28 September 2010

Bred for their skills in magic

Somehow (I blame having a day job), I've missed until today news of the birth of new liger cubs.

One reads Harper's Index to become depressed and Harper's Findings to laugh:

Three liger cubs were born in a Taiwanese zoo whose keepers had allowed an African lion and Bengal tiger to cohabitate. Previous attempts to separate the couple, said the zoo's owner, had made the lion "very angry."

Impeccable comic timing, as always. Apparently the zoo owner is subject to a stiff $1,500 fine for illegally cross-breeding the great cats.

That anything nefarious could happen in something called The World Snake King Education Farm in Tainan, Taiwan is absolutely shocking. I think they just did the only natural thing when faced with an angry, and no doubt horny, African lion.

27 September 2010

So Many Title Shots

From the timewaster who brought you Fake Criterion Covers (still going, check the new Pi cover), I give you the Movie Title Stills Collection.

You can browse start titles (and many end titles) by year which, if nothing else, is a great study of trends in font.

Some live up to the excellence of the film:

Some do not:

And one is just the best:

Overall the site functions as a nice survey of films to put on the queue. I marched forward from the 20s and it pains me to say we might be mired in the most boring era for film titles!

While Michael Haneke can be counted on for excellence, don't look to America for any inspiration.

(Isn't Good Night, and Good Luck using the default font for iMovie?)

The only disappointment is that the little "buy" links don't take you to a page that miraculously sells high quality images of the title--they take you to an Amazon page to buy DVDs.

22 September 2010

Holidays in the '40s

Because I'm a huge fraidy cat, I'm never too keen on watching seasonally-appropriate horror movies on Halloween. But now, having seen Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, I'll be ready with a suggestion when the time comes.

In man's continuing quest to determine all the reasons women won't sleep with us, here's another: Irena (Simone Simon) can't sleep with Oliver (Kent Smith) because if she does she will turn into a panther and kill him. I'm a believer, and would have immediately backed away from Irena but Oliver is that kind of cardboard cutout American who won't take no for an answer. He consults his work chum Alice (Jane Randolph), who isn't a lesbian and therefore produces a romantic complication and Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who becomes quite captivated by Irena's case.

Tourneur does not miss any opportunities for dramatic lighting. He gives Oliver and Alice a long sequence where they are illuminated only by bright light tables, heightening the effect by having a black kitten walk across the top of one. At only 75 minutes, there's a focus on each shot being as efficient and memorable as possible.

The chilliest scene, straight out of nightmare, has Alice swimming alone in a pool late at night, perhaps with a panther lifeguarding. The camera revolves around the room over and over as we wait for more than the shadow of the panther to appear. Tourneur brilliantly captures the pitch of the pool waves and Alice's screams for help. In the end, her bathrobe takes the brunt of the offensive but her days of evening pool exercise are probably over.

Irena has an abiding interest in the black panther at the zoo, which she visits frequently. Twice she has the opportunity to steal the key to its cage and we have to ask ourselves the delicious question: does she want to let the panther out, or herself in?

The film ends on a stunning tableau, an exquisitely composed shot that blurs the line between the woman and the cat. Plus there's a quotation by John Donne!

So Cat People is charmingly acted, short, scary, beautiful and it ends with poetry--what more do you want?

It seems a mistake that the film was released on Christmas Day 1942 when it's so clearly a Halloween movie. The better 40s Xmas feature is The Shop Around the Corner.

It's a great regret of my life that Jimmy Stewart does not attempt a Hungarian accent in this Budapest-set film (I had to content myself with the way he slurred his coworker's surnames). Nowadays reading papers in Hungarian and working in a shop with Hungarian signage would necessitate all actors speaking in ridiculous variations on an accent. It's almost as if Ernst Lubitsch knew then more than directors do today...

Stewart is Alfred Kralik, one of the principal employees of Hugo Matuschek's (Frank Morgan) store. His friend, and sage family man, is Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). The obsequious Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is Kralik's natural rival. He seems a little light on his feet so it's all the more amusing when we find he's banging the boss's wife. Pepi (William Tracy) is the inimitable errand boy. And then there's Klara (Margaret Sullavan) who would be great looking if she didn't insist on wearing the most unattractive blouses.

The film is funny two ways, both in the above average jokes and in the rampant misogyny of the screenplay. The shtick is that Kralik and Klara are falling in love as pen pals while hating each other at work. There's a lot of fine repartee (Klara says things like, "Well I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter... which doesn't work. "). But Kralik has all the power in their relationship because he finds out that Klara is the recipient of his missives and tortures her with this knowledge for an hour or so before finally revealing the truth.

To complete a joke established early in the film about bowleggedness, Kralik makes every lady's dream come true and reveals his skinny legs, complete with sock garters. Lubitsch crowns the picture with other fine scenery--a lingering shot of the Christmastime streets of Budapest. The fake snow and real bustle make for a perfectly romantic ending (I once spent a decidedly less picturesque Christmas Day working retail in a Las Vegas casino, about which no film has yet been made).

All in all,
The Shop Around the Corner is a perfect sneak attack for an impromptu December night in with your sweetheart. What am I saying? My plot will be ruined if I try to pull the move on anyone who reads this blog...

We Are Going to The Town

Watching The Town, I was concerned at the start when my main focus was on which Boston sports team would be on Ben's next track jacket (the Pats must be upset that none of their gear was ever on display). And it takes an hour to shake the Don Draper off of Jon Hamm's FBI agent (it finally happens when he wears a particularly unfortunate flannel shirt).

But enough about the clothes--this is a thriller about bank robbers, after all! As the pre-credit titles inform us, The Town is Charlestown, where there's more men working with submachine guns and Skeletor masks than anywhere else in the world. In case we might forget where we are, a hundred or so helicopter establishing shots of the Bunker Hill Monument help us remember.

Director Ben Affleck chose Ben Affleck to star as Doug, a gifted bank robber who's (spoiler alert!) also a pretty swell guy. His partner is Jim (Jeremy Renner, very at home and more comfortably trashy than Affleck), his ex is Jim's sister Krista (Blake very Lively) and his boring new girlfriend is Claire (Rebecca Hall), an employee of a bank he robbed.

The big problem: the movie should have been about Jim, not Doug. Look at either Scarface. Paul Muni and Al Pacino weren't the nice guys, they were the guys with sadistic spark that Jeremy Renner gets to display all too infrequently in The Town. The best scene is probably the one where Jim and Doug beat on some townies. Doug keeps his hockey mask on during the assault to avoid reprisal but Jim tears his off so the victim knows who to fear. A hint for Affleck going forward: we're more interested in the scary guy than the scared guy.

I'm sure the screenplay was how it was in the source novel and blah blah but as a director you have to see the actor who brings the heat and go with him. This is maybe harder to do if you're the director and star with less heat.

At least he looked sexy as hell. I find the older Ben, with a lined forehead, grey hairs and ripped body to be much more attractive than baby Ben. While Doug struggles to stay awake while talking to Claire as she plants flowers for poor children to trample, he has better chemistry with the slatternly, unapologetic Krista. For important historical background on this matter, see Vulture's 59-page slideshow "Blake Lively's Breast Looks" (hey--I just report the news!). I much preferred Affleck's "I'm trying to be a classy guy but I'm really not" vibe to his "I'm trying to be a classy guy" vibe with Rebecca Hall. Who was just boring.

Despite all demurrals, I'd recommend the film. It's well-cast (with fine additional work by Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite in what I understand to be flawless Northern Irish accent). It has my best ever chase scene starring a minivan. And it steals the ending of The Shawshank Redemption so neatly that I had to tip my hat. If only Ben's bearded Florida revelry were interrupted by Blake Lively approaching on a canoe, asking where she could score some Oxy...

21 September 2010


After Casey Affleck revealed that I'm Still Here was a hoax, I could go see it. I can't take any more of this Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish, etc."is it real or not?" nonsense.

My favorite indication of Joaquin Phoenix's false hip-hop persona (besides the fact that the film has fucking writing credits (pull your head out of your ass Roger Ebert)) was his rap name itself: JP. Every time I heard "JP" I didn't know to whom we were referring, as the man's name starts with W and F sounds.

My main takeaway from the film is that Hollywood fame is hellish. There's so much empty waiting around time, arranging meetings that won't be kept, finding cars and drivers and planes to nowhere, nibbling unsatisfactory room service, listening to the dull squawk of "entertainment news," saying "what's up?" to dozens of strangers and letting your assistants run your life so that you can emerge from these uncanny spaces and be erased in a storm of camera flashes.

In general it might make you so depressed that you start to look like Vincent Gallo with a more uneven part in the mustache of your beard.

I'm Still Here is only interesting in the parts where pieces of Phoenix's acting life come through. He has a nice beef about the Academy stupidly praising Revolutionary Road over Reservation Road and it's interesting to learn that he doesn't watch the movies in which he acts...maybe, if you can take him at his word. Stupid mockumentaries.

All of this leads to the question: have you seen Joaquin's theoretical swansong, James Gray's Two Lovers, even if he hasn't? His performance, as the all-time most irresistible 30-something man who lives with his parents, is immense, one of the finest I've seen in the last decade. Leonard Kraditor's combination of conviviality, moroseness, intelligence and naivety isn't quite like any other character I can recall. Phoenix, totally locked in, makes his every move worth close inspection.

He so outshines Gwyneth Paltrow (resembling a forlorn corn husk as the supposedly passionate Michelle) that I felt bad for her. She should have been driven to retirement, though I'd be remiss not to mention her flashing a single boob for Leonard, which was world class. Michelle is better paired with her married lawyer boyfriend, played by a bespectacled Elias Koteas with his usual aplomb.

Vinessa Shaw fares somewhat better as Sandra, Leonard's conventional choice for a mate (they usually speak on a land line while Michelle talks to Leonard on a cell phone, in a not terribly subtle move by Mr. Gray). The parental-approved couple share a fabulous scene at a ice blue boardwalk restaurant where she observes that Phoenix is frozen in place and gifts him a pair of gloves. The gesture is warm but the situation isn't. Napkins arranged in the water glasses around the couple are like stilled fountains.

Isabella Rossellini, playing Leonard's mother, is the only figure intuitive enough to see Leonard's next moves. She's there in the end (at a chilly New Year's party) to observe her son throw it all away in the name of love and then take it all back. Phoenix acts the climax with few words but we see perfectly Leonard's blend of total calculation and terror. His behavior is cruel enough to poison one's idea of love--what a feat!

13 September 2010


I spent Sunday outraged at one thing or another.

First there was an official ruling in the NFL so egregious it could only happen to my Detroit Lions. The details are not terribly interesting but the fallout can be summed up thusly:

I did not record that clip but I used many of the same words in my description of the situation.

Football is a stupid thing to get worked up about and it wasn't until later in the afternoon I found something truly worthy of anger.

The Tillman Story is one of the few valuable films I've seen that I would caution people before watching (the transparency of Restrepo makes that difficult movie much easier to take). After absorbing the story of the Tillman family, I sat in the theater shaking, wishing I had picked the easy escapism of Centurion.

Amir Bar-Lev's documentary begins with a great shot of Pat Tillman, then a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, trying to stay still for ten seconds while doing a promo for Monday Night Football. He can't do it, saying ten seconds "is a long ass time to just sit there." While the background material on his roughneck nature did not surprise me, his lack of religious beliefs or conservative politics did. He was a liberal atheist who died believing the war in Iraq was illegal.

The circumstances around his death by fratricide go far beyond the "fog of war" generalities that have been used in all reports that I've ever read on the subject. The gist is as follows. While tracking back to the rest of his battalion with a couple of other Army Rangers, Pat Tillman is pinned down by friendly fire from the very Rangers he is trying to help (it has never been determined that any enemy combatants were present at the scene). A member of the volunteer Afghan security force running beside Tillman is killed by the Rangers immediately, presumably for looking too much like an enemy combatant. Tillman throws a smoke grenade in the air, to try to alert the firing soldiers that they are on the same side. The Rangers continue shooting at Tillman and Pfc. O'Neal, approaching as close as 40 yards to their position. After shouting for the last time, "I'm Pat fucking Tillman, why are you shooting at me?" Tillman's head is blown completely off his shoulders by heavy rounds and the sound of blood pouring from his neck is, accordingly to O'Neal, "like a water fountain."

After a heroic fight against government and military stonewalling, the Tillman family forces the matter before Congress. Then, once again, the terrible facts of the matter mount. That all the highest ranking Army generals knew how he died and lied about their handling of the situation when questioned by Congress ("I don't recall," "I don't recall," "I don't recall"). That Donald Rumsfeld knew and lied about it when questioned by Congress ("I don't recall"). That George W. Bush knew and propagated lie after lie not just to obscure the truth, but to use Pat Tillman as a recruiting tool for the military. That this is another American scandal without justice, for the conspiracy is too vast to be publicly revealed.

Pat Tillman should have been back this weekend, finishing out his football career as a fan favorite. Instead he's dead, murdered by the men he helped protect, used unwittingly as propaganda by the country he served, in a story few of the fans who loved him will ever know.

12 September 2010

The National Grass

I don't know why I went to see The National. Well, because I had a free ticket. (Note: the picture above is not from the Seattle show yesterday--I tried to find a real picture from the show but all Seattle news sources failed me. But that's pretty much what the dude looked like.) I know the songs of The National just enough to be annoyed that I don't know all the lyrics to the good songs, which are sort of hard to tell apart. I spent all day watching football and hoping it would rain and I wouldn't be able to go, because the show was outside.

I planned to stand up (and rock out!) but of course once I saw that sitting was an option I did that. I sat far to the front but off stage left, in the area that young mothers stood and danced with children up past their bedtime. The light show strobed the intermittent puffs of smoke from the interior of the gently rocking crowd, almost like people in a movie theater. Really the best part was the smell of grass (the kind on the ground) in the park and the lowering darkness that made people less and less distinguishable until they were avoidable shadows.

Luckily The National have a song just for my mood (not to mention post-9/11 America): "Afraid of Everyone." I think part of it goes: "I'm afraid of everyone, I'm afraid of everyone / They're the young blue bodies / With the old red bodies / I'm afraid of everyone, I'm afraid of everyone." I need to get those lyrics straight for the next time I try to enter society for the mutual enjoyment of music.

09 September 2010

Flawed Killers

Taking a short break from the art house, I’ve just seen two films that really stack up some bodies—Anton Corbijn’s The American and Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct.

In the former, there are a few too many reminders that assassin Jack (George Gloomy) is, in fact, the American in Castel del Monte, Italy. He orders an americano at least three different times. When he goes to a bar, he hears “Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano” (more memorably done in The Talented Mr. Ripley). The next time he arrives the bar is showing Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the easiest choice for Italian-American mash-up. We would have known he was an American from how he’s always driving a car alone—Corbijn could have opted for subtlety.

Although such a figure can be a bit of a cliché, I did enjoy the fatherly priest played by Paolo Bonacelli. He is full of insight for Jack: “journalism cannot make you rich” and his extravagantly bagged eyes were hard to shake. I thought Corbijn did some of his best work in framing Jack and Father Benedetto—they don’t often face each other when speaking, but elaborate focuses and blurs keep the eye trained on the pair.

Corbijn never gets the same intimacy between Jack and Clara (who, like all small town Italian prostitutes, is gorgeous and bilingual and keeps a vibrator and pistol in her drawer) because the camera is usually trained somewhere south of her eyes. The fact that the actress who plays Clara, Violante Placido, is Simonetta Stefanelli’s daughter (you remember Stefanelli as Michael Corleone’s Sicilian wife in The Godfather) intrigued me to no end, but I wouldn’t have guessed the relation.

Though many critics have called the film boring, my main regret is that The American wasn’t ponderous enough. The best scenes feature Jack gathering materials and working alone on the weapon he’s been commissioned to build. There was an opportunity to detail the level of craftsmanship, as seen in a film like The Conversation, but it doesn’t happen. Just when we see the mercury go into a tip of the bullet, the film cuts to the bullets being packaged. I wanted to know exactly how the bullet was finished, and how Jack knew his product was perfect.

Elsewhere, Corbijn is superb. He offers a great scene of arrival in Jack’s first choice of a hideout—Castelvecchio. Stepping out of the car in a small square, he silently catches the eyes of three locals, gets three stone-faced stares in return, hops back behind the wheel and hightails it out of town. In another sequence, Jack moves from the red light of Clara’s room to the amber light of the slick midnight streets to the bright white light of his work table—a perfect illustration of a cipher shifting between roles.

While I’ve never warmed all the way up to Mr. Clooney, Vincent Cassel I love. I’m drawn to the barely masked sadism that plays across his roles in Irreversible, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, La haine, Eastern Promises and even the Ocean’s pictures. That he’d already won the best actor César for Mesrine seemed a sure sign the film (released here in two parts) would be excellent.

And yet, in part 1, Killer Instinct, the only excellent thing is Cassel’s sneering visage (especially when sporting the Joaquin Phoenix-as-rapper look). Perhaps because Mesrine was a real figure, Richet felt pressure to include every crime he ever committed. The pace of the murders exhausted me and that’s just half of the film. No secondary characters are developed beyond sight (I learned, for instance, that Gerard Depardieu hasn’t grown old as much as he’s grown out).

As Mesrine racks up a body count, so too does Richet accumulate visual styles and motifs. While the credit sequence mostly uses a (1968) Thomas Crown Affair frame within frame style, it ends with a clear homage to Bonnie and Clyde. Some nice matching cuts do well to shift the action spatially, but the director also falls into some trite shots, like several dizzying 360 degree takes meant to invoke Mesrine’s delirium in jail. Of films I’ve seen recently, Nicholas Winding Reyn’s Bronson achieves much greater cinematographic cohesion, which allows a deeper study of its protagonist.

I might still check out part 2, Public Enemy #1, if the lure of co-star (and WTT favorite) Mathieu Amalric proves to be too much.

01 September 2010

Matisse at MoMA

Of all the big name paintings at MoMA's Matisse: Radical Invention show, the one that's stayed with me longest is his above "Bather," from 1909.

The iconic, saved for last paintings "Bathers by a River" and "The Piano Lesson" are tremendous examples of art that is plainly correct, in a way that makes us feel Matisse's perfection of color, figures, space and brush/knifestrokes must be intuitive. The canvases are like the best poetry, with the finest details (of fabric, form, architecture, anything else) on top, then layered by importance. And some of the show's ordering was fun, like the way that still lives of apples matched the heads of the "Moroccans" in one room.

But back to my "Bather." He's rather hunched, like me studying him, and poised, black outlines quivering. The part that grabbed me was the aqua in his wake. The lighter blue infers movement in the otherwise flat blue sea. In that tension I could almost feel the water myself.

While shifting my weight from leg to leg as I looked, I thought of the bit in Mates of State's "An Experiment" that asks, "I wonder if I could tie the ocean to your knees?" I also wished I had headphones to drown out the super-parents parroting the "correct readings" of paintings from audio guides to their 5-year-olds' ears.

Surely I would have been a better instructor, after the children got over the trauma of me dispatching their mothers and fathers with swift kicks to the head