Greenberg, Chicago (1927), and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Talking Out of Frame:
One of my favorite films so far this year has been Noah Baumbach's Greenberg. An oddly compelling portrait of a misanthrope and the Florence Nightingale that gets involved with him, it's a film where soul and intelligence are at odds, seeking a middle ground where they can get along. Jason Bailey is also a fan, and he takes a look at the film on Blu-ray: "Greenberg is a very smart movie, and a very tricky one--it is not, as we might suspect from its ads, merely another tale of an introvert who has lost his way, and is brought to his senses by the love of a good woman (cue the Garden State comparisons). It is more complicated than that--Roger Greenberg is not a loveable loner, nor an amusing malcontent. He's got real problems, and they manifest themselves in ways that are not easy to get past. Florence is warned that Roger was recently released from a mental hospital, and we slowly piece together his back story; a good decade and a half ago, he was in a pop band, and he was the lone holdout when they were offered a record deal. In the years that followed, he moved to New York and went adrift. 'Right now,' he tells an old girlfriend, 'I'm really trying to do nothing.' She replies, 'That's a brave choice at our age.'
"That girlfriend is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, wife of writer/director Baumbach; she's also credited with co-producing and co-writing the story. She only appears in two scenes, but they're good ones, sticky and truthful. Particularly memorable is a painful coffee meeting between her and our protagonist--he's clearly angling to get back in her life, but as they talk, she's long forgotten even broad outlines of their time together, to say nothing of the specific details he keeps mentioning. It's a relatable but wince-inducing scene, made even more painful by her blunt, immediate response when he takes the next step and asks her out on a date.
"Her cold reception is a bit of a relief, as the film seems in danger of setting up a dull, familiar love triangle subplot; Baumbach has nothing so standard on his mind. He's more interested in exploring the hit-and-run dynamic of Gerwig and Stiller's characters; as the story begins, she seems a bit of a flake, and we're not sure how strong her judgment is when she fools around with him during what must be one of the more awkward first dates ever committed to celluloid. Baumbach's intelligent screenplay doesn't make it easy for them--or for us, inasmuch as his peculiar flashes of temper and seeming insistence on being troublesomely mean to her doesn't exactly set up the kind of rooting interest we've come to expect from our cinematic would-be romances. But the nuanced script puts the onus for the relationship on her, and when she mumbles, at a particularly vulnerable moment, 'You like me so much more than you think you do,' we know she's right.
"The script contains some of Baumbach's most quotable dialogue since his debut film, the incomparable Kicking and Screaming (no, no, not the shitty Will Ferrell movie). When asked how he's doing, Roger responds, 'I'm fair-to-middling. Leonard Maltin would give me two and a half stars.' When Ifans accuses him of 'pulling a Gatsby' by staying inside at his own impromptu pool party, Roger muses, 'I don't know that I need to document the reasons this isn't a Gatsby.' And when holding court with a group of twentysomethings at a party, he insists, 'I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting up with one of you in a job interview.' But Roger doesn't get all the good lines, either; Baumbauch is the rare male writer whose women are perhaps more interesting than his men. His screenplay also takes some risks--he's trying all sorts of interesting ideas and unusual approaches. Not all of them work, but the ones that do pay off in spades."
One could only hazard a guess what Burt Lancaster's character from The Leopard would make of Roger Greenberg. Suffice to say, it wouldn't be good. Stuart Galbraith IV writes of the new Criterion Blu: "The greatness of Luchino Visconti's film of The Leopard (1963) isn't easily described. Even in its restored, three-hour and five-minute Italian version not very much happens: a 19th century Sicilian nobleman becomes involved in a nephew's marriage to the daughter of a newly-moneyed mayor. But most of the drama is internalized, as the nobleman tries to come to terms with his eroding power in the face of Italy's democratic unification. Though almost unbelievably opulent, there's no sweeping action in the usual Samuel Bronston roadshow sense.
"Where the film comes alive is in its central performance by Burt Lancaster, which in this Criterion presentation is offered two different ways: with the actor's voice dubbed into Italian (with an aristocratic, Sicilian accent) and supported by English subtitles in its complete 185-minute version, and with Lancaster's own voice in the 161-minute English-language version. Frustratingly, neither is completely satisfying, though his performance, said to be Lancaster's personal favorite, unexpectedly comes through (and is even better) in the Italian-dubbed version.
"But the film's truly awesome achievement is its extraordinary recreations of aristocratic 19th century Sicily. The Leopard reportedly cost $3 million (20th Century-Fox co-financed its production) but it easily looks five times that. The extraordinary costuming, lighting, set design/decoration, and cinematography are like sprawling period canvases come to life. The film's influence on Stanley Kubrick (for his aborted Napoleon and later, Barry Lyndon) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Part II, etc.) is obvious."
