Movie Diary 4/29/2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009). Why is it the more explanation we get of a comic-book hero’s angst, the less interesting he becomes? This movie’s a lot better than Van Helsing, by the way. (full review 5/1)

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008). Not a pleasant horror movie, but there are a few actual what-the-hell-is-happening-here? moments in this straight-to-video French-Canadian production. Not quite enough to make it worth seeking out, or enduring. The director gets points for apologizing in his filmed intro for the DVD.

Movie Diary 4/28/2009

Catching up on movies watched.

Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, 2008). Variation on Taste of Cherry, with a role for former Elvis posse member Red West. Best thing about it is the nocturnal photography of Winston-Salem, which looks like something seen from a train going past at midnight. (full review 5/8)

Merrily We Go to Hell (Dorothy Arzner, 1932). Alcoholic writer Fredric March drags rich girl Sylvia Sidney into his world; a melodramatic but keenly-directed movie from Hollywood’s most prominent female filmmaker.

The Cheat (George Abbott, 1931). Okay, this is just lurid melodrama: Tallulah Bankhead racks up gambling debts, gets beholden to super-creepy world explorer Irving Pichel.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Mark waters, 2009). Matthew McConaughey becoming a rom-com genre unto himself (rom-com-McCon?), and Jennifer Garner sending out more Morse Code indicating she is prepared to do much better than this. (full review 5/1)

Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947). Reed warming up to The Third Man, in an Irish Troubles scenario that ingeniously spreads around its large ensemble.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2008). Think Dead Man but without the storytelling or star turn. (full review 5/8)

Monster Road (Brett Ingram, 2004). An absorbing look into the world of clay animator (and 1970s Frank Zappa collaborator) Bruce Bickford. As Bickford told the audience at the Frye Art Museum on Sunday, he is still climbing trees, “when I can find a good one.”

1960 Ten Best Movies

A good year in the cinema, especially for a new kind of European movie that would not only change the way we think about film but also the way we think about the director. The stars of the arthouse (Truffaut, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni) come through with gems, even if La dolce vita would not become a phenomenon in the U.S. for another year. Nothing could be the same after the jump-cuts of Breathless and the ennui of L’avventura.

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Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

But at the top is an American film that truly goes all the way. Nothing has withered Psycho‘s power over the years; in fact it’s a movie that, far from relying on its immediate twists for its effect, actually becomes more troubling the more you look at it. In its final direct-to-camera confrontation with its main character (Anthony Perkins gives one of the great performances), Hitchcock completes the breakdown of the usual viewer-to-movie relationship. It still brings on a shiver.

A link to more on Psycho below. The ten best movies of 1960:

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

2. L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)

3. A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard)

4. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)

5. Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti)

6. La dolce vita (Federico Fellini)

7. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

8. The Apartment (Billy Wilder)

9. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

10. Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher)

Some Fellini fans might be surprised at the relatively low spot for La dolce vita, and maybe I’ll re-evaluate when I see it again. Along with its merits as a movie, I cherish the adolescent memory of watching it on the Canadian TV station and trying to figure out what the hell it was all about. But I don’t quite love it, at least not in the way I love the Truffaut and Visconti titles, and Breathless has to be up there because every minute of it bristles with the announcement that things are going to be very, very different from now on.

The also-rans include strong but not 10-worthy titles (Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Satyajit Ray’s Devi), and also a few Hollywood pictures that are unusually satisfying entertainment: Spartacus (Kubrick working for The Man), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), and Elmer Gantry, Richard Brooks’s intelligent adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. In the latter category would also be Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners, two deliberate pictures that quietly express the personalities of their directors. And Jerry Lewis made The Bellboy, his debut as a director and a distinctive, inventive movie.

I go on about Psycho here.

Next week: 1989.

