Posts Tagged ‘The American’

Frenzy on the Wall: If I Had a Ballot 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

2011 was not a very strong year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy performances and filmmakers that deserve some attention.  As I do every year,  I’m going to give my picks for the Oscars in the major awards as if I had an actual ballot.  Since the Academy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and will probably make the safe choice whenever possible, it’s fun to give my perspective.  Needless to say, I don’t see the Academy sending me a ballot anytime soon.

Best Picture

  • The American
  • Black Swan
  • Blue Valentine
  • The Social Network
  • Trash Humpers

I don’t believe in the Academy’s new(ish) rule to expand the category to ten nominees, so I’m going with five.  I think Black Swan and The Social Network are locks for spots and Blue Valentine will most likely make an appearance, but you can forgot about the Academy nominating something as deliberate as The American or something as truly avant-garde as Trash Humpers.  The Academy will pat itself on the back for nominating Black Swan, thinking that it’s an “art” film when it’s really just an amazingly well-done and dense genre picture.

I’m not knocking Black Swan at all – it was my second favorite film of the year – but what the voting bloc views as “avant-garde” and what is actually avant-garde are two entirely different things, so let’s not applaud the Academy just because they nominate a film as complicated as Black Swan; that should be the norm and we should be pushing them to go even further.

Having said that, I think all five of these films are worthy pictures of getting nominated in a field of ten in any given year.  A film like The American or Trash Humpers probably wouldn’t make it on my ballot of five in a stronger year and Blue Valentine is pushing it.  I didn’t catch the latter film until recently and I think it’s strong from start to finish, but that scene at the hospital towards the end really strained credulity.


I just don’t see how a man can go into a hospital and punch someone/wreck the place without security or an orderly coming to help.  People in hospitals are trained to subdue people who may get violent and yet, the man in question is able to walk out of the place and get in his car.  More than that: this was a film that I related to on such a deep level for almost every second of the film until that moment, when I could no longer relate to that character.  It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect film otherwise.

(End Spoilers)

But really, The Social Network is the film to beat and I don’t see anything coming close.  It’s not a revolutionary movie, it’s just a really great story told well.  It’s a profound statement about the times we live in and there are a lot of issues of betrayal, friendship, privacy, etc. that are brought up and explored in the film.  But more important than any of that is that it is exceptionally entertaining on a surface level.  The subtext of the film would not be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the text itself is so funny, poignant, and exciting.  It’s not perfect, but it’s close to it.  If I had any issue with the film, it’s that I wish it was at least an hour longer.  It’s the film of the year and unless the Academy is incredibly short-sighted (and they are), it will win Best Picture.

Best Director

  • Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
  • Anton Corbijn (The American)
  • David Fincher (The Social Network)
  • Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers)
  • Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void)

Ordinarily, I believe that the best five films are the five best directed films.  However, I had to make room for Gaspar Noe for his dynamic achievement with Enter the Void.  It’s not a great film because Noe’s script is a bit too trite, but the way he brings the impossible to life is something to be applauded and rewarded.  Derek Cianfrance did a fantastic job,  though I think it owes a big debt to the films of John Cassavetes, but it’s really not about the job that he did with Blue Valentine, but rather how masterful Noe’s direction was for Enter the Void.

Noe and Korine were the only filmmakers this year that sought to create something that was unique to the screen yet familiar enough to audiences.  I don’t think they were perfect because their natural impulse is to push the audience away rather than invite them in; it’s almost like they created video art rather than cinema (although that argument is a slippery slope and worthy of its own column).  Both Noe and Korine were successful in bringing their eccentric visions to life, but I can’t say they were the best because it was harder for me to engage with their works.

I think Corbijn did a fine job with The American, which has one of the most beautifully melancholic tones and a somnambulant yet charming pace.  The film it reminded me of the most was Anthony Minghella’s fantastic The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Both films are about handsome killers who hide themselves and fall in love, yet can’t escape their pasts; and both films are set in beautiful European cities that are shot lovingly and without rapid movements of the camera.  It’s really a complete 180 from Corbijn’s first feature, Control, and showed that he’s capable of all sorts of genres.  I’m excited to see what he does next.

For me, this award is a race between Aronofsky and Fincher.  These couldn’t be two more different films and both are really indicative of who each of these directors are as filmmakers.  Aronofsky’s Black Swan is hyper and emotional while Fincher’s The Social Network is controlled and tightly focused.  I think both films are touching in their own ways and both have (very different) built-in reasons to keep us from being too heartbroken by what occurs.  But for me, I have to go with what I thought was the better film and that’s The Social Network.  Having seen both multiple times, I don’t think The Social Network loses anything on repeat viewings whereas Black Swan loses the element of surprise that makes it so distressing to watch the first time around.  So, Fincher should – and will – win the award for Best Director.

Best Actor

  • George Clooney (The American)
  • Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
  • Andy Garcia (City Island)
  • Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)

To me, it’s a real shame that Aaron Eckhart isn’t getting more love for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole.  He and Nicole Kidman are equals in that movie, one performance doesn’t work without the other and both of them smash it out of the park.  Eckhart is understanding and sympathetic and yet flawed and on the verge of making mistakes; what makes his performance (and the film) work so well is that we relate to both his and Kidman’s characters from moment to moment.

