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Tag Archives: Naked

Odds and Ends

A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:

Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3

After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.

Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental

Wallace Beery, living up to his name.

Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old imdb.com reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”

Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.

Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase

I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.

Dylan/Scorsese – Live television

The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.

Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.

Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:

– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.

– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”

– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.

– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.

You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here:

Scorsese tribute

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Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

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22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

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21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

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19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

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17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

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7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

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Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

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 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.


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