Aonther opulent Criterion re-release on Blu-Ray is the Powell and Pressburger melodrama Black Narcissus, reviewed by Adam Tyner: "Fascinated -- or at least, briefly distracted -- by Christianity and Western civilization, an aging Indian general (Esmond Knight) decides on a whim to convert a crumbling harem into a proper school and dispensary to be staffed by five British nuns. Led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the youngest Sister Superior in their order, they struggle to educate and care for an exotic people wholly disinterested in what Christianity in general and this group of nuns in particular have to offer. Even a fellow countryman (David Farrar) sneers at what he sees as a futile attempt at trying to impose their culture onto a people they fundamentally don't understand. With little experience to speak of, these five nuns are forced to rely purely on their faith to guide them, and even that is sorely tested as they're pitted against their impossible task and the hypnotic thrall of this mountainous, achingly beautiful stretch of India." "
Adam goes on to note that the film was released at a time when India was transitioning into independence, and as such, not unlike The Leopard, the film carries a political load with its narrative: "This is a film in part about the West's fundamental lack of understanding about the very different cultures they seek to overtake. However, with a couple of notable exceptions, the most prominent Indians are played by British actors buried under mounds of thick brown makeup, and this adds -- perhaps unintentionally -- to the layer of satire prevalent throughout Black Narcissus. The film deftly juggles its more melodramatic moments with a smirklingly satirical sense of humor, with brief flickers of comedy accentuating the drama rather than deflating it.
Black Narcissus is an astonishingly beautiful film, earning two well-deserved Academy Awards for its art direction and cinematography. The entrancing beauty of India isn't merely a backdrop -- it's one of the driving forces of the story and very much a character in its own right, largely to blame for the mental unraveling of the nuns. Black Narcissus does an outstanding job conveying the colossal scope and natural majesty of the Himalayas, and it's all the more impressive that this was accomplished through matte paintings, forced perspective, and an incomparable visual eye, with virtually every last frame of the film shot on a British soundstage. The three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff continues to mesmerize more than six decades later, and despite the great strength of Black Narcissus' incisive script and outstanding performances, it would have been an almost unrecognizably different film without his talents. The craftsmanship behind Black Narcissus' ambitious visuals is nothing less than staggering. Despite the many years that have passed since the film was first produced, its visual effects work doesn't look dated in the slightest, and the matte paintings hold up marvelously under the scrutiny of this revealing high definition presentation."
It seems to be a summer for brilliant restorations, and Flicker Alley brings us Chicago: The Original 1927 Film Restored.
Long before Renee Zellweger was singing and dancing her way into an Oscar nomination, the character of Roxie Hart was scandalizing stage and screen alike with her delusions of fame and her way with a gun. The modern musical Chicago went all the way back to 1926 for its source material--a non-musical play by Maurine Watkins, who had been a journalist reporting on female murderers when she got the idea for her tale of tabloid journalism and Jazz Age virtue. A hit of its time, Chicago was ideal fodder for early Hollywood. Though most people might be more familiar with Ginger Rogers's 1942 bow as the homicidal flapper, Roxie Hart first sparkled on the silver screen in 1927 in a Cecil B. DeMille production. It's a film that was thought to be lost for a long time, until an intact print was found in DeMille's archives in 2006. Now, Flicker Alley has put together the two-disc Chicago: The 1927 Film Restored, and silent film fans can finally cast their eyes on the movie that started a tradition.
The story should be familiar to most filmgoers. The blonde seductress Roxie Hart, here played by Phyllis Haver, has been two-timing her good-natured husband Amos (Victor Varconi). Roxie is a true gold digger, and Amos's empty pockets don't turn the girl on any longer. She has been having an affair with a moneyed businessman, Rodney Casely (gravel-voiced character actor Eugene Pallette), and when Casely tries to drop her, Roxie shoots him. The district attorney (Walter Richmond) is more than ready to string the murderess up, but a reporter (T. Roy Barnes) sees a way to milk the case and sell some papers. He dubs Roxie "the Jazz Slayer" and plasters her pretty face on the front page. A celebrity is born!
Though there are some scenes with Roxie in the hoosegow, including a knock-down-drag-out catfight, this version of Chicago isn't as concerned with the jailhouse sirens as the more famous Broadway version. Velma Kelly appears briefly (depicted by Julian Faye), but once the lawyer William Flynn (Robert Edeson) enters the scene, Chicago becomes all about Roxie's trial. Flynn demands a steep fee, and Amos is forced to less-than-savory action to gather it. A big difference between this version of the movie and later incarnations is how much more of a participant Amos is. He is the closest we get to a sympathetic hero in the movie: he knows Roxie is a liar, he knows his love is wrong, but he is forced to stand by her. On the other hand, Roxie is not a very likable character. She's not even charming. The girl is rotten through and through. Which isn't to knock Haver, she's actually excellent playing the shallow schemer. So excellent, in fact, part of the fun of this early rendition is rooting for the temptress to get her just desserts.
While Roxie Hart may have been a woman of her time, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert tells the story of one who is out of sync with her time. Apparently the original title of Red Desert was actually Pale Blue and Green. These are the colors of nature, and by their nature, the most soothing stripes on the rainbow. They suggest order, rightness, and calm. Though the title has a basis within the narrative--Monica Vitti's character, Giuliana, is considering them both for the interior of her proposed ceramics store, a safe haven she is creating for herself--the phrase didn't have the effect on audiences the director felt was required. Red Desert was more evocative. It is incendiary and barren.
Giuliana is a wife and mother. She is married to Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), a manager at an industrial factory, and their boy (Valeria Bartoleschi) is of kindergarten age. The Italian town where they live is reliant on the manufacturing plants it is built around, but as with any aspect of progress, the move forward comes at a price. Not only is there strife within the citizenry (we are presented with the dual problems of a worker's strike as well as there not being enough able-bodied men around), but it also creates a tremendous burden on the local ecology. For every good thing these factories presumably make, they also dump waste into the environment. On one side of a tree line there are the bustling signs of creation, on the other destruction and decay.