Culture Notes: It’s De-Fascist

It is gratifying that the recent Republican push to shift its criticism of the Obama administration from “socialist” to “fascist” has been exposed as a laughably calculated strategy. Saul Anuzis, who ran for the Republican Party chairmanship and has recently joined a Newt Gingrich-led group called American Solutions for Winning the Future (in the future, all men may have at least two divorces and still preach family values), flatly admitted the cynical nature of the strategy. “We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Anuzis said. “Fascism — everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”

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Cole Porter: I Get a Kick Out of Benito?

We will ignore the probability that there are undoubtedly people who think fascism is a good thing. As head-bending as it is to equate socialism with fascism, and even though it seems to erase all the decades of devoted effort by conservatives who regularly branded liberals as communists, this strategy has been around for a while. It has been popularized in Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, and picked up by the Fox newsies thereafter. The absurdity of it was anticipated long before that, in the opening newsreel of Citizen Kane, in that moment when two outraged commentators brand Kane as a communist, then a fascist.

Naturally, Fox’s Glenn Beck, the pride of Mount Vernon, Washington (where the tulips come from), has taken up the cause of re-branding. The resulting slams against the current administration are expected, and maybe you can even understand conservatives trotting out their old resentments of (in Beck’s April 10 program) Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. But when Goldberg and Tulip include Cole Porter in their fascist-trolling nets, I have to draw the line.

The limp connection is that a few years ago somebody wrote something suggesting that Porter’s brilliant song “You’re the Top” included the couplet “You’re the top/You’re the great Houdini/You’re the top/You are Mussolini,” which is not actually part of the song’s official lyric. That was enough to declare Porter a fascist sympathizer. Googling around, it appears the line might have been in an early draft of the song (which, like a number of Porter tunes, has endless variations on the central wordplay idea) or possibly added by P.G. Wodehouse for a British production of the show, as many of Porter’s references are U.S.-centric. Or it might not have been part of the lyric at all, since there doesn’t seem to be any evidence.

It would not have been odd, or inappropriate, if Mussolini had been in the 1934 song’s litany. Porter’s zany cascade of metaphors includes Ovaltine, next year’s taxes, the tower of Babel and (a favorite rhyme) the pants on a Roxy usher and the steppes of Russia. (Check for possible socialist sympathies on last point — the steppes, not the pants).

If we really have to get explicit about it (and nothing kills wit like over-explanation), the song doesn’t list “good things,” but things that are, you know, at the top. Thus Garbo’s salary, broccoli, and Jimmy Durante’s nose are among the items listed as the opposite of de trop. To muddy the ideological waters, Porter also name-checks the “Coolidge dollar” and the G.O.P. itself. The real requirements are the sound of the word and its rhyme (thus, Fred Astaire and Camembert).

“Saul Anuzis” would have found an amusing place in a Porter lyric, come to think of it. (To go with “whoozis”?) “Glenn Beck” could’ve been fitted into the existing lines about “I’m a worthless check/A total wreck” etc.

Of course Glenn Beck’s researchers, if not Tulip himself, already know this, as does Jonah Goldberg. But it was more convenient for them to throw a celebrity name into their story about “leftists” who worshipped Mussolini. (That intelligent people were once optimistic or at least intrigued about Mussolini — who came to power in 1922 — is true, although most of those people were on the right, politically.)

Since the majority of Fox News viewers are too busy worried that Obama is stealing their guns to note the slander against Cole Porter, this is a minor bit of hoo-hah, but it deserves to be answered. It gives a handy measure of how wrong-headed and corrupt Beck and his kind are. You might say Beck is a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop, but Porter’s been quoted enough. 

You can read the Anuzis story here. Transcript of Beck’s show (where he says, “Like it or not, fascism is on the rise” — like it? Calling Dr. Freud!) begins here.

Soloist Fighting Earth, Shall We? (Weekly Links)

My raft of reviews from the Herald this week.

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You must become Fado.

Fados. “If Sinatra had gotten lost in Lisbon.”

The Soloist. “Greyhounds who like to run.”

Fighting. “Vertebra-crunching brawls.”

Earth. “Running out of synonyms for astonishing.”

Sugar. “Uniquely American spaces and stories.”

The Informers. “All coked up and no place to go.”

Shall We Kiss? “As French as Freedom Fries.”

Examined Life. “Agreeably casual discourse.”

Movie Diary 4/23/2009

Prometheus’ Garden (Bruce Bickford, 1988). A half-hour film from the underground clay animator chronicled in Monster Road, crammed with mind-bendingly relentless examples of Bickford’s cascading imagery. Mr. Bickford will attend a free screening of Monster Road and answer questions at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle on Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m. More details here.

bigheat1The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953). Also relentless, if not mind-bending. This U.S. noir has some of the potency of Lang’s silent pictures, with the advantages of Hollywood efficiency and speed thrown in. Not all the supporting players are especially vivid, but with Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame in the underworld crew, they don’t need to be.

Movie Diary 4/22/2009

picsnatcherThe Informers (Gregor Jordan, 2009). A collection of Bret Easton Ellis 1980s tropes, played straight, incredibly. Big stellar cast, out of whom emerges the late Brad Renfro, giving an anxious, rabbity performance that easily outclasses the other zombies. (full 4/24)

The Picture Snatcher (Lloyd Bacon, 1933). James Cagney tears through this snappy pre-Code yarn about an ex-con who goes straight by landing a job on New York’s trashiest tabloid.  Lots of cheeky stuff, and among the great Cagney moments is him dictating the account of a woman going to the electric chair, which is instantly turned into more acceptable prose by office-mate (and romantic hopeful, although “romantic” isn’t the right word) Alice White.

Movie Diary 4/21/2009

Fighting (Dito Montiel, 2009). An improvement over Montiel’s first film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, and another thought-out performance by Terrence Howard. Story logic is something else. (full review 4/24)

The Soloist (Joe Wright, 2009). Kind of exactly what you think it’s going to be, even if Joe Wright is a director with some visual ideas in his head. Downey and Foxx are also as expected. (full review 4/24)

Murder at the Vanities (Mitchell Leisen, 1934). Crazy enough as these things go: Kitty Carlisle trilling about the parade of dames in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities,” Victor McLaglen as a suave/roguish detective, Duke Ellington coming out for a number, and songs that include “Cocktails for Two” and “Sweet Marijuana.” The hell? Yep, that’s the name of the song. The movie is just a little too labored to be as much fun as it sounds in synopsis.

Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949). Tracy and Hepburn, setting up Judy Holliday, David Wayne, et al. I always had a soft spot for “Farewell, Amanda.”

Peter Simpson

Peter Simpson, the Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Film Festival, died on Thursday night, April 16, 2009, age 74. Peter had been involved with the PTFF since its inception and for many of us was the public face of the festival.

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photo by Kathie Meyer courtesy of The Port Townsend and Jefferson County Leader

I knew Peter once a year. Since 2001 I have been spending five days out of each September in Port Townsend, Washington, a very special place. As charming as the location itself is — with its Victorian downtown and windswept views of the corner of Earth where the Strait of Juan de Fuca curls into Puget Sound — Port Townsend is remarkable because of the bright, personable, and invariably offbeat people who live there. Peter embodied that, and another quality: gentleness. How that quality survives running a film festival I don’t know, since a film festival is orchestrated chaos; but frequently I would come to Peter, asking for something or other in the middle of the weekend, and he would seem strangely serene.

Flexible, too; last year when news came that Paul Newman had died (the same day PTFF was scheduled to show The Hustler in a tribute to Piper Laurie), I walked around town looking for Peter to suggest that maybe the panel I was scheduled to lead the next day should instead morph into a tribute to Newman, given that we had Piper Laurie, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and actor (and Newman buddy) John Considine in town. It took Peter all of 10 seconds to greenlight the event, and he had posters printed and hung within a few hours announcing it. No second-guessing, no worrying the notion. He liked the idea, so we were doing it.

Peter wore Hawaiian shirts and sportcoats. This should suggest the humor of the man. Last year when I was onstage helping hand out the awards with Piper Laurie, I mock-chided Peter because, as he was stepping to the microphone to read the winners, he was blocking Ms. Laurie’s spotlight. He rolled with the joke, of course. (Why did Peter annually ask me to participate in the awards-giving ceremonies? I don’t know, but he always communicated a trust that I would pull it off. You can do a lot when people express their confidence in you. Peter unfailingly did that.)

In 2001 I came to the Port Townsend Film Festival for the first time, to talk about The Bad and the Beautiful and speak to some classes at the high school. Because of September 11, Robert Osborne could not attend to interview the guest of honor, Eva Marie Saint, so I did the duties at the eleventh hour, in front of a huge crowd. Did you ever have one of those nights where everything clicked? That was one of those nights. It pretty much set the tone for the lovely experiences I’ve had in Port Townsend since.

I even got married in Port Townsend. And Peter helped with that, too. I didn’t know him well, but I remember a significant block of time we had once; I think it was in the green room the night of the Debra Winger and Arliss Howard evening, between the introduction of the film and the post-movie interview. I found out more about Peter than I’d known, and it seemed as though we ought to have more conversations like that.

There is more about Peter in this article at the Peninsula Daily News. Update: longer article in the Port Townsend Leader, here. The photo above is from an evening when he was surprised with his own award at the 2007 festival. Much deserved.

2002 Ten Best Movies

Sometimes a year comes along and you’re filling in your Ten Best bracket and the Numero Uno isn’t quite clear but you have to put them in some kind of order or end up with a pasty-faced alphabetical list. So you look for the X factor. Which for me would be: if a few movies of the last 12 months achieved a high level of grace and cinematic excitement, which one astonished? Which one either kicked the movies forward into new realms, or managed to be something I’d never quite seen before?

fastrunner1For my 2002 accounting, the latter point was nailed by The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), a three-hour epic of Inuit life directed by Zacharias Kunuk. The film tells a ripping yarn that might have been knocking around for a thousand years or so, yet bristles with a completely modern humor. It is fascinating as a look at an unfamiliar culture, yet it carries not a whiff of National Geographic sobriety. It is shot on video on a presumably small budget, yet it has vistas and plot turns that would make David Lean’s eyebrows furrow with envy.

As the most astonishing film of its year, it outpoints a collection of worthwhile movies. (Okay, the year thing: IMDb has it listed as a 2001 film, and it did show at some film festivals that year, but according to IMDb’s other records, The Fast Runner did not properly open for regular runs anywhere, including its home country of Canada, until 2002. That’s what I’m going with.) My favorite U.S. film of the year is Punch-Drunk Love, a movie that fires on all pistons and will increasingly be seen as an American classic; fave European film is To Be and To Have, a miraculous look at the life cycles of a schoolhouse in rural France. But here’s the list:

1. The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), (Zacharias Kunuk)

2. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson)

3. To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philibert)

4. About Schmidt (Alexander Payne)

5. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)

6. The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)

7. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)

8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)

9. Heaven (Tom Tykwer)

10. The Emperor’s New Clothes (Alan Taylor)

The Two Towers was the best segment of Jackson’s trilogy, and a real movie unto itself (in which the slippery Gollum emerged as the true protagonist of the whole saga). Polanski’s Oscar-winner was a fine reminder of this director’s command, and The Man Without a Past a beautiful example of what Kaurismaki can do when he rouses himself for disciplined work. Heaven, based on a Kieslowski script, is a strange little closed-system thing, but it’s well suited to Tywker’s particular talents and it gives a strong role to Cate Blanchett (even Giovanni Ribisi is on good behavior). And The Emperor’s New Clothes, a comedy on the subject of Napoleon (Ian Holm in good form), sneaks in there because it’s an ingenious picture that slipped by almost completely unnoticed.

I almost made room for Robert Rodriguez’s daffy Spy Kids 2, which is a real example of directorial giddiness; I feel less disappointed about leaving off the official arthouse successes of the year, Far from Heaven and Talk to Her.

Next week: 1960.