Thursday, June 24, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2, 2010
Dir: Jon Favreau

Being pretty late to the party, I have nothing to add to this, except that Sam Rockwell slides into this kind of role really well, even if his character's presence wears on the tightness (which it it not) of the film. I mean, you can even enjoy him in Charlie's Angels (2000).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Greed, 1924
Dir: Erich von Stroheim

In my extremely impressed state after having watched Foolish Wives (1922), I decided to look up some other films by Stroheim in an attempt to be blown away again. Greed is an adaption of the Frank Norris novel McTeague, and is considered by many to be his ultimate artistic achievement, even if the film got the same chop treatment as Foolish Wives. That in itself causes many problems, like I said earlier, and here the film was supposed to, according to Stroheim, have been some crazy length again like 10 hours. It was butchered in the editing room, and the excess film destroyed. So how does and kind of "reconstruction" deal with this?

Well, for one, like all films, photo stills were taken during production. Many of these were not destroyed. So the reconstructionists have edited in these photos with pans, zooms, and iris wipes, along with an new original score, that attempts to fulfill the vision of Stroheim while also connecting the dots of the film's structure. Does is work? I'd say the the power of Stroheim's images are still there, and Norris' story goes from annoying to intriguingly complex about halfway through, but the photos really don't do it justice, and for a modern audience, it's just not feasible. But considering that film buffs are the only people who would seek this out, it's worth it.

I guess you can tell that I am not as enamored with this as I was with Foolish Wives, and I've been trying to think about why. In Greed, the same kind of ruin falls upon people who hold too high a stock in money. A happy couple, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Trina (ZaSu Pitts), begin to crumble after McTeague loses his a ability to practice dentistry because he never went to dental school. Despite winning a lottery worth $5,000, they become obsessed with money, Trina driving herself mad over maintaining enough and McTeague descending into alcoholism. Their heightened paranoia also has them suspect Trina's cousin Marcus (Jean Hersholt) of conspiring to mess up McTeague's dental practice because of his jealousy of their new found money and love (he had ceded his courtship of Trina to McTeague because they were "buddies," but that friendship starts to disappear pretty quickly.)

The story circles back on itself, starting in the gold mines of California, shifting to city living in San Fransisco, and then moving back to the mines and deserts after the urban bliss has shattered. Most of the photos that were added involve subplots in the book that were dropped. They involve characters that accentuate the good and evil qualities that are in McTeague and Trina, and pretty obviously at that. I think it makes the two main characters lack any subtlety they might have in which the audience has to figure them out, if there is anything to figure out. I have not seen the theatrical release of this, so I can't really tell you if it would work better without it, but at the reconstruction time of almost 4 hours, it can be pretty long.

What Greed does well is the Stroheim thing, showing you things in a cinematic way that no one else was showing, in this case unadulterated greed, domestic abuse and the perils of alcoholism. I can only say that maybe this just didn't quite hit the spot because it isn't as sleazy as Foolish Wives. If you're down for reading a whole lot more about this, then you can go here, where Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about Greed, Stroheim, and other "lost" films, much better than I did.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Get Him to The Greek

Get Him to The Greek, 2010
Dir: Nicholas Stoller

To say this is a retread would be wrong, but it sure feels like it at times. There were some funny situations, but Russell Brand and Jonah Hill are, in my opinion, middling comedians. When they are the stars of the show, it's like beating a dead horse (or a fat guy) after the first couple of jokes. Diddy, for his part, actually did his bit well in that "I'm not really an actor" sort of way. Some interesting cameos as well. The lame, cliche message at the end about life being more than surface-level superficiality is more of the same from the Apatow gang though. It's kind of amazing how Hollywood knocks itself without ever having to pay the price. Hopefully they can put Aldous Snow to rest now, 'cause frankly he was never that big a deal.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Foolish Wives

Foolish Wives, 1922
Dir: Erich von Stroheim

This is the first silent film that I have ever seen that I could describe as being absolutely bonkers. Bonkers for 1922, most definitely, and even now I kept mumbling at the TV (being slightly drunk), "I can't believe they let him get away with this." Well, Stroheim didn't really. When he brought in his original rough cut, he intended for Foolish Wives to run anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. What a madman! He didn't get his wish, and he made a huge stink about it. But that was what always got Stroheim in trouble. He didn't give two shits about producers and spent studio money out the wazoo way before Orson Welles was a problem child.

Foolish Wives
is a film about impostors, greed and infidelity in Monte Carlo. Three Russian "aristocrats" are on the prowl for easy targets to scam and find one in Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont), the young wife of the much older Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians), the new U.S. Special-Envoy to Monaco. "Count" Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Stroheim) uses his many talents to charm and seduce her even under the eye of her husband, though he can sometimes be distracted by Sergius' cousins, the "Princesses" Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch). They are also involved in a counterfeiting scheme, gambling with fake money to win the real stuff, which we know must end badly. Stroheim recreates Monte Carlo in rich detail, and many memorable aspects of the film occur in scenes as above, where we feel that we are in a real place, exotic and decaying and wholly tempting.

What makes this film so crazy then? Well, here's a few reasons why it was in 1922: Sergius dupes the gullible, lusts after a retarded teenager, and attempts to undo an innocent American. It's also never entirely clear, but his "cousins" may actually be his lovers as well as his scam team (there are hints). Stroheim was easily identifiable as the sleazy euro-baddie in many of his pictures, and because he grew up in Vienna, he knew the territory well. I think the most interesting thing about him in this is how his stoic Teutonic face shifts during scenes, as when he lets a moment of lust come over him in lip-licking frenzy and then slides back into to his disguise. The film invites us to relish Sergius' more subtle methods of enticement and delight in his grander fabrications. Many key scene are dominated by eye movement and glances, an ingenious device for silent film and one that could still work today in a really subtle and complex way. I think what really drives it over the edge for me are the instances when slow-motion is used to drive home a point, but not in a way that seems like it's hitting you on the head. Even in a very dark (thematically) scene, it can be very poetic and effective, and that stuff just gets me.

The problem with watching Foolish Wives is that it is not what Stroheim intended. The movie that premiered in 1922 was a skeleton of the original and was barely comprehensible from a spectators perspective. There are many things left out that are in his original notes that were to serve as climatic sequences: a rape (of a retarded teenager), a corpse shown at dawn in the midst of garbage floating out to sea, and a premature birth. These things were shot, but are missing from any version you get a chance to see. What I watched was a Kino reconstruction, what experts and film archivists believe to be the best guesstimate of what would be the closest to an intended film, but not all the footage survives so it's impossible to get a real "director's cut." Even in this, sometimes the time as known in the film is a little bizarre and you wonder what is happening or "when" exactly it is. All you can really do is enjoy what's given to you, but that is really easy to do if you enjoy a director showing dirty things in a film medium where you would not normally expect it. The film moves beyond the obvious sensationalist sex melodrama because of Stroheim. This is a masterpiece, however you see it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Les Vampires

Les vampires, 1915
Dir: Louis Feuillade

I don't mean to be nonchalant or even dismissive of really old films (I've have been quite impressed by some of them as you well know), but you really, really have to be going out of your way to watch them. Which, of course, I am. Les vampires, a 10 part French serial, is not easily overlooked because it is at the beginning of many traditions: gangsters/international crime capers and the film serial, or what we would today think of as an extended drama, say an HBO show or your great film trilogies or what have you. It wasn't the first one, but definitely the most ballyhooed. Despite all the acclaim, it is still a job to sit through, and at 400 minutes in total length, way too much for the casual modern viewer. So what is this exactly? Well, it's 10 episodes (which would have been shown separately) concerns Guèrande (Edouard Mathé), a journalist who is trying to uncover the truth about a mysterious society of anarchist gangsters who call themselves "Les vampires." Journalist? So this is Tin Tin circa 1915? Pretty much. There are a lot of pioneering things, like deep-focus shots, wacky stunts, car chases, assassination attempts (you know, all the good stuff), which are, truthfully, pretty tame (unless of course you can give it the benefit of the doubt and go, "Wow, in 1915? That's crazy!" But after 300 get the point). The most interesting thing about this has to be the public's reaction to it in 1915. As a piece of pure escapism, it was a smash hit because it was released during the height of WW1, but it was almost banned because of the way it glorified gangsters, particularly the femme fatal Irma Vep (Musidora). "Irma Vep" is an anagram of what? Oh, you clever Frenchies.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Winchester '73

Winchester '73, 1950
Dir: Anthony Mann

This has to be on of the best genre films ever made.
This film shows Mann's abilities, much more so than Side Street (1950), to depict a large cast of complex and fleshed-out characters. Indeed, this will remind one of those multiple connecting story line narratives that are so popular in modern cinema, but Mann handles it in manner that is far more gentle than Paul Thomas Anderson, or whoever else specializes in such pictures nowadays.

Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) has been trying to track down his brother (Steve McNally) for some time now. He is not on friendly terms with him though, because he killed their father. To make things worse, he shot him in the back. Finally, Lin catches up with him in Dodge City, but neither of them has guns because Marshall Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) makes sure no one has weapons while in the city. Both participate in a shooting contest, and Lin emerges victorious and his prize is a Winchester ’73, a one-of-a-kind rifle. His brother, who now goes by the name of Dutch Henry Brown, steals the rifle and quickly escapes out of town. Lin’s interest lie more in capturing his brother than it does in retrieving in the gun, but the story of the movie quickly shifts to that of the gun, which is passed through multiple characters, all of whom are in close contact with Lin. Two of them, Indian Trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) and Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) are out-of-this world awesome for the duration of the time they are given. The entire mood of the film is also shadowed by the arrival of the news of Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, which gives the local Indians, led by Young Bull (Rock Hudson), more reason to be aggressive.

There is certain type of dramatic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with these connecting story line sort of films, but whatever it is, Mann stays clear of it. It is astonishing to think that this was marketed as a conventional action movie in 1950, especially when modern audiences would most likely give up as soon as the camera strayed from Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, delivers a great performance here. I’d go so far as to say that he was really a great performer with an ability to imply a certain depth not present in the scripts of these sorts of films. Of course, much credit goes to Mann as well, who labored over this stock script and transformed it into the cinematic masterpiece it is.

The way in which Mann implies that something much more important and emotional is going on underneath the obvious drama is one of the highlights for me. The condition of these characters compliments the dramatic arc, which makes them all the more difficult to notice. The cinematography here doesn’t have the benefit of being widescreen or being in color, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals have the same sort of clarity and beauty found in many of Mikio Naruse’s films of the same time. In a way, Mann is somewhat of America’s answer to Naruse. Both filmmakers create something underneath the simple surface drama, and that is what makes their work so appealing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Truffaut vs. Godard

Some interesting stuff that I found on the web, which just asserts my own opinion of these two vaunted francophone directors:

On 21 October 1984, François Truffaut dies of brain cancer. He is 52 years old. Jean-Luc Godard does not attend the funeral, which, in Montmartre Cemetery, brings together the whole family of French Cinema. For ten years the two filmmakers have been enemies. Since 1973 the two former friends, leaders of the New Wave, have not seen each other. They are no longer on speaking terms.

But Godard is terribly upset by Truffaut’s death. Memories flood back: their shared love for the cinema, the years spent together in the cine clubs and movie theaters, how these two rebellious kids learned about life, watching and adoring the same films. In the December 1984 special issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, dedicated to Truffaut, Godard writes: “François began making films with his hands, with daubs of ink, and throwing stones into a pond. We had Diderot, Baudelaire, Élie Faure, André Malraux, and François. Afterwards there were no other real critics of art.”

