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I'm guessing I saw this 1977 TV movie one time when it was first aired
on CBS. Which puts me at age 6 or so. "Once Upon a Brothers Grimm" made
a huge impression on me, though I didn't see it again for another 25
years. What stuck most in my memory was the very strong premise: the
famous Grimm brothers are on a long journey when their carriage halts
outside an enchanted wood, through which their driver refuses to travel
at night. They carry on without the driver, become separated in the
woods, and stumble through a number of famous fairy tales. (Remember
that this came a full decade before Stephen Sondheim's "Into the
Woods.") And the sequence that stayed most vivid in my memory over the
years involved the 12 dancing princesses and the swan princes. It was
certainly one of the sparks that gave me a lifelong interest in fairy
Looking at it now, 30+ years since it was made, the film carries a lot of late 70's baggage. It has a number of those peculiar stars of the era recognizable--to kids who grew up then--by their appearances on the Muppet Show or their voice work in the Smurfs. And, yes, there's a faint haze of Hollywood Squares about the production. However, look past that, and there is something worth preserving. As the leads, Dean Jones and Paul Sand are a great duo. Jones, as always, sells his scenes 100 percent, and Sand matches that with true gusto. Probably the most noteworthy appearance of a supporting actor is that of Teri Garr, as a princess seeking a princely frog. To contemporary eyes, the film goes a bit off the rails a few times, but never more so than during Chita Rivera's surreal solo. But, in fact, most of the musical and dance numbers are surprisingly well conceived and executed. For kids 8 years old and under--assuming they haven't been ruined by the production standards of modern TV and film--this should remain a unique treat.
"Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you
desire; it tells you how to desire."
So begins "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema," in which Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek applies his Freudian/Lacanian brain-scalpel to world cinema. This film in three parts is the second feature documentary directed by Sophie Fiennes (yes, sister of Ralph and Joseph), and it is a notable accomplishment, clocking in at 2 1/2 hours of talk from one man and yet remaining humorous and engaging throughout. In essence, it is an extended film lecture, and one of the best you may ever get. Over the course of the film, Zizek guides us through a catalog of obsession and desire in film history. He touches on more than 40 films and, in particular, spends a great deal of time with Hitchcock, Lynch, Chaplin, Tarkovsky, the Marx Brothers, and Eisenstein. But he also takes a close look at "Persona," "The Conversation," "Three Colors: Blue," "Dogville," "Fight Club," and "The Exorcist." Thematically, Zizek's inquiry into cinema ranges from thoughts on the death drive to the "coordinates of desire," and from Gnosticism to "partial objects."
"The Pervert's Guide" will be a slightly better experience if you've taken a few minutes to bone up on your basic Freudian terminology. However, even if you're not steeped in psychoanalytic theory, Zizek's dynamic and hilarious personality carries the film forward with such gusto that you aren't likely to balk at the specialized lingo. The film frequently cuts from movie clips to images of Zizek *inside* the movie he is talking about--that is, in the original locations and sets. The transitions in these sequences sustain such tension and humor that the trick never gets old. And Zizek himself is constantly making us laugh, either from bizarre little jokes or from his enthusiastic insistence on, for example, a bold Oedipal interpretation of "The Birds." And this go-ahead-and-laugh attitude, on the parts of both Fiennes and Zizek, is essential to the gonzo character of the film. It is the spoonful of sugar that helps us digest Zizek's weird medicine. After all, don't we all have a sense that, past a certain point, psychology theorists are just pulling our legs?
Be prepared. In Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire" you will see a portion of an
abortion procedure. You will see the dead pieces of a being you cannot
simply label "fetus" & thereby distance yourself comfortably from it.
You will see crime scenes with the bodies of people executed by
anti-abortion zealots. You will also see quite a number of
Bible-slappin' loudmouths & pro-choice intellectuals.
Being a pro-life viewer, I must give Kaye credit for allowing 2 moments that are very strong for the pro-life camp. The first comes near the beginning of the film, in which we do actually see the dismembered pieces of that aborted baby. This is echoed later with shots of corpses stored in a clinic freezer. The second moment comes with the story of Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade. Kaye presents McCorvey's story of working in abortion clinics after her trial & later converting to Christianity & completely reversing her position toward abortion. McCorvey's conversion came about through the efforts of a man we see here, a man who, incidentally, is perhaps the single non-wacko pro-life leader that Kaye deigns to show: Operation Save America's Flip Benham.
Other than those two points, all the scoring goes to the pro-choice crowd. Kaye includes as many homophobic, gun-toting, anti-abortion loudmouths as he can find. And he can't hide his own prejudices when he zeroes in on the mouth of one particular windbag & lets it fill the screen while he rants--a technique, it should be noted, that is never applied when Alan Dershowitz is on screen. Here we have pro-lifers who do the cause no favors by opening their mouths, saying for instance that they think blasphemers should be executed, that they've seen Satan-worshiping abortionists barbecue babies right in front of them, etc. And this spectacle goes on & on, with only one answering clang on the Left. At one point we do see a single leftist dork: a woman singer who dances 95% nude during her performance, shoves a coat hanger in her crotch, & mimes giving herself an abortion & eating the baby. We also get to hear this "artist" speak in an interview, & she is stunningly clueless. But that's it for whack-jobs presented on the Left, & we're clearly meant to come away from the film with the sense that the majority of pro-lifers are sub-mental creeps while the majority of pro-choicers are enlightened, brainy people you'd trust to guide public policy.
Nearly all the people interviewed for this documentary use dishonest, loaded arguments: that is, "the Bible says so" (& if you don't believe the Bible, you don't count), or "it's a woman's right" (& obviously the fetus isn't a person, so it doesn't have any rights). The difference is that the people Kaye sought out are primarily intellectuals on one side, and on the other they are primarily uneducated and backwards. The film includes only a few brief seconds of articulate speech on the pro-life side, in contrast with the nonstop barrage of interviews with leftist celebrity intellectuals like Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, and Peter Singer. Chomsky, who has several PhDs in HairSplitting, gets away here with everything from comparing the religious climate in the U.S. with that in Iran, to raising absurd, overly-clever counterarguments such as his statement that women "kill bacteria" every time they wash their hands (the implication being that killing bacteria is, on some gray scale, morally comparable to killing a fetus). Dershowitz pulls some similar garbage when he says that every time a man & woman refrain from having sex they are preventing a potential human being from being created, & therefore maybe we should have sex 24/7 if we're really going to make God happy. And Singer? Well, he defines murder in terms of "what makes it wrong." That is, murder is killing someone who has the mental capability to wish otherwise, & since a fetus doesn't have the cerebral development allowing him to know what he's missing out on--well, tough. One wonders what Singer might think of killing comatose persons or even victims who are merely sleeping.
Particularly disappointing--& revealing, in terms of the documentary's prejudices--is that almost no effort was made to bring in articulate intellectuals from the pro-life camp. You'll see no Peter Kreeft here, no Frederica Mathewes-Green. And while Kaye gives screen time to a conspiracy theory about "Christian Reconstructionism" & the Religious Right's supposed desire to retake the country & execute anyone who doesn't obey the ten commandments, no similar examinations are made of possible conspiracies on the Left. No mention is made, for example, of Planned Parenthood originating from a scandalous soup of eugenics, racism, & elitist, upper-class paranoia directed at the burgeoning lower classes.
This pro-choice prejudice is seen further in the film's recurring, sledgehammer theme: pro-life = anti-abortion terrorism. Kaye is little interested in portraying anything but the sensationalistic stereotypes of pro-life activists, & the final portion of the film stresses these stereotypes repeatedly. As the film winds down & we follow a woman into her clinic to see the "brave" choice she's going to make & see that she's an emotionally disturbed woman who really shouldn't raise a child, we get an answering bombardament from the Left. The intellectuals that Kaye brought out earlier now return, & we're given a dizzying number of alternative, gray-scale methods for thinking about abortion, methods for making a simple thing more "complex." For instance, Alan Dershowitz says that when it comes to abortion, "everyone is right." This is a pleasant, non-conclusive answer that will not lead to any hasty overturning of laws.
Finally, on a personal note, I was glad I saw this film but can't recommend it. After all, a documentary heavily skewed like this can't be admired for its intrinsic worth. Kaye merely shows us how a film may pay lip service to "fairness" while ending up with a propagandistic message.
"When Strangers Appear" (2001) is just the sort of film I'm a sucker
for. It's a tense, neo-Hitchcockian thriller with a crisp, clean visual
style, a forceful sense of place, several great suspense sequences,
very effective camera work, and one hell of a paranoid mood. The story
concerns a young woman who for 48 hours becomes entangled in a
mysterious manhunt when her path crosses with the wrong people on the
Oregon coast. Or, as I really like to tell folks, it's about a waitress
being chased by diabolical surfers.
The film was written and directed by New Zealand director Scott Reynolds. For me his first film, "The Ugly," was close to unwatchable, but then he released "Heaven," which showed a lot of promise. (And with any luck he'll break his 6-year dry spell and bring us something else soon.) Radha Mitchell and Josh Lucas are both very, very good in "When Strangers Appear," as is Kevin Anderson in his supporting role. The film has a few flaws, however. This includes a few too-self-conscious moments and the casting of Barry Watson as Jack, the man on the run. Still, the film is a must-see for fans of tense contemporary thrillers that lie in the shadow of Hitch, or for anyone who's up for the sort of gripping, old-fashioned good time provided by films like "Red Rock West," "Nick of Time," and "Breakdown."
"Cul-de-sac" is Roman Polanski's third feature, after "Knife in Water" and "Repulsion." The movie was filmed in and around a castle on the coast of north-east England that is cut off from the mainland for a portion of every day when the tide changes. Here a pair of wounded, on-the-run criminals invade the castle and impose themselves on the slightly-bohemian couple living there. Like all of Polanski's best films, it truly functions as a showcase for the actors, and the central cast here is Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, and Lionel Standera Brit, a Frog, and an American. There's also a wonderful supporting performance by Irish actor Jack MacGowran. However, it's Pleasance who steals the show. Like Polanski's writing and direction here, Pleasance creates a real tension between realism and delirious mania, thus maintaining a moment-by-moment unpredictability that you simply can't take your eyes off. It's one of the mysteries of cinema history why "Cul-de- sac" has not survived well in the memories of critics nor found a dedicated audience as have most other early Polanski films.
This film looks darned good, and its moody atmosphere is a beautiful thing as well. Unfortunately, Williams relies far to heavily on motifs from Haruki Murakami novels like "The Wild Sheep Chase" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," borrows a bit too obviously from "Eyes Wide Shut," and steals outright from "Donnie Darko." All of this might have been forgiven if Williams had conjured a gripping story here or something (anything!) of his own that was strikingly original. Sadly, this is not the case. The characters are never very compelling, and the story never manages to build any real momentum. As a result, "Starfish Hotel" is certainly watchable but not memorable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Contrived, self-conscious, obvious, repetitive, manipulative,
heavy-handed, pretentious--apparently these qualities do not count
against a film today, at least as far as critics and major awards
organizations are concerned. Roger Ebert called "Crash" his favorite
film of 2005, and the Academy Awards gave the film more recognition
than I would have thought possible--even considering the large quotient
of lowbrows in Hollywood today. To put it as kindly as possible,
"Crash" presents us with a shockingly manipulative story and treats
delicate social issues with all the subtlety of sledgehammer blows. In
essence, it is a bad knock-off of John Sayles, and you would do much
better treating yourself to a very fine film like the
criminally-neglected "City of Hope" (1991) or "The Sunshine State"
I should make it clear I wasn't disappointed at all in the performances or the look of the film. No, the trouble is something a bit deeper than that. As far as plot goes, there's this strange obsession in "Crash" with making every character experience a major "reversal." Good cop becomes bad cop; bad cop becomes good cop; innocent, victimized Middle Easterner becomes a perpetrator of violence--etc. And you can see all of this coming a mile away. Can Hollywood get any more heavy-handed and contrived than this? Well, let's hope not. Additionally, the movie seemed to be telling us that everyone in L.A. is a super-charged racist forever on the edge, ready to blow his or her top at any moment. Messages like this only serve to simplify social issues in a disastrous manner.
Essentially, "Crash" is classic kitsch: It shows you something for which you, as a product of liberal modernity, have a pre-loaded response. It makes you feel good about not being a racist and about deploring violence. It requires you to do zero intellectual work and then pats you on the back for having the correct ethical orientation toward the subject matter.
Personally, I don't think there's ever a good reason for talking down to your audience, and "Crash" is full of that. This type of story is every bit as bad as, on the other hand, elitist art that is only trying to communicate with a minute, intellectual clique. The ideal situation, I think, is for artists to treat their audience as thoughtful adults, and for the audience, in turn, to behave like thoughtful adults. Throughout "Crash," I felt Haggis was treating me like, at best, an adolescent who can only be impressed by broad strokes and the most obvious, belabored themes. In his book "The Art of Fiction," John Gardner talks about the bad storyteller being like a playwright who wants to run on stage every few minutes during a performance of his play and point out how every story development and technique is operating--and that is Haggis all over. He constantly shows his "puppeteer's hand."
Finally, I'm just getting exhausted by seeing people beating that dead horse of racism, over and over and over, in the media... For my money, a movie director is going to have to come up with a deeper, more ingenious approach if he wants me to listen to more of these preaching-to-the-choir sermons. Thankfully, there are directors like John Sayles who still have the talent to pull it off, and with panache.
Great, sweeping, lyrical shots of the natural world. A passionate but
respectful infatuation between the camera's eye and the lovely face of
a young beauty we've never seen before. Ever-climbing, harmonious waves
of symphonic delicacy. And a powerful, labyrinthine mood built of
images that court the eye rather than assail it. These are just a few
of the pleasures offered by "The New World." Something to realize,
right from the start, about Terrance Malick's new film is that he's
telling his story on an abstracted plane and by way of the mythological
mode. If just hearing that gives you a headache, then maybe this isn't
the movie for you. Otherwise, you're in for a real treat.
Okay, okay... So maybe Pocahontas was a mere ten years old when she saw her first white people and only twelve when John Smith left her and the Jamestown settlement in 1609. Maybe there was no enigmatic, and potentially romantic, relationship between the two. But this is all beside the point. Malick is not interested--and we can be ever so thankful for this--in telling a polemically-oriented story. He's not interested in giving us a dry, by-the-numbers, cinematic regurgitation of fact, or in constructing some historical-revisionist fantasy.
It should be obvious, for anyone paying attention to Malick's unusual filming style here, that this Pocahontas (played by the 14-year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher) is the archetype that has grown out of her legend. Here she is woman-as-land, a rather obvious but effective metaphor. Malick builds onto the metaphor two love stories, each taking as its object this blend of woman and land. The first romance (with explorer John Smith--Colin Farrell) is one of innocence, at least on the part of Pocahontas. The second (with farmer John Rolfe--Christian Bale), by far the more difficult relationship, is a romance of experience. These romances, of course, are what make great myth and great cinema. And like all great legends, this one presents a larger-than-life story yet leaves us to draw our own conclusions from it. But that's art for you--something with which most movies shouldn't be confused.
And how refreshing it is to see a film built from elliptical, intuitive patterns of imagery and soliloquy rather than from a dogged plot or ideologically-motivated pandering. The New World--like Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" or Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock"--is that rare thing, a dream you can sink into, a place to momentarily lose yourself in visual and aural poetry.
"Shopgirl"--based on a Steve Martin screenplay, from his short novel of
the same name--may fall short of being a perfect film, but it is still
terrifically touching. I was already a fan of the novel and found some
minor flaws in the film--so it was a little unexpected that the ending
succeeded in getting me choked up. But it did, and it's a film I'm sure
I'll see again.
Yes, it could have been a bit longer. It could have, at the very least, added 60 seconds to each of a number of high-potential scenes--the very funny (but could have been even better) scene when Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) unknowingly knocks a telephone off its base, and the "early courtship" scenes between Ray (Steve Martin) and Mirabelle (Claire Danes). Also, more time could have been spent on those elements of Mirabelle's life that form a great part of her identity--her drawings, her monotonous work at Saks, her depression.
In spite of these failings the film succeeds because of its earnest heart. Like Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy," it manages to tell some hard (almost taboo) truths about sexuality in the "liberated" modern world, about how people hurt each other and themselves while seeking intimate relationships free of any actual commitment. Also, while the story has some moments where the plot mechanics show through a bit too obviously, it is a film that seems content to put heavy emphasis on a mood and on the lyrical dreaminess--the disorienting, overwhelming faith and hope--involved in a love affair.
The cast, if not always flawless, really drew me into the film. Even Rebecca Pigeon, in her small part, steps out and captures a type of character very different from what we've seen from her before. Jason Schwartzman, as usual, is an impish, irresistible goof. Martin makes a good Ray Porter, even if he is just a few years old for the part and had to stretch a bit as he reached for the darker elements in a character who ranges from being very sensitive to being very cold. And despite the relative sparsity of simple, Mirabelle "character moments" in the film, Danes does a fine job with Mirabelle, a young woman who--both in the book and in the film--is something of an enigma not only to the men in her life but to the audience and herself.
This film, minimalist in the best possible sense, is a lyrical study of
isolation and loss. Tony Takitani (Issei Ogata) grows up the loner kid
of a jazz-playing, loner father. Like his father, Tony masters an art,
drawing, and eventually becomes very successful. Early in his adulthood
Tony has a few failed romances but never considers marriage until, in
middle age, he meets a woman fifteen years his junior, the sight of
whom for the first time adds an unshakable pain to his profound
A long sequence of aged Japanese photographs acts as a prelude to the film, telling in a few minutes the story of Tony's father. This section of plot takes up a much greater portion of Haruki Murakami's original short story, and Jun Ichikawa made a wise decision in reducing it, though utmost respect for the source material is in evidence throughout the film.
And then Tony's story itself begins, and if you are going to fall for this film, you do it then. From start to finish, really, the film is an episodic accumulation of small, deeply-touching scenes tied together by very simple yet evocative piano music and the enchanting voice of a narrator (Hidetoshi Nishijima) whose warm, thoughtful delivery makes one think of some poet of a bygone era.
Tony's courtship of Eiko and his subsequent troubles draw us closer and closer to this sad, beautiful soul until his loneliness finally becomes absolute. Ichikawa solidifies these intense layers of feeling with wonderfully basic techniques: stirring skylines and skyscapes used as backdrops; lovely, tangible environments; and discrete, minimalist camera angles--key conversations shot from behind the characters, over the shoulder, for instance. As a side note, the one film to which I can compare "Tony Takitani" is Laurent Cantet's "L'emploi du temps" (France, 2001), which has a similarly touching minimalism married to the intense inner lives of characters.
I was fortunate enough to see "Tony Takitani" at the 2005 Seattle International Film Festival, and of the films I have seen at the festival over the past decade, this ranks among my favorite three--the others being the 1996 Israeli film "Clara Hakedosha" ("Saint Clara") and 1999's "A la medianoche y media" ("At Midnight and a Half") from South America. I cannot imagine a better feature film to first bring the brilliant writing of Haruki Murakami to the big screen.
Note: Murakami's "Tony Takitani" was first published in English in the April 15, 2002 issue of The New Yorker.
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