This is Giuliana's problem, as well. She is a woman at odds with herself. She was in a car accident that nearly killed her, and despite some recuperation time in the hospital, she has never been quite right since. There is something just a little off about her. Monica Vitti, who also starred in Antonioni's breakthrough pictures L'avventura and L'eclisse, avoids playing Giuliana as "crazy," but instead portrays her as a bundle of raw neuroses. She has the appearance of never being comfortable where she is, but also not knowing where else to go. She chews her nails, hides in her hair, and at any time looks like she is either going to cry or fall asleep.
Though Antonioni appears to be painting with the same opaque brush throughout, anyone who understands paint knows there is no one color that is "white." There is no single, definitive "red." Antonioni's film is both narratively and visually complex. His sets are full of codes. Colors and shapes signal shifts in the psychological landscape as much as a torn-up field points out the side-effects of industry. When Giuliana finally makes a run for it, the hull of the ship she means to board is painted blood red--blood being both life and death and the confusion being which the ship offers. Shortly after, Giuliana sees yellow smoke belching from the stacks at her husband's workplace, and she tells her son it is poison. The color is another signal; the quarantine flag on the contaminated ship was also yellow. Yet, can we be sure the smoke is really yellow, or is that her perception? Did the sight of the red ship mark the border of her delusion, and she has now crossed over in the same way the fog drew a line between her and the "healthy" ones? There would be precedence for this, since Antonioni has already used sound as an outer expression of what is inside his heroine. Vittorio Gelmetti's electronic music for the film is unsettling, arising at times when Giuliana is the most discombobulated with the intention of drawing the viewer into her state of mind. Why shouldn't we be privy to her vision, as well?
Giuliana suffers from a modern disease, and there are a lot of those going around. Aaron Beierle writes about one when he reviews the documentary Collapse. "Collapse is a horror film about what we face in our daily lives. The documentary, from American Movie director Chris Smith, looks into the life of Michael Ruppert, an older man who has been an investigative journalist but who has also had ties to the CIA, both in terms of his family (while working for the LAPD, it was discovered that he had a stunning level of clearance due to the connection to his father) and in terms of his personal life (he talks about the result of finding out about the CIA's connection to drug smuggling in the '80s, which is how director Chris Smith found him - he was seeking a film on that subject, and got one on another.)
"The film is broken into different pieces. The first portion of the film takes a look into oil, as Ruppert discusses the decline in major oil fields - especially in Saudi Arabia (which is discussed in massive detail in Twilight in the Desert, the book by Matt Simmons) and the realities of Iraq (one of the first actions of the Bush administration was to create an energy committee looked over by VP Cheney; when minutes were finally released, it became clear that the task group's mission was to discuss the potential oil in Iraq) and the oil the country would offer.
"The second half of the film looks into the economic mess, which Ruppert predicted a few years in advance. Starting with the discussion of an increasingly debased fiat currency and an economy that requires infinite growth - infinite growth that cannot be sustained, especially without infinite resources and without an infinite capacity for debt. Countries are slowly beginning to crumble - states in the US are insolvent, Greece and other European countries are in serious trouble, etc. Ruppert works up to a number of conclusions, with the decline of oil leading to a possibly significant decline in population, given that the population growth since the start of widespread use of oil has been parabolic. The FDIC will be insolvent (it already is.) There will be shortages. Don't run for the hills because you will not be the first one with that idea. In the update included in the DVD, Ruppert talks about posting on the film's facebook page that certain cities in the US were turning off streetlights to save money, and got responses that other cities in other countries were doing the same. Ruppert does offer suggestions on how best to cope with what he views as an inevitable, difficult and possibly long transition for society.
"Additionally, what also gradually comes out of the film, bit-by-bit, is a portrait of a fascinating individual, who has seen difficulty and sadness (Ruppert becomes saddened by the 'No one could have ever seen this coming's from the government and media regarding the financial mess, when he and others were screaming about it in advance.) He tries, convincingly, to keep up hope and find light in simple things. Finally, the movie ends with an engaging story that illustrates Ruppert's quest. Overall, Collapse is a haunting, quite sober film that ranks alongside such documentaries as Fog of War."
Another country known for political turmoil has a different, more personal light shone on it in Close-Up, the latest Criterion from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Coincidentally, the 1990 film also looks at the effect film cameras might have on actual lives. Close-Up is the story of Hossein Sabzian, a print maker who convinces a middle-class family in Tehran that he is filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Makhmalbaf is a renowned Iranian director, at the time best known for his 1987 film The Cyclist. The fact that the identity Sabzian adopts is that of an actual person is one of the many layers that Kiarostami, who also wrote and edited Close-Up, overlaps to obscure the separations between fiction and documentary. Hossein Sabzian is even the actor's real name, and when we finally do see the real Makhmalbaf, they really do look alike. Which probably helped when he actually did pretend to be him once upon a time. Because, oh yeah, this is based on true events.
The film opens up on a bumbling sting operation, where a reporter (Hassan Farazmand, also playing himself, as everyone in the film does) leads two police officers into the Ahankhah home to nab the alleged con man. This kick-off introduces Close-Up as a narrative construct, albeit a Neorealistic one. From a writing point-of-view, it starts with a bang, as it does drop us right down into the action--though not a typical crime movie bang. It's more of a criminal whimper, with Sabzian being carted off in a taxi cab by the arresting officers while Farazmand runs around looking for someone who can loan him a tape recorder so he can record the forthcoming interrogation. Woodward and Bernstein this guy ain't.
Only in the second sequence does Kiarostami introduce the notion of Close-Up as faux documentary/docudrama. Having read Farazmand's magazine article about the story, Abbas Kiarostami himself shows up at the police station to try to gain access to the faker. He wants to film Sabzian's trial, and Close-Up follows the steps he takes to get permission, first talking to the meek criminal and then seeking permission from the presiding judge. Kiarostami also interviews the family members who fell victim to Sabzian's scheme, whatever that may have been. That's something they hope to figure out at trial.
I hesitate to call the more traditional dramatic scenes "re-enactments," because essentially the entire film is a re-enactment. Sabzian did pretend to be a famous director, and the Ahankhahs were the intended victims, such as they were. Close-Up is not quite real, not quite fake--almost literally surreal in how it stands apart. It's like a distant cousin to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation in that you really don't want to know what is truth and what is invention, what is technique and theory and what simply is.
Also from 1990 and also dealing with cultural change in a politically volatile country is the Chinese film Black Snow, an import of which was reviewed by Thomas Spurlin: "Some time after the collapse of the Cultural Revolution in China, the lead character in Black Snow, Li Huiquan, has been released from a labor camp. He returns home with a knapsack and an underdeveloped education, vowing (non-verbal to us, but obvious) to stray from the life of crime that crippled his youth. Only 24, he hasn't had the chance to live much of a life outside of the loosely-threaded crime syndicate he operated within, never even having a chance to lose his virginity. As he returns to 'normal' life, he mans a clothing stand that rides the line between honest work and treading over into the black market, seeing many faces from his past through his everyday routine of peddling shoes, smoking to vast degrees, and holing up after-hours in a colorful music-filled nightclub. With societal stagnancy around every corner, the grasp of criminal activity begins to slowly pull him back into the life he lived before imprisonment.
"Directed by Beijing Film Academy vice president Xie Fei, this 'slice of life' piece from 1990 embodies a truthful illustration of post-Cultural Revolution life in Beijing amid the Tiananmen Square protests, while also reflecting on the inadvertent latency of societal rejection. As we watch the wispy smoke swirl around Li Huiquan -- aka Quanzi -- within the lounge where he unwinds, we gather a sense of his disconnect with the world around him. It's only in his interaction with his old 'buddies,' term used loosely, that he lights up a bit; he tries to obtain a form of forgiveness from a guy he roughed up at a young age, by handing him fistfuls of cash and free clothing, while reluctantly meeting with a sleazy bootlegger trying to rope him back into a life of illegal activity. And, in one of the film's darker, more pointed sequences, Quanzi gets wrapped up in an alcohol-fueled brawl that leads to an act of life-altering violence, something against his well-established reform.
"As compelling or emotionally stirring as the premise seems, and as accurate of an essence it ensnares about Quanzi's post-camp reintegration, Black Snow isn't, in itself, an attention-grabbing motion picture. We spent a lot of time staring into Quanzi's eyes as he, by interpretation, reflects on the life he's lost by being imprisoned. He coolly but observably stares at a female lounge singer, listening to the lyrics sang by this innocent-sounding girl -- over and over, which grows tiresome -- while being transported to flashbacks of his childhood. One glimmer of that reflection strikes an expressive chord, yet it's the persistent glances at Quanzi's forlorn smoking that can grow tiresome. Xie Fei incorporates multihued cinematography to give these sequences personality, capturing the late-'80s aesthetic well within off-and-on shots between twilight and daytime, yet they lack the verve needed to distinguish them through the cloud of cigarette smoke."
More European intrigue is to be had in the 1981 Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle The Professional. Stuart Galbraith IV describes it as "...a violent, clever, funny, and very sexy French spy thriller..It just dazzles. Based on Patrick Alexander's novel Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal...the story opens in the kangaroo federal court of Malagawi, a fictional African country, and obviously also a former French colony. (Unlike most thrillers set in fictional African nations, this one is entirely believable.) French secret agent Josselin 'Joss' Beaumont (Belmondo) is on trial after attempting to assassinate Idi Amin-esque President Njala (Pierre Saintons). Doped up during the trial, Beaumont is quickly convicted and begins a life sentence of hard labor.
"Beaumont eventually escapes and two years later returns to Paris - the very week Njala is due for a state visit. But Beaumont's former colleagues aren't too happy to hear the news. After ordering him to Malagawi, the political winds abruptly shifted and the French government decided they needed the ruthless military dictator after all: Beaumont's own people helped facilitate his capture. 'We sold him out,' complains one colleague. 'No,' says another, 'We gave him away.' Later on the reason is subtly revealed: Njala's in town to negotiate French access to Malagawi's oil reserves in exchange for nuclear technology.
"The at times ingenious script by Michel Audiard and director Georges Lautner carefully sets up parallel stories that come together for the exciting climax: Beaumont's determination to carry out the assassination of Njala while avoiding his own agency's efforts to bring him in and perhaps kill him. His pursuers include world-weary one-time friend Valeras (Michel Beaune), mistress Alice Ancelin (Cyrielle Clair), and ruthless Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who's like Tatsuya Nakadai's saucer-eyed psychopath up against Toshiro Mifune's Yojimbo.
"From beginning to end, The Professional infuses familiar situations in a genre all but dead by 1981 with great style and enormously satisfying inventiveness. More Harry Palmer than James Bond, the film is deeply cynical about the spy game, even more so than famous examples such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."
Sounds like fun, as does the animated film A Town Called Panic, reviewed by Bill Gibron: "There was a time when the artform known as stop-motion animation was more or less dead. Unless your name was Rankin and/or Bass, or you had a limited F/X budget via which to render your 'money' shots, the handheld, one frame at a time process was useless to you. Oh sure, artists like Tim Burton and Henry Selick successfully resurrected the idea a few decades back, bringing to life the stellar stories of The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride, and Coraline, but unless you were trying to render your reality on the cheap, you didn't dare fly in the face of Harryhausen and his muse. Luckily, foreign filmmakers like Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier have been bucking the trend while making the irresistibly nutzoid TV show Panique au village. Translated as A Town Called Panic, it was a massive hit after appearing on screens worldwide in 2000. Now, ten years later, the pair responsible are bring the crazy characters and speedball silliness to the full length motion picture format. As usual, not only does the upgrade favor A Town Called Panic, it is guaranteed to jumpstart a whole new cult of converts.
"Toy pieces Cowboy, Indian, and Horse all live in the tiny village of Panic. Their neighbors include Policeman, Postman, farmer Steven, his wife Janine, their brood of pigs, cows, and chickens, as well as equine music teacher Madam Longray and her assistant Simon. When Cowboy and Indian mistakenly order 50 million bricks in order to build a birthday barbeque for Horse, they set off a chain of events that see their house destroyed, their efforts to rebuild it thwarted, and the discovery of some thieves from a parallel universe under the sea. In the meantime, Madam Longray is concerned about Horse. Though he's promised to attend her school and learn piano, he has so far failed to make a single lesson.
"A Town Called Panic is the cinematic definition of a hoot. It's a high energy goof, a nonstop homage to silent film comedy, kid's imagination, and plucky playthings, all accented with a surrealism all its own. It's Toy Story without the wistful adult nostalgia - or Pixar's pristine CG design. As the brainchild of Belgian artists Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, it's the kind of perverse puppetoon anarchy that both references and reinvents the genre it is working within."
The Danish crime film Terribly Happy has quirks on par with A Town Call Panic, and ones that Jason Bailey was charmed by: "Henrik Ruben Ganz's Terribly Happy begins with a horrible story of a two-headed cow, and how it drove a small village insane before they took it down to the bog. Turns out they take a lot of their problems to the bog in this town. "This story is based on true events," ends the opening voice-over. God I hope they're kidding.
"One of the dangers of taking in as many movies as I do is that you become so immune to the formulas and structures, you can figure out the general direction that most films are going. If you give Terribly Happy nothing else, you must give it this: you do not know what's coming next. It begins as something like Hot Fuzz but played straight--Copenhagen cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) has been reassigned to the sleepy hamlet after an accident on the job ('I did something terrible,' is about all he'll say on it), and fails immediately at fitting in. In those early scenes, Ganz exhibits a squirrely sense of pace and place, scoring a few easy laughs while simultaneously building a Lynchian atmosphere of intangible dread. Hansen visits a shop but finds that the shopkeeper has disappeared; 'The way people disappear here,' a passing woman begins to stay, and then stops herself. 'I'd better not say more.'
"...the rest of the picture unwinds with precision and smooth, unfaltering logic. The unfamiliar locations and foreign tongues discombobulate us at first, but Ganz is clearly riffing on modern dusty thrillers like Red Rock West; indeed, in its stylish photography and clockwork storytelling, it's like a Danish Blood Simple, but with enough dark humor and well-earned thrills that, yes, it did remind me of Hitchcock (particularly in one unforgivably frightening moment on a staircase)."
Another life nearly stifled by social and domestic restraint is examined in Tom Ford's remarkable A Single Man. This film is a beautiful and delicate thing, unlike anything I've seen from this year's crop of productions. It is an artful, soulful, emotional piece of filmmaking, a character study that is deeply personal and yet also examines a whole subculture and a specific time period. It's about being gay and yet also just about being a living, breathing, loving human being.
Colin Firth stars in A Single Man as George, an English professor at a small Southern California college in 1962. An older gentleman, George is a homosexual with a bit of a drinking problem, as well as some undefined health issues that make each new day a surprise just as much as his personal grief makes it a chore. George lost his long-term life partner Jim (Matthew Goode, Watchmen) in a car accident sometime in the past. Recent enough to sting, but maybe long enough for others to think he should get over it. George doesn't want to get over it, and on this particular Friday at the end of November, he's planning to make that a final decision. George is planning to commit suicide.
A Single Man is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, the co-writer on the movie The Loved One and the author whose stories inspired Cabaret. His tale here is one of those stories that places its character in a pocket of time where all horizon lines point to a single moment. The air around George seems to bend as he moves, creating a bubble that others can see and some even venture to pierce. He meets a Spanish hustler (model Jon Kortajarena) outside a liquor store, and the young man picks up on the older man's despair, even as George ignores the possible irony of the scene being framed by a giant advertisement for Psycho. Likewise, a pretty young student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult from the BBC's Skins) suddenly takes an extra interest in his teacher, even though George can't figure out why. (And some obfuscation from Ford makes even the audience wonder if Kenny isn't up to something.) Little kids and dogs look at George funny, too. Everything reminds him of Jim, and thus everything reminds him that he wants to die.
The name Tom Ford may sound familiar. That's because he is a famous fashion designer. For his first foray into film, he isn't content to just direct, but he's also one of the producers on A Single Man and he co-wrote it with David Scearce, another first-timer. For a couple of movie virgins, they sure seem to know what they are doing. A Single Man is a breathtaking, ambitious artistic achievement. I suppose one shouldn't be surprised that Ford, who comes from an industry where an attention to minute details is required, would be so observant of the finer things. His recreation of the early 1960s is exacting down to the most minor facet, from the music to the clothes to the tin box George's aspirin comes in. He uses color and lighting for an emotional effect, bringing the lighting up and down based on George's mood. A little girl (Ryan Simpkins) or the sudden appearance of Kenny literally brightens his day, like Ford has put a dimmer on the character's life.
