Via Chicago14 August 2008
August 2003

Having been disappointed by the reaction to Claire Denis's Friday Night from the David Denbys and Stephen Holdens of the world, I was glad to stumble onto a great piece on the movie by Matthew Plouffe in a film journal called Reverse Shot. (I found the journal through a link on Cinecultist which, by the way, has been kind enough to provide a link to Errata.)

Denis is incredibly subtle, as I mentioned in my own capsule, but she's using film grammar that was codified nearly a century ago so I'd expect film critics to pick up on more than the most obvious plot points.

Plouffe draws a line between those who saw the movie at the New York Film Festival and those who saw it at a cineplex, but I'll counter with my own anecdote from the San Francisco Film Festival: afterward, the women behind me said, "That's it? There wasn't much to it," which I could have predicted via sealed envelope, but then one of them said, "It's the fantasy of some young director, I guess." I didn't bother to tell them that Denis is older than all of them.

Here's my favorite bit of Plouffe's review:

Many know that the literary source on which the film is based advances through Laure?s internalized perspective, and you need not be a cinephile to recognize that in translation to the screen, that often begets voiceover. But it?s safe to say that Denis?s Friday Night — entirely free of that convention — would be just as effective as a silent film; not only has she made this magical night in Paris her own, but Denis has applied her medium with such consideration for its unique properties of elucidation through image and montage, that one wonders how it could ever have been progeny of the page.

I couldn't agree more.

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2002, UK
director: Danny Boyle

Fast editing is popular these days among movies that are trying to be energetic or scary, but they often seem to be using a barrage of images to make up for a lack of those qualities. The fast editing of 28 Days Later... by contrast is used for streamlined storytelling. Director Danny Boyle uses quick visuals to set up the premise in a matter of minutes without robbing the story of any of its mystery. The movie is more eerie than scary, but its somber mood covers up the basic zombie movie at its core. It's far too serious to have zombies that say "Brains, brains." Instead, they move in herky-jerky style, as if they were edited from stills. Their eyes bulge and they vomit blood, but if you blink you'll miss them. The people running from the zombies end up in a military compound that they hope will be their salvation, but it turns out to be run by Tyler Durden and Col. Kurtz. Most of the good stuff in the movie is in the first third, and the story doesn't so much veer off track as gradually drift. It's shot on harsh digital video, but it makes good use of digital effects to create a spooky London without any people. The alternate ending that plays after the closing credits is a bit of a let-down. You can probably imagine your own third ending that's more satisfying than either of the ones on the screen.

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2003, United States
directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

American Splendor is the condensed film version of the American Splendor comic books which are the condensed comic version of the life of Harvey Pekar, a Cleveland-based file clerk. Pekar writes comics about the mundane details of his life and was introduced to many people (or to me, at least) through his volatile appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the 80s. The movie blends episodes from Pekar's life — in which actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis play Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner — with interview footage of the real Pekar, footage of his appearances on Late Night, a recreation of his last appearance on Late Night, selections from his comic books, and a recreation of a stage play based on American Splendor. The fictionalized parts with Giamatti and Davis make up the bulk of the movie, but rather than feeling like reenactments they sit nicely alongside the other incarnations of Harvey Pekar, just another reflection of the grumpy, neurotic anti-celebrity himself. The movie becomes a sort of meditation on projecting your image into the world, and while Pekar does it a bit differently than most of us, the appearance near the end of an adopted daughter, who takes on the traits of her parents while attempting to make them her own, shows that even people who don't write about their lives still replicate themselves by affecting the world. I don't think the movie captures much about how people read comics, and it grafts an improbable character arc onto Pekar and Brabner, but it hedges the sentiment by having Harvey say that he and Joyce still fight all the time.

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The Sundance Channel is sponsoring a series of four movies in 10 US cities. Sundance and Loews will open a different movie every three weeks, starting August 29. (In San Francisco, they'll be playing at the Sony Metreon.)

Expanding the film festival circuit to more people sounds good, but the series starts with The Other Side of the Bed, which hardly seems like a movie with "independent vision", the words that the press release puts into Robert Redford's mouth. The press release also says that these movies will be released on DVD and shown on the Sundance Channel.

Money, theatrical distribution, video, broadcast... how does the "independent" film world differ from the major studios? Oh yeah, they don't have to spend very much on product.

If independent filmmakers are itching to get noticed by Sundance and are therefore trying to make movies that a big distributor will smile about, how independent are they? I know, it's the old art-requires-money problem.

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El otro lado de la cama
2002, Spain
director: Emilio Martínez Lázaro

The Other Side of the Bed is a colorful, flirtatious, occasionally sultry musical comedy about the infidelities of four young adults who, by the end of the movie, are paired into the same number of couples. The deceptions pile up, and the entire mess could be cleared up with a brief, honest conversation, but like the characters in a sitcom, these folks fear a brief, honest conversation more than death, one of many contrivances useful for someone making a bedroom farce like this. It's possible to make an inventive comedy along these lines — in recent years There's Something About Mary and Y Tu Mama Tambien have managed to be funny, sexy, or thoughtful, or even all three — but The Other Side of the Bed has few virtues beyond its likable model-actors.

A sequence mid-way through where we hear the interlocking thoughts of two lovers as they question their actions does have a kind of symmetry and musicality — arguably more than the movie's trite songs — and the scene mirrors the opening number in which two women sing alternating lines about the yin-yang relationships of men and women, but the lovers' introspection is so shallow that the rhythm is little consolation. There are plenty of silly faces and jokes about bisexuality (actually it's just one joke, repeated a dozen times), but they don't build to much of a climax as the movie marches through the permutations of partners and eventually drifts into the closing credits for lack of anything better to do.

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Doug Florian of Berkeley, California, starts his days with soy nut butter on toast and a cup of green tea. He pays for his breakfasts, and indeed all of his meals, by working as a flag man at a nearby hauling operation. He is the one who hops out of the truck's passenger door with a red flag in his hand to help the driver back the truck into the optimal spot for loading and unloading. His fellow workers agree that the flag is not strictly necessary and that Donnie, the driver, has been backing into driveways long enough that rear view mirrors are sufficient. This merely demonstrates Mr. Florian's attention to detail. In the evenings he tends to his plants and places phone calls pertaining to prospective social activities. Doug Florian is a kind and gentle man. At no time in his life has he spent the majority of his days stumping for Schwarzenegger with a bullhorn, a fistful of pebbles, and an obscenely placed strip of duct tape, as we so crassly implied in a recent essay. Sorry.
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I've added a syndication feed for Errata which you can find at Copy this link and paste it into your news reader. (On Mac OSX, I use NetNewsWire.)

I'll post this link more prominently once I've worked out a few kinks. Note that this site has two feeds: one for the main site (capsules, essays, and, of course, corrections) and one for this informal blog. (The feed for the blog is automatic thanks to Moveable Type.)

Let me know if you have trouble. Thanks, you're the best.

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The New York Times published an article last weekend that makes an interesting companion to the previously mentioned LA Times article about word-of-mouth. (They were even published the same day.)

In the article, Elvis Mitchell, film critic for the Times, discusses how the success of DVDs is changing movies. He makes a lot of claims without really backing them up and ends with an ominous note about DVDs eclipsing movies themselves. (This time, TV is really going to kill the movies.)

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The Los Angeles Times has an article this week about how the movie industry has become accustomed to the slow effects of word of mouth. But, the article says, that's a bad assumption in a world where kids communicate via text messages, sometimes from their theater seats.

Get this:

"In the old days, there used to be a term, 'buying your gross,' " said Rick Sands, chief operating officer at Miramax, referring to the millions of dollars studios throw at a movie to ensure a big opening weekend.
"You could buy your gross for the weekend and overcome bad word of mouth, because it took time to filter out into the general audience," he said. "Those days are over. Today, there is no fooling the public."

Sniff. So sad.

But before I chalk one up for the public, I have to admit that I think Mr. Sands is attempting to fool us by telling us that we can't be fooled. Now that we can send our barely-considered opinions at lightning speed, studios will attempt to optimize at this level, the level of the thumb twitch and the instant warm glow in the chest cavity. Will this produce better movies? Some movies require time and consideration. Some of my favorite movies probably wouldn't trigger favorable text messages from the theater.

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Although it may seem like I haven't seen many movies, lately, I've seen more movies in theaters this year than any other year in my whole life — you should see my movie log — but I don't write about all of them. I only write capsules if I feel moved to.

I had a thought. Maybe I should write capsules for tons of movies and only go see the ones that I feel moved to see. Yes, that could work nicely. Of course I would only go to movies that I had written positively about. Eat my own dog food, as they say.

I bet some people get paid to do that.

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OK, having praised The Believer in the previous entry, to restore the order of the universe I will now pick a nit.

In the most recent issue, August 2003, Dorna Khazeni's introduction to her interview with Shirin Neshat includes this comment:

When the award-winning director Abbas Kiarostami finished making his film The Wind Will Carry Us in 1999, he stated that he wanted to make films like Shirin Neshat's. Since then, he has made Ten, by far his most experimental feature to date....

I liked Ten quite a bit, but I'm not sure how to measure it such that it comes out as Kiarostami's most experimental feature. By far?

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2002, New Zealand
director: Niki Caro

Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea, who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who apparently needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes can't inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender, despite her lineage. She'll need to convince her grandfather that she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she'll need to do it before the end of the movie.

But just when you think you have this movie pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech that she delivers at a school program for parents. The musical soundtrack goes silent, and the camera sits at the foot of the stage looking up at her while she talks about her admiration for her grandfather and explains how she destroyed a long line of chiefs by being born. In everything she does, she balances a challenge of authority with obedience and respect, as if she's trying to find a way to accept both herself and her grandfather's tradition at the same time rather than rejecting tradition outright, which would have been simpler for a movie like this. Castle-Hughes has uncommon grace and beauty on the screen.

The third act where all of our predictions come true has a quiet dignity, and although it does move from A to B as expected, how it gets there is surprisingly mysterious, and the common ground on which the girl and her grandfather land has more nuance than the setup would seem to allow. The village has a problem that manifests itself physically on its beaches, and we recognize immediately that this is the moment when Paikea must prove herself to her grandfather. But her proof doesn't involve boat motors, fighting sticks, or feats of skill like we might have guessed. It's more mystical than that. Destiny quivers in her fingers. She has the option of doing nothing; instead she acts, responding to the call of her ancestors and her village, which she is the link between. In her final voice-over she focuses on neither herself nor her grandfather but on her people and their future, a born leader, through and through.

This capsule also appears in print as a DVD review in Paste Magazine #8, February/March 2004.
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I've been enjoying a new monthly magazine published by McSweeney's in San Francisco called The Believer, or as I like to call it, the Bee Lever (harness the power of bees for your heavy lifting).

It's an odd amalgam of literary appreciations, publishing industry editorials, notes on philosophy, interviews with pop culture figures (Pat Benatar, Jack White, Martin Short), and humor about tools, mammals, and motels. Although the opening editorial often has the tone of an insider's rant from a trade journal, I like the spirit of it all. Which is: let's stop all the bickering and get back to loving literature.

But my favorite pieces have been the semi-regular features by Jim Shepard about movies. His choices are interesting (Badlands, Babette's Feast, and, in the current issue, Goodfellas), his cultural context relevant to today, and his length and depth are after my own heart. (The piece on Babette's Feast and "weepies" dovetails, perhaps, with my tirade against Lilya 4-Ever.)

[Update August 10: The piece on Goodfellas did not materialize in the current issue but will be in the September issue.]

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That Biblical epic that Mel Gibson is currently promoting, err, defending is, weirdly, somewhat related to the essay about movies and children that I added this weekend. One premise of the essay is that dialog isn't the most important element of a movie and that movies communicate in subtler, more complex ways than just talking to us.

The dialog in The Passion is in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew (but not Greek). And Gibson expects to release the movie without subtitles. Not that anyone needs them, since the story is fairly well known. I suppose he has some reason for making it, then.

For some reason I want to mention the old movie in Esperanto starring William Shatner here. It's called Incubus. I haven't seen it, but it's on DVD. It probably has subtitles. Shatner's commentary track on the DVD is supposed to be a hoot.

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Dialog is fine, but movies connect with human brains, even little ones, in complex ways, which may explain why children respond to movies that we might not expect them to.
Pippi Longstocking
When I was eight, one of my favorite movies was called The Tinder Box. I've only seen it once, but if I recall, it starts with a soldier walking down a road that runs alongside an old tree that has an entrance in its trunk, like the entrance to a cave. The soldier goes inside the tree, speaks to a witch, and leaves the tree carrying bags of gold and a lighter, the kind of thing you'd use to light a cigarette or a lantern. It's a big, boxy lighter, and the people in the movie call it a "tinder box".
This was an intriguing opening. I wanted to find a tree full of gold. But it gets better.
The soldier spends the gold willy-nilly, and pretty soon he doesn't have much left to his name except the tinder box. But this is no ordinary tinder box. It turns out that when you flick its switch to light its flame, a giant dog appears out of nowhere to help you out of a jam.
In Bob & Ray's "Tippy the Wonder Dog", Tippy's neighbor dogs could fetch coils of rope for lashing down farm implements when storms were brewing. Sadly, Tippy couldn't do much more than fetch a pie plate.
I don't mean a big dog. Sure, a big dog can warn off burglars, help you keep the herd together, or maybe fetch your slippers. But a giant dog can get you out of a surprising variety of thickets. The participants of a drunken bar brawl freeze, slack-jawed, with bottles raised over their heads, shocked into a silence at the sight of a giant dog baring its teeth at the door, just long enough for you to slink away to safety. A teacher who is about to give a test to her class faints at the sight of a dog that's two-horses tall appearing at the back of the room, licking its chops, thereby granting an unprepared student an extra night of study. This wasn't in the movie, but it's how I, an 8-year-old non-smoker, thought I might make use of such a tinder box.
This movie blindsided me with its greatness. Its witches and trees and bags of gold and, of course, its giant dogs who stood at the beck and call of a simple flame were an amazing spectacle.
Now, I wasn't raised in a barn. One of my earliest movie memories is seeing Star Wars a year earlier with my dad. I'd seen the light sabers and the star destroyers, and I loved them, yes. But The Tinder Box displayed the same fantastic imagination, told the same kind of hallucinatory tale, and, somehow, felt equally real. They were both live-action movies that featured realistically dusty interiors and muted colors that exploded with sudden bursts of fantasy. One of these movies also had among its bag of tricks an extensive collection of action figures, t-shirts, fast food promotions, TV commercials, and peers to reinforce my opinion. But the other was made 20 years before I saw it, wasn't even made in America, was (I assume, though I don't remember) dubbed into English, and was unheard of by anyone I knew besides my little brother who saw the movie with me. Nevertheless, it knocked me flat.
Now, I also wasn't raised in a cosmopolitan city that hosted world cinema. I've since discovered that The Tinder Box is a German movie, but at the time I had no idea. I saw The Tinder Box in Missouri as part of a summer film series for children. Every summer, someone, or some committee, would track down prints of family movies from the four corners of the globe and show one each week to a theater full of kids. They used the theater in the morning before it opened for its normal matinees. Kids got to see a movie every week and parents got a couple hours of peace.
Each week my brother and I went into the theater cold. I think our parents were given descriptions of the movies, but I knew little more than the title of what we were about to see. It could have been a musical from the 50s or a recent Muppet movie, but rarely was it something I'd heard of before.
Here's a more recent photo of Inger Nilsson who played Pippi in the 1970s.
Most of the movies were sufficiently entertaining, some more, some less. Heidi bored us all to tears, and we laughed at The Little Prince. For months my brother and I made fun of the way the prince says "draw me a sheep," mimicking his high little British voice. But we liked the one about the robotic dog and loved Pippi in the South Seas — I wanted to be one of the kids who got to hang out with Pippi Longstocking in her house where anything goes, but her melancholy moods made me glad to have parents who didn't sail the high seas, frequently leaving me to fend for myself. And The Tinder Box, in a class by itself, shot to the top of my all-time favorite list, and I haven't seen it since.
I now know that the movie is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, but I haven't read it. I'd like to, but I won't, not yet, because I'm afraid it will replace my dingy, thread-bare memory of the movie, and it's the only one I've got. Maybe I'll read the story after I've had a chance to watch the movie again, but I'm reluctant to do that, too. I'm not sure I want the adult movie viewer's voice at my ear pointing out the flaws in the special effects, the sloppy lip sync, or whatever other deficiencies might spoil a trip down memory lane.
So I'll need to see it with a child.
Pinocchio Speaks
Not long ago, while stuck in a standstill on an Indiana highway, I was scanning the radio stations for a traffic update. I came across a local talk radio show where a caller was outraged about a new children's movie. Always ready to listen to a rant about the movie industry, I stopped scanning there. The man's story goes like this: when he was in line with his child waiting to see Roberto Begnini's Pinocchio, he found out from another parent that the movie was in Italian. "The kid won't understand a thing 'cause he can't read the subtitles!" He was incensed by the failure of the movie's ads to mention this and left in a huff before he even reached the box office, dragging his disappointed kid behind him. He called the radio station to warn other parents who might be planning to take their kids to the movie.
This was the wrong radio station for me to land on if I wanted to calm my traffic-tensed nerves. The man's complaint had so many problems I wasn't sure where to start. First, a factual one: Begnini's Pinocchio was not released subtitled in the US. It was dubbed into English, by actors who are quite famous in America, such as Glenn Close, Regis Philbin, James Belushi, and Begnini himself. The information that was passing through the queue was wrong.
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We were extraordinarily lax in our recent essay about Hollywood nepotism when we implied that Johnny Whitaker, child star of A Family Affair and Snowball Express, is the great-grandfather of actor Forest Whitaker. Although only a third of the essay hinged on this assertion, we feel we must point out that Johnny is probably not old enough to be Forest's great-grandfather. Their acting styles and mannerisms bear little resemblance, but we thought we had solid information. We did not. We have not yet reconfirmed whether, as we reported in the essay, Johnny Whitaker will star in the sequel to Ghost Dog to be called Son of Ghost Dog, but our recent findings have at least eliminated the irony of Johnny essentially portraying his own great-great-grandson, which we hailed as beating Geraldine Chaplin's portrayal of her own grandmother hands-down.
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Have you seen Northfork? It's hard to get a handle on. I thought about it for a day or so before writing my capsule, but I pretty much stuck to what I thought while leaving the theater.

Ebert likes the movie a lot, but his review didn't sway me. Of those I've read, I like A. O. Scott's in the New York Times the most, especially his last two paragraphs. I like how he contrasts the Polish brothers with the Coens and David Lynch. (Both Ebert and Scott hit on Wim Wenders as a nearer comparison.) What I call an "irritating jumpiness" and "odd editing" he calls "a teasing, discontinuous sequence". What I call "trying to squeeze tears ... that we can't feel" he calls "emotionally hermetic," which captures it perfectly, I think.

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2003, U.S.
director: Michael Polish

The first paradox of Northfork is that it's so light and wispy that it hardly registers as anything at all, and yet every scene is so heavy-handed and the metaphors so thick that no sense of the characters can possibly break through. The second paradox is that a movie with such beautiful cinematography gives us so little time to drink in the pictures. Seldom do we get five seconds between edits and almost never more than ten. Furthermore, the story is constructed like a TV show: we see a bit of story #1, then cut to story #2, then #3, then back to #1, and so on, throughout. The odd editing gives this sleepy, slow movie an irritating jumpiness that is probably counter to what was intended.

I can't help but think this movie was lost in the editing room and that a good movie is buried here, somewhere. The story involves the men who are assigned to go to the last of the people living in a valley soon to be flooded by the state and try to move them out of their homes. The men welcome the assignments the way the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross welcome the stale leads. The story of these men roaming around at the edge of death-and-life is a compelling prospect, if only the movie would pause a moment and just let us watch them moving within this stunning landscape rather than trying to push them on to the next metaphor about children, angels, death, and rebirth, rather than trying to squeeze tears from them that we can't feel or jokes that we can't laugh at.

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