Tuesday, November 27, 2007

October 2007 Survey Results

Junebug 1911164.14
Ghost World22101193.68
The Squid and the Whale41918103.69
Half Nelson2461973.66
You Can Count on Me 1111354.67


Very good. We've been attending for a long time.

I'm glad you present these! Would like more comedy.

Last 3 movies reflect poorly on the adult setting any kind of example. Such is life.

Keep on doin' what you doin'.

Unfortunately, I had already seen 3 out of 5 films.

How about running a series at the Mandan theater when it is completed!

Before I had access to Netflix & IFC, this was the only way I had to see independent movies. Even with these resources, you pick movies that I would miss otherwise. Keep up the great work (and bring in some anime!:)) Todd does a great job! I know at least one person who saw the last movie cuz of the review.

Maybe not 5 extremely serious and mostly depressing movies next time.

Great theme. These movies really go well together.

I can't say I loved this series, but it's good to see movies that we wouldn't ordinarily go to.

All were interesting and beautifully acted - but most were pretty heavy.

How about showing a sci-fi series or for next Halloween some cheesy movie like The Brain That Wouldn't Die?

I enjoyed this theme. The Oscar nomination info should have been included on each synopsis. Todd Ford is a very good reviewer. Keep it all going... This adds so much to our community.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I recently took a fresh look at Gummo and, while I once found it both intriguing and a mixed bag of scenes (some terrific, some that missed the mark although I wasn't sure what mark they missed, and some just too disturbing to watch), I now find it a most remarkable piece of work.

This film hasn't gotten a very good shake with critics or with film buffs in general. It seems that its lack of narrative and almost freakshow aesthetic has gotten the best of people. These things are not as problematic as some have concluded though and they have certainly obscured the film's real triumphs.

Anyone even half awake during the first minute should immediately understand that Korine isn't interested in conventional narrative. He uses the metaphor of a tornado with its random nature -- sometimes devastating, sometimes merciful; sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful -- as a preface to the sort of film he intends to present. And that's what he gives us. A scattered collection of scenes that methodically create juxtapositions between devastation and mercy, brutality and beauty all at the service of drawing a collage-like portrait of a particular time and place -- an entirely valid approach to film construction that is justified all the more by its creating a portrait that feels very much alive.

I suppose people have a point in feeling that Korine's obsessive use of unusual characters -- society's cast-asides like albinos and midgets and the mentally handicapped -- crosses the line into exploitation. I think it overlooks a few things though. One, they aren't used in an exploitative way which would involve passing judgment and setting them up as jokes at their expense. I just don't see that. They are characters that happen to be part of this time and place and that Korine finds to be interesting. And Korine goes out of his way to not judge them and to emphasize their total level of acceptance within the world he has created. Two, and maybe more importantly, putting the film down on these grounds overlooks what is a crucial element of Korine's project: He is making reference to his favorite film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, to make a similar political statement. That film by Werner Herzog shows us a world entirely populated by dwarfs who carry out a revolution that results in a state of anarchy. Gummo possesses essentially the same elements.

For me, the film achieves three significant triumphs. First, it is filled with very striking images, unshakable and unforgettable images that feel fresh and surprising in a way that movie images seldom do. I watched it last night back-to-back with Brakhage's Dog Star Man and found them to be strangely appropriate companions. Korine's film is filled with little montages that strike me with the same otherworldly sense of the barely familiar as those of Brakhage. Also contributing heavily to Gummo's oddly fascinating imagery is his casting. I have never seen a film so filled to the brim with such distinctive and one-of-a-kind faces, faces that really hold the screen, faces that seem to oscillate between grotesque and lovely in step with the beating of the characters' hearts. Adding to the fascination is the film's constant strategy of juxtaposing scenes of carefully staged art house stylization with scenes of blunt, documentary-like presentation. Everything in this film is a matter of juxtaposition.

The second triumph is the film's surprising warmth -- so surprising that most seem to have missed it entirely. Think back through the film's scenes and try to recall any scene where the characters display anything but love and affection for each other. (There are a few which I'll get to in a moment.) Teenage girls frolic on a bed after using tape to make their nipples perkier. Some white-trash folk understand a buddy's frustration over losing an arm-wrestling contest (although it is obvious his frustrations run much deeper) and help him cope by encouraging him to beat up a kitchen chair -- one of the film's most inspired scenes. And in a scene that could have been very, very ugly with a young boy entering a bedroom to be serviced by a mentally handicapped prostitute, we instead get one of the warmest and most affectionate moments I've ever seen in a film.

The third triumph is its well-realized political statement. Werner Herzog describes the film as a work of science fiction and it reminds me very much of works in the post-apocalyptic genre. It is as if the tornado is really a metaphor for some other form of holocaust such as the nuclear devastation that set the stage for Mad Max. And like the new worlds depicted in Mad Max or Dawn of the Dead, Gummo presents us with an insular and microcosmic society in a state of anarchy still dealing sporadically with the remains of the patriarchal, capitalist society that has brought upon itself its own destruction.
Think about the scenes of discord in Gummo. The scenes I alluded to where characters show other than affection for each other and where ugliness replaces beauty. All involve money and/or one person's exploitation of another. We have the restaurant owner trying to make a buck by hiring kids to kill neighborhood cats. This not only generates the film's most pervasively ugly motif, it also creates an element of competition and conflict between two different groups of cat-killers. We have the man who pimps out his wife to make ends meet. We have the man from out of town -- a businessman with an occupation that is humorously and pointedly worthless for anything other than moving money around -- who assumes a position of superiority over three girls and starts to molest them. And, also pertinent to this topic of collapse of a past patriarchal society is the scene where a mother holds a gun to her son's head trying to force him to smile as they both mourn the death of "the father."

My favorite lesson of all is the candy bar lesson. A boy takes a bath -- in the filthiest, most disgusting bath water imaginable -- and is given a tray of spaghetti to eat while bathing. A knock comes at the door and it is a pair of well-dressed boys selling candy. The mother buys a bar almost out of instinct -- like characters buying worthless little red and blue blocks in THX 1138 -- and adds it to her son's dinner tray, after first falling into the dirty water. The two young salesman go away gleefully counting their "green backs." The boy takes one bite from the candy and sets it aside clearly finding it terrible tasting and worthless. The two young salesmen were a vision of where the girl molesting adult businessman selling worthless products for a quick buck got his start.

The film shows -- knowingly -- that this anarchic new world still has problems to work out before beginning to approach that all-elusive utopia such as homophobia, racism, and lack of gender equality, but I think the earlier mentioned kitchen scene provides a nice and succinct statement about how far this new world has already progressed. It is a compact lesson on the need to replace competition with cooperation. The scene opens with a series of arm-wrestling contests that leave the winners and losers increasingly separated by their degrees of celebration and disappointment until it gets out of hand and turns violent. The moment is saved by one helping the other take out his frustration by helping him beat up a kitchen chair.

Mission to Mars

Few films have been chewed up and spit out and rinsed down the drain as gleefully as Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars. I think people doing so have missed something crucial though. They spend so much time taunting De Palma for being a copycat that they forget that his referencing previous films often include referencing his own. I see Mission to Mars as a companion piece to Carrie, a retelling of that film’s pivotal scene.

In Carrie, Carrie and Tommy are at the prom and are having a great time dancing in ecstatic spirals -- amplified by De Palma's swirling camera. As frightening as the idea is for Carrie, she is in love. Asked how she is feeling, she replies, "I feel like I'm on Mars." Shortly after that, Carrie has those feelings doused in pig’s blood. She is crushed at the moment of her life’s greatest pleasure. But why is she hurt really? She knows none of the kids in her school like her. She knows she doesn't belong at the prom much less being so honored at one. She is so hurt because she has taken the big risk and allowed herself to fall in love, a state where one is at her most vulnerable. And when one falls in love with another, the two biggest fears, the two things that would be the most devastating are being hurt by that person and losing that person. At that climactic moment, Carrie is hit – over the head – with both of these fears. Was Tommy a part of all this? Is he dead?

Move forward to Mission to Mars. Carrie’s throwaway line about being in love feeling like being on Mars has been re-employed by De Palma and invested with a grand new meaning. It has become a symbol for love and all the ecstasies and terrors that go with it. Jim McConnell, the Gary Sinise character, has been hurt deeply by the death of his wife. He hasn't gotten over it. He no longer goes to Mars. His need in the film is to overcome this, to get over his fears and to go to Mars again. Or to state it literally instead of symbolically, he needs to allow himself to fall in love again.

In his article, A Nerd’s Rhapsody, Ray Sawhill discusses some of the symbols at play in the film: “…there's a real vision here … an almost Tantric vision of women (the circle) and men (the column) attaining occasional bliss (the spiral) together … Late in the film, McConnell is being prepared for a long journey. He steps into a lighted circle, is encased in a glass column (those circles! those columns!), and is submerged in a clear, roiling liquid … Is he dying or in ecstasy? …and [the scene] ends with a blastoff through a column of luminous swirling debris.” If you note the fear on McConnell's face during this final scene until he gives in and allows the fluid to enter him and fill his lungs, it becomes clear that symbolically he is getting over his fear and is falling in love again. He is finally attaining that state of bliss again. He has fully returned to Mars and is ready for the first time since losing his wife to experience the ecstasy and to move beyond.

At the center of Mission to Mars is another couple, Woodrow ‘Woody’ (Tim Robbins) and Terri (Connie Nielsen), already in a state of happily married bliss. They are literally at Mars. (Or is it figuratively? The literal and the symbolic are so close to the same in Mission to Mars.) They go through a reprise of the Carrie prom sequence. They dance in ecstatic spirals – to Van Halen’s Dance the Night Away, a one time prom staple. Then, in my favorite and a truly harrowing scene, Terri is terribly hurt by the loss of her loved one. Woody, realizing he is too far away from the party on a space walk to return safely, and seeing that Terri is going to risk her life too in an attempt to save him, removes his helmet and perishes in the vacuum. Like Carrie and Tommy, love’s two greatest fears have been realized for Terri and Woody (notice the echoes in the names). Terri is hurt by her husband and she loses her husband.

If one is inclined to only view the surface of Mission to Mars, one will understandably find it disappointing. But it is one of De Palma's richest, most poignant, and most haunting films if looked at more deeply. The opening barbecue sequence makes no sense if taken literally. No space program would expose its astronauts to such a germ factory on the eve of an expedition. But the sequence sets up all the themes of love and loss and fear that the film will be exploring and culminates in the child's sandbox scene. McConnell is looking at the play equipment and footprints in the sand and thinking about his wife and the life and kids he might have had with her. Cut to a footprint that we first perceive to be in the sand before realizing it is on the surface of Mars. What a great cinematic moment! It is a joining or connecting of the literal to the symbolic. The image that fills his remorse with swirls of joyful memories becomes an image of its symbol, Mars.

Chew on Mission to Mars all you want, but I suggest you consider swallowing at least a few of those bites from now on. I think Mission to Mars is a candidate for the most underrated film of all time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


There are some fascinating flavors in the thriller Disturbia. It’s a film where the cook pulled some promising ingredients out of the cupboard. Too bad it all boiled down to such a terrible tasting concoction by the time it reached the table.

Transparently inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Disturbia tells the tale of Kale (Shia LaBeouf), a teenage boy confined to his house and spending his copious free time spying on his neighbors through binoculars. The Grace Kelly to his James Stewart is Ashley (Sarah Roemer) and providing comic relief in place of Thelma Ritter is Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). My utmost apologies must be extended though to the late great stars of Hitchcock’s film. The only comparison that Disturbia’s stars earn is one of pure and simple character mapping.

The first mistake made by Disturbia is working far too hard to place Kale is this context. Rear Window opens with Stewart confined to his apartment, leg in a cast. And we learn all we need to know about how he got this way from a simple tracking shot across a few photographs during the brief opening credits. Let the suspenseful spying on his neighbors begin.

In Disturbia, we are dragged through a never ending process of fly fishing and car accidents and high school classroom incidents and courtrooms and high-tech gadgetry finally leaving our protagonist in a state of house arrest. And then we still have to sit through video games and iPods and scenes of Kale running to the bathroom after learning that a steady diet of peanut butter, chocolate syrup, and soda pop doesn’t qualify as healthy. Finally, his mother has the sense (showing some pity on us poor viewers) to cut the power cord to his television leaving Kale with nothing to do but to finally pick up his binoculars.

Mistake number two made by Disturbia is in its presentation of that voyeurism. Rear Window is memorable for placing a complete gallery of interesting characters in those almost always open windows across the courtyard. The dancer, the songwriter, Miss Lonely Heart, the couple with a dog, and the unhappily married couple (the subject of Stewart’s murder suspicions) all have stories to tell that play as variations on the relationship between Stewart and Grace Kelly.

Disturbia gives us only two: Ashley starts out as a subject of Kale’s teen-lusty gaze walking about the yard looking like a model, semi-undressing in well-lit rooms (window blinds open), and sunbathing on the roof before catching him in the act, knocking on his door, and becoming his voyeuristic accomplice. (This sort of merging of the dancer and Grace Kelly is one of Disturbia’s twists on the original. Unfortunately, nothing really interesting comes out of it.) And then there is the suspected killer. Just as Raymond Burr looked delightfully guilty from the get go in Rear Window, David Morse creeps us out from first glimpse. But, while Morse’s portrait of evil is one of the few sources of fun in Disturbia (at its most effective when he catches Ashley alone in her car), Morse is allowed to go too far over the top. Hitchcock knew how to keep Burr on low heat. In Disturbia, director D.J Caruso allows Morse to boil over and spill into a place that should have been left to Freddy and Jason.

Both films share the thesis that cinema is a form of voyeurism and focus on the viewer’s/voyeur’s helplessness. Both can watch, but they have no control over what they see. When Grace Kelly enters Burr’s apartment and gets caught, we are made to feel Stewart’s complete desperation, his total powerlessness. In Disturbia, it is Ronnie who is sent to investigate by breaking into the suspect’s car and slipping into his garage. Much of the original’s sense of helplessness is dissipated though. There is something about all the cell phones and video cameras used to track Morse’s whereabouts and Ronnie’s progress that minimizes the suspense. When Burr went shopping, Stewart (and the audience) had no idea when he might return. When Kelly moved out of Stewart’s eye sight in the apartment, anything could be happening to her. We and Stewart are left to our imaginations which of course start working overtime. (There is a use of a cell phone during a car crash early in Disturbia that is quite tantalizing in its relationship to the theme of helplessness and that relates it to films like Blow Out and The Conversation. I’m not sure if it is intentionally tantalizing or accidentally tantalizing though, probably the latter.)

Rear Window takes as its central theme an age-old unease in males, the desire to be free and to wander and how a woman and marriage threatens to thwart that desire. It then builds everything around this theme very effectively.

Disturbia’s greatest – perhaps sole – interest is how it takes a teenager’s love/hate relationship with his parents as its theme and similarly builds everything around it. While the film labors a might bit too strenuously to set them up, Kale’s love for his parents is nicely captured by two images of him strewn upon the ground looking in horror first at his father and then for his mother. Kale’s house arrest of course stands in for a teenager’s hatred of being grounded and of having to live within often arbitrary and “unfair” sets of rules and curfews set by his parents. Kale’s demarking the perimeter of his limitations in the yard – how far he can stray before his ankle bracelet alerts the authorities – and the film’s comparing this to a shock collared dog makes a decent visual correlation to this teenage fear. And of course his desires, Ashley and some nasty neighborhood kids he wishes to stomp are often just out of reach.

Disturbia’s final misstep is one that leads me to have little hope for Shia LaBeouf and my ever getting along, cinematically speaking. When we first met, he was having a thoroughly unconvincing relationship with a hottie in Transformers. Now we meet again and the exact same thing is happening. LaBeouf and Roemer share the screen with all the convincing passion of a cover of Teen Beat glued to a cover of Seventeen. Their climactic kiss is as sexy as Tom Cruise’s near-lip lock with a corpse in Eyes Wide Shut. What we have here is – to paraphrase and mangle a line from Disturbia – a kiss between two dead hotties. Or back to my cooking metaphor, its taste is pretty rancid.

I’ll take that slow-mo kiss between James Stewart and Grace Kelly any day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

3 Godfathers

Sometimes, one needs to forget all about the real world when watching a movie. We’ve come to expect too much realism from them. Musicals are in a state of collapse because, well, real people just don’t suddenly start singing and dancing in the streets, rain or no rain. Westerns seem so old fashioned to our modern eyes. Nobody robs banks nowadays and then has the nerve to attempt escape on horseback. Cars are much quicker.

I recently showed John Ford’s western 3 Godfathers, one of my favorite movies, to a group of adults. What I didn’t expect was how much – to me inappropriate – laughter I would hear from them throughout. It caused me to ponder how much some movies must overcome to reach jaded modern viewers. 3 Godfathers has three really high hurdles to clear. The film is old. The film is a western. The film is directed by John Ford who takes a might bit of getting used to – as do most persons with the last name of “Ford.” Ahem.

Actually, 3 Godfathers isn’t all that old. It isn’t dawn-of-cinema-silent-movie old which presents a whole different and much higher hurdle to most viewers. 3 Godfathers was made in 1948 and stars a still quite young looking John Wayne only a wrinkle or two removed from his presence in that western genre touchstone Stagecoach, the film that made westerns respectable as more than Saturday afternoon serials. 1948 is plenty old though to cause some difficulties. When we think westerns nowadays we think of more enigmatic and elegiac works like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the recent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Those films are products of the seventies cinema where open-endedness and loose ends and uncertainty concerning a character's thoughts and motivations was prized. The scene in 3 Godfathers where our three bank robbers meet the town sheriff just doesn’t sit well with eyes accustomed to the modern approach. We are driven crazy by how the robbers’ intentions are communicated loud and clear and yet the sheriff lets them ride away instead of throwing them behind bars.

After decades of seeing child birth explicitly depicted on screen and on television (even during dinner) and being exposed to television commercials for such intimate products as tampons and Viagra, it seems ridiculously quaint to see – or rather not see – a scene of child birth so obliquely and at such a distance. And when we see the mother and infant, shortly after birth, there’s no blood, no afterbirth, no umbilical cord. Heck, the baby looks like it entered the world three weeks ago and the mother like she just returned from an afternoon at a health spa. Times have definitely changed.

The world isn’t black and white no matter what the Ronald Reagans and George W. Bushs would have you believe. We realize it is full of complexity. The classical western genre (the films of the 30s and 40s, not the revisionist works starting with Anthony Mann or Ford’s The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) though is all about the play between extreme good and bad. It is about black hats and white hats. It is about men being wanted dead or alive. It is about Us versus The Other as in cowboys versus the Indians. We have difficulty containing a chuckle when we hear a sheriff utter a line like, “I’ll add fifty dollars to the reward. I want them dead.”

Westerns are also stuffed full of conventions that don’t fit our realistic model of the world, like singing and dancing in the streets causing many pairs of modern eyes to roll while watching Hollywood musicals. Why do six-shooters always seem to hold enough ammo to fuel a machine gun? Why can’t the bad guys ever shoot straight while the good guys never miss the tiniest of moving targets while they are hanging upside down by one foot stuck in a stirrup with a cowboy hat covering their eyes? Or (one of my favorites) why does every stagecoach arrive in town carrying a beautiful young woman in her best Easter dress to be greeted by two suitors holding pathetic looking but heartfelt bouquets? When the men realize their shared intentions, they react somewhere between an exchange of jealous glances to a slapstick fistfight in the dusty street followed by them offering each other a beer in the always nearby saloon.

To enjoy westerns, or any genre movies for that matter from musicals to kung fu to screwball comedy, one must be able to recognize the conventions and then to simply accept them, roll with them, have fun with them, and notice when they are occasionally turned on their ear. There is an inversion of the Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy in 3 Godfathers for example. Our “good guys” are the bank robbers while the sheriff and his posse are the “bad guys,” an earlier example of the type of variation that would reach its peak expression in The Wild Bunch.

Director John Ford was a quite distinctive voice in American movies. I often compare him to that most distinctive of all Japanese masters Yasujiro Ozu. He was fond of building scene after scene around arrivals and departures always accompanied by characters looking longingly and searchingly off-screen toward some far distant vanishing point. He loved wide shots with his characters silhouetted as tiny figures on the horizon often against Technicolor sunsets. He was one of the most romantic and sentimental of artists. This often led him to stylistic flourishes that can stick out like proverbial sore thumbs when viewed in isolation. His constant use of slapstick humor (which can often seem nowadays as un-amusing pratfalls) and his insistent recycling of favorite hymns (which can seem oddly melodramatic if not outright out of place and weird to modern viewers) erect an insurmountable barrier to enjoyment for many. It is only by watching many films by John Ford across many genres that one appreciates these as artistic pre-occupations, even obsessions. They become building blocks of a genuine artistic vision.

What do I find so compelling about 3 Godfathers? I’ve watched it many times now and I truly find it epic, heroic. Watching John Wayne and his fellows trek across the formidable desert without food or water trying to safely deliver a baby to New Jerusalem is like watching Frodo struggle to right the world by carrying the ring to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. There are even shots of Wayne’s iconic figure scaling mountain passes that honestly must have inspired Peter Jackson. I love how wind machines are obviously employed to create just the right chaotic, battle of God and the Devil atmosphere and to blow the pages of a Bible to and fro to give our heroes guidance. I love how Wayne’s line that he will continue along his chosen path “until he finds religion” rings in my head the way his line from The Searchers – “We’ll find them alright … Eventually … Just as sure as the turning of the Earth” – has rung between my ears ever since first hearing it 25 years ago.

Yes, I’m grateful that I can see Ford’s tropes for what they are, take westerns for what they were, and understand that people haven’t always been able to handle commercials about constipation while sitting at the dinner table. This way, I can enjoy a terrific old John Wayne western without being distracted by my own giggles.