Gosling is similarly great and for a lot of the same reasons.  Blue Valentine is also a film about a couple first and foremost and wouldn’t work if the two actors weren’t at the top of their games.  Gosling is given the more difficult role in Blue Valentine because he does quite a few things that might make us detest him, yet he more than makes up for it by playing a character who is understanding at the oddest of times – and Gosling makes it feel earned.  His character is not a particularly intelligent person and we’re given a few hints at why this might be the case, but can sympathize with his longing and with the ways in which he tries to make this relationship work.  Gosling and Eckhart both deserve to be nominated.

Clooney and Garcia are playing two completely different parts (and I just realized at this moment that they played adversaries in the Ocean’s 11 franchise).  Clooney is introverted from beginning to end and is loathe to tell his secrets to anyone.  Garcia is more manic and upbeat, anxious to get his secrets out.  People don’t give Clooney a whole lot of credit because he’s always so cool, calculated and…well, handsome as hell.  But he’s playing a difficult part in The American because so much of it is dependent on the way in which he moves rather than the way in which he speaks.  Garcia’s part in City Island is the exact opposite – it depends so much on how his speech and manner changes from scene to scene depending on who he is around.  Clooney’s part is dramatic and tragic in every sense of the word; Garcia’s part is dramatic in the hysterical sense of the word.  Both actors play their parts as perfectly as could be expected and I’d be willing to bet that if you swapped their roles, we wouldn’t be talking about either movie right now.

Finally there is Jesse Eisenberg who gives the best male performance of the year in The Social Network.  There isn’t enough I can say about this guy, who manages to make the character of Mark Zuckerberg into both villain and hero.  We cringe when he puts down his best friend because we know he’s better than that.  We believe he’s capable of redemption, that he’s not a monster.  The tragedy of the film is that he’s a person that so badly wants to connect with the people around him, that he wants to be popular, and yet he fails at every turn on a human level while succeeding on a business level.  Ultimately, at the end of the film, he’s in the Facebook offices surrounded by people and yet he’s completely alone – headphones on his ears, isolated from everyone and even his best friend can’t jolt him out of this unreality by smashing his laptop because there’s always another computer at his disposal.  Eisenberg convinces us that Zuckerberg is human and so we realte to much of what he does.  If we didn’t,  we wouldn’t be so disgusted by what he does wrong.  He should win Best Actor, but he won’t because the Academy will reward Colin Firth’s stammering performance in The King’s Speech.

(Side note: The King’s Speech is a perfectly decent film but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  Firth is a great actor, but this is hardly his crowning achievement.  The truth of the matter is that we can see Firth’s acting in every scene, we can see the wheels turning.  William Goldman once said that actors love playing drunks and mentally disabled people because Oscar voters can actually see them acting, knowing that the actor themselves isn’t actually disabled in any way.  But those aren’t the difficult roles at all; rather, the difficult roles are the ones where it’s hard to see the strings.  I think Firth does a good job in The King’s Speech, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult role to pull off.)

Best Actress

  • Madeline Carroll (Flipped)
  • Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
  • Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
  • Rachel Weisz (Agora)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

It was difficult to leave off Jennifer Lawrence (excellent in Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening (for that one amazing scene in The Kids Are All Right), Zoe Kazan (astounding in The Exploding Girl), Tilda Swinton (heartbreaking in I Am Love), Carey Mulligan (wonderfully understated in Never Let Me Go) and Hailee Steinfeld (for carrying True Grit).  It was a strong year for lead female performances.

However, I couldn’t in good conscience omit young Madeline Carroll’s dynamite turn in Rob Reiner’s Flipped.  I don’t blame you if you haven’t seen the movie because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be nearly as engaging as it is.  It’s a sentimental and saccharine-laced story of young love in early 60s suburbia, but one of the primary reasons why it works so well is Carroll’s charisma.  She’s playing an eccentric character who is irrationally in love with the boy next door.  The only reason the film doesn’t work is because Carroll is so much more magnetic than her counterpart.  She’s so good that it almost ruins the movie because no other part of the film works as well as her performance.  Carroll is someone to watch for.

Rachel Weisz carries Agora in a way that very few actresses could.  She is powerful and dynamic as Hypatia, the mathematician and astrologer in 5th century Alexandria.  There is a fine line that Weisz navigates between being magnanimous and being a martyr, yet Weisz’s Hypatia is noble throughout without us ever feeling like we’re being given a caricature of a decent person in the face of evil.  A lot of the dialogue Weisz has to recite is a bit cumbersome, but she is able to pull it off and make it sound natural.

Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams are fantastic for all of the reasons I mentioned above in regards to their co-stars.  Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Rabbit Hole, giving us a character who is going through unimaginable pain.  And Williams continues to prove that she might be the best actress of her generation by playing a woman on the precipice of imploding.  What makes both performances so strong is the fact that both actresses make difficult choices in order to make their characters feel real and human.  The disinterested look in Williams’ eyes as she walks past Gosling in the shower “future room” sequence in Blue Valentine or the way Kidman smacks herself in the shoulder in the climactic argument in Rabbit Hole, these are tics that the actors bring to the table that humanize their characters in unexpected ways.

