Movie Diary 9/29/2009

A Portrait of Diego Rivera: The Revolutionary Gaze (Gabriel Figueroa Flores, 2007). Intriguing documentary built around the discovery of 40 minutes of color footage of Rivera shot in 1949, lensed by the mighty Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and the great still photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Figueroa’s son is the director of this film, which provides background on the principals and fixes them in a movement in Mexican art. The rich color images of the hefty Rivera doodling in his sketchpad are droll, and suggestively integrated into the overall pattern of the documentary.

Miracle in a Box (John Korty, 2009). Hour-long documentary by the Oscar-winning Korty (also a veteran of the TV-movie era), all about a Berkeley piano-restoration shop and the loving work they do on one particular Steinway grand. There’s something about watching experts doing close work on an object they revere that makes for an unbeatable movie subject, and this film literally “opens up” the piano in a way that will likely be new to most of us. Well, to me, for sure.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973). Watched the 2005 DVD cut of this classic, which (although it’s been a while since I saw the restored 1980s version) makes some extremely curious decisions about things to trim – and in some cases, things to add (including the lyrics in the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” scene). Picture and sound are improved, but I’m missing too many savory moments to be able to approve. Prepping for a lecture on revisionist Westerns.

Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009). Winner of the top audience award at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. Oh, SIFF audience, you are a caution. (full review 10/?)

The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson, 2009). Gervais as the only mendacious man in a society that doesn’t know how to lie; a set-up that leads to the invention of religion. A funny idea and a sneaky one, with one Moses-like sequence sure to become a classic. (full review 10/2)

Movie Diary 9/28/2009

When I attend the Port Townsend Film Festival, I tend not to go to the movies very much. This is the ninth year I have gone to talk to classes at Port Townsend High School and participate in a few events at the fest and go to nice restaurants and sit in the sun. (It possibly shouldn’t be sunny in Port Townsend, Washington, in late September every year, but somehow it usually is.) This year I saw two movies; see tomorrow’s post for those.

Elsewise, along with the usual film-as-art talks at the high school, I moderated a talk with Cloris Leachman there one morning. “Moderated” is a somewhat absurd word in this context; I sat next to the Oscar-and-nine-time-Emmy-winner and pitched a few questions while marveling at the razor-sharp comic instincts and unflagging energy of this 83-year-old kook. Her anecdotes about how she created bits of business for herself in otherwise thankless roles demonstrated just how hard she’s worked, even if the results might look like off-the-cuff zaniness. She also corrected grammar in a slightly fearsome Frau Blucher manner, which was completely awesome. I observed two other Leachman sessions, including an outdoor Q&A where she used son George Englund, Jr., as a foil and played out at least a half-dozen running gags with unerring timing. She closed that session out with a performance of “A Wonderful Guy,” from South Pacific, one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, and very skillfully delivered even if she confessed she no longer had the high notes. (R&H put her in the lead for a month during the show’s original run.) After all that I was too worn out to get to the official “Very Special Evening With…”, where an indefatigable Leachman was interviewed by Robert Osborne.

Nice year, even though I didn’t get to many movies. Everybody spoke of the absence of the late Peter Simpson, for years the leader of the PTFF, as well we should have. I had two nice Q&As with Gabriel Figueroa Flores, the son of the legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Flores has made a documentary, Portrait of Diego Rivera, about footage his father made of Rivera in 1949, a project never completed. He told some good stories about his father’s relationships with John Ford and Luis Bunuel, which I’ll try to get to in future postings someday.

Just saw the two films, but I did see part of An American in Paris projected on the outdoor screen on Taylor Street. People sitting on straw bales, and lining up for a movie at the Rose Theatre, and “‘Swonderful” playing out under the stars – another year in Port Townsend.

1990 Ten Best Movies

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Gabriel Byrne, Miller's Crossing

If you look at the top-grossing movies of 1990, it appears the 1980s have not yet ended; there’s plenty of that kind of title here (Home Alone, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Die Hard 2, Kindergarten Cop). But something was changing for the better, and the two muscular films at the top of the list are signposts. Martin Scorsese delivered a movie that looked, first glance, like a gangster picture, maybe too easily in his wheelhouse; the Coen brothers offered a classic crime scenario that resembled, first glance, a clever homage to Dashiell Hammett. But both GoodFellas and Miller’s Crossing expanded their outlines to become new and exciting things in very different ways.

A longform project worked something similar on the documentary form: with The Civil War, Ken Burns brought a novelistic density to examining a central American crisis, but also conjured the spirit of past cinematic history-tellers, notably John Ford. (If Burns’ style has become overly consistent since The Civil War, it sure seemed fresh at the time.)

Meanwhile, internationally, there were key postings from some of the filmmakers who would help define the decade to come, such as Abbas Kiarostami in Iran and Wong Kar-Wai in Hong Kong. Days of Being Wild was Wong’s second feature, and Close-Up, a mind-blowing film about an actual incident that happened when a man went around impersonating the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf – with all the actual people in the case “playing” themselves in this movie – shifted Kiarostami from a run of children’s films to more adult subjects.

The ten best of 1990:

1. Miller’s Crossing (Joel and Ethan Coen)

2. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)

3. The Civil War (Ken Burns)

4. A Tale of Springtime (Eric Rohmer)

5. Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami)

6. The Grifters (Stephen Frears)

7. An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)

8. Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai)

9. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)

10. The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci)

The #10 slot is a flawed but sometimes astonishing movie, which is sort of what a #10 slot is for. Metropolitan was one of those gems that foretold the coming of the indie picture, or at least was a key part of the early movement.

Some fine near-misses: Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, which provoked a memorable kerfuffle at the New York Film Festival that year; two by Kaurismaki, The Match Factory Girl and I Hired a Contract Killer; Altman’s Vincent & Theo and Godard’s Nouvelle Vague. Reversal of Fortune and Edward Scissorhands were most unusual studio releases, and John Woo’s Bullet in the Head was a confirmation of his thing.

No Paris Impact (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week (not many press screenings for the big openings):

Paris.

No Impact Man.

Amreeka.

Walt & El Grupo.

I talk about Bright Star and the DVD release of That Hamilton Woman on Art Zone in Studio with Nancy Guppy, bowing on the Seattle Channel tonight. And online.

Oh and thanks Jason. Who knew there was a button on the bottom of the keyboard that would help the mouse talk to the other thing?

Movie Diary 9/23/2009

Free Style (William Dear, 2009). Corbin Bleu, second banana from the High School Musical company, gets a lead role as a kid with every teen problem around. His dream, just like mine, is to make it on the professional motocross circuit. Some nice muddy Northwest-y atmosphere from director Dear, the guy who did Harry and the Hendersons. Penelope Ann Miller plays a mother – what the hell? (full review 10/9)

Movie Diary 9/21/2009

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970). There are various ways of revising a genre, and here are two disparate approaches. Altman’s way creates a new kind of beauty while picking apart the conventions and mapping out the social anthill of a community and country; Penn’s film attacks with scathing slapstick. Both revisions re-visited for an upcoming lecture (see details here).

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). Siodmak not only brought all his Germanic eyesight over, but a lot of people had seen Citizen Kane before doing this one. Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner were both new models.

No Impact Man (Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, 2009). Writer decides on a yearlong stunt, blogs about it and gets a book deal. Admirable goal: to be as green as possible and reduce his footprint on the earth. Like Julie & Julia, but with less butter.

1952 Ten Best Movies

othello4Thought for a few seconds about a tie for #1 this time, with two big “O” movies almost in a dead heat. But no, I’m going with Orson Welles’ Othello, a remarkably inventive and alive Shakespeare adaptation produced in patchwork fashion. Would the film be what it is without its low-budget, stop-and-start production history? Probably not; it seems to be culled from glorious fragments, its choppy dubbed soundtrack especially. (Welles’ Iago, Micheal MacLiammor, kept a diary, Put Money in Thy Purse, which is an incredibly entertaining look at the movie’s making.) And yet what a testament to Welles’ vision and concentration, to create such a focused work under such circumstances. The movie’s a fever-dream, as Othello should be.

The #2 is a great film by Kenji Mizoguchi, The Life of Oharu, which is not as famous as Mizoguchi’s best-known classic, Ugetsu, but ought to be. This account of society’s unblinking degradation of a 17th-century woman is one of the devastating journeys in film, and was part of a brilliant run for this director and for Japanese cinema in general.

The ten best of 1952:

1. Othello (Orson Welles)

2. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)

3. The Quiet Man (John Ford)

4. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

5. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)

6. Bend of the River (Anthony Mann)

7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)

8. Rancho Notorious (Frtiz Lang)

9. Forbidden Games (Rene Clement)

10. The Sound Barrier (David Lean)

Bunch of movies swimming around those last slots: The Narrow Margin, Le Plaisir, and High Noon, which has its flaws but still conjures up quite a bit of classic-tude about it. Umberto D. might be on there if I’d seen it since the age of fifteen. Also I have a soft spot for King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry, a hothouse flower with Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston in swampy disarray.

Sort of a strange, what-do-we-do-now? moment in film history. Both joy (Quiet Man and Singin’ in the Rain) and melancholy (Limelight and Ikiru) on display. Maybe Minnelli’s Bad and the Beautiful summed it up, with a poison-pen letter from Hollywood to itself.

Culture Notes: Oscar Specials

laurenbacall2The special awards at the Oscars are a chance to reward worthy careers and correct huge oversights (Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock had to wait for Specials to get their hands on statuettes, inexcusable lapses that help explain Hitchcock’s snippy two-word acceptance speech: “Thank you”). The 2010 ceremony, continuing its spirit of abundance – 10 nominees for Best Picture – will fork over three Honorary Oscars and the Irving Thalberg award, the latter given out specifically to producers.

I can’t really explain why I am mildly obsessed with the Honorary Oscars, except for the general sense of righting past wrongs and affording an opportunity for the ceremony to pause for a few minutes to pay tribute to someone older than Megan Fox. The actual tribute gets shorter every year, and for a long time the tribute clips have been poorly chosen. (The Blake Edwards tribute was a bare-bones montage of sight gags, redeemed by Edwards’ own appearance: a piece of slapstick involving a motorized wheelchair.) For 2010, the honoraries will be handed out before Oscar night, at the “inaugural Governor’s Awards gala event” on Nov. 14 of this year.

Presumably that event will be mentioned/excerpted at the Oscar ceremony itself, in the manner of the dreaded technical awards recap. But still, how embarrassing. Maybe when they run the montage of the year’s deceased movie folk, they can play the Benny Hill music (“Yakety Sax”) as accompaniment, too.

The winners are deserving: Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, and Roger Corman. Exec John Calley will get the Thalberg. The Thalberg would’ve seemed the obvious choice for Corman, actually, since it goes to producers, but I won’t argue with the Academy being a little generous to the greatest figure in the history of exploitation (undoubtedly his track record as nurturer of young talent will be prominently lauded). Willis is a defining cinematographer of his generation, although his award is a reminder that the clubby nature of the Oscars kept him out of being nominated during his astonishing period in the 1970s (yep, no photography nominations for the two Godfathers, All the President’s Men, or Manhattan – gag). Bacall is an obvious choice, no complaints there, even if her actual filmography is overloaded with middling titles. She’s still a tie to a vanished kind of Hollywood, and she deserves extra points for having worked with Lars von Trier and Paul Schrader while in her eighties.

It would all make for a very nice Oscar ceremony, except that apparently it won’t. And I’m still annoyed about them giving Jerry Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award last year, instead of a proper special Oscar. Maybe this year they panicked at the thought of paying tribute to the director of Attack of the Crab Monsters in front of a half-billion viewers. Not realizing how cool that would have been.

Jennifer’s Bright Meatballs (Weekly Links)

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Bright Star: soothe thy lips.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Bright Star. “Measured, murmuring.”

Jennifer’s Body. “Nothing gets in the way of the one-liners.”

Love Happens. “One watches this movie wishing for a bit of incompetence or sloppiness.”

The Burning Plain. “Just dependent clauses.”

The Informant! “His brain spinning like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. “Nonstop monsoon of cheeseburgers and flapjacks.”

Somers Town. “Creates a glow around itself.”

Big Fan. “Some truly unexpected twists.”

Movie Diary 9/17/2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009). Big subject, big target, less beard on Moore. He can’t ambush anybody anymore, because he’s who he is, and it’s hard to address the crazies when the news cycle moves so quickly. (full review 10/2)

Fear in the Night (Maxwell Shane, 1947). Very like its 1956 remake Nightmare (by the same director), this is a single-minded entry about a man (DeForest Kelley) who wakes up convinced that his murderous dream is real. Not exactly ripping, but the cheaper production values help set the mood. Based on what must be a lesser Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish) story.