Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some New-ish Movies I've Seen

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Worthy of Dahl

Where the Wild Things Are: Angsty!

Up in the Air: Totally overrated

A Town Called Panic: Fabulously absurdist

Young Victoria: Pleasantly surprised

Bright Star: Stark and beautiful

Monday, December 21, 2009

David Lynch's Favorite Sandwiches

Photo by Justin Hoff

So, I met David Lynch when he was in New York for a speaking engagement with the Hudson Society. And we talked a bit. And then he listed his top five favorite sandwiches for me. And then I ended up writing about it on And, well, the rest is history.

(Btw, that's me on sitting on the far left, with another reporter next to me, David Lynch and David's friend, who is conspicuously checking his Blackberry.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education"

This afternoon, Dante and I went to see An Education, which I rather liked. But afterward, as we were walking back to the subway he mentioned that he thought the acting and the screenwriting were good but the directing was too stodgy.

He thought that the stiffness was okay for the parts when the 16-year-old protagonist, Jenny, is at home in her middle-class suburb of London, but that when she gets whisked into a world of concerts and champagne and art auctions by a suave older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard), the filmmaking should have gotten freer. (New York magazine's film critic, David Edelstein, said something similar: "Lone Scherfig’s direction is glum. We’re so clued in to what’s really going on that we never share Jenny’s authentic excitement at being introduced to art, music, and exotic locales.")

I agree that the direction is rather conventional, but it didn't in any way detract from my enjoyment of the film. Of course, though I never had an affair with an older man and grew up in a much different time and place, I was quite similar--in interests and aspirations--to Jenny when I was a teenager (I even played a string instrument and shared her love of existentialists; I am still obsessed with French culture), so perhaps Jenny's thrill at being a part of this life of style and sophistication was just naturally more palpable to me than to Edelstein or my boyfriend. As far as the direction goes, I think it serviced the narrative just fine, which is strange since I generally like more formalism in my movies. But I guess sometimes having a story is enough.

*Interestingly, I actually reviewed Lone Scherfig's last movie Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself for my college paper here. Warning: I wrote this as an undergrad; I think that's all you need to know.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Everyone loves questionnaires! Dante Ciampaglia called my attention to this cinematic equivalent of the famous Proust questionnaire by film critic Didier Peron, which was translated into English by New Yorker writer Richard Brody.

I bite:

The first image?
All those brightly colored umbrellas dancing in the rain from Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The film (or the scene) that traumatized your childhood?
Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. She featured prominently in my nightmares for years.

The movie your parents prevented you from seeing?
What didn't they prevent me from seeing? I was particularly crushed when my mom wouldn't let me see the Romeo + Juliet adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio when I was an adolescent. Moms are, like, so totally cruel.

Your fetish scene:
Lena Olin in a bowler hat.

You’re directing a remake. Which one?
Not really a remake, but I would like to see someone do a really interesting adaptation of Edie Sedgewick's life--something more impressionistic and trippy than the completely mundane Factory Girl (my review here).

What makes you laugh?
The absurd.

Your life becomes a bio-pic. Who plays the role of you? And who directs?
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sofia Coppola

A film that makes you say “Never again!”
Holocaust movies, war movies, movies about the oppressed/marginalized/etc.

The character who most sets you dreaming.
A pair, actually: Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise

The absolute filmmaker, in your eyes?
Jean-Luc Godard, of course.

The actor or actress you’d like to have been.
Anna Karina

The last film you saw? With whom? How was it?
Family Life. With Dante. It was interesting, but a bit inscrutable and distant.

If you were to adapt a book?
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (with my boyfriend), and Lolita (I know it's been done twice, but I want to do it again).

The craziest thing you’ve seen on the Internet?
A piano-playing cat. OK, not the craziest, but isn't it cute?

If someone called you a cinephile, how would you react?

DVD or more-or-less-legal downloading?
DVD, but really, nothing beats the cinema.

The masterpiece that everyone talks to you about but that you’ve never managed to see.
Citizen Kane. Yes. Really.

The last image?
Have to agree with Richard Brody here: Jean Paul Belmondo closing his eyelids with his hand.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Austen at the Disco

Kate Beckinstale and Chloe Sevigny primping at the Club

The Criterion Collection has released Whit Stillman beautiful and witty 1998 film The Last Days of Disco on DVD. I saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago at a screening at Lincoln Center, following which was a disco dance party, though I was really the only one moving my hips in a room mostly full of film nerds.

