Tuesday, January 31

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter is one of the finest artistic middle fingers ever made, an absurdist take on the yakuza film that makes deliberate, stylish nonsense of its story to infuriate the studio boss who had it in for the director. The result is a kaleidoscopic, day-glo frenzy that gleefully skewers genre conventions, not merely of yakuza films but the Western as well; a ridiculous barroom brawl prefigures the deconstructive climax of Blazing Saddles by nearly a decade. Incessantly inventive, always bewildering, Tokyo Drifter is a delight. Criterion's new Blu-Ray restoration only brings this eye-popping feast to more energetic life.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

[This is my first post for my Blind Spots 2012 choices]

Previously familiar with the legendary pair of Josef von Sternberg and muse Marlene Dietrich only from The Blue Angel, I got a much better grasp of what made the two such a fantastic duo from Shanghai Express, the fourth of their seven collaborations. Set on a train traveling from Beiping to Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War, Shanghai Express serves not only as a showcase for von Sternberg's formal mastery—Dietrich attributes the Oscar-winning cinematography mostly to him—but for what makes director and star such a good match. It's also such an advanced, nuanced drama that its chiaroscuro textures and layered, repressed emotions would not be so beautifully evoked in another picture until Only Angels Have Wings at the end of the decade.

As with Howard Hawks' masterpiece, Shanghai Express (written by future Big Sleep screenwriter with uncredited help from Hawks himself) opens in an exotic location so bustling with activity that its exoticism is defined less by the setting than the menagerie of people wading through it. A cast of characters from different nationalities and temperaments get their train tickets and fight through the crowds to get on-board before departure. Terse, meaty dialogue exchanged between people dances around sexual lines without leaving much to the imagination, as the presence of certain kinds of women set some passengers on edge and generate intense excitement for the rest.

One of those women is Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), a "coaster" whose reputation precedes her. When word gets out that she may be on the train, most of the men can scarcely contain their lust, and even the perpetually offended missionary sounds, at the very least, intrigued. But when a British military doctor, Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), stumbles across the be-boaed, veiled minx, he recognizes Lily as Magdalen. Dietrich's hard features do not react to this unexpected reunion, though even her wry smirk cannot fully mask the shock of seeing this man again, much less being called her old name.

The heated lines passed between Harvey and Lily reveal a broken romance spurned by her actions, a loyalty test that backfired and drove the doctor away in offense. But to look at Lily now, the thought of her being so sentimental as to try her lover's dedication is almost incomprehensible. Her flippant, seductive tone of voice carries through the entire film, even at her most honest and selfless. Dietrich displays here a singular ability to be unmistakably human and sentimental without betraying an ounce of softness. To the audience, Lily's lingering love for Harvey is impossible to miss, but she's so hard and unflinching even under her already imposing exterior that one can forgive the doctor for not seeing her true feelings.

This burial of melodramatic, theatrical emotion under layers of carefully ordered, objectively removed dressing meshes beautifully with von Sternberg's camera style. Shanghai Express, made during the gritty punchiness of the Pre-Code era, reflects that time period in its punchy dialogue and indirectly direct sex talk, but the director's visual elegance far outstrips his peers. Like any great train movie, Shanghai Express generates a constantly shifting backdrop organized by rigidly static, even claustrophobically narrow and unchanging, mise-en-scène. Chiaroscuro lighting casts what would otherwise be a romantic drama as a borderline thriller of moral ambiguity and hidden despair, a pre-noir underworld of false fronts and swift judgments. The world outside the train is an ever-changing nightmare of building tensions, steam swirling around silhouetted railroad workers and a gradually mounting rebel presence that slowly encroaches on the already unstable peace among the eclectic passengers.

The danger finally mounts to the point that it penetrates the insular realm of the train, and von Sternberg's alteration of lighting and shot placements completely change the tone of the familiar interior sets. Character dynamics also get overhauled, with the revelation of a rebel among the passengers and reevaluations of people by the others. The other courtesan traveling on board, played by a fierce Anna May Wong, becomes intense with patriotic fervor when she realizes Chang is the wanted warlord, speaking coldly of his offenses to China. The judgmental missionary who refused to even sit in a cabin with these loose women comes to view Lily in a different light, and he even finds himself defending her to the others when the gossipy nature of the other passengers boils over.

But the act that turns the missionary's opinion of Lily is not so much a different side of the woman so much as the first good glance of her real self. She nearly sacrifices herself for Harvey, who is still so adamantly clueless that he does not realize what he gets himself into by disrespecting the warlord and how brave Lily is to volunteer her services to save her true love. The tragedy of his ignorant dismissal endures even past the seeming resolution of the perilous situation, as Lily makes plain her love for Harvey while not delving into the full extent of her sacrifice, at this point unable to be open with herself, much less others. A flippant Harvey notes that Lily is trembling when they talk after being rescued from Chang, to which she says, "It's because you...touched me, Doc." Dietrich utters this response with a tossed-off, even playful bite, a come-hither tease that permits her to openly state how she feels while still hiding behind her armor. But when von Sternberg frames Dietrich in a highly stylized, shadowed medium close-up after she leaves his cabin, leaning against the door and trembling so violently she can barely get her cigarette to her lips, the full extent of her devastation engulfs the screen.

Shanghai Express ends on conventional terms in a general sense, but there is a surprisingly modern willingness to accept one's partner for who they are, as opposed to what one wishes the other should be. Refreshingly, Shanghai Express is not about the redemption of a whore; in fact, the two most heroic people in the movie are both courtesans and both act out their bravery through their seductive powers. But the real delight remains that train ride, so locked into its path—in physical and literary terms—yet so routinely reinventing and fresh. I cannot think of a train movie to rival it until Wes Anderson made his even more ruminative The Darjeeling Limited, another film that dismantles preconceived notions of people as privileged whites ride through a troubled, foreign, complex land. And Shanghai Express doesn't even have such lofty ambitions; it primarily serves to show off von Sternberg's formal skill and Dietrich's unique acting chops. But as they say, when you've got it, flaunt it.

Saturday, January 28

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief: Zero Conditional

This movie is great, especially because of the references made to Greek mythology. Many teens started learning about it while watching it. This scene reveals a few characteristics of Medusa. I used it to practice the Zero Conditional because it deals with general truths about the myth.


The structure of a zero conditional sentence

A zero conditional sentence consists of two clauses, an “if” clause and a main clause (In most zero conditional sentences you can use when or if and the meaning will stay the same.):

The zero conditional is used to talk about things which are always true — such as scientific facts and general truths:

I. Watch the movie segment and complete the condition with general truths about Medusa.


1. If someone look into Medusa's eyes, .................................................................

2. If someone sees Medusa but they don't look into her eyes, ............................................

3. If someone looks at Medusa's reflex in the mirror, .............................................

4. If someone doesn't manage to keep he eyes closed when approached by Medusa, .................................

II. Think about a folklore character of your country. Write a brief description of his traits or features and write two Zero Conditional clauses saying what is true about them. Follow the example in exercise I.


If a werewolf bites you, you become a werewolf too.

1 ...............................................

2 ...............................................



Wednesday, January 25

The Front Line (Jang Hun, 2011)

Jang Hun's The Front Line liberally takes from Saving Private Ryan, but then so does every modern war movie about a past conflict (and, often, a present one). Yet despite its own occasional bumps, I much prefer Jang's more idiosyncratic yet thematically consistent vision to Spielberg's sloppy hodgepodge of tropes. It captures the particular bitterness of civil war better than just about any work of film or television made about our own, and its flashes of quintessentially Korean cinematic oddness don't detract from the impact of the final moments. And the use of the contested hill itself as a messenger system between sides as each constantly wrests control of the area from the other is one of the most ingenious commentaries on the absurdity and waste of war.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, January 23

50 Book Pledge #3: Martin Amis — Money

Like a Bret Easton Ellis novel as written by John Kennedy Toole, Martin Amis' Money is a savage gutting of the Reagan era as seen through the eyes of a clever but myopic and narcissistic glutton. John Self may not be as fat as Ignatius J. Reilly, but his appetites are more varied and vulgar, as his primary love is money, the root of all evil that allows him to trace his way along several crass desires. As Self gets deeper and deeper into the movie production from hell, everything slowly tilts off its axis until the detestable man is almost rendered sympathetic by the orgy of self-absorption and ego-stroking that surrounds him. I've yet to read a better takedown of the movie industry and celebrity, and the moralistic comeuppance that collapses on the narrative in the final chapters is so uproarious and insane that Amis narrowly avoids preaching for the ghastly hilarity of it all. I'd previously known of Amis solely as Christopher Hitchens' best friend, but now I'm eager to delve into the next book of his I can get my hands on.