A few weeks later, Godard feels forsaken and vulnerable. In January 1985 he writes: “It’s not by chance that François died. A whole period has disappeared. He managed to do what the rest of us didn’t attempt and failed to do – he was respected. Through him, the New Wave still had respect. Because of him we were respected. Now that he’s gone, we are no longer respected. In his own way, François protected me. I’m very frightened now that this protection no longer exists.” Four years later, in 1988, François Truffaut’s letters are published; everything again foods back. Godard writes a preface to the volume: “The battles of film lovers of the beginning, which we inseparable, then the excursion to Cannes in May 1959, with the triumph of The 400 Blows; and “Cocteau, Truffaut, Léaud, on the Croisette”; and then the birth of Breathless, Truffaut’s “gift” to his two-year-older friend, Godard. It was a time of camaraderie and complicity. Godard describes himself as playing Athos to Truffaut’s d’Artagnan. And he recalls the films developed together from Jules and Jim to Two or Three Things I Know About Her, from Shoot the Pianist to Vivre sa vie, the allusions and friendly nods they contain, the little telegraphed words of encouragement; money is passed back and forth; they stick together. Jean-Pierre Léaud moves easily from one universe to the other: Antoine Doinel becoming the clumsy investigator of Masculin, féminin or the apprentice revolutionary of La Chinoise.

Then there is the quarrel in the spring of 1973. They exchange insulting letters, incredible invective. Godard talks about it: “Why did I quarrel with François? It had nothing to do with Genet or Fassbinder. It was something else. Luckily that something else has no name. It was idiotic, dim-witted. Saturn swallowed us whole. We tore each other apart, little by little, neither wanting to be eaten first. Cinema taught us life. It took its revenge. Our pain talked and talked and talked. But our suffering was pure cinema, that is to say, it was silent. Maybe François is dead. Maybe I’m alive. There’s no difference, really, is there?” Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is trapped between his two “fathers”. They fight over him like separated parents fighting over a child.

Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to François Truffaut: mid-July, 1959, one month before shooting Breathless:
"I’ve finally found the coherent story line that will give Breathless its emotion. Old daddy George de Beauregard is working out pretty well. If Carolus (Bitsch) is not busy, I take him as first assistant. He’ll always be one shot behind me, but so much the better. I’ll let you read the shooting script in a couple of days. After all, it’s your screenplay. I think that, once again, you’ll be surprised. Yesterday, I talked about it with Melville. Thanks to him, and to screening some rushes of the Big Momo (Eric Rohmer was shooting The Sign of Leo], I’m in top gear. There’ll be a scene where Jean Seberg will interview Rossellini for the New York Herald. I think you won’t like this film even if it is dedicated to Baby Doll, but via Rio Bravo. I’d like to write you a longer letter but I’m so lazy that this effort will prevent me from working until tomorrow. We start shooting 17 August, rain or shine. In brief, the story will be about a guy who thinks about death and a girl who doesn’t. The events concern a car thief (Melville is going to introduce me to some specialists) who’s in love with a girl who sells the New York Herald and who is taking a course in French Civilization. It’s uncomfortable introducing something of me into a scenario that is yours. But we are becoming complicated. The thing to do is to shoot film and not try to be too clever. With friendship: one of your sons."

Text on Jean-Luc Godard: “Two or Three Things I know about Him” – by François Truffaut; 1966:

"Why did I get involved? Is it because Jean-Luc has been my friend for 20 years? Or is it because Jean-Luc is the world’s greatest filmmaker? Jean-Luc Godard is not the only director for whom filming is like breathing, but he’s the one who breathes best. He is rapid like Rossellini, sly like Sacha Guitry, musical like Orson Wells, simple like Pagnol, wounded like Nicholas Ray, effective like Hitchcock, profound like Bergman, and insolent like nobody else. Professor Chiarini, Director of the Venice Film Festival, says: “There’s cinema before Godard; and cinema after Godard.” It’s true, and as the years pass it’s increasingly clear that Breathless has marked the cinema, that it’s a decisive turning point, like Citizen Kane in 1940. Godard blew the system up, he messed it up, just like Picasso did with painting; and like Picasso, Godard has made everything possible. More prosaically, I can say that I have become a producer of the thirteenth film of Jean-Luc Godard because I noticed that the people who invested money in the preceding twelve masterpieces got rich."

