Movie Diary 6/30/2010

Stranger on Horseback (Jacques Tourneur, 1955). Nifty western from a Louis L’Amour tale, with Joel McCrea as a traveling judge who bucks a small-town business dynasty. Does its thing very elegantly in the space of 66 minutes.

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009).  Michael Caine in a London variation on Gran Torino – at least that’s the easiest thumbnail take on this film. Closer in form to Death Wish than the Eastwood picture, but somber enough to indicate that it doesn’t endorse vigilantism, which leaves a curious lack of oomph. (full review 7/2)

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Movie Diary 6/29/2010

Lonesome Cowboys (Andy Warhol, 1968). Rare screening, thanks to the Seattle Art Museum. Well, it certainly makes a change from Grown Ups and the like. The movie rides high on (sometimes manically amusing) campiness, and in this scheme it is somehow glorious that dialogue scenes are wiped out by the sound of an airplane passing above the familiar-from-a-zillion-westerns Tuscon set.

Eclipse (David Slade, 2010). I didn’t see the word Twilight in the opening credits, so this is the title I’m going with. The series comes to an absolute standstill, which seems to be the intention – an ingenious way to tease out a 90-minute concept into five films. (full review 6/30)

The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010). The stirrings of a Narnian franchise overwhelm Mr. Shyamalan, in a movie that makes one nostalgic for Lady in the Water. (full review 7/1)

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010). Intriguing and occasionally shocking take on the amazing Jim Thompson novel, with Casey Affleck expertly doing his thing. It’s good, but it doesn’t quite sustain that level of contemptuous sarcasm that Thompson created. (full review 7/2)

Séance (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2000). Holds up pretty well on second viewing, and the picture of a modern society that still holds on to its supernatural superstitions is effective. And Jesus, Kurosawa freaks you out with a shot of an empty corner of a room – skills there, folks.

1925 Ten Best Movies

Can anybody still show Battleship Potemkin to a college class these days, or is this frowned upon as a turn-off for potential customers who should not be challenged with anything made before 1977? ‘Cause I showed it to a class once, and nobody actually left the room, even if there were a couple of students who asked whether we would be seeing anything fun any time soon.

It’s a helluva movie, actually, and not just in a Museum Klassics, interesting-to-see-what-they-could-do-back-then kind of way. People really ought to watch it, though the original political purpose (at least the specific political purpose) has been discredited. (More general political echoes are easy to find.) Maybe Blu-ray could polish it up into a newly striking condition? As a series of events with shapes and shadows colliding in various dynamic ways for the purpose of advancing an idea, the movie really is a pip.

Billy Wilder narrates what he calls the greatest insert in the history of movies: “The sailors are revolting against the food on the ship and the captain says there is nothing wrong. The sailors say there are little animals in there eating away at that meat. ‘OK,’ says the captain, ‘let’s get the doctor down.’ Now in those days we made glasses where one lens slides over the other one and makes a magnifying glass and, when you see through the magnifying glass, there are thousands of maggots. The doctor puts the glasses on, turns to the captain and says, ‘It is perfectly all right.’ That’s when you wanted to jump out of the seat and right away become a Communist.”

Also in 1925 Chaplin and Keaton came up with beauties, and Erich von Stroheim did his bad thing. The ten best movies of 1925:

1. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein)

2. The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

3. Seven Chances (Buster Keaton)

4. The Merry Widow (Erich von Stroheim)

5. The Freshman (Sam Taylor)

6. The Big Parade (King Vidor)

7. Lazybones (Frank Borzage)

8. The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian)

9. Tumbleweeds (King Baggot)

10. Variety (E.A. Dupont)

The Freshman is Harold Lloyd, of course, and Tumbleweeds the final feature for William S. Hart, both true vehicles for their stars. I have never seen the proper version of Variety, if any exists, but there’s enough in truncated prints to suggest the trippiness of the project; and I’ve only been able to see another Weimar hit, G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street, in weird cut versions, too.

Good movies in the near-misses: Keaton also had Go West; Ben-Hur and The Lost World are impressive in their own ways; D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust put W.C. Fields together with Carol Dempster. Tartuffe is a very curious little exercise made by F.W. Murnau between masterpieces, and Body and Soul puts Paul Robeson under the direction of Oscar Micheaux, who still had a few chops at that point.

I Am Winter’s Knight (Weekly Links)

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Winter’s Bone. (Link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

For a movie rich with atmosphere and local color, “Winter’s Bone” also has a laser-like hold of plot: this indie picture moves forward with the resolute tread of a tracking dog.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” is set in the Missouri Ozarks, in a community of isolated homesteads that might be operating in the 1890s or 1920s, if it weren’t for the occasional modern gadget or vehicle. 17-year-old Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to find her wayward father, who has vanished somewhere in the thick, smoky woods that cover the countryside. He’s put up the family farm—a shack and a few acres of property—as his bail bond, which means Ree and her two younger siblings will be thrown off the land if he doesn’t turn up.

Unfortunately, the people who might know the father’s whereabouts are none too keen on revealing anything; almost everybody seems to be mixed up in various illegalities, most of which have to do with the isolated meth labs that have taken the place of the moonshine stills of yore. Worse, the folk around here live according to an extra-legal code that appears to be at least 200 years old, a code that revolves around loyalty, blood relations, and silence.

What’s most arresting about “Winter’s Bone” is the absolute lock-jawed determination of its heroine, who will suffer any sort of punishment, including emotional and physical, in order to answer the question of her father’s fate. Jennifer Lawrence, who gave a thoughtful performance in “Burning Plain,” completely gives herself over to the role. The other actors are variously tender and terrifying–and in the form of Ree’s uncle, a fearsome man incongruously known as Teardrop, both tender and terrifying. In the role, John Hawkes (“Deadwood”) gives one of those complex performances that makes you think, if this guy doesn’t get a supporting actor Oscar nomination, there’s really no justice in the world.

“Winter’s Bone” is directed by Debra Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Anne Rosellini. Granik manages to immerse us in the milieu of this unusual American space (or is it more usual than some of us think?), without coming across as some sort of cultural reporter who parachutes into the backwoods and takes an arm’s-length look at hillbillies. Instead, the killing and gutting of a squirrel for food is treated as a necessary skill that Ree needs to teach to her younger siblings, in a scene that unfolds with a matter-of-fact bluntness.

Along with winning the prizes for best director and actress in the audience-voted awards at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, “Winter’s Bone” previously took a Grand Jury prize at Sundance. A nice haul for a small-scaled independent film, but well earned.

Knight and Day. “A summer night at the multiplex in 1988.”

Grown Ups. “Avoids mid-life nostalgia by sticking with slapstick and bad taste.”

I Am Love. “Even Swinton gets inundated by the over-the-top approach.”

Daddy Longlegs. (Not yet posted.)

Holy Rollers. “Eisenberg’s been giving Michael Cera a run for his money in the diffident-hero department.”

And an articulate interview (her, not me) with Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik:

By Robert Horton

Before she won the best director award at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, Debra Granik visited the fest with her film “Winter’s Bone,” a gripping drama about a 17-year-old named Ree (breakout performance by Jennifer Lawrence) who searches for her missing father within the insular world of the Missouri Ozarks.

I interviewed Granik in a hotel conference room that was larger than the film’s main location. An intense and articulate speaker, she began by talking about the novel by Daniel Woodrell that inspired the movie.

Q: Were you interested in this part of the country before you read the novel?

Debra Granik: Before I read the novel I was not familiar with it. I’ve always been curious about ways of life in the United States that are so different from mine—I feel like I’m part of a large demographic of people that feel like they came from nowhere. To me it’s unfamiliar to think of long-term family histories affiliated with land where there is not affluence. This is not the landed gentry, this is poverty—I say “poverty” in quotes, because this is not spiritual or cultural poverty, it’s financial poverty. Financial hardscrabble.

Q: The area is not only geographically distinct, but it also operates according to its own rules.

DG: Economically, too. The word “hillbilly” is always at the margins when I’m being asked about the film, and what I found [in talking to residents] was that the definition was economically derived. Meaning, one image of the hillbilly is of a very reclusive person not participating in a larger economic system. When their houses don’t grow bigger, and they don’t have new cars, and their clothes grow worn and are re-used, does that make them lazy and not motivated? Are they under-ambitious? All these words are predicated on wanting to participate in a consumer society in which material accumulation is the goal.

