Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Short Cuts: March '06

d. Steven Soderbergh, 2006

I'm most interested by the doll metaphor. You have these casts for various parts - a head, a leg, a torso, an arm. These basic parts are solid, concrete, generally necessary. Then you gussy it up - eyebrows, eyes of different colors, latex color, clothing - and you change the entire impression of the doll. That is, the basic parts remain intact, but the whole composition is altered by superficial gestures. Like a film, right? You have a camera, some film/video, actors, a story of some sort - but the things you do to that basic setup is what makes each film different. A filmmaker is a sort of faux-surgeon, just like a dollmaker. It goes along nice with the film: the characters & the plot are both detached, dehumanized. They're obvious "parts," not fully realized, not complete, not entirely organic. Of course, right? The filmmaker has to be separate from the subject, has to treat it like piecemeal, fake humans; hence, the really eerie outsider-looking-in tone maintained from frame one. The artifice is both admirable - it fits in well with the doll factory bit, it works well on the theoretical level - and irksome - it makes for stilted viewing, unfortunately. So, while Soderbergh is doing something interesting here, it doesn't lead to a compelling film, merely "something interesting."

d. Bennett Miller, 2005

Why, I now realize, Blake Edward's film version of Truman Capote's novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, blushes in comparison to the book is the absence of the author. Capote is such a compelling and interesting character that, I imagine (not having actually read In Cold Blood), this "biopic" - it honestly hardly is that usually nasty descriptor - is a good deal more interesting than a strict adaption of Capote's book would be. Capote (the ever-adroit Philip Seymour Hoffman) is devoid of a personal life; all he has, it seems, are various modes of public life - he plays with the literary/social elite, empathizes with murderers, and plays house with the denizens of middle America, all with an equal amount of (in)sincerity (the clarifying of the ambiguity depends on your perspective.) Most of Capote's friends see his duplicitous relationship with the killers, specifically Perry Smith (the very good Clifton Collins Jr.), as unscrupulous, and the viewer might be too easily coerced into sympathizing with them. Capote is the consummate author - to write, for him, is to live; to examine the subject, to objectify what you're writing about, in cold blood, is requisite, at least for Truman, for writing well. Is it moral? Maybe, maybe not, but to see Truman Capote in this situation - this specific situation - makes for a much more complex and interesting film than traditional birth-to-death biopic.

Clans of Intrigue
d. Chu Yuan, 1977

There are plenty of reasons to dislike this kung-fu flick: the bad guy's identity is made obviously clear in scene one, then the possibility of him being the bad guy is taken away (turns out the bad guy's a girl), then the bad guy is unveiled to be the guy we originally thought (turns out the bad guy's actually a latent hermaphrodite.) The story is convoluted along the same lines as The Big Sleep. Et Cetera. But it's so damn likable, too! I could help but giggle during the last scene, when the aforementioned bad guy is pincushioned with two swords and a disembowled hand, bone-side first. The film is filled with ridiculous moments like this, and then held together by a really compelling lead and some unnecessarily good cinematography. Not great cinema in the traditional sense, but one of those films that helps one better understand just why Pauline Kael lost it at the movies.

Cowards Bend the Knee
d. Guy Maddin, 2003

Apparently fashioned autobiographically - but I don't know Guy Maddin, so it doesn't have much bearing here; moreover, I don't really care for biographical readings, auto- or otherwise - Cowards Bend the Knee is a bizarre avant-garde throwback to the infancy of film that channels the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Follow: man leaves woman for another woman (Jason & Medea); another woman kills her husband while he's having his hair washed (Clytemnestra & Agamemnon); son (here a stepson) feels need to revenge his father (ok, step-father) (Orestes & Clytemnestra); Step-son realizes - too late - that he did not actually need to kill, that it was all an accident, that it was fate - not his own hands - compelling him to kill his father, and sleep with his step-mother (Oedipus.) All this takes place within a drop of semen (what?), leading us to believe that this is the stuff of human life. It's this binding together of thematic integrity and formal absurdity (which I'll let you discover on your own) that makes Cowards Bend the Knee a great film.

