Friday, December 17, 2010

Laurel & Hardy in FLYING DEUCES

Another fine mess you've gotten me in to...

You might recall from my previous entry on the VHS era and video stores a mention of the Laurel and Hardy movie, Flying Deuces. I have to expound as merely a couple of sentences isn't quite enough. This is one of those movies, like with Mel Brooks or the Three Stooges, that was a comedy main-stay in my household. If/when myself and my brother have kids, we'll likely pass it on down to them as well, time be damned. The movie itself is a classic tale of the hijinks of trying to get a girl as Ollie and Stan join up the French Foreign Legion so that Ollie can do an activity that will make him forget about her as he is suicidal beforehand (not the depressive kind, more like the funny "I'm going to kill myself" variety that you don't see anymore; as Andy Rooney would say, Why is that?)

Since the movie is public domain, it might be befitting, after so much time doing this blog, to just post a full feature film on here. If you have an hour to spare (the movie is literally 68 minutes long), it's well worth the viewing if you've never seen it and have an appreciation for 1930's slapstick comedy with a penchant for silliness and sophistication. Or, if you have seen it or are a Laurel & Hardy fan and just haven't gotten around to it, give it a shot again or for the first time. If nothing else the last ten minutes are some of the most brilliant and ludicrously hysterical physical comedy ever put to the screen.

A Kind of Memorial/Eulogy for VHS and the Video Store

"You're just a memory of a love 
That used to be 
You're just a memory of a love 
That used to mean so much to me"

- The Rolling Stones "Memory Motel"

I'm twenty-six years old, so it may be a bit of a stretch to go into a 'Why in my day you had to walk fifteen-miles in the snow just to get a video', but, when it comes down to it for me, I do feel already old in a new age.  Perhaps my perspective is off as there are a great many people- such as those who are older than me- who know of another era when there was just the movie theater and the TV, and maybe the occasional 16mm print to screen in a home or a drive-in, that would supply a cinematic experience.

But ah, to be born in 1984 (insert Orwell joke here).  I practically got an education in the world of the VHS cassette and VCR system right out of the womb.  It's impossible for me to remember it being so young as I was, but I'm told when I was a wee young Jack, at around age two, maybe three, as my father would take my older brother and I to the local video store, (which I'll expound on in a moment) Video Box Office on Cedar Lane in Teaneck, my attention gravitated towards The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

The tape was rented for me so many times - I've been told I watched the film about fifty times as a tot - that eventually it seemed good sense to just buy the bastard for me.  The cost?  Just a minor dip into the account: $100.  That was back in the day when there wasn't a system to go into a store to buy a movie, only rentals, and the sellers at the rental stores would have to order from the distributor for a special copy of such a thing (look, if you can find any, old video boxes from the 80's, and notice the pricing - you can get new rims on your car for less than that).  It was the first one I ever owned; second one came around thanks to my parents, Laurel & Hardy's Flying Deuces (the only film of theirs that I frankly get really excited about due to its instilled-in-my-youth quality to it - and Hardy turns into a horse at the end! It's gold, Jerry, gold!)

But oh, video rental stores!  And the practice, passed down through a generation (that is, my dad's way of doing things) of copying tapes for home entertainment purposes (never selling, which is wrong and the FBI should be alerted and there can be up to a $250,000 fine and/or up to five years in prison holy shit that's a big punishment).  It was one of the great innovations of technology that impacted my life and helped my childhood that I had access to various tapes, especially those of the cartoon variety (ah, Ninja Turtles, where have you gone, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you).  Then as I entered my pre-teens and especially teenage years, I amassed a much greater collection, first spurred on my trips to the Video Box Office I mentioned before, and then when I was thirteen on to Blockbuster.  That was when I really built up the collection; renting up to five movies at a time, sometimes buying others for cheap, copying them, or not, and usually in greater or lessor quality depending on the copy protection.

But yes, back to that video store for a moment, the one of my real youth and for many others who were at all interested in renting in the 80's, 90's, and into the new 00's a place that has an important quality.  Yes, sometimes there was a lack of variety with some of the movies, and yes, sometimes the porno section loomed over the surrounding like a dark street corner that winks at you and runs away.  But there's an exciting prospect to a video store, when it's got the goods, that makes its mark.  At the Video Box Office the manager organized by categories, actors, directors, Oscar winning films of old, comedies, children's films, video "Nasties" as the British might say for Horror and controversial pics, and other oddities, plus video games (ah, the Angry Video Game Nerd can attest to this yey-and-nay quality of having a game for a weekend to try and play and beat).  It was where I first rented The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the most impressionable Scorsese movies, early-period Disney (especially the cartoons, always in fine collections), and all of the good-to-shitty Nightmare on Elm Street/Friday the 13th sequels.

It's like looking into a brain
And then in 2000 came DVD, or at least for me a DVD player.  Ah, a new technology, moving on over VHS like CD's did for audio cassettes.  It wasn't an immediate losing battle for the technology, though it was a very contentious competition, at least to where I stood, for the pluses and minuses of the new format and its encroachment over what had been set up.  As Garth Algar in Wayne's World once said, "We fear change," but it's more than that.  It's a complex process to take in a format that has picture quality and audio that, in most instances, trumps the VHS-analog quality of everything on a tape.  Then there was, and still is, the issue of the scratch.  On a VHS tape this is a rare condition - you're more likely to find degrading quality over time due to it being a tape than the tape itself breaking or ripping, though it has happened - but on DVD it's hard to mistake.  I could go on about the horrors of the DVD (again the AVGN does it much better here), and then lose sight of what I want to get at here.

That is... I've had this week both a nostalgic return to the world of VHS and a reminder, perhaps pleasantly as I was surprised to find, that not only is that a technology that is a pure and amazing dinosaur, but that DVD is on its way out too.  This won't be any news to people keeping up with, well, the world of media at home.  Video-on-Demand has been around for a long time (in my day of the 15-miles-thru-the-snow it was and is some circles is still called Pay-Per-View), but it used to be the mainstay of a special event, to download something or tap into a live recording of something.  Now watching a new movie on your TV from a VOD service can be cheaper than a video store rental.  Or if you're tired of your DVDs from Redbox or Blockbuster or Netflix scratching or not being alright or wanting more than a day, the Netflix streaming service, among others, have paved the way for a new light in the path of home viewing.  There's even the possibility some years from now that everything can be available, and stored, in a box like a computer that one can attach to the TV.

Who needs all of that clutter, after all, of the video tapes or the DVDs or what-have-you?

So big the blog can't contain it!

Well... I do, possibly.  Or maybe not.

Maybe this will change over time.  This past week, as I mentioned before going on that tangent, was a mix of old and new.  As I recently took the next step and got (at a reasonable price of course) a Blu-Ray DVD player it came with the technological advancement to hook up to the internet and as well provide Netflix-Instant-Streaming service to my TV.  So now, if I plan to watch TV shows, or movies of quality both high (The Thin Red Red Line, Last Tango in Paris, Paper Moon, Pasolini films to name a few) and low (all Troma movies and the atrocious Asylum-company movies for example), I can just flip a couple of switches and that's it, movie's on, no problemo.  And I intend to use the service to its maximum potential and allowance, which is based now more on my own inclination to sit down and watch something in time I have.  The closest thing to a due-date is if the movie won't be available to stream anymore after a certain date, which is not a common occurence.

