carlos (olivier assayas, 2010)

I've tagged Carlos under both film and television, which I think is appropriate. It was made as a TV mini-series running in three parts. It has been shown rarely as a complete movie, but the more standard presentation, as far as I can tell, is to show the three parts separately on TV. There are also edited "movie versions" than run two-and-a-half to three hours. I watched the entire series of three, which makes it a mini-series, but if you watch it, you'll see why I think it's a movie. It has the look of a movie, with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Carlos plays like the long-form serial television series that have become the standard for quality TV today, taking advantage of the extended running time to offer depth that wouldn't be possible in a shorter film. But the way the story unfolds reminds me more of a movie like De Palma's Scarface than it does a series like The Wire.

In fact, Scarface makes an interesting comparison with Carlos. Both are epic-length stories of the rise and fall of a narcissist on the wrong side of the law. One thing that would seem to make Carlos different is that its titular character isn't a mere gangster, but is rather a political terrorist. But politics takes a backseat throughout the film ... it's not as different from Scarface as you might imagine.

The scope of the movie is impressive. In covering the career of Carlos, Assayas takes us from 1973 through 1994, and crisscrosses nations and continents: London, Paris, Vienna, the Netherlands, Yemen, Germany, Algeria, Libya, Budapest, East Berlin, Syria, Sudan. Yes, at times it's a bit confusing, but the overall feel of the life of an international terrorist is clear.

Édgar Ramírez plays Carlos as a charismatic man who we can see would easily impress others. He's ultimately not very good at his job ... his most famous escapade, a takeover of an OPEC conference, mostly results in flying from airport to airport with hostages, never accomplishing any goals, until finally they take money in return for releasing the hostages. Nonetheless, the OPEC sequence is a masterwork in the world of action/thriller cinema. Assayas is more successful with his representation of the OPEC events than Carlos was in trying to pull off the caper.

The film does well in showing the grungy glamour of the lifestyle of Carlos, as well as his gradual fade from importance. The third chapter, which deals with the decline, is necessarily less exciting than what came before, but it does provide some closure on the story.

What is missing is a sense of the politics that drove Carlos and his associates. People toss off standard catch phrases about the revolutionary struggle, but the film rarely goes deeper than those phrases. Assayas is more interested in the character of Carlos, and he is very successful, but the ultimate lesson to be taken from the film is that the politics never really mattered, that Carlos' self-involvement was the key to the story. I don't need Assayas to provide an explanation for terrorist acts, but even with the decades-spanning nature of the movie, the individual acts almost seem to lack context. They work as scenes in an action thriller, but you wouldn't watch Carlos to learn about revolutionary thought.

Nonetheless, Carlos is a triumph of epic film making, riveting for most of its long running time, with a terrific performance from Édgar Ramírez. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10. For a companion film, try the aforementioned Scarface, or something with a similar topic, like The Baader Meinhof Complex.

what i watched last week

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Inevitably present on any list of the best film noirs. As much as any movie, Out of the Past could be shown as an ultimate example of the genre. It would make a fine introduction to people who haven’t experienced noir before. The striking black-and-white cinematography, the femme fatale (more than one, actually), the femme’s dupe (more than one, actually), the plot that makes increasingly less sense as the film progresses ... it’s all here. Roger Ebert once wrote a guide to film noir, ten things that make the genre stand out. Many of the items on his list are here: “A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.” “Locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.” “Cigarettes.” (He calls Out of the Past “The best smoking movie of all time.” “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.” Robert Mitchum is excellent as the detective with a past ... oftentimes, the dupe is a near-moron (see William Hurt’s character in Body Heat), but Mitchum’s detective is rarely fooled, which makes his actions even more impressive. He knows what he does with Jane Greer’s femme fatale will lead to destruction, and he does it anyway. Greer’s character is set up before she even appears on screen ... we’re told everyone falls for her, and soon enough, Mitchum falls in line. Toss in Kirk Douglas early in his career, and you’ve got it all, or close enough (and if you’re still hungry, there’s Rhonda Fleming as the back-up fatale). #179 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. For a companion noir, try Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

The Suspect (Shin-yeon Won, 2013). 7/10.

by request: the suspect (shin-yeon won, 2013)

I had very little idea what to expect with The Suspect. I have a rather narrow view of what a Korean movie might offer ... stylish gore and violence, mostly. But this turned out to be something different.

Not different as in “I’ve never seen anything like it,” but different as in “this isn’t Oldboy”. In fact, The Suspect is a fairly standard action spy thriller in the modern mode, a Korean version of the Bourne franchise, if you will. It’s pretty good at this, even if I wouldn’t recommend it as the first movie for viewers new to modern Korean films.