Two letters from Jean-Luc Godard to François Truffaut (not dated, mid-1960s):

“Me too, dear Francesco, I’m totally lost. I’m wandering in a strange place. I think there is something very beautiful is prowling around close to me. But when I tell Coutard to catch it with a quick pan, it’s gone."

"We no longer get together, you and I, it’s really idiotic. Yesterday I went to see Claude Chabrol, who was shooting, and it was awful, we have nothing to say to each other. It’s like in the song, in the pale dawn, not even friendship survives. We’ve each gone off onto our own planet; we don’t see each other in close-up, like before, just long shots. The girls we sleep with separate us more and more instead of bring us together. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be."

The Quarrel:

Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to Truffaut end of May 1973:

“Probably nobody will call you a liar. Well, I will. It’s not more of an insult than ‘fascist”. It’s a critique. And it’s the absence of critique in such films, your film, and in the films of Chabrol, Ferreri, Verneuil, Delannoy, Renoir, etc., which I complain about. You say, Films are big trains passing in the night. But who takes the train? Those are trains too. What class of seat do they get? And who drives the train with the bosses’ spy standing beside him? They make film-trains too. And if you’re not talking about the Trans Europe, then, maybe it’s the suburban train, or maybe the train for Dachau-Munich, and of course we will never see that station in Lelouch’s film-train. You’re a liar because the image of you and Jacqueline Bisset the other evening Chez Francis (a restaurant on Place de l’Alma) is not in your film. And I’d like to know why the director is the only one who doesn’t fuck in Day for Night. I’ll come to a more material point. To shoot A Simple Film I need five or six million francs. Given Day for Night you should help me, so the audience will know that yours is not the only kind of film that gets made. If you want to talk about it, okay.”

Truffaut’s answer to Jean-Luc Godard, June 1973

“I’m sending back your letter to Jean-Pierre. I read it and I find it disgusting. It’s because of that letter that I think the moment has come to tell you, in detail, how, according to me, you act like a shit. I don’t give a damn what you think of Day for Night. But what I do find pathetic on your part is that, even now, you go to films like that when you know very well in advance they don’t match your idea of cinema or your idea of life. It’s my turn to call you a liar. At the beginning of Tout va bien, there’s this line: “To make a film, you need stars.” That’s a lie. Everybody knows about how you insisted on having Jane Fonda – who refused – while your financers told you to pick anybody. Your couple of stars, you got them Clouzot style. Since they work with me, they can work for one tenth of their salary for you, etc. Karmitz, Bernard Paul need stars. You don’t. So that was a lie. You’ve always had it, this way of posing as a victim, like Cayatte, like Boisset, like Michel Drach, a victim of Pompidou, of Marcellin, of censorship, of distributors who cut films, while in fact you get by very well doing exactly what you want, when you want, the way you want, and above all, keeping this your image as a pure tough guy, that you want to keep , even if at the expense of people who can’t defend themselves. When I saw Vent d’Est and the sequence “how to make a Molotov cocktail”, the only feeling I had for you was contempt. And a year later you shied away when we asked you to distribute La Cause du peuple in the street with Jean-Paul Sartre. The idea that men are equal is just theory for you. You don’t feel it. You just want to play a role and it has to be a big role. I think the real militants are like cleaning ladies: it’s not pleasant work, it’s daily, it’s necessary. But you, you’re like Ursula Andress, a four minute cameo, time for the flashbulbs, a few striking quips, and, poof, you disappear, back to the lucrative mystery. Shitty behavior! Really shitty behavior! For a while after May 68, nobody knew what you were doing. Rumors spread: he’s working in a factory; he’s formed a group, etc., then one Saturday we hear, it’s announced, that you are going to speak on RTL. I stayed in the office so I could hear you. It was one way of finding out, getting news about you. Your voice was trembling; it seemed full of emotion. You announced that you were going to shoot a film, The death of my Brother, about a black worker who was sick and whom they let die in the basement of a television factory, and listening, and inspire of the quiver in your voice, I knew first, that the story was probably not precisely true, or that you had tarted it up, and, two, that you would never make the film. And I said to myself: if this dead guy had a family, then they are going to live with the hope that the film is going to be made? There’s no role in the film for Yves Montand or Jane Fonda. But for fifteen minutes you gave the impression that you were “doing good”, like (Prime Minister) Messmer when he announces that the voting age is being lowered to 19. Fake! Dandy! Show off! You’ve always been a show off and a fake, like when you sent a telegram to de Gaulle for his prostate. Fake, when you accused Chauvet of being corrupt because he was the last, the only one to resist you! Fake when you practice the amalgam, when you treat Renoir and Verneuil as the same, as equivalent; fake when you say you are going to show the truth about the movies, who works for no pay, etc. If you want to talk about it, okay…”

I think it's pretty obvious who won the fight. FAKE! DANDY! SHOW OFF!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Georges Méliès

So this isn't a review about one film, just some thoughts on a bunch that I saw while looking for one in particular. Méliès is called cinema's first magician because he was one of the first guys to figure out the true potential of editing, especially the stop-trick. He called it magic. People believed it and had their Edwardian minds blown. These "magic trick" films are basically how he got his start, and as a stage magician, it's all he really wanted to do. For the modern viewer, when you watch these, you really need to look for other things because you know exactly what's happening. Luckily for us, not only was he cinema's first wizard, but also probably its first horn-dog and just a plain ol' goofball. His brand of physical comedy would be outdone soon enough and his perversions pretty chaste, but it's enough to make you keep watching the dated trappings with a smirk on your face. Then in 1899 he made a film about Joan of Arc (which is alright depending on how much you really care about the story of Joan) that has the basic semblance of narrative flow and he began to expand his film-making techniques to involve dissolves, time-lapse, multiple exposures, and especially hand-painted color on film.

As he got more and more into narrative film, these would help him with his fantastical and sensationalist leanings. This began with dream films, and then began to incorporate other stories which worked well with what Méliès was after. In 1901, he made Bluebeard which features an entire room of dead women hanging on walls. This is the start of a dark streak that happens to involve the frequent use of Satan in all his Dark Lord majesty. He really knew what would get these turn of the century people revved up in excitable way. Films like The Infernal Cauldron (1903), The Witch (1906) and The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) leave no mysteries in their titles and are actually pretty crazy all things considered. But of course, these are not the films he is remembered for.

In 1902, Méliès made Trip to the Moon and left a mark on cinema that could not be erased: First fantasy film; first sci-fi film; first special effects blockbuster (thanks a lot Georges...). It's a good time, and waaay ahead of its time, but that still doesn't mean that every person could watch this. My favorite intarweb review: "This movie sucks. There's no way a rocket could do that to the moon. And even if it could, those wizards wouldn't be able to breathe without space helmets." There's a part of me that hopes this is a sincere opinion of the film, because it would make it that much more awesome. Méliès really hits his stride though two years later , in what I would say is his best film, The Impossible Voyage. A sequel in its way, its about a flying train that goes to the sun. There's something about the way it's shot though that makes it somewhat different than its predecessor, and more endearing. I can't really place my finger on it, but there you go. It's really, really good. It's not that different, but it is. And then, in 1907, he made another "planetary body" film called The Eclipse. It's incredible. If you ask yourself during a film, "Wait, did the sun just take the moon from behind?," then it might be one of the all time greats.

The film that I was looking for was Tunneling the English Channel (1907), which I could only find through illicit means. Was it worth it? I guess so. It didn't do as much for me as I thought, but it is impossible to ignore the vast imagination that created it along with the innovation to pull it off. Méliès power to entertain began to wane as the 1910s progressed and he went bankrupt. Luckily though, he was "rediscovered" in the 30s and placed on the pedestal he know enjoys. He belongs there, not only fore his ability to amaze and entertain, but for being one of the first people to understand exactly what cinema can do.