Friday, March 21, 2008

Five Words

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This was kind of a weird week in my life emotionally.

For half of it, I felt not only depressed---mostly about how static and dull my life has felt in the past couple of weeks---but downright taken with the sentiment expressed by Daniel Plainview (that man again!) in There Will Be Blood---that I'd rather just get away from everyone and live alone in order to not have to deal with "people." (Insert maniacal laugh here.) Well, perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but I think that captures how strangely sad I felt. (I won't bore you all with the details about how I became so downtrodden; let's just say that I began to suddenly feel both real bored with my life and real frustrated with certain personal issues that popped up. If you're interested in details, perhaps I'll explicate if you leave some nice comments :-) .)

All of that negative energy seemed to dissipate in one fell swoop with five words: Flight of the Red Balloon.

Readers, on Wednesday evening I went to a press screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest work---a reimagining of the Albert Lamorisse classic The Red Balloon, and his second film, as far as I know, set outside of his native Taiwan---and it was exactly the tonic I needed to lift me up from my doldrums. It's that awesome. I've always had at least a detached appreciation for Hou---depending on my mood at a given point in time, sometimes I find him profoundly patient and revelatory, sometimes merely slow and dull---but I was practically walking on air, basking in the film's warm glow, after I left the screening room Wednesday night. I'm writing a review of this for The House Next Door, so I'll have much more to say about it when it opens (at the IFC Center on April 4). But of course---picking up on last week's theme of emotion vs. intellectualism---that review will probably express a more thoughtful, considered reaction than the one I have now. For this particular point in time, however, I will just say that the movie left me not only feeling more open to life---challenges and all---but also eternally grateful for the enriching possibilities of art.

Monday, March 17, 2008

On Matters of Thought and Emotion in Movies

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Let's start with specifics: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, arguably the two best American releases from last year.

When I first wrote about There Will Be Blood, I think I was writing both from the thrill of the movie itself and my own struggles with it---whether I thought its shortcomings were signs of a noble, overreaching failure, or whether I could embrace it strictly on its own, gloriously idiosyncratic terms. All I knew was that I had seen something that, like Daniel Plainview himself, wasn't going to go gently into the dark night; it had such a physical impact on me that I couldn't help but look a little less fondly toward the drier and more dispassionate No Country for Old Men. Was it really as good as I had previously thought, or was the film as lifeless as some of its detractors claimed?

A few weeks later, I decided to see No Country a second time in a movie theater, and something unexpected happened: I realized, by the end of it, that I hadn't really grasped this film at all the first time. Oddly enough, I had simplistically interpreted Anton Chigurh's occasional dialogue lines about fate and chance as simply the ravings of a bona-fide lunatic, thus not meant to be taken seriously. But then I paid more attention to his words the second time and realized that those ravings---his view of human life as subject to the whims of a flip of a coin---were the absolute dark heart of the movie. At one point, a character describes Chigurh as having "his own set of principles." What kind of principles? More than after my first viewing, I left the theater eflecting on not only Chigurh's twisted morality, but also something deeper: similar to the way Sheriff Bell was left sobered by the violence he has just witnessed and wondering whether this new generation had any use for old fogeys like him, I started thinking about the unsettling implications of the Coens' carefully constructed world of wanton interspecies violence and arbitrary randomness, and what it suggested about the larger world we all live in.

It also forced me to confront my own personal movie tastes, and thus this particular blog entry was born.


What do I treasure from a movie? Sure, feelings and aesthetics are important, but when a movie is powerful enough to illuminate a new way of looking at the world---whether philosophically or simply emotionally---well, I prize that feeling more than almost any other from a work of art, and No Country---far from being just a weird little thriller---brought me to a state of deep reflection.

So what of There Will Be Blood, which I had initially considered the best American movie of 2007 the last time I wrote extensively about it? Having seen it three times, the third time a few days after seeing No Country that second time---I came to realize that maybe my initial reaction was just a little hasty. For all its tension, intensity and ferocious sensuality, the tragic rise and fall of Daniel Plainview didn't inspire that same kind of reflection. Sure, the nutty finale left me dazed and horrified---but that's strictly a visceral reaction. Intellectually speaking, did that finale, or the film as a whole, leave me reflecting on, say, the scary depths of human greed and misanthropy, or the devouring of religious faith by the excesses of unchecked ambition? Not so much. Sure, its characters have a mystery and ambiguity to them that is easy to become obsessive over, but as far as any wisdom it had to impart about a world beyond the movie frame, it's rather lacking. (In the Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre, even Magnolia, that great untamed beast of a third film, had a more lasting resonance for me---it may be the first film since Ozu's infinitely more modest Tokyo Story to move me to reconsider my attitudes toward my own family in the face of possible unseen forces greater than us all.)

And yet...damn, what a movie! That oil-derrick explosion about an hour in will probably go down as one of my favorite action sequences of all time. And already, many professional film critics are going so far as to label this a new American classic.

I know, I know: it shouldn't matter to me what other people think. Nevertheless---especially after No Country took home all those Oscars a few weeks ago---both of these fascinating films have gotten me to reflect on matters of style and substance---the old "form-versus-content" discussion. Or, more important, emotions versus intellectualism, or brain versus heart.


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

---Walt Whitman, from "Song of Myself"

I will freely admit that I am a bundle of contradictions, particularly when it comes to the way I feel about things in my gut and the ways I handle those feelings in my head. Sometimes I am something of an emotional animal, acting in the moment without much forethought to the consequences of said action. (I indeed have broken objects in the heat of anger and frustration, although thankfully I haven't been so rash as to break a part of my body...yet...) And sometimes I do get a charge out of surrendering to my emotional impulses---losing control. That's the kind of sensuality movies can provide; Pauline Kael sometimes seemed to base her whole critical point of view on how a movie made her feel (at the expense of considerations of what those feelings actually meant); she even wrote a whole essay entitled "Fear of Movies" in which she criticized bloodlessly "tasteful" movies (like Woody Allen's Interiors) and the supposedly "discriminatory" moviegoers who, in acclaiming such dull films, were perhaps really just expressing a fear of experiencing cinema at its height.

But most of the time I'm just not the kind of person who relies on feeling and emotion to dictate my response to something I'm seeing. Thus, I may have just come out of a movie exhilarated or disturbed, but then my intellectual side may rudely assert itself and tell me, Sure, it engaged my emotions and had some lovely imagery and bits of technique, but... In other words, I'm not always the kind of moviegoer to just surrender to a film; I'm usually thinking along with a film (or, in some cases, in spite of it), and sometimes the thought may overwhelm the emotion.

(Photo courtesy of Dave Kehr)

Recently, for instance, I took my very first look at a late Godard fiction feature, his 1982 Passion. As someone who pretty much loves---or at least greatly admires---nearly every Godard feature from Breathless (1960) to Weekend (1967) (except for A Married Woman, which I haven't seen, or Made in U.S.A., which I just didn't get), I knew, even before popping in the DVD, that this was going to be a lot more autumnal and reflective, less immediately exciting than his early '60s Hollywood-deconstructionist films but also less overtly didactic than something like La Chinoise. To put it simply, it's not what one might call a "deep emotional experience." (Sam Fuller might have defined cinema as a medium of "emotions" in Pierrot le fou, but Godard has rarely struck me as a particularly emotional filmmaker---not cold, just drier and less warmly humanist than, say, his French New Wave compatriot François Truffaut.) But even though I wasn't exactly deeply moved on a human level by Passion, I liked it nevertheless mostly because I found it so fascinating to think about after it was over---its juxtapositions (mostly through sound and image) between high art and industrial life, its vision of a world in which its inhabitants are seemingly unable to respond to the beauty around them. In the case of Passion, my intellectual edification outweighed my relative lack of emotional engagement.

Let's go to the other extreme. Last year's Eastern Promises involved me deeply in its milieu and its characters while I was watching it; when I think more about it, however, far removed from the theatrical experience, I can't help but remember it as basically just another gangster melodrama that intrigues largely by virtue of director David Cronenberg's typically sober, near-scientific approach to the material, as well as a few distinctly Cronenbergian touches (like the biographical body art that has been grafted onto Viggo Mortensen's torso, flesh as a sign of humanity being one of the Canadian director's great running themes). Otherwise, it didn't really strike me as particularly profound or even significant (especially compared to his rawer early works, like Videodrome). Should that necessarily nullify the sheer pleasurable experience of being so mysteriously immersed in the film's ugly universe? Should I ultimately dismiss the film just because a part of me feels the substance doesn't quite measure up to its style?

Jim Emerson, a film writer who maintains a blog I read daily, has written quite a bit about form, style and content both in general and regarding No Country for Old Men, a film that many critics---even its staunchest supporters---have accepted as merely a brilliantly made thriller exercise with existential pretensions.

I quote from a November 27 entry he wrote:

When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the "visual" -- whether they're talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens -- it's a sure sign that they're not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers' application of "craft," "technique," and "style" (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we're all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement -- they're all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

For a medium that so emphasizes the visual, the aural, the sensational, I can't think of anything more logical than the idea that a film's style---its way of expressing something---is its content. The shots, the cuts---that's what a film, in some way, is ultimately about, and what those shots and cuts might mean in context. Words can certainly play a part in it, but in such an artistically inclusive medium, words are hardly everything; if they were---if we merely relied on a speeches or dialogue to give us clues as to what a movie is about---then a movie would be merely a moving slideshow rather than a work of cinema.

I may know all of this to be true deep down...but then I consider my own reactions to both No Country and There Will Be Blood, and I wonder if my suspicions toward the latter, in spite of how the film made me react in the moment, reflect a bit too much literalism on my part. My admiration for No Country comes mostly from its philosophical bent, from a view of the wider world that the filmmakers convey so convincingly. But that point of view is voiced mostly through its characters; does its imagery and technique support its themes? I think it does, but whenever I reflect back on the film---and it's been something I've been doing a lot recently---its images aren't so much what I'm thinking about. What I'm thinking about are its more prosaic qualities: say, that tense scene in the shop where Chigurh challenges the shopkeeper to "Call it"; the haunted, withdrawn quality of Sheriff Bell's monologues; that final showdown with Chigurh and Carla Jean. Do I like the film for the wrong reasons?

Emotions, however, are plentiful in There Will Be Blood---shock, awe, revulsion, fear, even some warmth. When Plainview slaps Eli Sunday around and buries his face into oil on the ground (a perverse trial by fire?), one can feel the weight of every single blow. Baby H.W. is looked on with something approaching real affection in a brief, wordless scene on a train, and the tenderness just about glows from the screen. The images and the sounds (especially the amazing Jonny Greenwood score) add to P.T. Anderson's controlled sensory assault: ejaculating oil wells; a face lighted by the fire Plainview witnesses, shrouded by the pitch-black darkness surrounding him; the blast of "holy" light that greets Plainview after he has woken up from a really bad night (an effect enhanced by the fact that the scene smash-cuts from a fade-to-black). All those images burn with a feverish intensity that serves the director's apparent attempt to instill a Biblical feel to his modern American myth; in some ways, it's even more successful than No Country at pushing sound and image to create an otherworldly atmosphere. Simply taking the sheer sensory experience of seeing the film into account, one could perhaps acclaim it as an indubitable masterpiece, and leave it at that.

Somehow, though, that isn't quite enough for me. In wrestling with this film over the past couple of months, I've come to realize: when you get right down to it, There Will Be Blood doesn't really have anything especially fresh and insightful to add to the lonely/greedy capitalist cliché that hasn't been explored with more humanity and complexity in the kinds of films---like Citizen Kane or Giant---that Anderson so lovingly evokes. Do people really, truly see something of themselves in a character as overscaled in its conception as Plainview is? I can't say I did. And, as much as I've come to accept the deliberate creepiness of the Eli Sunday character---he's not so much an opponent of Plainview's as a weaker twin---the fact that Anderson chooses this one-dimensional cretin to stand in for religion can't help but strike me as an unfair stacking of the deck in getting us to admire Plainview more easily. (It reminds me of the way Stanley Kubrick made grotesques out of pretty much everyone around Alex in A Clockwork Orange, with the effect---deliberate, I have to assume---of making the ultraviolent droogie seem more sympathetic by comparison.)

Do all of these possible flaws have much to do with the film's style? Compared to the wondrous images and fascinating technique (a lot of slow pans and sinuous zooms), I'm using its more literary qualities to poke holes in it. None of these issues seem to have bothered the film's biggest boosters, though, judging by their reviews---which leads me to assume that, unlike me, they are somehow able to wholeheartedly embrace the film on its own terms. It seems as if they can groove on the experience alone and perhaps come up with interpretations later, while I, in my literal-mindedness, can't quite fuse sensation and thought in the same way. But is there enough substance to sustain its obvious epic striving? Ah, but if we accept form as content, shouldn't the film's visual and aural brilliance be enough?

I dunno. I've almost always believed that form, while certainly important, isn't everything--- and this realization has gotten me to reflect on my own artistic priorities as a filmgoer. Sure, I like to be moved by a film as much as anyone else---but I also look to the movies to provide me not just sensual excitement, but also new perspectives, new ideas. I found those kinds of perspectives in No Country for Old Men, not so much in There Will Be Blood. (I still think about the latter quite a lot, don't get me wrong; but I'm still not exactly convinced that it's this new American masterpiece that many critics seem to be claiming for it.) But by preferring a work that inspires intellectual reflection over something that is, I'd argue, almost entirely about its style rather than about any insights into human nature it has to impart, am I somehow going against the nature of movies---a medium that seems more conducive to appealing to emotions rather than intellect? Music is so abstract that I rarely have trouble accepting a song or a symphony strictly in terms of the sounds and harmonies it creates, outside of any stated or unstated"program." Shouldn't cinema be thought of in the same way? And the fact that I strongly suspect that I don't really think of cinema that way may or may not suggest some kind of artistic shortcoming on my part.

Heady questions all. I don't really have definitive answers to them (or am I just afraid of the answers?). That's typical of me---I love to pose questions more than answer 'em, especially if they're as loaded as these ones. But hey, that's exactly what I hope for from the good movies I see---not so much answers, but real good questions worth mulling over.

Maybe thats a good spot to end this post on---a door left open for a continuation of thought processes in the future. I don't know if this whole entry has come off as genuinely thought-provoking or merely insufferably solipsistic, but if this has intrigued any of you at all, by all means, stay tuned...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sensations: Both Locked-In and Three-Dimensional

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm kicking around with the idea of writing a deeply personal, exploratory entry about my own movie tastes, because recently I've been pondering my free-floating ideas of what I, Kenji Fujishima, would consider a "good" movie---different for everyone, obviously, but not so easy to pin down for someone like me who tends to examine his reactions to almost anything under a microscope (especially if a particular reaction doesn't jibe with the consensus on something). I'd think I'm an emotional, Dionysian kind of guy ("How does it feeeeeel?" famously sang Bob Dylan), but the Apollonian in me almost always has to assert itself whenever I think I've settled on a particular opinion. It's the classic case, in other words, of "I felt great looking at it, but..."

More on that next week, perhaps...if I, uh, feel like it...

For now, this week's entry will mostly be short takes---on movies I've recently seen, and a couple tidbits about things going on in my (otherwise unremarkable) life.


I finally caught up with Julian Schnabel's celebrated adaptation of the literally blinked-out memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly last weekend, and I have to say: for a movie that obviously tries so hard to get inside the head of its main character---the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, a writer and editor-in-chief for Elle magazine who suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed and speechless as a result of a rare condition called "locked-in syndrome"---Schnabel's film ultimately made me feel more dispassionately impressed by the director's own visual ingenuity than feeling much specific empathy toward bedridden "Jean-Do."

Schnabel goes whole hog here, stylistically: lens flares, extended p.o.v. shots, metaphors made literal (a recurring image of a man in a diving suit underwater, for instance, that is meant to symbolize Bauby's own feeling of being trapped), relatively random flashbacks. Some of it is fascinating, some of it even wondrous, and certainly one can respect Schnabel's refusal to drown his movie in disease-movie-of-the-week bathos.

After a while, though, the sensory assault stops yielding the revelations of its first 20 minutes---in which we in the audience are successfully put into Bauby's body as he tries, with a good amount of frustration and resentment, to adjust to his new life---and becomes pretty monotonous and superficial. We never get a clear sense of the man as a fleshed-out human being, because Schnabel is apparently too busy trying to give us the impression that his swirling, flashy style is actually inside his ever-creative mind. But really, all we are left with, in the end, are the usual triumph-of-the-human-spirit clichés: he's angry about where he is now; he vows to stay productive amidst physical adversity; he tries to make amends for the person he was before, etc etc. Not that these clichés couldn't be genuinely moving stuff---there's a reason why Jim Sheridan's 1989 My Left Foot is so fondly remembered beyond its amazing Daniel Day-Lewis showcase---but Schnabel seems so wrapped up in his theoretically penetrating stylistic tropes that he seems to forget the living, breathing human being underneath. (Thankfully, Mathieu Amalric, the actor who plays Bauby, never forgets, although he has to fight a losing battle against Schnabel's visual fashion show.)

Maybe I should have read Bauby's memoir before seeing this film; perhaps it would have filled in some of the psychological gaps that Schnabel seems unaware exist. For me, the best way to look at The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is as a middlebrow experimental work---one that accepts the conventions of a standard-issue Miramax prestige drama and does its damnedest to dry out its sentimentality with a surfeit of visual surface activity meant to simulate Bauby's experiences and interpret his mindset. I applaud the intentions, and I admire parts of the film; I just wish the whole didn't seem so shallow and narcissistic---Schnabel, in effect, usurping Bauby's indomitable soul instead of locating and highlighting it.


More sensations. Even though I have only a passing familiarity with the music of U2, I decided to go check out U2 3D anyway after having heard a good deal about how dazzling and even revolutionary it was (apparently it's the first live-action movie to be shot entirely on digital 3D).

Well, they certainly do successfully simulate the experience not just of being at an actual U2 rock concert, but at times of being on-stage right next to the members. And there are a few memorable instances of awesome 3D visual representation: Bono's left hand seems to come right out of the screen to wipe away your tears during the band's rendition of "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; during one song, directors Catherine Owen and Mark Pellington play with putting words on the screen (in something approximating Godard style); and there are even instances of animation throughout that seem suspended in air thanks to the 3D technology.

Combined with the neon lights, uncluttered stage designs (done by Owen, the band's usual production designer) and the big-screen images behind the band that highlight the songs, U2 3D provides a real treat for fans. For non-fans like me, though, I felt mostly on the outside looking in---impressed in a detached way but not really inspired to ecstatic highs even by the isolated moments of 3D splendor.

Still, the film, at the very least, does suggest some real artistic possibilities for the digital 3D format---not just for the expected technological awe, but for some kind of genuine human emotion and expression. If anything, the abstracted visuals of U2 3D suggest a sincere attempt to visually represent the inclusiveness Bono and company are aiming for with their music, to bring people together, to "coexist"; that kind of ambition is not something you can say for a lot of 3D movies.

Whether any new enterprising artist, however, will take up the challenge of making serious art out of a technology that has been exploited mostly for spectacle remains to be seen.

Side note: having to wear 3D glasses on top of my usual glasses wasn't exactly the most pleasant experience either---maybe the final push for me to switch to contacts?

For those interested in what the glasses look like, a few pics below (all courtesy of Photo Booth---very sophisticated, I know).

And hey, it's me!


Okay, you can all stop clamoring for updates about my life all at once!

There's not much about my Wall Street Journal job that I feel particularly compelled to report; it's same-old, same-old, really (although don't take that as necessarily a complaint; I like stasis once in a while). I did finally qualify for health benefits from Dow Jones, though---after six months of work, I officially became a part-time regular employee at the end of February, and thus I was allowed health coverage. Power to all those who can live without health insurance for an extended period of time (like this film critic I read and admire), but, despite my artsy leanings, I do need a little bit of security in my life; I'm not so sure the starving-artist life is quite for me (although, as they say, you never know until you try...)

On an unrelated note: our dog Dusty has started to become trouble around the house. I mean, he never used to relieve himself indoors nearly as much as he's done in the past two weeks; now, it's come to the point that it's considered a good day for him if he can go the whole day without pissing on our floors once.

One of my younger brothers mentioned about a week ago that he knows a friend who had a dog who started having these "accidents" just before he died. Uh-oh.

All I know right now is, I have no idea why my parents are so seemingly reluctant to take him to a vet.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Look at Me, Ma! Belated Oscar Notes, Be Kind Rewind, Rats and Balloons

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sorry readers; I'm a little late with my planned weekly post.

First things first: take a peek at my Chop Shop review at The House Next Door---and by all means, check the movie out and see if I gave it a
fair hearing. All in all, I'd say it's worth seeing, if it's playing anywhere near your area.


Okay, so some belated Oscar commentary---not that anyone really cares at that point, but I kinda want to get this off my chest, so I'll inflict it upon all of you whether you want to read it or not ;-) .

Here's a reprint of a portion of a comment I made on a Facebook group thread in partial response to Marion Cotillard's Best Actress upset at last Sunday's ceremony:

Nothing against Cate Blanchett, but to be honest, her Bob Dylan impression in I'm Not There left me cold overall---even her Katharine Hepburn characterization in The Aviator had more soul. Of course, one could argue that her performance in I'm Not There isn't supposed to be soulful---if there was a point to...Todd Haynes's movie, it's that Bob Dylan is pretty much unknowable. Still, just b/c Blanchett gets all the man's mannerisms down pat doesn't mean it's automatically great acting. Far from a stunning channeling act, I was pretty much aware all the time that it was Blanchett imitating Dylan, and I found myself only able to muster begrudging respect for her obvious technique.

Same with Marion Cotillard, who won the Best Actress prize for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose; I'm impressed by her dedication, and intellectually I can appreciate how her flamboyance and showboating fits the part of a singer who apparently couldn't help but turn every song into a flamboyant showstopper. And yet I couldn't help but always be aware of her ACTING. She sure acted up a storm---and got uglified and adopted a hunched walk to boot (not even Charlize Theron went quite that far in Monster, although she sure looked like a monster as Aileen Wuornos)---and got an Oscar for her trouble.

Is this kind of flashy, vain stunt performance really the kind of thing Oscar should consistently be awarding over indelible, humane characterizations from scratch (like Julie Christie's eloquent portrayal of an Alzheimer victim in Away From Her)?

I guess I'm reacting not so much to the quality of the performances themselves, because I can at least summon up a bedgruding admiration toward Cate Blanchett's drag act and Cotillard's over-the-top technique (and, in checking out some YouTube clips from the Haynes film, I'll concede that once in a while Blanchett does infuse some feeling to a part that perhaps is more notable for its lack of it). I guess I've just become mightily skeptical of this trend of showering these glorified, show-offy impersonations---indeed, falling in with media hype and celebrating them as "embodiments" when, more often than not, such performances are merely, cynically calculated to impress---over many more deserving performances that, you know, actually create characterizations from something like scratch.

I'm certainly not diminishing every single biopic lead performance by bringing this up---for every vanity act like Charlize Theron's Aileen Wuornos horror show or Philip Seymour Hoffman's condescending Truman Capote, there are genuinely remarkable channeling acts like Daniel Day-Lewis's defiant Christy Brown (from My Left Foot) or Joaquin Phoenix's underappreciated Johnny Cash interpretation in Walk the Line---but it's almost as if every high-profile biopic lead performance (other than, maybe, Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin a few years ago) gets knee-jerk acclaim, whether or not the actor has actually managed to actually dig into the soul of the real-life figure he/she is playing. Oh, but he/she is actually trying to copy his/her subject's mannerisms and all down to the last detail---wow, that must be worth praising! Not so fast. For me, it's the difference between flash and heart---something that, to me, distinguishes a Cate Blanchett from a Julie Christie.

Other random Oscar notes:

Good call on Tilda Swinton, who managed to humanize a cliché dragon-lady lawyer in Michael Clayton to the point that you almost had to feel a little sorry for her as she was being bullied by George Clooney at the climax. Well, at least I did. (Maybe I just have fucked-up sympathies.) Anyway, the way Swinton played her character, you could sense she was just trying to keep up in a man's world---a desire that led her to make some pretty reprehensible decisions. That's the kind of imagination that deserves acclaim.

Oh, and for those who haven't seen the wonderful little movie Once (the real little indie that could of last year, not the Fox Searchlight-backed Juno), let me set the record straight: for its Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly," there is no soupy orchestration that goes along with it in the movie. None. Boy, that was a rather disappointing performance to watch---after that, even I would probably gag and dismiss it as trite emo crap. The magic of that first instance when the two main characters sit down in a music shop and play the tune---he on guitar, she on piano---comes from from its near-conspiratorial intimacy; it's two ordinary people having a wonderful private moment making music. Having sappy strings behind it totally ruins the effect. By all means, don't let that Oscar performance scare you off of a movie that rarely ever stoops to that kind of manipulative sentimentality.

Here, take a look:

And as for the Oscar ceremony itself---no, it wasn't particularly memorable or even all that exciting this year. But then I've never really watched it for the glamour. All that matters is that the show ran smoothly, host Jon Stewart had a few amusing jokes (at least after a rather lame opening monologue), and, most importantly, the Academy came up with a mostly respectable list of winners.

That's all I have to say about the Oscars this year. Time to focus on more important things (like the rise of Barack)?

By the way, for those who care: I didn't do too badly in my first-ever Wall Street Journal copy desk Oscar pool---sixth place. Damn you, Tilda and Cotillard, for tripping me up!



Some critics found the many touches of whimsy in Michel Gondry's previous film The Science of Sleep to be insufferably cutesy; me, I loved Gondry's handcrafted integrity as well as its descent into unexpectedly tragic territory in its final act, with its suggestions of self-criticism on the director's part. Live in the real world, Gondry seemed to be saying to his main character, instead of in your own self-absorbed, childlike head.

Judging from his new effort Be Kind Rewind, though, I can only wonder if he really meant what he suggested after all. Right at the outset, Be Kind Rewind clues you in that it takes place in some kind of Capraesque alternate universe---a self-contained fantasy world in which a VHS store still exists, one a couple of people around my age still frequent---and its first 30 hilarity-free minutes or so had me clutching my head from quirk overload. Jack Black's high-wire comic hipsterism can certainly be magnetic (witness High Fidelity and The School of Rock), but here I tired of his brain-addled schtick within his first two minutes onscreen. The endless gag revolving around Mos Def being unable to read letters backwards made me roll my eyes; and when this seemingly sincere guy---who wants to keep the VHS store in good condition for his practical, no-nonsense boss (Danny Glover)---somehow convinces himself to go along with Black's retarded plan to infiltrate a power plant that Black thinks is causing his headaches, I was ready to give this movie up as a fall into the deep end of suffocating preciousness for the usually more surefooted Gondry.

Once an accident at the power plant causes Black's head to become a magnetizer that leads all the tapes in the VHS store to be erased, however, Be Kind Rewind does become less exasperating. To please a longtime customer (Mia Farrow), Black and Def embark on a desperate, cockeyed plan to remake Ghostbusters in their own lo-fi image; the numerous Hollywood film parodies that flow forth from the unexpected popularity of their "Sweded" productions are genuinely cute and amusing. Eventually, though, copyright lawyers shut down the Sweding operation, the video store is threatened to be destroyed, and Gondry then lays the Capracorn on thick: the whole town unites to make their own movie, a faux biopic (oops, that word again!) of Fats Waller (a town cultural hero), and, even in the midst of the store's inevitable shutdown, the town rediscovers the magic and social solidarity of artistic creation. Gondry's vision is idealistic, nostalgic, and absolutely sincere; honestly, it's kinda sweet---and hard to gag on too much, because at least Gondry has enough real-world perspective not to throw in some last-minute twist that allows the store to stay open. Out with the old, in with the new---as long as we don't forget the old.

I can't bring myself to totally dislike Be Kind Rewind---as a movie fan myself, its celebration of DIY filmmaking and gentle satire of small-town celebrity is admittedly quite irresistible. (Its final five minutes are magical, it must be said.) But overall, the film can't help but strike me as a disappointment; The Science of Sleep---not to mention Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although one might consider that more a Charlie Kaufman work than an all-out Gondry effort---was simply better realized, less evasively cutesy, and less sentimental.


"This rat symbolizes obviousness."

That was the final line of last night's episode of The Simpsons, and I laughed my ass off. Why, you may be asking?

Remember the mind-numbingly literal final shot of The Departed? The rat scurrying across the railing outside of Matt Damon's apartment? Last night's Simpsons episode---a takeoff of that Oscar-winning film---ended with a rat scurrying across the top of a gate, and then Ralph Wiggum popping up out of a garbage can, pointing to the rat and uttering that line above.

Truer words have never been spoken, I say!

The rest of the episode, by the way, was serviceable---it used both basic plot elements and one memorable music cue (the Dropkick Murphys "Shipping Up to Boston" rocker) from the film, but transplanted it to Springfield Elementary School, with a new kid (voiced by Topher Grace) infiltrating Bart Simpson's circle of friends to try to take him down for Principal Skinner---but that last line was utterly brilliant---worth sitting through the rest for. (Too bad there wasn't an equivalent of the Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin characters, although one could argue that their characters in the film were already approaching parodies anyway.)


Finally, a couple of stills from a classic film I finally saw a couple days ago, Albert Lamorisse's wonderful 1956 short The Red Balloon. It's in Technicolor, and just look at the glorious colors in these frame grabs:

There's more to this film than its colors, of course; maybe in my next post I'll write something a bit more extensive about it. For now, though, just gawk at them if you've never seen them. Well, they made my Saturday, at least.