Wednesday, January 28, 2009

YouTube Art: I Loved This Trailer When I Was 14

I still remember seeing this trailer in theaters in 1995. Something -- don't ask me what, I have no idea -- made me think of it now as I'm working on something else, and I thought I'd post it and be like "What a great trailer for a terrible movie!" Now I'm looking at it and going "Why in the world did I like it in the first place?"

I think what got my attention at age 14 was the direct address to camera by Ralph "I'm Just A Wee Bit Too Oily" Fiennes. That's still a technique that's underutilized in trailers and it's still effective here even though a)you have know idea what this guy is talking about b)there's all these words floating around his head and c)there's all this Max Headroom editing, which looks stupid now but in 1995 was the epitome of awesomness. Even though this guy isn't making any sense, even though he looks like he hasn't showered in two and a half weeks, the fact that he's talking directly to you in this almost seductive way makes it interesting.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rotterdam Film Festival, Part 2

Hey! My first report of my brief trip to Rotterdam is up at IFC. I talk a lot about the ubiquitous Carlos Reygadas. He co-produced two films at the fest, has a new feature video Serenghetti (see still above), and brought along his first short, Adulte. I kept seeing him around the city in his camouflage pants, but unfortunately he has a no-interview policy.

I could only swing four days this year, so I missed out on a ton of stuff, including a Jerzy Skolimowski retro and a sidebar on young Turkish filmmakers. However, I did manage to catch up with some auteur stuff making the rounds, including Hirokazu Kore-eda's excellent Still Walking, Albert Serra's Birdsong (opening at Anthology in March, I believe), and Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool. One of the highlights of the fest for me was interviewing Alonso about the film, his working process, and his favorite Clint Eastwood movie (Unforgiven).

I have another dispatch and a couple interviews coming up for IFC, and I'll post the inevitable list of my favorite fest films once I settle back in to life in this time zone.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thank you, The Soup

You've done it again:

If you have cable and you're not watching The Soup, really, you're wasting your money, your time, and your life. It is essential viewing.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rotterdammerung 2009

Well, I'm back, with Spinster Aunt in tow. Things haven't started so badly. The festival has commissioned Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin, and Dutch director Nanouk Leopold to create films to be projected onto three office buildings in the city (watch a trailer for Maddin's entry here). They premiered tonight to little notice (I think most people arrive tomorrow), but the first two are sprightly little items.

Reygadas's film is the first of his features that could be described as a lark. Filled with things he likes (mountains, his hometown, sun flares), it films a female soccer match in an isolated valley as if it were a major broadcast, with instant replay, on-screen graphics, and a hot female sideline reporter. But then he adds art film touches, like cutaways to mountains in the middle of the action. A strange, surprisingly light-footed work.

The Maddin posits the origin of electricity as a metaphor for better sex. Isabella Rossellini is in an electric chair, titillated by spritzes of energy from the muscular goons working a wheel to keep the juice flowing. Set in a hothouse juke joint and marked by smoky dissolves, it's a sweaty little ode to Thomas Edison and orgasms. Archetypal Maddin.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Spirit (2008)

When Frank Miller, the graphic novelist who created Sin City and 300, was asked why he wanted to direct the film adaptation of Will Eisner's groundbreaking comics series The Spirit he said that despite his own hesitations he "didn't want anyone else to do it." If anyone was going to screw up The Spirit it was going to be Frank Miller, and screw it up he has, with enthusiasm, aplomb, a tin ear for dialogue, and a seemingly total lack of knowledge of the cinematic medium.

It is a disaster for sure. Maybe it was doomed to fail. The Spirit was often a super-hero strip in name and mask-wearing protagonist only. Eisner dressed The Spirit in a blue suit, hat, and gloves and only tossed on a domino mask as a concession to superiors to who demanded a costumed crime fighter. The book, which was syndicated and inserted into newspapers throughout the country from 1940 to 1952, could vary wildly in tone and style from one week to the next: a dark piece of pulp might be followed by a whimsical Christmas tale or a bleakly ironic fable. As Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction to DC Comics' collection The Best of the Spirit, "The joy of The Spirit was not in the words, nor in the pictures, but in the smoothness and the brilliance and the willingness to experiment of the storytelling."

Miller's movie bears none of these things, but how could it? A movie could never sustain the number of different genres and moods that Eisner's strip encompassed, could never experiment that freely with pacing or composition. As Eisner's talent as an artist grew, The Spirit became less about mystery or adventure and more about the storytelling potential of the comic book medium itself. It's "pure comics," in the way something like Rear Window might be called "pure cinema." If you ask me — and yes, I'm perfectly aware that you haven't — The Spirit is far more suited to an eccentric, anthology-style cable television show than a blockbuster-style super-hero movie.

But that is precisely what we've got in the form of Frank Miller's The Spirit. Now The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) doesn't just dress like a super-hero, he's got the powers to match, including the ability to heal injuries, even mortal ones, with incredible speed. His arch-nemesis, The Octopus (Sam Jackson), who never appeared on panel in Eisner's comics, shares The Spirit's healing factor, which permits the two to engage in lengthy and utterly meaningless fistfights. What is the point of a fight in which there can be no winner because neither combatant can defeat the other? I have heard The Spirit and The Octopus' fights compared to Looney Tunes cartoons because of the way the two break toilets and bathtubs over each others' heads with no effect and because Miller layered Splats! and Zonks! and other ridiculous sound effects into the audio mix. But Looney Tunes ran 5 minutes; The Spirit runs over 100. Even the greatest Looney Tunes episode would have been repetitive and exhausting at that length.

The Octopus has something to do with the Spirit's immortality, and also something to do with a heist involving an old childhood flame of his named Sand Sarif (Eva Mendes). For reasons that are unclear, he's also got something against eggs. Maybe a bad experience at a Denny's? He's also got Scarlett Johansson as an eager sidekick who appeases his need to dress in outlandish outfits including a samurai get-up and later a full Nazi uniform. As anyone who saw Sin City can tell you, the samurai and swastika fetishes are Miller's not Eisner's.

But, then Miller directs everything like a fetishist: too into his weird little quirks to consider how they might play to someone who, say, doesn't find it innately hilarious to dress as a samurai and throw ninja stars at bald Italian guys; too focused on personal details to observe that they combine into an imperfect whole. He's filled the movie with gorgeous women and disregarded their performances in order to more scrupulously photograph their buttocks. He's jammed his screenplay with dialogue, some of it quite agreeably peppery, but he's so in love with his writing that he's incapable of excising even a single word of it. Characters don't talk to one another but rather towards one another, as if battling one another in a monologue recitation competition. Yes, the film noir movies Miller is making botched homage to involved plenty of snappy dialogue, but the screenplays of films like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past are so precise. The characters don't mince words and they know when to shut up. There is a line between banter and blather, and The Spirit crosses it early and often.

The green screen filmmaking technique used here as in Sin City is such that you can actually film actors at two totally different times and composite them into a scene -- in Sin City, for instance, Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood have a convincing fight scene even though the two never shot a frame of film together. Whether or not that's how Miller shot his actors, The Spirit feels discontinuous in a way Sin City never did, as if the stars all shot their scenes in different places at different times, even sometimes in different eras and different movies. Sarah Paulson as the loyal girl friday character, is endlessly earnest in her role; meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson talks like Jules from Pulp Fiction in Nazi regalia, and fires enormous cartoon guns (another Miller hallmark) while jiggling like Stallone in Rambo III.

I feel like I've outlined a lot of what is wrong with The Spirit, but still feel I've come up short in adequately describing the totality of its dreadfulness. One scene provides the nutshell moment. The Fuhrerpus is on yet another of his wackadoo runs about cloning and immortality and whatever else. He's kidnapped the Spirit, and even though he finally has the key to killing him, he starts talking to him instead of doing the deed. The Spirit, tied to a chair, openly begs him to shut up and get on with it because he's boring him to death. If the characters onscreen are openly acknowledging their boredom, can you imagine what the audience is feeling?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Fellow Travelers

We're with you Jessica (and Stephanie too!):

" And somehow I doubt I have much company in advocating for the mostly maligned Step Brothers. Comedy is subjective, of course, but there's some feral pocket of my frontal lobes that wonders how it's possible to resist a movie in which the great Richard Jenkins...delivers a rousing speech about how he always wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up. ....Step Brothers strikes me not as the cynical nadir of the Judd Apatow-associated trend of manboy movies but as an imploded critique of said trend, and it thrums with anarchic, deranged energy."

--Jessica Winter, Slate Movie Club

"So all of you except Jessica must go watch Step Brothers again, or I'm going to come over and hit you with my tricycle."

--Stephanie Zacharek, Slate Movie Club

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2008 Top Ten: Alberto Zambenedetti

Alberto Zambenedetti is a Ph.D. Candidate in Italian Studies at NYU

And here it is, the top-ten everybody was eagerly waiting for. I compiled it following no other criteria than my personal taste and the fact that I have seen these movies in a theater in the course of the solar year 2008. And that they were not past or re-releases. Enjoy!

1. Gomorra / Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008)
To put it bluntly, Garrone’s adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s best-selling eponymous novel on the workings of organized crime in Italy’s Campania region is by far the best picture of 2008. The director had already displayed enormous talent and potential with a handful of interesting films over the course of the past ten years, but this time around he achieves true greatness. The multiple, intertwined plots depicting the relationship between low-life losers, small-time crooks and powerful villains are masterfully narrated with gripping hand-held, over-the-shoulder camerawork. An instant classic in Italy, for its perfect balance of style and content Gomorra is a virtually flawless masterpiece.

2. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
Incredibly witty and charming, My Winnipeg is the most personal (of course) and relatable of Maddin’s pictures. A journey at the heart and the hidden recesses of his frigid hometown, the film traces the never obvious threads of childhood memories and urban landscape, as if running a finger on a map made of buildings and the feelings attached to them. Delightfully funny and twisted, stylistically inventive and engrossing, My Winnipeg is my favorite of Maddin’s movies.

3. Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)
After the charming but meandering The Science of Sleep, Gondry returns with a heartwarming homage to the craft of filmmaking that continues his exploration of low-tech visuals and dreamscapes, be that with eyes open or closed. Despite the paper-thin plot, or perhaps thanks to it, the duo Jack Black / Mos Def deliver some of the funniest and cleverest gags of 2008 while “sweding” classic movies and contemporary blockbusters. Gondry’s artful direction and idiosyncratic aesthetics, the endearing subject matter, and the comic qualities of the cast make for an intelligent and original crowd-pleaser.

4. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
Disfunctionaliy meets multiculturalism in this potentially sappy family drama, but Demme manages to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping by delivering a very light-handed and engaging film. A cast in a state of grace supports his directorial musings over Jenny Lumet’s heartfelt script, anchoring his nimble camera (enamored with the color and music of a multiethnic wedding celebration) to multiple identity crises and breakdowns.

5. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
This unapologetically over-the-top and artfully multi-layered blockbuster has something for everyone, including superhero skeptics and comic-book snobs. The storytelling is airtight, the jokes are funny, and the visual effects are convincing enough to make me look forward to the sequels. Favreau flirts ironically with all the clichés, he lets Robert Downey Jr.’s silver tongue dance gracefully over the most ridiculous lines, and ultimately delivers an early summer delight that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages.

6. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)
Aging, washed out and broke, the Belgian action hero makes a compelling comeback playing nothing less than his sorry self. Far from being an act of hopeless self-promotion, JCVD is a highly entertaining and reflexive tribute to the many who have been eaten by the machine, narrated through the politically incorrect gaze of beur cinéma. Interestingly devoid of martial art and combat scenes, the film takes an introspective turn in the midst of the action, with a protagonist quite literally lifted out of the narrative to deliver an eight-minute long monologue that is worth the price of the ticket itself. The best comeback of the year.

7. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Nolan directs another installment of his über-dark take on the Batman, and audiences respond enthusiastically. The hype is such that it is almost impossible o watch the film without having inflated expectations, especially with regards to prematurely departed Heath Ledger’s performance. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat odd pacing and perhaps thanks to the unconventional narrative solutions, the film is exciting, engaging, and very entertaining. Let alone the fantastic visual effects, the brilliant acting, and the ageless appeal of the characters.

8. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Golden Lion in Venice, The Wrestler is the second best film of the year featuring an aging, washed out movie-star after JCVD. A long-time Mickey Rourke fan, I never doubted his acting abilities, and I had trained myself to be content with his great cameos and brief appearances in the past ten years. And as much as I enjoyed reading about him in the tabloids, I have eagerly waited for his star to regain some luster. The film fits him like a glove, but so did Domino (Tony Scott, 2005) and Sin City (Miller, Rodriguez & Tarantino, 2005), pictures in which he unapologetically stole the scene from the respective leads. I see The Wrestler more as a coronation of a very uneven, yet fascinating career of a brilliant actor rather than a flimsy comeback.

9. Låt den rätte komma in / Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Before I saw this movie, I thought I had seen every possible variation on the theme. I was wrong. This Scandinavian tale of a frail 12-year old who falls for an eternally pubescent vampire is as charming as it is terrifying. Well digging into the psychological complexities of such a peculiar intrigue, Alfredson weaves into the narrative a series of very interesting visual and aural correlatives between the landscape and the emotional nuances of his characters, achieving greatness in a handful of truly moving and/or disturbing scenes. A small gem.

10. R-Rated Comedies (Various, 2008)
Despite my European origins, which qualify me immediately as indignant before any reference to the baser needs of our flesh, I must confess that I enjoy fart-jokes as much as the next guy, so I was pretty pleased with 2008’s truckload of R-Rated comedies. It was yet another great year for American humor and for bodily excretions. From Step Brothers to Zack and Miri Make a Porno, from Role Models to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I am not ashamed to write that I laughed hard, really hard, almost to the point of annoying the person in the seat next to mine. In other words, assimilation has taken its toll on my manners. Thank you, America.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Some directors use visual effects as a crutch. David Fincher uses them as a tool. I can think of no director who works so comfortably, and frequently so invisibly, with digital effects. Until you watch the DVD special features, you would have no idea that many of the key scenes in Fincher's Zodiac, including the examination of the taxi cab at the corner of Washington and Cherry, were shot on a green screen, with nearly everything except the actors and the car painted in using computers. It's the same sort of technique used to create the world of Sin City but consider how different Zodiac looks and feels than that movie.

Brad Pitt stars as the title character, who is born as a shriveled raisin of a baby, with all the ailments of a man on his deathbed, and grows physically younger as he mentally ages, so that when he finally does die some eighty years later, he looks like a cherubic newborn. Along his way from grave to the cradle, he meets and falls in love with a vivacious dancer named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whose normal human physiology and development conspire to keep the pair apart (When they're both in their early teens, Benjamin looks like a 70-year-old man, which makes their late night rendevous under a kitchen table awfully creepy).

Fincher's films (Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac) would not seem to bear a good deal in common with a lengthy meditation on mortality. But I look over that list and see what a filmmography primarily concerned with fear of the various terrors that hide in the dark corners of alleys or spaceships or even our own personalities. Benjamin Button, while certainly the most sedate film to bear Fincher's directorial signature, is still about that same fear, only this time he doesn't disguise it in the form of a slimy alien or serial killer.

The movie spans most of the twentieth century. No matter what time period Benjamin and Daisy cross paths in, one image repeats in Fincher's frame: light bulbs. The number of times the movie places the two characters into composition with bright, unshaded lights are too numerous to count. From a directorial perspective, the sharp direct light casts deep shadows which are visually striking and likely also a helpful tool when trying to mask the subtle but elaborate visual effects playing out across Pitt and Blanchett's faces. But I wondered if there was a more symbollic meaning, and according to this dream dictionary, a light bulb in dream logic "suggests that you are ready to accept and/or face reality." In the context of Benjamin Button I wonder if they could serve as a visual reminder of the fact that the characters are having a hard time doing exactly that. It's something worth exploring on a second viewing.

A few days ago, my Termite Art partner R. Emmet Sweeney posted his Best of '08 List, which includes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sweeney praises Fincher because "his talent for subordinating digital gimmickry to the demands of story and character is unparalleled." As my earlier comments would suggest, I agree, although you will note Benjamin Button didn't show up on my own top ten. Though I was never less than completely engrossed by the picture, I don't know that the movie always succeeds: Fincher's technique is so workmanlike that it infuses Benjamin Button with a buttoned-up atmosphere that's sometimes counter to what is essentially a tragic love story. Moments of true emotional release, of genuine passion, even when Benjamin and Daisy both "meet at the middle" of their respective journeys, are few and far between. Maybe Sweeney can respond with his own lengthier piece on the subject to explain what I missed in that department. Regardless, this is a movie I would easily recommend. The proper word to describe the movie is right there in the title; it does indeed weave a curious spell.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 04, 2009

YouTubeArt: JCVD vs a Hockey Team Mascot

When JCVD fights a terrorist dressed as the Pittsburgh Penguins' mascot, only the audience wins:

See there is awesome and then there is a woman dressed as a penguin kicking Jean-Claude Van Damme in the nards awesome.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, January 03, 2009

