Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

There’s very little movement in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Or perhaps I should say there’s lots of very little movements: a woman steps through a doorway, two people catch each others’ eye across a party, someone sights down a rifle, a car window opens a few inches, a man pulls a trigger. Wait - do we see the trigger being pulled or just hear the shot that results? I can’t remember, exactly, but throughout the movie it seems as if we’re always arriving on the scene too late: we see the aftermath, but not the event itself; we see the reaction, but the action is always just out of reach. This is a movie with many ripples and few stones.

The cast is filled with great actors, yet they’re very rarely allowed to act against each other in extended scenes. The relationships between the characters don’t open up in front of us, and that’s true of everything else in the complicated, expansive plot. The movie condenses Le Carré’s novel into moments and gestures. A shot of someone looking at a photograph stands in for years of personal history. The set pieces are often over before they’ve even seemed to have begun, and, though I know the story well, having read the novel twice and seen the miniseries once, there’s a density to the filmmaking here that made me feel always a step behind.

The centerpiece scene stands out as the movie’s most theatrical sequence by a wide margin. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley recounts his one face-to-face meeting with his opposite number, the Soviet masterspy Karla. The encounter was a victory for Karla: Smiley revealing more about himself than he learns about his enemy. Alfredson seems to have taken this as a kind of guiding principle. The movie puts us in the same position as Karla: we come to understand our hero in the brief moments he lets his guard down.

The plot, though expertly handled, is really just material here. The heart of the movie is its look (it’s appropriate that it’s made by a man who directed a movie called Four Shades of Brown), its mood, its brilliant character sketches, and, for lack of a better phrase, it’s world view. Alfredson’s outsider’s perspective is key, I think. There’s no sense of “They’re monsters, but they’re our monsters, dammit” that we get from The Sandbaggers. There’s no camaraderie among the intelligence agents on display here, as there is in John Irvin and Arthur Hopcraft’s 1979 miniseries. This is not a movie about “The Great Game”, not even about it in order to subvert it as in Fred Schepisi and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Le Carré’s The Russia House. At the risk of simplifying things, it does seem like a Swede would have a different perspective on the Cold War than a Brit: witnessing the action from afar, but, perhaps, perilously close to any potential consequences. What is emphasized is the urgency, the seriousness of the characters and their actions, but also their isolation and alienation from each other and the world. This is Le Carré’s great theme: that the isolating act of spying warps the spy by making him alien to himself, suspicious of his own feelings. And Alfredson makes something dreadful out of the knowledge that it’s these men, so cut off from knowledge of themselves, whispering intently to each other in smoke-filled rooms, who are pulling the strings.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Colombiana (Megaton, 2011)

Colombiana is a good action movie, but, looking over some of the reviews for it, I think David Edelstein - who doesn't like the movie - does a better job of describing it than most of the critics who did like it. For instance, Christy Lemire gave it a positive review and called it "sexy and silly": Zoe Saldana is sexy in the movie, but I don't think anything about the movie is silly (which is not to say that everything is presented with a completely straight face). This seems to me to be a distancing move of some sort on Lemire's part: a way to praise something while at the same time signalling she knows it's beneath her. Edelstein, on the other hand, called the movie "abstract and passionless" and wrote about Zoe Saldana's character being "too listless and strung-out and weirdly disembodied to make you feel much empathy" for her. I think Edelstein is mostly right - although I'd say "distanced" instead of "passionless" - but, for me, those are features, not bugs. By preventing the movie from working as simple escapism, they make the movie much more enjoyable: they make the movie something to engage with and not merely something to consume. It's a much more interesting experience than watching a straightforward action movie like Salt. (Edelstein is, at least, consistent in his preference for the conventional: he gave Salt a positive review.)

However, though I like Colombiana and think it's not really (or merely) a "fun", "simple" movie, I wouldn't call it "complex", either. The movie's structure, situation, and character are all fairly stock: what makes the movie distinctive is its texture - transitions where it zigs instead of zags or moments where an unexpected tone keeps me off balance. Two examples that stick out: the start of the first action sequence, when we realize that this little girl isn't going to be a victim (zigging instead of zagging) and a shot during the penultimate fight where Saldana, wielding dual submachine guns, wears a blank, hollow look (unexpected tone). There are similar moments in Besson and Kamen's Taken: the shock of Liam Neeson shooting his friend's wife and the narrowness of moral vision shown by his lack of concern for any of the other girls who have been kidnapped.

So, if complicated is the wrong word, what is the right one? "Textured" sounds too academic. "Rough" - as in, these are movies don't work smoothly, like "good" product should - is more descriptive, but might also imply that the technique of these movies is less than professional, which isn't the case. I'm open to suggestions. Other movies that are more "textured"/"rough" than they are complex: Larry Cohen's, Stallone's Rambo, Mario Bava's, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and - raised to the level of world historical art - Sam Fuller's.

I think that's its worthwhile trying to theorize out this concept, if only because the language critics have to talk about these movies seems to hem them in. If I like movies like Colombiana or Taken, I might want to argue that they aren't just dumb, simple movies (as their critics might), so I reach for the opposite concept: for example, I might praise their complexity for the way they critique standard action movie tropes. But really, that's a bit of an overreach, as these movies don't so much offer a complicated critique those conventions as they put a spin on them that forces me to stay on my toes while I'm watching.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Some thoughts on the code...

Some thoughts after seeing several "pre-code" movies at the Film Forum over the last few weeks:

The freedom I see in these movies isn't just in terms of content: their narrative form is freer than that of the movies that came after, as Hollywood's storytelling and genre conventions are still in flux. The two kinds of freedom are intimately related: as the code becomes more strongly enforced, filmmakers respond through a stylization that gestures without showing. The filmmakers who best make it out of the early 1930s are the ones who, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, are able to come to terms with this cinema of gesture, convention, and abstraction. On the other hand, a filmmaker like William Wellman - at home making movies that deal directly, frankly, and sometimes crudely with the richness and messiness of life - seems at sea once the freedom to show is no longer available.

I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best (a dangerous generalization, I admit) were able to exploit the freedom of the "pre-code" years fairly well. The movies of William Wellman and Raoul Walsh from the early 1930s are worthy American cousins to the kinds of films being made by Jean Renoir in France at the same time. I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best reacted to the enforcement of the code with a great deal of imagination and artistry, making a virtue of the necessary stylization by incorporating it into personal visions of the world. I'd add that this incorporation was often an agonistic process - as it was with Hawks! But I think the enforcement of the code had a more lasting and damaging effect on the work of Hollywood filmmakers who started making movies after the code was no longer being enforced. Even though filmmakers could show more, it seems as if the underlying logic behind the code had been internalized, so that the freedom of movies in the 1960s and beyond was superficial.

Take Barbara Stanwyck's character in Wellman's So Big: she's a woman who matter-of-factly uses her sexuality (along with her smarts) to get what she wants and the movie never condemns her or suggests that in doing so she's giving up a chance at some more fulfilling life. Even though in terms of what could be shown, the "post-code" movies could be more explicit, the clear-eyed, no fuss view of sexuality that we see in the Wellman movie did not return. The anxiety surrounding sexuality and relationships in Hollywood movies seemed to get even more oppressive after the code. The traits of those characters that Stanwyck played that were treated as no big deal in pre-code movies are turned into issues that the post-code movie needs to address. One of the reasons the so-called "American New Wave" is more superficial than the New Wave in France, is that the characters of the New Hollywood are still warped, constricted, and stunted by their authors' commitment to the spirit of the code, if no longer its letter.

There are a few exceptions: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild feels like a "pre-code" movie both in the way it presents its characters and in the way its tone isn't determined by committment to a given genre a priori, but rather shifts as the story demands.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two Australian Crime Movies

Two Australian crime movies, both available on Netflix Watch Instant, both worth seeing. Interesting to watch them together because one is good and the other is excellent, and the reasons for that difference in quality are instructive.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (David Michod, 2010) is a solid, serious movie. It's made in what I'd consider to be the contemporary conventional mode for this kind of material: short scenes centered around a single impression or idea, acting done mostly in close-up, music cues over slow motion tracking shots to punctuate the big thematic moments, a dramatic arc organized around the central character's movement through a criminal milieu. I'd call it "domesticated Scorsese". And as far as it goes, it's a decent example of this kind of film: it explores a premise about familial duty, the actors are expressive, the music on the soundtrack is well-chosen. It's main fault, though, is that even though it's based on a real life Melbourne crime family, except for a few details it feels like it could take place anywhere. And that "could take place anywhere" feeling exists on both a macro level - it could be set in L.A. or Hong Kong without changing much of anything - and the micro level - there's nothing particularly interesting done with any of the locations in the movie: you could mix up the houses the different characters live in and it'd be the same movie.

In some ways, THE SQUARE (Nash Edgerton, 2008) is more conventional: it has a plot right out of a 40's film noir (adulterous couple plot to steal money from the cheating woman's shady husband) and it plays out following all the rules of traditional Hollywood storytelling. But in today's context, that traditionalism seems, if not radical, than at least strikingly unconventional. At this point, it's probably meaningless to praise a movie for its great use of space or its sense of geography - at least it's meaningless without going into the details of how it uses space or what gives it such a good sense of geography. In the case of THE SQUARE, it's that all the scenes are worked out in ways depend on the specifics of the places they're set in. There's a sequence that takes place at a community picnic that involves the adulterers trying to signal to each other across a crowd without their spouses catching on: the staging and cutting emphasizes the attempt to have a private communication in a public space. The layout of the houses and apartments the characters live in plays a part in the unfolding of the action (i.e., the scene where the stash of money is discovered). On a larger scale, the geography matters, too: there's a river that runs through the town that plays a logistical role in the plot and a thematic role in the story. Ultimately, it was that kind of attention to detail that made the experience of watching THE SQUARE so interesting on a moment-to-moment level. Instead of each shot equaling one idea (as in ANIMAL KINGDOM), the complexities and nuances of THE SQUARE emerge detail-by-detail as the action unfolds. It's the difference between having a story told to you and watching a movie.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Three Movies

Three movies that got bad reviews that I more or less liked: The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry, 2011), The Dilemma (Ron Howard, 2011), and (especially) How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010):

THE GREEN HORNET: Aside from not having Robert Downey it (granted, a big aside from) this is superior to Iron Man in just about every way. Clever action sequences, good chemistry between Rogen and Jay Chou, imaginative visual touches, great 'scope framing throughout, good twists on both the bad guy character and the girl Friday character are the positives. Main negative is the clumsy (lazy?) plotting, but, to be fair, I can't think of many super-hero movies that have really sharp plotting.

THE DILEMMA: Not a great movie, but interesting and engaging for how far it follows its premise into darker territory than expected (not unlike The Break-Up in that sense). The cast is good (esp. liked Channing Tatum: endearingly dopey). Ultimately suffers from clumsy plotting, too: there's a whole B plot (will they get the deal with Chrysler?) that's just there to put the A plot (the stuff about Vince Vaughn not knowing whether to tell Kevin James about his cheating wife) under some pressure, and I could have done without it. It seems like it's there because it's the kind of thing screenplays are supposed to need (per Robert McKee or whomever) rather than something that grows out of the characters/situation. In general, there's a struggle between the way the movie wants to/tries to deal with issues of honesty and betrayal and the narrative conventions of the 21st Century Hollywood comedy that requires certain kinds of closure and certain kinds of characters. The struggle is not resolved satisfactorily.

Which brings me to:

HOW DO YOU KNOW: Again, I could quibble with some plot stuff, but I won't because (a) overall I liked this and (b) I think Brooks is trying to (and mostly succeeds at) making a kind of movie that for the most part doesn't exist anymore. Back in the Hollywood comedies of the 1930s there was a unity of narrative convention, character, genre convention, and acting style that went hand in hand with these movie's unity of space. That is, even if the situations were exaggerated and the plots were more elaborate than what we'd see in real life, the characters and the places they lived in/moved through were recognizable. But that unity was chipped away at by stuff like Mad Magazine, the genre revisionism of the 60s/70s, the rise of irony, etc. Actually, this applies to all genres, probably, not just comedies, but it seems to me that comedies were particularly hard hit. That is, the Hollywood comedy, aimed at a mass audience of adults was particularly hard hit. But I think HOW DO YOU KNOW is that kind of "old fashioned" comedy, that still manages to speak to contemporary audiences, without dealing in irony and without feeling like its struggling against its narrative conventions: rather, it seems to unfold naturally.

I'm not sure why these movies got drubbed by the critics, but I do suspect it has to do with the movie critic herd mind deciding what the "story" of these movies was going to be before many people had actually seen these movies.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Screening Log: September 2010

Back on track...

Ditrict 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009) (v) *** - Not as strong as the first District 13, but still quite good: better than any American action movie this side of Crank. The kung-fu choreography is inventive and Luc Besson’s Gallic, un-PC sense of humor is in full effect.

Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010) ** - I agree with Jim Emerson: this is an action movie stripped down to abstraction - violence/running through the wilderness/repeat - where the point is all in how it looks and feels. A bit of a disappointment in that Marshall is moving farther away from making the kind of movie The Descent (his best) was. I was disappointed with Doomsday, too, for the same reason, but now I want to go back and give it a second look. I’m not so sure its fair to judge a director based on where you’d like him to go: it’s better to try to figure out where he wants to go, first.

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) (v) *** - I think working in color, on-location really brings out Hathaway’s strengths (or maybe de-emphasizes his weaknesses). He has an unfussy eye for detail (like the little pools of water that show up in shot after shot) and lets the action determine the composition instead of doing it the other way around (like he does in his black and white work, which sometimes feels contorted to me).

Escape from Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979) (v) ***** - Like Jean-Pierre Melville, Don Siegel wrote his spiritual autobiography in genre pictures, like this one and Charley Varrick. Like Melville, Siegel was a transitional figure: one foot firmly planted in the classical system, but most of his work occurring the in context of a younger generation’s “New Wave”. When I brought this comparison up on Twitter, Dan Sallitt responded that it didn’t work for him because Melville was a low-key analytic modernist making White Elephant art and Siegel was a romantic making termite art, an observation with which I agree. And that helps explain that while both were transitional figures, Melville has his heirs (Walter Hill, Michael Mann), while Siegel turned out to be a terminal figure. Clint Eastwood’s movies come closest to Siegel’s, but Eastwood is cagier, overall, and much more prone to making “big statement” movies. Siegel would never make something as self-consciously important as Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby. Speaking of Eastwood, he’s great here: this is one of his best performances. It’s a perfect match of actor and character: everything is external, it’s all about how he moves, how he’s constantly sizing things up, looking for opportunity or weakness. What Eastwood does here gets closer to the spirit of Richard Stark’s Parker than any of the performances of the actors in any of the movies in actual Parker adaptations. Siegel’s filmmaking here matches the performance: we’re constantly, but unobtrusively, tuned into the space the characters are trapped in and the obstacles they’ll have to overcome. There’s very little extraneous bullshit weighing things down, which gives the movie a sense of efficiency, but its not passionless - that’s where the spiritual autobiography part comes in. This is what it takes, says Siegel: stay professional, be perceptive, keep an eye out for opportunities; start within the system, within its constraints, and work your way out.

Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola, 2009) (v) * - First, Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdu are really quite good here. Second, Coppola, the director, is as good as he’s been in years. Third, unfortunately, Coppola the writer has come up with a very compromised, seemingly self-serving piece of work. It presents easy, self-help style answers to problems that arise from thwarted artistic ambition and twisted father-son rivalries. Everyone seems to get off too easily: the characters, the audience, and - especially - the author.

The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951) (v) ***

Alexander the Last (Joe Swanberg, 2009) (v) ***

Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009) (v) ****

The Tiger’s Tail (John Boorman, 2006) (v) ** - For other directors, this might have played like a thriller, but for Boorman it’s a parable: a chamber version of his magisterial Where the Heart Is. Like most Boorman movies, he paints with broad strokes, and like most Boorman scripts, the dialogue is often over-explicit and clunky, but his sense of form and of morality make up for those small deficiencies. Still, this isn’t as tonally rich as his best work.

Everybody Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) (r) (v) **** - When I first saw this (during its original release, back when I was in college) I was disappointed by how slight it felt. Now, seeing it again (when I happen to be back to being a student), its tossed-off, casualness seems like its greatest virtue.

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Woody Allen, 1982) (r) (v) * - I like the idea behind the meshing and mushing of anachronistic ways of talking. Doesn’t come together though, for reasons which require further reflection.

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) (v) *** - Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” plus “What a Shame About Me”.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989) (r) (v) **** - This reminded me of Mon oncle d’Amerique: a dramatized lecture, but “lecture” not in the sense of hectoring but of drawing out and exploring a series of ideas about human nature. The way Allen plays the counterpoint between the two stories leads to some thrilling moments.

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2007) (v) **** - I like Richard Brody’s phrase: ”a vision of life as a swift and desperate plummet through pain into oblivion”. Very, very bracing. Now I’m trying to think of all the murders in Woody Allen movies... There’s more than I would have thought at first.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

Friday, September 17, 2010

Screening Log: The Rest of the Summer - Drive-By, Half-Assed, No-I-Didn’t-Like-Inception Edition

I went back to school in May and didn’t have time to see much of anything. But around the middle of June I got into a groove and started catching up with stuff via Netflix Watch Instant and DVRing TCM. I had most of August off, so I even managed to get to the theater to catch some of the big summer movies. But I’m back in school now, and I have no time at all to write this up as a proper screening log. Questions, comments are always welcome.

High Sierra (Walsh) ***** - Great movie. Best Bogart performance.

The Girl on the Train (Techine) ***

The Bridesmaid (Chabrol) *** - RIP

Heist (Mamet) *** - Great, if unbelievable, dialogue.

THX-1138 (Lucas) **

Red Cliff (Woo) *** - This is to Hard Boiled as The Lord of the Rings is to Dead Alive.

A Prophet (Audiard) **

Some Came Running (Minnelli) *****

The Hunted (Friedkin) ***

Candyman (Rose) *** - This one is really good! I’m glad I saved it for a rainy day.

The Crazies (Romero) ****

Journey Into Fear (Foster) * - A mess.

Mother (Bong Joon-ho) **

The Other Guys (McKay) *** - This may be McKay’s best work as a metteur-en-scene, although it lacks the surreal Walmart poetry of Step Brothers and Talladega Nights.

The Expendables (Stallone) ** - The actions scenes are a bit of a mess, but it’s nice to see all these guys hanging out together. Dolph Lundgren is teriffic. Jet Li is criminally underused.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Gilliam) * - Not surprisingly a mess. Still, some very nice things in it. It seems, though, like they tried to use every inch of Ledger footage they had, but some of it really needed a second (or third) take.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Gentleman Broncos (Hess) **** - Even better the second time around.

Edge of Darkness (Campbell) *** - This one disappeared, but it’s quite a good genre piece: a few steps down from The Ghost Writer, but above almost any other recent political thriller I can think of. It’s a bit like State of Play in that you get what you expect, but never exactly in the way you expect it.

Stagecoach (Ford) ***** - I could watch this everyday.

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges) ***** - This is the second time I’d seen it. I watched it the first time because I was writing about Sturges for my undergraduate thesis and I didn’t like it as much as his other movies. Although, in retrospect, that was probably because it wasn’t as useful to my thesis as Morgan’s Creek or The Palm Beach Story. Watching it now, though, with no ulterior motives, I really loved it.

The Eclipse (MacPherson) *** - I like movies that are smartly made and well-acted and get at genuine human/emotional truths but that don’t, per se, really have a point.

The Thief of Bagdad (Korda) **

Dreamscape ***

Gojira (Honda) ****

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch) *****

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Heslov) **

DOA **

Matinee (Dante) *****

The Package (Davis) * - Truly a product of its time.

Black Christmas (Clark) **

The House of the Devil *** - Almost a masterpiece. The problem is in the last act. These ambitious genre movies often have a great set up and wonderful development, but then return to the conventional for the ending. Nonetheless, there are moments here that reminded me of Garrell’s Regular Lovers.

The Screwfly Solution (Dante) ***

Armored (Antal) *** - Overdetermined screenplay saved by pitch perfect b-movie direction.

Armored Car Robbery (Fleischer) ***

Wild Grass (Resnais) **** - No - I don’t know what the little girl is supposed to mean.

The Hidden Fortress ***** - Kurosawa’s only (?) pure adventure movie is a strong contender for the title of greatest adventure movie ever made.

Sex is Comedy (Breillat) **Bold Italic
Fay Grim (Hartley) ****

Nikita (Besson) *** - I’m such a big fan of the action movies that Luc Besson has produced, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until now the only Luc Besson-directed movie I’d seen is The Fifth Element (which I like quite a bit). Watching Nikita for the first time now is a little weird because on the one hand it seems to have been extremely influential and on the other it’s full of its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. The action scenes are quite interesting: Besson uses choppy editing rhythms that emphasize cause and effect rather than spatial continuity. It’s comic book Eiseinstein and reminds me more of Raising Arizona than it does other action movies.

Surveillance (Lynch) - Back when I was writing screenplays with my brother, there were two kinds of projects we worked on. The first kind were screenplays for movies that we knew we would love to see, but were pretty certain would never actually be made. Working on those was a lot of fun. The second kind were screenplays for movies that we weren’t as crazy about seeing, but we suspected might actually have a chance of getting made. Working on those wasn’t much fun. Surveillance seems like the second type of project: like Chambers-Lynch had some ideas she wanted to get at but knew she had to put them in a saleable package. So, this ends up feeling like a slightly weirder version of a typical low-budget thriller-with-a-twist.

The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers) ** - I am happy to see the Hughes Brothers reinvent themselves as Zack Snyder-ian action stylists.

2012 (Emmerich) ** - I loved the surreal, vertiginous special effects shots of the earth crumbling and rippling.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop **

The Young Victoria **

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford) ***** - Another one of a dozen or so movies that could legitimately be called “Ford’s best”.

The Brood (Cronenberg) **** - Weirder than any paraphrase/plot synopsis would suggest.

Bob le Flambeur (Melville) *****

In the Electric Mist (Tavernier) *

District B13 (Morrel) **** - One of my new favorite action movies.

Henry Fool (Hartley) **** - The Great American Novel as Indie Movie.

Inception (Nolan) - Clever, without being witty, imaginative, or soulful. A less bombastic, more nimble movie might get away with mere cleverness, but here it’s a disappointment.

From Paris with Love (Pierre Morel) *

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright) **

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean) ****

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

Friday, July 2, 2010

Why All Summer Long is better rock music than Rubber Soul

David Thomas makes the claim that rock music is the voice of American folk culture and, because of that, non-Americans can't make rock music. I'm not sure that I believe him, but I do think he's onto something. It does seem that there is a major - I'd even argue central - feature of American rock that did not travel with the music when it was picked up by British bands. Whether or not this feature is more or less valuable than those that were successfully exported is up for debate (I'm beginning to suspect more), but the fact that it's tied to a specifically American context strikes me as being an empirically sound observation.

So - what exactly is that feature? In private conversations, I've been using the phrase "geographical naturalism" to describe it, but that's a bit obscure shorn of any other context. What I mean though is that there are many American rock songs that are grounded in specific details of a place and time (and, because of that, in the specific details of a society, a culture, a history), but there are very few non-American rock songs that are geographically grounded.

Compare the songs of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins to those of Lennon and McCartney, their overseas followers. There are only one or two Beatles songs a sense of place that can rival "Dixie Fried" or "Johnny B. Goode" ("Eleanor Rigby" is one of them), but that kind of geographical naturalism was the norm for Perkins and Berry - not the exception. The vast majority of Lennon and McCartney's work consists of self-expression: expressing feelings for someone else or expressing what it feels like to go through an existential crisis. In their own way, Perkins and Berry do these things, too, but it's almost as if they can't help but do more. The stories they tell aren't merely personal: they're geographical, cultural, historical.

You can find similar stories throughout American rock music. On the Precise Modern Lovers Order live album, Jonathan Richman introduces "Roadrunner" as "our geographical song involving Route 128", which is where I got the "geographical" part of "geographical naturalism". The "naturalism" comes from the lyrics of the song: a story about a guy listening to WOR while driving down Route 128 past the industrial park and the Stop 'n' Shop. As far as I know, there is no British rock song that expresses a culture through these kinds of specific but mundane details in the way that "Roadrunner" does. (Although I'd be glad to hear any suggestions in the comments.) When British rock does deal with geography, it's usually imaginary and often (as in "Jumping Jack Flash" or "Crossroads") a mythical version of America. Greil Marcus (I think) called the Beatles "imaginary Americans" and, if they are, the America they're from is imaginary, too: a homogeneous export product, not the actual places where the people who invented rock lived.

Side-by-side comparisons of a few more songs will further illuminate this lack of a geographical and historical sensibility in British rock. The world traveling in Rod Sewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story" seems positively fantastic next to the details of the cross-country travels in "Tangled Up in Blue". The alienated subject of Gang of Four's "At Home He's A Tourist" seems (perhaps appropriately) that he could be living anywhere, but the alienation in the Talking Heads' "Don't Worry About the Government" is less theoretical because it's grounded in a recognizable (if obliquely described) place.

I'd also point out that there are American rock musicians who write these songs almost exclusively: Bruce Springsteen, Stan Ridgway, John Cougar, Brian Wilson, and, of course, David Thomas.

The importance of these kinds of songs is that they do more than just capture what it feels like to be a teenager in love: they reveal the mysteries of a culture and a nation, as well as their promises, prophecies, and betrayals. They force us out of our own egos, into an awareness of a larger history. They tell us our story.

That's why I've begun to balk at the idea of the Beatles as the greatest rock band. Right now, I'd give that honor to the Beach Boys, who were s accomplished musically (and who aced the whole self-expression thing on Pet Sounds), but, on albums like All Summer Long and Surf's Up, also gave us a stories of a place and a culture

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Screening Log: April to Late June 2010

So - blogging has been light here because I left my job in order to go back to school in May and, as it turns out, school has been more work (and more rewarding work) than the old 9 to 5. Most of these movies I saw in April: a few of them I saw more recently. I'm finding it difficult to put together the 2+ hours necessary to devote to a single movie: I've spent my leisure time (what there is of it) watching TV shows (I really love Justified) and reading comic books (I really love my Marvel Digital subscription). I'm going to try to keep the screening logs going, though there won't be as much commentary as before.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) (v) ***

The Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950) (v) *** - Very interesting pro-Indian Western that feels a bit more radical than the similarly-themed Broken Arrow. Not sure how I feel about Robert Taylor, though. John Alton's photography here is truly excellent, though.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) ** - Enjoyable, but they really defanged Mark Millar's work. The movie is more conventional than the comic book, so the outrageous/provocative elements seem like they're there to push buttons rather than being there because they're part of a unified, low brow vision.

Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960) (v) ***** - This feels like a movie that could take place in between the big scenes of a John Ford movie.

Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938) (v) **** - Great battle scene.

Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987) (v) *** - One of the best from Edwards' late period. As much as I like Bruce Willis in action blockbusters, it's kind of a shame that we "lost" one of the best comic actors of his generation.

Fear City (Abel Ferrara, 1984) (v) ***

Arsenal (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1929) (v) ****

Who's That Knocking at My Door (Martin Scorsese, 1967) (v) **

The Lovers of Eternity (George Kuchar, 1963) ****

Lust for Ecstasy (George Kuchar, 1964) ***

Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof (George Kuchar, 1961) **

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) (v) ***** - Beautiful and moving. Maybe the best of the Leo McCarey movies I've seen, which means one of the best Hollywood movies I've seen, which means one of the best movies I've seen, period. McCarey knows how to direct actors and shape performances so that the most important/beautiful/moving moments come when the performers are "just" reacting. It's a very different feel from the more direct style of his contemporaries.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

Monday, April 26, 2010

Street Level

(At this point, this game is a broken rip-off, but I thought I'd get it out there. I have to playtest, but my suspicion is that I've seriously overdesigned here and that there's not much room for actually playing anything.)

Street Level

Street Level is a game about people who put on super-hero costumes and go out and try to protect their communities from various dangers. It is inspired by:

-the "street level" characters from 1970s/1980s Marvel Comics: Moon Knight, Daredevil, Punisher, Shang Chi, Iron Fist, Power Man, and Ghost Rider.

-"indie" takes on the same concept: Mike Baron's Badger, Tim Vigil's Grips, and, more recently, Millar/Romita's Kick-Ass.

-various games by Vincent Baker and Ron Edwards (especially Poison'd and Sorcerer and what people have said about Apocalypse World on sites like Story Games). Anyway, you should play/read/buy their games if you haven't already.

-that thing Tom Spurgeon says about his favorite super-hero being Wildcat because his super power is riding around on a motorcycle and beating people up.

The game is agnostic towards actual super-powers. They can exist in the game or not, but if they do you should keep the scale and scope focused on street level action.

Things characters can do:

Your character is going to be GREAT at one of these things, GOOD at two of these things, OK at four of these things, and SHIT at one of these things:

-finding shit out
-acting normal
-sneaking around
-running after shit*
-telling people what's what
-doing violence
-running away from shit*
-taking a beating
-keeping your shit together

*even though the two kinds of running are separate on the list, they get the same rating and count as one "slot" for these purposes


Every character gets to start with two Gimmicks. A Gimmick can be:

-a weapon
-a power
-a fighting style
-some kind of equipment
-some kind of personal edge

A Gimmick has two pieces:

-a rating

All Gimmicks start at rating 1. This means when they're in play they add 1 to your die roll.

All Gimmicks start with the scope of one area of activity. This means their bonus can only be used for that area of activity.

Once you've given your character two Gimmicks, you can "bump" one of them by increasing the rating to 2 or giving it an extra area of activity to cover (i.e. increasing its scope).

You can gain another bump by adding a Drawback to the Gimmick:

-easily lost (GM can make losing this a consequence of mixed success)
-awkward (-1 to some other area of activity when it's in use)
-large (can't be brought into buildings, etc.)

Here are some example Gimmicks:

body armor (+2 to taking a beating, Awkward: -1 to running after/away)
kung-fu (+1 to doing violence, +1 to taking a beating)
home computer with internet access (+3 to figuring shit out, Immobile)
hot rod (+ 2 to running away/after, Large)
bad-ass stare (+2 to saying what's what, Awkward: -1 to acting normal)
mutant mind blast (+1 to doing violence, +1 to saying what's what)


You can choose to start with an Obsession or not. If you do, name the target of the Obsession and give it a rating of 1. Obsessions can give you a bonus dice or penalty dice if they come into play. If the GM thinks that your Obsession would help the action your character is taking, the rating of the Obsession turns into bonus dice. If he thinks it would get in the way of the action your character is taking, the Obsession rating turns into penalty dice.


If your "acting normal" is Great, make up 3 regular people characters who are in your character's life in some way. If it's Good, make up 2. If it's OK, make up 1.

The Set-Up:

Players need to fill in these details:

-how does the character live day-to-day?

Actions & Consequences:

Once you've all established a baseline for how the character is going about his business, you can start into Free Play. This works just like regular role-playing.

Whenever the character is doing (or having something done to him) that falls under one of the areas of activity, he has to roll dice. Roll 4 dice is he's GREAT, 3 if GOOD, 2 if OK, and 1 if SHIT. No matter what, though, you'll only add up the 3 highest dice. In general, if you roll 10 +, you succeed easily and probably get some bonus to carry over to related activities. If you roll 6-9, you have a partial success or a success with consequences. Usually, you'll have a choice between a few different consequences. If you roll 1-5, you fail and set up yourself for worse stuff in the future.

A key concept:

-the upper hand: your character will generally start every situation with the upper hand. As long as the character has the upper hand, he can take initiative and basically take any action that makes sense. Also, on a 6-9, the player gets to make the choice of the consequence that goes along with the success. If a character loses the upper hand, actions are limited to those that are in arenas of activity below the last one that applied (see the character creation list). That means, if you just tried to tell someone what's what and lost the upper hand, you can't get out of it by acting normal (acting normal comes before telling someone what's what). Your only options would be: doing violence, running away, taking a beating, or keeping your shit together. (The exact choice of which, of course, will depend on what is actually being done.) Also, when you roll a 6-9 and you don't have the upper hand, the GM gets to choose whatever the worst option is at the moment.

You can lose the upper hand through:

-taking too many injuries
-rolling a 1-5
-if it makes sense to everyone that the character wouldn't have the upper hand

You can gain back the upper hand by rolling 10+.

Arenas of Activity:

At some point, you'll want some crime fighting to happen. If the character has a specific goal in mind, he can try to figure shit out. Otherwise, he can go "on patrol".

-figuring shit out:

10+: You get a lot of info on the target. You get a general sense of his traits. You also get a One Use Gimmick with a rating of 2 and a scope of 1 or a rating of 1 and a scope of 3. You keep the upper hand and have a lot of leeway in terms of setting up any confrontation.
6-9: You get some info on the target - choose one:
-One Use Gimmick of rating 1 and scope 1 AND Heat goes up by 2
-Heat goes up by 1
-need for caution: -1 to next roll against target
1-5: You don't find anything out that's useful PLUS something bad happens. Maybe someone found out you were looking. Heat goes up by 2 and you start against the target without the upper hand and -2 to your next roll against the target.

If your character goes on patrol, the GM rolls randomly for what he runs into. You get a -1 on your first roll in these circumstances representing a total lack of preparation.

Sometimes your character will want to try to get something done in the real world and/or pretend he really isn't the kind of person who would do something crazy like dressing up in underwear and running around beating people up.

-acting normal:

10+: You pull it off and pass yourself off as normal. You can take advantage of the services of a hospital, convince the police you're innocent (as long as you aren't caught red handed), convince the guy that you were following that you're harmless and it was just a coincidence that you're staying on the same hotel floor as he is, etc.
6-9: You pull it off, some suspicion remains - choose one:
- -1 to next roll involving these people
- heat goes up by 1
1-5: They can tell you're not normal. Services denied, cops called, impersonation of a sane person FAILED. Heat goes up by 2.

Sometimes your character will want to sneak around.

-sneaking around:

10+: You remain completely undetected. You get a +1 to your next roll if it follows from the sneaking.
6-9: Success with consequences - choose one:
-undetected but blocked - abort or roll again at -1
-some suspicions raised: -1 to next roll against target
1-5: You're busted. -1 to next roll against target, add one to Heat.

Sometimes your character will want to chase someone or something down.

-running after shit:

10+: You catch whatever you were running after.
6-9: You catch whatever you were running after, but there's a consequence - choose one:
-you take an Injury
-you cause a lot of commotion, add 2 to Heat
-you lose the guy, but have an idea where to look - +1 to a figuring shit out follow-up
1-5: You fail, plus all that running caused a commotion. Add one to Heat.

Sometimes your character will want to get his way through force of personality and/or logical argument:

-telling people what's what:

10+: The audience is convinced, cowed, crazed as appropriate. Get a One Use Gimmick of rating 2 and Scope 1 or Rating 1, Scope 3.
6-9: Success with consequences - choose one:
-you got them part of the way: abort or roll again at -1
-One Use Gimmick of rating 1, scope 1, but using it generates 2 Heat
1-5: Unconvinced, uncowed, uncrazed. -1 to next roll against target.

Sometimes you want to hurt someone. After a given exchange of violence is over, heat always goes up by 1.

-doing violence:

10+: Do 2 Injuries to the Target and a +1 to the next roll against it OR 1 Injury and a +2 to next roll.
6-9: Mixed success - choose one:
-trade up to 2 Injuries with target
-gain some advantage: no injuries but +1 to next roll
1-5: Ineffective! -1 to next roll.

Sometimes you want to run away. Use the running after shit rules, but replace "catch up" with "get away".

Sometimes you have to take a beating.

-taking a beating:

10+: No pain. +1 to next roll.
6-9: Doing ok - choose one:
-take 2 Injuries, but regain upper hand (if you don't have it)
-grit your teeth: 1 Injury, but +1 to next roll
-scarred: take a rating away from acting normal
-permanent hurt: take a rating away from running
1-5: Hurting - 2 Injuries. -1 to next roll.

Sometimes a minor world that breaks apart needs to fall together again.

-keeping your shit together:

10+: You pull it together. +2 to next roll and ignore any injury penalties.
6-9: Pulled together with consequences - choose one:
-pull it together, but still off-balance - -1 to next roll and regain upper hand if you didn't have it
-pull it together, but still off-balance, - -1 to next roll, but ignore injury penalties
-pulled together, with scars - add a new obsession
-pulled together, with scars - take a rating away from acting normal
1-5: Broken! You're incapacitated or otherwise ineffective due to mental and emotional strain. Take a rating away from acting normal and figuring shit out. Add an Obsession or increase an Obsession (up to a max of 3).


Your Heat rating represents how much attention you've drawn to yourself from criminals and law enforcement alike. Heat affects:

-the kinds of criminals you run into on patrol
-the amount of police effort directed at you
-the ease with which you can get away with shady stuff in your community


1-6: Bubbling under - no problems
7-12: Some concern - detective assigned to the case
13-18: Wider concern - task force assigned to the case, -1 to rolls that might be affected by heightened state of alarm (figuring shit out, sneaking around, etc.) Crooks put out a bounty.
19-24: Secret ID discovered - penalty die to all acting normally rolls. No access to home base. Bounty goes up: attracts out-of-town talent.
25+: City-wide emergency: curfew, lock down, etc. Everyone versus the hero.

Laying low:

You can try to Lay Low. Just say what you're doing instead of fighting crime. For each week you lay low:

-take one off of heat
-return a bad guy to the bad guy list
-take a -1 penalty to your next roll (for being out of practice)


When you delivery an Injury, it gets marked off the rating of the target. When their rating is zero, they've been defeated.

When you take an Injury:

Mark it off under the appropriate column: Fists, Sticks, Knives, Guns.

(I'll have some kind of chart here: 1st level of wounds is a -1 to roll, second level is one penalty die, and third level is 2 penalty dice. Fists and Sticks go through all three levels, but any knife/gun injury puts you at the second level of injury at least.)

[So - the injury record for your character will look like: four columns up top - Fists, Sticks, Knives, Guns. Three rows down - -1, 1 Die, 2 Dice. The number indicates the how many injuries you can take before that level is "filled" up and you move onto the next penalty level. When a column is filled up, you shift to the right and start taking injuries in that column. When you get to the end you are dying, but I don't have any particular rules for dying yet.

-1 3 2 - -
1 Die 3 2 3 2
2 Dice 3 2 3 2

Right now the game is, somewhat purposefully, a huge death spiral. I'm working on some kind of advancement mechanic to slightly balance that.]


Only the highest penalty in each category matters for Healing purposes.
If your character does nothing but rests, he can make a taking a beating roll to heal Fist and Stick penalties:

10+: All Fist penalties healed, Stick penalties drop to the next lowest level
6-9: Fist penalties drop to next lowest level, Stick column loses one Injury
1-5: It gets worse: nothing happens, and -1 to subsequent healing rolls

Healing from knives or guns is different: you have to either figure shit out (i.e. first aid, find a back alley doctor) or act normal (to get a regular doctor, hospital to help you) first. Then you get to make a taking a beating roll (at -1 if you're not at a legit hospital):

10+: One level of penalties is healed after a week of rest.
6-9: A week of rest gives you:
-get rid of one injury
1-5: It gets worse: nothing happens, and -2 to subsequent healing rolls

Stuff that could happen:

-find random crimes
-beat up bad guys
-question bad guys
-spy on bad guys
-help people with problems

The Bad Guy List:

Heat 1-6:

1 - vandal (1)
2 - brawler (1)
3 - domestic disturbers (1)
4 - prostitute (1)
5 - mugger (1)
6 - car thief (1)

Heat 7-12:

1 - burglar (1, 1T)
2 - prostitute (1, 1T)
3 - mugger (1, 1T)
4 - car thief (1, 1T)
5 - drug dealer (2)
6 - bodega robber (2, 1T)

Heat 13-18:

1 - rapist (2)
2 - burglar (2, 1T)
3 - drug dealer (2, 1T)
4 - car jacker (2, 1T)
5 - pimp (2, 2T)
6 - mobster (2, 1T)

Heat 19-24:

1 - drug dealer (2, 2T)
2 - bodega robber (2, 2T)
2 - rapist (2, 1T)
3 - car jacker (2, 2T)
4 - pimp (2, 3T)
5 - heister (2, 2T)
6 - mobster (2, 2T)

Heat 25+:

1 - heister (3, 3T)
2 - arsonist (2, 1T)
3 - drug dealer (2, 3T)
4 - out-of-town talent (3, 2T)
5 - mobster (3, 1T)
6 - mobster (3, 2T)

Kingpin - mobster (3, 3T)

How the list works:

The goal is to get rid of the head mobster. You have to work your way up the ladder, though. Rules: you can only figure stuff out about bad guys in your heat level or lower OR about bad guys of the same type of one you've already dealt with (although this requires figuring stuff out, sneaking around, and/or telling them what's what). You can only roll randomly (on patrol) in the current heat level. Once a target has been chosen, the GM needs to give that Bad Guy a name and choose traits (if necessary). From then on, that Bad Guy slot is filled up and if a random roll hits it again, it bumps up to the next level.

Bad Guy Traits:

Bad Guys have a rating and one or more traits.

The rating is how many Injuries it takes to subdue them (if you choose to go the violence route) and the penalty/bonus associated with their traits.

-tough (need weapons to injure)
-speedy (-1 against running)
-determined (-1 against telling what's what, taking a beating)
-knife fighter (injure with knives, -1 to doing violence)
-well-armed (injure with guns)
-gang (-1 against doing violence, running away, +1 against sneaking, figuring shit out)
-mobbed up (draws attention of mobsters, corrupt cops - cannot be arrested, talked out of, etc. - must be killed to be permanently removed from list)
-hard to kill (takes double injuries to kill)
-out for justice (-1 against telling what's what, doing violence)
-under siege (-1 against figuring shit out, sneaking around, telling what's what, +1 against running away)

Defeating Bad Guys:

"Defeating" here might mean beating up or killing, but it might also mean scaring straight or "turning" someone (i.e., into an informant). When you defeat a bad guy you get an XP for each point of rating and each trait.

You can spend XP as follows:

-a +1 to a single roll costs 2 XP (you can spend it after the roll) (you can only get a single +1 per roll by spending XP, but this +1 stacks with +1s from other sources)
-you can add a rating point to a gimmick for 3 XP
-you can add scope to a gimmick for 3 XP
-you can buy a new gimmick for 6 XP (note: this new gimmick can start with a drawback)
-you can increase one of your areas of activity by one level for 10 XPs

Friday, April 16, 2010

The American Comics (after Andrew Sarris)

Inspired by this comments thread:

The Pantheon

Winsor McCay
George Herriman
E.C. Segar
Frank King
Harold Gray
Chester Gould
Roy Crane
Walt Kelly
Jules Feiffer
Harvey Kurtzman
Carl Barks
Charles Schulz
Jack Kirby
R. Crumb

The Far Side of Paradise

George McManus
Hal Foster
Crockett Johnson
Milt Caniff
Bill Mauldin
Will Eisner
Jack Cole
John Stanley
Otto Binder*
Saul Steinberg
Bernie Krigstein
Steve Ditko
Leonard Starr
Garry Trudeau

Expressive Esoterica

Lyonel Feininger
Billy DeBeck
Lou Fine
Lynn Ward
Floyd Gottfriedson
Fletcher Hanks
Jerry Siegel*
George Carlson
Milt Gross
C.C. Beck
Basil Wolverton
George Price
Johnny Craig
Jack Davis
Will Elder
Wally Wood
James Thurber
Stan Lee*

Fringe Benefits

Osamu Tezuka
Goscinny & Uderzo

Less Than Meets the Eye

Al Capp
Alex Toth
Al Feldstein*

Lightly Likable

Bud Fisher
Harry Tuthill
Rube Goldberg
Noel Sickles
Chic Young
Alex Raymond
Stan Drake
Mac Raboy
V.T. Hamlin
Curt Swan
Hank Ketcham
Graham Ingles
Jack Davis
Sheldon Mayer

Strained Seriousness

Burne Hogarth
Neal Adams

*working with various artists

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Screening Log: March 2010

Two Rode Together (John Ford, 1961) (v) ** - The kind of a movie die hard auteurists are likely to overvalue: a good-but-not-great that happens to be very interesting to think about in terms of how it relates to other movies - other John Ford movies (mainly The Searchers), other westerns (the Anthony Mann movies where Jimmy Stewart plays an amoral anti-hero).

Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939) (v) ***** - At first, I was watching and thinking "Okay - this isn't bad. Don Ameche isn't great, but the movie seems pretty enjoyable." But then - once the false identity stuff gets going and John Barrymore shows up - the movie came together for me and all of a sudden I was watching one of the most wonderful romantic comedies I've ever seen.

The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009) (v) **

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) (v) - I would have given this one star, but for that obnoxious little kid.

The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952) (v) ***** - Once again: my favorite Nicholas Ray movie is the one I've seen most recently.

Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956) (v) ****

Mon Oncle d'Amerique (Alain Resnais, 1980) (v) ** - Interesting and ambitious. It's hard to think of another movie that "explains itself" so directly and blurs the line between telling and showing.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2004) (v) ** - Two stars provisional based on watching a truly awful DVD of the movie. I really loved what I saw, but the experience was definitely marred by the poor image quality.

Paisan (Roberto Rosellini, 1946) (v) *****

The Keyhole (Michael Curtiz, 1933) (v) *

Gentleman Broncos (Jared Hess, 2009) (v) ***

The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, 2009) (v)

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) (v) *

Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) (v) ****

They Had to See Paris (Frank Borzage, 1929) (v) - Clunky. Will Rogers' performance seems forced.

Born Reckless (John Ford, 1930) (v) ** - Another good-but-not-great Ford, interesting to me (from a historical perspective) for the way it blends genres.

Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933) (v) **** - Near-great Ford and another example of moviemaking before genre ossification set in.

Brigitte & Brigtitte (Luc Moullet, 1966) (v) ***

Up & Down (Luc Moullet, 1993) (v) ****

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) (v) - A fraud that tries to reduce an extremely complex subject to a case of good apples and bad apples. It also pushes the idea that loving art makes you a better person in a rather simplistic and self-serving manner.

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935) (v) (r) ***** - Perfection.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) (v) ***

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983) (v) **** - It seems like much of the contemporary European art-house/festival style comes out of this movie.

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953) (v) *** - Effectively bleak.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) **** - A perfect thriller.

Bromo and Juliet (Leo McCarey, 1926) (v) (s) *** - I liked all of these Charley Chase/Leo McCarey movies quite a bit. They're interesting partly because their comedy comes less from big gags and more from character-based humor.

Dog Shy (Leo McCarey, 1926) (v) (s) ***

Innocent Husbands (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

Isn't Life Terrible? (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

His Wooden Wedding (Leo McCarey, 1925) (v) (s) ***

Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, 2009) (v) * - I liked this slightly better than I, Robot, but it has a similar problem: a sci-fi premise that already seems horribly out-dated matched with special fx that already seem horribly out-dated.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) (v) (r) ***** - At a party last summer, during a wide-ranging conservation about movies, a friend of mine remarked that he thought The Searchers - which he had just seen for the first time - was overrated. At the time, I tentatively agreed. Not because I didn't like the movie, I explained, but because I thought there were at least a half a dozen John Ford movies that were better. So, here I am, less than a year later, watching The Searchers on Blu-Ray, and I'm asking myself: "What was I thinking?" I mean, yes, I still don't think that The Searchers towers over all other John Ford films, but it certainly does belong among his best. And if I can't quite get behind it as a "Top Ten Movie of All Time", I wouldn't argue with anyone who could. More simply: this is a breathtakingly, painfully beautiful movie. Just about every scene, every shot is perfectly calibrated, emotionally nuanced, and thematically complex. The shot where Ward Bond averts his eyes from John Wayne's goodbye to Dorothy Jordan ranks as one of the greatest single shots in the American Cinema.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

Monday, March 15, 2010

Screening Log: February 2010

Note: This one is late and anemic, but March's should be a doozy.

The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009) (v) * - Sheen, Broadbent, Spall, and Meaney are all very fine. The movie itself, though, is the kind where every beat is played exactly as you'd expect.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) (v) ***

13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947) (v) **

Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009) (v) *** - A surprise.

Killshot (John Madden, 2008) (v) **

Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2008) (v) ** -

24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2008) (v) **

Julia (Erick Zonca, 2008) (v) ***

The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009) (v) ***

Frontier of Dawn (Philippe Garrel, 2008) (v) ***

An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) (v) - A few really strong performances (although not from Carey Mulligan, who's much better in the Bleak House miniseries) trapped inside a preposterous movie.

Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009) (v) *** - I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. Lots of nice, low-key touches and a true generosity of spirit.


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon

Friday, March 5, 2010

My Year in Movies

I'm putting the finishing touches on my February Screening Log, but since I've now been doing these for just over a year I thought it would be a good time to share my "Top 20" list for 2009 NYC releases, which serves as a shorthand for "my year in (new) movies".

I've enjoyed putting together these monthly screening logs. For one thing, "monthly" is just about the only kind of blogging schedule I'm able to stick to. For another, making quick notes about what I've watched - even if it turns out to be nothing more than a quick star rating - works as a memory aid. Finally, it's interesting to see how my take on a movie is shaped (to a certain extent) by the other movies I saw around the same time.

Due to some big changes in my work and personal life, I don't believe I'll be able to see so many movies next year. I think it will be especially difficult for me to see things outside the house. I'll probably be making even more use of services like IFC's In Theatre/On Demand cable offerings. But I plan to keep plugging along with these Screening Logs, even if I'm watching only a handful of movies a month.

Anyway - here's my favorites of 2009:

01. Two Lovers (James Gray)
02. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
03. A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers)
04. Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo)
05. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
06. The Headless Woman (Lucretia Martel)
07. Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)
08. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
09. Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor)
10. Duplicity (Tony Gilroy)
11. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
12. Julia (Erick Zonca)
13. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
14. In the Loop (Armando Ianucci)
15. Taken (Pierre Morel)
16. Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda)
17. Whip It (Drew Barrymore)
18. The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
19. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
20. Frontier of Dawn (Philippe Garrel)

The Gray is, IMO, just about a perfect movie. My friend asked me what my favorite scene was and I listed off five of them before I had to give in and say that they're all my favorite. (Right now, though, Phoenix standing on the beach, looking out to sea, holding that glove in his hand is my "favoritest").

I kind of surprised myself by putting Inglourious Basterds in the second place. In the "ongoing" list I had been keeping throughout the year, Basterds was always solidly in the top 10, but not always in the top 5. But the movie ended up taking up a lot of my headspace and it was hands down the best, most exciting movie going experience I had all year. So #2 it is.

As for the rest of the list: it is what it is. In general, things that aren't there aren't there for a reason (although I still want to get to The Last Station before it leaves town).

As for "old" movies, my big discovery of the year was how much I like Hong Sang-soo's films. And I was truly grateful to finally see Jim Henson's "Time Piece" (thanks whoever uploaded it): what a great film!

My goal for the year ahead is to continue catching up with some of the more respected movies of the last ten years, to keep watching and re-watching John Ford movies, and to (finally) dive into Bunuel. It should be fun.

Questions and comments always appreciated.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Superman: Secret Origin #1-4

One of the things I liked the most about Geoff Johns' run on Action Comics was the commonsensical, kitchen-sink approach to what I call "the Mythos". Johns' stories all grew out of earlier Superman stories, but there was something agreeably laid back about the way that, say, "Last Son" (co-written by Richard Donner) riffed on the Superman movies and "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" picked up from old (i.e., three or four retcons ago) Legion comics without any unnecessary time spent performing any kind of stage management duties. Johns seemed interested in using the strongest (or at least most personally relevant) elements in the Superman mythos, regardless of whether or not this use was coherent according to the nuts-and-bolts of continuity. Johns' approach was similar to the one Grant Morrison had been taking in his Batman stories: the idea that anything from any Batman comic ever was fair game and that no number of fictional, multiversal crises could ever get rid of earlier, weirder, or off-model takes on the character.

So, even though these Superman: Secret Origin are well-written and really, really good-looking (Gary Frank ranks just below John Romita Jr. and Frank Quitely in my contempo super-hero artist pantheon), they're more than merely unnecessary (no one needed another retelling of Superman's origin): by trying to retroactively connect the continuity dots from Johns' earlier stories, they seem to actively undermine one of the best features of those stories (and one of the best features of the recent work on the regular,monthly Superman comics).

Charitably, I might phrase this as "this just isn't the series for me," but I'd like to make a stronger case. The DC Mythos is a unique pop cultural phenomenon. It not only has the potential to be very powerful inspiration to creators like Johns and Morrison, but it's an interesting, fascinating thing in its own right. That said, from my perspective, it always seems like DC editorial is confusing the importance/power of the Mythos with the importance of micro-managing all the continuity details.