Thursday, August 19, 2010

New American Movies This Summer

This is a summer's worth of films - a grand total of 4, since June. The thing is - not very many of the big releases look even remotely interesting. I suppose Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is promising; I'll get around to seeing the Toy Story movie sooner or later. But there is no power in heaven or earth that could get me to see Life During Wartime, despite various degrees of support among sane movie commentators... And for all the internet chatter, Inception is only barely more appealing - not even David Bordwell himself has been enough to move me so far... I'm a lot more likely to see The Expendables than either of those... there haven't been that many films pulling me - it's been very easy to do other things this summer, and when I have gone to the movies, it's been a struggle, sometimes, to find something to see... So what have I seen?

Cyrus (9/15) - the Duplass brothers with famous, professional actors. John C. Reilly plays a doofus pining for his ex - who left him 7 years ago, though she still has a key to his house. Of course she's Catherine Keener, so this is believable. He goes to a party, mopes, drinks, and meets Marisa Tomei, who for some reason likes him. They hit it off - but she flees like Cinderella at dawn, so he follows her home, and meets her son - Jonah Hill in the person of Cyrus. Cyrus seems friendly enough, but things are just off - and the more time he spends with them (and he spends a lot), the weirder things seem... Needless to say, Cyrus is a nut, and hates him. Things go from bad to worse... All this reasonably interesting, and takes some slightly unusual turns - it seems like Reilly's doofus is going to be saved by a Good Woman - but it turns out, she needs to be saved, not him, though she never quite seems to realize it... It was billed as a comedy, but it's more of a downer than it seems - the Duplass brothers are in their element. There was a lot of complaint on the net when it came out about the way it looks - especially about the odd little zooms the brothers indulge in. I didn't mind the style - it's basic, simplified indie style, all closeups, nothing but closeups - and those little zooms function as emotional punctuation, and sometimes just as - almost timing devices - like cuts do in more conventional films. A modest style, but not a bad one, and in some ways, more interesting to look at than the general run of American indie films...

The Kids are All Right (10/15) - new film from Lisa Cholodenko, about a lesbian couple with two kids, one for each mother, both from the same donor. Well -t he marriage is in trouble - and the kids look up dad, who proves to be very cool (if a bit self-satisfied.) But then one of the moms starts landscaping his house, and - let's just say, landscaping his house might be code for hiking the Appalachian trail, er, you know... Anyway - adultery will out, especially if you have a neat freak around... Great distress follows, but what can you do. The filmmakers do a nice job of making sure everyone has good reasons - Renoir would be proud. It is made in the plain style of contemporary American indie films, but for some reason, this did not annoy me as much as it usually does - it is plain and direct, and always well marshaled in the service of the story. I think Jim Emerson's comments on the editing probably get to what exactly the filmmakers are doing right. Timing and precision in everything... It helps to feature as good a cast as it has - Bening and Moore and Ruffalo are hard to beat, and the kids hold up their end as well - quite a film.

Despicable Me (10/15) - witty if rather slight animated film... starts with someone stealing a pyramid - Gru the villain (who uses his evil powers mostly to cut the line at starbucks and improve his parking spot) is jealous - he plans to steal a shrink ray gun, shrink the moon, steal it. Or he would if he could get funding - he can't, and is particularly annoyed to discover that the nerd in the lobby - Vector - is the one who did steal the pyramid... Well - soe Gru steals the shrink ray gun, but Vector steals it from him, and thwarts all his attempts to steal it back - but Gru notices that the three little orphan girls selling cookies can get into Vector's lair... So he adopts them. Hijinks ensue, but they do get in and he steals the shrink ray gun - but he also bonds with them at an amusement park. And - starts to like them. But he must stay true to his calling as a villain.... Anyway - it's all very amusing, sufficiently ridiculous, and cute, the sentimentality honest enough and not quite cloying... It's gags tend to come from the Wall-E mode of silent cinema gags, here filtered through loony toons and the like - character development is mercifully left to the side. Fun stuff.

Dinner for Schmucks - here, however, we come on a bit of a problem. You would not think so, but this proves to be the hardest film of the summer to rank. It is, overall, idiotic but oddly appealing high concept bullshit - a bunch of asshole executives have a dinner where they invite losers to make fun of. Paul Rudd is in line for a promotion, so gets involved over the objections of his girlfriend - he sort of tries to resist, but when a schmuck runs into his porsche and won't go away - well... but of course Barry, the schmuck, does more than that - he manages, as he must, to ruin Tim's life - messing up his love life, getting him in trouble with the IRS, causing him trouble at work - finally bringing Tim to the point of saying what he really thinks of Barry. Oh - how sad. But of course, they both end up at the dinner anyway, where Barry triumphs... Lessons are learned, etc. - in fact, it might be classed as the latest entry in the "Paul Rudd learns life lessons from nerds and losers" subgenre, which seems to grow larger each year. But - it's still fun, mostly because of the supporting cast. Zach Galifianakis sneaks off with his scenes with Steve Carell - but Jemaine Clement steals the film from everyone, in the person of an artist by the name of Kieran....

That's one way to look at it. The other is to see it as a trash art defense of trash art, that is, in fact, an emblem of Art itself. That is - from beginning to end (I mean literally - from the credits to the tag at the end), it celebrates artists, who make things - not by sentimentalizing them, Art Will Save the World - but by making artists, people who make things, and do things - more interesting and alive than anyone else in the film. It's conception of "schmucks" is such that the "losers" are basically people with interesting hobbies and personalities, while the people who laugh at them are boring uptight businessmen. "Stock broker Tim" as Kieran says... That's where the film thrives, the oddballs and weirdoes - who happen to do things - Kieran the artist, Zach G as a mind controlling IRS agent, Lucy Punch as a tall woman in bondage gear who stalks Tim... bird fanciers, blind fencers, secretaries who pick up men even though they smell like cabbage... The weirdoes - and the schmucks - steal the movie. Dumb as they are, they are all imaginative, creative - the people who make fun of them have nothing except their sense of superiority and their money - all they can do is collect things and date hookers.

Carell, in all this, has a rather thankless role. The plot is stupid - the middle of the film, when he ruins Tim's life, is derivative and tiresome and saved only when Kieran or Darla come on screen... Carell soldiers on, in full Brick mode, oblivious and impervious, and utterly game... But then again - when push comes to shove - Barry is an artist himself, and he wins the dinner by showing his art. And I rather get the impression that this is quite intentional. Why not? The film opens, with a long montage of Barry putting together his mouse dioramas - that is - with art - on the careful craftsmanship of building things. Silly, strange, a bit disreputable things (when you get down to it) - but - not unlike the film itself. A piece of total junk culture that celebrates, from beginning to end, junk culture. It makes fun of itself, in the process of justifying its own existence.

So why not think it's intentional? I think there is a mini-genre of films like this around - films about junk culture, homemade culture - think of Michel Gondry's films (especially Be Kind Rewind, but not exclusively) - think of Jered Hess' films. Films about people making their own art - homemade, handmade art... It can be a bit ironic, of course - the full weight of Holly wood production brought to bear on the kind of thing YouTube is full of (Be Kind Rewind is a notable offender), but there are far worse things to put the weight of a Hollywood production behind. I love that stuff - I love the idea of people making art in their basements, who cares if it's any good? That sort of thing should be encouraged, and the people who make it are automatically deserving of some respect, even if they are (otherwise) idiots. Though - as a great man once put it - "why are Elvis fans so much nicer than the people who laugh at them?" It is a wise point...

(One more thing though - the real schmuck at the showing of this I saw was the projectionist - the film was projected wrong from beginning to end - people's heads consistently cut off... I suppose it didn't matter much - there's not much to look at in the film, it's not that kind of film... still...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movies Seen - Oldies and Foreign

Well, this post comes after another long interval, so long I almost have a number of films to write about. I've been busier than usual this summer, taking regular vacations and the like, as well as spending the first half of the summer watching soccer. Though I can't say how much I've missed - I'll save my complaining for another post (on new, American movies) - but there hasn't been a lot I've wanted to see this summer. There have been some neat old timey films, and a few good foreign releases - but it feels like slim pickings. I hope it picks up in the fall - I hope I pick up in the fall... Anyway - here are some of the one offs and foreign films I've seen... I'll do new American releases in a separate post (not that I've seen all that many of them, either...)

