Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Working as a hired gun, I'm sure Martin Scorsese considers his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator as a one of those "one for them" projects, but it's the best thing he's done in ten years. Scorsese's professionalism is a welcome change from his distending auteurism. David Edelstein mentions that he seems to have borrowed some of Spielberg's unpretentious energy and nonjudgemental tone from Catch Me If You Can, and it suits him well. Scorsese seems like he's working on instincts, and he's reconnected with the part of him that loves to make movies. (Who would have guessed 20 years ago that Scorsese had had something to learn from Spielberg?)

Like in Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator is held together by a fantastic man-child performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. I always forget that DiCaprio is a real actor. Not in the way that Tom Cruise is an "actor". Or even the way Cruise's more adventurous ex-wife is an "actor". DiCarprio at this best doesn't telegraph his performances for the benefit of Academy voters. He merely works inside his characters, and at his best you don't realise he's doing anything at all. (Like Hughes, DiCaprio insists on counter-sinking his rivets.) That's a tough task when you're playing an increasing nut-job like Hughes. Lets not kid ourselves. It's the kind of role where you'd practically expect the production team to slather the sets in mayonnaise before each take. (I hear that's the only way Pacino works nowadays.) But Scorsese and DiCaprio keep the film remarkably lean from "look at me, I'm acting!" moments.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


There's no doubt that The Incredibles is sensational entertainment, but it's appearance on numerous Ten Best lists is a little baffling. It pales beside Spider-Man 2, which is admittedly as much a remake and reworking of the first film as it is a sequel, but it's still the best of its kind since Burton's Batman movies.

The Incredibles, frankly, just seems a little late. Marvel comics has been doing the dour middle-class lives of superheroes for 40 years, so I'm not sure why this aspect has critics so agog. And this may sound like sour grapes, but I think the film makes a fatal (and decidedly un-Pixar-ish) mistake in its conception of the villain, Syndrome. While there's something refreshing in its refusal to accept mediocrity, there's something almost Randian in its insistence that greatness is born, not made. The heroes are "all natural", after all, while the villain turns to crime after he's rejected for entry into the superhero family because his "powers" are artificial. No matter how great his technological ingenuity, the fact he uses a jetpack means he's forever a pretender.

I realize The Incredibles consciously posits itself as the first post-9/11 family entertainment (Helen's warning to her super-children that the enemies they'll face aren't like the ones on TV shows who never harm kids could not mean to invoke anything but al Qaeda.), and as such suggesting that all evil needs is a good hug certainly isn't a hip attitude... but the guy's name is Syndrome, for chrissake! Show the kid a little love, will ya?

I know we don't want to sugar-coat things for kids, but at the same time do we really need to be teaching them that there really is unredeemable evil in the world? Maybe I'm a soft, lefty loony, but I'm still more partial to the lessons of Finding Nemo where even sharks can learn that fish are friends, not food.

Sticking with the post-9/11 theme, how galling is it that no matter how good his intentions, Mr. Incredible never has to accept even partial responsibility for how his arrogance ends up creating his nemesis in the first place? This isn't blaming the victim. It's taking responsibility for you actions. He's trying to make the world a safer place. The fact that his actions may in fact be resulting in the opposite is completely irrelevant. Despite a layer that would be the envy of any Bond villain, Syndrome doesn't want to rule the world. He just wants to rid it of "supers" only because they rejected him first. As we've seen, these ideological battles never really end well.

Our popular artists are best when they are anticipating the zeitgeist (or at least skewing current trends) rather than pandering to it. (It's the genius of Larry David to have created the comic self-absorption of Seinfeld in one decade and then morph it into the comic horror of Curb Your Enthusiasm in another.) Maybe the fact they're so time consuming to make is the biggest drawback to computer-animated features. The Incredibles might have been mildly refreshing in the midst of Clintonia when writer-director Brad Bird thought it up, but in the midst of George Bush spending his political capital it's smug superiority is suffocating. Frankly, The Incredibles isn't merely a critique of the lame notion that "everyone is special". Its real lesson is "I'm special, you're not". That's fine and dandy, you say, until you realize they're pointing at you.

There was a point near the end when Syndrome's evil plan goes awry that offered an opening to allow him to redeem himself by helping the family stop his mechanical monster. The fact the film doesn't take that opportunity can only suggest that its haughtiness was deliberate.

