andrei rublev (andrei tarkovsky, 1966)

The day after the Golden Globes, Eileen Jones wrote a fired-up piece titled “Against Meryl Streep”, with the subtitle, “Meryl Streep’s speechifying at the Golden Globes was the worst thing to happen since Trump’s election.” Whatever you think of Jones (and she seems to have pissed off a lot of people), she does have a way with words:

“That I should live to see the day when Meryl Streep’s speechifying at a Hollywood awards show is admired as solemnly and discussed as fervently as Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a personal nightmare.”

“[S]he brought to the Golden Globes all the fiery rhetoric she used to play Margaret Thatcher in a recent admiring biopic”.

“She strikes me as about the worst possible spokesperson imaginable for the Left in an era of working-class rage”.

This inspired me to buy her book, Filmsuck, USA, which doesn’t disappoint. We disagree on the value of a lot of movies, but I find her writing smart and fun to read. She announces her intentions with the first sentence: “That loud sucking noise you hear is American cinema going down the drain.”

The book is devoted to American films, which she doesn’t think live up to their possibilities. She doesn’t talk much about foreign films, but she does talk about “art films”. “[W]e tend to rely on stupid premises like Art Film = Good Film. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘you’: I swing exactly the other way, being far more inclined to regard with suspicion any film selling heavy doses of ‘artistry’."

Now, I have no idea what Jones thinks of Andrei Rublev, or the work of Tarkovsky in general. It is clear from her writing that Jones has a vast knowledge of film, and that her interests reach beyond what you might suspect from the quotes I am cherry-picking here. (As one example, Jones, who teaches in the Film Department at Cal, teaches a course on the History of Avant-Garde Film.)

I mention all of this because I experienced something of a disconnect, watching Andrei Rublev after reading Jones on Rango (she loves Gore Verbinski), “David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Audience That Loves This Kind of Crap”, and Peter Greenaway (“I can’t stand Greenaway films, can’t even stand to hear descriptions of Greenaway films.”) Here I was, settling in to a three-hour art-house classic, and I couldn’t get Eileen Jones out of my head.

Andrei Rublev survived. I’ve been afraid of his movies for years, only seeing one (Ivan’s Childhood a couple of years ago ... I liked it ... and I saw Solaris so long ago I don’t remember anything except I hated it). But I did what I could to put my concerns out of mind, and for the most part, it was a success.

Tarkovsky certainly wouldn’t have approved of my method of watching, but he did make it easy for me. Andrei Rublev comes in two parts, a total of eight segments, giving me many opportunities to stop for a bit and think about what I was seeing. (OK, at one point, I replied to an email I’d gotten from Jones.) The film gives the story of the title character, a famous 15th-century Russian painter. From what I can gather, the film doesn’t appear to be a stickler for accuracy about that life. Instead, Rublev stands in for people like him: artists, people of faith, members of communities. Tarkovsky isn’t didactic about his representation of the 15th century. He presents it to us, and leaves it to us to imagine how different life was then, at the tail end of the Middle Ages. The film looks beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, worked with Tarkovsky on several films. I found the acting rather inscrutable, perhaps because my ear wasn’t clicking with the Russian. But the actors served well as visual representations of their characters.

The entire thing almost works like an 8-part miniseries, although that impression might be amplified by the way I watched it. Three hours at one time would have felt a bit much. If my piecemeal approach to watching the film is too impure for you, add a point to my rating. #26 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


what i've been reading

Fuck you, members of the media.

Fuck your constant pursuit of ratings, of quarterly profits, of giving this tinpot cumdumpster a platform with which he can influence a large part of our country

Fuck you for buying into the idea that racism should be afforded an equal platform with equality, for calling a Nazi anything other than a Nazi.

-- Chris Kluwe, “Fuck You, Donald Trump

 

Hugh Laurie, winning for his work in “The Night Manager,” joked that he assumed this would be the last Golden Globes because “I don’t mean to be gloomy. It’s just that it has Hollywood, Foreign and Press in the title. And I think to some Republicans, even Association is slightly sketchy.” The point about the press is taken, and taken with thanks, but this formulation — which Streep repeated and made worse by prefacing it to say “You, and all of us in this room, really belong to the most vilified segment of American society right now” — has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that some of the richest and most influential people in the world are victims.

-- Alyssa Rosenberg, “In the Trump era, artists can be Jimmy Fallon or Donald Glover. Choose wisely.

 

“Why can’t you give him the benefit of the doubt…,” [Kellyanne] Conway asked, to which, [Chris] Cuomo answered “because he’s making a disgusting gesture on video about Serge.”

-- Ken Meyer, “Conway Asks: Why Do You Believe What Trump Says ‘Rather Than What’s in His Heart?

 

If happiness comes when you find something you are good at, and then you do it, then I guess Preston Epps was a very happy man. After "Bongo Rock" hit #14 on the charts, Epps locked in with the following songs, in alphabetical order: "Baja Bongos," "Blue Bongo," "Bongo Bongo Bongo," "Bongo Hop," "Bongo in the Congo," "Bongo Party," "Bongo Shuffle," "Bongo, Bong, Bongo," "Bongola," "Bongos in Paradise," "Bongos in Pastel," "Gully Bongo," "Hully Gully Bongo," "Prest Bongos Under Glass," "Stormy Bongo," and "Surfin' Bongos." None of them made the charts, with the exception of "Bongo Bongo Bongo," which made it to #78.

-- Steven Rubio’s Online Life, January 9, 2009


road to morocco (david butler, 1942)

The third in the Road series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It turned up on TCM while I was channel surfing, and I have fond memories of it, so it was an easy decision to watch it.

Do the Road Movies need to be explained? Their peak was in the 1940s, when five of the seven movies were released, with the final picture coming in 1962, when Hope and Crosby were almost 60 and Lamour was reduced to a cameo. It’s hard to imagine many people under 50 seeking out comedies from the 40s that were very popular at the time but not considered “classics”, so my guess is there is a need to explain the series. All except the last involved Hope and Crosby stuck is some quandary, during which they’d cross paths with Lamour, with a battle for her heart ensuing. There were songs, Lamour wore sarongs in most of them, and the laughs were non-stop. The movies were ... how about “insouciant”? They were nonsensical, offering parodies of popular genres of the day. There were lots of ad-libs, with Hope often talking directly to the audience. As in Hope’s comedy act, there were plenty of topical references, one reason the films don’t hold up as well as some ... there was no attempt to be timeless. I guess the closest thing in more recent years would be the Naked Gun movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Road to Morocco is thought by some to be the best in the series. I certainly saw it many times on TV when I was a kid. It was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (if the rumors are true, Crosby and especially Hope, or their writers, deserve a bit of credit for their ad-libs). It was named to the National Film Registry in 1996. Watching it again, I thought it fell a bit short of expectations, and in my memories, my favorite remains Road to Rio (admittedly a minority view).

There is a feeling that anything goes in the Road series. In Morocco, there’s a musical interlude with the three stars where each of their voices comes out of the mouths of others (so you’ve got Lamour with Hope’s voice, or Hope singing as Bing). There are talking camels. Anthony Quinn plays a desert sheik ... wait, that’s not so odd, the Mexico-born Quinn was famous throughout his career for filling whatever ethnicity a movie needed. A running gag in the series has Hope and Crosby playing “patty-cake” as a way to distract bad guys ... this time it backfires, the bad guys are expecting it, leading to the line, “That gag sure gets around”.

I don’t know ... I feel a fondness for the series, and re-watching Road to Morocco was enjoyable. I’m inclined to rate it higher than it probably deserves. 7/10.


love actually (richard curtis, 2003)

By the time Richard Curtis directed his first feature, Love Actually, he had established himself as someone who could be relied upon to deliver a certain kind of film. After a career in television, he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (an Oscar nominee), Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Love Actually is a bit like a Marvel superhero movie, in that there are so many characters and so many romantic permutations that the film runs 135 minutes and still doesn’t have time to give a full presentation of all those characters. In fact, you can find charts all over the Internet that offer visual representations of all the characters and their interactions.

Of course, a lot of characters means a lot of room for actors, and it almost seems like every living British actor in 2003 is in this movie. A sample: Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln of Walking Dead fame, Martin Freeman, and Rowan Atkinson. Not to mention Americans like Laura Linney and Billy Bob Thornton, and cameos by Claudia Schiffer, Ivana Miličević, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Shannon Elizabeth, and Denise Richards. Some of these actors fare better than others ... I imagine everyone will have their favorites. I always love Bill Nighy, and Hugh Grant always makes it look easy (this time playing the Prime Minister!).

The film was a massive box office hit, returning almost $250 million at a cost of only $45 million. And it is easy to see why it is popular. It’s an epic rom-com, and if you don’t like one scene or character, there will always be another right around the corner. Curtis throws in just enough melancholy to take the edge off of the saccharine, and there are what feels like a dozen different endings, most of which are designed to bring a tear of happiness to your eye.

In short, just the kind of movie I don’t usually like. But Curtis won me over, and if I never felt like Love Actually was making any major statements about actual love, it rolled along pleasantly enough.

What is remarkable is the history of Love Actually since 2003. While it takes place in December, and Christmas is the background for some scenes, it’s not what you’d think of as a Christmas movie. Yet it has gradually become one of those movies people look forward to watching again every Christmas. Fivethiryeight, better known for political data analysis, ran an essay last month titled “The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time”. I can almost see it, although I’d rather make a Xmas tradition of watching Die Hard.

It’s not just a fan favorite. Amazingly, it’s #328 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t List of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

It even inspired a recent Saturday Night Live skit:

Spoiler alert ... here’s the original:


film fatales #21: stories we tell (sarah polley, 2012)

How long does one have to wait before spoilers are no longer an issue? Stories We Tell is more than four years old, but part of me is still squeamish about revealing anything crucial. Suffice to say, there will be spoilers, and this is a movie where the less you know going in, the more you will get from it.

Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.

Polley isn’t exactly offering a cast of unreliable narrators. But each of the interviewees (“storytellers”, they are called in the credits) gives the truth as they remember it, in many cases admitting that they aren’t sure their memories can be trusted. One person says that only people who were there can tell a story, and if one of them has passed away, as Polley’s mother did, we have to take the survivors’ word as true. He is at least open about his desire to make his truth into the truth. But Polley suggests that we all do this, that life is partly about turning our truth into the truth. Since Stories We Tell features the remembrances of so many people, the truth can’t be found. It isn’t cumulative ... we can’t just toss all of the stories into a salad bowl.

Polley is behind the camera ... she is the interviewer. She is the one trying to find the truth, and at first it seems she stands outside of the collective attempt to remember. But the film is hers ... more than one interviewee asks her pointedly why she is making the film, what she hopes to accomplish. She wants to turn the truth into her truth, but her methods prevent her from ever grasping “the truth” ... in fact, watching Stories We Tell, we despair of ever being able to grasp.

The one person who can’t tell her story is Polley’s dead mother, Diane. Perhaps for this reason, she is the center of the story ... all of the living offer their memories of her. Polley supplements this with home movies ... it would seem the Polley family took a lot of movies in their day, and as people talk about Diane, we see her acting as they remember. Mostly, we see her love of life, and love of fun. The stories and the movies make a powerful team ... the stories may be full of subjective experience, but the movies show how things “really” were.

Polley saves her knockout blow for the closing credits. At least that’s how it was for me ... I’m sure some people figured out Polley’s trick before I did. As the credits get to the actors, we see the various interviewees, all as the aforementioned “storytellers”. Then, suddenly, we see a list of actors playing other people. “Rebecca Jenkins: Diane Polley.” As this list went on (“Eric Hanson: Mark Polley, age 11”), the realization that the “home movies” were staged puts the finishing touch on Polley’s examination of documentary truth. We have reflexively assumed the movies were the objective counterpart to the subjective storytellers. Now we find that those movies are subjective reconstructions.

This does not feel like a cheat. On the contrary, with the revelation that Polley used “fake” home movies, we are forced into a further understanding of Polley’s theme. The storytellers weren’t the only ones trying to pass off their truths as the truth ... Polley herself turns out to be the biggest storyteller of them all. #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: shoot 'em up (michael davis, 2007)

Shoot ‘Em Up has a lot going for it, if you’re a fan of non-stop action. Mostly, since it’s non-stop action, it will appeal to those fans. There’s eye candy from Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci (although Bellucci is never allowed to be more than eye candy). The cinematographer is Peter Pau, an Oscar winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And writer-director Michael Davis admits to some impressive influences, in particular John Woo’s Hard Boiled.

It did poorly at the box office, but has become a cult favorite. And it’s easy to see why. The action is over-the-top absurd, the plot is largely non-existent (and thus stays out of the way), and Clive Owen is dedicated as the “hero”.

I admit I was impressed. I laughed throughout the movie. At first, my laughter was joyful, because I was seeing things I hadn’t seen before. (Suffice to say that Owen kills a man using a carrot in the very first scene.) And I never quit laughing. But by the end, I wasn’t as surprised as I was in the beginning, because the never-ending lunacy became something I expected.

Now, I would think I was the perfect audience for Shoot ‘Em Up. I have often praised action movies that ignored plot and character in favor of “pure” action. And indeed, I was entertained. But the very thing that made the movie seem intriguing, Davis’s influences, gradually turned into a check-list. Hard Boiled came first ... the opening scene features Owen in a shootout, carrying a baby. There was a lot of John Woo homage ... the two-handed spicy gun play, the gallons of blood and dead bodies (body count 151 according to the IMBD). There was snappy dialogue a la 007 or Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Samples: “Eat your vegetables” after using the carrot as a death tool. “Talk about shooting your load” after dispatching a bunch of bad guys in a shoot out while having sex with Bellucci.) Clive Owen’s action-with-a-baby reflects a similar scene in Children of Men. The problem is, every time you notice an influence/homage, you remember that those movies were better than the one you are watching. I’ve seen Hard Boiled. I love Hard Boiled. And Shoot ‘Em Up is not Hard Boiled. Michael Davis is not George “Mad Max” Miller, or Quentin Tarantino. (Of course, Davis is not the first person to forget that what makes Tarantino great isn’t the blood, it’s the dialogue.)

There are worse things than falling short of your influences. And while the action in Shoot ‘Em Up is frantic, I found it a bit more intelligible than the usual Michael Bay Chaos extravaganza. Ultimately, despite my claims of loving “pure” action, I clearly need something more. I need John Woo, I need George Miller. Or I need something that isn’t just nostalgic, but in some way new, like the Gareth Evans/Iko Uwais “Raid” films from Indonesia. Feel free to upgrade my rating if all of the above sounds exciting to you. 6/10.


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 10.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

I watched 82 movies last year, which is quite a total ... approximately one every five days. But for whatever reason, my viewing was way down from recent years. For instance, in 2015 I watched 136 movies. I have no explanation for this. It’s not like I “got a life” in 2016. Suffice to say, the sample size is smaller this year.

Which doesn’t change the results. My average rating this year was 7.4 ... last year, 7.1 ... two years ago, 7.4.

Here we go:

10:
My Darling Clementine
Richard Pryor Live in Concert

9:
Beauty and the Beast
The Kid
Kwaidan
Last Day of Freedom
Late Spring
Macbeth
Odd Man Out
Weekend

8:
About Elly
Amanda Knox
The Asphalt Jungle
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Carol
Citizenfour
City Lights
City of Hope
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Ex Machina
The Gleaners & I
Mind Game
Mother
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Paju
Pather Panchali
The Phantom Carriage
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Secret Sunshine   
World of Tomorrow
Zazie dans le métro

7:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Advise & Consent
The Americanization of Emily
Amy
Arrival
The Barbarian Invasions
The Blue Angel
Bridge of Spies
Bridget Jones's Diary
Captain America: Civil War
Cartel Land
Chau, beyond the lines
Cure
East Side Sushi
Edge of Tomorrow
Eye in the Sky
The Great Escape
The Gunfighter
Hannah and Her Sisters
Hot Fuzz
L'Eclisse
Licence to Kill
The Martian
Mouchette
Obvious Child
Only Lovers Left Alive
Pride
Rogue One
Room
Sicario
Spotlight
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton
Suffragette
Tallulah
Tangerine
We Need to Talk About Kevin
What Happened, Miss Simone?
When Marnie Was There
Whiplash
Winter Light
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

6:
Cinderella
Night Catches Us
Quartet
Star Trek Beyond
Unbreakable

5:
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Last Five Years
O Lucky Man!

4:
Survivor


best films of 2015

It’s something of a tradition for me to post a Top Ten list of year-old films, because I’m always behind on my movie watching. I’m going to keep it down to a Top Six this time ... there are too many tied-for-7ths to include. Obviously, this only includes what I’ve seen.

Best film of 2015: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Next five, in no particular order:

Least favorite movie of 2015: Survivor


only lovers left alive (jim jarmusch, 2013)

The IMDB trivia page for Only Lovers Left Alive includes this perhaps apocryphal story. “There was some action in the film at first. But when Jim Jarmusch was asked to add more he instead removed all of it.” This stands as a warning to anyone thinking, “Oh boy, a vampire movie! I bet a lot happens!”

There are elements of Performance (Tom Hiddleston plays a reclusive rocker) and The Hunger (Tilda Swinton is an even whiter version of Catherine Deneuve). Eve (Swinton ... Hiddleston is Adam) at one point chastises Adam for not taking advantage of everything eternal life has to offer. “How can you've lived for so long and still not get it? This self obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent in surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing.” Adam, the recluse, gives the impression he could stay home every day for a hundred years. Even when Adam’s loneliness draws him to be closer to Eve, he won’t leave his home in Detroit, forcing her to come from Tangiers. Eve and Adam are in love with aesthetics, as is Jarmusch in this film. They get their blood from sources that resemble drug dealers ... no messy biting of humans. Much of Only Lovers Left Alive is, ironically, rather bloodless.

Mia Wasikowska turns up as Eve’s “sister” Ava. The “family” resemblance is clear: Wasikowska may be even whiter than Swinton. Ava brings an energetic abandon to Adam, Eve, and the movie, and it’s a welcome change of pace, even if it’s obvious from the start that Ava will turn out to be nothing but trouble. She takes Eve’s advice to survive and appreciate to an extreme (while not bothering with kindness and friendship ... she shares self obsession with Adam).

Swinton was born to play a vampire. Hiddleston’s Adam may remind us of Mick Jagger’s Turner in Performance, but he looks more like 1970s Jimmy Page. John Hurt is a scene-stealer as Christopher Marlowe (yes, that’s what I said). The late Anton Yelchin makes his mark, and Jeffrey Wright is always welcome.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow-moving tale that seems doomed, but the ending is hopeful, at least on Adam and Eve’s terms. This is the third Jim Jarmusch film I have seen (along with Down by Law and Broken Flowers), and I react to all of them on the same level. They are intriguing, but I never fall in love with them, which I imagine is by design. #247 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.


hannah and her sisters (woody allen, 1986)

This is the movie I chose in honor of the passing of Carrie Fisher. I didn’t want to watch a Star Wars movie. I wish I’d hunted down Shampoo. Fisher does not play Hannah or her sisters, so her part is limited. She’s OK, although I wouldn’t say she was a scene-stealer.

I remember liking Hannah and Her Sisters, and even today, in the post-creepy-Woody era, it’s a good movie (although the presence of a teenaged Soon-Yi Previn is startling). It is not, however, a classic, not as good as I recalled. My connection to Allen’s films is full of holes. Hannah comes during a decent period for Allen, the late-80s, but after Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989, I don’t think I saw another Woody Allen movie until Vicky Christina Barcelona in 2008. Annie Hall (1976) remains my favorite, Stardust Memories (1980) is by far my least favorite. Of his more recent pictures, I liked Midnight in Paris a lot. But that gap between 1989 and 2008 probably tells the story ... it’s been a long time since I had a burning desire to see what Woody Allen is up to.

Even here, I watched Hannah and Her Sisters because Carrie Fisher was in it.

There are reasons Hannah is an improvement on his other movies of that time. His character is not the main character, and at this point, a little of Woody goes a long way. (One good thing about Midnight in Paris is that Allen uses another actor, Owen Wilson, to play the Woody character.) Hannah and her sisters resemble actual women, and the performances are excellent (Dianne Wiest won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, with Michael Caine winning the Supporting Actor award). I’m partial to Barbara Hershey, and she shines, as well.

But there is something of a “so what” to the movie. I suppose it is relatively optimistic for the Allen World, for what that’s worth. But watching it every 30 years seems about right. #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (My three favorite films from 1986: A Better Tomorrow, Sid and Nancy, and Aliens.)