And then, on the flip-side, I did an inventory on a collection I've had sitting in my basement (pics to come later today, maybe video) that does not even include the *other* VHS tapes that are already present in the regular living quarters.  This all came about from a very generous donation from a good friend- you know who you are out there- who needed to unload the space, and so I came into possession of a few hundred or so VHS tapes, the only proviso being if any of them could sell online and sell well, a small cut would suffice.  And after letting many, though not all, of the tapes sitting there without any attention, I went down and took down all the names Schindler style of what is there.  Unfortunately, I can't see many of them being saved unlike Mr. Oskar back in the day did for his Jews.  No, I see most of these going online to sell, sending them away into the ether of the nation- nay, the world- to those who still have any kind of place for VHS.

I could have got more
To be fair, the format is not completely dead.  It's just in a kind of coma, from which there's not much likelihood it will fully revive; at best we get a flap of the eye-lids or an involuntary genital spasm.  It has a place like Vinyl records now, where collectors or people who like really cheap shit will shell out the bucks and have a copy for their collection, to display prominently or to have up there.  As for VHS as a market, it's also in a very odd place.  In some stores like CVS you can still purchase blank VHS tapes, and VCRs (or at least VCR-DVD combos) are still sold, but the last official VHS cassette for a movie (not counting the novelty nature of the release of The House of the Devil of which, as an aside, the wonderful The Big Box show does a great job reviewing) was in early 2006 for David Cronenberg's A History of Violence.

Most recently I used such blank VHS tapes to tape a few things when the DVR thing wasn't seeming so likely.  The first full season of The Walking Dead and a marathon of Dead Set were quasi-nostalgic trips of fancy for me for a format I haven't utilized in a while.  Ironically the tapes will look best on my TV in my bedroom, a regular screen that is not in HD like in my living room, which would probably prefer for viewing quality a DVD or blu-ray or right from the TV airing.

So, there is no truly feasible future for the format.  At the same time, it's not quite something one has to forget, or might want to.  No technology is ever quite dead, just in a limbo, or an un-constructed-space ala Inception where it grows into an old man, waiting to die alone, filled with regret.  You can't buy em in stores, but they're out there, on the web, or at garage/yard sales, or sitting away in the attic ala Toy Story 3, possessions not utilized to their potential.  Perhaps there is something inside of me that doesn't want to let go, as I enter into adulthood and have to leave those things that are childish or from a more inconvenient technological era.  This also goes for some videogame consoles (I have not yet moved on to the next-gen consoles like X-BOX or PS3, and am still comforted with a very old-school Nintendo and Super-Nintendo in the bedroom, however this speaks more to my limited area of expertise and/or interest in video games)

On the one hand most of us, even me after years of semi-fighting the oncoming of DVD and now VOD and streaming, have moved on from it as an every-day thing to use.  On the other hand, there are some complex emotions for me in letting go.  Memories, somewhat or mostly sentimental, are with them, and unloading the ones that are now added to the surplus of ones I have owned or copied comes with letting go of some of these memories, or letting them find new homes.  Which is maybe for the best.  Andy at the end of Toy Story 3 can attest to that.

As for Video Box Office, it's been long gone (I last went there in their closing days, buying up various video-tapes like Darkman, and somewhere the actual cassette packages are in the home), as have other "Mom-n-Pop" rental houses, or such as the one Quentin Tarantino famously got his edumacation at in the 80s,  and Blockbuster stores are in the nebulous position of still providing a service, one that I do seek from time to time, but in competition with a more convenient and (somewhat) financially feasible system (adding to that, most Blockbusters' selection in movies is at the low-end of offerings, filled up with only limited selections of the unlikely and unconventional and mostly filled with crap B-to-Z grade garbage and fifty copies of the new hit release that is never there when you need a copy, argh!)  And, very likely in the coming years, I'll likely downside much of my collection- if not for the attraction of them then for the space- with new VHS to DVD converters.

But the memories, again, still remain.  Kids today won't really have such a time like I had going to a store and anxiously picking up (yes as pathetic as it might sound) the Star Wars Trilogy special edition, and falling off of my bike on the ride home due to the heavy load of the bag on the handles.  Or the feeling of looking at Lucio Fulci's Zombie cover- again in a big box, with a warning of "No-Minors-Can-Rent-This" and wondering if it could be as fucked-up and frightening as it was (ultimately I didn't watch it until I was much older, sadly missing out on the zombie vs. shark awesomeness).

Or at another video store which is now sadly defunct called Two Boots in NYC (open until just two years ago actually) which featured all odds and ends of classic masterpieces from world directors... and some real shit as well (ever heard of Pussbucket?  no, good, don't ever watch it, ever ever ever).  Or the intended joys of watching some of my favorite films, Clockwork Orange, Manhattan, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, on rough and worn copies, usually with the cassette covers themselves.  Hell, even the trailers on VHS tapes hold a place in my big-fat heart.  Or, the very wonderful and bewildering experience of obtaining a copy from an uncle of The Star Wars Holiday Special, completely taped off TV with commercials (it's always an uncle, isn't it).  Or, the elephant in the room, all that pornography!  Where would I be without having seen Black Throat and, for a short while before it was lost or loaned to a friend and never returned, the bizarre fun of seeing pre-18-year-old Traci Lords getting (insert sex phrase here... huh-huh, insert).  This isn't even counting all of the things taped off of TV over time.

These things can remain in the consciousness as time goes on into what Patrick Carlin (George's brother) calls "The Big Electron", out in the ether of the world, to be held on to destroyed, made into coasters or held on to for ironic prop sake in movies.  Or for douchebag hipsters.  But hey, it is what it is.

So, a (Not-Yet) RIP VHS.  See you when I see you...Like later today and tonight, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday...

(don't turn this up loud)

(in the age of netflix, this is like ancient history)


Personal pictures of the VHS inventory in the basement, and my original copy of Winnie the Pooh:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (#3) Mario Monicelli's BIG DEAL ON MADONNA ST

(I should note up front I've never seen a film by Monicelli before, but to be fair among Italian director's in the country's 'new-wave' at the time in the 40's and 50's, his name and works were dwarfed by the likes of De Sica and Felini.  This, thankfully, is his best known work so a good place to start)

There's been several critics on the Mario Monicelli film Big Deal on Madonna Street that the film is a satiric riff on the movie Rififi.  I could only really see the comparison in that a group of guys, some of whom are kinda low-lives, get together to pull off a heist.  But Monicelli and his writers have a lot of different influences with their story; I wouldn't be surprised if their own recent history of 'neo-realism' had an influence (people gotta eat after all), and just their general attitude of Italian comedy came into play.  Certainly the lead up to nor the actual execution of the heists are at all alike- Dassin's film has cold professionals, preceding Melville, who don't utter a word during the proceedings of the heist, while Monicelli's average knuckleheads can't quite keep their traps shut.  One can guess the outcome here, maybe, just maybe, on their aptitude at this sort of thing, which isn't much.

The group here includes Peppe, a once proud boxer who got knocked the fuck out; Tiberio, a photographer and now a full-time stay-at-home dad of a non-stop crying baby; Mario, what IMDb calls a 'receiver', and a woman, Michele, who is the coolest of the group and probably most professional.  There is one ex-criminal, Dante, who may or may not be apart of the heist given whether he's around or has his head on straight about his own criminal aptitude, Cappanelle, an ex-jockey and seemingly one with his head on straight as well, and one other, a good safe-cracker who tries to give the group some 101-class techniques on cracking safes.  They make up a group that could make it alright, if they were running a deli, collectively, with Michele up front.  But they don't all have their heads on straight about their target: a safe that has the standard blocks, except for one thing, a razor-thin wall separating it from a next-door apartment, mostly empty.  One just has to move the furniture...

Monicelli's skill with the film, what makes it so entertaining, is that all of these guys are totally likable, and they're only halfway good at what they intend to do.  And there are various mishaps and upsets as the date comes to pull off the job.  Tiberio has the crying kid at home, for one thing, and then breaks his arm by big accident right before the heist is about to take off (having a wife in prison as well doesn't help).  And then the one guy, the good looking one, who falls hard for a local maid girl (much to the dismay of the rest of the crew).  There's an upset as well with one of the girls (Claudia Cardinale) being pursued, much to the dismay of her brother, who is also on the crew.  Did I mention how good I am at the names of this whole crew?  I know one of them, Toto, as Dante, is a shifty little character who is a lot of fun to watch, just to see how he'll go from WAY over the top to subtle in one scene.  And then the other one (Carotenuto) that almost steals the show as the oldest of the lot, and hilariously, unabashedly quirky in his Italian way (he's the guy eating a sandwich at the start of the safecracking lecture).

It's not a super-incredible feat of heist-comedy filmmaking, but it does have its place rightfully as the inspiration for many heist-comedies to follow (most specifically Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks especially takes this plot for its whole first half of the movie), and the personalities are what make it count.  Mastroianni is good, of course, and is charming in a comedic performance that will throw off some too used to him in serious roles in Fellini works and La Notte.  And Gassman as the ex-boxer has his moments in the limelight as well.  But it's the little moments that make this movie count.  At one crucial point a set of keys could come into play with getting into the pad.  But on a bus ride the keys change hands, and then have to change again when a piece of information from the poor young woman comes out.  It's a sneaky little scene that is loaded with behavioral comedy that is just pitch perfect: the timing, the one face completely oblivious and the other determined to get the object in possession, and the chance it could totally fall apart.  That's what this movie's about, the awkwardness of doing wrong.

Some of the comedy, admittedly, is broad as an Italian comedy of the 1950's; it's the kind of comedy that will rely on slapstick if it must, and its those moments I was really laughing out loud (the ol' LOL), such as the big details during the heist, or just those shots of people in prison shuffling their feet to the same beats.  Or that baby.  Or the relationship comedy with Cardinale's saintly figure as an object not to be taken by any man (the brother's reaction is really great).  Comedy seems to sneak up from around the corner in a scene, such as when one character goes to a pawnbroker to stick em up, only for the pawnbroker taking the gun away to make it's value(!)  And emphasizing the fun nature of this whole silly safe-robbery is a jazz score Piero Umilani.  It's a swift, kicking score that puts one in there into the film-noir aesthetic, but then there, too, he has his fun with it.  There is suspense that's amped up by Umilani as the thieves go up to the building across the roof-top, but a sense of play is there, too.

This isn't any deep pulp art, but a crowd-pleaser.  You laugh at these guys but never wish them ill will.  They could be the guy right down the street or the one working at the deli.  And what they'll do with that money.  Oh, what would they do!


The angel hears everyone, whether he wants to or not.  In all truth, he loves to hear them speak, to hear their joy, their philosophy, their deep sorrows, their contemplation on the little things and the bigger-world things that are out of reach, their loves.  This angel, Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, has been an angel for a very long time, so long that he can recall back to when Napoleon's troops went over territory that was a river and became a road and so on over time.  He also sees a woman, Marion, a trapeze artist, who enchants him completely.  He keeps going back to see her perform in her twisting and turning up in the air as it were, and he is surrounded by children who are equally enchanted.  He mentions in his voice-over that children do and thing in a certain way, perhaps that adults can't do, or might want to do.  He also visits her in her trailer, and becomes further enchanted just watching her listening to music, and contemplating more.  He wants more, too, ultimately.  He wants the simple joys of life- to eat an apple or to, more complex existentially, die.  And he wants to feel love, to feel the connection with other beings.

Wings of Desire is mesmerizing as a poetic take on the world as being human.  That's what I saw Wenders as focusing on as his real aim here, to shine a light in a "City Symphony" style (only not in the way Berlin Symphony or other takes on a city from the 1920's silent-era might do, not as much montage).  When Damiel and his co-Angel in the game of life, Cassiel (the sad but stern and welcoming face Otto Sander), are up above on the statues of buildings up high, or down on the street with people on subways, in pain after a car crash, in a library looking at photos of the holocaust, eating a sandwich on a movie set, they're always keyed into the human experience.  They see it, they can feel it if they try.  The drawback, no participation.  It's a world that has to be seen in black and white, with even the humor of people kept at a distance.  And Wenders puts this to a cinematic test as well.

The film is an intense, visually appetizing experiment in style, with its cinematographer, Henri Alekan, shooting for the stars but all on Earth.  I'm sure their collaboration was close, but for any fan of cinematography in movies its one of the real must-sees to behold.  Rich and crisp whites, grays and blacks, the days bright but not too bright, the nights filled with the dark corridors of the human experience.  Faces given a luminous light.  And then when it slips into color every so often it feels like it's unreal, a hallucination or something, and then it slips right back into place for a moment, such as when Marion gets dressed in her trailer.  It's also a masterpiece of camera movement, as it takes on the character of an angel being invisible in rooms and in the sky, going across libraries with an innocent but authoritative air.  You have to move around when you're an angel, I suppose: so many people, so... much time.  Old, young, women, men, movie stars, they're all there.

Wenders is so in love with the voices that he almost, for me, gets things a little too much into artistic aspirations.  The movie is about 90% voice-over narrated, from dozens of characters, and they all have something interesting to say to one degree or another.  Not necessarily a problem I had but just a little irk was the nature of how much poetry there was.  It's almost an overabundance, where the poetry overtakes the storytelling.  This is an approach I definitely appreciated, and the words being spoken were often very moving and philosophically complex.  But there's so much of it, all looping around and about (that is until Damiel takes his "plunge" in the last act to become one of "us") that I started to get lost in the film.  This might be fine if I was sure where Wenders would be going.  It's not until halfway through that is much clearer.

Maybe my expectations weren't adjusted as it went along.  Or it's like what one of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, Ken Hanke of Mountain Xpress, says: Depending on your tastes, you'll find the film either a beautiful, moving experience, or a slow and pretentious one."  I found both of these tastes coming up during the film.  Wenders clearly sees this film as an important take on humanity, and through his perserverence to get all of the shots and all of the intended actors he wants in this pre-Berlin-Wall-Fall in 1986, he gets so much that is beautiful and enlightening and even thrilling in its patience of shots taken.  It can also be... a little slow, and a little pretentious, and characters will start to speak until it becomes a little redundant.  (I'm even reminded, up to a point, of the kind of filmmaking I affectionately parodied in a short film I collaborated on, which I'll include a clip of below).

So much of Wings of Desire is incredible to watch as romance, with individuals and the "better angels of out nature" (yeah I went there).  And, surprisingly, some fun too.  Peter Falk is one of the only actors that to me felt really natural as an actor (maybe because he is one and *plays* one to a point of his own name), and any scene he's in the film picks up as he's the "one" who can really feel Damiel on Earth... because (hint) he *was* one.  The filmmaking almost brightens up with him on screen, trying on hats, contemplating what to eat for dinner, or reaching out to shake Damiel's hand even as he has to make guess work for it there.

Another personally cool thing was to see he fantastically brooding band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform in the film.  Why did Wenders have them in the middle of this narrative?  Why not?  If you're going to embrace humanity in its conflicts and joys and hardships, have one that chillingly makes rock out of it.

In closing, George Carlin might sum this classic of cinematic technique and stylistic prose best ;)

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Philosophy on Movie-Going

I should have known better than to go to the Friday night 10:35 showing of Black Swan.  I really should.  It overall was a tolerable experience in the theater, packed to the gills with people awaiting the latest from Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman.  But it was another in a long, frustrating line of movie-going experiences tarnished by another patron sitting behind me.  Talking.  Mouth moving.  Nothing but words coming out for the duration of the running time.  Wrong movie time to go to, wrong night, wrong crowd?  I don't know, all of the above probably.  Or it being a cineplex in a mall in New Jersey doesn't help matters, either.

To be fair, this girl, probably on a date, wasn't as bad as I have come across.  Her principle crime was not the volume of the voice, she was mostly in hushed tones.  It was the duration.  I could count almost every or every other scene a comment from her mouth to her boy-man's ears that I had perked up right just so.  I did ignore her through the movie- my ire was not raised to the point where I had to comment- but in a way it just made it worse.  It wasn't the words but the repetition, knowing there was always something she would say just around the corner of a scene, like about Portman this or Crazy that or Perfect Whatever.  It was one specific word that I would say applies to all movie-talkers: obtrusive.

Let me make this clear, though I'll probably repeat this again: A movie theater is not, NOT, your living room.  It is not your kitchen.  It is not your frat house.  999.999 times out of a million, to quote the masterpiece The Room: keep your stupid comments in your pocket!

Sorry, that goes for you too guys
I can count the number of times, mostly in recent years, that a movie experience has been sullied to varying degrees by other people in the theater on more fingers than I could clone hands for.  So many memories come back, sometimes even more vividly than the films themselves.  One such memory going back to January of 2007 was at the good ol' Tenefly Clearview theater where two old people - oh, the old people, a VERY underrated lot in the theater-talking crowd - wouldn't stop talking through the running time of The Last King of Scotland.  At the end of it my wife (girlfriend at the time), bless her, told them in her angry little way: "Thanks a LOT!" As she walked out of the movie at the end.  Sarcasm, sadly, doesn't really prevail over time.

There was a time very recently during a screening of Unstoppable, actually at that same theater I saw Black Swan, with a more extreme case of negligence.  Maybe it's another case of not expecting the expected, given that it's a stupid Tony Scott/Denzel runaway-train flick on a Sunday afternoon with a full house.  A rather nasty looking Hispanic gent sitting behind me with his girl (who didn't say much, either it's one doing most of the talk or the both of them back and forth), talking with a regular speaking voice.  Not even hushed tones, and in Spanish, and without much regard for what was going on on screen.

That there was yet *another* couple a few other seats to his left talking I just had to let go.  For this one, however, I got agitated enough (and the movie was distracting enough) that I had to raise my voice to him.  "Shut up!" I turned to say.  "YOU shut up!" he said back.  Schoolyard playground, huh?  "Fuck you," I said back. "Fuck you," he said right back. Finally off to see an usher - oh yes, of course, an adult!  By this time the person wasn't talking, so the usher had to leave.  The Vato gave me a rather nasty look as I sat back down, and there was silence for the rest of the running time (trying to focus on the silly runaway train was difficult as a portion of my conscious mind kept wondering if this man who got "busted" to a small extent would try and bust my ass after the screening).

I *wish* we left Kevin Home Alone!
Experiences with old people, I have to note again, are actually more frequent in movie-going terms than young people.  Or rather, to put it another way, old people talk the most, young people talk the loudest or most obnoxious game.  When one goes to a local art-house theater, or even just a Woody Allen movie or something period-looking, it's a game of chance as to whether there will be a decent screening to attend to with total focus on the film at hand.  Sometimes if you get two really old, senile fuckers they'll sit through a subtitled foreign film and one will say what is being said on the screen!  There comes a point, dear civilization, when you have to bite the bullet and stop going to the movies if it gets to that point.  If one has to do such a thing, do it once, in a very hushed tone.  Don't do it so I can hear every syllable, sans your teeth.

Other times it's stupid bullshit like commenting on a scene or an actor, or a dress.  And these aren't the robots from Mystery Science Theater talking.  It's the old fuckers who run the convenience store.  I get reminded with such incessant talking - and this includes after telling them to shush up, repeatedly sometimes -  of the Chris Rock bit about there never being a reason to hit someone "There's a reason to hit anybody.  There's a reason to knock an old man down a flight of stairs.  Just don't do it."  Oh, Chris, but it's so hard sometimes, so, so hard.

This isn't to say sometimes its not altogether unexpected: for a midnight screening of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, for example, I might expect a couple of rowdy people for a trip through Gilliam's Gonzo Journalism.  I didn't expect that a girl would sneak in an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, guzzle it through the early part of the movie, and go 'blurp-blurp' and ramble on throughout the running time, going "Aaaah!" when Raoul Duke takes his adrenochrome, and going on with all odds and ends of obnoxiousness.  Even her boyfriend seemed embarrassed and left midway through the movie and never returned, probably more of a douche-bag thing to do than to stay there.  Another case such as this occurred at a screening this past summer at a Midnight showing of Toy Story 3, where a group of three or four drunk (or just crackhead) degenerates kept going on through the movie - yes, even during that scene where we all teared up when Andy gives his toys away.  It would have been prudent of me to pick up some dirtbags by the shirt-collar, but by the end as they staggered out they were falling over one another too much anyway.

Perhaps these sound like extreme examples, but really I'm just scratching a surface.  I could even go on about this pervasive attitude of talking during a movie spreading out into professional quarters.  At a *critic screening* of the Woody Allen comedy Whatever Works last year, two girls showed up a few minutes late and didn't stop talking throughout the screening.  Once again my wife, bless her, had to say a few words after the movie ended, such as "Thanks so much for ruining our movie," along those lines.  The woman's response? "Oh, lighten up!"

Lighten up... that's stayed with me for a while now, even a year or so later.  How does one lighten up by being disrupted by the flow of a movie-theater experience?  Sometimes it can be more of a subtle approach at being an asshole.  If one hears someone making a snide remark behind one's back, perhaps mocking one's own laugh (this actually happened, the fuckers at a special Three Stooges/Looney Tunes screening over the summer).  Or if one hears a baby.  Oh, baby baby, baby baby, the Supremes would sing.  Hell, you might get a good baby.  Or you get the baby that is not wailing and howling too much (though on occasion there is that, and the abortion of a parent who won't get up to take the little fucker out of the theater), just enough that it's an annoyance.  This, admittedly, is acceptable for such G-rated fare that one might expect babies and little kids.  It's something else when it's during The Social Network.

I may have gone on too long about these personal experiences, but I have to try and direct a point somewhere.  It's not a singular, once-in-a-blue-moon thing.  And forget the texting and forget the cell-phones for a moment, it's connected with this but not quite as abhorrent (I would prefer my eyes being darted away from the screen by a little blue light than my ears getting interference from an old woman with her better senses left in Poughkeepsie blabbering on about this and that and the other bullshit).  With only a couple of exceptions, which I'll get to in a moment, there really is no excuse to talk during a movie.  If you have to laugh,  or cough, or gurgle, or must make a comment if all else has failed in your mind, fine, go ahead.  But the general rule, or at least the strict guideline is simple as this: Shut the fuck up.

Now pay attention class, you will get an oral exam.  Huh-huh, oral. 
I wish I could be more courteous about this, but the time has come my friends to talk of this.  Why does this go on?  Is it general inconsiderate tendencies in human beings?  Or is it a loss of general etiquette?  Why might a person who is perfectly capable and bright and maybe has degrees and a good job and kids lose their better senses and not know how to function in a setting?  This is a rash comparison, but what if someone in a restaurant just started to strip down and beat off into their Lemon Merengue Pie?  It would frighten the children, and no way that could happen!  Sure, that might happen in a movie theater for all we know, but at least it's dark and one has to look towards the uh... alright I'll stop.

Here's a bottom line on it, to reiterate: a movie theater is not your or your friend's living room.  And one of the reasons I so love going to a movie theater to see visions from filmmakers projected up high and with surround sound is that it's a controlled and darkened environment.  It's meant to be a space almost like a dream, and, for me anyway, more sacred than a church.  For some movie buffs (and I might as well include me) it is a church.  It can be very hollowed ground to step in and atune onesself for a couple of hours into a story.  The darkness of the setting is contrasted with the light and images cut together with sound, dialog and music to create an environment.  I'm reminded of the dream part after watching a documentary on the DVD for Inception, where this is discussed as part of the thing; you're there seeing a dream unfold, and it might be good, might be bad, but it's all a process.

And I expect that quiet, that connection like an umbilical chord when I'm with the movie there.  A living room or a bedroom or another place like that, even a more public outdoor place like if, say, a movie plays in Central Park or something, that's a different thing.  I'm in a mind-set and comfort zone that is different.  I have to expect disruptions to the experience, and I may cause them myself.  The phone might ring and I can't not answer it, as I could leave off (and should) in a movie theater.  My wife or on occasion my mother will come in to the room and ask for something, or I may have to go out and run an errand.  Or if it's late at night and I want to be stretched out in my underwear on the couch with my movie, only to have to be interrupted by the raccoon scurrying through the garbage.  Is there a choice to get up and clean it all up (after, of course, trying my best to hurl the rock at that cute little fucker), or just stay put and finish the movie?  The choice, ultimately, is mine.

And as a social experience it's different as well, however this is where some exceptions could come in.  During certain midnight movies - not the ones I mentioned precisely but others - it's almost an expectation that people will talk, to each other and back at the screen.  That's a different kind of church, it almost becomes like going into the black side of town and getting the Reverend Cleophus James from Blues Brothers and 'seeing the light' as it were.  When I go to see The Room, I want to have a good time as it's such a shitty movie other people will be the only way I can get through it.  When most people go to Rocky Horror Picture Show it has to be a communal experience, again, since the movie isn't very good but it's catchy and fun with the people singing along.  Or, in those exceptional cases, like a Ghost Rider or Wicker Man or any of those Nicolas Cage movies that have hilariously sucked shit through a straw the past several years, or other bad times like a Twilight movie or the first half of 2012, some talk to one-another's friends is... well, I don't know allowed, but I do it anyway.

But these are cases that have designated circumstances, and it's kind of required in a bizarre way by the nature of the film being projected, the time its playing, and the crowd.  The big problem, the elephant in the room, is perhaps conditioning over time.  As home-movie-going becomes more and more the order of the day, and as streaming and VOD gains popularity and (for some) the availability and price-range of making a home video system that is quite bad-ass and big and loud and like having a small movie theater in the home becomes more of a possibility, going back to that small dark room you've paid to enter with popcorn or drink or chicken and fries becomes a blurred line.  Why act different in one place from another?

Well, here's the difference: If you want to be completely silent during a movie in the comfort of your own home, fine, whatever, it's your home, your rules.  If you bring the same lack of respect, for other patrons and, 999.999 times out of a million, for the movie itself, into that theater, you've lost understanding of what it means to be in a theater like that.  Haven't commercials featuring adorable characters who melt in your mouth and not in your hand taught anyone anything (see below for more)?  It's never spoken or written, but entering in that theater, unless under such special circumstances, is like entering into a trust with the movie and the theater and other patrons.  You're here for a story to be told, for characters to be present.  You're entering into (forgive the pretentious Inception comparison again) a shared dream-space of a movie.  It's unqiue among experiences communally in human civilization- again in church you can speak (though usually it's frowned upon), or in court you can speak to one another in hushed tones, but in a movie it's something else.

And as Dog as my witness, I will not stop going to the movies, an experience that overall I prefer, even during the shitty times at low-rent theaters or ones with bad projection, over most times at home where I can be myself in full speak or interruption to the flow of things.  I've been going too long to change, and it's an experience that is dearer to me short of time spent with my wife.

Don't let this happen to you
So, what to do?

Well, a few tips:

1) There is a kind of level of ascension you can have when personally, one-on-one, telling someone to shut up.  Seinfeld on TV actually had this down, but only up to a point.  Yes, there is the half-turn of the head.  Or if the person persists, the full head turn.  I would add that by that point if talk persists (and it's more than likely as they're not looking at you looking at them unless, and I've fantasized about doing this, turning around completely and just staring at them staring at the screen), then it's time to break out the "Shh".  A simple "Shh" will do at first.  Sometimes, in fact, that does work.  If it persists, then it's time to break out a "Please!" or "Please keep it down", in a hushed tone for others convenience.  The aforementioned Unstoppable story was an extreme case, but if it does have to get to that, then it must be done.  Most hopefully if it persists one can see the scene from Scary Movie (yes, I'm quoting from that) will occur (also see below).

2) Get an usher.  This is a tact I don't do super-often as I a) don't want to step out of the movie if I don't have to, and b) regrettably they're not the most reliable lot.  They'll many times be off to the side somewhere or in their own conversations with their fellow employees.  I have friends who have worked as theater employees and do, in such cases, do come to see what's going on (sometimes they'll just randomly come in to the theater anyway, either to check on something, or very sometimes to check if someone has snuck in) and to possibly tell the person to be quiet.  But sometimes just getting up (as in the case of Unstoppable) to bring someone of good authority in is enough.  I've rarely seen it get so far to the point of it, but it's been said that an usher can in fact escort people out of a movie if they're being way too rowdy.  Such a scene did happen once at an AMC Empire- 42nd Times Square screening that is, ah, the redone Grindhouse circuit- where a whole bunch of asshole youngsters kept talking, and were finally escorted out of the theater, which only uh, fifteen minutes left to go in the run time.  But it did work.

Don't make me grape you out of this theater.  I am licensed.
3) Um... If that first tact doesn't help, you might have to resort to what this gentleman did during a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where gunfire was resorted to.  Other acts of very rapid violence to happen, though one wouldn't want to be in a situation where it gets that far (my father in law tells stories of such things happening, though usually it's due to the Grindhouse-nature of the theater itself).   There have been times, such as the Toy Story 3 incident, where I've come close myself.

4) If you have friends who are talking during the movie, well... you have to handle this a little more delicately, and one of two ways.  First, let them know in a very nice over hot-cocoa chat that they need to stop doing what they're doing.  Say something dramatic, Jewish, like "You're killing your father doing this!"  Maybe they'll at least be courteous when they go to the movies with you (and in this case this is most embarrassing as *you* are the one who is being talked to and the persons in front and/or behind you can hear your friend and you're part of it now).  The Second thing is, more drastically, to just shush them during the movie.  Your friend may even be one of the wittiest, funniest people out there, a regular Crow or Tom Servo form MST3K (I have a friend who is just about the best person to watch movies with... at home, for example).  But if someone has to school them, it might as well be you.  As for the ultimate state of friendship, well....

5) There is a more realistic or pragmatic-sounding tip, which is to just do one's best to go to see a movie when one is least likely to have someone sitting behind or close-by who has the gift of badly-timed gab.  And yet I can't prescribe too highly to this one since one can't ever know when a talker will be around.  It could be a first showing of the day on a Tuesday, when most people are at work or at school, and there's still a chance there could be a talker, or a howler, or someone who is a blight on the scale of evolutionary biology.  There are, at best, times when it's lessor likely, and more likely, such as the first case of the Black Swan screening.  When one is in a packed house, all bets are off...

... and yet, those can be some of the most rewarding times at the movies, on the flipside of the coin.  I do love to be in a good crowd at a movie theater, and you know good crowds when you're with them.  Sometimes the packed-house ones can be the best, and people will know good theater etiquette (or the best they can have in this cell-I-pod-balls world), and it will be a fun screening due to an upbeat atmopshere, or if everyone clicks during a horror movie (one of the most unironically pleasing times in recent memory at a movie was the first Paranomal Activity movie last year, packed to the gills, everyone keyed into the movie, having fun with it, but not going so far over the line into the obnoxious realm.

I don't want to sound paradoxical when talking about talking at the movies.  Hell, there may have been times I've been guilty of it myself, but in such individual cases I can't even recall them here.  What has to be sought out, if movie theaters are to be kept with their unique place in the realm of the human experience, is something that works.  Maybe it's a manner of just simple ethics, courtesy, good manners, good taste, shit that needs to be burned into children's heads when they're young and to stick.  Or for the old, maybe there needs to be designated times for old-people-movie-going the way the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin has Baby-Movie-Days where it's all babies all the time... and no other time EVER at that theater. Smart bastards they are.

Bottom line, the last bottom line of this long-ass screed against this problem that is very important.  If you know your doing it, you need to just stop.  Hold your tongue.  Shut your trap.  Keep all of your thoughts in that stu-... no, wrong word, your lovely, intelligent, ham-sized pocket, so that when the movie is over, *then* you can speak to your heart's content.

So there.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Playing Ketchup with my Mistress, IMDb (RED & BURLESQUE)

Ah, what a lovely, legs-spread, 36-DD 24/7 mistress the IMDb is. I keep trying to stay away from it, and it sucks me back in, like one of those stupid alien things from the movie Skyline. Today I ventured over there to write in the comments section, and among the reviews were for movies I'd seen in the past couple of months I hadn't written about either place (what's the explanation? Um, convenience? I was on IMDb and not on here and decided to be on the pages of them... so there).

Edward Zwick's LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (or rom-com-satire-drama all mixed-up)

Love and Other Drugs feels like a Producer-tampered movie, or maybe just a screenwriter-tampered script. I have to wonder what Edward Zwick, the director, who hasn't made a movie in this romantic comedy-drama realm in quite some time (look at his credits, it's been, oddly enough, since the 1990's as he's been making international or big-themed epic/action movies for a while), knew what he was really doing with this material, specifically the book by Jamie Reiddy (very likely the influence on Jamie, the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film). It tells its tale with a modicum of professionalism always, but its head is scattered about with what it really wants to do.

It's two movies, no, maybe even three, or two and a half may be a nice round number. First, there's the pharmaceutical-insider movie, done with a tinge of satire (if not entirely the same level of energetic and fierce wit) as Thank You For Smoking, which peers into a practice that is not altogether pleasant but is fun to watch in a way, which is the pharmaceutical rep game. Reps, who go to doctors to hock the latest in drugs to sell to their patients, is much like a seminar for any other salesman thing, or better yet for an army. As Jamie gets into this game, he already has sales experience from selling junk TV's to people (this is circa 1996, by the way, just in case the soundtrack blasting Spin Doctors didn't let you know). So it's some fairly easy ground to cover. And over time he gets successful, and chummy with people, and may go on to the next big thing in Chicago.

Next, there's the romantic comedy, where a guy meets a girl by a rather embarrassing meet-cute (Jamie, a, must note this, consummate and practically professional one-nigher ladies man, poses as an intern and gets to see Anne Hathaway's breasts - not the first nor the most pleasant time), and he pursues her even after she says no way. Finally she gives in under the proviso that it'll be just sex. Yey, fine by Jamie, and the two go at it like jack-rabbits (Zwick, to his credit, does not shy away, and neither by proxy do his actors, from showing skin and, more importantly, being open and vulnerable sexually on screen in a mainstream studio release). Along the way Jamie gets advice, begrudgingly, from his rich- but-loser younger brother (Josh Gad), and there's some funny business with a videotape that Jamie and Maggie shoot of their sexcapades that his brother actually does watch at one point(?!)

Hellooo Anne Hathaway Nurse!
And then, finally, there's the romantic drama tinged with an illness ala Love Story. I mention Love Story only in some part; to the filmmakers credit they do have a real, debilitating disease, Parkinson's, as what ails Maggie and causes Jamie to reevaluate everything that's come before. The only problem is that Parkinson's, for someone who is 26 years old (the character's age at least as mentioned) is extremely rare (Michael J. Fox, for example, didn't even get it quite that early), and it kind of becomes a big calling-card for the movie's drama when it seems like such a convenient disease for her to have. This shouldn't be to note that the movie doesn't treat the disease seriously. It does, almost to a fault; there's a wonderfully touching scene where Maggie by near accident goes to a Parkinson's help-meeting and real patients are used in the scene. It makes it all the more painful when, ultimately, it's really just a plot point.

That would be confusing enough, and yet, also to Zwick's credit as a filmmaker, he does make this part of the movie of a relationship drama work the best. Surely the two actors, who previously had (ironic) chemistry for Brokeback Mountain, are very well suited for one another dramatically and are excellent together when such dramatic or small- range scenes come up (one I really loved, which comes as close to merging comedy and drama together) is when Jamie, a future Viagra rep, can't get 'it' up and realizes and says that he loves Maggie and the two sit it out and talk, that everything just clicks, for a few minutes. There are some powerful scenes and moments between two characters, and it can be a rare thing to have equal chemistry, talent, and some good meaty-relationship dialog altogether.

An in-joke on one of the producers (?)  "More comedy!  No, more drama!  No, more sex!  Yeah, all that!  Go do it, NOW!
...And then it goes back to the romantic comedy, and humor involving (you guessed it) a Viagra joke that gets stretched out (no pun intended) for about ten-fifteen minutes. Another big problem is Josh Gad. Is this guy funny, or do people think he's funny? It's partly that the character just sucks, no other way to phrase it- like a loser Judd Apatow would have written out or marginalized or tried to make funnier with someone like Jonah Hill- and that Gad is so unwelcome with the rest of the material. All of these other actors- the two leads, Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt- are on such another level than Gad, and it's painful to watch. Adding to this is the pharmaceutical-rep satire, which gets dwindled down as Jamie changes (maybe the right decision plot-wise but less interesting character-wise), and tries to become serious in little spurts but goes nowhere with it.

Three separate movies can be made out of his material, and there's a descending order that could be made (and I think you get the idea by now) of what is most entertaining, cathartic, successful, and pleasing in storytelling and structure. Oh the stars do try, bless em, but they've got only so much room to go in the space of Zwick's messed-up script. It also has a very end that is so unnecessary, but by this point it's already made its warbled little head and laid in it. There's a lot of brave bits in here, and a lot of stuff that feels forced in, as if the demographics were given more precedence over coherence and tact and reason. What else is there to say? Um... did I mention the actors are naked for many minutes of the movie?

Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN

"Just because you're a perfectionist doesn't mean your perfect."
(Jack Nicholson to Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining)

The world of the ballet is tough, hard and cruel to the body.  It should be a given as soon as you hear the name Darren Aronofsky as director of this film Black Swan, and that his previous film was The Wrestler, that he would be obsessed with that aspect of it.  Then again, obsession is one of the main deals to an Aronofsky movie: the perfect number in Pi, fame and achieving good life with no worries in Requiem for a Dream; finding a cure in The Fountain; one's identity in The Wrestler.  Every character has a drive, usually towards self-destruction, and the body, the flesh and the spirit sometimes one or the other or both vying for attention, becomes an excrutating focual point.

But hey, you didn't come here to get a full-on breakdown of Aronofsky as auteur did you?  No, maybe you did (sorry for the lapse into really addressing at *you* in this review, I'll stop now, maybe).  In Black Swan we get Aronofsky's talents at a high peak.  It's about a world where pressure cooks the soul and the drive has to be kept again (clap) again (clap) AGAIN (clap).  The ballerina is no less an athlete or professional body-fucker-upper than a wrestler, only with this it's the feet, the toes, and the constitution of the body weight.  Natalie Portman, for example for the role, lost twenty pounds off of her already skinny frame to play the role (it's not The Machinist but it'll do).  And Aronofsky's aim is to explore the nature of a perfectionist in this realm, or someone driven to be one after so many years, and how it drives one mad.  Kubrick might be proud.

What's fascinating about Nina Sayers (Portman) is how much she creates her own sense of must-be-perfect-self-worth once she gets the role of the black swan along with the white swan.  The latter is just fine, she's a delicate flower of a young woman able to portray her fragile veneer.  The former is more difficult, as she's not impulsive, or very sexual.  If one reads into ber backstory she's probably like the result of a parent who drove her to this as a child, maybe a very young one, as Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) tells her she's been at this ballet thing for a long time.  She's not even thirty and already becoming an old-timer; she's replacing "The Dying Swan" herself, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, one of her best performances, seriously, even in such a short capacity she amazes in a one 1/2 note performance).

(Oh, by the by, 'Dying Swan' isn't merely a reading-into kind of deal.  On IMDb, unknown to me when I saw the movie, characters are listed with monikers; Nina is the "Swan Queen", her would-be friend and rival newcomer Lily (sexually charged and loosely played Mila Kunis) is the "Black Swan", and the trainer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, kind of sinisterly hamming it up as a descendant of a character originally played with more class by Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes) is the "The Gentleman" weirdly (or ironically) enough.  The mother is the "The Queen".  Perphaps these are references to the Swan Lake ballet.  Or maybe Aronofsky's just being cute, or having fun in his own diabolical-dark way).

What happens to Nina isn't quite so sudden; from the start of the movie there's a sense of paranoia to her, of a sound she may hear (thanks sound fx!) or a dark figure standing down a corridor at the ballet studio. Once she gets this dual role and is pushed on by her instructor/mentor/sexual-assaulter Thomas to dig deeper to find that wild-side for the black swan, which isn't easy to find, she goes deeper into a mania where it is hard to separate reality from fantasy.  From nightmare, in fact.  Compounding this are the diametrically opposed forces of Nina's Mother, who once had dreams of her own and failed to achieve them (like a lot of showbiz mums), and her equal love/disdain relationship with her.  One of the more interesting scenes psychologically comes when after Nina got the two roles, and her mother gets her a cake.  Nina turns it down, saying her stomach "is still in knots."  Queen Sayers doesn't take this lightly and makes a dramatic pose to throw out the whole thing altogether.  Nina relents, and has a piece.  Whew.

One may think back for comparison to Aronofsky's own Requiem for a Dream, where we had a trippin-balls Ellen Burstyn imagining a living-bouncing refrigerator was coming her way in her apartment.  I might think back more to classic-horror period Cronenberg, where one saw James Woods push a gun into his stomach and then attach itself to his hand in Videodrome.  The flesh can be an icky, dicey and really squirm-worthy thing (one still can't quite get over the arm-off in 127 Hours last month), and Aronofsky pushes this right from the start.

When he shows these ballerinas working their toes into submission, and having to push their ankles and feet to a limit, it's not just a "showing the profession" kind of deal.  It's connected to what Nina goes through later with her "other" condition, of an unusual mark on her back that goes in a straight line and is red, and perhaps scratched.  Other people (at least Nina's mother) notice it on her, but Nina is the only one who sees it extend to its logical destination.  When it gets there- and dear reader, you'll know where- its a transformation not unlike Mystique in the X-Men (side note, Aronofsky - The Wolverine - awesome).

A body can be a thing that can waste away, but the mind is a bit more complicated, and the subjective perspective is something Aronofsky is masterful at portraying here.  I was completely caught up with Nina about midway through the film.  Her mania became my mania in a way; Aronofsky's choices of close-ups on this woman falling apart is a distinct and maybe (only) brave choice to do.  She has fear, anguish, pain, delirium, occasionally (when a 'substance' is put in her drink by Lily) euphoria, and finally full-on homicidal madness.  I couldn't discern reality from fantasy in this film, which is something that excites me and surprises me.  That it's also in the framework of a full-borne melodrama is something that excites further.  No, it's not quite The Red Shoes.  It's something different, adaptive, as if Stephen King with a refound lust for glory took the Red Shoes and doused it in kerosene and made it dance till it passed out.  It's script, which deals in conventions, is deceptive once its truer purposes are revealed by its director (who, admittedly, rises it up from potential pitfalls that backstage-dramas can have).

Casting is so important though, outside of a director's vision, and Aronofsky has a lead here that could equal her previous Randy 'The Ram' from The Wrestler.  Natalie Portman seems to find a really strong role every five years or so, and this is one of them.  In Nina she finds darker countours than I've seen her play before, and as the filmmaking reaches a feverish pitch the actress is right there along for the ride.  I mentioned close-ups before (as did Jim Emerson in his blurb, bless him), and Portman is game to fill up the frame with her availability and horror that she can give as an actress.  It's a revelatory performance in that she runs a gamut of emotional notes from tender to sad to hysterical to mad to evil and just downright... determined.  That she's also an amazing ballerina should be a given to be in this film, though her dedication to the role pays off in that climactic Swan Lake performance.  It's not all visual fx up there and lighting daring-do.  It's flesh and blood and eyes turned red and wings flapping like daggers.

Did I mention the music?  Or the cinematography?  Or any number of things?  In short, it's one of the best of the year, do go see it if it's around the area or when it opens wider this Christmas.  As far as head-trip mind-fuckers go, it's the director's finest and, within its cozy hand-held 16mm confines, most ambitious work.

Saturday Movie Madness: Masaki Kobayashi's HARAKIRI

The Samurai code is a funny thing, especially back in the 17th century when the Shogun basically put a whole bunch of samurai out of work when wars and battles to be fought were quashed.... actually, not really.  It's a serious matter, serious as a heart attack on a 50-foot bull.  It's a system, a bureaucracy like most others, in the guise, or absorbed, in a code, one that is taken so deadly that those who decide to must 'opt-out' of life.  That is, it's really the only way to go aside from the shameful ronin path.  And yet there is a system in place for that, too: Harakiri, or its brother-name, Seppuku.  Ritual suicide, with a swipe across the gut, specifically from left to right as precise as possible for disembowling, all at the audience of the given clan's samurai, and then beheading by a 'second', a samurai deemed fit to finish off the task so the spirit can go to the "other side".  Oh, what a code!  What indeed; a crock.

That is, really, for the protagonist of this story, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), the last of his family and a tried and true ronin, who comes to the Lyi clan's domain in 1630 to kill himself, stone-faced and barely without any emotion.  Before this, however, he hears from the Counselor at the clan about the story of another Samurai who very recently came to the clan in desire to commit harakiri: Motome Chijiiwa, a fresh-faced young gent who insisted on it, then backed off from his earnest stanced.  He claimed in fact (the Counselor says it's all the truth, and Kobayashi doesn't steer us off here) that Motome needed a moment - that is, another one or two days to decide for sure.

A fraud, they say!  There had been others, reportedly, who frauded fellow samurai clans with Harakiri as a way of blackmail; pay off or die on the premises.  Not so for Motome: his bamboo sword, the only one he has (he sold off the other one we learn much later), and he does this task with much difficulty.  Tsugumo doesn't recall this Motome (played with shockingly revealing innocence by Ishihama), who was a former samurai at the clan at Hiroshima.  A lie, actually, as he was very well acquainted with him.  More to the point, Motome married his daughter, Miho.  While the Lyi clan waits upon Tsugumo's desired second (that is, seconds, all three of them he asks for), he tells his story.  And it ain't pretty.

Masaki Kobayashi's film crackles and cuts deep.  It's a major work of art by a classically-enthused storyteller, focused on always moving the story forward with characters who reveal their complexity within the society they're in, and who is looking to break ground in this form and genre: the samurai action drama.  He does by telling his story with patient but efficient timing (the story cuts back and forth from Tsugumo's storytelling spot on the mattress in the courtyard with a measured but brisk enough pace), and when it strikes its hell-hot.  It comes close (or just) to be my favorite of all samurai pictures.

It's the one that, even more than Kurosawa to an extent, holds up its legend high in its period setting, strips it bare, and by the end it scrambles to resemble order and decency for the mythos the samurai clan depends on maintaining.  The man once said, 'When legend becomes fact, print the legend.'  This is fact as legend, of high stakes life and death straits in a medieval society with a 'code' for those up top (i.e. privelege and respect), and every other man/woman/child for themselves.  Harakiri's storytelling is part of the point of it all: it's a spellbinding film about telling a story that everyone must hear, even if one doesn't want to, and what information makes things known at first and as it un-coils every layer is more tragic, incendiary, and, in its final reels, bad-ass.

As Nakadai tells his tale, the one that came before it of his younger, more vulnerable son-in-law ("Poor Motome" as he says), it's given further depth and tragedy of a life lost to the "fraud" of the samurai way.  And Kobayashi as a directoer will not, cannot, for the morality of it all, avert his cinematic gaze from that first abhorrent Harakiri scene in the courtyard.  He keeps his lens, always in close-ups, on Motome's face, inexorable in pain and covered in swear, or on the wound itself, gushing blood in its awkward, innocent manner.  It asks you, demands even, that you be caught up in the kind of pain he's in.

It's a scene of very harsh effect, for the length it takes to get the "deed" done (I'm almost reminded of the length we stay with Aaron Ralston's arm in 127 Hours), and preceded in a lead-up in cut-aways to faces of the clan looking on in anticipation with a score by Toru Takemitsu. It's music loaded with string strokes like sword swipes.  It's a score, by the way overall, that is not so conventional as to come in and give precise cues (it's not, for example, like Kobayashi's movie music for The Human Condition movies, more conventional in its epic scope).  Sometimes the director prefers his scenes with cold, stark silences, and other times music comes in like an act of aggression, or of sorrow.

Complimenting the scope of the story, which builds and builds but only so often until it needs to pop, is how Kobayashi and his DP frame his characters.  At times its instinctual: wide shoots of the courtyard, men poised, just perfectly, totally in step, and Nakadai's Tsugumo, the troublemaker in the center, also in control and almost so in control that it errs the Counselor, who often in shots paces back and forth or looks on with his cold gaze and tone of voice to try and match his would-be opponent.  Then, the close-ups of the faces.  I loved the shots of Tsugumo as he very calmly but firmly explains his story to the clan.

We can take seeing him like this when he's cool and laying his story down so close, and it's incredible to see the little moments in Nakadai's face in these shots.  It's when he starts to laugh, a kind of maniacal, helpless laughter of a man with nothing to lose, that Kobayashi has to pull back to a wide again.  And when it comes time for him to finally reveal his true intentions for coming to the Lyi courtyard, some solid, quick zooms do just the trick.  And many times, almost like Kobayashi means to sneak up on us, for true meaning to reveal itself, the camera moves sometimes slow and sometimes quickened on a face, a beat, anything that matters.

One of those things is Nakadai in this role.  He's nothing less than astonishing, and I was astonished for how much depth was revealed as Tsugumo's story of the trafgic of his family went on.  Like his character in the 10-hour epic The Human Condition, only here condensed to 133 minutes, Nakadai digs deeper into this being the more we see of him, so that by the time all is said and done in the film we have to think back to how much he was doing really with so little in the early scenes when he's just first being a veruy smooth motherfucker in the presence of the Counselor one-on-one.

And watch him as he's in those scenes as his family falls apart, his daughter and grandson stricken with fever, and his intense reaction at his son-in-law's body being brought to him.  This is acting that tears apart the soul of the character.  He does this all the time, be it for Kobayashi or for Kurosawa especially with Ran and Kagemusha.  He's an actor that if Scorsese had worked more with Japanese fellows would be at the top of his list.  He's consumate, incredible, passionate, and we feel for him every moment on screen, especially those where he goes nuts.

So the same can be said for the drama of the movie.  And yet I'd be remiss if I left off one last goodie for the sake of the film, that one last cherry on top to make it the masterpiece it is: intense and harrowing sword-play sequences.  If one's seen Samurai Rebellion also by Kobayashi, one knows his skill at staging men with swords battling it out like it's a nervous breakdown.  And here we get two levels of the sword-play, one with one-on-one battles where Tsugumo takes on the three samurai who so callously came to his home with his body and treated him so awfully in the Courtyard, and it's fascinating and terrifying to watch because we know what he's really going after here, which is their ponytails.  There's one sequence in particular that goes all the way out to a windy-grassy field, and the build-up to out out-ranks the best shoot outs in westerns.  The other is the final climax, however, I can't really spoil, and wouldn't want to even if I could.  You just have to see it for yourself.

Suffice to say, Tarantino would feel a little humbled by it, all Kill Bill Vol. 1 considered.