A History of Violence
d. David Cronenberg, 2005

The opening sequence, where two people lay dead and one is murdered, is interrupted by a girl's scream, a girl waking up from a nightmare. While not a true dream sequence - it becomes perfectly clear later that these events definitely "happened" - there is an important play here between dreams and reality. A cook tells of a past girlfriend, future wife, who would wake up from a dream and attack him. He laughs about the time she stabbed him in the shoulder, unwittingly, with a fork. Combined with the stilted dialogue, wholesome familial tropes, and general facade over the first 2/3 of the film, we get a sense that the subject matter here is the debasement of the American Dream. The film is loaded with hometown goodness, Edward Hopper sheen, and referents to distinctly American ideals. But all this, we learn, is predicated on violence. That is, the history of the American Dream is a history of violence. Follow: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) was Joey Cusack, a mobster/killer - his benign present in the small, Midwest town, the manifestation of the American Dream, is only made possible because of his violent past. The American Dream is not a pure, wholesome thing, but an accumulation of all that is desired - through any means possible - and then a denial of the means taken. Look at America herself - what she has, how far she's come, is on account of a good deal of violent measures taken to get here. The point of the film isn't to say that violence is present and integral to every person, but that violence is a much more powerful force behind what is called good than many care to realize.

d. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999

The danger of having a three hour film is, generally, losing the interest of the audience. P.T. Anderson wouldn't know about that - Magnolia is a 185 minute orgasm caffeine sugar high adrenaline rush, always building, constantly peaking. The danger here is that those highs become mundane. And while it could be called overly long (I wouldn't say that), it can't be said the highs lose their power - for the first time in 3 years of watching movies, I cried watching the easy to fuck up non-diegetic primary cast Aimee Mann sing-along. Anderson earns this response, building up each of the 6 or so "mini-stories" that operate within the greater story without sacrficing the whole fabric of the thing. That is, the characters are built properly - fleshed out - and the narrative, in spite of being what some would see as too long by 100%, is comprised entirely of purely essential moments, each one operating as a significant piece of the whole. Ambitious, bravura filmmaking working damn near its finest.

The World
d. Zhang Ke Jia, 2004

The film's initial premise is interesting: we are now living in a democratized, abbreviated world, a world in which technology has made travel first necessary and now impossible, and communication even moreso. The primary setting is one loaded with possibility - a cheap theme park called "The World," wherein one can see all the famouse landmarks of the world without ever leaving Beijing. It's a miniaturized counterfeit of the real things, but one that work like an ersatz stand-in, an excuse to not move outside of Beijing. In a scene that works powerfully, partly because it doesn't influence the narrative of the film, a man chaperoning a troupe of Russian dancers takes away the passports of said dancers. The transaction is shady; the audience is lead to believe that these dancers will not get their passports back, making it impossible for them to leave "The World," which now works on two obvious levels: a theme park and as a stand-in for the world at large. History and Politics are ugly nadirs in my education, but I imagine this relates directly to China's recent political past and (possible) future. I'll leave that for now; what I do know is that here we have not a democratized world, but a subjugated one. America - let's get ethnocentric! - is a sort of dreamland. The Manhattan fixture in the park is an island - you can see it, but you can't touch it - with the WTC intact. America stands as a sort of idyll for the denizens of "The World," with English being the only common language. But - let's get rebellious! - it's a false ideal. Could American global power be responsible for this whacked out version of an egalitarian democracy? Is America proliferating a corrupt hegemony? These questions are posed, not answered, which is a smart move for. The problem is, so much of this is lost in the film. While the idea of travel and the difficulty of travel spines the film, Jia falls for a limp plot in the form of a couple - both employees of the park - who are having relational problems. The film begins as an ensemble piece, glancing from moment to moment, picking the points that support the the thesis; this relationship angle is only tangentially related, unfortunately, and it isn't very interesting. Moreover, Jia relies on the setting like a crutch - numerous shots of various landmarks (Pyramids, Eiffel Tower, others) punctuate the Beijing skyline to the point that the repetition is no longer interesting, merely repetitive. Jia spends the last 1 and 1/2 hours dwelling on these things, marring an otherwise very interesting, and very good, film.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Short Cuts: February '06

