The House


Come and See

Lunatic town crier, Elem Klimov grabs the edge of the stage, hoisting himself up and tossing the carnival ringleader aside, ripping apart proscenium curtains to reveal a freak show of historical gravitas and movie-movie brio to scorch the eyes and imagination—step right up, come and see, try your luck. This is not a film that's easily forgotten, designed as it is—not unlike Aleksandr Sokurov's Mother and Son—as something of an imprint from another world and time. Imagine the phantasmagoria of Underground's god-forsaken final scenes—in which a chimpanzee squeals for his dead-dangling master and a white horse prances around an overturned cross of Christ and the burning, wheelchair-bound corpses of two architects of evil—stretched out to two-and-a-half surreal hours. The film—horrifyingly relentless and beatific in its artistry—is shot as if from the point-of-view of a wild animal skulking for its prey and retreating from the bones that remain (pity young Florya cannot run the course of his life backward like the newsreel carnage Klimov cuts into the film during its final minutes), evincing the cataclysmic psychological toll of war on the human psyche via dissociative manipulation of sound and image. A flash of rainbow trickles through gaps in forest leaves like a projector beam, a heron appears out of nowhere after bombs fall from the heavens like seed pods from ambient-drone spaceships, hitting the ground like the footstomps of giants and leaving a young child—and, in turn, the audience—nearly deaf and dumb in their wake. A movie about the nature of war (its sick intrusion) and pictures, the ability of the latter to capture the former in order to convey—no, demand—that we not only come and see, but madly-truly-deeply witness and remember.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: aleksandr sokurov, come and see, elem klimov, mother and son, underground


Looney Tunes

This week's 5 for the day is such a broad and rich topic, with so many worthy choices, that it seemed prudent to put two people on the job, Keith Uhlich and Odienator. So, in a way, it's really a 10 for the day:

Keith Uhlich List

1. "I Love to Singa" (1936). In which jazz crooner Owl Jolson (voiced by Our Gang bully Tommy Bond) runs afoul of his classical musician father and performs on Jack Bunny's amateur radio show. The characters' eyes are profoundly expressive—the little triangles of white light that reflect in their pupils rotate a full 360 degrees and add to these deceptively cheery protagonists a sobering touch of the manic-depressive. "I Love to Singa" is about stalwart determination, not to mention the simultaneous insanity and importance of artistic pursuit (and Owl returns as a genius sight gag in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action.")

2. "Russian Rhapsody" (1944). In which Adolf Hitler, after spewing his way through a fiery Reichstag speech about deli condiments, sets out to bomb Moscow and comes face to face with musically inclined "Gremlins from the Kremlin," not to mention a very stern-looking mask of Josef Stalin. That the cartoon manages to both viciously lampoon Hitler (whose portrayal here complicated my childhood perception of him as a demonic historical bogeyman) and also make him something of a sympathetic protagonist is a tribute to the oft-unsung talents of director Bob Clampett, whose every hand-drawn frame is a virtuoso, stand-alone grotesque.

3. "Rabbit of Seville" (1950). Jean-Luc Godard described Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar as "life in 90 minutes." Chuck Jones's "Rabbit of Seville" (in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd square off to a brilliantly mangled Rossini libretto/accompaniment) is life in seven.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, birds anonymous, chuck amuck, chuck jones, for scent-imental reasons, Friz Freleng, i love to singa, joe dante, looney tunes, looney tunes: back in action, Mel Blanc, rabbit of seville, rabbit seasoning, ray milland, russian rhapsody, swooner crooner, Tex Avery, three little bops, tortoise beats hare


Warner Brothers vs. Disney

Mickey Mouse

One of the benefits of owning a toddler is their usefulness as guinea pigs in experiments. It is widely known that a toddler has no cinematic taste (controlled experiments prove this) so they are about as blank a slate as you are likely to get. It is interesting to observe their little minds being shaped and warped by whatever you put in front of them.

In this case, it was Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons—about 100 hours from each studio. I painstakingly gathered data and registered their effects on the little guy. I wanted to find out which cartoons were funnier, which ones were scarier or more disturbing.

We watched only the shorts, and to even things out I disqualified all of Disney's Silly Symphonies—that vast treasure trove of fables and lullabies that tended to induce in the child a desire to snuggle. We kept the focus on Mouse vs. Bunny, brash verbal sass vs. something more silent and Chaplinesque, Warner's witty limericks vs. Disney's humorous ballads, Duck vs. Duck. Equipped with only a clipboard, safety goggles, and a sippy-cup, I got to work.

At first blush, one would think that the hyper-violence in Warner Bros. would be more troubling, and indeed, my son did take to Disney slightly sooner. After all, in a Warner Bros. short, it is not uncommon to see a duck getting his bill blown off with a shotgun at point-blank range.

But over time I found that Disney's universe disturbed them much more. This has to do with their respective environments: the universal laws at play; the powers that be.

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TAGS: duck amuck, leonard maltin, silly symphonies, snow white and the seven dwarves, the chain gang, walt disney, warner bros., whats opera doc, william k. everson


Superman ReturnsBryan Singer's "Superman Returns, which opened yesterday, is getting wildly mixed reviews (including pans from Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis). Three House contributors wrote about the movie for their respective publications this week; excerpts and links follow.

I adored the movie—despite a first act slog that leaves a lot to forgive—because of its mythic spectacle. The movie is visionary bubblegum, unabashedly in love with its source material.

"In scene after scene," I wrote in New York Press, "Superman Returns implicitly asks what it might feel like to be Superman and to live in a world that has the Man of Steel in it...Where most comic book movies are paradoxically inclined to make their points verbally—bulldozing heaps of raw data in our faces, a la the Matrix movies, Batman Begins and Singer's own X-Men films—Superman Returns is conceived as a visionary spectacle, a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. It's a sensory—at times sensuous—experience, modeled not just on great comic book art, but on the crème-de-la-crème of machine-age spectacles: 2001:A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

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TAGS: bryan singer, keith uhlich, matt zoller seitz, new york press, philadelphia weekly, sean burns, slant magazine, superman returns


Frank Borzage's Moonrise

Moonrise

Moonrise is Frank Borzage's sensual scrutiny of a man's free will. In the film's striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys a throbbing sense of madness cattle-branded into the imagination of a young Danny Hawkins, who is terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father's execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny's loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage's camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he is drowning.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: dane clark, frank borzage, moonrise


Deadwood

"No grand gestures, fucking Bullock, until I've had my talk with Hearst," Al warns while trying to corral the fallout from Bullock's beatdown of Farnum. Al's paranoia is well placed, as grand public gestures of all kinds dominate Deadwood. In Season Three, though, fleeting looks and barely discernible gestures have assumed a growing place in the storytellers' arsenal. They tell a story of their own, often one that contradicts the characters' words.

In the season-three premiere, Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn), now the camp's schoolmarm, reads sentences for the children to transcribe. When an eager student raises her hand to indicate that she's the first to finish, Martha looks over the work, corrects a misspelling, and tells the girl, "It's not so important always to be right, Mary. Or to be first." At this point, Martha loses her place in the lesson plan for a moment as the pertinence of the advice to her own life sinks in. In season two, when Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) offered upon her arrival in town to end his affair with Alma and start clean with Martha, she bitterly repudiated him on principle. But in season three, Martha begins to shrug off the impossible legacy of tragedy piled on humiliation and opens to the possibilities that are left. On the way, she drains the poison from her resentment and attempts an authentic relationship with her husband.

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TAGS: Anna Gunn, deadwood, Jim Beaver, Kim Dickens, molly parker, powers boothe, pruitt taylor vince, robin weigert, timothy olyphant


5 for the Day: Summer

Do the Right Thing

Summer's here, and the time is right for a summary of all things cinematically summery. The living is easy, and our 5 for the day talks movies with central events occurring during the hottest, most nostalgic season of the year. So go out and find a beautiful someone, dance all night (come on, come on) and when you're done, chime in with your own choices.

1. Meatballs (1979). Summer camp is a rite of passage for some of us, even if mine was just a day camp where I won a prize singing a song about reefer. Ivan Reitman's Genie-winning (that's the Canadian Oscar) comedy presented unspoiled pangs of nostalgia mere months before Mrs. Voorhees hacked her way through Camp Crystal Lake. Before his quotable comic brilliance got Lost in Translation, Bill Murray could be counted on to bring a caustic wit and a merry prankster's glee whenever he appeared onscreen. Though Caddyshack and Ghostbusters linger in more memories, Murray's debut as Tripper Harrison carries more weight with me because his shtick had the luxury of being fresh. Who knew back then that practically every line Murray spouts from the camp loudspeaker (shades of Altman's M*A*S*H) would be quotable?

Murray's performance seemed bused in from another movie, but it keeps Meatballs from becoming too saccharine. His friendship with camper Chris Makepeace is sweet without being gooey, and I can't help think of this movie whenever someone says "It just doesn't matter." In addition to giving Val Kilmer a model to craft his brilliant turn in Real Genius, Meatballs also gave Dr. Pepper jingle singer (and American Werewolf in London star) David Naughton a hideous hit disco song called "Makin' It." (Naughton's "I'm a Pepper" jingle, coincidentally, was the musical basis for my aforementioned award-winning Mary Jane song. "I smoke marijuana dontcha know," sang 12-year old me, who had no idea what he was singing about. "Wouldn't you like to be a pothead too?" Snoop Dogg owes me his career.)