Friday, January 20

A Christmas Carol: Passive Voice with Modal Verbs

I could never expect this movie to be so good. It is animated, but it seems to be so real... Besides, it is a classic tale that everyone should learn about. I must admit it is scarier than many children can bear, but it has been approved for all audiences. I enjoyed it immensely.

A. Watch the movie segment that takes place on Christmas Eve. Read the sentences below and decide if you are going to use affirmative or negative modal verbs, according to the information in the segment. Choose the correct modal verb according to the purpose in parentheses.

1. We ___________ (find) lots of poor children playing on the streets on Christmas eve. (modal for ability)

2. The government __________ (provide) children with a good meal for free on Christmas eve.
(present or future possibility)

3. Sometimes the population ___________ (help) homeless people because it's difficult for them to take care of their own family. (present impossibility)

4. Scrooge ___________ (assist) the choir singers because he is a rich man. (advisability)

5. A gambler hit a little boy. Adults __________ (respect) all the children. (necessity)

6. __________ adults _________ (tell) children Santa Claus doesn't exist? (advisability)

7. How __________ the government _________ (assist) poor children? (present possibilty or ability)

B. Now rewrite the sentences in exercise A, using passive voice statements.

Answer key:

A. 1. can find

2. could (might) provide

3. can't help

4. should assist

5. have to (must) respect

6. Should adults tell

7. can the government assist

B. 1. Children can be found ...

2. Children could (might) be provided with ...

3. Homeless people can't be helped by the population ...

4. The choir singers should be assisted ...

5. All the children hast to (must) be respected...

6. Should children be told that ...

7. How can children be assisted by the government?

50 Book Pledge #2: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — A Study in Scarlet

BBC's simply fantastic Sherlock series inspired me to revisit the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was happy to stumble across some great new hardcovers from Barnes & Noble that collect all of Doyle's Holmes books into two volumes that cost only $8 apiece. I started, naturally, at the beginning, with Doyle's debut Sherlock novel, A Study in Scarlet. Man, it's amazing he ever built an iconic series out of this book, as it awkwardly ports over the mystery of Edgar Allen Poe (who is namechecked unflatteringly) without carrying over much of the suspense. It hardly even qualifies as a detective novel, with Holmes solving the case almost instantly and Doyle dragging the thing out by suddenly diverting into a strange flashback that uses inaccuracies about Mormons to paint an unintentionally hilarious "sinister" portrait of the religion. Doyle would go on to make one of the most well-known characters in literary history, but you'd never know it just by reading this.

50 Book Pledge #1: Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire

Nabokov's Pale Fire may be even better than his Lolita. A total put-on of a work—consisting of a poem by one "John Shade" and a foreword and commentary by Charles Kinbote—Pale Fire almost immediately reveals itself to be a farce, with the foreword so self serving on Kinbote's part that even the praise he lavishes upon his "dear" friend John is, on some level, all about him. The poem itself is neglected, a beautifully structured poem of unabashedly prosaic subject matter, speculating on life by way of the sights and sounds immediately at the poet's disposal. This style was anachronistic even when Nabokov published the book, but there's something charming about "Shade's" creation. That only makes Kinbote's resultant breakdown of the poem all the more hilarious. Vividly skewering the ability of critics to read anything in a work of art, especially if it conforms to some preconceived notion they have going into a piece, the notes flagrantly ignore the sensual (in the literal sense) quality of the poem to speculate about Shade's supposed allusions to the country of Zembla, which Kinbote may or may not have ruled before being deposed. There's not a single page of these notes that didn't make me laugh, even when it delved into darker realms of black comedy. Nabokov loved his pranks and jokes, and Pale Fire is his most immaculately crafted gag.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

The trait that links all four Mission: Impossible movies, each helmed by a different director of wildly differing stylistic sensibilities, is a certain amount of incomprehensibility. De Palma's original, which has aged better than any of its successors, is a smorgasbord of that filmmaker's love of audience manipulation, leftist politics, and metacinematic pranksterism. John Woo's sequel is, if anything, even crazier, replacing the peevish joke structure of De Palma's satire with pure, free-form abandon. J.J. Abrams' installment significantly pared down the twists and turns of the franchise's plots, making for the most conventionally satisfying of the series, yet the one that leaves me the coldest.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the first live-action venture by animation superstar Brad Bird, is at once the most gargantuan, ridiculous of the movies and the most cogent entry, occasionally explained to the point of tedium. It makes for an uneven effort, one that comes alive every time Bird stages another setpiece and grinding to a halt when the holdover influence of Abrams' pedestrian hit weighs down every bit of dialogue. Happily, Bird, perhaps self-conscious about the expectations upon him, absolutely loads his movie with fantastically over-the-top sequences that make for perhaps the most popcorn-worthy of this franchise.