Stillman is a wonderful observer and chronicler of society who is unsparing yet sympathetic to, even protective of, his characters. Film Comment's Gavin Smith, in a conversation with the director after a screening of the film at Lincoln Center, compared him to Jane Austen, and I think that is rather astute. In a wonderful recent interview with the Village Voice, Stillman referenced Austen but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger and Evelyn Waugh, though Stillman is far kinder than the often acerbic and bitter Waugh.

There is a bit of a This Side of Paradise whiff to Last Days of Disco -- these kids, spoiled and bright, with their Ivy League pedigrees looking for love and trying to find themselves as they are thrust into young adulthood. The passion and earnestness in the film is also in keeping with Fitzgerald's first novel, but it is mixed with -- and even buried under -- a laconic irony and disarming awkwardness (much like many of Austen's funniest scenes). Alice (played by Chloe Sevigny) is the prototypical Austen heroine: independent (but not too rebellious), bookish and serious, yet romantic.

But Alice, in a way, has a much harder time than Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet navigating through her society's social mores. For Elizabeth, elaborate, ridiculous rules are in place that she -- and her suitors -- must abide: the result is awkward, inconvenient, yet pretty safe. Alice, however, is a young woman in a time in which social mores are being completely uprooted and changed, yet there is still some secret, mysterious code in place that she must figure out. It seems so easy (in her view) to everyone but herself. And she watches them with a mixture of envy and (perhaps because of her jealousy) contempt. There is a constant turmoil between who she wants to be -- someone who is confident and who can easily ensnare men (like her domineering roommate, Charlotte) -- and who she really is. It is something all the characters, to an extent, struggle with, except perhaps Charlotte (played by a young Kate Beckinstale), who seems slightly delusional and egomaniacal anyway. It also spurs one of the film's most memorable monologues, in which the womanizing Des (played by Chris Eigeman) muses on the famous Shakespeare phrase "To thine own self be true": "But what if 'thine own self' is not so good?"

The witty repartee -- a wonderful mixture of the high and low-brow -- reminded me of some of my favorite post-graduate-malaise/Gen X films of the '90s, such as Before Sunrise and Kicking and Screaming, albeit about yuppies at the disco rather than slackers hanging around the coffee shop. I wonder if this had something to do with the film's initial lukewarm reception -- that Stillman elevated the much maligned and caricatured disco era and its spoiled, rich and materialistic enthusiasts to, well, something of beauty and profundity.

Two things I wanted to point out from the interview, which I found really illuminating. The first is how Whitman describes his writing process:
The best way I find is to have the characters start to operate and speak and then let them run and conflict and end up one way or another. And I really don't know how things will turn out, generally, in the stories. It's the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course, which is, he used to say you don't want to create story through dialogue ... and the only way I know how to create the characters is to try some scenes with dialogue where they do stuff and say stuff, and then you start getting a sense of the character and what they might do and how they might think, and if you get to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously then it feels much better and much more authentic and worth exploring ...

And it's a slow process, because there're a lot of cul-de-sacs that have to be gotten out of. I think in dialogue, what I find really helpful is trying to sort of tell the truth about things, have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then, sometimes you make a statement in dialogue and then you realize, "You know, that's not quite true, there are these exceptions, there's this other aspect ..." and then send another character to say that, or they can themselves reconsider what they said. Sometimes by being a little bit tormented by something you wrote that really probably isn't true, you can use that anxiety to come to a solution that helps you in dialogue, helps you in character. And often there's a joke in there, often you can come up with some response that'll be a punchline and you can see them get out of it, get on to something else.

So elegantly put. I love the idea of creating a story through dialogue. That makes sense to me. (There is a third option, I think, though, which is creating a story through a mood or timbre.)

The second is about realism:

I'm explicitly coming to feel that realism is a problem in cinema. It is the criterion for many people's judgment of films, and there's a lot of static about anything that doesn't seem verite to people, or externally verite. And I think ... it's led people a lot of wrong roads, they dismiss some things that are good, and over-value some things that are rather empty because of the infatuation with "the real." That "real" we really get every day, every day we open our eyes. And it is true that the unreal can be artificial in a very bad way, and therefore it makes us appreciate those film that seem real in what they're showing. I've just seen a series of highly-praised very realistic films and ... there's just a feeling of emptiness, of hollowness, there's no humor in them, there's no joy, there's no romance ... I don't think it's true to life because I think we bring those emotions and aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it instead of just having this critically-negative camera covering things...

My boyfriend and I were discussing this quote over our cereals this morning, and we both thought of the current craze for "mumblecore," films about inarticulate 20-somethings trying to figure stuff out. But mostly this quote makes me think, again, of one of my all-time favorite films Before Sunrise (and its companion Before Sunset). That film had a profound impact on me as an adolescent because in it I realized all my dreams and hopes and ideals. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful idealization of romance ever put on screen, yet it still feels true. You can argue that no early 20-somethings are as articulate and profound as Ethan Hawke's and Julie Delphy's characters in Before Sunrise, but that didn't matter, because what they said embodied the frustrations and dreams of young idealistic teens and 20-somethings watching that movie everywhere. They shared our frustrations and struggles, they shares our beliefs and passions, they just expressed them more beautifully than we ever could (and were themselves, of course, impossibly beautiful). In a way, though, that is one of the greatest things about cinema, that it can express ideas and life with more wit and insight and beauty and clarity than we have the luxury or time to.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Exercise in Mediocrity

Why do they have to ruin perfectly good books?

Of course this is all speculative--I am not, generally, against adaptations. But with these three on board, how can it not be mediocre?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Basterdized" History

A scene from Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds"

When I was in fourth and fifth grade, my social studied teacher--who had quite the library of young adult historical fiction in her classroom--leant me the book The Upstairs Room, about two Jewish girls hiding in an attic in German-occupied Holland during World War II. I remember waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and sneaking out of the bedroom I shared with my sisters in order to finish the book in solitude, tears streaming down my face by the end. It was the beginning of a mild Holocaust-literature obsession: Number the Stars, The Journey Back, Letters from Rifka, Anne Frank and, a couple years later, Survival in Auschwitz.

This is, I think, not an uncommon obsession for a certain type of young girl. The amount of young adult Holocaust novel aimed at females (that is, with young female protagonists) is quite staggering, and there were few girls in my (Catholic) fourth grade home room who weren't entranced by Anne Frank. There was--still is--something sacred, horrible and profound in the suffering portrayed in these works about the war and the Holocaust. I think most girls--myself included--gravitated toward the ones of Jews in hiding because while they reminded us of the terrible atrocities conducted by human beings, they also demonstrated the other human extraordinary capacity for kindness and bravery--I always liked The Upstairs Room best because those girls survived; there was a happy--but not naive or untruthful--ending.

But something about Quentin Tarantino's (also, I guess, happy) revisionist ending of his new revenge World War II flick, Inglourious Basterds [sic], was deeply unsettling to me. (I am not alone.) Still, I was surprised by my bristling response. Tarantino's ultra-violent, clearly fantastical postmodern revisionist pastiche is far less exploitative than, for example, Herman Rosenblat writing a fake Holocaust memoir. At least Tarantino's motivations, if misguided and naive, seemed pure. And part of me wanted to find Tarantino's gleeful, unconventional and pop treatment of the war and particularly of the Nazis refreshing. Richard Brody, on his blog, said, on this point, "If there's a virtue to the ostensibly transgressive aspect of [Tarantino's] pulp-fiction obsessions, it's precisely in his willingness to use despised or downmarket forms to bring up difficult or controversial matters.") Yet the film still felt wrong.

I think maybe this had to do with the film's oscillation between "serious film" and "grindhouse flick." Tarantino has been able to seemlessly meld the two before, as in Pulp Fiction, for example, but this time the two tendencies seem disjointed and jarring. The film isn't straight-up B-movie fun because it poses too many troubling--and interesting--questions (about history, Jewish identity, the power of film, etc.). Yet it doesn't examine these questions in any interesting or meaningful way. The problem isn't that the movie is revisionist or funny or ultra-violent, it's that it is so half-baked that it provides neither the cathartic cinematic escape that it promises nor the gravitas that the subject deserves.

A lot of this also rests on one big problem with Tarantino, made more and more apparent with each of his subsequent films: He wants desperately to be a formalist. The arcane references, the anachronistic music, the jarring voice-overs that take you out of the narrative (there's one part in Inglourious Basterds where Samuel L Jackson, in voice-over explains the flammable qualities of nitrate film), the schlocky over-the-top cartoon violence--all the things that make a Tarantino film a Tarantino film. Ostensibly. The thing is, though, that Tarantino isn't a formalist, he's a storyteller--and, generally, a pretty good one. There's nothing wrong with being a good storyteller, and Tarantino should highlight this gift, rather than obscure it or throw it out the window, as he has in this film. A group of Jewish Nazi hunters who scalp their victims isn't a story--it's a conceit. There was a sliver of a story in Basterds--the one about the Jewish cinema owner in occupied France who seeks vengeance for the death of the rest of her family in the hands of the Nazis--but Tarantino obviously thought cute jokes and postmodern flourishes and bloody beatings and shoot-outs were more important.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Because the Oscars Weren't Bloated Enough...

The Academy has expanded its best picture nominations to 10 films. Apparently, this is to attract more viewers, but is lengthening your telecast to, say, four hours from three really the best way to do this?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mon Chéri!

Since I am an unabashed lover of trashy period melodramas, I am very excited for Chéri, Stephen Frears' adaptation of a Colette novel about a courtesan who has an affair with a younger man--the film comes out in New York next week.

There are several reasons why Chéri can't be anything BUT awesome. First, it is based on a Colette novel. Second, it reunites Frears with Michelle Pfeiffer--the two had previously worked together in quite possibly the creme of the trashy-period-melodrama crop, Dangerous Liaisons. Third, the CLOTHES (love Rupert Friend's burgundy velvet jacket and Pfeiffer's high-necked cream lace and silk dress). Fourth, I have a soft spot for Belle Époque France (actually, I am a fan of most periods French).

In summation, this film was basically made for me. Can't wait till next weekend!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Late Films at BAM

Godard's King Lear; image from BAM's website.

The last film I saw in the theater was Godard's King Lear, part of Brooklyn Academy of Music's late film series and every bit as head-scratching, meta and generally insane as I imagined. I mean, the cast includes Norman Mailer, Molly Ringwald and Woody Allen and the (tenuous) plot involves a descendant of Shakespeare's trying to recreate his lost works (wiped out in some sort of post-apocalyptic future that looks like the present, or, well, the '80s, when the film was made) and stumbles upon a Lear-like mafia don who is trying to divide his "kingdom" among his three daughters, the youngest being Molly Ringwald, with whom he has a vaguely implied incestuous bond. (The incest bond is further explored--and perhaps made more explicit--with footage of Norman Mailer and his own daughter, which Mailer was reportedly none too happy about.) The film is fascinating, if not entirely conceived or fully formed. Like most of Godard's post-New Wave stuff of the '70s and '80s it is sort of like a collage of fragmented ideas and images; like preparatory sketches and notebooks that would ultimately serve as fodder for his masterpiece and complete deconstruction of the history of film, Histoire(s) du cinéma. The film is more an exploration of the difficulties of trying to capture Shakespeare on film in a new way--of course, every Godard film during this period is an exploration of the difficulties of trying to articulate some kind of notion or idea on film--a task that Godard seems to acknowledge as fruitless but that he is utterly obsessed with attempting to unravel anyway.

King Lear is rarely shown, so I was super excited that BAM was showing it, though I thought its classification as a "late film" curious. Much of the films shown truly were examples of directors working at the tail-end of their careers--Eyes Wide Shut and Autumn Tale, for instance--but King Lear represents, I think, a sort-of middle-period film for Godard. The period after his outward rejection of cinema in the late '60s (after Week-End), when he basically just churned out Marxist propagandist films), and before his heralded return to the mainstream (well, relatively speaking) with films like Nouvelle Vague, In Praise of Love and Notre Musique. I would consider these more narrative-driven films his "late-period" films, but perhaps they would not have fit quite so neatly into the wonderful, strange and controversial head trips that characterized BAM's late film series.

Updated: Godard will try his hand again at literary adaptation, this time with Daniel Mendelsohn's book “The Lost.” Richard Brody reports and adds some of his thoughts about King Lear.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are." --Jean-Luc Godard's "New Wave battle cry", 1959.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

French Films at BAM

One of the best things about living in Brooklyn is the Brooklyn Academy of Music, specifically its cinema. Less crowded and pretentious than Film Forum or even IFC in Manhattan, BAM is the kind of theater that attracts your average movie-goer and hardcore cinephile alike, playing contemporary mainstream fare (Adventureland), buzzy foreign films (Sin Nombre) and repertory programs devoted to everything from Elliot Gould to Arab filmmaker Youssef Chahine. Currently, the cinematek is playing a series of French films that have won the Prix Louis Delluc--the French Oscar. I thought I would spend the next few weeks perhaps living at the theater, but alas too many deadlines have forced me to skip out on lots of films I wanted to see, such as Le Guerre est fin and Diary of a Country Priest. This Saturday, though, I am planning on seeing my first Rohmer, Claire's Knee! The series concludes with 2006's excellent adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's infamous novel Lady Chatterly on Tuesday April 28, which I wrote about here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Style and Substance

I had only the vaguest notion of Constantin Costa-Gavras' 1969 film Z before seeing it at Film Forum today: I knew that it was a "political thriller," that it had won the Academy Award for best foreign film, and that--from the still pictures I had seen--I liked the clothes (1960s shifts for the ladies and chunky glasses and skinny ties for the gents).

You may laugh, but the clothes cannot be dismissed: It is partly Z's stylish panache that gives it its electricity, that makes it a nail-biting, elegant thriller rather than just some cautionary political tale, which it easily could have been. We are, after all, dealing with extremist fascist-like governments here. Somehow Z has it both ways: I can't think of a political film that's this much fun yet so harrowing in its portrayal of government corruption and the way it manipulates the mob. It's George Orwell done with the seductiveness of a Jean-Pierre Melville film.

The film opens with a police general giving a lecture on the dangerous ideological "-isms" infecting society as a group of pacifists await the arrival of a charismatic activist--played by a devastatingly handsome Yves Montand--whose life has been threatened and who is expected to deliver a speech at a pacifist meeting and demonstration that evening. Tensions escalate when a group of right-wing extremists show up yelling taunts, throwing punches and wielding clubs--one of which, coming from a punk in the back of a three-wheeled pick-up, strikes the venerated speaker on the head, leaving him critically wounded. Government officials hope to dismiss the whole thing as a drunk-driving accident and leave it at that and hires young, stoic magistrate Jean-Louis Trintignant to quickly close the case.

But turns out the unflappable wunderkind, with his tinted sunglasses and almost square devotion to his work, is a bit too smart for his own good, and he slowly--with the help of a heartthrob, ambiguously leftist photojournalist--begins unraveling a complicated web of government conspiracy and corruption. Costa-Gavras' breakneck editing, the quick, fractured and jarring flashbacks, and Mikis Theodorakis' thumping score give a sense of chaos and paranoia, less the picture appear a little too elegantly executed.

Time has in no way tempered the film's wallop (it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). Z was inspired by the real-life assassination of Olympic athlete turned pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis in Greece, which shortly after became a military dictatorship--one supported by the United States. The film's rather sober coda--after a gleeful dispatching of those officials and policemen involved in the assassination--feels rather like a slap in the face, a wake-up call after two hours of first-rate entertainment. In a way it dismantles the conventions of this type of thriller--here we are ready to accept the neat, tidy, happy end to the story, when--bam--life intrudes, as a cold epilogue delivered by our dapper photojournalist, who is then replaced by some dispassionate, anonymous woman's voice.


On the way home from the theater I read Keith Gessen's Letter from Moscow in The New Yorker about the trial of the men accused of organizing and carrying out the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and I got the chills. I realized then the prescience Costa-Gavras' extraordinary film, and it scared me.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Breadlines and Champagne: Depression-Era Films at Film Forum

What better way to wallow in our recessionary blues (or escape from them) than with Film Forum's Breadlines and Champagne series, a month's programming of some of the greatest Great Depression-era movies--classic and obscure; socially conscious and extravagant; screwball and pre-Code--along with cartoon shorts, vintage newsreels and, yes, bread.

The series kicked off Friday night with the salty I'm No Angel, starring husky-voiced femme fatale Mae West and a very young Carey Grant (a rather odd romantic pairing). Vintage-tinged jazz group Vince Giordano & His Nighthawks--snazzy in tuxes--played a set beforehand, which had everyone in the theater bopping their heads and tapping their toes. A newsreel from 1933 showed the highlights of that year and included the phrase "Joseph Stalin, Uncle Sam's new friend..." (the same segment about the USSR's and U.S.'s improved relations also included the incredibly obvious yet still hilarious pun "red letter day"). Employees handed out bread to famished cineasts waiting in line before the show (now, if only they had champagne), and--sweetest of all--the whole evening cost only 25 cents (35 for non-members).

While the rest of the films won't be quite as cheap (regular price: $11), practically every night is a double feature--with a rare triple thrown in. And with classics like My Man Godfrey, It Happened One Night and 42nd Street, as well as salacious pre-Code entertainments like Baby Face (starring Barbara Stanwyck) and leftist social-realist parables, such as the sublimely named Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, how can one go wrong?

*Mae West and Carey Grant in I'm No Angel; image from Film Forum website