Tuesday, April 29, 2008

3 Short Reviews

Another week without anything deep to add - a couple good movies, though, which is all we can ask.

The Flight of the Red Balloon gives us Hou Hsiao Hsien in Paris, watching Juliette Binoche as a somewhat harried mother and voice actor/puppeteer, with a new Chinese nanny (a filmmaker in her own right) for her clever son, and a dead beat tenant living downstairs... No, there isn't much plot to it - a series of incidents - Song, the nanny, reporting for duty, then learning her way around the household; the kid taking piano lessons and talking about his sister; Binoche coping with the tenant; some excerpts from puppet shows; Song taking Simon around the city, shooting bits of the city for her own film about The Red Balloon... Much of it is shot in the front room of their apartment - a cramped little room with a table between the door and the kitchen where everyone seems to spend most of their time, with stairs just to the left going up to a Mezzanine... A space that seems as much a character as the people - its utterly realistic clutter (books and puppets and papers and boxes), that everyone lives around. Later in the film, Hou finally turns the camera around for a couple shots - pointing back from the table - so first we see the space where the camera had been: couch and chairs, a TV with video games - and later, the space beyond that - a conventional looking living room that no one ever seems to go into. (We might see it in the flashbacks to Simon and Louis: though it's not identified as this room, and those scenes aren't exactly fixed in time - flashbacks, flashforwards, fiction - it's not certain.) Just this, Hou's leisurely tour of the apartment's rooms, is enough to remind me again what an astonishing filmmaker he is. Getting the way people live in their spaces; making subtle associations between the spaces and their lives - the way he slowly, casually reveals both the fuller layout of the apartment and the fuller history of the characters. What the film lacks in plot, in drama, it supplies, not just in the detail of their lives as they live them, but the quiet consideration of their lives so far (and to come: we are given to imagine where Fang Song will go, as we watch her working on her film throughout this film.) Another reminder - along with Godard and Rivette - this is the world's greatest living filmmaker...

My Blueberry Nights - meanwhile, Wong Kar-wei also strayed far from home for this film - Norah Jones mopes, at first in Jude Law's cafe in NYC, then in Memphis and Nevada. In Memphis, David Straithairn steals the picture playing an alcoholic stalker; in Nevada, Nathalie Portman amuses as a gambler. Then there's a happy ending! It livens up once Jones leaves NY, but still ends up playing like a parody of Wong's 90s films: rehashing all his old tricks... actually, arodying them directly - having Law play with a surveillance camera during a fight scene... All told though - it's pretty disposable. Nothing wrong with it, but...

The Visitor - Tom McCarthy's follow up to the Station Agent. Richard Jenkins stars as a college professor, going through the motions, pretending to write, pretending to teach, pretending to learn piano. He is sent to NYC to present a paper he cosigned, and when he arrives finds a couple living in his apartment in the city. He lets them stay the night - and within a day or so, he's struck up a friendship with the man - a Syrian musician. Who unfortunately does not have a green card - this goes where you fear it will. But it does so with grace and dignity. McCarthy has a nice way of withholding information, not to build false suspense, but to bring you into the story - to make you engage with it: like Jenkins coming to his apartment in NY - or later,when we see why he keeps trying to play piano... Things emerge naturally and in their own time... It is a lot like the Station Agent - the story of a lonely, depressed man, brought out of his shell by an outgoing stranger, brought into a new community where he finds himself at home... little sadder - the story poisoned by politics... A good, solid, film, the kind that justifies the existence of the American Indie film as a type...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Links and Miscellany

While I can't bring any original content today, I want to drop in for a word or two, a link, maybe a photograph, marking a terrible trauma. This terrifying beast -

- nearly crippled me. Visiting Ye Olde Homestead, one of my nephews showed me where he and his pals had found a goose egg over the winter - while we were examining the old nest, all of a sudden, this bird came at us, beak out and honking - we lit for the territories! alas - trying to run on a bed of pine needles wearing a pair of slip on "comfort mocs" is a recipe for disaster, with or without a pissed off Canada Goose on your heels, though I got away with nothing but a bad charlie horse. Thankfully the brute was more interested in defending the (long gone) nest than exacting vengeance, so he just stood there and honked...

Anyway: that's a poor introduction to a slate of pretty intriguing links:

Girish asks: Why do you blog?

Kristin Thompson discusses Fair Use of film frame reproductions.

Damn near everybody talks about Armond White whining about the internets. And critics. And whatever else he can think of. I'll forgive him because he's one of the few critics to take Darjeeling Limited as seriously as it deserves.

Oh yeah - Cannes! Lineup, courtesy of Anne Thompson.

And finally - to prove I have not been completely idle: pop over to Film & Discussion to take part in a poll - where does Woody Allen belong on the Sarris scale of film directors? Nor should you forget Film at 11's blogathon - harness the hive mind to create a guide to post 1968 auteurs! Join the hive mind, etc.!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Return of Random Friday Music!

Finding myself again with nothing ready to post - let's reach for an old stand by, the Random Ten... with some bonus record reviews! Though not very good record reviews since I've only listened to one or two of these CDs as a whole, the rest just popping up on the iPod now and again... what can you do. Lately I've cut back on my CD purchases: but mostly that means, no old CDs - I still buy a fair number of new ones... old favorites, the occasional experiment... It seems to me that I should comment on these records more, even if it's just a list of what I've bought... So - what do we have?

- Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull - is a fine piece, with Bill Frisell guesting on a couple numbers... I have been looking forward to this for a while, and it delivers...
- Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath - I have barely listened to this: oops.
- Stephen Malkmus - Real Emotional Trash - this either. And I meant to. Hmm.
- The Duke Spirit - Neptune - I downloaded a song somewhere, at someone's recommendation - (Where the Stress Falls) - I liked it enough to make an investment, though if you've read the last 2 notes, you can guess what the next line would be....
- Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig! - I m not sure if there is enough information on this blog for readers to guess which of these CDs I would have been absolutely certain to listen to: if there is, no one will be surprised this is it (and the Earth, of course.) I become more or a Nick Cave song every year. This one continues the direction of Grinderman - noisy, rockier, etc - nicely done...
- REM - Accelerate - buying records by old favorites is a risk, especially if they've faded from view a bit: sometimes you get something like the recent Mission of Burma CDs - great stuff, standing perfectly well on its own; sometimes you get something that makes you wish your heroes had taken their own advice and died before they got old.. Usually you get something with one or two good ideas and a bunch of competently executed mediocrity. I might be missing something, but so far this is #3. They seem to be working hard, but I've no incentive not to hit the forward button.
- Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely - Jack White seems to put put 6 records a year under 5 different names and fills them all with tunes and words and playing. I'll buy anything he does, at this point, and expect to be entertained...
The Kills - Midnight Boom - I haven't listened tot his all the way through yet, but have tried to sample it enough - it remains to be seen, I suppose, if it's as good s it gets or just really good.

And now - Commence Randomization!

1. Sleater Kinney - Little Babies ***** - that's a good start
2. Butthole Surfers - Waiting for Jimmy to Kick - one of those weird little oddities from Rembrandt Pussyhorse...
3. Hank Williams - Lost Highway - doesn't get much better than Hank
4. Son Volt - Underground Dream
5. CCR - Long as I can See the Light - that's a nice pairing, Jay Farrar and John Fogerty...
6. David Bowie - Always Crashing in the Same Car
7. Bill Frisell - Have a Little Faith in Me **** - this is hard to beat too - one of y favorite records of the 90s...
8. Red Krayola - The Red Krayola on Forty-five - Red Krayola/Mayo Thompson (and Frederick Barthelme!) - one of the best kept secrets in rock...
9. Sufjan Stevens - The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us
10. Faust - The Sad Skinhead

And for video? Well - here's some Red Krayola:

And - some vintage Sleater Knney:

Monday, April 14, 2008

Movie Quickies

Trying to keep a hand in here, and get back to something resembling a regular blogging habit... Not a lot of films, but some interesting ones.

Contempt - back on the big screen, in glorious technicolor - glorious indeed. It's an odd film - Godard at his most conventional, I suppose, with the Moravia plot (wife despises husband after he lets her ride in an American's car, I guess), and a fairly realistic and representational style. It looks magnificent of course - beautiful places and things, that Godard exploits, moving his actors around and through like sour tourists (which they all are, in a way). An interesting cast: Bardot pouts, beautifully and effectively; Palance is great - outsized, ridiculous, funny; watching Michel Piccoli and Fritz Lang together is strange - I realized that most of the Piccoli films I have seen are from the 90s and 00s - Rivettes and Oliveiras - and that Lang, in quite a few of the scenes, looks and acts like Piccoli in some of those films. That wry, implacable personality - wise and sly and impossibly cool. Anyway, the film - is, I say, Godard at his most conventional, though it has its moments: the film in a film stuff is definitely something - those inserts aren't treated in a realistic way: they signify the film in a film, they don't show it, I think... But the conventional parts - the breakup scene at the couple's apartment, say - are magnificent. The way Godard develops the situation, while showing the couple in an utterly routine way, going about their mundane business, with all that (unspoken, or half-spoken) emotional business underneath - it is brilliant. Economical while seeming to be digressive...

All for Free - this one has a story. Yesterday, I planned to see Contempt again. I got there late Saturday, and ended up sitting directly behind a tall man with very good posture who did not slouch in any way during the film, so I had to try to guess what was on the right hand side of the screen.... But then, Sunday morning at the grocery store, I bought a pot roast for supper - and when I got home realized that a pot roast would take 2-3 hours to cook: and the Godard film would get me home about 6, making for a very late night. What to do? find another film - nothing else looked worth it, so I picked this, which I knew nothing about. What is it? A Yugoslavian co-production (though set in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I believe), distributed as part of the Global Lens Film Series (at the Coolidge. What else is it? A slow moving comedy, that starts with four friends hanging around a miserable small town, doing nothing, drinking, cuckolding each other, which leads to blood. The survivor, conveniently aged 3, sells all he has and buys a truck/diner and drives through the land giving away drinks. He stays one day in every town - he is greeted with suspicion at first, but eventually, people warm to him (it's all free, after all), but then he meets a cafe owner protecting his turf and a beautiful girl... It's a decent film, over all - often quite funny, sometimes more serious, sometimes maudlin, but generally effective; it makes a few political points, though without pounding them home. It's an interesting twist on the christ archtype, a kind of savior who's mostly saving himself.

And finally - more Douglas Fairbanks! this time, Mark of Zorro and Don Q Son of Zorro (together on one DVD). A neat pair of films - Mark of Zorro was where Douglas Fairbanks became Douglas Fairbanks - and might well be the best of the lot. He gets a lot of comic business, especially as Don Diego Vega, fop, slouching around doing magic tricks and laughing up his sleeve at everyone else - and even more derring do as Zorro, masked avenger. There is achase, worthy of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd - Fairbanks lets out all the stops: jumping over a mule, running up walls, swinging around, diving through wndows, jumping off roofs, everything. It's good stuff, and clocks in at about 100 minutes, a good sign - as the 20s went on his films tended to get longer and longer, less and less focussed. That's what happens in Don Q - oddly, though, there the second half goes off the rails. The first half shows Cesar, son of Zorro, living it up in Spain - he annoys one Don Sebastian (played by Donald Crisp) and impresses the Archduke Paul of Austria (Charlie Chan - I mean, Warner Oland), so of course the three of them are stuck together. Ah, but there's a girl (Mary Astor), and Cesar wins her out from under the nose of Don Sebastian... And then there's a toady, and a grand ball, and Paul mocks and insults Sebastian while Cesar wins the girl - it's all too much for someone!

Actually, it's a pretty interesting setup. Don Sebastian, though a prig and a snob and willing to screw over his rivals, is not the usual unadulterated cad - the real SOB is Archduke Paul, who mocks him, and blocks his efforts to pitch woo at the girl,and then makes fun of him for being bested in love... it's hard to feel much sympathy for him. Unfortunately, after the terrible event occurs, the film goes flat - Don Q runs for the hills, the villains twirl their mustaches and glower and cast sinister glances around, the girl laments, then everyone - including Zorro - converges on the ancestral pile for a brawl... it's a bit of a let down after the first half... But plenty of fun.

Anyway: here's Doug (or someone) in mid air: probably was Fairbanks - he was the Jackie Chan of his day. (And watching these films it's very clear: Jackie Chan is the Douglas Fairbanks of our day - he stole more of his act from Fairbanks than from Chaplin and Keaton combined...)

