Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: September 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DVD Review: The Girlfriend Experience

by Tony Dayoub

As is evident in the picture above where The Girlfriend Experience's two protagonists—Chelsea, nee Christine (Sasha Grey), and Chris (Chris Santos)—are out of focus, director Steven Soderbergh is preoccupied with the bejeweled adornments, glossy finishes, and burnished surfaces that make up the backdrop of this film. That is to the say, superficiality is at the crux of the story here, a tale that takes place during the 2008 Presidential elections. If the film seems like a historical document that is because Soderbergh is using this account of a few days in the life of an escort to focus on the extravagance that Americans had so much trouble leaving behind in the days after the financial meltdown of last year, a point all the more salient today since it is the anniversary of last year's stock market drop of nearly 778 points, the biggest single-day point loss ever.

The Polanski Conflict

by TOny Dayoub

Joel Bocko, a regular reader here (as well as a talented writer in his own right under the guise of MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image), has a great piece that revisits one of my honorable mentions for the Best of 2008 through the prism of current events. In his day job as the Boston Indie Movie Examiner, Bocko casts an eye on Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the HBO documentary covering the circumstances of the famed director's trial for statutory rape and his subsequent flight to France.

Monday, September 28, 2009

This Week's NYFF09 Schedule

by Tony Dayoub

So I'll be arriving to New York on Friday. Until then—and possibly through the weekend, depending on how many films I go see—things might be light around here, with the occasional review popping up here and there. But in the meantime, the 47th New York Festival continues.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blu-ray Review: Thrills and Chills from MGM

by Tony Dayoub

A few popular thrillers and chillers were released on Blu-ray last week from MGM and Fox Home Entertainment, just in time for Halloween. Among them are Child's Play (1988), Wrong Turn (2003), and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007). Not the greatest horror flicks, to say the least. But the ones that will most interest fans I've saved for last.

The 47th New York Film Festival (NYFF 09) Begins Tonight

NEW YORK - Tonight is the opening for the 47th New York Film Festival. I have been invited to cover it, but due to the recession (and as this site is self-financed), I will not be able to attend its full schedule; however, fear not... I will begin covering it from the Big Apple a week from today. The coverage will take much the same form as it did last year, with a series of dispatches to cover the day-to-day stuff, and full length reviews for whatever press screenings I attend. Tonight's opening film is by the French New Wave master Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, mon amour) who is previewing Les herbes folles (Wild Grass) before its American release in 2010. At age 87, Resnais is already receiving kudos for this film that is being touted by some as a masterpiece. The light-hearted film concerns the ripple effect created by a simple purse-snatching. It stars Sabine Azéma (Un dimanche à la campagne), André Dussollier (Un coeur en hiver), and Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace). The premiere is scheduled for 9 p.m. at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, with red carpet arrivals beginning at 8 p.m. In addition to Resnais, Dussollier, and Amalric, celebrity attendees include actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sidney Lumet, Julianna Margulies, Mira Nair, Parker Posey and Julie Taymor among others. Though tickets are sold out, rush tickets will be made available before the show, and a second screening has just been added earlier at 6 p.m Also, the first part of this year's Masterworks ­repertory collections, highlighting the history of global cinema, are programs of films from China. (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966, is a twenty-film anthology of works from the crucial early years of the People's Republic of China. This mini-festival runs from September 26 - October 6. Here's a schedule for this weekend: EVENT TITLES NYFF – Festival main slate film CHN – NYFF MASTERWORKS: (Re)Inventing China SE – Festival special event SCREENING LOCATIONS ATH – Alice Tully Hall, Broadway and 65th Street WRT – Walter Reade Theater, 65th St. between Amsterdam and Broadway, upper level KP – Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, 65th St. between Amsterdam and Broadway, 10th Floor Friday, Sept. 25 6:00 OPENING NIGHT: Wild Grass, 113m (NYFF/ATH) 8:00 OPENING NIGHT: Wild Grass (NYFF/ATH) Saturday, Sept. 26 11:00am The Wizard of Oz, 103m (SE/ATH) 2:00 Bridge/Qiao, 100m (CHN/WRT) 2:15 Sweetgrass, 105m (NYFF/ATH) 4:00 Platton Commander Guan, 120m (CHN/WRT) 5:30 Eccentricities of a Blond, 64m, with Get Your Ya-Yas Out!, 27m (NYFF/ATH) 6:20 Two Stage Sisters, 112m (CHN/WRT) 8:30 Vincere, 129m (NYFF/ATH) 8:45 Visitors on the Icy Mountain, 100m (CHN/WRT) Sunday, Sept. 27 11:00am PANEL: Approaching the Wizard: Flying Monkeys, Ruby Slippers and Yellow Brick Roads in American Cinema and Culture (SE/WRT) 11:30am Kanikosen, 109m (NYFF/ATH) 2:00 HBO FILMS DIRECTOR'S DIALOGUES: Marco Bellocchio (SE/KP) 2:00 This Life of Mine, 110m (CHN/WRT) 2:15 Ghost Town, 169m (NYFF/ATH) 4:20 Before New Director Arrives, 70m (CHN/WRT) 6:00 The Red Detachment of Women, 115m (CHN/WRT) 8:30 Li Shuang Shuang, 110m (CHN/WRT) Wild Grass is playing at the 47th New York Film Festival, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. tonight, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050 Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center/Sony Pictures Classics

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon Postscript

My poll asking for your 3 favorite De Palma films closed last week. While not scientific, it certainly didn't surprise me too much with one notable exception. Out of 168 respondents the films broke down like this:
  • Blow Out got 65 votes as the most highly regarded film.
  • Carrie got 55 votes, not surprising given Stephen King's involvement.
  • Dressed to Kill got 44 votes, which I expected because it was probably De Palma at his most popular even if some snobbier critics look down on its violence.
  • Carlito's Way got 41 votes. This seems to be the film that is rapidly rising up in the ranks as one of his more underrated efforts. Cahiers du Cinema recently named it the best film of the nineties, and it is my personal favorite as well.
  • Body Double and Femme Fatale tied with 34 votes each. This is the biggest surprise. Many De Palma fans have a distaste for his sillier gonzo films. But I was gratified to see these both up here,and perhaps it means they are being rehabilitated in some people's minds.
Here are the rest:
  • The Untouchables - 29 votes.
  • Scarface - 28 votes.
  • Phantom of the Paradise - 24 votes.
  • Sisters - 20 votes.
  • The Fury and Mission: Impossible - (tie) 16 votes.
  • Casualties of War - 13 votes.
  • Raising Cain - 12 votes.
  • The Black Dahlia - 11 votes.
  • Obsession - 10 votes.
  • Hi, Mom! and Snake Eyes - 8 votes.
  • Redacted - 5 votes.
  • Mission to Mars - 4 votes.
  • Dionysus - 2 votes.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities, Get to Know Your Rabbit, Greetings, Home Movies, and Murder à la Mod - (tie) 1 vote.
  • And The Wedding Party and Wise Guys were the only ones to fail to get a single vote.
As I said in the comments section in an earlier piece, thanks to all of my readers and fellow bloggers for their support during this exciting event. You guys took this to another level by bringing your most intelligent commentary to the party and making this a great place to debate the strengths AND weaknesses of one of my favorite directors. I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Brian De Palma for giving us such wonderful fodder for this event. Hope your best films are still ahead of you, sir. And I hope someone made you aware of all the love the blogosphere has for your films. This event was so fun, I'm thinking I'll make it an annual Labor Day tradition. What do you think? Wait until you see who the subject is next year.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Seventies Cinema Revival: M*A*S*H (1970)

Attention. Captain Banning... er, Captain Bandini. [exhales] Attention. Captain Bandini is now performing a femoral po... a popli... a p... a femoral P-O-P-L-I-T-E-R-A-L artery exp... exp... exploration and possible graft.
-P.A. Announcer
When screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., another member of the blacklisted "Hollywood Ten," adapted Richard Hooker's satirical novel MASH, no one expected the film's virtually unknown director to bring anything unusual to the table. Robert Altman had been toiling in Hollywood for years on TV shows like Bonanza, and Combat! But it wasn't until he accepted an offer to direct Lardner's script that he began making his mark in cinema. Most only know of M*A*S*H from its long-running television series incarnation starring Alan Alda. Very few realize that it was originally a film directed by the now legendary director. The dark comedy is a lot zanier and looser than the comedy-drama that ran on TV. It follows the medics of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. Two of the principal protagonists, Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Capt. "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliot Gould), lead the charge in creating madcap pranks that help ease the natural tension and monotony that can arise in the hurry-up-and-wait environment of a mobile military hospital. The objects of their comedic torture are usually straight-laced career military officers that condescend towards them or their cohorts, people like Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) or Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Fans of the series who always wondered where the beloved "Hot Lips" Houlihan got her nickname would be surprised by its obscene origins as presented in the film. During a nighttime tryst with Burns, which ends up being broadcast over the P.A. by Trapper John, Houlihan is heard passionately telling Burns, "Oh, Frank, my lips are hot. Kiss my hot lips." This is but one of the taboos the film so deliciously revels in poking fun at. But surgeons Trapper John and Hawkeye are as talented in the OR as they are at busting chops. Scenes of hilarity are mashed up (pun intended) next to blood-soaked scenes of operating room carnage. Altman's aim is to demonstrate that as undignified or downright profane the doctors' antics are, all of it pales in the shadow of the war that serves as the story's backdrop. The ultra-liberal Altman hoped to comment on the war raging in Vietnam at the time of M*A*S*H's release, largely by ignoring its Korean setting in anything but a handful of references. He attains a level of realism seldom found in even dark comedies by applying techniques which would later become the director's hallmarks. Verisimilitude is achieved by having the characters step on each others dialogue the way natural conversation occurs in life. Performances (by many of Altman's repertory cast working with him here for the first time) are obviously improvised, but still directed to support the story, giving the comedy a streak of insanity that never descends into chaos. And his innovative use of the zoom in the otherwise dull-looking cinematography helps the director focus our attention on any of the multiple goings-on taking place in each densely layered scene. Tying all of the nonsense together are non-sequitur P.A. announcements reportedly transcribed verbatim from real announcements made during the Korean War. M*A*S*H is the type of film that has so much going on that one can always find something new in the margins. M*A*S*H made its debut on Blu-ray earlier this month. While most of the Special Features are direct port-overs from the original 2001 two-disc DVD, there is a great interactive guide one can play during the film to keep its voluminous cast of characters straight. Don't expect any edge enhancement because the Blu-ray is honoring Altman's original vision. The dull-edged cinematography with its hazy lighting was restored for the 2001 DVD, but it has never looked better than it does on Blu-ray. As one of the most important and beloved of American films, M*A*S*H is worth adding to your Blu-ray collection.

Friday, September 18, 2009

DVD Review: Trumbo (2007)

Out this week on DVD is the captivating documentary, Trumbo. Based on the play by his son Christopher Trumbo, it should more accurately be called a docudrama. It looks at screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's fall from grace after his refusal to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Hollywood for its ties to the communist party. At one time, Trumbo (Kitty Foyle) was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. But the political atmosphere grew increasingly paranoid in the face of the ascension of the Soviets to the status of superpower. And many Hollywood liberals were targeted for their membership in the communist party during an earlier time when Russia was a US ally. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, ten writers and directors who refused to give up other members on the basis of the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment. He was found in contempt of Congress, sent to prison for close to a year, and was blacklisted in Hollywood. After some lean years during which he had to support his family by writing screenplays under various pseudonyms, his name was once again allowed onto the credits of a film in Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (1960) soon after. In 1975 (one year before his death), he would go on to accept an Oscar for his story for The Brave One (1956), an award never picked up in 1957 because he had written it under the pseudonym Robert Rich. And in the nineties, records would later be changed to reflect him as the winner for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for 1953's Roman Holiday. Trumbo cleverly supplements the traditional home movies, still photographs, present day interviews, and archival interviews with the subject one usually sees in these types of films, with dramatic readings of the screenwriter's numerous personal letters as read by prominent actors. Famous faces like Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland each bring their own distinct style to their first-person readings as Trumbo. The most comical is Nathan Lane's reading of a letter from Trumbo to his son, an ode to the freedom he hopes his son feels when masturbating, a freedom that he never felt growing up in his time. The whimsical musical score by Robert Miller should also be noted here for reflecting the impish nature of Dalton Trumbo, a man whose wit and sarcasm could cut almost any enemy down to size, as some of the readings demonstrate. Through each reading and the appropriately paired documentary footage, one gains a greater understanding of not only the political trials, but also the practical economic ones that Trumbo faced in providing for his family during the oppressive era of the Red Scare. Given the current paranoia in the world of politics, Trumbo proves to be a timely primer in weathering such a storm, and its DVD is well worth seeking out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

DVD Review: Homicide (1991)

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, contributes some of the most essential cinematography in David Mamet's oeuvre with his work on Homicide. I say essential because in Mamet's work it is his clipped iambic pentameter that is usually front and center, even when the film falls into the "con game" subgenre he often explores. Unlike one of the more prominent examples of that genre, The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Homicide is an unusually personal film for Mamet in that he confronts some deep-seated issues with his Judaism through one of his favorite alter egos, actor Joe Mantegna. The cast is also heavy with many of his repertory players like Bill Macy, Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon. However, I was mystified by the end. Maybe I wasn't watching closely enough, but I'm usually attuned to Mamet's con games. So why did the ending go over my head? Did I blink and miss something? Did Mamet fumble it? If any of my readers will take the time to explain it to me, it would be very much appreciated. In the meantime, those familiar with the movie will find much to reward them in the Deakins camerawork with Criterion's fantastic new DVD, as the screen grabs below prove. Pay particularly close attention to the way the shots have recurring images that build chronologically to form layers of symbolism and thematic concerns worth explaining.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993)

by Tony Dayoub

...Cuba y Puerto Rico son
de un pájaro las dos alas,
reciben flores y balas
sobre el mismo corazón...


...Cuba and Puerto Rico are
a dove's two wings,
receiving flowers or bullets
over the same heart...

-from the poem "A Cuba" by Lola Rodriguez de Tió

I find it difficult to address two of Brian De Palma's most atypical movies, Scarface and Carlito's Way, because of how closely I, a Cuban American, identify with them. Like the Puerto Rican Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) I grew up going to school in an Hispanic neighborhood in the late seventies. Miami, back then, was mostly populated by retirees and snowbirds, and the school I went to near Coral Way had a diverse group of students, some from the barrio called Little Havana. While I never faced the kind of violence Carlito experienced in his own barrio firsthand, it was not unheard of. Friends of friends belonged to the local gang, the Latin Kings. Seeing a knife pulled out in a fight was not unusual back then. And there were always rumors of someone who owned a gun.

A lot changed in 1980, with the arrival of those we called the Marielitos. My elementary school's student demographic changed overnight. The once diverse cross-section of students I was familiar with gave way to a huge new subculture of immigrant Cubans, many of them poor, and feeling dislocated. I, who grew up watching The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch, found it difficult to understand why some had never even owned a TV. And though I was fluent in Spanish (indeed, it was my first language), I could never hold, much less keep up a conversation with those that came in the Mariel boatlift. They simply spoke too fast, threw too many puzzling expressions out for me to ever get on the same wavelength. It was all a bit alienating.

Crime went up. Race riots became frequent in some of the poorer neighborhoods (not strictly Cuban ones, I should point out). Drugs became a vehicle for quick and easy monetary success in a society for proud immigrants that wanted to work, yet faced many obstacles in assimilating quickly into society. In retrospect, my school was one of the safer ones facing these problems because of its relative distance from these neighborhoods. But you still saw some of it. My seventh-grade friend Neal, was five years older than all his other peers, because he had been let out of juvie (where he was incarcerated for car theft) on the condition he attend school again. His legs were covered with scars, from dog bites and barbed wire from his attempts to escape detention... or so he told me. Who knew? I was a kid, fascinated by dangerous looking big talkers because of my own deficiencies when it came to defending myself. Neal knew I could help him get in good graces with this pretty young friend of mine, Judy, who everybody had a crush on. And even though I was unsuccessful in my attempts to get them together, he never forgot that I tried. His loyalty, his reputation, and his friendship, were like an invisible shield that helped protect me from getting bullied, and in fact, helped me get along with some of his friends in the Kings. So I've always had sympathy for people like Tony Montana (also Al Pacino) and Carlito Brigante.

You didn't see too many Puerto Ricans in Miami, though. They had immigrated much earlier to New York, where they assimilated much faster than the Cubans ever did in Miami. Nuyoricans, though, were responsible for paving the way for Cubans here in the U.S. Musicians like the Fania All-Stars supplied the soundtrack to our lives, showcasing such stars like the Cuban Celia Cruz and the Puerto Rican Hector Lavoe. Puerto Ricans shared something with us Cubans that the rest of Latin America didn't. They were from the Caribbean. They ate the same food as we did (tacos and nachos are absent in those cultures, where black beans and rice are the staple). Where most of the rest of Latin America was proud of their Native American roots, the Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were the product of a culture where Spaniards had eradicated nearly all the Indians and instead integrated with their African slaves. Our music, dance, and even a religion, Santería, grew out of these African roots that were alien to the rest of Latin America. So Puerto Rico and Cuba, it can be said, are a dove's two wings.


De Palma is always prone to symmetry in his work, often bookending his films with similar visual or thematic concerns: the menstrual blood at the beginning of Carrie (1976) with the pig's blood in its climax; the sexually violent shower dream that opens Dressed to Kill (1980) and the one that ends it; the way an empty gun helps Carlito escape during a shootout at the start of Carlito's Way, and seals his lawyer Kleinfeld's (Sean Penn) fate as the movie wraps up. But with the release of Carlito's Way, De Palma provided not so much an apology, as some have said—for his negative depiction of a Latin gangster in Scarface—as much as he provided a doppelganger, a symmetrical counterpoint to the earlier film that gives it some unexpected depth.

De Palma helped to create the association by surrounding Pacino with characters, situations and backdrops that serve as mirrors between the two films. Tony and Carlito each have Anglo lovers—Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), respectively—that serve to illustrate the men's cultural disconnect with the American path to success. Elvira, no innocent herself, can't understand Tony's excesses, why he stagnates when he isn't reaching for more, more, more. Gail, can't understand why Carlito is locked on his path to failure by his loyalty to a code that repeatedly betrays him.

To lend some authenticity to the film, De Palma cast real life Hispanic entertainers in the roles of Pacino's associates in each film. Steven Bauer was already well known in the Miami exile community as Rocky Echevarría, star of a locally produced "Spanglish" sitcom called ¿Que Pasa USA? before he played Manny in Scarface. Argentinian star Jorge Porcel who played Saso in Carlito's Way was also well known in Miami as the star of the bawdy variety show, A la cama con Porcel. He also brought back three actors from Scarface for cameos in Carlito's Way—Ángel Salazar, Al Israel, and Michael P. Moran (casting Steven Bauer as Lalín instead of Viggo Mortensen would have made the parallels perfect)—cementing the bond between both films.

Both films have a gripping scene of explosive violence that sets the tone for each: in Scarface, it is the "chainsaw" drug buy where his associate Angel (Pepe Serna) is executed; and in Carlito's Way, it is the drug buy where he reluctantly accompanies his cousin Guajiro (John Ortíz).

Each film has one of De Palma's trademark sets and in this case, they are both clubs. Much of the action in Scarface takes place at the mirror-walled Club Babylon which comes to represent the splintered mind of the coke-addled Tony Montana. While in Carlito's Way, a lot of it occurs in El Paraiso, the chrome-walled cruise ship-themed club that symbolizes Carlito's ever present mindfulness of his dream escape to the Caribbean and rent cars.

The most obvious of the affinities between the two movies lie in the casting of their respective protagonists. Al Pacino plays both the Cuban gangster, Tony Montana, and Puerto Rican ex-con, Carlito Brigante. A decade long gulf separates Pacino's performances and the characters. Curiously, Pacino chews the scenery as Montana at a point in time when he hadn't yet become the butt of jokes for his over-the-top histrionics. As Montana, Pacino was not only paying tribute to the operatic interpretation of his predecessor, Paul Muni, in the original Scarface (1932), he was also capturing the flashy, loudmouthed characteristics of the stereotypical Miami Cuban: proud, independent to a fault, and full of braggadocio. Montana tries to create what he deems to be the perfect life, but his overblown sense of self causes him to impose his will and his mark on everything in it, as seen in his monogrammed mansion with the oversized painting of him overlooking a fountain that has a towering globe with the words "The World is Yours" surrounding it in neon.

Pacino's Carlito is Montana ten years later, humiliated by his stint in prison yet still respectful to the code of the streets. The white-suited Tony now gives way to the haunted black-suited Carlito. And it is curious again, that in 1993, when Pacino is constantly criticized for his exaggerated turns, he underplays the doomed Carlito. This man is quiet more often than not; taking in his surroundings with his eyes; guarded without being paranoid; wise enough to realize that he won't last long if he returns to the street life so instead he chooses to pursue the most humble of dreams, to rent cars outside of the country which he was born in, but has always felt excluded from. The character of Carlito is almost but not quite the elder statesman Tony could have grown into had he outlived his impetuous youth. This knowledge contributes to the elegiac tone of Carlito's Way, aided of course by the foreknowledge that Carlito will die at the film's conclusion.

Tony Montana's death is chaotic and magnificent. Carlito Brigante's is nondescript and neat. Each death is a fitting one considering the way each man lived his life. And in this way, too, Tony and Carlito are like a dove's two wings.