Culture Notes: Updike, Tinting, Super Bowl

Updike: Just two months before John Updike died the British magazine Literary Review anointed him (you should pardon the phrase) with their first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex writing, a knock against Updike’s approach to a favorite topic. Putting aside for a moment the thought that the British should be lecturing anybody on the subject of sex, this award seemed churlish at the time, and now seems really jerky. If you’re going to write about sex, you might as well try to blend bluntness (as in, this is what people do, so why not use the words that match the body parts and the actions?) with lyricism, which Updike did.

I recommend one book I didn’t see mentioned in the obituary notices I saw: Updike’s 1992 novel Memories of the Ford Administration, a gloriously-titled story about an academic recalling the wide-open 1970s; mixed in is the professor’s scholarly project on that most stupefying of U.S. presidents (well, until recently), James Buchanan. A very witty book. With a little sex in it.

Tinting: I have been watching a lot of silent films lately. I am tired of tinting. I know that a lot of silent films were tinted at the time (changing colors, to lend mood and visual variety), and that a lot of DVD companies take care to follow original notes on when and how scenes were tinted. I’m still tired of it. The process darkens the image, in general, and can really blow out entire scenes — in the early going of Kino’s otherwise admirable version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance. I find myself craving good, clean black-and-white. So enough already.

Super Bowl: Don’t care, but it would be nice to see the Steelers get screwed on a last-minute bad call by the officials — payback for their bogus “win” over the Seattle Seahawks three years ago. Bitter? Not at all.

Uninvited Taken in Town (Weekly Links)

waltzLinks to the reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Waltz with Bashir. “There’s no Oscar category yet for animated documentary….”

Taken. “Liam Neeson is built for handing out whuppings.”

The Uninvited. “This one is actually restrained.”

New in Town. “This film about corporate insensitivity and bedrock American values was filmed in Winnipeg.”

Were the World Mine. “The idea worked for Shakespeare.”

Movie Diary 1/29/2009

andersonville2The Andersonville Trial (George C. Scott, 1970). Done in the style of live TV, from Saul Levitt’s play (which Scott had starred in on Broadway ten years earlier). William Shatner and Jack Cassidy play the oppposing lawyers in the trial of Captain Henry Wirz (Richard Basehart), who commanded the dismal POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The idea of a moral imperative for a soldier (or a citizen) to disobey orders was freshly relevant in 1970, as ever; I first saw this as a 12-year-old, and it made a huge impression on me. Plus, Cassidy and Shat were two of my favorite TV actors. You can see the thing was directed by an actor, because everybody’s off the leash and shouting like mad. But there are good actors in there — even among the non-speaking roles, strangely enough. The sound quality of the DVD is bad. But it’s worth seeing.

Cash McCall (Joseph Pevney, 1960). Truly clumsy concept for a film, tracking the ins and outs of a corporate raider (James Garner) with a love story (Natalie Wood) on the side. Garner’s bachelor pad is agreeably hep, but this is more for fans of Lou Dobbs than fans of Natalie Wood. (It’s part of the new Natalie Wood box set.)

Movie Diary 1/28/2009

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009). The Nightmare Before Christmas director is on his own: no Tim Burton in the title, and no Danny Elfman on the soundtrack — composer Bruno Coulais does some interesting stuff. (full review 2/6)

The Uninvited (Charles and Thomas Guard, 2009). A remake of the Korean Tale of Two Sisters, which was a pretty nice little outing. This one does try to be restrained. (full review 1/30)

His Name was Jason (Daniel Farrands, 2009). I watched this for an Amazon job. Having already dealt with the Friday the 13th series in a previous box set (here), I seem to be the go-to guy to review these movies, which are uniformly awful (although — via some strange alchemy — they physically look a little better thanks to the slickness of DVD than they ever did on a movie screen, where their cruddiness was writ large). This 30th-anniversary documentary details the Jasoniad with an exhaustiveness that is, well, exhausting.

Movie Diary 1/26/2009

bittervictoryBitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957). Spare antiwar movie, with Richard Burton and Curt Jurgens as the British officers sent on a mission in North Africa, with issues of cowardice and jealousy much to the fore. The widescreen black-and-white photography is especially eerie in the desert night scenes, with Ray adding the kinds of touches (the look on Burton’s face when he knifes a man, for instance) that make his movies so wrought with trouble.