Q: We assume that everybody wants to be upwardly mobile.

DG: Right. And a lot of people said to me, that’s never been a part of what folk culture has been about. You don’t always need more. You need what you need—you need to be fed, you have to have toys for childhood, you have to have a vehicle, you have to have Daddy’s squirrel gun, you have to be able to hunt. You need a lot of things, but you don’t necessarily need a fantasy of your house becoming four times larger than it is. It’s not being under-ambitious. The ambition is to like life for every day that you live it. It doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy something to make that life worthy. And some traditions really speak to that: playing music for no greater gain. Not aspiring to play the Opry in Nashville—maybe expecting to win a fiddle contest.

Q: I believe Jennifer Lawrence is in every scene, isn’t she?

DG:  I think it might be every single scene.

Q: You really had to be in tune to this particular actress, didn’t you?

DG: Very much, and when an actor is doing strong work, it’s like a beautiful symbiosis.

Q: How do you find the right tone, or pitch, for maintaining levels of acting through a low-budget shoot?

DG: I had the privilege of being part of the Sundance workshops years ago, and one thing I give credit to Robert Redford for fighting for is that he laments the day that American film business ever got to the point where you expect an actor to show up the day of, or the night before [filming begins], and just walk on and do it. Actors need time to ramp up, they need to rehearse. And the producers of this film allowed for a week of rehearsal—it doesn’t sound like much, but a full week is something powerful for an actor—to immerse themselves.

Jen had time on the property of the family that allowed us to shoot on at their place, and to meet the little girl that would play her little sister in the film. That happened because they actually bonded; the character was written as a boy. And we had to say to her mother, “In addition to using your house, your chickens, your horses, the oak tree, we were wondering if Ashley could be in the film too?” And they were astounded by that proposition, it was so foreign and out of left-field, but they’d seen that she’d gotten a big kick out of showing this citified crew around the property, and she’d bonded with Jen. And that would’ve never happened if Jen hadn’t shown up early.

Q: This movie is in a certain tradition of American stories.

DG: The western! The American western. Ree’s not gunslinging, but she’s gunslinging through her eyes, her determination, her loyalty. This is so tried-and-true in American films—movies of the thirties, movies by John Ford. The ordinary American who has one thing: one humble parcel of land, two siblings, she’s got these impeccable family values, right? She wants to keep her kin together. And she’s taking the journey of any western hero. There she goes: she has to set out, against her better judgment, to hostile territory. She’s warned, she’s told to turn back. She’s told not to trespass or transgress, and she does because she feels that it’s worth it. We called her a western hero in a girl’s body.

So is this a tradition? Yes. I don’t stick American flags in my films, I don’t add them. I film them when they’re there. Sometimes when I see a super-tattered one, one that’s exhausted, maybe is frayed, like the one that was on the family’s house that we filmed at—you know, this is the kind of western I feel the movie is. It’s threadbare and honest. I feel like it’s a beseeching western, it’s saying “Some of us have really hard lives, you know? It doesn’t mean that we don’t have resolve, that we don’t have lyrical moments, we don’t have the sweetest children and a humble house—but bless us on our journey, ’cause it’s hard!”

On KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher, we talk about another summer of sequels and remakes: here. The movie bit begins at 15:05.

Movie Diary 6/24/2010

Haxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1921). Kicking around some ideas for Frye Museum presentations in the fall. Haven’t seen this since a campus screening many years ago, which was undoubtedly with the William S. Burroughs narration – something the purer version of course lacks. (Though you miss Burroughs, somehow.) Plenty of hot interest in depravity here.

Vampyr (Carl-Theodore Dreyer, 1932). Thanks to Criterion’s DVD, a movie that seems like you’re seeing it anew. One thing about Dreyer, he takes about 30 seconds at the beginning of his movies to establish that a real film director is in charge.

Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010). Adam Sandler’s niceness coming through as usual, Rob Schneider in an intentionally bad toupee, Kevin James demolishing a backyard pool. Not much else beyond that. (full review 6/25)

Daddy Longlegs (Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, 2009). An unusual act of empathy and imagination, as an irresponsible father is depicted without judgment. Amazing performance in the central role by Ronald Bronstein, the guy who directed the very fine Frownland, which had a similar kind of integrity as this film. (full review 6/25)

Movie Diary 6/21/2010

Never Take Candy from a Stranger (Cyril Frankel, 1960). Part of a recent DVD set of non-horror titles from England’s Hammer Films. Which means it was written about by DVD reviewers. Which means I probably read about this movie. Which makes me ask the question: could nobody warn me about this thing? Jesus Christ, this is a creepy, devastating, bleak picture about a powerful child molester in a small Canadian town who gets away with his perversions because he’s considered harmless and because everybody in town is under his family’s economic thumb.

These Are the Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963). From the same DVD set, a kind of collision of Losey’s B-movie projects (sci-fi plot involving weird kids, plus violent teen rebels) with his loftier Euro-pictures (Antonioniesque  artists drifting around stark windswept exteriors, speaking of the world and its future), and damned if both parts don’t work pretty well.

Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch, 2010). Jesse Eisenberg in an indie about Hasidic youths smuggling drugs from Europe to NYC. Something like it really happened. Tricky blend of humor and coming-of-age stuff. (full review 6/25)

When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Maté, 1951). Crisp, colorful, really pretty good, as mankind races to build an ark-spaceship when another planet comes by.

The Last Man on Earth (Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo Ragona, 1964). Vincent Price as Richard Matheson’s omega person, and not a bad take on the material. Close precursor to Night of the Living Dead. And, by gum, also pretty Antonioniesque (shooting in Rome helps).

[Rec] (Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza, 2007). The sequel’s coming out, and I never saw this Spanish original. You can’t say they didn’t get the most out of a useful gimmick; there are some bona fide shocks in this thing.

2008 Ten Best Movies

Nurgul Yesilcay and Patrycia Ziolkowska: The Edge of Heaven

When someone in a movie steps on the same spot that another character has earlier walked, their journeys separated by minutes of screen time but possibly weeks or years in story time, the moment can be earth-shaking, if the event is framed in a suggestive manner. There’s evidently something about Germanic directors makes them inclined to create parallels such as this, and Fatih Akin is in that tradition, as he richly demonstrates in The Edge of Heaven. It’s a movie that takes you on a trip, in a way that puts most other crisscrossing-narrative films to shame.

A sense of time passing is prominent in some of the other best movies of this year: Jacques Rivette’s awesome Duchess of Langeais (a Balzac story once intended for Greta Garbo’s comeback picture), and Eric Rohmer’s swan song, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. Not a strong year for American films, as my list is dominated by Euros, with the tiny Wendy and Lucy and the large Dark Knight showing well. The ten best movies of 2008:

1. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)

2. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette)

3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)

4. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)

5. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

6. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)

7. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

8. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

9. Ballast (Lance Hammer)

10. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)

My list has changed since I pondered it in the waning days of 2008, partly because my local movie release schedule brought some ’08 titles to screens in 2009. I’m still slightly soft on A Christmas Tale, but I edge it above Ira Sachs’s Married Life and Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, films with a decent claim to the list. Wall-E just misses – for me it’s just a tad over-praised in the Pixar canon – and so does Burn After Reading – for me just a bit under-praised in the Coen brothers’ canon. And while Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t at the top of Mike Leigh’s best, it has some remarkable things in it, including a seamless portrait of female friendship and the rare idea that optimism can be an expression of honesty, not falseness.

I liked Clint Eastwood’s continued revision of his iconic image, Gran Torino, and the year offered pleasing comedies: David Koepp’s really fine Ghost Town, David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, and Peter Sollett’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Romances, after a fashion, that offered much included Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Adam Brooks’s Definitely, Maybe.

Acclaimed things I don’t warm up to include Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Synecdoche, New York, although the latter is the one I’d watch again. The year’s guiltiest pleasure was surely Mamma Mia!, the extremely silly (and weirdly green-screened) ABBA musical, which achieved moments of utter daffy pleasure.

This list and my 2007 list are all screwed up as far as release dates are concerned; someday I will sort that out. But the movies at the top of the list were part of the moviegoing life I had during calendar year 2008, and that’s how it plays out right now.