Screening Log: May 15th-31st, 2012 – Films #146-166

All grades are entirely arbitrary, and represent my own personal response and investment level, not a critical assessment.

146. The Big Clock (1948, Farrow): B+

147. Thieves Highway (1949, Dassin): B+

148. The Shanghai Gesture (1941, von Sternberg): C+

149. Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944, Eisenstein): B+/B

150. The Dark Mirror (1946, Siodmak): B-

151. The Ghost Ship (1943, Robson): B-

152. Foreign Correspondent (1940, Hitchcock)

153. Stray Dog (1949, Kurosawa): B/ B-

154. Oliver Twist (1948, Lean): B+/B

155. The Small Back Room (1949, Powell/Pressburger): B/B-

156. Henry V (1944, Olivier): C/C-

157. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945, Siodmak): B

158. Crossfire (1947, Dmytryk): B+

159. Germany Year Zero (1948, Rossellini): A

160. The Big Heat (1953, Lang): B+

161. Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946/1958, Eisenstein): B+

162. Journey to Italy (1954, Rossellini): B+

163. Take This Waltz (2012, Polley): B+

164. Los Olvidados (1950, Buñuel): A/A-

165. Animal Farm (1954, Halas & Bachelor): C+

165. Ordet (1955, Dreyer): A

166. Polisse (2012, Maiwenn): B



Potential Double Feature #2: What About Bob? (1991) and In & Out (1997)

Sorry folks for the non-presence lately. I’ve been getting a lot of hours at my interim summer job. But my plans are to get those final two Irrational Hatred Towards Film Characters installments up and to do a quick rundown of the highlights from my favorite 1940’s films from the 43 seen for my decade viewing ritual. Hopefully an actual review will sprout up in the coming weeks as well.

While my first pair of films are not among my very favorites, these two are. What About Bob? and In & Out have been in my life for a very long time. Viewings (both passive and active) for each total in the hundreds. They are two of my all-time favorite comedies.

What About Bob? (1991)
IMDB Summary: A successful psychiatrist loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, a highly manipulative obsessive-compulsive, tracks him down during his family vacation.

A comedy with accessible dark streaks, What About Bob? features what In consider to be Bill Murray’s best comedic performance. He takes a break from his wise-ass routine to dole out a manipulative and dependent childlike basket case who genuinely wants to belong. Bob Wiley never feels like a schtick; we immediately buy him as a character. Murray gives Bob such a genuinely endearing quality that we can’t help but love the relentlessly pestering fella. The same cannot quite be said for Richard Dreyfuss as Dr. Leo Marvin, who has some killer line deliveries in what starts out as an arrogant caricatured psychiatrist, and what ends with a bit too much one-note frenzy.

What makes the wider arc of the film is the way Marvin’s family and the audience are sucked into Bob’s seemingly dysfunctional worldview. Towards the end, the way he sees and handles life gradually make sense to us. His 100% commitment to Leo’s dismissive “Take a Vacation From Your Problems” advice seems like a healthy life choice because it works for Bob.  As Marvin unspools, Bob becomes more firmly and permanently placed in the hearts of the Marvin family. Bob may have his fair share of mental problems, but they stem from his debilitating fear of the world around him, not from an inadequacy found in Bob’s comfort with himself. The role-reversal that takes place is somewhat ingenious as Bob is cherished by the Marvin’s while Leo slips into a lapse of insanity.

In & Out (1997)
IMDB Summary: A midwestern teacher questions his sexuality after a former student makes a comment about him at the Academy Awards.

Paul Rudnick, playwright and screenwriter of such films as Addams Family Values and Jeffrey (based on his play), sweetly satirizes gay intolerance and lampoons celebrity in what is one of the more underrated comedies of any decade. Kline’s Howard Brackett desperately tries to hold onto his ordered life as he approaches his impossibly overdue marriage to Joan Cusack’s Emily (one of the fewer comedic performances to be nominated for an Oscar). When former student Cameron Drake (played perfectly by Matt Dillon) wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier. and cites his gay teacher as inspiration, he outs a man who isn’t out to anyone including himself. What follows is a jaunty journey of identity chaos that pokes fun at small-town scandal and the absurdity of homosexual prejudice. It may seem safe, but for an industry still almost entirely unwilling to tell mainstream homosexual stories, a mainstream comedy (written by a gay man no less) taking on the subject 15 years ago remains impressive.

Watching Them Together:

The first obvious connection between the two films is that they were both directed by Frank Oz. If I had seen these films for the first time as an adult, I would probably have wished for the two to be edgier and to push themselves a bit more in both tone and risk. As it stands, Oz presents them under a very accessible but zany tentpole.

Our protagonists are in a way, opposites. Bob Wiley may suffer from crippling anxiety, but at heart he seems at ease with himself as a personality. He just wants to learn how to function with some normalcy in the real world. Howard Brackett is perfectly at ease with the small-town environment that surrounds him, but his repression as well as Drake’s comment results in an identity crisis that throws his entire universe completely out of whack. He uses denial so order can be maintained and shields himself from the townspeople, who collectively have had their world shaken by what should be, in a reasonable universe, an important private epiphany and a public non-event.

In some ways, the last-ditch efforts to maintain order aligns Howard Brackett with Leo Marvin. Each has their world just so; Howard uses denial as a cushion for his safe and neutered future life with Emily, and Leo with the dictatorial no-fun zone atmosphere he inflicts on his family. The difference is that Howard is our protagonist and Leo our antagonist. Cameron Drake upsets Howard’s order and Bob upsets Leo’s.

The two musical scores, by Miles Goodman and Marc Shaiman respectively, are very prominent and constant, each tracking the progression of manic outbursts and realizations.

Towards the end, I will admit that each make a misstep despite these being two of my favorite films. As What About Bob? turns its focus entirely to Dreyfuss in its final scenes, it loses something without Murray properly buoying it. The very end feels far too patched up for my taste, and I wish it had the audacity to follow through and commit to a darker ending. In & Out employs that cliched climax of the in-the-nick-of-time resolution in front of a big crowd. The scene is moving and the circumstances make the situation more realistic than most of its kind, but it goes on for far too long and its execution is too saccharine. But as the end credits roll as the cast joyously dances to “YMCA”, all is forgiven.

Did I mention that each film has brilliant dialogue exchanges and top-notch comedic acting? Kevin Kline may not be dealing with the in-your-face pathos of Otto West, but I would argue his work here is on par with his Oscar-winning A Fish Called Wanda role. The Glenn Close cameo as well as the Oscar clip reel from Cameron Drake’s award-winning performance in To Serve and Protect has made me scream and cry with laughter more times than I could count. Tom Selleck is delightful in an unorthodox supporting role and Joan Cusack and Matt Dillon, as I said before, are tops. In What About Bob? there are certain scenes that remain classics including Bob and Leo’s Good Morning America appearance, Leo and daughter Anna speaking with their representative puppets, Bob and son Sigmund goofing off at night, etc. And so many exchanges between Bob and Leo that are pitch-perfect in line delivery, not least including:

Dr. Leo Marvin: Are you married?
Bob Wiley: I’m divorced.
Dr. Leo Marvin: Would you like to talk about that?
Bob Wiley: There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.
Dr. Leo Marvin: [pause] I see. So, what you’re saying is that even though you are an almost-paralyzed, multiphobic personality who is in a constant state of panic, your wife did not leave you, you left her because she… liked Neil Diamond?

This double feature choice takes on a more personal tack. I’m pretty picky when it comes to comedies. Most of the films that have been in my life since adolescence are comedies and they are the films I am familiar with more than any others. This is because these are the types of films I had seen enough times to comfortably put on in the background on a daily basis in my teens into what is now my mid-twenties. Nowadays I drift towards darker fare, and comedies that stick still come along in the future, but not very often. Films like these two, Bringing Up Baby, Clue, Dumb and Dumber, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and many others ultimately hold a singular place within my personal canon and my vast love for the medium.

Potential Double Feature #1: Kongo (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Welcome to a new summer feature. My biweekly plan is to come up with a suitable potential double feature. I will briefly talk about each film and then discuss why I paired them (i.e similarities and differences) and why I think they would work well back-to-back. I hope that more often than not I can actually carry out each double feature before writing about them. This one I had not, but I watched The Shanghai Gesture for the first time a couple of days ago and Kongo kept coming to my head.

First up is Kongo from 1932 and The Shanghai Gesture from 1941.

Kongo (1932):

IMDB Summary: From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.

A Pre-Code of epic debauchery, Kongo is a sweaty, grimy and dirty remake of West of Zanzibar. It goes about as far as I have ever seen Pre-Code go as far as subject matter and the frankness with which it displays its content. The entire thing reeks of the seething hatred that Walter Huston’s ‘Deadlegs’ Flint feels as he tries to exact revenge on the man who wronged him. It’s a stiff and stagy experience, but also a uniquely uncomfortable one. Everything can be found here; stereotypical superstitious natives, Flint’s greased-up lover with possibly the tightest costume in film history, a drug-addicted schizophrenic doctor who also happens to be the romantic lead, a flash of Virginia Bruce’s boob and oh so much more.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941):

IMDB Summary: A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by “Mother” Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year.

Josef von Sternberg’s last significant release is a reliably self-aware melodramatic gala packed with camp, crowds, celebration and of course, soft focus. Leisurely and meandering, it follows a group of top-to-bottom amoral persons who have found themselves in the anything-goes world of Shanghai, and even more specifically, in the grips of a big-time casino and its owner Mother Gin Sling. Gin Sling is played by non-Asian Ona Munson, decked out in nutty hair, makeup, and hints of Mae West-like delivery. The casino is art-deco hypnotism, a grandeur vision of decorative repetition. The last half hour is an over-the-top feast of twists and camp absurdity, which takes place during an elaborate Chinese dinner party.

Watching them together:

Neither film is among my favorites, but each demand to be seen as they are special oddities that time should not forget.

Both are based on plays; where Kongo was able to keep most of its risqué material, The Shanghai Gesture was neutered by censorship in many ways. The brothel of the play was changed to a gambling casino. Mother Goddamn was changed to Mother Gin Sling. Instead of Poppy becoming addicted to drugs, as the name suggests, she becomes addicted to gambling (though she still seems to be on drugs in the latter half of the film, but this could just be Tierney’s performance). Even though the latter was slashed and altered, it remains a surprisingly bleak filled with surprisingly provocative content. At least Kongo has a couple of half-decent human beings; in The Shanghai Gesture, everyone is grotesque in character.

Revenge is the primary motivator in each film. ‘Deadlegs’ Flint and Mother Gin Sling exact their revenge because of incidents that took place decades beforehand. Their method of revenge is exactly the same; to corrupt the wrongdoer’s daughter. In Kongo, Deadlegs has his enemy’s daughter, who he has custody of, brought to him after growing up in a convent. He proceeds to make her life such a living hell, in the form of implied forced prostitution, that she is a desperate alcoholic completely dependent on him for her fix. In The Shanghai Gesture, Mother Gin Sling carries out her revenge by loaning out massive amounts of money to Poppy, daughter of his enemy, so that she can reduce an adventure-seeking woman to a ruin via a gambling addiction, also completely dependent on her for her fix.

