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Tag Archives: Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight in Time Out / Christmas, Again in Cine-File

hateful

I recently caught a press screening of The Hateful Eight in 70mm and I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed it — in contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, which was for me a crushing disappointment. It looks, however, like QT’s new blood-soaked western is going to be the most divisive film of his career thus far — with some critics already claiming that it’s the most vile and depraved thing he’s ever done while others have praised it for representing the birth of some kind of new political consciousness in his work. Personally, I think both of these extremes are ridiculous and enjoyed it for being the rip-roaring genre piece that it is, precisely the level on which I’ve enjoyed most of Tarantino’s movies. Chief among its virtues are that it’s an incredibly suspenseful and ingeniously plotted piece of work and it uses the 70mm format to breathtaking effect. I’m also grateful for what I perceive to be QT’s apology for his misguided criticisms of John Ford while on his Django Unchained World Domination Tour; The Hateful Eight contains explicit homages to both Stagecoach and Ford’s use of the effete British actor Alan Mowbray (the clear source of Tim Roth’s “Mobray” character) in both My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. Perhaps Tarantino decided to spend a little more time with Ford after reading Kent Jones’ brilliant rebuttal to his remarks in Film Comment? Anyway, for my latest Time Out Chicago blog post, I talked to Julian Antos, technical director of the Music Box Theatre, about the unique challenges of projecting The Hateful Eight in 70mm. If you have any interest in seeing this film, you owe it to yourself to see the “Roadshow” version in 70mm.

In other news, in last Friday’s edition of Cine-File Chicago, I have a new capsule review of Charles Poekel’s sweet, low-key and ultra-realist indie Christmas, Again, which I highly recommend. Chicagoans have one more chance to catch it on the big screen at the Siskel Center tonight.

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Riffing with Larry Knapp: The Outtakes

When I interviewed Larry Knapp last October about the newly released book of David Fincher interviews he edited, the transcript I posted was only a small fraction of our talk. In editing the interview, I decided to focus mostly on the parts of our conversation that explicitly dealt with his book and Fincher’s career. Larry and I both lamented that our favorite parts of the discussion had ended up on the “cutting room floor” — especially digressions involving Quentin Tarantino, the decadent side of the auteur theory, cinematic postmodernism and how Fincher is and is not like Alfred Hitchcock. (This last aspect looks particularly interesting in light of the recent announcement that Fincher will remake Strangers on a Train.) So here, ladies and gentlemen, are the provocative “outtakes” of our interview:

se7en

MGS: I think of Zodiac as a corrective to Se7en in a way — even though I don’t think David Fincher necessarily thinks of Se7en as anything that needs to be corrected. But it functions that way in the sense that in the Nineties there was this whole idea that the serial killer — it was really The Silence of the Lambs that introduced this idea — that the serial killer is an almost God-like figure. You know, Hannibal Lecter almost had super-powers in a way and even though he was the “villain,” viewers were supposed to be in awe of those powers . . .

LK: But that’s because American culture has become monstrous and so we naturally begin to identify with these omnipotent, gothic figures who are like a comic inversion of Nietzche or something.

MGS: And Natural Born Killers is the apotheosis of that.

LK: Absolutely. They’re kind of just nakedly revealing what’s at the heart of the American experience, which is something very pathological and hostile and anti-social and destructive. And we’re carrying it around with us but we’re not acknowledging it. And that’s why Woody Harrelson feels the need to give that lecture to Robert Downey Jr., you know? “How many times do I have to say this before you get it?”

MGS: And Se7en is in the tradition of that in a way because Kevin Spacey is . . .

LK: Oh, no, no, no. You know what Kevin Spacey is? He’s the ultimate slacker. It’s the slacker as gothic monster. What does he do all day? He’s writing in his journal, he’s hanging’ out. That’s a slacker, man. It’s a Grand Guignol Clerks.

MGS: True, true, but we’re also supposed to think he’s a genius and he’s supposed to inspire awe, and something about that strikes me as dubious. I was glad to see Zodiac avoid all of that by not dealing with that type of character. Zodiac is mostly about decent, ordinary, hard-working people — especially the cops played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards.

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LK: Yeah, but you know what? I really think that Zodiac is about the fact that it’s not serial killers that fascinate people as much as what it does to the social fabric, and how people relate to each other — so it’s the after-effect. That’s why again it’s only for the first 20 minutes (that you see the murders) because it’s really about how people process it and make sense of it — or fail to make sense of it. That matters more than the actual person or entity who’s responsible for it. And again that’s why you don’t catch him and charge him and imprison him and execute him. The damage is already done.

MGS: But, on the other hand, Fincher could’ve made a whole film out of that first 26 minutes. And that’s what he did with Se7en in a way. Zodiac is more interesting to me because it’s about what happened afterwards, for years afterwards.

LK: It’s also about rotary telephones and early fax machines . . .

MGS: Exactly! It’s a film about information, you know? It’s made from a 21st century perspective, the Information Age, and it’s about the characters’ inability to share information in the Seventies.

. . .

LK: Fincher isn’t at the same level of self-aggrandizement (as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith) . . .

MGS: Even though he’s obviously very articulate and witty and smart . . .

LK: I’m sure he can be very difficult to be around and very sure of himself — probably as egotistical as anyone else — but he doesn’t channel that into that need to be hip, that need to be the center of attention, that is one of Quentin Tarantino’s great failings. I once listened to an interview Tarantino gave on Sirius for Django Unchained, which is a really frustrating movie . . .

MGS: Agreed.

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LK: And Jamie Foxx, he has a series, “Foxhole” or whatever, and he interviewed Quentin Tarantino. So it was already as obsequious as you can get. Because he’s like, “You’re the greatest filmmaker of your generation,” you know? “I gotta make you look good so I look good.” Tarantino, I mean, I’ve never heard someone so freaking high on the most mundane details of a film. Everything according to him was brilliantly executed. Like everything about Django Unchained was peerless. The sheer myopic self-regard, it was so overbearing I turned it off. I was like, “You are an asshole in a way that I cannot enjoy.” You know?

MGS: Oh yeah, his performance in Django Unchained was, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back. That bad Australian accent!

LK: And you being from North Carolina, which is more southern than where I’m from, in Virginia — although, again, I’m from the Commonwealth of Virginia and that’s where Robert E. Lee came from, you know, and all of the people that matter; the Civil War began and ended in Virginia, thank-you-very-much. But when you watch what Tarantino did to southern culture and folklore, it’s just disgusting. He has no clue what he’s doing. And he’s from Tennessee too. I mean, he was born there. He should know better.

MGS: Well, yeah, but it’s really a movie about movies.

LK: Yeah, but Mandingo or The Skin Game is not where you go to get a sense of how things operated! You know what? It’s no different from Inglourious Basterds.

MGS: Right, which is also a movie about movies.

LK: Which didn’t upset me as much because I’m not Jewish. I know a lot of Jewish people who were like, “What the hell is this?” But then I knew some other Jewish people who were like, “You know what? I like these macho Jews.” Because Jews wouldn’t present themselves as thugs.

MGS: Well, as Tarantino himself said, it’s a spaghetti western that uses World War II iconography. It’s meant to be a cartoon and I enjoyed it on that level. But I agree, Django is more offensive.

LK: But you can’t imagine Fincher making something like that.

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MGS: No, and I think Fincher is more like a craftsman. For him, it’s all about the work. And he’s incredibly precise as a technician. For him, the mise-en-scene is everything. And whatever sense you get of his personality comes from the formal perfection you see in his work. So, in a way, when you talk about him, all there is to talk about is the work itself.

LK: But shouldn’t that be the foundation of any auteur?

MGS: Absolutely. I mean, I think Tarantino represents the “auteur theory” taken to a kind of decadent extreme. The decadence of somebody saying, “Okay, I want to be an auteur. Now what can I do to be perceived that way?” People become directors today for the same reason people have always wanted to become actors, because they want to be famous. There’s a great story: before he made Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino took some Sundance workshop to learn how to direct a movie — this was after he had written the script but before he began pre-production. And he met Terry Gilliam at this workshop and he said to Gilliam, “Every time I see one of your movies, I get that ‘Terry Gilliam feeling.’ How do you do that?”

LK: Wow.

MGS: And that tells you everything you need to know about Tarantino: in his very first film, he was already thinking about, “What can I do to create Quentin Tarantino trademarks?” And that’s why in his first three films you see all of these really gratuitous trademarks (car-trunk p.o.v. shots, “Big Kahuna” burgers, etc.).

LK: But they work really well.

MGS: They do. That’s his best work. But the desire to be regarded as a famous director is written all over those films in a way that it’s not in, say, Alien 3, Se7en and The Game.

LK: But this is also the two views of Gen-X. Because Gen-X does have this sort of Tarantino-ish quality to it, which is a total immersion in pop culture without any real profound engagement with it at the same time. It’s more superficial.

MGS: Right. Tarantino and Rodriguez, especially, are the ones who say, “Okay, I’m gonna make a film and it’s gonna be a mash-up of everything I love from when I was a kid. All of the grindhouse films of my youth — I’m gonna make a mix-tape where I just throw it all together.”

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LK: A mix-tape is a perfect analogy for that. Kevin Smith does the same thing too.

MGS: And that can be clever and enjoyable but it’s also kind of a dead end after you’ve seen it so many times.

LK: Well, that’s the whole problem with postmodernism. When it’s just a surface reflection of another surface reflection of something else in front of a mirror, eventually, yes, there is a dislocation. There is a decentered-ness that prevents you from being significant or poignant or anything. And I feel like with Fincher, he has Gen-X qualities in terms of quoting some things occasionally. Wasn’t it Brad Pitt who came up with the “Run, Forrest, run” that’s in Fight Club?

MGS: Oh, I don’t know.

LK: For some reason I remember it was Brad Pitt who came up with that. But then Fincher said, “Do it.” So there’s your little postmodern toss — but it’s appropriate. It’s staged properly. You always feel like with Fincher that he knows just as much as Tarantino knows about pop culture. But he is still a narrative filmmaker, a very traditional filmmaker, who feels that he must create not a — as you say — mix-tape with highs and lows and just a lot of scattered business here and there. But rather a very whole and complete, aesthetically rich, narrative film that does not require that you have this Simpsons-like knowledge of pop culture. So it goes back to very traditional Hollywood storytelling values. And that’s why I think he’s going back to that tradition of using novels as source material for a lot of his work.

MGS: Well, you know what’s interesting to me? Zodiac is based on two non-fiction books by Robert Graysmith. I’ve read the first one and it is poorly written. It’s like yellow journalism. I mean, it is not good. And I’ve never read The Accidental Billionaires, the source of The Social Network, but I would be surprised if that were any better, and I thought perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that my two favorite Fincher films were based on non-fiction . . .

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LK: But again this goes into that idea that — Eastwood is like this too, by the way. Eastwood never wrote a script. Sometimes the best filmmaker knows, “You know what? I’ve got enough to contend with casting it, building the sets, figuring out the look of it, and how the film comes together.” If you have the right set up and you have the right performers — and Fincher really intuitively understands what he’s doing — you don’t have to be the quote-unquote author of the script at all. Some of the material I’ve read about Gone Girl, I mean he really got inside that book. He inhabited that book. He understood it. But then he understood it for what he could do with film, film form. How he could condense it and reproduce it as a film regardless of its status as a novel. So maybe this is how it works: his aesthetic instincts — you know, his temperament, his eye, his immersion in it — need that outside narrative material to focus. That he doesn’t need to create it, all he needs is something to create from.

MGS: But he needs to feel some kind of connection to it, I agree with you. I didn’t like Gone Girl, the book. It reminded me of what Godard said about Contempt: “It’s a nice vulgar novel for a train journey.” But when I read it I thought, “This could make a great movie.” Because it’s full of interesting sociological insights into men and women in the 21st century, in the internet age . . .

LK: And it’s post-recession . . .

MGS: Yeah, that’s a huge part of it.

LK: Which is a Gen-X thing.

MGS: The whole closed-down mall thing, and the fact that it’s taking place over the 4th of July weekend, it’s clearly meant to be a statement about America. And I hope he’s emphasizing that aspect of it. Because where I had a problem with it was on the level of character. The character psychology I thought was a little unbelievable.

LK: Glib?

MGS: Yeah, especially after the twist is revealed. The first half of it I thought was incredibly suspenseful and then, after the twist, I thought this is getting so far-fetched and so ridiculous that I got annoyed with it — in a way that I don’t think I will with the film. In a 300-page book if I find something implausible, it’s hard-to-swallow but in a two-hour movie, it’s not.

LK: But it may make a huge difference to see it represented and performed as opposed to narrated.

MGS: That’s true.

LK: Ben Affleck’s expressions may be more expressive than even her writing.

dazed

MGS: And I think that’s good casting, by the way.

LK: Yeah, it is. I thought he was older. Then I looked it up. He’s only about 40. So he’s only about four or five years away from the character’s age and he can play a little younger.

MGS: Early on, she describes the character of Nick as being like a “rich-kid villain in an 80s movie.” And as soon as I read that I thought, “Man, did he cast Ben Affleck based on that phrase?” Because that phrase sounds like Ben Affleck.

LK: This is really wonderful when you have a director where you can anticipate his instincts and you know that it’s a good project for him. And it’s just fun to anticipate it for a change. “What’s he gonna do?”

MGS: How is he going to approach the diary chapters? How’s he gonna translate that?

LK: Those are flashbacks. And by the way, I think she wants you annoyed with the “literary” Amy for half the book.

MGS: When I say “implausible,” here’s what I mean: Amy was a genius to pull off this perfect crime. But I think she acted really stupid afterwards by allowing herself to talk to those people . . .

LK: Oh, come on, bro. You’re not getting it! This is the whole problem with her — that she executes it and that’s all she has. And once that’s done, that’s why she goes right back to Nick. Because it’s kind of like, “Well, I did it. Now I need to . . . torture him some more.” It seems like her character — from the way it’s described with her encounters with all the people she met throughout her life — she seems to go from one act of pathological betrayal and control to another. So that’s like the only thing that seems to allow her to function. So it almost makes sense that she would suddenly find herself penniless, robbed, because then she has to connive her way out of another situation with the wealthy ex-boyfriend of hers. In a sense, she executes her murder so well that she cannot come up with anything close to that ever again. So it’s the weirdest love story because she realizes, “Well, I’ll just stay with Nick because I’m never going to do this like this again. I’ll just enjoy torturing him.” And meanwhile he’s like, “I just have to keep leading her on until I can . . .” Right? Which is a really evil, wicked Gen-X view of marriage.

MGS: Oh, I fully get that it’s a twisted love story with an ironic “happy ending.” I just don’t like the way the character psychology is tailored to fit the plot. I wish it had been the other way around — that the plot served the characters. I also don’t buy that they could’ve been married for five years and he could have been so oblivious to the fact that she had been not just pathological but psychotic for practically her whole life. But, like I said, I think the problems I have with it are problems that I won’t have when I see it on the screen. The director that Fincher reminds me of the most is Hitchcock and I think Hitchcock’s films are also implausible . . .

vertigo

LK: I don’t see Hitchcock as much. In terms of the aesthetics and the immersion in it, yeah, but I don’t feel like Fincher’s as interested in manipulation as much. He can manipulate, and he does it quite often but I feel like there’s more of an inquisitive spirit in Fincher — discovering things — that is not in Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a very fixed view of things by the time he’s making those great films in the early Fifties.

MGS: You don’t think Vertigo is an inquisitive film?

LK: I think Vertigo is a confession by Hitchcock that he is one fucked up dude, okay? And he’s being very honest with us. That’s where he reminds me of Tarantino. That’s one of the things I like about Tarantino. Tarantino is not ashamed to confess: “I am a mess.” He’s not married, he doesn’t have any kids. He’s a complete misogynist, he’s got racist issues. And you know what? He does not give a shit.

MGS: He throws it all up there on the screen.

LK: And I actually admire him for it. I think that Death Proof is brilliant with the rape-as-car-crash collision — where body parts are flying all over the place. No man has ever exposed himself like this. Man, I mean, I wouldn’t be willing to let myself be displayed like that. And he plays a grungy, pretty despicable guy in that movie. It’s like, “Wow, good for you. This level of honesty redeems you. This makes you more interesting.”

MGS: He’s honest about his obsessions.

LK: Even Hitchcock wasn’t as honest. I mean Vertigo? And then he makes Marnie?

MGS: Which is more twisted.

LK: Well, kind of equally fucked up. And then he gets to — what is that one in the early Seventies with the necktie killings?

MGS: Frenzy.

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LK: Frenzy. Oh my God, Frenzy is like a dirty-old-man movie! This guy never got laid enough or never got the chance to lash out at a woman. Hitchcock was one repressed, frustrated, demented guy and I just don’t get that with Fincher. I get the feeling that Fincher is much more comfortable with himself and that what Fincher is fascinated by is how American culture is not willing to look the abyss in the eye — or not willing to own up to any phobias, fears, or anxieties that define our daily existence. I feel like with Fincher, that’s his task. It’s like, “I’m gonna expose this because I feel like no one is even going near it.” Fight Club for me was such an important film about being a young professional in America — as a white male — and how American culture seemed to have given up on anything other than consumption. And that’s how I felt when I saw the film. As I wrote in the introduction, I saw the film with my wife and she loved the film because Brad Pitt was in it and he had his shirt off, so she was happy. But I’m like, “Oh my God, this is that bottomless rage I had when I had that job working for a software company.” This is it. Office Space gets it right too.

MGS: Oh, totally. (laughs)

LK: They work well together, those films. And that’s not what a Tarantino or a Hitchcock would do. They’re into more personal psycho-pathology, you know? I think that Fincher is more like De Palma. Because Brian De Palma borrowed from Hitchcock and he introduced the idea of the cinematic set-piece quotation but it’s a modernist quotation. Whenever De Palma does it, it’s to make you more aware of film language. I think if you watch a De Palma and don’t get excited by it then you really don’t understand form. Because I don’t think anyone got form as well as De Palma did — even Scorsese. Because Scorsese is like the Raging Bull of form: I don’t think he’s ever fully conscious of what he’s doing.

MGS: Right. De Palma takes a much more intellectual . . .

LK: Cerebral . . .

MGS: . . . approach whereas Scorsese is more instinctive . . .

Raging-Bull

LK: Right, which is fine too. But with De Palma, I feel like he’s using film to work his way through actual film language and how film operates: voyeurism, continuity, you name it, he messes with it. And then he’s thinking about how to use films to expose parts of American culture and society that are neglected or rejected. And that to me is more like Fincher.

MGS: When I say that Fincher reminds me of Hitchcock, I mean in the sense that Hitchcock took novels that he could connect to in some way — and he didn’t take great literature. Truffaut asked him if he would ever adapt Crime and Punishment and he said he wouldn’t because it’s a masterpiece and you can’t improve up on someone else’s masterpiece . . .

LK: Can I quibble with you here?

MGS: Yeah, go right ahead (laughs).

LK: I think that Hitchcock did not film Crime and Punishment because deep down he felt inferior to it.

MGS: Oh! (laughs)

LK: It makes him feel grandiose to take schlock — detective novels and thrillers — and then redeem them. Because that’s safer than taking Crime and Punishment and turning it into a movie because then there’ll be more scrutiny. Where like a Von Sternberg made Crime and Punishment — Von Sternberg was, I don’t think, very insecure — as far as we know about that guy. (laughs) I mean, he was like a Fincher with the studios. He was like, “Fuck you. I’m gonna film this with Marlene Dietrich using all these curtains and gauze and camels . . . and screw you.”

MGS: (laughs) But regardless of the intention, Hitchcock took potboilers and he turned them into masterpieces.

LK: He did but he’s very insincere about these things when he talks about them . . .

psycho

MGS: Psycho is not a good book! I’ve read it. It’s terrible.

LK: That’s fine . . .

MGS: The film is great. I’ve never read the book Vertigo is based on but I’m sure it’s the same thing. With Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve never read it, I’m sure it’s not good.

LK: It’s okay.

MGS: Right, but I don’t think he transcended the source material.

LK: It made no sense, when they (already) made a Swedish version, to set it in Sweden. I mean, right away, there are, as you say, implausibilities that make it just pointless. It’s like “You shot it in Sweden but nobody’s Swedish!” Except for . . . what’s his name?

MGS: Stellan Skarsgard.

LK: Yeah, he is, but he’s speaking English. There’s a Swedish one! I watched it — with the subtitles! It’s set there. I don’t understand why you’re reenacting it. And Noomi Rapace is so much more compelling than Mara. As much as I like Rooney Mara and her approach, there are so many other things to do. This doesn’t make since to redo this quickly.

MGS: It doesn’t need to exist.

LK: No, and that was the problem. Particularly as you get near the end. I’m like, “Oh, here we go. I know what’s gonna happen.” And I even mention in the introduction of David Fincher: Interviews you could argue that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about the global 1% preying on the rest of us but the film isn’t as engaged as all the other films he’s made.

Girl

MGS: Right, he’s just fulfilling an assignment. On the level of mise-en-scene, it’s pleasurable to watch because he’s never going to half-ass anything. But my hope for Gone Girl is that he’ll find a way to connect with it that will reveal some of these disturbing truths about American life in the 21st century.

LK: Fair enough. Now let me ask you something: don’t you find it peculiar how much press it’s getting?

MGS: I do, yeah.

LK: What is going on? Is now the time when some people are awakening to Fincher’s status? Because I write in the introduction I already consider him the preeminent Gen-X filmmaker period. I have no problem saying that. I put him together with Tarantino. You know who Tarantino is? That dude you just love to hang out with but at the same time it’s like, “God, you need to get a life. You are a funny motherfucker but, damn, your life is a mess!”

MGS: Right. You have a love/hate relationship with his films.

LK: Right. I cannot dismiss him but at the same time it’s like, “Damn, couldn’t you do something other than this? You have talent! What the fuck is this? Why don’t you make a movie about a marriage? Oh, that’s right, you’re not married. I don’t think you understand what women even are.” But Fincher . . . I feel like maybe people are finally like, “Oh, we never really considered his work before.” I didn’t expect this much attention and this much of a groundswell of anticipation. I don’t remember this for any other Fincher film. You know, it’s odd in that way. But it feels almost old-fashioned, the amount of auteurist attention Fincher is getting. We haven’t seen this in a while. It’s refreshing. It’s like they’re privileging Fincher as an artist, as a filmmaker of merit, who deserves this much coverage and warrants this much anticipation and interest. It’s odd how these things play out, and now I’m perplexed and curious why now this is Fincher’s time, instead of the late 1990s.

MGS: Right. Well, hopefully, the film will live up to our expectations. (laughs)

David Fincher: Interviews can be ordered from amazon.com here.

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Django Unchained and a Certain Trend in Contemporary Hollywood Movies

Django Unchained
dir: Quentin Tarantino (USA, 2012)
Rating: 5.9

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The following piece contains spoilers about the plots of Django Unchained, Skyfall and, I suppose, even Lincoln.

After seeing many Hollywood films at the end of 2012 and in early 2013 that run between two-and-a-half hours and two hours and 45 minutes in length, I’ve concluded that movies have just grown too damn long. It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with lengthy running times: after all, I’ve gladly, in the past, sat through many movies even longer (one of my all-time favorites, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, runs seven hours, and I’d gladly watch that again right now). The problem is that the new Hollywood movie does not justify its length – there are invariably too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary subplots, a climax that feels too protracted, and, worst of all, too many endings (a trend that I would argue began with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a movie I otherwise like). For me, the most egregious offender of this new crop of films is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie I was prepared to like but ended up feeling sorely disappointed by. I have no problem with the “morality” of Django (e.g., I am not offended by Tarantino using the “n word” 100+ times or using the historical tragedy of slavery as a backdrop for a juvenile pop entertainment). These criticisms are really no different than the ones that were leveled against Inglourious Basterds, another film I quite like. Rather, the biggest problems with Django are with its pacing and structure, problems that seem unforgivable at a bladder-bursting two hours and 45 minutes:

1. Django and Broomhilda are, at best, the fourth and fifth most interesting characters in the film (following King Schultz, Calvin Candie and Stephen-the-House-Negro). Intellectually, I get the idea that Django is supposed to be a black version of the stoic/Clint Eastwood/”Man with No Name”-type but the Man with No Name himself was only ever upstaged by Eli Wallach’s Tuco (and, even then, only for brief stretches). Throughout their travels together, Schultz is both a much more interesting character and a more magnetic screen presence than Django. You can’t take your eyes off of Schultz, and this is a big problem when your movie is titled Django Unchained. It’s no wonder Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last night. He’s the film’s true star (and his character has the good sense to die just before the movie takes a turn for the terrible).

2. The love story between Django and Broomhilda is ill-defined. We don’t know much about these characters, and we know even less about their relationship: How did they meet? How did they get married? Why are they even attracted to each other? I’ve heard some people say that it seems revolutionary for a Hollywood film to show a black man rescuing a black woman but, if their love is supposed to be the “engine” that’s driving the entire story, it’s by far the weakest aspect of the script. I think the love story is really just a flimsy excuse for Tarantino to indulge in the violent shoot-outs and all of the other things that he really wants to show us. I suspect one of the main reasons why so many people have found the last act of the film problematic, even if they haven’t articulated it this way, is because this is where the love story/rescue part really comes to the forefront.

3. In general, the pacing and structure of the film are awkward and bizarre (even though individual moments within it are obviously quite compelling). Because I think Schultz and Candie are the highlight of Django Unchained, it seems to me that the movie dies when they do – and everything afterwards is just tedious. I wonder why the big Candyland shootout, where both of those characters die, couldn’t be the actual climax of the film. Why does Django need to be captured, then granted a reprieve by Stephen, then sold to an evil mining company, then talk his way out of captivity, and then return to the plantation just to kill off the rest of the denizens of Candyland and rescue Broomhilda? Why couldn’t he have killed all those people in the earlier gunfight and rescued Broomhilda back then (which would’ve been around the two hour mark)? The last 45 minutes are pointless, they introduce new characters who are completely irrelevant, and they drag the film out unconscionably.

All of the above problems could have been considerably smoothed over in the script-writing stage. (I have some other problems with the actual editing of the film but that’s a whole other can of worms.) Tarantino, like Terrence Malick (albeit in a different way), has unfortunately reached that stage where no one is going to tell him no. Inglourious Basterds made so much money worldwide that he probably got the $100,000,000 budget for Django just based on its high concept alone (i.e., “Inglourious Basterds set in the antebellum South!”). As a piece of storytelling, Django is the sloppiest, laziest thing Tarantino has ever done. Because it has won multiple Oscars and is now poised to be his highest-grossing movie ever, this does not bode well for his future work.

As I indicated in my opening paragraph, Tarantino is hardly alone. Here is a brief rundown of other recent Hollywood movies that are too damn long:

The Dark Knight Rises (two hours and 45 minutes): This suffers from the typical action-franchise problem of trying to outdo all of the previous entries. Too many subplots, too many characters (two sidekicks, two love interests, two villains, etc.) and too many damn endings, especially a final copout ending that revises the daring ending that preceded it. Christopher Nolan might as well make another one and add Batgirl to the mix while he’s at it.

Lincoln (two hours and 30 minutes): I had a whole host of problems with this movie but, from a structural standpoint, the ending is particularly terrible: Lincoln leaves the White House to attend a play at Ford’s Theater. We see a shot of his iconic, stovepipe-hatted figure walking away in long shot. This is reminiscent of the ending of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and would’ve been a perfect place for the film to end. But no: we then have to see a scene taking place in another theater, where an announcement is made about Lincoln having been shot. Then we see a scene of Lincoln on his deathbed. Then, worst of all, we see a flashback to Lincoln, alive, giving a rousing Schindler’s List-like speech as John Williams’ treacly score swells on the soundtrack.

Skyfall (two hours and 23 minutes): I actually liked this movie on the whole but most of its best moments come in the first half. The climax is way too protracted: first, James Bond is battling the bad-guy invaders, Straw Dogs-style, from inside of a Scottish mansion, then the action moves outside where the characters continue their gunfight on a frozen lake, which, inevitably, involves them crashing through the ice, then they end up finishing the gunfight inside of a nearby church. By the time M’s big death scene finally rolls around, which has been teased since at least the courtroom-assault scene 45 minutes earlier, it’s hard to care. A perfect case of how more can be less.

The Hobbit (two hours and 49 minutes): This is arguably the most poorly structured film on the list. It has too many beginnings, including a lengthy double-prologue, before settling into a theme-park ride structure of one action set piece after another (interrupted by a bizarre and lengthy dialogue scene that feels like an excuse to shoehorn in characters from the previous franchise), and then it abruptly stops just when it starts to get interesting. I’m in full agreement with the critic who said, rather than an “extended edition,” this would benefit from a contracted version on home video.

The Hobbit Rating: 4.7

hobbit


CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.


A Decalogue of the Dopest Dylan References in Movies

Bob Dylan turns 71 years old this Thursday. Following last year’s birthday post on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, today I will pay a different kind of tribute related to Dylan and the movies. Below is a list of my top ten favorite Dylan references in cinema, excluding films that are actually about Dylan (e.g., Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, I’m Not There), movies in which Dylan himself appeared (e.g., Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous) or films to which he contributed original songs (e.g., Wonder Boys, Gods and Generals, My Own Love Song). Instead, what you have is a list of great movies that just so happen to make significant references to Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son through their soundtracks, dialogue, set design or props.

10. “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing at Emily Watson’s wedding in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves is a shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective spiritual melodrama that probably still stands as Lars Von Trier’s finest hour. Set in rural Scotland in the 1970s, it poignantly depicts the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a woman from a deeply religious community and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker and “outsider” who is paralyzed in an accident shortly after their wedding. Here, Von Trier eschewed the formalism of his early work, showing a greater desire to collaborate closely with actors (before his obsession with female suffering started to seem dubious) and a then-novel use of handheld cameras and grainy video textures (before such aesthetics became old hat). The film also has a superb period soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, et al. but Dylan fans might be especially pleased by the instrumental bagpipe version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that plays at Bess and Jan’s wedding.

9. Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower” in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant film adaptation of Shakespeare’s best loved play that keeps the Bard’s original dialogue intact while updating the sets and costumes to present-day New York City. The inspired casting includes Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrud, Bill Murray as Polonius and Dylan’s old pal Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My favorite scene features Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in a Blockbuster Video store. My second favorite scene sees Jeffrey Wright’s Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower” in a trench. Perhaps because the lyrics to “Watchtower” already sound like they could be from a Shakespeare poem, this touch feels ineffably right.

8. Dennis Hopper reciting a lyric from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977)

Wim Wenders’ film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin. The plot concerns Ripley’s contracting of a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder, but story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization in this slow-paced, moody, atmospheric neo-noir. A good example of Wenders’ existential bent can be found towards the end when Ripley half-sings/half-talks the opening line to a gem of a song from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album: “I pity the poor immigrant who . . .” and then Ripley’s voice trails off. Any Dylan fan knows that had Ripley kept singing, the lyric would have described his character’s predicament exactly: “. . . wishes he would’ve stayed home, who uses all his power to do evil, but in the end is always left so alone.”

7. Myriad references in the films of Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has said that when he was a video store employee, long before he became a director, he aspired to be “as important for cinema as Dylan is for music and songwriting.” Since then, the two have become mutual admirers and occasional sparring partners. Some of the myriad references to Dylan in the films of Tarantino: in Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright’s DJ introduces “Stuck in the Middle with You” as a “Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite,” single-handedly causing the song to be misidentified as an actual Dylan number on countless mp3 download sites. (This begs the question, if Tarantino had a bigger music budget at the time, would “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” be the song forever associated with Michael Madsen torturing a uniformed police officer?) Death Proof contains two very interesting Dylan references, which is hardly surprising given that Tarantino was listening to Dylan’s then-new album Modern Times while driving to the set every day; the jukebox in the film contains no less than six Dylan songs, including “George Jackson” (which, let’s face it, is Dylan’s blaxploitation song), and the magazine rack in a convenience store scene features the 2006 Rolling Stone magazine with Dylan on the cover. In Inglourious Basterds, the title characters are all Jewish American G.I.s, one of whom boasts the name of Zimmerman(!), while elsewhere Brad Pitt attempts to end a standoff by telling a German soldier “. . . you go your way and we’ll go ours.” For his part, Dylan’s only known public comment on QT was a nice acknowledgement on his Theme Time Radio Hour radio show that Bobbi Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently featured in Jackie Brown.

6. Stephen Rea as a Bob Dylan impersonator in Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008)

One of the most Dylan-centric films ever made, this delightfully dark Irish fairy tale concerns two working class pre-adolescent kids who run away from their suburban homes at Christmas and spend a long night on the mean streets of Dublin. Along the way, the kids repeatedly encounter the music of Bob Dylan (including being serenaded by a barge skipper with “Shelter from the Storm”), a series of events that climaxes with them running into an Australian Dylan impersonator whom the kids mistake for the man himself. Ironically, Stephen Rea, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and wryly speaking in a low-pitched voice in his un-billed cameo, comes closer to nailing the essence of the real Dylan than any of the actors in I’m Not There.

5. Teenagers smoking hash and slow dancing around a bonfire to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994)

My favorite film by formidable French helmer Olivier Assayas is this 400 Blows-esque ode to juvenile delinquency that apparently draws on the director’s own childhood experiences. The movie’s highly emotional climactic scene involves troubled teenaged lovers Gilles and Christine running away from home and attending a party where they smoke hash and slow dance around a bonfire to an incredible vinyl playlist that includes Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dare I say that the use of “Knockin'” here is even more effective than in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the film for which it was originally written)?

4. Nick Nolte painting to a live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989)

The undisputed highlight of New York Stories, an omnibus feature film comprised of shorts by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, is Life Lessons, the Scorsese segment about an abstract expressionist painter who falls in love with one of his models. And what better song for Nolte’s volatile character, Lionel Dobie, to use as the soundtrack for an intense painting session than the angry, cathartic live 1974 version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s Before the Flood album?

3. Jean-Pierre Leaud asking “Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Femninin (1966)

Jean-Luc Godard’s zeitgeist film about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” captures the spirit of what it meant to be young in the turbulent 1960s perhaps better than any other movie. At one point, while reading a French newspaper, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the boyfriend of a pop singer named Madeleine, has this exchange with a friend:

“What are you reading?”
“An article on Bob Dylan.”
“Who’s he?”
“He’s a Vietnik, you know.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s an American word, a cross between ‘beatnik’ and ‘Vietnam.'”
“Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?”
“Madeleine never mentioned him? He sells 10,000 records a day!”

Dylan and Godard have spoken of their mutual admiration for each other over the years and two of Godard’s films from the 1980s (Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma and Puissance de la parole) feature Dylan’s Slow Train Coming classic “When He Returns” on their soundtracks.

2. A black and white photograph of Dylan from the mid-1960s hanging on the wall in the central location of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang’s masterpiece, one of the great final films of any director, is an almost impossibly rich, tragicomic, multigenerational family saga that also functions as a vivid snapshot of Taiwan at the dawn of the 21st century. Taipei’s unique East meets West culture is illustrated in ways both obvious (N.J., the protagonist, leaves a wedding early so that he can take his son to eat at McDonald’s) and subtle (a framed black and white photograph of Bob Dylan is prominently displayed in N.J.’s home). Since N.J. is a businessman and music lover who abandoned his youthful idealism in the late ’60’s, the latter is a very nice touch indeed.

1. A vinyl LP of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an important prop in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour Fou (1969)

L’amour Fou, Jacques Rivette’s four hour improvisational film about the construction of a play and the destruction of a marriage, is one of the high points of the entire French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays Sebastien, a theater director who cheats on his actress wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), with another actress named Marta (Josée Destoop). In one key scene, Sebastien is in Marta’s apartment helping her sort through vinyl LPs that she could potentially re-sell in order to raise some quick cash. He holds up her copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which she declines to sell on the grounds that she still listens to it. Good girl!

Dylan fans reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorite Dylan references in the movies in the comments section below.


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2011

2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.

Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.

10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)

Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.

9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)

The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.

8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)

Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.

7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)

At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?

6. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.

5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)

Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.

4. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)

The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.

3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)

As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.

2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.

1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)

11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)


In Praise of My Wife

Last night my wife Jillian and I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the 47th annual Chicago International Film Festival, which included a screening of the locally shot indie drama The Last Rites of Joe May (starring everyone’s favorite real-life-Chicago-cop-turned-actor Dennis Farina) as well as a swanky after party at the Chicago Cultural Center. Although we are longtime CIFF attendees, this was the first time we’ve actually walked the red carpet on opening night. The reason? Jillian won a contest in which she created the festival’s official gelato. The assignment was to create a delectable flavor concoction from an array of possibilities and give it a movie-themed name. Her submission? A chocolate gelato with a banana mix-in named . . . Inglorious Bananas!

Out of the hundreds of submissions the CIFF received, they nominated five finalists and a taste-test was held at NoMi where local film and food critics convened to vote on the best flavor-and-name combination. I don’t know whether it was the clever Ben and Jerry’s-style name or the delicious simplicity of combining chocolate and banana but “Inglorious Bananas” prevailed over such other worthy contenders as “The Blues Berry Brothers” and “Red Velvet, Red Carpet.” In addition to winning two tickets to opening night of the festival, we will also receive 12 pints of Al Gelato (the official manufacturer) for six months and a private tour of the Al Gelato factory in Franklin Park where we will actually get to make the festival gelato. I could not be more proud of my wife.

This is how Jillian enjoys her gelato:


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