Movie Diary 9/29/2010

Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010). Hmm, remaking a foreign arthouse film as a Hollywood arthouse film? Let’s see if the audience comes out for that. Can’t argue with the level of respect and gravity on display here, regardless. (full review 10/1)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen, 2010). You remember the time Allen fired the cast of a movie and shot it a second time with new people (September it was), not because the actors were bad but because it wasn’t working? I thought about that while watching this one. (full review 10/8)

Movie Diary 9/28/2010

Freakonomics (Seth Gordon et al., 2010). Different angles on the ideas offered in the big bestseller, and just about what you’d expect.

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006). All right, I liked it more than the first time I saw it. Still bugged by some things. But it all folds into an upcoming talk on movies about the Victorian-era interest in the occult and the trickery behind it: details here.

Movie Diary 9/27/2010

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969). The Port Townsend Film Festival happened last weekend, and the special guest was Dyan Cannon; her tribute evening (yrs. truly acting as moderator) began with a screening of this movie. Gee, it holds up well. More about it later, perhaps. Cannon was an excellent guest, articulate and warm, and anyone hosting her for dinner should know that she really likes roasted eggplant.

Number One (Dyan Cannon, 1977). As an impromptu part of the PTFF, Cannon brought her Oscar-nominated short film (40 minutes long) to screen. It’s a pretty remarkable film about childhood – nobody could/would make it today because of its frankness – and its empathy for the kid-mindset (and the way adults have amnesia about childhood) is complete. If it had subtitles and had been made by a young French director instead of a Hollywood bombshell, it would probably have led to a substantial directing career. (Trivia: this was photographed by Frederick Elmes the same year he did Eraserhead.)

Obselidia (Diane Bell, 2010). And this was the winner of the festival’s Best Narrative Feature prize, an odd and mostly charming little thing about a man compiling an encyclopedia of the obsolete, and the woman who pursues him. The indie-quirk is kept to a tolerable ratio.

Cell 211 (Daniel Monzon, 2009). Gets into a few unlikely plot developments after its first hour, but this prison-riot picture keeps the screws turned reasonably well. (full review 10/1)

The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). It was on TV during a lull, and I really hadn’t seen it since it came out. Some things are better left to fond adolescent memory. Scott Joplin rules.

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). A film that takes the zeitgeist by the very neck and writes the story of our time large across the epoch….nah, it’s just an entertaining movie. (full review 10/1)

Sicilian Catfish Never Sleeps (Weekly Links)

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. “Like listening to a slightly crazy person tell you about five different subjects.”

Catfish. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Here we go again: a couple of weeks after the Joaquin Phoenix documentary “I’m Still Here” opens (followed shortly by an admission that yeah, it’s not a documentary, they made it all up), along comes another entry in this annoying trend.

“Catfish,” a film generating strong buzz as a documentary thriller, purports to be completely authentic account of what happens when a hip young New York photographer, Nev Schulman, begins an Internet friendship with a young woman living in Michigan. Nev’s brother Ariel just happens to be a filmmaker. He and partner Henry Joost decide to begin shooting Nev’s online encounter, which quickly becomes a romance.

Since this film is being sold as a big mystery, I suppose “spoiler alerts” are here required. So consider yourself alerted, even if I won’t say much about what happens. But anybody watching the first ten minutes of the movie will have a fairly good idea that Nev’s long-distance girlfriend will turn out a little different from what he imagines.

If the filmmakers made it clear that this is a faux-documentary, “Catfish” would be a lot easier to review (and their clever sleight-of-hand easier to appreciate). But they keep insisting it’s all true.

It doesn’t pass the smell test for me, at least not until the final 20 minutes, when a new group of characters enters the scene. But most of what we see looks trumped up and suspect.

Credibility keeps getting tested: what would be the point of playing out one sequence in the middle of the night at an isolated homestead, except to ratchet up the “Texas Chainsaw” vibe? How could Web-savvy hipsters like these guys not have Googled the Michigan family at an early stage?

That’s another thing that falls flat: the movie’s sober warnings about the dangers of the online world, indicated by ominous close-ups of Facebook screens and YouTube videos. Wow, quite a revelation—you mean you should be careful about whom you believe? That you should verify information? Somehow I think that was true even before the Internet came along.

If “Catfish” is a hoax, then I guess the filmmakers will have proved their point: people are too easily taken in by what they see.

I assume that some of the stuff here is real, and some not. Unfortunately, this question is distracting enough so that I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie, and found some of it exploitative.

But I can’t be sure, of course, because I don’t know what this movie is. And why we should have to guess about that is a mystery to me.

Jack Goes Boating. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directing debut, “Jack Goes Boating,” is based on a stage play, a very small-scaled, actor-oriented piece.

In other words, just the kind of thing an actor might want to direct. Intimate, not plot driven, and a showcase for a quartet of performers.

Not surprisingly, Hoffman plays the central (and title) role, as he did on stage. Jack is a chubby, awkward limo driver, a man so socially uncomfortable that his best friends must sit him down at the dinner table with an available woman, thus forcing him to possibly ask her on a date.

The woman is Connie (Amy Ryan, Oscar nominee from “Gone Baby Gone”), herself a rather odd duck. The movie’s mostly charming idea is that the prospect of dating Connie will lead Jack to two diverting projects he wouldn’t otherwise have tried. She allows as how she’d like to go boating when the weather gets better, which means Jack must take swimming lessons. Also, he impulsively promises to fix her dinner—so Jack takes instruction from a chef and attempts to turn himself into a cook.

Another couple also figure in the drama. Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) are married, but with problems—and by coincidence, Jack’s cooking lessons stir up some simmering issues between them.

Robert Glaudini’s script is thoughtful and full of tiny character observations. Its modestly-scaled ambitions probably played well in an off-Broadway setting. Hoffman’s direction, however, doesn’t do the material a favor. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the art of the pause or the drawn-out sentence, but Hoffman doesn’t seem to have adjusted the metronome from stage to screen. Some scenes come to a slow, quiet halt before your eyes. Later, when the action amps up, the timing feels just as off.

Hoffman’s mouth-breathing performance isn’t bad, but the other performers actually come across better. Amy Ryan doesn’t hit a false note, and Ortiz and Rubin-Vega (she was one of the original stars of the musical “Rent”) create unusual characters.

It doesn’t quite come off, but it has around the same interest as an offbeat night of live theater in a small space. Offbeat and upbeat: “Jack” delves into some unhappiness, but emerges with a sense of people moving along and trying to get better, as best they can.

Heartbreaker. “Works a cheat on the audience.”

The Sicilian Girl. “Crude can be effective.”

Bran Nue Dae. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Peering into the Australian hit “Bran Nue Dae,” it is possible to understand why this musical touched a nerve Down Under, both as a stage hit 20 years ago and as a recent film release.

You can understand it more than participate in it, probably. Broad and silly and painted in eye-blinding colors, “Bran Nue Dae” seems to have a uniquely Aussie flavor—and in its own campy way, it addresses a sore point of Australian culture.

Most of the cast is comprised of Aboriginal people, whose ancestors were the indigenous population of Australia, and whose existence was completely marginalized by the white folks who came to settle there. It’s typical of the movie’s approach that the lyrics “There’s nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away” are delivered as cheery, ironic pop music, not a bitter lament.

There’s a thin storyline: plucky hero Willie (Rocky McKenzie) can no longer remain in his Catholic boarding school, and runs away to return to his hometown of Broome. The goofy headmaster (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush) won’t let this stand, and goes in pursuit. As Willie finds a traveling companion in a singing hobo (Ernie Dingo), he longs for a reunion with his dream girl (Jessica Mauboy, a winner on Australia’s version of “American Idol,” which I suppose is called “Australian Idol”).

The road trip is destined to tie every plot strand together in ways that stagger belief, but believability is not really the point. Having a good time is.

The songs, by Jimmy Chi and others, have apparently become anthems in the Aboriginal community since the original stage show. You can see why: in their exuberance, they seize a certain optimistic tone for indigenous people—a celebratory attitude that serves as a rallying cry, not a death knell.

I wish the movie around this spirit was grounded in—well, anything. Director Rachel Perkins keeps everything so lighter-than-air that the film begins to resemble a batch of brightly-colored helium balloons. Well, why not? In Australia, the movie has turned into one of that country’s biggest financial successes. More power to it, even if American audiences are less likely to feel the love.

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about whether satire ever changes the world, looking ahead to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally. Listen here; the movie bit kicks in at 16 minutes in.

And a quick appearance on the Seattle Channel’s “Art Zone in Studio” with Nancy Guppy. That’s tonight at 8.

Movie Diary 9/21/2010

Waiting for “Superman” (Davis Guggenheim, 2010). Documentary about the state of education today, with some strongly-worded arguments from people you’ve probably seen on “60 Minutes” and elsewhere, such as Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. It also follows a handful of kids trying to navigate through the messed-up system, all of whom are banking on a lottery to get into a good school – you can guess how the movie ends. (full review 10/1)

Movie Diary 9/27/2010

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010). Ryan Reynolds inside a wooden coffin, alone but for a cell phone. You had me at “the whole movie is set inside a coffin.” Somewhere Larry Cohen smiles approvingly. Even the opening credits are cool. (full review 10/1)

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973.) A larky script by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, enacted by some quintessential Seventies people in good form. A couple of the long, slow, talky denouement scenes look like something from a different century, in a good way.

The Anderson Tapes (Sidney Lumet, 1971). Lumet looks like he’s practicing for NYC movies to come; a heist movie with some rather sizable plot puzzlers.

Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953). One’s memory dims how much stock footage and repeated scenes of “muTANTs” running through subterranean caverns there is in this picture, but the stuff that’s good is truly good, and memorable, with Menzies’ eye creating a convincingly nightmarish small town out of a few constricted sets.

The Sicilian Girl (Marco Amenta, 2009). A startling ending and an offbeat leading lady go quite a way toward lifting this TV-style exposé of a Mafia whistle-blower, based on a true story. (full review 9/24)

1946 Ten Best Movies

James Stewart, on the possibility of shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.

I began giving over my Sunday mornings to this project in the first week of 2009, and now we’ve run out the string: ten-best lists for every year going back to 1919, beyond which I will need to do much more movie-watching to assemble something remotely respectable. After taking next Sunday off (the Port Townsend Film Festival looms, although “looms” isn’t quite the right word), I will begin writing Sunday Crop Duster entries on a “movie of the week,” the definition of which has yet to be, ah, defined.

The #1 for 1946 is a well-known picture that was once not well-known. When I began seeing It’s a Wonderful Life on late-night TV it was actually something of a cult movie, not having been re-discovered yet, which made it seem all the more unusual and unexpected and privileged: a cautionary note about the American Dream, despite the happy ending. Frank Capra’s fable is a painstakingly thorough and well-constructed picture (that newel post!) but almost seems out of his control at times. It’s a complicated movie, all about dreams and disappointments and seeing the here and now, and it shifts itself in interesting ways the older you get.

For the best of the rest, Hitchcock and John Ford merely contribute a couple of their finest pictures, and the Powell-Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death stands with the Capra film as a fantasy that uses a supernatural device to deliver a philosophical look at existence. Notorious is one of the most perfectly-realized movies ever made, but this time the riches of Capra and P&P rule the year. The ten best movies of 1946:

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)

2. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

3. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)

4. My Darling Clementine (John Ford)

5. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)

6. The Stranger (Orson Welles)

7. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)

8. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)

9. Let There Be Light (John Huston)

10. The Murderers Are Among Us (Wolfgang Staude) and Paisa (Roberto Rossellini)

Let There Be Light is the war documentary, shot at a psychiatric hospital for returning WWII vets, that was banned for decades and is still difficult to see now. Shot to convey uplift about the success stories of soldiers getting treatment for psychological wounds, the film nevertheless gives an unflinching and unsettling look at the toll of combat (it is unforgettably narrated by Walter Huston: “Here are men who tremble…”). The Best Years of Our Lives also looks at returning veterans, and is one of those rare big Hollywood films that aims to capture its moment and succeeds.