Flashier, but also literary minded, is Saint John of Las Vegas. Brian Orndorf writes: "It's fairly lofty screenwriting ambition to rework Dante's Inferno into a modern comedy about insurance fraud investigation, and it's a shame Saint John of Las Vegas just isn't determined enough to sell the madness, spending a measly 75 minutes to work its way around primo psychological real estate. It's a black comedy with a few exceptional scenes, but never gels together convincingly, making the artistic swing for the fences more of a quiet disappointment than a captivating leap of faith.
"John (Steve Buscemi) is an insurance company drone looking for a step up in pay and responsibility. Assigned by his boss (Peter Dinklage) to join hard-nosed Virgil (Romany Malco) on a trip to Las Vegas to investigate a fraudulent claim on a wrecked automobile made by a stripper named Tasty D Lite (Emmanuel Chriqui), John's eyes are opened to the realities of insurance inquiry. Meeting a series of eccentric characters (including John Cho and Tim Blake Nelson) on the way to the car in question, John finds his suppressed itch for gambling flaring up again, while working out an uncomfortable relationship with Jill (Sarah Silverman), a claim operator he's recently started having sex with, to his great surprise.
"Ambitious is a great word to describe Saint John of Las Vegas. Writer/director Hue Rhodes has assembled an intriguing ode to the fallacy of luck and the dangers of temptation for his feature-film debut. For the majority of its screentime, the picture puts up a decent fight, staging properly awkward scenes for John to test his mettle in the face of overwhelming frustration with bully/co-worker Virgil, and the sinister allure of gas station scratch-offs, which impede his fight to retain a 'normal' life as an insurance industry employee. However, there's nothing normal about the journey John undertakes from New Mexico to Nevada, on a quest to carry out his duty without upsetting his eroded sense of accomplishment."
Chris Neilson reviews our next feature: Rembetiko: "Greek filmmaker Costa Ferris's 1983 feature Rembetiko is one part national epic, one part populist melodrama, and one part musical showcase. Through a highly-fictionalized biography of folk singer Marika Ninou (1922-1957), Rembetiko follows the fortunes of Greece from the evacuation from Asia Minor of more than a million resident Greeks in 1922 following the nation's defeat in the Greko-Turkish War, through the Axis occupation in World War II, and the subsequent civil war.
"Marika (played as an adult by Sotiria Leonardou) is the daughter of itinerant musicians who fled to the slums of mainland Greece from Asia Minor following the Greko-Turkish War. While still a young girl, she sees her drunken father pimp her mother and then kill her when she falls for her John. Orphaned following the arrest of her father, she follows an equally calamitous path. Taking up with a traveling performer who abandons her when she gives birth to a daughter, Marika goes from one misery to another before she herself is senselessly murdered in 1957.
"As national epic and populist melodrama, Rembetiko isn't very successful. The sense of national epic is conveyed through vintage archival footage and poorly-produced scenes of too-few local extras in ill-fitting Nazi uniforms blundering through street scenes as best they can, while the populist melodrama about the sad life of Marika Ninou relies on overdone emoting, pandering salaciousness, and contrived plot elements to paint its woebegone tale that bares little resemblance to truth. Where Rembetiko shines though is as musical showcase for Rebetiko (also known as Rebetiko) music. Referred to as the 'Greek Blues,' this amalgam of diverse musical forms springs from the urban slums of Greece. Songs of exile, poverty, violence, heartache, drugs and drink are sung with accompaniment by a troupe of stone-faced musicians playing the bouzouki, baglamas, oud, violin, and tambourine, sitting stiffly on a small stage before a cafe audience of equally down-and-out patrons."
One would never call a Yasujiro Ozu film epic, but the family dramas on the Criterion twofer The Only Son/There Was a Father do take on a higher importance in their direct relation of human emotion. The Only Son was Ozu's first sound film and the 1936 film spins a quiet tale that shows a confidence in the new technology. The Only Son doesn't suffer from the same problems of other early sound pictures. There are no awkward silences or scenes of actors standing around trying to figure out what to do. Rather, Ozu already shows as much control for this new technique as he did silent films. His dialogue is well-chosen and the pauses are natural, befitting a story of disappointment and expectations deferred.
Ryosuke is an only child living with his widowed mother (Choko Lida) in a country town. When the young boy (played in the first scenes by Masao Hayama) lies to his teacher (Chishu Ryu) and tells him he is going to middle school, he shames his mother into sending him for real, despite their finances not really allowing it. Jump ahead to the mid-1930s, and after years of toil, the mother is finally going to visit her adult son in Tokyo, where he moved to finish his studies.
When the woman arrives, she finds things are not as she expected. Ryosuke (now played by Shinichi Himori) has given up a job at City Hall and is now a night school teacher. He also has a wife (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) and a baby boy. These are developments he has kept a secret from his mother, and they form a division between them. There is a gap between the vision the woman had for her child and what he has become. What follows is a series of sorrowful exchanges where dissatisfaction is expressed, sacrifices are revealed, and the division between expectation and reality must be traversed.
