Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The Italian Job: Memo to Croker

January 27, 2010

Made in 1969, the year following Roeg/Cammell’s Performance, The Italian Job is an interesting counterpoint to that Borges-gone-gangster head-fuck. The storyline has a similar relay race quality. Fresh from prison, the flash Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) receives a 16mm film. A thief has left his will on film. It is a plan to lift a payroll from an armored car in the middle of Turin. The gist of the scheme is neatly summed up by Croker as “4 million dollars through a traffic jam.” Clear some space on the poster.

Croker breaks back into prison to get the patronage of criminal boss Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward, having a relaxed time). Initially reluctant to commit his resources to the idea, the patriotic kingpin is swayed by news of an Italian-Chinese trading pact. Once this hurdle is cleared, it remains for a gang to be assembled, drivers recruited, and the mob to knock over the truck. Somebody says, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” The remainder of the film is devoted to a car chase with three Mini Coopers easily outwitting the police and their fiats. With the cars driving up, down and over anything in their path, the sequence may be one of the greatest car adverts ever filmed.


Moon: You Caught Me Standing Alone

January 22, 2010

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works on the dark side of the moon. He’s approaching the end of a three-year stint monitoring the mining of helium-3, a mineral whose solarized properties have provided a solution to our energy crisis. Bell has the beard of a Robinson Crusoe and a Friday companion in the form of a computer named Gerty. Gerty is voiced by Kevin Spacey, doing his best paranoid android. In one of the film’s many smart touches, the computer’s face is a stiffly animated emoticon. In spite of the company, Bell is going a little stir crazy. He creates dialogues for his plants and works on building a matchstick model of his hometown that he can’t remember starting.

The first part of director Duncan Jones’s debut feature has an eerie quality. The strange nature of satellite time is created using temporal ellipses, strangely placed fades and sound bridges. These early scenes sometimes end too early or go on too long, which makes sense. Bell is a one-man show where there’s no audience and no one to play off. He watches video messages left for him by his wife Tess (the very attractive Dominique McElligott), but we’re not sure if he’s watching them in chronological order. He can’t communicate earth directly due to faulty mechanics.


Heavy Traffic: Walk Don’t Walk

January 21, 2010

Deeply personal and willfully repellant, Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic is not the most coherent film in the entire world. It depicts the world of an aspiring underground cartoonist through a mixture of live action and animation, both of which are rendered in grotesque strokes.

Our hero is the virginal artist Mike (Joseph Kaufmann), who is introduced playing pinball. He lives a monkish existence inside a tenement apartment whose environment is a little like The Honeymooners if it were designed by Breughel and written by Tennessee Williams at his most Sophoclean. The women are mile-a-minute shrews who always seem to have a mammary breaking free from their blouse. The men are thick-lipped ethnic caricatures. They think with their dicks—which inevitably are also put on display—and are unable to control their bodily functions. Eking out an existence in the New York underbelly, they take out their impotence on their women.


Foolish Wives: Monte Carlo on Sunset and Vine

January 14, 2010

There is something about Erich von Stroheim’s films which are akin to a latter-day hip-hop video. Hip-hop vids are aspirational in nature. They most often show their stars enjoying a life their audience can only dream about. The MCs are surrounded by the finest women and brand names. They’re flying in private jets and anchored off St. Tropez in their yachts. They’re given the VIP treatment at the most exclusive nightclubs. They’re living out the whole Great Gatsby thing. The music video is both proof of status–your average rapper’s rise from the projects to the penthouse—and a hyper-stylized fantasy of that ascent.

When it came to making his third feature, Von Stroheim was in a similar position to Jay-Z when it came time to record “Big Pimpin’.” He had risen from an Austro-Jewish background to reinvent himself as a Prussian aristocrat in America. He had thrown a “von” in his name and dropped the “Oswald.” This was pre-Internet, so no one was checking up on him. A born hustler, he took to the nascent film industry like a prince to the polo grounds. He went from working as an advisor to D.W. Griffith to playing a Pharisee in Intolerance to directing his own films for Universal. He had scored a pair of hits–Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey–both set in a Europe built on a Hollywood back-lot and both starring von Stroheim. Where Griffith was an actor who discovered he was happiest behind the camera, Von Stroheim used his films to fashion himself into—as the promotional material for Foolish Wives had it—“the man you will love to hate.”


Antichrist: Vu de l’extérieur

January 14, 2010

It says something about the extraordinary Antichrist that the first time Squally saw it, the film felt like a comedy. The second time, it felt like a tragedy. The movie was greeted with jeers at Cannes, which writer/director Lars von Trier brushed off with the proclamation, “I am the world’s greatest filmmaker.”

The critics were trying to take Antichrist too seriously. In dealing with the disintegration of a woman, after all, Von Trier was walking on hallowed ground. The cracked woman is a favorite trope of (male) directors, whether it’s Marnie or Rebecca, Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, any number of women in Bergman’s films, Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s Safe, or especially Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, by von Trier’s bete noire, Michael Haneke. Squally could go on, but let’s just say that it’s one of the greatest clichés of the art house cinema: a beautiful woman goes to pieces, the beautiful actress who plays her is acclaimed for the performance.


St. Trinian’s: School’s Out

January 13, 2010

The British do seem to enjoy exhuming their past and fobbing it off on an audience unable to resist tradition’s lure. The latest victim of grave-robbing is Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s cartoons, first turned into a series of sexy teen comedies steered by Alistair Sim during the 1950s. The idea of this remake seems to be …well, Squally isn’t entirely sure what the idea is. Neither, Squally suspects do the filmmakers.

Searle drew his cartoon featuring the St. Trinian’s girls shortly before he was shipped off to Singapore with the Royal Engineers. He was captured by the Japanese after the fall of the city. He was sent to Changi Prison, where he shared a cell with another 199 captives, and worked on the Burma Road Railway, where his weight dipped down to seven stone. He also suffered a pickaxe to the spine. Those Japanese soldiers were real sweethearts.


Avatar: Seeing is Disbelieving

January 11, 2010

Avatar has been hailed not as a film but a cinematic experience which was going to change the way we went to the movies. There was every reason to be excited. Number one, it was the first fiction film from the obscenely talented James Cameron since Titanic. During the past decade, he had been experimenting with the 3D IMAX format. Cameron was presumably looking for a way to make an even bigger movie instead.

The so-called King of the World was desperately needed. The Lord of the Rings aside, it was hard to think of a movie which had used computer effects in a convincing way. There were still glitches of movement and reflection to be worked out. Computer-generated characters seemed curiously weightless. More importantly, Cameron had demonstrated not only action chops but, in Titanic, a command of epic narrative. His scenes were expert demonstrations of a classical style of storytelling. This art was in danger of becoming extinct in an era of fast cuts and short attention spans. Cameron’s planet needed him. Alas, with Avatar he’s delivered his messiest film, one that’s ultimately more barnstorming stunt than coherent statement.


The Blue Bird: No Place Like Home

December 17, 2009

Maurice Tourneur‘s 1918 production of The Blue Bird feels a long way from Walsh’s Five Points. This adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck‘s 1908 play, is realized by the French director for Adolph Zukor‘s Famous Players-Lasky in fantastic style. Tytyl and Mytyl are a brother and sister living up in a snow-covered village that’s located somewhere between Hansel and Gretel. Across the way lives a sick child and her mannish-looking mother. Down the road are “The Rich Children.” After the kids refuse to let the sick girl adopt their pet bird, they recieve a night visit from a fairy. The fairy brings their surroundings to life and charges Tytyl (Robin Macdougall) and Mytyl (Tula Belle) to find the bluebird of happiness.


Regeneration: Gangsters Before Gangsters

December 17, 2009

Raoul Walsh’s 1915 film Regeneration is often acclaimed as one of the first gangster films, but these aren’t really gangsters modern audiences would be familiar with. The gang Owen (John McCann) leads are more of a mob of Lower East Side plug uglies than true sports. They wear floppy caps and the working clothes of the docks and congregate in a basement called the Chicory Hall, where the thugs are as likely to be found sleeping on the bare dirt floor as playing cards.


A Serious Man: But Seriously …

December 15, 2009

A Serious Man is not a nice movie. Like both No Country for Old Men or Burn After Reading, it’s a film where the pieces don’t quite add up. You could compare it to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, except the Coen Brothers are less interested in sifting through history than grappling with the eternal mysteries. Man depicts a kind of war against God, a war which is always going to be one-sided. As the protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) puts it at one point, why does God give man so many questions if He’s not going to provide any answers?