The #10 slot are “rubble films,” shot in the remnants of real places: Staudte’s film is the fountainhead of East German cinema, Rossellini’s is a collection of war stories. (Apologies to Shoeshine, which I can’t really “place,” not having seen it since an adolescent viewing.) Just missing the cut is David Lean’s Great Expectations, an impeccable Dickens adaptation.

There are some noir films in the next rung of titles, including Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia, and Roy William Neill’s Black Angel. Not quite as keen on Charles Vidor’s Gilda as everybody else is, but it’s in there. And enjoyable works by a couple of continental sophisticates: Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown and Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris.

There must be a place for King Vidor’s (and Selznick’s) Duel in the Sun, as well as a much less heated western, Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage. Mark Robson’s Bedlam holds up the Val Lewton quality horror run, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women points the way to subsequent classics from this director. A pair of delicious British mysteries from the team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, Green for Danger and I See a Dark Stranger, indicate a rich period for Brit-film.

That’s that. Enough with the list-making for a while. I can hear the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral from my window, so I suppose an angel just got his wings. Thanks for reading these things – now if I can figure out a way to make them browsable in chronological order….

Easy Town (Weekly Links)

Hester Prynne never endured the Thursday chipped beef: Easy A

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Easy A. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Dismissing teen comedies is an expected part of a movie reviewer’s job, unless the film is released by an indie distributor and has Ellen Page in it. And hey, it’s easy; “The Virginity Hit” opens this week, and that’s awful enough to require little explanation.

Easy, but sometimes lazy. So most reviewers missed a kicky comedy last year in “Fired Up!”, a movie about two jocks who attend cheerleader camp in order to meet girls.

That film’s director, TV veteran Will Gluck, has another one this week, “Easy A.” This time good reviews should be more plentiful; it’s impossible to miss the assured starring turn by Emma Stone, or the terrific ensemble cast, or the sharp one-liners.

Still, as with “Fired Up!”, the plot sounds dubious. Misfit high-schooler Olive (Emma Stone) realizes that she’ll get more attention at school—even if it’s the wrong kind—if her classmates think she’s been sleeping around. She hasn’t been, but she strikes a bargain with a gay classmate (Dan Byrd) that their imaginary liaison can help him stop being harassed by bullies. She soon shares her reputation with prestige-seeking nerds and losers.

The “A” in the title is inspired by “The Scarlet Letter,” which Olive’s lit class is reading. It doesn’t really play too great a role in the script, except to provide regular, well-deserved insults aimed at the Demi Moore movie version.

Gluck has a flair for the jazzy moving camera (not the jiggly kind) and he likes to push scenes along with rapid-fire wisecracks. You see this breathless style in TV all the time, in shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” but for some reason people rarely try to sustain it in movies. When it works, it’s a hoot.

Also, Gluck gives actors room to be silly. This pays off beautifully when you’ve got Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci playing Olive’s parents; they banter and tease and basically come across as the most fun parents you’ve ever imagined. Representing the grown-ups, we’ve also got Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow as teachers, and Malcolm McDowell as the principal. Now that’s a high school staff.

Among the students are dead-on Amanda Bynes as a Jesus-preaching proponent of abstinence, Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl”) as Olive’s longtime crush, and Aly Michalka as Olive’s best (but not especially nice or supportive) friend.

A good group, led by the spirited work of “Zombieland” star Emma Stone. She blends snarkiness and sincerity in a healthy way, and makes us believe in what could have been a gimmicky premise. Just like the rest of this self-aware movie, which pays explicit homage to the John Hughes high-school comedies of the 1980s but lays down a funny new vibe of its own.

The Town. “At times you feel the material wanting to stretch out into a miniseries.”

Mademoiselle Chambon. “Can’t entirely disguise how familiar this situation is.”

The Virginity Hit. “Repellent people and not-especially-funny jokes.”