Both films jarringly depict the passage of time. Virginia Bruce’s Ann is in one scene a wholesome girl and in the next the complete opposite; a mere shadow of how we just saw her. Gene Tierney’s Poppy is in one scene a naïve but independent woman full of the desire for experience and in the next, a disheveled shrieking hussy, a dependent paranoiac who just wants more money and the grossly unappealing (both in looks and character) Victor Mature all to herself.

Virginia Bruce is unhinged, turning in one of the best ever Pre-Code performances. Gene Tierney is not quite successful; what starts out solid turns into a triumphantly ambitious failure. Poppy’s downfall is awesomely overplayed to the hilt in the weirdest of ways; but it is impossible to complain when it fits the film’s overall tone and adds to the viewing experience.

Did I mention Walter Huston stars in both films? In Kongo, he revives the role of ‘Deadlegs’ which he originated in the play’s original run. In The Shanghai Gesture, he plays Sir Guy, the fellow who did Madame Gin Sling wrong all those years ago.

Both films feature final-act twists of the same nature. They both take place in one exotic location. They both humanization the revenge go-getters. In Kongo it is entirely unearned and a real deal breaker because with that humanization it misguidedly seeks redemption. In The Shanghai Gesture it is more successful because it’s earned and is careful not to overstep its bounds.

Neither film is particularly great but each is more than worth its weight in excessive transgression. Where Kongo is dripping with jungle-set depravity, The Shanghai Gesture does the same with trademark Sternberg decadence.

Poll: 1950’s Film Recommendations

In about 5 days I’ll be leaving the 1940’s and entering the 1950’s. This clearly means I’ll be looking for some film recommendations! I already have a list that I’ve made to work off of. Problem is, as always, it is far too long to feasibly work my way through. So I’ll need help narrowing down which films I should make a point not to miss. I will admit there are a handful of these I have as absolutes already. But I still want an idea of what I simply ‘must’ see out of these.

I am also taking recommendations not on this list, which can be done in the comments section or in the space for ‘Other’. If it is not on this list, there is a chance I have seen it. Even so, please comment with other picks! For a reference point, I’ve seen around 150 films from the 1950’s altogether.

Be sure to comment and/or participate in the poll! There’s so much to see but I can only stay with this decade for roughly a month!

Screening Log: May 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #124-145

All grades are ultimately arbitrary and representative of ‘gut feeling’ subjective responses.

124. The More the Merrier (1943, Stevens): A-

125. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Deren & Hammid): B+

126. Paul Williams Still Alive (2012, Kessler): B-

127. Damsels in Distress (2012, Stillman): C+

128. The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield): B+/B

129. On the Town (1949, Donen & Kelly)
: B/B-

130. Odd Man Out (1947, Reed): B+

131. The Red House (1947, Daves): B/B-

132. The Avengers (2012, Whedon): B+

133. Night Train to Munich (1940, Reed): B-

134. A Canterbury Tale (1944, Powell & Pressburger): A-/B+

135. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, Dieterle): B+

136. Beauty is Embarrassing (2012, Berkeley): B

137. Spring in a Small Town (1948, Fei): B+/B

138. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947, McLeod): C+/C

139. This is Not a Film (2012, Panahi & Mirtahmasb): A

140. The Kid with a Bike (2012, Dardenne Brothers): A

141. The Set-Up (1949, Wise): B+

142. They Live By Night (1949, Ray): B+

143. Shoeshine (1946, De Sica): A

144. Brighton Rock (1948, Boulting): A

145. Lured (1947, Sirk)
: A-/B+



Review: This Is Not a Film (2012, Panahi & Mirtahmasb)

Posted on CriterionCast May 13th, 2012

I am unreservedly ashamed to admit I have never seen a Jafar Panahi film. The seminal Iranian filmmaker, whose work which includes Crimson Gold, The Circle and Offside, is familiar to me in name only. But you do not have to have seen anything by Panahi to feel the staggering act of defiance that this non-film represents.

It also serves as a treatise on the stifling state of Iranian cinema where talent is certainly in abundance (case in point; A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Foreign Language Oscar). The Culture Ministry’s recent decision to disband the House of Cinema, the only domestic independent film organization, has been a critical obstruction to the already censorship-ridden national cinema. Painstakingly constructed subversiveness is no longer an option for Jafar Panahi. The 51-year old Iranian filmmaker has been handed a 6-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, leaving the country or giving press interviews of any kind.

This Is Not a Film, shot by Panahi’s documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, seemingly takes place over one day, although it was shot and edited over ten days. Panahi and Mirtahmasb clearly have some idea of what they wanted to be contained within, although how much of that was discussed we do not know.

The finished self-described ‘effort’ shows Mirtahmasb coming over to film Panahi, who is under house arrest and has been waiting for the verdict from the court appeal of his sentence. Mirtahmasb expresses how important it is to document Panahi’s struggle. Mirtahmasb’s presence slyly exonerates Panahi from formally directing. If he is merely in front of the camera, in his natural state, he is breaking none of the bans placed on him.

There is a structure to This Is Not a Film. We start with Panahi and the camera, which Mirtahmasb left with him and told him to keep on. He eats his breakfast seeming somewhat awkwardly aware of the camera’s presence. He speaks with his lawyer on the phone. Then Mirtahmasb comes over. Neither knows what the end goal of this ban-dodging experiment is or should be. This uncertainty is what lends the non-film its structure.

Panahi’s thought-process launches an intellectual and emotional journey beset with rumination. He spends much of the film working through his recent rejected screenplay, trying his best, with descriptive mise-en-scene and masking tape, to paint any semblance of the picture he meant to one day create. To see this is to see an artist at work; it is heartbreaking to witness the man’s crystal-clear filmic map merely described, and his and our simultaneous understanding that it will never come to life.

Describing the story and its blocking does bring it to a sort of half-life in this film, and its seemingly meek half-existence is a courageous statement within the larger courageous statement that is this ‘film’. Panahi eventually stops, overcome by the apparent pointlessness of trying to create something in an unnatural fashion. He goes through clips of a couple of his previous films, frustrated by what actual production brings and what he no longer can do through paltry reenactments. He wistfully speaks of the unpredictable nature of working with actors, how the act of filming captures something that cannot be planned, blocked or staged. Showing clips from his previous films incorporate his works into a new artistic context, and is another way Panahi exercises as much control as he can over a situation he has no control of.

We see Panahi taking pictures and videos with his iPhone (because surely he can make use of the phone’s video features), on the day of Fireworks Wednesday, signifying the Persian New Year’s. He ponders aloud, goes online where most websites are restricted, watches the news, and looks outside. A neighbor comes by and asks him to temporarily watch her yelping dog Micky. His companion throughout is his pet iguana Igi who languidly slurps around.

There is constant fascination by the film’s very existence and its contents. At times it became surreal that I was actually sitting in a theater and seeing this complete with trailers and ads. Hell, there was even a spot for the new ABC Family show “Bunheads” before the film started. That this made its way into a theater that was accessible to me and everyone in the surrounding area goes beyond words.

Throughout, the sense of restlessness that we can only imagine he experiences minute-by-minute is forced upon us. There is also a simultaneous transmission of suffocation. We cannot imagine what he is going through, but this effort gives us a sad and bitter taste of his claustrophobic experience. Is it a coincidence that Buried, the story of a man helplessly and powerlessly encased in the ground, is the most visible DVD on display?

The immediate affinity that we feel for Panahi somehow heightens this already heartbreaking human rights issue. He comes off as kind, mild, realistic and emotionally beaten down by his circumstances (though this work’s existence proves him as anything but). We immediately care for him, beyond the empathy inherent in the situation.

The spontaneous final scene and image is something to behold.  I will let you discover it on your own.

There is so much to think about and unpack in This Is Not a Film, and hopefully these initial thoughts do some basic pondering. This may be the last participating effort from a director whose voice has been irrevocably muffled. It represents the concrete fact of creative expression being snuffed out. To say this film should be seen is an understatement; it must be seen. This statement has been made many times in relation to this film but I make it again; if you care about cinema, about the right we have to tell stories and why we tell them, and about human rights, you must seek out This Is Not a Film.

List: Top 30 Summer Films to See (May-August)

This is a list of the 30 films I most look forward to seeing. As far as I can tell, all of these films are set for summer releases. I’m sure more release dates will be announced throughout the months. The ones I am eagerly awaiting to get release dates are Shut Up and Play the Hits and Alps. Both have distribution, with LCD Soundsystem’s final concert show doc acquired by the late great Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories.

There are several films on this list that I have already seen due to IFFBoston. I included them where I would have placed them before seeing them. Those will be bolded. I’m feeling pretty passionate about these 30 films as a whole. After the 30, I have a massive list of films that are on my to-see list and it should be kept in mind that they range from films I really want to see (Farewell, My Queen, Lovely Molly and Whores’ Glory. The latter would be on the list if I weren’t too lazy to shuffle it around) to films like Men in Black III (for Josh Brolin) and Dark Shadows (Burton completist) which I am largely unenthusiastic about but would still see at some point.

What films are you most looking forward to this summer?

First, an honorable mention:
G.I Joe: Retaliation. Why you ask? That looks positively idiotic. Well, first because the trailer makes it look like some honest-to-goodness fun. But really truly my reason boils down to this:

If you can deny the sexiness of Lee Byung-hun then I put forth that you are soulless. The promise of shirtless Lee Byung-hun is enough to get me to pay and see this.

30. Marvel’s The Avengers
Kicking off with a film I and the rest of the world have seen, this was at the top of most lists of this kind. I was looking forward to The Avengers, but as a Joss Whedon fan, not as a Marvel fan. I’m not a superhero film person or at least, I’m a tough sell in most cases. Thankfully, I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers, more so than most films in this genre.

29. Untouchable (aka Intouchable)
Summary: After he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident, an aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caretaker.

Reasons: It is hard to overstate the cultural phenomenon this film has been in France. It is the second most successful of all time at the French box office. Looks like a hearty crowdpleaser and it has Francois Cluzet, one of my favorite French actors. Color me curious.

28. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Summary: A documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Reasons: I know nothing about Abramovic outside of having heard of her and knowing of her importance. So this seems like a great opportunity to get some insight into her and her work.

27. Compliance
Summary: When a prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager to interrogate an innocent young employee, no-one is left unharmed. Based on true events.

Reasons: The most controversial and divisive film at Sundance. Reason enough for me.

26. 2 Days in New York
Summary: Marion (Delpy) has broken up with Jack (Two Days in Paris) and now lives in New York with their child. But when her family decides to come visit her, she’s unaware that the different cultural background held by her new American boyfriend Mingus (Rock), her eccentric father, and her sister Rose who decided to bring her ex-boyfriend along for the trip, added to her upcoming photo exhibition, will make up for an explosive mix.

Reasons: Saw this at IFFBoston (embargo prevented review), but this would have been placed here because of Julie Delpy’s directing/acting/writing involvement.

25. Sleepwalk with Me
Summary: A burgeoning stand-up comedian struggles with the stress of a stalled career, a stale relationship, and the wild spurts of severe sleepwalking he is desperate to ignore.

Reasons: Really strong response everywhere it has played, starting with Sundance at the beginning of the year.

24. Kumare
Summary: A documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples and unveil his greatest teaching of all.

Reasons: A doc about deception on a mass scale. Acquired by Kino Lorber. Interested to see what kind of perspective it takes.

23. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Summary: Faced with her father’s fading health and environmental changes that release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy leaves her Delta-community home in search of her mother.

Reasons: The film that took this year’s Sundance by storm. Haven’t seen the trailer in my newly implemented effort to abstain from most trailers but the buzz surrounding it is more than enough to pique my interest.

22. Snow White and the Huntsman
Summary: In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed winds up becoming her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen.

Reasons: As if we need more takes on fairy tales. However! This one actually looks entertaining even if it is preposterous that Theron would not be the fairest of them all against Kristen Stewart. Most people mean this as a knock on Stewart, but I don’t. Don’t get me started on the nonsense insults heaped onto her. It’s a testament to Theron. My main two reasons are: 1. Charlize Theron who looks like she is chewing some delicious scenery. 2. Look at some of the cast list for the dwarves: Ian McShane (!), Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost. Case closed.

21. Collaborator
Summary: A playwright whose marriage and career are in a free fall has an explosive run-in with his former neighbor, a right-wing ex-con.

Reasons: Olivia Williams in a starring role = I’m there. Martin Donovan’s first directorial effort.

20. The Loved Ones
Summary: When Brent turns down his classmate Lola’s invitation to the prom, she concocts a wildly violent plan for revenge.

Reasons: Ever since this Australian horror film was released back in 2009, I have been hearing about it. This will be the first time I will actually get to see this oft-talked about work. It is finally being released in the US.

19. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Summary: AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY is the first feature-length film about the internationally renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei. In recent years, Ai has garnered international attention as much for his ambitious artwork as his political provocations. AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY examines this complex intersection of artistic practice and social activism as seen through the life and art of China’s preeminent contemporary artist.

Reasons: This doc, like many on this list, has been getting a lot of attention and I’ve been hearing about it for a while now. I think its pretty obvious that this sounds completely fascinating.

18. The Queen of Versailles
Summary: A documentary that follows a billionaire couple who live in a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles, built on the success of the time-share industry.

Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston. You may ask yourself why you should care about these people, but the film allows you to feel disgust and empathy without compromising itself. I had wanted to see it since the buzz surrounding it started and I can tell you it is well worth seeking out.

17. Pink Ribbons, Inc.
Summary: Breast cancer has become the poster child of corporate cause-related marketing campaigns. Countless women and men walk, bike, climb and shop for the cure. Each year, millions of dollars are raised in the name of breast cancer, but where does this money go and what does it actually achieve?

Reasons: Another doc that looks like it is asking some imperative questions and is able to come up with some telling information. I cannot wait for this.

16. Lawless
Summary: Set in the Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, a bootlegging gang is threatened by authorities who want a cut of their profits.

Reasons: I expected this to be a lot higher, especially considering this was directed by none other than John Hillcoat and boasts a screenplay and music by Nick Cave. And take a look at that sick cast. The last time these two teamed up we received the gritty existential western gift that is The Proposition. I have high expectations for this, but I admit that the trailer (which in hindsight I should not have watched), presented a more conventional looking film. I keep in mind though that the business of trailers is to make things look conventional. The one thing that really stuck out to me was Guy Pearce who looks creepily searing. I’m still highly anticipating this. The Proposition is one of my favorite films.

15. Polisse
Summary: A journalist covering police assigned to a juvenile division enters an affair with one of her subjects.

Reasons: Been waiting for this since it premiered at last year’s Cannes, precisely one year ago. Word has been strong. Oh and it has the beauteous Nicholas Duvauchelle.

14. Beyond the Black Rainbow
Summary: Despite being under heavy sedation, Elena tries to make her way out of Arboria, a secluded, quasi-futuristic commune.

Reasons: Seeming to blatantly and proudly take from Cronenberg, Kubrick and an endless amalgam of mind-bending influences, this seems crafted with cult status in mind, which tends to make me weary. But I cannot deny this looks awesome and I cannot wait to see if it can deliver and earn the status it desperately wants.

13. Searching for Sugar Man
Summary: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock ‘n’ roller, Rodriguez.

Reasons: Like the majority of the films on this list, there’s been a lot of strong buzz surrounding this one. I don’t know what else to say besides it shooting up to the top of my to-see list since reading about it.

12. I Wish
Summary: 12-year-old Koichi, who has been separated from his brother Ryunosuke due to his parents’ divorce, begins to believe that the new bullet train service will create a miracle when the first trains pass each other at top speed.

Reasons: New Hirokazu Koreeda. Need I say more?

11. The Dark Knight Rises
Summary: Eight years after Batman took the fall for Two Face’s crimes, a new terrorist leader, Bane, overwhelms Gotham’s finest, and the Dark Knight resurfaces to protect a city that has branded him an enemy.

Reasons: I don’t really need reasons here. This is clearly the most anticipated film of the summer along with one or two more on this list. Admittedly, Nolan’s Batman work is my least favorite stuff of his and I merely like The Dark Knight. The last third left a bitterly dismal taste in my mouth that I’ve never been able to wash out. But I trust in Nolan; its obvious he’s remarkable at what he does and we can justifiably expect a lot from him. But I’m still not sold on Hathaway.

10. Indie Game: The Movie
Summary: Follows the dramatic journeys of indie game developers as they create games and release those works, and themselves, to the world.

Reasons: Talk about this has been really prominent (don’t you love my original reasons?) and to get an inside look at what it takes to be working on the fringes of this industry is sure to be rewarding on multiple levels.

9. The Invisible War
Summary: An investigative and powerfully emotional documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military, the institutions that perpetuate and cover up its existence, and its profound personal and social consequences.

Reasons: A topic that makes for essential viewing, this is a problem that needs to be brought to the forefront of conversations. Hopefully this film will help this happen. From Kirby Dick, director of This Film is Not Yet Rated.

8. Paul Williams Still Alive
Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston. Basically you should see this because its a documentary about Paul Williams. And Paul Williams is a genius. And if you don’t like Paul Williams I don’t want to know you.

7. Brave
Summary: Determined to make her own path in life, Princess Merida defies a custom that brings chaos to her kingdom. Granted one wish, Merida must rely on her bravery and her archery skills to undo a beastly curse.

Reasons: Um…a new Pixar film that is not part of the Cars franchise? That’s just for starters. My two main reasons are the following. First, it is the first Pixar film featuring a female protagonist, and it looks like a refreshing rejection of the traditional expectations of women. The sprightly and flame-haired Merida looks like a much-needed role model for young girls that can counteract the toxicity they are exposed to on a daily basis. Second, this looks to be the most visually stunning Pixar setting since Finding Nemo. Every time I see a picture or trailer for the film I am blown away by how absurdly gorgeous this looks. I want to live on this world already. I want to escape into this film and I haven’t even seen it yet.

6. Killer Joe
Summary: When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance.

Reasons: And the list takes a turn as we transition from Pixar to the NC-17 rated film from the bunch. William Friedkin and Tracy Letts collaborating again, adapting one of Letts’ plays, after 2005’s claustrophobic Bug which is one of my favorite films of the aughts. I’ve been dying to see this for a while now. It looks brutal, funny, and brutally funny.

5. Oslo, August 31st
Summary: One day in the life of Anders, a young recovering drug addict, who takes a brief leave from his treatment center to interview for a job and catch up with old friends in Oslo.

Reasons: I admit I’m not the biggest fan of Joachim Trier’s Reprise, although I won’t deny its status as one of the more assured pieces of debut filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Still, I’ve been anxiously awaiting this since last year’s Cannes debut. Its placement should indicate just how much I am looking forward to this one.

4. The Imposter
Summary: A documentary centered on a young Frenchman who convinces a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who went missing for 3 years.

Reasons: Saw at IFFBoston and it’s going strong as my favorite 2012 film so far. It would have been this high on the list regardless. I’ve been hooked since reading the one sentence summary above. Don’t read any reviews. Don’t watch any trailers. Just see The Imposter.

3. Take This Waltz
Summary: A happily married woman falls for the artist who lives across the street.

Reasons: Written and directed by Sarah Polley, I am counting down the days til this film’s release. The summary sounds like this story has been done a million times. But all signs point to a uniquely honest and complex telling of the grey areas of relationships, feelings and monogamy. It looks challenging and uncompromising. And it’s named after a Leonard Cohen song.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Summary: A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

Reasons: New Wes Anderson. Case closed.

1. Prometheus
Summary: A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.

Reasons: To me, the trailer for Prometheus is the advertising equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off the stage. Every time I see this trailer in theaters, my thought is that everyone should just pack it on up and go home. I’m trying to avoid Ridley Scott’s contradictory and increasingly distracting comments. I’m trying to go into this as blind as I can outside of that first full trailer and general unavoidable information about the film. I’m also trying to keep my anticipation to a controlled level as I tend to be let down for films I get this excited about. But damn if this doesn’t look like its going to own the summer movie season.

The rest unordered:
The Woman in the Fifth
Farewell, My Queen
5 Broken Cameras
Lovely Molly
Lola Versus
Where Do We Go Now?
The Good Doctor
Planet of Snail
Side by Side
Your Sister’s Sister
The Awakening
The Dictator
Safety Not Guaranteed
Easy Money
Magic Mike
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
To Rome with Love
Elena (Russian)
First Position
Dark Horse
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jack and Diane
Bel Ami
Mother’s Day
God Bless America
Dark Shadows
The Bourne Legacy
Hope Springs
The Pact
Ruby Sparks
The Expendables 2
Chicken with Plums
Premium Rush
Chernobyl Diaries
Men in Black 3
The Watch
Little White Lies
Red Lights
Total Recall
Neil Young Journeys
Whores’ Glory

Review: The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield) [IFFBoston 2012]

Originally posted on CriterionCast on may 5th, 2012

When filmmaker Lauren Greenfield began filming the Siegel’s, the billionaire family was living on top of the world. They were in the process of constructing the largest home in the United States, the 90,000 square ft. Versailles, inspired by Louis XIV-era architecture. $260 million was put into the still-incomplete palace, which was to contain everything, and I mean everything, you could possibly imagine and then some. Even to see the thing half-done is overwhelming. This was the reason Greenfield started filming in the first place. And then the economic crisis hits, effecting even the richest among us. Greenfield became inadvertently able to track the before-and-after of what David Siegel himself refers to as a riches-to-rags story.

David Siegel is CEO of the real estate and time-share company Westgate Resorts. He comes from a humble background, building his fortune from the ground up. He firmly believes that if you have it, spend it. His fortune and success has also turned into his fatal flaw. Maintaining success of his scale does not come easy, and David’s world revolves around his business. His wife and family clearly matter to him, but there is a sense that he merely tolerates his wife Jackie as opposed to truly loving her.

There are judgments and preconceptions that will undoubtedly be heaped onto Jackie, the much younger queen, as the film begins. By the end, some of these will be disproved, and some become heightened. She seems genuinely kind-hearted yet entirely oblivious, living in her own world. There is not a purposely callous bone in her body. There is also genuine love she has for her husband, but he is quite cold to her by the film’s end as his stress continually mounts.

Jackie is a compulsive shopper and a bit of a hoarder. She spends because she can and it is pretty disgusting to see her spending habits in all its excessive glory. Seeing her go to Wal-Mart to buy, amidst carts and carts of toys, three copies of the game Operation and a bike which she brings home, only for it to get thrown in a mountain of unused bikes is nauseating. And that is just the tip of the iceberg; the most miniscule of endless examples. This woman has no shame and spends millions every year on herself and her family simply because she can.

There are pets everywhere; dogs, snakes, lizards, fish, peacocks, a tiger and who knows what else? They are frequently neglected once most of the staff has to be let go and the lizard starves to death. They have seven kids plus Jackie’s niece who the Siegel’s have taken in. Jackie states that once she realized that she could have nannies look after her kids, she just kept having them. Like David, she also comes from humble beginnings (she also has a degree in engineering), and has had her fair share of hardships, including an abusive first marriage. For someone so filthily rich, she seems uncommonly down-to-earth; she just happens to spend obscene amounts of money on herself and her family. She also sees no reason why going to McDonald’s in a limo may be a bit inappropriate.

The obvious question is why should we care about billionaires who are forced to become merely millionaires? The Queen of Versailles allows us to feel both disgust and sympathy for these folks, without forcing them to be mutually exclusive reactions. We may laugh, scoff and shake our heads in repugnance at them.  But they are human and their very real struggles register as far more legitimate and dire than one would think possible.

Jackie is trying to maneuver in what seems to be a non-existent marriage. David, trapped by his own success, is trying to grasp onto what he once had, determined to his dying day to get back what he spent his life working for. Lauren Greenfield uses the absurdist 1% world of the Siegel’s to stand-in as a representative of what everyone went through due to the economic crisis, no matter what the scale.

It also represents what happens when the American Dream gets realized to such an extreme, that its inherent flaws of naïve greed and gluttony manifest in frightening ways. The teenage niece, who Jackie and David took in, lived in a very poor household. There is a point where she talks about how she used to watch people on TV with their huge mansions and think, if she lived like that, she would wake up every day with a smile on her face. She goes on to say that when one acquires that level of wealth, it is shocking just how quickly you gets used to having everything you want, constantly expecting more and more.

Watching people lose so much, yet still maintain more than what most people would dream of having, is tough at times. It may seem laughable and even distasteful to a point, to want to sympathize with their plight, but we do. Greenfield makes sure we get the sense of what they are going through. The film acquires an appropriately game-changing vibe to match the family’s situation. This is a huge ordeal for them. We get to feel the validity of their financial crisis and, up to a point, there is bona fide sympathy to be had for the Siegel’s.

The Queen of Versailles raises a lot of conflicting feelings in the viewer; and that is a good thing. People will argue about why we should care about these people. The Siegels become human to us; when we learn that Versailles cannot happen, we realize that this is someone’s dream being crushed. A ludicrous, outlandish dream that took unimaginable amounts of money, that surely could have been spent more productively, but a dream nonetheless. The Queen of Versailles is going to be an understandably tough sell for some, and Greenfield knows this, working this potential dealbreaker to her advantage. In the end, for all their misgivings, I honestly came to care for the Siegel’s.

The Queen of Versailles will be released on July 20th by Magnolia Pictures

Review: Paul Williams Still Alive (2012, Kessler) [IFFBoston 2012]

Originally posted on CriterionCast May 5th, 2012

The minute I saw that there was a documentary about Paul Williams playing at IFFBoston, I knew I had to go. My knowledge of Paul was admittedly limited. I first became formally aware of him much later than was retrospectively acceptable, considering how long his music had been unknowingly making such an impact on me from an early age.

It was about four years ago that I first watched Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma’s awesome and excessively glittery glam-rock musical take on Phantom of the Opera, starring and featuring music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Williams is just about the opposite of the heartthrob Hollywood star; tiny but always swaggering and smirking with a scrunchy round face and a mop of blond hair. That he and the lanky bug-eyed and recently deceased William Finley were the co-leads of this film is just about the perfect antithesis to the standard leading man. I looked up who Paul Williams was and lo and behold, the man was responsible for having written some of the most important songs in my life.

I speak less of songs like “Evergreen” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” and more of his work on The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol and “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas”. Laugh if you will, but it is impossible to quantify the place these songs hold in my heart. He has a penchant for consistently striking the perfect balance of expressing sentiment without being too saccharine whether it be a longing-filled ballad or a joyful jaunt. Songs like “The Rainbow Connection”, “Brothers”, “Movin’ Right Along”, “Thankful Heart” and “One More Sleep Til Christmas” are perfect creations that go right for my jugular, containing purified and encapsulating representations of joy, gratitude and acceptance.

All of this lengthy background sets up the fact that this was an individual that automatically had a personal connection with my interests, and at least on that level, the film would already be a success in my eyes. Director Stephen Kessler has this same connection which prompts him to make the film in the first place. Those looking to satisfy the seedy curiosity inherent in tell-all’s with Williams recounting firsthand experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, and his subsequent recovery, will be somewhat let down.

It turns out that Paul Williams has little interest in talking about the past. He is twenty years sober and living a more fulfilling life now than he was then, so what is the point of looking back? Paul Williams Still Alive is more about Kessler providing a narrative of the filming process as he slowly realizes this is not going to be quite the exposé he imagined. More importantly, it is about the evolution of Kessler and Williams’ relationship, which starts with passive-aggressive hesitancy and ends with what seems like the making of a lifelong friendship.

It cannot be denied that disappointment sank in as it became clear the film would be just as much, if not more, Kessler’s story than Williams. The film’s subject, admittedly admirably, refuses to be pushed into the biographical mold of the ‘rise and fall’. Yet even basic reflection on what led him to finally start taking steps towards recovery is not divulged. Nor is there any discussion of his music outside of a statement about his songs falling into themes of loneliness and isolation which, let’s face it, is pretty obvious. During the director Q&A, Kessler mentioned that Williams clearly loved music (he is the current president of ASCAP for goodness sake) but had little interest in talking about his work. So what is this documentary about?

There is certainly some biographical information, and Williams does touch on topics, even if it is sometimes vague. He interprets his own actions, equating his appearance in seemingly everything at the time to being addicted to attention, to feeling like part of the club. He talks a lot about the difference between being special and being different; how he always felt different and his fame was a constant strive towards being special. There is also a ton of archival footage that is effectively used to give that sense of being in that part of the 70’s where he really did seem to be everywhere.

Kessler captures the often unspoken awkwardness that organically comes about when a documentarian is incessantly following his subject around. Kessler gives the film a narrative streak littered with humor throughout as he continues to be unaware that he is the elephant in the room. Williams is at first quite passive-aggressive, and the director lingers on depicting the uncomfortable silences and the push-and-pull between filmmaker and subject. At one point Kessler uses a blatantly manipulative method to get a planned response out of Williams. It works, and he narrates that he felt bad and that he had gone too far. Throughout, Kessler bravely showcases just how unnatural making a documentary can be.

The director’s constant narration provides an in-the-moment interpretation of what the experience of filming was like from his point of view. There are times when Kessler allows Williams to get too far away from the film. In select portions it feels less like Kessler telling both his and Williams’ parallel stories and more like Kessler telling his own story that Williams happens to be present for.

Stephen Kessler is clearly devoted to his subject whom he can now proudly call a true friend. Paul Williams would not conform to a comfortable rise-and-fall arc. He is too happy and satisfied with his current life to immortalize himself in a documentary as just another musician who ‘lost it all’. He rightfully does not see it that way. Sadly, this leads to limited (but not absent) reflection on the ups and downs of fame, drug addiction and the road to recovery. Though unable to dig deep into its subject, Paul Williams Still Alive continuously entertains and amuses. Without being revelatory in any sense, it manages to examine the relationship between documentarian and subject. If the past of Paul Williams does not matter to Paul Williams, then maybe, just maybe, it should not matter to us. Now excuse me while I go listen to “The Hell of It” for the twentieth time today.

Results: 1940’s Film Recommendations

Last week, I posted the list of 1940’s Films I came up with that I aspired to watch. I knew I would not be able to watch them all, so I asked for recommendations from readers about which films I should make it a point not to miss. Here are the results! What I will end up doing is making most of the films with votes a priority, with an additional few that received no votes. There are a few of these that are hard to get ahold of, and this may be an additional  factor as to what gets seen.

I am definitely going to do this for the 1950’s when I get to them, and will put the list in poll form for next time.

Thank you to everyone who commented or tweeted their picks!

The Window and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 were recommended to me, films not on the original list, which I have added.

The films in bold are ones I watched during the week.

They Live By Night – 7
Meshes of the Afternoon – 6
Thieves Highway – 6
A Canterbury Tale – 4
Odd Man Out – 4
La Terra Trema – 4
On the Town – 4
Foreign Correspondent – 4
Ivan the Terrible Part 1 – 4
Shoeshine – 3
The Big Clock – 3
Brighton Rock – 3
The Small Back Room – 3
Whisky Galore! – 2
The More the Merrier – 2
The Red House – 2
Blood of the Beasts – 2
The Clock – 2
Crossfire – 2
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – 2
The Set-Up – 3
The Devil and Daniel Webster – 2
Spring in a Small Town – 2
The 49th Parallel – 2
Stray Dog – 2
Fires Were Started – 2
The 47 Ronin – 2
Pride of the Yankees – 1
The Dark Mirror – 1
The Shanghai Gesture – 1
Cabin in the Sky – 1
Meet John Doe – 1
Miracle on 34th Street – 1
Oliver Twist – 2
Lured – 1
The Lodger – 2
The Children Are Watching Us – 1
Henry V – 1
Kings Row – 1
Night Train to Munich – 1
The Flame of New Orleans – 1
The Man in Grey – 0
The Man Who Came to Dinner – 0
City for Conquest – 0
National Velvet – 0
No Regrets for Our Youth – 0
The Seventh Veil – 0
Act of Violence – 0
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry – 0
The Suspect – 0
My Favorite Wife – 0
Drunken Angel – 0
Listen to Britain – 0