Pazar, Ocak 27, 2008

Funny Games

Funny Games (Austria, 1997) * * *
D: Michael Haneke

A bourgeois couple, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar), with their young son Georgie and their dog, are staying in a lakeside home, with all the luxuries that entails, including a dock for their boat and an impenetrable fence. But Georg opens that fence for two unfamiliar faces, nondescript, white-gloved fellows who claim to be staying with the neighbors. Calling themselves Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)--and, later, Tom & Jerry and Beavis & Butthead--they proceed to ingratiate themselves into the home, which they refuse to leave. This quickly escalates into violence: when Georg tries to throw them out, he gets a leg broken by a golf club. Their dog is killed, and the family is held hostage for an evening of sadistic "games," the principal one being a bet that they won't survive the next twelve hours.

Since this film was released in 1997, Haneke has gained an international reputation as an art cinema provocateur, a Hitchcockian master of suspense as self-reflexive as Jean-Luc Godard. Indeed, both directors would love the film: Hitchcock for its open manipulation of the audience's fears and expectations, Godard for its playful violations of cinematic convention: "Peter" looks directly into the camera, winking at the audience, sometimes addressing us or, at one point, admitting to his hostages that they have to keep on with the games to pad this out to "feature length." At one point he even seizes a TV remote control to rewind time when one of the hostages gains the upper hand. The biggest tension of Funny Games is between these bursts of cartoonish irreality and the extended harrowing and grueling scenes of torture and grief that constitute the bulk of the film--the faker-than-fake and the realer-than-real.

We have seen home invasion and hostage films before. We anticipate the family gaining the upper hand on their tormentors at some point. When young Georgie escapes from the house, fleeing to the neighbors' to look for help, we're gripped with suspense, in fear for the boy's life, just as we expect that all of this will come to something fruitful; even if he's recaptured, we think, he'll leave some clue behind that will eventually lead to his family's deliverance. That's how these movies work. Certainly Haneke wouldn't have this whole setpiece be for naught. Similarly, when Anna escapes late in the film, after the captors have seemingly left for good, we're convinced their torment isn't over yet, simply because the film is still happening. And there has to be a point to all this, right? The bad guys have to get their comeuppance, a la The Virgin Spring or its grindhouse equivalent, The Last House on the Left. Perhaps Anna will find the villains at a disadvantage, and wreak a horrible revenge?

But as soon as we see that Peter & Paul can even reverse time to reconfigure reality to their advantage, Haneke might as well step into the frame to gloat over how he's stacked the deck. At this point, near the end of the film, all suspense is drained and we're left with either (a) blackest amusement, or (b) bottomless dread that Haneke can now subject us to anything. Actually, of course, there isn't really anywhere else to go, and the film settles with a rather obvious circular conclusion. But although you're struck by the style, you're left wondering what it was all about.

It's about movie violence vs. real violence, movie catharsis vs. real catharsis, movie characters vs. real human beings. Tom & Jerry and Beavis & Butthead are violent cartoon characters (famously, one five-year-old who watched those MTV arsonists Beavis & Butthead burned down his family's mobile home; whatever the real connection, his mother sued the network). Funny Games is an angry attack on the media's trivialization of violence. It restores the weight and tragedy of violence while contrasting it with the phony expectations of the thriller genre. The hostages in Funny Games are "real" people; when they grieve at the loss of a life, in one astonishing extended take that seems to last for ages, it's heartbreaking and also convincing. But the two antagonists are "movie" characters. Their motives are nonexistent, and the plot manipulates itself to their advantage. (Also notice that when one of them stalks little Georgie through the neighbors' house, he seems to be everywhere at once; that's because he is, probably watching the film just as you are.) At one point, they even address the difference between fictional characters and reality--Peter insists there's no difference, since what you see on the movie screen is as real to your eyes as anything else. At that moment, it's the last thing you want to hear, since events have become so sickening that you want to believe it's just a movie.

For all its effort, Funny Games is a film which pushes you away from it just as strongly as the deliberately artificial suspense pulls your emotions and sympathies back in. As a cinematic thesis, it's clever, if a bit too smug (and honestly, someone like Jacques Rivette would have gone even further in exploring the meta-fiction and the ideas beneath). As a film, it's almost unbearably suspenseful, but all of this is ultimately undercut. Haneke is a hell of a filmmaker, and the filmmaking on display is master-class. I'm not quite convinced that this anti-thriller thriller avoids collapsing beneath its own paradox, but on the other hand I admire what's on the screen. I recommend it by saying that if you've read this far, you know if you'd like it. It's essential viewing for film buffs with a strong stomach.

[As a footnote, I should mention that Haneke has just remade this film as an American production with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth in the lead roles. Due for release shortly, by all accounts it is a faithful adaptation of the original film.]

Funny Games is the first film in the series, "Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation." Subsequent Haneke films will be screened for free at the University of Wisconsin's Cinematheque through the rest of the spring semester. Check their website for details.

Salı, Ocak 15, 2008

Cobra Verde

Cobra Verde (West Germany/Ghana, 1987) * * * *
D: Werner Herzog

Herzog's last film with Klaus Kinski is a forgotten epic, a rewarding spectacle that's often misunderstood by those who've only viewed it once. A notorious bandit, "Cobra Verde" (Kinski), after impregnating the three daughters of a plantation owner in Brazil, is sent away on a suicide mission to re-establish the slave trade with a kingdom situated in Ghana, West Africa, around the fort of Elmina. The King has been deemed insane, and is said to kill any white man who sets foot on his land. Cobra Verde accepts the title of viceroy and sails across the ocean. At first he seems to meet with success; although the only white man he meets is a corrupt bishop tolerated by the locals (the slave-trading fort of Elmina has been sieged and abandoned), the fast-firing rifles he offers are highly valued by the local government, at war with a neighboring tribe. But his business venture is only briefly successful. The King orders Cobra Verde seized and brought to him, then orders his face painted black, since it's still considered forbidden to decapitate a white man. That night, Cobra Verde is rescued by men in service to the prince, who, it seems, is twice as insane as his father. His eyes always wild, he speaks in nonsense declarations, although we might be wary that when a leopard is heard roaring, he calls it "My father!"--for the royal family associates themselves with leopards. Soon after, he proves more wily than he seemed, double-crossing the bandit just before the slave trade itself is banned in Brazil. Cobra Verde, marked for death and finally abandoned by all, flees toward a hopeless fate.

Although the film has earned its place in cinema history as the last collaboration between the infamous savages Herzog and Kinski (for more on their troubled relationship, cut to the chase and rent Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend), Cobra Verde is also somewhat of the bastard child of that output, ranked below the more admired Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Though it is probably remembered more vividly than their Fassbinder-esque meltdown melodrama Woyzeck (1979), Cobra Verde is a difficult film: somehow both ambiguous and direct, morally complex but with a simple, straightforward narrative. The main dilemma is Cobra Verde himself, who is in almost every scene of the film but hesitates to reveal himself to the viewer. At the outset, in South America, he seems to be a Man with No Name from a Sergio Leone Western--a scowling rascal whom no one can defeat single-handed (although, this being a Herzog film, there are no duels, just lingering shots of desolate towns occupied by vermin and hogs). He is an outlaw, but he has no compunction about cornering a slave and ordering him back to the whipping-post. The narrative sets him with such an impossible task--not pulling a boat over a mountain, perhaps, but just as futile in nature--that he automatically is lent sympathetic qualities. He doesn't earn them, but he has them to a certain degree, because this is how the story is structured and he is, after all, our protagonist. When we're quickly reminded as to why he's there, and we see the almost taboo image of Africans bound together by chains at the neck, we're repulsed. Yet Kinski still marches through, overseeing it all, scowling, and Herzog's camera follows him in fascination. We want to think there's more to this man because Herzog believes there is, and we indulge. At one point Kinski plunges amidst the slaves to help them bear the weight of a giant trunk through Elmina's gates, and he shoves one of the slaves aside so that he can take the lead. It's like a parody of Jesus' march toward crucifixion, except that he doesn't relieve the burden out of empathy, but rather because he thinks he can do better. Like all Herzog heroes, Cobra Verde has his wild eyes fixed upon an insurmountable goal, and sets himself resolutely against all the forces arrayed against him in a manner that isn't noble but unnerving, frightening.

A simpler story might have had Cobra Verde find redemption once he leads his Amazon warriors to overthrow the King--the man would repent his crimes, and work to overthrow the slave trade. But he only works to build the slave trade up again; this, after a spectacular setpiece in which he trains the warrior women by hurtling himself into their midst, picking up a spear alongside them howling, and then, perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, he leads his female army to storm the walls of the King's court at Abomey, at one point hurling a venomous snake out of his path with bare hands in his frothing stampede. Cobra Verde's evolution, his character arc, is less obvious, and on the initial viewing it might be invisible. He's a cutthroat admirable only for his determination. On the other hand, a second viewing makes his progression more clear. The first major scene in the film is a long discussion between Kinski and a dwarf about the snow high in the mountains; the dwarf describes it as a wintry heaven, where the snowflakes fall like feathers and the ice glistens. Kinski listens expressionlessly, but for once he lacks his scowl. That's a clue. Later, while awaiting execution in the King's camp, lying in the dirt and with no one around to hear, he cries out in longing for that mystical snow. And amidst the quiet, lyrical scenes following the battle, he provides only one full glimpse into his psyche, in an aborted attempt at a diary or a letter (if the latter, presumably to his lover, a slave on the plantation in Brazil):

I cannot begin to describe this cretinous existence of mine, nor how lonely it is to be without family or friends, the only white man in this country, perhaps the whole continent. Meanwhile I have become the father of sixty-two children, but this gives me no satisfaction. Perhaps next year I shall come back and marry. I would live in the lands of ice and snow, anywhere to be away from here. The heat here is mean and inescapable. It courses through the bodies of the people like a fever, and yet my heart grows colder and colder.

Cobra Verde is damned, and he knows it. He is a prisoner and a slave to the existence he is pitted against, and although he fights against the odds as soon as he arrives in Ghana, to succeed in his almost insurmountable task strips him of his soul. After all, should Sisyphus finally push his boulder (or riverboat) over the hill after countless attempts, how much humanity would he have left, and would he be able to appreciate his accomplishment? Our bandit has been handed an evil task, and though he dutifully follows it, inspecting the teeth of his slaves, rounding them up for the slave ships--when he asks to ventilate their holding cells, it's only because he wants to cut down on the casualty rate--ultimately, near his end, hunted by the English and facing a life in in the shadows, he becomes sharply aware of his condition.

It was no misunderstanding. It was a crime. Slavery is an element of the human heart. [Toasting] To our ruin!

In Herzog's typically cynical fashion, he implicates everyone in the slave trade, including the viewer. We buy and sell each other. (Cobra Verde has been, after all, slave to the company that he sent him here, slave to the King of Abomey, and now he has been sold to the English.) But if that final exchange is atypically spelled-out, the final images of the film summarize the point more poetically. Cobra Verde has fled to the beach, approaching a canoe that he hopes will bear him across the ocean. When he sees one of Elmina's cripples following him, his stride quickens, and he seems panicked. He arrives at the craft and tries to push it into the water. It doesn't budge. Desperately, he grabs a mooring-rope and pulls with all his might, yet it still doesn't budge. Eventually, exhausted, he collapses into the sea, rolling with the surf until all of his movements finally cease, and the water rolls over his head, burying him into the sand. This might be considered Herzog's most existential moment. I see it as so pure and straightforward that it is almost devoid of philosophy. Here is our end; but here also is this man's specific end, as all his efforts have come to nothing. Why is it that although the viewer cannot fully empathize with him, and though he remains a deep mystery, this ending--in which he really becomes a pathetic wretch--remains devastating? We are in the realm of Shakespearean tragedy, the realm of Macbeth, but transformed and given a slightly different resonance. Herzog has once again touched an invisible realm, that ecstatic cinema he's always sought, and Cobra Verde deserves to finally be recognized as one of his best films.

Pazar, Ocak 13, 2008

Cinematic Titanic

As a follow-up to my story on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the latest venture from the original creator of that show, Joel Hodgson (aka Joel Robinson). Hodgson, in the 80's, was the thinking man's prop comic, who could have moved to Los Angeles to work in television but instead launched a homegrown public access comedy show in Minneapolis. MST3K ran a year before The Comedy Channel picked it up, and from there the program, with its "movie riffing" from Joel and his robots in silhouette from the bottom of the screen, became a cult classic. Well, after a few seasons Joel did leave the show for Los Angeles, and most recently was working on the Jimmy Kimmel show as a staff writer; J. Elvis Weinstein, the original Tom Servo, had already left for L.A. to pursue a comedy career, and eventually Trace Beaulieu (Crow T. Robot) and Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) followed suit. After Joel's departure, the show nevertheless continued for five seasons with head writer Michael J. Nelson taking over hosting duties. It's been seemingly ages since MST3K breathed its last, cancelled by the Sci-Fi Channel, and Nelson has written a novel, Death Rat, and brought his movie riffing to audio commentaries and the podcast-commentary series Rifftrax, with its money-saving notion of providing only the riffing--the listener has to rent the film on his own. Nelson, with Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo #2) and Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot #2), also started The Film Crew, a movie-riffing group who have issued a handful of DVDs in which they tackle such films as The Wild Women of Wongo. This latest project was the closest approximation to the MST3K of old, but has met with mixed reviews, as some fans have lamented that it just wasn't the same.

Enter Cinematic Titanic, which finally sees Hodgson returning to the format which made him famous. His movie-riffing team also includes Weinstein, Conniff, Beaulieu, and Mary Jo Pehl (MST3K's Pearl Forrester). Cinematic Titanic debuted as a live show performed for members of Lucasfilm on the Skywalker Ranch, a warm-up to their first episode now released on DVD exclusively through the CT website. What you get when you order the DVD is just a disc in a small, square carboard sleeve, with little protection - luckily, mine arrived unscratched. The mastering of the DVD includes the most basic of menus with, head-smackingly, only an image of the DVD you were just holding in your hand a second ago. There are no pretty dressings, perhaps because the website wants to ultimately set up a pay-to-download service so that fans can burn each episode on their own; this is not yet available. The play's the thing, and in this case it's Al Adamson's atrocious 1972 film Brain of Blood, here retitled The Oozing Skull as part of an agreement to allow CT to distribute the film. There are no "hosting segments" such as MST3K had, and copyright infringement with MST3K owners Best Brains prevents Hodgson from using the familiar theater seat silhouettes at the bottom of the screen; instead, through the entire length of the film we remain in the theater with scaffolding at the right and left sides, all 5 members of CT standing or sitting upon it while they address the film. No introduction to the premise: you just plunge straight into the sheer awfulness of the film. And it is a really excruciating work. Adamson, direct of Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (1971) and little else you'd remember, made a string of Z-budget horror films through the late 60's and 70's, all of which were directed with maximum incompetence. Brain of Blood--er, The Oozing Skull--has an utterly stupid plot about the leader of an imaginary Middle Eastern nation becoming critically injured, and rushed to a mad scientist who plans to move his brain into another body. But the mad scientist, being mad and all, has plans of his own: he moves the brain into the body of a disfigured simpleton. Why? Because he can! There are lots of footchases and one car chase, and one footchase which ends with the pursued leaping into a car and turning the keys, whereupon the car blows up and a nearby dwarf laughs. Brilliant.

One of the things about MST3K is that half the time you're laughing at the film itself, not just the jokes in the foreground. CT has the same pleasing effect. Ultimately, you're just enjoying watching a bad exploitation movie from the 70's. But the riffing is quite good, if a bit stiff at times, as the team hasn't yet developed the intangible chemistry which comes with doing a dozen of these things together. If anything, it feels a little too rehearsed (which of course it is); it needs more of an improv feel. But it's still Joel, Josh, Trace, Frank, and Mary Jo. It is good to have them back together again, even if they were never together quite like this. And Weinstein's CT theme song, hot jazz in the style of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," is terrific. This is by far the most promising product of the post-MST3K projects that have been offered to fans, a highly entertaining hour-and-a-half if you're willing to spring for the DVD sight unseen (it's $15.94). I'm not sure how often these episodes will be issued, but if there's a Cinematic Titanic-of-the-month club, sign me up.

Pazartesi, Ocak 07, 2008

The Best Films of 2007

1. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)

It seems absurd to call Wes Anderson underrated, since his films have been routinely flagged for release by the Criterion Collection, and his fan following (particularly strong for people in their 20's) has extended to a viral Team Zissou MySpace account. And certainly Anderson doesn't seem to feel any pressure to make changes to his distinctive style: austere uses of the widescreen mise-en-scene, thematic color coding, familiar themes of dysfunctional families, a recurring company of players. Nevertheless, critics seem baffled by Anderson's films upon the first viewing, and only those critics who revisit his earlier films find them more rewarding. This is key: Anderson and his co-writers place a great deal of character detail in compact scenes, so that if you're not paying attention, or tracking certain clues dropped in each scene, the final payoff may not have the emotional impact intended. Attentive and receptive viewers have a different experience. The Darjeeling Limited is blessed with a gifted and game cast--Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman on a misguided and hysterical journey for enlightenment on a train travelling through India--but the real wonder of the film is the screenplay, which is bitingly satirical and subtly moving at the same time. If Preston Sturges were alive, this is the kind of film he'd be making.

2. Zodiac (David Fincher)

I was never a David Fincher acolyte, but the famously stylistic director showed such restraint in his crime epic, Zodiac, that I was instantly won over. The trick he pulls off is formidable: despite the fact that the murders take place early in the film, and much of its three-hour running time is given over to talking and thinking--questioning of suspects, digging through boxes of paperwork, and other believably mundane procedures--the viewer is nonetheless gripped with suspense and growing fascination for its entire length. Perhaps Fincher's biggest challenge of all was constructing a true crime mystery in which no answer can be provided. Going into this film, the only thing I knew about the Zodiac killer was that he was never caught. That doesn't ruin anything. The film's real subject is not crime but obsession, and the lengths to which a person will go searching for answers that may be impossible to acquire. Although there is a prime suspect, the fact that there remains as much convincing evidence in favor of his guilt as well as his innocence turns the film into a philosophical puzzle worthy of Borges.

3. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)

When reviews from the Toronto Film Festival began pouring in for No Country for Old Men, it was frequently observed that this was a Coen Brothers film like no other--a reserved, spare, cold-blooded, straightforward and devastating piece. Perhaps because my perception was colored by these early reviews, when I saw the film I was struck by all of its trademarks from the Coen canon: there's Stephen Root's "Man Who Hires Wells," a grinning, perversely bizarre businessman, and the beaming Wells himself (Woody Harrelson), cocksure, thinking himself smarter than the audience knows he is. There's the fact that the Coen Brothers have always been accused of being a little cold-blooded. And there are the elaborately conceived setpieces, focused on the details: how the assassin Chigurh (Javier Bardem) uses his pressurized air-gun to blast open the locks of doors; Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) watching his car on the horizon sink a few inches, realizing that the tires have been shot out and that he has no escape; the trail of blood left by a wounded dog in the desert; the desperate attempt to convince a teenager to surrender his jacket so Moss can cover his bloody shirt. In fact, one of the things that makes No Country for Old Men so wondrous is that every single scene would be suited to a Coen Brothers career highlight reel. But ultimately, like Zodiac, it's the sting of its no-resolution ending; life moves on, while evil remains on the loose.

4. Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino)

The proper way to experience Death Proof and Planet Terror was in the theater, preferably a packed one on the Friday night it opened. With a scratched, beaten-up print (a sign posted next to the theater entrance warned moviegoers that the film was supposed to look this way), custom-made exploitation movie trailers directed by the likes of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright, a restaurant ad, and missing reels, it managed to both recreate a night at a sleazy Bronx grindhouse circa 1972 and a raucous night at one of Quentin Tarantino's movie festivals in Austin. Much of the audience used the "intermission"--when the fake trailers were showing--to run to the bathroom or the snack bar, which only added to the simulation. But honestly, few grindhouse movies managed to be as funny and entertaining as Robert Rodriguez's sustained John Carpenter parody and Tarantino's genre-twisting, Cannes-pleasing slasher film. This was easily the most fun I had in a theater in 2007.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)

A grand, old-fashioned musical, adapted from Stephen Sondheim's grand guignol hit from decades ago; it just so happens that it's also one of the goriest films of the year. (Should I recommend it to my mother? The jury's still out on that one.) But Johnny Depp is spectacular as the title "demon barber," avenging the wrong done him years back by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman, naturally)--when he can't mete out his justice, he takes out a misanthropic rage against the populace of London, assisted by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who offers to bake the bodies into her infamous meat pies. The songs are memorable and strikingly beautiful, the violence is alternately comic and frighteningly savage (and often both at once), and it's all a tour de force for Tim Burton, in his finest form since 1994's Ed Wood. So much fun.

6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)

Andrew Dominik's spellbinding Western reverie calls to mind the work of Terrence Malick, as well as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the best moments of Heaven's Gate. It's an exploration of the gap between legend and reality, the tall tale and the human, as Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) infiltrates the gang of Jesse James (Brad Pitt)--not to kill him, but to worship him, imitate him. The homoerotic undertone almost seems beside the point; it's present almost out of obligation, but it's the least interesting aspect of the story. What seems more important is the extended, tranquil moments that precede violence, the sacred space before a life meets its end. And so Dominik lingers on the ghostly light of a train passing through the woods, casting its beam across the faces of the hooded men about to rob it; or one outlaw's fateful ride on horseback with James at his back; or that last self-scrutiny in a mirror, as James catches the reflection of someone coming up behind him. The film also dwells critically on what follows violence, whether it be Ford's embracing of his own legend as re-enacted on a stage before a paying audience, or a hole in the ice, opened by James' gunshot, revealing fish swimming obliviously in a frozen lake.

7. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)

Next to Hayao Miyazaki, Brad Bird is the best of the modern animation directors, although being an American, he's been forced into abandoning cel animation and embracing CG. Not against his will, mind you, but out of necessity. Disney shut down their traditional animation studios, as former CEO Michael Eisner decided that CG was the wave of the future--in the most short-sighted of predictions. But Eisner's now gone, and Pixar, which once threatened to break their partnership with Disney, is now practically running the show. Their two star directors are John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2) and Bird, former director of the short "Family Dog" as well as various episodes of The Simpsons, and whose first film was the critically lauded--and beautifully cel-animated--The Iron Giant (1999). When he made The Incredibles in 2004, it was obvious that he had found a way to work his charming designs into the CG format, while exploiting CG's potential for eye-popping effects. Better still, his storytelling was as precise--and as full of heart--as ever. Ratatouille is at least the equal of the former film, although it is notably scaled down. Remy the Rat (Patton Oswalt) pursues one goal--to become a great chef, despite his species--and to accomplish this, he befriends a human co-conspirator, Linguini (Lou Romano). That the great majority of the film takes place in a single location, the kitchen, almost passes one's notice. It is within this kitchen that great adventure and romance unfold, with the manic energy of a Chuck Jones short tempered by Brad's signature emotional sincerity. When I was a kid, the Disney offerings were The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. These days children don't know how lucky they are.

8. The Host (Joon-Ho Bong)

This South Korean horror film is the best monster movie to come along in years. Chemical pollution causes a giant amphibian to grow beneath Seoul's Han River, arising one day to stampede through a public park, swallowing any men, women, or children who get in his path. Strikingly, this happens within the first minutes of the film, revealing the whole horrifying creature at once as it begins to gobble up people who are just as stunned and stock-still as you are; the sight is both horrifying and comically absurd. With the big reveal given right at the outset, you might wonder what's left for a monster film to do. Joon-Ho Bong's answer is to focus on hapless father Gang-Du as he and his family try to find his daughter, stolen by the monster; they battle the South Korean Army's bureaucracy and eventually the creature itself, hidden deep in the labyrinthine sewers of a quarantined zone. It's astonishing to find a monster film that is incapable of cliché, and there is not a moment of The Host which meets your expectations. It surpasses them.

9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon)

The most important documentary of the year might be No End in Sight, which details all the wrong-headed decisions which led to the disaster in Iraq. That's the most important documentary. But I'm not ashamed to say that my heart belongs to The King of Kong, chronicling the attempt of Steve Wiebe to break the Donkey Kong record held by arcade champion Billy Mitchell. While it's clear that director Gordon was hoping for a quirky take on "nerd sports" docs like Spellbound (2002) and Wordplay (2006), the subjects took his film in completely unexpected directions, with conspiracies, petty rivalries, cowardly decisions, brave decisions, and modest victories and failures. Better still, the players in the world of competitive arcade playing prove to be worthy of a Christopher Guest mockumentary--only truth proves to be more funny than fiction. That said, I love Wiebe, and he proves to be the perfect sympathetic underdog as he steps into this curious, bizarre world of middle-aged men who keep the 80's alive. See the original before the upcoming remake (directed by Gordon) has a chance to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

10. Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)

British director Wright is quickly becoming a master of contemporary comedy, cutting his teeth on the wonderful sitcom Spaced before helming 2004's cult hit Shaun of the Dead. I loved Shaun, but Hot Fuzz is twice as good, as Wright has learned a thing or two about sustaining a 90-minute comedy. While Shaun spent its biggest laughs in its first half, Hot Fuzz builds slowly until it reaches a breathlessly funny fever pitch, and one of the most hysterical climaxes since the Coens raised Arizona. Hot Fuzz has a simple premise, a parody of Hollywood buddy-cop films which transplants a tough-as-nails officer (Simon Pegg) into a sleepy little town, where he uncovers a murder spree. At a certain point, running gags break into a sprint. Endlessly quotable and re-watchable, this might be the best British comedy since Life of Brian.

Other great enjoyments to be had in 2007:
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) - like all of PTA's movies, a thunderous work of intense passion, and another treatise on his favorite subject, the troubled relationship between fathers and sons
Eastern Promises
(David Cronenberg) - better than A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's follow-up delivers more believably human characters and a less aloof and theoretical approach, but with a permeating, gripping unease
Once (John Carney) - a charming, anti-romance, anti-musical romantic musical
Juno (Jason Reitman) - great performances by Ellen Page and J.K. Simmons highlight the best pro-unexpected-pregnancy movie of the year
Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog) - Herzog at his most mainstream is still unique and compelling
Paprika (Satoshi Kon) - mature, intelligent science fiction from an acclaimed anime director
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin) - a delirious cinematic poem to repressed sexuality, and a spirited revival of silent cinema
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet) - pitch-black neo-noir with a memorably cruel performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman
Red Road (Andrea Arnold) - a mysterious thriller in which the protagonist hides secrets from you, so that you're never quite sure what's at stake until very, very late...nevertheless, you're gripped by suspense
Son of Man (Mark Donford-May) - vivid and vital filmmaking retells the Christ story in a contemporary South African city
Tideland (Terry Gilliam) - misunderstood, morbidly comic fairy tale that keeps its heroine innocent amidst the most corrupt decay
Sunshine (Danny Boyle) - slightly marred science fiction epic with at least an hour of brilliant material, from the always-fascinating director of Trainspotting and Millions

Pazar, Ocak 06, 2008

A Gallery of Picture Players: The Women

My wife's grandparents gave me an interesting Christmas gift this year: a book from 1914 (or earlier - there's no copyright page, only a pencilled inscription) called Gallery of Picture Players. It consists entirely of portraits, male and female, across hundreds of pages. They are stars of stage and screen, but almost all of them are forgotten today, apart from Charles Chaplin, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Lillian Gish, and a few others. Below I've created a gallery of some of the women. Essentially these are among the earliest Hollywood glamor photos, and while standards of beauty and fashion may have changed--and the idea of a bona fide "movie star" hadn't yet come to full fruition--within each picture you can see aspirations, ambition, and self-idealization written in the eyes. All the facts below were taken from the IMDB, so any inaccuracies can likewise be attributed to them.

Alice Joyce.

Starred in at least 199 films, by the IMDB's tally, beginning in 1910 and ending in 1930. She married three times, once to the director Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie). There are numerous portraits of Ms. Joyce in the book, and she is quite ravishing.

A lengthy bio can be found here.

Dorothy Bernard
Starred in numerous films from 1918 to 1921.

Ethel Grandin.
Starred in films from 1911 to 1922.

Fan Bourke.

Her career ran steadily from 1914 to 1920, with an additional appearance in Lummox in 1930.

Irene Boyle.
No info on her date of birth or death, but the IMDB credits her in films falling between 1913 and 1923. I love this photo. She must have been very proud of her bearskin rug.

Leah Baird.

Appeared on the stage with Douglas Fairbanks (who also appears in this book), and had a short moment in the limelight of cinema.

Lillian Gish.

Easily one of the biggest stars of her era, and one of the first bona fide Hollywood celebrities. She appeared in Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms for D.W. Griffith, and in later years was in Portrait of Jennie and The Night of the Hunter.

Louise Huff.

Her film career ran from 1913 to 1922.

Margaret Gibson,
aka Patricia Palmer, Marguerite Gibson.

Now we're in Kenneth Anger/Hollywood Babylon territory. Gibson was arrested for blackmail and extortion in 1923 (charges were later dropped), ran away to Singapore in the 30's, and on her deathbed confessed to the murder of actor/director William Desmond Taylor. There's a good bio at Wikipedia.

Marguerite Courtot.

Star of comedies, action films, and serials between 1913 and 1924.

Mildred Harris.

Charlie Chaplin's first wife - he married her when she was 17 and he was 29. A child star who grew up to appear in numerous films.

Rosetta Brice,
aka Betty Brice.

Valeska Suratt,
aka "The Vampire Woman."

Starred in The Immigrant and the original 1917 adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's She, as the title character. Seen here adhered to a vase.

Vivian Martin.

Appeared in "The Little Dutch Girl," "Jane Goes A-Wooing," "An Innocent Adventuress," and "Pardon My French." And look out boys, she cooks too!

Cumartesi, Ocak 05, 2008

Eight Arms to Hold You

Help! (U.K., 1965) * * * 1/2
D: Richard Lester

Help! is a very, very odd film, but one-of-a-kind in the best of ways. It is the Beatles' second, and the last big production with their full involvement. American Richard Lester had directed their prior hit, A Hard Day's Night, and had made that film a quasi-documentary about their life in and out of hotel rooms, clubs, trains, cars, and concert halls (with one liberating moment in the open daylight, set to "Can't Buy Me Love"). When he was asked to do a follow-up, every bit the quickie as the former film--since the Beatles might be just a temporary fad--his own artistic restlessness led him to make not a carbon copy but a completely opposite work. A Hard Day's Night is cinéma-vérité, loose, rough around the edges, realistic with a satirical sensibility, with a script that sounded improvised, and cinematography in stark black-and-white. Help! is in bright, beautiful, color, rigorously scripted and structured, resolutely absurdist, a piece of pop art. It is set almost entirely outdoors, whether outside Stonehenge, in the Alps, or in the Bahamas.

If A Hard Day's Night is smothered in cigarette smoke, Help! has the cannabis aroma of the Beatles' new drug of choice, recently introduced to them by Bob Dylan. The Dylan influence is even evident in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," John Lennon's Dylan homage, and veiled ode to closeted manager Brian Epstein. While John strums that song in the band's London flat, which looks like something out of Yellow Submarine (1968), Paul leans against a bookcase with a secret panel that only reveals more books (some of them copies of In His Own Write by John Lennon), Ringo hits a tambourine from inside a pit in the floor, where sits his sunken bed, and George lounges on the couch next to Eleanor Bron, purse in her lap, ever dignified while George makes cartoonish bedroom eyes at her. Leo McKern peeks out from under a manhole, still hunting the Beatles down. It's really one of the first music videos, although that line's a blurry one as rock musicals overtook Cole Porter and Rogers & Hammerstein; in the supplements to the film's latest DVD release, Lester says that in the 80's he was sent a "scroll" pronouncing that he was the father of MTV--and he sent it back to the network demanding a blood test. But it's hard to argue that Lester wasn't brilliant at shooting the Beatles in performance. Each song in Help! sits comfortably on a velvet cushion; the plot is secondary and the music's the thing. The title song is performed by the band in traditional Ed Sullivan Show-stance, in a white room with Ringo at the famous logo-adorned drum kit, but the black-and-white is interrupted by red darts flung at the screen by the crazed cult led by McKern; sublimely, we briefly see their female human sacrifice pining on the altar like any teenage Beatles fan. (I almost wish that the brief prologue had been excised so that this would be our introduction to the color of Help!, presenting a neat transition from AHDN's B&W.) Shortly thereafter, the band steps into a mock-up of their Abbey Road studio to perform "You're Going to Lose That Girl"; the lights are dimmed, and the band sings through rapturously filmed lens flares and spotlights, singing into the mic in extreme close-up. Rather than pulling back to see the full band and the entire studio, Lester concentrates on fractioning the performance into these close-ups, as he slips in and out of focus. It's one of the most intoxicating and inspired pieces of musical filmmaking you'll ever see. But "Ticket to Ride" is the most famous sequence, a hit single performed while the Beatles literally tackle the slopes on skis. The band had never been on skis before, and Lester filmed them while they were learning--going sideways down the bunny slopes and tripping forward into the snow. The props are limited to a piano set up in the snow, which the Beatles climb into and around, but the most innovative moment comes when musical notes are projected onto telephone wires that frame the top of the screen.

There is a plot, it should be mentioned, which takes this long to describe: a cult and a duo of mad scientists are after Ringo's ring. It's an excuse for obvious gags--Rube Goldbergian plots by the cult to sever Ringo's finger, hand, or arm--and James Bond parodies and pastiches, the trend of the day. The gags, in particular the final one in which the film is dedicated to the Singer sewing machine, anticipate Monty Python's Flying Circus, although there was already a rich tradition of dry, surrealist humor in British stage, radio, and television. From the tradition comes Bron, who plays Ahme, one of the cultists who infiltrates the Beatles' inner circle; she's a gifted comic actress, but is tasked with playing it straight against the non-sequitur-spouting Fab Four, who are a bit too bizarre to be the Marx Brothers surrogates that contemporary critics envisioned. Is Ringo, as so many have asserted, the best actor of the group? Perhaps, although he's given a "type" to play in both films--the hapless schlub who doesn't understand why everything bad has to happen to him. (Worse, even his fellow Beatles try to pursuade him that he doesn't really use that ring finger very often, and could stand to miss it!) Every time I watch a Beatles film I'm impressed by John, who doesn't so much "act" as confidently deliver his sarcastic one-liners. It's the confidence that impresses me; he has none of the awkwardness of Paul and George, and convinces that this is who he really is. Which must be acting. To their credit, George allows his shirt to be ripped right off in one scene, and later Paul is shrunk straight out of his clothes, taking a nude bath in an ashtray. Teenage girls, take note.

The only real flaw in Help! is that there isn't more of their music: a whole side B is missing from the film, which includes "I've Just Seen a Face" (belatedly receiving its cinematic bow in Julie Taymor's Across the Universe), "Act Naturally," and "Yesterday." Not that "Yesterday" could really work in a film stuffed with sight gags, car chases, and bad puns. The real wonder of Help! is in the joy the film exudes. There's one moment, during a performance of "The Night Before," when Ringo shivers from the cold and then smiles widely at someone off-camera. That these couple of seconds remain in the film is no coincidence; this is what Lester was after. During the musical sequences he wanted to show the band's charisma, their real personalities, their real joy in performance, how good these songs are, and just why we love the Beatles so much. As a result, Help! and its companion film are the best possible document of the band, however fictionalized and glued to paper-thin plots. Here you can see them performing for each other, not for an auditorium filled with screaming girls who drown out their music. Shortly after this, the band would begin to tire of each other, and jealousies and bitter feelings would begin to intrude and drive them apart. Later, John would say that the song "Help!" was meant to have a slower tempo, a more serious tone; it was a song about a nervous breakdown. Instead, it's a marvelous pop song, a pinnacle of the art. Whatever the reality, the fiction of Help!--Richard Lester's Help!--is a snapshot of the band as we'd like to remember them.