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There may well be a good movie to make from the unreal life of Hugh Hefner, perhaps a fictionalized saga of publishing and morality and endless parties for swingers. With a lot of sex in it.

But that “Citizen Hefner” will have to wait, and “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” is here in the meantime. A frankly fawning documentary profile of the Playboy founder, it argues the case that Hefner’s role in changing 20th century culture went beyond the printing of pictures of naked women.

Director Brigitte Berman traces Hefner’s determined battles against restrictive censorship laws (and an uptight sexual culture in general) when Playboy was launched in the 1950s. In fact, Hefner did play a significant role in First Amendment issues in his first iconoclastic decade of publishing. Berman also lays out evidence for Hefner’s activities in the civil-right movement, which ranged from the forward-looking inclusion of black celebrities in his magazines and TV shows to the publication of important interviews with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He also backed up the rhetoric: when a couple of Playboy Club franchises in Florida and New Orleans went to a whites-only policy in the 1960s, Hefner bought back the clubs himself and integrated them, taking a financial loss.

All of these things are in Hef’s plus column. There’s also the more debatable elements of his Playboy Philosophy, and the peculiar vibe generated by the fact that his magazine published some powerful ideas (and the best available writers) while also presenting a parade of airbrushed, available women with no clothes on.

A few naysayers are given voice, including morality crusader Pat Boone and the influential feminist writer Susan Brownmiller, who continues to decry Hefner’s centerfold-peddling doctrine (her battles with Hefner go back decades, and she now has the weary humor of someone describing a naughty, exasperating old uncle).

These inclusions hardly make the movie balanced; it’s still a gushing portrait. But if this tone gets tiresome, and the running time (at 124 minutes) goes on too long, the film keeps coming up with vintage footage that brings back choice moments: Hefner on Sixties talk shows, or his strangely geeky appearances on “Playboy After Dark,” a staged cocktail party with celebrities. The 84-year-old Hefner chimes in regularly, sounding like a man who hasn’t really changed his ways much over the decades. Of course, he’s a brand name; they’re not supposed to change. The spectacle is both oddly reassuring and not a little strange.

Bunny and the Bull. “Soon becomes monotonous.”

The Harimaya Bridge. “Pokey.”

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about the faux-documentary phenomenon, including Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. (This was recorded before Casey Affleck admitted I’m Still Here was a hoax; but we got it right anyway.) Listen here; the movie bit kicks in 15 minutes into the broadcast.

Sunday afternoon, September 19, I’ll be talking at 2 p.m. at the Frye Art Museum about “Domestic Discontent” in films such as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. It’s free; more info here.

Movie Diary 9/16/2010

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010). Controlled and extremely serious picture based on a Kazuo Ishiguro novel with sci-fi overtones. Can’t argue that there’s a concept here. (full review 10/1)

Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009). A very silly adaptation of an Aboriginal musical (for which the music sounds suspiciously close to that ancestral land called the Broadway), drawn from a successful stage show, with Geoffrey Rush as a priest. (full review 9/24)

Movie Diary 9/15/2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945). Granted, when seen on late-night TV at a tender age (the Dr. Zingrrr show, if you must know – Seattle’s Channel 13, early 1970s), this movie can look pretty boring. But it is a classy, erudite endeavor, with a great George Sanders performance (he gets the most Oscar Wilde lines) and the eeriely sleepwalking presence of Hurd Hatfield in the title role – Caligari and his subject in the same person.

A Scandal in Paris (Douglas Sirk, 1946). Sanders again, this time in a fluffy piece of sophistication about a rogue in Napoleonic France; his monobrowed sidekick is Akim Tamiroff, the women are Carole Landis and Signe Hasso.

Bunny and the Bull (Paul King, 2009). British whimsy about an agoraphobe and a boor taking a European road trip together, played out against artificial sets and painted animations. (full review 9/17)

The Harimaya Bridge (Aaron Woolfolk, 2009). A very sincere picture about a man (veteran Ben Guillory) going to Japan to retrieve his dead son’s artworks, and finding a new culture. Very sincere. (full review 9/17)