Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Meek's Cutoff

Some say Kelly Reichardt's fourth film, Meek's Cutoff (starring the love of my cinematic life, Michelle Williams) is a hard film to watch.  Now mostly these are your typical Plebeian moviegoers who would not know a Tarkovsky from a Jodorowsky so it should not come as any real surprise.  If they cannot handle a film such as this (this is the same crowd that had no emotional reckoning over the ending of Wendy and Lucy) then fuck 'em I say.  I on the other hand (as if you couldn't already have guessed) found the film, as harrowing in storyline as it may very well be, just a thrill to watch, not difficult in the slightest - which is a very good thing since I have been anticipating seeing it ever since missing the press screening at last year's NYFF.  My review of said film is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Weird Weird World of Nobuhiko Obayashi's Gleefully Demented and Brilliantly Batshitcrazy Hausu !!!!!?!

Hey you!  If you have ever taken the time to wonder (and who hasn't!?) if there were a film out there somewhere that is equal parts Dario Argento, the crazy psychedelic world of Sid & Marty Krofft, 1980's pop music video, the works of Guy Maddin and soft core Japanese schoolgirl porn, well look no further because your search has finally ended - and what strange strange fruit it has borne.  This film cannot, or make that should not be explained.  It may very well be the film for which the term batshitcrazy was invented to describe.

This movie - needing to be seen to be believed - recently played in glorious 35mm at Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg Pa as part of the Artsfest Film Festival.  It was appropriately enough the special midnight showing that happens each year as cosponsered by the festival and the cinema (a tradition that has also been host to A Clockwork Orange, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Pink Flamingos and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  Approximately 95 people, most of whom had never seen the movie before, watched Obayashi's mad mad mad mad masterpiece.  Applause filled the theater afterwards.

Being the story of seven schoolgirls with names such as Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Kung-Fu (my personal fave), Prof, Melody and Mac (all of course possessing a quality to match their monikers) visiting what of course ends up being a haunted house (story idea by Obayashi's preteen daughter) where the most gleefully enjoyable blood bath ensues and girls are eaten by killer pianos and light fixtures or are beheaded and come back to try to eat the others (not to mention the evil killer cat, the noodle-eating bear and the fat demented watermelon man!?) the film is not what one would typically call great cinema. But damned if it isn't great cinema anyway.

I remember (which is easy because it was just last year) buying the Criterion blu-ray sight unseen.  The poster image of a psychotically-drawn cat was more then enough to make me plunk down whatever amount it was and buy the damned thing.  Upon watching it (projected onto the big screen after hours at Midtown Cinema of course) I knew right away the right spur-of-the-moment decision had been made.  Purposely cheap looking and full of some of the most splendidly maniacal cheap thrills this cinephile has ever seen, Hausu (aka, House) is easily one of my newly minted favourite films.  Damn it, it will even get a place of honour in my personal 100 greatest films canon.

Stealing from one of my own recurring features, here briefly are my 10 Favourite Things About Hausu.

1) Most would probably say this is an annoying quality but for me it means something powerful (musically speaking) has happened.  Just like that whistle in Kill Bill, the recurring theme song of the movie - In the Evening Mist I believe it is called - stays in my head for weeks each and every time I watch the film.  In fact it is in there right now (he says as happily humming said tune as he types).

2) The names. Several have been changed when translated, but let us go with the ones from the English-language release (since that is the only one I have seen).  Gorgeous (called Angel in the original Japanese-language version) is always dressing herself up.  Fantasy is a dreamer.  Sweet will do anything to help. Melody is the musician.  Prof is the smart one - you can tell because she wears glasses.  Kung-Fu kicks ass.  Mac eats a lot (I am guessing this is some take on stomach and not the ubiquitous McDonald's reference).

3) Obayashi's use of such garishly cheesy sets and designs and special effects.  If this film had been done in any sort of traditional way it would not be nearly as enjoyable as it ends up being.  It is blatantly - and quite arrogantly - cheap and that is just the way it needs to be.

4) One character (Gorgeous's wouldbe step mother) goes nowhere without her off camera wind machine.  Constantly wind swept in every scene (even when no one else is) may be a not-so-subtle rag on the melodramatic ways of classical cinema.

5) Kung-Fu.  I told you she was my favourite.  Randomly kicking ass (stuck cabinet doors, mice, a telephone, that crazy-ass cat, ghosts and skeletons) and stripping down to her underwear (for no apparent reason other than to titillate the male audience members) she is the sexy go-to girl in this bunch.  This kitten is fast as lightning indeed.

6) That rerelease poster image (see below) that made me buy the disc sight unseen.  It now adorns t-shirts, hast and mouse pads.  What a great maniacal cat.  The image actually nicely combines two of my wife and mine's own cats.  It has the orange colour of our oldest cat Alex but the demented killer-on-the-loose look of our youngest Fanny.

7) "Do you like melons?"  "I hate them!"  "What do you like?"  "Bananas!"  - Once you see the movie this will suddenly become freakin' hilarious to you.

8) The seemingly out-of-place (but just as appropriately perfectly in place) presence of English language pop songs by Godiego.  I suppose if the movie is going to be batshitcrazy, the soundtrack might as well be as well.

9) Not to give anything away, but a piano eats a girl.  To put it as bluntly as I can, it fucking devours the bitch.  All the while that damned haunting melody is playing - ironically by the actual character Melody.

10) Everything else that I could not fit in the first nine spots.  From the Partridge Family-esque bus ride to the Fantasy's fantasies about her "manly" teacher to Gorgeous's aunt eating eyeballs to Obayashi's criticism of the atomic bomb (the director is from Hiroshima) to the closing credits that appear to be part of some seventies Japanese variety show to Mac's severed head taking a bite out of Fantasy's ass to pretty much everything else.

