Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Thursday, October 4 - A Separation (Iran, 2011)

Thursday, October 11 - The Searchers (USA, 1956)

Thursday, October 18 - A Better Life (USA, 2011)

Thursday, October 25 - Undefeated (USA, 2011, documentary)

Thursday, November 1 -The Perfect Game (USA, 2009)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Sandy and Todd are hanging out around the office coffee pot.
Sandy: “I finally got around to Taxi Driver last night and I don’t know what I thought. When Betsy follows Travis into that porno theater, the movie lost me.”
Todd (nodding his head): “Yes. That scene always gets to me too. Why didn’t she just dump him at the ticket window? I love the dirt and grime in that movie though and it has two of my favorite scenes.”
Sandy: “Ooh, I bet you’re gonna say, ‘You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?’”
Todd: “Yep. And the other is when Travis says ‘All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, I take’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
Sandy (eyes popping): “You’re weird. You actually memorized that?”
Todd: “Sure. It’s one of the most quotable movies ever. I slip bits into conversation every day. I don’t recommend telling the boss he needs to get organ-a-zized though.”
Sandy: “Not pretty?”
Todd (staring at his shoes): “No.”
Todd (after a long pause): “I don’t think it’s Scorsese’s best movie of the ‘70s though. I’m like a total fanboy of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Sandy: “I’ve never seen it. Is it really that good? Nobody ever talks about it.”
Todd: “Good? It’s just about perfect. And it has so many things in common with Taxi Driver. Harvey Keitel plays a great psycho, Jodie Foster plays a streetwise kid, Kris Kristofferson is the love interest, and the taxi station guy has a funny bit as a bar owner. He keeps saying to Alice, ‘I don’t even have a piano in here’ and it’s hilarious.”
Sandy: “Why is that funny?”
Todd: “You gotta see it I guess. But, trust me. It’s hysterical.”
Sandy rolls her eyes.
Todd: “Critic Robin Wood was too hard on the movie. He paired it with An Unmarried Woman – which is pretty crappy – as an example of how women’s liberation doesn’t really happen in Hollywood movies because both women end up shacked up with burly, bearded men who take care of them.
“What he doesn’t mention is that Alice was far more torn apart over leaving her best friend – a woman – than leaving her husband. The classic romantic challenge of the story isn’t between Alice and David (played by Kristofferson), but between Alice and Flo. David is just as potentially violent as all the other men in Alice’s life and she doesn’t make up with him until he promises things will be different. She decides not to go to Monterey which symbolizes marriage as she’s always known it (the movie opens with a scene in Monterey that evokes The Wizard of Oz) and we never get a neat, final image of Alice and David in each other’s arms or some such crap.
“No, Alice doesn’t live here – with ‘here’ meaning traditional marriage – anymore. I see her in some sort of mutually supportive relationship with both David and Flo after the movie ends.”
Sandy (lost in thought): “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind shacking up with a burly, bearded Kris Kristofferson.”
The boss pokes his head into the break room and drums his fingers against the side of the fridge.
They fill their coffee mugs and head back to their desks, until their next break.

Friday, April 6, 2012


My wife often accuses me of being a pessimist. I prefer to think I just have something of a melancholic nature.
I’m not a popular picker of movies in my house. A typical exchange on a Saturday night goes like this.
“Let’s watch a movie together.”
“What movie?”
“How about The Last Picture Show?”
“Is it funny or all dreary and depressing?”
“Ummm, never mind.”
My first two girlfriends, many years ago, bore a striking resemblance to the girl in the painting The Wistful Look by James Carroll Beckwith. The first kept asking why I wanted to be with someone so morose. The other has since inspired many a dreary and depressing short story.
My fiction has had a definite preoccupation with suicides (I’ve known two people who did so and one who tried, twice). And murder and zombies have also found their way into my sad little tales.
By the way, I’m telling you this, not to make you listen as I lie upon a couch, but to tell you, in a roundabout way, why I felt a strong connection to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Von Trier being a most melancholy man.
After her husband is paralyzed and attempts suicide, Bess is ordered by him to satisfy her sexual needs with other men, with tragic results. As she gradually goes blind, Selma shoots a man who is trying to steal from her and is tried and executed. Grace is persecuted by everyone in a town except a dog named Moses. These aren’t stories from the world’s happiest guy.
Von Trier’s latest stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a young woman who suffers from melancholia. She can be seemingly happy one moment and so depressed the next that she can hardly move. Most of the first half of the movie shows us her wedding reception. She has married a sweet guy, but she spends the evening refusing his wedding night advances, having sex on a golf course with a co-worker before spurning him, and telling her boss what she really thinks of him. Basically, she rejects her life.
She can’t cope with the everyday. It reminded me of how despairing I become if my wife tells me she has been feeling tired lately. What would I do without her I wonder? It reminded me of the despair I feel every time I pay bills.
The second half of the movie deals with its huge element. In a state of depression, Justine is holed up on an estate with her sister Claire, brother-in-law John, and their young son. They all watch helplessly as a giant rogue planet named Melancholia tracks Earth on a collision course.
Von Trier was inspired by the insight that melancholics can be surprisingly tranquil in the face of catastrophe. Justine watches the planet approach with calm detachment. It’s Claire who freaks out and John who downs a bottle of sleeping pills.
I often think about how short human history is in the scheme of the universe and how quickly it could all be over. The Sun does something unexpected and suddenly it is as if The Holy Bible, Shakespeare, and Stephenie Meyer had never happened. I don’t run around stocking a shelter full of supplies and buying rifles though. I just sit back and enjoy the possibility of Stephenie Meyer never happening.
As Melancholia nears Earth, birds fall from the sky and we and Justine observe them abstractly in slow motion. These images feel un-real in the way I remember images of people falling from the Towers on 9/11 feeling. I’m glad they felt that way. They would’ve been overwhelming otherwise.

2012 Winter/Spring Series

The 2012 Winter/Spring Cinema 100 series opens in two most eventful ways.

On Thursday, January 12, at 7:00 PM, we will host the world premiere of the locally produced documentary, tentatively titled "Sh..." It relates the story, so far, of The Group That Opened The Box. I've seen it and loved it. We will be selling series tickets in the Sidney J. Lee Auditorium (BSC campus) lobby before and after the screening. There will also be much opportunity for discussion.

The series then continues at the Grand Theaters with the ageless classic "Harold and Maude." This film has meant something different to me each decade of my life as my identification has gradually shifted from Harold to Maude.

All screenings on Thursdays at 3:00 and 5:30 at the Grand Theaters are:

January 19 - Harold and Maude, USA 1971
January 26 - The Interruptors, USA 2011
February 2 - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Thailand 2010*
February 9 - The Guard, Ireland 2011
February 16 - Meek’s Cutoff, USA 2010
February 23 - Fish Tank, UK 2009
March 1 - Tabloid, USA 2011
March 8 - Beginners, USA 2010
March 22 - Another Year, UK 2010
March 29 - The Tree of Life, USA 2011*
April 12 - Touching the Void, USA 2003
April 19 - The Illusionist, UK/France 2010

* - Designates the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

My daughter came home a month ago and gave me that amazed look of hers. “Why didn’t you tell me Miyazaki had a movie coming out?” She’d seen the poster for The Secret World of Arrietty displayed in the lobby of the Grand Theater. She was so excited she almost sent the stack of Miyazaki DVDs that live on our end table tumbling.

She had me. Hayao Miyazaki snuck this one in on me, the household movie know-it-all. My excuse, it wasn’t officially directed by the master. His protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi did the honors. But, it has Miyazaki’s fingerprints all over it. From the very first image of too blue sky and white, billowy clouds; I knew I was in good hands.

As a young man passes through a tunnel of trees to arrive at an old house born as if from fairytales, I settled back into my seat with a sigh. Memories of My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo – my three favorite Miyazaki movies – danced through my thoughts.

My daughter and I talked about the movie afterwards:

Me: I knew I was going to love that movie from the very first shot. Miyazaki has such a passion for nature. I’ve never seen an animated movie so filled from corner to corner of the frame with life, trees and plants and flowers.

Her: I just love all the moments when he holds on images of nature and how that nature always seems to be opening up before us. There’s something so delightfully, I dunno, random about his view of nature.

Me: He is probably the cinema’s most passionate environmental activist. He should be a spokesperson for Greenpeace or something. Just think about the great spirit of the river in Spirited Away, nauseated to overflowing with the river’s pollution. And, of course, saving the environment is everything in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Her: And nobody does sunsets better. I forget I’m watching an animated movie sometimes because nobody else makes them the way he does.

Me: This movie seemed a first in a way. He has always loved to include magic in his movies. Parents who make pigs of themselves and then literally turn into pigs, a little fish that turns into a little girl so she can befriend a little boy, and a young witch flying around on a broomstick in Kiki’s Delivery Service are all Miyazaki favorites. But, here, he makes tiny people living beneath the floor of a house seem completely natural.

Her: I agree, totally. He is so good at making all of his characters, no matter how fantastic, seem real. It’s like mom reading the Pern stories and wanting to have her own pet dragon. This movie made me want to have my own dollhouse filled with little people. Remember how I wanted my own pet dust creatures after watching Totoro? That’s what his stories and his imagination do for me. And the stories are so touching they make me cry.

I highly recommend that parents share Arrietty with their kids. A mother sat in front of us with her two small children, so small they were dwarfed by their boxes of popcorn. And those kids were totally enraptured. They had chattered nonstop before the lights went down. But once the tale of tiny borrowers journeying through an enormous kitchen to steal a sugar cube got underway, they sat perfectly still, not another peep.

Their mom looked pleased. She sat back, laughed, and had a great time as well. Miyazaki is very healthy food for young kids of all ages.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

My wife watches bemused as I drive about town – or wander about a department store – with an elusive destination evading me, always giggling just around the next corner. She doesn’t even bother suggesting that I ask for directions. What’s the point? I’m a man. I should be able to find things on my own – or die trying.

The new and terrific western Meek’s Cutoff toys tantalizingly with this sexual conundrum. It’s as if God instilled in the sexes the wrong occupations. Women are in charge of the hearth and home while their men venture out, often to their doom. Reverse the roles and women would simply ask for directions, get the food, and be home for supper, returning to their men who have a roaring fire waiting. And who have had little opportunity for self-destruction other than, I suppose, burning down the house.

The story of the movie is simple enough. Three families, their covered wagons pulled by cattle creaking and shuddering over ruts in the rough prairie and sloshing through rivers and streams, are lost. Actually, as one of the men carves into a fallen tree, they are all capital letters LOST. Their burly leader, Meek, has led them on a shortcut, through a cutoff. He should have let his wife draw the maps in the dirt and stuck to building fires.

And that’s almost all there is for a plot. Three families moving from an abundance of water – the opening scenes have the wet stuff flowing and dripping and splashing everywhere – to gradual, inevitable collapse from thirst. Along the way, director Kelly Reichardt treats us to some of the most poetic images I’ve yet encountered in this most poetic of genres. My favorite is an elegant dissolve (where one image replaces another by slowly superimposing over the first). Wagons exit the frame to leave an expanse of wilderness with a river running through it. Then a man on horseback followed by wagons appears like a mirage travelling through the clouds.

Midway through the movie, first appearing and then disappearing, ghostlike to Emily (Michelle Williams) and then gradually taking concrete form is a lone, aged Native American man. He doesn’t speak English, but he speaks a universal language that Emily intuitively understands. He’s a guide, their map just waiting to be opened. Meek just sees him as a threat, someone to shoot.

Emily, the movie, and Reichardt think of women and men using two simple equations: women are at home with chaos, men with destruction. Women realize that the world is beyond their control and humbly seek help toward understanding. Men draw rifles from their saddlebags and blow their problems away.

Emily, often photographed peering out through the folds of her bonnet, wants to take this strange, potential savior into their fold, feed him, and follow him, trusting blindly that he’ll lead them to water. Meek is introduced emerging from a tent as a wild animal of a man. Before turning toward us, all we see is a tangle and snarl of unkempt hair. He often takes just the men aside and plots their next move like a general orchestrating a skirmish.

Of course, Emily and Meek are at odds, leading to two confrontations. One is a tense standoff, him with a pistol, her with a rifle, their potential guide in the middle. The other another great poetic moment by a lone tree, proof that there is water to be found if he meekly surrenders to Emily’s better instincts.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box

“We want parents to understand. We don’t want to talk to them. It’s not like I don’t want to talk to them. I have this looming fear of disappointing them. When they were growing up, [what we are trying to do] was unheard of.”

Those words — spoken searchingly by a teenage girl in the new documentary “Teen Writes: The Group that Opened the Box” — occur during a relaxed dinner break. The girls in the group are wondering what their families think about their edgy project. They well capture the mixture of wisdom and honesty these girls are attempting to coax out into the open.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what’s this Group that Opened the Box anyway?

Clinical psychologist Kathy Blohm, Ph.D., faced challenges with getting her young patients, especially often angry teenage girls, to open up. She and writer Karen Van Fossan decided to try an experiment. Get a group of girls together and encourage them to write about their concerns. And, just as crucially, get them to further open up by performing their words on stage.

They began by placing assorted objects — a book of matches, a guitar pick, a wrapped condom, etc. — in a yellow box adorned with flowers. The girls would then open the box, select an item, and write a free-associative poem or bit of prose. No rules, just honest feelings. And, before they knew it, the girls’ creativity and openness was proving boundless. They were expressing concerns ranging from sexuality and desire to harassment, the environment, war, cutting, and eating disorders.

And beyond the founders’ wildest dreams, the girls really blossomed in performance. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of their live shows, once with my older daughter and once with both my teenage daughters. (They both loved the shows.) The girls find such a beautiful way of approaching touchy subjects with humor and a wink.

“Teen Writes” does a fine job telling this story. It’s a breezy and engaging 56 minutes. Local area teens Michaela, Rachel, Megan, Alexis, Caitlyn, Ray (Rachel), and Breeanna — a diverse, creative, and charismatic bunch — are introduced and we get a feel for each personality. My only criticism of the movie is that I wish it was longer. I could’ve spent hours with this cast.

The movie also, necessarily, includes the group’s most controversial episode. Accused by some of promoting homosexuality and of brainwashing, the group was told by a Fargo radio station that they could only join a program on woman’s issues if a hostile counter-voice shared their air time. This violated Blohm’s and Van Fossan’s core principle, always make the girls feel safe to express themselves. The radio appearance was cancelled.

One thing I don’t hear mentioned enough is the crucial role the girls’ parents have played. It’s their open-mindedness and trust in their daughters that has made this whole experiment possible. I’m grateful that these girls and these parents are talking and setting such an example. And seeing how much the girls have grown and accomplished fills me with optimism. Everything is possible if parents and teens open their boxes together.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Hugo is a joy from start to finish. It’s a colorful, delightful evocation of 1930s Paris as playground for two fanciful, imaginative kids – both orphans, one living by his own resources in a train station, the other living with her grandmother and grumpy, peculiar grandfather. It’s full of slapstick chases and funny moments involving dogs. Most kids of all ages should enjoy it.

Definitely see it. Grab the DVD right away and curl up with the whole family. It should be available shortly. The crowd was pretty sparse both times I saw it. But, this isn’t really the type of review I wish to write. I’d rather tell you why it so grabbed me and won’t let go.

I’ve long had a love affair with the work of Georges Méliès – the first wizard of the movies – and that grumpy and mysterious grandfather turns out to be one and the same. By way of the clever “children’s” book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, director Martin Scorsese – here eschewing his usual gangster mayhem and finding a gentler expression – has crafted Hugo as a loving vision of the legendary rise, fall, and redemption of the man who invented movies as a place where dreams come true.

The story of Méliès is all here, mildly fictionalized. Beginning his career as a magician, he one day stumbled into a sideshow screening of a train pulling into a station, causing the startled audience to scurry to safety. As if already seeing King Kong and Star Wars in his crystal ball, he immediately approached the creators of this new magic, the Brothers Lumière, and offered to buy one of their cameras. Offer spurned, and being the genius he was, he simply built one his own.

Within 17 years, the infinitely creative Méliès had made over 500 movies, even wowing crowds with the seemingly impossible feat of A Trip to the Moon. Then, sadly, people lost interest in his type of movies and he became a forgotten man, many of his movies melted down to be reformed into heels for women’s shoes (in real life it was heels for boots). He burned his sets and props in despair.

Hugo is more than mere history lesson though. Its fabric is woven out of images and ideas from the many works of Méliès. He built the first movie studio, a glass building allowing in sunlight, and staged his movies in depth, perhaps shooting through a fish tank toward a stage where actors frolicked in front of layers of backdrops. In Scorsese’s hands, this becomes the most dazzling use of 3D I’ve seen.

Méliès loved dreams and trains and used models to depict an elaborate train station crash in his movie The Impossible Voyage. In Hugo, these become the inspiration for a deliriously impossible dream sequence.

Méliès adored flowers and this infatuation assumes life in the character of a lovely train station florist. Méliès spent his post-moviemaking years running a toy stand. After his death, the same space became poetically re-occupied by a flower stand. Hugo’s combining of this love with this fortuitous bit of history is one of its loveliest touches.

Having once flirted with entering the priesthood, Scorsese has forever sought ways of exploring religious themes, his favorite being redemption. His pet project for decades has been the tireless championing of movie preservation. These two concerns come together in Hugo. After years of sadness, early movie historians began to discover lost prints and rekindled interest in Méliès’ movies.

He ended his life seeing his work treasured anew. His fans have only blossomed ever since.