Monday, December 25, 2006

A Brief Note

Okay, I was swamped with paying work for a change. I will be doing a rather longer posting in the next day or two, but in the interest of housekeeping, I thought I'd quick hit with a few items of importance.

First of all, if you are in New York City, you absolutely MUST go to Film Forum and see the delightful program of Chris Marker films. The five shorts that make up the "Bestiary" are quite charming. I particularly like the first two, "Cat Listening to Music," starring Marker's own Guillaume-en-Egypte, who flicks his ears quick amusingly in time to the music at one point, and "An Owl Is An Owl Is An Owl," which displays an astonishing selection of Marker's other favorite animal. As for The Case of the Grinning Cat, it is prime Marker, astute, funny, bittersweet, a splendid hour-long epilogue to Cat Without a Grin, his mordant retrospective on the rise and fall of the European left in the '60s and '70s. It will be there through January 2, so hustle, dammit.

I also want to get in a quick plug for Flannel Pajamas, Jeff Lipsky's romantic comedy-drama. My review for Jewish Week can be found here. The film is apparently running out of box-office steam, so move your butt quickly and go see it. Not quite ten-best list quality but a lithe and intelligent work with some lovely acting and a terrific look. Kudos to DP Martina Radwan. And if you are as put off by Julianne Nicholson's work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent as I have been, you are in for a huge surprise; Lipsky elicits a sharply observed, highly nuanced performance from her and she is incredibly sexy as well.

Speaking of pleasant surprises that probably won't make my ten-best list but definitely are worth seeing, my lovely spouse and I watched the DVD of Spike Lee's Inside Man last night and it's quite amusing. Perhaps Lee needs to work with someone else's material on a regular basis to rein in his rather desultory narrative sense, but this is one of his sharpest films, fast and witty, pointed and effective. It seems to have been utterly forgotten in the end-of-year awards orgy, so you will probably have a hard time getting to see it on a big screen, but the disk is a competent transfer.

For those of you who observe it, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Three Kings Day, and may you have an easy Fast of Tevet. If that doesn't cover you in some way, I'd wish you a happy new year, but I expect to be posting here again before that happens.

Among the items lying on my desk -- not counting Sabrina, one of our cats (who recently decided to print an e-mail I was about to delete) -- are a trio of East German westerns, some key Eastern European cinema, a new Claude Chabrol that will open shortly after the New Year, the Quay Brothers and who-knows-what-else. And hey, it's over three weeks away, but I ought to do something interesting for the first anniversary of Cine-Journal. I'm open to suggestion, but keep them clean (or not too painful).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Daddy Roberto and the Dark Ingmar

Fascinating double-bill at Film Forum right now, a pairing of Guy Maddin's delicious tribute to Roberto Rossellini, courtesy of Isabella, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," and Marie Nyrerod's Bergman Island, a surprisingly candid 85-minute profile of Ingmar Bergman, who is nearing the century mark himself. (Okay, he's only 88.)

The Maddin is a little gem, a chamber piece for solo instrument, with Isabella providing all the voices -- Hitchcock, Selznick, Chaplin (well, he doesn't speak), Fellini and, luminously, her mother Ingrid Bergman. Given that it is, as the title of the Maddin short says, Roberto's centenary, one is amazed that so little has been said and done about his work. MoMA is working its way through his filmography -- and if you haven't seen these films, get your ass to 53rd Street while they are still there -- but that's been about all, except for this love letter from his adoring daughter. Of course, everything in the contemporary cinema world militates against Rossellini; it's a replay of his actual career, with the morons paying lip service to the neo-realist films while ignoring the even greater achievements of the remainder of his career. Isabella and Maddin replay all the stupidity of his detractors -- "he never moves the camera, his films are so slow, yada yada yada" -- but the joke is on the oafs whose idea of great cinema is Mel Gibson disembowelling people. (And, no, I have no interest in seeing the little Nazi bastard's latest 'epic.')

Of course, the people who never got Rossellini were the ones who always sang Ingmar Bergman's praises. Bergman, whatever you may think of him, was a director whose on-camera concerns were impossible to miss, even for the most cretinous reviewers. I won't start on Bergman here -- the man who made Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night has nothing to apologize for, not even to an agnostic like me -- but the person who emerges from Nyrerod's documentary is infinitely more complex and interesting than his art. He's a canny old party, is Ingmar, with his reclusiveness tempered by his possession of a private movie theater with a projectionist and a housemaid who comes in daily. He can even be quite funny when the mood takes him, as in his explanation of how he and an architect came to design the odd fireplace in his living room. As one might expect, the Bergman house on Faro Island is impressive but austere. Rather like the man himself, you might say.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A small change to the comments section

With great reluctance, I have added 'word verification' to the comments section. This means that if you want to post a comment, you will have to type in a word given on the page to verify that you are not a machine posting but a human being (or a reasonable approximation thereof). I hate having to do this, although it is only a minimal nuisance for posters, but the spam comment from earlier today is one spam comment too many. I get enough of this crap in my inbox without adding to it on the blog.

Good Indy, Bad Indy

Two new independent films opening yesterday (Friday, Dec. 1, that is), sort of point up the pros and cons of indy film.

Brad Silberling has been responsible for some of the most egregious studio films of the last 20 years (City of Angels and Moonlight Mile simply reek of faux sincerity and unearned tears), so when I was asked to speak at the Key Sunday Cinema Club for a showing of 10 Items or Less, I was reluctant. I'm glad my wallet whispered in my ear, because otherwise I would have missed a very pleasant surprise, a sweet, unpretentious little film that showcases nice performances by Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega. Freeman plays an actor who is fighting burnout and a tendency towards reclusiveness by making a timid first step towards doing a low-budget independent film. He meets cashier Vega at a supermarket in the very unfashionable town of Carson, an LA neighbor, and the two spend a day together.


Silberling, like the Morgan Freeman character in this film, has been working in mainstream Hollywood for a long time; he began his directing career in television in the mid-‘80s before moving into feature films in 1995 with Casper. But after two years of a highly controlled soundstage environment shooting the effects-driven Lemony Snicket film, he desperately wanted to recharge his batteries, so he set out to make a low-budget independent film in real settings, no special effects, no control over the environment.

Like the Freeman character, he felt he had reached a turning point in his career, and was ready to make a radical break. And this film is the result.

What I think is really lovely about 10 Items or Less is that the film works entirely on the behavioral charms of its two leads, it is filled with little grace notes the reveal things about the characters, rather than the kind of plot-driven contrivances that have marred Silberling’s previous work for “adult” audiences. The movie doesn’t end with Scarlet (Vega) and the actor leaving their families and driving off into the sunset. It doesn’t end with her getting a new job, with him reviving his career. The ending is open, although guardedly optimistic, and that, I think is the best you can hope for from real life.

10 Items or Less works because its writer-director has his mind on what really matters when you tell a story of human interaction: how do these people interact, with one another, with their environment and, finally, with themselves. And it’s the last element that makes the film such a perfect collaboration between director and star. Silberling spends a lot of screen time just showing us Morgan Freeman watching other people. We sense that the character Freeman is playing – not to far from the real man himself, I suspect – is a great observer of human behavior himself, someone who can sit quietly and learn the most important aspects of a personality merely by watching how that person sits, walks, punches a cash register’s buttons or drives a car.

(Incidentally, 10 Items or Less may become a historical landmark in the film history. The film is the first to be offered for download on the 'Net shortly after its theatrical release, through a system called Clickstar. For some interesting commentary on this development, I recommend a look at Friday's posting from CinemaTech.)

John Stockwell, who is probably most familiar from his brief stint as boy-hunk of the week in films like John Carpenter's Christine, also chose to work in the low-budget indy mode for his new film, Turistas. Unfortunately, the result is not appreciably different from his recent studio work on films like Blue Crush and Into the Sunset. Turistas starts out as a vaguely amiable, aimless teen flick, with Josh Duhamel (of NBC's vapid Vegas) chaperoning his sister and her beast friend on a beach-bum trip through Brazil. When their bus crashes, they are seemingly stranded in the backwoods, along with a fetching Australian tourist (Melinda George, the only person to emerge from this dreck with her dignity intact) and two oversexed Brits. They take a detour to an apparent paradise, only to find themselves the prey of a mad doctor who snatches tourists for their organs, which he donates to a charity hospital in Rio.

A director and writer with a sense of humor or irony could have made a George Romero-type political horror film out of this material. Stockwell and first-time screenwriter Michael Ross have neither. Stockwell and cinematographer Enrique Chediak have given the film a murky, muddy look that combines with Stockwell's total lack of understanding of screen space to make the film's action sequences utterly incomprehensible. The result is a film that is too dull to offend, too ugly to titillate and to stupid to sit through. Turistas is the kind of movie that makes me think I don't get paid enough to do this job.

And it's a useful reminder that independent and good are not synonyms.