Monday, September 23, 2013

Running To A Standstill

Abdelhamid Nawara in Die Welt

Die Welt (2013, directed by Alex Pitstra) starts out with an absolutely savage critique of American cultural imperialism. In this scene, a man asks the clerk at a Tunisian DVD shop to sell him a copy of Transformers 2 only to receive a tirade about the meaning of the images in that film, about how they disrespect both the customer and Arabs in general, about how the forces of the Middle East aren't up to the challenge of evil robots, but the Americans are. This scene is hilarious, pointed, and absolutely futile, even for Abdallah, the clerk, who the film follows through pre- and post-revolution Tunisia chasing dreams of escape. It's the film in microcosm.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Gentle Reminder

October Horror Movie Challenge Banner Thing version

The October Horror Movie Challenge starts in a little over a week. I hope all you boys and ghouls have lined up a fabulous slate of movies to watch. I'll be busting out my corsets and black latex hobble dress and getting into my horror hostess goth girl persona for the month. Let me know in the comments if you're blogging the challenge and, especially, if you're doing the challenge for charity. I'll be watching movies for the MS Society this year at a rate of fifty cents for every movie I watch. In past years, I've given more, but things are tough all over right now. Be that as it may, if any of my readers (hah!) would like to pledge some amount of money to the MS Society for every movie I watch, that would rock (let me know if you do, and I'll keep a running tally, Jerry's Kids-style). No obligation, though. The Challenge is first and foremost intended to be fun.

Also, feel free to join the Challenge on Facebook or at the the IMDB's horror board. Lots of good folks doing the challenge in both places.

For myself, I have no idea of what I'm going to watch yet. Some films I want to see are these, though, if I have the opportunity:

In any event, ladies and gents, prepare to start your screaming...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Family That Plays Together...

Robert De Niro in The Family

Making a "one from column A" movie is a lot like improvisational cooking: you throw flavors into the mix in the hopes that they'll complement one another. A good cook knows that chocolate and peanut butter go together. Throwing together flavors that don't complement each other? That's a recipe for disaster. A famous example of this is Stephen Bochco's notorious TV flop, Cop Rock, which tried to fuse his Hill Street Blues/N.Y.P.D. Blue with musical numbers. Man, that didn't work at all. Most of these kinds of experiments aren't nearly so radical. The Family (2013, directed by Luc Besson), for instance, slides easily into the category of the mob comedy--itself a hybrid, but a road-tested one--and adds a dash of Twain's Innocents Abroad. It's an uneasy mix, but it's not so radical that it will put an audience off its lunch. It doesn't necessarily add up, though.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Haves and Have-Nots

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

At the end of Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine (2013), my moviegoing companion turned to me and said: "Wow. That was totally Streetcar." She's right, of course. Blue Jasmine is consciously updating A Streetcar Named Desire for the Great Recession, but that's not all it has on its mind. It's just the framework. This is yet another portrait of the wreckage of late capitalism, seen this time from the point of view of the mighty who have fallen. It's a steep drop from the top of the world.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

High and Low

Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux in L'enfant d'en haut (Sister)

L'enfant d'en haut (aka: Sister, 2012, directed by Ursula Meier) is the first film that the great cinematographer, Agnes Godard, has shot with a digital camera. I wonder if this is a film that could have been shot digitally before this year or last, because the main drawback of digital has been the dynamic range of the image. This is a film that goes from a physical (and metaphorical) darkness to the blinding white of snowy ski slopes and back with regularity. I can imagine Godard pulling her hair out trying to get her camera to do what she wants. Part of her solution was a careful focus on the film's characters, shot mostly in intimate close-up whenever the landscape threatens to intrude. This is a film set in a spectacular landscape that resolutely ignores that landscape. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Godard tells how she wanted to avoid shooting postcards (and how difficult that is in this film's setting). They don't serve the story, she says. She's wrong about that, but she's such an intuitive artist that her approach manages to integrate the landscape with the story in a way a cinematographer more cowed by the visuals of her surroundings might not. In any event, this is an intimate film.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Ashtray of Time

Tony Leung in The Grandmaster

The Weinsteins have a long and ignominious history of cutting the foreign films they acquire--particularly the ones from Asia--and it's sometimes difficult to divorce the film as presented to an American audience from the film that the filmmakers actually made. The ending--and some might say, the point--of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II was excised wholesale back in the bad old days of Miram-ax, but even highbrow arthouse auteurs are not immune. Zhang Yimou's Hero is subtly different in its American incarnation than it is in its original Chinese version. Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster (2013) has the misfortune of falling victims to the Weinsteins, and given the film's very real problems with its continuity and its habit of eliding huge gulps of exposition with title cards, one has to wonder to what extent the film on the screen is what Wong intended or what he has negotiated with Harvey Weinstein. This question is compounded by the film's international history, in which Wong himself has submitted variant cuts from territory to territory. One of those versions is rumored to be four hours long. The film's provenance makes the task of assigning blame very difficult, because what was on the screen when I finally saw it was a mess.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Vocal Opposition

Lake Bell in In A World...

Some years ago, I saw a performance art piece by genderqueer theorist Kate Bornstein in which she recounted her experience with vocal therapy for transsexuals. The therapist she had gone to kept urging her to raise her voice: "Like this?" "Higher!" "Like THIS?" "Higher!" "Well, I don't want to talk like that." The "like that" was what you might call the squeaky toy voice. Bornstein eventually developed a voice based on listening to Laurie Anderson albums, and that seems a more laudable and realistic a goal. Thinking of all the great female voices, I gravitate to people like Lauren Bacall, Joan Greenwood, Sally Kellerman, and Kathleen Turner. No squeaky toys. This and more was all rattling around my brain as I walked to my car after seeing In A World... (2013, directed by Lake Bell). Writer/director/star Lake Bell doesn't like the squeaky toy voice either, and her movie underlines--gently--the disturbing assumptions behind its currency in our culture. In A a comedy--a good one, I think--but it's also an excursion into feminist sociology.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

From A to B

Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Eve Arden in Stage Door

I've owned a copy of Stage Door (1937, directed by Gregory La Cava) for years. I have it as part of the old Warner Brothers Classic Comedy box, which I originally bought for cheap and for the other movies. I was also laboring under the misapprehension that I've seen Stage Door before, which turns out to be not the case (I was mistaking it for another movie entirely). It's the sort of movie that I might have watched with my mom when I was younger. She loved this kind of stuff, and she loved Katharine Hepburn. I've been reordering my DVD shelves this weekend and I decided to watch it when I was reshuffling my box sets. It was a genuine surprise.