The House


Farewell

If you've ever wondered what led to the collapse of the Soviet empire, Farewell offers an intriguing answer. Based on a true story, it introduces us to a high-up KGB officer who smuggled hundreds of pages of key top-secret Soviet documents to NATO in 1981 and '82, apparently doing as much as any other single person to bring down the Russian bureaucracy.

Recapturing that slice of long-buried history is just one of the pleasures of watching this surefooted thriller, which samples a multiplex's worth of genres—odd-couple bromance, Cold War suspense, Dr. Strangelove-style farce, and old-fashioned spy-vs-spy—to come up with a wryly witty, understated style of its own.

Emir Kusturica plays the real-life double agent Vladimir Vetrov, who the movie calls Sergei Gregoriev. Guillaume Canet, looking a lot like Ryan O'Neal circa 1981, plays Pierre Froment, the courier Gregoriev uses to get his information to France, since no one would suspect the French civilian of being a spy. The two start off mutually suspicious, even contemptuous, but they come to respect, rely on, and finally love one another in an understated and moving progression that forms the heart of the film.

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TAGS: a movie a day, aleksey gorbunov, emir kusturica, farewell, fred ward, guillaume canet, niels arestrup, serguei kostine, willem dafoe


Pumping Iron II: The Women[Editor's Note: This is the latest entry in our annual "Summer of…" series, copresented by Aaron Aradillas of Blog Talk Radio's Back By Midnight and Jamey DuVall and Jerry Dennis of Blog Talk Radio's Movie Geeks United!.]

It's a shame I had to trek downtown to Tribeca to experience Pumping Iron II: The Women, which played as part of the 92YTribeca's "Outsider Sports" series (on a double bill with Afghan Muscles—kudos to the creative programmer!). Not that I have anything against attending a free screening of a 16mm print courtesy of the New York Public Library. It's just that George Butler's follow-up to his Schwarzenegger-starring Pumping Iron needs to be disseminated on DVD in a 25th-anniversary edition complete with all the bells and whistles. Yes, this semi-doc is a film geek's dream, one that leaves you thinking about things beyond its bodybuilding theme and hungering to learn more.

Arriving in theaters fresh on the heels of Flashdance fever, the film's nods to that cinematic time capsule are so transparent as to be laughable, ranging from its cheesy '80s pop soundtrack, to the competitors' Aqua Net heavy hairstyles and "Jane Fonda Workout" wear. But beneath the superficial knockoffs lie both filmmaking and a storyline rife with controversy. Pumping Iron II: The Women follows several muscle-bound females leading up to The Caesars World Cup in Las Vegas. Filling Schwarzenegger's shoes is Rachel McLish, a femme fatale, bodybuilding diva every bit the showboat as the future Governator. Australian Bev Francis, a former power-lifter turned bodybuilder whose masculine looks call into question the female bodybuilding ideal, is the outsider Lou Ferrigno character. Country girl Lori Bowen and brainy Carla Dunlap, the only black woman represented, fill lesser roles.

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TAGS: afghan muscles, bev francis, carla dunlap, charles gaines, george butler, lori bowen, pumping iron ii the women, rachel mclish, summer of 85


Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz movies can be hard to sit through. Up to now, I've always watched them from a bit of a remove, braced for whatever might come next, so I was surprised when his latest swept me clean off my feet. I would say Life During Wartime is his best work yet—but maybe I've changed more than he has.

I say that because this movie made me revisit Happiness, his first film about the spectacularly dysfunctional family of Life During Wartime, and the second viewing was a revelation. The first time around, watching Happiness was like watching a good horror movie: The suspense was almost unbearable at times as I waited to see who would do what to whom. Will Billy's pedophile father rape his own son? Will Allen, the obscene caller, kill the neighbor he's obsessed with—or be killed by the other neighbor who's obsessed with him? Will poor joyless Joy's viciously passive-aggressive family drive her to suicide? Enormously compelling and repellent at the same time, this was no audience-flattering suburban dystopia, but it went too far in the other direction for me. Almost all of Solondz's characters were doing their best to lead good and fulfilling lives, but they fell so stunningly short of the mark, and hurt other people so badly along the way, that I just couldn't relate to them. I felt the director looking at all his characters with love, seeing their humanity and forgiving them their sins, and I admired his Christlike compassion, but I just couldn't share it. I mean, some things are unforgiveable, aren't they?

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TAGS: a movie a day, happiness, life during wartime, todd solondz


Lebanon

Both Restrepo and Lebanon are war-is-hell movies, be-glad-you're-not-here postcards about young men marooned in outposts at the outer edges of intractable wars (the U.S occupation of Afghanistan and Israel's battle with its neighbors, respectively). But where one uses reportorial techniques in search of clarity and objective truth, the other creates a choking miasma of claustrophia, confusion and deepening panic to approximate its main character's state of mind.

