Saturday, March 29, 2008


In an attempt to expand my brand internationally, I've started writing for the respected Brazilian film website Contracampo, which is starting up an English language section. I'll be writing a regular column about the film scene in NYC in an informal fashion (read: lots of cursing and digressions). It has the jaunty title, "Letter From an Unknown." The first one deals with old man Manoel de Oliveira and the recent spate of film critic departures/firings.

This unlikely setup occurred through my trip to Rotterdam, where I met the ebullient cinephile Luiz Carlos Oliveira, Jr., one of the founders of the site. With our mutual worship of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Clint Eastwood, and our abhorrence of high art/low art distinctions (he's a huge Reese Witherspoon fan), it seemed like a good match, and an invitation to write soon came about. Hopefully I'll get him to write some guest posts on this humble blog as well to continue this hemispheric exchange of overheated cinematic musings.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Light Industry

I move to Sunset Park, and film culture follows. Or something like that. Light Industry is the brainchild of Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, a weekly experimental film series curated by a rotating cast of notable critic/artist/know-it-alls. Located in "Industry City", a rather desolate swath of manufacturing landscape underneath the Gowanus Expressway along 3rd Avenue, the series has the feel of a secret society, with a handdrawn sign leading you up the institutional gray staircase until you reach the stubbled man behind the cafeteria table. The directions are "last door on the left", which puts one in mind of Wes Craven. I find that state of mind to be agreeable. The stale, unsullied air builds a sense of anticipation - for surely the eau-d'artiste will soon overpower this bland (lack of) an odor. And of course, it did, as the room soon filled with hirsute loners, decked out dilettantes, and attentive alliteration seekers (I am both the first and the last).

I'm pretty sure they sold Grolsch and Heineken in the back of the screening room, but I took a seat instead, worried about their apparent Dutch bias. Halter and Beard gave a brief intro, apologized in advance for Mr. Halter's lack of projection experience - but it didn't quite matter, despite the removal of the opener (Kurt Kren's Co-op Cinema Amsterdam) from the program.

I enjoyed Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson's Swamp, a 6 minute amble through New Jersey wetlands that achieves fleeting glances of abstract beauty through mindless wandering. The follow-up, Michael Robinson's Victory Over the Sun, was also rather fun - as it framed old World's Fair monuments as if they were all the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He added some psychedelic colors and rhythmic choral chanting to add to the future-pastness.

The rest of the night was a wash for me, but so what? I'll be back. Next Tuesday's April Fool's Day show sounds especially intriguing. Along with some Mekas brothers and Aphex Twin, it promises "silent comics & moronic soundies, early porn & looney tunes. " Alright then.


Richard Widmark (1914-2008)

My apologies for not posting lately -- it could not be helped. Still can't be, frankly. But this needs mentioning: Richard Widmark passed away today at the age of 93.

Widmark is one of those guys whose fame has faded into the past, but his name still carries plenty of weight amongst cinephiles, and I know it definitely does on this blog. There was no movie that he couldn't make better by his presence. He could make a decent movie unforgettable, as he did as thug Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death (where he chuckles as he pushes a wheelchair-bound lady down a flight of stairs) and he could make a terrible movie watchable, as he did as Major General Thalius Slater in the ungodly mess that is the 1978 disaster movie The Swarm. Even greats like Henry Fonda and Michael Caine buckle beneath the bootheel of the Irwin Allen dreadfulness, but Widmark keeps his dignity in the movie; heck he's even kinda cool in it as he fights off, yes, giant swarms of killer bees. Now that's acting.

There's a lot of good Widmark performances, but to see him at his peak, and to get a sense of all of his powers in one place, you need only watch him in the lead of Sam Fuller's brilliant Pickup on South Street (1953). He plays Skip McCoy, a cutpurse whose grabby hands accidentally land him in the middle of a Communist plot to smuggle classifield film strips out of the country and into the hands of our enemies. Skip, a two-time loser looking at the dreaded third strike, has the all important negatives, but has to keep it hidden from both the law and the hoods that are both trying to retrieve it before the other. The tension from the opening scene, where Widmark wordlessly lifts an unsuspecting woman's wallet, is as taut as a high-wire and Widmark's the guy who walks it for 80 dynamite minutes, with panache and verve and wit. During his love scene Jean Peters, where she is trying to seduce him to reacquire the information he pilfered from her, he utters one of my all-time favorite lines of movie dialogue in response to Peters' declaration of her feelings after a particularly amorous clinch: "Everybody likes everybody when they're kissing," he coos. Fuller worked with a lot of good actors, but I don't know if anyone ever quite nailed the rhythms of his street-level tough guys quite as well as Widmark.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mad Detective (2007)

I couldn't wait. IFC Films is releasing Johnnie To's Mad Detective on July 18th, but the Hong Kong DVD has been available for some time now (which Dave Kehr kindly let us know about) and I caved. To reunites with writing partner Wai Ka-fai for the first time since 2003's knockabout Buddhist action-comedy Running On Karma and once again they tap a spiritual/supernatural theme, with the fucked-up lead (To regular Lau Ching-wan) claiming to have the ability to see people's split personalities. After a string of successes solving cases "emotionally" instead of factually (he gets himself into the headspace of victims and killers, getting tossed down stairs, etc.), he slices off his ear as a gift for his captain. He's tossed off the force - and To never reveals how insane his tousled lead actually is, cutting deftly back and forth between Lau's visions and "reality", never judging or revealing their truth. That's left up to the proverbial viewer to decide.

Lau never tips his hand either, making his insane acts endearing, hinting at a structure behind his actions that never quite reaches the surface. The character is no easy read. Stylistically it's a cleaner, more subdued work than the previous slice of action perfection, Exiled, but it serves up a superbly timed climax, a Lady From Shanghai ode that the above photo gives you a taste of. Perfectly suited to the lead's shattered psyche, this hall of mirrors shoot 'em up ranks with the best of his work. Pay specific attention the final shots, as Lau's partner decides how to tell the next part of the story, actively constructing a future narrative whose motivations are as obscure as the preceding one.

In some ways it's a darker version of To and Ka-fai's My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, also starring Lau. In that bit of haunted house slapstick, Lau is a boyish ghost who tags along with a young slobbish widow suspected of offing her husband (he died a few days after the marriage). A film of false visions and abundant black humor, it's a sprightlier take on the subject matter of mystical visions - plus it wields an ending of surprising pathos which drove Spinster Aunt into an extended crying jag.

The prolific Mr. To has already released two more films after Detective. The first, Linger (2008) (trailer here) is a melodramatic soap that has received no attention, presumably because it's not an action film. According to Grady Hendrix's Variety blog it was dumped into minor theaters in HK with little fanfare. It clearly has no shot for U.S. distribution, so hopefully the DVD will be released soon. Then there's Sparrow (2008), which recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and has me all hot under the collar, being compared to The Young Girls of Rochefort and such.

The only thing that could get me as excited would be two Clint Eastwood releases in one year. Oh my.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

What I've Been Up to at SXSW - Part 2

Weed Movies: "Harold and Kumar 2" "Humboldt County," and "Super High Me"

Political Docs: "Full Battle Rattle," "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?"

IFC's Docs: "At the Death House Door" and "Heavy Load"

A Performance from My Morning Jacket

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

YouTubeArt: Roy Andersson Commercials!

So You, The Living was my favorite film at Rotterdam, and now I've just been blown away by Songs From the Second Floor. The director, Roy Andersson, is clearly a master, which you can see further in this series of commercials he directed for Swedish television. This is just a sample of the 400 or so he made, as opposed to the 4 features on his resume (the other two are from the 70s). I'm partial to the Lotto one (look at the dancers in the background!), but they're all brilliant (his teacher Ingmar Bergman called them the best commercials in the world):

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What I've Been Up to at SXSW

...only something like 50 interviews in 4 days. Eesh. Get me 350 cc's of nap stat!

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (2007)

Last night BAM held the opening of their essential Manoel de Oliveira retrospective, in honor of his 100th year on this fine planet. Encapsulating a lifetime of filmmaking, they screened his first narrative feature Aniki Bobo (1942), and his most recent, Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (2007). Their major coup was getting Oliveira himself to attend and partake in a Q&A after Columbus. Peering enigmatically through his shades, and clad in a natty brown suit while wielding his cherry red cane, he was an intimidating presence - at least until he cracked a bemused smile and humored a few awed onlookers: What were his favorite actors to work with? Speaking through a translator, he said, "That's easy, me and my wife."

Both of them appear in the final section of the entrancing Christopher Columbus, a mournful walking tour of Portuguese maritime history couched in the true story of Manuel Luciano da Silva and his wife Silvia, who spent their life trying to prove Columbus' Portuguese ancestry. It hopscotches from Manuel's post-WWII voyage to NYC to his honeymoon in in rural Portugal in the 60s, all the way up their NYC return in 2007, where Oliveira and his wife portray the couple. It's a film of monumentality - emphasized in Manuel's looks upward at the statues of Portugal's former glory - these upward looks also a commentary on what's missing in their country once they look down. On board the ship to NYC, an older man tells the young Manuel and his brother, that "there is nothing worse than being dependent on others", a commentary both about aging and the role of Portugal on the world stage.

As Manuel leads his wife on his obsessive tour through Portugal's maritime feats, an image from the past seems to haunt him. There is a woman, dressed as Portugal's guardian angel, watching him impassively as he wends his way through the ghosts of his country's imperial glory. It's a theatrical touch that only gains resonance as the film moves on, she is protecting crumbling buildings and memories, willed into life by Manuel's obsession. She looks grateful for this respite from obsolescence, and is granted a graceful close-up during the final sequence - capturing the bitter nostalgia that marks the film as a whole.

The last section, where Oliveira and his wife Maria Isabel tour through New York, is simply beautiful. Manoel remarks on Columbus Circle's own angel, and Maria Isabel recites Emma Lazarus' "The New Colussus" before mourning that its goals were more wished for than achieved. They also travel to Dighton Rock Park in Massachusetts, where model vessels of Vasco de Gama and Magellan spark the historical details Oliveira's films abound in. It also occassions some gentle insults from Maria as she's dragged to one more memory of a faded power.

After the screening, Oliveira trundled up to the stage, replaced the battery in his hearing aid, and held forth. He emphasized the melancholy nature of the film, the comparison between Portugal's past glory and present impoverishment. He was asked how he thinks his style has changed since the neo-realist Aniki-Bobo (1942) to the present. He discussed the early influence of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov on his early documentary work (Working on the Douro River (1931)), and then the long period of reflection he went through before making his fiction debut with Aniki, which he described as humanist, lacking the political aspect of neo-realism.

Moving on to Columbus, he stated that it was a film in resistence to today's cinema, one not based on movement. He elaborated upon this statement by differentiating between camera movement and Georges Melies' movement, or movement within the frame, which he says he's utilized in his recent work. When asked if the ending of Columbus shows more optimism towards the present than the apocalyptic ending of A Talking Picture, Oliveira agreed that the two films were companion pieces, but disagreed about the tone, saying that the ending of Columbus was one of bitterness.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Step Brothers Trailer

*My more official take (with correct punctuation and everything) on the Will Ferrell Funny Or Die Tour is up at IFC News.

In a related story, the trailer for the new Adam McKay-Will Ferrell film Step Brothers has been released. I'm quivering with anticipation: