Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My (somewhat eclectic) Top 10 for 2008

Seriously: The Fall is one of the best movies I've ever seen.

1. The Fall (Tarsem Singh)
2. Transsiberian (Brad Anderson)
3. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
4. The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson)
5. American Teen (Nanette Burstein)
6. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
7. Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
8. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
9. Ben X (Nic Balthazar)
10. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

My list is kind of strange in that I haven't seen very many of the big Globe contenders (thanks, snowstorm!) - so I had to cobble it together from what I had seen. Thankfully, I keep a running list.

Note: If I had my way, Sita Sings the Blues would be included, but sadly it's still waiting for distribution. I'm crossing my fingers that'll happen soon and I can put in on my 2009 list. :)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Far from Heaven

DAY OF WRATH / Vrdens Dag
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, Denmark, 110 mins.)

"You asked if I ever wished you were dead.
I have wished it hundreds of times."
-- Anne to Absalon

***** ***** *****

Day of Wrath has all the ingredients for a juicy melodrama. A beautiful young woman with a shady past marries an older pillar of the community. His judgmental mother, who preferred her deceased predecessor, neither likes nor trusts her. The young woman's stepson, however, who happens to be around the same age, not only likes and trusts the beautiful young woman...he loves her. And she him.

Best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) could've set Hans Wiers-Jenssens' novel in the 1930s, and crafted a little Sirk-style weepie. Instead, he sticks with the original stiff-collared 1620s, a period that anticipates Nazi-occupied Denmark, just as Arthur Miller's The Crucible reflects the McCarthy era.

Further, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt mirrors the state of the Catholic Church after Vatican II as much as it does the Bush Administration which, yes, makes the con-
servative Sister Aloysius, who has doubts about the liberal Father Flynn, a stand-in
for President Bush, who had no doubts about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Dreyer's anti-heroine, Anne (Lisbeth Movin, effectively conveying both naivete and unbridled lust), is, supposedly, the daughter of a witch. Her husband, Rev. Absalon Pederssen (Thorkild Roose), isn't just any parson, but the one who determines which village women will die for the sin of witchcraft--and yes, it's always a woman.

Absalon took mercy on Anne's mother, but holds Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier, heartbreaking), responsible for doing the Devil's bidding. She denies the charge, and so the torture begins, but it doesn't matter what she says. If the community believes she's guilty, she'll surely burn at the stake. Absalon's mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiien-
dam), is still angry with her son for failing to inflict conflagration on Anne's mother.

When it's just Anne, Absalon, and Merete, the young woman feels stifled, but when Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), comes to visit, she springs to life. Blinded by love for his wife and son, Absalon encourages their friendship and fails
to notice the obvious mutual attraction, but Merete is certain they're up to no good. Like Sister Aloysius in the Shanley play-turned-film, she has no proof, but no-
tices the two spending a lot of time together. Unsupervised. In the bucolic woods.

Until this point, Day of Wrath plays like literary melodrama, but as Anne's love for Martin grows, she becomes emboldened, rash...and even a little scary. In other words, she starts to act like the 17th-century version of a witch: a confident, outspok-
en woman who'll do whatever it takes to get what she wants. She won't break the law, she won't commit murder, but she will wish her husband dead, so she can marry his son. In fact, that's exactly what she does: wishes. And thus begins her downfall.

That's also when the genre shifts. Day of Wrath may work as a powerful metaphor for the rise of the Nazi Party, but the thought never crossed my mind while watching Dreyer's masterful, if neglected film. Instead I thought about Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes' Sirk"nspired Far from Heaven; mirror-laden, color-coded cri de coeurs for ordinary, middle-class women made to suffer for being ordinary, middle-class women. And for having a few thoughts in their heads.

Anne, however, is a darker-hued creature than those sleek suburbanites, and that's where the noir comes in. Dreyer has compassion for her plight--she married young and is unable to bear children--but what to make of her recklessness? It's not that she wants her husband or mother-in-law to catch her consorting with Martin, but that she ceases to care. Dreyer also suggests she might have supernatural powers. True or not, Anne believes she does, and the very idea thrills her. If she felt guilty, that would be one thing, but she revels in the belief that she can control life and death.

After making Day of Wrath, which won him few fans with the Danish authorities, Dreyer fled for Sweden, his mother's birthplace, until after the war. Would that Anne--and other women like her--have had the same opportunity to hop on a bus and relocate to a place where they could be themselves in all their complicated glory.

Day of Wrath, in a restored 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum from
12/26-1/1 at 7 and 9pm. The film was previously only available as part of the Criterion Collection's four-disc Dreyer set, though earlier this year Criterion issued a beautiful two-disc version of the director's Vampyr, so Wrath can't be far behind (wrath is never far behind!). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from Cinema em Cena, Coosa Creek Cinema, The House Next Door, and Only the Cinema.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Everyone looks exactly like this throughout the ENTIRE film.

At first glance, it seems like Valkyrie can't fail. A taut political thriller based on a true story that involves tragedy, honor, betrayal and suspense - definite Oscar candidate, right? I mean, how can you lose with the planned assassination of Hitler? Especially with an action-packed, thrillingly cut trailer?

I think it says a lot that I was 100x more entertained by the Q&A hosted by The Warren Report's Warren Etheredge with (Co)Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie than I was by the film. And I was also very confused. Since McQuarrie explained the actual events with such passion, describing in detail the research and co-writing he had done with Nathan Alexander - and I'm a fan of everything else Director Bryan Singer has done, I wondered how the story got lost in translation.

I have a theory: if you're aiming to create a great film with all German characters - maybe filling your cast with famous Brits (Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp - and,AePEddie Izzard) and putting an American (not just any American actor - THE Tom Cruise) in the starring role is not the wisest move. I'm guessing I'm not going to be the only one disconcerted with Cruise reading a diary entry in German at the beginning of the film, and then switching to American dialog for the rest.

I know, I know - they do it all the time. But I can't help but think that maybe I'd feel a little differently if either a) there were just ALL British actors speaking in their British accents, or b) (and I know this is crazy) German actors. I hear there are a few that can act.
Sadly, as it is, all this film amounts to is a lot of close-ups of an eye-patched, one-handed Tom Cruise looking severely anguished (except when wearing his glass eye - than the shots are as far away as possible and heavily filtered), and long, loaded glances from the other conspirators. I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters - especially not Cruise's Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg - and even though they did their best to suspend it, I'm pretty sure everyone knows how their plan turns out.

A couple of moments that made me visibly cringe: First, a slow motion close-up of the Stauffenberg's adorable blond-haired child doing the Hitler salute for the Colonel's homecoming. Really? Slow motion, even?? Then, during a touching goodbye scene, Singer zooms in on Stauffenberg's wife (Clarice van Houten) clutching her stomach with over-the-top emotion as Cruise tells her to "take care of the family". Get it? GET IT?? Also, I don't want to ruin anything, but there's one pivotal line uttered by Stauffenberg with the worst. delivery. ever. That and the last shot of Le Cruise will haunt me forever, and not in a good way.

This movie definitely screams "Nominate me for an Oscar" - but although all the cues were there, and I heard audience members responding to them with uncomfortable laughter (omg. I can't believe they just made a Nazi joke!!) and shocked gasps - I don't think it's going to succeed.
But, I could be wrong. I'm sure that plenty of people will think I'm giving this too hard of a time. And even if the usually fantastic duo of Singer & McQuarrie couldn't make it happen - it's possible legions of Tom fans will push it through to success. As long as the Director and Screenwriter are still around to make better movies, I won't complain - too much.
Valkyrie opens on December 25th, Christmas Day (FYI: according to McQuarrie, that's the release date Cruise wanted all along,AeP)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

That Was the Year That Was

John Moulder-Brown and Jane Asher in Deep End

Click here for last year's wrap-up

I'm still working on a more complete list for my blog (I look forward to catching up with Wendy and Lucy and The Wrestler before the end of 2008). In the meantime, here's the gist of my film year. Click the links below for my Amazon and Siffblog reviews and/or interviews, plus Steven Fried's post on My Winnipeg. Where my piec-
es aren't available on-line, I've included excerpts from my Video Librarian reviews.

The Tops:
1. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski)
2. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
3. Man on Wire (James Marsh)
4. The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson)
5. Frozen River (Courtney Hunt)
6. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
7. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
8. The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
9. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Note: Every year, I compile a top 50, counting documentaries and reissues, but
if a non-narrative/pre-existing title impresses sufficiently, it might make my top
10, as in the case of Deep End, My Winnipeg, and Encounters. Since the former never received a proper US release, it's almost like a new title, though Skolimowski finally issued a film in 2008, Four Nights with Anna, which is making the festival rounds.

Wagner Moura in Elite Squad

11. Elite Squad (Jose Padilha)
12. The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)
13. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
14. You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
15. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
16. Reprise (Joachim Trier)
17. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
18. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
19. Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs)
20. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

Note: What an amazing year for Israeli film! Aside from The Band's Visit and
Waltz with Bashir, Jellyfish made my top 30 (of 2008's animated features, I also enjoyed Wall-E and Fear(s) of the Dark). You, the Living is still seeking distribution.



Top Documentaries:
1. Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney)
2. Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)
3. The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown)
4. Surfwise (Doug Pray)


Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, but few medical practitioners chuck it all
to become surfers who sire nine children and travel the world in a 24-foot camper.
Doug Pray's admirably even-handed portrait of Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz and clan immediately distinguishes itself from surfing celebrations like Endless Summer and Riding Giants, though pro boarders Kelly Slater and Taylor Knox stop by to pay tribute (after all, Doc lived the dream, even bringing surfing to Israel). Co-produced by son Jonathan Paskowitz, Surfwise is more of a character study, and the salty-tongued Doc is quite a character. As his wife, Juliette, puts it, "For 10 years I was either pregnant or breast-feeding." As youngest child Josh quips, "We were born because Doc wanted to re-populate the world with Jews." A tanned and fit 85 at the time of filming, Doc doesn't see any of this as unusual, describing his family, instead, as "the most conventional people." (And they do seem surprisingly sane.) Nonetheless, all 11 members subsisted on a diet of health food (including branches), home-schooling, and big waves. For cash, Doc ran a surf camp and treated the occasional patient. Despite the lack of creature comforts, it might sound a little like paradise, except for the corporal punishment and the fact that the kids had to listen to their parents having sex every night. The director behind the fine music docs Hype! and Scratch, Pray never imposes his views on the narrative, but rather allows his subjects to speak for themselves. He leaves it up to viewers to decide whether Doc was genius, madman, or somewhere in between. Easily one of the year's most fascinating films.

5. Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)
6. Wild Combination - A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf)
7. Billy the Kid (Jennifer Venditti)
8. At the Death House Door (Steve James and Peter Gilbert)
9. Wrangler - Anatomy of an Icon (Jeffrey Schwarz)

Blond, blue-eyed, all-American Jack Wrangler (nee Stillman) was one of the
top porn stars of the 1970s. Like John Holmes, he wasn't much of an actor, but
he gave the people what they wanted: beefcake. Unlike Holmes, he specialized
in gay porn, but by participating in Jeffrey Schwarz's perceptive documentary, he doesn't seek to exploit-or even to condemn-his past, but to prove that there's more to Jack Wrangler than meets the eye. A self-effacing raconteur, he makes
his case. Born to wealth and privilege (his father produced Bonanza), Wrangler be-
gan life as an inauspicious runt, but hobnobbed with Tinseltown royalty and soon developed silver-screen ambitions of his own. As the years passed, he also found himself attracted to other men. Though his enthusiasm trumped his talent, he discovered his niche when he segued from dinner theater and bit parts to exotic dancing and the adult film industry. His improbable biography kicks into high gear when he marries Margaret Whiting, a singer 20 years his senior. As he speaks to the camera, it becomes clear that Wrangler isn't just a story about one man's life in and out of the porn business, but about popular conceptions of masculinity since the 1950s. Throughout, Schwarz, the filmmaker behind Spine Tingler! The William Cast-
le Story
, cuts between stills, clips (some incredibly rare), and comments from 40 speakers, including gossip columnist Michael Musto, publisher Al Goldstein, com-
poser Marc Shaiman, and author Bruce Vilanch. Frank words and images aside,
the unrated Wrangler is only marginally more explicit than That Man - Peter Berlin,
a previous porn portrait emphasizing character and context over shock value.

10. Joy Division (Grant Gee)
Bonus: Patti Smith - Dream of Life (Steven Sebring)

Note: It's beyond me why The Order of Myths and Up the Yangtze weren't short-
listed for a Best Documentary Oscar. The Academy Award nominating committee instead gave the nod to Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A., which displays all the artistry
of a PowerPoint presentation. Margaret Brown's doc premieres on PBS next year.

The year's best cover art

Top DVDs:
1. Mishima - A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)
2. Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition (Orson Welles)
3. Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville)
4. Class Tous Risques (Claude Sautet)
5. Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
6. Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg)
7. Fallen Women [box set] (Kenji Mizoguchi)
8. The Rabbit Is Me (Kurt Maetzig)
9. The Furies (Anthony Mann)
10. The Small Back Room (Michael Powell)

Note: This list only includes the DVDs I've actually watched,
hence the absence of some of the year's most celebrated titles.

Until next year!

Endnote: Images from Buzz Sugar, Collider,
J4HI, Marmalade Skies, and Nippon Cinema.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dirty Harry in the Hood

(Clint Eastwood, US, 2008, 116 mins.)

"Why don't they buy American?"
-- Walt Kowalski on foreign-car buyers

"What are you peddling today, Padre?"
-- Walt Kowalski to his persistent priest

"Get off my lawn."
-- Walt Kowalski to everyone

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Clint Eastwood's retired auto worker Walt Kowalski scowls at everything, from his self-obsessed granddaughter to his Hmong neighbors. We've seen this expression before in the iconic films he made with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but similar stone-faced grimaces have flashed through his own movies, like The Unforgiven.

[gran torino]

A Korean War vet grounded in Detroit, Walt doesn't have much to smile about; as
he sees it, the modern world with its soft men and cellphones has left him behind, but to everyone else, he's just a grumpy old man. Like Michelle Williams's loner in Wendy and Lucy, Walt has his dog, Daisy, and his car, a '72 Gran Torino. If he feels isolated from his offspring, his quiet teenager neighbor, Thao (Bee Vang), feel the same way about his gang-banger cousins, who talk him into stealing Walt's ride.

Thao's plan fails, but it puts him and Walt on a collision course with each other-
and their respective worlds. Soon, it's Walt, Thao, and Thao's outgoing sister, Sue (Ahney Her), against the "Hmong motherfuckers." Since this is an Eastwood picture, not everyone will get out of this western-in-the-'burbs alive, but while recent movies like Crash and Lakeview Terrace have posited pessimism about race relations in Amer-
ica, Gran Torino is both funnier and more optimistic. Then again, it's just as much about loneliness--a concept that knows no age, race, or geographical boundaries.

In anyone else's hands, it would all be a load of sentimental claptrap, and it comes damn close, but Eastwood knows where to draw the line. Well, except for the Golden Globe nominated tune ("Gran Torino") he croaks over the closing credits. Clint can act, direct, produce, compose, and play the piano, but he can't sing. Nonetheless,
he gets a free pass, because he's Clint Eastwood. And there is none other.

Gran Torino opens in Seattle on 1/16 (Wendy and Lucy, Kel-
ly Reichardt's follow-up to Old Joy, opens at the Varsity on 1/23).
Images from, Film Junk, and OutNow!

Addendum: For those who can't get enough of Eastwood's vocal
stylings, the Northwest Film Forum will be screening Joshua Logan's
musical Paint Your Wagon, co-starring Lee Marvin, from 3/13-19
as part of their year-long 69 series. For more information, click here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Singin' in the Rain @ SIFF Cinema

Fakin' it like Milli Vanilli.

This weekend, SIFF is showing one of the few musicals I like: the 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain. In fact, I more than like it - I adore it - and not just for Gene Kelley's fancy footwork. It's the fresh innocence of Debbie Reynolds VS. the snooty venom of Jean Hagen that really pulls me in. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend - and if you have, well, you need to see it again.

In addition to this film being absolutely fantastic, SIFF is offering free admission to this screening with a cash donation and/or donation of canned or non-perishable food items, which will benefit the White Center Food Bank.

Singin' in the Rain plays tomorrow, Saturday December 13th @ 10am at SIFF Cinema. Don't miss it! Head over with your donations...