Most recently, a weekend dedicated to Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart - 2 I've seen, Winchester 73 and The Man From Laramie - two of the best westerns in existance; 2 I had not seen - Thunder Bay and The Far Country. The latter two are fine films, though not up to the level of the others. Thunder Bay sends Stewart and Dan Duryea wildcatting in the Gulf of Mexico (on Jay C. Flippen's money), feuding with shrimpers and stealing their women, and striking oil at the last possible second, and finding shrimp to boot... The Far Country sends Stewart and Walter Brennan to Alaska with a herd of beef - old Jimmy is a son of a bitch, though charming as always - several character actors try to make him act like a human being, but it takes Foul Murder to get him to do it - and even then, it is more Vengeance than Solidarity... Both these films are characteristically handsome affairs, with first rate acting from the leads and the high end character types (Flippen and John McEntire and the like) - though featuring maybe a bit too much second rate scene chewing from some of the other supporters...

There's nothing whatsoever wrong with the other two. Mann brought noirish stories and morality to westerns, and these two exemplify it. Complex story telling (the way Winchester 73 follows the rifle, not the characters), detailed characters, moral ambiguity, Jimmy Stewart simmering, obsessed and vicious under that folksy charm (an act he maintained through the 50s, and that showed signs earlier - in It's a Wonderful Life - in After the Thin Man...), Stewart surrounded by some of the best supporting actors in Hollywood - and all of it, in both films, beautifully shot, paced, staged... Masterpieces.

Before that, I haven't seen a lot this summer. Last month I managed to catch three releases from the geriatric division, all more or less the same weekend. First - Alain Resnais' Wild Grass (11/15) - A woman's wallet is stolen; a man finds it, takes it to the cops - she calls him and after this he stalks her a bit. This starts getting out of hand, so she calls the cops on him - she regrets something, and starts looking for him - eventually they all meet - him, her, his wife, her friend - and they go for flight in her plane.... A very lovely trifle, made up of imagination - kind of Amalie for adults, by adults.

And Jacques Rivette's 36 Vues du Pic St. Loup (11/15) - a lovely, sometimes slow, sometimes hilarious film about an Italian who helps Jane Birkin when her car breaks down, and gets pulled into her circle, which happens to be a small travelling circus that used to belong to her father. He laughs at the circus, he pursues Jane Birkin, sort of, and he finds her melodramatic backstory and resolves to help. A lovely film, with a very strong valedictory feel to it.

And finally - enough of the whippersnappers - the next to latest film by Manoel de Oliveira (born 3 years after Anthony Mann, by the way) - Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl (11/15) - another doomed love story, an old novel set in the modern day, though with the story unchanged. A boy loves a girl he sees across the street. He wants to marry her but his uncle refuses -he goes to Cape Verde and makes money, but quickly loses it to shady dealers - but - and - but... Ending on a great shot of the girl.... It's a handsome, strange, wonderful movie, as usual from Oliveira - full of strange bits - odd behavior at a poker game (a disappearing chip, enigmatic pronouncements) - a man who has lost his hat - a visit from a strange emissary (offering another trip to Cape Verde) - the ending, or the beginning (the young man telling the story to a stranger on a train...)

Shown along with de Oliveira's first film - Douro Working River, from 1931 - a Soviet influenced city symphony set on the Douro river in Oporto. A very active, athletic film - about work, mostly, men and machines, boats, planes, trains and aeroplanes - neat little piece of work.

And one more film that (like Wild Grass) managed to get a real release (actually, I think it might still be playing somewhere in town...) I am Love (11/15) - an Italian melodrama, directed by Luca Guadagnino, starring Tilda Swinton as a Russian wife of a textile family in Milan... they are rich and full of themselves, and Swinton's Emma herself was brought here like an exotic collectable. Well - she meets a chef - she eats his prawns and has a religious experience. She starts stalking him in San Remo (doing up her hair Kim Novak style), meets him and has an affair, and - continues it. Meanwhile the menfolk are quarreling, as all but son #1 want to sell - then, at dinner, the chef serves Russian fish stew, the mother's special recipe, and son #1 understands all... All this is gorgeous looking, and goes wildly over the top in its sex and food themes - it's a pretty fine film in all. Swinton is Swinton, and absolutely unmissable - she's given her head here, and has a fine character to play - a woman pinned down by the world who seems to be trying to slip out of it, out of the shackles of her clothes and jewels (more or less literally - the way her husband snaps her jewelry on her like handcuffs - Guadagnino is not subtle after all), and taking her destruction as sweet release...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Der Bruno

Bruno S, star of Werner Herzog's Kaspar Hauser and Stroscek, is dead. He was a unique presence in film, and hugely affective - he compelled attention, he made you watch him and listen to him. He embodies Kaspar's sense of alienness, his constantly developing relation with the world. In Stroscek, he has a wonderful blend of innocence and knowingness, a way of watching things that makes him seem like a sponge, soaking it all up. They are brilliant films, in no small part due to Bruno> You catch his personality - his way of moving, reacting, which is utterly unique.

He was truly fantastic. It's sad to hear he's gone.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Some Blogathon Notes

I haven't kept up my ongoing blogathon page for the last year - partly because it seems to be a trend that has passed. They are few and far between these days. But they still come up, and can provide a good deal of focused reading, as well as new links - so - Ivan G. Shrive's offered up a couple links, that I will more or less shamefully repeat...

There's a John Huston blogathon going on now at Icebox Movies - a blog I don't think I came across before. So this one has borne fruit already! Though like everything on the internet, you usually find out it's been done before - though I don't see any evidence anyone but me knew that blogathon existed.... Huston is a very interesting figure, so there should be plenty to chew on...

UPDATE: Let me add the roundup links, since this is well under way: Day 1... Day 2.... Day 3... Day 4... Day 5....

Ivan also mentions a Summer Movie Blogathon at another blog I'd never heard of, Silents and Talkies. This one takes place on August 16-18.

Finally - also in Ivan's post, though I knew about this one already, Tony Dayoub is hosting a David Cronenberg blogathon the second week of September - 6-12. Cronenberg, I fear, is not quite my cup of tea - though that shouldn't be an impediment to enjoying this blogathon, since part of my problem is that I find him more interesting to read about than watch. So that should work out!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Drive By Politics

I have no desire to start posting about politics again, but sometimes I feel an urge to vent - so - venting: let's say - five political opinions, barely supported, probably better suited for twitter (which I don't use, actually) or facebook status updates, if I felt like getting into pissing contests with my friends... Five:

1) Nice to see California back in the 21st century again, at least for a while... joining us here in Massachusetts, and a few other places - Vermont, NH, Connecticut, Iowa (of all places), and DC - as well as Canada, Portugal and Spain, Argentina, and a bunch of other places I'm too lazy to look up... [actually, this was a facebook update... sorry...] It's a good thing, treating everyone alike. I'm glad it's a court decision - truth is, I don't much like the idea of putting civil rights to a vote - that's one of the things constitutions are for - to define the things that can't be put to a vote. While marriage is obviously defined by the state, there's no justification is limiting the nature of the 2 people who can marry - what I read of the actual decision makes that point - that as we've knocked out the (official) legal disparity between genders, we knock out the justification for prohibiting some men and women from marrying the partners of their choice. It's a good thing.

2) I would also like to say that I really like the 14th amendment. Not just for underpinning rulings like the Prop 8 one - but for making me, for example, an American citizen. (Well - it's half the reason why I'm an American citizen.) I was reading a post about it at the Britannica Blog - this passage particularly:
George Will and other conservative commentators have tried to come up with inventive arguments that go roughly like this one: If the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment could have imagined the type of immigrants and immigrant laws that we have today they would not have favored granting citizenship to children of persons who violated those laws. Jonathan Weiler, among others, has amply demonstrated how absurd Will’s reasoning is on this point.

The HuffPo post linked there already got to this - exactly how willfully ignorant do you have to be to think that no one in 1866 gave much thought to immigration? Whole political parties were founded on resisting it - keeping the poor, drunken, Catholic masses out - heck, a lot of Republicans were Know Nothings first. (Democrats embraced immigrants, or immigrant votes; Republicans were both rivals to the Know Nothings, later absorbing a lot of them, and shared a good deal of their distrust of immigrants, especially Irish...) I dunno. The country did not lack experience in 1866 in dealing with the social, political, economic issues surrounding the problem of absorbing large numbers of people of different races, cultures, religions, languages - their experiences in those areas were, in fact, a good deal more inflammatory than anything we're seeing now. Perspective is wanted - not only are our problems now very minor compared to the situation in the 1860s, but in hindsight, all the people who have come to this country from elsewhere have, when given the chance, made the country a better place. Though resistance to these people, and attempts to deprive them of rights (this obviously includes the rights of African Americans) has brought us nothing but grief. I wish people would embrace what is the best thing about this country, its extremely low bar to coming here, its ability to absorb immigrants, without completely making them disappear. I like Chinatowns and the Brazilian neighborhoods I live next to and the Dominican kids on my softball team - I like hearing multiple languages on the subway. Etc.

3) Then there is the New York City Mosque controversy - which certainly helps show that the proud tradition of Know Nothingism (that is, open bigotry) lives on. I don't have much to say other than - when people act like unreconstructed bigots long enough, it is probably safe to say they are, in fact, simply bigots.

4) And - I guess I can repeat that in reference to the various NAACP controversies of recent weeks. Andrew Brietbart and company behave like unapologetic racists to the point where there is no point is giving them anything like a benefit fo the doubt. They have shown what they are - liars, racists, fools - fuck em.

5) Do I have five? I suppose I should sigh about the government's continued failure to do anything about unemployment - there are plenty of of things the government could build to the benefit of the nation, and it's not like we are overtaxed in this country... or our continued failure in Afghanistan... or something... But - I want to get this out of my system, not get bogged down on politics for another hour... so that's enough.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

iReview the iPad

Well, another couple weeks of silence on this blog, though this time I am happy to say I have had good reasons - an honest to god vacation, off to Maine and Vermont, seeing sights, visiting family, people I have not seen in 13, 15, 20 years, people I had seen, even then, almost exclusively at funerals. It was a good change to see them for pleasure again. And fun to poke around in the woods again....

I was not entirely off the grid all this time, though. For I have recently acquired a new toy:

And a fine machine it is! This trip was a nice little proof of concept - a chance to rely on the iPad for a week or so, see what it does. And I have to say - I like it. I bought it mostly to replace my laptop, which is growing long in the tooth - it's vintage 2004, badly behind the times in hardware (a pre-Intel mac), and consequently software. It still works, especially for computer type things - nothing wrong with the version of office on it, or anything else I use - but running into trouble browsing, especially. I thought, then, that for half the price of a new mac laptop, I could get an iPad - which would be much lighter, smaller, and could have 3G capabilities if I wanted them.

IN fact, it is fine for most of those functions. It isn't easy to type on it (which, along with the fact that I was on vacation, visiting people, in Vermont, with rather spotty 3G service, kept me from making any posts, here, say...), but it works - it can be made to work for typing. And I found an old,unusable bluetooth keyboard at work, that works perfectly with the iPad - so if I need to type, I can. It is quite good at browsing and email - especially on wifi, but works as well as the iphone on 3G, and you can see it. Some web apps act a bit funky with it - it's hard to scroll, for instance - but it does what I need it to. As it happens, having 3G for a month has sold me on it - it's a nice feature to have around town, and proved very useful in the wilds. The GPS worked like a charm, at least on top of the hills - to the point of helping us find my grandparent's old farm, burned out 50 odd years ago, overgrown into a jungle now.

But the best thing - taking me more than a little by surprise - is how well it works as a reader. It is a bit heavy - maybe a bit bigger than ideal for this sort of thing - but those are quibbles. It is smaller than most books (if heavier), and carries, after all, as many books as you can download onto it. I admit this is something I was thinking about - I take a lot of classes at Harvard extension, and lately, most of the supplemental readings have been distributed as PDFs - it occurred to me that it was a lot easier to load them all onto a machine than print them all out... But now that I have it, and have tried out reading books, I think I am hooked. It is a good size for reading - a good screen, a good interface, and it feels good in the hand. It can hold a hundred pounds of books... and - not to be underestimated - you can read it in the dark. I can sit on my balcony in the middle of the night and read away - an underrated feature.

It helps that I chose good books to try it out on. Prompted by Ta-Nehisi Coates' enthusiasm, I started by downloading a free version of U.S. Grant's Memoirs. That is definitely an inspired choice. He is a remarkably modern seeming writer - never flowery, but sharp, funny, in a dry way. A kind of brisk, unsentimental recitation of his experience, mostly of the war - with many fine asides and details. And a steady attention to logistics - the roads, supply lines, how many wagons and mules and teamsters he needed - the mark of a former quartermaster. A truly outstanding book.

I'm following it up with James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom - another fine book, this time bought from Amazon, for Kindle. That gave me a chance to compare the iBooks app to the Kindle app - not much to choose between them, though I think I would give the edge to iBooks. Little bit better interface, little bit easier to read and use. But basically, both work, and it makes it easy enough to use both to find material. The book - I'm enjoying completely, though I'm still only halfway through.

All this Civil War reading does take me back - rather notably. Back when I was a kid, when my grandfather was alive and living in the Vermont hills, I spent most of my time with my nose in books - Hardy Boys, and then Bruce Catton - so no one up there was too surprised, when they caught me with my nose in the iPad that I was reading more Civil War history. They didn't bat an eye...