The House


Room and a Half

As I watched Andrey Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half at this year's New York Film Festival, a woman sitting next to me couldn't stop crying. The film was putting her through some stuff. It was sort of putting me through some stuff, too. At one pivotal moment, a transatlantic phone call between characters long separated by exile, I felt myself ready to let loose with the waterworks, but I gritted my teeth, clenched the armrests to hold them off. Then came the Russian folk songs. The crying lady started singing along quietly, unobtrusively but passionately with the characters onscreen. Their nostalgia was her nostalgia was mine. I bit my tongue off to keep from joining in. When the lights went up, I searched in vain for a tissue to give her, but turned to her and said, "You're Russian." She said, "Yesyesyes," and spent the next half hour excitedly telling me everything I wanted to know about the movie's subject, the Nobel Laureate poet Joseph Brodsky; about the beauty of his hometown, St. Petersburg ("the airfare is so low these days—you must go!"); about Brodsky's unique stature as a hero for poor self-taught artists ("When you grow up the way Brodsky did, you don't need to go to a school to learn what poetry is. Life gives it to you.")

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TAGS: a room and a half, andrey khrzhanovsky, film society of lincoln center, joseph brodsky, new york film festival


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

There's a more adept portrayal of human suffering in Rob Zombie's Halloween II than in all the lollygagging throughout John Krasinski's timid adaptation of David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Sally Potter's iPhone-destined, fashion world monologue-a-thon Rage. Throughout Zombie's slasher yarn, there's inevitably a close-up, as the killer comes crashing down upon his prey, where the victims' eyes drift heavenward and a brief, unspoken plea for mercy passes between them and monster. As they meet their doom, Zombie dwells on the mayhem in real time, each brutal pulverizing blow given resonance. You would think this example of pulpy shock cinema couldn't hope to compare with the more supposedly contemplative American independent cinema, much less surpass the emotional, cinematic, and humanistic impact of a world where academic characters and fashion moguls gaze into the heart of darkness within their navels.

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TAGS: brief interviews with hideous men, david foster wallace, halloween ii, john krasinski, rage, rob zombie, sally potter


Chris Fuller

"Glory be," I thought to myself as I sat in the Cinema Village a few weeks ago. "Finally, a next-to-nothing budget American movie that actually looks like something. And is about something, too!" (There isn't exactly a boatload of super-cheap indies these days getting theatrical distribution, let alone ones made by guys who own a tripod.) My wonderment was achieved despite the fact that I'd gone into the film, Loren Cass, with extremely high expectations: Nathan Lee referred to it as "overtly, ingeniously experimental in form," a "tour de force of mood and milieu."

Yet seeing the film was still shocking. In the wake of mumblecore—the most widely discussed young, independent filmmakers' movement since that of the early '90s (Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Allison Anders, etc.)—watching Loren Cass is a little bit like getting punched in the face. In the pre-Recession aughts, there was something pleasant (and perhaps downright sedating) about the twee characters populating mumblecore films and the trivial problems that filled their lives. As young, privileged white Americans have been jolted back into something like a serious world, those films have lost their significance, appearing more like embalmed relics of a time when a whole lot less was at stake.

Loren Cass stands in marked contrast.

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TAGS: chris fuller, loren cass


Lebanon

Samuel Maoz's Lebanon is a good old-fashioned Sam Fuller war picture, all capital letters and tight close-ups. There is not one narrative surprise in it, and it doesn't need any. Maoz is drawing on his experiences as an Israeli tank gunner during the first Lebanon war just as Fuller raided his World War II combat memories for the epic The Big Red One. But Lebanon is more on the scale of Fuller's Korean War cheapie The Steel Helmet, filling the screen mostly with soldiers' sweaty, greasy, bug-eyed faces in the moments before and after decisive violence. Maoz pushes for the ultimate in subjectivity, never letting his camera leave the tank interior. We are stuck in there, just like the shell-shocked crew whose superiors force them into hostile, bombed-out territory without a clear objective or sufficient support.

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TAGS: lebanon, new york film festival, samuel maoz


Police, Adjective

I can forgive Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective for its didacticism because it feels well-earned. Beginning as the Romanian answer to 24—a police procedural presented in "real-time," for the most part through long takes and even longer scenes—Porumboiu's film is very much an argument, but it's not, as one character suggests, a dialectical one. That would require a sustained, coherent position to counter the film's prevailing utilitarian statement, which is revealed in a protracted climax involving a sneering superior and a Romanian dictionary. (Resolved: When a judgment of one's own conscience comes into conflict with a judgment that maintains the status quo, the status quo wins.) It sounds as much fun as being hit continuously upside the head for 115 minutes by a rolled-up newspaper and then, to help you understand what it's all for, being whacked in the face several times by a rock-hard icepack.

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TAGS: Corneliu Porumboiu, Dragos Bucur, new york film festival, police adjective


Florescent lights. Combination locks. Clueless parents. Clueless teachers. Clueless friends. Paranoia. Alienation. Hormones. Zits.

These are but a few selling points of the NBC series Freaks and Geeks, which debuted September 25, 1999. Set at a white suburban high school circa 1981 and devised by men who knew the territory, creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow, it was hailed by critics as one of that season's freshest new series. It lingered in the basement of the Nielsen ratings for 18 episodes, less than a full season, until the network, which never really knew what to do with it, finally pulled the plug.

In retrospect, it seems a minor miracle that the series lasted as long as it did, since its stock in trade was honesty. And when the subject is adolescence, a period that grows rosy in the memory but sucks ass when you're actually living through it, honesty isn't much of a selling point. Mass audiences are only interested in reliving high school if it's sentimentalized. The chance to revisit something remotely in the ballpark of the real thing is as appetizing as cafeteria food—and Freaks and Geeks was a weekly feast of teen awkwardness.

To view the video essay on The L Magazine's website, click here. To read a transcript of the narration, click here.

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TAGS: freaks and geeks, judd apatow, the l magazine


Coming Up In This Column: Flame & Citron, A Woman in Berlin, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, Sense and Sensibility, Mad Men, The Code, and Hollywood Under Siege (book), but first...

Flame & Citron

Fan Mail: There were a couple of comments that came in on US#30 after I had sent off #31, so let me respond to those now. "Manu" would like me to review a Hindi film or two. If I see one I want to write about, I certainly will. Keith gives me a lot of freedom to write about what I want to, which is one of the many reasons I love this gig. Olaf Barthel thought the problems with Public Enemies script were from the book. I have not read the book, but I think the script problems were more the doing of the screenwriters. After all, the job of the screenwriters is to make the book work as a screenplay. There is a great example of that later in this column.

On to #31. Craig thought we did not get a precise view of Summer in (500) Days of Summer because we are getting Tom's view and he is an unreliable narrator. He may have a point, but I think it may just be the way the writers structured the script to give us a "true" insight into her at the end. "-bee" made a very good point that Leslie Mann in Funny People just does not have the "requisite charisma" to bring off the part. Since I whacked Apatow's kids in the film, I have no trouble whacking his wife as well. "DS" responded to my "Be careful what you wish for" as to my eventually reviewing one of his scripts by noting that if I did review it, it would mean it had been made. And he looked forward to learning from my comments. He added, "I want to keep on learning," which is exactly the attitude you have to bring to the table. For one of the great "keep on learning" stories, look up the anecdote from Nunnally Johnson at the end of the appendix in the third edition of my FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film.

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TAGS: a woman in berlin, district 9, flame & citron, hollywood under siege, inglourious basterds, mad men, sense and sensibility, the code, understanding screenwriting


Toronto Film Festival Day Seven

Micmacs: To judge from his films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet couldn't tie his shoelaces without first devising a Rube Goldberg contraption of toothpaste, waffle makers, and jars full of bees to do so. Jerry-rigged doodads dominate the Gallic auteur's new clockwork confection, which retains some of the anti-militarism of A Very Long Engagement while scrambling to outdo the sugary excesses of Amélie. The prologue, with its collision of disobedient landmines, prison-like schools, and a video clerk (Dany Boon) with a bullet in his noggin while classic film noir plays on his telly is breathless in its one-idea-per-shot inventiveness. Unfortunately, it takes no time for the inventiveness to turn antic and oppressive as the hero sets out to take down a pair of nefarious ammunition magnates with the help of a gang of adorable junkyard dwellers, and an onslaught of balloon-thought puns, contortionist gamines, and lavishly wasteful camera movement is unleashed. The one clear feeling is that Jeunet hates the human damage of warmongers and that he hates parting with his goony gizmos even more.

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TAGS: lourdes, micmas, to the sea, toronto international film festival, trash tumpers


5 For The Day: Robert Wise

Robert Wise

Robert Wise's oeuvre is a study in extreme contrasts, a retelling of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impressed upon the history of the cinema. For every classic he crafted in the many genres he worked, there is an equally hideous companion piece that almost negates it. One could argue that this idea of good and evil was crafted only upon reflection of the director's full output, but Wise gave us an example of this aspect early in his 60-year career. As an editor at RKO, Wise spliced together a masterpiece called Citizen Kane, then turned his scissors and his viewfinder against its director's next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons. While Wise cannot take all the blame for Ambersons' butchering, and the picture that resulted isn't bad, this early dichotomy was eerily prescient of Wise's ultimate place in the annals of American film.

Wise's Robert Louis Stevenson-worthy transformations continued throughout his career. He crafted one of the scariest exercises in the horror subgenre of ghost stories, and one of the worst. He used both capoeira and ballet to depict racial tension. He created a landmark exercise in science fiction, and he rebooted a sci-fi TV franchise that, thirty years later, was again rebooted. He contributed to the end of the all-star disaster pictures of the '70s and, with Julie Andrews, he helped destroy the movie musical trend of the '60s despite getting two Oscars for directing them. He worked on Orson Welles' directorial debut, and on a certain Brat Packer-turned-director's first movie. Wise also had a knack for picking a good, scandalous or controversial story, but no distinct style in depicting it. Such a rich study in contrasts is prime material for a 5 for The Day.

Like Howard Hawks and Alan Parker, Wise worked in almost every genre, though he skews closer to Parker than Hawks in terms of success ratio. Whether that is good or bad, and which films belong in which category, I leave to your discussion. I will state that when Wise was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, as the nursery rhyme goes, he was horrid. Herewith, five noteworthy Robert Wise films. I tried to pick a film from each genre, but history forces my hand on one entry: Predictably I must start with:

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TAGS: 5 for the day, i want to live, odds against tomorrow, robert wise, the day the earth stood still, the set-up, the sound of music


Toronto Film Festival Day Six

Mother: Further memories of murder with Bong Joon-ho. The mother (Kim Hye-ja) is a middle-aged, small-town store clerk running a little clandestine acupuncture on the side, the son (Won Bin) is a man-child who gets distracted by golf balls while seeking revenge on hit-and-run millionaires. Won is hauled off to jail after a schoolgirl is found murdered, and Kim, sure that her boy is innocent, turns amateur sleuth. Park Chan-wook would have wrung the Grand Guignol hell out of this premise, but Bong is less interested in shocks than in the synergy between vast Korean fields and the equally mysterious inner landscape of the dazed matriarch making her way across them. A welter of motifs and clues (a sluggish psyche's gradually unclogged remembrances, tell-tale snapshots in a promiscuous high schooler's cellphone, a key scene played from different angles) fused by superb filmmaking, it at times suggests a dark-humored lampoon of one of Naruse's odes to maternal diligence, but with a tarantula sting of its own.

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TAGS: enter the void, mother, the hole, toronto international film festival







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