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TAGS: 5 for the day, david naughton, do the right thing, easy riders raging bulls, elizabeth taylor, ernest dickerson, herman raucher, jaws, Jennifer ONeill, katharine hepburn, Kristy McNichol, meatballs, Melvin Van Peebles, paul haggis, peter biskind, richard mulligan, spike lee, steven spielberg, suddenly last summer, summer of 42, tatum o'neal, tennessee williams, val kilmer, watermelon man


Fallen Angels A kaleidoscope of alienation and longing, Wong Kar-wai's 1995 film Fallen Angels remains one of Wong's least discussed and least appreciated films. Of course, compared to the sheer beauty and maturity of his latest work—his intimate In the Mood for Love (2000); his majestic 2046 (2004); even "The Hand" (2004), his relatively brief yet masterful contribution to the omnibus film Eros—-earlier films like this one and Chungking Express (1994) come off as energetic though show-offy stylistic exercises.

But Fallen Angels is no mere exercise. In some ways, it is almost as important a film in Wong's oeuvre as Happy Together (1997). If Happy Together represented a stepping stone, an emotional deepening of Wong's usual themes of love, loss and desire, Fallen Angels represents both a look back and a look forward for one of cinema's most important current directors.

Wong's first feature film was a gangster flick titled As Tears Go By (1988), a Mean Streets ripoff that seemed to take its emotional cues from the popular Hong Kong action films of the time (such as John Woo's 1986 gangster melodrama A Better Tomorrow). Tears may have been derivative and at times even dated and cheesy (on hearing the film's Cantopop rendition of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," a friend said, "And I thought the original was bad enough!"), but it had an operatic power, and more importantly, it laid out some of Wong's stylistic signatures, including exaggerated neon-tinted lighting, the use of pop music to underscore moods, and pixillated slow-motion action scenes.

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TAGS: 2046, a better tomorrow, as tears go by, berlin, Charlie Yeung, chungking express, fallen angels, happy together, in the mood for love, leslie cheung, mean streets, michelle reis, take my breath away, takeshi kaneshiro, wong kar-wai


Heading South

In Heading South (or Vers le Sud, before the film was re-titled for speakers of American) director Laurent Cantet adapts a few short stories by Dany Laferrière, positing a trio of white Northerners on a beach in Haiti during the summer of 1979. The three women—played by Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young and Louise Portal—adopt (paid) black boyfriends who are three or more decades younger than themselves. Cantet intends the viewers, and if not them, then certainly the reviewers, to inhale the geopolitik drift of associations vis-à-vis "Baby Doc" Duvalier's regime, the ruling power at the time.

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TAGS: baby doc duvalier, charlotte rampling, heading south, karen young, laurent cantet, louise portal, menothy cesar


Deadwood

"You stay in hailing distance."

That was the last line of last week's Deadwood, delivered by saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) to appointed sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), after a dramatic day that set up a confrontation between Al and the town's newest would-be patriarch, mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney).

When last we left our nasty little town, Hearst had terrorized Al by staging a shooting in his saloon, the Gem, to let everyone in Deadwood know who was really running things on the eve of the town's first elections.

How fitting, then, that the follow-up episode, "I Am Not the Man You Take Me For," started with a strangely beatific image of Al in his bed in the wee hours of the following morning, being stirred awake by a speech from a drunken miner who'd clambered atop the makeshift speechmaking scaffold erected down in the street outside Al's saloon.

Al listened for a moment but didn't get out of bed. At one point he turned on his side as if he'd made a decision to ignore the speech—as if he'd decided that it was just a dream and if he paid it no mind, it would go away. The drunk fell off the scaffold into the street and broke his neck; Al went back to sleep but seemed both surprised and disturbed the next morning, when he ambled to the window in his long johns and saw the hooplehead (Deadwood slang for a know-nothing prospector) lying there.

Like so much in Deadwood, this low-key sequence of events had a metaphoric undertow. When we first met Al, he was a literally cutthroat capitalist who used to pride himself on the acquisition of power, money and property by any means necessary, killing anybody who stood in his way.

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TAGS: Anna Gunn, brad dourif, deadwood, hbo, ian mcshane, Kim Dickens, paula malcolmson, powers boothe, the star-ledger, timothy olyphant, w. earl brown, Zach Grenier







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