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TAGS: a movie a day, lebanon, restrepo, samuel maoz, sebastian junger, tim hetherington, waltz with bashir


The Box

Springsteen's song about 57 channels and nothing to watch was playing in my head last night as I rounded through my favorites on the remote control. Not that there wasn't anything good to watch—the season premiere of Mad Men and the latest episode of True Blood, my favorite soap, were waiting in the DVR queue, and when they were done I stumbled on the second half of the always awesome Clueless. But when I searched for a movie to watch from the start, the best I came up with was The Box, a long shot that didn't pay off.

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TAGS: a movie a day, boomerang, cameron diaz, eartha kitt, eddie murphy, grace jones, halle berry, james marsden, richard kelly, the box


Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 PortableIn this new generation of video games, you can't help but feel that the Japanese role-playing game has been left behind. While many Western-based RPGs like The Witcher and the Mass Effect series have tried to evolve the role-playing genre, JRPG apologists keep maintaining that the tried and true gameplay more than makes up for the genre's lack of evolution. However, for every Triple-A Western RPG that gets released, that argument becomes less and less credible. So, while most JRPGs are still recycling the same game mechanics that have been used since the beginning of the original PlayStation era, it was good to see the Persona series (a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei video game series) try to push the JRPG by infusing fresh new ideas into an established genre.

Back in 2007, Atlas had originally released Persona 3 on the PlayStation 2. The game was a breath of fresh air to the whole RPG genre, incorporating a unique setting with traditional JRPG tropes like turn-based battles and dungeon-crawling. Three years later, Atlus brings Persona 3 Portable to the Sony PSP, this time adding a few new tweaks to the overall game. The question of whether these tweaks make the overall experiance better depends on the player's preference.

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TAGS: mass effect, persona 3, psp, shin megami tensei, shin megami tensei persona 3 portable, the witcher


Public Relations

For all of the changes we've been promised in the wake of last year's finale, season four of Mad Men begins by reminding us that the heart of the show will always remain the same, singular question of just who this man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), really is. And at this point the writers seem to be having fun with it. Last season's "The Gypsy and the Hobo" concluded with a trick-or-treating scene and a character asking Don, "and who are you supposed to be?" Now, the season four premiere, "Public Relations" (directed by Phil Abraham and written by Matthew Weiner), opens on a close-up of Hamm's face and a journalist's voice asking, "Who is Don Draper?" as if this were an AMC promo slot, with Hamm about to launch into his analysis of the character.

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TAGS: christina hendricks, elisabeth moss, january jones, jared harris, john slattery, jon hamm, kiernan shipka, mad men, phil abraham, public relations, recap, rich sommer, robert morse, vincent kartheiser


To see the video essay in its original context at Moving Image Source, click here.

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TAGS: moving image source, razzle dazzle, video essay


Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Yesterday's movie was the recently re-released 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, another one I missed when it came out and have been wanting to see for a while. It was actually in my Netflix queue, but when it showed up at Anthology Film Archive I decided to see it there instead. I'm glad I did, since sitting right in front of a big screen made it easier to succumb to its odd mix of intensity and abstraction, chaos and control.

Paul Schrader, who directed the movie and co-wrote the script with his brother and sister-in-law, gets the setup out of the way with a couple of title cards, telling us that Yukio Mishima was one of Japan's most popular postwar writers, the author of scores of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays. This may be a biopic, but it avoids every cliché of the genre, roaring past boilerplate like courtship and marriage and eschewing psychobabble like the childhood trauma that explains everything. Instead, Shrader uses Mishima's own writings to construct four chapters ("Beauty," "Art," "Action," and "Harmony of Pen and Sword") centered around cornerstones of Mishima's philosophy. Together, the four trace the evolution in his thinking that led him to take his own life, gathering the young acolytes in a paramilitary group he had formed and driving onto a military base to commit seppuku.

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TAGS: a movie a day, mishima: a life in four chapters, paul schrader, yukio mishima


Coming up in this column: Inception, The Girl Who Played with Fire, City Island, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein opened up the whole can of worms, as is David's wont, this time about famous script doctors that I will get around to dealing with when I write about a film that brings it up. He mentions particularly Robert Towne's contributions to Bonnie and Clyde. Towne himself tends to downplay his work on that film, and my friend Elaine Lennon, who did her doctoral dissertation on Towne, tends to agree with Towne. At least on that issue.

Inception (2010. Written by Christopher Nolan. 148 minutes.)

Inception

Chris, meet Fred and Alain. Fred and Alain, meet Chris: I was a little surprised to read the Monday after Inception opened that the post-50 year old crowd liked the film least of all the demographics. With all the concerns going in about whether audiences would be able to keep up with the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream storytelling, I figured an age group that began their filmgoing careers with the films of Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would have no trouble following the film. In 8 ½ (1963) Fellini is a master at jumping from reality to dreams to the past to conditional tenses without ever losing the audience. The viewers always think they know where they are, at least until Fellini pulls the rug out from under them. And in Providence (1977), Resnais and screenwriter David Mercer whip up an extraordinarily evocative and emotionally moving game involving dreams and reality, so much so that the film has a totally different feeling and meaning the second time you see it. One of these days I will have to see it for a third time and see what it turns into then.

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TAGS: city island, inception, the girl who played with fire, the life of emile zola, the story of louis pasteur, understanding screenwriting







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