Approach of Autumn
d. Mikio Naruse, 1960

Naruse's usual themes are on display here (FYI: Simultaneous empowerment and debasement (Word? Sure!) of women; Need/Desire for cash and social status; City V. Country. If you were unaware of these items, have no fear - I didn't know thing one about Naruse until 3 weeks ago.) The last of these is most prominently on display here, particularly the sincerity and power of the country as superior to the false simulacrum of the city. (Case in Point: a little boy - protagonist - is searching for a beetle, which he claims one can only find in the country. He spies two teenagers making out and sees a beetle on the strewn pile of the female's clothes. The boy grabs the beetle, but the girl's sweater follows the beetle. Turns out it was a beetle-imaged brooch, a mere simulacrum of reality.) This is a fun thread to follow, and one that I think there is a lot to say about. And Naruse does say a good deal: the early cityscape pocked with walking suits is match cut to a jungle gym crawling with kids - the insidious nature of the city begins right away; the young protagonist is confronted numerous times by city bullies, only to conquer them each time (Naruse's real deal is opposition, I think) - the sincerity of the country wins against the facade of the city. Unfortunately, a strange side story develops involving a little girl and her infatuation/pet amusement with the boy. It's cute, but the aside involves some pretty insidious ideas. Naruse generally is concerned with the state of 30-something women, and he has a good thing going, but the utilitarian way in which this young girl uses the young boy debases what Naruse says about older women. That is, because the young girl is so callow and callous, she causes the viewer to reevaluate Naruse's M.O. concerning the poor treatment of women (i.e. is he not criticizing and instead just "showing?") I admit, this is a bit silly, and the point is probably just to show that relationships between males and females are difficult and screwed up from day one, but look at how far we've come from that nasty little piece about city v. country. Naruse had a great thing going there, and missed the mark a bit when he chose to stray from it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Short Cuts: January '06

d. Stanley Kubrick, 1962

The intro is most compelling, indeed; Peter Sellers' vocal-mimicry runs through the various stock characters of cinema, he attempts to create a sort of self-referential song, and a painting is shot through several times. The subject is art: its creation & destruction, and the difficulty of authenticity therein. Or so it would seem. The next two hours and twenty minutes masticate the blander parts of Nabokov's source material, steering clear of the lurid nature which makes the book so interesting. I do understand that Kubrick was working within a coded film industry, (kind of - he made this one in England) but surely he could have, I don't know, sped things up a bit so that the focus of the film had something to do with the novel. The aforementioned Sellers is fantastic as Clare Quilty, but practically everyone else is miscast. And any evidence of the ideas brought forth in the intro are lost to the bulk of the film. Disappointing.

March of the Penguins
d. Luc Jancquet, 2005

This goes quite beyond nature porn, stretching a 30 minute story into an 80 minute film. We're given far too many CU's of the penguins themselves: stare at the penguin's feet, look at its beak, gaze at its fur (feathers? skin? whatever). Now do it all again. I'm actually for this type of thing; the images of the animals are really interesting, allowing the viewer a for all intensive purposes complete visual understanding of the penguin. The big problem with the film, however, is the lack of science involved. A nature channel type documentary vibe would ruin the whole thing, but some simple identification would be nice. (For instance, we see a baby penguin attacked by some type of bird, and Morgan Freeman cites this as a predator of the animal, yet the bird is never ID'd. This is simple stuff, man.) Without any real knowledge gained, with the visuals waxing too much, I'm left with a feeling of what's-the-point?

The Notebook
d. Nick Cassavetes, 2004

I was biased from the start. I hate Gena Rowlands for what she's done posthumously to the work of her late husband, John Cassavetes. Post Love Streams, I have no sympathy for the woman. (Even though I dislike Ray Carney equally, go here for an explanation.) That taken into consideration, The Notebook is a hamfisted cheater of a film. For the first act, it falls into the traditional cliched class-stratified love story. She's rich, he's poor, &c. Then, toward the last part of the second act, the entire idea is dropped; anything or one keeping him from her (that's the M.O. this go 'round) is obliterated or pacified. Her only option, really, is to stay with him. But the pretense is upheld, and we get 15 more minutes of pseudo-will she/won't she dramatizing. Then, all the love between him and her that was built up in the preceding 1 3/4 hours is transferred to the couple, 50 years aged. Now, 1) it was a false love that consisted almost entirely of dry-humping, fire-stoking infidelity, and heated make-out sessions 2) James Garner and Gena Rowlands (playing the aged couple) don't really need all that, anyway. Their story is something else entirely, and the only redeeming part of the film. Consequently, I wanted a bit more of the sentimentality at the end and more understanding of why him and her loved each other so much. (Aside: there's a scene featuring James Garner and Gena Rowlands, their second to last together, that hints that Nick Cassavetes may have a little something of his father in him. Fun stuff.)

Punishment Park
d. Peter Watkins, 1971

Watkins' characters scream out against a polarized political climate, and both they and Watkins seem sincere, yet all we get is a portrait of this dichotomized landscape, and in terms that seem only to endorse the thing. Shot pseudo-doc, Punishment Park captures the workings of a Vietnam War-era, government instilled plan. That is, arrest the dissenters, draft-dodgers, uprisers, and long-haired, deny them habeas corpus, sentence them absurdly, and offer them, instead of 10-15 year sentence, 2 nights and 3 days in Punishment Park, where the cops pigs can get their ya-ya's out and the hippies are offered the illusion of choice. I write this largely from the perspective of the liberal dissenter only because the film is so clearly of that bent itself. Now, I tend to agree, politically, with the side that Watkins sympathizes, but such a slanted opinion is not great filmmaking. (Although I think Watkins would disagree, judging by his informative yet self-aggrandizing 30 minute introduction to the film.) It is a hard call to make, especially since we seem to be in a similar socio-political climate right now, but quiet moderation, not partisan shouting and name-calling, would have been the correct track for Watkins. (That is, assuming he wanted to affect some change of some sort, which, ibid. the director's intro, he did.) Furthermore, Watkins creation of the film was a sort of Stanford Prison Experiment, wherein each character had a role - really, just an opinion - and played that out against others. Even the credits read "militants," "semi-militants," "pacifists," etc. The characters, then, are to be read as simple ciphers, neither round nor deep. Yet there's something impressive about the film; the anger and frustration exacted from the viewer is rarely seen elsewhere, and the amount of thought I've put into this today must be worth something. The characters are ciphers, I think, because ciphers make a difficult problem easier to understand. Ultimately, Punishment Park is a valuable film, in that it demands reflection concerning the polarization found within the film, i.e. it requires to viewer to search himself for chauvinism as much as it itself is bi-chauvinistic, and the flaws within the film - the flaws that the viewer mulls over - are the medium by which this is accomplished .

Friday, December 23, 2005

Short Cuts: December '05

Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek
d. Jason Kulbel/Rob Walter, 2005

Interesting enough, I guess, if you're smitten with Bright Eyes, et al (I am), but hardly a film. Its entirety consists of self-congratulatory back-patting interviews with the various members of the Lumberjack/Saddle Creek entourage. We learn that Cursive's Tim Kasher is the reigning genius, Conor Oberst is the wunderkind brat, and Ted Stevens is the unsung hero of the Omaha scene, but we don't get at the meat of a documentary. That is, why do these people make music? What are they trying to do with their label? The auto-answer is that the point of it is the music. Well then: give us some music to listen to and watch: a desert of concert footage, etc and dry, self-aggrandizing interviews are just not the stuff - at least not in their entirety - of a good documentary.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Short Cuts: November '05

d. Ki-duk Kim, 2005

I do wish I understood a bit more about Buddhism, because I feel that it is at the heart of this film. (Certainly religion in general is central - enough portraits of spiritual figures, Jesus et al, are scattered about the mise-en-scene to hammer this home.) The sacred tone is compelling, though, even if one cannot understand the film. There's a bit in the middle where someone dies that leaves me perplexed - perhaps a misstep, or perhaps I just don't get it. The last 20 minutes are absolutely breathtaking.

A Very Long Engagement
d. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004

Golly, Jeunet has one of the most poetic visual styles working today. And he puts it to very good use here, contrasting the beauty of his shots to the often-times gritty, squalid subject matter. Unfortunately, the cheekiness of Amelie (which, in spite of the cheekiness, I loved) creeps in, debasing the gravity of certain otherwise perfect battle/war-time scenes. The character quirks also pile up and wax irritating, e.g. Mathilde's limp & her temporal ultimatums, e.g. if this film ends before the audience is sick of me, Maneche is alive. Regardless, Jeunet (and Audrey Tatou - if my fiancee didn't exist, I'd be in love) is in his element concerning the "love" bits. I think he wanted to make a love story, got caught up in the anti-war aspect, and still terminated at a love story. It would've worked better w/ less bathos, but a good, entertaining film regardless. (And I should mention that the labrynthine plot is enough to turn off most, but I loved it, if for nothing else than the simple fact that it refused to condescend the viewer.)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue
d. Sam Peckinpah, 1970

What the hell is going on here? Comedy punctuating pathos, culminating in a preacher/cassanova asking God & The Viewer (one in the same?) not to take Cable Hogue (both the character and the film) lightly. Needless to say, I loved it. One year after The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah drops the violence and does a character study. (Although it is really a nasty bit of fun how he toys with the audience from word go, blasting the guts out of a desert lizard - the only bit of blood in the film.) Toward the end, the idea of mechanization v. nature surfaces (via the tenor of an automobile, of course.) Before that, though, it's anyone's guess. I would say, if pressed, that this is about the American Dream. Hogue (Jason Robards, in a brilliant performance), while stranded in the desert, promises to God not do what he did before, "Whatever is was [he] did" if God will just send him some water. And water the Good Lord sends. In the form of an extremely lucrative spring along a wagon route. Whether Hogue does what he promised not to do or not (is that understandable enough? Whatever.), the viewer must hazard a guess, but it is clear that he - pretty much - forgets God. American ingenue, really. Cable Hogue finds what he asked God for, and then forgets God, rendering God obsolete and unnecessary amidst all that water and money. Basically: rags-to-riches. I'm sure there is a good deal more there, I just cannot grasp onto it w/ one viewing under my belt. Clearly there is a good deal more to the relationship between Hogue and God, and to the entrepeneurial nature of Cable. Weird thing though: strange bits of fx play - a winking/smiling five dollar bill, some fast motion camera action that seems more Chaplin than Peckinpah. I can't make heads or tails, but I did love the thing.

Dallas 362
d. Scott Caan, 2003

Did you know that Scott Caan is James Caan's son? I did not until, I don't know, a year or so ago. The likeness is undeniable. Ditto that cute, bravado swagger. Anyway, just thought I'd let you know.

Now, Scott Caan is very likeable actor. Very. Whether he's good/great/awful/mediocre/whatever is for you to decide, but he's certainly a likeable kid. Kid probably working as the great signifyer here. Kids make fun first films, full of technical flourishes - slo-mo, still shots, strange editing tricks: that kind of thing. And Dallas 362, like Pi, like Boondock Saints, like Reservoir Dogs, does not disappoint in the bravura category. And, as with the aforementioned, the technical experimentation nearly sinks Dallas 362. There's so much good stuff here - a really fantastic eponym, a real-life hetero male-to-male friendship, dissent in the face of convention - but the ugly bits - over-acting, unnecessary tangential characters, Jeff Goldblum - almost overshadow all of it. Thankfully, the film ends where it should end - in the capable arms of the friendship story, leaving a mostly satisfying taste in this viewer's mouth. Recommended with reservations - that is, watch out for the freshman hijinx.

d. Mike Leigh, 1993

Erudition is about as attractive as it gets, and Johnny here (David Thewlis) has it in spades enough to turn me gay. Johnny, in spite of all his intelligence, is a man attempting to talk his way out of fate, as if pollicating the shitty state of humanity enough times somehow renders one supercedent to that unfortunate cesspool. Leigh writes just as deftly as he directs, blending the aforementioned intelligence/wit with a deep-seated pathos. (Or is this another of those improv jobs? If so, Thewlis should be given a damn Gold College Freshman Philosophical Bullshitting/Fucking Over Award. That is, assuming such an honor exists. Which it probably does not, 'cause who in their right mind likes freshmen?) The result of Leigh's talent is a deeply depraved film - one in which humanity really isn't given much of a nice nod - wherein the characters dash away the pretense of "reality" and show, instead, the awful - many would argue "true" - nature of the world we live in.

d. Park Chan-wook, 2003

There are some absolutely glorious things going on with this film. Setpieces, originality of the story, fine acting. To say much at all would be to ruin the whole damn thing, so I'm gonna keep mostly mum on the plot points. I'll just get straight to my problem, and the reason I don't wholeheartedly proclaim this to be one of the absolute best films of the year. Rather than leaving the details for the reader to figure out, and rather than make them plausible enough to be figured out, Park - in reverse order here - shrouds the explanation in improbabilities, strong improbabilities, and didactially lays out the circumstances of those improbabilities. And that's really it. Now: I'm doing a bit of back-cover recitation here, but Park is clearly influenced by Hitchcock. And I like that. The general Korean action/suspense flick style works well with a Hitchcockian thing. Also: there's a good deal of philosophizing here, and I like that too. Questions pondered, with vague spoilers: what are the boundaries of love? If you could erase those boundaries, given the opportunity and impunity, would you? Are the weight values given to various crimes & sins in Western Society valid?

Ride the High Country
d. Sam Peckinpah, 1962

Elegy for the dear departed, i.e. the West. Peckinpah contrasts the "old-timers" (Joel McCrea & Randolph Scott - both phenomenal) against the "new-breed" (ostensibly, everyone else.) The only hopeful amongst the bunch - that is, a scion of hope for the future - is a would-be rapist who supposedly looks up these old-timers, i.e. this one isn't too terribly optimistic. At first blush, this seems in direct opposition to Peckinpah's later "masterpiece" (naturally, I beg to differ), The Wild Bunch, but here Peckinpah's dealing mainly with the ideas of loyalty and honor, ideas that - pretty much - are at work in the "old-timers" of The Wild Bunch. Standing for the new-breed is the town of Coarse Gold - get it? In one of the better scenes, an innocent woman (madonnas or whores, Sam, madonnas or whores) is married and proceeds to deal - immediately - with attempted rape from the bridegroom's brother, essentially by his consent. Here the harbingers of the future have ruined the future's future as well as fucking up tomorrow's affair. No clean marriage = no clean birthing = no cleanliness forever. Or something like that. But there's no plot, or at least not much of one, and a hurried ending that probably had something to do with the studio. I.E. ("I'm going i.e. crazy lately.") usual Peckinpah fare, wherein what might have been a masterpiece is mitigated - like a good, stiff gin & tonic - into a relatively innocuous, docile "good film."

Style Wars
d. Chalmant/Silver, 1983

I'd very much like to write a full-length review about this one, but I simply don't have the time right now. Suffice it to say that it's a fantastic anthropological study (although that sounds a bit too stuffy for the tone of the film) of an oft maligned/misunderstood subculture, that of the graffiti artist. Highlights include, foremost, the work of the artists - some of these pieces are simply stunning. The crux of the film is the way in which it catches the art at a transitional point, either dying or blooming. In hindsight, the moment turned out to be a bit of both. Here the movement is seen as a candle burning at both ends, threatened by high art (made apparent by a proper gallery showing of canvas medium facsimiles of the pieces originally displayed on train cars - missing the point entirely that, as McLuhan says to some extent, the medium is the message) and low art alike (here a crass hillbilly going by the handle of "Cap" whose m.o. is quantity over quality. Although a strong argument could be made for the fact that his form of tagging is equally valid.) Most striking is the eloquence of many of these artists - they have a mostly clear sense of what it is they're doing and why they're doing it and why it is, ultimately, art.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Short Cuts: September '05
Gates of Heaven
d. Errol Morris, 1978

What begins as an honest look at the Pet Cemetery business turns into an irreverent glance at the people behind the business (entrepreneurs and pet owners alike) and finally a becomes a serious gaze at life, love, and loss. The unifying aspect among Morris' subjects is a sense of belonging on account of their pets. (For the businessmen - and I do mean men, not a woman is found amidst - the unifier is chasing money and spirituality both, through what seems to be, at least for them, a venture combination of capitalism and spirituality.) Against Morris: his subjects aren't as compelling as he would like us to believe and the half tongue-in-cheek half solemn documentarian stance grows tiresome. On the whole, though, Gates of Heaven is a good film, and one that finds broad themes pertaining to all humanity where you wouldn't necessarily expect to find them.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Short Cuts: May '05

A Thousand Acres
d. Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1997

Revisionist Shakespeare. The entire conceit is problematic: flip King Lear, making Regan & Goneril (here Rose & Ginny, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange respectively) the 'good team' and Lear (here Larry Cook, Jason Robards) the bad guy. Whether it be a mistake in the novel (written by Jane Smile), the screenplay (Laura Jones), or the directing, one cannot reverse 400 years of evil by making the Lear character a child molestor. When Ginny's husband, in the last act of the film, throws just an inkling of shadow on the angelism of Ginny and Rose, I jump right then and there to believing his word as gospel. It seems that every "bitch" hurled at these women is well-deserved. Compounding this problem (which it seems the filmmakers were unaware of, at least if the film as it stands conforms in anyway to their ideal) is the fact that there is no real theme to speak of. Okay, incest is bad. Okay, families are tricky. Okay, life sucks. Why? What's the point? Excepting some choice moments by Pfeiffer and Robards, this is a terrible film all around. I strongly suggest avoiding it, especially if you have any respect for the original source material.

F for Fake
d. Orson Welles, 1974

There isn't a lot for me to say, as I'm still blown away by the geniuses of this film.

1. The editing genius of Welles.

We all knew he could work a camera, act, and direct, but this - this - is amazing. Really clever sound editing (bested only by The Conversation, at least as far as I know) and a visual track that's simultaneously symbolic, existential, tongue-in-cheek, "hanky-panky", and whimsical. Concomitantly serious and frivolous.

2. The geniuses within the film.

Fakes, forgers, and frauds, but - above all - geniuses. Welles shows himself foremost in creating a docu-something about an art forger, a book forger, and a...well...Howard Hughes. His (that is, Welles) trick is in creating an absolutely protean persona (rather: personae) that seems to be crying out for understanding while ensuring that this understanding can never be arrived at.

3. The genius of the idea.

Make a film about fakery whose form, content, and integrity are constantly on the verge of becoming falsified. The real genius is that in this film about fakery one gets closer to Welles than possible anywhere else. I get the sense that fakery is at the heart of Welles, and he hides behind it like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain and glowing face. Here the impish side of Welles, Toto-like, peels back the curtain for 88 minutes, revealing (in cryptic form, of course) the realized jigsaw puzzle that is Orson Welles. It is a strange film, definitely, but one well worth the time. Bogdanovich is spot-on in his intro on the Criterion disc when he says something to the effect of you have to let the film take you without you trying to decide its course. If you can do that, give it a spin.

d. Franco Zeffirelli, 1990

A mediocre adaptation marred by an inconsistent Hamlet (Mel Gibson), questionable editorial decisions, and a laughably bad staging of the final duel. Mel Gibson is sometimes engaging, particularly in moments of passion or when playing opposite another actor. His soliloquies, of which Hamlet has many, are more reminiscent of Theatre Arts 101 than the work of a professional actor (his 'to be or not be' speech, the one exception, hits some high notes toward its beginning.) Gibson also missteps in those pivotal early scenes, wherein Hamlet feigns madness and toys with Polonius. Hamlet's supposed madness, in the hands of Gibson, becomes actual madness, as if both Mel & Zeffirelli missed the intention of the play. Later on when Hamlet mentions his sometimes-madness to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, claiming it as feigned, it seems - rather than a substantial explanation - a contradiction. In the editorial choices - which of the original material to exclude - Zeffirelli, et al eliminate any semblance of Hamlet's extraordinary intelligence and balance, leaving him as a character driven solely by passion and revenge. The film is entertaining enough, and certainly not a waste of time, but - especially in relation to the source material - it little more than an occasionally engaging film without much soul.

The King is Alive
d. Kristian Levring, 2001

Those crazy danes [insert pseudo-recriminating finger-wagging that leads to that totally unfunny arms akimbo "you naughty boys" look.] Admittedly, the plot is ludicrous: a passenger bus full of tourists (and surprisingly devoid of a toilet) breaks down in the middle of the desert. One tourist leaves to get help, the remaining pass the time (sex helps, of course.) Being a dogme film, the usual hyperbole is a non-issue - no vultures, no "this is my last match, if I screw this up we don't have fire" moments, no fending off bad guys. What we're given though (and it is a mighty improvement) is Shakespeare. Namely, King Lear. The ersatz thespians take a crack at Lear, using a recalled script from a former actor, now Hollywood script-reader among the destitute. The film devolves toward the end, the nadir being a man peeing on a dying woman out of spite. (Are you sure it wasn't LvT who directed this?) Before that, though, things are pretty interesting. The parallels drawn between the characters and those found in King Lear are spot-on and Levring realizes (unlike most) that Lear is about much more than insanity and old age. Levring instead focuses on the "nothing" of the play, i.e. the subtraction/destruction of societal order and the vacuousness left over when all is said and done. These people are walking shells; one sarcastically says, "We're on holiday," getting it, but not quite, that this is about as far from a holiday as one can get. Solid execution of theme, really fun digital cinematography, and (more or less) a good plot.

The Man from Laramie
d. Anthony Mann, 1955

Much to my chagrin (mostly because of the 2 day turnaround @ Netflix and the dwindling amount of time left for me to complete my finals project for English), the assertions that The Man from Laramie has Learish themes is a little overblown. If anything from Shakespeare's play, it resembles the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund storyline. I'm sorry: going blind from age does not even remotely equal going insane from being betrayed by your two daughters, whom you gave the world to. Luckily, it wasn't an entire waste of time. Even though I kept waiting for the Lear (which, I imagine, lessened the impact of the film as - you know - a film), Mann's flick was far from disappointing. It is a western by coincidence, focusing - rather than on the banalities of western life - on timeless ideas. Alec Waggoman is a man who wants to maintain the integrity of his ranch (i.e. his kingdom - ok, I guess that is sort of like King Lear, but it strikes me as coincidental. If it is the author's intent to conjure Lear, it is only a passing homage - a point of reference - and not a thematic foundation for the film.) Waggoman clearly wants immortality, for his life's work to live long after he ceases to. His son - capricious like all young bucks - wants pleasure, now. He wants to make his own fortune, but - and this is the rub - he cannot do it without his daddy's money. Naturally, people die. Jimmy Stewart (as the outsider) acts as a catalyst, setting this tragic series of events (not Lear tragic, asshole) into motion. It's nice as a change - instead of wagon teams and homesteaders and shoot-outs and sunsets and town drunks and cattle drives and Injuns and John Wayne and John Ford and hangings and liquor and ten-gallon hats we get this: a pitiful old man, going blind and grasping at straws.

Scotland, PA
d. Billy Morrissette, 2001

It isn't a very good film - it succumbs too often to low humor, which results in a nasty bit of bathos - but Scotland, PA is at least somewhat interesting for the trend it signifies. Since Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho in 1991, Shakespeare has become, for lack of a better word, cool. Dropping lines verbatim (Intolerable Cruelty, Elephant), cribbing significant plot points (The Lion King), and adapting the Elizabethan English or locale out of the film (Scotland, PA, "O", William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet) have all become accepted and admired forms of acknowledging the influence of Shakespeare. Scotland, PA is one of the less successful of these, hampered by bad acting (everyone except Chris Walken) and a general low-budget aura (not the good kind, either.) Nonetheless, the idea of adapting Macbeth to a hamburger joint in 1970's Pennsylvania is inherently clever and provides the film with some solid moments (Duncan's death by deep fryer being the most of these.) Remarkably, the original plot is kept largely intact, which, if nothing else, makes it fun to go through and notice the di-/convergences.