More of the Best of Ought-Eight

My contractual obligations to the Independent Film Channel means I've already posted my favorite movies of 2008 to, along with a brief essay about the year in film, but in case you missed it and can't summon the strength in your index finger to click the link, here's my top ten:

1. My Winnipeg
2. Rachel Getting Married
3. The Dark Knight
4. Wendy and Lucy
5. The Wrestler
6. Milk
7. Let the Right One In
8. Doubt
9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
10. A Christmas Tale

Honorable Mention: The Bank Job, Burn After Reading, Chicago 10, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Encounters at the End of the World, The Fall, Pineapple Express, Quid Pro Quo, Shotgun Stories, Snow Angels, Step Brothers

There's very little overlap between our Termite lists this year, but that's something I take as a good thing. Several of Sweeney's choices I've been unable to see yet, including Tokyo Sonata and In the City of Sylvia. I look forward to using his top ten as a guide to essential viewing over the next couple months as these films make their way onto arthouse screens and DVD.

By my count, I watched 382 movies this year, more than a movie per day on average, and a full 90 movies more than I watched in 2007. Because the assignments I've been getting on for the last twelve months have focused more on older movies than on new releases, that's where the majority of that increase came (I actually saw slightly fewer new releases in '08 than in '07). With that in mind, here are the best older films I watched for the first time in 2008:

5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1972, Ted Post)
4. Trafic (1971, Jacques Tati)
3. Crank (2006, Neveldine & Taylor)
2. Lola Montes (1955, Max Ophüls)
1. Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin)

Labels: ,

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Best of Ought-Eight

Ah, the year-end list. Nothing makes me shudder with excitement more. Let's get it out of the way. From any festival and theatrical screenings in 2008, in alphabetical order:

A Christmas Tale

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Flight of the Red Balloon
Gran Torino
The Headless Woman
In the City of Sylvia
Still Life
Tokyo Sonata
Wendy and Lucy

Honorable mentions: United Red Army, Wall-E, The Duchess of Langeais, RAZZLE DAZZLE, Step Brothers, La France, The Romance of Astree and Celadon, Before I Forget, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Redbelt, Che, Happy-Go-Lucky, Mad Detective, 24 City, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, My Winnipeg, Be Kind Rewind, The Secret of the Grain

Now I feel better. It's been another strong year for American cinema, and a heartening one. The continued maturation of David Fincher is probably the most exciting news, his talent for subordinating digital gimmickry to the demands of story and character is unparalleled. Benjamin Button is not only a technical marvel, but a lovely meditation on all that is fleeting in life. As far as treatises on death go, it's an adult next to Synechdoche, New York's adolescent self-loathing. Then there's Eastwood's on-going investigation of aging and violence, Kelly Reichardt's devastatingly soft-spoken Wendy, and the perplexing audacity of Soderbergh's Che, a mammoth anti bio-pic about the process of waging a guerilla war and filming one. For me personally, I'd take this year in American film over last year's more ballyhooed crop of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. And that's without even mentioning the vibrancy on the comedy scene, with the buzzing anarchy of Step Brothers, the sentimental lunacy of Zohan, and the various small character pleasures of the Apatow and Stiller crop.

The movie that I urge one and all to see, though, is Johnnie To's deliriously passionate Sparrow. Screened only as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, but now availabe on HK DVD, it's a project To had been working on for 3 years, in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensared in the web of Kelly Lin's femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences, done with little regard for common sense. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns. Suffused with a love of movies and his hometown, it's irresistable and astonishing.

And by all means look out for Tokyo Sonata next year, which is getting a NYC release next March. It's a new high for Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who takes his talent for haunted male psyches into the sphere of family drama. Koji Yakusho steals the show.

EDIT: To copy the sage Matt Singer, here are my fave older releases that I saw in '08:

A Modern Musketeer (1917) [MoMA]
3 Bad Men (1924) [Ford at Fox box set]
Man's Castle (1933) [TCM]
Ceiling Zero (1936) [BAM]
The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) [DVD]
99 River St. (1953) [Film Forum]
Lola Montes (1955) [Film Forum]
Doomed Love (1979) [BAM]
Bronco Billy (1980) [DVD]
Mélo (1986) [DVD]


In other, less-informed news:

My favorite albums of the year are:

1.The Unreleased Hank Williams

Ashton Shepherd - Sounds So Good

Lucinda Williams - Little Honey
Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III


2666, by Roberto Bolano
Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Terror and Consent, by Philip Bobbitt

Labels: , , ,