American Cinema Blogathon

Today is the 40th anniversary of the publication of one of the towering classics of film criticism - Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema. This is being commemorated with a blogathon, hosted by Film at 11 - write about American filmmakers since 1968 using Sarris' categories and general schemes. (I imagine as well there will be posts about Sarris himself and the place of his book in film history - and many film lovers' personal histories.)

There should be plenty more to come from this one - it's a more open ended blogathon, starting today, and going forward. And - though Adam's focus is on discussing post-68 fimmakers within Sarris' framework, the topic itself (auteurism, Sarris himself, etc.) remans a vital one - as anyone clicking over to that big argument at Girish's can see. So I look forward to what can come from this.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Blog Neglect Addressed

I have been neglecting this blog to argue about auteurism at Girish's blog. The conversation has taken some odd turns. I might have to bring some of it here - points are raised, examples cited, that I want to pursue, but would turn a long and probably deadly dull (to everyone but me and the 2-3 other people left in the thing) comment thread into a, um, longer and deadlier duller.... Anyway - you can read it over there: if I do bring some of it here, I will try to work out a coherent position, and maybe chase some of the specifics noted but not pursued - like Michael Curtiz' contributions to The Adventures of Robin Hood (which I cited as a great, non-auteurist films - though Curtiz in fact does great work, I think). Or something about the interplay between Fred Astaire (and Hermes Pan) and Mark Sandrich in their films together...

But that will have to wait. Right now? some quick film hits - a habit I should get back into...

Married Life: a rather nice pastiche of Hitchcock and Sirk from Ira Sachs, with Chris Coper and Patrcia Clarkson, and Pierce Brosnan, who keeps getting better and better... It's a nice little story, pitched somewhere between a breezy dark comedy, bitter tragedy and a sex farce, which may not seem like the most obvious place to pitch a film, but it works.

Leatherheads: George Clooney tries to make a Coen Brothers film about pro football, ca. 1925 - he plays an aging footballer who lures a college kid into the pros, while a hard-bitten reporter (Renee Zellweger playing Jennifer Jason Leigh playing Jean Arthur) tries to expose the kid's war career as a fraud... it has witty moments, and everyone seems to be having fun, but it's pretty flat. The story is about as fresh as one of those 20s uniforms might be if they had been left, unwashed in a suitcase for 80 years.... the most astonishing thing about it is that Zellweger does not ruin it - she almost pulls off the dame reporter bit. You can imagine her with better material not sucking. It's like the last 10 years have been erased.

Monkey Warfare: Canadian film starring Don McKellar and Tracy Wright as a pair of ex-radicals living off the grid picking garbage to sell on ebay... They meet Nadia Litz as a young pot dealer who before long is drawing them into her radical politics, blowing up SUVs. Secrets are revealed... it's funny, clever, with some okay Godardian moments, and a first rate cast. I haven't seen a Canadian film in ages apparently - Don McKellar used to be ubiquitous. I miss him.

The Bank Job: a slow weekend last weekend, so I caught up with this, mostly because a guy I talked to at one of the Oliveira films said it was pretty good. He's right, basically. A bank heist film - British intelligence (MI 5 or 6 - no one can remember which) sets up a small time hood to rob a bank to steal dirty pictures of Princess Margaret... he rounds up a bunch of losers and robs the bank, with the spooks trying to shield them from the cops, which goes about as well as expected. Gangsters, good and bad cops, MI 5 or 6, all come after them, but the randy princess trumps all.... It works for what it is - it has an odd tone, not as comic as Big Deal on Madonna Street, or as noir as Riffiffi or Asphalt Jungle, nor as dark as Sexy Beast, kind of sliding around among them - but it works.

And finally, more Errol Flynn - The Sea Hawk: more rollicking Warner Brothers action - Flynn as a privateer harassing the Spanish, with Queen Elizabeth playing for and against him, and Henry Daniell providing the blueprint for Christopher Guest's Count Rugen. Quite nice, as usual with that combination of talents.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston has died. Many links and tributes can be found through Greencine. He was every bit the movie star.

I will commemorate him with some clips from the best film he was ever in. His performance isn't always given its due - he's stiff and strange and about as Mexican as I am, but I still think he came pretty close to nailing it. He gets across a mix of heroism and high rectitude that defines the character perfectly. Watching that last confrontation, tailing Quinlan and Pete under a bridge, then facing Quinlan alone in the garbage - it might be Welles' finest hour, but it's hard to imagine it working as well without Heston. He plays off Welles' tragic decay, emotionally, Vargas all business, cutting through Quinlan's excuses and guilt and defeat, and physically, with his sleek athleticism, and almost complete control. Welles gives him just enough to do, physically, to make the point. It's good stuff.

Maybe I should leave Heston's politics out of it - but looking at a Touch of Evil, can I? The end of his life, devoting his authority and reputation to dubious ideas (at least, dubious extensions of ambiguous ideas), has a bit more in common with Hank Quinlan than it should. We shouldn't let it obscure what he did on screen.

Especially when he had a director who knew how to put pictures together....

Also posted at Film & Discussion.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Week in the Making

I've been lazy here lately - weird: three posts in three days last week, then... I've not been totally idle - poking around on another blog I started up with some of my old AOL cronies... setting up an RSS reader - as usual, years after everyone else started using them for all. It's an interesting way of reading blogs - I've been getting used to it. Thinking about how to make something of it: I like Harry Tuttle's Google shared page: maybe I should try something like that - here's a cut at it. I may experiment with that...

Somewhat more substantively, I have been following the discussion of auteurism at Girish's place. Reading along, composing replies and arguments, though I've only posted one so far. It's a vexed subject, as one of my english teachers used to say. It keeps coming up in film discussions, and when it does, I can never decide how much to dive in. There's a lot to be said about it - though most of it has been said somewhere already, and if I'm going to add my 2¢ I should do some due diligence and read up on the theorizing, and that fills me with dread... So, for now, I've stuck to offering generalities - Film is a Composite Art! Auteurism is best seen as a form of genre theory! I have not yet made the claim that auteurs don't make films, films make auteurs, but I might. While the auteur theory seems first to have been promoted to claim some of the prestige of literary authors for directors, I think it also served to undermine the idea of authorship - it made it more figurative; it conceived of authorship as something that emerges from the "text" as much as it precedes it. So - you might find a route from Truffaut to Barthes if you look for it....

Meanwhile, typing this, I'm listening to the recordings Charlie Parker made with the Dave Lambert singers: strange, strange stuff. Bird was certainly on top of his game, but the singing is almost surreal. Given the talent involved - Gil Evans arranging - boy... A quick google, though, comes up with this two part interview with Hal McKusick, a musician on the session.

And finally - I have seen films. Don't Touch the Axe - for some reason, renamed "The Duchess of Langeais" in English (probably to fool Americans into thinking it's a respectable literary adaptation and not a Jacques Rivette film.) Which is quite marvelous, if not up to the best Rivettes. It would have fit pretty well in the Oliveira series I've been attending - it is certainly a tale of doomed love. Though Rivette is a different kind of director than Oliveira: funnier, more knowing - the characters are older, and get into things willingly and consciously. Rivette certainly takes a different approach with his actors, giving Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu a good deal of freedom to fill the screen - they do, especially Balibar, who is perfectly magical on screen. Though Rivette is certainly capable of being as strange as Oliveira when he wants to be. Though usually hilarious at the same time - a scene of two drunken fops turning over 19th century cliches - "stunning" - "it's a drama" - is perfectly priceless....

Rivette, meanwhile, having reached the age of 80 without discernibly slowing his filmmaking output, is stalking Olveira from that angle too. I also saw Abraham's Valley last week, another Oliveira, from 15 years ago, when he was a fairly young 85. This is another literary adaptation, the life of a woman, married young to an older doctor, and who lives, too beautiful, too smart, too alive for her world (provincial Portugal, latter half of the 20th century) - shades of Madame Bovary, though perhaps not controlling. It's less a tale of doomed love than a melodrama of an unknown woman - though one who manages to insist on and get a fair amount of her own way, however limited this might be. Beautiful film, though somewhat domecticated compared to the 70s films - muc more naturalistic, though there is some direct address to the camera, and an impertinent cat.

Meanwhile, stcking with octogenarian directors, on DVD, I finally got around to watching Seijun Suzuki's Princess Raccoon. A fairy tale of doomed lovers and magic and evil christians (the Virgen Hag!) enacted in eye popping color on every imaginable variety of set... Here's a picture, far more informative than anything I could write:

And finally - another screenshot, from another wonderful DVD I watched - Douglas Fairbanks (auteur!) in the Black Pirate. Here he is in all his much-imitated glory: