So, I am WAY behind on my New York Film Festival blog coverage, and I do hope to get up to speed soon, and I do recommend in the meanwhile that you check out my Close Personal Friend The Self-Styled Siren's ruminations on the fare she's seen thus far, as her notes are as trenchant and acute and delightful and well-mannered as she herself is. I dowant to report that I did get a rather big kick out of Carnage, the film Roman Polanski has directed from an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's international hit play thingie. It seemed to go over very well with much of the rest of the Festival press and industry audience too. The piece as filmed is a pretty good satire that, in and of itself and perhaps necessarily, underscores the limitations of pretty good satire as a form. Which is to say that its various reversals are a little, well, telegraphed. There's a little bit of a paradox inherent in a piece that aspires to aggressively twist the nipples of its target audience's collective sense of propriety and/or social grace while at the same time satisfying said audience's expectations of entertainment. Which may in fact be precisely the point...only the film doesn't take things that far. It's modernist, not post!
But I did enjoy it, and after the film, I happened to run into a colleague who out-and-out hated it. And who said, and I quote, "There was nothing cinematic about it." Which I kind of couldn't believe, in the first place because more than anything else, Carnage is an absolutely virtuoso piece of cinema craft. As many of you likely know, the whole film, save for a brief prologue and epilogue, is set in a single Brooklyn apartment and its hallway. Polanski treats this space and its varied subspaces absolutely cinematically; the film is a potential masterclass in staging, blocking, camera angle, shot selection, shot length, pacing in terms of both rhythm of actual cutting and duration of shot, and so on. One could write a 1,200 word piece alone on how Kate Winslet's physical stature mutates over the course of the film's hour and twenty minutes. (We should note that Polanski's actual frame—film, that is—is wider than the image posted above.) It's all kind of amazing even if you're not crazy about the content of the picture. So, yes, I would say, entirely cinematic.
And yet my friend, who hated it...and who, and this is really the beauty ironic part, I rebonded with a couple of weeks back on account of our shared conviction that David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is both really great and, yes, entirely "cinematic," found it to be not. And of course I wonder why, and I do look forward to having a longer conversation with her about that. And I post this now not to make fun of my pal or call her out or any such thing but because it struck me as kind of odd and funny, the language we adopt when we're kind of affronted. My friend also found Carnage "misogynist," (in case you're wondering what road one of the drama's predictable turnarounds goes up, there's a clue for you) and it was pretty clear that the whole experience had touched her in a way that was a little more irritating than an average bad-movie experience. In a sense maybe the point was that calling it uncinematic was the deepest insult she could give it, and an insult she felt it deserved. But I strongly believe that the film is, well, frankly, not that thing. And, of course, conversation about movies is rather different than writing about movies, although what with this kind of comment-friendly format, and with Twitter, and with and so on, writing about movies and movie criticism and talking about movies is becoming a big ball of virtual wax and a different one from what it was. But I think that while conversation about movies can absolutely be about the vagaries of taste, criticism has to go beyond that. This conviction is really at the core of my whole quarrel with that ridiculous "cultural vegetables" conceit/debate.
Call me paranoid, but I was beginning to get a little apprehensive of a "is this a blog about movies, or a blog about slagging movie critics?" backlash, so I figured maybe I ought to snap to it with respect to getting this puppy posted. Et voila. Enjoy. Equipment: Playstation 3 console and Oppo BDP 83 were the players, Panasonic Viera TC-P50S30 the display, Pioneer Elite VSX-817 AV the amp.
UPDATE: A Note On Grades
"What are the grades for?" asks Some Dude on Twitter™. "Movie or transfer or both? It would be much more helpful if you grade them separately, IMO." Like I'm doing this to be "helpful." (Hey, wait a minute—why am I doing this?) I thought I had explained this in a prior column, but it looks like I didn't. The grades I assign represent my assessment of the film's presentation as a Blu-ray disc. Obviously in my capsules I'll get into my opinions/observations on the film itself, but given my inclinations and the demands on my time, it's pretty likely that I'm only gonna look at Blu-rays of films I already have some kind of interest in. Obviously (or maybe not) my interest in something like Cobra is more along the lines of a cinema-historical artifact rather than as something I personally enjoy/cherish, but you get the idea.It always used to drive me nuts, when I was running the "Home Guide" at Premiere, when writers would try to use a DVD assignment as a pretext to "craft" their own "review" of a film itself, and not treat the commodity in hand, that is, the tape or the DVD or the Blu-ray. And I believe this philosophy informs how I create this column. So there you have it. See also here. Although entertaining as the prose is it doesn't really serve as much of an analogy to what's going on here. And thank you for your support.
The Battle of Algiers (Criterion)
Not much to report here: what was an exemplary package in SD has been transposed to high-definition perfectly. For some reason there are times I get off even more on a high-def rendition of something with this kind of pictorial and celluloid roughness. Which is not to say that I cheer when that bomb goes off in the café, in case you were worried about my moral state. —A+
The Big Lebowski (Universal)
A lot of the times this looks just jake, and I get off on the ultra-sheen of the bowling alley scenes and dreams, but in certain night scenes the DNR is too much and it’s a drag. Not fatal, but lousy, and in particular really obvious and obtrusive in the faces of The Dude and Walter during the drive-to-drop-the-ransom-money scene. A disappointment, then. I know the Coens are kind of disdainful of certain aspect of home vid tech wonkiness, but they might have thought to raise their voices here. Still. It’s Lebowski in high-def, what are you gonna do? Boycott? I mean, it’s a thought, but still. —B-
Wait, wasn’t Sylvester Stallone the biggest movie star in the world at the time this film was made? Then how come this looks about as slick as a William Lustig picture of the time? So grainy it’s grimy, which is at least kind of apropos, given it’s a picture that its contemporary critics deemed as “unimaginably degraded” (David Denby!) and “the foulest, greediest, most anti-American movie in ages” (my pal John Powers!). Oh, and wait, here’s the explanation: it’s a co-production of Warner and…Golan/Globus! Seen with a quarter century’s hindsight, it plays less like a Dirty Harry ante-upping than a failed Stallone grindhouse condescension. Still, poor director George P. Cosmatos brings his outsider’s competence and ESL straight face to the proceedings, which give this thing its own, um, integrity. Moronic integrity. Particularly risible are the script’s attempts at “ironic” humor, as when Stallone’s character “kids” a “goofy” sidekick: “You know what the trouble with you is? You’re too violent.” Oh, the hilarity. The movie also gets bonus points for casting Andy Robinson as a police department bigwig. It’s a good transfer, but I can only recommend as a library addition to those who enjoy confounding their friends with displays of cinematic perversity. —B
Coeur Fidèle (Eureka!/MOC U.K. import, Region B locked)
Like Feuillade, Jean Epstein doesn’t get enough respect. Although at this late stage in the game, what would he DO with it if he got it, right? The French director’s remarkable 1923 romance is precisely NOT the sort of thing that gets trotted out in garden-variety film appreciation courses and so on, and it’s in this particular respect (among many others, but bear with me for a second) that outfits such as Masters of Cinema do such important work, work that really deserves/earns the cinema lover’s support. In terms of imagery and what we can project as its influence, this film is a MAJOR revelation, and its sheer physical beauty—you can almost literally see the silver nitrate shining in every beautifully digitalized frame—is reason enough to own it. —A+
The Complete Jean Vigo (Criterion)
Regular readers of this blog may recall my telling of my childhood love for Vigo, and how the P. Salles Gomes biography of the man was the first film book I ever bought. I remember when I was ten having found a listing for a screening of Zero For Conduct at some local library and begging my dad to take me to see it and then crying like a baby when they didn’t show the film because the print never showed or was too damaged, and they screened some fucking French doc about wheat fields (or something) instead. So you can maybe imagine my exhilaration at the fact that now the compete oeuvre exists on one handy-dandy high-def disc. The thing is, after watching the work itself, I realize it’s not really all it’s cracked up to be…Nah, just kidding. Seriously, this is amazing. To think that 40 years ago these films were nearly impossible to see at all, particularly in gorgeous or even watchable versions. And here they are. Almost enough to make one a kind of optimist. —A+
Cross of Iron (Optimum U.K. import, Region B locked)
This widely misunderstood late Peckinpah was potent bait for critics who wanted to pursue the Bloody-Sam-is-a-fascist theme, because, you know, this picture features sympathetic treatments of German soldiers during World War II! It’s PRO NAZI! Of course it’s not, and in fact it’s so antiwar it’s practically pacifist, except of course it’s violent as hell. It’s also got moments that are strangely enervated, and Peckinpah’s really at his most Captain Obvious a lot of the time (that poor kid!), but, still. Never not watchable and often moving in spite of itself, it’s in a way less of a problem piece than Straw Dogs. And this disc looks damn good, WAY better than any video version I’ve seen retaining a gritty but autumnal palette. The digitalization involved in the transfer/restoration, however, does make itself plain in some of the foggier scenes, where the mist has a distinctly unfilmlike (but not disgracefully artificial-looking) quality to it. —B+
Damnation Alley (Shout Factory)
I was always fascinated by this picture merely by dint of the fact that in ten short years, Dominique Sanda had gone from debuting as a suicidal beauty for discoverer-of-non-actors Robert Bresson in Une femme douce to costarring with George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent in this, un film de Jack Smight. Other Bresson stars that opted to remain in the film biz had even more bizarre career arcs, but Sanda’s was the most publicly conspicuous for a while. Of course this picture boasts other cult charms, including sorta-painted-in pink/green horizons, or, as a title card puts it, “skies lurid and angry.” Another way you can tell it’s after the apocalypse in the film is the way the synths take over the music score. It’s that kinda movie. And it’s brought to digital life very nicely, and with a lot of extras, in this edition. Of course you understand that the attached letter grade best applies if you Like This Sort Of Thing.—A-
Dead Man (Miramax/Echo Bridge)
I was all set to make this film a kind of object lesson in the difference between black-and-white films in the post-color 20th century and black-and-white films in the period when such was the norm (c.f. the below-reviewed Orpheus) and discuss the sharp, detailed picture with a more smoothed-out gray scale when I encountered a nasty digital glitch only a minute or so into the movie. As you will see in the illustration, a snapshot of my display. At which point I went and exchanged the disc, and got a second disc that had the same glitch at the same point. Which leads me to suspect that glitch is on the master, and that someone at Echo Bridge isn’t doing his or her job. I’m looking into the matter but in the meantime I certainly can’t recommend.—D+
Dressed to Kill (MGM/UA)
Really looks pretty great overall; as someone who saw this thing in theaters one or two times too many when it was first released, I can attest that the sometimes creamy, sometimes grainy look is pretty much what we got back then, and that it’s entirely appropriate to the material at all times. The sole extra of note, the brilliantly titled doc “The Making of a Thriller,” is not in HD. But it hardly matters; this can be acquired at very good prices on line and elsewhere and if you’re a fan of the film (and why not? It’s got some bravura moviemaking in it!) it definitely warrants a place in your library.—A
Essential Killing (Artificial Eye U.K. import, Region B locked, region free)
Excellent image, from the desert caves of the opening to the blue/white snow of deepest Europe in winter where most of the rest of the film. Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest film is a tough, terse, blunt but not unempathetic thing; a small-scaled masterpiece of such grabbing immediacy that it’s practically a sin that it’s gotten next to nothing with respect to U.S. distribution at the time of this writing. Of course it helps if you can forget that the lead actor is Vincent Gallo. Who’s quite good actually, but still Vincent Gallo. Given this Blu-ray is the best way you can see the film as of this point, I feel like maybe you ought to. See it this way, I mean. If you’ve got a region-free Blu-ray player. (Correction: initially flagged it as region-locked, it will in fact play on any Blu-ray player worldwide.)—A
The Exterminator (Synapse)
The commentary track for the digitization of this grindhouse classic begins with producer/director James Glickenhaus trashing the film’s reviewers, so you know it’s gonna be good. Overall this is a very solid presentation of a very visually flat film. A terrific test case for the not-quite eternal question “is this Blu-ray really necessary?” My answer: Why the hell not. Scummy criminals, senseless mayhem, Christopher George, and dialogue along the lines of , well actually what follows is a precise quote: “That ‘nigger’ was my best friend, you motherfucker.” Awesome. Later, during an outdoor cabaret scene, Glickenhaus notes, “Here’s old Stan Getz, that’s pretty neat.” He then complains that critics didn’t “get” that this was a Getz cameo and then, barely pausing for breath, allows that the Getz bit is “a throwaway.” Told you it was a good commentary. The Getz factor also makes it an exemplary half for a double feature with the new Warner Archive issue of Get Yourself A College Girl. —A
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Universal)
Ohmigod the ugly mall lighting! You can tell it’s meant to be ugly mall lighting because the sun-lit scenes—oh, and you know which one I mean, really—are beautiful and dappled and have good, um, reds and, um, flesh tones, and all that. Seriously, overall a good sharp image for a generally foursquare visual piece (ah those reverse-angled cafeteria setups with the shallow focus…) . Movie’s still real good for the most part, practically a classic. Is it too old for “the new canon” or whatever the heck it is? —A
The Funhouse (Arrow U.K. Import, region-free)
Ah, an early work from blockbuster producer Mace Neufeld! And hey, remember Elizabeth Berridge? Boy, that’s cute, barely ten-year-old baby brother accosting his absolutely not-faking-it naked sister in the shower with a plastic dagger in the shower. Boy, the stuff you could get away with in the ‘80s. I took this Tobe Hooper item as a sample of Texas Chainsaw lite when I saw it in its 1981 theatrical release, and I haven’t thought of it since, but watching it recently in this stellar Arrow presentation gave me a real “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” feeling. While not as depraved as corresponding Euro fare, it’s genuinely nasty rather than winkingly nasty, and kinda casually so, which makes a big difference. And here Tobe’s got a budget, and a crane, and anamorphic lenses, and he tries (and fails) to replicate the effect of that simple but killer under-the-porch-swing tracking shot from TCM. Like I said, he doesn’t, but it’s still a handsome little piece of work, about 39 minutes in, and the transfer is so specific you can track the focus anomalies created by the anamorphic lens in tandem with the moving camera. Whoo, and additionally, hoo. In other telling-detail related moments, the line of spittle hanging from lip of that guy’s Frankenstein mask. Disgusting, and rightfully so. —A+
Very, very nice. Aside from being, you know, a classic and transportive film (eat it, ’49!) this is a beautifully presented pertinent example of film texture of a certain age. The black-and-white textures have a kind of plastic solidity that the film stock of Dead Man simply doesn’t recreate, and here of course it’s combined with light and décor and makeup and effects creating this seductive but admittedly now anachronistic (by a certain perspective, at least) artificiality. Amaze your friends! Or at least the friends who might not find it boring. I’m sure you can divert one or two be directing them to the shot here that was used as a Smiths single cover shot. —A+
Full disclosure: I’m friendly with this film’s director, Greg Mottola, and cordially acquainted with one of its costars. So, you know, take my endorsement of this film as a knowing, lively, albeit, yes, kind of vulgar delight with whatever grain of salt you believe the above knowledge requires of you. In a bit of inside knowledge that’s likely to be no surprise to anyone, Greg found the post-production process, wherein an entirely visually digital alien had to be seamlessly blended into the action, a hugely challenging part of the filmmaking process, and I think it was pulled off beautifully and it looks great in the digital high-def realm too. As digital is now an integral part of the process, the other good news here is that the film looks very much like it did in its theatrical presentation, which is very crisp and colorful. The real locations of the American West were clearly shot with a lot of love and appreciation. Lovely. —A
Pigs and Battleships/Stolen Desire (Eureka!/MOC U.K. import, Region B locked)
Whoa. This double dose of early Imamura is a pretty damn near flawless. The stunning, roiling 1961 Pigs and Battleships is the star of this set (Stolen Desire, the maestro’s debut feature, is very solid but comparatively constrained). Some occasional print damage appears but overall it’s an incredibly stunning widescreen black-and-white image. The film is replete with amazing shots of long duration, such as an overhead crane following the film’s heroine walking with a group of friends while feckless hero Kinta follows parallel and eavesdrops on their conversation unseen from the other side of a fence. And of course the climax…well, seriously, a must-own, and another argument why an investment in a region-free Blu player would be worth it JUST for the sake of Eureka!/MOC releases in the format. —A+
Goddamn this is shiny, in that too shiny way that people complain about. No, it is NOT the best-looking version of the DePalma film ever. The DNR takes the sweat on the faces of the boatlift people and glues it to them so that they look like wax figures. If that’s your idea of enhancement, you’re welcome to it. Plus there are a lot of artifacts. Haloes, black edges shimmers, all that kind of stuff. I usually go easy on taking issue with other people’s perceptions, but seriously, if you can’t see the problems here I worry you might not have eyes. On the plus side, the compression is well done overall. (See the bonfires in the riot scenes early on, if you can tear your eyes away from the hilarious evidence that DePalma is the most ineffectual director of extras EVER.) I don’t know if it’s a matter of one being able to get used to anything, or what, but the aforementioned problems diffuse, or at least are easier to take, as the film goes on. It winds up watchable. And it could have—should have—been more than that. —B-
Straw Dogs (MGM/UA)
This is one visually WEIRD film, right from the get go, where the children playing around the stone church look to be shot in forced perspective, so the buildings almost seem to be being dwarfed by them. And on it goes. Gray, gray gray. And then that dull, almost moon-like, autumnal sun. And then the ultra-violent climax, shot almost entirely in near dark, Peckinpah and cinematographer John Coquillon really pushing the film stock. Really, it’s almost as daring visually as it is, um, thematically, and a lot more successfully so too. This Blu-ray is not blow-you-away sharp, but very solid. And a real representation of what the filmmakers GOT, for better of worse, tons of grain and all.—A
The Superman Movie Collection (Warner)
A pretty awesome one-stop-shopping package of sorts, featuring superb HD renderings of the Salkind films, the Singer reboot, etc. The authenticity proof is in the pudding: you get more of the flushed ‘80s flesh tones I’ve been noticing on Blu-rays of films from that period on Lester’s Superman II. And dishy commentaries. Featuring odd semi-Zen pronouncements such as “This is the sort of thing that is funny, but at the same time not funny.” Rather irritating, though, that many of the generous and well-chosen extras, such as the Fleischer Supes cartoons, are NOT presented in HD. Grrr. They still look pretty good though. Still. Grrr. —B+
What is UP with this? Really. While the Arrow Blus of Inferno and Crystal Plumage Phenomena looked super terrific (correction; the Plumage to get is the U.S. Blue Underground issue, which goes against the Storaro Directive and presents the image in full 2.35), this, Four Flies, and in part Deep Red have these grain/speckling issues that detract severely from one’s enjoyment of the Argento baroque. One actually thinks of Jeffrey Wells’ mythical mosquitoes, if they had all flown through a shower of white paint prior to showing up on screen. My old Japanese laser disc had a solider grain structure than this. As with Dead Man, this is a case that requires further research that I might need a while to successfully conclude. In the meantime:—C
Vera Cruz (MGM/UA)
The title type at the beginning shows the film’s age in the way that it will (the picture was produced in 1954), as in those reds are a little blurred in the saturation, to coin a phrase. Soon things settle in nicely. Enjoy the unusual 2.00 aspect ratio. It’s a bright clean picture albeit with what seems a lot of sharpness variation with respect to long shots versus medium close-ups, but not QUITE as dramatic as what you’ll see in The Big Country, reviewed last month. A lot of variation from long shot to medium closeup. Really nice overall. Neat film, too. A Western with mismatched protagonists that’s also kind of a road movie and/or chamber drama in disguise, featuring double crosses galore. Quintessential Aldrich, in its way—pessimistic but simultaneously filled with a near-perverse good cheer. Highly recommended. —A
The Ward (Arc Entertainment)
Answer the question, John Carpenter: Did you shoot this anamorphically, for real? Alas, the maestro does not answer the question in his amiable, casual (but not quite as gonzo as the stuff he used to output with his old buddy Kurt Russell) commentary for this disc, which has male star Jared Harris sitting in with the director. This admirably crafted comeback film from Carpenter gets a very solid Blu-ray rendering, looking, as so many contemporary high-def discs do, like a chip off the old digital intermediary. The diffusion of the light in the final shot of the shower sequence is one of the dead giveaways that this ain’t the summer of celluloid no more, but as J.C. says on that audio track, albeit in another context, “You can’t worry about older movies.” If you liked this picture—and I did—this is worth your time. —A-
Went the Day Well? (Optimum, region-B locked U.K. import)
I have an elaborate theory about how this sort-of alternate history fantasy of Britain in World War II is both a refutation AND a confirmation of all the snarly things Godard said about British wartime film in his Histoires, but I guess this isn’t the place for that. So I’ll just say that this crackling Cavalcanti piece, from a Graham Greene story, still works like mad as a yarn and a thriller, and looks great here. Good grain, a minimally scratched source, a particularly rich gray scale. A transfer from the 2010 restoration, one presumes. Not much in terms of extras, e.g., a BBC Radio 3 audio essay on the film. If you know the film, you know you want it. If you only know its legend, well, I bet you won’t be disappointed if you make the investment. —A
Strong image, again probably straight from the digital inter; good detail, and again, not very FILMIC. On the very plus side, the dark parts of the image (and many of the film’s scenes take place in dimly lit living rooms and such, it’s that kind of cinematic entertainment) have no noise. As in, none. So if you like your indie comedy-dramas very clean at home, this is the way to go. Seriously, I found this one of the better films of its ilk this year, so I’m glad to have this version. —A
Women In Cages Collection (Shout! Factory)
Ooh, three Roger-Corman-produced women-in-prison films from the ‘70s in one convenient package. Which to watch first? Well, as helpful Roger points out, “Playing the ‘new fish’ in prison [in The Big Bird Cage] is the gorgeous Anitra Ford of The Price Is Right.” “New fish,” that’s classic. What we learn from watching Big Doll House and Big Bird Cage is that Jack Hill was pretty much Corman’s answer to Edgar G. Ulmer. Great basic but hardly unstylish or unstylized filmmaking in cheap-ass settings and situations. Gets pretty exciting in the outdoors, too. Hill’s commentary notes how Coppola destroyed some of the beautiful Bird Cage Philippines locations for Apocalypse Now, and Jack sounds a little ticked off about it. The third film, Women in Cages, is not directed by Hill, and looks the crappiest of the three, has sound sync problems, etc. As a result though it conveys something like a more AUTHENTIC 42nd Street feel, again, if you Like That Sort Of Thing.—A
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Kino Lorber)
A quite gorgeous, warmly colored rendering of a rather…well, meh film. Something you could probably watch with your mom, except for Sophia Loren’s striptease scene, ay caramba. So watch Sunflower with your mom instead, and save this for a cold lonely winter night or something. —B
NEXT MONTH: Kane! Ben-Hur! Dumbo! Chabrol! Eisenstein! Edwards! Keaton! Altman! And more! It's gonna be legendary!
Despite various sins against criticism, and the fact that I am sometimes moved to pity by the wailing and gnashing of teeth of my younger confreres, I've never felt moved to comment on the apprehension-producing output of one Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a really not-so-bright young thing whose staggering smug banalities suggest the witless confidence of the preternaturally attractive, and yet...oh, never mind. However, the gnashing of teeth attending her inaugural column for GQ—I'm not sure if it's both the print and online edition, but if it is, holy crap, copy desk, get on the stick; all that passive voice really tends to stick out on paper—has been sufficiently poignant to stir up sympathy enow to foster a word of commiseration or two.
Ms. Vargas-Cooper's column is dubbed "The New Canon," and therein she proposes to Take Very Seriously, or Kind Of Seriously In Her Ostensibly Sassy Way, the works of what she calls "our generation of filmmakers." That she chooses to first treat a picture by James Cameron brings up a question concerning that "our." James Cameron is older than ME, Natasha. I thought you were supposed to be a Bright YOUNG Thing. Ahem. But that's not important, as Leslie Nielsen (28 years Cameron's senior) said in Airplane!.
What is impor...well, not important, but kind of interesting, in a really irritating way, is how she prattles on as if she's doing something subversive or transgressive by proposing...wait for it...Terminator 2: Judgement Day for her "new canon." Didn't some notion relative to this idea come along with, um, Andy Warhol, or, wait, was it Milton Caniff, and didn't the "bums" WIN that particular argument? I mean, is this individual REALLY rekindling a high/low dispute that doesn't figure in ANYONE'S actual conversation about film or almost any other aspect of culture anymore? I mean, Kingsley Amis dubbed Terminator 2 an "unimpeachable masterpiece." David Foster Wallace disdained it as the first work of "effects porn," and bemoaned that it was a betrayal of its low-budget antecedent. Neither writer, each a certified bonafide highbrow with a fancy college edumication and everything, even hinted that the movie was in any way beneath their notice or consideration. Thinking seriously about a film like Terminator 2 was no more novel to either than, maybe, drinking a glass of water was. And yet here's Natasha Vargas-Cooper, flouncing around like a moron giggling "Look at me! I think Terminator 2 is actually a great movie! Aren't I naughty?"
Sigh. And I'm not even getting into the slack, stupid prose (as I believe I mentioned, that's a big ole passive voice ya got there, Natasha, and I say that as a feller who regularly piles on and abuses the subordinate clauses, if'n ya know what I'm sayin' and I reckon ya do), the unmotivated swipe at a classic film combined with a brag that she hasn't seen it (Rules of the Game, in case you're wondering...) and other such delights. As I said, it's causing a lot of pain for my chums ("Would GQ hire a literary columnist who bragged that she hadn't read Hamlet?" a friend writes, in genuine confusion and anger), but I can't get TOO worked up about it. "Professional" "arts" "writing," particularly on the internets, is becoming something of a zero-sum game conducted AGAINST the reader; the more effin' mad it makes you, the more the desperate-for-relevance-and-page-views editors think it's "hot" and "provocative" and likely to go "viral." And rest assured that Natasha Vargas-Cooper is laughing at you, very loud and very cattily. Include me out.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention, relative to a rather inappropriate (to the reading-comprehension and irony-challenged, at least) pastiche-joke I made on Twitter (although, on reflection, pastiche-jokes that call for a lot of contextualizing might not be entirely apt Twitter-fodder, alas), and a few of my phrasings above, that certain of my speculations and opinions concerning Vargas-Cooper were/are on the sexist side. For better or worse I've learned that saying "I am NOT sexist" when someone calls you sexist doesn't really earn you any slack, so my assurances that I would cite "the witless confidence of the preternatually attractive" with respect to a bad male writer who came on as if he looked like Armie Hammer would no doubt be exerted in vain, at least as far as those readers committed to being convinced of my sexism were concerned. Which is a long winded way of saying, "Sorry, but tough."
I wasn't all that surprised that Dolphin Tale was better than Killer Elite; while both films feature veteran talents working in genres/modes in which they have at times been fully capable of delivering the goods, the dolphin movie looked to be a trifle fresher, concept wise. My MSN Movies reviews of the films are at the titular links.
I remember Lee Lipsenthal insisting that I sample the crab in black bean sauce at Lin's China Garden on Bayard Street, the unholy mess produced by that meal notwithstanding, because it was in fact the greatest dish ever devised by humans. I remember him being correct.
I remember having selfsame meal with Lee, Ron G., and Steven K. shortly after that first time, and Steven's standard litany of complaints about his life as we all (except Lee) smoked post-dinner cigs and rolled our eyes. I remember when the fortune cookies came and Steven's didn't have a fortune in it, Lee's high-pitched bray of a laugh, how it was even louder than my own. I remember Steven insisting on getting another fortune cookie, checking to make sure it had a fortune in it. I remember Lee's laugh being even louder and higher when the fortune inside turned out to be blank.
I remember Lee saying "She doesn't look like 'Meryl Streep through a fog filter,' you idiot. What are you, fucking high?"
I remember trolling around the Village with Lee and Ron searching for a Japanese vinyl pressing of Talking Heads' Fear of Music, which pressing Lee was convinced was going to provide a more satisfying sonic experience than the domestic version on Sire. It was a hot, sunny, beautiful summer day. I remember Lee very seriously intoning, "They say, animal no wolly. Rive on nuts and bellies."
I remember Lee's German Shepherd who was named Junior Barnes, and how we sometimes called him "Djuna Barnes."
I remember Lee driving us out to Callahan's in Fort Lee one evening to test my proposition that the joint had the best french fries in the Western world. I remember during a lull in the conversation he just said "Steven" in a letter-perfect impersonation of the laconic, vaguely contemptuous tone of Steven's father. I remember, after finishing laughing, thinking that Lee was maybe the funniest person I had ever met, but that I would also have trouble conveying why this was the case to civilians.
I remember Lee referring to the Art Theater on 8th Street as "the Art Bears Theater."
I remember Lee describing the music playlist he had planned for his waiting room when he began his own private practice. He had devised this great segue from Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" into Public Image Ltd.'s "Swan Lake."
I remember when Lee failed patient care, and a few of us drew some correspondences between that result and the aforementioned playlist idea.
I remember having dinner with Lee and Ron at the Brew and Burger (Burger and Brew?) in West Orange before driving out to the city to see Pere Ubu at Irving Plaza and being kind of abashed, strangely, after recognizing three members of the Bay City Rollers dining in a nearby booth.
I remember Lee unabashedly and joyously dancing with himself to a Clash tune on the P.A. at Irving Plaza before Ubu came on. (I think it was "Train In Vain." The Ubu show was part of the band's Art of Walking tour.)
I remember Lee telling me and Ron that his then-girlfriend Kathy had, pretty much right after meeting us, said "I can't marry you if these are your friends."
I remember Lee calling me a few years later, out of the blue, and explaining, "Kathy was saying that she was worried about your personal life." Kathy had married him anyway, as it had happened.
Lee died yesterday. Below is the YouTube trailer for his forthcoming book, Enjoy Every Sandwich.
I was able to see A Dangerous Method last night, and was very taken with it. It's the latest film directed by David Cronenberg, a favorite of mine, and it was written by the Distinguished British Playwright Christopher Hampton, based on his own play The Talking Cure, which was itself suggested by John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method. I lay all this out because many of the lukewarm notices coming after the film's screenings in Telluride and Toronto have been implying that the presence of the likes of Hampton in the mix of creative contributors did not Let Cronenberg Be Cronenberg. I see the film rather differently; I think it's pretty brilliant, and almost ENTIRELY Cronenbergian. I, um, tweeted to that effect immediately after seeing the film, thusly, I'm afraid: "A DANGEROUS METHOD (Cronenberg, '11): Fascinating period remake of RABID. Knightley rules in the Chambers role. Don't believe the h8rs." I know, I know; I have to live with that "h8rs" until the day I die.
Anyway, I'm not going to do a full-on review of the film here, as I will likely be doing an official (and paid!) one for MSN Movies, but I'd like to report a bit on some of the reaction to my reaction. One Tweeter took extreme exception to my characterization: "Due respect, but that's nuts, Glenn. Talk about a reach. I say that as a huge fan of his work, too." That was an easy enough one to come back to: "Consider that in both films the heroines' respective maladies are metaphors for sexual power, if you will." A little later, a different objector protested that the film doesn't have "a cinematic bone in its body." Because I'm trying to improve my manners on Twitter, I kept my response to something along the lines of maybe-we-have-different-ideas-of-what-constitutes-"cinematic," to which my parrier responded "is 'visual storytelling' on your list?" and here, really, is where I had to resist the temptation to go all virtually Walter Sobchak on this guy's Smokey, if you know what I'm saying and I think you do...but I restrained myself. And I'm getting mad again just thinking about it. Because, trust me, my challenger was not David Bordwell.
It seems as if every time a film is adapted from a stage play it gives unimaginative and unobservant critics an opportunity to not look at what's actually in front of them and to reflexively condemn the resultant work as being "closed off" or "closed in" or "not cinematic." Alfred Hitchcock put paid to this notion in his discussion with François Truffaut of his (Hitchcock's) 1954 Dial "M" For Murder, or at least I thought so, schmuck as I may be. The thing about Cronenberg is, he's not quite as visually bravura a cinematic storyteller as Hitchcock. Neither a minimalist in the Jarmusch mode nor a maestro of near-operatic flourish in the Scorsesean sense, Cronenberg's pitch comes straight down the middle, in a sense, he rarely does anything to call attention to his technique. What we think of as characteristically Cronenbergian derives from what he shows us—and over the course of five decades of filmmaking he's shown us explosing heads, human VCR slots, talking assholes, venereal-disease quasi-slugs, and so on—not from how he shows it to us, which is distinctive only by way of being largely head-on, without flinching (although we may flinch, ourselves), a very nearly clinical perspective.
In A Dangerous Method the material doesn't give him anything all that terribly upsetting to show us, at least not upsetting in that visceral way that exploding heads and talking assholes might be. But still. That "nearly" clinical perspective; it's not uniformly neutral, not in this film, not in any of Cronenberg's film. More often than not Cronenberg is happy to have us believe that the camera is merely making a record (c.f. Cronenberg's haunting 2000 short Camera), while he very subtly manipulates the perspective. I took particular note in this film of a scene early on in which the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, begins his treatment of the "hysterical" Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The two sit on plain chairs in a bare room; Jung sits behind Sabina, so that his presence may not become a distraction to her. They discuss her childhood, dreams, all that kind of psychoanalytic stuff (she talks about "some kind of mollusk moving against my back" which brought to my mind a mental picture from Cronenberg's very early feature It Came From Within/Shivers), but that's not what's paramount here. The crucial section of the scene consists of three shots. The first is a very properly—classically, you might say—composed medium shot in which we see Fassbender and Knightley from the waist up. Fassbender's sitting very still, but Knightley's Sabina is knotting up as she speaks; she's a collection of tics, she keeps setting and resetting her jaw and intertwining her arms and leaning forward as she speaks, and her behavior winds the still shot up, gives it a building tension; and Cronenberg holds the shot for a long time. He then cuts to a tighter medium shot isolating Fassbender, who's still unmoving, but is looking rather fervently forward and to the right of the frame (his left) at Knightley's back. We cannot read his expression with anything like certitude, but it's clear he's highly engaged. Cronenberg then cuts back to the prior two-shot, and after holding it long enough to sufficiently re-ground the viewer in it, starts to move the camera, slowly, to the right and forward simultaneously, until Fassbender's out of the shot and Knightley's isolated in it. The camera is, in effect, following Jung's wishes, seeing her the way he wants to see her; if not yet wanting her, utterly fascinated with her.
At this point I could be coy and say "If that isn't visual storytelling, I don't know what is," but screw it, that is visual storytelling, and the critic who can't see it is not a critic I'm inclined to trust. Please note that I said "can't see it," not "isn't impressed/moved by it" or "doesn't admire it." I can't tell another person what to think or how to feel about a film or a sequence in a film. But I can ask a person to look at what's in front of him or her before he or she presumes to assess it.
And of course I figure that Cronenberg doesn't expect the mass of this film's audience to parse his sequences in precisely the way that I'm doing. There's more, of course. Look at Knightley's look, particularly in the earliest parts of the movie. While Fassbender's Jung is a ruddy-cheeked Aryan and Viggo Mortensen's Sigmund Freud mostly a hearty greying eminence, Sabina is a ravishing sepia smudge, a study in dun and talcum white. The shadows beneath her eyes are vampirish, or even, let's say, vampish; the film does begin in 1904, just as the cinematic codification of the feminine is beginning. Then there's the fact that all of the film's sex scenes are in fact scenes within secnes; they're all shot as seen in mirrors in Sabina's room. All this figures in creating, at least as far as I'm concerned, powerful senses of the Other, otherness, and even other-worldly-ness. All of which is brought down with hammerlike world historical force in an admitedly verbal pronouncement made by Mortensen's Freud to Sabina late in the film, as Sabina is herself preparing to become a psychoanalyst, and resolves on a shudderingly tragic note with the film's last line and its text epilogues on the fates of its main characters.
Again, I believe Cronenberg means all this to be intuited rather than parsed by the viewers, but I think I've given you enough here to convince you that maybe this ain't an impersonal Masterpiece Theater move by the master. And again I insist that Rabid is a corresponding touchstone here, as is his galvanizing, self-starring 2007 short (which he made for the Cannes Film Festival's Chacun son cinema commemoration), At The Suicide Of The Last Jew In The World in the Last Cinema in the World. We'll discuss this further when the film opens in November.