Monthly Archives: April 2012

Now Playing: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods
dir. Drew Goddard, 2011, USA

Rating: 4.8

The bottom line: when it comes to self-reflexivity, Goddard is no Godard.

A few years ago, I saw The Pixies in concert during one of their reunion tours. It was clearly a cash grab for all of the band’s members, whose post-Pixies musical careers had stalled but who were nonetheless vocal about maintaining their integrity: they had no problem playing reunion shows but also had no intention of soiling their legacy by recording a new album together. The official t-shirts being sold at the concert were emblazoned with the words “The Pixies Sell Out Tour.” I remember seeing that and thinking, “Just because they act aware of it, doesn’t make it any less true.” I had a similar reaction to The Cabinet in the Woods, which is ostensibly a satire of cliched horror movies. Unfortunately, the self-awareness that the film’s makers (writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer Joss Whedon) bring to the project does nothing to disguise the fact that this is itself little more than yet another cliched horror movie.

Most reviews of The Cabin in the Woods have made it a point to be “spoiler free,” which is bizarre considering that the film’s master premise is more or less revealed in the opening scenes: five one-dimensional archetypal horror movie characters, clearly meant to represent a cross-section of mainstream society, travel to a cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway. They are: the jock, the stoner, the slut, the virgin, and the minority (the last of whom is disingenuously referred to as “the scholar” in the film’s dialogue but this multi-racial character should be recognized as the “token black guy” by any true horror movie aficionado). Upon arrival, they are killed off one by one by “the other,” who, in this specific instance, happens to be a band of redneck zombies. The only thing differentiating The Cabin in the Woods from other horror films with an identical plot is that the actions of these protagonists are continually being manipulated and recorded by another group of characters who are meant to represent both filmmakers (one character is even named “The Director” in the credits) as well as film audiences. The only real surprise is why any of this is happening, which I won’t spoil, although I would argue that in the end it doesn’t really matter.

The twist here, that the technicians and corporate types who are recording the events in the film are doing their damnedest to make sure the protagonists observe all of the “rules” of the typical horror movie (i.e., the members of the group split up instead of stick together, the virgin dies last, and blah, blah, blah), is less clever than the filmmakers think; Goddard and Whedon are operating on the mistaken belief that merely acknowledging horror conventions is the same thing as genuinely satirizing, critiquing or subverting them. Therefore, in between the kills, each character predictably does and says exactly what is expected of him or her and nothing more (e.g., the stoner talks about half-baked conspiracy theories, the slut and the jock have sex, etc). The truth is that every horror movie I’ve seen in recent years about a “cabin in the woods” has been more original than The Cabin in the Woods, including Dead Snow, Rabies and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. The last of these, in particular, delights precisely because the target of its satire isn’t so much contemporary horror (which has already been satirized to death anyway) but a far worthier target: the irrational fears and prejudices that non-southerners have about the rural south. Now that’s subversive.

The one aspect of The Cabin in the Woods that I think works unreservedly is the funny and shocking climactic scene where a cornucopia of monsters representing various horror subgenres are loosed upon the technicians and corporate types who are keeping them imprisoned in underground cells beneath the cabin in the woods. These monsters, including a ballerina with a face consisting entirely of circular rows of teeth, a werewolf, a witch, a giant cobra and a “merman,” are as imaginative and as lovingly detailed as what one would expect to find in a film by Guillermo del Toro. But even here a problem arises: I can’t help but feel the entire enterprise would have been so much more interesting if any one of these magnificent creatures had been responsible for killing off the heroes from the start – instead of those generic and forgettable redneck zombies.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Passion of Berenice (Hermosillo)
2. Chungking Express (Wong)
3. Chungking Express (Wong)
4. Ravenous (Bird)
5. Viridiana (Bunuel)
6. Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson)
7. Colorado Territory (Walsh)
8. The Bowery (Walsh)
9. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax)
10. Xica (Diegues)

My Top 200 Films of All Time

In the past week, this blog has reached the milestone of having been viewed 100,000 times. To celebrate, I am posting a list of my favorite films of all time, one that I have been working on for what feels like forever. A wise man once said that favorite movies were always the hardest to write about and, after compiling the list, I heartily concur. I worked mighty hard to write the capsule reviews of my ten favorite movies that you’ll find below, attempting to nail down exactly what qualities they possess that has made them so impactful to me from points of view both personal (as an “ordinary” movie lover) and professional (as a film studies instructor and blogger). Below the list of my ten favorites you will also find a list of 200 runners-up that has been divided into eight groups of 25 in descending order of preference.

This highly personal list, which is actually a list of my 210 favorite movies, has literally been a lifetime in the making. I hope you enjoy it.

The Top Ten:

10. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

In F.W. Murnau’s lyrical, late-silent masterpiece, a farm boy from Minnesota travels to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat crop. He unexpectedly returns home with a new bride, an event that threatens to fracture his relationship with his skeptical parents who regard his big city wife as a shameless gold digger. This begins as an unforgettable portrait of urban loneliness (Mary Duncan’s title character keeps a fake bird in a cage as a pet) before moving to the wheat fields of Minnesota for some of the most gorgeous pastoral imagery ever captured on celluloid. Murnau knew how to put emotion into camera movement, something that is very difficult to do, and that skill is more evident in City Girl than any of his other considerably estimable films.

9. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

8. Out 1 (Rivette/Schiffman, France, 1971)


Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s legendary 12-and-a-half-hour serial is Feuillade made modern, where the directors use an expansive running time to tell various mystery stories, most of them unresolved, which also serves as a psychic x-ray of the 1960s French counterculture and the apotheosis of the entire Nouvelle Vague. Rivette and Schiffman intercut between four different plots: two seemingly unrelated theater troupes rehearse different Aeschylus plays while two seemingly unrelated con artists (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) ply their trades in the cafes and streets of Paris. The con artists each receive information about “the 13,” a secret society with its origin in Balzac that may or may not currently exist. Their investigations lead them to interact with various members of the theater troupes as Rivette and Schiffman slowly bring their narrative threads together and reminds us why paranoid conspiracy theories not only exist but are paradoxically comforting: they make us feel that disparate, unconnected events may be related and therefore part of a meaningful design. An intellectually vigorous, terrifying, funny, challenging and life-altering work.

7. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

The Joyces (the incredible duo of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) are a married couple from England who travel to Naples to settle the estate of a recently deceased uncle. With the precision of a surgeon, director Roberto Rossellini shows how the romance has gone out of their marriage due to petty jealousies, mutual misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication. As the characters wander alone through Naples and nearby Pompeii, the viewer comes to realize that they do still love one another but are merely incapable of expressing it. Can a miracle save their relationship? This is the best movie ever made about marriage, a subtle, elegant, deeply spiritual film that uses the Italian landscape, both urban and rural, and the inexorable pull of ancient history to comment on the possibility of love in the modern world.

6. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is the performance of Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

5. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)

Robert Bresson’s swan song, as tight and compressed as a Ramones song, is a masterful update of Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Note. Bresson’s ingenious narrative follows a counterfeit bill, initially passed off in a shop as a schoolboy prank, which sets off a chain of events (an “avalanche of evil” in the director’s own indelible words) that ends with a young man murdering an entire family with an axe. This vital, rigorous movie, made when the director was 81 but seeming like the work of a much younger man, is the ultimate artistic statement about the potentially destructive power of money.

4. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

3. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

The greatest western ever made is also the greatest American movie ever made. Before filming began, John Ford described The Searchers as “a kind of psychological epic” and indeed this complex take on the settling of the West, with its head-on examination of racism, finds an appropriately tragic hero in the character of the mysterious Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most nuanced performance). Spurred on by an unrequited love for his deceased sister-in-law, the maniacal, Indian-hating Edwards will stop at nothing to recapture his nieces who have been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. “We’ll find ’em,” Ethan says in a line of dialogue worthy of Melville, “just as sure as the turning of the earth.” The dialectic between civilization and barbarism posited by Ford, with Ethan standing in a metaphorical doorway between them, would have an incalculable effect on subsequent generations of filmmakers.

2. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Louis Feuillade’s ridiculously entertaining 7-hour mystery serial features kidnappings, daring escapes, slapstick fistfights, secret messages coded in an ancient Hindu dialect, “forgetfulness potions,” various forms of mind control, a mountaintop cliffhanging climax, and many, many badass disguises. It also uses an international espionage plot to reflect on World War I and allegorize contemporary French fears about the insidious nature of Bolshevism; the hero is a French explorer and his chief rival is an evil German doctor named Marx. The hero’s maid turns out to be a villainess who is secretly in Marx’s employ and one of the key title cards is another character’s incredulous exclamation that “Marx is here!” The entire espionage genre, including Fritz Lang’s Mabuse cycle and the James Bond films, have their origins here but Feuillade’s masterpiece remains the best movie of its kind.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by future adult star Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.

First 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

1. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)
3. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)
4. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)
6. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)
7. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)
8. Contempt (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)
9. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
10. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
11. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)
12. Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923)
13. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
14. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)
15. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)
16. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
17. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)
18. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)
19. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)
20. Play Time (Tati, France, 1967)
21. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)
22. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)
23. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)
24. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)
25. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

Second 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

26. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)
27. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)
28. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)
29. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)
30. The Mother and the Whore (Eustache, France, 1974)
31. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)
32. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)
33. Les Vampires (Feuillade, France, 1915-1916)
34. Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014)
35. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)
36. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
37. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)
38. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)
39. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)
40. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
41. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)
42. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)
43. Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956)
44. Charulata (S. Ray, India, 1964)
45. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)
46. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)
47. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)
48. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)
49. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)
50. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Third 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

51. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)
52. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)
53. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
54. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)
55. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)
56. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)
57. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)
58. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, France, 1990)
59. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
60. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Italy/France, 2010)
61. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014)
62. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)
63. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)
64. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)
65. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)
66. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)
67. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)
68. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)
69. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
70. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)
71. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)
72. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)
73. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)
74. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)
75. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

Fourth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

76. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)
77. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)
78. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)
79. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)
80. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
81. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)
82. Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russia, 1944-1958)
83. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)
84. Isn’t Life Wonderful? (Griffith, USA/Germany, 1924)
85. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)
86. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)
87. Come and See (Klimov, Russia, 1985)
88. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
89. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)
90. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
91. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)
92. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)
93. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)
94. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1969)
95. Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA 1980)
96. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)
97. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)
98. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)
99. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)
100. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)

Fifth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

101. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)
102. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)
103. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
104. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
105. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)
106. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)
107. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)
108. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)
109. Pierrot le Fou (Godard, France, 1965)
110. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)
111. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
112. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)
113. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)
114. The Housemaid (Kim, S. Korea, 1960)
115. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)
116. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)
117. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)
118. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)
119. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)
120. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)
121. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Germany/Italy, 1948)
122. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)
123. Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal, 1966)
124. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)
125. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

Sixth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

126. Red Desert (Antonioni, Italy, 1964)
127. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959)
128. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)
129. Anxiety (De Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)
130. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France/Denmark, 1928)
131. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA/Ireland, 1952)
132. Weekend (Godard, France, 1967)
133. Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1958)
134. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954)
135. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)
136. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)
137. Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, USA, 1984)
138. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)
139. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)
140. Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958)
141. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1952)
142. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Japan, 1959)
143. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)
144. The Music Room (S. Ray, India, 1958)
145. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)
146. Blade Runner (Scott, USA, 1982)
147. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)
148. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)
149. The Emigrants/The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)
150. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

Seventh 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

151. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, France, 1967)
152. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)
153. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany/Denmark, 1932)
154. The Sun Shines Bright (Ford, USA, 1953)
155. Hail Mary (Godard, France, 1984)
156. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959)
157. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
158. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)
159. Blue Velvet (Lynch, USA, 1986)
160. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)
161. Early Summer (Ozu, Japan, 1951)
162. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)
163. In a Lonely Place (N. Ray, USA, 1950)
164. Stromboli (Rossellini, Italy, 1950)
165. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)
166. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)
167. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France, 1953)
168. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011)
169. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959)
170. Turkish Delight (Verhoeven, Holland, 1973)
171. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)
172. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, Poland, 1958)
173. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)
174. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)
175. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Eighth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

176. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)
177. The Piano (Campion, Australia/New Zealand, 1993)
178. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012)
179. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)
180. Daisies (Chytilova, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
181. The Magic Blade (Chor, Hong Kong, 1976)
182. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, UK, 1988)
183. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964)
184. The Assassin(Hou, Taiwan, 2015)
185. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
186. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013)
187. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)
188. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)
189. Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, Yugoslavia, 1988)
190. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)
191. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)
192. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)
193. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)
194. The Road Warrior (Miller, Australia, 1981)
195. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)
196. Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, USA, 1952)
197. Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)
198. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)
199. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer/Zinnemann, Germany, 1930)
200. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
2. Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz)
3. Days of Heaven (Malick)
4. Days of Heaven (Malick)
5. Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (Craig)
6. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Dos Santos)
7. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
8. Breathless (Godard)
9. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson)
10. The September Issue (Cutler)

Now Playing: This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film
dir. Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011, Iran

Rating: 9.5

The bottom line: a movie that dares to answer the question “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”

Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center is This Is Not a Film, a remarkable new documentary by and about Iranian director Jafar Panahi, one of contemporary cinema’s greatest and most socially conscious filmmakers. As is fairly well-known, this new “non-film” was made by Panahi while under house arrest following his conviction in December 2010 on vague charges of creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Prior to shooting, Panahi had been sentenced to six years in prison and received a further 20 year ban on filmmaking, giving interviews or leaving the country. Incredibly, This Is Not a Film, made clandestinely and in collaboration with Panahi’s friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside of a birthday cake and received its world premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival last May. Since then it has played around the world to great acclaim including in the U.S. where it was picked up for distribution by Palisades Tartan. As far as I can tell, Panahi is presently in a stage of legal limbo known in Iran as “the execution of the verdict,” meaning he is free but can be re-arrested and sent back to prison at a moment’s notice. My advice to anyone reading this who is contemplating seeing This Is Not a Film is to do so immediately. The acclaim it has generated has nothing to do with critical sympathy for Panahi’s legal plight, as one might cynically assume. The movie, while impossible to evaluate without also contemplating the circumstances of its making, is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

One fruitful way to begin analyzing This Is Not a Film is to start with the provocative title, which has at least three possible meanings:

1) On the most superficial level, This Is Not a Film is literally not a “film.” It was shot on a consumer-grade digital camera primarily manned by Mirtahmasb and an iPhone operated only by Panahi. The lo-fi YouTube-quality aesthetics are appropriate given that the movie is essentially an intimate one-man show featuring Panahi at home over the course of one long day.

2) More importantly, This Is Not a Film refuses to function like what most viewers think of when they think of a “film” (i.e., it is not an escapist entertainment nor an easily digested and forgotten commercial object). Instead, it is closer to being a cinematic essay, one that engages viewers in a dialogue and requires them to contemplate the very nature of both filmmaking and human rights in the 21st century. The content is deceptively mundane: Panahi watches clips from his own films on DVD, attempts to feed his daughter’s pet iguana, receives a food delivery and, unforgettably, accompanies a neighbor on an excursion to take out the trash. But context is everything: these activities are set against the backdrop of the “Fireworks Wednesday” celebration of the Persian New Year and they have been carefully edited so that they build to a final image of a conflagration that is overwhelming in its poetic power.

3) On the most profound level, by making a film that declares itself a non-film, Panahi has protested his sentence while also cleverly and subversively complying with the Iranian authorities’ ban on filmmaking. The closing titles identify This Is Not a Film as an “effort by” Mirtahmasb and Panahi with no indication of how exactly the filmmaking duties were split up between them. A good chunk of their 75 minute effort is devoted to Panahi acting out scenes from a script that he wrote prior to being arrested. Provocatively, they involve a girl being forbidden to attend university by her father, who locks her in her bedroom instead. (The irony of Panahi playing the role of a girl who is essentially under house arrest is almost impossibly rich.) By bringing this story to light, even without proper actors and sets, Panahi raises the tricky question of whether or not he has actually made that film after all. Or has he instead merely become the subject of a documentary being made by Mirtahmasb, which he has not been banned from doing according to the dictates of his sentence? Ultimately, Panahi is asking what it means to make a film. Although Mirtahmasb is in charge of the cinematography, at least initially, Panahi can’t resist telling him where to point his camera and, on at least two occasions, also saying “Cut.” (I guess once a director, always a director.) In the final scenes, when Panahi finally picks up Mirtahmasb’s camera himself and ventures outside of his apartment, it feels like a genuinely radical act of defiance.

This Is Not a Film is at least the third recent Iranian movie to receive a Chicago debut this year, following Asghar Farhadi’s much-lauded (and Oscar-winning) A Separation and Rafi Pitts’ magnificent, criminally under-seen anti-thriller The Hunter (which played for a week at Facets to little fanfare). This recent spate of activity proves that Iranian cinema is alive and well even if the relationship between Iranian filmmakers and their government is growing increasingly tense. In an interview, Pitts has aptly summarized contemporary Iranian cinema by saying, “Dealing with censorship has become our art, how to say something, with certain rules.” In This Is Not a Film, Panahi has gone a step further by taking his own incarceration and filmmaking ban and turning them into a daring work of performance art. Panahi’s latest may not be a “film” in any conventional sense, but it is certainly a masterpiece.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
2. This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb)
3. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
4. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
5. Union Station (Mate)
6. Breathless (Godard)
7. Breathless (Godard)
8. Black God, White Devil (Rocha)
9. Le Samourai (Melville)
10. A Man Escaped (Bresson)

Blu “Moon”

The exquisite fantasy films of French movie pioneer Georges Melies are currently experiencing a new and unprecedented wave of popularity due in large part to their place of prominence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. (In that film, Ben Kingsley gives a delightful supporting turn as the elderly Melies and Scorsese devotes a good chunk of the story to showing actual clips of the great director’s movies while also poignantly proselytizing about the importance of film preservation.) Fittingly, the enterprising U.S. label Flicker Alley, who specialize in distributing silent movies on home video, have just released a new Blu-ray (only their second ever such release) of Melies’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Their release bundles together two painstakingly restored versions of the movie (one in black and white and one in its original hand-tinted color) along with The Extraordinary Voyage, a terrific new feature-length documentary on Melies’ life and work by the French directors Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray should be considered an essential addition to the home library of any serious film lover.

George Melies was a magician who became a filmmaker after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe (a combination camera, printer and projector) on December 28, 1895. But unlike the Lumiere brothers, Melies was not interested in making “actualities” about the real world. He wanted to make fictional narrative films in which he could create his own worlds. So, like Thomas Edison, Melies built a studio where his movies could be shot. Melies’ studio, meticulously recreated in Hugo, was ingeniously constructed of glass walls, like a greenhouse, so that his sets could be lit by natural sunlight. The films that Melies made in this studio, the first such movie studio in Europe, established him as the first real master of mise-en-scene (the way a director controls all of the elements within the frame). This is not to say that the Lumiere brothers were not wonderful filmmakers in their own right (I actually prefer their work to that of Melies), only that Melies was the first director to rigorously control the set design, costume design, lighting, staging of the action and the performances of his actors. Melies was also a pioneer in stop-motion photography and other special effects, wherein he essentially integrated the sleight of hand he had employed as a magician with cinematography. The resulting movies, including A Trip to the Moon, are the most sophisticated narratives of their time, blowing the primitive fiction shorts of Edison and others out of the water.

Melies’ glass-walled studio:

A Trip to the Moon borrows elements from science fiction novels by Jules Verne (De la Terre à la Lune) and H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon) in telling the story of a group of French astronomers who make the first expedition to the moon. The film begins with a Scientific Congress debating whether or not to make the trip. Hilariously, one member who violently opposes the idea has papers and books thrown at his head by the chief astronomer who is played by Melies himself. Then we see the construction of the rocket ship, which is loaded into a giant canon by a chorus line of girls identically dressed in short shorts (remember: sex was used to sell movies 110 years ago too!) and fired directly at the moon. This leads to one of the most famous images of the early cinema and one that I am proud to have featured on a Christmas ornament in my home: the rocket ship piercing the man in the moon in the eye. Once on the moon, our intrepid explorers are captured by the extra-terrestrial moon-men known as the Selenites. These prototypical movie aliens are portrayed by members of an actrobatic troupe who delightfully tumble and somersault their way around the set. The Selenites take the captives to their king but the astronomers escape and, after a climactic battle, make their way back to the rocket ship. From there, the explorers return to earth where they receive a heroes’ welcome.

As anyone who has seen Hugo knows, A Trip to the Moon is a remarkably entertaining movie even, as the saying goes, by “today’s standards.” What makes the film so much fun are the many lovingly crafted details of its overall design. Georges Melies was fastidious in building his elaborate sets, all of which utilize scale models to create the illusion of deep focus. One rooftop “exterior” scene, for instance, features a brilliant forced-perspective backdrop where a cityscape in the distance is dotted with miniature chimneys that puff real smoke. The costumes and props are likewise a delight — from the medieval wizard-like look of the astronomers in the opening scene, all pointy hats and flowing robes, to the Selenites’ extraordinary appearance, which combines insect-like bodysuits with tribal-looking masks and spears. All of this makes Melies’ 14-minute fantasy an ideal silent film to introduce to children (and is also why the movie references in Hugo work as well as they do, instead of seeming like a mere commercial for Scorsese’s World Film Foundation, as some critics have claimed).

The restored, color version of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is breathtakingly beautiful. The original 1902 color-tinting actually enhances the movie by more clearly separating characters from their environment, increasing the illusion of depth and subtly directing viewers’ eyes to what Melies wants them to see within a given frame (the man in the moon getting hit by the rocket is the only close-up in the film). My only quibble with the Blu-ray is that each version of the film included in the set comes with a different soundtrack: the black and white version features a score by Robert Israel and the original narration written by Melies that was meant to be read aloud at screenings of the film, whereas the color version features a beautifully bizarre, euphoric new score by the French art-rock duo Air. Ideally, one should be able to choose either score for either version of the film. Needless to say, this is a minor quibble and I am ecstatic that Flicker Alley has put this package together. I watched it with passion.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Strawberry Blonde (Walsh)
2. Escape from L.A. (Carpenter)
3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone)
4. Macunaima (de Andrade)
5. Fort Apache (Ford)
6. 3-Iron (Kim)
7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini)
8. Trick or Treat (Smith)
9. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
10. Chronicle of a Boy Alone (Favio)

2012 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival Preview

In a city overflowing with niche film festivals, many of which disappear as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrive, the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival has established itself as a mainstay in just four short years. CIMM’s mission is to shine a spotlight on new international films, regardless of genre or length, or whether they are fiction or documentary, as long as they are “about music in a creative, compelling way.” What makes the festival both so unique and substantial however is the creative way it pairs movies with live musical performances. Where else in recent years have Chicagoans been able to see films about or featuring musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Watt + the Minutemen or Jon Langford, then see concerts by those very same artists for a single, low-priced admission? Adding to the fun is the fact that many of the screenings take place in non-traditional cinema-going venues such as the Wicker Park Arts Center, Schuba’s Tavern and The Hideout, where one can sip a tasty beverage while taking in the movies and music. Indeed, it is probably the least stuffy film festival experience the city has to offer. Among the intriguing talent descending on Chicago for the 2012 edition, which runs this weekend from Thursday through Sunday, are writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), original rappers The Sugar Hill Gang and Sundance “It” girl Lizzy Caplan. The full CIMM Fest line-up, plus info on venues and tickets, can be found here:

This year I am able to offer a preview of five of the films that will be playing the festival, all of which are Chicago premieres and which I am listing here in descending order of preference. Extra credit is available to any of my students who attend any CIMM screenings; please refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more details.

Punk’s Not Dead (Vladimir Blazevski, Macedonia, 2011)
Rating: 7.7

A legendary Macedonian punk band from Skopje reunites after 17 years to play an NGO-sponsored show in Debar, the mission of which is to promote “brotherhood and unity” in the Balkans. Problems arise when the Albanian punks in the crowd hate the musicians for being Macedonian, the Macedonian punks back home hate them for agreeing to play for the Albanians and the show’s promoter wants to saddle them with new members (including a gypsy horn player) to increase the band’s “multi-culti” appeal. This expert social satire takes an irresistible premise (the reunification of an aging punk band as an allegory for the former Yugoslavia) and mines it for comic gold. Credit belongs to writer/director Vladimir Blazevski, who is returning to feature filmmaking after a seventeen year absence himself and directs like a ravenous man tearing into what may be his last meal; he coaxes winning performances from an ensemble cast playing marginalized but likable outsider characters, including an unforgettable mascot-frog named Ferdinand (a strong candidate for non-human performance of the year), and finds a singularly rude beauty in the film’s ugly, rundown urban locales.

The Girls in the Band (Judy Chaikin, USA, 2011)
Rating: 7.0

This terrifically educational and entertaining movie does what all the best non-fiction films do: takes a fascinating but little-known subject and illuminates it from a variety of interesting perspectives. In a vivacious, swiftly-paced 86 minutes, director Judy Chaikin tells the epic, previously untold story of the history of professional female jazz instrumentalists, examining both the obstacles these women have faced in a male-dominated musical genre as well as why their contributions have tended to be left out of the official histories. This is jam packed with invaluable archival performance footage as well as interviews with the musicians themselves. Especially memorable to me were the sequences devoted to how female jazzers found themselves in high demand during the Second World War and how the International Sweethearts of Rhythm defied Jim Crow laws when they brought their integrated band to the South. This is proof positive that a “talking heads documentary” can be essential viewing when the heads doing the talking are worth the seeing and hearing.

Control Tower (Takahiro Miki, Japan, 2011)
Rating: 6.0

In a remote area of northern Japan, two lonely high school students meet and connect through a shared love of music. Before you know it, they’ve formed a band and have begun rehearsing for a local talent show, although this is a more delicate and poetic take on what one might expect from this familiar type of story. At its best, this first feature by music video specialist Takahiro Miki has a nice feel for wintry landscapes and the tender emotions of adolescence; at its worst it might remind you of an after school special. Interestingly, Control Tower was produced by Sony Music Japan as an attempt to dramatize an innocuous hit pop song. As far as such things go, it’s far superior to last year’s Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire debacle. Lightweight but sweet, this will probably appeal most to those who already have a vested interest in Japanese music and culture.

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (Ryan O’Nan, USA, 2011)
Rating: 5.0

A couple of down-on-their luck New York-area indie rockers embark on an ill-conceived cross-country tour in this uneven, moderately amusing satire from writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan. The film’s undisputed highlights are the musical performances of the title duo (O’Nan and co-star Michael Weston) – catchy folk-pop tunes that combine acoustic guitar with a delightful cornucopia of child toy instruments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fictional “Brooklyn Brothers” became a real band after the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere last fall and have since signed a deal with Rhino Records; O’Nan’s real talents appear to lie more with music-making than with filmmaking. The contrast between the sincerity of his original songs and the tired mocking of hipsters that constitutes most of the movie’s humor is jarring.

Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Rob Heydon, Scotland, 2011)
Rating: 4.6

This Canadian/Scottish co-production attempts to do for the title drug what Trainspotting did for heroin. Unlike the earlier film, however, Ecstasy, which seems to be taking place in the present even though everything about it reeks of the mid-Nineties, fails to capture the zeitgeist. In adapting an Irvine Welsh novella, director Rob Heydon leaves no drug-movie cliche unturned – from the “innovative” visual style (which relies on an excessive use of time-lapse photography) to the usual stock drug-movie characters: the addicted-but-essentially-good protagonist who needs to grow up and become responsible (Adam Sinclair), the over-the-top, wacky addict-friend who provides the comic relief (Billy Boyd), the violent, psychopathic local drug lord (Carlo Rota), and the love interest who offers the possibility of redemption (Kristin Kreuk). Concerning this last aspect, the conclusion of the film is so obviously pre-ordained from the beginning that it is particularly painful when it arrives with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; in the final scene, our newly clean-and-sober hero is actually wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Love is a Great Adventure.” Fans of Welsh won’t want to miss this screening, as the author will be in attendance, but expectations for the movie should be significantly lowered.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Ghosts of Mars (Carpenter)
2. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
3. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi)
4. The Extraordinary Voyage (Bromberg/Lange)
5. Punk’s Not Dead (Blazevski)
6. The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (O’Nan)
7. Onibaba (Shindo)
8. The Girls in the Band (Chaikin)
9. Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Heydon)
10. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)

%d bloggers like this: