Via Chicago14 August 2008
February 2008

I'm always interested in statistical fallacies that seep into general film commentary, and one of the most prominent recent examples is the disgust over the omission of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from the list of foreign language Oscar nominees. Mungiu's film is very good, but this particular complaint is problematic.

First, read Robert Koehler's excellent primer at Doug Cummings', "Garbage In Garbage Out, or Why the Foreign Oscars Need to be Blown Up." If you've ever wondered why the category is notoriously idiotic, Koehler's piece should prove educational. Unfortunately, the reasons are so deeply embedded in the layers of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and the impetus for change so weak, that there's no sign of the problem going away any time soon.

Mungiu's film is better than this year's winner, a decent but unremarkable movie from Austria called The Counterfeiters, but focusing on this fact not only doesn't address the problem, it reinforces basic assumptions about the output of the world's filmmakers. People focus on this movie because it was one of the 63 eligible films from which the nominating committee could choose. But:

Problem number 1: How many of these films have the complainers seen? And how many of the eventual nominees?

Problem number 2: More importantly, focusing on the omission of 4 Months narrows the critique of this category all the way down to the voters who screened these 63 films. We could ask how they chose these 5 nominees, but a better question is, How were the thousands of films made last year whittled down to 63? Complaining about the final selection process implicitely accepts the ridiculous process that resulted in the 63.

Problem number 1+2: Koehler highlights many good reasons why the selection process is absurd, but he omits one, which is that even without the current rules, even if any foreign language film could be submitted, only those that have a chance of winning an Oscar will be, and since self-selection is governed by recent history the problem lies neither with the voters nor the Byzantine submission requirements, solely, but a confluence of the two. Even if we can easily come up with a dozen foreign language films that are better than the winner and better than many of the eligible films (here are Koehler's), Germany submits a film (for last year's Oscars) like the thoroughly mediocre The Lives of Others because it has a chance of winning; and they were right about that. *

The good news is that exhibition of film in the US — not uniformly, but at least in cities — is far more progressive than this category reflects. I'd wager that the Academy's perpetual ignorance of the world of film has relegated this category to near unimportance, and in a ceremony intended to puff up Hollywood, any improvement in this regard would distract from the main event. It's not hard to imagine a calculus that concludes it's better to have five foreign films that generate polite applause and a sheen of fairness, knowledge, and worldliness than to improve the situation and thereby help the competition. (Better to be a kindly slave owner than to risk the autumn harvest.) The winner of the foreign language Oscar will get a big boost, for sure, and will occupy space in the screening calendar that could have been put to better use, but to fill the other weeks and other screens, the country's small theaters seem to look elsewhere for guidance. Be grateful for that.

The biggest reason to reject the well-intended outrage over 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is that it reinforces a myth that has long stuck in my craw: that the world of film is small enough to know in its entirety. It's not. If you can identify a best film from the thousands made last year, you're a busier viewer, with a spongier brain, than anyone I know. And I know some spongy viewers, let me tell you.

I end with two anecdotes:

1) At Sundance this year, an excited volunteer told a pack of 4 or 5 festival attendees standing near me that he'd seen seven films this year and that Sugar was "the best film at Sundance." If he'd said this about a worse film, I'd have challenged the notion. Perhaps he misspoke. Perhaps he meant to say "of the seven I've seen." But, yeah, he was just an excited volunteer, talking big. I can't complain too much. But when the selection committee for the most publicized movie award ceremony on earth functions essentially the same way, I feel like plopping my weary frame in the chair of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber with the throat-slitting blades.

2) A commenter in an Oscar live-blog that I was following during the televised event was genuinely excited that so many foreign-born actors won in major categories this year — Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Bardem, Swinton — which made it seem like Hollywood was becoming aware of the outer world. Yes, aware of the outer world as long as the outer world is Europe, as long as the outer world comes here (where the movies are made), as long as the outer world speaks English, Cotillard excepted. This is faux progress, weak evidence of a Hollywood melting pot.

* Koehler rightly points to a few aberrations in this year's submissions, but it's doubtful those countries thought they'd win. Likely they had nothing that could, so they proudly submitted something better.

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23 February 2008 — Episode 011 Podcast

Persepolis (Satrapi and Paronnaud)

On this edition of the podcast, we talk with two filmmakers who've spent most of their careers as writers but have now directed their first films: Marjane Satrapi, the writer-director of the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis, and Mike White, the writer-director of one of my favorites of 2007, Year of the Dog.

0:00 Intro
1:36 Interview: Mike White on Year of the Dog
20:12 Interview: Marjane Satrapi on Persepolis
39:27 Outro

Coming Up: Our 2007 year-in-review.

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I'm going to be writing a few more reviews for the Paste web site than I have in the past, and I'll try to provide links here, beginning with this batch:

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15 February 2008 — Episode 011 Podcast

My Kid Could Paint That
Marla Olmstead in My Kid Could Paint That (Bar-Lev)

On this edition of the podcast, we catch up with twelve films that are in theaters now or will be on DVD soon.

0:00 Intro
3:29 The Savages (Jenkins)
12:26 I'm Not There (Haynes)
24:25 My Kid Could Paint That (Bar-Lev)

— speed round —

38:19 The Red Balloon (Lamorisse)
41:06 White Mane (Lamorisse)
44:50 Lions for Lambs (Redford)
47:53 Rendition (Hood)
51:45 Juno (Reitman)
55:45 There Will Be Blood (Anderson)
58:28 Youth Without Youth (Coppola)
62:09 Redacted (De Palma)
63:36 Margot at the Wedding (Baumbach)
66:43 Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Lumet)
68:47 Outro

Coming Up: Our 2007 year-in-review, to be issued before the end of 2008, which makes it timely.

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We can learn something at the movies. Case in point, two films with a very important lesson to impart to parents: raising a prodigy is hell. The little genius may break your heart, may embarrass you in front of guests, and may murder your newborn child. Can't be sure, can't be sure.

Two prodigies deserve two movies, one a Swiss feel-good drama, the other an American horror film, although the latter's artsy execution and lack of bloodied teenagers might demand a more highfalutin label like "psychological thriller." Both movies are about talented boys with proud parents who are thoroughly unprepared for the plague that such a child can bring upon a household. Both boys excel at the piano, Vitus so much that his parents pressure him to pursue music seriously; he'd prefer a little less attention, but Joshua expects a little more, especially now that the baby has arrived.

It's probably hard to make a film like Joshua without reminding people of other "bad seed" movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen, so director George Ratliff wisely embraces his forerunners with a pile of subtle allusions, making nods even to the unlikely model of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage teeters on the edge of the Odessa Steps. With a Bugaboo in place of the pram — and nothing in place of the politics — it's as far-flung and irrelevant a reference as Brian De Palma's visual reconstruction of that sequence in The Untouchables, with a similarly pristine American setting.

But even with all of those cinematic allusions, Joshua feels clean and simple, like a tight little ecosystem, fully self-contained except that it offers no definitive explanation for why the boy is so darn bad. Near as we can tell, he wasn't sired by the devil or deprived of affection. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon's love interest in The Departed) seem like fine albeit disengaged parents, having raised their boy this far with no apparent signs of demonic possession, although they do seem strangely ill-prepared for the demands of a second child, let alone a holy terror blossoming within their first. Writing in LA Weekly, Scott Foundas has suggested that the finale absurdly connects Joshua's extreme behavior to the boy's gay uncle whom he seems to favor, but that reading gives the film credit for complexity that it doesn't possess. More likely, the eerie, uncle-directed smile is just another horror movie cliché: the question mark after "The End." (As in: might the uncle be next?)

As silly as the whole thing is, the purity of the suspense is surprisingly effective. Like the boy robot at the beginning of AI, Joshua is creepy not because of any overt violence but because of his starched collars and his weirdly cocked head. His parents are more haggard with every passing minute, and to her credit Farmiga alone provides the film's most hair-raising moment with a blood-curdling, popcorn-rattling, caught-in-the-throat screech that reminds us who's suffering here. Moms get short shrift in both films, but at least Joshua considers their sacrifices to be horrific. Vitus's mom quits her job as soon as her son demonstrates the potential to be a great pianist, focusing her life on his training, while Dad continues to invent hearing aids that let people hear like bats and Grandpa provides a quiet refuge for a put-upon piano prodigy. Vitus, though generally less threatening than Joshua, nevertheless brings his dedicated mother low by humiliating her more than once with his refusal to play the piano for assembled guests, a favorite stunt in Joshua's repertoire, as well. When a colleague questions his mother's decision to quit working and encourages her to consider her career, I spent a few minutes doing just that, considering her career, asking myself questions like: what the hell is her career?

Vitus eventually learns to channel his energies into acceptable displays of brilliance. His mishaps along the way are more cute than horrific. He has designs on the baby sitter, for example, and invites her to dinner; Joshua might have forced her onto a ledge. In a head-to-head dual, Joshua vs. Vitus, the winner would largely be determined by the arena. Locked in a New York apartment, Joshua and a pair of scissors would make quick work of poor Vitus. At a piano recital, Vitus, played by 11-year old virtuoso Teo Gheorghiu who actually performs all of the difficult pieces in the film, would likely mop the floor with Joshua, if — and this is a big if — you could get the boys to perform at all. In a contest of international finance, the ribbon clearly goes to Vitus. Joshua spends a great deal of time posing dramatically in the pregnant shadows, waiting for the cue to cock his head and say, "Mommy?" to an unsuspecting parent, whereas Vitus uses that time to siphon funds into a secret brokerage account, execute trades on inside information, and amass a fortune in his grandfather's name. What a cutey. (Remember, Joshua is the bad one.)

• • • •

So we have, in miniature, a comparison between tiny criminals with big IQ's — white-collar and cold-blooded — and the difference between the two doesn't come down to parenting or innate brilliance or even randomness of the universe, at least not solely. Curiously ricocheting off of their own histories, both films assign some responsibility to the satellites of the core family, the grandparents.

Joshua director Ratliff's previous movie was a documentary called Hell House about churches that use haunted houses as a means to an end, namely to scare kids toward God. In his new film, not only has he included an evangelical grandmother among Joshua's targets — perhaps the flimsiest and most scorned character in the movie besides Joshua himself — but he's also made a horror film as a means to no end whatsoever. Touché.

The kindly grandfather in Vitus is played by Bruno Ganz who just two years earlier was Adolph freaking Hitler in Downfall. But wait; Ganz was also an angel in Wings of Desire — an angel who longed to be human — so he's particularly attuned to the myriad planes in which a soul can tip. Here he makes wooden wings for his grandson to wear on his back, and more importantly he provides just the right amount of support — ample freedom, a ready ear, (I could go so far as to rhyme with "manssiere") — that the other distracted or overbearing adults in both films can't properly modulate. One wonders what sort of grandfather he'd have been to Joshua, whether he'd have looked the other way when the scissors came out or gladly been the beneficiary of evil deeds.

• • • •

I suppose I'm a cynic for taking a bit more pleasure from Joshua's morbid repetitions than from Vitus's celebration of a boy who inherits the wings of a bat, the hearing of a bat, and the piano-playing ability of a fantastically talented bat, a boy who eventually makes his mama proud even though she's allowed no blood-curdling screams during his rough pubescence.

But much of the pleasure comes from Joshua's illusion of brevity. The movies are roughly the same length, but Vitus feels twice as long. Its heartwarming veneer just isn't enough to sustain the minutes that Joshua, via goosebump-effects, breezes through.

[I read that Joshua had made a few appearances in the Skandies poll for 2007, which gives me an excuse to expand this dual review that was printed in Paste Magazine, July 2007.]

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Walking up Bancroft Street in Berkeley on Friday night, past partying college students on the edge of the campus, I smiled to myself, amused that my idea of a fun Friday night, now that my wife and daughter have been conking out at an awfully early hour, is going to see The Mother and the Whore at the Pacific Film Archive.

And then I came upon the building and saw not a handful of boring film geeks like myself with the exact same plan but rather a line out the door and a crooked, taped-up sign saying, "SOLD OUT".

I never know what will sell out at the PFA. Yes, it's a Jean Eustache classic that's not on DVD. That's why I was going. (I missed the recent screening at the SFMOMA.) I suppose in retrospect it's obvious. But still.

This isn't the first time I've gone back home to SF with empty eyeballs.

One day, I will see the Eustache.

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I'll admit that I sometimes look at the web server logs to see who's linking to this site or to see what Google searches are landing here. And today was the big payoff. This is what all such navel gazers are hoping for, I assume, which is discovering that someone found their pages by searching for this:

did dudley moore have a shriveled up leg?

That's a damn good question. And you've come to the right place. The reason that Google ranks Errata as the number one result for this intriguing query is obvious, and I'm just glad to have provided some help to whatever college student, Jeopardy champion, research assistant, medical practitioner, or archeologist was performing said search.

It lands, by the way, on this random page from our archives, back when Moore's shriveled appendages occupied more of our time than I'd like to recall. Ah, youth. We've since moved on, but we remember our (shriveled up) roots.

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Writing in The New York Sun, S. James Snyder writes first about the mismatch between what distributors and studios were looking for at Sundance this year and what independent filmmakers (and, implied by the article, the Sundance programmers) had to offer. Snyder then wonders if New York's Tribeca Film Festival, now in its seventh year, may aim to steal some of Sundance's thunder.

I have noticed that every year as Sundance approaches, I receive a few emailed press releases from Tribeca, timed it seems to deflect or ride some of the Sundance buzz. Around this time, in the wake of a just-finished Sundance, it's also not unusual to see New York newspapers polishing Tribeca's steel. But aside from these anecdotes, aside from the equally anecdotal tidbits in Snyder's article — Oscar buzz for a couple of Tribeca-screened films, and stories of filmmakers who went to Sundance instead of Tribeca (after Sundance rejected them) — and aside from the general Sundancy feeling at the core of the less focused (or, if you prefer, broader) programming at Tribeca, there's less evidence that the lower-Manhattan fest is aiming to steal from Sundance than be its complement.

As an industry insider said to me this time last year, Tribeca seems poised to take business not from Sundance but from another venerable festival, Cannes, both of which take place in May. The films competing for the Palme d'Or at Cannes are typically made by icons of cinema, but surrounding that prestigious institution is a good ol' film market. And, as this person said to me, what Los Angeles- or New York-based film purchaser wouldn't prefer a zero-to-four-hour plane ride to a cross-Atlantic, multi-hop trip if it were available? In fact I'd wager that much of the "poised to take business" assessment doesn't arise from any proven track record but rather from a desire for someone to do so.

Tribeca, merely by duplicating Sundance — with a celebrity sponsor, an emphasis on emerging filmmakers — in a different part of the annual calendar and a more attractive location, needn't weaken Sundance's pull at all to take a substantial piece of the pie.

I probably spend more time thinking about distribution issues than you might guess given my somewhat esoteric taste. But it's not because I care what sells, what makes money, or which festivals feed our theaters. It's because I care about how, as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, the industry limits what we can see. The mechanics are fascinating and infuriating; the juncture between art and commerce often is.

It's hard to lament along with distributors that, boo hoo, the little dramas that some people liked at Sundance this year simply won't sell. Yes, that's true. I know it. And I'd add that this is the house that Hollywood built, a narrow little pipeline that allows only a handful of genres and types to pass through its caked walls, narrower than Waldenbooks, narrower than the newsstand at the subway station. I don't think we can blame filmmakers for that.

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2 February 2008 — Episode 010 Podcast

Momma's Man
Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man

On this edition of the podcast, we report on the Sundance Film Festival that wrapped last weekend, from two different perspectives.

0:00 Intro
1:35 Sundance Film Festival '08
2:09 Sugar (Boden/Fleck)
6:29 The Visitor (McCarthy)
8:05 Momma's Man (Jacobs)
10:15 Ballast (Hammer)
12:21 Mumblecore, Baghead (Duplass/Duplass)
14:28 Documentaries, Man On Wire (Marsh)
18:38 Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Zenovich)
21:16 Awards, Frozen River (Hunt)
22:50 King of Ping Pong (Jonsson)
23:47 Documentary Award Winners
24:34 Good Dick (Palka)
25:36 Pretty Bird (Schneider)
27:23 People, Parties, Products
32:22 The New American Realism

— the other side of Sundance —

34:45 Checking in with Brian Darr
36:45 Sundance Collection: Edward II (Jarman)
37:57 Derek (Julien)
40:43 Ballast, take 2 (Hammer)
42:04 Eat, For This is My Body (Quay)
48:57 Brian's Sundance Recap
50:59 Outro

Coming Up: (yes, still) A year-end speed round, with reviews of I'm Not There, The Savages, My Kid Could Paint That, and quick reviews of nearly a dozen other new films that are in theaters now or will be on DVD soon, plus our 2007 year-in-review, all properly aged like fine but stinky cheese.

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