Friday, December 12, 2008


If this review ultimately turns into an advertisement for the Cinema 100 Film Society, please forgive me. It just saddened me to watch easily the best movie of the year in an empty theater. Hopefully, when you read this, the superb “Happy-Go-Lucky” is still playing at the Carmike.

The movie is the latest character-driven masterpiece by British director Mike Leigh. His work is in the “kitchen sink” genre – movies that look at day-to-day activities of the British working class. And Leigh’s methods are quite unique. He doesn’t write a script. He casts interesting actors, interesting faces. He then has them improvise and let casual things happen and natural words spill out of their mouths. When all are happy with the results, a script is transcribed.

Leigh has a great sense of dramatic and thematic necessity and constantly keeps these improvisations on track. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is tightly constructed with everything revolving around the perpetually positive Poppy (luminously played by Sally Hawkins). She makes it her mission to cheer people up and never let anyone bring her down. It is also a movie about teachers, good ones and bad ones and bad ones desperately trying to be good ones, teaching being an occupation Leigh feels requiring of a positive outlook more than any other.

The results are frequent scenes that have that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction quality usually associated with documentaries. You’ve heard the saying, “No writer could’ve come up with that.” Leigh’s movies are filled with those moments like the way a scene suddenly pauses for the characters to hold a staring contest, to see who’ll blink first. There’s a scene where Poppy and her roommate Zoe curl up together on a bed and twirl each other’s hair that’s so touching it aches.

The movie opens with Poppy riding her bike up to a bookshop and entering to browse the shelves. She cheerfully attempts to start a conversation with the taciturn clerk, finally asking him if he’s having a bad day. He replies, almost startled, “No.” She wishes him well and departs to find her bike has been stolen. But not even that can remove her smile.

The rest of the movie plays like an expanded version of that bookstore encounter as she engages in a relationship with an unpleasant driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their every lesson has him doing his best to tear her down while she holds tightly to her cheerful world view, and high-heeled boots. Their final lesson is simply the most painful and remarkably revealing movie scene in recent memory. It is award worthy. It is another scene that couldn’t have been written; it had to emerge from the actors in some way that’s more direct, more primal.

As I walked up to the Carmike, I saw no poster for “Happy-Go-Lucky.” The girl at the ticket window seemed surprised when I asked if it was even showing. At 1:40 – when the show was supposed to start at 1:30 – I asked an employee filling a popcorn order if the movie was ever going to start. It did soon after. Were they ashamed to be showing “Happy-Go-Lucky?”

When I noticed the movie listed in the Carmike ad, I thought “bad news for Cinema 100 and good news for Bismarck/Mandan.” While planning the upcoming series running from January 29 through April 23, “Happy-Go-Lucky” was at the top of our list. Now we’ll have to re-think a slot. It may not be “good news” for anyone though if only a handful of people see it. Over 300 lucky moviegoers would have seen it in the series – and they would’ve all left very happy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

King of California

I once had a dentist with a huge map of Santa Barbara, California on the wall. Not from the present day, but from the days of Spanish missionaries. The only evidence now of life in those days is the town’s gorgeous mission with its twin bell towers. I spent many visits under the drill day-dreaming about what used to exist in Santa Barbara where my house, my school, and the grocery store then stood.

This memory came back to me while watching King of California starring Michael Douglas as Charlie and Evan Rachel Wood as his daughter Miranda. Charlie is fresh out of a mental institution and returns home to regain his place in Miranda’s life. In his absence, she has dropped out of school and is supporting herself by working at McDonalds. She prizes her independence and sees his return as an annoyance.

And that feeling is understandable. Douglas’ Charlie is a humorously nutty man with long scraggly beard, no visible means of support, and still tenuous grasp of reality. His failure to make payments on a third mortgage – she didn’t even know he had a second – even costs her the Volvo she earned by dealing with thousands of thankless customers. She wakes up one morning to find Charlie has hawked it to finance his latest venture.

And it is that venture that caused memories to flood back to me about that fascinating map on my dentist’s wall. Charlie is obsessed with the notion that a long lost treasure, once belonging to a Spanish explorer, is buried somewhere in their suburban California neighborhood. The money from her car was necessary to purchase such essential treasure hunting items as a top-of-the-line metal detector and a stack of treasure hunting books.

Out of love for him, Miranda goes along with his quest. Together, they wander about strip malls and get ejected from private golf courses that are snooty as only California golf courses can be – trust me, I worked at one. And it is during these wacky stops along their search and the accompanying puzzled stares from onlookers – stares that bother Miranda but leave Charlie undaunted – that King of California best secures its goofy comic footing.

Things turn serious when Charlie feels he has finally, fully deciphered his treasure map and realizes that his ancient Spanish fortune lies six – or maybe seven – feet beneath the floor of Costco. They must turn their, until then, relatively harmless adventure into breaking and entering and destruction of a concrete floor, first dragging several pallets of merchandise out of the way, of course.

How it unfolds from there takes twists and turns that are sometimes expected, such as a real re-connection between father and daughter, and other times surreally unexpected, involving much daring-do, Miranda being bound with rope, and some SCUBA gear.

The movie has a wonderful sense of two time periods overlapping. It even has a nice animated sequence where one of Charlie’s aging Spanish maps comes to life and he enters it like a time-traveling cartoon explorer. It’s a perfect way of depicting his frame of mind.

Of course, all of this is really just a light-hearted and entertaining way of looking at a subject that’s not so light, a subject we’ll all have to deal with, perhaps with the help of our own daughters. As we age, it’s the recent memories that are first to go, essentially leaving us walking about in the present while living in the past.

Cool Hand Luke

My wife and I often talk about writing a book about the films you need to see to get the jokes. When I actually start work on it, the first subject will likely be Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman. The famous line, “What we have here is… failure to communicate,” has permeated all aspects of pop culture from the song “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses to CSI’s “what we’ve got here is… failure to coagulate” to Internet commentary on a recent vice presidential debate.

That famous line also articulates the major theme of Cool Hand Luke. Like James Dean’s rebel without a cause, Newman’s Luke is a man struggling to express himself. And he never does quite find the words, although he comes close during a moment of despair while strumming a guitar and singing, “Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car…”

Cool Hand Luke opens with Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters. He doesn’t seem to be after the measly pocket change they hold though. They just topple off their posts and clank to the sidewalk. And when the police inevitably appear, he simply welcomes them with a smile. It’s his first of many attempts to communicate. What he is trying to communicate is wisely left to our imaginations.

There is only one character in the film that succeeds in the art of communication. The bulk of the film takes place with Luke behind bars by night and on work detail by day. During one particularly hot day, the inmates are sweating and sweltering by a roadway when a very attractive blond woman emerges from her house and starts washing her car. One of the inmates complains, “Doesn’t she know she’s driving us crazy?” Luke replies, “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”

From there, Cool Hand follows Luke through three similar but escalating failures to communicate. Made in 1967, writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson and director Stuart Rosenberg were likely using the film and the inarticulate Luke to express the frustration felt by many after the assassination of JFK and during the Vietnam War. And Luke suffers greatly for their cause.

Luke and a big, burly leader of the inmates called Dragline have a fist fight. Luke gets in his licks, but he’s no match. Every time Dragline knocks him down and every time another inmate pleads with him to stay down, he just wordlessly gets back up and keeps swinging. He’s filled with resigned desperation as if trying to express something inexpressible.

Urgency mounts during the famous scene where Luke boasts he can eat 50 eggs, the gastronomic suffering feeling unbearable. And then the final escalation follows his repeated attempts at prison escape, and the ensuing punishments. More than anything, Luke seems like a child as he gradually presses closer and closer to his parents’ limits, as many young people in America were similarly questioning authority.

Being saddened by Newman’s recent passing, there is a montage near film’s end that had me in tears. All of the moments from the film where Luke is caught smiling – and there are many – are spliced together. It’s a beautiful series of moments. As if Newman through Luke was communicating directly to me from the beyond. It is a fitting farewell to a great American icon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Paths of Glory

Watching a bug scamper past his last meal, a soldier laments, “Tomorrow I’ll be gone and that cockroach will have more contact with my wife and kids than I will.” Another soldier reaches over and squishes it saying, “Now you have the upper hand.” This scene neatly encapsulates the absurdity and dark humor that is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

Kubrick entered new territory with Paths. He’d dealt with war before in his little seen first feature Fear and Desire and he’d already started exploring man’s dark alleys in the films noir Killer’s Kiss and The Killing. But here, he had a new challenge – working with a major star. I’ve seen Paths many times, but watching it the other day was like seeing it anew, as is always the case with Kubrick’s films. They seem to morph to match each new age.

This time, Paths felt like a game between Kubrick and Kirk Douglas just as the generals (chess masters) and colonels (knights) and soldiers (pawns) of the film are engaged in a great game of chess. (Kubrick was a chess master and used this metaphor often.) Douglas is determined to be “the movie star” and he gets his glamour shot moments and big speeches. But Kubrick effectively counters his every move. It’s as if Kubrick is saying, “It’s a dirty world, Kirk. Stop trying to redeem it.”

The story centers on a mad general who orders Douglas’s Col. Dax to lead soldiers in a suicidal attack on a German position known as the “Ant Hill.” (That’s short, of course, for “worthless objective.”) When the men fail to make it beyond the wire – their wire, not the enemy’s – the mad general ponders the scar bisecting his cheek and then orders three men to be made an example. They are to be court-martialed and executed for cowardice.

Col. Dax is appointed their council and the trial offers Douglas what would ordinarily be his star moments to shine. But he is clearly out-classed. Who are three soldiers or even a righteous colonel next to a general? And who are any of them next to the powerful and faceless people who waltz around the edges of Paths? Douglas sputters his defense while the mad general sits idly rolling his eyes and checking the time.

Paths struck me as a great first chapter in the richest vein in Kubrick’s oeuvre. During Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, the words “all the best people” can be heard, referring to the type of people who can get away with murder. The social elite of Paths are their prototype. Barry Lyndon asks: “What is a common Irish man next to the rich and powerful?” Eyes Wide Shut repeats the class hierarchy of Paths only with hookers in place of soldiers, Doctor Bill in place of Col. Dax, the rich Mr. Ziegler in place of the general, and the masked party-goers in place of faceless, waltzing party guests.

I remember asking, “Why are so many scenes in Paths set in rooms adorned like the 18th century?” (I would later ask the same question about the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) And why does Paths take a time-out to show us rich people waltzing at a party? Then Barry Lyndon showed us the 18th century as a lair for “all the best people” and Eyes Wide Shut opened with all those best people dancing the waltz at a decadent party and my questions were answered.

Paths of Glory plays like Kubrick’s entire oeuvre rolled into one film. Maybe Douglas slipped one in on Kubrick though. Paths has an emotionally powerful ending unlike anything else Kubrick ever touched. You won’t soon forget it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Blind Shaft

I’m often asked to recommend foreign films that aren’t so, well, foreign. These people have bravely dipped their toes into the cinematic waters of France or Germany or Japan and have found them a bit too cold. Plus, they’ve been faced with just too darn much subtitle reading to justify the work of figuring things out. I can name a few foreign films that will have me scratching my head to my grave. Then again, I’ll never figure out something like Transformers from the United States either.

I have a great track record for setting people down a more enjoyable path with selections like Italy’s The Bicycle Thieves and Iran’s Children of Heaven, both deeply moving films especially in these recessionary times. I can now whole-heartedly recommend China’s Blind Shaft which is also deeply relevant today.

The story centers on two men who have hit upon a perfectly lucrative occupation in times of great economic hardship. They meet some sad-sack in the streets, convince him to pretend to be a relative, and get employed together in a coal mine. Then, when opportunity strikes, they kill the sad-sack, make it look like an accident, and extort money from the mine owners to keep it quiet.

The film opens in the middle of things. We are watching some characters that we know about as well as the hundreds of people we pass in a mall during our travels to a distant city. They are starting a day’s work in a mine and head down the shaft together, into the dark. The camera settles on three men as they spend time digging and scraping away at the rock and joking about the quality of one man’s love life back home, just another day at the office. Then, with merciless speed and precision, two of the men kill the third, drag his body deeper into the darkness, and fake a mine shaft collapse.

The suddenness of the event leaves us momentarily in shock. It feels like the rug has been pulled out before we even had a chance to stand upon it. The rest of the film fills in the blanks. Who are these two men and why has the film privileged such a vicious act as our introduction to their behavior?

After the murder, we observe them as they con the management, flush their dead “relative’s” ashes down the toilet, fill their bellies with stew, and wander about streets strewn with the unemployed, eventually passing some time with a couple prostitutes. They seem sadly, pathetically aimless. They are trapped in a never-ending cycle of entrepreneurial ingenuity gone sour and distractedly pass the time between scores like junkies lounging about between fixes.

All of the other faces in the streets seem just as sad, just as desperate. They’re like Oklahoma migrants begging for work – any work at all – in The Grapes of Wrath and turning the other cheek repeatedly as one employer after another takes advantage of them. And out of this sea of the desolate emerges a naïve young man, the innocent player in the next round of the mine shaft con game.

The bulk of the film follows our two entrepreneurs as they draw this young man into their plot and set the stage for a repeat of the film’s opening scene. Only this time, after who knows how many times their plan has gone right, things instead go left and one of the men finally sees light at the end of what has always been a blind shaft, at least for a moment.

Days of Heaven

Imagine traveling across the Texas Panhandle and eyeing a farmhouse, vacant, decaying, and leaning precariously after being howled by winds for nearly a century. Filled with curiosity, you pull your car over, trudge across what used to be a wheat field, and take a closer look. The door is ajar so you enter. The floor is scattered with dust, tumbleweeds, dead locusts, and a trunk.

Inside the trunk, you find old photographs strewn every which way and, intrigued, you start pulling them out one-by-one for a closer look. Gradually, pictures of the newly built farmhouse; freight trains stacked with human cargo; horses grazing; a man, a woman, and a young girl sharing a picnic (are they husband, wife, and daughter?); farm workers harvesting wheat; a congregation with heads bowed in prayer; and locusts, very much alive, crawling over a kitchen table all start to coalesce into a story.

Then you see a picture of that same woman in a lover’s embrace with a different man and the beginnings of melodrama take hold. Hurriedly, you start laying the pictures out on the dusty floor, arranging them one way, and then another. The story’s fragmented with huge gaps, gaps you try to fill in with pictures of nature, pictures often startlingly beautiful like a storm slowly rolling across a plain. You lie down on the floor, face almost touching each image in succession as if trying to erase time itself and you begin to hear the voice of that young girl precociously telling a tragic story from long ago...

This is the effect that Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven has on the viewer, one of hauntingly beautiful images that ever so casually and sometimes even unexpectedly find a story to tell. (It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and it is one of a small handful of the most gorgeous movies ever made.)

The story follows a young man (a very young Richard Gere), his lover who pretends to be his sister, and his actual young sister, the story’s narrator. They are on the run. Did he actually murder that man? We can’t be sure. They find work as hired hands on a harvest. The farm owner is young and handsome (Sam Shepard) and dying. Seeing an opportunity to gain riches, the young woman marries the farm owner. But, marriage has a rejuvenating effect on him. He stops dying. Will he die? Or will she fall in love with him for real?

Talking about Days of Heaven in terms of plot is almost to misrepresent it. Malick spent many long days waiting until magic hour working with cinematographer Néstor Almendros to craft one stunning light painting after another. The rest of each day was spent with macro lenses capturing the minutiae of farm existence in screen-filling extreme close-ups. He then spent a legendary two years in the editing room stitching the countless pictures together, first one way, and then many others, until an eye-pleasing perfection was achieved. Haunting music and Linda Manz’s offhand, highly influential narration, full of unfinished thoughts and stray tangents are the glue that finally binds this most remarkably singular work of art together.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I came across the reclusive Malick’s unpublished memoirs, possibly in a trunk in an old abandoned farm house, and he admitted to editing Days of Heaven by stretching out on the floor with his footage and squinting and rearranging the strips until the many voices started to whisper to him from distant days when Heaven was so close and yet so far.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

2008 October Series

October 2: Days of Heaven
October 9: Blind Shaft
October 16: Paths of Glory
October 23: Cool Hand Luke
October 30: King of California

Winter/Spring 2008 Survey Results

The King of Kong471519223.72
The Lives of Others00211564.78
The Red Balloon/White Mane051827143.78
My Kid Could Paint That251827193.79
To Kill a Mockingbird23115434.47
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days781722173.48


My first time to attend the series - Loved It!

Great diversity!

It's nice that you usually include an older film.

All good except the last. It should never have been shown.

Good series but would like more foreign films that have more depth - less kiddy movies.

Not into animated films but liked the rest.

I don't like subtitled films. Hard to keep up.

I would really enjoy some comedy. I need a good laugh.

Great series! Well done, nice varied selection.

Avoid animated.

Great movies except the last one which was pointless and awful.

I'm so glad we have this in Bismarck! I would like them to all be foreign films.

More animated films!

Animated ones were not at all enjoyable.

Great. Can't wait for next season. Cinema 100 has made my stay in Bismarck enjoyable.

I always enjoy these series - no matter the movie. A great way to be exposed to the good/bad of our world.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Three children approach a dark, shadowy, mysterious house. It is encased as if by fog in the legend of Boo Radley, the son of the meanest man ever to draw a breath, a young man who spends his days chained to his bed only to venture out at night to spy upon children as they sleep. The three children sneak around back. They slip under a wire fence and begin to open the garden gate – SQUEAK! They apply some spit to the hinges. They try again – squeak. Some more spit and it silently opens. One child crawls up to the porch and then up to a window. A human shadow appears, twisted, sinister. It engulfs the boy. The children can’t breathe, can’t scream. The shadow disappears. The children run for their lives.

A young boy (Jem) and his younger sister (Scout) remain in the car as their lawyer father (Atticus) pays a visit to the family of his latest client (a black man accused of attacking and raping a white woman). Atticus goes inside the house. Scout falls asleep. Out of the woods emerges a man, a drunken man, an evil man, a racist man. Jem remains at a safe distance, enclosed in the car, observing the horror as if it’s a scary movie on late-night television. He wants to cover his eyes, but he can’t. Scout is blissfully unaware, having fallen asleep before this late show got under way. Atticus returns. The evil recedes after spitting some venom at the children’s father.

Those are two scenes from the 1962 classic film To Kill a Mockingbird based on the first and only novel by Harper Lee and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. They have a fairy tale-like quality full of dark woods and heroic parents and haunting, ghost-like figures from the frightening adult world. These scenes reminded me of my fascination with films centered on children such as Children of Heaven and Fido. The kids in the former focus on a lost pair of shoes, letting the greater hardships of life fade away. In the latter, a boy avoids the realities of his parents’ unhappy marriage by befriending a zombie. Children have a way – as if for self-preservation – of seeing the horrors of the world through both ends of a telescope.

Literature is filled with forbidden houses just down the lane. Haunted houses are horror story staples. In Meet Me in St. Louis, children “kill” wicked neighbors by hurling flour in their faces before fleeing screaming. And don’t forget Hansel and Gretel and that sweet house containing a wicked witch. Children have an innate way of magnifying what might harm them and turning these things into monsters lurking behind closed doors and inside passing cars, perhaps containing a monster bearing gifts of candy. Based on all evidence, the house of Boo is to be feared and best to remain so until the evidence proves otherwise.

The children of To Kill a Mockingbird see racism at a distance. They glimpse it while being boosted up to peek through a courtroom window. They observe it through car windows in the dark, late at night – or sleep through it. They look at it obliquely from the balcony of a courtroom. They meet it uncomprehendingly face-to-face in the form of a lynch mob. (Why is that man who was so nice the other day acting so mean now?) To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me of another great movie about children facing unimaginable horrors – Forbidden Games. In that film, a young girl’s parents are killed by Nazi aircraft gunfire, but she, as if by protective instinct, blocks out the horrific realities and instead fixates on a little puppy that was killed by the same gunfire. In both films, the children flip the telescope around backwards, its objects still there but made small and insignificant, stored away to be dealt with later.

To Kill a Mockingbird begins with magnified close-ups of trinkets removed from a cigar box. It ends by revealing the giver of these gifts – Boo Radley. And for the first time young Scout and Jem lower the telescope and see this source of their fears through unencumbered eyes. No need to scream and they can now breathe easily. Putting the telescope away regarding racism will be their next challenge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I’ve always thought the ideal zombie movie would depict a world where zombies had found their natural place and things had returned to normal. I always pictured this as a world where all that remains is zombies, hard at work – or more likely staggering about – trying to build a new post-human society. You know, something like we glimpse all too briefly during the opening scene of George Romero’s Land of the Dead. When Andrew Currie wrote and directed Fido, he forgot to ask me for advice and only got part of it right. I’ll forgive him though. What he got right is thoroughly delightful.

The greatest moment in Land of the Dead (which really doesn’t deserve its bad reputation) is when Cholo (John Leguizamo), having been bitten by a zombie and sure to “turn” soon, stops his buddy from shooting him in the head and declares, “I’m going to see how the other half live.” It really makes clear how the zombies are really just us after falling on a bit of misfortune. In Fido, Timmy Robinson (the priceless K’Sun Ray) and his mother Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) seem to be following in Cholo’s footsteps when they defiantly tell their dad/husband Bill (Dylan Baker, one of my favorite actors since his mesmerizing turn in Happiness and just as courageously good here) that they are siding with a zombie. Timmy says, “I’d rather be a zombie than dead.” Helen continues, “Timmy and I are going zombie.”

The premise of Fido is delectably simple. Set in a lovingly evoked 1950s middle-anywhere-America, it poses a what-if scenario where particles from space (what else, genre fans?) have settled on Earth and starting bringing the dead back to life. After the dark years, the zombie war years, a corporation called Zomcon and a brilliantly mad-looking scientist named Dr. Geiger (yes, you read that right) have found a way to restore order by domesticating the legions of walking, flesh chomping ghouls. Something resembling shock collars for dogs are placed around their necks that, when activated, render them as docile as the little curly mutt sleeping in my lap as I type this. The zombies become citizens – decidedly second-class – performing much needed roles in society. They are crossing guards. They carry groceries. They mow lawns. And my favorite: They wave to motorists as they pass a sign welcoming them to the town of Willard.

That’s the setup actually. The bulk of the story involves the Robinson family’s adding of a zombie to their household – later named Fido by Timmy – and all the ups and downs that ensue as relationships are formed between Fido as his new owners. You could say that Fido is like a new-fangled boy and his dog story by way of E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial with Fido representing something different to each member of the Robinson family. To Timmy, he’s a much-needed friend and protector. To Helen, he offers romance for a lonely, neglected, stay-at-home housewife. To Bill, he’s a comparatively virile threat. (Not a good thing when you are less of a man than a zombie.) This E.T., and generally all things Spielberg, evocation is made explicit when a startled Fido backs into some shelves sending their contents tumbling and clattering about and when a “scary” moment (no moment is really scary in Fido) is framed against a huge telephoto shot of a full moon.

Fido clearly aims to be a satire. To this end, it is hit or miss. It hits its targets, but the targets are too obvious, and too obviously hard to miss.

From the very start, during a lovingly crafted classroom educational film like those Cold War “duck and cover” films, Currie makes it clear that he’s taking shots at the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. The film within a film is titled A Bright New World and focuses on Zomcon’s protection of the “homeland.” The head of Zomcon and “decorated hero of the zombie wars” Mr. Bottoms then tells the kids, “We’re going to take everybody’s picture, just in case one of you gets lost.” When Timmy expresses uncertainty, Bottoms tells him, “This isn’t a world where we guess, young man. You either know something or you don’t.” (Yes, that’s all pretty blunt. Fortunately, it plays a bit better than it reads.)

Currie also aims to poke skewers through the 1950s, but he never quite transcends 1950s clichés. Helen spends her days at home lonely and baking huge pans of cookies. When Bill arrives home, she greets him all dolled up in a sexy red dress and holding a three-olive martini. After revealing her newly acquired zombie to Bill, she says, “Isn’t it wonderful? Now we’re not the only ones on the street without one.” And in Fido, kids are clearly meant to be seen and not heard. Helen tells Timmy “Why don’t you go watch some television? I’m sure there’s something wonderful on” before engaging Bill in some adult talk. (Fido survives all of this as well thanks mostly to Carrie-Anne Moss who plunges head first into her role and plays everything perfectly straight, which works, well, perfectly.)

Fido doesn’t really feel much like a horror film. It is more like a reworking of Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ re-imagining of the 1950s (and Douglas Sirk’s melodrama All That Heaven Allows). Both films are lovingly detailed recreations of the time period. Both feature women who are stuck in marriages running low on passion and who seek affection in a man who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Yes, I’m suggesting that Bill Connoly’s Fido is the latest step in the lineage that began with Rock Hudson’s Ron Kirby and continued with El Hedi ben Salem’s Ali in Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond Deagan.

And it is from this relationship to this distinguished list of melodramas that Fido finds its greatest strength: It is a story about people developing loving, caring relationships – never mind that in each case one person is no longer living, at least not in the classical sense. For Timmy, Fido is like a best friend, father-figure and faithful dog all rolled into one. There are moments between them that’ll rip your heart out. It made me as sad saying goodbye to Fido as I was while waving goodbye to Lassie each week as a kid.

For Helen, Fido is as close to a lover as I imagine Currie felt he could get away with. When they dance and embrace and playfully get wet while washing the family car, one gets a genuine feeling of romance and even eroticism without it ever feeling icky (although I may have a higher threshold for icky than most people – you be the judge).

Most surprising to me of all is the relationship that develops between two secondary characters – next door neighbor Mr. Theopolis and his girl zombie Tammy. At first, it is played as a joke. Tammy died in prime condition and, dressed in a blue mini-skirt, is a candidate for the cinema’s sexiest zombie and Mr. Theopolis gets his kicks by having her bend over to pick up the morning newspaper. Things develop beyond that simple joke though. Later, in an almost magical moment, Fido looks on as Mr. Theopolis and Tammy share a bedroom moment (shown in silhouette through drawn curtains and bearing a humorous resemblance to S&M). By the end of Fido, Mr. Theopolis and Tammy display genuine love for each other sharing a kiss as they part, possibly forever.

Yes, Currie got many things very right. Fido has heart. I’m sure he would be pleased to know that my teenage daughter – a self-described zombie movie nut – turned to me during one particularly touching boy-and-his-zombie scene and said, “Dad, I want a zombie.”

Friday, March 28, 2008


“…a loathsome, crude, amateurish and grotesque assault on our troops in Iraq … a wretched, irresponsible film that richly deserves the public rejection it will, inevitably, receive.” – Micheal Medved

“…De Palma admits he made the film to hurt the Iraq war effort ... [De Palma is a] vile man and [Redacted is a] vile film ... If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it's on Brian de Palma ... During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison.” – Bill O’Reilly

Not many people saw Brian De Palma’s Iraq war film Redacted (the title means to suppress by censorship), certainly not enough for De Palma to bear responsibility for all future deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. Most only know of the film from ranting pundits like Medved and O’Reilly, the first a “film critic” by title only, the second long ago having had his motivations called into question by the maddening documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. And that is a shame. While not perfect, by any means, Redacted is a fascinating and important piece of work. It is important as a somewhat fumbling first foray into promising new territory by one of America’s most complex and compelling filmmakers. It is also important as a statement of outrage. It is unforgivable that in a “democratic” nation people must resort to rummaging around on the Internet to learn what is going on in the world.

Essentially, Redacted is Brian De Palma’s Noam Chomsky-fueled response to how he sees the events in Iraq being censored by the media. Chomsky famously pointed out in books like Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies that the American media acts as a highly efficient propaganda machine – though not necessarily with conscious intent. He points out that Justice Powell’s ideal (“By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment.”) has given way to James Mill’s view (The media’s role is to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government.”). De Palma, longtime radical-minded guy that he is, definitely agrees with Chomsky.

And this frustration with the media informs the film’s structure. Based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, Redacted is a fictionalized recreation of those and surrounding events as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet, an American soldier’s home video, a French documentary, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. This is all edited together to create an impression of what took place, or a very rough approximation really. What we see is far removed from the level of detail and the well-rounded portrayal of the characters involved that would be presented by a talented journalist following the story start-to-finish, which is De Palma’s point.

Through this collage-like approach, employing digital video throughout, De Palma has used Redacted as an opportunity to explore the very implications of the documentary form. The film is like the ultimate faux-documentary turned inside-out to peer at its own inner organs. In an early scene, we are shown a soldier looking down at the ground to watch a scorpion being devoured by ants. This is framed within a French documentary titled Checkpoint and seems to be either making a comment on the sadism of the American soldier(s) or on the way American soldiers are being overcome by Iraqi insurgents or on how the documentary’s director watched Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch too many times – or all three. What’s easy to miss though is De Palma’s interest here in how cleverly – and potentially deceptively – documentary films are constructed. We never see the soldier and the scorpion/ants in the same shot. The shot the soldier appears to be looking at could’ve been lifted straight out of Peckinpah’s western for all we know.

This almost invisibly playful examination of documentary ethics finds even more compelling expression in later scenes. A car is shown driving up to a checkpoint and then we are suddenly inside the car looking out. This heightens the dramatic effect of the scene, but how is it possible? We can see as the car drives up that there is no cameraman sitting in the front seat, plus the cars in the two shots are clearly different. Once again, the documentary filmmakers have pieced a scene together out of footage shot possibly days apart to create an effect. In a later scene, one of the American soldiers wields his camcorder but swish-pans quickly back and forth between two bits of action, torn between which should hold his focus. All documentaries are only as true as the 45 degrees or so of action the camera captured. The other 315 degrees only exist in some alternate universe with the camera pointed elsewhere.

This sort of intellectual gamesmanship is exactly what De Palma’s fans have learned to expect from him. He is the man, after all, who made it his mission to teach us about the deceptive qualities of the cinema. He famously inverted Jean-Luc Godard’s line about the truth of images (“film is truth, 24 times a second”) to form his own dictum which is repeated verbatim in Redacted by one of the soldiers (“[that] camera lies all the time”).

De Palma fans also expect his films to be highly self-referential. He has always been obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (even remaking it at one point under the title Obsession). The central dilemma in Vertigo involves a character named Scottie who loses – or so it seems – his lover due to his failure to act at a crucial moment. This has been reanimated like a recurring nightmare throughout a great many of De Palma’s films from Carrie and Blow Out to his criminally underrated Mission to Mars and The Black Dahlia. And a soldier’s failure to act and save the life of the Iraqi girl in Redacted is the source of much of the films' anguish.

De Palma earlier made the Vietnam War drama Casualties of War about a soldier failing not once but twice to save the life of a Vietnamese girl. Actually, De Palma’s Vietnam and Iraq war films tell virtually the same (based on true) stories of American soldiers venting their frustrations over a fallen comrade (as well as sexual frustrations; both films are filled with homophobic rage; Redacted has a telling moment where a soldier misunderstands his being called a war virgin and berates “I’m not a virgin!” and many scenes in Redacted are decorated top to bottom with images from men’s magazines) by raping and killing a young girl. Both end with their “hero” tormented by his failure to prevent the tragedy.

Redacted is also a throwback to early 1960s overtly radical De Palma movies like Greetings and Hi, Mom complete with a sense of playfulness and humor and the joking labeling of characters. A rubber ducky makes an appearance very unexpectedly and a scene between the two “heavies” is punctuated by squawks emanating from one man’s bird-shaped hat every time he adjusts it. The embedded journalists in several scenes run around like headless chickens with signs fixed to their jackets reading “Press.” And the dumb, fat bad guy recruit is simply referred to as “Rush.” (Okay, maybe De Palma took that one too far.) Redacted is laced with a surprising amount of sly humor.

Ignoring the inane “criticisms” of Medved and O’Reilly, I do have a few criticisms of my own – many echoed by other critics. For a film that is supposedly constructed out of scraps of this and that found here and there, Redacted seems too elegantly composed, the shots just a bit too perfect in their framing. After some thought though, I no longer find this to be a valid criticism. The most obvious offenders are the scenes taking place within the French-made documentary and the home-movie footage of one of the soldiers (Angel Salazar). But, the French documentary is clearly intended as a very elegantly and professionally made piece, more Pare Lorentz than Maysles Brothers, complete with a musical score right out of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s a spoof of documentaries at their most manipulative and pretentious. It should be well-composed. Salazar intends to use his footage as an audition film for USC Film School. He should be wielding the camera with care.

Many have knocked the film for having “terrible” acting and I suppose they are correct, at least to a point. De Palma is taking aim at character types with Redacted and, much like his radical counterpart George Romero did in Day of the Dead, he resorts to grotesque stereotypes to make his points. No beating around the bush with the bad guys in either film. They are simply bad. I do think Redacted’s performances within this context are quite effective though. The evil seems to find surprising new twists of expression from each moment to the next. De Palma is also back to games again with the acting. One of my favorite aspects of documentary film is how people have a natural way of turning into actors – and often very bad ones – when a camera is pointed at them. Redacted makes conscious commentary on this by breaking a pivotal scene in half, first with the characters aware of their being filmed, second with their being tricked into thinking the camera has been turned off. The subtle changes in behavior are fascinating. At another point, Salazar dons a hidden camera on his helmet saying, “I don’t want the guys getting camera-shy.”

My only real criticism of Redacted is that the first scene is too heavy-handed. One of the soldiers says the first casualty of the war will be “the truth.” Salazar then gives a speech about the film he is making not having any sense of conventional narrative or Hollywood drama. He of course says this into the camera as a direct comment from De Palma to us about Redacted. These statements of theme and method are simply too blunt and too awkward. They’ve sent my eyes rolling every time I’ve watched the film.

Fortunately, while Redacted starts off badly, it ends on an amazingly powerful note. In a sequence titled “Collateral Damage,” we see a series of photographs of war victims (eyes covered by black bars in an ironic instance of redaction that irked De Palma but oddly works to the film’s benefit) culminating with an artfully faked photo of the teenage rape and murder victim (whose burned remains we haven’t yet seen) and a surge of music that leaves my hair standing on end every time. Wow, I get chills just thinking about it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That is a terrific film. It examines a multitude of subjects ranging from the nature of modern art to how hard a child should be pushed toward greatness to the relationship between a documentary film and the truth. And all of this breezily realized thanks to the screen presence of a very cute little girl named Marla.

Marla Olmstead is a phenomenon. Starting at age three, she’s been creating modern art masterpieces that have drawn not surprising comparisons to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. By age five, she was well on her way to a well-padded college fund with her works selling at over five grand a pop. New York got whiff of her. She was everywhere in the art world news. Then 60 Minutes got a hold of the story.

All it took was some footage of Marla struggling away at a painting and an “expert” saying “she isn’t doing anything any other kid wouldn’t do” and the paintings stopped selling, collectors of her work started fretting and grumbling and possibly suing, and her parents began getting a litany of really nasty emails. (Yes, there is predictability in the arc of the story. As with all of those rock star bios, this is Marla and her parents’ tumble into the belly of the whale.)

Speaking to filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, Marla’s mom Laura pleads, “We’re just going to have to trust you.” All hope is placed on Bar-Lev’s capturing Marla in a true act of artistic creation to erase the damning evidence made all too public by Charlie Rose, to help the Olmsteads wash up on the beach still alive and kicking like that famous wooden boy. (My Kid Could Paint That earns kudos for leaving the “alive and kicking” part tantalizingly uncertain.)

That’s the plot. But the film’s fascinations and pleasures fall between the plot points. Placing the kindergarten masterpieces by my daughters side-by-side with works decorating the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, I’ve often asked one of the film’s central questions: Why do some paintings sell for millions while others that appear – at least to my eyes – every bit as beautiful hang taped to dining room walls? Is it really just a matter of a work of art being worth whatever someone can be conned into paying? Is it the whole legend of a tortured soul that arose around Jackson Pollock that made his works priceless or is there really something on those canvases that my kid couldn’t paint?

With the Olympics just over the horizon and a film like Spellbound (the one about spelling bees) still a fresh memory, kids with talents being pushed to the edge and beyond by overzealous parents are enjoying a high level of visibility. I’ve even had my own low moments pushing my daughter to higher rungs: “You better not miss a practice to play with friends or you won’t win the 100 butterfly.” Marla’s dad, Mark, is criticized for standing over his daughter, prodding her along, and scolding her for not using enough of the color red. The paintings are more about him – or by him? – than Marla it seems.

Bar-Lev’s filmmaking process is left fascinatingly transparent. It is filled with all the little moments – an interview subject’s “off the record” remarks, a scene between Bar-Lev and Marla’s parents that feels like the whole film is on the verge of collapse – which a filmmaker would normally cut to avoid incriminating himself. My Kid Could Paint That plays like an essay on how all documentaries manipulate the truth. We never know who to trust from one moment to the next. When is Marla being her true self – or Mark and Laura, or Bar-Lev – as opposed to some other creature under the influence of a movie camera? Who was more on the money? Jean-Luc Godard (“film is truth, 24 times a second”) or Brian De Palma ("the camera lies all the time”)?

My Kid Could Paint That reminded me of the movie Pollock. Pollock was portrayed as a man driven by instinct. When asked about his creative processes, he lashes out in fits of rage, realizing he has no idea how he creates his paintings. Still held by childhood’s embrace but every bit as unaware of her processes, Marla responds with an annoyed “No!” She then dashes off to fight with her brother, to draw doodles while talking a bath, and to get rides on her dad’s shoulders. It made me wish she’d stop painting altogether, before she grows up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Isn’t it strange how bits of insight and inspiration come at you when you least expect them? This morning, I took part in an annual deacons/elders meeting at my church. The issue of dealing with change was placed at table center and the need to establish a “bottom line” of non-negotiable issues was discussed. A few hours later, while re-watching Deepa Mehta’s beautiful and haunting film “Water,” my morning’s lessons seeped into the experience, finding new significance.

Set in India in 1938, “Water” opens with a beguiling scene of a young girl, Chuyia, mysteriously traveling with her family and a very sickly looking man. What’s going on? Who is this girl? Who is this man? Is he her father or her uncle? In the next scene, we learn that the man was actually the 7-year-old’s husband and that she has now joined India’s multitude of widows.

In short order, her head is shaved and she is – in spite of lively protestations – locked into an ashram where widows are forced to live out their lives honoring their deceased husbands. “Water” opens with a title card reading: “A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful … is reborn in the womb of a jackal.” What follows is a tale of the conflicts this tradition provokes for our young heroine and another somewhat older widow, Kalyani, who befriends her.

Chuyia functions in “Water” as our eyes through which we observe the forbidden relationship that develops between Kalyani and a young man, and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, named Narayan. And this approach, with Chuyia being so young, questioning, and disbelieving, works exceedingly well for a Western audience. It’s very alien, even maddening, watching these women suffer simply because they’ve outlived their husbands. It seems strange indeed for this to happen to a girl as young as Chuyia (and we learn she isn’t the only child widow to have found her way into this “prison”).

Similar to the way Chuyia stands in for our modern eyes, Narayan embodies our modern sensibilities. One of his first actions upon arriving home from college is replacing a photo (that looks like a picture of his high school class) on the wall of his parent’s home with a photo of Gandhi – new learning replacing the old. “Passive resistance” is poised ever-ready to leap from his tongue as from a tiny springboard. And when he tells his mother he plans to marry Kalyani, a widow, she scolds him saying his study of Gandhi’s teachings has driven him crazy. He finds this treatment of widows as unacceptable as we do.

At first, I found “Water” a truly foreign viewing experience. I enjoyed it and was taken by the beauty of its images, its conflicts between traditional and new ways of thinking, and the many playful uses of the title liquid. (One thing is for sure, you will have no difficulty discovering why the film is titled “Water.”) But the tragic climax bothered me until I connected my lesson from this morning to this line of dialog: “What if our conscience conflicts with our faith?” Suddenly, the whole film crystallized. To risk repeating a cliché, traditions die hard and change only comes with great struggle. The tragedy of the film’s climax is the result of Kalyani’s encounter with her “bottom line.”

My summation is a cliché, but the film’s realization and especially its shattering and unforgettable ending is pure and original poetry. The final shot of one of the ashram widows is framed with a train disappearing into the background carrying with it all the hopes of future change for India’s widows. The cinematic poetry derives from extremely shallow depth of field. The woman remains in the foreground in sharp focus, face pensive, while the train becomes an indistinguishably distant blur. This is then underlined – unnecessarily I think – by a closing title card: “There are over 34 million widows in India according to the 2001 Census. Many continue to live in conditions of social, economic and cultural deprivation…”

Thank you Reverend Deanna. Your words were heard, though maybe not yet put to use quite as you expected.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Red Balloon/White Mane

Imagine a little boy walking along and spotting a kitten on the sidewalk. He pauses to give it a pat on the head and goes happily on his way. Only the kitten has a mind of its own and starts following the boy. With delight, the boy tries to pick up the kitten, but it scurries away. As soon as the boy turns his back, the kitten returns to continue his pursuit, and so on.

Now, imagine this kitten and boy game continuing through many inventive variations including a fair amount of playfulness along with some fearful suspense. Then, add one more twist by replacing the kitten with a bright red balloon and setting it all in the streets of Paris and you have the delightful children’s film “The Red Balloon.”

Director Albert Lamorisse makes his intentions clear in the opening shot. The young boy happens upon a kitten on the sidewalk before moving on to discover his vivid red costar. (“The Red Balloon” was shot in gorgeous Technicolor and the balloon really stands out against the more muted and rainy Paris backdrops. If you’ve only seen Hollywood Technicolor, you owe it to yourself to experience how creatively the French put it to use.) The balloon becomes a newfound pet for the boy.

Lasting a mere 34 minutes, “The Red Balloon” effortlessly develops into a full-fledged story filled with helpful citizens willing to offer their umbrellas to protect the boy and his balloon from the rain. The story also has its villains in the form of seemingly countless jealous other boys. They can be avoided and thwarted for a while, but when they have the boy and his pet balloon cornered and take careful aim with their slingshots the game is up – or is it? The ending is, shall I say, quite memorably uplifting.

After the success of “Duma” last year, we at Cinema 100 put on our thinking caps trying to come up with something else to offer our younger patrons – as well as the kid in all of us – and we happily noticed that this beloved classic was touring on a double-bill with another classic French short from director Lamorisse, “White Mane.”

I feel certain that Carol Ballard was familiar with Lamorisse’s boy and his horse film when he directed his own “The Black Stallion.” Both films fall deeply in love with the graceful movement of running horses and the photography (in “White Mane” it is striking, Italian neo-realistic inspired black and white) richly displays that love in every shot. Both films also present the relationship between boy and horse as a mutually and gradually developing friendship, very poetically expressed.

And as with “The Red Balloon,” “White Mane” has its villains, this time a band of men depicted as almost pure evil that capture and tame wild horses. They’re just ranchers doing their jobs of course, but the film sees them through the horse infatuated eyes of the young boy, as something to be feared. This leads to a few moments that may prove a bit frightening (so sit close to your kids) including a fight between White Mane and another pent up stallion that is a bit brutal as well as quite remarkable and even beautiful to watch.

Of course, White Mane and the boy prevail and escape the “evil” men. The ending to this 47 minute film isn’t quite as clear as with “The Red Balloon” though. My younger daughter (age 11) sat for a bit after the film was over weighing two possibilities, one happy and one sad. Being a happy kid in general, she settled comfortably on the first option.

This pair of classics makes for a great introduction to French cinema for young movie fans. Both are largely visual poems that play like classic fairytales. They also won’t pose any challenges to young viewers lacking the reading skills for subtitles. “The Red Balloon” is almost wordless and has about 30 words of subtitled French dialog none of which are essential to enjoying the film. “White Mane” is being presented in an English translated version.

So, don’t forget the kids – and don’t forget the popcorn – and settle back for a unique experience, for young and old.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Lives of Others

Like many movie fans around the world, I sat back with confidence that my Oscar pick for Best Foreign Language Film – “Pan’s Labyrinth” – was going to be announced. Then, I was startled to hear the words “The Lives of Others” instead. The year had belonged to the nominee from Mexico. Why did this unknown film from Germany take the honor? Since then, I have of course seen “The Lives of Others” and I now know why it won. It’s one really great movie.

“The Lives of Others” interweaves the stories of an intelligence officer in 1984 East Germany, Captain Gerd Wiesler, and his subject, the playwright Georg Dreyman, suspected of being a Western sympathizer. I’m not going to dwell on the snarl of paranoia and politics involved in this situation though. Sure, the characters fear for their future lives at every twist around a corner and turn of a phrase. (Teaching a “getting a suspect to crack under verbal interrogation 101” class, Wiesler marks an “x” by a student’s name, indicating certain expulsion or worse, for merely suggesting Wiesler’s tactics are too harsh.) But the film is more universal.

“The Lives of Others” tells the twin stories of a man who is great at a job he finds distasteful and two men who have difficulty pursuing their ideal occupations. A person’s strengths and available occupations are seldom an ideal match, in 1984 East Germany or any other time and place.

Everyone and everything is given a very personal rather than political motivation. Wiesler is only tasked with gathering information about Dreyman because the Minister of Culture lusts for Dreyman’s girlfriend, stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland, and wants Dreyman out of the way. The turning point that sends both Wiesler and Dreyman hurtling down a new shared path toward their intricately interwoven fates is the suicide of a character close to Dreyman.

“The Lives of Others” reminds me of the “political” thrillers from Hollywood in the 1970s. It has the intricacy and attention to procedure that distinguished such films as “3 Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men,” the kind of meticulous focus on the details of how a suspect is interrogated or how a writer is identified by the typeface of his typewriter that recently inspired such films as “Zodiac” and “Michael Clayton.” More than any film though, “The Lives of Others” reminds me of Francis Coppola’s surveillance masterpiece “The Conversation,” a film that was a clear influence.

In Coppola’s film, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul records the lives of others much like Wiesler. Both men are portrayed as masters with ears so finely tuned that they can “see” with them. (At a key moment, Wiesler seems to “see” the hiding place of a typewriter by sound alone.) And both men are very lonely and have little in the way of lives outside of what they experience by listening to others, the real story of both films.

Wiesler first spies Dreyman and actress Sieland at a performance of a play written by the former and starring the latter. The film then goes on to make fascinating play with the idea of audience and performer. Wiesler takes in what he hears between Dreyman and Sieland in Dreyman’s bugged apartment as if it were a play. At one point, Wiesler runs into Sieland in a pub and expresses his admiration for her performance. We are left wondering though just which “performance” he means, on stage or on his surveillance tape.

“The Lives of Others” diverges from the 1970s “cinema of loneliness” (film critic Robert Kolker’s phrase) approach filled with loner anti-heroes and downer endings and ultimately hits an uplifting note. At three key points in the story, the phrase – or a piano melody of the title – “Sonata for a Good Man” pops up and “The Lives of Others” becomes a film about how goodness can surface in unlikely situations and in unexpected people.

At film’s end, Wiesler buys a novel written by Dreyman. When the clerk asks if he wants it gift wrapped, Wiesler declines saying, “It’s for me.” I’ll leave it for you to discover the simple beauty of that final line.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


There is great tension during a scene late in “Offside,” an Iranian film directed by the great Jafar Panahi, when the Iranian soccer team commits an offside penalty. Will this cost them the close game? Will it spoil their hopes of going to the World Cup?

The “Offside” of the title is also used metaphorically. In soccer, an offside penalty occurs when offensive players race past the opposing defense in an attempt to receive a wide open pass and score a goal. You might say the offense gets too uppity. In Iran, women are forbidden to attend men’s sporting events. “Offside” focuses on a number of “uppity” female soccer fans who attempt to sneak their way into a soccer game between Iran and Bahrain, and get caught. The film centers on how they’re penalized for this act.

“Offside” is a very accessible film. It’s a great place to start for anyone unfamiliar with Iranian cinema and should cultivate an appetite for seeing more when Cinema 100 brings it to town next Thursday. I’ve watched several dozen films from Iran and consider the nation’s cinema one of the most vital and beautiful in the world. Iranian cinema is also easily digested by Western audiences due to its close – but not dead-on – affinities with Hollywood genres.

“Children of Heaven,” another personal favorite from Iran, tells a delicate story of two children and a pair of shoes that is connected to the Hollywood sports film during its climax. “Offside” also benefits from its resemblance to Hollywood. I’m thinking of films where a group of character types are trapped together and forced to come to terms. “12 Angry Men” and “The Big Chill” are examples.

Above all though, “The Breakfast Club” comes to mind. Both films focus on a group of young people stereotypes held in detention. Both give these characters – and the audience – an opportunity to see beyond the stereotypes. Both films end with a celebratory sense of elation when the characters are released. In “Offside” though, this is all handled with more restraint. No “brat pack” theatrics, just a fine ensemble of non-actors and a lot of nuanced improvisation.

“Offside” tells a simple story in three parts. The first follows one young woman’s attempt to gain entrance to the big game. Shot guerilla fashion amidst the pregame chaos, this sequence is stunningly suspenseful (the game depicted is real and is opportunistically used by Panahi in documentary-like fashion). This section is also casually funny. Everywhere the handheld camera turns, we catch glimpses of other women trying to gain access to the stadium by unconvincingly dressing as men.

When our young woman is captured, she is tossed into a make-shift jail along with other similar young women. The focus here is on frustrated discussion between the young women and their jailors. The male guards are especially frustrated because they too are being prevented from seeing the game. This section features a very clever digression when one of the women needs to use the men’s room – there are no women’s rooms, obviously. She is forced to wear a poster depicting a soccer star over her face to disguise her identity and is asked to close her eyes while inside the men’s room because there may be graffiti inappropriate for a woman’s eyes.

The final section has the women being transported to jail aboard a bus while listening to the final minutes of the game on a radio with a humorously uncooperative antenna. This leads to fireworks and that elated release, a scene of being set free even more satisfying than at the conclusion of “The Breakfast Club.”

“Offside” draws parallels placing it in a universal context. The male-only access to everything from buses to sporting events to restrooms is reminiscent of Black History in America. There is even a story about a women-only soccer team with the male coach forced to lead the team by cell phone from the stadium parking lot. In a subtle touch, this connection is made clear by Panahi. The most politically motivated of the young women wears a baseball cap bearing the number 1862; the year Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


The past week has played like a paid advertisement for the value of film societies like Cinema 100. I had not yet seen “Hud” when we selected it as a classic for the series and was excited to be able to finally see it – and on the big screen. Planning to write this review, I queued it up through Netflix and sat back to await its arrival in my mailbox. Sadly, Netflix didn’t send it to me (which means few copies in stock, none currently in Minneapolis).

I thought: “No problem. It’s an Oscar winner starring Paul Newman. I’ll just go down the street and rent it.” Well, no dice. They hadn’t heard of it. “How can this be?” I thought. It is based on a novel by Larry McMurtry of “Lonesome Dove” fame. Everybody loves the guy’s work. I started phoning video stores and was asked over and over by befuddled clerks to spell the title. “H-U-D” I’d patiently say. Finally, the clerk at Blockbuster said, “Yep, we have it.” I quipped that she probably wouldn’t need to hold it for me. She said with a laugh, “Probably not.”

Yes, Bismarck/Mandan is in for a rare treat – even more so than I thought a week ago – when Cinema 100 brings “Hud” to town. Ravishingly shot in Oscar winning black and white, “Hud” is a feast for the eyes sure to fill an expansive Grand Theatre screen.

Before we first meet Hud Bannon, played by Paul Newman, we learn that he drives a pink Cadillac and has a propensity for leaving bar owners sweeping up broken glass in his wake. We first meet him having a reckless affair with a married woman followed by his crafty escape from said woman’s home-returning husband and a fast-driving getaway in that pink Cadillac.

This is a quick, efficient, and dazzling introduction to Newman’s character, essentially a man with his own personal moral compass – or lack of one if you prefer. To his father Homer, played memorably by Melvyn Douglas, Hud says, “I always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner.” It stands as Hud’s motto, much to Homer’s distaste and dismay.

Homer is the old guard, a cattle rancher filled with integrity from boots to cowboy hat. When faced with the possibility of losing his herd and his very livelihood to foot and mouth disease, he is sadly resigned, Job-like, to await fate. Hud instead paces before him and devises of plan for unloading the still seemingly healthy cattle quickly, letting some other poor soul take the fall. He says, “Let’s dip our bread in the gravy while it’s still hot.”

This father and son ethical divide is what propels “Hud” through it dramas and toward its desolate conclusions – including a dented pink Cadillac. What I most enjoyed though is how it stylistically plays with the idea of old and new by mixing classic Hollywood with the method acting style of Newman, anticipating such near future films as “Bonnie & Clyde” with Warren Beatty.

Classic Hollywood style is exemplified by controlled studio conventions. Method acting is all posturing and spontaneity. The entrance of method acting into Hollywood was an advance of liberalism toward the long-standing conservatism that had pervaded the industry. “Bonnie & Clyde” was a culmination. “Hud” was a stepping stone.

An example is the use of rear-projection shots in driving scenes. They were staples of Hollywood and already cliché by the time “Hud” was filmed, even laughable. Cars would twist and turn down winding roads with the driver hardly moving the steering wheel. “Hud” takes knowing advantage of its milieu of endlessly straight roads to turn these rear-projection shots into the perfect setting for Newman’s posturing. He can lounge about behind the wheel in as many cool poses as he can conjure and never once have to worry about turning the wheel more than a nudge.

“Hud” has the old and the new still finding at least a stylistic a way to get along in 1963. By 1967 and “Bonnie & Clyde,” the new had completely taken over.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

There's Nothing Like a Theater

There is a very humorous video clip, posted recently on YouTube. It features director David Lynch ranting about the ills of watching movies on an iPhone. He comes completely unglued actually and curses and everything. The point he is making is anyone who watches a movie in a subpar format is delusional if he thinks he’s actually seeing the movie.

We have an unprecedented number of non-theatrical movie watching options nowadays. People will download movies (illegally) or convert them from DVDs (legally) and watch them on iPods and Zunes. People will stream movies to their computers and watch them in low resolution in tiny little windows. And, most often, people buy or rent them on DVD to view on their televisions. At the very best, that television will be really big and surrounded by a great set of six speakers.

Now, I doubt I need to convince anyone that watching movies on an iPod or streamed to a computer cheapens the movie viewing experience. In a medium so heavily weighted toward visual details lurking in every part of the frame, I can’t imagine a serious defense being waged in favor of squinting simply to determine which character is speaking. I can though imagine reasonable reasoning favoring a high quality home theater experience over a movie theater. I’ve even done it myself at times.

Going out to movies isn’t perfect. Tickets are expensive. Concessions are expensive. Babysitting is expensive. A night out at the movies can easily run over $40, and that’s without treating your date to a nice dinner. A DVD – or often two – can cost less, especially at Target. In fact, one may even have enough money left over for about a gallon of pop and a box of microwave popping corn. Toss the kids in bed, sit back on the sofa, and hit play. You can even talk all you want without dirty looks – or not have to fire dirty looks across the room if silence is your preference. Heck, you can even hit pause if you need to run to the bathroom or, as I’ve had to do many times, help your teenager with math homework.

Does that sound heavenly? It certainly has its good points. But stop to think about how it is cheapening the movie watching experience.

Most obviously, no matter how much money you pour into your TV, it isn’t going to approach the size of even a small theater screen – and no, I’m not forgetting about home video projectors. And it is amazing what happens when you view a film – you think you know well – for the first time in a theater. Details unnoticeable from across the room on a 35 inch screen suddenly stand out five feet tall. I “saw” Apocalypse Now countless times before attending a Cinema 100 screening and had never noticed the very important words “Death from Above” scrawled across the front of a helicopter. I never noticed the book titles “World Targets in Megadeaths” from Dr Strangelove or “Introducing Sociology” from Eyes Wide Shut until seeing them boldly projected on a huge screen.

Movies are a communal experience, or least they should be. I’ve never found Night of the Living Dead nearly as terrifying as I did while watching it at midnight with hundreds of other college students. Star Wars will never be as thrilling as it was when I stood in line around the block as a kid and felt the electricity in the air as over 1000 other “kids” young and old cheered the death of the death star. And I’ve never laughed half as hard at Young Frankenstein or Annie Hall as I did last year during crowded Cinema 100 screenings. Laughter has a funny way of building from one person to the next up and down the aisles of a theater.

Movies are meant to be watched start to finish, without stopping. They aren’t books. David Lynch (he’s getting pretty grumpy these days) refuses to allow chapter stops on the DVDs for his films to discourage mistreating them as books. He’s also cited the cheapening (that word again) effect of our lazy stop and start viewing habits. People will often (and I’m also to blame) start a movie one day, continue it a day or so later, and finish it when they get the chance. They may even jump back and re-watch a chapter or two – or even start over completely – because they’ve forgotten what was going on. We just have so many distractions at home. Watching a movie in a theater forces you to concentrate – if you miss something, there’s no going back – and forget about everything else. (People often talk about their love of movies as a form of escape. This is only really possible – I propose – if one first escapes from their house and goes to a theater.)

And, if you really want to get technical, chew on these facts for a moment:
DVDs never really get the colors of a movie quite right – or even close in some cases. Yasujiro Ozu’s late color films Good Morning and Floating Weeds look fine on DVD until one compares them side-by-side with the projected image from film.

Or did you know that films run at 24 frames per second while video runs at 30 frames per second here in the United States? Obviously, some form of trickery (there are a few options) has been imposed on the film, changing it in a subtle but meaningful way, making it run at a different speed.

Or did you know that, half the time one sits in a movie theater, the screen is completely dark? Two pulses of light are shown through a frame and then the screen is dark as the next frame is moved into position by the projector. This causes a flickering effect (thus the slang term “flicks”) that is cancelled out by persistence of vision. (Its subliminal effect is still felt though.) Video doesn’t flicker. It is smooth with your TV screen always emitting light. Again, the difference is subtle but meaningful.

For these reasons, filmmaker Stan Brakhage refused to allow his films to be made available on DVD until near the end of his life and only then accompanied by a disclaimer that they are merely approximations of the films. To see the films as they really are, he advised to try to find a film society screening. (Ahem, maybe Cinema 100 should show a few Brakhage films. I know I'd be there.)


There are times when the critic in me finds himself totally disarmed. Some movies accumulate such a mountain of little pleasures that they dare me to burrow in and look for flaws or to even attempt analysis. I’ll find myself sitting in the theater with a smile from start to finish and overwhelmed by the feeling that (almost) everything is perfect. Juno is one of those movies.

Juno opens with a teenage girl (the title character played appealingly by Ellen Page) discovering that she is pregnant – in a drugstore scene alone worth the price of admission. It then follows her through all the decisions and indecisions she must make while dealing with a situation beyond her maturity level.

(This is my one stab at analysis. The theme of the movie is maturity – Juno states this in one of many delicious throwaway lines sprinkled throughout the script. Every major character is drawn as being to some degree mature enough or not mature enough to be dealing with the issues at hand. Juno, the character, of course discovers she is more mature than she thought and the movie makes the point that age and maturity don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.)

Another scene worth the price of admission is the inevitable “pregnant girl breaking the news to her parents” scene. In Juno though, this scene is filled with mixed feelings. You can watch every character – Juno, her moral support lending best friend, her dad, her stepmom – go through all the phases of “this isn’t happening” and “I’m not ready for this” and “I can deal with this.” By scene’s end, you just know that these people will work it out – and that Juno’s boyfriend should start protecting his private parts.

Like last year’s Knocked Up, Juno goes through “abortion is an option” motions before casually and humorously abandoning the idea. Juno then settles on adoption as a solution and this leads to her getting to know the prospective adoptive parents. While the prospective mother comes across as underdeveloped and inscrutable (a slight flaw), the prospective father is a fascinating character and his relationship with Juno is key. He is an overgrown boy still playing with his toys. At first, Juno connects with him as a peer, but then has a turning point when she sees reflecting back from him a level of maturity she has already left well behind.

Paulie Bleeker, Juno’s boyfriend and the father of her baby, is a beautiful creation brought to life by Micheal Cera. At first, he is a gawky Napoleon Dynamite clone and the butt of many jokes. When confronted with the name of the father, Juno’s dad says, “I didn’t think he had it in him.” But, over time he grows in dimension before our very eyes and ends up a mentor to Juno teaching her lessons about what it means to grow up and what it means to be in love.

Maybe Juno’s complex and open-minded attitude toward maturity did the trick: my wife and I drove home smiling and my teenage daughter and her friends have changed the artwork and music on their MySpace sites to keep their Juno memories alive. Often, movies that deal with teenager/parent relationships are condescending toward one or the other. They are either centered on the teens and the parents are neglectful, self-motivated, or absent; or they are centered on the parents and the teens are trouble with a capital “T” and need to grow up. Juno treats all of its characters with equal respect. They are all just essentially good people struggling to grow up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 Winter/Spring Series

The new series is now complete. It is:

1/31 – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (USA, 2007, 79 min, PG-13)
2/7 – Hud (USA, 1963, 112 min, Unrated)
2/14 – Offside (Iran, 2006, 93 min, PG)
2/21 – Paprika (Japan, 2006, 90 min, R)
3/6 – The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006, 137 min, R)
3/13 – The Red Balloon (France, 1956, 34 min, Unrated)/White Mane (France, 1953, 47 min, Unrated) (a family-friendly double feature)
3/20 – Water (India, 2005, 117 min, PG-13)
4/3 – My Kid Could Paint That (USA, 2007, 82 min, PG-13)
4/10 – Secret Film Surprise
4/17 – To Kill a Mockingbird (USA, 1962, 129 min, Unrated)
4/24 – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Romania, 2007, 113 min, R)

It is a quite diverse list that should have a much to offer for everyone – even a classic pair for kids.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Are Documentaries Real?

I recently came to a realization while watching Louis Malle’s mesmerizing series Phantom India: My favorite type of movie is the documentary. They are simply more fascinating in terms of editing and in terms of the relationship between actor, director, and spectator. They make for the most fascinating commentary on how the movies construct reality. In short, they make for the most fascinating cinema.

I once wrote an essay for the publication The Open Forum in which I proclaimed that “all films are documentaries.” It was motivated by playwright David Mamet’s declaration “all directors should strive to be documentary filmmakers.” By that he meant that directors work too hard trying to get actors and camera to express things beyond their reach. I’ve often read in a screenplay things like: “Filled with anticipation, [character name here] enters the room. He takes his seat at the head of the table, alert to whatever fate may throw his way next.”

Now, Mamet’s point is that one simply cannot film these things, at least not easily. How does an actor act out anticipation and alertness? What documentary filmmakers do on a daily basis is shoot shots of this and that, a shot of a couple kissing in a park, a shot of birds flying. He then finds a way to stitch them together in the editing to give them meaning. Mamet offers the example of taking a shot of a foot stepping on a twig and cutting it to a shot of a deer suddenly lifting its head to create the idea of alertness. Neither shot carried the meaning of alertness. Neither shot carried much meaning at all. But combined, they create meaning. In fiction films, Mamet argues, actors shouldn’t be required to create any more meaning than that foot stepping on a twig or deer lifting its head. Let the editing do the work.

This notion of letting the editing create meaning is – as Mamet points out – almost as old as the cinema. It all started in Russia with the pioneering silent filmmakers Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov is famous for having conducted an experiment where he filmed neutral, expressionless shots of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin. He then edited them in an alternating fashion with shots of a steaming bowl of soup, a pretty girl, and a coffin. Showing it to an audience, he was pleased and amazed to hear their raves over the actor’s versatility in expressing feelings of hunger, desire, and grief.

Eisenstein expanded this experiment into a complete theory of film editing, his theory of dialectical montage. Up to that point, Hollywood filmmaking had emphasized the easy flow from one shot to the next as the audience is carried through the events of a story. Eisenstein was interested in putting the shots at war with each other, making them crash into each other. And out of these collisions would spring to life new meaning. In his most famous film, The Battleship Potemkin, he (to offer a simple example) cut together three successive shots of lion statues – sleeping, head raised, sitting up – to express the awakening of anger and rebellion.

We get an example of this – a conscious commentary – in Chris Marker’s remarkable documentary essay Sans Soleil. He cuts from a Japanese cartoon shot of a gun being fired to a giraffe stumbling in Africa. Now, it is obvious that the bullet from that gun did not strike that animal and yet the connection enters our imagination all the same. It is no different really from the more devious temporal rearrangements by Michael Moore in Roger & Me to create a make believe timeline to better hang Roger Smith. Or rather, it is no different except that the trickery behind Moore’s creative editing is not obvious.

Have you ever pointed a camera at a friend or family member? I am certain that they immediately stopped behaving naturally. They probably either ran away, hands over face, or began posing like some crazed cover model. In a fictional movie – Raging Bull; Dude, Where’s My Car? – the actors aren’t being themselves (at least we hope not). They are acting.

In Phantom India, Malle makes the point that his documentary subjects are doing the very same. He films them going about their daily activities after giving them one simple instruction: “Don’t look into the camera.” (As an aside, there is an entire sequence in Sans Soleil in which Marker asks: “Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” In Phantom India, Malle collected so many shots of people staring at the camera that he turned it into a leitmotif.) What Malle got was a lot of people doing what they do as if trying to do it the way a movie star would do it. It’s just a variation on how interview subjects will often wear their best dress and special occasion makeup, or how one madly cleans up the house before guests arrive. They are all performances.

Making the connection between acting and the people in documentaries even more clear is the way documentary subjects are cast. In Hoop Dreams, many more characters were initially filmed than the two young basketball hopefuls we end up following. Two criteria are generally employed while selecting subjects. Does the person fit one of the archetypes required to create a well-rounded story? (Is he a hero, villain, mentor, etc.?) And is he interesting and extroverted? The kids featured in Jesus Camp attained their star status because they are natural performers. Point a camera at them and they immediately turn on like Eveready Bunnies. They wouldn’t be very useful if they covered their faces and fled.

“Everything one sees and hears in a documentary is true.” To fully appreciate documentary film, one must begin by realizing the utter falsity – and perversely – the utter truthfulness of that statement.

In his documentary Letter from Siberia, Chris Marker conducted an experiment. Footage of streets, a bus, and workers repairing a road is repeated unchanged three times. Each is accompanied by a different voiceover narration. The first gives an impression of happy workers and modernization. The second mentions slaves and primitive labor. The third gives simply a direct description of what we see. Which is the truth? The similarity to Kuleshov’s experiment is clear. Uninflected images are charged with meaning by being juxtaposed with narration.

Add to that effect the documentary filmmaker’s process of selection and you get a complete picture of the documentary’s complex relationship with truth. When we watch the documentary Gimme Shelter and see the darkness and violence and the hubris displayed by the Rolling Stones and their lawyers, it is easy to get the impression that nothing else happened. But a two stage process has been guided by the Mayles Brothers desire to make a film about darkness and violence and hubris. They directed their cameramen to seek out and point their cameras at certain people and activities. They chose to include in the final edit only shots that contributed to their agenda. While it may have been a challenge – I don’t know, I wasn’t there – a filmmaker with a different agenda could’ve made Altamont look like a happy party full of frolicking hippies. Which is true? Both and neither are true. Both are true because every image and sound used really happened. Pictures and sounds don’t lie, or do they? But neither gives the whole picture, the whole truth.

In Phantom India, Malle gives us a very full and well-rounded portrait of India. It is a travelogue of sorts that takes us to all parts of the country and introduces us to a great many widely varied people. What we end up with though is not the truth about India in 1962, but rather how a French, radical intellectual sees and interprets the India he saw. It is ultimately a gentle call for the not so gentle need for revolution in a country stifled by a caste system combined with Malle’s dismay at the seeming impossibility of such revolutionary change. Religious belief has people perfectly content in their lots in life no matter how high or low. Is Malle’s India the truth?

In the end, I always arrive at the end of a good documentary with my head filled with ideas, ideas about the nature of directing and acting and editing, ideas about the cinema itself. Most fictional movies leave me with thoughts like “that acting sure was good” and “those sets sure were dazzling” and “I wonder what will get nominated for an Oscar.” I think many a documentary should sweep every category at the Academy Awards. After all, what is more impressive than a documentary editor stitching together thousands of unrelated images and sounds to tell a story?