Anyway, that is it for now kiddies.  My only request is that you go out and watch Hausu.  If you have any sense of cinematic love, you will not regret your decision.  If you do, well it's only 88 minutes, and you probably don't have any friends anyway.  But before I go, please allow me one more shamelessly decadent image from this shamelessly batshitcrazy movie.  This movie that will bore into you freakin' soul and lay eggs that will later hatch and become a billion batshitcrazy babies ready to devour your mind with insane catchy pictures and tunes that will never leave your head.  A demented infinity for us all!!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A New Look, But I'm Still Here...

No that is not a subtle reference to Joaquin Phoenix.  What it is, is me announcing that my blog, and your favourite place to read about everything cinematic (hah!), has a brand new look (complete with brand new banner appropriately featuring the lovely Anna Karina), but not to worry true believers and faithful readers, for I am indeed still here.

You see, the shock and horror of my receiving nary a single nomination at the LAMMYS, made me reassess exactly what the hell it is I am doing here.  Okay, perhaps that is a bit on the melodramatic side (but I do love a good melodrama) and is at least partially tongue-in-cheek, but it did make me think that I need to do some fancier maneuvering if I want my name to spread as far and as wide as I want it to spread.  In other words, it is high time I get off my ass and make something of myself.

The new black & blue look (and new Anna Karina banner) is just the physical aspect of this change, but more needs to be done.  Now I have never had a problem with my writing.  It is one of the few things in life I am actually confident about.  I consider my style a suitable blend of Andrew Sarris-inspired auteurism and Pauline Kael-inspired chutzpah (I suppose I will always be a Paulette, albeit second generation 2.0 version, at heart though).   My reviews and other assorted cinematic ramblings are, for the most part, solid pieces of writing (perhaps a bit long-winded at times - my wannabe Proustian side coming to the forefront I suppose) and as far as I am concerned, they need not be changed.

But who the hell is even reading them!?  Blogger claims I have 48 followers and I am sure some of these are actually following me (doesn't that sound creepy yet alluring?) and thus reading my reviews and such (both the classic film reviews and the new release reviews which are mostly published at my companion site, The Cinematheque, but still linked from here) but who knows for sure.  One can track stats and see who is checking out your site, but who knows if they are actually reading your work or merely passing through trying to locate a picture of Asia Argento.  Only a handful of comments come through to my posts (some get none at all) and they say that is the truest measure to a writer's core popularity.  Regular readers will comment and it will become a community of sorts.  What I want are regular readers dammit!!

I do not write for any major outlet (film criticism is a dying art they tell me but a freelance piece here or there on occasion would indeed be nice) so the only spot I have is right here and right now.  I do not have that regular readership - that aforementioned community - that many of my fellow compatriots have.  Somehow I must bring the readers to me (the whole Mohammad/mountain metaphor).  But how to do that?  I know I can always do more commenting myself.  It is something I rarely do but should be doing.  Perhaps then, as they say, the love will be shared.  I can also try to get on the blogrolls of those fellow film writers I most admire - a thing I have mostly successfully done of recent.   I have set up a facebook page (separate from my own personal one) but have only managed to corral 27 "likes" so far, but it is a start.  But there is more to do I say - much more to do.

My goal for 2011 is to get my voice out there somehow.  I know I am prolific enough.  Maybe get one of those freelance spots I spoke of desiring earlier (are you listening Village Voice and Tribune Media!?).  Maybe get some guest spots on other blogs (I do that for the fine folks over at 366 Weird Movies but there I definitely need to be a bit more prolific).  Maybe then I can get someone - other than my true believer readers (and I know there are at least a few of you out there - Michael, Dan, Jack) - to listen to my cinematic ramblings.  Because believe me, I can talk forever about cinema - just ask any of my friends. 

And btw, feel free to go ahead and comment on this post - it will at least let me sleep at night.  I will close out with a great picture of the man who gave me the name for my blog (or rather the man from whom I stole said name) and his lovely wide-eyed muse.  This is the dawning of a new era for The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, and in turn (hopefully) for me as well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Initial Random Thoughts Upon Finally Seeing Meek's Cutoff

Well it took me long enough didn't it!?  Missing out on the screenings at last year's NYFF and unable to procure a screener from the fine folks over at Oscilloscope (my own fault really with my stupid procrastination) I finally got the chance to see Kelly Reichardt's newest film, Meek's Cutoff.  Here are a few rambling thoughts I decided to jot down for your perusal.  A full-length review will be coming in the next few days sometime.  Until then, chew on the following.

  • I love the director's artistic choice to go all old school as it were and film the movie in 1:33 aspect ratio.  Reichardt says she chose this format to make the space seem more closed in and therefore more narrowly viewed like her female character's truncated views of the trail.
  • The always incredible Michelle Williams (and yes, I do have the biggest cinematic crush on the lady and therefore am more than a bit biased) does for the desperate frontier woman what she did for the equally desperate but quite proud lost youth of Wendy and Lucy.  A brilliant actor (and not the sexist term actress either) who can show myriad emotion with just a look through the trees.
  • The cinematography, though physically truncated by modern standards is some of the most gorgeous this critic has seen in a long while.  The bright, unsympathetic sun of an unknown territory to the dark, barely visible scenes by fire or lamp light.  It seems very reminiscent (and probably purposely so) of the westerns of Mann and Hawks.
  • As the final fade comes and the credits (beautifully done as well - what a complete cinematic experience this film is) roll, there came a collective groan amongst the twenty or so patrons around me (behind me actually since I was front and center).  This, like the equally remarkable Wendy and Lucy before it, is far from what one could a movie for the masses.  It is sad but true - the modern moviegoer wants action and adventure and if anything gets even a little off-center, they run for the exits in droves.
  • An all-but unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood as the titular guide with delusions of grandeur should be a candidate for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar come the end of the year (and of course Michelle my Belle should be up for lead, but that is a given) but probably will not even be in the running due to Meek's inevitable obscurity - even though it is critically acclaimed.
  • The methodical, determined pacing, which has become Reichardt's auteurial signature, makes the growing anguish of these three families of wouldbe settlers - almost in a crescendo format - all the more palpable - and all the more inevitably harrowing.
  • To sound like a gushing schoolgirl: I fucking loved this film - and apparently a rather foul-mouthed schoolgirl at that.  The first truly great film of 2011 (which exactly repeats my initial FB status update immediately following the screening and should be used by the filmmakers as a poster blurb), Meek's Cutoff is the first film this year that I have no doubt whatsoever will be amongst my favourites come year's end and my annual best of.
Like I said, a full review (and knowing me, I will have a lot to say) is on the horizon for this week-end, so look out for that (it will be posted here so you don't have to look very far).  Enough said for now though.  Goodnight sweet readers.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fifteen Movie Questions Meme

A fun looking meme that first (as far as I can ascertain) appeared on Defiant Success and has made its way across that ole cyberspace.  Looks like fun and I have nothing else to do right now - and I am a nerd after all - so why not.  Here we go.

1) Movie you love with a passion.
Damn, there are a lot of these.  Johnny Guitar.  The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  City Lights.  Star Wars.  Taxi Driver.  Singin' in the Rain.  Bonnie & Clyde.  2001: A Space Odyssey.  Rio Bravo.  Dazed & Confused.  Sunrise.  The Bicycle Thief.  Pulp Fiction.  Just to name a few.  But if I were forced to name just one - the most passionate - my answer would have to be (if you haven't already guessed from the above picture) The Red Shoes.  God I love that movie.  I remember when I got to see it in a newly restored 35mm print at Film Forum a year or two ago, rushing into the theater as soon as they opened the doors (much the same way as those kids did at the beginning of then very movie we were about to watch) and plopping down front row center.  What an experience.

2. Movie you vow to never watch.

There are two actually.  The first one is The Goonies.  I grew up in the right era and saw all of its contemporary popcorn flicks (Breakfast Club, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Indiana Jones, The Lost Boys, what have you) but for some reason never got around to The Goonies. No particular reason, just slipped by me.  Well now here it is, more than twenty-five years later (I suddenly feel really old) and still no Goonies.  Others of my generation call it a travesty.  I call it fate.  If I haven't seen it by now - I might as well never see it (famous last words, huh?).  

The other cinema non grata is The Boondock Saints.  I know, all the cool guys like it, but who wants to be one of them.  So many people have told me that I must watch it (and comparing it to a bunch of films I do not like!?) so out of spite or some inherent antagonistic character flaw, I simply refuse.  'nuff said.

3) Movie that literally left you speechless.

Red Shoes?  Okay, I won't use that one.  I suppose my answer would be Leo McCarey's heart-wrenching Make Way for Tomorrow.  When that film ended, I seriously could not say a word.  Sure, I could blubber like a baby, but no words would come out.  It is this same way each and every time I watch the film too.
4) Movie you always recommend.

I suppose I could (again) just say The Red Shoes and move on to the next question, but that would feel a bit like cheating (and I do love to hear myself pontificate) so I will pick something else.  How about Rio Bravo.  Quentin Tarantino uses this film as a barometer for potential girlfriends (if they don't like it they hit the road!) and I think it is as good a relationship barometer as any I can think of.  So in that frame of mind, I recommend this film to all those out there looking for love in all the wrong places.  Incidentally, I made my wife watch this movie and I can happily say we are still together.

5) Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.  

There can be only one answer to this one and that sir (and madam) is Nicholas Cage.  I love Nic Cage, and I love Nic Cage most of all when he is being his batshitcraziest - which seems to be more and more often these days.  The funny thing is though, Nic Cage has been in a lot of bad movies, but somehow because he is in them I get great giddy enjoyment from them, therefore turning them - for all intents and purposes - good movies.  Okay, perhaps not good, but good-ish.  Okay, perhaps not even good-ish, but they are so much damned fun to watch.
6) Actor/actress you don't get the appeal for.  

Oh god, where do I start and where do I finish.  Allow me to list just a few.  Jim Carrey.  Wil Smith.  Kate Hudson.  Charlize Theron.  Halle Berry.  Tyler Perry.  Jason Statham.  Katherine Heigl (oh god I loathe that one).  Jack Black.  I could go on and on here.  Granted, some of the aforementioned could be called talented thespians of one kind or another, but for some reason they just either bore me or get on my nerves.  Either way, no thanks.

7) Actor/actress, living or dead, you'd love to meet.     

Barbara Stanwyck, circa 1933.  I would rock her world.  Did I say that out loud, or rather did I type that out loud?  Oh well.  Seriously though, I would love to hang out with someone like Cagney or Bogart (with Bacall) or maybe Groucho.  As far as the living go, I would say Michelle Williams (again, rocking her world) but my gut answer would be Quentin Tarantino.  I know he is more a director than an actor, but to hang out with QT, Scorsese and Bogdanovich and talk cinema would be the veritable be all and end all.  I could die happy then.

8) Sexiest actor/actress you've seen. (Picture required!) 

Okay, let's face it, I have the biggest crush on Michelle Williams so there is no way I cannot say her.
9) Dream cast.  

Picking from just here and now: Kate Winslet, Michelle Williams, Naomi Watts, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Helen Mirren, Isabelle Huppert & Penelope Cruz in a remake of Francois Ozon's 8 Women.  Of course the greatest actor ever is Daniel Day-Lewis, so I would have to insert him in there as some sort of token male figure.  Oh wait, I have already seen this (for the most part) as the ill-fated musical Nine - I film I wanted so much to love but just could not.  Seriously though, any combination of the above (along with John Malkovich, Chris Walken, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Keener, Casey Affleck and of course Nic Cage) would make for great entertainment.

10) Favorite actor pairing.  

The easy answer would be Bogie and Bacall.  In fact it is such an easy answer that it is the one I am going with.  Only four movies together but the chemistry they had from the very beginning (where the 45 year old Bogart swept the 19 year old Bacall off her feet on and off the screen in To Have and Have Not - incidentally while the director Howard Hawks was also trying to sweep the young ingenue off her feet) is palpable.  One of the funnest Hollywood couples - on and off screen - ever.

11) Favorite movie setting.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.  
Actually the above quote is not my answer for a setting, but the place in which it was filmed, LA, is.  I have always been a New York guy (I am a lot closer to it) but as far as movie settings go, I am always a sucker for the City of Angels - even if it is in this particular case a futuristic LA.  And set it inside the movie industry and you've got me for sure.  Great, now I have the song To Live and Die in L.A. running around my head.

12) Favorite decade for movies.

Why do I have to keep narrowing things down dammit!!?  I suppose if one were to go to my all-time favourite list, the answer would be the 1950's, followed closely by the 1960's and 1940's and then the 1970's and 1930's.  The 1980's, ironically the decade I became a man in (literally and figuratively if you know what I mean), is probably my least favourite overall.

13. Chick flick or action movie?

Really?  This is a question?  How about Thelma and Louise?  It is both so I am going with that as my official non-answer.  

14. Hero, villain or anti-hero?

I could say Darth Vader and in many ways he could be considered all three.  So there!!
15. Black and white or color (and/or colour)?

An argument could be made for both.  One one hand, films such as The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca or Citizen Kane would not have the power they do if they had been in colour.  I mean really, imagine something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Technicolor.  Film noir as a whole would have been erased from our memories.  But on the other hand, a film like The Red Shoes (had to mention it again) or An American in Paris would not have worked as well in black & white.  Then there is The Wizard of Oz that goes from sepia to glorious colour and that is part of what makes it work so well.   But I suppose, my classic film side wins out, and if I must choose (I hate choosing dammit!) I choose black & white.

That's it for now.  Go home.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Sadly Neglected Beauty of Keisuke Kinoshita's River Fuefuki

If you think classic era Japanese filmmakers such as Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse are underrated masters that (until recently) have never gotten the respect (outside of their home country) often reserved for Kurosawa and Ozu, then the fateful, undeserved obscurity of compatriot Keisuke Kinoshita will blow off your proverbial socks.  Directing 42 films in the first 23 years of his career (before slowing down to a Terrence Malick-like pace for the remainder), Kinoshita was not only an amazingly prolific filmmaker, but also a creative artist that can easily stand toe to toe with any of the aforementioned classic Japanese Cinema masters.  A creative artist - an auteur if you will - who should be more well known in the West.
With each successive film of Kinoshita's that I see (and I just discovered him this past month thanks to Film Forum's Japanese Divas series) I fall more and more in cinematic love with him, and I think that The River Fuefuki (Fuefukigawa in transliterated Japanese) is the be all and end all of that love - the artistic climax if you will.  Made in 1960, just two years after The Ballad of Narayama (along with Twenty-Four Eyes, probably the director's best known work), The River Fuefuki is the epic story of one family and the turmoil of the lives throughout seventy-plus years of war and torment in what was known as the Sengoku Period (or Period of Warring States).  Seeing each generation succumb to the siren call of war (there are no less than a dozen and a half of battles throughout the story) while the elders lament what could have been, the film plays as great, almost Shakespearean tragedy.  Of course Kinoshita has I am sure, more Japanese classics in mind, but since I am not very familiar with these, allow me to compare it to the tales of Shakespeare's histories.
What really makes The River Fuefuki pop though is not the story - though the way it is told and those portraying these parts are all very riveting in their own right.  What really makes the film stand out is Kinoshita's filming technique.  Sort of comparable to one of Kurosawa's Jideigeki films, if it were made by the likes of a Dario Argento or even a Godard.  Always one to experiment with new visions, Kinoshita is easily the most stylized director of all the Japanese Masters, and is at least just as visually innovative if not more so (though in a more classically elegant way) than any of the New Wavers that came after him.  This kind of stylization in filmmaking may not be for everyone's tastes (the likes of other super stylists like Seijun Suzuki or Nobuhiki Obayashi or even their American blood brother Quentin Tarantino are surely an acquired taste to say the least - a taste I happen to quite enjoy) but Kinoshita was still extremely popular, both critically and financially, in his time.  It is still sad to think how completely unknown he is today in world cinema.
But it is this super stylization that makes Kinoshita's films work as well as they do - and in turn makes me fall deeper and deeper in love with the auteur's oeuvre with each new viewing.  His work with the bright garish primary colours of Carmen Comes Home (made in Fujicolor in 1951, it was Japan's first colour film), his manic, tilting camera in the sequel, Carmen's Pure Love, his use of mood-changing hues in The Ballad of Narayama, the back-and-forth bifractured storytelling of The Tragedy of Japan.  These things are what make Kinoshita such an alluring filmmaker - and in The River Fuefuki, it is no different.  Shot in crisp black and white, Kinoshita swathes the canvas with swooshes of colour (better seen than described - just take a look at the stills that still do not do this film the justice it deserves on the big screen).  The director's use of colour and his way of freezing shots in mid-battle and his use of ghostly imagery make him possibly my favourite director of the moment - a position held by Andrei Tarkovsky, Nicholas Ray, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ernst Lubitsch and William Wellman when I first discovered them.  Seriously, I sat there in the theater and was completely mesmerized by Kinoshita's visuals while being emotionally jarred by what was going on in and around them.
Perhaps a Kinoshita retrospective will come about soon (any potential organizers please note that I am always open to lending a helping hand) and these films, just like the rediscovery of Naruse a few years ago, will finally get the respect and adoration they deserve.  Kinoshita certainly deserves the accolades that Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and (more recently) Naruse have gotten from the West.  Incidentally, in 1943, with Kinoshita's debut film, The Blossoming Port, the director was awarded the New Director Award - in the same year another director, Akira Kurosawa also made his debut.  I am not trying to dismiss the accomplishments of Kurosawa (he is and will always be one of my all-time favourite directors), I am just trying to put out there the fact that perhaps we need to re-introduce the great, but mostly unheralded (outside of Japan) career of Keisuke Kinoshita.  Just watch any of his myriad of films (so many different genres, so many different styles), especially The River Fuefuki, and you will surely agree with me.  If not, who wants to know you anyway.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Of Gods and Men

I saw this film about a billion years ago (aka, roughly five weeks) and am just now posting my review - and not a very long one at that.  I suppose one can say better late than never.  Perhaps I was just too busy with all the other films I was seeing and this one slipped through those dreaded cracks.  Who knows - and to be honest, who cares?  The point is, my review is here now, so deal with it.  Don't know why I am so antagonistic about it (I quite liked the film I am reviewing) but hey, what are ya gonna do?

Below is one of many stunning cinematic images in the movie.

The Cinematheque Reviews: The Beast w/ 6 Heads, aka Bridesmaids

I finally took the plunge (knowing full well it was going to be pretty fucking ugly) and went to see Bridesmaids.  Inexplicably rave reviews aside (a fucking 89% on Rotten Tomatoes!?), the beastly thing is just god-awful.  One could even say repugnant if one were so inclined.  I suppose you can pretty much guess in which direction my review is going to go, but just in case you still wish to peruse it, said review is up and running at The Cinematheque.

Kristen Wiig stoned out of her mind in a funny scene (one of only two) in the movie.  Perhaps this is the state of mind the usually-much-better-than-this comedienne was in when she co-wrote the script.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Everyone keeps harping on about how god-awful the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie is.  Granted, it's not exactly cinema for the ages but as far as swashbuckling movies go - well, it certainly swashes its buckles.  Seriously though, the movie is fun pop entertainment that should not be tossed away so lightly by the snobbery of film criticism (a snobbery I myself must admit to partaking of on numerous occasions).  My review of said fun pop entertainment is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Anticipation of The Tree of Life

Back in early January when I wrote of my most anticipated films of 2011, I placed Terrence Malick's upcoming The Tree of Life in the number three spot (just behind von Trier's Melancholia and Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmasters - the latter of which may not even see the light of day so to speak til 2012).  Now here we are four months later and the film has just been awarded the coveted (duh) Palme D'Or at Cannes.
 I must admit that I am as pleased as the proverbial punch that Malick's film was awarded this honour - even if I have not yet actually seen the damned film.  Not being one of the elite crix - either those with their colour-coded press passes alongside the Croisette or those lucky enough to catch a press screening in NYC (not that I am bitter) - I must now wait my turn just like everyone else.  Now I will probably make a special trip to that aforementioned Big Apple (a mere three-and-a-half hour train ride away) sometime during its first week at Lincoln Plaza Cinema (opening May 27) instead of waiting with the rest of America to see it slowly leak its way across the moviehouses of this great land of ours (July 8 is set as an official wide release date).

The film has received some attention before the awarding of the top prize at Cannes - though not quite in the same manner as fellow Cannes selection Melancolia has.  First off, it was booed at the screening (but unlike that snarky Dane, M. Malick was never called persona non grata).  Now this should really not bother anyone since many great films (most notably L'Avventura) have gotten booed at Cannes, but this sharp distaste did lead to at least one quite talked-about critical drubbing.  But the film has received its share of enthusiastic raves as well.
The auteur's previous films (all four of them) have also caused much derision in the critical community.  In my not-so-humble opinion, I believe they run the gamut from youthful curiosity (Badlands) to perplexing ambiguity (The Thin Red Line) to oft-overlooked brilliance (The New World - am I the only one who found this film to be brilliant!?) to downright near-masterpiece (Days of Heaven).  I have liked all of Malick's films to some degree or another (and I am not trying to sell Days of Heaven short, I am just wary of using the term masterpiece too often so I placated those feelings with a self-serving prefix) and I don't think The Tree of Life will be any different - even if my wife thinks the trailer looks like a big pile of you-know-what (in an explanatory note, I don't think she has ever forgiven me for making her sit through The Thin Red Line - just not her thing).

I suppose I will end on my own words.  Here is what I said back in January about the film and my anticipation of said film:  "Five films in a thirty-eight year career doesn't exactly make Terrence Malick the most prolific of filmmakers, but it does make it all that more important that we get everything we can out of each of his five (so far) films, because one is never quite sure when another might come along.  This one, from what I can tell, has the distinction of having Sean Penn playing the child of Brad Pitt.  From the trailer it doesn't seem your typical Malick (if a man with five films in nearly forty years can have a typical anything) but it does look gorgeous, if nothing more - but I do think there will be much much more."
I mean after all, just take a look at the three beautiful stills in this post.  Now imagine that at 138 minutes.  How can this not be just spectacular?

Of course I am going to look pretty damned foolish if this whole things ends up being a dud (not that I haven't looked foolish many many many times already).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Potiche

When it comes to subtitled films, many people (too many) say they do not want to "read" a movie.  They claim they just want mindless entertainment.  Well I hate to tell them, but Francois Ozon's Potiche, as subtitled as it wants to be, is exactly that - mindless entertainment.  It is fun mindless entertainment, but mindless entertainment nonetheless.  Wonder what all those haters would say to that.  Oh well, whatever they may think, my review of said mindless (but fun) entertainment is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

A less antagonistic moment in Potiche, as old lovers (both on and off screen) are reunited.

At Least I Am in Good Company: My Take on the LAMMY Nods

John Barrymore.  Tyrone Power.  Jean Harlow.  Joseph Cotton.  Veronica Lake.  John Gilbert.  Mae West.  Boris Karloff.  Rita Hayworth.  Ida Lupino.  Edward G. Robinson.  Marilyn Monroe.  Kevyn Knox.

What do these thirteen people, nay, thirteen celebrities (yeah, I said it) have in common you may ask.  Well I will tell you oh curious reader.  As for the first twelve on the list (the ones that can legitimately be called celebrities) - their common bond is the sad fact that none of them have ever been nominated for an Academy Award.  That is right true believers (my quick apology to Stan Lee for the usurping of his tagline), there is nary an Oscar nomination between them.  Shocking if you ask me - especially with Barrymore, Robinson and Monroe - but true nonetheless.  

As for that final person on the above list - yours truly at lucky number thirteen (which not so coincidentally is my actual lucky number) - he can now be added to that no-love-from-the-peers list.  After today's announcement of the LAMMY nominations (the annual awards given out by the fine folks over at The Large Association of Movie Blogs, aka The LAMB) and my inability to garner even a lone nomination (I thought perhaps Best New LAMB, or even sakes alive, Best Movie Reviewer or the Brainiac Award) I know just how many of the aforementioned twelve must have felt on nomination morning.

Now I do not mean to get all maudlin, or even bitter or jaded (because really I am not any of these things - really), and I do not mean to sound as if I thought I even deserved a nomination (I was hoping, but not really expecting), especially considering there are hundreds of sites vying for just fifteen categories, but since I advertised on this blog last month that the nominations were coming, and even designed an FYC ad (seen below) for the occasion, I thought I should at least let everyone (if anyone is even out there listening right now) know how it went.

Now I should not feel too bad since, unlike the twelve no-longer-living celebrities above, I am still alive and kicking and, as they say, there is always next year (unless that pesky as-advertised rapture comes today).  Of course then I will no longer be eligible for Best New LAMB (this was my first year in the running after all - another reason to have hope springing eternal) and thus will have one less opportunity for a nomination.  Still though, next year will be my year.  As for right now, right here, I suppose I should just go on with my film reviews and other assorted cinematic ramblings (though the rapture may put a damper on that as well) and hope to do better next year.

I would like to not only thank those fellow LAMBs that voted for me in whatever categories, but also thank all my readers (you are out there, right?) for sticking around and (I can only assume) enjoying the things I have to say.  Don't worry, I am not going anywhere (I certainly won't disappear if that damned rapture comes!).  I would also like to congratulate all my fellow LAMBs who did receive nominations today (the announcement was made via podcast - a full list of the nominees will be released on Monday at The LAMB).  There are no hard feelings, this post has been done in the most tongue-in-cheek fashion, and thus should (hopefully) be taken as such.  But I will get you next year (insert sound of maniacal laughter here).....

ed. note (05/23): Here is a link to a full list of the 2011 LAMMY Nominees.  Again, congrats to you all.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My 10 Favourite Things About Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb

**Spoilers ahead, for those who worry about such things**

1) Since it is a visual medium, I suppose one should begin with the look of the film.  Minnelli, always known for vivid filmmaking, directs no differently here.  With a fluid, never pushy but always provocative camera, Minnelli makes the lurid goings-on in The Cobweb, as they say, sing with a cinematic beauty all its own.  Combine Minnelli with long-time collaborators such as Art Directors Preston Ames (An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Gigi) and Cedric Gibbons (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Band Wagon) and cinematographer George Folsey (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, uncredited on The Band Wagon) and you have an elaborately stylized (though unobtrusively so) delectable motion picture.

2) The fact that The Cobweb is basically a melodrama about the miscommunication of buying curtains for a mental hospital is quite the plot line.  Not only is such a story intriguingly convoluted in execution,  but also surprisingly fluid in outcome.  I cannot say how close this is to William Gibson's novel, but it is almost as if Minnelli took a screwball comedy plot and twisted it into serious melodrama.

3) Gloria Grahame.  Never really considered a great beauty (even though she was) Grahame nonetheless exuded sexuality in many of her roles.  Sultry and vixenish, with an alluring come-hither pout, Grahame seemed like the kind of girl who would go batshitcrazy at any moment - and often did in her roles (even in Oklahoma! she was the wildchild) - but the kind of girl you would be okay dealing with such antics as long as those voluptuous lips kept pursing in your direction.  This is exactly what the actress does in The Cobweb.  Provocative and steamy, her full hips swiveling like a fertility goddess on ecstasy (the kind of girl no one wants to take home to mother), Grahame's unfulfilled hospital administrator's wife is the very guts of Minnelli's movie.  She may not be the lead (she received fourth billing officially) but it is she that either holds the film together or tears it apart - or holds it together then tears it apart.  Grahame would move on to more wholesome roles later in her career (after divorcing hubby Nick Ray when he found her in bed with his thirteen year old son from a previous marriage - the same thirteen year old she would nine years later make her fourth and final husband) but I definitely prefer her as the sexy, potentially batshitcrazy wife in The Cobweb.

4) The dialogue in this film, adapted from the novel by John Paxton who also wrote the screenplays for Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, Pickup Alley and The Wild One, is pure melodrama - and thus pure trash, but trash in the most positive way.  Full of double entendre and juicy, campesque dialogue, The Cobweb is brilliantly subversive and convoluted to a delightful delirium.

5) John Kerr (playing the part originally meant for James Dean - and playing it in a manner that one might expect from Dean himself) makes a stunning debut as patient Stevie Holte.  We first meet him during the opening credits as he is seen running across fields and streams until he is picked up by Gloria Grahame.  He is obviously an escapee from the hospital run by Grahame's husband (Richard Widmark) and plays it aloof, while at the same time concocting a fantasy that Grahame's petulant, neglected wife is actually hitting on him - a story he proudly (or defiantly) boasts to Widmark in their next session..  Kerr's sudden outbursts and manic cries of desperation at his own mental instability give the film a vibrant, dangerous centerpiece, where all the other characters can spoke off from - whether they know it or not.  Kerr's Stevie is grounded though by fellow patient and extreme introvert and agoraphobic Sue Brett, played (also in her film debut) by the intense and lovely Susan Strasberg.  It is Stevie who is there at the beginning and it is his image that Minnelli ends his film with.

6) Those eyes.  That voice.  That look that can destroy a man where he stands.  Lauren Bacall.  In one of her finest performances (possibly even her best), Bacall plays Dr. Meg Rinehart, an idealistic caregiver and art therapist who has just recently lost her husband and son in a car accident.  Standoffish, as only Bacall can play it, Meg becomes the love interest of Widmark's character and thus the enemy of Grahame's.  Probably the most stable character in the bunch (and she treads along the precipice as well) Bacall sort of stabilizes the group dynamic as it were.  Pauline Kael said of the movie "By the mid-50's, nobody was surprised that the new variant of Grand Hotel was an expensive, exclusive looney bin."  It is Bacall's Meg Rinehart (though other characters may claim it is they who do such) that keeps this loony bin from falling into shambles.  And did I mention that voice?  Those eyes?

7) Since he keeps getting mentioned, I suppose we should discuss Richard Widmark.   He is the lead after all.       Widmark, who has always been more of an on-the-edge kind of character actor (his performance in one of my all-time favourites, Pickup on South Street is one for the ages) who has played some rather less-than-scrupulous characters.  I suppose here he is just as on-edge as elsewhere, but here he is also the supposed voice of reason behind it all.  The man who must figure everything out before it comes crashing down on him and everyone around him.  Probably a strange casting choice, but Widmark works here as the man in way way way over his head.  Yet he has, as they say, a heart made of gold.  Still there are some moments of a sense of creeping dread laid out on the actor's face that makes the already anti-horror thing Minnelli has going, a deeper despairing creature.  Yeah, that's right, Widmark does that!

8) As the opening credits end and we see Gloria Grahame's car slow down to pick up the wandering John Kerr, a title comes up on the screen.  It scrawls across the screen as a cursive warning.  "The trouble began" it reads - and that it does.  The fact that Minnelli puts this warning there is a bit odd, but more than a bit tantalizing.  Then, as the film ends and everything is alright again (for the most part) , we are given the antidote to this first warning.  Scrawling its cursiveness across the screen we now get "The trouble was over." - and indeed it is.

9) Oscar Levant, actor and composer (and great in both An American in Paris and The Band Wagon), plays the charmingly crazy Mr. Capp in The Cobweb.  The fact that this would be the great Levant's final performance combined with the fact that he is basically playing himself (the role was styled toward Levant's own real-life psychosis that would come to take over his life) his performance is that much more resonating to watch.  He is the comic relief of the film but at the same time he is one of the saddest, most tragic figures floating around the set.  Farewell Mr. Levant.

10) Saving the best for last.  It had been twenty-two years since the great Lillian Gish had graced the MGM sound stages.  Making her triumphant return, Gish plays Victoria Inch, the cold-hearted, no-nonsense financial officer of the institute.   Her fights with Widmark, Bacall, Grahame and Charles Boyer (sadly left off this top ten list) are loud and boisterous and always from the heart of the character (perhaps it isn't nearly as cold as I alluded to earlier).  Gish would follow this film up with her spectacular mother hen role in The Night of the Hunter.  Kael said Gish was the closest The Cobweb had to a star performance, and no matter who it is she is up against in the film - even Widmark's metaphorical muzzling of her character or Grahame's explosive phone conversation (the two actresses, though both integral to the crosscutting plot and strange curtain calling, never actually share screen time) - it is Gish, and her everlasting power as an actress that wins the day.
Since I left him out of the post (for the most part) here is one last image, via a lobby card costarring Miss Grahame, of Mr. Charles Boyer, playing the inevitable aged rapscallion in The Cobweb.  Think of it as number eleven.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Priest

The Searchers with vampires.  Sounds promising in a kinky sort of way.  Alas, it was not to be.  The results of such, or at least my criticisms of the results of such, can be seen over at The Cinematheque where my review is currently up and running (as I am prone to say).

Below is Karl Urban as Black Hat (yes that is how he is credited), the only real thing to like in what is otherwise a pretty damned bland movie experience.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hollywood Haiku: Classic Edition

The good folks over at Best for Film have challenged their fellow movie bloggers to the ultimate haiku challenge.  Okay, perhaps it isn't the ultimate haiku challenge, but it sounds more ominous that way, so ultimate it remains.  Seriously though, there is a haiku contest and as any red-blooded American boy with a deep-seeded need to crush all those around him in victorious mayhem, here are my entries for said ultimate haiku challenge, aka Hollywood Haiku Competition.  
But first, to make it official (boilerplate stuff and all): This is an entry for the Best For Film Hollywood Haiku blogging competition. Enter now.

