ignorance #31: City Lights

Film: City Lights
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, other, less important people
Year: 1931
Reason for Ignorance: Saw clips in film class, never finished it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The American Film Institute just named City Lights the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I'm pretty sure that's a mistake for two reasons. First of all, it's nowhere near as good as the best screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. It also doesn't stack up well against Woody Allen's best romantic comedies of the 70s and 80s.

My second objection is that it's just not a romantic comedy. Granted, I'm the very last person to police categories and genres. But this movie is in fact two intertwined tales. One of them is a classic, tragic romance involving Chaplin's Little Tramp and a blind flower girl who thinks he's a rich suitor. The other story is a slapstick comedy involving the Little Tramp and a suicidal millionaire who considers Charlie his best friend while drunk, then kicks the tramp out on the street every time he sobers up.

Although these two stories do end up intersecting at the end of the film, they're completely separate for the majority of the movie. In other words, this can't be a romantic comedy, because the comedy isn't romantic, and the romance is tragic. It's a comedy and a romance, side by side.

And it is a very funny comedy and a very sad romance. The suicidal millionaire who constantly befriends and then disowns Chaplin leads to a number of very funny moments, particularly whenever the Tramp has to prevent his suicide attempts. And the romance between the Tramp, who pretends to be a rich man, and the blind flower girl is quite moving.

Although I liked this movie a lot, I think it's pretty overrated; it's certainly not one of the greatest films ever made, and doesn't even stack up to a more sophisticated Chaplin film like Modern Times. And I can identify why it's received such critical acclaim: the final shot. The final shot of City Lights is one of five or ten most famous closeups in the entire history of cinema. Film luminaries from Fellini to Woody Allen to P.T. Anderson have closed some of their best movies with an homage to that shot. Without it, this is just an excellent Chaplin movie; with it, this "comedy romance in pantomime" has become a cinematic standard.

Bonus Game: What closeups can you think of that are as famous or more famous than this one? I think the "more famous" category is probably empty. But possibly as famous:

1.Gloria Swanson's "I'm ready for my closeup" closeup in Sunset Boulevard

2.Orson Welles is introduced in The Third Man

3.John Wayne is horrified by captive white women in The Searchers (I would also accept: John Wayne is introduced in Stagecoach)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Film Ignorance #30: To Be or Not to Be

Film: To Be or Not to Be
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack
Year: 1942
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Based on this and Ninotchka, I believe I understood the Ernst Lubitsch formula: take a serious subject with world historical implications, in which many people have or will die, and then turn it into a ludicrous comedy. In Ninotchka, Soviet famine and the threat of Stalinist liquidation became the subject for a sophisticated, ingenuous romantic comedy. In To Be or Not to Be, Germany's occupation of Poland, the Polish resistance, and the threat of concentration camps are the basis of an absurd and very, very funny farce.

The star of To Be or Not to Be is Jack Benny, a radio comedian who would occasionally do movies. He is not a suave or sophisticated comic player along the lines of Grant, nor does he offer the rugged charms of Gable, or the folksiness of Stewart. He is a radio comedian, at least one brow lower than all of those that I just mentioned, but very, very funny. Think Bob Hope, and you'll be in the right ballpark.

After seeing the ultra-sophisticated Ninotchka, I wasn't quite expecting slapstick farce of To Be or Not to Be. But it's damn funny. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife team starring in Hamlet in pre-war Poland. Lombard doesn't take her vows too seriously, so she starts romancing a young Air Force flyer (Robert Stack, in a pre-Unsolved Mysteries role). Stack gets up for a little rendezvous with Lombard every time Benny starts hamming his way through "To be or not to be." This enrages Benny, but World War II breaks out and there's nothing to be done about it.

After the war, Benny, Lombard, and Stack get involved again, both romantically and in a plot to murder double agent Professor Siletsky before he can meet with the German commander, Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhart. From there, the movie throws every gag imaginable at you, and most of them work. An actor playing Hitler says "Heil myself." Benny does a bad, hammy impression of Ehrhardt for Siletsky, then gives Siletsky the same treatment for Ehrhardt. Lombard also has to seduce them both, and keeps getting caught in sticky situations. And over and over again, no matter who he's impersonating, Benny asks everyone if they've heard of him. The running joke is that no one has ever heard of him, but finally Ehrhardt has head of him, and dismisses him as a ham.

This is really a movie that shouldn't have worked. For starters, it's an absurd farce about the Polish resistance trying to assassinate a Nazi double agent; form and content started off at odds with one another. Benny can't really act, and was clearly just a radio ham doing ridiculous impersonations on screen. But the role (like all of those Woody Allen writes for himself) takes advantage of the fact that the comedian has zero range, is a complete buffoon, but knows his way around a one-liner. By playing that thinly veiled version of himself/his showbiz persona, Benny makes this cockeyed creation seem sublime. Ninotchka it ain't, but there aren't many movies that are funnier.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Film Ignorance # 29: The Kid

Film: The Kid
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
Year: 1921
Reason for Ignorance: Not the hugest Chaplin fan

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Charlie Chaplin was never one for subtlety. The first scene of The Kid is a woman leaving a charity hospital with a child. As the nurse and doctor watch her leave with a mixture of pity and disapproval, a title card appears: "The Woman - whose sin was motherhood."

Ah, thanks Charlie, I get it now: this is a single mother, alone in the world, oppressed by society's mores and forced to travel the cruel world bearing the burden of her sin.

Charlie's not sure you got it, though, because the next shot is just a few seconds of a statue of Jesus weighed down by the cross. "See, she must bear the burden of her sin! She's like Jesus! Get it?"

Ah yes, we get it Charlie, we get it. But he's still not sure, so the next scene is The Woman sitting on a park bench, holding the child. In case you hadn't noticed it yet, this woman is alone and has nowhere to go. And what is the title card that appears to make sense of this shot of a lonely woman, sitting by herself, alone, with no one else: "Alone." Thanks.

Once the little tramp himself shows up, the picture picks up a great deal. The Woman tries to leave her child with a rich family, but the baby is accidentally kidnapped by a pair of car thieves, who leave the baby near where the tramp lives. Once The Tramp picks up the baby, he's stuck with him; a cop prevents him from putting him back down on the ground. And so Chaplin is left to raise a little boy, who quickly grows up to the tender age of five.

This movie is very funny, stringing together a series of hilarious vignettes that would have been all or most of a Chaplin film just a few years earlier. The kid breaking windows for the tramp to fix them, a cop catching on to their racket, the tramp flirting with the cop's wife after fixing her windows (if you know what I mean), the kid beating a local bully, the tramp beating the bully's enormous brother with the aid of a brick, and other sequences are very funny. And Chaplin, directing his first feature, has done his best to provide a story that holds all of the gags together, a story that mixes his trademark sentimentality with his trademark social conscience.

Unfortunately, not everything quite comes together. Although the movie is only an hour long, it actually runs out of plot elements and throws in a pointless and unnecessary dream sequence near the end - just, I guess, to make it "feature" length. And the ending is rushed and a bit forced, lacking the pathos that Chaplin would develop in his later 20s and 30s film.

The Kid's historical importance is incalculable: as Chaplin's first feature film, it was a risky studio endeavor that paved the way for Chaplin and his many successors and contemporaries (from Keaton to Fields) to make feature-length comedies with enormous creative control. As a film, it's merely pretty good. I enjoyed it very much, but it's a long way from mature Chaplin, and even at 60 minutes, feels a bit too long.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Did Comics Just Go Mainstream?

No, I'm not referring to The Watchmen movie about the hit theaters, although I am a. Mildly excited about the film, despite the fact that 300 was a Linkbig waste of time
b. Pretty sure the Watchmen film had something to do with it.

No, what I'm referring to is the fact that The New York Times will now publish a graphic novels best seller list weekly!

Amusingly, their post, which I had not read when I started my own (I started writing just based on the headline) begins "Comics have finally joined the mainstream."

Certain minds, great or not, do think alike. Comics of course haven't finally joined the mainstream; it would be more precise to say that comics have rejoined the mainstream, or that modern comics have finally joined the mainstream. Obama, for example, is a fan of Spider-Man from way back, for four decades or so, comics were for kids, but most certainly mainstream. It is only for the last 30 years, when comics have mostly been for adults, that comics have been out of the mainstream.

Hopefully that's no longer the case. I was hoping, with the success of The Dark Knight and the insane sales of the Watchmen before the movie even came out, that comics might be inching their way to respectability. But if Time naming Watchmen one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century didn't make comics mainstream, a poorly reviewed movie doesn't seem likely to do so either.

This, however could. First of all, the New York Times is now a place where people can read about comics, every week. Although it's only about comics sales, and not the weekly comics reviews which would make an even bigger difference, it's a big step.

But more importantly - and here's where a best seller list is better than reviews - publishers can now slap "New York Times Best Seller!" on any comic that hits the list. That's huge for the general public, browsing a bookstore display where one nerdy employee has, under the employee picks, stuck a volume of Criminal between to Hundred Years of Solitude and Middlesex. Now the comic will not only have the employee's gushing description, but the seal of sales of approval the NYT brings - people are buying and reading this book, enough that the premier newspaper in the world noticed.

Furthermore, several of the industry giants - Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Robert Kirkman, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, etc - have already been honored in this very first list. Now every new project by those authors - and every older product, even - can also have a sticker slapped on it that says "By the New York Times Bestselling author." That'll help even more.

Anyone else excited about this? Anyone considering giving comics a try now?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film Ignorance #28: The Apartment

Film: The Apartment
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
Year: 1960
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Not only could Billy Wilder do no wrong, he could do no wrong in any genre he put his mind to. He was one of the greatest noir filmmakers of all time, and one of the greatest romantic comedy filmmakers of all time - one of the least comprehensible developments I can imagine. In all of Hollywood history, only Howard Hawks showed a greater ability to do more genres with such skill (Hawks films would be in my top 10 for the gangster, romantic comedy, screwball comedy, noir, and western genres, without ever having to use the same film twice).

So it is with some consternation that I tell you that The Apartment is brilliant, and I have no idea what genre it represents. It doesn't seem that romantic, it's certainly not very screwball, it's probably not a comedy at all, but I wouldn't want to call it a melodrama or just plain drama. What it really is is the premise for a crappy sitcom that's been turned into a damn fine movie.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young corporate insurance employee. He's a good worker, but surrounded by thousands of other good workers, so his future wouldn't be bright - except for the fact that he's got an inside track on promotion. He keeps his apartment furnished with cheese crackers and liquor, and allows four of the company's executives to use it whenever one of them wishes to spend a little time with his girlfriend before going home to his wife. This means that Baxter gets great recommendations to the company's top HR guy.

Unfortunately, the HR guy Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) knows something is up, and will only give Baxter the promotion if he gets a piece of the apartment action. That's fine with Baxter, who finally gets up the nerve to ask out the object of his desire, the elevator girl Ms. Kubelik (MacLaine). She says yes, but eventually can't make it, because she winds up, you guessed it, at Baxter's apartment with Sheldrake.

That's the sitcom element here, but the dramatic irony isn't pitched for dumb laughs. It's actually heartwrenching stuff; the lovable Baxter pines after the unobtainable Ms. Kubelik, while the vulnerable Ms. Kubelik carries on a thankless affair with Sheldrake, who promises to divorce his wife and marry her in one of the least plausible lies ever. From there, the plot twists and turns; I won't spoil the fun, but Wilder's gift for dialogue and plotting is on full display.

Each of the the actors fits snugly into their role, as if they were meant to play them. Lemmon, a Wilder favorite, is charming in his classic persona: an affable, nervous fellow, a sort of low-key pre-Woody Allen, who overthinks things, lets himself get walked on, but through it all produces a string of pretty funny jokes. And MacMurray, another Wilder favorite, brings his full charm to exactly the sort of smarmy, so charming that he must be insincere role that Pierce Brosnan currently specializes in. Brosnan is great, but MacMurray is the all-time king; amidst the career deterioration that included Flubber, Son of Flubber, The Shaggy Dog, and My Three Sons, this movie stands out as a triumph.

But this is Shirley MacLaine's movie. I'm not sure I've ever seen an actress so at home with herself. Ms. Kubelik is an acting challenge: to most of the company she's the unobtainable ice queen, to Baxter she's a charming and almost obtainable girl next door, and for Sheldrake she's an emotional wreck, strung along by a career player because she's talked herself into believing in him. MacLaine embodies all of these aspects of this complex woman; she's both achingly available and achingly unobtainable. In her elevator outfit she's a forbidden treat ogled by the entire company, with Sheldrake she's a vulnerable woman, but with Baxter she's just herself. She comes to life when asked to do the least - to just sit, and talk, and be with him. The whole movie, in fact, could be described that way: it confounds genres and offers a complex resolution because, for all its high concept premise, it's about real people trying to make their way through the world, through love. There are relatively few movies that can say the same.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, February 27, 2009


After a few really good years (The Departed, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men deserved every Oscar they got) I thought the Oscars fell flat on their face this year. I believe Slumdog and Milk deserved to be nominated for everything they were nominated for, as they were both great films, but the competition was embarrassing: Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button, The Reader? Those were the 3rd or 4th or 5th best films made this year? That's a joke.

So first I set out to create an AlternaOscars, in which I did the nominations and awards myself, and then asked for your thoughts on who did a better job. But then I got a better idea: I'm going to nominate and choose winners for the major Oscar categories - and not use a single film or person in any category there were originally nominated for. And I will, I think, produce a better set of winners and near-winners than the Academy did, even though they had first choice.

Best Picture Nominees:
The Dark Knight
Frozen River
Iron Man
Rachel Getting Married
Winner: The Dark Knight

As Andre O'Hehir wrote in Salon, even though he didn't enjoy The Dark Knight, it not winning Best Picture is one of the great Academy "Huh?s" of all time. The people declared it the best film of the year, the critics declared it one of the best films of the year, and that's supposed to be what the Oscars are all about: finding middle ground between highbrow critical acclaim and mass tastes. With Dark Knight, they didn't have to bridge that ground: the people and the critics did it for them. Then they didn't even nominate it. Of course, the people and critics also loved Wall-E, which came in second in my heart's vote, and it also got no nomination.

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky - The Wrestler
Jonathan Demme - Rachel Getting Married
Christopher Nolan - Dark Knight
Andrew Stanton - Wall-E
Guillermo del Toro - Hellboy II
Winner: Christopher Nolan

Again, this is kind of a no brainer - this was clearly the Dark Knight's year. But just looking at my list makes me sad - these are 5 brilliant filmmakers who made arguably their greatest films this yeah, and they were pushed aside for Opie and David Fincher in the year he chose to remake Forrest Gump?

Best Actor:
Robert Downey Jr - Iron Man
Werner Herzog - Encounters at the End of the World
Phillip Seymour Hoffman - Synecdoche, New York
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Jason Segel - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Winner: Heath Ledger

I'm certainly sad to not be able to nominate Rourke, Penn, and Jenkins. But Ledger's performance was not supporting - he was the strongest of Dark Knight's three protagonists, all of whom were leads (in my universe nearly every film has at least 2 leads, and 3 hour films usually have 3+). So he gets the win, and I also get to reward some performances in three kinds of movies that don't get honored for acting awards: superhero, Apatow comedy, and documentary. And Herzog...well, that guy should probably win best actor every year, just for walking around and pretending to be Werner Herzog. Also, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for the wrong film. Damn Academy.

Best Actress:
Catherine Deneuve - A Christmas Tale
Ronit Elkabetz - The Band's Visit
Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky
Michelle Williams - Wendy and Lucy
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road
Winner: Catherine Deneuve

Sorry Kate. I know you don't have an Oscar. Neither does Catherine Deneuve. You've got plenty of time to catch her if I give her one. Again, the academy did better here than they did in picture/director - I wanted to give the award to Melissa Leo but they had to go and actually nominate her. Why nominate her if you weren't even going to think about giving her the award and it ruins my AlternaOscars? Of course, you did nominate Angelina Jolie for wailing "This is not my child, where is my child, etc" for 2 hours, so maybe you misunderstood Leo's performance anyway.

Best Supporting Actor:
Javier Bardem - Vicky Christina Barcelona
The Deranged Penguin - Encounters at the End of the World
Bill Irwin - Rachel Getting Married
James Franco - Milk
Danny McBride - Pinapple Express
Winner: Bill Irwin

I'm tempted to just rename this the Best Supporting Performance by Javier Bardem award and give it to him every year, but I found Irwin's performance as the mourning father of Rachel Getting Married even more compelling than Bardem. Lucky for both of them that Brolin and Downey were nominated for reals, because they would have been hard to pass up. Of course, the deranged penguin is even more moving than Irwin, but he (she?) didn't get much screen time.

Best Supporting Actress:
Maggie Gyllenhahl - The Dark Knight
Samantha Morton - Synecdoche, NY
Debra Winger - Rachel Getting Married
Dianne Wiest - Synecdoche, New York
Evan Rachel Wood - The Wrestler
Winner: Dianne Wiest

Ok, I admit it, I just love, love, love Dianne Wiest. I couldn't really decide who to give this to so I decided to give it to her. Also, I could have nominated pretty much everyone in Synecdoche for this award...some damn impressive acting in that movie.

Best Screenplay:
Thomas McCarthy - The Visitor
Charlie Kaufman - Synecdoche, NY
The Nolan Brothers - The Dark Knight
Jason Segel - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Robert Siegel - The Wrestler
Winner: Nolan and Nolan

Again, despite the fact that there are four other great candidates here, The Dark Knight just has to win. Say what you want about a crazy 3rd act (and I personally have nothing bad to say about it) that was an utterly inspired script. And I can only imagine the mental gymnastics it took to come up with all of The Joker's various misdeeds - the bomb in a henchmen, the clown-hostages, the domino murders of the first heist - all of those are brilliant all by themselves.

So, interwubs, what do you think? Whose awards are better: mine or the Academy's? What would your own AlternaOscars look like?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Film Ignorance #27: 12 Angry Men

Film: 12 Angry Men
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Sydney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley
Year: 1957
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
"I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anyone will ever really know."

Although 12 Angry Men was made in the 50s, it never feels like a 50s movie. Sure, the star power is there; Henry Fonda had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood since the 30s. And the look is right; the crisp black and white cinematography and the abundant closeups fit right in with the movies of the age. But this movie, directed by the very young Sydney Lumet, feels if anything even more progressive in its politics than something like In the Heat of the Night. And it's setup is by 50s standards practically avant-garde: the movie plays out in real time, confined almost entirely to one room, as 12 men try to work through the facts of a murder case and overcome their own prejudices to get to the truth. It's the setup for a play or TV movie (both of which it was first) but is filmed and acted so well that it seems experimental, not uncinematic.

The movie takes place during a vicious heat wave, as a Puerto Rican youth is accused of murder and 12 middle-class white men have to decide his fate. 11 of the men are adamant that the young man is guilty, several of them arguing that "you know how they are" and of course one of "them" committed the murder. Only Juror #10, Henry Fonda, has some reasonable doubt. As you probably know by now, the inimitable Mr. Fonda coaxes and wheedles the other 11, breaking down the prosecution's case, noting the defense attorney's indifference, and piece by piece dismantling his colleague's assumptions about the case and their prejudices. Some are receptive to this, some aren't, and violence is threatened more than once.

By emphasizing the notion of "reasonable doubt," this movie becomes more than just an endorsement of the American justice system and a diatribe against racism and closemindedness. 12 Angry Men is also meditation on truth and uncertainty. Fonda reminds the jurors over and over again that none of them know what happened, that all they can do is approximate the truth, and that what matters is not proving guilt or innocence but knowing the limits of truth.

The film thus becomes a fantasy, in which the dangerous prospect of nihilism is harnessed by the American legal system to ensure justice is done. It's hard to know whether the jury's reasoning and their definition of reasonable doubt would allow any murderer to be convicted. But for me at least, it's a worthy fantasy: a reminder that, in a country that retains the death penalty, convicting someone of Murder One is an irrevocable decision that will permanently end a life. No one can, or should, ever be certain enough to take human life, which I think is ultimately the message of this ultimate message picture. It's not about the young man being innocent, or about a nihilistic belief that we'll never be able to ascertain the truth about anything. It's that a justice system that is willing to take a life must do so knowing that the truth is provisional, and that any worthy human being would shy from such a prospect. As such, 12 Angry Men should be what it probably already is: one of the foundational documents of how our modern justice system should and can work.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film Ignorance #26: In the Heat of the Night

Film: In the Heat of the Night
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Norman Jewison
Stars: Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger
Year: 1967
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The setup for In the Heat of the Night is so simple as to be almost high concept. A rich white man is killed in a small Southern town, and the local fuckup cops pick up the only stranger they can find, a well-dressed black man waiting for a 4 am train. To the chagrin of the cops, the man they arrested is Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphia's #1 homicide detective. To the chagrin of both Tibbs and Bill Gillespie, the local redneck police chief, Virgil's Philadelphia police chief does more than confirm his identity: he offers Gillespie his top man for the week. The rich man's widow forces Gillispie to keep Virgil, and thus the most racially charged buddy cop movie ever made is born: Tibbs is stuck in a tiny racist town helping people he knows hate him, while Gillespie has to watch a man he believes to be racially inferior to him display a level of intelligence and competence that is far beyond his own.

This is first and foremost an actors movie, and both Poitier and Steiger shine. Poitier, Hollywood's first major black star, walks through this movie radiating an intense contempt for everyone he has to deal with: Gillespie, Gillespie's men, and all the locals. But it was Steiger who won the Academy Award, and he deserved it. Best known for this movie and as Brando's brother in On the Waterfront, Steiger was always a second fiddle. And Gillespie is possibly his finest hour: an overweight, underpaid small town police captain who loathes Tibbs but must play his caddy and protector for political reasons. This is the flashy role, and Steiger delivers; his distaste for Tibbs and his shame at Tibbs' superiority are palpable in every scene. He has many of the movie's best lines, as he browbeats inferiors, screams ineffectually at Tibbs, and occasionally waxes folksy philosophical.

If you know anything about this movie, besides that it became a bad TV show, you probably know the famous line "They call me Mr. Tibbs." It's no good without the setup:
Gillespie, enraged and shamed, says to Virgil: "Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?" Virgil puts him in his place, distilling all of Poitier's gravitas in a single line to remind Gillespie which one of them does actual police work: "They call me Mr. Tibbs."

Norman Jewison was nominated for best director for this movie, but he didn't win, which makes sense. Although he brought all the elements together for this crackling battle of wills, the strengths here are the performances and the screenplay, and the camera work and editing are both sometimes clumsy. Throw in a slightly overdone score, and this picture is far from perfect. But it succeeds in a lot of ways, as both a whodunit and as a message picture, and Poitier and Steiger have a level of chemistry rarely seen in any movie.

It's also a very compelling portrait of a steamy, racist Mississippi town, which is surprising: the movie was actually shot in Illinois. Although they were making a message movie, the filmmakers weren't about to risk Poitier's life by asking him to spend an extended period of time in 1967 Mississippi. Damn.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Film Ignorance #25: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Film: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Jacques Demy
Stars: Catherin Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Year: 1964
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

In today's Tarantino-driven climate of pastiche, mash-up, homage, and outright theft, it's not often that I get to watch a film from any era that looks and sounds and feels like simply nothing else I've ever seen. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a movie. It's a certain kind of musical, one which I suppose I knew was theoretically possible but had never actually witnessed: there is no spoken dialogue, just singing. No musical numbers, no dancing, just 90 minutes of singing and a constant, jazz-influenced score.

But Umbrellas isn't such a revelation merely because it's all singing. It's a candy-colored confection, with every outfit shining brightly and every room wallpapered in some garishly glorious pattern. And, in addition to having colors that would make Powell himself weep, it's a very real and moving story of young love set during the French-Algerian war.

Our principals are Guy, a charming young gas station attendant, and Genevieve, a luminous young woman who represents my first visual experience of Catherine Deneuve (her voice acting role in Persepolis doesn't count). The two are in love, but Genevieve is too young to marry, and the draft looms in Guy's future. Genevieve's mother urges her to give up Guy and marry a rich suitor, especially since their umbrella shop doesn't seem to be doing very well, even though it's constantly raining.

Rather than try to disguise the three-act structure, Demy emphasizes it by telling us when each act begins with a title card. The first is the story of young love, and the charm of the music and the setting is matched only by that of the young lovers. The second act is the story of Guy's absence; the film's story switches to stark realism, which inexplicably works just as well in song in Candyland as it ever did in black-and-white in postwar Italy. And the final act, although the briefest, is the greatest of all: Guy's return is a brightly colored, musically and emotionally deep melodrama that provides all of the powerful sentiment in 20 minutes that The Red Shoes was unable to deliver in a 120.

I'm trying to regulate the giving of "Best. Film. Ever." so I initially rated this one as merely a classic. But it's more than that. Demy's vision gives us a triumph of life, art, love, color, fantasy, and realism, all wrapped together, and all inexplicably congruous. If you've ever enjoyed any musical and you haven't seen this one, give it a whirl. It's cinematic candy and a rich full meal, all in one.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Film Ignorance #24: Shadow of a Doubt

The Magnificent Ambersons has nothing in common with Shadow of a Doubt. It's a good movie.

Film: Shadow of a Doubt
Rating: But...This Movie Sucks!
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Looked Stupid

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Another Hitchcock film, another disappointment. And especially disappointing because on this subject, I know Hitchcock could do more.

This is a movie about a young girl who suspects that her beloved uncle Charlie is actually the merry widow murderer. I was expecting a film like Rear Window and its successors, Disturbia, Manhattan Murder Mystery, et al: a movie in which both the audience and the protagonist suspects someone of murder, but it becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie that either the "murderer" is unbelievably suave and clever or the protagonist is insane. Neither the audience nor the protagonist knows which, so all they can do is follow the story, simultaneously suspecting the killer and doubting themselves.

Non-spoiler alert: Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie is the serial killer. Maybe you would have guessed that from how he runs from detectives in the first scene in the movie. Maybe from how he hides a newspaper article from the family. Maybe from how he angrily snaps at everyone at a moment's notice (how did he get close to those windows if he yells at everyone for no reason?)

Additionally, there are two unintentionally comedic clues that he is the killer: 1. One night at dinner he speechifies about how rich widows are a drain on society and don't deserve their money. This is supposed to be chilling, I think, but I found it hilarious. I know weird uncles say weird things at the dinner table, but this was over the top (They're the scum of society!, etc).

2.Believe it or not, he frequently makes strangling motions with his hands. One time, at a bar booth, he's holding some paper and repeatedly strangling it. Another time, he's alone and looking at a potential victim, and his hands make strangling motions again. This is hilarious. Not chilling. Hilarious.

So, if it's not a mystery about a suave killer, what is it? It's two movies, both stupid:

1.It's about Teresa Wright's character (also named Charlie) discovering the uncle is a murderer but being unwilling to accept her mom by helping the police. This is the psychological dilemma in the movie: My uncle has killed three women, but on the other hand, my mom likes him a lot. What should I do? Stupid.

2.A love story between girl Charlie and one of the detectives. I've said it before about Hitchcock, and I'll say it again: a stupid and nonsensical, poorly fleshed out, tangential love story is the worst way to ruin a movie that might otherwise be good. Girl Charlie and Detective Graham fall in love after about 3 minutes, stupid Hollywood style. The funniest line of the whole movie: Graham tells Charlie that he'll always remember a certain place in town because "it's where I first knew I loved you."

First knew I loved you? That was only 36 hours ago! And you had met her less than 12 hours before! Really?

Sorry H-Cock, I'm not buying any of it. And there's so much more of his garbage on my film ignorance list...

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Film Ignorance #23: The Birds

Film: The Birds
Rating: Meh.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Looked Stupid

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Disclaimer: I'm one of those weird people who thinks Hitchcock was a good director but nothing special.

The Birds is essentially a Romero zombie picture in which the zombies have been replaced by marauding birds, the social commentary has been jettisoned in favor of a traditional love at first sight romance, and the lowbrow aesthetic has been replaced by the glossy sheen of Hollywood's most polished director.

If that sounds good to you, enjoy it. I wasn't particularly interested.

Everyone knows that Hitchcock loves to torture blond women, and boy does he torture Tippi Hedren in this picture. Maybe it's fair though; when his previous fetish object, Grace Kelly, left Hollywood to get married, he was without a stunningly gorgeous blond woman to cinematically torture. Then he saw a commercial with Tippi Hedren in it. So yeah, Tippi had an entire week of having angry birds flung at her for a single scene, but she also went from model to model/actor in the twinkle of the ole H-cock's eye (not that it helped her much. In the 25 movies she made after The Birds, 18 of them are rated 2 stars or less by allmovie. But at least she got work...).

I don't have much more to say about this movie. As for all Hitchcock movies of this period, it looks fantastic - he was always better shooting in color than black and white. Some of the special effects are chilling; some of them are laughable. The same can be said for various sequences in the film: many are quite well put together; another involves a gasoline spill, followed by a certain event that any four year old or person who's seen Zoolander could predict (why did he light that damn cigar?).

All in all, this was a kind of ok movie. But killer birds? That's just stupid.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Film Ignorance #22: L'Avventura

Film: L'Avventura
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Michaelangelo Antonioni
Stars: Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari, Monica Vitt
Year: 1960
Reason for Ignorance: Didn't Like Blow-Up

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
“Why, why, why?

When Antonioni passed away, I was confronted with the fact that I'd never seen any of his films, so I watched the one I had heard the most about: Blow-Up. But Blow-Up sucks. It's a crappy movie (pretentious, draggy, pointless) which, like Ben-Hur or The Red Shoes, is built around an amazing sequence, in this case a photographer enlarging a seemingly innocent picture he took and discovering a potential murder plot. Needless to say, after feeling so contemptuous of Blow-Up, I didn't seek out anymore Antonioni.

But L'Avventura is an excellent film, maybe even the masterpiece it's cracked up to be. What's more, even though it's a 2.5 hour long plotless foreign art house film with aspirations of profundity, I actually enjoyed the experience. It's the story of Sandro and Claudia, who, along with Sandro's moody and unpredictable girlfriend Anna (who is Claudia's best friend) and a bunch of decadent elites, go for a summer boat trip. The group stops at one of a series of barren islands, Anna goes off on her own...and disappears. No one knows if its a prank, suicide, a kidnapping; she's just gone.

Film theorist David Bordwell argues that, although art cinema shares with Hollywood cinema an interest in "psychological causation," "the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals." It's no surprise that L'Avventura is one of his examples. We don't know why Anna was so rude on the trip, why she seemed dissatisfied with Sandro, and why she ran away (as everyone suspects her of doing). We don't know why Sandro looks so hard for her, why Claudio and Sandro are so attracted to each other during their search, or why they feel so guilty about their attraction to one another, in the face of Anna's probable actions. We're wandering in a field of questions without answers, and can do more than follow along with the characters, observing their thoughts and feelings, unable to comprehend them, and unable to stop trying to comprehend.

And what a field it is we're wandering through! I said I enjoyed this movie - it's because of the gorgeous black-and-white photography. The first hour transforms the sea and its rocky islands into haunting and mysterious locations; they're so crisply barren that I myself wanted to jump off a cliff. And the rest of the movie is devoted to architecture; Claudia and Sandro (a failed architect) travel from small town to small town, and Antonioni manages to make the ancient architecture they find in small-town Italy seem even more desolate and lacking in humanity than uninhabited islands. The landscapes are what make this film, and what shape its characters; the bleakness of the settings are the closest thing we get to an answer to all the "whys?" we're asking. That, of course, and the total vacuousness of the society that Sandro and Anna traveled in: a preening, image-conscious, and self-obsessed collection of artistes and elites.

Through this wasteland of people and places, Sandro and Claudia try to find something worthwhile to hold on to. They eventually seek that worthwhile thing in each other. Although I've seen the entire film, I still don't know if they succeed.

Now that's art house.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film Ignorance #21: Tom Jones

Film: Tom Jones
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Never Heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
“We are all as God made us and many of us much worse.

I would love to say that Tom Jones is a charming little movie. And it is certainly charming. But its 2 hr+ runtime, its unprecedented (for a British film) production budget, its status as an important literary adaptation, and its sweeping social critique make it a big film. And if I did find it quite charming, I also found it to drag frequently.

The film, like the novel it was based on, is a picaresque, and as such is more than a little uneven. It follows the diverse adventures and sexual conquests of the foundling Tom Jones (Albert Finney) as he journeys from his country home to London. And many, many of these vignettes are very funny, starting with the first of them, which is a silent sequence, complete with title-cards, in which Squire Western (Griffith) finds a baby in his bed and decides to adopt him. As a grown man, Tom dallys with the gamekeeper's daughter and romances the neighboring squire's heiress, and eventually, through some complicated maneuvering by his evil stepbrother, is driven away from home.

This is the wrong Tom Jones

As I said before, the film is full of charming moments. 18th century novels were frequently metafictional, and this film carries on that tradition - the narrator, and Tom himself, frequently address the audience directly. One of Tom's ladyfriends has a large and obviously fake mole; it's no surprise that it ends up on different sides of her face in different scenes. And the film is also full of slapstick moments, sped-up, Chaplin style chase sequences, and tons of wordplay. And its finale, in which all of Tom's allies, enemies, and paramours are thrown together in London and reveal some (damn predictable) plot twists, wraps the film up in an appropriately cheery and cheeky manner.

But along the way, I was frequently bored. Sure Finney is great - this is by far the earliest Finney movie I've seen, and although I could never recognize the Finney of Miller's Crossing or The Bourne Ultimatum, his distinctive voice seems not to have changed over the years. But there are too many vignettes, too many encounters with the ladies, and too many plot elements swirling about. What Richardson should have done is cut the film's running time (which he did in its 1989 rerelease, which I was unable to acquire), further emphasize the meta-moments, and deliver a less weighty but considerably more fun experience. It probably wouldn't have won a whole slew of Academy Awards, but it sure would be easier to sit through.

(Note: if the ideal version Tom Jones that I sketched out appeals to you, Michael Winterbottom made it a couple of years ago. It's called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and it's roughly 10 times funnier than Tom Jones)

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Film Ignorance #20: The Red Shoes

Film: The Red Shoes
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Michael Powell (and Emil Pressburger)
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer
Year: 1948
Reason for Ignorance: Waited to watch it with the Mrs.

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Even though I rated this movie Yep, It's a Classic, The Red Shoes was a massive disappointment. It's considered by many to be the best film by The Archers, a mid-century team of Brits - director Michael Powell and writer Emil Pressburger - who are among the most acclaimed creators of all time. I'd seen only one Archers film, Black Narcissus, which was excellent, and a Powell solo film, Peeping Tom, which is like Psycho meets Rear Window, but better than either of those admittedly great films. (George Romero has said many times that another Archers film, The Tales of Hoffmann, is what inspired him to become a filmmaker.)

Which is why, by being merely a classic, The Red Shoes was disappointing. And that score is a composite, because the vast bulk of this picture is just a good movie - a standard midcentury melodrama about love and art. Two young people, Julian Craster and Victoria Page, unexpectedly gain employment with the world-renowned Lermontov Ballet company, Craster as a composer and Page as a dancer. Through a series of unexpected events, Craster becomes the composer for the new ballet, The Red Shoes, and Page is the star. Along the way, they fall in love, but eventually become involved in a tragic love triangle (the third element of the triangle being, of course, "Art").

I certainly want to lay the fault for this movie at the feet of Pressburger, the writer; the melodrama is so cliched, the characters so stereotypical, that the whole thing just seems by the numbers. But the acting is great - particularly Walbrook, as "heartless monster" Lermontov, and various supporting members of the ballet company. And Powell's direction is so good, his gorgeous Technicolor cinematography makes everything, from the outlandish costumes to Shearer's hair, glow like it's ablaze.

But that's not what makes it a classic. If Ben-Hur is a technically impressive but crappy movie built around an exciting chase scene, The Red Shoes is a technically impressive but only good movie built around the best dance sequence ever filmed. For about twenty minutes, right in the middle of the film, we watch the performance of the Red Shoes Ballet and are transported to a ballet that unites music and color unlike anything I've ever seen before. Even the best dance sequences in An American in Paris don't compare to The Red Shoes ballet. The ballet is touching and terrifying, and represents a triumph of spectacle which might still be unmatched in cinematic history.

For that reason alone, this movie is a classic. Otherwise, it's merely a pretty good story that indulges deeply in stock characters and a rather silly belief in a romanticized vision of art (ie, "Art"). I've got plenty more Archers movies on my list, so I hope the rest of them are more like Black Narcissus than The Red Shoes...

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Movies et al is back! (sort of)

Greetings out there in internet land!

If you have this blog set up in a feed reader, I hope you enjoy this post. If not, tell your friends - I haven't checked site traffic lately, but I imagine it's not good.

Anyway, the proprietor of a pretty sweet blog, The Dancing Image, just asked me via comment if I have abandoned the blogosphere. The answer is, in sooth, yes. But I do not intend to have abandoned it permanently. By mid-March, my PhD exams will be completed (unless I fail them!) and I hope, at least through the summer, to return to regular posting.

So what do you do in the meantime? I have 3 suggestions:

1. Check out the afore mentioned Dancing Image for one of the best and smartest writers of the internet if you're looking for readable, thoughtful and deep essays on topics all over the universe of film.
2. On the other hand (and this is not to say that these fellas are not readable, thoughtful, and/or deep) if you want to know what's good in the theatres and on DVD right now, you can do no better than MovieZeal. Evan, Luke, and company will keep you informed, as they collectively see far more movies than I do and, what's more, right honest to goodness reviews of them. Amazing!
3. Finally, come back here every Sunday for the forseeable future for a Film Ignorance entry! That's right, Movies et al will be back on a weekly basis, hopefully with an entry a week until such time as my exams are over and I can devote mental energy to blogging again. Enjoy!