Friday, October 5, 2007

The passion of the self-important cinephile... and DVD shorts

As I explained last month, when the Toronto Film Festival was in full swing and countless movie sites were posting their awards season previews, this is a great time of year for a movie lover, and an even better one for critic (though I would image more stressful) due to the number of releases now increasing). However, for your typical movie lover who sees and writes about a great deal of movies but whose profession does not involve seeing and writing about movies, it is also a frustrating one. While I can certainly read a whole lot about the wide variety of movies now in release and upcoming, my opportunities to see these movies are much less plentiful. Over the last six weeks, I have been to the theater three times (seeing The Bourne Ultimatum, Eastern Promises, and just recently 3:10 to Yuma), which is by no means scant. At the same time, it's not booming. This of course means that I must be choosy when going to the cinema, a task that is much easier in the summer than it is in the Fall and Winter. Whereas in the Summer, many films look the same and feature numbing cliches and contemporary aesthetic norms, this time of year means that there are consistently more interesting films that I not only feel compelled to see, as an unpaid critic who takes his blog writing too seriously, but obliged to see. (At least I can admit that!) Nevertheless, I still feel that I must balance my movie watching between big money earning blockbusters, award winners, small independent releases and older, "classic" films both from Hollywood and around the world.

I consider it a great responsibility and sometimes burden to try to be a well-rounded movie viewer and writer. Some of the films I want to see more than others, no doubt, but I am also often surprised by the quality of films I don't expect to be good, or the medicrity of films I eagerly anticipated. This coupled with the variety of films I see on DVD --this week, I watched Stroszek (1977) and Away From Her-- makes for what I aim to be a growing education about pure cinema. Now that educations goes nowhere if I don't engage criticism, both as a reader and a writer, so I must take note not to watch to many films and remember to read and write as well.

But enough complaining about my neurotic cinemania for now. The point I am trying to articulate is that I often get backed up with my planned screening schedules, and it's almost always around this time of year when things get out of hand. I have seen 23 American theatrical releases from this calendar year so far. A couple of years ago, I would see upwards of 100 releases for a given year (although it often took me until May or June of the following year to reach that number). That number is down to about 60 or 70, which is fair considering my more rigorously structured life not involving movies. (Who knew being a responsible adult could be such a burden?)

Having said all that, it's a bit frustrating to be reading all about films like Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James, which have both been through the journalistic circuit, having both been "released", but not within a hundred miles of my residence. So while there are so many more films out there to see this time of year, their limited availability can be an annoyance for someone trying to keep up with the current movie scene. I was fortunate enough to see Eastern Promises on opening day in its limited run (since it was playing at the Ritz Theater downtown, my favorite movie watching location) and review it time for its wide release, but I am not so lucky with the majority of limited releases. Tonight I will be seeing Into the Wild at the only other theater in Philadelphia other than the Ritz where it's playing, for which I am most fortunate. But I can't help but wonder how so many more interesting films are being released, but continually smothered by massive multiplex chains. With the explosion of home theater technology and digital media, I am encouraged that more consumers and moviegoers will take chances on smaller, less-marketed films, but I will rue the day when these films are more widely available.

I believe in contemporary cinema, but right now I can only hope that it continues to grow and will eventually influence maintream American cinema more strongly so that commercial excrement like Good Luck Chuck and The Game Plan will not dominate the box office.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that I've sufficently explained my "always behind" movie watching/reviewing, I am more comfortable introducing this round of capsule reviews of 2007 theatrical releases I just recently saw on DVD. All are worthwhile and occupy different levels of importance on the moviescape today:

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

Among those unfortunate souls who will probably never see the original theatrical cut of Quentin Tarantino's and Robert Rodriguez's double feature theatrical experience, Grindhouse, a throwback to 70's exploitation cinema (scratches and lost reels to boot), I instead will only see the two films as divorced from each other and individual landmarks. Which is perhaps only appropriate, given that part of the double bill experience is actually going to the cinema house to experience it. Now that the films are coming to DVD, movie goers can only see them as individual films, each now longer due to their seperate DVD releases, which defeats the purpose of the "experience" that Tarantino and Rodriguez sought to create. Their films were never meant to stand alone, but were instead designed to function (along with the fake trailers screening in between the features) as a larger film that was never really about its individual parts, but rather the experience of the filmmakers' own nostalgia for a certain point in cinema history that no longer exists since the rise of the multiplex. I cannot comment on the film itself (since I haven't seen it), but seeing the elements broken down into self-contained movies is problematic both for the films themselves and the spectator.

The first half of Death Proof contains a fair amount of visual references to exploitation cinema, e.g. the animation and lettering of the opening credits, the scratches and projection "problems" littered throughout. Also, the world of the film is a dreamlike convergence of contemporary and throwback. The locales are all realistic to today, and the characters speak, dress, and behave according in current norms. But somehow they embody that spirit that Tarantino gives the film with all the scratches, throwback music, and animated logos. The first portion involves a clan of women who don't appear too concerned with life's pressures and are perfectly content talking about sexual encounters, who's providing the next supply of weed, and placing bets about lapdances and pick-up lines. They visit a bar early on, where much of the remaining portion of the first act is set. Here the juke box roles, patrons order rounds of Wild Turkey, and an odd fellow with a soft spot for greasy food sits at the bar. He is Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), and he takes in the scene of care-free young people getting intoxicated and talking about music. He is waits, charmingly interacting with a young woman at the bar, before disrupting the subdued vibes of the entire first act with an unleashing of masculine aggression, preying upon all the female characters that the narrative has built. The metaphoric weapon of destruction is his car, an indestructible stunt vehicle that he uses to penetrate (physically and otherwise) the women, ending their lives at once (yet seperately, in a brilliant sequence) in one massive collision.

The structure of the film is similar to Psycho (1960) in that it's told in two acts and disposes of who you thought to be the central character/s at the climax of the first act. It's also like Psycho in that the second act just doesn't hold up to the easy rhythms of the first. Where the film's first hour features subdued color, rain-drenched environments, and an elongated sequence at the bar that comprise the film's best moments, the second act ditches the "look" of the 70's exploitation flick when a new clan of women who Stuntman Mike tries to pick off end up turning the tables on him. The car chase at the end of the film is a doozy, but the characters, visuals, and overall moods are simply not as appealing as those in the first act. The film still works efficiently and represents yet another example of Tarantino's penchant for enlivening the seediest of places to make them teem with life and making good cinema in the strangest of ways. And Kurt Russell's performance is quite simply perfect.

Bug (William Friedkin, 2007)

If you can get over the fact that this movie is not what you think it is or maybe want it to be, it becomes easier to embrace it for the daring, ambitious, and wrenching movie it is. William Friedkin tells the story of a lonely woman named Agnes (Ashley Judd), who's living a dead end life from which she cannot escape. She spend her nights working at a bar and then snorting lines with her friend back at the motel where she lives. But one night her friend brings an acquaintance, Peter, who strikes up a relationship with Agnes that can only be described as unique. Peter and Agnes are aching souls, looking to connect with anyone, anything to seek refuge from the reality of their lives. At first, they are apprehensive with one another. But then they quickly know that they need each other.

All taking place within the film's opening forty minutes, Friedkin establishes this connection so perfectly, with subtle compositions and great lead performances that the viewer has no choice but to buy ever bit of it. But then things start going weirdly awry, and Peter's obsession and paranoia with bugs pervades not only their motel room, but their entire pocket of existence. This paranoia leads to a final act that is inspiring and disturbing, sad and exciting at the same time. And for as grotesque and disturbing as this movie is, it's really a tragic story about psychosis and isolation sublimely visualized on screen and featuring a performance by Ashley Judd this is magnetic and incredibly moving.

Bug is deceptive in more ways than its plot. It lures you in with the connection of these characters, ramps things up with the threat of the unknown, and then ends up becoming a breathless thriller in a totally unexpected way by the end. There are strange transformation and oddities throughout. Interestingly, when I first saw it, I wasn't "into" the movie for much of the running time in the sense that I would consciously praise of it. I was strangely compelled, but not really certain of why. But I was downright shaken by the final 20 minutes, when people start losing lives as result of the world that that Agnes and Peter have built together. It's poignant and sympathetic, and contrary to what many critics have said, it ends perfectly. This is a movie that hits you hard initially, and then crawls around in your head long after it's over.

But enough from me; Kim Morgan's review of is far more insightful and perceptive. She captures the real beauty of this gritty tragedy in her writing in the way Friedkin does with his visuals.

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)

There's something really disturbing about Knocked Up's suburban ideologies that Zach Campbell hits on in his review of the film. I can't even really explain it, or, for that matter, fault these characters or writer/director Apatow for embodying an image of suburban commodity and binary gender relations. But, I reminded myself constantly that just because Apatow depicts certain value systems does not mean he advocates them. In fact, this film can be seen as a rip roaring criticism of the suburban fantasy, as Apatow evokes its underbelly of emptiness. But he also seems to find great admiration in it by glossing over those very empty cores and constructing his own fantasy within such a world. (Pay extra attention to the confrontation between the bouncer and Leslie Mann's character; it's chilling.) Despite my inability to grasp these details, I must take note of Apatow's craft for constructing comedy based on real, palpable emotions from the characters. The humor here is an extension of the characters in every sense; it's never sitcom-ish in the sense that Apatow is tries to hit every comedic button and stage the most ludicrous of situations. He instead can evoke drama through comedy and vice versa.

There is also much to tug with in this picture. Apatow is asking a lot of questions, not just in his basic storyline of lazy boy who won't grow up and a smart, mature woman who are binded only by their fears of having to bring life into the world. When Alison (Katherine Heigl) character has her first ultrasound with Ben (Seth Rogen) present, their reaction is priceless and heartbreaking at the same time. Apatow clearly is trying to test the pulse of the contemporary youth of America via a classic narrative infused with fully dimensional characters who can't seem to connect, but make themselves love each other. It's shocking and poignant, and its observations on heterosexual, middle-class America are both incredibly perceptive, but frustratingly archetypical and reductive at times.

The real centre of the film, however is in Alison's sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband, Pete's (Paul Rudd) relationship. They are married, have two kids, the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood. And they refuse each other the simplest of things: openness and honesty. Rather than having them cheating or leaving each other, Apatow is realistic about their relationship, one that may not be salvaged for themselves but for their kids. He only subtly digs into the implications of the contemporary marriage, but they loom over the whole film.

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)

Beautiful would be one word to describe Sarah Polley's directorial debut, Away From Her. She tells a benign story of happily married couple, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) in their late years. When Julie's memory and motor skills begin diminishing, Grant discovers that she has Alziemer's. They decide that Julie should live in an assisted living home under better care, and the rest of the film follows Grant as he attempts to deal with the monumental tragedy of his wife's mental deterioration. Unlike countless other films like this (e.g. The Notebook (2004)), this film is unsentimental in its approach to elderly love and loss. It doesn't offer message or "deep themes", but is instead very inquisitive about the nature of love, commitment, memory, and identity; not in a philosophical way, but in a human, emotive way. Because it refuses to jerk with the viewer's emotions, it manages to offer keen insights into these very things in its close observations of its two central characters, played with such convention by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.

Just about anyone watching this film can relate to its plot somehow. Its scenarios affect many people in different ways, so a number of reactions may be provoked. But the real accomplishment of the film is in how it offers hope and connection alongside its somewhat depressing observations of minds and people deteriorating. Some how it's just... beautiful.


Daniel Vella said...

I sympathize with your situation re. theatrical releases. I live in Malta and face a similar situation, with the list of films I've wanted to watch but that were not theatrically released in the country including, just over the past year or so, Inland Empire, Pan's Labyrinth, The Fountain, The Proposition, Three Times, etc, etc. It's a situation that is unfortunately difficult to change since it is ultimately determined by what audiences want to watch...

I agree about Bug (another film I had to watch on DVD, incidentally.) It's a highly interesting and deeply disturbing film that deserves to be seen.

Ted Pigeon said...

I am lucky that one of my local cineplexes (an AMC 24-screen megaplex) tends to get limited releases at much greater rate than most commercial venues. For example, Into the Wild hasn't expanded very much this week, but it's now playing at the AMC as well as at the Ritz now. Still, though, the AMC is far from ideal. I would love to be able to go see The Assassination of Jesse James and Michael Clayton there, but it probably won't get them for another week or two.

To my knowledge, Inland Empire never played in Philadelphia (?!), so I didn't see that until just recently. I did, however, see Pan's Labyrinth in mid-January at the local cineplex, which was before most commercial venues got it. I love going downtown to the Ritz, but with parking, it ends up being a very costly venture, which is why I am pleased when this local AMC theater gets these releases, even if I have to put up with all the hoop-lah of the contemporary cineplex.

Re: Bug, I'm not sure it's the kind of film I'd want to watch again for a long time; but it's a deeply disturbing examination of a very dark side to the human psyche.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I know Lynch is no fan of Philly but I figured he would try to make some money from there, too, if possible. Guess he definitely doesn't miss it. (He went to art school there.)

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for point that out, Ryland. It actually makes sense. I'm usually fairly up on what films are being released, both locally and nationally. And although Inland Empire didn't play by most distribution rules, I definitely took notice the absence of review to come from Philly-based critics, both print and online critics.

More interesting about your comment is that he is outwardly negative toward Philadelphia. Have you any idea why?

Ryland Walker Knight said...

Not really. All my knowledge comes from his, er, fishing book.

PIPER said...


I read the review of Knocked Up on the other blog and have read yours as well and have a few comments.

Paul Rudd's quote about married life is like an unfunny episode of Everybody Loves Raymond only instead of lasting 27 minutes, it lasts your whole life is the funniest line of the movie and one of the most accurate. In addition, the scene in the movie when Paul Rudd complains that his wife loves him too much really sticks out to me. As a married man with two children, you have to laugh at these moments because they are sad and they are true. I am on the road a lot during the year and there are times where I sometimes wished that my wife didn't miss me so much because it's the missing that makes it hard. It's the missing that makes it real. That scene hit me harder than anything I have seen in any film about relationships because I admired it being so specific and so honest. I think that Zach Campbell maybe missed the mark when he said that Apatow was painting a picture of Leslie's lonliness and her lack of excitement outside her husband.

The other scene of importance is the scene between Mann's character and the doorman. I didn't see that as a class struggle, I saw that as a desperate woman that had felt that she had lost her existence and in that very moment she wanted it all back. There is an incredible balance that a woman faces between life and children. And there is a guilt that builds if the pendulum swings to either side too much.

Marriage and relationships are so damn complicated and while I didn't especially care for Knocked Up, I did appreciate how it addressed some truths. I remember walking down a sidewalk with my brother. He was pushing his two year old daughter in a stroller in front of us. My brother had thought that his daughter had pooped and in the middle of our conversation, he leaned down and peeked inside the diaper and asker her if she had gone poo poo. I stood there dumbfounded and my only response to my brother was "man, you've changed." It was something I couldn't grasp because I was about 20 years old at the time, but now I know it all too well. From the outside, marriage and children can seem like such a burden. The lack of freedom and the routine of it all. But from the inside, there are treasures that are truly something to behold. I laugh at Paul Rudd's line because it's true and because I know the reason why Rudd stays around is for those brilliant moments.

It's hard for Hollywood to capture that without making it so ugly by adding slow-motion or a top 10 soundtrack. And for once it was nice to see a Hollywood movie not Hollywood-ize things so much.

Ed Howard said...

Bug was amazing, the total surprise masterpiece of last year. I was lucky enough to see it in the theater, and it was just a totally enveloping experience. I loved the way that the horror and insanity creeps up on you organically, just the way it does for Ashley Judd's character. The sudden cut to the foil-lined room with blue light bathing the whole scene with an eerie glow, is just overwhelming. It's creepy, uncomfortable, frequently kind of funny, and one of the most intense cinematic experiences I've had the pleasure of seeing.

The marketing campaign did this one no favors, though. When I saw it there were just a few teenage kids in the theater, and they all seemed baffled and annoyed more than anything. A few girls walked out towards the end during Ashley Judd's rambling monologue of escalating insanity; they were clearly there expecting gruesome gore and horror, not a deep psychological character study. This definitely should have been pushed in a much more serious way, rather than trying to trick the teenage horror-buff demographic into showing up. Thankfully, I'm sure all the buzz among cinephiles has improved its DVD sales.