The plot is suitably complicated. I never understand these kinds of plots, anyway, and the Korean angle really threw me off. The Suspect has agents and double agents and whatever they call faux-double agents. But there is lots of border crossing ... the main character was a North Korean spy who ran into trouble when the new regime took over, which led to his escaping to South Korea, where he learns information that turns him into a weapon of vengeance. It’s assumed he’s a double agent, but in fact, he’s out for himself. He’s a defector, not a double agent. Meanwhile, the film shows a South Korea rife with corruption ... if there’s an ultimate bad guy, it’s the government, itself.

The Suspect goes on too long, but the defector, played by Yoo Gong, has charisma, and Hee-soon Park is also good as the man chasing the defector. Da-in Yoo turns the typical “let’s put a pretty girl in for eye candy” role into something more substantial ... she plays a journalist who is a key to exposing the corruption.

But the only real reason to see The Suspect is for the action scenes. And while there are some good ones, two stand head and shoulders above the rest. Both are car chases, which by now you’d think was an exhausted idea. But the first car chase marvels for 7+ minutes, and when a second car chase emerges late in the film, and you think they’ve already done this, they add just enough to make it an entertaining reprise. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929). There aren’t many films as notorious and highly regarded as Pandora’s Box. Pabst is regarded as one of the great directors. And, of course, Louise Brooks is a legend, and Pandora’s Box is the movie that, more than any, feeds that legend to this day. I’ve heard it said that Pandora’s Box seems like a modern movie, that it hasn’t aged ... I guess the idea is that Brooks’ Lulu is the kind of character you could still see today. Or maybe it’s the open lesbian content. Ultimately, Lulu anticipates the femme fatales of film noir, but that was “modern” 70 years ago. It sounds like I’m complaining, and I think I did find the movie disappointing because I expected a full-out classic. That’s not fair, and Pandora’s Box deserves a second look down the road, when I won’t be distracted by its reputation. In the meantime, Lulu’s single-minded selfishness is almost fun until the tragic end ... the fun comes from Brooks, who really does seem like she could seduce everyone who crosses her path. #246 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Fellini’s Casanova (Federico Fellini, 1976). One could say that Fellini was just being honest when he started attaching his name to the titles of his movies. In fairness, some of the time, his name was added to foreign releases of his films. But this one is indeed his Casanova ... the original title is Il Casanova di Federico Fellini. Since Casanova doesn’t come across as a very good person, and since he also seems to be a stand-in for the director, you can’t help but wonder why the director hates himself. Some of Casanova’s problems arise because he doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves. But in the film, it’s never clear he actually does deserve respect. The film has the colorful pageantry you associated with Fellini, all meticulously shot in a studio. But as the movie goes on (for more than 2 1/2 hours), it loses its energy the way the older Casanova does when he can no longer service the women who have helped make his reputation. Fellini was only in his mid-50s when he made Casanova, and you wouldn’t think he was burned out. In fact, it is said he thought Casanova was one of his best movies, although the critics didn’t agree. (It does make #883 on the TSPDT list.) 6/10. For a companion piece, I’d recommend “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology film, Spirits of the Dead.

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). It’s all Angelina Jolie. Oh, there is a lot of CGI work ... first-time director Stromberg has spent his career in visual effects, and has two Oscars for Art Direction. And there’s the story, a reworking of Sleeping Beauty that carries some contemporary attitudes alongside the classic tale. But it’s a Disney film, which means there are things that I suppose are for the little kids in the audience (the Three Pixies are the worst offenders) but which won’t likely do much for the parents who bring the little kids. Still, the combination of “for the kids” and “give the grownups something, too” works well enough, although the darker turns in the plot might give one pause when thinking of those kids. Elle Fanning plays the Beauty as a constantly-smiling, beloved-by-all Princess-to-be. It’s not Fanning’s fault that the role is fairly narrow in scope. But where the Beauty’s role constricts Fanning within its goodness, the title character Maleficient gives Jolie plenty of room to offer several shades of both good and bad, and Jolie takes full command of the role. She is what you’ll remember from Maleficent ten years from now. 7/10. Most obvious pairing would be with Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty.

Chef (Jon Favreau, 2014). 7/10.

by request: chef (jon favreau, 2014)

This was an interesting request, coming as it did from a friend who had first bonded with me over a shared love of Korean action movies. There isn’t any action in Chef, nor is it Korean. It’s just an enjoyable movie about a fairly ordinary theme, the middle-aged man trying to come to terms with his life, while reconnecting with his son.

Chef is definitely a Jon Favreau production ... he wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it. Making the main character be a chef allows for a slightly different setting for the standard tale. Favreau is not a chef, but he put a lot of work into learning the business, and he’s pretty convincing as he performs the job. His passion for cooking is clear and contagious. He has enough prestige among actors that he was able to get an impressive cast for a relatively low-budget film: Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Canavale, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris. Vergara, especially, is used well ... she tones down her usual overly cartoonish stereotype, and is much the better for it. John Leguizamo adds joy, and young Emjay Anthony as the son makes a good team with Favreau.

You’ve got a nice cast of actors who seem to be having a good time, you’ve got lots of yummy food, you’ve got a fine soundtrack. I can see why my friend recommended Chef.

But there is something puzzling going on here. Favreau’s chef, Carl Casper, is well-known in the world of fine cuisine, but his imagination is frustrated by the rut he finds himself in. He seeks a new beginning by opening a food truck, and it’s a big success, not only with the public, but with the Chef Carl, who is very happy and who connects with his son. The comparison between the chef and Favreau is obvious. He started doing improv, worked his way into acting in indie films, wrote and starred in the indie success Swingers, and began is directing career with Made, which had a budget of $5 million. Somewhere along the line he made a big jump: handed Iron Man and given a $140 million budget, he helmed a huge box office success that was also popular with critics. Iron Man 2 had an even bigger budget, and was even more popular at the box office. As a director, Favreau was like the title character in Chef.

Chef Casper finds himself by returning to his culinary roots, just as Chef is Favreau returning to the basics. But the “happy” ending of Chef comes when Casper is able to turn his food truck business into a high-end restaurant. He has more freedom than he did in his earlier restaurant job, but the point remains: he finds himself in the food truck, but the result is a return to the big time.

So, is Favreau saying that a movie like Chef is closer to Favreau’s true heart of filmmaking? Or is it just a refueling before he returns to big-budget blockbusters?

There’s room for both kinds of films, of course, but the message of Chef is muddled. It’s a nice movie, with individual scenes that hit home. But it is best taken for its surface sheen, not for anything deeper. 7/10. For a companion film, try Big Night.

what i watched last week

The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928). This came at the end of Keaton’s astounding run of great movies in the 20s. Not coincidentally, it was his first for MGM. After The Cameraman, he increasingly lost creative control. Keaton’s last films before MGM (including The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.) set an extremely high standard, and The Cameraman was probably the last Keaton movie that could comfortably be included in a retrospective showing of his best work. Having said that, it’s a notch below his best. Which isn’t bad at all. #442 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984). One of those “I can’t believe you never saw it” movies. A few years after this, Martin Brest directed Midnight Run, one of my favorite movies. And Eddie Murphy, only 23 years old, was bursting in talent and popularity. But I found Beverly Hills Cop to be very much of its time, and not in a good way. Nothing Murphy does here is as great as his redneck bar scene from 48 Hrs. Harold Faltermeyer’s score, which won a Grammy, is drenched in synth pop, and it feels like it never goes away ... Faltermeyer batters the audience. Which makes it appropriate, I suppose, since Brest directs the movie in the same style. Obviously, the movie struck a chord with the audience. It was an enormous box office hit, spawning two sequels. But I’d rather watch Bowfinger. 6/10.

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961). Influenced by (depending on who you ask) Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest or a different Hammett novel, The Glass Key, Yojimbo spawned many imitators of its own: A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, and even John Belushi’s samurai. It is one of the most enjoyable of Kurosawa’s movies, and Toshiro Mifune seems to be having more fun than usual, as well. All of the influences, before and after, make for fascinating viewing. Red Harvest was a detective novel from 1929, Yojimbo is a samurai movie from the 1960s that has the look of a widescreen American Western, A Fistful of Dollars is the film that introduced Spaghetti Westerns to most people, and Last Man Standing, which credited Yojimbo as its source, returned to 1930 and gangsters. Red Harvest is the best of all of these, but Yojimbo is easily the best movie of the bunch. #390 on the TSPDT list. 10/10.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). 10/10.

Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). 7/10.

The Sandlot (David M. Evans, 1993). 6/10.

the roosevelts: an intimate history

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.

Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.

I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.

Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.

The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:

Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).

The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.

There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”

Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.

I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.

revisit: the wizard of oz (victor fleming, 1939)

The Wizard of Oz is one of the 30 or so movies that just missed the last cut when I made my 50 Favorite Movies list some time ago on Facebook. It is one of those movies I can watch over and over, which makes sense considering how I was introduced to it. Like many baby boomers, I first saw The Wizard of Oz on television.

Lest you think I am letting childhood memories take over from actual fact, I’ll note that there is an entire, fairly lengthy Wikipedia page titled The Wizard of Oz on television. Briefly, the movie was first shown on CBS in 1956. But beginning in 1959, The Wizard of Oz was shown on commercial network television, usually as a special (often with a guest host). Even now, it turns up often on television, on cable networks. The details are interesting, if you’d like to check out that Wikipedia link.

The key for me is that it was shown every year, not as part of a movie package, but as its own special telecast. Thus, it was “Event TV”, something we looked forward to every year. I was 6 years old in 1959 … I don’t know if I watched it that year, but I do know I watched it many times.

One thing we missed in those days was the transition from Kansas/B&W to Oz/Color. We had a black-and-white television, after all. We were not the first of our friends to get a color TV, and … here, memory may be playing tricks … I believe the first time The Wizard of Oz was telecast when one of our friends had a color TV, we watched it at their house. In those days, the Kansas scenes were shown in black-and-white, although in the original they are sepia.

Like Dorothy, I have a particular fondness for The Scarecrow, since I played that character in one of my first acting jobs, when I was in 7th grade.

There isn’t much to say about The Wizard of Oz at this point. I can recall watching it once during my hippie days and thinking it was quite cosmic and psychedelic. Other than that, and my memories of watching as a child, nothing stands out. This time through, I noticed more than ever the vaudeville aspects of the movie. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion has always been an obvious vaudeville turn, but many of the cast members had a background in vaudeville. Judy Garland herself had been on the stage since before she turned three. Ray Bolger and Jack Haley also worked in vaudeville … maybe that’s what gives the movie such a vaudevillian feel, the four friends who dominate the story all came from there. Not everyone had a vaudeville background … Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan most notably were actors from the start. But Billie Burke, who was in her mid-50s when she took on the role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, had a father who worked as a singer and clown for Barnum & Bailey, and she was married for many years to Flo Ziegfeld, who didn’t exactly put on vaudeville shows but whose “Follies” were singular.

But I’m just looking for trivia. Nothing I say here is likely to convey the pleasure The Wizard of Oz still brings. Perhaps one sign of how the movie has long been a part of American culture can be found on the “Memorable Quotes” page for the film on the IMDB. There are 105 entries, and in most cases, I’ve either said them or heard them on a fairly regular basis in ordinary conversation. “I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” comes to mind. 10/10.

oscar run 8: still alice (richard glatzer and wash westmoreland, 2014)

(Julianne Moore is nominated for Best Actress)

When Still Alice was released, some of my friends had an interesting and emotional discussion on Facebook about whether to see the movie. In particular, those who had personal experience with family and loved ones with Alzheimer's expressed concerns that it would be too much to take, revisiting the anguish of their real-life difficulties.

I haven’t had to deal with this problem yet, so I’m speaking as an outsider. But I’d guess they could watch Still Alice without too much upheaval. Julianne Moore is very good … playing a terminal patient is guaranteed Oscar bait, but Moore doesn’t overplay her hand, never seems to be begging for an Oscar. There is an intelligence to her portrayal that means she never completely disappears in the role … we are always aware that we are seeing a great actress, not a person with Alzheimer’s. But that intelligence respects the audience. Moore allows us to gradually come to terms with Alice’s situation, just as Alice herself does.

The setup is almost like a horror movie. The situation is established: the main character has a devastating disease. And we know it’s the kind of disease that gets worse over time. Maybe I see too many apocalyptic dramas about viruses that endanger humanity, but I wondered if perhaps Still Alice would play like zombie-virus movie, making the audience squeamish by the inevitability of the outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was partly what made my friends uncertain about the movie. Not the zombie angle, but the inevitability of it all. Who needs to see that, when you are living it?

But the film makers refuse to jack it up. It never transforms into a horror story. We see the effects the disease has on Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues, we see the progression of the disease, but the movie’s strength comes on the face of Julianne Moore. She lets us into Alice’s mental world … we look at her face and we know where she is on the continuum. As I say, it’s a very intelligent approach to the character. It is also extremely effective, although it requires an actor as good as Moore to pull it off.

That refusal to push the hysteria is why Still Alice never comes close to being a horror movie. And I think it is why the film can be watched by people who had qualms in advance. It is real, it is sad, but it isn’t crushing … the ending is as hopeful as possible, and the basic structure ends up more like a TV movie than a cinema classic. Julianne Moore raises the film’s impact, but without her, Still Alice would be fairly prosaic. 7/10. One of the people in the afore-mentioned discussion mentioned Amour and A Separation as movies which covered similar ground. Amour is the kind of excruciating experience that I suspect people are worried about seeing in Still Alice; in A Separation, Alzheimer’s is more subplot than primary narrative, but it is such a great movie I’m always ready to tout it. And many people brought up Away from Her with Julie Christie, which I think is a better movie overall than Still Alice.