Opening with a delightfully bizarre sequence involving LOST's Josh Holloway, Ghost Protocol moves swiftly into a prison break in Russia that bails out our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Though a bit stiffly presented at first, this setpiece encapsulates the best of the series: it's crazy to the point of comedy (both for its physical properties and the input of a surveilling Simon Pegg as Benji) yet suitably impressive in its staging. Once out, Ethan and his rescuers—Benji and Jane Carter (Paula Patton)—receive a mission to infiltrate the Kremlin, but in true Mission: Impossible fashion, everything soon goes haywire.

Ghost Protocol reveals itself to be a nuclear thriller, a decidedly old-fashioned plot with decidedly old-fashioned villains. Perhaps the dilapidated subject matter explains the recurring imagery of malfunctioning technology. Old gear shorts and fizzles, while even new gadgets fail when needed most. The conceit suggests Bird's awareness that this franchise is outdated. This is not a new realization; De Palma structured the first of these movies as an investigation of what a Cold War spy series would mean in the absence of the USSR. And now that Bond himself has undergone a makeover to cut the waffle, Bird's too-clever-by-half trick doesn't have much bite, and he comes to rely on it to the point that it becomes a crutch. Nevertheless, the director's playfulness toward the genre is a refreshing bit of self-awareness, albeit an unsurprising one from the man who gave us a superhero movie as sly as The Incredibles.

With this gleeful energy, Bird comes the closest to the spirit of De Palma's film, and he even carries over a few other traits of the first of the franchise's entries. De Palma assembled one of the strangest casts for an ostensible mainstream cash-in on a TV show, with actors of multiple nationalities and ethnicities breaking up the all-American, all-white tone of so much blockbuster cinema. Likewise, Bird stacks his cast with an oddball assortment of actors, putting a visibly aged but still-virile Cruise with the youthful but out-of-shape Pegg (at 41, he still looks as if he has baby fat), Patton, Midnight in Paris' Lea Seydoux, Slumdog Millionaire's Anil Kapoor (magnificently OTT, as ever), Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Millennium films, and more. Considering that Hollywood's casting hasn't gotten much more diverse since De Palma's poked fun at it, Bird's lineup is one of the film's most entertaining aspects.

But the real reason to come to these things is the ludicrous setpieces, and Bird doesn't disappoint. The sequence where Hunt must scale some floors 1000 feet in the air in the Burj Dubai in minutes as everything goes wildly awry. I don't know what it is about this franchise and its vertiginous centerpieces, but this bit blows away the previous stunts. Seen on an IMAX screen, the camera's looks to the ground below create a queasy sense of fear, while the framing of Hunt's climb made me wonder "How did they DO that?" incessantly. Yet even better—to these eyes, anyway—was the sequence shortly thereafter, where Ethan chases his target through a swirling sandstorm that reduces visibility to mere inches and howls over the soundtrack to equally block out the audio. The chase is one of the most thrilling in recent memory, a rust-colored maelstrom that borders on the surreal for its many reversals, lost leads and resumed pursuits, and a frame that is always changing yet strangely static, given the constant blur caused by the sand. There are other delights, from a whacky Kremlin break-in to an even odder party crashing in India, but nothing matches that wild chase through obliterated Dubai streets.

Where the film loses me is in the need to back up all these wonderfully quirky, nonsensical pieces into some kind of coherent whole. The opening bits of Holloway and the prison break are great for how immediate and unexplained they are, and the drawn-out truth behind both takes away from their spontaneity and silliness. Both De Palma and Woo made even their explanations confusing as hell (though I'm not sure Woo did so intentionally), but Bird clarifies in a way that advertises his skill for making coherent narratives, a valuable talent but one misapplied here. Bird also picks up the baton from Abrams re: the simplistic use of romance and shattered love as a motivation. The threat hanging over Ethan's wife moved the third film, and Carter's rage over her lover's death prompts many of her actions, reducing her character to borderline sexist motivation as a woman incapable of behaving like a professional, elite spy after suffering an emotional gut-punch. Likewise, Jeremy Renner's character teases out a mystery that loses all of its force when he spills the beans, and even when his own interpretation of events is later reversed, Renner's whole subplot fails to add anything and saddles the excellent actor with too much arbitrary baggage. This is Screenwriting 101, and it adds all-too-easy foundations for a franchise that, again, works best when it is convoluted beyond all get-out.

Nevertheless, Ghost Protocol is a hell of a good show for an animation director looking to break into live action, demonstrating that the recent trend of live-action filmmakers moving into animation is not a one-way bridge. Bird's familiarity with boundless framing gives his action pieces an exuberance that makes their absurdities infectiously engaging. I understand that the complaint that everything makes too much sense is an odd one, and one I wouldn't apply anywhere else, but I did still feel nagged by certain pieces of exposition that felt all too common after the extraordinary creativity Bird brought to the project. But that imagination overpowers even the tiniest of quibbles, and Ghost Protocol is easily the finest of the series since De Palma tried to kill the franchise before it started with the first.

Monday, January 16

I'm on Episode 50 of the Matineecast

So, last week, Ryan McNeil of The Matinee asked me to do a podcast with him on War Horse and Steven Spielberg in general. I happily agreed and we had a fantastic talk last Wednesday, so good I feel guilty for rambling on and on well past his usual time limit thanks to my inability to condense myself. I am equally unable to listen to myself, so I don't know what the poor man cut out to make me look good, but know that it must have been a Herculean task to whittle down my incessant run-on thoughts into something approaching coherence. Ryan's a great guy, and I really appreciated the chance to chat with him.

Check out his latest podcast now over at his site.

Friday, January 13

Planet 51: Passive Voice with Simple Present

Happy 2012!!! Hope you enjoy the activities planned for 2012. Remember to share yours too. Email them to claudioazv@gmail.com and your credits and pictures are added as well.

Planet 51 is amazingly funny. I laughed so much that I almost cried during the movie. It is attractive to children and to adults, too. Rent the movie! You'll love it. I took advantage of the opening scene to practice passive voice in the simple present tense.

A. Watch the movie segment and check the activities that the inhabitants of Planet 51 perform on a typical afternoon.

1. ( ) They wear strange clothes

2. ( ) They play tennis.

3. ( ) They drive flying cars.

4. ( ) They read the newspaper.

5. ( ) Boys ride flying bicycles.

6. ( ) They walk their pets.

7. ( ) Workers sweep the street.

8. ( ) Children play hopscotch.

9. ( ) They make barbecue.

10. ( ) They sell candy.

B. Now rewrite the sentences above in the passive voice. Decide if the sentence is affirmative or negative according to the information in the snippet:


1. Strange clothes aren't worn.

2 ...............................................

3 ...............................................

4 ...............................................

5 ...............................................

6. ..............................................

7. ..............................................

8. ..............................................

9. ..............................................

10. ............................................

C. Now read the activities in exercise A and ask your partner if they perform those activities on a typical Sunday afternoon.



S1: Do you wear strange clothes?

S2: No, I don't.



Answer key:

A. Students should NOT check items 1, 2, 5, 9, 10


2. Tennis isn't played.

3. Flying cars are driven.

4. The newspaper is read.

5. Flying bicycles aren't ridden.

6. Pets are walked.

7. The streets are swept.

8. Hopscotch is played.

9. Barbecue isn't made.

10. Candy isn't sold.

Thursday, January 12

El Sicario, Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi, 2011)

In an age where "FAKE!" greets even the most honest video, the almost-too-consistent dramatic ups and downs of this extended talking head about a reformed assassin for the Mexican drug cartel will certainly strain the credulity of some. And this is wholly leaving out the conclusion of the man's life story, which is so conveniently moralizing that it could play at schools and church groups (especially church groups). Nevertheless, the sicario's monologue is so enthralling as to make something compelling of 80 minutes of a masked man mostly sitting in a chair explaining himself. I know of at least one person who compared the man's confessional to Spalding Gray's ability to hook a crowd with just his speechifying, and that strikes me as more than apt.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Criminally Underrated: Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is one of my favorite movies, and I've been meaning to write a full post on it forever. I wrote a brief piece for my lovely Twitter pal Sasha James a while ago, and now I've done a longer, if still insufficient (given my deep love of the film) article on the movie for Spectrum Culture's "Criminally Underrated" series. And even now I'm still not satisfied with commenting on the film; I may yet write an even larger piece on the movie and how it shapes my entire view of Quentin Tarantino.

But for now, head on over to Spectrum Culture to read my review of this incredible, occasionally neglected, masterpiece.

Thursday, January 5

Jennifer Egan — A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel/short story collection/who-cares A Visit from the Goon Squad has racked up enough accolades for a defining work of our time. After reading it, I can only pray "our time" is not set in literary stone by such shoddy, ignorant documentation. The much-touted stylistic shifts are hardly whirlwinds of upheaval, and the characters are drawn so thinly as to be nothing more than vehicles for easy tragedy, tragedy that works neither on a human level nor the allegorical, societal plane she seeks to pinpoint. A few bright spots of wit and clarity can be found among the detritus, but I regret to say I  found the book to be such a disappointment of half-baked literary knowledge and easily exploited tropes that I was stunned to learn that it was not, in fact, some English major's creative writing exercise.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Capsule Reviews: Weekend, Tuesday After Christmas, Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Occasionally a bit precious in its cinematography (one too many woozy shots and obvious visual cues), Andrew Haigh's Weekend is nevertheless a bold, beautiful film that uses the magnificent performances of its leads to confront cinematic complacency and limitations upon homosexuality. Glen (Chris New), the aggressive art student, is defiant about his sexuality in response to the heteronormative society around him, which he convincingly argues is more "in your face" than even the loudest queer. Russell, the shy one, still wrestles with his sexuality, and Tom Cullen captures the feeling of being the odd man out at a party (whether the stranger at a farewell bash or the one gay man among straights) better than just about anyone.

It's impossible to leave the sexuality of the characters out of discussion, as the tenor of their conversations and behavior with each other is informed by the social limitations imposed on homosexuals; by denying the naturalness of their expressions, the outside world makes their private chats more open and frank than heterosexual couples who've been together for years instead of hours. Cullen and New are so effortlessly natural with each other that not only are they believable as a couple, they are two of the few romantic screen pairings one could buy having a life-changing dalliance in just two days. Haigh still has some kinks to work out with his direction, but Weekend announces the arrival of one of the most nuanced, real makers of romance, and in this respect, the sexuality of the lovers in question couldn't matter less.

Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2011)

If Weekend's naturalism quietly revolutionizes the indie romance, the elegant long-takes and flawless rapport of Tuesday, After Christmas' actors adds new textures to over-familiar adultery dramas. On paper, this film is as clichéd as it gets: a husband in a comfortable family unit risks it all for a fling with a younger, attractive woman. But Muntean and the actors craft realistic interactions—the married couple in the film are husband and wife in real life—that make Paul's quandary agonizing rather than perfunctory. In this modern age of decreasing average shot length, a film like Tuesday, After Christmas reminds us of the dramatic possibilities of simply holding a shot, which prolongs the perfectly ordinary conversations between characters to the point that one almost expects a bomb to go off. Why else would a shot be held so long over (seemingly) nothing? Muntean's long takes allow the actors to add tiny exchanges that make their relationships more real and therefore more meaningful, and the decision Paul must make by that post-Christmas Tuesday promises to be devastating regardless of what we eventually see him choose.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

Perhaps the most standard, TV-ready documentary Werner Herzog has ever made, and that includes his early work for German television (which are among his most poetic works). Yet if the film lacks Herzog's usual magic, it also makes for an above-average opinion piece that bluntly voices the director's views on capital punishment while still directly confronting the horror of the death row inmates' crimes. Herzog's use of archival footage and relatively straight interviewing style reveal he'd be a fairly successful "normal" documentarian. Still a major presence in his storytelling, Herzog nevertheless mostly steps back to let the interview subjects speak for themselves, only interjecting to push them on unexpected tangents that end up revealing more than the standard questions would have. Herzog captures the full ugliness of the situation—the two partners in crime blaming each other for the crime that got them incarcerated, the shame and rage the people connected to the perpetrators and victims feel—but it is precisely because he goes for the complete portrait of devastation that his adamant stance against the death penalty carries any weight. But if Herzog does not poeticize this subject, he nevertheless searches for the beauty and humanity in this dark tragedy, and he even finds vague whispers of hope littered among the bodies of the dead murdered by criminal and state alike.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2011)

If Into the Abyss leaves out Herzog's style but still makes an impact, Cave of Forgotten Dreams showcases his ability to make poetry of reality but lacks the grounding element that keeps his best work from simply drifting aimlessly. Herzog's speculation of peoples past based on the cave art they left behind broaches ideas of the foundation of all artistic expression and, therefore, communication. But he fails to tie delicate play of light and simulated movement over the beautiful and miraculously preserved cave paintings to the grandiose free association that usually strikes metaphysical pay dirt. Occasionally, Herzog's tantalizing meditations, linking the caves to German Romanticism and Wagner, recall the best of the director's thin but evocative spoken thoughts. But given Herzog's interest in casting these surprisingly sophisticated paintings as not simply the beginning of art in general but proto-cinema itself, it's a shame that the film doesn't feel more resonant throughout.

Monday, January 2

Blind Spots 2012

So, various bloggers I read and like have decided to address various, wait for it, blind spots in their movie viewing in 2012. I consider much of my blog writing an attempt to fill various gaps in knowledge, but I love a good writing meme, and considering how many "must-sees" end up falling through the cracks as I get distracted with other things, perhaps listing 12 here (one per month) will at least commit me to watching some of the movies I tell myself I must see with all haste.

Actress [a.k.a. Centre Stage] (Stanely Kwan, 1992)

I love me some Maggie Cheung, and this film sports what, as far as I've seen, is her most lauded performance. Based on the tragically short life of '30s Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu (whose own seminal film The Goddess I also need to see), Actress got plenty of plaudits, the most prominent of which was Jonathan Rosenbaum listing it among the best films of the '90s.

L'argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

A) It's Robert Bresson, thus necessitating I see it. B) It's on damn near every serious list of the best films of the '80s, a decade I'm still slowly mapping, cinema-wise.

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

I believe it was on Twitter that the Self-Styled Siren (probably the best film writer in the country at the moment) argued for the underrating of William Wyler, furthermore arguing that this movie was the best Best Picture winner ever. I think she meant that literally, but I also got the sense she was speaking in terms of the mental image of a Best Picture winner, a.k.a. a typically middlebrow, easily digestible affair. But if the Siren sees artistry in it, you can be damn sure it's there, and I love the handful of Wylers I've seen.

Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

Comparisons to Kubrick and a celebrated score by my favorite modern film composer, Alexandre Desplat. I have neglected this for far too long.

Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Supposedly one of the most unsettling films ever made. Given my preference for horror in the Repulsion vein of disruption and disturbance over jump scares, Nic Roeg's movie should be for me.

Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)

This has just been a major oversight I've sought to correct for a while. Murnau was perhaps the first poet of the cinema, and I've been looking forward to completing my gaps in his filmography.

Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)

Another film starring Maggie Cheung, this one by one of my favorite modern directors, Olivier Assayas, and drawing its subject matter at least partially from the director of the next film on my list...

Judex (Louis Feuillade, 1916)

I've only seen short films by Feuillade and found them to be incredible, the perfect balance between Méliès' fantasy and the Lumières' flat documentation. I'd therefore like to check out one of his serials, and I think I'll start with this one, though Les Vampires and the Fantômas series are also priorities.

The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992)

Davies Distant Voices, Still Lives is a masterpiece, and this sequel seems to get about as much praise. I figured I'd watch this in anticipation of Davies' new film, The Deep Blue Sea, which toured the festival circuit last year but has yet to get wider release in the States.

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

The only von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration I've seen is The Blue Angel, but I have it on good authority from several that this commercially unavailable pairing brings out the best in both of them. Considering how great The Blue Angel is, I can't wait.

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

I am deeply ashamed to admit I've never seen any Minnelli film, a problem I hope to rectify in the coming days with my new Blu-Ray of his Meet Me in St. Louis. But while the rest of his acclaimed musicals are also on my to-watch list, I must finally stop neglecting to see this drama, praised to the high heavens by damn near everyone I know and follow who's seen it.

There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Douglas Sirk, maker of hyperstylized Technicolor films, also made equally artistic black and white films, or so I'm told of his four monochrome features. I can't remember where I saw a rave for this but it made me more eager to watch it than even Sirk's Faulkner adaptation The Tarnished Angels, which I may also get around to this year.