The key line of dialogue from Spider-Man (both the comics and the movie) is, "With great power comes great responsibility." Peter Parker is constantly grappling with this issue, and it's what makes his quest to do good so moving. He's not just trying to be the best hero he can be. But the best nephew, the best friend, the best boy-friend, the best photojournalist, the best pizza delivery driver he can be. It's a humility that's shockingly absent from The Incredibles.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The Village Voice Take 6 is out. Here's what I would have voted for if they had let me:

1. Sideways (Alexander Payne)
2. Touching the Void (Kevin McDonald)
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
4. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)
5. The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme)
6. Old Boy (Chan-wook Park)
7. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin)
8. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi)
9. The Manchurian Candidate (Jonathan Demme)
10. Dogville (Lars von Trier)

1. Paul Giametti, Sideways
2. Joe Simpson and Brendan Mackey (as Joe Simpson), Touching the Void
3. Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite
4. Denzel Washington, The Manchurian Candidate
5. Catalina Sandion Moreno, Maria Full of Grace

1. Kate Winslett, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Mark McKinney, The Saddest Music in the World
3. Maia Morgenstern, The Passion of the Christ
4. Mark Walberg, I [heart] Huckabees
5. Tom Wilkinson, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Kevin McDonald, Touching the Void
Alexander Payne, Sideways

Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset

Shaun of the Dead

Touching the Void

Ellen Kuras, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Old Boy

Not a bad year.

Friday, November 05, 2004


Birth ***1/2

Adding to her impressively diverse resume, Nicole Kidman plays a woman struggling to deny that a 10-year-old boy might be the reincarnation of her dead husband. This second feature by the director of Sexy Beast begins as an uncanny tribute to the gift of true love, but grows to suggest that it's as much a tragic curse. (Hitchcock's Vertigo is certainly an antecedent.) It's an unwieldy concept, and for all his ambition, director Jonathan Glazer hasn't completely licked it. The characterization of the boy isn't completely coherent, for one, and on some level the film never completely transcends the feeling of being a mere technical exercise (Kidman's very mannered tour-de-force performance included). And that's first assuming that this metaphysically minded movie isn't insurmountably literal for your tastes. (If you can't stomach the mere notion of Kidman sharing a chaste but cozy bath with her young costar that's a pretty good litmus test.) But Birth is certainly not a gimmick, nor is it cheap or sensational. Kidman and Glazer are really trying to get at the root, and it's filled with moments that are audaciously exciting. It's a tremendous highwire act, and as such it has a kind of energy that you usually only expect from the danger of live theatre. On a practical level, it's only something of a failure because it raises the bar so ludicriously high. Would you be surprised to learn that it's all adapted from a script by Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere?

Friday, October 22, 2004


Sideways ****

The fourth film by director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, Sideways is in many ways the least ambitious of their collaborations. (Remember the abortion comedy Citizen Ruth? Or the use of four different narrators in Election?) But this simple road movie about two bachelors, one about to be married and one recently divorced, is so achingly and perfectly modulated that trying to pin down the source of its greatness is practically futile. Certainly the cast deserves a lot of credit. It wouldn't surprise me if you said Payne and Taylor had somehow remade some great undiscovered classic of 70s French cinema. (Didn't it star Gerard Depardieu? I think it was directed by Bertrand Blier.) That this would-be imagined remake doesn't suck is just another paradoxical miracle. Eschewing the desperate cleverness of his contemporaries, Payne has made a warm, funny film that isn't just for cultists--although for the record, Andrew Sarris loves it too. Great Brubeck inspired score by Rolfe Kent befits a film set in California wine country. Wonderful performances by Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh. (Why did Oh have to leave Canada to make films like this?)

Friday, September 24, 2004


Garden State **

A struggling actor (Zach Braff) comes back home to suburban New Jersey after the death of his mother, and tries to confront the life he left behind nine years ago. Making his directorial debut, Braff is clearly going for some kind of low-key twentysomething generational statement. He's done his cinematic homework. The film is loaded with the kind of precious moments that you cherish from your favourite generational statement movies. (The Graduate? Check. Harold and Maude? Check.) The problem is that Braff isn't yet a filmmaker. He hasn't figured out the trick of connecting those moments to a character, to a story--anything--to give them weight. He hasn't figured out that it's the context that makes them memorable--not just the dreamy pop-songs and liberal use of slo-mo. That said it's not a total disaster. Best known as the star of TV's delightfully zany Scrubs, Braff does a pretty good job directing himself. Even playing a character numb on antidepressants, he's still a winningly engaging actor. But as a writer he hasn't given much for his talented costars to do: Natalie Portman in particular is making a curious career for herself working overtime trying to fill-out under-nourished roles. And you'd never know from his performance here that Peter Saarsgard is one of the most exciting emerging talents in American cinema.

Monday, July 05, 2004


Two more reviews:

Before Sunset ****

Director Richard Linklater revisits idealistic young lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) now nine years older in what is on the verge of becoming the filmmaker's Antoine Doinel cycle. Yet for all its French New Wave influences (the film is even set in Paris), it's unique from the precedent films of Rohmer, Eustache, and Truffaut in that it's the story of a relationship, not individuals. The simple concept of their first meeting in Before Sunrise--two strangers fall in love as they spend 12 hours wandering the streets of Vienna--is here even more concentrated by a new urgency: Jesse and Celine know they don't have the luxury of waiting another lifetime to meet again. These characters continue to bring out the best in everyone involved. Hawke and Delpy have never been better, and even Linklater's oneiric Waking Life falls short in comparison as gorgeous reverie.

Spider-Man 2 ***

Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and director Sam Raimi are back for this superior follow-up about everybody's favourite web-slinger. Spider-Man was always the least macho of comic heroes, and Maguire and Dunst gave the first movie more heart than any summer spectacular deserves. Lighter on action, this second go around is even more focused on their relationship in what remains a clever coming-of-age love story. If that sounds too much like an episode of Gilmore Girls to your liking, maybe Spider-Man 2 is not for you. But it's funnier, faster, and more inventive than the first--Raimi's more recognisably the nimble filmmaker who honed his craft on delirious horror schlock. J.K Simmons returns as the blowhard newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina proves a worthy heir to Willem Dafoe's villainy as another brilliant scientist seduced by the evil power of his own invention: the tortured, tentacled Dr. Octopus.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


Napoleon Dynamite ***

Quirky high-school comedy in the mold of Rushmore and Welcome to the Dollhouse--but with more of the goodwill of the former. First-time director Jared Hess wears his influences on his sleave, but it would be a mistake to confuse his lack of originality for a lack of talent. Hess knows funny. Working from a script co-written by brother Jerusha, Hess fortunately also knows how to stage a joke. (If you've seen a Hollywood comedy recently, you'll appreciate that it's a rare skill.) He's also got a gift with actors. Newcomer Jon Heder leads the way as the near-narcoleptic title character, a high-school loser with an endearingly high self-image. Jon Gries as Uncle Rico and Efren Ramirez as best-friend Pedro are the stand-outs among a very funny supporting cast.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Well, I applied for an internship with eye magazine, but I haven't heard back so I'm assuming I'm not even going to be considered for an interview. How disheartening. Anyways, the good news is that I had to come up with some writing samples, so I might as well post them here. (Re-reading the Eternal Sunshine review, it does seem kinda weak.)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ****

The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has an undeniable knack for the straight-faced treatment of the most outlandish premises. Teamed with director Spike Jonze, Kaufman's imaginative comedies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are done with such deadpan aplomb that the films are constantly in danger of turning the joke on the audience. Yet fans (and detractors) of the Jonze-Kaufman films should not expect more of the same in the astonishing Michel Gondry directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry and Kaufman want something more ambitious than just another mindfuck. They want to get under your skin.

Kaufman has always sought the emotional truth from his wacky scenarios, but never before has that core been so poignant: a distraught nebbish, Joel (Jim Carrey), upon learning that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has had him erased from her memory, decides to undergo the same procedure. Fast asleep while the technicians from the Lacuna clinic do their work, Joel changes his mind mid-procedure and starts to hide what's left of Clementine in the fabric of other memories so that his darling is not lost and gone forever.

Playing the relationship back in reverse, Kaufman and Gondry chart with clinical precision what makes these opposites attract--and what ultimately drove them apart. Under Gondry's guidance, Carrey gives a performance unlike anything in his career. Keeping his manic energy under the surface, he's discovered the Method trick of being restrained but not vegetative. And Winslet pulls off the even harder task of fleshing out the chameleon-haired kook of his dreams.

Not surprisingly coming from a writer who once parodied screenwriting guru Robert McKee, maintaining a conventional, linear narrative arc isn't always a top priority. And the premise, weaving memory, fantasy, and reality as seen from inside Joel's head, is a goldmine for a filmmaker as visually inventive as Gondry. Yet Gondry isn't a trickster, and Eternal Sunshine isn't a hostile film. It's as generous towards the audience as it is towards its lovelorn characters. (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and the amazing Tom Wilkinson round out the cast.) By the time the story reaches its jaw-dropping coda, this generosity borders on the miraculous. And for a love story that concludes that forgetting and letting go of the past are the most essential steps to ever really falling in love again, it's the probably the most optimistic break-up movie ever made.

Kill Bill Vol. II **1/2

Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to part one of his vacuous splatterfest proves to be just as superfluous, if slightly less bloody. The fact that Tarrantino crams in so much style (chiefly from his love of Kung-Fu and Spaghetti Westerns) only adds to the hollow disappointment. Thurman's The Bride now has a name, but despite her supposed kick-assedness, she still cries like a girly girl more than Clint Eastwood ever would. It's hard to imagine how those of us who aren't turned on by a woman assassin's revenge fantasy are supposed to react this--I doubt Tarantino even considers such a person exists. What the hell happened to the nascent grown-up behind Jackie Brown? With David Carrandine, Michael Madsen, and Darryl Hannah.

The Passion of the Christ **

Oh, how Ye--I mean, we--suffer! Shockingly literal retelling of the last hours of the life of Jesus with all the pain, torture, torment the director can muster. (Considering the director is action-man Mel Gibson, that's quite a bit.) Unlike the vastly superior efforts by Martin Scorsese and Pier Paolo Pasolini, there's no room for doubt in Gibson's vision, which neuters its potential to crossover to non-believers. Some critics have dubbed it Jesus porn, but that's unfair to pornography. People at least look like they're enjoying themselves in porn. Be warned: unless you're a fan of Takashi Miike, it's probably goriest film you'll ever see.

The Saddest Music in the World ***1/2

A treat. Winnipeg director Guy Maddin's kaleidoscopic combination of gothic melodrama, political satire, and Broadway razzamatazz is deadly funny and surprisingly moving. A legless beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) in Depression-era Manitoba organises an international contest to find the saddest songs to sell her suds. Rossellini, styled to look like her mother, shines in a rare comedic turn, and The Kids in the Hall's Mark McKinney is a revelation as the cocksure, slippery-haired producer determined to win the top prize. Despite a considerably larger budget, Maddin hasn't abandoned the "hand-made" quality that has earned his previous films a considerable cult following. (You'd be forgiven for thinking it cost about 40 cents to make.)

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Well, shiver me timbers. Fahrenheit 9/11 won the top prize at Cannes, surprising many of us who thought anything by Wong Kar-wai would be more to Quentin's liking. (Tarantino's Rolling Thunder distributed Wong's breazy Chungking Express in North America. Yet despite some favourable reviews, 2046 was shut out of the awards.) Quentin even defended the jury's selection amid the growing controversy of "political crap". Don't worry, Quentin. I've seen Kill Bill volumes 1 AND 2. And I'm totally convinced you don't give a flying fuck what's happening in the world outside of the movie theatre.

Will this help Moore's film secure distribution in the U.S.? Considering the boffo U.S. box-office of some other Palme d'Or recipients like Taste of Cherry and Barton Fink, it's all but a certainty. (I think Polanski's The Pianist is probably the only recent Palme d'Or winner other than Secrets and Lies and Pulp Fiction to make a significant impact in North America. Oh, and The Piano.)

Will the film itself lead to Bush's political demise? Considering all the good Moore's endorsement did for General Wesley Clark, no doubt Washington is in a panic.

Sometimes it's fun to be cynical.

Thursday, May 20, 2004


Michael Moore's documentary about the failure of the current Bush administration promises to be the biggest independently released film since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. But can it reach out to broader audiences, or will it merely preach to the converted?

A couple of months ago, I got into an argument with a moviegoer about Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's scathing documentary about the systemic amorality of so-called Big Business, The Corporation. We both admired the film, and even sympathized with its outlook, but my comrade took offense that I insisted on characterizing it ultimately as "propaganda". "Just because we agree with what it's saying doesn't mean it's not propaganda," I argued in vain.

The idea that propaganda can come from the left may surprise the more naive (or idealistic--you decide) since the term has become intrinsically tied to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis. (It's hard not to read Goebbels' official title within the Third Reich as classic Orwellian doublethink: Minister of Propaganda AND National Enlightenment.)

Consequently, nowadays the word is almost exclusively used to describe any work strongly espousing a point of view we disagree with. (The fact that the Soviets were also fond of the term to promote Bolshevism in state-sponsored arts probably doesn't help.) For those on the Left, Rush Limbaugh's radio show fits the bill; on the right, Michael Moore's documentaries. The truth lies somewhere in between: the term applies to both.

The term propaganda isn't a value judgment. Yes, all propagandas are trying to sell you an ideology, but what's they're selling isn't necessarily a bad thing. Propagandas are ideologically motivated--but said work is propagandistic regardless of what the ideology is or how you feel about it.

It's hard to be an ambivalent propagandist. Ideally, the propagandist is passionate about something, and wants to share their passion to reach out and convince the unconverted. We can debate whether propaganda can achieve the desired results in our supposedly media savvy age (although a friend was lead to question her previously unshakable support of capital punishment after seeing Dead Man Walking). I think the true purpose of any propaganda is to solidify the base. Sure, you might sway some of the undecided, but opponents are likely to dismiss the work as "heavy-handed". The real social value of propaganda is to solidify your base, keep the troops motivated, and renew confidence in the true believers.

Michael Moore makes no secrets about his goals for his latest film. He wants to bring down the Bush presidency. If nothing else, he says, he hopes it will "inspire people to get up and vote in November." But after a rapturous premiere at Cannes last night, the question on many people's minds is whether he'll be the first documentary filmmaker in the festival's 58 years to walk away with the prestigious Palme D'Or. (I'm doubtful, with the pragmatic and apolitical Quentin Tarantino as Jury Head--although Harvey did say it was OK.)

Rest assured, however, that all the golden leaves in the world won't mean squat to Moore if he can't get his film out to the American public before the Presidential Election.

Miramax had initially planned for a July 4 opening (get it? get it?), but parent company Disney balked, wanting instead to hold the film until after November. Moore flipped-out, and Miramax head-honcho Harvey Weinstein reportedly bought the film from Disney in order to sell it to a third party to distribute it in the U.S. As of this writing, no distributor was yet willing to take it on (or at least Harvey hadn't agreed to terms).

If the film really is as damning as the advance notice suggests, I understand why image-conscious distributors are shying away. But I have little doubt it'll eventually find a home because everyone knows one thing: it's going to make a ton of money. I normally don't care about these sorts of things, but Moore's Bowling for Columbine already has the record for the highest grossing documentary of all time. Given Bush's approval ratings are dropping by the hour, I think Fahrenheit 9/11 could challenge the propagandistic The Passion of the Christ as the highest grossing "independent" film of all time.

Yes, I think The Passion of the Christ is propaganda. It's designed explicitly to affirm faith in Christ as the Redeemer, Messiah, and Son of God with no fair room for dissenting opinion (hence, in part, the unfavorable depiction of the Pharisees and other Jews). Unlike Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, there's no doubt or uncertainty in Gibson's film. As a nonbeliever, Scorsese's film pulled me in because doubt and uncertainty were so central to the film's conception of Jesus. Beset by human fears and insecurities, this Jesus even questions himself. When He finally chooses to accept His divinity, there's a powerful emotional weight to His sacrifice.

The sheer physical violence perpetuated against Gibson's Jesus I think illustrates how closed The Passion is to outsiders. And Gibson can't claim he's merely telling it like it was. Nothing in the Bible or historical records even suggests Jesus was so brutally tortured. Yet the unrelenting gore is central to Gibson's film because the violence accumulates a symbolic heft: this is the physical manifestation of our collective sin, Gibson suggests. Look at His wounds. He died for our sins.

I'm not going to accuse Gibson of anything so cynical as a cheap money-grab, because I think he made the film out of his own deep faith. (Exhibit A: Gibson funded the movie out of his own pockets when no other backing could be secured and none of the major studios wanted to release it.) But he clearly tapped into a large audience of passionate, like-minded individuals, and made a killing at the box office. I'm sure I saw people at the Cumberland for The Passion that hadn't been out to a movie in at least a decade.

Given Bush's approval rating is dropping by the hour, I have little doubt Fahrenheit 9/11 will be a massive hit if it's released as planned. In fact, I'm willing to bet that every moviegoer who didn't see The Passion will rush out and see Moore's film. (There might even be some crossover.)

And so, despite what you might think, the question isn't whether Moore can sway his opponents. He doesn't need to. If he succeeds in motivating the undecided and apathetic (American voter turnout rate still hovers at 51%), that will be more than enough to comfortably defeat Bush.

But I'm wondering if the film will inspire a backlash that could come around and bite him in the ass. Moore's already an unpopular guy in some circles. This might add fuel to the fire, and if the perception is that he's "picking" on Bush, it could solidify and extend the President's political base.

But if the film follows in the questioning approach of his other filmmaking work, I think he's got a real chance to help sway U.S. politics with an important film. After all, what impressed me most about Bowling for Columbine is his reluctance to quickly blame an easy target, and instead searches for a deeper for answers within the fabric of society. I'm not sure if he came up with all the answers, and I'm not sure if that's the point. The fact that it lead me to think more critically about gun violence in American society seems its most noble accomplishment.

Here's hoping for another success.

Friday, May 14, 2004


Two really good reviews online today at the Chicago Reader.

First, stalwart Jonathan Rosenbaum does his damnedest to explain what makes Guy Maddin's marvelously moving/ridiculous The Saddest Music in the World so good, while Noah Berlatsky nails what's wrong with Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 (although I think he's still too generous in his final verdict). Berlatsky's new(ish) to the Reader (I think), but he's off to a great start.

Meanwhile, Quentin's heading-up the Jury at this year's Cannes. I'm not sure how I feel about that. And given that Almodovar is opening the festivities with his latest... well, at least this can cheer me up. Yowza.

I don't understand the fascination with Almodovar. People got themselves worked-up in a lather five years ago when the Cronenberg-lead jury passed on Almodovar's All About My Mother in favour of the Dardennes' Rosetta... but man was Rosetta a great film. (That Cronenberg's a pretty smart guy.)

Here's hoping Quentin can do half as well.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

"This is the best movie I've seen in a decade."

Links, links, more links.

Yes, the Bloor Cinema has finally reopened. Meet the Brothers Bordonaro, Carm and Paul, who own and operate the best rep theatre in the city. (I've got money on the Music Hall being the next Toronto theatre to collapse--I'm actually amazed its ceiling hasn't already crumbled.)

Filmmaker/playwright David Mamet begins by saying, "Religious films have as much of a chance of increasing humane behaviour as Porgy and Bess had of ending segregation," as he weighs in on The Passion of the Christ. (Mamet's own Spartan, a president's daughter drama that's hopefully a step up from Chasing Liberty, is also in theatres.)

"The Village Voice's" critics have a free-for-all on Lars von Trier's divisive Dogville. (I've seen it, and I think it's very good. It's definitely a step up on Dancer in the Dark--"his eyes, his eyes!"--but not quite on par with his masterpiece, The Idiots. It'd say it's about even with Breaking the Waves, similarly brilliant, daring, moving, and looney.)

And, as you might have surmised from the headline above, David Edelstein really really really likes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (Armond White, J. Hoberman, and Jonathan Rosenbaumn are also impressed.)

Friday, March 19, 2004


Excuse my infrequent posts, devoted reader. You see, I have another blog called "Some Calzone for Derek" that occupies a lot of my non-working time. It's a shame, because it's although I enjoy writing about baseball, movies are, and remain, my true love.

The problem is while I find it relatively easy to peel off a couple hundred words about a given topic in baseball, I find it much more arduous to write about movies. Maybe because I care more. I don't know.

I do know that I get considerable feedback at "Calzone" and my posts at "Batter's Box", and that helps keep me writing.

I think I can safely say that the state of internet baseball writing is very, very good. Certainly much better than 99% of the print, television, and radio media. It's a lucky coincidence. Bill James helped start the sabermetric revolution in the mid-80s (not that others like Pete Palmer weren't doing outstanding work decades before), and by the mid-90s a young baseball executive was starting to apply these ideas to running a baseball club. OK, we all read Moneyball. But it's a nice coincidence that sabermetrics and the internet started to go mainstream at roughly the same time.

Unfortunately, the state of movie writing on the internet is very, very poor. Sorry. Oh, sure, the net makes it easy to read the best critics all over the world. Every week, I check Armond White at New York Press, Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader, A.O. Scott at the New York Times, and of course the outstanding interviews at the Guardian. But aside from David Edelstein at Slate.com and the gaggle of critics at Salon.com, all of my film review reading is print-based content (and even Slate and Salon are essentially designed like print magazines--they just happen to be better than most the crap that sits on the news rack). I think slant is the only website that I go to for reviews that isn't print based (or trying to copy the format). It helps that Ed Gonzalez is a perceptive critics, but that doesn't speak well for the Harry Knowles of the world. Because I think the internet brings out the worst in would-be film critics. Just read the hateful, obnoxious message boards at Ain't It Cool News if you don't believe me.

You see, the good thing about that baseball revolution I was talking about is that it's essentially numbers based. OK, maybe that's not what's good about it. The baseball is what's good about it. But the analysis attempts to be quantifiable, and as such makes those who attempt to write about it accountable to something larger than their whims and fancies. I mean, if I say something crazy like Albert Pujols was a stronger MVP candidate last year than Barry Bonds, I'd better be able to back it up or risk looking ridiculous to a bunch of very bright, very perceptive people. So, I pull out my calculator, point and click, find some numbers, find some formulas, and try to justify it all. It doesn't mean I'm right. You could easily take another metric and spin it another way, and point back to Bonds. But that then forms the basis of a real back-and-forth dialogue.

That meeting of minds doesn't happen on the movie websites. The closest I've ever seen is the usually outstanding email exchanges Slate periodically publishes. But they don't let you post comments to them (which all things considered is probably a good thing).

So, what does all of this mean?

It means that I started "Jurgen Goes To The Movies" to try to do my part to elavate the tone of movie writing on the internet, and I've neglected that responsibility in favour of the easy fame of baseball writing.

Well, no more will the cinema play second fiddle to the diamond!

And so, with no further adieu, I give you my latest thoughts on the cinema!

Just let me finish up responding to this comment at "Calzone" about B.J. Upton's future at shortstop.

Sunday, February 29, 2004


Oscars are today.

Do I care?

Not really.

It's taken me awhile, but I finally realise the Oscars having almost nothing at all to do with Artistic Merit or anything I really care about at the movies. I mean, come on. Scorsese has zero of them. Kubrick got zero. Hitchcock, zero. Hawks, zero. Sure, Spielberg has two, but they're for the wrong movies. (Now if he had won for Jaws, E.T., and maybe A.I., Minority Report, or Catch Me If You Can....) It's a popularity context, rewarding people who have "earned it" regardless of whether the film in question is at all good. And no matter how many times the Oscars "get it right", it doesn't change the fact that the system is fundamentally flawed.

How can the results of an award for "Best Cinematography" be valid if Elephant wasn't even nominated? Or an award for "Best Director" that doesn't include Kevin Macdonald's work in his documentary-drama hybrid, Touching the Void? Or no nod to Finding Nemo for "Best Picture"?

And it's not this year. It happens every year, in virtually every category.

I mean, just today I was watching Terence Davies' The House of Mirth, and I couldn't help but be struck by how really great Gillian Anderson was. There's nothing of Dana Scully in her performance, which I think is a difficult trick for TV actors making the leap to features. And then I wondered, was she nominated for an Oscar for this? And then I started to try to remember who was nominated for Best Actress in 2000. But I couldn't. Not one name. I couldn't even remember who had won. I suppose I could have done a quick google search and come up with a whole list of nominees, but I had better things to do. And so I just enjoyed the rest of the movie.

Friday, February 27, 2004


Gibson's The Passion of the Christ opened on Wednesday at the Cumberland. I haven't had a chance to sit down and watch it from start to finish, but I've seen bits and pieces of it while at work.

Firstly, it really is quite violent. Nothing you wouldn't expect, just more extreme than you've probably imagined the Stations of the Cross. Some critics are calling it the most violent mainstream movie ever made (I think it was Roger Ebert who said something to that effect), but I think that seriously underestimates what else is out there.

Despite the high gore content, the film looks absolutely beautiful. I was surprised but not shocked to learn it was shot by Caleb Deschanel, and it may be a better looking film than even Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Regardless of the controversy, it's highly deserves an Academy Nomination for Cinematography. Deschanel, Zooey's father, by the way, is certainly one of the most gifted cinematographers working today, although he rarely seems to work on projects that push his talents far. Even if Gibson can't match Scorsese (or Pasolini) conceptually, he still gives Deschanel a great opportunity.

Despite my misgivings from the previews, Jim Caviezel is a great looking Christ. There's one scene as a flagellated Christ is carrying the Cross where Gibson cuts to a part of the sermon on the mount. Caviezel is shown in close-up with the sunlight flaring the lens behind him, and it's a startlingly beautiful image. Caviezel looks wise, and loving, and well, beautiful.

There's a genius to casting Monica Bellucci, probably the most desirable woman in film, as Mary Magdalen, but she doesn't belong. Bellucci's proving herself to be a real talent, and there's nothing wrong with her performance as she suffers watching Christ's tortures. But her face just doesn't seem to fit in. She looks too modern, or even too old--her sharp features and angular lips sometimes make her look more aged than the actress playing the other Mary, Jesus' mother. And from what I've seen, Gibson totally mutes her sexuality, even in the flashbacks where it might have been appropriate. There are no scenes of her tarted up, like Barbara Hershey's Mary in Scorsese's film, and I think that's a mistake, too. I mean, you go out and cast Monica Bellucci, and then do nothing to convey her sensuality? That sounds bad, but it's Mary Magdalen for Pete's sake. It's not that I just want to see more of Bellucci. I can buy Maxim magazine for that. If you weren't already familiar with the story, you'd never know she'd ever been a whore.

And I also objected to the fact that Jesus isn't naked on the cross. Gibson can show him having his flesh scourged to the bone, and yet a penis (or even some pubes) are out of the question? I found the fact that Scorsese had Dafoe naked quite moving to suggest the depth of his humiliation.

I know, you're shocked. No sex in a Christ movie?

As for Pilate and the Pharisees, it's understandable why people are a little nervous about how those scenes play themselves out. Dramatically speaking, this wise, just Pilate trying to undermine the whims of the vegenceful Pharisees is certainly compelling. I think it's clear what Gibson's saying, and I don't think it's anti-Semitic. Christ clearly represented a threat more to the Pharisees and the Temple than to the Roman, and I think he's suggesting how institutional religion of all stripes are often at odds with real spirituality. It's just a shame that in this case it comes with so much baggage, and is bound to stir up debate about the Jews' role in Christ's death.

Anyways, I'll write more when I've seen it finally. Nothing I've seen convinces me that it's a great film, but it's much more intriguing than I expected.

Speaking of great films, go and check out Touching the Void. More on that later.

Friday, February 20, 2004


I just discovered an impressive Stanley Kubrick website (actually, it's four websites, but go see for yourself).

For those of you who don't know, Kubrick was the first director who made me consciously aware that film and filmmaking could be an art (in retrospect, I suppose Spielberg was the first to make me unconsciously aware...). 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Paths of Glory, and Lolita have all been at one time or another in my All-Time Top Ten.

More than any other person, Kubrick is most responsible for my current situation in life: a passion for movies that lead to working for minimum wage as a projectionist in a movie theatre. (How's that for deflecting my own personal responsibility?)

Speaking of which, two new movies at the Cumberland tomorrow: the exciting-looking mountaineering docu-drama, Touching the Void, and another Academy nominated documentary the replace the outgoing The Corporation, My Architect.

I wasn't able to see The Fog of War on Tuesday, but I'm still hoping on seeing The Dreamers tomorrow.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

"You can do almost anything on film now."

Another great interview, this time with Dogville master eccentric Lars von Trier, from the good people over at the Guardian Unlimited Film (for my money, the best general interest film site on the net).

This quote, at once ridiculous and profound, helps explain what von Trier was really trying to get with Dogma 95, and why he's seemingly ventured so far from its first principles in order to achieve it:

With the help of computers, I can insert a herd of elephants into a scene, or create an earthquake. But that doesn't interest me. I'd rather draw the shape of a dog on the studio floor to mark that there is a dog there, or put a crate of beer in a corner to indicate a bar.

I'm still miffed that it doesn't open in North America for another month. Lucky Brits.

Anyways, hopefully I'll have something posted about The Dreamers, or at least The Fog of War by the end of the week. I'm supposed to see the Erroll Morris on Tuesday with my dad, and the Bertolucci with Anne-Marie on Thursday.

Sunday, February 08, 2004


I promised a review of Monster, but I never got around to it and now it's no longer fresh in my mind. I can say that Theron does give a great performance, though. I'm still not sold on the prosthetics, and I think the filmmakers go overboard in details like when they show Aileen dressed in the worst ensembles when she goes job-hunting (and the predator motif on her regular clothes is maybe a little much), but there's a real soul at the core of what Theron's doing. Writer-director Jenkins isn't a great filmmaker right out of the gates, but she's better than most first-timers. Anchored by Theron's performance, and good supporting work by Christian Ricci, it's a good, good movie. ***1/2

Vadim Perelman's House of Sand and Fog, however, isn't a good movie. It's the melodramatic equivalent of a "one-joke" film. While that sounds like a criticism, I don't think the concept is the problem. Lacking in breadth, Perelman struggles but fails to give the depth such a concentrated story could have generated. (Consider how much Zwigoff gets inside Billy Bob Thorton's character in the similarly "one-joke" Bad Santa as comparison.) It's the execution, not the premise, that's the problem. By the end of the film, the character's actions bare almost no reasonable resemblance to the reality of the situation, a problem further exasperated by Perelman's lack of the kind of ironic humour that a Kubrick or Fassbinder might have brought to the tale. And what's with the lighting? If you want the "searchlight through the fog" look of Ridley Scott's work, why hire Roger Deakins, better known for creating the subtle effects for Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese? Ben Kingsley is very good within each of his scenes, but the script and Perelman's direction doesn't create a convincing arc through-out the movie. Jennifer Connelly, her derriere in prominence, fairs even worse. I'll give former commercial director Perelman credit for wanting to make his first feature a work of real substance, but he has some ways to go in his development as a narrative filmmaker. **1/2

And finally, City of God, resurrected by some surprise Oscar nominations, is crackerjack entertainment. The story of the rise of small-time hoods from the Brazilian slums to ganglords of the city, it's told in the fractured, non-chronological method of the last Latin American break-out hit, Amores perros. Unlike Amores perros's Inarritu, directors Meirelles and Lund aren't content to more or less remake Pulp Fiction. City of God instead jumps in time and place to build a novelistic vista linking characters and their stories into its grand narrative. It's deeply impressive, and a hell of a lot of fun. ***1/2

Monday, February 02, 2004


Inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum's appreciation in the Guardian (and out of a desire to keep posting new content), here's my list of the ten greatest films ever made:

Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)

M (Lang, 1931)

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Eisenstein, 1942-44)

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)

Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

L'avventura (Antonioni, 1959)

Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1961)

Weekend (Godard, 1967)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)

Well, I'm not sure which to cut. I'll get back to you.

By the way, I recently saw Monster and City of God, so hopefully I'll have reviews of either of them up soon.