Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Video for the Day, For Your Job Frustrations

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Feeling stuck at a seemingly dead-end job, desiring to move on but being held back by pesky practical matters and such? Minutemen—the great 1980s punk band from California—can articulate that frustration for you...and did in "This Ain't No Picnic," arguably the finest cut from their 1984 magnum opus Double Nickels on the Dime.

There's even a video for it:

Have a nice day at work!

Monday, June 28, 2010

(Partial) Weekend Film Round-up: Ecstatic Mayhem

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Here is a list of the films I saw this weekend, in the order I saw them:

Around a Small Mountain (2009; Dir.: Jacques Rivette)
The Naked Spur (1953; Dir.: Anthony Mann)
Winchester '73 (1950; Dir.: Anthony Mann)
Eastern Condors (1987; Dir.: Sammo Hung)

I technically went to see a fifth film in a theater, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Afghan-war documentary Restrepo (2010)...but I saw it on Saturday morning on two paltry hours of sleep after celebrating a friend's 25th birthday the night before at a beer garden in Astoria. About five minutes into the film, I felt my eyes getting heavy, and approximately 10 minutes later, I pretty much gave up fighting to stay awake, drifting in and out of consciousness during its 93-minute duration. So obviously, even though I paid my whopping-$13 general-admission ticket at Angelika Film Center to sit in a theater showing Restrepo, I can't say I actually saw it.

And I had hoped to finally see the highly touted Greek film Dogtooth (2009) sometime this weekend, but, as ever with arrangements involving more than one person, plans shifted and eventually got nixed entirely.

As you can tell, then, this was a bit of an odd weekend in moviegoing for me...but hey, I saw a handful of good-to-great films in theaters, and in between them all, I was able to work on those precious social skills in the company of good friends and intriguing strangers. All of this was done in two straight days in New York...and these days, the more time I spend in New York, and thus away from that increasingly embittered mental battlefield that is home, the better.

Oh, yeah, and I got drunk. So there's that.


Though I took in four films this weekend, in this post I'm only going to get around to one of those four. The Rivette film is starting a run at IFC Center on July 9, so I plan to say a few words about that film then. Meanwhile, the two Anthony Mann films are part of a retrospective of the director's work that started Friday and runs for the next three weeks at Film Forum; I thought it might be more fun to round up all the films I get around to seeing during the series and offer up an Andrew Sarris-style summation of the director based on those films.

That leaves Eastern Condors, a 1987 action epic directed by and starring Sammo Hung, a legend of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and beyond (he's still fairly active today)...and, even now, I'm finding that I don't really have much to say about the film other than that I had an absolute blast at every single madly inventive, stunt- and action-packed, over-the-top, unabashedly shallow minute of this film, with its kinetic pleasures amplified by seeing it on a newly discovered (if far from pristine) 35mm print with an enthusiastic crowd at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater as part of this year's New York Asian Film Festival (its ninth year).

This mix of The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is set in 1976 in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but it is as interested in adhering to historical record as Quentin Tarantino was for World War II in Inglourious Basterds (2009)—in other words, not at all. There's barely a storyline to speak of; it has something to do with two commando groups and a trio of Cambodian female guerrilla fighters navigating through a still-treacherous Vietnam in order to blow up the nation's nuclear arsenal. And don't look for much in the way of political or moral complexity; this is a comic-book adventure through and through.

Really, it's all just a clothesline for Sammo Hung to pelt us with spectacle—the glorious spectacle of all manner of whacked-out action scenes and stunts featuring hilariously skewed characters. And as such, it's the kind of film that's difficult to write a whole lot about. It just has to be seen to be believed.

So, for a taste, watch this clip:

When he reviewed the first Lethal Weapon film in 1987, Roger Ebert wrote:

In a sense, a movie like "Lethal Weapon" isn't about violence at all. It's about movement and timing, the choreography of bodies and weapons in time and space. In lesser movies, people stand there and shoot at each other and we're bored. In a movie with the energy of this one, we're exhilarated by the sheer freedom of movement; the violence becomes surrealistic and less important than the movie's underlying energy level.

That's a pretty apt summarization of the pleasures of Eastern Condors; you either go along with its ecstatic mayhem or you dismiss it all as adolescent stupidity. (How adolescent? The film even features sadistic young Vietnamese kids playing Russian roulette á la The Deer Hunter (1978)—young kids!) As someone who enjoys indulging in his adolescent whims every once in a while—as well as someone who is pretty much a sucker for Hong Kong cinema of this vintage (seriously, there's something about the Cantonese dialect that I find endlessly captivating, even though I neither speak barely a word of it nor understand it)—I savored this from beginning to end. Yeah, it's pretty silly and mindless...but it's also oh so awesome!

(The 20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD of Eastern Condors released in 2003 is out of print, but you can find reasonably priced used copies online. Or you can go to and find a Region 3 DVD there, if you have a region-free player.)

P.S. Guess who made an appearance after the screening of Eastern Condors?

That guy standing on the far right is indeed Sammo Hung himself, still with a lot of youthful energy, it seems, at 58...though perhaps not quite as much as the guy sitting on the far left, film critic and New York Asian Film Festival co-programmer Grady Hendrix, whom I had never actually seen in person but who rushed onto the stage before the screening and introduced it in the declamatory manner of, say, Peter Ustinov's circus master in Lola Montès (1955) trying to build anticipation for seeing a spectacular feat of acrobatics. In this case, it sure as hell worked. Forget Hung (Eastern Condors is my first Hung film, actually); Hendrix himself seems like a potentially electrifying interview subject!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Not Far Enough? Ozu Vs. Pixar



I saw both a press screening of a new digital restoration of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 silent film I Was Born, But...—starting a two-week run at IFC Center today—and the latest Pixar production Toy Story 3 (2010) on the same day, last Friday, and I was startled to discover the extent to which seeing the earlier film influenced my less-than-completely-ecstatic response to recent one.

I was all set to post a lengthy comparative review today...but regarding Toy Story 3, it looks like my friend Ryan Kelly, he of the blog Medfly Quarantine, has me beat with this post, in which he voices criticisms that align fairly closely with my own. So I'll use it as a jumping-off point.

Don't get me wrong: I like Toy Story 3 a great deal, and there are a lot of points Kelly makes with which I part company. For instance, I didn't refresh my memory on the first two Toy Story films just before seeing the latest installment—my memory of Toy Story 2 (1999) is particularly fuzzy—so I can't say the "uninspired" references to the first two films he dislikes bothered me. I didn't find the film's ending to be quite as "embarrassingly saccharine" as Kelly does: It's sentimental, sure, but the sap is tempered by its touching visualization of Andy's burgeoning maturity—playing with his toys one last time while recognizing that he's taking one step toward adulthood by parting with them, precious Woody included. And in general, I'm not nearly as much of a Pixar skeptic as he is: Sure, not every film of theirs is a masterpiece, but the studio nevertheless produces mainstream animated pictures that often put live-action counterparts to shame in depth and ambition. Surely that's nothing to sneeze at. (Not for nothing that a Twitter acquaintance of mine tweeted re: Toy Story 3, "So is this the first movie for adults this summer?")

And yet, maybe for the first time in a Pixar film, Toy Story 3 made me understand what Kelly is talking about when he speaks of "compromise" being an unfortunate, if probably unavoidable, quality of Pixar films. As he sums up the issue:

All Pixar is wrought with compromise, and the latest installment in the Toy Story franchise is no different. What I find so frustrating about Pixar is that all their films contain hints of what they are capable of if they weren't forced to create art with hundreds of millions of people's expectations in mind, and if ever a film illustrated the folly of giving the people what they want (or what men in suits think they want), Toy Story 3 is it.

I don't agree with all of Kelly's examples of compromised vision in Toy Story 3 (hey, I laughed at the lowbrow humor and pop-culture in-jokes!)...but this one I agree with:

Never has the need for compromise in the work of Pixar been more evident than in the picture's climax, which has already become a famous sequence in its own right. The toys, through a convoluted series of misadventures (no, really) find themselves on a conveyor belt that leads to an incinerator, and this sequence is some of the most effective imagery Pixar has ever created; the flames are animated so vividly that you can almost feel the heat (and I saw it in 2D). This sequence culminates in the most fully realized individual moment in any Pixar film, as the toys fall in to the incinerator and interlock hands with one another, and Woody, always the hero thinking up clever ways of escape, realizes he is powerless and accepts his implicit fate. Only it's not implicit, as a literal Deus Ex Machina comes in to save the day, morphing the sequence from an examination of mortality and family into just another cheap thrill in literally the blink of an eye. Coming from someone who grew up with these films (I was 7 when the first came out), it's impossible to deny this sequence's effect, but it's devoid of any real consequence because it's not even a remote possibility that Pixar will kill the toys, even though that's probably the most fitting ending imaginable.

Honestly, I was thinking the exact same thing at that moment: That sense of death impending for our beloved characters is powerful, and if it had ended right there, it would have driven the point home boldly and beautifully. But that's negated by what I assume is an ingrained corporate-driven need to not rock the boat too much lest such a downbeat conclusion alienate their considerable fanbase. And while the film's actual ending works well enough in sending the audience out on a touching high note, I couldn't help but think, This film may end happily for the toys onscreen...but wait a minute: Won't they have to go through this kind of mortal anxiety in, say, 10-15 years? The fact that the film doesn't even seem to be aware of that bit of emotional complexity suggests, to me, that, for all the noise it makes about dealing with mature issues of mortality and end-of-life anxiety, the filmmakers—director Lee Unkrich, credited screenwriter Michael Arndt and co-screenwriters Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton—are ultimately more interested in comforting its audience rather than unsettling it.

Worse, one can tell the film is heading in darker directions many times, but each time it pulls back from the precipice with a convenient detail or a reassuring shift in tone. So of course Woody's faithfulness to Andy, questioned so vehemently by the other toys, is validated in the end (Andy really was going to put his toys in the attic, after all), while Lotso Huggin Bear—the kind of villain that is multifaceted enough to spout a lot of undeniable harsh truth—ends up committing one last mustache-twirling villainous act and then gets his comeuppance, as Hollywood villains predictably must.

That sense of compromise has never really bothered me this much before in a Pixar film, mostly, I guess, because there were compensations to override my misgivings. For instance: I didn't like what Pete Docter & Bob Peterson did with Carl Fredericksen's explorer idol Charles Muntz in Up (2009)—turning him into a one-dimensional stock villain, trashing his understandable ambitions and and treating his eventual demise as mere action-flick just desserts—but the film spoke to me so deeply in matters of life and living that that failing didn't spoil the whole for me. And yes, I do find the second half of WALL-E (2008) more pandering and less eloquent than its first half, but its first half is still such an astoundingly lyrical achievement that again, I can accept the whole, flaws and all.

So why was I so bothered by the compromises in Toy Story 3? The only explanation I can offer is that I had just seen Ozu's I Was Born, But... for the first time earlier in the day.

Granted, one film features human beings, while the other features anthropomorphic toys as major characters. And mortality isn't a major theme in I Was Born, But...; unlike Unkrich & co. in Toy Story 3, Ozu doesn't have life and death on his mind. Broadly speaking, however...well, you could say both are "children's films" in a sense: Ozu subtitles his film "a picture book for grown-ups," while Unkrich's film is about children's toys. And both films focus on the ways characters handle the usual disappointments in life: the shattering of childish illusions in Ozu's film, the inevitable destruction of one's purpose in life in Unkrich's.

Ozu, with his familiar warmth and humor, allows what plays like a charming, lighthearted comedy about children's natural intransigence in its first two acts to darken considerably in its third act into something approaching high emotional drama, as the two boys (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) react harshly to the discovery their beloved father (Tatsuo Sato) is not the "great man" they have imagined him to be. The disappointment they feel, and express quite harshly, is comparable in gut-wrenching impact to the toys' near-death experience in Toy Story 3; in both cases, one senses the end of an innocence toward the way the grown-up world actually works.

But while the filmmakers of Toy Story 3 turns away from the disturbing implications of its most powerful image—with the toys holding hands with each other in momentary acceptance of a terrible fate that surely every toy faces in the end—and finishes with a sentimentally nostalgic coda that, for all its pathos, felt to this viewer like a bit of a cop-out, Ozu is intelligent and humane enough to, if not end on a totally downbeat note, at least give enough screen time and emotional weight to the moment of the two boys' shattering of illusions to complicate its seemingly upbeat "life-goes-on" conclusion. That moment of reckoning in Toy Story 3, by contrast, isn't given nearly the same kind of weight to make its implications linger beyond that one supercharged moment; it is, in Ryan Kelly's words, "just another cheap thrill."

I know, I know: I'm committing a cardinal film-critic rule of judging a film based on what it's not rather than what it is. Let me say again: Toy Story 3 is a very good film, heartfelt, funny and thrilling in all the usual Pixar ways. I would not think of discouraging anyone from seeing it; at the very least, it will entertain you in the kind of clean, honest ways that have seemed in short supply so far this summer at mainstream multiplexes. But given the choice between a film like I Was Born, But... that looks sympathetically yet unflinchingly at childhood idealism and adult compromise, and a film like Toy Story 3 that gestures toward that kind of complexity but ends up mostly celebrating childhood idealism, I can't help but naturally gravitate towards the former. In this case, Ozu can extend your knowledge and understanding of the human experience in ways that Pixar can only dream of doing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hey, New Jersey Can Be Cool Too! A Photo Essay

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Last week, Quinnipiac University released a poll that, among other things, asked New Jerseyans how satisfied they were with life in the state in which they lived. The results were not, um, encouraging, to say the least: 75% of residents polled said they were either "somewhat dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied," which was apparently the worst satisfaction rating ever in the state's history. On the other end of the satisfaction scale, a mere 2% said they were "very satisfied."

Wow. So do most New Jersey residents feel the same way Ted Mosby of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother feels?

Look. I won't lie: I'm trying to get out of New Jersey; I've been thinking about for many, many months. But it's not because I hate the place. Sure, it may not match New York in glamour and grandeur; and yeah, it costs a fortune to actually live here, what with its sky-high property taxes and all. Other than that, though, it's fine...livable...generally harmless, at least in my own personal experience of it. If New York can sometime seem to like sprawling-metropolis overload, New Jersey, even in its busiest areas, can provide a more modest, welcome respite from all that.

This past weekend, for about a couple of hours out in the heat on Saturday, I was reminded that New Jersey does have genuine pleasures to offer. My parents and I spent some time riding our bicycles around Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park near Princeton, and it was a pretty nice excursion, all in all. For a couple of hours, at least, it made me forget my desire to move to New York, and I allowed myself to simply take stock of the beauties that were right in my backyard.

To illustrate, here are some shots I took with my Canon Powershot SD400 during our brief excursion there:

Setting the scene

 My parents, or two against nature

Moments of grace

Moments of serenity, for people...

...and for ducks

On a clear day, you can see...forever?

My parents riding, back... front

Moments of evanescent but cherishable connection

Oh no...not that Lakeview Terrace...right?

Bringing it all back home

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weekly Musical Discoveries: Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me


I have a bit of a weakness for a certain kind of work of art: the type of imperfect work that may not entirely add up, but which takes so many risks that, if I ultimately end up liking it simply on the basis of its ambition, I'll usually prefer them to more "perfect" works by the same artist.

So while, sure, I'll recognize that Revolver (1966) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) are consistently great works, the stylistically-all-over-the-place two-disc White Album (1968) will always loom larger in my mind. Same for, oh, Hüsker Dü's sprawling punk-rock epic Zen Arcade (1984) over their more concentrated New Day Rising (1985). Or, in the movie realm, it's a case of preferring, for instance, the messily operatic fervor of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) over the more controlled (and to my mind thin and overblown) chaos of There Will Be Blood (2007).

Indie folk songstress Joanna Newsom's most recent album, the three-disc behemoth Have One On Me (2010), fits squarely in this "imperfectly perfect" realm, though it may be the quietest musical epic you've heard. It is also, I think, her best album yet.

(Photo credit: Annabel Mehran)

To be honest, I was put off by the relentless whimsy of her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, recognizing her lyrical smarts and finding the music pretty, but feeling profoundly indifferent to her apparent obsession with antiquity. (That's nice, Joanna, but do you have something to say about our time in exploring the olde days?) Then her song structures became more complex and interesting in her 2006 follow-up Ys, somehow making said whimsy more palatable (either that, or I had just gotten used to it). Now, in Have One On Me, she has, for the most part, dropped the whimsy altogether to more directly address the romantic fears and desires stirring in her heart, while not stinting on the experimental song structures.

The result is some of the most purely beautiful music she has ever created and performed. The beauty isn't just in her lyrics, which somehow feel more concrete than before without sacrificing their sense of poetic elusiveness; Newsom's incredibly delicate and vulnerable singing also takes one breath away. I was never particularly bothered by the feyness of her voice in her previous two albums; the girlishness was nothing if not wholly appropriate to the childlike whimsy of her words. On Have One On Me, she mostly sounds more "normal" in her tone and inflections, befitting the more "normal" lyrical content. But she's no less hypnotic; if anything, she sounds more genuinely expressive here than she has before, and not merely affected. 

I could go on, but I think I'll let possibly my favorite cut from the album, "Baby Birch," speak for itself:

Perhaps Have One On Me is too long and self-indulgent. Perhaps not every single tune is memorable. But in the face of music of such melting serenity—a mood that carries it through even less inspired cuts—I find it difficult to complain too loudly. When it comes to art, I'll take passion over perfection just about every time.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Tunes That Make Me Feel Fine

NEW YORK—Today is the summer solstice, and that means summer—prime time for hot weather, air conditioning, beaches, exposed flesh and turn-your-brain-off action-movie entertainment—is officially here (unofficially, it's been around, on-an-off, for a few weeks now).

You know what time it is? It's time to start humming those summer tunes!

I've got three favorites:

The eternally classy Frank Sinatra with his classic rendition of  "Summer Wind." Really, that's all that needs to be said.

Thank you, John McTiernan, for introducing me to Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" years ago by using it in the witty opening of Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)! Also, bonus points for directly appealing to my love for New York City (warts, rank odors and all).

"Summer breeze makes me feel fine / Blowing through the jasmine in my mind." This wonderfully wistful Seals and Crofts tune sure makes me feel fine every time I hear it. Here's a great tune to play sitting out on a porch on a preferably breezy summer evening.

Honorable mention: The entirety of Vampire Weekend's 2008 self-titled debut album. Listen to it while driving on a warm summer day, with the top down and the wind blowing in your face. Even if it's not explicitly about summer, its driving rhythms and infectious sense of fun will get you in the proper summer mood, guaranteed. But hey, don't take my word for it. (The band's second album, Contra, released this year, isn't as conducive to this kind of thing, but still a fine record in its own right.)

Here's their song "A-Punk" from that album (briefly featured in the second half of my California video, by the way). Don't you think it has a surfer-music vibe to it?

Those are my choices for great summer music material. What are yours, my friends? I'd like to hear your choices. Maybe I'll discover a new favorite.

Comment away!

Weekend Film Round-up: Fantasy and Reality, Spanning All Classes

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Yes, my friends, I did see the big box-office draw of the weekend, Toy Story 3. I have some things to say about it, but I'm saving my thoughts for Friday, when I plan to post something about Pixar's latest production along with a few words about a digital restoration of Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 silent film I Was Born, But... beginning a two-week run at IFC Center that same Friday. I saw both of those films—the Ozu in an advanced screening—on the same day, and my first-ever viewing of Ozu's masterpiece may have somewhat influenced my response to Toy Story ways that didn't always reflect positively on the newer film.

I'll leave it at that for now. In the about a portrait of upper-class ennui and a working-class maybe-fairy tale?


Only a few months ago did I finally introduce myself to Michelangelo Antonioni's groundbreaking 1960 film L'Avventura on DVD; in fact, the encounter compelled me to write this appreciation of long shots in movies. What I didn't mention in that post was that my overall reaction to the film was not overwhelmingly positive. I admired it, sure, and certainly concur that it is a considerable work—but the profoundly haunting experience other critics have described never quite materialized.

After this year so far of eye-opening repertory film viewing, though, I have a feeling that I may need a big-screen theatrical experience to fully appreciate Antonioni's meditation on upper-class ennui. Maybe his long shots, for one thing, simply demand a higher resolution for them to truly unnerve. (At least the smaller dimensions of my 42" LCD televisions set at home wasn't enough to dim the beauty of Antonioni's '60s muse, Monica Vitti.)

In the meantime, though...there's Le Amiche, an early work of his from 1955 that, to my mind, explores a lot of the same emotional and thematic terrain he approached in L'Avventura but in a less forbidding and more affecting manner.

Not that the film—showing at the Film Forum this week, through Thursday, in a pristine new 35mm restoration courtesy of the Bologna Cineteca—is free from Antonioni's familiar style and obsessions. In Le Amiche, one can sense some of those obsessions in rough-draft form: a fascination with human beings dwarfed by the landscape surrounding them, an interest in expressively navigating his camera through indoor and outdoor space, and a preoccupation with the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the idle rich. But Antonioni's storytelling style is relatively more conventional than it would be in his later work.

Perhaps, though, it's that directness with which he addresses the complex emotions of his quartet of women—one of them a woman named Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) who returns to Torino after many years to open a new branch of a fashion salon, and finds herself entangled in a complicated, and sometimes destructive, web of romantic relationships among a group of privileged men and women—that makes Le Amiche as moving as it is. If he steadfastly refused to psychologize his empty characters in L'Avventura, here he—taking his cues from a novel by Cesare Pavese—still allows us a somewhat sympathetic handle on his characters without ever fully explaining their behavior. Besides, it is possible the women Clelia—more ambitious than most others in the social circles she travels in Torino—deals with don't necessarily have a grasp of what animates them (other than boredom, perhaps).

Le Amiche, then, may be less alienating and thus more approachable than L'Avventura, but in its multifaceted examination of the meaning of love among the members of a privileged class, the earlier film is arguably even more powerful and thought-provoking. For Antonioni, the bereft spirituality of the idle rich is never a subject for easy one-note mockery or condescension.


If you've seen trailers for Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan's latest film Ondine (2009), you may think you're about walk into a real-life fairy tale of a movie. But that isn't what the actual film is; it's a fairy tale, but not in the way you would think. Instead, it's a quotidian domestic drama that soon takes on fairy-tale dimensions as the mysteries surrounding its title character multiply, and as one character—Annie (Alison Barry), daughter of divorced fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell)—offers an intriguing fantastical explanation for the existence of the woman (Alicja Bachleda) he fishes out from the sea at the beginning. It's an explanation that Syracuse and much of the town seems to want to believe...even when the truth ends up being far less appealing.

Ondine's mix of fantasy and reality isn't completely seamless, and eventually Jordan runs out of inspiration in trying to explain away the film's many mysteries in a rather rushed ending. But as an exploration of the ways ordinary people latch onto fantasy as a way to clarify the physical and emotional realities in front of them, it's often enchanting and even inspiring. And Jordan, with the help of ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, creates a world—a not especially glamorous one, but still one suffused with a strangely beguiling otherworldly glow—in which fantasy and reality convincingly reside.  

It is a lush, transporting fable that is, in many ways, about the power of fables...and, by extension, about the power of movie fantasy in general. At its best, Ondine offers a potent, touching reminder of why one loves movies in the first place. At least, it did for me.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day, Dad

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Here is my father, Toshio Fujishima, next to my mother (taken last year in Japan):

Dad, I may not talk to you nearly as much as I talk to Mom (but guess who I've talked about more here at this blog?). But in many ways, I feel more of a kinship with you, both philosophically and personally. Certainly, I feel that I think more like you on many big issues—like how to live one's life in general—than I ever will with Mom. And of course, you are always there to pick me up from the train station to take me home every evening, thus delivering me from my increasingly irritating job commute.

For all the silences between us, I know I can count on you for support, and even necessary criticism, whenever I need it the most. For all that, I am deeply grateful.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. (Now, if only you would just quit smoking already...)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Literary Interlude, Courtesy of Nathanael West

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Yesterday, I finished reading Nathanael West's famous 1939 Hollywood horror/satire novel The Day of the Locust, and was so thoroughly dazzled by the particular passage below—coming as it does in the midst of that amazing apocalypse he unleashes in the finale—that I felt a great need to briefly chime in here and share this with you all:

New groups, whole families, kept arriving. [Tod] could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment of leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

My response to this? God help me if I ever get to such a jaded, cynical point in my own life! (Although, judging by some of the thoughts running through my head during Toy Story 3 last night, I wonder if I haven't reached that point already...)

Oh, and if you haven't already read The Day of the Locust: Yes, I do think it is worth reading, provided that you're able to adjust to its surreal wavelength and not expect much in the way of realism, psychological or otherwise. Though it's commonly considered a satire, to me it reads mostly as a grotesque horror tale about the dark side of the Hollywood dream factory; that is why its over-the-top ending feels all too appropriate. I'm not sure that I find West's bleak vision totally persuasive—I have this nagging feeling that his targets are a bit too easy for its satire to be particularly penetrating—but, whatever you may think about what he's expressing, he does so with a ferocious intensity that, at the very least, demands respect. And nowhere do you sense that ferocity than in the passage above.

Okay, back to enjoying the weekend...

Friday, June 18, 2010

An Image for the Day, To Get You in a Weekend Mood

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I think I pretty much exhausted my blogging energy with my four-posts-in-24-hours barrage Wednesday-going-into-Thursday. Am I crazy or what? (On second thought, don't answer that.) So, to close out the week, I leave you all with this:

This is my way of pointing the way toward the weekend—which looks to be a pleasant one, weather-wise—the way Sami Frey points the way toward English class in Jean-Luc Godard's great 1964 film Band of Outsiders (which, by the way, I wrote about earlier this year here). Up and at 'em!

I may be back early on Sunday for a Father's Day post (because I've spoken too much about my mother on this blog in the past, and not nearly enough about my dad). Nevertheless: Have a lovely weekend, my friends!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hot Sleuthing Action in Cold Weather


Tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cold Weather (2010), the as-yet-unreleased third feature by independent filmmaker Aaron Katz, is screening for a second time at the ongoing BAMcinemaFEST (sponsored by my place of employment, The Wall Street Journal). I saw it at its first screening during the series, on Saturday evening, and while I can't say that this is my favorite of Katz's three features to date, it shows arguably the most distinctive of the so-called "mumblecore" filmmakers going outside of his comfort zone with an audacity that, at the very least, is quite entertaining.

For those who have seen Katz's previous film Quiet City (2007)—a wonderfully romantic and visually poetic account of the stirrings of love between two wandering twentysomethings in New York, and a movie that pretty much hits every single sweet spot in my moviegoing soul—Cold Weather begins comfortably enough. Though the dominant mood of its opening half hour is more downbeat than in Quiet City, Katz's sympathy for his drifting characters—particularly Doug (Cris Lankenau), a former forensic-science major and Sherlock Holmes-wannabe who has decided to drop out of school and return home to live with his sister in Portland, Oregon, where he finds himself working in an ice factory to pass the time—is recognizable, as are the realistically halting rhythms of their interactions and Katz's penchant for alternating between scenes of fly-on-the-wall observation and expressively framed images of quiet beauty (with cinematographer Andrew Reed once again doing some handsome DV lensing). So far, so evocative.

Halfway through, however, Cold Weather suddenly turns into a full-blown mystery tale, complete with codes, puzzles and revelations—as if tracking down Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) after co-worker/friend Carlos (Raúl Castillo) informs him in a panic that she has mysteriously disappeared from her hotel room finally gives Doug a purpose in his life. And Katz clearly wants us to be aware of the tonal shift: mostly forsaking the patient long takes in the first half, he shoots and edits the second half more or less like a suspense thriller, asking composer Keegan DeWitt to turn up the heat on his score, and just generally exulting in—and playfully mocking—the genre tropes in which he dabbles.

Even in the second half, though, there are moments of warm, low-key repose between the characters, most notably between Doug and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) as they close in the culprit behind Rachel's disappearance. A stake-out, for instance, eventually leads Gail to divulge details of a failed relationship she had concealed from her brother. If anything, Cold Weather is about the quiet evolution of this sibling relationship, from mere acceptance to something like genuine affection. It's fitting, then, the film ends not with any final dramatic twists, but with Doug and Gail sitting in a car, Doug finding an old mixtape he once made for her and rewinding it in the car's tape player.

Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure, even a few days after seeing this film, that Katz's attempt to blend "mumblecore" and detective procedural wholly succeeds; if I have a misgiving about his otherwise refreshing approach, it's that ultimately the film's resonance feels a bit thin compared to the aching romanticism of Quiet City or the sense of a teenager's growing maturation in his promising debut feature Dance Party, USA (2006). In other words, I wonder if Katz would have been better off deciding from the outset to make a genre piece rather than another one of his naturalistic mood pieces, instead of coming up with this rather jarring, schizophrenic film.

Nevertheless, in hindsight I appreciate that Katz is trying to do something different from what he has done before, and I applaud him for doing so. What it lacks in the eloquence of his previous work, it generally makes up for in good-humored chutzpah, while still offering the same generosity of feeling that I treasure from his previous two films. It's also just fun to watch. Really.

P.S. After the film on Saturday, Katz and a bunch of other cast and crew members, as seen in the above photo (Katz is on the farthest right), partook in a Q & A session with the audience, and Katz revealed that, at the time of writing the script, he was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes mysteries and simply decided, one late night, to incorporate that into his script. That's the way it plays onscreen: as if the film itself had simply decided, at one point, to become a detective procedural.

I have some small doubts as to how much the shift pays off in the end. Others seem to have no problem with it. Only one way to find out where you stand...

P.P.S. Katz's first two features are available on DVD in a lovely two-disc set from the very fine independent label Benten Films. If you don't swoon at least a little bit after seeing Quiet City, then I'm not sure I wanna know you...

P.P.P.S. Here's a fun interview Katz did with Simon Abrams over at the New York Press, in which he offers up thoughts on some of his favorite action films of the '80s and '90s. Hey, he likes Renny Harlin as much as I do (though I personally still prefer Die Hard 2 over Cliffhanger)! And he likes Michael Bay's The Rock, too! Hell yeah!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Psycho at 50: My Tribute (Written Four Years Ago)


Today, cinephiles all over the world—or, at least, all over the blogosphere, which has become a major part of my world—celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic Psycho.

In the course of reading some of the tributes to the film—among them Gary Susman's for the Inside Movies blog at Moviefone; Ali Arikan's appreciation at Edward Copeland on Film; a reprint of Andrew Sarris's original 1960 review, his first at The Village Voice; and even Kim Morgan's fresh take on Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-by-shot color remake—I suddenly remembered that I myself had written a brief appreciation for this groundbreaking work for a local newspaper, The Home News Tribune, about four years ago when the film played during a series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And then I thought it might be fun to republish it here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, since there's no longer a link to it available.

Here then, complete and unedited, is my tribute to Psycho...written four years ago:

“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

That memorable saying is uttered by Norman Bates, one of the major characters of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic Psycho, which will be screened tomorrow over at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of a series entitled “Bad Guys, Badasses, and Other Mean Spirits: Great Villains in Cinema.”

Norman Bates is indeed one of the most fascinatingly morbid of movie characters, but calling him a “villain” doesn’t quite do him justice. To me, the word “villain” suggests a one-note snarling bad guy, one who is easy to hate. Psycho is much richer than that because it understands the villainy lurking inside even the most unassuming of people—and not just in Norman.

Norman Bates, obviously, is the one most people remember from the film, and with good reason. You know how it’s often said about some killers on the news that “he always seemed like a nice person” to neighbors? Norman is one of those people. Sure, he has his quirks: taking up bird-stuffing as a hobby, being a little too attached to his mother. Otherwise, though, Norman—smoothly played by Anthony Perkins in his career role—seems mostly harmless. Listening to him talk so candidly to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), one would probably only conclude that he was a weird and sheltered but basically agreeable fellow…and certainly not one capable of murder.

But murder he does—although Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano do not reveal this until the end of the picture, in which we find out that he, not his mother, killed Marion Crane in the shower (in the film’s most famous setpiece, the so-called “shower scene”).

Psycho isn’t entirely about Norman, however; in fact, he doesn’t even appear until after the first 40 minutes or so. The focus of the first section of the film is on badness of a different, less obviously horrific sort: Marion’s attempt to flee Phoenix, Arizona with a large sum of money that she steals from a rich client of her employer’s. As she basically fumbles about in her attempts to conceal the money, escape the watchful eyes of a cop on her tail, and avoid looking too suspicious in the eyes of a used-car salesman, we hear voiceover dialogues: her ideas about what people must be saying back home about her act of theft. Expressions of her guilt, in other words—a guilt that is uncannily mirrored in the film’s second half, as Norman tries to cover his guilt in a similarly fumbling manner.

In many ways, Psycho is not just a highly effective horror thriller. At heart, it is a disturbing, uncompromising look the madmen in all of us, murderous or not. In film after film, Alfred Hitchcock explored the psychologies of morally compromised characters: people who spy on others out of boredom (Rear Window), people who ruthlessly try to remake others in their own image (Vertigo), or, in Psycho, people who act irrationally out of frustration. Marion steals the money because she’s frustrated that she has to keep her relationship with Sam (John Gavin) a secret; Norman, we eventually discover through the psychologist at the end of the film, kills Marion in the motel shower, dressed as a woman, as a result of an unstated sexual attraction to Marion.

The discomforting power of Psycho comes from the fact that Hitchcock doesn’t turn these characters into evil cardboard cutouts. He doesn’t exactly love them, but he shows a kind of detached sympathy for them and their questionable actions. Maybe that’s what has really creeped us out about Norman Bates through all these years: at times, we can almost feel for this murderer, can almost understand the fear and guilt that leads him to kill. As a fictional character, he’s almost frighteningly plausible. That’s real horror.

I Wrote This: An Interview with 45365's Bill & Turner Ross

NEW YORK—Oh my goodness...I've actually published something outside of this blog! It's been a while...

My latest contribution to The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog is a brief interview I did with Bill & Turner Ross, the brothers who collaborated to make 45365, a mosaic-like documentary portrait of their hometown of Sidney, Ohio.

I hope you all enjoy the article...and I hope you all find a way to watch this movie. Because it's terrific: a formally daring, observant and empathetic piece of work. Who says small-town life in middle America has to be an object of ridicule? In 45365, the Rosses—to borrow an expression Herman Melville used in talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne—say no, in thunder.

Video for the Day: Nigeria—Where Oil Spills Every Year

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Though BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a terrible occurrence indeed, apparently Nigeria has been a victim of oil spills over the last 50 years, according to John Vidal, environmental editor of U.K.'s The Observer, in this article. I had not realized this 'til I clicked on a friend's link on Facebook; it is sad news indeed, the lengths that oil companies and a country's government will go to keep such disasters under wraps from the rest of the world. And while the U.S.'s efforts to handle the environmental crisis raging in the Gulf of Mexico right now get all the press, Nigeria's problems get ignored.

On the theory that awareness is a reasonable first step: here's a video news report, from Al Jazeera, on Nigeria's long-running crises:

Sure provides a sense of perspective about the perhaps more serious troubles going on in the rest of the world, does it not? Well, it does for me, anyway.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The 4th Annual White Elephant Blogathon: Screaming For A Trash Masterpiece

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—(The following is my contribution to the White Elephant Blog-a-thon.)

Yes, fellow cinephile bloggers: This year, I decided to throw my hat into this four-years-running annual blogathon and take on whatever random piece of possible cinematic junk I got randomly assigned. And boy, I got a real doozy for my first time out!

For those of you who don't know what this particular blogathon is all about—or what the hell blogathons are in the first place—see this post by Paul Clark over at the blog Silly Hats Only which inaugurates this year's installment. Once you've absorbed that, come back here and read about what I got to see for this one-day event over the weekend.


Okay, back now? Here it is:

Scream for Help is a 1984 film from director Michael Winner, a British hack best known for helming the first Death Wish (and, um, Death Wish II and 3). It appears to have fallen through the cracks since its release; as of now, it's available only on used VHS, via a torrent download or on YouTube in nine parts. But it doesn't deserve to be; this one deserves a place in the annals of movies that are so bad they end up being almost kinda good.

It begins with our young heroine (Rachael Kelly), shot in silhouette as the sun sets behind her, ominously intoning in voiceover: "My name is Christina Ruth Cromwell. I'm 17 and I live in New Rochelle. I think my stepfather is trying to murder my mother." Right then, the film cuts to an exterior shot of the Cromwell household at night...

...and composer John Paul Jones's melody for the opening credits literally crashes through. Oh boy, listen to that music! As Winner and cinematographer Robert Paynter try to ease us into the mood with a montage of establishing shots, here is this bombastic melody blasting away on the soundtrack, a music cue that plays like a second-rate imitation of Bernard Herrmann-esque swooning romanticism. (By the way, yes, that is the same John Paul Jones who played bass for Led Zeppelin.)

If you thought that was an oddly misguided directorial choice, check out the sequences about 10 minutes later in which Christie rides around town in her bicycle tailing the suspicious stepfather (David Brooks): This time, during these supposed moments of mystery suspense, Winner has called upon Jones to provide...big-band jazz music? What the heck???

The cheesiness doesn't end there. The acting in Scream for Help is generally pretty crummy, or in the case of some of the actors, laughably campy. (I assume Winner recorded the sound live; I say "I assume" because the dialogue often sounds dissociated from the actors speaking them, that's how dreadful the acting is.) Does the indifferent acting fail scriptwriter Tom Holland's dialogue, or is the dialogue already lame as it is? Considering Holland's later credits—writer/director of Fright Night (1985) and cowriter/director of Child's Play (1988), both films that straddle the line between intense horror and witty comedy/satire—I can't help but wonder...but then, maybe lines like "Don't listen to me; just wait until he kills you" and "Kissing you made me want to vomit" wouldn't do even the most experienced of actors any favors. Most damagingly, the storytelling is so brisk and choppy that attempts at sustained suspense barely register; all Winner provides in his direction is the sense of a storyline whizzing past you on a motorcycle.

So just on a technical level, this film is often plain embarrassing to watch. And yet...when you consider it on some of the bigger-picture levels—of plot, theme and even style—the film is, I submit, actually rather fascinating in its trashiness.

This is not a film that lacks ambition. From its simple premise, Holland's script wades into, among other things, matters of teenage sexuality, throwing its virginal heroine into the maelstrom of immoral adult sexuality to the point that she eventually expresses disgust with sex altogether. This unspoken moralism, of course, was a common thread among most slasher films made during that decade, many of which took perverse pleasure in punishing teenagers who acted on their horny impulses. Surely none of those slasher flicks, however, feature the image of a recently deflowered girl reacting to the sight of vaginal blood on her hand, as seen below:

Scream for Help also aims to be tonally and stylistically ambitious. Horror, mystery, teen-angst drama: Winner and Holland attempt to mix them all in, and just when you think there's nowhere else the film can go, in its second half it becomes a kind of low-rent Desperate Hours, then evolves further still into a Straw Dogs rip-off, with our heroine forced to play the Dustin Hoffman role in protecting her mother from harm. Much of this ends up registering as unintentional comedy, by the way—but the film so rapidly devours its plot points and tonal shifts that that almost doesn't matter.

But there's one particular angle that offers a tantalizing way of looking at this film, one that almost explains away its many, many shortcomings.

Christie, it is revealed early on in the film, previously had to be treated by a psychiatrist in the wake of her mother's divorce from her father, and so the film generates a bit of intrigue with the possibility that her suspicions about her stepfather's murderous intentions may well be all in her head.

It doesn't work out that way; Christie turns out to be 100% correct about her stepfather, and in no time he and two others are invading her home, threatening to kill them both and steal their money. There are no last-second "it was all a dream" twists in this one. Nevertheless, is it possible that those jarringly overwrought music cues are meant to call attention to themselves? That the acting is intentionally awkward? That the storytelling is deliberately choppy? That, in other words, Scream for Help as a whole is meant not to be taken at all realistically, but instead seen as a (clumsily executed) fever dream—one that, I daresay, is almost Marnie-esque in its twisted intensity—of one young girl's sexual fears and familial anxieties?

Imagine the possibilities! In such a context, then, of course the scenes of Christie doing her own surveillance work on her stepfather would feature music that seems largely brash and self-confident. Of course the moment she loses her virginity would feature wildly over-the-top throbbing love music. And, perhaps most hilariously, of course the film would end with Christie, having slain the last remaining villain, calling up the detective who dismissed her claims earlier and triumphantly intoning, "Maybe this time you'll believe me," and then cutting to an end-credits roll featuring a godawful tune with these words (I kid you not): "Christie / Don't ever listen to the words they say / You wouldn't have to change your ways / Talking to my Christie."

You see what I mean? Scream for Help is bad in such unusual ways, and with such conviction and fervor, that it gradually achieves a kind of euphoria reserved for only the most special of bad movies. It's some kind of trash masterpiece.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Weekend Film Round-up: Savory and Unsavory Characters

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Once again, the highlight of this weekend's movie-watching adventures is a much older release, this one a neglected film noir from the late 1950s.

Nightfall (1957) is an extraordinarily taut thriller from director Jacques Tourneur, whose most famous noir, Out of the Past (1947), is rightly considered a classic. Though the later film doesn't have a tortured gumshoe as its protagonist, it is also focused on a man who tries to avoid facing a troubled past until that past catches up with him (as troubled pasts often must do in film noir). Art Rayburn, an unassuming wannabe artist (Aldo Ray), finds himself being tracked by two bank robbers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) and an insurance salesman (James Gregory) over a case of money that he lost in the snow in Wyoming. To the woman (a young Anne Bancroft) he meets in a bar at the beginning of the film—and who becomes his confederate and love interest—he introduces himself as Jim Vanning, having picked that alias in a futile attempt to escape his previous troubles.

Before seeing Nightfall in a pristine new 35mm print at Film Forum, I had never seen Aldo Ray act before, only really knowing of him via Quentin Tarantino's tribute to him through Brad Pitt's blustery Aldo Raine character (caricature?) in Inglourious Basterds. Ray is apparently known for playing tough-guy heroes in his is the passive character he plays in Nightfall a mild departure for him? He projects toughness whenever he faces off with the two bank robbers (with Bond playing a far more psychopathic villain than the wearier Keith), and he has the physique to boot; but the notes of anguish and exhaustion he conveys are what sticks in the memory. A moment of moral weakness possessed him to take a case of money accidentally left behind by the two bank robbers after they leave him and a friend for dead in Wyoming; he misplaced the case when a blizzard coated Wyoming with snow, and now spends his days looking over his shoulder for the trouble that inevitably comes for him. And he's tired of it, oh so tired.

As in Out of the Past, Tourneur manages to evoke a fatalistic atmosphere via cinematographer Burnet Guffey's sharp visual chiaroscuro contrasts, with the heavy pitch blacks of night in the city—a figurative cover of darkness for the hero—contrasting with the near-foreboding brightness of the snowy Wyoming mountain landscape in the daytime. (Nicholas Ray's great 1952 noir On Dangerous Ground indulged in even sharper contrasts between darkness and light, to even more effective ends.) That landscape may eventually offer our hero a chance at some kind of redemption, but even that redemption is tinged with moral shadows. "That bag of money sure looks small from here," Rayburn says in the film's final, poetic gesture—as if to say, This what all the threats and violence was all for?

Moral gray areas; nuanced, efficiently drawn characters; unflinching threats of violence: All of that is why I love film noirs of old. Nightfall is a tight, masterful example of the style.

(Film Forum is screening the new 35mm print of Nightfall through Thursday.)


As you may have already heard, Michael Douglas is indeed the major reason to see Solitary Man (2009), Brian Koppelman and David Levien's fascinating, incisive chronicle of a middle-aged former car salesman, Ben Kalmen (played by Douglas), who gets spooked after a doctor's appointment turns up evidence of a possible heart condition and suddenly decides to indulge in a self-destructive devil-may-care lifestyle, ripping off customers at his car-dealership and chasing after women half his age. What lies underneath this damaging change? For the most part, the film leaves explanations up to the viewer, allowing Douglas's magnificently complex and detailed performance to suggest multitudes about his all-business all-the-time worldview—he considers the women he beds "transactions"—and the fear of old age and death that eventually drives his behavior past the point of all reason. 

On the heels of Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, here is another spectacularly acted, closely observed film that takes an unsavory character and digs deep inside him, to the point that we may actually find ourselves caring a little bit about what happens to him—or, at least, how low he will go before he sees the light. In Solitary Man, though, even the prospect of him finally seeing that light is left open-ended; via a carefully timed cut to black, Koppelman & Levien refuse to let him off the hook entirely.

Last weekend's No. 1 box-office attraction Get Him to the Greek (2010) offers another unsavory character at the center of its raucous hijinks: Aldous Snow, first seen as the titular character's new rock-star boyfriend in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), now given a full-on showcase in this spinoff film as a drugged-out has-been struggling to make a comeback. And, in a welcome surprise, Russell Brand, the British comedian who plays Snow, comes through with an affecting performance that comes close to making its sentimental My Favorite Year-inspired clichés play, well, less sentimentally. Listen, for instance, to the way Snow talks to his former wife Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) on the phone in one scene: Instantly, one can sense a lingering intimacy and tenderness that brings unexpected poignancy to a scene that, for all I know, was probably scripted by writer/director Nicholas Stoller as a lame excuse to throw in a Lars Ulrich cameo (hey, that's the lead singer of Metallica topless and in bed with Rose Byrne; ain't that inherently hilarious???).

Brand has many more scenes like this; even scenes where he, strung out from not having his drug fix, chews out increasingly desperate record-company intern Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) have an edge to them. They all add up to a fully formed portrait of a rock star who, at heart, wants to be loved by his audience but can't seem to get out of his own way. The movie doesn't even come close to living up to the depth of Brand's performance, but, if you can get past its shoddiness and find yourself laughing far more than I did (sorry, sticking drugs up someone's rectum isn't an automatic source of giggles for me), maybe it's worth sitting through this to get to the unexpectedly touching burst of sweetness at the end. 

Or maybe you should just rent My Favorite Year.


I saw two other films this weekend: one a little-known, perversely entertaining piece of crap from the director of Death Wish that I will reluctantly be reviewing for tomorrow's White Elephant Blog-a-thon hosted by Paul Clark of the blog Silly Hats Only; the other an as-yet-unreleased independent film from one of the brightest new voices of the so-called "mumblecore" movement. Those I will get to later this week.

In the meantime, let's start this week off right...with an image from Hou Hsiao-hsien's wondrous Flight of the Red Balloon (2008). This image, though, has no balloons in it—just a reflection of a rising sun off the window of a moving train. Seriously, who comes up with the idea for a shot like this? Only a filmmaker was a very special awareness of the world around him, I'd say. Behold this abstract, awe-inspiring beauty:

Yeah, I adore this movie, if you didn't already know.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Video and Graphic for the Day, To Close Out the Week

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—To close out this more-active-than-usual week here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, I offer you all a video and and a graphic for the day.


The video above is a so-funny-it-hurts satire, via the Upright Citizens Brigade, of the ignorance and incompetence of the global-energy company BP in the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one that weeks ago surpassed the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster to become the worst in U.S. history, causing massive environmental damage and overturning untold numbers of lives. It is a terrible, outrage-inducing situation, and I hope the right people—as even our own president said on television—get their asses kicked for allowing such a thing to happen in the first place. But who says one can't have a good, cleansing laugh at the expense of the people at fault? As Sheriff Ed Tom Bell says in No Country for Old Men (2007), "I laugh myself sometimes. Not a whole lot else you can do."

So laugh. Enjoy. Just don't forget the grave tragedies the oil spill has caused.


On a far lighter note: Who would have thought the Internet Movie Database's list of the top 250 movies of all time, as voted by the site's users, could be turned into...a subway map?

A Frenchman named David Honnorat took IMDb's Top 250 as of June 19th, 2009, and decided to configure it as a subway map with various subway lines signifying the different genres the films span.

So, according to this map, for example: In order to get from The Seven Samurai (1954) to The Departed (2006), you'd have to transfer at The Godfather: Part II (1974). What about getting from Nosferatu (Murnau's 1922 original, of course) to There Will Be Blood (2007)? Gotta transfer at King Kong (the one and only 1933 version)! (Considering the way There Will Be Blood ends, that seems oddly appropriate.) The possibilities, as you can see, are just about endless. Even better, the color-coded map is quite nice to look at. 

When a good friend of mine sent me a link to this at work, I was immediately taken by it; I'm passing this one with the certainty that you all will be, as well. I tip my lost beret to you, M. Honnorat! (Here's a link, by the way, to the site from which this graphic is taken.)


And with that, I take leave of this blog for the weekend. It's been a pretty interesting week both in my own life and in My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Let's come back here on Monday and do it again.

In the meantime, have a lovely weekend!

And why don't you keep a still frame in mind while you're enjoying yourselves? As a tribute to Jia Zhang-ke, the great Chinese filmmaker who will soon awarded a Leopard of Honor at the upcoming Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, here's a shot from my favorite film of his, Still Life  (2006):

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cinema At A Fury-ous Height

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—When it comes to Brian De Palma's 1978 film The Fury—which was the big notable DVD discovery of this past weekend that I hinted at here, and also the source of one of the two screengrabs in this post (the other, if you didn't know/couldn't guess, was from Die Hard 2)—most people seem to remember its finale: a perverse, orgasmic tribute to the apocalyptic ending of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1970 Zabriskie Point, except with a human body exploding from numerous camera angles instead of a piece of architecture.

But for me, this here is the most memorable sequence of this wondrous work:

In it, the telekinetic Gillian (Amy Irving), with the help of a nurse named Hester (Carrie Snodgress), escapes from Paragon, an institute ostensibly devoted to helping people like Gillian, but which harbors people with devious, exploitative intentions of their own. Hester, by the way, is helping ex-CIA agent Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) find his telekinetic son Robin (Andrew Stevens), declared dead by the U.S. government but in fact very much alive at the hands of the villainous Childress (John Cassavetes). Oh, and Hester and Peter are carrying on a love affair.

As far as backstory goes, I think that's all you need to at least halfway appreciate the brilliance of this particular sequence, as De Palma directs it.

The first thing you'll probably notice is the fact that the majority of this scene is in slow motion. Simple enough. But then, listen to the non-diegetic music that initially underscores the moment of Gillian's escape: John Williams's score literally seems to take flight the moment she breaks free from her captivity...

...and Richard H. Kline's slow-motion cinematography draws out this moment of (tenuous) triumph.

But then, cut to a shot of two policemen driving in Gillian's direction...

...and the music suddenly darkens—and soon, so does the chain of events.

Peter, hiding out in a taxicab...

...shoots the driver of the car in question...

...but it's not enough to stop the car from colliding into, and killing, Hester.

De Palma doesn't shy away from showing the senseless brutality of her death; most importantly, though, he doesn't shy away from showing both Peter's and Gillian's devastated reactions.

The horror is especially potent in Gillian's case: She has struggled to keep her telekinetic powers from going out of control, and yet, in a moment like this, her best efforts may not even matter. Gillian still seems to attract danger and death wherever she goes, whether her telekinetic ability is the direct cause of it or not.

By infusing the moment with such weight, De Palma adds another layer of emotional complexity to the moment Peter rescues Gillian from the clutches of another officer by shooting him three times in the chest.

And in this context, boy, you sure can feel each shot as if they were hitting your own chest!

It's this bold mixture of serious moral weight and operatic grandeur that lifts this sequence from merely impressive to utterly sublime. But this isn't an isolated moment of genius; The Fury is chock full of them, in a film that spans a broad range of genres—from action scenes and suspense setpieces to scenes of intimate familial drama and throwaway comedy—and a wide variety of emotions while somehow managing to avoid incoherence. (Bong Joon-ho could sure learn a lot from De Palma in that regard.) De Palma—more so than in his previous film Carrie (1976)—creates a world in the film, but not just a visual one: He practically evokes a whole emotional universe, one keyed intensely into the broiling anxieties of its telekinetic pubescent characters, Gillian and Robin.

The Fury is on DVD. If you haven't seen it yet, get to it. Now! You're missing out on delirious, boundary-pushing cinema at or very near its highest form. Yes, I truly think it's that awesome.