But the performance of the year – male of female – is Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  It’s not just that Portman’s Nina Sayers is so fragile that she’s almost on the verge of tears in almost every scene or that she commits herself so fully to this unhinged performance that is both repulsive and attractive at the same time, it’s that in addition to all of the typical acting traits she exhibits, she is also a convincing dancer.  Let me make that clear: Portman’s dancing ability and the way in which it morphs throughout the film is integral to the development of the character.  When Portman dances at the end of the film and we see that she has finally captured the essence of the “black swan” role, I could tell that there was a difference in the way she danced.  I’m not a ballet scholar, but even I could tell that there was a different emotional tone to her dance at the end of the film.  It wasn’t just in the way she moved – although there was that – but it was in the look in her eyes.  I can’t think of another performance that I’ve seen in recent years that was so dependent on movement and I can’t think of another performer who pulled it off so well.  Portman is in nearly every frame of Black Swan and she doesn’t give a single false note.  Nina Sayers is the Daniel Plainview of this year.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Matt Damon (True Grit)
  • John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
  • Kevin Kline (The Extra Man)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom)
  • Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)

The most difficult thing about this category was figuring out The Social Network situation.  I could easily replace Timberlake with Andrew Garfield or Armie Hammer.  And it was difficult not to put Garfield or Hammer in there in place of Kevin Kline or Matt Damon, as well.  Ultimately, I went with Timberlake in my Social Network slot because the film goes to a completely different level the moment Timberlake steps on the screen.  He is playing the most engaging character, for sure, but he is absolutely mesmerizing.  Timberlake has always been charismatic, but here he uses it to play a character who he is ruthless and villainous; he is the Iago of the film and his paranoia is always bubbling under the surface.

Kline and Damon are both playing oddball characters in their respective films and there are few actors better suited to those sorts of eccentrics than the two of them.  Kline plays a kind of greasy and unhygienic “gentleman” that I had never seen before on a film screen, yet he makes it seem familiar and comfortable.  And Damon plays a cocky and stupidly courageous Texas Ranger.  When writing about their characters, one has to use odd word pairings in order to describe them, like “stupidly courageous” or “unhygienic gentleman;”  for that alone, I think they deserve to be here.

Hawkes and Mendelsohn, for me, gave the two best performances in this category and they are surprisingly similar.  They both play shady criminals who are akin to caged animals, ready to strike at a moment’s notice despite the fact that there aren’t many scenes where they do.  It’s all in the way these actors move, the eerie calm in their eyes.  They are playing different sides of the same coin, to be sure, since Mendelsohn is truly villainous and Hawkes is surprisingly heroic.  However, if Animal Kingdom was from Pope’s perspective, perhaps he would seem more heroic and if Winter’s Bone was from Teardrop’s perspective then he might seem more evil.  I found it hard to shake either of their performances and each had a specific scene that was emblematic.  In Animal Kingdom, there was the scene in which Pope harasses one of his younger brothers and calls him gay and in Winter’s Bone, there’s the scene in which Teardrop gets pulled over by the cop.  In both scenes, we can tell from the performances of Hawkes and Mendelsohn (as well as their co-stars in those scenes) that they are capable of doing absolutely anything in that moment.  We have no freaking idea how these characters are going to react in those scenes and that’s what makes their performances so fantastic.

If I had to pick a winner, though, it would have to be Hawkes.  When the film ended, I wished I was following Teardrop on to wherever the hell he was going.  It haunted me.

(Side note: I know, I left Christian Bale off for The Fighter.  Truthfully, I really liked his performance and thought it was the best Bale has been since Rescue Dawn.  However, similarly to Colin Firth, I think Bale has the showier role and I think quite often he goes over the top.  I think he’s saved somewhat by the fact that Melissa Leo goes so far over the top that Bale’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem so blatant, yet I found his scenes to be a bit cringe-worthy at times and for the wrong reasons.  He wasn’t terrible, and I’m certainly in the minority, but I didn’t buy into his character whole hog the way I wanted to.)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Greta Gerwig (Greenberg)
  • Rebecca Hall (Please Give)
  • Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
  • Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
  • Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)

I’m hesitant to even put Gerwig in this category because I think she’s really the lead of the film in so many ways, but I wanted to sneak her in here because she really holds that movie together.  Ben Stiller has the showier title role of the stunted adult, but Gerwig fascinated me because I know that character.  She plays the young hipster who is trying to get by and accidentally (and naively) sleeps around with all the wrong guys, including the title character.  Each of her mistakes is easily forgivable because she’s such a decent person, but despite seeming like she has her head on straight, she continues to see Greenberg, a man who is wrong in every way possible.  I really admired the way Gerwig was willing to do less in each of her scenes, knowing that the audience would be understanding her more because of her quietness.

Rebecca Hall is also playing a character that often goes overlooked by most award-givers: a nice person who does good things.  Hall plays a woman who is kind to her cantankerous grandmother and gives mammograms, often to older women.  She isn’t a dark or dangerous character, but a decent one who strives to be better.  In other words, Hall plays a character like many of us; someone who feels obligated to care for the people that she loves.

The fact that Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest gave terrific performances in their respective films should come as no shock to anyone who has followed their careers.  These are two wonderful actresses.  Wiest is quietly heartbroken and devastated throughout Rabbit Hole, hoping to spare her daughters the pain that she has felt.  Hershey, on the other hand, is playing a character who is almost hoping to pass on the pain she felt to her daughter.

For me, the winner of this category has to be Mila Kunis, for many of the same reasons why Portman should win her category.  Black Swan does not work if Kunis is not Portman’s equal and other in the film.  When Kunis shows up in the film, it’s that same feeling as when Timberlake shows up in The Social Network: everything becomes more electric and exciting.  Each scene with Portman and Kunis in Black Swan is ripe with tension and emotion because of the way they play off one another.  Witness that scene in the restaurant.  It’s not just that Kunis eats a burger while Portman eats her salad, it’s that Kunis derives pleasure from her food without much thought while Portman pokes around at her food meekly and painfully.  I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Kunis in the awards conversation, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t win this year.

The Rest

The column is running a little (okay a lot) long, so here would be my winners in some of the other categories:

Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, hands down, no contest.  One of the best albums of any kind that I heard this year.

Cinematography – Benoit Debie for Enter the Void, for doing things with the camera I never thought possible.

Best Original Screenplay – Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis for Blue Valentine.  A great screenplay for what it leaves out.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.  Duh.

Best Documentary – Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, even if it might be a gigantic joke on all of us.  A fascinating portrait of the rise of graffiti art.

MW on DVDs: The American, Cronos, I am Love … and more

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010


The American (Three Stars)

U.S.; Anton Corbijn, 2010 (Universal)

I like George Clooney. No off-color psychological speculations, please.

What I like about him is the easy-going “good guy” way he plays the Hollywood game. I like his politics, his philanthropy, his unpretentious smarts, his good-natured jock style, his taste in movie scripts, his daring as a director, his wry grin, his sense of fun and his sense of seriousness.

And I like the fact that he‘s a stunning-looking guy who can effortlessly get all the things available to stunning-looking guys — the ladies, the jobs, the laughs and whatever else — but that he doesn’t rub our noses in it, or act like he‘s always on the make, or pump himself up with vanity and vacuous self-regard. I like that he makes fun of himself, and even makes fun of the American obsession with stunning-looking guy s and gorgeous women and using your looks to get ahead. As Clint Eastwood likes to say about himself and his philosophy, Clooney takes the work seriously, but not himself seriously.

The American, Clooney’s latest movie, is a good example of Clooney’s work ethic and ambition, his Paul Newmanesque good-guy persona. It’s an eye-popping, laconic, dramatically perverse mix of art film and classy romantic thriller that deliberately tramples on the current norms and box-office formulas. Instead, it summons up memories of esoteric European suspense dramas like Melville’s Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and Antonioni‘s The Passenger, rather than the more obvious models you’d expect, like Bourne and Bond.

It’s a good film, beautifully visualized, a little self-indulgent maybe, and a little spare of script. Clooney‘s star role is as an assassin/gunsmith variously known as Jack, Edward and Butterfly, dodging bullets on a hideaway in the lush Abruzzi mountain country of Italy, and involved with several knockout ladies, a philosophical priest, and an impatient employer (some or all of whom may mean him harm). It’s an uncharacteristic minimalist job, fraught with tension and less heavy on the usual Clooney trumps of charm and personality.

Like Le Samourai, that classic neo-noir of the ‘60s with Alain Delon as a somber Parisian hit man, The American is about a perfectionist in murder whose world is coming apart and who (unwisely, perhaps) seems to fall in love. So the film begins with a botched attack and a startling rub-out and it stays tense and opaque, keeps mixing sex and menace the rest of the way.

During most of The American — a movie in which Clooney’s character fends off attacks, constructs a super-gun for another (female) assassin, engages in some very authentic-looking lovemaking and strolls around the hilly streets and chic shops of that Abruzzi village — Jack simply appears scared shitless or about to be. Or lost in some confused, apprehensive reverie. He looks as if something is sneaking up behind him — and it is.

The movie’s source is the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth, which is apparently less opaque, and less spare of story. And screenwriter Rowan Joffe (who is now at work adapting that classic British thriller Brighton Rock by Graham Greene), gives it the Harold Pinter strip-the-dialogue-to the-bone treatment. People say little and conceal their meanings and feelings, if not their private parts. But then how much is there to say when you’re in Abruzzi, ducking your boss (Johan Leysen as the sinister, corpse-like Pavel) pretending to be a photographer, walking around by yourself, or making a gun, or frenziedly copulating? I’d be mum too.

A lot happens in The American, and it happens very stylishly, thanks to cinematographer Martin Ruhe, designer Mark Digby, and director Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is the Dutch filmmaker and music video maker who made Control, that very stylish black-and-white bio-drama on front man/suicide Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and here he fills the screen with beauty and dread, the way Polanski and Hitchcock do or did, but somewhat less bitingly and with far less lacerating suspense.

We first see Jack in Sweden, my grandparents’ homeland, where we kibitz on a foiled hit that might be described as Bergmanesque. Then comes that Antonionian trip to Abruzzi and encounter with the lady killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a sub-Fellini interlude in the local bordello with a knockout local whore, Clara (played by the spectacularly beautiful Violante Placido, the daughter of The Godfather’s Simonetta Stefanelli, Michael Corleone’s bride), a somewhat De Sica-ish or Ermanno Olmiesque conversation on American existentialism in a graveyard with an elderly priest, Father Benedetti (Paolo Bonacelli), stark scenes of Melvillean samurai loneliness where the hatless Clooney channels Alain Delon, architectural beauties out of early Alain Resnais documentaries, and a final enigmatic shootout that suggests Sergio Leone hired as a gunsmith by elegant hit man Bernardo Bertolucci. (Both were involved in Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Jack sees here on TV. A grand allusion?)

The American sometimes seems like a film festival disguised as a picturesque neo-noir thriller. But it’s a neo-noir that also plays as if it would rather be a psychological drama about alienation and personal collapse, and that keeps avoiding the violent paydays we seem to expect of our supposed “thrillers.” Despite those inviting Abruzzi mountain roads, for example, there’s no car-chase scene, not even one reminiscent of Dino Risi and Il Sorpasso, or of Fellini and La Dolce Vita — though, at one point near the end, Jack does drive very, very fast.

Who but Clooney could get away with something like this? Corbijn’s Control was bleak and sad, and this movie is so sparse, so melancholy, that Jack’s fiddling with the gun becomes a sort of action scene by default. The movie’s sex almost totally supplants the usual gunfights, which was fine by me. I saw three other movie shootouts the same day anyway.

Yet, lugubrious though it may seem to some, The American is not anti-American, no matter what Father Benedetti existentially mumbles in the graveyard. The presence of Clooney alone tips the balance in our favor. There is a specific pro-European bias that has always been part of American culture, and they (especially the French) have often returned the compliment — as indeed, Jean-Pierre Melville did in Le Samourai, The American‘s cinematic god father. The compliment is mutually exchanged here.

Want to see a beautifully-shot thriller, with beautiful people in beautiful surroundings? Here it is — despite a script that could be better and smarter, and too much fancy bleakness, and dialogue that could be sharper and wittier, and no car-chases in sight. It’s no Syriana. It’s no Michael Clayton. And it’s certainly no Samourai. But it looks like a nice working holiday for our pal George. He deserves one.



Cronos (Three and a Half Stars)

Cronos, a vampire movie for aficionados, was the first feature film of 28-year-old Mexican moviemaker Guillermo Del Toro. And it’s the fulfillment of a long-time dream. Where a lot of Del Toro’s classmates at film school in Mexico probably wanted to make films like the great Italian cineastes Fellini and Antonioni, makers of the classics La Dolce Vita, and L’Avventura, Del Toro — whose views of life and cinema were a little darker, more sinister, more stylishly loony — wanted to make movies like the great Italian horror-meisters Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulce, makers of Suspiria, Black Sunday and Zombie.

He did. The irony is that Del Toro, a jocular kid with artistic gifts from Guadalajara, achieved his dream and has already surpassed all of his masters — especially with his modern 2006 horror/art classic Pan‘s Labyrinth — whereas our chances of seeing a Mexican 8 ½, a Mexican Blow-up or even a Mexican Bicycle Thief seem still distant.

If we do see them, they will almost certainly be made by Del Toro’s two best movie buddies, Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (Amores Perros), the other two members of that celebrated, ultra-talented, genial and ingenious Mexican cinematic trio “The Three Amigos.“ (Friends for years, they hang out, swap ideas and jokes, and act as unofficial advisors on each other’s movies. Their joint company is called Cha Cha Cha Productions.)

Cronos, Del Toro’s first feature — which came out in 1993 and won the Cannes Festival International Critics Prize and a flock of Ariels (Mexican Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director — is a vampire movie of unusual style and subtlety, with a superb cast, deeper-than-usual characterizations, brilliant twists on the usual horror movie clichés, and horrific images that brand themselves on your brain. (Cronos” nonpareil cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, is Del Toro’s regular shooter, and Navarro won an Oscar for photographing Pan‘s Labyrinth.)

The star of Cronos is the legendary Argentine leading man, Federico Luppi, here playing a good-hearted, brainy and knowledgable Mexican antique dealer, Jesus Gris, who runs across an ancient device in his dusty shop — a sort of golden watch with wicked pincers — that grants you sort-of-eternal life, with the downside that it also turns you into a vampire, and requires you to drink blood and sleep in a coffin. (Among the movie’s unforgettable images: Jesus, starved and desperate, deliriously dropping to the floor of a seemingly empty men’s room and lapping up blood by a sink.)

Jesus, forced into a life style that doesn’t suit his true nature, his paternal benevolence, also gets on the bad side of two unscrupulous and thoroughly evil foes who want the cronos too: the rich and amoral De La Guardia (played by one of Luis Bunuel’s actors, fancy man Claudio Brook), and De La Guardia’s brutal factotum/son Angel (played by Ron Perlman, who was later Del Toro’s Hellboy). Jesus’ one great ally is the sweet little granddaughter he must protect and who tends his coffin, Aurora (Tamara Shanath, whose part looks ahead to the little girl visionary in Pan‘s Labyrinth).

What happens to these four is what usually happens in horror movies, but happens here with more style, drama and humanity. We believe in these characters as we believe in very few of the victims and/or monsters in the films of Del Toro’s idols and mentors Bava, Fulce and Argento. (Not that we have to, to enjoy their movies.) And the story affected me as I’m never touched by the current wave of chic megahit vampire movies, especially those Twilight teen swoonfests. (Not that I’m the right audience for them.) We know what Del Toro’s people think, how their hearts beat, how their blood streams. We know intimately their waking nightmares. When the cronos stabs them, we feel it.

Del Toro lavishes on these bloody fairytales, a sensibility and artistry — and a beauty and tenderness — that almost seems too much. But sensibility, beauty and artistry deserve understanding and/or applause wherever we see them. After all, even Fellini once made a horror movie (with Terence Stamp) of Poe’s Never Bet the Devil Your Head (or words to that effect) a.k.a. Toby Dammit. Pretty damned good, as I recall. Never got that bouncing head out of my mind. Ditto with Jesus’ coffin here. (In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentaries by Del Toro and his Cronos producers; Del Toro‘s previously unreleased 1987 horror short “Geometria” (Three Stars); Del Toro‘s video tour of his offices, “Welcome to Bleak House“; Interviews with Del Toro, Luppi, Perlman, and Navarro; Trailer; Stills gallery; Booklet with Del Toro’s notes for “Cronos,” and an essay by Maitland McDonagh.


Le Combat de l‘Ile (Three and a Half Stars)

France: Alain Cavalier, 1961 (Zeitgeist)

In the politically volatile Paris of the early ‘60s, a divided nation run by De Gaulle and embroiled in the Algerian conflict, a wealthy industrialist‘s son and young right wing extremist named Clement (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, of “Z“ and “The Conformist“) is assigned the job of assassinating a left-wing deputy, supervised by an older man, a longtime reactionary terrorist.

When the job is bungled and the conspiracy exposed, Clement goes on the run with his beautiful young ex-stage-actress wife Anne (Romy Schneider), hiding out at the home of his old school friend Paul (Henry Serre, the Jim of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim) who is now a left-wing pacifist, unaware of Clement’s extremism. There is a betrayal, another death plot — and, the main key to all the emotions we witness, a passionate triangle between Clement, Anne and Paul, which ends in the “combat de l‘ile“ of the title.

In the early ‘60s the world wide success of two great New Wave film noirs, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, was part of a real post-Rififi French explosion of the form among young and emerging moviemakers. This unusual but model noir, Combat de l’Ile, almost unknown in the U.S. but highly regarded in France, was the first film of a writer-director you wouldn’t normally associate with noir at all: Alain Cavalier, who made the austere, brilliant religious film Therese, a Cannes Jury Prize awardee, and multiple French Oscar winner, in 1986.

It’s also the first “serious feature” of the superb cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who later shot such legendary French films as Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai, Jean Eustache‘s The Mother and the Whore, and the Jean Pierre Melville WW2 Resistance drama Army of Shadows.

Cavalier, however, was a real devotee of the classic American ‘40s and ‘50s thrillers, and he knew the rules of the game. He lists his big inlfuences here as Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir and “American film noir.” (Another influence, according to Lhomme, was the ‘30s naturalist cinema poet Jean Vigo, of L‘Atalante). Combat de l’Ile, scripted by Cavalier and with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (director of the excellent 1990 Gerard Depardieu-starring Cyrano de Bergerac), and supervised by Louis Malle (for whom Cavalier had been assistant director on Malle’s classic noir Elevator to the Gallows), is shot in beautifully austere black and white, in Paris and in the country.

It‘s marvelous-looking, oddly poetic, laced with anguish. Cavalier’s film may lack the grim punch, cynical milieu and salty characters of the great French noirs, like Rififi, The Wages of Fear and Second Breath. But Combat compensates with a pure, unabashed romanticism that reminds you of Out of the Past or Nick Ray’s They Live by Night.

It also has a wonderful cast, headed by Trintignant (with his sinister Conformist calm, Serre with his dreamy romantic certitude, and, most important, the ravishing catlike, but sadly self-destructive beauty Romy Schneider, here breaking hearts and sipping too much wine, just as she did in life. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Cavalier‘s 2010 short France 1961 (Three Stars), about the making of Le Combat de l’Ile; photos from Louis Malle archive; booklet with essays by Lhomme and Elliott Stein.



Greatest Classic Movies Collection: Busby Berkeley Musicals (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Various directors, 1933-36 (TCM/Warner Brothers)

Busby Berekely was the wildly imaginative, totally inimitable, wondrously absurd movie musical choreographer who — working for Warner Brothers in the ‘30s — turned the dance floor into a kaledioscope, made the cameras fly, and set the Warners soundstages ablaze and abloom with hundreds of smiling, lightly dressed (or undressed) chorus girls who, under Berteley’s tutelage and generalship, became an unprecedented army of dazzling dames.

The songs in the shows were usually by Al Dubin (words) and Harry Warren (music): bouncy, catchy and risqué, Depression-proof. (Warren wrote that proletarian classic “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in the Five and Ten Cent Store.”)

The Warners casts were memorably energetic, spry, uniquely Berkeleyesque: dimpled Dick Powell, sweetie Ruby Keeler, sassy Ginger rigers and tough cookie Joan Blondell to sing the songs, and dance the dances; streetwise Allen Jenkins, nervous Frank McHugh, barmy Hugh (“Woo Woo!“) Herbert and foxy grandpa Guy Kibbee for comedy, and, for one glorious movie (Footlight Parade, see below), Jimmy Cagney at his jazziest as Berkely alter-ego choreographer-director-reluctant star Chester Kent to hoof and dream and slap people around.

And the result was unmistakably Berkeley: hot and saucy mixtures of fast-talking Depression-era cynicism, Boy-Meets-Girl romance, and outlandish musical numbers that were supposed to be staged in Broadway or Chicago theatres, but could have taken palce on no theatrtical stage on earth, except maybe the Roman Coliseum, with a few major alterations. Watch the last three incredible numbers in Berkeley‘s incredible masterpiece Footlight Parade — three numbers supposedly staged one after the other in separate Chicago theaters — and your jaw will damned well drop to your ankles.

Lots of directors and choreographers have tried to copy Berkeley’s dancing cameras and his patented kaleidoscopic “top shots“ ever since the ‘30s (though Fred Astaire‘s and Gene Kelly‘s great routines were, in a way, revolts against the Berkeley trend). But the mimics lack Berkeley‘s energy, his pizzazz, his razzmatazz, his full-blown embrace of absurdity. Most of all, they lack Busby Berkeley himself.

But our moves will have Buz and his dames forever. And this TCM set has Berkeley times four, with lots of girl-power. And, of course, a waterfall. Note: The more complete (and more expensive) Warner Berkeley sets, even the old six disc “Busby Berkeley Collection“ are obviously superior choices. But, as a bargain set, this four movie two disc box, with lots of extras, is a good buy for non-completists

Includes: 42nd Street (U.S.: D: Lloyd Bacon; Choreographer: Berkeley, 1933). (Four Stars) The most famous of all Berkeley musicals. Warner Baxter is the driven, tormented director, Dick Powell the writer-tenor, Ginger Rogers the vamp, and Ruby Keeler the little girl who’s going out a chorus girl but coming back a star. Stanley Kubrick named this as one of his ten all-time favorite films; lots of people agree with him. Songs: “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me.”

Footlight Parade (U.S.: D: Bacon. Chor: Berkeley, 1933) (Four Stars). Berkeley‘s bestmovie. Jimmy Cagney, at his zippiest and toughest, is the Berekely surrogate, Dick Powell is the smiling songwriter, Ruby Keeler the sweetheart singer, Joan Blondell the gal Friday. And, my God, those last three numbers — the cheerfully lewd “Honeymoon Hotel” (with Billy Barty as a rascally infant), the outrageous water ballet to “By a Waterfall,” and the snazzy Von Sternbergian melodrama and New Deal march “Shanghai Lil” — are mindblowers of the first order.

Dames (U.S.: D: Ray Enright. Chor: Berkeley, 1934) (Three Stars). Powell, Keeler, Kibbee and Herbert again. Another opening, another show. The songs include the classics “Dames“ and “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the amazing “When You Were a Smile on Your Mother‘s Lips, and a Twinkle in Your Daddy’s Eye.”

Gold Diggers of 1937 (U.S.: D: Bacon. Chor: Berkeley, 1936) (Three Stars).
A pretty silly movie; incredibly, it’s from a play by Dick Maibaum, who went on to write most of the urbane James Bond movies. In it, Dick Powell sells insurance, and Osgood Perkins (Tony’s dad) tries to collect triple indemnity on musical show backer Victor Moore, while Dick, Joan Blondell and Lee Dixon throw a show together. Berkeley, who got musical ideas from his stretch in the military in WW1 as a field artillery lieutenant, shows off his fighting spirit in the campy boy’s army vs. girl’s army number “All’s Fail in Love and War.” Also: “With Plenty of Money and You.”

Extras: Vintage musical shorts (Including one with Harry Warren playing his songs on piano), dramatic shorts and Looney Tunes; Featurettes; Excerpt from 1929’s “Gold Diggers of Broadway”; Radio promos; Trailers; Notes on Berkeley.


I Am Love (Three Stars)

Italy: Luca Guadagnino, 2009 (Magnolia)

A super-rich Italian industrialist divides his power among his son and grandson, precipitating all kinds of emotional and business crises, especially rattling his son’s beautiful, troubled Russian wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, the master chef best friend of her son.

Over-rated, I think; the dialogue is uninspired and the sets really made me miss Visconti. The visuals too often resembled a British TV period drama rather than, say The Leopard or The Damned. But it’s intelligent, well-acted, well-shot: a good realistic drama with ideas about life, and with a fine score by John Adams. I may be too rough on it. (English and Italian, with English subtitles.).

Extras: Commentary by Guadagnino and Swinton; Featurette; Interviews with cast and crew.

And Soon the Darkness (One Star)
U.S.; Marcos Efron, 2010

Back in 1970, director Robert Fuest and producer-writer Brian Clemens (two smart veterans of TV’s cult show The Avengers) made a stylish little British sleeper-thriller called And Soon the Darkness — about pretty British girls bicycling through France, a disappearance, and possible abduction and/or murder. The star was Pamela Franklin (Maggie Smith‘s prize student in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and the movie had a nice pace, good looks and some effective pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense.

This remake, retooled for sexy American bicyclists zipping through Argentina, and directed and co-written by Marcos Efron, looks good too: Gabriel Beristain is the cinematographer, and Amber Heard and Odette Yustman are the bike gals, with Yustman the lady who vanishes. But, as you might expect from this kind of contemporary terror-cheesecake remix (Efron wastes little time getting Heard and Yustman into a pickup bar and then into bikinis) the treatment is creepier and more sordid than it was in 1970, that now classic-looking era when lots of people thought movie sex was going too far.

The real reason for the low rating here is the script: the shockingly inept dialogue and witless plotting that have replaced the competent workm anship of Fuest’s and Clemens’ film. The sole motivation for most of the action in the new Darkness is outrageous stupidity and chronic carelessness on the part of everyone: victim, villains and innocent bystanders alike. In my experience, nobody in the world talks like the people in this movie except the characters in very bad screenplays. Luckily, Beristain does light and shoot some macabre sets — and capture some nice scenery, the heroines included. (In English and Spanish, no subtitles.)

Madam Satan (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Cecil B. DeMille, 1930 (Warner Archive)

Maybe the craziest of all the early talkie DeMille movies, and that’s saying something.

We’re familiar with C. B.’s lavish historical pageants and sin-packed biblical spectacles. Here’s one of his plush pre-Code sex comedy-dramas, set among the philandering rich. Reginald Denny is a wandering rake of a husband. Roland Young is his drunken addled chum. Lillian Roth (the biographical subject of I’ll Cry Tomorrow) is his raunchy mistress. Kay Johnson is his long-suffering wife — who goes through a kind of Up in Mabel’s Room sub-Feydeau sex farce with everybody, and then decides to masquerade, at her horny spouse’s next bash, as a French-accented temptress with a black mask, in a revealing gown with black flame patterns covering her intimate parts. Sort of.

Calling herself “Madam Satan,” and hiding her true identity as a faithful wife, she joins her lesser half for a wild Led Zeppelin of a party aboard an anchored dirigible that turns into a near catastrophe, with the revelers shrieking and plummeting in parachutes to earth. Johnson‘s apparent goal: to show her errant hubby Reg that lechery begins at home.

Ridiculous almost beyond words. The first act sex farce, with everybody clambering in and out of bed, is, to be kind, idiotic. The dirigible party seems to have been modeled on the underground factory-city in “Metropolis,” as reconceived for a revival of Franz Liebkind‘s author‘s cut of “Springtime for Hitler.“ The “evil” costumes, especially Madam Satan’s, beggar description. But I’ve got to say it’s entertaining. Sort of.

Made on demand. Link Warnerarchive/com.

Frenzy on the Wall: 2010 Top Ten

Monday, December 27th, 2010

2010 has not been a great year for movies.

I think the films that are on this list are superior works of cinematic art, but I think that I saw more mediocre and middling fair than ever before. Is it that the actual quality of the films this year wasn’t as good as the past few years, or is my own perception of “good” and “great” changing as I grow older?

Critics and film writers will always be out of touch with the mainstream, because we see so many movies that the cumulative effect is to make everything — especially mainstream Hollywood films — seem formulaic and predictable. As a result, we look outside Hollywood for something that will surprise or delight us.

Anton Corbijn Knows Just Enough Not To Look Stupid

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Anton Corbijn Knows Just Enough Not To Look Stupid

Things to Be Thankful For

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

We’re getting an early start to the long holiday weekend around here; Seattle got nailed by an early snow storm, which gave the kids a couple snow days tacked onto the Thanksgiving weekend. So we’ve got the unexpected bonus of a six-day holiday weekend around here, and spirits are high. I hear that Angelina Jolie hates Thanksgiving and doesn’t want to perpetuate celebrating an anniversary of murder, and to that I say, well, good for her, and I guess can see her point.

But for me, Thanksgiving has always been not about the past and Pilgrims and Native Americans, but about the present and the future; it’s a time to take a pause from the hectic pace of life and reflect on the many blessings we have in our lives. Around here, we try to focus with our kids on helping them to be aware of how fortunate we are to have a nice home to live in, plenty of food to eat, warm clothes to wear, jobs that provide the money to support our family. And, of course, to be aware that others are not so blessed, and to make room in our hearts and our budgets to give to those who need a little boost to help them out.

Thanksgiving for me is also about getting mentally geared up for the upcoming Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa season, when we should be as mindful (or more) of giving as well as receiving. This is absolutely my favorite time of the year, and this year in particular my heart feels very full.

I’m very thankful this year for my own good health, and for healthy, happy, well-adjusted kids and a new marriage. I’m immensely thankful to still be employed in a tight economy, and to be able to write and edit for a living when there are many other crappy jobs I could be doing just to make ends meet. I’m thankful for amicable relationships with ex-spouses that allow us to have a crazy, loving, blended extended family where everyone gets along most of the time.

We will be having lots of family time this holiday weekend. In between marathon sledding sessions, warming up with hot cocoa and popcorn by a cozy fire, and delightfully raucous games of Munchkin and Zombie and Chthulu Dice with six kids and two game-geeky grownups, I have big plans this weekend to snuggle up under warm covers and work my way through the stack of screeners beckoning from the foot of the bed.

The screener fairy has been making daily stops by our house, so in between holiday activities and cooking and playing, I’m planning to watch Restrepo, The Kids Are All Right, Road to Nowhere, The Lottery, Somewhere, The American, The Town, Greenberg and Babies. I’m even going to take a second look at Hereafter, and we have both Inception and HP 7.1 to watch again (really loved that movie, though I will enjoy more watching it together with 7.2 after it comes out … I think the pacing will play out better that way).

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the awards-season movies What do you love? What do you hate? Who’s getting overlooked? Who’s overrated? What do you think about this new docs category at Sundance? Are you fine-tuning your own Top Ten list? Do you care about Oscars and Golden Globes and BAFTAs (oh my)?

Happiest of holidays to you and yours. I hope you enjoy your time with friends and family, as I plan to. But if you need a break from hearing Aunt Ethyl’s stories for the 89,000th time, drop on by and let’s chat about movies too. As for me, I have a few more films I need to see yet in addition to the screeners I have here before I can narrow down my own top ten and gear up for voting with my critics’ groups. True Grit, Rabbit Hole and The Fighter are the big ones I have yet to see before I can hone things down seriously. There is much movie-watching to squeeze in around holiday stuff, but this is such a wonderful time of year, I don’t even mind how hectic it gets.

Happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you after Thanksgiving!

Peek Inside Corbijn’s The American Photobook

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Peek Inside Corbijn’s The American Photobook

Corbijn On Not Framing Himself As A Fotog

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Corbijn On Not Framing Himself As A Fotog

Thomson BioDicts Clooney

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Thomson BioDicts Clooney

Best Picture Chart – 19 Weeks To Go – 10/21/10

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

The Ten, If I Had To Pick Today
Dec 25
True Grit
The King’s Speech
Dec 1
Black Swan
Oct 1

The Social Network
Dec 10
The Fighter
O. Russell
Nov 5
127 Hours
Oct 22
June 18
Toy Story 3
July 16

July 9
The Kids Are All Right
The Next Tiers Of Likely
Dec 17
Everything You’ve Got
Nov 24
Love & Other Drugs
Zwick Hathaway
Dec 29
Another Year
June 11 Winter’s Bone
Feb 19
Shutter Island
July 30
Get Low
Sept 15
Never Let Me Go
Sept 17
The Town


Nov 19
Made In Dagenham
Oct 8
Dec 25



Dec 10
The Tempest
Dec 31
Blue Valentine
Dec 29
Dec 29
The Way Home

by David Poland

Previous Chart

September 29, 2010