Citizen Kane
He once had a sled
Fondly remembered Rosebud
Good ole Charlie Kane

Play it again Sam
Was never even said once
But Sam played it still

Double Indemnity
Poor ole Walter Neff
He threw away everything
For Stanwyck's great legs

Modern Times
Sound had come around
But Charlie kept his silence
In these Modern Times

All About Eve
Margot was the star
Eve came and stole it away
Twas a bumpy ride

Singin' in the Rain
Lockwood and Lamont
One was great, the other not
Cosmo made 'em laugh

The Soviets came
Disliked U.S. decadence 
Oh then Garbo laughed

The Wizard of Oz
First to Munchkinland
Then off to see the Wizard
In between, witch dies

The African Queen
Bogie and Hepburn
She's a prude, he drinks a lot
Won him the Oscar

Rio Bravo
Hawksian Western
Dino, Ricky and The Duke
It is what they've got

The above ten haiku will count as my official entry in the contest, but this will not (by a long shot) be my last blog post under the banner of Hollywood Haiku.  This "Classic Edition" will be followed by a "Foreign Edition" and (of course - as anyone who knows me can attest to its placement here) a "Tarantino Edition".   After these initial entries you will see entries with such (obvious) themes as "Film Noir", "Revisionist Western", "Gangster Movies" and "Musicals", as well as more specific themes such as "Star Wars", "Howard Hawks", "Powell & Pressburger" and (of course) more of the "Tarantino Edition".  Basically what I am saying is you will see a lot more of these Hollywood Haiku coming down the line (this will either thrill you or annoy you, depending on your outlook on certain things).  Each edition will consist of ten (or so) haiku and they will (probably) come at a rate of about 2 or 3 per month. 

But before I go, I would like to add two more haiku to this entry.  They are both written by my lovely and talented wife, Jeanette Amy Trout - which pretty much means they are about a billion times better than mine.  If the fine folks over at Best For Film want to accept these as official entries they most certainly can (she deserves poetic accolades much more than I do).  If they do not, then that is their loss.  Whatever the case, here they are.

The Wizard of Oz
Dreamer Dorothy
Gale twists from Kansas to Oz
Unmasks Wizard's scam

Jean-Paul's thumb chafes lip
While watching sweet Jean's hips twitch
Jilts the death of him

The second one (on a film my wife just recently saw for the first time and immediately fell in complete and utter love with) is my favourite.  If only I could write a haiku even a fraction as good as this...but alas.  I want to thank my wife for her contributions (even if they make mine pale in comparison) and welcome her to write as many more as she wants (for the aforementioned future Hollywood Haiku blog posts).  'nuff said.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
Lebanon, Pa.

I met the filmmaker of Lebanon, Pa. when the film played at Midtown Cinema and I feel kind bad giving it (at best) a fair to middling review.  Okay, I don't really feel all that bad - I was just trying to get some humanity points (which of course means that anyone who knows me is laughing right about now).  I am a critic.  This is what I do dammit.  Anyway, this fair to middling review is up and running over at The Cinematheque.  Go over and check it out (as the kids are saying these days).

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Pyaasa (1957)

Pyaasa is #583 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/14/11 on DVD

Ranked #420 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).


Its title can be translated as "eternal thirst" and this translation says everything you need to know about the movie.  Nonetheless, I suppose I should say a few more things about it anyway.  After all, it is  considered one of the greatest Indian films ever made (personally making my top three along with the obvious Pather Panchali and the oft-overlooked The Cloud-Capped Star).

Pyaasa is the tragic love story of a down-and-out poet and a prostitute.  Guru Dutt, director and lead, is one of the most lyrical directors of all-time and it shows most of all in this, his masterpiece.  When Time Magazine named it one of the 100 Best Films of All-Time, they called it "soulfully romantic" and they got it just right.  Dutt shows both extreme desire and utter despair in one swell swoop of his camera.  Even the songs in the movie (and yes, it is India so there must be singing and dancing) range from giddy to melancholy.  Of course this being an Indian film (and one directed by the tragic Mr. Dutt) the despair greatly outweighs the rest of the film.  As tragic as the story is, the beauty of what Dutt is trying to say comes through in a manner that is almost heavenly.  In the uniquely romantic-tragic way directors such as Rene Clair or Mikio Naruse before him or Lars von Trier after him have accomplished, Dutt's Pyaasa, much more than his earlier films, makes it a cinematic reality in the film's inherent pulchritude.

The real tragedy though, comes not in his films, but in the director's own life.  After making only eight films as a director (more as an actor) Dutt was found dead in his apartment one day in 1964.  The director was just thirty-nine years old.  The most viable story (he was mixing drugs and alcohol) is that Dutt committed suicide, but the director's family claims it was an accidental overdose.  The fact that he had two previous suicide attempts makes one take one story's side over the other.  Whatever the case, Dutt became an even more tragic figure than the one's he portrayed on film.  And the reason for this tragic finale (one that seemed to echo the ideas of his films) has a connection of sorts to Pyaasa.

Having recently separated from his wife Geeta Dutt (her voice can be heard singing in many Indian classics, including Pyaasa) and having an affair with his Pyaasa costar (as well as the star of his final film, 1959's Kaagaz Ke Phool), the ravishing Waheeda Rehman (who incidentally is remarkable as the prostitute in the movie - giving the character a certain sense of longing and desperation while also making her a strong female character) Dutt's life was in an upheaval at the time.  Of course this is all mere speculation (though a seemingly educated kind of speculation) and it is what is in his films that really matters here - even if, as with any great artist, that cinematic life is invariably entangled with the so-called real life.

As far as the film itself goes, as I have already made mention of, it is a thing of beauty - both visually and psychologically.  An artist at his bravest yet also at his most tender in many ways.  I have yet to watch the Indian auteur's final film, the aforementioned Kaagaz Ke Phool (a widescreen disaster at the time - which most likely added to his already morbid state of mind those last few years - but posthumously heralded as a masterpiece) so I cannot compare Pyaasa to it.  All I can say right now is that Pyaasa is the best of Dutt's sadly-truncated oeuvre (and even after seeing his last film, it can only drop to second best) and what a shame (as one must inevitably claim) his life and art were cut so tragically short.