Were the World Mine (Tom Gustafson, 2008). Teen in drama class mixes an elixir described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spritzes it around, and the homophobic small town turns gay. Hey, it’s a better plot than High School Musical 3. (full review 1/30)

1991 Ten Best Movies

lesamants4Some movies deserve to own their moment, to be shared by audiences and define a certain time and place, not in the way a blockbuster does but as a challenging New Thing. Like Blowup, say, or La Dolce Vita. Why didn’t Les Amants du Pont Neuf find its place? Leos Carax’s film is exhilarating, but perhaps it lacked glamour, despite the presence of Juliette Binoche in the lead. Its initial reception in France was scathing, partly because Carax had run up his budget to disastrous levels while creating a false bridge in a false Paris. And the film fumbled its chance to get to people in the U.S.: distribution woes stalled a regular American release from its showing at the New York Film Festival in 1992 until 1999. That’s no way to catch a zeitgeist.

It’s hard for Les Amants to build an audience on DVD, because it wants a big screen. But it’s an enchanted film. See it and be swept away.

The best movies of 1991:

1. Les Amants du Pont Neuf (Leos Carax)

2. The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

3. La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette)

4. Slacker (Richard Linklater)

5. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)

6. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)

7. Rambling Rose (Martha Coolidge)

8. Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou)

9. A Woman’s Tale (Paul Cox)

10. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow) and The Doors (Oliver Stone)

The #10 slot goes to a pair of California pleasures, possibly guilty, but really not. As for Stone’s JFK, also a 1991 release, it may not have been history, but it was maybe the most dynamic American film essay since F for Fake. Rambling Rose is one of Coolidge’s best, and has great performances by Laura Dern, Robert Duvall, and Diane Ladd. For the perpetually neglected Paul Cox, A Woman’s Tale is a typically thoughtful work, so I have to give it the edge over other movies I like, such as Bugsy and Barton FinkSlacker is always given a 1991 release date, although I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival in 1990 and wrote about it for Film Comment that year. We’ll go with the official consensus — and that was one movie that actually did become a moment-defining picture.

In 2000 I wrote this piece on Leos Carax; since he has directed little since then, it doesn’t need much updating.

Next week: 1948. Gold!

Movie Diary 1/24/2009

contraband2Contraband (Michael Powell, 1940). Conrad Veidt as a Danish sea captain led into intrigue by Valerie Hobson (who played the actual title character in Bride of Frankenstein) during the London blackout. This movie’s wit and momentum should be the envy of just about any other spy story of the era — Powell, who had made The Spy in Black a year earlier, was on his game.

Wendy and Lucy (Weekly Links)

wendy1That’s right, didn’t see the multiplex movies this week. But I reviewed one film for the Herald, and it’s enough:

Wendy and Lucy. “Reichardt’s style doesn’t tell you what to feel, but you will feel plenty.”

Also, the Oscar reaction show on KUOW-FM: here.

And more radio: I talk with KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel about politics, film and the dangers of believing in “stories,” including some takes on Frost/Nixon and the real Frost and Nixon, Che, and W. Listen here; the film bit starts at 34:04.

Oscar Hangover

joker3Wow, this is pretty lame even for Oscar voters. The embargo against animated films being nominated best Best Picture continues (sorry, Wall-E), and the voters are above the low-class origins of The Dark Knight but not above the archaic corn of Slumdog Millionaire. There can be only so many slots for indie offerings, so Wendy and Lucy and Sally Hawkins were out; glad about Melissa Leo, though. The audience helped Benjamin Button score big, and critics helped Slumdog. The top-drawer nods for The Reader surely had something to do with affection for the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, right? But even The Reader feels less obligatory than Frost/Nixon, a movie that would probably be dead by now if it had opened wide in December. Nice strategy there. At this point, I just want to see Jerry Lewis’s acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award.

I talked with KUOW’s Steve Scher a few hours after the noms were announced; that hour-long call-in show is here. For the Academy’s list, go here.

Movie Diary 1/21/2009

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008). One from the Luc Besson meat-grinder. For some reason I am susceptible to Besson’s high-concept approach, although it usually works better in French (Banlieue 13) than English (Transporter 3). Premise here has the daughter of Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen being kidnapped — a plausibility problem, because genetically speaking, any offspring of Liam Neeson and Famke Janssen could probably kick Godzilla’s ass. (full review 1/30)

Fanboys (Kyle Newman, 2008). Mainly shot in 2006, which would explain why Dan Fogler, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen all look slimmer. (full review 2/6)