Wednesday, October 31

The Top 10 Roman Polanski Films

Paranoia runs deep under Roman Polanski's work, an obvious feature of a man who has lived under the pressure of social scrutiny since childhood. The main reason he attracts that scrutiny today serves as the elephant in the room for any discussion of Polanski's work, not least because of how often the paranoia of his films manifests itself through rape and sexual violation. His grotesque ties to that subject matter make his considerable empathy almost disturbing: what does is say about the general state of commercial filmmaking that a convicted rapist is one of the great directors of women?

As a stylist, Polanski is almost without peer, with lighting, blocking and camera placement always timed for maximum impact. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in Rosemary's Baby, in which he had cinematographer William Fraker frame Ruth Gordon partially behind a door frame, causing audiences at the time to crane their necks as if it might help them look around the block and see all of her. This exacting formal perfectionism turns skewed genre fare into enduring works of pure cinema, which gives even his slightest work an aesthetic and thematic rigor. It also makes ranking his films a hell of a task, and by limiting this list to 10 films I leave out several unjustly underrated features like the excellent Ninth Gate, the muscular Frantic, the neorealist and brutal take on Macbeth, even the deeply personal The Pianist. But the 10 that remain showcase the immense skills of one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, and one who can still shock longer after he broke nearly every taboo you can name.

10. Death and the Maiden

In some ways, Polanski's adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play about the scars left by South American dictatorships is a deeper exorcism of his Holocaust demons than The Pianist. By parsing out its revelations throughout the film, Polanski shows us revenge isolated from its motive, which makes it only violence, then asks how we feel about it when the full extent of Paulina's (Sigourney Weaver) trauma is made clear. Her thirst for justice is further complicated by the doubt cast over whether her captive (Ben Kingsley, in a beautifully, and literally, restrained performance) is really the person she believes he is. But then, the need for revenge can override such trivialities as fairness. In the film's most striking exchange, Paulina's husband impotently protests, "What if he's innocent?" to which she replies, "If he's innocent, then's he's really fucked." Has there ever been such a succinct, blackly comic summary of the grotesque hypocrisy of reprisals against dictatorial crime?

9. Knife in the Water

I cannot think of a more appropriate feature debut for Roman Polanski. It is not a landmark, seismic event like, say, Citizen Kane or Breathless, yet the perfectly composed, contained psychosexual thriller shows how innately Polanski understood how to hook a crowd and how to casually display technical mastery. With only three characters (and only two of them named), Polanski crafts a rich triangle of sexual competition, sociopolitical commentary (the unnamed, virile outsider is a working class schlub alternately enervating and energizing the bourgeois couple) and repressed violence. The deep focus shots give a greater sense of claustrophobia than even shallow focus would have allowed, giving the yacht-confined characters nowhere to hide even within the frame, much less the lake. Watching this, there could be no doubt that Polanski would become one of the great Hitchcock disciples, and one of the few to add anything of his own to the master's legacy.

8. Cul-de-Sac

A little bit of everything about Polanski is in this film. Transgressive sexual terror, an isolated setting, a smattering of noir parody, and much more filter in and out of this loopy, indescribable funhouse of a movie. Time seems to freeze on the tide-surrounded home where Donald Pleasance's cross-dressing, submissive husband and his wife (played by Catherine Deneuve's sister, Françoise Dorléac) find themselves held captive by a stranded, bleeding out gangster (Lionel Stander, voice made of pure gravel) as his partner slowly dies. Gradually, however, the tables turn, and that which was already odd becomes full-on madness. Even by the director's standards, this is loopy, yet its character tics, location types and extreme sexual comedy would reverberate through Polanski's entire career.

7. The Ghost Writer

A music box of a film, a throwaway trifle that, upon closer inspection, reveals the intricacy of great craftsmanship that makes its simple pleasures possible. Hell, with Alexandre Desplat's glockenspiel-heavy score (his quirkiest work to date), it even sounds like a music box. Polanski takes to the political content of Robert Harris' book with relish, stressing every hypocrisy of international crime the United States commits (and its lack of recognition of the ICC) with just a hint of self-justifying scorn for the country that turned on him so massively. But these wisps of self-martyrdom cannot overpower the peevishness with with Polanski approaches the War on Terror, brilliantly casting Pierce Brosnan not only as a stand-in for Tony Blair but a vague extension of his post-Cold War Bond, ostensibly liberal but still spoiling for a fight somewhere, anywhere. With the former prime minister's war crimes widely publicized, Ewan McGregor's titular writer finds himself caught up in an even more sinister cover-up, and Polanski's stately but uncomfortable compositions never fail to give the impression that McGregor is powerless, constantly watched and one too-bold move away from meeting the same fate of his predecessor. Among the director's most delicate gems.

6. Tess

Tess’ stately frames lack the darkness aggressively eating away at Polanski's filmography to this point, but the tranquil foliage that delicately frame subjects of interest also have the effect of surrounding the characters, imprisoning them and blocking off the light of day. Polanski keys into the vicious satire of a poor man who finds he has old, irrelevant ties to an ended line of nobility and instantly puts on airs, even sending his daughter try and marry into another branch of the line. Instead, she is raped and left to uncaring judgment of the world, finding it even in the arms of her next lover, whose sense of honor is so ironically misogynistic that he can only look his beloved in the eye when she murders the man who used her. And through it all, Tess is cursed with the ability to see this system for what it is. “Once victim, always victim. That’s the law,” she says. And as the brutally removed dénouement reveals, she was all too right.

5. Rosemary’s Baby

As a horror film of a woman bearing the child of Satan. Rosemary’s Baby is a shiver-inducing work of icy formal precision, in which even inanimate objects loom over Mia Farrow’s titular character in judgment and domination. But the movie becomes even more terrifying, and terrifyingly relevant even today, as an allegory for the manner in which society forces victims to carry their rapists’ babies to term. Rosemary’s husband is named Guy, his name making him a stand-in for men in general. As played by John Cassavetes, Guy savages the actor’s macho tics: following the film’s straightforward depiction of Guy as an actor who literally sells his wife’s soul to gain fame, we can see the man as someone who still holds the view of spouses as property and objects to be used for their own gain. But when Guy casually takes credit for the scrapes on his wife’s body when she awakens from her “dream” of being raped by Satan, he suggests a dark alternate reading of Guy himself being the demon figure that takes his wife, and the doctors, neighbors and friends who won’t listen to Rosemary become an entire system of misogynistic thought that punishes women well after their humiliation. Nothing churns the stomach like Rosemary being goaded into caring for the demon spawn at the end. “You’re trying to make me be his mother,” she exclaims in disgust. “Aren’t you his mother?” the man replies, sealing the poor woman’s fate.

4. The Tenant

It is so easy to read the personal in Polanski's work that the final film of his Apartment Trilogy, starring Polanski himself as the psychologically assaulted tenant, almost seems a reaction against the media firestorm around his rape even though the film came out a year before his crime. Macabre humor pervades the trilogy, but The Tenant is the funniest of the series, its circular, nonsensical story played for uncomfortable laughs. Yet of the three films, this has the closest connection to reality, its tension based not in the constant threat of sexual invasion nor the careful monitoring of equally violating satanists but instead the relatable (if comically exaggerated) irritations of asshole neighbors. Slowly, the banality of their demands drives him insane. A scene in The Pianist of a woman spotting Adrien Brody's character in a complex and screaming "Jew!" may hold the key to this movie, a lavishly absurd analogy for the fear Polanski might have felt every day as a child that the normal pettiness of people sharing the same space might at any moment get him killed. The director loves to laugh in the face of his hardships, and The Tenant laughs hardest to beat back the memories.

3. Chinatown

Only Polanski could take the bleakness of noir and create a revisionist work that painted the genre as too soft in comparison. Most L.A. movies establish the town's seediness through Hollywood via ironic self-flagellation, but Polanski and Robert Towne dig into the city as innately corrupt, created out of a perversion of the natural order by bringing water to the desert and immediately spawning greed and manipulation. The film features one of Jack Nicholson's most controlled, nuanced performances, as if the sheer, awesome madness of the microcosm around the actor managed to cow his own showy instincts in meek fear. Jake's arrogance is a smokescreen that quickly evaporates as he sinks into a morass of murder and incest that leaves him rattled and as catatonic as Nicholson would be after a lobotomy in perhaps his most famous role. Subversive casting choices occasionally pepper Polanski's work, few better than the casting of John Huston, maker of the "first" noir, as the gruff and deceptive kingpin of this fever dream. Many of the director's films build in claustrophobic intensity as they approach their climaxes, but Chinatown impressively does this against the backdrop of one of the nation's largest cities, shrinking the whole place until it is small enough to fit into the palm of its true owner, who promptly crushes it like a bug.

2. Bitter Moon

Chamber horror is Roman Polanski's speciality, with his Apartment Trilogy setting the high-water mark for claustrophobic terror. Bitter Moon isn't confined to one location, though its story visually springs from a tale told in a confined ship cabin to a man held captive by propriety and his own morbid curiosity. The twisted sexual nightmare that Polanski paints takes his sexual dynamics to their extreme, with lust and heartbreak turned from inward pains to outward torture. The noose ever tightens around the smattering of characters, one couple grotesquely joined but divided by their perversion uniting for one last hurrah, the corruption of a stiff, bourgeois couple who individually find themselves lured into the couple's sick openness until they get in too deep. How does one even describe this film's protracted, abhorrent joke, strung along by Polanski at his stylistic peak to make everything as unwittingly irresistible as Oscar's sad saga? A shagging dog story?

1. Repulsion

Polanski entered the English-speaking world with a shockingly confrontational thriller that paid no never mind to any sense of propriety. In fact, {Repulsion} is all about the ways that social conditioning and an obsession with maintaining good reputations do not overcome the evils of the world but mask them and allow them to move more freely. Catherine Deneuve plays Carol as a woman who has fallen prey to these evils and is thus broken from the society that shrouds them. She can therefore see those forces moving freely even within the supposed "castle" of one's home, and the total lack of any secure, safe ground gives the film its primary drive. This gives maximum impact to its demented sexual hysteria, with its nightmare visions of hands always groping, figures always intruding, fissures always forming, and time literally rotting away as the protagonist withdraws ever more in a futile attempt to hide.

Tuesday, October 30

The Revisionaries (Scott Thurman, 2012)

A bit unfocused, The Revisionaries nevertheless offers an insightful look into the issue of textbook revisionism in Texas (and beyond, as Texas is, with California, the nation's leading distributor of schoolbooks). Its villains are comical in their commitment to ignorance, yet Thurman spends enough time with them to show their normalcy outside boardrooms, or at least the banality of their evil. He even spares some sympathy for the leader of this creationist movement, former State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy, showing how cordial and friendly he and one of his most passionate critics, Professor Ron Wetherington, can be around each other when not locked in battle. It's a strangely instructive model for political discourse in a broader film about the ills of politics in matters of objective study, and the climax makes for an effective "get out the vote" message regardless of how one feels about the outcome.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 29

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, 2012)

Having only become aware of John Hyams' work recently, I nevertheless quickly fell for his elegantly composed long takes and Carpenterian Steadicam tracks. The straight-to-DVD/VOD fare of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes was so accomplished that I could not help but wonder what Hyams could do with an actual theatrical release. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning released on VOD a month ahead of a 3D theatrical release, exceeds even the loftiest expectations of the director's potential. Filled with gorgeous shots, blunt choreography and a trove of cinematic references, Day of Reckoning takes a smaller focus (and budget) than Regeneration and delivers a vastly bigger film.

Hyams opens Day of Reckoning on a nightmare (perhaps literally), using full POV shots—complete with handheld walking and "blinks" à la the opening segment of Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void—to depict a father being woken in the dead of night by his young daughter complaining of "monsters" in the kitchen. The camera bobs through the house as the unseen man playfully searches empty rooms for beasts until he flips the kitchen light on and gets a crowbar to the head. The beating is swift and brutal, topped off by an execution of the man's wife and child by...franchise hero Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, looking like Brando's Kurtz). It is a bewildering, horrific beginning, and one that gives an indication of just how far the director is willing to take the movie away from a pandering sop to JCVD's shrunken but vaguely resurgent fanbase.

The man through whom the viewer sees that first scene is John (Scott Adkins), who awakens from a coma nine months later capable of remembering only the night his life fell apart and the face of the man responsible. Driven to find answers and punish Devereaux, John begins piecing together clues to lead him to the universal soldier, who has been gathering a small army of other UniSols by breaking their programming. The deeper John ventures, however, the darker, madder, and more unlike any other action movie Day of Reckoning becomes.

Immediately apparent is Hyams' stylistic ambition. If Regeneration's aesthetic owed to Carpenter, Day of Reckoning expands the director's referential palette to an admitted influence of the aforementioned Noé, David Cronenberg, even David Lynch, who exerts the strongest pull on the film's dream logic and elliptical layering of clues. A scene that places John in a motel room with a French topless dancer (Mariah Bonner) who tells the amnesiac they know is each other is odd enough on its own, but Hyams turns the room into a Lynchian microcosm of noir deconstruction, with the room filling slowly with cigarette smoke and the dance of a red light across the wall a reminder of what district the pair are in. Even without the 3D effects, the walls of the room pop out against a void, isolating the set from the rest of the world as the man with a dark past he cannot remember and the sultry avatar of that past inhabit their own space of pure cinema.

This carries over to the action sequences, which employ long takes and taut choreography for maximum effect. A UniSol still under government command (Andrei Arlovski, who ironically played the enemy soldier in Regeneration) is sent to dispatch Devereaux's new right hand man, former nemesis  Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), and some other rogue UniSols vigorously enjoying the services of a brothel. The resulting firefight moves methodically from room to room, Arlovski taking rounds without flinching as he has to put multiple shots into each target to get him to stay down. When he reaches Scott's room, he enters a neon blue and pink box that illuminates Lundgren in a plastic sheen, emphasizing both his iconic (and much copied) figure and the artificiality of these real but programmed people. Scott gets the upper hand, naturally, and frees Arlovski of his own programming, which leads to a scene of the Russian MMA fighter getting into an extended car chase that morphs into full-on brawl in a sporting goods store. Such scenes are too muscular to be accurately called "fluid," but the execution is spatially logical in a way the plot deliberately isn't, not to mention thrilling in a ludicrous but plausibly grounded way.

Yet the action is also nightmarish, not merely for its situation within the surreal framework around it but in the tone Hyams sets for the violence. During Arlovski's tear through the brothel, prostitutes already suffering at the hands of their aggressive johns callously dispatched as obstacles between the controlled UniSol and his "jailbroken" brethren. Other touches, such as the death spasms of a downed UniSol and some shots of male nudity as another soldier makes a futile move for survival rather than the usual, approved modesty, highlight the suddenness and indignity of death. Likewise, the aforementioned car chase is exhilarating, but Adkins' furious realization of his super potential in a close-quarters brawl with Arlovski is horrifying, unleashing a savagery that leaves a spate of onlookers, including Bonner's tagalong dancer, stunned into silence. Even the brilliant climax, a tear through Deveraux's underground lair filmed in long takes mostly made to look like a single shot via some Rope-esque moves in and out of darkness, stresses the sheer waste of the carnage and the brutality of the killing. Nothing epitomizes Hyams' subversive view of the traditional action he replicates so well as the grimly hilarious and terrifying way in which Lundgren bloodily shouts, "That's the spirit, soldier!" in his duel with Adkins.

What makes these sprees all the more unsettling is that Day of Reckoning features the least amount of government involvement of the franchise. The controlling influence of the military-industrial complex is largely absent here, save for the occasional appearance of an FBI agent who cryptically suggests to Adkins that the state might still be monitoring the situation. But even if they are, Hyams' film bleakly depicts a history of violence as nearly impossible to overcome, and to call the UniSols who no longer answer to the military's commands "liberated" is hopelessly naïve considering how they instantly imprint upon Deveraux, heretofore the one super soldier capable of moral independence but corrupted by the power his new recruits invest in him.

The whole film thrums with fluorescent light, which seems to hover and burn in the vague shape of the bulbs that emit them rather than come from those bulbs. Occasionally, the screen whites out in epileptic flashing as the ambient soundtrack cuts to a deafening whine. The effect is slightly surreal, but the harsh glares reflect a world as spartan as the warriors set loose in it. The opening sequence, with its erratic POV movement, is distinct from the camera style of the remainder of the movie, yet one could see the entire film as set in the perspective of these soldiers. For them, the world is an empty glare, a confusing distraction that they push out of mind to maintain total focus on their destructive existences. This is the third (technically, fifth) sequel in a franchise about reanimated and cloned instruments of war, yet Day of Reckoning captures the grotesque finality of death and endless killing of its genre with a repulsive clarity most action films would not dare acknowledge.

Saturday, October 27

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

James Gray opens We Own the Night with a brief montage of gritty black-and-white still photographs of policemen in the late 1980s. These photos could be a time-capsule for a pre-Giuliani New York, still dangerous, still filthy. Still human, too: a photo of a cop jokingly playing with a finger puppet policeman with a gun breaks up the severe tone of the other stills and seems as foreign to the city as it exists now as the grime that got swept away to make way for hiked rents. But this montage also makes the introduction of Joaquin Phoenix's club owner, Bobby Green, that much more striking. Gray cuts suddenly to the actor in a florid red silk shirt, walking in slow-motion toward the moll (Eva Mendes) lazing on his gold-colored couch in a gold-colored frame. It is the flip-side of the stark photographs' depiction of New York sleaze, the color-drenched euphoria of those who rule as banal warlords over their turf, however small it is.

The juxtaposition of this sweltering, stylish melodrama with the earlier, ascetic realism likewise offers a clue into Gray's approach for the film: always intimately focused with fly-on-the-wall shots that capture the smallest expressions on an actor's face, but framed epically in the style of Michael Cimino or Francis Ford Coppola. Family, whether biologically programmed for manually collected, is as key to Gray's film as it is to The Deer Hunter The Godfather, films whose opening weddings lend to the start of We Own the Night its languid observation and outsized scope. This director moves faster than the other two, quickly laying out who links up to whom, but he displays the same patience for the minute revelations of character communicated by interaction and shot placement. Gray establishes Bobby as stiffly cordial with his father and brother, Burt (Robert Duvall) and Joe (Mark Wahlberg) Grusinsky, police officers both, but familial with the Russian mobster, Marat, who owns Bobby's club. Gray's next film would be Two Lovers, and this just as easily might have been called Two Families. The care Gray takes in setting up Bobby's complicated relationships with both parties makes the later narrative developments natural outgrowths of a fully realized situation rather than the simple genre mechanics they may initially seem.

Consider how Gray fleshes out Bobby's split loyalties. An early scene shows Bobby sitting down with Marat and Marat's wife for dinner. The old couple could not be more welcoming: Marat speaks to the young man as if he were a son, while the old woman fusses about trying to get him to eat one more bite as Bobby sheepishly laughs and declines politely. It has all the warmth missing from Bobby's subsequent meeting with his real father and brother, whose dark blue uniforms reflect their cool emotions on the color spectrum. When Bobby takes Amada to meet his family, Gray films the officers in an extreme long shot looking down from where the couple enter, the small but dense crowd of people leaving a blotch of ink in one corner where the officers stand rigidly. This shot also contrasts with a similar but hedonistically scaled shot back in the club, as many more patrons crush together with grasping hands reaching up at topless dancers in a sleazy recollection of the pyramid of men rising toward Brigitte Helm in Lang's Metropolis.

Yet Gray also suggests contradictory moods underneath these images. The stoic cops may suck the life out of Phoenix's Bacchanalian swagger, but they also attempt to make him part of the family by asking for his help in taking down Marat's nephew, Vadim. Bobby, naturally, refuses, unwilling to sell out the gangster both to save his own skin and out of genuine affection for his new family. Even that earlier, welcoming scene with Marat, however, betrays a truth Bobby might not want to face: nice as the old man is, he still controls Bobby, and all that the young man thinks is his is simply on loan. Much as Bobby delights in heading over to meet with his boss, he is still going to kiss the ring and pay his tribute.

So delicately is this character web spun that Gray takes a great risk funneling it into a genre story of cops and criminals that puts Bobby through the ringer to test his allegiances. When Joe carries out his raid of Bobby's club to arrest Vadim, he sets in motion a spate of reprisals that reveal the mercilessness of Bobby's second family and force him to choose which family to betray and which to support. And as he slowly returns to the side of the law as the prodigal son, Bobby finds himself caught up in stings, shootouts, protection programs and chases that seem worlds away from the stately, minutiae-obsessed opening.

Nevertheless, the inner conflict introduced in the first act inform even the most action-packed moments. Gray elides around typical suspense, playing with expectations of protracted narrative setups. Joe tells Bobby at the start that he is planning to raid his brother's club and arrest his associates, and Bobby scarcely has time to get back to his business before the cops come storming in. Likewise, the director does not string out the mob's push back against Joe, instead cutting almost immediately to the revenge. Yet this makes the attack as surprising for the viewer as it is for Joe, who does not even get the chance to fear for his life until the gun is pointed at his head.

Gray cares less for the tension than the payoff, which he films in moral terms. By not making an entire sequence of Joe being stalked, cornered and shot, he places everything in the split-second look of shock, terror and grim resignation that cross Wahlberg's face before the trigger is pulled. During a car chase between Vadim and a police-transported Bobby and Amada, Gray's kinetic editing spares three or four seconds to watch over Phoenix's soldier out the back window to see a civilian car swerving under a jackknifed semi. The shot allows us to see the crush of metal and the probable death but swivels back to face forward before the vehicle can even come to its full, sickening stop.

Most impressive is the sting that gets Bobby into this mess in the first place. The most traditionally suspenseful sequence of the film, the sting lets the threat of Bobby's exposure as a wired mole hang over his drug deal, but Gray manages to change up even this familiar trope when the deal, as it always must, goes bad. The only thing scarier than Bobby's discovery in this scene is the police's rescue, framed via a burst of machine gun fire flashing in a pitch-black doorway and indiscriminate in its killing. Bobby himself has to fling himself out of a window onto a chain-link fence to escape certain death, but not before one of the mobsters gets his head blown apart right over the man, splashing him with blood in a shot that captures every line of terror and revulsion on Phoenix's face. Violence, as Gray films it, has real consequences; much as the film concerns Bobby, We Own the Night also plays on Wahlberg's image as a brash tough guy to make the brother's PTSD and mounting disgust with guns and danger no less harrowing.

Above all, however, this is a film about identities, wherein names still have their ancient power and one who changes his surname effectively changes his relation. When Burt and Joe try to recruit Bobby into helping them at the start, Duvall speaks his son's altered surname, Green, with a mixture of fury and deep sadness. When the boy later confesses to his dad that he has disavowed Burt and Joe to the point that the mob does not even know of their blood ties, Duvall looks as broken and defeated as he did when his subordinates previously informed him of Joe's shooting. Gray even ties occupation to identity, and Bobby's slow immersion in police activity makes for a street-level version of the grandiose, symbolic analogies Cimino and Coppola drew out of their families. We Own the Night functions on a smaller scale, but its ambition (and formal skill) is no less great, and it is another reminder that James Gray is one of our finest contemporary directors.

Friday, October 26

Couples Retreat: Have Got (Noun) x Have Got To (Verb)

his movie has very good moments, but it could have been better. I used this scene to contrast the use of GET (followed by nouns or verbs).

The verb TO GET had different uses and meanings. In this exercise we will see the difference of the verb To Get, meaning To Have.

Ex: I('ve) got a bad feeling = I have a bad feeling.

I ('ve) got to study for the test = I have to study for the test.

I. Talk to a partner:

1- Would you like to go to a resort for couple skill building if your relationship were cold and distant? Why (not)?

2. What must a place like this have in order to make your vacation and relationship also pleasurable?

3. What wouldn't you like the resort to have?

4. Do you believe that you can save a bored relationship if the couple go to a couple skill building resort? Explain it.

II. Look at the list below and place the information under the correct column (GOT + Nouns or GOT + Verbs).



III. Watch the segment and decide if Eden - a playground for adults and married couples looking for couple skill building therapy - is a good place for vacations.

IV. Check your chart. Are the prompts placed under the correct column?

V. Now write sentences with the grammar point.
Ex: (Eden) It's got fun.

VI. Make list of 3 things the best hotel you have stayed in has got and what 3 things a tourist has got to do there.



Answer key:




IV. It's got fun, It's got sun, They've got your kayaking, They've got your windsurfing, They've got your canoeing, They've got your jet skiing, It's got couples skill building and snorkeling, I got a job, He's got to stay thin, He's got a gambling problem, I got to make videos, I've got other obligations.

Tuesday, October 23

Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young, 2012)

A listless, meaningless diversion into a cloistered L.A. home where the disaffected engage in casual affairs, Nobody Walks seems to aim for Antonioni and instead feels like a Max Fischer play of one of the Italian's films. Russo-Young and co-writer Lena Dunham sidestep many of the usual pitfalls, not portraying Olivia Thirlby's waif as a slut nor Rosemarie DeWitt as avenging cuckquean, but they replace these worn depictions with all new reductive types and a laissez-faire approach to the narrative that leaves this 83-minute feature feeling twice as long. The actors acquit themselves nicely, but to no end.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 22

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

As a claustrophobic, I got tremendous discomfort from Argo's crushed shots against throngs of hostile crowds packed so tightly that navigation looks impossible even for those not under the hostile suspicions of an entire nation. Spatial relationships mean nothing in these moments, as there is no real path to escape for the Americans stranded in Iran after the fall of the shah and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. After an animated prologue, Argo begins with a mob beating at the gates of the US embassy in Tehran until they storm the compound, and the fear of reprisal against Americans for their country's role in propping up the former regime pervades the film.

Those animated credits, however, hint at the other major element of Argo's construction. When the Iranians take the embassy's workers hostage, six Americans escape and hide out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Everyone knows they cannot stay there forever, but if Iranians find these Americans on the street, they will be executed as spies as fast as a kangaroo court will allow. The United States government cannot risk open involvement without provoking a war, so CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts an extraction plan so absurd that, as they say, it just might work. Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian filmmaker and pull the staffers out under the ruse of being his crew on a location shoot. As Lester Spiegel, the fading film legend who helps prop up this farce says, he went on suicide missions in the Army less dangerous than this idea.

That this producer is played by Alan Arkin, who played Yossarian (he of the endless suicide missions) in the film version of Catch-22, gives some indication of Argo's treatment of its Hollywood connection. That is one of the subtler jokes; elsewhere, goofs at Tinseltown's expense pepper the screenplay. When Mendez heads to Los Angeles to set up a fake production company to make the cover seem legit, he meets with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who responds to the agent's request to come to Hollywood and behave like a big shot without actually doing anything with, "You'll fit right in." The script Mendez, Spiegel and Chambers settle on is itself such a laughable Star Wars ripoff that this harbinger of New Hollywood's creative death says as much about Argo's 1980 setting as the hostage crisis. Initially amusing, these in-jokes start to drag after a while, especially in a movie that takes great pains to make its star-studded cast appear that much more eye-popping. Every name actor in this movie is introduced with a half-second pause as if the movie were a classic sitcom and space were being set aside for studio applause to greet each star's entrance.

When Affleck returns to Iran and gets down to the mission, though, Argo continues Affleck's reinvention from a talented but overexposed and frequently miscast actor into a sturdy, dependable director capable of wringing great suspense from his genre fare. He uses more handheld camerawork and confusing editing in this movie than in the more formal (or at least just basic) Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but in this case it works. Affleck ably communicates the sudden fear of the staffers, most of whom do not speak the language of the country they are in. None of them has time to consider the irony of electing to build diplomatic relations with a country so beyond their ken that they cannot even speak to its inhabitants, but an inkling of "Should've learned Farsi when I had the chance" crosses the face of several when Mendez makes them walk through a bazar "scouting" as part of their story. The climax, which brings all the weaknesses in Mendez's already thin cover out into the open, is one of the best sequences of the year, a tightly assembled gem made all the more tense by Affleck slyly letting the audience just start to breathe a sigh of relief as the characters make it past one airport checkpoint before pushing the Americans into yet another examination. Much as Argo lets the slack out of its flow in Los Angeles, this sequence ties the whole film together with crowd-pleasing aplomb.

A crowd-pleaser is, at heart, all Argo really is, though it occasionally hints at something more. In one brief span, Argo could even be said to critique a mass-audience reaction, juxtaposing his many images of Muslim rage (as Newsweek calls it) with smaller-scale but no-less-mindless reprisals in America. A montage of what appears to be actual news footage from the time shows Americans holding patriotic displays, burning the Iranian flag as we earlier saw an Iranian do to Old Glory, even beating an Iranian-American who helplessly professes his non-affiliation with his ancestor's homeland before punches and kicks rain down on him. It's a well-delivered visual lesson, though perhaps not enough to offset how much Affleck mines the walls of screaming Iranians for visceral domestic terror. But I cannot portray the ability to hook a crowd—especially for a film that does not come with a built-in fanbase—as a lesser skill. Argo has been inaccurately described as a throwback to 1970s thrillers, but it is an understandable mistake given how alien such an ability feels to contemporary mainstream filmmaking.

Friday, October 19

Hairspray: Used to

This musical is not shallow at all. There are many messages on racism, social discrimination, looks dictatorship, and segregation. Moreover, it is great, the music is fun, and it is a huge source for activities. John Travolta's role as the fat mother is unforgettable. I used this one to practice USED TO.

I. Watch the movie segment and make a list of 6 things that USED TO BE DIFFERENT in the 60s in the city of Baltimore, USA, according to the segment. Don't repeat the verbs you have already used. Observe these items:


Ex: Teens used to hair spray before going to school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Work in pairs:

1. How different did teens' lives use to be when compared to nowadays? Mention at least 5 things.

2. What are some things that teens used to do before going to school in the 60s that you also do nowadays?

3. Compare your typical morning to Tracy's.

4. Have you ever woken up as happy as Tracy did that morning? What do you do when that happens?



Capsule Reviews: Macbeth (1971), The Book of Mary, They All Laughed

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)

Polanski's Macbeth, made in the wake of his wife and unborn child's brutal murder, manages to extrapolate its settings from the limits of the stage into something even more ascetic and and stripped-down. It takes place in hollow, filthy castles and frigid, craggy hills, and Polanski fills this howling void with blood. The director, grimly exorcising the demons of his own trauma, translates the violence of Shakespeare's drama in viciously straightforward terms. One of the first images is of a dead foe's shirt splotching with more and more blood as a soldier whacks his corpse with a flail, and the murder of Macduff's wife and son is so hellaciously rendered that no one could fail to see shades of Sharon Tate's death. Amending the source text only to make it, inexplicably, yet darker, Macbeth leaves one wondering why anyone would fight so savagely to rule such a realm. In a final stroke of nihilistic despair, Polanski frames the climax not as duel among nobles but little more than a street fight filled with cheap shots and the wild swings of insensible men, one driven mad by paranoia, the other by grief. Grade: B+

The Book of Mary (Anne-Marie Miéville, 1984)

A sort-of precursor to partner Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary, Anne-Marie Miéville's The Book of Mary shows what may be the childhood of Godard's protagonist. An intelligent, withdrawn child blotting out the sound of her parents' divorce, Marie gives lectures to imaginary pupils, using an apple half as a stand-in for an eye during a lecture on ocular surgery and later dictating from a pocketbook to her bedroom wall, even instructing the class to "be quiet" when her mother knocks at the door. Her parents encourage her to accept what has happened, but Marie finds denial and expression in art, hearing a conversation of voices in a concerto and later dancing with aggressive pain to Mahler's 9th. This dance, a naked response to the intellectualism of Mahler's composition, serves as a bridge between childhood and adulthood, a naive but beautiful interpretation of the music that seems to drain the last bits of her innocence before she can start to cope with her upheaval. The final shot, of her slicing off the top of an egg with a swipe, still confounds and teases me. Grade: A-

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

I expect to do a full piece on this at some point in my life, but it is a film that uses all of its style toward such an overwhelming feeling of delight and retroactive regret that I only occasionally noted its almost tossed-off mastery. Check out this excellent piece by Sheila O'Malley that breaks down an early scene and how Bogdanovich's quick eyeline matches establish character relationships before anyone has been properly introduced. That scene confounded me when I watched it to the point that I kept dwelling on it as the film played out, until slowly all the pieces fell into place and revealed how that one sequence served as a map for the rest of the movie. There is a balletic choreography to that and other scenes that reminded me strongly of the work of Johnnie To, similarly able to impart an overwhelming deal of information visually with delicate shot patterns. Poised perfectly between the improvisational, naturalistic style of Cassavetes and shamelessly Old Hollywood depictions of the City That Never Sleeps. Grade: A+

Thursday, October 18

Cactus River (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's shorts are the only thing more confounding than his full-length works, and Cactus River is his most obscure in some time. A black-and-white "tribute" to the Mekong River, Cactus River documents one of Joe's actors, Jenjira Pongpas, as she lives out her daily routine with her husband, an American ex-pat she met online and recently married. Sounds innocuous, until Joe plays the film at a lower frame rate, making it jerk around like a silent as the audio track plays only the roar of wind on a poorly covered mic and pops that somehow manage to be louder than the white noise.

Joe tends to attach a brief explanation to his shorts, perhaps anticipating the viewer's bafflement. Not that his statements are entirely helpful: they tend to be as cryptic as the films themselves, though they do sometimes offer a clue to be interpreted. The director's synopsis for this short relates how Jenjira changed her name to Nach, which means "water." Nach lives on the bank of the Mekong, which she worries will dry up soon thanks to Chinese dams. Does that explain the title, then? That this surging body of water may soon become an arid bed of desert plants? And if Jenjira now calls herself water, is she the river's heir? Perhaps this 10-minute abstract posits a Thai Anna Livia Plurabelle.

As ever with Joe's work, Cactus River overflows with indelible, evocative images. The choppy rhythms of the frame rate slow when the camera settles upon the Mekong in the frantic opening montage, put at ease by the river's flow (or, alternately, drying up with a blocked-off source. Nach's husband watches Thai TV on mute, the flicker of Joe's high-contrast film obscuring the image on the TV into what almost looks like a nuclear cataclysm until a cactus can eventually be made out, looming over its surroundings in a low-angle shot. The final, still image cuts to color as Nach beckons out over the river. Rebirth is a key feature of Joe's films, from the bifurcated structure of Tropical Malady to the reincarnation-cum-genre-tour that was Uncle Boonmee. As such, the last shot could be the "In Memoriam" photo for the Mekong, but also the first documented photo of its new avatar.

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

Upon its release, I'm Not There struck me as a hollow experiment, a nifty "what-if" but nothing more. Not helping matters, certainly, was my own lack of familiarity with Bob Dylan, a sacred cow whose enigmatic profile (as evidenced by this fragmentary "biopic") split into so many personalities that I never knew how to approach him. For all its dazzling formal techniques, I'm Not There frustrated me for doing nothing, it seemed, to explore Dylan's real personality. Its much-ballyhooed division of Dylan's various artistic reinventions into separate roles for different actors was its greatest weakness.

Of course, Bob Dylan's refusal to be defined as any one thing but Bob Dylan (and sometimes not even that), is what has made him endure as much as a mystery as a legend. Haynes does not attempt to "solve" Dylan, and if I'm Not There ultimately concludes that there may be no real Dylan under all those smokescreens, it nevertheless paints a compelling portrait—well, collage—of a man who exists wholly within pop culture. The trait that links the six characters representing Dylan's personae is a hint of persecution by those who love him, of devotion and mistrust displayed in equal measure. Even the earliest incarnation of Dylan, a mere child faces hardship, even if he has to invent some of it.

That child (Marcus Carl Franklin), who calls himself Woody Guthrie represents Dylan's beginnings as an ambitious folkie who drifted out of the Midwest as if a dissatisfied spirit of the Depression spat him out at the turn of the '60s. But by casting an African-American as the boy, Haynes begins a subtle but consistent critique of Dylan's public image wrapped up in the loving tribute. Woody spins all kinds of tall tales as a backstory to the families and hobos he meets riding the rails across the country, stories that appropriate misery and strife to make his life more compelling. Yet the child actor's race is the biggest appropriation of all, the artist who would become the ultimate in white liberal hipness seeing himself as a poor black kid at heart in a too-forward sense of identification with the truly downtrodden.

Yet the leap from this child, introduced circa 1959, to actors pushing 30, if not already past the line, could be seen as a respectful view of the artist's rapid maturity. Christian Bale takes the baton from Franklin to play Jack Rollins, the Dylan who erupted in Greenwich Village as the superstar of the '60s folk scene. The difference between the two characters is as vast as the gulf between Dylan's self-titled debut, filled mostly with passable covers of folk standards and his sophomore effort, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, such an instant, out-of-nowhere classic many still believe it is his true first album. Franklin's Woody, naïve and romanticizing the past, is the only character younger than Dylan was in each respective career phase, but Bale emerges a man of the moment, crystallizing the social ills of the day rather than hiding out in the past. Even so, Dylan is still a young man, barely over 20 when he becomes a cause célèbre and not yet 25 when he sends shockwaves through his devoted fanbase. He may have the voice of a man who has lived lifetimes, but he is still barely an adult.

Nowhere is this blend of maturity and youth more strikingly displayed than in Cate Blanchett's performance as Dylan's "going electric" avatar, Jude Quinn. This period of Dylan's life has been documented more than any other, a fact Haynes does not even attempt to hide as his grainy black-and-white stock and verité style recalls D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. That film showed off a combative, evasive boy sneering at the press (and fans) who hung on his every word. Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, looks at that same material from a retrospective angle, clarifying Dylan's seeming aggressiveness as the result of his unwillingness to be the voice of a generation, with all the baggage that would bring.

Not even the real Dylan, however, brings as much sobering insight into his younger self's belligerence as Blanchett. The actress' agelessness here serves as a trap for Jude. Wearing Dylan's black sunglasses, Blanchett plays Jude as peevish and vulgar, being outlandish just to get a rise out of those who feel he owes them something. But Blanchett's jittery leg twitching and head jerking suggest amphetamine addiction. The illicit substance keeps Jude going through his concentrated period of artistic fertility; the three album stretch Jude personifies is perhaps the most radical evolution of pop songcraft of the 20th century. It also leaves Jude strung out and nervous, his already apparent discomfort with superstardom exacerbated by a lack of sleep and an overstimulated brain. Jude takes off his glasses regularly, but one shot in particular, situated at the film's end, holds on Blanchett's face as she looks with uncovered eyes into the camera, lines practically forming around her eyes as her deflated, neutral facial expression communicates an endless weariness. It is ravaging enough to be either Jesus or Judas. Dylan at this time was both, and as Blanchett's Jude ages in that late shot, the motorcycle crash that Dylan fans know is right around the corner could almost been seen as a deliverance.

Blanchett owns much of the film in terms of screen time and presence, but the lesser-seen personalities contain their own insights, affections and critiques of the subject. Ben Whishaw appears as the poet side of Dylan, on trial by an unseen prosecutor that could be jilted radicals as easily as the Establishment. Richard Gere, playing Billy the Kid in a reference to Dylan's involvement with Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, shows Dylan in exile after his crash. The real Kid died at 21, but Gere recalls the 36-year-old Kris Kristofferson of Peckinpah's film, not a boy who lived fast and died young but a weathered and withered vision of a dying symbol. The child Woody made out like he had the weight of the world on his shoulder. Blanchett's Jude didn't have to pretend, and Gere's Billy still smarts decades later from all that pressure.

I'm Not There contains its share of in-jokes and references. Haynes employs overt Hard Day's Night quotations when Jude meets the Beatles, and the funniest joke of the movie involves Jude introducing Brian Jones of the Stones as being "from that groovy covers band." Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) takes the film's metatextual elements to a new level as an actor who plays Jack Rollins and becomes a Dylanesque figure himself (he even marries the equivalent of Sarah Dylan, with whom he casually recreates the cover for Freewheelin'). These might be considered part of the typical pandering biopics do for fans, but then, the whole film requires a working understanding of Dylan's work and life from his early days through at least the '66 crash and a few scattered bits after that. The opening credits, played over shots of the outcasts of the world—complete with high-contrast, finely detailed images of coal-faced workers that recalls Gregg Toland's cinematography for The Grapes of Wrath—is clearly meant to evoke "Desolation Row." Unless, of course, you haven't heard that song, in which case the whole credits will be confusing. And the sly recasting of Bale's Jack Rollins, seen as a prophet to '60s radicals, as Dylan's Born Again avatar is a wry joke, for those who get it.

But perhaps this is how biopics of legends should operate, diving into the esoterica and letting those who have no familiarity with the artist—like my 18-year-old self—be left out in the cold. Why, after all, should the millions who love Dylan (or Cash, or Ray) and thirst for a real insight into the artist be forced to sit through a feature-length "greatest hits" for the sake of the clueless? Even if Haynes reinforces the notion of Dylan as fundamentally unknowable, his evocative, obscure shots and scenes say more about the artist than a host of documentaries and books. Case in point: Bruce Greenwood appears during the Jude section as a hostile journalist who hectors the artist for his immaturity. Greenwood is old enough to be the Establishment, his dismissal that of the older crowd who never understood why kids bothered with this guy anyway. Yet the actor returns for Billy's segment to play Pat Garrett, forced to confront the Kid one last time having failed to kill him in this universe. As Garrett stares into Billy's eyes, though, Haynes flashes back across characters as Mr. Jones harangues Jude, ignoring the young man's instability to attack its childish manifestations. Greenwood's Garrett feels the remorse of that memory; he did not kill the Kid here, but he did in a past life. This subtle connection says more about artistic martyrdom, misunderstanding and critical reevaluation than all the talking heads in the world.

Monday, October 15

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) vs. The HeartbreakKid (2007)

Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid is such an overwhelmingly black comedy that I cannot think of another movie to even approach its level of discomfort until Scorsese made The King of Comedy a full decade later. Charles Grodin has never been better nor more excruciating, and May's improv-based style allows the situation to grow even more unsettling as characters morph into human beings that break away from the limiting perspective of Grodin's obliviously manipulative protagonist. It is one of the best comedies of all time.

But so, to my surprise, is the Farrelly brothers' remake of the film, which trades the complex character interactions of the original for their trademark gross-out humor. There's Something About Mary contained an unexpected critique of misogyny, and The Heartbreak Kid takes it even further. Ben Stiller turns his usual bumbling but "lovable" character on its head, making him out to be a monster who uses women without remorse in pursuit of his own stunted ideas of self-fulfillment. Grodin's Lenny got married just to get laid, but Eddie gets married to prevent his lover from going off to pursue her own dreams. If the comedy of the film is lighter, the tone is no less savage.

My full comparison of the two films is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Saturday, October 13

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012)

Matthew McConaughey enters as the titular hitman in Killer Joe literally coated in leather, clad in hide gloves, jacket and boots. It is one of the film's countless, indelible grindhouse moments, the man so defined by killing that even his wardrobe comprises death. On McConaughey, this dark outfit announces the arrival of a wolf in sheep's clothing (or cow's, as it were). The law never fares well in William Friedkin's films, where police detectives always morph into the very forces they hunt so obsessively. Killer Joe picks up where those other films end: Joe Cooper enters the film a monster, and the only thing close to a mitigating factor in his behavior is that the people who enlist his services may be even more repulsive.

Taking place in cramped trailers, run-down streets on the side of the railroad tracks that time forgot, and strip clubs lit in the electric zapper blues of Friedkin's last film, Bug, Killer Joe erects a world so white-trash that it could contain any redneck. Well, almost any redneck, for the film populates itself with such extreme Southern-fried types that they clash as violently with this setting as they would in Beverly Hills. Friedkin wastes no time establishing the lunacy of his dramatis personae, with debt-ridden drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) beating on a trailer door in the dead of night as the film opens, only to be greeted by a close-up of Gina Gershon's bottomless, be-merkined unmentionables. Vulgarity and casual domestic violence ensues. But Gershon plays Chris' stepmom, Sharla, and she gets off light compared to how Chris views his biological mother. To him, the latter is just a hefty life insurance policy waiting to be collected and the answer his problems with his drug supplier. When he offers to cut the rest of the family in on the loot, no one raises any objection to the idea of having the woman killed, not even the seeming bundle of innocence, Chris' teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

This, as it turns out, is the tame part of the film. Having found such agreeable chemistry with playwright Tracy Letts' words and subject matter with Bug, the two seem even more attuned with each other in Joe, where Letts' grotesque characters mesh beautifully with Friedkin's nasty direction. He tends to shoot in medium and medium close-up, pushing the viewer deeper into the depraved violence and lurid sex. (Films can get a NC-17 rating just for having too much nudity. Killer Joe wraps its nudity in incestuous desires and underage sex, practically daring the MPAA to invent an even stricter rating to deal with it.) Swooning camera movements only exacerbate the sense of discomfort as Friedkin constantly reels toward and away (but not nearly away enough) from the character's schemes and abhorrent behavior.

Intimacy is a hallmark of Friedkin's style, though it is often of the sort that ultimately pushes people away. The tracking shots in the gay clubs of Cruising moved horizontally but always felt like a descent into hell for Pacino's protagonist, who never has a clear break in morphing from hero to villain but gradually becomes so monstrous that the audience only realizes what is happening when escape is impossible. In The French Connection's climax, Doyle kills the federal agent hounding his extreme measures rather than the drug smuggler, though by that point one cannot say whether this is a grotesque accident or a seized opportunity. Killer Joe likewise, plunges into its filth, to the point that you can practically smell the smoke-infused walls and cheap beer stains on the carpet of the Smith's trailer. Ironic distance just ain't Friedkin's bag, though in a way that is a good thing. A long shot in this film is the only thing more unbearable than the more proximal shots. It gives clarity to that which is excruciating enough in piecemeal.

In a way, Killer Joe serves as the inverse of another immaculately composed, Texan black comic thriller, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. (McConaughey in particular left such a strong impression that, for a brief second, I even thought he acted in the other film until I remembered I was thinking of the Woody Harrelson role.) Their film went medium-to-long shot to Friedkin's medium-close-to-even-closer, stepping away from the action to take stock of the sad waste of the violence. It meshed perfectly with Cormac McCarthy's spare but universal writing, using its critical separation to make harrowing observations on the perpetuity of human violence. Killer Joe contents itself to stick with its characters, not tying them to a larger fabric but following their demented arc so closely that the audience cannot be extricated from what it sees.

And it's all held together by McConaughey, who turns the Sheriff Bell character from No Country into Anton Chigurh. He rarely raises his voice, and from the second he meets his new employers, gears begin turning behind his eyes as he makes contingency plans if—no, scratch that, when—Chris does not follow through on his end of the bargain. Joe never asks for anything; he merely says what he will take. Instantly gauging the likelihood of collecting payment for this job, Joe informs Chris and Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) that he will take Dottie as a "retainer" for his services until they can raise his fee. So matter of factly does McConaughey announce this news that neither brother nor father raises an objection. But the degree of gentility the actor adds to Joe's controlling, sadistic side during his "date" with Dottie makes his domineering presence even worse. It dresses up Joe in a mask of decency that confuses the poor girl as his polite, understanding behavior during dinner gives way to softly spoken but firm commands to obey him.

McConaughey has such a profound effect on the other characters that they react to him in distinct ways. Temple nearly steals the movie from McConaughey with her airy calm that mixes two parts naïveté with one part shining. The actress' sharp, angled canines have always lent her smiles an equal element of baby-teeth cuteness and serrated warning, and she has never played up that ambiguity so well. When they first meet, Joe sits at a table in the position closest to the camera, his black clothing rippling out across the left side of the frame as he stretches out lethargically to wait for his clients to arrive. Dottie, meanwhile, curls into a vertical line, folding her legs up to her torso and sitting bolt upright; even her hair stands up in an awkward bunch. This posturing makes her hard to read, harder still when she begins asking forthright questions about Joe's killings with a tone that balances on a knife edge between open curiosity and barely concealed bloodlust. Joe never looks so  ever again, but this little girl has clearly rattled something in his unflappable core.

That core is on full display, however, with the other members of the Smith family. Chris' eyes dart over the man and his voice trembles as he perpetually weighs whom he fears more, the mob boss about to kill him or the killer who can deliver him from his fate. Like a caged animal, Chris slowly grows bolder with Joe as his desperation mounts, but this only increases his chances of death. Ansel, who does not have to fret about the mob, can devote all his attention to fearing Joe, often saying and moving as little as possible in the man's presence as if the killer were a T-Rex, unable to spot you if you stand perfectly still. Sharla, poor Sharla, seems to feel at ease around Joe, perhaps overconfident that she could twirl him around her pinky like every other man in her life. That assumption costs her dearly in the film's climax, in which a chicken leg is used to push the comedy into full horror. A caesura that comes on a wave of bloodletting is, despite its final gag of a cliffhanger, a blessed relief from the nightmare. The best Friedkin films never really conclude anyway; they just finally let you out of the chokehold.

Friday, October 12

X-Men First Class: Modal Verb for Ability - CAN

I love all the X-Men sequels and prequels. This one is one of my favorites. You can't miss it.

I. Watch the movie segment and match the mutant's number with what they can do. Mutants are people who have special gifts with which they can perform actions regular people usually can't. What can these mutants do?

1. Hank

2. Mystique

3. Darwin

4. Banshee

5. Angel

6. Alex

( ) Break objects with his/her voice

( ) Create and throw shiny circles at objects and destroy them

( ) Hold objects with his feet

( ) Fly

( ) Adapt his physical characteristics in order to survive in different environments

( ) Spit fire balls

( ) Change his/her physical characteristics to look like someone else

II. Which of the mutants above would you like to be? Which one has the most interesting power?

III. Work in small groups. Imagine that your group will create a mutant with special gifts. Write 5 things your mutant CAN do. Your teacher (or the class) will decide which mutant is the most interesting one.



Answer key:


4, 6, 1, 5, 3, 5, 2

Thursday, October 11

Detective (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

The trio of films that followed Jean-Luc Godard's return to cinema mirrored, in some cases, his early work. Sauve qui peut (la vie), Passion and First Name: Carmen matched up in thematic and (vague) stylistic terms with Breathless, Contempt and Pierrot le fou. But it is Detective, Godard's lightest since Made in U.S.A., that truly recaptures the spirit of his New Wave material. Filled with cinematic and literary references, populated by existential refinements of various generic types (detectives, mob bosses, black-clad hoods playing billiards with a cigarette dangling from their mouths, disintegrating couples, paid-off boxers), Detective returns the director to his reflexive roots for a lovely throwback tempered only by the slight melancholy of the New Wave performers who now look older.

Confining the action to the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare, Detective moves between three groups of people whose paths overlaps as they move about the hotel. Godard films static takes that emphasize the boundaries of his setting, rarely able to move his camera far back enough inside a room to go further than a medium long shot. On the occasions that Godard does manage to put some distance between the camera and his actors, it comes in the form of dazzlingly placed high- and low-angle shots of hallways and the expansive ground floor, taking an uncharacteristic pleasure in the shining commercial retreat that lacks the director's typical, ironic assessment of the gold-plated chandeliers and plush carpet. Yet even these big, beautiful shots segment the hotel's layout into a series of locations unto themselves, suites and bars in a void that suggest proximity to each other only because all the characters keep running into each other.

Why, even the individual rooms themselves do not obey the stillness of the camera shots, instead morphing to take on the personalities of whomever occupies their space. Pairing older actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Brasseur) with younger lovers (Aurele Doazan, Nathalie Baye) tends to make rooms feel suffocating and morose, but the women on their own add life to these confined areas. Most liberating of all are the scenes that join Baye with "French Elvis" Johnny Hallyday as the fight promoter to whom Baye's husband owes money. The young lovers add a new New Wave spark as an erstwhile youth icon like Léaud gradually reveals his age as his character inherits his disgraced uncle's obsession. There are other tonal modulations as well, such as the claustrophobia that pervades the detectives' suite when Doazan takes the camera they use to spy on people outside and turns it inward to watch the watchmen.

Not much about Detective's narrative makes sense on a first watch, but as Anna Dzenis rightly says, Godard takes more pleasure in the "investigation" than the payoff. If the still camera setups and the sense of regret that pokes through the old men's philosophical and literary proclamations, Detective nevertheless bursts with life. I cannot say how happy I was to see Godard bring back the credits style of his early features, with letters appearing on a black screen. He even spreads out the credits for nearly 20 minutes, devilishly breaking up the film as it builds momentum. The broad genre touches give way to specific reverence when a beautiful scene of lovers entwined together throughout the hotel is juxtaposed with clips from Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Most impressive, however, is Godard's use of stereo, placing each channel in contrapuntal relation to the other and to aurally reproduce the kinetic imagery of Godard's filmography. In the film's best scene, Léaud and Doazan spy on their marks down in the hotel's restaurant, the audio track splits to put the dialogue of the watched in one channel and in the Classical cues take the place of Léaud's speech, aggressive when a woman blocks his line of sight and makes a bumbling, attention-getting apology and lower as he confers with his colleague. The music fits to the mood of the image, or does it create that mood? Either way, the scene encapsulates this delightfully tossed-off feature, a relatively commercial venture that nevertheless shows off the ways Godard could always innovate.

Tuesday, October 9

David Lynch's features, ranked

For October's favorite director ranking, I thought I would choose one of my two favorite directors of horror films that are not exactly horror films. (The other is Roman Polanski, whom I bumped last month to cover Tony Scott and who will receive his spotlight later this month.) Lynch's work digs under the image of postwar American society—parenthood, bourgeois suburbia, the glamor of Old Hollywood—to find the terror beneath, which is itself usually rooted in grotesque exaggerations of classic pulp. Lynch exists always in the past and on the forefront, sublimating noir and melodrama of the '40s and '50s into an ambitious, massively influential television program and an exploratory use of the capabilities of DV. Nearly all of his 10 features are great, and despite the occasional characterization of his work as weird for its own sake, they reward multiple viewings rather than suffer from them. A year ago, it would not have occurred to me to rank Lynch among my favorite filmmakers, but after viewing and revisiting the gems below, he now sits near the top of my list.

10. Dune

You know you're in for a mess when the director credit not only lists "Alan Smithee" but reads "A Alan Smithee Film" rather than "An Alan Smithee Film." Dune, in theory, might have been perfect for Lynch to explode the scope of his weirdness on blockbuster scale. Instead, it is a work of profound soullessness, weighed down at every turn by impersonal sets and a dreary slog of expositional dialogue. To mention that the film has expositional dialogue, though, is to suggest it ever has dialogue of any other kind. Indeed not, and the endless tedium (not to mention bewilderment) of listening to every single character explaining every single thing in excruciating, unnecessary detail offers no respite from the big emptiness of the sub-Star Wars production design. The best that can be said of the whole affair is that Lynch himself clearly must have endeared himself with some of the actors, as performers like Kyle MacLachlan and Dean Stockwell would return for later, better films.

9. The Elephant Man

Had Dune been a commercial success and a fulfilling project for Lynch, would the rest of his career departed from this smash sophomore effort rather than the magnificent mulligan that was Blue Velvet? If works in the mawkish, stilted vein of The Elephant Man might have been the true groundwork for a commercially successful Lynch, it is hard not to be glad the director soon moved far away from this brand of filmmaking. Buoyed by two strong performances by Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, The Elephant Man nevertheless suffers for its oppressively static construction, suffocating in a way that could be intentional but does not matter either way because it saps the film of any impact. Occasionally, Lynch cuts away to the roaring underbelly of the hospital where Hopkins makes Hurt a glorified prisoner, and these jarring blasts of noise and symbolic imagery, like the jolts in Haydn’s “Surprise,” are the cleverest, most engaging bits of the whole work.

8. The Straight Story

Moving past the aforementioned two stinkers, ranking Lynch’s filmography becomes nearly impossible, as the remaining eight features are all of exceptional quality and striking vision. That is true even of this stylistic departure, a movie so pared down from Lynch’s usual weirdness that practically everyone sees the title more as an admission on the director’s part than a description of the subject. Yet the most remarkable aspect of The Straight Story is not the absence of Lynch’s weirdness but its application toward a positive, even wholesome narrative. Try not to fall in love with Alvin Straight, the old, broken man forced to take the oddest transportation imaginable to see his even more decrepit brother. Filled with an assortment of endearing characters but powered by Richard Farnsworth’s quiet, real performance, The Straight Story is not an outlier in Lynch’s canon so much as the uncovered heart that pumps blood through even his most despairing work.

7. Blue Velvet

One of the greatest films of the 1980s, Blue Velvet got Lynch back on track after two disappointing Hollywood features threatened to kill his early promise. Refining Eraserhead’s psychological surrealism into a broader social portrait of weirdness, Blue Velvet peeked out from the freakish individuals that dotted earlier work to suggest that society itself was twisted. In light of what came after this, Lynch’s first feature-length immersion into the underworld of Rockwellian suburbia seems relatively conventional, gas-huffing psychopath Hopper and icy, Golden Oldies voguer Stockwell included. This may be Lynch’s most satiric work: MacLachlan and Dern blatantly look too old to be in high school (probably intentional, as Dern looks younger in Wild at Heart, made four years later). Meanwhile, Hopper’s sadistic relationship with Isabella Rosselini’s tormented torch singer, however frightening, is absurdist farce, Frank regressing to infancy as he bites her blue robe and slides his hand up her (Freudian) slip. A gaudy, and gauzy, counterpoint to visions of middle class Shangri-La in Reagan’s America.

6. Eraserhead

For some, Lynch never topped this 1977 feature debut, made with the AFI's assistance and surely the greatest student film ever made. With an impressive grasp of film technique, young Lynch set about breaking all the rules he understood so innately. The sound design and carefully ordered mise-en-scène establish Lynch’s stylistic foundations and his penchant for drawing almost unbearable tension from ordinary objects. In fact, take out all the grotesque people and effects Lynch inserts into the film and you still get one of the most chillingly effective horror films of all time. No wonder Stanley Kubrick studied it so judiciously when making The Shining, another movie in which interiors are the true villain.

5. Lost Highway

Noirish elements creep into many of Lynch’s films, but none dives into the genre’s black soul like Lost Highway, which seems to take the POV of film noir itself. Of particular note to Lynch, who has often given the most weight and nonjudgmental affection for his women characters, is the misogyny subtly put on parade in the movie’s shape-shifting narrative. The extended middle section, filled with all the seedy details that riddle Lynch’s sub-suburban nightmares, is the self-justifying projection of Bill Pullman’s character, who murders his frigid wife in paranoid delusion and attempts to run away from himself for the rest of the film and the cycle it promises to restart at the end. Plenty of filmmakers have had fun with the femme fatale archetype, but Lynch suggests that it is a fabrication by men to justify their own sexism, so that even the woman who refuses to be a victim is made a victim of male thought control. Through it all, Lost Highway makes the case for David Lynch coming the closest of perhaps any filmmaker to even partially replicating the effect of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, another work about sexual guilt that it always morphing and yet fundamentally cyclical.

4. Mulholland Dr.

Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks won Lynch legions of fans he spent the ‘90s gradually bleeding out, their interest in his trippy surrealism hitting the wall when they saw in his first three ‘90s movies how far Lynch could go with that style. The Straight Story won back some acclaim but seemed a departure more than a comeback. Then came Mulholland Dr. Collecting all the aspects of his ‘90s movies that appeared in such raw form, Mulholland Dr. distills all the weirdness into easily the director’s most focused work. Lynch repurposes the obliterating guilt of Lost Highway; into a cloud of denial over unrequited love and, perhaps worse, the realization of one’s lack of talent. As such, this poisoned love letter to Hollywood may be Lynch’s most tongue-in-cheek film, but as filtered through Naomi Watts’ performance and the lush formalism that meshes with its hazy dreamscape, it is also one of his most gripping and affecting.

3. Wild at Heart

I figured out Wild at Heart when Nic Cage’s character upstaged a show by speed metal band Powermad and led the group in a sudden cover of Elvis Presley. Up to that point, Wild at Heart is a mad jumble of freaks cranked up to 11 to show all Lynch’s post-Blue Velvet admirers what they were in for. It is still all of that after this moment, of course, but this scene acts as a skeleton key that reveals the film as a swirling collage of 20th century pop culture, where Elvis and Wild One-era Brando flow in and out of thrash metal and gaudy snakeskin. It also revamps The Wizard of Oz and reworks it to make dull, repressive home life the evil force it always should have been in that story and the thought of permanently escaping it the greatest wish one could ask from a ruler who could grant anything. Nic Cage has never been more attuned to the subject matter of one of his movies, and Lynch has never so casually touched metal to a raw nerve.


The Joycean aspects of David Lynch’s filmmaking reach their pinnacle with INLAND EMPIRE, in which the temporal simultaneity of Wild at Heart and Möbius-strip cycles of Lost Highway are laid together, joined by mortar made from the ground-up shards of Lynch’s entire filmography. Lynch’s other films contain tendencies of Finnegans Wake, but this is the full thing: a basic plot rendered insensible and inexplicable through a stacking of time, space, even dimensions of reality into one simultaneously, flowing moment. Trading Irish national guilt for American pulp and a sense of complicity in the misogynistic exploitation he abhors, Lynch delivers perhaps his ultimate statement on the bonds of abuse that ground our loftiest fantasies, and how he perpetuates that as much as anyone. Laura Dern handles the constant slip between realities and places better than anyone could be reasonably expected to do, and Lynch finds in DV the smeary grime he wanted film to have all along. Indeed, INLAND EMPIRE, with its raw lighting and expansiveness of visual scope, is perhaps the quintessential visualization of digital as a different method of image capture than film, not merely in the ease of shooting but how that image is programmed and saved.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

If one views Fire Walk With Me solely as a narrative link to Twin Peaks, it will seem an unnecessary (and unnecessarily obtuse) rehash of a story we all know. Laura Palmer’s inevitable death, and the sufficient piecing together of her life’s horrors on the series proper, admittedly saps the tension of the piece. As an emotional landscape, however, the film displays Lynch at his best. Featuring an early, half-formed bifurcated structure that Lynch would later refine, Fire Walk With Me opens with the director’s most abstract, surreal, alienating humor before switching gears to plunge into the heart of the depravity and despair that lurks beneath the surface of all Lynch’s films. As the director ignores the wishes of fans and throws out narrative closure for the sake of honing in on a detail they already know, he provides a more resonant sense of emotional clarity to the show for those paying attention. No other Lynch film so plainly makes the case that the director’s schtick isn’t just easy, cynical irony. He really cares about his characters, even—especially—when he puts them through the worst hell.