Saturday, September 11, 2010

Red Time #1: Michelangelo Antonioni's RED DESERT

I'm reminded of a quote from the master Ingmar Bergman regarding Michelangelo Antonioni.  I quote it here as a means of some minor (if not overwhelming) argument:
"So devilishly sad... Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films. But I don't feel anything for L'avventura (1960), for example. Only indifference."
I can see where Bergman is coming from with that statement, I really can.  His films have split critics and audiences ever since L'Aavventura (and perhaps even before then, though to be frank no one starts seeing his films with his works from the 50's, they, as I did as a budding film-geek, see Blowup or maybe Zabriskie Point).   His films, and Red Desert is not exception, can be sad and as well made up usually of brilliant moments more than being great films.  I find myself somewhat in the middle: I'm neither in the camp that finds almost everything he made a monolithic masterpiece, nor do I find them pretentious (though at times either one of those could be applied to his works, such as, again, Blowup or Zabriskie Point respectively).

Where I may argue Bergman is on the point about the "rhythmic flow of images", and about the indifference.  It should go without saying that when, say, compared to an Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni doesn't come close to making hardcore emotional connection with a willing viewer, and the images in his films flow like poetry.  Then again, the same could be argued for Antonioni.  Both filmmakers (oddly enough both deceased within a day of each other in 2007) go for such a streak of the existential in cinema, which is more than fine by me.  But what Bergman gets at is Antonioni's stubbornness, at times, to favor the image, the composition, the photography and depth of image over the emotions of the actors, and perhaps directs them, or refuses to direct, in the way of really garnering the best out of them.

In the case of Red Desert, I would argue that there is a rhythmic flow of images, and it does serve to tell a story.  It's not always a story that one can follow so easily if one is expecting the conventional.  Make no mistake, this is one of "those" art-films.  You know the kind; indeed I was saddened after a while that I couldn't see the film as it was intended, on a big screen in a small movie theater in the Village in lower Manhattan (i.e. the Film Forum).  It's about mood and character over plot; the protagonist, Giuliana (Antonioni's muse), is a mother of a small boy and married to a man, but is also a true-blue neurotic.  Maybe she was one always, or maybe the environment she's around - an industrial smörgåsbord - when she reveals herself, at first to herself and then to others, she finds that she's being crushed, by health (a 99-degree temperature freaks her out), by the sea (she's right by it on a boat at one point), or by those around her that may be close to her or may not be (Richard Harris' character Corrado).

First a note about how Antonioni does shoot his film, and those "brilliant moments" as Bergman refers to.  Such moments really are, indeed, shots, or scenes with a number of angles that bring out a certain mood of the piece (in, say, L'Avventura it was the nature of the island, or at the end of the Passenger that near-final tracking shot isolating the figure in his room).  Red Desert's mood is the factual nature of industry, and how humans must dwell in it or work in it or just stare at poisonous yellow smoke in the sky.

Antonioni may like industry for all we know, but its presence in the film is like that out of science fiction, and the audio blips that accompany it (or for just Giuliana at times) accentuate this.  It's all grays and black smoke and large smokestacks and factories and long corridors and spaces of blankness.  It overpowers the characters, and whether they like it or not it's all there, consuming around them.  It's almost a relief when a character or characters are surrounded by brighter colors, such as the red walls (albeit faded by time) and the rich blue of the sea.  If nothing else, when Antonioni sets his sights on those tall and overwhelming markers- even a ship at sea seems to over-take the scenery when it comes into view- it's an engrossing sight, almost despite (or related to) the nature of the lead character.

When it comes time though for Antonioni to set his sights on the actors, away from those landscapes... it's still very good work.  Monica Vitti has a sort of disposition here with her character that we may have seen before.  It is a fidgety character, or sometimes ornery, or just plain unsure of her place in the world.  Antonioni sets it up to be someone we can identify with, or might want to feel sympathy with.  Where the problem may come in (and where, for example, Bergman might triumph in comparison) is with some of the dialog.  Not all of it, and certainly there are moments of profundity, but some stretches are hard to take as Giuliana speaks to Corrado about the troubles of her life, the existential decay, and, eventually, her suicide attempt.

Vitti is good here, but perhaps it's not simply about the dialog that can be unnerving.  She is so withdrawn, not just as a character but as a performance, that we do feel quite sad, perhaps devastated, once it's over.  But I still, after finishing the first viewing, know for sure if it's the kind of devastation that is lasting and strong and moving, or if it's annoying.  Perhaps it's a combination.  Other actors do decently in their roles, some of them such as in a surprisingly (for this subject matter) lively scene inside of a cramped quarter on a boathouse with some characters drinking and playing sensually-suggestive games, provide some much needed warmth.  Richard Harris also appears to be good in his role, though compared to other Antonioni male "heroes" like Nicholson or Alain Delon or David Hemmings, his performance suffers by a) a withdrawn appearance (or disinterest in the role) due to the character, and b) by proxy of the Criterion Collection DVD, the dubbing in Italian without an option for English dubbing detracts from his full work.  

But back to the emotion: is it there?  In some moments, yes.  One of the most memorable, perhaps just the spot-on thing of crisis of neuroses, involves Giuliana's son's legs.  For some reason they can't move, there's no feeling in them, not a tap on the knee or anything can change it.  She takes him to the doctor and there's a wait for a diagnosis- of course much too long for Giuliana- and it's around here that I was pulled into the film, that I was concerned for both characters, for how it would be resolved but also on how someone else with a real physical impairment would affect her.  The follow-up to this scene is also incredible, a momentary milestone for Antonioni, as Giuliana tells a story to her son about a girl who lives on an island by herself, seeing sailboats all day but finally seeing one that is a real sailboat, old-style, and has no passengers on it.  Then sweet singing of a siren back on shore, and rocks that "become like flesh."  There is a simplicity to the story but a complexity merged with how it's shot- the brightness of the colors, the change in mood, that is startling.

Ultimately, Red Desert was a moving experience, and aesthetically pleasing and, indeed, could move to a kind of music that is hard to distinguish as anything less than "rhythmic".  Antonioni has his pretensions, and they are made loud and clear at times.  It also attempts to break some ground with the psychology of a broken woman, though, again, it being the 1960's and a time for the deconstruction of mental barriers with characters in European cinema this isn't anything exactly "new".  What is insightful is the nature of the landscape with its lead characters, and how others respond to it in kind.  I only felt indifference at certain instances, when the director slowed down to such a crawl that it became hard to take.  But it never bores, or aims to do so, at least to one looking for color and depth and the dread in Monica Vitti's profile.  One can stop for each shot, or let it run along as a tale of sadness that doesn't stop too long.

ADDENDUM: As I re-read this post, I look back on the part about comparing Ingmar Bergman's work that it "flows like poetry."  Which is true.  And I want little to do with you if you see the majority of his work and don't think there's some of it there.  But at the same time, I'm now reminded of that line from the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace, specifically the clip of George Lucas talking about events in the film: "It's like poetry, it rhymes. ::Shrug::"  One has to be careful with saying these things.  So there.

Saturday Movie Madness! (Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue and Michael Radford's Flawless)

OK boys and girls, men and women, dudes and dudettes (I always like saying that last one, Ninja Turtles style), this is the first of something that maybe could be a regular thing, maybe not. Certainly I would like it to be, but only time will tell. Today/tonight I'll blog about movies I've seen in a segment called "Saturday Movie Madness!"

It's fitting today as I have already seen two films, and (hopefully) intend on seeing two more. It's good to be doing something like this as, a) I have a backlog of movies at home reaching to the ceiling, and b) there are some good ones (or maybe not) that I'd like to dish about. It also helps that regularly- or as regularly as I'd like given circumstances- my friends and I get together on Saturday nights and dig into movies, usually of the "fun-bad" quality. Some are more entertaining than others. If not, some good time to talk!

So here it starts:

(director: Satoshi Kon)

On the recent passing of Satoshi Kon, director of such creative mind-benders as Paprika and Millennium Actress, it's of note, or just curiosity, to revisit the rest of his all-too-brief oeuvre.   His first film, Perfect Blue, is a wild ride.  It starts off as something understandable, then, not right away but eventually like slipping into a deep dream it turns into something else entirely.  It is a precise example of how a director in the anime style can take a story and turn it into unadulterated surrealism.  There is a set-up that seems so straightforward as to seem like a story out of a light manga: a pop star, Mima, grows tired of doing the same songs in her pop group and leaves to become an actress, only to land small roles with a scant few lines (or as it becomes more "I'll do anything" a rape scene), only to find she has a stalker, on her website and in real life, with freaky eyes and a sinister complexion.

It's where Kon leaps off from with this premise, how he takes the state of mind of this pop star and goes to places so unexpected that make it something of an underrated classic.  Mima has a grasp on what she's doing and is happy with the direction she's taking her career in, even if it's small parts she's glad to have while her manager/friend Rumi frowns upon certain choices (i.e. a rape scene).  When she loses this grip it starts with the man staring at her on set with the bug-eyes, like a fly, and holding a camera, and then later leaving messages on her website written *as* her.  It's bound to make anyone's skin crawl, but with Mima it's different: she loses a grip on her reality, if she even is a an actress, or a pop star, or ever was.

Dreams fold into the filmmaking process, as Mima wakes up from what appears to be a rather weird, horrifying dream, such as being run over by a car.  But then she is still in a dream, or on the movie set where the movie takes on the reality.  Mima also sees a double of herself dog her around, floating like a sprite and claiming to be the "real" her.  Kon animates this so as to always keep the audience off guard.  Is Mima actually Mima?  Is she a doing horrible things like, say, killing certain people on the production she's on?  And what about that weird guy who has posters of Mima on his wall who talk all at the same time to her?  As she goes deeper into this delirium, of seeing her movie shoot as reality, her photo-shoot where she poses naked as nightmare, and scenes in her apartment folding upon themselves, we lose our sense of reality too.

This is a good thing if we know we're in good hands that can be trusted.  For all intents and purposes, Kon has his audience, if they're willing to be taken to some dark and twisted and, to be sure, violent and explicit places (though not as violent or explicit as you've seen if you're a die-hard anime fan), it's worth the misdirection.  It's like a pop nightmare out of one of David Lynch's wormhole movies (Inland Empire, made years after this one, comes to mind), and it's important to note how Kon, like Lynch, deals in the unexplained like it's the most natural thing imaginable (or unimaginable).  There's a visceral reaction to scenes and events to what the directors show, in this case one of those the rape scene I mentioned before (it really is so graphic as to inspire Darren Aronofsky for the "dildo" scene in Requiem for a Dream), and even scenes of violence such as a stabbing of a character.  It's interesting to note this was intended as a live-action film at first; when violence occurs, particularly this precisely long and brutal scene (if only a little bloody) and at the climactic chase, it tricks the viewer watching it.  How "real" can a split reality be?

If the film has any faults its only in small aspects that should be forgiven, such as some chintzy pop songs (albeit fun enough to get by), it dates itself by the "newness" of something called the "internet", and a resolution with the freaky stalker character that is a little underwhelming (not enough to fault it, just enough to notice something like, say, the obviousness of his voice).  But where Kon strikes hardest is where his film endures the most.  Perfect Blue is a small 80-minute treasure for those who like to get lost in the dream-state of a movie, where we go along with the insanity the character experiences.  That it also involves in the story film production and celebrity popularity gives it that extra ingredient of real interest.  One of the real-deals in 90's anime.


(dir: Michael Radford)

Is there any better British actor working right now than Michael Caine?  Still working at the rip age of 77- he was in his mid-70's when this film was made, Flawless- he has a quality to his presence, authority, strength, but also vulnerability, that makes him so appealing as a figure in movies.  Even when he plays villains, or has been in bad movies (and for Pete's sake he's been in a lot of them too), we can see ourselves in him, and his understanding of the character always comes at the emotional level, which is why he can go from playing a character such as Mr. Hobbs, a lowly janitor widower who plots to heist the diamonds from the vault where he works, to Harry Brown this past year.

That Caine is also in a good 'heist' movie is a nice bonus.  I say 'good' as it's far reaching from greatness.  Director Radford is content to let its story be about good people who get themselves into a rather extraordinary circumstance, without making it soar into a place too far off the ground cinematically.  It's about how Mr. Hobbs, who has been without his wife for fifteen years and working at the London Diamond Corporation, which houses many of the diamonds that go all-around the world circa 1960, plots to rob this corporation of its millions and millions of dollars worth of diamonds, and enlists the unlikely help of the one career woman around the place, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore in a decent British accent though still an American).  She's on her way out, by way of being let go due to some issue involving a deal with the Russians.  As she's about to be fired, she doesn't mind taking something along with her, hence Mr. Hobbs plan to just stroll on in the middle of the night as he's all alone and get in the safe.

As happens in heist films, conventionally, things don't go quite as planned.  There's cameras placed (a new innovation!) and Hobbs takes with him much, much more than Laura ever could fathom, which also puts the corporation into a tizzy as a ransom comes along.  There are other things too like ulterior motives, a very charming but very suspicious and (really) spot-on inspector who knows something's fishy about Laura, and of course the location of the diamonds themselves.  Radford lets some competent but sometimes flashy-by-way-of-editing direction get by, and it mostly works for the material.  It's a slick movie, more in tune with heist movies of the 70's (sadly not Melville, but you can't always have it all), and there's a nice sequence showing the heist where, save for some music, there's barely a word spoken as Hobbs does his surprisingly adept work at the safe and diamonds.

In the last fifteen minutes or so one gets the revelations, and they're not bad but somewhat predictable (if you pay attention to the word 'widowed'), as is the final "twist" that old-age Laura gives to a reporter.  Moore, I shouldn't neglect to mention, is better than her average as of late - certainly better than her thankless role in Mr. Brooks though not as good as in The Joneses - but as the real technical "lead" she's eclipsed by the subtlety and the attention to inflection of voice and every line like Caine is.  Her character's best trait is to be calm under pressure, and to this end Moore does do an admirable job.  However there's always the feeling of wanting to get back to the quiet scene-stealer, particularly when the two characters meet in a sewer late in the story.

Radford's Flawless is an enjoyable if not altogether memorable time with crusty British blokes in 1960-era, anchored by its two stars and with a heist scene that should keep some at attention.  What might have made it better, maybe greater, is if Radford trusted his audience a little more.  Everything, and I mean everything, about what happened or what the motivations are, are explained quite dutifully, and not with the kind of verve that Soderbergh brought to his final-act revelations in the Oceans movies.

More to come in part 2 (?)...

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Return of the Ebert

This shouldn't come as a surprise to those following along on Roger Ebert's wonderful blog (and if you don't read it please, 99% of the time he's amazing). But he is coming BACK to TV... sort of.

Watch the details here:

So yeah. Come January we have not only Ebert, but other good critics, one of them Elvis Mitchell (who is the kind of critic I've only read in part- he left the NY Times right as I was just getting into reading serious film criticism- but who does GREAT interviews, especially on his NPR show). While there was nothing too wrong with AO Scott and Michael Phillips, it was a format that was kind of getting stale...

Actually, that's not totally true. The format is basic and hard to replicate, and in a way Ebert is doing just that on his revised show. But the reputation was kind of withered away over time thanks to the "Two Bens" who took over the show after Richard Roeper left (which was some time after Ebert himself left due to cancer surgery).

But it should be something to look forward to, and considering that it's Ebert's return to TV after 4 1/2 years, I hope for the best. Certainly his reputation as someone who made people sit up and notice film criticism- if only, sadly, on TV- precedes him. It's a show I anticipate with enthusiasm.

ADDENDUM: I just watched the video now for the new show. It looks promising, however it's hard to gauge how it will be when it's a shortened pilot episode (one of the facets of At the Movies that is so appealing is seeing the two lead reviewers have at it - here it's like getting only a nibble of a prime rib).

A part of me liked seeing Ebert review something again on camera, though it probably works best that it is as brief a bit as it is. It's good to see him being enthusiastic, and it shows (how long it takes for him to have that finger move is a little bizarre), but it comes clear that he'll only be doing his picks. A morbid part of me wants to see him pan something and see how he looks - since, frankly, he looks kind of happy all the time. Thankfully the thumb is still in tact.

Very lastly, I realized a few minutes after writing this post that I actually have never really watched a full review from the "two Bens" (Lyons and Mankiewicz) who had the job as critics for a couple of years. So I checked out a review for a movie that almost ALL critics panned, Paul Blart Mall Cop... and it was kind of disappointing (the review, not the movie, though it probably is for all I know). I don't sense any real connection between the two, the vibe feels forced, and their opinions are fairly shallow. Some slack could be given to Lyons as he does those TCM intros, but Mankieiwicz wasn't even a critic! Maybe they are spot on about the movie appealing to James' fans (apparently by the box-office it did), but I didn't feel compelled either way by their assessment, which ended with just "See It". Guess the thumbs are reserved, at least for the "good" critics.

Some classics:


And one last quick thing here: here's the full list of blogging from my previous most-blogged-on site, (previous recent posts include reviews for Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue, Ken Russell's The Devil's, Exit Through the Gift Shop, 84 Charlie MoPic, STEP UP 3D, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Joon-Ho Bong's Mother, KICK-ASS, and other things such as a list of Top 5 Troubled Movie Production Books, an RIP for Robert Schimmel, and, of course, BIRDEMIC!!)

He must break you!

This makes me want Norton bad. Probably one of the best commercials since... fellow Expendables star Terry Crewes with his Old Spice commercial.

Other recent Film-Forward reviews...

... rather, reviews that are recent inasmuch that they're still on the main page of the site (some are as old as nine months, others just a couple of weeks). For convenience sake for those who might be curious to peruse the site, here are some for easier reference:


Double Take (documentary, sort of, on Alfred Hitchcock and the Cold War and TV)

Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Two in the Wave (about Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard)

Waking Sleeping Beauty (history of Disney from 1984-1994)

George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (least favorite of the series, but I still liked it!)


Korean "Noodle" Western: The GOOD, the BAD, the WEIRD

and LAST but not LEAST... The Human Centipede (or as me editor put it best, "eww")

Casey Affleck's I'M STILL HERE starring Joaquin "J.P." Phoenix

Check it here.

Welcome to Tommy's Holiday... I mean, the Cinetarium!

Hello out there,

I'm at heart just a movie-goer, but it's from a passion for movies/films/cinema that have branched me out into other things, such as film criticism and filmmaking (as writer/director/sometimes editor and camera operator). This isn't a passing thing but something that is part of my livelihood. That it can also be a career is nice too, but it's the work of it, seeing movies, writing about them, making movies and showing them, and just figuring out what this medium is all about, that keeps exciting me ever since I started in my early teens.

The purpose of this blog will be to chart things that go on for me with movies. This isn't the first time that I've made a blog, per-say, however it's the first time it's been this organized, and I hope to keep with it and not fall out and lose interest.

The 'per-say' refers to what my side-hobby has been, or one of them at any rate. Since... damn, it's been eleven years come September 26th, I've been writing "comments" on On IMDb, for any movie, TV show, documentary, video game, short film, whatever, you can leave a comment. I started when I was fifteen with only minor interest, mostly as a side-bar to writing movie reviews for the Teaneck High School paper.

Here's the first review I wrote, for American Beauty. It is amateurishly written, and I think I probably wrote it as soon as I got home from seeing it around the time it first came out. To be sure if I wrote a review of the same film today it would be much different, a little more in-depth and with some detail. But I kept this review, as well as several others I wrote in 1999 and 2000, for more sentimental reasons. Some reviews I have double-backed on and re-edited (and, for convenience sake, you can see THE WHOLE BLOODY LIST HERE of movies I've reviewed on the site, currently the number is 3,746), while others are kept in-tact.

One of the reasons I've started this blog is because of finally, after so many years as something of a kind of personal compulsion of writing these 'comments', more for myself, perhaps, than anyone else, is that I've a) grown tired of it, it takes a movie that I feel super passionate about either way (i.e. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or The Room) to immediately rush to write a review for on the site, other films I procrastinate on writing about, and b) the site has some limitations for writers, such as no expletives (with all fucking due respect, I don't give a goddamn about the "cussing" laws on the site), and a 1,000 word limit. Sometimes this limit is helpful, but other times I like to write for a while on a movie.

This should go without saying that IMDb is not my only outlet for movie writing. Indeed this is my non-professional quarter, which will be now transferring over to this blog (I may write a review now and then there, but for the most part I'll focus my attention on this). But I also write "real" reviews for a website, Film-Forward, which is a site based in New York City and is mostly concerned with independent, foreign and "art-house" movies, though there are some mainstream movies reviewed from time to time (i.e. Shutter Island). For convenience sake I'll link to just the site when I have a new review up - such as, today, a new review for Casey Affleck's warped documentary on Joaquin Phoenix, I'm Still Here - as it's difficult to find reviews written by me unless directly linked (you have to kind of search around, as it's only movie titles, not on author).

I'll also be writing here about other things movie-related, or just some topics or lists or things about festivals that look interesting. In the past I've written blogs on the website, and for convenience sake I'll start a) posting previous articles here for easier perusing, and b) post on here more than on spill.

Lastly, as I am a filmmaker, currently with a LLC production company cum website (, I'll post about adventures in filmmaking and film-festival going, production diaries, script thoughts, etc etc.

So yes, this may be at times self-indulgent blog (that is, I indulge in things I find interesting, or sometimes not interesting but want to write about anyway), but I also hope that I can talk about things from time to time non-movie related. Politics is an interest, as are on occasion sports (NY Yankees!) and music and video games and all other assortments of ill-shit. There may be posts that just have a video, or something related to it. Not to mention as a current grad student at the Academy of Art University, if I have some (good) work to share I may do so too.

But at the end of the day, I hope that whoever comes here can take away something, anything, or at least be mildly entertained by my corresponding spieling. The name points to this kind of distinction for my blog: it can be like Cinetarium like a Sanitarium (stuck with the crazy), or a Planetarium (or as they might say on South Park, Plane-arium), or a urinarium (which is... all about pee, hopefully I'm not doing that on you wonderful readers). It is what it is. My blog, my rules, I make it up as I got along. Waddle-doodle.

So anyway, one last thing...

This is a video for a song taken from the first number from Nirvana's infamous Unplugged appearance (or just famous, it was their last live performance I believe). While the song is ostensibly about its title, when I hear it I can only think about moviegoing. Not all of it should apply; "I'll take advantage while you hang me out to dry" shouldn't apply to a great film since I'm not taking advantage, it's a great film, so there. But a lot of the song seems, to me, to apply to what I love to do most. One of these days I'd also love to put it in the opening credits of a movie, if only to piss off those people that love to clap at the start of movies: