Sunday, February 27, 2011

Welcome to the Second Annual Fuji Oscars!

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I did this last year come Oscar time, so I figured I might as well do it again this year.

Welcome to The Second Annual Fuji Oscars, when I put up my middle finger to awards-season hype and hand out some recognition to my personal favorites in some of the major categories. Once again, all that was released theatrically in the U.S. last year is fair game—so no arcane rules disqualifying worthy candidates, and no undue emphasis on American films over foreign ones.

Without further ado:

Best Performance By an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Elle Fanning, Somewhere

Personally, I think Sofia Coppola's latest film is not so much about disillusioned Hollywood superstar Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) as it is about Cleo, his amazingly self-sufficient daughter. You wouldn't necessarily know that, though, based on screen time alone: Coppola spends much of the film's first half detailing her father's deadened existence—pole dancers, coitus interruptus, inane press conferences and all. She's not asking us to care about him, exactly...just to empathize, at least a little bit, on some universal level. When Cleo enters into Johnny's life, though, she becomes the rock that instills in him a newfound sense of purpose. She's the emotional center of Somewhere, the one for whom we find ourselves feeling the most sympathy; Fanning's and Dorff's scenes together are a wonder of delicate warmth. For all the wise-beyond-her-years poise Cleo shows, though (she maintains a certain amount of composure even when she meets Johnny's latest lay in Venice), she's still a girl at heart, with typical young-girl desires that neither of her parents have been able to provide. Fanning manages to capture this mix of confidence and vulnerability with the same economy and delicacy of gesture with which Coppola approaches the spiritual ennui and father-daughter relationship in her film; in that sense, her Cleo shares a kinship with Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie Ross in True Grit—another memorable portrait of a young woman who confidently navigates within the adult world without being able to fully cast off the girl underneath.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Ciarán Hinds, Life During Wartime

As an older, more shell-shocked Bill Maplewood, Ciarán Hinds fully embodies the ambition of Todd Solondz's follow-up to his 1998 Happiness—and he does it not through showy histrionics, but often through mere body language. With just about every movement and gesture he makes, Hinds successfully conveys the sense of a man so wracked with guilt over his unconscionable sins that he doesn't even feel comfortable in his own body, much less operating in the real world after years in prison. If Solondz, in his script, is sometimes a bit too on-the-nose with invoking "forgiveness" as his broad subject, Hinds thoroughly gets under the skin of a man who struggles with whether he actually deserves to be forgiven. His confrontation with the son he molested was one of the tensest, most moving and most beautifully acted scenes to come out of cinema last year.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth

Lanthimos, in the sensational Greek film Dogtooth, offers up a master class in achieving an unnerving kind of controlled chaos. The premise is, on the face of it, nuts, depicting as it does a family that has been raised in so sheltered a fashion by a control-freak father and a submissive mother that they have developed a whole new vocabulary and some bizarre customs and habits. With the help of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, though, Lanthimos depicts all of this madness in as deadpan a manner as possible, with little more than pointedly odd camera angles and the full commitment of its actors to allow the sheer absurdity of its premise and situations to seep through the surface blandness. In some ways, it's just about perfectly made—and that hermetic perfection only makes it more coldly amusing and unsettling.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Julianne Moore, Chloe

Those who skipped Atom Egoyan's latest film upon hearing from most critics that it was merely self-serious trash missed out on arguably (I anticipate Jeon Do-yeon/Secret Sunshine fans will give me an argument on this one) the most emotionally complex display of anguished female emotion to be seen in the movies last year in Julianne Moore's turn as a woman dealing with a mid-life crisis as the surface facade of family normalcy withers away. Chloe—as Jonathan Rosenbaum rightfully pointed out here—is really Catherine Stewart's story, and Moore brings such gravity to the role that—for me, anyway—it's impossible to laugh off as camp. As far as Moore is concerned, forget The Kids Are All Right; this is a far richer showcase for this veteran actress, and she makes the most of it.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Though I'm willing to defend Chloe as more serious than most critics let on upon its theatrical release, I'm not willing to go nearly that far with Alejandro González Iñárritu's punishing Biutiful. As indignity upon indignity is heaped upon its dying and guilt-ridden protagonist, Uxbal, after a while it all becomes rather laughable in its sheer relentlessness. But Bardem so thoroughly embodies his role that even when Iñárritu throws us heavy-handed plot machination after machination, you see his haunted, weary face and you know he's going through hell, some of it of his own doing. He almost manages to break you heart, in spite of it all. It's a truly epic performance.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Shutter Island

Look past the Big Twist of its last 20 minutes, and behold the terrifying fury Martin Scorsese unleashes in Shutter Island, in which he uses horror- and detective-movie conventions as a framework to express as visually enthralling and emotionally devastating a vision of deep-seated psychological scars as any ever committed to celluloid. Maybe Scorsese needed to get The Departed out of his system before he felt safe enough to vent his inner demons as intensely as he does here; ironic, then, that that piece of hack-Scorsese-isms got all the AMPAS love, but this far more deeply personal work gets bupkes.

A few other awards:

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit

After their triumph three years ago in adapting Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men to the screen, the Coens once again take pre-existing source material—in this case Charles Portis's 1968 novel, first adapted into a John Wayne vehicle in 1969 (for which Wayne won his one Oscar)—and somehow manage to make it play completely and thoroughly like a Coen Brothers picture. 

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Noah Baumbach, Greenberg

The beauty of Baumbach's screenplay for this, his merciless dissection of a middle-aged man struggling to move beyond the bitter disappointments of his youth, lies in how sharply specific the dialogue is in drawing these distinctive characters. He also does it without drawing undue attention to his own supposed verbal cleverness (take note, Lena Dunham); every line is in the service of evoking these people and their lives, however messed-up.

Best Documentary, Feature:
Ne Change Rien

Not only was Pedro Costa's documentary of the French actor/singer Jeanne Balibar one of the most gorgeously shot films of last year—every low-lit chiaroscuro shot a beauty in terms of the intimacy and mystery it evokes—but it's also one of the most detailed looks at the creative musical process captured in a movie. (Costa, though, seems to have a knack for capturing the ins and outs of creative processes, as evidenced by his exceptional 2001 Straub/Huillet documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?) It helps that the music in the film is so seductive, and seductively performed.

Best Foreign Language Film:  
Dogtooth (Greece)

See above, in the "Best Director" category.

Best Animated [Doesn't Have to Be a Feature] Film:
The Lost Thing

Since this is my own awards, and on that theory, I'm allowed to break whatever rules I want whenever I see fit to do so, I am breaking two rules in this category: I am restricting myself to neither feature-length animated films nor films I personally saw in 2010. 

Much of this is because, of the handful of animated features I saw, I can't say I really truly loved any of them—and yes, I include the beloved Toy Story 3, which I liked up until the point the toys get rescued from the incinerator, after which the film, to my mind, cops out (you can read my more detailed thoughts on the film here). If I had gotten around to seeing, say, The Secret of Kells or Idiots and Angels last year, maybe I'd have something feature-length that I could get genuinely excited about. But I didn't, and I don't. Thus the rule-breaking.

A few weeks ago, I checked out all five of the animated short films nominated for an Oscar in that category. With the exception of that wearyingly one-note Let's Pollute!, it's a strong crop of nominees, including the fun Pixar short Day & Night which screened before Toy Story 3. My favorite of the animated shorts is a gem from Australia called The Lost Thing, about a guy who happens upon a strange mechanical whatzit on a beach that no one else seems to care about except for him. It's not only a technically accomplished piece of animation, but it also achieves what the best animation can do: reawaken a sense of wonder about the strange things in that world that we, in going about our daily lives, often don't even bother to reflect on. It's available on iTunes for $1.99, if you are curious to see it; it's only 15 minutes, but it's wonderful.

'Til next year...

In the meantime...maybe you're in the mood for a celebratory dance? From Dogtooth:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

One Step Closer to Earl Dittman? Plus, My Tribute to Hailee Steinfeld

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—A couple bits of self-promotion for today.

First, this is the contribution to the ongoing Muriels announcements that I was slated to write from the beginning, a short piece in praise of True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld, who topped the poll for Best Cinematic Breakthrough last year. I think that says everything that needs to be said about Steinfeld, who blazed screens at the end of last year with her astonishing mixture of wise-beyond-her-years poise and childlike vulnerability.

But that's not even the most exciting thing I'm here to self-promote today...because I'm featured in a trailer!

Thanks to Charles Lyons for the screen shot
There's a new trailer for Kelly Reichardt's new film Meek's Cutoff out, and apparently someone behind the scenes of this trailer saw fit to stitch together quotes and adjectives from my House Next Door review into the blurb you see above. You know you've hit the big time when...

The ironic thing about this? It comes from a review that isn't even positive! Read it and you'll see. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, honestly.

Anyway, enjoy the complete trailer:


Tomorrow, of course, is the Oscars. And you know what means, right? The Second Annual Fuji Oscars are coming! You all remember my first annual "ceremony," don'tcha? Well, I'm doing it again tomorrow...or at least, I plan to. Time permitting. Anyway, stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

John Luther Adams's Inuksuit: The Playtime of Contemporary Classical Music?

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—On Sunday, I experienced what may well be the classical-music equivalent of Jacques Tati's Playtime, which I only recently decided was probably my favorite film ever.

A taste, to start things off:

This all-too-brief video represents three iPhone-captured video clips that I stitched together from a performance of contemporary classical music I attended on Sunday—a Sunday I had off thanks to President's Day the next day—at the Park Avenue Armory in New York's Upper East Side (it was part of a four-day festival of new music entitled the Tune-In Music Festival).

Wait a minute, some of you might be saying after watching this short video. This doesn't look like a classical-music performance. What are all those people doing lying on the floor? Why are a lot of audience members walking around? And maybe, most of all, What kind of music is this??? 

The name of the piece is Inuksuit, and it is the latest work by an American composer named John Luther Adams. (No, this isn't the same John Adams who composed the music for the 1987 opera Nixon in China—which I saw in the Metropolitan Opera's new production on Saturday night, and which I might discuss in a future post, if I can settle on how I actually feel about it—or, more recently, the music for the recent film I Am Love. This other John Adams is, despite similar minimalist leanings, quite a different artist musically, at least based on this one work of his I've heard.) "Inuksuit" is the plural form of "inukshuk," which are human-built stones located in the Arctic Circle that Inuit tribesmen used as navigation tools. In the same way that Inuit people wandered around these stones, so does John Luther Adams envision for Inuksuit that audience members freely wander around the nine-to-99 (Adams's specification) percussionists situated in varying locations in a given space. This isn't the usual concert work where an audience sits down to listen and watch performers perform that work. Instead, we are put in the position of being active spectators, choosing where to go and what to perceive within the space in which the work is performed.

Such an idea could perhaps only work in a certain kind of space...thus Inuksuit's arguably most interesting aspect, which is that this work was conceived to be played outdoors, as the composer himself explained in a pre-concert talk I attended. So in a sense, hearing it performed in a huge indoor space at the Park Avenue Armory was going against the composer's original intentions. (Apparently, there were microphones placed near windows in the Armory's big auditorium, in an attempt to capture some of the sounds outside of the building; I didn't really hear much outside noise, though, until the quiet fading-away of the piece's ending.)

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

No matter; the sounds of Adams's score still managed to ring forth in all its sonic splendor. And when I say "sounds," I do mean sounds. Musically, Inuksuit is essentially 70 minutes of noise: There are no melodies to speak of, only this imposing epic soundscape that encompasses the heights of quiet serenity and the depths of clangorous cacophony. But this isn't a random assemblage of noises, by any means. From its near-silent beginnings—with some of the performers, all situated in the middle of the auditorium, creating soothing wind noises through paper megaphones—to the way it increases in volume and intensity—cymbals and tam-tams eventually enter the scene, as do conch shells and sirens—until it slowly eases down to triangles and piccolo evoking something like distant bird calls, the work conveys a pretty explicit dawn-to-dusk arc underpinning it all. The work's total effect was intensified by, well, nature itself. The sun was already starting to set by the time 5:20 p.m. rolled around, which made the work's slow dying away seem perfectly in tune with the world outside; that was the first time, by the way, I was able to hear outside street noises intrude into Adams's sonic architecture. (Surely this perfect timing had to have been a deliberate strategy on Adams's part!) It also helped that many of the audience members had, by that point, decided to sit or lie down, echoing the relaxed quality of those final 10 minutes.

Again, my familiarity with Adams's work is, as of now, limited this one work only—I hadn't even heard of the man until I was invited to the event on Facebook by one of the 72 performers, who lives right in my apartment building (he's actually pictured in the New York Times's review of the event here)—but, according to the program notes as well as some quick online research I've done on the composer, he seems to find much of his inspiration not only in trying to evoke nature in his music, but also in finding ways for creative imagination and nature to interact. The environment seems important to him; apparently, in addition to his music, he focused on environmental protection right after graduating from California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s (he currently lives in Alaska).

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

This deep devotion to the mingling of art and nature comes through in Inuksuit, whether indoors or outdoors. The work not only suggests the creation of a sonic environment; it itself is a sonic environment, one that Adams allows us to literally bask in, to wander around in, even to pick apart. That sounds like what most of us might do in an unfamiliar physical environment, especially in a natural one. For me, the glory of Inuksuit is not so much that it refreshes our awareness of worlds outside of our own—the one defining characteristic of most of the art I cherish—but that it allows us to simulate the ways we engage with the world in general. It's a kind of controlled experiment: How will we all react to being plunked down in this unfamiliar milieu? We, of course, all have our own ways; in Adams's conception, all of those ways are made valid, not just the traditional "sitting and absorbing" manner of most concert music.

Playtime (1967)

Surely some of you will have an idea by now of how Inuksuit corresponds with Tati's cinematic masterpiece. Like Adams, Tati also demands active spectatorship in his de-emphasis on close-ups and central protagonists, basically throwing his viewers into his meticulously constructed world and asking them to figure out where to look and what to take in. Just as with a second performance of Inuksuit you may well pick up on sonic details you weren't able to hear the first time, Tati's images are vast enough that one can seize upon unnoticed details even on a third or fourth viewing. And, on a big-picture level, both artists take on nothing less than the whole wide world itself: how we live in it, interact in it, take stock of it.

Both works leave me reeling in sensory overload, in awe of the heights of the imagination in transforming ordinary human experience into something revelatory and sublime.

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

According to Adams in the pre-concert talk, there are plans afoot to stage an actual outdoor performance of Inuksuit in New York's Morningside Park sometime in June. If you have time for it, you ought to go hear it for yourself; it's truly a musical experience like few others.

In the meantime...well, someone more intrepid than I captured a 23-minute selection from Sunday's Park Avenue Armory performance. So you could start there, to perhaps get a better idea as to what this work is all about:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Darkness Falls: The (Black) Beauty of Film Noir


Last year, the great film bloggers Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren hosted a fundraising blogathon geared toward film preservation. Called For the Love of Film, the blogathon raised about $30,000 for the National Film Preservation Foundation to help rescue a couple of silent short films from the 1910s. I contributed some of my hard-earned dough to that, and even contributed a blog post to it.

Now, those two intrepid bloggers are back with For the Love of Film (Noir), this time trying to raise film-preservation funds for the Film Noir Foundation. And unlike last time, we actually know from the outset the film that this latest blogathon is trying to restore: a 1950 crime drama directed by Cy Endfield called The Sound of Fury. I haven't seen the film, but for those who want to know more about it, you can read R. Emmet Sweeney's and Imogen Smith's posts about the actual film, then read the Siren's interview with Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation, here.

Maybe these blogathons just come at a bad time for me. My blog contribution to it last year came at the veeeeeery last minute, and this year, the week of For the Love of Film (Noir) has found me focusing more on scrambling to nail down reasonably priced housing and flights for South by Southwest next month. Believe it or not, yes, this has taken up much of my time this past week...though thankfully, I think I finally have secured both. But I've already missed one blogathon deadline this week because of all the attendant stress (it looks I won't be participating in this year's White Elephant blog-a-thon—a shame because I thoroughly enjoyed writing about the against-all-odds fascinating masterpiece of trash that was Michael Winner's 1984 film Scream for Help), and it looks like, while I won't technically be missing out on For the Love of Film (Noir), once again I'm holding my own contribution down to the wire. (For what it's worth, I've already made my donation...which you can do here.)


Ah, film noir! It's such a wide-ranging subject that honestly, I've had trouble coming up with a specific topic to write about for this latest blogathon, or at least one that I feel comfortable and authoritative enough to discuss at the moment. Perhaps, then, I'll start with what it is about film noir that fascinates me so much.

Maybe it's because of my own sheltered suburban upbringing that, over the years, I've developed a certain fascination with the kind of art that dares to shed light on the darker sides of human nature—the sides in all of us that we may suppress in the interest of good taste and decorum, but which often simmer underneath the surface. Film noir, at its most potent, is all about drawing out those buried tensions and exploring them to the limits, and sometimes even exploding them altogether.

I didn't get to see as many of the films in Film Forum's recent "Fritz Lang in Hollywood" series as I had initially hoped (blame my extended illness for that), but the Lang films I did see all made a deep impression on me for the depths with which Lang was willing to go to explore the forbidding corners of the human psyche. Neither Fury (1936) or You Only Live Once (1937), or, later in his American career, The Big Heat (1953) or Human Desire (1954)—all of those which I saw during the Film Forum retrospective—have a whole lot in common as far as the stories he tells. What makes them legit film noirs is, as Paul Schrader famously noted in his classic essay "Notes on Film Noir," "the subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film 'noir,' as opposed to the possible variants of film grey and film off-white." And indeed, all of those Lang films share a doom-laden mood suggested as much by his dark-hued expressionistic visual sensibility as by the deterministic bent of their respective plots. Witness, for instance, the near-surreal mist that envelops the prison that a desperate Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) tries to break out of in You Only Live Once, or the pool of shadow that engulfs Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) when his brothers first see him after his supposed death by lynch mob.

Such visual coups, though, are put in service of portraits of human nature that refuse to shy away from people's less savory potential. Fury, most notably, features as its protagonist a character who becomes so consumed by his increasingly inhuman sense of justice that he even threatens to cast off his devoted lover (Sylvia Sidney) when not even the conviction of the townspeople who "killed" him seems to bring him the satisfaction he desires. (The fact that his humane side eventually wins out doesn't lessen the pungent aftertaste left by Lang's otherwise pitiless depiction of mass hysteria and personal bloodlust.)

For me, though, it's not enough for a film to throw up appalling human behavior on the screen, surround the film with genre archetypes (hard-boiled gumshoes, femme fatales, and the like), bathe it all in an attractive visual style and call it a black-hearted noir. The best film noirs may feature disturbed characters and unsavory subject matter, but they have a sense of moral and spiritual anguish that adds genuine heft to their genre conventions. For all the world-weary wisecracking he does, Jeff Bailey, the trampled-on p.i. Robert Mitchum plays in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), seeks to be delivered from his troubled past; his sense of honor, in part, eventually pulls him back into the depths, as often happens in film noirs...but Tourneur and Mitchum manage to involve us emotionally in this character anyway, making you feel the full weight of his quest, and the pathos of his eventual, tragically inevitable failure.

Or consider Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), one of the doomed thieves at the heart of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). During the Great Depression, Dix's family lost control of their horse farm in Kentucky; Dix—who functions as the muscle for the heist masterminded by Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe)—sees this robbery as his ticket to buy back the farm and regain his lost livelihood. When the heist doesn't go as planned, however, a series of deceptions and double-crosses leads an injured Dix, towards the end of the film, to drive all the way down to that horse farm and eventually die, as horses surround hims dead body. Unlike Tourneur and Lang, Huston adopts a naturalistic style in his film; much of the film plays as cool-headed dissection of a heist gone wrong. Within that style, though, The Asphalt Jungle manages to lavish utmost attention on the desires that drive the various characters in this drama; we end up developing a genuine stake in seeing these characters succeed—a subversive feat regarding characters that, in real life, we might merely dismiss as mere lowlifes and hoodlums.

That's the beauty of not only film noir, but of cinema as a whole: the ability it has to bring us into the lives and desires of characters we may never think of observing or even sympathizing with, as well as the possibility of being drawn to consider a way of looking at the world that might disturb and discomfort. As long as humanity carries desires, however unsettling, that we mostly try to suppress, and which sometimes rise to the surface in terrifying fashion, there will always be a place for noir. Now and forever.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Feeling Dizzy Over the Greatness of Vertigo


I wasn't slated to write a blurb about today's announced Muriel Awards winner, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo for one of its Special categories, Best Film of the 1950s...but Steve Carlson asked me and someone else whether I could write something up about it at the last minute, and I decided to step in and volunteer.

So here it is! I think I've seen this film enough times that I was able to write something reasonably fresh and penetrating about this much-discussed film in a pinch...but I'll let you all be the judge.

My other contribution to the Muriels' brand of cinema love will come sometime next week. I'll link you all to it when it's published.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Time for Muriel! (No, Not the Alain Resnais Film)


This year, I was asked by Steve Carlson, he of the blog Down Inside You're Dirty, to participate in this year's installment of the Muriel Awards, an online poll of the favorite films, performances and technical cinematic achievements of various film critics/cinephiles in a given year, plus a few other unexpected film-related categories besides.

I don't know if one would consider my participation in this a sign that I'm rising up the film-critic/cinephile ranks...but, as most award nominees might publicly profess—but I actually mean this, dammit—I'm just glad to be a part of a critics' poll! With such distinguished colleagues as Simon Abrams, Jim Emerson, Sean Burns, Andrew Dignan, Matt Noller and many, many others!

Anyway, today is the beginning of the unveiling of the various awards, starting with Best Supporting Actor, over at the Muriel-specific blog Our Science is Too Tight. I'm scheduled to contribute a blurb in praise of a future Muriel Award winner in the coming weeks; I'll let you all know when that eventually gets published. In the meantime, enjoy this end-of-2010 film poll!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Shards of Hopeless Cinematic Romanticism on Valentine's Day

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Another year, another Valentine's Day. And once again, though this year finds me without an official valentine to call my own, as ever, I turn to my great (abstract) love, the cinema—specifically, the sensuous romanticism of that great visual poet of longing and heartbreak, Wong Kar-Wai.

After all those images I posted at my blog last year of characters in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels just staring into space and dreaming/yearning, this year, my Wong-geared thoughts turn to a particularly intoxicating moment of actual action in his summary epic 2046 (2004). It comes late in the film, as Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) says good-bye to the mysterious "Black Spider" (Gong Li) who also has the name of Su Li-zhen, the woman he loved and lost in Wong's previous film In the Mood for Love (2001). This second Su Li-zhen, much like Chow, carries a haunted past that she never reveals to him, but which Chow intuits based as much on his own personal experiences as from her actual elusive behavior. And Chow, ever the lady-killer that he is throughout the shifting chronology and layering of fantasy and reality in 2046, decides that maybe it's best to leave the second Su Li-zhen, lest he keep thinking of the first Su whenever he sees her.

What a send-off Chow gives her! Upon Su's urging...

...he goes in...

...and instead of just holding her, as Su tells her to do, he boldly grabs her...

...and gives her the biggest, longest, most impassioned smooch ever shot on film:

The way Tony Leung just grabs Gong Li and goes for it, like that, kissing her like there really was no tomorrow? Man! The dude is my hero, just for that! (Not that Leung isn't hero-worthy for other reasons...)

And after Chow tells Su to get back in touch with him once she has finally escaped her past, we see Su's multifaceted reaction—first heartbroken, then more reflective:

The way Gong Li wipes that smeared lipstick off her lips, I rather wonder if Wong intended a subtle tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo's famous lip-touching gesture in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960)...

...which, of course, Jean Seberg repeats at the very end, in a more ominous context:

Or am I merely overlaying one romantic cinematic vision on top of another? As a single cinephile with traces of hopeless romanticism in his soul, I have a tendency to do that...especially on Valentine's Day.

But seriously, folks: Has anyone seen anything so sexy since...hell, since Barbara Stanwyck tousled the heck out of a stunned-into-sexual-submission Henry Fonda's hair in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941)?

For all you lovebirds out there—attached, single or otherwise—enjoy your day of celebration!

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Shiny New Toy

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Guess who has finally joined the 21st century?

Thanks to Verizon finally carrying Apple's iPhone, I am now the proud (so far) owner of one of these gadgets—my first smartphone ever!

The first thing I did with my shiny new toy? Go all app crazy, downloading Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare apps, among others.

I'm on my way to becoming a social-media machine—just in time for South by Southwest next month! (Yes, I'm going, helping to cover the film and interactive components for The House Next Door.)

So if I ever get involved in some kind of bring-down-the-government revolutionary activity, I'll be ready to tweet/Facebook it on the go! (My hats off to all those in Egypt, by the way, because it looks as if all of your impassioned efforts—with a valuable assist from social media, so I hear—finally paid off today, despite yesterday's temporary bump in the road. Congratulations, Egyptians; I just hope the country doesn't go the way of Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979.)

Now, the big questions. Does having an iPhone mean I'll be becoming one of those people: always looking at their phone rather than interacting with people? Worse, will I get sucked into, say, that whole Angry Birds craze and become one of those people playing games on their phone during long subway rides back and forth? I hope not...but one never knows, I suppose.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Fighter: The Ties That Bind

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Though I mostly rested this weekend to recover from the nasty cold that hit me last week, I did end up seeing one film in a movie theater this weekend.

I finally got around to seeing David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated drama The Fighter over the weekend. First things first: Reports of a Melissa Leo scenery-chewing massacre have been greatly exaggerated. Seriously, folks? That's it??? Honestly, nothing she does as Alice Ward, the imposing matriarch of the troubled Ward clan, seemed to jump out at me as particularly excessive or mannered; in fact, I had no trouble responding to her as the misguided if well-intentioned mother she was, rather than as the egotistical Melissa Leo showcase I kept being warned about from friends. People, I've seen far worse in the hamminess department. Has anyone actually seen Jon Voight and/or Eric Roberts in Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train (1985) recently, as I have? Now, there's a couple of distractingly mannered lead performances that threaten to get in the way of the film's cumulative effect; Leo is a miracle of nuance and subtlety compared to those two.

But enough about Leo, who looks to be on her way to an Oscar anyway. The movie surrounding her, Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams, believe it or not, does have some thematic and emotional interest beyond the particulars of its standard sports-movie plot—enough, at least, that I actually found myself genuinely involved in the film rather than merely counting down to its inevitable final triumph.

The Fighter, it turns out, is not so much a "boxing drama" as it is a family drama. But while the Ward clan is dysfunctional for sure, the film's focus isn't just on the dysfunction, but on Micky Ward's (Wahlberg) complicated attempts to try to break free from his familial roots and assert his own independence. That's not easy for him to do, even with the help of his assertive but caring girlfriend Charlene (Adams); his family has provided so much for him up to the point the film's story begins that he still feels a sense of loyalty to the clan even when, in the back of his mind, he knows that they're steering him wrong more than they're steering him right. Even when Micky does take his tentative first steps at establishing a presence outside of the family—training with someone other than his older brother Dicky (Bale), for instance—he still finds himself relying on strategies taught by his increasingly crack-addled brother to help him in certain tough spots. Surely, Micky desperately wonders, there is a happy medium possible between pleasing his family and being his own man; The Fighter is as much about his attempts at finding that balance as it is about, say, Dicky trying to overcome his drug problems.

In that sense, Russell's film is about something everyone surely has to go through in becoming a full-fledged adult: negotiating that smooth transition from relying on your family for support to becoming self-reliant. And I have to admit, I found myself relating to this angle of the film quite strongly—me being someone who, just a few months ago, was casting off the shackles of living at home with my parents and trying to figure out how to live on my own in New York. I know what it feels like to have such a strong sense of loyalty to your family—to my mother, especially, in my case—that it sometimes feels constricting: as if, if you don't have their approval or their support, you can't go on. (This, remember, is why I agonized as much as I did about changing my major from accounting, my mother's preference, to journalism, my own.) These ties that bind, sometimes to the point of irrationality, are something Russell and Wahlberg seem to understand deeply, and it's that depth of feeling that animates The Fighter past its sports-movie clichés and turns it into something genuinely suspenseful and even affecting.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Literary Interlude, for Black History Month


The next day I was in my car driving along the freeway when at a red light another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger's side, next to me, was a white man. "Malcolm X!" he called out—and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. "Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?" Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, "I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?"

This passage, from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, speaks not just to African-Americans—as Malcolm X himself might have done in his earlier, more incendiary years as a member of the Nation of Islam. This time, he's speaking to blacks and whites, and challenging all of us to look past skin color, at the people underneath all of us. Here is the resounding human insight Malcolm X spent his sadly short but remarkable lifetime finding, and the frankness and sense of self-examination with which he recounts that quest is one of the things that makes his classic autobiography—which I've been reading, on and off, for the past few months—one of the great documents of our age.

It's a passage everyone ought to keep in mind not just every February, but all year round.

Just felt like sharing that with you all.