The Only Son ends somewhere between renewed hope and tired defeat. A random accident gives Ryosuke's mother an opportunity to see the kind of man her son has really become. She is satisfied that he has a tender heart and a good start on a family of his own, but at the same time, he discovers new reasons to please her. In the final shots, Ozu shows us that life will go on, but there is also a deep exhale attached to it. Another long day closes, but is there any guarantee that tomorrow will bring new opportunity?
There Was a Father was made six years later in 1942 and under entirely different conditions, but it makes for an interesting companion piece to The Only Son. There are some thematic overlaps and narrative parallels between the two movies, even getting as specific as the teachers in both giving the same geometry lesson to their classes. In this film, rather than the relationship of a mother and her son, it's the paternal bond that Ozu is exploring. Chishu Ryu returns, this time playing a school teacher who, after a tragic accident on a field trip, decides to abandon teaching life and instead pursue work with less responsibility. He eventually splits with his son, Ryohei (played as a child by Haruhiko Tsugawa, as an adult by Shuji Sano), leaving the youngster with his uncle in their home town while he goes to Tokyo to earn money to further Ryohei's education. The plan was to reunite and live together again once Ryohei finished college, but he gets a job assignment away from the city, keeping the pair apart even longer.
By the time Ozu made There Was a Father, the Japanese government had started taking more control of all aspects of the country's industry. Films were subject to review by the ruling powers, and movies that promoted a positive message were encouraged. There Was a Father was made under these restrictions, and the result is less of a satisfying cinematic narrative and more of an educational film...For the There Was a Father script, Ozu and Ikeda were this time joined by Takao Yanai, though it's impossible to point a finger at any of the three and blame him for the tepid writing. The movie is devoid of any real drama. All the characters are pleasant, and they accept their lumps with a smile. There is no conflict beyond the separation anxiety, and maybe a little debate about when Ryohei will get married. That's really it. There Was a Father is mainly a talking heads film, with the characters discussing their hardships in order to agree that it's good to have them. In less stylish hands, There Was a Father would probably be unwatchable. As far as Yasujiro Ozu's filmography is concerned, this is a lesser picture (and easily my least favorite of any I've seen), but it's still an Ozu picture. The actors are so likable and the delivery so charming, even though nothing much goes on, it's still fairly agreeable medicine.
Mysteries extending back to the War to End all Wars is also central to the Swedish thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Ryan Keefer investigates the Blu-ray of the brutal literary adaptation: "The film focuses on two main characters, the first being Mikael (Michael Nyqvist), a reporter who is found guilty of libeling a Swedish businessman and has six months of freedom before he reports to prison for his actions. In the meantime, he takes on an interesting investigation, given to him by an Henrik Vanger, an elderly industrialist. The goal: investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of Vanger's foster daughter, who he presumes was murdered. During the investigation, he meets Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace). Lisbeth is employed by the security firm that was responsible for gathering evidence against Mikael in the libel case. Lisbeth is also a parolee and is being sexually abused by her latest parole officer, seemingly unaware of the potential of Lisbeth's violent behavior. Together Lisbeth and Mikael try to find out the whereabouts of the missing girl, along with who was responsible for her disappearance.
"...Mikael and Lisbeth as they were written appear to be surprisingly unremarkable. Each has their own respective closet skeletons, and their kinship drifts toward the 'friends with benefits' vibe. The story itself possesses most of the same ingredients present in many other thrillers. As the story goes along, the investigation part of it with Mikael and Lisbeth is solid, though the last part of the second (and most of the third) act are a little too conventional. It's almost as if I was watching a Thomas Harris novel, set in Sweden, surrounding a 40-year-old murder; I could see the ending coming with 45 minutes left in this two and a half hour movie. It felt like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was good, but not great. Am I wrong, or did I have unreasonably high expectations? With that said, if there was one reason to watch the film, Rapace is it. She plays the perfect mix of silence and unleashed fury, and during her encounters with the parole officer, you can see that she allows herself to get pushed until the P.O. crosses the line, but (as an earlier scene in a subway station shows), if someone else starts something, rest assured she will finish it. It's that rage that serves as strength of sorts, one that you can see subtly in the interactions with Mikael.
"Rapace's performance aside, if you're looking to watch The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to see what the fuss is all about, you might be setting yourself up for a letdown in seeing that it's 'just another movie.' But when you view it as just another movie, you'll see that Oplev doesn't waste much in the two and a half hours he has, and the whodunit nature of the film keeps you involved and interested, if only until the last several moments."
The literary life is not always so fascinating, as evinced by the latest Merchant Ivory picture, The City of Your Final Destination--which has a lot in common with The Last Station now that I think about it. Omar Razaghi is a college professor hanging on to his job by a thread. When word comes that the family of a famous author he was hoping to write a biography on has refused to grant him authorization, Omar fears this is going to be the end of him. Hoping to stop being the eternal screw-up and turn things around, Omar leaves his truly awful girlfriend behind and heads to Uruguay to try to change the estate's mind.
The author at the heart of The City of Your Final Destination is an invention. His name is Jules Gund, and he only wrote one book, a tell-all about his own parents called The Gondola. The Gunds ended up in Montevideo after fleeing Germany post-WWII. Jules has left behind a brother, a wife, and a mistress, and these are the three people Omar (played by Omar Metwally) has to convince. The brother Adam (Anthony Hopkins) lives in a villa with his lover Pete (Hiroyuki Sanada), and he's not against having Jules honored in a biography. He could use the cash it might generate from renewed interest in The Gondola, and he isn't all that worried about his own life being turned topsy-turvy. On the other hand, Jules' wife Caroline (Laura Linney) doesn't want their arrangement exposed to the world, and she clings to a letter Jules allegedly sent her claiming he doesn't want to have anything written about him. In the middle is Arden (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the mistress. She is not really against the book, but she is easily swayed by Caroline. They have gone on living together all these years, and there is a hierarchy to their arrangement.
The City of Your Final Destination has been sitting on a shelf for over a year and is currently involved in some legal tangles regarding production credits. It saddens me that the movie seems to carry these burdens with it as it trundles across the screen. The script is written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who has penned most of Ivory's films for the last several decades, and it's based on a novel by Peter Cameron. Having never read the book, I can't say whether it labors under the same literary pretentions as the film, but it wouldn't surprise me if this is a case of an author getting caught up in his own dreams of a literary legacy. I thank my lucky stars that no one attempted to create prose for the late Mr. Gund, and we are spared any purple phraseology.
The film's big finish relies on a romance between Arden and Omar that hasn't really materialized onscreen. They are about as passionate in their scenes together as a piece of ice and a dead fish. Neither can really heat the other up. The revelation of love comes too easy, as do all the changes that Omar is meant to inspire. His arrival is intended to shake things up, but really, he just bores them all so much, they either have to get away or give in, there is no other option. Which is kind of how I felt about The City of Your Final Destination overall. I didn't hate it, it merely existed as part of my life for two hours.
Literature seems to be a theme this month, from the portraits of authors and adaptations and even Colin Firth in Single Man plays a lit professor. There is even more book loving in The Eclipse, as reviewed by Brian Orndorf on Blu-ray: "To its credit, The Eclipse is a difficult film to summarize. A bizarre concoction of literary world misery and ghostly visitation, the picture takes its time unfolding, revealing horrors almost by accident as it probes the lives and loves of three characters, each with their own private reservoir of suffering to confront over the course of a long weekend in Ireland.
"A book festival volunteer, Michael (Ciaran Hinds) is dealing with several domestic responsibilities while mourning the loss of his wife. Arriving in Ireland to participate in the fest are authors Lena (Iben Hjejle) and Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), who require Michael's help to shuttle around the area, giving speeches and meeting the locals. While Nicholas is a blowhard, demanding and impatient, Lena is a more gentle personality, taking a shine to Michael and his considerate ways. Drawn to Lena's supernatural stories, Michael is hopeful the writer will help ease his mind, as his guilt has assumed a demonic manifestation, taking him to the breaking point.
"The Eclipse is not a motion picture that goes places. It's better to know that fact right up front, otherwise the film might cause unintended ire. It's a character piece, directed by Conor McPherson, who takes a rather unusual stance that merges the cold-blooded calculation of Stanley Kubrick with a lopsided romantic drama. The Eclipse defies most classification, but its peculiarity is not feigned, only puzzling, providing a healthy mental workout for viewers who enjoy their films darkly impenetrable."
The Eclipse may play it close to the vest, but there is something heroic about sharing information when required, as Jason Bailey discovers in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers : " The press notes for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers don't call it a documentary; they call it a 'political thriller,' and the description is apt. The film may engage in the most familiar trappings of doc filmmaking--sometimes to its own detriment--but the story it tells is so engaging and engrossing that we're swept right up in it. It's a film about a moment in history--a specific moment, right before the entire house of cards that was the Nixon administration came tumbling down--but it is also an intimate, candid portrait of a man who had a crisis of conscience, and decided to act on it.
"The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, runs on two tracks: as a personal biography of Ellsberg and a historical snapshot of what he did. The second part is easy, and part of the record: a former Pentagon insider, Ellsberg was a man transformed by the early 1970s. The once-hawk was now a dove, furious about the lies that the American government (particularly, five of its Presidents) had told the people about the circumstances leading up to our involvement in Vietnam. When his attempts to bring Congressional attention to a top-secret Pentagon study highlighting those lies failed, Ellsberg leaked the so-called 'Pentagon Papers' to the New York Times, setting up a chain of events that pitted the Nixon administration against the free press, influenced public perception of the floundering Vietnam conflict, and led directly to the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency.
"The details of that story, the whens and hows and whos, are riveting viewing. But you can find all of that in books and other documentaries. The juice here is Ellsberg's personal journey from one of the architects of the war to one of its staunchest enemies. Careful attention is paid to the details of his psychological make-up, to the doubts that were percolating in the late 1960s, to the concerns and fears that finally led him to conclude that 'it wasn't that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.' Those are Ellsberg's own words; he both narrates the film and serves as its primary interview subject, a splitting of focus that requires a little getting used to. But that conceit does work, particularly when it leads to scenes like his powerful description of the moment when his life 'split in two'...as the narrative tightens and picks up speed in the last 30 minutes. Those Nixon tapes continue to stun (was there ever a grown man who used profanity more awkwardly?), and Ehrlich and Goldsmith do a first-rate job of conveying the real risks taken by both the Times and Ellsberg himself (he faced the possibility of 115 years in prison).
"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is guilty of occasional missteps, but nonetheless, it is still a riveting, exciting documentary film."
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His most recent release is the comedy seriesSpell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Aaron Beierle Casey Burchby, Stuart Galbraith IV, Ryan Keefer, Randy Miller III, Chris Neilson, Brian Orndorf, Thomas Spurlin, and Adam Tyner for their contributions.
Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin
Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Alain Resnais, David Bowie, and Ingmar Bergman
Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas